Have only twenty-four hours elapsed? Is it but yesternight that all the terrible events took place, the memory of which are now making my frame tremble? So the clock says, and yet how hard it is to believe it. Madame Letellier — But I will preserve my old method. I will not anticipate events, but relate them as they occurred.
To go back then to the note which I received from madame. I did not like it. I did not see its consistency, and I did not mean to be its dupe. If she intended remaining in the oak parlor, then over the oak parlor I would keep watch; for from her alone breathed whatever danger there might be for any of us, and to her alone did I look for the explanation of her mysterious presence in a spot that should have held a thousand repellent forces for her and hers. As for her sudden illness, that was nonsense. She was as well as I was myself. Had I not seen her standing at the window an hour or two before?
But here I made a mistake. Madame was really ill, as I presently had occasion to observe. For not only was a physician summoned, but word came that she wished to see me, also; and when I went to her room I found her in bed, her face pallid and distorted with pain, and her whole aspect betraying the greatest physical suffering.
It was a rheumatic attack, affecting mainly her right limb, and made her so helpless that, for a moment, I stood aghast at what looked to me like a dispensation of Providence. But in another instant I began to doubt again; for though I knew it was beyond anybody’s power to simulate the suffering under which she evidently labored, I was made to feel, by her penetrating and restless looks, that her mind retained its hold upon its purpose, whatever that purpose might be, and that for me to relax my vigilance now would be to give her an advantage that would be immediately seized upon.
I therefore held my sympathies in check; and, while acting the part of the solicitous landlady, watched for that glance or word which should reveal her secret intentions. Her daughter, whose eyes were streaming with tears, stood over her like a pitying angel, and not till we had done all we could to relieve her mother, and subdue her pain, did she allow her longing eyes to turn toward the clock that beat out the passing moments with mechanical precision. It was just a quarter to nine.
The mother saw that glance, and hid her face for a moment; then she took mademoiselle by the hand, and drawing her down to her, whispered audibly:
“I expect you to keep your appointment. Mrs. Truax will send one of the girls to sit with me. Besides, I feel better, and as if I could sleep. Only remember your promise, dear. No look, no hint of your feelings.”
Mademoiselle flushed scarlet. Stealing a look at me, she drew back embarrassed, but oh! how joyous. I felt my old heart quiver as I surveyed her, and in spite of the dread form of the redoubtable woman stretched before me, in spite of the grewsome room and its more than grewsome secrets, something of the fairy light of love seemed to fall upon my spirit and lift the darkness from the place for one short and glowing moment.
“Look in the glass,” the mother now commanded. “You need to tie up your curls again and to put a fresh flower at your throat. I do not wish you to show weariness. Mrs. Truax”— these words to me in low tones, as her daughter withdrew to the other side of the room —“you received my note?”
“You will do what I ask?”
I nodded again. Deliberate falsehood it was, but I showed no faltering.
“Then I will excuse you now.”
“And do not send any one to me. I wish to sleep, and another’s presence would disturb me. See, the pain is almost gone.”
She did look better.
“Your wishes shall be regarded,” I assured her. “If you do feel worse, ring this bell and Margery will notify me.” And placing the bell rope near her hand, I drew back and presently quitted the room.
Lingering in the hall just long enough to see the lovely Honora flit across the threshold of the sitting-room which I had purposely ordered vacant for her use, I hurried to my room.
It was dark, dark as the secret chamber into which I now stole with the lightest and wariest of steps. Horror, gloom, and apprehension were in the air, which brooded stiflingly in the narrow spot, and had it not been for the righteous purpose sustaining me, I should have fallen at this critical moment, crushed beneath the terrible weight of my own feelings.
But one who has to listen, straining every faculty to catch the purport of what is going on behind an impenetrable wall, soon forgets himself and his own sensations. As I pressed my ear to the wall and caught the sound of a prolonged and painful stir within, I only thought of following the movements of madame, who, I was now sure, had left her bed and was dragging herself, with what difficulty and distress I could but faintly judge by the involuntary groans which now and then left her, across the floor toward the door, the key of which I presently heard turn.
This done, a heavy silence followed, then the slow, dragging sound began again, interrupted now by weary pants and heavy sobs that at first chilled me and then shook me with such fear that it was with difficulty that I could retain my place against the wall. She was crawling in my direction, and at each instant I heard the pants grow louder.
I gradually withdrew, step by step, till I found myself pressed up against the wall in the remotest corner I could find. And here was I standing, enveloped in darkness and dread, when the sounds changed to that of a shuddering, rushing noise which I had heard once before in my life, and from a narrow gap through which the faint light in the room beyond dimly shone in a thread of lesser darkness, the aperture grew, till I could feel rather than see her form, crawling, not walking, through the opening, and hear, distinct enough, her horrible, gurgling tones as she murmured:
“I shall have to grope for what I want — touch it, feel it, for I cannot see. O God! O God! What horror! What punishment!”
