With sudden impulse she advanced rapidly toward me.
"What is Mrs. Carew doing this morning?" she asked.
"Preparing for departure. She is quite resolved to sail to-day. Do you wish to see her? Do you wish her confirmation of my story? I think she will come, if you send for her."
"There is no need." This after an instant's hesitation. "I have perfect confidence in Mrs. Carew; and in you too," she added, with what she meant for a kind look. She was by nature without coquetry, and this attempt to please, in the midst of an overwhelming distress absorbing all her faculties, struck me as the most pitiful effort I had ever seen. My feeling for her made it very hard for me to proceed.
"Then I may go on?" I said.
"Of course, of course. I don't know where the key is; I shall have to give orders. You will wait a few minutes, somewhere in one of the adjoining rooms, while I look up Mr. Atwater?"
She was trembling, feverish, impatient.
"Shall I not look up Mr. Atwater for you?" I asked.
"No. I am feeling better. I can go myself."
In another moment she had left the room, having forgotten her own suggestion that I should await her return in some adjoining apartment.
Five minutes—ten minutes—elapsed and I became greatly impatient. I walked the floor; I stared from the window; I did everything I could think of to pass away these unendurable moments of suspense with creditable self-possession. But I failed utterly.
As the clock ticked off the quarter hour, and then the half, I grew not only impatient but seriously alarmed, and flinging down the book I had taken up as a last resort, stepped from the room, in the hope of coming across some one in the hall whom I could interrogate.
But the house seemed strangely quiet, and when I had walked the full length of the hall without encountering either maid or mistress, I summoned up courage to return to the room I had left and ring the bell.
No answer, though I waited long for it.
Thinking that I had not pressed the button hard enough, I made a second attempt, but again there was no answer.
Was anything amiss? Had she—
My thought did not complete itself. In sudden apprehension of I knew not what, I dashed from the room and made my way down stairs without further ceremony.
The unnatural stillness which had attracted my attention above was repeated on the floor below. No one in the rooms, no one in the passages.
Disturbed as I had not been yet by anything which had occurred in connection with this harrowing affair, I leaped to the nearest door and stepped out on the lawn.
My first glance was toward the river. All was as usual there. With my worst fears dispelled, but still a prey to doubts for which as yet I had no name, I moved toward the kitchen windows, expecting of course to find some one there who would explain the situation to me. But not a head appeared at my call. The kitchen, too, was deserted.
"This is not chance," I involuntarily exclaimed, and was turning toward the stables when I perceived a child, the son of one of the gardeners, crossing the lawn at a run, and hailing him, asked where everybody had gone that the house seemed deserted.
He looked back but kept on running, shouting as he did so:
"I guess they're all down at the bungalow! I'm going there. Men are digging up the cellar. Mrs. Ocumpaugh says she's afraid Miss Gwendolen's body is buried there."
Aghast and perhaps a trifle conscience-stricken, I stood stock-still in the sunshine. So this was what I had done! Driven her to frenzy; roused her imagination to such a point that she saw her darling—always her darling even if another woman's child—lying under the clay across which I had attempted simply to prove that she had been carried. Or—no! I would not think that! A detective of my experience outwitted by this stricken, half-dead woman whom I had trembled to see try to stand upon her feet? Impossible! Yet the thought brought the blood to my cheek.
Digging up the bungalow cellar! That meant destroying those footprints before I had secured a single impression of the same. I should have roused her curiosity only, not her terror.
Now all might be lost unless I could arrive in time to—do what? Order the work stopped? With what face could I do that with her standing by in all the authority of motherhood—frenzied motherhood—seeking the possible body of her child! My affair certainly looked dubious. Yet I started for the bungalow like the rest, and on a run, too. Perhaps Providence would favor me and some expedient suggest itself by which I might still save the clue upon which so many hopes hung.
The excitement which had now drawn every person on the place in the one direction, was at its height as I burst through the thicket into the path running immediately about the bungalow. Those who could get in at the door had done so, filling the room whence Gwendolen had disappeared, with awe-struck men and chattering women. Some had been allowed to descend through the yawning trap-door, down which all were endeavoring to peer, and, fortified by this fact, I armed myself with an appearance of authority despite my sense of presumption, and pushed and worked my own way to these steps, saying that I had come to aid Mrs. Ocumpaugh, whose attention I declared I had been the first to direct to this place.
Struck with my manner if not with my argument, they yielded to my importunity and allowed me to pass down. The stroke of the spade and the harsh voice of the man directing the work greeted my disquieted ears. With a bound I cleared the last half-dozen steps and, alighting on the cellar bottom, was soon able, in spite of the semi-darkness, to look about me and get some notion of the scene.
A dozen men were working—the full corps of gardeners without doubt—and a single glance sufficed to show me that such of the surface as had not been upturned by their spades had been harried by their footsteps. Useless now to promulgate my carefully formed theory, with any hope of proof to substantiate it. The crushed bonbon, the piled-up boxes and the freshly sawed hole were enough without doubt to establish the fact that the child had been carried into the walled-up room above, but the link which would have fixed the identity of the person so carrying her was gone from my chain of evidence for ever. She who should have had the greatest interest in establishing this evidence was leaning on the arm of Miss Porter and directing, with wavering finger and a wild air, the movements of the men, who, in a frenzy caught from her own, dug here and dug there as that inexorable finger pointed.
Sobs choked Miss Porter; but Mrs. Ocumpaugh was beyond all such signs of grief. Her eyes moved; her breast heaved; now and then a confused command left her lips, but that was all. Yet to me she was absolutely terrifying, and it took all the courage left from my disappointment for me to move so as to attract her attention. When I saw that I had succeeded in doing this, I regretted the impulse which had led me to break into her mood. The change which my sudden appearance caused in her was too abrupt; too startling. I feared the effects, and put up my hand in silent deprecation as her lips essayed to move in what might be some very disturbing command. If she heeded it I can not say. What she said was this:
"It's the child—I'm looking for the child! She was brought here. You proved that she was brought here. Then why don't we find her, or—or her little innocent body?"
I did not attempt an answer; I dared not—I merely turned away into a corner, where I should be out of the way of the men. A thought was rising in my mind; a thought which might have led to some definite action if her voice had not risen shrilly and with a despairing utterance in these words:
"Useless! It is not here she will be found. I was mad to think it. Pull up your spades and go."
A murmur of relief from one end of the cellar to the other, and every spade was drawn out of the ground.
"I could have told you," ventured one more hardy than the rest, "that there was no use disturbing this old clay for any such purpose. Any one could see that no spade has been at work here before in years."
"I said that I was mad," she repeated, and waved the men away.
Slowly they retreated with clattering spades and a heavy tread. The murmur which greeted them above slowly died out, and the bungalow was deserted by all but our three selves. When quite sure of this, I turned, and Miss Porter's eyes met mine with a reproachful glance easy enough for me to understand.
"I will go, too," whispered Mrs. Ocumpaugh. "Oh! this has been like losing my darling for the second time!"
Real grief is unmistakable. Recognizing the heartfelt tone in which these words were uttered, I recurred to the idea of frenzy with all the sympathy her situation called for. Yet I felt that I could not let her leave before we had come to some understanding. But how express myself? How say here and now in the presence of a sympathetic but unenlightened third party what it would certainly be difficult enough for me to utter to herself in the privacy of that secluded apartment in which we had met and talked before our confidence was broken into by this impetuous act of hers.
Not seeing at the moment any natural way out of my difficulties, I stood in painful confusion, conscious of Miss Porter's eyes and also conscious that unless some miracle came to my assistance I must henceforth play but a sorry figure in this affair, when my eyes, which had fallen to the ground, chanced upon a morsel of paper so insignificant in size and of such doubtful appearance that the two ladies must have wondered to see me stoop and with ill-concealed avidity pick it up and place it in my pocket.
Mrs. Ocumpaugh, whose false strength was fast leaving her, now muttered some words which were quite unintelligible to me, though they caused Miss Porter to make me a motion very expressive of a dismissal. I did not accept it as such, however, without making one effort to regain my advantage. At the foot of the steps I paused and glanced back at Mrs. Ocumpaugh. She was still looking my way, but her chin had fallen on her breast, and she seemed to sustain herself erect only by a powerful effort. Again her pitiable and humiliating position appealed to me, and it was with some indication of feeling that I finally said:
"Am I not to have an opportunity of finishing the conversation so unhappily interrupted, Mrs. Ocumpaugh? I am not satisfied, and I do not believe you can be, with the partial disclosures I then made. Afford me, I pray, a continuation of that interview, if only to make plain to me your wishes. Otherwise I may fall into some mistake—say or do something which I might regret—for matters can not stand where they are. You know that, do you not, madam?"
