To Mrs. Clarissa Truax,
of the Happy-go-lucky Inn:
RESPECTED MADAM: Appreciating your anxiety, I hasten to give you the particulars of an interview which I have just had with a person who knew Edwin Urquhart. They must be acceptable to you, and I shall make no excuse for the length of my communication, knowing that each detail in the lives of the three persons connected with this crime must be of interest to one who has brooded upon the subject as long as you have.
The person to whom I allude is a certain Mark Felt, a most eccentric and unhappy being now living the life of a recluse amid the forests of the Catskills. I became acquainted with his name at the time of my first investigation into the history of the Dudleigh and Urquhart families, and it was to him I was referred when I asked for such particulars as mere neighbors and public officials found it impossible to give.
I was told, however, at the same time, that I should find it hard to gain his confidence, as for sixteen years now he had avoided the companionship of men, by hiding in the caves and living upon such food as he could procure through the means of gun and net. A disappointment in love was said to be at the bottom of this, the lady he was engaged to having thrown herself into the river at about the time of the marriage of his friend.
He was, notwithstanding, a good-hearted man, and if I could once break through the reserve he had maintained for so many years, they thought I would be able to surprise facts from him which I could never hope to reach in any other way.
Interested by these insinuations, and somewhat excited, for an old man, at the prospect of bearding such a lion in his den, I at once made up my mind to seek this Felt; and accordingly one bright day last week crossed the river and entered the forest. I was not alone. I had taken a guide who knew the location of the cave which Felt was supposed to inhabit, and through his efforts my journey was made as little fatiguing as possible. Fallen brambles were removed from my path, limbs lifted, and where the road was too rough for the passage of such faltering feet as mine, I found myself lifted bodily, in arms as strong and steadfast as steel, and carried like a child to where it was smoother.
Thus I was enabled to traverse paths that at first view appeared inaccessible, and finally reached a spot so far up the mountain side that I gazed behind me in terror lest I should never be able to return again the way I had come. My guide, seeing my alarm, assured me that our destination was not far off, and presently I perceived before me a huge overhanging cliff, from the upper ledges of which hung down a tangle of vines and branches that veiled, without wholly concealing, the yawning mouth of a cave.
“That is where the man we are seeking lives, eats, and sleeps,” quoth my guide, as we paused for a moment to regain our breath. And immediately upon his words, and as if called forth by them, we perceived an unkempt and disheveled head slowly uprear itself through the black gap before us, then hastily disappear again behind the vines it had for a moment disturbed.
“I will encounter him alone,” I thereupon declared; and leaving the guide behind me, I pushed forward to the cliff, and pausing before the entrance of the cave, I called aloud:
“Mark Felt, do you want to hear news from your friend Urquhart?”
For a moment all was still, and I began to fear that my somewhat daring attempt had failed in its effect. But this was only for an instant, for presently something between a growl and a cry issued from the darkness within, and the next moment the wild and disheveled head showed itself again, and I heard distinctly these words:
“He is no friend of mine, your Edwin Urquhart.”
“Then,” I returned, without a moment’s hesitation, “do you want to hear news of your enemy? — for I have some, and of the rarest nature, too.”
The wild eyes flashed as if a flame of fire had shot from them, and the head that held them advanced till I could see the whole bearded countenance of the man.
“Is he dead?” he asked, with an eagerness and underlying triumph in the voice that argued well for the presence of those passions upon the rousing of which I relied for the revelations I sought.
“No,” said I, “but death is looking his way. With a little more knowledge of his early life and a little more insight into his character at the time he married Honora Dudleigh, the law will have so firm a hold upon him that I can safely promise any one who longs to see him pay the penalty of his evil deeds a certain opportunity of doing so.”
The vines trembled and suddenly parted their full length, and Mark Felt stepped out into the sunshine and confronted me. What he wore I cannot say, for his personality was so strong I received no impression of anything else. Not that he was tall or picturesque, or even rudely handsome. On the contrary, he was as plain a man as I had ever seen, with eyes to which some defect lent a strange, fixed glare, and a mouth whose under jaw protruded so markedly beyond the upper that his profile gave you a shock when any slight noise or stir drew his head to one side and thus revealed it to you. Yet, in spite of all this, in spite of tangled locks and a wide, rough beard, half brown, half white, his face held something that fixed the attention and fascinated the eye that encountered it. Did it lie in his eyes? How could it, with one looking like a fixed stone of agate and the other like a rolling ball of fire? Was it in his smile? How could it be when his smile had no joy in it, only a satisfaction that was not of good, but evil, and promised trouble rather than relief or sympathy? It must be in the general expression of his features, which seemed made only to mirror the emotions of a soul full of vitality and purpose — a soul which, if clouded by wrongs and embittered by heavy memories, possessed at least the characteristic of force and the charm of an unswerving purpose.
