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Title: Miss Hurd: An Enigma Author: Anna Katharine Green * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1800781h.html Language: English Date first posted: September 2018 Most recent update: September 2018 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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Chapter 1. - My Arrival
Chapter 2. - A Strange Visitor
Chapter 3. - A Strange Departure
Chapter 4. - The Ministering Sister
Chapter 5. - At Last
Chapter 6. - A Frank Avowal
Chapter 7. - The Episode Of The Dagger
Chapter 8. - The Proposed Tableau
Chapter 9. - Jael
Chapter 10. - The Face In The Woods
Chapter 11. - On The Bridge
Chapter 12. - Resolve
Chapter 13. - The Cutting Of The Gordian Knot
Chapter 14. - Was It She?
Chapter 15. - New Interests And New Fears
Chapter 16. - The Mother
Chapter 17. - The Fate Of The Statue
Chapter 18. - In Extremity
Chapter 19. - Mr. Murdoch’s Prophecy Comes True
Chapter 20. - Last Words
Chapter 21. - The Final Blow
Chapter 22. - The Alarm
Chapter 23. - Dillon
Chapter 24. - Cora
Chapter 25. - The Spot On The Hearth
Chapter 26. - Dig!
Chapter 27. - The First Clue
Chapter 28. - At A Standstill
Chapter 29. - After Three Months
Chapter 30. - John Ruxton Resumes His Narrative
Chapter 31. - A Heart’s Secret
Chapter 32. - A Crisis
Chapter 33. - The Crime Of The Yellow Parlor
Chapter 34. - The Journey
Chapter 35. - In The Open
“ ’T is a finely toned, picturesque, sunshiny place
Recalling a dozen old stories.”
I have a story to tell. The story of a strange, impenetrable, fascinating woman; a woman in whose mysterious destiny my own has become seriously involved.
I saw her first at Beech Grove, the country seat of Edward Livermore. I had gone there at the suggestion of Tom Gaylord, and under the influence of the following letter:
“If you want a model for the Antigone you are said to be working upon, take a trip into the wilds about Cooperstown, and spend two days with Ed. Livermore. I saw a girl in his drawing-room a week ago, whose face is a living exponent of human passion at its loftiest and most commanding heights. Perpetuated in marble, it would make the fame of such men as you and I.
“Do not delay, or I shall be tempted to steal it for my Clytemnestra.”
It was late in the afternoon when I arrived in O— after a long day’s journey on the cars, and a carriage ride of some two miles or so through the beautiful scenery of this highly cultivated and picturesque region.
When we reached the town, I found that it began and ended in one long street, running between wooded slopes; and when I stopped at my friend’s door I was surprised to discover that the low and lengthy front of his old-fashioned house stood almost on line with the sidewalk, thus losing, to all outward appearance, most of the attractions usually to be found in the country-seats of wealthy New Yorkers.
But the door once passed, and the hall entered, my artistic nature was at once satisfied, and my imagination roused by the agreeable nature of the background against which this old mansion had been reared.
Through the wide doors and broad, latticed windows that opened directly opposite the entrance, I saw huge boughs of interbranching pine and beech, crowding up so close to the house that the whole appearance was that of some marvellous landscape let into the wall for the delectation of the entering guest; and, upon stepping nearer, my ears were charmed with the music of a babbling brook which ran by the doorstep on its way to the lake below. A pretty rustic bridge connected the threshold with the woods beyond, marking the beginning of a path that was destined to be the scene of more than one surprising encounter in the troublous four days before me.
Interested as we all are in the unexpected, I stood contemplating the great forest that thus limited my outlook, when a gush of youthful voices drew my attention inwards. Hastily turning, I encountered a bevy of young women who had entered the hall from one of the many large apartments on either side. Instantly I remembered the letter in my pocket, and the errand on which I had come.
A tall and dignified blonde was first presented to my notice. She was Mr. Livermore’s niece, and her name was Dalrymple. I thought her beautiful, but I did not see in her fine but conventional countenance any of the passion or grief of the immortal Antigone.
Nor could I perceive in the laughing-eyed Miss Tewksbury, who accompanied her, anything beyond a merry every-day sort of girl, whose attractions might serve to while away a pleasant half hour, but which were scarcely of a nature to inspire an artist, or to awake the imagination of the most prosaic worker in clay and marble.
Dainty Miss Clayton presented a more suggestive figure, but she was far from being the grand and impressive woman described by the enthusiastic Gaylord; so that I was presently convinced that in none of the group thus prematurely brought to my notice had chance favored me with a view of the extraordinary person for whom my journey had been made.
But when summoned to dinner I found myself seated in full position for observing the faces of all the assembled guests, I naturally expected some special reward for my scrutiny. But I was again disappointed. Not a face suggested passion, not a form inspired enthusiasm; and yet there was more than one beautiful girl present; and had I been seeking a model for any lesser creation than the daughter of Oedipus, I might have detected in Miss Clayton’s merry glance and dimpled smile sweetness enough to have beguiled me into an interest which would not have ended in heart-break and confusion.
It was the custom in this hospitable mansion for the various guests to collect at evening in a certain long drawing-room, which, from its connection with a small music-parlor, allowed the piano to be played without directly interfering with conversation.
In this room I therefore presently found myself, and as I am no smoker I had my little hour with the ladies before the gentlemen came in.
But though I enjoyed the mingled sparkle and sarcasm of Miss Dalrymple’s society talk, and was not altogether insensible to the flashes of repartee which kept Miss Clayton’s dimples coming and going, I own that under my apparent interest there lurked an uneasy sense of expectancy which led my eyes to travel more often in the direction of the door than the claims of the ladies present seemed to warrant. Did I look for some new entrance, and was it possible that I still cherished hopes of encountering the anticipated face, even after I had seen that the table was full and that no absent guest was mentioned?
The entrance of the gentlemen at eight o’clock definitely ended any such expectation on my part; and dismissing Gaylord from my thoughts with one low exclamation against the trick he had undoubtedly played me, I allowed myself to forget the hopes he had called up, and gave myself quite unreservedly to the amusements of the evening.
Of these, I shall speak of but one.
“Woman—the morning-star of infancy, the day-star of manhood, the evening-star of age; bless our stars! and may they always be kept at telescopic distance.”
A certain Mr. Lillie had just received a letter of extraordinary interest, and he offered to read it for the general entertainment. It was from a college friend, and contained the details of a curious episode which had occurred to the writer on a late visit to his mother.
The letter ran thus:
“We live in a small but comfortable farm-house, some miles from Q— station. My mother, who has old-fashioned notions about work, keeps no girl, and when I am with her, as I invariably make a point of being in the summer vacation, she is glad to avail herself of any chance help that may offer itself, and often accepts the services of a neighbor’s daughter, which at other times of the year she would resent as an interference. This year she could not get even that, and I was about to cut my visit short, in consideration of her growing feebleness, when one morning there appeared at our door a young woman, who, by signs such as I have seen made by deaf-mutes, seemed to intimate that she wished to enter. My mother, who is naturally of a kind disposition, beckoned her in, notwithstanding her sensations of awe at the intruder’s manifest infirmity and her far from reassuring appearance.
“I was in the house at the time and saw her before she sat down, so I can tell you exactly how she looked. She was a woman of the most forcible appearance, and seemed totally out of place in the home-spun and ill-fitting garments in which she was clothed. Her figure, which was tall, exacted respect, and her face, for all its worn and tired look, possessed a certain beauty, which was the result of expression rather than feature; but she carried herself too stiffly for grace, and disfigured a countenance which stood in sad need of softening, by an arrangement of hair which added to the severity of her aspect and made her seem a woman of forty, though by other signs she could not have been more than twenty-five.
“At sight of me a line of perplexity or chagrin appeared on her forehead. She turned towards the door and seemed about to take an abrupt departure, but immediately changed her mind and faced about again.
“Surveying my mother with a forced smile, she dropped a deep curtsey which finished the quaint picture she presented, and made me her slave from that moment on, till—. But I will not anticipate by a word the development of the strange events which followed the appearance of this odd person at our door.
“My mother—. But first I must tell you that, after having in this manner expressed her respect and the obligation which she felt as a self-constituted guest, this strange anomaly of a woman sat down, and laying aside the small hand-bag she carried, began to take off her hat and shawl, with a decision and purpose which announced more plainly than words, that she had come to stay.
“My mother, after having cast me a doubtful look in which surprise was mingled not unnaturally with curiosity, promptly accepted the situation, and asked the stranger if she could hear what was said to her.
“The young woman nodded, but in a reticent way as if she almost resented the question, and having by this time relieved herself of her outside wraps, she deliberately opened her bag and took out a piece of sewing, upon which she began to work.
“My mother was so startled that she sank into a chair, and for a moment eyed her strange visitor with astonishment not unmixed with fear. But another glance at the plain dress, and neat, if unbecoming bands of dark hair, seemed to reassure her, and she observed quite composedly:
“ ‘You wish to stay with me to-day? Cannot you tell me what your name is?’
“A severe look from two as inscrutable eyes as it was ever my lot to encounter, answered this mingled question and appeal. Leaning forward, she took up her hat and shawl which she had laid upon the table, and for an instant we thought she was about to show her resentment at being questioned, by leaving us in good earnest. But instead of this she commenced to deliberately fold the shawl and place it on a high cupboard that stood near; after which she put her hat neatly away on the top of the shawl, and turning again, dropped another curtsey still more respectful than the last, and sitting down in her former seat, resumed her work. And that was her answer to my mother’s inquiry.
“Delighted, for my part, by a display of eccentricities that promised me enough amusement to make the somewhat gloomy day interesting, I now stepped forward and casually remarked:
“ ‘The clouds threaten thunder. We shall have a severe storm before night. If you have any distance to go, it would be better to start before it grows too late to make walking on the highroad dangerous.’
“She did not move.
“ ‘She intends to remain all night,’ I intimated to my mother, wishing that our visitor was as deaf as she was dumb.
“My mother, to whom the same conclusion had presented itself, shrugged her shoulders, and cast a glance which I was not slow to follow, at her visitor’s busy hands. They were thin but white, and bore but little evidence of having ever done any harder work than sewing.
“ ‘I need some one to help me in the kitchen,’ suggested my mother. ‘Are you accustomed to wash dishes, and can you sweep and cook?’
“Instantly and without giving the least hint of displeasure, she rose, put her work away in her small bag, and began to move towards the kitchen door, which stood wide open.
“ ‘Ah!’ nodded my mother, as if enlightened at last as to the purposes of her strange visitor. But I, who had seen much of women, thought my mother was a little premature in thus judging of the intentions of a person who had a face like a sphinx and wore her dress like a scarecrow. However, I said nothing, and watched my mother disappear into the kitchen, with a decided sensation of expectancy which would not allow me to leave the sitting-room.
“It was now about five o’clock, the hour at which my mother usually put on her tea-kettle. So, making the excuse to myself that the pail from which she drew her supply of fresh water, was in all probability exhausted I sauntered into the kitchen to get it. My mother was not there, and for a moment I thought the room empty, but by the time I had reached the bench where the pail was kept, a movement in a certain dim corner attracted my attention, and I perceived our new servant, or guest, or whatever you may choose to call her, standing in an attitude of such extraordinary agitation and defiance, that I irresistibly followed the direction of her gaze, and found that it was fixed on a wagon that was approaching down the road. She was so absorbed that she neither noted my presence nor caught the gesture of astonishment with which I recognized the change which had taken place in her. From a stiff, automaton-like creature, she had become a living woman, of a rare and extraordinary type. Power breathed in her dilated nostrils, and determination from her fixed and flashing eyes. Even the lips, which she had kept demurely pressed together in the most rigid of all lines, now stood apart, scarlet and palpitating, and if the opportunity of observing her had but lasted an instant longer, I am sure that I should have been able to read the secret of her emotion and solve the mystery of her behavior.
“But scarcely had I taken in her full appearance than her lips closed, her bosom sank, and her eyes recovered their look of stony indifference. She turned again toward the stove, and began to lift off the covers in a dazed way, which showed that, though the cause for her emotion had vanished, she had not yet recovered from the tumult of feeling into which she had been thrown.
“Just then my mother stepped into the room from the pantry, and I seized the bucket, and hurried out of the backdoor, anxious, if possible, to catch another glimpse of the wagon which had occasioned so much emotion in this stranger. It was just disappearing round the house, but, in the instantaneous glimpse I caught of it, I saw that it held two men, one of whom wore a high hat.
“When I re-entered the kitchen, I found her laughing,—not loudly or as if in response to any remark which my mother had made, but low and to herself, as if she felt the reaction following some danger averted or some scandal escaped.
“ ‘She is here as a refugee,’ thought I, ‘and fears pursuit. Shall I alarm my mother with what I have seen, or shall I keep still and confine myself to keeping the girl closely under my eye.’ I decided, rightfully or wrongfully, upon the latter course, and, going back to the sitting-room, sat down in full sight of the kitchen door.
“Presently I heard words, and then a crash of breaking china. As the words were in my mother’s voice, and the crash evidently not a serious one, I did not move, and presently was rewarded for my self-control by seeing the form of my mother in the open doorway, with the two pieces of a broken plate in her hand, and on her face a doleful look that made me laugh in spite of myself.
“ ‘She does not know the least thing about housekeeping,’ she began, with a glance of righteous anger at the pieces she held. ‘She cannot even light a fire; and as for mixing biscuit—’
“ ‘Never mind,’ said I. ‘Give her some of your sewing, and take me in as an apprentice. I shall not make any more mischief than she has done.’
“ ‘But what did she come here for?’ my mother asked. ‘I do not keep a hotel. The fact of her being dumb should not make her presumptuous. I declare, I believe I will go back and make her explain herself. There is some mystery about her, I am sure. Did you notice what eyes she has, and how near she comes to looking like a lady when she moves or smiles?’
“ ‘If I am not mistaken, she is a lady,’ I answered; ‘but a lady you should not trust too much. We will keep her to-night; but to-morrow—’
“ ‘She shall go,’ finished my mother, emphatically. ‘I want no one under my roof whom I cannot understand. I wonder if she can write?’
“ ‘Why?’ I asked.
“ ‘Because, if she can, she shall tell me what her name is. Why, think of it—I do not know what to call her! I have to say, “Here, miss!” as if I were the servant and she the mistress.’
“It was awkward, and I could not help smiling. But we could go no further, for just then the subject of our conversation appeared before us with a teacup in one hand and the handle of it in the other. Shaking her head, she laid them both gravely in my mother’s outstretched palm, and, without any further intimation of her regret, passed at once to the table where she had left her bag, and placing her finger on it, smiled resolutely upon my mother.
“ ‘She means that she is unfit for kitchen-work and prefers to sew,’ I remarked, in explanation of her action. ‘Is not that it?’ I asked, addressing her for the second time.
“She made the inevitable curtsey which seemed to be her favorite way of expressing acquiescence, and then nodded, sitting as she did so.
“ ‘I have no sewing,’ observed my mother, shortly, and went back alone to complete her preparations for supper.
“I looked at the young woman—or was she old, much older than I had thought,—and a strange sensation seized me. Was she the stranger I had considered her, or was she a person once well known to me in some dim and hazy experience of the past, or in some dream-world where figures strange as she evolve themselves from nothing, as she had seemed to do, and vanish into nothing, as she was more than likely to do? I felt that her eyes were familiar, her mouth, the curve of her cheek, and the nameless something which bespeaks personality. And yet I did not know her, and found no picture in all the gallery of my past life to which she corresponded. Was I living over some experience of a former existence? or had I become so imbued by her presence, odd as it was, that she already seemed to have a fixed hold upon my mind which made her in some way unnaturally familiar?
“Brooding over this problem I forgot to speak to her, but she did not seem to resent it. Perhaps, being dumb, she did not expect the ordinary attentions of social intercourse.
“At all events she showed no embarrassment till I remembered myself and began to talk, when she immediately grew restless, and looked about for something wherewith to occupy herself.
“As I did not wish to give her an opportunity of evading my eye, I did not lend her my assistance in this search but pressed question after question upon her till I thought she must answer one of them from very shame. But I did not know her. Instead of growing nervous under this attack, she seemed to become calmer and more at her ease; and when, at the end of my resources, I pushed a pencil and a bit of paper towards her, saying, ‘Perhaps you will kindly write who you are.’ She rose, and meeting me eye to eye, with a steady, sane look of respectful reproof, walked to the cupboard and began taking down her hat and shawl.
“At this sight I was seized with compunction and felt that I could not let her go at so late an hour, especially as at that moment a low rumble of thunder was heard in the west, where the clouds lay piled up in a way that betokened a storm of no little violence.
“ ‘It is going to rain,’ I protested, ‘You cannot leave the house now. Sit down and I will ask you no more questions.’
“She immediately restored her shawl to its place and took off her bonnet.
“ ‘I will bring you a book,’ said I.
“But though I handed her two or more fresh volumes of decided interest, she made no attempt to open them, but seemed to prefer to sit with her eyes on the clouds, which had now assumed a brazen aspect.
“As for myself I was satisfied to sit and watch, her, and strive to penetrate the meaning of the shifting expressions which now began to permeate a countenance which, saving that passing moment in the kitchen, had hitherto been but a mask. Was it intellect which gave that flash to her eye, was it feeling that quivered in the corners of her lips when the thunder suddenly roared and the lightning darted down? I thought at first that it might be intellect gone astray and feeling carried to the verge of fear; but I was soon undeceived when, in the midst of a most appalling bolt, she rose and passed to the window, and with a calm and almost exalted expression, raised her face towards the sky as if she felt a kinship with the raging storm which forced her to throw aside her reserve and show herself for the powerful creature that she was.
“ ‘She will be struck!’ shouted my mother, advancing from the kitchen. But the lightning flashed downward and was gone, and our strange visitor still stood before us, formidable in her very silence.
“She sat down with us at supper, and her manners were those of a lady. My mother, whom I had succeeded in acquainting with my failure to make this interesting intruder talk, was kind in her attentions, but no longer inquisitive or loquacious. Indeed the meal began and ended in almost undisturbed silence, and when the evening bade fair to pass in the same uninteresting way, my mother, with happy heed to her self-constituted guest’s evident fatigue, offered to accompany her to her room.
“With the first real smile we had seen on her face, the stranger rose, and, taking up her bag, followed my mother with cheerful alacrity. Indeed, her gratitude made her quite beautiful, and when in passing me she paused to bestow that quaint little curtsey which seemed her only mode of expression, I experienced a certain thrill of sympathy for her, which was as much the result of admiration as compassion.
“When my mother returned alone, I surveyed her inquiringly. Had the woman, when released from the constraint imposed by a man’s presence, become in any way more communicative? Evidently not; for my mother hastened to say:
“ ‘If ever a woman was tired, that woman is. Do you know, I think she threw herself on the bed the moment I left the room!’
“ ‘Without undressing herself?’
“ ‘Without undressing herself.’
“ ‘Have you locked the door?’ I queried. ‘I should feel more comfortable if I thought she was well shut in for the night.’
“ ‘Would you? Well, that is strange,’ rejoined my mother. ‘I feel the same way, and told her that I should take the liberty of fastening the door upon her.’
“ ‘And what did she say to that?’
“ ‘Why, nothing; she is dumb or pretends to be so. But she showed no resentment; on the contrary she smiled and nodded her head as if quite satisfied.’
“ ‘An inexplicable creature,’ I ventured.
“ ‘And one that shall not stay in my house two hours after breakfast.’
“As this decision seemed to be one that I could not in wisdom combat, I silently accepted it, and retired to my own rest with the expectation of seeing the shawl and bonnet and shabby little bag disappear from our inhospitable doors the first thing in the morning. But when after a somewhat broken sleep I came down into the sitting-room at nine o’clock, it was to see the shawl and bonnet in their old place on the cupboard, and their possessor in the same chair she had occupied the night before, diligently sewing a long seam in a piece of work so large it could never have come out of the little bag.
“ ‘I cannot push her out of the door,’ explained my mother, as I hastily entered the kitchen with inquiry in my face. ‘And I shall have to push her, if she goes,’ the dear old lady continued, with a deprecating smile, ‘for she certainly will never leave the house of her own accord.’
“ ‘You are worried by her,’ I observed, noting that the smile was not without its nervousness.
“ ‘No,’ answered my mother, ‘and yet her manners might certainly be more reassuring.’
“I agreed with her and went back to the sitting-room.
“ ‘I am going into town,’ I remarked, stepping squarely up before the stranger, and speaking as gently and as firmly as my sympathies would allow. ‘If you will be ready in half an hour I will take you with me. You cannot stop here, you know; my mother has not strength enough to entertain two guests.’
“She flushed, raised her extraordinary eyes one moment towards mine, and then carefully folding up her work, laid it on the table and proceeded to put on her shawl and hat.
“More daunted by her manner than by the action itself, I begged her not to hurry herself, but she neither desisted nor gave the least token of hearing me. When she was dressed in her outside wraps she sat down and I soon recognized that there was nothing for me to do but to follow her example and prepare for departure. I accordingly went into the kitchen, and after drinking a cup of coffee, harnessed up the poor old horse which my mother uses for such occasions, and driving around to the front door I waited for our guest to come out.
“But she did not come, so, leaving the horse standing, I went in, and found her sitting in the same attitude in which I had left her. I told her the team was ready and offered her my arm. She stared at it, then at me, and slowly rose. Moving towards the door, she went out, and then catching a glimpse of my mother in one of the windows, dropped a final curtsey before stepping into the wagon. It was her last expression of good-will. All the long way to the village she maintained not only perfect silence, which was to be expected of her, but a rigid immobility, that awakened in me a species of awe.
“I was glad when I reached the village. Fascinated as I was by her peculiarities, I could not but feel the oppression of her presence. When, therefore, the white steeples of the churches became visible, I said to her, in the same quiet tone I had before used:
“ ‘There is the town; is there any particular place to which you would like to be driven?’
“I did not expect a reply, and was therefore correspondingly surprised when she turned her head and slowly shook it.
“ ‘Shall I leave you in the big square before the church?’ I pursued.
“But for this she had no answer, and I was forced to drive on, in a guilty frame of mind, not knowing if I were acting a humanitarian’s part in thus setting adrift this poor waif, who either did not know her own mind or, knowing it, lacked the means of communicating it. But another look at her strong, refined face, with its lines of mingled suffering and thought, convinced me that her peculiarities had their source more in wilfulness than inconsequence, and while under the sway of this idea, I drew my horse and politely held out my hand to aid her in alighting.
“ ‘I hope that you have friends here,’ I ventured, feeling a strange thrill as her hand closed over mine.
“Her reply was a commanding gesture for me to drive on, and so sudden was the change in her, from meek acceptance of my wishes to a distinct expression of her own, that I unconsciously obeyed her and moved slowly down the street, leaving her standing in the public square.
“When I reached the corner I looked back; she had not moved; but when a few paces on I turned again, she had disappeared entirely from my view, nor did I see her again, though in my interest and anxiety I drove up and down the street several times.
“I did not return home till afternoon. I had errands to do for mother and one or more friends to visit. Perhaps I had some vague idea of hearing something about this mysterious woman at some of the houses I visited, but if any such motive lay at the bottom of the various calls I made, it was not destined to be rewarded, for no one that I met had ever heard of such a woman, much less seen her. At three o’clock I turned towards home, and at four drove into the yard. Can you imagine my surprise at beholding on the door-step the tall, awkwardly clad form of our late guest, waiting with her little bag in her hand for the door to open, just as she had done the day before, though with even greater signs of weakness and fatigue apparent in her bearing.
“She had walked all the way back from the village; and thus ended my first effort at casting her off.
“The heart has reasons that reason does not know.”
“Well, we took her in; how could we help it? Though she was a strong woman, it was evident from the dark rings under her eyes that her physical powers were about exhausted; while her look and smile, both too tremulous to be forced, had an eloquence in them which my mother, as well as myself, found it impossible to resist.
“ ‘We will keep her one more night,’ decided the former; ‘but to-morrow you must take her to Y— and put her into the hands of Dr. Carter.’
“Y— was ten miles away, and Dr. Carter was a well known philanthropist of the place.
“Accordingly next morning I took her to Y—, where I gave her into the hands of this good clergyman, who promised to make inquiries in her regard and restore her if possible to her friends. But when I had left my charge behind me, and returned again to my mother’s house, I felt strangely uneasy and found it hard to interest myself in any of my usual pursuits. My mother, too, seemed restless, and interrupted her work more than once to step into the sitting-room and ask me some question about my ride. And yet it was a relief to us both to sit down by the evening lamp without the consciousness of that silent presence in our midst, and, when we finally bade each other good-night, it was with a cheerfulness we had neither shown nor felt during the two previous evenings.
“Imagine then my sensations when, upon entering the room at the usual hour in the morning, I again saw lying on the cupboard the cheap shawl and tawdry hat which I had supposed vanished from that spot forever. Had our self-constituted guest come back while I had been sleeping and was she even then under our roof? Hastening into the kitchen, I questioned my mother, and she, half smiling, half frowning, remarked apologetically:
“ ‘She arrived not two minutes after you went upstairs. If she had dropped at the door I should not have been surprised, so exhausted did she look and so incapable of standing. She is in her room now; I thought I would let her sleep till breakfast was ready.’
“ ‘We shall have to go ourselves, if we wish to get rid of her,’ said I. ‘What do you suppose she would do if left in undisputed possession of the house.’
“My mother laughed, but I was more than half in earnest, and I do not know to what lengths I might have been led, in my endeavor to shake ourselves loose of our fascinating but somewhat oppressive guest, if events had not presently occurred that made any action on my part unnecessary.
“We had finished breakfast, and our silent guest was engaged in sewing, with a wonderfully contented and happy look on her face, when I suddenly beheld her start to her feet and assume an expression that startled, if it did not alarm me. At the same minute a wagon drove up in front of the door, and I had barely time to observe that it contained a gentleman with a tall hat, when she flew from her place in the window, and with gesticulations of fright and entreaty, rushed into my mother’s bedroom and violently closed the door.
“The sound it made mingled with the knock that at this moment resounded from without, and stepping to the front door I opened it just as my mother came in from the kitchen,
“The gentleman who confronted us was sufficiently good-looking to merit attention, and he had the bearing, as well as the garb, of a city-bred man of some pretensions. Yet I did not know whether to like him or not, and was rather guarded in my greeting.
“He on the contrary was affable and made his inquiries in a tone of the utmost consideration and respect.
“ ‘I am looking,’ said he, ‘for a young woman who has inconsiderately left her home and friends, and who, I am told, has at present taken refuge with you. Have you not such a person here, and is not this her hat and shawl which I see?’
“ ‘There is a woman here who seems dumb,’ returned my mother, rapidly advancing. ‘She came to the house some two days ago; we find it inconvenient to keep her, and I am very glad to see any friend of hers who will take her away and treat her kindly. Are you her relative or—or—’
“ ‘She belongs to me,’ he declared, peering deprecatingly about for signs of the presence he sought.
“ ‘I will call her,’ said my mother.
“But I felt some doubts as to his intentions, and hastened to interpose.
“I fear she will not want to go with you,’ I objected ‘and I should not like to give her up against her will.’
“ ‘Oh,’ he asserted with the utmost confidence, ‘she will not refuse to go with me. Only bring us face to face, and you will soon see that I have complete influence over her.’
“Still doubtful, but not seeing how I could refuse him the interview he asked, I stepped to my mother’s bedroom door and opened it. Great God, what a picture greeted my eyes!
“Drawn up in the remotest corner in an attitude appalling to behold, I discerned the figure of our strange guest. She had caught up a stick of rough wood from the neighboring fireplace and now stood with it brandished high over her head, in an attitude of threat and defiance which was almost titanic in its suggestion of concentrated power and passion.
“My mother shrieked, but the gentleman against whom this menace seemed to be directed, calmly pushing his way in, uttered one word of whispered command and entreaty, and the rigid arm dropped, the blazing eyes fell, and the gleam of desperation, which had lent such force and splendor to her face, faded like a light that is blown out, and she came forward, dropping the stick from her inert hand.
“ ‘Will you go with me?’ he asked quietly and kindly, surveying her with manifest compassion, and yet with a determination that proved the extent of his control both over himself and her.
“She bowed her head, and heaving a deep sigh, passed us both with a little curtsey, and went directly to the cupboard. He did not offer to help her, but stood by with knitted brows, while she tied on the shabby little bonnet so out of keeping with her grand head, and wrapped about her shoulders, the precise shawl which added twenty years to her age and made her, when completely dressed, look like some respectable maiden lady, with a limited experience of life.
“I felt a pang of regret as he put on his own hat and made a motion for her to depart. My mother, meeting my eye, made a significant gesture, and obeying it, I followed them out to the wagon, where I stopped him as he was about to unhitch his horse.
“ ‘Are you,’ I whispered, approaching closely to his ear, ‘her keeper?’
“He turned upon me with an indignant gesture.
“ ‘She is not mad,’ he declared. And unfastening the hitching-strap, he jumped into the wagon.
“ ‘Then you have hypnotized her!’ I cried. ‘She shall not go with you unless you tell me—’
“ ‘I have not hypnotized her!’ he protested. ‘Would to God I had the power to do so!’ And seizing his whip, he gave a clip to the horse, which started forward on a jump down the road.
“This time she did not come back, and I have been asking myself ever since, what was the secret of her peculiarities and the cause of her terrible antagonism to a man whom she nevertheless acknowledged to be her master, and followed without any apparent demur.”
“Why seek at once to dive into
The depths of all that meets your view?”
“Is that all?” cried a voice.
“Yes, that’s all. Interesting, isn’t it?”
“Do you know,” spake up another voice, “that it makes me think of an experience my sister Caroline once had. It was not of the same kind, of course, and the people were very different, and all that, but the woman showed the same fear and antipathy to a man, and—well, it was all very curious, and—”
“Hear! hear!” exclaimed more than one of the young people present.
“Do you want the story?”
“Hear! hear!” was again the cry.
The speaker, who was a slim young man of somewhat whimsical turn of countenance, and who had been introduced to me at table as Mr. Parke, came slowly forward at this, and, waiting for no further encouragement, began at once to relate the following.
“My sister has a leaning towards charities. I say this because many of you do not know her. She is the prettiest, sweetest girl in all New York, but she does not care a fig for her beauty, and does care, more than such a fellow as I can understand, for soup kitchens, crêches, working-women’s homes, and such like. She even went so far at one time as to join a sisterhood wholly given up to good works, and it was while she was a member of this body that the episode occurred of which I am asked to speak. It was a Protestant organization, and the members were not compelled to remain in it any longer than they wished, but while they did do so they wore the dress of the institution, and submitted to rules almost as arbitrary as those which govern Catholic nunneries. My sister, who has a natural aptitude for anything involving self-sacrifice, was devoted to this institution for over a year, during which time she took up her abode with the Ministering Sisters, as they were called, and came and went according to the will of the Matron, with as much zeal as if she had no further duty in life than to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and watch at the bedside of the sick and dying.
“One day—for she used to come home at odd times to see my father, who is devotedly attached to her—she told us of a new sister who had lately been admitted into the house, and of whose charm, accomplishments, and usefulness she could not say enough.
“ ‘She is absolutely the most superior being I ever saw,’ she cried, and with characteristic disregard to her own claims as a beauty, added: ‘And for all my love for the work, I do not see what such a woman means by shutting herself out from society in which she would shine so conspicuously.’
“ ‘Perhaps she has the same devotion as yourself,’ I suggested; but to this she answered: ‘She undoubtedly has; but she has something more; something which I have not—a powerful mind, and a tremendous capability. She looks like a queen in the simple habit which we wear, and when she speaks, there is a persuasion, mingled with authority, in her voice, that makes us all submit, rich and poor alike.’
“ ‘Very good qualities,’ urged my father, ‘for the calling to which she has devoted herself.’
“ ‘And,’ my sister, smiling, remarked: ‘I ought not to question it, nor question her aptitude for the work, for she looks absolutely radiant at times.’
“These glowing accounts of a woman whom even my sister thought admirable, naturally interested us, and the next time Caroline came home I was the first to demand news of Sister Eulalia, as she was called. Caroline’s countenance at once changed, and I saw that something of an unpleasant nature had transpired.
“ ‘She has left the sisterhood,’ was her unexpected reply. ‘She was dragged away. But, no; that is not true,’ corrected Caroline. ‘She went quietly enough; but it seemed to break her heart. I cannot think of it with any patience. Besides, it was all so mysterious!’
“ ‘How?’ we all asked.
“ ‘Why, it was like this. We were all in the great room awaiting the hour for prayers. Sister Eulalia was with us, and I remember that she wore a peculiarly beaming look, as if she had been visited by some great joy. I was told afterwards that she had just come from the death-bed of a little child. The Matron was late; something which does not often happen, so we had leisure to note each other more particularly, and even to say a few words, and were naturally improving the occasion, when I suddenly heard some one whisper in my ear: “Look at Sister Eulalia.” I did look, and was astonished to see our noble comrade shaking with terror and white as a sheet. Her eyes were on the door, and at the sudden lull which her emotion produced in us all, we heard advancing steps, and presently saw the figure of the Matron enter, followed by a gentleman of highly attractive appearance. We were so surprised at this—for we never receive gentlemen visitors—that for a moment we forgot Sister Eulalia, but when we remembered her again, we were astonished to find her in another part of the room, where the shadows were thickest and she ran the best chance of remaining unseen.
“ ‘ “I am convinced,” observed the Matron, addressing with marked deference the gentleman who accompanied her, “that you are mistaken in your suppositions. Yet, that you may lay no blame to my charge, I have summoned you at a time when you will be sure to see the whole sisterhood together, and if she is here, you have but to say so and take her away. We keep nobody against their inclinations or in defiance of any superior claim or duty. Young ladies, you will form yourselves into a row, that this gentleman may have every facility for observing your faces and of satisfying himself that the person he seeks is not here. But first,” she asked, “are any of our number absent?”
“ ‘ “Sister Agnes and Sister Helena,” we rejoined.
“ ‘ “Sister Agnes is a young girl of fifteen,” the Matron reported, turning to the gentleman; “and Sister Helena is pock-marked and entirely unlike the person you describe.”
“ ‘ “I will undoubtedly find the lady I claim somewhere in this line,” he declared, crossing the room to where we had drawn ourselves up in a row that was anything but straight, so agitated were we by the conflicting emotions of surprise and curiosity, to which the peculiarities of the occasion had given rise. I especially could not control myself, knowing as I did that it was Sister Eulalia he was seeking, and more than once stole a look along the line to the place where she stood with her veil drooping over her features and her hands clasped so tightly together that the finger tips were scarlet with the blood imprisoned in them. I was thus looking when he came to a standstill before me. Why he should have stopped in front of me I do not know, but the action recalled me to myself and impelled me to look up and meet his glance. I had expected a hard face, and I encountered a kind one. Indeed he was smiling, and though I felt I hated him because he had caused fear in Sister Eulalia, I could not but acknowledge he was as fine a looking man as I had seen in some time, and that if I had not known his errand, I should have felt an instant attraction towards him. But hating him, I could only answer his inquiring look by a fierce little nod, at which he first stared and then laughed and so passed on with somewhat increased speed down the line. As he approached nearer and nearer to Sister Eulalia we all held our breath, and when he paused directly before her and laid his finger first on her folded hands and then on her fallen chin which he slowly lifted till her eyes met his, we all felt such a revulsion of feeling that an unconscious murmur broke out on every side; and without waiting for our Matron’s command we broke rank and crowded up in support of our beloved sister whom we somehow felt had reached the crisis of her fate. Meantime he had dropped his hand and stood before her, calmly speaking. Those who were happy enough to stand at her side say that his words were very commonplace and that he merely asked her if she was ready to go home; but I will never believe that they did not convey some hint of constraint to which she felt forced to submit, for after her first gesture of repulsion she gave an apathetic nod, and stepping softly from her place, took his arm and crossed the room to the Matron. What she said to her and what he said in extenuation of his rather peculiar proceedings, I do not know, but when Sister Eulalia turned to leave the room, she threw us a look that was full of the old power and yet modulated by an inexpressible suggestion of suffering. I could not bear it. Flinging decorum to the winds, I sprang forward and asked if I might not be permitted to say farewell to my friend. Instantly Sister Eulalia caught me to her breast with a fervor that filled my heart to the brim, then she turned to the Matron and requested, as a final favor, that I might be allowed to accompany her to the door. Her wish was granted, and feeling somewhat easier in my mind I followed her into the hall where she again took me to her heart.
“ ‘ “Pray for me,” she whispered. “When you are sitting by the couches of the dying, when you are kissing an innocent child, remember my need and beseech the Almighty that I may be given strength to endure my life. It will keep me—it will keep me from—” She stole a look at the man who was standing near her and slowly let fall her arms. “God will watch over us all,” she added, and began to move towards the door.
“ ‘But here the most impressive thing of all occurred, or so it seemed to me. The gentleman whom she studiously avoided introducing to me, stopped her as she was walking away, and lifting the veil from her head, he laid it on a table that stood near. Then he pointed at the crucifix she wore, which she quietly took off, and then, ignoring the dress, which, as you know, is dark and unobtrusive, he handed her an elegant cloak of sable, which she drew mechanically about her, and then, taking up a little gem of a French hat, which he had evidently brought with the cloak from some home into which my thoughts did not dare to penetrate, he waited while she put it on, smiling with more and more satisfaction as she gradually assumed the appearance of an elegant woman of the world.
“ ‘When she was thus accoutred he held out a pair of gloves, and though I saw the dawn of an almost tragic impatience in her studiously composed face, she took the gloves and drew them on, and not till they were properly buttoned did she turn her face for one farewell instant upon mine. Then she did indeed give me those two gloved hands to hold, and when she saw the tears welling in my eyes, stooped and gave me a kiss, which was at once an apology for her hasty departure and an assurance of her lasting love.
“ ‘As she followed her companion through the front door, which he had considerately opened for her, I caught a glimpse of the carriage and horses which were awaiting her. They were in keeping with her attire, and as I shut the door upon her retreating form I knew that this house of mercy and devotion had just seen the last of one of New York’s most distinguished women.’
“This, my fair young friends, was the story my sister told me, and don’t you think it will bear comparison with that just related in the letter written to Mr. Lillie?”
“But is that all?” repeated some one. “Didn’t your sister ever see Sister Eulalia again? Surely she must have met her since?”
“It would seem so, but she never has. Even after she left the sisterhood and so had opportunity to make extended inquiries about her mysterious friend, she failed, and I failed, to see or learn of any one who corresponded to the description of Sister Eulalia or to the gentleman under whose guardianship she went away.”
“Then we are likely to have two mysteries to retire upon,” observed Miss Dalrymple, in her smooth, unsympathetic way,
“Who is that playing in the music-room?” I now ventured to ask, struck by the odd and broken strains which for the last few minutes had issued from the adjoining apartment.
“That? Oh, that is Miss Hurd; she usually plays for us at this hour.”
“In life there are meetings which seem like a fate.”
It was a new name to me. My curiosity was therefore at once aroused, and to such a pitch that my interest in the late subject of conversation sank before it. Yet I did not pursue my inquiries, perceiving from the tone in which Miss Dalrymple had answered my question, that the presence or absence of the unseen player was of no consequence to her, and therefore should not be to the rest of the guests.
But I listened intently to the few wandering strains that floated, now in perfect melody, and now in such disorder, that they verged upon discord, from behind the curtain that so provokingly shielded the performer from our eyes.
And in that broken music, whose racking strains passed unnoticed in the interest of the conversation which now went on in the large room, I seemed to catch hints of force, and of weird, if inharmonious, beauty, which added to, rather than detracted from, my anxiety to see the unseen musician. I had almost made up my mind to cross the room and lift the curtain which hung between me and this new object of interest, when my own attention and that of every other person in the room, was attracted by the entrance of Mr. Livermore with a strange gentleman. Before the latter had crossed the threshold, he had drawn all eyes his way, and curiosity was rife as to his name and condition.
Mr. Livermore did not leave us long in doubt.
“Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present to you Mr. Murdoch; a gentleman from the far west, with whom, I am sure, you will be delighted to become acquainted.”
Naturally we one and all came forward. As I did so, something—was it the sudden cessation of those strains to which I had been so long listening?—made me glance towards the music room, and I saw for one fleeting instant the face which Gaylord had described.
Instantly I forgot everything else in the world but my art.
I had come three hundred miles to seek an inspiration for my Antigone, and I had found it. Any other thought was for the moment impossible.