"Adele! go! go!" This to Miss Porter. "I must have a few words more with Mr. Trevitt. I had forgotten what I owe him in the frenzy which possessed me."
"Do you wish to talk to him here?" asked that lady, with very marked anxiety.
"No, no; it is too cold, too dark. I think I can walk to Mrs. Carew's. Will you join me there, Mr. Trevitt?"
I bowed; but as she passed near me in going out, I whispered in her ear:
"I should suggest that we hold our talk anywhere but at Mrs. Carew's house, since she is liable to be the chief subject of our conversation."
"Now, more than ever. Her share in the child's disappearance was not eliminated or affected in any way by the destruction of her footprints."
"I will go back to the house; I will see him in my own room," Mrs. Ocumpaugh suddenly announced to her greatly disturbed companion. "Mr. Trevitt will follow in a few minutes. I must have time to think—to compose myself—to decide—"
She was evidently thinking aloud. Anxious to save her from any self-betrayal, I hastily interrupted her, saying quietly:
"I will be at your boudoir door in a half-hour from now. I myself have something to think of in the interim."
"Be careful!" It was Miss Porter who stopped to utter this word in my ear. "Be very careful, I entreat. Her heart-strings are strained almost to breaking."
I answered with a look. She could not be more conscious of this than I was.
"WHAT DO YOU KNOW?"
I was glad of that half-hour. I, too, wanted a free moment in which to think and examine the small scrap of paper I had picked up from this cellar floor. In the casual glance I had given it, it had seemed to offer me a fresh clue, quite capable of replacing the old one; and I did not change my mind on a second examination; the shape, the hue, the few words written on it, even the musty smell pervading it, all going to prove it to be the one possible link which could reunite the chain whose continuity I had believed to be gone for ever.
Rejoicing in my good luck, yet conscious of still moving in very troubled waters, I cast a glance in the direction of Mrs. Carew's house, from the door of the bungalow whence I had seen Mrs. Ocumpaugh depart, and asked myself why Mrs. Carew, of all persons in the vicinity, had been the only one to hang back from this scene of excitement. It was not like her to hide herself at such a crisis (how invariably she had followed me in each and every visit I had paid here!), and though I remembered all her reasons for preoccupation, her absence under the present conditions bore an aspect of guilt which sent my mind working in a direction which was not entirely new to me, but which I had not as yet resolutely faced.
Guilt! The word recalled that other and similar one uttered by Mr. Rathbone in that adventure which had impressed me as so unreal, and still held its place in my mind as something I had dreamed.
He was looking up when he said it, up the hill, up toward Mrs. Carew's house. He had struck his own breast, but he had looked up, not down; and though I had naturally associated the word he had used with himself—and Miss Graham, with a womanly intuition, had supplied me with an explanation of the same which was neither far-fetched nor unnatural, yet all through this day of startling vicissitudes and unimaginable interviews, faint doubts, bidden and unbidden, had visited my mind, which at this moment culminated in what I might call the irresistible question as to whether he might not have had in mind some one nearer and dearer than himself when he uttered that accusing word.
Her position, as I saw it now, did not make this supposition too monstrous for belief; that is, if she secretly loved this man who did not dare, or was too burdened with responsibility, to woo her. And who can penetrate a woman's mind? To give him—possibly without his knowledge—what every one who knew him declared him to stand in special need of—money and relief from too exacting work—might have seemed motive enough to one of her warm and impulsive temperament, for eliminating the child she cared for, but not as she cared for him. It was hard to think it; it would be harder yet to act upon it; but the longer I stood there brooding, the more I felt my conviction grow that from her and from her alone, we should yet obtain definite traces of the missing child, if only Mrs. Ocumpaugh would uphold me in the attempt.
But would Mrs. Ocumpaugh do this? I own that I had my doubts. Some hidden cause or instinct which I had not been able to reach, though I had plunged deep into the most galling secrets of her life, seemed to stand in the way of her full acceptance of the injury I believed her to have received from Mrs. Carew; or rather, in the way of her public acknowledgment of it. Though she would fain have this upturning of the bungalow cellar pass for an act of frenzy, I could not quite bring myself to look upon it as such since taking a final observation of its condition.
Though her professed purpose had been to seek the body of her child, the spades had not gone deeper than their length. It had been harrowing, not digging, she had ordered, and harrowing meant nothing more than an obliteration of the footprints which I had menaced her with comparing with those of Mrs. Carew. Why this show of consideration to one she might call friend, but who could hold no comparison in her mind with the safely or recovery of the child which, if not hers, was the beloved object of her husband's heart and only too deeply cherished by herself? Did she fear her charming neighbor? Was the bond between them founded on something besides love, and did she apprehend that a discovery of Mrs. Carew's connection with Gwendolen's disappearance would only precipitate her own disgrace and open up to public recognition the false relationship she held toward the little heiress? Hard questions these, but ones which must soon be faced and answered; for wretched as was Mrs. Ocumpaugh's position and truly as I sympathized with her misery, I was none the less resolved, to force such acknowledgments from her as would allow me to approach Mrs. Carew with a definite accusation such as even that daring spirit could not withstand.
Thus resolved, and resisting all temptation to hazard an interview with the latter lady before I had seen Mrs. Ocumpaugh again, I made my way up slowly through the grounds and entered by the side door just as my watch told me that the half-hour of my waiting was over.
Miss Porter was in the upper hall, but turned aside at my approach with a meaning gesture in the direction of the boudoir. I thought that her eyes looked red; certainly she was trembling very much; and with this poor preparation for an interview before which the strongest and most experienced man might quail, I advanced for the second time that morning to the door behind which the distracted mother awaited me.
If I knocked I do not remember it. I rather think she opened the door for me herself upon hearing my step in the hall. At all events we were soon standing again face to face, and the battle of our two wills—for it would be nothing less now—had begun.
She was the first to speak. Braving my inquiring look with eyes in whose depths determination struggled with growing despair, she asked me peremptorily, almost wildly:
"Have you told any one? Do you mean to publish my shame to the world? I see decision in your face. Does it mean that? Tell me! Does it mean that?"
"No, madam; far be it from me to harbor such an intention unless driven to it by the greatest necessity. Your secret is your own; my only reason for betraying my knowledge of it was the hope I cherished of its affording us some clue to the identity of Gwendolen's abductor. It has not done so yet, may never do so; then let us leave that topic and return to the clue offered by the carrying of that child into the long-closed room back of the bungalow. Mrs. Ocumpaugh, intentionally or unintentionally, the proof upon which I relied for settling the identity of the person so carrying her has been destroyed."
With a flush which her seemingly bloodless condition made perfectly startling, she drew back, breaking into wild disclaimers:
"I know—I fear—I was too wild—too eager. I thought only of what might lie under that floor."
"In a half-foot of earth, madam? The spades did not enter any deeper."
With a sudden access of courage, born possibly of her despair, she sought neither to attempt denial nor palliate the fact.
"And if this was my intention—though I don't acknowledge it—you must recognize my reason. I do not believe—you can not make me believe—that Gwendolen was carried into that room by Mrs. Carew. But I could see that you believed it, and to save her the shame of such an accusation and all that might follow from it, I—oh, Mr. Trevitt, you do not think this possible! Do you know so little of the impulses of a mind, bewildered as mine has been by intolerable suffering?"
"I can understand madness, and I am willing to think that you were mad just then—especially as no harm has been done and I can still accuse Mrs. Carew of a visit to that room, with the proof in my hand."
"What do you mean?" The steady voice was faltering, but I could not say with what emotion—hope for herself—doubt of me—fear for her friend; it might have been any of these; it might have been all. "Was there a footprint left, then? You say proof. Do you mean proof? A detective does not use that word lightly."
"You may be sure that I would not," I returned. Then in answer to the appeal of her whole attitude and expression: "No, there were no footprints left; but I came upon something else which I have sufficient temerity to believe will answer the same purpose. Remember that my object is first to convince you and afterward Mrs. Carew, that it will be useless for her to deny that she has been in that room. Once that is understood, the rest will come easy; for we know the child was there, and it is not a place she could have found alone."
"The proof!" She had no strength for more than that "The proof! Mr. Trevitt, the proof!"
