“Two weeks after this I was sitting beside my solitary hearth, musing upon my misery and longing for the blessed relief of sleep. There was no one with me in the house. I had dismissed every servant; for I would have no spies about me, prying into my misery; and though I could not keep the world of men and women from my doors, I could at least refuse to admit them; and this I did — living the life of a recluse almost as much as I do here, but with less ease, because the wind would bring whispers, and the walls were not thick enough to shut out from my fancy the curious glances I felt to be cast upon them by every passer-by that wandered through the street.
“On this night I had been thinking of Miss Dudleigh, of whose visibly failing health various murmurs had reached me, and I felt, notwithstanding my determination to hold myself aloof from every one and everything that could in any way reopen my still smarting wound, I could more easily find the sleep I longed for if some word from the great house would relieve the suspense in which my ignorance kept me. But I would not go there if I died of my anxiety, nor would I stoop to question any of the market men or women, who were the only persons admitted now within my doors.
“The clock was striking, and the strange sense of desolation which is inseparable from this sound to a solitary man (you see I have no clock here) was stealing over me, when I heard a tap on one of the windows overlooking my small garden, and a voice came through the lattice, crying:
“‘Massa — Massa Felt.’
“I knew the voice at once. It was that of one of Miss Dudleigh’s servants, an honest black, who had always been devoted to me from the day he did me some trifling service with Miss Leighton. Hearing it now, and after such thoughts, I was so moved by the promise it gave of news from the one quarter I desired, that I stumbled as I rose, and found difficulty in answering him. Nor did I recover my self-possession for hours; for the story he had to tell — after numerous apologies for his presumption in disturbing me — was so significant of coming evil that my mind was thrown again into turmoil, and the passions which I had tried to smother were roused again into action.
“It was simply this: That one evening after Mr. Urquhart’s departure, and the extinguishing of all the lights in the house, he had occasion to cross the garden. That in doing this he had heard voices, and, stepping cautiously forward, perceived, lying upon the snow-covered ground, near a certain belt of evergreens, the shadows of two persons, whose forms were hidden from his sight. Being both curious and concerned, he halted before coming too close and, listening, heard Mr. Urquhart’s voice, and presently that of Miss Leighton, both speaking very earnestly.
“‘Will you undertake it? Can you go through with it without shrinking?’ was what the former had said.
“‘I will undertake it, and I can go through with it,’ was what the latter had replied.
“Frightened at a discovery which might mean nothing and which might mean misery to a mistress the day of whose marriage was scarcely a month away, the negro held his breath, determined to hear more. He was immediately rewarded by catching the words: ‘You are a brave girl and my queen!’ and then something like a prayer for a kiss, or some such favor, as a seal to their compact. But to this she returned a vigorous ‘No,’ followed by the mysterious sentence: ‘I shall give you nothing till I am dead, and then I will give you everything.’
“After which they made a move as if to separate, which action so alarmed the now deeply disconcerted negro that he drew back in haste, hiding behind some neighboring bushes till they had passed him and disappeared, he out of the gate, and she through the small side entrance into the house. This was the previous night, and for nearly twenty-four hours the poor negro had tortured himself as to what he should do with the information thus surreptitiously gained. He lacked the courage to tell his mistress, and finally he had thought of me, who was her best friend, and who must have known there was something amiss with Miss Leighton, or why had I not married her when everything was ready and the minister waiting with his book in his hand?
“Not answering this insinuation, I put to him one or two of the many questions that were burning in my brain. Had he told any of the other servants what he had seen? And did Miss Dudleigh look as if she suspected there was anything wrong?
“He answered that he had not dared to speak a word of it even to his wife; and as for Miss Dudleigh, she was ill so much of the time that it was hard to tell whether she had any other cause for uneasiness or not. He only knew that she was greatly changed since this miserable deceiver came into the house.
“I believed him, and amid all my struggle and wrath tried to fix my mind upon her alone. I succeeded only partially, but enough to enable me to write this line, which I entreated him to carry to her:
‘HONORED MISS DUDLEIGH— You will forgive me if I overstep the bounds of friendship in yielding to the inner voice which compels me to say that if before or on your marriage day you need advice or protection, you may command both from
Your respectful servant,
“I did not expect a reply to this note, and I did not receive any. I thought I went as far as my position toward her allowed, but I have questioned it since — questioned if I should not have told her what the negro had heard and seen, and let her own judgment decide her fate. But I was not in my right mind in those days. I was too much a part of all this misery to be a fair judge of my own duty; and then the mysterious nature of Miss Leighton’s remark, the incomprehensibility of the words —‘I shall give you nothing till I am dead, and then I shall give you everything’— added such unreality to the scene, and awakened such curious conjectures, that I did not know where any of us stood, or to what especial misery the future pointed.
“‘Till she was dead!’ What could she, what did she mean? She would then give him everything! Ah! ah! — when she was dead! Well, so be it. Meanwhile, there was no prospect of death for any one, unless it was for Miss Dudleigh, whom rumor acknowledged to be still fading, though everything was being done for her comfort, and physician after physician employed.
