"I doubt if he wishes to," I quietly remarked, as Orrin, weary with passion, ran from my presence.
I do not know whether Orrin succeeded or not in his attempts to shame the Colonel from intruding upon his interviews with Juliet. I am only sure that Orrin's countenance smoothed itself after this day, and that I heard no more complaints of Juliet's wavering fidelity. I myself do not believe she has ever wavered. Simply because she ought from every stand-point of good judgment and taste to have preferred the Colonel and clung to him, she will continue to cleave to Orrin and make him the idol of her wayward heart. But it is all a mystery to me and one that does not make me very happy.
* * * * *
I went up by myself to the new stone house to-day, and found that it only needs the finishing touches. Twenty workmen or more were there, and the great front door had just been brought and was leaning against the walls preparatory to being hung. Being curious to see how they were progressing within, I climbed up to one of the windows and looked in, and not satisfied with what I could thus see, made my way into the house and up the main staircase, which I was surprised to see was nearly completed.
The sound of the hammer and saw was all about me, and the calling of orders from above and below interfered much with any sentimental feelings I might have had. But I was not there to indulge in sentiment, and so I roamed on from room to room till I suddenly came upon a sight that drove every consideration of time and place from my mind, and made me for a moment forgetful of every other sentiment than admiration. This was nothing less than the glimpse which I obtained in passing one of the windows, of the Colonel himself down on his knees on the scaffolding aiding the workmen. So, so, he is not content with hurrying the work forward by his means and influence, but is lending the force of his example, and actually handling the plane and saw in his anxiety not to disappoint Juliet in regard to the day she has fixed for her marriage.
A week ago I should have told Orrin what I had seen, but I had no desire to behold the old frowns come back to his face, so I determined to hold my silence with him. But Juliet ought to know with what manner of heart she has been so recklessly playing, so after stealing down the stairs I felt I should never have mounted, I crept from the house and made my way as best I could through the huge forest-trees that so thickly clustered at its back, till I came upon the high-road which leads to the village. Walking straight to Juliet's house I asked to see her, and shall never forget the blooming beauty of her presence as she stepped into the room and gave me her soft white hand to kiss.
As she is no longer the object of my worship and hardly the friend of my heart, I think I can speak of her loveliness now without being misunderstood. So I will let my pen trace for once a record of her charms, which in that hour were surely great enough to excuse the rivalry of which they had been the subject, and perhaps to account for the disinterestedness of the man who had once given her his heart.
She is of medium height, this Juliet, and her form has that sway in it which you see in a lily nodding on its stem. But she is no lily in her most enchanting movements, but rather an ardent passion-flower burning and palpitating in the sun. Her skin, which is milk-white, has strange flushes in it, and her eyes, which never look at you twice with the same meaning, are blue, or gray, or black, as her feeling varies and the soul informing them is in a state of joy, or trouble. Her most bewitching feature is her mouth, which has two dangerous dimples near it that go and come, sometimes without her volition and sometimes, I fear, with her full accord and desire. Her hair is brown and falls in such a mass of ringlets that no cap has ever yet been found which can confine it and keep it from weaving a golden net in which to entangle the hearts of men. When she smiles you feel like rushing forward; when she frowns you question yourself humbly what you have done to merit a look so out of keeping with the playful cast of her countenance and the arch bearing of her spirited young form. She was dressed, as she always is, simply, but there was infinite coquetry in the tie of the blue ribbon on her shoulder, and if a close cap of dainty lace could make a face look more entrancing, I should like the privilege of seeing it. She was in an amiable mood and smiled upon my homage like a fairy queen.
"I have come to pay my final respects to Juliet Playfair," I announced; "for by the tokens up yonder she will soon be classed among our matrons."
My tone was formal and she looked surprised at it, but my news was welcome and so she made me a demure little courtesy before saying joyously:
"Yes, the house is nearly done, and to-morrow Orrin and I are going up there together to see it. The Colonel has asked us to do this that we might say whether all is to our liking and convenience."
"The Colonel is a man in a thousand," I began, but, seeing her frown in her old pettish way, I perceived that she partook enough of Orrin's spirit to dislike any allusion to one whose generosity threw her own selfishness into startling relief.
So I said no more on this topic, but let my courtesy expend itself in good wishes, and came away at last with a bewildering remembrance of her beauty, which I am doing my best to blot out by faithfully recounting to myself the story of those infinite caprices of hers which have come so near wrecking more than one honorable heart.
I do not expect to visit her again until I pay my respects to her as Orrin's wife.
* * * * *
It is the day when Orrin and Juliet are to visit the new house. If I had not known this from her own lips, I should have known it from the fact that the workmen all left at noon, in order, as one of them said, to leave the little lady more at her ease. I saw them coming down the road, and had the curiosity to watch for the appearance of Orrin and the Colonel at Juliet's gate but they did not come, and assured by this that they meditated a later visit than I had anticipated, I went about my work. This took me up the road, and as it chanced, led me within a few rods of the wood within which lies the new stone house. I had not meant to go there, for I have haunted the place enough, but this time there was reason for it, and satisfied with the fact, I endeavored to fix my mind on other matters and forget who was likely at any moment to enter the forest behind me.
But when one makes an effort to forget he is sure to remember all the more keenly, and I was just picturing to my mind Juliet's face and Juliet's pretty air of mingled pride and disdain as the first sight of the broad stone front burst upon her, when I heard through the stillness of the woods the faint sound of a saw, which coming from the direction of the house seemed to say that some one was still at work there. As I had understood that all the men had been given a half-holiday, I felt somewhat surprised at this, and unconsciously to myself moved a few steps nearer the opening where the house stood, when suddenly all was still and I could not for the moment determine whether I had really heard the sound of a saw or not. Annoyed at myself, and ashamed of an interest that made every trivial incident connected with this affair of such moment to me, I turned back to my work, and in a few moments had finished it and left the wood, when what was my astonishment to see Orrin coming from the same place, with his face turned toward the village, and a hardy, determined expression upon it which made me first wonder and then ask myself if I really comprehended this man or knew what he cherished in his heart of hearts.
Going straight up to him, I said:
"Well, Orrin, what's this? Coming away from the house instead of going to it? I understood that you and Juliet were expecting to visit it together this afternoon."
He paused, startled, and his eyes fell as I looked him straight in the face.
"We are going to visit it," he admitted, "but I thought it would be wiser for me to inspect the place first and see if all was right. An unfinished building has so many traps in it, you know." And he laughed loudly and long, but his mirth was forced, and I turned and looked after him, as he strode away, with a vague but uneasy feeling I did not myself understand.
"Will the Colonel go with you?" I called out.
He wheeled about as if stung. "Yes," he shouted, "the Colonel will go with us. Did you suppose he would allow us the satisfaction of going alone? I tell you, Philo," and he strode back to my side, "the Colonel considers us his property. Is not that pleasant? His property! And so we are," he fiercely added, "while we are his debtors. But we shall not be his debtors long. When we are married—if we are married—I will take Juliet from this place if I have to carry her away by force. She shall never be the mistress of this house."
"Orrin! Orrin!" I protested.
"I have said it," was his fierce rejoinder, and he left me for the second time and passed hurriedly down the street.
I was therefore somewhat taken aback when a little while later he reappeared with Juliet and the Colonel, in such a mood of forced gayety that more than one turned to look after them as they passed merrily laughing down the road. Will Juliet never be the mistress of that house? I think she will, my Orrin. That dimpled smile of hers has more force in it than that dominating will of yours. If she chooses to hold her own she will hold it, and neither you nor the Colonel can ever say her nay.
What did Orrin tell me? That she would never be mistress of that house? Orrin was right, she never will; but who could have thought of a tragedy like this? Not I, not I; and if Orrin did and planned it— But let me tell the whole just as it happened, keeping down my horror till the last word is written and I have plainly before me the awful occurrences of this fearful day.
They went, the three, to that fatal house together, and no man, saving myself perhaps, thought much more about the matter till we began to see Juliet's father peering anxiously from over his gate in the direction of the wood. Then we realized that the afternoon had long passed and that it was getting dark; and going up to the old man, I asked whom he was looking for. The answer was as we expected.
"I am looking for Juliet. The Colonel took her and Orrin up to their new house, but they do not come back. I had a dreadful dream last night, and it frightens me. Why don't they come? It must be dark enough in the wood."
"They will come soon," I assured him, and moved off, for I do not like Juliet's father.
But when I passed by there again a half-hour later and found the old man still standing bare-headed and with craning neck at his post, I became very uneasy myself, and proposed to two or three neighbors, whom I found standing about, that we should go toward the woods and see if all were well. They agreed, being affected, doubtless, like myself, by the old man's fears, and as we proceeded down the street, others joined us till we amounted in number to a half-dozen or more. Yet, though the occasion seemed a strange one, we were not really alarmed till we found ourselves at the woods and realized how dark they were and how still. Then I began to feel an oppression at my heart, and trod with careful and hesitating steps till we came into the open space in which the house stands. Here it was lighter, but oh! how still. I shall never forget how still; when suddenly a shrill cry broke from one amongst us, and I saw Ralph Urphistone pointing with finger frozen in horror at something which lay in ghastly outline upon the broad stone which leads up to the gap of the great front door.