I put my hand in my pocket, then drew it out again empty, making haste, however, to say:
"Mrs. Ocumpaugh, I do not want to distress you, but I must ask you a few questions first. Do you know the secret of that strangely divided room?"
"Only in a general way. Mr. Ocumpaugh has never told me."
"You have not seen the written account of it?"
"Nor given into Mrs. Carew's hand such an account?"
Mrs. Carew's duplicity was assuming definite proportions.
"Yet there is such an account and I have listened to a reading of it."
"Yes, madam. Mrs. Carew read it to me last night in her own house. She told me it came to her from your hands. You see she is not always particular in her statements."
A lift of the hand, whether in deprecation or appeal I could not say, was all the answer this received. I saw that I must speak with the utmost directness.
"This account was in the shape of a letter on several sheets of paper. These sheets were very old, and were torn as well as discolored. I had them in my hand and noticed that a piece was lacking from one of them. Mrs. Ocumpaugh, are you ready to repeat that Mrs. Carew did not receive this old letter from you or obtain it in any way you know of from the house we are now in?"
"I had rather not be forced to contradict Mrs. Carew," was the low reply; "but in justice to you I must acknowledge that I hear of this letter for the first time. God grant—but what can any old letter have to do with the agonizing question before us? I am not strong, Mr. Trevitt—I am suffering—do not confuse and burden me, I pray—"
"Pardon, I am not saying one unnecessary word. These old sheets—a secret from the family—did not come from this house. Whence, then, did they come into Mrs. Carew's possession? I see you have forestalled my answer; and if you will now glance at this end of paper, picked up by me in your presence from the cellar floor across which we both know that her footsteps have passed, you will see that it is a proof capable of convicting her of the fact."
I held out the scrap I now took from my pocket.
Mrs. Ocumpaugh's hand refused to take it or her eyes to consult it.
Nevertheless I still held it out.
"Pray read the few words you will find there," I urged. "They are in explanation of the document itself, but they will serve to convince you that the letter to which they were attached, and which is now in Mrs. Carew's hands, came from that decaying room."
"No, no!" The gesture which accompanied this exclamation was more than one of refusal, it was that of repulse. "I can not see—I do not need to—I am convinced."
"Pardon me, but that is not enough, Mrs. Ocumpaugh. I want you to be certain. Let me read these words. The story they prefaced is unknown to you; let it remain so; all I need to tell you about it is this: that it was written by Mr. Ocumpaugh's father—he who raised this partition and who is the undoubted author of these lines. Remember that they headed the letter:
"'Perish with the room whose ceiling oozes blood! If in time to come any man reads these lines, he will know why I pulled down the encircling wall built by my father, and why I raised a new one across this end of the pavilion.'"
Mrs. Ocumpaugh's eyes opened wide in horror.
"Blood!" she repeated. "A ceiling oozing blood!"
"An old superstition, Mrs. Ocumpaugh, quite unworthy your attention at this moment. Do not let your mind dwell upon that portion of what I have read, but on the word 'room'. 'Perish with the room!' We know what room was meant; there can be but one. I have myself seen the desk from which these sheets were undoubtedly taken—and for them to be in the hand of a certain person argues—" Mrs. Ocumpaugh's hand went up in dissuasion, but I relentlessly finished—"that she has been in that room! Are you more than convinced of this now? Are you sure?"
She did not need to make reply; eyes and attitude spoke for her. But it was the look and attitude of despair, not hope. Evidently she had the very greatest reason to fear Mrs. Carew, who possibly had her hard side as well as her charming one.
To ease the situation, I spoke what was in both our minds.
"I see that you are sure. That makes my duty very plain, Mrs. Ocumpaugh. My next visit must be upon Mrs. Carew."
The spirit which, from the beginning of this later interview, had infused fresh strength into her feeble frame, seemed to forsake her at this simple declaration; her whole form drooped, and the eyes, which had rested on mine, turned in their old way to the river.
I took advantage of this circumstance.
"Some one who knows you well, who knows the child well, dropped the wrong shoe into the river."
A murmur, nothing more, from Mrs. Ocumpaugh's set lips.
"Could it—I do not say that it was—I don't see any reason why it should be—but could it have been Mrs. Carew?"
Not a sound this time, not a sound.
"She was down at the dock that night. Did you know it?"
A gesture, but whether of assent or dissent I could not tell.
"We know of no other person who was there but the men employed."
"What do you know?"
With all her restraint gone—a suffering and despairing woman, Mrs. Ocumpaugh was on her knees, grasping my arm with both hands.
"Quit this torture! tell me that you know it all and leave me to—to—die!"
I was confounded; and as I looked at her face, strained back in wild appeal, I was more than confounded, I was terrified.
"Madam, what does this mean? Are you—you—"
"Lock the door!" she cried; "no one must come in here now. I have said so much that I must say more. Listen and be my friend; oh, be my friend! Those were my footsteps you saw in the bungalow. It was I who carried Gwendolen into that secret hole."
Had I suspected this? Had all my efforts for the last half-hour been for the purpose of entrapping her into some such avowal? I do not know. My own feelings at the time are a mystery to me; I blundered on, with a blow here and a blow there, till I hit this woman in a vital spot, and achieved the above mentioned result.
I was not happy when I reached it. I felt no elation; scarcely any relief. It all seemed so impossible. She marked the signs of incredulity in my face and spoke up quickly, almost sharply:
"You do not believe me. I will prove the truth of what I say. Wait—wait!"—and running to a closet, she pulled out a drawer—where was her weakness now?—and brought from it a pair of soiled white slippers. "If the house had been ransacked," she proceeded pantingly, "these would have told their own tale. I was shocked when I saw their condition, and kept my guests waiting till I changed them. Oh, they will fit the footprints." Her smile was ghastly. Softly she set the shoes down. "Mrs. Carew helped me; she went for the child at night. Oh, we are in a terrible strait, we two, unless you will stand by us like a friend—and you will do that, won't you, Mr. Trevitt? No one else knows what I have just confessed—not even Doctor Pool, though he suspects me in ways I never dreamed of. Money shall not stand in the way—I have a fortune of my own now—nothing shall stand in the way, if you will have pity on Mrs. Carew and myself and help us to preserve our secret."
"Madam, what secret? I pray you to make me acquainted with the whole matter in all its details before you ask my assistance."
"Then you do not know it?"
"Not altogether, and I must know it altogether. First, what has become of the child?"
"She is safe and happy. You have seen her; you mentioned doing so just now."
I rose before her in intense excitement. What a plot! I stood aghast at its daring and the success it had so nearly met with.
"I've had moments of suspicion," I admitted, after a short examination of this beautiful woman's face for the marks of strength which her part in this plot seemed to call for. "But they all vanished before Mrs. Carew's seemingly open manner and the perfect boyishness of the child. Is she an actress too—Gwendolen?"
"Not when she plays horse and Indian and other boyish games. She is only acting out her nature. She has no girl tastes; she is all boy, and it was by means of these instincts that Mrs. Carew won her. She promised her that if she would leave home and go with her to Europe she would cut her hair and call her Harry, and dress her so that every one would think her a boy. And she promised her something else—that she should go to her father—Gwendolen idolizes Mr. Ocumpaugh."
"I know. You wonder why, if I loved my husband, I should send away the one cherished object of his life. It is because our love was threatened by this very object. I saw nothing but death and chaos before me if I kept her. My husband adores the child, but he hates and despises a falsehood and my secret was threatened by the one man who knows it—your Doctor Pool. My accomplice once, he declared himself ready to become my accuser if the child remained under the Ocumpaugh roof one day after the date he fixed for her removal."
"Ah!" I ejaculated, with sudden comprehension of the full meaning of the scrawls I had seen in so many parts of the grounds. "And by what right did he demand this? What excuse did he give you? His wish for money, immense money—old miser that he is!"
"No; for money I could have given him. His motive is a less tangible one. He has scruples, he says—religious scruples following a change of heart. Oh, he was a cruel man to meet, determined, inexorable. I could not move or influence him. The proffer of money only hurt my cause. A fraud had been perpetrated, he said, and Mr. Ocumpaugh must know it. Would I confess the truth to him myself? No. Then he would do so for me and bring proofs to substantiate his statements. I thought all was lost—my husband's confidence, his love, his pleasure even in the child, for it was his own blood that he loved in her, and her connection with his family of whose prestige he has an exaggerated idea. Made desperate by the thought, I faced this cruel doctor—(it was in his own office; he had presumed upon that old secret linking us together to summon me there)—and told him solemnly that rather than do this I would kill myself. And he almost bade me, 'Kill!' but refrained when the word had half left his lips and changed it to a demand for the child's immediate removal from the benefits it enjoyed under false pretenses."
