With a sudden down-bringing of his old but powerful hand on the top of the table before him, he seemed about to utter an oath or some angry invective. But again he controlled himself, and eying me without any show of shame or even of desire to contradict any of my assertions, he quietly declared:
"You are after that reward, I observe. Well, you won't get it. Like many others of your class you can follow a trail, but the insight to start right and to end in triumphant success is given only to a genius, and you are not a genius."
With a blush I could not control, I advanced upon him, crying:
"You have forestalled me. You have telegraphed or telephoned to Mr. Atwater—"
"I have not left my house since I came in here three hours ago."
"Then—" I began.
But he hushed me with a look.
"It is not a matter of money," he declared almost with dignity. "Those who think to reap dollars from the distress which has come upon the Ocumpaugh family will eat ashes for their pains. Money will be spent, but none of it earned, unless you, or such as you, are hired at so much an hour to—follow trails."
Greatly astounded not only by the attitude he took, but by the calm and almost indifferent way in which he mentioned what I had every reason to believe to be the one burning object of his existence, I surveyed him with undisguised astonishment till another thought, growing out of the silence of the many-roomed house above us, gripped me with secret dread; and I exclaimed aloud and without any attempt at subterfuge:
"She is dead, then! the child is dead!"
"I do not know," was his reply.
The four words were uttered with undeniable gloom.
"You do not know?" I echoed, conscious that my jaw had fallen, and that I was staring at him with fright in my eyes.
"No. I wish I did. I would give half of my small savings to know where that innocent baby is to-night. Sit down!" he vehemently commanded. "You do not understand me, I see. You confound the old Doctor Pool with the new."
"I confound nothing," I violently retorted in strong revulsion against what I had now come to look upon as the attempt of a subtile actor to turn aside my suspicions and brave out a dangerous situation by a ridiculous subterfuge. "I understand the miser whom I have beheld gloating over his hoard in the room above, and I understand the doctor who for money could lend himself to a fraud, the secret results of which are agitating the whole country at this moment."
"So!" The word came with difficulty. "So you did play the detective, even as a boy. Pity I had not recognized your talents at the time. But no—" he contradicted himself with great rapidity; "I was not a redeemed soul then; I might have done you harm. I might have had more if not worse sins to atone for than I have now." And with scant appearance of having noted the doubtful manner in which I had received this astonishing outburst, he proceeded to cry aloud and with a commanding gesture: "Quit this. You have undertaken more than you can handle. You, a messenger from Mrs. Ocumpaugh? Never. You are but the messenger of your own cupidity; and cupidity leads by the straightest of roads directly down to hell."
"This you proved six long years ago. Lead me to the child I believe to be in this house or I will proclaim aloud the pact you entered into then—a pact to which I was an involuntary witness whose word, however, will not go for less on that account. Behind the curtain still hanging over that old closet I stood while—"
His hand had seized my arm with a grip few could have proceeded under.
"Do you mean—"
The rest was whispered in my ear.
I nodded and felt that he was mine now. But the laugh which the next minute broke from his lips dashed my assurance.
"Oh, the ways of the world!" he cried. Then in a different tone and not without reverence: "Oh, the ways of God!"
I made no reply. For every reason I felt that the next word must come from him.
It was an unexpected one.
"That was Doctor Pool unregenerate and more heedful of the things of this world than of those of the world to come. You have to deal with quite a different man now. It is of that very sin I am now repenting in sackcloth and ashes. I live but to expiate it. Something has been done toward accomplishing this, but not enough. I have been played upon, used. This I will avenge. New sin is a poor apology for an old one."
I scarcely heeded him. I was again straining my ears to catch a smothered sob or a frightened moan.
"What are you listening for?" he asked.
"For the sound of little Gwendolen's voice. It is worth fifty thousand dollars, you remember. Why shouldn't I listen for it? Besides, I have a real and uncontrollable sympathy for the child. I am determined to restore her to her home. Your blasphemous babble of a changed heart does not affect me. You are after a larger haul than the sum offered by Mr. Ocumpaugh. You want some of Mrs. Ocumpaugh's fortune. I have suspected it from the first."
"I want? Little you know what I want"—then quickly, convincingly: "You are strangely deceived. Little Miss Ocumpaugh is not here."
"What is that I hear, then?" was the quick retort with which I hailed the sigh, unmistakably from infantile lips, which now rose from some place very much nearer us than the hollow regions overhead toward which my ears had been so long turned.
"That!" He flashed with uncontrollable passion, and if I am not mistaken clenched his hands so violently as to bury his nails in his flesh. "Would you like to see what that is? Come!"—and taking up the lamp, he moved, much to my surprise as well as to my intense interest, toward the door of the small cupboard where I had myself slept when in his service.
That he still meditated some deviltry which would call for my full presence of mind to combat successfully, I did not in the least doubt. Yet the agitation under which I crossed the floor was more the result of an immediate anticipation of seeing—and in this place of all others in the world—the child about whom my thoughts had clung so persistently for forty-two hours, than of any results to myself in the way of injury or misfortune. Though the room was small and my passage across it necessarily short, I had time to remember Mrs. Ocumpaugh's pitiful countenance as I saw it gazing in agony of expectation from her window overlooking the river, and to catch again the sounds, less true and yet strangely thrilling, of Mrs. Carew's voice as she said: "A tragedy at my doors and I occupied with my own affairs!" Nor was this all. A recollection of Miss Graham's sorrow came up before my eyes also, and, truest of all, most penetrating to me of all the loves which seemed to encompass this rare and winsome infant, the infinite tenderness with which I once saw Mr. Ocumpaugh lift her to his breast, during one of my interviews with him at Homewood.
All this before the door had swung open. Afterward, I saw nothing and thought of nothing but the small figure lying in the spot where I had once pillowed my own head, and with no more luxuries or even comforts about her than had been my lot under this broad but by no means hospitable roof.
A bare wall, a narrow cot, a table with a bottle and glass on it and the child in the bed—that was all. But God knows, it was enough to me at that breathless moment; and advancing eagerly, I was about to stoop over the little head sunk deep in its pillow, when the old man stepped between and with a short laugh remarked:
"There's no such hurry. I have something to say first, in explanation of the anger you have seen me display; an anger which is unseemly in a man professing to have conquered the sins and passions of lost humanity. I did follow this child. You were right in saying that it was my horse and buggy which were seen in the wake of the wagon which came from the region of Homewood and lost itself in the cross-roads running between the North River and the Sound. For two days and a night I followed it, through more difficulties than I could relate in an hour, stopping in lonely woods, or at wretched taverns, watching, waiting for the transfer of the child, whose destination I was bound to know even if it cost me a week of miserable travel without comfortable food or decent lodging. I could hear the child cry out from time to time—an assurance that I was not following a will-o'-the-wisp—but not till to-day, not till very late to-day, did any words pass between me and the man and woman who drove the wagon. At Fordham, just as I suspected them of making final efforts to escape me, they came to a halt and I saw the man get out.
"I immediately got out too. As we faced each other, I demanded what the matter was. He appeared reckless. 'Are you a doctor?' he asked. I assured him that I was. At which he blurted out: 'I don't know why you've been following us so long, and I don't care. I've got a job for you. A child in our wagon is ill.'"
With a start I attempted to look over the old man's shoulder toward the bed. But the deep, if irregular, breathing of the child reassured me, and I turned to hear the doctor out.
"This gave me my chance. 'Let me see her,' I cried. The man's eye lowered. I did not like his face at all. 'If it's anything serious,' he growled, 'I shall cut. It isn't my flesh and blood nor yet my old woman's there. You'll have to find some place for the brat besides my wagon if it's anything that won't get cured without nu'ssin'. So come along and have a look.' I followed him, perfectly determined to take the child under my own care, sick or well. 'Where were you going to take her?' I asked. I didn't ask who she was; why should I? 'I don't know as I am obliged to tell,' was his surly reply. 'Where we are going oursel's,' he reluctantly added. 'But not to nu'ss. I've no time for nu'ssin' brats, nor my wife neither. We have a journey to make. Sarah!'—this to his wife, for by this time we were beside the wagon,—'lift up the flap and hold the youngster's hand out. Here's a doctor who will tell us if it's fever or not.' A puny hand and wrist were thrust out. I felt the pulse and then held out my arms. 'Give me the child,' I commanded. 'She's sick enough for a hospital.' A grunt from the woman within, an oath from the man, and a bundle was presently put in my arms, from which a little moan escaped as I strode with it toward my buggy. 'I do not ask your name,' I called back to the man who reluctantly followed me. 'Mine is Doctor Pool and I live in Yonkers.' He muttered something about not peachin' on a poor man who was really doin' an unfortunate a kindness, and then slunk hurriedly back and was gone, wagon, wife and all, by the time I had whipped up my tired old nag and turned about toward Yonkers. But I had the child safe and sound in my arms, and my fears of its fate were relieved. It was not well, but I anticipated nothing serious. When it moaned I pressed it a little closer to my breast and that was all. In three-quarters of an hour we were in Yonkers. In fifteen minutes I had it on this bed, and had begun to unroll the shawl in which it was closely wrapped. Did you ever see the child about whom there has been all this coil?"
