Miss Strange was not in a responsive mood. This her employer had observed on first entering; yet he showed no hesitation in laying on the table behind which she had ensconced herself in the attitude of one besieged, an envelope thick with enclosed papers.
“There,” said he. “Telephone me when you have read them.”
“I shall not read them.”
“No?” he smiled; and, repossessing himself of the envelope, he tore off one end, extracted the sheets with which it was filled, and laid them down still unfolded, in their former place on the table-top.
The suggestiveness of the action caused the corners of Miss Srange’s delicate lips to twitch wistfully, before settling into an ironic smile.
Calmly the other watched her.
“I am on a vacation,” she loftily explained, as she finally met his studiously non-quizzical glance. “Oh, I know that I am in my own home!” she petulantly acknowledged, as his gaze took in the room; “and that the automobile is at the door; and that I’m dressed for shopping. But for all that I’m on a vacation — a mental one,” she emphasized; “and business must wait. I haven’t got over the last affair,” she protested, as he maintained a discreet silence, “and the season is so gay just now — so many balls, so many — But that isn’t the worst. Father is beginning to wake up — and if he ever suspects —” A significant gesture ended this appeal.
The personage knew her father — everyone did — and the wonder had always been that she dared run the risk of displeasing one so implacable. Though she was his favourite child, Peter Strange was known to be quite capable of cutting her off with a shilling, once his close, prejudiced mind conceived it to be his duty. And that he would so interpret the situation, if he ever came to learn the secret of his daughter’s fits of abstraction and the sly bank account she was slowly accumulating, the personage holding out this dangerous lure had no doubt at all. Yet he only smiled at her words and remarked in casual suggestion:
“It’s out of town this time —‘way out. Your health certainly demands a change of air.”
“My health is good. Fortunately, or unfortunately, as one may choose to look at it, it furnishes me with no excuse for an outing,” she steadily retorted, turning her back on the table.
“Ah, excuse me!” the insidious voice apologized, “your paleness misled me. Surely a night or two’s change might be beneficial.”
She gave him a quick side look, and began to adjust her boa.
To this hint he paid no attention.
“The affair is quite out of the ordinary,” he pursued in the tone of one rehearsing a part. But there he stopped. For some reason, not altogether apparent to the masculine mind, the pin of flashing stones (real stones) which held her hat in place had to be taken out and thrust back again, not once, but twice. It was to watch this performance he had paused. When he was ready to proceed, he took the musing tone of one marshalling facts for another’s enlightenment:
“A woman of unknown instincts —”
“Pshaw!” The end of the pin would strike against the comb holding Violet’s chestnut-coloured locks.
“Living in a house as mysterious as the secret it contains. But —” here he allowed his patience apparently to forsake him, “I will bore you no longer. Go to your teas and balls; I will struggle with my dark affairs alone.”
His hand went to the packet of papers she affected so ostentatiously to despise. He could be as nonchalant as she. But he did not lift them; he let them lie. Yet the young heiress had not made a movement or even turned the slightest glance his way.
“A woman difficult to understand! A mysterious house — possibly a mysterious crime!”
Thus Violet kept repeating in silent self-communion, as flushed with dancing she sat that evening in a highly-scented conservatory, dividing her attention between the compliments of her partner and the splash of a fountain bubbling in the heart of this mass of tropical foliage; and when some hours later she sat down in her chintz-furnished bedroom for a few minutes’ thought before retiring, it was to draw from a little oak box at her elbow the half-dozen or so folded sheets of closely written paper which had been left for her perusal by her persistent employer.
Glancing first at the signature and finding it to be one already favourably known at the bar, she read with avidity the statement of events thus vouched for, finding them curious enough in all conscience to keep her awake for another full hour.
We here subscribe it:
I am a lawyer with an office in the Times Square Building. My business is mainly local, but sometimes I am called out of town, as witness the following summons received by me on the fifth of last October.
DEAR SIR —
I wish to make my will. I am an invalid and cannot leave my room. Will you come to me? The enclosed reference will answer for my respectability. If it satisfies you and you decide to accommodate me, please hasten your visit; I have not many days to live. A carriage will meet you at Highland Station at any hour you designate. Telegraph reply.
A. Postlethwaite, Gloom Cottage, — — N. J.
The reference given was a Mr. Weed of Eighty-sixth Street — a well-known man of unimpeachable reputation.
Calling him up at his business office, I asked him what he could tell me about Mr. Postlethwaite of Gloom Cottage, — — N. J. The answer astonished me:
“There is no Mr. Postlethwaite to be found at that address. He died years ago. There is a Mrs. Postlethwaite — a confirmed paralytic. Do you mean her?”
I glanced at the letter still lying open at the side of the telephone:
“The signature reads A. Postlethwaite.”
“Then it’s she. Her name is Arabella. She hates the name, being a woman of no sentiment. Uses her initials even on her cheques. What does she want of you?”
“To draw her will.”
“Oblige her. It’ll be experience for you.” And he slammed home the receiver.
I decided to follow the suggestion so forcibly emphasized; and the next day saw me at Highland Station. A superannuated horse and a still more superannuated carriage awaited me — both too old to serve a busy man in these days of swift conveyance. Could this be a sample of the establishment I was about to enter? Then I remembered that the woman who had sent for me was a helpless invalid, and probably had no use for any sort of turnout.
The driver was in keeping with the vehicle, and as noncommittal as the plodding beast he drove. If I ventured upon a remark, he gave me a long and curious look; if I went so far as to attack him with a direct question, he responded with a hitch of the shoulder or a dubious smile which conveyed nothing. Was he deaf or just unpleasant? I soon learned that he was not deaf; for suddenly, after a jog-trot of a mile or so through a wooded road which we had entered from the main highway, he drew in his horse, and, without glancing my way, spoke his first word:
“This is where you get out. The house is back there in the bushes.”
As no house was visible and the bushes rose in an unbroken barrier along the road, I stared at him in some doubt of his sanity.
“But —” I began; a protest into which he at once broke, with the sharp direction:
“Take the path. It’ll lead you straight to the front door.”
“I don’t see any path.”
For this he had no answer; and confident from his expression that it would be useless to expect anything further from him, I dropped a coin into his hand, and jumped to the ground. He was off before I could turn myself about.
“‘Something is rotten in the State of Denmark,’” I quoted in startled comment to myself; and not knowing what else to do, stared down at the turf at my feet.
A bit of flagging met my eye, protruding from a layer of thick moss. Farther on I espied another — the second, probably, of many. This, no doubt, was the path I had been bidden to follow, and without further thought on the subject, I plunged into the bushes which with difficulty I made give way before me.
For a moment all further advance looked hopeless. A more tangled, uninviting approach to a so-called home, I had never seen outside of the tropics; and the complete neglect thus displayed should have prepared me for the appearance of the house I unexpectedly came upon, just as, the way seemed on the point of closing up before me.
But nothing could well prepare one for a first view of Gloom Cottage. Its location in a hollow which had gradually filled itself up with trees and some kind of prickly brush, its deeply stained walls, once picturesque enough in their grouping but too deeply hidden now amid rotting boughs to produce any other effect than that of shrouded desolation, the sough of these same boughs as they rapped a devil’s tattoo against each other, and the absence of even the rising column of smoke which bespeaks domestic life wherever seen — all gave to one who remembered the cognomen Cottage and forgot the pre-cognomen of Gloom, a sense of buried life as sepulchral as that which emanates from the mouth of some freshly opened tomb.
