At half past eight I was at my post. The mysterious stranger, still under my direct surveillance, had already entered the grounds and taken his stand in the southwest corner of the shrubbery, thereby leaving me free to exercise my zeal in keeping the fences and gates free of intruders. At nine the guests were nearly if not all assembled; and promptly at the hour mentioned in the note so often referred to, I stole away from my post and hid myself amid the bushes that obscured the real place of rendezvous.
It was a retired spot, eminently fitted for a secret meeting. The lamps, which had been hung in profusion through the grounds, had been studiously excluded from this quarter. Even the broad blaze of light that poured from the open doors and windows of the brilliantly illuminated mansion, sent no glimmer through the broad belt of evergreens that separated this retreat from the open lawn beyond. All was dark, all was mysterious, all was favorable to the daring plan I had undertaken. In silence I awaited the sound of approaching steps.
My suspense was of short duration. In a few moments I heard a low rustle in the bushes near me, then a form appeared before my eyes, and a man’s voice whispered:
“Is there any one here?”
My reply was to glide quietly into view.
Instantly he spoke again, this time with more assurance.
“Are you ready for a counterfeit?”
“I am ready for any thing,” I returned, in smothered tones, hoping by thus disguising my voice, to lure him into a revelation of the true purpose of this mysterious rendezvous.
But instead of the explanations I expected, the person before me made a quick movement, and I felt a domino thrown over my shoulders.
“Draw it about you well,” he murmured; “there are lynx eyes in the crowd to-night.” And while I mechanically obeyed, he bent down to my ear and earnestly continued: “Now listen, and be guided by my instructions. You will not be able to enter by the front door, as it is guarded, and you cannot pass without removing your mask. But the window on the left-hand balcony is at your service. It is open, and the man appointed to keep intruders away, has been bribed to let you pass. Once inside the house, join the company sans céremonie; and do not hesitate to converse with any one who addresses you by the countersign. Promptly at ten o’clock look around you for a domino in plain black. When you see him move, follow him, but with discretion, so that you may not seem to others to be following. Sooner or later he will pause and point to a closed door. Notice that door, and when your guide has disappeared, approach and enter it without fear or hesitation. You will find yourself in a small apartment connecting with the library.
“There is but one thing more to say. If the wineglass you will observe on the library table smells of wine, you may know your father has had his nightly potion and gone to bed. But if it contains nothing more than a small white powder, you may be certain he has yet to return to the library, and that by waiting, you will have the long-wished-for opportunity of seeing him.”
And pausing for no reply, my strange companion suddenly thrust a mask into my hand and darted from the circle of trees that surrounded us.
For a moment I stood dumbfounded at the position in which my recklessness had placed me. All the folly, the impertinence even, of the proceeding upon which I had entered, was revealed to me in its true colors, and I mentally inquired what could have induced me to thus hamper myself with the details of a mystery so entirely removed from the serious matter I had in charge. Resolved to abandon the affair, I made a hasty attempt to disengage myself from the domino in which I had been so unceremoniously enveloped. But invisible hands seemed to restrain me. A vivid remembrance of the tone in which these final instructions had been uttered returned to my mind, and while I recognized the voice as that of Hartley Benson, I also recognized the almost saturnine intensity of expression which had once before imbued his words with a significance both forcible and surprising. The secret, if a purely family one, was of no ordinary nature; and at the thought I felt my old interest revive. All the excuses with which I had hitherto silenced my conscience recurred to me with fresh force, and mechanically donning my mask, I prepared to follow out my guide’s instructions to the last detail.
The window to which I had been directed stood wide open. Through it came the murmur of music and the hum of gay voices. Visions of a motley crowd decked in grotesque costumes passed constantly before my eyes. Sight and sound combined to allure me. Hurrying to the window, I stepped carelessly in.
A low guttural “Hugh!” at once greeted me. It was from a mask in full Indian costume, whom I saw leaning with a warrior’s well-known dignity against the embrasure of the window by which I had entered. Giving him a scrutinizing glance, I came to the conclusion he was a young and not inelegant man; and impelled by a reasonable curiosity as to how I looked myself, I cast my eyes down upon my own person. I found my appearance sufficiently striking. The domino, in which I was wrapped was of a brilliant yellow hue, covered here and there with black figures representing all sorts of fantastic creatures, from hobgoblins of a terrible type, to merry Kate Greenaway silhouettes. “Humph!” thought I, “it seems I am not destined to glide unnoticed amid the crowd.”
