They waited while he wrote. A sinister calm quite unlike that which the victim of his ambition had shown under the stress of equal suffering if not equal guilt had subdued his expression to one of unmoved gloom, never to be broken again.
As word after word flowed from the point of his pen upon the paper spread out before him, the two officials sitting aside in the shadow watched for the flicker of an eyelash, or a trembling of the fingers so busy over their task. But no such sign of weakening did they see. Once only did he pause to look away — was it into the past or into futurity? — with a steady, self-forgetful gaze which seemed to make a man of him again. Then he went on with his task with the grimness of one who takes his last step into ignominy.
We will follow his words as he writes, leaving them for the others to read on their completion.
“I, Carleton Roberts, in face of an inquiry which is about to be held on the death of her who called herself Angeline Willetts, but whose real name is as I have since been told Angeline Duclos, wish to make this statement in connection with the same.
“It was at my hand she died. I strung the bow and let fly the arrow which killed this unfortunate child. Not with the intention of finding my mark in her innocent bosom. She simply got in the way of the woman for whom it was intended — if I really was governed by intent, of which I here declare before God I am by no means sure.
“The child was a stranger to me, but the woman in whose stead she inadvertently perished I had known long and well. My wrongs to her had been great, but she had kept silence during my whole married life and in my blind confidence in the exemption this seemed to afford me, I put no curb upon my ambition which had already carried me far beyond my deserts. Those who read these lines may know how majestic were my hopes, how imminent the honor, to attain which I have employed my best energies for years. Life was bright, the future dazzling. Though I had neither wife nor child, the promise of activity on the lines which appeal to every man of political instinct gave me all I seemed to need in the way of compensation. I was happy, arrogantly so, perhaps, when without warning the woman I had not seen in years, who — if I thought of her at all, I honestly believed to be dead — wrote me a letter recalling her claims and proposing a speedy interview, with a view to their immediate settlement. Though couched in courteous terms, the whole letter was instinct with a confidence which staggered me. She meant to reënter my life, and if I knew her, openly. Nothing short of bearing my name and being introduced to the world as my wife would satisfy her; and this not only threatened a scandal destructive of my hopes, but involved the breaking of a fresh matrimonial engagement into which I had lately entered with more ardor I fear than judgment. What was I to do? Let her have her way — this woman I had not seen in fifteen years — who if at the age of twenty had seemed to my enthusiastic youth little short of a poet’s dream, must be far short of any such perfection now? I rebelled at the very thought. Yet to deny her meant the possible facing of consequences such as the strongest may well shrink from. And the time for choice was short. She had limited her patience to a fortnight, and one day of that fortnight had already passed.
“I have in my arrogant manhood sometimes credited myself with the possession of a mind of more or less superiority; but I have never deceived myself as to the meretricious quality of the goodness with which many have thoughtlessly endowed me. I have always known it was not even up to that of men whose standards fall far short of the highest integrity. But never, till that hour came, had I realized to what depths of evil my nature could sink under a disappointment threatening the fulfillment of my ambitious projects. Had there been any prospect of escape from the impending scandal by means usually employed by men in my position, I might have given my thoughts less rein and been saved at least from crime. But these were not available in my case. She was not a woman who could be bought. She was not even one I could cajole. Death only would rid me of her; kindly death which does not come at call. This is as far as my thoughts went at first. I was a gentleman and had some of a gentleman’s feelings. But when my sleep began to be disturbed by dreams, and this was very soon, I could not hide from myself toward what fatal goal my thoughts were tending. To be freed from her! To be freed from her! dinned itself in my ears, sleeping or waking, at home or abroad. But I saw no plain road to this freedom, for our paths never crossed and my honor as well as safety demanded that the coveted result should be without any possible danger to myself. Cold, heartless villain! you say. Well, so I was; no colder nor more heartless villain lives to-day than I was between the inception of my purpose and its diabolical fulfillment in the manner publicly known.