And from this Mrs. Ocumpaugh went on to relate how he had told her that Gwendolen had inherited fortunes because she was believed to be an Ocumpaugh; that not being an Ocumpaugh she must never handle those fortunes, winding up with some such language as this: "Manage it how you will, only relieve me from the oppression of feeling myself a party to the grossest of deceptions. Can not the child run away and be lost? I am willing to aid you in that, even to paying for her bringing up in some decent, respectable way, such as would probably have been her lot if you had not interfered to place her in the way of millions." It was a mad thought, half meant and apparently wholly impossible to carry out without raising suspicions as damaging as confession itself. But it took an immediate hold upon the miserable woman he addressed, though she gave little evidence of it, for he proceeded to add in a hard tone: "That or immediate confession to your husband, with me by to substantiate your story. No slippery woman's tricks will go down with me. Fix the date here and now and I promise to stand back and await the result in total silence. Dally with it by so much as an hour, and I am at your gates with a story that all must hear." Is it a matter of wonder that the stricken woman, without counsel and prohibited, from the very nature of her secret, from seeking counsel uttered the first one that came to mind and went home to brood over her position and plan how she could satisfy his demands with the least cost to herself, her husband and the child?
Mr. Ocumpaugh was in Europe. This was her one point of comfort. What was done could be done in his absence, and this fact greatly minimized any risk she was likely to incur. When he returned he would find the house in mourning, for she had already decided within herself that only by apparent death could this child be safely robbed of her endowments as an Ocumpaugh and an heiress. He would grieve, but his grief would lack the sting of shame, and so in course of time would soften into a lovely memory of one who had been as the living sunshine to him and, like the sunshine, brief in its shining. Thus and thus only could she show her consideration for him. For herself no consideration was possible. It must always be her fate to know the child alive yet absolutely removed from her. This was a sorrow capable of no alleviation, for Gwendolen was passionately dear to her, all the dearer, perhaps, because the mother-thirst had never been satisfied; because she had held the cup in hand but had never been allowed to drink. The child's future—how to rob her of all she possessed, yet secure her happiness and the prospect of an honorable estate—ah, there was the difficulty! and one she quite failed to solve till, in a paroxysm of terror and despair, after five sleepless nights, she took Mrs. Carew into her confidence and implored her aid.
The free, resourceful, cheery nature of the broader-minded woman saw through the difficulty at once. "Give her to me," she cried. "I love little children passionately and have always grieved over my childless condition. I will take Gwendolen, raise her and fill her little heart so full of love she will never miss the magnificence she has been brought to look upon as her birthright. Only I shall have to leave this vicinity—perhaps the country."
"And you would be willing?" asked the poor mother—mother by right of many years of service, if not of blood.
The answer broke her heart though it was only a smile. But such a smile—confident, joyous, triumphant; the smile of a woman who has got her heart's wish, while she, she, must henceforth live childless.
So that was settled, but not the necessary ways and means of accomplishment; those came only with time. The two women had always been friends, so their frequent meetings in the green boudoir did not waken a suspicion. A sudden trip to Europe was decided on by Mrs. Carew and by degrees the whole plot perfected. In her eyes it looked feasible enough and they both anticipated complete success. Having decided that the scheme as planned by them could be best carried out in the confusion of a great entertainment, cards were sent out for the sixteenth, the date agreed upon in the doctor's office as the one which should see a complete change in Gwendolen's prospects. It was also settled that on the same day Mrs. Carew should bring home, from a certain small village in Connecticut, her little nephew who had lately been left an orphan. There was no deception about this nephew. Mrs. Carew had for some time supplied his needs and paid for his board in the farm-house where he had been left, and in the emergency which had just come up, she took care to publish to all her friends that she was going to bring him home and take him with her to Europe. Further, a market-man and woman with whom Mrs. Carew had had dealings for years were persuaded to call at her house shortly after three that afternoon, to take this nephew of hers by a circuitous and prolonged ride through the country to an institution in which she had had him entered under an assumed name. All this in one day.
Meanwhile Mrs. Carew undertook to open with her own hands a passage from the cellar of the bungalow into the long closed room behind the partition. This was to insure such a safe retreat for the child during the first search, that by no possibility could anything be found to contradict the testimony of the little shoe which Mrs. Ocumpaugh purposed presenting to all eyes as found on the slope leading to that great burial-place, the river. Otherwise the child might have been passed over to Mrs. Carew at once. All this being decided upon, each waited to perform the part assigned her—Mrs. Carew in a fever of delight—for she was passionately devoted to Gwendolen and experienced nothing but rapture at the prospect of having this charming child all to herself—Mrs. Ocumpaugh, whose only recompense would be freedom from a threatening exposure which would cost her the only thing she prized, her husband's love, in a condition of cold dread, relieved only by the burning sense of the necessity of impressing upon the whole world, and especially upon Mr. Ocumpaugh, an absolute belief in the child's death.
This was her first care. To this her mind clung with an agony of purpose which was the fittest preparation possible for real display of feeling when the time came. But she forgot one thing—they both forgot one thing—that chance or Providence might ordain that witnesses should be on the road below Homewood to prove that the child did not cross the track at the time of her disappearance. To them it seemed enough to plead the child's love for the water, her desire to be allowed to fish, the opportunity given her to escape, and—the little shoes. Such short-sightedness in face of a great peril could be pardoned Mrs. Ocumpaugh on the verge of delirium under her cold exterior, but Mrs. Carew should have taken this possibility into account; and would have done so, probably, had she not been completely absorbed in the part she would be called upon to play when the exchange of children should be made and Gwendolen be intrusted to her charge within a dozen rods of her own home. This she could dwell on with the whole force of her mind; this she could view in all its relations and make such a study of as to provide herself against all contingencies. But the obvious danger of a gang of men being placed just where they could serve as witnesses, in contradiction of the one fact upon which the whole plot was based, never even struck her imagination.
The nursery-governess whose heart was divided between her duty to the child and her strong love of music, was chosen as their unconscious accomplice in this fraud. As the time for the great musicale approached, she was bidden to amuse Gwendolen in the bungalow, with the understanding that if the child fell asleep she might lay her on the divan and so far leave her as to take her place on the bench outside where the notes of the solo singers could reach her. That Gwendolen would fall asleep and fall asleep soon, the wretched mother well knew, for she had given her a safe but potent sleeping draft which could not fail to insure a twelve hours' undisturbed slumber to so healthy a child. The fact that the little one had shrunk more than ever from her attentions that morning both hurt and encouraged her. Certainly it would make it easier for Mrs. Carew to influence Gwendolen. In her own mind filled with terrible images of her husband's grief and her long prospective dissimulation, one picture rose in brilliant contrast to the dark one embodying her own miserable future and that of the soon-to-be bereaved father. It was that of the perfect joy of the hungry-hearted child in the arms of the woman she loved best. It brought her cheer—it brought her anguish. It was a salve to her conscience and a mortal thrust in an already festering wound. She shut it from her eyes as much as possible,—and so, the hour came.
We know its results—how far the scheme succeeded and whence its great failure arose. Gwendolen fell asleep almost immediately on reaching the bungalow and Miss Graham, dreaming no harm and having the most perfect confidence in Mrs. Ocumpaugh, took advantage of the permission she had received, and slipped outside to sit on the bench and listen to the music. Presently Mrs. Ocumpaugh appeared, saying that she had left her guests for a moment just to take a look at Gwendolen and see if all were well with her.
As she needed no attendance, Miss Graham might stay where she was. And Miss Graham did, taking great pleasure in the music, which was the finest she had ever heard. Meanwhile Mrs. Ocumpaugh entered the bungalow, and, untying the child's shoes as she had frequently done before when she found her asleep, she lifted her and carried her just as she was down the trap, the door of which she had previously raised. The darkness lurking in such places, a darkness which had rendered it so impenetrable at midnight, was relieved to some extent in daylight by means of little grated openings in the wall under the beams, so that her chief difficulty lay in holding up her long dress and sustaining the heavy child at the same time. But the exigency of the moment and her apprehension lest Miss Graham should reenter the bungalow before she could finish her task and escape, gave great precision to her movements, and in an incredibly short space of time she had reached those musty precincts which, if they should not prove the death of the child, would safely shelter her from every one's eye, till the first excitement of her loss was over, and the conviction of her death by drowning became a settled fact in every mind.
