Alice had slept quietly for some time. The old clock at the foot of the stairs had purred and struck twice since she had ceased listening and thinking. It was for all that time an unbroken sleep, and then she wakened. She had been half conscious for some time of a noise in the room, a fidgeting little noise, that teased her sleep for a time, and finally awoke her completely. She sat up in her bed, and heard, she thought, a sigh in the room. Exactly from what point she could not be certain, nor whether it was near or far.
She drew back the curtain and looked. The familiar furniture only met her view. In like manner all round the room. Encouraged by which evidence she took heart of grace, and got up, and quite to satisfy herself, made a search—as timid people will, because already morally certain that there is no need of a search.
Happily she was spared the terror of any discovery to account for the sound that had excited her uneasiness.
She turned again the key in her door, and thus secured, listened there. Everything was perfectly still. Then into bed she got, and listened to silence, and in low tones talking to herself, for the sound of her own voice was reassuring, she reasoned with her tremors, she trimmed her light and made some little clatter on the table, and bethought her that this sigh that had so much affrighted her might be no more than the slipping of one fold of her bed-curtain over another—an occurrence which she remembered to have startled her once before.
So after a time she persuaded herself that her alarm was fanciful, and she composed herself again to sleep. Soon, however, her evil genius began to worry her in another shape, and something like the gnawing and nibbling of a mouse grated on her half-sleeping ear from the woodwork of the room. So he sat up again, and said—
Now toward the window, now toward the fire-place, now toward the door, and all again was quite still.
Alice got up, and throwing her dressing-gown about her shoulders, opened the window-shutter and looked out upon the serene and melancholy landscape, which this old-fashioned window with its clumsy sashes and small panes commanded. Sweet and sad these moonlit views that so well accord with certain moods. But the cares at Alice’s heart were real, and returned as she quite awoke with a renewed pang—and the cold and mournful glory of the sky and silvered woodlands neither cheered nor soothed her. With a deep sigh she closed the shutter again, and by the dusky candle-light returned to her bed. There at last she did fall into a quiet sleep.
From this she awoke suddenly and quite. Her heart was throbbing fast, but she could not tell whether she awoke of herself or had been aroused by some external cause.
“Who’s there?” she cried, in a fright, as she started up and looked about the room.
Exactly as she called she thought she heard something fall—a heavy and muffled sound. It might have been a room or two away, it might have been nearer, but her own voice made the sound uncertain. She waited in alarm and listened, but for the present all was again quiet.
Poor little Alice knew very well that she was not herself, and her reason took comfort from her consciousness of the excited state of her nerves.
“What a fool I am!” she whispered, with a sigh. “What a fool! Everything frightens me now, I’ve grown such a coward. Oh! Charlie, Charlie—oh, Ry, darling!—when will you come back to your poor wife—when shall this dreadful suspense be over and quiet come again?”
Then poor little Alice cried, after the manner of women, bitterly for a time, and then, as she used in all trouble, she prayed, and essayed to settle again to sleep. But hardly had she begun the attempt when it was terminated strangely.
Again she heard the same stealthy sound, as of something cutting or ripping. Again she cried “Hish, hish!” but with no effect. She fancied at the far corner of the room, about as high as she could easily reach, that she saw some glittering object. It might be a little bit of looking-glass pass slowly and tremulously along the wall, horizontally, and then with the same motion, in a straight line down the wall, glimmering faintly in the candle light. At the same time was a slight trembling of that part of the wall, a slight, wavy motion, and—could she believe her eyes?—a portion of the wall seemed to yield silently, an unsuspected door slowly opened, and a tall figure wrapt in a flannel dress came in.
This figure crouched a little with its hand to its ear, and moved its head slowly round as if listening in all directions in turn. Then softly, with a large hand, it pushed back the door, which shut with a little snap, as if with a spring-lock.
Alice all this time was gazing upon the visitor, actually freezing with terror, and not knowing whether the apparition was that of a living person or not. The woollen-clothed figure, with large feet in stockings, and no shoes on, advanced, the fingers of one hand sliding gently along the wall. With an aspect fixed on the opposite end of the room, and the other hand a little raised in advance, it was such a fixed, listening look, and groping caution of motion as one might fancy in a person getting along a familiar room in the dark.
The feeling that she was not seen made Alice instinctively silent. She was almost breathless. The intruder passed on thus until she had reached the corner of the room, when she felt about for the door-case, and having got her hand upon it she quickly transferred it to the handle, which she turned, and tried the door two or three times.
Oh! what Alice would have given at this moment that she had not locked it, believing, as she now did, that the stranger would have passed out quietly from the room if this obstruction had not presented itself.