"Yes, about three years ago."
"Three years! I have seen her within a fortnight; yet I could carry that young one in my arms for a whole hour without the least suspicion that I was making a fool of myself."
Quickly slipping aside, he allowed me to approach the bed and take my first look at the sleeping child's face. It was a sweet one but I did not need the hint he had given me to find the features strange, and lacking every characteristic of those of Gwendolen Ocumpaugh. Yet as the cutting off of the hair will often change the whole aspect of the face—and this child's hair was short—I was stooping in great excitement to notice more particularly the contour of cheek and chin which had given individuality to the little heiress, when the doctor touched me on the arm and drew my attention to a pair of little trousers and a shirt which were hanging on the door behind me.
"Those are the clothes I came upon under that great shawl. The child I have been following and whom I have brought into my house under the impression it was Gwendolen Ocumpaugh is not even a girl."
"FIND THE CHILD!"
I could well understand the wrath to which this man had given way, by the feeling which now took hold of my own breast.
"A boy!" I exclaimed.
Still incredulous, I leaned over the child and lifted into the full light of the lamp one of the little hands I saw lying outside of the coverlet. There was no mistaking it for a girl's hand, let alone a little lady's.
"So we are both fools!" I vociferated in my unbounded indignation, careful however to lay the small hand gently back on the panting breast. And turning away both from the doctor and his small patient, I strolled back into the office.
The bubble whose gay colors I had followed with such avidity had burst in my face with a vengeance.
But once from under the influence of the doctor's sarcastic eye, my better nature reasserted itself. Wheeling about, I threw this question back:
"If that is a boy and a stranger, where is Gwendolen Ocumpaugh?"
A moan from the bed and a hurried movement on the part of the doctor, who took this opportunity to give the child another dose of medicine, were my sole response. Waiting till the doctor had finished his task and drawn back from the bedside, I repeated the question and with increased emphasis:
"Where, then, is Gwendolen Ocumpaugh?"
Still the doctor did not answer, though he turned my way and even stepped forward; his long visage, cadaverous from fatigue and the shock of his disappointment, growing more and more somber as he advanced.
When he came to a stand by the table, I asked again:
"Where is the child idolized by Mr. Ocumpaugh and mourned to such a degree by his almost maddened wife that they say she will die if the little girl is not found?"
The threat in my tones brought a response at last,—a response which astonished me.
"Have I not said that I do not know? Do you not believe me? Do you think me as blind to-day to truth and honor as I was six years ago? Have you no idea of repentance and regeneration from sin? You are a detective. Find me that child. You shall have money—hundreds—thousands—if you can bring me proofs of her being yet alive. If the Hudson has swallowed her—" here his figure rose, dilated and took on a majesty which impressed itself upon me through all my doubts—"I will have vengeance on whoever has thus dared the laws of God and man as I would on the foulest murderer in the foulest slums of that city which breeds wickedness in high places as in low. I lock hands no longer with Belial. Find me the child, or make me at least to know the truth!"
There was no doubting the passion which drove these words hot from his lips. I recognized at last the fanatic whom Miss Graham had so graphically described in relating her extraordinary adventure on the bridge; and met him with this one question, which was certainly a vital one:
"Who dropped a shoe from the little one's closet, into the water under the dock? Did you?"
"No." His reply came quick and sharp.
"But," I insisted, "you have had something to do with this child's disappearance."
He did not answer. A sullen look was displacing the fire of resolve in the eyes I saw sinking slowly before mine.
"I will not acknowledge it," he muttered; adding, however, in what was little short of a growl: "Not yet, not till it becomes my duty to avenge innocent blood."
"You foretold the date."
"You were in league with the abductor," I persisted. "I declare to your face, in spite of all the vaunted scruples with which you seek to blind me to your guilt, that you were in league with the abductor, knowing what money Mrs. Ocumpaugh would pay. Only he was too smart for you, and perhaps too unscrupulous. You would stop short of murder, now that you have got religion. But his conscience is not so nice and so you fear—"
"You do not know what I fear and I am not going to tell you. It is enough that I am conscious of my own uprightness and that I say, Find the child! You have incentive enough."
It was true and it was growing stronger every minute.
"Confine yourself to such clues as are apparent to every eye," he now admonished me with an eagerness that seemed real. "If they are pointed by some special knowledge you believe yourself to have gained, that is all the better—perhaps. I do not propose to say."
I saw that he had uttered his ultimatum.
"Very good," said I. "I have, nevertheless, one more question to ask which relates to those very clues. You can not refuse to answer it if you are really desirous of aiding me in my efforts. Where did you first come upon the wagon which you followed so many hours in the belief that it held Gwendolen Ocumpaugh?"
He mused a moment with downcast head, his nervous frame trembling with the force with which he threw his whole weight on the hand he held outspread on the table before him. Then he calmly replied:
"I will tell you that. At the gate of Mrs. Carew's grounds. You know them? They adjoin the Ocumpaughs' on the left."
My surprise made me lower my head but not so quickly that I did not catch the oblique glint of his eye as he mentioned the name which I was so little prepared to hear in this connection.
"I was in my buggy on the highroad," he continued. "There was a constant passing by of all kinds of vehicles on their way to and from the Ocumpaugh entertainment, but none that attracted my attention till I caught sight of the covered wagon I have endeavored to describe, being driven out of the adjoining grounds. Then I pricked up my ears, for a child was crying inside in the smothered way that tells of a hand laid heavily over the mouth. I thought I knew what child this was, but you have been a witness to my disappointment after forty-eight hours of travel behind that wretched wagon."
"It came out of Mrs. Carew's grounds?" I repeated, ignoring everything but the one important fact. "And during the time, you say, when Mrs. Ocumpaugh's guests were assembling? Did you see any other vehicle leave by the same gate at or before that time?"
"Yes, a carriage. It appeared to have no one in it. Indeed, I know that it was empty, for I peered into it as it rolled by me down the street. Of course I do not know what might have been under the seats."
"Nothing," was my sharp retort. "That was the carriage in which Mrs. Carew had come up from the train. Did it pass out before the wagon?"
"Yes, by some minutes."
"There is nothing, then, to be gained by that."
"There does not seem to be."
Was his accent in uttering this simple phrase peculiar? I looked up to make sure. But his face, which had been eloquent with one feeling or another during every minute of this long interview till the present instant, looked strangely impassive, and I did not know how to press the question hovering on my lips.
"You have given me a heavy task," I finally remarked, "and you offer very little assistance in the way of conjecture. Yet you must have formed some."
He toyed with his beard, combing it with his nervous, muscular fingers, and as I watched how he lingered over the tips, caressing them before he dropped them, I felt that he was toying with my perplexities in much the same fashion and with an equal satisfaction. Angry and out of all patience with him, I blurted out:
"I will do without your aid. I will solve this mystery and earn your money if not that of Mr. Ocumpaugh, with no assistance save that afforded by my own wits."
"I expect you will," he retorted; and for the first time since I burst in upon him like one dropping from the clouds through the unapproachable doorway on the upper floor, he lost that look of extreme tension which had nerved his aged figure into something of the aspect of youth. With it vanished his impressiveness. It was simply a tired old man I now followed upstairs to the side door. As I paused to give him a final nod and an assurance of intended good faith toward him, he made a kindly enough gesture in the direction of my old room below and said:
"Don't worry about the little fellow down there. He'll come out all right. I shan't visit on him the extravagance of my own folly. I am a Christian now." And with this encouraging remark he closed the door and I found myself alone in the dark alley.
My first sense of relief came from the coolness of the night air on my flushed forehead and cheeks. After the stifling atmosphere of this underground room, reeking with the fumes of the lamp and the heat of a struggle which his dogged confidence in himself had made so unequal, it was pleasurable just to sense the quiet and the cool of the night and feel myself released from the bondage of a presence from which I had frequently recoiled but had never thoroughly felt the force of till to-night; my next, from the touch and voice of my partner who at that moment rose from before the basement windows where he had evidently been lying for a long time outstretched.
"What have you two been doing down there?" was his very natural complaint. "I tried to listen, I tried to see; but beyond a few scattered words when your voices rose to an excited pitch, I have learned nothing but that you were in no danger save from the overthrow of your scheme. That has failed, has it not? You would have interrupted me long ago if you had found the child."
"Yes," I acknowledged, drawing him down the alley, "I have failed for to-night, but I start afresh to-morrow. Though how I can rest idle for nine hours, not knowing under what roof, if under any, that doomed innocent may be lying, I do not know."
"You must rest; you are staggering with fatigue now."
"Not a bit of it, only with uncertainty. I don't see my way. Let us go down street and see if any news has come over the wires since I left Homewood."
"But first, what a spooky old house that is! And what did the old gentleman have to say of your tumbling in on him from space without a 'By your leave' or even an 'Excuse me'? Tell me about it."
