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Title: To the Minute Author: Anna Katharine Green * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1701091h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2017 Most recent update: October 2017 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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To The Minute
Chapter 1. - I Set The Clock
Chapter 2. - Seth Fullerton Wants To Buy
Chapter 3. - Judith Loses A Key
Chapter 4. - The Closet of Long Ago
Chapter 5. - I Watch
Chapter 6. - I Attack
Chapter 7. - A Hunt And—
Chapter 8. - A Question
Chapter 9. - The Question Answered
Scarlet and Black
Chapter 1. - The White Cloth And What Lay On It
Chapter 2. - The Victor And The Vanquished
Chapter 3. - My Romance Receives A Shock
Chapter 4. - Krov
Chapter 5. - Walls Should Be Thicker Or Voices Less Penetrating
Chapter 6. - What Are The Stakes?
Chapter 7. - In My Own Vestibule
Chapter 8. - We Shall Meet Once Again
Chapter 9. - Still The Scarlet Countess
Chapter 10. - I Have But One Duty
There are some things so out of the pale of common experience—intuitions so compelling, coincidences so startling, that the mind, accustomed as it is to the usual, refuses to accept them as real, and for one unreasoning instant, if no more, feels the oppression of forces hitherto unknown and possibly hitherto denied. Of such a coincidence I write, one trifling in itself, but perhaps for that very reason the more disturbing.
I had come into town on the four o’clock train. Though a native of the village, I had no interest in it and so made not a single stop between the station and the old homestead in which I had been born. I had been a rebellious boy and had run away from home before I was fifteen. By home, I mean the house where my grandfather held full sway. Orphaned in infancy, I had been brought up under the harsh tyranny of a man who had but one thought—to live on as little as possible and make everyone about him do the same. Had I been of a more patient disposition, I should probably have inherited such property as he had to leave, but being the boy I was, and a runaway to boot, I awoke one fine day to find the little pittance due me willed to my cousin Judith, an orphan like myself and like myself much in need (or so I had understood) of any and all good fortune which might come her way.
It was on her behalf I was making this return visit to Granville. Though grandfather had been dead two months,—having committed suicide one fine evening in his chagrin, as some said, at finding he could no longer support himself on ten cents a day,—she had never made the first move to profit by his bequest, refusing even to change her very humble abode for the more commodious one to which she had fallen heir. Why she had acted in a fashion so inimical to her own interests I had never heard explained. But I expected to hear all her reasons for the same, and much more, in the interview which had been arranged between us.
Once I paused on the hot highway to take out and carefully reread the letter which was hastening me to her side. It ran:
I think you ought to know that Grandfather’s house is in the market. I may be mistaken in thinking you have any interest in its fate, but if from any family feeling you should care to purchase it for yourself, allow me to say that the only person I know likely to compete with you for its ownership is Seth Fullerton, whose property adjoins it on two sides.
Yours very truly,
I knew this Fullerton. I had often met him in Boston, where he spent much time. Indeed, we were members of the same club, and had it not been for a dislike I have for an evasive eye and a lip more adapted for sneers than smiles, I might have found him attractive in person and of an agreeable wit. But his eye prejudiced me, and half my errand in Granville was to defeat him in any wish he might have for the acquisition of our family homestead. That was before I saw it. But when at a turn of the road I caught my first glimpse of its once familiar walls and closely huddled outhouses, I had an instinct of revulsion which almost sent me back on the next train.
Nothing I had seen in the whole length of my walk from the station had prepared me for the sight of such dilapidation, and in the first heat of my disappointment—for there was nothing to be seen here which would warrant any sacrifice on my part—I was conscious of an unseemly anger against Judith for her neglect of a property once esteemed valuable. If she had not wished to occupy the house herself, why had she not rented it? And then I remembered that it had not been in her power to do so; that the property had been left her under the proviso that she should allow no one but herself to sleep in the house for two months on pain of forfeiture to the next of kin. As I was the next of kin, and as Judith had no reason for regarding me with favour, I could well understand why she had accepted the alternative of leaving the old place to itself. She was a girl of strong character (or so I had been told), and what was equally important, of face and figure to match this character—with the result that, notwithstanding her poverty, she easily held her place as the most notable person in town.
While at the station, I had been given a key to the house, with the injunction that I was to admit nobody till she came. Amused at her caution but quite resolved to respect it, I locked the door on entering; then I began to look about me.
How well I remembered the little hall! A row of pegs beneath the climb of the staircase, and nothing more. Yes, there was something more—a blotch of dirt on the whitewash underneath one of the pegs. It had been made a dozen years before by my hat, hung up dripping with mud from the ditch where it had fallen. There was something uncanny in that ring of dirt in a place bare of everything else. Hastily I entered what had once been the sitting-room. The darkness I encountered gave me time to marshal my memories, but they soon vanished before the stark reality made visible by the opening of one of the shutters. The room was bare—no furniture in it but a forlorn wooden rocker and a table pushed up against a wall on which hung a shelf holding an old-fashioned timepiece.
I had never stepped into a place more desolate; yet here I had been bidden to stay. Why didn’t she come? Why should she keep me waiting in a spot so uninviting? Impatient by nature, and none too well pleased with my present position, I began pacing the floor. When wearied of that, I sat down and looked at the clock. I wondered if it was as dead as my grandfather; whether, in fact, it could be made to go!
Jumping up, I cast a glance from the window I had managed to open, and seeing nobody in the road, approached the clock with a laugh which, in that dim and stuffy atmosphere, sounded far from cheerful. I had little trouble in setting it going. The key was in its place in the little cubbyhole where the pendulum swung; and soon the silence which I had found so irksome yielded to the steady tick which was one of the strongest memories of my miserable childhood.
Tick-tick! What a relief from the monotonous quiet! But I was not satisfied with the suggestion of renewed life. Now that I had started up the clock, the next thing was to set it. Taking out my watch, I found that an hour had passed since I consulted it last at the station. It was now just twenty-three minutes to five. Whether in my abstraction I muttered these figures aloud I cannot say. Afterwards I thought I did, but I cannot be sure. That I made no mistake as to the exact minute I am convinced.
Twenty-three minutes to five!
Gratified at the success of this piece of boyish folly, I shut the door of the clock and turned back again to the window. The road was still empty. Breaking into a loud whistle, I began pacing to and fro between the window and the table, when my eye suddenly lighted on a wad of paper lying on the table, which had been as bare as my hand a moment before. Lifting it, I opened it out and saw that it held one line of writing. As I read this line, I vow that I felt the hair stir on my forehead, The words—there were five—were the exact words I had just made use of, if not aloud, then with definite distinctness in my mind.
Twenty-three minutes to five.
It was, as I have already said, a trivial coincidence, but it was so inexplicable in its precision that I should hardly have been more startled if the haunting sense of my grandfather’s vanished presence in this room had suddenly materialized itself into a shadow of his form upon the wall. Indeed, if I had seen an actual hand reaching from nowhere to draw back into the invisible and unknown this slip of paper it had a moment before let fall before my eyes, it would have added but little to the instant’s impression of some supernatural presence.
Nevertheless I was man enough to take this scrap of writing which had not been drawn from my grasp, and carry it outside into the blazing light of the afternoon sun. This only showed it to be as real as it had seemed fantastical. The paper was cream-laid, the writing masculine—my grandfather’s, no doubt; and the words the precise five I have already repeated: Twenty-three minutes to five.
As I read them again and again, I could not but ask myself what had happened at the hour thus carefully recorded. Or, if coincidences meant anything, what was due to happen in a future yet unread and unthought of? I was so interested in weighing the one possibility against the other that I was unreasonably surprised when I heard the swishing of approaching skirts and, looking up, saw my cousin advancing upon me through a lane of hollyhocks.
I am not a man of much sentiment, but at this first glimpse of the lithe and incomparable figure of Judith Mann swinging towards me through a bloom which added to rather than detracted from her potent and conspicuous beauty, I marvelled at the change which the sight of a perfect woman made in the aspect of things about me. The sun was no longer scorching and uncomfortable; nor was the landscape now dull and dispiriting. Even the decaying structure at my back had lost its air of supreme desolation, and whatever shadow remained in my mind from the bizarre experience I have just related, vanished in the exhilaration of this new delight.
There was some constraint in our meeting, but not much. Though we had not seen each other in a dozen years, we still were cousins and bore the same name. As is natural in such cases, she was the first to speak. It was only to utter my name, but the tone delighted me; and with a smile, I said:
“The years have made some difference, then? We used to quarrel savagely, as children.”
She blushed, and my heart began to dance; but I was careful not to betray my pleasure too openly, for Judith’s eye was one to keep an inconsiderate man in check. Instead, I launched into an immediate discussion of the matter which had brought us together.
“Must this property be sold?” I asked.
“It must.” Her tone was sweet but strangely incisive. “I lack the means to pay the taxes.” My eyes, which had been fixed upon her face, radiant even in this glow of sunshine, fell to her frock, which had given me the impression of simple elegance, but which on closer inspection I found to be quite inexpensive.
“I make enough for my clothes and food,” she smiled, with a quick understanding of my look which made the colour spring into my own cheek, “but nothing beyond. I wish I had been more thoroughly educated.”
What made me think just then of a chance rumour hitherto forgotten? Had there not been some talk last winter about her marrying, and was not the man this very Fullerton who now proposed to buy her house? I was sure that I had once heard their names linked together, and conscious of a certain disagreeable shock at the thought, I said, with what composure I could: “What sort of a man is this Fullerton you wrote me about? I have met him more than once at the club, but I cannot say that I fully understand him. Does he propose to buy this property to please himself or—or for a kinder reason?” Somehow it seemed imperative for me to know then and there his motives and his hopes.
She met the blunt appeal with cool straightforwardness:
“He has always wanted these few acres—wanted them beyond all reason—wanted them more than he wanted me in the few months we were engaged. That is why I refused to marry him. I naturally wished to stand first in his regard.”
“How did he show his preference?” I asked, in doubt of her discrimination, seeing that she was one of the most desirable of women, and these acres, as she called them, of meagre value and no visible attraction. “What has he ever said or done to lead you into crediting him with such poor taste?”
“He has said nothing. He only made me feel that his greatest desire was to own this house and live in it. You see what it is, and you can see what his own is if you will look that way, and yet he wanted to leave his up-to-date dwelling and move in here. He wanted to marry me the week after Grandfather died, and take his place here as master. Not because of any real affection for me,—a woman knows when she is loved,—but because of the house. Why?”
I glanced up at the time-stained walls and in at the open window. Nothing attractive met my eye, nothing fine, nothing picturesque; and secretly wondering, I repeated within myself the simple question. “Why?” Meanwhile Judith went on to say:
“When I was quite sure of what I tell you, I refused to consider his proposal. Assuring him that my mind had changed with my circumstances, I declared that I no longer wished to marry. This angered him, but not for the reason I had a right to expect—or why should he have asked, in that cold-blooded way of his, how soon I expected to move in here and whether I intended to live alone in a house big enough for a large family?”
“And what did you say to that?”
“That I had no intention of moving at present—that I liked my own little cottage best and was going to stay in it.”
“And how did that affect him?”
“He looked grateful, or I thought he did. But he has a face hard to read when he chooses to be mysterious.”
“Yes, he frightens me sometimes with his ways. I don’t understand them.”
“Do you see that little cottage at the end of the lane? That’s where I live. Very near, you see—too near. I cannot sleep nights for imagining—”
“That he is strolling round and round this house at midnight and looking in a gloating way up at its empty walls.”
“What do you mean?”
“I saw him doing this one night. I was wakeful, and hearing a noise in the garden, got up and looked out. A man was prowling about this house. The moon was high; everything was as light as day, and I recognized him without any trouble. It was Seth Fullerton.”
“Alone and at midnight, you say?”
“Yes, slipping from window to window, sometimes stopping, sometimes going by with just a quick side-glance. He disappeared around one corner, to reappear after a little while at the other. Before he finally left for home, he stood a long time in what he thought to be a shadow, gazing up at the house. What can he see in it? Sometimes I think he’s a little touched. I know that in any event I do not want him for my next-door neighbour. If I decide to sell him this place, I shall move to the other end of the town.”
“Was he satisfied with walking about this house? Didn’t he make any move in your direction?”
“None. I doubt if he was thinking of me at all. He never had any deep feeling for me. I am not afraid of him on that score,”
I was glad to hear this and more than glad to note her indifference to, if not positive aversion for, her former suitor. The afternoon was surely a glorious one and Granville far from being the sleepy, uninteresting town I had hitherto imagined it.
Meanwhile Judith stood with lowered eyes and a dreamy aspect unaccountably bewitching to see in one of her natural activity. I watched her for a moment; then I spoke:
“Judith, are you certain that you want to part with this house?”
“What is your indebtedness to the town?”
“Three hundred dollars.”
A formidable sum to her, and—must I acknowledge it?—equally so to me.
“I can never pay it,” she went on; “and therefore,” she proceeded proudly as I made an effort to speak, “I must sell even if I have to let the old place go to one I so greatly dislike. I will not be beholden to anybody. The taxes are due and overdue, and they are going to be paid. I am thoroughly resolved upon that,” she repeated. Then more quietly and with a charming gesture: “I was never good at carrying obligations. A downright sale and money paid over is all I can consider.”
This put an effectual stop to any quixotic scheme I may have entertained of aiding her in this crisis. Flushing at my helplessness, I was seeking for some apt remark to cover my confusion, when her countenance suddenly changed, and she hastily whispered:
“Hush! he’s coming. He has seen us from his windows and will be here in another moment. You’ll be careful, won’t you?”
I would have answered, but my attention was caught by the ease and swagger with which my secret enemy was approaching. He was certainly more of a city swell than a country gentleman. He looked totally out of place in a setting of green fields and cerulean skies. As I bowed and he bowed, my feelings toward him changed from indifference to open aversion.
“Hello, Mann!” were the words with which he accosted me, straightening himself meanwhile with the exaggerated stiffness significant of egotism. “So you have come to have a final look at the old homestead before it passes out of the family. Quite natural, I am sure! So many pleasant memories connected with it. Childhood happiness and all that,”
I thought it best to ignore the sarcasm underlying these last pleasing remarks.
“Do you mean,” I asked with a smile quite as ambiguous as his, “that I shall no longer be welcome when you are the master here?”
His laugh was loud without being merry.
“Still at your old tricks, I see, searching for meanings which do not exist. Not welcome in my house? We’ll see about that if I ever am master here. Everybody will be welcome, and Miss Mann most of all,”
The bow with which he seasoned this remark failed to catch her eye, or his words to elicit a response. She had been looking steadily at the hills when he began, and she continued to look steadily at them after he had finished. I thought her nonchalance admirable, but it seemed to disquiet him to such an extent that he ventured to repeat his words and with additional emphasis: “And Miss Mann most of all.”
This time she answered.
“I shall never enter my grandfather’s house again. You need not count on it.”
Her disdain was superb, and I expected to see him flush under it. But the feeling he showed was rather that of relief, if not of actual triumph,
“I shall hope for a change of mind on your part,,” he pursued, with another slight bow in her direction. But for this she had no answer at all.
In my endeavour to lighten a situation which, to say the least, was far from pleasant, I wheeled about and cast an appraising glance up at the house.
“Not much of an acquisition, Fullerton,” I ventured. “I cannot imagine why you want to add this pile of old lumber to your own well-kept estate.”
“I like old houses.”
“There is one use you can put it to,” I suggested in a mood of bravado I myself hardly understood. “You can burn it. It would make a capital bonfire.”
“Perhaps I shall,” was his unexpected response. “But not till I have enjoyed its antiquity for a while and made acquaintance with its ghosts. I imagine it to be haunted by more than one.”
If he meant to draw Judith’s eyes his way, he did not succeed. The landscape still had its charms for her.
Noting the hopelessness of interesting her, he dropped his bantering tone and crisply remarked:
“But this is not business. At what do you rate the value of this land and the house as old lumber?”
I answered by giving him a figure large enough to halt the negotiations for another day. I did not want to come to terms with him till I had put a certain question to Judith and heard her reply.
When Seth Fullerton left, it was with an air of uneasiness not unmixed with displeasure. I think he had expected to close the bargain on the spot. Judith noticed this, and when we were seated in the parlour of her own white cottage, she asked quite earnestly:
“What do you think of it all? What do you suppose underlies his eagerness to acquire such an unproductive piece of property?”
I did not tell her just then what I thought or how I explained to myself his interest in this matter. I wished first to hear her answer to the question I had in mind.
“Judith,” I asked, “what were the exact circumstances of Grandfather’s death? I know nothing more about it than the very meagre account given in the papers. It was suicide, they said.”
She rose in sudden trouble to her feet, and then sat again with a quick subduing of her momentary nervousness which I could not but admire.
“It is a sad story,” she replied, “a very sad story. I shall have to begin by saying that Grandfather and I never saw very much of each other, though we lived so near. I never thought he liked me, and I know that I was more afraid than fond of him. Imagine, then, my surprise when one day late in the afternoon I saw him creep out of his kitchen door and turn his steps this way. Coming to see me! How could it be possible! He was sick and in need of help; he certainly looked far from well and walked with a more feeble step than usual. I was so surprised that I ran to the door and stood waiting on the step to welcome him. This seemed to please him, for I saw him smile and try to hasten. But he had too little strength to move faster, and so I ran down and helped him along till he was finally seated where you are sitting now. Albert, he looked terribly shrunken. Though I had never liked or even respected him, I could not but feel sorry for him that day. I could see that he had something on his mind, though he did not attempt to speak, but sat looking about him as if he found some pleasure in my neat little ways. Once I heard him sigh. Poor old man! I don’t suppose he had seen so much comfort in years, though everything is very plain and simple, as you see.
“Perhaps you don’t want to hear all this, but I feel as if I must tell it, because of what happened afterwards. Suddenly an idea struck me: I went into the kitchen and made him a cup of tea and set out a tray with some tempting bits I had, and brought it in and set it down before him. For a moment he looked startled; then his eye gleamed, and with a word or two of thanks, he set to and ate ravenously. He was hungry, but I doubt if he knew it till he saw the food. When he had finished, he looked up, and our eyes met. ‘Good girl!’ he exclaimed, and if you will believe me, his voice trembled. Then he made this astonishing remark: ‘I wish I had come here long ago. It would have been better. I might not have—’ There his voice broke, and I have never known what was in his mind at that time.
“Of course I assured him that he would have been welcome, a partial untruth which has troubled me some, especially as after some fumbling with his vest-front, he drew out a long, legal-looking envelope, and saying it was his will, asked me if I would carry it into town and give it to Mr. Curtis. Naturally, I was awfully taken aback, but I hid both my surprise and my dislike of the errand and said I was ready to do anything I could to oblige him. But I was hardly prepared for his haste. He wanted me to go at once, before I had cleaned up the tray. However, one can’t refuse an old man like that, and so I ran for my hat and coat and only waited for him to leave in order to start out.
“But he did not seem inclined to leave. Instead of following me to the door, he stopped at his own chair, and leaning heavily on his cane, he looked me in the face with an earnestness quite startling in one I liked so little. Then he put out his hand and touched my arm, still looking at me very closely. ‘Will you promise me something?’ he asked at last. ‘I am an old man, and one never knows what may happen. Promise me that my funeral shall take place in this little room. It will accommodate all the people who will care to follow me to the grave. You won’t regret it,’ he added as I showed my surprise and repugnance. ‘You will be glad.’
“Then he went on to stammer that he had remembered me in his will, and gave as his reason that years ago when I was a little child (I had forgotten about it myself) I had once run up to him in the village street and putting my hand in his, kept it there for a block or two, though he said nothing to encourage me. ‘That little act has made you my heir,’ he declared. ‘And now will you promise?’ What could I do? To be made the heir of his old house and a few dried-up acres did not mean very much. I knew this as well then as I do now, but for all that, it created some obligation, and I naturally granted his request, though not with quite the alacrity he evidently expected.
“You will think that this is all and that he was willing to leave after this and allow me to proceed on my errand; but no, he shifted from one foot to the other and always with an effort, holding me with his small, inscrutable eyes half hidden by his grey, overhanging eyebrows. ‘There is something more,’ he finally remarked. ‘I have never put much trust in men and never any in women; but I am going to trust you. Nobody is to go into that house but yourself—nobody, before the funeral or after it for two months. If after that time you want a companion or are lonely for visitors, you can open your door to them, but not before. I have put this in my will, but I should like you to promise that you will keep the doors locked until that time. It will make me feel quite easy—quite easy,’ he repeated.
