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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
It was the night before the wedding. Though Sinclair, and not myself, was the happy man, I had my own causes for excitement, and, finding the heat of the billiard-room insupportable, I sought the veranda for a solitary smoke in sight of the ocean and a full moon.
I was in a condition of rapturous, if unreasoning, delight. That afternoon a little hand had lingered in mine for just an instant longer than the circumstances of the moment strictly required; and small as the favour may seem to those who do not know Dorothy Camerden, to me, who realised fully both her delicacy and pride, it was a sign that my long, if secret, devotion was about to be rewarded, and that at last I was free to cherish hopes whose alternative had once bid fair to wreck the happiness of my life.
I was revelling in the felicity of these anticipations, and contrasting this hour of ardent hope with others of whose dissatisfaction and gloom I was yet mindful, when a sudden shadow fell across the broad band of light issuing from the library window, and Sinclair stepped out.
He had the appearance of being disturbed — very much disturbed, I thought, for a man on the point of marrying the woman for whom he professed to entertain the one profound passion of his life; but remembering his frequent causes of annoyance — causes quite apart from his bride and her personal attributes — I kept on placidly smoking till I felt his hand on my shoulder, and turned to see that the moment was a serious one.
“I have something to say to you,” he whispered. “Come where we shall run less risk of being disturbed.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked, facing him with curiosity, if not with alarm. “I never saw you look like this before. Has the old lady taken this last minute to ——”
“Hush!” he prayed, emphasising the word with a curt gesture not to be mistaken. “The little room over the west porch is empty just now. Follow me there.”
With a sigh for the cigar I had so lately lighted, I tossed it into the bushes and sauntered in after him. I thought I understood his trouble. The prospective bride was young — a mere slip of a girl indeed — bright, beautiful, and proud, yet with odd little restraints in her manner and language, due probably to her peculiar bringing up, and the surprise, not yet overcome, of finding herself, after an isolated, if not despised, childhood, the idol of society and the recipient of general homage. The fault was not with her. But she had for guardian (alas! my dear girl had the same) an aunt who was a gorgon. This aunt must have been making herself disagreeable to the prospective bridegroom, and he, being quick to take offence — quicker than myself, it was said — had probably retorted in a way to make things unpleasant. As he was a guest in the house, he and all the other members of the bridal party — Mrs. Armstrong having insisted upon opening her magnificent Newport villa for this wedding and its attendant festivities — the matter might well look black to him. Yet I did not feel disposed to take much interest in it, even though his case might be mine some day, with all its accompanying drawbacks.
But once confronted with Sinclair in the well-lighted room above, I perceived that I had better drop all selfish regrets and give my full attention to what he had to say. For his eye, which had flashed with an unusual light at dinner, was clouded now; and his manner, when he strove to speak, betrayed a nervousness I had considered foreign to his nature ever since the day I had seen him rein in his horse so calmly on the extreme edge of a precipice, where a fall would have meant certain death, not only to himself, but also to the two riders who unwittingly were pressing closely behind him.
“Walter,” he faltered, “something has happened — something dreadful, something unprecedented! You may think me a fool — God knows, I would be glad to be proved so! — but this thing has frightened me. I”— he paused and pulled himself together —“I will tell you about it, then you can judge for yourself. I am in no condition ——”
“Don’t beat about the bush! Speak up! What’s the matter?”
He gave me an odd look full of gloom — a look I felt the force of, though I could not interpret it; then, coming closer, though there was no one within hearing — possibly no one any nearer than the drawing-room below — he whispered in my ear:
“I have lost a little vial of the deadliest drug ever compounded — a Venetian curiosity, which I was foolish enough to take out and show the ladies, because the little box which holds it is such an exquisite example of jeweller’s work. There’s death in its taste, almost in its smell; and it’s out of my hands, and ——”
“Well, I’ll tell you how to fix that up,” I put in with my usual frank decision. “Order the music stopped; call everybody into the drawing-room, and explain the dangerous nature of this toy. After which, if anything happens, it will not be your fault, but that of the person who has so thoughtlessly appropriated it.”
His eyes, which had been resting eagerly on mine, shifted aside in visible embarrassment.
“Impossible! It would only aggravate matters, or, rather, would not relieve my fears at all. The person who took it knew its nature very well, and that person ——”
“Oh, then you know who took it!” I broke in in increasing astonishment. “I thought from your manner that ——”
“No,” he moodily corrected, “I do not know who took it. If I did, I should not be here. That is, I do not know the exact person. Only ——” Here he again eyed me with his former singular intentness, and, observing that I was nettled, made a fresh beginning. “When I came here I brought with me a case of rarities chosen from my various collections. In looking over them preparatory to making a present to Gilbertine, I came across the little box I have just mentioned. It is made of a single amethyst, and contains — or so I was assured when I bought it — a tiny flask of old but very deadly poison. How it came to be included with the other precious and beautiful articles I had picked out for her cadeau I cannot say. But there it was; and conceiving that the sight of it would please the ladies, I carried it down into the library, and in an evil hour called three or four of those about me to inspect it. This was while you boys were in the billiard-room, so the ladies could give their entire attention to the little box, which is certainly worth the most careful scrutiny.
“I was holding it out on the palm of my hand, where it burned with a purple light which made more than one feminine eye glitter, when somebody inquired to what use so small and yet so rich a receptacle could be put. The question was such a natural one I never thought of evading it; besides, I enjoy the fearsome delight which women take in the marvellous. Expecting no greater result than lifted eyebrows or flushed cheeks, I answered by pressing a little spring in the filigree-work surrounding the gem. Instantly the tiniest of lids flew back, revealing a crystal flask of such minute proportions that the usual astonishment followed its disclosure.
“‘You see!’ I cried, ‘it was made to hold that!’ And moving my hand to and fro under the gas jet, I caused to shine in their eyes the single drop of yellow liquid it still held. ‘Poison!’ I impressively announced. ‘This trinket may have adorned the bosom of a Borgia or flashed from the arm of some great Venetian lady as she flourished her fan between her embittered heart and the object of her wrath or jealousy.’
