It was a night to drive any man indoors. Not only was the darkness impenetrable, but the raw mist enveloping hill and valley made the open road anything but desirable to a belated wayfarer like myself.
Being young, untrammelled, and naturally indifferent to danger, I was not averse to adventure; and having my fortune to make, was always on the lookout for El Dorado, which to ardent souls lies ever beyond the next turning. Consequently, when I saw a light shimmering through the mist at my right, I resolved to make for it and the shelter it so opportunely offered.
But I did not realise then, as I do now, that shelter does not necessarily imply refuge, or I might not have undertaken this adventure with so light a heart. Yet who knows? The impulses of an unfettered spirit lean toward daring, and youth, as I have said, seeks the strange, the unknown, and sometimes the terrible.
My path towards this light was by no means an easy one. After confused wanderings through tangled hedges, and a struggle with obstacles of whose nature I received the most curious impression in the surrounding murk, I arrived in front of a long, low building, which, to my astonishment, I found standing with doors and windows open to the pervading mist, save for one square casement, through which the light shone from a row of candles placed on a long mahogany table.
The quiet and seeming emptiness of this odd and picturesque building made me pause. I am not much affected by visible danger, but this silent room, with its air of sinister expectancy, struck me most unpleasantly, and I was about to reconsider my first impulse and withdraw again to the road, when a second look thrown back upon the comfortable interior I was leaving convinced me of my folly, and sent me straight toward the door which stood so invitingly open.
But half-way up the path my progress was again stayed by the sight of a man issuing from the house I had so rashly looked upon as devoid of all human presence. He seemed in haste, and at the moment my eye first fell on him was engaged in replacing his watch in his pocket.
But he did not shut the door behind him, which I thought odd, especially as his final glance had been a backward one, and seemed to take in all the appointments of the place he was so hurriedly leaving.
As we met he raised his hat. This likewise struck me as peculiar, for the deference he displayed was more marked than that usually bestowed on strangers, while his lack of surprise at an encounter more or less startling in such a mist, was calculated to puzzle an ordinary man like myself. Indeed, he was so little impressed by my presence there that he was for passing me without a word or any other hint of good-fellowship save the bow of which I have spoken. But this did not suit me. I was hungry, cold, and eager for creature comforts, and the house before me gave forth, not only heat, but a savoury odour which in itself was an invitation hard to ignore. I therefore accosted the man.
“Will bed and supper be provided for me here?” I asked. “I am tired out with a long tramp over the hills, and hungry enough to pay anything in reason ——”
I stopped, for the man had disappeared. He had not paused at my appeal, and the mist had swallowed him. But at the break in my sentence his voice came back in good-natured tones, and I heard:
“Supper will be ready at nine, and there are beds for all. Enter, sir; you are the first to arrive, but the others cannot be far behind.”
A queer greeting certainly. But when I strove to question him as to its meaning, his voice returned to me from such a distance that I doubted if my words had reached him any more than his answer had reached me.
“Well,” thought I, “it isn’t as if a lodging had been denied me. He invited me to enter, and enter I will.”
The house, to which I now naturally directed a glance of much more careful scrutiny than before, was no ordinary farm-building, but a rambling old mansion, made conspicuously larger here and there by jutting porches and more than one convenient lean-to. Though furnished, warmed, and lighted with candles, as I have previously described, it had about it an air of disuse which made me feel myself an intruder, in spite of the welcome I had received. But I was not in a position to stand upon ceremony, and ere long I found myself inside the great room and before the blazing logs whose glow had lighted up the doorway and added its own attraction to the other allurements of the inviting place.
Though the open door made a draught which was anything but pleasant, I did not feel like closing it, and was astonished to observe the effect of the mist through the square thus left open to the night. It was not an agreeable one, and, instinctively turning my back upon that quarter of the room, I let my eyes roam over the wainscoted walls and the odd pieces of furniture which gave such an air of old-fashioned richness to the place. As nothing of the kind had ever fallen under my eyes before, I would have thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity of gratifying my taste for the curious and the beautiful, if the quaint old chairs I saw standing about me on every side had not all been empty. But the solitude of the place, so much more oppressive than the solitude of the road I had left, struck cold to my heart, and I missed the cheer rightfully belonging to such attractive surroundings. Suddenly I bethought me of the many other apartments likely to be found in so spacious a dwelling, and, going to the nearest door, I opened it and called out for the master of the house. But only an echo came back, and returning to the fire, I sat down before the cheering blaze, in quiet acceptance of a situation too lonely for comfort, yet not without a certain piquant interest for a man of free mind and adventurous disposition like myself.
After all, if supper was to be served at nine, some one must be expected to eat it; I should surely not be left much longer without companions.
Meanwhile ample amusement awaited me in the contemplation of a picture which, next to the large fireplace, was the most prominent object in the room. This picture was a portrait, and a remarkable one. The countenance it portrayed was both characteristic and forcible, and so interested me that in studying it I quite forgot both hunger and weariness. Indeed its effect upon me was such that, after gazing at it uninterruptedly for a few minutes, I discovered that its various features — the narrow eyes in which a hint of craft gave a strange gleam to their native intelligence; the steadfast chin, strong as the rock of the hills I had wearily tramped all day; the cunning wrinkles which yet did not interfere with a latent great-heartedness that made the face as attractive as it was puzzling — had so established themselves in my mind that I continued to see them before me whichever way I turned, and even found it impossible to shake off their influence after I had resolutely set my mind in another direction by endeavouring to recall what I knew of the town into which I had strayed.
I had come from Scranton, and was now, according to my best judgment, in one of those rural districts of Western Pennsylvania which breed such strange and sturdy characters. But of this special neighbourhood, its inhabitants, and its industries, I knew nothing, nor was I likely to become acquainted with it so long as I remained in the solitude I have described.
But these impressions and these thoughts — if thoughts they were — presently received a check. A loud “Halloo!” rose from somewhere in the mist, followed by a string of muttered imprecations, which convinced me that the person now attempting to approach the house was encountering some of the many difficulties which had beset me in the same undertaking a few minutes before.
I therefore raised my voice and shouted out, “Here! This way!” after which I sat still and awaited developments.
There was a huge clock in one of the corners, whose loud tick filled up every interval of silence. By this clock it was just ten minutes to eight when two gentlemen — I should say men, and coarse men at that — crossed the open threshold and entered the house.
Their appearance was more or less noteworthy — unpleasantly so, I am obliged to add. One was red-faced and obese; the other was tall, thin, and wiry, and showed as many seams in his face as a blighted apple. Neither of the two had anything to recommend him either in appearance or address, save a certain veneer of polite assumption as transparent as it was offensive. As I listened to the forced sallies of the one and the hollow laugh of the other, I was glad that I was large of frame and strong of arm, and used to all kinds of men and — brutes.
As these two newcomers seemed no more astonished at my presence than the man I had met at the gate, I checked the question which instinctively rose to my lips, and with a simple bow — responded to by a more or less familiar nod from either — accepted the situation with all the sang-froid the occasion seemed to demand. Perhaps this was wise, perhaps it was not; there was little opportunity to judge, for the start they both gave as they encountered the eyes of the picture before mentioned drew my attention to a consideration of the different ways in which men, however similar in other respects, express sudden and unlooked-for emotion. The big man simply allowed his astonishment, dread, or whatever the feeling was which moved him, to ooze forth in a cold and deathly perspiration which robbed his cheeks of colour, and cast a bluish shadow over his narrow and retreating temples; while the thin and waspish man, caught in the same trap (for trap I saw it was), shouted aloud in his ill-timed mirth, the false and cruel character of which would have made me shudder, if all expression of feeling on my part had not been held in check by the interest I immediately experienced in the display of open bravado with which, in another moment, these two tried to carry off their mutual embarrassment.
“Good likeness, eh?” laughed the seamy-faced man. “Quite an idea that! Makes him one of us again! Well, he’s welcome — in oils. Can’t say much to us from canvas, eh?” And the rafters above him vibrated, as his violent efforts at joviality went up in loud and louder assertion from his thin throat.
A nudge from the other’s elbow stopped him, and I saw them both cast half-lowering, half-inquisitive glances in my direction.
“One of the Witherspoon boys?” queried one.
“Perhaps,” snarled the other. “I never saw but one of them. There are five, aren’t there? Eustace believed in marrying off his gals young.”