“This was stranger talk than the other, but I saw no reason for refusing him, and so I promised this too, and gave him my hand on it, which seemed to satisfy him, and lend him strength enough to go away. As he tottered down the steps into the garden, I locked the door and turned toward the gate. I could still feel his eyes upon me, and when I reached the road I looked back. He was lingering there still, not three feet from the doorstep—a pitiful figure blown upon by the wind and shivering in clothes not warm enough for him. My impulse was to run back, but he motioned me to go on, and I obeyed, though somewhat reluctantly.
“It was about dusk when I returned, and the moment I reached the gate I looked across the garden for his lamp in the one window where it always burned. It had not been lighted. Anxious, but not really frightened, I ran up the path to my own door, when—there he was! He had not moved from the doorstep, but was sitting huddled up against the door, cold and stark! Dead! Dead, with his words and plans yet ringing in my ears! Later we found out that he had poisoned himself. But then I thought it only neglect and lack of nourishing food. The butcher went very seldom to your grandfather’s, Albert.”
I could have taken her in my arms; her forbearance, and the latent tenderness she showed, softened so indescribably her vigorous personality. But I contented myself with asking if Grandfather was buried from her house according to his words.
“Of course. Had I not promised? His poor old body, once brought in, never left here till it was carried to his grave. That was not only what he wished but what he meant. When he shut his own kitchen door behind him that day, it was with no expectation of ever re-entering it. The key to it, as well as the one which fits the front door, were in the envelope I carried to the lawyer.”
“And how soon did you get hold of them?”
“Very soon. There was no one to dispute the will but you—and you showed no intention of doing so.”
“No intention and no desire,” I smiled. “You are welcome to the old homestead. My memories of it are not pleasant enough to make it seem desirable to me. You say you have not been in it; isn’t that very peculiar on your part? One would think you would have had some curiosity to see the inside of a house which has now become your own.”
“That is what the neighbours all say, and the lawyer and even my pastor, Doctor Snow. They do not know the reason I have—”
“What is that? You have a reason?”
“Yes. I once vowed, and to Grandfather’s face, too, that I would never step inside his door again. He seems to have forgotten it—to have remembered my childish act of trust and forgotten my later show of temper. But I did not forget. He had said unkind words to my mother one day when she was in great trouble, and the sight of her face as she turned to leave the house made my young blood boil, and I cried out as I ran to join her, that he was a wicked, bad man, and that I would never come into his house again—never! never! He laughed,—I can hear the shrill note yet,—but I meant it, and have never got over meaning it, though I hardly know why, for I have not hated him since my mother died. He was kind then, and paid all the expenses of her funeral, and gave me this little cottage, which I feel that I really own.”
“You own it no more than you do the homestead. Both are gifts, and from the same person.”
“I feel a difference.”
“Enough to keep you true to that childish oath?”
She nodded vigorously.
“Even after your grandfather’s death and your own inheritance of the place?”
“Yes; I don’t understand myself, but it is yes. If the old house is to fall into Seth’s hands—”
“But it is not to fall into Seth’s hands—at least, not until we understand him better than we do now. Judith, listen! Some mystery lies back of this business. Whatever we may think of Mr. Fullerton, he is no fool, especially where money is concerned. Yet he wants this unattractive and unproductive piece of property to the point of paying three times its apparent value. Why? That is a question we have already asked ourselves. You cannot answer it, nor can I; but I propose that he shall do so himself and in a way to clear the whole situation.”
“How? He’s not a man you can make speak—”
“I know that, and if you could, his words would be worthless. He must be allowed to act,—to feel that the way into that house is open to him,—and then by what he does there afford us the illumination we need. You see what I mean. Now, this is my plan, roughly outlined and awaiting your nicer wit to perfect it. He does not like me and will do nothing so long as he believes me to be in town. I shall therefore leave—really leave on the seven o’clock train. Do not look so blank. I shall be in this vicinity again before midnight. That you may count on. When I am gone, you will do nothing for a little while; then suddenly, and as if driven by anxiety, rush from the house and begin looking up and down the path we have just come over, as if in search for something lost. When he joins you, as he very soon will, take him into your confidence. Say that you are looking for the key to Grandfather’s kitchen door, which you must have dropped somewhere between the two houses.
“Of course, you will have dropped it on first going out, and knowing exactly where, will avoid that spot in your make-believe search. Meanwhile express your chagrin at the loss; and when he asks, as he will, if you haven’t another key, say that in my haste to fulfil the engagement which prevented my staying longer in town, I thoughtlessly carried off the one to the front door. He will fall into the trap—I know him; and he will never leave the lane until he has secured that key. But he will not tell you of the find, and tonight—”
“We shall see what we shall see. Only, in order that he may feel quite free to follow his own bent, you must give him no cause for distrust. If you think best, you may tell him that you had planned to go through the house tomorrow, but that this was now off unless you should be so fortunate as to come across the missing key in the morning. After which, you will return here and retire early. At all events, and under any circumstances, put out your light; and if he comes prowling around—”
Her lip curled. “He will do no prowling around here, “ she said.
My program included a hurried meal at the station, which having taken, I boarded the Boston train. But I did not go far. At the first large town I got out, and hiring an automobile at what I thought an enormous expense, rode back to within a mile of Granville. The rest of the way I walked, passing Judith’s cottage at about eleven o’clock. It was dark, as I had expected, but I felt that her watchful figure sat somewhere within; and had I dared, I would have whistled a bar of some well-known tune, as a token of my presence. But I feared to rouse Fullerton’s attention in any way, and so passed softly by.
There were no signs of life in grandfather’s house, and but one streak of light in that of his next-door neighbour. This came from a window over which the shade was but partially drawn, and anxious as I was to know just where Fullerton was at this moment, and to what extent I could count upon his remaining at home until a later hour, I stole up the grassy walk and took a look into the room thus disclosed to me. To my great relief he was there, sitting at a desk and attempting to write; but from the way he glanced up at the clock every few minutes, I gathered that his impatience was fast mastering him, and that I had better hasten to secure my own position in the place of our mutual interest, before the silence of the road and the extreme darkness of the night encouraged him to enter upon his daring adventure.
Favoured myself by this same darkness and the quiet of the highway, I had no trouble in reaching the old house unperceived. Fitting the key into the lock of the front door, I paused for a moment to look and listen. No sound on the road, no lowering of light in Fullerton’s house or any show of one in Judith’s little cottage. Everything seemed propitious for an unobserved entrance. Unlocking the door before which I stood, I quietly stepped in.
It was a simple thing to do—this entering an empty house at midnight; but when I had shut the door and faced the intense blackness of the little entry, I had a feeling of sudden isolation such as I had never experienced before. I seemed in some strange way to be in one instant cut off from humanity, the stillness was so profound, the darkness so impenetrable. But the idea, if idea it was, passed immediately. I was in no strange place. It was the one spot in all the world which I knew best. I had but to choose my post of observation, and I could make my way to it without stumbling.
But was the spot upon which I had calculated the best and only one for my purpose? Would its safety compensate for the restrictions it imposed? Might not Fullerton’s business carry him in another direction? Might I not have to undergo the embarrassment of hearing him work in some distant room, without the opportunity of seeing what that work was and what it signified? All this was possible, and I had half decided not to shut myself up in any place whatsoever, but to trust myself to the darkness and the freedom it gave to dog his steps, when the thought came that if I could work in darkness he could not, and I returned to my original plan and proceeded to seek at once the place of secret hiding with which fate had provided me.
The secret nook of which I speak was a hidden closet in what had always been called Grandfather’s room. I had good cause to remember that closet. I had been shut in there once for two hours. It was a grievous punishment then, but I blessed him for it now, for in my childish impatience at the length of my incarceration, I had made use of my blunt little penknife to enlarge a slight knothole in one of the boards facing the room, so that I might have the pleasure of watching my grim jailer forgetting me at his desk. If he had never plugged up that hole,—and within my memory he never plugged up anything but his natural emotions,—I should have a fine opportunity for watching Fullerton, in case he came into that room. It was the possibility of his not doing this which bothered me.
However, it would not do for me to change my mind again; and so, feeling my way upstairs, I took the short turn which led me to the east chamber door. As I did this, I recalled the many times in my faraway past when, after some prank, I had crept tiptoe to this spot, in the hope of thus eluding the watchful eye and acute ear of my ever-wakeful grandfather. But I never did. Here he always stood—as I half expected to run upon him now in the Cimmerian darkness; and laugh if you will, as I recalled his threatening figure, I edged a little toward the wall in making those half-dozen steps, and only breathed quite easily again when, the door passed, I stood in what I supposed to be the free open space of the great barnlike room.
It was dark here, of course, but not so dark as it had been in the hall, and I soon saw the reason why. The shade of one of its many windows had been partially torn from its pole and sagged down in a way to disclose one star in the dim and far-away heavens. As I contemplated this star, I remembered that the panes through which I saw it overlooked Fullerton’s place, and realizing that the least light from this room would attract his instant attention, I put back the electric torch I had taken from my pocket and proceeded to feel my way towards that portion of the wainscoting in which the door of my small refuge was so cunningly concealed. But something hindered my free passage—a table or some other small piece of furniture; and after I had eluded this, I struck another, till I gradually woke to the discovery that the room I remembered as holding nothing but a few pieces of necessary furniture was at the present moment encumbered with all sorts of pieces, many of them taken from the parlour, as was evinced by the upholstered backs of sofas and chairs.
Somehow this change—a change for which I found it impossible to account—strangely disconcerted me. Had he made a storehouse of the room? Should I find my way blocked to the door of the closet I had depended upon not only for a refuge but for a point of observation? Doubt seized my heart, and I was about to dare all and have recourse to my torch to solve one if not more of these problems, when I found the way grow suddenly free and myself close to the mantelpiece where I had seen grandfather press the spring which opened the little door.
My hand struck the expected gap the moment I ran it along the wainscoting; and relieved on this score, I prepared to step in—when I bethought me that if the door should once close upon me, I should be caught in a trap from which it might be difficult to escape. This made me hesitate to enter; but after deciding that I would so place my foot that the lock of the door should stop just short of catching, I first made sure that no obstacle intervened; and finding all clear, I slipped in and carefully drew to the door. Then I sought for the little hole in one of the cracks and finding it true to my expectation, placed one hand over it, and with the other drew out my electric torch.
I found the place smaller than I remembered it, but that was only natural, since I myself was somewhat larger; but what mainly attracted my attention was its complete emptiness. Nothing but an old hat hung there. Evidently he had made no use of this closet for many years. I was asking myself why I felt vaguely troubled at this discovery, when a faint but unmistakable noise in the rear of the house gave token of Fullerton’s approach.
Stopping off my torch, I gave myself up to the one business of listening. Yes, that was a step I heard, falling cautiously at first on the kitchen floor, but every moment growing more audible. Was he coming straight up? There was a back staircase, very steep and very narrow, which would make it the easiest thing in the world for him to reach the second storey. Would he take it? No. Instead, I heard him go clattering about, now in one place and now in another, with the energy and persistence of a man who, bent upon finding something, does not mean to leave any spot he enters, without exhausting all its possibilities of concealment.
Various small sounds which came to my ears confirmed this impression. In my mind’s eye I could see him mounting chairs, feeling along shelves, taking the lids off sugar-bowls and teapots, peering into barrels and boxes and opening and shutting innumerable drawers. I even heard him fussing about the stove, and was inwardly congratulating myself that if he were after some fancied hoardings of my grandfather, he was likely to have his pains for his sole reward, when I caught the sound of a satisfied exclamation and realized that he had made some sort of a find.
I own that I was deeply disappointed. I had expected him to end his fruitless search by coming upstairs. But it looked now as if I should be obliged to go down to him and force him by my unexpected presence, and possibly by the sight of the pistol I carried, to show his hand and what was in it. This was far from desirable, and it was with halting steps and a misgiving heart that I finally stepped from the closet. But I did not go far. I had hardly taken a dozen steps before I heard him again at work, this time with the recklessness of one in whom frenzy has displaced judgment.
I was debating as to what this might lead to, when there came a sudden and long-continued silence more disturbing than all this noise, and I had to wait ten minutes before I caught another sound. He had gone down into the cellar. When he came up again, he was panting. Evidently he had been doing some heavy work below. Had it brought him what he wanted? If so—but the loud curses with which he seasoned his advance convinced me of a dissatisfaction which might bring him upstairs any minute. Then I remembered that there was one step of that old and break-neck staircase which creaked. When that came to my ears,—
I had not time to complete my thought. The warning had sounded; the step had creaked; and I had barely time to regain my narrow refuge and pull to the door upon my crouching figure when a ray from the dark lantern he carried struck boldly through the room.
One long gleam revealed a clutter of incongruous furniture—then sudden darkness again. The bold but wary intruder had detected the fallen end of the shade and knew that the gap thus made open to the night would have to be masked in some way before he could safely proceed with whatever he planned to do in the room. How he managed this I do not know. I heard him stumbling about for some minutes; I think he even left the room; but whatever he did and however he did it, when he again turned on his light, the gap was covered and that investigating star shut out.
What followed I caught only in strange glimpses as the flash of the lantern lighted on one spot or another. Confused at first by my position and the quickness with which these flashes shifted to and fro, I saw but little; but as he settled down to a more minute inspection of the various objects about him, I experienced a surprise which I wondered if he shared. This the sort of room I had every reason to see after another ten years of miserly living added to those I remembered so well! Encumbered though it was with an unnecessary amount of furniture (I afterward learned that he had brought into this one room all the best pieces in the house), there was a semblance of order in their arrangement and an attention to effect astonishing in one who scorned the amenities of life and often did without its comforts.
As the illuminating ray struck the bed, I could see that the pillows were evenly disposed and the old-fashioned quilt neatly spread. Had a woman’s hand patted those pillows flat? Had Judith—but no! she was candour itself, and she had openly disavowed having entered this house since the memorable day she left it with her unhappy mother. Some other woman, then? Grandfather had never tucked in those sheets or—Heavens! what do I see? A bouquet or rather the remains of one lying between those pillows? Yes; for Seth has seen the withered stalks almost simultaneously with myself and has already tossed them aside into a corner with an oath of angry disdain.
Flowers! Flowers in Grandfather’s room and on Grandfather’s bed! In his best days he had no taste for them, and on the eve of suicide—
Here was a new mystery which only Judith could help me to solve.
Meantime, while these thoughts were running through my head, Fullerton had begun to pull things about; not recklessly, but with care and a certain degree of system. Beginning at the fireplace, and therefore out of my sight for the present, he moved methodically from one piece of furniture to another, opening drawers and hauling over their contents just as I had heard him doing below—but, as I judged, with better success. The few mutterings which escaped him from time to time were those of satisfaction, and when he finally came again within range of my vision, I perceived his hand slip more than once into his pocket after feeling about in the various boxes and other cubby-holes with which the room abounded. For me to keep still and allow him thus to make free with my cousin’s effects was not easy; but as the satisfaction with which he had hitherto advanced gradually gave tokens of leaving him, I saw plainly that he was not getting all that he expected and that a little more quiet watching on my part would be in order.
Did he, in all his peerings about and anxious treadings to and fro, feel the influence of the eye fixed in silent espionage upon him? Sometimes I thought he did; for he would suddenly stop and look my way; and once he turned the bull’s-eye on the mantelpiece. But he always went back to work without any further token of suspicion, giving more and more attention to crannies and out-of-the-way places till it seemed to me that not a spot in the room had been overlooked or a single hiding-place left unexamined.
That he got something but not much in these final attempts was sufficiently evident, and I was congratulating myself that my ordeal was about over, when I saw him set his lantern down on a small stand and deliberately reapproach the bed. With one hand he pulled off the pillows; with the other he drew aside the spread. Did he expect to find treasure in the mattress? Evidently; and the systematic way in which he went about this nefarious attempt at burglary made me stare. Having bared the mattress, he first scrutinized its edges to see if any of the stitches had been disturbed. Then he ran his palm all over either surface, and finally felt about the knots. Disappointed in the result of these efforts, he next took up the pillows. When he laid them down again, it was with an oath of mingled rage and impatience, which, however, did not prevent his making up the bed again, though not with its former care.
“What did he hope to find? And what will he find if he keeps on?” I asked myself.
I was soon to know.
Standing at the foot of the bed was the small table on which he had placed his lantern. Drawing up a chair, he sat down before this table, and thrusting his hands into his pockets, drew out the plunder he had just gathered up and laid it out for counting. Money! Nothing more and nothing less! I could see the bills, I could see the coin—more coin than bills, and most of it gold. I caught the glitter of his eye as he noted this. I had suspected that this was the motive of his search, but when I really saw the pile he had ranged before him, I own that I was for the moment staggered by the open criminality of a man who had stood well enough in the world’s opinion. The chiaroscuro of the picture helped this impression. Darkness everywhere save in one spot, and in that spot the glint of gold vying with the glint of avarice in the face bending above it. It was with difficulty I again restrained myself from bursting out upon him then and there. Judith’s gold! Judith’s treasure, which if not great wealth would be great to her, in the hands of this midnight marauder! But having kept still so long, I kept still a little longer, and nearly suffocated though I was, watched him as he counted over his spoils and re-pocketed the money, with as black a frown as I ever saw upon a human face. Had he expected to find the treasure of a millionaire, and having failed, would be now give up his fruitless search?
I was ready to hope it, and in anticipation of a speedy release, was about to stretch my cramped limbs, when he impetuously rose and began to flash his lantern up and down and across the wall behind which I knelt concealed. Did he know of a cupboard being there? He had shown such an intimate acquaintance with the house, seldom as he was supposed to have entered it, that I began to suspect that he might have some secret knowledge of this hiding-place also. I was sure of it when, after a moment of this play, he made a sudden dash forward which brought him within five feet of me. But he came no farther. If he had seen a movement in the door I held desperately pressed against my foot by no more certain hold than a penknife thrust into the wood, he evidently ascribed it to some passing fancy—being, as I now saw, ignorant both of cupboard and door.
For the next few minutes—during which I found myself fully occupied in holding that door steady—he fussed at the fireplace immediately at my right. Then with a string of oaths and some very discontented mutterings, he gave up the job and hastily left the room. In a moment I heard his step overhead.
Coming out of my closet, I drew a deep breath of relief. May I never have to go through such another ordeal!
I have sometimes wondered what Fullerton’s first thought was, when, after a thorough ransacking of the rambling old attic (which I am sure, from after events, added but little to his already ill-gotten store), he descended in a towering rage to leave the house, and, on turning his bull’s-eye on the kitchen door, found me posted there with my back against the panels, and a grim smile upon the face he thus brilliantly illumined. Of his second one, I can speak more plainly, he having made its character sufficiently evident by his ferocious exclamation and its accompanying snarl. Of words he had none; surprise had clogged his tongue.
But I was never calmer or more ready to speak, though my first remark was none too conciliatory.
“So!” I quietly exclaimed. “You really are the man I have sometimes thought you! Hand over the shekels, Fullerton; Judith has need of all that belongs to her.”
“Who told you I have anything belonging to her! I haven’t a thing,” he hotly protested, but meeting my derisive smile, he added with a disdainful insolence which defeated its own ends, “—nothing, at least, to which she has a claim superior to my own.”
“You have a handful of money—coins and bills picked out of all sorts of places where they had been hid by Grandfather. I saw you reckoning up their full sum.” (I should like to have seen his face as I said this, but he was in shadow while I stood in the direct glare of the bull’s-eye.) “So hand it over, if you please, and seek some more fitting spot in which to bewail your burglarious folly.”
To my astonishment, he burst into laughter. There was no jollity in the sound, but it held a note which for a moment shook me. He saw this and laughed again.
“You have obtruded yourself into a situation you did not understand,” he remarked with a display of exaggerated politeness which further startled me. “What you have seen me take was my own. Mr. Mann and I had business relations—secret ones, I am bound to acknowledge; but there is no harm in that if such were our wish and both parties played fair. But he did not play fair. He kept back moneys that were my rightful due, insisting that he had lost them in a disastrous speculation. Had this happened, he would have lost as heavily as myself, for we were equally involved in the matter he mentioned. But he gave no signs of loss, which was not natural in a miser. Loving money as he did, his step would have lagged and his hair whitened if he had seen the savings of years vanish away like smoke. But I found him always chipper; and one evening I heard him laugh. There was a revelation in that laugh. I knew from its sound that I had been made a fool of, and that my dollars—I can tell you their exact number—had never been lost but were concealed amongst his own in some distant bank or in this crazy old house. Had I confronted him then and there, and demanded my own with all the confidence with which you, in your ignorance of the facts, have just demanded the same from me, all might have been well and this scene avoided. But I waited to consult a lawyer, and in the interim the old man took fright and committed suicide, as you know.