“The first sentence had come naturally, but the last was spoken at random, and almost unconsciously. For at the utterance of the word ‘poison’ a quickly suppressed cry had escaped the lips of some one behind me, which, while faint enough to elude the attention of any ear less sensitive than my own, contained such an astonishing, if involuntary, note of self-betrayal that my mind grew numb with horror, and I stood staring at the fearful toy which had called up such a revelation of — what? That is what I am here to ask, first of myself, then of you. For the two women pressing behind me were ——”
“Who?” I sharply demanded, partaking in some indefinable way of his excitement and alarm.
“Gilbertine Murray and Dorothy Camerden!”— his prospective bride and the woman I loved and whom he knew I loved, though I had kept my secret quite successfully from every one else!
The look we exchanged neither of us will ever forget.
“Describe the sound,” I presently said.
“I cannot,” he replied. “I can only give you my impression of it. You, like myself, fought in more than one skirmish in the Cuban War. Did you ever hear the cry made by a wounded man when the cup of cool water for which he has long agonised is brought suddenly before his eyes? Such a sound, with all that goes to make it eloquent, did I hear from one of the two girls who leaned over my shoulder. Can you understand this amazing, this unheard-of circumstance? Can you name the woman — can you name the grief capable of making either of these seemingly happy and innocent girls hail the sight of such a doubtful panacea, with an unconscious ebullition of joy? You would clear my wedding-eve of a great dread if you could, for if this expression of concealed misery came from Gilbertine ——”
“Do you mean,” I cried in vehement protest, “that you really are in doubt as to which of these two women uttered the cry which so startled you? That you positively cannot tell whether it was Gilbertine or — or ——”
“I cannot; as God lives, I cannot! I was too dazed, too confounded by the unexpected circumstance, to turn at once, and when I did, it was to see both pairs of eyes shining, and both faces dimpling with real or affected gaiety. Indeed, if the matter had stopped there, I should have thought myself the victim of some monstrous delusion; but when, a half-hour later, I found this box missing from the cabinet where I had hastily thrust it at the peremptory summons of our hostess, I knew that I had not misunderstood the nature of the cry I had heard; that it was indeed one of secret longing, and that the hand had simply taken what the heart desired. If a death occurs in this house to-night ——”
“Sinclair, you are mad!” I exclaimed with great violence. No lesser word would fit either the intensity of my feeling or the confused state of my mind. “Death here! where all are so happy! Remember your bride’s ingenuous face! Remember the candid expression of Dorothy’s eye — her smile, her noble ways! You exaggerate the situation. You neither understand aright the simple expression of surprise you heard, nor the feminine frolic which led these girls to carry off this romantic specimen of Italian deviltry.”
“You are losing time,” was his simple comment. “Every minute we allow to pass in inaction only brings the danger nearer.”
“What! You imagine ——”
“I imagine nothing. I simply know that one of these girls has in her possession the means of terminating life in an instant; that the girl so having it is not happy; and that if anything happens to-night it will be because we rested supine in the face of a very real and possible danger. Now, as Gilbertine has never given me reason to doubt either her affection for myself or her satisfaction in our approaching union, I have allowed myself ——”
“To think that the object of your fears is Dorothy,” I finished, with a laugh I vainly strove to make sarcastic.
He did not answer, and I stood battling with a dread I could neither conceal nor avow. For, preposterous as his idea was, reason told me that he had some grounds for his doubt.
Dorothy, unlike Gilbertine Murray, was not to be read at a glance, and her trouble — for she certainly had a trouble — was not one she chose to share with any one, even with me. I had flattered myself in days gone by that I understood it well enough, and that any lack of sincerity I might observe in her could be easily explained by the position of dependence she held toward an irascible aunt. But now that I forced myself to consider the matter carefully, I could not but ask if the varying moods by which I had found myself secretly harrowed had not sprung from a very different cause — a cause for which my persistent love was more to blame than the temper of her relative. The aversion she had once shown to my attentions had yielded long ago to a shy but seemingly sincere appreciation of them, and gleams of what I was fain to call real feeling had shown themselves now and then in her softened manner, culminating to-day in that soft pressure of my hand which had awakened my hopes and made me forget all the doubts and caprices of a disturbing courtship.
But, had I interpreted that strong, nervous pressure aright? Had it necessarily meant love? Might it not have sprung from a sudden desperate resolution to accept a devotion which offered her a way out of difficulties especially galling to one of her gentle but lofty spirit? Her expression when she caught my look of joy had little of the demure tenderness of a maiden blushing at her first involuntary avowal. There was shrinking in it, but it was the shrinking of a frightened woman, not of an abashed girl; and when I strove to follow her, the gesture with which she waved me back had that in it which would have alarmed a more exacting lover. Had I mistaken my darling’s feelings? Was her heart still cold, her affection unwon? Or — thought insupportable! — had she secretly yielded to another what she had so long denied me, and ——?
“Ah!” quoth Sinclair at this juncture, “I see that I have roused you at last.” And unconsciously his tone grew lighter and his eye lost the strained look which had made it the eye of a stranger. “You begin to see that a question of the most serious import is before us, and that this question must be answered before we separate for the night.”
“I do,” said I.
His relief was evident.
“Then, so much is gained. The next point is, how are we to settle our doubts? We cannot approach either of these ladies with questions. A girl wretched enough to contemplate suicide would be especially careful to conceal both her misery and its cause. Neither can we order a search to be made for an object so small that it can be concealed about the person.”
“Yet this jewel must be recovered. Listen, Sinclair. I will have a talk with Dorothy, you with Gilbertine. A kind talk, mind you! one that will soothe, not frighten. If a secret lurks in either breast, our tenderness should find it out. Only, as you love me, promise to show me the same frankness I here promise to show you. Dear as Dorothy is to me, I swear to communicate to you the full result of my conversation with her, whatever the cost to myself or even to her.”
“And I will be equally fair as regards Gilbertine. But before we proceed to such extreme measures let us make sure that there is no shorter road to the truth. Some one may have seen which of our two dear girls went back to the library after we all came out of it. That would narrow down our inquiry, and save one of them, at least, from unnecessary disturbance.”
It was a happy thought, and I told him so, but at the same time bade him look in the glass and see how impossible it would be for him to venture below without creating an alarm which might precipitate the dread event we both feared.
He replied by drawing me to his side before the mirror and pointing to my own face. It was as pale as his own.