“Damn him, yes! And he’d have married them off younger if he had known how numbers were going to count some day among the Westonhaughs.” And he laughed again in a way I should certainly have felt it my business to resent if my indignation, as well as the ill-timed allusions which had called it forth, had not been put to an end by a fresh arrival through the veiling mist which hung like a shroud at the doorway.
This time it was for me to experience a shock of something like fear. Yet the personage who called up this unlooked-for sensation in my naturally hardy nature was old, and to all appearance harmless from disability, if not from good-will. His form was bent over upon itself like a bow; and only from the glances he shot from his upturned eyes was the fact made evident that a redoubtable nature, full of force and malignity, had just brought its quota of evil into a room already overflowing with dangerous and menacing passions.
As this old wretch, either from the feebleness of age or from the infirmity I have mentioned, had great difficulty in walking, he had brought with him a small boy, whose business it was to direct his tottering steps as best he could.
But once settled in his chair, he drove away this boy with his pointed oak stick, and with some harsh words about caring for the horse and being in time in the morning, he sent him out into the mist. As this little shivering and pathetic figure vanished, the old man drew with gasp and haw a number of deep breaths, which shook his bent back, and did their share, no doubt, in restoring his own disturbed circulation. Then, with a sinister twist which brought his pointed chin and twinkling eyes again into view, he remarked:
“Haven’t ye a word for kinsman Luke, you two? It isn’t often I get out among ye. Shakee, nephew! Shakee, Hector! And now, who’s the boy in the window? My eyes aren’t what they used to be, but he don’t seem to favour the Westonhaughs overmuch. One of Salmon’s four grandchildren, think ‘e? Or a shoot from Eustace’s gnarled old trunk? His gals all married Americans, and one of them, I’ve been told, was a yellow-haired giant like this fellow.”
At this description, pointed directly toward me, I was about to venture a response on my own account, when my attention, as well as theirs, was freshly attracted by a loud “Whoa!” at the gate, followed by the hasty but assured entrance of a dapper, wizen, but perfectly preserved little old gentleman with a bag in his hand.
Looking askance with eyes that were like two beads, first at the two men, who were now elbowing each other for the best place before the fire, and next at the revolting figure in the chair, he bestowed his greeting, which consisted of an elaborate bow, not on them, but upon the picture hanging so conspicuously on the open wall before him; and then, taking me within the scope of his quick, circling glance, cried out with an assumption of great cordiality:
“Good-evening, gentlemen; good-evening one, good-evening all. Nothing like being on the tick. I’m sorry the night has turned out so badly. Some may find it too thick for travel. That would be bad, eh? very bad — for them.”
As none of the men he openly addressed saw fit to answer, save by the hitch of a shoulder or a leer quickly suppressed, I kept silent also. But this reticence, marked as it was, did not seem to offend the newcomer. Shaking the wet from the umbrella he held, he stood the dripping article up in a corner, and then came and placed his feet on the fender. To do this he had to crowd between the two men already occupying the best part of the hearth. But he showed no concern at incommoding them, and bore their cross looks and threatening gestures with professional equanimity.
“You know me?” he now unexpectedly snapped, bestowing another look over his shoulder at that oppressive figure in the chair. (Did I say that I had risen when the latter sat?) “I’m no Westonhaugh, I; nor yet a Witherspoon nor a Clapsaddle. I’m only Smead, the lawyer — Mr. Anthony Westonhaugh’s lawyer,” he repeated, with another glance of recognition in the direction of the picture. “I drew up his last will and testament, and, until all of his wishes have been duly carried out, am entitled by the terms of that will to be regarded both legally and socially as his representative. This you all know, but it is my way to make everything clear as I proceed. A lawyer’s trick, no doubt. I do not pretend to be entirely exempt from such.”
A grumble from the large man, who seemed to have been disturbed in some absorbing calculation he was carrying on, mingled with a few muttered words of forced acknowledgment from the restless old sinner in the chair, made it unnecessary for me to reply, even if the last comer had given me the opportunity.
“It’s getting late!” he cried, with an easy garrulity rather amusing under the circumstances. “Two more trains came in as I left the depot. If old Phil was on hand with his waggon, several more members of this interesting family may be here before the clock strikes; if not, the assemblage is like to be small. Too small,” I heard him grumble a minute after, under his breath.
“I wish it were a matter of one,” spoke up the big man, striking his breast in a way to make it perfectly apparent whom he meant by that word one. And having (if I may judge by the mingled laugh and growl of his companions) thus shown his hand both figuratively and literally, he relapsed into the calculation which seemed to absorb all of his unoccupied moments.
“Generous, very!” commented the lawyer in a murmur which was more than audible. “Pity that sentiments of such broad benevolence should go unrewarded.”
This, because at that very instant wheels were heard in front, also a jangle of voices, in some controversy about fares, which promised anything but a pleasing addition to the already none too desirable company.
“I suppose that’s Sister Janet,” snarled out the one addressed as Hector. There was no love in his voice, despite the relationship hinted at, and I awaited the entrance of this woman with some curiosity.
But her appearance, heralded by many a puff and pant which the damp air exaggerated in a prodigious way, did not seem to warrant the interest I had shown in it. As she stepped into the room I saw only a big frowsy woman, who had attempted to make a show with a new silk dress and a hat in the latest fashion, but who had lamentably failed owing to the slouchiness of her figure and some misadventure, by which her hat had been set awry on her head and her usual complacency destroyed. Later, I noted that her down-looking eyes had a false twinkle in them, and that, commonplace as she looked, she was one to steer clear of in times of necessity and distress.
She, too, evidently expected to find the door open and people assembled, but she had not anticipated being confronted by the portrait on the wall, and cringed in an unpleasant way as she stumbled by it into one of the ill-lighted corners.
The old man, who had doubtless caught the rustle of her dress as she passed him, emitted one short sentence.
“Almost late,” said he.
Her answer was a sputter of words.
“It’s the fault of that driver,” she complained. “If he had taken one drop more at the half-way house I might really not have got here at all. That would not have inconvenienced you. But oh! what a grudge I would have owed that skinflint brother of ours”— here she shook her fist at the picture —“for making our good luck depend upon our arrival within two short strokes of the clock!”
“There are several to come yet,” blandly observed the lawyer. But before the words were well out of his mouth we all became aware of a new presence — a woman, whose sombre grace and quiet bearing gave distinction to her unobtrusive entrance, and caused a feeling of something like awe to follow the first sight of her cold features and deep, heavily-fringed eyes. But this soon passed in the more human sentiment awakened by the soft pleading which infused her gaze with a touching femininity. She wore a long loose garment, which fell without a fold from chin to foot, and in her arms she seemed to carry something.
Never before had I seen so beautiful a woman. As I was contemplating her, with respect but yet with a masculine intentness I could not quite suppress, two or three other persons came in. And now I began to notice that the eyes of all these people turned mainly one way, and that was toward the clock. Another small circumstance likewise drew my attention. Whenever any one entered — and there were one or two additional arrivals during the five minutes preceding the striking of the hour — a frown settled for an instant on every brow, giving to each and all a similar look, for the interpretation of which I lacked the key. Yet not on every brow either. There was one which remained undisturbed, and showed only a grand patience.
As the hands of the big clock neared the point of eight a furtive smile appeared on more than one face; and when the hour rang out a sigh of satisfaction swept through the room, to which the little old lawyer responded with a worldly-wise grunt as he moved from his place and proceeded to the door.
This he had scarcely shut when a chorus of voices rose from without. Three or four lingerers had pushed their way as far as the gate, only to see the door of the house shut in their faces.
“Too late!” growled old man Luke from between the locks of his long beard.
“Too late!” shrieked the woman who had come so near being late herself.
“Too late!” smoothly acquiesced the lawyer, locking and bolting the door with a deft and assured hand.
But the four or five persons who thus found themselves barred out did not accept without a struggle the decision of the more fortunate ones assembled within. More than one hand began pounding on the door, and we could hear cries of: “The train was behind time!” “Your clock is fast!” “You are cheating us; you want it all for yourselves!” “We will have the law on you!” and other bitter adjurations unintelligible to me from my ignorance of the circumstances which called them forth.
But the wary old lawyer simply shook his head and answered nothing; whereat a murmur of gratification rose from within, and a howl of almost frenzied dismay from without, which latter presently received point from a startling vision which now appeared at the casement where the lights burned. A man’s face looked in, and behind it, that of a woman, so wild and maddened by some sort of heart-break that I found my sympathies aroused in spite of the glare of evil passions which made both of these countenances something less than human.