Nearer, nearer over the floor she came, dragging her useless limb behind her. Her outstretched arm groped, groped about the floor, while I stood trembling and agonized with horror till her hand touched the skirt of my dress, when, with a great shriek of suddenly liberated feeling, I pushed her from me, and crying out, “Murderess! do you seek the bones of your victim?” I flung open the door against which I stood and let the light from my own room stream in upon us two.
Her face as I saw it at that moment has never left my memory. She had fallen in a heap at my first move, and now lay crushed before me, with only her wide-staring eyes and shaking lips to tell me that she lived.
“You thought I did not know you,” I burst forth. “You thought, because I had never seen your face, you could come back here, bringing your innocent daughter with you, and cast yourself into the very atmosphere of your crime without awakening the suspicion of the woman whose house you had made a sepulcher of for so many years. But crime was written too plainly on your brow. The spirit of Honora Urquhart, breaking the bounds of this room, has walked ever beside you, and I knew you from the first moment that you strayed down this hall.”
Broken sounds, unintelligible murmurings, were all that greeted me.
“You are punished,” I went on, “in the misery of your daughter. Nemesis has reached you. The blood of Honora Urquhart has called aloud from these walls, and not yourself only, but the still viler being whose name you have so falsely shared, must answer to man and God for the life you so heartlessly sacrificed and the rights you so falsely usurped.”
“Mercy!” came in one quick gasp from the crushed heap of humanity before me.
But I was inexorable. I remembered Honora Urquhart’s sweet face, and at that moment could think of nothing else. So I went on.
“You have had years of triumph. You have borne your victim’s name, worn your victim’s clothes, sported with your victim’s money. And he, her husband, has looked on and smiled. Day after day, month after month, year after year, you have gone in and out before your friends, unmolested and unafraid; but God’s vengeance, though it halts, is sure and keen. Across land and across water the memories of this room have drawn you, and not content with awakening suspicion, you must make suspicion certainty by moving a spring unknown even to myself, and entering this spot, from which the bones of your victim were taken only two months ago, Marah Leighton!”
Moved by the name, she stood up. Tottering and agonized with pain, but firm once more and determined, she towered before me, her face turned toward the room she had left, her hand lifted, her whole attitude that of one listening.
“Hark!” she cried.
It was a knock, a faint, low, trembling knock that we heard, then the word “Mamma” came in muffled accents from the hallway.
A convulsion crossed the countenance of the miserable woman before me.
“Oh, God! my daughter, my daughter!” she cried. And falling at my feet, she groveled in anguish as she pleaded:
“Will you kill her? She knows nothing, suspects nothing. The whole fifteen years of her life are pure. She is a flower. I love her — I love her, though she looks like the woman I hated and killed. She bears her name — why, I do not know — I could not call her anything else; she is my living reproach, and yet I love her. Do you not see it was for her I crossed the water, for her I plunged my living hand into this tomb to learn if our secret had ever been discovered, and if there was any hope that she might yet be made happy? Ah, woman, woman, you are not a wretch — a demon! You will not sentence this innocent soul to disgrace and misery. Even if I must die — and I swear that I will die if you say so — leave to my child her hopes; keep secret my sin, and take the blessing of the most miserable being that crawls upon the earth, as a solace for your old age. Hear me; hear a wretched mother’s plea —”
“It is too late,” I broke in. “Even were I silent there are others upon your track. I doubt if your husband does not already know that the day of his prosperity is at an end.”
She gave a low cry, and tottered from the place. Entering her own room, she threw herself upon the bed. I followed, drawing the curtains about her. Then closing the door of communication between the oak parlor and the chamber beyond, I passed to the door behind which we could yet hear her daughter’s soft voice calling, and, unlocking it, let the radiant creature in.
“Oh, mamma!” she began, “I could not keep my word —”
But here I held up my hand, and drawing her softly out, told her that her mother needed rest just now, and that if she would come to my room for a little while it would be best; and so prevailed upon her that she promised to do what I asked, though I saw her cast longing glances through the partly opened door toward the somber bed so like a tomb, and which at that moment was a tomb, had she known it — a tomb of hope, of joy, of peace for evermore.
I was just going out, when a slight stir detained me. Looking back, I saw a hand thrust out from between the falling curtains. Just a hand, but how eloquent it was! Pointing it out to mademoiselle, I said:
“Your mother’s hand. Give it a kiss, mademoiselle, but do not part the curtains.”
She smiled and crossed to that ominous bed. Kneeling, she kissed the hand, which thereupon raised itself and rested on her head. In another instant it was drawn slowly away, and, with a startled look, the half-weeping daughter rose and glided again to my side.
As I closed the door I thought of those words: “And the sins of the father shall be visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50