I shall not subject you to the ordeal from which I suffered. You shall follow my three friends into the room. According to Sinclair’s description, the interview proceeded thus:
As soon as the door had closed upon them, and before either of the girls had a chance to speak, he remarked to Gilbertine:
“I have brought you here because I wish to express to you, in the presence of your cousin, my sympathy for the bereavement which in an instant has robbed you both of a lifelong guardian. I also wish to say, in the light of this sad event, that I am ready, if propriety so exacts, to postpone the ceremony which I hoped would unite our lives to-day. Your wish shall be my wish, Gilbertine; though I would suggest that possibly you never more needed the sympathy and protection which only a husband can give than you do to-day.”
He told me afterward that he was so taken up with the effect of this suggestion on Gilbertine that he forgot to look at Dorothy, though the hint he strove to convey of impending trouble was meant as much for her as for his affianced bride. In another moment he regretted this, especially when he saw that Dorothy had changed her attitude, and was now looking away from them both.
“What do you say, Gilbertine?” he asked earnestly, as she sat flushing and paling before him.
“Nothing. I have not thought — it is a question for others to decide — others who know what is right better than I. I appreciate your consideration,” she suddenly burst out, “and should be glad to tell you at this moment what to expect. But — give me a little time — let me see you later — in the morning, Mr. Sinclair, after we are all somewhat rested, and when I can see you quite alone.”
“Shall I go?” she asked.
Sinclair advanced, and with quiet protest touched her on the shoulder. Quietly she sank back into her seat.
“I want to say a half-dozen words to you, Miss Camerden. Gilbertine will pardon us; it is about matters which must be settled to-night. There are decisions to arrive at and arrangements to be made. Mrs. Armstrong has instructed me to question you in regard to these, as the one best acquainted with Mrs. Lansing’s affairs and general tastes. We will not trouble Gilbertine. She has her own decisions to reach. Dear, will you let me make you comfortable in the conservatory while I talk for five minutes with Dorothy?”
He said she met this question with a look so blank and uncomprehending that he just lifted her and carried her in among the palms.
“I must speak to Dorothy,” he pleaded, placing her in the chair where he had often seen her sit of her own accord. “Be a good girl; I will not keep you here long.”
“But why cannot I go to my room? I do not understand — I am frightened — what have you to say to Dorothy you cannot say to me?”
She seemed so excited that for a minute, just a minute, he faltered in his purpose. Then he took her gravely by the hand.
“I have told you,” said he. Then he kissed her softly on the forehead. “Be quiet, dear, and rest. See, here are roses!”
He plucked and flung a handful into her lap. Then he crossed back to the library and shut the conservatory door behind him. I am not surprised that Gilbertine wondered at her peremptory bridegroom.
When Sinclair re-entered the library, he found Dorothy standing with her hand on the knob of the door leading into the hall. Her head was bent thoughtfully forward, as though she were inwardly debating whether to stand her ground or fly. Sinclair gave her no further opportunity for hesitation. Advancing rapidly, he laid his hand gently on hers, and with a gravity which must have impressed her, quietly remarked:
“I must ask you to stay and hear what I have to say. I wished to spare Gilbertine; would that I could spare you! But circumstances forbid. You know and I know that your aunt did not die of apoplexy.”
She gave a violent start, and her lips parted. If the hand under his clasp had been cold, it was now icy. He let his own slip from the contact.
“You know!” she echoed, trembling and pallid, her released hand flying instinctively to her hair.
“Yes; you need not feel about for the little box. I took it from its hiding-place when I laid you fainting on the bed. Here it is.”
He drew it from his pocket and showed it to her. She hardly glanced at it; her eyes were fixed in terror on his face, and her lips seemed to be trying in vain to formulate some inquiry.
He tried to be merciful.
“I missed it many hours ago from the shelf yonder where you all saw me place it. Had I known that you had taken it, I would have repeated to you how deadly were the contents, and how dangerous it was to handle the vial or to let others handle it, much less to put it to the lips.”
She started, and instinctively her form rose to its full height.
“Have you looked in that little box since you took it from my hair?” she asked.
“Then you know it to be empty?”
For answer he pressed the spring, and the little lid flew open.
“It is not empty now, you see.” Then more slowly and with infinite meaning: “But the little flask is.”
She brought her hands together and faced him with a noble dignity which at once put the interview on a different footing.
“Where was this vial found?” she demanded.
He found it difficult to answer. They seemed to have exchanged positions. When he did speak it was in a low tone, and with less confidence than he had shown before.
