Past the hall, through the corridor, up the staircase, through the galleries, along more corridors they go, laughing and talking eagerly, until they come at last to an old and apparently much disused part of the house.
Traversing more corridors, upon which dust lies thickly, they come at last to a small iron-bound door that blocks the end of one passage.
"Now we really begin to get near to it," says Sir Adrian encouragingly, turning, as he always does, when opportunity offers, to address himself solely to Florence.
"Don't you feel creepy-creepy?" asks Ethel Villiers, with a smothered laugh, looking up at Captain Ringwood.
Then Sir Adrian pushes open the door, revealing a steep flight of stone steps that leads upward to another door above. This door, like the lower one, is bound with iron.
"This is the tower," explains Sir Adrian, still acting as cicerone to the small party, who look with interest around them. Mrs. Talbot, affecting nervousness, clings closely to Sir Adrian's arm. Indeed she is debating in her own mind whether it would be effective or otherwise to subside into a graceful swoon within his arms. "Yonder is the door of the chamber," continues Sir Adrian. "Come, let us go up to it."
They all ascend the last flight of stone stairs; and presently their host opens the door, and reveals to them whatever mysteries may lie beyond. He enters first, and they all follow him, but, as if suddenly recollecting some important point, he turns, and calls loudly to Captain Ringwood not to let the door shut behind him.
"There is a peculiar spring in the lock," he explains a moment later; "and, if the door slammed to, we should find it impossible to open it from the inside, and might remain here prisoners forever unless the household came to the rescue."
"Oh, Captain Ringwood, pray be careful!" cries Dora falteringly. "Our very lives depend upon your attention!"
"Miss Villiers, do come here and help me to remember my duty," says Captain Ringwood, planting his back against the open door lest by any means it should shut.
The chamber is round, and has, instead of windows, three narrow apertures in the walls, through which can be obtained a glimpse of the sky, but of nothing else. These apertures are just large enough to admit a man's hand. The room is without furniture of any description, and on the boards the dark stains of blood are distinctly visible.
"Dynecourt, tell them a story or two," calls out Ringwood to Sir Adrian. "They won't believe it is veritably haunted unless you call up a ghost to frighten them."
But they all protest in a body that they do not wish to hear any ghost stories, so Sir Adrian laughingly refuses to comply with Ringwood's request.
"Are we far from the other parts of the house?" asks Florence at length, who has been examining some writing on the walls.
"So far that, if you were immured here, no cry, however loud, could penetrate the distance," replies Sir Adrian. "You are as thoroughly removed from the habitable parts of the castle as if you were in the next county."
"How interesting!" observes Dora, with a little simper.
"The servants are so afraid of this room that they would not venture here even by daylight," Sir Adrian goes on. "You can see how the dust of years is on it. One might be slowly starved to death here without one's friends being a bit the wiser."
He laughs as he says this, but, long afterward, his words come back to his listeners' memories, filling their breasts with terror and despair.
"I wonder you don't have this dangerous lock removed," says Captain Ringwood. "It is a regular trap. Some day you'll be sorry for it."
"Yes; I wish it were removed," responds Florence, with a strange quick shiver.
Sir Adrian laughs.
"Why, that is one of the old tower's greatest charms," he says. "It belongs to the dark ages, and suggests all sorts of horrible possibilities. This room would be nothing without its mysterious lock."
At this moment Dora's eyes turn slowly toward Arthur Dynecourt. She herself hardly knows why, at this particular time, she should look at him, yet she feels that some unaccountable fascination is compelling her gaze to encounter his. Their eyes meet. As they do so, Dora shudders and turns deadly pale. There is that in Arthur Dynecourt's dark and sullen eyes that strikes her cold with terror and vague forebodings of evil. It is a wicked look that overspreads the man's face—a cruel, implacable look that seems to freeze her as she gazes at him spell-bound. Slowly, even while she watches him, she sees him turn his glance from her to Sir Adrian in a meaning manner, as though to let her know that the vile thought that is working in his brain and is betraying itself on his face is intended for him, not her. And yet, with this too, he gives her silently to understand that, if she shows any treachery toward him, he will not leave it unrewarded.
Cowed, frightened, trembling at what she knows not, Dora staggers backward, and, laying a hand upon the wall beside her, tries to regain her self-possession. The others are all talking together, she is therefore unobserved. She stands, still panting and pallid, trying to collect her thoughts.
Only one thing comes clearly to her, filling her with loathing of herself and an unnamed dread—it is that, by her own double-dealing and falseness toward Florence, she has seemed to enter into a compact with this man to be a companion in whatever crime he may decide upon. His very look seems to implicate her, to drag her down with him to his level. She feels herself chained to him—his partner in a vile conspiracy. And what further adds to the horror of the situation is the knowledge that she knows herself to be blindly ignorant of whatever plans he may be forming.
After a few seconds she rouses herself, and wins back some degree of composure. It is of course a mere weakness to believe herself in the power of Arthur Dynecourt, she tries to convince herself. He is no more than any other ordinary acquaintance. If indeed she has helped him a little in his efforts to secure the love of Florence, there was no great harm in that, though of course it served her own purpose also.
"How pale you are, Mrs. Talbot?" remarks Sir Adrian suddenly, wheeling round to look at her more closely. "Has this damp old place really affected your nerves? Come, let us go down again, and forget in the sunshine that bloody deeds were ever committed here or elsewhere."
"I am nervous, I confess," responds Dora, in a low tone. "Yes, yes—let us leave this terrible room forever."
"So be it," says Sir Adrian gayly. "For my part, I feel no desire to ever re-enter it."
"It is very high art, I suppose," observes Ethel Villiers, glancing round the walls. "Uncomfortable places always are. It would be quite a treasure to Lady Betty Trefeld, who raves over the early Britons. It seems rather thrown away upon us. Captain Ringwood, you look as if you had been suddenly turned into stone. Let me pass, please."
"It was uncommonly friendly of Ringwood not to have let the door slam, and so imprisoned us for life," says Sir Adrian, with a laugh. "I am sure we owe him a debt of gratitude."
"I hope you'll all pay it," laughs Ringwood. "It will be a nice new experience for you to give a creditor something for once. I never pay my own debts; but that doesn't count. I feel sure you are all going to give me something for my services as door-keeper."
"What shall I give you?" asks Ethel coquettishly.
"I'll tell you by and by," he replies, with such an expressive look that for once the saucy girl has no answer ready, but, blushing crimson, hurries past him down the stone stairs, where she waits at the bottom for the others.
As Florence reaches the door she pauses and stoops to examine the lock.
"I wish," she says to Sir Adrian, a strange subdued excitement in her tone, "you would remove this lock. Do."
"But why?" he asks, impressed in spite of himself, by her manner.
"I hardly know myself; it is a fancy—an unaccountable one, perhaps—but still a powerful one. Do be guided by me, and have it removed."
"What—the fancy?" he asks, laughing.
"No—the lock. Humor me in this," she pleads earnestly, far more earnestly than the occasion seems to warrant. "Call it a silly presentiment, if you like, but I honestly think that lock will work you evil some day. Therefore it is that I ask you to do away with it."
"You ask me?" he queries.
"Yes, if only to please me—for my sake."
She has evidently forgotten her late distrust of him, for she speaks now in the old sweet tone, and with tears in her eyes. Sir Adrian flushes warmly.
"For your sake," he whispers. "What is there I would not do, if thus requested?"
A bitter sneer contracts Arthur Dynecourt's lips as he listens to the first part of this conversation and guesses at the latter half. He notes correctly the kindling of their eyes, the quick breath that comes and goes like happy sighs from the breast of Florence. He hears the whisper, sees the warm blush, and glances expressively at Dora. Meeting her eyes he says his finger on his lips to caution her to silence, and then, when passing by her, whispers:
"Meet me in half an hour in the lower gallery."
Bowing her acquiescence in this arrangement, fearing indeed to refuse, Dora follows the others from the haunted chamber.
At the foot of the small stone staircase—before they go through the first iron-bound door that leads to the corridor without—they find Ethel Villiers awaiting them. She had been looking round her in the dimly lighted stone passage, and has discovered another door fixed mysteriously in a corner, that had excited her curiosity.
"Where does this lead to, Sir Adrian?" she asks now, pointing to it.
"Oh, that is an old door connected with another passage that leads by a dark and wearying staircase to the servants' corridor beneath! I am afraid you won't be able to open it, as it is rusty with age and disuse. The servants would as soon think of coming up here as they would of making an appointment with the Evil One; so it has not been opened for years."
"Perhaps I can manage it," says Arthur Dynecourt, trying with all his might to force the ancient lock to yield to him. At length his efforts are crowned with success; the door flies creakingly open, and a cloud of dust uprising covers them like a mist.
"Ah!" exclaims Ethel, recoiling; but Arthur, stooping forward, carefully examines the dark staircase that lies before him wrapped in impenetrable gloom. Spider-nets have been drawn from wall to wall and hang in dusky clouds from the low ceiling; a faint, stale, stifling smell greets his nostrils, yet he lingers there and looks carefully around him.
"You'll fall into it, if you don't mind," remarks Captain Ringwood. "One would think uncanny spots had an unwholesome attraction for you."
