“Gentlemen,” said he as he ushered us once more into his studio, “you have presumed, and not without reason I should say, to infer that the original of this portrait and the woman who has so long occupied the position of sewing-woman in my house, are one and the same. You will no longer retain that opinion when I inform you that this picture, strange as it may appear to you, is the likeness of my wife.”
“Wife!” We both were astonished as I take it, but it was my voice which spoke. “We were ignorant you ever had a wife.”
“No doubt,” continued our host smiling bitterly, “that at least has evaded the knowledge even of the detectives.” Then with a return to his naturally courteous manner, “She was never acknowledged by me as my wife, nor have we ever lived together, but if priestly benediction can make a man and woman one, that woman as you see her there is my lawful wife.”
Rising, he softly turned the lovely, potent face back to the wall, leaving us once more confronted by the dark and glowing countenance of his cousin.
“I am not called upon,” said he, “to go any further with you than this. I have told you what no man till this hour has ever heard from my lips, and it should serve to exonerate me from any unjust suspicions you may have entertained. But to one of my temperament, secret scandal and the gossip it engenders is only less painful than open notoriety. If I leave the subject here, a thousand conjectures will at once seize upon you, and my name if not hers will become, before I know it, the football of gossip if not of worse and deeper suspicion than has yet assailed me. Gentleman I take you to be honest men; husbands, perhaps, and fathers; proud, too, in your way and jealous of your own reputation and that of those with whom you are connected. If I succeed in convincing you that my movements of late have been totally disconnected with the girl whose cause you profess solely to be interested in, may I count upon your silence as regards those actions and the real motive that led to them?”
“You may count upon my discretion as regards all matters that do not come under the scope of police duty,” returned Mr. Gryce. “I haven’t much time for gossip.”
“And your man here?”
“O, he’s safe where it profits him to be.”
“Very well, then, I shall count upon you.”
And with the knitted brows and clinched hands of a proudly reticent man who, perhaps for the first time in his life finds himself forced to reveal his inner nature to the world, he began his story in these words:
“Difficult as it is for me to introduce into a relation like this the name of my father, I shall be obliged to do so in order to make my conduct at a momentous crisis of my life intelligible to you. My father, then, was a man of strong will and a few but determined prejudices. Resolved that I should sustain the reputation of the family for wealth and respectability, he gave me to understand from my earliest years, that as long as I preserved my manhood from reproach, I had only to make my wishes known, to have them immediately gratified; while if I crossed his will either by indulging in dissipation or engaging in pursuits unworthy of my name, I no longer need expect the favor of his countenance or the assistance of his purse.
“When, therefore, at a certain period of my life, I found that the charms of my cousin Evelyn were making rather too strong an impression upon my fancy for a secured peace of mind, I first inquired how such a union would affect my father, and learning that it would be in direct opposition to his views, cast about in my mind what I should do to overcome my passion. Travel suggested itself, and I took a trip to Europe. But the sight of new faces only awakened in me comparisons anything but detrimental to the beauty of her who was at that time my standard of feminine loveliness. Nature and the sports connected with a wild life were my next resort. I went overland to California, roamed the orange groves of Florida, and probed the wildernesses of Canada and our Northern states. It was during these last excursions that an event occurred which has exercised the most material influence upon my fate, though at the time it seemed to me no more than the matter of a day.
“I had just returned from Canada and was resting in tolerable enjoyment of a very beautiful autumn at Lake George, when a letter reached me from a friend then loitering in the vicinity, urging me to join him in a certain small town in Vermont where trout streams abounded and what is not so often the case under the circumstances, fishers were few.
“Being in a somewhat reckless mood I at once wrote a consent, and before another day was over, started for the remote village whence his letter was postmarked. I found it by no means easy of access. Situated in the midst of hills some twenty miles or so distant from any railroad, I discovered that in order to reach it, a long ride in a stage-coach was necessary, followed by a somewhat shorter journey on horseback. Not being acquainted with the route, I timed my connections wrong, so that when evening came I found myself riding over a strange road in the darkest night I had ever known. As if this was not enough, my horse suddenly began to limp and presently became so lame I found it impossible to urge her beyond a slow walk. It was therefore with no ordinary satisfaction that I presently beheld a lighted building in the distance, which as I approached resolved itself into an inn. Stopping in front of the house, which was closed against the chill night air, I called out lustily for someone to take my horse, whereupon the door opened and a man appeared on the threshold with a lantern in his hand. I at once made my wishes known, receiving in turn a somewhat gruff,
“‘Well it is a nasty night and it will be nastier before it’s over;’ an opinion instantly endorsed by a sudden swoop of wind that rushed by at that moment, slamming the door behind him and awakening over my head a lugubrious groaning as from the twisting boughs of some old tree, that was almost threatening in its character.
