That night, when all was done for her which could be done, I shut myself into my library and again opened that precious letter. I give it, to show how men may be mistaken when they seek to weigh women's souls:
I love you. As I shall be dead when you read this, I may say so without fear of rebuff. I did not love you then; I did not love anybody; I was thoughtless and fond of pleasure, and craved affectionate words. He saw this and worked on my folly; but when his project failed and I saw his boat creep away, I found that what feeling I had was for the man who had thwarted him, and I felt myself saved.
If I had not taken cold that night I might have lived to prove this. I know that you do not love me very much, but perhaps you would have done so had you seen me grow a little wiser and more like what your wife should be. I was trying when—O Philo, I can not write—I can not think. I am coming to you—I love—forgive—and take me back again, alive or dead. I love you—I love—
As I finished, the light, which had been burning low, suddenly went out. The window which opened before me was still unshuttered. Before me, across the wide spaces of the lawn, shone the pavilion wall, white in the moonlight As I stared in horror at it, a trembling seized my whole body, and the hair on my head rose. The dark figure of a running dog had passed across it—the dog which lay dead under the bushes.
"God's punishment," I murmured, and laid my head down on that pathetic letter and sobbed.
The morning found me there. It was not till later that the man sent to bury the dog came to me with the cry, "Something is wrong with the pavilion! When I went in to close the window I found the ceiling at that end of the room strangely dabbled. It looks like blood. And the spots grew as I looked."
Aghast, bruised in spirit and broken of heart, I went down, after that sweet body was laid in its grave, to look. The stains he had spoken of were gone. But I lived to see them reappear,—as you have.
God have mercy on our souls!
BEHIND THE WALL
"A most pathetic and awesome history!" I exclaimed, after the pause which instinctively followed the completion of this tale, read as few of its kind have ever been read, by this woman of infinite resources in feeling and expression.
"Is it not? Do you wonder that a visit in the dead of night to a spot associated with such superstitious horrors should frighten me?" she added as she bundled up the scattered sheets with a reckless hand.
"I do not. I am not sure but that I am a little bit frightened myself," I smiled, following with my eye a single sheet which had escaped to the floor. "Allow me," I cried, stooping to lift it. As I did so I observed that it was the first sheet, the torn one—and that a line or so of writing was visible at the top which I was sure had not been amongst those she had read.
"What words are those?" I asked.
"I don't know, they are half gone as you can see. They have nothing to do with the story. I read you the whole of that."
Mistress as she was of her moods and expression I detected traces of some slight confusion.
"The putting up of the partition is not explained," I remarked.
"Oh, that was put up in horror of the stains which from time to time broke out on the ceiling at that end of the room."
I wished to ask her if this was her conclusion or if that line or two I have mentioned was more intelligible than she had acknowledged it to be. But I refrained from a sense of propriety.
If she appreciated my forbearance she did not show it. Rising, she thrust the papers into a cupboard, casting a scarcely perceptible glance at the clock as she did so.
I took the hint and rose. Instantly she was all smiles.
"You have forgotten something, Mr. Trevitt. Surely you do not intend to carry away with you my key to the bungalow."
"I was thinking of it," I returned lightly. "I am not quite through with that key." Then before she could recover from her surprise, I added with such suavity as I had been able to acquire in my intercourse with my more cultivated clients:
"I have to thank you, Mrs. Carew, for an hour of thrilling interest. Absorbed though I am in the present mystery, my mind has room for the old one. Possibly because there is sometimes a marked connection between old family events and new. There may be some such connection in this case. I should like the opportunity of assuring myself there is not."
She said nothing; I thought I understood why. More suavely yet, I continued, with a slight, a very slight movement toward the door: "Rarely have I had the pleasure of listening to such a tale read by such an interpreter. It will always remain in my memory, Mrs. Carew. But the episode is over and I return to my present duty and the bungalow."
"The bungalow! You are going back to the bungalow?"
"What for? Didn't you see all there was to see?"
"I don't know what there can be left."
"Nothing of consequence, most likely, but you can not wish me to have any doubts on the subject."
"No, no, of course not."
The carelessness of her tone did not communicate itself to her manner. Seeing that my unexpected proposition had roused her alarm, I grew wary and remarked:
"I was always overscrupulous."
With a lift of her shoulders—a dainty gesture which I congratulated myself I could see unmoved—she held out her hand in a mute appeal for the key, but seeing that I was not to be shaken in my purpose, reached for the wrap she had tossed on a chair and tied it again over her head.
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
"Accompany you," she declared.
"Again? I thought the place frightened you."
"It does," she replied. "I had rather visit any other spot in the whole world; but if it is your intention to go back there, it is mine to go with you."
"You are very good," I replied.
But I was seriously disconcerted notwithstanding. I had reckoned, upon a quiet hour in the bungalow by myself; moreover, I did not understand her motive for never trusting me there alone. Yet as this very distrust was suggestive, I put a good face on the matter and welcomed her company with becoming alacrity. After all, I might gain more than I could possibly lose by having her under my eye for a little longer. Strong as was her self-control there were moments when the real woman showed herself, and these moments were productive.
As we were passing out she paused to extinguish a lamp which was slightly smoking,—I also thought she paused an instant to listen. At all events her ears were turned toward the stairs down which there came the murmur of two voices, one of them the little boy's.
"It is time Harry was asleep," she cried. "I promised to sing to him. You won't be long, will you?"
"You need not be very long," was my significant retort. "I can not speak for myself."
Was I playing with her curiosity or anxieties or whatever it was that affected her? I hardly knew; I spoke as impulse directed and waited in cold blood—or was it hot blood?—to see how she took it.
Carelessly enough, for she was a famous actress except when taken by surprise. Checking an evident desire of calling out some direction up stairs, she followed me to the door, remarking cheerfully, "You can not be very long either; the place is not large enough."
My excuse—or rather the one I made to myself for thus returning to a place I had seemingly exhausted, was this. In the quick turn I had made in leaving on the former occasion, my foot had struck the edge of the large rug nailed over the center of the floor, and unaccountably loosened it. To rectify this mishap, and also to see how so slight a shock could have lifted the large brass nails by which it had been held down to the floor, seemed reason enough for my action. But how to draw her attention to so insignificant a fact without incurring her ridicule I could not decide in our brief passage back to the bungalow, and consequently was greatly relieved when, upon opening the door and turning my lantern on the scene, I discovered that in our absence the rug had torn itself still farther free from the floor and now lay with one of its corners well curled over—the corner farthest from the door and nearest the divan where little Gwendolen had been lying when she was lifted and carried away—where?
Mrs. Carew saw it too and cast me a startled look which I met with a smile possibly as ambiguous as the feeling which prompted it.
"Who has been here?" she asked.
"Did we do that?"
"I did; or rather my foot struck the edge of the rug as I turned to go out with you. Shall I replace it and press back the nails?"
"If you will be so good."
Do what she would there was eagerness in her tone. Remarking this, I decided to give another and closer look at the floor and the nails. I found the latter had not been properly inserted; or rather that there were two indentations for every nail, a deep one and one quite shallow. This caused me to make some examination of the others, those which had not been drawn from the floor, and I found that one or two of them were equally insecure, but not all; only those about this one corner.
Mrs. Carew, who had paused, confused and faltering in the doorway, in her dismay at seeing me engaged in this inspection instead of in replacing the rug as I had proposed, now advanced a step, so that our glances met as I looked up with the remark:
"This rug seems to have been lately raised at this corner. Do you know if the police had it up?"
"I don't. I believe so—oh, Mr. Trevitt," she cried, as I rose to my feet with the corner of the rug in my hand, "what are you going to do?"
She had run forward impetuously and was now standing close beside me—inconveniently close.
"I am going to raise this rug," I informed her. "That is, just at this corner. Pardon me, I shall have to ask you to move."
"Certainly, of course," she stammered. "Oh, what is going to happen now?" Then as she watched me: "There is—there is something under it. A door in the floor—a—a—Mrs. Ocumpaugh never told me of this."
"Do you suppose she knew it?" I inquired, looking up into her face, which was very near but not near enough to be in the full light of the lantern, which was pointed another way.
"This rug appears to have been almost soldered to the floor, everywhere but here. There! it is thrown back. Now, if you will be so very good as to hold the lantern, I will try and lift up the door."
"I can not. See, how my hands shake! What are we about to discover? Nothing, I pray, nothing. Suspense would be better than that."
"I think you will be able to hold it," I urged, pressing the lantern upon her.
"Yes; I have never been devoid of courage. But—but—don't ask me to descend with you," she prayed, as she lifted the lantern and turned it dexterously enough on that portion of the door where a ring lay outlined in the depths of its outermost plank.