Ringwood, ever since the memorable night in the smoking-room, when Sir Adrian was so near being killed, has looked askance at Arthur Dynecourt, and, when taking the trouble to address him at all, has been either sharp or pointed in his remarks. Arthur, contenting himself with a scowl at him, closes the little door again, and turns away from it.
"At night," says Sir Adrian, in an amused tone, "the servants, passing by the door below that leads up to this one, run by it as though they fear some ghostly ancestors of mine, descending from the haunted chamber, will pounce out upon them with their heads under their arms, or in some equally unpleasant position. You know the door, don't you, Arthur—the second from the turning?"
"No," replies Arthur, with his false smile, "I do not; nor, indeed, do I care to know it. I firmly believe I should run past it too after nightfall, unless well protected."
"That looks as if you had an evil conscience," says Ringwood carelessly, but none the less purposely.
"It looks more as if I were a coward, I think," retorts Arthur, laughing, but shooting an angry glance at the gallant captain as he speaks.
"Well, what does the immortal William say?" returns Ringwood coolly. "'Conscience doth make cowards of us all!'"
"You have a sharp wit, sir," says Arthur, with apparent lightness, but pale with passion.
"I say, look here," breaks in Sir Adrian hastily, pulling out his watch; "it must be nearly time for tea. By Jove, quite half past four, and we know what Lady FitzAlmont will say to us if we keep her deprived of her favorite beverage for even five minutes. Come, let us run, or destruction will light upon our heads."
So saying, he leads the way, and soon they leave the haunted chamber and all its gloomy associations far behind them.
Reluctantly, yet with a certain amount of curiosity to know what it is he may wish to say to her, Dora wends her way to the gallery to keep her appointment with Arthur. Pacing to and fro beneath the searching eyes of the gaunt cavaliers and haughty dames that gleam down upon him from their canvases upon the walls, Dynecourt impatiently awaits her coming.
"Ah, you are late!" he exclaims as she approaches. There is a tone of authority about him that dismays her.
"Not very, I think," she responds pleasantly, deeming conciliatory measures the best. "Why did you not come to the library? We all missed you so much at tea!"
"No doubt," he replies sarcastically. "I can well fancy the disappointment my absence caused; the blank looks and regretful speeches that marked my defection. Pshaw—let you and me at least be honest to each other! Did Florence, think you, shed tears because of my non-coming?"
This mood of his is so strange to her that, in spite of the natural false smoothness that belongs to her, it renders her dumb.
"Look here," he goes on savagely, "I have seen enough to-day up in that accursed room above—that haunted chamber—to show me our game is not yet won."
"Our game—what game?" asks Dora, with a foolish attempt at misconception.
He laughs aloud—a wild, unpleasant, scornful laugh, that makes her cheek turn pale. Its mirth, she tells herself, is demoniacal.
"You would get out of it now, would you?" he says. "It is too late, I tell you. You have gone some way with me, you must go the rest. I want your help, and you want mine. Will you draw back now, when the prize is half won, when a little more labor will place it within your grasp?"
"But there must be no violence," she gasps; "no attempt at—"
"What is it you would say?" he interrupts stonily. "Collect yourself; you surely do not know what you are hinting at. Violence! what do you mean by that?"
"I hardly know," she returns, trembling. "It was your look, your tone, I think, that frightened me."
"Put your nerves in your pocket for the future," he exclaims coarsely; "they are not wanted where I am. Now to business. You want to marry Sir Adrian, as I understand, whether his desire lies in the same direction or not?"
At this plain speaking the dainty little lady winces openly.
"My own opinion is that his desire does not run in your direction," continues Arthur remorselessly. "We both know where his heart would gladly find its home, where he would seek a bride to place here in this grand old castle, but I will frustrate that hope if I die for it."
He grinds his teeth as he says this, and looks with fierce defiant eyes at the long rows of his ancestors that line the walls.
"She would gladly see her proud fair face looking down upon me from amidst this goodly company," he goes on, apostrophizing the absent Florence. "But that shall never be. I have sworn it; unless—I am her husband—unless—I am her husband!"
More slowly, more thoughtfully he repeats this last phrase, until Dora, affrighted by the sudden change that has disfigured his face, speaks to him to distract his attention.
"You have brought me here to—" she ventures timidly.
"Ay, to tell you what is on my mind. I have said you want to marry Adrian; I mean to marry Florence Delmaine. To-day I disliked certain symptoms I saw, that led me to believe that my own machinations have not been as successful as I could have wished. Before going in for stronger measures, there is one more card that I will play. I have written you a note. Here it is, take it"—handing her a letter folded in the cocked-hat fashion.
"What am I to do with this?" asks Dora nervously.
"Read it. It is addressed to yourself. You will see I have copied Adrian's handwriting as closely as possible, and have put his initials A.D. at the end. And yet"—with a diabolical smile—"it is no forgery either, as A.D. are my initials also."
Opening the note with trembling fingers, Dora reads aloud as follows:
"Can you—will you meet me to-morrow at four o'clock in the lime-walk? I have been cold to you perhaps, but have I not had cause? You think my slight attentions to another betoken a decrease in my love for you, but in this, dearest, you are mistaken. I am yours heart and soul. For the present I dare not declare myself, for the reasons you already know, and for the same reasons am bound to keep up a seeming friendliness with some I would gladly break with altogether. But I am happy only with you, and happy too in the thought that our hearts beat as one. Yours forever, A.D."
Dora, having finished reading the letter, glances at him uneasily.
"And—what is the meaning of this letter? What is it written for? What am I to do with it?" she stammers, beating the precious missive against the palm of her hand, as though in loathing of it.
"You will show it to her. You will speak of it as a love-letter written to you by Adrian. You will consult her as to whether it be wise or prudent to accede to his proposal to meet you alone in the lime-walk. You will, in fact, put out all your powers of deception, which"—with a sneering smile—"are great, and so compel her to believe the letter is from him to you."
"But—" falters Dora.
"There shall be no 'but' in the matter. You have entered into this affair with me, and you shall pursue it to the end. If you fail me, I shall betray your share in it—more than your share—and paint you in such colors as will shut the doors of society to you. You understand now, do you?"
"Go on," says Dora, with colorless lips.
"Ah, I have touched the right chord at last, have I? Society, your idol, you dare not brave! Well, to continue, you will also tell her, in your own sweet innocent way"—with another sneer that makes her quiver with fear and rage—"to account for Adrian's decided and almost lover-like attentions to her in the room we visited, that you had had a lovers' quarrel with him some time before, earlier in the day; that, in his fit of pique, he had sought to be revenged upon you, and soothe his slighted feelings by feigning a sudden interest in her. You follow me?"
"Yes," replies the submissive Dora. Alas, how sincerely she now wishes she had never entered into this hateful intrigue!
"Then, when you have carefully sown these lies in her heart, and seen her proud face darken and quiver with pain beneath your words"—oh, how his own evil face glows with unholy satisfaction as he sees the picture he has just drawn stand out clear before his eyes!—"you will affect to be driven by compunction into granting Sir Adrian a supposed request, you will don your hat and cloak, and go down to the lime-walk to encounter—me. If I am any judge of character, that girl, so haughty to all the world, will lower her pride for her crushed love's sake, and will follow you, to madden herself with your meeting with the man she loves. To her, I shall on this occasion represent Sir Adrian. Are you listening?"
She is indeed—listening with all her might to the master mind that has her in thrall.
"You will remember not to start when you meet me," he continues, issuing his commands with insolent assumption of authority over the dainty Dora, who, up to this, has been accustomed to rule it over others in her particular sphere, and who now chafes and writhes beneath the sense of slavery that is oppressing her. "You will meet me calmly, oblivious of the fact that I shall be clad in my cousin's light overcoat, the one of which Miss Delmaine was graciously pleased to say she approved yesterday morning."
His eyes light again with a revengeful fire as he calls to mind the slight praise Florence had bestowed in a very casual fashion on this coat. Every smile, every kindly word addressed by this girl to his cousin, is treasured up by him and dwelt upon in secret, to the terrible strengthening of the purpose he has in view.
"But if you should be seen—be marked," hesitates Dora faintly.
"Pshaw—am I one to lay my plans so clumsily as to court discovery on even the minutest point?" he interrupts impatiently. "When you meet me you will—but enough of this; I shall be there to meet you in the lime-walk, and after that you will take your cue from me."
"That is all you have to say?" asks Dora, anxious to quit his hated presence.
"For the present—yes. Follow my instructions to the letter, or dread the consequences. Any blunder in the performance of this arrangement I shall lay to your charge."
"You threaten, sir!" she exclaims angrily, though she trembles.
"Let it be your care to see that I do not carry out my threats," he retorts, with an insolent shrug.
The next day, directly after luncheon, as Florence is sitting in her own room, touching up an unfinished water-color sketch of part of the grounds round the castle—which have, alas, grown only too dear to her!—Dora enters her room. It is an embarrassed and significantly smiling Dora that trips up to her, and says with pretty hesitation in her tone—
"Dearest Florence, I want your advice about something."
"Mine?" exclaims Florence, laying down her brush, and looking, as she feels, astonished. As a rule, the gentle Dora does not seek for wisdom from her friends.
