My motive in following this young girl was not so much to restore her property, as to see where her engagement was taking her. I felt confident that none of the three persons who had shown interest in the box was the prime mover in an affair so important; and it was necessary above all things to find out who the prime mover was. So I followed the girl.
She led me into a doubtful quarter of the town. As the crowd between us diminished and we reached a point where we were the only pedestrians on the block we were then traversing, I grew anxious lest she should turn and see me before arriving at her destination. But she evidently was without suspicion, for she passed without any hesitation up a certain stoop in the middle of this long block and entered an open door on which a brass plate was to be seen, inscribed with this one word in large black letters:
This was odd; and as I had no inclination to encounter any “madame” without some hint as to her character and business, I looked about me for some one able and willing to give me the necessary information. An upholsterer’s shop in an opposite basement seemed to offer me the opportunity I wanted. Crossing the street, I saluted the honest-looking man I met in the doorway, and pointing out madame’s house, asked what was done over there.
He answered with a smile.
“Go and see,” he said; “the door’s open. Oh, they don’t charge anything,” he made haste to protest, misunderstanding, no doubt, my air of hesitation. “I was in there once myself. They all sit round and she talks; that is, if she feels like it. It is all nonsense, you know, sir; no good in it.”
“But is there any harm?” I asked. “Is the place reputable and safe?”
“Oh, safe enough; I never heard of anything going wrong there. Why, ladies go there; real ladies; veiled, of course. I have seen two carriages at a time standing in front of that door. Fools, to be sure, sir; but honest enough, I suppose.”
I needed no further encouragement. Recross-ing the street, I entered the house which stood so invitingly open, and found myself almost immediately in a large hall, from which I was ushered by a silent negress into a long room with so dim and mysterious an interior that I felt like a man suddenly transported from the bustle of the out-door world into the mystic recesses of some Eastern temple.
The causes of this effect were simple, A dim light suggesting worship; the faint scent of slowly burning incense; women and men sitting on low benches about the walls. In the center, on a kind of raised dais, backed by a drapery of black velvet, a woman was seated, in the semblance of a Hindoo god, so nearly did her heavy, compactly crouched figure, wound about with Eastern stuffs and glistening with gold, recall the images we are accustomed to associate with the worship of Vishnu. Her face, too, so far as it was visible in the subdued light, had the unresponsiveness of carven wood, and if not exactly hideous of feature, had in it a strange and haunting quality calculated to impress a sensitive mind with a sense of implacable fate. Cruel, hard, passionless, and yet threatening to a degree, must this countenance have seemed to those who willingly subjected themselves to its baneful influence.
I was determined not to be one of these, and yet I had not regarded her for two minutes before I found myself forgetting the real purpose of my visit, and taking a seat with the rest, in anticipation of something for which as yet I had no name, even in my own mind.
How long I sat there motionless I do not know. A spell was on me — a spell from which I suddenly roused with a start. Why or through what means I do not know. Nobody else had moved. Fearing a relapse into this trance-like state, I made a persistent effort to be freed from its dangers. Happily the full signification of my errand there burst upon me. Finding myself really awake, I ventured to peer about, expecting to see the more willing devotees affected as I had been. I encountered a flash from the eyes of the young lady whose bag I held in my hand. She was under no spell. She had not only seen but recognized me.
I held the bag towards her. She gave a furtive glance in the direction of Madame — a glance not free from fear — then clutched the bag. Before releasing my hold upon it I ventured upon a word of explanation. I got no further, for at this moment a voice was heard.
By the effect it had upon the expectant ones, I knew it could have emanated only from the idol-like being who had filled the place with her awesome personality.