But these impressions, natural enough to my youth, were necessarily transient, and soon gave way to others more business-like. Perceiving the curve of an arch rising above the undergrowth still blocking my approach, I pushed my way resolutely through, and presently found myself stumbling upon the steps of an unexpectedly spacious domicile, built not of wood, as its name of Cottage had led me to expect, but of carefully cut stone which, while showing every mark of time, proclaimed itself one of those early, carefully erected Colonial residences which it takes more than a century to destroy, or even to wear to the point of dilapidation.
Somewhat encouraged, though failing to detect any signs of active life in the heavily shuttered windows frowning upon me from either side, I ran up the steps and rang the bell which pulled as hard as if no hand had touched it in years.
Then I waited.
But not to ring again; for just as my hand was approaching the bell a second time, the door fell back and I beheld in the black gap before me the oldest man I had ever come upon in my whole life. He was so old I was astonished when his drawn lips opened and he asked if I was the lawyer from New York. I would as soon have expected a mummy to wag its tongue and utter English, he looked so thin and dried and removed from this life and all worldly concerns.
But when I had answered his question and he had turned to marshal me down the hall towards a door I could dimly see standing open in the twilight of an absolutely sunless interior, I noticed that his step was not without some vigour, despite the feeble bend of his withered body and the incessant swaying of his head, which seemed to be continually saying No!
“I will prepare madam,” he admonished me, after drawing a ponderous curtain two inches or less aside from one of the windows. “She is very ill, but she will see you.”
The tone was senile, but it was the senility of an educated man, and as the cultivated accents wavered forth, my mind changed in, regard to the position he held in the house. Interested anew, I sought to give him another look, but he had already vanished through the doorway, and so noiselessly, it was more like a shadow’s flitting than a man’s withdrawal.
The darkness in which I sat was absolute; but gradually, as I continued to look about me, the spaces lightened and certain details came out, which to my astonishment were of a character to show that the plain if substantial exterior of this house with its choked-up approaches and weedy gardens was no sample of what was to be found inside. Though the walls surrounding me were dismal because unlighted, they betrayed a splendour unusual in any country house. The frescoes and paintings were of an ancient order, dating from days when life and not death reigned in this isolated dwelling; but in them high art reigned supreme, an art so high and so finished that only great wealth, combined with the most cultivated taste, could have produced such effects. I was still absorbed in the wonder of it all, when the quiet voice of the old gentleman who had let me in reached me again from the doorway, and I heard:
“Madam is ready for you. May I trouble you to accompany me to her room.”
I rose with alacrity. I was anxious to see madam, if only to satisfy myself that she was as interesting as the house in which she was self-immured.
I found her a great deal more so. But before I enter upon our interview, let me mention a fact which had attracted my attention in my passage to her room. During his absence my guide evidently had pulled aside other curtains than those of the room in which he had left me. The hall, no longer a tunnel of darkness, gave me a glimpse as we went by, of various secluded corners, and it seemed as if everywhere I looked I saw — a clock. I counted four before I reached the staircase, all standing on the floor and all of ancient make, though differing much in appearance and value. A fifth one rose grim and tall at the stair foot, and under an impulse I have never understood I stopped, when I reached it, to note the time. But it had paused in its task, and faced me with motionless hands and silent works — a fact which somehow startled me; perhaps, because just then I encountered the old man’s eye watching me with an expression as challenging as it was unintelligible.
I had expected to see a woman in bed. I saw instead, a woman sitting up. You felt her influence the moment you entered her presence. She was not young; she was not beautiful; — never had been I should judge — she had not even the usual marks about her of an ultra strong personality; but that her will was law, had always been, and would continue to be law so long as she lived, was patent to any eye at the first glance. She exacted obedience consciously and unconsciously, and she exacted it with charm. Some few people in the world possess this power. They frown, and the opposing will weakens; they smile, and all hearts succumb. I was hers from the moment I crossed the threshold till — But I will relate the happenings of that instant when it comes.
She was alone, or so I thought, when I made my first bow to her stern but not unpleasing presence. Seated in a great chair, with a silver tray before her containing such little matters as she stood in hourly need of, she confronted me with a piercing gaze startling to behold in eyes so colourless. Then she smiled, and in obedience to that smile I seated myself in a chair placed very near her own. Was she too paralysed to express herself clearly? I waited in some anxiety till she spoke, when this fear vanished. Her voice betrayed the character her features failed to express. It was firm, resonant, and instinct with command. Not loud, but penetrating, and of a quality which made one listen with his heart as well as with his ears. What she said is immaterial. I was there for a certain purpose and we entered immediately upon the business of that purpose. She talked and I listened, mostly without comment. Only once did I interrupt her with a suggestion; and as this led to definite results, I will proceed to relate the occurrence in full.
In the few hours remaining to me before leaving New York, I had learned (no matter how) some additional particulars concerning herself and family; and when after some minor bequests, she proceeded to name the parties to whom she desired to leave the bulk of her fortune, I ventured, with some astonishment at my own temerity, to remark:
“But you have a young relative! Is she not to be included in this partition of your property?”
A hush. Then a smile came to life on her stiff lips, such as is seldom seen, thank God, on the face of any woman, and I heard:
“The young relative of whom you speak, is in the room. She has known for some time that I have no intention of leaving anything to her. There is, in fact, small chance of her ever needing it.”
The latter sentence was a muttered one, but that it was loud enough to be heard in all parts of the room I was soon assured. For a quick sigh, which was almost a gasp, followed from a corner I had hitherto ignored, and upon glancing that way, I perceived, peering upon us from the shadows, the white face of a young girl in whose drawn features and wide, staring eyes I beheld such evidences of terror, that in an instant, whatever predilection I had hitherto felt for my client, vanished in distrust, if not positive aversion.
I was still under the sway of this new impression, when Mrs. Postlethwaite’s voice rose again, this time addressing the young girl:
“You may go,” she said, with such force in the command for all its honeyed modulation, that I expected to see its object fly the room in frightened obedience.
But though the startled girl had lost none of the terror which had made her face like a mask, no power of movement remained to her. A picture of hopeless misery, she stood for one breathless moment, with her eyes fixed in unmistakable appeal on mine; then she began to sway so helplessly that I leaped with bounding heart to catch her. As she fell into my arms I heard her sigh as before. No common anguish spoke in that sigh. I had stumbled unwittingly upon a tragedy, to the meaning of which I held but a doubtful key.
“She seems very ill,” I observed with some emphasis, as I turned to lay my helpless burden on a near-by sofa.
The words were spoken with gloom and with an attempt at commiseration which no longer rang true in my ears.
“She is as sick a woman as I am myself,” continued Mrs. Postlethwaite. “That is why I made the remark I did, never imagining she would hear me at that distance. Do not put her down. My nurse will be here in a moment to relieve you of your burden.”
A tinkle accompanied these words. The resolute woman had stretched out a finger, of whose use she was not quite deprived, and touched a little bell standing on the tray before her, an inch or two from her hand.
Pleased to obey her command, I paused at the sofa’s edge, and taking advantage of the momentary delay, studied the youthful countenance pressed unconsciously to my breast.
It was one whose appeal lay less in its beauty, though that was of a touching quality, than in the story it told — a story, which for some unaccountable reason — I did not pause to determine what one — I felt it to be my immediate duty to know. But I asked no questions then; I did not even venture a comment; and yielded her up with seeming readiness when a strong but none too intelligent woman came running in with arms outstretched to carry her off. When the door had closed upon these two, the silence of my client drew my attention back to herself.