Mrs. Ocumpaugh's return was a flight. She had brought one of the little shoes with her, concealed in a pocket she had made especially for it in the trimmings of her elaborate gown. She found the bungalow empty, the trap still raised, and Miss Graham, toward whom she cast a hurried look through the window, yet in her place, listening with enthralled attention to the great tenor upon whose magnificent singing Mrs. Ocumpaugh had relied for the successful carrying out of what she and Mrs. Carew considered the most critical part of the plot. So far then, all was well. She had but to drop the trap-door carefully to its place, replace the corner of the carpet she had pulled up, push down with her foot the two or three nails she had previously loosened, and she would be quite at liberty to quit the place and return to her guests.
But she found that this was not as easy as she had imagined. The clogs of a terrible, almost a criminal, consciousness held back her steps. She stumbled as she left the bungalow and stopped to catch her breath as if the oppression of the room in which she had immured her darling had infected the sunny air of this glorious day and made free breathing an impossibility. The weights on her feet were so palpable to her that she unconsciously looked down at them. This was how she came to notice the dust on her shoes. Alive to the story it told, she burst the spell which held her and made a bound toward the house.
Rushing to her room she shook her skirts and changed her shoes, and thus freed from all connecting links with that secret spot, reentered among her guests, as beautiful and probably as wretched a woman as the world contained that day.
Yet not as wretched as she could be. There were depths beneath these depths. If he should ever know! If he should ever come to look at her with horrified, even alienated eyes! Ah, that were the end—that would mean the river for her—the river which all were so soon to think had swallowed the little Gwendolen. Was that Miss Graham coming? Was the stir she now heard outside, the first indication of the hue and cry which would soon ring through the whole place and her shrinking heart as well? No, no, not yet. She could still smile, must smile and smite her two glove-covered hands together in simulated applause of notes and tones she did not even hear. And no one noted anything strange in that smile or in that gracious bringing together of hands, which if any one had had the impulse to touch—
But no one thought of doing that. A heart may bleed drop by drop to its death in our full sight without our suspecting it, if the eyes above it still beam with natural brightness. And hers did that. She had always been called impassive. God be thanked that no warmth was expected from her and that no one would suspect the death she was dying, if she did not cry out. But the moment came when she did cry out. Miss Graham entered, told her story, and all Mrs. Ocumpaugh's pent-up agony burst its bounds in a scream which to others seemed but the natural outburst of an alarmed mother. She fled to the bungalow, because that seemed the natural thing to do, and never forgetting what was expected of her, cried aloud in presence of its emptiness: "The river! the river!" and went stumbling down the bank.
The shoe was near her hand and she drew it out as she went on. When they found her she had fainted; the excess of excitement has this natural outcome. She did not have to play a part, the humiliation of her own deed and the terrors yet to come were eating up her very soul. Then came the blow, the unexpected, overwhelming blow of finding that the deception planned with such care—a deception upon the success of which the whole safety of the scheme depended—was likely to fail just for the simple reason that a dozen men could swear that the child had never crossed the track. She was dazed—confounded. Mrs. Carew was not by to counsel her; she had her own part in this business to play; and Mrs. Ocumpaugh, conscious of being mentally unfit for any new planning, conscious indeed of not being able to think at all, simply followed her instinct and held to the old cry in face of proof, of persuasion, of reason even; and so, did the very wisest thing possible, no one expecting reason in a mother reeling under such a vital shock.
But the cooler, more subtile and less guilty Mrs. Carew had some judgment left, if her friend had lost hers. Her own part had been well played. She had brought her nephew home without giving any one, not even the maid she had provided herself with, in New York, an opportunity to see his face; and she had passed him over, dressed in quite different clothes, to the couple in the farm-wagon, who had carried him, as she supposed, safely out of reach and any possibility of discovery. You see her calculations failed here also. She did not credit the doctor with even the little conscience he possessed, and, unconscious of his near waiting on the highway in anxious watch for the event concerning which he had his own secret doubts, she deluded herself into thinking that all they had to fear was a continuation of the impression that Gwendolen had not gone down to the river and been drowned.
When, therefore, she had acted out her little part—received the searching party and gone with them all over the house even to the door of the room where she said her little nephew was resting after his journey—(Did they look in? Perhaps, and perhaps not, it mattered little, for the bed had been arranged against this contingency and no one but a detective bent upon ferreting out crime would have found it empty)—she asked herself how she could strengthen the situation and cause the theory advanced by Mrs. Ocumpaugh to be received, notwithstanding the evidence of seeming eye-witnesses. The result was the throwing of a second shoe into the water as soon as it was dark enough for her to do this unseen. As she had to approach the river by her own grounds, and as she was obliged to choose a place sufficiently remote from the lights about the dock not to incur the risk of being detected in her hazardous attempt, the shoe fell at a spot farther down stream than the searchers had yet reached, and the intense excitement I had myself seen in Mrs. Ocumpaugh's face the day I made my first visit to Homewood, sprang from the agony of suspense with which she watched, after twenty-four hours of alternating expectation and disappointment, the finding of this second shoe which, with fanatic confidence, she hoped would bring all the confirmation to be desired of her oft-repeated declaration that the child would yet be found in the river.
Meanwhile, to the infinite dismay of both, the matter had been placed in the hands of the police and word sent to Mr. Ocumpaugh, not that the child was dead, but missing. This meant world-wide publicity and the constant coming and going about Homewood of the very men whose insight and surveillance were most to be dreaded. Mrs. Ocumpaugh sank under the terrors thus accumulating upon her; but Mrs. Carew, of different temperament and history, rose to meet them with a courage which bade fair to carry everything before it.
As midnight approached (the hour agreed upon in their compact) she prepared to go for Gwendolen. Mrs. Ocumpaugh, who had not forgotten what was expected of her at that hour, roused as the clock struck twelve, and uttering a loud cry, rushed from her place in the window down to the lawn, calling out that she had heard the men shout aloud from the boats. Her plan was to draw every one who chanced to be about, down to the river bank, in order to give Mrs. Carew full opportunity to go and come unseen on her dangerous errand. And she apparently succeeded in this, for by the time she had crept back in seeming disappointment to the house, a light could be seen burning behind a pink shade in one of Mrs. Carew's upper windows—the signal agreed upon between them of the presence of Gwendolen in her new home.
But small was the relief as yet. The shoe had not been found, and at any moment some intruder might force his way into Mrs. Carew's house and, in spite of all her precautions, succeed in obtaining a view of the little Harry and recognize in him the missing child.
Of these same precautions some mention must be made. The artful widow had begun by dismissing all her help, giving as an excuse her speedy departure for Europe, and the colored girl she had brought up from New York saw no difference in the child running about the house in its little velvet suit from the one who, with bound-up face and a heavy shade over his eyes, came up in the cars with her in Mrs. Carew's lap. Her duties being limited to a far-off watch on the child to see that it came to no harm, she was the best witness possible in case of police intrusion or neighborhood gossip. As for Gwendolen herself, the novelty of the experience and the prospect held out by a speedy departure to "papa's country" kept her amused and even hilarious. She laughed when her hair was cut short, darkened and parted. She missed but one thing, and that was her pet plaything which she used to carry to bed with her at night. The lack of this caused some tears—a grief which was divined by Mrs. Ocumpaugh, who took pains to assuage it in the manner we all know.
But this was after the finding of the second shoe; the event so long anticipated and so little productive. Somehow, neither Mrs. Carew nor Mrs. Ocumpaugh had taken into consideration the fact of the child's shoes being rights and lefts, and when this attempt to second the first deception was decided on, it was thought a matter of congratulation that Gwendolen had been supplied with two pairs of the same make and that one pair yet remained in her closet. The mate of that shown by Mrs. Ocumpaugh was still on the child's foot in the bungalow, but there being no difference in any of them, what was simpler than to take one of these and fling it where it would be found. Alas! the one seized upon by Mrs. Carew was for the same foot as that already shown and commented on, and thus this second attempt failed even more completely than the first, and people began to cry, "A conspiracy!"
