Subjected as I have been in the last three hours to distress and turmoil, I was delighted to find mademoiselle asleep, and to behold her peaceful face. Gazing at it, and noting the happy smile which unconsciously lingered on her lips, I could not but feel that, despite the hideous revelations which lay before her, her lot was an enviable one, allied as it promised to be with that of one of such high principles as the marquis. Though I am old now and have had my day, the love of the innocent and pure is sacred to me, and in this case it certainly has the charm of a spotless lily blooming in the jaws of hell.
As it was late and I was almost exhausted, I began to think of rest. But my uneasiness in regard to madame would not let me sleep till I had made another visit to her room. So, leaving the gentle sleeper lapped in serenest dreams, I proceeded to descend once more. As I passed the great clock on the stairs, I noticed that it was almost midnight and began to hasten my steps, when I heard a loud knock at the front door.
This is not an infrequent sound with us, but it greatly startled me this night. I even remember pausing and looking helplessly up and down the hall, as if it were a question whether I should obey the unwelcome summons. But such knocking as speedily followed could not be long ignored. So, subduing my impatience, I hastened to the door, and unlocking it, threw it open. A gust of rain and wind greeted me.
This was my first surprise, for I had not even noticed that the weather was unpleasant, so completely had I been absorbed by what had been going on in the house. My next was the bearing and appearance of the stranger who demanded my hospitality. For though both face and form were unknown to me, there was that in his aspect which stirred recollections not out of keeping with the unhappy subject then occupying all my thoughts. Yet I could not speak his name, or put into words the anticipations that vaguely agitated me, and led him through the hall and into the comfortable sitting room so lately vacated by the marquis, with no more distinct impression in my mind than that something was about to happen which would complete rather than interrupt the horrors of this eventful night.
And when the light fell full upon him, and I could see his eager eyes, this feeling increased, and no sooner had his cloak fallen from his shoulders and his hat left his head, than I recognized the prominent jaw and earnest face, and putting no curb on my impetuosity, I exclaimed at once, and without a doubt:
The utterance of this name seemed to cause no surprise to my new guest.
“The same,” he replied; “and you are Mrs. Truax, of course. Mr. Tamworth has described you to me, also this inn, till I feel as if I knew its every stone. I did not wish to visit it, but I could not help myself. An unknown influence has been drawing me here for days, and though I resisted it with all my strength, it finally became so powerful that I rose from my bed at night, saddled my horse, and started in this direction. I have been twenty hours on the road, but part of these I have spent in the thicket just over against you on the opposite side of the road. For the sight of the house awakened in my mind such a disturbance that I feared to show myself at the door. A voice out of the air seemed to cry, ‘Not yet! not yet!’ Nevertheless I could not go back nor leave the spot, which, once seen, possessed for me a fatal fascination.”
I was speechless. Good God! were the old psychological influences at work, and had they acted upon him at forty miles distance?
“You come from Albany?” I at last stammered forth. “You must have had a wet time of it; it storms heavily, I see.”
“Storms?” he repeated, glancing at the cloak he had thrown off. “Great Heaven! my cloak is saturated, and I did not even know it rained. A touch of the old spell,” he murmured. “Something is about to happen to me; something has drawn me with purpose to this house.”
I felt awe-struck. Would he guess next what that something was?
“At eleven o’clock,” he went on, with the abstracted air of one recalling an experience, “I felt a pang shoot through my breast. I had been looking steadfastly at these walls, and somewhere about the building a light seemed to go out, for a pall of darkness suddenly settled upon it, simultaneously with the cessation of that imaginary cry which had hitherto detained me. Where was that light, Mrs. Truax, and what has happened here that I should feel myself called upon to cross this threshold to-night?”
I did not answer at once, for I was trembling. Was I to be subjected to another such an ordeal as I had experienced earlier in the evening and be forced to prepare, by such means as lay in my power, a much abused man for a most dreadful revelation? It began to look so.
“What has called me here?” he repeated. “Danger to her or death to him? They are thousands of miles away, and Tamworth could not have yet reached them, but peril of some deadly nature menaces them, I know. A stroke has gone home to him or her, and it is in this place I am to learn it; is it not so, Mrs. Truax?”
“Perhaps,” I tremblingly assented. “There is a gentleman here from France who may be able to tell you something of the man and the woman you mean. Would it affect you very much to hear disastrous news of them?”
“I cannot say,” he answered; “it should not. Mr. Tamworth tells me that he has acquainted you with the story of my life. Do you think I should feel overwhelmed at any retribution following a crime that was committed almost as much against me as against the pure and noble being who was the visible sufferer?”
“I shrink from answering,” I returned; “the human heart is a curious thing. If he alone were to suffer —”
“Ah, he!” was the bitter ejaculation.
“Or if she,” I proceeded, “were bound by no ties appealing to the sympathies! But she is a mother —”
I had not thought it would affect him so, and stood appalled.