“I am waiting,” was her quiet observation, and without any further reference to what had just taken place under our eyes, she went on with the business previously occupying us.
I was able to do my part without any too great display of my own disturbance. The clearness of my remarkable client’s instructions, the definiteness with which her mind was made up as to the disposal of every dollar of her vast property, made it easy for me to master each detail and make careful note of every wish. But this did not prevent the ebb and flow within me of an undercurrent of thought full of question and uneasiness. What had been the real purport of the scene to which I had just been made a surprised witness? The few, but certainly unusual, facts which had been given me in regard to the extraordinary relations existing between these two closely connected women will explain the intensity of my interest. Those facts shall be yours.
Arabella Merwin, when young, was gifted with a peculiar fascination which, as we have seen, had not altogether vanished with age. Consequently she had many lovers, among them two brothers, Frank and Andrew Postlethwaite. The latter was the older, the handsomer, and the most prosperous (his name is remembered yet in connection with South American schemes of large importance), but it was Frank she married.
That real love, ardent if unreasonable, lay at the bottom of her choice, is evident enough to those who followed the career of the young couple. But it was a jealous love which brooked no rival, and as Frank Postlethwaite was of an impulsive and erratic nature, scenes soon occurred between them which, while revealing the extraordinary force of the young wife’s character, led to no serious break till after her son was born, and this, notwithstanding the fact that Frank had long given up making a living, and that they were openly dependent on their wealthy brother, now fast approaching the millionaire status.
This brother — the Peruvian King, as some called him — must have been an extraordinary man. Though cherishing his affection for the spirited Arabella to the point of remaining a bachelor for her sake, he betrayed none of the usual signs of disappointed love; but on the contrary made every effort to advance her happiness, not only by assuring to herself and husband an adequate income, but by doing all he could in other and less open ways to lessen any sense she might entertain of her mistake in preferring for her lifemate his self-centred and unstable brother. She should have adored him; but though she evinced gratitude enough, there is nothing to prove that she ever gave Frank Postlethwaite the least cause to cherish any other sentiment towards his brother than that of honest love and unqualified respect. Perhaps he never did cherish any other. Perhaps the change which everyone saw in the young couple immediately after the birth of their only child was due to another cause. Gossip is silent on this point. All that it insists upon is that from this time evidences of a growing estrangement between them became so obvious that even the indulgent Andrew could not blind himself to it; showing his sense of trouble, not by lessening their income, for that he doubled, but by spending more time in Peru and less in New York where the two were living.
However — and here we enter upon those details which I have ventured to characterize as uncommon, he was in this country and in the actual company of his brother when the accident occurred which terminated both their lives. It was the old story of a skidding motor, and Mrs. Postlethwaite, having been sent for in great haste to the small inn into which the two injured men had been carried, arrived only in time to witness their last moments. Frank died first and Andrew some few minutes later — an important fact, as was afterwards shown when the latter’s will came to be read.
This will was a peculiar one. By its provisions the bulk of the King’s great property was left to his brother Frank, but with this especial stipulation that in case his brother failed to survive him, the full legacy as bequeathed to him should be given unconditionally to his widow. Frank’s demise, as I have already stated, preceded his brother’s by several minutes and consequently Arabella became the chief legatee; and that is how she obtained her millions. But — and here a startling feature comes in — when the will came to be administered, the secret underlying the break between Frank and his wife was brought to light by a revelation of the fact that he had practised a great deception upon her at the time of his marriage. Instead of being a bachelor as was currently believed, he was in reality a widower, and the father of a child. This fact, so long held secret, had become hers when her own child was born; and constituted as she was, she not only never forgave the father, but conceived such a hatred for the innocent object of their quarrel that she refused to admit its claims or even to acknowledge its existence.
But later — after his death, in fact — she showed some sense of obligation towards one who under ordinary conditions would have shared her wealth. When the whole story became heard, and she discovered that this secret had been kept from his brother as well as from herself, and that consequently no provision had been made in any way for the child thus thrown directly upon her mercy, she did the generous thing and took the forsaken girl into her own home. But she never betrayed the least love for her, her whole heart being bound up in her boy, who was, as all agree, a prodigy of talent.
But this boy, for all his promise and seeming strength of constitution, died when barely seven years old, and the desolate mother was left with nothing to fill her heart but the uncongenial daughter of her husband’s first wife. The fact that this child, slighted as it had hitherto been, would, in the event of her uncle having passed away before her father, have been the undisputed heiress of a large portion of the wealth now at the disposal of her arrogant step-mother, led many to expect, now that the boy was no more, that Mrs. Postlethwaite would proceed to acknowledge the little Helena as her heir, and give her that place in the household to which her natural claims entitled her.
But no such result followed. The passion of grief into which the mother was thrown by the shipwreck of all her hopes left her hard and implacable, and when, as very soon happened, she fell a victim to the disease which tied her to her chair and made the wealth which had come to her by such a peculiar ordering of circumstances little else than a mockery even in her own eyes, it was upon this child she expended the full fund of her secret bitterness.
And the child? What of her? How did she bear her unhappy fate when she grew old enough to realize it? With a resignation which was the wonder of all who knew her. No murmurs escaped her lips, nor was the devotion she invariably displayed to the exacting invalid who ruled her as well as all the rest of her household with a rod of iron ever disturbed by the least sign of reproach. Though the riches, which in those early days poured into the home in a measure far beyond the needs of its mistress, were expended in making the house beautiful rather than in making the one young life within it happy, she never was heard to utter so much as a wish to leave the walls within which fate had immured her. Content, or seemingly content, with the only home she knew, she never asked for change or demanded friends or amusements. Visitors ceased coming; desolation followed neglect. The garden, once a glory, succumbed to a riot of weeds and undesirable brush, till a towering wall seemed to be drawn about the house cutting it off from the activities of the world as it cut it off from the approach of sunshine by day, and the comfort of a star-lit heaven by night. And yet the young girl continued to smile, though with a pitifulness of late, which some thought betokened secret terror and others the wasting of a body too sensitive for such unwholesome seclusion.
These were the facts, known if not consciously specialized, which gave to the latter part of my interview with Mrs. Postlethwaite a poignancy of interest which had never attended any of my former experiences. The peculiar attitude of Miss Postlethwaite towards her indurate tormentor awakened in my agitated mind something much deeper than curiosity, but when I strove to speak her name with the intent of inquiring more particularly into her condition, such a look confronted me from the steady eye immovably fixed upon my own, that my courage — or was it my natural precaution — bade me subdue the impulse and risk no attempt which might betray the depth of my interest in one so completely outside the scope of the present moment’s business. Perhaps Mrs. Postlethwaite appreciated my struggle; perhaps she was wholly blind to it. There was no reading the mind of this woman of sentimental name but inflexible nature, and realizing the fact more fully with every word she uttered I left her at last with no further betrayal of my feelings than might be evinced by the earnestness with which I promised to return for her signature at the earliest possible moment.
This she had herself requested, saying as I rose:
“I can still write my name if the paper is pushed carefully along under my hand. See to it that you come while the power remains to me.”
I had hoped that in my passage downstairs I might run upon someone who would give me news of Miss Postlethwaite, but the woman who approached to conduct me downstairs was not of an appearance to invite confidence, and I felt forced to leave the house with my doubts unsatisfied.
