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“Superb! I don’t know when I have seen finer, Tom, really!”
“Ah!” said Tom, complacently handling his left whisker. “And,” he added, after a moment or two, “and thereby hangs a tale!”
It was after dinner — after one of Tom Gainsborough’s snug, inimitable little dinners; only we three — Tom, his wife, and myself: and a couple of negro attendants, as well trained and less overpowering than the best of the native English stock; and that charming dining-room, just big enough, just cool enough, soft-carpeted, clear-walled, and the steady white radiance of the argand burners descending upon the damask tablecloth, crowned with fruits and flowers; and an agreeable shadow over the rest of the room, so that those sable servitors could perform their noiseless evolutions unseen; and a pervading sense of unconscious good-breeding and unobtrusive wealth; and —— but I will not speak of the china; I will not descant upon Tom’s wines; I don’t wish to make other people envious. Only it was all inexpressibly good, from fascinating Mrs. Gainsborough and her diamonds, down.
I felt a peculiar interest in Mrs. Gainsborough, because, in addition to her other attractions, she was a countrywoman of mine — that is to say, an American. She was brunette, slender, graceful; with a weird expression of the eyes under straight black eyebrows, an expression which somehow suggested mesmerism — or perhaps a liability on her part to be mesmerised; faultless throat and shoulders; and hands and wrists that she could talk with, almost. Where had Tom found her? I never had thought of asking him; she was a Virginian very likely — an “F. F. V.”; and they had doubtless met upon the Continent. This was the first occasion on which I had seen her in her diamonds. Indeed, Tom and she had only been married a year or two, and had been settled in that bijou residence of theirs scarcely six months; and this was but my third or fourth dinner there. Well, her diamonds became her, and she them; they somehow matched that weird light in her eyes; and I told Tom as much when, after dinner, she withdrew and left us over our wine.
“And thereby hangs a tale,” repeated he, thoughtfully reaching his hand towards the decanter, and filling my glass and his own.
Now, it seemed to me entirely in accordance with young Mrs. Gainsborough’s “style” that there should have been something odd and romantic in the circumstances of her first acquaintance with Tom, and that diamonds should be mixed up with it. Therefore I was more than willing to give ear to the strange story which he proceeded to relate to me. Imagine the servants dismissed, a fresh lump of coal in the grate, the decanter between us, and our legs and elbows disposed in the most comfortable manner possible. Then, this is the story.
“The diamonds, you must know, have been ever so long in our family. It is said they were brought from India, in the time of Marco Polo, by an ancestor of mine. But that is neither here nor there; and sure enough they were only put into their present shape quite recently. I can remember when half of them were uncut, or cut in some barbarous oriental manner, picturesque enough, but not fashionable. And some were mounted as nose-rings, some as clasps, some in the hilts of daggers, and in all sorts of other ways. When I was a child, I was sometimes allowed to play with some of the loose ones, as a treat; until, at last, I contrived to lose one of the biggest. You may not believe it, but the governor actually horsed me and gave me a birching; and the diamonds were locked up from that day. It was only a few years ago that my dear mother, now no more, got them out, and insisted upon their being made up into a regular set by some skilful jeweller. We were thinking of going to Rome at the time, to spend six or eight months, and the first idea was to give the job to Castellani. But then it appeared that my mother had got her eye fixed upon a certain man in Paris, whom she had been told was the first lapidary in Europe. He, and none but he, should set our diamonds. You know my mother generally had her way; and she had it in this case. The fellow certainly did understand his business; his work was well done, as you may have noticed this evening. A queer, pale, nervous little chap he was; not a Frenchman at all, but a Saxon, born in Dresden, I believe, or some village in that neighbourhood. His name was Rudolph — Heinrich Rudolph. He lived and worked in a little dark shop in the Latin Quarter.
“He and I became quite intimate. You see, I had been commissioned to attend to this diamond business, and to remain in Paris until it was done. I was to watch it through all its stages, and be sure that my mother’s directions regarding the style of the setting were accurately followed. When all was finished, I was to pay the bill and bring the diamonds on to Rome, where the family would by that time be established. Well, I was a young fellow, and probably I was not so much cast down at the prospect of spending a month or two alone in Paris as you might suppose. But I doubt whether I should have attended to my ostensible business so faithfully as I actually did, had I not been so greatly taken with my little friend Rudolph. He and I twigged one another, as boys say, from the first. I used to sit and watch him work for hours at a time; and as he worked, he would talk; and very queer captivating talk a good deal of it was. He was a thorough artist and enthusiast, and seemed to care for nothing outside of his profession. He did not appear to me to be in the way of making much money, and it occurred to me that it might be acceptable were I, in an unobtrusive way, to introduce him to some wealthy customers. I knew few people in Paris; but there was a Mr. Birchmore, an American gentleman, staying at my hotel, with whom I had forgathered over a cup of coffee and a cigar once or twice: he was a handsome middle-aged man, with an atmosphere of refined affluence about him such as would have befitted a duke. Not a bit like your traditional Yankee; in fact, I’m not sure that I should have suspected him, if I hadn’t seen his address —‘Fifth Avenue, New York City, U.S.A.’— in the hotel register, about a week after my arrival. He was an agreeable man enough, though not at all the sort to take liberties with; however, I made up my mind that I would get him to Rudolph’s on the first pretext that offered.
“Well, I had an excellent pretext before long. Mr. Birchmore came into the café one afternoon, with rather an annoyed look, and made some inquiries of the waiter. François raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders; there was some further conference, and then he and Mr. Birchmore began searching about the floor of the room. It presently transpired that he had lost a diamond out of his ring, which had contained three matched brilliants. It was nowhere to be found.
“‘I don’t mind the loss of the stone itself,’ said Mr. Birchmore at last, sitting down near my table; ‘but it’s one of a set, matched with great difficulty, and I’m afraid I may never replace it.’
“Here was my opportunity. I set forth the wisdom, skill, and resources of my little Saxon friend in glowing colours; mentioned the work he was doing for me, and declared that if any man in Europe could help Mr. Birchmore to repair his loss, Rudolph was he. Mr. Birchmore at first paid little heed to my representations; but finally I induced him to accompany me to the Latin Quarter, and at least make the attempt. The next morning, accordingly, we set forth; and as we sauntered along the wide pleasant boulevards, our conversation became more free and affable than it had been hitherto. I found my companion could be exceedingly entertaining when he chose it, and had a vast fund of experience and adventure to draw upon. He had been almost everywhere; he had made himself familiar with all varieties of civilised and uncivilised men; as a matter of course, too, he was a versatile linguist. The only direction in which he gave any evidence of comparative deficiency was in that of literature and the fine arts. His life had been essentially an active one; he cared little for Tennyson and Swinburne, for Matthew Arnold and Carlyle. He had, however, read and appreciated ‘Macbeth,’ and some others of Shakespeare’s plays; and he was well acquainted with several of the romances of ‘Unabashed Defoe.’ I did not discover all this in the course of that one stroll over to the Latin Quarter, but it leaked out during our subsequent acquaintance, which was destined to become more intimate and prolonged than I had any idea of then. As I have intimated, Mr. Birchmore was quite frank and open in his talk, except upon one topic — himself. Of his inner life and circumstances I could learn nothing. Though he never was obtrusively reticent, yet he contrived never to refer to his own private affairs. I could not satisfy myself whether he were married or single, whether he were a Catholic or Atheist — hardly whether he were rich or poor. Some shadow of grief, some incubus of fear or calamity, seemed to overwhelm him, and impose silence. The most I could do was to draw inferences; and my inference was that he was a bachelor, a millionaire, a sceptic, and a man who, at some period of his life, had committed, either deliberately or by force of circumstances, a terrible crime! You will see presently how far my estimate was from the truth, or how near to it.
“However, I am anticipating, as it is. We arrived in due time at Rudolph’s little shop, and I introduced him to Birchmore. I had previously told the latter about my diamonds, and now I made Rudolph produce them. The man of the world examined the gems with evident interest, and with a knowledge of their value and qualities which surprised me, and caused the little jeweller to eye my friend with a jealous keenness.
“‘These are all Indian stones,’ was Birchmore’s first remark. ‘There is not an American among them — or stay! What is this? neither an American nor an Indian! An African, I declare, and one of the finest I have seen!’
“‘Der Herr hat recht!’ muttered Rudolph, with a glance at me. ‘Er versteht ja alles.’
“‘You know German?’— he says, ‘What you don’t know about diamonds isn’t worth knowing,’ I put in. Birchmore nodded with a half smile.
“‘I ought to know something about precious stones,’ he said. ‘I spent three years in a diamond mine, for one thing.’ He seemed on the point of saying more, but checked himself, and went on scrutinising the stones, most of which were already in their new setting. ‘A costly parure that,’ he remarked at length. ‘It wouldn’t sell for a penny under thirty thousand pounds.’
“‘Five hundred eighty-five thousand francs, with the setting,’ replied Rudolph, to whom the words had been addressed. ‘Monsieur’s estimate would have been correct, but that this stone here is a little off colour, and this one has a slight flaw, which is now in part concealed by the setting.’
“‘You travel under proper precautions, I trust?’ said Birchmore, after a pause, turning gravely to me. ‘I know the confidence you young fellows have in your courage and cleverness; but a dozen or a score of thieves might conspire together for such a prize as this, and against their skill and address no single man would stand a chance. Ah! I know something of it. I was robbed once.’
“‘Do tell me about it!’ I exclaimed, with an impulsive betrayal of interest that made me smile the next moment.
“‘Another time,’ said he, shaking his head; and presently he added: ‘You will pardon me for presuming to counsel you?’
“‘My dear sir, I am much obliged to you. My idea is that the simplest precautions are the best. I shall carry the stones in an inner pocket, and I shall go armed. No one will suspect me; and if I am attacked, I shall make a good defence at all events.’
“Mr. Birchmore said nothing more, and indeed seemed scarcely to listen to my remarks. I now suggested to him that he might show Rudolph his ring. He put his hand to his waistcoat pocket, and gave a half-suppressed ejaculation of disappointment and annoyance. He had left the ring at home!
“‘No matter; I will call to-morrow, Herr Rudolph,’ he observed. ‘I’ve no doubt I shall find what I want here, if anywhere. Good-morning — that is, if you are ready, Mr. Gainsborough. By the way, Rudolph, I suppose you put your treasures in a safe at night?’
“‘Oh, by all means, Herr,’ replied the little Saxon. ‘And I have a watchman also, who guards all night long.’
“‘A prudent fellow: yes, that will do,’ murmured Mr. Birchmore, in an undertone to himself. Then, with a parting nod and smile, to which the jeweller did not respond, he sauntered out, I following him. We walked back to the hotel. I did not see him again until after dinner, when he offered me a cigar; and when we had smoked together awhile in silence, he said abruptly:
“‘I’ve found that stone.’
“I looked at him inquiringly.
“‘The diamond out of my ring. In my trouser pocket, of all places in the world! Fell out while I was groping for my keys, I suppose. Sorry to have raised false hopes in your friend Rudolph. By the way, he’ll have finished that job of yours before very long?’
“‘In about a week, I fancy. I shall be sorry to leave Paris.’
“‘Yes? Well, it is a nice place; but one gets tired of the nicest places in time. I do. I like to be moving.’
“‘I shall have a month to spend on my way to Rome. This is almost my first experience of the Continent. I wish I had some travelling companion who knew the ropes.’ This hint I let fall in the hope that he might propose to join me; but as he made no rejoinder, I at length ventured to put it more plainly. I gave a rough sketch of the route I proposed to follow, asked his opinion upon it, and finally said that, should his inclination lead him also in that direction, I should be very glad of his company.
“‘Well, sir, I’m obliged to you,’ replied Mr. Birchmore, after a pause of some moments. ‘You couldn’t pay a man a better compliment than to ask him to travel with you; and I would accept your offer as frankly and fearlessly as you make it, only — well, the fact is, I’m not so entirely at my own disposal as I may appear to you to be. I have been through a good many experiences in life, and some of the consequences are upon me still. When you have reached my age — if you ever do reach it — you will understand me better. I suppose I may be fifteen years your senior; well, fifteen years means a good deal — a good deal.’ He puffed a meditative cloud or two, and then added, ‘You’re not hurt? You see how it is? I would really like to accompany you — but I can’t.’
“Of course, I warmly disavowed all resentment and felt inwardly ashamed of having forced him, by the freedom of my advances, into making this explanation. Meanwhile, I could not help liking him better than ever, and feeling more than ever interested, not to say curious, about him. It was now certain that some mystery or other attached to him. I cast covert glances at him, in the vain attempt to read something of his secret through his outward aspect. But he was inscrutable, or rather, there was nothing especially noticeable in him. His face, as I have said, was handsome in its contours; he wore a heavy moustache and a short pointed beard on his chin. His forehead was wide across the temples, but low; and dark brown hair, rather stiff, and streaked here and there with gray, grew thickly over his head. His hands were large, and hairy up to the second joints of the fingers, but they were finely and powerfully formed, and the fingers tapered beautifully, with nails smoothly cut and polished. In figure he was above the medium size, and appeared strongly built, though he had complained to me more than once of rheumatism or some other bodily failing. In walking, he took rather short steps for a tall man, and without any swaying of the shoulders; his hands being generally thrust in the side pockets of his coat, and his face inclined towards the ground. But his eyes, large, bright, and restless, were his most remarkable feature. They appeared to take note of everything: they were seldom fixed and never introspective. Compared with the general immobility of the rest of his countenance, these eyes of Mr. Birchmore seemed to have a life of their own — and a very intense and watchful one. Whenever they met mine fully (which was but seldom, and then only for a moment at a time) I was conscious of a kind of start or thrill, as if a fine spray of icy water had swept my face. What had those eyes looked upon? or what was it that lurked behind them?
“‘We may run across each other again — hope we may,’ said Mr. Birchmore, when he shook hands with me at parting, a few days later. ‘Glad to have met you, Mr. Gainsborough — very glad, sir.’
“‘Thanks; I am glad to have met you. Your acquaintance has profited me not a little.’
“‘Oh, as to that,’ said Mr. Birchmore, with a smile, and one of those startling straightforward glances into my eyes, ‘as to that, the profit will have been mutual, to say the least of it. Good-bye!’
“My route to Italy was rather a roundabout one. Instead of running down to Marseilles and so on viâ Civita Vecchia to Rome, I set off eastwards, and crossed Germany, passing through Cologne, Frankfort-on-the-Main, and Nuremberg; thence I proceeded to Leipzig, and at length brought up in Dresden. It was my intention to go from there southwards through Switzerland to Venice, and thus to make my approach to the Eternal City.
“Dresden, however, detained me longer than I had expected. It was in August that I reached it: there were not many people in town, but I was delighted with the Gallery, with the picturesque sweep of the river, and with the green shade and good music of the Grosser Garten. There were several charming drives, too, in the neighbourhood; and as for the beer, it was really a revelation to a man who had never known anything less heavy and solid than Allsopp’s pale ale.
