Did Marah Leighton will the coming of her old lover to my inn on that fatal night? That is the question I asked, when, with the first breaking of the morning light, I discovered lying on the table under an empty phial, a letter addressed, not to her husband, nor to her child, but to him, Mark Felt. It is a question that will never be answered, but I know that he comforts himself with the supposition, and allows the trembling hope to pass, at times, across his troubled spirit, that in the bitterness of those last hours some touch of the divine mercy may have moved her soul and made her fitter for his memory to dwell upon.
The letter I afterward read. It was as follows:
TO THE MAN WHO GAVE ALL, BORE ALL, AND REAPED NOTHING BUT SUFFERING:
I am not worthy to write you, even with the prospect of death before me. But an influence I do not care to combat drives me to make you, of all men, the confidant of my remorse.
I did not perish sixteen years ago in the Hudson River. I lived to share in and profit by a crime that has left an indelible stain upon my life and an ineffaceable darkness within my soul. You know, or soon will know, what that crime was and how we prospered in it. Daring as it was dreadful, I heard its fearful details planned by his lips, without a shudder, because I was mad in those days, mad for wealth, mad for power, mad for adventure. The only madness I did not feel was love. This I say to comfort a pride that must have been sorely wounded in those days, as sorely wounded as your heart.
Edwin Urquhart could make my eyes shine and my blood run swiftly, but not so swiftly as to make me break my troth with you, had he not sworn to me that through him I should gain what moved me more than any man’s love. How he was to accomplish this I could not see in the beginning, and was so little credulous of his being able to keep his oaths that I let myself be drawn by you almost to the church door.
But I got no further. There in the crowd he stood with a command in his eyes which forbade any further advance. Though I comprehended nothing then, I obeyed his look and went back, for my heart was not in any marriage, and it was in the hopes to which his looks seemed to point. Later he told me what those hopes were. He had been down to Long Island, and, while there, had chanced to hear in some tavern of the Happy–Go-Lucky Inn and its secret chamber, and he saw, or thought he saw, how he could make me his without losing the benefit of an alliance with Miss Dudleigh. And I thought I saw also, and entered into his plans, though they comprised crime and entailed horrors upon me from which woman naturally shrinks. I was hard as the nether millstone of which the Bible speaks, and went determinedly on in the path of dissimulation and crime which had been marked out for me, till we came to this inn. Then, owing, perhaps, to my long imprisonment in the dreadful box, I began to feel qualms of physical fear and such harrowing mental forebodings that more than once during that terrible evening I came near shouting for release.
But I was held back by apprehensions as great as any from which a premature release from my place of hiding could have freed me. I dared not face Honora, and I dared not subject Edwin Urquhart to the consequences of a public recognition of our perfidy, and so I let my opportunity go by, and became the sharer, as I was already the instigator, of the unheard-of crime by which I became, in the eyes of the world, his wife.
What I suffered during its perpetration no word of mine can convey. I cringed to her moans; I shook under the blow that stifled them. And when all was over, and the bolts which confined me were shot back, and I found myself once more on my feet and in the free air of this most horrible of rooms, I looked about, not for him, but her, and when I did not see her or any token of her death, I was seized by such an agony of revulsion that I uttered a great and irrepressible cry which filled the house, and brought more than one startled inquirer to our door.
For retribution and remorse were already busy within me, and in the lurking shadows about the fireplace I thought I saw the long and narrow slit made by the half-closed panel standing open between me and the secret place of her entombment. And though it was but an optical delusion, the panel being really closed, it might as well have been the truth, for I have never been able to rid myself of the sight of that chimerical strip of darkness, with its suggestions of guilt and death. It haunted my vision; it ruined my life; it destroyed my peace. If I shut my eyes at night, it opened before me. If I arrayed myself in jewels and rich raiment, and paused to take but a passing look at myself in the glass, this horror immediately came between me and my own image, blotting the vision of wealth from my eyes; so that I went into the homes of the noble or the courts of the king a clouded, miserable thing, seeing nothing but that black and narrow slit closing upon youth and beauty and innocence forever and forever and forever.
My child came. Ah! that I should have to mention her here! I do it in penance; I do it in despair; since with her my heart woke, and for her that heart is now broken, never to be healed again. Oh, if the knowledge of my misery wakens in you one thought that is not of revenge, cast a pitying eye upon this darling one, left in a hateful country without friends, without lover, without means. For friends and lover and means will all leave her with the revelations which the morning will bring, and unless Heaven is merciful to her innocence as it has been just to my guilt, she will have no other goal before her than that which has opened its refuge to me.
As for her father, let Heaven deal with him. He gave me this darling child; so I may not curse him, even if I cannot bless.
OCTOBER 23, 1791.
I have seen one bright thing to-day, and that was the faint and almost unearthly gleam which shot for a moment from beneath Honora’s falling lids as I told her what love was and how the marquis only awaited her permission to speak to assure her of his boundless affection and his undying purpose to be true to her even to the point of assuming her griefs and taking upon himself the protection of her innocence.