Two memories, equally distinct, followed me. One was a picture of Mrs. Postlethwaite’s fingers groping among her belongings on the little tray perched upon her lap, and another of the intent and strangely bent figure of the old man who had acted as my usher, listening to the ticking of one of the great clocks. So absorbed was he in this occupation that he not only failed to notice me when I went by, but he did not even lift his head at my cheery greeting. Such mysteries were too much for me, and led me to postpone my departure from town till I had sought out Mrs. Postlethwaite’s doctor and propounded to him one or two leading questions. First, would Mrs. Postlethwaite’s present condition be likely to hold good till Monday; and secondly, was the young lady living with her as ill as her step-mother said.
He was a mild old man of the easy-going type, and the answers I got from him were far from satisfactory. Yet he showed some surprise when I mentioned the extent of Mrs. Postlethwaite’s anxiety about her step-daughter, and paused, in the dubious shaking of his head, to give me a short stare in which I read as much determination as perplexity.
“I will look into Miss Postlethwaite’s case more particularly,” were his parting words. And with this one gleam of comfort I had to be content.
Monday’s interview was a brief one and contained nothing worth repeating. Mrs. Postlethwaite listened with stoical satisfaction to the reading of the will I had drawn up, and upon its completion rang her bell for the two witnesses awaiting her summons, in an adjoining room. They were not of her household, but to all appearance honest villagers with but one noticeable characteristic, an overweening idea of Mrs. Postlethwaite’s importance. Perhaps the spell she had so liberally woven for others in other and happier days was felt by them at this hour. It would not be strange; I had almost fallen under it myself, so great was the fascination of her manner even in this wreck of her bodily powers, when triumph assured, she faced us all in a state of complete satisfaction.
But before I was again quit of the place, all my doubts returned and in fuller force than ever. I had lingered in my going as much as decency would permit, hoping to hear a step on the stair or see a face in some doorway which would contradict Mrs. Postlethwaite’s cold assurance that Miss Postlethwaite was no better. But no such step did I hear, and no face did I see save the old, old one of the ancient friend or relative, whose bent frame seemed continually to haunt the halls. As before, he stood listening to the monotonous ticking of one of the clocks, muttering to himself and quite oblivious of my presence.
However, this time I decided not to pass him without a more persistent attempt to gain his notice. Pausing at his side, I asked him in the friendly tone I thought best calculated to attract his attention, how Miss Postlethwaite was to-day. He was so intent upon his task, whatever that was, that while he turned my way, it was with a glance as blank as that of a stone image.
“Listen!” he admonished me. “It still says No! No! I don’t think it will ever say anything else.”
I stared at him in some consternation, then at the clock itself which was the tall one I had found run down at my first visit. There was nothing unusual in its quiet tick, so far as I could hear, and with a compassionate glance at the old man who had turned breathlessly again to listen, proceeded on my way without another word.
The old fellow was daft. A century old, and daft.
I had worked my way out through the vines which still encumbered the porch, and was taking my first steps down the walk, when some impulse made me turn and glance up at one of the windows.
Did I bless the impulse? I thought I had every reason for doing so, when through a network of interlacing branches I beheld the young girl with whom my mind was wholly occupied, standing with her head thrust forward, watching the descent of something small and white which she had just released from her hand.
A note! A note written by her and meant for me! With a grateful look in her direction (which was probably lost upon her as she had already drawn back out of sight), I sprang for it only to meet with disappointment. For it was no billet-doux I received from amid the clustering brush where it had fallen; but a small square of white cloth showing a line of fantastic embroidery. Annoyed beyond measure, I was about to fling it down again, when the thought that it had come from her hand deterred me, and I thrust it into my vest pocket. When I took it out again — which was soon after I had taken my seat in the car — I discovered what a mistake I should have made if I had followed my first impulse. For, upon examining the stitches more carefully, I perceived that what I had considered a mere decorative pattern was in fact a string of letters, and that these letters made words, and that these words were:
Or, in plain writing:
“I do not want to die, but I surely will if —”
Finish the sentence for me. That is the problem I offer you. It is not a case for the police but one well worth your attention, if you succeed in reaching the heart of this mystery and saving this young girl.
Only, let no delay occur. The doom, if doom it is, is immanent. Remember that the will is signed.
“She is too small; I did not ask you to send me a midget.”
Thus spoke Mrs. Postlethwaite to her doctor, as he introduced into her presence a little figure in nurse’s cap and apron. “You said I needed care — more care than I was receiving. I answered that my old nurse could give it, and you objected that she or someone else must look after Miss Postlethwaite. I did not see the necessity, but I never contradict a doctor. So I yielded to your wishes, but not without the proviso (you remember that I made a proviso) that whatever sort of young woman you chose to introduce into this room, she should not be fresh from the training schools, and that she should be strong, silent, and capable. And you bring me this mite of a woman — is she a woman? she looks more like a child, of pleasing countenance enough, but who can no more lift me —”
“Pardon me!” Little Miss Strange had advanced. “I think, if you will allow me the privilege, madam, that I can shift you into a much more comfortable position.” And with a deftness and ease certainly not to be expected from one of her slight physique, Violet raised the helpless invalid a trifle more upon her pillow.
The act, its manner, and the smile accompanying it, could not fail to please, and undoubtedly did, though no word rewarded her from lips not much given to speech save when the occasion was imperative. But Mrs. Postlethwaite made no further objection to her presence, and, seeing this, the doctor’s countenance relaxed and he left the room with a much lighter step than that with which he had entered it.
And thus it was that Violet Strange — an adept in more ways than one — became installed at the bedside of this mysterious woman, whose days, if numbered, still held possibilities of action which those interested in young Helena Postlethwaite’s fate would do well to recognize.
Miss Strange had been at her post for two days, and had gathered up the following:
That Mrs. Postlethwaite must be obeyed.
That her step-daughter (who did not wish to die) would die if she knew it to be the wish of this domineering but apparently idolized woman.
That the old man of the clocks, while senile in some regards, was very alert and quite youthful in others. If a century old — which she began greatly to doubt — he had the language and manner of one in his prime, when unaffected by the neighbourhood of the clocks, which seemed in some non-understandable way to exercise an occult influence over him. At table he was an entertaining host; but neither there nor elsewhere would he discuss the family, or dilate in any way upon the peculiarities of a household of which he manifestly regarded himself as the least important member. Yet no one knew them better, and when Violet became quite assured of this, as well as of the futility of looking for explanation of any kind from either of her two patients, she resolved upon an effort to surprise one from him.
She went about it in this way. Noting his custom of making a complete round of the clocks each night after dinner, she took advantage of Mrs. Postlethwaite’s inclination to sleep at this hour, to follow him from clock to clock in the hope of overhearing some portion of the monologue with which he bent his head to the swinging pendulum, or put his ear to the hidden works. Soft-footed and discreet, she tripped along at his back, and at each pause he made, paused herself and turned her ear his way. The extreme darkness of the halls, which were more sombre by night than by day, favoured this attempt, and she was able, after a failure or two, to catch the No! no! no! no! which fell from his lips in seeming repetition of what he heard the most of them say.
The satisfaction in his tone proved that the denial to which he listened, chimed in with his hopes and gave ease to his mind. But he looked his oldest when, after pausing at another of the many time-pieces, he echoed in answer to its special refrain, Yes! yes! yes! yes! and fled the spot with shaking body and a distracted air.