What was it? We dared not approach to see, yet we dared not linger quiescent. One by one we started forward till finally we all stood in a horrified circle about the thing that looked like a shadow, and yet was not a shadow, but some horrible nightmare that made us gasp and shudder till the moon came suddenly out, and we saw that what we feared and shrank from were the bodies of Juliet and Orrin, he lying with face upturned and arms thrown out, and she with her head pillowed on his breast as if cast there in her last faint moment of consciousness. They were both dead, having fallen through the planks of the scaffolding, as was shown by the fatal gap open to the moonlight above our heads. Dead! dead! and though no man there knew how, the terror of their doom and the retribution it seemed to bespeak went home to our hearts, and we bowed our heads with a simultaneous cry of terror, which in that first moment was too overwhelming even for grief.
The Colonel was nowhere to be seen, and after the first few minutes of benumbing horror, we tried to call aloud his name. But the cries died in our throat, and presently one amongst us withdrew into the house to search, and then another and another, till I was left alone in awful attendance upon the dead. Then I began to realize my own anguish, and with some last fragment of secret jealousy—or was it from some other less definite but equally imperative feeling?—was about to stoop forward and lift her head from a pillow that I somehow felt defiled it, when a quick hand drew me aside, and looking up, I saw Ralph standing at my back. He did not speak, and his figure looked ghostly in the moonlight, but his hand was pointing toward the house, and when I moved to follow him, he led the way into the hollow entrance and up the stairway till we came to the upper story where he stopped, and motioned me toward a door opening into one of the rooms.
There were several of our number already standing there, so I did not hesitate to approach, and as I went the darkness in which I had hitherto moved disappeared before the broad band of moonlight shining into the room before us, and I saw, darkly silhouetted against a shining background, the crouching figure of the Colonel, staring with hollow eyes and maddened mien out of the unfinished window through which in all probability the devoted couple had stepped to their destruction.
"Can you make him speak?" asked one. "He does not seem to heed us, though we have shouted to him and even shook his arm."
"I shall not try," said I. "Horror like this should be respected." And going softly in I took up my station by his side in silent awe.
But they would have me talk, and finally in some desperation I turned to him and said, quietly:
"The scaffolding broke beneath them, did it not?" At which he first stared and then flung up his arms with a wild but suppressed cry. But he said nothing, and next moment had settled again into his old attitude of silent horror and amazement.
"He might better be lying with them," I whispered after a moment, coming from his side. And one by one they echoed my words, and as he failed to move or even show any symptoms of active life, we gradually drifted from the spot till we were all huddled again below in the hollow blackness of that doorway guarded over by the dead.
Who should tell her father? They all looked at me, but I shook my head, and it fell to another to perform this piteous errand, for fearful thoughts were filling my brain, and Orrin did not look altogether guiltless to me as he lay there dead beside the maiden he had declared so fiercely should never be mistress of this house.
* * * * *
Was ever such a night of horror known in this town!
They have brought the two bruised bodies down into the village and they now lie side by side in the parlor where I last saw Juliet in the bloom and glow of life. The Colonel is still crouching where I left him. No one can make him speak and no one can make him move, and the terror which his terror has produced affects the whole community, not even the darkness of the night serving to lessen the wild excitement which drives men and women about the streets as if it were broad daylight, and makes of every house an open thorough-fare through which anybody who wishes can pass.
I, who have followed every change and turn in this whole calamitous affair, am like one benumbed at this awful crisis. I too go and come through the streets, hear people say in shouts, in cries, with bitter tears and wild lamentations, "Juliet is dead!" "Orrin is dead!" and get no sense from the words. I have even been more than once to that spot where they lie in immovable beauty, and though I gaze and gaze upon them, I feel nothing—not even wonder. Only the remembrance of that rigid figure frozen into its place above the gulf where so much youth and so many high hopes fell, has power to move me. When amid the shadows which surround me I see that, I shudder and the groan rises slowly to my lips as if I too were looking down into a gulf from which hope and love would never again rise.
* * * * *
The Colonel is now in his father's house. He was induced to leave the place by Ralph Urphistone's little child. When the great man first felt the touch of those baby fingers upon his, he shuddered and half recoiled, but as the little one pulled him gently but persistently towards the stair, he gradually yielded to her persuasion, and followed till he had descended to the ground-floor and left the fatal house. I do not think any other power could have induced him to pass that blood-stained threshold. For he seems thoroughly broken down, and will, I fear, never be the same man that he was before this fearful tragedy took place before his eyes.
All day I have paced the floor of my room asking myself if I should allow Juliet to be laid away in the same tomb as Orrin. He was her murderer, without doubt, and though he has shared her doom, was it right for me to allow one stone to be raised above their united graves. Feeling said no, but reason bade me halt before I disturbed the whole community with whispers of a crime. I therefore remained undecided, and it was in this same condition of doubt that I finally went to the funeral and stood with the rest of the lads beside the open grave which had been dug for the unhappy lovers in that sunny spot beside the great church door. At sight of this grave and the twin coffins about to be lowered into it, I felt my struggle renewed, and yet I held my peace and listened as best I could to the minister's words and the broken sobs of such as had envied these two in their days of joyance, but had only pity for pleasure so soon over and hopes doomed to such early destruction.
We were all there; Ralph and Lemuel and the other neighbors, old and young, all except that chief of mourners, the Colonel; for he was still under the influence of that horror which kept him enchained in silence, and had not even been sensible enough of the day and its mournful occasion to rise and go to the window as the long funeral cortege passed his house. We were all there and the minister had said the words, and Orrin's body had been lowered to its final rest, when suddenly, as they were about to move Juliet, a tumult was observed in the outskirts of the crowd, and the Colonel towering in his rage and appalling in his just indignation, fought his way through the recoiling masses till he stood in our very midst.
"Stop!" he cried, "this burial must not go on." And he advanced his arm above Juliet's body as if he would intervene his very heart between it and the place of darkness into which it was about to descend. "She was the victim, he the murderer; they shall not lie together if I have to fling myself between them in the grave which you have dug."
"But—but," interposed the minister, calm and composed even in the face of this portentous figure and the appalling words which it had uttered, "by what right do you call this one a murderer and the other a victim? Did you see him murder her? Was there a crime enacted before your eyes?"
"The boards were sawn," was the startling answer. "They must have been sawn or they would never have given way beneath so light a weight. And then he urged her—I saw him—pleaded with her, drew her by force of eye and hand to step upon the scaffold without, though there was no need for it, and she recoiled. And when her light foot was on it and her half-smiling, half-timid face looked back upon us, he leaped out beside her, when instantly came the sound of a great crack, and I heard his laugh and her cry go up together, and—and—everything has been midnight in my soul ever since, till suddenly through the blank and horror surrounding me I caught the words, 'They will lie together in one tomb!' Then—then I awoke and my voice came back to me and my memory, and hither I hastened to stop this unhallowed work; for to lay the victim beside her murderer is a sacrilege which I for one would come back even from the grave to prevent."
"But why," moaned the father feebly amid the cries and confusion which had been aroused by so gruesome an interference on the brink of the grave, "but why should Orrin wish my Juliet's death? They were to have been married soon—"
But piteous as were his tones no one listened, for just then a lad who had been hiding behind the throng stepped out before us, showing a face so white and a manner so perturbed that we all saw that he had something to say of importance in this matter.
"The boards have been sawn," he said. "I wanted to know and I climbed up to see." At which words the whole crowd moved and swayed, and a dozen hands stooped to lift the body of Juliet and carry it away from that accursed spot.
But the minister is a just man and cautious, and he lifted up his arms in such protest that they paused.
"Who knows," he suggested, "that it was Orrin's hand which handled the saw?"
And then I perceived that it was time for me to speak. So I raised my voice and told my story, and as I told it the wonder grew on every face and the head of each man slowly drooped till we all stood with downcast eyes. For crime had never before been amongst us or soiled the honor of our goodly town. Only the Colonel still stood erect; and as the vision of his outstretched arm and flaming eyes burned deeper and deeper into my consciousness, I stammered in my speech and then sobbed, and was the first to lift the silent form of the beauteous dead and bear it away from the spot denounced by one who had done so much for her happiness and had met with such a bitter and heart-breaking reward.
And where did we finally lay her? In that spot—ah! why does my blood run chill while I write it—where she stood when she took that oath to the Colonel, whose breaking caused her death.
A few words more and this record must be closed forever. That night, when all was again quiet in the village and the mourners no longer went about the streets, Lemuel, Ralph, and I went for a final visit to the new stone house. It showed no change, that house, and save for the broken scaffolding above gave no token of its having been the scene of such a woful tragedy. But as we looked upon it from across its gruesome threshold Lemuel said:
"It is a goodly structure and nigh completed, but the hand that began it will never finish it, nor will man or woman ever sleep within its walls. The place is accursed, and will stand accursed till it is consumed by God's lightning or falls piecemeal to the ground from natural decay. Though its stones are fresh, I see ruin already written upon its walls."