At first the voice sounded like a distant call, musically sweet and low; the kind of note that we can imagine the Indian snake-charmers to use when the cobra raises its winged head in obedience to the pipe’s resistless charm. Every ear was strained to hear; mine with the rest. So much preparation, so much faith must result in something. What was it to be? The incoherent sounds became more and more distinct, and, finally, took on the articulate form of words. The quiet was deathly. Every one was prepared to interpret her utterances into personal significance. The dread and trouble of the times filling all minds, men wished to be forehanded with the decrees of Providence. Into this brooding silence the low, vibrating tones of this mysterious voice entered, and this is what we heard:
“Doom! doom! For him — the one — the betrayer — the passing bell is tolling. Hear it, ye weak ones and grow strong. Hear it, ye mighty and tremble. Not alone for him will it ring. For ye! for ye! if the decree of the linked rings goes forth ——”
Here there was a perceptible quiver of the drapery back of the dais. Others may not have noted it; I did. When, therefore, a very white hand came slowly from between its folds and placed its fingers upon the right temple of Madame, I was not much startled. What did startle me was the fact let out before that admonishing hand touched her, that this being — I can hardly call her woman — seemingly so far removed from the political agitations of the day, was, in very deed, either consciously or unconsciously — I could not decide which — intimately connected with the conspiracy I was at that very moment striving to defeat. How intimately? Was she the prime mover I was seeking, or simply an instrument under the control of another, and yet stronger, personality imaged in the owner of that white hand?
There was no means of determining at that moment. Meanwhile, the fingers had left the temple of Madame. The hand was slowly withdrawn. Sleep apparently fell again upon the dreamer, but only long enough for her to bring forth the words:
“I have said.”
The silence that followed, gave me time to think. It was necessary. She had bidden the mighty tremble and had pronounced death to one — the betrayer. Was this senseless drivel, prophetic sight, or threatened murder? I inclined to consider it the last, and this was why: For some weeks now, murder, or, at least, sudden death, had been rampant in the country. My flesh crept as I remembered the many mysterious deaths reported within the month from St. Louis, Boston, New Orleans, New York and even here in Baltimore. Like a flash it came across me that every name was identified, more or less closely, with the political affairs of the time. Coupling my knowledge with what I conjectured, was it strange I saw a confirmation of the worst fears expressed by Miss Calhoun in the half-completed sentences of this seeming clairvoyant?
So occupied had I been with my own thoughts that I feared I might have done something to call an undesirable attention to myself. Glancing furtively to one side, I heard, in the opposite direction, these words:
“She has never failed. What she has said will come to pass. Some one of note will die.”
These gloomy words were the first to break the ominous silence. Turning to face the speaker, I encountered the cold eye of a man with a retreating chin, a receding forehead, and a mouth large and cruel enough to stamp him as one of those perverted natures who, to the unscrupulous, are usefully insane.
Here, then, was a being who not only knew the meaning of the fateful words we had heard, but, to my mind, could be relied upon to make them a verity.
It was a relief to me to turn my gaze from his repellant features to the fixed countenance of Madame. She had not stirred; but either the room had grown lighter or my eyes had become more accustomed to the darkness, for I certainly saw a change in her look. Her eyelids were now raised, and her eyes were bent directly upon me. This was uncomfortable, especially as there was malevolence in her glance, or so I thought, and, far from being pleased with my position, I began to wish that I had never allowed myself to enter the place. Under the influence of this feeling I let my eyes drop from the woman’s countenance to her hands, which were folded, as I have said, in a fixed position across her breast. The result was an increase of my mental disturbance. They were brown, shining hands, laden with rings, and, in the added light, under which I saw them, bore a strange resemblance to the bronze hand I had just left in Dr. Merriam’s office.
I had never considered myself a weak man, but, from that instant, I began to have a crawling fear of this woman — a fear that was in nowise lessened by the very evident agitation visible in the girl, who had been for me the connecting link between that object of mystery and this.