"I will not; but you will come just the same; you can not help it," I hazarded, as with the point of my knife-blade I lifted the small round of wood which filled into the ring and thus made the floor level.
"Now, if this door is not locked, we will have it up," I cried, pulling at the ring with a will. The door was not locked and it came up readily enough, discovering some half-dozen steps, down which I immediately proceeded to climb.
"Oh, I can not stay here alone," she protested, and prepared to follow me in haste just as I expected her to do the moment she saw the light withdrawn.
"Step carefully," I enjoined. "If you will honor me with your hand—" But she was at my side before the words were well out.
"What is it? What kind of place do you make it out to be; and is there anything here you—do—not—want—to see?"
I flashed the light around and incidentally on her. She was not trembling now. Her cheeks were red, her eyes blazing. She was looking at me, and not at the darksome place about her. But as this was natural, it being a woman's way to look for what she desires to learn in the face of the man who for the moment is her protector, I shifted the light into the nooks and corners of the low, damp cellar in which we now found ourselves.
"Bins for wine and beer," I observed, "but nothing in them." Then as I measured the space before me with my eye, "It runs under the whole house. See, it is much larger than the room above."
"Yes," she mechanically repeated.
I lowered the lantern to the floor but quickly raised it again.
"What is that on the other side?" I queried. "I am sure there is a break in the wall over in that corner."
"I can not see," she gasped; certainly she was very much frightened. "Are you going to cross the floor?"
"Yes; and if you do not wish to follow me, sit down on these steps—"
"No, I will go where you go; but this is very fearful. Why, what is the matter?"
I had stepped aside in order to avoid a trail of footprints I saw extending across the cellar floor.
"Come around this way," I urged. "If you will follow me I will keep you from being too much frightened."
She did as I told her. Softly her steps fell in behind mine; and thus with wary tread and peering eyes we made our way to the remote end, where we found—or rather where I found—that the break which I had noticed in the uniformity of the wall was occasioned by a pile of old boxes, arranged so as to make steps up to a hole cut through the floor above.
With a sharp movement I wheeled upon her.
"Do you see that?" I asked, pointing back over my shoulder.
"Steps," she cried, "going up into that part of the building where—where—"
"Will you attempt them with me? Or will you stay here, in the darkness?"
It was said with shortened breath; but she seemed less frightened than when we started to cross the cellar. At all events a fine look of daring had displaced the tremulous aspect which had so changed the character of her countenance a few minutes before.
"I will make short work of it," I assured her as I hastily ran up the steps. "Drop your face into your hands and you will not be conscious of the darkness. Besides, I will talk to you all the time. There! I have worked my way up through the hole. I have placed my lantern on the floor above and I see—What! are you coming?"
"Yes, I am coming."
Indeed, she was close beside me, maintaining her footing on the toppling boxes by a grip on my disengaged arm.
"Can you see?" I asked. "Wait! let me pull you up; we might as well stand on the floor as on these boxes."
Climbing into the room above, I offered her my hand, and in another moment we stood together in the noisome precincts of that abominable spot, with whose doleful story she had just made me acquainted.
A square of impenetrable gloom confronted me at the first glance—what might not be the result of a second?
I turned to consult the appearance of the lady beside me before I took this second look. Had she the strength to stand the ordeal? Was she as much moved—or possibly more moved than myself? As a woman, and the intimate friend of the Ocumpaughs, she should be. But I could not perceive that she was. For some reason, once in view of this mysterious place, she was strangely, inexplicably, impassibly calm.
"You can bear it?" I queried.
"I must—only end it quickly."
"I will," I replied, and I held out my lantern.
I am not a superstitious man, but instinctively I looked up before I looked about me. I have no doubt that Mrs. Carew did the same. But no stains were to be seen on those blackened boards now; or rather, they were dark with one continuous stain; and next moment I was examining with eager scrutiny the place itself.
Accustomed to the appearance of the cheerful and well-furnished room on the other side of the partition, it was a shock to me (I will not say what it was to her) to meet the bare decaying walls and mouldering appurtenances of this dismal hole. True, we had just come from a description of the place in all the neglect of its many years of desolation, yet the smart finish of the open portion we had just left poorly prepared us for what we here encountered.
But the first impression over—an impression which was to recur to me many a night afterward in dreams—I remembered the nearer and more imperative cause which had drawn us thither, and turning the light into each and every corner, looked eagerly for what I so much dreaded to find.
A couch to which some old cushions still clung stood against the farther wall. Thank God! it was empty; so were all the corners of the room. Nothing living and—nothing dead!
Turning quickly upon Mrs. Carew, I made haste to assure her that our fears were quite unfounded.
But she was not even looking my way. Her eyes were on the ground, and she seemed merely waiting—in some impatience, evidently, but yet merely waiting—for me to finish and be gone.
This was certainly odd, for the place was calculated in itself to rouse curiosity, especially in one who knew its story. A table, thick with dust and blurred with dampness, still gave tokens of a bygone festivity—among which a bottle and some glasses stood conspicuous. Cards were there too, dingy and green with mould—some on the tables—some on the floor; while the open lid of a small desk pushed up close to a book-case full of books, still held a rusty pen and the remnants of what looked like the mouldering sheets of unused paper. As for the rest—desolation, neglect, horror—but no child.
The relief was enormous.
"It is a dreadful place," I exclaimed; "but it might have been worse. Do you want to see things nearer? Shall we cross the floor?"
"No, no. We have not found Gwendolen; let us go. Oh, let us go!"
A thrill of feeling had crept into her voice. Who could wonder? Yet I was not ready to humor her very natural sensibilities by leaving quite so abruptly. The floor interested me; the cushions of that old couch interested me; the sawn boards surrounding the hole—indeed, many things.
"We will go in a moment," I assured her; "but, first, cast your eyes along the floor. Don't you see that some one has preceded us here; and that not so very long ago? Some one with dainty feet and a skirt that fell on the ground; in short, a woman and—a lady!"
"I don't see," she faltered, very much frightened; then quickly: "Show me, show me."
I pointed out the marks in the heavy dust of the long neglected floor; they were unmistakable.
"Oh!" she cried, "what it is to be a detective! But who could have been here? Who would want to be here? I think it is horrible myself, and if I were alone I should faint from terror and the close air."
"We will not remain much longer," I assured her, going straight to the couch. "I do not like it either, but—"
"What have you found now?"
Her voice seemed to come from a great distance behind me. Was this on account of the state of her nerves or mine? I am willing to think the latter, for at that moment my eye took in two unexpected details. A dent as of a child's head in one of the mangy sofa-pillows and a crushed bit of colored sugar which must once have been a bit of choice confectionery.
"Some one besides a lady has been here," I decided, pointing to the one and bringing back the other. "See! this bit of candy is quite fresh. You must acknowledge that. This was not walled up years ago with the rest of the things we see about us."
Her eyes stared at the sugary morsel I held out toward her in my open palm. Then she made a sudden rush which took her to the side of the couch.
"Gwendolen here?" she moaned, "Gwendolen here?"
"Yes," I began; "do not—"
But she had already left the spot and was backing toward the opening up which we had come. As she met my eye she made a quick turn and plunged below.
"I must have air," she gasped.
With a glance at the floor over which she had so rapidly passed, I hastily followed her, smiling grimly to myself. Intentionally or unintentionally, she had by this quick passage to and fro effectually confused, if not entirely obliterated, those evidences of a former intrusion which, with misguided judgment, I had just pointed out to her. But recalling the still more perfect line of footprints left below to which I had not called her attention, I felt that I could afford to ignore the present mishap.
As I reached the cellar bottom I called to her, for she was already half-way across.
"Did you notice where the boards had been sawed?" I asked. "The sawdust is still on the floor, and it smells as fresh as if the saw had been at work there yesterday."
"No doubt, no doubt," she answered back over her shoulder, still hurrying on so that I had to run lest she should attempt the steps in utter darkness.
When I reached the floor of the bungalow she was in the open door panting. Watching her with one eye, I drew back the trap into place and replaced the rug and the three nails I had loosened. Then I shut the slide of the lantern and joined her where she stood.
"Do you feel better?" I asked. "It was a dismal quarter of an hour. But it was not a lost one."
She drew the door to and locked it before she answered; then it was with a question.
"What do you make of all this, Mr. Trevitt?"
I replied as directly as the circumstances demanded.