"Yes, dear, if you can spare me the time. Just five minutes will do, and then you can return to your charming sketch. Oh"—glancing at it—"how exactly like it is—so perfect; what a sunset, and what firs! One could imagine one's self in the Fairies' Glen by just looking at it."
"It is not the Fairies' Glen at all; it is that bit down by Gough's farm," says Florence coldly. Of late she has not been so blind to Dora's artificialness as she used to be.
"Ah, so it is!" agrees Dora airily, not in the least discomposed at her mistake. "And so like it too. You are a genius, dearest, you are really, and might make your fortune, only that you have one made already for you, fortunate girl!"
"You want my advice," suggests Florence quietly.
"Ah, true; and about something important too!" She throws into her whole air so much coquetry mingled with assumed bashfulness that Florence knows by instinct that the "something" has Sir Adrian for its theme, and she grows pale and miserable accordingly.
"Let me hear it then," she urges, leaning back with a weary sigh.
"I have just received this letter," says Mrs. Talbot, taking from her pocket the letter Arthur had given her, and holding it out to Florence, "and I want to know how I shall answer it. Would you—would you honestly advise me, Flo, to go and meet him as he desires?"
"As who desires?"
"Ah, true; you do not know, of course! I am so selfishly full of myself and my own concerns, that I seem to think every one else must be full of them too. Forgive me, dearest, and read his sweet little letter, will you?"
"Of whom are you speaking—to whose letter do you refer?" asks Florence, a little sharply, in the agony of her heart.
"Florence! Whose letter would I call 'sweet' except Sir Adrian's?" answers her cousin, with gentle reproach.
"But it is meant for you, not for me," says Miss Delmaine, holding the letter in her hand, and glancing at it with great distaste. "He probably intended no other eyes but yours to look upon it."
"But I must obtain advice from some one, and who so natural to expect it from as you, my nearest relative? If, however"—putting her handkerchief to her eyes—"you object to help me, Florence, or if it distresses you to read—"
"Distresses me?" interrupts Florence haughtily. "Why should it distress me? If you have no objection to my reading your—lover's—letter, why should I hesitate about doing so? Pray sit down while I run through it."
Dora having seated herself, Florence hastily reads the false note from beginning to end. Her heart beats furiously as she does so, and her color comes and goes; but her voice is quite steady when she speaks again.
"Well," she says, putting the paper from her as though heartily glad to be rid of it, "it seems that Sir Adrian wishes to speak to you on some subject interesting to you and him alone, and that he has chosen the privacy of the lime-walk as the spot in which to hold your tete-a-tete. It is quite a simple affair, is it not? Though really, why he could not arrange to talk privately to you in some room in the castle, which is surely large enough for the purpose, I can not understand."
"Dear Sir Adrian is so romantic," says Dora coyly.
"Is he?" responds her cousin dryly. "He has always seemed to me the sanest of men. Well, on what matter do you wish to consult me?"
"Dear Florence, how terribly prosaic and unsympathetic you are to-day," says Dora reproachfully; "and I came to you so sure of offers of love and friendship! I want you to tell me if you think I ought to meet him or not."
"I don't know"—with a little simper. "Is it perhaps humoring him too much? I have always dreaded letting a man imagine I cared for him, unless fully, utterly, assured of his affection for me."
Florence colors again, and then grows deadly pale, as this poisoned barb pierces her bosom.
"I should think," she says slowly, "after reading the letter you have just shown me, you ought to feel assured."
"You believe I ought, really?"—with a fine show of eagerness. "Now, you are not saying this to please me—to gratify me?"
"I should not please or gratify any one at the expense of truth."
"No, of course not. You are such a high-principled girl, so different from many others. Then you think I might go and meet him this evening without sacrificing my dignity in any way?"
"Oh, I'm so glad," exclaimed little Mrs. Talbot rapturously, nodding her "honorable" head with a beaming smile, "because I do so want to meet him, dear fellow! And I value your opinion, Flo, more highly than that of any other friend I possess. You are so solid, so thoughtful—such a dear thing altogether."
Florence takes no heed of this rodomontade, but sits quite still, with downcast eyes, tapping the small table near her with the tips of her slender fingers in a meditative fashion.
"The fact is," continues Dora, who is watching her closely, "I may as well let you into a little secret. Yesterday Sir Adrian and I had a tiny, oh, such a tiny little dispute, all about nothing, I assure you"—with a gay laugh—"but to us it seemed quite important. He said he was jealous of me. Now just fancy that, Flo; jealous of poor little me!"
"It is quite possible; you are pretty—most men admire you," Florence remarks coldly, still without raising her eyes.
"Ah, you flatter me, naughty girl! Well, silly as it sounds, he actually was jealous, and really gave me quite a scolding. It brought tears to my eyes, it upset me so. So, to tell the truth, we parted rather bad friends; and, to be revenged on me, I suppose, he rather neglected me for the remainder of the day."
Again Florence is silent, though her tormentor plainly waits for a lead from her before going on.
"You must have remarked," she continues presently, "how cold and reserved he was toward me when we were all together in that dreadful haunted chamber." Here she really shudders, in spite of herself. The cruel eyes of Arthur Dynecourt seem to be on her again, as they were in that ghostly room.
"I remarked nothing," responds Florence icily.
"No—really? Well, he was. Why, my dear Florence, you must have seen how he singled you out to be attentive to you, just to show me how offended he was."
"He did not seem offended with any one, and I thought him in particularly good spirits," replies Florence calmly.
Dora turns a delicate pink.
"Dear Adrian is such an excellent actor," she says sweetly, "and so proud; he will disguise his feelings, however keen they may be, from the knowledge of any one, no matter what the effort may cost him. Well, dearest, and so you positively advise me to keep this appointment with him?"
"I advise nothing. I merely say that I see nothing objectionable in your walking up and down the lime-walk with your host."
"How clearly you put it! Well, adieu, darling, for the present, and thank you a thousand times for all the time you have wasted on me. I assure you I am not worth it"—kissing her hand brightly.
For once she speaks the truth; she is not indeed worth one moment of the time Florence has been compelled to expend upon her; yet, when she has tripped out of the room, seemingly as free from guile as a light-hearted child, Miss Delmaine's thoughts still follow her, even against her inclination.
She has gone to meet him; no doubt to interchange tender words and vows with him; to forgive, to be forgiven, about some sweet bit of lover's folly, the dearer for its very foolishness. She listens for her footsteps as she returns along the corridor, dressed no doubt in her prettiest gown, decked out to make herself fair in his eyes.
An overwhelming desire to see how she has robed herself on this particular occasion induces Florence to go to the door and look after her as she descends the stairs. She just catches a glimpse of Dora as she turns the corner, and sees, to her surprise, that she is by no means daintily attired, but has thrown a plain dark water-proof over her dress, as though to hide it. Slightly surprised at this, Florence ponders it, and finally comes to the bitter conclusion that Dora is so sure of his devotion that she knows it is not necessary for her to bedeck herself in finery to please him. In his eyes of course she is lovely in any toilet.
Soon, soon she will be with him. How will they greet each other? Will he look into Dora's eyes as he used to look into hers not so very long ago? Arthur Dynecourt read her aright when he foresaw that she would be unable to repress the desire to follow Dora, and see for herself the meeting between her and Sir Adrian.
Hastily putting on a large Rubens hat, and twisting a soft piece of black lace round her neck, she runs down-stairs and, taking a different direction from that she knows Dora most likely pursued, she arrives by a side path at the lime-walk almost as soon as her cousin.
Afraid to venture too near, she obtains a view of the walk from a high position framed in by rhododendrons. Yes, now she can see Dora, and now she can see too, the man who comes eagerly to meet her. His face is slightly turned away from her, but the tall figure clad in the loose light overcoat is not to be mistaken. He advances quickly, and meets Dora with both hands outstretched. She appears to draw back a little, and then he seizes her hands, and, stooping, covers them with kisses.
A film seems to creep over Florence's eyes. With a stifled groan, she turns and flies homeward. Again in the privacy of her own room, and having turned the key securely in the lock to keep out all intruders, she flings herself upon her bed and cries as if her heart would break.
* * * * *
Not until her return to her room does Dora remember that she did not get back the false letter from her cousin. In the heat of the conversation she had forgotten it, but now, a fear possessing her lest Florence should show it to any one, she runs upstairs and knocks at Miss Delmaine's door.
"Come in," calls Florence slowly.
It is three hours since she went for her unhappy walk to the lime-grove, and now she is composed again, and is waiting for the gong to sound before descending to the drawing-room, where she almost dreads the thought that she will be face to face with Sir Adrian. She is dressed for dinner, has indeed taken most particular pains with her toilet, if only to hide the ravages that these past three hours of bitter weeping have traced upon her beautiful face. She looks sad still, but calm and dignified.
Dora is dressed too, but is looking flurried and flushed.
"I beg your pardon," she says; "but my letter—the letter I showed you to-day—have you it?"
"No," replies Florence simply; "I thought I gave it back to you; but, if not, it must be here on this table"—lifting a book or two from the small gypsy-table near which she had been sitting when Dora came to her room early in the day.
Dora looks for it everywhere, in a somewhat nervous, frightened manner, Florence helping her the while; but nothing comes of their search, and they are fain to go down-stairs without it, as the gong sounding loudly tells them they are already late.