The same fear and the same shrinking were observable in him as he returned from listening to the least conspicuous one, standing in a short corridor, where Violet could not follow him. But when, after a hesitation which enabled her to slip behind the curtain hiding the drawing-room door, he approached and laid his ear against the great one standing, as if on guard, at the foot of the stairs, she saw by the renewed vigour he displayed that there was comfort for him in its message, even before she caught the whisper with which he left it and proceeded to mount the stairs:
“It says No! It always says No! I will heed it as the voice of Heaven.”
But one conclusion could be the result of such an experiment to a mind like Violet’s. This partly touched old man not only held the key to the secret of this house, but was in a mood to divulge it if once he could be induced to hear command instead of dissuasion in the tick of this one large clock. But how could he be induced? Violet returned to Mrs. Postlethwaite’s bedside in a mood of extreme thoughtfulness.
Another day passed, and she had not yet seen Miss Postlethwaite. She was hoping each hour to be sent on some errand to that young lady’s room, but no such opportunity was granted her. Once she ventured to ask the doctor, whose visits were now very frequent, what he thought of the young lady’s condition. But as this question was necessarily put in Mrs. Postlethwaite’s presence, the answer was naturally guarded, and possibly not altogether frank.
“Our young lady is weaker,” he acknowledged. “Much weaker,” he added with marked emphasis and his most professional air, “or she would be here instead of in her own room. It grieves her not to be able to wait upon her generous benefactress.”
The word fell heavily. Had it been used as a test? Violet gave him a look, though she had much rather have turned her discriminating eye upon the face staring up at them from the pillow. Had the alarm expressed by others communicated itself at last to the physician? Was the charm which had held him subservient to the mother, dissolving under the pitiable state of the child, and was he trying to aid the little detective-nurse in her effort to sound the mystery of her condition?
His look expressed benevolence, but he took care not to meet the gaze of the woman he had just lauded, possibly because that gaze was fixed upon him in a way to tax his moral courage. The silence which ensued was broken by Mrs. Postlethwaite:
“She will live — this poor Helena — how long?” she asked, with no break in her voice’s wonted music.
The doctor hesitated, then with a candour hardly to be expected from him, answered:
“I do not understand Miss Postlethwaite’s case. I should like, with your permission, to consult some New York physician.”
A single word, but as it left this woman’s thin lips Violet recoiled, and, perhaps, the doctor did. Rage can speak in one word as well as in a dozen, and the rage which spoke in this one was of no common order, though it was quickly suppressed, as was all other show of feeling when she added, with a touch of her old charm:
“Of course you will do what you think best, as you know I never interfere with a doctor’s decisions. But” and here her natural ascendancy of tone and manner returned in all its potency, “it would kill me to know that a stranger was approaching Helena’s bedside. It would kill her. She’s too sensitive to survive such a shock.”
Violet recalled the words worked with so much care by this young girl on a minute piece of linen, I do not want to die, and watched the doctor’s face for some sign of resolution. But embarrassment was all she saw there, and all she heard him say was the conventional reply:
“I am doing all I can for her. We will wait another day and note the effect of my latest prescription.”
The deathly calm which overspread Mrs. Postlethwaite’s features as this word left the physician’s lips warned Violet not to let another day go by without some action. But she made no remark, and, indeed, betrayed but little interest in anything beyond her own patient’s condition. That seemed to occupy her wholly. With consummate art she gave the appearance of being under Mrs. Postlethwaite’s complete thrall, and watched with fascinated eyes every movement of the one unstricken finger which could do so much.
This little detective of ours could be an excellent actor when she chose.
* * *
To make the old man speak! To force this conscience-stricken but rebellious soul to reveal what the clock forbade! How could it be done?
This continued to be Violet’s great problem. She pondered it so deeply during all the remainder of the day that a little pucker settled on her brow, which someone (I will not mention who) would have been pained to see. Mrs. Postlethwaite, if she noticed it at all, probably ascribed it to her anxieties as nurse, for never had Violet been more assiduous in her attentions. But Mrs. Postlethwaite was no longer the woman she had been, and possibly never noted it at all.
At five o’clock Violet suddenly left the room. Slipping down into the lower hall, she went the round of the clocks herself, listening to every one. There was no perceptible difference in their tick. Satisfied of this and that it was simply the old man’s imagination which had supplied them each with separate speech, she paused before the huge one at the foot of the stairs — the one whose dictate he had promised himself to follow — and with an eye upon its broad, staring dial, muttered wistfully:
“Oh! for an idea! For an idea!”
Did this cumbrous relic of old-time precision turn traitor at this ingenuous plea? The dial continued to stare, the works to sing, but Violet’s face suddenly lost its perplexity. With a wary look about her and a listening ear turned towards the stair top, she stretched out her hand and pulled open the door guarding the pendulum, and peered in at the works, smiling slyly to herself as she pushed it back into place and retreated upstairs to the sick room.
When the doctor came that night she had a quiet word with him outside Mrs. Postlethwaite’s door. Was that why he was on hand when old Mr. Dunbar stole from his room to make his nightly circuit of the halls below? Something quite beyond the ordinary was in the good physician’s mind, for the look he cast at the old man was quite unlike any he had ever bestowed upon him before, and when he spoke it was to say with marked urgency:
“Our beautiful young lady will not live a week unless I get at the seat of her malady. Pray that I may be enabled to do so, Mr. Dunbar.”
A blow to the aged man’s heart which called forth a feeble “Yes, yes,” followed by a wild stare which imprinted itself upon the doctor’s memory as the look of one hopelessly old, who hears for the first time a distinct call from the grave which has long been awaiting him!
A solitary lamp stood in the lower hall. As the old man picked his slow way down, its small, hesitating flame flared up as in a sudden gust, then sank down flickering and faint as if it, too, had heard a call which summoned it to extinction.
No other sign of life was visible anywhere. Sunk in twilight shadows, the corridors branched away on either side to no place in particular and serving, to all appearance (as many must have thought in days gone by), as a mere hiding-place for clocks.
To listen to their united hum, the old man paused, looking at first a little distraught, but settling at last into his usual self as he started forward upon his course. Did some whisper, hitherto unheard, warn him that it was the last time he would tread that weary round? Who can tell? He was trembling very much when with his task nearly completed, he stepped out again into the main hall and crept rather than walked back to the one great clock to whose dictum he made it a practice to listen last.
Chattering the accustomed words, “They say Yes! They are all saying Yes! now; but this one will say No!” he bent his stiff old back and laid his ear to the unresponsive wood. But the time for no had passed. It was Yes! yes! yes! yes! now, and as his straining ears took in the word, he appeared to shrink where he stood and after a moment of anguished silence, broke forth into a low wail, amid whose lamentations one could hear:
“The time has come! Even the clock she loves best bids me speak. Oh! Arabella, Arabella!”
In his despair he had not noticed that the pendulum hung motionless, or that the hands stood at rest on the dial. If he had, he might have waited long enough to have seen the careful opening of the great clock’s tall door and the stepping forth of the little lady who had played so deftly upon his superstition.
He was wandering the corridors like a helpless child, when a gentle hand fell on his arm and a soft voice whispered in his ear:
“You have a story to tell. Will you tell it to me? It may save Miss Postlethwaite’s life.”
Did he understand? Would he respond if he did; or would the shock of her appeal restore him to a sense of the danger attending disloyalty? For a moment she doubted the wisdom of this startling measure, then she saw that he had passed the point of surprise and that, stranger as she was, she had but to lead the way for him to follow, tell his story, and die.