Unendurable quiet was upon us all again. It was aggravated by awe — an awe to which I was determined not to succumb, notwithstanding the secret uneasiness under which I was laboring. So I let my eyes continue to roam, till they fell upon the one thing moving in the room. This was a man’s foot, which I now saw projecting from behind the drapery through which I had seen the white hand glide. It was swinging up and down in an impatient way, so out of keeping with the emotions perceptible on this side of the drapery that I felt forced to ask myself what sort of person this could be who thus kept watch and ward with such very commonplace impatience over a creature who was able to hold every other person in her presence under a spell. The drapery did not give up its secrets, and again I yielded to the fascinations of Madame’s face.
There was a change in it; the eyes no longer looked my way, but into space, which seemed to hold for them some terrible and heart-rend-ing vision. The lips, which had been closed, were now parted, and from them issued a breath which soon formed itself into words.
“‘Vengeance is mine! I will repay,’ saith the Lord.” What passionate utterance was this? The voice that had been musical now rang with jangling discord. The swinging of the foot behind the drapery ceased. Madame spoke on:
“Through pain, sorrow, blood and death shall victory come. Life for life, pang for pang, scorn for scorn!”
The swinging foot disappeared, and the small white hand passed quickly through the curtain and rested again upon the forehead of Madame. But without a calming effect this time. On the contrary, it seemed to urge and incite her, for she broke into a new strain, speaking rapidly, wildly, as if she lived in what she saw, or, what was doubtless truer, had lived in it and was but recalling her own past in one of those terrible hours of memory that recur on the border-land of dreams.
“I see a child, a girl. She is young; she is beautiful. Men love her, many men, but she loves only one. He is of the North; she is of the South. He is icy like his clime; she is fiery like her skies. The fire cannot warm the ice. It is the ice puts out the fire! Woe! woe!”
The left hand came from the drapery; found its way to the left temple of the woman. But it, too, was ineffectual. Hurriedly, madly, the words went on, tripping each other up in their haste and passion. The voice now became hoarse with rage.
“The girl is now a woman. A child is given her. The man demands the child. She will not give it up. He curses it; he curses her, but she is firm and holds it to her breast till her arms are blackened by the blows he deals her. Then he curses her country, the land that gave her a heart; and, hearing this, she rises up and curses him and his with an oath the Lord will hear and answer from His judgment throne. For the child was slain between them and its pitiful, small body blocks the passage of Mercy between his and hers forever. Woe! woe!”
As suddenly as the vehement change had come upon her, she had become calm again. The eyes retained their stony stare, but a cold and cruel smile formed about her lips, as if, with the utterance of that last word, she saw a futurity of blood and carnage satisfying her ferocious soul.
It was revolting, horrible; but no one else seemed to feel it as I did. To most it was a short glimpse into a suffering soul. To me it was the revelation of causes which had led, and would lead yet, to miseries for which she had no pity, and which I felt myself too weak to avert.
That it was not intended that the devotees of Madame should have heard these ravings was evident; for at this juncture the owner of the two white hands that had failed to control the spirit of Madame came out from behind the drapery of the dais. He proved to be none other than the man with the bristling mustache whose plans I had disarranged at the doctor’s office by plugging the keyhole of the box with wax.
This was enough. “Chicanery!” was my inmost thought as I noted his cool and calculating eye. “But very dangerous chicanery,” I added. Was the ring upon whose immediate capture I now saw that a life, if not lives, depended, in his possession, or in that of Madame, or in that of the Quaker-like girl sitting a few seats from me? How impossible to tell, and yet how imperative to know! As I was debating how this could be brought about, I watched the man.
Self-control was a habit with him, but I saw the nervous clutch of his delicate hand. This did not indicate complete mastery of himself at that moment. He spoke with care, but as if he were in haste to deliver himself of the few necessary words of dismissal, without betraying his lack of composure.
“Madame will awake presently; she will be heard no more to-day. Those who wish to kiss her robes may pass in front of her; but she is still too far away from earth to hear your voices or to answer any questions. You will therefore preserve silence.”
