The Circular Study, by Anna Katherine Green

Chapter 1

The Secret of the Cadwaladers.

Thomas Cadwalader suggested rather than told his story. We dare not imitate him in this, nor would it be just to your interest to relate these facts with all the baldness and lack of detail imposed upon this unhappy man by the hurry and anxiety of the occasion. Remarkable tragedies have their birth in remarkable facts, and as such facts are but the outcome of human passions, we must enter into those passions if we would understand either the facts or their appalling consequences. In this case, the first link of the chain which led to Felix Adams’s violent death was forged before the birth of the woman who struck him. We must begin, then, with almost forgotten days, and tell the story, as her pleader did, from the standpoint of Felix and Thomas Cadwalader.

Thomas Cadwalader — now called Adams — never knew his mother; she died in his early infancy. Nor could he be said to have known his father, having been brought up in France by an old Scotch lawyer, who, being related to his mother, sometimes spoke of her, but never of his father, till Thomas had reached his fifteenth year. Then he put certain books into his hands, with this remarkable injunction:

“Here are romances, Thomas. Read them; but remember that none of them, no matter how thrilling in matter or effect, will ever equal the story of your father’s bitterly wronged and suffering life.”

“My father!” he cried; “tell me about him; I have never heard.”

But his guardian, satisfied with an allusion which he knew must bear fruit in the extremely susceptible nature of this isolated boy, said no more that day, and Thomas turned to the books. But nothing after that could ever take his mind away from his father. He had scarcely thought of him for years, but now that that father had been placed before him in the light of a wronged man, he found himself continually hunting back in the deepest recesses of his memory for some long-forgotten recollection of that father’s features calculated to restore his image to his eyes. Sometimes he succeeded in this, or thought he did; but this image, if image it was, was so speedily lost in a sensation of something strange and awe-compelling enveloping it, that he found himself more absorbed by the intangible impressions associated with this memory than by the memory itself. What were these impressions, and in what had they originated? In vain he tried to determine. They were as vague as they were persistent. A stretch of darkness — two bars of orange light, always shining, always the same — black lines against these bars, like the tops of distant gables — an inner thrill — a vague affright — a rush about him as of a swooping wind — all this came with his father’s image, only to fade away with it, leaving him troubled, uneasy, and perplexed. Finding these impressions persistent, and receiving no explanation of them in his own mind, he finally asked his guardian what they meant. But that guardian was as ignorant as himself on this topic; and satisfied with having roused the boy’s imagination, confined himself to hints, dropped now and then with a judiciousness which proved the existence of a deliberate purpose, of some duty which awaited him on the other side of the water, a duty which would explain his long exile from his only parent and for which he must fit himself by study and the acquirement of such accomplishments as render a young man a positive power in society, whether that society be of the Old World or the New. He showed his shrewdness in thus dealing with this pliable and deeply affectionate nature. From this time forth Thomas felt himself leading a life of mystery and interest.

To feel himself appointed for a work whose unknown character only heightened its importance gave point to every effort now made by this young man, and lent to his studies that vague touch of romance which made them a delight, and him an adept in many things he might otherwise have cared little about. At eighteen he was a graduate from the Sorbonne, and a musical virtuoso as well. He could fence, ride, and carry off the prize in games requiring physical prowess as well as mental fitness. He was, in fact, a prodigy in many ways, and was so considered by his fellow-students. He, however, was not perfect; he lacked social charm, and in so far failed of being the complete gentleman. This he was made to realize in the following way:

One morning his guardian came to him with a letter from his father, in which, together with some words of commendation for his present attainments, that father expressed a certain dissatisfaction with his general manner as being too abrupt and self-satisfied with those of his own sex, and much too timid and deprecatory with those of the other. Thomas felt the criticism and recognized its justice; but how had his father, proved by his letter to be no longer a myth, become acquainted with defects which Thomas instinctively felt could never have attracted the attention of his far from polished guardian?

His questions on this point elicited a response that confounded him. He was not the only son of his father; he had a brother living, and this brother, older than himself by some twenty years or more, had just been in Paris, where, in all probability, he had met him, talked with him, and perhaps pressed his hand.

It was a discovery calculated to deepen the impression already made upon Thomas’s mind. Only a purpose of the greatest importance could account for so much mystery. What could it be? What was he destined to do or say or be? He was not told, but while awaiting enlightenment he was resolved not to be a disappointment to the two anxious souls who watched his career so eagerly and exacted from him such perfection. He consequently moderated his manner, and during the following year acquired by constant association with the gilded youth about him that indescribable charm of the perfect gentleman which he was led to believe would alone meet with the approval of those he now felt bound to please. At the end of the year he found himself a finished man of the world. How truly so, he began to realize when he noted the blush with which his presence was hailed by women and the respect shown him by men of his own stamp. In the midst of the satisfaction thus experienced his guardian paid him a final visit.