“I had put up at the Hotel de Saxe, a broadsided old building on one side of a large irregular ‘platz,’ called, I believe, the Neumarkt. My landlord, who was a young gentleman of great personal attractions, interested himself a good deal about my amusements; and one day he happened to ask me whether I had visited a region known as Saxon Switzerland. This, it appeared, was a mountainous district some twenty miles up the Elbe, in which was solved the problem of putting the greatest amount of romantic picturesqueness into the smallest possible compass. It was a land of savage rocks, wild precipices, and profound gorges, conveniently grouped within the limits of a good day’s tramp. It comprised all the sublime and startling features of your Yellowstone Valley in California with an area about equal to the summit of one of the table bluffs in that region.
“I packed my valise for a sojourn of two or three days among these pocket Alps, put my diamonds in that secure inner pocket, and took a droschkey for the railway station. The trip to Schandau (the principal village of Saxon Switzerland) can also be made by steamer; but after discussing the pros and cons of rival routes with my host of the hotel the evening previous, I had decided to go by rail, which provides nearly half as much pretty scenery as the river road, and takes up less than a fourth as much time. I alighted at the station door somewhat late, and having given my trunk in charge to a porter, was hurrying to get my ticket, when my attention was caught by a young lady, who was standing on the platform in an attitude that bespoke suspense and anxiety. Her veil was down, but from the slender elegance of her figure and the harmonious perfection of her costume, I could not doubt that her face was beautiful. Evidently she was not a German; had she been a thought less tastefully dressed, I should have said she was an English girl; as it was, she might be either an Austrian or an American. Even then, I rather inclined to the latter hypothesis.
“She appeared to be entirely alone; but she was scanning with ill-concealed eagerness the crowd that was entering the station, as if in search of a familiar face. When her glance fell upon me, I fancied that she took an impulsive step in my direction; but she checked herself immediately, and looked away. While I was hastily debating within myself whether or not it would be ‘the thing’ for me to go up and ask her if she needed any assistance, I saw a dientsman, or carrier, come up the steps, and taking off his cap, deliver her a note. She tore it nervously open, threw back her veil impatiently, and ran her eyes over the contents. Beautiful she was, indeed! My anticipations had been behind the truth on that score. Such strange, mystical, dark eyes underneath level black eyebrows I had never seen. But just then there was an expression of dismay and distress in them that made me half forget to remember their fascination.
“She now addressed the carrier, seemingly in broken German, for he evidently did not well understand her, and the answer he made appeared to increase her embarrassment. Her slender foot tapped the stone pavement; she read the note once more, crushed it up in her hand, and then her arms fell listlessly at her sides with an air almost of despair. She looked this way and that helplessly.
“By this time several persons besides myself had observed her bewilderment, and I thought I perceived that a certain fat old Jew, wearing a number of glittering rings and a very massive watch-chain, was inclined to take advantage of it. This decided me on my course of action: I came quickly forward, as if I had just caught sight of her, and lifting my hat with an air of respectful acquaintanceship, I said in French:
“‘If mademoiselle will permit me, I may perhaps be of some use.’
“Her veil, either accidentally or of design, dropped again over her face as she turned it towards me. I knew that she was scrutinising me with a woman’s intuitive insight, and I tried to look as guileless and respectful as I am sure I felt. In a moment she asked:
“‘Monsieur est-il Français?’
“‘I’m an Englishman,’ I answered, blushing a little, I dare say, at her implied criticism of my imperfect accent.
“‘Oh, I am glad! I, too, am almost English — I am American. But I don’t know how I can be helped, really!’
“‘Some friend has missed an appointment ——?’
“‘Yes, indeed! Oh dear! it’s worse than that. It’s my father.’
“‘You were going by the train ——’
“‘There has been some stupid mistake. I’m sure I don’t know what I shall do. We had arranged to start at ten o’clock this morning, and I started first, because I wanted to do some shopping on the way down. I understood that we were to rendezvous here. But he did not come at ten, and I sent a dientsman to the hotel; and now he has brought word from the hotel-keeper that papa started by the ten o’clock steamboat. I had not understood that it was to be the steamboat, you see; and I’m left here all alone.’
“‘But if you took the next train, you would still arrive two or three hours before him; that is — may I ask where you were going?’
“‘Oh, I think Schandau is the name of the place.’
“‘Schandau? Oh, then it’s all right. There is a train starts immediately.’
“‘Yes — but — no; I’m afraid I can’t do that.’
“I was puzzled. ‘Perhaps you would like to telegraph him to come back here for you?’
“‘I don’t know where to telegraph, so that he would get it; besides —— But, excuse me, sir. You are very kind; but I won’t trouble you with my affairs. I dare say I shall get on very well.’
“She turned away with a slight bow; but she was so evidently nonplussed, that I determined to make another effort to gain her confidence. There was not much time to lose; the first bell was already ringing.
“‘I am going on to Schandau,’ I said. ‘If you like, I will send you back to your hotel in a droschkey; and when I get to Schandau, I will hunt up your father and tell him the mistake he has made. Here is my card.’
“She looked at it, and her manner at once changed. A half-repressed smile glimmered on her face. I felt that we were on a right footing at last, though I could not at the time understand how it had happened.
“‘I will confess to you, Mr. Gainsborough,’ she said, glancing up at me with a charming trustfulness in her manner. ‘My papa is so forgetful. We were not coming back to Dresden. After Schandau we were going on to Prague; and he has gone off with all our luggage, and — and he has left me without even any money to buy my ticket! At least, I did have enough, but I spent it all in my shopping.’
“This cleared up matters at once. ‘How stupid of me not to have seen it all before!’ I exclaimed. ‘Now, we have just time to get the train,’ I hurried her on with me as I spoke, bought our tickets in the twinkling of an eye, and without waiting for the change, convoyed her rapidly across the platform, and, with the assistance of a guard, we found ourselves safely ensconced in a first-class carriage just as the train moved off. My beautiful companion, breathless, smiling, and yet seemingly a little frightened, sank back on the cushions, and felt for the fan at her girdle. I wished to give her plenty of time to recover her composure, and to feel assured that I had no intention of taking undue advantage of our position; so, having arranged the windows to suit her convenience, I betook myself to the other end of the carriage, and diligently stared at the prospect for fully five minutes. Nature could endure no more, and at the end of that time I was fain to change my posture. I stole a glance at my fair American. She, too, was absorbed in the prospect on her side, which consisted at the moment of a perpendicular cutting about ten feet distant from her window. Her attitude as she sat there was the perfection of feminine grace. Her left hand, loosely holding the fan, drooped on her lap; her sleeve, slightly pushed up, revealed the lovely curve of her arm and wrist. I am a particular admirer of beautiful wrists and hands, and here I saw my ideal. How exquisitely the glove fitted! and how artistically the colour harmonised with the rest of her costume! The other little hand supported her chin: I could just see the rounded outline of her small cheek, and the movement of the dark eyelash projecting beyond it. Beneath her hat the black hair turned in a careless coil, and charming little downy curls nestled in the nape of her neck. She was a thorough brunette, pale, and yet pervaded with warm colour. Beneath the skirt of her crisp dress peeped the pointed toe of an ineffable little boot, which occasionally lifted itself and tapped the floor softly. Suddenly, in the midst of my admiring inspection, she turned round upon me, and our eyes met. There was an instant’s constraint, and then we both laughed, and the constraint passed away, not to return.
“‘I was going to ask you,’ said I, ‘whether you wouldn’t prefer sitting on this side. You will find the river better worth looking at than that stone wall.’
“‘I am under your orders, sir, for the present; you put me here; and now, if you tell me I am to go elsewhere, I shall obey.’
“She rose as she spoke; the jolting of the carriage caused her to lose her balance; I held out my hand to assist her, and so she tottered across and seated herself opposite me.
“‘Now are you satisfied?’ she asked demurely, folding her hands in her lap, and sending a flash into me from those mystical eyes.
“‘Yes, indeed, if you are. Did you ever travel this way before?’
“‘If you mean, alone with a gentleman I never met before — no!’
“‘Oh, what I meant was ——’
“‘I know — I was only making fun. Yes, I believe I was in this part of the country once, when I was a very little girl; that was before I went to the Convent, you know.’
“‘To the Convent?’
“She gave a charming impromptu laugh. ‘I wasn’t quite a nun — I don’t want to make you believe that! Only I was brought up in a convent near Paris; educated there, as many young ladies are. I was there seven years — wasn’t that long? and I only got out a little while ago.’
“‘It must have been awfully dull.’
“‘Oh, I liked it in a sort of way; they were very kind to me there; but then I didn’t know how pleasant it was outside! You would never believe how delightful the world is, if you were only told about it. My papa used to tell me about it sometimes; and he is a great traveller — he has been everywhere. But I didn’t realise it until I saw for myself.’
“‘Have you been to America since leaving the Convent?’
“‘Oh yes. I went to New York, and saw my cousins there. Papa went with me, but he came back to Paris first, and I followed later. I met him again in Paris only a week ago. He will be surprised to see you here, Mr. Gainsborough. What a funny way you have chosen to go from Paris to Rome — through Dresden!’
“‘Yes, I— but, by-the-bye, how did you know I was going to Rome? and why will your papa be surprised ——?’
“Again she laughed, and regarded me with so delightfully mischievous a glance that I felt convinced I must in some way be making a fool of myself. What did it all mean? I bit my lip, and the colour came into my face from provocation at my own evident thick-headedness.
“‘If you had only waited a little longer in Paris,’ she continued, still smiling enigmatically, ‘perhaps we might have met in a more regular way, and perhaps, then, you would have let me have had a look at your — diamonds!’
“My diamonds! That explained the mystery in a flash.
“‘Is your father Mr. Birchmore?’
“‘I am Miss Birchmore, if you please, sir. You never asked me for my card, and I didn’t like to force it on you. It was so kind of you to take me on trust, without making sure that I was all right first. I thought Englishmen were more cautious and reserved.’
“I could now join in the laugh against myself with full appreciation of the excellence of the jest. Mr. Birchmore, then, had been a married man after all. Of course he was; why had I not before remarked the strong family likeness between him and his daughter? Take her on trust, forsooth! How I longed to retort that I was ready to take her for better for worse, then and there, if she would have me. If she were a fair specimen of American girls, what a nation of houris they must be, indeed! But, then, they were not all brought up in French convents. It was that that added to Miss Birchmore the last irresistible charm. That it was that gave her that naïveté, that innocent frankness, that unconscious freedom. And this lovely creature had actually known me, by report, before we met. Her father had told her of me, and evidently he had not given me a bad character. And this accounted for the favourable change in her manner when she saw my card. Well, it was altogether delightful; I had been guided by a happy destiny; thank fortune I had so conducted myself as at least not to prejudice Miss Birchmore against me. Verily, good manners are never thrown away; and, moreover, I prided myself (as I fancy most gentlemen do) on my ability to detect a true lady at a glance.
“We now resumed our conversation on a still more confidential footing than heretofore. Miss Birchmore related many amusing anecdotes of her late experience in New York, as well as of her earlier days in the Convent, and even some passages of her child-life previous to the latter epoch. I observed, however, that ever and anon she would check herself, seeming to pass over certain passages in her history in silence; and this reminded me of the similar behaviour which I had noted in her father. That secret — that mystery, whatever it was, that weighed upon him — had cast its shadow over her young heart likewise. Honestly did I sympathise with her unknown trouble, and ardently did I long — all vulgar curiosity aside — to have the knowledge of it imparted to me. Few calamities are so heavy as that, by earnest and friendly help, they may not be lightened. What could it be? In vain I asked myself that question. Here was this lovely girl, in the first fresh bloom of existence, just beginning to taste, with eager uncloyed palate, all the sweet joys and novelties of life — health, youth, a happy temperament, and ample wealth ranked on her side; and yet this bitterness of a misfortune, not by rights her own, must needs communicate its blighting influence to her! It was tragical to think of. Yes, ever and anon I could mark its traces in her vivid face and winning bearing. A passing gloom of sadness in those wonderful eyes; a quiver of apprehension about the lips; an involuntary gesture of nervousness or lassitude; many trifling signs, scarcely perceptible, perhaps, to a regard less keen and watchful than mine had already become. Already? — but time in an acquaintance like this is not to be measured by hours or minutes. It is a trite saying, and yet how true, that those who are under the influence of a strong emotion may live years in a few heart-beats.
“‘Please — oh, please don’t look so solemn, Mr. Gainsborough! What has happened? I should think, to look at you, that you had been robbed of your diamonds at the very least?’
“‘No; they are safe enough,’ said I, calling up as cheerful a tone and aspect as I could muster, and putting my hand over the inner pocket as I spoke. ‘Are you fond of diamonds?’
“‘Oh, did you ever hear of a girl who wasn’t? I think there is nothing so beautiful. Papa has a great many, but he says I mustn’t wear them until after I am married. Isn’t that hard?’
“‘But perhaps you think of being married before long?’ I inquired, with positively a jealous throb at my heart.
“‘No; that’s the trouble; I know I shall never be married.’ These words were uttered in a lower and graver tone, and once more I thought I could discern the flitting traces of that mysterious melancholy. But she brightened up when I said:
“‘Well, he won’t object to your seeing my diamonds, at any rate; not even to your putting them on, perhaps!’
“‘Just for a minute — may I? that will be splendid! Papa says that some of them are the finest he ever saw.’
“‘For longer than a minute, Miss Birchmore, if you are willing — I mean if he ——’ What did I mean, pray? Was I going to make an offer of my hand, heart, and diamonds, on less than an hour’s acquaintance, in a railway carriage? and was I going to forget that the diamonds did not belong to me at all, but to my respected mother, who would probably see me cut off with a shilling before granting me the disposal of them? Luckily for my self-possession and self-respect, the train drew up just then at the station known as Krippen, on the bank of the river immediately opposite Schandau. The guard opened the door; we alighted, and the first person we saw was Mr. Birchmore, and close behind him a short, ungainly, beetle-browed fellow, a valet or footman apparently, with a campstool, an umbrella, and a small basket of fruit on his arm.
“Mr. Birchmore shook my hand cordially, yet I fancied that he betrayed signs of embarrassment or uneasiness. He seemed glad to meet me on my own account, and yet to feel constrained by my presence. Had he any reason for wishing to conceal from me the fact that he had a daughter? It now occurred to me for the first time that in her conversation with me Miss Birchmore had never alluded to her mother. Perhaps her mother was dead — had died in her child’s infancy. Perhaps the silence concerning her arose from some other and less avowable cause; there might be some matrimonial disgrace or tragedy at the bottom of the father and daughter’s reserve. The idea had a certain plausibility, and yet I found it unsatisfactory. The true explanation of the mystery might not be worse than this, but I fancied it must be different — it must be something more unusual and strange.
“‘This is an unexpected pleasure,’ said I, for the sake of saying something, as we descended the steps down the river embankment to the ferry-boat.
“‘The world is not so large a place as people pretend,’ replied Mr. Birchmore. ‘Have you been long in Dresden?’
“‘A week or so. I’ve been doing the neighbourhood, and was told that Saxon Switzerland must not be left out of the list. I came near going by the boat ——’ Here I suddenly recollected that if Mr. Birchmore had gone by boat, as his daughter said he had, his presence in Schandau before us was wholly inexplicable. ‘How did you manage to get here so quickly?’ I exclaimed; ‘the steamer can’t be due for three hours yet!’