It was a strong statement, and we did not believe it, but when we got back to the village we were met by one who said:
"The Colonel has stopped the building of the new house. 'It is to be an everlasting monument,' he says, 'to a rude man's pride and a sweet woman's folly.'"
Will it be a monument that he will love to gaze upon? I wot not, or any other man who remembers Juliet's loveliness and the charm it gave to our village life for one short year.
* * * * *
What was it that I said about this record being at an end? Some records do not come to an end, and though twenty years have passed since I wrote the above, I have cause this day to take these faded leaves from their place and add a few lines to the story of the Colonel's new house.
It is an old house now, old and desolate. As Lemuel said—he is one of our first men—it is accursed and no one has ever felt brave enough or reckless enough to care to cross again its ghostly threshold. Though I never heard any one say it is haunted, there are haunting memories enough surrounding it for one to feel a ghastly recoil from invading precincts defiled by such a crime. So the kindly forest has taken it into its protection, and Nature, who ever acts the generous part, has tried to throw the mantle of her foliage over the decaying roof, and about the lonesome walls, accepting what man forsakes and so fulfilling her motherhood.
I am still a resident in the town, and I have a family now that has outgrown the little cottage which the apple-tree once guarded. But it is not to tell of them or of myself that I have taken these pages from their safe retreat to-day, but to speak of the sight which I saw this morning when I passed through the churchyard, as I often do, to pluck a rose from the bush which we lads planted on Juliet's grave twenty years ago. They always seem sweeter to me than other roses, and I take a superstitious delight in them, in which my wife, strange to say, does not participate. But that is neither here nor there.
The sight which I thought worth recording was this: I had come slowly through the yard, for the sunshine was brilliant and the month June, and sad as the spot is, it is strangely beautiful to one who loves nature, when as I approached the corner where Juliet lies, and which you will remember was in the very spot where I once heard her take her reluctant oath, I saw crouched against her tomb a figure which seemed both strange and vaguely familiar to me. Not being able to guess who it was, as there is now nobody in town who remembers her with any more devotion than myself, I advanced with sudden briskness, when the person I was gazing upon rose, and turning towards me, looked with deeply searching and most certainly very wretched eyes into mine. I felt a shock, first of surprise, and then of wildest recollection. The man before me was the Colonel, and the grief apparent in his face and disordered mien showed that years of absence had not done their work, and that he had never forgotten the arch and brilliant Juliet.
Bowing humbly and with a most reverent obeisance, for he was still the great man of the county, though he had not been in our town for years, I asked his pardon for my intrusion, and then drew back to let him pass. But he stopped and gave me a keen look, and speaking my name, said: "You are married, are you not?" And when I bowed the meek acquiescence which the subject seemed to demand, he sighed as I thought somewhat bitterly, and shrugging his shoulders, went thoughtfully by and left me standing on the green sward alone. But when he had reached the gate he turned again, and without raising his voice, though the distance between us was considerable, remarked: "I have come back to spend my remaining days in the village of my birth. If you care to talk of old times, come to the house at sunset. You will find me sitting on the porch."
Gratified more than I ever expected to be by a word from him, I bowed my thanks and promised most heartily to come. And that was the end of our first interview.
It has left me with very lively sensations. Will they be increased or diminished by the talk he has promised me?
* * * * *
I had a pleasant hour with the Colonel, but we did not talk of her. Had I expected to? I judge so by the faint but positive disappointment which I feel.
* * * * *
I have been again to the Colonel's, but this time I did not find him in. "He is much out evenings," explained the woman who keeps house for him, "and you will have to come early to see him at his own hearth."
* * * * *
What is there about the Colonel that daunts me? He seems friendly, welcomes my company, and often hands me the hospitable glass. But I am never easy in his presence, though the distance between us is not so great as it was in our young days, now that I have advanced in worldly prosperity and he has stood still. Is it that his intellect cows me, or do I feel too much the secret melancholy which breathes through all his actions, and frequently cuts short his words? I cannot answer; I am daunted by him and I am fascinated, and after leaving him think only of the time when I shall see him again.
* * * * *
The children, who have grown up since the Colonel has been gone, seem very shy of him. I have noted them more than once shrink away from his path, huddling and whispering in a corner, and quite forgetting to play as long as his shadow fell across the green or the sound of his feet could be heard on the turf. I think they fear his melancholy, not understanding it. Or perhaps some hint of his sorrows has been given them, and it is awe they feel rather than fear. However that may be, no child ever takes his hand or prattles to him of its little joys or griefs; and this in itself makes him look solitary, for we are much given in this town to merry-making with our little ones, and it is a common sight to see old and young together on the green, making sport with ball or battledore.
And it is not the children only who hold him in high but distant respect. The best men here are contented with a courteous bow from him, while the women—matrons now, who once were blushing maidens—think they have shown him enough honor if they make him a deep curtsey and utter a mild "Good-morrow."
The truth is, he invites nothing more. He talks to me because he must talk to some one, but our conversation is always of things outside of our village life, and never by any chance of the place or any one in it. He lives at his father's house, now his, and has for his sole companion an old servant of the family, who was once his nurse, and who is, I believe, the only person in the world who is devotedly attached to him.
Unless it is myself. Sometimes I think I love him; sometimes I think I do not. He fascinates me, and could make me do most anything he pleased, but have I a real affection for him? Almost; and this is something which I consider strange.
* * * * *
Where does the Colonel go evenings? His old nurse has asked me, and I find I cannot answer. Not to the tavern, for I am often there; not to the houses of the neighbors, for none of them profess to know him. Where then? Is the curiosity of my youth coming back to me? It looks very much like it, Philo, very much like it.
* * * * *
My daughter said to me to-day: "Father, do not go any more to the Colonel's." And when I asked her why, she answered that her lover—she has a lover, the minx—had told her that the Colonel held secret talks with the witches, and though I laughed at this, it has set me thinking. He goes to the forest at night, and roams for hours among its shadows. Is this a healthy occupation for a man, especially a man with a history? I shall go early to the Schuyler homestead to-night and stay late, for these midnight communings with nature may be the source of the hideous gloom which I have observed of late is growing upon his spirits. No other duty seems to me now greater than this, to win him back to a healthy realization of life, and the need there is of looking cheerfully upon such blessings as are left to our lot.
* * * * *
I went to the Colonel's at early candle-light, and I stayed till ten, a late hour for me, and, as I hoped, for him. When I left I caught a sight of old Hannah, standing in a distant hallway, and I thought she looked grateful; at all events, she came forward very quickly after my departure, for I heard the key turn in the lock of the great front door before I had passed out of the gate.
Why did I not go home? I had meant to, and there was every reason why I should. But I had no sooner felt the turf under my feet and seen the stars over my head, than I began to wander in the very opposite direction, and that without any very definite plan or purpose. I think I was troubled, and if not troubled, restless, and yet movement did not seem to help me, for I grew more uneasy with every step I took, and began to look towards the woods to which I was half unconsciously tending as if there I should find relief just as the Colonel, perhaps, was in the habit of doing. Was it a mere foolish freak which had assailed me, or was I under some uncanny influence, caught from the place where I had been visiting?
I was yet asking myself this, when I heard distinctly through the silence of the night the sound of a footstep behind me, and astonished that any one else should have been beguiled at this hour into a walk so dreary, I slipped into the shadow of a tree that stood at the wayside and waited till the slowly advancing figure should pass and leave me free to pursue my way or to go back unnoticed and undisturbed.
I had not long to wait. In a moment a weirdly muffled form appeared abreast of me, and it was with difficulty I suppressed a cry, for it was the Colonel I saw, escaped, doubtless, from his old nurse's surveillance, and as he passed he groaned, and the sad sound coming through the night at a time when my own spirits were in no comfortable mood affected me with almost a superstitious power, so that I trembled where I stood and knew not whether to follow him or go back and seek the cheer of my own hearth. But I decided in another moment to follow him, and when he had withdrawn far enough up the road not to hear the sound of my footfalls, I stepped out from my retreat and went with him into the woods.
I have been as you know a midnight wanderer in that same place many a time in my life; but never did I leave the fields and meadows with such a foreboding dread, or step into the clustering shadows of the forest with such a shrinking and awe-struck heart. Yet I went on without a pause or an instant of hesitation, for I knew now where he was going, and if he were going to the old stone house I was determined to be his companion, or at least his watcher. For I knew now that I loved him and could never see him come to ill.
There was no moon at this time, but the sound of his steps guided me and when I had come into the open place where the stars shone I saw by the movement which took place in the shadows lying around the open door of the old house, that he was near the fatal threshold and would in another moment be across it and within those mouldy halls. That I was right, another instant proved, for suddenly through the great hollow of the open portal a mild gleam broke and I saw he had lighted a lantern and was moving about within the empty rooms.