“‘You had better go in,’ said he, ‘the rain will come next.’
“I at once leaped from my horse and pushing open the door with main strength, entered the house. Another man met me on the threshold who merely pointing over his shoulder to a lighted room in his rear, passed out without a word, to help the somewhat younger man, who had first appeared, in putting up my horse. I at once accepted his silent invitation and stepped into the room before me. Instantly I found myself confronted by the rather startling vision of a young girl of a unique and haunting style of beauty, who rising at my approach now stood with her eyes on my face and her hands resting on the deal table before which she had been sitting, in an attitude expressive of mingled surprise and alarm. To see a woman in that place was not so strange; but such a woman! Even in the first casual glance I gave her, I at once acknowledged to myself her extraordinary power. Not the slightness of her form, the palor of her countenance, or the fairness of the locks of golden red hair that fell in two long braids over her bosom, could for a moment counteract the effect of her dark glance or the vivid almost unearthly force of her expression. It was as if you saw a flame upstarting before you, waving tremulously here and there, but burning and resistless in its white heat. I took off my hat with deference.
“A shudder passed over her, but she made no effort to return my acknowledgement. As we cast our eyes dilating with horror, down some horrible pit upon whose verge we suddenly find ourselves, she allowed her gaze for a moment to dwell upon my face, then with a sudden lifting of her hand, pointed towards the door as if to bid me depart — when it swung open with that shrill rushing of wind that involuntarily awakes a shudder within you, and the two men entered and came stamping up to my side. Instantly her hand sunk, not feebly as with fear, but calmly as if at the bidding of her will, and without waiting for them to speak, she turned away and quietly left the room. As the door closed upon her I noticed that she wore a calico frock and that her face did not own one perfect feature.
“‘Go after Luttra and tell her to make up the bed in the northwest room,’ said the elder of the two in deep gutteral tones unmistakably German in their accent, to the other who stood shaking the wet off his coat into the leaping flames of a small wood fire that burned on the hearth before us.
“‘O, she’ll do without my bothering,’ was the sullen return. ‘I’m wet through.’
“The elder man, a large powerfully framed fellow of some fifty years or so, frowned. It was an evil frown, and the younger one seemed to feel it. He immediately tossed his coat onto a chair and left the room.
“‘Boys are so obstropolous now-a-days,’ remarked his companion to me with what he evidently intended for a conciliatory nod. ‘In my time they were broke in, did what they were told and asked no questions.’
“I smiled to myself at his calling the broad shouldered six-footer who had just left us a boy, but merely remarking, ‘He is your son is he not!’ seated myself before the blaze which shot up a tongue of white flame at my approach, that irresistibly recalled to my fancy the appearance of the girl who had gone out a moment before.
“‘O, yes, he is my son, and that girl you saw here was my daughter; I keep this inn and they help me, but it is a slow way to live, I can tell you. Travel on these roads is slim.’
“‘I should think likely,’ I returned, remembering the half dozen or so hills up which I had clambered since I took to my horse. ‘How far are we from Pentonville?’
“‘O, two or three miles,’ he replied, but in a hurried kind of a way. ‘Not far in the daytime but a regular journey in a night like this?’
“‘Yes,’ said I, as the house shook under a fresh gust; ‘it is fortunate I have a place in which to put up.’
“He glanced down at my baggage which consisted of a small hand bag, an over-coat and a fishing pole, with something like a gleam of disappointment.
“‘Going fishing?’ he asked.
“‘Yes,’ I returned.
“‘Good trout up those streams and plenty of them,’ he went on. ‘Going alone?’
“I did not half like his importunity, but considering I had nothing better to do, replied as affably as possible. ‘No, I expect to meet a friend in Pentonville who will accompany me.”
“His hand went to his beard in a thoughtful attitude and he cast me what, with my increased experience of the world, I should now consider a sinister glance. ‘Then you are expected?’ said he.
“Not considering this worth reply, I stretched out my feet to the blaze and began to warm them, for I felt chilled through.
“‘Been on the road long?’ he now asked, glancing at the blue flannel suit I wore.
“‘All summer,’ I returned,
“I again thought he looked disappointed.
“‘From Troy or New York?’ he went on with a vague endeavor to appear good naturally off hand.
“‘A big place that,’ he continued. ‘I was there once, lots of money stored away in them big buildings down in Wall Street, eh?’
“I assented, and he drew a chair up to my side, a proceeding that was interrupted, however, by the reentrance of his son, who without any apology crowded into the other side of the fire-place in a way to sandwich me between them. Not fancying this arrangement which I, however, imputed to ignorance, I drew back and asked if my room was ready. It seemed it was not, and unpleasantly as it promised, I felt forced to reseat myself and join in, if not support, the conversation that followed.
