OCTOBER 11, 1791.
This morning the post brought two letters for my strange guests. Being anxious to see how they would be received, I carried them up to Madame Letellier’s room myself.
The ladies were sitting together, the daughter embroidering. At the sight of the letters in my hand they both rose, the daughter reaching me first.
“Let me have them!” she cried, a glad, bright color showing for a moment on her cheek.
“From your father?” asked the mother, in a tone of nonchalance that did not deceive me.
The girl shook her head. A smile as exquisite as it was sad made her mouth beautiful. “From —” she began, but stopped, whether from an instinct of maidenly shame or some secret signal from her mother, I cannot say.
“Well, never mind,” the mother exclaimed, and turned away toward the window in a manner that gave me my dismissal.
So I went out, having learned nothing, save the fact that mademoiselle had a lover, and that her lips could smile.
They did not smile again, however. Next day she looked whiter than ever, and languid as a broken blossom.
“She is ill,” declared madame. “The stairs she has to climb are too much for her.”
“Ah, ha!” thought I to myself. “That is the first move,” and waited for the next development.
It has not come as soon as I expected. Two days have passed, and though Mademoiselle Letellier grows paler and thinner, nothing more has been said about the stairs. But the time has not passed without its incident, and a serious enough one, too, if these women are, as I fear, in the secret of the hidden chamber.
It is this: In the garden is a white stone. It is plain-finished but unlettered. It marks the resting-place of Honora Urquhart. For reasons which we all thought good, we have taken no uninterested person into the secret of this grave, any more than we have into that of the hidden chamber.
Consequently no one in the house but myself could answer Madame Letellier, when, stopping in her short walk up and down the garden path, she asked what the white stone meant and what it marked. I would not answer her. I had seen from the window where I stood the quick surprise with which she had come to a standstill at the sight of this stone, and I had caught the tremble in her usually steady voice as she made the inquiry I have mentioned above. I therefore hastened down and joined her before she had left the spot.
“You are wondering what this stone means,” I observed, with an indifferent tone calculated to set her at her ease. Then suddenly, and with a changed voice and a secret look into her face, I added: “It is a headstone; a dead body lies here.”
She quivered, and her lids fell. For all her self-possession — and she is the most self-possessed person I ever saw in my life — she showed a change that gave me new thoughts and made me summon up all the strength I am mistress of, in order to preserve the composure which her agitation had so deeply shaken.
“You shock me,” were her first words, uttered very slowly, and with a transparent show of indifference. “It is not usual to find a garden used for a burial place. May I ask whose body lies here? That of some faithful black or of a favorite horse?”
“It is not that of a horse,” I returned, calmly. And greatly pleased to find that I had placed her in a position where she would be obliged to press the question if she would learn anything more, I walked slowly on, convinced that she would follow me.
She did, giving me short side glances, which I bore with an equanimity that much belied the tempest of doubt, repugnance and horror that were struggling blindly in my breast. But she did not renew the subject of the grave. Instead of that, she opened one of her most fascinating conversations, endeavoring by her wiles and graces to get at my confidence and insure my good will.
And I was hypocrite enough to deceive her into thinking she had done so. Though I showed her no great warmth, I carefully restrained myself from betraying my real feelings, allowing her to talk on, and giving her now and then an encouraging word or an inviting smile.
For I felt that she was a serpent and must be met as such. If she were the woman I thought her, I should gain nothing and lose all by betraying my distrust, while if she felt me to be her dupe I might yet light upon the secret of her interest in the oak parlor.
Her daughter was waiting for us in the doorway when we reached the house. At the sight of her pure face, with its tender gray eyes and faultless features, a strong revulsion seized me, and I found it difficult not to raise my arms in protest between her beauty and winning womanliness and the subtile and treacherous-hearted being who glided so smoothly toward her. But the movement, had I made it, would have been in vain. At the sight of each other’s faces a lovely smile arose on the daughter’s lips, while on the mother’s flashed a look of love which would be unmistakable even on the countenance of a tiger, and which was at this moment so vivid and so real that I never doubted again, if I had ever doubted before, that mademoiselle was her own child — flesh of her flesh, and bone of her bone.
“Ah, mamma,” cried one soft voice, “I have been so lonesome!”
“Darling,” returned the other, in tones as true and caressing, “I will not leave you again, even for a walk, till you are quite well.” And taking her by the waist, she led her down the hall toward the stairs, looking back at me as she did so, and saying: “I cannot take her to Albany until she is better. You must think what we can do to make her strong again, Mrs. Truax.” And she sighed as she looked up the short flight of stairs her daughter had to climb.
OCTOBER 15, 1791.
That stone in the garden seems to possess a magnetic attraction for madame. She is over it or near it half the time. If I go out in the early morning to gather grapes for dinner, there she is before me, pacing up and down the paths converging to that spot, and gazing with eager eyes at that simple stone, as if by the force of her will she would extract its secret and make it tell her what she evidently burns to know. If I want flowers for the parlor mantel, and hurry into the garden during the heat of the day, there is madame with a huge hat on her head, plucking asters or pulling down apples from the low-hanging branches of the trees. It is the same at nightfall. Suspicious, always suspicious now, I frequently stop, in passing through the upper western hall, to take a peep from the one window that overlooks this part of the garden. I invariably see her there; and remembering that her daughter is ill, remembering that in my hearing she promised that daughter that she would not leave her again, I feel impelled at times to remind her of the fact, and see what reply will follow. But I know. She will say that she is not well herself; that the breeze from the river does her good; that she loves nature, and sleeps better after a ramble under the stars. I cannot disconcert her — not for long — and I cannot compete with her in volubility and conversational address, so I will continue to play a discreet part and wait.
