But one resource was left: to warn Mr. S——— of his peril. This was not so easy a task as might appear. To make my story believed, I should be obliged to compromise Miss Calhoun, and Mr. S———‘s well-known chivalry, as far as women are concerned, would make the communication difficult on my part, if not absolutely impossible. I, however, determined to attempt it, though I could not but wish I were an older man, with public repute to back me.
Though there was but little in Mr. S———‘s public life which I did not know, I had little or no knowledge of his domestic relations beyond the fact that he was a widower with one child. I did not even know where he lived. But inquiry at police headquarters soon settled that, and in half an hour after leaving the doctor’s office I was at his home.
It was a large, old-fashioned dwelling, of comfortable aspect; too comfortable, I thought, for the shadow of doom, which, in my eyes, overlay its cheerful front, wide-open doors and windows. How should I tell my story here! What credence could I expect for a tale so gruesome, within walls warmed by so much sunshine and joy. None, possibly; but my story must be told for all that.
Ringing the bell hurriedly, I asked for Mr. S———. He was out of town. This was my first check. When would he be home? The answer gave me some hope, though it seemed to increase my difficulties. He would be in the city by eight, as he had invited a large number of guests to his house for the evening. Beyond this, I could learn nothing.
Returning immediately to Miss Calhoun, I told her what had occurred, and tried to impress upon her the necessity I felt of seeing Mr. S——— that night. She surveyed me like a woman in a dream. Twice did I have to repeat my words before she seemed to take them in; then she turned hurriedly, and going to a little desk standing in one corner of the room, drew out a missive, which she brought me. It was an invitation to this very reception which she had received a week before.
“I will get you one,” she whispered. “But don’t speak to him, don’t tell him without giving me some warning. I will not be far from you. I think I will have strength for this final hour.”
“God grant that your sacrifice may bear fruit,” I said, and left her.
To enter, on such an errand as mine, a brilliantly illuminated house odoriferous with flowers and palpitating with life and music, would be hard for any man. It was hard for me. But in the excitement of the occasion, aggravated as it was by a presage of danger not only to myself but to the woman I had come so near loving, I experienced a calmness, such as is felt in the presence of all mortal conflicts. I made sure that this was reflected in my face before leaving the dressing-room, and satisfied that I would not draw the attention of others by too much or too little color, I descended to the drawing-room and into the presence of my admired host.
I had expected to confront a handsome man, but not of the exact type that he presented. There was a melancholy in his expression I had not foreseen, mingled with an attraction from which I could not escape after my first hurried glimpse of his features across the wide room. No other man in the room had it to so great a degree, nor was there any other who made so determined an effort to throw off care and be simply the agreeable companion. Could it be that any other warning had forestalled mine, or was this his habitual manner and expression? Finding no answer to this question, I limited myself to the duty of the hour, and advancing as rapidly as possible through the ever-increasing throng, waited for the chance to speak to him for one minute alone. Meantime, I satisfied myself that the two detectives sent from police headquarters were # on hand. I recognized them among a group of people at the door.
Whether intentionally or not, Mr. S——— had taken up his stand before the conservatory, and as in my endeavors to reach him I approached within sight of this place, I perceived the face of Miss Calhoun shining from amid its greenery, and at once remembered the promise I had made her. She was looking for me, and, meeting my eyes, made me an imperceptible gesture, to which I felt bound to respond.
Slipping from the group with which I was advancing, I stole around to a side door towards which she had pointed, and in another moment found myself at her side. She was clothed in velvet, which gave to her cheek and brow the colorlessness of marble.
“He is not as ignorant of his position as we thought,” said she. “I have been watching him for an hour. He is in anticipation of something. This will make our task easier.”
“You have said nothing,” I suggested.
“No, no; how could I?”
“Perhaps the detectives I saw there have told him.”
“Perhaps; but they cannot know the whole.”
“No, or our words would be unnecessary.”
“Mr. Abbott,” said she, with feverish volubility, “do not try to tell him yet; wait for a few minutes till I have gained a little self-possession, a little command over myself; but no — that may be to risk his life — do not wait a moment — go now, go now, only ——” She started, stumbled and fell back into a low seat under a spreading palm. “He is coming here. Do not leave me, Mr. Abbott; step back there behind those plants. I cannot trust myself to face him all alone.”
I did as she bade me. Mr. S— — with a smile on his face — the first I had seen there — came in and walked with a quick step and a resolved air up to Miss Calhoun, who endeavored to rise to meet him. But she was unable, which involuntary sign of confusion seemed to please him.
“Irene,” said he, in a tone that made me start and wish I had not been so amenable to her wishes, “I thought I saw you glide in here, and my guests being now all arrived, I ave ventured to steal away for a moment, just to satisfy the craving which has been torturing me for the last hour. Irene, you are pale; you tremble like an aspen. Have I frightened you by my words — too abrupt, perhaps, considering the reserve that has always been between us until now. Didn’t you know that I loved you? that for the last month — ever since I have known you, indeed — I have had but the one wish, to make you my wife?”
