Knowing my darling’s innocence, I felt the insult shown her in my heart of hearts, and might in the heat of the moment have been betrayed into an unwise utterance of my indignation, if at that moment I had not encountered the eye of Mr. Armstrong fixed on me from the rear hall. In the mingled surprise and distress he displayed, I saw that it was not from any indiscretion of his that this feeling against her had started. He had not betrayed the trust I had placed in him, yet the murmur had gone about which virtually ostracised her, and instead of confronting the eager looks of friends, she found herself met by averted glances and coldly turned backs, and soon by an almost empty hall.
She flushed as she realised the effect of her presence, and cast me an agonised look which, without her expectation, perhaps, roused every instinct of chivalry within me. Advancing, I met her at the foot of the stairs, and with one quick word seemed to restore her to herself.
“Be patient!” I whispered. “To-morrow they will all be around you again. Perhaps sooner. Go into the conservatory and wait.”
She gave me a grateful pressure of the hand, while I bounded upstairs, determined that nothing should stop me from finding Gilbertine, and giving her the letter with which Sinclair had entrusted me.
But this was more easily planned than accomplished. When I had reached the third floor (an unaccustomed and strange spot for me to find myself in) I at first found no one who could tell me to which room Miss Murray had retired. Then, when I did come across a stray housemaid, and she, with an extraordinary stare, had pointed out the door, I found it quite impossible to gain any response from within, though I could hear a quick step moving restlessly to and fro, and now and then catch the sound of a smothered sob or low cry. The wretched girl would not heed me, though I told her who I was, and that I had a letter from Mr. Sinclair in my hand. Indeed, she presently became perfectly quiet, and let me knock again and again, till the situation became ridiculous, and I felt obliged to draw off.
Not that I thought of yielding. No, I would stay there till her own fancy drove her to open the door, or till Mr. Armstrong should come up and force it. A woman upon whom so many interests depended would not be allowed to remain shut up the whole morning. Her position as a possible bride forbade it. Guilty or innocent, she must show herself before long. As if in answer to my expectation, a figure appeared at this very moment at the other end of the hall. It was Dutton, the butler, and in his hand he held a telegram. He seemed astonished to see me there, but passed me with a simple bow, and stopped before the door I had so unavailingly assailed a few minutes before.
“A telegram, miss,” he shouted, as no answer was made to his knock. “Mr. Armstrong asked me to bring it to you. It is from the Bishop, and calls for an immediate reply.”
There was a stir within, but the door did not open. Meanwhile, I had sealed and thrust forth the letter I had held concealed in my breast pocket.
“Give her this, too,” I signified, and pointed to the crack under the door.
He took the letter, laid the telegram on it, and pushed them both in. Then he stood up, and eyed the unresponsive panels with the set look of a man who does not easily yield his purpose.
“I will wait for the answer!” he shouted through the keyhole, and, falling back, he took up his stand against the opposite wall.
I could not keep him company there. Withdrawing into a big dormer window, I waited with beating heart to see if her door would open. Apparently not; yet as I still lingered I heard the lock turn, followed by the sound of a measured but hurried step. Dashing from my retreat, I reached the main hall in time to see Miss Murray disappear toward the staircase. This was well, and I was about to follow, when, to my astonishment, I perceived Dutton standing in the doorway she had just left, staring down at the floor with a puzzled look.
“She didn’t pick up the letters!” he cried in amazement. “She just walked over them. What shall I do now? It’s the strangest thing I ever saw!”
“Take them to the little boudoir over the porch,” I suggested. “Mr. Sinclair is there, and if she is not on her way to join him now, she certainly will be soon.”
Without a word Dutton caught up the letters and made for the stairs.
Left to await the result, I found myself so worked upon that I wondered how much longer I should be able to endure these shifts of feeling and constantly recurring moments of extreme suspense. To escape the torture of my own thoughts, or, possibly, to get some idea of how Dorothy was sustaining an ordeal which was fast destroying my own self-possession, I prepared to go downstairs. What was my astonishment, in passing the little boudoir on the second floor, to find its door ajar and the place empty. Either the interview between Sinclair and Gilbertine had been very much curtailed, or it had not yet taken place. With a heart heavy with forebodings I no longer sought to analyse, I made my way down, and reached the lower step of the great staircase just as a half-dozen girls, rushing from different quarters of the hall, surrounded the heavy form of Mr. Armstrong coming from his own little room.
Their questions made a small hubbub. With a good-natured gesture he put them all back, and, raising his voice, said to the assembled crowd:
“It has been decided by Miss Murray that, under the circumstances, it will be wiser for her to postpone the celebration of her marriage to some time and place less fraught with mournful suggestions. A telegram has just been sent to the Bishop to that effect, and while we all suffer from this disappointment, I am sure there is no one here who will not see the propriety of her decision.”