I told him enough to allay his curiosity. That was all I thought necessary,—and he seemed satisfied. Jupp is a good fellow, quite willing to confine himself to his particular end of the business which does not include the thinking end. Why should it?
There was no news—this we soon learned—only some hints of a contemplated move on the part of the police in a district where some low characters had been seen dragging along a resisting child of an unexpectedly refined appearance. As no one could describe this child and as I had refused from the first to look upon this case as one of ordinary abduction, I laid little stress on the report, destined though it was to appear under startling head-lines on the morrow, and startled my more credulous partner quite out of his usual equanimity, by ordering him on our arrival at the station to buy me a ticket for ——, as I was going back to Homewood.
"To Homewood, so late!"
"Exactly. It will not be late there—or if it is, anxious hearts make light sleepers."
His shoulders rose a trifle, but he bought the ticket.
"PHILO! PHILO! PHILO!"
Never have I felt a weirder sensation than when I stepped from the cars on to the solitary platform from which a few hours before I had seen the little nursery-governess depart for New York. The train, soon to disappear in the darkness of the long perspective, was all that gave life and light to the scene, and when it was gone, nothing remained to relieve the gloom or to break the universal stillness save the quiet lap of the water and the moaning of the wind through the trees which climbed the heights to Homewood.
I had determined to enter if possible by way of the private path, though I expected to find it guarded against just such intrusion. In approaching it I was given a full view of the river and thus was in a position to note that the dock and adjoining banks were no longer bright with lanterns in the hands of eager men bending with fixed eyes over the flowing waters. The search which had kept so many busy at this spot for well on to two days had been abandoned; and the darkness seemed doubly dark and the silence doubly oppressive in contrast.
Yet hope spoke in the abandonment; and with renewed spirit and a more than lively courage, I turned toward the little gate through which I had passed twice before that day. As I expected, a silent figure rose up from the shadows to prevent me; but it fell back at the mention of my name and business, thus proving the man to be in the confidence of Mrs. Ocumpaugh or, at the least, in that of Miss Porter.
"I am come for a social chat with the coachman," I explained. "Lights burn late in such extensive stables. Don't worry about me. The people at the house are in sympathy with my investigation."
Thus we stretch the truth at great crises.
"I know you," was the answer. "But keep away from the house. Our orders are imperative to allow no one to approach it again to-night, except with the child in hand or with such news as would gain instant admission."
"Trust me," said I, as I went up the steps.
It was so dark between the hedge-rows that my ascent became mere groping. I had a lantern in my pocket which I had taken from Jupp, but I did not choose to make use of it. I preferred to go on and up, trusting to my instinct to tell me when I had reached a fresh flight of steps.
A gleam of light from Mrs. Carew's upper windows was the first intimation I received that I was at the top of the bank, and in another moment I was opposite the gap in the hedge opening upon her grounds.
For no particular reason that I know of, I here paused and took a long survey of what was, after all, nothing but a cluster of shadows broken here and there by squares of subdued light I felt a vague desire to enter—to see and talk again with the charming woman whose personality had made such an impression upon me, if only to understand the peculiar feelings which those indistinguishable walls awakened, and why such a sense of anticipation should disturb my admiration of this woman and the delight which I had experienced in every accent of her trained and exquisite voice.
I was standing very still and in almost total darkness. The shock, therefore, was great when, in finally making up my mind to move, I became conscious of a presence near me, totally indiscernible and as silent as myself.
No watchman, or he would have spoken at the rustle I made stumbling back against the hedge-row. Some marauder, then, or a detective, like myself? I would not waste time in speculating; better to decide the question at once, for the situation was eery, the person, whoever he was, stood so near and so still, and so directly in the way of my advance.
Drawing the lantern from my pocket, I pushed open the slide and flashed the light on the immovable figure before me. The face I beheld staring into mine was one quite unknown to me, but as I took in its expression, my arm gradually fell, and with it the light from the man's features, till face and form were lost again in the darkness, leaving in my disturbed mind naught but an impression; but such an impression!
The countenance thus flashed upon my vision must have been a haunting one at any time, but seen as I saw it, at a moment of extreme self-abandonment, the effect was startling. Yet I had sufficient control over myself to utter a word or two of apology, which was not answered, if it was even heard.
A more exact description may be advisable. The person whom I thus encountered hesitating before Mrs. Carew's house was a man of meager build, sloping shoulders and handsome but painfully pinched features. That he was a gentleman of culture and the nicest refinement was evident at first glance; that this culture and refinement were at this moment under the dominion of some fierce thought or resolve was equally apparent, giving to his look an absorption which the shock attending the glare I had thus suddenly thrown on his face could not immediately dispel.
Dazed by an encounter for which he seemed even less prepared than myself, he stood with his heart in his face, if I may so speak, and only gradually came to himself as the sense of my proximity forced itself in upon his suffering and engrossed mind. When I saw that he had quite emerged from his dream, I dropped the light. But I did not forget his look; I did not forget the man, though I hastened to leave him, in my desire to fulfill the purpose for which I had entered these grounds at so late an hour.
My plan was, as I have said, to visit the Ocumpaugh stables and have a chat with the coachman. I had no doubt of my welcome and not much doubt of myself. Yet as I left the vicinity of Mrs. Carew's cottage and came upon the great house of the Ocumpaughs looming in the moonlight above its marble terraces, I felt impressed as never before both by the beauty and magnificence of the noble pile, and shrank with something like shame from the presumption which had led me to pit my wits against a mystery having its birth in so much grandeur and material power. The prestige of great wealth as embodied in this superb structure well-nigh awed me from my task and I was passing the twin pergolas and flower-bordered walks with hesitating foot, when I heard through one of the open windows a cry which made me forget everything but our common heritage of sorrow and the equal hold it has on high and low.
"Philo!" the voice rang out in a misery to wring the heart of the most callous. "Philo! Philo!"
Mr. Ocumpaugh's name called aloud by his suffering wife. Was she in delirium? It would seem so; but why Philo! always Philo! and not once Gwendolen?
With hushed steps, ears ringing and heart palpitating with new and indefinable sensations, I turned into the road to the stables.
There were men about and I caught one glimpse of a maid's pretty head looking from one of the rear windows, but no one stopped me, and I reached the stable just as a man came sauntering out to take his final look at the weather.
It was the fellow I sought, Thomas the coachman.
I had not miscalculated the nature of my man. In ten minutes we were seated together on an open balcony, smoking and beguiling the time with a little harmless gossip. After a free and easy discussion of the great event, mingled with the naturally-to-be-expected criticism of the police, we proceeded under my guidance to those particulars for which I had risked losing this very valuable hour.
He mentioned Mrs. Ocumpaugh; I mentioned Mrs. Carew.
"A beautiful woman," I remarked.
I thought he looked astonished. "She beautiful?" was his doubtful rejoinder. "What do you think of Mrs. Ocumpaugh?"
"She is handsome, too, but in a different way."
"I should think so. I've driven rich and I've driven poor. I've even sat on the box in front of an English duchess, but never have I seen such features as Mrs. Ocumpaugh's. That's why I consent to drive an American millionaire's wife when I might be driving the English nobility."
"A statue!" said I; "cold!"
"True enough, but one you never tire of looking at. Besides, she can light up wonderfully. I've seen her when she was all a-quiver, and lovely as the loveliest. And when do you think that was?"
"When she had her child in her arms."
I spoke in lowered tones as befitted the suggestion and the circumstances.
"No," he drawled, between thoughtful puffs of smoke; "when Mr. Ocumpaugh sat on the seat beside her. This, when I was driving the victoria. I often used to make excuse for turning my head about so as to catch a glimpse of her smile at some fine view and the way she looked up at him to see if he was enjoying it as much as she. I like women who love their husbands."
"Oh, she has nothing to complain of in him. He worships the ground she walks on; and he more than worshiped the child."
Here his voice fell.
I brought the conversation back as quickly as I could to Mrs. Carew.
"You like pale women," said I. "Now I like a woman who looks plain one minute, and perfectly charming the next."
"That's what people say of Mrs. Carew. I know of lots who admire that kind. The little girl for one."
"Gwendolen? Was she attracted to Mrs. Carew?"
"Attracted? I've seen her go to her from her mother's lap like a bird to its nest. Many a time have I driven the carriage with Mrs. Ocumpaugh sitting up straight inside, and her child curled up in this other woman's arms with not a look or word for her mother."
"How did Mrs. Ocumpaugh seem to like that?" I asked between puffs of my cigar.
"Oh, she's one of the cold ones, you know! At least you say so; but I feel sure that for the last three years—that is, ever since this woman came into the neighborhood—her heart has been slowly breaking. This last blow will kill her."
I thought of the moaning cry of "Philo! Philo!" which at intervals I still seemed to hear issue from that upper window in the great house, and felt that there might be truth in his fears.
But it was of Mrs. Carew I had come to talk and not of Mrs. Ocumpaugh.