There was no light in the drawing-room when they entered. But old Mr. Dunbar did not seem to mind that. Indeed, he seemed to have lost all consciousness of present surroundings; he was even oblivious of her. This became quite evident when the lamp, in flaring up again in the hall, gave a momentary glimpse, of his crouching, half-kneeling figure. In the pleading gesture of his trembling, outreaching arms, Violet beheld an appeal, not to herself, but to some phantom of his imagination; and when he spoke, as he presently did, it was with the freedom of one to whom speech is life’s last boon, and the ear of the listener quite forgotten in the passion of confession long suppressed.
“She has never loved me,” he began, “but I have always loved her. For me no other woman has ever existed, though I was sixty-five years of age when I first saw her, and had long given up the idea that there lived a woman who could sway me from my even life and fixed lines of duty. Sixty-five! and she a youthful bride! Was there ever such folly! Happily I realized it from the first, and piled ashes on my hidden flame. Perhaps that is why I adore her to this day and only give her over to reprobation because Fate is stronger than my age — stronger even than my love.
“She is not a good woman, but I might have been a good man if I had never known the sin which drew a line of isolation about her, and within which I, and only I, have stood with her in silent companionship. What was this sin, and in what did it have its beginning? I think its beginning was in the passion she had for her husband. It was not the every-day passion of her sex in this land of equable affections, but one of foreign fierceness, jealousy, and insatiable demand. Yet he was a very ordinary man. I was once his tutor and I know. She came to know it too, when — but I am rushing on too fast, I have much to tell before I reach that point.
“From the first, I was in their confidence. Not that either he or she put me there, but that I lived with them and was always around, and could not help seeing and hearing what went on between them. Why he continued to want me in the house and at his table, when I could no longer be of service to him, I have never known. Possibly habit explains all. He was accustomed to my presence and so was she; so accustomed they hardly noticed it, as happened one night, when after a little attempt at conversation, he threw down the book he had caught up and, addressing her by name, said without a glance my way, and quite as if he were alone with her:
“‘Arabella, there is something I ought to tell you. I have tried to find the courage to do so many times before now but have always failed. Tonight I must.’ And then he made his great disclosure — how, unknown to, his friends and the world, he was a widower when he married her, and the father of a living child.
“With some women this might have passed with a measure of regret, and some possible contempt for his silence, but not so with her. She rose to her feet — I can see her yet — and for a moment stood facing him in the still, overpowering manner of one who feels the icy pang of hate enter where love has been. Never was moment more charged. I could not breathe while it lasted; and when at last she spoke, it was with an impetuosity of concentrated passion, hardly less dreadful than her silence had been.
“‘You a father! A father already!’ she cried, all her sweetness swallowed up in ungovernable wrath. ‘You whom I expected to make so happy with a child? I curse you and your brat. I—’
“He strove to placate her, to explain. But rage has no ears, and before I realized my own position, the scene became openly tempestuous. That her child should be second to another woman’s seemed to awaken demon instincts within her. When he ventured to hint that his little girl needed a mother’s care, her irony bit like corroding acid. He became speechless before it and had not a protest to raise when she declared that the secret he had kept so long and so successfully he must continue to keep to his dying day. That the child he had failed to own in his first wife’s lifetime should remain disowned in hers, and if possible be forgotten. She should never give the girl a thought nor acknowledge her in any way.
“She was Fury embodied; but the fury was of that grand order which allures rather than repels. As I felt myself succumbing to its fascination and beheld how he was weakening under it even more perceptibly than myself, I started from my chair, and sought to glide away before I should hear him utter a fatal acquiescence.
“But the movement I made unfortunately drew their attention to me, and after an instant of silent contemplation of my distracted countenance, Frank said, as though he were the elder by the forty years which separated us:
“‘You have listened to Mrs. Postlethwaite’s wishes. You will respect them of course.’”
That was all. He knew and she knew that I was to be trusted; but neither of them has ever known why.
A month later her child came, and was welcomed as though it were the first to bear his name. It was a boy, and their satisfaction was so great that I looked to see their old affection revive. But it had been cleft at the root, and nothing could restore it to life. They loved the child; I have never seen evidence of greater parental passion than they both displayed, but there their feelings stopped. Towards each other they were cold. They did not even unite in worship of their treasure. They gloated over him and planned for him, but always apart. He was a child in a thousand, and as he developed, the mother especially, nursed all her energies for the purpose of ensuring for him a future commensurate with his talents. Never a very conscientious woman, and alive to the advantages of wealth as demonstrated by the power wielded by her rich brother-in-law, she associated all the boy’s prospects with money, great money, such money as Andrew had accumulated, and now had at his disposal for his natural heirs.
“Hence came her great temptation — a temptation to which she yielded, to the lasting trouble of us all. Of this I must now make confession though it kills me to do so, and will soon kill her. The deeds of the past do not remain buried, however deep we dig their graves, but rise in an awful resurrection when we are old — old —”
Silence. Then a tremulous renewal of his painful speech.
Violet held her breath to listen. Possibly the doctor, hidden in the darkest corner of the room, did so also.
“I never knew how she became acquainted with the terms of her brother-in-law’s will. He certainly never confided them to her, and as certainly the lawyer who drew up the document never did. But that she was well aware of its tenor is as positive a fact as that I am the most wretched man alive tonight. Otherwise, why the darksome deed into which she was betrayed when both the brothers lay dying among strangers, of a dreadful accident?”
“I was witness to that deed. I had accompanied her on her hurried ride and was at her side when she entered the inn where the two Postlethwaites lay. I was always at her side in great joy or in great trouble, though she professed no affection for me and gave me but scanty thanks.”
“During our ride she had been silent and I had not disturbed that silence. I had much to think of. Should we find him living, or should we find him dead? If dead, would it sever the relations between us two? Would I ever ride with her again?”
“When I was not dwelling on this theme, I was thinking of the parting look she gave her boy; a look which had some strange promise in it. What had that look meant and why did my flesh creep and my mind hover between dread and a fearsome curiosity when I recalled it? Alas! There was reason for all these sensations as I was soon to learn.
“We found the inn seething with terror and the facts worse than had been represented in the telegram. Her husband was dying. She had come just in time to witness the end. This they told her before she had taken off her veil. If they had waited — if I had been given a full glimpse of her face — But it was hidden, and I could only judge of the nature of her emotions by the stern way in which she held herself.
“‘Take me to him,’ was the quiet command, with which she met this disclosure. Then, before any of them could move:
“‘And his brother, Mr. Andrew Postlethwaite? Is he fatally injured too?’
“The reply was unequivocal. The doctors were uncertain which of the two would pass away first.
“You must remember that at this time I was ignorant of the rich man’s will, and consequently of how the fate of a poor child of whom I had heard only one mention, hung in the balance at that awful moment. But in the breathlessness which seized Mrs. Postlethwaite at this sentence of double death, I realized from my knowledge of her that something more than grief was at prey upon her impenetrable heart, and shuddered to the core of my being when she repeated in that voice which was so terrible because so expressionless:
“‘Take me to them.’”
They were lying in one room, her husband nearest the door, the other in a small alcove some ten feet away. Both were unconscious; both were surrounded by groups of frightened attendants who fell back as she approached. A doctor stood at the bed-head of her husband, but as her eye met his he stepped aside with a shake of the head and left the place empty for her.
“The action was significant. I saw that she understood what it meant, and with constricted heart watched her as she bent over the dying man and gazed into his wide-open eyes, already sightless and staring. Calculation was in her look and calculation only; and calculation, or something equally unintelligible, sent her next glance in the direction of his brother. What was in her mind? I could understand her indifference to Frank even at the crisis of his fate, but not the interest she showed in Andrew. It was an absorbing one, altering her whole expression. I no longer knew her for my dear young madam, and the jealousy I had never felt towards Frank rose to frantic resentment in my breast as I beheld what very likely might be a tardy recognition of the other’s well-known passion, forced into disclosure by the exigencies of the moment.
