I turned and, hardly conscious of my actions, stumbled from the room. A bevy of young people at once surrounded me. What I said to them I hardly know. I only remember that it was several minutes before I found myself again alone and making for the little room into which Beaton had vanished a half-hour before. It was the one given up to card-playing. Did I expect to find him seated at one of the tables? Possibly; at all events, I approached the doorway, and was about to enter, when a heavy step shook the threshold before me, and I found myself confronted by the advancing figure of an elderly lady, whose portrait it is now time for me to draw. It is no pleasurable task, but one I cannot escape.
Imagine, then, a broad, weighty woman of not much height, with a face whose features were usually forgotten in the impression made by her great cheeks and falling jowls. If the small eyes rested on you, you found them sinister and strange, but if they were turned elsewhere, you asked in what lay the power of the face, and sought in vain amid its long wrinkles and indeterminate lines for the secret of that spiritual and bodily repulsion which the least look into this impassive countenance was calculated to produce. She was a woman of immense means, and an oppressive consciousness of this spoke in every movement of her heavy frame, which always seemed to take up three times as much space as rightfully belonged to any human creature. Add to this that she was seldom seen without a display of diamonds which made her broad bust look like the bejewelled breast of some Eastern idol, and some idea may be formed of this redoubtable woman whom I have hitherto confined myself to speaking of as the gorgon.
The stare she gave me had something venomous and threatening in it. Evidently for the moment I was out of her books, and while I did not understand in what way I had displeased her, for we always had met amicably before, I seized upon this sign of displeasure on her part as explanatory, perhaps, of the curtness and show of contradictory feelings on the part of her dependent niece. Yet why should the old woman frown on me? I had been told more than once that she regarded me with great favour. Had I unwittingly done something to displease her, or had the game of cards she had just left gone against her, ruffling her temper and making it imperative for her to choose some object on which to vent her spite? I entered the room to see. Two men and one woman stood in rather an embarrassed silence about a table on which lay some cards, which had every appearance of having been thrown down by an impatient hand. One of the men was Will Beaton, and it was he who now remarked:
“She has just found out that the young people are enjoying themselves. I wonder upon which of her two unfortunate nieces she will expend her ill-temper to-night.”
“Oh, there’s no question about that,” remarked the lady who stood near him. “Ever since she has had a reasonable prospect of working Gilbertine off her hands, she has devoted herself quite exclusively to her remaining burden. I hear,” she impulsively continued, craning her neck to be sure that the object of her remarks was quite out of earshot, “that the south hall was blue to-day with the talk she gave Dorothy Camerden. No one knows what about, for the girl evidently tries to please her. But some women have more than their own proper share of bile; they must expend it on some one.” And she in turn threw down her cards, which up till now she had held in her hand.
I gave Beaton a look and stepped out on the veranda. In a minute he followed me, and in the corner facing the ocean, where the vines cluster the thickest, we held our conversation.
I began it, with a directness born of my desperation.
“Beaton,” said I, “we have not known each other long, but I recognise a man when I see him, and I am disposed to be frank with you. I am in trouble. My affections are engaged, deeply engaged, in a quarter where I find some mystery. You have helped make it.” (Here a gesture escaped him.) “I allude to the story you related the other morning of the young girl you had seen hanging over the verge of the cliff, with every appearance of intending to throw herself over.”
“It was as a dream I related that,” he gravely remarked.
“That I am aware of. But it was no dream to me, Beaton. I fear I know that young girl; I also fear that I know what drove her into contemplating so rash an act. The conversation just held in the card-room should enlighten you. Beaton, am I wrong?”
The feeling I could not suppress trembled in my tones. He may have been sensitive to it, or he may have been simply good-natured. Whatever the cause, this is what he said in reply:
“It was a dream. Remember that I insist upon its being a dream. But some of its details are very clear in my mind. When I stumbled upon this dream-maiden in the moonlight her face was turned from me toward the ocean, and I did not see her features then or afterwards. Startled by some sound I made, she crouched, drew back, and fled to cover. That cover, I have good reason to believe, was this very house.”
I reached out my hand and touched him on the arm.
“This dream-maiden was a woman?” I inquired. “One of the women now in this house?”
He replied reluctantly:
“She was a young woman, and she wore a long cloak. My dream ends there. I cannot even say whether she was fair or dark.”
