Never had a suspicion crossed my mind of any such explanation of our secret troubles. I had seen as much of one cousin as the other in my visits to Mrs. Lansing’s house, but Gilbertine being from the first day of our acquaintance engaged to my friend Sinclair, I naturally did not presume to study her face for any signs of interest in myself, even if my sudden and uncontrollable passion for Dorothy had left me the heart to do so. Yet now, in the light of her unmistakable smile, of her beaming eyes, from which all troublous thoughts seemed to have fled for ever, a thousand recollections forced themselves upon my attention, which not only made me bewail my own blindness, but which served to explain the peculiar attitude always maintained towards me by Dorothy, and many other things which a moment before had seemed fraught with impenetrable mystery.
All this in the twinkling of an eye. Meanwhile, misled by my words, Gilbertine drew back a step, and, with her face still bright with the radiance I have mentioned, murmured in low, but full-toned accents:
“Not just yet; it is too soon. Let me simply enjoy the fact that I am free, and that the courage to win my release came from my own suddenly acquired trust in Mr. Sinclair’s goodness. Last night”— and she shuddered —“I saw only another way — a way the horrors of which I hardly realised. But God saved me from so dreadful, yea, so unnecessary a crime, and this morning ——”
It was cruel to let her go on — cruel to stand there and allow this ardent, if mistaken, nature to unfold itself so ingenuously, while I, with ear half turned toward the door, listened for the step of her whom I had never so much loved as at that moment, possibly because I had only just come to understand the cause of her seeming vacillations. My instincts were so imperative, my duty and the obligations of my position so unmistakable, that I made a move as Gilbertine reached this point, which caused her first to hesitate, then to stop. How should I fill up this gap of silence? How tell her of the great, the grievous mistake she had made? The task was one to try the courage of stouter souls than mine. But the thought of Dorothy nerved me; perhaps also my real friendship and commiseration for Sinclair.
“Gilbertine,” I began, “I will make no pretence of misunderstanding you. The situation is too serious, the honour which you do me too great; only, I am not free to accept that honour. The words which I uttered were meant for your cousin Dorothy. I expected to find her in this room. I have long loved your cousin — in secrecy, I own, but honestly and with every hope of some day making her my wife. I— I——”
There was no need for me to finish. The warm hand turning to ice in my clasp, the wide-open blind-struck eyes, the recoil, the maiden flush rising, deepening, covering cheek and chin and forehead, then fading out again till the whole face was white as marble and seemingly as cold — told me that the blow had gone home, and that Gilbertine Murray, the unequalled beauty, the petted darling of a society ready to recognise every charm she possessed save her ardent nature and great heart, had reached the height of her many miseries, and that it was I who had placed her there.
Overcome with pity, but conscious also of a profound respect, I endeavoured to utter some futile words, which she at once put an end to by an appealing gesture.
“You can say nothing,” she began. “I have made an awful mistake, the worst a woman can make, I think.” Then, with long pauses, as though her tongue were clogged by shame — perhaps by some deeper if less apparent feeling: “You love Dorothy. Does Dorothy love you?”
My answer was an honest one.
“I have dared to hope so, despite the little opportunity she has given me to express my feelings. She has always held me back, and that very decidedly, or my devotion would have been apparent to everybody.”
Regret, sorrow, infinite tenderness, all were audible in that cry. Indeed, it seemed as if for the moment her thoughts were more taken up with her cousin’s unhappiness than with her own.
“How I must have made her suffer! I have been a curse to those who loved me. But I am humbled now, and very rightly.”
I began to experience a certain awe of this great nature. There was grandeur even in her contrition, and as I took in the expression of her colourless features, sweet with almost an unearthly sweetness in spite of the anguish consuming her, I suddenly realised what Sinclair’s love for her must be. I also as suddenly realised the depth and extent of his suffering. To call such a woman his, to lead her almost to the foot of the altar, and then to see her turn aside and leave him! Surely his lot was an intolerable one, and though the interference I had unconsciously made in his wishes had been involuntary, I felt like cursing myself for not having been more open in my attentions to the girl I really loved.