“His death and the disposition he had made of his estate put the matter on a different basis. I was attached to your cousin, whom he had made his heir, and she to all appearance was attached to me. Our marriage would ensure a common enjoyment of the same, which was all I craved. But Judith is peculiar. She not only refused, in spite of countless persuasions on my part, to enter the house I believed to be the secret repository of unsuspected hoardings, but she also declined to fulfil her plighted word to marry me. Bride lost and money lost, left me poor indeed. I could not regain the one, but I was quite positive I could regain the other. And so I have, to a small degree. Three quarters of the amount I sought are stowed away in my pocket. The rest, I have no doubt, will be paid by Miss Mann, if after a more successful search than mine she comes upon the secret hoard I have every reason to believe exists either in this house or somewhere in the grounds about it. And now that I have fully explained myself, you will doubtless allow me to leave, as the hour is late and we have all tomorrow before us for any discussion you may desire.”
“When you have put down on the table I know to be within reach of your hand, every dollar and cent you have thus feloniously acquired, you may leave; and not before,” I announced in an utterly unmoved manner. “If you can prove the debt you mention, Miss Mann will undoubtedly repay you to the full extent of her power. Your lawyer can confer with hers as soon as it suits your pleasure. But no carrying away of these moneys now. Down with the boodle, Fullerton, every dollar and every cent. I can count as well as you.” And whipping out my electric torch, I flashed it full in his face—which movement took him so completely by surprise that he had no time in which to bring his expression into harmony with his tone, which through all these forced explanations had been smooth and argumentative.
That he recognized how much he had lost and I had gained by this unexpected coup was evinced by the impulsive spring he made towards me and the insulting way in which he jeeringly cried:
“And what proof have I that you mean any better by Judith than I do? Did she bid you do the sneaking act? Are you here to help her or to help yourself? It looks like the latter, to me. A man who with the key to a miser’s house in his pocket makes a pretence of leaving town only to return late at night for a secret entrance into that house, has an accounting to give.”
I had a pistol in my pocket, which I thank God I did not pull out at that instant. I waited till I was fully assured of my own self-control; then I drew it forth, and as he backed quickly away, observed with the quiet contempt I really felt:
“We will soon settle that matter. Judith shall speak for herself.” And unlocking the kitchen door with one hand, I held him at bay with the other while I gave a prolonged whistle which I had every hope she would understand.
“It seems to me,” he sneered, “that you and Judith understand each other pretty well.”
I simply cocked my pistol.
“Oh, fie!” he snarled. “Have done with histrionics. Do you think I am going to bolt, or, what would be better, knock your head off, richly as you deserve it? I am not afraid to meet Judith, even in this house she calls her own. But I should prefer not to see her at the wrong end of a pistol. She might get a false impression of you.”
I smiled disdainfully enough, but put back my weapon. I had other uses for my good right hand.
“And now, to make things equal between us,” I said as I drew it quietly back, “put down your lantern on the table and retire a little farther up the room. I will watch for Judith.”
“You believe her to be awake, then?”
“I do, and expect her to come.”
“I can but repeat my former remark.”
To this I gave no answer. I had spoken with apparent conviction, and possibly I did expect her. But it might easily be that she would fail to hear my summons, or hearing it, would prefer not to respond. Yet I had hopes, and standing as I did in the doorway with one eye on the man inside and another on the stretch of darkness intervening between us and her little cottage, I remembered the power of mind, and giving my whole soul up to the experiment, I willed her to rise and leave her darkened home, and come—come—
Was that a sound I heard of swishing skirts and eager footsteps? I was ready to believe it, but was it really so and no lover’s fancy? Frowning at Fullerton, who had stirred, I turned aside to listen and heard every sound the night gives forth on a country road save the one I longed for. There was no step among the weeds, no pushing aside of the rampant hollyhocks. I had but imagined these tokens of an advancing presence. Humiliation was before me; I would soon have to turn and face again my deriding rival and—can a thought stand still, shocked from its completion? Mine seemed to, for at that point, there suddenly started out of the darkness before me her face, lighted by one long ray which shot across the garden from the open doorway behind me.
Never have I seen anything more expressive, and I am sure never anything more beautiful. I remained fixed in delight at the startling character of this vision, and for a moment I failed to speak. This gave the man in my rear his chance, and to my dismay and inexpressible chagrin it was his voice which welcomed her and drew her from that circle of darkness which so completely veiled from sight all but her vivid and soul-compelling face.
His words were simple enough:
“Judith, we have fallen into a quarrel here,” he declared. “Will you come in and settle it? As you see, it is important enough to summon you from your sleep in the middle of the night.”
The emphasis on that word, with the suggestive slur behind it, was a mistake. She stepped forward, it is true, came even to the doorstep, but her countenance had altered and her own tone was a little biting as she said:
“The back door of this house is as prohibitive as the front. You know I have vowed never to enter either.”
“Vows are made to be broken,” he smiled, stepping forward as he spoke till he stood just back of my shoulder. “But if you will not enter your own door, do me the justice to listen to my story, before your cousin honours you with his.”
Again the sarcastic note and consequently a second mistake. Taking advantage of the fact, I spoke for the first time.
“What he wants,” said I, “is to explain his presence in this house. What I want is not to explain my presence here, for that you understand, but to urge you to listen to his excuses and accept from him the few pieces of money he has been to the pains of collecting for you from the various places where Grandfather left them. For this purpose,” I added, ignoring both his start of anger and the strange look she gave us both, “I must ask you to come in. We cannot stand out here at this hour of the night and in full view of the road, while we parley over this thing. Forget your vow, as Mr. Fullerton has just said, or rather allow it to give way to a higher obligation. We cannot separate until you have heard and judged between us. Come!”
I held out my hand with the authority of one who feels he is dead right; and she yielded—my proud, possibly self-willed, cousin yielded and followed its beck and came in. Whereupon I shut the door and he began.
In substantially the same words, but with a different air and manner, he repeated his story, and then waited for her verdict, with a mock humility and pride which, added to his good looks—and he had those, confound him!—made him not an entirely uninteresting figure even to me who hated him. That she was not unaffected by it and the turn he had managed to give to the affair, was evident from the show of respect with which she acknowledged his final appeal; and I shall never forgive him the sly glance of complete satisfaction he gave me.
But the pendulum swung back when without preamble or any apology for her abruptness, she quietly asked:
“Why did you not tell me, Seth, that you suspected Grandfather of having concealed money you believed to be yours? You know that in spite of all my resolutions I would have looked into the matter at once, and saved you three months of anxiety, and”—she added with a smile which happily staggered him—“this midnight raid.”
He drew a deep breath before answering; then with an assumption of earnestness which again altered his expression and still for the better, he as calmly said:
“You have never believed in my affection, Judith. But perhaps you will give me the credit of thinking more of you than of myself, when I assure you that your grandfather’s act had elements of such dishonesty in it that I hesitated to grieve you with its relation. That circumstances force me to acquaint you with them now, disturbs me more than I can say. His whole life was a—a lie.”
“And yours?” I broke in fiercely. “What of yours?”
He let his eye run slowly over me; then with a complete ignoring of my presence from that moment on, he readdressed himself to her, saying with increasing dignity:
“You are a just woman, Judith, and you shall be my judge in this matter. I was in league with your grandfather for years, and helped him at one time to make a fortune such as the people of Granville little dreamed of. Our connection, as you already know, was a secret one—that being his wish. He loved money—its look, its feel—but he loved power almost as much—not the open power of a money-king, but the secret power of an unsuspected holder of stocks who, with an unparalleled genius for scenting the market, could affect by his deals the finances of a city like Boston. To live a miser’s life in this tumbledown old house, without visitors, or servants, or even the ordinary comforts of his humblest neighbours, and yet be conscious that men grew rich or poor through his means, constituted his chief pleasure—I may say his only one, between the age of forty and fifty when I did my best work for him.
“That this work was not always of the highest character, I am forced by the circumstances of the night to confess to you. But for this I was not so much to blame as you may think. With characteristic foresight, this grandfather of yours had begun the systematic undermining of my character when I was a mere kid. You look amazed at this statement, Judith; that is not strange, considering that you, as well as those less interested, were unaware of any communication between your grandfather and myself beyond the usual one of next-door neighbours. But that does not alter the fact that we did communicate intimately and often, and in a way which will reveal the peculiarities of your grandfather’s character more clearly than anything else which I could say.
“I was a child of twelve, and was playing one day in my father’s barn, which, you remember, is in close line with the one at the end of this lot. The hired man had just gone afield, and I knew of no other person being anywhere about, when there suddenly came over me that sense of a someone near which we have all experienced. Looking hastily up and about I saw a man’s face staring down at me from an irregular aperture in what I had always considered a blank wall. I knew the face—it was your grandfather’s; but the hole was a mystery which dazed my childish mind and choked back the cry which might otherwise have rung out loud and shrill. Not for a couple of minutes—during which he smiled down at me in a knowing way—did I see how by the removal of two or more boards from the side of his barn he had been enabled to look into ours through a similar opening let into ours. Later, I saw how the one on my side was the framed space of an old window from which the panes had long ago fallen out. Our barn had been built before your grandfather’s, and this window had then overlooked the meadow, but the putting up of a wall so near had stopped all that.
“Frightened by his looks, but too proud to show it, I returned his stare with one full of a boy’s insolence. His answer was to toss me a bright new quarter. That quarter was my undoing. When I found out what he wanted,—some simple thing, a letter carried to the post-office, I believe,—I looked at the quarter, so shiny and so expressive of the goodies of which I never had enough—and thought of the possible others which might follow if I did this errand for him. Even when he exacted secrecy and made other propositions which might have alarmed an older person, I was too blinded by the dazzle of the money he liberally doled out in those days to look the way I was going until I was so fast bound to him I did not know how to break loose. And that is why I lay to your grandfather’s charge the unlawful doings of later days when I was old enough to conduct his business in Boston and lift him to the position he desired, as the Old Man of the Mountain of the business world.
“Had this been enough! had I only stopped then! But the lure was on, and transactions hitherto open to no greater charge than that of being a trifle shady changed with changing times into ones of a more or less illegal and dangerous character. This frightened me, and I sought release. But his hold upon me was a firm one, and he met any insubordination with a smile. He reminded me that if he dropped from his present position, he would carry me in his fall; that what might be punishment to him would be ruin to me; that he was used to a crust and a glass of water, and wouldn’t even mind prison walls if it came to that, seeing that his own walls had been his perpetual prison; but that I was young and fond of good meals and choice wines and would resent obloquy and unbecoming stripes and the fare that goes with them.
“Do you wonder I yielded and went on with my uncongenial task, getting deeper and deeper into the meshes, but making money and, contrary to all my usual habits, laying it by? I had thus accumulated a tidy little sum, and was planning to leave the country with it, when almost without warning there came a crash in the financial world. Fortunes were lost over night, and his—his, which we thought so safely invested that not even a cataclysm could touch it—vanished as though it were smoke—or almost, I should say.
“When everything seemed lost and death showed in his face, I brought out my little hoard, and for a while it floated him. Then it too went, or so he said; and not being at this time the only man he employed in the manipulation of his schemes, I could not refute him. Possibly I did not want to. Possibly I was glad to be free of him and start a new life. You had grown up, and the purpose of my life had changed. I thought only of you now, and recognizing a new talent in myself, I was planning to enter a new business which promised a living if no more, when a fresh shock came to undermine my confidence in men, if not in the one good woman to whom I had pinned my faith.
“In some of my goings about town, I ran across the man who had acted for your grandfather in lines I could not reach. I had supposed him a ruined man like ourselves, and I found him in possession of a huge limousine; and when I spoke of my vanished hundreds, he laughed and told me to look for them among the old man’s hoarded thousands, ‘He has feathered his nest, all right,’ he shouted in leaving me. ‘I thought you understood, I believe in fair play myself, amongst friends.’ But he never offered me a share of his own gains—not he. I was the butt of them both; and I had thought myself smarter than either!
“Judith, that ended my equanimity. Money is money, and I wanted mine. I believed it to be in this house—honestly believed that—and was taking measures to confront your grandfather, when—you know what happened—he suddenly died. You can see where that left me, and the temptation it provoked when I found that the property was yours and that you had taken a vow never to enter it.”
“I see.” Her voice was clear and cold. If his story impressed her, she did not show it. “And to that temptation you finally yielded and found—how much?”
He told her; and taking out the money, he laid it in regular heaps upon the table.
“I do not want it,” she objected with short, sharp emphasis, “Put it back into your pocket.”
But he let it lie.
“Judith,” he adjured her, in final appeal, “whatever you think of this surreptitious entering of a house you would not enter yourself, you should thank me for the act, not frown upon it. Had I not thus opened your eyes to what it may contain, you might have sold it without knowing its value.”
“You mean—to you!”
He winced, strong as was the grip he held over himself, but he answered with a haughty lift of his head which made him almost imposing:
“Do you think that I would not have told you had I found more than my due? Judith, recall your old trust in me. Remember the days when there was no cloud between us, and ask yourself whether I am likely to prove a worse friend than the man who has dodged about here tonight under the specious plea of guarding your rights. As proof that I have your real interest at heart, let me insist that small as have been the returns from the hurried search I have made, there are riches within these walls worthy of your utmost efforts to find them. May you be more fortunate than myself in your attempts! With the expression of this wish, I humbly take my leave.”
A little too grandiose in manner as well as in words. That was my comment as he started to move, and I wondered what Judith thought and what she would say to him.
Not what I expected. Preserving her own simple and dignified bearing, she merely observed:
“If this house holds riches, let us find them. I have no wish to search for them alone or to reckon up their value in privacy. But what makes you so sure that his money, if he had much money, is hidden in this house? Men of Grandfather’s experience put their money in banks, not in old chests.”
“Not when they are misers; not when they love the glint of gold, the feel of rolls on rolls of bills. He used the banks when younger, but in his old age he must see his wealth so that he could secretly gloat over it.”
She was looking full at Fullerton when he said this, and so was I. We could not see his face; that was in shadow; but the light struck the hand pendant at his side, and we both saw the fingers of this hand close in a passion that to me was illuminating. He had reason for his confidence. He knew that the house held money, rolls on rolls of it. It was no mare’s nest he was trying to lead us into. I waited in breathless interest for her answering remark.
It was a cold one.
“You fill me with curiosity, Seth. There is but one way of satisfying ourselves of the truth of what you affirm. That way I have already mentioned. Let us proceed to finish the task you have already begun. Albert, from what Seth has said, I judge you have been watching him at his work. Can you from your former acquaintance with the house think of any place which he has overlooked or found himself unable to reach?”
“Yes,” I said, “I can. I know of a spot, the likeliest in the world for him to use; but I cannot promise that we can master its secret tonight. But we will try—come.”
I led them up the kitchen stairs, flashing my torch as I went and listening to catch any hypocritical remark which Fullerton might make to the woman whom he professed to love, and yet took no pains to spare.
But evidently he did not choose to indulge himself in this fashion. He was as silent as myself, till I made the turn towards Grandfather’s room; then a low exclamation escaped him, ending in a growl when I entered, and a short:
“So you think to find something here! You will have to pull down the rafters or tear up the floor. Everything else has been searched to the limit.”
“I know that,” I answered. “I was in a position to note the thoroughness with which you fulfilled this fancied duty. But you were not fortunate enough to get your early punishings in this room. I know of a place hidden in these walls which you overlooked—a very good place too, of whose existence few besides myself can be aware. Let me show you.”
And crossing to the fireplace, I touched the spring which released the door hidden in the wainscoting.
As it fell back, I flashed my light in its direction and was not surprised at the quickly smothered oath with which he recognized this unsuspected place of concealment. Judith’s surprise, while unvoiced, was equally evident; and it was with a quiet enjoyment, surely not unpardonable under the circumstances, that I stepped forward to the crack now slowly widening under our eyes, and pulled the door wide that he might see that the space within was large enough not only to hold any amount of possible treasure, but to have afforded a refuge for myself in the hours in which I watched him.
He followed me, as did Judith, both pressing close up at my back. From what I had seen, or rather not seen, when I was there before, I had no reason for thinking this had been Grandfather’s treasure-closet. But I put on a good face and possibly felt some hope in my heart, for perhaps I had overlooked some hidden cranny or a looseened board, which another and closer inspection might reveal to us. It was therefore with an air of some expectation that I threw the light on its dark interior; but alas! with little avail, Emptiness! Bare walls, bare ceiling. Nothing to break the dingy white of its whitewashed boards but Grandfather’s battered hat hanging on its solitary peg. A pretty result to the expectations I had raised! I expected to hear Fullerton’s sneer of angry disdain and was suitably prepared for it; but I feared Judith’s low sigh of disappointment, for which I was not prepared. But he was silent in his still rampant curiosity, and she eager in her lingering hope. As I rose on tiptoe to sound the ceiling, she ran a finger up and down a crack which showed just inside the doorway; and when I sank back discomfited at finding the ceiling solid under my loud thumps, she leaned over to my ear and whispered in visible excitement:
“The floor! Try the floor!”
To do this, I got down on my hands and knees. When I rose, as I speedily did, for there was nothing, I knocked down Grandfather’s hat and was stooping to pick it up, when I felt Judith’s hand on my shoulder and heard her quick:
“Let the hat go. Turn your light on the wall, there where it hung. I think I see something.”
She did; and so in a moment did we all. The dial of a small clock protruded from under that peg. The hat had hitherto concealed it; now it stood revealed.
Turning to Fullerton with a smile, I quietly remarked:
“I begin to believe with you that Grandfather had something to conceal.” Then to Judith: “Do you wish me to make an attempt to find out if anything lies back of that dial?”
“Indeed yes, “ she murmured. “Do anything, everything, to end this suspense. Tear down the wall.”
“We cannot do that,” I objected; “but we will see if any ordinary manipulation will suffice to disclose an opening. Fullerton, I yield you the precedence. Make the first try.”
Startled, for he had not expected any such concession on my part, he stepped into the closet and took a look at the dial. Next minute he glanced back.
“Hands,” he explained, “but no keyhole. This is no clock, in the ordinary sense of the word. It calls for some special knowledge to work it. I haven’t that knowledge. Have you?”
The quick way in which he turned upon me in saying this—the extraordinary effort he made not to seem unduly disturbed, proved the depth of the excitement he was endeavouring to conceal. A safe hid in the wall! That could mean only money, and whether this money was his own or another’s, it worked its enthralling spell over his avaricious soul. Meanwhile, he was studying the dial which faced us so enigmatically, and was ready to say:
“This is one of those devices which call for instructions. A new search will be necessary, not for money, this time, but for a code telling us how to approach this money.”
Us! I looked at him sharply. The quiet assertion of his tone troubled me. In an instant I knew that we had not fully sounded this man. He was conscious of having some hold which would make him none too small a partaker of whatever was found. I began to feel a dread of him and wish him away. Gladly would I have postponed to the morning any further efforts to solve the mystery of this device. But the fire in Judith’s eyes was turned now upon me, and as Fullerton stepped out of the closet, I took his place inside, saying:
“That is likely to be a lengthy task. First, let me see what a penknife will do. Perhaps I can pry off the face of the dial.”
Taking out the little knife I kept in my vest pocket, I essayed to follow my own suggestion and failed hopelessly, as was to be expected. The dial was not to be removed; it was an integral part of the device.
Fullerton’s laugh and Judith’s sigh sounded simultaneously in my ear. By rights, I should have suffered deeply from the double infliction, and undoubtedly would have done so if, on replacing my penknife in its accustomed place, I had not struck a folded bit of paper already tucked away there—the scrap which, falling from the clock down below at the moment of setting it, showed such a startling coincidence between the line of writing which I found inside and the words then in my mind that the surprise of it was with me yet. What had that line of writing been? An expression of time. What time? I remembered exactly: Twenty-three minutes to five.
With just a glance at Judith, which she may or may not have rightly interpreted, I lifted a finger to the dial before us and set the hands at the precise hour and minute recorded in what I now hoped might prove to be a lost memorandum. Instantly I heard a burr, and subduing myself to such calmness as I could muster, I watched the wall in which this dial was inserted, and in one breathless moment beheld it shiver, then swing slowly out, dial and all, disclosing a series of drawers let into the masonry of the adjoining chimney. My foolish whim of the afternoon with its resulting release of this memorandum from the place where it may have lain for years, had brought us to the goal we might otherwise not have reached without tearing down the wall. I was as much overcome by it as Fullerton, who stared like one demented, and was glad when Judith, following my signal, took my place in the closet.