"Never mind," says Dora, afraid of having betrayed too much concern. "It is really of no consequence. I only wanted it, because—well, because"—with the simper that drives Florence nearly mad—"he wrote it."
"I shall tell my maid to look for it, and, if she finds it, you shall have it this evening," responds Florence, with a slight contraction of her brows that passes unnoticed.
To Florence's mortification, Arthur Dynecourt takes her in to dinner. On their way across the hall from the drawing-room to the dining-room, he presses the hand that rests so reluctantly upon his arm, and says, with an affectation of the sincerest concern—
"You are not well; you are looking pale and troubled, and—pardon me if I am wrong, but I think you have been crying."
"I must beg, sir," she retorts, with excessive hauteur, removing her hand from his arm, as though his pressure had burned her—"I must beg, you will not trouble yourself to study my countenance. Your doing so is most offensive to me."
"To see you in trouble, and not long to help or comfort you is impossible to me," goes on Dynecourt, unmoved by her scorn. "Are you still dwelling on the past—on what is irrevocable? Have you had fresh cause to remember it to-day?"
There is a gleam of malice in his eyes, but Florence, whose gaze is turned disdainfully away from him, fails to see it. She changes color indeed beneath his words, but makes him no reply, and, when they reach the dining-room, in a very marked manner she takes a seat far removed from his.
There is a sinister expression in his eyes and round his mouth as he notes this studied avoidance.
It is now "golden September," and a few days later. For the last fortnight Florence has been making strenuous efforts to leave the castle, but Dora would not hear of their departure, and Florence, feeling it will be selfish of her to cut short Dora's happy hours with her supposed lover, sighs, and gives in, and sacrifices her own wishes on the altar of friendship.
It is five o'clock, and all the men, gun in hand, have been out since early dawn. Now they are coming straggling home, in ones or twos. Amongst the first to return are Sir Adrian and his cousin Arthur Dynecourt, who, having met accidentally about a mile from home, have trudged the remainder of the way together.
On the previous night at dinner, Miss Delmaine had spoken of a small gold bangle, a favorite of hers, she was greatly in the habit of wearing. She said she had lost it—when or where she could not tell; and she expressed herself as being very grieved for its loss, and had laughingly declared she would give any reward claimed by any one who should restore it to her. Two or three men had, on the instant, pledged themselves to devote their lives to the search; but Adrian had said nothing. Nevertheless, the bangle and the reward remained in his mind all that night and all to-day. Now he can not refrain from speaking about it to the man he considers his rival.
"Odd thing about Miss Delmaine's bangle," he remarks carelessly.
"Very odd. I dare say her maid has put it somewhere and forgotten it."
"Hardly. One would not put a bracelet anywhere but in a jewel-case, or in a special drawer. She must have dropped it somewhere."
"I dare say; those Indian bangles are very liable to be rubbed off the wrist."
"But where? I have had the place searched high and low, and still no tidings of it can be found."
"There may have been since we left home this morning."
Just at this moment they come within full view of the old tower, and its strange rounded ivy-grown walls, and the little narrow holes in the sides they show at its highest point that indicate the position of the haunted chamber.
What is there at this moment in a mere glimpse of this old tower to make Arthur Dynecourt grow pale and to start so strangely? His eyes grow brighter, his lips tighten and grow hard.
"Do you remember," he says, turning to his cousin with all the air of one to whom a sudden inspiration has come, "that day on which we visited the haunted chamber? Miss Delmaine accompanied us, did she not?"
"Yes"—looking at him expectantly.
"Could she have dropped it there?" asks Arthur lightly. "By Jove, it would be odd if she had—eh? Uncanny sort of place to drop one's trinkets."
"It is strange I didn't think of it before," responds Adrian, evidently struck by the suggestion. "Why, it must have been just about that time when she lost it. The more I think of it the more convinced I feel that it must be there."
"Nonsense, my dear fellow; don't jump at conclusions so hastily! It is highly improbable. I should say that she dropped it anywhere else in the world."
"Well, I'll go and see, at all events," declares Adrian, unconvinced.
Is it some lingering remnant of grace, some vague human shrinking from the crime that has begun to form itself within his busy brain, that now induces Dynecourt to try to dissuade Sir Adrian from his declared intention to search the haunted chamber for the lost bangle? With all his eloquence he seeks to convince him that there the bangle could not have been left, but to no effect. His suggestion has taken firm root in Sir Adrian's mind, and at least, as he frankly says, though it may be useless to hunt for it in that uncanny chamber, it is worth a try. It may be there. This dim possibility drives him on to his fate.
"Well, if you go alone and unprotected, your blood be on your own head," says Dynecourt lightly, at last surrendering his position. "Remember, whatever happens, I advised you not to go!"
As Arthur finishes his speech a sinister smile overspreads his pale features, and a quick light, as evil as it is piercing, comes into his eyes. But Sir Adrian sees nothing of this. He is looking at his home, as it stands grand and majestic in the red light of the dying sun. He is looking, too, at the old tower, and at the upper portion of it, where the haunted chamber stands, and where he can see the long narrow holes that serve for windows. How little could a man imprisoned there see of the great busy world without!
"Yes, I'll remember," he says jestingly. "When the ghosts of my ancestors claim me as their victim, and incarcerate me in some fiendish dungeon, I shall remember your words and your advice."
"You don't mean to go there, of course?" asks Arthur carelessly, whilst watching the other with eager scrutiny. "It is quite a journey to that dismal hole, and it will be useless."
"Well, if it distresses you, consider I haven't gone," says Sir Adrian lightly.
"That is right," rejoins Arthur, still with his keen eyes fixed upon his cousin. "I knew you would abandon that foolish intention. I certainly shall consider you haven't gone."
They are at the hall door as these words pass Arthur's lips, and there they separate, Sir Adrian leaving him with a smile, and going away up the large hall whistling gayly.
When he has turned one corner, Arthur goes quickly after him, not with the intention of overtaking him, but of keeping him in view. Stealthily he follows, as though fearful of being seen.
There is no servant within sight. No friend comes across Sir Adrian's path. All is silent. The old house seems wrapped in slumber. Above, the pretty guests in their dainty tea-gowns are sipping Bohea and prattling scandal; below, the domestics are occupied in their household affairs.
Arthur, watching carefully, sees Sir Adrian go quickly up the broad front staircase, after which he turns aside, and, as though filled with guilty fear, rushes through one passage and another, until he arrives in the corridor that belongs to the servants' quarters.
Coming to a certain door, he opens it, not without some difficulty, and, moving into the dark landing that lies beyond it, looks around. To any casual observer it might seem strange that some of the cobwebs in this apparently long-forgotten place have lately been brushed away, as by a figure ascending or descending the gloomy staircase. To Arthur these signs bring no surprise, which proves that he, perhaps, has the best right to know whose figure brushed them aside.
Hurrying up the stairs, after closing the door carefully and noiselessly behind him, he reaches, after considerable mountings of what seem to be interminable steps, the upper door he had opened on the day they had visited the haunted chamber, when Ringwood and he had had a passage-at-arms about his curiosity.
Now he stands breathing heavily outside this door, wrapped in the dismal darkness of the staircase, listening intently, as it were, for the coming of a footstep.
In the meantime, Sir Adrian, not dissuaded from his determination to search the tower for the missing bangle, runs gayly up the grand staircase, traverses the corridors and galleries, and finally comes to the first of the iron-bound doors. Opening it, he stands upon the landing that leads to the other door by means of the small stone staircase. Here he pauses.
Is it some vague shadowy sense of danger that makes him stand now as though hesitating? A quick shiver rune through his veins.
"How cold it is," he says to himself, "even on this hot day, up in this melancholy place!" Yet, he is quite unconscious of the ears that are listening for his lightest movement, of the wicked eyes that are watching him through a chink in the opposite door!
Now he steps forward again, and, mounting the last flight of stairs, opens the fatal door and looks into the room. Even now it occurs to him how unpleasant might be the consequences should the door close and the secret lock fasten him in against his will. He pushes the door well open, and holds it so, and then tries whether it can fall to again of its own accord, and so make a prisoner of him.
No; it stands quite open, immovable apparently, and so, convinced that he is safe enough, he commences his search. Then, swift as lightning, a form darts from its concealed position, rushes up the stone staircase, and, stealthily creeping still nearer, glances into the room.
Sir Adrian's back is turned; he is stooping, looking in every corner for the missing prize. He sees nothing, hears nothing, though a treacherous form crouching on the threshold is making ready to seal his doom.
Arthur Dynecourt, putting forth his hand, which neither trembles nor falters on its deadly mission, silently lays hold of the door, and, drawing it toward him, the secret lock clicks sharply, and separates his victim from the world!
Stealthily even now—his evil deed accomplished—Arthur Dynecourt retreats down the stairs, and never indeed relaxes his speed until at length he stands panting, but relentless, in the servants' corridor again.
Remorse he knows not. But a certain sense of fear holds him irresolute, making his limbs tremble and bringing out cold dews upon his brow. His rival is safely secured, out of all harm's way as far as he is concerned. No human being saw him go to the ill-fated tower; no human voice heard him declare his intention of searching it for the missing trinket. He—Arthur—had been careful before parting from him to express his settled belief that Sir Adrian would not go to the haunted chamber, and therefore he feels prepared to defend his case successfully, even should the baronet be lucky enough to find a deliverer.