“He looked at me in apparent perplexity; Miss Birchmore seemed to share my own surprise. There was a pause of a few moments; then she said in a low tone:
“‘You know, papa, I got word that, from some misunderstanding, you had taken the steamer instead of the train.’
“‘Ah, to be sure,’ he rejoined, with a short laugh; ‘I see the difficulty. You must look upon me, I suppose, as a sort of magician, able to transport myself about the country on some new telegraphic principle. Well, I’m afraid I can’t lay claim to any such supernatural power. I shall lose credit by the explanation, but you shall have it nevertheless.’
“‘No, no! give us room for the exercise of our imagination,’ cried I, laughing. The fact was, I felt as if my query had been in some way unfortunate. There was a certain effort in Mr. Birchmore’s manner, and a want of spontaneity in his laugh. In my ignorance of the true lay of the land, I was continually making some irritating blunder; and the more I tried to make myself agreeable, the worse was my success.
“Mr. Birchmore, notwithstanding that I deprecated it, chose to make his explanation. ‘Kate was right,’ said he; ‘my first intention was to go by train. Afterwards I decided on the boat, and left the hotel with the purpose of getting our passage that way, and sending Kate word to meet me at the landing. But the boat turned out to be so crowded that I changed my mind again: it was then so late that I hadn’t time to reach the central railway station; my only chance of catching the train was to jump into a droschkey at the steamboat landing and drive as the kutcher never drove before, for the lower station, which was half-a-mile nearer. I got there barely in time; and Kate, it seems, was waiting at the central all the while!’
“‘And of course,’ added Miss Birchmore, ‘the people at the hotel fancied he had gone by the boat, and sent me word so. Oh yes, I understand it all now; don’t you, Mr. Gainsborough?’
“‘I don’t take it kindly of your father to strip away the illusions from life so pitilessly,’ returned I, in a humorous tone; ‘I should have been much happier in believing that he had flown through the air on the Arabian king’s wishing-carpet.’ This sally sufficed to raise the smile of which we all seemed so greatly in want, and so we got into the ferry-boat in a comparatively easy frame of mind.
“The valet to whom I have already alluded sat on a thwart near the bows, in such a position that I had a full view of him. A more unconciliating object I have seldom beheld. His body and arms were long, but his legs were short, and bowed outwards. His features were harsh, forbidding, and strongly marked; but there was an expression of power stamped upon them which fascinated my gaze in spite of the ugliness which would otherwise have made me glad to look away. It was not the power of intellect, for although there was plenty of a saturnine kind of intelligence in the countenance, it was not to be supposed that a fellow in his position of life would be remarkable for brains. No, this power was of another kind; I do not know how to describe it; but I believe some people would get out of the difficulty by calling it magnetic. Whatever it was, it produced a very disagreeable impression on me, and I could not but wonder that Mr. Birchmore should have chosen to take such a creature into his employ. I had the sense, however, on this occasion to keep my speculations to myself; I was resolved not to make a fool of myself again if I could help it — at least, not with this particular family. I noticed that whenever Mr. Birchmore had occasion to address this man, he did so in a peculiarly severe and peremptory tone, very different from his usual low-voiced style. There was seemingly no great affection for him on his master’s part, therefore; and certainly the valet looked incapable of a tender feeling towards any human creature. Possibly, however, he was invaluable as a servant, and his unpropitiating exterior might cover an honest and faithful heart. Only should such turn out to be the case, I would never again put faith either in physiognomy or my own instinct of aversion. I disliked to think of this ill-favoured mortal being in daily association with my lovely Kate Birchmore — for already, in my secret soul, I called her mine! and I made up my mind that if ever fortune granted me the privilege of making her what I called her, I would see to it that monsieur the valet formed a part of anyone’s household rather than ours.
“Meanwhile the ferryman had poled and paddled us across the river, on the shore of which a swarm of hotel-porters stood ready to rend us limb from limb. But Mr. Birchmore put them all aside save one, to whom he pointed out my trunk, and gave him some directions which I did not hear.
“‘I take the liberty,’ he then said, turning to me, ‘to so far do the honours of this place as to recommend you to the most agreeable hotel in it — the Badehaus, at the farther end of the village, and about half a mile up the valley. These hotels that front the river would give you better fare, perhaps, and less unpretending accommodation; but if quiet and coolness are what you are after — not to mention the medicinal spring water and a private brass band — the Badehaus is the thing.’
“‘The Badehaus be it, by all means.’ This attention surprised me, not because I misdoubted my friend’s courtesy, but because I had imagined that his courtesy would not stand in the way of an unobtrusive attempt to withdraw himself and his daughter from my immediate companionship. Yet so far was this from being the case, that he had taken some pains to secure our being together — for of course the Badehaus must be his own quarters. I glanced at Kate, who had taken her father’s arm, and was pacing beside him thoughtfully, with downcast eyes. Was she glad as well as I?
“We passed through a narrow alley between two friendly buildings, which seemed strongly inclined to lean on one another’s shoulders; crossed the rough cobble-stones of the little market-place, and, gaining the farther side of the bridge, found ourselves on a broad level walk which skirted the southern side of the small valley wherein the village lies. On our right hand was a series of stuccoed villas, built against the steep side of the hill; on our left a strip of meadow, with a brook brawling through it; and beyond this again the straggling array of the village, and the hill on the other side. Overhead, the spreading branches of low trees kept off the glare of the sun. Had Kate and I been there alone, methought, the charm of the place would have been complete.
“‘What delightful little villas these are!’ I exclaimed. ‘Aren’t they better than any hotel — even the Badehaus?’
“‘If you think of spending any great time here — I believe they don’t let for less than a week. But probably these are all full at this season. Higher up the valley, two or three miles beyond the hotel, you would find detached farmhouses, whose owners no doubt would be glad of a lodger. If you are not broken in to a traveller’s hardships, though, you’ll prefer the Badehaus.’
“‘I think I shall prefer it as long as you are there.’
“‘Well, I’m sorry to say that won’t be long — we shall move to-morrow morning. If I had expected you, I— I should have been happy to have arranged matters otherwise. But the fact is, I have engaged rooms at one of the farmhouses I spoke of, and to-morrow they will expect us.’
“My spirits fell at this news like a feather in a vacuum, and I daresay my face showed it. There could be no doubt now that Mr. Birchmore was resolved to get rid of me. That he would go to-morrow to some distant farmhouse I did not question; but as to his having intended any such thing before he saw me alight from the train, I confess I didn’t believe it. It was an unpremeditated expedient; and his inviting me up to the Badehaus was only a polite mitigation of the shock.
“‘I am very sorry!’ was all I could say.
“Kate turned her face a little towards me at the words, and her eyes met mine sidelong. Only that look — she did not speak; but I saw, or thought I saw, enough in it to make our parting at such brief notice a sentimental impossibility. At whatever sacrifice of the laws of ceremony and civilised reserve, I determined that my acquaintance with her, so well begun, should not thus be nipped in the bud. I would sooner win her as a barbarian than lose her as a man of the world. How to execute my determination was a problem to be solved at my leisure.
“We sauntered on to the hotel, chatting discursively; my mind was too much preoccupied to be thoroughly aware what we were talking about. Arrived at our destination, I followed my trunk to my room, having arranged to take an early dinner with my friends. It was nearly two hours before we met again. The dinner passed with the same sort of desultory conversation that we had affected during our walk. Mr. Birchmore’s manner was serious and rather cold. Kate, too, was subdued and grave; not the brilliant laughing Kate of the railway carriage. We were waited upon at table by the saturnine valet whom his master called Slurk — a name that seemed to me to suit him excellently well. He waited on us in perfect silence from the beginning of the meal to the end, though several times peremptorily addressed by his master. There was to me something disagreeably impressive in the fellow’s very taciturnity — it seemed to indicate reserved power. Kate, I noticed, was careful never to speak to him, but I saw his glance several times directed fixedly upon her.
“After dinner Mr. Birchmore produced a cigar and said:
“‘I must take a droschkey over to our farmhouse. Do you young people care to come, or would you rather stay here?’
“‘I think I’ll stay, papa, please,’ answered Kate.
“‘And I, to see that nobody runs away with her,’ I added with an easy smile.
“‘Slurk, get me a carriage,’ said Mr. Birchmore; and nodding a good-bye to us he went out.
“‘How far is it from here — this farmhouse, Miss Birchmore?’ I asked, when we were alone.
“‘I believe about two miles.’
“‘I should like to know its exact situation.’
“‘Why didn’t you go with papa, then?’
“‘Can’t you imagine?’
“She had been absently puckering her handkerchief into folds in her lap. Now she looked up.
“‘Why do you wish to know where we are going?’
“‘Because I’ve taken a great fancy to — to Mr. Slurk, and I can’t bear to think of losing sight of him!’
“I had expected her to laugh and perhaps blush; instead of that an expression of something like terror swept over her face, and she laid her finger on her lip.
“‘Don’t talk of him!’ she whispered.
“Her emotion had so surprised me that I could only stare in silence. Here was another mystery — or stay! could it be that Slurk was at the bottom of all those strange signs and enigmas that I had been puzzling myself over from the first? I was prepared to believe whatever amount of evil concerning the fellow might be required. But what could he have done, or have it in his power to do, that could so affect Miss Birchmore? Had he held her life or fortune at the mercy of a word she could hardly have betrayed more dismay at my jesting satire.
“‘It’s nothing,’ she said, recovering herself after a moment. ‘Only I don’t like him much, and you — and I wasn’t expecting to hear his name just then.’
“‘Heaven knows, it is a very different name I should have spoken!’
“‘No, no, no. You have amused yourself with me to-day; and to-morrow, you must find someone else to amuse you, that’s all!’
“‘Amused myself, Miss Birchmore!’
“‘Well, Mr. Gainsborough, I’m sorry if I failed to entertain you. I’m sure I tried hard. But it’s so difficult to entertain an Englishman!’
“‘Upon my word, I believe you’ve been laughing at me from the beginning! But however ridiculous I may be, Miss Birchmore, I can have thoughts and feelings that are not ridiculous ——’
“‘Oh, please — please don’t be angry. And I’m sure I never thought you ridiculous, I— oh, anything but that!’
“The tone, the look which accompanied these last words made me forget caution and self-possession for the moment. ‘Miss Birchmore — oh Kate! I cannot lose sight of you — I cannot lose you! Do you care — is it nothing to you if we never meet after to-day? Kate, I love you!’
“Had the confession come too soon? Was she offended? She shrank away from me with a searching glance.
“‘Do not forget yourself, sir! You are an honourable English gentleman. What have you said?’
“‘I love you — yes, love you!’
“‘Love me!’ she repeated slowly, and caught her breath; her eyes fixed themselves on me with an inward look, as of intense reverie. ‘It must not be — it must not be! but he does love me!’ Her hands fell in her lap; there were tears now in her eyes, but a smile quivered over her lips.
“‘Why do you say it must not be, Kate? It is! It shall be!’ I took her hand, which she scarcely attempted to withdraw; I felt that I had won her, and would hold her against all comers. Just then a knock came at the door; she snatched her hand away and rose to her feet. Mr. Slurk entered.
“‘The band is going to play in the court,’ he said in German. ‘I have kept chairs and a table for the lady and gentleman beneath the trees.’ He made a low obeisance as he spoke, but his malignant glance never swerved from Kate; and she, half turning towards him, seemed impelled by a power stronger than her own will to meet it, though slightly shivering the while with pure aversion. For my own part, I longed with all my heart to kick the varlet into the hall, or throw him out of the window. But prudence warned me to bide my time. If I obtained the footing to which I aspired in Mr. Birchmore’s family, I would settle summarily with Mr. Slurk; meanwhile, I should best consult my interests by conducting myself with all due quietness and decorum. I offered Kate my arm to lead her from the room; but with a barely perceptible gesture she declined it, and walked swiftly before me through the doorway, Slurk making another deep obeisance as we passed. The fellow had a smooth unimpeachable way of getting the better of one that made my blood boil; I commanded myself not without an effort, and nursed my wrath to keep it warm.
“When we reached the court, the brass band had established itself in the little pagoda erected there for its accommodation, and was just striking up; and there, sure enough, were a table and chairs awaiting us beneath the trees. But neither of us was in a humour to face a crowd of people; and by a tacit agreement we turned to the right, and crossing the little plank bridge which spanned the narrow stream that skirted the hotel grounds, we found ourselves in the high-road leading up the valley. Along this we walked for some distance, both of us silent; at length the opening of a path presented itself, which climbed by a zigzag route to the summit of the pine-clad hill. Into this we turned, and in a few moments were out of sight of alien eyes amidst the thick-growing hemlocks. The ascent was steep, and at the first turning in the path my beautiful companion paused for breath.
“‘Will you take my arm now, Kate?’ I said.
“With a faint smile she complied. ‘Just for this once,’ I heard her murmur, seemingly speaking to herself. ‘Never again — but this once I will!’
“‘Now, Kate,’ I said resolutely, bending forward so as to catch her eye, ‘let us have done with mysteries. No more “never-agains” and “just-this-onces,” if you please! First, I want you tell me whether you love me?’
“She drew her breath hard. ‘I can tell you nothing, Mr. Gainsborough ——’
“‘You shall not call me “Mr. Gainsborough.” If you can’t call me “Tom,” call me nothing; but I will never be “Mr. Gainsborough” to you again!’
“‘I thought we were to have no more “never-agains?”’ she rejoined, with a passing sparkle of the former playfulness in her air.
“‘None of yours, I meant.’
“‘I will call you “Tom,” if you please, on one condition.’
“‘That you let it be “just this once!”’
“‘Kate, do you love me?’
“‘Oh, you are cruel!’ she cried, with passionate emphasis, slipping her hand from my arm and facing me with glowing looks. ‘I wish I could say I hate you! You are a man of the world, and I a poor girl from a convent, who know nothing. I am trying to do right, and you oppose me — you make it hard and bitter to me. If you loved me as I— as I would love if I were a man, you would not press me so. I tell you, it must not be!’
“‘What is, shall be, Kate! Dear Kate, we love each other; and who in the world shall prevent it, or forbid our being married?’
“‘Hush! hush!’ She came a step nearer to me, and caught my sleeve with her little hand, as a timorous child might do; glancing nervously over her shoulder as if something fearful were hidden amongst the trees. ‘Did you hear nothing?’ she whispered. ‘Did not someone call me?’
“‘Only I have called you, dear. I called you “Kate;” and I want to call you “wife!”’
“She continued to stand motionless, with that frightened listening expression still on her face; and yet my words had apparently passed unheard. What was it, then, that her ears were strained to catch? To my sense, the forest was full of shadowy stillness, tempered only by a faint whispering of leaves, and now and then a bird-note high overhead.
“Gradually the strange preoccupation left her. Her breathing, which had been irregular and laboured, now came evenly and gently once more. She glanced sidelong at me for a moment; then, with a swift tender movement she came yet a trifle closer, and laid her other hand upon my arm.
“‘Tom — Tom dear! I will say it, for we shall be parted soon, and then, if I am alive, I shall be comforted a little to think that I did say it! Listen — Tom dear, I love you! Never forget that I said it — Tom, I love you!’