The first person who approached me was a gay little shepherdess.
“Ah, ha!” was the sportive exclamation with which she greeted me. “Here is one of my wandering sheep!” And with a laugh, she endeavored to hook me to her side by means of her silver crook.
But this blithesome puppet possessed no interest for me. So with a growl and a bound I assured her I was nothing more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and would eat her up if she did not run away; at which she gayly laughed and vanished, and for a moment I was left alone. But only for a moment. A masked lady, whom I had previously observed standing upright and solitary in a distant corner of the room, now approached, and taking me by the arm, led me eagerly to one side.
“Oh, Joe!” she whispered, “is it you? How glad I am to have you here, and how I hope we are going to be happy at last!”
Fearing to address a person seemingly so well acquainted with the young man whose place I had usurped, I merely pressed, with most perfidious duplicity, the little hand that was so confidingly clasped in mine. It seemed to satisfy her, for she launched at once into ardent speech.
“Oh, Joe, I have been so anxious to have you with us once again! Hartley is a good brother, but he is not my old playmate. Then father will be so much happier if you only succeed in making him forget the past.”
Seeing by this that it was Miss Carrie Benson with whom I had to deal, I pressed the little hand again, and tenderly drew her closer to my side. That I felt all the time like a villain of the blackest dye, it is quite unnecessary for me to state.
“Has Hartley told you just what you are to do?” was her next remark. “Father is very determined not to relent and has kept himself locked in his library all day, for fear you should force yourself upon his presence. I could never have gained his consent to give this ball if I had not first persuaded him it would serve as a means to keep you at a distance; that if you saw the house thronged with guests, natural modesty would restrain you from pushing yourself forward. I think he begins to distrust his own firmness. He fears he will melt at the sight of you. He has been failing this last year and —” A sudden choke stopped her voice.
I was at once both touched and alarmed; touched at the grief which showed her motives to be pure and good, and alarmed at the position in which I had thrust myself to the apparent detriment of these same laudable motives. Moved by a desire to right matters, I ventured to speak:
“And do you think,” I whispered, in purposely smothered accents, “that if he sees me he will relent?”
“I am sure of it. He yearns over you, Joe; and if he had not sworn never to speak to you again, he would have sent for you long ago. Hartley believes as well as I that the time for reconciliation has come.”
“And is Hartley,” I ventured again, not without a secret fear of the consequences, “really anxious for reconciliation?”
“Oh, Joe! can you doubt it? Has he not striven from the first to make father forget? Would he encourage you to come here to-night, furnish you with a disguise, and consent to act both as your champion and adviser, if he did not want to see you and father friends again? You don’t understand Hartley; you never have. You would not have repelled his advances so long, if you had realized how truly he had forgiven every thing and forgotten it. Hartley has the pride of a person who has never done wrong himself. But even pride gives way before brotherly affection; and you have suffered so much and so long, poor Joe!”
“So, so,” thought I, “Joe is then the aggressor!” And for a moment, I longed to be the man I represented, if only to clasp this dear little sister in my arms and thank her for her goodness. “You are a darling,” I faintly articulated, inwardly determined to rush forthwith into the garden, hand over my domino to the person for whom it was intended, and make my escape from a scene which I had so little right to enjoy. But at this instant an interruption occurred which robbed me of my companion, but kept me effectually in my place. A black domino swept by us, dragging Miss Benson from my side, while at the same time a harsh voice whispered in my ear:
“To counterfeit wrong when one is right, necessarily opens one to misunderstanding.”
I started, recognizing in this mode of speech a friend, and therefore one from whom I could not escape without running the risk of awakening suspicion.
“That is true,” I returned, hoping by my abrupt replies to cut short this fresh colloquy and win a speedy release.
But something in my answer roused the interest of the person at my side, and caused a display of emotion that led to quite an opposite result from what I desired.
“You awaken a thousand conjectures in my mind by that reply,” exclaimed my friend, edging me a little farther back from the crowd. “I have always had my doubts about — about —” he paused, hunting for the proper phrase —“about your having done what they said,” he somewhat lamely concluded. “It was so unlike you. But now I begin to see the presence of a possibility that might perhaps explain much we never understood. Joe, my boy, you never said you were innocent, but ——”
“Who are you?” I asked boldly, peering into the twinkling eyes that shone upon me from his sedate mask. “In the discussion of such matters as these, it would be dreadful to make a mistake.”