As if her life was concentrated in her eyes, Alice gazed still at this person, who paused for a few seconds, and lowering her head listened fixedly. Then very cautiously she with the tips of her fingers tried—was it to turn the key in the lock or to extricate it? At all events, she failed. She removed her hand, turned a little, stood still, and listened.
To Alice’s horror her business in the room was plainly not over yet. The woman stood erect, drawing a long breath, holding her underlip slightly in her teeth, with just a little nip. She turned her face toward the bed, and for the first time Alice now quite distinctly saw it—pale, seamed with small-pox, blind. This large face was now turned toward her, and the light of the candle, screened by the curtain from Alice’s eyes, fell full upon its exaggerated and evil features. The woman had drawn in a long, full breath, as if coming to a resolution that needed some nerve.
Whatever this woman had come into the room for, Alice thought, with hope, that she at all events, as she stood pallid and lowering before her, with eyes white with cataract, and brows contracted in malignant calculation, knew nothing, as she undoubtedly saw nothing, of her.
Still as death sat Alice in her terror gazing into the sightless face of this woman, little more than two yards removed from her.
Suddenly this short space disappeared, and with two swift steps and an outstretched hand she stood at the bedside and caught Alice’s nightdress and drew her forcibly towards her. Alice as violently resisted. With a loud scream she drew back and the nightdress tore. But the tall woman instantly grasped her nearer the shoulder, and scrambling on the bed on her knees she dragged her down upon it, and almost instantly struck at her throat with a knife.
To make this blow she was compelled to withdraw one hand, and with a desperate spring, Alice evaded the stroke.
The whole thing was like a dream. The room seemed all a cloud. She could see nothing but the white figure that was still close, climbing swiftly over the bed, with one hand extended now and the knife in the other.
Not knowing how she got there, she was now standing with her back to the wall, in the further corner of the room, staring at the dreadful figure in a catalepsy of terror.
There was hardly a momentary pause. She was afraid to stir lest the slightest motion should betray her to the search of this woman. Had she, as she stood and listened sharply, heard her breathing?
With sudden decision, long light steps, and her hand laid to the wall, she glided swiftly toward her. With a gasp Alice awoke, as it were, from her nightmare, and, almost wild with terror, fled round the bed to the door. Hastening, jostling by the furniture, gliding, on the whole, very adroitly after her, her face strained with a horrible eagerness and fear, came the blind woman.
Alice tried to pull open the door. She had locked it herself, but in her agitation forgot.
Now she seized the key and tried to turn it, but the strong hand of the stranger in forcing it round a second time had twisted it so that it was caught in the lock and would not turn.
Alice felt as people feel in dreams, when pursuit is urgent and some little obstruction entangles flight and threatens to deliver the fugitive into the hands of an implacable pursuer. A frantic pull and a twist or two of the key in vain, and the hand of the pursuer was all but upon her. Again she sprang and scrambled across the bed, and it seemed enraged by the delay and with a face sharpening and darkening with insanity, the murderess, guided by the sound, flung herself after her; and now, through the room and lobbies pealed shrieks of murder, as Alice flew before the outstretched hand of the beldame, who, balked of her prey, followed with reckless fury, careless now against what she struck or rushed, and clawing the air, as it seemed, within an inch of Alice’s shoulder.
Unequal as it appeared, in this small pen, the struggle to escape could not have lasted very long. The old closet door, thinly covered with paper, through which the sharp knife had glided almost without noise, was locked, and escape through it as hopeless as through the other door. Through the window she would have thrown herself, but it was fastened, and one moment’s delay would have been death. Had a weapon been in her hand, had she thought of it in this extremity of terror, her softer instincts might have been reversed, and she might have turned on her pursuer and fought, as timid creatures have done, with the ferocity of despair, for her life. But the chance that might have so transformed her did not come. Flight was her one thought, and that ended suddenly, for tripping in the upturned carpet she fell helplessly to the floor. In a moment, with a gasp, her pursuer was kneeling by her side, with her hand in her dishevelled hair, and drawing herself close for those sure strokes of the knife with which she meant to mangle her.
As the eyes of the white owl glare through the leaves on the awaking bird, and its brain swims, and its little heart bounces into a gallop, seeing its most dreadful dream accomplished, escape impossible, its last hour come—then the talons of the spectre clutch its throat, and its short harmless life is out,—so might it have been with pretty Alice.
In that dreadful second of time all things that her eyes beheld looked strange, in a new reality—the room contracted, and familiar things were unlike themselves, and the certainty and nearness of that which she now knew—all her life before was but a dream to her—what an infidel, what a fool she had been,—here it was, and now—death.