OCTOBER 17, 1791.
Madame has become bolder, or her curiosity more impatient. Hitherto she has been content with haunting the garden, and walking over and about that one place in it which possesses peculiar interest for her and me. But this evening, when she thought no one was looking, when after a hurried survey of the house and grounds she failed to detect my sharp eyes behind the curtain of the upper window, she threw aside discretion, knelt down on the sod of that grave, and pushed aside the grass that grows about the stone, doubtless to see if there was any marks or inscription upon it. There are none, but I determined she should not be sure of this, so before she could satisfy herself, I threw up the window behind which I stood, making so much noise that it alarmed her, and she hastily rose.
I met her hasty look with a smile which it was too dark for her to see, and a cheerful good evening which I presume fell with anything but a cheerful sound upon her ears.
“It is a lovely evening,” I cried. “Have you been admiring the sunset?”
“Ah, so much!” was her quick reply, and she began to saunter in slowly. But I knew she left her thoughts out there with that mysterious grave.
Another midnight adventure! Late as it is, I must put it down, for I cannot sleep, and to-morrow will bring its own story.
I had gone to bed, but not to sleep. The anxieties under which I now labor, the sense of mystery which pervades the whole house, and the secret but ever-present apprehension of some impending catastrophe, which has followed me ever since these women came into the house, lay heavily on my mind, and prevented all rest. The change of room may also have added to my disturbance. I am wedded to old things, old ways, and habitual surroundings. I was not at home in this small and stuffy apartment, with its one narrow window and wretched accommodations. Nor could I forget near what it lay, nor rid myself of the horror which its walls gave me whenever I realized, as I invariably did at night, that only a slight partition separated me from the secret chamber, with its ghastly memories and ever to be remembered horrors.
I was lying, then, awake, when some impulse — was it a magnetic one? — caused me to rise and look out of the window. I did not see anything unusual — not at first — and I drew back. But the impulse returned, and I looked again, and this time perceived among the shadows of the trees something stirring in the garden, though what I could not tell, for the night was unusually dark, and my window very poorly situated for seeing.
But that there was something there was enough, and after another vain attempt to satisfy myself as to its character, I dressed and went out into the hall, determined to ascertain if any outlet to the house was open.
I did not take a light, for I know the corridors as I do my own hand. But I almost wished I had as I sped from door to door and window to window; for the events which had blotted my house with mystery were beginning to work upon my mind, and I felt afraid, not of my shadow, for I could not see it, but of my step, and the great gulfs of darkness that were continually opening before my eyes.
However, I did not draw back, and I did not delay. I tried the front door, and found it locked; then the south door, and finally the one in the kitchen. This last was ajar. I knew then what had happened. Madame has had more than one talk with Chloe lately, and the good negress has not been proof against her wiles, and has taught her the secret of the kitchen lock. I shall talk to Chloe to-morrow. But, meantime, I must follow madame.
But should I? I know what she is doing in the garden. She is wandering round and round that grave. If I saw her I could not be any surer of the fact, and I would but reveal my own suspicions to her by showing myself as a spy. No; I will remain here in the shadows of the kitchen, and wait for her to return. The watch may be weird, but no weirder than that of a previous night. Besides, it will not be a long one; the air is too chilly outside for her to risk a lengthy stay in it. I shall soon perceive her dark figure glide in through the doorway.
And I did. Almost before I had withdrawn into my corner I heard the faint fall of feet on the stone without, then the subdued but unmistakable sound of the opening door, and lastly the locking of it and the hasty tread of footsteps as she glided across the brick flagging and disappeared into the hall beyond.
“She has laid the ghost of her unrest for to-night,” thought I. “To-morrow it will rise again.” And I felt my first movement of pity for her.
Alas! does that unrest spring from premeditated or already accomplished guilt? Whichever it may be — and I am ready to believe in either or both — she is a burdened creature, and the weight of her fears or her intentions lies heavily upon her. But she hides the fact with consummate address, and when under the eyes of people smiles so brightly and conducts herself with such a charming grace that half the guests that come and go consider her as lovely and more captivating than her daughter. What would they think if they could see her as I do rising in the night to roam about a grave, the unmarked head-stone of which baffles her scrutiny?
OCTOBER 18, 1791.
This morning I rose at daybreak, and going into the garden, surveyed the spot which I had imagined traversed by Madame Letellier the night before. I found it slightly trampled, but what interested me a great deal more than this was the fact that, on a certain portion of the surface of the stone I have so often mentioned, there were to be seen small particles of a white substance, which I soon discovered to be wax.
Thus the mystery of her midnight visit is solved. She has been taking an impression of what, in her one short glimpse of yesterday evening, she had thought to be an inscription. What a wonderful woman she is! What skill she shows; what secrecy and what purpose. If she cannot compass her end in one way, she will in another; and I begin to have, notwithstanding my repugnance and fear, a wholesome respect for her ability and the relentless determination which she shows in every action she performs.
When she finds that her wax shows her nothing but the natural excrescences and roughnesses of an unhewn stone, will she persist in her visits to the garden? I think not.
OCTOBER 19, 1791.
My last surmise was a true one. Madame has not spent a half hour all told in the garden since that night. She has turned her attention again to the oak parlor, and soon we shall see her make some decided move in regard to it.
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