“I was taken deliciously by surprise. You must not expect me to tell how I felt or what I said. I can only remember that I took her in my arms and kissed her. The bird that warbled over our heads seemed to utter the ecstasy that I felt.
“Presently we began to move on again. I don’t know why I didn’t speak; perhaps I thought that our kiss had been the seal of her surrender, and that therefore words were for the moment impertinent; by-and-by the converse would be renewed from a fresh basis. Besides, my thoughts were flying too fast, just then, for speech to overtake them. I was thinking how singular had been the manner and progress of our acquaintance. It was scarcely in accordance with what I believed to be my normal temperament and disposition to plunge so abruptly and almost recklessly into a new order and responsibility of life. I had fancied myself too cautious, too cool-headed, for such an impulsive act. But it was done, and the fact that Kate’s feelings had responded to my own seemed to justify the apparent risk. We were meant for each other, and had come together in sheer despite of all combinations of circumstances to keep us apart. Knowing, as we did, scarcely anything of each other as worldly knowledge goes, we had yet felt that inward instinct and obligation to union which made the most thorough worldly knowledge look like folly. What would my mother say to it? How would the news be relished by her father? I cared not; I foresaw difficulties enough in store, but none that appalled me. After all, an honourable man and woman, honestly in love with each other, are a match against the world, or superior to it. Union is strength, and the union of loving hearts is the strongest strength of all.
“‘And do you want to marry me really, Tom?’
“We had gained the summit of the steep hill, and were now pacing along the ridge. The narrow winding valley lay sheer beneath us on the right, with the white road and the dark stream lying side by side at the bottom of it. The crest of the opposing hillside seemed but a short stone’s-throw distant; the aroma of our privacy was the sweeter for the pigmy droschkey, with its mannikin inmate, which was crawling along through the dust so far below. We commanded the world, while we were ourselves hidden from it.
“‘I should rather think I did, Kate!’
“‘I thought Englishmen only married as a matter of business; that they married settlements and dowries and rank and influence, and added women merely as a matter of custom and politeness.’
“‘I am satisfied to marry for love; if that’s un-English, so much the better for me!’
“‘You would take me without anything but just myself?’
“‘What is worth having, compared with you?’
“‘Oh Tom! But then, you cannot have just myself alone. Nobody in the world is independent of everything — not even an American — not even an American girl who has lived seven years in a convent! I may not be able to bring you anything good — anything that would make me more acceptable; but what if I were to bring you something bad — something terrible — something that would make you shudder at me if I were ten times as lovable as you say I am?’
“‘Why then, I should have to love you twenty times more than ever I suppose, that’s all!’ I answered, with a laugh.
“‘You don’t mean what you say — at least you don’t know what you say. You are not so brave as you think you are, sir! What do you know of me?’ She spoke these sentences in a lower, graver tone than the previous ones, which had been uttered in a vein of half-wayward, fanciful playfulness. Almost immediately, however, she roused herself again, as though unwilling to let the lightsome humour escape so soon.
“‘Well, let us pretend that you have married me, for better or worse, and that it is all settled. Now, where will you take me to first?’
“‘Where do you wish to go?’
“‘Oh, it must be somewhere where nobody could come after us,’ she exclaimed, with a curious subdued laugh. ‘Nobody that either of us has ever known; neither your mother, nor my father, nor — nor anybody! And there we must stay always; because as soon as we came out, we should lose each other, and never find each other again. And that would be sadder than never to have met, wouldn’t it?’
“‘But, my darling Kate,’ interposed I, laughing again, ‘where on earth, in this age of railways and steamboats and telegraphs and balloons, are we to find such a very retired spot? Unless we took a voyage to the moon, or could find our way down to the centre of the earth, we should hardly feel safe, I fear!’
“‘Oh, well, you must arrange about that; only it is as I tell you; and you see marrying me is not such a simple matter after all. Well, now, suppose we have reached the place, wherever it is — what would you give me for a wedding present?’
“‘What would you like?’
“‘No — you are to decide that. It wouldn’t be proper for your wife to choose her own wedding present, you know.’
“‘I believe such a thing does sometimes happen though, when the people are very fashionable and aristocratic.’
“‘But I am not aristocratic; I am an American. Now, what will you give me?’
“‘What do you say to the diamonds?’
“‘Well, I think I will take the diamonds,’ she said meditatively, as though weighing the question in her mind. ‘Yes, papa said I might wear diamonds after I was married. But might not your mother object?’
“‘Not when she knows whom they are for; and, at any rate, she is going to leave them to me in her will.’
“‘Oh! and you expect that the news of our marriage will kill her?’
“‘It ought rather to give her a new lease of life. But you shall have the diamonds all the same. Will you try them on now?’
“‘Why, have you got them with you?’
“‘Certainly: I always carry them in this pocket.’
“‘How careless! You might lose them.’
“‘No: the pocket buttons up; see!’ and turning back the flap of my coat, I showed her how all was made secure.
“‘But what if robbers were to attack you?’
“‘Then I should talk to them with this,’ I rejoined, taking my revolver from another pocket, and holding it up.
“‘Oh, that’s a derringer! they have those in America. What a pretty one! Let me look at it.’
“‘No,’ said I, replacing it in my pocket; ‘it has a hair-trigger, and every barrel is loaded. You shall look at something much prettier, and not dangerous at all. Here — sit down on this stump, and take off your hat, and I’ll put them on for you.’
“The stump of which I spoke stood at the end of the path we had been following, and within a few rods of the brink of a precipitous gorge, which entered the side of the steep mountain-spur nearly at right angles. Across this gorge (which, though seventy to one hundred feet in depth, was scarcely more than half as wide at the top) a wooden bridge had formerly been thrown; but age or accident had broken it down, until only a single horizontal beam remained, spanning the chasm from side to side, and supported by three or four upright and transverse braces. The beam itself was scarcely nine inches in width; and the whole structure was a dizzy thing to look at. My nerves were trained to steadiness by a good deal of gymnastic experience; but it would have needed a strong inducement to get me across that beam on foot.
“Kate sat down on the stump as I directed; but her manner had become languid and indifferent; the brightness and sparkle of her late mood were gone. As she looked up at me, her level eyebrows were slightly contracted, and the corners of her mouth drooped. Her hands were folded listlessly in her lap. She was dressed in some soft white material, through which was visible the warm gleam of her arms and shoulders; the skirt was caught up in such a way as to allow freedom in walking; she wore a broad-brimmed white hat over her black hair; a yellow sash confined her waist, and her hands were bare. I untied the ribbons of her hat, she permitting me to do so without resistance; and then, kneeling before her, I unbuttoned the diamonds from my pocket, and laid them, in their case, upon her lap.
“‘Now, dear, shall I put them on you, or will you do it yourself?’
“She opened the case, and the gems flashed in the checkered sunshine that filtered down between the leaves of the trees. The sight seemed to rouse her somewhat; a faint spot of colour showed in either cheek, and she drew in a long breath.
“‘They are splendid!’ she said. ‘I never saw anything like them. No, your mother would need to die before giving up these.’
“‘They won’t look their best until you have put them on. Come!’
“‘Oh, I’m afraid! what if ——’
“‘Afraid of what?’
“‘What if someone were to come and see ——’
“‘Nonsense, my darling! There’s no one within half a mile of us; and if there were, they would only see a lovely girl looking her loveliest.’
“‘How nicely you talk to me! Well then — you put them on me. I won’t touch them myself.’
“The parure consisted of a necklace and a pair of earrings. I lifted them, flashing, from the case; clasped the necklace round her throat, she sitting motionless, and hung the earrings in her ears. A light, that matched their marvellous gleam, seemed to enter into her eyes as I did so.
“‘You and these diamonds were made for each other!’ I said; and bending forwards, I kissed her on the lips.
“For more than a minute she sat there quite still, I kneeling in front of her; we were looking straight into one another’s eyes. Then, all at once, a troubled anxious look came into her face. She rose with a startled gesture to her feet.
“‘Hush! hush! did you hear?’
“‘What’s the matter?’ cried I, jumping up in surprise.
“‘Hush! someone calling — calling me!’
“Again that strange fancy! What did it mean? I could not repress a certain thrill at the heart as I gazed at her. It was very weird and strange.
“As I gazed, a singular change crept over her. Her face was now quite colourless, and its pallor was intensified by the blackness of her mystical eyes. Those eyes slowly grew fixed — immovable, as if frozen. The lids trembled for a moment, then drooped, then lifted again to their widest extent, and so remained. Her lips, slightly parted, showed the white teeth set edge to edge behind them. The rigidity descended through her whole body; she was like a marble statue. She breathed low and deeply, as one who is in profound slumber.
“‘Kate, what has happened to you?’ I cried in alarm, putting my hand on her shoulder. Her arm was fixed like iron; she seemed to hear nothing, feel nothing. She was as much beyond any power of mine to influence her as if she had been dead. The diamonds that glittered on her bosom were not more insensible than she.
“I must confess that I was somewhat unnerved by the situation. Kate was evidently in some sort of trance; but what had put her into that state, and how was she to be got out of it? For aught I knew, it might be the prelude to a fit or other seizure of that nature, involving consequences dangerous if not fatal. In the bewilderment of the moment the only remedy that I could think of was cold water; to dash her with water might be of use, and could scarcely make matters worse. About thirty paces from where we were standing a small rill meandered amongst the roots of the trees, and trickled at last in a tiny cascade down the rocky side of the gorge. Towards this I ran, and stooping down, attempted to scoop up some of the refreshing element in the crown of my straw hat.
“Rising with the dripping hat in my hands, I turned to go back; but the sight that then met my eyes caused me to drop everything and spring forward with a gasp of horror.
“Moving as if in obedience to some power external or at least foreign to herself, as a mechanical figure might move, steadily, deliberately, and yet blindly, Kate had advanced directly towards the narrow chasm, and when I first beheld her she already seemed balancing on the brink. Before I could cover half the distance that separated us, she had set foot on the long beam which spanned the abyss, and had begun to walk along it. By the time I reached the hither end, she was halfway over, stepping as unconsciously as if she were on an ordinary sidewalk, though the slightest deflection from a straight course would have sent her down a hundred feet to the jagged boulders below.
“Standing on the hither verge, every nerve so tensely strung that I seemed to hear the blood humming through my brain, I watched the passage of those small feet, which I had admired that morning as they peeped coquettishly from beneath her dress in the railway carriage — I watched them pass, step after step, along that awful beam. I suppose the transit must have been accomplished in less than a minute, but it seemed to me that I was watching it for hours. I uttered no sound, lest it might rouse her from her trance and insure the catastrophe that else she might escape; I did not attempt to overtake her, fearful lest the beam should fail to support our united weight. I saw her pass on, rigid, unbending, but sure of foot as a rope-dancer; and at last I saw her reach the opposite side, and stand once more on solid earth, preserved from death as it seemed by a miracle. I have no distinct recollection of how I followed; I only know that a few seconds afterwards I was standing beside her, with my arm round her waist.
“I led her forwards a few paces out of sight of the ravine, the mere thought of which now turned me sick, and brought her to a plot of soft turf, beneath a tree with low spreading branches. The trance was evidently passing away; her limbs no longer had that unnatural rigidity; her eyelids drooped heavily, and her jaw relaxed. A violent trembling seized upon her; she sank down on the turf as if all power of self-support had gone out of her. At that moment I fancied I heard a slight crackle among the shrubbery not far off; I looked quickly up, and saw — or thought I saw — a short ungainly figure obscurely stealing away through the underbush. Almost immediately he vanished amidst the trees, leaving me in doubt whether my eyesight had not after all played me false.
“As I turned again to Kate, she was sitting up against the trunk of the tree, the diamonds flashing at her throat and ears, and a puzzled questioning expression on her face.
“‘What makes you look so strange?’ she murmured. ‘Where is your hat! How did we come here, Tom? I thought ——’
“She stopped abruptly, and rose slowly to her feet. Her eyes were cast down shamefacedly, and she bit her lip. She lifted her hand to her throat, and felt the diamonds there. Then, with an apprehensive, almost a cowering glance, she peered stealthily round through the trees, as though expecting to see something that she dreaded. Finally she turned again, appealingly, to me, but said nothing.
“I thought I partly understood the significance of this dumb-show. She was subject to these somnambulistic trances, and was ashamed of them. She knew not, on this occasion, what extravagance she might have committed in the presence of me, her lover. She feared the construction I might put upon it, yet was too timid — or, it might be, too proud — to speak. But her misgiving did me injustice. Shocked and grieved though I was, I loved her more than ever.
“‘You were faint, my dear, that’s all,’ I said, cheerfully and affectionately. ‘I brought you under this tree, and now you’re all right.’
“She shook her head, with a piteous smile. ‘I know what has been the matter with me, Mr. Gainsborough,’ she said, with an attempt at reserve and coldness in her tone. ‘I had hoped I might have parted from you before you knew, but — it was not to be so! It is very good of you to pretend to ignore it, and I thank you — I thank you. Here,’ she added, nervously unclasping the necklace and removing the earrings, ‘I have worn these too long. Take them, please.’
“‘Kate, you shall wear them forever!’ cried I, passionately.
“‘I must not begin yet, at all events,’ she returned more firmly. ‘Take them, please, or you will make me feel more humiliated than I do now.’ She put them in my unwilling hands. ‘And now we’ll get our hats and go back to the hotel,’ she continued, with a smile which was pathetic in its effort to seem indifferent and unconstrained. ‘Where are they? Ah!’
“She had just caught sight of her white hat lying beside the stump on the farther side of the gorge. The suppressed scream and the start indicated that she now for the first time realised by what a perilous path she had come hither. She remained for a moment gazing at the beam with a sort of fascination; then, moving forward to the brink, looked down the sheer precipice to the rocks below.
“‘I wish I had fallen!’ she said, almost below her breath; ‘or,’ she added, after a short pause, in a tone still lower, but of intense emphasis, ‘I wish he had!’
“‘You wish I had?’
“‘I did not know you were so near,’ she answered, drawing back from the verge. ‘No, no — not you! Come, we must walk round this place. Tell me,’ she said, facing me suddenly, ‘did you see anyone?’
“‘I think not. I fancied I heard ——’
“‘We must get back to the hotel,’ she interrupted excitedly; ‘at least, I must get back. I don’t like to be here. I wish you would leave me. I would rather say good-bye to you here than there.’
“‘I never mean to say good-bye to you at all, Kate. If this is the trouble you hinted at, you overrate it entirely. Why, two people out of every seven are somnambulists. It is as common as to have black hair. Besides, you will outgrow it in a few years; it is only a nervous affection, which any doctor can cure.’
“‘It is not that; you don’t understand,’ she said, with a sigh.
“‘Whatever it is, I’m determined not to lose you. I shall tell your father, when I see him, that I love you, and that wherever he takes you I shall follow. No one can or shall keep us apart.’
“The resolution with which I spoke seemed to impress her somewhat. ‘You can speak to him if you will. But, oh! it is no use. It cannot be; you don’t understand. Let me go; good-bye. No, do not come with me; please do not! I have a reason for asking it. I will see you once more — to-morrow, before we leave. But let me go alone now, if you love me.’