Most disagreeably impressed by this self-betrayal, I coloured deeply under Sinclair’s eye, and was but little, if any, relieved when I noticed that he coloured under mine. For his feelings were no enigma to me. Naturally, he was glad to discover that I shared his apprehensions, since it gave him leave to hope that the blow he so dreaded was not necessarily directed toward his own affections. Yet, being a generous fellow, he blushed to be detected in his egotism, while I— well, I own that at that moment I should have felt a very unmixed joy at being assured that the foundations of my own love were secure, and that the tiny flask Sinclair had missed had not been taken by the hand of her upon whom I depended for all my earthly happiness.
And my wedding-day was as yet a vague and distant hope, while his was set for the morrow.
“We must carry downstairs very different faces from these,” he remarked, “or we shall be stopped before we reach the library.”
I made an effort at composure, so did he; and both being determined men, we soon found ourselves in a condition to descend among our friends without attracting any closer attention than was naturally due to him as prospective bridegroom and to myself as best man.
Mrs. Armstrong, our hostess, was fond of gaiety, and amusements were never lacking. As we stepped down into the great hall we heard music in the drawing-room, and saw that a dance was in progress.
“That is good,” observed Sinclair. “We shall run less risk of finding the library occupied.”
“Shall I not look and see where the girls are? It would be a great relief to find them both among the dancers.”
“Yes,” said he; “but don’t allow yourself to be inveigled into joining them. I could not stand the suspense.”
I nodded, and slipped toward the drawing-room. He remained in the bay-window overlooking the terrace.
A rush of young people greeted me as soon as I showed myself. But I was able to elude them, and catch the one full glimpse I wanted of the great room beyond. It was a magnificent apartment, and so brilliantly lighted that every nook stood revealed. On a divan near the centre was a lady conversing with two gentlemen. Her back was toward me, but I had no difficulty in recognising Miss Murray. Some distance from her, but with her face also turned away, stood Dorothy. She was talking with an unmarried friend, and appeared quite at ease and more than usually cheerful.
Relieved, yet sorry that I had not succeeded in catching a glimpse of their faces, I hastened back to Sinclair, who was watching me with furtive eyes from between the curtains of the window in which he had secreted himself. As I joined him a young man, who was to act as usher, sauntered from behind one of the great pillars forming a colonnade down the hall, and, crossing to where the music-room door stood invitingly open, disappeared behind it with the air of a man perfectly contented with his surroundings.
With a nervous grip Sinclair seized me by the arm.
“Was that Beaton?” he asked.
“Certainly; didn’t you recognise him?”
He gave me a very strange look.
“Does the sight of him recall anything?”
“You were at the breakfast-table yesterday morning?”
“Do you remember the dream he related for the delectation of such as would listen?”
Then it was my turn to go white.
“You don’t mean ——” I began.
“I thought at the time that it sounded more like a veritable adventure than a dream; now I am sure that it was such.”
“Sinclair! You do not mean that the young girl he professed himself to have surprised one moonlit night standing on the verge of the cliff, with arms upstretched and a distracted air, was a real person?”
“I do. We laughed at the time; he made it seem so tragic and preposterous. I do not feel like laughing now.”
I gazed at Sinclair in horror. The music was throbbing in our ears, and the murmur of gay voices and swiftly-moving feet suggested nothing but joy and hilarity. Which was the dream? This scene of seeming mirth and happy promise, or the fancies he had conjured up to rob us both of peace?
“Beaton mentioned no names,” I stubbornly protested. “He did not even call the vision he encountered a woman. It was a wraith, you remember, a dream-maiden, a creature of his own imagination, born of some tragedy he had read.”
“Beaton is a gentleman,” was Sinclair’s cold reply. “He did not wish to injure, but to warn the woman for whose benefit he told his tale.”
“He doubtless reasoned in this way: If he could make this young and probably sensitive girl realise that she had been seen and her intentions recognised, she would beware of such attempts in the future. He is a kind-hearted fellow. Did you notice which end of the table he ignored when relating this dramatic episode?”
“If you had we might be better able to judge where his thoughts were. Probably you cannot even tell how the ladies took it?”
“No, I never thought of looking. Good God, Sinclair, don’t let us harrow up ourselves unnecessarily! I saw them both a moment ago, and nothing in their manner showed that anything was amiss with either of them.”
For answer he drew me toward the library.
This room was not frequented by the young people at night. There were two or three elderly people in the party, notably the husband and the brother of the lady of the house, and to their use the room was more or less given up after nightfall. Sinclair wished to show me the cabinet where the box had been.
There was a fire in the grate, for the evenings were now more or less chilly. When the door had closed behind us we found that this fire supplied all the light there was in the room. Both gas jets had been put out, and the rich yet homelike room glowed with ruddy hues, interspersed with great shadows. A solitary scene, yet an enticing one.
Sinclair drew a deep breath. “Mr. Armstrong must have gone elsewhere to read the evening papers,” he remarked.
I replied by casting a scrutinising look into the corners. I dreaded finding a pair of lovers hid somewhere in the many nooks made by the jutting bookcases. But I saw no one. However, at the other end of the large room there stood a screen near one of the many lounges, and I was on the point of approaching this place of concealment when Sinclair drew me toward a tall cabinet upon whose glass doors the firelight was shimmering, and, pointing to a shelf far above our heads, cried:
“No woman could reach that unaided. Gilbertine is tall, but not tall enough for that. I purposely put it high.”
I looked about for a stool. There was one just behind Sinclair. I drew his attention to it.
He flushed and gave it a kick, then shivered slightly and sat down in a chair nearby. I knew what he was thinking. Gilbertine was taller than Dorothy. This stool might have served Gilbertine, if not Dorothy.
I felt a great sympathy for him. After all, his case was more serious than mine. The Bishop was coming to marry him the next day.
“Sinclair,” said I, “the stool means nothing. Dorothy has more inches than you think. With this under her feet, she could reach the shelf by standing tiptoe. Besides, there are the chairs.”
“True, true!” and he started up; “there are the chairs! I forgot the chairs. I fear my wits have gone wool-gathering. We shall have to take others into our confidence.” Here his voice fell to a whisper. “Somehow or by some means we must find out if either of them was seen to come into this room.”