“You are now ready,” said he, “for your father’s summons. It will come in a few weeks. Be careful, then. Form no ties you cannot readily break; for, once recalled from France, you are not likely to return here. What your father’s purpose concerning you may be I do not know, but it is no ordinary one. You will have money, a well-appointed home, family affection, all that you have hitherto craved in vain, and in return you will carry solace to a heart which has awaited your healing touch for twenty years. So much I am ordered to say; the rest you will hear from your father’s own lips.”

Aroused, encouraged, animated by the wildest hopes, the most extravagant anticipations, Thomas awaited his father’s call with feverish impatience, and when it came, hastened to respond to it by an immediate voyage to America. This was some six months previous to the tragedy in —— Street. On his arrival at the wharf in New York he was met, not by his brother, as he had every reason to expect, but by a messenger in whose face evil tidings were apparent before he spoke. Thomas was soon made acquainted with them. His father, who he now learned was called Cadwalader (he himself had always been called Adams), was ill, possibly dying. He must therefore hasten, and, being provided with minute instructions as to his way, took the train at once for a small village in northern Pennsylvania.

All that followed was a dream to him. He was hurried through the night, with the motion of the ship still in his blood, to meet — what? He dared not think. He swam in a veritable nightmare. Then came a stop, a hurrying from the train, a halt on a platform reeking with rain (for the night was stormy), a call from some one to hurry, the sight of a panting horse steaming under a lamp whose blowing flame he often woke in after nights to see, a push from a persuasive hand, then a ride over a country road the darkness of which seemed impenetrable, and, finally, the startling vision of an open door, with a Meg Merrilies of a woman standing in it, holding a flaming candle in her hand. The candle went out while he looked at it, and left only a voice to guide him — a voice which, in tones shaken by chill or feeling, he could not tell which, cried eagerly:

“Is that you, laddie? Come awa in. Come awa in. Dinna heed the rain. The maister’s been crying on you a’ day. I’m glad you’re no ower late.”

He got down, followed the voice, and, stumbling up a step or two, entered a narrow door, which was with difficulty held open behind him, and which swung to with a loud noise the minute he crossed the threshold. This or the dreariness of the place in which he found himself disturbed him greatly. Bare floors, stained walls, meagre doorways, and a common pine staircase, lighted only by the miserable candle which the old woman had relit — were these the appointments of the palatial home he had been led to expect? These the surroundings, this the abode of him who had exacted such perfection on his part, and to satisfy whose standard he had devoted years of hourly, daily effort, in every department of art and science? A sickening revolt seized him, aggravated by the smiles of the old woman, who dipped and courtesied before him in senile delight. She may have divined his feelings, for, drawing him inside, she relieved him of his overcoat, crying all the while, with an extravagant welcome more repulsive than all the rest:

“O the fine laddie! Wad your puir mither could see you the noo! Bonnie and clever! No your faither’s bairn ava! All mither, laddie, all mither!”

The room was no better than the hall.

“Where is my father?” he asked, authoritatively, striving to keep down his strong repugnance.

“Dinna ye hear him? He’s crying on ye. Puir man, he’s wearying to see ye.”

Hear him? He could scarcely hear her. The driving rain, the swish of some great boughs against the house, the rattling of casements and doors, and the shrieking of wind in the chimney made all other sounds wellnigh inaudible. Yet as he listened he seemed to catch the accents of a far-off voice calling, now wistfully, now imperatively, “Thomas! Thomas!” And, thrilled with an emotion almost superstitious in its intensity, he moved hastily toward the staircase.

But the old woman was there before him. “Na! Na!” she cried. “Come in by and eat something first.”

But Thomas shook his head. It seemed to him at that moment as if he never could eat or sleep again, the disillusion was so bitter, his disappointment so keen.

“You will na? Then haste ye — haste ye. But it’s a peety you wadna ha’e eaten something. Ye’ll need it, laddie; ye’ll need it.”

“Thomas! Thomas!” wailed the voice.

He tore himself away. He forced himself to go upstairs, following the cry, which at every moment grew louder. At the top he cast a final glance below. The old woman stood at the stair-foot, shading the candle from the draught with a hand that shook with something more than age. She was gazing after him in vague affright, and with the shadow of this fear darkening her weazen face, formed a picture from which he was glad to escape.