Yet he is not quite easy in his mind. Fear of discovery, fear of Sir Adrian's displeasure, fear of the world, fear of the rope that already seems to dangle in red lines before his eyes render him the veriest coward that walks the earth. Shall he return and release his prisoner, and treat the whole thing as a joke, and so leave Adrian free to dispense his bounty at the castle, to entertain in his lavish fashion, to secure the woman upon whom he—Arthur—has set his heart for his bride?
No; a thousand times no! A few short days, and all will belong to Arthur Dynecourt. He will be "Sir Arthur" then, and the bride he covets will be unable to resist the temptations of a title, and the chance of being mistress of the stately old pile that will call him master. Let Sir Adrian die then in his distant garret alone, despairing, undiscoverable! For who will think of going to the haunted room in search of him? Who will even guess that any mission, however important, would lead him to it, without having first mentioned it to some one? It is a grewsome spot, seldom visited and gladly forgotten; and, indeed, what possibly could there be in its bare walls and its blood-stained floor to attract any one? No; surely it is the last place to suspect any one would go to without a definite purpose; and what purpose could Sir Adrian have for going there?
So far Arthur feels himself safe. He turns away, and joins the women and the returned sportsmen in the upper drawing-room.
"Where is Dynecourt?" asks somebody a little later. Arthur, though he hears the question, does not even change color, but calmly, with a steady hand, gives Florence her tea.
"Yes; where is Sir Adrian?" asks Mrs. Talbot, glancing up at the speaker.
"He left us about an hour ago," Captain Ringwood answers. "He said he'd prefer walking home, and he shoveled his birds into our cart, and left us without another word. He'll turn up presently, no doubt."
"Dear me, I hope nothing has happened to him!" says Ethel Villiers, who is sitting in a window through which the rays of the evening sun are stealing, turning her auburn locks to threads of rich red gold.
"I hope not, I'm sure," interposes Arthur, quite feelingly. "It does seem odd he hasn't come in before this." Then, true to his determination to so arrange matters that, if discovery ensues upon his scheme, he may still find for himself a path out of his difficulties, he says quietly, "I met him about a mile from home, and walked here with him. We parted at the hall-door; I dare say he is in the library or the stables."
"Good gracious, why didn't you say so before?" exclaims old Lady FitzAlmont in a querulous tone. "I quite began to believe the poor boy had blown out his brains through disappointed love, or something equally objectionable."
Both Dora and Florence color warmly at this. The old lady herself is free to speak as she thinks of Sir Adrian, having no designs upon him for Lady Gertrude, that young lady being engaged to a very distinguished and titled botanist, now hunting for ferns in the West Indies.
"Markham," says Mrs. Talbot to a footman who enters at this moment, "go to the library and tell Sir Adrian his tea is waiting for him."
But presently Markham returns and says Sir Adrian is not in the library.
"Then try the stables, try everywhere," says Dora somewhat impatiently.
Markham, having tried everywhere, brings back the same answer; Sir Adrian apparently is not to be found!
"Most extraordinary," remarks Lady FitzAlmont, fanning herself. "As a rule I have noticed that Adrian is most punctual. I do hope my first impression was not the right one, and that we sha'n't find him presently with his throat cut and wallowing in his blood on account of some silly young woman!"
"Dear mamma," interposes Lady Gertrude, laughing, "what a terribly old-fashioned surmise! No man nowadays kills himself for a false love; he only goes and gets another."
But, when the dinner-hour arrives, and no host presents himself to lead Lady FitzAlmont into dinner, a great fear falls upon all the guests save one, and confusion and dismay, and anxious conjecture reign supreme.
The night passes; the next day dawns, deepens, grows into noon, and still nothing happens to relieve the terrible anxiety that is felt by all within the castle as to the fate of its missing master. They weary themselves out wondering, idly but incessantly, what can have become of him.
The second day comes and goes, so does the third and the fourth, the fifth and the sixth, and then the seventh dawns.
Florence Delmaine, who has been half-distracted with conflicting fears and emotions, and who has been sitting in her room apart from the others, with her head bent down and resting on her hands, suddenly raising her eyes, sees Dora standing before her.
The widow is looking haggard and hollow-eyed. All her dainty freshness has gone, and she now looks in years what in reality she is, close on thirty-five. Her lips are pale and drooping, her cheeks colorless; her whole air is suggestive of deep depression, the result of sleepless nights and days filled with grief and suspense of the most poignant nature.
"Alas, how well she loves him too!" thinks Florence, contemplating her in silence. Dora, advancing, lays her hand upon the table near Florence, and says, in a hurried impassioned tone—
"Oh, Florence, what has become of him? What has been done to him? I have tried to hide my terrible anxiety for the past two miserable days, but now I feel I must speak to some one or go mad!"
She smites her hands together, and, sinking into a chair, looks as if she is going to faint. Florence, greatly alarmed, rises from her chair, and, running to her, places her arm around her as though to support her. But Dora repulses her almost roughly and motions her away.
"Do not touch me!" she cries hoarsely. "Do not come near me; you, of all people, should be the last to come to my assistance! Besides, I am not here to talk about myself, but of him. Florence, have you any suspicion?"
Dora leans forward and looks scrutinizingly at her cousin, as though fearing, yet hoping to get an answer in the affirmative. But Florence shakes her head.
"I have no suspicion—none," she answers sadly. "If I had should I not act upon it, whatever it might cost me?"
"Would you," asks Dora eagerly, as though impressed by her companion's words—"whatever it might cost you?"
Her manner is so strange that Florence pauses before replying.
"Yes," she says at last. "No earthly consideration should keep me from using any knowledge I might by accident or otherwise become possessed of to lay bare this mystery. Dora," she cries suddenly, "if you know anything, I implore, I entreat you to say so."
"What should I know?" responds the widow, recoiling.
"You loved him too," says Florence piteously, now more than ever convinced that Dora is keeping something hidden from her. "For the sake of that love, disclose anything you may know about this awful matter."
"I dare not speak openly," replies the widow, growing even a shade paler, "because my suspicion is of the barest character, and may be altogether wrong. Yet there are moments when some hidden instinct within my breast whispers to me that I am on the right track."
"If so," murmurs Florence, falling upon her knees before her, "do not hesitate; follow up this instinctive feeling, and who knows but something may come of it! Dora, do not delay. Soon, soon—if not already—it may be too late. Alas," she cries, bursting into bitter tears, "what do I say? Is it not too late even now? What hope can there be after six long days, and no tidings?"
"I will do what I can, I am resolved," declares Dora, rising abruptly to her feet. "If too late to do any good, it may not be too late to wring the truth from him, and bring the murderer to justice."
"From him? From whom—what murderer?" exclaims Florence, in a voice of horror. "Dora, what are you saying?"
"Never mind. Let me go now; and to-night—this evening let me come to you here again, and tell you the result of what I am now about to do."
She quits the room as silently as she entered it, and Florence, sinking back in her chair, gives herself up to the excitement and amazement that are overpowering her. There is something else, too, in her thoughts that is puzzling and perplexing her; in all Dora's manner there was nothing that would lead her to think she loved Sir Adrian: there was fear, and a desire for revenge in it, but none of the despair of a loving woman who has lost the man to whom she has given her heart.
Florence is still pondering these things, while Dora, going swiftly down-stairs, turns into the side hall, glancing into library and rooms as she goes along, plainly in search of something or some one.
At last her search is successful; in a small room she finds Arthur Dynecourt apparently reading, as he sits in a large arm-chair, with his eyes fixed intently upon the book in his hand. Seeing her, he closes the volume, and, throwing it from him, says carelessly:
"Pshaw—what contemptible trash they write nowadays!"
"How can you sit here calmly reading," exclaims Dora vehemently, "when we are all so distressed in mind! But I forgot"—with a meaning glance—"you gain by his death; we do not."
"No, you lose," he retorts coolly. "Though, after all, even had things been different, I can't say I think you had much chance at any time."
He smiles insolently at her as he says this. But she pays no heed either to his words or his smile. Her whole soul seems wrapped in one thought, and at last she gives expression to it.
"What have you done with him?" she breaks forth, advancing toward him, as though to compel him to give her an answer to the question that has been torturing her for days past.
"With whom?" he asks coldly. Yet there is a forbidding gleam in his eyes that should have warned her to forbear.
"With Sir Adrian—with your rival, with the man you hate," she cries, her breath coming in little irrepressible gasps. "Dynecourt, I adjure you to speak the truth, and say what has become of him."
"You rave," he says calmly, lifting his eyebrows just a shade, as though in pity for her foolish excitement. "I confess the man was no favorite of mine, and that I can not help being glad of this chance that has presented itself in his extraordinary disappearance of my inheriting his place and title; but really, my dear creature, I know as little of what has become of him, as—I presume—you do yourself."
"You lie!" cries Dora, losing all control over herself. "You have murdered him, to get him out of your path. His death lies at your door."
She points her finger at him as though in condemnation as she utters these words, but still he does not flinch.
"They will take you for a Bedlamite," he says, with a sneering laugh, "if you conduct yourself like this. Where are your proofs that I am the cold-blooded ruffian you think me?"
"I have none"—in a despairing tone. "But I shall make it the business of my life to find them."