But the lawyer met the stare of these four eyes with a quiet chuckle, which found its echo in the ill-advised mirth of those about him; and moving over to the window where they still peered in, he drew together the two heavy shutters which hitherto had stood back against the wall, and, fastening them with a bar, shut out the sight of this despair, if he could not shut out the protests which ever and anon were shouted through the keyhole.
Meanwhile, one form had sat through this whole incident without a gesture; and on the quiet brow, from which I could not keep my eyes, no shadows appeared save the perpetual one of native melancholy, which was at once the source of its attraction and the secret of its power.
Into what sort of gathering had I stumbled? And why did I prefer to await developments rather than ask the simplest question of any one about me?
Meantime the lawyer had proceeded to make certain preparations. With the help of one or two willing hands he had drawn the great table into the middle of the room, and, having seen the candles restored to their places, began to open his small bag and take from it a roll of paper and several flat documents. Laying the latter in the centre of the table and slowly unrolling the former, he consulted, with his foxy eyes, the faces surrounding him, and smiled with secret malevolence, as he noted that every chair and every form was turned away from the picture before which he had bent with such obvious courtesy on entering. I alone stood erect, and this possibly was why a gleam of curiosity was noticeable in his glance, as he ended his scrutiny of my countenance and bent his gaze again upon the paper he held.
“Heavens!” thought I. “What shall I answer this man if he asks me why I continued to remain in a spot where I have so little business?”
The impulse came to go. But such was the effect of this strange convocation of persons, at night and in a mist which was itself a nightmare, that I failed to take action and remained riveted to my place, while Mr. Smead consulted his roll and finally asked in a business-like tone, quite unlike his previous sarcastic speech, the names of those whom he had the pleasure of seeing before him.
The old man in the chair spoke up first.
“Luke Westonhaugh,” he announced.
“Very good!” responded the lawyer.
“Hector Westonhaugh,” came from the thin man.
A nod and a look toward the next.
“Nephew?” asked the lawyer.
“Go on, and be quick; supper will be ready at nine.”
“Eunice Westonhaugh,” spoke up a soft voice.
I felt my heart bound as if some inner echo responded to that name.
“Daughter of whom?”
“Hudson Westonhaugh,” she gently faltered. “My father is dead — died last night. I am his only heir.”
A grumble of dissatisfaction and a glint of unrelieved hate came from the doubled-up figure, whose malevolence had so revolted me.
But the lawyer was not to be shaken.
“Very good! It is fortunate you trusted your feet rather than the train. And now you? What is your name?”
He was looking, not at me, as I had at first feared, but at the man next to me, a slim but slippery youth, whose small red eyes made me shudder.
“Where are your brothers?”
“One of them, I think, is outside”— here he laughed —“the other is —sick.”
The way he uttered this word made me set him down as one to be especially wary of when he smiled. But then, I had already passed judgment on him at my first view.
“And you, madam?”— this to the large, dowdy woman with the uncertain eye, a contrast to the young and melancholy Eunice.
“Janet Clapsaddle,” she replied, waddling hungrily forward and getting unpleasantly near the speaker, for he moved off as she approached, and took his stand in the clear space at the head of the table.
“Very well, Mistress Clapsaddle. You were a Westonhaugh, I believe?”
“You believe, sneak-faced hypocrite that you are!” she blurted out. “I don’t understand your lawyer ways. I like plain speaking myself. Don’t you know me, and Luke and Hector, and — and most of us, indeed, except that puny, white-faced girl yonder, whom, having been brought up on the other side of the Ridge, we have none of us seen since she was a screaming baby in Hildegarde’s arms. And the young gentleman over there”— here she indicated me —“who shows so little likeness to the rest of the family, he will have to make his connection to us pretty plain before we shall feel like acknowledging him, either as the son of one of Eustace’s girls, or a chip from Brother Salmon’s hard old block.”
As this caused all eyes to turn upon me, even hers, I smiled as I stepped forward. The lawyer did not return that smile.
“What is your name?” he asked shortly and sharply, as if he distrusted me.
“Hugh Austin,” was my quiet reply.
“There is no such name on the list,” snapped old Smead, with an authoritative gesture toward those who seemed anxious to enter a protest.
“Probably not,” I returned, “for I am not a Witherspoon, a Westonhaugh, nor yet a Clapsaddle. I am merely a chance wayfarer passing through the town on my way West. I thought this house was a tavern, or at least a place I could lodge in. The man I met in the doorway told me as much, and so I am here. If my company is not agreeable, or if you wish this room to yourselves, let me go into the kitchen. I promise not to meddle with the supper, hungry as I am. Or perhaps you wish me to join the crowd outside; it seems to be increasing.”
“No, no,” came from all parts of the room. “Don’t let the door be opened. Nothing could keep Lemuel and his crowd out if they once got foot over the threshold.”
The lawyer rubbed his chin. He seemed to be in some sort of quandary. First he scrutinised me from under his shaggy brows with a sharp gleam of suspicion; then his features softened, and, with a side-glance at the young woman who called herself Eunice (perhaps, because she was worth looking at, perhaps because she had partly risen at my words), he slipped toward a door I had before observed in the wainscoting on the left of the mantelpiece, and softly opened it upon what looked like a narrow staircase.
“We cannot let you go out,” said he; “and we cannot let you have a finger in our viands before the hour comes for serving them; so if you will be so good as to follow this staircase to the top, you will find it ends in a room comfortable enough for the wayfarer you call yourself. In that room you can rest till the way is clear for you to continue your travels. Better we cannot do for you. This house is not a tavern, but the somewhat valuable property of ——” He turned with a bow and smile, as every one there drew a deep breath; but no one ventured to end that sentence.
I would have given all my future prospects (which, by the way, were not very great) to remain in that room. The oddity of the situation; the mystery of the occurrence; the suspense I saw in every face; the eagerness of the cries I heard redoubled from time to time outside; the malevolence but poorly disguised in the old lawyer’s countenance; and, above all, the presence of that noble-looking woman, which was the one off-set to the general tone of villainy with which the room was charged, filled me with curiosity, if I might call it by no other name, that made my acquiescence in the demand thus made upon me positively heroic. But there seemed no other course for me to follow, and with a last lingering glance at the genial fire and a quick look about me, which, happily, encountered hers, I stooped my head to suit the low and narrow doorway opened for my accommodation, and instantly found myself in darkness. The door had been immediately closed by the lawyer’s impatient hand.
No move more unwise could have been made by the old lawyer — that is, if his intention had been to rid himself of an unwelcome witness. For, finding myself thrust thus suddenly from the scene, I naturally stood still instead of mounting the stairs, and, by standing still, discovered that though shut from sight, I was not from sound. Distinctly through the panel of the door, which was much thinner, no doubt, than the old fox imagined, I heard one of the men present shout out:
“Well, that makes the number less by one!”
The murmur which followed this remark came plainly to my ears, and, greatly rejoicing over what I considered my good luck, I settled myself on the lowest step of the stairs in the hope of catching some word which would reveal to me the mystery of this scene.
It was not long in coming. Old Smead had now his audience before him in good shape, and his next words were of a character to make evident the purpose of this meeting.
“Heirs of Anthony Westonhaugh, deceased,” he began in a sing-song voice strangely unmusical, “I congratulate you upon your good fortune at being at this especial moment on the inner rather than outer side of your amiable relative’s front-door. His will, which you have assembled to hear read, is well known to you. By it his whole property — not so large as some of you might wish, but yet a goodly property for farmers like yourselves — is to be divided this night, share and share alike, among such of his relatives as have found it convenient to be present here between the strokes of half-past seven and eight. If some of our friends have failed us through sloth, sickness, or the misfortune of mistaking the road, they have our sympathy, but they cannot have his dollars.”
“Cannot have his dollars!” echoed a rasping voice which from its smothered sound probably came from the bearded lips of the old reprobate in the chair.
The lawyer waited for one or two other repetitions of this phrase (a phrase which, for some unimaginable reason, seemed to give him an odd sort of pleasure), then he went on with greater distinctness and a certain sly emphasis, chilling in effect, but very professional:
“Ladies and gentlemen, shall I read this will?”
“No, no! The division! the division! Tell us what we are to have!” rose in a shout about him.
There was a pause. I could imagine the sharp eyes of the lawyer travelling from face to face as each thus gave voice to his cupidity, and the thin curl of his lips as he remarked in a low, tantalising way:
“There was more in the old man’s clutches than you think.”