"Children's fancies are unaccountable," I sententiously remarked; "but perhaps there is some excuse for this one. Mrs. Carew has what you call magnetism—a personality which I should imagine would be very appealing to a child. I never saw such expression in a human face. Whatever her mood, she impresses each passing feeling upon you as the one reality of her life. I can not understand such changes, but they are very fascinating."
"Oh, they are easy enough to understand in her case. She was an actress once. I myself have seen her on the stage—in London. I used to admire her there."
"An actress!" I repeated, somewhat taken aback.
"Yes, I forget what name she played under. But she's a very great lady now; in with all the swells and rich enough to own a yacht if she wanted to."
"But a widow."
"Oh, yes, a widow."
I let a moment of silence pass, then nonchalantly remarked:
"Why is she going to Europe?"
But this was too much for my simple-hearted friend. He neither knew nor had any conjecture ready. But I saw that he did not deplore her resolve. His reason for this presently appeared.
"If the little one is found, the mother will want all her caresses. Let Mrs. Carew hug the boy that God in his mercy has thrown into her arms and leave other children to their mothers."
I rose to leave, when I bethought me and stopped to ask another question.
"Who is the gentleman I have seen about here—a man with a handsome face, but very pale and thin in his appearance, so much so that it is quite noticeable?"
"Do you mean Mr. Rathbone?"
"I do not know his name. A light complexioned man, who looks as if greatly afflicted by some disease or secret depression."
"Oh, that is Mr. Rathbone, sure. He is sickly-looking enough and not without his trouble, too. They say—but it's all gossip, of course—that he has set his heart on the widow."
"Of course, who else?"
"Why, she would be a fool to care for him, unless—"
Thomas laughed—a little uneasily, I could not help thinking.
"I'm afraid we're talking scandal," said he. "You know the relationship?"
"Why, his relationship to the family. He is Gwendolen's cousin and I have heard it said that he's named after her in Madam Ocumpaugh's will."
"O, I see! The next heir, eh?"
"Yes, to the Rathbone property."
"So that if she is not found—"
"Your sickly man, in that case, would be well worth the marrying."
"Is Mrs. Carew so fond of money as all that? I thought she was a woman of property."
"She is; but it takes money to make some men interesting. He isn't handsome enough, or independent enough to go entirely on his own merits. Besides, he has a troop of relatives hanging on to him—blood-suckers who more than eat up his salary."
"A business man, then?"
"Yes, in some New York house. He was always very fond of Gwendolen, and I am not surprised to hear that he is very much cut up by our trouble. I always thought well of Mr. Rathbone myself,"—which same ended the conversation so far as my interest in it was concerned.
As soon as I could break away and leave him I did, and betook myself to Mrs. Carew's house. My resolve was taken. Late as it was, I would attempt an interview with her. The lights still burning above and below gave me the necessary courage. Yet I was conscious of some embarrassment in presenting my name to the astonished maid, who was in the act of extinguishing the hall-light when my vigorous ring prevented her. Seeing her doubtful look and the hesitation with which she held the door, I told her that I would wait outside on the porch till she had carried up my name to Mrs. Carew. This seemed to relieve her and in a moment I was standing again under the vines waiting for permission to enter the house. It came very soon, and I had to conquer a fresh embarrassment at the sight of Mrs. Carew's nimble and gracious figure descending the stairs in all eagerness to greet me.
"What is it?" she asked, running hastily forward so that we met in the center of the hall. "Good news? Nothing else could have brought you back again so soon—and at an hour so late."
There was a dangerous naivete in the way she uttered the last three words which made me suspect the actress. Indeed I was quite conscious as I met her thrilling and expressive glance, that I should never feel again the same confidence in her sincerity. My judgment had been confounded and my insight rendered helpless by what I had heard of her art, and the fact that she had once been a capable player of "parts."
But I was man enough and detective enough not to betray my suspicion, now that I was brought face to face with her. It had always been latent in my breast, even in the very midst of my greatest admiration for her. Yet I had never acknowledged to myself of what I suspected her, nor did I now—not quite—not enough to give that point to my attack which would have insured me immediate victory or defeat. I was obliged to feel my way and so answered, with every appearance of friendly confidence:
"I fear then that I shall be obliged to ask your pardon. I have no good news; rather what might be called, if not bad, of a very perplexing character. The child has been traced"—here I purposely let my voice halt for an instant—"here."
"Here?" her eyes opened, her lips parted in a look of surprise so ingenuous that involuntarily I felt forced to add, by way of explanation:
"The child, I mean, who was carried screaming along the highway in a wagon and for whom the police—and others—have for two days been looking."
"Oh!" she ejaculated with a slight turn of her head aside as she motioned me toward a chair. "And is that child Gwendolen? Or don't you know?" She was all eagerness as she again faced me.
"That will be known to-morrow," I rejoined, resisting the beautiful brightness of her face with an effort that must have left its mark on my own features; for she smiled with unconscious triumph as she held my eyes for a minute in hers saying softly, "O how you excite me! Tell me more. Where was the wagon found? Who is with it? And how much of all this have you told Mrs. Ocumpaugh?"
With the last question she had risen, involuntarily, it seemed, and as though she would rush to her friend if I did not at once reassure her of that friend's knowledge of a fact which seemed to throw a gleam of hope upon a situation hitherto entirely unrelieved.
"Mrs. Ocumpaugh has been told nothing," I hastily returned, answering the last and most important question first. "Nor must she be; at least not till certainty replaces doubt. She is in a critical state, I am told. To rouse her hopes to-night only to dash them again to-morrow would be cruel policy."
With her eyes still on my face, Mrs. Carew slowly reseated herself. "Then there are doubts," she faltered; "doubts of its being Gwendolen?"
"There is always doubt," I replied, and openly paused in manifest non-committal.
"Oh!" she somewhat wildly exclaimed, covering her face with her hands—beautiful hands covered with jewels—"what suspense! what bitter and cruel suspense! I feel it almost as much as if it were my Harry!" was the final cry with which she dropped them again. And she did feel it. Her features had blanched and her form was shaking. "But you have not answered my questions as to where this wagon is at present and under whose care? Can't you see how anxious I must be about that—if it should prove to be Gwendolen?"
"Mrs. Carew, if I could tell you that, I could tell you more; we shall both have to wait till to-morrow. Meanwhile, I have a favor to ask. Have you by any chance the means of entrance to the bungalow? I have a great and inappeasable desire to see for myself if all the nooks and corners of that place have given up their secrets. It's an egotistical desire, no doubt—and may strike you as folly of the rankest—but we detectives have learned to trust nobody in our investigations, and I shall never be satisfied till I have looked this whole spot over inch by inch for the clue which may yet remain there. If there is a clue I must find it."
"Clue?" She was looking at me a little breathlessly. "Clue to what? Then she wasn't in the wagon; you are still seeking her—"
"Always seeking her," I put in.
"But surely not in the bungalow!" Mrs. Carew's expression was one of extreme surprise. "What can you find there?"
"I do not know. But I want to look. I can go to the house for a key, but it is late; and it seems unpardonable to disturb Mrs. Ocumpaugh. Yet I shall have to do this if you have not a key; for I shall not sleep till I have satisfied myself that nothing can be discovered on the immediate scene of Gwendolen's disappearance, to help forward the rescue we both are so intent upon."
"You are right," was the hesitating reply I received. "I have a key; I will fetch it and if you do not mind, I will accompany you to the bungalow."
"Nothing would give me greater pleasure," I replied with my best bow; white lies come easy in our trade.
"I will not keep you a minute," she said, rising and going into the hall. But in an instant she was back. "A word to my maid and a covering for my head," she explained, "and I will be with you." Her manner pointed unmistakably to the door.
I had no alternative but to step out on the porch to await her. But she was true to her word and in a moment she had joined me, with the key in her hand.
"Oh, what adventures!" was her breathless cry. "Shall I ever forget this dreadful, this interminable week! But it is dark. Even the moon is clouded over. How shall we see? There are no lights in the bungalow."
"I have a lantern in my pocket. My only hope is that no stray gleam from it may pierce the shrubbery and bring the police upon us."
"Do you fear the police?" she chatted away, almost as a child might.
"No; but I want to do my work alone. There will be little glory or little money in it if they share any of my discoveries."
"Ah!" It was an irrepressible exclamation, or so it seemed: but I should not have noted it if I had not caught, or persuaded myself that I had caught, the oblique glint from her eye which accompanied it. But it was very dark just at this time and I could be sure of nothing but that she kept close to my side and seemed more than once on the point of addressing me in the short distance we traversed before reaching the bungalow. But nothing save inarticulate murmurs left her lips and soon we were too busy, in our endeavors to unlock the door, to think of conversation.
The key she had brought was rusty. Evidently she had not often made use of it. But after a few futile efforts I succeeded in making it work, and we stepped into the small building in a silence that was only less profound than the darkness in which we instantly found ourselves enveloped. Light was under my hand, however, and in another moment there opened before us the small square room whose every feature had taken on a ghostly and unfamiliar air from the strange hour and the unwonted circumstances. I saw how her impressionable nature was affected by the scene, and made haste to assume the offhand air I thought most likely to overcome her apprehension. But the effect of the blank walls before her, relieved, but in no reassuring way, by the long dark folds of the rugs hanging straight down over the mysterious partition, held its own against my well-meant efforts, and I was not surprised to hear her voice falter as she asked what I expected to find there.