And now let me ask you to picture to yourself this fine girl, hitherto poor, hitherto a slave to work, handsome and with all the cravings undoubtedly of a beautiful woman (cravings she had never had an opportunity of satisfying), standing before this repository of possible riches, and pausing to say with a sweet and elevated look I shall always remember:
“Let us not calculate upon too much. It might be better for us in every way not to find so very much.”
Then she pulled out the top drawer.
It was empty.
“I expected it,” she said. Then with hesitating breaks (she was but human), she added: “Not to find it empty, not to find them all empty, would mean that he suffered hunger and many discomforts when he might have had nourishing food and numberless luxuries. I must remember that.”
She pulled out the second drawer. It opened with difficulty. Papers! Nothing but papers! Old bills, presumably, and ancient receipts.
I forbore to glance at Fullerton; he forbore to glance at me. Judith shut this drawer and opened the next.
Ah! nickels! a whole drawer full of nickels! I uttered a short laugh, which she echoed.
“The next!” came in a mutter from Fullerton.
She had to use force to wrench this fourth one open, but it came at last.
Silver! much silver!
“Oh!” she choked in irrepressible excitement, “if the next should contain gold!”
But it did not. Papers again! but not of the same appearance as those in the upper drawer. These had the look of bonds and mortgages, representing, possibly, more money than any amount of coin she might come upon in this place of secret deposit. But notwithstanding this, she shut the drawer with a bang in order to open the one below.
Gold! gold at last! Rolls and rolls of it, all neatly sorted and arranged according to size. To Judith this meant wealth; and in the agitation of the moment she felt in the darkness for my hand, and grasping it, burst suddenly into tears.
We respected her emotion, both of us, At least, we were both silent: I, in the joy at the hope thus secured of seeing Judith in her proper position before the world, her beauty adorned, her mind relieved, her capacity for affairs recognized and made use of; he, in the pursuit of such purposes as this realization of his secret expectations had awakened in his dark soul. That I did not do him injustice in thus characterizing his thoughts at this juncture he soon made plain to us. Judith, having recovered her composure, pointed to the glittering heap and said to him:
“I owe you this discovery, though I wish it had been in ways more open. On this account, I will, after having made this find of ours public and paid my debts and all of Grandfather’s debts, give you the sum you ask, without verification of your claim. Push back the drawer and shut both doors upon it, Albert, it is time we three separated.”
I was proceeding to do as she asked, when from the shadow into which he had withdrawn Fullerton spoke up harshly and said:
“It is not enough.”
Instinctively, and almost before the words had left his lips, I closed the doors and was in the room at his side.
“Why?” I asked. “Why is it not enough?”
“I addressed myself to Miss Mann,” he coldly answered. “It is her rights and her claims we are discussing.”
“Then let me repeat my cousin’s question with my own emphasis,” she now broke in from the shadow where she too stood. “Why should I give you any more?”
“Because I can make every dollar in those hidden drawers worthless to you in a minute. Because with the publication of this discovery to the world, I can publish with equal candour how the money was obtained. It is not a creditable story. The silence I am willing to keep is well worth the half of what lies there concealed. Think it over, Judith. Think it over well. The whole amount and shame; or a generous half and a free heart with which to enjoy it.”
“Shame!” It was the only word she heard. “Shame! what do you mean by that? A revelation of my grandfather’s dealings with you or with others? I know he had a mean spirit—”
“Pardon me,” he broke in, still from the darkness, “—a dishonest spirit. His fortune, of which this is but a remnant, however large you may find it, was built upon a—crime.”
“A crime!” The words were a cry, not a mere repetition of what he had said. They thrilled me to the marrow. They even appeared to disturb him, for I heard him instinctively move, though he did not come out of his dark corner. “What crime? No foolish accusations, Seth. Nothing but the truth, the absolute truth.”
“It is the truth I give you. The transactions to which I have alluded and by means of which your grandfather heaped up money, some of which we have just seen, included forgery. You cannot rake over in public these ashes of the past, as you will have to rake them if you shut me out of your calculations, without besmirching the name of Mann.”
He made a bound towards the door as he said this, but I was there as soon as he, and caught him back just as he was slipping over the threshold.
“Hound!” I muttered in his ear. “There is no need of all this hurry. We are going to discuss this matter, and that we may do it at our leisure and in full light, I will see what I can do with the lamp I have just seen upon the mantelpiece.”
He laughed but stood still while I pulled down the lamp and after several attempts succeeded in making its crazy old wick burn. Perhaps he wanted to get a full glimpse of her face and learn from its expression to what extent she had been impressed by the accusation hurled against her grandfather. I know that I did, for she was a woman of great pride and would feel shame more than she would cold or hunger. It was upon her, then, standing perfectly quiet in the centre of the room, that my glances first fell as the small but clear light diffused itself through the room.
She was pale, and, with her usual candour, betrayed a disheartenment which caused him to come blustering forward, while it held me fixed and miserable in my place. It was therefore a surprise to us both and an infinite relief to me, when she coldly remarked:
“You say that the money we have just seen was the fruit of forgery. Whose forgery? Name the hand which held the pen.”
“Can you ask?” was his quick reply, uttered with a bravado worthy of a better cause. “His,” he blurted forth, as he met her eye. “It was his one accomplishment; it filled his heart; it filled his time; it made him contented with his solitary life in this ramshackle old house.”
“I don’t believe you,” came in steady reply. “I don’t believe this of my grandfather.”
Fullerton simply shrugged his shoulders.
“Do you?” she asked of me, with a darting look full of appeal.
I tried to think. I tried to imagine Grandfather in the role of skilful penman just ascribed to him, and found great difficulty in so doing. With a meaning glance at our visitor’s hands, so neat, so wonderfully kept, so precise in all their movements, I casually observed:
“I have not seen my grandfather since I was a child. He had rheumatism then and never wrote anything if he could help it. Perhaps he became deft with time. It is just possible.”
Fullerton let his eyes wander for a moment over the walls and furnishing of the room we were in, before he thoughtfully remarked:
“I have never been in this house before. Strange as it may seem to you, this is my first visit here. All our interviews took place through the openings in the two barns which we had both carefully shuttered, each in his own way. We had a system of signals which brought us together at a given time. I wonder”—here he glanced questioningly about the room again, with a lingering look—“if, before his death, he destroyed the blundering attempts he once showed me at certain signatures with which I was better acquainted than he. If he did not—” Here he broke off abruptly to continue in another strain: “Judith, when you go through this house yourself, as you probably will very soon, see if you do not find some tokens of your grandfather’s old occupation, I doubt if he had the foresight to destroy them.”
“We will search for them now,” she said. “When we part, it is going to be with a complete understanding. Am I not right, Albert?”
“You are right. The night could not be better spent than in clarifying this situation. Why do you look at that old desk so persistently, Fullerton?”
“Did I? I beg your pardon; I have no more interest in the desk than in any other article of furniture in the room. I ransacked it for money, but did not find enough to pay me for my pains. Perhaps for that reason I have a grudge against it. I may be that foolish.”
Did he think me a fool?
“Judith,” said I, “if you should find such scraps as he mentions in that desk, would you accept as true the statement he has just made that Grandfather was a forger?”
“It would make me fearful of it, very fearful,” she acknowledged with her wonted candour.
“It wouldn’t me,” I declared. “I should have too ready an explanation of it. Fullerton, why should you make such an effort to play the villain? You were the forger yourself, and it is useless to attempt to saddle Grandfather with the act. He was faulty enough, God knows; and you are villain enough to have been his running mate. Acknowledge your own work and let his speak for itself. You cannot lose either Judith or her money any more certainly than you have already.”
It was a daring turn upon an already embittered foe, but I felt the occasion justified it. Would it precipitate the crisis or retard it? Was his head clear enough to take in the meaning of my act and realize that a man of my experience does not risk, by so direct an accusation, humiliation before a woman he admires without having some sort of substantiation to back it? Evidently he was for a moment shaken in his forced equanimity, for his eyes flew to the closet door behind which I had lain while he rummaged through the room, and then to the desk, as if to satisfy himself that I had been in a position to overlook the latter. If he succeeded in satisfying himself on this point, he covered it with a short laugh, exclaiming with an effrontery the like of which I had never known:
“Follies! I advise you to put a limit to your imagination, Mann, if you would not be thought too fanciful for this or any other company. I have confessed to you how much and how little I had to do with this business. I was his tool for a while; but as soon as I could, I got out; and you will be but accusing the tool—”
“What! when I saw you putting more into the desk than you took out? If incriminating papers are found there—”
But here Judith, who had been wandering restlessly through the room, half listening, half attempting to distract herself from our controversy, returned to where we stood and laid on the table before us the withered stalks of that ancient bouquet which Fullerton an hour before had tossed so disdainfully into a corner.
“What is this?” she asked.
He was for answering her, but I stopped him.
“Let me tell her,” said I. “Judith, when I came first upon this scene, this room, which shows many signs of disarrangement now, was in a surprising state of order. The bed, which shows the disarray of an unaccustomed hand in its hasty making, was smooth, every sheet and pillow in place, and laid upon the coverlid, with its once fresh buds nestling where your head was expected to lie, was this withered bouquet. You see that Grandfather had not calculated on your deferring your visit such a length of time. He evidently expected you to find those blossoms still fresh and fragrant.”
Touched, as I had meant she should be, she lifted the flowers to her lips, but suddenly started, and holding the bouquet nearer the light, began picking at the stalks.
“See!” she announced at last, as she drew a folded paper from their midst. “A letter! A letter I should have read before his burial. Why didn’t he tell me—”
“Because he counted on woman’s curiosity,” I put in. Fullerton said not a word. Probably he was summoning all his latent resources to meet the new turn of affairs.
She had torn off the envelope and glanced at the closely written sheet she found inside. Looking up, she made the remark:
“This is likely to throw some light upon some matters that have been mysteries to me; and since we three have kept together thus far upon our road of discovery, I propose to read this letter aloud, unpleasant as it may prove to do so. Frankness is better than kindness in a situation like this.”
I knew her well enough by this time to be quite certain of how she looked and bore herself at this moment, my high-souled Judith! So I took a glance at him. He was smiling with that exasperating coolness which in fellows of his stamp marks the low estimate they put upon the penetration of those whom they thus seek to hoodwink.
“I judge it is to be my funeral,” he remarked, “or you would not be so ready with your frankness.”
A grave look was her only answer. As he failed to meet it, she turned at once to her letter.
“Written on my last night on earth,” she began. “I am tired of life and I am going to end it. My ailments and a fear which takes away whatever pleasure I had, are reasons enough for my act. Nobody will miss me, and you—the one person I care for—will have riches instead of poverty, when I am laid in the ground. For to you I have willed all I had, which is much more than any one knows except one—the man I fear, and for the very reason, that he does know.”
“Now for a string of lies,” broke in Fullerton carelessly.
“You have said you knew he had money stored away,” was her calm retort. “I wondered how you could be so sure of a fact like that. Now Grandfather is going to tell us.”
I spied him biting his lip. He had not gained much so far.
“This man is Seth Fullerton, our neighbour,”
she read on.
“I told you that it was my funeral,” he laughed.
“As he may give you trouble, I feel bound to tell you something about him. I have thought sometimes you cared a little bit too much for him. He’s a bad egg—
Pardon me, Seth, I must read it as it is written.”
“Do not mind me,” he disclaimed, with a great show of mock politeness.
“—a man in whom there is no good. I have known him for years. At one time I had use for him. Unknown to any one here, I employed him to carry on certain transactions for me in the city—transactions which I could not myself conduct without making myself one of the crowd, which I hate. He cheated me; at one time he forged my name. I forgave him. I knew of nobody else who could carry on my schemes with the same energy and secrecy. And how did he repay me? By repeating his offence, this time in a way to bring me within reach of the law. This was bad; but he’s not the only man of acumen in this town. Knowing that as long as I had money, or he thought I had money, I should suffer from these attempts, I entered into a systematic course of wild speculation which seemingly robbed me of all I had. I had found another agent to work for me, equally secret but much more honest, and what I lost in Fullerton’s hands was more than made up to me by what this other man was able to do for me. I lived poor—I went without many of the necessaries of life, but so long as I deceived him, I felt satisfied. I had my secret hoard, brought often to my door under cover of darkness, and I had you.
“Though you have never known it, you have filled a large part of my life. So long as I could see you come and go through the hollyhocks, or watch the light in your window or the smoke rising from your chimney, I had all the company I needed. And as for pleasure, I had this to think of: that my two sources of joy would some day be united. My money would be yours, and what I had failed to get out of it, you would have a chance at, with all the zest of a woman who has never worn an all-silk dress. Old and dry and hard as you may think me, I know girls, and, believe it or not as you will, I have spent the half of many nights imagining you in the pretty clothes which my money would buy—the satins, the velvets, the hats smothered in feathers, and all the other nonsense which girls like, and old fellows such as myself think an awful waste of money. That these imaginings, foolish as they are, may come true, I am going to safeguard that money for you by slipping out of life before he takes it.”
“Umph! Keen old chap,” came sotto voce from the disdainful Fullerton.
Judith continued as though he had not spoken:
“One night I did a foolish thing of which he took immediate advantage. I left my shade a hand-breadth up, and he climbed the old trellis there and looked in. There was gold on the table, and rolls of bills, and bonds with the coupons undisturbed. I had been counting my store, and it lay outspread between us, and he saw it—I caught the gleam of his eyes, just the gleam, but I saw my end in that gleam.”
“The fool! He saw in it the confirmation of my suspicions, and the natural desire I felt for my own. There was nothing else to see. But finish, Judith. Let us hear the whole. So far, nothing can be farther from the truth than what you’ve read.”
She obeyed him, but the glance she threw his way could not have been very encouraging,
“I am an old man, and I believe I fainted. I know that when I realized anything again I was lying with my head on the table and my arms outstretched in a vain endeavour to hide the glitter which had undone me. Rising painfully, I looked again at the window. The eyes were gone; but their stare is in my heart. Never again shall I feel safe. Locks and bolts which might keep out others will never keep out him, and once in—once in this room with me, the cunning clockwork which holds my hidden safe shut beyond human reach at every hour and minute but one, will give up its secret to him. He will master it; he will master me—and soon, soon. The eyes I last saw at my window may look down upon me in my bed. Could I ever sleep again when any night I might wake to see him bending over me with threats I had rather die than hear?
“But you shall be saved this terror. I have thought it all out, and this is how you must act. I shall instruct you to come alone to the house, where curiosity will lead you to this room. You will see this letter and learn from what I now tell you how to open the hiding place of my treasure. There is a spring behind the third brick of the overhead arch of the fireplace. Touch that, and a door will open in the wainscoting. In the closet thus disclosed you will see a clock. Set the clock at twenty-three minutes to five, and in a moment you will be within reach of your fortune. When you have counted it, if your interest carries you that far, take heed that you do exactly what I now tell you. Take out every dollar which you find, and make a bundle of the same by rolling up the whole amount in one of my old coats. Then carry it at once to the bank. Old Sam will drive you and protect you into the bargain. Make no secret of what you have found or of what you have done with it. Tell Seth; tell everybody; and let him chew the cud of his disappointment till he wearies of it and leaves town. Then go carefully over the house. You will find amusement in hunting up the change I shall leave for you in different places. A month will go by quickly; you will forget the old man and be as merry as you deserve. God bless my little Judith!”
The silence which followed Judith’s completion of this letter was charged with an oppression easily to be understood when you remember that we had yet to meet Seth’s eyes. I was not ready for this ordeal, but she was. She had shown herself moved by our grandfather’s final words, but she had a clear sense of her position and was not going to wait for one of Seth’s sarcastic remarks before addressing him.
“Seth,” she said, “I offer no apology for the unwelcome task I have just finished. It was right that you should hear Grandfather’s words and hear them from me. You had had your full say in accusation against him, and we had listened. This is his retort, a retort from the grave into which he declares you were the means of hurrying him. Is that part of the story true? Did you climb the trellis and look in at his window while he was counting his money?”
“I certainly did, and saw him gloating over it—pawing it about and gloating over it. It was a hellish sight.”
“Sights of that kind acquire their hellishness from the passions of the one looking on. If you had envied him less, you might have viewed his actions more charitably. But we won’t waste time over phrases. You have seen the money my grandfather has laid by, and you have heard my promise to restore you the amount you have mentioned as yours. Will that satisfy you now? After having listened to these charges—charges which throw back that accusation of forgery upon yourself—are you content to quit this house, leaving me full mistress to do what I will with my inheritance under the one proviso I have mentioned? Answer at once; and answer for all time. This matter is going to be settled here and going to be settled now. Albert is our witness.”
“Accept my congratulations for the latter fact. You could scarcely have chosen a more unprejudiced witness,” was his bitterly sarcastic comment. “As for the answer you want, it is no. I have given you my ultimatum. A fair division of the spoils, or I publish abroad the story of your grandfather’s shameful dishonesty. What he has chosen to say here will not exonerate him from the charge of forgery. If he did not do the work with his own hand, he benefited by it, as his own words prove. You can make nothing by throwing me down; his reputation goes the moment mine does. Miss Judith Mann’s great good fortune will be seen to have come to her through crime. I hardly think she will enjoy that.”
“You are right.” Judith had risen and stood before us with every beauty of body and soul heightened by the emotions which she now let loose in one final burst. “Seth, you know me well. I should hate every dollar of it. If there is no way of clearing Grandfather’s memory (and I own that these words of his do not appear to do so); if after a reliable lawyer has looked into the whole matter and carefully examined the proofs of which you speak, I find myself unconvinced that nothing worse than chicanery has heaped up this wealth, then you may be sure I shall no longer regard this money as any more mine than at present I regard it as yours. Neither of us shall have the benefit of it. I have said it, and Albert, who is a more unprejudiced witness than you think, has heard and approved.”
He was staggered. For the first time since his first unexpected encounter with me in the kitchen, he was really staggered—she was so evidently in earnest, and had cut the ground so completely from under his feet. When he found words it was to say:
“Your pride! Your poverty! Will they let you do this?”
“I have no pride,” she answered, “when honesty and an easy conscience are at stake. As for poverty, it is an old friend. I am not sure I should not feel lost without it.”
Baffled! From a hot rage, his temper flared to a white one, and I think if he could have killed her there in her beauty and calm disregard of everything but the right, he would have done it and rejoiced afterwards.
But I was there with the muscles of an athlete, to say nothing of the pistol whose shine he had seen a little while before, and he kept himself in check notwithstanding the dissatisfaction he could not help but feel at seeing that I had penetrated his thought and would hold him in the everlasting contempt he deserved.
“I see no reason why we should not rightfully separate,” Judith resumed after this strenuous moment had passed. “Tomorrow morning I will send for the six best men in town and open the closet and safe in their presence. Then, if you do not speak, Seth, I shall. If Grandfather could speak from his grave, he would wish that, for he sought my happiness, and I see no other way in which to preserve it. Good-night, Seth; or is it good-morning?”
It was good-morning. As I stood on the doorstep after seeing him pass one way and she the other, the first streaks of a new-born day flared in the eastern sky.
We never touched a cent of that money. I had found a perfect woman, and she had found an appreciative lover, and our happiness was so great that the bugbear of poverty never daunted us. In fact, it added zest to our engagement, and ultimately made a man of me. I worked hard and worked joyfully, with the result that Judith has her silk dress. But though I love her in it, never will she look more beautiful to me than on the morning when we finally decided that the money was not for us, but for those who may have suffered from its gain;—the morning when Judith, clad in her old-time muslin, but with a smile on her lips as candid as her soul, said softly:
“A small home with two in it, and both working! I feel fit for it; don’t you?”
I am a physician interested especially in bacteriology, and at a certain period of my life (I am speaking of the late nineties) I was engaged in a series of experiments which necessitated, as I thought, a trip to Germany.
Being without ties of any kind, my preparations were soon made, and one evening in early March I left my house in West End Avenue and was half way to the steamer scheduled to sail at midnight, when I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten to secure an important drawer in my desk at home.
As this drawer held all my private papers, a lively vision of the results likely to follow from the well-known propensities of the woman I had left in charge induced me to consult my watch and see if I had time to return and lock this drawer and still arrive at the dock before sailing time. I found it to be earlier by a half hour than I had supposed, and as my house is very near the elevated, I sent the cab on with my trunk and hand luggage and took the first train back to Harlem.
When I arrived at my own door it was still early enough for me to expect to find a light somewhere about the house; if not in the rooms above, at least in the basement where I had located old Nancy. But the entire front was dark—a fact which had its agreeable side, as it showed that this doubtful guardian of my effects was not sitting up reading my old love letters.