Plunging on, he found himself before a window whose small panes dripped and groaned under a rain that was fast becoming a torrent. Chilled by the sight, he turned toward the door faintly outlined beside it, and in the semi-darkness seized an old-fashioned latch rattling in the wind that permeated every passageway, and softly raised it.

Instantly the door fell back, and two eyes blazing with fever and that fire of the soul of which fever is the mere physical symbol greeted him from the midst of a huge bed drawn up against the opposite wall. Then two arms rose, and the moaning cry of “Thomas! Thomas!” changed to a shout, and he knew himself to be in the presence of his father.

Falling on his knees in speechless emotion, he grasped the wasted hands held out to him. Such a face, rugged though it was and far from fulfilling the promise held out to him in his dreams, could not but move any man. As he gazed into it and pressed the hands in which the life blood only seemed to linger for this last, this only embrace, all his filial instincts were aroused and he forgot the common surroundings, the depressing rain, his own fatigue and bitter disappointment, in his lifelong craving for love and family recognition.

But the old man on whose breast he fell showed other emotions than those by which he was himself actuated. It was not an embrace he craved, but an opportunity to satisfy an almost frenzied curiosity as to the appearance and attributes of the son who had grown to manhood under other eyes. Pushing him gently back, he bade him stand in the light of the lamp burning on a small pine table, and surveyed him, as it were, from the verge of his own fast failing life, with moans of mingled pain and weariness, amid which Thomas thought he heard the accents of a supreme satisfaction.

Meanwhile in Thomas himself, as he stood there, the sense of complete desolation filled his breast almost to bursting. To have come home for this! To find a father only to be weighed in the scales of that father’s judgment! To be admired, instead of loved!

As he realized his position and listened to the shrieking of the wind and rain, he felt that the wail of the elements but echoed the cry of his own affections, thus strangled in their birth. Indeed the sensations of that moment made so deep an impression upon him that he was never afterward able to hear a furious gust of wind or rain without the picture rising up before him of this great hollow room, with the trembling figure of his father struggling in the grasp of death and holding it at bay, while he gauged with worldly wisdom the physical, mental, and moral advantages of the son so long banished and so lately restored to his arms.

A rush of impetuous words followed by the collapse of his father’s form upon the pillow showed that the examination was over. Rushing forward, he grasped again that father’s hands, but soon shrank back, stunned by what he heard and the prospect it opened before him. A few of his father’s words will interpret the rest. They came in a flood, and among others Thomas caught these:

“The grace of God be thanked! Our efforts have not failed. Handsome, strong, noble in look and character, we could ask nothing more, hope for nothing more. My revenge will succeed! John Poindexter will find that he has a heart, and that that heart can be wrung. I do not need to live to see it. For me it exists now; it exists here!” And he struck his breast with hands that seemed to have reserved their last strength for this supreme gesture.

John Poindexter! Who was he? It was a new name to Thomas. Venturing to say so, he reeled under the look he received from his father’s eyes.

“You do not know who John Poindexter is, and what he has done to me and mine? They have kept their promise well, too well, but God will accord me strength to tell you what has been left unsaid by them. He would not bring me up to this hour to let me perish before you have heard the story destined to make you the avenger of innocence upon that enemy of your race. Listen, Thomas. With the hand of death encircling my heart, I speak, and if the story find you cold — But it will not. Your name is Cadwalader, and it will not.”

Constrained by passions such as he had never imagined even in dreams, Thomas fell upon his knees. He could not listen otherwise. His father, gasping for breath, fixed him with his hollow eyes, in which the last flickering flames of life flared up in fitful brightness.

“Thomas”— the pause was brief —“you are not my only child.”

“I know it,” fell from Thomas’s white lips. “I have a brother; his name is Felix.”

The father shook his head with a look suggestive of impatience.

“Not him! Not him!” he cried. “A sister! a sister, who died before you were born — beautiful, good, with a voice like an angel’s and a heart — she should be standing by my side to-day, and she would have been if — if he — but none of that. I have no breath to waste. Facts, facts, just facts! Afterward may come emotions, hatred, denunciation, not now. This is my story, Thomas.