I pointed to a chair and said:
"If you will sit down, I will show you, not what I expect to find, but how a detective goes about his work. Whatever our expectations, however small or however great, we pay full attention to details. Now the detail which has worried me in regard to this place is the existence of a certain space in this building unaccounted for by these four walls; in other words, the portion which lies behind these rugs,"—and throwing aside the same, I let the flame from my lantern play over the walled-up space which I had before examined with little satisfaction. "This partition," I continued, "seems as firm as any of the walls, but I want to make sure that it hides nothing. If the child should be in some hole back of this partition, what a horror and what an outrage!"
"But it is impossible!" came almost in a shriek from the woman behind me. "The opening is completely walled up. I have never known of its being otherwise. It looked like that when I came here three years ago. There is no possible passage through that wall."
"Why was it ever closed up? Do you know?"
"Not exactly. The family are very reticent about it. Some fancy of Mr. Ocumpaugh's father, I believe. He was an odd man; they tell all manner of stories about him. If anything offended him, he rid himself of it immediately. He took a distaste to that end of the hut, as they used to call it in the old days before it was remodeled to suit the house, so he had it walled up. That is all we know about it."
"I wish I could see behind that wall," I muttered, dropping back the rug I had all this time held in my hand. "I feel some mystery here which I can not grasp." Then as I flashed my lantern about in every direction with no visible result, added with the effort which accompanies such disappointments: "There is nothing here, Mrs. Carew. Though it is the scene of the child's disappearance it gives me nothing."
The sharp rustle of her dress as she suddenly rose struck upon my ear.
"Then let us go," she cried, with just a slight quiver of eagerness in her wonderful voice. I comprehended its culture now. "The place is ghostly at this hour of the night. I believe that I am really afraid."
With a muttered reassurance, I allowed the full light of the lantern to fall directly on her face. She was afraid. There was no other explanation possible for her wild staring eyes and blue quivering lips. For the instant I hardly knew her; then her glance rose to mine and she smiled and it was with difficulty I refrained from acknowledging in words my appreciation of her wonderful flexibility of expression.
"You are astonished to see me so affected," she said. "It is not so strange as you think—it is superstition—the horror of what once happened here—the reason for that partition—I know the whole story, for all my attempts to deny it just now. The hour, too, is unfortunate—the darkness—your shifting, mysterious light. It was late like this—and dark—with just the moon to illumine the scene, when she—Mr. Trevitt, do you want to know the story of this place?—the old, much guessed-at, never-really-understood story which led first to its complete abandonment, then to the building of that dividing wall and finally to the restoration of this portion and of this alone? Do you?"
Her eagerness, in such startling contrast to the reticence she had shown on this very subject a few minutes before, affected me peculiarly. I wanted to hear the story—any one would who had listened to the gossip of this neighborhood for years, but—
She evidently did not mean to give me time to understand my own hesitation.
"I have the whole history—the touching, hardly-to-be-believed history—up at my house at this very moment. It was written by—no, I will let you guess."
The naivete of her smile made me forget the force of its late expression.
"Mr. Ocumpaugh?" I ventured.
"Which Mr. Ocumpaugh? There have been so many." She began slowly, naturally, to move toward the door.
"I can not guess."
"Then I shall have to tell you. It was written by the one who—Come! I will tell you outside. I haven't any courage here."
"But I have."
"You haven't read the story."
"Never mind; tell me who the writer was."
"Mr. Ocumpaugh's father; he, by whose orders this partition was put up."
"Oh, you have his story—written—and by himself! You are fortunate, Mrs. Carew."
I had turned the lantern from her face, but not so far that I did not detect the deep flush which dyed her whole countenance at these words.
"I am," she emphatically returned, meeting my eyes with a steady look I was not sufficiently expert with women's ways, or at all events with this woman's ways, to understand. "Seldom has such a tale been written—seldom, let us thank God, has there been an equal occasion for it."
"You interest me," I said.
And she did. Little as this history might have to do with the finding of Gwendolen, I felt an almost imperative necessity of satisfying my curiosity in regard to it, though I knew she had deliberately roused this curiosity for a purpose which, if not comprehensible to me, was of marked importance to her and not altogether for the reason she had been pleased to give me. Possibly it was on account of this last mentioned conviction that I allowed myself to be so interested.
"It is late," she murmured with a final glance towards those dismal hangings which in my present mood I should not have been so greatly surprised to see stir under her look. "However, if you will pardon the hour and accept a seat in my small library, I will show you what only one other person has seen besides myself."
It was a temptation; for several reasons it was a temptation; yet—
"I want you to see why I am frightened of this place," she said, flashing her eyes upon me with an almost girlish appeal.
"I will go," said I; and following her quickly out, I locked the bungalow door, and ignoring the hand she extended toward me, dropped the key into my pocket.
I thought I heard a little gasp—the least, the smallest of sounds possible. But if so, the feeling which prompted it was not apparent in her manner or her voice as she led the way back to her house, and ushered me into a hall full of packing-boxes and the general litter accompanying an approaching departure.
"You will excuse the disorder," she cried as she piloted me through these various encumbrances to a small but exquisitely furnished room still glorying in its full complement of ornaments and pictures. "This trouble which has come to one I love has made it very hard for me to do anything. I feel helpless, at times, completely helpless."
The dejection she expressed was but momentary, however. In another instant she was pointing out a chair and begging me to make myself comfortable while she went for the letter (I think she called it a letter) which I had come there to read.
What was I to think of her? What was I to think of myself? And what would the story tell me to warrant the loss of what might have proved a most valuable hour? I had not answered these questions when she reentered with a bundle in her hand of discolored—I should almost call them mouldered—sheets of much crumpled paper.
"These—" she began; then, seeing me look at them with something like suspicion, she paused until she caught my eye, when she added gravely, "these came to me from Mrs. Ocumpaugh. How she got them you will have to ask her. I should say, judging from appearances—" Here she took a seat opposite me at a small table near which I had been placed—"that they must have been found in some old chest or possibly in some hidden drawer of one of those curious antique desks of which more than one was discovered in the garrets of the old house when it was pulled down to give place to the new one."
"Is this letter, as you call it, so old?" I asked.
"It is dated thirty-five years ago."
"The garret must have been a damp one," I remarked.
She flashed me a look—I thought of it more than once afterward—and asked if she should do the reading or I.
"You," I rejoined, all afire with the prospect of listening to her remarkable voice in what I had every reason to believe would call forth its full expression. "Only let me look at those sheets first, and understand as perfectly as I may, just what it is you are going to read to me."
"It's an explanation written for his heirs by Mr. Ocumpaugh. The story itself," she went on, handing me over the papers she held, "begins abruptly. From the way the sheet is torn across at the top, I judge that the narrative itself was preceded by some introductory words now lacking. When I have read it to you, I will tell you what I think those introductory words were."
I handed back the sheets. There seemed to be a spell in the air—possibly it arose from her manner, which was one to rouse expectation even in one whose imagination had not already been stirred by a visit at night and in more than commonly bewildering company to the place whose dark and hitherto unknown secret I was about to hear.
"I am ready," I said, feeling my strange position, but not anxious to change it just then for any other conceivable one.
She drew a deep breath; again fixed me with her strange, compelling eyes, and with the final remark:
"The present no longer exists, we are back in the seventies—" began this enthralling tale.
I did not move till the last line dropped from her lips.
THE SECRET OF THE OLD PAVILION
I was as sane that night as I had ever been in my life. I am quite sure of this, though I had had a merry time enough earlier in the evening with my friends in the old pavilion (that time-honored retreat of my ancestors), whose desolation I had thought to dissipate with a little harmless revelry. Wine does not disturb my reason—the little wine I drank under that unwholesome roof—nor am I a man given to sudden excitements or untoward impulses.
Yet this thing happened to me.
It was after leaving the pavilion. My companions had all ridden away and I was standing on the lawn beyond my library windows, recalling my pleasure with them and gazing somewhat idly, I own, at that bare portion of the old wall where the tree fell a year ago (the place where the moon strikes with such a glitter when it rides high, as it did that night), when—believe it or not, it is all one to me—I became conscious of a sudden mental dread, inexplicable and alarming, which, seizing me after an hour of unmixed pleasure and gaiety, took such a firm grip upon my imagination that I fain would have turned my back upon the night and its influences, only my eyes would not leave that open space of wall where I now saw pass—not the shadow, but the veritable body of a large, black, hungry-looking dog, which, while I looked, turned into the open gateway connecting with the pavilion and disappeared.
With it went the oppression which held me spell-bound. The ice melted from my blood; I could move my limbs, and again control my thoughts and exercise my will.