The helpless yell that burst from her lips, as this dreadful woman shuffled nearer on her knees, was answered by a crash from the door burst in, and a cry from a manly voice—the door flew wide, and Alice saw her husband pale as death; with a single savage blow he stretched her assailant on the floor,—in another moment Alice, wild with terror, half-fainting, was in his arms.
And—did he strike her? Good God!—had he struck her! How did she lie there bleeding? For a moment a dreadful remorse was bursting at his heart—he would have kneeled—he could have killed himself. Oh, manhood! Gratitude! Charity! Could he, even in a moment of frenzy, have struck down any creature so—that had ever stood to him in the relation of that love? What a rush of remembrances, and hell of compunction was there!—and for a rival! She the reckless, forlorn, guilty old love cast off, blasted with deformity and privation, and now this last fell atrocity! Alice was clinging to him, the words “darling, darling, my Ry, my saviour, my Ry,” were in his ears, and he felt as if he hated Alice—hated her worse even than himself. He froze with horror and agony as he beheld the ineffaceable image of that white, blood-stained twitching face, with sightless eyes, and on the floor those straggling locks of changed, grizzled hair, that once were as black as a raven’s wing to which he used to compare them.
Oh maddening picture of degradation and cruelty! To what had they both come at last?
But an iron necessity was upon him, and with an energy of hypocrisy, he said—“Alice, my treasure, my darling, you’re safe, aren’t you?”
“Oh, darling, yes,” she gasped.
“Not here—you mustn’t stay here—run down—she’s mad—she’s a mad woman—not here a moment.”
Half stunned and dreamy with horror, Alice glided down the stairs, passing honest Tom who was stumbling up, half awake, but quite dressed excepting his coat.
“Run, Tom, help your master, for God’s sake,—there’s something dreadful,” she said as she passed him with her trembling hands raised.
“Where, ma’am, may’t be?” said Tom, pausing with a coolness that was dreadful, she thought.
“There, there, in his room, my room; go, for heaven’s sake!”
Up ran Tom, making a glorious clatter with his hob-nails, and down ran Alice, and just at the foot of the stair she met Mildred Tarnley’s tall slim figure. The old woman drew to the banister, and stood still, looking darkly and shrewdly at her.
“Oh! good Mildred—oh, Mrs. Tarnley, for God’s sake don’t leave me.”
“And what’s the row, ma’am, what is it?” asked Mrs. Tarnley, with her lean arm supporting the poor trembling young lady who clung to her.
“Oh, Mrs. Tarnley, take me with you—take me out—I can’t stay in the house; take me away—into the woods—anywhere out of the house.”
“Well, well, come down, come along,” she said, more tenderly than was her wont, and watching her face hard from the comers of her eyes. She was convinced that the “old soldier” was the cause of these horrors.
“Put your arm over my shoulder, ma’am; there—that’s it—an’ I’ll put mine round you, if you don’t think I’m making too bold. There now, you’re more easy, I think.”
And as they got on through the passage she asked—
“Twas you that skritched, hey?”
“If I dare say—did I?”
“Ay did ye, with a will, whoever skritched. Ye seen summat. What may ye have seen that frightened ye like that?”
“We’ll talk by-and-by. I’m ill—I’m horribly ill. Come away.”
“Come, then, if ye like best, ma’am,” said Mildred Tarnley, leading her through the kitchen, and by the outer door into the open air, but she had hardly got a step into the yard when the young lady, holding her fast, stopped short in renewed terrors.
“Oh, Mildred, if she follows us, if she overtook us out here?”
“Hoot, ma’am, who are ye afeard on? Is it that crazy blind woman, or who?”
“Oh, Mildred, yes, it is she. Oh, Mildred, where shall we go, where can I hide myself? there’s nowhere safe.”
“Now you’re just drivin’ yourself distracted, you be. What for need ye fear her? She’s crazy, I’ll not deny, but she’s blind too, and she can’t follow ye here, if she was so minded. Why she couldn’t cross the stile, nor follow ye through a spinnie. But see, ye’ve nout but yer dressin’ gown over yer night clothes, and yer bare feet. Odd’s I’ll not go wi’ ye—ye’ll come back, and if ye must come abroad, ye’ll get yer cloaks and your shoon.”
“No, no, no, Mildred, I’ll go as I am,” cried the terrified lady, at the same time hurrying onward to the yard door.
“Well,” said the old woman following, “wilful lass will ha’ her way, but ye’ll clap this ower your shouthers.”
And she placed her own shawl on them, and together they passed into the lonely woodlands that, spreading upward from the glen of Carwell, embower the deep ravine that flanks the side of the Grange, and widening and deepening, enter the kindred shadows of the glen.
Last updated Monday, March 30, 2015 at 21:19