“John Poindexter and I were friends. From boyhood we shared each other’s bed, food, and pleasures, and when he came to seek his fortune in America I accompanied him. He was an able man, but cold. I was of an affectionate nature, but without any business capacity. As proof of this, in fifteen years he was rich, esteemed, the master of a fine house, and the owner of half a dozen horses; while I was the same nobody I had been at first, or would have been had not Providence given me two beautiful children and blessed, or rather cursed, me with the friendship of this prosperous man. When Felix was fourteen and Evelyn three years older, their mother died. Soon after, the little money I had vanished in an unfortunate enterprise, and life began to promise ill, both for myself and for my growing children. John Poindexter, who was honest enough then, or let me hope so, and who had no children of his own, though he had been long married, offered to take one of mine to educate. But I did not consent to this till the war of the rebellion broke out; then I sent him both son and daughter, and went into the army. For four years I fought for the flag, suffering all that a man can suffer and live, and being at last released from Libby Prison, came home with a heart full of gratitude and with every affection keyed up by a long series of unspeakable experiences, to greet my son and clasp once more within my wasted arms the idolized form of my deeply loved daughter. What did I find? A funeral in the streets — hers — and Felix, your brother, walking like a guard between her speechless corpse and the man under whose protection I had placed her youth and innocence.

“Betrayed!” shrieked the now frenzied parent, rising on his pillow. “Her innocence! Her sweetness! And he, cold as the stone we laid upon her grave, had seen her perish with the anguish and shame of it, without a sign of grief or a word of contrition.”

“O God!” burst from lips the old man was watching with frenzied cunning.

“Ay, God!” repeated the father, shaking his head as if in defiance before he fell back on his pillow. “He allowed it and I— But this does not tell the story. I must keep to facts as Felix did — Felix, who was but fifteen years old and yet found himself the only confidant and solace of this young girl betrayed by her protector. It was after her burial ——”

“Cease!” cried a voice, smooth, fresh, and yet strangely commanding, from over Thomas’s shoulder. “Let me tell the rest. No man can tell the rest as I can.”

“Felix!” ejaculated Amos Cadwalader below his breath.

“Felix!” repeated Thomas, shaken to his very heart by this new presence. But when he sought to rise, to turn, he felt the pressure of a hand on his shoulder and heard that voice again, saying softly, but peremptorily:

“Wait! Wait till you hear what I have to say. Think not of me, think only of her. It is she you are called upon to avenge; your sister, Evelyn.”

Thomas yielded to him as he had to his father. He sank down beneath that insistent hand, and his brother took up the tale.

“Evelyn had a voice like a bird. In those days before father’s return, she used to fill old John Poindexter’s house with melody. I, who, as a boy, was studious, rather than artistic, thought she sang too much for a girl whose father was rotting away in a Southern prison. But when about to rebuke her, I remembered Edward Kissam, and was silent. For it was his love which made her glad, and to him I wished every happiness, for he was good, and honest, and kind to me. She was eighteen then, and beautiful, or so I was bound to believe, since every man looked at her, even old John Poindexter, though he never looked at any other woman, not even his own wife. And she was good, too, and pure, I swear, for her blue eyes never faltered in looking into mine until one day when — my God! how well I remember it! — they not only faltered, but shrank before me in such terror, that, boy though I was, I knew that something terrible, something unprecedented had happened, and thinking my one thought, I asked if she had received bad news from father. Her answer was a horrified moan, but it might have been a shriek. ‘Our father! Pray God we may never see him or hear from him again. If you love him, if you love me, pray he may die in prison rather than return here to see me as I am now.’

“I thought she had gone mad, and perhaps she had for a moment; for at my look of startled distress a change took place in her. She remembered my youth, and laughing, or trying to laugh away her frenzy, uttered some hurried words I failed to understand, and then, sinking at my knee, laid her head against my side, crying that she was not well; that she had experienced for a long time secret pains and great inward distress, and that she sometimes feared she was not going to live long, for all her songs and merry ways and seeming health and spirits.

“‘Not live, Evelyn?’ It was an inconceivable thought to me, a boy. I looked at her, and seeing how pale, how incomprehensibly pale she was, my heart failed me, for nothing but mortal sickness could make such a change in any one in a week, in a day. Yet how could death reach her, loved as she was by Edward, by her father, and by me. Thinking to rouse her, I spoke the former’s name. But it was the last word I should have uttered. Crouching as if I had given her a blow, she put her two hands out, shrieking faintly: ‘Not that! Never that! Do not speak his name. Let me never hear of him or see him again. I am dead — do you not understand me? — dead to all the world from this day — except to you!’ she suddenly sobbed, ‘except to you!’ And still I did not comprehend her. But when I understood, as I soon did, that no mention was to be made of her illness; that her door was to be shut and no one allowed to enter, not even Mrs. Poindexter or her guardian — least of all, her guardian — I began to catch the first intimation of that horror which was to end my youth and fill my whole after life with but one thought — revenge. But I said nothing, only watched and waited. Seeing that she was really ill, I constituted myself her nurse, and sat by her night and day till her symptoms became so alarming that the whole household was aroused and we could no longer keep the doctor from her. Then I sat at her door, and with one ear turned to catch her lightest moan, listened for the step she most dreaded, but which, though it sometimes approached, never passed the opening of the hall leading to her chamber. For one whole week I sat there, watching her life go slowly out like a flame, with nothing to feed it; then as the great shadow fell, and life seemed breaking up within me, I dashed from the place, and confronting him where I found him walking, pale and disturbed, in his own hall, told him that my father was coming; that I had had a dream, and in that dream I had seen my father with his face turned toward this place. Was he prepared to meet him? Had he an answer ready when Amos Cadwalader should ask him what had become of his child?