If it had not been for this, I should have felt that the world was too dark to remain in, and life too horrible to be endured.
NOVEMBER 30, 1791.
I thought that when Honora Urquhart left my house to be married to M. De Fontaine, in the church below the hill, peace would return to us once more.
But there is no peace. This morning another horrible tragedy defiled my doorstep.
I was sitting in the open porch waiting for the mail coach, for it seemed to me that it was about time I received some word from Mr. Tamworth. It was yet some minutes before the time when the rumble of the coach is usually heard, and I was brooding, as was natural, over the more than terrible occurrences of the last few weeks, when I heard the clatter of horses’ hoofs, and looking up and down the road, saw a small party of men approaching from the south. As they came nearer, I noticed that one of the riders was white-haired and presumably aged, and was interesting myself in him, when he came near enough for me to distinguish his features, and I perceived it was no other than Mr. Tamworth.
Rising in perturbation, I glanced at the men behind and abreast of him, and saw that one of these rode with lowered head and oppressed mien, and was just about to give that person a name in my mind when the horse he bestrode suddenly reared, bolted, and dashed forward to where I sat, flinging his rider at the very threshold of my house, where he lay senseless as the stone upon which his head had fallen.
For an instant both his companions and myself paused aghast at a sight so terrible and bewildering; then, amid cries from the road and one wild shriek from within, I rushed forward, and turning over the head, looked upon the face of the fallen man. It was not a new one to me. Though changed and seamed and white now in death, I recognized it at once. It was that of Edwin Urquhart.
. . . . .
This noon I took down the sign which has swung for twenty years over my front door. “Happy–Go-Lucky” is scarcely the name for an inn accursed by so many horrors.
FEBRUARY 3, 1792.
This week I have fulfilled the threat of years ago. I have had the oak parlor and its hideous adjunct torn from my house.
Now, perhaps, I can sleep.
News from Honora. The distant relative who succeeded to the estates and the title of the Marquis de la Roche–Guyon has fallen a victim to the guillotine. Would this have been the fate of Honora’s husband had he forsaken her and returned home? There is reason to believe it. At all events, she finds herself greatly comforted by this news for the sacrifice which her husband made to his love, and no longer regrets the exile to which he has been forced to submit for her sake. Wonderful, wonderful Providence! I view its workings with renewed awe every day.
SEPTEMBER 5, 1795.
I have been from home. I have been on a visit to New York. I have tasted of change, of brightness, of free and cheerful living, and I can settle down now in this old and fast-decaying inn with something else to think about than ruin and fearful retribution.
I have been visiting Madame De Fontaine. She wished me to come, I think, that I might see how amply her married life had fulfilled the promise of her courtship days. Though she and her noble husband live in peaceful retirement, and without many of the appurtenances of wealth, they find such resources of delight in each other’s companionship that it would be hard for the most exacting witness of their mutual felicity to wish them any different fate, or to desire for them any wider field of social influence.
The marquis — I shall always call him thus — has found a friend in General Washington, and though he is never seen at the President’s receptions, or mingles his voice in the councils of his adopted country, there are evidences constantly appearing of the confidence reposed in him by this great man, which cannot but add to the exile’s contentment and satisfaction.
Honora has developed into a grand beauty. The melancholy which her unhappy memories have necessarily infused into her countenance have given depth to her expression, which was always sweet, and frequently touching. She looks like a queen, but like a queen who has known not only grief, but love. There is nothing of despair in her glance, rather a lofty hope, and when her affections are touched, or her enthusiasm roused, she smiles with such a heavenly brightness in her countenance, that I think there is no fairer woman in the world, as I am assured there is none worthier.
Her husband agrees with me in this opinion, and is so happy that she said to me one day:
“I sometimes wonder how my heart succeeds in holding the joy which Heaven has seen fit to grant me. In it I read the forgiveness of God for the unutterable sins of my parents; and though the shadows will come, and do come, whenever I think upon the past, or see a face which, like yours, recalls memories as bitter as ever overwhelmed an innocent girl in her first youth, I find that with every year of love and peaceful living the darkness grows less, as if, somewhere in the boundless heavens, the mercy of God was making itself felt in the heart of her who once called herself my mother.”
And hearing her speak thus, I felt my own breast lose something of the oppression which had hitherto weighed it down. And as the days passed, and I experienced more and more of the true peace that comes with perfect love and perfect trust, I found my tears turned to rejoicing and the story of my regrets into songs of hope.
And so I have come back comforted and at rest. If there are yet ghosts haunting the old inn, I do not see them, and though its walls are dismantled, its custom gone, and its renown a thing of the past, I can still sit on its grass-grown doorstep and roam through its fast-decaying corridors without discovering any blacker shadow following in my wake than that of my own figure, bent now with age, and only held upright by the firmness of the little cane with which I strive to give aid to my tottering and uncertain steps.
The grace of God has fallen at last upon the Happy–Go-Lucky Inn.
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