And a conspiracy it was, but one which might yet have succeeded if Doctor Pool's suspicion of Mrs. Ocumpaugh's intentions, and my own secret knowledge of Mrs. Ocumpaugh's real position toward this child, could have been eliminated from the situation. But with those two factors against them, detection had crept upon them in unknown ways, and neither Mrs. Ocumpaugh's frantic clinging to the theory she had so recklessly advanced, nor Mrs. Carew's determined effort to meet suspicion with the brave front calculated to disarm it, was of any avail. The truth would have its way and their secret stood revealed.
This was the story told me by Mrs. Ocumpaugh; not in the continuous and detailed manner I have here set down, but in disjointed sentences and wild bursts of disordered speech. When it was finished she turned upon me eyes full of haggard inquiry.
"Our fate is in your hands," she falteringly declared. "What will you do with it?"
It was the hardest question which had ever been put me. For minutes I contemplated her in a silence which must have been one prolonged agony to her. I did not see my way; I did not see my duty. Then the fifty thousand dollars!
At last, I replied as follows:
"Mrs. Ocumpaugh, if you will let me advise you, as a man intensely interested in the happiness of yourself and husband, I would suggest your meeting him at quarantine and telling him the whole truth."
"I would rather die," said she.
"Yet only by doing what I suggest can you find any peace in life. The consciousness that others know your secret will come between you and any satisfaction you can ever get out of your husband's continued confidence. A wrong has been done; you are the only one to right it."
"I can not. I can die, but I can not do that."
And for a minute I thought she would die then and there.
"Doctor Pool is a fanatic; he will pursue you until he is assured that the child is in good hands."
"You can assure him of that now."
"Next month his exactions may take another direction. You can never trust a man who thinks he has a mission. Pardon my presumption. No mercenary motive prompts what I am saying now."
"So you intend to publish my story, if I do not?"
I hesitated again. Such questions can not be decided in a moment. Then, with a certain consciousness of doing right, I answered earnestly:
"To no one but to Mr. Ocumpaugh do I feel called upon to disclose what really concerns no one but yourself and him."
Her hands rose toward me in a gesture which may have been an expression of gratitude or only one of simple appeal.
"He is not due until Saturday," I added gently.
No answer from the cold lips. I do not think she could have spoken if she had tried.
ON THE SECOND TERRACE
My first step on leaving Homewood was to seek a public telephone. Calling up Doctor Pool in Yonkers, I assured him that he might rest easy as to the young patient to whose doubtful condition he had called my attention. That she was in good hands and was doing well. That I had seen her and would give him all necessary particulars when I came to interview him later in the day. To his uneasy questions I vouchsafed little reply. I was by no means sure of the advisability of taking him into my full confidence. It was enough for him to know that his demands had been complied with without injury to the child.
Before hanging up the receiver, I put him a question on my own behalf. How was the boy in his charge? The growl he returned me was very non-committal, and afforded me some food for thought as I turned back to Mrs. Carew's cottage, where I now proposed to make a final visit.
I entered from the road. The heavily wooded grounds looked desolate. The copper beeches which are the glory of the place seemed to have lost color since I last saw them above the intervening hedges. Even the house, as it gradually emerged to view through the close shrubbery, wore a different aspect from usual. In another moment I saw why. Every shutter was closed and not a vestige of life was visible above or below. Startled, for I had not expected quite so hasty a departure on her part, I ran about to the side door where I had previously entered and rang fit to wake the dead. Only solitary echoes came from within and I was about to curse the time I had lost in telephoning to Doctor Pool, when I heard a slight sound in the direction of the private path, and, leaping hastily to the opening, caught the glimpse of something or somebody disappearing down the first flight of steps.
Did I run? You may believe I did, at least till I had descended the first terrace; then my steps grew gradually wary and finally ceased; for I could hear voices ahead of me on the second terrace to which I had now come, and these voices came from persons standing still. If I rushed on I should encounter these persons, and this was undesirable. I accordingly paused just short of the top, and so heard what raised the moment into one of tragic importance.
One of the speakers was Mrs. Carew—there was no doubting this—the other was Mr. Rathbone. From no other lips than his could I hope to hear words uttered with such intensity, though he was guarded in his speech, or thought he was, which is not always the same thing.
He was pleading with her, and my heart stood still with the sense of threatening catastrophe as I realized the attitude of the pair. He, as every word showed, was still ignorant of Gwendolen's fate, consequently of the identity of the child who I had every reason to believe was at that very moment fluttering a few steps below in the care of the colored maid, whose voice I could faintly hear; she, with his passion to meet and quell, had this secret to maintain; hearing his wild entreaties with one ear and listening for the possible outbursts of the not-to-be-restrained child with the other; mad to go—to catch her train before discovery overwhelmed her, yet not daring to hasten him, for his mood was a man's mood and not to be denied. I felt sorry for her, and cast about in my mind what aid to give the situation, when the passion of his words seized me, and I forgot her position in the interest I began to feel in his.
"Valerie, Valerie," he was saying, "this is cruelty. You go with no good cause that I can see—put the sea between us, and yet say no word to make the parting endurable. You understand what I suffer—my hateful thoughts, my dread, which is not so much dread as—Oh, that I should say it! Oh, that I should feel it!—hope; guilty, unpardonable hope. Yet you refuse me the little word, the kindly look, which would alleviate the oppression of my feelings and give me the thought of you to counteract this eternal brooding upon Gwendolen and her possible fate. I want a promise—conditional, O God! but yet a promise; and you simply bid me to have patience; to wait—as if a man could wait who sees his love, his life, his future trembling in the balance against the fate of a little child. If you loved me—"
"Hush!" The feeling in that word was not for him. I felt it at once; it was for her secret, threatened every instant she lingered there by some move, by some word which might escape a thoughtless child. "You do not understand me, Justin. You talk with no comprehension of myself or of the event. Six months from now, if all goes well, you will see that I have been kind, not cruel. I can not say any more; I should not have said so much. Go back, dear friend, and let me take the train with Harry. The sea is not impassable. We shall meet again, and then—" Did she pause to look behind her down those steps—to make some gesture of caution to the uneasy child?—"you will forgive me for what seems cruelty to you now. I can not do differently. With all the world weeping over the doubtful fate of this little child, you can not expect me to—to make any promise conditional upon her death."
The man's cry drove the irony of the situation out of my mind.
"Puerilities! all puerilities. A man's life—soul—are worth some sacrifices. If you loved me—" A quick ingathering of his breath, then a low moan, then the irrepressible cry she vainly sought to hush, "O Valerie, you are silent! You do not love me! Two years of suffering! two years of repression, then this delirium of hope, of possibility, and you silent! I will trouble you no more. Gwendolen alive or Gwendolen dead, what is it to me! I—"
"Hush! there is no doubt on that topic; the child is dead. Let that be understood between us." This was whispered, and whispered very low, but the air seemed breathless at that moment and I heard her. "This is my last word to you. You will have your fortune, whether you have my love or not. Remember that, and—"
"Auntie, make Dinah move away; I want to see the man you are talking to."
Gwendolen had spoken.
A CORAL BEAD
It was Mr. Rathbone who first found voice.
"To what a state have I come when in every woman's face, even in hers who is dearest, I see expressions I no longer understand, and in every child's voice catch the sound of Gwendolen's?"
"Harry's voice is not like Gwendolen's," came in desperate protest from the ready widow. A daring assertion for her to make to him who had often held this child in his arms for hours together. "You are not yourself, Justin. I am sorry. I—I—" Almost she gave her promise, almost she risked her future, possibly his, by saying, under the stress of her fears, what her heart did not prompt her to, when—
A quick move on her part, a low cry on his, and he came rushing up the steps.
I had advanced at her hesitating words and shown myself.
When Mr. Rathbone was well up the terrace (he hardly honored me with a look as he went by), I slowly began my descent to where she stood with her back toward me and her arms thrown round the child she had evidently called to her in her anxiety to conceal the little beaming face from this new intruder.
That she had not looked as high as my face I felt assured; that she would not show me hers unless I forced her to seemed equally certain. Every step I took downward was consequently of moment to me. I wondered how I should come out of this; what she would do; what I myself should say. The bold course commended itself to me. No more circumlocution; no more doubtful playing of the game with this woman. I would take the bull by the horns and—
I had reached the step on which she crouched. I could catch sight of the child's eyes over her shoulder, a shoulder that quivered—was it with the storm of the last interview, or with her fear of this? I would see.
Pausing, I said to her with every appearance of respect, but in my most matter-of-fact tones:
"Mrs. Carew, may I request you to send Gwendolen down to the girl I see below there? I have something to say to you before you leave."