"Madam, it is a startling answer to the question you put me before we first left your house. You asked then if the child in the wagon was Gwendolen. How could it have been she with this evidence before us of her having been concealed here at the very time that wagon was being driven away from—"
"I do not think you have reason enough—" she began and stopped, and did not speak again till we halted at the foot of her own porch. Then with the frank accent most in keeping with her general manner, however much I might distrust both accent and manner, she added as if no interval had intervened: "If those signs you noted are proofs to you that Gwendolen was shut up in that walled-off portion of the bungalow while some were seeking her in the water and others in the wagon, then where is she now?"
"WE SHALL HAVE TO BEGIN AGAIN"
It was a leading question which I was not surprised to see accompanied by a very sharp look from beneath the cloudy wrap she had wound about her head.
"You suspect some one or something," continued Mrs. Carew, with a return of the indefinable manner which had characterized her in the beginning of our interview. "Whom? What?"
I should have liked to answer her candidly, and in the spirit, if not the words, of the prophet of old, but her womanliness disarmed me. With her eyes on me I could get no further than a polite acknowledgment of defeat.
"Mrs. Carew, I am all at sea. We shall have to begin again."
"Yes," she answered like an echo—was it sadly or gladly?—"you will have to begin again." Then with a regretful accent: "And I can not help you, for I am going to sail to-morrow. I positively must go. Cablegrams from the other side hurry me. I shall have to leave Mrs. Ocumpaugh in the midst of her distress."
"What time does your steamer sail, Mrs. Carew?"
"At five o'clock in the afternoon, from the Cunard docks."
"Nearly sixteen hours from now. Perhaps fate—or my efforts—will favor us before then with some solution of this disheartening problem. Let us hope so."
A quick shudder to hide which she was reaching out her hand, when the door behind us opened and a colored girl looked out. Instantly and with the slightest possible loss of self-possession Mrs. Carew turned to motion the intruder back, when the girl suddenly blurted out:
"Oh, Mrs. Carew, Harry is so restless. He is sleepy, he says."
"I will be up instantly. Tell him that I will be up instantly." Then as the girl disappeared, she added, with a quick smile: "You see I haven't any toys for him. Not being a mother I forgot to put them in his trunk."
As though in response to these words the maid again showed herself in the doorway. "Oh, Mrs. Carew," she eagerly exclaimed, "there's a little toy in the hall here, brought over by one of Mrs. Ocumpaugh's maids. The girl said that hearing that the little boy fretted, Mrs. Ocumpaugh had picked out one of her little girl's playthings and sent it over with her love. It's a little horse, ma'am, with curly mane and a long tail. I am sure 'twill just please Master Harry."
Mrs. Carew turned upon me a look brimming with feeling.
"What thoughtfulness! What self-control!" she cried. "Take up the horse, Dinah. It was one of Gwendolen's favorite playthings," she explained to me as the girl vanished.
I did not answer. I was hearing again in my mind that desolate cry of "Philo! Philo! Philo!" which an hour or so before had rung down to me from Mrs. Ocumpaugh's open window. There had been a wildness in the tone, which spoke of a tossing head on a feverish pillow. Certainly an irreconcilable picture with the one just suggested by Mrs. Carew of the considerate friend sending out the toys of her lost one to a neighbor's peevish child.
Mrs. Carew appeared to notice the preoccupation with which I lingered on the lower step.
"You like children," she hazarded. "Or have you interested yourself in this matter purely from business reasons?"
"Business reasons were sufficient," was my guarded reply. "But I like children very much. I should be most happy if I could see this little Harry of yours nearer. I have only seen him from a distance, you know."
She drew back a step; then she met my look squarely in the moonlight. Her face was flushed, but I attempted no apology for a presumption which could have but one excuse. I meant that she should understand me if I did not her.
"You must love children," she remarked, but not with her usual correctness of tone. Then before I could attempt an answer to the implied sarcasm a proud light came into her eyes, and with a gracious bend of her fine figure she met my look with one equally as frank, and cheerfully declared:
"You shall. Come early in the morning."
In another moment she had vanished inside and closed the door. I was defeated for the nonce, or else she was all she appeared to be and I a dreaming fool.
As I moved slowly away into the night the question thus raised in my own mind assumed greater and more vital consequence. Was she a true woman or what my fears pictured her—the scheming, unprincipled abductor of Gwendolen Ocumpaugh? She looked true, sometimes acted so; but I had heard and seen what would rouse any man's suspicions, and though I was not in a position to say: "Mrs. Carew, this was not your first visit to that scene of old tragedy. You have been there before, and with Gwendolen in your arms," I was morally certain that this was so; that Mrs. Ocumpaugh's most trusted friend was responsible for the disappearance of her child, and I was not quite sure that the child was not now under her very roof.
It was very late by this time, but I meant, if possible, to settle some of these doubts before I left the neighborhood of the cottage.
How? By getting a glimpse of Mrs. Carew with her mask off; in the company of the child, if I could compass it; if not, then entirely alone with her own thoughts, plans and subtleties.
It was an act more in line with my partner's talents than my own, but I could not afford to let this deter me. I had had my chance with her, face to face. For hours I had been in her company. I had seen her in various stages of emotion, sometimes real and sometimes assumed, but at no moment had I been sure of her, possibly because at no moment had she been sure of me. In our first visit to the bungalow; in her own little library, during the reading of that engrossing tale by which she had so evidently attempted to lull my suspicions awakened by her one irrepressible show of alarm on the scene of Gwendolen's disappearance, and afterward when she saw that they might be so lulled but not dispelled; in the cellar; and, above all, in that walled-off room where we had come across the signs of Gwendolen's presence, which even she could not disavow, she had felt my eyes upon her and made me conscious that she had so felt them. Now she must believe them removed, and if I could but gain the glimpse I speak of I should see this woman as she was.
I thought I could manage this.
I had listened to the maid's steps as she returned up stairs, and I believed I knew in what direction they had tended after she reached the floor above. I would just see if one of the windows on the south side was lighted, and, if so, if it was in any way accessible.
To make my way through the shrubbery without rousing the attention of any one inside or out required a circumspection that tried me greatly. But by dint of strong self-control I succeeded in getting to the vantage-place I sought, without attracting attention or causing a single window to fly up. This reassured me, and perceiving a square of light in the dark mass of wall before me I peered about among the trees overlooking this part of the building for one I could climb without too much difficulty.
The one which looked most feasible was a maple with low-growing branches, and throwing off my coat I was soon half-way to its top and on a level, or nearly so, with the window on which I had fixed my eye.
There were no curtains to this window—the house being half dismantled in anticipation of Mrs. Carew's departure—but it was still protected by a shade, and this was drawn down, nearly to the ledge.
But not quite. A narrow space intervened which, to an eye placed where mine was, offered a peep-hole of more or less satisfactory proportions, and this space, I soon saw, widened perceptibly from time to time as the wind caught at the shade and blew it in.
With utmost caution I shifted my position till I could bring my eye fairly in line with the interior of this room, and finding that the glimpse given revealed little but a blue wall and some snowy linen, I waited for the breeze to blow that I might see more.
It came speedily, and in a gust which lifted the shade and thus disclosed the whole inside of the room. It was an instantaneous glimpse, but in that moment the picture projected upon my eye satisfied me that, despite my doubts, despite my causes for suspicion, I had been doing this woman the greatest injustice in supposing that her relations to the child she had brought into her home were other than she had made out.
She had come up as she had promised, and had seated herself on the bed with her face turned toward the window. I could thus catch its whole expression—an expression this time involuntary and natural as the feelings which prompted it. The child, with his newly-obtained toy clutched in one hand, knelt on the coverlet with his head pressed against her breast, saying his prayers. I could hear his soft murmur, though I could not catch the words.
But sweet as was the sight of his little white-clad form burying its head, with its mass of dusky curls, against the breast in which he most confided, it was not this alone which gave to the moment its almost sacred character. It was the rapturous look with which Mrs. Carew gazed down on this little head—the mother-look, which admits of nothing false, and which when once seen on a woman's face, whether she be mother in fact or mother only in heart—idealizes her in the mind for ever.
Eloquent with love and holy devotion the scene flashed upon my eyes for a moment and was gone. But that moment made its impression, and settled for good and all the question with which I had started upon this adventure. She was the true woman and I was the dreaming fool.
As I realized this I also realized that three days out of the seven were gone.
I certainly had every right to conclude that this would end my adventures for the day. But I soon found that I was destined to have yet another experience before returning to my home in New York.
The weather had changed during the last hour and at the moment I emerged from the shadows of the hedge-row into the open space fronting the Ocumpaugh dock, a gleam of lightning shot across the west and by it I saw what looked like the dusky figure of a man leaning against a pile at the extreme end of the boat-house. Something in the immobility maintained by this figure in face of the quick flashes which from time to time lit up the scene, reminded me of the presence I had come upon hours before in front of Mrs. Carew's house; and moved by the instinct of my calling, I took advantage of the few minutes yet remaining before train time, to make my way in its direction, cautiously, of course, and with due allowance for the possible illumination following those fitful bursts of light which brought everything to view in one moment, only to plunge it all back into the profoundest obscurity the next.