I was so impressed, that I forgot all conventionalities, and was about to dart forward and stop the beautiful musician who seemed on the point of leaving the room, when she herself saved me from such a breach of decorum, by pausing where she was, and giving me one look before flitting away.
It was a strange look, an epoch-making glance, which drew a line across my life, and made my past a thing no longer worthy of contemplation. There was passion in her face, and there was suffering also; but both seemed to have received in some way a check, possibly through me; and though I tried to ignore the emotions which this supposition awakened, and turn back to the crowd as if nothing had happened, I felt the consciousness go surging through my blood, that I had not only found a model for my Antigone, but a woman to whose glance my heart responded, and whom I must love, if her soul corresponded to her personality, and she was as great of heart as she was imposing in figure and bearing.
The next instant I was bowing to Mr. Murdoch. And here I received a second shock no less formidable than the first. He had seen her also, and was no more indifferent than myself to the marvellous vision. I saw it in his face, and in the glance which wandered from mine in his anxiety to catch one other glimpse of the now rapidly departing figure. Such women are not seen without emotion, and when the heart is empty a passing glance from such eyes may sow the seed of a life-long passion. I could understand this in him as in myself, but what a revulsion it gave me for an instant to see reflected in his countenance the secret emotions with which my own heart was swelling. I endeavored, however, to hide not only my own feelings but my consciousness of his, and ignoring every other topic of interest that presented itself, I conversed with him for a few minutes, just to see what sort of man he was, and what I might expect from his rivalry, if his present admiration grew into interest and became a living reality like my own.
He was, as I have intimated, a man of fine personal appearance; and as soon as I could steady my thoughts amid the whirl in which they had become involved, I scrutinized him closely to see if I could determine wherein his odd attraction lay, and then I discovered he had no attraction—that is, for me. On the contrary I found myself subtly repelled by him. Yet his figure was fine, his manners polished, and his features regular to a fault. Perhaps the dim consciousness that we had been struck by the charms of the same woman, and were likely to engage in a struggle for her future regard, made me unjust to him. But I had no sooner taken a good look at his face than I disliked him more than I had ever disliked a man before.
But to the ladies present he was a most acceptable addition to the company; and though I had nothing to complain of in their reception of my attentions, I soon saw that my undisputed reign was over and that this Murdoch was likely to have his full share of the smiles and blandishments of the practised coquettes about us.
But for this I cared little, so that the new realm into which I had just thrust my adventurous foot might be left uninvaded by him. My new realm! How dare I say my! Was he not already planning an invasion into it? As I realized my vanity, I laughed; but it was a hollow laugh full of new and but half understood emotions.
To free myself from the thoughts, conjectures, and growing excitement into which this experience had plunged me, I turned towards the ladies.
But they were already flocking around the newcomer, anxious to interest him in the two romantic tales which had been told in their hearing just prior to his entrance; and as they one by one added something to the already confused narrative, I saw his eyes wander from face to face with that self-concentrated air, which in a plain man argues indifference, and in a handsome one that confidence in his own powers of pleasing which makes it unnecessary for him to mark by more than a smile his interest in the conversation addressed to him.
I thought I understood his abstraction, and in a few minutes was satisfied that I had not misread him, for with that elaborate air of carelessness which is invariably assumed to hide a too deep interest in the topic broached, he asked Miss Dalrymple if some of the ladies would not favor us with music; and when Miss Tewksbury rose in response to the call, he plainly showed, for all his endeavors to hide it, so much disappointment both at the performer and the performance, that I was forced to recognize that it was not music that he wanted, but another glimpse of the unknown musician.
I was still further assured of this, when one of the young gentlemen, more used to the ways of the house than either he or myself, observed in an offhand way:
“And where’s Miss Hurd; and why does she not play for us to-night?”
For the words were no sooner uttered than Murdoch’s eyes passed directly to the music-room door, and I discovered from their look and the flashing glint of eagerness they betrayed, that my realm, if I dared to call such an unknown country mine, had not only been invaded, but seized upon, at least in anticipation, though my own enjoyment of it was as yet but a few moments old.
An immoderate anger at once possessed me, which was not allayed by Miss Dalrymple curtly remarking:
“Miss Hurd was here a short time ago. I do not understand why she has left, but if you wish to hear her I can readily call her back.”
Wish to hear her! Did we wish to hear her? I think that at least Murdoch and myself, different as we were in appearance and temperament, and different as our opinions were likely to be upon most topics, felt enough alike on this one, to show the same hesitation in replying.
But there were others who had no reason for keeping still, and presently I had the doubtful satisfaction of seeing a servant despatched for Miss Hurd, who, from the tone of condescension latent in this command, evidently occupied a subordinate position in the house, which did not entitle her to the respect and consideration usually bestowed upon a guest.
Fired from that moment with a resolve to hide my feelings, if not subdue them, I barely allowed myself one glance at Murdoch, who had evidently followed my lead, and now showed a totally unconcerned countenance; after which I proceeded at once to Miss Tewksbury’s side, and turned over the leaves of the song she attempted to warble, with as much assiduity as if I were not listening with all my ears for a step on the stairs.
Happily the song was finished before the step became a reality, else I might not have been able to preserve the commonplace character I had assumed. For when Miss Hurd re-entered, I was surprised to find her even more beautiful and impressive than the hasty glimpse I had obtained of her had led me to expect. There was a quiet grandeur in her now thoroughly composed features, which made her an uncommon figure in a modern drawing-room. She looked as much out of place in that cluster of laughing, chattering demoiselles as a marble image in a toy shop; and though she bowed and smiled with conventional politeness as she advanced towards the piano, which was quickly vacated at her approach, I saw that the emotions which had infused such character into her features some little time before, were by no means at an end, but merely held in check by the force of her powerful will. Without glancing to the right or left, she sat down at the piano. Being by virtue of my former attentions to Miss Tewksbury quite near the instrument, and thus close to the new performer, I retained my place for the advantage it offered me of studying her and the details of her remarkable beauty.
She was a dark woman—that is, her hair was of that ebon hue which, in some lights, gleams with a purple lustre, and her eyes, if not black, were rendered so conspicuous by the long lashes that curled above them, and by the heavy markings that underlay them on her otherwise colorless cheeks, that they had all the effect of the darkest and most unfathomable of orbs. Her nose was exquisitely formed and her chin modelled in a way which left nothing even to the imagination of a sculptor, but her cheeks lacked fulness, and there was a discrepancy between the weight and intellectual predominance of her forehead and the gentle, almost pleading lines of the lower face, which, while adding greatly to her expression, made her face far from perfect in a purely artistic point of view. But what force it expressed, what fire, what intensity! It made my heart burn to look at her; and when the music, with which she seemed to be expressing some wild and pent up emotion, rose and swelled into fiery climaxes, she appeared, to my excited fancy, like some poet’s creation, or the potent heroine of some world-famed tragedy.
Suddenly I remembered Murdoch. As he was not in the same room with myself, I took the first opportunity that offered of peering into the adjoining apartment, where I saw him professedly leaning over Miss Dalrymple, but in reality gazing at Miss Hurd with an intentness and an open admiration that for a moment angered me and made me wish to step between him and the unconscious object of his too obtrusive homage.
But my impulses were as yet under the control of my judgment; so I stilled the jealous pang, and even succeeded in subduing my own emotions sufficiently to remain unembarrassed, when, the weird piece over, she vouchsafed me one quick glance before rising.
The next moment she was on her way to the door; but Mr. Livermore did not allow her to depart so unceremoniously. Advancing from the other room, he stopped her on the threshold, and pointing out Murdoch, said with some condescension in his tone, “Here is a gentleman who desires to be introduced to you, Miss Hurd.”
With a set smile and a haughty air, which, however out of keeping with her position in the household, took on dignity from the superb lines of her incomparable form and the serious if not sombre character of her countenance, she advanced and greeted the stranger, who bowed low and almost deprecatingly before her; while Miss Dalrymple stood back and smiled with a thin, fine air of conscious graciousness, that so irritated me that I approached in my turn, and with less outward show of interest, but I dare say with more true feeling, demanded an introduction also.
I received it, and, selfish mortal that I am, was gratified to note that the color, which had not risen at the sight of the other’s fine figure and handsome countenance, rushed faintly to her cheeks as she responded to my greeting.
The slight contraction of Miss Dalrymple’s forehead convinced me I had made a mistake, but I had spirit enough to ignore this discovery, and also to ignore Mr. Murdoch’s one quick glance of surprised displeasure; but I likewise had consideration enough for them both, not to add fuel to the fire by any undue attentions in a quarter thus openly frowned upon; and after the few common phrases which follow all such enforced introductions, I moved away and left the field to the enemy.
How he improved it, I cannot say, for I was drawn almost immediately into a close consultation, which forbade the least attention to what went on behind me, but when startled by a sudden movement of departure in the room, I turned to see who was leaving, I not only perceived that it was Miss Hurd, but also that it was not from Murdoch she was withdrawing, but from Mr. and Mrs. Livermore.
He whom I now half unconsciously designated as my rival was on the other side of the room, but he was watching her, and when she turned at the door and glanced back with a smile, he started forward, but was stopped by her words, which, to the surprise of every one present, were directed to the whole room:
“I have a warning to give,” said she, in a light, rich tone, which completed the charm of this remarkable woman: “When I was at the village store to-day, I heard that more than one house in this vicinity has been entered by burglars during the past week. Would it not then be well for you all to lock your doors?”
The suddenness, the incongruity of this odd bit of advice thrown thus curiously into the bubbling effervescence of the lightest of talk, by one who was hardly granted the right to speak there at all, caused a feeling of astonishment to spread through the room, in the midst of which she departed.
I, who was perhaps even more surprised than the rest, felt as if a black wing had suddenly flapped between me and some wonderful picture; and shaken by vague doubts that were totally out of harmony with the scene in which I found myself, I sauntered from the room into the one more especially devoted to the gentlemen, where, I thought, if chance served me well, I might find solitude at this hour, and a chance to think, without too much danger of interruption.
But for some reason, or the same reason, perhaps, there were two disturbed souls in the house that night; and before I had time to seat myself, Mr. Murdoch walked into the room with a frown on his brow which quite altered the aspect of his naturally composed and quiet cast of features.
I had rather have seen any other person in the house, but having no cause to shun this man I nodded and welcomed him with some off-hand words which seemed to take his fancy; for he drew up a chair to my side and sat down.
“Let us talk,” said he. “A little chat with the ladies is well enough directly after dinner, when the mind naturally seeks diversion; but after the clock has struck ten the time has come for something more solid.”
And we did talk; ignoring naturally the one topic I dared to think, even then, was of the supremest interest to us both, and launching into others which were current at the time.
I found him keen, well-read, and of a firm, but narrow turn of mind. Though no artist, he was composed of such stuff as patrons are made of, and while his taste did not meet with my highest approval, it had sufficient claims on my regard to win from me a certain amount of respect. But I could not like him, nor could I suppress some show of impatience as the selfish streak in him came uppermost, or when I saw that, notwithstanding his many advantages of wealth, position, and an extraordinarily fine presence, he possessed a callousness on some topics which would have discredited a man whose instincts had never been modified by education. Yet I own that I was severe upon him, and that in the course of conversation other qualities came to light of so generous and genial a nature that if my judgment had not been warped by prejudice I should certainly have put him down in my mind as one whom any man might feel proud to own as his friend.
At eleven o’clock we separated, each going to his own room; but I did not retire till long after that, and not till I had had one other slight adventure to crown the excitement of this long and eventful evening.
I had heard most, if not all, the inmates of the house come upstairs to their rooms, and the silence which, in so full a dwelling settles down but slowly, had spread at last from one end of the hall to the other. My room, which was in the northeast corner of the house, overlooked the forest, and I was taking a final look at the weird shapes of the midnight trees nodding through my open window, when some instinct,—was it of the heart or the imagination? bade me open my door once more and cast a final glance down the hall.
I did so, and was startled to behold, in the narrow passage-way at the other extremity of the house, a flitting figure, too noble in its proportions not to be speedily recognized as that of Miss Hurd, passing from door to door, and halting a moment at each as if impelled by some inward uneasiness to ascertain if her warning had been obeyed and each door duly locked according to her own whimsical suggestion.
It was a sight too weird to be forgotten, and I returned to my own room to spend the night in dreams in which three figures of an ominous and disturbing nature mixed and jostled each other in a gray mist which enwrapped both them and myself. One was the woman swinging a roughened stick over a titanic shoulder; another, the silent, form of the stricken Sister of Mercy, drooping her head before the implacable finger of her pursuer; and the third, the living, burning image of the mysterious musician, halting in the dead of night before a door, like a watcher beside a tomb, or Nemesis on the track of the guilty.
“Judge not thy friend, until thou standest in his place.”
I did not see Miss Hurd again until near noon of the next day. Then I ran across her in the lower hall just as she was entering the rear door on her way from the woods. The two little sisters of Miss Dalrymple were with her, and the picture she made in her broad-brimmed hat, with her arms full of ferns and wild flowers, went far to rob her figure of the weird shadows with which my previous night’s experience had surrounded her in my imagination. Yet her face was not untroubled, and her eyes when they fell on my countenance wore a startled look which her ready smile of greeting failed to entirely dissipate.
“You have spent a profitable morning,” I remarked, in my anxiety to hear her voice and meet her eye.
The children, crowding up closely on either side, leaned their heads against her in loving devotion.
“Yes,” she returned, with an air of subdued constraint, as she glanced down at her numerous trophies, “these two little ones and myself have ransacked the forest for Miss Dalrymple’s fernery.”
“Can I not relieve you of a portion of your burden?” I asked, longing to prolong the interview, yet conscious that both the place and the hour were unfavorable.
“No,” she rejoined, with more gravity in the calm shake of her head than the moment seemed to warrant; yet, notwithstanding this somewhat abrupt refusal, she lingered for just a passing instant while I spoke to the children and admired their spoils, smiling with a sad grace, and a womanly sympathy with the little ones’ pleasure that touched me more than any open expression of happiness might have done.
But suddenly she started, and with a nervous movement, passed hurriedly upstairs. As she did so she dropped two little sprigs of laurel, and as I was stooping to pick them up I perceived the cause of her perturbation.
Mr. Murdoch, who had haunted the parlors since early morning, had stepped into the hall and was standing in full view of us both, with his eyes bent earnestly on her face. It was the undisguised interest visible in his glance that had startled her and sent her upstairs in confusion.
I dropped one of the sprigs which I had picked up, but kept the other in my hand. As I met his eyes I fastened it slowly in my button-hole, and then turned nonchalantly away towards the open door.
But he was not to be put off so easily. Advancing hurriedly to the foot of the stairs, he picked up the other sprig, and thrusting it as conspicuously as I had done into the lappet of his coat, came and stood beside me, with his face turned towards the forest.
Regarding this as an acceptance of the challenge I had just offered, I remained silent and a momentary constraint fell upon us both. Then he spoke in a slow, calm way, which gave unexpected emphasis to the words he chose to utter.
“Mr. Ruxton,” said he, “I might as well acknowledge at once that I feel myself greatly attracted towards the lady who has just gone upstairs. If she will listen to me, I am ready to take her from here as my wife; therefore if I seem to show any undue interest in her proceedings it is because I know my own purpose in her regard, and know it to be of a deeper and more considerate character than any which you or any other man is likely to cherish upon so short an acquaintance.”
I was stunned. For such plain speaking as this I had no answer. Though her beauty had deeply attracted me, though she struck me as being both physically and intellectually the most superb woman I had ever seen, I was not yet ready to acknowledge, even to myself, that I was ambitious to make her my wife. Yet I could not allow him to leave me under the impression that he had but to utter his wishes for me to withdraw all claim to her good graces, and so I stood for a moment irresolute, gazing like himself directly into the underwood that stretched in seemingly fathomless greenery before us.
“I am obliged to you,” I presently ventured, “for the confidence with which you have thought fit to honor me. I have seen Miss Hurd but twice, and both times, as you know, under circumstances which precluded conversation. I therefore do not feel myself sufficiently acquainted with her, either to compliment you upon your intentions toward her, or to say that I am prepared to regard her solely as the object of your preference.”
His reply was short but perfectly courteous.
“I have acquainted you with my intentions,” said he; “but that does not mean that I require or even desire a return of confidence on your part.” And drawing back, with a bow in which I in vain looked for some evidence of disrespect or ill-feeling, he disappeared into the room from which he had come.
As for myself, I remained transfixed, staring into the beeches. My brain was in a turmoil, and my heart bruised and irritated at being called upon to give evidence of itself thus prematurely. He had known Miss Hurd for no greater length of time, and under no more favorable conditions, than myself, yet he was not only ready, but willing, to avow his intention of courting her for his wife. It was strange, if not unprecedented, and yet she was just the woman to rouse such an instantaneous passion.
I did not quarrel with his precipitancy, but was I prepared to emulate it? I concluded that I was not, and found some comfort in the thought which came with this conclusion, that precipitancy sometimes alarms women, and that in this especial case her obviously unhappy past would make her much more likely to be won by a slow and growing regard, than by any frantic expression of wild and unreasoning passion.
Feeling the house oppressive, I went into the woods. But my walk there was short. Contemplation convinced me that instead of chafing at the situation in which I found myself, I should reconcile myself to it, and thereby cultivate the patience which I so sadly lacked. Besides, if I left the house to Murdoch, what opportunities might not be granted him; opportunities which I was by no means sure I wished to share, but which I was not yet ready to yield entirely to another.
I ended by returning to the house and making my peace with Miss Dalrymple.
Mr. Murdoch, who seemed infected with a restlessness as great as my own, wandered in and out of the parlors during my long talk with this lady, and not till late in the afternoon did there occur any event of sufficient interest to stop him in his aimless meanderings, or myself in the flood of small talk in which I had become involved.
He had been standing in one of the windows overlooking the street, and was so still that I had become almost insensible to his presence, when a sudden movement on his part attracted my attention. Watching him, I noticed that a look of eagerness had supplanted his apathetic expression of a moment before, and perceiving that he was about to leave the room, I rose from my position at Miss Dalrymple’s side, and, with a murmured apology, crossed to the window he had just vacated, and glanced out. A carriage was standing in front of the door, and in it I could just discern a woman with a basket in her lap.
Was it Miss Hurd? Not being able to see her face I could not determine, but when in another moment I saw Mr. Murdoch issue from the house and approach the carriage with his hat on, and every evidence of being about to take his place at her side, I lost all doubt as to her identity, and only concerned myself as to how I was to preserve my equanimity in face of this evident triumph on the part of my demonstrative rival.
Happily I was not called upon to do so, for at that moment Miss Tewksbury came running into the room, exclaiming as she tied her bonnet-strings:
“Oh, Mr. Ruxton, won’t you come with us. John is going to the station, and he always expects some half dozen of us to accompany him. There’s plenty of room in the carriage, and we sometimes have lots of fun.”
My luck was in the ascendant. Nothing could have held me back after this invitation; but after I was safely seated in the carryall, with Miss Tewksbury at my side, and Mr. Murdoch, strange to say, on the front seat with the driver, and behind us all the silent and immovable figure of Miss Hurd, clad in a heavy veil that nearly concealed her features, I found it hard to decide, even in my own mind, whether I had been more influenced in my action by a desire to be near Miss Hurd on each and every occasion possible, or by an unworthy motive of jealousy and a wish to interrupt the tête-è-tête I had seen him so boldly plan under my very eyes.
The look she gave me as I appeared with my companion at the side of the carriage, assured me that she felt rather relieved than otherwise by my presence there; and strangely gratified by this evidence of her indifference to his admiration,—if it was indifference, for who can understand a woman!—I took but little offence at his glance, though, to tell the truth, it was strangely lacking in hostility and those evidences of open rivalry which I had been led to expect from the avowal he had so lately made to me.
The vivacity of my companion made any attempt on my part to address the lady behind me impossible; and as the ride was short, the station was reached without a word having been uttered to or by this severely silent woman. Indeed, she had drawn her veil so closely, that all temptation to address her was effectually stifled. Yet there were none of us who did not feel her presence. Even the laugh of my volatile companion showed constraint; and when, the platform reached, we all alighted, and Miss Hurd passed with her basket into an adjoining store, I noted that we all breathed easier, and that even Mr. Murdoch changed his brooding air into one more cheerful and companionable.
That all this sounds puerile and unworthy of careful noting, I am more than aware. But Miss Hurd possessed that pronounced and imposing individuality which gives to every movement more than ordinary meaning, and in the few days of our mutual stay at Beech Grove, she passed through a crisis of feeling so noteworthy, as to warrant those who loved her, in attributing the greatest importance to her least looks and slightest actions.
But of this, plain as it is to me now, I was but imperfectly aware at the time, and so when the Eastern Express came in, and I saw, amid the general hurry and rush, her fine figure mixing itself with the crowd that was hastening toward the train, I did not know what to make of Mr. Murdochs agitated rush after her, till I perceived she was herself mounting the steps of the last car, and recognized by the firm line into which her mobile lips had settled, that her intention was to go away upon this very train.
“Miss Hurd?” shouted the merry voice of Miss Tewksbury at my side. “Are you leaving us for good?”
The bell was ringing, and the whole train had that premonitory jarring tug, indicating departure; but the unhappy woman, hearing her name, turned instinctively, and, meeting my look, faltered, and in so doing stopped just long enough for Murdoch, who had made one bound around the end of the train, to mount the car from the other side. When she looked back, he was standing before her with his hand held out and a smile on his face which seemed to affect her strangely, for she shrank and then suddenly relinquished her purpose and stepped from the train. He bounded after her, but did not attempt to join her or speak to her again.
“How very queer!” exclaimed Miss Tewksbury in my ear. “Miss Hurd is a very odd person; do you not think so, Mr. Ruxton?”
I answered with a look that must have been somewhat meaningless, for the lady in question was at that moment passing us on her way back to the carriage. As she went by, she threw aside her veil.
“I had an errand in Darien,” she remarked, with sudden cold composure; “but I have decided to wait till to-morrow.” And without deigning any explanation of her extraordinary change of purpose, or offering the least apology for the peculiarities of her conduct, she took her seat in the carryall and again pulled down her veil.
This episode and the quiet satisfaction which it seemed to awaken in Mr. Murdoch, gave me enough to think about till tea time, and would have occupied me longer if the evening had not brought its own excitements.
“Fate is woven from unnoted threads.”
Mr. Livermore was a man with a taste for curios. His house was filled with specimens of foreign art and workmanship. In the library especially there was a collection of Eastern swords and Japanese vases, fine enough to rouse cupidity in the breast of the most indifferent.
There was one small dagger in particular which attracted general attention, and when, later in the evening, a certain game was proposed in which this dagger was offered as a prize, not only myself, but all who were present became deeply interested in the venture, and sat down to play for this exquisite weapon with feelings little calculated to prepare any of us for its loss.
Miss Hurd was not present, but as there was one person lacking from the number necessary to make up a good game, she was speedily summoned, and I soon had the satisfaction of seeing her take her seat at the table.
As her chair was directly opposite my own, and at right angles to that occupied by Mr. Murdoch, her first glance naturally fell in my direction. This seemed to irritate him, for he moved uneasily and frowned so darkly for a man of his uniform amiability, that I became confident that the game would never reach its conclusion without some open show of jealousy on his part.
But I was mistaken in this, as in many other things connected with Miss Hurd, for never had I seen him more affable than through the progress of this game. When he did not laugh, he talked, and that in so cheerful and apt a way that I found no reason for obtruding any remarks of my own into a conversation that was at once so spontaneous and so entertaining.
Miss Hurd played cards as she did everything else, with an air of subdued fire and mysterious meaning; but there was lacking from her face those evidences of suppressed emotion, which had surprised me the day before, and I began to think I had exaggerated the tragic significance of her former expression and manner.
The game was an involved one and lasted for some time, but when, by the unexpected turning of a certain lucky card, the meed of victory became hers, the sudden silence that fell upon the players was of the most embarrassing nature. Miss Dalrymple rose, and Miss Clayton, with an obvious desire not to appear disappointed, drew up her slight form with a short laugh, cutting enough to hear, had Miss Hurd been in a mood to notice trifles.
But, as was evident to both Mr. Murdoch and myself, she was too much moved by the sight of the strange prize she had won to note the petty evidences of displeasure visible on every side.
Trembling violently, as it was thrust towards her hand, she started from her chair with an appearance of fright and repulsion that surprised us all, and murmuring in choked tones, “I have no liking for weapons of that nature,” stretched out her hand towards it, and then drew it back, with signs of agitation totally out of accordance with her grand physique and general air of power and physical daring.
“It is a very choice specimen of the armorer’s art,” remarked Mr. Murdoch, in a tone of kindly assurance.
But she shook her head with a sudden, quick glance of her eye in his direction, that for some reason or other gave me an uncomfortable shock, and quickly observing, “I cannot accept it,” folded her hands, as if to withdraw them from temptation. “I am sorry,” began Mr. Livermore. “You have won the prize—”
But here Mr. Murdoch’s calm voice was heard making the following somewhat remarkable proposition:
“If Miss Hurd does not like the dagger, and if she will allow me the pleasure of relieving her of it, I will gladly give her in exchange for it my check for fifty dollars.”
She was a woman of commanding presence, and though dressed more plainly than any other lady in the room, had that distinction of manner which we instinctively associate with extreme nicety of feeling and great personal pride. We therefore naturally expected to behold some explosion of anger on her part at an offer so indecorous and ill-judged, but to our astonishment she gave no evidence of displeasure, but, on the contrary, evinced positive relief, if not satisfaction. However, when she spoke, it was to ask a question.
“Is it worth that much?” she queried, casting a look at Mr. Livermore, in which she vainly tried to suppress a certain eagerness.
“It is worth more,” coolly returned that gentleman, naturally offended at the turn affairs were taking.
“I should not have dreamed it,” she remarked absently, evidently totally oblivious not only to Mr. Livermore’s displeasure, but to the unfortunate impression her lack of delicacy was making upon the rest of the company. “But if it is so, and if Mr. Murdoch seriously wishes this—this”—she stumbled over the word, but finally whispered, “toy, then I will take the money, and thank him. Do you want this dagger?” she suddenly asked, with marked emphasis, looking her secret but unavowed lover imperiously in the face.
Mr. Murdoch, who had grown slightly pale, bowed as he met her eye, and answered suavely:
“I do. Even without the added value which your temporary ownership has given to it, I should be glad to buy so beautiful a piece of work at even a greater price than I have offered you.”
“Then take it,” she impetuously cried, pushing it towards him with an excited gesture; and was going hurriedly away, when she impulsively paused and, without looking back or turning round, threw back at him these few words in a half inaudible whisper: “I will be obliged to you, if you will hand the money to Mr. Livermore.” And having said this she walked on.
But he was after her before she reached the door. “Wait,” he entreated, and we could imagine his smile, although we could not see it. “Will you not take it from my hand?”
She paused, stepped back, and glancing at the bill he held out, grew instantly severe in her aspect and quietly repellent.
“You said fifty,” she remarked; “you are hardly justified in proffering me more.”
“Pardon me,” said he, “I was but following Mr. Livermore’s suggestion.”
She bent her head with an icy dignity that restored her at once to her usual position of easy superiority.
“I cannot take your money,” said she. Then with a haughty lift of her head she quietly remarked: “I make you a present of the dagger,” and glided without further words from the room.
We were all so astounded at this scene for which no explanation offered itself, that we had none of us moved or spoken while it was going on. But when she had disappeared and we saw Mr. Murdoch’s face again turned our way, it was impossible for us not to betray some of the interest and excitement naturally awakened in us by this surprising episode.
But his manner, while perfectly courteous, nipped all such display of feeling in the bud. Handing a fifty dollar bill to Mr. Livermore, he quietly observed: “You will see that Miss Hurd gets this,” and then, embracing the whole crowd in his proud smile, he sat down and at once launched forth into a disquisition on the armorer’s art that was equally brilliant and instructive. But though he succeeded in diverting some and distracting the attention of others, he could not withdraw my thoughts from the occurrence which had just taken place. All the while he was speaking I was trying to settle in my own mind the nature of her feelings towards this rich man, and endeavoring to decide why she had so far forgotten herself as to openly dispose of an article in this mercenary manner, which had been publicly presented to her by a person of Mr. Livermore’s claims to respect. Was the sum which had been offered her so great that she found it impossible to refuse it? The glint in her eye at the first mention of money seemed to confirm this supposition, and yet how could I reconcile the existence of such cupidity with her general air of pride and her subsequent gift of the very object she had been so anxious to sell.
I began to realize that my doubts in her regard were increasing too rapidly for my comfort, and angry at myself that I was still so influenced by her beauty and force of character as to feel that the light had been extinguished in the room by her departure, I withdrew to my own apartment, with the fixed determination to leave the place on the morrow, and thus end the whole matter so far as I was concerned.
And thus closed my second day at Beech Grove.
“And the Lord discomforted Sisera and all his chariots and all his host, with the edge of the sword before Barak; so that Sisera lighted down off his chariot and fled away on his feet.
“And Jael went out to meet Sisera, and said unto him, Turn in, my lord, turn in to me; fear not. And when he had turned in unto her into the tent, she covered him with a mantle.
“And he said unto her, Stand in the door of the tent, and it shall be when any man doth come and inquire of thee and say, Is there any man here? that thou shalt say, No.
“Then Jael, Heber’s wife, took a nail of the tent, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground, for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died,”
When I rose the next morning, it was, as I have said, with the fixed resolve of quitting the place before noon. But twelve o’clock came and went, and I was still a guest at Beech Grove. Why this trifling with my own judgment? Why this persistent lingering upon the brink of a precipice which I recognized only too well as a fatal one? Had these passing and unsatisfactory glimpses of a woman, whose chief attraction lay in the difficulty of understanding her, affected my manhood to such an extent that I could not leave the spot that held her? Or was it simply my interest in her as a splendid specimen of primeval womanhood, which made departure from this house for the time being impossible? Difficult and soul-searching questions which I shrank from facing, with something of the feeling of a coward who follows his instincts without seeking to inquire into the causes which give them birth.
If I had seen her at the breakfast-table, I might have summoned up courage to carry out my intention of departure, because my conscience would have had no excuse for ignoring it. But not seeing her, I found it easy to convince myself that the claims of courtesy forbade me to leave the dwelling without an adieu to one who had so awakened my regard; and when noon also passed without my having met her in parlor or hall, not even conscience could still the demand of my whole nature, for one more sight of her strange, unfathomable face, and one more word from lips, so unused to smiles, that they seemed made for farewells only.
Miss Dalrymple, to whom smiles, such as they were, came only too easily, detained me for some time in the library, talking over the tableaux with which she proposed to enliven the evening hours; and though I lent her my attention and gave her such suggestions as my acquaintance with the fine arts made possible, I did not enter into the matter with any vital interest till she remarked:
“Do you not think Miss Hurd would make a grand Jael?”
Instantly the whole scheme took on purpose and color; and though I was enabled by a sudden effort to keep up the polite indifference of my tone, I could not help replying:
“I certainly do, Miss Dalrymple; especially if Mr. Murdoch could be induced to act as the Sisera necessary for the occasion.”
She threw me a glance of sudden curiosity, or so my guilty conscience interpreted it, and answered with the brief remark:
“Mr. Murdoch has gone to Syracuse. But he would make a good Sisera, I acknowledge.”
I flushed, not at her acquiescence in my opinion, but at the relief I suddenly experienced at hearing of his whereabouts. So! he was not by any chance with her! Had I feared such a possibility that at the news of his absence, my heart felt so much lighter? Suppressing these thoughts as much as possible from the keen, if smiling eyes, of my companion, I observed in an off-hand way:
“Miss Hurd has not thought fit to honor the parlors with her presence to-day.”
To which Miss Dalrymple replied, with the suggestion of a shrug: “Miss Hurd is not at liberty till evening. She is not a guest of the household, Mr. Ruxton, but a member of it, and a very useful one, too, I am told.”
Inwardly forgiving her manner in consideration of the information she had thought best to bestow, I bowed, and recurred again to the projected tableaux, by saying:
“If you wish to get up a scene in the Kenite’s tent, I will see what I can do towards making it an artistic success.”
“You honor us,” said she, in a tone nicely adjusted between gratitude and a sarcastic recognition of my interest in another woman; and we parted without my really knowing whether she accepted or declined the offer I had made.
At dinner I caught a glimpse of Miss Hurd. She entered the dining-room early and by the door communicating with the kitchen, so that I missed her in the hall, and found her seated when I entered and took my own place at the table. As the guests were many and the table consequently long, we were too far separated for conversation and almost too far for greeting. I, however, succeeded in making her lift her eyes for one brief moment, and immediately blamed myself for doing so; for the look she gave me was one of appeal, if not of reproach, and while it sank deeply into my heart, awakening chords which had never been struck before, it also served to show me the ungenerousness of an attempt which could provoke such a blush before a crowded table.
Cursing the curiosity, or the somewhat deeper feelings which had prompted me to this action, I turned my eyes away and studiously busied myself with my right-hand neighbor, but the one short glance I had received haunted me to the end of the meal, and made my duty a constant struggle. At last Mrs. Livermore rose, and I felt myself released. As I left the table I allowed myself one backward glance. Was she there or had she disappeared the way she came? I thought she had disappeared, for I could not instantly see her; but just as I was passing through the door connecting with the hallway I heard or rather felt a movement behind me, and, turning, detected her figure flitting back through the dining-room.
Chagrined to find that she had been so near me without my knowing it, I passed into the hall in a frame of mind totally at variance with the demands of the moment. For not only was a bright young girl awaiting me there with suggestions for a certain tableau in which we were to appear together that night, but before me in the centre of the hall, just as he had come from the cars, stood Murdoch, with his eyes fixed on my face, in penetrating inquiry, as if he had been asking himself the very question which had been agitating my own mind all the day: “What opportunities has he had in my absence? and have these hours of my enforced departure been spent with her?”
I could have satisfied him, but manliness forbade; pride also and the secret jealousy which would have risen to antagonism if I had not cherished the vain thought that she shunned him even more persistently than she did me. So, merely acknowledging his presence with a bow, I turned to the little lady who was smiling at my side, and allowed her to take me away to the drawing-room, where we were soon engrossed in plans for the evening’s entertainment. Meantime I heard him greeted by a dozen voices. “Now we shall have our tableaux!” cried one.
“Mr. Ruxton says that you are the only man who can perfectly represent Sisera,” volunteered another.
And while this remark was awakening in me anything but pleasurable sensations, I heard Miss Dalrymple gayly observe:
“It only remains with Miss Hurd, now, whether or not we make this evening a marked success.”
Could they not keep her name out of the conversation? I longed to break away from my companion and join the group without, if only to see how he took these remarks, but politeness withheld me, and in a few minutes I had the mingled pain and pleasure of hearing the whole crowd leave the hall for the dining-room, there to entertain him no doubt with similar seasonable observations, while he partook of the solitary meal his tardy arrival necessitated.
At four o’clock he and all the rest of the young people appeared in the large open space in the upper hall, at the head of the double staircase. As this was a favorite place of resort for the whole household, owing to the great window-seats at either end, a collection of books had been brought there, before which I was already seated, examining such pictures as I thought most suitable for reproduction at our evenings entertainment. I had therefore a good opportunity for studying his bearing, which was sufficiently serene if his glance had only corresponded to it. But that was troubled and uneasy, and turned too often towards a certain corridor, branching off towards the left, for me to consider him any more at ease than myself. Yet how bravely he tried to hide his secret anxiety. He laughed and talked and proposed this and that with a lightness that I in vain endeavored to imitate. He even sang a song with a depth of feeling and a beauty of execution that both astonished and angered me, for I had not given him credit for the possession of any actual gifts, and here he was outshining me, if not in my own field, at least in one which was even more dangerous to the hopes I was as yet by no means ready to relinquish.
Was it this song, ringing through the house, which drew her towards us at last, and gave us the excitement, if not the pleasure, of her presence? I was determined not to think so; rather was I ready to believe that she had come at the summons of Mrs. Livermore, who hearing that Miss Dalrymple wished to make out a list of the pictures to be presented that night, sent for the prospective Jael to hear what her wishes were likely to be on the subject.
Yet I could not but note that it was just as the last mellow tones of his searching voice wavered on the air, that her face appeared in the hallway, nor could I close my eyes to the fact that it wore a look of constraint, as if she had been forced into our presence against her will.
There was no flutter nor movement at her appearance, though two hearts at least beat quicker. She was no guest to be welcomed, and though her intense personality and majesty of deportment commanded a certain homage from the eye, no hand was outstretched to greet her, nor was there any sudden rising or shifting of chairs, such as the sudden presence of a beautiful woman in a well filled place usually occasions.
Yet she found a seat, and one that placed her where both Murdoch and myself could watch her countenance without any especial betrayal of interest on our part, and though I hesitated to profit by my opportunity, I soon found that he had no such scruples, but, on the contrary, showed his pleasure in her presence by the most unreserved looks and smiles in her direction.
Instantly I felt tempted to rise and take my stand between them, but a certain consideration for her stopped me. I remembered the look of distress with which she repelled my too importunate glance at the dinner-table, and being determined to gain her gratitude even if I failed in winning her affection, I remained where I was, confident that before the day was over some opportunity would be given me to counteract the effect of an homage which I could not but acknowledge was only too eloquent.
She had brought some needlework with her, and sat with her eyes fixed imperturbably upon it. But I noticed from the twitching of her mouth at times that she felt the force of his gaze, and trembled before it, whether with pleasure or pain, alas! I could not tell.
Suddenly Miss Dalrymple, chagrined possibly at a certain constraint which had fallen upon the company, raised her voice and addressed her.
“Will you take the part of Jael to Mr. Murdoch’s Sisera in our tableaux to-night, Miss Hurd?”
Was it the tone or the question which so forcibly struck her? I had supposed myself to have already seen her in the full glare of imperative, if unknown, tragic conditions, but the expression which at this simple remark whitened her face and intensified her every lineament, affected me with as powerful a shock as if I had only beheld her under aspects the most ordinary and pleasurable. I was the only person present, however, quick enough or interested enough to take this in; for with a vivid realization of the effect which such undue agitation might produce upon the minds of the careless merrymakers about her, she smoothed her forehead, dropped her eyes, and forced a smile of polite deprecation into the corners of her lips, that were too pale not to belie to the careful eye this attempt at careless self-possession.
“Excuse me,” she began—
But here Mrs. Livermore’s somewhat shrill voice made itself heard from her comfortable corner in the window recess,
“Of course Miss Hurd will do anything that Miss Dalrymple requires.”
And Miss Hurd became silent, though her paleness failed to disappear, even after Murdoch had spoken with kindly impetuosity of his gratitude at the destined honor, and laughingly added that he hoped it would not prove fatal to him.
She attempted to smile again at this suggestion, but something—was it the sarcastic insinuation in Miss Dalrymple’s tone, or just the prospect of associating herself so intimately with a man who made no concealment of his feelings towards her,—tripped her up in the endeavor, for she faltered and turned away, this time with an aspect so cold that even he felt the rebuff and ceased his assiduities.
Unfortunately, one of the young ladies thought it witty to remark:
“Mr. Ruxton has promised his skill in arrangement, and means to make this especial tableau the wonder of the evening.”
At which Miss Hurd turned again with a fiery purpose burning in her face, and would have spoken in distinct refusal of the part she was called upon to play, had not Mrs. Livermore forestalled her with the imperative remark:
“Mr. Ruxton is very good, and Miss Hurd, I am sure, is duly grateful. We shall expect a triumphant success from ‘Sisera in the Kenite’s Tent.’ ”
And looking at her and at him, and realizing as I did, what was passing in my own heart, I foresaw that if it should not prove a triumphant success from an artistic point of view, it would at least leave three souls in a different position towards each other than they were at this perplexing moment. But in what position? The coming midnight hour alone could tell.
“A moment when feeling rising high above its average depth, leaves flood-marks which are never to be reached again.”
I do not intend to relate all the complex incidents of that evening. I only mean to speak of what immediately preceded and followed the tableau in which we are especially interested. We had given some half dozen pictures of various poetic and biblical scenes to a highly appreciative and enthusiastic audience, composed mainly of friends from the neighboring district, when Miss Dalrymple, coming into the music-room, where the stage stood, announced that it was time to set up the tent of Heber the Kenite.