“So true is this that, as time went on, my ideas cleared and the plan for which I was seeking unfolded itself before me from the day I came upon a discarded bow lying open to view in the museum cellar. The dreams of which I have spoken had prepared me for this sudden knowledge. The woman who blocked my way and against whom I meditated this crime was connected in my mind with Alpine scenery and Alpine events. It was at Lucerne I had first met her, young and fresh, but giving no promise of the woman she has since become; and in the visions which came and went before my eyes, it was not herself I saw so much as the surroundings of those days, and the feats of prowess by which I had hoped to win her approbation. Among these was the shooting at a small target with a bow and arrow. I became very proficient in this line. I shot as by instinct. I could never tell whether I really took aim or not, but the arrow infallibly hit the mark. In my dreams I always saw it flying, and when this bow came to hand a thought of what the two might accomplish came with it. Yet even then I had no real idea of putting into practice this fancy of a distempered brain. I brought the bow up from the cellar and hid it unstrung in the Curator’s closet, more from idle impulse I fondly thought, than from any definite purpose. Another day I saw the Curator’s keys lying on his desk and took them to open a passage to the upper floor. But for all that, I felt sure that I would never use the bow even after I had thrust it near to hand behind the tapestry masking the secret entrance to this passage. One dreams of such things but they do not perpetrate them. I might approach the deed, I might even make every preparation for its accomplishment, but that did not mean that the day would ever come when I should actually loose an arrow from this bow against a human breast. More than once I laughed at the mere idea.
“But the devil knew me better than I knew myself. Impelled by these same instincts, I answered the letter sent me with the assurance that I would surely see her, but I did not name any day, intuitively knowing that what I dreamed of doing but certainly should not do required a certain set of circumstances not easily to be met with. Instead, I bade her show herself in the second section of the southern gallery, every Tuesday and Friday at the exact hour of noon. If at the moment the two hands of the clock came together, she saw me on the lower step of the main staircase, she was to know that I was free to talk and would soon join her. If she did not see me there, she was to return home and come another day. She answered that she would come but once, and set the day. This was startling to my pride, but in a way it brought me a sense of relief. To wait till all was propitious might mean continual delays. The very fact of my uncertainty as to whether or not I should have the courage of my wishes at the critical moment made an indefinite prolongation of my present condition undesirable. Better one straight risk and be done with it.
“I was to wait two weeks. Why she exacted so long and seemingly unnecessary a delay, I do not know. Before I saw her, I thought it was from a sheer desire to make me suffer; now I know it was not for that. However, it did make me suffer, from the alternate weakening and strengthening of my resolve. When the day came, the most trivial of circumstances would have deterred me from what still had the nature of a dream to me. Unhappily, everything worked for its fulfillment. There had never been fewer persons in the building at the noon hour; nor had there been a time during the past two weeks when the Curator was more completely occupied in a spot quite remote from his office. As I tried the door leading up the little winding staircase to the one back of the tapestry where the bow lay, and found it, just as I had left it, unlocked, I had a sense for the first time that the courage concerning which I had had so many doubts would hold. At that moment I was a murderer in heart and purpose, whatever I was after or have been since. As I recognized this fact, I felt my face go pale and my limbs shake from sheer horror of myself. But this weakness was short-lived and I felt my blood flowing evenly again when having slipped into my place behind the upper pedestal I peered through my peep-hole in a search for her figure in the spot where I had bidden her await me.
“She was not there, but then it was not quite twelve, though the noon hour was so near she must be somewhere in the gallery and liable at any minute to cross my line of vision.
“It was fifteen years, as I have already said, since I had seen her; and I had no other picture of her in my mind than the appearance she had made as a girl, coarsened by time and disappointment. Why I should have looked for just this sort of change in her, God knows, but I did expect it and probably would not have recognized her if I had passed her in the court. But I was not worrying about any mistake I might make of this kind. All I seemed to fear was that at the critical moment some one would pass between us on my side of the gallery. I never thought of anyone passing in front of her.
“I had picked out Section II as the place where she was to show herself, because it was in a direct line with the course an arrow would take from a sight behind the vase. I had bade her to look for me in the court, and that would bring her forward to the balustrade in front. A knot of scarlet ribbon at her breast was to distinguish her. But the spot I had thus chosen for her, and the spot I had chosen for myself had this disadvantage; that while I could see straight to my mark from the peep-hole I have mentioned, I could see nothing to right or left of that one line of vision. Why I did not realize the hazard involved in this fact I do not know. Enough that my whole thought was centered on the lookout I was keeping and it was with a shock of surprise I suddenly saw the whole scene blotted from my view by the passing by of some one on my own side of the gallery. This must have been the Englishman who found his vantage-point from behind the other pedestal. He went by quickly, and as the opening cleared once more, I beheld the woman for whom I was waiting appear in the spot selected. For an instant I was dazzled. I had not expected to see so noble a figure; and in that instant a cloud came before my eyes, my resolution failed — I was almost saved — she was almost saved — when instinct got the better of my judgment, and the arrow flew just as that young creature bounded forward in her delight at seeing her steamer admirer watching her from my side of the court.