I had two motives for my proceeding. One, as I say, sprang from the natural instinct of investigation; the other was kindlier and less personal.
I did not understand the meaning of the posture which this person had now assumed; nor did I like it. Why should this man—why should any man stand like this at the dead of night staring into waters, which, if they had their tale to tell, had not yet told it—unless his interest in the story he read there was linked with emotions such as it was my business to know? For those most openly concerned in Gwendolen's loss, the search had ceased; why, then, this lone and lingering watch on the part of one who might, for all I knew, be some over-zealous detective, but who I was rather inclined to believe was a person much more closely concerned in the child's fate, viz: the next heir-in-law, Mr. Rathbone. If it were he, his presence there savored of mystery or it savored of the tragic. The latter seemed the more likely hypothesis, judging from the expression of his face, as seen by me under the lantern. It behooved me then to approach him, but to approach him in the shadow of the boat-house.
What passed in the next few minutes seemed to me unreal and dreamlike. I was tired, I suppose, and so more than usually susceptible. Night had no unfamiliar effects for me, even night on the borders of this great river; nor was my occupation a new one, or the expectation I felt, as fearful and absorbing as that with which an hour or two before I had raised my lantern in that room in which the doleful mystery of half a century back, trenched upon the still more moving mystery of to-day. Yet, that experience had the sharpness of fact; while this had only the vagueness of a phantasm.
I was very near him but the lightning had ceased to flash, and I found it impossible to discern whether or not the form I had come there to identify, yet lingered in its old position against the pile.
I therefore awaited the next gleam with great anxiety, an anxiety only partly alleviated by the certainty I felt of hearing the faint, scarcely recognizable sound of his breathing. Had the storm passed over? Would no more flashes come? Ah, he is moving—that is a sigh I hear—no detective's exclamation of impatience, but a sufferer's sigh of depression or remorse. What was in the man's mind?
A steamboat or some equally brilliantly illuminated craft was passing, far out in the channel; the shimmer of its lights gave sudden cheer to the distant prospect; the churning of its paddles suggested life and action and irresistibly drew my eyes that way. Would his follow? Would I find his attitude changed?
Ah! the long delayed flash has come and gone. He is standing there yet, but no longer in an attitude of contemplation. On the contrary, he is bending over the waters searching with eager aspect, where so many had searched before him, and, in the instant, as his face and form leaped into sight, I beheld his clenched right hand fall on his breast and heard on his lips the one word—
"AN ALL-CONQUERING BEAUTY"
I was one of the first to procure and read a New York paper next morning. Would I discover in the columns any hint of the preceding day's events in Yonkers, which, if known, must for ever upset the wagon theory? No, that secret was still my secret, only shared by the doctor, who, so far as I understood him, had no intention of breaking his self-imposed silence till his fears of some disaster to the little one had received confirmation. I had therefore several hours before me yet for free work.
The first thing I did was to hunt up Miss Graham.
She met me with eagerness; an eagerness I found it difficult to dispel with my disappointing news in regard to Doctor Pool.
"He is not the man," said I. "Can you think of any other?"
She shook her head, her large gray eyes showing astonishment and what I felt bound to regard as an honest bewilderment.
"I wish to mention a name," said I.
"One I know?" she asked.
"I know of no other person capable of wronging that child."
"You are probably right. But there is a gentleman—one interested in the family—a man with something to gain—"
"Mr. Rathbone? You must not mention him in any such connection. He is one of the best men I know—kind, good, and oh, so sensitive! A dozen fortunes wouldn't tempt a man of his stamp to do any one living a wrong, let alone a little innocent child."
"I know; but there are other temptations greater than money to some men; infinitely greater to one as sensitive as you say he is. What if he loved a woman! What if his only hope of winning her—"
"You must not think that of him," she again interposed. "Nothing could make a villain of him. I have seen him too many times in circumstances which show a man's character. He is good through and through, and in all that concerns Gwendolen, honorable to the core. I once saw him save her life at the risk of his own."
"You did? When? Years ago?"
"No, lately; within the last year."
"Tell me the circumstances."
She did. They were convincing. As I listened, the phantasm of the night before assumed fainter and fainter proportions. When she had finished I warmly remarked that I was glad to hear the story of so heroic an act.
And I was. Not that I ascribed too deep a significance to the word which had escaped Mr. Rathbone on the dock, but because I was glad to have my instinctive confidence in the man verified by facts.
It seemed to clear the way before me.
"Ellie," said I (it seemed both natural and proper to call her by that name now), "what explanation would you give if, under any circumstances (all circumstances are possible, you know), you heard this gentleman speak of feeling guilty in connection with Gwendolen Ocumpaugh?"
"I should have to know the circumstances," was her quiet answer.
"Let me imagine some. Say that it was night, late night, at an hour when the most hardened amongst us are in a peculiarly responsive condition; say that he had been, spending hours near the house of the woman he had long loved but had quite despaired of winning in his greatly hampered condition, and with the fever of this longing upon him, but restrained by emotions the nature of which we can not surmise, had now found his way down to the river—to the spot where boats have clustered and men crouched in the gruesome and unavailing search we know of; say that he hung there long over the water, gazing down in silence, in solitude, alone, as he thought, with his own conscience and the suggestions offered by that running stream where some still think, despite facts, despite all the probabilities, that Gwendolen has found rest, and when his heart was full, should be seen to strike his breast and utter, with a quick turn of his face up the hill, this one word, 'Guilty'?"
"What would I think? This: That being overwrought by the struggle you mention (a struggle we can possibly understand when we consider the unavoidable consciousness which must be his of the great change which would be effected in all his prospects if Gwendolen should not be found), he gave the name of guilt to feelings which some would call simply human."
"Ellie, you are an oracle." This thought of hers had been my thought ever since I had had time really to reflect upon the matter. "I wonder if you will have an equally wise reply to give to my next question?"
"I can not say. I speak from intuition; I am not really wise."
"Intuition is above wisdom. Does your intuition tell you that Mrs. Carew is the true friend she professes to be to Mrs. Ocumpaugh?"
"Ah, that is a different thing!"
The clear brow I loved—there! how words escape a man!—lost its smoothness and her eyes took on a troubled aspect, while her words came slowly.
"I do not know how to answer that offhand. Sometimes I have felt that her very soul was knit to that of Mrs. Ocumpaugh, and again I have had my doubts. But never deep ones; never any such as would make it easy for me to answer the question you have just put me."
"Was her love for Gwendolen sincere?" I asked.
"Oh, yes; oh, yes. That is, I always thought so, and with no qualification, till something in her conduct when she first heard of Gwendolen's disappearance—I can not describe it—gave me a sense of disappointment. She was shocked, of course, and she was grieved, but not hopelessly so. There was something lacking in her manner—we all felt it; Mrs. Ocumpaugh felt it, and let her dear friend go the moment she showed the slightest inclination to do so."
"There were excuses for Mrs. Carew, just at that time," said I. "You forget the new interest which had come into her life. It was natural that she should be preoccupied."
"With thoughts of her little nephew?" replied Miss Graham. "True, true; but she had been so fond of Gwendolen! You would have thought—But why all this talk about Mrs. Carew? You don't believe—you surely can not believe—"
"That Mrs. Carew is a charming woman? Oh, yes, but I do. Mr. Rathbone shows good taste."
"Ah, is she the one?"
"Did you not know it?"
"No; yet I have seen them together many times. Now I understand much that has always been a mystery to me. He never pressed his suit; he loved, but never harassed her. Oh, he is a good man!" This with emphasis.
"Is she a good woman?"
Miss Graham's eyes suddenly fell, then rose again until they met mine fully and frankly.
"I have no reason," said she, "to believe her otherwise. I have never seen anything in her to hinder my esteem; only—"
"Finish that 'only.'"
"She does not appeal to me as many less gifted women do. Perhaps I am secretly jealous of the extreme fondness Gwendolen has always shown for her. If so, the fault is in me, not in her."
What I said in reply is not germane to this story.
After being assured by a few more discreet inquiries in some other perfectly safe quarters that Miss Graham's opinion of Mr. Rathbone was shared by those who beat knew him, I returned to the one spot most likely to afford me a clue to, if no explanation of, this elusive mystery.
What did I propose to myself? First, to revisit Mrs. Carew and make the acquaintance of the boy Harry. I no longer doubted his being just what she called him, but she had asked me to call for this purpose and I had no excuse for declining the invitation, even if I had desired to do so. Afterward—but first let us finish with Mrs. Carew.