At the same moment, Mr. Murdoch made his appearance, clad in rich armor, (found among the gorgeous treasures of our dilettante host). He looked so martial and imposing, that I began to feel a decidedly artistic interest in the projected tableau.
“And now, where is Miss Hurd?” demanded Miss Dalrymple, as she watched me pitch the tent and arrange within it the few furnishings necessary to make it a picturesque background for the two formidable figures about to occupy it.
“She has not been seen here at all this evening,” some one remarked.
I knew that only too well, and so did Mr. Murdoch and likewise Miss Dalrymple.
“Go up and tell her that we are waiting,” suggested the latter to her little niece who was clinging to her side. “She certainly has not presumed to ignore my commands to be ready at half-past nine,” continued the imperious girl, as the little one drew off; and while I wondered whether Miss Dalrymple had assumed this tone as a reminder to myself and Mr. Murdoch of the position at present held by this woman, so superior in all other regards to herself, the little messenger came running back with a frightened look, and hid her face in Miss Dalrymple’s skirts.
“What is the matter—what ails the child?” cried her aunt, drawing back with an unsympathetic movement that at once proclaimed her no lover of children.
“She looked so—so awful!” murmured the child, leaving Miss Dalrymple and stealing timidly towards my outstretched hand.
“Pshaw!” cried the former, “she is about to play an awful part. By the way,” she inquired of me, “have you the hammer and nail ready?”
I shewed them to her, even while I was watching Mr. Murdoch, who was never more quietly composed, and listening to the whispered confidences which little Una was at that moment timidly dropping into my ear.
“She was standing before the glass, and her eyes were dreadful,” whispered the little one. “Do tableaux make one look like that? If so, I am afraid of tableaux.”
I stooped to reassure the child, and just as I had won back the merry smile to her lips, Miss Hurd came in. She was clad in scarlet draperies, edged here and there with arabesques of black and gold, and if beauty can be associated with what inspires feelings of awe and terror rather than those of delight, then did she present at that moment a most beautiful picture of commanding womanhood. Her rich hair, full of purple shadows, floated about shoulders made regal with bands of jewelled embroidery crossed over them, while above her forehead, heavy with tragic impulses, rose a species of crown or helmet, which lent to her naturally imperial aspect the stately dignity we are accustomed to associate with the heroines of that semi-barbarous age and nation.
But though I saw all this, not only with a lover’s eye, but with that of an artist as well, it was upon her face I mainly gazed, for that truly was terrible, though she had modified its expression somewhat at the sight of the shrinking child.
“Bravo! magnificent!” called out Mr. Parke, who was acting as sort of general helper and supernumerary. “How do you relish laying your head under the hand of such a Jael as that?” he inquired in a loud whisper of Murdoch, who stood, himself a magnificent figure, eying the approaching lady with a gaze which seemed to express mainly a critical approval both of her costume and beauty.
“I esteem myself only too happy,” was the gallant rejoinder. At which her great eyes rose with something like wonder to his face, only to fall again in a vague trouble which I could not associate with the part she had to play, but with some inner emotion of her own mind which none of us found it possible to penetrate.
“Are you ready?” now asked Miss Dalrymple, with just the suspicion of harshness roughening her usually suave and gracious tones. “Miss Clifford is on the last bar of her song, and the people do not like to wait.”
“I am ready,” answered Murdoch, flinging himself down on the floor of the tent in the attitude I had taught him to assume earlier in the evening.
“And Miss Hurd?”
“Ready too,” was the low answer, as she crossed the floor and prepared to enter the tent.
Suddenly I felt a hand on my arm and heard a low whisper.
It was in her tones; she had turned back for an instant and now stood visibly trembling beside me.
“I am afraid,” she murmured, and then stopped.
“Stand where I can see you,” she added, after a moment in which I could hear her heart beating.
“I shall look at you and not at him. Will you—will you do that for me?”
I was shaken, greatly shaken, more by her manner than by her words, but I bowed a smiling assent before reaching out for the dread accessories of hammer and nail with which she was supposed to threaten the life of the sleeping captain. As I did so I met Murdoch’s eye, gleaming watchfully upon me from under his folded arm. But I was not surprised at this; I should have watched if I had been in his place.
“There!” said I, following her into the tent, and giving her the formidable hammer and the yet more formidable nail which I had had made from a long spike. “Throw yourself down on one knee and—”
“Miss Hurd needs no instructions,” interposed Murdoch, lifting his face towards us with a genial smile. “A woman who can improvise a costume of that nature, does not require to be told how to bend and how to frown, to make herself a tragic picture.”
Willing to humor him, I gave a silent assent, and backing slowly out of the tent, waited for her to take her position. But she seemed to hesitate; and the man who had charge of the curtain let his hand fall from the string he had been on the point of drawing. Suddenly she moved, and casting me one quick glance, sank in a crouching attitude above the now happy Murdoch, and raised the deadly hammer.
“Up!” shouted a voice, and the curtain which had been slowly trembling, began to rise.
But though I heard the murmur of delight which greeted the remarkable picture thus discovered to the audience in the other room, I neither felt nor realized anything but that her eyes were fixed upon mine with an expression that made the moment one of the most memorable of my life. Not the trembling of her hand, nor the heaving of her breast struck me so forcibly as her gaze which seemed to hang upon mine for salvation, and which, if it were a simulated one, had power enough to still the heart in my breast, and make my blood forget to flow through its accustomed channel.
Suddenly I heard a sound. It was low and whispering, and scarcely reached my ears, though they were strained to the utmost. Murdoch was speaking and she was listening, with that terrific weapon hanging over his head.
The crowd beyond looked and admired, and I, watching the dilation of her eyeballs, felt each instant an eternity. What was he saying, and why had her gaze, though still fixed upon my face, lost that concentrated look and become confused, if not wandering. Was he pleading his love to her there, in the face of the crowd, and under circumstances so startling and discordant? It was very possible; indeed, I presently became quite assured of it, and a jealous fury seized me which might have cost me my self-command, if my instinct had not led me to watch her face and —
Suddenly I gave a shout.
“Down with the curtain!” I cried; and bounding forward, I caught Miss Hurd in my arms. “You are not well,” I urged. “You permit the dramatic instinct to overpower you.”
But she was already laughing; laughing gaily, and with a ring of joy in the tones that sent me astonished, and not a little mortified, to the other end of the room.
“What a picture!” “Splendid! Splendid!” rose from various quarters of the room.
“Miss Hurd should certainly study for the stage. Did you ever see such intensity and such coloring!”
“Rachel could have had no more expressive features!”
And she of whom this was said, and for whose poise of mind I had but a moment before actually trembled, was laughing like a child. What was I to think? To whom or to what was I to ascribe these sudden changes of violent feeling?
That Murdoch was satisfied, and drew from her present manner the happiest auguries, was evident from his serene and happily composed countenance; and for a moment I was enough influenced by the peculiarity of the situation to dread some display on his part of the privileges of an accepted lover. But though he approached her with timely congratulations, and politely relieved her of the heavy hammer she was still holding in her relaxed grasp, he added no words to the declaration I believed him to have made while the curtain was up, nor made any attempt to detain her, when, with a gracious bow to Miss Dalrymple, who had deigned to speak some few words of praise and thanks, she withdrew from the room to doff her brilliant garments.
As for myself, I was in a condition of perplexity which made any analysis of my own emotions impossible. I seemed, by the violent beating of my heart, to have been standing with these two on the edge of a gulf whose depths I had not even dared to sound, but when I looked at him, smiling in happy ease upon the surrounding spectators, who were now loud in their praises of Miss Hurd’s gorgeous costume and wonderful face, and, above all, when I remembered Miss Hurd’s last look, as she smilingly left the room, I could not but ask if this strange passion, which was infecting my whole life, had not affected my judgment, and made me exaggerate into depths of darkness the clouded shallows of commonplace perplexities and surface nothings.
If this was so, and I had read both him and her wrongly, then was I a fool, and she a woman to at once worship and hate. As I came to this conclusion, I decided that I would know whether she had been playing with me; and, fixed in this resolution, I left the gay party below and proceeded to the upper hall, through which I knew she would have to pass, if she came down again to join the company. But she did not come; and fearing to be found by some of the gay young girls now flying freely over the house in every direction, I went down into the smoking-room, where, as good luck would have it, I encountered Mr. Livermore, sitting alone.
“Ah!” thought I to myself, “this is an opportunity I will not lose.” And throwing myself down by my entertaining host, I asked him what he thought of the last tableau,
“Humph! ha! good, very good!” was the rather non-committal answer. “Hester has a great genius for such things.” Hester was Miss Dalrymple.
I smiled. Miss Dalrymple had not had very much to do with the effectiveness of this tableau.
“Miss Hurd is a woman of somewhat surprising gifts to be in the position she at present occupies,” I ventured, with as bold a front as I could assume.
“Has she been with you long? Do you know her parentage and history?”
The question was not easy to propound, but my resolution carried me through. The smile which raised the corners of Mr. Livermore’s moustache did not greatly reassure me.
“Smitten, eh?” he suggested.
I was angry, but managed to hide it.
“Such a picture as she presented to-night would have aroused any man’s interest,” I declared.
“So it would, so it would. No; I do not know anything about her parentage or history. She was recommended to us by a Mr. Farnham of South Bend, as a person well calculated to be of assistance to Mrs. Livermore. But she has answered expectations only partially. As you say, she is above her position, and I myself have sometimes felt a certain curiosity as to her past life and the reverses which she must have suffered.”
This was agreeable enough, but quite unsatisfactory. Accepting his proffer of a cigar, I turned the conversation into what I hoped would prove a more productive channel.
“Do you know,” said I, “that I find it hard to understand your latest guest, Mr. Murdoch?” Mr. Livermore laughed outright.
“Why, Murdoch is as open as the day. He is too frank, I think. I like genial and good-natured men, but—” The rest of the sentence went forth in smoke.
“You have known him, I suppose, for some time?” I observed after a moment’s silence.
“Oh, yes; I have known him, or known of him, for several years. He is no inconsiderable man. In San Francisco, where he lives, he has the name of being one of the best-hearted and most public-spirited men in the community. Carruthers knows him well.”
“A bachelor?” I intimated, “or a widower?”
Mr. Livermore did not think it best to reply. “Since when have you become curious?” he asked, smiling with the easy freedom of an old acquaintance.
I puffed away at my cigar. Should I take this man into my confidence?
“Has Mr. Murdoch presumed to forage upon any of your preserves?” laughed my host good-naturedly. “Though he is deucedly handsome, I don’t think you need fear anything from his rivalry. Gallant men like him usually expend their force and fire in simple gallantry.”
I thought of the declaration which had been made to me by this same gallant man the day before, but I refrained from communicating it. If Mr. Livermore could not see the drama that was being enacted before his eyes, why should I be the man to draw his attention to it?
“My preserves are but indifferently marked out,” I answered, with a light laugh. And having thus risked my secret, without having gained an item of knowledge worth relating, I led the talk away into generalities.
At twelve o’clock I went upstairs.
“O who has hurt you? where’s the wound?”
My room was at the end of the long hall. In going to it I came upon a door before which I detected the figure of one of the maidservants, standing in a doubtful attitude that at once attracted my attention. She had a key in her hand, and, just as I passed her, I saw her thrust it into the lock and quickly turn it. Both her manner and the action struck me as peculiar, and I paused.
“What are you doing there?” I asked.
“Locking in Miss Hurd,” she answered.
Locking in Miss Hurd! What did she mean? I must have shown how confounded I was by these few simple words, for she immediately explained:
“She pays me for doing it. Last night she gave me a dollar just to turn the key on her when I came upstairs. To be sure I was to unlock the door again this morning.”
More and more astonished, but seeing at once that it would not do for me to talk with this girl about Miss Hurd’s eccentricities, I restrained my curiosity, and passed hurriedly on. But I was none the less overwhelmed by this new development in the peculiarities of the woman I loved, and asked myself a dozen times before I reached my own door, what motive could lie at the bottom of an action so mysterious. But recalling her late wanderings through the midnight halls, I decided that she was a somnambulist, who was but taking suitable precautions against a habit which, in a house peopled so fully as this, might lead to infinite embarrassment.
But scarcely had I thus happily settled matters in my own mind, than I heard a quick rap proceed from the room in which she had been locked, and glancing hurriedly back, I saw the girl return to the door, unlock it, and hold a murmured colloquy with the lady within. More curious now than before, I paused on the threshold of my door, and heard distinctly uttered these few words:
“You shall not lose your dollar; there it is; but do not lock the door to-night. Wait, give me the key; I shall feel safer. I do not want to be fastened in again.”
Baffled in my last surmise, and more than ever confounded by Miss Hurd’s mysterious conduct, I entered my room, and sat down in the open window, a prey to innumerable doubts and questions. That she was a somnambulist, was now sufficiently evident to me; that she feared exposure or at least dreaded the consequences of her infirmity upon the surrounding household was equally plain, else why should she pay such sums out of her small salary for the privilege of being locked in her room at night? Or why did she take such pains to arouse us all to caution, as she had done on the night of my first stay in this house, by fanciful tales of burglars, when there were no burglars in the neighborhood, as I had taken pains to ascertain the first time I had gone into town. But say this was so, and that she was a somnambulist and walked in her sleep, why, after taking such precautions against the indulgence of her unfortunate habit on the previous night, was she willing to forego them on this one? Was she so certain of her inability to sleep, that she thought it unnecessary for any restriction to be placed upon her movements? Possibly; but would she be likely to pay a dollar for that? Would it not have been more natural for her to have simply requested the girt to leave her door alone? Some imperative reason instigated the payment of this latter fee. She wished to be sure that her door would not be meddled with. But why? What did this enigmatical woman meditate doing in the still small hours of this night, that in such direct opposition to her previous wishes she desired to be left free to come and go, as she willed, or circumstances prompted.
Had it anything to do with the declaration made by Mr. Murdoch during the tableau? I tried not to think so, and yet, do what I would, the doubt would obtrude itself upon my mind, till, conscious that my own feelings would become insupportable if I allowed myself to remain in her vicinity till the house was quiet and its inmates lapsed in slumber, I took a sudden savage resolution to be free of the house till morning, or at least till all temptation of playing the spy was over.
Hastily exchanging my dress for one more suitable, I rapidly descended the stairs to where I had left Mr. Livermore. The night was mild and dry, and it was my intention to walk till morning, if necessary, so that I might be relieved of the madness that was consuming brain and heart. But first I must consult with my host.
I found him engaged in locking up the house, and dumbfounded him with the following proposition:
“Livermore, I have taken a freak. That is the privilege of artists, you know, and mine is a very harmless one, as it will affect nobody but myself. I want to have a flirtation with the moon; in other words, I am off for a long walk, and as it is a boast of mine that I can get as much rest by movement as other men by sleep, I advise you to lock the house after me, as I shall not be back till the maids are up in the morning.”
“But my dear fellow—” he began,
“Not a word,” I interjected. “Sleep and I have fallen out and I am going to see what exercise will do for me.”
He looked as if he half comprehended my excitement, and shook his head with ominous dissatisfaction; but I, with finger laid in humorous warning on my lip, succeeding in keeping back the expression of his doubts or displeasure, and swinging away before he could recover himself, stepped out into the glorious freedom of the great moonlighted night, with something of the feeling of a prisoner released from thraldom.
Or so I flattered myself for the first half mile or so. But the chains which hold the firmest are those which recognize neither time nor place; and I had not walked long before I became aware that my thoughts still clung persistently to the house I had left behind me. Resolved to end this, I struck fiercely into the woods, and, at the risk of losing myself in its dim mazes, walked as if my life depended upon it, for two mortal hours. The moon was at its full, and had my mind been free, I should have enjoyed the glinting of its silver light through the trees, and the sense of mystery imparted to every vista by the darkness of the shadows cast by the great trunks. But my breast was torn with doubts and racked by a fierce, if unacknowledged, jealousy which ate deeper and deeper into my vitals, as I realized how completely I was separating myself from those interests upon which it seemed to me my whole happiness depended.
Coming upon a path which from its width and comparative freedom from underwood I took to be the road which ran through the forest to the adjoining township, I stopped and asked myself what I had gained by this prolonged effort at self-control.
An escape from the humiliation of playing the spy, at all events. For, from the uneasiness under which I was then suffering, I realized that I could never have remained in the house and slept, while the woman who had first taught me the secret of life’s greatest problem, trembled, perhaps, upon the verge of some indiscretion which might endanger her whole future happiness. My ears would have been open, and my senses on the alert for the sound of a step in the corridor. But now, miles lay between me and this temptation; miles! And while this thought brought its own misery, there was lacking from it the sting of self-contempt which I most dreaded.
Gazing into the vault of stars above, I took courage. “This night, like all nights, is in the hands of God,” I reflected. “If it is well for me to understand and love this woman, the clouds which now bedim her life will pass away, and I will recognize the idol of my dreams. If it is not well, then that fact must be accepted as best also, in whatever light I may now regard it.”
It was now three o’clock in the morning; and knowing the house to be opened at five, I turned my face in the direction of Beech Grove. Though I had never penetrated the forest so far before, I remembered that Mr. Livermore had once stated that the path running from the rear of his house terminated at Darien station; and believing myself to be in this path I pressed fearlessly on, and had walked for about an hour, when I realized that the morning light was gradually diffusing itself through the woods, but so faintly, that the shadows seemed even weirder than before, and the distances more dream-like and uncertain.
Anxious to reach home before the sun rose, I unconsciously hastened my steps, when they, and the impulse which gave them vigor, received a sudden check from the sight of a face floating, spectral-like, in the dusky depths before me. Thinking for the moment that it was but an hallucination born of my fatigue and trouble, I continued to advance, when I saw that the face was hers, and that it was no airy vision, but a living reality.
The shock chained my feet to the ground, and it was moments before I could connect this face with the breathing, moving form that belonged to it. When I did succeed in doing so, I saw that it was clad in a long gray shawl, that, taken with the odd old-fashioned bonnet which covered the head, awoke in me a fresh and startling sensation of surprise which unconsciously expressed itself in words.
“It is the woman of Mr. Parke’s story!”
Though this exclamation was smothered by the very confusion of my emotions, she seemed to hear it, for she paused with almost shocking suddenness, and, looking up, met my eyes in terror and amazement.
“Who would have dreamed—how could I have foreseen that I should meet you here!” came from her lips in smothered gasps.
Her emotion, natural as it was, served rather to calm mine than to increase it, perhaps because I recognized the necessity of calmness.
“Do not be alarmed,” I urged. “It is entirely an accident. I came out for a midnight stroll—a not uncommon piece of folly on my part—and I am just returning home where I shall hope for an early breakfast,”
I spoke lightly, for I saw that she keenly felt her position. Besides, the sight of her here alone, in a garb which, disfiguring as it was, spoke of anything but coquetry, had lifted an intolerable burden from my heart, and although its place was filled with the wonder of finding her identified with the dumb refugee described in the letter read by Mr. Parke, I had no longer to contend with an oppression that had hitherto put weights upon my tongue if not upon my feet.
But there was no corresponding relief in her manner or in her tone when she chose to speak. Though she drew herself up to her former spectral height, and let her eyes fall frankly upon mine, the trembling of her lip was evident, nor indeed did she make any attempt to disguise either her shame or apprehension.
“I hoped,” she said, “to have made my flight unobserved, but Providence has not willed it so.” And she made a quick movement as if to pass me.
“You are flying,” I repeated, “flying from Beech Grove?”
“Yes,” was her steady answer, showing me the bag which she was carrying. “I am on my way to Darien to take the early train. I go this way to escape being followed. You saw that obstacles were put in the way of my departure from O—”
I was so astonished I gasped. “Do you intend,” I asked, “to walk at this hour, in these lonely woods, as far as the station at Darien?”
“I do; I have no fear; I would walk—” She did not say where or how far, but the repressed intensity of her tone seemed to make the lonesome air about us shiver. I did not know what to say or what to do.
“May I ask,” she went on, pausing and looking back over her shoulder, “that you will not mention having met me?”
Though it was still so dark that the fine shades of expression could not be seen more than a foot away, I was angry that the blood mounted so freely to my face, and endeavored to hide my confusion by retreating to one side. Yet it was necessary, or so I thought, to use some sort of remonstrance against the step she was so unadvisably taking.
“I find myself in something of a dilemma,” I declared by way of reply. “Mr. Livermore knows that I am out for a tramp to-night, and when he hears that you—”
She startled me, she turned so suddenly.
“Oh, the wretchedness of my position!” she exclaimed; and her two colorless hands, joined together under her shawl, clasped each other convulsively. The bag she had been carrying had fallen at her first movement to the ground.
“Miss Hurd,” I stammered, wrung to the heart by her distress, and forgetting, in the stress of my feelings, how little claim I had upon her confidence, “are you not exaggerating when you speak of this departure as a flight? Why should you fly from the house of a man like Mr. Livermore?”
This question, vital to her, vital to me, and equally vital, for aught I knew, to the mysterious third party of whom we were both thinking, produced a great effect both upon myself and her, uttered as it was in the dismal depths of the forest, and under influences, whose strangeness was easier felt than described.
I stood still and trembled after I had spoken, while she, slowly uplifting the bag which I had let lie in my absorption, paused for several breathless instants before saying:
“Exaggeration is not one of my weaknesses. I am flying, not from Mr. Livermore’s house, but from—”
“Whom?” I asked, letting my full emotion speak in my voice.
Her hand fell, clenched upon her breast. I shuddered and added the name trembling on my tongue, “Do you mean”—I forced the words—“Mr. Murdoch?”
She broke into a low thrilling laugh, “Oh, no,” said she; “why should I fear Mr. Murdoch? He is kindness itself.”
The shock of this answer was too much for me. I wheeled about and could have uttered an oath, in my anger and perplexity.
Perceiving the effect of her words, she turned her face partially away and stood in embarrassed silence for a moment, then she said:
“I must ask your pardon for having detained you, with the tale of my perplexities.” As if she had detained me! “They are such as will not bear explanation; yet I dread to leave you with a doubt in your mind concerning the honesty of my intentions. I owe you too much—”
Owe me too much? What wild talk is this.
“That is, I should say,”—She spoke in the low determined tone of one whose purpose is clear—“I have been allowed to feel your kindness too much, to wish to leave a false impression upon your mind. Will you try to think of me as a woman most unfortunate, but neither weak-minded nor wicked?”
“I do not need to try,” I exclaimed in anguish. “My feelings will not let me regard you as anything but noble.”
“Even when you see me in these clothes, and with my back turned upon the spot where I was earning an honorable living?”
I did not answer, unless it was with a smile. She had spoken of her clothes, and I was determined not to let the opportunity pass.
“This shawl and this hat are not new to me.” I observed. “Did you hear the letter which Mr. Lillie read on the first night I was here?”
She shuddered and looked down. “Some of it,” she assented, and then paused and drew herself up till she appeared majestic in her pride in spite of her incongruous attire.
“I am the woman whom that letter described; and I am also the woman who was torn from the ministering sisterhood. I spend my life, you see, in alternate flight and return. Have you grace enough to accept this acknowledgement without questioning. and to let me go without that frown of disapprobation which I saw a few minutes ago upon your forehead?”
“No;” I cried, letting my passions loose in a sudden whirlwind, “You present an enigma to me, and you say, ‘Cherish it, but do not seek to solve it.’ As if I could cherish it without solving it! Tell me your secret distress and I will put my heart between you and it, but—”
“You have said enough,” she cried; “I will not beg you any longer to show me either consideration or justice. I will only hasten faster on my way, that the probability of my being overtaken may become less,”
“Miss Hurd,” I entreated, rushing after her, “do not mistake me, and do not lay yourself open to the false judgment of those who may be only too ready to see your actions through a distorted medium. Rather should you face the dangers which you say lie behind you in that house.”
“Would you have me go back?” she asked.
“Yes, if you can make your entrance as secret as you did your exit.”
“Ah, you do not understand,” she sighed; but she turned back.
“I do not say,” I argued, “that you should not seek to escape from what disturbs or affrights you. But do it under Mr. Livermore’s protection, or at least with his knowledge. He is a just and liberal man, and will certainly appreciate whatever confidence you may place in him.”
“You do not understand,” she again repeated, but even in saying this began to move on, this time towards the house. “What you advise I will do,” she added, looking back. “Do not follow me, and if we meet again, let it be as if this conversation had never passed between us.”
It was an easy thing to ask, but in her eyes, as doubtless in my own, it was immediately apparent that it could never be the same with either of us again as it was before this interview. She was different and I was different; and though no happiness had resulted to either of us, the aspect of our lives was changed, in all probability, forever.
With her last words she had quickened her steps, and though the light had visibly increased during our conversation, the recesses of the forest were still dim enough for her figure to melt speedily away in the shadows of the embowering trees.
When she was quite gone I too started, but in the opposite direction. If I was to save her from all possible criticism, I must be seen to return from an entirely different quarter from herself. I accordingly retraced my steps, and took such a roundabout course to the village that the sun had been long up before I arrived in front of Beech Grove. That the maids would wonder at my appearance I did not doubt, but happily the great front door had already been unlocked, and I succeeded in entering the house without attracting their attention.
Better and more reassuring still, was the free and unconstrained smile with which Mr. Livermore met me some two hours later at the breakfast-table. Though he had evidently but little sympathy with my escapade, there was nothing in his manner to show that he attached any importance to it, or associated it in any way with aught of a disturbing nature. Miss Hurd had therefore succeeded in entering the house unobserved, and one great danger was averted from our new-born friendship.
Beware of desperate steps! The darkest day,
Live till to-morrow, will have passed away.
I was satisfied with Mr. Livermore’s greeting and the natural conduct of his wife; but I did not like the look with which Mr. Murdoch received my morning congratulations. Though his countenance was affable and his manners conciliatory, there was something both in his expression and tone which assured me that my secret was not entirely unsuspected by him, however well it might have escaped the attention of the rest. Though this was by no means an agreeable discovery, there was one comfort attached to it: he would not impart his knowledge. We were, therefore, safe from general gossip.
So I let this trouble pass and fixed my mind upon what was of more vital importance. Whom did Miss Hurd fear, and had she spoken the truth when she said it was not Mr. Murdoch?
I caught one glimpse of her before leaving the dining-room. She was in ordinary morning costume, and had, I thought, a peculiar radiance in her glance which first astonished and then delighted me.
“Mr. Murdoch may well look displeased,” thought I; and though I saw no outlet to the maze in which I had become involved, I felt myself for the nonce a happy man.
The morning passed slowly, nor was the afternoon one to be cheerfully remembered. Miss Hurd was not visible; and the excursion proposed by Miss Dalrymple did not offer sufficient attractions to beguile either Mr. Murdoch or myself away from the house which still held the object of our mutual admiration. We were therefore thrown upon each other for company, and though under some circumstances we might have found this agreeable, there was just enough constraint between us to make juxtaposition painful. We, however, worried through two hours in alternate conversation and reading, and were becoming mutually dissatisfied, when Mr. Livermore came in and took Mr. Murdoch away.
The relief I felt was immense; and when a few minutes later I saw them ride by the window in Mr. Livermore’s buggy, I felt as if an especial providence had interposed itself in my behalf.
As the party which had gone with Miss Dalrymple was not expected back till early evening I had three hours before me of enjoyable solitude, two of which I planned to spend in letter-writing and one—well, I had my hopes, though I would not admit them to myself, that Miss Hurd would not remain persistently in the upper part of the house, when she learned that the lower was deserted by all but myself.
Nor was I altogether wrong. Just as the shadows began to deepen in the long drawing-room an impulse drew me to the window. It was the one overlooking the woods, and there, on the rustic bridge, gazing fixedly into the shallow water that ran beneath, I saw a form I knew.
A ruddy gleam from the setting sun enveloped her head, empurpling her dark hair, and irradiating such portions of her face as her peculiar attitude allowed me to see. It was a picture of brooding melancholy, and thrown as it was against the dark background of the forest, made such an impression upon my imagination that I have never since been able to dissociate a red sunset from this vision of a stooping woman and a running stream.
To see her so near and not go to her was beyond my powers of self-control. So in another moment I was standing at the end of the bridge trying to appear unconcerned, and searching for some word to say that would neither alarm nor displease her. But I found none, for when she lifted her head, as she did at my approach, and I saw her eyes, dark with some heavy resolve, which I had perhaps interrupted, I lost all memory of the speeches I had endeavored to prepare, and could only shake my head and whisper impetuously:
“Of what were you thinking, Miss Hurd? Of the sluggishness of this stream compared with the rush and turmoil of human life?”
“I was thinking,” she answered solemnly, “whether a woman could have will enough to lie outstretched in that shallow water till the eternal silence closed upon her.”
I recoiled, the image was so grewsome. She had will enough certainly to do this, if she so chose to exercise it. Could it be that she meditated any such end to her trouble? I could not, would not, believe it of her; no, though she swore to the intention.
“You are frightened,” she smiled, shrugging her shoulders and coming towards me. “You need not be; the Gordian knot will never be cut by me in that way; the more coward I, and the less happy you.”
She was within a step of me. Instinctively I put out my hands and clutched the rail on either side, barring the passage with an appearance of merrymaking we were both far enough from feeling.
“Cannot you, will not you, accept a protector when you see him?” I asked with as much entreaty in my voice as her expression and attitude permitted. “Whatever may be the secret of your life, I am prepared to offer you both assistance and sympathy. If some man has an undesirable influence over you (I say this because in both cases it was a man who tore you from your refuge at the farmhouse and from the sisterhood of mercy in New York), tell me who he is and in what his power lies, and if it be not beyond an honest man’s help—”
“Thank you,” she said, in answer as much to my look as to my words, “It would be wrong for me to inflict you with my burden, and impossible for me to gain strength to endure it if I did. Let me. pass, Mr. Ruxton; weakness prompted me to come to this spot, but weakness shall not keep me here. Adieu, and forget me.”
“Miss Hurd,” I protested, as I let her pass, “I will make but one more entreaty, proffer but one more prayer. Whom do you fear? You say, not Mr. Murdoch. Who is it then? Satisfy me on this point, and I will ask you nothing more.”
“I fear you” she cried; “I fear myself,” and was gone before I could recover from the shock occasioned by her words.
“Enough, sir; you possess my mind I think.”
It was near ten o’clock before the excursionists returned. I was on the stoop when they drove up, and I was surprised to see that Mr. Livermore and Mr. Murdoch were not of the party. But presently, and before the last gay girl had flitted into the great hall, they came riding up, and in a few minutes joined the rest of the household in the drawing room. Mr. Murdoch’s first glance was at me, and I thought he looked more than usually disturbed, while Mr. Livermore, who followed immediately behind him, had a merry twinkle in his eye that was only apparent there when he had uttered an apt repartee, or had completed to his satisfaction one of the rare jokes in which he sometimes indulged.
As this twinkle was directed towards me I began to have an uneasy sense that his sudden departure with Mr. Murdoch had meant more than I had at first suspected. This became a certainty when pert little Miss Tewksbury remarked:
“Mr. Livermore can no longer boast of the good qualities of his horse. We found him and Mr. Murdoch standing quiescent on Strawberry Hill, waiting for this famous mare to develop an interest in their destination; and though Mr. Livermore won’t acknowledge it, my private belief is that they have been kept waiting there three hours.”
“Mr. Murdoch was so wearied he wished to walk home,” observed the latter, smiling with a sly humor not often seen in him.
“I dreaded the very badinage which I am now undergoing,” explained my rival, with quickly regained composure, “Ladies, it is a great trial to a man to find himself brought to a standstill by a refractory mare, when so much beauty awaits him at the end of his route.”
There were to be rarebits and ale served in the dining-room, and thither we presently repaired; but one face was lacking at that board for which Mr. Murdoch in vain looked. I missed it also more deeply than he could possibly do, but neither of us dared to request her presence, or even to hint our interest in one who was not recognized as a rightful member of the circle.
But before the toothsome repast was over, one of the young gentlemen happened to ask if Miss Clayton did not intend to favor him with the song she had received that day from New York, and a loud cry arose for Miss Hurd to accompany her. Mr. Livermore, who sat at the head of the table, glanced at his wife and then at me, and presently observed:
“I am sorry to have to inform you that Miss Hurd has left us. She took the train for home while you were gone to Huntington Lake. She wished me to give you her respectful good-bye.”
Murdoch, who was looking straight before him, turned so pale that I expected him to attract the attention of the crowd, while my own cheek was far from keeping its natural color, as I reflected that her farewell upon the bridge had been final.
“May I ask,” inquired Mr. Murdoch, in the sudden hush occasioned by this announcement, “upon what train the lady left?”
Mr. Livermore, whose purpose had probably been already gained, answered with suitable indifference: “She was intending to take the half-past nine train from Darien. She had reasons, I believe, for not wishing to leave from this station.”
A glitter, hard to analyze, shone in Mr. Murdoch’s usually mild eye, but he said nothing, and Miss Dalrymple, who had been watching him with anything but satisfaction, smiled again and let the full haughtiness of her nature show in her uplifted eyebrows.
“Miss Hurd is certainly a very peculiar person,” said she. “I think the house seems sweeter and more wholesome for her departure.”
Mr. Murdoch rose.
“Excuse me,” said he, “I have business which will not keep. Mrs. Livermore, allow me to pay you my respects, and to request your indulgence for my hasty withdrawal. I hope to see you all at the breakfast-table.”
There was lifting of brows, and sudden significant smiles on every side, but it made no difference to him. Backing out with the most graceful of bows, he entered the hall and disappeared. I envied him his courage, and was tempted to imitate it, but something—shall I call it false shame—held me to my seat, while Mr. Livermore said:
“Tut, tut, Hester! Miss Hurd is a remarkable woman, and has no business playing underling in a house like this. If you had not felt her superiority you would not be so bitter,” which certainly did not help matters much.
“Let us adjourn,” said Mrs. Livermore; and at the release which this gave to us all I bounded from my seat and was in the hall almost as soon as Mr. Murdoch.
He walked straight up to me.
“Did you know she was going?” he asked.
“I am as much surprised by her departure as you are,” I returned.
“Happily I see that,” he retorted, and wheeled about so as not to be seen talking to me, for the rest of the company was by this time filling the hall.
I saw that he was making for the rack where his hat hung, and I knew what his errand was, as well as if he had confided it to me. The train which Miss Hurd intended to take would pass through the village in ten minutes, and he was going down to the station to see her. Should I allow him to go alone? I felt reckless enough to dare anything, even her displeasure.
“Wait,” said I, going directly up to him, “I have as much interest in this matter as you. If you are not willing to have me accompany you, be prepared at least to see me at the train.”
His hand was on the knob of the door, and he turned it before answering.
“You will lose your time,” said he. “No one shall come between her and me.” And, as if satisfied that I would recognize his determination and yield to it, he passed hurriedly out, jostling a stranger who at that moment entered,
I did not know the man that came in, so I did not pause for any greeting. My passions were inflamed and my resolution fixed by the words and action of Mr. Murdoch; and I was as much determined as he to catch one more glimpse of Miss Hurd before she left our sight forever. But it was imperative for me to learn whether Mr. Livermore had spoken the exact truth in reference to her intentions. Something in his manner had led me to suspect that he was not averse to misleading this Westerner, and I did not want to be made a fool of unnecessarily.
“Ned,” said I, drawing him away from the stranger he was just passing over to Mrs. Livermore, “did Miss Hurd really go to Darien, and will I have a chance of seeing her again if I am at the station here in time for the 9.30 train?”
“No,” he whispered. “Has Murdoch gone? He should have waited till Mr. Hilliard came in. The train she expected to take is three hours late, so if you want to have a final interview with her—why didn’t you improve the opportunity I was at such pains to make for you—you had better take the walk through the woods and surprise her at Darien station.”
“Livermore, I love her, but she baffles me. Do you know any reason why a man should not make her his wife?”
“None, my good fellow, none; if he does not object to the tragics. She is odd, and has told me distinctly that the importunities of Mr. Murdoch were oppressive to her, but that is nothing against the girl, rather in her favor I think. So I helped her to escape him. But to tell you the truth I do not think she wishes to marry any one, for she made me promise not to impart her destination.”
I heard his last sentence but I did not realize it at the time. All my attention was attracted by the one admission which he had made, that she was flying from Murdoch. This was what I had believed from the first, notwithstanding her distinct avowal to the contrary; and though her last words were still ringing in my ears, I felt assured that the secret of her fear was more connected with him than with me, and that if I wished to save her distress, I must warn her that Mr. Murdoch had heard of her departure and was likely to board the train at O— station.
“I will walk to Darien,” said I. “Preserve my secret, Livermore, and count upon my gratitude to the end of my life.”
He gave me a look, and I drew off, satisfied that he would stand my friend in this affair. And he did. In five minutes the hall was cleared of guests, and in fifteen I was on the road, with the pleasing consciousness that my departure had been unnoted and my purpose not even suspected.
My fate, sir! Ah, you turn away. All’s over.
There was no moonlight to illumine this journey. The night was dark, if not threatening, and the forest which under other conditions had seemed to harbor nought but what was conducive to poetic imaginings, reminded me on this night of those abodes of desolation in whose gloomy recesses lurk hidden evils and unknown objects of dread.
The wind soughed in the angry branches and from the bushes on either side of the seemingly contracted road, long swaying boughs reached forth, like spectral arms, brushing my face as I passed, and wakening within me in my present sensitive condition a nervous thrill such as I had not suffered from in my former walk.
The thought that she had just passed over the path before me, had its effect of course, but never in my life had I felt the influence of frowning nature so acutely as in this especial walk to Darien Station. When I emerged from the woods I realized why I had more than once shivered in my dreary passage through them. Rain was falling, thin as mist but penetrating in its chill, and if anything had been wanting to the dreariness of the night, it was now supplied by the drip, drip of the straggling branches that still outlined my road up the village streets.
I reached the station just as the great clock of the village church pealed out the hour, and hurrying through the scattered groups of waiting passengers, whose impatience had brought them out into the rain, I entered the dimly-lighted waiting-room and looked about for Miss Hurd. But she was not there, and I was just pressing forth again to have another and a closer look at the passengers outside, when I ran against a gentleman in the doorway.
A double exclamation testified to our mutual surprise. I had not expected to find him here; he had not expected to find me. The next moment we were bowing,
“I did not see you on the train,” observed Mr. Murdoch, for it was he.
“Train?” I murmured, not for the moment understanding him, but the next instant I recalled the fact that I had noticed a smoking engine and a long line of cars standing on a side track as I came up, and remembered; with a sensation of chagrin, that the Night Express from the East, due in O— at eight minutes before eleven, naturally offered every facility to the man who for any reason wished to intercept a passenger at Darien, waiting for the delayed train from the West.
“No,” I immediately explained; “I came on foot through the woods. I did not think of the train, or I should not have taken this midnight walk.”
“You are more in earnest than I realized,” said he, and the furrow of perplexity between his brows deepened for a moment, and then, to my great astonishment, entirely disappeared. “Have you seen Miss Hurd?” he asked.
I was not called upon to answer, and yet I did. Heartily as I disliked him, I could not but acknowledge his courtesy was without any sarcastic edge or underlying suggestion of antagonism.
“Then we will both seek her,” said he, “and the one who finds her first shall have the precedence in addressing her. But,” he added, as we both passed through the door, “you need not expect any happiness from the interview. Miss Hurd knows my sentiments towards her, and will respect them, I am sure.”
His confidence was exasperating, especially as it was impossible to tell upon what mysterious basis it was founded. But he had offered me an opportunity which I was determined to improve, so with a slight nod which I fear was not entirely without the sarcasm I so gladly missed from his, I darted away to the length of the platform, peering into every face I met, and praying that the train might not come in before the expected time.
At the end of the platform I stopped. Night and darkness were beyond, but no Miss Hurd. Could it be that she was hidden in the silent train that was waiting on the track at my left; or had she escaped into the town, warned by some premonition of the approaching presence of Mr. Murdoch? I knew but one way to satisfy myself, and that was by going through the Eastern Express. But before I did so, some instinct warned me that I had best find out from the ticket-agent whether a person answering to her description had bought a ticket at his office, and if so for what place.
I was accordingly hurrying into the station, when I thought of the platform which ran along its rear, and which I had not inspected. Passing quickly around, I saw by the faint light which sifted through the murky windows of the station-house a bench placed close against the wall, and on that bench the seated figure of a woman.