“Alarmed by the strength of my feelings, and fearing an equal disclosure on my own part, I sought for a refuge from all eyes and found it in a little balcony opening out at my right. On to this balcony I stepped and found myself face to face with a star-lit heaven. Had I only been content with my isolation and the splendour of the spectacle spread out before me! But no, I must look back upon that bed and the solitary woman standing beside it! I must watch the settling of her body into rigidity as a voice rose from beside the other Postlethwaite saying, ‘It is a matter of minutes now,’ and then — and then — the slow creeping of her hand to her husband’s mouth, the outspreading of her palm across the livid lips — its steady clinging there, smothering the feeble gasps of one already moribund, till the quivering form grew still, and Frank Postlethwaite lay dead before my eyes!
“I saw, and made no outcry, but she did, bringing the doctor back to her side with the startled exclamation:
“‘Dead? I thought he had an hour’s life left in him, and he has passed before his brother.’
“I thought it hate — the murderous impulse of a woman who sees her enemy at her mercy and can no longer restrain the passion of her long-cherished antagonism; and while something within me rebelled at the act, I could not betray her, though silence made a murderer of me too. I could not. Her spell was upon me as in another instant it was upon everyone else in the room. No suspicion of one so self-repressed in her sadness disturbed the universal sympathy; and encouraged by this blindness of the crowd, I vowed within myself never to reveal her secret. The man was dead, or as good as dead, when she touched him; and now that her hate was expended she would grow gentle and good.
“But I knew the worthlessness of this hope as well as my misconception of her motive, when Frank’s child by another wife returned to my memory, and Bella’s sin stood exposed.”
“But only to myself. I alone knew that the fortune now wholly hers, and in consequence her boy’s, had been won by a crime. That if her hand had fallen in comfort on her husband’s forehead instead of in pressure on his mouth, he would have outlived his brother long enough to have become owner of his millions; in which case a rightful portion would have been insured to his daughter, now left a penniless waif. The thought made my hair rise, as the proceedings over, I faced her and made my first and last effort to rid my conscience of its new and intolerable burden.
“But the woman I had known and loved was no longer before me. The crown had touched her brows, and her charm which had been mainly sexual up to this hour had merged into an intellectual force, with which few men’s mentality could cope. Mine yielded at once to it. From the first instant, I knew that a slavery of spirit, as well as of heart, was henceforth to be mine.
“She did not wait for me to speak; she had assumed the dictator’s attitude at once.
“‘I know of what you are thinking,”’ said she, ‘and it is a subject you may dismiss at once from your mind. Mr. Postlethwaite’s child by his first wife is coming to live with us. I have expressed my wishes in this regard to my lawyer, and there is nothing left to be said. You, with your close mouth and dependable nature, are to remain here as before, and occupy the same position towards my boy that you did towards his father. We shall move soon into a larger house, and the nature of our duties will be changed and their scope greatly increased; but I know that you can be trusted to enlarge with them and meet every requirement I shall see fit to make. Do not try to express your thanks. I see them in your face.’
“Did she, or just the last feeble struggle my conscience was making to break the bonds in which she held me, and win back my own respect? I shall never know, for she left me on completion of this speech, not to resume the subject, then or ever.
“But though I succumbed outwardly to her demands, I had not passed the point where inner conflict ends and peace begins. Her recognition of Helena and her reception into the family calmed me for a while, and gave me hope that all would yet be well. But I had never sounded the full bitterness of madam’s morbid heart, well as I thought I knew it. The hatred she had felt from the first for her husband’s child ripened into frenzied dislike when she found her a living image of the mother whose picture she had come across among Frank’s personal effects. To win a tear from those meek eyes instead of a smile to the sensitive lips was her daily play. She seemed to exult in the joy of impressing upon the girl by how little she had missed a great fortune, and I have often thought, much as I tried to keep my mind free from all extravagant and unnecessary fancies, that half of the money she spent in beautifying this house and maintaining art industries and even great charitable institutions was spent with the base purpose of demonstrating to this child the power of immense wealth, and in what ways she might expect to see her little brother expend the millions in which she had been denied all share.
“I was so sure of this that one night while I was winding up the clocks with which Mrs. Postlethwaite in her fondness for old timepieces has filled the house, I stopped to look at the little figure toiling so wearily upstairs, to bed, without a mother’s kiss. There was an appeal in the small wistful face which smote my hard old heart, and possibly a tear welled up in my own eye when I turned back to my duty.”
“Was that why I felt the hand of Providence upon me, when in my halt before the one clock to which any superstitious interest was attached — the great one at the foot of the stairs — I saw that it had stopped and at the one minute of all minutes in our wretched lives: Four minutes past two? The hour, the minute in which Frank Postlethwaite had gasped his last under the pressure of his wife’s hand! I knew it — the exact minute I mean — because Providence meant that I should know it. There had been a clock on the mantelpiece of the hotel room where he and his brother had died and I had seen her glance steal towards it at the instant she withdrew her palm from her husband’s lips. The stare of that dial and the position of its hands had lived still in my mind as I believed it did in hers.
“Four minutes past two! How came our old timepiece here to stop at that exact moment on a day when Duty was making its last demand upon me to remember Frank’s unhappy child? There was no one to answer; but as I looked and looked, I felt the impulse of the moment strengthen into purpose to leave those hands undisturbed in their silent accusation. She might see, and, moved by the coincidence, tremble at her treatment of Helena.
“But if this happened — if she saw and trembled — she gave no sign. The works were started up by some other hand, and the incident passed. But it left me with an idea. That clock soon had a way of stopping and always at that one instant of time. She was forced at length to notice it, and I remember, an occasion when she stood stock-still with her eyes on those hands, and failed to find the banister with her hand, though she groped for it in her frantic need for support.
“But no command came from her to remove the worn-out piece, and soon its tricks, and every lesser thing, were forgotten in the crushing calamity which befell us in the sickness and death of little Richard.
“Oh, those days and nights! And oh, the face of the mother when the doctors told her that the case was hopeless! I asked myself then, and I have asked myself a hundred times since, which of all the emotions I saw pictured there bit the deepest, and made the most lasting impression on her guilty heart? Was it remorse? If so, she showed no change in her attitude towards Helena, unless it was by an added bitterness. The sweet looks and gentle ways of Frank’s young daughter could not win against a hate sharpened by disappointment. Useless for me to hope for it. Release from the remorse of years was not to come in that way. As I realized this, I grew desperate and resorted again to the old trick of stopping the clock at the fatal hour. This time her guilty heart responded. She acknowledged the stab and let all her miseries appear. But how? In a way to wring my heart almost to madness, and not benefit the child at all. She had her first stroke that night. I had made her a helpless invalid.
“That was eight years ago, and since then what? Stagnation. She lived with her memories, and I with mine. Helena only had a right to hope, and hope perhaps she did, till — Is that the great clock talking? Listen! They all talk, but I heed only the one. What does it say? Tell! tell! tell! Does it think I will be silent now when I come to my own guilt? That I will seek to hide my weakness when I could not hide her sin?”