“She went, walking quickly away through the wood. I watched her for a few moments, and then returned to the grass plot beneath the tree, and threw myself down there in a very dissatisfied frame of mind. The sun had set before I returned to the hotel.
“I saw nothing more of Kate that day; but I came across Slurk several times, and there was a peculiar look on the fellow’s countenance which made me renew my longing to chastise him. I was anxious to know whether Mr. Birchmore had returned; but, as I could not bring myself to make any inquiries of his valet, and did not care to let him see me asking anyone else, I was obliged to remain in ignorance. However, as I sat out under the trees at dusk, a tall figure, with a lighted cigar in his mouth, appeared in the doorway of the hotel, and, on my saluting him, he sauntered up to my table, and complied with my invitation to sit down.
“The waiter brought us coffee; and under its stimulus I ventured to introduce the subject which lay nearest my heart to Mr. Birchmore’s notice. No doubt I put my best foot foremost, and spoke as eloquently as was consistent with my downright earnestness and sincerity. Mr. Birchmore heard me almost in silence, only giving evidence by an occasional word or interjection that he was giving me his attention. Once or twice, too, I was aware of his having given me one of those sharp icy glances for which he was remarkable. When I had spoken, he fingered the pointed beard on his chin meditatively, and puffed his cigar.
“‘This is a very fair and honourable offer that you make, Gainsborough,’ he said at length. ‘I liked you before; I like you better now. You take it for granted, I suppose, that I’m pretty well off. There, you needn’t say anything; I’ve no doubt of your disinterestedness; but these matters would have to be mentioned, sooner or later, if the affair went on. I say “if,” because — I may as well tell you at once; it will save us all pain — because it can’t go on: it must stop right here; and I can only regret, for both your sakes, that it has gone so far.’
“‘Mr. Birchmore, I cannot take this for an answer. You have given me no reasons. If you want confirmation of my account of myself, I can ——’
“‘I want nothing of the sort; on the contrary, I feel complimented that you should accept us, not only without confirmation, but without question. But you can’t marry my daughter, Gainsborough, much as I like you, and much as I daresay she does. When you are older, you will understand that men cannot always follow that course in the world which appears to them most desirable.’
“‘However young or old I may be, Mr. Birchmore, I am old enough to know my own mind, and to require good reasons for changing it. If you have any such reasons, I wish you’d show your liking for me by telling me what they are.’
“‘Do you remember a talk we once had in Paris, when you hinted that I should accompany you on your jaunt? I told you then that the past life of a man sometimes had a hold over his present, constraining his freedom, whether he would or no. And can’t you imagine that those circumstances, however cogent they may be, or, very likely, just because they are so cogent, might be very inconvenient to talk about? To speak plainly, Gainsborough, I don’t see how your loving my daughter obliges me to tell you all the secrets of my life.’
“‘I don’t want to know your secrets, sir; I wish to marry Miss Birchmore.’
“Mr. Birchmore laughed.
“‘Well, you’re a pretty determined wooer,’ said he. ‘I can’t give my consent to the match, because — well, because I cannot; but if you won’t take No for an answer, nor profit by the warning I hereby give you, I’ll tell you what I will do. I will allow you yourself to discover and acknowledge the causes which make your marriage with Kate impossible. You must not blame me if the discovery gives you pain, and the acknowledgment causes you mortification. I have given you fair warning. And I will only add, sir, that the pain and mortification won’t be all on your side. I could not give you a stronger pledge of my friendship and liking for you than in thus letting you find out what has hitherto been hidden from all the world. And I only demand one condition — that you promise, when you have made your discovery, and left us, never to mention to any human being what our secret was.’
“‘I give that promise with pleasure. As to my leaving you of my own free will, that is — begging your pardon — impossible and absurd.’
“He laughed again, and shot another of his startling looks at me. ‘Very well, young sir, I’ve nothing more to say. Come with us to the farmhouse to-morrow; there’s plenty of room there, and they are used to being accommodating. Stay with us until you’re satisfied, and then — don’t forget your promise!’
“He rose as he finished speaking, and flung away the remains of his cigar.
“‘Good-night!’ he said, holding out his large well-shaped hand.
“‘Good-night! and thanks for your confidence, which you will never regret, Mr. Birchmore.’
“‘Qui vivra, verra!’ was all his answer, as he walked away, with his hands in his coat-pockets and his singular short steps. He was an enigma sure enough, and yet my belief in him was as intuitive and inalienable as in Kate herself. His mysterious hints and warnings were powerless to disturb me: I trusted in the ability of us three combined to overthrow any antagonist. I sat late beneath the trees, smoking, and brooding over my passion, as young men will, and ever and anon glancing up at a certain window, behind the lamp-illumined curtain of which I had reason to suppose my darling was. Was she thinking of me now? Even as I asked myself this, and gazed upwards, a shadow fell upon the curtain; it was pushed aside, and the window was swung back on its hinges.
“With a throb of the heart I sprang to my feet and wafted a kiss from my finger-tips towards the face that peeped out upon me. Stay! was it Kate’s face after all? The arms and shoulders now appeared, and the form leant upon the window-sill. A lucifer-match flashed, and I had the pleasure of beholding the sinister visage of Mr. Slurk lit up by a sulphurous gleam, as he leisurely lit his pipe and stared down at me.
“‘Schöne gute Nacht, Herr Gainsborough!’
“We made a late start the next morning, and did not reach the farmhouse before four o’clock. I had little opportunity of speaking to Kate on the way; in fact, the presence of Slurk, who sat on the box of the vehicle, and once in a while threw a glance at us over his shoulder, irritated me to such a degree that more tender sentiments were temporarily pushed into the background. Kate herself, though she attempted to appear cheerful, betrayed signs of inward anxiety and nervousness; while Mr. Birchmore conversed with a volubility and discursiveness greater than I had ever remarked in him before.
“The farmhouse stood quite alone, on an unfrequented by-road, in a little angle of the hills. It was not exactly a picturesque building, with its four walls covered with rough plaster and pierced with dozens of small windows, and its enormous red-tiled roof, with those quaint narrow apertures, like half-opened eyes, disclosing a single pane of glass, which do duty as dormers. It stood flush with the road, as German houses are fond of doing; but behind was a large enclosed farmyard, roughly paved with round stones and well walled in. The front door, though rather pretentiously painted and ornamented, with some religious versicle or other written up on the lintel, was not used as a means of entrance or exit. It was, as I afterwards discovered, not only locked and bolted, but actually screwed up on the inside; and the only way of getting into the house was by a side door opening into the courtyard. As the courtyard itself was provided with a heavy gate, you will see that the farmhouse, close to the road though it was, was by no means so easy of ingress or egress as it appeared, supposing, of course, that it was the humour of the inmates to declare a state of siege. I mention these particulars merely by the way: they are common to three houses out of five in this region.
“The Birchmores’ luggage had, it appeared, already been carried over from the hotel; but a man, in rough peasant’s costume, who announced himself as the master of the house, now came out to take charge of my trunk. I was, or fancied myself (as you may have noticed), a quick judge of faces, and this peasant’s face failed to commend itself to me. It was at once heavy and gloomy, while a scar at one corner of his mouth caused that feature to twist itself into a perfunctory grimace, grotesquely at variance with his normal expression. In person he was much above the common size, and to judge by the ease with which he slung my heavy trunk over his shoulder, he must have been as strong as Augustus the Stark himself, whose brazen statue domineers over the market-place in Dresden.
“‘Guten Morgen, Herr Rudolph!’ said Slurk, hailing this giant affably. The two seemed to be on some sort of terms of comradeship, having, perhaps, struck up an acquaintance during the previous negotiations for lodgings. I must say they looked to me to be a not ill-matched pair.
“We alighted, and were welcomed in with surly courtesy by Herr Rudolph. Kate, confessing to a headache, went at once to her room, whence she did not again emerge; Slurk disappeared into the kitchen regions with the landlord; Mr. Birchmore presently went out for a stroll before dinner: and I, finding myself thrown temporarily on my own resources, decided to make a virtue of my loneliness by writing some letters which had been long owing. I accordingly groped my way up the darksome stone staircase, and so along an eccentric passage to my room.
“I did not know then, nor could I, even now, accurately describe the arrangement of rooms in that farmhouse. There were at least three separate passages, not running at right angles to one another, but seeming to wander about irregularly, now and then turning awkward corners, descending or ascending short flights of steps, or eddying into a little cul-de-sac, with, perhaps, only a closet door at the end of it. The consequence was, it was nearly impossible to say whose room adjoined whose. It might be a long distance from one to another, measured along the passage, and yet they might actually be separated only by the thickness of a wall. Where the farmer and his family slept I know not, but I have reason to believe that all our party, including Slurk, were accommodated upon the same floor.
“On opening the door of my room, I found someone already there. This person was a comely young woman, the farmer’s daughter evidently, busy in the benevolent occupation of putting things in order. She had moved my trunk beneath the window, she had put fresh water in the ewer, she had straightened out the slips of drugget on the rough-board floor, she had placed some flowers in the window, and she was now engaged in tucking a clean sheet on the bed. I said she was comely; on second looks she was better than that. She was positively pretty, with the innocent blonde prettiness of some German peasant-girls. Her fair hair, smoothed compactly over her small head, and wound up in a funny little pug behind, possessed a faint golden lustre; her eyes were of as pure and serene a blue as any I ever looked upon; her smooth cheeks, slightly browned by much sunshine which had rested on them, were tinged with healthful bloom; her mouth might have been smaller, but the full lips were well-shaped, and there were white even teeth behind them. Her figure, like that of most Saxon peasant-girls of her age, was robust and vigorous; she wore a simple bodice and skirt, and her feet and legs were bare. Altogether I thought her a very agreeable apparition.
“‘Good-morning, honoured Herr Gainsborough,’ she said gravely, in German, as I entered.
“‘Good-morning, pretty maiden,’ returned I gallantly. ‘You seem to know my name, though I don’t know yours: what is it?’
“‘I am called Christina — Christina Rudolph. It is some time that I have known Herr Gainsborough’s name,’ she added.
“‘Really! how comes that?’ I asked, by no means displeased.
“‘The honoured Herr has been kind to a relation of mine — a very near relation,’ replied Christina, with the same gravity.
“‘Have I? I’m glad to hear it! Was she as pretty as thou?’ inquired I, venturing upon the familiar form of address.
“She blushed, and answered: ‘It was not a woman — it was my brother.’
“‘Oh, thy brother! And where did I meet thy brother?’
“‘In Paris, Herr Gainsborough.’
“‘In Paris! Rudolph! What, art thou the sister of Heinrich Rudolph, who lives in the Latin Quarter, and is considered the cleverest jeweller in the city?’
“‘Yes, honoured Herr,’ returned Christina, smiling for the first time, and showing her pretty teeth and a dimple on either cheek. ‘My brother Heinrich cut and arranged the diamonds in the parure of the honoured Herr’s mother.’
“‘So he did, Christina, and he did it better than anyone except him could have done it. And so thou art really his sister! How did he tell thee of me?’
“‘He wrote to me while you were still in Paris, and described the pretty stones, and told how Herr Gainsborough used to come and sit with him, and see him work, and talk a great deal with him.’
“‘Yes, he was well worth talking with! And I remember now that he said he was born in this neighbourhood, and that he had a sister and a father living here. It was stupid of me not to have thought of that when I heard your name. Well, Christina, I’m afraid I wasn’t of much use to him after all. I tried to get him customers, but I knew very few people in Paris; and the only person I did succeed in introducing to him — by the way! it was this gentleman who is with me now.’
“‘Herr Birchmore; yes, my brother spoke also of him,’ said Christina, her gravity returning. ‘But he did not speak of the young lady, or of the servant.’
“‘No, I believe they weren’t with him at the time. I only met them myself since I came to Schandau.’
“‘The young lady is Herr Birchmore’s — wife?’
“‘His wife? Dear heavens, no! His daughter, of course, Christina.’
“Christina said nothing, being occupied in neatly smoothing out the pillow, and laying the wadded counterpane over the sheet.
“‘Will Herr Gainsborough stay with us long?’ she asked, after a pause.
“‘As long as Herr Birchmore does, I suppose,’ said I carelessly.
“‘And Herr Birchmore’s daughter?’ subjoined Christina, with a twinkle of mischief so demure that I could hardly be sure whether she meant it or not.
“‘Thou art as clever as thy brother, Christina,’ I laughed, colouring a little too however, I daresay, ‘It is true I have not known them long, but — but people see a good deal of one another in travelling together.’
“‘I have heard it said that travelling makes people acquainted with ——’ she paused, and looked down thoughtfully at her bare feet. Presently she lifted her blue eyes straight to mine and asked:
“‘Herr Gainsborough has his diamonds with him?’
“‘Undoubtedly! They are never away from me.’
“‘In going about this place, the Herr should be cautious. Some of these hills and valleys are very lonely. There are spots, not far from here, where no one goes for sometimes many months.’
“‘Well, I’ll be very careful, Christinchen,’ I rejoined laughing, and in truth not a little amused at the care my friends took of me. ‘But thou must remember that no one in Germany, except Herr Birchmore, and his daughter, and thyself, knows that any such diamonds as these are in existence — much less that they are in my pocket!’
“Christina raised her finger to her lips, as if to caution me to speak lower. ‘There is at least one other who knows — the man Slurk!’ she said.
“‘Well, perhaps he may,’ I replied, somewhat struck by her observation; ‘and as I see thou hast taken a dislike to the fellow, I will confide to thee that I consider him an atrocious brute. But brute though he is, there’s no harm in him of that kind. He is an old servant of Herr Birchmore, I believe, and would of course be dismissed at once if there were anything serious against him.’
“‘Naturally!’ was all Christina’s answer; she made no pretence of arguing the point with me. ‘Adieu, honoured sir!’ she said at the door. But with her hand upon the latch she paused, turned round, and added rather confusedly:
“‘Will Herr Gainsborough go on any expedition with his friends to-day?’
“‘Why, I hardly think so, Christina.’
“‘But to-morrow, perhaps?’ she persisted, lifting her blue eyes to mine again.
“‘Perhaps,’ I admitted, with a smile.
“‘Then — if he can trust me — would the Herr mind leaving the diamonds with me, until he comes back again?’
“‘Nay, Christinchen, I cannot give them up, even to thee — and although I trust thee as much as thy brother, or myself. But thou mightst lose them — and if they are to be lost at all, I would rather the responsibility should be mine. Besides,’ I continued, showing my revolver, ‘I go always with this. But I thank thee all the same, Christinchen, and I would like to do something — to ——’
“I stepped towards her: the fact is, I suppose I meant to kiss her. But her expression changed in a manner not encouraging to such an advance; she looked both grave and hurt, and I paused.
“‘I was going to say — if thou wouldst like to see the diamonds, it would give me great pleasure to show them to thee.’
“‘Many thanks, honoured sir! I would rather not.’ And with a formal curtsy the fair-haired little maid opened the door and disappeared, leaving me feeling rather foolish.