Gilbertine seemed to divine my thoughts, for, pausing at the door she had unconsciously approached, she stood with the knob in her hand, and, with averted brow, remarked gravely:
“I am going out of your life. Before I do so, however, I should like to say a few words in palliation of my conduct. I have never known a mother. I early fell under my aunt’s charge, who, detesting children, sent me away to school, where I was well enough treated, but never loved. I was a plain child, and felt my plainness. This gave an awkwardness to my actions, and as my aunt had caused it to be distinctly understood that her sole intention in sending me to the Academy was to have me educated for a teacher, my position awakened little interest, and few hearts, if any, warmed toward me. Meanwhile, my breast was filled with but one thought, one absorbing wish. I longed to love passionately, and be passionately loved in return. Had I found a mate — but I never did. I was not destined for any such happiness.
“Years passed. I was a woman, but neither my happiness nor my self-confidence had kept pace with my growth. Girls who once passed me with a bare nod now stopped to stare, sometimes to whisper comments behind my back. I did not understand this change, and withdrew more and more into myself and the fairy-land made for me by books. Romance was my life, and I had fallen into the dangerous habit of brooding over the pleasures and excitements which would have been mine had I been born beautiful and wealthy, when my aunt suddenly visited the school, saw me, and at once took me away and placed me in the most fashionable school in New York City. From there I was launched, without any word of motherly counsel, into the gay society you know so well. Almost with my coming out I found the world at my feet, and though my aunt showed me no love, she evinced a certain pride in my success, and cast about to procure for me a great match. Mr. Sinclair was the victim. He visited me, took me to theatres, and eventually proposed. My aunt was in ecstasies. I, who felt helpless before her will, was glad that the husband she had chosen for me was at least a gentleman, and, to all appearances, respectable in his living and nice in his tastes. But he was not the man I had dwelt on in my dreams; and while I accepted him (it was not possible to do anything else, with my aunt controlling every action, if not every thought), I cared so little for Mr. Sinclair himself that I forgot to ask if his many attentions were the result of any real feeling on his part, or only such as he considered due to the woman he expected to make his wife. You see what girls are. How I despise myself now for this miserable frivolity!
“All this time I knew that I was not my aunt’s only niece; that Dorothy Camerden, whom I had never met, was as closely related to her as myself. True to her heartless code, my aunt had placed us in separate schools, and not till she found that I was to leave her, and that soon there would be nobody to see that her dresses were bought with discretion, and her person attended to with something like care, did she send for Dorothy. I shall never forget my first impression of her. I had been told that I need not expect much in the way of beauty and style, but from my first glimpse of her dear face I saw that my soul’s friend had come, and that, marriage or no marriage, I need never be solitary again.
“I do not think I made as favourable an impression on my cousin as she did on me. Dorothy was new to elaborate dressing and to all the follies of fashionable life, and her look had more of awe than expectation in it. But I gave her a hearty kiss, and in a week she was as brilliantly equipped as myself.
“I loved her, but, from blindness of eye or an overwhelming egotism which God has certainly punished, I did not consider her beautiful. This I must acknowledge to you, if only to complete my humiliation. I never imagined for a moment, even after I became the daily witness of your many attentions to her, that it was on her account you visited the house so often. I had been so petted and spoiled since entering society that I thought you were kind to her simply because honour forbade you to be too kind to me; and under this delusion I confided my folly to Dorothy.
“You will have many a talk with her in the future, and some day she may succeed in proving to you that it was vanity and not badness of heart which led me to misunderstand your feelings. Having repressed my own impulses so long, I saw in your reticence the evidences of a like struggle; and when, immediately upon my break with Mr. Sinclair, you entered here and said the words you did —— Well, we have finished with this subject for ever.
“The explanations which I gave below of the part I played in my aunt’s death were true. I only omitted one detail, which you may consider a very important one. The fact which paralysed my hand and voice when I saw her lift the drop of death to her lips was this: I had meant to die by this drop myself, in Dorothy’s room, and with Dorothy’s arms about me. This was my secret — a secret which no one can blame me for keeping as long as I could, and one which I should hardly have the courage to disclose to you now if I had not already parted with it to the coroner, who would not credit my story till I had told him the whole truth.”
“Gilbertine,” I urged, for I saw her fingers closing upon the knob she had held lightly till now, “do not go till I have said this. A young girl does not always know the demands of her own nature. The heart you have ignored is one in a thousand. Do not let it slip from you. God never gives a woman such a love twice.”
“I know it,” she murmured, and turned the knob.
I thought she was gone, and let the sigh which had been labouring at my breast have vent, when I caught one last word whispered from the threshold:
“Throw back the shutters and let in the light. Dorothy is coming. I am going now to call her.”