Softly as man could go, I followed him. Crouching in the doorway, with ear turned to the emptiness within, I listened. And as I did so, I felt the chill run through my blood and stiffen the hair on my head, for he was talking as he walked, and his tones were affable and persuasive, as if two ghosts roamed noiselessly at his side and he were showing them as in the days of yore, the beauties of his nearly completed home.
"An ample parlor, you see," came in distinct, suave monotone to my ear. "Room enough for many a couple on gala nights, as even sweet Mistress Juliet will say. Do you like this fireplace, and will there be space enough here for the portrait which Lawrence has promised to make of young Madam Day? I do not like too much light myself, so I have ordered curtains to be hung here. But if Mistress Juliet prefers the sunshine, we will tell the men nay, for all is to be according to your will, fair lady, as you must know, being here. Pardon me, that was an evil step; you should have a quick eye for such mishaps, friend Orrin, and not leave it to my courtesy to hold out a helping hand. Ah! you like this dusky nook. It was made for a sweet young bride to hide in when her heart's fulness demands quiet and rest. Do the trees come too near the lattice? If so they shall be trimmed away. And this dining-parlor—Can you judge of it with the floor half laid and its wainscoting unnailed? I trow not, but you can trust me, pretty Juliet, you can trust me; and Orrin, too, need not speak, for me to know just how to finish this study for him. Up-stairs? You do not wish to go up-stairs? Ah, then, you miss the very cream of the house. I have worked with my own hand upon the rooms up-stairs, and there is a little Cupid wrought into the woodwork of a certain door which I greatly wish you to pass an opinion upon. I think the wings lack airiness, but the workmen swear it is as if he would fly from the door at a whisper. Come, Mistress Juliet; come, friend Orrin, if I lead the way you need not hesitate. Come! come!"
Was he alone? Were those eager steps of his unaccompanied, and should I not behold, if I looked within, the blooming face of Juliet and the frowning brows of Orrin, crowding close behind him as he moved? The fancy invoked by his words was so vivid, that for a moment I thought I should, and I never shall forget the thrill which seized me as I leaned forward and peered for one minute into the hall and saw there his solitary figure pausing on the lower step of the stairs, with that bend of the body which bespeaks an obeisance which is half homage and half an invitation. He was still talking, and as he went up, he looked back smiling and gossiping over his shoulder in a smooth and courtly way which made it impossible for me to withdraw my fascinated eyes.
"No banisters, sweet Juliet? Not yet—not yet; but Orrin will protect you from falling. No harm can come to you while he is at your side. Do you admire this sweep to the stairs? I saw a vision when I planned it, of a pretty woman coming down at the sound of her husband's step. The step has changed in sound to my imagination, but the pretty woman is prettier than ever, and will look her best as she comes down these stairs. Oh, that is a window-ledge for flowers. A honeymoon is nothing without flowers, and you must have forget-me-nots and pansies here till one cannot see from the window. You do not like such humble flowers? Fie! Mistress Juliet, it is hard to believe that,—even Orrin doubts it, as I see by his chiding air."
Here the gentle and bantering tones ceased, for he had reached the top of the stair. But in another moment I heard them again as he passed from room to room, pausing here and pausing there, till suddenly he gave a cheerful laugh, spoke her name in most inviting accents, and stepped into that room.
Then as if roused into galvanic action, I rose and followed, going up those midnight stairs and gaining the door where he had passed as if the impulse moving me had lent to my steps a certainty which preserved me from slipping even upon that dank and dangerous ascent. When in view of him again, I saw, as I had expected, that he was drawn up by the window and was bowing and beckoning with even more grace and suavity than he had shown below. "Will you not step out, Mistress Juliet?" he was saying; "I have a plan which I am anxious to submit to your judgment and which can only be decided upon from without. A high step true, but Orrin has lifted you over worse places and—and you will do me a great favor if only—" Here he gave a malignant shriek, and his countenance, from the most smiling and benignant expression, altered into that of a fiend from hell. "Ha, ha, ha!" he yelled. "She goes, and he is so fearful for her that he leaps after. That is a goodly stroke! Both—both—Crack! Ah, she looks at me, she looks—"
Silence and then a frozen figure crouching before my eyes, just the silence and just the figure I remembered seeing there twenty years before, only the face is older and the horror, if anything, greater. What did it mean? I tried to think, then as the full import of the scene burst upon me, and I realized that it was a murderer I was looking upon, and that Orrin, poor Orrin, had been innocent, I sank back and fell upon the floor, lost in the darkness of an utter unconsciousness.
I did not come to myself for hours; when I did I found myself alone in the old house.
* * * * *
Nothing was ever done to the Colonel, for when I came to tell my story the doctors said that the facts I related did not prove him to have been guilty of crime, as his condition was such that his own words could not be relied upon in a matter on which he had brooded more or less morbidly for years. So now when I see him pass through the churchyard or up and down the village street and note that he is affable as ever when he sees me, but growing more and more preoccupied with his own thoughts I do not know whether to look upon him with execration or profoundest pity, nor can any man guide me or satisfy my mind as to whether I should blame his jealousy or Orrin's pride for the pitiful tragedy which once darkened my life, and turned our pleasant village into a desert.
Of one thing only have I been made sure; that it was the Colonel who lit the brand which fired Orrin's cottage.
A MEMORABLE NIGHT.
I am a young physician of limited practice and great ambition. At the time of the incidents I am about to relate, my office was in a respectable house in Twenty-fourth Street, New York City, and was shared, greatly to my own pleasure and convenience, by a clever young German whose acquaintance I had made in the hospital, and to whom I had become, in the one short year in which we had practised together, most unreasonably attached. I say unreasonably, because it was a liking for which I could not account even to myself, as he was neither especially prepossessing in appearance nor gifted with any too great amiability of character. He was, however, a brilliant theorist and an unquestionably trustworthy practitioner, and for these reasons probably I entertained for him a profound respect, and as I have already said a hearty and spontaneous affection.
As our specialties were the same, and as, moreover, they were of a nature which did not call for night-work, we usually spent the evening together. But once I failed to join him at the office, and it is of this night I have to tell.
I had been over to Orange, for my heart was sore over the quarrel I had had with Dora, and I was resolved to make one final effort towards reconciliation. But alas for my hopes, she was not at home; and, what was worse, I soon learned that she was going to sail the next morning for Europe. This news, coming as it did without warning, affected me seriously, for I knew if she escaped from my influence at this time, I should certainly lose her forever; for the gentleman concerning whom we had quarrelled, was a much better match for her than I, and almost equally in love. However, her father, who had always been my friend, did not look upon this same gentleman's advantages with as favorable an eye as she did, and when he heard I was in the house, he came hurrying into my presence, with excitement written in every line of his fine face.
"Ah, Dick, my boy," he exclaimed joyfully, "how opportune this is! I was wishing you would come, for, do you know, Appleby has taken passage on board the same steamer as Dora, and if he and she cross together, they will certainly come to an understanding, and that will not be fair to you, or pleasing to me; and I do not care who knows it!"
I gave him one look and sank, quite overwhelmed, into the seat nearest me. Appleby was the name of my rival, and I quite agreed with her father that the tete-a-tetes afforded by an ocean voyage would surely put an end to the hopes which I had so long and secretly cherished.
"Does she know he is going? Did she encourage him?" I stammered.
But the old man answered genially: "Oh, she knows, but I cannot say anything positive about her having encouraged him. The fact is, Dick, she still holds a soft place in her heart for you, and if you were going to be of the party—"
"I think you would come off conqueror yet."
"Then I will be of the party," I cried. "It is only six now, and I can be in New York by seven. That gives me five hours before midnight, time enough in which to arrange my plans, see Richter, and make everything ready for sailing in the morning."
"Dick, you are a trump!" exclaimed the gratified father. "You have a spirit I like, and if Dora does not like it too, then I am mistaken in her good sense. But can you leave your patients?"
"Just now I have but one patient who is in anything like a critical condition," I replied, "and her case Richter understands almost as well as I do myself. I will have to see her this evening of course and explain, but there is time for that if I go now. The steamer sails at nine?"
"Do not tell Dora that I expect to be there; let her be surprised. Dear girl, she is quite well, I hope?"
"Yes, very well; only going over with her aunt to do some shopping. A poor outlook for a struggling physician, you think. Well, I don't know about that; she is just the kind of a girl to go from one extreme to another. If she once loves you she will not care any longer about Paris fashions."
"She shall love me," I cried, and left him in a great hurry, to catch the first train for Hoboken.
It seemed wild, this scheme, but I determined to pursue it. I loved Dora too much to lose her, and if three weeks' absence would procure me the happiness of my life, why should I hesitate to avail myself of the proffered opportunity. I rode on air as the express I had taken shot from station to station, and by the time I had arrived at Christopher Street Ferry my plans were all laid and my time disposed of till midnight.