She did not look like Miss Hurd, but who else would sit there with the driving rain pouring in upon her face, and never move or seek the refuge of the comfortable room within. No one, I was assured, and so, despite the ungainliness of this person’s appearance, I went immediately up to her, and, addressing her by name, asked if she could find it in her heart to forgive me for forcing my unwelcome presence upon her once again before we bade each other good-bye forever.
I had seen by the first movement that she made that my intuition had not led me astray, but I was hardly prepared for her passionate gesture, nor for the suppressed anguish which rang in her tones as, rising to her feet, she cried out impetuously:
“Go! go! Have I not said that this thing cannot be? Why do you distress me? Why do you make my road harder than it naturally is? I flee and you pursue. It is ungenerous, unkind, almost unmanly.”
“No,” I exclaimed in my turn, driven from my self-control by her passion and the intimation which had escaped her that it was from me and not from Murdoch she was flying, “Nothing is unmanly which will serve to show you how deep is the hold which you have taken upon my life. If any reason less than the greatest, keeps us two apart, then tell me so and let me take hope. For nothing but an insurmountable barrier shall separate you from me, now that I know you love me, and that I—”
“Hush!” came in solemn tones as from the mouth of Fate. “I cannot hear these words. I am a married woman, Mr. Ruxton, and this you should have seen from the first.”
And falling back upon the seat, she sat with rigid hands fallen on either side, staring out into the murky distance, which at that moment probably looked as pitiless to her as her fate.
“And it is from your husband that you so constantly flee?” I finally asked, in the changed tone of despair.
Was it a No I heard, just faltering on her set and marble-like lips? Leaning till my head almost touched hers, I repeated the question, but no reply came to relieve me, and drawing back, I said, with a double anxiety racking my heart:
“I am not the only man who has followed you to this place. Mr. Murdoch is on the platform behind us. Shall I endeavor to mislead him as to your whereabouts, or shall I leave him to find his way here if he will?”
Rousing, she looked at me for a moment with an apathetic air; then she dropped her head, and said, while the rain beat down mercilessly upon us both:
“Let him come; that must be ended too; there is yet time left in which to break another heart.”
Though she could be nothing to me, her influence had not so entirely departed that I could witness her despair without feeling its unutterable pathos.
“God help us!” I muttered; “I will neither warn nor mislead him,” and waiting in the hope that she would lift the veil that was smothering the joy out of all our lives, I walked slowly away, cursing the hour which had brought me to Beech Grove, and wishing from my soul that I had never seen this great-minded but impenetrable woman, who confessed herself a wife and yet bore a maiden’s name.
Mr. Murdoch met me on the forward platform.
“Are you satisfied?” he asked, eying me with a troubled but by no means hostile glance.
“Go and see if you have any better luck,” I muttered, and withdrawing into the dimmest corner I could find, I waited for his reappearance with a greater anxiety than I had supposed myself now capable of feeling.
Suddenly I felt the ground shake under my feet, then the night echoed to that prolonged shriek of the coming engine which sounds doubly dreadful when it prefaces a parting, and the platform which but a moment before had shown nothing but impatient and uneasy figures became a lively scene of rushing men and excited women.
Good God! and Murdoch was still with her; and the departure upon which she had counted might yet be delayed, or never take place, or if it did take place, be in his company!
I eyed the heavy train, that, seething and panting, was gliding with a long rush towards me, and felt a momentary temptation too horrible to mention; then I turned and to my unspeakable relief saw him hurrying towards me alone, while in the dim distance I discerned her figure passing towards the car, into which it almost instantly disappeared.
He was pale as death, and reeled perceptibly as he advanced. Though by no means in an enviable state myself, I could not but experience some sort of sympathy for a misery so perceptible, and any lurking suspicion which I might have entertained as to her secret partiality for him, vanished at once.
“Loving her as he does, he would never have let her go in this way if he had any real claim upon her,” I reasoned; and feeling my jealousy lessened, I took a step towards him just as the great heaving train began to move slowly away.
He may have seen me and he may not, but he stopped as we met, and thus it happened that we stood side by side as the cars passed us, one after the other. Was she looking from one of the windows, and did she see us and recognize our companionship?
The last faint light from the retreating train was slowly vanishing when I summoned up courage to speak.
“So you know,” said I, “why her conduct has been so cruel to the men who loved her?”
Dropping his eyes, which had been fixed in gloomy sadness upon the now vanished train, he shook his head, clenched both of his powerful hands, and faced me like a man.
“There goes,” said he, “the only woman towards whom I have ever felt the least movement of love. Pity me, for I shall never see a happy day again.”
“I loved her too,” I murmured, “and if I knew the wretch she calls her husband—”
“You would hate him as I do,” retorted the other, “but you would leave him alone.”
Having no answer for this, I began to move slowly down the platform.
“How shall we get home?” I asked.
“I know but one way,” he said, “and that is the one by which you came.”
I recoiled. To come was bad enough, to return, and in this dreary rain, seemed horrible.
“We might stay here till morning,” I suggested.
“The morning must see me on my way to Chicago,” he replied.
“And me to New York,” I added.
“Then let us take the wood-path. It is no darker than our thoughts,”
Silently I acquiesced and silently we proceeded forth into the rain.
“If you have no objections,” said he, as we left the village street for the well worn by-way to Beech Grove, “we will attempt no conversation. I am in no mood for talking, and probably you feel no more disposed towards it than myself.”
“You are right,” said I; and that is all that passed between us till the outlines of Mr. Livermore’s house rose before us beyond the bridge. An hour of travel side by side through a rainy forest at the dead of night, without a word to enliven the darkness or lift the load of oppression weighing upon either heart!
But at the sight of our destination we simultaneously paused, and Mr. Murdoch, leaning on the railing of the bridge in almost the exact spot where I had seen her standing in such dejection a few hours before, said with just a shade of bitterness marring his unfailing courtesy:
“We are both disappointed men. If at any future time, by any trick of fate or unexpected circumstance, God grants me the happiness of seeing this woman again, I agree to let you know it. Are you ready to show me the same trust, and favor me with the same consideration?”
I was so taken aback that for a moment I did not know what to say.
“I never expect to see her again,” I remarked. “I am going back to work.”
“But if you do?”
“I see no reason now why you should not be advised of it.”
“It is a bargain,” he said, and passed rapidly over the bridge.
I should have liked to recall my half promise; but I saw no excuse for doing so, and so the moment went by.
It was the last event of importance connected with my visit to Beech Grove.
“To break a silence is sometimes as hard as to break a spell.”
For the next six months I made it the business of my life to forget Beech Grove and all incidents connected with it. I turned my fancy from everything that was impressive in art and life, and bade it roam, somewhat against its will I own, among the lighter and more aerial subjects suggested by poetry and romance. I thought the battle won and was rejoicing over the look of saucy delight I had just succeeded in infusing into the expression of the impudent “Puck” I was modelling for the spring exhibition, when a certain short ride which I happened to take in a Sixth Avenue car plunged me back into the past and made me realize that it would require more than six months’ continuous effort at forgetfulness to make me the man I was before I saw Miss Hurd.
I had entered the car at Franklin Street, and finding it nearly full, dropped into the first seat that presented itself. It happened to be the one next the door. As my mind was free from any special anxiety, I sat for a few minutes in a state of listless indifference, staring directly before me at the drowsy old gentleman who occupied the opposite corner. Then something drew my attention to the farther end of the car, and glancing along the line of faces confronting me, I perceived one which caused my heart to stop beating, and then set it to work again with a force and frenzy I had not experienced in months.
Miss Hurd—or her living image—sat on the opposite side of the car! Miss Hurd in the garb of a working woman, and with a working woman’s bundle in her lap, but striking as ever in her appearance—possibly more so,—and as conspicuous among the mass of commonplace people surrounding her as she had ever been when clad in the habiliments of a lady and moving among persons of her own rank in life, A dozen men and women were between us, but I rose at once, obedient to the instinct which would never allow me to meet her unmoved. But before I had taken a step, her eyes, which had been fixed on vacancy, turned slowly towards me, and I beheld in them the non-recognition of a stranger.
Confounded at the disappointment, and bewildered by a resemblance that every moment struck me as more marked and indisputable, I sank back into my seat, but did not take my eyes from the face which had so suddenly resurrected my past. And as I continued to gaze my wonder grew. Could it be that two human beings could look so precisely alike—that the peculiar features and forcible expression which I had hitherto associated with Miss Hurd, could be thus reproduced in a stranger?
The simple gingham dress, the broad apron, and unpretending cloak in which this stranger was clothed, might have given a peremptory yes to this supposition, had I not seen Miss Hurd in garments more disguising than these. As it was, it was not these evidences of poverty or the signs of occupation evinced by the bundle she carried which daunted me, but the utter composure of her face, and the serene indifference with which she sustained my prolonged scrutiny. Surely the woman who had shown such agitation on the bridge at Beech Grove could never have maintained this air of complete preoccupation under a surprise so great as this unexpected meeting in New York; or if by some superhuman effort she had been enabled to control her first instinctive start of pleasure or pain, have found strength enough to continue impassive in face of my evident emotion, and finally look away from me without the movement of a finger or the quiver of an eyelash.
No, no; the woman before me was some humble and probably unconscious prototype of the magnificent creature I had known; but so like her, that I could not tear my eyes from her serene face, or still that untoward beating of the heart which had first betrayed to my own consciousness the hold which certain memories still retained upon me.
As this calm and undoubtedly preoccupied working-woman did not seem to feel my gaze, I took no pains to hide my interest, but allowed myself to study each detail of her person and dress, hoping, possibly, to observe some evidence of weakening on her part, which would settle my doubts and convince me that my instincts had not played me false, and that it was Miss Hurd herself who had engaged my attention.
But she remained impassive even under a scrutiny which in itself would have provoked most women, and, as if this were not enough, I could not but note that while there was the same incongruity between her dress and the strong, handsome face, instinct with character—and, allow me to add, breeding,— which I had observed in Miss Hurd during that memorable interview in the woods months before, I did not detect in the expression of this woman those evidences of suffering and passionate emotion which individualized Miss Hurd and made her countenance one in a thousand.
On the contrary, this woman had a strong, calm look most restful to look upon; and I could not but perceive, when for an instant I let my eyes wander, how every glance in the car was fixed upon her with more or less interest and admiration.
Suddenly I remembered that Miss Hurd (I can call her by no other name, though I know that as a married woman she had no right to it) had a slight scar on her left cheek near the corner of her lips, and, flushing with the hope which this recollection inspired, I started to my feet, resolved to move near enough to satisfy myself whether or not this woman possessed this irrefutable mark of identity.
But the easy way in which she met this attempted move on my part confounded me, and I sank back into my seat for the second time, convinced at last that the likeness which had so affected me was but a striking instance of strong personal resemblance.
When we reached Tenth Street I observed that her hands, which were clad in dark cotton gloves, neatly darned at the tips, closed on her bundle more tightly, but otherwise she made no move, though the car stopped to let off a passenger. The conductor, who was near me, cast her an inquiring glance in which some surprise was mingled, but meeting none in return, pulled the strap, and the car went trundling on. “Where will she get off?” thought I, “and can I afford to forget my natural instincts sufficiently to follow her?”
I knew that I could not, but the temptation was no slight one for all that. A woman with a face of so much character was a woman to know, whether she held hidden in her past any such secrets as disturbed the life of her who had racked my heart at Beech Grove, or bore beneath the calm front which I so admired nothing more harrowing than the common pains and ordinary disappointments of a well-bred gentlewoman reduced by circumstances of poverty to work for her daily bread. If notwithstanding appearances she was the woman whose hand I had touched and whose love I had so passionately besought not six months before, then had I seen that forehead crowned with the gold of an ancient crown, and those superb shoulders draped in robes of regal magnificence that recalled the days of Faustina and Semiramis; but if she was only a chance copy of that splendid creature then none the less was she a woman worthy of my deepest reverence, not only for her great personal attractions, but because of her vivid resemblance to one who had once not only roused my imagination to heights it had never before reached, but had waked my sleeping heart and started the springs of life into new and overwhelming channels.
Meanwhile there was the customary entering and leaving of passengers, and at every move that was made I felt my heart bound with the expectation of seeing her rise also. But this did not occur till we reached Sixteenth Street; then, indeed, she made the short, quick gesture to the conductor, which I had been dreading for the last dozen blocks, and rising with the dignified slowness to be expected from one of her figure and quiet bearing, she came towards me on her way to the door.
It took but an instant, that quick passing by of a self-possessed and determined woman, but in that instant I seemed to live a lifetime. Irresistibly my hand went out towards her, and had she quivered by so much as an eyelash, my heart would have recognized its own and made its appeal without pause or hesitation. But the sweet, homely composure that marked this woman’s features and infused itself into all her movements did not forsake her for a moment, and I saw her pass on to the platform and leave the car without gaining any other certainty as to her real personality than was given by my own sensations as her garments touched me in her hasty exit.
As the car started immediately, I had but small opportunity for noting her movements after she reached the street. But my imagination did not lose sight of her if my eyes did, and all the rest of that day and all through the ensuing night I found myself continually repeating, with dreary iteration, “Was it she, or was it not she? Could one woman, and she a person of remarkable features and expression, look so like another that the eye, nay, the heart even, could not detect the difference?” It was hard to believe it, and, as the hours elapsed, each one adding to my perplexity and general discontent, I grew more and more assured that the person I had met was no stranger, but Miss Hurd herself in a guise and under circumstances which to my mind, busied as it was with romantic thoughts and imaginations, only added to her mystery and increased the interest that her strange personality irresistibly awakened.
And though, as a man and a gentleman, I should have felt thankful that my natural instinct, or the strength of my will, had prevented me from giving her any decided recognition, I was far from being so philosophical, and rather wished that I had dared the future reprobation of my own conscience than have let her thus vanish for the second time out of my life without question or such mark of sympathy as one friend might offer to another. So keen was my regret, and so persistently did it return after the most summary of banishments, that I ceased at last to struggle with it, and instead, allowed myself to ask what measures I should take for again finding this woman who had re-awakened all this tumult within me.
Remembering the look which had passed between her and the conductor at Tenth Street, it struck me that he was accustomed to stop there for her, and, hoping this to be the case, I took car after car until I came across the same conductor. Asking him if he remembered the faces of those who were in the habit of riding up and down the avenue, I forced myself to describe the fine-looking woman I had seen in his car a day or two before, and found that he had a distinct recollection of her. “More than that, she comes up every day or so from down town,” he declared, “and gets off nine out of ten times at Milligan Place. I think she lives there.”
I thanked him and got out at Milligan Place myself.
“Nature never made
A heart all marble, but in its fissures sows
The wild flower Love; from whose rich seeds spring forth
A word of mercies and sweet charities.”
This place, or court, as the English would call it, opens directly out of Sixth Avenue, near the street already mentioned. It is unique, both in situation and appearance, and thousands pass it daily without noticing or even suspecting the presence of this obscure, but respectable, blind alley. No wonder. The entrance to it looks simply like a gap between the houses on the avenue. But if you once pass in, a few steps will take you past a sharp turn into a quaintly hidden little court of a triangular shape, flanked by some half dozen or so simple brick houses.
It is, I am told, one of the most quiet little nooks in the city, the families inhabiting these houses being of a respectable working class, who ask for no excitement and but little pleasure. But upon the special afternoon in which I chanced to invade its precincts, some event had occurred there of sufficient importance to lure the people out of their houses, so that I found the little court filled with men and women, most of whom were drawn to one corner of the triangular pavement, about some object which seemed to attract general interest and pity. Noting that she was not to be seen either among the huddling figures on the pavement, or amid the few onlookers gesticulating from the windows above, I advanced towards the circle of bowed figures at the upper end of the court, and endeavored to see what was engaging their attention. I found it to be an insignificant bundle of rags in a grocer’s basket, and, astonished at the interest displayed in this very unattractive object, I was about to turn away, when my ears caught the sound of a feeble, piping cry, and I discovered that the rags held an infant, and that it was this which had caused the exclamations of pity and wonder which I heard on every side.
“A mere mite!” exclaimed one.
“Left on the cold stones, as if it was nothing but a stone itself!” cried another.
“And with hardly a rag to its back!” chimed in an aged crone.
“And no milk in its stomach!” put in a woman with a child of her own in her arms.
“I’ll call a policeman,” said one of the men, who from the open thimble on his finger I took to be a tailor.
But here another young mother spoke up.
“No,” said she; “let’s warm the wee thing up a bit, first, and give it a drop to drink.”
“But the police won’t believe it’s a stray unless they see it in its own little basket and on the very spot where it was left,” suggested one more cautious than the others.
“I’ve five girls and two boys, but it aches me to think of such as it being carried off to the asylum,” quoth a sandy-haired woman who had not spoken before. “If my good man—”
“Your good man would be the first to send it to the poorhouse,” put in her neighbor. “Don’t say anything foolish.”
“We’ve hardly enough for my two,” came from another mother heart, “but I’ll go without milk in my tea, and without the tea too, if you say so. See! how blue his little lips are! Michael, shall I take it up?”
“No!” was the uncompromising reply from a hardy workman who stood at my side. “It’s some devil’s brat or it wouldn’t be lying here alone on the stones. Clear away to your work, ye’re too softhearted for this kind of business, I’ll soon rid the place of the squalling monkey.”
But before he could take a step towards the street a woman’s voice rose from one of the doorways before us, ordering him to stop. It was a voice I knew, and though I was in a way prepared for it, or for anything else which the moment might bring forth, a sudden trembling seized me; for with these familiar accents came the conviction, and this time without a doubt to mar it, that the strange working-woman I was seeking was one and the same with Miss Hurd.
Knowing that she must have seen me, for I stood somewhat apart and plainly within range of her eye, I knew of nothing else to do but to imitate her conduct of a few days before, and maintain the impassability of a casual onlooker, I therefore barely glanced her way as she spoke, though her appearance, flushed as she was with some inner feeling which I dared not attribute to my presence, made her a study worth the artist’s attention if not the man’s.
“I should like to see the child,” said she. And ignoring me as completely as if I had not been present, she brushed aside the group of eager women, and stood over the little basket. Suddenly she stooped and caught both basket and baby to her breast.
“ ’T is a new-born child!” she whispered in a deep, thrilling tone that awakened in my heart new and confusing emotions. “No contamination can have come to you yet, my baby. Whoever your parents are, no sign of shame or depravity shows on your innocent brow and wailing lips. He is fresh from the angels, good women, look at him!” And letting the basket slide from her grasp, she raised the little one into view, smiling in a strange, triumphant way that transfigured her passionate and commanding beauty into a womanly loveliness I had never before associated either with her form or features.
“See how white his skin will be, how blue his eyes, how sweet his rosy mouth! Shall, these grow hard and cold under the discipline of paid nurses? No; he shall know a mother’s love, a mother’s care. I will take the child myself and fill my life full with him.”
Folding him to her heart, she stood transfigured, and if ever I had been anything to her, or if my presence at her door had meant aught to her but annoyance, I was at that moment as completely forgotten as if I had never existed.
“I shall have to work for him,” she presently added, smiling at the awe-struck faces about her.
“But that will be easy. It is the empty-hearted, not the empty-handed, that find life’s struggle hard.” And laying the little face close against her own with that instinct of motherhood which it had never been my fortune to see in its fullest development till that instant, she was about to move towards the house from which she had emerged, when her eye fell on me, and she stopped.
“God has sent me a comforter!” she cried, looking me full in the face with a strange smile; and I felt as if with that word something invisible, but decided, had slipped down between us, separating us instantly and forever.
I am a man who knows when he is dismissed, and who, as a rule, does not need a second reminder. But though, immediately after the utterance of these words I saw her enter the house from which she had come, and though I could not help but notice glances of curiosity which were cast me on every hand, as a person who had been spoken to by this woman who was naturally an incomprehensible enigma to her neighbors, I could no more leave this court than if my feet had become fixed to the pavement. Love I had no right to feel, but any man might be pardoned for indulging in pity for a woman circumstanced as she was; and it was to this sentiment I ascribed the emotion which not only held me there, but impelled me to see and speak to her again before going back to my lonely life of study and art.
As the court was fast being emptied of the crowd that had so lately filled it, I hesitated no longer, but stepped at once to the door I had seen her enter. Two or three women were chattering within, but I did not allow their looks to daunt me.
“What is the name of the woman who took the child?” I asked of the oldest of the three.
With a glance at her companions, and a smile of no very sympathetic character towards myself, she answered shortly:
“I don’t know as she would wish me to be telling. She’s a very quiet body, as minds her own business.”
“Sure, Mrs. Thomas is able to take care of herself,” spoke up one of the others, with a side glance at me, “Perhaps the gentleman wishes to help her with the child—”
“I wish to see Mrs. Thomas,” said I, not blind to the situation, but resolved, notwithstanding everything, to see it through.
“She lives upstairs, sir,” volunteered the older woman, grumbling out some additional words to her companions; and, satisfied with the directions I had received, I went up the narrow staircase without a backward look at the three gossips, chattering now more busily than ever.
In the hall above I found a group of children putting a rag baby to sleep in the tattered crown of an old hat, probably in imitation of the event which had just occurred in the court below, and seeing two doors beyond them, one of which was closed, I immediately made for the closed door and knocked.
A tiny wail from within assured me that I was at the right door, though no answer came, nor was my summons heeded in any way. I would have knocked again, but I heard her voice within and lost the heart to do so, for the tones were pitched in a tremulous and tender key, which showed she was talking to the helpless little being whom she had taken to her breast, and the moment seemed too hallowed for intrusion.
As the partitions were thin and her voice had a penetrating quality, inseparable from her large and passionate nature, I could hear what she said, and the moves she made about the room in her efforts to supply the immediate wants of the child; and had I doubted her deep delight at the occurrence which had given her an object of love and solicitude, the fondling expressions which now dropped from her lips would have convinced me that the deepest craving of womanhood had been satisfied, and that nothing I could offer her at that moment would add one iota to her happiness.
Yet, sore as this made me, I did not leave the place, but lingered till I heard her footsteps cease and the wailing cry of the hungry one lapse into quiet. Then I knocked again. This time the door opened.
The flush which instantly suffused her cheeks showed me that I had caught her off her guard; and abashed at the looks, and possibly at my own temerity, I made her that low respectful bow which is at once an acknowledgment and an apology.
“Forgive me,” I entreated; “but I could not go away without a single word of friendly sympathy. If I have done wrong—”
She drew her figure up, clad as it was in the simple brown and white checked gingham in which I had seen it dressed some few days before, and letting her eyes rest fully on mine, she answered with indescribable dignity;
“If the words you have to utter, and the sympathy you have to show, are the same which you would give me if this babe were my own, and my husband stood beside me to receive you, then enter, for an honorable visitor is always welcome, and this little one will seem more my own for the greeting of a friend.”
Subduing any undue signs of the admiration she caused, and assuming the bearing which her womanliness demanded, I bowed with increased reverence and entered the room. As I did so the door swung open to the wall, and I let it remain so. Never by any act of mine should this noble woman be compromised.
“I hardly know how to address you,” I began, with a smile. “The women below call you Mrs. Thomas, but it is hard for my lips to frame the unaccustomed words, and if I unconsciously let slip the name by which I once knew you, you must pardon my indiscretion.”
Then in a burst, as the extreme poverty of the room struck me, and made me question how she could support another if she had so little wherewith to support herself, I added, “Must you live like this? and must your friends be witness to it and leave you so?”
Her eyes, which had been fixed on mine, when they had not wandered to the little one lying on a sort of a couch in the corner, passed slowly around the room, as if she were trying to see it as I saw it or as any stranger might.
“I thought I was very comfortable here,” said she. “I like it better than I did the great drawing-room at Beech Grove, or the—” She paused, while a dark look for a moment drove the triumph from her eyes, but the next instant her gaze had reached the couch, and again I saw the exalted look, the tremulous joy which a great gift awakes in a craving heart, and I blushed that I had noted only the poverty and not the peace which hallowed it.
“Pardon me,” said I, “the experiences of my life have blinded me to the best things in life. Accustomed to study the beautiful, I forgot that light and color dwell in the eye and not in the object looked at. I am glad to find you happy, but—” I faltered and ceased. The place was poor and the cheap stained furniture and curtainless windows did look very bare in contrast to her commanding beauty and the exquisite culture visible in every movement of her body and intonation of her voice.
But something, I did not know what, had raised her above her surroundings and made a home of these four bare walls and their meagre furnishings. And I saw it, and could say no more on this topic, though everything within sight stamped itself upon my memory, even to the glaring colors in the cheap ingrain carpet.
“There is something else which I feel bound to tell you,” I observed; “it is my main reason for intruding here.”
But here a movement on the couch attracted her attention, and she bounded from my side.
“Wait,” said she, “I am new to the duties of a mother and may not have properly attended to the little one. It should have clothes and all sorts of comforts at once, and I have such a great bundle of work there to do before night; but I will manage,” she cried, with a heavenly smile thrown back at me over her shoulder, as she raised the nestling baby and wrapped it in her apron.
“Ah,” thought I, with a jealous throb, “if Murdoch could see her now!” And feeling for the instant as anxious to escape the place as I had been to enter it, I hastened to remark: “I was to blame for coming here; I was to blame for recognizing you the other day; I did not think that by doing this I laid myself under an obligation to one whose name I find it almost impossible to mention, but which—”
Astonished at the sudden paleness which had overspread her features at these words, I paused, and she gasped forth, clasping the child convulsively to her breast:
“What do you mean? Whose name? Not—”
“Mr. Murdoch’s,” I declared at once, determined to get at the root of her emotion.
She was looking me straight in the eye, but as the word fell from my lips she turned, and walking slowly away from me, laid the child again on the couch, this time without casting back a glance.
“And what obligation are you under to him?” she asked, after a minute spent in hushing the baby.
I found it hard to tell her. The promise which had seemed natural, almost inevitable on that memorable night, with the great boughs of Beech Grove swishing above our heads and separating the peculiar experiences of the hour from all the ordinary events of life, looked in the broad daylight of the unromantic regions of Milligan Place as strained and uncalled-for as an oath demanded of me in my dreams. But I had made it, and I felt bound by it, all the more that my whole existence had been sharpened and vivified by this meeting, as his might have been had it been his fortune rather than mine to have met her on the Sixth Avenue car.
“Mr. Murdoch,” said I, “was my rival at Beech Grove. Hush!” I entreated, seeing her eye expand and her nostril dilate, “if we were to blame in allowing ourselves to become interested in one we so little knew, it was, as you must acknowledge, through ignorance. The name you bore must be our excuse. How could we see in a young lady, bearing the name of Hurd, a deserted or persecuted wife?”
“Go on,” said she, between her hush-a-byes, disdaining even the appearance of answering this half accusation.
“On the night you left,” I continued, sinking my voice, for a sound of women’s voices began to mingle with the children’s clamor in the hall, “Mr. Murdoch and myself walked back to Beech Grove together. He was as much disappointed as myself, and before we parted, a promise passed between us to the effect that the one who saw you first again should acquaint the other “
“Madman! interloper! intruder!” rushed from her lips in quick anger. “Why did you come into my life to ruin it and make me curse the day I ever saw you?”
She was standing upright before me, the baby for the first time forgotten, and her face, so shortly before flashing with the sweetest emotions that can glorify a woman’s countenance, drawn with indignation and pallid with something like fear.
“Do you mean?” she asked, “that you intend telling Mr. Murdoch that you have seen me here?” I was stricken aghast, so stormy was the passion she displayed,
“Do you love him so much?” I asked, letting my jealousy have free vent, and for the moment as angry almost as she. “Is that the explanation of your conduct and the reason why you could meet my intrusion with equanimity while you quail almost to the ground at the thought of his?”
It was taking a dastardly advantage of her, and I knew it almost before the words had left my mouth; but she, with a sudden self-restraint almost as conspicuous as the passion to which she had just given rein, folded her arms across her heaving breast, and dropping her chin upon them, stood silent, till shame had taken the place of anger in my breast, and I felt inclined to throw myself at her feet and ask her pardon. But the sight of one or two curious heads protruding across the doorway brought me to my senses, and lowering my voice almost to a whisper, I said:
“You will never forgive me these words and I do not know that you should. The promise I gave was a foolish one, extorted from me in the heat of great feeling and at a moment when I never expected to be so happy as to see you again. But if it grieves you—”
“Grieves me! Is it of petty and childish annoyances you are talking? It does not grieve me; it plunges me into despair. I had a home; you have robbed me of it; and I had work with which to make that home respectable, and this you now force me to give up.”
“No, no,” I put in a rapid denial. But her passion was at its height and she did not heed me.
“Could you not have left me one small resting place for the sole of my foot? I have wandered so much, and struggled so long for the peace that comes to most women unsought. When I had only my husband’s pursuit to avoid, I fled from California to Maine, but now to this is added a jealous rivalry which leaves me but one refuge—the grave.”
I was appalled; all the more that she spoke quietly and without any wildness of demeanor to mar the dark composure which we associate with despair, I looked at her with rising emotion, praying Heaven for one glimpse into her heart, that I might understand its secret miseries, and the nature of the dread disagreement which separated her from her husband. Otherwise my interference might become a treason capable of driving her to suicide.
But if my prayer was heard, it was not immediately answered, and I saw no deeper into her soul than in previous interviews, though to aid my wishes I ventured to speak of the husband to whom she had just alluded.
“You fly from your husband,” said I, “and for this you have doubtless reasons equal to the distress and terror you display. But you shall never have cause to fly from me again, nor I am sure from Mr. Murdoch. He is a gentleman—”
“Hush! hushabye!” She was talking to the baby, who was uttering loud wails; but she was not thinking of him, as was apparent from her fixed and fathomless gaze. Seeing this I went on.
“He will never do anything, I am sure, to make your refuge here other than the home you have found it.”
“Do you know Mr. Murdoch?”
“Very little, but—”
“I do,” she said.
A pang of dread or fear seized me by the throat at this, and I found it hard to speak, almost to breathe. “You do not trust him?” I ventured.
“We have discussed Mr. Murdoch before,” said she. “What I said then, I will say now; he is a good man but there is no room in my life just now for any man, either good or bad. Cursed by a fatal marriage, it is my doom to live alone, no,—not alone,” she suddenly cried, her eyes falling on the babe which she now surveyed with all the motherly emotion latent in her broad, free nature, “for God has sent me a child.”
Heedless of my presence, and heedless to all appearance of the various turbulent feelings which had so engrossed her a moment before, she caught the infant to her breast and her face changed.
“I should not complain,” she murmured. “With this child in my arms I could tramp the highways and not be unhappy; and I will!”
I turned towards the door. Her face, brightened by this love, reproached me more than when it was full of despair. I felt my pride go down before it, even my desire to keep my word, and I hurriedly said:
“The promise which I made to Mr. Murdoch was a foolish one, which even he would acquit me from keeping if he knew the distress it caused you. I will say nothing to him or to any one of having seen you in this place, nor will I come again myself.”
But the moment had gone by for this assurance.
“It matters not,” she said, “to-morrow we will be gone. If I complained it was because the new joy was so young that it had not had time to fully sweeten the old bitterness.”
I was going, but I looked back. I caught one glimpse of her with the child in her arms and that wondrous smile on her lips, then I dashed out and was about to rush down the stairs when a sharp cry came from below, and I heard the words:
“Give me back my baby! I want my baby! I was drunk when I deserted him! Give him back to me, I say!”
“Only for the child,
I’m warm, and cold, and hungry, and afraid.
And smell the flowers a little, and see the sun,
And speak still, and am silent,—just for him!”
Struck with an apprehension of the great disappointment which these words and all that they betokened were likely to create in the bosom of the woman I had just left, I cast one glance at the besotted creature whom I saw struggling up the stairs, and perceiving that her passion was not that of motherhood but drink, I stepped back into the room I had just left and took my stand at the side of her, who in the struggle which was about to ensue, had naturally my greatest sympathy. As I did so I noticed she was trembling, and I was the more impressed by this fact as I had never seen her lose her steadiness before, even at the height of her fiercest emotion.
“Is it the mother come back?” she whispered, burying the head of the child in her breast, and staring with a look that foreboded but little good to the hand which threatened to take it from her.
“I fear it is” I answered, “but leave the matter to me. If mortal hand can save you that child, mine will do it. But do not speak. She must think you a woman no better than these others.”
Meanwhile the cry was being repeated on the stairs drawing all the women in the house into the hall.
“I want my baby! Let the woman who took it give it back to me! My baby, where’s my baby?” A little wail, which Mrs. Thomas in vain endeavored to smother by a kiss, answered this appeal, and in another moment the light in the doorway was blurred by the sodden and wretched figure I had seen upon the stairway.”
The contrast between the two women was vivid beyond precedent. Even the spectators who crowded in behind the new-comer could not but perceive it, and show their intense interest in the promised struggle. But there was destined to be no struggle. No sooner had the mother taken in the situation and marked the comfort surrounding the babe and the evidences of care which had been bestowed upon it, than she burst into a loud laugh and cried:
“So he has had a sup and a warm rag tied about his shivering body! Well, that’s more than has been done for me in the time I’ve been gone from him.”
“Then leave the child where it is,” I hastily interposed, “Here he will have food and clothes and a roof to cover him. Do you not want to see him grow up healthy and good?”
“I don’t know; I don’t care. What I want is the money he brings me. When folks see his little pinched face they give me pennies, but now, not a soul will look at me.”
A low cry of horror burst from the lips of the woman beside me. She clutched the child still more passionately to her breast, and by the sparkling intensity of her gaze held back the weak and irresolute mother from seizing the baby out of her arms. I hastened to put in another word.
“If it is an affair of money,” I suggested, “we can soon settle it,”
But here Mrs. Thomas spoke up resolutely.
“No,” said she, “I have no money. I can give the child care, and share with it the few comforts I earn by sewing. But the woman must expect nothing more.”
“Then I take the baby,” cried the sodden wretch, clawing the air with her hands, but not venturing as yet to enter the room.
Mrs. Thomas’s chin fell on the baby’s head.
“I will be so good to it,” she murmured. “Try and reason with the poor wretch. She does not really love the child, while I—” A sob broke from her lips. At sound of it I ground my teeth together and started towards the mouthing creature at the door.
“Come!” I whispered. “I have a few words to say to you out here in the hall. If you are not satisfied with them then you can come back for the child.”
“And who are you?” she leered, looking at me for the first time with a gleam of something like interest. “Are you—”
“I am an agent of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children,” I here interrupted, stretching the point a trifle. “And if you make me any trouble—”
But she was all compliance in an instant. Law and order in any shape was evidently a terror to her, and forcing her lank and bedraggled body into something like a cringing curtsey, she followed me into the hall.
What I said to her and by what means I prevailed upon her to forego her claims, and leave her wailing baby in the kind hands which had been stretched out to receive it, is not germane to my story and need not therefore be related. Enough that in a few minutes I had conquered her resistance, and even prevailed upon her to go with me before a justice, and sign a paper to the effect that she would never more molest the woman to whom she had yielded up her child. This done and the promised bonus given her, I went back to Milligan Place for one parting word with Mrs. Thomas.
I found her seated in the midst of some half-dozen women, trying a little frock on the child, who was staring open-mouthed into the intent and beautiful face bending so tenderly over it. The babe had been washed, and its little limbs rubbed and soothed, and the content visible in the half-smiling mouth was apparent even to me, unaccustomed as I am to infants’ faces, except for artistic purposes. In the hands of one of the women was a little geranium plant, which I had previously noticed standing in the window, and I judged, though I never rightly knew, that Mrs. Thomas had given this plant in exchange for the little pink slip which she was at that moment tying around the baby’s neck.
As I entered she looked up, and starting to her feet, waited anxiously for what I had to say.
“The child is yours,” I cried. “The woman has gone and will bother you no more. If she does, make complaint to Justice K—, and he will see that you are left unmolested.”
The look which I received was worth many a pang and former disappointment. Fearing some self-betrayal, I made her a low bow and would have left at once, but that she detained me long enough to say one word.
“You do not know what you have done,” she murmured, and smiled the full thankfulness she feared perhaps to express.
Then we said good-by, and before the deep tones in which her farewell was uttered had left my ears, I hastened from her presence, and blindly quitted the house.
That night I sent the following letter to the address which had been given me by Mr. Murdoch in our parting interview at Beech Grove.
“Dear Mr. Murdoch:
“Three days ago I unexpectedly met on a Sixth Avenue car the lady in whom we are both interested. She did not recognize me. To-day, through the intervention of a third party, I traced her to her home, where, in spite of my somewhat cool reception, I had the pleasure of showing her a much needed kindness. As this is the only opportunity I am likely to have of being of service to her, and as my interview with her will not be repeated, since, attention from any man but her husband is an offence to her, I do not think you will expect me to name the street or the number of the house in which I found her.
“ ’Sblood, there is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out.” Hamlet
A week later I was working, in a dazed and mechanical way, at a clay figure into which I was endeavoring to infuse the life I was far from feeling in my own existence, when the door opened and Mr. Murdoch came in.
I was not prepared to see him, and I rose in some perturbation and no little anger. He was, however, so suave in his deportment, and showed himself so appreciative of my claims both as an artist and a man, that I restrained my feelings and answered his greeting with suitable politeness, if not warmth.
“I am sorry to intrude,” said he, “but having come a few hundred miles in answer to your letter, I hope you will pardon my anxiety and spare me a half hour from your very interesting and highly important task.”
“My letter required no answer,” I began, but he waved his hand peremptorily.
“Excuse me,” said he, “but I thought that it did. My interest in Miss Hurd is as great as yours, and the mere knowledge that she is in this city would have drawn me across the continent had I been so unfortunate as to have been at my home in California. As it was, I had but to come from Denver.”
“But—” I essayed.
“Excuse me again,” said he, “I know what you are burning to say, and wish to save you the trouble. I do not expect you, as you yourself intimated in the few valued words you sent me, to tell me where you saw Miss Hurd, or in what place she is to be found now. But if you will be so good—seeing you have been so much more favored than I—as to say in what health you found her, and—and, in short, relieve my anxiety somewhat as to her welfare and general happiness, you will confer an inestimable boon upon one who has never been accused of forgetting the benefits he has received.”
Startled from my forced composure by a request that was at least unexpected from a man standing in the relations he did towards myself and her, I hesitated before replying, and thus had time to note that his emotion was real, and that what I had taken for an effort at politeness was the self-respecting restraint of a very anxious man.
“I am sorry,” I began, “that this topic should have come up between us. There is something extremely offensive to my pride, as a man, in thus discussing the sentiments which we may have unfortunately cherished towards a lady whom we know to be married. It would be more than offensive, it would be impossible for me to do this, had the circumstances under which we made her acquaintance been other than they were. As it is, I must confine myself to saying that Miss Hurd appeared to me to be in good health, and much happier than when you and I had the pleasure of knowing her.”
He bowed and something like a sad smile struggled to his lips.
“It looks as if she did not stand in much need of either of us,” he shortly remarked, after a moment’s silence. “Not a very flattering discovery, but a salutary one, perhaps, eh?”
I hated the man, and yet I had a sort of fellow-feeling for him which withheld me from showing my antipathy. Besides, there was a polish to his manners even when his emotions were most apparent, which prevented any outburst from my more demonstrative nature. I therefore smiled in my turn, with a slight reflection of his own bitterness, and waited for the next question which I saw hovering on his lips. It came in this wise:
“It is not comforting to any man to find that the woman to whose happiness he has dedicated his thoughts and hopes, can get along without him. But seeing that you set me such an example of patience, I will endeavor to restrain myself in your presence, and only ask—if—if the circumstances under which you found Miss Hurd were such as to satisfy you, and therefore likely to satisfy me, who demand comfort, if not luxury, for those in whose welfare I am interested.”
I hesitated. His tastes were so evidently towards perfection in dress and splendor of living! What had simply distressed and astonished me in her present mode of life would be regarded by him almost in the light of disgrace, and nothing I could relate in regard to her peace of mind and general contentment would relieve for an instant his horror at the necessity which doomed her not only to daily toil, but to surroundings so pitifully out of keeping with her cultivated nature and ladylike habits.
But before even his watchful eye could note the working of my thoughts, I remembered that I was not bound to answer from his standpoint, but from hers, and so made haste to observe:
“I can imagine no circumstances too comfortable or too luxurious for one of Miss Hurd’s merits. If she has not at present all that she might wish, or all that we could wish for her in the way of wealth and consequence, she has what is more precious: independence, and the power to sustain herself and one other who is dear to her. You can dismiss her from your thoughts without scruple. I am determined to do this myself, and you are as strong a man as I.”