An hour had passed, the hour of hours for me, for in it the sun of my happiness rose full-orbed, and Dorothy and I came to understand each other. We were sitting hand in hand in this blessed little boudoir, when suddenly she turned her sweet face toward me and gently remarked:
“This seems like selfishness on our part; but Gilbertine insisted. Do you know what she is doing now? Helping old Mrs. Cummings and holding Mrs. Barnstable’s baby while her maid packs. She will work like that all day, and with a smile, too. Oh, it is a rich nature, an ideal nature. I think we can trust her now.”
I did not like to discuss Gilbertine, even with Dorothy, so I said nothing. But she was too full of her theme to stop. I think she wished to unburden her mind once and for ever of all that had disturbed it.
“Our aunt’s death,” she continued, “will be a sort of emancipation for her. I don’t think you, or any one out of our immediate household, can realise the control which Aunt Hannah exerted over every one who came within her daily influence. It would have been the same had she occupied a dependent position instead of being the wealthy autocrat she was. In her cold nature dwelt an imperiousness which no one could withstand. You know how her friends, some of them as rich and influential as herself, bowed to her will and submitted to her interference. What, then, could you expect from two poor girls entirely dependent upon her for everything they enjoyed? Gilbertine, with all her spirit, could not face Aunt Hannah’s frown, while I studied to have no wishes. Had this been otherwise, had we found a friend instead of a tyrant in the woman who took us into her home, Gilbertine might have gained more control over her feelings. It was the necessity she felt of smothering her natural impulses, and of maintaining in the house and before the world an appearance of satisfaction in her position as bride-elect, which caused her to fall into such extremes of despondency and deep despair. Her self-respect was shocked. She felt she was a living lie, and hated herself in consequence.
“You may think I did wrong not to tell her of your affection for myself, especially after what you whispered into my ear that night at the theatre. I did do wrong; I see it now. She was really a stronger woman than I thought, and we might all have been saved the horrors which have befallen us had I acted with more firmness at that time. But I was weak and frightened. I held you back and let her go on deceiving herself, which meant deceiving Mr. Sinclair, too. I thought, when she found herself really married and settled in her own home, she would find it easier to forget, and that soon, perhaps very soon, all this would seem like a troubled dream to her. And there was reason for this hope on my part. She showed a woman’s natural interest in her outfit and the plans for her new house, but when she heard you were to be Mr. Sinclair’s best man every feminine instinct within her rebelled, and it was with difficulty she could prevent herself from breaking out into a loud ‘No!’ in face of aunt and lover. From this moment on her state of mind grew desperate. In the parlour, at the theatre, she was the brilliant girl whom all admired and many envied; but in my little room at night she would bury her face in my lap and talk of death, till I moved in a constant atmosphere of dread. Yet, because she looked gay and laughed, I turned a like face to the world and laughed also. We felt it was expected of us, and the very nervous tension we were under made these ebullitions easy. But I did not laugh so much after coming here. One night I found her out of her bed long after every one else had retired for the night. Next morning Mr. Beaton told a dream — I hope it was a dream — but it frightened me. Then came that moment when Mr. Sinclair displayed the amethyst box and explained with such a nonchalant air how a drop from the little flask inside would kill a person. A toy, but so deadly! I felt the thrill which shot like lightning through her, and made up my mind she should never have the opportunity of touching that box. And that is why I stole into the library, took it down and hid it in my hair. I never thought to look inside; I did not pause to think that it was the flask and not the box she wanted, and consequently felt convinced of her safety so long as I kept the latter successfully concealed in my hair. You know the rest.”
Yes, I knew it. How she opened the box in her room and found it empty. How she flew to Gilbertine’s room, and, finding the door unlocked, looked in, and saw Miss Lane lying there asleep, but no Gilbertine. How her alarm grew at this, and how, forgetting that her cousin often stole to her room by means of the connecting balcony, she had wandered over the house in the hope of coming upon Gilbertine in one of the downstairs rooms. How her mind misgave her before she had entered the great hall, and how she turned back only to hear that awful scream go up as she was setting foot upon the spiral stair. I had heard it all before, and could imagine her terror and dismay; and why she found it impossible to proceed any further, but clung to the stair-rail, half alive and half dead, till she was found there by those seeking her, and taken up to her aunt’s room. But she never told me, and I do not yet know, what her thoughts or feelings were when, instead of seeing her cousin outstretched in death on the bed they led her to, she beheld the lifeless figure of her aunt. The reserve she maintained on this point has always been respected by me. Let it continue to be so.