So! so! more chicanery. Or was it strategy, pure and simple? Was there at the bottom of his words the wish to see me nearer or was he just playing with the credulity of such believers as the man next me, for instance? I did not stop to determine. My anxiety to see Madame, without the illusion of even the short distance between us, induced me to join the file of the faithful who were slowly approaching the seated woman. I would not kiss her robes, but I would look into her eyes and make sure that she was as far away from us all as she was said to be.
But as I drew nearer to her I forgot all about her eyes in the interest awakened by her hands. And when it came my turn to pause before her, it was upon the middle finger of her right hand my eyes were fixed. For there I saw THE RING; the veritable ring of my fair neighbor, if the description given by her was correct.
To see it there was to have it; or so I vowed in my surprise and self-confidence. Putting on an air of great dignity, I bowed to the woman and passed on, resolving upon the course I would pursue, which must necessarily be daring in order to succeed. At the door I paused till all who followed me had passed out; then I turned back, and once again faced Madame.
She was alone. Her watchful guardian had left her side, and to all appearances the room. The opportunity surpassed my expectations, and with a step full of nerve I pushed forward and took my stand again directly in front of her. She gave no token of seeing me; but I did not hesitate on that account. Exerting all my will power, I first subjected her to a long and masterful look, and then I spoke, directly and to the point, like one who felt himself her superior,
“Madame,” said I, “the man you wish for is here. Give me the ring, and trust no more to weak or false emissaries.”
The start with which she came to life, or to the evidence of life, was surprising. Lifting her great lids, she returned my gaze with one equally searching and powerful, and seeing with what disdain I sustained it, allowed an almost imperceptible tremor to pass across her face, which up to now had not displayed the shadow even of an emotion.
“You!” she murmured, in a dove-like tone of voice; “who are you that I should trust you more than the others?”
“I am he you expect,” said I, venturing more as I felt her impassibility giving way before me. “Have you had no premonition of my coming? Did you not know that he who controls would be in your presence to-day?”
She trembled, and her fingers almost unclasped from her arms.
“I have had dreams,” she murmured, “but I have been bidden to beware of dreams. If you are the person you claim to be, you will have some token which will absolve me from the charge of credulity. What is your token?”
Though doubtful, I dared not hesitate. “This,” I said, taking from my pocket the key which had been given me by my fair neighbor.
She moved, she touched it with a finger; then she eyed me again.
“Others have keys,” said she, “but they fail in the opening. How are you better than they?”
“You know,” I declared —“you know that I can do what others have failed in. Give me the ring.”
The force, the assurance with which I uttered this command moved her in spite of herself. She trembled, gave me one final, searching look, and slowly began to pull the ring from off her finger. It was in her hand, and half way to mine, when a third voice came to break the spell.
“Madame, Madame,” it said; “be careful. This is the man who clogged the lock, and hindered my endeavors in your behalf in the doctor’s office.”
Her hand which was so near mine drew back; but I was too quick and too determined for her. I snatched the ring before she could replace it on her own hand, and, holding it firmly, faced the intruder with an air of very well-assumed disdain.
“Attempt no argument with me. It was because I saw your weakness and vulgar self-confidence that I interfered in a matter only to be undertaken by one upon whom all can rely. Now that I have the ring, the end is near. Madame, be wiser in the choice of your confidants, To-morrow this ring will be in its proper place.”
Bowing as I had done before, I advanced to the door. They had made no effort to regain the ring, and I felt that my rashness had stood me in good stead. But as, with a secret elation I was just capable of keeping within bounds, I put my foot across the threshold, I heard behind me a laugh so triumphant and mocking that I felt struck with consternation; and, glancing down into my hand, I saw that I held, not the peculiar steel circlet destined for the piece of mechanism in the doctor’s office, but an ordinary ring of gold.
She had offered me the wrong ring, and I had taken it, thus proving the falsity of my pretensions.
There was nothing left for me but to acknowledge defeat by an ignominious departure.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55