As he finished, Gilbertine appeared behind him. At the same moment I caught, or thought I did, the flash of Sinclair’s eye from the recesses of the room beyond; but I could not stop to make sure of this, for Gilbertine’s look and manner were such as to draw my full attention, and it was with a mixture of almost inexplicable emotions that I saw her thread her way among her friends, in a state of high feeling which made her blind to their outstretched hands and deaf to the murmur of interest and sympathy which instinctively followed her. She was making for the stairs, and whatever her thoughts, whatever the state of her mind, she moved superbly, in her pale, yet seemingly radiant abstraction. I watched her, fascinated, yet when she left the last group and began to cross the small square of carpet which alone separated us, I stepped down and aside, feeling that to meet her eye just then without knowing what had passed between her and Sinclair would be cruel to her and well-nigh unbearable to myself.
She saw the movement and seemed to hesitate an instant, then she turned for one brief instant in my direction, and I saw her smile. Great God! it was the smile of innocence. Fleeting as it was, the pride that was in it, the sweet assertion and the joy were unmistakable. I felt like springing to Sinclair’s side in the gladness of my relief, but there was no time; another door had opened down the hall, another person had stepped upon the scene, and Miss Murray, as well as myself, recognised by the hush which at once fell upon every one present that something of still more startling import awaited us.
“Mr. Armstrong and ladies!” said this stranger — I knew he was a stranger by the studied formality of the former’s bow —“I have made a few inquiries since I came here a short time ago, and I find that there is one young lady in the house who ought to be able to tell me better than any one else under what circumstances Mrs. Lansing breathed her last. I allude to her niece, who slept in the adjoining room. Is that young lady here? Her name, if I remember rightly, is Camerden — Miss Dorothy Camerden.”
A movement as of denial passed from group to group down the hall, and, while no one glanced toward the library and some did glance upstairs, I felt the dart of sudden fear — or was it hope — that Dorothy, hearing her name called, would leave the conservatory and proudly confront the speaker in face of this whole suspicious throng. But no Dorothy appeared. On the contrary, it was Gilbertine who turned, and, with an air of authority for which no one was prepared, asked in tones vibrating with feeling:
“Has this gentleman the official right to question who was and who was not with my aunt when she died?”
Mr. Armstrong, who showed his surprise as ingenuously as he did every other emotion, glanced up at the light figure hovering over them from the staircase, and made out to answer:
“This gentleman has every right, Miss Murray. He is the coroner of the town, accustomed to inquire into all cases of sudden death.”
“Then,” she vehemently rejoined, her pale cheeks breaking out into a scarlet flush, above which her eyes shone with an almost unearthly brilliancy, “do not summon Dorothy Camerden. She is not the witness you want. I am. I am the one who uttered that scream; I am the one who saw our aunt die. Dorothy cannot tell you what took place in her room and at her bedside, for Dorothy was not there; but I can.”
Amazed, not as others were, at the assertion itself, but at the manner and publicity of the utterance, I contemplated this surprising girl in ever-increasing wonder. Always beautiful, always spirited and proud, she looked at that moment as if nothing in the shape of fear, or even contumely, could touch her. She faced the astonishment of her best friends with absolute fearlessness, and before the general murmur could break into words, added:
“I feel it my duty to speak thus publicly, because, by keeping silent so long, I have allowed a false impression to go about. Stunned with terror, I found it impossible to speak during that first shock. Besides, I was in a measure to blame for the catastrophe itself, and lacked courage to own it. It was I who took the little crystal flask into my aunt’s room. I had been fascinated by it from the first, fascinated enough to long to see it closer, and to hold it in my hand. But I was ashamed of this fascination — ashamed, I mean, to have any one know that I could be moved by such a childish impulse; so, instead of taking the box itself, which might easily be missed, I simply abstracted the tiny vial, and, satisfied with its possession, carried it about till I got to my room. Then, when the house was quiet and my room-mate asleep, I took it out and looked at it, and feeling an irresistible desire to share my amusement with my cousin, I stole to her room by means of the connecting balcony, just as I had done many times before when our aunt was in bed and asleep. But unlike any previous occasion, I found the room empty. Dorothy was not there; but as the light was burning high, I knew she would soon be back, and so ventured to step in.
“Instantly, I heard my aunt’s voice. She was awake, and wanted something. She had evidently called before, for her voice was sharp with impatience, and she used some very harsh words. When she heard me in Dorothy’s room, she shouted again, and, as I have always been accustomed to obey her commands, I hastened to her side, with the little vial concealed in my hand. As she expected to see Dorothy and not me, she rose up in unreasoning anger, asking where my cousin was, and why I was not in bed. I attempted to answer her, but she would not listen to me, and bade me turn up the gas, which I did.