I had given strict orders that the door by which I am accustomed to enter should be locked and bolted immediately upon my departure, but from sheer force of habit I took out my latch-key and found to my surprise that the door yielded, offering me an easy entrance. If old Nancy was as careless a housekeeper as this betokened, it was very fortunate that I had been made aware of her defects before the sea rolled between us.
Closing the door behind me, I groped my way upstairs to the room on the second floor where my desk stood, and knowing just where to lay my hand on a match, was debating whether I had better strike a light first or sing out for old Nancy, when I heard a sound in the hall below which decided me to wait a moment before giving away my presence.
A man’s foot had struck the marble flooring at the head of the basement stairs—a man’s foot where there should be no one but a middle-aged woman of too uncertain charms for followers! Interest and curiosity alike bade me listen for an explanation of this unlooked-for intrusion; and listen I did, with my ear pressed to the partially closed door.
Instantly, my astonishment increased, for the scratch of a match was followed by a sudden flood of light which penetrated dimly to where I stood. The gas had been lit either in the hall or in one of the parlours, I was inclined to think in the front parlour. To make sure I pushed open the door and glanced out. Both of the parlours were blazing with light. What an extraordinary occurrence! My surprise and indignation may be readily imagined.
Advancing to the balustrade, I peered over. A man was crossing the hall to the back parlour with some object in his hands which I did not recognize as belonging either to myself or to the house.
This struck me as preposterous, especially as in figure and clothing he appeared to be a gentleman. I could even distinguish the air he was humming as he tripped about my room, moving chairs and arranging tables; and surprised out of all caution, I was about to rush down upon him and demand by what right he invaded my house and abused my effects, when a thin, rippling laugh rising from the basement stair brought a new element of astonishment into the situation and held me spellbound to my place.
It was a woman’s laugh, airy, mirthless but with a strange haunting note in it which, once heard, fixed that laugh for ever in my memory. I can even now recall the unaccountable chill which I experienced as it died out and only the sound of rustling silk came up the narrow stairs. Quite inconsequently, no doubt,I found myself repeating the old wives’ saying: Someone is walking over my grave.
Not understanding the presence of this woman under my roof, any more than I did that of the man, I awaited further developments. From my vantage-point I could catch a momentary glimpse of any one passing from the head of the basement-stair into the parlour door, and continuing to watch this spot, I soon saw that the woman whose laugh I had heard was young, elegant, and full of a nervous energy that gave to her movements a peculiar force without detracting from their native grace and lissomeness.
Certainly, no friend of old Nancy.
She had left the parlour door open behind her and for a moment I meditated surprising her and her unwelcome companion, with inquiries natural to the occasion. But when I listened for their voices, I was astonished at the silence which prevailed. Only once was this silence broken and that was by a curt sentence from the lady uttered in an unmistakable tone of command. Why this tone, and why this continued movement of the man in a room which for two years had been used only as a means of communication between my laboratory and the front of the house? I resolved to find out. But how could I hope to do this without giving away my presence?
Happily, a way presented itself which could only be known to one living in the house. The laboratory of which I have just made mention communicated directly with the room in which this man and woman stood. The connecting door, which was invariably kept closed, had for its upper half a plate of glass covered by two tightly drawn curtains. These could be separated slightly in the middle without much risk of drawing any one’s attention. I had, therefore, only to creep with due precaution down the back stairs and along a certain well-carpeted passageway leading from the rear to a second door in the laboratory, to obtain a full view of my back parlour and of what was going on there.
It was, perhaps, an undignified proceeding, but I decided that the occasion warranted it. Certainly, my curiosity did; and erelong I found myself in the place I have named, pushing aside with slightly trembling fingers the soft folds of the curtain which were all that now separated me from this mysterious couple.
What I saw upon taking my first look was a source of great astonishment to me. Never shall I forget the scene or be able to disconnect it from the room which up to then had held for me only the most prosaic associations.
In the centre of my staid, stiff, old parlour stood a table that for a moment I failed to recognize as the one which for as long as I could remember had occupied the space at the right of the mantelpiece. Over it lay a cloth which must have been brought into the house by these unknown intruders. This cloth was white (the material I think was silk) and it was bordered all around with a deep gold fringe. In the middle of this cloth lay a pack of cards with black backs, and on either side of the table stood two chairs as yet unoccupied, though the man and woman I had seen enter were not far off; indeed, stood very near these chairs.
It was the woman who surprised me. The man was an ordinary one, singular only from his nationality which may have been Italian and may have been French. But she was the exponent, both in figure and garb, of all that I might expect from her thrilling laugh. A wonderful creature! clad in a ball dress of rich scarlet and betraying in every movement of her alert head and exquisitely developed person the evidence of conscious power which only great beauty gives.
Yet that beauty could only be surmised at the present moment from the dazzling whiteness of her neck and the brilliant masses of her highly piled blonde hair. For her features were hidden under a velvet mask which I might have envied more if with all this affluence of colour and beauty of outline there had not been something which held my admiration in check and made her an object of curiosity rather than of any deeper feeling.’
They were waiting and she, for one, was impatient.
For what were they waiting? A person or an event?
Another moment sufficed to satisfy me on this point. While the blonde lady was fidgetting about the room and uttering more than one ejaculation of chagrin of a strangely foreign sound to her seemingly dull and uninterested companion, another step was heard in the hall and a second woman entered.
She was as unlike the first as possible, nevertheless she was sufficiently striking in face and bearing to attract my closest attention when once she had thrown aside cloak and veil and stood opposed to the other two in her own marked and melancholy individuality. She wore no mask and her pale features, thrown into high relief by her close fitting gown of black velvet, impressed me as deeply interesting from the suppressed emotion which gave them force and feeling.
No laugh had heralded her approach and with no words was she greeted, yet I felt that there had entered with her, a purpose as hidden and strange as the passion which now lent additional fire to the other woman’s manner; and that presently I should witness something much more serious than a game of cards.
Without a word, almost without a nod, she advanced and took her place at the table before which the other woman had already seated herself. The pack of cards lay between them, their black backs looking startling enough on the glistening white cloth. But when, a moment later, these were held out on the palm of the woman in scarlet, and were calmly cut by the dusky-browed stranger whose black robe seemed to reflect her dark and mournful spirit, the effect was such that I forgot my own surroundings—forgot the time, the place, the fact that all this was being enacted in my own house in the unromantic precincts of upper New York, and for the nonce felt myself in a scene such as only old Russia can present or some one of those feverish centres of play which still find footing in certain parts of Germany.
Yet as I continued to gaze I became convinced that the passion which gave impetus to this game was not that of play alone. In the first place no money had been laid on the table, nor was the game one that I recognized. It was nearly but not exactly like our national game of poker and was evidently governed by definite laws well understood by both these players. Its end, while not yet clear to me, seemed to pronounce victory to the dark-haired girl; for her anxious eyes were steadily brightening while those of the blonde beauty burned with ever-increasing balefulness through the apertures of her mask. At last, in the heat of some sudden disappointment the latter tore off her mask and let her face in all its intolerable force and fury stand revealed.
She was beautiful as a demon but this very demoniac element in her otherwise alluring personality made me forget her beauty. Yet I could not quite turn aside my gaze from her gleaming eyes and working features. She displayed such determination in face of defeat. She seemed, moreover, to have so much at stake and clung with such apparent desperation to the opportunities which a fresh deal of the cards gave her.
But she was not destined to win that night. Ere long her calmer but no less resolved companion laid down a card which seemed to end all; and as its full meaning entered the excited brain of the woman in scarlet, she rose with a violent gesture, and dashing the cards to the floor faced her silent opponent with the cry, uttered in perfect French though I was sure it was not her own tongue: “This is the third time you have had your way. You may think yourself right, but I tell you that in this instance, your pusillanimity will bring disaster upon us all. Some knots must be cut. This was one of them.”
Catching up her cloak she wrapped it about her.
“Ivan, see me to my carriage.”
She was gone.
But the other remained,—remained with a soft satisfied smile on her lips which feminized her wonderfully. I was still watching her, still marvelling at her loveliness and the inexplicable nature of the occurrence which had brought her into my home, when she too started up and reached for her wrap. Should I let her go, or should I throw open the intervening door and demand an explanation of what had just taken place before my eyes. Reason counselled the latter course but for some cause reason did not prevail. Some instinct of consideration for her sex held me back and the moment for action passed. She glided from the room, leaving the cards scattered on the floor, an ocular proof of the reality of a scene which otherwise had all the unsubstantiality of a dream.
With her departure, silence settled upon the house, and I was about to leave the laboratory in search of old Nancy when I saw her miserable figure come shuffling into the parlour and stand in a maze of astonishment before the white-spread table and the scattered cards.
Mumbling and grumbling, she presently stooped for the latter, and stacking them up, laid them on the mantel-shelf behind one of my old Dresden images. Then she lifted the gold-fringed doth, and carefully folding it, laid it away also; and lastly she wheeled the table back to its former place. She was still busy with the latter when I flung open the door and stood before her.
Never have I seen a woman more astonished, and, I may add, more thoroughly frightened. She was so frightened that it was several minutes before she could answer my string of questions. Then it all came out. It was the money which had tempted her. She did not know the women nor why they were willing to pay so much for the use of my parlour for an hour or so in the evening; nor what the game of cards meant which she had seen played, with as much astonishment as I had.
It was the light-haired one who had made the arrangements. She had come one day while I was out, and asking old Nancy if she was to have charge of the house in my absence, counted out some money—the amount was ridiculously large—and told what her requirements were. They seemed simple enough and not at all harmful; so the poor old soul had taken the money and promised to open the doors immediately after my departure.
But she had not known that the ladies were to bring a man with them and she could easily understand that I would not like that or the cards (she didn’t like cards herself)—and if I would forgive her, etc., etc.
Some few other particulars I learned from what she told. The one which struck me most forcibly was the fact that they were to let her know beforehand what evening to expect them. On such evenings the basement door was to be put on the latch.
Satisfied that it was on the latch now, I left old Nancy trembling in the hallway and went to lock up my house. Then I sat down for a moment’s cogitation, after which, I went to my room and telephoned to the steamer to cancel my passage. It would never do to leave town with my affairs in this shape. Besides, I doubt if anything could have dragged me out of the country after the experience I have just related.
Do you ask why?
For a very simple reason. I had fallen desperately—and as it seemed to me at the time, irretrievably—in love with the dark-haired apparition who had been the winner of the strange game of cards.
I did not dismiss old Nancy; that would have interfered with my plans. But before I slept that night, I made her swear not to tell any one of my failure to take the steamer, or reveal in any way the fact of my continued residence in my own house. I did not wish to frighten away my mysterious guests. I wished them to come again. Only thus could I hope to obtain a clew to their identity, and the secret which undeniably lay back of the feverish game which they had chosen to play, with such odd and theatrical accompaniments, in my house.
Above all, I wanted to meet the dark and sweet-natured one, face to face. She had not opened her lips in my presence; naturally I longed to hear her voice. She had appeared to exercise a restraining power upon the wishes and passions of her violent companion; consequently, I was anxious to know if this was the restraint of virtue and whether her thoughtful forehead mirrored the noble impulses with which I was fain to endow her.
I had been in love before. The letters hidden in the drawer whose unturned lock had brought me back from the steamer were proof enough of this. But the feelings which now mastered me far transcended those thus recorded. I felt myself in the grip of something as inexplicable as it was uplifting. Nothing small entered into it. I began to realize the full meaning of life. If this was not love, what was love and where should I find it?
Before going further, it may be proper for me to say that at the time of which I am writing, I was just short of thirty, rich, well thought of, not ill-looking (I had even been called handsome since coming into the fortune bequeathed me by a wealthy aunt), and with no darker page in my history than a disappointed love. Yet as I walked the floor of my room that night, I told myself that my lot would be far from enviable if the one glimpse given me of this seemingly perfect woman should prove to be my last.
Such intoxication few can understand. I cannot understand it now myself; but I am obliged to make record of it that my story may prove comprehensible. Had it not been for my extraordinary interest in this woman, matters would have worn a different aspect; I should not have become involved—But there! I am delaying my narrative—and that is inexcusable in face of all I have to tell.
My suspense (for suspense it was) endured a week; then Nancy came into my laboratory with a note which had just been left at the door. It contained but one word:
How my heart leaped at sight of it! How tedious seemed the hours which must elapse before the one which would bring light again into my back parlour—light and mystery and such beauty as haunts men’s dreams and makes credible the most extravagant tales of romancers and poets. That evil would enter, too, was not in my thought that day. The marked and imperious personality of the scarlet-clad blonde had grown dim in this week of insane dwelling upon the opposing charms of her dark-browed companion and it was with a sensation akin to shock that I heard her high-pitched treble ring out once more in my house and caught anew the sinister tone which made it so distinctive.
As before, she came first, and I did not hesitate to follow all her movements. But when the other glided in, I became conscious of an immediate reluctance to stand at my loophole spying upon one whom my very passion made sacred to me. Indeed, I could not do it, and, having satisfied myself that my self-invited guests were there for the same purpose as before, I withdrew from my post of observation and waited quietly but with heavily beating heart for the departure which should lead, if my orders were obeyed, to some knowledge as to who they were, where they lived, and what it was which gave such zest to a game otherwise lacking in what usually rouses the spirit of play in man or woman. In other words I had arranged to have them followed—an unworthy expedient, but the only one under the circumstances which could give me that exact knowledge without which I dared not take a step. To meet her under my own roof—to address her with all these mysteries clouding her otherwise noble image, was inadmissible. I dared not do it. The nature of the dreams in which I had indulged for the last week proved that this would be suicidal. No, while I yet held some control over my impulses, I would take the precaution of measuring the gulf into which I might be called upon to plunge. If it proved to be too deep—but how could it be that when the smile of those exquisite lips spoke only of triumphs which were gentle and pure? I would believe in her goodness; nevertheless, my two trusty detectives should follow her as well as her no less mysterious companion to their homes.
Upon this I was determined; and when I have once brought my mind to a definite decision it is not easily shaken.
Meanwhile, I had seated myself quite out of sight of what was going on in my back parlour but not quite out of hearing. Perhaps I hoped to catch the sound of her voice. If so, I was rewarded. She spoke once and I thought her tones betrayed anxiety. This made me listen still more closely and soon I became aware from the sharp, excited ejaculations which now and then fell from her of the blonde hair, that the game was going her way tonight and that the other’s anxiety had been fully warranted. It made me strangely uneasy,—why, I did not know,—and it was with difficulty I could restrain myself from advancing to my post of observation, and watching the progress of the game. But I resisted the temptation and not till a strange sound, something between a shout and a snarl of triumph, burst from the successful one did I resort again to my peephole.
With what result? Just the one I expected. The positions of a week ago were reversed. The blonde, magnificent in her unholy exultation, stood with the cards clutched to her breast, regarding with a defiant smile the melancholy countenance of the other, who, not meeting her eye, sat trembling and exhausted. Not even my imagination had painted her in more interesting colours, but I lacked the key to her emotion and without that key I dared not look twice at what so nearly unmanned me. So I stole a glance at the man they called Ivan to see if I could gather anything from his expression. Very little it seemed, but that little made me feel that he was better pleased with the termination of this game than he had been with that of a week since; and with nothing better than this petty fact to brood over, I stole from my vantage point and in the darkness and solitude of my room upstairs waited for the return of the men who had been bidden to follow these ladies to their respective destinations.
It was after midnight when the first one arrived. Hastening to meet him, I listened to the following tale.
He had been assigned to follow the lady who came in a carriage and had an escort;—she of the golden hair and red dress. For this purpose he had secreted himself in a hansom cab which he had been careful to station at the corner. As her carriage passed by, he gave the word to his driver and the two vehicles hastened at a suitable distance down the avenue. The night was a bright one and he had been enabled to follow without any difficulty the lady’s carriage till it paused before the main entrance of the Metropolitan Opera House. In his surprise he watched with a feeling of doubt for her to descend and was greatly relieved when he recognized the black satin cloak under which she had chosen to conceal her brilliant dress, She stepped out alone, and without even a nod to the man she had left behind her in the carriage, entered the opera house, where she was met by a foreign-looking gentleman who rushed up to her with a profuse welcome. He seemed to be one of a party of rather distinguished people, for when my man had bought a standing-room ticket and so located himself as to get a good view of the various boxes and their occupants, he saw that she of the scarlet robe was the centre of a very admiring throng of swells. He even gave me their names, all of which he had been careful to learn, and I was surprised to find that several of them were well known to me.
The lady herself he had discovered to be the widow of a Russian count who upon the strength of the old family name of Yavorski had been received not only by the best Russians in this country but by some of our most noted society people who found her beauty unusually piquant and original. She lived, when in the city, at the Harrington,—not ten blocks from my house.
I was astonished. A Russian! Well, I had known that from the first; but a countess and received by the A—s and the W—s! this creature of fiendish impulses and incalculable passions! How she must veil these tendencies in public! How closely she must draw the mask of decent reserve not only across her delicate features as on the occasion when I saw her first, but over the turbulent seethings of her mind—a mind amongst whose infatuations this frenzied delight in play might, for aught I knew, be the most innocent. The Countess Yavorski! I should make it my business to know more of the Countess Yavorski before another week brought her again to my house.
Dismissing the man with the wage he had earned I set myself to await with heightened anticipation the return of him who had been told to follow the other lady. Would she prove to be a countess too? I thought it very probable, I could even imagine her to be a princess but not by right of marriage. My imagination would accept no husband, alive or dead, in this case. Happily, it was not allowed to work for too long a time , unaided. Five minutes after one my second runner came in.
He found me in a state of great impatience.
“Have you traced her to her home? Can you tell me who she is and where she lives?” I asked.
He gave a curious hitch to his shoulders and pulled out a morsel of paper from one of his pockets.
“It was a long chase, sir,” he emphatically remarked, as he slowly unfolded this paper. “I had need of all my wits. If she had suspected me of following her she could not have made me more trouble. First, she took a cab; then, after I had taken one too and was riding comfortably down the avenue not fifty feet behind her, the cab she was in suddenly stopped at a certain crossing and she got out and took a passing street car, That was near ending the whole business so far as I was concerned, but by feeing my driver to rush me pellmell down the street I was able to board that same car some three or four blocks farther down, and had just succeeded in seating myself when I saw her rise and slip out of the front door. I made a quick dash after her, but it was no good; I was carried on to the next corner. She meanwhile had disappeared from sight, and I was wondering what to do next when I was almost knocked off my feet by a passing carriage. It brushed me so close that the face of the man looking out was as plain to me as yours is now. And I knew the face. It was that of the monseer who left your house with the light-haired lady. Luck! you will say. Well, rather! and what is more, luck which gave me what I wanted. For I followed that carriage and presently had the satisfaction of seeing it draw up to the curb. As no one got out, I looked for someone to get in, and sure enough in a minute or so, she appeared from some dark doorway or other, and after a word or two with the man inside, she stepped into that carriage and was driven away. Further pursuit seemed impossible, and I was owning myself beat, when a cab—the same I had abandoned in such a hurry a short time before—appeared in sight coming down the avenue, and hailing it, I got in again—But I see that you are impatient, so I will skip all further details and just say that in fifteen minutes from that time I was standing opposite an ordinary shop in Sixth Avenue looking up at a window in which I had seen a light struck. The lady had entered by the small door at the side; the gentleman had been driven away in the carriage.”
“Sixth Avenue! A small shop!” I repeated. “Are you sure you followed the right woman?”
“As sure as can be. There is no mistaking that woman, sir. She stopped for a moment right under the electric light to get out her key and I caught a full view of her. She’s the very one who left this house, if she does live over a Sixth Avenue shop.”
I tried to hide my disappointment.
“Have you succeeded in unfolding that paper yet?” I demanded, in some irritation.
He answered by thrusting it into my hand,
“That’s the name you will find printed on the sign stretching across the second storey of the Sixth Avenue house,” said he. “I took it down letter for letter, with the street lamp shining straight on it. I couldn’t speak it to save my life,”
I did not wonder. Witness:
For two days I shut myself in with my chagrin and disappointed hopes. Then the mystery involving these two women again took possession of me and I resolved to visit Mlle. Troubetski.
I remembered her as she appeared to me in my own house; her ladylike carriage, her rich but simple dress, and that refinement of expression which had made me think it no anomaly to ascribe to her even higher rank than that openly borne by her more showy companion—and felt an inclination to see if these graces could belong to one engaged in the commonplace business indicated by the sign of which I have given you the copy. Greater contradictions have been known, especially in the case of foreigners. Might she not be both manicure and princess?