I recognised that he had reached the limit of his explanations, and, wringing his hand, I started for the nearest window, which proved to be that of the music-room. I was about to enter when I saw two women crossing to the opposite doorway, and paused with a full heart to note them, for one was Mrs. Lansing and the other Dorothy. The aunt had evidently come for the niece, and they were leaving the room together. Not amicably, however. Harsh words had passed, or I am no judge of the human countenance. Dorothy especially bore herself like one who finds difficulty in restraining herself from some unhappy outburst, and as she disappeared from my sight in the wake of her formidable companion my attention was again called to her hands, which she held clenched at her sides.
I was stepping into the room when my impulse was again checked. Another person was sitting there, a person I had been most anxious to see ever since my last interview with Sinclair. It was Gilbertine Murray, sitting alone in an attitude of deep, and possibly not altogether happy thought.
I paused to study the sweet face. Truly she was a beautiful woman. I had never before realised how beautiful. Her rich colouring, her noble traits, and the spirited air which gave her such marked distinction, bespoke at once an ardent nature and a pure soul.
I did not wonder that Sinclair had succumbed to charms so pronounced and uncommon, and as I gazed longer and noted the tremulous droop of her ripe lips and the far-away look of eyes which had created a great stir in the social world when they first flashed upon it, I felt that if Sinclair could see her now he would never doubt her again, despite the fact that the attitude into which she had fallen was one of great fatigue, if not despondency.
She held a fan in her hand, and as I stood looking at her she dropped it. As she stooped to pick it up her eyes met mine, and a startling change passed over her. Springing up, she held out her hands in wordless appeal, then let them drop again as if conscious that I would not be likely to understand either herself or her mood. She was very beautiful.
Entering the room, I approached her. Had Sinclair managed to have his little conversation with her? Something must have happened, for never had I seen her in such a state of suppressed excitement, and I had seen her many times, both here and in her aunt’s house when I was visiting Dorothy. Her eyes were shining, not with a brilliant, but a soft light, and the smile with which she met my advance had something in it strangely tremulous and expectant.
“I am glad to have a moment in which to speak to you alone,” I said. “As Sinclair’s oldest and closest friend, I wish to tell you how truly you can rely both on his affection and esteem. He has an infinitely good heart.”
She did not answer as brightly and as quickly as I expected. Something seemed to choke her — something which she finally mastered, though only by an effort which left her pale, but self-contained, and even more lovely, if that is possible, than before.
“Thank you,” she then said, “my prospects are very happy. No one but myself knows how happy.”
And she smiled again, but with an expression which recalled to my mind Sinclair’s fears.
I bowed. Some one was calling her name; evidently our interview was to be short.
“I am obliged,” she murmured. Then quickly: “I have not seen the moon to-night. Is it beautiful? Can you see it from this veranda?”
But before I could answer she was surrounded and dragged off by a knot of young people, and I was left free to keep my engagement with Sinclair.
I did not find him at his post, nor could any one tell where he had vanished.
It was plain that his conduct was looked upon as strange, and I felt some anxiety lest it should appear more so before the evening was over. I found him at last in his room, sitting with his head buried in his arms. He started up as I entered.
“Well?” he asked sharply.
“I have learned nothing decisive.”
“I exchanged some words with both ladies and I tackled Beaton; but the matter remains just about where it was. It may have been Dorothy who took the box and it may have been Gilbertine. But there seems to be greater reason for suspecting Dorothy. She lives a terrible life with that aunt.”
“And Gilbertine is on the point of escaping that bondage. I know; I have thought of that. Walter, you are a generous fellow;” and for a moment Sinclair looked relieved. Before I could speak, however, he was sunk again in his old despondency. “But the doubt,” he cried —“the doubt! How can I go through this rehearsal with such a doubt in my mind? I cannot and will not. Go, tell them I am ill, and cannot come down again to-night. God knows you will tell no untruth.”
I saw that he was quite beside himself, but ventured upon one remonstrance.
“It will be unwise to rouse comment,” I said. “If that box was taken for the death it holds, the one restraint most likely to act upon the young girl who retains it will be the conventionalities of her position and the requirements of the hour. Any break in the settled order of things — anything which would give her a moment by herself — might precipitate the dreadful event we fear. Remember, one turn of the hand, and all is lost. A drop is quickly swallowed.”