“‘The pretty peasant has a pride of her own!’ I said to myself, as I opened my trunk and got out my writing materials. ‘She’s actually offended because I wouldn’t constitute her guardian of thirty thousand pounds’ worth of diamonds. Good gracious! why, that father of hers, if I know anything of faces, would cut all our throats for as many groschen. But what an unmistakable scamp my friend Slurk must be to have aroused the suspicions of such an innocent unsophisticated little creature as Christinchen! By Jove, though, anybody might be suspicious of a leer and a slouch like his! What if there should be anything in it? Just suppose such a thing for a moment, eh? It’s impossible, to be sure; but the impossible does sometimes happen. How on earth did Birchmore ever happen to have such a fellow about him? I tell you I’ve always had a notion that he may be at the bottom of all this mystery that Birchmore and Kate are so much exercised by. Now, what if he — but pshaw!
“‘There is one thing I’m resolved to do, however,’ I continued to myself, as I settled down with paper, pens, and ink at the table in the window. ‘I’ll buttonhole Birchmore this very afternoon, and get out of him everything he knows about his precious valet. It can do no harm to have the matter cleared up. The thing is absurd, of course; still, the situation out here is rather lonely; and with two such lovely neighbours as Papa Rudolph and Slurk —par nobile fratrum— it may be as well to be on the safe side. Yes, that shall be cleared up to-day!’
“Having arrived at this sapient determination, I set to work writing my letters, and scribbled away diligently for an hour or two. At length, as I was looking vacantly up from my paper, at a loss for something interesting to set down upon it, my eyes happened to rest upon the pane of my open window.
“Like nearly all German windows, it opened inwards on hinges, instead of running up and down in grooves. The pane on my left, therefore, having the dark room as a background, acted as a mirror of the sunlit landscape outside on the right, showing me a portion thereof which was directly invisible to me from where I sat, and to any person standing in which I must myself be invisible.
“Now my window was on the southern side of the house, which fronted westward on the road. On the opposite side of the road was a narrow strip of land planted with vegetables, and above this rose the abrupt side of a hill, ascended by a winding path partly hidden by the trees. I could not see this hill and path without leaning out of the window and looking towards the right; but a considerable part of it was reflected in my window-pane mirror, and could thus be readily observed without rising from my chair. Happening, then, as I said, to cast my eyes upon this mirror, I saw two persons standing together on the path upon the hillside, and conversing in a very animated manner.
“I had no difficulty in recognising them: they were Mr. Birchmore and his valet. So far there was nothing surprising in the spectacle. That which did surprise and even astonish me, however, was the mutual bearing of the two men towards each other.
“I have already mentioned the peremptory tone in which Mr. Birchmore uniformly addressed the man Slurk, and the generally overbearing attitude he assumed towards him; but in the conversation now going forward all this was changed. To judge by appearances, I should have said that Slurk was the master, and Mr. Birchmore the valet. The former was gesticulating forcibly, and evidently laying down the law in a very decided and autocratic way. His square ungainly figure seemed to dilate, and take on a masterful and almost hectoring air; while Mr. Birchmore stood with his hands in his coat-pockets, undemonstrative and submissive, apparently accepting with meekness all that the other advanced, and only occasionally interpolating a remark or a suggestion, to which Slurk would pay but slight or impatient attention. Both were evidently talking in a low tone; for though they were not more than fifty or sixty yards from where I sat, I could not catch a single word, nor even so much as an inarticulate murmur, unless by deliberately straining my ears. But I did not need nor care to hear anything: what I saw was quite enough to startle and mystify me.
“After a few minutes the two interlocutors moved slowly on up the path, and were soon beyond the field of my mirror. But the unexpected scene which I had witnessed did not so soon pass out of my mind.
“I got up from my table and began walking about the room, with the restlessness of one who cannot make his new facts tally with his preconceived ideas. Who and what was Slurk, and how had he obtained ascendancy over a man like Birchmore? Certainly it could not be a natural ascendancy. Birchmore must have put himself in the other’s power. In other words, Slurk must be blackmailing him. And this was the trouble, was it? — this was the mystery? It was an ugly and awkward business, certainly; but the main question remained after all unanswered. What was it that Birchmore had done to give Slurk a hold upon him? and had that act, whatever it was, compromised his daughter along with him? For now that I gathered up in my memory all the hints and signs which had come under my notice in relation to this affair, I could not help thinking that Kate’s attitude had in it something suggestive of more than mere filial sympathy with her father’s misfortune. In that misfortune or disgrace she had a personal and separate in addition to a sympathetic share. And yet, in what conceivable way could a low villain like Slurk fasten his gripe upon a pure and spotless young girl? and what a hideous thought — that such a girl should be in any way at his mercy! The more I turned the matter over in my mind, the more ugly did it appear. No wonder that father and daughter had warned me away. Some men in my position, having seen thus far, might have shrunk back and given up the enterprise. But I was not in that category. I was more than ever determined to see the adventure to its end; nay, to gain my own end in it too. The conditions of the contest were at all events narrowing themselves down to recognisable form. It was to be a trial of strength mainly between myself and Slurk — between an educated plucky Englishman, and a base German ruffian — between one, moreover, who had right, moral and legal, on his side, and love as his goal — and one armed only with underhand cunning and terrorism, and aiming at nothing higher than the extortion of money. This was the way I read the situation, and I flattered myself that I was equal to the emergency.
“Upon consideration, however, I decided to alter my intention of asking Mr. Birchmore about his valet. It was tolerably clear that he was not in a position to give me any information; and besides, I had already learnt everything except the particulars. Those particulars, if I did not succeed in discovering them unaided, must be extracted from Kate. She would not withhold them from me, if I questioned her resolutely and directly, enforcing my inquiries with disclosure of the knowledge I had already obtained. This then should be my next step. I sealed up my letters, locked them in my desk, and, it being now nearly seven o’clock, I went down to supper.
“But at supper there was no Kate; Mr. Birchmore and I were served by Christina, while the voices of Slurk and our landlord could be heard in the kitchen. My conversation was naturally somewhat constrained; Mr. Birchmore had a good deal to say about some excursion which he had in view for the morrow, but I failed to pay very close attention to his remarks. Once, however, I caught Christina’s eyes fixed upon me, and smiled as I remembered her warnings respecting the supposed danger of solitary rambles.
“After supper I felt more restless than ever. Mr. Birchmore brought out his invariable cigars, expecting me to join him in a smoke; but I was not in the mood for it, neither did I feel at ease in his company until things should have begun to look a little more comprehensible. I left him, therefore, and wandered aimlessly about outside the house, exploring the farmyard and buildings, and then coming round to the road, and pacing up and down on a beat about a quarter of a mile in length. It was a clear moonlight night, and so warm as to be almost oppressive. At length I returned to the house, it being then after nine o’clock. Mr. Birchmore had apparently retired; Christina was nowhere to be seen; so I got a lamp from my surly landlord, and found my way without much difficulty to my own chamber.
“The warmth within doors was still more oppressive than outside. I opened both the windows, drew up my bed between them, and placed the table with the lamp on it near the bed’s head. I had previously thrown off my coat and waistcoat, and laid them across one end of the table. The diamonds were still in the pocket of the coat; I intended taking them out before going to sleep, and putting them under my pillow, or in some equally secure place. My revolver I also placed beside the lamp. Then, having provided myself with a book out of my trunk, and drawn the bolt of the door, I reclined on the outside of the bed and began to read.
“I could not, however, fix my mind upon the page. First my attention and then my eyes would wander: I took a futile and absurd interest in scrutinising all the details of the room. I recollect them distinctly now. The walls were not papered, but the plaster was washed over with a dark gray tint, which rubbed off on the fingers, and the uniformity of which was relieved by vertical bands of dull red painted at intervals of about five feet from floor to ceiling. The ceiling was low — about eight feet from the floor — and whitewashed. In one corner stood the china stove, a glistening, pallid structure of plain tiles, built up four-square nearly to the top of the room. On the side of the room opposite the two windows and the bed was fastened a tall looking-glass, formed of three plates set one above the other, edge to edge, in such a manner as painfully to cut up and distort whatever was reflected in them. In front of the looking-glass was a lilliputian washstand, and beside it a straight-legged chair without rungs. In a word, a room more utterly devoid of every kind of picturesque or ornamental attraction could not be imagined; yet I could not keep my eyes from vacantly traversing and retraversing its vacancy. The door was behind me, as I lay turned towards the little table on which the lamp stood, but I could see the free edge of it brokenly reflected in the mirror, with the cracked black porcelain latch-handle and the iron bolt which I had shot into its place.
“I was anything but sleepy: the heat, and the pest of midges and beetles which the light attracted in through the windows, would have sufficed to keep me awake even had my mind been at ease. In order to disperse the insects I finally extinguished the lamp; the moonlight in the room was so bright that I could almost have seen to read by it. I closed the book, however, and clasping my hands under my head, I gave myself up to meditation. Not a sound of any kind was audible except the muffled ticking of the watch in my waistcoat pocket, and the faint rustle of the pillow as I breathed. The white moonlight seemed to augment the stillness; the whole great night, and the house with it, seemed silently and intently listening; and at length I found myself listening intently too! For what? I could not tell; but I listened nevertheless.
“By-and-by I fancied a sound came — a sound from somewhere within the house. It was a very faint sound, and did not come again; but it was such as might have been caused by the light pressure of a foot in one of the passages outside. Instinctively I reached forth my hand and laid hold of my revolver; but I did not rise from the bed nor otherwise alter my position. I still lay as if asleep, with the revolver in one hand, the other beneath my head, and my eyes fixed upon the edge of the door, which was obscurely visible in the mirror.
“Several minutes passed thus, and there was no return of the noise. Then I saw the handle of the door move and turn. The latch clicked slightly; the door, bolted though it was, opened as if on oiled hinges, admitting an indistinct figure in a long robe of soft gray. So much I saw in the mirror. Then the door was closed again, and the figure, advancing towards the bed, ceased to be reflected in the glass. It advanced close to the bed, and paused there a moment; I could hear its deep regular breathing. All this time I had not moved, but lay with my back turned, feigning slumber.
“Presently the figure passed round the foot of the bed and came up the other side. The full white light of the moon fell upon it. It was Kate, as I had known it was from the first moment she entered the room. She was clad in a dressing-gown of soft flowing material, which was fastened at the throat and trailed on the ground. It had wide sleeves, one of which fell back from the bare smooth arm and hand that carried a lamp. The lamp was not lighted. Her black hair hung down on her shoulders, and on each side of her pale face. Her eyes were wide open, but fixed and vacant. Her breathing was long and measured, as of one sound asleep.
“She put the lamp down on the table beside mine, and then stood quite still in the moonlight, her face wholly expressionless and without motion. It was an appalling thing to see her thus. I, too, remained motionless, but it was because I knew not what to do. To awaken her might bring on the worst consequences. If she were not disturbed, she might possibly retire as quietly and unconsciously as she had come. But the mystery of her being there at all appeared utterly inexplicable. What had led her, in her trance, to visit my room? how had she ever known where it was? What had she dreamt of doing here? and above all, how had she contrived to enter through a bolted door with as much ease as though she had been a spirit? Perhaps this was but a spirit — or a phantom of my own brain! Was I awake?
“She stretched out her hand, not following its motion with her eyes, but mechanically and as it were involuntarily. She laid it on my coat — on the pocket which contained the diamonds. Then, slowly and deliberately, and still with averted face and eyes, and that long-drawn, slumberous breathing, she unbuttoned the fastenings one after one, and her soft tapering fingers closed upon the case.
“Meanwhile my mind had been rapidly canvassing all the pros and cons of action; and I had come to the conclusion that it would be better for her that I should interfere. Of my personal interest in the matter I believe I did not think; indeed, knowing that the diamonds would not be lost, there was no reason why I should. But it would not do to risk compromising Kate. It was dangerous enough that she should be here at all; but that she should carry away the diamonds with her was inadmissible. I rose from my bed and laid my hand gently on her wrist.
“She was no spirit, but warm flesh and blood. For a few moments the restraint in which I held her seemed to baffle and distress her; I fancied I could feel her pulse beat under my fingers: a kind of spasm crossed her face, her eyelids quivered and the eyes moved in their sockets. Then her breathing became irregular, and caught in her throat in a kind of sob. The moment of her awakening was evidently at hand, and I dreaded its coming, lest she should scream out and rouse the house. But fortunately she uttered no sound. Slowly speculation grew within her eyes; she fixed them on me, first with an expression of strange pleasure, soon changing to bewilderment and fear. Then, with a cry that was none the less thrilling because it was a whisper, she drooped forwards into my arms. It was a delicious moment, for all its peril.
“‘You are perfectly safe,’ I whispered in her ear; ‘only make no noise.’
“‘Tom,’ she said, suddenly freeing herself from my arms, and putting a hand on either shoulder, while her wild black eyes searched my face, ‘you understand — you don’t think ——?’
“‘Of course I understand, my poor darling!’
“‘What shall I do — what shall I do? Let me kill myself!’
“With a motion swift as the glide of a serpent, she reached towards the revolver, which I had left on the bed. I was barely in time to catch her arm. The look in the girl’s face at that moment was terrible.
“‘Let me! — I will!’
“‘Hush, Kate! You never shall.’
“‘Oh, what shall I do!’ she murmured again slipping down on her knees and running both hands through her thick black hair. ‘Tom, if you loved me you would kill me!’
“‘Kate, everyone in the house is asleep. You can go back to your room, and no one know. Only be calm.’
“‘And no one know? You think that?’
“‘I am sure of it!’
“‘I know better! Someone knows it now: he made it happen!’
“‘Don’t kneel there, dear. You’re not yourself yet. You don’t know what you’re saying.’ I said this reassuringly, but her words had inspired me with a vague alarm that I ventured not to define. I brought a chair and made her sit upon it, and sat down beside her.
“‘Not here!’ she whispered, drawing back out of the moonlight into the shadow. ‘Come here, Tom. He may be looking!’
“‘Why, Kate, who can see us here? The door is shut.’
“‘Oh — why was not the door bolted?’
“‘It was. I can’t conceive how you opened it.’
“‘Oh the villain! how I hate him!’
“‘Kate, I love you, and whoever you hate must have to do with me.’
“‘You can do nothing — no one can do anything! — unless you’ll help me to kill him!’
“‘Whom? Do you mean Slurk? — tell me that!’
“‘Yes!’ she answered with a shiver; not looking me in the face, but with her hands clasped tight between her knees. ‘I do mean — him!’
“‘Now tell me all that he has done, dear,’ said I, quietly. ‘I must know everything; and then I promise you that you shall be freed from him.’
“‘He is my master!’ she said, in a frightened whisper. ‘He has been so ever so long! He makes me do what he will — he sent me here to-night. He shames me and destroys me — he loves to do it! He makes me sleep, and then I cannot help myself. I wake, and find it done; and he has no mercy.’
“‘Why does he do this?’
“‘It was when I was only a little girl that he first got that power over me. He knew my father was rich, and he wanted me to be promised to him for his — wife, Tom. Then my father put me in the convent, and I stayed there seven years, till we thought he had lost the power, or was dead perhaps. But he found me in America, and made me come back; and now it’s worse than ever.’