A gasp of greed shook the partition against which my ear was pressed. Some one must have backed up against the wainscoting since my departure from the room. I found myself wondering which of them it was. Meantime old Smead was having his say, with the smoothness of a man who perfectly understands what is required of him.
“Mr. Westonhaugh would not have put you to so much trouble or had you wait so long if he had not expected to reward you amply. There are shares in this bag which are worth thousands instead of hundreds. Now, now stop that! Hands off! hands off! There are calculations to make first. How many of you are there? Count yourselves up.”
“Nine!” called out a voice with such rapacious eagerness that the word was almost unintelligible.
“Nine.” How slowly the old knave spoke! What pleasure he seemed to take in the suspense he purposely made as exasperating as possible!
“Well, if each one gets his share, he may count himself richer by two hundred thousand dollars than when he came in here to-night.”
Two hundred thousand dollars! They had expected no more than thirty. Surprise made them speechless — that is, for a moment; then a pandemonium of hurrahs, shrieks, and loud-voiced enthusiasm made the room ring till wonder seized them again, and a sudden silence fell, through which I caught a far-off wail of grief from the disappointed ones without, which, heard in the dark and narrow place in which I was confined, had a peculiarly weird and desolate effect.
Perhaps it likewise was heard by some of the fortunate ones within! Perhaps one head, to mark which, in this moment of universal elation, I would have given a year from my life, turned toward the dark without, in recognition of the despair thus piteously voiced; but if so, no token of the same came to me, and I could but hope that she had shown by some such movement the natural sympathy of her sex.
Meanwhile the lawyer was addressing the company in his smoothest and most sarcastic tones.
“Mr. Westonhaugh was a wise man — a very wise man,” he droned. “He foresaw what your pleasure would be, and left a letter for you. But before I read it, before I invite you to the board he ordered to be spread for you in honour of this happy occasion, there is one appeal he bade me make to those I should find assembled here. As you know, he was not personally acquainted with all the children and grandchildren of his many brothers and sisters. Salmon’s sons, for instance, were perfect strangers to him, and all those boys and girls of the Evans’s branch have never been long enough this side of the mountains for him to know their names, much less their temper or their lives. Yet his heirs — or such was his wish, his great wish — must be honest men, righteous in their dealings, and of stainless lives. If, therefore, any one among you feels that, for reasons he need not state, he has no right to accept his share of Anthony Westonhaugh’s bounty, then that person is requested to withdraw before this letter to his heirs is read.”
Withdraw? Was the man a fool? Withdraw? These cormorants! these suckers of blood! these harpies and vultures! I laughed as I imagined sneaking Hector, malicious Luke, or brutal John responding to this na�ve appeal, and then found myself wondering why no echo of my mirth came from the men themselves. They must have seen much more plainly than I did the ludicrousness of their weak old kinsman’s demand; yet Luke was still, Hector was still, and even John and the three or four others I have mentioned gave forth no audible token of disdain or surprise. I was asking myself what sentiment of awe or fear restrained these selfish souls, when I became conscious of a movement within, which presently resolved itself into a departing footstep.
Some conscience there had been awakened. Some one was crossing the floor toward the door. Who? I waited in anxious expectancy for the word which was to enlighten me. Happily it came soon, and from the old lawyer’s lips.
“You do not feel yourself worthy?” he queried, in tones I had not heard from him before. “Why? What have you done that you should forego an inheritance to which these others feel themselves honestly entitled?”
The voice which answered gave both my mind and heart a shock. It was she who had risen at this call —she, the only true-faced person there!
Anxiously I listened for her reply. Alas! it was one of action rather than speech. As I afterwards heard, she simply opened her long cloak and showed a little infant slumbering in her arms.
“This is my reason,” said she. “I have sinned in the eyes of the world, therefore I cannot take my share of Uncle Anthony’s money. I did not know he exacted an unblemished record from those he expected to enrich, or I would not have come.”
The sob which followed these last words showed at what a cost she thus renounced a fortune of which she, of all present, perhaps, stood in the greatest need; but there was no lingering in her step, and to me, who understood her fault only through the faint sound of infantile wailing which accompanied her departure, there was a nobility in her action which raised her in an instant to an almost ideal height of unselfish virtue.
Perhaps they felt this, too. Perhaps even these hardened men and the more than hardened woman whose presence was in itself a blight, recognised heroism when they saw it; for when the lawyer, with a certain obvious reluctance, laid his hand on the bolts of the door with the remark, “This is not my work, you know; I am but following out instructions very minutely given me,” the smothered growls and grunts which rose in reply lacked the venom which had been infused into all their previous comments.
“I think our friends out there are far enough withdrawn by this time for us to hazard the opening of the door,” the lawyer now remarked. “Madam, I hope you will speedily find your way to some comfortable shelter.”
Then the door opened, and after a moment closed again in a silence which at least was respectful. Yet I warrant there was not a soul remaining who had not already figured in his mind to what extent his own fortune had been increased by the failure of one of their number to inherit.
As for me, my whole interest in the affair was at an end, and I was only anxious to find my way to where this desolate woman faced the mist with her unfed baby in her arms.
But, to reach this wanderer, it was first necessary for me to escape from the house. This proved simple enough. The upstairs room toward which I rushed had a window overlooking one of the many lean-tos already mentioned. The window was fastened, but I had little difficulty in unlocking it or in finding my way to the ground from the top of the lean-to. But once again on terra-firma, I discovered that the mist was now so thick that it had all the effect of a fog at sea. It was icy cold as well, and clung to me so closely that I presently began to shudder most violently, and, strong man though I was, wish myself back in the little attic bedroom from which I had climbed in search of one in more unhappy case than myself.
But these feelings did not cause me to return. If I found the night cold, she must find it biting. If desolation oppressed my naturally hopeful spirit, must it not be more overwhelming yet to one whose memories were sad and whose future was doubtful? And the child! What infant could live in an air like this? Edging away from the house, I called out her name, but no answer came back. The persons whom we had heard flitting in restless longing about the house a few moments before had left in rage, and she, possibly, with them. Yet I could not imagine her joining herself to people of their stamp. There had been a solitariness in her aspect which seemed to forbid any such companionship. Whatever her story, at least she had nothing in common with the two ill-favoured persons whose faces I had seen looking in at the casement. No; I should find her alone, but where? Certainly the ring of mist, surrounding me at that moment, offered me little prospect of finding her anywhere, either easily or soon.
Again I raised my voice, and again I failed to meet with response. Then, fearing to leave the house lest I should be quite lost amid the fences and brush lying between it and the road, I began to feel my way along the walls, calling softly now, instead of loudly, so anxious was I not to miss any chance of carrying comfort, if not succour, to the woman I was seeking. But the night gave back no sound, and when I came to the open door of a shed I welcomed the refuge it offered, and stepped in. I was, of course, confronted by darkness — a different darkness from that without, blanket-like and impenetrable. But when after a moment of intense listening I heard a soft sound as of weariful breathing, I was seized anew by hope, and, feeling in my pocket for my matchbox, I made a light and looked around.
My intuitions had not deceived me: she was there. Sitting on the floor with her cheek pressed against the wall, she revealed to my eager scrutiny only the outlines of her pure, pale profile; but in those outlines and on those pure, pale features I saw such an abandonment of hope, mingled with such quiet endurance, that my whole soul melted before it, and it was with difficulty I managed to say:
“Pardon! I do not wish to intrude; but I am shut out of the house also, and the night is raw and cold. Can I do nothing for your comfort or for — for the child’s?”
She turned toward me, and I saw the faintest gleam of pleasure tremble in the sombre stillness of her face, and then the match went out in my hand, and we were again in complete darkness. But the little wail, which at the same instant rose from between her arms, filled up the pause as her sweet “Hush!” filled my heart.
“I am used to the cold,” came in another moment from the place where she crouched. “It is the child — she is hungry; and I— I walked here — feeling, hoping that, as my father’s heir, I might partake in some slight measure of Uncle Anthony’s money. Though my father cast me out before he died, and I have neither home nor money, I do not complain. I forfeited all when ——” Another wail, another gentle “Hush!” then silence.
I lit another match. “Look in my face!” I prayed. “I am a stranger, and you would be showing only proper prudence not to trust me. But I overheard your words when you withdrew from the room where your fortune lay; and I honour you, madam. If food can be got for your little one, I will get it.”