With a start which showed how completely she was taken by surprise, Mrs. Carew rose. She may have recognized my voice and she may not; it is hard to decide in such an actress. Whether she did or not, she turned with a frown, which gave way to a ravishing smile as her eyes met my face.
"You?" she said, and without any betrayal in voice or gesture that she recognized that her hopes, and those of the friend to whose safety she had already sacrificed so much, had just received their death-blow, she gave a quick order to the girl who, taking the child by the hand, sat down on the steps Mrs. Carew now quitted and laid herself out to be amusing.
Gravely Mrs. Carew confronted me on the terrace below.
"Explain," said she.
"I have just come from Mrs. Ocumpaugh," I replied.
The veiled head dropped a trifle.
"She could not sustain herself! So all is lost?"
"That depends. But I must request you not to leave the country till Mr. Ocumpaugh returns."
The flash of her eye startled me. "Who can detain me," she cried, "if I wish to go?"
I did not answer in kind. I had no wish to rouse this woman's opposition.
"I do not think you will want to go when you remember Mrs. Ocumpaugh's condition. Would you leave her to bear the full burden of this deception alone? She is a broken woman. Her full story is known to me. I have the profoundest sympathy for her. She has only three days in which to decide upon her course. I have advised her to tell the whole truth to her husband."
The word was but a breath, but I heard it Yet I felt no resentment against this woman. No one could, under the spell of so much spirit and grace.
"Did I not advise her right?"
"Perhaps, but you must not detain me. You must do nothing to separate me from this child. I will not bear it. I have experienced for days now what motherhood might be, and nothing on earth shall rob me of my present rights in this child." Then as she met my unmoved countenance: "If you know Mrs. Ocumpaugh's whole history, you know that neither she nor her husband has any real claim on the child."
"In that you are mistaken," I quickly protested. "Six years of care and affection such as they have bestowed on Gwendolen, to say nothing of the substantial form which these have taken from the first, constitute a claim which all the world must recognize, if you do not. Think of Mr. Ocumpaugh's belief in her relation to him! Think of the shock which awaits him, when he learns that she is not of his blood and lineage!"
"I know, I know." Her fingers worked nervously; the woman was showing through the actress. "But I will not give up the child. Ask anything but that."
"Madam, I have had the honor so far to make but one requirement—that you do not carry the child out of the country—yet."
As I uttered this ultimatum, some influence, acting equally upon both, caused us to turn in the direction of the river; possibly an apprehension lest some word of this conversation might be overheard by the child or the nurse. A surprise awaited us which effectually prevented Mrs. Carew's reply. In the corner of the Ocumpaugh grounds stood a man staring with all his eyes at the so-called little Harry. An expression of doubt was on his face. I knew the minute to be critical and was determined to make the most of it.
"Do you know that man?" I whispered to Mrs. Carew.
The answer was brief but suggestive of alarm.
"Yes, one of the gardeners over there—one of whom Gwendolen is especially fond."
"She's the one to fear, then. Engage his attention while I divert hers."
All this in a whisper while the man was summoning up courage to speak.
"A pretty child," he stammered, as Mrs. Carew advanced toward him smiling. "Is that your little nephew I've heard them tell about? Seems to me he looks like our own little lost one; only darker and sturdier."
"Much sturdier," I heard her say as I made haste to accost the child.
"Harry," I cried, recalling my old address when I was in training for a gentleman; "your aunt is in a hurry. The cars are coming; don't you hear the whistle? Will you trust yourself to me? Let me carry you—I mean, pick-a-back, while we run for the train."
The sweet eyes looked up—it was fortunate for Mrs. Carew that no one but myself had ever got near enough to see those eyes or she could hardly have kept her secret—and at first slowly, then with instinctive trust, the little arms rose and I caught her to my breast, taking care as I did so to turn her quite away from the man whom Mrs. Carew was about leaving.
"Come!" I shouted back, "we shall be late!"—and made a dash for the gate.
Mrs. Carew joined me, and none of us said anything till we reached the station platform. Then as I set the child down, I gave her one look. She was beaming with gratitude.
"That saved us, together with the few words I could edge in between his loud regrets at my going and his exclamations of grief over Gwendolen's loss. On the train I shall fear nothing. If you will lift him up I will wrap him in this shawl as if he were ill. Once in New York—are you not going to permit me?"
"To go to New York, yes; but not to the steamer."
She showed anger, but also an admirable self-control. Far off we could catch the sounding thrill of the approaching train.
"I yield," she announced suddenly. And opening the bag at her side, she fumbled in it for a card which she presently put in my hand. "I was going there for lunch," she explained. "Now I will take a room and remain until I hear from you." Here she gave me a quick look. "You do not appear satisfied."
"Yes, yes," I stammered, as I looked at the card and saw her name over that of an inconspicuous hotel in the down-town portion of New York City. "I merely—"
The nearing of the train gave me the opportunity of cutting short the sentence I should have found it difficult to finish.
"Here is the child," I exclaimed, lifting the little one, whom she immediately enveloped in the light but ample wrap she had chosen as a disguise.
"Good-by! I like you. Your arms are strong and you don't shake me when you run."
Mrs. Carew smiled. There was deep emotion in her face. "Au revoir!" she murmured in a tone implying promise. Happily I understood the French phrase.
I bowed and drew back. Was I wrong in letting her slip from my surveillance? The agitation I probably showed must have caused her some thought. But she would have been more than a diviner of mysteries to have understood its cause. Her bag, when she had opened it before my eyes, had revealed among its contents a string of remarkable corals. A bead similar in shape, color and marking rested at that very moment over my own heart. Was that necklace one bead short? With a start of conviction I began to believe so and that I was the man who could complete it. If that was so—why, then—then—
It isn't often that a detective's brain reels—but mine did then.
The train began to move—
This discovery, the greatest of all, if I were right, would—
I had no more time to think.
Instinctively, with a quick jump, I made my place good on the rear car.
"SHALL I GIVE HIM MY WORD, HARRY?"
I did not go all the way to New York on the train which Mrs. Carew and the child had taken. I went only as far as Yonkers.
When I reached Doctor Pool's house, I thought it entirely empty. Even the office seemed closed. But appearances here could not always be trusted, and I rang the bell with a vigor which must have awakened echoes in the uninhabited upper stories. I know that it brought the doctor to the door, and in a state of doubtful amiability. But when he saw who awaited him, his appearance changed and he welcomed me in with a smile or what was as nearly like one as his austere nature would permit.
"How now! Want your money? Seems to me you have earned it with unexpected ease."
"Not such great ease," I replied, as he carefully closed the door and locked it "I know that I feel as tired as I ever did in my life. The child is in New York under the guardianship of a woman who is really fond of her. You can dismiss all care concerning her."
"I see—and who is the woman? Name her."
"You do not trust me, I see."
"I trust no one in business matters."
"This is not a business matter—yet."
"What do you mean?"
"I have not asked for money. I am not going to till I can perfectly satisfy you that all deception is at an end so far as Mr. Ocumpaugh at least is concerned."
"Oh, you would play fair, I see."
I was too interested in noting how each of his hands involuntarily closed on itself, in his relief at not being called upon to part with some of his hoardings, to answer with aught but a nod.
"You have your reasons for keeping close, of course," he growled as he led the way toward the basement stairs. "You're not out of the woods, is that it? Or has the great lady bargained with you?—Um? Um?"
He threw the latter ejaculations back over his shoulder as he descended to the office. They displeased me, and I made no attempt to reply. In fact, I had no reply ready. Had I bargained with Mrs. Ocumpaugh? Hardly. Yet—
"She is handsome enough," the old man broke in sharply, cutting in two my self-communings. "You're a fellow of some stamina, if you have got at her secret without making her a promise. So the child is well! That's good! There's one long black mark eliminated from my account. But I have not closed the book, and I am not going to, till my conscience has nothing more to regret. It is not enough that the child is handed over to a different life; the fortunes that have been bequeathed her must be given to him who would have inherited them had this child not been taken for a veritable Ocumpaugh."
"That raises a nice point," I said.
"But one that will drag all false things to light."
"Your action in the matter along with the rest," I suggested.
"True! but do you think I shall stop because of that?"
He did not look as if he would stop because of anything.
"Do you not think Mrs. Ocumpaugh worthy some pity? Her future is a ghastly one, whichever way you look at it."