Then I saw why I had never liked him, even when he had appeared at his best in the drawing-rooms at Beech Grove. His eye, which had always borne a kind look, changed suddenly, and a strange expression, which I found it impossible to fathom, notwithstanding my close study of the human countenance, crossed his face, and for one fleeting instant made it not only repulsive to my eye, but hateful to my heart.
“You do well to do so,” was his quick remark, “and thankful would I be if I could follow your example, and root out the very remembrance of this woman’s existence from my brain and heart. But I cannot. She is here, she is there—” striking his head and breast, “and while I live I must remember her. If I only had your art!” he murmured, walking away from me and standing in a musing attitude before the “Puck” I was about finishing for the Academy.
“You have your wealth,” I answered.
“Will she share it with me?” he asked, turning upon me almost fiercely, but immediately wheeling back to an apparent contemplation of my work.
“God forbid!” I cried, carried away by my anger at the indifference to her virtue evinced by this question.
“Wealth makes you think of the woman you love; art makes you forget her. We are not equals in hope; the scale still tips in your favor.”
I sighed, only half understanding him.
He remained looking at the statuette. After a moment’s silence I determined to satisfy myself in regard to a matter that had long troubled me.
“Mr. Murdoch”— I spoke suddenly, for I wished to startle him,—“you have asked me several questions hardly to be expected under the circumstances. Now I am going to ask you one. Do you know why Miss Hurd manifests such fear towards her husband?”
He whirled on his heel, and surveyed me with sudden and increased excitement.
“No,” he cried; “do you?”
I was obliged to say no, also; and, after a moment of mutual survey, he turned back, muttering: “I wish I did; or even that you did; it would be some sort of guide to an understanding of her maddening caprices.”
“Why not take honor for a clue?” I quietly suggested.
He shrugged his shoulders. Evidently his ideas in that direction were not as strict as mine.
“I choose to think,” I went on, still quietly, and perhaps with a secret wish to sound him, “that she is married to a brutal and persecuting husband, whose hold upon her she acknowledges, but from whose society she escapes by means consistent with her own broad and determined nature.”
But he was not to be sounded.
“What will you take for this statuette?” he suddenly asked, pointing at my dainty “Puck” with his slender forefinger.
I stared at him in amazement. Was he in earnest, or was he merely trying to turn the topic of conversation. He soon showed me that his question had been well weighed before he propounded it, and that it was uttered with purpose.
“What will you take,” he now repeated with an additional emphasis to mark his sense of my bewilderment, “for this statuette, just as it stands, to be mine from the moment I pay for it?”
Was the man mad? His tone was calm if somewhat suppressed, and he cast an inquiring, almost an impertinent look at me as he put the final question.
It was not for sale, at least in its present condition; besides, it was meant for the spring exhibition then within a few weeks of opening, but as we stood there with his eye on me and his finger still pointing at the jovial face of the merry imp, something within me forced me to name a sum so preposterous that it was almost an insult to an art-connoisseur like himself.
He recognized the absurdity, for his lip curled, but his eye did not blench at the price, nor did his finger falter.
“I will give it to you,” said he, and dropped his eye, then his finger, and passed immediately to a small table, upon which stood an antique inkstand.
Troubled and amazed, I followed him.
“Do you mean—” I commenced.
“Wait,” said he, “and I will write you out a check.” And without paying the least heed either to my amazement or to the somewhat natural dislike which I felt at seeing my pet work pass thus suddenly out of my hands, he took out a check-book and proceeded to draw up a check for what I could not but consider, at that stage of my career, an amazing amount.
Had the statue, for which he thus dearly paid, been a certain half-modelled head which I kept behind a curtain in the remotest corner of my studio, I could have understood his action; but in this saucy, audacious imp there was no hint of Miss Hurd’s grand beauty, to give it value. So I remained in a manner stupefied by his action, and had not recovered myself when he handed me the small slip of paper which stood for so much hard cash, and remarked in a peculiar tone:
“Now, this statue is mine!”
I fell back a step, for in an instant he seemed to arrogate the position of master in a place I had always regarded as my own. Throwing down his cane, he seized a mallet lying on a chest near by, and before I could interfere, before I could even realize what he contemplated, struck the head from my poor little image, and sent it rolling over the floor. Then he brought down another blow, his aspect changing from a polished gentleman into that of a demon, after which he rained blow after blow upon the—to me—living marble, till even my temper caught fire, and I sprang upon him, crying:
“The statuette is yours, and you can destroy it if you please, but this room is mine, and no money you may have paid me, can warrant you in making it a scene of destruction,”
He paused at once.
“You are right,” he acquiesced, and threw down the mallet and composed his countenance. “I hated its laughing, whimsical face, and would have given twice the amount, for the pleasure of demolishing it before your eyes. But now that it is done, I ask your pardon. Do you require any further amends?”
“Only that you should leave my presence,” I retorted, looking with an internal heartbreak at the broken pieces of the most promising work of art I had ever attempted. “The money you have paid me I am tempted to fling back, but—”
“Don’t!” he cried, with real alarm, “or you and I from quasi-friends will become enemies.”
And as if fearing some such demonstration on my part, he withdrew to the door where he stood for one instant.
“I am no prophet.” said he, “but I know women. Some day the woman who is in our minds at this moment will feel the need of love, and then she will turn either to you or to me. If it is to you—remember the fate of that image; if it is to me—” He paused, and a look so exultant that it awakened in me a terror almost like a premonition, finished the sentence; and while I was struggling against the prospect which this supposition evoked, he softly unclosed the door and went out, with that smile of determined hope still on his lips.
“I am not now in fortune’s power;
He that is down can fall no lower.”
A week passed, during which I resolved upon a tour of foreign travel as being the only refuge left me from thoughts I hated and regrets that were almost insupportable. The ambition which had upheld me during the modelling of my dainty “Puck,” had received a blow in the destruction of that image; while my equanimity had been so disturbed by the circumstances attendant upon that destruction, that nothing short of a complete change of scene and fresh objects of interest was likely to restore the one or soothe the other.
My plans were soon formed, and an afternoon came when, with good-bys all said, I returned to my studio to give a few parting instructions to the friend I was to leave in charge. I did not intend to sail for a week, but my stay in the city was about over, as I had relations in New Haven whom I had promised to visit before putting the ocean between us. I was therefore in no especial haste, and when my friend handed me a letter which had come by messenger an hour or so previous, I received it with unconcern and opened it at my leisure. But its contents startled me.
“Dear Mr. Ruxton; [it ran.]
“It is with extreme regret that I find myself called upon to apply to you for assistance. A misfortune such as I could never have anticipated, has befallen me, and I am in the hands of the Police. As I am positively helpless and without the least resource, may I beg that you will come to me, if you still cherish confidence in one so pursued by an unhappy fate as is she whom you now know by the name of
“You will find me at the Fifth Precinct Police Station, 19 Leonard Street.”
In the short instant which followed my perusal of these words, I felt that life was hideous and that my part in it had become a hateful nightmare. But I crushed back these sensations as speedily as I could, and foregoing all other plans, started at once for the Fifth Precinct Station.
As I entered the building I met an officer.
“Is there a woman under arrest here by the name of Thomas?” I asked, thankful that it was by this unaccustomed name I was forced to ask for her, and not by the one associated with my past dreams and unavailing regrets.
He surveyed me curiously for an instant, then nodded.
“Upon what charge, may I ask, has she been detained?”
“Thieving!” he uttered shortly, and passed on.
Dumbfounded, and vaguely alarmed by words I was certainly far from expecting, I stared after him in dismay, and had hardly recovered myself when, guided by some fortunate impulse, I entered the room where she, together with some two or three other unfortunates, awaited their removal to the police court.
She was in the dress in which I had last seen her, and to my astonishment wore a serene look, which may have been owing to her sense of innocence, or may have been only the result of her loving contemplation of the child, whom I was surprised to find her holding in her arms. When I entered, she looked up, and the gleam of relief which lit her eye added still further beauty to her face and gave to the calm dignity of her bearing, already marked enough to have created a visible impression upon those about her, a point and purpose that quite removed her from the herd of unfortunate beings by whom she was surrounded.
“A remarkable woman!” whispered somebody in my vicinity. “Pity that the evidence is so strong against her.”
I turned and questioned the first person I encountered.
“What has this woman stolen?” I asked. “Bread?”
“No, money. Quite a sum, I believe; pocket-book found upon her.”
I thank God that I mentally acquitted her at once of this crime. Such a woman might commit murder, but she could never steal; there was some mistake about it. I looked at her clear, patient eye, calm, expansive brow, and felt satisfied that whatever explanation the mysteries of her peculiar fate called for, it was not to be found in the possession of any such propensity as this. But she was under the suspicion of theft and I must do what I could to relieve her from it.
But I soon found she did not seek aid of this kind from me, Nor could I have afforded it to her if she had. The pocket-book was one which had been dropped in the work-room of the large tailoring establishment which supplied her with work; and its being found on her person was considered irrefutable evidence of her guilt. She had therefore no hopes of escaping commitment, especially as she was fully determined neither to reveal her real name nor past history. “For,” as she said to me in the short interview that was allotted us, “nothing that has ever occurred in my life would excuse me for drawing my husband’s name into the disgrace which this matter would cast upon it. We are not happy, nor are my sentiments towards him such as would incline me to show him consideration, but I will never dishonor his name or make him suffer in any unnecessary way for my misfortunes. The charge which has been made against me I cannot refute except by accusations that might harm some one who is possibly as innocent as myself. I must therefore suffer the penalty of my misfortune, like many another poor creature before me, feeling that it is a fitting end to a life that has been cursed from its commencement.”
“But—” I began.
“Hush!” said she; “this disgrace seems dreadful to you, and so it would to me if I were still Miss Hurd. But I am only Mrs. Thomas of Milligan Place; and events that would forever blot the future of Mrs. Livermore’s companion, will cast but a slight shadow over the existence of the friendless tailoress. Besides—and I say this for your peace of mind—this is not the darkest hour in my life. I have known moments to which the prospect now before me is a relief. Contumely, deprivation, and even an enforced association with the depraved is not to be feared by one who has known—” She stopped; the secrets of her dark soul were not to be revealed even in this moment of unusual confidence. “I am mad,” she murmured, and drooped her grand head for just a minute, with the first appearance of discouragement she had shown.
At that instant the little one in her arms awoke, and her manner changed as suddenly as if she had been the real mother of the child.
“It is on account of this helpless little one that I have summoned you,” she observed. “I cannot take him with me, and I cannot see him carried off to the almshouse. Will you bear a message from me to a young lady, who, for love of what I once was, would care for this child till I am released to claim it?”
“Certainly,” I returned, with a sort of gloomy satisfaction at being allowed to do anything for her.
“Then write these words for me, and promise,— that is, if you will be so good,—to tell her nothing but what is contained in my note.”
I promised, and she dictated these words:
“Does Sister Ida remember Sister Eulalia, and will she, for the love which once united them, look after a poor little waif that is dear to her unfortunate sister’s heart. With no home, no mother, and no money, the little one is likely to die, unless some good woman can be found to befriend it. The child is called Albert Thomas, and may be found at the — Day Nursery.”
I wrote and said nothing, but strange visions flashed before my eyes, and I knew, even before she spoke, to whom the letter was to be addressed.
“It is for Miss Caroline Parke,” she said, and gave her number on Seventieth Street. Then as I folded the sheet, she added:
“Miss Parke is an angel, and I shall find my darling well grown and healthy when I come back to claim him.” And lifting her fine eyes, this incomprehensible woman, who had never looked more superior to fate than in this hour of her greatest humiliation, dismissed me with a fluttering smile, which was the only concession she paid to a disgrace that would have crushed most men and annihilated most women.
“I have some naked thoughts that roam about
And loudly knock to have their passage out.”
I hastened from her presence in a state of strong agitation. But the experiences of the day were not over. In the corridor I ran against a gentleman, and when I looked up to apologize, I saw that this gentleman was Mr. Murdoch. I paused, collected myself, and waited for him to speak.
He was not quick in doing this. He seemed to take pleasure in noting my agitated mien and disconcerted looks. He himself smiled, and switching his right leg lightly with his cane, remarked:
“You have not been successful in releasing her, I see. Let me try if I can be of any greater service to her.”
For a moment I felt inclined to fly at his throat, there was such a calm, if not triumphant assurance in his manner, such superciliousness in his smile and such unwarranted confidence, as it seemed to me, in his power to control justice, and reverse the decisions of the law. But I merely said:
“How came you to know of her distress? The other day you were not even aware of her place of abode. Did she write to you as she did to me; or had you some prior knowledge of the misfortune which has overwhelmed her?”
“I decline to be questioned,” he returned, and bowing with a grace that under the circumstances was almost insulting, he beckoned to a sullen-looking girl whom I saw slouching against the wall, and proceeded towards the room from which I had just come. Before he entered it, however, he threw back this one word to me: “I am staying at the Buckingham; if you will call there this evening at eight I will give you the result of my efforts.”
I ground my teeth together in rage, but comforted myself with the surprise he would experience when he should see the woman of his heart, with another woman’s child in her arms.
I carried my note to Miss Parke just as if I had not met Murdoch or listened to his boastful assurances; and I received in answer a promise that lightened my spirits till the hour of eight came round and with it my remembrance of Murdoch’s invitation. Should I go, or should I let the whole thing drop out of my life forever. Judgment urged: “Take the train for New Haven!” But curiosity, jealousy, and all the passions that sway a man’s heart when he is under the grip of the deepest experience of his life, bade me go and learn the worst at once.
I therefore went to the Buckingham.
Upon asking for Mr. Murdoch, I was immediately ushered into a large and spacious apartment whose luxury seemed almost beyond the tastes of even this western millionaire. Besides its furnishings, which were as tasteful as they were gorgeous, there was a wealth of hot-house flowers scattered in every direction, filling the air with fragrance, and oppressing the senses with their profusion and the bizarre effect of their commingled colors. A music-box was playing a sweet air from Trovatore, and from one corner rose the delicate smoke of an eastern taper. Following the curl of this smoke, my eyes fell upon a picture, which I no sooner saw than I felt my spirits reel.
It was a portrait of her, painted in glowing pigments, and instinct with all her greatest attributes. None but a master could have produced such startling effects, and the shock of seeing so glorious a semblance of the woman I loved, in the possession of the rival I hated, was beyond words to express.
But I was determined not to be daunted by anything which might occur here, and resolutely turning my back upon the picture and all that its presence suggested, I prepared myself to meet the gentleman himself whom I now heard entering.
He came from an adjoining room, and in his expression and bearing I detected at once that triumph of success which I had half anticipated, and against which I had endeavored to fortify myself. There was even a gleam of sympathy in his eye, as if he would have me see that he felt some compunction for my disappointment, notwithstanding his own satisfaction. He was in evening dress, and the diamond which shone on his shirt-front might have bought my late statue twice over even at the exorbitant price he had paid for it.
“Ah, Mr. Ruxton, you see me in holiday attire, and with the signs of my success about me. Money can do much, and never did I realize it more fully than to-day. The lady whom you came to inquire for is free, and it was to my efforts that this happy fact is due, as even she is bound to acknowledge.”
“Your happiness is greater than mine,” I returned, with a bow that but poorly veiled my feelings. “Allow me to tender you my congratulations.”
He fairly beamed; never have I seen a face express more vivid gratification. My heart began to sink.
There was something in the whole atmosphere of the place that was offensive to me, as offering too striking a contrast, possibly, to the scenes in which I had last seen the woman, upon whose good-will his present satisfaction so manifestly rested.
“I said that she would one day feel the need of one of us,” he now remarked, with an egoistic disregard of my feelings which, I think, was perfectly involuntary. “But I did not dare to hope that the day would come so soon. However, she was in a bad position, and she recognized it, especially as she has hampered herself with a babe. You know about the babe?”
I nodded, compressing my lips for fear of expressing more than was necessary.
“It was a foolish whim for one in her position to indulge in; but I suppose we men cannot judge of a woman’s feelings where children are concerned. However that may be, the fact of her having adopted a child, and loving it, as it seems, made her more manageable than she might otherwise have been, and she did not interfere when I proposed to prove to the judge that the purse had been placed in her pocket by a girl who had a secret grudge against her. And though this was not true, and the girl was innocent enough of everything but the crime of taking my money for a bit of false evidence, she did not refuse to accept her liberty when it was offered, even though she had to walk out of the court-room leaning on my arm. Real love will always triumph, and she saw that a man who could fight for her in this way was neither to be daunted nor turned back.”
“And do you mean to say,” I asked in a choked tone, “that it was necessary to produce false testimony to prove that Mrs. Thomas did not commit the crime that was imputed to her?”
He flushed as much at my doubt as at the horror I expressed.
“Such a woman is above all and every suspicion,” said he; “but the shortest way is the easiest when one fears too close an inquiry into the ruses of love or war. I had myself involved her in this trouble, and it was my duty, as well as my desire, to extricate her from it as quietly and deftly as I could. And I think I succeeded without too much scandal. —Let be!” he suddenly gasped, seeing me turn white and advance upon him in hot anger; “you don’t understand!”
But I was furious. “You planned the theft that you might have the satisfaction of releasing her from its consequences,” I vociferated, still threatening him with my looks.
Shrugging his shoulders, he rejoined with a light laugh: “These are matters which it would be better to let drop. Whatever I did, I had for my action a most excellent motive; and I would advise you, as my guest, neither to inquire into it too closely, nor to visit upon me the effects of a jealousy which even you must acknowledge should now end.”
“I will tell her of your villainy,” was my frenzied reply; “I will put your conduct before her in its true light.”
“That you are at liberty to do,” was his equally quick retort. “But if I am not mistaken she already knows all, if not more than you can tell her.” Then as he saw my eyes droop and my hands fall back, he remarked, pleasantly: “Mr. Ruxton, I am not a villain, nor am I in the habit of taking undue advantage of a woman. But extraordinary cases must be met by extraordinary measures, and being anxious to gain control of this resolute woman, I took the only course she would feel and never forget. I succeeded in my attempt, and the result is that two of the three concerned are likely to be happy.”
It had been better if I had quit his presence and the room at this admission, but doubt and an indefinable desire to know the worst held me there for a few minutes longer.
“Is she—has she returned to her home?” I asked, ignoring the look he now cast at the picture which I was so determined in my mind not to see.
He bowed, plucked a flower from a neighboring bouquet and put it in his button-hole.
“She has,” he admitted, almost gaily, “but she will not wear gingham any more.”
I clenched my hands and looked him squarely in the eyes.
“What do you mean?” I demanded.
He turned to the music-box, gave the key a pull or two, and closed the lid before answering.
“I mean,” said he, “that a woman who can play like Rubenstein and sing like Nillson is out of place in a tailoring establishment, or even in the genteel but dependent position of companion to Mrs. Livermore, The home in which I naturally wish to see her is one where wealth and art combine to make life pleasurable. Such a place as this, for instance,” he added, glancing smilingly around.
I could have killed him. A hundred lights flashed dizzily before me, and for one wild moment I realized the passion which controlled him when he dashed my “Puck” to atoms before my eyes.
“Has she—do you mean to say,” I stammered, with a glance of dread in the direction of the doorway through which he had come, “that you have prevailed upon this noble woman—”
“To honor my home by her presence? Indeed I have.” And stepping to the door to which I have just alluded, he opened it with a courteous gesture, and calling softly, “Vashti, Vashti,” drew back as Miss Hurd entered,—or shall I call her Mrs. Thomas, or shall I designate her by no name, but merely say the woman I had loved and at one time had hoped to marry, and whom it was now my fate to see degraded to this.
She came in like a queen. The form which I had so lately beheld clad in habiliments suggestive of the humblest toil, was now wrapped in the richest velvet and adorned with the rarest jewels; but not upon all this did my eye rest, full of wonder as I was at the diabolical forethought which could clothe her in such splendor at an hour’s notice, for her eye was fixed upon me and in that eye I read, not happiness, not even pride, but a cold despair, which added to the mystery of the moment, and lightened indefinably the nature of my sentiments towards her.
Surveying us both steadily, she asked why she had been called.
“I thought you might wish to say adieu to an old friend,” suggested Mr. Murdoch.
“Ah!” she returned, “I understand you,” and, advancing quickly to me, she held out her hand.
I surveyed her with amazement. There was so much quiet and dignity in her air. She was so much the noble woman and so little the—
“Good-by,” said she. “You see I have had to give up my little home in Milligan Place, and my life of honest independence. But I shall never forget your kindness in securing to me the child I so much desired.”
I bowed. What words had I for this,
“We shall probably start for California in a few days,” Mr. Murdoch now observed. “That is why I proposed an adieu. The breadth of a continent will separate us so definitely.”
I bowed to him and would have left, but something in her face held me. Suddenly I felt the bands about my heart unloose, and daring everything, even my own probable repentance, I remarked, with a pointedness which could not be mistaken:
“I regret to hear that you are going away; I regret to hear that you are going with Mr. Murdoch. Why do you do it—Miss—Hurd?”
She shrank back absolutely startled, cast a quick glance at me, another at Mr. Murdoch, and burst forth:
“Don’t you know? Hasn’t he told you? Oh, the insult of it! To see me here, and not understand—. Mr. Ruxton, I go with this gentleman because I am his wife. Mr. Murdoch has been my husband for four years. I thought he had told you. I am sure the time has come when he should.”
“Through thick and thin, both over bank and bush,
In hope her to obtain, by hook or crook.”
I think that even Thomas Murdoch felt some consideration for me at that moment; for he turned away to a distant portion of the room, and left me to face the astounding revelation thus made to me, in silence.
It was not only the present, but the past which had to be readjusted in my mind, and though I realized, as soon as I could realize anything, that it was hopeless for me to do this in a moment, or even in an hour, I tried in a wild way to so reconcile myself to the situation as to gain some sort of composure before attempting to meet her eyes, which I felt to be still fixed upon me.
At length I was able, as I thought, to look up, and I found her, as I had expected, standing in the same position, surveying me with a deep glance, in which I seemed to read inward suffering and outward patience, sympathy for me and endurance for herself; all of which confirmed her words, and finally convinced me that this man, whom I had supposed to be simply her lover, and dating his interest no farther back than my own, was in reality the husband from whom she had been fleeing, as it now seemed to me, for years, and who in finding her and attaching her again to himself, was doing her the greatest injury of which he was capable. As my mind ran rapidly over the past, recalling those scenes which had most impressed me at Beech Grove and in Milligan Place, I saw in the agitation she had shown at his first appearance at Mr. Livermore’s house; in her passionate avoidance of him on that and every other possible occasion; and, above all, in the violent emotion with which she listened to his whispered words during that memorable tableau which forced them into a juxtaposition which was agony to her, if bliss to him, such a terror of his presence and such a shrinking from his power, that I shuddered at the remembrance, and turned pale as I thought of her probable future. She no longer commanded my love, but, oh, how she awakened my pity!
Meanwhile she noted what was passing in my mind, and, recognizing the necessity of speaking, in order to restore me to my self-possession, she remarked, with quiet emphasis:
“Mr. Murdoch has been good enough to forgive the past; will you not be equally good and forget it?”
It was a request that meant much, and my answer was probably incoherent, for she went on with rapid decision:
“I know you will. The caprices of a woman who has not fully calculated the controlling power of fate, are not worth your attention. All that baffled you in Miss Hurd, or astonished you in Mrs. Thomas, must be forgotten in Mrs. Murdoch. When I am in California and you in New York, you will have no motive for recalling either the woman or the facts which have made so unfortunate an impression upon you. I shall rest in the belief that you have forgotten, and”— she leaned nearer—“that Miss Clayton has helped you to do so.”
This last sentence, which I hardly understood, entered my ears but made no impression upon them. I was busy in studying her face, and endeavoring to understand the causes of that fear which she had so long manifested towards this man who loved her, and who would not be separated from her. Was it founded upon faults in her own character or in his? I was disposed to think, in his; for the glimpses which had been afforded me into her best nature, had shown me tenderness, consideration, and a grand understanding which was totally incompatible with caprice—that word with which she had thought to dull my interest in her late erratic movements.
“He may be a gentleman,” I decided in my own mind, “but he is also a ghoul. Consequently his wealth and fine appearance and politely controlled but yet forcible passions only make him the more repugnant to a woman who can excuse everything but the egotism of selfish love.” And yet when, with this conclusion reached, I stretched forth my hand to give her the assurance she demanded, the impulse which made me turn my face towards him showed me an expression of such mingled mildness and affection, that I became again confused and held out my hand without uttering the words I had in mind.
“Did you give my letter to Miss Parke?” she asked, possibly to withdraw my thoughts from a subject which could bear no solution.
“Yes,” I returned, “and received a most favorable answer from her. She consents to take the child and—”
“You will have to explain matters to her. Mr. Murdoch has been kind enough to allow me to keep the child, and I shall take it with me to California.”
And then I saw why, with that hint of despair in her countenance, there still was lacking from her bearing that show of utter wretchedness which her intense shrinking from this man led me to expect. The child was still in her care, and with that fact warming her heart, she could not be completely miserable.
“I wish you to appreciate Mr. Murdoch,” she now softly observed. “When I reached the carriage from the police-station, I found awaiting me a motherly-looking woman, who at once took the baby in her arms; and when I arrived here it was to discover that every preparation had been made for the reception of the little one, who could not have had more attention paid to his wants if he had been our son, and heir to Mr. Murdoch’s enormous fortune. But I shall always prize,” she went on in a whisper, “that little pink frock of his, which I bought with a geranium flower, more than the embroidered robes in which he is now wrapped. He is the child of poverty and should have been raised the child of toil; but God’s will be done!”
It was her last word to me, and it did not tend to lessen the mystery which still surrounded her in my mind. As I took my formal leave, and stumbled through the corridors to the office below, I was still busy in trying to reconcile what I had just heard with what I had seen six months before. I recalled the interviews I had held with her, and the conversations which had passed between Murdoch and myself; and though I remembered nothing in either which contradicted their present assertions of marriage, I could find nothing explanatory of her conduct or of the great antipathy which she showed to living with him. Indeed, her words, if words can count for anything, were always in praise of this man, and even when her conduct showed most plainly that she hated him, there was an utter lack of complaint in her manners or in her speech, which I found hard to understand. Indeed my mind was in a maze and had not escaped from this condition, when I heard steps at my side, and looking up, saw Mr. Murdoch, who had been following me.
“I ask your pardon,” said he, “but accident, or perhaps you would call it Providence, has so entangled you in our concerns, that I cannot let you go without some explanation of the anomalies to which you have been witness. My wife, of whom you have probably formed your own estimate, has her peculiarities, among which is an almost masculine desire for independence. This she carries to such an extent that nothing short of the most ardent love on my part enables me to bear her caprices with patience. Five times in the course of our married life of four years’ duration has she escaped from my home and taken up her abode with strangers; and as she never carried money with her when she fled, she has often been obliged to work in various menial capacities, in order to support herself. This to me is an insupportable degradation, and without taking into regard her lack of consideration for my love or the disrespect she constantly shows me by fleeing from my home and protection, I have uniformly followed her and brought her back, only to see her escape again at the first opportunity. My friends in California consider her as afflicted with insanity, and suppose her to be shut up in an asylum, but you know and I know that she is not insane; that it is merely a woman’s perversity that controls her, and though I deprecate this perversity and would give worlds to see her conduct change in this regard, I still cherish her and consider her on the whole the finest woman between the two seas.”
“But why,” I could not but ask here, “do you maintain this secrecy as to your real connection? Did Mr. Livermore know you to be her husband? He did not act as if he did.”
“Mr. Livermore did not know nor anyone else in that house that I had ever seen her before. And this was because my wife had threatened to commit suicide if I made known our connection or took her back again without her full consent. What would have been an idle threat in most women’s mouths, was a dreadful possibility in hers, and I dared not irritate her in those days, or press her beyond a certain point. This is why I let her leave us on that dismal night, without an effort to follow her. She was bound to be free, and I did not see any way at that time of preventing her. And this is also why,” he added, “I waited for her to tell you the truth tonight. I will run no risks of displeasing her. My happiness is as yet too young.”
“You have had a much more fearful problem than I to work out,” was my short remark, half believing and half doubting his words.
“So I think,” he answered. “And my problem unlike yours, is never done. Had it not been for her unaccountable partiality for the foundling she has picked up, I should not have been able to control her now; she is a woman of such tremendous will and self-reliance. But it is an untold happiness for me to have her back at any risk and under any terms. And she really seems less discontented with her fate than ever before; perhaps it is on account of the child, and perhaps it is because—.” He did not finish his sentence, but gave me a peculiar look and held out his hand. “Shall we not part friends?” he asked, adding smilingly, “If I showed some wantonness in destroying the marble in which you took so much pride, you must remember that you had almost broken my heart, first by your protestations of love for my wife, and secondly by your boast of having shown her a much needed favor. So we should be quits on that.”
And still I but half believed him.
“You did her a kindness,” he proceeded, “and I dared not ask you what it was. And you accused her unhappy husband of harshness towards her.”
“I judged from circumstances,” I coldly declared.
“Circumstances are misleading in this case,” he remarked shortly, and continued to look at me with such insistence that I took his hand and quietly pressed it.
“By good rights I should dislike you,” he said, “but, strange to say, I do not. But we shall not meet again; I do not mean to come east again for years, or to allow my wife to do so. She shall live with me and she shall love me.”
It was the last sentence I heard him utter, and it rang in my ears for days.
“Must the road wind up hill all the way?”
I went that night to New Haven, and a week after took the steamer for Hamburg. But before I left the country it was my lot to receive one more blow in my heart of hearts. It came through the following account of a serious disaster which, had occurred on a western railroad.
“A terrible accident occurred here last night by the collision of a belated Occidental Express with the east-bound fast freight. There was a heavy fog obscuring the signals, and the two trains came together with tremendous force. A dozen people were killed and forty wounded. The scene at the wreck this morning was something appalling. The fog still hung thick over the scene, adding to the horror of the catastrophe. Men without wives, children without mothers, wept and wailed in the murky darkness. One scene was especially harrowing. A large and splendid-looking woman was seen walking among the debris with a distracted air, and carrying the dissevered head of a child in her arms. This lady was afterwards found to be Mrs. Murdoch, the wife of the San Francisco millionaire, who with her husband was returning home after a lengthy sojourn in the east. Neither she nor her husband were injured.”
And so God has taken the child also from this much suffering woman.
“This story will not go down.”
One year from the events mentioned in the last chapter there was great excitement in a certain locality, called the Flat region, in Lower California. The wife of a wealthy ranchman had suddenly disappeared from her home, and surmise was busy with a mystery which only grew under investigation. The facts, as given by a Chicago reporter who happened to be on the spot at the time, were these:
* * * * * * * * *
I was in Crugers post-office picking up details in regard to a mine that had just been opened some two miles west, when three gentlemen came riding up in hot haste. One of them was Mr. Murdoch, the eccentric millionaire who divides his time between a palatial home in San Francisco and a toy ranch some dozen or so miles south of the place in which we then were. At present he was living on his ranch, so that his presence in this small settlement was not a matter of much surprise.
“Ah, Mr. Murdoch,” cried Jack Houston, coming forward with his usual obsequiousness to rich men, “what can I do for you to-day?”
Mr. Murdoch leaped from his horse, and then I saw he was either intoxicated or in a state of great agitation.
“My wife has left me. I wish to telegraph.— Has she been here?” he asked with sudden suspicion, looking eagerly about on the faces of the men who now crowded forward.
Blank looks were his only answer. A woman was a rarity in those parts, and such a woman as Mrs. Murdoch was said to be, could not have shown herself in town without its being known from one end of the place to the other.
“Ah, I had but little hope of it!” he exclaimed in answer to his own question. “But a madman will ask anything. Where is the telegraph operator?”
“At the schoolhouse, sir. She is the teacher, and is only here after school hours.”
“Send for her. I must know at once whether my wife has arrived at Black Lake Station.”
A lad ran out to do his bidding. He was the postmaster’s son, and loved a half-dollar as well as any lad I ever knew.
Meanwhile we three stared at each other, then looked at this great man, who was as wretched as any of us less fortunate ones might have been under the same circumstances.
“Run away with some one?” I suggested, sidling up to the dashing cowboy who had accompanied Mr. Murdoch from his ranch.
The fellow, whose name was Jasper, turned upon me with a start. He was pale as ashes, and his handsome mouth was quivering like a girl’s.
“No!” he cried; “what do you take her for? Mrs. Murdoch is—is—” he pointed, with a significant gesture, to his forehead, and shook his head. “She is not responsible for what she does!” But he did not grow less pale, and shrank, I thought, when Mr. Murdoch’s uneasy eye glanced his way, “Has any one ridden by here in the last three hours?” he asked as soon as Mr. Murdoch’s attention was diverted.
I turned to Jack.
“Anybody on the road to-day?” I queried.
He shook his head.
“Not even a tramp,” he declared,
I thought the fellow looked relieved; but I could not be sure, for just at that moment Mr. Murdoch summoned him, and he hurried away.
“Deuced good-looking,” I commented in Jack’s ear, “but devilish sly in his ways for a man with an arm strong enough to fell an ox,”
“Pshaw! Jasper Harper has been in this store twice a week for the last six months, and I never saw anything amiss in him. But the lady! Where do you suppose she is? I’ve heard she was as beautiful as they make them, but very queer, very queer. Do you suppose she has run away from the ranch? I wish they’d tell us more about it, but Mr. Murdoch won’t bear talking to. That I found out long ago.”
“It’s a bad country for an escape,” I remarked. “Not a hill for twenty miles around. If she was on the road I should think he could see her.”
“Oh, there are two roads from the ranch, one north and one south. She may have taken the south one.”
“But he seems to fear her going away on the train. Now, it’s only twenty miles to Black Lake Station, while it’s full forty by the southern road.”
“Well, a woman is a big millstone about one’s neck. I‘ve heard that this woman is given to running away. Think of having that for your daily anxiety. The handsomer they are the worse their caprices. But here comes Steve Dillon; he sniffs out trouble as quick as a colly scents a coyote.”
Steve Dillon was the Sheriff, but he made no brag of his office; only he was always on hand.
“Ah, Mr. Murdoch, anxious for fresh supplies?” was the hearty greeting with which he veiled his opportune arrival. “I think you can calculate upon that load of fruit and flowers to-morrow. I have just heard from Big Trail, that a dozen boxes labelled Hannaford Ranch, passed through there yesterday.”
Mr. Murdoch, who is a man of very quiet manners when his mind is at ease, stepped rapidly forward.
“How did you get this news?” he asked.
“By messenger from the Trail Station.”
“Where is this messenger?”
“He rode your way. Didn’t he show up at the ranch?”
“There was a fellow there this morning; a sleek, dark-eyed chap, on a white horse.”
Mr. Murdoch turned away indifferently. “That was before I missed her,” he murmured, and going to the door he stared out again upon the dreary landscape.
Jasper, who had been switching a coil of rope in a distant corner, looked up as the other’s form darkened the doorway.”
“We are wasting time,” he declared. “Shall I ride on to Black Lake or shall I turn south?”
“Here is the telegraph operator,” exclaimed Murdoch; and coming forward with the fresh-faced young school-mistress, who that minute entered the store, he went with her into the corner where the key and sounder were railed in.
Jack Houston, the postmaster, and I stood in a group by the door. Jasper had gone out when the others came forward, and we could hear him talking to the horses, while our ears were on a strain to catch what Mr. Murdoch was saying.
But this latter was impossible. We could hear the tick-tick of the instrument but nothing more, and when he came out, it was only from his perplexed expression that we could gather that his inquiries had brought him no enlightment.
“Ride to the south!” he called out to Jasper. “I will take Reddy and go west.”
He was half way to his horse before these words left his lips; but there was no life in his face, no hope in his bearing.
“He won’t find her by riding,” muttered the man he had called “Reddy.”
The Sheriff overheard this remark and followed its author softly out of the store. When he came back he looked sober, but said nothing till we two were walking down the street together; then he remarked:
“I am going to the ranch; do you want to go with me?”
“To Hannaford ,Ranch, in Mr. Murdoch’s absence?”
“You must have reasons,” I began; but getting little encouragement from his expression, I did not finish what I had to say, but merely announced my willingness to accompany him.
He immediately led the way to his own stables, where he chose two good horses on which we were presently mounted.
The country around Crugers is, as I have already intimated, as flat as a man’s hand. It is grazing land, and in all the ten miles that we rode, little was to be seen but herds of cattle, outlined against a colorless horizon. It was so monotonous that I tried to engage Dillon in talk, and the theme I chose was naturally the beautiful wife of Mr. Murdoch.
“Have you ever seen her?” I inquired.
He responded readily enough.
“I caught a passing glimpse of her when they rode through Crugers on their first coming to the ranch. She is a tall woman, and has an eye which makes a man’s heart jump in his breast. It was cruel in Murdoch to shut her up in so isolated a place as the ranch, beautiful as they say it is. Any woman would get tired of four walls even if they were hung with golden tapestries, and she, I have heard, is of a peculiarly restless disposition.”
“He seems to dote on her, however,” I observed. “Perhaps he thought he could keep her within bounds here. And I should think he could,” I added, looking at the limitless waste about me.
But still Dillon did not tell me what Reddy had said to him.
It was approaching dusk when we came in sight of Hannaford Ranch. As it was still miles away all I could discern was a cluster of low buildings, but as we advanced nearer I had one glimpse of its picturesque outline before the darkness fell and covered it. When we rode up we found the doorways blocked with servants, who shouted aloud their disappointment at seeing two strangers instead of their expected master.
But Dillon’s name was not unknown to them, and we soon found ourselves ushered into the bijou parlor by a pale but pretty girl, whose eyes showed signs of weeping.
Dillon at once made himself at home.
“Where is Mrs. Murdoch?” he asked, looking about in his masterful way at the group of frightened faces in the doorway.
The girl, whose name was Cora, fingered her apron nervously. She was pale, I have said, but I would have struck the truth more nearly if I had called her pallid. Her hair, which was like washed-out floss, hung in lank locks about cheeks that might possibly have shown a pair of bewitching dimples in happier times, but which at present were chiefly noticeable for the dark hollows under her eyes, which made her look more like a wraith than a woman. Her mouth, which was made for smiles, twitched nervously under our gaze, and her whole appearance was such as to give emphasis to any strange but lurking doubt which might have been implanted in the sheriff’s breast by Reddy’s passing whisper. As Dillon asked his question her lips opened mechanically, but it was a minute before she answered. Then she declared with a hurried gasp:
“Mrs. Murdoch is gone. Mr. Murdoch is away looking for her. She was here at breakfast, and she was not here an hour after. That is all we know.”
“Witchcraft,” volunteered a voice in my ear. “She was spirited away. No one can leave this place in mortal flesh without being seen.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, turning suddenly upon the man behind me.
But he had already slipped out of sight.
Dillon, who had not heard this hurried whisper, was pursuing his questions.
“Do you mean to say that no one on the place saw Mrs. Murdoch go away?”
“No one, sir.”
“But isn’t the country an open one all around? Can’t you see the road for miles in every direction?”
“And there was no one who saw her going away, not one of all this crowd of men and women?”
“Not one, sir.”
Dillon let his eye travel over the varied faces that were turned his way, and seemed to interrogate each in turn. But the looks he received, and the muttered denials which sprang from every side, seemed to satisfy him, for he turned back to Cora, who was shaking more and more visibly,
“What frightens you so?” he demanded. “Do you think any harm has come to your mistress?”
She looked up with astonished eyes.
“Oh, no, sir! That is, I am not thinking of that. But to see a person in a room one minute, and then to go back to that room and not see her, and not find her, and never to see her again, is frightful to a poor girl like me.”
“Come, come,” growled Dillon; “this isn’t very clear. Tell me just how she came to go, or how you came to know she was gone. Or if you cannot talk, let some one speak who can.”
“Reddy is our talker,” spoke up a voice from the doorway; “but he has gone off with Mr. Murdoch.”
“I will hear the woman tell the story,” repeated Dillon, looking at Cora again in a way that somewhat reassured her.
Meanwhile I had been studying my surroundings. The house was such as could only have been built in that remote place by a very rich man. The parlor in which we then stood, was almost Moorish in its effect, the walls being made of pillars supporting an ornate lattice-work, which on the house side supported draperies of delicate sea-green damask, and toward the plains without acted as a framework for diamonded casements of clear glass. The floor was of white tiling, with here and there a rug to warm the feet, and from the huge fireplace in one corner there rose a single jet of flame from the solitary log that was dying in it, which threw a flicker on the frightened faces about me, and lent much to the spectral nature of the scene.
