So our dreadful secret was not confined to ourselves, as we had supposed, but was shared, or at least suspected, by our host.
Thankful that it was I, rather than Sinclair, who was called upon to meet and sustain this shock, I answered with what calmness I could:
“Yes; Sinclair mentioned the matter to me. Indeed, if you have any curiosity on the subject, I think I can enlighten you as fully as he can.”
Mr. Armstrong glanced up the stairs, hesitated, then drew me into his private room.
“I find myself in a very uncomfortable position,” he began. “A strange and quite unaccountable change has shown itself in the appearance of Mrs. Lansing’s body during the last few hours — a change which baffles the physicians and raises in their minds very unfortunate conjectures. What I want to know is whether Mr. Sinclair still has in his possession the box which is said to hold a vial of deadly poison, or whether it has passed into any other hand since he showed it to certain ladies in the library.”
We were standing directly in the light of an eastern window. Deception was impossible, even if I had felt like employing it. In Sinclair’s interests, if not in my own, I resolved to be as true to our host as our positions demanded, yet, at the same time, to save Gilbertine as much as possible from premature, if not final suspicion.
I therefore replied: “That is a question I can answer as well as Sinclair.” (Happy was I to save him this cross-examination.) “While he was showing this toy, Mrs. Armstrong came into the room and proposed a stroll, which drew all of the ladies from the room and called for his attendance as well. With no thought of the danger involved, he placed the trinket on a high shelf in the cabinet, and went out with the rest. When he came back for it, it was gone.”
The usually ruddy aspect of my host’s face deepened, and he sat down in the great armchair which did duty before his writing-table.
“This is dreadful!” was his comment; “entailing I do not know what unfortunate consequences upon this household and on the unhappy girl ——”
“Girl?” I repeated.
He turned upon me with great gravity. “Mr. Worthington, I am sorry to have to admit it, but something strange, something not easily explainable, took place in this house last night. It has only just come to light, otherwise the doctors’ conclusions might have been different. You know there is a detective in the house. The presents are valuable, and I thought best to have a man here to look after them.”
I nodded; I had no breath for speech.
“This man tells me,” continued Mr. Armstrong, “that just a few minutes previous to the time the whole household was aroused last night he heard a step in the hall overhead, then the sound of a light foot descending the little staircase in the servants’ hall. Being anxious to find out what this person wanted at an hour so late, he lowered the gas, closed his door, and listened. The steps went by his door. Satisfied that it was a woman he heard, he pulled open the door again and looked out. A young girl was standing not very far from him in a thin streak of moonlight. She was gazing intently at something in her hand, and that something had a purple gleam to it. He is ready to swear to this. Next moment, frightened by some noise she heard, she fled back, and vanished again in the region of the little staircase. It was soon, very soon, after this that the shriek came. Now, Mr. Worthington, what am I to do with this knowledge? I have advised this man to hold his peace till I can make inquiries, but where am I to make them? I cannot think that Miss Camerden ——”
The ejaculation which escaped me was involuntary. To hear her name for the second time in this association was more than I could bear.
“Did he say it was Miss Camerden?” I hurriedly inquired, as he looked at me in some surprise. “How should he know Miss Camerden?”
“He described her,” was the unanswerable reply. “Besides, we know that she was circulating in the halls at that time. I declare I have never known a worse business,” this amiable man bemoaned. “Let me send for Sinclair; he is more interested than any one else in Gilbertine’s relatives; or, stay, what if I should send for Miss Camerden herself? She should be able to tell how she came by this box.”
I subdued my own instincts, which were all for clearing Dorothy on the spot, and answered as I thought Sinclair would like me to answer.
“It is a serious and very perplexing piece of business,” said I; “but if you will wait a short time I do not think you will have to trouble Miss Camerden. I am sure that explanations will be given. Give the lady a chance,” I stammered. “Imagine what her feelings would be if questioned on so delicate a topic. It would make a breach which nothing could heal. Later, if she does not speak, it will be only right for you to ask her why.”
“She did not come down this morning.”
“If I could take counsel of my wife! But she is of too nervous a temperament. I am anxious to keep her from knowing this fresh complication as long as possible. Do you think I can look for Miss Camerden to explain herself before the doctors return, or before Mrs. Lansing’s physician, for whom I have telegraphed, can arrive from New York?”
“I am sure that three hours will not pass before you hear the truth. Leave me to work out the situation. I promise that if I cannot bring it about to your satisfaction, Sinclair shall be asked to lend his assistance. Only keep the gossips from Miss Camerden’s good name. Words can be said in a moment that will not be forgotten in years. I tremble at such a prospect for her.”
“No one knows of her having been seen with the box,” he protested; and, relieved as much by his manner as by his words, I took my leave of him, and made my way at once to the dining-room. Should I find Miss Lane there? Yes, and what was better still, the fortunes of the day had decreed that the place beside her should be unoccupied.
I was on my way to that place when I was struck by the extreme quiet into which the room had fallen. It had been humming with talk when I first entered, but now not a voice was raised and scarcely an eye. In the hurried glance I cast about the board, not a look met mine in recognition or welcome.
What did it mean? Had they been talking about me? Possibly; and in a way, it would seem, that was not altogether flattering to my vanity.
Unable to hide my sense of the general embarrassment which my presence had called forth, I passed to the seat I have indicated, and let my inquiring look settle on Miss Lane. She was staring, in imitation of the others, straight into her plate; but as I saluted her with a quiet “Good-morning,” she looked up and acknowledged my courtesy with a faint, almost sympathetic, smile. At once the whole tableful broke again into chatter, and I could safely put the question with which my mind was full.
“How is Miss Murray?” I asked. “I do not see her here.”
“Did you expect to? Poor Gilbertine! This is not the bridal-day she expected.” Then, with irresistible na�vet�, entirely in keeping with her fairy-like figure and girlish face, she added: “I think it was just horrid in the old woman to die the night before the wedding, don’t you?”
“Indeed I do,” I emphatically rejoined, humouring her in the hope of learning what I wished to know. “Does Miss Murray still cherish the expectation of being married to-day? No one seems to know.”
“Nor do I. I haven’t seen her since the middle of the night. She didn’t come back to her room. They say she is sobbing out her terror and disappointment in some attic corner. Think of that for Gilbertine Murray! But even that is better than ——”
The sentence trailed away into an indistinguishable murmur, the murmur into silence. Was it because of a fresh lull in the conversation about us? I hardly think so, for though the talk was presently resumed, she remained silent, not even giving the least sign of wishing to prolong this particular topic. I finished my coffee as soon as possible and quitted the room, but not before many had preceded me. The hall was consequently as full as before of a gossiping crowd.
I was on the point of bowing myself through the various groups blocking my way to the library door, when I noticed renewed signs of embarrassment on all the faces turned my way. Women who were clustered about the newel-post drew back, and some others sauntered away into side-rooms with an appearance of suddenly wishing to go somewhere. This certainly was very singular, especially as these marks of disapproval did not seem to be directed so much at myself as at some one behind me. Who could this some one be? Turning quickly, I cast a glance up the staircase, before which I stood, and saw the figure of a young girl dressed in black hesitating on the landing. This young girl was Dorothy Camerden, and it took but a moment’s contemplation of the scene for me to feel assured that it was against her this feeling of universal constraint had been directed.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55