"She sinned," was his uncompromising reply. "The wages of sin is death."
"But such death!" I protested; "death of the heart, which is the worst death of all."
He shrugged his shoulders, leading the way into the office.
"Let her beware!" he went on surlily. "Last month I saw my duty no further than the exaction of this child's dismissal from the home whose benefits she enjoyed under a false name. To-day I am led further by the inexorable guide which prompts the anxious soul. All that was wrong must be made good. Mr. Ocumpaugh must know on whom his affections have been lavished. I will not yield. The woman has done wrong; and she shall suffer for it till she rises, a redeemed soul, into a state of mind that prefers humiliation to a continuance in a life of deception. You may tell her what I say—that is, if you enjoy the right of conversation with her."
The look he shot me at this was keen as hate and spite could make it. I was glad that we were by this time in the office, and that I could avoid his eye by a quick look about the well-remembered place. This proof of the vindictive pursuit he had marked out for himself was no surprise to me. I expected no less, yet it opened up difficulties which made my way, as well as hers, look dreary in the prospect. He perceived my despondency and smiled; then suddenly changed his tone.
"You do not ask after the little patient I have here. Come, Harry, come; here is some one I will let you see."
The door of my old room swung open and I do not know which surprised me most, the kindness in the rugged old voice I had never before heard lifted in tenderness, or the look of confidence and joy on the face of the little boy who now came running in. So inexorable to a remorseful and suffering woman, and so full of consideration for a stranger's child!
"Almost well," pronounced the doctor, and lifted him on his knee. "Do you know this child's parentage and condition?" he sharply inquired, with a quick look toward me.
I saw no reason for not telling the truth.
"He is an orphan, and was destined for an institution."
"You know this?"
"Then I shall keep the child. Harry, will you stay with me?"
To my amazement the little arms crept round his neck. A smile grim enough, in my estimation, but not at all frightful to the child, responded to this appeal.
"I did not like the old man and woman," he said.
Doctor Pool's whole manner showed triumph. "I shall treat him better than I did you," he remarked. "I am a regenerate man now."
I bowed; I was very uneasy; there was a question I wanted to ask and could not in the presence of this child.
"He is hardly of an age to take my place," I observed, still under the spell of my surprise, for the child was handling the old man's long beard, and seeming almost as happy as Gwendolen did in Mrs. Carew's arms.
"He will have one of his own," was the doctor's unexpected reply.
I rose. I saw that he did not intend to dismiss the child.
"I should like your word, in return for the relief I have undoubtedly brought you, that you will not molest certain parties till the three days are up which I have mentioned as the limit of my own silence."
"Shall I give him my word, Harry?"
The child, startled by the abrupt address, drew his fingers from the long beard he was playfully stroking and, eyeing me with elfish gravity, seemed to ponder the question as if some comprehension of its importance had found entrance into his small brain. Annoyed at the doctor's whim, yet trusting to the child's intuition, I waited with inner anxiety for what those small lips would say, and felt an infinite relief, even if I did not show it, when he finally uttered a faint "Yes," and hid his face again on the doctor's breast.
My last remembrance of them both was the picture they made as the doctor closed the door upon me, with the sweet, confiding child still clasped in his arms.
THE WORK OF AN INSTANT
I did not take the car at the corner. I was sure that Jupp was somewhere around, and I had a new mission for him of more importance than any he could find here now. I was just looking about for him when I heard cries and screams at my back, and, turning, saw several persons all running one way. As that way was the one by which I had just come, I commenced running too, and in another moment was one of a crowd collected before the doctor's door. I mean the great front door which, to my astonishment, I had already seen was wide open. The sight which there met my eyes almost paralyzed me.
Stretched on the pavement, spotted with blood, lay the two figures I had seen within the last five minutes beaming with life and energy. The old man was dead, the child dying, one little hand outstretched as if in search of the sympathetic touch which had made the last few hours perhaps the sweetest of his life. How had it happened? Was it suicide on the doctor's part or just pure accident? Either way it was horrible, but—I looked about me; there was a man ready to give explanations. He had seen it all. The doctor had been racing with the child in the long hall. He had opened the door, probably for air. A sudden dash of the child had brought him to the verge, the doctor had plunged to save him, and losing his balance toppled headlong to the street, carrying the child with him.
It was all the work of an instant.
One moment two vigorous figures—the next, a mass of crushed humanity!
A sight to stagger a man's soul! But the thought which came with it staggered me still more.
The force which had been driving Mrs. Ocumpaugh to her fate was removed. Henceforth her secret was safe if—if I chose to have it so.
"HE WILL NEVER FORGIVE"
I was walking away when a man touched me. Some one had seen me come from the doctor's office a few minutes before. Of course this meant detention till the coroner should arrive. I quarreled with the circumstances but felt forced to submit. Happily Jupp now came to the front and I was able to send him to New York to keep that watch over Mrs. Carew, without which I could not have rested quiet an hour. One great element of danger was removed most remarkably, if not providentially, from the path I had marked out for myself; but there still remained that of this woman's possible impulses under her great determination to keep Gwendolen in her own care. But with Jupp to watch the dock, and a man in plain clothes at the door of the small hotel she was at present bound for, I thought I might remain in Yonkers contentedly the whole day.
It was not, however, till late the next afternoon that I found myself again in Homewood. I had heard from Jupp. The steamer had sailed, but without two passengers who had been booked for the voyage. Mrs. Carew and the child were still at the address she had given me. All looked well in that direction; but what was the aspect of affairs in Homewood? I trembled in some anticipation of what these many hours of bitter thought might have effected in Mrs. Ocumpaugh. Evidently nothing to lessen the gloom into which the whole household had now fallen. Miss Porter, who came in haste to greet me, wore the careworn look of a long and unrelieved vigil. I was not astonished when she told me that she had not slept a wink.
"How could I," she asked, "when Mrs. Ocumpaugh did not close her eyes? She did not even lie down, but sat all night in an arm-chair which she had wheeled into Gwendolen's room, staring like one who sees nothing out into the night through the window which overlooks the river. This morning we can not make her speak. Her eyes are dry with fever; only now and then she utters a little moan. The doctor says she will not live to see her husband, unless something comes to rouse her. But the papers give no news, and all the attempts of the police end in nothing. You saw what a dismal failure their last attempt was. The child on which they counted proved to be both red-haired and pock-marked. Gwendolen appears to be lost, lost."
In spite of the despair thus expressed my way seemed to open a little.
"I think I can break Mrs. Ocumpaugh's dangerous apathy if you will let me see her again. Will you let me try?"
"The nurse—we have a nurse now—will not consent, I fear."
"Then telephone to the doctor. Tell him I am the only man who can do anything for Mrs. Ocumpaugh. This will not be an exaggeration."
"Wait! I will get his order. I do not know why I have so much confidence in you."
In another fifteen minutes she came to lead me to Mrs. Ocumpaugh.
I entered without knocking; they told me to. She was seated, as they said, in a large chair, but with no ease to herself; for she was not even leaning against its back, but sat with body strained forward and eyes fixed on the ripple of the great river where, from what she had intimated to me in our last interview, she probably saw her grave. There was a miniature in her hand, but I saw at first glance that it was not the face of Gwendolen over which her fingers closed so spasmodically. It was her husband's portrait which she held, and it was his face, aroused and full of denunciation, which she evidently saw in her fancy as I drew nearer her in my efforts to attract her attention; for a shiver suddenly contracted her lovely features and she threw her arms out as if to ward from herself something which she had no power to meet. In doing this her head turned slightly and she saw me.
Instantly the spell under which she sat frozen yielded to a recognition of something besides her own terrible brooding. She let her arms drop, and the lips which had not spoken that morning moved slightly. I waited respectfully. I saw that in another moment she would speak.
"You have come," she panted out at last, "to hear my decision. It is too soon. The steamer has twenty-four hours yet before it can make port. I have not finished weighing my life against the good opinion of him I live for." Then faintly—"Mrs. Carew has gone."
"To New York," I finished.
"No farther than that?" she asked anxiously. "She has not sailed?"
"I did not see how it was compatible with my duty to let her."
Mrs. Ocumpaugh's whole form collapsed; the dangerous apathy was creeping over her again. "You are deciding for me,"—she spoke very faintly—"you and Doctor Pool."
Should I tell her that Doctor Pool was dead? No, not yet. I wanted her to choose the noble course for Mr. Ocumpaugh's sake—yes, and for her own.