“A half hour passed away, during which the wind increased till it almost amounted to a gale. Spurts of rain dashed against the windows with a sharp crackling sound that suggested hail, while ever and anon a distant roll as of rousing thunder, rumbled away among the hills in a long and reverberating peal, that made me feel glad to be housed even under the roof of these rude and uncongenial creatures. Suddenly the conversation turned upon the time and time-pieces, when in a low even tone I heard murmured behind me,
“‘The gentleman’s room is ready;’ and turning, I saw standing in the doorway the slight figure of the young girl whose appearance had previously so impressed me.
“I immediately arose. ‘Then I will proceed to it at once,’ said I, taking up my traps and advancing towards her.
“‘Do not be alarmed if you hear creaks and cracklings all over the house,’ observed the landlord as I departed. ‘The windows are loose and the doors ill-fitting. In such a storm as this they make noise enough to keep an army awake. The house is safe enough though and if you don’t mind noise —’
“‘O I don’t mind noise,’ rejoined I, feeling at that moment tired enough to fall into a doze on the staircase. ‘I shall sleep, never fear,’ and without further ado followed the girl upstairs into a large clumsily furnished room whose enormous bed draped with heavy curtains at once attracted my attention.
“‘O I cannot sleep under those things,’ remarked I, with a gesture towards the dismal draperies which to me were another name for suffocation.
“With a single arm-sweep she threw them back. ‘Is there anything more I can do for you?’ asked she, glancing hastily about the room.
“I thanked her and said ‘no,’ at which she at once departed with a look of still determination upon her countenance that I found it hard to explain.
“Left alone in that large, bare and dimly lighted room, with the wind shrieking in the chimney and the powerful limbs of some huge tree beating against the walls without, with a heavy thud inexpressibly mournful, I found to my surprise and something like dismay, that the sleepiness which had hitherto oppressed me, had in some unaccountable way entirely fled. In vain I contemplated the bed, comfortable enough now in its appearance that the stifling curtains were withdrawn; no temptation to invade it came to arouse me from the chair into which I had thrown myself. It was as if I felt myself under the spell of some invisible influence that like the eye of a basilisk, held me enchained. I remember turning my head towards a certain quarter of the wall as if I half expected to encounter there the bewildering glance of a serpent. Yet far from being apprehensive of any danger, I only wondered over the weakness of mind that made such fancies possible.
“An extra loud swirl of the foliage without, accompanied by a quick vibration of the house, aroused me at last. If I was to lose the sense of this furious storm careering over my head, I must court sleep at once. Rising, I drew off my coat, unloosened my vest and was about to throw it off, when I bethought me of a certain wallet it contained. Going to the door in some unconscious impulse of precaution I suppose, I locked myself in, and then drawing out my wallet, took from it a roll of bills which I put into a small side pocket, returning the wallet to its old place.
“Why I did this I can scarcely say. As I have before intimated, I was under no special apprehension. I was at that time anything but a suspicious man, and the manner and appearance of the men below struck me as unpleasantly disagreeable but nothing more. But I not only did what I have related, but allowed the lamp to remain lighted, lying down finally in my clothes; an almost unprecedented act on my part, warranted however as I said to myself, by the fury of the gale which at that time seemed as if it would tumble the roof over our heads.
“How long I lay listening to the creakings and groanings of the rickety old house, I cannot say, nor how long I remained in the doze which finally seized me as I became accustomed to the sounds around and over me. Enough that before the storm had passed its height, I awoke as if at the touch of a hand, and leaping with a bound out of the bed, beheld to my incredible amazement, the alert, nervous form of Luttra standing before me. She had my coat in her hand, and it was her touch that had evidently awakened me.
“‘I want you to put this on,’ said she in a low thrilling tone totally new in my experience, ‘and come with me. The house is unsafe for you to remain in. Hear how it cracks and trembles. Another blast like that and we shall be roofless.’
“She was moving toward the door, which to my amazement stood ajar, but my hesitation stopped her.
“‘Won’t you come?’ she whispered, turning her face towards me with a look of such potent determination, I followed in spite of myself ‘I dare not let you stay here, your blood will be upon my head.’
“‘You exaggerate,’ I replied, shrinking back with a longing look at the comfortable bed I had just left. ‘These old houses are always strong. It will take many such a gust as that you hear, to overturn it, I assure you.’
“‘I exaggerate!’ she returned with a look of scorn impossible to describe. ‘Hark!’ she said, ‘hear that.’
“I did hear, and I must acknowledge that it seemed is if we were about to be swept from our foundations.