“And don’t you recognize your Uncle Joe?” he asked, with a certain plaintive reproach somewhat out of keeping with his costume of “potent, grave, and reverend signior.” “I came over from Hollowell on purpose, because Carrie intimated that you were going to make one final effort to see your father. Edith is here too,” he murmured, thrusting his face alarmingly near mine. “She would not stay away, though we were all afraid she might betray herself; her emotions are so quick. Poor child! she never doubted you; and if my suspicions are correct ——”
“Edith?” I interrupted — “Edith?” An Edith was the last person I desired to meet under these circumstances. “Where is she?” I tremulously inquired, starting aside in some dismay at the prospect of encountering this unknown quantity of love and devotion.
But my companion, seizing me by the arm, drew me back. “She is not far away; of that you may be sure. But it will never do for you to try and hunt her up. You would not know her in her mask. Besides, if you remain still she will come to you.”
That was just what I feared, but upon looking round and seeing no suspicious-looking damsel anywhere near me, I concluded to waive my apprehensions on her account and proceed to the development of an idea that had been awakened by the old gentleman’s words.
“You are right,” I acquiesced, edging, in my turn, toward the curtained recess of a window near by. “Let us wait here, and meantime you shall tell me what your suspicions are, for I feel the time has come for the truth to be made known, and who could better aid me in proclaiming it than you who have always stood my friend?”
“That is true,” he murmured, all eagerness at once. Then in a lower tone and with a significant gesture: “There is something, then, which has never been made known? Edith was right when she said you did not steal the bonds out of your father’s desk?”
As he paused and looked me in the face, I was obliged to make some reply. I chose one of the non-committal sort.
“Don’t ask me!” I murmured, turning away with every appearance of profound agitation.
He did not suspect the ruse.
“But, my boy, I shall have to ask you; if I am to help you out of this scrape, I must know the truth. Yet if it is as I suspect, I can see why you should hesitate even now. You are a generous fellow, Joe, but even generosity can be carried past its proper limits.”
“Uncle,” I exclaimed, leaning over him and whispering tremulously in his ear, “what are your suspicions? If I hear you give utterance to them, perhaps it will not be so hard for me to speak.”
He hesitated, looked all about us with a questioning glance, put his mouth to my ear, and whispered:
“If I should use the name of Hartley in connection with what I have to say, would you be so very much surprised?”
With a quick semblance of emotion, I drew back.
“You think —” I tremulously commenced, and as suddenly broke off.
“That it was he who did it, and that you, knowing how your father loved him and built his hopes upon him, bore the blame of it yourself.”
“Ha!” I exclaimed, with a deep breath as of relief. The suspicions of Uncle Joe were worth hearing.
He seemed to be satisfied with the ejaculation, and with an increase of eagerness in his tone, went quickly on:
“Am I not right, my boy? Is not this the secret of your whole conduct from that dreadful day to this?”
“Don’t ask me,” I again pleaded, taking care, however, to draw a step nearer and exclaim in almost the same breath: “Why should you think it must necessarily have been one of us? What did you know that you should be so positive it was either he or I who committed this dishonest action?”
“What did I know? Why, what everybody else did. That your father, hearing a noise in his study one night, rose up quietly and slipped to the door of communication in time to hear a stealthy foot leave the room and proceed down the hall toward the apartment usually occupied by you and your brother; that, alarmed and filled with vague distrust, he at once lit the lamp, only to discover his desk had been forcibly broken into and a number of coupon bonds taken out; that, struck to the heart, he went immediately to the room where you and your brother lay, found him lying quiet, and to all appearance asleep, while you looked flushed and with difficulty met his eye; that without hesitation he thereupon accused you of theft, and began to search the apartment; that he found the bonds, as we both know, in a cupboard at the head of your bed, and when you were asked if you had put them there you remained silent, and neither then nor afterward made any denial of being the one who stole them.”
A mournful “Yes” was all the reply I ventured upon.
“Now it never seemed to occur to your father to doubt your guilt. The open window and the burglar’s jimmy found lying on the floor of the study, being only so many proofs, to his mind, of your deep calculation and great duplicity. But I could not help thinking, even on that horrible morning, that your face did not wear a look of guilt so much as it did that of firm and quiet resolution. But I was far from suspecting the truth, my boy, or I should never have allowed you to fall a victim to your father’s curse, and be sent forth like a criminal from home and kindred. If only for Edith’s sake I would have spoken — dear, trusting, faithful girl that she is!”