I caught sight of the convulsive clasp with which she drew to her breast the tiny bundle she held; then darkness fell again.
“A little bread,” she entreated; “a little milk — ah, baby, baby, hush!”
“But where can I get it?” I cried. “They are at table inside. I hear them shouting over their good cheer. But perhaps there are neighbours near by. Do you know?”
“There are no neighbours,” she replied. “What is got must be got here. I know a way to the kitchen; I used to visit Uncle Anthony when a little child. If you have the courage ——”
I laughed. This token of confidence seemed to reassure her. I heard her move; possibly she stood up.
“In the further corner of this shed,” said she, “there used to be a trap, connecting this floor with an underground passage-way. A ladder stood against the trap, and the small cellar at the foot communicated by means of an iron-bound door with the large one under the house. Eighteen years ago the wood of that door was old; now it should be rotten. If you have the strength ——”
“I will make the effort and see,” said I. “But when I am in the cellar, what then?”
“Follow the wall to the right; you will come to a stone staircase. As this staircase has no railing, be careful in ascending it. At the top you will find a door; it leads into a pantry adjoining the kitchen. Some one will be in that pantry. Some one will give you a bite for the child, and when she is quieted and the sun has risen I will go away. It is my duty to do so. My uncle was always upright, if cold. He was perfectly justified in exacting rectitude in his heirs.”
I might have rejoined by asking if she detected rectitude in the faces of the greedy throng she had left behind her with the guardian of this estate, but I did not; I was too intent upon following out her directions. Lighting another match, I sought the trap. Alas! it was burdened with a pile of sticks and rubbish which looked as if they had lain there for years. As these had to be removed in total darkness, it took me some time. But once this d�bris had been scattered and thrown aside, I had no difficulty in finding the trap, and, as the ladder was still there, I was soon on the cellar-bottom. When, by the reassuring shout I gave, she knew that I had advanced thus far, she spoke, and her voice had a soft and thrilling sound.
“Don’t forget your own needs,” she said. “We two are not so hungry that we cannot wait for you to take a mouthful. I will sing to the baby. Good-bye.”
These ten minutes we had spent together had made us friends. The warmth, the strength which this discovery brought, gave to my arm a force that made that old oak door go down before me in three vigorous pushes.
Had the eight fortunate ones above not been indulging in a noisy celebration of their good luck, they must have heard the clatter of this door when it fell. But good eating, good drink, and the prospect of an immediate fortune far beyond their wildest dreams, made all ears deaf, and no pause occurred in the shouts of laughter and the hum of good-fellowship which sifted down between the beams supporting the house above my head. Consequently, little or no courage was required for the completion of my adventure; and before long I came upon the staircase and the door leading from its top into the pantry. The next minute I was in front of that door.
But here a surprise awaited me. The noise, which had hitherto been loud, now became deafening, and I realised that, contrary to Eunice Westonhaugh’s expectation, the supper had been spread in the kitchen, and that I was likely to run amuck of the whole despicable crowd in any effort I might make to get a bite for the famished baby.
I therefore naturally hesitated to push open the door, fearing to draw attention to myself; and when I did succeed in lifting the latch and making a small crack, I was so astonished by the sudden lull in the general babble that I drew hastily back and was for descending the stairs in sudden retreat.
But I was prevented from carrying out this cowardly impulse by catching the sound of the lawyer’s voice, addressing the assembled guests.
“You have eaten and you have drunk,” he was saying; “you are therefore ready for the final toast. Brothers, nephews — heirs all of Anthony Westonhaugh, I rise to propose the name of your generous benefactor, who, if spirits walk this earth, must certainly be with us to-night.”
A grumble from more than one throat and an uneasy hitch from such shoulders as I could see through my narrow vantage-hole testified to the rather doubtful pleasure with which this suggestion was received. But the lawyer’s tones lost none of their animation, as he went on to say:
“The bottle, from which your glasses are to be replenished for this final draught, he has himself provided. So anxious was he that it should be of the very best and altogether worthy of the occasion it is to celebrate, that he gave into my charge, almost with his dying breath, this key, telling me that it would unlock a cupboard here in which he had placed a bottle of wine of the very rarest vintage. This is the key, and yonder, if I do not mistake, is the cupboard.”
They had already quaffed a dozen toasts. Perhaps this was why they accepted this proposition in a sort of panting silence, which remained unbroken while the lawyer crossed the floor, unlocked the cupboard, and brought out before them a bottle which he held up before their eyes with a simulated glee almost saturnine.
“Isn’t that a bottle to make your eyes dance? The very cobwebs on it are eloquent. And see! look at this label. Tokay, friends — real Tokay! Mow many of you ever had the opportunity of drinking real Tokay before?”
A long deep sigh from a half-dozen throats, in which some strong but hitherto repressed passion, totally incomprehensible to me, found sudden vent, rose in one simultaneous sound from about that table, and I heard one jocular voice sing out:
“Pass it around, Smead! I’ll drink to Uncle Anthony out of that bottle till there isn’t a drop left to tell what was in it!”
But the lawyer was in no hurry.
“You have forgotten the letter, for the hearing of which you are called together. Mr. Anthony Westonhaugh left behind him a letter. The time is now come for reading it.”
As I heard these words, and realised that the final toast was to be delayed, and that some few moments must yet elapse before the room would be cleared and an opportunity given me for obtaining what I needed for the famishing mother and child, I felt such impatience with the fact, and so much anxiety as to the condition of those I had left behind me, that I questioned whether it would not be better for me to return to them empty-handed than to leave them so long without the comfort of my presence, when the fascination of the scene again seized me, and I found myself lingering to mark its conclusion with an avidity which can only be explained by my sudden and intense consciousness of what it all might mean to her whose witness I had thus inadvertently become.
The careful lawyer began by quoting the injunction with which this letter had been put in his hands. “‘When they are warm with food and wine, but not too warm’— thus his adjuration ran —‘then let them hear my first and only words to them.’ I know you are eager for these words. Folk so honest, so convinced of their own purity and uprightness that they can stand unmoved while the youngest and most helpless among them withdraws her claim to wealth and independence rather than share an unmerited bounty — such folk, I say, must be eager, must be anxious, to know why they have been made the legatees of so great a fortune under the easy conditions and amid such slight restrictions as have been imposed upon them by their munificent kinsman.”
“I had rather go on drinking toasts,” babbled one thick voice.
“I had rather finish my figuring,” growled another, in whose grating tones no echo remained of Hector Westonhaugh’s formerly honeyed voice. “I am making out a list of stock ——”
“Blast your stock — that is, if you mean horses and cows!” screamed a third. “I’m going in for city life. With less money than we have got, Andreas Amsberger got to be Alderman ——”
“Alderman!” sneered the whole pack; and the tumult became general. “If more of us had been sick,” called out one, “or if Uncle Luke, say, had tripped into the ditch instead of on the edge of it, the fellows who came safe through might have had anything they wanted, even to the governorship of the State, or — or ——”
“Silence!” came in commanding tones from the lawyer, who had begun to let his disgust appear, perhaps because he held under his thumb the bottle upon which all eyes were now lovingly centred — so lovingly, indeed, that I ventured to increase in the smallest perceptible degree the crack by means of which I was myself an interested, if unseen, participator in this scene.
A sight of Smead, and a partial glimpse of old Luke’s covetous profile, rewarded this small act of daring on my part. The lawyer was standing; all the rest were sitting. Perhaps he alone retained sufficient steadiness to stand, for I observed by the control he exercised over this herd of self-seekers that he had not touched the cup which had so freely gone about among the others. The woman was hidden from me, but the change in her voice, when by any chance I heard it, convinced me that she had not disdained the toasts drunk by her brothers and nephews.
“Silence!” the lawyer reiterated, “or I will smash this bottle on the hearth!” He raised it in one threatening hand, and every man there seemed to tremble, while old Luke put out his long fingers with an entreaty that ill became them. “You want to hear the letter?” old Smead called out. “I thought so.”
Putting the bottle down again, but still keeping one hand upon it, he drew a folded paper from his breast. “This,” said he, “contains the final injunctions of Anthony Westonhaugh. You will listen, all of you — listen till I am done — or I will not only smash this bottle before your eyes, but I will keep forever buried in my breast the whereabouts of certain drafts and bonds in which, as his heirs, you possess the greatest interest. Nobody but myself knows where these papers can be found.”
