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Title: Room Number 3 - and Other Detective Stories
Author: Green, Anna Katharine, 1846-1935
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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ROOM NUMBER 3

AND OTHER DETECTIVE STORIES

By ANNA KATHARINE GREENE

AUTHOR OF

"The Mystery of The Hasty Arrow," "The Golden Slipper," "That Affair
Next Door," etc.

A. L. BURT COMPANY

Publishers                New York

Published by arrangement with Dodd, Mead & Company

COPYRIGHT, 1912, BY
ANNA KATHARINE GREEN

COPYRIGHT, 1909, 1910, BY
THE CROWELL PUBLISHING CO.

COPYRIGHT, 1910, BY
ABBOTT & BRIGGS INC.

COPYRIGHT, 1913, BY
DODD, MEAD & COMPANY
_As "Masterpieces of Mystery"_



CONTENTS


                                         PAGE

I ROOM NUMBER 3                             3

II MIDNIGHT IN BEAUCHAMP ROW               85

III THE RUBY AND THE CALDRON              107

IV THE LITTLE STEEL COILS                 149

V THE STAIRCASE AT HEART'S DELIGHT        181

VI THE AMETHYST BOX                       209

VII THE GREY LADY                         311

VIII THE THIEF                            339

IX THE HOUSE IN THE MIST                  369



ROOM NUMBER 3


I

"What door is that? You've opened all the others; why do you pass that
one by?"

"Oh, that! That's only Number 3. A mere closet, gentlemen," responded
the landlord in a pleasant voice. "To be sure, we sometimes use it as a
sleeping-room when we are hard pushed. Jake, the clerk you saw below,
used it last night. But it's not on our regular list. Do you want a peep
at it?"

"Most assuredly. As you know, it's our duty to see every room in this
house, whether it is on your regular list or not."

"All right. I haven't the key of this one with me. But--yes, I have.
There, gentlemen!" he cried, unlocking the door and holding it open for
them to look inside. "You see it no more answers the young lady's
description than the others do. And I haven't another to show you. You
have seen all those in front, and this is the last one in the rear.
You'll have to believe our story. The old lady never put foot in this
tavern."

The two men he addressed peered into the shadowy recesses before them,
and one of them, a tall and uncommonly good-looking young man of
stalwart build and unusually earnest manner, stepped softly inside. He
was a gentleman farmer living near, recently appointed deputy sheriff on
account of a recent outbreak of horse-stealing in the neighbourhood.

"I observe," he remarked, after a hurried glance about him, "that the
paper on these walls is not at all like that she describes. She was very
particular about the paper; said that it was of a muddy pink colour and
had big scrolls on it which seemed to move and crawl about in whirls as
you looked at it. This paper is blue and striped. Otherwise----"

"Let's go below," suggested his companion, who, from the deference with
which his most casual word was received, was evidently a man of some
authority. "It's cold here, and there are several new questions I should
like to put to the young lady. Mr. Quimby,"--this to the landlord, "I've
no doubt you are right, but we'll give this poor girl another chance. I
believe in giving every one the utmost chance possible."

"My reputation is in your hands, Coroner Golden," was the quiet reply.
Then, as they both turned, "my reputation against the word of an
obviously demented girl."

The words made their own echo. As the third man moved to follow the
other two into the hall, he seemed to catch this echo, for he
involuntarily cast another look behind him as if expectant of some
contradiction reaching him from the bare and melancholy walls he was
leaving. But no such contradiction came. Instead, he appeared to read
confirmation there of the landlord's plain and unembittered statement.
The dull blue paper with its old-fashioned and uninteresting stripes
seemed to have disfigured the walls for years. It was not only grimy
with age, but showed here and there huge discoloured spots, especially
around the stovepipe-hole high up on the left-hand side. Certainly he
was a dreamer to doubt such plain evidences as these. Yet----

Here his eye encountered Quimby's, and pulling himself up short, he
hastily fell into the wake of his comrade now hastening down the narrow
passage to the wider hall in front. Had it occurred to him to turn again
before rounding the corner--but no, I doubt if he would have learned
anything even then. The closing of a door by a careful hand--the
slipping up behind him of an eager and noiseless step--what is there in
these to re-awaken curiosity and fix suspicion? Nothing, when the man
concerned is Jacob Quimby; nothing. Better that he failed to look back;
it left his judgment freer for the question confronting him in the room
below.