“A mother!” he repeated; “she! she! the tigress, the heartless one, with no more soul than the naked dagger I should have plunged into her breast and did not! Great Heaven! and this child has lived, I suppose; is grown up and — and —”
“Is the sweetest, purest, most unworldly of beautiful women that these eyes have ever rested upon.”
I thought he would spring upon me, he leaned forward with so much impetuosity.
“How do you know?” he asked, and my heart stood still at the question.
“Because I have seen her,” I presently rejoined. “Because I have had opportunities for studying her heart. She is called Honora, and she is like Miss Dudleigh, only more beautiful and with more claims to what is called character.”
He did not seem to take in my words.
“You have been to France?” he declared.
“No,” I corrected; “Miss Urquhart has been here.”
He fell back, then started forward again, opened his lips and stared wildly, half fearfully about the room.
“Here?” he repeated, evidently overcome at the idea. “Why did they send her here? I should as soon have expected them to send her into the murk of the bottomless pit. A girl, an innocent girl, you say, and sent here?”
“They had reason; besides, she did not come alone.”
This time he understood me.
“Oh!” he shrieked, “she in the house. I might have known it,” he went on more calmly; “I did, only I would not believe it. Her crime has drawn her to the place of its perpetration. She could not resist the magnetic influence which all places of blood have upon the guilty. She has come back! And he?”
I shook my head.
“The man had less courage,” I declared. “Perhaps because he was more guilty; perhaps because he had less love.”
“It was love for the daughter which drew the mother here, not the spell of her crime or the accusing spirit of the dead. The woman who wronged you has some heart; she was willing to risk detection, and with it her reputation and life, to see if by any possibility she could venture to give happiness to the one being whom she really loves.”
“Explain; I do not understand. How could she hope to find happiness for her child here?”
“By settling the question which evidently tortured her. By determining once for all whether the crime of sixteen years back had ever been discovered, and if she found it had not, to satisfy at once her own pride and her daughter’s heart by giving that daughter to as noble a gentleman as ever carried a sword.”
“And they are here now?”
“They are here.”
“And she has discovered —”
“The futility of all her hopes.”
He drew back, and his heavy breath echoed in deep pants through the room.
“What an end for Marah Leighton!” he gasped.
“What an end! And she is here!” he went on, after a moment of silent emotion —“under this roof! No wonder I felt myself called hither. And she knows her crime is detected? How came she to know this? Did you recognize her and tell her?”
“I recognized her and told her. There was no other course. We met in the secret chamber, whither she had come to make her own terrible investigations; and the sight of her there, on the spot where she had left the innocent to die, was too much for my sense of justice. I accused her to her face, and she crouched before me as under the lash. There was no possibility of denial after that, and she now lies —”
“Wait!” he cried, catching me painfully by the arm. “When was this day? To-day — to-night?”
“Not two hours ago.”
His brow took on a look of awe.
“You see,” he murmured, “she has power over me yet. When her hope broke, something snapped within me here. I abhor her, but I feel her grief. She was once all the world to me.”
I recognized his right to emotion, and did not profane it by any words of mine. Instead of that I sought to leave him, but he would not let me go till he had asked me another question.
“And the daughter?” he urged. “Does she know of the opprobrium which must fall upon her head?”
“She sleeps,” I replied, “with a smile of the shyest delight upon her lips. Her lover has followed her to this place, and the last words she heard to-night were those of his devotion. Her suffering must come to-morrow; yet it will be mitigated, for he will not forsake her, whatever shame may follow his loyalty. I have his word for that.”
“Then the earth holds two lovers,” was Mark Felt’s rejoinder. “I thought it held but one.” And with a sigh he let go my arm and turned to the window, with its background of driving rain and pitiless flashes of lightning.
I took the opportunity to excuse myself for a few minutes, and hurrying again into the hall, hastened, with nervous fear and an agitation greatly heightened by the unexpected interview I had just been through, to the now oft-opened door leading into the oak parlor.
I found it closed but not locked, and pushing it open, listened for a moment, then took a glance within. All was quiet and ghostly. A single candle guttering on the table at one end of the room lent a partial light by which I could discern the funereal bed and the other heavy and desolate-looking articles of furniture with which the room was encumbered. Honora’s flowers, withering on the window seat, spoke of tender hopes not yet vanished from her tender dreams, but elsewhere all was hard, all was dreary, all was inexorably forbidding and cold. I shuddered as I looked, and shuddered still more as I approached the bed and paused firmly before it.
“Madame Letellier”— it was the only name by which I could bring myself to address her at that instant —“there is one gleam of brightness in your sky. The marquis knows the story of your guilt, yet consents to marry your daughter.”
I received no reply.
Shaken by fresh doubts, and moved by an inexplicable terror, I stood still for a moment gathering up my strength, then I repeated my words, this time with sharp emphasis and scarcely concealed importunity.
“Madame,” said I, “the marquis knows your guilt, yet consents to marry your daughter.”
But the silence within remained unbroken, and not a movement displaced the somber falling curtains.
Agitated beyond endurance, I stretched forth my hands and drew those curtains aside. An unexpected sight met my eyes. There was no madame there; the bed was empty.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09