“Frightful!” he murmured, the perspiration oozing from his forehead. “What a wedding-eve! And they are laughing down there. Listen to them. I even imagine I hear Gilbertine’s voice. Is there unconsciousness in it, or just the hilarity of a distracted mind bent on self-destruction? I cannot tell; the sound conveys no meaning to me.”
“She has a sweet, true face,” I said, “and she wears a very beautiful smile to-night.”
He sprang to his feet.
“Yes, yes — a smile that maddens me; a smile that tells me nothing, nothing! Walter, Walter, don’t you see that, even if that cursed box remains unopened, and nothing ever comes of its theft, the seeds of distrust are sown thick in my breast, and I must always ask: ‘Was there a moment when my young bride shrank from me enough to dream of death?’ That is why I cannot go through the mockery of this rehearsal.”
“Can you go through the ceremony of marriage?”
“I must — if nothing happens to-night.”
I spoke involuntarily. I was thinking not of him, but of myself. But he evidently found in my words an echo of his own thought.
“Yes, it is the then,” he murmured. “Well may a man quail before that then.”
He did go downstairs, however, and later on went through the rehearsal very much as I had expected him to do — quietly and without any outward show of emotion.
As soon as possible after this the company separated, Sinclair making me an imperceptible gesture as he went upstairs. I knew what it meant, and was in his room as soon as the fellows who accompanied him had left him alone.
“The danger is from now on,” he cried, as soon as I had closed the door behind me. “I shall not undress to-night.”
“Happily we both have rooms by ourselves in this great house. I shall put out my light, and then open my door as far as need be. Not a move in the house will escape me.”
“I will do the same.”
“Gilbertine — God be thanked! — is not alone in her room. Little Miss Lane shares it with her.”
“Oh, she is under the strictest bondage night and day. She sleeps in a little room off her aunt’s. Do you know her door?”
I shook my head.
“I will pass down the hall and stop an instant before the two doors we are most interested in. When I pass Gilbertine’s I will throw out my right hand.”
I stood on the threshold of his room and watched him. When the two doors were well fixed in my mind, I went to my own room and prepared for my self-imposed watch. When quite ready, I put out my light. It was then eleven o’clock.
The house was very quiet. There had been the usual bustle attending the separation of a party of laughing, chattering girls for the night; but this had not lasted long, for the great doings of the morrow called for bright eyes and fresh cheeks, and these can only be gained by sleep. In this stillness twelve o’clock struck, and the first hour of my anxious vigil was at an end. I thought of Sinclair. He had given no token of the watch he was keeping, but I knew he was sitting with his ear to the door, listening for the alarm which must come soon if it came at all.
But would it come at all? Were we not wasting strength and a great deal of emotion on a dread which had no foundation in fact? What were we two sensible and, as a rule, practical men thinking of, that we should ascribe to either of these dainty belles of a conventional and shallow society the wish to commit a deed calling for the vigour and daring of some wilful child of nature? It was not to be thought of in this sober, reasoning hour. We had given ourselves over to a ghastly nightmare, and would yet awake.
Why was I on my feet? Had I heard anything?
Yes, a stir, a very faint stir somewhere down the hall — the slow, cautious opening of a door, then a footfall — or had I imagined the latter? I could hear nothing now.
Pushing open my own door, I looked cautiously out. Only the pale face of Sinclair confronted me. He was peering from the corner of an adjacent passage-way, the moonlight at his back. Advancing, we met in silence. For the moment we seemed to be the only persons awake in the vast house.
“I thought I heard a step,” was my cautious whisper after a moment of intense listening.
I pointed toward that portion of the house where the ladies’ rooms were situated.
“That is not what I heard,” was his murmured protest; “what I heard was a creak in the small stairway running down at the end of the hall where my room is.”
“One of the servants,” I ventured, and for a moment we stood irresolute. Then we both turned rigid as some sound arose in one of the far-off rooms, only to quickly relax again as that sound resolved itself into a murmur of muffled voices. Where there was talking there could be no danger of the special event we feared. Our relief was so great we both smiled. Next instant his face, and, I have no doubt, my own, turned the colour of clay, and Sinclair went reeling back against the wall.
A scream had risen in this sleeping house — a piercing and insistent scream such as raises the hair and curdles the blood.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09