“‘Yes,’ said I, ‘but it is a fearful night to be out in.’
“‘I shall go with you,’ said she.
“‘In that case —’ I began with an ill-advised attempt at gallantry which she cut short with a gesture.
“‘Here is your hat,’ remarked she, ‘and here is your bag. The fishing-pole must remain, you cannot carry it.’
“‘But — ’ I expostulated.
“‘Hush!’ said she with her ear turned towards the depths of the staircase at the top of which we stood. ‘My father and brother will think as you do that it is folly to leave the shelter of a roof for the uncertainties of the road on such a night as this, but you must not heed them. I tell you shelter this night is danger, and that the only safety to be found is on the stormy highway.’
“And without waiting for my reply, she passed rapidly down stairs, pushed open a door at the bottom, and stepped at once into the room we had left an hour or so before.
“What was there in that room that for the first time struck an ominous chill as of distinct peril through my veins? Nothing at first sight, everything at the second. The fire which had not been allowed to die out, still burned brightly on the ruddy hearthstone, but it was not that which awakened my apprehension. Nor was it the loud ticking clock on the mantel-piece with its hand pointing silently to the hour of eleven. Nor yet the heavy quiet of the scantily-furnished room with its one lamp burning on the deal table against the side of the wall. It was the sight of those two powerful men drawn up in grim silence, the one against the door leading to the front hall, the other against that opening into the kitchen.
“A glance at Luttra standing silent and undismayed at my side, however, instantly reassured me. With that will exercised in my favor, I could not but win through whatever it was that menaced me. Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I made a move towards the door and the silent figure of my host. But with a quick outreaching of her hand, she drew me back.
“‘Stand still!’ said she. ‘Karl,’ she went on, turning her face towards the more sullen but less intent countenance of her brother, ‘open the door and let this gentleman pass. He finds the house unsafe in such a gale and desires to leave it. At once!’ she continued as her brother settled himself more determinedly against the lock: ‘I don’t often ask favors.’
“‘The man is a fool that wants to go out in a night like this,’ quoth the fellow with a dogged move; ‘and so are you to encourage it. I think too much of your health to allow it.’
“She did not seem to hear. ‘Will you open the door?’ she went on, not advancing a step from the fire, before which she had placed herself and me.’
“‘No, I won’t,’ was the brutal reply. ‘Its been locked for the night and its not me nor one like me, that will open it.’
“With a sudden whitening of her already pale face, she turned towards her father. He was not even looking at her.
“‘Some one must open the house,’ said she, glancing back at her brother. ‘This gentleman purposes to leave and his whim must be humored. Will you unlock that door or shall I?’
“An angry snarl interrupted her. Her father had bounded from the door where he stood and was striding hastily towards her. In my apprehension I put up my arm for a shield, for he looked ready to murder her, but I let it drop again as l caught her glance which was like white flame undisturbed by the least breeze of personal terror.
“‘You will stop there,’ said she, pointing to a spot a few feet from where she stood. ‘Another step and I let that for which I have heard you declare you would peril your very soul, fall into the heart of the flames.’ And drawing from her breast a roll of bills, she stretched them out above the fire before which she was standing.
“‘You ———’ broke from the gray-bearded lips of the old man, but he stopped where he was, eyeing those bills as if fascinated.
“‘I am not a girl of many words, as you know,’ continued she in a lofty tone inexpressibly commanding. ‘You may strangle me, you may kill me, it matters little; but this gentleman leaves the house this night, or I destroy the money with a gesture.’
“‘You ———’ again broke from those quivering lips, but the old man did not move.
“Not so the younger. With a rush he left his post and in another instant would have had his powerful arms about her slender form, only that I met him half way with a blow that laid him on the floor at her feet. She said nothing, but one of the bills immediately left her hand and fluttered into the fire where it instantly shrivelled into nothing.
“With the yell of a mad beast wounded in his most vulnerable spot, the old man before us stamped with his heel upon the floor.
“‘Stop!’ cried he; and going rapidly to the front door he opened it. ‘There!’ shrieked he, ‘if you will be fools, go! and may the lightning blast you. But first give me the money.’
“‘Come from the door,’ said she, reaching out her left hand for the lantern hanging at the side of the fireplace, ‘and let Karl light this and keep himself out of the way.’
“It was all done. In less time than I can tell it, the old man had stepped from the door, the younger one had lit the lantern and we were in readiness to depart.
“‘Now do you proceed,’ said she to me, ‘I will follow.’
“‘No,’ said I, ‘we will go together.’
“‘But the money?’ growled the heavy voice of my host over my shoulder.
“‘I will give it to you on my return,’ said the girl.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55