As she entered her reception-room that morning she looked so bright—that is, with the instinctive brightness of a naturally vivacious temperament—that I wondered if I had been mistaken in my thought that she had had no sleep all that night, simply because many of the lights in her house had not been put out till morning. But an inspection of her face revealed lines of care, which only her smile could efface, and she was not quite ready for smiles, affable and gracious as she showed herself.
Her first words, just as I expected, were:
"There is nothing in the papers about the child in the wagon."
"No; everything does not get into the papers."
"Will what we saw and what we found in the bungalow last night?"
"I hardly think so. That is our own special clue, Mrs. Carew—if it is a clue."
"You seem to regard it as such."
With a shrug I declared that we had come upon a mystery of some kind.
"But the child is not dead? That you feel demonstrated—or don't you?"
"As I said last night, I do not know what to think. Ah; is that the little boy?"
"Yes," she gaily responded, as the glad step of a child was heard descending the stairs. "Harry! come here, Harry!" she cried, with that joyous accent which a child's presence seems to call out in some women. "Here is a gentleman who would like to shake hands with you."
A sprite of a child entered; a perfect sunbeam irradiating the whole room. If, under the confidence induced by the vision I had had of him on his knees the night before, any suspicion remained in my mind of his being Gwendolen Ocumpaugh in disguise, it vanished at sight of the fearless head, lifted high in boyish freedom, and the gay swish, swish of the whip in his nervous little hand.
"Harry is playing horse," he cried, galloping toward me in what he evidently considered true jockey style.
I made a gesture and stopped him.
"How do you do, little man? What did you say your name is?"
"Harry," this very stoutly.
"Harry what? Harry Carew?"
"No, Harry; just Harry."
"And how do you like it here?"
"I like it; I like it better than my old home."
"Where was your old home?"
"I don't know. I didn't like it."
"He was with uncongenial people, and he is very sensitive," put in Mrs. Carew, softly.
"I like it here," he repeated, "and I like the big ocean. I am going on the ocean. And I like horses. Get up, Dandy!" and he cracked his whip and was off again on his imaginary trot.
I felt very foolish over the doubts I had so openly evinced. This was not only a boy to the marrow of his bones, but he was, as any eye could see, the near relative she called him. In my embarrassment I rose; at all events I soon found myself standing near the door with Mrs. Carew.
"A fine fellow!" I enthusiastically exclaimed; "and startlingly like you in expression. He is your nephew, I believe?"
"Yes," she replied, somewhat wistfully I thought.
I felt that I should apologize for—well, perhaps for the change she must have discerned in my manner.
"The likeness caused me a shock. I was not prepared for it, I suppose."
She looked at me quite wonderingly.
"I have never heard any one speak of it before. I am glad that you see it." And she seemed glad, very glad.
But I know that for some reason she was gladder yet when I turned to depart. However, she did not hasten me.
"What are you going to do next?" she inquired, as she courteously led the way through the piles of heaped-up boxes and baskets, the number of which had rather grown than diminished since my visit the evening before. "Pardon my asking."
"Resort to my last means," said I. "See and talk with Mrs. Ocumpaugh."
An instant of hesitation on her part, so short, however, that I could hardly detect it, then she declared:
"But you can not do that."
"She is ill; I am sure that they will let no one approach her. One of her maids was in this morning. She did not even ask me to come over."
"I am sorry," said I, "but I shall make the effort. The illness which affects Mrs. Ocumpaugh can be best cured by the restoration of her child."
"But you have not found Gwendolen?" she replied.
"No; but I have discovered footprints on the dust of the bungalow floor, and, as you know, a bit of candy which looks as if it had been crushed in a sleeping child's hand, and I am in need of every aid possible in order to make the most of these discoveries. They may point the way to Gwendolen's present whereabouts and they may not. But they shall be given every chance."
"Whoop! get up! get up!" broke in a childish voice from the upper landing.
"Am I not right?" I asked.
"Always; only I am sorry for Mrs. Ocumpaugh. May I tell you—" as I laid my hand upon the outer door-knob—"just how to approach her?"
"Certainly, if you will be so good."
"I would not ask for Miss Porter. Ask for Celia; she is Mrs. Ocumpaugh's special maid. Let her carry your message—if you feel that it will do any good to disturb her."
"Thank you; the recommendation is valuable. Good morning, Mrs. Carew. I may not see you again; may I wish you a safe journey?"
"Certainly; are we not almost friends?"
Why did I not make my bow and go? There was nothing more to be said—at least by me. Was I held by something in her manner? Doubtless, for while I was thus reasoning with myself she followed me out on to the porch, and with some remark as to the beauty of the morning, led me to an opening in the vines, whence a fine view could be caught of the river.
But it was not for the view she had brought me there. This was evident enough from her manner, and soon she paused in her observations on the beauties of nature, and with a strange ringing emphasis for which I was not altogether prepared, remarked with feeling:
"I may be making a mistake—I was always an unconventional woman—but I think you ought to know something of Mrs. Ocumpaugh's private history before you see her. It is not a common one—at least it has its romantic elements—and an acquaintance with some of its features is almost necessary to you if you expect to approach her on so delicate a matter with any hope of success. But perhaps you are better informed on this subject than I supposed? Detectives are a mine of secret intelligence, I am told; possibly you have already learned from some other source the story of her marriage and homecoming to Homewood and the peculiar circumstances of her early married life?"
"No," I disclaimed in great relief, and I have no doubt with unnecessary vivacity. "On the contrary, I have never heard anything said in regard to it."
"Would you like to? Men have not the curiosity of women, and I do not wish to bore you, but—I see that I shall not do that," she exclaimed. "Sit down, Mr. Trevitt; I shall not detain you long; I have not much time myself."
As she sank into a chair in saying this, I had no alternative but to follow her example. I took pains, however, to choose one which brought me into the shadow of the vines, for I felt some embarrassment at this new turn in the conversation, and was conscious that I should have more or less difficulty in hiding my only too intense interest in all that concerned the lady of whom we were speaking.
"Mrs. Ocumpaugh was a western woman," Mrs. Carew began softly; "the oldest of five daughters. There was not much money in the family, but she had beauty, a commanding, all-conquering beauty; not the beauty you see in her to-day, but that exquisite, persuasive loveliness which seizes upon the imagination as well as moves the heart. I have a picture of her at eighteen—but never mind that."
Was it affection for her friend which made Mrs. Carew's always rich voice so very mellow? I wished I knew; but I was successful, I think, in keeping that wish out of my face, and preserving my manner of the simply polite listener.
"Mr. Ocumpaugh was on a hunting trip," she proceeded, after a slight glance my way. "He had traveled the world over and seen beautiful women everywhere; but there was something in Marion Allison which he had found in no other, and at the end of their first interview he determined to make her his wife. A man of impulses, but also a man of steady resolution, Mr. Trevitt. Perhaps you know this?"
I bowed. "A strong man," I remarked.
"And a romantic one. He had this intention from the first, as I have said, but he wished to make himself sure of her heart. He knew how his advantages counted; how hard it is for a woman to disassociate the man from his belongings, and having a spirit of some daring, he resolved that this 'pearl of the west'—so I have heard him call her—should marry the man and not his money."
"Was he as wealthy then as now?"
"Almost. Possibly he was not quite such a power in the financial world, but he had Homewood in almost as beautiful a condition as now, though the new house was not put up till after his marriage. He courted her—not as the landscape painter of Tennyson's poem—but as a rising young business man who had made his way sufficiently to give her a good home. This home he did not have to describe, since her own imagination immediately pictured it as much below the one she lived in, as he was years younger than her hardworked father. Delighted with this naivete, he took pains not to disabuse her mind of the simple prospects with which she was evidently so well satisfied, and succeeded in marrying her and bringing her as far as our station below there, without her having the least suspicion of the splendor she was destined for. And now, Mr. Trevitt, picture, if you can, the scene of that first arrival. I have heard it described by him and I have heard it described by her. He was dressed plainly; so was she; and lest the surprise should come before the proper moment, he had brought her on a train little patronized by his friends. The sumptuousness of the solitary equipage standing at the depot platform must, in consequence, have struck her all the more forcibly, and when he turned and asked her if she did not admire this fine turn-out, you can imagine the lovely smile with which she acknowledged its splendor and then turned away to look up and down for the street-car she expected to take with him to their bridal home.