“Then, with her eyes fixed on mine as though she knew I was trying to conceal something from her, she commanded me to rearrange her hair and make her more comfortable. This I could not do with the tiny flask still in my hand, so with a quick movement, which I hoped would pass unobserved, I slid it behind some bottles standing on a table by the bedside, and bent to do what she required. But to attempt to escape her eyes was useless. She had seen my action, and at once began to feel about for what I had attempted to hide from her. Coming in contact with the tiny flask, she seized it, and, with a smile I shall never forget, held it up between us.
“‘What’s this?’ she cried, showing such astonishment at its minuteness and perfection of shape that it was immediately apparent she had heard nothing of the amethyst box displayed by Mr. Sinclair in the library. ‘I never saw a bottle as small as this before. What is in it, and why were you so afraid of my seeing it?’
“As she spoke she attempted to wrench out the stopper. It stuck, so I was in hopes she would fail in the effort, but she was a woman of uncommon strength, and presently it yielded, and I saw the vial open in her hand.
“Aghast with terror, I caught at the table beside me, fearing to drop before her eyes. Instantly her look of curiosity changed to one of suspicion, and repeating, ‘What’s in it? What’s in it?’ she raised the flask to her nostrils, and when she found she could make out nothing from the smell, lowered it to her lips, with the intention, I suppose, of determining its contents by tasting them. As I caught sight of this fatal action, and beheld the one drop, which Mr. Sinclair had said was enough to kill a man, slip from its hiding-place of centuries into her open throat, I felt as if the poison had entered my own veins; I could neither speak nor move. But when, an instant later, I met the look which spread suddenly over her face — a look of horror and hatred, accusing horror and unspeakable hatred mingled with what I dimly felt must mean death — an agonised cry burst from my lips, after which, panic-stricken, I flew, as if for life, back by the way I had come, to my own room. This was a great mistake. I should have remained with my aunt and boldly met the results of the tragedy which my folly had brought about. But terror knows no law, and having once yielded to the instinct of concealment, I knew no other course than to continue to maintain an apparent ignorance of what had just occurred. With chattering teeth and an awful numbness at my heart, I tore off my wrapper and slid into bed. Miss Lane had not wakened, but every one else had, and the hall was full of people. This terrified me still more, and for the moment I felt that I could never own the truth and bring down upon myself all this wonder and curiosity. So I allowed a wrong impression of the event to go about, for which act of cowardice I now ask the pardon of every one here, as I have already asked that of Mr. Sinclair and of our kind friend Mr. Armstrong.”
She paused, and stood for a moment confronting us all with proud eyes and flaming cheeks, then amid a hubbub which did not seem to affect her in the least, she stepped down, and approaching the man who, she had been told, had a right to her full confidence, she said, loud enough for all who wished to hear her:
“I am ready to give you whatever further information you may require. Shall I step into the drawing-room with you?”
He bowed, and as they disappeared from the great hall the hubbub of voices became tumultuous.
Naturally I should have joined in the universal expressions of surprise and the gossip incident to such an unexpected revelation. But I found myself averse to any kind of talk. Till I could meet Sinclair’s eye and discern in it the happy clearing-up of all his doubts, I should not feel free to be my own ordinary and sociable self again. But Sinclair showed every evidence of wishing to keep in the background; and while this was natural enough, so far as people in general were concerned, I thought it odd and very unlike him not to give me an opportunity to express my congratulations at the turn affairs had taken and the frank attitude assumed by Gilbertine. I own I felt much disturbed by this neglect, and as the minutes passed and he failed to appear, I found my satisfaction in her explanations dwindle under the consciousness that they had failed, in some respects, to account for the situation; and before I knew it I was the prey of fresh doubts, which I did my best to smother, not only for the sake of Sinclair, but because I was still too much under the influence of Gilbertine’s imposing personality to wish to believe aught but what her burning words conveyed.
She must have spoken the truth, but was it the entire truth? I hated myself for asking the question; hated myself for being more critical with her than I had been with Dorothy, who certainly had not made her own part in this tragedy as clear as one who loved her could wish. Ah, Dorothy! it was time some one told her that Gilbertine had openly vindicated her, and that she could now come forth and face her friends without hesitation and without dread. Was she still in the conservatory? Doubtless. But it would be better, perhaps, for me to make sure.
