“Vous regardez une etoile pour deux motifs, parce qu’elle est lumineuse et parce qu’elle est impenetrable. Vous avez aupres de vous un plus doux rayonnement et un pas grand mystere, la femme.”
AND now followed days in which I seemed to make little or no progress. Mr. Clavering, disturbed perhaps by my presence, forsook his usual haunts, thus depriving me of all opportunity of making his acquaintance in any natural manner, while the evenings spent at Miss Leavenworth’s were productive of little else than constant suspense and uneasiness.
The manuscript required less revision than I supposed. But, in the course of making such few changes as were necessary, I had ample opportunity of studying the character of Mr. Harwell. I found him to be neither more nor less than an excellent amanuensis. Stiff, unbending, and sombre, but true to his duty and reliable in its performance, I learned to respect him, and even to like him; and this, too, though I saw the liking was not reciprocated, whatever the respect may have been. He never spoke of Eleanore Leavenworth or, indeed, mentioned the family or its trouble in any way; till I began to feel that all this reticence had a cause deeper than the nature of the man, and that if he did speak, it would be to some purpose. This suspicion, of course, kept me restlessly eager in his presence. I could not forbear giving him sly glances now and then, to see how he acted when he believed himself unobserved; but he was ever the same, a passive, diligent, unexcitable worker.
This continual beating against a stone wall, for thus I regarded it, became at last almost unendurable. Clavering shy, and the secretary unapproachable — how was I to gain anything? The short interviews I had with Mary did not help matters. Haughty, constrained, feverish, pettish, grateful, appealing, everything at once, and never twice the same, I learned to dread, even while I coveted, an interview. She appeared to be passing through some crisis which occasioned her the keenest suffering. I have seen her, when she thought herself alone, throw up her hands with the gesture which we use to ward off a coming evil or shut out some hideous vision. I have likewise beheld her standing with her proud head abased, her nervous hands drooping, her whole form sinking and inert, as if the pressure of a weight she could neither upbear nor cast aside had robbed her even of the show of resistance. But this was only once. Ordinarily she was at least stately in her trouble. Even when the softest appeal came into her eyes she stood erect, and retained her expression of conscious power. Even the night she met me in the hall, with feverish cheeks and lips trembling with eagerness, only to turn and fly again without giving utterance to what she had to say, she comported herself with a fiery dignity that was well nigh imposing.
That all this meant something, I was sure; and so I kept my patience alive with the hope that some day she would make a revelation. Those quivering lips would not always remain closed; the secret involving Eleanore’s honor and happiness would be divulged by this restless being, if by no one else. Nor was the memory of that extraordinary, if not cruel, accusation I had heard her make enough to destroy this hope — for hope it had grown to be-so that I found myself insensibly shortening my time with Mr. Harwell in the library, and extending my tete-a-tete visits with Mary in the reception room, till the imperturbable secretary was forced to complain that he was often left for hours without work.
But, as I say, days passed, and a second Monday evening came round without seeing me any further advanced upon the problem I had set myself to solve than when I first started upon it two weeks before. The subject of the murder had not even been broached; nor was Hannah spoken of, though I observed the papers were not allowed to languish an instant upon the stoop; mistress and servants betraying equal interest in their contents. All this was strange to me. It was as if you saw a group of human beings eating, drinking, and sleeping upon the sides of a volcano hot with a late eruption and trembling with the birth of a new one. I longed to break this silence as we shiver glass: by shouting the name of Eleanore through those gilded rooms and satin-draped vestibules. But this Monday evening I was in a calmer mood. I was determined to expect nothing from my visits to Mary Leavenworth’s house; and entered it upon the eve in question with an equanimity such as I had not experienced since the first day I passed under its unhappy portals.
But when, upon nearing the reception room, I saw Mary pacing the floor with the air of one who is restlessly awaiting something or somebody, I took a sudden resolution, and, advancing towards her, said: “Do I see you alone, Miss Leavenworth?”
She paused in her hurried action, blushed and bowed, but, contrary to her usual custom, did not bid me enter.
“Will it be too great an intrusion on my part, if I venture to come in?” I asked.
Her glance flashed uneasily to the clock, and she seemed about to excuse herself, but suddenly yielded, and, drawing up a chair before the fire, motioned me towards it. Though she endeavored to appear calm, I vaguely felt I had chanced upon her in one of her most agitated moods, and that I had only to broach the subject I had in mind to behold her haughtiness disappear before me like melting snow. I also felt that I had but few moments in which to do it. I accordingly plunged immediately into the subject.
“Miss Leavenworth,” said I, “in obtruding upon you to-night, I have a purpose other than that of giving myself a pleasure. I have come to make an appeal.”