“This is all there is to it,” Cora now repeated with some appearance of renewed courage. “At eight o’clock we had breakfast, and Mr. and Mrs. Murdoch had finished, and Mrs. Murdoch had gone to her own room and he had gone to the library, when a man came riding up on horseback. He was from Big Trail Station, and he wanted to see Mrs. Murdoch. I am Mrs. Murdoch’s maid, and I carry her messages back and forth, so I went to her room and told her about the man. She did not seem much interested, but ordered me to send him in to her, which I did, after which I went to finish some work I had to do at the other end of the house. When I came back some little time after, I passed by Mr. Murdoch’s door. He was writing at his desk, and he called me. ‘Will you say to Mrs. Murdoch that it would gratify me to have her come to me here in the library?’ he said, without looking up from his work. I answered as was expected of me, and went straight to her private sitting-room, where I had left her an hour or two before. She was not there. Then I went into her bedroom, which opened out of the one I was in; but she was not there. After that I went all over the house, and into the servants’ quarters adjoining; but she was not to be found, nor could any one tell me where she was. On my way back I went in front and looked up the roads north and south, but saw no one, to right or left, except the gaunt figure of the man who had brought her the message from Big Trail, and who was riding back the way he had come. A little frightened now, but still thinking that she would be found somewhere, I went back to Mr. Murdoch.
“ ‘Mrs. Murdoch is not to be found,’ I declared; and it was the start he gave which first upset me. Leaping to his feet with as much haste and terror as if I had told him the house was on fire, he ran out, without a word, to the front of the house, where he stood bareheaded staring in every direction. Finally he spoke.
“ ‘Who is that?’ he demanded at last, pointing in the direction of the departing horseman,
“I told him it was a man who had ridden from Big Trail Station to see Mrs. Murdoch.
“ ‘And did she see him?’
“I answered that I thought she did, but that I was not sure, having gone immediately into another part of the house.
“He wasted no more time on the messenger, but returned to the house and began searching himself for Mrs. Murdoch. But he was no more successful than myself, and when it became certain that she was not in the house, nor in the stables, nor in any nook or corner of the whole place, he blustered like a madman, and called Reddy and Jasper Harper, and rode away to the north, but with no courage in his face, for don’t you see he understood as well as the rest of us that she couldn’t have left this place without some one seeing her. Reddy and Charley Snow and all the men say it is impossible, and so, and so—”
“You think she has been spirited away, like smoke,” broke in Dillon, impatiently.
She shuddered, but did not attempt to answer.
“He could distinguish and divide
A hair ’twixt south and southwest side.”
“Now,” protested Dillon, “you know me, all of you, and know that I mean well by every one. I saw Mr. Murdoch at Cruger’s, and while he is wearing out the night looking for his wife on the highroads, I will search the house for her as only I can search. Meantime, I expect every one of you to stay where I put you. Is there a man here who objects to my authority, or a woman either?”
A dozen heads wagged deprecatingly from side to side. A feeling of real fear was taking the place of the superstitious doubts, which had hitherto affected these simple-minded people.
“I will take one of the household servants with me, and she can report to the rest,” continued the sheriff, following his usual method of making some concessions in trifles, that he might hold his own in essentials. “Who shall it be?”
I anticipated seeing them push forward Cora, but it was upon another girl that most of their glances fell, and seeing this, the sheriff immediately stepped forward and took her by the arm. She was a neat, homely person, with a face bespeaking kindness and honesty.
“I will take you,” he decided, and motioning her to remain where he had placed her, he led her companions away to a distant room into which he locked them. While he was gone, Hetty, as she was called, cast me doleful looks, and finally ventured to say, in a half-choked whisper, “I never was so frightened in my life. Do you think he will let me light the lamps?”
I laughed, pulled a match-box from my pocket, and myself lit a brace of candles on the mantelshelf.
“I have no doubt,” said I, “that he will not only allow, but request you to do so. How can we see anything without light?”
She did not answer, but wailed forth:
“Oh, how I wish Mr. Murdoch would come back! It has been dreadful here since he went away. One man says we will never see mistress again, and another that before we know it, we will see her walk into some room, or rise up out of some chair as calmly and quietly as if nothing had happened.”
“And you would be more frightened if that should happen than if she never came back at all?” I suggested.
“And wouldn’t you?” she asked, casting fearful looks about her.
I own the idea was an uncanny one, especially in the dimness of this Oriental parlor, but I said nothing, for the girl was desperately frightened, as indeed many of her betters might have been under the circumstances.
“Mr. Murdoch will bring his wife back with him,” I presently assured her, “Mrs. Murdoch undoubtedly escaped from the house when no one was looking.
But Hetty shook her head.
“There is not a horse missing from the stable,” she declared.
I began to understand Reddy’s whisper and Dillon’s arbitrary actions.
“Where are you from?” I asked, with a reporter’s natural anxiety to pick up all sorts of details in regard to anything that interests him.
“From Utah. We are not Mormons, though. My parents are Gentiles, and I was brought up to work and to do the right thing wherever I was placed.”
“And Cora? Where did she come from?”
“Oh, she is a San Francisco girl—the only one the mistress brought with her.”
“Is she honest?” I whispered.
Hetty’s round eyes took on a look of some perplexity, and she glanced every way before replying.
“I don’t know!” she answered in a whisper. “Sometimes I think she is, and sometimes I think she isn’t. She’s a great favorite. All the cowboys are her lovers—such, I mean, as are allowed a glimpse of her; and Jasper—”
“What of Jasper?”
“Does just whatever she tells him to do, though he’s bossy enough with every one else. But what makes you ask?”
“Curiosity!” I assured her, and then was suddenly still, for I heard Dillon returning.
“Well!” he cried, “let’s to business! Girl, you go before and light up the lamps.”
It was a cruel order, for the darkness of night had now settled over the whole house, and to one in her state of mind, nothing short of terror could be awakened by the prospect of entering the solitary rooms alone.
“Ah!” said I, “let me be the lamplighter. Here are matches, and Hetty will show us where to find the lamps.”
She gave me a rare smile, and tripped towards the hangings at the right. “Would you like to see the library first?” she asked.
Mr. Dillon paused, and a curious look crossed his face.
“We will pass through the library,” he replied. “But was not Mrs. Murdoch last seen in her private sitting-room?”
“So Cora says.”
“Is that Cora a good girl?” quickly demanded the Sheriff, pausing with the curtains in his hand, to watch the effect of his words on our simple-hearted guide.
“I have been asked that before,” returned the trembling Hetty, with just the suspicion of a glance in my direction. “And I don’t know what to say. I think she is, but I do not know her well enough to answer right up and down honestly, yes, Mrs. Murdoch did not like her.”
“Mrs. Murdoch did not like her?”
“I do not think so; but perhaps I should not say anything about that. I do not want to make myself disagreeable,”
“But I should like to hear what you can tell me of the relations between them. It may help us to understand this mystery. Why didn’t Mrs. Murdoch like Cora, and why did she keep her if she was disagreeable to her?”
“Oh, sir, Mr. Murdoch chooses the servants for this house,” replied the girl, in a very low voice. “Why Mrs. Murdoch disliked Cora, I cannot say, but that she certainly did, I feel positive, because I once surprised her asking Mr. Murdoch to have her sent away. I was in the parlor and they were in the library, and I heard the words quite plain.”
“Humph! and so this is the library, I suppose,” remarked Dillon, dropping the curtains from his hand and stepping forward into a room I had just succeeded in illuminating.
Naturally we both surveyed the apartment with some interest, and were equally impressed, I do not doubt, by the subdued beauty of its dark blue walls and terra-cotta furnishings, but we made no remark, startling as it was to see such splendor in a region so remote from the comforts, to say nothing of the elegancies, of life. On the contrary the Sheriff’s first words were eminently practical. “I see no place for hiding here,” he said, and pushed on towards the hall.
The next room we visited was the one already alluded to as Mrs. Murdoch’s. It was dark when we entered, save for the faint light shed through the open windows by a heaven full of stars. But even in that faint light, the beauty of its appearance caused an exclamation to spring from our lips, and when I had succeeded in lighting the eastern lamp which hung in one corner, the daintiness and exquisite nature of the scene was such that we stood for a moment silent as before some fairy spectacle. Not that money shone predominant in this gem of an apartment, though money alone could have created such a spot of beauty in this grassy wilderness. It was taste and a certain originality in ornament and coloring which made it so beautiful, each article from ceiling to floor lending itself to the general effect, while still retaining its own charm as an unique and delicate piece of work. The walls were hung with daffodil-colored silk, and as I gazed upon them and upon the few rare pictures that broke the general color at intervals, I could not but remember the remark I had myself made to Dillon in discussing this very place. “Mr. Murdoch evidently dotes on her, and hopes by these means to keep her within bounds in this desolate place.”
Dillon, whose mind was fixed on business, was the first to drop his eyes from the various beauties about us,
“Any closets?” he asked, glancing with a keen eye at a long window-seat that ran across one side of the room.
Hetty pointed out two; but a look within them satisfied us at once as to their inability to conceal any one.
“This lounge is a very long one,” he intimated, taking up the article in question, and turning it slowly over. But he replaced it immediately and went slowly over to the fireplace.
This was a huge affair, and was one of the chief ornaments of this beautiful room. It was tiled, and shone white as snow from amid the yellow walls. Inside was a set of huge andirons, and on the hearth, which was composed of one slab of marble, stood a rack, holding a pair of tongs and a poker of prodigious length, but of most remarkable workmanship. A few ashes flew out of the grate as we approached; the fire which had been lit for her use in the early morning had gone out.
Dillon, leaning forward, thrust his head into the chimney-jamb and looked up.
“Oh,” screamed the girl at my side with an involuntary start; “does he expect—”
“Hush!” I commanded. “Have you not told me that she could not have left the ranch?”
But Hetty’s terror had now taken definite shape. She held her breath while Dillon stood with his head craned upward in the chimney, and when he drew it out again, she looked as if she would faint.
But Dillon showed no increase of emotion in his face.
“I can see the stars,” he declared with a shrug, and came from the fireplace.
The flooring was of oak, and was laid in narrow boards. He glanced down at it, and kicked aside one or two rugs and a snowy bear-skin that lay before the hearth; then he passed to the windows.
They were open and looked towards the north.
“Only a step to the ground,” he commented, “but what of that? There is nothing but the plain before us, and across that plain she was not seen to go.”
“Where is her bedroom?” he suddenly inquired, still standing at the window.
“Here,” cried Hetty, approaching a curtain of heavy yellow damask.
“Light it up!” he commanded shortly.
She faltered through the doorway, where I presently followed her. When I returned to say that the room was ready for inspection, I found him flinging back the pillows that covered the window-seat.
“No use,” he declared; “nothing to be found in this room.”
I gulped down my rising horror, and accompanied him into the bedroom.
Here we found everything that the comfort and splendor of the adjoining rooms would lead us to expect, but no signs of the missing mistress, and no clue to her unaccountable disappearance.
“I wonder,” said Dillon, “if any of her clothing is missing.”
“Cora says no,” whispered Hetty, still greatly awe-stricken by Dillon and the circumstances which had drawn him there.
“Not even her bonnet or her cape?”
“Not a thing, I believe; Mr. Murdoch and Cora were talking about it.”
“What did she have on this morning when she was last seen by any of you?”
“A dark wool dress, sir, with puffs of black satin let into the sleeves. One of her plainest gowns, sir. Mrs. Murdoch dresses beautifully.”
“I shall be obliged to talk with this Cora,” muttered Dillon, glancing somewhat helplessly at the dresser drawers which he had pulled wide open, and which, as well as the closets and wardrobes, were filled with elegant articles of apparel. “If there is one object missing which she did not wear at breakfast, I shall regard it as a clue. She does not seem to have put on her watch.”
“Nor her rings,” cried Hetty. “I saw Mr. Murdoch himself gather them up from the bureau.”
“He will return to these rooms,” Dillon here announced. “I wish to make sure of the out-houses and the garret, and I wish to have a peep at the roof. Hetty, what man shall I summon for my guide?”
She named Charlie Snow as being the soberest and most sensible fellow about the place; and Dillon, with an intimation to me to remain with Hetty in the library, locked the doors of the apartments we had just examined, and, carrying away the keys, proceeded down the hall to the servants’ quarters.
“Every question is a door handle.”
It was an hour before he came back. His first action upon reappearing in our presence was to wave Hetty from the room, and then to seat himself squarely before me.
“They are getting supper for us,” was his first remark. “I tell you this, that you may not feel too regretful for having come with me.” Then with a slap on his thigh that was emphatic, to say the least, he added seriously: “This is the greatest mystery it has ever fallen to my lot to handle. I have searched this place, alone and with that fellow Snow, till there isn’t a spot as large as my hand that hasn’t been probed, tapped, and sounded. And she isn’t here. Now what do you make out of it?”
“What did that fellow Reddy say, when he passed you at Crugers’ store?”
“He said: ‘The Missus is not on the road, but at the ranch. She couldn’t have got away without my seeing her.’ ”
“That’s what they all declare; but I have thought of a way she might have escaped under their nose.”
“On the white horse, in the clothes of the messenger who came here?”
“Yes. Have you not thought of that too?”
“Oh, yes, I have thought of it. But the messenger! He was made of flesh and blood, I suppose, and should be here if she rode away on his horse. But there is no such man to be found, nor has any one been seen to go away on foot. No, no; that supposition is untenable. There are too many men here of varied make-up and character to be in league together; and they all tell one story.”
“But Reddy is not here. I wish he was, and Mr. Murdoch too.”
“And the cowboy; did you notice the cowboy who was with them?”
“Jasper? Oh, yes; I have known him for a long time.”
“He seemed very much disturbed.”
“Secretly disturbed,” I persisted, “more than was natural, it seems to me, for one of his evidently reckless nature.”
“Humph! did it strike you that way? I must have a talk with him when he comes back. But I don’t think anything will come of it. Mr. Murdoch is the man I want; he must and shall tell us what has become of his wife.”
At this intimation, put somewhat too broadly not to be highly suggestive, I undoubtedly showed some surprise, for he laughed with sudden constraint and began to speak of other things. “After supper,” said he, “we will have another talk with Cora, and then we will go to bed. Shall you be afraid to sleep here?”
“Not from any superstitious feeling,” I rejoined, “but what will Mr. Murdoch think of the intrusion?”
“That is of small consequence,” he muttered, “What is really to be feared is that Mr. Murdoch won’t be here to think.”
“Won’t be here!”
“Hush!” he murmured, in quiet admonishment. “Don’t let’s talk too loud. Curiosity is too much alive in this house. I only mean that, according to all accounts, Mr. Murdoch is very much in love with his wife, and that believing her to be somewhere on the road, he will ride the country over till his horse drops. He gives no credit to the idea that she is at the ranch. Did you mark that?”
“I thought he looked very much discouraged, but I couldn’t tell why, of course.”
“I don’t think his looks meant discouragement,” intimated the Sheriff. “Some men’s faces are like masks, and to my mind Mr. Murdoch has just that kind of face. But here I am talking scandal in the man’s own house, and such a house, eh? Did you ever see its like before?”
I endeavored to describe to him some of the grand houses east, but I doubt if he more than half believed me. To him this was a fairy palace without a prototype in the whole world. “It dashes me,” he acknowledged, but he did not act dashed. Nothing but the presence of its mistress could have done that, I imagined, its beautiful mistress whose picture I had just seen over Mr. Murdoch’s desk.
“Mrs. Murdoch is a dark woman,” I remarked, pointing to the exquisite portrait which had just attracted my attention. “I might have known it from the color of the hangings in her sitting-room.” And a vision rose before me of this commanding brunette, seated in that nest of yellow. As my thoughts dwelt upon it, I almost dreamed that by going back to that room I should see her sitting there, with her raven head showing against the many-paned windows, and her form half lost in the golden cushions that so plentifully encumbered the lounges and chairs. “Did Jasper speak the truth when he said that she was not responsible for what she did?” I finally inquired.
“That we have yet to determine,” muttered the Sheriff, nervously. “I have heard certain stories about her which would lead me to think all was not quite right with her, but the folks here don’t tell of anything queer. On the contrary, they say she is very quiet in her ways, and looks after her household like any ordinary lady.”
“I don’t like Cora,” I here observed.
“Strange! neither do I; consequently we must try and make more out of Cora.”
And it is of the interview which we had later with this girl, that I must now speak.
It took place late in the evening, and after Dillon had spent a half hour or so alone in Mrs. Murdoch’s apartments.
“Who arranges Mrs. Murdoch’s rooms?” was his first question as soon as we were closeted alone with this girl.
“I, sir,” was the unhesitating reply.
“It was you, then, who put them in order this morning?”
“Of course, sir.”
“While she was at breakfast.”
“They were in perfect shape, then, when she came back to them?”
“Certainly, sir. Mr. Murdoch is very particular to have everything done just right.”
“Yes, sir, Mrs. Murdoch is not quite so strict. She has feeling for a girl.”
“Ah, you like your mistress, then.”
“I am sorry for her.”
“Sorry, with all this splendor which she had?”
“Oh, sir, splendor does not go for much when we are unhappy.”
“And she is unhappy?”
“I have seen her look so.”
“That is because she is afflicted.”
The girl looked down.
“Is she not afflicted—in her mind, you know?”
“People have said so.”
“Do you not think she is?”
“I would not like to say. This sudden disappearance looks as—as—”
“Are not Mr. Murdoch and his wife a very devoted couple?” Dillon asked, with a seemingly careless disregard of her evident emotion.
“Oh, yes, sir!” with a sigh.
“Do—do they never quarrel?” he continued. “You need not be afraid to answer. We are not gossips.”
“I do not like to talk about them,” she replied. “They have both been good to me, and Mr. Murdoch is such a gentleman.”
“Yet he is severe at times?”
“Severe? Oh, no. He is very mild, only he expects to have things done just as he says and just when he says.”
“And she is different?”
“Ah, sir, Mrs. Murdoch is not thinking of little things. It is with books she busies herself, and writing.”
“And they never quarrelled?”
“I never heard them.”
“But you believe for all that that they sometimes did?”
The girl did not answer, only looked distressed.
“Answer!” he thundered.
She started, cast him a quick look and knit her fingers together.
“I have never noticed the least sign of harshness or indifference on his part,” faltered the girl, on recovering herself. “But I have seen her walk up and down her sitting-room when he was not with her like a woman who has been maddened, and once I overheard her cry out when she thought she was alone: ‘Why does he not kill me at once! It would be easier to bear than this long torture!’ But I do not know what she meant.”
“And when was this?”
“A month ago at least.”
“Had he been with her just before you heard these words?”
“Yes, singing and playing on the guitar; he has a beautiful voice.”
“And after that she cried out as you have told me?”
“Yes, with horror almost. I did not know what to make of it, and I have never said a word about it. Perhaps she is queer, but it looks more to me like wretchedness.”
This previously intimidated girl was talking freely now, and I caught a glimpse of her dimples. Evidently it was not the present topic which alarmed her. I glanced at Dillon to see if he noticed this or drew from it any conclusions. But his face was inscrutable.
“Did Mr. Murdoch accompany you in your first search for Mrs. Murdoch?”
“Did he follow or precede you in your entrance into her room?”
“He followed me.”
“Did you notice anything wrong in the room? Had any changes been made in it, or was there anything to be seen that would show what Mrs. Murdoch had been doing just before she vanished?”
“No, sir, only her wrapper lying out which I am sure I left hanging up in the closet—a room wrapper, sir, which she is accustomed to throw on when resting. That was hanging over a chair; it was all the change which I saw.”
“And Mr. Murdoch?”
“He was too full of fright to stay long in those rooms, sir. He dashed to the bureau, saw her rings lying there, and threw up his arms. ‘Fled again!!’ he cried, and rushed to the door where he stood calling wildly for the boys. ‘Follow her!’ he shouted. ‘Search for her everywhere!’ But it was no use.”
Here the girl turned away her head.
“And how long was it before Mr. Murdoch took horse to search the plains?”
“As soon as it was certain that she was not to be found at the ranch?”
“And did he show hope in doing so, or, rather, any confidence that he should find her?”
“No, sir; how could he? All the men swore that only one person had left the ranch this morning.”
“And yet he went?”
“Yes, sir, as one attempts a forlorn hope.”
“And took his two best men with him?”
“Why did he do that?”
At this question her eyes opened, and the color flew from her cheek.
“I don’t know; he is in the habit of riding with them. I—I don’t think he had any other reason.”
She lied; she thought he had. I tried to motion to Dillon with my lips, but he would not look.
“You are an honest girl,” he now remarked, with an air of smiling admiration. “Pretty too. Didn’t Mrs. Murdoch ever tell you so?”
“Oh, sir!” and, “Yes. sir,” came almost simultaneously from her lips. “But the reason she thought so is because my hair is so light. Dark people always think light hair pretty.”
“And how about light people, do they admire the dark ones as well?”
Her face flushed for the first time, and she stammered as she answered. “Oh—I don’t know, I— I— Yes,” she admitted in another instant with sudden boldness, “I think we do instinctively admire those who are different from ourselves. I know that I consider Mrs. Murdoch the handsomest woman I ever saw.”
Mr. Murdoch is light.
And now Dillon did what perhaps only a Western sheriff, unaccustomed to restraint or conventionalities could do with just such an air of freedom. He advanced to the girl, and gently lifting her face, asked boldly: “And which of the boys do you favor the most, my pretty girl. They all must favor you; now which is going to be the happy man?”
She was startled, frightened, possibly, but she was not angry. Instead of that, she stood contemplating Dillon with a fascinated air, and her breast, which had been rising tumultuously, seemed to stand still.
“I do not like any one of them,” she retorted, and endeavored to draw back.
But he held her with his eye as much as with his hand, “Not Reddy?” he asked.
Her mouth curled disdainfully.
“Nor Charley Snow?”
She endeavored to shake her head.
She stamped and wriggled away from his grasp; but her face had turned as white as snow, and he perceived, or I think he did, the secret of that unquiet breast.
“You must pardon an old man’s curiosity,” said he; “time drags heavily, and you are a very pretty girl. But I won’t bother you again. Only tell me where we can sleep to-night, for we can’t sit up that’s certain, and I don’t see any rooms in this part of the house—”
“Oh, we have a guest room,” she eagerly replied, and, as if glad to escape, turned quickly towards the door. “I will show you the way to it, If you please.”
“In a minute; first tell me if this is where Mr. Murdoch sat when he spoke to you from his desk this morning,” queried Dillon, pointing to a large chair standing in front of the desk.
“It is, sir.”
“And he sat just as the chair is placed now?”
Dillon glanced from the chair to the windows, which were on the right of the desk.
“In what direction do these windows look?”
“South, sir. The stables are there.”
“So that he could not have seen the messenger ride up to the front door?”
“And could have seen the cowboys currying the horses in the yard.”
“Yes, sir.” This more doubtfully.
“Very well; run along now.”
She dashed through the door so quickly, we had difficulty in following her.
“Quoth Hudibras, ‘I smell a rat.’ ”
The room to which we were shown was not far distant from the library, but we had hardly settled ourselves down for a talk when we heard a great clatter outside, and the sound of a dozen men rushing up from the stables. Rising hastily, we looked from the window, just in time to see three horses come galloping up and to hear the loud cry:
“Who has lit the candles in Mrs. Murdoch’s room? Is she found? Has my wife been found?”
“So! he has come back,” muttered the Sheriff, half to himself, half to me. “I did not expect it. Let us go meet him. I am the man who lit the candles in Mrs. Murdoch’s room, and to that room I have, at present, the key.”
Only too eager to be at the meeting, I followed him hastily. Meantime, Mr. Murdoch had entered the house dead tired, but upheld by his natural grief and indignation.
“Ah, Dillon!” he remarked, as we came plumb up against him in the hall. “I did not expect your assistance in this trouble. But why are you here?”
“Because Mrs. Murdoch is here.”
The gentleman before us turned livid and seemed about to fall.
“Here? where? They told me—”
“Send away these fellows!” commanded the Sheriff. “We don’t want any more of their help tonight. Tell them to go to bed. We can do our talking alone.”
Mr. Murdoch, who was evidently completely done up, turned shortly about and waved the servants off.
“Go,” he said. “I have not found her, and shall renew my search to-morrow; but to-night I must have rest.”
They vanished as if wiped out.
“Now,” he cried, “what have you to tell me?”
He trembled so, Dillon evidently felt some compassion for him.
“I have nothing to tell you,” he replied. “I only declare that Mrs. Murdoch is here because she cannot be elsewhere. Time enough did not elapse from the time you last saw her till you came back to her room and found it vacant for her to have left this place.”
“You are right,” Mr. Murdoch allowed; “and so I have told myself over and over the whole day long. But a man cannot stop to reason when all that he loves is flying from him. She was not to be found here and so—”
“You took your two best men and went scouring the country after her.”
At this remark, uttered with seeming inconsequence, Mr. Murdoch stared blankly.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Have these men come back?” was Dillon’s pertinent inquiry.
“And you did not follow the messenger?”
“Why, the man from Big Trail, the only person who saw her after you did, or who could tell what she said or what she did just before vanishing from your home and protection.”
The emotion evinced by Mr. Murdoch was evidently unfeigned.
“I did not realize,” said he, “that this man could help us. Jasper was so sure that he was just a messenger about the supplies that I never gave him another thought. Besides, you yourself told me what his errand was to this house. You saw him at Crugers.”
“So I did, but I did not take the interest in him then that I do now. He saw Mrs. Murdoch later than you, that is the point.”
The unhappy husband was swaying from side to side in his agitation.
“Fool! idiot!” he exclaimed in what I am sure was meant for self-condemnation. “But we will search him out to-morrow and have a talk with him, if I can keep in the saddle. No matter what Jasper says—”
“And what does Jasper say?”
“That we waste time in thinking of him. That he himself was in front when the fellow rode up, and that he saw him again when he went off. That he even spoke to him and helped him hold his horse when he got on, and that there was nothing in the man’s manner which was in any wise uncommon.”
“That’s all good; but still this same plain, ill-dressed, strange messenger saw your wife later than you did. Do the men from Big Trail usually interview your wife instead of you on the matter of supplies?”
“No; and yet this one might. The supplies in this case were extras which she may have ordered herself. My birthday is near, and—”
He turned his head sharply away.
“She was capable,” he continued in a lower tone, “of ordering a whole houseful of flowers, to celebrate my birthday, and of flying away before the day had arrived.”
Dillon’s manner took on a respectful gravity.
“This is not the first time she has disappeared from your home, I hear,”
“Nor the third,” admitted Mr. Murdoch. “But never before in such an unaccountable way.”
There was something in the dignity he here assumed that prevented further questions on this point.
“After you are rested,” observed the Sheriff, “we will look again at her room. If she has left any clue behind her, as to the manner or cause of her sudden departure, it will be found there. In the morning will be time enough.”
“And do you think I can sleep with this uncertainty over my head? No, if there is anything to be learned there, let us learn it at once.”
But the Sheriff overruled him in this matter. It was late, and we had all been in the saddle. Mr. Murdoch, who looked ready to drop himself, was easily induced to retire to a room not far from ours, while Dillon and myself pretended to sleep, as perhaps did all the rest of the household.
But when in the darkest hour of the night I started nervously from my pillow, thinking I heard footsteps, I perceived that Dillon was already sitting up, and that he had most of his clothes on.
“Don’t move!” he quietly adjured me. “I am going to find out whose step that is, if I die for it.” He was gone while he said the words, and I lay, with my heart violently throbbing, waiting for the sound of an altercation or for his stealthy return.
There was a clock somewhere in the hall, and I heard it ticking loudly; but suddenly the sound ceased, and only by this means did I become sensible that Dillon had re-entered the room and shut the door.
“It was Murdoch,” came to my ears in a light whisper. “He has been to his wife’s door, but he found it locked, and the discovery seemed to stagger him. Now he is back again, and I do not think he will budge again till morning.”
“You mistrust him?” I ventured upon saying.
His answer was a low “Hush!” followed by the short remark, “An hour in that room in broad daylight will tell us more than all we have heard to-night. Now sleep.”
I obeyed him, and knew nothing more till morning.
When we all met in the Gothic dining-room for breakfast it was to encounter a group of pale faces.
Hetty, whose business it was to wait upon us, had great rings under her eyes, and from time to time turned such questioning looks towards us, that even Mr. Murdoch noticed her abstraction and sharply rebuked her, Cora did not show herself, and the men could be heard shouting outside to the horses, but none of them were visible even from the windows which opened away from the stables, and, like Mrs. Murdoch’s apartments, towards the north.
No one feeling inclined to broach the subject engrossing all our thoughts, and no other being possible, we ate for the most part in silence, and as soon as the meal was over stood up and with simultaneous action moved towards Mrs. Murdoch’s sitting-room.
Why Mr. Murdoch did not resent my presence, I do not know; but he seemed to take it for granted, as he did everything else, in this time of mortal trouble.
“I am going to ask you,” said Mr. Dillon, as he drew from his pocket the key to the yellow parlor, “to sit in that chair by the door till I have made certain necessary examinations. Are you willing, Mr. Murdoch?”
“Certainly, certainly,” returned that gentleman; “but what do you hope to discover here? I see nothing to be learned from this room but that my wife has vanished from it with nothing that belongs to her save the clothes she wore at the breakfast table.”
“And not even all those,” smiled Dillon, looking back at us from the doorway which he had by this time entered.
“Do you mean her watch which she left lying on her dresser?”
“Yes, and her rings which I am told you picked up from her cushion and put in your pocket.”
“True. She took them off, which proves to me that she meditated flight. Never have I known her to leave me with even five dollars’ worth of jewelry on her person.”
“That is worth knowing,” said Dillon. “Now sit down and we will see what else we can gather from appearances here.”
He cast a sly look at Mr. Murdoch, as he thus spoke, but the gentleman showed no resentment, and even sat down as he was bid, like a child who recognizes the voice of a master, I was astonished at this in one of such dignity of manner; but I was a stranger to Mr. Murdoch, and had not yet begun to sound the depths and shallows of his strange nature.
“You will pardon me,” Dillon now continued, “if I commit strange freaks before your eyes.” And throwing himself upon the floor, he proceeded to study it carefully and almost inch by inch.
What he was searching for I could not imagine; and from Mr. Murdoch’s dazed looks, I gathered that he was as much at sea as myself. The floor was of oak, and had been highly polished; the sunlight streaming through the one window which looked east, lit it up like glass.
“Ah!” came from Dillon’s lips at last, and he rose quickly, I saw his eye pass rapidly towards the great northern window, and rest for a minute on the broad seat now stacked with the pillows he had flung there the night before. Then he walked, a little gingerly I thought, over to the window, and began looking at the pillows, and afterwards at the seat itself. Then, and not till then, did he open the wide casement, and gaze earnestly out at the ground beneath. When he turned round his face showed a gleam of quiet satisfaction.
“I have learned one thing,” said he; but he did not tell what it was.
His next move was towards the fireplace. He approached it mechanically, but as some ashes flew up in his face, he gave a start and went down again upon his hands and knees. This time it was to inspect the hearthstone. He eyed it first, with oblique looks cast along its polished surface; then he touched it, and finally stooped down and blew off the fine ash that had collected upon it. What he saw after he had done this I did not then know; but after staring for a minute at a certain place in it, he reached out his hands toward the poker and eagerly lifted it out of the rack. I felt a qualm of secret terror or expectation at this, and would have stolen a look at Mr. Murdoch to see how he was affected by this sudden interest in what might very readily be regarded as a weapon, but my own interest held my eyes glued to the object itself. It evidently failed to reveal anything, however, for it was soon put down, and only by a faint shake of Dillon’s head could I detect that he was disappointed in something. He now examined the tongs, but they evidently revealed no more than the poker had done. Putting them slowly back he gave another long look at the spot I have before mentioned, and then quietly rose.
“I should like to ask Cora a question,” said he.
Mr. Murdoch looked up, but he was evidently in a dazed state, and I hastened to summon the girl myself.
I found her standing in the kitchen, surrounded by all the other girls, who were staring at her in some dismay.
Through the open door beyond I could just discern the shadow of a departing figure, and when I approached her to tell her that she was wanted in the yellow parlor, I perceived that it belonged to the handsome cowboy who had been called Jasper. His head was hanging, and his whole figure showed discomfiture.
She started when I told her my errand, and rapidly followed me.
“Would to God I had never come to this place!” she exclaimed, pausing when half-way there.
“Why?” I asked. “What is it frightens you? Is it Jasper?”
“Oh, don’t!” she pleaded. “You have no right to ask me anything—none of you.” And she fairly ran by me till she reached the yellow parlor.
“You have sent for me,” she began, trembling very much, as she met Mr. Murdoch’s eye.
“This man here wants to ask you a question,” he said, indicating Dillon, “Answer him.”
She turned with a resigned air towards the master inquisitor.
“Will you never have done?” her looks seemed to say.
“I will not keep you long,” Dillon assured her. “You said that you cleaned up this room yesterday morning. Did you wipe up the floor?”
“Yes, of course; I always do.”
“So that you left it clean?”
Instead of replying she gave a gasp. Evidently his question had opened before her some sort of pit-fall.
“Why don’t you answer,” put in her master, somewhat querulously for him.
“Because—I—I—am trying to think. Isn’t it clean now?” she asked, casting uneasy glances over the floor.
“That is not what I asked,” pursued Dillon. “Was it clean yesterday?”
“I—I suppose so. It ought to have been, I try to be nice with my work, but—”
“Where did the cloth come from that was used to wipe up some spot from off this hearth?” queried the Sheriff, relentlessly, plunging his eyes into hers in a way that set her trembling worse than before.
“I—” she began boldly, but weakened with every word she spoke. “I don’t—know—what—you mean. I used no cloth.”
“But isn’t there a cloth lacking from here—some rag or tag, which might have been used for this purpose?”
“How do you know?” she faltered.
But he interrupted her remorselessly.
“No matter how I know,” he thundered. “I do know, and more than that, I want that rag, clean or not clean, and on the jump, do you hear?”
She was swaying now from side to side, looking more like a wraith than ever, but she struggled to reply. “I cannot tell, I do not know.”
Struck by this answer or her appearance, or both, Murdoch sprang suddenly from his chair, “What is all this about?” he demanded. “If there is anything lacking, ask me. I know every object there is in my wife’s rooms.”
“You don’t know this one,” suggested the Sheriff. “It is only a rag, which I swear has been used to clean up a spot from this hearth.”
Mr. Murdoch stared into the Sheriff’s face with rising horror. “What spot?” he murmured.
“Ah, I do not know what spot. It is to inform myself on this point that I want the rag, don’t you see?”
The unhappy millionaire continued to stare for a minute. Then he staggered away into the adjoining room. But almost immediately he came back, and going directly up to Dillon, ejaculated with short gasps. “If she—is dead—where—is—her—body? You—have not—found that.”
Dillon surveyed him for a moment in close silence. “We are going to look for it,” he cried, at last.
A shriek of irrepressible dismay broke from the unhappy husband’s lips, and was faintly echoed by Cora. Then there was a silence, during which the Sheriff looked grimly at the almost fainting girl. “Now will you hunt up that rag?” he asked.
She turned like an automaton that has been moved by the mechanician’s hand. But Murdoch, recovering himself by a fury of effort, waved her aside and stepped again into the adjoining apartment.
“I find a small sponge missing from the washstand,” he notified the Sheriff, showing his white face in the doorway.
Cora, with marked effort, drew herself up.
“I know nothing about it,” she persisted, with dogged persistence.
The Sheriff did not force the thing further.
“Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.”
Dillon’s next move was an unexpected one. He leaped from the window and spent a few minutes examining the ground about the house; then he came back in the same unceremonious fashion, and meeting Mr. Murdoch’s troubled and impatient eye, cheerfully observed:
“Now I am ready to see Reddy and the boy you call Jasper.”
Cora, who had been standing very near the doorway, made a turn as if she would slide out, but Dillon’s quick eye detected her.
“None of that,” he cried. “I am not done with you yet. Stay where you are, girl. I can get the fellows without any aid from you,” And raising his stentorian voice, he called out, “Reddy! Jasper!” till the walls echoed again.
Mr. Murdoch, who had probably never before seen anybody but himself exercising authority in his house, turned with chagrin and amazement toward this officious interloper. But he was in too great trouble to speak, and Dillon went calmly on till the sound of coming footsteps advised him that the men he wanted were advancing rapidly up the hall.
Rapidly, I say, but this applies to only one of them. Reddy was not slow in showing his face at the door, but it was several minutes before Jasper arrived and took his stand beside him.
“Reddy,” inquired Dillon, as soon as his eye caught sight of that man’s gaunt form and open face, “why is the ground turned up all along the side of this house?”
Why had he not asked Mr. Murdoch?
“Because, sir, Mrs. Murdoch likes flowers,” was the quiet reply. “She wants vines growing up her window, so we got the ground ready for them.”
“I see; and when did you do this?”
“Day before yesterday it was. She said she expected roots and bulbs and such like from San Francisco.”
“Well, I should like you to take a spade and dig up that ground again. I’m not satisfied with the way it’s done. Are you, Mr. Murdoch?”
The gentleman thus directly appealed to, shook himself as if he were throwing off some weight that hampered him. But his answer I did not catch, for my suspicions, if I had any, were chiefly directed against Cora, and it was upon her that my interest became instantly fixed. Not that she moved or uttered a sound at this high-handed proposition from the county official. I doubt if she so much as turned her head; and yet an indefinable change passed over her, something like the difference which takes place in a flower, when it is struck by a sudden blight. Dillon did not detect it, nor Reddy, but the man Jasper, who just at that instant shuffled into view through the gorgeous hangings, showed by the instantaneous paling of his dark features that he noticed it, and was more or less affected by the discovery.
Reddy, who had received this seemingly, preposterous command, was the only person who showed a natural surprise. But even he betrayed emotion at last, for the Sheriff soon showed that he was in deadly earnest, and meant exactly what he said.
“Shall I do what he asks me?” inquired Reddy, advancing with a troubled but respectful air towards his master.
Mr. Murdoch leaped to his feet and gave one shout. “Bring a spade and I will dig myself; but it’s folly, madness. How could she have buried herself?”
Jasper shrank, they all shrank, and a white glare of horror spread over every face.
“If she is dead she should be here in plain sight. My wife may have killed herself, but— Why do you all stand gaping here?” he suddenly cried. “If Mr. Dillon asks you to dig, dig! But it is folly, and you will make a madman of me if you go on in this way.”
Jasper wheeled about and dashed wildly from the door, but Dillon presently had him back.
“I have a question to put to you,” he cried. “How long was that messenger from Big Trail in this room?”
The fellow who had by nature as daring a countenance as I ever saw, did not find his tongue at first, but presently retorted:
“I don’t carry a watch with me, but I should say from the work I did, that it was about half an hour.”
“Did you speak with him when he came out?”
“Yes, something or other, I don’t know what.”
“And he acted naturally, like the man he made himself out to be?”
“Did you not have any doubts of him? Has it not seemed strange to you that he was not followed up and brought back?”
The handsome cowboy lifted his head defiantly, then shook it with an appearance of scorn.
“What’s the use wasting time over such a fellow as that?” he cried. “Stopping him wouldn’t be bringing Mrs. Murdoch back, would it?”
“And where do you think Mrs. Murdoch is?” continued the Sheriff, with the uncomfortable suddenness with which he had before tried to startle the truth from the others.
“Heaven only knows,” said he, “or hell,” and with this reply there became visible in his manner a dash of recklessness, and he turned his eyes here, there, and everywhere, with a disrespectful boldness that robbed him of some of the beauty which had made him so conspicuous a figure a few minutes before.
“Well, let’s quit talking and go to work,” resumed Dillon; and motioning the boys from the room, he said a few words to Mr. Murdoch and then quietly followed them.
Ten minutes later I heard, the sound of spades. It made me so sick I fled from that beautiful apartment as from a place of sepulture. As I did so, I caught one last glimpse of Mr. Murdoch. He was reeling against that polished mantel, and the hair on his forehead stood up in unspeakable horror.
“I have found you an argument; I am not obliged to find you an understanding.”—Johnson
I was walking up and down the road when Dillon at last approached me.