Meanwhile, the Countess Yavorski had been forgotten by me or remembered only as an object of wonder. Further details had come to me concerning her great wealth, her indifference to all suitors, her marked good nature and general amiability to high and low; and lastly (this being indeed a surprising discovery) her tender-heartedness towards the weak and the timid, making her, with all her other claims to admiration, the most adorable widow seen in New York that season.
All this I heard and scarcely heeded, for in none of these reports was any mention made of her who was the real heart of this mystery, and to whose “parlours” I finally made up my mind to go.
I did not venture alone. I feared that I might not be received. A little niece of mine from Brooklyn accompanied me; and thus guarded from suspicion, I took my way up the stairs of the Sixth Avenue house to the door across which ran a repetition of the sign without: “Mlle. Natalya Troubetski, Manicure; Hair Dressing; Facial Massage.”
I am willing to acknowledge that I felt some slight trepidation at this prospect of meeting one who had made so strong an impression upon me, nor can I disavow the fact that I let my little niece precede me by a step or two when I finally made up my mind to enter.
A room of an appearance not uncommon in that neighbourhood greeted us. Colourless walls, a well-worn carpet, a table with a mirror over it, and a few chairs, constituted all. There was not even a clock on the mantel shelf or a picture on the walls. But it was not the barrenness of the room which affected me. It was its emptiness. The prospect of a respite however short was very grateful to me; for now that I was here, I realized how little prepared I was to meet Mlle. Troubetski. Manicure or princess, I equally dreaded my first encounter with her and involuntarily glanced at the mirror hanging between the two windows, to see if I gave any indication of embarrassment. I was gratified to find that I did not; that I might still pass for an easy man of the world willing to spare an hour to pleasure a little niece. Of further conclusions I will not speak. I have never been said to lack distinction and in this contracted room my tall figure towered conspicuously.
I was just squaring myself to answer some of my niece’s numerous questions, when a door leading into an adjoining room was opened and a man came out. He was bowing and smiling to someone inside, with a certain foreign grace, which, however, did not hide the play of unusual passions about his bearded lips. Satisfaction, avarice, and triumph, all of the basest kind, made his expression one which I did not care to have my little niece see; and I was moving to intercept her view of this undesirable stranger when Mademoiselle herself stepped into the room.
I may have had some hope that she would not be found here after all, especially after my view of the man I have so unfavourably described, but if this thought had been accompanied by anything like fear, it vanished immediately at sight of her calm poise and the quiet grace with which she ushered him out. When, on turning, she advanced towards me in answer to my salutation, I saw that to her I was a perfect stranger and asked if she could spare an hour to my niece whose nails stood sorely in need of attention. She explained in broken but musical English that she did not do manicuring herself, but that an assistant would soon be at liberty to look after “ze leetle mees.”
I bowed my thanks, I had just heard something which made me glad that my visit here was likely to be prolonged. This something was a laugh, sharp, sweet, but with a latent sting in it such as no laugh ever had before. It told me that the scarlet countess was here and that in these dingy, everyday walls, as twice in my own parlour at home, I was destined to see these two strange women together and perhaps be able this time to solve the mystery of their connection.
Mlle. Troubetski shrank a little when that laugh found its way through the crack of the door, but her emotion, if emotion it was, soon passed as she spoke a few words to my niece and then shot one quick glance my way, which if she had been the princess I sometimes imagined her to be, would have set my heart beating, notwithstanding the modesty and decorum of her manner. Then setting out chairs she asked us to seat ourselves and re-entered the room from which she had come, leaving the place colourless and cold. For contrary to my expectations, her beauty had suffered no diminution from the commonplace surroundings in which I now saw it but struck me as being even more pronounced and distinguished than on those former occasions when I had beheld it environed by mystery and accompanied by an elegance of dress verging on the magnificent. Was this due to her play of feature or to the mingled force and sweetness of her character? I had but little chance to weigh the question for just then the laugh I knew so well merged into sharp and hurried speech and the door which had not been quite closed swung open again and I caught sight of a gorgeous figure in royal purple and white fur. It was that of Madame, the Countess Yavorski.
She was advancing, but paused—was it at sight of me or at some warning word from within?—to remark in her most nonchalant tones to someone behind her:
“I was willing to come this once because my shopping brought me into the neighbourhood but after this I shall expect you to send a competent person to my apartment.”
It was the first time I had heard her speak English and I found her accent perfect. Not so the other’s. When she answered it was with a “Ver good,” decidedly foreign. It was always so when she spoke English. She was only fluent in French.
At this response from the one behind, Madame the Countess entered the room.
Her aplomb, and the unstudied elegance which gave it grace, were wonderful. Conscious of her beauty, sure of being a marked figure wherever she went, she moved without restraint straight to whatever end she had set for herself. If she thought of others, it was a studied thought. Courtesy was not natural to her. Yet I had but a moment in which to form this conclusion, for after an involuntary glance at her fingers, natural, perhaps, in one who had just come from her manicure, she lifted her eyes and saw me, and became on the instant a suave woman of the world.
Nothing could be more dangerous than herself when in this mood. Had I not previously seen her with her mask off (by this I mean both literally and figuratively) I should have found it difficult to believe that the soft eye she now turned in my direction could have shown so much rage, or that the sensitive lips, ruddy and rich, could lend themselves to anything harsher than the childlike smile with which she hailed the awestruck look of my little niece. Neither in the glance she cast her nor in the one she cast me was there any more sign of recognition than there had been in that of Mademoiselle, and it struck me odd, almost bizarre, that I whom they regarded as a stranger should have such an intimate knowledge of them both as to make it possible for me to accurately weigh the value of their looks, words, and smiles.
A sense of power came with the thought, and as this finished coquette dallied with her hat, which she must need pin on afresh, then with her gloves, and finally with her furs, a sudden impulse seized me to probe her with some vital question and note the result. Certainly, no better opportunity for this would ever be given me, indeed, I might never have another as good, and if the attempt should end in clearing up this mystery certainly it would be worth while.
But with what words I should have opened the subject, or whether I should have found courage to address her at all, can never now be known. For my niece, with the naiveté of her age and sex, prepared the way for me so innocently, I have sometimes thought there was a special providence in it. Observing the lady look out of the window, probably to see whether her carriage was at the curb, she looked out too and catching sight of a sign on the roof of a building nearly opposite, suddenly called out:
Why, uncle, there is your name in big letters hanging up over there—your very own name, Edward Throckmorton. Isn’t that queer? Do you sell shoes as well as doctor people?”
Struck with the humour of the situation, I cast Madame Yavorski a glance. She was looking straight at me, and I could detect the faint pink struggling through the marble whiteness of her forehead and colouring her cheeks that were almost bloodless before. But it was the child’s insinuation I answered and not the startled inquiry in the Countess’s eyes.
“It looks as if there were two Edward Throckmortons. Certainly when I leave home it is not to sell shoes, nor is it always to go to Europe, as you know.”
Madame Yavorski gave a start, and I was glad at this critical moment that a summons came for my niece from the inner room. When the door was well shut behind her, I turned with an air of assumed interest toward the window. I was determined that this woman should speak first. It took her some moments to do so. I could hear her breath break impetuously on her lips—could almost fancy the look with which she studied such portion of my profile as I allowed to turn her way. Suddenly she said:
“Are you the Dr. Edward Throckmorton of West End Avenue lately mentioned in the papers as having sailed on the Etruria?”
“I am, Madame Yavorski.”
She drew a deep breath; she was evidently amazed—nay, more, confounded. She even forgot to show surprise at my knowing her name.
“And you did not go,” she murmured.
“Why should I,” I smiled, “when I can have such illustrious guests at home?”
She started, and the frown which drew her brows together was not a pleasant one to see; but next moment she was smiling her sweetest and smoothest, and with a sidelong look exquisitely arch she remarked:
“I do not understand the allusion. You must pardon me, I am foreign, you know. “
This threw me on the defensive; something she had calculated upon no doubt.
“Madame understands the desirability of privacy when she wishes to enjoy the society of certain friends,” said I. “Living as you do, in a large hotel, this is not really to be wondered at, and I regret that circumstances for which I am not responsible should interfere in any way with your plans.”
She eyed me closely. Had she been a man I should have said threateningly.
“You know, then, of my visits to your supposedly unoccupied house?”
“I have been told of them,” was my discreet rejoinder.
She broke into a short laugh. What would have abased some women to the dust, only stimulated her and put her on her mettle.
“Then that sour-faced old woman who guards your property cannot keep faith.”
“On the contrary,” I returned, “she assuredly can—with me.”
Madame Yavorski winced, then laughed with an abandon which hardly succeeded in hiding her secret alarm.
“It is for me to make excuses, “ she said. “The liberty we took was very great.”
This in French.
I answered in Russian. Though I have not mentioned it hitherto, this was one of my accomplishments. I had learned the language under peculiar circumstances some years before.
“You know the language,” she murmured, her eyes leaving mine for the first time to wander anxiously towards the inner door.
“Sufficiently to comprehend.”
“Monsieur—” her tone was imperious and she said what she had to say in quick and voluble French—“you know for what purpose I chose to spend an hour where neither friend nor foe could molest or interrupt me?”
“Pardon me,” said I.
“Do you not?” she urged.
I made her a low bow, which nettled her sorely.
“Do you imagine that old Nancy also understands Russian?” I asked.
“She did not need to understand Russian to know my business there. She had eyes and she could see. Monsieur, I confess to a passion, an overmastering passion, for cards. To play—to win—ah, that is life indeed! But to enjoy it to its full one must be sure of seclusion. No sounds must distract, no sights obtrude save those which accompany the game and point to triumph. In gaining this seclusion I have become your debtor. How shall I pay my debt? I am no niggard. I am even called generous.”
Recognizing her charm, but not unmindful of the purpose which had brought me to this place, I had it on the tip of my tongue to ask who and what the woman was who masqueraded here as head of this establishment. But something restrained me. I could not speak to this woman of the other. Instead, I made her a ceremonious bow and courteously remarked:
“Honour me by continuing to make use of my house for the purpose so dear to your heart. I can easily spend the next few weeks at a hotel.” Her lip quivered, giving to her face an expression of childlike grief which might easily have deceived one who had never seen her with every restraint removed.
“You mock me,” she said.
I was about to answer, I know not what, when my little niece re-entered the room. Upon her reappearance the Countess made for the hall door of the apartment and a moment later I showed myself at the window just as she stooped to enter her carriage. I caught one flash of her eye as the carriage rolled away. There was distrust in it and something else. As I stepped back, I asked myself what. It was a question I could not answer, but I found myself growing very sober. The matter, lightly as she had treated it, was really serious then. The stakes and not the game were what lent such exultation to her triumph and such fury to her defeat. What were these stakes? Until I knew, I must keep her in the state of uncertainty in which she had left me. But it made me sober, as I have said, very sober.
While waiting for my little niece to put on her gloves I asked her what kind of a place it was inside. She said it was a queer place. The room was big, with little closets opening into it on either side. It was in one of these closets she had had her hands manicured.
“By whom? By the lady who came in here?”
“Oh, no; by a very different sort of person; not so nice;—she talked an awful lot.”
“Was—was the lady I speak of in the room with you?”
“Yes, but not where I could see her. She was behind the curtain.”
“Yes, there was a curtain drawn across one end of the room—a thick curtain with a slit in it. I saw a man push a big letter through it.”
I succeeded in hiding the recoil which this gave me. A young woman came in—the one who had worked over the child’s hands—and after I had settled with her there was really no excuse for remaining longer.
We therefore left.
On our way downstairs we met a man who gave me a sharp look as he passed by. I did not recognize him, but I rather fancied that he recognized me, so I cast him a backward glance which he met with a peculiar gesture.
This enlightened me as to his identity. Though in different clothes and greatly changed in appearance, he was the detective who had shadowed Mademoiselle for me to this house.
What was he doing here now? Returning his signal, I led my little niece into an adjoining restaurant, and placing before her a great dish of ice-cream, bade her eat it slowly while I talked with a man. Then I went forward. The fellow in his uncouth garb of a common labourer was already seated at one of the tables. I took my place beside him.
“I’ve something to sell,” said he. “Facts, secrets which I have come across in following up your affair. If you are willing to pay for them and pay well, you can have them from me straight. If not, they will make a good story for the Journal and—”
I hushed him in great indignation. Then I said in a way to show that I would stand no nonsense:
“Name your price.”
He did so and after a compromise or so we came to terms; whereupon he whispered the following:
“The business carried on up yonder is a fake. Something besides paring nails and bleaching a darkened skin goes on behind the curtain where a certain lady sits. I know it from the furtive looks of the people who are received there and from the mass of correspondence, mostly foreign, which finds its way behind that curtain at each delivery of the mail. Then the pass-word! No one can get in there after nightfall without a password. Those that do get in are either Russians, Frenchmen, or Poles. It is a secret society or a political junta, but whatever it is, its purposes are such as can appeal to no honourable man.”
“Well?” I impatiently urged as he stopped,
“The word I most frequently heard shouted amongst them on the night I lay with my ear pressed against the partition of an adjoining closet was—”
He whispered the rest in my ear.
Perhaps I lost colour; I judge so from the look he gave me. That I felt a great sinking at my heart I will not attempt to deny, for the word he had whispered was Krov, a Russian word which translated into English means blood.
Was my admiration for the Russian mademoiselle sufficiently deep to survive a shock like this? Yes. Though I went no more to the parlours in Sixth Avenue and studiously withheld my thoughts from dwelling on one whom my every instinct bade me forget, the night brought dreams which were not so easy to escape, and in those dreams I always saw her in the full poise of her beauty doing some act which enveloped her anew with romance and recalled all my first enthusiasm.
This was undesirable, or so I thought in my waking hours, and resolved to shake off a weakness which seriously threatened my peace of mind, I was planning a fresh start for the other side when my plans were again interfered with by the following circumstance.
I had been invited to join a theatre party. Not greatly relishing the affair, but anxious for diversion if diversion could be found, I accepted the invitation and in due time found myself in the lobby of the theatre among a group of friends, prominent among which I noted, with emotions I found it difficult to conceal, the brilliant figure of the mysterious Russian countess. She was dressed not in scarlet this time but in black; but there were scarlet roses in her hair and a wealth of them at her breast.
But they might have been lilies and not seemed inappropriate to her expression, which was one of gentle and captivating innocence.
She was the one stranger, and as such was introduced to the rest of the party. As my name was uttered and my bow made, I do not know which was more to be commended—her placid disregard of any memories which might affect my good opinion of her, or my own quiet acceptance of the same. As for the whole situation, I looked upon it as the subtle move of an unquiet being who feels the sword dangling over her and needs must try its edge and test the strength of the cord which holds it. I had expected to see her ladyship again but not in public or under the eyes of my friends. She was allotted a seat at my side and the play (I use the word in a double sense) began.
She had been careful not to recognize me as a person she had seen before or to whom she owed the least obligation; but that she had come there with the express intention of fascinating me, I had not the least doubt, and to all appearance she succeeded. Certainly, she spared no pains either to fill my eye or subdue my heart, and when the evening was over and I again walked, a free man, under the light of heaven, I did not know whether it would be wiser to take the next day’s steamer for Hamburg or to wait another week and make the visit she had so gracefully intimated would be acceptable to her.
That I chose the latter alternative was due, not so much to any influence she exerted over me, as to a renewed desire on my part to solve the mystery in which my feelings had become so irretrievably entangled. As for her power—what had I to fear from that after having seen her, as I had, with her mask off!
The call, which by good rights I should have paid in the evening, I was careful to make one bright afternoon. It was part of my plan to come upon her when she would be less on her guard, and when I found myself refused admittance on the plea that Madame was out, I calmly stepped past the prim little girl who held the door in hand, saying that my business was imperative and that I would take a seat in Madame’s parlour and await her return.
I knew, from information I had received before approaching the apartment, that Madame was in.
The girl in her surprise made a move towards the electric button. I at once gave the address of the manicure parlours in Sixth Avenue, and as I noted the effect this produced, assured her that she need not hasten Madame; that I had plenty of time at my disposal and would patiently await her pleasure.
The girl, with an odd look I failed to understand, nodded and left the room. I was alone, and the first use I made of my solitude was to look about me.
Madame Yavorski had probably occupied these rooms for not more than six weeks, yet they were already fitted with everything which could give comfort or suggest luxury. Flowers of the most expensive kind abounded in every corner. Choice drawings and valuable pieces of china, tapestries, boxes of chased silver, even gold used as bonbonnières—in short all of the appurtenances of wealth and of wealth lavishly used, characterized this hotel room in which Madame had chosen temporarily to lodge her beauty. I was just taking a glance at the books which lay all over the centre table to see if I could form some idea of the mind of her who had chosen them, when I heard a knock, followed by the entrance of someone into the adjoining room. It was not Madame Yavorski herself, for I heard her voice in greeting—a fact proving that the assertion of her being out was a figment and that I had done well to stay.
Next instant, a rapid conversation rose between herself and this newcorner. Of this I could not catch a word, but it was immediately evident that it was one to call out the passions of both and ensure a climax of some importance. Not that they spoke loud; I could scarcely distinguish Madame’s voice from that of the other, but when I did, the fury it expressed was of that dangerous sort which bursts into flame in a moment. The very wall which shut this struggle off seemed to palpitate with the energy of her wrath, and in mercy to myself I was about to fly by the door I had entered, when I heard a sound like a snarl, followed by a low, smothered cry full of suffering, and realized that something was going on inside which called for interference,
I did not hesitate an instant. The rights which this woman had usurped in my house I would usurp in hers. Bounding to the communicating door, I pushed it open and entered where, perhaps, no man had entered before. But I did not think of this. I could not in the face of what I saw, Madame in a frenzy such as only this type of woman can show stood over another woman whom she was slowly choking with her two deadly, milk-white hands. Her look, her attitude, the size and splendour of her figure, thus abandoned to a fury altogether abnormal, made her a spectacle worth a moment’s contemplation perhaps, but it was not on her my glances lingered but on the victim who with upturned face quivered in her grasp. For that victim was no other than she, the extraordinary woman, who notwithstanding all which had risen between us, still held an undisputed place in my admiration if not in my heart.
Uttering a cry which was wholly involuntary, for I do not believe in cumbering conflict with noise, I strode quickly forward and laid my hands on those of the Countess. Instantly her head turned like that of a snake at some threatening approach, and for a moment our eyes met; then slowly, lingeringly, and as if yielding to a power which won upon her inch by inch, I felt her fingers loosen till I could grasp them and pull them quite away. As I did so, the transformation in her features held me spellbound. Never have I seen such fury melt into such utter humiliation and appeal. A soul seemed to be born into her under my eyes. Many as were the changes through which I had seen her pass, this one baffled me, for it seemed real. She shuddered as with an ague as I withdrew my clasp and turned to lift the other woman to her feet.
“No, no,” she cried, in her mother tongue.
And with a tenderness I had not believed her capable of, she laid the head of the so-called manicurist on her bosom and whispered into her ears words which seemed to renew the other’s exhausted energies and even call from her a look of forgiveness and reconciliation.
“You will do well? You will do very well now?” she asked, this time in English, of the woman whom a few moments before she had nearly choked to death.
The other gasped, then meeting the young widow’s eyes responded faintly:
“I will do well.”
There was a touching dignity in her manner which put me off my guard.
“Shall I not procure a carriage for you?” I asked, offering my arm to lead her below.
A smile as fine and possibly as triumphant as any I had seen cross the lips of her aristocratic patron disturbed for an instant the set expression of her face, then she drew back with a courteous declination which left me no alternative but to withdraw.
It seemed hard, almost unnatural to leave these two conflicting energies face to face after an attack so fierce and an end so nearly fatal. But I could hardly call in the police nor did there now seem any reason for apprehending a renewal of hostilities. The Countess looked as meek as a child, while Mademoiselle Troubetski showed not only willingness but a desire to be left again with her dangerously irritable but no doubt generous patron.
I therefore retreated with all possible show of deference to the door by which I had entered. The Countess followed me. As I was making my final bow she whispered:
“You have seen me at my worst. Alas! there was more cause for my anger than I can ever let you know. But there is another side to my nature. I can love as well as hate.” And she smiled deliciously, bewilderingly, as the door closed between us.
For the next week I met Madame Yavorski continually. Not always with pleasure, though she strove to make each meeting an event and did succeed in impressing me deeply with her personality. Always beautiful, often fascinating, she was never charming. Do what she would, she could not make me forget the image of herself in a state of unconstrained fury, or the fact that her hands had once been around another woman’s throat.
