Oh, my offence is rank, it smells to heav’n:
It hath the primal eldest curse upon ‘t!
A DAY had passed. Mr. Byrd, who no longer had any reason to doubt that he was upon the trail of the real assailant of the Widow Clemmens, had resolved upon a third visit to the woods, this time with the definite object of picking up any clew, however trifling, in support of the fact that Craik Mansell had passed through the glade behind his aunt’s house.
The sky, when he left the hotel, was one vast field of blue; but by the time he reached the terminus of the car-route, and stepped out upon the road leading to the woods, dark clouds had overcast the sun, and a cool wind replaced the quiet zephyrs which had all day fanned the brilliant autumn foliage.
He did not realize the condition of the atmosphere, however, and proceeded on his way, thinking more of the person he had just perceived issuing from the door-way of Professor Darling’s lofty mansion, than of the low mutterings of distant thunder that now and then disturbed the silence of the woods, or of the ominous, brazen tint which was slowly settling over the huge bank of cloud that filled the northern sky. For that person was Miss Dare, and her presence here, or anywhere near him, at this time, must of necessity, awaken a most painful train of thought.
But, though unmindful of the storm, he was dimly conscious of the darkness that was settling about him. Quicker and quicker grew his pace, and at last he almost broke into a run as the heavy pall of a large black cloud swept up over the zenith, and wiped from the heavens the last remnant of blue sky. One drop fell, then another, then a slow, heavy patter, that bent double the leaves they fell upon, as if a shower of lead had descended upon the heavily writhing forest. The wind had risen, too, and the vast aisles of that clear and beautiful wood thundered with the swaying of boughs, and the crash here and there of an old and falling limb. But the lightning delayed.
The blindest or most abstracted man could be ignorant no longer of what all this turmoil meant. Stopping in the path along which he had been speeding, Mr. Byrd glanced before him and behind, in a momentary calculation of distances, and deciding he could not regain the terminus before the storm burst, pushed on toward the hut.
He reached it just as the first flash of lightning darted down through the heavy darkness, and was about to fling himself against the door, when something — was it the touch of an invisible hand, or the crash of awful thunder which at this instant plowed up the silence of the forest and woke a pandemonium of echoes about his head? — stopped him.
He never knew. He only realized that he shuddered and drew back, with a feeling of great disinclination to enter the low building before him, alone; and that presently taking advantage of another loud crash of falling boughs, he crept around the corner of the hut, and satisfied his doubts by looking into the small, square window opening to the west.
He found there was ample reason for all the hesitation he had felt. A man was sitting there, who, at the first glimpse, appeared to him to be none other than Craik Mansell. But reason soon assured him this could not be, though the shape, the attitude — that old attitude of despair which he remembered so well — was so startlingly like that of the man whose name was uppermost in his thoughts, that he recoiled in spite of himself.
A second flash swept blinding through the wood. Mr. Byrd advanced his head and took another glance at the stranger. It was Mr. Mansell. No other man would sit so quiet and unmoved during the rush and clatter of a terrible storm.
Look! not a hair of his head has stirred, not a movement has taken place in the hands clasped so convulsively beneath his brow. He is an image, a stone, and would not hear though the roof fell in.
Mr. Byrd himself forgot the storm, and only queried what his duty was in this strange and surprising emergency.
But before he could come to any definite conclusion, he was subjected to a new sensation. A stir that was not the result of the wind or the rain had taken place in the forest before him. A something — he could not tell what — was advancing upon him from the path he had himself travelled so short a time before, and its step, if step it were, shook him with a vague apprehension that made him dread to lift his eyes. But he conquered the unmanly instinct, and merely taking the precaution to step somewhat further back from view, looked in the direction of his fears, and saw a tall, firmly-built woman, whose grandly poised head, held high, in defiance of the gale, the lightning, and the rain, proclaimed her to be none other than Imogene Dare.
It was a juxtaposition of mental, moral, and physical forces that almost took Mr. Byrd’s breath away. He had no doubt whom she had come to see, or to what sort of a tryst he was about to be made an unwilling witness. But he could not have moved if the blast then surging through the trees had uprooted the huge pine behind which he had involuntarily drawn at the first impression he had received of her approach. He must watch that white face of hers slowly evolve itself from the surrounding darkness, and he must be present when the dreadful bolt swept down from heaven, if only to see her eyes in the flare of its ghostly flame.