“There has been a crime committed here,” said he; “I am confident of it, but of its exact nature we are ignorant, and to it we can find but one clue, and that is a very meagre one.”
“And what is it?” I asked,
“This,” and he showed me a sponge which was doubly stained with mud and blood. “We found no body, but we did find that. It was buried in a dark corner outside the kitchen door. I noticed the freshly turned earth, and opened up the ground myself. The blood you see upon it was wiped up from the hearth-stone in Mrs. Murdoch’s room. I am as sure of it as I am of her having been murdered, but I can get no explanations out of anybody.
Only Mr. Murdoch acknowledges that it was the sponge which Mrs. Murdoch keeps in her dressing room.”
“It was blood then which I saw you looking at so particularly an hour ago on the hearth-stone?”
“No, something less palpable than that. It was a spot where the ashes had been hardened by moisture. The rest of the hearth was covered with a light ash which could be easily blown away, but in that place they clung, and so I gathered that a wet rag or sponge had been used there, upon which the ashes had settled before it became thoroughly dry.”
“A very delicate clue,” I commented.
“Very,” he replied, “but it was the only one except certain faint signs of garden mould on the polished floor, which I take as a proof that some one had been in the room who had first stepped through the upturned ground outside. Whether this was done by a person entering by the window, or by some one who left the room in that way and then returned with these suspicious marks upon him, I cannot say.”
“You are still in doubt, then, both as to the method of crime and the person who committed it?”
“I am,” he allowed; “but let us but find the body, and the rest will clear itself.”
“And do you still hope to do that?” I asked. “You have looked everywhere. What else remains to be done?”
He shook his head. “God knows,” he said, “I have done all I can do to-day. Charlie Snow has ridden to Crugers for a man to relieve me. I am going to hunt up that messenger from Big Trail next.”
“And Mr. Murdoch? What are you going to do with him?”
“Leave him alone. What else can I do? But he will be watched, and so will that girl Cora. There is some deviltry at the bottom of this matter, in which she has had a hand.”
“He is a dare-devil; but I think his only fault is a confounded weakness for that sly slip of a girl. Perhaps he has reason to suspect her good faith.”
“I do not like him,” said I.
But the Sheriff did not seem to share my sentiments.
When we went back to the house, we found Mr. Murdoch pacing around it like a man possessed.
“You have infected me with your suspicions,” he cried. “I ought to be at Black Lake, interrogating every man there as to who went away on the train yesterday. But now I cannot tear myself away from this house. It is cruel, maddening, and no telegraph here, and no means of communication short of a two hours’ ride.”
“I am going to Black Lake as soon as we have had dinner,” Dillon announced, “and I will make your inquiries for you. I am likely to make them with as much care as you are.”
“No,” objected Mr. Murdoch, “you are not. If you are going to Black Lake, I will accompany you. But why wait till after dinner? Why not start at once?”
“Because,” returned Dillon, with his usual blunt frankness, “I don’t believe in leaving this ranch in the sole charge of servants. I expect my deputy here at noon, and I prefer to wait for him.”
“Three good hours wasted,” replied Murdoch, “but you have made yourself master here, and I shall say nothing to interfere. The boys, though, might have been trusted, and the girls, too. They are a devoted lot.”
“Even Cora?” suggested Dillon.
“Why, of course Cora. She came from San Francisco with us. Why do you make especial mention of her.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps because she is so pretty; too pretty for a ranch, Mr. Murdoch; don’t it strike you so?”
The gentleman stared, and then shrugged his shoulders.
“Her prettiness was the cause of my bringing her here,” said he. “To see my wife in that yellow room, with this flaxen-haired girl flitting about her was—.” He stopped, choked. The artistic passion which was so strong in him that it cropped up even in the stress of the greatest suspense which a man can be called upon to suffer, gave way to a truer, deeper emotion, and he cried out impetuously: “God, what have I not suffered during these last four years of my miserable life!”
The Sheriff, to whom this man was evidently an anomaly, which it was easier to commiserate than understand, shifted uneasily on his feet for a moment, and then said:
“Your pretty Cora pretends to be free-hearted, with a dozen dashing fellows making hot love to her at every opportunity. Do you believe in such cold-heartedness, or is she as sly as her provoking dimples proclaim her to be?”
This test, if it was meant as one, failed utterly. Mr. Murdoch’s heavy eyes neither sparkled with anger nor lighted with interest. On the contrary, he looked as if he had only half heard what Mr. Dillon had been saying. But when the latter paused for an answer and the silence became noticeable, he glanced up with a frown, and saying shortly, “The topic bores me,” walked away and recommenced his restless pacing up and down the hall.
“Not much light yet on the subject!” muttered the Sheriff, and sauntered out to the stables where I saw him talking in his free and easy way with the boys as they came in and out. As for myself I lingered in the library, fascinated, I think, by the constantly recurring sight of the uneasy figure of Mr. Murdoch passing before the open doorway. At intervals I could hear his footsteps stop, and then I knew he was pausing before his wife’s apartments, but they always moved on again, till their monotonous sound became almost unbearable, and I welcomed with pleasure the sight of Hetty, who came timidly into the room on some errand or other. As she was going out again, I stopped her.
“Why were you all staring at Cora so, when I went into the kitchen a little while ago,” I asked her.
For a moment she looked as if she thought that it was enough to answer Dillon’s questions, without being subjected to mine. But her good heart finally prevailed, and she responded frankly enough:
“Oh, it was nothing, sir. She and Jasper have had some trouble, and she spoke sharply to him. We were surprised, that is all.”
A petty thing under most conditions, but in the present state of affairs it might be significant. So I told Dillon of the break between the lovers, when I saw him somewhat later, and he made a note of it as he did of everything else that turned up at this time. In return he told me he had made sure that Cora’s story was correct as to her movements at the time of Mrs. Murdoch’s disappearance. She had summoned the messenger to her mistress, and had then gone to the other end of the house; so she personally could have had nothing to do with any crime which might have been perpetrated in that short half hour.
“But who buried the sponge?” I asked,
“Ah,” sighed he, “to know that would be to know the whole. Nobody buried the sponge. It probably buried itself.”
At noon the Sheriff’s deputy put in an appearance, and Mr. Murdoch, who now seemed to be in as great haste to leave the ranch as he had previously shown anxiety to remain in it, ordered up our horses and prepared to accompany us.
When I saw him in close confab with Jasper, I nudged Dillon to see if he noticed it. But this was unnecessary; Dillon saw everything.
“He is not going to take Jasper with him this time,” was his quiet comment.
And Dillon was right. It was Reddy who brought up the four horses, and Reddy who vaulted into the one empty saddle, when the signal was given for departure. As we rode away I saw Jasper step to the side of Cora and whisper in her ear, and I wondered what that whisper conveyed.
As I was not as much accustomed to this style of travel as the rest, I soon found myself somewhat in the rear. But Dillon, who was a companionable fellow, held rein for me, and we rode along together, conversing now and then as our moods dictated or some thought or new suspicion came uppermost. He was satisfied that we had left Mrs. Murdoch behind us at the ranch; but he had given up the keys of her rooms to the deputy and was content to follow Mr. Murdoch.
“One can’t be in two places at once, much as one would like it,” said he. “Happily the man I leave behind me has a head on him, and will act with discretion in case anything unusual occurs. But Murdoch may give us the slip. He has excuse enough, and I have no very good reason for detaining him.”
“My business is done in Crugers,” said I. “If he takes the train east, he may take me for a companion.”
“You cannot calculate on Mr. Murdoch,” said Dillon. “His ways are too queer for my understanding.
To which remark I nodded acquiescence, though I thought I comprehended this man better than he did.
“Time elaborately thrown away.”
We only halted at Crugers and then rode on. The horses we rode kept up their pace, and in the full glare of the afternoon sun we galloped up to Black Lake Station.
Mr. Murdoch leaped from his horse with an impetuosity which proved his impatience, and casting a hurried glance around on the three or four stragglers who wandered about the solitary street of this small settlement, he went at once into the stationhouse. Dillon followed him, and I followed Dillon. A lank, querulous fellow was wandering about the place, and to him Mr. Murdoch at once addressed himself.
“Have you seen—” he began.
But here Dillon strode up, and, whispering to Mr. Murdoch, took the inquiries out of his mouth.
“When is the next train due?” he asked.
“In an hour,” was the surly reply.
“East or west.”
“East; the western express is not due till six to-night.”
“Any passengers for it?”
“Not as I knows on.”
“Not much travel, eh?”
“Haven’t sold a ticket in three days.”
Mr. Murdoch gave a gasp, and looked as if about to take the word. But Dillon was too quick for him.
“No? You let a man go west though? How was that?”
“No man has gone west from here in three days, I tell you.”
“A woman, then?” threw in Mr. Murdoch with sudden determination.
“Nor woman, either,” answered the agent, but in a more respectful tone. He knew Mr. Murdoch, and reaped many a dollar from the business he was constantly called upon to do for Hannaford Ranch.
“Then one has gone east,” put in Dillon, with decision. “You may have been winking at the time, but a passenger certainly boarded one of your trains here yesterday afternoon or early this morning.”
The agent actually lowered at him.
“I am not given to winking,” growled he, “and no man who knows me ever accused me of it. If you can prove that a man or woman has left this station in three days I’m ready to forfeit my place here; and it’s a mighty good place, thanks to Mr. Murdoch and Hannaford Ranch.”
“Well, well, we were mistaken, that’s all. A messenger came down to Hannaford Ranch from Big Trail yesterday morning, and we thought he went back by Black Lake; but you know best. It’s of no consequence.”
“I think it is,” grumbled the other. “I am not accustomed to having my word questioned, especially by a sheriff. It rubs me up the wrong way, and that ‘s enough.”
Dillon set about mollifying this surly customer, and Murdoch, whose face had materially changed during this colloquy, hunted up the telegraph operator, and had telegrams sent east and west, But though the answers came back in due course of time, there was nothing in them that threw the least light upon Mrs. Murdoch’s disappearance. The messenger could not even be tracked; and Mr. Murdoch evinced more and more discouragement, while the Sheriff—well, I do not know how he felt, of course, but he was evidently put on his mettle, for he remarked to me:
“I will touch the bottom of this mystery if it takes me three months. For the present I own it is unsolvable.” Then turning to Mr. Murdoch he inquired: “And what are you going to do now?” The millionaire knit his brows, looked up and down the tracks before which we were standing, and slowly remarked:
“I will go back to the ranch; something in that place draws me like a magnet.”
As I had no excuse for going back to the ranch with him, I followed out my original intention and bought my ticket for Chicago. But before the three men rode away I had a chance to ask Dillon to remember me if anything came up, and he promised to telegraph at once. “For,” said he, “you will always have an especial interest in this affair which has come under your very nose. The ranch is a beautiful place, isn’t it, and the mystery an exciting one when one thinks what an incomparable woman she is, and how odd her life must have been in the society and amid the surroundings to which he had doomed her.”
“If I come across her on my way east, I will telegraph you,” I replied.
But he shook his head and pointed across the great grassy plain to Hannaford Ranch.
“She is there,” he murmured, and cast a lowering glance at Murdoch, who was just lifting his foot into the stirrup held by Reddy. “I would not change places with that man,” was his final remark, “for all the millions he is said to own, and Hannaford Ranch thrown into the bargain.”
Nor would I at that moment, poor reporter as I am.
“Commit a crime and the world is made of glass.”
My story is not done. When I arrived in Chicago, I watched the wires for two weeks in the hope of hearing something from Black Lake. But no word came. At last I got impatient, and with the consent of the news editor, I telegraphed to Dillon. His answer was abrupt and unsatisfactory.
“No news: Murdoch is still at the ranch; Cora has been sent to San Francisco.”
A day later came another telegram:
“Murdoch is preparing to go east. He now says she escaped by the south road; but no one believes it. He and Cora will be closely watched.”
And then came silence for another two months, when one night an office-boy came running in where I was, and said:
“You are wanted by Mr. Scott.”
I at once went to the editorial rooms, where I found Mr. Scott with a slip of paper in his hand.
“A despatch to the Associated Press,” said he, and watched me while I read it
It was from Black Lake, Lower California, and it ran thus:
“A horrible discovery has been made at Hannaford Ranch, the present dwelling place of Thomas Murdoch, the well-known San Francisco millionaire. His wife, who has been missing for over two months, and who, it was supposed, had perished on the plains in a vain endeavor to find her way back to her former residence in San Francisco, was this morning discovered by the Sheriff of this county to have been vilely murdered in her own rooms, and interred under the huge slab that acts as a hearth-stone in her parlor. Her husband, towards whom suspicion chiefly points, has been arrested in St. Paul, and will doubtless be brought back here at once. The excitement in all the country round is intense.”
I handed the paper back to my superior, and went staggering from the room. A vision of the yellow parlor had risen up before me, and I seemed to behold again the figure of Murdoch sitting in his high-backed chair by the door, watching Dillon stooping over the hearth-stone and blowing the ashes from around that tell-tale spot. Had he shown terror enough for the guilty perpetrator of so horrible a crime? I hardly thought so; and yet he was an unreadable man, and his secret, if it was his secret, was simply on the verge of discovery and might escape. But how had he killed her, and why, and had his love for her been but a sham? I wished myself back at the ranch, if only to whisper in Dillon’s ear:
“Don’t be too sure of Murdoch’s guilt till you are satisfied of the innocence of that mysterious messenger, Murdoch’s hands are too white to dabble in blood.”
And yet men of the greatest personal fastidiousness have been known to commit murder when their passions were sufficiently aroused.
I had work to do that night, but my thoughts were far from Chicago. I was wondering why Dillon had not thought before of the hearth-stone, and what had finally led him to take it up. Then I pictured the crowd of servants frozen with horror at a revelation so much more hideous than any of them had probably expected, and at last I asked myself what Murdoch’s fate was likely to be, and into whose hands this beautiful ranch would finally fall. Not till the following letter came from Dillon, did I get any relief from my inward questionings. It was addressed to myself, and confirmed me in my regard for him, both as a man and a valuable official:
“I am not much given to letter-writing, but somehow I cannot rest till I tell you just how I came to settle the point of Mrs. Murdoch’s murder. I had been to the ranch a dozen times, and I had watched every mortal soul connected with it till I seemed to know how they all drank and slept, and what clothes they wore, and almost all they said if not thought. But I couldn’t get any farther in the solution of this mystery. Mr. Murdoch settled down to the notion at last, or made believe to, that his wife had wandered out into the plains, and that her remains would yet be found by some dried-up stream or distant gorge; but I couldn’t drop my first idea, and finally I wrote to the man who built Hannaford Ranch, and asked him if there was any place in that house where the evidences of such a crime could be successfully concealed. He did not answer at once, but at length there came a few lines from him, saying that the chimney which ran up through Mrs. Murdoch’s apartments was hollow under the hearth-stone; and no sooner had I learned this fact, than I knew what an investigation of that spot would reveal to us as certainly as I do now. Being so certain what we had to expect, I was careful to have very reliable witnesses about me when I again entered the yellow parlor. But Jasper was not amongst them, for only the night before he had been thrown from his horse into a gully and killed. Folks say he lost heart after Cora left, and did not care what became of him. Reddy and Charlie Snow stood at either end of the stone when it was lifted, and if it will make the matter any more clear to you, I will say that the stone was not cemented down, only fitted so nicely that it only required a good lever to move it. A row of tiles which ran about it had one loose one at the eastern end, and it was by lifting this that the lever was introduced. An easy job, you see. Before the slab was raised we knew the truth, and when we were able to look within we saw why Mrs. Murdoch had not needed hat or cloak for her departure. There was a deep wound visible on the temple, which could only have been the result of a deadly blow, and this proof of murder is so undeniable that there is no doubt as to the Coroner’s verdict. My own suspicions point towards the husband, but you need not print that. Much in their past life has come up to show that she has always shown repugnance to living with him; and though she has had the name of being none too safe in her wits, and of having been for that cause placed in an asylum from time to time, close inquiry has brought to light the fact that she has never been in an asylum at all, but has merely absented herself from a man whom she feared too much to be happy with. As he is boundlessly rich, this one fact speaks volumes. At all events, he will probably be tried for her death as soon as he is brought within our jurisdiction.”
I have but one line to add to this. Yesterday morning’s journals print the fact that Thomas Murdoch has been brought to Big Trail, where he has been lodged in the county court-house.
“Rescue me thou, the only real!
And scare away this mad ideal
That came nor motions to depart!”
Dead! Vashti Murdoch? Dead! Killed by her husband in secrecy and with such accompaniments of horror as must shock the whole civilized world? What a greeting for the home-comer! What a horrible re-awakening of the fatal interests, to forget which I had spent a year in foreign lands!
The news met me at the wharf, but I did not grasp its full significance till I sat down in my own studio to devour the papers which had been thrust into my hand. Then, indeed, the awful nature of the event, as well as my full realization of it, came over me, and I sank crushed beneath a blow which was without mitigating circumstances to lessen its destructive force. All that could sear the heart or torture the memory had combined to make this tragedy and my interest in it overwhelming and beyond the power of man to endure. I could not have withstood its effect on my mind, I could not have gone on living if it had not been for the vengeful thoughts I had of Murdoch, and the prospect of following his fate to its probably retributive end.
But this one thought, this one last hope did sustain me, and after the first black hour had passed I found myself able to endure the prospect of the morrow, by planning an immediate journey to the scene of Vashti’s death and Murdoch’s prospective trial.
That this was a wild and possibly inconsiderate move on my part I did not pause to consider. I was in that state of mind which makes action necessary, and it would have seemed equally easy and natural for me to have turned my face again seaward and to have gone back over the waters to the distant shores from which I had just come, had they, instead of the far west, been the scene of this grand woman’s death and her husband’s imprisonment.
But though carried away by this one thought to the forgetfulness of every other interest in life, I was not so blind to the necessities of the case as not to comprehend that some preparatory measures were necessary before I could start again upon so long a journey. I therefore turned to my writing-table and was deep in the pile of letters I found there, when I was interrupted by a knock at the door. Though it was a light, almost a timorous one, it, for some reason, so startled me that I failed for the moment to respond to it, and stood staring at the door in a shrinking dread of what it might disclose, which was certainly strange, considering that there was nothing left in my circumstances to cause dread or to awaken anticipation.
A second knock more vigorous than the first recalled me to the duty of the moment, and I bade my visitor enter. But, when in answer to this summons, the door opened and a heavily veiled woman stepped into the room, I was conscious of a surprise that amounted almost to consternation, not only because the intruder was a woman—and women but seldom visited me at my studio and never at this hour—but because of something in her appearance which made me think of one whose bearing I had thought unmatched, and whose like I had never expected to see again in this world.
Affected as I had never thought to be again by a woman’s presence, I advanced and surveyed my unknown guest with an emotion which rapidly grew as I noticed the superb outlines of her form, and the fixed nature of her glance through her heavy and concealing veil. Had my thoughts of the noble creature I was mourning been so potent as to conjure up her image from the other world and find it in this dreadful silence before me! I was so transfixed by the idea, foolish as it was and unworthy my practical nature, that my tongue clung to the roof of my mouth and I stood as speechless as my strange visitor, till she herself broke the spell by a sudden grand movement which tore the veil from her face and revealed to me—
They say great shocks sometimes kill. If so, I wonder that I survived this one, for it was no copy of Vashti Murdoch that stood before me, but she herself in full health, and wearing a smile, which if it did not bespeak happiness, proved that I was laboring under no hallucination of mind; for in my dreams of her she never smiled, and only from some gracious impulse of her own nature could this gleam of light have visited a face which in my fancy was shrouded in despair and darkened by the shadows of the tomb.
Vashti Murdoch! and all that I had read or conceived myself to have read of her murder and the horrible discoveries at Hannaford Ranch had been a lie. She had not been killed; she had not been buried under the great hearthstone in the yellow parlor! She was here—within reach of my voice— almost within reach of my hand! The wonder of it dazzled my brain and for a moment held every other thought in check.
Then I began to bethink myself, and to marvel at a fact which my heart had so readily received. Though alive, her death had seemed real to thousands. I had not been deceived in the accounts I had read of it, and this appearance of hers in breathing flesh and in my apartments here in New York was an astonishing thing, an appalling thing, not to be easily understood or accounted for.
She saw my confusion of thought if she did not fully sound my emotion, for she came swiftly forward and remarked in the low, even tone of intense feeling:
“You are surprised to see me. Doubly surprised to see me here. But the urgency of my need was greater than any hesitation I could feel at seeking you in the one place where I knew you could be found,—an urgency so great that neither the world’s opinion, nor my own sense of propriety, nor even my dread of your surprise or the embarrassment it might cause you, could keep me back from what I am driven to regard as my salvation. Mr. Ruxton, I must tell my trouble to some one; will you hear me?”
I was so moved by the thought that she was alive, and yet so confused by it, that I failed to reply. But she showed no consciousness of my inattention. Indeed, I think she was so full of her own purpose that she hardly noticed my abstraction, or the wonder with which I regarded her.
“I am again a wanderer!” she went on, dropping her head more in sorrow than in self-accusation. “I have left Mr. Murdoch for the fifth time, and this time forever. Nothing shall ever make me take up the yoke again. Nothing shall ever drive me to again endure his love, or to accept his protection. If you listen to my story and to the dreadful reason I have for this determination—”
She had overrated her strength. She paused with a choking gasp, and her head, already bent upon her breast, sank lower.
“I will not succumb to the weakness which bids me pause and keep my fell secret locked in my own breast,” she declared, after a minute’s silence. “I have come here to divulge it. I have crossed the continent with the deliberate intention of seeking you out, and putting into words the terror that has pursued me from my wedding-day to this. Only thus can I fortify myself against my own impulses. Only thus can I hope to lay this monster of temptation which has gnawed into my vitals and consumed my very soul till, driven to desperation, I fled my husband’s presence and so ended my heart’s torture and his danger at once. Mr. Ruxton, are you listening?”
I do not wonder she asked, for amazement had turned me into stone, and I seemed to be hearing her words in a dream. But at this appeal, so earnestly and so authoritatively made, I shook myself together and became a man again.
“You must pardon me,” I prayed’. “Your presence has given me a great shock. I thought—I heard—I read in the papers that you were dead, and the sight of you alive and well has been too much for my self-possession.”
The sad shake of her head went to my heart, “No,” said she, “I am not dead. God has shown me no such mercy. It was the child who was killed, not I. I have been living in California with him; and though this was death to me, yet to people in general it would be called life, enviable life,”
I was silenced, not by her sarcasm or the bitterness she expressed in these final words, but by the ease with which she mentioned Mr. Murdoch. Evidently, whatever her sufferings or her wrongs, she had no knowledge of the events with which my consciousness was full. Nothing in her manner, nothing in her tone showed that she had any worse burden on her mind than the one she had professed herself ready to cast off at my feet. And what was that burden? Nothing less than the confession of her heart’s deepest secret: the unveiling of that mystery which had held my own thoughts enchained from my first sight of her in Beech Grove to our last farewell in the parlors of The Buckingham. As I realized its importance I let all other interests go. I forgot what I had just read; forgot that she was for me like a being risen from the dead, and only looked and listened for the words about to drop from her lips. Meanwhile she had been observing me more attentively than she had previously done, and had received perhaps some faint idea of the feelings which my silence and her own self-absorption had prevented her from previously recognizing.
“Have you felt it so deeply?” she murmured. “Ah, it was not my death you should have feared; it was his.”
Her look was so peculiar as she said this, and her face turned to such a marble hue, that I felt myself trembling with new apprehensions and a new sort of dread.
“What are you going to tell me?” I exclaimed. “Mr. Murdoch is in—”
But she was too full of what she had to say to listen to any revelations of mine.
“I cannot hear you talk of him,” she protested. “I cannot hear you talk at all; your voice unnerves me. I have a dreadful, soul-destroying confession to make, after which I am going to vanish from your life as completely as I have from his. Mr. Ruxton, my feelings towards my husband have been those of hate and repugnance, not easily to be matched in the history of men and women. This you probably have guessed; but what you can never have guessed, and what I can hardly myself believe when I am away from him, is, that I have been pursued from my very first union with him by an almost irresistible desire to strike him dead with a blow from my own hand.”
It was a confession so much worse than anything I had feared or even imagined, that a cry of horror and repugnance broke from my lips, and I shrank back from her appalled. Though she was very quiet and had spoken with set composure, I recalled as by a flash the description of her figure as seen by the young collegian, when with brandished stick she awaited the coming of the hated one; and that other and more significant moment yet, when in my own sight, she had held the nail above the head of Sisera, and looked to me for support not to drop the terrible mallet that was quivering in her hand,
“Ah!” she exclaimed, with mournful emphasis, as she noted this involuntary action on my part. “I knew that my words would dig a gulf at once between us! But better so than to succumb to the ghastly temptation; better so than to carry away with me the fear that in the months to come my strength might be less than it is to-day, and time and opportunity given, my frightful impulse find a horrible fulfilment. Now, my hands are tied. One trusty human being knows the wickedness of my thoughts; and the consciousness of this fact will withhold me if I am ever so unfortunate as to see my husband’s face again. This is why I have parted with my soul-destroying secret; this is why I have sacrificed your friendship, the only friendship that has brought a ray of real solace to my heart. I must have certainty, do you not see, that the demon in me will never rise again; for—for I have not an evil heart, Mr. Ruxton, and when I am not under the sway of this irresistible impulse, I would rather suffer anything than take the life of another.”
I saw that this was true, and endeavored to give her some assurance of my sympathy, but the horror of her revelation overmastered me. To see such splendor of womanhood before me and know it to be blighted by so withering an impulse!
“Would you rather have me leave you now,” she asked, with a sad humbleness in voice and manner that I had never heard or seen in her before; “or will you listen to my story and so learn, perhaps, certain facts which may help you to regard my confession with more patience?”
I thought of the struggle which she had manifestly made with her fate, and felt a reaction of sympathy in her favor. The systematic flights and meek returns at his bidding, assumed a tragic import now, greater than when I considered them caused by her husband’s inhuman treatment. Her conflict with her own passions; the warnings she had felt forced to give; the precautions she had felt bound to take even when the worst part of her nature was in the ascendent; her readiness to submit to any humiliation and to suffer any deprivation rather than remain under an influence that wakened murderous thoughts within her, rose in sublime proportions before me, and I saw her for the first time in her true greatness as in her true grief.
“O Mrs. Murdoch!” I cried, “if you can obtain comfort by confiding in me, do so; for I think I understand you at last.”
A faint smile appeared on her lips for the first and last time in this interview.
“I thought you would not fail me,” she said; and with just a moment’s hesitancy, during which my mind wandered to the unexplained mystery at Hannaford Ranch, and the jail in which her husband was at present immured for a crime of which he was manifestly innocent, she began the following story.
“And so my lot was ordered that a father
First turned the moment of awakening life
To drops, each poisoning youth’s sweet hope.”
“I am a New England girl and my maiden name was Hurd. I was educated at a private school in Vermont, and returned from my graduation one bright afternoon to find my father awaiting me in our stiff, old-fashioned parlor, with a strange gentleman at his side.
“ ‘My dear,’ said he, with a more gratified smile than I was accustomed to perceive on his usually stern and preoccupied countenance, ‘allow me to present to you your future husband.’
“Such a greeting, coming to a girl at a time when her heart was full of other triumphs and other hopes, would have been a shock to the simplest minded and least assertive of daughters. But to me, with my secret ambitions and a spirit so independent it could hardly brook the thought of marriage at all, an announcement of this kind was simply monstrous. Too confounded to speak, I stared at my father like one distraught, while the floor rose in waves about me, and a gray mist settled over my eyesight, through which the figures of the two men before me wavered and then were lost in a pall of sudden darkness.
“Yet they did not see that I was unduly affected, and I soon heard:
“ ‘It is Mr. Murdoch of California, my dear; he saw you in your graduating dress, and has done you the honor of offering you his hand.
“ ‘But,’ I protested, in a wild endeavor to utter something of the revolt with which my whole nature was aflame—
“ ‘You will change your dress,’ proceeded my father, ‘and then you will come down and make Mr. Murdoch’s acquaintance.’
“ ‘Thank you, but I am no French girl,’ I hotly persisted; but the attempt was fruitless. Mr. Murdoch at once broke in with the smoothest but most decided accents I had ever heard.
“ ‘No,’ said he, ‘but you are an American one, which is much better;’ and something in his look and in the confident smile with which he opened the door for me, made me feel that to struggle with him would be useless, and that if he had made up his mind to make me his wife, I must eventually succumb to his wishes.
“Still it was in no yielding frame of mind that I went upstairs, nor did I mean to accept the uncongenial fate thus violently thrust upon me. I had other plans in prospect, other hopes and other duties to look forward to. I meant to study music; I had a gift for it they said, and my whole heart was fixed upon living a broad free life without reference to marriage.
“But my will was a girl’s will, and I had no sooner heard from my old nurse, who knew everything and who was not averse to gossip, that Mr. Murdoch was a man of enormous means and unbounded influence, then my courage failed and my will half succumbed, for my father was on the verge of bankruptcy, and only the day before I had promised myself that I would not shrink from any sacrifice that would relieve him from his difficulties; for I loved my father devotedly notwithstanding his forbidding ways, loved him as I loved no one else, or ever would, perhaps.
“But though I found Mr. Murdoch very agreeable in the few short interviews that were allotted to us, it was none the less a struggle for me to give up my independence. Not till he promised me every facility for perfecting myself in music, did I look upon the matter with any favor, and then I rather submitted to my fate than consciously embraced it, such was the strange condition of my mind, and such the subtle nature of the influence that was brought to bear upon me.
“My father, who had seen his whole future rear itself again into promising proportions under the prospect of this match, did not take any pains to open my eyes too widely; and indeed Mr. Murdoch was a man of so many advantages that I scarcely wonder that my father did not pause to ask if he were just the person to make me happy.
“For neither my father nor myself, knew of just what stuff I was made. I was only eighteen, and my figure was more developed than my mind. Within, I was a puzzle to myself and would have been so to others, if I had uttered any of the passing doubts which now and then disturbed my studied equanimity. It was not till the fatal words were said which made me Mr. Murdoch’s wife that I awoke to any realization of the nature of the feeling which I really cherished for him. I had supposed it to be indifference, an indifference which would soon vanish under the spell of his wealth and the many admirable qualities I had myself detected in him; but I awoke to find it hate, an absolute, uncompromising hate, which being without foundation in any fault of his character or in his treatment of myself, was all the more impossible to eradicate since it lay in a deep antipathy to his person.
“The moment at which this came home to me was a tragic one. My father who had borne himself gaily during the short ceremony which had given his daughter to a stranger who would carry her the width of the continent away from him, had returned with us to his home where a few friends were waiting to receive us. Though Mr. Murdoch had desired a grand wedding, and had so overwhelmed us with gifts that it would have been easy for us to have made such a display, my pride was so great that I insisted upon a simplicity in accordance with our condition.
“And so, though I wore Mr. Murdoch’s diamonds, there was nothing else, either in my attire or in the simple preparations which had been made at the house, which could offend taste or make the catastrophe which followed still more discordant than it was.
“My father, whom we had always supposed a well man, had returned with us to the house, I say, and I was just watching his face for those evidences of gladness which reconciled me to the fate I had just embraced, when I saw him start suddenly towards me and turn ghastly pale. Next minute he was lying at my feet, dead!
“Mr. Ruxton, I can remember nothing of that hour, nothing, till I felt myself taken into some one’s arms, and gently pressed to a breast that was beating strangely. Startled by this, for I had forgotten everything but that the one being I loved lay lifeless before me, I shivered and looked up and met the countenance of my husband bent passionately over me. The shock that shivered my heart at that instant makes me tremble even yet. The face was hateful to me, its tenderness maddening, and the love which I felt throbbing in the heart beneath my own, repulsive to a degree which almost made me shriek aloud.
“But even then I knew what was due him, and though I disengaged myself from his arms, I did it gently, and with no show of the horror by which I felt myself consumed. As soon as I could, I sought and obtained solitude. The thing which had happened to me was so dreadful that I did not know how to meet it. My father’s death, appalling as it was in its suddenness, was nothing to this discovery of the true state of my feelings towards the man I had just promised to love and obey, especially as every passing minute added to the certainty that it was from no transient recoil I was suffering, but from a positive and deep-seated repugnance, which made me feel that I would rather die then and there than go down again into his presence, and encounter his soothing smile and lover-like air of protection.
“Had my father’s fate been different; had he lived and so been able to give me the benefit of his advice, I might have sought an immediate separation from this man, and so have obviated miseries which have ruined both his life and my own. But death robbed me of the only being to whom I could have unburdened such a trouble, and so conventionalities triumphed and I went away with my husband.
“Mr. Murdoch, as you yourself have seen, possesses for me the strongest affection, notwithstanding the coldness I have always shown him. Whether this feeling springs from pride, selfishness, or a vague pity for a nature he cannot understand or perhaps appreciate, his attitude towards me has always been that of admiration and forbearance. But these qualities which should have won my heart only served to harden it. It was impossible for me to welcome his affection, or to regard the signs of it with anything but distaste. But I could control my tongue, and never to my knowledge have I uttered a harsh or sarcastic word to him.
“He is a lover of luxury, as you know, and the home to which he took me in San Francisco is a model of taste and splendor. But its gorgeousness was an offense to me, and had he not kept his word and given me the opportunity for perfecting myself in music, I should long ago have sought relief in death, rather than have endured the horror of the deadly serpent which was slowly uncoiling itself in my heart.
“For in San Francisco, and on a night of splendid entertainment, I first realized the meaning of the terror which had lately seized me, and which had made me afraid to remain in a room alone with my husband. We were sitting together in a small alcove, and he had stooped down to pick up a flower that had fallen at my feet, when, instinctively at the sight of his bended head, a horrible impulse seized me, and my clenched hand went up over my head, and for a moment I towered above him, more powerful than he, and O! how much more malignant and dangerous. But he never knew it, for by the time he had risen and flung the blossom into my lap, the evil spirit had left me, and I was a woman again, not in love or commiseration for him, but in feebleness of purpose and hatred of my own wicked impulses,
“Mr. Ruxton, I know that you are saying to yourself, ‘She is insane, and should have been put under restraint instead of being made the centre of every possible benefit and pleasure.’ But truth compels me to assure you that this is only true of me in the few fleeting instants of frenzied antagonism of which I have spoken, and that my judgment too quickly returns for me to feel that any such consideration should be shown my conduct. It is simply my hatred made manifest, and had I been a nobler woman, I would have told Mr. Murdoch why I found it so intolerable to live with him, and prayed him to withdraw himself from me, or to immure me in walls within which neither love nor hatred could find dangerous expression.
“But my free, wild temperament shrank with unutterable terror from the thought of constraint, and it seemed equally impossible for me to reveal the depth of my antipathy towards him, in face of his constant care and generous consideration for my moods. So I kept my secret, and simply escaped from his presence when I found my feelings were getting beyond my control.
“My first real effort to separate myself from him occurred when we had been married two years. But I was new to subterfuges; and unused to caring for myself, and he soon found me and brought me back to his home. The next time I went farther away, and it was longer before my retreat was discovered and he came to claim me. But wherever I went, and no matter how well I disguised myself, I could not escape him. Meanwhile he never knew the truth, nor does he now. He took for erraticism what had its birth in the profoundest terror. I dared not stay with him though the alternative meant daily labor and possible starvation. For I could not break his heart and take his money too. Something within me bade me not to profit by his love; and so never, in leaving his house, did I carry with me either his money or my own jewels.
“At last he himself brought me east, and treacherous as the attempt may seem, I escaped again, and after a series of adventures, of which you have had some account, succeeded in obtaining a situation which led to my being hired by Mr. Livermore as a companion and assistant to his wife. How Mr. Murdoch learned that I was at Beech Grove, I cannot say. He has never enlightened me on that point; but I judge, and have some reason for doing so, that he has more than once employed a detective in his search for me, and that it was through the secret efforts of this man he was enabled to trace me to Mr. Livermore’s country-seat.
“I cannot speak of my life there, it was so full of temptation. Never has my hatred for him been so intense, and never have I so mistrusted myself. The many opportunities which by some strange fatality were given me for carrying out my wicked impulses, made the struggle worse. But I conquered, Mr. Ruxton; you must see that I conquered. At the risk of seeming a mad-woman, I drove the devil from me by every means possible. The dagger which was thrust into my hands, I cast back into the hands of the threatened one; and dreading the opportunities of the night, I hired a poor ignorant girl to lock me in my room, that in this way an insurmountable barrier might be raised between any possible madness on my part and the innocent object of my hate. Nay, I did more, Mr. Ruxton; dreading that my own will might fail me, I called in the help of more potent emotions. I even let myself be moved by your sympathy, that the strength which comes from a great heart-wakening might be mine, and aid me against myself.
“But you will not wish me to dwell longer on events whose meaning you can now understand without any help from me. Mr. Livermore, who knew that Mr. Murdoch was afflicted with a wife of erratic tendencies, but who had no conception that I was that wife, lent a willing ear to my complaints, and offered me every facility for escaping my own husband’s attentions. So I tried leaving him once more.
“What most men would have done under the conjunction of circumstances which surprised us at Darien Station, I do not know. But Mr. Murdoch is no ordinary man, nor is his character one to be lightly understood. I can perceive its good points as well as its bad ones, and sometimes at rare intervals a flood of compassion for him overwhelms me to such a degree that I could destroy myself for the harm I have done him and must continue to do him till death severs our connection.
“He let me go, partly because he saw he must, and partly because he feared the consequences of detaining me. I had long before threatened suicide if he revealed himself as my husband or offered to take me back without my consent; and, for all the mortification I had caused him, and the numerous heart-burnings which must have followed my determined opposition to his wishes, he still loved me too well to see me perish.
“I came to New York and he went West, relying for any future news of my whereabouts upon a promise you had made him at parting. For he was aware of my weakness though he has never reproached me with it, perhaps because he knew that to whatever source he might attribute the antagonism I continually manifested towards him, it rose from no spirit of coquetry or indifference to his claims upon me as a husband.
“What followed, you know; and I have only to speak of my life in California after God took from me the one hope I had of future peace and contentment. The babe—” But here her voice broke, and she left the topic abruptly, and proceeded to that portion of her story for which I had been waiting with the most intense interest, since it alone could explain her living presence in this house, and the fact of her husband being under arrest for a crime that in the present condition of affairs looked perfectly unexplainable.
“Mr. Murdoch had but one hope in taking me back to California, and that was to so situate me in a ranch-house he had been building on the southern plains, as to make it impossible for me to escape from him again without his immediate knowledge. His patience was by this time exhausted, and with good reason, so I did not object to his wishes, fatal as I felt the consequences were likely to be both to himself and me.
“That Hannaford Ranch is as beautiful a place as even you with your artistic tastes could imagine, did not relieve me from my apprehensions or make it seem anything less than a place of doom to me. For he was to share my imprisonment, and it was not isolation I feared, but companionship with him.
“The result was very much what I expected. Though everything was done for my comfort, and luxuries which I loathed were heaped upon me, the oppressiveness of his presence grew greater with every week that passed. God was trying me sorely, and what the outcome might have been I cannot say, had not Providence, in the most unexpected manner, afforded me another opportunity of escape, which for some reason has been more successful than any I have previously undertaken. Not only have I been enabled to cross the continent undetected, but during the two months of my waiting in New York for your return from Europe, I have been, so far as I know, free from surveillance. My intention is to sail next Saturday for Europe—that is, if your sense of justice does not lead you to acquaint my husband with my whereabouts and so put fresh obstacles in my way.”
“Your husband!” I repeated, unable any longer to suppress my wonder at her ignorance of his present position. “Do you know where your husband is?”
She was so startled by my manner, that she recoiled in terror to the door where she stood drawn up as for flight,
“Oh, do not tell me he is here,” she stammered forth. “Do not say that he has followed me to New York!”
“No,” I assured her, convinced by her every look that she was ignorant of what had befallen him; “he is in California, but not at Hannaford Ranch. Your husband will never trouble you any more, Mrs. Murdoch. He is in jail upon suspicion of murder.”
At that word murder she gave one shriek, then crouched like a lioness who sees the lash descending.
“What do you mean?” she cried. “Murder? He murder? Whom should he murder but me, and I am here.”
For reply I drew her back into the room, seated her in a great armchair, and put into her hands the papers I had just been reading.
“Do well and right and let the world sink.”