Perhaps she saw this; perhaps her recognition of this fact was the cause of the strange and often inexplicable silences into which she frequently fell when our talk was at its brightest and her share in it most brilliant. If so, it was unfortunate that fate threw us so often together; for the effect produced upon me by that one moment of mad abandonment was irremediable and no forced courtesy on my part could cover my deep distaste.
However, it was not in her bold, persistent nature to accept defeat lightly, and at each meeting, foreseen or unforeseen, the struggle recommenced.
No doubt it was stimulating to a man’s faculties to watch her, and sometimes, I fear, it was affecting also. For there were moments when her tongue tripped like that of a mere schoolgirl, in the sparkling phrases with which she was wont to astonish and dominate all hearers; and when this happened it was in my direction her glances stole with a look of appeal I should have called pathetic in another woman.
Had I known what lay at the bottom of these evident coquetries I could have borne them better. But the uncertainty as to her motive confused and troubled me, and the constant sight of one woman, when my eyes wearied for another, became at last so unendurable that I determined to fly society for awhile and confine myself to the clubs.
Nevertheless, as this could not be done without some exceptions, there came an evening when I found it necessary to attend a social gathering in Fifty-eighth Street. I was in no mood for gaiety, but I had made the engagement and would keep it. With an inward resolve that this should be the last folly of the season, I accordingly went, at what would be called a late hour even by the ultra-fashionables. I found the rooms filled, and as there were many of them, I spent the first half-hour in going from one to the other, seeking out my friends and enjoying, for the first time in weeks, a sense of complete unrestraint. For this was not a house in which to look for foreign beauties, especially of the stamp of Madame Yavorski.
The shock I experienced was, therefore, great, when, on passing a certain door, my ear caught the accents, as I thought, of the redoubtable Russian countess.
But this surprise was nothing to the one which followed, when on flashing a glance within, I recognized in the speaker, not Madame Yavorski but her at times humble, at times princely, opponent at play, Mademoiselle Troubetski.
Dressed as usual in black, but with great distinction even to the circlet of diamond stars which sparkled in her hair, she stood, the centre of an admiring group, chatting easily in French with three gentlemen, every one of whom I knew and had reason to respect. The move I made in my instinctive efforts at retreat drew her eye, and I had the pleasure of noting the subtle change which beautified her countenance as she recognized me.
Had her thoughts flown to our last interview—to that painful and humiliating instant when, on looking up from the jaws of death, she saw me bending over her with what must have been more than the common anxiety of a stranger? If so, I dared not ask myself from what depths of feeling rose the soft flush which slowly warmed the dead white of her cheeks. This for society purposes was our first meeting, and carefully moderating my manner to this idea, I advanced to receive the introduction which with a lover’s optimism I expected to open before me the gates of a longed-for Paradise. We had met at last and on equal terms.
I must have glowed with triumph for her eyes fell as they met mine, and the exquisite blush I had noted with so deep a joy, deepened for an instant before it gently receded.
I could conceive her embarrassment and hastened to retrieve my unconscious error. Ignoring our previous acquaintance, I joined in the general conversation and succeeded so well in the unconscious rivalry of the moment, that erelong one of the three sauntered away, then a second, and finally the third. We were alone together at last after so many days of secret longing and such an infinity of dreams on my part. What an opportunity to arouse her interest and to impress myself upon her as an admirer if not a friend.
But alas! for a lover’s hopes. Language suddenly failed me. I, who had so monopolized the conversation as to drive my three friends away, now found myself without a word.
With a smile so grave it baffled as well as charmed me, she came to my rescue with the remark:
“You are embarrassed in the presence of a manicurist, Dr. Throckmorton. You need not be. I am of the Russian nobility and so recognized in my own country,”
I too smiled but from sheer happiness. Nevertheless, I found it difficult to speak—to say anything which would not sound forced and out of keeping with her attitude of perfect dignity and restraint.
Again she came to my relief.
“When we last met, Dr. Throckmorton, it was under circumstances which must have seemed incomprehensible to you—to any American gentleman. That scene you must forget. Madame Yavorski is impulsive and we Russians go a long way when we are angry. But such anger is short-lived. I had irritated her, not as her manicure but as her equal and she could not bear it. Again I say ‘forget.’ ”
This time the words came.
“I am quite ready to do so,” said I. “Madame Yavorski’s display of ungoverned wrath made an impression on me solely from the fact that it was directed against one—” Here, my fluency suddenly failed me. There was that in her eye which disconcerted me, yet it was not displeasure I saw, thank God! it was not displeasure!
“Against one who seemed innocent of all offence,” I finally added.
Her manner brightened. There was relief for her in my words; how occasioned I cannot say.
“You will have formed a poor opinion of us Russians,” she feelingly observed. “I cannot with any grace—being myself not altogether without blame in this matter—ask you to change your mind in regard to a race whose women, under any provocation, can so transgress the laws of common decency. I can only thank you for your forbearance to us both and say—”
“Not good-bye,” I earnestly interpolated, for there was a resolution in her manner there was no mistaking. “I cannot look upon this interview as our last. It means too much to me. I have not had the pleasure of meeting such women as yourself any too often in my busy life.”
She sighed; I almost thought she trembled; but there was the inexorableness of farewell in the way she reached forth her hand, and I was bending over it in an emotion I took little pains to conceal, when the sense of some untoward influence, intrusive and out of harmony with the feelings of the moment, made me look up and I saw reflected in the mirror before which we stood, the sinister countenance of Madame Yavorski fixed upon us from the doorway.
With a quick turn I faced her, dropping Mademoiselle Troubetski’s hand as I did so. I could see the scarlet countess’s half-shut eyes follow this hand as it fell, with a look which boded little good to either of us, and hastened to remark:
“In happy time, Madame Yavorski. You see me with a friend and compatriot of yours whom to meet is to respect. My adieux coming so close upon my introduction seemed to warrant some special tribute. You will aid me in assuring Mademoiselle Troubetski that I have been on the point of sailing for Europe for weeks. As my voyage will include a visit to Japan, my stay abroad is likely to be prolonged.”
The glance I received from the woman I addressed showed how very nearly I had been upon the rocks.
“You are going, Dr. Throckmorton? Really going this time?”
“In less than a week, Madame.”
It was an instantaneous decision but I thought it warranted by the circumstances.
“New York will be a wilderness after this week,” she smiled, with a subtle mixture of feeling and sarcasm of which she alone was capable. “However, let us hope that you will reconsider your determination. You have forgotten Mrs. A—‘s dance. Surely, you will not leave before that.”
The emphasis she placed on the last phrase lent to it the unwelcome force of a command, which effect was further heightened by the gesture of dismissal with which she turned from me to address my companion. I lingered to catch her first words for I dreaded the enmity she showed her.
“You are looking like yourself tonight,” was her cold remark. “Why not always so?”
I did not stay for the answer. Pride bade me withdraw. But the next minute I regretted my haste, for in the involuntary glance I cast back at them I saw that the Countess’s emotion, released by my departure, had burst all bounds and that, reckless of observation, she had bent to the other’s ear with a whisper so startling in its nature, that it made the younger woman sway away from her and look from her face to mine in a still horror which was all the more incomprehensible to me that her fears seemed to lack all personal significance and to be directed solely towards myself.
Should I turn back and ask the meaning of that look? No, I had with too much difficulty sustained my self-possession through my late ordeal to risk it in a second one. With my doubts unsatisfied, I passed on and plunged recklessly into the thick of the crowd now pressing through the halls to the supper-room.
It could not have been more than half an hour later that I came upon a number of persons playing cards in a retired corner. As the experience of the last three weeks had made the sight of cards well-nigh intolerable to me, I was in the act of beating a hasty retreat when I found myself stayed and my heart thrown into tumult by the sight of four persons playing at one of the tables, in two of whom I recognized the mysterious Russian ladies from whom I had parted under such doubtful circumstances a short time before.
They were pitted as usual against each other (their partners did not count; one glance at their conventional and insipid faces assured me of this); and whether from the excitement of their late interview, or from some other cause to which I lacked the key, were pursuing the game with even more than their wonted fire and purpose. Each had set herself determinedly to win, and though they had many spectators, I noticed that the stakes, secret in this case as in all others, were of too much moment to them both for them to be affected by their surroundings. Though there were laughter and chatting at all the other tables, they played without a word not demanded by the game, and yet few of those who watched noticed the tension under which the Countess, as well as her more self-controlled opponent, laid down her cards; nor was it probable that my own suspense was shared by any but the players themselves, when, with a sudden and rapid play, the palpitating blonde won her way to triumph and finally rose eager and victorious in what to all appearance was the culminating hour of her feverish existence.
And Mademoiselle? Her feeling was not less strong but it was more carefully hidden. As she rose and slipped into the crowd I caught sight of a look on her face which sent me home in a whirl of new and strange feeling that was in no wise lessened by the answer which had been made me by our hostess when I asked:
“Who was the fine-appearing woman whom I saw playing cards in the alcove? Not the fair-haired one—I know the Russian countess—but her opponent who is tall, dark, and distinguished-looking?”
“Oh, that is Madame Yavorski’s sister, Mademoiselle Natalya Feodorovna Troubetski. She is seldom seen with the Countess—goes, in fact, very little into society; but she made an exception in our favour tonight. Stunning isn’t she? But not so striking, nor so winsome as her sister. The Countess has the loveliest disposition you can imagine.”
Sisters! Well, the mystery from being deep had become unfathomable. That the woman I so admired belonged to a very different station from that indicated by the establishment in Sixth Avenue, I had not needed her own words to assure me.
But that she could claim any such relationship to her opponent in red was an astounding fact to me, yet it went far to explain both the familiarity observable between them and their latent antagonism, often culminating in violence on the part of one of them. Only a sister would dare an attack such as I had witnessed made by the Countess Yavorski, and only a sister would receive it as had Mademoiselle Troubetski, or pass it over so lightly when acknowledgment had been made and forgiveness asked.
As I neared home I was astonished to see a cab standing under a row of wintry trees fringing the street in front of my door. But this was nothing to my surprise at encountering in the vestibule the tall and veiled figure of a woman who at the first movement she made showed herself to be the one of all others with whom my thoughts were filled. The moon was full that night, and by its light I could easily perceive that she was in a state of extreme agitation. She spoke as soon as I confronted her; not in English which was difficult for her but in French which flowed as easily from her lips as her mother tongue.
“Dr. Throckmorton, please excuse what must seem an unwarrantable step on my part. The occasion demands it. You are in danger. I want to serve you. Fly the country at once. Take tomorrow’s steamer.”
I was moved, deeply moved, but more by this show of interest in myself than by her allusions to danger which necessarily struck me as exaggerated.
“Mademoiselle,” I began.
She bowed and drew her veil more tightly.
“I cannot express my sense of your kindness. But what have I done to become an object of vengeance? I am not aware of having roused any one’s antagonism unless it be that of your sister, and she, certainly, would not do me a wrong simply because I came between you two at a moment when she was no longer mistress of her own passions.”
“You know my sister?”
It was curiously said, and in a tone which showed that the dread, fear, or whatever it was which so moved her still ran high.
“I have met and conversed with her several times,” I replied. Then, because my own emotions were becoming almost too much for me, I frankly added: “But you can readily comprehend that I do not arrogate to myself the honour of fully understanding so contradictory a nature. I have seen her when her countenance had the sweetness of a Madonna. Again I have seen her with her hand lifted against you.”
Instantly the proud head went up.
“That is nothing, so long as her violence is confined to myself. But alas! all whom she loves wakens her ire sooner or later. An honourable man should be warned. I pray you to be. Let the sacrifice I am making of every womanly instinct prove to you the importance I attach to this warning, and give heed to my words. You will not escape an attack much more threatening and fatal than the one you witnessed if you linger here within reach of my sister’s eye and hand.”
I might have answered with some soothing phrase calculated to restore her self-respect. But though my heart was full of commiseration for her and my nerves quivering with a desire to let her know how deeply I felt her effort in my behalf, my lips would frame but one sentence and that was in repetition of the one she had herself used. With a smile whose meaning she may or may not have caught through her veil, I repeated lightly:
“All whom your sister loves. It is a category which fortunately excludes me. Mademoiselle, your sister, the Countess, favours no man, I am told; certainly not one whom she has seen only under the most unfavourable of circumstances.”
“Monsieur, a game was played between us tonight. The stakes, a man’s life and fortune—your life and fortune. She won the game. I know what this means to Olga Feodorovna.”
For a moment I stood aghast. This, then, was the meaning of the games I had seen them play. The lives and fortunes of men! And tonight it had been my life and fortune; and she, the woman before me, had struggled to win—to save—”
Did she divine my thoughts? I shall never know, but as I took a step nearer her, she drew her form up in a stately fashion and coldly, almost icily, let fall these words:
“Treason isn’t common in our family, yet I have played the part of a traitor this night to one of my own race and blood. My reason is the weariness I feel for what has long been a torture to me. I can no longer endure the strain of events which are but pastime to the monomaniac, my sister. If the rest which I seek comes in the way I have a right to anticipate, you will soon hear no more of me. In what is possibly my last hour of freedom I have endeavoured to save you. Do not make my effort of no avail by the self-confidence which befits, but is often the undoing of a man.”
She stirred, she was going, and I had heard nothing, almost nothing of what I craved to know. Impulsively I laid my hand on her arm; impulsively my words burst forth. Not the right words, of course. How can a man speak wisely when both brain and heart are in a tumult.
“You mistake,” I cried. “Your sister is a wonderful beauty but she has no power over me. If there is any one who is capable of swaying my movements, it is she who lost the game, not she who won it. Only explain—”
Ah, then it was I saw the daughter of a long line of Russian nobles! Facing me again but oh, with such a quick and noble grace, she stood for a moment speechless, then she gravely said:
“One who has gone as far as I have might very readily be expected to go farther. But I set my limit when I uttered what I thought would give emphasis to my warning. I cannot explain, nor will I stoop to request that my confidence be held sacred. Monsieur, good-night. We shall never meet again.”
She was gone! while I stood staring, heart-seared and in doubt whether to follow her advice and take the first steamer for Europe, or to stand by my colours, see this adventure through, and win or lose this mysterious woman in whom some new and powerful emotion had outweighed all the old obligations which had hitherto held her fettered to her brilliant but irresponsible sister.
I was saved a decision. Next morning came a delicately worded invitation from the Countess to join a gay party in a ride to Tuxedo. Resolved, now that I saw her intent upon making me her victim, to set her immediately right upon one important point, I answered by appearing as soon as possible in her boudoir. She entered to receive me, all smiles. I showed no special appreciation of these smiles; indeed, my blood was running a little cold.
“You have come to say that you will go?” she queried, with an arch turn of her head, eminently in keeping with her whole manner.
“No,” I slowly returned; “I have other engagements, Countess.”
She sat, and I saw her hands tremble where they gripped her chair. But her smiles remained unchanged.
“Ah, I am sorry,” she protested with sudden gravity. “Another time I may be more fortunate;—or haven’t you quite forgiven me?”
“I? What have I to forgive? If your sister can pardon you surely I can.”
“My sister! Ah, yes, you know that she is my sister? You know so much, Monsieur.”
“That is not strange,” said I, “when you consider the remarkable tutelage I have been under, of late.”
She hardly knew how to take me. Remember that I had never satisfied her as to the limit of my knowledge concerning her and the use she had made of my house. She, consequently, felt hampered in all her interviews with me and, actress though she was, showed this in an infinity of ways, some of which I was beginning to understand. Yet her self-control was great and her smile deepened as she observed:
“Natasha is the most eccentric of women. I have no doubt you wonder greatly about us. But such curiosity is fruitless, Monsieur; Americans can never understand Russians; and they do not need to. Understanding is not all.”
Verily she was a dangerous woman. The softness, the indescribable naiveté with which she uttered the final sentence would have made it sink deep into most masculine hearts. But mine was impervious. I felt myself growing harder and harder and lost for the moment whatever dread I may have had of her.
“With me,” I protested courteously, but not warmly, “it is a very necessary foundation for all regard. I am not the man to enter upon anything, blindfold. This is why I cannot accompany you to Tuxedo; this is why I cannot renew my visits here. There is too much mystery surrounding you. The clouds quite obscure the star.”
She was confounded. Evidently no man had ever dared to address her so before, and the surprise and shock of it robbed her both of her assurance and her sting. She looked quite humble for a minute, then she flushed anew with feeling and impetuously burst forth:
“What shall I say to the man who has the courage to speak the truth to me? Never have I heard it from the cradle. Never have I been so honoured as to be treated with perfect confidence and trust. Monsieur, it creates an era in my life.”And the amazing creature rose, dropped me a full courtesy, and then gravely, proudly reseated herself.
I felt a check. There was no reaching the slippery creature. The dimple in her cheek seemed to proclaim that she recognized my momentary defeat as well as I did; I was, therefore, doubly astonished when she went on to say:
“Were I in this country alone; were I, as I long to be, cut loose from all obligations save those of a personal nature, I would soon satisfy your reasonable curiosity, Monsieur. But you would not have me a traitor to those who trust me. You would not have me give up the secrets, innocent but sacred, of my compatriots just to make clear my own claims to regard?
“No,” I rejoined. “And that is why this charming but unsatisfactory acquaintance must terminate. Madame, I am as you know on the point of sailing for Europe. Have you any commands for the other side?”
A strange smile parted her lips, and for an instant the old demoniac element shone out. Then with a realization, perhaps, of the slip she had thus made, she partially turned aside and so sat for a few minutes in silence before saying:
“When you leave these shores it will be to forget me. But must you leave? I assure you there is happiness here—many delights, many pleasures. I have lived in both countries. I should not choose to return to Europe.”
She was trembling, quivering. A tear, real as her emotion, slipped down her cheek where so short a time before the dimple had dipped. I felt myself choking. She was in earnest and I hated, detested her. How was I to cut her misery short and end my own embarrassment? I knew but one course, the straightforward one. I faced her with the truth.
“Madame” said I, “I acknowledge your interest in me; it is friendly and no doubt sincere. But she who alone claims my homage might feel herself aggrieved if I remained in this country at the entreaty of any other than herself. She has advised me to travel—”
Two blazing eyes stopped me. The tear was dried as if a flame had drunk it up. I hardly knew Madame though I had seen her more than once before in a rage.
“You have a fiancée she hissed. “You pass as a single man, yet cherish secret hopes.”
I drew a breath of relief. I had been afraid for a moment that I had betrayed my heart’s secret and that incalculable mischief might accrue. But she evinced no suspicion of how near to herself my wishes lay and seeing that my love was to her as yet a mere abstraction, I tried to heighten the effect by saying:
“In this country a public betrothal is not considered necessary. We are bound by feelings, not ceremonies, till the priests and the laws of the land unite us with the object of our choice,”
Her nostrils which were slowly dilating gave her features an expression of inconceivable pride and disdain.
“And you love this—this object of your so-called choice?”
“Madame, I love no other.”
She rose, not quickly, but like one weighed down by a burden difficult, if not stifling to lift. I wondered what she would say, I even wondered if she would strike me. But there was no passion in her face; only a leaden despair such as I never thought those brilliant features could mirror.
“Go!” she cried. “You have been witness to the humiliation of Olga Feodorovna; the only man who ever has.”
“The humiliation as well as the regret are mine,” said I, making my bow and moving towards the door.
She neither moved nor spoke. Had the iron entered this woman’s soul at last? I could hardly believe it. Yet the doubt kept me lingering an instant at the door and she, feeling my presence, threw me a sudden look as my hand fell on the knob and turned it.
“We shall meet once again,” she assured me, with shrill insistence; and the echo of her tones followed me far into the street and even haunted my dreams that night.
Next day I had two surprises. In the early morning my detective came to announce to me that the establishment in Sixth Avenue had been raided in the night and that this morning the sign was down and the place closed. The afternoon papers gave me the other:
“Madame Yavorski, the charming widow of a well-known Russian count, who for some weeks now has been a welcome addition to our best society, left town yesterday for an indefinite stay in one of our Southern resorts. Some say she will not appear again in New York but will sail for Russia from some South American port.”
So this was the end. Both sisters had vanished from my life notwithstanding the promise given me by the one I least desired to meet again. I thought I felt relief, yet there was an aching throb somewhere in my breast, as of a wound not quite healed or a suspense not altogether alleviated. Yet it was a comfort not to have to take the steamer on Saturday. European travel might be alluring but I was not in the mood. Then Madame was going abroad and I had no wish to come upon her again, at least not till her fancy had taken a fresh direction.