Approaching the place by the small door connecting it with the hallway in which I stood, I took a hurried look within, and, seeing no one, stepped boldly down between the palms to the little nook where lovers of this quiet spot were accustomed to sit. It was empty, and so was the library beyond. Coming back, I accosted Dutton, whom I found superintending the removal of the potted plants which encumbered the passages, and asked him if he knew where Miss Camerden was? He answered without hesitation that she had stood in the rear hall a little while before, listening to Miss Murray; that she had then gone upstairs by the spiral staircase, leaving word with him that if anybody wanted her she would be found in the small boudoir over the porch.
I thanked him, and was on my way to join her when Mr. Armstrong called me. He must have kept me a half-hour in his room discussing every aspect of the affair and apologising for the necessity which he now felt of bidding farewell to most of his guests, among whom, he was careful to state, he did not include me. Then, when I thought this topic exhausted, he began to talk about his wife, and what this dreadful occurrence was to her, and how he despaired of ever reconciling her to the fact that it had been considered necessary to call in a coroner. Then he spoke of Sinclair, but with some constraint and a more careful choice of words, at which, realising that I was to reap nothing from this interview, only suffer strong and continued irritation at a delay which was costing me the inestimable privilege of being the first to tell Dorothy of her re-establishment in every one’s good opinion, I exerted myself for release, and to such good purpose that I presently found myself again in the hall, where the first person I ran against was Sinclair.
He started, and so did I, at this unexpected encounter. Then we stood still, and I stared at him in amazement, for everything about the man was changed, and — inexplicable fact! — in nothing was this change more marked than in his attitude toward myself. Yet he tried to be friendly and meet me on the old footing, and observed as soon as we found ourselves beyond the hearing of others:
“You heard what Gilbertine said. There is no reason for doubting her words. I do not doubt them, and you will show yourself my friend by not doubting them either.” Then, with some impetuosity and a gleam in his eye quite foreign to its natural expression, he pursued, with a pitiful effort to speak dispassionately: “Our wedding is postponed — indefinitely. There are reasons why this seemed best to Miss Murray. To you I will say that postponed nuptials seldom culminate in marriage. In fact, I have just released Miss Murray from all obligations to myself.”
The stare of utter astonishment I gave him provoked the first and only sneer I have ever seen on his face. What was I to say — what could I say, in response to such a declaration, following so immediately upon his warm assertion of her innocence? Nothing. With that indefinable chill between us, which had come I know not how, I felt tongue-tied.
He saw my embarrassment, possibly my emotion, for he smiled somewhat bitterly, and put a step or so between us before he remarked:
“Miss Murray has my good wishes. Out of respect to her position, I shall show her a friend’s attention while we remain in this house. That is all I have to say, Walter. You and I have held our last conversation on this subject.”
He was gone before I had sufficiently recovered to realise that in this conversation I had had no part, neither had it contained any explanation of the very facts which had once formed our greatest grounds for doubt — namely, Beaton’s dream; the smothered cry uttered behind Sinclair’s shoulder when he first made known the deadly qualities of the little vial; and, lastly, the strange desire acknowledged to by both these young ladies, to touch and hold an object calculated rather to repel than to attract the normal feminine heart.
At every previous stage of this ever-shifting drama my instinct had been to set my wits against the facts, and, if I could, puzzle out the mystery. But I felt no such temptation now. My one desire was to act, and that immediately. Dorothy, for all Gilbertine’s intimation to the contrary, held in her own breast the key to the enigma. Otherwise she would not have ventured upon the surprising and necessarily unpalatable advice to Sinclair — an advice he seemed to have followed — not to marry Gilbertine Murray at the time proposed. Nothing short of a secret acquaintanceship with facts unknown as yet to the rest of us could have nerved her to such an act.
My one hope, then, of understanding the matter lay with her. To seek her at once in the place where I had been told she awaited me seemed the only course to take. If any real gratitude underlay the look of trust which she had given me at the termination of our last interview, she would reward my confidence by unbosoming herself to me.
I was at the door of the boudoir immediately upon forming this resolution. Finding it ajar, I pushed it softly open, and as softly entered. To my astonishment the place was very dark. Not only had the shades been drawn down, but the shutters had been closed, so that it was with difficulty I detected the slight, black-robed figure which lay face down among the cushions of a lounge. She had evidently not heard my entrance, for she did not move; and, struck by her pathetic attitude, I advanced in a whirl of feeling, which made me forget all conventionalities, and everything else, in fact, but that I loved her, and had the utmost confidence in her power to make me happy. Laying my hand softly on her head, I tenderly whispered:
“Look up, dear. Whatever barrier may have intervened between us has fallen. Look up and hear how I love you.”
She thrilled as a woman only thrills when her secret soul is moved, and, rising with a certain grand movement, turned her face upon me, glorious with a feeling that not even the dimness of the room could hide.
Why, then, did my brain whirl and my heart collapse?
It was Gilbertine and not Dorothy who stood before me.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09