“Leave that to me,” said I. “Remember that a word might raise suspicion, and that in a case like this —— Halloa, what’s that?”
A gentle snore had come from behind the screen.
“We are not alone,” I whispered. “Some one is over there on the lounge.”
Sinclair had already bounded across the room. I pressed hurriedly behind him, and together we rounded the screen and came upon the recumbent figure of Mr. Armstrong, asleep on the lounge, with his paper fallen from his hand.
“That accounts for the lights being turned out,” grumbled Sinclair. “Dutton must have done it.”
Dutton was the butler.
I stood contemplating the sleeping figure before me.
“He must have been lying here for some time,” I muttered.
“Probably some little while before he slept,” I pursued. “I have often heard that he dotes on the firelight.”
“I have a notion to wake him,” suggested Sinclair.
“It will not be necessary,” said I, drawing back, as the heavy figure stirred, breathed heavily, and finally sat up.
“I beg pardon,” I now entreated, backing politely away. “We thought the room empty.”
Mr. Armstrong, who, if slow to receive impressions, is far from lacking intelligence, eyed us with sleepy indifference for a moment, then rose ponderously to his feet, and was on the instant the man of manner and unfailing courtesy we had ever found him.
“What can I do to oblige you?” he asked, his smooth, if hesitating, tones sounding strange to our excited ears.
I made haste to forestall Sinclair, who was racking his brains for words with which to propound the question he dared not put too boldly.
“Pardon me, Mr. Armstrong, we were looking about for a small pin dropped by Miss Camerden.” (How hard it was for me to use her name in this connection only my own heart knew.) “She was in here just now, was she not?”
The courteous gentleman bowed, hemmed, and smiled a very polite but unmeaning smile. Evidently he had not the remotest notion whether she had been in or not.
“I am sorry, but I am afraid I lost myself for a moment on that lounge,” he admitted. “The firelight always makes me sleepy. But if I can help you,” he cried, starting forward, but almost immediately pausing again and giving us rather a curious look. “Some one was in the room. I remember it now. It was just before the warmth and glow of the fire became too much for me. I cannot say that it was Miss Camerden, however. I thought it was some one of quicker movement. She made quite a rattle with the chairs.”
I purposely did not look back at Sinclair.
“Miss Murray?” I suggested.
Mr. Armstrong made one of his low, old-fashioned bows. This, I doubt not, was out of deference to the bride-to-be.
“Does Miss Murray wear white to-night?”
“Yes,” muttered Sinclair, coming hastily forward.
“Then it may have been she, for as I lay there deciding whether or not to yield to the agreeable somnolence I felt creeping over me, I caught a glimpse of the lady’s skirt as she passed out. And that skirt was white — white silk I suppose you call it. It looked very pretty in the firelight.”
Sinclair, turning on his heel, stalked in a dazed way toward the door. To cover this show of abruptness, which was quite unusual on his part, I made the effort of my life, and, remarking lightly, “She must have been here looking for the pin her friend has lost,” I launched forth into an impromptu dissertation on one of the subjects I knew to be dear to the heart of the bookworm before me — and kept it up, too, till I saw by his brightening eye and suddenly freed manner that he had forgotten the insignificant episode of a minute ago, never in all probability to recall it again. Then I made another effort, and released myself with something like deftness from the long-drawn-out argument I saw impending, and making for the door in my turn, glanced about for Sinclair. So far as I was concerned the question as to who had taken the box from the library was settled.
It was now half-past eight. I made my way from room to room and from group to group looking for Sinclair. At last I returned to my old post near the library door, and was instantly rewarded by the sight of his figure approaching from a small side-passage in company with the butler, Dutton. His face, as he stepped into the full light of the open hall, showed discomposure, but not the extreme distress I had anticipated. Somehow, at sight of it, I found myself seeking the shadow just as he had done a short time before, and it was in one of the recesses made by a row of bay-trees that we came face to face.
He gave me one look, then his eyes dropped.
“Miss Camerden has lost a pin from her hair,” he impressively explained to me. Then, turning to Dutton, he nonchalantly remarked: “It must be somewhere in this hall; perhaps you will be good enough to look for it.”
“Certainly,” replied the man. “I thought she had lost something when I saw her come out of the library a little while ago, holding her hand to her hair.”
My heart gave a leap, then sank cold and almost pulseless in my breast. In the hum to which all sounds had sunk, I heard Sinclair’s voice rise again in the question with which my own mind was full.
“When was that? After Mr. Armstrong went into the room, or before?”
“Oh, after he fell asleep. I had just come from putting out the gas when I saw Miss Camerden slip in and almost immediately come out again. I will search for the pin very carefully, sir.”
So Mr. Armstrong had made a mistake! It was Dorothy, and not Gilbertine, whom he had seen leaving the room. I braced myself up and met Sinclair’s eye.
“Dorothy’s dress is grey to-night; but Mr. Armstrong’s eye may not be very good for colours.”
“It is possible that both were in the room,” was Sinclair’s reply. But I could see that he advanced this theory solely out of consideration for me; that he did not really believe it. “At all events,” he went on, “we cannot prove anything this way; we must revert to our original idea. I wonder if Gilbertine will give me the chance to speak to her.”
“You will have an easier task than I,” was my half-sullen retort. “If Dorothy perceives that I wish to approach her, she has but to lift her eyes to any of the half-dozen fellows here, and the thing becomes impossible.”
“There is to be a rehearsal of the ceremony at half-past ten. I might get a word in then; only, this matter must be settled first. I could never go through the farce of standing up before you all at Gilbertine’s side, with such a doubt as this in my mind.”
“You will see her before then. Insist on a moment’s talk. If she refuses ——”
“Hush!” he here put in. “We part now to meet in this same place again at ten. Do I look fit to enter among the dancers? I see a whole group of them coming for me.”
“You will be in another moment. Approaching matrimony has made you sober, that’s all.”
It was some time before I had the opportunity, even if I had the courage, to look Dorothy in the face. When the moment came she was flushed with dancing and looked beautiful. Ordinarily she was a little pale, but not even Gilbertine, with her sumptuous colouring, showed a warmer cheek than she, as, resting from the waltz, she leaned against the rose-tinted wall, and let her eyes for the first time rise slowly to where I stood talking mechanically to my partner.
