After supper Mr. Allison put before me a large book. “Amuse yourself with these pictures,” said he; “I have a little task to perform. After it is done I will come again and sit with you.”
“You are not going out,” I cried, starting up. “No,” he smiled, “I am not going out.” I sank back and opened the book, but I did not look at the pictures. Instead of that I listened to his steps moving about the house, rear and front, and finally going up what seemed to be a servant’s staircase, for I could see the great front stairs from where I sat, and there was no one on them. “Why do I not hear his feet overhead?” I asked myself. “That is the only room he has given me leave to enter. Does his task take him elsewhere?” Seemingly so, for, though he was gone a good half hour, he did not enter the room above. Why should I think of so small a matter? It would be hard to say; perhaps I was afraid of being left in the great rooms alone; perhaps I was only curious; but I asked myself a dozen times before he reappeared, “Where is he gone, and why does he stay away so long?” But when he returned and sat down I said nothing. There was a little thing I noted, however. His hands were trembling, and it was five minutes before he met my inquiring look. This I should not consider worth mentioning if I had not observed the same hesitancy follow the same disappearance up-stairs on the succeeding night. It was the only time in the day when he really left me, and, when he came back, he was not like himself for a good half hour or more. “I will not displease him with questions,” I decided; “but some day I will find my own way into those lofts above. I shall never be at rest till I do.”
What I expected to find there is as much a mystery to my understanding as my other doubts and fears. I hardly think I expected to find anything but a desk of papers, or a box with money in it or other valuables. Still the idea that something on the floor above had power to shadow my husband’s face, even in the glow of his first love for me, possessed me so completely that, when he fell asleep one evening on the library lounge, I took the opportunity of stealing away and mounting the forbidden staircase to the third floor. I had found a candle in my bedroom, and this I took to light me. But it revealed nothing to me except a double row of unused rooms, with dust on the handles of all the doors. I scrutinized them all; for, young as I was, I had wit enough to see that if I could find one knob on which no dust lay that would be the one my husband was accustomed to turn. But every one showed tokens of not having been touched in years, and, baffled in my search, I was about to retreat, when I remembered that the house had four stories, and that I had not yet come upon the staircase leading to the one above. A hurried search (for I was mortally afraid of being surprised by my husband,) revealed to me at last a distant door, which had no dust on its knob. It lay at the bottom of a shut-in stair-case, and, convinced that here was, the place my husband was in the habit of visiting, I carefully fingered the knob, which turned very softly in my hand. But it did not open the door. There was a lock visible just below, and that lock was fastened.
My first escapade was without visible results, but I was uneasy from that hour. I imagined all sorts of things hidden beyond that closed, door. I remembered that the windows of the fourth story were all boarded up, and asked myself why this had been done when the lower ones had been left open. I was young, but I had heard of occupations which could only be entered into by a man secretly. Did he amuse himself with forbidden tasks in that secluded place above, or was I but exaggerating facts which might have their basis simply in a quondam bachelor’s desire for solitude and a quiet smoke. “I will follow him up some night,” thought I, “and see if I cannot put an end at once to my unworthy fears and unhappy suspicions.” But I never did; something happened very soon to prevent me.
I was walking one morning in the grounds that lay about the house, when suddenly I felt something small but perceptibly hard strike my hat and bound quickly off. Astonished, for I was under no tree, under nothing indeed but the blue of heaven, I looked about for the object that had struck me. As I did so, I perceived my husband in his window, but his eyes, while upon me, did not see me, for no change passed over him as I groped about in the grass. “In one of his contemplative moods,” thought I, continuing my search. In another instant I started up. I had found a little thing like a bullet wrapped up in paper; but it was no bullet; it was a bead, a large gold bead, and on the paper which surrounded it were written words so fine I could not at first decipher them, but as soon as I had stepped away far enough to be out of the reach of the eyes I both loved and feared more than any in the world, I managed, by dint of great patience, and by placing the almost transparent paper on which they were written over one of the white satin strings of the cape I wore, to read these words:
“Help from the passing stranger! I am Elizabeth Ransome, owner of the house in which I have been imprisoned five years. Search for me in the upper story. You will find me there with my blind daughter. He who placed us here is below; beware his cunning.”
And underneath, these words:
“This is the twenty-fifth attempt I have made to attract attention to our unhappy fate. I can make but two more. There are but two beads left of Theresa’s necklace.”
“What is the matter, ma’am? Are you ill?” It was Ambrose; I knew his voice.
Crushing the paper in my hand, I tried to look up; but it was in vain. The sting of sudden and complete disillusion had struck me to the heart; I knew my husband to be a villain.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09