Instantly I saw that in some way I had started wrong. “An appeal to make to me?” she asked, breathing coldness from every feature of her face.
“Yes,” I went on, with passionate recklessness. “Balked in every other endeavor to learn the truth, I have come to you, whom I believe to be noble at the core, for that help which seems likely to fail us in every other direction: for the word which, if it does not absolutely save your cousin, will at least put us upon the track of what will.”
“I do not understand what you mean,” she protested, slightly shrinking.
“Miss Leavenworth,” I pursued, “it is needless for me to tell you in what position your cousin stands. You, who remember both the form and drift of the questions put to her at the inquest, comprehend it all without any explanation from me. But what you may not know is this, that unless she is speedily relieved from the suspicion which, justly or not, has attached itself to her name, the consequences which such suspicion entails must fall upon her, and ——”
“Good God!” she cried; “you do not mean she will be ——”
“Subject to arrest? Yes.”
It was a blow. Shame, horror, and anguish were in every line of her white face. “And all because of that key!” she murmured.
“Key? How did you know anything about a key?”
“Why,” she cried, flushing painfully; “I cannot say; didn’t you tell me?”
“No,” I returned.
“The papers, then?”
“The papers have never mentioned it.”
She grew more and more agitated. “I thought every one knew. No, I did not, either,” she avowed, in a sudden burst of shame and penitence. “I knew it was a secret; but — oh, Mr. Raymond, it was Eleanore herself who told me.”
“Yes, that last evening she was here; we were together in the drawing-room.”
“What did she tell?”
“That the key to the library had been seen in her possession.”
I could scarcely conceal my incredulity. Eleanore, conscious of the suspicion with which her cousin regarded her, inform that cousin of a fact calculated to add weight to that suspicion? I could not believe this.
“But you knew it?” Mary went on. “I have revealed nothing I ought to have kept secret?”
“No,” said I; “and, Miss Leavenworth, it is this thing which makes your cousin’s position absolutely dangerous. It is a fact that, left unexplained, must ever link her name with infamy; a bit of circumstantial evidence no sophistry can smother, and no denial obliterate. Only her hitherto spotless reputation, and the efforts of one who, notwithstanding appearances, believes in her innocence, keeps her so long from the clutch of the officers of justice. That key, and the silence preserved by her in regard to it, is sinking her slowly into a pit from which the utmost endeavors of her best friends will soon be inadequate to extricate her.”
“And you tell me this ——”
“That you may have pity on the poor girl, who will not have pity on herself, and by the explanation of a few circumstances, which cannot be mysteries to you, assist in bringing her from under the dreadful shadow that threatens to overwhelm her.”
“And would you insinuate, sir,” she cried, turning upon me with a look of great anger, “that I know any more than you do of this matter? that I possess any knowledge which I have not already made public concerning the dreadful tragedy which has transformed our home into a desert, our existence into a lasting horror? Has the blight of suspicion fallen upon me, too; and have you come to accuse me in my own house ——”
“Miss Leavenworth,” I entreated; “calm yourself. I accuse you of nothing. I only desire you to enlighten me as to your cousin’s probable motive for this criminating silence. You cannot be ignorant of it. You are her cousin, almost her sister, have been at all events her daily companion for years, and must know for whom or for what she seals her lips, and conceals facts which, if known, would direct suspicion to the real criminal — that is, if you really believe what you have hitherto stated, that your cousin is an innocent woman.”
She not making any answer to this, I rose and confronted her. “Miss Leavenworth, do you believe your cousin guiltless of this crime, or not?”
“Guiltless? Eleanore? Oh! my God; if all the world were only as innocent as she!”
“Then,” said I, “you must likewise believe that if she refrains from speaking in regard to matters which to ordinary observers ought to be explained, she does it only from motives of kindness towards one less guiltless than herself.”
“What? No, no; I do not say that. What made you think of any such explanation?”
“The action itself. With one of Eleanore’s character, such conduct as hers admits of no other construction. Either she is mad, or she is shielding another at the expense of herself.”
Mary’s lip, which had trembled, slowly steadied itself. “And whom have you settled upon, as the person for whom Eleanore thus sacrifices herself?”
“Ah,” said I, “there is where I seek assistance from you. With your knowledge of her history ——”
But Mary Leavenworth, sinking haughtily back into her chair, stopped me with a quiet gesture. “I beg your pardon,” said she; “but you make a mistake. I know little or nothing of Eleanore’s personal feelings. The mystery must be solved by some one besides me.”
I changed my tactics.
“When Eleanore confessed to you that the missing key had been seen in her possession, did she likewise inform you where she obtained it, and for what reason she was hiding it?”
“Merely told you the fact, without any explanation?”