Gentle eyes they were, made for appeal, and eloquent with a subdued heart language. But they were held in check by an infinite discretion. Never have I caught them quite off their guard, and to-night they were wholly unreadable. Yet she was trembling with something more than the fervour of the dance, and the little hand which had touched mine in lingering pressure a few hours before was not quiet for a moment. I could not see it fluttering in and out of the folds of her smoke-coloured dress without a sickening wonder if the little purple box which was the cause of my horror lay somewhere concealed amid the airy puffs and ruffles that rose and fell so rapidly over her heaving breast. Could her eye rest on mine, even in this cold and perfunctory manner, if the drop which could separate us for ever lay concealed over her heart? She knew that I loved her. From the first hour we met in her aunt’s forbidding parlour in Thirty-sixth Street she had recognised my passion, however perfectly I had succeeded in concealing it from others. Inexperienced as she was in those days, she had noted as quickly as any society belle the effect produced upon me by her chill prettiness and her air of meek reserve, under which one felt the heart break; and though she would never openly acknowledge my homage, and frowned down every attempt on my part at lover-like speech or attention, I was as sure that she rated my feelings at their real value as that she was the dearest, yet most incomprehensible, mortal my narrow world contained. When, therefore, I encountered her eyes at the end of the dance, I said to myself:
“She may not love me, but she knows that I love her, and, being a woman of sympathetic instincts, would never meet my eyes with so calm a look if she were meditating an act which must infallibly plunge me into misery.”
Yet I was not satisfied to go away without a word. So, taking the bull by the horns, I excused myself to my partner, and crossed to Dorothy’s side.
“Will you dance the next waltz with me?” I asked.
Her eyes fell from mine directly, and she drew back in a way that suggested flight.
“I shall dance no more to-night,” said she, her hand rising in its nervous fashion to her hair.
I made no appeal. I just watched that hand, whereupon she flushed vividly, and seemed more than ever anxious to escape. At which I spoke again.
“Give me a chance, Dorothy. If you will not dance, come out on the veranda and look at the ocean. It is glorious to-night. I will not keep you long. The lights here trouble my eyes; besides, I am most anxious to ask you ——”
“No, no,” she vehemently objected, very much as if frightened. “I cannot leave the drawing-room — do not ask me! Seek some other partner — do, to-night.”
“You wish it?”
She was panting, eager. I felt my heart sink, and dreaded lest I should betray my feelings.
“You do not honour me, then, with your regard,” I retorted, bowing ceremoniously as I became assured that we were attracting more attention than I considered desirable.
She was silent. Her hand went again to her hair.
I changed my tone. Quietly, but with an emphasis which moved her in spite of herself, I whispered: “If I leave you now, will you tell me to-morrow why you are so peremptory with me to-night?”
With an eagerness which was anything but encouraging, she answered, almost gaily:
“Yes, yes, after all this excitement is over.”
And slipping her hand into that of a friend who was passing, she was soon in the whirl again and dancing — she who had just assured me that she did not mean to dance again that night.
I turned and, hardly conscious of my actions, stumbled from the room. A bevy of young people at once surrounded me. What I said to them I hardly know. I only remember that it was several minutes before I found myself again alone and making for the little room into which Beaton had vanished a half-hour before. It was the one given up to card-playing. Did I expect to find him seated at one of the tables? Possibly; at all events, I approached the doorway, and was about to enter, when a heavy step shook the threshold before me, and I found myself confronted by the advancing figure of an elderly lady, whose portrait it is now time for me to draw. It is no pleasurable task, but one I cannot escape.
Imagine, then, a broad, weighty woman of not much height, with a face whose features were usually forgotten in the impression made by her great cheeks and falling jowls. If the small eyes rested on you, you found them sinister and strange, but if they were turned elsewhere, you asked in what lay the power of the face, and sought in vain amid its long wrinkles and indeterminate lines for the secret of that spiritual and bodily repulsion which the least look into this impassive countenance was calculated to produce. She was a woman of immense means, and an oppressive consciousness of this spoke in every movement of her heavy frame, which always seemed to take up three times as much space as rightfully belonged to any human creature. Add to this that she was seldom seen without a display of diamonds which made her broad bust look like the bejewelled breast of some Eastern idol, and some idea may be formed of this redoubtable woman whom I have hitherto confined myself to speaking of as the gorgon.
The stare she gave me had something venomous and threatening in it. Evidently for the moment I was out of her books, and while I did not understand in what way I had displeased her, for we always had met amicably before, I seized upon this sign of displeasure on her part as explanatory, perhaps, of the curtness and show of contradictory feelings on the part of her dependent niece. Yet why should the old woman frown on me? I had been told more than once that she regarded me with great favour. Had I unwittingly done something to displease her, or had the game of cards she had just left gone against her, ruffling her temper and making it imperative for her to choose some object on which to vent her spite? I entered the room to see. Two men and one woman stood in rather an embarrassed silence about a table on which lay some cards, which had every appearance of having been thrown down by an impatient hand. One of the men was Will Beaton, and it was he who now remarked:
“She has just found out that the young people are enjoying themselves. I wonder upon which of her two unfortunate nieces she will expend her ill-temper to-night.”
“Oh, there’s no question about that,” remarked the lady who stood near him. “Ever since she has had a reasonable prospect of working Gilbertine off her hands, she has devoted herself quite exclusively to her remaining burden. I hear,” she impulsively continued, craning her neck to be sure that the object of her remarks was quite out of earshot, “that the south hall was blue to-day with the talk she gave Dorothy Camerden. No one knows what about, for the girl evidently tries to please her. But some women have more than their own proper share of bile; they must expend it on some one.” And she in turn threw down her cards, which up till now she had held in her hand.
I gave Beaton a look and stepped out on the veranda. In a minute he followed me, and in the corner facing the ocean, where the vines cluster the thickest, we held our conversation.
I began it, with a directness born of my desperation.
“Beaton,” said I, “we have not known each other long, but I recognise a man when I see him, and I am disposed to be frank with you. I am in trouble. My affections are engaged, deeply engaged, in a quarter where I find some mystery. You have helped make it.” (Here a gesture escaped him.) “I allude to the story you related the other morning of the young girl you had seen hanging over the verge of the cliff, with every appearance of intending to throw herself over.”