“I saw Cæsar once again in these days. I met him in the street, seemingly greatly to his delight, for he smiled till his teeth shone from ear to ear, and made haste to remark, in quite a jovial voice:
“‘I specs it’s all right, massa. Massa Urquhart never looks at Miss Leighton now, but always doin’ his best for missus, making her smile quite happy when she isn’t coughing that dreadful cough. We will have a gay wedding yet. Yes; Miss Leighton seems to spect that; for she all de time making pretty things and trying them on missus, and laughing and cheering her up, just as if she didn’t spect any one to die.’
“Yes, but this change of manner frightened me. I grew feverishly anxious, and spent night and day in asking myself unanswerable questions. Nor did these in any way abate when one day I was startled by the tidings that all preparations for refitting the great house had stopped; that the doctors had decided that Miss Dudleigh must remove to a warmer climate, and that accordingly upon her marriage she and her husband would set sail for the Bermudas, there to take up their abode till her health was quite restored. I doubted my ears; I doubted the facts; I doubted Urquhart, and I doubted one other most of all whose name I find it hard to mention even to myself.
“Yet I should not have doubted her; I should have remembered the flame that was always burning in the depths of her eyes, and had confidence in that, if in nothing else. What if she had always been cold to me; she was not cold to him, and I should have known this and prepared myself. But I did not. I knew neither the extent of his villainy nor that of her despair. Had I done so, I might not have been crouching here a disappointed and hopeless man, while she —
“But I am running beyond my tale. After the news I had just imparted, I heard nothing more till the very week of the wedding. Then one of Miss Dudleigh’s servants came to me with a note, the result of which was, that I walked out in the afternoon, and that she passed me in her carriage, and seeing me, stopped the horses and took me in, and that we rode on a short distance together.
“‘I wish to talk to you,’ she said. ‘I wish to proffer you a request; to beg of you a favor. I want you,’ she stammered and her eyes filled with tears, ‘to see me married.’
“I opened my eyes with a quick denial, but I closed them again without speaking. After all, why not please her? Could I suffer more at this wedding than in thinking over it in my dungeon of a room at home? She would be there, of course, but I need not look at her; and if he or she meditated any treachery, where ought I to be but in the one place where my presence would be most useful? I decided to gratify Miss Dudleigh, almost before the inquiry in her eyes had changed to a look of suspense. ‘Yes, I will come,’ said I.
“She drew a deep breath, and smiled with tender sweetness.
“‘I thank you,’ she rejoined. ‘I thank you most deeply and most truly. I do not know why I desired it so much. Possibly because I feel something like a sister to you, possibly because I feel afraid —’
“She stopped, blushing. ‘I do not mean afraid. Why should I feel afraid? Edwin is very good to me; very good. I did not know he could be so attentive.’ And she sighed.
“I felt that sigh go through and through me. Looking at her I took a sudden resolution.
“‘Honora,’ I said (I had never called her by her first name before), ‘do not give your happiness into Edwin Urquhart’s keeping. You have yet three days before you for reconsideration. Break your bonds, and, unhampered by uncongenial ties, seek in another climate for that peace of mind you will never enjoy here or elsewhere as his wife.’
“She stared at me for a moment with wide-open and appealing eyes; then she shook her head, and answered quietly:
“‘One broken-off wedding in the family is enough. I cannot shock society with another. But, oh, Mark! why did you not warn me at first? I think I would have listened; I think so.’
“‘Forgive me,’ I entreated. ‘You know it would have been presumptuous in me at first; afterward she stood in the way.’
“‘I know,’ she answered, and turned away her head.
“I saw she did not wish me to leave her yet; so I said:
“‘You are going away; you are going to leave Albany.’
“‘I must, or so Edwin thinks. He says I will never recover in this climate.’
“‘Do you wish to go?’
“‘Yes; I think I do. I can never be happy here, and perhaps when we are far away, and have only each other to think of, the love and confidence of which I have dreamed may come. At all events, I comfort myself with that hope.’
“‘But it is a long, long sea voyage. Have you strength enough to carry you through?’
“‘If I have not,’ she intimated, with a mournful smile, ‘he will be free, and I released without scandal from a marriage that fills you with apprehension.’
“‘Oh,’ I cried, ‘would I were your brother indeed! This should never go on.’ Then impelled by what I thought to be my duty, I inquired: ‘And your money, Honora?’
“She flushed, but answered in the same spirit in which I had spoken.
“‘As little of it as may be will remain with him. That much my old guardian insisted upon. Do not ask me any more questions, Mark.’
“‘None of a nature so personal,’ I promised. ‘But there is one thing — can you not guess what it is? — which I ought to know. It is about Marah.’
“The words came with effort, and hurt her as much as me. But she answered bravely:
“‘She returns to Schenectady the same day that we depart. I hoped she would not linger to the wedding, but she seems to have a strange desire to face again the people who have talked about her so freely these last few weeks. So what can I say to dissuade her?’
“‘Let her stay,’ I muttered; ‘but let her beware how she behaves on that day, for there will be two eyes watching her, prompt to see any treachery, and prompt, too, to avenge it.’
“‘You will have nothing to avenge,’ murmured Honora; ‘that is all in the past.’
“I prayed to Heaven she might be right, and ere long bowed in adieu and left her. I saw neither herself nor any one else again till I entered the Dudleigh mansion three days later to witness her nuptials.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09