“In the bed with the old lady. I saw it there myself. Mr. Worthington was with me. Nobody else knows anything about it. I wish to give you an opportunity to explain. I begin to think you can — but how, God only knows. The box was hidden in your hair from early evening. I saw your hand continually fluttering toward it all the time we were dancing in the parlour.”
She did not lose an iota of her dignity or pride.
“You are right,” she said. “I put it there as soon as I took it from the cabinet. I could think of no safer hiding-place. Yes, I took it,” she acknowledged, as she saw the flush rise to his cheek. “I took it; but with no worse motive than the dishonest one of having for my own an object which bewitched me. I was hardly myself when I snatched it from the shelf and thrust it into my hair.”
He stared at her in amazement, her confession and her attitude so completely contradicted each other.
“But I had nothing to do with the vial,” she went on. And with this declaration her whole manner, even her voice changed, as if with the utterance of these few words she had satisfied some inner demand of self-respect, and could now enter into the sufferings of those about her. “This I think it right to make plain to you. I supposed the vial to be in the box when I took it, but when I got to my room and had an opportunity to examine the deadly trinket, I found it empty, just as you found it when you took it from my hair. Some one had taken the vial out before my hand had ever touched the box.”
Like a man who feels himself suddenly seized by the throat, yet who struggles for the life slowly but inexorably leaving him, Sinclair cast one heart-rending look toward the conservatory, then heavily demanded:
“Why were you out of your room? Why did they have to look for you? And who was the person who uttered that scream? ”
She confronted him sadly, but with an earnestness he could not but respect.
“I was not in the room because I was troubled by my discovery. I think I had some idea of returning the box to the shelf from which I had taken it. At all events, I found myself on the little staircase in the rear when that cry rang through the house. I do not know who uttered it; I only know that it did not spring from my lips.”
In a rush of renewed hope he seized her by the hand.
“It was your aunt!” he whispered. “It was she who took the vial out of the box; who put it to her own lips; who shrieked when she felt her vitals gripped. Had you stayed you would have known this. Can’t you say so? Don’t you think so? Why do you look at me with those incredulous eyes?”
“Because you must not believe a lie. Because you are too good a man to be sacrificed. It was a younger throat than my aunt’s which gave utterance to that shriek. Mr. Sinclair, be advised; do not be married to-morrow!”
Meanwhile I was pacing the hall without in a delirium of suspense. I tried hard to keep within the bounds of silence. I had turned for the fiftieth time to face that library door, when suddenly I heard a hoarse cry break from within, and saw the door fly open and Dorothy come hurrying out. She shrank when she saw me, but seemed grateful that I did not attempt to stop her, and soon was up the stairs and out of sight. I rushed at once into the library.
I found Sinclair sitting before a table with his head buried in his hands. In an instant I knew that our positions were again reversed, and, without stopping to give heed to my own sensations, I approached him as near as I dared and laid my hand on his shoulder.
He shuddered, but did not look up, and it was minutes before he spoke. Then it all came in a rush.
“Fool! fool that I was! And I saw that she was consumed by fright the moment it became plain that I was intent upon having some conversation with Dorothy. Her fingers where they gripped my arm must have left marks behind them. But I saw only womanly nervousness when a man less blind would have detected guilt. Walter, I wish that the mere scent of this empty flask would kill. Then I should not have to re-enter that conservatory door — or look again in her face, or ——”
He had taken out the cursed jewel and was fingering it in a nervous way which went to my heart of hearts. Gently removing it from his hand, I asked with all the calmness possible:
“What is all this mystery? Why have your suspicions returned to Gilbertine? I thought you had entirely dissociated her with this matter, and that you blamed Dorothy, and Dorothy only, for the amethyst’s loss?”
“Dorothy had the empty box; but the vial! the vial! — that had been taken by a previous hand. Do you remember the white silk train which Mr. Armstrong saw slipping from this room? I cannot talk, Walter; my duty leads me there.”
He pointed towards the conservatory. I drew back and asked if I should take up my watch again outside the door.
He shook his head.
“It makes no difference; nothing makes any difference. But if you want to please me, stay here.”
I at once sank into a chair. He made a great effort and advanced to the conservatory door. I studiously looked another way; my heart was breaking with sympathy for him.
But in another instant I was on my feet. I could hear him rushing about among the palms. Presently I heard his voice shout out the wild cry:
“She is gone! I forgot the other door communicating with the hall.”
I crossed the floor and entered where he stood gazing down at an empty seat and a trail of scattered roses. Never shall I forget his face. The dimness of the spot could not hide his deep, unspeakable emotions. To him this flight bore but one interpretation — guilt.