Whether this was so, or whether the threat was an empty one, thrown out by this subtle old schemer for the purpose of safeguarding his life from their possible hate and impatience, it answered his end with these semi-intoxicated men, and secured him the silence he demanded. Breaking open the seal of the envelope he held, he showed them the folded sheet which it contained with the remark:
“I have had nothing to do with the writing of this letter. It is in Mr. Westonhaugh’s own hand, and he was not even so good as to communicate to me the nature of its contents. I was bidden to read it to such as should be here assembled under the provisos mentioned in his will; and as you are now in a condition to listen, I will proceed with my task as required.”
This was my time for leaving, but a certain brooding terror, latent in the air, held me chained to the spot, listening with my ears, but receiving the full sense of what was read from the expression of old Luke’s face, which was probably more plainly visible to me than to those who sat beside him. For, being bent almost into a bow, as I have said, his forehead came within an inch of touching his plate, and one had to look under his arms, as I did, to catch the workings of his evil mouth, as old Smead gave forth, in his professional sing-song, the following words from his departed client:
“‘Brothers, nephews, and heirs! Though the earth has lain upon my breast a month, I am with you here to-night.’”
A snort from old Luke’s snarling lips, and a stir — not a comfortable one — in the jostling crowd, whose shaking arms and clawing hands I could see projecting here and there over the board.
“‘My presence at this feast — a presence which, if unseen, cannot be unfelt, may bring you more pain than pleasure. But if so, it matters little. You are my natural heirs, and I have left you my money. Why, when so little love has characterised our intercourse, must be evident to such of my brothers as can recall their youth and the promise our father exacted from us on the day we set foot in this new land.
“‘There were nine of us in those days — Luke, Salmon, Barbara, Hector, Eustace, Janet, Hudson, William, and myself — and all save one were promising, in appearance at least. But our father knew his offspring, and when we stood, an alien and miserable band in front of Castle Garden, at the foot of the great city whose immensity struck terror to our hearts, he drew all our hands together and made us swear by the soul of our mother, whose body we had left in the sea, that we would keep the bond of brotherhood intact, and share with mutual confidence whatever good fortune this untried country might hold in store for us. You were strong, and your voices rang out loudly. Mine was faint, for I was weak — so weak that my hand had to be held in place by my sister Barbara. But my oath has never lost its hold upon my heart, while yours — answer how you have kept it, Luke; or you, Janet; or you, Hector, of the smooth tongue and vicious heart; or you, or you, who, from one stock, recognise but one law — the law of cold-blooded selfishness, which seeks its own in face of all oaths and at the cost of another man’s heart-break.
“‘This I say to such as know my story. But lest there be one amongst you who has not heard from parent or uncle the true tale of him who has brought you all under one roof to-night, I will repeat it here in words, that no man may fail to understand why I remembered my oath through life and beyond death, yet stand above you an accusing spirit while you quaff me toasts and count the gains my justice divides among you.
“‘I, as you all remember, was the weak one — the ne’er-do-weel. When all of you were grown and had homes of your own, I still remained under the family roof-tree, fed by our father’s bounty and looking to our father’s justice for that share of his savings which he had promised to all alike. When he died it came to me as it came to you; but I had married before that day — married, not, like the rest of you, for what a wife could bring, but for sentiment and true passion. This, in my case, meant a loving wife, but a frail one; and while we lived a little while on the patrimony left us, it was far too small to support us long without some aid from our own hands; and our hands were feeble and could not work. And so we fell into debt for rent and, ere long, for the commonest necessities of life. In vain I struggled to redeem myself; the time of my prosperity had not come, and I only sank deeper and deeper into debt, and finally into indigence. A baby came. Our landlord was kind, and allowed us to stay for two weeks under the roof for whose protection we could not pay; but at the end of that time we were asked to leave, and I found myself on the road with a dying wife, a wailing infant, no money in my purse, and no power in my arm to earn any. Then, when heart and hope were both failing, I recalled that ancient oath and the six prosperous homes scattered up and down the very highway on which I stood. I could not leave my wife; the fever was in her veins, and she could not bear me out of her sight; so I put her on a horse, which a kind old neighbour was willing to lend me, and holding her up with one hand, guided the horse with the other to the home of my brother Luke. He was a straight enough fellow in those days — physically, I mean — and he looked able and strong that morning, as he stood in the open doorway of his house, gazing down at us as we halted before him in the roadway. But his temper had grown greedy with the accumulation of a few dollars, and he shook his head as he closed his door, saying he remembered no oath, and that spenders must expect to be beggars.
“‘Struck to the heart by a rebuff which meant prolongation of the suffering I saw in my dear wife’s eyes, I stretched up and kissed her where she sat half fainting on the horse; then I moved on. I came to Barbara’s home next. She had been a little mother to me once — that is, she had fed and dressed me, and doled out blows and caresses, and taught me to read and sing. But Barbara in her father’s home and without fortune was not the Barbara I saw on the threshold of the little cottage she called her own. She heard my story; looked in the face of my wife, and turned her back. She had no place for idle folk in her little house; if we would work she would feed us; but we must earn our supper or go hungry to bed. I felt the trembling of my wife’s frame where she leaned against my arm, and kissing her again, led her on to Salmon’s. Luke, Hector, Janet, have you heard him tell of that vision at his gateway, twenty-five years ago? He is not amongst you. For twelve years he has lain beside our father in the churchyard, but his sons may be here, for they were ever alert when gold was in sight or a full glass to be drained. Ask them, ask John, whom I saw skulking behind his cousins at the garden fence that day, what it was they saw as I drew rein under the great tree which shadowed their father’s doorstep.
“‘The sunshine had been pitiless that morning, and the head, for whose rest in some loving shelter I would have bartered soul and body, had fallen sidewise till it lay on my arm. Pressed to her breast was our infant, whose little wail struck in pitifully as Salmon called out, “What’s to do here to-day?” Do you remember it, lads? Or how you all laughed, little and great, when I asked for a few weeks’ stay under my brother’s roof till we could all get well and go about our tasks again? I remember. I, who am writing these words from the very mouth of the tomb, I remember; but I did not curse you. I only rode on to the next. The way ran uphill now; and the sun which, since our last stop, had been under a cloud, came out and blistered my wife’s cheeks, already burning red with fever. But I pressed my lips upon them, and led her on. With each rebuff I gave her a kiss; and her smile, as her head pressed harder and harder upon my arm, now exerting all its strength to support her, grew almost divine. But it vanished at my nephew Lemuel’s.
“‘He was shearing sheep, and could give no time to company; and when late in the day I drew rein at Janet’s, and she said she was going to have a dance, and could not look after sick folk, the pallid lips failed to return my despairing embrace; and in the terror which this brought me I went down in the gathering twilight into the deep valley where William raised his sheep, and reckoned day by day the increase among his pigs. Oh, the chill of that descent! Oh, the gloom of the gathering shadows! As we neared the bottom, and I heard a far-off voice shout out a hoarse command, some instinct made me reach up for the last time and bestow that faithful kiss, which was at once her consolation and my prayer. My lips were cold with the terror of my soul, but they were not so cold as the cheek they touched, and, shrieking in my misery and need, I fell before William where he halted by the horse-trough and —— He was always a hard man, was William, and it was a shock to him, no doubt, to see us standing in our anguish and necessity before him; but he raised the whip in his hand, and when it fell my arm fell with it, and she slipped from my grasp to the ground and lay in a heap in the roadway.
“‘He was ashamed next minute, and pointed to the house nearby. But I did not carry her in, and she died in the roadway. Do you remember it, Luke? Do you remember it, Lemuel?
“‘But it is not of this that I complain at this hour, nor is it for this I ask you to drink the toast I have prepared for you.’”
The looks, the writhings of old Luke and such others as I could now see through the widening crack my hands unconsciously made in the doorway, told me that the rack was at work in this room so lately given up to revelry. Yet the mutterings, which from time to time came to my ears from one sullen lip or another, did not rise into frightened imprecation or even into any assertion of sorrow or contrition. It seemed as if some suspense common to all held them speechless, if not dumbly apprehensive; and while the lawyer said nothing in recognition of this, he could not have been quite blind to it, for he bestowed one curious glance around the table before he proceeded with old Anthony’s words.
Those words had now become short, sharp, and accusatory.
