This scream seemed to come from the room where we had just heard voices. With a common impulse Sinclair and I both started down the hall, only to find ourselves met by a dozen wild interrogations from behind as many quickly opened doors. Was it fire? Had burglars got in? What was the matter? Who had uttered that dreadful shriek? Alas! that was the question which we of all men were most anxious to hear answered. Who? Gilbertine or Dorothy?
Gilbertine’s door was reached first. In it stood a short, slight figure, wrapped in a hastily-donned shawl. The white face looked into ours as we stopped, and we recognised little Miss Lane.
“What has happened?” she gasped. “It must have been an awful cry to waken everybody so!”
We never thought of answering her.
“Where is Gilbertine?” demanded Sinclair, thrusting his hand out as if to put her aside.
She drew herself up with sudden dignity.
“In bed,” she replied. “It was she who told me that somebody had shrieked. I didn’t wake.”
Sinclair uttered a sigh of the greatest relief that ever burst from a man’s overcharged breast.
“Tell her we will find out what it means,” he answered kindly, drawing me rapidly away.
By this time Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong were aroused, and I could hear the slow and hesitating tones of the former in the passage behind us.
“Let us hasten,” whispered Sinclair, “Our eyes must be the first to see what lies behind that partly-opened door.”
I shivered. The door he had designated was Dorothy’s.
Sinclair reached it first and pushed it open. Pressing up behind him, I cast a fearful look over his shoulder. Only emptiness confronted us. Dorothy was not in the little chamber. With an impulsive gesture Sinclair pointed to the bed — it had not been lain in — then to the gas — it was still burning. The communicating-room, in which Mrs. Lansing slept, was also lighted, but silent as the one in which we stood. This last fact struck us as the most incomprehensible of all. Mrs. Lansing was not the woman to sleep through a disturbance. Where was she, then? And why did we not hear her strident and aggressive tones rising in angry remonstrance at our intrusion? Had she followed her niece from the room? Should we in another minute encounter her ponderous figure in the group of people we could now hear hurrying toward us? I was for retreating and hunting the house over for Dorothy. But Sinclair, with truer instinct, drew me across the threshold of this silent room.
Well was it for us that we entered there together, for I do not know how either of us, weakened as we were by our forebodings and all the alarms of this unprecedented night, could have borne alone the sight that awaited us.
On the bed situated at the right of the doorway lay a form — awful, ghastly, and unspeakably repulsive. The head, which lay high but inert upon the pillow, was surrounded with the grey hairs of age, and the eyes, which seemed to stare into ours, were glassy with reflected light and not with inward intelligence. This glassiness told the tale of the room’s grim silence. It was death we looked on, not the death we had anticipated, and for which we were in a measure prepared, but one fully as awful, and having for its victim, not Dorothy Camerden nor even Gilbertine Murray, but the heartless aunt, who had driven them both like slaves, and who now lay facing the reward of her earthly deeds alone.
As a realisation of the awful truth came upon me I stumbled against the bedpost, looking on with almost blind eyes as Sinclair bent over the rapidly whitening face, whose naturally ruddy colour no one had ever before seen disturbed. And I was still standing there when Mr. Armstrong and all the others came pouring in. Nor have I any distinct remembrance of what was said or how I came to be in the antechamber again. All thought, all consciousness even, seemed to forsake me, and I did not really waken to my surroundings till some one near me whispered:
Then I began to look about me and peer into the faces crowding up on every side for the only one which could give me back my self-possession. But though there were many girlish countenances to be seen in the awestruck groups huddled in every corner, I beheld no Dorothy, and was therefore but little astonished when in another moment I heard the cry go up:
“Where is Dorothy? Where was she when her aunt died?”
Alas! there was no one there to answer, and the looks of those about, which hitherto had expressed little save awe and fright, turned to wonder, and more than one person left the room as if to look for her. I did not join them. I was rooted to the place. Nor did Sinclair stir a foot, though his eye, which had been wandering restlessly over the faces about him, now settled inquiringly on the doorway. For whom was he looking? Gilbertine or Dorothy? Gilbertine, no doubt, for he visibly brightened as her figure presently appeared clad in a n�glig�e, which emphasised her height, and gave to her whole appearance a womanly sobriety unusual to it.
She had evidently been told what had occurred, for she asked no questions, only leaned in still horror against the doorpost, with her eyes fixed on the room within. Sinclair, advancing, held out his arm. She gave no sign of seeing it. Then he spoke. This seemed to rouse her, for she gave him a grateful look, though she did not take his arm.
“There will be no wedding to-morrow,” fell from her lips in self-communing murmur.
Only a few minutes had passed since they had started to find Dorothy, but it seemed an age to me. My body remained in the room, but my mind was searching the house for the girl I loved. Where was she hidden? Would she be found huddled but alive in some far-off chamber? Or was another and more dreadful tragedy awaiting us? I wondered that I could not join the search. I wondered that even Gilbertine’s presence could keep Sinclair from doing so. Didn’t he know what in all probability this missing girl had with her? Didn’t he know what I had suffered, was suffering? Ah! what now? She is coming! I can hear them speaking to her. Gilbertine moves from the door, and a young man and woman enter with Dorothy between them.
But what a Dorothy! Years could have made no greater change in her. She looked and she moved like one who is done with life, yet fears the few remaining moments left her. Instinctively we fell back before her; instinctively we followed her with our eyes as, reeling a little at the door, she cast a look of inconceivable shrinking, first at her own bed, then at the group of older people watching her with serious looks from the room beyond. As she did so I noted that she was still clad in her evening dress of grey, and that there was no more colour on cheek or lip than in the neutral tints of her gown.
Was it our consciousness of the relief which Mrs. Lansing’s death, horrible as it was, must bring to this unhappy girl, and of the inappropriateness of any display of grief on her part, which caused the silence with which we saw her pass with forced step and dread anticipation into the room where that image of dead virulence awaited her? Impossible to tell. I could not read my own thoughts. How, then, the thoughts of others!
But thoughts, if we had any, all fled when, after one slow turn of her head towards the bed, this trembling young girl gave a choking shriek, and fell, face down, on the floor. Evidently she had not been prepared for the look which made her aunt’s still face so horrible. How could she have been? Had it not imprinted itself upon my mind as the one revolting vision of my life? How, then, if this young and tender-hearted girl had been insensible to it! As her form struck the floor Mr. Armstrong rushed forward; I had not the right. But it was not by his arms she was lifted. Sinclair was before him, and it was with a singularly determined look I could not understand, and which made us all fall back, that he raised her and carried her into her own bed, where he laid her gently down. Then, as if not content with this simple attention, he hovered over her for a moment, arranging the pillows and smoothing her dishevelled hair. When at last he left her the women rushed forward.
“Not too many of you,” was his final adjuration, as, giving me a look, he slipped out into the hall.
I followed him immediately. He had gained the moon-lighted corridor near his own door, where he stood awaiting me with something in his hand. As I approached, he drew me to the window and showed me what it was. It was the amethyst box, open and empty, and beside it, shining with a yellow instead of a purple light, the little vial void of the one drop which used to sparkle within it.
“I found the vial in the bed with the old woman,” said he. “The box I saw glittering among Dorothy’s locks before she fell. That was why I lifted her.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09