"He says that he caught her back with the remark that he was glad she liked it because it was hers and many more like it. But she insists that he did not say a word, only smiled in a way to make her see for whom the carriage door was being held open. Such was her entrance into wealth and love and alas! into trouble. For the latter followed hard upon the two first. Mr. Ocumpaugh's mother, who had held sway at Homewood for thirty years or more, was hard as the nether millstone. She was a Rathbone and had brought both wealth and aristocratic connections into the family. She had no sympathy for penniless beauties (she was a very plain woman herself) and made those first few years of her daughter-in-law's life as nearly miserable as any woman's can be who adores her husband. I have heard that it was a common experience for this sharp-tongued old lady to taunt her with the fact that she brought nothing into the family but herself—not even a towel; and when two years passed and no child came, the biting criticisms became so frequent that a cloud fell over the young wife's sensitive beauty, which no after happiness has ever succeeded in fully dispelling. Matters went better after Gwendolen came, but in reckoning up the possible defects in Mrs. Ocumpaugh's character you should never forget the twist that may have been given to it by that mother-in-law."
"I have heard of Madam Ocumpaugh," I remarked, rising, anxious to end an interview whose purport was more or less enigmatic to me.
"She is dead now—happily. A woman like that is accountable for much more than she herself ever realizes. But one thing she never succeeded in doing: she never shook Mr. Ocumpaugh's love for his wife or hers for him. Whether it was the result of that early romantic episode of which I have spoken, or whether their natures are peculiarly congenial, the bond between them has been one of exceptional strength and purity."
"It will be their comfort now," I remarked.
Mrs. Carew smiled, but in a dubious way that added to my perplexity and made me question more seriously than ever just what her motive had been in subjecting me to these very intimate reminiscences of one I was about to approach on an errand of whose purport she could have only a general idea.
Had she read my inmost soul? Did she wish to save her friend, or save herself, or even to save me from the result of a blind use of such tools as were the only ones afforded me? Impossible to determine. She was at this present moment, as she had always been, in fact, an unsolvable problem to me, and it was not at this hurried time and with such serious work before me that I could venture to make any attempt to understand her.
"You will let me know the outcome of your talk with Mrs. Ocumpaugh?" she cried, as I moved to the front of the porch.
It was for me to look dubious now. I could make no such promise as that.
"I will let you know the instant there is any good news," I assured her.
And with that I moved off, but not before hearing the peremptory command with which she entered the house:
"Now, Dinah, quick!"
Evidently, her preparations for departure were to be pushed.
IN THE GREEN BOUDOIR
So far in this narrative I have kept from the reader nothing but an old experience of which I was now to make use. This experience involved Mrs. Ocumpaugh, and was the cause of the confidence which I had felt from the first in my ability to carry this search through to a successful termination. I believed that in some secret but as yet undiscovered way, it offered a key to this tragedy. And I still believed this, little as I had hitherto accomplished and blind as the way continued to look before me.
Nevertheless, it was with anything but a cheerful heart that I advanced that morning through the shrubbery toward the Ocumpaugh mansion.
I dreaded the interview I had determined to seek. I was young, far too young, to grapple with the difficulties it involved; yet I saw no way of avoiding it, or of saving either Mrs. Ocumpaugh or myself from the suffering it involved.
Mrs. Carew had advised that I should first see the girl called Celia. But Mrs. Carew knew nothing of the real situation. I did not wish to see any girl. I felt that no such intermediary would answer in a case like this. Nor did I choose to trust Miss Porter. Yet to Miss Porter alone could I appeal.
The sight of a doctor's gig standing at the side door gave me my first shock. Mrs. Ocumpaugh was ill, then, really ill. Yet if I came to make her better? I stood irresolute till I saw the doctor come out; then I walked boldly up and asked for Miss Porter.
Just what Mrs. Carew had advised me not to do.
Miss Porter came. She recognized me, but only to express her sorrow that Mrs. Ocumpaugh was totally unfit to see any one to-day.
"Not if he brings news?"
"I have news, but of a delicate nature. I should like the privilege of imparting the same to Mrs. Ocumpaugh herself."
"Excuse me, if I urge it."
"She can not see you. The doctor who has just gone says that at all hazards she must be kept quiet to-day. Won't Mr. Atwater do? Is it—is it good news?"
"That, Mrs. Ocumpaugh alone can say."
"See Mr. Atwater; I will call him."
"I have nothing to say to him."
"Let me advise you. Leave it to Mrs. Ocumpaugh. Take this paper up to her—it is only a sketch—and inform her that the person who drew it has something of importance to say either to her or to Mr. Atwater, and let her decide which it shall be. You may, if you wish, mention my name."
"I do not understand."
"You hold my credentials," I said and smiled.
She glanced at the paper I had placed in her hand. It was a folded one, fastened something like an envelope.
"I can not conceive,—" she began.
I did not scruple to interrupt her.
"Mrs. Ocumpaugh has a right to the privilege of seeing what I have sketched there," I said with what impressiveness I could, though my heart was heavy with doubt. "Will you believe that what I ask is for the best and take this envelope to her? It may mean the ultimate restoration of her child."
"Yes, Miss Porter."
She did not try to hide her incredulity.
"I do not see how a picture—yet you seem very much in earnest—and I know she has confidence in you, she and Mr. Ocumpaugh, too. I will take it to her if you can assure me that good will come of it and no more false hopes to destroy the little courage she has left."
"I can not promise that. I believe that she will wish to receive me and hear all I have to say after seeing what that envelope contains. That is as far as I can honestly go."
"It does not satisfy me. If it were not for the nearness of Mr. Ocumpaugh's return, I would have nothing to do with it. He must hear at Sandy Hook that some definite news has been received of his child."
"You are right, Miss Porter, he must."
"He idolized Gwendolen. He is a man of strong feelings; very passionate and much given to follow the impulse of the moment. If his suspense is not ended at the earliest possible instant, the results may be such as I dare not contemplate."
"I know it; that is why I have pushed matters to this point. You will carry that up to her?"
"Yes; and if—"
"No ifs. Lay it before her where she sits and come away. But not beyond call. You are a good woman—I see it in your face—do not watch her as she unfolds this paper. Persons of her temperament do not like to have their emotions observed, and this will cause her emotion. That can not be helped, Miss Porter. Sincerely and honestly I tell you that it is impossible for her best friends to keep her from suffering now; they can only strive to keep that suffering from becoming permanent."
"It is a hard task you have set me," complained the poor woman; "but I will do what I can. Anything must be better for Mrs. Ocumpaugh than the suspense she is now laboring under."
"Remember," I enjoined, with the full force of my secret anxiety, "that no eye but hers must fall upon this drawing. Not that it would convey meaning to anybody but herself, but because it is her affair and her affair only, and you are the woman to respect another person's affairs."
She gave me a final scrutinizing look and left the room.
"God grant that I have made no mistake!" was the inward prayer with which I saw her depart.
My fervency was sincere. I was myself frightened at what I had done.
And what had I done? Sent her a sketch drawn by myself of Doctor Pool and of his office. If it recalled to her, as I felt it must, the remembrance of a certain memorable visit she had once paid there, she would receive me.
When Miss Porter reentered some fifteen minutes later, I saw that my hazardous attempt had been successful.
"Come," said she; but with no cheerful alacrity, rather with an air of gloom.
"Was—was Mrs. Ocumpaugh very much disturbed by what she saw?"
"I fear so. She was half-asleep when I went in, dreaming as it seemed, and pleasantly. It was cruel to disturb her; indeed I had not the heart, so I just laid the folded paper near her hand and waited, but not too near, not within sight of her face. A few minutes later—interminable minutes to me—I heard the paper rattle, but I did not move. I was where she could see me, so she knew that she was not alone and presently I caught the sound of a strange noise from her lips, then a low cry, then the quick inquiry in sharper and more peremptory tones than I had ever before heard from her, 'Where did this come from? Who has dared to send me this?' I advanced quickly. I told her about you and your desire to see her; how you had asked me to bring her up this little sketch so that she would know that you had real business with her; that I regretted troubling her when she felt so weak, but that you promised revelations or some such thing—at which I thought she grew very pale. Are you quite convinced that you have news of sufficient importance to warrant the expectations you have raised in her?"
"Let me see her," I prayed.
She made a sign and we both left the room.
Mrs. Ocumpaugh awaited me in her own boudoir on the second floor. As we went up the main staircase I was afforded short glimpses of room after room of varying richness and beauty, among them one so dainty and delicate in its coloring that I presumed to ask if it were that of the missing child.
Miss Porter's look as she shook her head roused my curiosity.
"I should be glad to see her room," I said.