It was therefore with no laggard step I hurried to my office, nor was it with any ordinary feelings of impatience that I found Richter out; for this was not his usual hour for absenting himself and I had much to tell him and many advices to give. It was the first balk I had received and I was fuming over it, when I saw what looked like a package of books lying on the table before me, and though it was addressed to my partner, I was about to take it up, when I heard my name uttered in a tremulous tone, and turning, saw a man standing in the doorway, who, the moment I met his eye, advanced into the room and said:
"O doctor, I have been waiting for you an hour. Mrs. Warner has been taken very bad, sir, and she prays that you will not delay a moment before coming to her. It is something serious I fear, and she may have died already, for she would have no one else but you, and it is now an hour since I left her."
"And who are you?" I asked, for though I knew Mrs. Warner well—she is the patient to whom I have already referred—I did not know her messenger.
"I am a servant in the house where she was taken ill."
"Then she is not at home?"
"No, sir, she is in Second Avenue."
"I am very sorry," I began, "but I have not the time—"
But he interrupted eagerly: "There is a carriage at the door; we thought you might not have your phaeton ready."
I had noticed the carriage.
"Very well," said I. "I will go, but first let me write a line—"
"O sir," the man broke in pleadingly, "do not wait for anything. She is really very bad, and I heard her calling for you as I ran out of the house."
"She had her voice then?" I ventured, somewhat distrustful of the whole thing and yet not knowing how to refuse the man, especially as it was absolutely necessary for me to see Mrs. Warner that night and get her consent to my departure before I could think of making further plans.
So, leaving word for Richter to be sure and wait for me if he came home before I did, I signified to Mrs. Warner's messenger that I was ready to go with him, and immediately took a seat in the carriage which had been provided for me. The man at once jumped up on the box beside the driver, and before I could close the carriage door we were off, riding rapidly down Seventh Avenue.
As we went the thought came, "What if Mrs. Warner will not let me off!" But I dismissed the fear at once, for this patient of mine is an extremely unselfish woman, and if she were not too ill to grasp the situation, would certainly sympathize with the strait I was in and consent to accept Richter's services in place of my own, especially as she knows and trusts him.
When the carriage stopped it was already dark and I could distinguish little of the house I entered, save that it was large and old and did not look like an establishment where a man servant would be likely to be kept.
"Is Mrs. Warner here?" I asked of the man who was slowly getting down from the box.
"Yes, sir," he answered quickly; and I was about to ring the bell before me, when the door opened and a young German girl, courtesying slightly, welcomed me in, saying:
"Mrs. Warner is up-stairs, sir; in the front room, if you please."
Not doubting her, but greatly astonished at the barren aspect of the place I was in, I stumbled up the faintly lighted stairs before me and entered the great front room. It was empty, but through an open door at the other end I heard a voice saying: "He has come, madam"; and anxious to see my patient, whose presence in this desolate house I found it harder and harder to understand, I stepped into the room where she presumably lay.
Alas! for my temerity in doing so; for no sooner had I crossed the threshold than the door by which I had entered closed with a click unlike any I had ever heard before, and when I turned to see what it meant, another click came from the opposite side of the room, and I perceived, with a benumbed sense of wonder, that the one person whose somewhat shadowy figure I had encountered on entering had vanished from the place, and that I was shut up alone in a room without visible means of egress.
This was startling, and hard to believe at first, but after I had tried the door by which I had entered and found it securely locked, and then bounding to the other side of the room, tried the opposite one with the same result, I could not but acknowledge I was caught. What did it mean? Caught, and I was in haste, mad haste. Filling the room with my cries, I shouted for help and a quick release, but my efforts were naturally fruitless, and after exhausting myself in vain I stood still and surveyed, with what equanimity was left me, the appearance of the dreary place in which I had thus suddenly become entrapped.
It was a small square room, and I shall not soon forget with what a foreboding shudder I observed that its four blank walls were literally unbroken by a single window, for this told me that I was in no communication with the street, and that it would be impossible for me to summon help from the outside world. The single gas jet burning in a fixture hanging from the ceiling was the only relief given to the eye in the blank expanse of white wall that surrounded me; while as to furniture, the room could boast of nothing more than an old-fashioned black-walnut table and two chairs, the latter cushioned, but stiff in the back and generally dilapidated in appearance. The only sign of comfort about me was a tray that stood on the table, containing a couple of bottles of wine and two glasses. The bottles were full and the glasses clean, and to add to this appearance of hospitality a box of cigars rested invitingly near, which I could not fail to perceive, even at the first glance, were of the very best brand.
Astonished at these tokens of consideration for my welfare, and confounded by the prospect which they offered of a lengthy stay in this place, I gave another great shout; but to no better purpose than before. Not a voice answered, and not a stir was heard in the house. But there came from without the faint sound of suddenly moving wheels, as if the carriage which I had left standing before the door had slowly rolled away. If this were so, then was I indeed a prisoner, while the moments so necessary to my plans, and perhaps to the securing of my whole future happiness, were flying by like the wind. As I realized this, and my own utter helplessness, I fell into one of the chairs before me in a state of perfect despair. Not that any fears for my life were disturbing me, though one in my situation might well question if he would ever again breathe the open air from which he had been so ingeniously lured. I did not in that first moment of utter downheartedness so much as inquire the reason for the trick which had been played upon me. No, my heart was full of Dora, and I was asking myself if I were destined to lose her after all, and that through no lack of effort on my part, but just because a party of thieves or blackmailers had thought fit to play a game with my liberty.
It could not be; there must be some mistake about it; it was some great joke, or I was the victim of a dream, or suffering from some hideous nightmare. Why, only a half hour before I was in my own office, among my own familiar belongings, and now—But, alas, it was no delusion. Only four blank, whitewashed walls met my inquiring eyes, and though I knocked and knocked again upon the two doors which guarded me on either side, hollow echoes continued to be the only answer I received.
Had the carriage then taken away the two persons I had seen in this house, and was I indeed alone in its great emptiness? The thought made me desperate, but notwithstanding this I was resolved to continue my efforts, for I might be mistaken; there might yet be some being left who would yield to my entreaties if they were backed by something substantial.
Taking out my watch, I laid it on the table; it was just a quarter to eight. Then I emptied my trousers pockets of whatever money they held, and when all was heaped up before me, I could count but twelve dollars, which, together with my studs and a seal ring which I wore, seemed a paltry pittance with which to barter for the liberty of which I had been robbed. But it was all I had with me, and I was willing to part with it at once if only some one would unlock the door and let me go. But how to make known my wishes even if there was any one to listen to them? I had already called in vain, and there was no bell—yes, there was; why had I not seen it before? There was a bell and I sprang to ring it. But just as my hand fell on the cord, I heard a gentle voice behind my back saying in good English, but with a strong foreign accent:
"Put up your money, Mr. Atwater; we do not want your money, only your society. Allow me to beg you to replace both watch and money."
Wheeling about in my double surprise at the presence of this intruder and his unexpected acquaintance with my name, I encountered the smiling glance of a middle-aged man of genteel appearance and courteous manners. He was bowing almost to the ground, and was, as I instantly detected, of German birth and education, a gentleman, and not the blackleg I had every reason to expect to see.
"You have made a slight mistake," he was saying; "it is your society, only your society, that we want."
Astonished at his appearance, and exceedingly irritated by his words, I stepped back as he offered me my watch, and bluntly cried:
"If it is my society only that you want, you have certainly taken very strange means to procure it. A thief could have set no neater trap, and if it is money you want, state your sum and let me go, for my time is valuable and my society likely to be unpleasant."
He gave a shrug with his shoulders that in no wise interfered with his set smile.
"You choose to be facetious," he observed. "I have already remarked that we have no use for your money. Will you sit down? Here is some excellent wine, and if this brand of cigars does not suit you, I will send for another."
"Send for the devil!" I cried, greatly exasperated. "What do you mean by keeping me in this place against my will? Open that door and let me out, or—"
I was ready to spring and he saw it. Smiling more atrociously than ever, he slipped behind the table, and before I could reach him, had quietly drawn a pistol, which he cocked before my eyes.
"You are excited," he remarked, with a suavity that nearly drove me mad. "Now excitement is no aid to good company, and I am determined that none but good company shall be in this room to-night. So if you will be kind enough to calm yourself, Mr. Atwater, you and I may yet enjoy ourselves, but if not—" the action he made was significant, and I felt the cold sweat break out on my forehead through all the heat of my indignation.
But I did not mean to show him that he had intimidated me.
"Excuse me," said I, "and put down your pistol. Though you are making me lose irredeemable time, I will try and control myself enough to give you an opportunity for explaining yourself. Why have you entrapped me into this place?"
"I have already told you," said he, gently laying the pistol before him, but within easy reach of his hand.
"But that is preposterous," I began, fast losing my self-control again. "You do not know me, and if you did—"
"Pardon me, you see I know your name."