“Explain!” It was Violet speaking, and her tone was stern in its command. “Of what guilt do you speak? Not of guilt towards Helena; you pitied her too much —”
“But I pitied my dear madam more. It was that which affected me and drew me into crime against my will. Besides, I did not know — not at first — what was in the little bowl of curds and cream I carried to the girl each day. She had eaten them in her step-mother’s room, and under her step-mother’s eye as long as she had strength to pass from room to room, and how was I to guess that it was not wholesome? Because she failed in health from day to day? Was not my dear madam failing in health also; and was there poison in her cup? Innocent at that time, why am I not innocent now? Because — Oh, I will tell it all; as though at the bar of God. I will tell all the secrets of that day.
“She was sitting with her hand trembling on the tray from which I had just lifted the bowl she had bid me carry to Helena. I had seen her so a hundred times before, but not with just that look in her eyes, or just that air of desolation in her stony figure. Something made me speak; something made me ask if she were not quite so well as usual, and something made her reply with the dreadful truth that the doctor had given her just two months more to live. My fright and mad anguish stupefied me; for I was not prepared for this, no, not at all; — and unconsciously I stared down at the bowl I held, unable to breathe or move or even to meet her look.”
As usual she misinterpreted my emotion.
“‘Why do you stand like that?’ I heard her say in a tone of great irritation. ‘And why do you stare into that bowl? Do you think I mean to leave that child to walk these halls after I am carried out of them forever? Do you measure my hate by such a petty yard-stick as that? I tell you that I would rot above ground rather than enter it before she did?’
“I had believed I knew this woman; but what soul ever knows another’s? What soul ever knows itself?
“‘Bella!’ I cried; the first time I had ever presumed to address her so intimately. ‘Would you poison the girl?’ And from sheer weakness my fingers lost their clutch, and the bowl fell to the floor, breaking into a dozen pieces.
“For a minute she stared down at these from over her tray, and then she remarked very low and very quietly:
“‘Another bowl, Humphrey, and fresh curds from the kitchen. I will do the seasoning. The doses are too small to be skipped. You won’t?’— I had shaken my head —‘But you will! It will not be the first time you have gone down the hall with this mixture.’
“‘But that was before I knew —’ I began.
“‘And now that you do, you will go just the same.’ Then as I stood hesitating, a thousand memories overwhelming me in an instant, she added in a voice to tear the heart, ‘Do not make me hate the only being left in this world who understands and loves me.’
“She was a helpless invalid, and I a broken man, but when that word ‘love’ fell from her lips, I felt the blood start burning in my veins, and all the crust of habit and years of self-control loosen about my heart, and make me young again. What if her thoughts were dark and her wishes murderous! She was born to rule and sway men to her will even to their own undoing.”
“‘I wish I might kiss your hand,’ was what I murmured, gazing at her white fingers groping over her tray.
“‘You may,’ she answered, and hell became heaven to me for a brief instant. Then I lifted myself and went obediently about my task.
“But puppet though I was, I was not utterly without sympathy. When I entered Helena’s room and saw how her startled eyes fell shrinkingly on the bowl I set down before her, my conscience leaped to life and I could not help saying:
“‘Don’t you like the curds, Helena? Your brother used to love them very much.’
“‘His were —’
“‘What these are not,’ she murmured.
“I stared at her, terror-stricken. So she knew, and yet did not seize the bowl and empty it out of the window! Instead, her hand moved slowly towards it and drew it into place before her.
“‘Yet I must eat,’ she said, lifting her eyes to mine in a sort of patient despair, which yet was without accusation.
“But my hand had instinctively gone to hers and grasped it.
“‘Why must you eat it?’ I asked. ‘If — if you do not find it wholesome, why do you touch it?’
“‘Because my step-mother expects me to,’ she cried, ‘and I have no other will than hers. When I was a little, little child, my father made me promise that if I ever came to live with her I would obey her simplest wish. And I always have. I will not disappoint the trust he put in me.’
“‘Even if you die of it?’
“I do not know whether I whispered these words or only thought them. She answered as though I had spoken.
“‘I am not afraid to die. I am more afraid to live. She may ask me some day to do something I feel to be wrong.’
“When I fled down the hall that night, I heard one of the small clocks speak to me. Tell! it cried, tell! tell! tell! tell! I rushed away from it with beaded forehead and rising hair.
“Then another’s note piped up. No it droned. No! no! no! no! I stopped and took heart. Disgrace the woman I loved, on the brink of the grave? I — who asked no other boon from heaven than to see her happy, gracious, and good? Impossible. I would obey the great clock’s voice; the others were mere chatterboxes.
“But it has at last changed its tune, for some reason, quite changed its tune. Now, it is Yes! Yes! instead of No! and in obeying it I save Helena. But what of Bella? and O God, what of myself?”
A sigh, a groan, then a long and heavy silence, into which there finally broke the pealing of the various clocks striking the hour. When all were still again and Violet had drawn aside the portiere, it was to see the old man on his knees, and between her and the thin streak of light entering from the hall, the figure of the doctor hastening to Helena’s bedside.
When with inducements needless to name, they finally persuaded the young girl to leave her unholy habitation, it was in the arms which had upheld her once before, and to a life which promised to compensate her for her twenty years of loneliness and unsatisfied longing.
But a black shadow yet remained which she must cross before reaching the sunshine!
It lay at her step-mother’s door.
In the plans made for Helena’s release, Mrs. Postlethwaite’s consent had not been obtained nor was she supposed to be acquainted with the doctor’s intentions towards the child whose death she was hourly awaiting.
It was therefore with an astonishment, bordering on awe, that on their way downstairs, they saw the door of her room open and herself standing alone and upright on the threshold — she who had not been seen to take a step in years. In the wonder of this miracle of suddenly restored power, the little procession stopped — the doctor with his hand upon the rail, the lover with his burden clasped yet more protectingly to his breast. That a little speech awaited them could be seen from the force and fury of the gaze which the indomitable woman bent upon the lax and half-unconscious figure she beheld thus sheltered and conveyed. Having but one arrow left in her exhausted quiver, she launched it straight at the innocent breast which had never harboured against her a defiant thought.
“Ingrate!” was the word she hurled in a voice from which all its seductive music had gone forever. “Where are you going? Are they carrying you alive to your grave?”
A moan from Helena’s pale lips, then silence. She had fainted at that barbed attack. But there was one there who dared to answer for her and he spoke relentlessly. It was the man who loved her.
“No, madam. We are carrying her to safety. You must know what I mean by that. Let her go quietly and you may die in peace. Otherwise —”
She interrupted him with a loud call, startling into life the echoes of that haunted hall:
“Humphrey! Come to me, Humphrey!”
But no Humphrey appeared.
Another call, louder and more peremptory than before:
“Humphrey! I say, Humphrey!”
But the answer was the same — silence, and only silence. As the horror of this grew, the doctor spoke:
“Mr. Humphrey Dunbar’s ears are closed to all earthly summons. He died last night at the very hour he said he would — four minutes after two.”
“Four minutes after two!” It came from her lips in a whisper, but with a revelation of her broken heart and life. “Four minutes after two!” And defiant to the last, her head rose, and for an instant, for a mere breath of time, they saw her as she had looked in her prime, regal in form, attitude, and expression; then the will which had sustained her through so much, faltered and succumbed, and with a final reiteration of the words “Four minutes after two!” she broke into a rattling laugh, and fell back into the arms of her old nurse.
And below, one clock struck the hour and then another. But not the big one at the foot of the stairs. That still stood silent, with its hands pointing to the hour and minute of Frank Postlethwaite’s hastened death.
End of Problem VI
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09