Look on death itself! — up, up, and see
The great doom’s visage!
Why, I did not know. There seemed to be no reason for this excess of feeling. I had no dread of attack; my apprehension was of another sort. Besides, any attack here must come from the rear — from the open doorway in which I stood — and my dread lay before me, in the room itself, which, as I have already said, appeared to be totally empty. What could occasion my doubts, and why did I not fly the place? There were passage-ways yet to search, why linger here like a gaby in the dark when perhaps the man I believed to be in hiding somewhere within these walls, was improving the opportunity to escape?
If I asked myself this question, I did not answer it, but I doubt if I asked it then. I had forgotten the intruder; the interest which had carried me thus far had become lost in a fresher one of which the beginning and ending lay hidden within the four walls I now stared upon, unseeing. Not to see and yet to feel — did that make the horror? If so, another lighted match must help me out. I struck one while the thought was hot within me, and again took a look at the room.
I noted but one thing new, but that made me reel back till I was half way into the hall. Then a certain dogged persistency I possess came to my rescue, and I re-entered the room at a leap and stood before the lounge and its pile of cushions. They were numerous — all that the room contained, and more! Chairs had been stripped, window-seats denuded, and the whole collection disposed here in a set way which struck me as unnatural. Was this the janitor’s idea? I hardly thought so, and was about to pluck one of these cushions off, when that most unreasonable horror seized me again and I found myself looking back over my shoulder at the fireplace from which rose a fading streak of smoke which some passing gust, perhaps, had blown out into the room.
I felt sick. Was it the smell? It was not that of burning wood, hardly of burning paper, I— but here my second match went out.
Thoroughly roused now (you will say, by what?) I felt my way out of the room and to the head of the staircase. I remembered the candle and candlestick I had heard thrown down on the lower floor by Carmel Cumberland. I would secure them and come back and settle these uncanny doubts. It might be the veriest fool business, but my mind was disturbed and must be set at ease. Nothing else seemed so important, yet I was not without anxiety for the lovely and delicate woman wandering the snow-covered roads in the teeth of a furious gale, any more than I was dead to the fact that I should never forgive myself if I allowed the man to escape whom I believed to be hiding somewhere in the rear of this house.
I had a hunt for the candlestick and a still longer one for the candle, but finally I recovered both, and, lighting the latter, felt myself, for the first time, more or less master of the situation.
Rapidly regaining the room in which my interest was now centred, I set the candlestick down on the dresser, and approached the lounge. Hardly knowing what I feared, or what I expected to find, I tore off one of the cushions and flung it behind me. More cushions were revealed — but that was not all.
Escaping from the edge of one of them I saw a shiny tress of woman’s hair. I gave a gasp and pulled off more cushions, then I fell on my knees, struck down by the greatest horror which a man can feel. Death lay before me — violent, uncalled-for death — and the victim was a woman. But it was not that. Though the head was not yet revealed, I thought I knew the woman and that she — Did seconds pass or many minutes before I lifted that last cushion? I shall never know. It was an eternity to me and I am not of a sentimental cast, but I have some sort of a conscience and during that interval it awoke. It has never quite slept since.
The cushion had not concealed the hands, but I did not look at them — I did not dare. I must first see the face. But I did not twitch this pillow off; I drew it aside slowly, as though held by the restraining clutch of some one behind me. And I was so held, but not by what was visible — rather by the terrors which gather in the soul at the summons of some dreadful doom. I could not meet the certainty without some preparation. I released another strand of hair; then the side of a cheek, half buried out of sight in the loosened locks and bulging pillows; then, with prayers to God for mercy, an icy brow; two staring eyes — which having seen I let the cushion drop, for mercy was not to be mine.
It was she, she, indeed! and judgment was glassed in the look I met — judgment and nothing more kindly, however I might appeal to Heaven for mercy or whatever the need of my fiercely startled and repentant soul.
Dead! Adelaide! the woman I had planned to wrong that very night, and who had thus wronged me! For a moment I could take in nothing but this one astounding fact, then the how and the why woke in maddening curiosity within me, and seizing the cushion, I dragged it aside and stared down into the pitiful and accusing features thus revealed, as though to tear from them the story of the crime which had released me as I would not have been released, no, not to have had my heart’s desire in all the fulness with which I had contemplated it a few short hours before.
But beyond the ever accusing, protuberant stare, those features told nothing; and steeling myself to the situation, I made what observation I could of her condition and the surrounding circumstances. For this was my betrothed wife. Whatever my intentions, however far my love had strayed under the spell cast over me by her sister — the young girl who had just passed out — Adelaide and I had been engaged for many months; our wedding day was even set.
But that was all over now — ended as her life was ended: suddenly, incomprehensibly, and by no stroke of God. Even the jewel on her finger was gone, the token of our betrothal. This was to be expected. She would be apt to take it off before committing herself to a fate that proclaimed me a traitor to this symbol. I should see that ring again. I should find it in a letter filled with bitter words. I would not think of it or of them now. I would try to learn how she had committed this act, whether by poison or —
It must have been by poison; no other means would suggest themselves to one of her refined sense; but if so, why those marks on her neck, growing darker and darker as I stared at them!
My senses reeled as I scrutinised those marks. Small, delicate but deadly, they stared upon me from either side of her white neck till nature could endure no more and I tottered back against the further wall, beholding no longer room, nor lounge, nor recumbent body, but a young girl’s exquisite face, set in lines which belied her seventeen years, and made futile any attempt on my part at self-deception when my reason inexorably demanded an explanation of this death. As suicide it was comprehensible, as murder, not, unless —
And it had been murder!
I sank to the floor as I fully realised this.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50