Forcing a laugh, I whistled to that dog. The lights with which the banquet had been illuminated were out, and every servant had left the place; but the tables had not been entirely cleared; and I could well understand what had drawn this strange animal thither. I whistled then, and whistled peremptorily; but no dog answered my call. Angry, for the rules are strict at my stables in regard to wandering brutes, I strode toward the pavilion. Entering the great gap in the wall where a gate had once hung, I surveyed the dismal interior before me, with feelings I could not but consider odd in a strong man like myself. Though the wine was scarcely dry in the glass which an hour before I had raised in this very spot amid cheers and laughter, I found it a difficult matter to reenter there now, in the dead of night, alone and without light.
For this building, harmless as it had always seemed, had been, in a way, cursed. For no reason that he ever gave, my father had doomed this ancient adjunct to our home to perpetual solitude and decay. By his will he had forbidden it to be destroyed—a wish respected by my guardians and afterward by myself—and though there was nothing to hinder its being cared for and in a manner used, the dismal influence which had pervaded the place ever since his death had, under the sensations I have mentioned, deepened into horror and an unspeakable repugnance.
Yet never having had any reason to believe myself a coward, I took boldly enough the few steps necessary to carry me inside its dismal precincts; and meeting with nothing but darkness and silence, began to whistle again for the dog I had certainly seen enter here.
But no dog appeared.
Hastening out, I took my way toward the stables. As I did so I glanced back, and again, my eyes fell on that place in the wall gleaming white in the moonlight. Again I felt the chill, the horror! Again my eyes remained glued to this one spot; and again I beheld the passing of that dog, running with jaws extended and, head held low—fearsome, uncanny, supernaturally horrible; a thing to flee from, if one could only flee instead of standing stock-still on the sward, gazing with eyes that seemed starting from their sockets till it had plunged through that gap in the wall and again disappeared.
The occult and the imaginary have never appealed to me, and the moment I felt myself a man again, I hurried on to the stables to call up my man Jared.
But half-way there I paused, struck by an odd remembrance. This father of mine, Philo Ocumpaugh, had died, or so his old servants had said, under peculiar circumstances. I had forgotten them till now—such stories make poor headway with me—but if I was not mistaken, the facts were these:
He had been ailing long, and his nurses had got used to the sight of his gaunt, white figure sitting propped up, but speechless, in the great bed opposite the stretch of blank wall in the corner bedroom, where a picture of his first wife, the wife of his youth, had once hung, but which, for some years now, had been removed to where there were fewer shadows and more sunlight. He had never been a talkative man, and in all the five years of my own memory of him, I had never heard him raise his voice except in command, or when the duties of hospitality required it. Now, with the shadow of death upon him, he was absolutely speechless, and his nurses were obliged to guess at his wishes by the movement of his hands or the direction of his eyes. Yet he was not morose, and sometimes was seen to struggle with the guards holding his tongue, as though he would fain have loosed himself from their inexorable control. Yet he never succeeded in doing so, and the nurses sat by and saw no difference in him, till suddenly the candle, posed on a table near by, flickered and went out, leaving only moonlight in the room. It was moonlight so brilliant that the place seemed brighter than before, though the beams were all concentrated on one spot, a blank space in the middle of the wall upon which those two dim orbs in the bed were fixed in an expectancy none there understood, for none knew that the summons had come, and that for him the angel of death was at that moment standing in the room.
Yet as moonlight is not the natural light for a sick man's bedside, one amongst them had risen for another candle, when something—I had never stopped to hear them say what—made him pause and look back, when he saw distinctly outlined upon the white wall-space I have mentioned, the figure—the unimaginable figure of a dog, large, fierce and hungry-looking, which dashed by and—was gone. Simultaneously a cry came from the bed, the first words for months—"Aline!"—the name of his girl-wife, dead and gone for years. All sprang; some to chase the dog, one to aid and comfort the sick man. But no dog was there, nor did he need comfort more. He had died with that cry on his lips, and as they gazed at his face, sunk low now in his pillow as if he had started up and fallen back, a dead weight, they felt the terror of the moment grow upon them till they, too, were speechless. For the aged features were drawn into lines of unspeakable anguish and horror.
But as the night passed and morning came, all these lines smoothed out, and when they buried him, those who had known him well talked of the beautiful serenity which illumined the face which, since their first remembrance of him, had carried the secret of a profound and unbroken melancholy. Of the dog, nothing was said, even in whispers, till time had hallowed that grave, and the little children about, grown to be men and women. Then the garrulity of age had its way.
This story, and the images it called up, came like a shock as I halted there, and instead of going on to the stables, I turned my steps toward the house, where I summoned from his bed a certain old servant who had lived longer in the family than myself.
Bidding him bring a lantern, I waited for him on the porch, and when he came, I told him what I had seen. Instantly I knew that it was no new story to him. He turned very pale and set down the lantern, which was shaking very visibly in his hand.
"Did you look up?" he asked; "when you were in the pavilion, I mean?"
"No; why should I? The dog was on the ground. Besides—"
"Let us go down to the pavilion," he whispered. "I want to see for myself if—if—"
"If what, Jared?"
He turned his eyes on me, but did not answer. Stooping, I lifted the lantern and put it in his hand. He was quaking like a leaf, but there was a determination in his face far beyond the ordinary. What made him quake—he who knew of this dog only by hearsay—and what, in spite of this fear, gave him such resolution? I followed in his wake to see what it was.
The moon still shone clear upon the lawn, and it was with a certain renewal of my former apprehensions that I approached the spot on the wall where I had seen what I was satisfied not to see again. But though I glanced that way—what man could have avoided it?—I perceived nothing but the bare paint, and we went on and passed in without a word, Jared leading the way.
But once on the threshold of the pavilion itself, it was for him to show the coward. Turning, he made me a gesture; one I did not understand; and seeing that I did not understand it, he said, after a fearful look around:
"Do not mind the dog; that was but an appearance. Lift your eyes to the ceiling—over there—at the extreme end toward the south—do you see—what do you see?"
"Nothing," I replied, amazed at what struck me as utter folly.
"Nothing?" he repeated in a relieved voice, as he lifted up his lantern. "Ah!" came in a sort of muttered shriek from his lips, as he pointed up, here and there, along the farther ceiling, over which the light now played freely and fully. "What is that spot, and that spot, and that? They were not there to-day. I was in here before the banquet, and I would have seen. What is it? Master, what is it? They call it—"
"Well, well, what do they call it?" I asked impatiently.
"Blood! Do you not see that it is blood? What else is red and shiny and shows in such great drops—"
"Nonsense!" I vociferated, taking the lantern in my own hand. "Blood on the ceiling of my old pavilion? Where could it come from? There was no quarrel, no fight; only hilarity—"
"Where did the dog come from?" he whispered.
I dropped my arm, staring at him in mingled anger and a certain half-understood sympathy.
"You think these stains—" I began.
"Are as unreal as the dog? Yes, master."
Feeling as if I were in a dream, I tossed up the lantern again. The drops were still there, but no longer single or scattered. From side to side, the ceiling at this one end of the building oozed with the thick red moisture to which he had given so dreadful a name.
Stepping back for fear the stains would resolve themselves into rain and drop upon my forehead, I stared at Jared, who had now retreated toward the door.
"What makes you think it blood?" I demanded.
"Because some have smelt and tasted it. We have never talked about it, but this is not an uncommon occurrence. To-morrow all these stains will be gone. They come when the dog circles the wall. Whence, no one knows. It is our mystery. All the old servants have heard of it more than once. The new ones have never been told. Nor would I have told you if you had not seen the dog. It was a matter of honor with us."
I looked at him, saw that he believed every word he said, threw another glance at the ceiling, and led the way out. When we had reached the house again, I said:
"You are acquainted with the tradition underlying these appearances, as you call them. What is it?"
He could not tell me. He knew no more than he had already stated—gossip and old wives' tales. But later, a certain manuscript came into my possession through my lawyer, which I will append to this.
It was written by my unhappy father, some little time before his last illness, and given into the charge of the legal representative of our family, with the express injunction that its seal was to remain intact if for twenty years the apparition which had haunted him did not present itself to the eyes of any of his children. But if within that time his experience should repeat itself in theirs, this document was to be handed over to the occupant of Homewood. Nineteen out of the twenty years had elapsed, without the dog being seen or the ceiling of the pavilion dropping blood. But not the twentieth; hence, the document was mine.
You can easily conceive with what feelings I opened it. It was headed with this simple line:
MY STORY WHICH I CAN WRITE BUT COULD NEVER TELL.
I am cursed with an inability to speak when I am most deeply moved, either by anger or tenderness. This misfortune has wrecked my life. On the verge of old age, the sorrows and the mistakes of my early life fill my thoughts so completely that I see but one face, hear but one voice; yet when she was living—when she could see and hear, my tongue was silent and she never knew. Aline! my Aline!
I married her when I was thirty-five and she eighteen. All the world knows this; but what it does not know is that I loved her—toy, plaything that she was—a body without a mind—(or, so I considered her)—while she had but followed the wishes of her relatives in giving her sweet youth to a cold and reticent man who might love, indeed, but who had no power to tell that love, or even to show it in the ways which women like, and which she liked, as I found out when it was too late.