"You had better devote your time to some other purpose," he exclaims savagely, laying his hand upon her wrist with an amount of force that leaves a red mark upon the delicate flesh. "Do you hear me? You must be mad to go on like this to me. I know nothing of Adrian, but I know a good deal of your designing conduct, and your wild jealousy of Florence Delmaine. All the world saw how devoted he was to her, and—mark what I say—there have been instances of a jealous woman killing the man she loved, rather than see him in the arms of another."
"Demon!" shrieks Dora, recoiling from him. "You would fix the crime on me?"
"Why not? I think the whole case tells terribly against you. Hitherto I have spared you, I have refrained from hinting even at the fact that your jealousy had been aroused of late; but your conduct of to-day, and the wily manner in which you have sought to accuse me of being implicated in this unfortunate mystery connected with my unhappy cousin, have made me regret my forbearance. Be warned in time, cease to persecute me about this matter, or—wretched woman that you are—I shall certainly make it my business to investigate the entire matter, and bring you to justice!"
He speaks with such an air of truth, of thorough belief in her guilt, that Dora is dazed, bewildered, and, falling back from him, covers her face with her hands. The fear of publicity, of having her late intrigue brought into the glare of day, fills her with consternation. And then, what will she gain by it? Nothing; she has no evidence on which to convict this man; all is mere supposition. She bitterly feels the weakness of her position, and her inability to follow up her accusation.
"Ah, how like a guilty creature you stand there!" exclaims Dynecourt, regarding her bowed and trembling figure. "I see plainly that this must be looked into. Miserable woman! If you know aught of my cousin, you had better declare it now."
"Traitor!" cries Dora, raising her pale face and looking at him with horror and defiance. "You triumph now, because, as yet, I have no evidence to support my belief, but"—she hesitates.
"Ah, brazen it out to the last!" says Dynecourt insolently. "Defy me while you can. To-day I shall set the blood-hounds of the law upon your track, so beware—beware!"
"You refuse to tell me anything?" exclaims Dora, ignoring his words, and treating them as though they are unheard. "So much the worse for you."
She turns from him, and leaves the room as she finishes speaking; but, though her words have been defiant there is no kindred feeling in her heart to bear her up.
When the door closes between them, the flush dies out of her face, and she looks even more wan and hopeless than she did before seeking his presence. She can not deny to herself that her mission has been a failure. He has openly scoffed at her threats, and she is aware that she has not a shred of actual evidence wherewith to support her suspicion; the bravado with which he has sought to turn the tables upon herself both frightens and disheartens her, and now she confesses to herself that she knows not where to turn for counsel.
In the meantime the daylight dwindles, and twilight descends. Even that too departs, and now darkness falls upon the distressed household, and still there is no news of Sir Adrian.
Arthur Dynecourt, who is already beginning to be treated with due respect as the next heir to the baronetcy, has quietly hinted to old Lady FitzAlmont that perhaps it will be as well, in the extraordinary circumstances, if they all take their departure. This the old lady, though strongly disinclined to quit the castle, is debating in her own mind, and, being swayed by Lady Gertrude, who is secretly rather bored by the dullness that has ensued on the strange absence of their host, decides to leave on the morrow, to the great distress of both Dora and Florence Delmaine, who shrink from deserting the castle while its master's fate is undecided. But they are also sensible that, to remain the only female guests, would be to outrage the conventionalities.
Henry Villiers, Ethel's father, is also of opinion that they should all quit the castle without delay. He is a hunting man, an M.F.H. in his own county, and is naturally anxious to get back to his own quarters some time before the hunting-season commences. Some others have already gone, and altogether it seems to Florence that there is no other course open to her but to pack up and desert him, whom she loves, in the hour of his direst need. For there are moments even now when she tells herself that he is still living, and only waiting for a saving hand to drag him into smooth waters once again!
A silence has fallen upon the house more melancholy than the loudest expression of grief. The servants are conversing over their supper in frightened whispers, and conjecturing moodily as to the fate of their late master. To them Sir Adrian is indeed dead, if not buried.
In the servants' corridor a strange dull light is being flung upon the polished boards by a hanging-lamp that is burning dimly, as though oppressed by the dire evil that has fallen upon the old castle. No sound is to be heard here in this spot, remote from the rest of the house, where the servants seldom come except to go to bed, and never indeed without an inward shudder as they pass the door that leads to the haunted chamber.
Just now, being at their supper, there is no fear that any of them will be about, and so the dimly lighted corridor is wrapped in an unbroken silence. Not quite unbroken, however. What is this that strikes upon the ear? What sound comes to break the unearthly stillness? A creeping footstep, a cautious tread, a slinking, halting, uncertain motion, belonging surely to some one who sees an enemy, a spy in every flitting shadow. Nearer and nearer it comes now into the fuller glare of the lamp-light, and stops short at the door so dreaded by the castle servants.
Looking uneasily around him, Arthur Dynecourt—for it is he—unfastens this door, and, entering hastily, closes it firmly behind him, and ascends the staircase within. There is no halting in his footsteps now, no uncertainty, no caution, only a haste that betokens a desire to get his errand over as quickly as possible.
Having gained the first landing, he walks slowly and on tiptoe again, and, creeping up the stone stairs, crouches down so as to bring his ear on a level with the lower chink of the door.
Alas, all is still; no faintest groan can be heard! The silence of Death is on all around. In spite of his hardihood, the cold sweat of fear breaks out upon Dynecourt's brow; and yet he tells himself that now he is satisfied, all is well, his victim is secure, is beyond the power of words or kindly search to recall him to life. He may be discovered now as soon as they like. Who can fix the fact of his death upon him? There is no blow, no mark of violence to criminate any one. He is safe, and all the wealth he had so coveted is at last his own!
There is something fiendish in the look of exultation that lights Arthur Dynecourt's face. He has a small dull lantern with him, and now it reveals the vile glance of triumph that fires his eyes. He would fain have entered to gaze upon his victim, to assure himself of his victory, but he refrains. A deadly fear that he may not yet be quite dead keeps him back, and, with a frown, he prepares to descend once more.
Again he listens, but the sullen roar of the rising night wind is all that can be heard. His hand shakes, his face assumes a livid hue, yet he tells himself that surely this deadly silence is better than what he listened to last night. Then a ghostly moaning, almost incessant and unearthly in its sound, had pierced his brain. It was more like the cry of a dying brute than that of a man. Sir Adrian slowly starved to death! In his own mind Arthur can see him now, worn, emaciated, lost to all likeness of anything fair or comely. Have the rats attacked him yet? As this grewsome thought presents itself, Dynecourt rises quickly from his crouching position, and, flying down the steps, does not stop running until he arrives in the corridor below again.
He dashes into this like one possessed; but, finding himself in the light of the hanging lamp, collects himself by a violent effort, and looks around.
Yes, all is still. No living form but his is near. The corridor, as he glances affrightedly up and down, is empty. He can see nothing but his own shadow, at sight of which he starts and turns pale and shudders.
The next moment he recovers himself, and, muttering an anathema upon his cowardice, he moves noiselessly toward his room and the brandy-bottle that has been his constant companion of late.
Yet, here in his own room, he can not rest. The hours go by with laggard steps. Midnight has struck, and still he paces his floor from wall to wall, half-maddened by his thoughts. Not that he relents. No feelings of repentance stir him, there is only a nervous dread of the hour when it will be necessary to produce the dead body, if only to prove his claim to the title so dearly and so infamously purchased.
Is he indeed dead—gone past recall? Is this house, this place, the old title, the chance of winning the woman he would have, all his own? Is his hated rival—hateful to him only because of his fair face and genial manners and lovable disposition, and the esteem with which he filled the hearts of all who knew him—actually swept out of his path?
Again the lurking morbid longing to view the body with his own eyes, the longing that had been his some hours ago when listening at the fatal door, seizes hold of him, and grows in intensity with every passing moment.
At last it conquers him. Lighting a candle, he opens his door and peers out. No one is astir. In all probability every one is abed, and now sleeping the sleep of the just—all except him. Will there ever be any rest or dreamless sleep for him again?
He goes softly down-stairs, and makes his way to the lower door. Meeting no one, he ascends the stairs like one only half conscious, until he finds himself again before the door of the haunted chamber.
Then he wakes into sudden life. An awful terror takes possession of him. He struggles with himself, and presently so far succeeds in regaining some degree of composure that he can lean against the wall and wipe his forehead, and vow to himself that he will never descend until he has accomplished the object of his visit. But the result of this terrible fight with fear and conscience shows itself in the increasing pallor of his brow and the cold perspiration that stands thick upon his forehead.
Nerving himself for a final effort, he lays his hand upon the door and pushes it open. This he does with bowed head and eyes averted, afraid to look upon his terrible work. A silence, more horrible to his guilty conscience than the most appalling noises, follows this act; and, again the nameless terror seizing him, he shudders and draws back, until, finding the wall behind him, he leans against it gladly, as if for support.
And now at last he raises his eyes. Slowly at first and cringingly, as if dreading what they might see. Upon the board at his feet they rest for a moment, and then glide to the next board, and so on, until his coward eyes have covered a considerable portion of the floor.