“But — but —” I brokenly ejaculated, anxious to gain as much of the truth as was possible in the few minutes allotted me; “what has awakened your suspicions at this late day? Why should you doubt Hartley now, if you did not then?”
“Well, I cannot really say. Perhaps Edith’s persistent aversion to your brother has had something to do with it. Then he has grown cold and hard, while you have preserved your boyish freshness and affection. I— I don’t like him, that is the truth; and with my dislike arose doubts, and — and — well, I cannot tell how it is, but I will believe you if you say he was the one to blame in this matter; and what is more, your father will believe you too; for he does not feel the same satisfaction in Hartley’s irreproachable character that he used to, and — and —”
A sudden movement in the crowd stopped him. A tall, graceful-looking woman clad entirely in white had just entered the room and seemed to be making her way toward us.
“There is Edith!” he declared. “She is hunting for the yellow domino ornamented with black that she has been told conceals her lover. Shall I go and fetch her here, or will you wait until she spies you of her own accord?”
“I will wait,” I uneasily replied, edging nearer to the window with the determination of using it as a means of escape if my companion only gave me the chance. “See! she is in the hands of an old Jew, who seems to be greatly taken with the silver trimmings on her sleeves. Suppose you improve the opportunity to slip away,” I laughingly suggested. “Lovers’ meetings are not usually of an order to interest third parties.”
“Aren’t they, you rogue!” retorted the old gentleman, giving me a jocose poke in the ribs. “Well, well, I suppose you are right. But you have not told me —”
“I will tell you every thing in an hour,” I hastily assured him. “I am going to meet my father in the library, and after he has heard the truth, you shall be admitted and all will be explained.”
“That is only fair,” he replied. “Your father has the first rights, of course. But Joe, my boy, remember I am not over and above patient of disposition, and don’t keep me waiting too long.” And with an affectionate squeeze of my hand, he stepped out from the recess where we stood and made his way once more into the throng.
No sooner had he left my side than I threw up the window. “Now is the time for the real Joe to appear upon the scene,” was my mental decision. “I have done for him what he as a gentleman would probably never do for himself — pumped this old party and got every thing in trim for Hartley’s discomfiture. But the courting business is another matter; also the interview with the outraged father in the library. That cannot be done by proxy; so here goes for a change of actors.”
And with reckless disregard of consequences, I prepared to jump from the window, when a sudden light flashed over the lawn beneath and I saw I was at least twelve feet from the ground.
“Well,” I exclaimed, drawing hastily back; “such a leap as that is too much to expect of any man!” And with the humiliating consciousness of being caught in a trap, I proceeded to close the window.
’Twas a low whisper, but how thrilling! Turning, I greeted, with the show of fervor I considered necessary to the occasion, the white-veiled lady who had glided into my retreat.
“Did you think I was never coming, Joe? Everybody who could get in my way certainly managed to do so. Then Hartley is so suspicious, and followed me with his eyes so persistently, I did not dare show my designs too plainly. It is only this minute he left my side. If you had been anywhere else I do not know as I should have succeeded even now in getting a word with you — oh!”
This exclamation was called forth by a sudden movement that took place near us. The curtain was drawn back and a tall man dressed in a black domino glanced in, gave us a scrutinizing look, bowed, and dropped the curtain again.
“Hartley,” she whisperingly explained.
I took her by the hand; there was no help for it; gesture and a lover-like demeanor must, in this case, supply the place of speech.
“Hush!” she entreated. (Not that I had spoken.) “I dare not stay. When you have seen your father, perhaps I will have courage to join you; but now it would be better for me to go.” And her eyes roamed toward the curtain, while the little hand I held in mine grew cold and slightly trembled.
I pressed that little hand, but, as you may well believe, did not urge her to remain. Yet she did not seem in a hurry to depart, and I do not know what complications might have ensued, if another movement in the curtain had not reawakened her fears and caused her, notwithstanding her evident reluctance, to start quickly away.
I did not linger long behind her. Scarcely had the curtain fallen from her hand than I stepped hastily forth. But alas for my hopes of escape! No sooner had I joined the group of merry-makers circling about the open door, than I felt a touch on my arm, and looking up, saw before me the Black Domino. The hour of ten had struck and my guide to the library was at hand. There was no alternative left me but to follow him.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09