I could not help but love her. It was ingrained within me; a part of the curse of my life to love this gentle, thoughtless, alluring thing to which I had given my name. She had a smile—it did not come often—which tore at my heart-strings as it welled up, just stirring the dimples in her cheeks, and died away again in a strange and moving sweetness. Though I reckoned her at her worth; knew that her charm was all physical; that she neither did nor could understand a passion like mine, much less return it, it was none the less irresistible, and I have known myself to stand before a certain book-shelf in the turn of the stairway for many minutes together, because I knew that she would soon be coming down, and that, when she did, some ribbon from her gown would flutter by me, and I should feel the soft contact and go away happy to my books. Yet, if she stopped to look back at me, I could only return her look with one she doubtless called harsh, for she had not eyes to see below the surface.
I tell you all this, lest you may not understand. She was not your mother and you may begrudge me the affection I felt for her; if so, thrust these leaves into the fire and seek not the explanation of what has surprised you; for there is no word written here which does not find its meaning in the intense love I bore for her, my young girl-wife, and the tragedy which this love has brought into my life. She was slight in body, slight in mind and of slight feeling. I first discovered this last on the day I put my mother's ring on her finger. She laughed as I fitted it close and kissed the little hand. Not from embarrassment or childish impulse; I could have understood that; but indifferently, like one who did not know and never could. Yet I married her, and for six months lived in a fool's paradise. Then came that ball. It was held near here, very near; at one of our neighbor's, in fact. I remember that we walked, and that, coming to the driveway, I lifted her and carried her across. Not with a smile—do not think it. More likely with a frown, though my heart was warm and happy; for when I set her down, she shook herself, and I thought she did it to hide a shudder, and then I could not have spoken a word had my life depended on it.
I little knew what lay back of that shudder. Even after I had seen her dance with him, not only once, but twice, I never dreamed that her thoughts, light though they were, were not all with me. It took that morsel of paper and the plain words it contained to satisfy me of this, and then—But passion is making me incoherent. What do you know of that scrap of paper, hidden from the whole world from the moment I first read it till this hour of full confession? It fluttered from some one's hand during the dance. I did not see whose. I only saw it after it had fallen at my feet, and as it lay there open I naturally read the words. They were written by a man to a woman, urging flight and setting the hour and place for meeting. I was conscious of shame in reading it, and let these last details escape me. As I put it in my pocket I remember thinking, "Some poor devil made miserable!" for there had been hint in it of the husband. But I had no thought—I swear it before God—of who that husband was till I beheld her flit back through the open doorway, with terror in her mien and searching eyes fixed on the floor. Then hell opened before me, and I saw my happiness go down into gulfs I had never before sounded, even in imagination.
But even at that evil hour my countenance scarcely changed—I was opposite a mirror, and I caught a glimpse of myself as I moved. But there must have been some change in my voice—for when I addressed her, she started and turned her face upon me with a wild and pathetic look which knocked so at my heart that I wished I had never read those words, and so could return her the paper with no misgiving as to its contents. But having read it, I could not do this; so, beyond a petty greeting, I said nothing and let the moment pass, and she with it; for couples were dancing and she was soon again in the whirl. I am not a dancing man myself, and I had leisure to think and madden myself with contemplation of my wrecked life and questions as to what I should do to her and to him, and to the world where such things could happen. I had forgotten the details of time and place, or rather had put them out of my mind, and I would not look at the words again—could not. But as the minutes went by, the remembrance returned, startling and convincing, that the hour was two and the place—our old pavilion.
I walked about after that like a man in whose breast the sources of life are frozen. I chatted—I who never chatted—with women, and with men. I even smiled—once. That was when my little white-faced wife asked me if it were not time to go home. Even a man under torture might find strength to smile if the inquisitor should ask if he were not ready to be released.
And we went home.
I did not carry her this time across the driveway; but when we parted in the library, where I always spent an hour before retiring, I picked out a lily from a vase of flowers standing on my desk and held it out to her. She stared at it for a moment, quite as white as the lily, then she slowly put out her hand and took it. I felt no mercy after that, and bade her good-night with the remark that I should have to write far into the morning, and that she need not worry over my light, which I should not probably put out till she was half through with her night's rest.
For answer, she dropped the lily. I found it next morning lying withered and brown in the hall-way.
That light did burn far into the morning; but I was not there to trim it. Before the fatal hour had struck, I had left the house and made my way to the pavilion. As I crossed the sward I saw the gleam of a lantern at the masthead of a small boat riding near our own landing-place, and I understood where he was at this hour, and by what route he hoped to take my darling. "A route she will never travel," thought I, striving to keep out of my mind and conscience the vision of another route, another travel, which that sweet young body might take if my mood held and my purpose strengthened.
There was no moon that night, and the copse in which our pavilion stands was like a blot against the starless heavens. As I drew near it, my dog, the invariable companion of my walks, lifted a short, sharp bark from the stables. But I knew whose hand had fastened him, and I went on without giving him a thought. At the door of the pavilion I stopped. All was dark within as without, and the silence was something to overwhelm the heart. She was not there then, nor was he. But he would be coming soon, and up or down between the double hedge-rows.
I went to meet him. It was a small detail, but possibly a necessary one. In her eyes he was probably handsome and gifted with all that I openly lacked. But he was shallow and small for a man like me to be concerned about. I laughed inwardly and with very conceivable scorn as I heard the faint fall of his footsteps in the darkness. It was nearly two and he meant to be prompt.
Our coming together in that narrow path was very much what I expected it to be. I had put out my arms and touched the hedge on either side, so that he could not escape me. When I heard him drawing close, I found the voice I had not had for her, and observed very quietly and with the cold politeness of a messenger:
"My wife finds herself indisposed since the ball, and begs to be excused from joining you in the pleasant sail you proposed to her."
That, and no more; except that when he started and almost fell into my arms, I found strength to add:
"The wind blows fresh to-night; you will have no difficulty in leaving this shore. The difficulty will be to return."
I had no heart to kill him; he was young and he was frightened. I heard the sob in his throat as I dropped my arm and he went flying down to the river.
This was child's play; the rest—
My portion is to tell it; forty years ago it all befell, and till now no word of it has ever left my lips.
There was no sound of her advancing tread across the lawn as I stepped back into my own grounds to enter the pavilion. But as I left the path and put foot inside the wall, I heard a far, faint sound like the harsh closing of a door in timid hands, followed by another bark from the dog, louder and sharper than the first—for he did not recognize my Aline as mistress, though I had striven for six months to teach him the place she held in my heart.
By this I knew she was coming, and that what preparations I had to make must be made soon. They were not many. Entering the well-known place, I lit the lantern I had brought with me and set it down near the door. It cast a feeble light about the entrance, but left great shadows in the rear. This I had calculated on, and into these shadows I now stepped.
The pavilion, as you remember it, is not what it was then. I had used it little, fancying more my own library up at the house, but it was not utterly without furnishings, and to young eyes might even look attractive, with love, or fancied love, to mellow its harsh lines and lend romance to its solitude. At this hour and under these circumstances it was a dismal hole to me; and as I stood there waiting, I thought how the place fitted the deed—if deed it was to be.
I had always thought her timid, afraid of the night and all threatening things. But as I listened to the sound of her soft footfall at the door, I realized that even her breast could grow strong under the influence of a real or fancied passion. It was a shock—but I did not cry out—only set my teeth together and turned a little so that what light there was would fall on my form rather than on my face.
She entered; I felt rather than heard the tremulous push she gave to the door, and the quick drawing in of her breath as she put her foot across the threshold. These sapped my courage. This fear, this almost hesitation, drew me from thoughts of myself to thoughts of her, and it was in a daze of mingled purposes and regrets that I felt her at last at my side.
"Walter!" fell softly, doubtfully from her lips.
It was the name of him the dip of whose oars as he made for his boat I could now faintly hear in the river below us.
Turning, I looked her in the face.
"You are late," said I. God gave me words in my extremity. "Walter has gone." Then, as the madness of terror replaced love in her eyes, I lifted her forcibly and carried her to the window, where I drew aside the vines. "That is his boat's lantern you see drawing away from the dock. I bade him God-speed. He will not come again."
Without a word she looked, then fell back on my arm. It was not life which forsook her face, and left her whole sweet body inert—that I could have borne, for did she not merit death who had killed my love, killed me?—but happiness, the glow of youthful blood, the dreams of a youthful brain. And seeing this, seeing that the heart I thought a child's heart had gone down in this shipwreck, I felt my anger swell and master me body and soul, and before I knew it, I was towering over her and she was cowering at my feet, crushed and with hands held up in defense, hands that had been like rose-leaves in my grasp, futile hands, but raised now in entreaty for her life to me, to me who had loved her.
Why did they not move me? Why did my muscles tighten instead of relax? I do not know; I had never thought myself a cruel man, but at that instant I felt that this toy of my strong manhood had done harm far beyond its value, and that it would comfort me to break it and toss it far aside; only I could not bear the cry which now left her lips:
"I am so young! not yet, not yet, Philo! I am so young! Let me live a little while."