And now, grown bolder, he lifts his gaze to the wall opposite and searches it carefully. Then his eyes turn again to the floor. His face ghastly, and with his eyes almost darting from their sockets, he compels himself to bring his awful investigation to an end. Avoiding the corners at first, as though there he expects his vile deed will cry aloud to him demanding vengeance, he gazes in a dazed way at the center of the apartment, and dwells upon it stupidly, until he knows he must look further still; and then his dull eyes turn to the corners where the dusky shadows lie, brought thither by the glare of his small lantern. Reluctantly, but carefully, he scans the apartment, no remotest spot escapes his roused attention. But no object, dead or living, attracts his notice! The room is empty!
He staggers. His hold upon the door relaxes. His lamp falls to the ground; the door closes with a soft but deadly thud behind him, and—he is a prisoner in the haunted chamber! As the darkness closes in upon him, and he finds himself alone with what he hardly dares to contemplate, his senses grow confused, his brain reels; a fearful scream issues from his lips, and he falls to the floor insensible.
Dora, after her interview with Arthur Dynecourt, feels indeed that all is lost. Hope is abandoned—nothing remains but despair; and in this instance despair gains in poignancy by the knowledge that she believes she knows the man who could help them to a solution of their troubles if he would or dared. No; clearly he dare not! Therefore, no assistance can be looked for from him.
Dinner at the castle has been a promiscuous sort of entertainment for the past three or four days, so Dora feels no compunction in declining to go to it. In her own room she sits brooding miserably over her inability to be of any use in the present crisis, when she suddenly remembers that she had promised in the afternoon when with Florence to give her, later on, an account of her effort to obtain the truth about this mystery which is harrowing them.
It is now eleven o'clock, and Dora decides that she must see Florence at once. Rising, wearily, she is about to cross the corridor to her cousin's room, when, the door opening, she sees Florence, with a face pale and agitated, coming toward her.
"You, Florence!" she exclaims. "I was just going to you, to tell you that my hopes of this afternoon are all—"
"Let me speak," interrupts Florence breathlessly. "I must, or—" She sinks into a chair, her eyes close, and involuntarily she lays her hand upon her heart as if to allay its tumultuous beating.
Dora, really alarmed, rushing to her dressing-case, seizes upon a flask of eau-de-Cologne, and flings some of its contents freely over the fainting girl. Florence, with a sigh, rouses herself, and sits upright.
"There is no time to lose," she says confusedly. "Oh, Dora!" Here she breaks down and bursts into tears.
"Try to compose yourself," entreats Dora, seeing the girl has some important news to impart, but is so nervous and unstrung as to be almost incapable of speaking with any coherence. But presently Florence grows calmer, and then, her voice becoming clear and full, she is able to unburden her heart.
"All this day I have been oppressed by a curious restlessness," she says to Dora; "and, when you left me this afternoon, your vague promises of being able to elucidate the terrible secret that is weighing us down made me even more unsettled. I did not go down to dinner—"
"Neither did I," puts in Mrs. Talbot sympathetically.
"I wandered up and down my room for at least two hours, thinking always, and waiting for the moment when you would return, according to promise, and tell me the success of your hidden enterprise. You did not come, and at half past nine, unable to stay any longer in my own room with only my own thoughts for company, I opened my door, and, listening intently, found by the deep silence that reigned throughout the house that almost every one was gone, if not to bed, at least to their own rooms."
"Lady FitzAlmont and Gertrude passed to their rooms about an hour ago," says Dora. "But some of the men, I think, are still in the smoking-room."
"I did not think of them. I stole from my room, and roamed idly through the halls. Suddenly a great—I can not help thinking now a supernaturally strong—desire to go into the servants' corridor took possession of me. Without allowing myself an instant's hesitation, I turned in its direction, and walked on until I reached it."
She pauses here, and draws her breath rapidly.
"Go on," entreats Dora impatiently.
"The lamp was burning very dimly. The servants were all down-stairs—at their supper, I suppose—because there was no trace of them anywhere. Not a sound could be heard. The whole place looked melancholy and deserted, and filled me with a sense of awe I could not overcome. Still it attracted me. I lingered there, walking up and down until its very monotony wearied me; even then I was loath to leave it, and, turning into a small sitting-room, I stood staring idly around me. At last, somewhere in the distance I heard a clock strike ten, and, turning, I decided on going back once more to my room."
Again, emotion overcoming her, Florence pauses, and leans back in her chair.
"Well, but what is there in all this to terrify you so much?" demands her cousin, somewhat bewildered.
"Ah, give me time! Now I am coming to it," replies Florence quickly. "You know the large screen that stands in the corridor just outside the sitting-room I have mentioned—put there, I imagined to break the draught? Well, I had come out of the room and was standing half-hidden by this screen, when I saw something that paralyzed me with fear."
She rises to her feet and grows deadly pale as she says this, as though the sensation of fear she has been describing has come to her again.
"You saw—?" prompts Dora, rising too, and trembling violently, as though in expectation of some fatal tidings.
"I saw the door of the room that leads to the haunted chamber slowly move. It opened; the door that has been locked for nearly fifty years, and that has filled the breasts of all the servants here with terror and dismay, was cautiously thrown open! A scream rose to my lips, but I was either too terrified to give utterance to it, or else some strong determination to know what would follow restrained me, and I stood silent, like one turned into stone. I had instinctively moved back a step or two, and was now completely hidden from sight, though I could see all that was passing in the corridor through a hole in the framework of the screen. At last a figure came with hesitating footsteps from behind the door into the full glare of the flickering lamp. I could see him distinctly. It was—"
"Arthur Dynecourt!" cries the widow, covering her ghastly face with her hands.
Florence regards her with surprise.
"It was," she says at last. "But how did you guess it?"
"I knew it," cries Dora frantically. "He has murdered him, he has hidden his body away in that forgotten chamber. He was gloating over his victim, no doubt, just before you saw him, stealing down from a secret visit to the scene of his crime."
"Dora," exclaims Florence, grasping her arm, "if he should not have murdered him after all, if he should only have secured him there, holding him prisoner until he should see his way more clearly to getting rid of him! If this idea be the correct one, we may yet be in time to save, to rescue him!"
The agitation of the past hours proving now too much for her, Florence bursts into tears and sobs wildly.
"Alas, I dare not believe in any such hope!" says Dora. "I know that man too well to think him capable of showing any mercy."
"And yet 'that man,' as you call him, you would once have earnestly recommended to me as a husband!" returns Florence, sternly.
"Do not reproach me now," exclaims Dora; "later on you shall say to me all that you wish, but now moments are precious."
"You are right. Something must be done. Shall I—shall I speak to Mr. Villiers?"
"I hardly know what to advise"—distractedly. "If we give our suspicions publicity, Arthur Dynecourt may even yet find time and opportunity to baffle and disappoint us. Besides which, we may be wrong. He may have had nothing to do with it, and—"
"At that rate, if secrecy is to be our first thought, let you and me go alone in search of Sir Adrian."
"Alone, and at this hour, to that awful room!" exclaims Dora, recoiling from her.
"Yes, at once"—firmly—"without another moment's delay."
"Oh, I can not!" declares Dora, shuddering violently.
"Then I shall go alone!"
As Florence says this, she takes up her candlestick and moves quickly toward the door.
"Stay, I will go," cries Dora, trembling. But a slight interruption occurring at this instant, they are compelled to wait for awhile.
Ethel Villiers, coming into the room to make her parting adieus to Mrs. Talbot, as she and her father intend leaving next morning, gazes anxiously from Florence to Dora, seeing plainly that there is something amiss.
"What is it?" she asks kindly, going up to Florence.
Miss Delmaine, after a little hesitation, encouraged by a glance at Dora's terrified countenance, determines on taking the new-comer into their confidence.
In a few words she explains all that has taken place, and their suspicions. Ethel, though paling beneath the horror and surprise occasioned by the recital, does not lose her self-possession.
"I will go with you," she volunteers. "But, let me say," she adds, "that I think you are wrong in making this search without a man. If—if indeed we are still in time to be of any use to poor Sir Adrian—always supposing he really is secreted in that terrible room—I do not think any of us would be strong enough to help him down the stairs, and, if he has been slowly starving all this time, think how weak he will be!"
"Oh, what a wretched picture you conjure up!" exclaims Florence, nervously clasping her hands. "But you are right, and now tell me who you think can best be depended upon in this crisis."
"I am sure," says Ethel, blushing slightly, but speaking with intense earnestness, "that, if you would not mind trusting Captain Ringwood, he would be both safe and useful."
As this suggestion meets with approval, they manage to convey a message to the captain, and in a very few minutes he is with them, and is made acquainted with their hopes and fears.
Silently, cautiously, without any light, but carrying two small lamps ready for ignition, they go down to the corridor where is the door that leads to the secret staircase.
Turning the handle of this door, Captain Ringwood discovers that it is locked, but, nothing daunted, he pulls it so violently backward and forward that the lock, rusty with age, gives way, and leaves the passage beyond open to them.
Going into the small landing at the foot of the staircase, they close the door carefully behind them, and then, Captain Ringwood producing some matches, they light the two lamps and go swiftly, with anxiously beating hearts, up the stairs.
The second door is reached, and now nothing remains but to mount the last flight of steps and open the fatal door.