Yes, that was true, and the fact set me thinking. How did he know my name? I did not know him, nor did I know this house, or any reason for which I could have been beguiled into it. Was I the victim of a conspiracy, or was the man mad? Looking at him very earnestly, I declared:
"My name is Atwater, and so far you are right, but in learning that much about me you must also have learned that I am neither rich nor influential, nor of any special value to a blackmailer. Why choose me out then for—your society? Why not choose some one who can—talk?"
"I find your conversation very interesting."
Baffled, exasperated almost beyond the power to restrain myself, I shook my fist in his face, notwithstanding I saw his hand fly to his pistol.
"Let me go!" I shrieked. "Let me go out of this place. I have business, I tell you, important business which means everything to me, and which, if I do not attend to it to-night, will be lost to me for ever. Let me go, and I will so far reward you that I will speak to no one of what has taken place here to-night, but go my ways, forgetful of you, forgetful of this house, forgetful of all connected with it."
"You are very good," was his quiet reply, "but this wine has to be drunk." And he calmly poured out a glass, while I drew back in despair. "You do not drink wine?" he queried, holding up the glass he had filled between himself and the light. "It is a pity, for it is of most rare vintage. But perhaps you smoke?"
Sick and disgusted, I found a chair, and sat down in it. If the man were crazy, there was certainly method in his madness. Besides, he had not a crazy eye; there was calm calculation in it and not a little good-nature. Did he simply want to detain me, and if so, did he have a motive it would pay me to fathom before I exerted myself further to insure my release? Answering the wave he made me with his hand by reaching out for the bottle and filling myself a glass, I forced myself to speak more affably as I remarked:
"If the wine must be drunk, we had better be about it, as you cannot mean to detain me more than an hour, whatever reason you may have for wishing my society."
He looked at me inquiringly before answering, then tossing off his glass, he remarked:
"I am sorry, but in an hour a man can scarcely make the acquaintance of another man's exterior."
"Then you mean—"
"To know you thoroughly, if you will be so good; I may never have the opportunity again."
He must be mad; nothing else but mania could account for such words and such actions; and yet, if mad, why was he allowed to enter my presence? The man who brought me here, the woman who received me at the door, had not been mad.
"And I must stay here—" I began.
"Till I am quite satisfied. I am afraid that will take till morning."
I gave a cry of despair, and then in my utter desperation spoke up to him as I would to a man of feeling:
"You don't know what you are doing; you don't know what I shall suffer by any such cruel detention. This night is not like other nights to me. This is a special night in my life, and I need it, I need it, I tell you, to spend as I will. The woman I love"—it seemed horrible to speak of her in this place, but I was wild at my helplessness, and madly hoped I might awake some answering chord in a breast which could not be void of all feeling or he would not have that benevolent look in his eye—"the woman I love," I repeated, "sails for Europe to-morrow. We have quarrelled, but she still cares for me, and if I can sail on the same steamer, we will yet make up and be happy."
"At what time does this steamer start?"
"At nine in the morning."
"Well, you shall leave this house at eight. If you go directly to the steamer you will be in time."
"But—but," I panted, "I have made no arrangements. I shall have to go to my lodgings, write letters, get money. I ought to be there at this moment. Have you no mercy on a man who never did you wrong, and only asks to quit you and forget the precious hour you have made him lose?"
"I am sorry," he said, "it is certainly quite unfortunate, but the door will not be opened before eight. There is really no one in the house to unlock it."
"And do you mean to say," I cried aghast, "that you could not open that door if you would, that you are locked in here as well as I, and that I must remain here till morning, no matter how I feel or you feel?"
"Will you not take a cigar?" he asked.
Then I began to see how useless it was to struggle, and visions of Dora leaning on the steamer rail with that serpent whispering soft entreaties in her ear came rushing before me, till I could have wept in my jealous chagrin.
"It is cruel, base, devilish," I began. "If you had the excuse of wanting money, and took this method of wringing my all from me, I could have patience, but to entrap and keep me here for nothing, when my whole future happiness is trembling in the balance, is the work of a fiend and—" I made a sudden pause, for a strange idea had struck me.
What if this man, these men and this woman, were in league with him whose rivalry I feared, and whom I had intended to supplant on the morrow. It was a wild surmise, but was it any wilder than to believe I was held here for a mere whim, a freak, a joke, as this bowing, smiling man before me would have me believe?
Rising in fresh excitement, I struck my hand on the table. "You want to keep me from going on the steamer," I cried. "That other wretch who loves her has paid you—"
But that other wretch could not know that I was meditating any such unusual scheme, as following him without a full day's warning. I thought of this even before I had finished my sentence, and did not need the blank astonishment in the face of the man before me to convince me that I had given utterance to a foolish accusation. "It would have been some sort of a motive for your actions," I humbly added, as I sank back from my hostile attitude; "now you have none."
I thought he bestowed upon me a look of quiet pity, but if so he soon hid it with his uplifted glass.
"Forget the girl," said he; "I know of a dozen just as pretty."
I was too indignant to answer.
"Women are the bane of life," he now sententiously exclaimed. "They are ever intruding themselves between a man and his comfort, as for instance just now between yourself and this good wine."
I caught up the bottle in sheer desperation.
"Don't talk of them," I cried, "and I will try and drink. I almost wish there was poison in the glass. My death here might bring punishment upon you."
He shook his head, totally unmoved by my passion.
"We deal punishment, not receive it. It would not worry me in the least to leave you lying here upon the floor."
I did not believe this, but I did not stop to weigh the question then; I was too much struck by a word he had used.
"Deal punishment?" I repeated. "Are you punishing me? Is that why I am here?"
He laughed and held out his glass to mine.
"You enjoy being sarcastic," he observed. "Well, it gives a spice to conversation, I own. Talk is apt to be dull without it."
For reply I struck the glass from his hand; it fell and shivered, and he looked for the moment really distressed.
"I had rather you had struck me," he remarked, "for I have an answer for an injury like that; but for a broken glass—" He sighed and looked dolefully at the pieces on the floor.
Mortified and somewhat ashamed, I put down my own glass.
"You should not have exasperated me," I cried, and walked away beyond temptation, to the other side of the room.
His spirits had received a dampener, but in a few minutes he seized upon a cigar and began smoking; as the wreaths curled over his head he began to talk, and this time it was on subjects totally foreign to myself and even to himself. It was good talk; that I recognized, though I hardly listened to what he said. I was asking myself what time it had now got to be, and what was the meaning of my incarceration, till my brain became weary and I could scarcely distinguish the topic he discussed. But he kept on for all my seeming, and indeed real, indifference, kept on hour after hour in a monologue he endeavored to make interesting, and which probably would have been so if the time and occasion had been fit for my enjoying it. As it was, I had no ear for his choicest phrases, his subtlest criticisms, or his most philosophic disquisitions. I was wrapped up in self and my cruel disappointment, and when in a certain access of frenzy I leaped to my feet and took a look at the watch still lying on the table, and saw it was four o'clock in the morning, I gave a bound of final despair, and throwing myself on the floor, gave myself up to the heavy sleep that mercifully came to relieve me.
I was roused by feeling a touch on my breast. Clapping my hand to the spot where I had felt the intruding hand, I discovered that my watch had been returned to my pocket. Drawing it out I first looked at it and then cast my eyes quickly about the room. There was no one with me, and the doors stood open between me and the hall. It was eight o'clock, as my watch had just told me.
That I rushed from the house and took the shortest road to the steamer, goes without saying. I could not cross the ocean with Dora, but I might yet see her and tell her how near I came to giving her my company on that long voyage which now would only serve to further the ends of my rival. But when, after torturing delays on cars and ferry-boats, and incredible efforts to pierce a throng that was equally determined not to be pierced, I at last reached the wharf, it was to behold her, just as I had fancied in my wildest moments, leaning on a rail of the ship and listening, while she abstractedly waved her hand to some friends below, to the words of the man who had never looked so handsome to me or so odious as at this moment of his unconscious triumph. Her father was near her, and from his eager attitude and rapidly wandering gaze I saw that he was watching for me. At last he spied me struggling aboard, and immediately his face lighted up in a way which made me wish he had not thought it necessary to wait for my anticipated meeting with his daughter.
"Ah, Dick, you are late," he began, effusively, as I put foot on deck.
But I waved him back and went at once to Dora.
"Forgive me, pardon me," I incoherently said, as her sweet eyes rose in startled pleasure to mine. "I would have brought you flowers, but I meant to sail with you, Dora, I tried to—but wretches, villains, prevented it and—and—"
"Oh, it does not matter," she said, and then blushed, probably because the words sounded unkind, "I mean—"
But she could not say what she meant, for just then the bell rang for all visitors to leave, and her father came forward, evidently thinking all was right between us, smiled benignantly in her face, gave her a kiss and me a wink and disappeared in the crowd that was now rapidly going ashore.
I felt that I must follow, but I gave her one look and one squeeze of the hand, and then as I saw her glances wander to his face, I groaned in spirit, stammered some words of choking sorrow and was gone, before her embarrassment would let her speak words, which I knew would only add to my grief and make this hasty parting unendurable.