Three Forks Tavern has been long forgotten, but at the time of which I
write it was a well-known but little-frequented house, situated just
back of the highway on the verge of the forest lying between the two
towns of Chester and Danton in southern Ohio. It was of ancient build,
and had all the picturesquesness of age and the English traditions of
its original builder. Though so near two thriving towns, it retained its
own quality of apparent remoteness from city life and city ways. This in
a measure was made possible by the nearness of the woods which almost
enveloped it; but the character of the man who ran it had still more to
do with it, his sympathies being entirely with the old, and not at all
with the new, as witness the old-style glazing still retained in its
ancient doorway. This, while it appealed to a certain class of summer
boarders, did not so much meet the wants of the casual traveller, so
that while the house might from some reason or other be overfilled one
night, it was just as likely to be almost empty the next, save for the
faithful few who loved the woods and the ancient ways of the
easy-mannered host and his attentive, soft-stepping help. The building
itself was of wooden construction, high in front and low in the rear,
with gables toward the highway, projecting here and there above a strip
of rude old-fashioned carving. These gables were new, that is, they were
only a century old; the portion now called the extension, in the
passages of which we first found the men we have introduced to you, was
the original house. Then it may have enjoyed the sunshine and air of the
valley it overlooked, but now it was so hemmed in by yards and
outbuildings as to be considered the most undesirable part of the house,
and Number 3 the most undesirable of its rooms; which certainly does not
speak well for it.

But we are getting away from our new friends and their mysterious
errand. As I have already intimated, this tavern with the curious name
(a name totally unsuggestive, by the way, of its location on a perfectly
straight road) had for its southern aspect the road and a broad expanse
beyond of varied landscape which made the front rooms cheerful even on a
cloudy day; but it was otherwise with those in the rear and on the north
end. They were never cheerful, and especially toward night were
frequently so dark that artificial light was resorted to as early as
three o'clock in the afternoon. It was so to-day in the remote parlour
which these three now entered. A lamp had been lit, though the daylight
still struggled feebly in, and it was in this conflicting light that
there rose up before them the vision of a woman, who seen at any time
and in any place would have drawn, if not held, the eye, but seen in her
present attitude and at such a moment of question and suspense, struck
the imagination with a force likely to fix her image forever in the
mind, if not in the heart, of a sympathetic observer.

I should like to picture her as she stood there, because the impression
she made at this instant determined the future action of the man I have
introduced to you as not quite satisfied with the appearances he had
observed above. Young, slender but vigorous, with a face whose details
you missed in the fire of her eye and the wonderful red of her young,
fresh but determined mouth, she stood, on guard as it were, before a
shrouded form on a couch at the far end of the room. An imperative _Keep
back!_ spoke in her look, her attitude, and the silent gesture of one
outspread hand, but it was the _Keep back!_ of love, not of fear, the
command of an outraged soul, conscious of its rights and instinctively
alert to maintain them.

The landlord at sight of the rebuke thus given to their intrusion,
stepped forward with a conciliatory bow.

"I beg pardon," said he, "but these gentlemen, Doctor Golden, the
coroner from Chester, and Mr. Hammersmith, wish to ask you a few more
questions about your mother's death. You will answer them, I am sure."

Slowly her eyes moved till they met those of the speaker.

"I am anxious to do so," said she, in a voice rich with many emotions.
But seeing the open compassion in the landlord's face, the colour left
her cheeks, almost her lips, and drawing back the hand which she had
continued to hold outstretched, she threw a glance of helpless inquiry
about her which touched the younger man's heart and induced him to say:

"The truth should not be hard to find in a case like this. I'm sure the
young lady can explain. Doctor Golden, are you ready for her story?"

The coroner, who had been silent up till now, probably from sheer
surprise at the beauty and simple, natural elegance of the woman caught,
as he believed, in a net of dreadful tragedy, roused himself at this
direct question, and bowing with an assumption of dignity far from
encouraging to the man and woman anxiously watching him, replied:

"We will hear what she has to say, of course, but the facts are well
known. The woman she calls mother was found early this morning lying on
her face in the adjoining woods quite dead. She had fallen over a
half-concealed root, and with such force that she never moved again. If
her daughter was with her at the time, then that daughter fled without
attempting to raise her. The condition and position of the wound on the
dead woman's forehead, together with such corroborative facts as have
since come to light, preclude all argument on this point. But we'll
listen to the young woman, notwithstanding; she has a right to speak,
and she shall speak. Did not your mother die in the woods? No
hocus-pocus, miss, but the plain unvarnished truth."

"Sirs,"--the term was general, but her appeal appeared to be directed
solely to the one sympathetic figure before her, "if my mother died in
the wood--and, for all I can say, she may have done so--it was not till
after she had been in this house. She arrived in my company, and was
given a room. I saw the room and I saw her in it. I cannot be deceived
in this. If I am, then my mind has suddenly failed me;--something which
I find it hard to believe."