“It was as a dream I related that,” he gravely remarked.
“That I am aware of. But it was no dream to me, Beaton. I fear I know that young girl; I also fear that I know what drove her into contemplating so rash an act. The conversation just held in the card-room should enlighten you. Beaton, am I wrong?”
The feeling I could not suppress trembled in my tones. He may have been sensitive to it, or he may have been simply good-natured. Whatever the cause, this is what he said in reply:
“It was a dream. Remember that I insist upon its being a dream. But some of its details are very clear in my mind. When I stumbled upon this dream-maiden in the moonlight her face was turned from me toward the ocean, and I did not see her features then or afterwards. Startled by some sound I made, she crouched, drew back, and fled to cover. That cover, I have good reason to believe, was this very house.”
I reached out my hand and touched him on the arm.
“This dream-maiden was a woman?” I inquired. “One of the women now in this house?”
He replied reluctantly:
“She was a young woman, and she wore a long cloak. My dream ends there. I cannot even say whether she was fair or dark.”
I recognised that he had reached the limit of his explanations, and, wringing his hand, I started for the nearest window, which proved to be that of the music-room. I was about to enter when I saw two women crossing to the opposite doorway, and paused with a full heart to note them, for one was Mrs. Lansing and the other Dorothy. The aunt had evidently come for the niece, and they were leaving the room together. Not amicably, however. Harsh words had passed, or I am no judge of the human countenance. Dorothy especially bore herself like one who finds difficulty in restraining herself from some unhappy outburst, and as she disappeared from my sight in the wake of her formidable companion my attention was again called to her hands, which she held clenched at her sides.
I was stepping into the room when my impulse was again checked. Another person was sitting there, a person I had been most anxious to see ever since my last interview with Sinclair. It was Gilbertine Murray, sitting alone in an attitude of deep, and possibly not altogether happy thought.
I paused to study the sweet face. Truly she was a beautiful woman. I had never before realised how beautiful. Her rich colouring, her noble traits, and the spirited air which gave her such marked distinction, bespoke at once an ardent nature and a pure soul.
I did not wonder that Sinclair had succumbed to charms so pronounced and uncommon, and as I gazed longer and noted the tremulous droop of her ripe lips and the far-away look of eyes which had created a great stir in the social world when they first flashed upon it, I felt that if Sinclair could see her now he would never doubt her again, despite the fact that the attitude into which she had fallen was one of great fatigue, if not despondency.
She held a fan in her hand, and as I stood looking at her she dropped it. As she stooped to pick it up her eyes met mine, and a startling change passed over her. Springing up, she held out her hands in wordless appeal, then let them drop again as if conscious that I would not be likely to understand either herself or her mood. She was very beautiful.
Entering the room, I approached her. Had Sinclair managed to have his little conversation with her? Something must have happened, for never had I seen her in such a state of suppressed excitement, and I had seen her many times, both here and in her aunt’s house when I was visiting Dorothy. Her eyes were shining, not with a brilliant, but a soft light, and the smile with which she met my advance had something in it strangely tremulous and expectant.
“I am glad to have a moment in which to speak to you alone,” I said. “As Sinclair’s oldest and closest friend, I wish to tell you how truly you can rely both on his affection and esteem. He has an infinitely good heart.”
She did not answer as brightly and as quickly as I expected. Something seemed to choke her — something which she finally mastered, though only by an effort which left her pale, but self-contained, and even more lovely, if that is possible, than before.
“Thank you,” she then said, “my prospects are very happy. No one but myself knows how happy.”
And she smiled again, but with an expression which recalled to my mind Sinclair’s fears.
I bowed. Some one was calling her name; evidently our interview was to be short.
“I am obliged,” she murmured. Then quickly: “I have not seen the moon to-night. Is it beautiful? Can you see it from this veranda?”
But before I could answer she was surrounded and dragged off by a knot of young people, and I was left free to keep my engagement with Sinclair.
I did not find him at his post, nor could any one tell where he had vanished.
It was plain that his conduct was looked upon as strange, and I felt some anxiety lest it should appear more so before the evening was over. I found him at last in his room, sitting with his head buried in his arms. He started up as I entered.
“Well?” he asked sharply.
“I have learned nothing decisive.”
“I exchanged some words with both ladies and I tackled Beaton; but the matter remains just about where it was. It may have been Dorothy who took the box and it may have been Gilbertine. But there seems to be greater reason for suspecting Dorothy. She lives a terrible life with that aunt.”
“And Gilbertine is on the point of escaping that bondage. I know; I have thought of that. Walter, you are a generous fellow;” and for a moment Sinclair looked relieved. Before I could speak, however, he was sunk again in his old despondency. “But the doubt,” he cried —“the doubt! How can I go through this rehearsal with such a doubt in my mind? I cannot and will not. Go, tell them I am ill, and cannot come down again to-night. God knows you will tell no untruth.”
I saw that he was quite beside himself, but ventured upon one remonstrance.
“It will be unwise to rouse comment,” I said. “If that box was taken for the death it holds, the one restraint most likely to act upon the young girl who retains it will be the conventionalities of her position and the requirements of the hour. Any break in the settled order of things — anything which would give her a moment by herself — might precipitate the dreadful event we fear. Remember, one turn of the hand, and all is lost. A drop is quickly swallowed.”
“Frightful!” he murmured, the perspiration oozing from his forehead. “What a wedding-eve! And they are laughing down there. Listen to them. I even imagine I hear Gilbertine’s voice. Is there unconsciousness in it, or just the hilarity of a distracted mind bent on self-destruction? I cannot tell; the sound conveys no meaning to me.”
“She has a sweet, true face,” I said, “and she wears a very beautiful smile to-night.”
He sprang to his feet.
“Yes, yes — a smile that maddens me; a smile that tells me nothing, nothing! Walter, Walter, don’t you see that, even if that cursed box remains unopened, and nothing ever comes of its theft, the seeds of distrust are sown thick in my breast, and I must always ask: ‘Was there a moment when my young bride shrank from me enough to dream of death?’ That is why I cannot go through the mockery of this rehearsal.”