She stopped, seemed to consider the matter for a moment, then advanced quickly and, beckoning me to follow, led me to a certain door which she quietly opened. One look, and my astonishment became apparent. The room before me, while large and sunny, was as simple, I had almost said as bare, as my sister's at home. No luxurious furnishings here, no draperies of silk and damask, no half-lights drawing richness from stained glass, no gleam of silver or sparkle of glass on bedecked dresser or carved mantel. Not even the tinted muslins I had seen in some nurseries; but a plain set of furniture on a plain carpet with but one object of real adornment within the four walls. That was a picture of the Madonna opposite the bed, and that was beautiful. But the frame was of the cheapest—a simple band of oak.
Catching Miss Porter's eye as we quietly withdrew, I ventured to ask whose taste this was.
The answer was short and had a decided ring of disapproval in it.
"Her mother's. Mrs. Ocumpaugh believes in simple surroundings for children."
"Yet she dressed Gwendolen like a princess."
"Yes, for the world's eye. But in her own room she wore gingham aprons which effectually covered up her ribbons and laces."
The motive for all this was in a way evident to me, but somehow what I had just seen did not add to my courage for the coming interview.
We stopped at the remotest door of this long hall. As Miss Porter opened it I summoned up all my nerve, and the next moment found myself standing in the presence of the imposing figure of Mrs. Ocumpaugh drawn up in the embrasure of a large window overlooking the Hudson. It was the same window, doubtless, in which she had stood for two nights and a day watching for some sign from the boats engaged in dragging the river-bed. Her back was to me and she seemed to find it difficult to break away from her fixed attitude; for several minutes elapsed before she turned slowly about and showed me her face.
When she did, I stood appalled. Not a vestige of color was to be seen on cheek, lip or brow. She was the beautiful Mrs. Ocumpaugh still, but the heart which had sent the hues of life to her features, was beating slow—slow—and the effect was heartbreaking to one who had seen her in her prime and the full glory of her beauty as wife and mother.
"Pardon," I faltered out, bowing my head as if before some powerful rebuke, though her lips were silent and her eyes pleading rather than accusing. Truly, I had ventured far in daring to recall to this woman an hour which at this miserable time she probably would give her very life to forget. "Pardon," I repeated, with even a more humble intonation than before, for she did not speak and I hardly knew how to begin the conversation. Still she said nothing, and at last I found myself forced to break the unbearable silence by some definite remark.
"I have presumed," I therefore continued, advancing but a step toward her who made no advance at all, "to send you a hurried sketch of one who says he knows you, that you might be sure I was not one of the many eager but irresponsible men who offer help in your great trouble without understanding your history or that of the little one to whose seemingly unaccountable disappearance all are seeking a clue."
The words seemed forced from her, but no change in eye or look accompanied them; nor could I catch a motion of her lips when she presently added in a far-away tone inexpressibly affecting, "Her history! Did he bid you say that?"
"Doctor Pool? He has given me no commands other than to find the child. I am not here as an agent of his. I am here in Mr. Ocumpaugh's interest and your own; with some knowledge—a little more knowledge than others have perhaps—to aid me in the business of recovering this child. Madam, the police are seeking her in the holes and slums of the great city and at the hands of desperate characters who make a living out of the terrors and griefs of the rich. But this is not where I should look for Gwendolen Ocumpaugh. I should look nearer, just as you have looked nearer; and I should use means which I am sure have not commended themselves to the police. These means you can doubtless put in my hands. A mother knows many things in connection with her child which she neither thinks to impart nor would, under any ordinary circumstances, give up, especially to a stranger. I am not a stranger; you have seen me in Mr. Ocumpaugh's confidence; will you then pardon me if I ask what may strike you as impertinent questions, but which may lead to the discovery of the motive if not to the method of the little one's abduction?"
"I do not understand—" She was trying to shake off her apathy. "I feel confused, sick, almost like one dying. How can I help? Haven't I done everything? I believe that she strayed to the river and was drowned. I still believe her dead. Otherwise we should have news—real news—and we don't, we don't."
The intensity with which she uttered the last two words brought a line of red into her gasping lips. She was becoming human, and for a minute I could not help drawing a comparison between her and her friend Mrs. Carew as the latter had just appeared to me in her little half-denuded house on the other side of the hedge-row. Both beautiful, but owing their charms to quite different sources, I surveyed this woman, white against the pale green of the curtain before which she stood, and imperceptibly but surely the glowing attractions of the gay-hearted widow who had found a child to love, faded before the cold loveliness of this bereaved mother, wan with suffering and alive with terrors of whose depth I could judge from the clutch with which she still held my little sketch.
Meanwhile I had attempted some kind of answer to Mrs. Ocumpaugh's heart-rending appeal.
"We do not hear because she was not taken from you simply for the money her return would bring. Indeed, after hours of action and considerable thinking, I am beginning to doubt if she was taken for money at all. Can you not think of some other motive? Do you not know of some one who wanted the child from—love, let us say?"
Did her lips frame it, or did I see it in her eyes? Certainly I heard no sound, yet I was conscious that she repeated the word in her mind, if not aloud.
"I know I have startled you," I pursued. "But, pardon me—I can not help my presumption—I must be personal—I must even go so far as to probe the wound I have made. You have a claim to Gwendolen not to be doubted, not to be gainsaid. But isn't there some one else who is conscious of possessing certain claims also? I do not allude to Mr. Ocumpaugh."
"You mean—some relative—aunt—cousin—" She was fully human now, and very keenly alert. "Mr. Rathbone, perhaps?"
"No, Mrs. Ocumpaugh, none of these." Then as the paper rattled in her hand and I saw her eyes fall in terror on it, I said as calmly and respectfully as I could: "You have a secret, Mrs. Ocumpaugh; that secret I share."
The paper trembled from her clasp and fell fluttering downward. I pointed at it and waited till our eyes met, possibly that I might give her some encouragement from my look if not from my words.
"I was a boy in Doctor Pool's employ some five years ago, and one day—"
I paused; she had made me a supplicating gesture.
"Shall I not go on?" I finally asked.
"Give me a minute," was her low entreaty. "O God! O God! that I should have thought myself secure all these years, with two in the world knowing my fatal secret!"
"I learned it by accident," I went on, when I saw her eye turn again on mine. "On a certain night six years ago, I was in the office behind an old curtain—you remember the curtain hanging at the left of the doctor's table over that break in the book-shelves. I had no business there. I had been meddling with things which did not belong to me and, when I heard the doctor's step at the door, was glad to shrink into this refuge and wait for an opportunity to escape. It did not come very soon. First he had one patient, then another. The last one was you; I heard your name and caught a glimpse of your face as you went out. It was a very interesting story you told him—I was touched by it though I hardly understood."
She was swaying from side to side, swaying so heavily that I instinctively pushed forward a chair.
"Sit," I prayed. "You are not strong enough for this excitement."
She glanced at me vaguely, shook her head, but made no move toward accepting the proffered chair. She submitted, however, when I continued to press it upon her; and I felt less a brute and hard-hearted monster when I saw her sitting with folded hands before me.
"I bring this up," said I, "that you may understand what I mean when I say that some one else—another woman, in fact, may feel her claim upon this child greater than yours."
"You mean the real mother. Is she known? The doctor swore—"
"I do not know the real mother. I only know that you are not; that to win some toleration from your mother-in-law, to make sure of your husband's lasting love, you won the doctor over to a deception which secured a seeming heir to the Ocumpaughs. Whose child was given you, is doubtless known to you—"
I stared, aghast.
"What! You do not know?"
"No, I did not wish to. Nor was she ever to know me or my name."
"Then this hope has also failed. I thought that in this mother, we might find the child's abductor."
"YOU LOOK AS IF—AS IF—"
I had studiously avoided looking at her while these last few words passed between us, but as the silence which followed this final outburst continued, I felt forced to glance her way if only to see what my next move should be. I found her gazing straight at me with a bright spot on either cheek, looking as if seared there by a red-hot iron.
"You are a detective," she said, as our regards met. "You have known this shameful secret always, yet have met my husband constantly and have never told."
"No, I saw no reason."
"Did you never, when you saw how completely my husband was deceived, how fortunes were bequeathed to Gwendolen, gifts lavished on her, her small self made almost an idol of, because all our friends, all our relatives saw in her a true Ocumpaugh, think it wicked to hold your peace and let this all go on as if she were the actual offspring of my husband and myself?"
"No; I may have wondered at your happiness; I may have thought of the consequences if ever he found out, but—"
I dared not go on; the quick, the agonizing nerve of her grief and suffering had been touched and I myself quailed at the result. Stammering some excuse, I waited for her soundless anguish to subside; then, when I thought she could listen, completed my sentence by saying:
"I did not allow my thoughts to stray quite so far, Mrs. Ocumpaugh. Not till my knowledge of your secret promised to be of use did I let it rise to any proportion in my mind. I had too much sympathy for your difficulties; I have to-day."