“The shock of thus beholding a perfect stranger fall under my hand benumbed me, but only for an instant. In the two weeks of intolerable waiting through which I had just passed, I had so forcibly impressed upon my consciousness the exact course I was to pursue from the instant the arrow left the bow that I went about the same automatically. Pulling out the edge of the tapestry, I slipped behind it, dropping my bow in the doorway left open for my passage. This caused me no thought and awakened no fears. But what took all the nerve I possessed, and gave me in one awful moment a foretaste of the terror and despair awaiting me in days to come, was the opening of the second door — the one leading into the Curator’s office.
“What might I not be forced to encounter when the knob to this was turned! Some strolling guest — Correy the attendant — or even the guard who was never where he was needed and always where he was not! For anyone to be there of sufficient intelligence to note my face and the place from which I came meant the end of all things to me. It was not necessary for this imaginary person to be in the room. To be within sight of it was enough. But this fear — this horror of impending retribution — did not make me hesitate or delay my advance a single instant. Everything depended upon my being one of the crowd when the first alarm was raised. So with the daring of one who in escaping a present danger hurls himself knowingly into another equally perilous, I pushed open the door and entered the office.
“It was empty! Fortune had favored me thus far. Nor was there anyone in the court beyond, near enough or interested enough to note my presence or observe any effort I might make at immediate departure. With the hope riding high within my breast that I should yet reach the street before my crime was discovered, I made for the nearest exit. But I was not destined to reach it. When I was only some half a dozen paces from the great door, Correy’s cry rang loudly through the building, with the result that all egress was shut off, and I was left, with no other aid than my own assurance, to face my hideous deed with all its appalling consequences.
“How it served me, you have seen. Steeled by a sense of my own danger, I was able to confront the woman whom I had so deeply wronged — whom I had even endeavored to kill — and ply her with those questions upon whose answers depended not only my honor, but my very life.
“My cold-blooded absorption in my own security, and her almost superhuman devotedness, must have given the Powers cognizant of mortal lives a new lesson in human nature. Never has a greater contrast been shown between self-seeking man and self-forgetful woman. But deeply as I was impressed by the steadfastness and magnanimity of her spirit, nay by the woman herself, I have been less oppressed by the great debt I owed her than by the thought, growing more intolerable every day, that in my frenzied struggle against fate I had cut short the existence of a young and lovely girl whose right to live was beyond all comparison superior to my own.
“But now, as the shadows fall thickly about me and the last page of my dishonorable existence awaits to be turned, my mortal wound is this: that I must leave to loneliness and unspeakable grief the great-souled woman who has seen into the heart of my crime and yet has forgiven me. All else of anguish or dread is swallowed up in this one over-mastering sorrow. To her my heart’s thanks are here given; to her my last word is due. May she find in it all that her soul calls for in this hour of supreme disaster: repentance equal to my sin, and a recognition of her worth, which, late as it is for her comfort, may lead to her acceptance of the consolation yet to be meted out to her from eternal sources.”
That was all. The pen dropped from his hand and he sat inert, almost pulseless, in the desolation of a despair known only to those who, at a blow, have sunk from the height of public applause into the depths of irretrievable ignominy.
The District Attorney, who was a man of more feeling than was usually supposed, contemplated him in compassionate silence for a moment, then gently — very gently for him — leaned forward and drew from under the unresisting hands the scattered sheets which lay in disorder before him, and passed them on to his stenographer.
“Read,” said he; but immediately changed his mind and took them back. “I will read them myself. Mr. Roberts, I must ask you to listen. It is right for you to know exactly what you have written before you affix your signature to it.”
Mr. Roberts bowed mechanically, but he looked very weary.
The District Attorney began to read. It is a matter of doubt whether Mr. Roberts so much as heard him. Yet the reading went on, and when the last word was reached, the District Attorney, after a pause during which his eye had consulted that of the Chief Inspector, remarked in a kindly tone and yet with an emphasis impossible to disregard:
“I see that you have made no mention of Madame Duclos in this relation of the cause and manner of her young daughter’s death. Is it possible that you are ignorant of the part she played in your affairs or the reasons she had for the suicide with which she terminated her life?”
“I know nothing of the woman but that she was the mother of the girl who ——” he hesitated, then added with a gesture of despair, “fell under my hand.”
The District Attorney said nothing in reply, he simply waited. But no denial or further admission came.
“She was a friend of Mrs. Taylor,” suggested the Chief Inspector as the silence grew somewhat oppressive. “An old friend; a friend of her early days; do you not remember?”