“Can you go through the ceremony of marriage?”
“I must — if nothing happens to-night.”
I spoke involuntarily. I was thinking not of him, but of myself. But he evidently found in my words an echo of his own thought.
“Yes, it is the then,” he murmured. “Well may a man quail before that then.”
He did go downstairs, however, and later on went through the rehearsal very much as I had expected him to do — quietly and without any outward show of emotion.
As soon as possible after this the company separated, Sinclair making me an imperceptible gesture as he went upstairs. I knew what it meant, and was in his room as soon as the fellows who accompanied him had left him alone.
“The danger is from now on,” he cried, as soon as I had closed the door behind me. “I shall not undress to-night.”
“Happily we both have rooms by ourselves in this great house. I shall put out my light, and then open my door as far as need be. Not a move in the house will escape me.”
“I will do the same.”
“Gilbertine — God be thanked! — is not alone in her room. Little Miss Lane shares it with her.”
“Oh, she is under the strictest bondage night and day. She sleeps in a little room off her aunt’s. Do you know her door?”
I shook my head.
“I will pass down the hall and stop an instant before the two doors we are most interested in. When I pass Gilbertine’s I will throw out my right hand.”
I stood on the threshold of his room and watched him. When the two doors were well fixed in my mind, I went to my own room and prepared for my self-imposed watch. When quite ready, I put out my light. It was then eleven o’clock.
The house was very quiet. There had been the usual bustle attending the separation of a party of laughing, chattering girls for the night; but this had not lasted long, for the great doings of the morrow called for bright eyes and fresh cheeks, and these can only be gained by sleep. In this stillness twelve o’clock struck, and the first hour of my anxious vigil was at an end. I thought of Sinclair. He had given no token of the watch he was keeping, but I knew he was sitting with his ear to the door, listening for the alarm which must come soon if it came at all.
But would it come at all? Were we not wasting strength and a great deal of emotion on a dread which had no foundation in fact? What were we two sensible and, as a rule, practical men thinking of, that we should ascribe to either of these dainty belles of a conventional and shallow society the wish to commit a deed calling for the vigour and daring of some wilful child of nature? It was not to be thought of in this sober, reasoning hour. We had given ourselves over to a ghastly nightmare, and would yet awake.
Why was I on my feet? Had I heard anything?
Yes, a stir, a very faint stir somewhere down the hall — the slow, cautious opening of a door, then a footfall — or had I imagined the latter? I could hear nothing now.
Pushing open my own door, I looked cautiously out. Only the pale face of Sinclair confronted me. He was peering from the corner of an adjacent passage-way, the moonlight at his back. Advancing, we met in silence. For the moment we seemed to be the only persons awake in the vast house.
“I thought I heard a step,” was my cautious whisper after a moment of intense listening.
I pointed toward that portion of the house where the ladies’ rooms were situated.
“That is not what I heard,” was his murmured protest; “what I heard was a creak in the small stairway running down at the end of the hall where my room is.”
“One of the servants,” I ventured, and for a moment we stood irresolute. Then we both turned rigid as some sound arose in one of the far-off rooms, only to quickly relax again as that sound resolved itself into a murmur of muffled voices. Where there was talking there could be no danger of the special event we feared. Our relief was so great we both smiled. Next instant his face, and, I have no doubt, my own, turned the colour of clay, and Sinclair went reeling back against the wall.
A scream had risen in this sleeping house — a piercing and insistent scream such as raises the hair and curdles the blood.
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.”
As he spoke, youth with its brilliant hopes, illusions, and beliefs, passed from me, never to return in the same measure again. I stared at the glimmering amethyst, I stared at the empty vial, and, as a full realisation of all his words implied seized my benumbed faculties, I felt the icy chill of some grisly horror moving among the roots of my hair, lifting it on my forehead and filling my whole being with shrinking and dismay.
Sinclair, with a quick movement, replaced the tiny flask in its old receptacle, and then, thrusting the whole out of sight, seized my hand and wrung it.
“I am your friend,” he whispered. “Remember, under all circumstances and in every exigency, your friend.”
“What are you going to do with those?” I demanded, when I regained control of my speech.
“I do not know.”
“What are you going to do with — with Dorothy?”
He drooped his head; I could see his fingers working in the moonlight.
“The physicians will soon be here. I heard the telephone going a few minutes ago. When they have pronounced the old woman dead we will give the — the lady you mention an opportunity to explain herself.”
Explain herself, she! Simple expectation. Unconsciously I shook my head.
“It is the least we can do,” he gently persisted. “Come, we must not be seen with our heads together — not yet. I am sorry that we two were found more or less dressed at the time of the alarm. It may cause comment.”
“She was dressed, too,” I murmured, as much to myself as to him.
“Unfortunately, yes,” was the muttered reply, with which he drew off and hastened into the hall, where the now thoroughly-aroused household stood in a great group about the excited hostess.
Mrs. Armstrong was not the woman for an emergency. With streaming hair and tightly-clutched kimono, she was gesticulating wildly and bemoaning the break in the festivities which this event must necessarily cause. As Sinclair approached, she turned her tirade on him, and as all stood still to listen and add such words of sympathy or disappointment as suggested themselves in the excitement of the moment, I had an opportunity to note that neither of the two girls most interested was within sight. This troubled me. Drawing up to the outside of the circle, I asked Beaton, who was nearest to me, if he knew how Miss Camerden was.
“Better, I hear. Poor girl! it was a great shock to her.”
I ventured nothing more. The conventionality of his tone was not to be mistaken. Our conversation on the veranda was to be ignored. I did not know whether to feel relief at this or an added distress. I was in a whirl of emotion which robbed me of all discrimination. As I realised my own condition, I concluded that my wisest move would be to withdraw myself for a time from every eye. Accordingly, and at the risk of offending more than one pretty girl who still had something to say concerning this terrible mischance, I slid away to my room, happy to escape the murmurs and snatches of talk rising on every side. One bitter speech, uttered by I do not know whom, rang in my ears and made all thinking unendurable. It was this:
“Poor woman! she was angry once too often. I heard her scolding Dorothy again after she went to her room. That is why Dorothy is so overcome. She says it was the violence of her aunt’s rage which killed her — a rage of which she unfortunately was the cause.”