The look of amazement and chagrin with which her father met my reappearance on the dock can easily be imagined.
"Why, Dick," he exclaimed, "aren't you going after all? I thought I could rely on you. Where's your pluck, lad? Scared off by a frown? I wouldn't have believed it, Dick. What if she does frown to-day; she will smile to-morrow."
I shook my head; I could not tell him just then that it was not through any lack of pluck on my part that I had failed him.
When I left the dock I went straight to a restaurant, for I was faint as well as miserable. But my cup of coffee choked me and the rolls and eggs were more than I could face. Rising impatiently, I went out. Was any one more wretched than I that morning and could any one nourish a more bitter grievance? As I strode towards my lodgings I chewed the cud of my disappointment till my wrongs loomed up like mountains and I was seized by a spirit of revenge. Should I let such an interference as I had received go unpunished? No, if the wretch who had detained me was not used to punishment he should receive a specimen of it now and from a man who was no longer a prisoner, and who once aroused did not easily forego his purposes. Turning aside from my former destination, I went immediately to a police-station and when I had entered my complaint was astonished to see that all the officials had grouped about me and were listening to my words with the most startled interest.
"Was the man who came for you a German?" one asked.
I said "Yes."
"And the man who stood guardian over you and entertained you with wine and cigars, was not he a German too?"
I nodded acquiescence and they at once began to whisper together; then one of them advanced to me and said:
"You have not been home, I understand; you had better come."
Astonished by his manner I endeavored to inquire what he meant, but he drew me away, and not till we were within a stone's throw of my office did he say, "You must prepare yourself for a shock. The impertinences you suffered from last night were unpleasant no doubt, but if you had been allowed to return home, you might not now be deploring them in comparative peace and safety."
"What do you mean?"
"That your partner was not as fortunate as yourself. Look up at the house; what do you see there?"
A crowd was what I saw first, but he made me look higher, and then I perceived that the windows of my room, of our room, were shattered and blackened and that part of the casement of one had been blown out.
"A fire!" I shrieked. "Poor Richter was smoking—"
"No, he was not smoking. He had no time for a smoke. An infernal machine burst in that room last night and your friend was its wretched victim."
I never knew why my friend's life was made a sacrifice to the revenge of his fellow-countrymen. Though we had been intimate in the year we had been together, he had never talked to me of his country and I had never seen him in company with one of his own nation. But that he was the victim of some political revenge was apparent, for though it proved impossible to find the man who had detained me, the house was found and ransacked, and amongst other secret things was discovered the model of the machine which had been introduced into our room, and which had proved so fatal to the man it was addressed to. Why men who were so relentless in their purposes towards him should have taken such pains to keep me from sharing his fate, is one of those anomalies in human nature which now and then awake our astonishment. If I had not lost Dora through my detention at their hands I should look back upon that evening with sensations of thankfulness. As it is, I sometimes question if it would not have been better if they had let me take my chances.
* * * * *
Have I lost Dora? From a letter I received to-day I begin to think not.
THE BLACK CROSS.
A black cross had been set against Judge Hawkins' name; why, it is not for me to say. We were not accustomed to explain our motives or to give reasons for our deeds. The deeds were enough, and this black cross meant death; and when it had been shown us, all that we needed to know further was at what hour we should meet for the contemplated raid.
A word from the captain settled that; and when the next Friday came, a dozen men met at the place of rendezvous, ready for the ride which should bring them to the Judge's solitary mansion across the mountains.
I was amongst them, and in as satisfactory a mood as I had ever been in my life; for the night was favorable, and the men hearty and in first-rate condition.
But after we had started, and were threading a certain wood, I began to have doubts. Feelings I had never before experienced assailed me with a force that first perplexed and then astounded me. I was afraid, and what rather heightened than diminished the unwonted sensation, was the fact that I was not afraid of anything tangible, either in the present or future, but of something unexplainable and peculiar, which, if it lay in the skies, certainly made them look dark indeed; and if it hid in the forest, caused its faintest murmur to seem like the utterance of a great dread, as awful as it was inexplicable.
I nevertheless proceeded, and should have done so if the great streaks of lightning which now and then shot zigzag through the sky had taken the shape of words and bid us all beware. I was not one to be daunted, and knew no other course than that of advance when once a stroke of justice had been planned, and the direction for its fulfilment marked out. I went on, but I began to think, and that to me was an experience; for I had never been taught to reflect, only to fight and obey.
The house towards which we were riding was built on a hillside, and the first thing we saw on emerging from the forest, was a light burning in one of its distant windows. This was a surprise; for the hour was late, and in that part of the country people were accustomed to retire early, even such busy men as the Judge. He must have a visitor, and a visitor meant a possible complication of affairs; so a halt was called and I was singled out to reconnoitre the premises, and bring back word of what we had a right to expect.
I started off in a strange state of mind. The fear I had spoken of had left me, but a vague shadow remained, through which, as through a mist, I saw the light in that far away window beckoning me on to what I felt was in some way to make an end of my present life. As I drew nearer to it, the feeling increased; then it, too, left me, and I found myself once more the daring avenger. This was when I came to the foot of the hill and discovered I had but a few steps more to take.
The house, which had now become plainly visible, was a solid one of stone, built as I have said, on the hillside. It faced the road, as was shown by the large portico, dimly to be discerned in that direction; but its rooms were mainly on the side, and it was from one of these that the light shone. As I came yet nearer, I perceived that these rooms were guarded by a piazza, which, communicating with the portico in front, afforded an open road to that window and a clear sight of what lay behind it.
I was instantly off my horse and upon the piazza, and before I had had time to realize that my fears had returned to me with double force, I had crept with stealthy steps towards that uncurtained window and looked in.
What did I see? At first nothing but a calm, studious figure, bending above a batch of closely written papers, upon which the light shone too brightly for me to perceive much of what lay beyond them. But gradually an influence, of whose workings I was scarcely conscious, drew my eyes away, and I began to discover on every side strange and beautiful objects which greatly interested me, until suddenly my eyes fell upon a vision of loveliness so enchanting that I forgot to look elsewhere, and became for the moment nothing but sight and feeling.
It was a picture, or so I thought in that first instant of awe and delight. But presently I saw that it was a woman, living and full of the thoughts that had never been mine; and at the discovery a sudden trembling seized me; for I had never seen anything in heaven or earth like her beauty, while she saw nothing but the man who was bending over his papers.
There was a door or something dark behind her, and against it her tall strong figure, clad in a close white gown, stood out with a distinctness that was not altogether earthly. But it was her face that held me, and made of me from moment to moment a new man.
For in it I discerned what I had never believed in till now, devotion that had no limit, and love which asked nothing in return. She seemed to be faltering on the threshold of that room, like one who would like to enter but does not dare, and in another moment, with a smile that pierced me through and through, she turned as if to go. Instantly I forgot everything but my despair, and leaned forward with an impetuosity that betrayed my presence, for she glanced quickly towards the window, and seeing me, turned pale, even while she rose in height till I felt myself shrink and grow small before her.
Thrusting out her hand, she caught from the table before her what looked like a small dagger, and holding it up, advanced upon me with blazing eyes and parted lips, not seeing that the Judge had risen to his feet, not seeing anything but my face glued against the pane, and staring with an expression that must have struck her to the heart as surely as her look pierced mine. When she was almost upon me I turned and fled. Hell could not have frightened me, but Heaven did; and for me that woman was Heaven whether she smiled or frowned, gazed upon another with love, or raised a dagger to strike me to the ground.
How soon I met my mates I cannot say. In a few minutes, doubtless, for they had stolen after me and had detected me running away from the window. I was forced to tell my tale, and I told it unhesitatingly, for I knew I could not save him—if I wanted to—and I knew I should save her or die in the attempt.
"He is alone there with a girl," I announced. "Whether she is his wife or not I cannot say, but there is no cross against her name, and I ask that she be spared not only from sharing his fate, but from the sight of his death, for she loves him."
This from me! No wonder the captain stared, then laughed. But I did not laugh in return, and being the strongest man in the band and the surest with my rifle, he did not trifle long, but listened to my plans and in part consented to them, so that I retreated to my post at the gateway with something like confidence, while he, approaching the door, lifted the knocker and let it fall with a resounding clang that must have rung like a knell of death to the hearts within.
For the Judge knew our errand. I saw it in his face when he rose to his feet, and he had no hope, for we had never failed in our attempts, and the house, though strongly built, was easily assailable.
* * * * *
While the captain knocked, three men had scaled the portico and were ready to enter the open windows, if the Judge refused to appear or offered any resistance to what was known as the captain's will.
"Death to the Judge!" was the cry; and it was echoed not only at the door, but around the house, where the rest of the men had drawn a cordon ready to waylay any one who sought to escape. Death to the Judge! And the Judge was loved by that woman and would be mourned by her till—But a voice is speaking, a voice from out that great house, and it asks what is wanted and what the meaning is of these threats of death.