When, therefore, she said, “You know the rest,” I took her in my arms and gave her my first kiss. Then I softly released her, and by tacit consent we each went our way for that day.
Mine took me into the hall below, which was all alive with the hum of departing guests. Beaton was among them, and as he stepped out on the porch I gave him a parting hand-clasp, and quietly whispered:
“When all dark things are made light, you will find that there was both more and less to your dream than you were inclined to make out.”
He bowed, and that was the last word which ever passed between us on this topic.
But what chiefly impressed me in connection with this afternoon’s events was the short talk I had with Sinclair. I fear I forced this talk, but I could not let the dreary day settle into still drearier night without making clear to him a point which, in the new position he held toward Gilbertine, if not toward myself, might seem to be involved in some doubt. When, therefore, the opportunity came, I accosted him with these words:
“It is not a very propitious time for me to intrude my personal affairs upon you, but I feel as if I should like you to know that the clouds have been cleared away between Dorothy and myself, and that some day we expect to marry.”
He gave me the earnest look of a man who has recovered his one friend. Then he grasped my hand warmly, saying, with something like his old fervour:
“You deserve all the happiness that awaits you. Mine is gone; but if I can regain it I will. Trust me for that, Worthington.”
The coroner, who had seen much of life and human nature, managed with much discretion the inquest he felt bound to hold. Mrs. Lansing was found to have come to her death by a meddlesome interference with one of her niece’s wedding trinkets; and, as every one acquainted with Mrs. Lansing knew her to be quite capable of such an act of malicious folly, the verdict was duly accepted, and the real heart of this tragedy closed for ever from every human eye.
As we were leaving Newport Sinclair stepped up to me.
“I have reason to know,” said he, “that Mrs. Lansing’s bequests will be a surprise, not only to her nieces, but to the world at large. Let me advise you to announce your engagement before reaching New York.”
I followed his advice, and in a few days understood why it had been given. All the vast property owned by this woman had been left to Dorothy. Gilbertine had been cut off without a cent.
We never knew Mrs. Lansing’s reason for this act. Gilbertine had always been considered her favourite, and, had the will been a late one, it would have been generally thought that she had left her thus unprovided for solely in consideration of the great match which she expected her to make. But the will was dated back several years — long before Gilbertine had met Mr. Sinclair, long before either niece had come to live with Mrs. Lansing in New York. Had it always been the latter’s wish, then, to enrich the one and slight the other? It would seem so; but why should the slighted one have been Gilbertine?
The only explanation I ever heard given was the partiality which Mrs. Lansing felt for Dorothy’s mother, or, rather, her lack of affection for Gilbertine’s. Whether or not this is the true one, the discrimination she showed in her will put poor Gilbertine in a very unfortunate position. At least, it would have done so if Sinclair, with an adroitness worthy of his love, had not proved to her that a break at this time in their supposed relations would reflect most seriously upon his disinterestedness, and thus secured for himself opportunities for urging his suit which ended, as such opportunities often do, in a renewal of their engagement. But this time with mutual love as its basis. This was evident to any one who saw them together. But how the magic was wrought — how this hard-to-be-won heart learned at last its true allegiance I did not know till later, and then it was told me by Gilbertine herself.
I had been married for some months and she for some weeks, when one evening chance threw us together. Instantly, and as if she had waited for this hour, she turned upon me with the beautiful smile which has been hers ever since her new happiness came to her, and said:
“You once gave me some very good advice, Mr. Worthington; but it was not that which led me to realise Mr. Sinclair’s affection. It was a short conversation which passed between us on the day my aunt’s will was read. Do you remember my turning to speak to him the moment after that word all fell from the lawyer’s lips?”
“Yes, Mrs. Sinclair.”
Alas! did I not! It was one of the most poignant memories of my life. The look she gave him and the look he gave her! Indeed, I did remember.
“It was to ask him one question — a question to which misfortune only could have given so much weight. Had my aunt taken him into her confidence? Had he known that I had no place in her will? His answer was very simple; a single word, ‘Always.’ But after that do I need to say why I am a wife — why I am his wife?”
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Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50