I did not advocate Sinclair’s pressing the matter further that night. I saw that he was exhausted, and that any further movement would tax him beyond his strength. We therefore separated immediately after leaving the library, and I found my way to my own room alone. It may seem callous in me, but I fell asleep very soon after, and did not wake till roused by a knock at my door. On opening it I confronted Sinclair, looking haggard and unkempt. As he entered, the first clear notes of the breakfast-call could be heard rising from the lower hall.
“I have not slept,” he said. “I have been walking the hall all night, listening by spells at her door, and at other times giving what counsel I could to the Armstrongs. God forgive me, but I have said nothing to any one of what has made this affair an awful tragedy to me! Do you think I did wrong? I waited to give Dorothy a chance. Why should I not show the same consideration to Gilbertine?”
“You should.” But our eyes did not meet, and neither voice expressed the least hope.
“I shall not go to breakfast,” he now declared. “I have written this line to Gilbertine. Will you see that she gets it?”
For reply I held out my hand. He placed the note in it, and I was touched to see that it was unsealed.
“Be sure, when you give it to her, that she will have an opportunity of reading it alone. I shall request the use of one of the little reception-rooms this morning. Let her come there if she is so impelled. She will find a friend as well as a judge.”
I endeavoured to express sympathy, urge patience, and suggest hope. But he had no ear for words, though he tried to listen, poor fellow! so I soon stopped, and he presently left the room. I immediately made myself as presentable as a night of unprecedented emotions would allow, and went below to do him such service as opportunity offered and the exigencies of the case permitted.
I found the lower hall alive with eager guests and a few outsiders. News of the sad event was slowly making its way through the avenue, and some of the Armstrongs’ nearest neighbours had left their breakfast-tables to express their interest and to hear the particulars. Among these stood the lady of the house; but Mr. Armstrong was nowhere within sight. For him the breakfast waited. Not wishing to be caught in any little swirl of conventional comment, I remained near the staircase waiting for some one to descend who could give me news concerning Miss Murray. For I had small expectation of her braving the eyes of these strangers, and doubted if even Dorothy would be seen at the breakfast-table. But little Miss Lane, if small, was gifted with a great appetite. She would be sure to appear prior to the last summons, and as we were good friends, she would listen to my questions and give me the answer I needed for the carrying out of Sinclair’s wishes. But before her light footfall was heard descending I was lured from my plans by an unexpected series of events. Three men came down, one after the other, followed by Mr. Armstrong, looking even more grave and ponderous than usual. Two of them were the physicians who had been called in the night, and whom I myself had seen depart somewhere near three o’clock. The third I did not know, but he looked like a doctor also. Why were they here again so early? Had anything new come to light?
It was a question which seemed to strike others as well as myself. As Mr. Armstrong ushered them down the hall and out of the front-door many were the curious glances which followed them, and it was with difficulty that the courteous host on his return escaped the questions and detaining hands of some of his inquisitive guests. A pleasant word, an amiable smile, he had for all; but I was quite certain, when I saw him disappear into the little room he retained for his own use, that he had told them nothing which could in any way relieve their curiosity.
This filled me with a vague alarm. Something must have occurred — something which Sinclair ought to know. I felt a great anxiety, and was closely watching the door behind which Mr. Armstrong had vanished when it suddenly opened, and I perceived that he had been writing a telegram. As he gave it to one of the servants he made a gesture to the man standing with extended hand by the Chinese gong, and the summons rang out for breakfast. Instantly the hum of voices ceased, and young and old turned toward the dining-room, but the host did not enter with them. Before the younger and more active of his guests could reach his side he had slid into the room which I have before described as set apart for the display of Gilbertine’s wedding-presents. Instantly I lost all inclination for breakfast, and lingered about in the hall until every one had passed me, even little Miss Lane, who had come down unperceived while I was watching Mr. Armstrong’s door. Not very well pleased with myself for having missed the one opportunity which might have been of service to me, I was asking myself whether I should follow her, and make the best attempt I could at sociability, if not at eating, when Mr. Armstrong approached from the side hall, and, accosting me, inquired if Mr. Sinclair had come down yet.
I assured him that I had not seen him, and did not think he meant to come to breakfast, adding that he had been very much affected by the affairs of the night, and had told me that he was going to shut himself up in his room and rest.
“I am sorry, but there is a question I must ask him immediately. It is about a little Italian trinket which I am told he displayed to the ladies yesterday afternoon.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50