“Good God!” I saw the words on her lips rather than heard them. She seemed to be illumined and overwhelmed at once. “Mr. S—— — ” said she, trying to be brave, trying to address him with some sort of self-possession,
“I did not expect — I had no right to expect this honor from you. I am not worthy — I have no right to hear such words from your lips. Besides ——” She could go no further; perhaps he did not let her.
“Not worthy — you!” There was infinite sadness in his tone. “What do you think I am, then? It is because you are so worthy, so much better than I am or can ever be, that I want you for my wife. I long for the companionship of a pure mind, a pure hand ——”
“Mr. S———” (she had risen, and the resolve in her face made her beauty shine out transcendently), “I have not the pure mind, the pure hand you ascribe to me. I have meddled with matters few women could even conceive of. I am a member — a repentant member, to be sure — of an organization which slights the decrees of God and places the aims of a few selfish souls above the rights of man, and ——”
He had stooped and was kissing her hand.
“You need not go on,” he whispered; “I quite understand. But you will be my wife?”
Aghast, white as the driven snow, she watched him with dilating eyes that slowly filled with a great horror.
“Understand! —you understand! Oh, what does that mean? Why should you understand?”
“Because”— his voice sunk to a whisper, but I heard it, as I would have recognized his thought had he not spoken at that moment —“because I am the chief of the organization you mention. Irene, now you have my secret.”
I do not think she uttered a sound, but I heard the dying cry of her soul in her very silence. He may have heard it, too, for his look showed sudden and unfathomable pity.
“This is a blow to you,” he said. “I do not wonder; there is something hateful in the fact; latterly I have begun to realize it. That is why I have allowed myself to love. I wanted some relief from my thoughts. Alas! I did not know that a full knowledge of your noble soul would only emphasize them. But this is no talk for a ballroom. Cheer up, darling, and ——”
“Wait!” She had found strength to lay her hand on his arm. “Did you know that a man was condemned to-day?”
His face took on a shade of gloom.
“Yes,” he bowed, casting an anxious look towards the room from which came the mingled sounds of dance and merriment. “The bell which announces the fact rang during my absence. I did not know there was a name before the society.”
She crouched, covering her face with her hands. I think she was afraid her emotion would escape her in a cry. But in an instant they had dropped again, and she was panting in his ear:
“You are the chief and are not acquainted with these matters of life and death? Traitors are these men and women to you — traitors! jealous of your influence and your power!”
He looked amazed; he measured the distance between himself and the door and turned to ask her what she meant, but she did not give him the opportunity.
“Do you know,” she asked, “the name of the person for whom the bell rang to-day?”
He shook his head. “I am expecting a messenger with it any moment,” said he, looking towards the rear of the conservatory. “Is it any one who is here to-night?”
The gasp she gave might have been heard in the other room. Language and motion seemed both to fail her, and I thought I should have to go to her rescue. But before I could move, I heard the click of a latch at the rear of the conservatory, and saw, peering through the flowers and plants, the wicked face of the man with the receding forehead whom I had seen at madame’s, and in his arms he held THE BOX.
It was a shock which sent me further into concealment. Mr. S— — on the contrary, looked relieved. Exclaiming, “Ah, he has come!” he went to the door leading into the drawing-room, locked it, took out the key and returned to meet the stealthy, advancing figure.
The latter presented a picture of malignant joy, horrible to contemplate. The lips of his large mouth were compressed and bloodless. He came on with the quiet certainty and deadly ease of a slimy thing sure of its prey.
As I noted him I felt that not only Mr. S——‘s life but my own was not worth a moment’s purchase. But I uttered no cry and scarcely breathed. Miss Calhoun, on the contrary, gave vent to a long, shivering sigh. The man bowed as he heard it, but with looks directed solely to Mr. S——.
“I was told,” said he, “to deliver this box to you wherever and with whomsoever I should find you. In it you will find the name.”
Mr. S—— gazed in haughty astonishment, first at the box and then at the man.
“This is irregular,” said he. “Why was I not made acquainted with the fact that a name was up for consideration, and why have you removed the box from its place and broken the connection which was made with so much difficulty?”
As he said this he looked up through the glass of the conservatory to a high building I could see towering at the end of the garden. It was the building in which I had first seen that box, and I now understood how this connection had been made.
Mr. S——‘s movement had been involuntary.
Dropping his eyes, he finished by saying, with an almost imperceptible bow, “You may speak before this lady; she is the holder of a key.”
“The connection was broken because suspicion was aroused; to your other question you will find an answer in the box. Shall I open it for you?”
Mr. S—— — with a stern frown, shook his head, and produced a key from his pocket. “Do you understand all this?” he suddenly asked Miss Calhoun.
For reply, she pointed to the box.
“Open!” her beseeching looks seemed to say.
Mr. S—— turned the key and threw up the lid. “Look under the hand,” suggested the man.