I watched her while she read, noted each paper as it fluttered from her grasp, and waited with indescribable anxiety for the first words she would utter when the dreadful end had been reached.
But it was I who spoke first, not she. She sat frozen under the horror of the revelations which had just been made to her, and when I begged her to speak,—to say something to relieve the oppressive silence, she rose like a spectre from her seat, and confronting me with a blank gaze from which life itself seemed almost to have departed, said slowly: “I shall have to go back, God has uttered His word against my departure, and I accept the doom as from His hand.”
“You would save your husband, then,” I cried; “you would save Thomas Murdoch!”
“Is there any other duty before me?” she asked. “Of course I must save him. But, O God! it is hard! I thought I was free at last.”
“But who,” I asked, pushed by my curiosity beyond the bounds of restraint, “was the woman who was found under the hearth-stone? Can you explain that fact by your return? Will it be enough to show that you are alive to relieve him of the charge of murder?”
“Yes,” she responded, “with what I can tell. But do not let us stop for trivial explanations now; a life is to be saved, and a whole continent divides us from Thomas Murdoch’s accusers.” And in a sudden fury of haste, she started towards the door, as if she would leave me and speed upon her journey at once.
“Wait!” I entreated, rendered glad and proud by the unqualified assertion of her conscience in the face of a real danger to the man she had so long desired to see dead. “You shall go, but not in this hasty way, without means taken for your comfort. We will inform the Sheriff by telegraph that they are mistaken in the identity of the murdered woman; and that you are coming with further explanations. But you need not leave New York to-night, or tomorrow morning, indeed, unless you are fully prepared for so sudden and important a journey.”
“I will go to-night,” she persisted; “but you may telegraph Mr. Murdoch’s innocence. I would not have him suffer under a false accusation an instant longer than necessary.”
“Ah, Mrs. Murdoch,” I murmured, “you were more of a wife than you supposed; and more of a Christian.”
A tender gleam of satisfaction shot for an instant across her face and recalled the beauty of her happier days.
“I am grateful,” said she. “It was this very test I dreaded, and now that it has come, any other conduct seems impossible.”
I was near her, and I took her hand.
“Thank God! for revealing to you your own soul, and for keeping my ideals undisturbed!”
And that was all I said to her in way of comfort or sympathy. The glass was too full for shaking.
She comprehended my reticence, and proceeded at once to unfold her plans. She had money, contrary to my supposition. In a way she afterwards explained to me, she had come into possession of a small sum, that, with some aid from me, would carry her back over the continent. Her only dread lay in the fearful thoughts that must accompany her in the long and wearisome journey. “If I could but escape them,” she murmured, “I would set forth with a good heart.”
A thought which had visited me more than once during the last half hour came uppermost again at this crisis.
“I will go with you,” I suggested. “As Mr. Murdoch’s friend my presence should surely be welcome.”
She may have cherished some wild hope that I would join her in her journey, but I scarcely think she had allowed herself to dwell upon it. She flashed me a look of gratitude, then stood doubtful, but only for a moment. The crisis was too serious for any petty fears or hesitation to deter us.
“I accept your companionship,” she said, with an almost sublime look of faith and trust.
And so I made my preparations for crossing the continent, after all.
“Eurydice.—What’s now thy conscience?
Creon.—’T is my slave, my drudge, my supple glove.
My upper garment, to put on, throw off.
As I think best.”
It was while we were riding between Syracuse and Buffalo that Mrs. Murdoch gave me the following explanations:
“When I parted from Mr. Murdoch at the breakfast-table in Hannaford Ranch, some two months ago, I had no idea that in an hour I should be flying from him over the plains. In all the months I had lived there I had seen no way of escaping my husband’s vigilance, and I rather anticipated death than deliverance. Nor when, a few minutes later, Cora came into my presence with the announcement that a messenger from Big Trail wished to see me about some supplies from San Francisco, did I foresee that the hour of my release was at hand, and that the long-looked-for opportunity for flight was about to be given me.”
“Then it was upon the white horse you escaped,” I broke in; “and Jasper—”
“Wait!” she interjected. “I must tell my story in my own way. I had expected a man from Big Trail on this errand. Mr. Murdoch’s birthday was at hand and I had planned to give him a pleasant surprise in the way of extra decorations for the house; for (and this is a phase of my character you may not understand) the more my heart recoiled from him, the more I sought his comfort and pleasure in little things. I therefore directed her to send the man in, and it was in the yellow boudoir I received him.
“In the story given in the papers there is no description of this person, I think; possibly because he attracted no especial attention. Notwithstanding, his appearance was sufficiently striking. His eye, which was full of fire, and shining with a purpose quite removed from his common-place errand, at first alarmed me and then awakened my keenest interest. Before the door closed I knew that a conference of no ordinary nature was about to take place between us.
“Nor was I mistaken. No sooner had Cora left the room than this pretended messenger threw himself on his knees before me, with the cry:
“ ‘Forgive me, dear lady, for taking this advantage of your goodness! I am not what I seem, but an unhappy woman whom only you, if any one, can help.’
“Surprised by her vehemence, but relieved from all fear of danger to myself, I examined the half-audacious, half-conciliatory face uplifted to my inspection, and saw that it was indeed that of a woman.
“ ‘Take off your hat!’ said I.
“She did as I bade her, and a coil of hair fell down that greatly altered her expression.
“ ‘Who are you?’ I now asked, ‘and why have you come so many miles to seek my assistance? You are no young girl—”
“ ‘No,’ she interrupted with force and passion, ‘I am a wife. It is my husband I seek, and you can restore him to me if you will.’
“ ‘Your husband,’ I repeated, wondering for a moment if she were in her right mind.
“She rose, and I noted that her figure was rather angular than full, something which had facilitated her disguise,
“ ‘Is there not a man on this ranch called Jasper,’ she enquired, with a trembling in her voice that bespoke great secret agitation.
“I nodded, somewhat troubled at the mention of this name, for if he was the man she meant, nothing but wretchedness could follow a discovery of his perfidy.
“ ‘He is my husband,’ she asserted. ‘We were married five years ago in Wyoming. But he tired of me very soon, and for four years I have not known where to find him. He is a handsome man, Mrs. Murdoch, and has doubtless found some one else to love him.’
“Her eye was on me as she said this, and I could not hide the fact that her surmise was correct. Instantly she clasped her hands together with passionate vehemence, and breaking into sobs, exclaimed:
“ ‘I knew it! I felt it! He is calling another woman his wife, and I am no more to him than a half-forgotten burden.’
“This cry proceeding from a person wearing the habiliments of a man, produced a strange and uncanny effect upon me. Rising and locking the door, I told her that Jasper had not married again though he might contemplate doing so, for he seemed to be greatly in love with the pretty girl who had ushered her into my presence.
“ ‘With her? Oh, that I had known it before she left the room!’
“Startled by her own vehemence, or fearing its effect on me, she apologetically added, ‘I mean I would have looked at her closer to see what there is about her to make him forget his lawful wife.’
“It was evident enough to every eye what charmed him in Cora, but I of course did not enter upon this dangerous topic, but merely asked:
“ ‘And what do you expect me to do for you? Jasper is a determined man, and won’t be easily influenced; but anything that I can do to bring him to reason—’
“ Let me be brought face to face with him, that is all I ask. Let me be confronted with him in a place where I will have him at my mercy, and from which he cannot escape till I have pleaded my whole cause. When he realizes how I love him, he may be moved. Since he is not married again, I have hopes of getting him to acknowledge my rights, especially if this girl—’
“ ‘Her name is Cora,’ I put in. ‘She is a good girl, and will refuse to marry Jasper as soon as she knows he is not free.’
“ ‘You like her!’ She spoke in a burst of jealous anger that made her indifferent to my displeasure. ‘Like her better than you do me.’
“ ‘I have known her longer,’ I protested. And in truth I did like Cora, liked her too much to countenance her union with Jasper, even before I knew he was acting a villain’s part towards her.
“ ‘You will like me better,’ she proceeded, ‘when you once see me in woman’s clothes. I am not a common woman, or Jasper would never have married me. I wish you could see me in woman’s clothes.’
“ ‘And why do you wear any other?’ I asked.
“ ‘Because a woman is not safe on the plains alone. Besides, I cannot trust Jasper. Had he seen me in my own clothes he would have recognized me, and possibly prevented my entering the house. I must surprise him into acknowledging me, and that before witnesses.’
“ ‘She was in earnest, and, as far as I could judge, was honest if she was not prepossessing. I determined to do what I could for her, though I had little hope of inducing Jasper to reassume the duties of a husband.
“ ‘You shall have the opportunity you desire,’ said I, ‘Jasper is not far off’— (we could hear his voice shouting to a refractory horse somewhere near the side of the house where we were)—‘but first you must make yourself more presentable. I will give you some clothes, and when you are properly dressed, I will call him in.’
“She smiled and accepted the proposition at once, and going to my wardrobe I endeavored to find a suitable dress. But the only one at all in keeping with her pretensions was the one I had on, so I presently took it off and offered it to her.
“She was a dark woman, and as we stood up before the mirror together, I saw that we were of the same height. Instantly an idea struck me, and I cast a glance at the clothes she had worn, and wondered if I could carry them off with such an air of masculine freedom as she had done. But I said nothing, and throwing on a dressing-gown, helped her to make the change we had decided upon.
“It was done thoroughly, and when she stood up, dressed like a lady even to her shoes, I contemplated her with some complacency, though she was far from being a refined person, and had none of those winning graces which distinguish our pretty Cora.
“ ‘Jasper will be much astonished,’ I observed, ‘and his first thought will be of Cora; for he loves her very much and has every reason to believe that she loves him. But you must not be angered by that or show your resentment too keenly, for a man is not to be won by reproachful words, but by acts of gentleness and forbearance.’
“ ‘I will try,’ she said, but her eyes flashed ominously, and had not a secret, half-defined scheme for my own release risen up before me, I should have shrunk more than I did from the coming interview.
“ ‘Now I am going to call Jasper,’ I announced. ‘Remain in this room,’—we were then in my bedroom—‘and be ready to come to me when I summon you. But first, lest I have no opportunity to consult with you later, how came you to know I was expecting supplies from San Francisco; and does any one in Big Trail know why you have come to Hannaford Ranch to-day?’
“ ‘No,’ was her ready reply. ‘I was working about the station—for you see I have worn men’s clothes and done man’s work a long time in my four years’ hunt after Jasper,—when I saw those boxes labelled “Hannaford Ranch.” As that was where I had been told I should find Jasper Harper, I asked the station-master if there was any harm in letting Mrs. Murdoch know that her supplies had reached Big Trail. He said no, and so I borrowed a horse, and rode this way at daybreak.’
“ ‘And of whom did you borrow the horse?’ I pursued, ‘and under what name did you work at Big Trail?’
“She answered both questions, but I cannot remember how, for just at that moment I heard Jaspers step on the plain outside, and running into the other room, I leaned out of the window and called him.
“ ‘I want you, Jasper,’ said I. ‘Come round quietly by the front door, and be careful not to disturb Mr. Murdoch; I have a commission to give you.’
“He bowed submissively, as he always did at any command of mine, and in a few minutes was in my presence. Dashing, bold, and handsome, he pleased the eye at first glance and disappointed it at the second, for his expression was lowering, and as I noted it, I felt a qualm of discouragement. But I was fighting for my own escape as well as for her reinstatement, so I forced a smile to my lips, and, surveying him squarely, said suddenly:
“ ‘Did you know that Cora is going to leave us?’
“He started and looked at me so fiercely that I felt that his poor wife’s chances for love and sympathy were slim indeed.
“ ‘And why?’ he asked. ‘Why send Cora away when you know I am only waiting for her caprices to end, to make her my wife.’
“ ‘Speak more mildly, if you will be so good,’ I suggested in reply. ‘That Cora has caprices may be a fair reason why you should not make her your wife?’
“ ‘Oh, she is only a girl, and girls will be foolish. She thinks I don’t love her well enough; and yet she knows I am ready to knife any other fellow who so much as looks at her.’
“ ‘I don’t doubt that,’ I answered. ‘But do you love her well enough to subdue your own jealous temper?’ And before he could answer, I suddenly asked, ‘Have you a right to love her at all?’
“He first stared, then quailed, and for a moment his bold eye sought the floor.
“ ‘What do you mean?’ he demanded. ‘I am an honest man and I love her honestly; and she loves me, or I am a fool at reading a woman.’
“ ‘Is it honest to woo one woman when you are married to another? You have a wife already, Jasper, and have no business looking at Cora or any other pretty girl.’
“ ‘It is a lie!’ he began, with a fierce bravado that carried no conviction with it. But when he saw my steady face, he humbled himself a trifle, and said quite meekly for him: ‘I ask your pardon, Mrs. Murdoch, but I can’t hear such words and not get angry. Who says I am married? Let the woman or the man who dares say so, come before me.’
“ ‘Very well,’ said I; ‘what do you think of this woman?’ and I pointed over his shoulder to his wife, who now came rushing in from the adjoining room.
“He turned, met her eyes, uttered a tremendous oath, and staggered madly forward.
“ ‘Susan!’ he cried, and raised his arm.
“She had no self-control, and she flew to him with as much wrath as love in her looks.
“ ‘Am I not your wife?’ she demanded. ‘Were we not married four years ago in Cheyenne, and will not you—’
“For reply his hand came down. It struck her heavily, and she fell.
“ ‘Great God! you have killed, her!’ I shrieked. But he, with a sullen air, shook his head and just touched her with his foot.
“ ‘Get up!’ he cried. ‘Don’t make a fool of yourself because I forgot I had once promised to protect you.’
“But she did not stir, and his face, hardy as it was, began to whiten.
“ ‘She shouldn’t have minded any such knock as that,’ growled he. ‘I have given as much and more to the horses often, and it only makes them stand around.’
“ ‘You are a villain!’ I cried, and would have said more but that in this quick blow and its dreadful result I seemed to see my own hateful impulses take shape before me; I shrank as if I had inflicted the blow myself, and scarcely dared to look at the prostrate body before me, lest to my diseased fancy it should bear the form and face of my hated husband.
“ ‘Is she living or is she dead?’ I finally managed to ask, forcing myself to bend over her, for he still stood aloof,
“ ‘Oh, she is dead, fast enough,’ he muttered, glancing about him furtively, as if meditating flight. ‘That look about the eyes never comes till after the heart has stopped beating.’ Here he caught my eye. ‘See here, mistress,’ he exclaimed, taking a step towards me, and looking as dangerous as a man could. ‘I do not propose to hang for this, as I run the risk of doing if you call up your husband and the fellows who are about the ranch. If I’ve killed her, I can kill you, and so I will if you scream or move.’
“I let my hand fall from the fast chilling brow of the woman before me. I had my purpose to sustain me, otherwise the terror of his looks might have overcome me.
“ ‘And now tell me how this woman came here,’ he pursued.
“I answered steadily, for I was upheld by a hope that was rapidly growing brighter under his questions.
“ ‘I will rig her up in her old clothes,’ said he, ‘and fasten her on the horse, and ride her out to Rocky Ford, where I will trip her, horse and all, into the water. And if you speak, or move, or hinder me in any way, look out for that beautiful face of yours. I will not swing for this woman’s life, but I am almost willing to for yours.’
“If I had been a more conscientious woman, or if I had not had that plague spot in my breast, I would have let him take my life before I would have lent myself to his plans. But as it was, I smiled as I shook my head at him, and putting my finger on my lip, begged him to listen to what I had to say.
“ ‘I have something better to propose to you than tripping her dead body into the river,’ I explained.
“ ‘Swear that you will never marry Cora, and I will help you to escape the entire consequences of this dreadful act.’
“He gave me a strange look; but he swore, though with no honest purpose, I dare say, of keeping his oath.
“ ‘Now,’ he sneered, ‘what can you do?’
“ ‘First,’ said I, ‘listen to this; I have a secret as well as you. I want to get away from this miserable place.’
“He stared, not believing his ears, possibly, and cast his eyes around the walls, as if asking how any woman could wish to leave a spot of such exceeding beauty.
“ ‘To do it,’ I continued, without heeding his amazement or making the least endeavor to explain myself, ‘I must quit the house in such a way that my departure will not be noticed. Will you help me to do this if I help you to divert all suspicion from yourself of being the cause of this poor woman’s death?’
“ ‘I can’t promise on the jump,’ he muttered. ‘Tell me what I am to do, and I will soon see if your ideas have any sense back of them.’
“ ‘Wait a moment,’ I urged, with a new hope in my breast of saving the woman if she was yet alive, or of giving her over to decent burial if she really was, as he so confidently asserted, dead. ‘If I put on the man’s clothes she wore here, you have no objection to helping me mount her horse?’
“ ‘No,’ he answered, open mouthed.
“ ‘Very well, you have not been seen to enter this room. No one will suspect you of her death, and you can remain outside as if nothing had happened. They will find this unknown woman dead in my apartments, but they will only be mystified by it. No one can connect you with the crime, for no one knows she is your wife.’
“It was a womanish suggestion, and I wondered at the time why he fell in with it. But in the light of subsequent developments I can understand his conduct, and also why, after a short look of scorn, he nodded a sullen acquiescence and bade me dress myself in the messenger’s clothes. Meanwhile I saw him steal a look at the big hearth-stone and even kick it with his heel, but why he did so I was far from suspecting.
“The impulse of fear which I had scarcely felt in his presence, attacked me the moment I was out of his sight. I quaked like a woman in a fit of ague, but I dressed myself for all that, quickly and deftly in the dead woman’s clothes, and pulling the broad-brimmed hat which completed the costume well over my eyes, prepared to go back into the room I had left.
“But this was the hardest thing I had been called upon to perform since the beginning of this horrible tragedy. To face again the violent and blood-thirsty man who had slain his wife before my eyes was bad enough, but to go back where that silent accusing figure lay unassisted and unmourned upon the floor, required all the courage which a last hope gives to a despairing breast.
“But one thought of the added terrors which this fearful exemplification of my own violent impulses would give to any further abode in this place of blood and vengeance, determined me, and forcing my steps forward, I advanced to where he stood frowning gloomily at the prostrate body of his wife. At my approach he looked up, and his face changed rapidly from wonder to grudging admiration.
“ ‘Humph!’ he growled, ‘you’ll do, whether I will or not.’ And he moved rapidly towards the door, where he stood listening.
“ ‘Mr. Murdoch is in the library, where his work is likely to keep him all the morning,’ I remarked.
“ ‘And Cora?’ he stammered, his whole face and manner altering with the word.
“ ‘Is at the other end of the house engaged in doing up some fine laces.’
“He did not know what fine laces were, but he gathered that she was not likely to interrupt us, and his face brightened.
“ ‘You had better start then,’ said he, and he pushed open the door for me.
“I stepped into the hall, expecting him to follow; but this was not his intention.
“ ‘Lock the door and carry away the key,’ he whispered. ‘I will jump from the window and meet you in front.’
“ ‘You will pass that again?’ I questioned, shuddering with ever-growing repulsion.
“He shrugged his shoulders indifferently, and was about to close the door upon me, when I pressed my hand against it.
“ ‘Wait!’ I commanded. ‘If you have courage to pass her again, you have courage to touch her. Lift her up, I pray, and lay her on the sofa; I cannot bear to leave her with her head lying on the cruel stone.’
“It was an instinct of delicacy he could not understand; but he nodded his head, though his eyes had a queer look, and I slowly shut the door.
“ ‘Lock it!’ came in a low breath from the other side, and I turned the key rapidly, so rapidly that he did not notice that I left the door unlocked after all. It was no part of my plan to prevent assistance from reaching this poor creature as soon as chance might afford.
“Fortunately I did not have to pass my husband’s door in going out, nor did any thought of what I might be subjecting him to in the way of suspicion come to weaken my determination or to restrain my steps. I was so absorbed in the catastrophe itself, and the unlooked for opportunities which it gave me of carrying out the one desire of my heart, that I forgot that Mr. Murdoch might be called upon to account for the presence of this murdered woman in his house. Jasper, and Jasper alone, occupied the position of danger in my eyes, and in Jasper’s fate I had very little interest, so long as it did not involve that of Cora.
“When I reached the porch I found Jasper gazing at the white horse, which was tied up in front, with an air of as much unconcern as if he had not wandered a step from that point since the messenger rode up.
“ ‘Did you do what I asked?’ I whispered, as I leaped into the saddle with all the agility I could command,
“His eyes frowned into mine with as deep and diabolical look as I ever saw on the face of a human being.
“ ‘Ride quickly,’ he murmured, ‘and do not bother your fine head about Susan. She was never in such grand quarters before.’ And he gave the horse a vicious kick that sent it flying over the plain.
“And this is all I know of the strange and eventful doings of that memorable morning at Hannaford Ranch.”
“What I might have become, and never was,
Regret with me! What I have merely been,
Rejoice I am no longer! What I seem
Beginning now, in my new state, to be,
Hope that I am,”
“But from what I have read in the papers, and from what I saw in Jasper’s face as I left him, I judge that, instead of remaining in the front of the house, he returned immediately to the yellow parlor, and entering by the window, disposed of the body of that poor unfortunate as he thought best. For one as muscular as he, it was comparatively an easy task to pry up the marble hearth-stone with the huge iron poker that was always standing there, lower the poor body into the open space beneath it, and then drop the marble back. That he did do this, and do it alone, I the more readily believe because he was the only person on the place who had had any opportunity for knowing the facilities for concealment afforded by the peculiar construction of this chimney. He was on the ground when the house was built, and thus became acquainted with facts concerning it, of which even my husband and myself were ignorant.”
“He has paid with his life for the dastardly crime he has committed,” I remarked.
“Yes, and has suffered more than his conduct revealed. If Cora suspected his guilt and left him, as they say, he had but very little hold left on life.”
“But why do you suppose she suspected him? Could she have received any inkling of the truth?”
“I do not know, but it is just possible that it was she who buried the sponge. That Jasper, carrying it from the room, encountered her and gave it into her charge, and that it was this fact which made her conduct herself in what Dillon evidently thought a guilty manner.”
We talked no more at the time, but later I ventured to ask Mrs. Murdoch how she succeeded in escaping over the plains, notwithstanding the close pursuit which her husband instituted after her.
“Ah,” she explained, “I was helped by Providence, and a little by my own wit. When I left Hannaford Ranch I rode north, but as soon as I thought myself out of sight, I turned west, and galloped in a roundabout way towards the south. I was not known at the lower station and I was at Black Lake, My horse was a good one, but he grew tired at last, and pausing to give him wind, I amused myself by running my hand through the pockets of the clothes I wore. To my surprise, and, I must say, to my great relief, for as usual I had brought no money with me, I found three hundred dollars in a small bag attached to the belt about my waist, and though I could not call it mine, I determined to make use of such an amount as I felt to be absolutely necessary to my successful escape. For if the girl was dead, her heirs could wait, and if she were not dead, my husband, with his generous tendencies, would never see her mourn long for money carried off by his wife.
“As it happened, I had an immediate use for some. No sooner had I started again than I saw a small wagon-train approaching from the south. As it came nearer I discovered it to be a party of miners, and when we met I observed that the men who composed it had good faces and could, in all probability, be trusted. As I had begun to worry over the color of my horse, I cast my eye along the train, and observing a large bay which had no rider, I asked if they were disposed to enter into a bargain with me for an exchange of horses.
“ ‘My own has come thirty miles,’ I said, ‘and my business will carry me twenty more. Will you take my white mare and ten dollars to boot, for that strong-looking bay yonder?’
“They examined my nag, perceived it was a good one, and accepted with a grin the ten dollars I offered them. I got off the white horse, jumped on to the bay, and thus rid myself of one dangerous clue to my identity. A little further on I encountered a group of three men, who belonged to the same train, and with them I made one or two exchanges of apparel that quite altered my appearance. And that is why Mr. Murdoch’s telegrams failed to find me out.”
“And why the messenger was never seen again,” I added.
But we seldom indulged in such talks as these. She was too much absorbed in the direct object of our journey, and too full of apprehension for the future, to go back too deeply into the past. As day after day went by she insisted upon sending fresh telegrams, and finally, when we stopped at Denver, we received one. It was from Mr. Dillon, and it ran thus:
“Have told Mr. M. Don’t delay; they ask who was the other woman.’
To this she responded:
“It was Jasper’s wife: he killed her.’
But we got no answer to this.
Meanwhile, as we approached the spot which had been the scene of such trying experiences to her, Mrs. Murdoch’s courage, which had been sustained by such indomitable will, seemed to falter, and she grew constantly paler and more self-absorbed. Finally, when on Californian soil, she spoke out:
“I have a dread,” she acknowledged, “an awful dread, I must save him and I will, notwithstanding the sense of doom with which I go about it. But oh! if he should look at me again with those forgiving eyes of his! If, in face of this last degrading blow I have unwittingly dealt him, he should wish to take me back again—”
“Would you not find it easier to live with him now than before?” I asked, determined to help her just where she needed it most.
She gave me a frightened look and shuddered involuntarily. “I ought to,” she replied; “but the feeling grows rather than diminishes. I cannot sleep at night for the horror of it. But I shall never again be afraid of doing him harm. The remembrance of Jasper’s blow, and the consciousness that you know my secret, will prevent me from being assailed in future by that temptation,”
“If Mr. Murdoch could be told the reason—”
But she would not let me finish.
“The only thing which Mr. Murdoch will not do for me,” said she, “is to release me from my marriage obligations.”
And I, seeing no hope for her, was gloomily silent.
As we entered upon the last morning of our wearisome journey, her agitation became excessive. She stared from the window as if expecting to behold some horrible spectre rise up from the plains before her, and started with inexpressible dismay when a man entered the car and came down the aisle, looking inquiringly into the face of every lady passenger. He held a telegram in his hand, and he stopped before us. ‘
“Is not this Mrs. Murdoch?” he asked.
I nodded, for she could not speak.
“Are you her friend?” he inquired of me.
Struck by the pallor of her face, I again nodded, and he put the telegram in my hand.
“I think you had better be the one to look at it first,” he suggested; “the lady does not seem very well.”
I glanced at her, and tore open the telegram.
“What is it?” she huskily whispered.
“Nothing that can affect our actions in any way,” I answered, folding up the small slip and putting it into my pocket. “We have merely to follow our original intention and get off at Big Trail. How soon shall we be there?” I asked of the man, who was still lingering near and contemplating Mrs. Murdoch curiously.
“In about forty minutes. Here we are at Black Lake, Why, what is the matter?”
Looking hurriedly from the window, I saw what had attracted his attention. Men were running up and down the track at our side, and to all appearance there was much more disturbance at this quiet station than usual.
We were soon made acquainted with the cause. A freight train had run into some obstruction on the track before us, and all the available men within reach were engaged in clearing away the debris. This meant delay, and as I realized it, I turned pale and thought of the telegram in my pocket.
“Will you excuse me for a minute, till I ascertain just how long this accident is likely to detain us?” My words fell on deaf ears.
“You have bad news of him,” she cried. “What is it? I can bear anything but suspense.”
“Wait,” I persisted, “till I see how soon we can be at Big Trail.”
She looked up entreatingly, but sank back as I rose and covered her face with her veil. It was hard to leave her even for a minute, but I had no alternative, and hurrying out, I mingled with the crowd around the wrecked cars.
A few minutes’ inspection proved that it would be some hours before the track could be cleared, and returning quickly to Mrs. Murdoch’s side, I said:
“You will have to summon up courage. Our way is blocked and we cannot be in Big Trail for some hours.”
Her form shook convulsively,
“I cannot endure the suspense,” she declared. “Tell me what was in the telegram, and I will judge myself whether or no I have the courage to remain here quiescent.”
Thinking that she would be obliged to do so whatever her feelings might be, I took out the telegram and handed it to her. It was from Dillon and contained these formidable words.
“Hasten! The town is full of maddened men clamoring for Murdoch’s life. Your presence only can prevent mischief.”
“And we are stopped here!” she cried, her eyes taking on an awful look. “Stopped by God!” But before I could show my own realization of the frightful conflict into which the situation had thrown her, her eyes closed with a spasmodic movement and then opened with such grandeur of purpose, that her whole person seemed to dilate before my eyes. “No,” she said, “I am wrong. God never stops any one in the line of duty. He has merely put an obstacle in my path, to see whether my contrition is strong enough to surmount it.” Then with easy command, and as if she fully expected an immediate response to her wishes, she cried, “Get horses at once, Mr. Ruxton, and we will ride over the country to Big Trail.”
“But I don’t ride,” I objected. “Besides, you have had no breakfast—”
“I will ride alone,” she decided. Then seeing me on the point of making another demur, she exclaimed: “Do you not see that it is for my own future peace, I am struggling. If he should meet his death through any hesitation of mine, how could I face the life-long remorse which must follow. God knows I have sinned enough in thought not to add to my crime a failure in action.”
“You are right,” said I; “and I will do what I can to help you save him.” And leaving her side once more I proceeded to make enquiries for the horses she required.
But I might as well have asked for wings. No one had horses, or if they had, found time at that moment to attend to me. I soon grew discouraged and was walking slowly back when I met Mrs. Murdoch.
“Have you succeeded?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“You have not told them who I was,”
“I did not dare to,”
“Very well, then, I will,” And raising her voice she spoke in tones which could be heard above the hubbub of busily working men. “Here! listen! I am Mrs. Murdoch, of Hannaford Ranch. You who think I have been murdered, look at me; and if any one of you have a horse which will help me to reach my husband, who is in great danger in Big Trail prison, let him fetch it at once, and I will heap hundreds of dollars upon him, as soon as Mr. Murdoch is rescued.”
A cry here and there from such men as heard her, showed that her appeal had not fallen upon entirely deaf ears. One or two of the busiest left their work, and soon a crowd of gaping boys and astonished men drew up around her, with awestruck looks and wondering expressions, which showed that the general belief as to her death had been but little, if at all, shaken by the telegrams she had forwarded to the Sheriff. This became still more apparent when their excitement found vent in words.
“And it’s herself indeed!” cried one.
“And no lie!” vociferated another.
“And he about to swing for her, if the boys have their way this day.”
“I tell you it’s awful!” and “O God! look at her face,” sprang simultaneously from either side of me, as I shouted out the question, “Has no man here a horse?”
“Why, what does she want of a horse?” echoed a fellow who had been superintending the work near me. “Will she ride to Big Trail?”
“I will ride or I will run,” she answered back. “Do you not see that his danger increases with every minute I am detained here?”
A dozen heads gave the nod to this, and two or three men separated themselves from the rest, and ran off in different directions.
“Back to your work!” shouted a voice, and in an instant we were left standing comparatively alone.
“There is another difficulty,” said she. “There is no woman’s saddle in this place, and I could not ride on one in these clothes if there was. I shall have to turn messenger again, and you—”
“I shall mount with you,” I answered; “but you must not depend upon my remaining in the saddle till you reach Big Trail. I was never upon a horse’s back in my life.”
“You are a staunch friend and a loyal-hearted man!” she exclaimed; and without further comment hurried down the narrow, unpromising street before us to a house into which I saw her speedily enter.
When she came back, clad in the rough but not unpicturesque clothes of a cowboy, it was to find three horses drawn up by the station-house door. She leaped on to one with a little help from the man who held it, and I, with many hesitations and sinkings of the heart, managed to climb upon the back of another, while a slim but wiry young fellow, whom she seemed to know, mounted the third, and gave the signal for departure. A series of shouts and a loud “God bless you!” rose in the air behind us; and the three horses started forward over the plains.
“Measure not the work
Until the day’s out and the labor done;
Then bring your gauges. If the day’s work’s scant,
Why, call it scant; affect no compromise;
And in that we have nobly striven at least,
Deal with us nobly, women though we be,
And honor us with truth if not with praise.”
I rode like one in a nightmare. The blue sky, cloudless from zenith to horizon, was above me, and on every side swelled the illimitable plains of grass. But I saw nothing, and felt nothing, save the panting sides of the great horse to which I clung with a convulsive action that was purely involuntary. As I made no effort to guide his movements, he plunged on in the wake of the other two with a fury that would have unseated me, if I had not instinctively given myself up to the motion. I was so anxious to reach Big Trail at her side, and so terrified lest I should not, that I cared little what became of me, so I did not lose my hold upon the horse. I must have been riding with my eyes closed, for suddenly I heard a cry that made me open them with a jerk.
“Look! Hannaford Ranch!” were the words flung back at me by the young fellow who was riding in front.
I cast a glance in the direction he was pointing, and saw, just peering above the horizon on our left, an irregular outline of roofs and chimneys. But the fleeting vision I caught at the same moment of her averted face blurred my eyes, and I resolutely closed them again.
But it was not for long. Suddenly I became conscious of some unnatural movement on the part of the horse I was riding, and not knowing either how to check or restrain him, I was thrown violently off and landed in the grass. One more passing glimpse of her face was afforded me as my horse shot by the others and scampered on over the plain, then all was dark, and for a few minutes I lay unconscious.
When I came to, I saw the lad bending over me, but her figure on its flying horse was already far away.
“The missus is sorry,” cried the boy, panting in his eagerness to follow her, “but she dare not stop. Are you hurt? If you are, I’m to stay with you.”
His roving eyes showed so plainly what a disappointment this would be, that I stood up on my feet to show him I was uninjured. He gave a gasp of relief and turned his horse about.
“I’ll tell her,” he cried, and rode off like an arrow, leaving me standing in that grassy solitude alone.
“I’ll be back for you before night,” were his last words, and with this promise and the remembrance of her last look, I was obliged to be content.
Had there been less in that last look I might have found it more difficult to endure my forced inaction with patience. But her face was so eloquent with the struggle between what I was fain to consider the desire of her heart and the duty she owed her husband, that it kept my bosom warm for the long hours I was doomed to remain there. Indeed, it did more. It opened my eyes to the real state of her passionate heart, and I beheld depths of emotion in her which added to her heroism and raised her almost into a martyr before my eyes.
Meantime the three horses had vanished from the horizon, and the sun, which had climbed to the noon height, was sinking gradually towards the west. What had happened in Big Trail during these interminable hours of my waiting? Had Vashti Murdoch been in time, and were husband and wife again united? My heart beat chokingly at the thought and then stopped, for the clean, pale line of the horizon had suddenly become broken, and as I watched, I saw two horses advancing, which minute by minute grew larger and more distinct to my straining eyes, until I saw them coming directly towards me, and knew that one bore the lad who had promised to return for me, and that the saddle of the other was empty, and was in all probability intended for my use.
When the lad saw me he shouted for joy and came galloping up.
“Here I am,” he cried. “You’ll find this horse easier to manage than the other;” and bounding from his seat he offered to help me mount.
“But what news from Big Trail?” I asked. “Has Mrs. Murdoch succeeded in rescuing her husband?”
He avoided my eyes and did not answer till I was well in the saddle, then he said:
“Missus told me not to say anything, but just to bring you right along. She will tell you all there is to know.”
I at once felt the premonition of some catastrophe and looked at him searchingly, but his face was dogged.
“We had better ride on,” he suggested; “it’s the quickest way to find out, isn’t it?”
I was obliged to assent to this, and for the second time in my life I started forth on horseback.
But this time I had an accustomed hand on my bridle, and I met with no mishap. But I was dead tired when I rode into Big Trail, and not a little ill. I had been without food all day, and the sun had been hot and scorching.
“You look as if you wanted a bite and a sup,” cried the lad, and led me directly to the solitary hotel in the open. As we went I noticed more than one group of silent men standing about with lowered heads and sheepish looks, and when I had dismounted before the tavern I overheard one fellow whisper to his mate:
“Bad day’s work this! think we had better clear out, or officers will be coming down from ‘Frisco.”
I was trembling now in good earnest, and was glad to gain the refuge of a small but quiet room which had been prepared for me. Indeed, there was a stillness all through the house which seemed ominous, and though I could hardly speak, I managed to inquire if Mrs. Murdoch was in the same building, and if I could hope to see her.
The answer was soothing. She was but three doors off, and after I had eaten and drank she would be glad to have me come to her room. I looked at the tray they had brought me, took one swallow of wine and a morsel of bread, and went directly to the door they pointed out as hers.
The tragedy which had occurred was one of those dreadful ones that happens now and then to persons most undeserving of them. Public feeling, which had grown slowly but surely in all that region round, was irate against Murdoch, whom every one believed to have basely murdered his wife. Her telegrams, instead of calming public agitation, had increased it. No one, save the Sheriff, perhaps, believed them to be bona fide messages, and the rumor got about, started perhaps by some friend of Jasper, that a conspiracy was being formed by the relatives of the rich man to cheat the officers of justice and outrage law by wicked subterfuges.
The Sheriff, who feared trouble, but who was far from anticipating its real extent and dangerous nature, had called in assistance from the next town. But it was not adequate to meet the emergency. On the morning of which we speak, three hundred men suddenly appeared before the jail in Big Trail, demanding Murdoch, and shouting for his life.
Everything that could be done to appease them was attempted, but in vain. They would neither listen to reason nor believe in promises or threats. The riches of the man stood in his way, and was his last greatest enemy. Each man feared he would be thought bought off if he quailed or yielded to any other man’s persuasion; so the tumult grew and the situation rapidly became desperate.
Mr. Dillon, who had felt the greatest sympathy for Mr. Murdoch since receiving Mrs. Murdoch’s telegrams, struggled to save him up to the last gasp, but when the prison showed signs of burning, and he himself lost consciousness from a pistol bullet that broke his arm, the few men under his command gave way, and amid shouts and yells that could be heard the country round, Mr. Murdoch was dragged from the prison walls and hurried down to the public square.
Dillon’s one hope upon coming to himself lay now in the appearance of Mrs. Murdoch upon the scene. He was aware that the train upon which she was expected had been blocked at Black Lake, but he also knew that she had started for Big Trail on horseback, and might be expected in their midst at any moment, He therefore turned his eyes anxiously eastward, and was presently rewarded by the sight of a couple of horses galloping towards them over the plains. But as they approached the town, one tottered and fell, and before the other could clear its prostrate body it, too, staggered, and its rider rolled off and fell heavily forward.
A yell from the mad crowd, which was now seething into a compact mass in the town square, started him, however, to his feet, and he ran madly forward. Dillon, who was watching the scene with intense anxiety, saw at once that it was no man who was approaching thus hastily, but Mrs. Murdoch herself, dressed in a man’s clothes, and showing a man’s fearlessness and determination. Shouting aloud, in his relief, he waved his uninjured arm towards her, while wildly vociferating to the crowd:
“There she is! Look at her! Mrs. Murdoch herself coming to rescue her husband! Be men I charge you! and stop your devilish work, before she can see what you are doing,”
They heard, and a great murmur rose from every side. A hundred faces were to be seen where but a minute before the backs of busily swaying heads alone were visible. Then there was a pause, followed by a yell of wonder, as she dashed into their midst, and, shaking down her long hair, stood panting and indignant before them,
“Where is my husband?” she cried, amid a hush so awful you could hear the light swish of her loose locks as they rose and fell in the breeze, “I have ridden seven days and seven nights without pausing, to save him. Do not tell me I have ridden in vain.”
No voice ventured to rise in answer, the rescue was so critically near the emergency; but a narrow lane suddenly and strangely opened in the packed and swaying crowd before her, and into it she stepped so determinedly and with such a look of power on her noble face, that it caused the whole agitated mass of human beings about her to fall slowly back till the form of her husband became visible, sitting with bent head and bound hands against the trunk of a huge tree.
That this sight, so dreadful to a woman’s eyes, unnerved her for a moment was not strange. Those that were nearest her say that she paused short, as if a ghastly hand had struck her full in the face, but if this is true, and her spirit quailed for an instant, it was only to gather fresh strength, for she bounded forward, almost before any one could say she was afraid, and laying her hand on her husband’s shoulder, whispered quietly, but, oh, with what depth of meaning in her voice:
But he, to whom that voice had been music even when it was far colder than now, did not move, nor look up, and she, alarmed, and reeling with emotions greater even than any which these men, who only saw in her the devoted wife, could realize or imagine, threw herself on her knees and looked up into his face.
As she did so, a hundred breaths were drawn in and then as violently loosed forth, for she had risen almost immediately to her feet, and, facing the crowd which had been saved from murder by a hair’s breadth, gave the men before her a look such as is met but once in a life-time, and then, flinging up her arms, sank forward and lay in a heap at their feet.
Thomas Murdoch’s eye had not met hers; he was dead; his fright had killed him.
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