“Was not that a strange piece of gratuitous information for her to give one who, but a few hours before, had accused her to the face of committing a deadly crime?”
“What do you mean?”’ she asked, her voice suddenly sinking.
“You will not deny that you were once, not only ready to believe her guilty, but that you actually charged her with having perpetrated this crime.”
“Explain yourself!” she cried.
“Miss Leavenworth, do you not remember what you said in that room upstairs, when you were alone with your cousin on the morning of the inquest, just before Mr. Gryce and myself entered your presence?”
Her eyes did not fall, but they filled with sudden terror.
“You heard?” she whispered.
“I could not help it. I was just outside the door, and ——”
“What did you hear?”
I told her.
“And Mr. Gryce?”
“He was at my side.”
It seemed as if her eyes would devour my face. “Yet nothing was said when you came in?”
“You, however, have never forgotten it?”
“How could we, Miss Leavenworth?”
Her head fell forward in her hands, and for one wild moment she seemed lost in despair. Then she roused, and desperately exclaimed:
“And that is why you come here to-night. With that sentence written upon your heart, you invade my presence, torture me with questions ——”
“Pardon me,” I broke in; “are my questions such as you, with reasonable regard for the honor of one with whom you are accustomed to associate, should hesitate to answer? Do I derogate from my manhood in asking you how and why you came to make an accusation of so grave a nature, at a time when all the circumstances of the case were freshly before you, only to insist fully as strongly upon your cousin’s innocence when you found there was even more cause for your imputation than you had supposed?”
She did not seem to hear me. “Oh, my cruel fate!” she murmured. “Oh, my cruel fate!”
“Miss Leavenworth,” said I, rising, and taking my stand before her; “although there is a temporary estrangement between you and your cousin, you cannot wish to seem her enemy. Speak, then; let me at least know the name of him for whom she thus immolates herself. A hint from you ——”
But rising, with a strange look, to her feet, she interrupted me with a stern remark: “If you do not know, I cannot inform you; do not ask me, Mr. Raymond.” And she glanced at the clock for the second time.
I took another turn.
“Miss Leavenworth, you once asked me if a person who had committed a wrong ought necessarily to confess it; and I replied no, unless by the confession reparation could be made. Do you remember?”
Her lips moved, but no words issued from them.
“I begin to think,” I solemnly proceeded, following the lead of her emotion, “that confession is the only way out of this difficulty: that only by the words you can utter Eleanore can be saved from the doom that awaits her. Will you not then show yourself a true woman by responding to my earnest entreaties?”
I seemed to have touched the right chord; for she trembled, and a look of wistfulness filled her eyes. “Oh, if I could!” she murmured.
“And why can you not? You will never be happy till you do. Eleanore persists in silence; but that is no reason why you should emulate her example. You only make her position more doubtful by it.”
“I know it; but I cannot help myself. Fate has too strong a hold upon me; I cannot break away.”
“That is not true. Any one can escape from bonds imaginary as yours.”
“No, no,” she protested; “you do not understand.”
“I understand this: that the path of rectitude is a straight one, and that he who steps into devious byways is going astray.”
A nicker of light, pathetic beyond description, flashed for a moment across her face; her throat rose as with one wild sob; her lips opened; she seemed yielding, when — A sharp ring at the front door-bell!
“Oh,” she cried, sharply turning, “tell him I cannot see him; tell him ——”
“Miss Leavenworth,” said I, taking her by both hands, “never mind the door; never mind anything but this. I have asked you a question which involves the mystery of this whole affair; answer me, then, for your soul’s sake; tell me, what the unhappy circumstances were which could induce you —”
But she tore her hands from mine. “The door!” she cried; “it will open, and —”
Stepping into the hall, I met Thomas coming up the basement stairs. “Go back,” said I; “I will call you when you are wanted.”
With a bow he disappeared.
“You expect me to answer,” she exclaimed, when I re-entered, “now, in a moment? I cannot.”
“Impossible!” fastening her gaze upon the front door.
“I fear the time will never come, if you do not speak now.”
“Impossible,” she reiterated.
Another twang at the bell.
“You hear!” said she.
I went into the hall and called Thomas. “You may open the door now,” said I, and moved to return to her side.
But, with a gesture of command, she pointed up-stairs. “Leave me!” and her glance passed on to Thomas, who stopped where he was.
“I will see you again before I go,” said I, and hastened up-stairs.
Thomas opened the door. “Is Miss Leavenworth in?” I heard a rich, tremulous voice inquire.
“Yes, sir,” came in the butler’s most respectful and measured accents, and, leaning over the banisters I beheld, to my amazement, the form of Mr. Clavering enter the front hall and move towards the reception room.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09