It came while she was crossing the glade. Fierce, blinding, more vivid and searching than at any time before, it flashed down through the cringing boughs, and, like a mantle of fire, enveloped her form, throwing out its every outline, and making of the strong and beautiful face an electric vision which Mr. Byrd was never able to forget.
A sudden swoop of wind followed, flinging her almost to the ground, but Mr. Byrd knew from that moment that neither wind nor lightning, not even the fear of death, would stop this woman if once she was determined upon any course.
Dreading the next few moments inexpressibly, yet forcing himself, as a detective, to remain at his post, though every instinct of his nature rebelled, Mr. Byrd drew himself up against the side of the low hut and listened. Her voice, rising between the mutterings of thunder and the roar of the ceaseless gale, was plainly to be heard.
“Craik Mansell,” said she, in a strained tone, that was not without its severity, “you sent for me, and I am here.”
Ah, this was her mode of greeting, was it? Mr. Byrd felt his breath come easier, and listened for the reply with intensest interest.
But it did not come. The low rumbling of the thunder went on, and the wind howled through the gruesome forest, but the man she had addressed did not speak.
“Craik!” Her voice still came from the door-way, where she had seemingly taken her stand. “Do you not hear me?”
A stifled groan was the sole reply.
She appeared to take one step forward, but no more.
“I can understand,” said she, and Mr. Byrd had no difficulty in hearing her words, though the turmoil overhead was almost deafening, “why the restlessness of despair should drive you into seeking this interview. I have longed to see you too, if only to tell you that I wish heaven’s thunderbolts had fallen upon us both on that day when we sat and talked of our future prospects and ——”
A lurid flash cut short her words. Strange and awesome sounds awoke in the air above, and the next moment a great branch fell crashing down upon the roof of the hut, beating in one corner, and sliding thence heavily to the ground, where it lay with all its quivering leaves uppermost, not two feet from the door-way where this woman stood.
A shriek like that of a lost spirit went up from her lips.
“I thought the vengeance of heaven had fallen!” she gasped. And for a moment not a sound was heard within or without the hut, save that low flutter of the disturbed leaves. “It is not to be,” she then whispered, with a return of her old calmness, that was worse than any shriek. “Murder is not to be avenged thus.” Then, shortly: “A dark and hideous line of blood is drawn between you and me, Craik Mansell. I cannot pass it, and you must not, forever and forever and forever. But that does not hinder me from wishing to help you, and so I ask, in all sincerity, What is it you want me to do for you to-day?”
A response came this time.
“Show me how to escape the consequences of my act,” were his words, uttered in a low and muffled voice.
She did not answer at once.
“Are you threatened?” she inquired at last, in a tone that proved she had drawn one step nearer to the bowed form and hidden face of the person she addressed.
“My conscience threatens me,” was the almost stifled reply.
Again that heavy silence, all the more impressive that the moments before had been so prolific of heaven’s most terrible noises.
“You suffer because another man is forced to endure suspicion for a crime he never committed,” she whisperingly exclaimed.
Only a groan answered her; and the moments grew heavier and heavier, more and more oppressive, though the hitherto accompanying outcries of the forest had ceased, and a faint lightening of the heavy darkness was taking place overhead. Mr. Byrd felt the pressure of the situation so powerfully, he drew near to the window he had hitherto avoided, and looked in. She was standing a foot behind the crouched figure of the man, between whom and herself she had avowed a line of blood to be drawn. As he looked she spoke.
“Craik,” said she, and the deathless yearning of love spoke in her voice at last, “there is but one thing to do. Expiate your guilt by acknowledging it. Save the innocent from unmerited suspicion, and trust to the mercy of God. It is the only advice I can give you. I know no other road to peace. If I did ——” She stopped, choked by the terror of her own thoughts. “Craik,” she murmured, at last, “on the day I hear of your having made this confession, I vow to take an oath of celibacy for life. It is the only recompense I can offer for the misery and sin into which our mutual mad ambitions have plunged you.”
And subduing with a look of inexpressible anguish an evident longing to lay her hand in final caress upon that bended head, she gave him one parting look, and then, with a quick shudder, hurried away, and buried herself amid the darkness of the wet and shivering woods.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55