Mr. S—— leaned over the box, which had been laid on a small table, discovered a paper somewhere in its depth, and drew it out. It was no whiter than his face when he did so.
“How many have subscribed to this?” he asked.
“You will observe that there are five rings on the hand,” responded the man.
Miss Calhoun started, opened her lips, but paused as she saw Mr. S—— unfold the paper.
“The name of the latest traitor,” murmured the man, with a look of ferocity the like of which I had never seen on any human face before.
It was not observed by either of the actors in the tragedy before me. Mr. S—— was gazing with a wild incredulity at the note he had unfolded; she was gazing at him. From the room beyond rose and swelled the sweet strains of the waltz.
Suddenly a low, crackling sound was heard.
It came from the paper which Mr. S—— had crumpled in his hand.
“So the society has decreed my death,” he said, meeting the man’s steel-cold eye for the first time. “Now I know how the men whose doom preceded mine have felt in a presence that leaves no hope to mortal man. But you shall not be my executioner. I will meet my fate at less noxious hands than yours.” And, leaning forward, he whispered a few seemingly significant words into the messenger’s ear. The man, grievously disappointed, hung his head, and with a sidelong look, the venom of which made us all shudder, he hesitated to go.
“To-night?” he said.
“To-night,” Mr. S—— repeated, and pointed towards the door by which he had entered. Then, as the man still hesitated, he took him by the arm and resolutely led him through the conservatory, crying in his ear, “Go. I am still the chief.”
The man bowed, and slipped slowly out into the night.
A burst of music, laughter, voices, joy, rose in the drawing-room. Mr. S—— and Irene Calhoun stood looking at each other.
“You must go home,” were the first words he uttered. Then, in a half-reproachful, half-pitiful tone, as if on the verge of tears, he added: “Was I so bad a chief that even you thought me a hindrance to the advancement of the society and the cause to which we are pledged?”
It was the one thing he could say capable of rousing her.
“Oh!” she cried, “it is all a mistake, all a cheat. Did you not get the letter I sent to my chief this morning, written in the usual style and directed in the usual way?”
“No,” he answered.
“Then there is worse treason than yours among the five. I wrote to say that my ring had been stolen; that I did not subscribe to the condemnation of the man under suspicion, and that, if it was made, it would be through fraud. That was before I knew that the suspected one and the man I addressed were one and the same. Now ——”
“You have but to accuse the woman called Madame. The man you have just sent away would forgive you his disappointment if you gave him the supreme satisfaction of carrying doom to the still more formidable being who prophesies death to those for whom she has already prepared a violent end.”
But her passion had found vent and she was not to be stilled. Telling him the whole story of the last twenty-four hours, she waited for the look of comfort she evidently expected. But it did not come. His first words showed why.
“Madame is inexorable,” said he; “but Madame is but one of five. There are three others — true men, sound men, thinking men. If they deem me unworthy — and I have shown signs of faltering of late — Madame’s animosity or your loving weakness must not stand in the way of their decree. It shall never be said I sanctioned the doom of other men and shrank from my own. I would be unworthy of your love if I did, and your love is everything to me now.” She had not expected this; she had not at all reckoned upon the stern quality in this man, forgetting that without it he could never have held his pitiless position.
“But it is not regular; it is not according to precedent. Five rings are required, and only four were fairly placed. As an honest man, you ought to hesitate at injustice, and injustice you will show if you allow them to triumph through their own deceit.”
But even this failed to move him.
“I see five rings,” said he, “and I see another thing. Never will I be permitted to live even if I am coward enough to take advantage of the loophole of escape you offer me. A man who is once seen to tremble loses the confidence of such men as call me chief. I would die suddenly, horribly and perhaps when less prepared for it than now. And you, my darling, my imperial one! you would not escape. Besides, you have forgotten the young man who, with such unselfishness, has lent himself to your schemes in my favor. What could save him if I disappointed the malignancy of Madame. No; I have destroyed others, and must submit to the penalty incurred by murder. Kiss me, Irene, and go. I command it as your chief.”
With a low moan she gave up the struggle. Lifting her forehead to his embrace, she bestowed upon him a look of indescribable despair, then tottered to the door leading into the garden. As it closed upon her departing figure, he uttered a deep sigh, in which he seemed to give up life and the world. Then he raised his head, and in an instant was in the midst of a throng of beautiful women and dashing men, with a smile on his lips and a jest on his tongue.
I made my escape unnoticed. The next morning I was in Philadelphia. There I read the following lines in the leading daily:
“Baltimore, Md. — An unexpected tragedy occurred here last evening. Mr. S— — the well-known financier and politician, died at his supper-table, while drinking the health of a hundred assembled guests. He is considered to be a great loss to the Southern cause. The city is filled with mourning.”
And further down, in an obscure corner, this short line:
“Baltimore, Md. — A beautiful young woman, known by the name of Irene Calhoun, was found dead in her bed this morning, from the effects of poison administered by herself. No cause is ascribed for the act.”
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