“‘My child lived, and what remained to me of human passion and longing centred in his frail existence. I managed to earn enough for his eating and housing, and in time I was almost happy again. This was while our existence was a struggle; but when, with the discovery of latent powers in my own mind, I began to find my place in the world and to earn money, then your sudden interest in my boy taught me a new lesson in human selfishness, but not as yet new fears. My nature was not one to grasp ideas of evil, and the remembrance of that oath still remained to make me lenient toward you.
“‘I let him see you; not much, not often, but yet often enough for him to realise that he had uncles and cousins, or, if you like it better, kindred. And how did you repay this confidence on my part? What hand had ye in the removal of this small barrier to the fortune my own poor health warranted you in looking upon even in those early days as your own? To others’ eyes it may appear none; to mine, ye are one and all his murderers as certainly as all of you were the murderers of the good physician hastening to his aid. For his illness was not a mortal one. He would have been saved if the doctor had reached him; but a precipice swallowed that good Samaritan, and only I of all who looked upon the footprints which harrowed up the road at this dangerous point knew whose shoes would fit those marks. God’s providence, it was called, and I let it pass for such; but it was a providence which cost me my boy and made you my heirs.’”
Silence, as sullen in character as the men who found themselves thus openly impeached, had for some minutes now replaced the muttered complaints which had accompanied the first portion of this denunciatory letter. As the lawyer stopped to cast them another of those strange looks, a gleam from old Luke’s sidewise eyes startled the man next him, who, shrugging a shoulder, passed the underhanded look on, till it had circled the board and stopped with the man sitting opposite the crooked sinner who had started it.
I began to have a wholesome dread of them all, and was astonished to see the lawyer drop his hand from the bottle, which to some degree offered itself as a possible weapon. But he knew his audience better than I did. Though the bottle was now free for any man’s taking, not a hand trembled toward it, nor was a single glass held out.
The lawyer, with an evil smile, went on with his relentless client’s story.
“‘Ye had killed my wife; ye had killed my son; but this was not enough. Being lonesome in my great house, which was as much too large for me as my fortune was, I had taken a child to replace the boy I had lost. Remembering the cold blood running in the veins of those nearest me, I chose a boy from alien stock, and for a while knew contentment again. But as he developed and my affections strengthened, the possibility of all my money going his way roused my brothers and sisters from the complacency they had enjoyed since their road to fortune had been secured by my son’s death, and one day — can you recall it, Hudson? Can you recall it, Lemuel? — the boy was brought in from the mill, and laid at my feet dead! He had stumbled amongst the great belts, but whose was the voice which, with the loud “Halloo!” had startled him? Can you say, Luke? Can you say, John? I can say, in whose ear it was whispered that three, if not more of you were seen moving among the machinery that fatal morning.
“‘Again God’s providence was said to have visited my house; and again ye were my heirs.’”
“Stop there!” broke in the harsh voice of Luke, who was gradually growing livid under his long grey locks.
“Lies! lies!” shrieked Hector, gathering courage from his brother.
“Cut it all and give us the drink!” snarled one of the younger men, who was less under the effect of liquor than the rest.
But a trembling voice muttered “Hush!” and the lawyer, whose eye had grown steely under these comments, took advantage of the sudden silence which had followed this last objurgation, and went steadily on:
“‘Some men would have made a will and denounced you. I made a will, but did not denounce you. I am no breaker of oaths. More than this, I learned a new trick. I, who hated all subtlety, and looked upon craft as the favourite weapon of the devil, learned to smile with my lips while my heart was burning with hatred. Perhaps this was why you all began to smile, too, and joke me about certain losses I had sustained, by which you meant the gains which had come to me. That these gains were many times greater than you realised added to the sting of this good-fellowship, but I held my peace, and you began to have confidence in a good-nature which nothing could shake. You even gave me a supper.’”
What was there in these words to cause every man there to stop in whatever movement he was making, and stare with wide-open eyes intently at the reader? He had spoken quietly; he had not even looked up; but the silence which for some minutes back had begun to reign over that tumultuous gathering now became breathless, and the seams in Hector’s cheeks deepened to a bluish criss-cross.
“‘You remember that supper?’”
As the word rang out again I threw wide the door. I might have stalked openly into their circle; not a man there would have noticed me.
“‘It was a memorable occasion,’” the lawyer read on, with stoical impassiveness. “‘There was not a brother lacking. Luke, and Hudson, and William, and Hector, and Eustace’s boys, as well as Eustace himself; Janet too, and Salmon’s Lemuel, and Barbara’s son, who, even if his mother had gone the way of all flesh, had so trained her black brood in the love of the things of this world that I scarcely missed her when I looked about among you all for the eight sturdy brothers and sisters who had joined in one clasp and one oath under the eye of a true-hearted immigrant, our father. What I did miss was one true eye lifted to my glance; but I did not show that I missed it. And so our peace was made, and we separated, you to wait for your inheritance, and I for the death which was to secure it to you. For when the cup passed round that night you each dropped into it a tear of repentance, and tears make bitter drinking. I sickened as I quaffed, and was never myself again, as you know. Do you understand me, you cruel, crafty ones?’”
Did they not! Heads quaking, throats gasping, teeth chattering — no longer sitting — all risen, all looking with wild eyes for the door — was it not apparent that they understood, and only waited for one more word to break away and flee the accursed house?
But that word lingered. Old Smead had now grown pale himself, and read with difficulty the lines which were to end this frightful scene. As I saw the red gleam of terror shine out from his small eyes, I wondered if he had been but the blind tool of his implacable client, and was as ignorant as those before him of what was to follow this heavy arraignment. The dread with which he finally proceeded was too marked for me to doubt the truth of this surmise. This is what he found himself forced to read:
“‘There was a bottle reserved for me. It had a green label on it ——’”
A shriek from every one there and a hurried look up and down at the bottles standing on the table.
“‘A green label,’” the lawyer repeated, “‘and it made a goodly appearance as it was set down before me. But you had no liking for wine with a green label on the bottle. One by one you refused it, and when I rose to quaff my final glass alone, every eye before me fell and did not lift again until the glass was drained. I did not notice this then, but I see it all now, just as I hear again the excuses you gave for not filling your glasses as the bottle went round. One had drunk enough; one suffered from qualms brought on by an unaccustomed indulgence in oysters; one felt that wine good enough for me was too good for him, and so on, and so on. Not one to show frank eyes and drink with me as I was ready to drink with him! Why? Because one and all of you knew what was in that cup, and would not risk an inheritance so nearly within your grasp.’”
“Lies! lies!” again shrieked the raucous voice of Luke, smothered by terror; while oaths, shouts, imprecations, rang out in horrid tumult from one end of the table to the other, till the lawyer’s face, over which a startling change was rapidly passing, drew the whole crowd forward again in awful fascination, till they clung, speechless, arm in arm, shoulder propping shoulder, while he gasped out in dismay equal to their own these last fatal words:
“‘That was at your board, my brothers; now you are at mine. You have eaten my viands, drunk of my cup; and now, through the mouth of the one man who has been true to me because therein lies his advantage, I offer you a final glass. Will you drink it? I drank yours. By that old-time oath which binds us to share each other’s fortune, I ask you to share this cup with me. You will not?’”
“No, no, no!” shouted one after another.
“‘Then,’” the inexorable voice went on, a voice which to these miserable souls was no longer that of the lawyer, but an issue from the grave they had themselves dug for Anthony Westonhaugh, “‘know that your abstinence comes too late; that you have already drunk the toast destined to end your lives. The bottle which you must have missed from that board of yours has been offered you again. A label is easily changed, and — Luke, John, Hector, I know you all so well — that bottle has been greedily emptied by you; and while I, who sipped sparingly, lived three weeks, you, who have drunk deep, have not three hours before you, possibly not three minutes.’”
Oh, the wail of those lost souls as this last sentence issued in a final pant of horror from the lawyer’s quaking lips! Shrieks — howls — prayers for mercy — groans deep enough to make the hair rise — and curses, at sound of which I shut my ears in horror, only to open them again in dread, as, with one simultaneous impulse, they flung themselves upon the lawyer, who, foreseeing this rush, had backed up against the wall.
He tried to stem the tide.