Was it a woman's plea, conscious of the tenderness she appealed to, or only a child's instinctive grasping after life, just life? If it were the first, it would be easy to finish; but a child's terror, a child's longing—that pulled hard at my manhood, and under the possibility, my own arm fell.
Instantly her head drooped. No defense did she utter; no further plea did she make; she simply waited.
"You have deserved death." This I managed to utter. "But if you will swear to obey me, you shall not pay your forfeit till you have had a further taste of life. Not in my house; there is not sufficient freedom within its walls for you; but in the broad world, where people dance and sing and grow old at their leisure, without duty and without care. For three months you shall have this, and have it to your heart's content. Then you shall come back to me my true wife, if your heart so prompts; if not, to tell me of your failure and quit me for ever. But—" Here I fear my voice grew terrible, for her hands instinctively rose again. "Those three months must be lived unstained. As you are in God's sight this hour, I demand of you to swear that, if you forget this or disregard it, or for any cause subject my name to dishonor, that you will return unbidden at the first moment your reason returns to you, to take what punishment I will. On this condition I send you away to-night. Aline, will you promise?"
She did not answer; but her face rose. I did not understand its look. There was pathos in it, and something else. That something else troubled me.
"Are you dissatisfied?" I asked. "Is the time too short? Do you want more months for dancing?"
She shook her head and the little hands rose again:
"Do not send me away," she faintly entreated; "I don't know why—but I—had rather stay."
"With me? Impossible. Are you ready to promise, Aline?"
Then she rose and looked me in the eye with courage, almost with resolution.
"As I live!" said she.
And I knew she would keep her word.
The next thing I remember of that night was the sight of her little white, shivering figure looking out at me from the carriage that was to carry her away. The night was cold, and I had tucked her in with as much care as I might have done the evening before, when I still worshiped her, still thought her mine, or at least as much mine as she was any one's. When I had done this and pressed a generous gift into her hand, I stood a minute at the carriage door, in pity of her aspect. She looked so pinched and pale, so dazed and hopeless. Had she been alone—but the companion with whom I had provided her was at her side and my tongue was tied. I turned, and the driver started up the horses.
"Philo!" I heard blown by me on the wind.
Was it she who called? No, for there was anguish in the cry, the anguish of a woman, and she was only a frightened, disheartened child whom I had sent away to—dance.
One month, two months went by, and I began to take up my life. Another, and she would be home for good or ill. I thought that I could live through that other. I had heard of her; not from her—that I did not require; and the stories were all of the same character. She was enjoying life in the great city to which I had sent her; radiant at night, if a little spiritless by day. She was at balls, at concerts and at theaters. She wore jewels and shone with the best; I might be proud of her conquests and the sweetness and dignity with which she bore herself. Thus her friends wrote.
But she wrote nothing; I had not required it. Once, some one—a visitor at the house—spoke of having seen her. "She was surrounded with admirers," he had said. "How early our American women ripen!" was his comment. "She held her head like one who has held sway for years; but I thought her a trifle worn; as if pleasure absorbed too much of her sleep. You must look out for her, Judge."
And I smiled grimly enough, I own, to think just how I was looking out for her.
Then came the thunderbolt.
"I am told that no one ever sees her in the day-time; that she is always busy, days. But she does not look as if she took that time for rest. What can your little wife be doing? You ought to hurry up that important opinion of yours and go see."
He was right; what was she doing? And why shouldn't I go see? There was no obstacle but my own will, but that is the greatest obstacle a man can have. I remained at Homewood, but the four weeks of our further probation looked like a year.
Meanwhile, I had my way with the pavilion. I have shown you my heart, sometimes at its best, oftenest at its worst. I will show it to you again in this. I had a wall built round it, close against the thicket in which it lay embedded. This wall was painted white, and near it I had lamps placed which were lit at nightfall. Should a figure pass that wall I could see it from my window. No one could enter that doorway now, without running the risk of my seeing him from where I sat at my desk.
Did I feel easier? I do not know that I did. I merely followed an impulse I dared not name to myself.
Two weeks of this final month went by. Then (it was in the evening) some one came running up from the grounds, with the message that Mrs. Ocumpaugh had ridden into the gate, but that she was not ready to enter the house. Would I meet her at the pavilion?
I was in the library, at my desk, with my eyes on the wall, when this was told me. I had just seen the fierce figure of that unmanageable dog of mine run by that white surface, and my lips were open to order him tied up, when he, and everything else in this whole world, was forgotten in this crushing news of her return. For the three months were not up and her presence here could mean but one thing—she had found temptation too much for her, and she had come back to tell me so in obedience to her promise.
"I will go meet Mrs. Ocumpaugh," I said.
The man stared.
"I will go meet Mrs. Ocumpaugh now," I repeated, and tried to rise.
But my limbs refused; death had entered my heart, and it was some few minutes before I found myself upon the lawn outside.
When I got there I was trembling and so uncertain of movement that I tottered at the gate. But seeing signs of her presence within, I straightened myself and went in.
She was standing at the extreme end of the room when I entered, in the full light of the solitary moonbeam which shot in at the western casement. She had thrown aside her hat and coat, and never in all my life had I seen anything so ethereal as the worn face and wasted form she thus disclosed. Had it not been for the haunting and pathetic smile which by some freak of fate gave poignancy to her otherwise infantile beauty, I should not have known the woman who stood there with my name formed on her lips.
"Destroyed!" was my thought; and the rage which I felt that moment against fate flushed my whole being, and my arms went up, not in threat against her, but to an avenging Heaven, when I heard an impetuous rush, an angry growl, and the delicate, trembling figure went down under the leap of the monstrous animal which I had taught to love me, but could never teach to love her.
In horror and unspeakable anguish of soul I called off the dog; and, stooping with bitter cries, I took her in my arms.
"Hurt?" I gasped. "Hurt, Aline?" I looked at her anxiously.
"No," she whispered, "happy." And before I realized my own feelings or the passion with which I drew her to my breast, she had nestled her head against my heart, smiled and died.
The shock of the dog's onslaught had killed her.
I would not believe it at first, but when I was quite sure, I took out the pistol I carried in my breast and shot the cowering brute midway between the eyes.
When this was done, I turned back to her. There was no light but the moon, and I needed no other. The clear beams falling on her face made her look pure and stainless and sweet. I could almost have loved her again as I marked the tender smile which lingered from that passing moment on her lips. "Happy," she had said. What did she mean by that "Happy"? As I asked myself I heard a cry. The companion who had been with her had rushed in at the doorway, and was gazing in sorrow and amazement at the white form lying outstretched and senseless against that farther wall.
"Oh," she cried, in a tone that assured me she had not seen the dog lying in his blood at my back; "dead already? dead at the first glance? at the first word? Ah, she knew better than I, poor lamb. I thought she would get well if she once got home. She wearied so for you, sir, and for Homewood!"
I thought myself quite mad; past understanding aright the words addressed to me.
"She wearied—" I began.
"With all her soul for you and Homewood," the young woman repeated. "That is, since her illness developed."
"Yes, she has been ill ever since she went away. The cold of that first journey was too much for her. But she kept up for several weeks—doing what no other woman ever did before with so little strength and so little hope. Danced at night and—"
"And—and—what by day, what?" I could hardly get the words out of my mouth.
"Studied. Learned what she thought you would like—French—music—politics. It was to have been a surprise. Poor soul! it took her very life. She did not sleep—Oh, sir, what is it?"
I was standing over her, probably a terrifying figure. Lights were playing before my eyes, strange sounds were in my ears, everything about me seemed resolving itself into chaos.
"What do you mean?" I finally gasped. "She studied—to please me? Why did she come back, then, so soon—" I paused, choked. I had been about to give away my secret. "I mean, why did she come thus suddenly, without warning me of what I might expect? I would have gone—"
"I told her so; but she was very determined to come to you herself—to this very pavilion. She had set the time later, but this morning the doctor told her that her symptoms were alarming, and without consulting him or heeding the advice of any of us, she started for home. She was buoyant on the way, and more than once I heard her softly repeating your name. Her heart was very loving—Oh, sir, you are ill!"
"No, no," I cried, crushing my hand against my mouth to keep down the cry of anguish and despair which tore its way up from my heart. "Before other hands touch her, other eyes see her, tell me when she began—I will not say to love me, but to weary for me and—Homewood."
"Perhaps she has told you herself. Here is the letter, sir, she bade me give you if she did not reach here alive. She wrote it this morning, after the doctor told her what I have said."
She put it in my hand. I glanced at it in the moonlight, read the first few words, and felt the world reel round me. Thrusting the letter in my breast, I bade the woman, who watched me with fascinated eyes, to go now and rouse the house. When she was gone I stepped back into the shadows, and catching hold of the murderous beast, I dragged him out and about the wall to a thick clump of bushes. Here I left him and went back to my darling. When they came in, they found her in my arms. Her head had fallen back and I was staring, staring, at her white throat.