Their hearts at this trying moment almost fail them. They look into one another's blanched faces, and look there in vain for hope. At last Ringwood, touching Ethel's arm, says, in a whisper—
"Come, have courage—all may yet be well!"
He moves toward the stone steps, and they follow him. Quickly mounting them, he lays his hand upon the door, and, afraid to give them any more time for reflection or dread of what may yet be in store for them, throws it open.
At first the feeble light from their lamps fails to penetrate the darkness of the gloomy apartment. At the cursory glance, such as they at first cast round the room, it appears to be empty. Their hearts sink within them. Have they indeed hoped in vain!
Dora is crying bitterly; Ethel, with her eyes fixed upon Ringwood, is reading her own disappointment in his face, when suddenly a piercing cry from Florence wakes the echoes round them.
She has darted forward, and is kneeling over something that even now is only barely discernible to the others as they come nearer to it. It looks like a bundle of clothes, but, as they stoop over it, they, too, can see that it is in reality a human body, and apparently rigid in death.
But the shriek that has sprung from the very soul of Florence has reached some still living fibers in the brain of this forlorn creature. Slowly and with difficulty he raises his head, and opens a pair of fast-glazing eyes. Mechanically his glance falls upon Florence. His lips move; a melancholy smile struggles to show itself upon his parched and blackened lips.
"Florence," he rather sighs than says, and falls back, to all appearance, dead.
"He is not dead!" cries Florence passionately. "He can not be! Oh, save him, save him! Adrian, look up—speak to me! Oh, Adrian, make some sign that you can hear me!"
But he makes no sign. His very breath seems to have left him. Gathering him tenderly in her arms, Florence presses his worn and wasted face against her bosom, and pushes back the hair from his forehead. He is so completely altered, so thorough a wreck has he become, that it is indeed only the eyes of love that could recognize him. His cheeks have fallen in, and deep hollows show themselves. His beard has grown, and is now rough and stubbly; his hair is uncombed, the lines of want, despair, and cruel starvation have blotted out all the old fairness of his features. His clothes are hanging loosely about him; his hands, limp and nerveless, are lying by his side. Who shall tell what agony he suffered during these past lonely days with death—an awful, creeping, gnawing death staring him in the face?
A deadly silence has fallen upon the little group now gazing solemnly down upon his quiet form. Florence, holding him closely to her heart, is gently rocking him to and fro, as though she will not be dissuaded that he still lives.
At length Captain Ringwood, stooping pitifully over her, loosens her hold so far as to enable him to lay his hand upon Adrian's heart. After a moment, during which they all watch him closely, he starts, and, looking still closer into the face that a second ago he believed dead, he says, with subdued but deep excitement—
"There may yet be time! He breathes—his heart beats! Who will help me to carry him out of this dungeon?"
He shudders as he glances round him.
"I will," replies Florence calmly.
These words of hope have steadied her and braced her nerves. Ethel and Mrs. Talbot, carrying the lamps, go on before, while Ringwood and Florence, having lifted the senseless body of Adrian, now indeed sufficiently light to be an easy burden, follow them.
Reaching the corridor, they cross it hurriedly, and carrying Adrian up a back staircase that leads to Captain Ringwood's room by a circuitous route, they gain it without encountering a single soul, and lay him gently down on Ringwood's bed, almost at the very moment that midnight chimes from the old tower, and only a few minutes before Arthur Dynecourt steals from his chamber to make that last visit to his supposed victim.
Slowly and with difficulty they coax Sir Adrian back to life. Ringwood had insisted upon telling the old housekeeper at the castle, who had been in the family for years, the whole story of her master's rescue, and she, with tears dropping down her withered cheeks, had helped Ringwood to remove his clothes and make him comfortable. She had also sat beside him while the captain, stealing out of the house like a thief, had galloped down to the village for the doctor, whom he had smuggled into the house without awaking any of the servants.
This caution and secrecy had been decided upon for one powerful reason. If Arthur Dynecourt should prove guilty of being the author of his cousin's incarceration, they were quite determined he should not escape whatever punishment the law allowed. But the mystery could not be quite cleared up until Sir Adrian's return to consciousness, when they hoped to have some light thrown upon the matter from his own lips.
In the meantime, should Arthur hear of his cousin's rescue, and know himself to be guilty of this dastardly attempt to murder, would he not take steps to escape before the law should lay its iron grasp upon him? All four conspirators are too ignorant of the power of the law to know whether it would be justifiable in the present circumstances to place him under arrest, or decide on waiting until Sir Adrian himself shall be able to pronounce either his doom or his exculpation.
The doctor stays all night, and administers to the exhausted man, as often as he dares, the nourishment and good things provided by the old housekeeper.
When the morning is far advanced, Adrian, waking from a short but refreshing slumber, looks anxiously around him. Florence, seeing this, steps aside, as though to make way for Dora to go closer to him. But Mrs. Talbot, covering her face with her hands, turns aside and sinks into a chair.
Florence, much bewildered by this strange conduct, stands irresolute beside the bed, hardly knowing what to do. Again she glances at the prostrate man, and sees his eyes resting upon her with an expression in them that makes her heart beat rapidly with sweet but sad recollections.
Then a faint voice falls upon her ear. It is so weak that she is obliged to stoop over him to catch what he is trying to say.
"Darling, I owe you my life!"
With great feebleness he utters these words, accompanying them with a glance of utter devotion. How can she mistake this glance, so full of love and rapture? Perplexed in the extreme, she turns from him, as though to leave him, but by a gesture he detains her.
"Do not leave me! Stay with me!" he entreats.
Once again, deeply distressed, she looks at Dora. Mrs. Talbot, rising, says distinctly, but with a shamefaced expression—
"Do as he asks you. Believe me, by his side is your proper place, not mine."
Saying this, she glides quickly from the room, and does not appear again for several hours.
By luncheon-time it occurs to the guests that Arthur Dynecourt has not been seen since last evening.
Ringwood, carrying this news to the sick-room, the little rescuing party and their auxiliaries, the nurse and doctor, lay their heads together, and decide that, doubtless, having discovered the escape of his prisoner, and, dreading arrest, Arthur has quietly taken himself off, and so avoided the trial and punishment which would otherwise have fallen upon him.
Ringwood is now of opinion that they have acted unwisely in concealing the discovery of Sir Adrian in the haunted chamber. By not speaking to the others, they have given Dynecourt the opportunity of getting away safely, and without causing suspicion.
"Is it not an almost conclusive proof of his guilt, his running away in this cowardly fashion?" says Ethel Villiers. "I think papa and Lady FitzAlmont and everybody should now be told."
So Ringwood, undertaking the office of tale-bearer, goes down-stairs, and, bringing together all the people still remaining in the house, astounds them by his revelation of the discovery and release of Sir Adrian.
The nearest magistrate is sent for, and the case being laid before him, together with the still further evidence given by Sir Adrian himself, who has told them in a weak whisper of Arthur's being privy to his intention of searching the haunted chamber for Florence's bangle on that memorable day of his disappearance, the magistrate issues a warrant for the arrest of Arthur Dynecourt.
But it is all in vain; even though two of the cleverest detectives from Scotland Yard are pressed into the service, no tidings of Arthur Dynecourt come to light. A man answering to his description, but wearing spectacles, had been traced as having gone on board a vessel bound for New York the very day after Sir Adrian was restored to the world, and, when search in other quarters fails, every one falls into the ready belief that this spectacled man was in reality the would-be murderer.
So the days pass on, and it is now quite a month since Ringwood and Florence carried Sir Adrian's senseless form from the haunted chamber, and still Florence holds herself aloof from the man she loves, and, though quite as assiduous as the others in her attentions to him, seems always eager to get away from him, and glad to escape any chance of a tete-a-tete with him. This she does in defiance of the fact that Mrs. Talbot never approaches him except when absolutely compelled.
Sir Adrian is still a great invalid. The shock to his nervous system, the dragging out of those interminable hours in the lonely chamber, and the strain upon his physical powers by the absence of nutriment for seven long days and nights, had all combined to shatter a constitution once robust. He is now greatly improved in health, and has been recommended by his doctors to try a winter in the south of France or Algiers.
He shows himself, however, strangely reluctant to quit his home, and, whenever the subject is mentioned, he first turns his eyes questioningly upon Florence, if she is present, and then, receiving no returning glance from her downcast eyes, sighs, and puts the matter from him.
He has so earnestly entreated both Dora and Miss Delmaine not to desert him, that they have not had the heart to refuse, and as Ringwood is also staying at the castle, and Ethel Villiers has gained her father's consent to remain, Mrs. Talbot acting as chaperon, they are by no means a dull party.
To-day, the first time for over a month, Florence, going to her easel, draws its cover away from the sketch thereon, and gazes at her work. How long ago it seems since she sat thus, happy in her thoughts, glad in the belief that the one she loved loved her! yet all that time his heart had been given to her cousin. And though now, at odd moments, she has felt herself compelled to imagine that his every glance and word speaks of tenderness for her, and not for Dora—still this very knowledge only hardens her heart toward him, and renders her cold and unsympathetic in his presence.
No, she will have no fickle lover. And yet, how kind he is—how earnest, how honest is his glance! Oh, that she could believe all the past to be an evil dream, and think of him again as her very own, as in the dear old days gone by!