“‘Why doesn’t your father have him arrested and imprisoned? It can be done.’
“‘Oh my poor father! He cannot, Tom; do not ask me that!’
“‘I must ask it, Kate. Remember, I love you! Why is it?’
“‘My father is afraid of him too,’ she said, chafing one hand with the other with a piteous expression of pain. ‘If he did anything against him, he would be ruined. My father cannot help me, Tom.’
“‘But I do not understand. What has your father done that he should be afraid of such a scoundrel as Slurk?’ I demanded sternly.
“She hesitated long before answering, moving her hands and head restlessly and fetching many troubled sighs. At last she laid her hand shrinkingly on mine, and I grasped it firmly. ‘I will tell you, Tom,’ she said in a faltering voice; ‘but you know I would tell no one in the world but you. My dear papa did not do wrong himself; but there were people connected with him who did, and made the blame seem to be his. And there were some papers of papa’s which — which — oh ——’
“‘Yes, yes, I understand, darling; and Slurk stole the papers?’
“‘Yes — that is — no; it was worse than that, for he didn’t know where the papers were kept; no one knew that but I. Tom, he made me sleep, and in my sleep he made me go to the place where they were, and take them out, and give them to him. He made me rob my own father — put my own dear papa in his hateful power. I would rather have died! And papa forgave me — think of that!’
“‘Then Slurk has the papers in his possession? and he uses them for blackmail? But have you never thought of trying to — it sounds badly, but it would be perfectly justifiable — to steal them back again?’
“‘I can do nothing. He can make me helpless by a look; and he always carries them with him. But, Tom, if it could be done without being found out, I would tell papa to kill him. But I cannot let my dear papa be hanged for that wretch; and, you see, we have no evidence.’
“‘Good God! What a fearful thing it is!’ I muttered. What help, what consolation could I offer? A refined and sensitive girl under the mesmeric control of a ruffian; her father subject to his extortions and insults; and the only escape a worse misery even than this — Kate to yield herself to him in marriage! Faugh! the thought sickened me; but it enraged me, too! Kate was right; death, sudden and merciless, was the proper measure to be meted out to Slurk. If he had appeared at that moment, I believe I would have shot him unhesitatingly, and rejoiced in the deed. Murder would be a righteous work when wrought on such as he; and if the murder were brought home to me, could I suffer in a better cause?
“Kate had risen slowly from her chair, and was now fronting me, scanning my face and bearing with curious eagerness. She held her hands across her bosom, alternately interlacing the tips of the fingers and pulling them free again. Her lips moved as if in speech, but no sound came from them.
“I got up presently, looking I daresay very solemn, as indeed I felt. Her eyes followed mine as I rose; and now we gazed straight at each other for some moments.
“‘I promised you that you should be freed,’ I said, ‘and you shall be. I shall be sorry to have any man’s blood on my hands; but if you can be saved in no other way, it must be so.’
“‘You do love me, indeed!’ she murmured, with a sort of sad exultation in her tone. But she added: ‘I cannot let you do it. I cannot lose you, even to be freed from him. It is my father’s fault, after all. Besides ——’
“‘I take it upon myself,’ interrupted I, with a dignity which may have been absurd, but which did not seem so to me at the time.
“‘But it would be murder — at any rate, the law would call it so. No, you must not be called a murderer, Tom. But I— they would not hang a woman: let me do it! I should love to do it!’
“And she spoke with a look that confirmed the words.
“Before I could reply, however, her expression changed again. She appeared to think intensely for a few moments, and then her face lighted up. Suddenly she caught my hand and kissed it!
“‘And kiss me, Tom!’ she cried, excitedly. ‘Kiss me, for I deserve it! I have thought of a way that will save us all!’
“Much startled, and half fearing that the girl’s mind had given way under the pressure of trouble, I was attempting to quiet her; but she silenced me by an impetuous gesture, and went on speaking eagerly and rapidly.
“‘To-morrow we had planned to go to Kohlstein for a picnic. It’s a great, immense rock, where robbers lived hundreds of years ago. Hardly anyone ever goes there now. I have been there, and I remember that on the top it is full of deep clefts and holes; and I thought how, if anyone were to fall into one, they might lie there for months without being found; and they could never get out of themselves. So now — listen! We will go up there — you and I and — he; and I will lead him near the brink of one of those clefts, and then you must rush forward and take him, and drop him down — down to the bottom! So we shall get what we want, and yet there need be no murder.’
“‘Not be murder, Kate?’
“‘It need not be; for when he was safe down there, rather than be left to starve, he would give up those papers. Don’t you think he would?’
“She was trembling with excitement, and her state communicated itself in some degree to me, so that I was scarcely able to think coherently. But there certainly seemed to be plausibility in her scheme; at the worst, it would be better than shooting the man outright. But would the recovery of the papers put an end to Slurk’s persecution of Kate as well as of her father? Would not his power over her remain?
“‘But we can have him imprisoned then, you see,’ was her answer to my objection; ‘and for fear of that, he would never dare to trouble me again. He would have been in prison long ago but for the papers.’
“‘It certainly seems a good plan,’ I said, after a confused attempt to turn the matter over in my mind. ‘We’ll ask your father’s opinion to-morrow.’
“‘Oh, he must know nothing of it!’ she exclaimed, with a gesture of vehement dissent. ‘He would betray it. You don’t know how — what a power that villain has over him. Slurk treats him like a child when they are alone. No, Tom; we must do it all ourselves, or it will fail. Only when it is done will dear papa get back his courage.’
“I knew more about how Mr. Birchmore was treated by his valet in private than Kate was aware; but I made no allusion to this. The more I reflected upon the enterprise, the more inclined I was to assent to it. It was wild, fantastic, unconventional; but it had important practical merits nevertheless. Moreover, it possessed the powerful recommendation (as I deemed it) of allowing for a fair man-to-man struggle between Slurk and myself. I was to overpower him by main strength; and from what I had observed of the fellow, I fancied he would be able to make resistance enough to save my self-respect. On the other hand, he might be able to do more than this; and if the worst came to the worst, of course I might be compelled to maim him with my revolver. But altogether, the prospect kindled my imagination; I was stimulated by the thought of distinguishing myself by my personal prowess before my mistress’s eyes, in conflict with her dastardly oppressor. And as I looked at her standing there before me, so lovely and so full of courageous fire, I said to myself that no knight of yore ever did battle in the lists for a worthier lady-love!
“However, I realised that this was neither the place nor the hour to enter upon a detailed discussion of our plans. Every moment that Kate remained with me increased her peril, especially if, as she seemed to think was the case, Slurk had despatched her thither. As to his motive in so doing, I had no difficulty in forming an opinion. There was little doubt that he meant to use her as an unconscious cat’s-paw to steal the diamonds, as, before, to purloin the papers compromising her father. Had I been asleep, the device could hardly have failed of success. But as Kate seemed herself not to suspect the real nature of her involuntary errand, I would not additionally distress her by alluding to it; it was enough that it furnished me with a sufficient pretext, had others been wanting, for inflicting chastisement on the valet.
“Kate said, in answer to my inquiry as to the proposed time of our starting on the picnic expedition the next day, that it would probably be about eleven in the forenoon; we would, therefore, have ample time to settle the particulars of our scheme before the hour of action arrived. At parting, she clung to me with peculiar tenderness; nor had I ever loved her so well as that moment, when I looked forward to liberating her for ever from the evil spell that had been blighting her young life.
“After she had gone, I had the curiosity to examine the bolt on the door. The explanation of its mysterious opening proved simple enough. The screws whereby the socket of the bolt had been fastened to the door-frame had been removed, and the holes so enlarged that they could be slipped in and out without difficulty. Socket and screws had then been replaced, so that the bolt could be shot as readily as before. But the security was only an illusion; for, the latch being turned, a slight push would bring away the socket and screws attached to the bolt; and thus the supposed means of safety be ingeniously used to disguise the real absence thereof.
“It occurred to me next morning that, considering the nature of the work that was cut out for me, it might be prudent to depart from my usual custom by leaving the diamonds at home in Christina’s charge, as she had herself suggested; and I took the earliest opportunity of mentioning this proposal to Kate. To my surprise she at once expressed a decided dissent from the arrangement, and indeed seemed so much perturbed by it, that I at once relinquished the idea. But I begged her to tell me the reasons of her objection.
“‘Not now,’ she said hastily; ‘I hear papa coming; wait till after breakfast, and then you shall know.’
“We were standing at the gate of the courtyard, breathing the fresh morning air. She left me, and returned to the house, whence Mr. Birchmore almost immediately issued, and saluted me with more than his usual cordiality. I wondered what his behaviour would have been had he known of the transactions of the past night, or of what was in store for us during the day! He began to talk about Kohlstein, and related several anecdotes of the bandits, by whom it was said formerly to have been inhabited. ‘I have been up there more than once,’ he remarked, ‘and the traces of their occupation are still visible. I remember one feature that particularly impressed me — a narrow cleft or chasm of considerable depth, into which the old fellows are said to have thrown their prisoners when they became refractory.’
“‘Would the fall kill them?’
“‘I should say not; the bottom seemed full of chopped brushwood and other such rubbish. But no human being could have got out unaided; and probably a day or two’s lonely sojourn there would bring the most resolute malcontent to terms. It would be a ghastly fate to fall in there, nowadays, and have one’s skeleton fished out again the following year, perhaps, and a sensational paragraph in the newspapers. You young folks must pick your steps carefully to-day.’
“‘Forewarned is forearmed!’ rejoined I, with a short laugh. Further conversation was cut short by a summons to breakfast. On this occasion Slurk waited at table, and I observed him with more than usual attention and toleration, as one with whom I was so soon to try desperate conclusions. He was certainly a villanous-looking character; but he appeared to be, for reasons best known to himself, in excellent spirits this morning; a circumstance which stirred up an unwilling kind of compassion within me, reflecting what a speedy and final end was going to be put to all his possibilities of enjoyment. Vile though his life had been, it was the only one he had.
“Kate likewise had the semblance of unusual gaiety, but I could see that it was either feigned, or the result of nervous excitement. And my judgment was justified when, after breakfast, she overtook me as I was on the way upstairs to my room to make my final preparations, and said, in a voice unsteady with emotion:
“‘Tom dear, you asked me why you might not leave your diamonds with Christina. You do not know what danger you were in last night! On my way back to my room I heard — two people talking together, and they mentioned your name; so I stopped and listened. One said: “The bolt is all right: I had better go in and risk it; he’ll be certain to be asleep by this time!” And then the other said: “He has his revolver; leave it to me; he believes he can trust me. To-morrow, when he goes out, I’ll get him to leave them with me for safety!” and then they both laughed. My darling, this house is a den of thieves!’
“‘Were the persons you heard — who were they?’
“‘Christina, and that creature she calls her father. Hush! there she comes. She must not see us together;’ and in a moment Kate had glided away. I went on up the stairs with a heavy heart. I would almost rather not have heard this last revelation; my confidence in my penetration had received a humiliating shock. To think that Christina’s innocent face and modest maidenly air concealed the heart of a thief, or, worse still, of a decoy-duck, was a blow to my vanity as well as to my faith in human nature. How artful she had been, when I fancied her most ingenuous and kind! And then it all at once flashed upon me — what if Heinrich Rudolph himself were in the plot! what if he had written them to be on the look-out for me! and what if Slurk, being secretly in league with him, had contrived to get the Birchmores, and me along with them, into the house, intending to divide the spoil with Herr Rudolph and Christina! Many signs seemed to point to this as a true deduction from the circumstances; and even as I was rather grimly considering the matter, a new confirmation of Kate’s discovery awaited me. Christina was standing at my room door, and, as I came up, she curtsied and said:
“‘I was wishing to speak a moment to Herr Gainsborough, if he would permit me.’
“‘What do you want?’ I asked somewhat roughly.
“‘Does the honoured Herr remember what I said yesterday ——?’
“‘That you wished me to give you my diamonds for safe keeping? Yes; and I have to answer, that I am not quite so trustful as you seem to think!’
“The scornful and severe tone in which I spoke evidently startled her; but she still affected not to understand. ‘It was for Herr Gainsborough’s own sake ——’ she began; but I interrupted her.
“‘Do you remember what I said yesterday? that I went armed; well, I am armed to-day, and whoever tries to teach me how to take care of my diamonds may happen to get a bullet instead; so let him beware. If Herr Rudolph is anxious about me, you can tell him that!’
“‘Herr Gainsborough will be sorry to have spoken so,’ said Christina, colouring deeply, and with tremulous lip.
“‘I am sorry to have to say it, Christina. But, can you tell me how the bolt of this door came to be in this condition?’ and I pulled out the loose socket as I spoke, and the screws fell to the floor.
“‘Indeed I did not know this!’ exclaimed she; but the dismay and confusion which were but too plainly visible on her face belied her words.
“‘You will understand, however, that a house whose fastenings are so much out of order would not be a proper place to keep treasures in. Well, good-bye, Christina. I am going to Kohlstein, and probably I shan’t spend another night here. When you write to your brother in Paris, you may tell him that the diamonds are quite safe, though they may have been in danger.’
“‘Will Herr Gainsborough let me say one word?’
“‘It’s too late — I have no time,’ returned I, with an emphasis all the more coldly contemptuous because of the secret inclination I felt — in view of her youth and prettiness — to be compassionate and forgiving; and perhaps I was half sorry that she attempted no further self-vindication; but, obeying my gesture of dismissal, passed out of the door and down the passage, with her bare feet, and her blue eyes downcast, and no backward glance. When she was gone, I shut the door in no enviable mood, and walked to and fro about my room like a surly bull in a pound. For the first (though not for the last) time I heartily cursed the diamonds; they seemed to raise the devil wherever I carried them. In the midst of my anathemas Mr. Birchmore knocked at the door, and told me that everything was ready downstairs for the start.
“‘And, by-the-bye, Gainsborough,’ he added, with one of his point-blank, icy glances, ‘I have arranged that our luggage shall be removed to-day; and if you leave yours here, I advise you to seal it up in my presence. I found the lock of my door in rather a strange condition this morning. I have my own opinion of what our landlord may be.’
“‘Who recommended you to this place, Mr. Birchmore?’ I demanded curtly; for I was getting to feel something like contempt for my intended father-in-law. It was not easy to respect a man who, under whatever stress of circumstances, allows another man to make a slave of him.
“‘It was that fellow Slurk; and he deserves a good horsewhipping for it!’ replied Birchmore, thrusting his hands resolutely into his pockets.
“‘I think he deserves at least that,’ I rejoined with a significant laugh; ‘and whenever you’re inclined to operate on him, I’ll stand by you.’
“Mr. Birchmore said no more, and we went downstairs in silence. Kate was already seated in the carriage; Slurk was on the box, with a large basket containing our provisions for the day beside him. Mr. Birchmore and I took our places — one of us at least with a heavy heart. The landlord stood at the door and nodded us a surly farewell.
“‘Where is Christina?’ I asked him.
“‘She has gone to the town to sell eggs: did the Herr want anything?’
“‘I should like to have sent for a screwdriver; but probably I can get one on our way back,’ was my answer; and with that we drove away.