“I knew nothing of the poisoning,” he protested. “That was not my reason for declining to drink. I wished to preserve my senses — to carry out my client’s wishes. As God lives, I did not know he meant to carry his revenge so far. Mercy! mer ——”
But the hands which clutched him were the hands of murderers, and the lawyer’s puny figure could not stand up against the avalanche of human terror, relentless fury, and mad vengeance which now rolled in upon it. As I bounded to his relief he turned his ghastly face upon me. But the way between us was blocked, and I was preparing myself to see him sink before my eyes when an unearthly shriek rose from behind us, and every living soul in that mass of struggling humanity paused, set and staring, with stiffened limbs and eyes fixed, not on him, not on me, but on one of their own number — the only woman amongst them, Janet Clapsaddle — who, with clutching hands clawing her breast, was reeling in solitary agony in her place beside the board. As they looked she fell, and lay with upturned face and staring eyes, in whose glassy depths the ill-fated ones who watched her could see mirrored their own impending doom.
It was an awful moment. A groan, in which was concentrated the despair of seven miserable souls, rose from that petrified band; then, man by man, they separated and fell back, showing on each weak or wicked face the particular passion which had driven them into crime and made them the victims of this wholesale revenge. There had been some sort of bond between them till the vision of death rose before each shrinking soul. Shoulder to shoulder in crime, they fell apart as their doom approached, and rushing, shrieking, each man for himself, they one and all sought to escape by doors, windows, or any outlet which promised release from this fatal spot. One rushed by me — I do not know which one — and I felt as if a flame from hell had licked me, his breath was so hot and the moans he uttered so like the curses we imagine to blister the lips of the lost. None of them saw me; they did not even detect the sliding form of the lawyer crawling away before them to some place of egress of which they had no knowledge; and, convinced that in this scene of death I could play no part worthy of her who awaited me, I too rushed away, and, seeking my old path through the cellar, sought her side, where she still crouched in patient waiting against the dismal wall.
Her baby had fallen asleep. I knew this by the faint, low sweetness of her croon; and, shuddering with the horrors I had witnessed — horrors which acquired a double force from the contrast presented by the peace of this quiet spot and the hallowing influence of the sleeping infant — I threw myself down in the darkness at her feet, gasping out:
“Oh, thank God and your uncle’s seeming harshness that you have escaped the doom which has overtaken those others! You and your babe are still alive; while they ——”
“What of them? What has happened to them? You are breathless, trembling; you have brought no bread ——”
“No, no. Food in this house means death. Your relatives gave food and wine to your uncle at a supper; he, though now in his grave, has returned the same to them. There was a bottle ——”
I stopped, appalled. A shriek, muffled by distance but quivering with the same note of death I had heard before, had gone up again from the other side of the wall against which we were leaning.
“Oh!” she gasped, “and my father was at that supper! my father, who died last night cursing the day he was born! We are an accursed race! I have known it all my life. Perhaps that was why I mistook passion for love. And my baby — O God, have mercy! God, have mercy!”
The plaintiveness of that cry, the awesomeness of what I had seen — of what was going on at that moment almost within the reach of our arms — the darkness, the desolation of our two souls, affected me as I had never been affected in my whole life before. In the concentrated experience of the last two hours I seemed to have lived years under this woman’s eyes; to know her as I did my own heart; to love her as I did my own soul. No growth of feeling ever brought the ecstasy of that moment’s inspiration. With no sense of doing anything strange, with no fear of being misunderstood, I reached out my hand, and, touching hers where it lay clasped about her infant, I said:
“We are two poor wayfarers. A rough road loses half its difficulties when trodden by two. Shall we, then, fare on together — you, I, and the little child?”
She gave a sob; there was sorrow, longing, grief, hope in its thrilling, low sound. As I recognised the latter emotion I drew her to my breast. The child did not separate us.
“We shall be happy,” I murmured, and her sigh seemed to answer a delicious “Yes,” when suddenly there came a shock to the partition against which we leaned, and, starting from my clasp, she cried:
“Our duty is in there. Shall we think of ourselves, or even of each other, while these men, all relatives of mine, are dying on the other side of this wall?”
Seizing my hand, she dragged me to the trap; but here I took the lead and helped her down the ladder. When I had her safely on the floor at the foot she passed in front of me again; but once up the steps and in front of the kitchen door I thrust her behind me, for one glance into the room beyond had convinced me it was no place for her.
But she would not be held back. She crowded forward beside me, and together we looked upon the wreck within. It was a never-to-be-forgotten scene. The demon that was in those men had driven them to demolish furniture, dishes, everything. In one heap lay what, an hour before, had been an inviting board surrounded by rollicking and greedy guests. But it was not upon this overthrow we stopped to look. It was upon something that mingled with it, dominated it, and made of this chaos only a setting to awful death. Janet’s face, in all its natural hideousness and depravity, looked up from the floor beside this heap; and farther on, lay the twisted figure of him they called Hector, with something more than the seams of greedy longing round his wide-staring eyes and icy temples. Two in this room! and on the threshold of the one beyond a moaning third, who sank into eternal silence as we approached; and before the fireplace in the great room a horrible crescent that had once been aged Luke, upon whom we had no sooner turned our backs than we caught glimpses here and there of other prostrate forms which moved once under our eyes and then moved no more.
One only still stood upright, and he was the man whose obtrusive figure and sordid expression had so revolted me in the beginning. There was no colour now in his flabby and heavily fallen cheeks. The eyes, in whose false sheen I had seen so much of evil, were glazed now, and his big and burly frame shook the door it pressed against. He was staring at a small slip of paper he held, and, from his anxious looks, appeared to miss something which neither of us had power to supply. It was a spectacle to make devils rejoice and mortals fly aghast. But Eunice had a spirit like an angel, and, drawing near him, she said:
“Is there anything I can do for you, Cousin John?”
He started, looked at her with the same blank gaze he had hitherto cast at the wall, then some words formed on his working lips, and we heard:
“I cannot reckon; I was never good at figures. But if Luke is gone, and William, and Hector, and Barbara’s boy, and Janet, how much does that leave for me?”
He was answered almost the moment he spoke, but it was by other tongues, and in another world than this. As his body fell forward I tore open the door before which he had been standing, and, lifting the almost fainting Eunice in my arms, I carried her out into the night. As I did so I caught a final glimpse of the pictured face I had found it so hard to understand a couple of hours before. I understood it now.
A surprise awaited us as we turned toward the gate. The mist had lifted, and a keen but not unpleasant wind was driving from the north. Borne on it we heard voices. The village had emptied itself, probably at the alarm given by the lawyer, and it was these good men and women whose approach we heard. As we had nothing to fear from them we went forward to meet them. As we did so three crouching figures rose from some bushes we passed and ran scurrying before us through the gateway. They were the late-comers who had shown such despair at being shut out from this fatal house, and who probably were not yet acquainted with the doom they had escaped.
There were lanterns in the hands of some of the men who now approached. As we stopped before them these lanterns were held up, and by the light they gave we saw, first, the lawyer’s frightened face, then the visages of two men who seemed to be persons of some authority.
“What news?” faltered the lawyer, seeing by our faces that we knew the worst.
“Bad,” I returned; “the poison had lost none of its virulence by being mixed so long with the wine.”
“How many?” asked the man on his right anxiously.
“Eight,” was my solemn reply.
“There were but eight,” faltered the lawyer; “that means, then, all?”
“All,” I repeated.
A murmur of horror rose, swelled, then died out in tumult as the crowd swept on past us.
For a moment we stood watching these people; saw them pause before the door we had left open behind us, then rush in, leaving a wail of terror on the shuddering midnight air. When all was quiet again, Eunice laid her hand upon my arm.
“Where shall we go?” she asked despairingly. “I do not know of a house that will open to me.”
The answer to her question came from other lips than mine.
“I do not know one that will not,” spoke up a voice behind our backs. “Your withdrawal from the circle of heirs did not take from you your rightful claim to an inheritance which, according to your uncle’s will, could be forfeited only by a failure to arrive at the place of distribution within the hour set by the testator. As I see the matter now, this appeal to the honesty of the persons so collected was a test by which my unhappy client strove to save from the general fate such members of his miserable family as fully recognised their sin and were truly repentant.”
It was Lawyer Smead. He had lingered behind the others to tell her this. She was, then, no outcast, but rich, very rich; how rich I dared not acknowledge to myself, lest a remembrance of the man who was the last to perish in that house of death should return to make this calculation hateful. It was a blow which struck deep — deeper than any either of us had sustained that night. As we came to realise it, I stepped slowly back, leaving her standing erect and tall in the middle of the roadway, with her baby in her arms. But not for long; soon she was close at my side murmuring softly:
“Two wayfarers still! Only, the road will be more difficult and the need of companionship greater. Shall we fare on together, you, I— and the little child?”
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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09