I was therefore still in town, and, feeling greatly the need of outdoor air and some definite physical exertion, took to horseback riding through the roads and lanes of Westchester County. I did this so constantly that it became a habit, and, being in a contemplative frame of mind, enjoyed passing over the same route again and again, till it became a common occurrence for the children to give me little smiles of recognition as I rode by. This I relate that the following adventure may be better understood.
One morning I was riding as usual along a certain road, when I was suddenly disturbed in my even trot by a rush from behind followed by the flashing by of an unmanageable horse whose rider, like myself, had possibly been holding too slack a rein. At all events the unexpected skurry and wild leaps of the running animal roused my horse and sent him reeling across the road towards the verge of what looked to me at that moment little short of a precipice. I was enabled, however, to curb him just at the critical instant and was settling again into a restrained trot, when a man, leaping out of a bit of underbrush, shouted and yelled so loudly for me to stop that my horse lost whatever equanimity he had regained and I should certainly have been tossed into the ravine if at that moment a woman had not glided from behind a large tree and at the risk of her life caught my horse by the bridle and held on like grim death.
It was Madame Yavorski, and her face which had been clay white slowly crimsoned under my gaze.
“I could not bear it,” she gasped as her hand left the bridle of the now quieted horse. “I should never have slept another night of my life if—” Here her tones trailed off into silence. She gave me a last look, pointed towards the city, and disappeared again in the small wood edging that dangerous spot.
The man who had occasioned this deed of heroism stood like one who has been struck; then, seeing that I had nothing to say to him, followed slowly after her retreating figure, shaking his head and muttering low exclamations in a foreign tongue.
I do not think I have ever been nearer death, yet I scarcely dwelt on this thought in the wonder occasioned by the whole startling occurrence.
Did I know Madame? Evidently not. And was this the one meeting she had promised me? If so, then, I am sure that when she gave utterance to that promise, she had looked forward to a very different ending to our interview than this.
That night the following note was handed me:
I said that you would see my face no more. But this can hardly be so now. Once again we must meet; after which will come silence, possibly oblivion. This interview can only take place in the small cottage at the right of the road where you came so near having a fatal accident today. May that interview be immediate, before midnight if possible, as we leave here at daybreak. If you have doubts—if you will not take my assurances that all will be well, bring with you whom you will. Only do not disregard my plea.
Natalya Feodorovna Troubetski
I went as steel follows the magnet. By the quickest route I could take, it was midnight before I stepped from the little station nearest the spot I sought. The rest of the way I walked because the hurry of my thoughts made movement necessary. I had neither fear nor dread. I was simply in a chaotic state of wonder and suspense. What awaited me? What could have induced this proud and truthful woman to break her solemn resolve never to look on me again?
It was not a dark night and I had no difficulty in finding the cottage I sought. A welcome light burned behind its diamond-shaped panes. I almost imagined the door stood half-open. Approaching it without hesitation, I mounted the low step which fronted the door and lifted my hand to the old-fashioned knocker gleaming in the moonlight. But I had no need to startle the silence with its clang. The door opened at my approach and I found myself face to face with her.
“You are very good,” were the simple words with which she greeted me; then, as I endeavoured to take her hand, she put a finger to her lips and turned aside to an open door on the right.
I followed her with softened step. Why, I do not know unless the gravity of her manner awed me, or the heavy silence which seemed to pervade the house made any sound incongruous. Yet, why should it not be quiet at this hour? Had I expected mirth and rejoicing?
A room, large for the house which was very small, opened upon us, lit with many lights and possessing one astonishing feature. I recoiled as I saw it and asked myself if I was in my own country. A shrine was built into one corner against the walls, for the icon which is invariably to be found in all Russian domiciles. Before this shrine knelt a motionless figure clad in some heavy white stuff which gave her the aspect of a nun. I thought it was a nun till she rose; then I saw that it was Madame Yavorski.
Her appearance as she turned startled me. Not her garb which was simplicity itself, as I have said, but her face. I had seen it pale the day before, but this was something more than pallor. No hint or gleam of life informed her livid features, only her eyes burned and they with a fitful flame which roused my alarm and caused me to turn to her sister with the query:
“Is Madame ill?”
A moment of hesitation, then with calm but cold decision Mademoiselle replied:
“Let Madame answer. It was at her entreaty I wrote you for this interview.”
My heart sank. Had I come here in such haste and at such an hour to satisfy the Countess Yavorski’s desire for conversation? I felt rebellious enough to leave without a word; but, remembering how lately she had interposed her hand to save my life, I advanced instead, and pausing before her with a bow studiously respectful, waited for her to speak.
She did not instantly avail herself of the privilege. Her lips seemed stiff, difficult to move. But presently she gained some control over them and—
“Yesterday,” she began—then, with a passionate yielding to some contrary impulse, broke off and exclaimed impetuously and with complete abandonment to her feelings: “I went to see you die. It was all planned—by me. I am a wicked woman; what you and your friends would call monstrous, unholy. I love blood;—to see it flow. That is, the blood of my enemies—of my country’s enemies. It was always so with me. I cannot help the feeling. I do not think I ever tried to—till yesterday. Yesterday I did try. Something stronger than the passion which has swayed me for years got in the way of my vengeance. If it is love—the love I have heard prated about from my cradle but never believed in or known—then it did for me what nothing else has ever done,—made me avert the doom of one who had scorned and humiliated me. God knows that if this is love, love is a fearful thing; a thing to dread and fly from—if one can—but never to trust to; never, never to trust to. Its potency is too sweet to last, at least, in a nature like mine. Either it will kill me or the thing which is wicked and ferocious in me will kill it. And then—” She hesitated and with haggard eyes and trembling lips seemed to hunt in her memory for what she had yet to say. “What are the words in your Bible about the devil returning to a heart and finding it empty, swept and garnished? That is what will happen to me. Nothing can stop it. I shall—”
She paused; it was as if her hand had gripped her throat. Her head fell on her breast and it was a full minute before she spoke again. When she did, it was in tones whose wistfulness often comes back to me in dreams and destroys my sleep.
“Do you now see why I have sent for you? Why I have strangled my pride” (here her hands closed convulsively) “to beg this last interview from one who responds to my appeal from courtesy only? I need the help of a sacred memory. I want to be able to recall at the moment of temptation that you trusted yourself in my presence; that, knowing my threat of vengeance and the danger you once barely escaped at my hands, you could come and did. Perhaps, it will save—both of us. Natasha thinks it will, and she should know. She has been my constant companion for years.”
But here she whom she called by the endearing name of Natasha spoke.
“I do not know.” The words came evenly but freighted with intense feeling. “I have no means of measuring the change which can be wrought in one’s nature by a deep and pure affection. At least—” here a momentary loss of self-control, the slightest in the world, made my heart leap—“in such a nature as that to which my sister has just confessed. But the possibility is one I dared not neglect. Life is too precious; so is the peace of mind of one who has only just begun to know what it is to lose it.”
She had so spoken from a stern sense of duty. But no apparent effect followed her words, nor did she appear to expect any. I even doubt if Madame heard what she said. But she knew when she had ceased, for she immediately turned to address me again, and as before, with deep feeling and intensity.
“You are going away. Let it be to a great distance. I do not want to see, or hear, or meet you again. I know what I am doing. I am bidding farewell to every good impulse I possess. It’s frightful, but—” Here her head which had fallen on her breast suddenly lifted itself; the pale cheek flushed, the eyes dimmed by a tear grew brilliant again and hard, flashing like carbuncles and with the same ruddy flame, and I saw in her, without an instant’s doubt on my part, the redoubtable chief, the animated soul of anarchy and crime. “There still will be duties,” she muttered through lips that barely opened wide enough for the issue of these words. “Russia will still have wrongs to avenge. I shall not be left long to eat out my heart in idleness. I will live like a queen in your republican country, knowing my power, and exerting my will, and no one can stop me, for Natasha is under oath to reveal nothing, while you—”
Was it the gesture I made or the attitude I assumed which stopped her and drove back her words?
“While you—” she gasped.
“I am under no oath,” I quietly asserted.
The words had no sooner left my lips than I realized the full significance of what I had done, not so much from any change in her manner as in that of Mademoiselle Troubetski.
From being a self-repressed, almost impassive witness of this scene, she had become in one moment an alert, restless-eyed participant in it. Coming hastily forward, she took her stand as nearly between us as she dared, and raising her hand towards me in protest, bent towards her sister with a look which sent my own back to one from whom it should not have wandered for an instant.
In her aspect, as she drew herself up under my gaze, there was something at once frightful and superb.
“You would betray me?” she asked. “You whose life I saved in defiance of my own outraged nature? You would betray me?”
“Only to save others,” I protested. “You could not expect me to listen in silence to such threats as you have just uttered.”
“Ah, others! You can think of others. O God! why could not my affections have fallen upon a man. Go! Go, or I—”
The fury was upon her. She made a bound; I saw her hand fly to the white folds lying in a cross over her breast and then rise with some glittering object in it, high over her head.
I started back, not so much in recoil from the death she threatened, as from the passionate figure of Natalya who, with arms outthrown, had precipitated herself on her knees between us.
“Go!” I heard again but this time from her, and ah! in what a different accent.
But go I could not with that murderous figure stumbling over and around the form of her I loved. Manhood forbade it and a love so great that I would willingly have given my life at that moment to ensure the safety of hers.
“Madame!” I entreated, stepping aside from the shelter of that living barrier.
The Countess leaped after me.
Natalya again fell between.
I slipped to the right. The Countess was there; so was I.
I rushed away to the left. The avenging figure followed. From end to end of the room I fled, my eyes fixed on that menacing dagger, swaying as I swayed, moving as I moved, and at the same time on Natalya’s panting breast nearer, always nearer that blow than mine. Tables toppled; a large candelabra fell, smothering its candles in the great bearskin lying under our feet. I felt my brain reeling.
Reaching across Natalya, I strove to grasp the weapon darting constantly towards my heart. But Natalya rose up between us and I bounded back.
Next instant she was on her knees again, and over her shoulder I saw that same menacing point.
Flesh and blood could stand it no longer, “Madame!” I again cried. Then as she advanced a step nearer with that sudden enlargement of the eye’s iris which in serpents precedes the sting and in men the blow, I added in a slow steady tone as I stepped by:
“The life you saved yesterday is sacred from any interposition but your own.”
She was upon me, but at these words uttered without premeditation and as it were by some sudden instinct, she faltered, and her eye meeting mine, the evil spirit left her and she melted into contrition and profound grief.
Without uttering a word she drew back step by step towards the wall till she stood in the very spot where I had seen her kneeling when I first entered the room. Natalya advanced to my side and together we watched the subsidence of passion in that wonderful face and figure which had they enclosed a tender spirit would have been the marvel of all eyes and the adored of all hearts. “You see,” she softly faltered, “I was not to be trusted. I feared—for twelve hours I have feared this.”
I trembled. Natalya trembled. On the bosom of Countess Yavorski’s white gown a spot of blood had become visible. It had fallen from her lip which she had bitten in her rage. She was still the scarlet countess for all her white nun’s robe, and I wondered as I looked at her, if my life, however I might seek to protect it, would ever again be worth a pin’s fee.
Did she read my thought? I have sometimes felt sure of it, for her lips twitched strangely and she faltered pitifully as she said:
“I think my heart is broken. Strange, strange, when I never knew that I had a heart. Natasha, I set myself a task. It has lost all charm for me. I cannot take it up again, yet without it I am lost. What remains? A simple thing, a thing which should seem very easy to me, but—”
Her voice trailed off into silence. Her hands which had fallen to her side quivered for an instant then hung inert. The spot grew and spread upon her breast. I had never known so awful a moment.
“But,” she recommenced, “it is not easy. There is such darkness—I have had so few good moments—I should like to be good, all good just for an instant before I say good-bye to rule—to life—to this new feeling which is at once my glory and my shame. Natasha, spare your heart. Love nobody, nobody. Yet had I not loved I should not have found strength to—”
Her head rose, her form stiffened, her right hand flew up. Before we could reach her it had fallen and another spot appeared on her breast which absorbed the other and blotted it from our sight for ever.
Her sister’s shriek mingled with my own heart-cry. Then we both rushed forward. She had fallen at the foot of the shrine but she was not dead, though her minutes, as we could both see, were few.
“No, no,” she entreated, as I turned for help towards the door. “Stay for the end! It will be soon. I will go more easily so.”
I glanced at Natalya.
“We are all alone in the house,” said she, “and our nearest neighbours are beyond the reach of our voices. Stay.”
Her hand was under her dying sister’s head. Kneeling, I laid my own on that of the Countess—the one which had dealt the deadly blow.
“Forgive,” I begged. “How could I believe in such a love as this!”
Her glance rose.
“Do you know why I die?”
Then came this astounding confession.
“I die, because I feared that the day would yet come when I should be driven to kill you.”
Overcome, I pressed her hand.
But her mind was already wandering.
“Roses!” she cried. “Red roses! the redder the better for me. Let them be piled about me. If I must wear white for my burial, let me at least lie in scarlet. Oh, I have dreamed of blood; of blood enough to wash Russia free from barbarism, to clear the way to new freedoms, new powers. And now one little stream from my own breast and my dream is all over.”
In terror of the intolerable scene, my hand crept towards that of Natalya and hers towards mine.
The glazing eye of the Countess fell on us and a momentary thrill of her old energy started her back into life. Half rising, she pointed to our clasped hands, shrilling wildly:
“Is it that? Is she—she—the one? Ah, I regret the thrust. I regret—”
Quickly as the flame had risen it died away. Her head fell back again and she sank into a species of stupor during which we heard her murmur in Russian at last:
“But why? All is fading; life, love, everything. Soon I shall be one with the night while she—Ah, I have known but one happy moment and that is this one which robs me of all feeling. I am going—kiss—”
Natalya stooped. Then I stooped also and pressed in awe my lips upon the hand I had again taken.
A smile shadowy as the glooms from which it had sprung stirred her lips, spread, and became fixed.
Olga Feodorovna, Countess Yavorski, was dead.
“You must go.”
We had risen. Moved by a common impulse we had laid the bright head down at the foot of the shrine and now stood facing each other across the impassable gulf made by that one little stream of blood flowing between us.
“Go?” I protested, aghast at a decision which robbed her of support at a crisis so critical.
“Yes. Her memory—your honour—my own peace of mind demand it. Her secret is not for the world; it is for us. Then leave me here alone to raise the alarm and to answer all inquiries. I do not fear them, only the harm to you and the humiliation to myself which a full revelation of the truth would involve.”
“I cannot leave you.”
“You must.” Then as her eyes, as well as mine, strayed to the quiet form at our feet, so motionless now, so full of breathing passionate life a half-hour before: “But not till I have lifted the curtain from what you have a right to know. Dr. Throckmorton, we shall never meet again. What I have to tell you of her must be told now. After which, silence and a long farewell.”
There was the doom of inexorable decision in her tones. Gone was my dream, dead my every hope. But I dared not give way to my feelings for I saw that she was nearly overcome by her own.
Fearing to see her fall, I led her to a chair. She contented herself with grasping it by the back, and to all my entreaties to sit, returned a steady refusal.
“Some explanations must be given standing,” said she. “I am about to relate the circumstances of my sister’s life. With it my own has been closely involved; but hereafter—”
This sentence she never finished.
I was as much agitated as herself. Now that the moment had come, I dreaded to hear the story whose mystery had wrought upon me and unnerved me for weeks. I felt a strong desire to bid the sphinx-like lips close and let everlasting silence rest upon what had passed since they could promise me nothing for the future, However, I gave no sign of these feelings, for I saw that she meant me to hear this history and that she would know no peace till she had spoken.
This is what she said:
“My sister and I were born in one of the richest provinces of Russia. We are of ancient blood. Our father, if not a prince, had almost the rank of one. We lost him early; our mother also. My sister who is the elder, though few have ever suspected it who saw us together, had a vigorous mind from the first, and as soon as possible—sooner than usually occurs—took her stand as the head of the family and began to administer the estates. She was so beautiful (with the beauty you see in her now—do you see how heavenly it is?), that everybody admired and courted her and thought her an angel because she was fair and smiled—oh, how she smiled in those days. But I, her only relative and subject to her as everybody else was at that time, knew a horrible fact concerning her. For all her charm and seeming softness, she possessed a vein of cruelty unexampled in woman. She loved to see animals die; she loved to see human beings suffer. But nothing of this was apparent to the world and I, being young and timorous and brought up, moreover, to regard the head of the house as above all criticism or reproach, kept my peace and simply watched her in private.
“In Russia, women so circumstanced marry early and Olga was no exception to the rule. She became a countess, and whatever restrictions she had previously placed upon her impulses were now removed. But not openly. She was naturally secret in her ways, and unknown to me at the time, she became the centre of a group of daring malcontents who did not hesitate to accomplish their ends even to the shedding of blood. You recoil. What do you suppose I did when I came to know this and remembered the fiend in her which nothing yet had ever appeased, and found that there was but one thing capable of restraining her and that this thing was in my hands!
“One other passion swayed her. To one other Moloch she acknowledged allegiance. She loved play and consented to moderate her purpose in any special matter if I could win the privilege of dictation by winning in a certain game à deux.
“Can you imagine the life that followed? I knew her to be possessed of forces it would take all my strength and will to combat. Her own nature, the support of remorseless adherents, gave her almost unlimited power, yet so long as I could play one passion off against the other, I was in a way her master. For in matters of play she was honest. Never have I known her to play me false; or refuse me my rights when once I had won the game. And I often won it in the old days in Russia; but latterly, since she lost her husband, and quite unrestrained wandered from country to country, making new slaves in every land and scorning every conquest, she has grown so self-confident that her play has become more assured and I win less frequently.
“This weighed me to the earth. Even before we forced ourselves into your life through one of her mad caprices I realized that my strength was leaving me and that the day was coming when I should have to sacrifice every instinct of my race and the bond of my close relationship and denounce her.
“But another end was before us. She saw you, and her icy heart awoke. Your indifference which she could not overcome roused feelings which yet might never have subjugated her if you had not pitted the strength of your hand against hers on the day you found her in the act of strangling me. From that moment on she owned you her master. When you repulsed her it was not anger she showed—she who had never met with disappointment before—but a bruised and broken heart. I think she mourned the loss of a better life as well as that of a coveted love. Let us hope so, at least, though the instincts this called up were of the old sort and she soon began to plan your death.
“She planned your death; but she could not endure standing by and seeing it carried out; and when she had saved you (the first of her many victims she has ever saved) she came back to this little cottage where we have been living in extreme privacy ever since she left the hotel, and sat with chin on hand in deep and unbroken reverie for hours. I think she was communing with her past life, for she grew paler and yet more pale as the hours went by and lines began to show in her face I had never seen there before, and I felt an awe of her, but I did not approach her or speak. Finally, just at nightfall and when the dismal shadows creep up these slopes, she called me to her and said: ‘Send for Dr. Throckmorton. The terror I have of myself is more than I can bear. Perhaps he can exorcise it. Give him a chance. Give my better self a chance. It is the only thing that can save me.’ And I heeded and sent for you. You see with what result. Would to God I could bewail this end of what was so physically lovely! Would to God her better spirit might have prevailed to the happiness of us all. But—”
A momentary check in her quick speaking, then she quietly said:
“Dr. Throckmorton, I wrote you a letter. Have you that letter with you?”
I had and took it out and showed it to her.
“It must go,” she murmured; “vanish with all the rest.”
Taking it from my hand, she held it in the flame of a near-by candle. When it was quite consumed, she blew the ashes into the air; then, with one piteous glance my way, sank, half-fainting, into the chair.
I could not help it. I sprang to her side and lifting her hand, kissed it passionately as I cried:
“Where are you going when this is all over and you are left to brood alone?”
Gently she released her hand, gently she rose again to her feet.
“I have but one duty in life,” she said; “to seek those who have been injured through the power or passion of my sister and by means of the wealth which will now be mine, expend myself in their succour and reinstatement. No one but myself can do this, and it is a task in which no one else can share. Farewell.”
Her air was so noble, the truth of what she uttered so absolute that I knew it would be quite useless to contend either with her or with the fate which had drawn such an impassable gulf between us. I therefore repeated her farewell but in tones which brought the first tinge of colour to her brow. Before it had subsided I had gone, and with the closing of that door, the veil of a life-long separation fell between us.
It has never been raised. There is a little woman who I am sure would not wish it to be. Nor do I wish it now myself. Gentle influences and sweet domestic joys have weaned me from memories which once threatened to fill my life with turbulence.
The red star and the silver have alike set for me.
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