“In about half an hour, proceeding by unfrequented roads, we came in sight of Kohlstein. It was a vast four-sided mass of gray rock, seamed with deep clefts and fissures running horizontally and vertically, so that it appeared to have been built of gigantic blocks of stone. It was considerably over one hundred feet in sheer height, and it stood upon a rising ground of shifting sand. Slender trees grew here and there out of the crevices of its headlong sides, and straggled nakedly along its level summit, outlined against the sky. It was an ideal place for a robber stronghold; impregnable, certainly, to any attack save that of the heaviest modern artillery.
“‘We must get out and walk from here,’ remarked Mr. Birchmore. ‘There’s only one way of getting to the top, and that’s on the other side. I have got a touch of my rheumatics to-day, and hardly think I shall be able to do the climbing. However, that needn’t interfere with you young people, of course.’
“I exchanged a covert look with Kate as I helped her to descend from the carriage; and she pressed my hand and smiled. I admired her courage as much as I lamented the apparent lack of it in her father. The horse having been unharnessed and tethered where some cool grass grew beside a stream, we struck off across the sandy upland; Slurk carrying the big basket, Mr. Birchmore walking with a rather feeble step near him, and Kate and I in front. It was an even hotter day than yesterday, and the tramp was a wearisome one. By the time we arrived at the foot of the Stein, we were quite ready to rest a few minutes in the shadow of the rock, for coolness and breath.
“‘No, I can’t do it!’ said Mr. Birchmore, wiping his forehead and glancing hopelessly up at the narrow white footpath that seemed to mount almost straight upward to the distant summit. ‘Just leave me here, with a few sandwiches and a bottle of hock, and I shall do very comfortably till you come back.’
“It was certainly very arduous work clambering up that ladder-like path, and I doubt whether Kate’s determination and mine would have held out, had the motive which urged us been merely one of curiosity. But the top was gained at last, and we threw ourselves down on the dry grass to rest and to be fanned by the welcome breeze that blew there. Slurk placed the basket in a little hollow where some bushes kept off the direct rays of the sun, and stretched himself at full length beside it.
“‘Now, let us walk about,’ suggested Kate at length in an undertone; ‘we must see what there is to be seen.’
“We had already arranged all the steps by which we were to proceed to the achievement of our purpose, and we felt that the sooner it was ended now the better. The surface on which we stood, though preserving a general level, was full of irregularities and unevennesses; it was overgrown with low bushes and parched grass, with perhaps half-a-dozen starved and meagre trees. Here and there the naked rock jutted forth from the thin soil, crumbling and weatherworn, its surface stained in places with dry lichens. The entire table was scarcely two-thirds of an acre in area; and a more forlorn and uncongenial spot, even in the midst of summer, it would be hard to find. The cave in which the robbers lived was somewhere lower down; we had passed its entrance on our way up; but it was here, probably, that an outlook was kept over the country, to spy out the approach of victims or of enemies. It struck me that it was hardly worth while to be a bandit, if one must put up with such bleak and unattractive quarters in which to carry on the business.
“Kate and I wandered over this barren summit hand in hand. The moment was now very near that was to make a great change in the world for both of us. We felt, somehow, as if we were taking leave of a certain part of our lives then. At least, I remember gazing out across the wide expanse of sunlit country that stretched far away on every side, and wondering whether it would look the same an hour hence. Slurk all the while lay beside his basket, and appeared to be asleep.
“We came to the brow of a sort of shelf or shallow declivity, descending which we found ourselves on a lower level by some six or seven feet; and so much of the area as lay behind us ceased to be visible. Advancing a few paces farther, we paused abruptly on the edge of a dark, profound cleft, which gaped right at our feet. It was so narrow that one might easily leap across it at its widest part; but it was so deep that, for all that I could see, it might descend to the very base of the Stein. Peering downwards earnestly, however, my eyes, becoming accustomed to the gloom, could dimly discern what seemed to be a bottom at a depth of not more than twenty feet.
“‘It’s an awful thing to do, after all!’ I murmured after a long inspection, looking up at Kate.
“‘Are you ready?’ was all her answer.
“‘Yes,’ said I, shamed by her resolution. ‘Let him come.’
“She mounted the little ridge, and stood with her graceful figure silhouetted against the blue heavens. I, below, turned up the cuffs of my sleeves and buttoned my coat across my chest.
“‘Slurk!’ called she, in a clear penetrating tone, ‘bring the basket here, if you please. We mean to take our luncheon on this side.’
“She remained standing there, with her back towards me. From my lower position I could not see whether Slurk were answering her summons with alacrity or not; but since it would be his last opportunity of obeying her orders, I was content to let him take his time. By-and-by he appeared, with the basket on his arm; he descended the ledge, and Kate followed him, with her eyes on me.
“‘Set it down there, near the edge of this pit; not quite so near, please. Now take hold of him!’
“The last words were spoken in a sharp, ringing tone; and at the same moment the girl drew a long knife from beneath the overskirt of her dress, and stood with it in her hand. Surprised at her action, I hesitated half an instant; in that half-instant Slurk had thrown himself towards me and grasped me round the body with his long powerful arms. Almost simultaneously with his attack, I felt myself borne down by a heavy weight from behind, and my arms pinioned. The struggle for a minute or two was tremendous, but I felt that I was overpowered. A hand was pressing hard against my windpipe. Kate stood there with her knife, a new and strange expression on her face; but she did not stir.
“At length a panting voice close to my ear — a voice which I knew well, and which, heard now, so amazed me that I almost ceased to resist — said:
“‘I’ve got him safe here, Captain; have you got his legs?’
“A grunt from Slurk intimated that he had.
“‘Now then, Kittie,’ continued Mr. Birchmore; ‘be quick there, will you?’
“Kate came towards me with her knife. At that sight I uttered a yell of animal rage, and made one more desperate effort to be free.
“‘Hold him tight, can’t you?’ said Kate, in a voice that I scarcely recognised as hers; ‘I don’t want to hurt him.’
“They mastered me; and then, with a rapidity and deftness that showed the practised professional, Kate made a circular cut through the breast of my coat and drew out the diamonds.
“‘That’s all right,’ remarked Birchmore. ‘Now the rope!’
“She went to the basket, and took from it a coil of fine rope. The two men threw me upon my face, and bound my arms and my feet securely. I made little resistance, but submitted in sullen silence.
“‘Don’t forget his revolver,’ said Birchmore, when this was done; and turning me over, they took the weapon from my pocket.
“‘How do you feel now, young gentleman?’ inquired the fellow, addressing me with a smile. ‘This is the result of plotting to throw unfortunate valets into deep pits, and of flirting with strange young women. I warned you, you remember, to keep out of our way; but idle curiosity has been your ruin. Kittie, put on the diamonds; he says they become you!’
“Slurk grinned at this sally, but the girl said moodily: ‘Don’t bother the boy, Jack; he behaved like a gentleman all through; he’d make a great deal better husband than you do! Heigho!’
“‘Well, Captain,’ continued Birchmore, addressing Slurk in English, ‘what are your orders? Shall we lower away now, and be off? It’s nearly half-past one, and we’ve a good distance to go before three.’
“‘Listen to me, Mr. Gainsborough,’ said Slurk, also speaking in English, though with a foreign accent; ‘we’ve got what we wanted out of you, and we don’t want to do you any more harm than is necessary. But we must have time to get safe away, and to do that we must allow twenty-four hours. We shall leave you at the bottom of this pit, with some provisions; and I shall loosen your arms enough so that you can feed yourself. After we are safe, I shall write to your friends at the farmhouse, who are very honest persons I believe, and they will come here and get you out. That is the best we can do for you. Now then, Jack!’
“They loosed the cord a little round my arms; then, taking it by the slack end, they lowered me into that dark chasm until I rested at the bottom. Then I saw Kate’s face above the edge, between me and the sky, with something wrapped up in paper in her hand.
“‘Here’s some sandwiches for you, my poor boy,’ said she. ‘I’m sorry to say good-bye to you in this way, really! But I don’t suppose you’d have me now, even if Jack weren’t my husband already. Well, good-bye. Don’t flirt too much with that silly little Christina when you get out. There are the sandwiches.’
“She let them fall beside me, nodded, and was gone. I lay on my back, with nothing to look at but the narrow strip of blue sky overhead. It was quite cool where I lay, on a bed of sand and rubbish; and it was still as death. I was buried alive to all intents and purposes, and the chance of my ever being disinterred rested upon a basis of probability so narrow, that I judged it wisest not to hope. I lay there, gazing up at the sky, and thinking over my adventure; beginning at the beginning, with my meeting with Birchmore at the hotel, and tracing the progress of the conspiracy step by step to its conclusion here. It was very ingenious, and very well carried through. It had taught me a lesson that I was likely to profit by, if I ever got out.
“I don’t know how long I lay there; probably but a short time. All at once another face intervened between me and the sky. It was not Kate’s this time; it was a very different one — Christina’s.
“After peering anxiously downward for several moments, she asked:
“‘Is Herr Gainsborough there?’
“‘The Herr is not badly hurt?’
“‘Not a bit, Christina!’
“‘Gott sei Dank!’ she exclaimed, heartily; and adding: ‘it is all well; you will be helped out immediately,’ she vanished.
“Soon other faces appeared, with beards and helmets — the faces of the ‘Polizei.’ In a few minutes, by the aid of ropes and stout arms, I was drawn up once more to the light of day, blinking like an awkward bat.
“Before me stood nearly a dozen persons: a squad of police-officers, with their swords and carbines; Herr Rudolph and Christina; and three prisoners — a woman and two men, whose faces were unpleasantly familiar to me.
“Some little official ceremony of identification, and so forth, having been gone through with, we all started for our various places of destination. The trial took place not long afterwards in Dresden; the prisoners were all convicted, and sentenced to —— I don’t care to remember what. They were a dangerous gang of thieves, whom the police of several countries had long been vainly endeavouring to capture. But meanwhile, I went back to spend the night at the farmhouse of Herr Rudolph. I need not say that I scarcely had the courage to look him and his daughter in the face. Herr Rudolph was a most excellent and blameless person; and as for Christina ——! I knew not in what terms to begin my apologies to her.
“It appeared that my little friend Heinrich, in Paris, had had his suspicions of the man calling himself Birchmore from the first, and, in writing to his father and sister, had mentioned as much. When, therefore, the Birchmore party unexpectedly turned up at the farmhouse, along with the owner of the diamonds, a good deal of perturbation was created. Afraid openly to warn me, in the absence of direct evidence, Christina had done what she could indirectly to excite suspicions in my mind. Failing in this, the girl had actually gone down to Schandau, on the evening of my interview with Kate in my chamber, and laid her information at the police bureau. The next morning she met the officers by appointment at some distance from the house, and they followed us to Kohlstein. After seeing the whole party of us to the top of the Stein (Birchmore followed a few minutes after myself and the others), they formed a cordon at the foot of the path, and one of their number went up to reconnoitre. Peeping over the edge of the plateau, he saw Birchmore just making his attack, and immediately signalled to those below to approach. Thus it happened that the thieves, as they were making off with their plunder, found themselves confronted by an impassable cordon of six loaded carbines. Resistance was out of the question, and they surrendered at discretion.
“‘And what can I do, Christina,’ I said, ‘to show you how much I thank you? Of course I don’t speak of cancelling the obligation — that nothing could do; but I should like to leave you something to — to remind you that you saved my life and my diamonds. Would you wear a diamond ring for me, or a pair of earrings?’
“‘No, many thanks, Herr Gainsborough,’ replied the little maiden, gravely. ‘You owe me nothing; and as for diamonds, I shall never like them, since I have seen them the cause of so much trouble and danger.’
“‘But unless you let me do something, Christina, I must think you refuse to forgive me for my inexcusable impertinence and stupidity.’
“She looked down at her bare feet, and smoothed her apron. ‘Well, lieber Herr, I would not like to have you think that, truly; I do forgive you with all my heart; and just before you go away to-morrow — just when you are ready to start — perhaps, if you please, I will ask you for something.’
“‘You shall have it, whatever it is!’ I answered.
“So, the next day, when the droschkey was at the door, and my trunk packed and put on the box, I left Herr Rudolph conversing with the driver, and went back into the house to find Christina. She was standing in a shadowy corner of the kitchen, so absorbed in scouring plates that she did not appear to notice me until I spoke.
“‘I am come to say good-bye, and to claim your promise, Christina.’
“She put down her plate, and blushed, with downcast eyes.
“‘Herr Gainsborough will not be offended? it is something I have no right to ask — only — it will show I am not unforgiving — and — it would be better for me than the diamonds.’
“‘What is it, dear Christina?’
“She looked up in my face, shyly and yet frankly, and said:
This (as nearly as I can recollect it) is the story told me by my friend Tom Gainsborough, as we sat over a decanter of claret after one of his inimitable little dinners. When it was over I gave a grunt, and flung the but-end of my cigar into the grate.
“There’s one thing I don’t understand about this story,” I then remarked; “and it has misled me all along. Your description of that creature, Kate — her eyes and eyebrows, complexion, hands, and nationality — all persuaded me it was the present Mrs. Gainsborough. Yet it appears she was nothing of the sort!”
“I should think not, indeed!” exclaimed Tom, laughing. “They are as different, even in appearance, as two straight-browed brunettes could possibly be. It is not my fault if you were misled by a description — you who know so well how incurably vague the best descriptions are. Were you to see them side by side, you would acknowledge that they are as little alike as you and I are. As to the American part of it — the truth is they were not really Americans at all: Birchmore and the girl were French; and I in my ignorance mistook their French accent for the Yankee twang. When, several years later, I met some real Americans — and married one of them — I realised my error.”
“Humph! Well, I daresay you were not more stupid than the majority of your countrymen would have been in your place. But another thing — was all that mesmeric business genuine, or a part of the conspiracy?”
“Conspiracy, of course! It was the stock expedient of the gang — and a very ingenious one, I think; for of course the mesmerised one might turn up anywhere, and if she were not discovered, well and good; while if she were, all she had to say was that she was in a mesmeric trance. As it happened, the latter alternative occurred in both their attempts on me; but I give the girl credit for turning it off excellently well. In fact, she took a real artistic interest in her business. You see, she had been trained as a rope-dancer in her childhood, and afterwards she was on the stage for a time. She certainly had marvellous dramatic talent, and thoroughly enjoyed “taking a part.” The realistic element that entered into her performances no doubt rendered them much more exciting than ordinary stage work, and perhaps, sometimes, she almost deceived herself.”
“Ah! I should not wonder. Well, and what was the meaning of that confusion about the steamboat and the train, and Birchmore’s explanations?”
“A mistake on their part — that’s all. Accidents will happen, you know. I daresay my unexpected questions disconcerted them greatly; but I was unsuspicious enough, Heaven knows. What I admire as much as anything in their management of the affair was the skill with which they made me believe, from the outset, that I was forcing my company upon them, when in reality it was they who were leading me round by the nose.”
“Missus Gainsborough say de tea ready, sah!” said the sable servitor, opening the door.
“Let’s go up at once!” I exclaimed, rising from chair. “I shall hereafter feel a new interest in looking at Mrs. Gainsborough’s diamonds!”
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