He seemed to recognize the impression he had made, for his lips smiled with a sort of scornful triumph before he said:
“These are peculiar words for a stranger. May I ask your name and whose interests you represent?”
His speech was quick, and had an odd halt in it, such as might be expected from one who had not conferred with his fellows for years. But there was no rudeness in its tone, nor was there any mistaking the fact that he was, both by nature and education, a gentleman. I began to take an interest in him apart from my mission.
“Mr. Felt,” I replied, “my name is Tamworth. I am from Virginia, and only by chance have I become involved in a matter near to you and the man who, you tell me, is, or was, your enemy. As for the interests I represent, they are those of justice, and justice only; and it is in her behalf and for the triumph of law and righteousness that I now ask you for your confidence and such details concerning your early intercourse with Edwin Urquhart as will enable me to understand a past that will certainly yield us a clew to the present. Are you willing to give them?”
“Will I give them?” he laughed. “Will I break the seal which guards the tablets of my youth, and let a stranger’s eyes read lines to which I have shut my own for these many years! Do you not know that for me to tell you what I once knew of Edwin Urquhart is to bare my own breast to view, and subject to new sufferings a heart that it has taken fifteen years of solitude to render callous?”
I gave no answer to this, only looked at him and stood waiting.
“You have hunted me out, you have touched the last string that ceases to vibrate in a man’s breast — that of a wild desire for vengeance — and now you ask me —”
“To ease your memories of a burden. To drag into light the skeleton of old days, and by the light thus thrown upon it to see that it is only a skeleton, that, once beheld, should be buried and its old bones forgotten. You are too much of a man, Felt, to waste away in these wilds. Come! forget I am a stranger, and relieve yourself and me by opening these tablets you speak of, even if it does cost you a pang of the old sorrow. The talk we have had has already made a flutter in the long-closed leaves, and should I leave you this minute you could not smother the thoughts and memories to which our conversation has given rise. Then why not think to purpose and —”
He raised one hand and stopped me. The gesture was full of fire, and so was the eye he now turned away from me to gaze up at the overhanging steeps above, with their great gorges and magnificent play of light and shadow; at the valley beneath, with its broad belt of shining water winding in and out through fertile banks and growing towns, and finally at the blue dome of the sky, across which great clouds went sailing in shapes so varied and of size so majestic that it was like a vision of floating palaces on a sea of translucent azure.
Gasping in a strange mood between delight and despair, he flung up his arms.
“Ah! I have loved these hills. Of all the longings and affections that one by one have perished from my heart, the solitary passion for nature has alone remained, unlessened and undisturbed. I love these trees with their countless boughs; these rocks, with their hidden pitfalls and sudden precipices. The sky that bends above me here is bluer than any other sky; and when it frowns and gathers its storms together, and hurls them above these ledges and upon my uncovered head, I throw up my arms as I do now and exult in the tumult, and become a part of it, till the hunger in my soul is appeased, and the blood in my veins runs mildly again. And now I must quit all this. I must give to men thoughts that have been closely wedded to Nature. I must tear her image from my heart, and in her pure place substitute interests in a life I thought forever sacrificed to her worship. It is a bitter task, but I will perform it. There are other calls than those which reverberate from yon peaks. I have just heard one, and my feet go down once more into the valleys.”
His arms fell with the last words, and his eyes returned again to my face.
“Come into the cave,” said he. “I cannot tell my story in the sight of these pure skies.”
I followed him without a word. He had affected me. The invocation in which he had indulged, and which, from another man, and other circumstances, would have struck me as a theatrical attempt upon my sympathy as forced as it was unnatural, was in him so appropriate, and in such keeping with the grandeur of the scene by which we were surrounded, that I was disarmed of criticism, and succumbed without resistance to his power.
The cave, once entered, was light enough. On the ground were spread in profusion leaves and twigs of the sweet-smelling cedar, making a carpet as pleasing as it was warm and healthful. On one side I saw a mound of the same, making a couch, across which a great cloak was spread; while beyond, the half-defined forms of a rude seat and table appeared, lending an air of habitableness to the spot, which, from the exterior, I had hardly expected to find. A long slab of stone served as a hearth, and above it I perceived a hole in the rock, toward which a thin column of smoke was rising from a few smouldering embers that yet remained burning upon the great stone below. Altogether, it was a home I had entered; and awed a little at the remembrance that it had been the refuge of this solitary man through years pregnant with events forever memorable in the history of the world as those which gave birth to a new nation, I sank down upon the pile of cedar he pointed out to me, and waited in some impatience for him to begin his tale.
This he seemed in no hurry to do. He waited so long with his chin sunk in his two hands and his eyes fixed upon vacancy, that I grew restless and was about to break the silence myself, when, without moving, he suddenly spoke.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55