This hint of comfort, perhaps from the only source which could afford her any, seemed to move her.
"Do you mean that you are my friend?" she cried. "That you would help me, if any help were possible, to keep my secret and—my husband's love?"
I did not know how to dash the first spark of hope I had seen in her from the beginning of this more than painful interview. To avoid it, I temporized a trifle and answered with ready earnestness:
"I would do much, Mrs. Ocumpaugh, to make the consequences of your act as ineffective as possible and still be true to the interests of Mr. Ocumpaugh. If the child can be found—you wish that? You loved her?"
"O yes, I loved her." There was no mistaking the wistfulness of her tone. "Too well, far too well; only my husband more."
"If you can find her—that is the first thing, isn't it?"
It was a faint rejoinder. I looked at her again.
"You do not wish her found," I suddenly declared.
She started, rose to her feet, then suddenly sat again as if she felt that she could not stand.
"What makes you say that? How dare you? how can you say that? My husband loves her, I love her—she is our own child, if not by birth, by every tie which endears a child to a parent. Has that wicked man—"
"Doctor Pool!" I put in, for she stopped, gasping.
"Yes; Doctor Pool, whom I wish to God I had never seen—has he told you any such lies as that? the man who swore—"
I put out my hand to calm her. I feared for her reason if not for her life.
"Be careful," I enjoined. "Your walls are thick but tones like yours are penetrating." Then as I saw she would be answered, I replied to the question still alive in her face: "No; Doctor Pool has not talked of you. I saw it in your own manner, madam; it or something else. Perhaps it was something else—another secret which I have not shared."
She moistened her lips and, placing her two hands on the knobs of the chair in which she sat, leaned passionately forward. Who could say she was cold now? Who could see anything but a feeling heart in this woman, beautiful beyond all precedent in her passion and her woe?
"It is—it was—a secret. I have to confess to the abnormal. The child did not love me; has never loved me. Lavish as I, have been in my affection and caresses, she has never done aught but endure them. Though she believes me her own mother, she has shrunk from me with all the might of her nature from the very first. It was God's punishment for the lie by which I strove to make my husband believe himself the father which in God's providence he was not. I have borne it; but my life has been a living hell. It was that you saw in my face—nothing else."
I was bound to believe her. The child had made her suffer, but she was bent upon recovering her—of course. I dared not contemplate any other alternative. Her love for her husband precluded any other desire on her part. And so I admitted, when after a momentary survey of the task yet before me, I ventured to remark:
"Then we find ourselves once more at the point from which we started. Where shall we look for his child? Mrs. Ocumpaugh, perhaps it would aid us in deciding this question if you told me, sincerely told me, why you had such strong belief in Gwendolen's having been drowned in the river. You did believe this—I saw you at the window. You are not an actress like your friend—you expected to see her body drawn from those waters. For twenty-four hours you expected it, though every one told you it was impossible. Why?"
She crept a step nearer to me, her tones growing low and husky.
"Don't you see? I—I—thought that to escape me, she might have leaped into the water. She was capable of it. Gwendolen had a strong nature. The struggle between duty and repulsion made havoc even in her infantile breast. Besides, we had had a scene that morning—a secret scene in which she showed absolute terror of me. It broke my heart, and when she disappeared in that mysterious way—and—and—one of her shoes was found on the slope, what was I to think but that she had chosen to end her misery—this child! this babe I had loved as my own flesh and blood!—in the river where she had been forbidden to go?"
"Suicide by a child of six! You gave another reason for your persistent belief, at the time, Mrs. Ocumpaugh."
"Was I to give this one?"
"No; no one could expect you to do that, even if there had been no secret to preserve and the child had been your own. But the child did not go to the river. You are convinced of that now, are you not?"
"Where then did she go? Or rather, to what place was she taken? Somewhere near; somewhere within easy reach, for the alarm soon rose and then she could not be found. Mrs. Ocumpaugh, I am going to ask you an apparently trivial and inconsequent question. Was Gwendolen very fond of sweets?"
She was sitting upright now, staring me in the face in unconcealed astonishment and a little fear.
"What sort of candy—pardon me if I seem impertinent—had you in your house on the Wednesday the child disappeared? Any which she could have got at or the nurse given her?"
"There were the confections brought by the caterer; none other that I know of; I did not indulge her much in sweets."
"Was there anything peculiar about these confections either in taste or appearance?"
"I didn't taste them. In appearance they were mostly round and red, with a brandied cherry inside. Why, sir, why do you ask? What have these miserable lumps of sugar to do with Gwendolen?"
"Madam, do you recognize this?"
I took from my pocket the crushed mass of colored sugar and fruit I had picked up from the musty cushions of the old sofa in the walled-up room of the bungalow.
She took it and looked up, staring.
"It is one of them," she cried. "Where did you get it? You look as if—as if—"
"I had come upon a clue to Gwendolen? Madam, I believe I have. This candy has been held in a hot little hand. Miss Graham or one of the girls must have given it to her as she ran through the dining-room or across the side veranda on her way to the bungalow. She did not eat it offhand; she evidently fell asleep before eating it, but she clutched it very tight, only dropping it, I judge, when her muscles were quite relaxed by sleep; and then not far; the folds of her dress caught it, for—"
"What are you telling me?" The interruption was sudden, imperative. "I saw Gwendolen asleep; she held a string in her hand but no candy, and if she did—"
"Did you examine both hands, madam? Think! Great issues hang on a right settlement of this fact. Can you declare that she did not have this candy in one of her little hands?"
"No, I can not declare that."
"Then I shall always believe she did, and this same sweetmeat, this morsel from the table set for your guests on the afternoon of the sixteenth of this month, I found last night in the disused portion of the bungalow walled up by Mr. Ocumpaugh's father, but made accessible since by an opening let into the floor from the cellar. This latter I was enabled to reach by means of a trap-door concealed under the rug in the open part of this same building."
"I—I am all confused. Say that again," she pleaded, starting once more to her feet, but this time without meeting my eyes. "In the disused part of the bungalow? How came you there? No one ever goes there—it is a forbidden place."
"The child has been there—and lately."
"Oh!" her fingers began to tremble and twist themselves together. "You have something more than this to tell me. Gwendolen has been found and—" her looks became uncertain and wandered, as I thought, toward the river.
"She has not been found, but the woman who carried her into that place will soon be discovered."
I had risen by this time and could answer her on a level and face to face.
"Because the trail of her steps leads straight along the cellar floor. We have but to measure these footprints."
"We find the abductor."
A silence, during which one long breath issued from her lips.
"Was it a man's or woman's steps?" she finally asked.
"A woman's, daintily shod; a woman of about the size of—"
"Who? Why do you play with my anguish?"
"Because I hate to mention the name of a friend."
"Ah! What do you know of my friends?"
"Not much. I happened to meet one of them, and as she is a very fine woman with exquisitely shod feet, I naturally think of her."
"What do you mean?" Her hand was on my arm, her face close to mine. "Speak! speak! the name!"
I had purposely refrained up to this moment from bringing this lady, even by a hint, into the conversation. I did it now under an inner protest. But I had not dared to leave it out. The footprints I alluded to were startlingly like those left by her in other parts of the cellar floor; besides, I felt it my duty to see how Mrs. Ocumpaugh bore this name, notwithstanding my almost completely restored confidence in its owner.
She did not bear it well. She flushed and turned quickly from my side, walking away to the window, where she again took up her stand.
"You would have shown better taste by not following your first impulse," she remarked. "Mrs. Carew's footsteps in that old cellar! You presume, sir, and make me lose confidence in your judgment."
"Not at all. Mrs. Carew's feet have been all over that cellar floor. She accompanied me through it last night, at the time I found this crushed bonbon."
I could see that Mrs. Ocumpaugh was amazed, well-nigh confounded, but her manner altered from that moment.
"Tell me about it."
And I did. I related the doubts I had felt concerning the completeness of the police investigation as regarded the bungalow; my visit there at night with Mrs. Carew, and the discoveries we had made. Then I alluded again to the footprints and the important clue they offered.
"But the child?" she interrupted. "Where is the child? If taken there, why wasn't she found there? Don't you see that your conclusions are all wild—incredible? A dream? An impossibility?"
"I go by the signs," I replied. "There seems to be nothing else to go by."
"And you want—you intend, to measure those steps?"
"That is why I am here, Mrs. Ocumpaugh. To request permission to continue this investigation and to ask for the key to the bungalow. Mrs. Carew's is no longer available; or rather, I should prefer to proceed without it."