"Mr. Quimby, did Mrs. Demarest come to the house with Miss Demarest?"
inquired Mr. Hammersmith of the silent landlord.

"She says so," was the reply, accompanied by a compassionate shrug which
spoke volumes. "And I am quite sure she means it," he added, with kindly
emphasis. "But ask Jake, who was in the office all the evening. Ask my
wife, who saw the young lady to her room. Ask anybody and everybody who
was around the tavern last night. I'm not the only one to say that Miss
Demarest came in alone. All will tell you that she arrived here without
escort of any kind; declined supper, but wanted a room, and when I
hesitated to give it to her, said by way of explanation of her lack of a
companion that she had had trouble in Chester and had left town very
hurriedly for her home. That her mother was coming to meet her and would
probably arrive here very soon. That when this occurred I was to notify
her; but if a gentleman called instead, I was to be very careful not to
admit that any such person as herself was in the house. Indeed, to avoid
any such possibility she prayed that her name might be left off the
register--a favour which I was slow in granting her, but which I finally
did, as you can see for yourselves."

"Oh!" came in indignant exclamation from the young woman before them. "I
understand my position now. This man has a bad conscience. He has
something to hide, or he would not take to lying about little things
like that. I never asked him to allow me to leave my name off the
register. On the contrary I wrote my name in it and my mother's name,
too. Let him bring the book here and you will see."

"We have seen," responded the coroner. "We looked in the register
ourselves. Your names are not there."

The flush of indignation which had crimsoned her cheeks faded till she
looked as startling and individual in her pallor as she had the moment
before in her passionate bloom.

"Not there?" fell from her lips in a frozen monotone as her eyes grew
fixed upon the faces before her and her hand went groping around for
some support.

Mr. Hammersmith approached with a chair.

"Sit," he whispered. Then, as she sank slowly into an attitude of
repose, he added gently, "You shall have every consideration. Only tell
the truth, the exact truth without any heightening from your
imagination, and, above all, don't be frightened."

She may have heard his words, but she gave no sign of comprehending
them. She was following the movements of the landlord, who had slipped
out to procure the register, and now stood holding it out toward the
coroner.

"Let her see for herself," he suggested, with a bland, almost fatherly,
air.

Doctor Golden took the book and approached Miss Demarest.

"Here is a name very unlike yours," he pointed out, as her eye fell on
the page he had opened to. "Annette Colvin, Lansing, Michigan."

"That is not my name or writing," said she.

"There is room below it for your name and that of your mother, but the
space is blank, do you see?"

"Yes, yes, I see," she admitted. "Yet I wrote my name in the book! Or is
it all a monstrous dream!"

The coroner returned the book to the landlord.

"Is this your only book?" he asked.

"The only book."

Miss Demarest's eyes flashed. Hammersmith, who had watched this scene
with intense interest, saw, or believed that he saw, in this flash the
natural indignation of a candid mind face to face with arrant knavery.
But when he forced himself to consider the complacent Quimby he did not
know what to think. His aspect of self-confidence equalled hers. Indeed,
he showed the greater poise. Yet her tones rang true as she cried:

"You made up one plausible story, and you may well make up another. I
demand the privilege of relating the whole occurrence as I remember it,"
she continued with an appealing look in the one sympathetic direction.
"Then you can listen to him."

"We desire nothing better," returned the coroner.

"I shall have to mention a circumstance very mortifying to myself," she
proceeded, with a sudden effort at self-control, which commanded the
admiration even of the coroner. "My one adviser is dead," here her eyes
flashed for a moment toward the silent form behind her. "If I make
mistakes, if I seem unwomanly--but you have asked for the truth and you
shall have it, all of it. I have no father. Since early this morning I
have had no mother. But when I had, I found it my duty to work for her
as well as for myself, that she might have the comforts she had been
used to and could no longer afford. For this purpose I sought a
situation in Chester, and found one in a family I had rather not name."
A momentary tremor, quickly suppressed, betrayed the agitation which
this allusion cost her. "My mother lived in Danton (the next town to the
left). Anybody there will tell you what a good woman she was. I had
wished her to live in Chester (that is, at first; later, I--I was glad
she didn't), but she had been born in Danton, and could not accustom
herself to strange surroundings. Once a week I went home, and once a
week, usually on a Wednesday, she would come and meet me on the
highroad, for a little visit. Once we met here, but this is a
circumstance no one seems to remember. I was very fond of my mother and
she of me. Had I loved no one else, I should have been happy still, and
not been obliged to face strangers over her body and bare the secrets of
my heart to preserve my good name. There is a man, he seems a thousand
miles away from me now, so much have I lived since yesterday. He--he
lived in the house where I did--was one of the family--always at
table--always before my eyes. He fancied me. I--I might have fancied him
had he been a better man. But he was far from being of the sort my
mother approved, and when he urged his suit too far, I grew frightened
and finally ran away. It was not so much that I could not trust him,"
she bravely added after a moment of silent confusion, "but that I could
not trust myself. He had an unfortunate influence over me, which I
hated while I half yielded to it."