“I had meant to shock the truth from this man, and I did so. As I mentioned my father’s name, Poindexter blanched, and my fears became certainty. Dropping my youthful manner, for I was a boy no longer, I flung his crime in his face, and begged him to deny it if he could. He could not, but he did what neither he nor any other man could do in my presence now and live — he smiled. Then when he saw me crouching for a spring — for, young as I was, I knew but one impulse, and that was to fly at his throat — he put out his powerful hand, and pinning me to the ground, uttered a few short sentences in my ear.

“They were terrible ones. They made me see that nothing I might then do could obliterate the fact that she was lost if the world knew what I knew, or even so much as suspected it; that any betrayal on my part or act of contrition on his would only pile the earth on her innocent breast and sink her deeper and deeper into the grave she was then digging for herself; that all dreams were falsities; that Southern prisons seldom gave up their victims alive; and that if my father should escape the jaws of Libby and return, it was for me to be glad if he found a quiet grave instead of a dishonored daughter. Further, that if I crossed him, who was power itself, by any boyish exhibition of hate, I would find that any odium I might invoke would fall on her and not on him, making me an abhorrence, not only to the world at large, but to the very father in whose interest I might pretend to act.

“I was young and without worldly experience. I yielded to these arguments, but I cursed him where he stood. With his hand pressing heavily upon me, I cursed him to his face; then I went back to my sister.

“Had she, by some supernatural power, listened to our talk, or had she really been visited by some dream, that she looked so changed? There was a feverish light in her eye, and something like the shadow of a smile on her lips. Mrs. Poindexter was with her; Mrs. Poindexter, whose face was a mask we never tried to penetrate. But when she had left us alone again, then Evelyn spoke, and I saw what her dream had been.

“‘Felix,’ she cried as I approached her trembling with my own emotions and half afraid of hers, ‘there is still one hope for me. It has come to me while you have been away. Edward — he loves me — did — perhaps he would forgive. If he would take me into his protection (I see you know it all, Felix) then I might grow happy again — well — strong — good. Do you think — oh, you are a child, what do you know? — but — but before I turn my face forever to the wall try if he will see me — try, try — with your boy’s wit — your clever schemes, to get him here unknown to — to — the one I fear, I hate — and then, then, if he bids me live, I will live, and if he bids me die, I will die; and all will be ended.’

“I was an ignorant boy. I knew men no more than I knew women, and yielding to her importunities, I promised to see Edward and plan for an interview without her guardian’s knowledge. I was, as Evelyn had said, keen in those days and full of resources, and I easily managed it. Edward, who had watched from the garden as I had from the door, was easily persuaded to climb her lattice in search of what he had every reason to believe would be his last earthly interview with his darling. As his eager form bounded into the room I tottered forth, carrying with me a vision of her face as she rose to meet — what? I dared not think or attempt to foresee. Falling on my knees I waited the issue. Alas! It was a speedy one. A stifled moan from her, the sound of a hoarse farewell from him, told me that his love had failed her, and that her doom was sealed. Creeping back to her side as quickly as my failing courage admitted, I found her face turned to the wall, from which it never again looked back; while presently, before the hour was passed, shouts ringing through the town proclaimed that young Kissam had shot himself. She heard, and died that night. In her last hour she had fancies. She thought she saw her father, and her prayers for mercy were heart-rending. Then she thought she saw him, that demon, her executioner, and cringed and moaned against the wall.

“But enough of this. Two days after, I walked between him and her silent figure outstretched for burial. I had promised that no eye but mine should look upon her, no other hand touch her, and I kept my word, even when the impossible happened and her father rose up in the street before us. Quietly, and in honor, she was carried to her grave, and then — then, in the solitude of the retreat I had found for him, I told our father all, and why I had denied him the only comfort which seemed left to him — a last look at his darling daughter’s face.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55