So there were words again between these two after the door closed upon them for the night! Was this what we heard just before that scream went up? It would seem so. Thereupon, quite against my will, I found myself thinking of Dorothy’s changed position before the world. Only yesterday a dependent slave; to-day, the owner of millions. Gilbertine would have her share — a large one — but there was enough to make them both wealthy. Intolerable thought! Would that no money had been involved! I hated to think of those diamonds and ——
Oh, anything was better than this! Dashing from my room, I joined one of the groups into which the single large circle had now broken up. The house had been lighted from end to end, and some effort had been made at a more respectable appearance by such persons as I now saw; some even were fully dressed. All were engaged in discussing the one great topic. Listening and not listening, I waited for the front-door bell to ring. It sounded while one woman was saying to another:
“The Sinclairs will now be able to take their honeymoon in their own yacht.”
I made my way to where I could watch Sinclair while the physicians were in the room. I thought his face looked very noble. The narrowness of his own escape, the sympathy for me which the event, so much worse than either of us anticipated, had wakened in his generous breast, had called out all that was best in his naturally reserved and not-always-to-be-understood nature. A tower of strength he was to me at that hour. I knew that mercy, and mercy only, would influence his conduct. He would be guilty of no rash or inconsiderate act. He would give this young girl a chance.
Therefore, when the physicians had pronounced the case one of apoplexy (a conclusion most natural under the circumstances), and the excitement which had held together the various groups of uneasy guests had begun to subside, it was with perfect confidence I saw him approach and address Gilbertine. She was standing fully dressed at the stair-head, where she had stopped to hold some conversation with the retiring physicians; and the look she gave him in return, and the way she moved off in obedience to his command or suggestion, assured me that he was laying plans for an interview with Dorothy. Consequently, I was quite ready to obey him when he finally stepped up to me and said:
“Go below, and if you find the library empty, as I have no doubt you will, light one gas jet, and see that the door to the conservatory is unlocked. I require a place in which to make Gilbertine comfortable while I have some words with her cousin.”
“But how will you be able to influence Miss Camerden to come down?” Somehow, the familiar name of Dorothy would not pass my lips. “Do you think she will recognise your right to summon her to an interview?”
I had never seen his lip take that firm line before, yet I had always known him to be a man of great resolution.
“But how can you reach her? She is shut up in her own room, under the care, I am told, of Mrs. Armstrong’s maid.”
“I know; but she will escape that dreadful place as soon as her feet will carry her. I shall wait in the hall till I see her come out; then I will urge her to follow me, and she will do so, attended by Gilbertine.”
“And I? Do you mean me to be present at an interview so painful — nay, so serious and so threatening? It would cut short every word you hope to hear. I— cannot ——”
“I have not asked you to. It is imperative that I should see Miss Camerden alone.” (He could not call her Dorothy, either.) “I shall ask Gilbertine to accompany us, so that appearances may be preserved. I want you to be able to inform any one who approaches the door that you saw me go in there with Miss Murray.”
“Then I am to stay in the hall?”
“If you will be so kind.”
The clock struck three.
“It is very late,” I exclaimed. “Why not wait till morning?”
“And have the whole house about our ears? No. Besides, some things will not keep an hour, a moment. I must hear what this young girl has to say in response to my questions. Remember, I am the owner of the flask whose contents killed the old woman!”
“You believe she died from swallowing that drop?”
I said no more, but hastened downstairs to do his bidding.
I found the lower hall partly lighted, but none of the rooms.
Entering the library, I lit the gas as Sinclair had requested. Then I tried the conservatory door. It was unlocked. Casting a sharp glance around, I made sure that the lounges were all unoccupied, and that I could safely leave Sinclair to hold his contemplated interview without fear of interruption. Then, dreading a premature arrival on his part, I slid quickly out, and moved down the hall to where the light of the one burning jet failed to penetrate. “I will watch from here,” thought I, and entered upon the quick pacing of the floor which my impatience and the overwrought condition of my nerves demanded.
But before I had turned on my steps more than half a dozen times, a brilliant ray coming from some half-open door in the rear caught my eye, and I stepped back to see if any one was sharing my watch. In doing so I came upon the little spiral staircase which, earlier in the evening, Sinclair had heard creak under some unknown footstep. Had this footstep been Dorothy’s, and if so, what had brought her into this remote portion of the house? Fear? Anguish? Remorse? A flying from herself or from it? I wished I knew just where she had been found by the two young persons who had brought her back into her aunt’s room. No one had volunteered the information, and I had not seen the moment when I felt myself in a position to demand it.
Proceeding further, I stood amazed at my own forgetfulness. The light which had attracted my attention came from the room devoted to the display of Miss Murray’s wedding-gifts. This I should have known instantly, having had a hand in their arrangement. But all my faculties were dulled that night, save such as responded to dread and horror. Before going back I paused to look at the detective whose business it was to guard the room. He was sitting very quietly at his post, and if he saw me he did not look up. Strange that I had forgotten this man when keeping my own vigil above. I doubted if Sinclair had remembered him either. Yet he must have been unconsciously sharing our watch from start to finish — must even have heard the cry as only a waking man could hear it. Should I ask him if this was so? No. Perhaps I had not the courage to hear his answer.
Shortly after my return into the main hall I heard steps on the grand staircase. Looking up, I saw the two girls descending, followed by Sinclair. He had been successful, then, in inducing Dorothy to come down. What would be the result? Could I stand the suspense of the impending interview?
As they stepped within the rays of the solitary gas jet already mentioned, I cast one quick look into Gilbertine’s face, then a long one into Dorothy’s. I could read neither. If it was horror and horror only which rendered both so pale and fixed of feature, then their emotion was similar in character and intensity. But if in either breast the one dominant sentiment was fear — horrible, blood-curdling fear — then was that fear confined to Dorothy; for while Gilbertine advanced bravely, Dorothy’s steps lagged, and at the point where she should have turned into the library, she whirled sharply about, and made as if she would fly back upstairs.
But one stare from Gilbertine, one word from Sinclair, recalled her to herself, and she passed in, and the door closed upon the three. I was left to prevent possible intrusion, and to eat out my heart in intolerable suspense.
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.”
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.
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.
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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