And the captain answers short and sharp:
"The Ku-Klux commands but never explains. What it commands now is for Judge Hawkins to come forth. If he shrinks or delays his house will be entered and burnt; but if he will come out and meet like a man what awaits him, his house shall go free and his family remain unmolested."
"And what is it that awaits him?" pursued the voice.
"Four bullets from four unerring rifles," returned the captain.
"It is well; he will come forth," cried the voice, and then in a huskier tone: "Let me kiss the woman I love. I will not keep you long."
And the captain answered nothing, only counted out clearly and steadily, "One—two—three," up to a hundred, then he paused, turned, and lifted his hand; when instantly our four rifles rose, and at the same moment the door, with a faint grating sound I shall never forget, slowly opened and the firm, unshrinking figure of the Judge appeared.
We did not delay. One simultaneous burst of fire, one loud quick crack, and his figure fell before our eyes. A sound, a cry from within, then all was still, and the captain, mounting his horse, gave one quick whistle and galloped away. We followed him, but I was the last to mount, and did not follow long; for at the flash of those guns I had seen a smile cross our victim's lip, and my heart was on fire, and I could not rest till I had found my way back to that open doorway and the figure lying within it.
There it was, and behind it a house empty as my heart has been since that day. A man's dress covering a woman's form—and over the motionless, perfect features, that same smile which I had seen in the room beyond and again in the quick glare of the rifles.
I had harbored no evil thought concerning her, but when I beheld that smile now sealed and fixed upon her lips, I found the soul I had never known I possessed until that day.
A MYSTERIOUS CASE.
It was a mystery to me, but not to the other doctors. They took, as was natural, the worst possible view of the matter, and accepted the only solution which the facts seem to warrant. But they are men, and I am a woman; besides, I knew the nurse well, and I could not believe her capable of wilful deceit, much less of the heinous crime which deceit in this case involved. So to me the affair was a mystery.
The facts were these:
My patient, a young typewriter, seemingly without friends or enemies, lay in a small room of a boarding-house, afflicted with a painful but not dangerous malady. Though she was comparatively helpless, her vital organs were strong, and we never had a moment's uneasiness concerning her, till one morning when we found her in an almost dying condition from having taken, as we quickly discovered, a dose of poison, instead of the soothing mixture which had been left for her with the nurse. Poison! and no one, not even herself or the nurse, could explain how the same got into the room, much less into her medicine. And when I came to study the situation, I found myself as much at loss as they; indeed, more so; for I knew I had made no mistake in preparing the mixture, and that, even if I had, this especial poison could not have found its way into it, owing to the fact that there neither was nor ever had been a drop of it in my possession.
The mixture, then, was pure when it left my hand, and, according to the nurse, whom, as I have said, I implicitly believe, it went into the glass pure. And yet when, two hours later, without her having left the room or anybody coming into it, she found occasion to administer the draught, poison was in the cup, and the patient was only saved from death by the most immediate and energetic measures, not only on her part, but on that of Dr. Holmes, whom in her haste and perturbation she had called in from the adjacent house.
The patient, young, innocent, unfortunate, but of a strangely courageous disposition, betrayed nothing but the utmost surprise at the peril she had so narrowly escaped. When Dr. Holmes intimated that perhaps she had been tired of suffering, and had herself found means of putting the deadly drug into her medicine, she opened her great gray eyes, with such a look of child-like surprise and reproach, that he blushed, and murmured some sort of apology.
"Poison myself?" she cried, "when you promise me that I shall get well? You do not know what a horror I have of dying in debt, or you would never say that."
This was some time after the critical moment had passed, and there were in the room Mrs. Dayton, the landlady, Dr. Holmes, the nurse, and myself. At the utterance of these words we all felt ashamed and cast looks of increased interest at the poor girl.
She was very lovely. Though without means, and to all appearance without friends, she possessed in great degree the charm of winsomeness, and not even her many sufferings, nor the indignation under which she was then laboring, could quite rob her countenance of that tender and confiding expression which so often redeems the plainest face and makes beauty doubly attractive.
"Dr. Holmes does not know you," I hastened to say; "I do, and utterly repel for you any such insinuation. In return, will you tell me if there is any one in the world whom you can call your enemy? Though the chief mystery is how so deadly and unusual a poison could have gotten into a clean glass, without the knowledge of yourself or the nurse, still it might not be amiss to know if there is any one, here or elsewhere, who for any reason might desire your death."
The surprise in the child-like eyes increased rather than diminished.
"I don't know what to say," she murmured. "I am so insignificant and feeble a person that it seems absurd for me to talk of having an enemy. Besides, I have none. On the contrary, every one seems to love me more than I deserve. Haven't you noticed it, Mrs. Dayton?"
The landlady smiled and stroked the sick girl's hand.
"Indeed," she replied, "I have noticed that people love you, but I have never thought that it was more than you deserved. You are a dear little thing, Addie."
And though she knew and I knew that the "every one" mentioned by the poor girl meant ourselves, and possibly her unknown employer, we were none the less touched by her words. The more we studied the mystery, the deeper and less explainable did it become.
And indeed I doubt if we should have ever got to the bottom of it, if there had not presently occurred in my patient a repetition of the same dangerous symptoms, followed by the same discovery, of poison in the glass, and the same failure on the part of herself and nurse to account for it. I was aroused from my bed at midnight to attend her, and as I entered her room and met her beseeching eyes looking upon me from the very shadow of death, I made a vow that I would never cease my efforts till I had penetrated the secret of what certainly looked like a persistent attempt upon this poor girl's life.
I went about the matter deliberately. As soon as I could leave her side, I drew the nurse into a corner and again questioned her. The answers were the same as before. Addie had shown distress as soon as she had swallowed her usual quantity of medicine, and in a few minutes more was in a perilous condition.
"Did you hand the glass yourself to Addie?"
"Where did you take it from?"
"From the place where you left it—the little stand on the farther side of the bed."
"And do you mean to say that you had not touched it since I prepared it?"
"I do, ma'am."
"And that no one else has been in the room?"
"No one, ma'am."
I looked at her intently. I trusted her, but the best of us are but mortal.
"Can you assure me that you have not been asleep during this time?"
"Look at this letter I have been writing," she returned. "It is eight pages long, and it was not begun when you left us at 10 o'clock."
I shook my head and fell into a deep revery. How was that matter to be elucidated, and how was my patient to be saved? Another draught of this deadly poison, and no power on earth could resuscitate her. What should I do, and with what weapons should I combat a danger at once so subtle and so deadly? Reflection brought no decision, and I left the room at last, determined upon but one point, and that was the immediate removal of my patient. But before I had left the house I changed my mind even on this point. Removal of the patient meant safety to her, perhaps, but not the explanation of her mysterious poisoning. I would change the position of her bed, and I would even set a watch over her and the nurse, but I would not take her out of the house—not yet.
And what had produced this change in my plans? The look of a woman whom I met on the stairs. I did not know her, but when I encountered her glance I felt that there was some connection between us, and I was not at all surprised to hear her ask:
"And how is Miss Wilcox to-day?"
"Miss Wilcox is very low," I returned. "The least neglect, the least shock to her nerves, would be sufficient to make all my efforts useless. Otherwise—"
"She will get well?"
I nodded. I had exaggerated the condition of the sufferer, but some secret instinct compelled me to do so. The look which passed over the woman's face satisfied me that I had done well; and, though I left the house, it was with the intention of speedily returning and making inquiries into the woman's character and position in the household.
I learned little or nothing. That she occupied a good room and paid for it regularly seemed to be sufficient to satisfy Mrs. Dayton. Her name, which proved to be Leroux, showed her to be French, and her promptly paid $10 a week showed her to be respectable—what more could any hard-working landlady require? But I was distrustful. Her face, though handsome, possessed an eager, ferocious look which I could not forget, and the slight gesture with which she had passed me at the close of the short conversation I have given above had a suggestion of triumph in it which seemed to contain whole volumes of secret and mysterious hate. I went into Miss Wilcox's room very thoughtful.
"I am going—"
But here the nurse held up her hand. "Hark," she whispered; she had just set the clock, and was listening to its striking.
I did hark, but not to the clock.
"Whose step is that?" I asked, after she had left the clock, and sat down.
"Oh, some one in the next room. The walls here are very thin—only boards in places."
I did not complete what I had begun to say. If I could hear steps through the partition, then could our neighbors hear us talk, and what I had determined upon must be kept secret from all outsiders. I drew a sheet of paper toward me and wrote:
"I shall stay here to-night. Something tells me that in doing this I shall solve this mystery. But I must appear to go. Take my instructions as usual, and bid me good-night. Lock the door after me, but with a turn of the key instantly unlock it again. I shall go down stairs, see that my carriage drives away, and quietly return. On my re-entrance I shall expect to find Miss Wilcox on the couch with the screen drawn up around it, you in your big chair, and the light lowered. What I do thereafter need not concern you. Pretend to go to sleep."