“I do not.”
His tormentors went no further. Why harass him for an item of knowledge which the morrow would certainly bring to light. Instead, they hurried through the remaining formalities, adding to the reading already made a capitulation of such answers as he had given to their questions, and witnessing, while he signed both papers.
This done, he was left for a moment in peace, while the two officials drew aside into the embrasure of the window for a momentary conference.
He seemed to notice the hush, for he roused from the torpor into which he was again about to sink, and glanced cautiously about him. The stenographer was busy with his papers, and the other two stood with their backs to him. If help was to come it must come now. This he realized, with a sudden graying of his face which took from it the last vestige of that youthfulness which had been its distinguishing feature; and the finger which had fumbled from time to time in his vest-pocket stole thither once more, bringing forth a little vial which in another moment he raised to his lips.
Was there no one to see? No one to stop him?
No, the stenographer was closing up his bag; and the two officials deep in conversation. He could drain the last drop unseen.
But the sound of the little vial crashing upon the hearthstone whither he had flung it broke the quiet and startled the District Attorney forward in a doubt bordering upon terror.
“What is that?” he asked, pointing to the fragments that had just missed the ash heap.
“It contained oblivion,” was the answer given him in steady tones. “Do you wonder that I sought it? Nothing can save me. I have two minutes before me. I would dedicate them to her.”
His head fell forward on his hands. The clock on the mantel struck. Could it be that when the second hand had circled its small disc twice —
This was the thought of the District Attorney, but not of the Chief Inspector. He had advanced to the desk where Mr. Roberts was still sitting, and remarked with a gravity exceeding any he had hitherto shown:
“Mr. Roberts, I have a great disappointment for you. This little vial of yours which held poison yesterday contained nothing but a few drops of harmless liquid to-day. The change was made in the night, by one suspicious of your intention. You will have to face the full consequences of your crime.”
Carleton Roberts’ arms collapsed and his face fell forward upon them, and they heard a groan. Then in the short silence which followed, another and a very different sound broke upon their ears. Seven clear calls from the cuckoo-clock rang out from the room beyond, followed by a woman’s smothered cry.
It was the one ironic touch the situation had lacked. It pierced the heart of Carleton Roberts and started him in anguish to his feet.
“O God!” he cried, “that I should have let that thing of evil shriek out the wicked hours from day to day, only to torment her now with old remembrances! Why did I not crush it to atoms long ago? Why did I leave it hanging on my wall ——”
With a dash he was in the hall. In another instant he was at the door of his bedroom, followed by the two officials crowding closely up behind him.
Would they find her there? Yes; where else should she be, she whom this call from the past might almost draw from the grave! She was there, but not in the spot where they had expected to see her, nor in that state of collapse of which her former weakness had given promise. Apart from Mr. Gryce, with her form drawn up to its full height she stood, with her finger pointing not at the cuckoo-clock as would seem most natural, but at a small newspaper print of the dead girl’s face pinned up on another wall.
“Why is that here?” she cried in a passionate inquiry which ignored every other presence than that of him who must heed and answer her. “Carleton, Carleton, why have you pinned that young girl’s face up opposite your bed where you can see it on waking, where it can look at you and you at it — Or ——” here checked by a sudden thought she broke off, and her tone changed to one of doubt, “perhaps you did not put it there yourself? Perhaps its presence on your wall is a trick of the police to startle you into betrayal. Was it? Was it?”
“No, Ermentrude.” The words came slowly but firmly. “I put it there myself. I thought it would haunt me less than if left to my imagination.”
Then in a low tone which perhaps reached no other ears than hers:
“I do not know what it does to me; or what I see in it. Something besides youth and beauty. Something ——”
“Hush!” She had him by the arm. “Forget it; these men are listening ——”
But with a convulsive movement, he broke from her hold, and in so doing his eyes fell on a mirror confronting him from the opposite side of the room. Two faces were visible in it, his own and that of his young victim pictured in the print hanging on the wall behind him. They seemed alive. Both of them seemed alive, and as he saw them thus in conjunction, the sweet, pure countenance of the child he had instinctively mourned, peering at him over his guilty shoulder — the sweat started on his forehead and he uttered a great cry. Then he stood still, swaying from side to side, the eyes starting from his head in a horror transcending all that had gone before.
“Take him away!” she cried. “Out of the room! Let him remain anywhere but here. I pray you; I entreat.”
But he was not to be moved.
“Ermentrude,” he whispered; “they say her name was Duclos. She gave her name as Willetts. What was her name? You know the truth and can tell me.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55