"You ran away. When was this?"

"Yesterday afternoon at about six. He had vowed that he would see me
again before the evening was over, and I took that way to prevent a
meeting. There was no other so simple,--or such was my thought at the
time. I did not dream that sorrows awaited me in this quiet tavern, and
perplexities so much greater than any which could have followed a
meeting with him that I feel my reason fail when I contemplate them."

"Go on," urged the coroner, after a moment of uneasy silence. "Let us
hear what happened after you left your home in Chester."

"I went straight to the nearest telegraph office, and sent a message to
my mother. I told her I was coming home, and for her to meet me on the
road near this tavern. Then I went to Hudson's and had supper, for I had
not eaten before leaving my employer's. The sun had set when I finally
started, and I walked fast so as to reach Three Forks before dark. If my
mother had got the telegram at once, which I calculated on her doing, as
she lived next door to the telegraph office in Danton, she would be very
near this place on my arrival here. So I began to look for her as soon
as I entered the woods. But I did not see her. I came as far as the
tavern door, and still I did not see her. But farther on, just where the
road turns to cross the railroad-track, I spied her coming, and ran to
meet her. She was glad to see me, but asked a good many questions which
I had some difficulty in answering. She saw this, and held me to the
matter till I had satisfied her. When this was done it was late and
cold, and we decided to come to the tavern for the night. _And we came!_
Nothing shall ever make me deny so positive a fact. _We came_, and this
man received us."

With her final repetition of this assertion, she rose and now stood
upright, with her finger pointing straight at Quimby. Had he cringed or
let his eyes waver from hers by so much as a hair's breadth, her
accusation would have stood and her cause been won. But not a flicker
disturbed the steady patience of his look, and Hammersmith, who had made
no effort to hide his anxiety to believe her story, showed his
disappointment with equal frankness as he asked:

"Who else was in the office? Surely Mr. Quimby was not there alone?"

She reseated herself before answering. Hammersmith could see the effort
she made to recall that simple scene. He found himself trying to recall
it, too--the old-fashioned, smoke-begrimed office, with its one long
window toward the road and the glass-paned door leading into the hall of
entrance. They had come in by that door and crossed to the bar, which
was also the desk in this curious old hostelry. He could see them
standing there in the light of possibly a solitary lamp, the rest of the
room in shadow unless a game of checkers were on, which evidently was
not so on this night. Had she turned her head to peer into those
shadows? It was not likely. She was supported by her mother's presence,
and this she was going to say. By some strange telepathy that he would
have laughed at a few hours before, he feels confident of her words
before she speaks. Yet he listens intently as she finally looks up and
answers:

"There was a man, I am sure there was a man somewhere at the other end
of the office. But I paid no attention to him. I was bargaining for two
rooms and registering my name and that of my mother."

"Two rooms; why two? You are not a fashionable young lady to require a
room alone."

"Gentlemen, I was tired. I had been through a wearing half-hour. I knew
that if we occupied the same room or even adjoining ones that nothing
could keep us from a night of useless and depressing conversation. I did
not feel equal to it, so I asked for two rooms a short distance apart."

An explanation which could at least be accepted. Mr. Hammersmith felt an
increase of courage and scarcely winced as his colder-blooded companion
continued this unofficial examination by asking:

"Where were you standing when making these arrangements with Mr.
Quimby?"

"Right before the desk."

"And your mother?"

"She was at my left and a little behind me. She was a shy woman. I
usually took the lead when we were together."

"Was she veiled?" the coroner continued quietly.

"I think so. She had been crying----" The bereaved daughter paused.

"But don't you know?"

"My impression is that her veil was down when we came into the room. She
may have lifted it as she stood there. I know that it was lifted as we
went upstairs. I remember feeling glad that the lamps gave so poor a
light, she looked so distressed."

"Physically, do you mean, or mentally?"

Mr. Hammersmith asked this question. It seemed to rouse some new train
of thought in the girl's mind. For a minute she looked intently at the
speaker, then she replied in a disturbed tone:

"Both. I wonder----" Here her thought wavered and she ceased.

"Go on," ordered the coroner impatiently. "Tell your story. It
contradicts that of the landlord in almost every point, but we've
promised to hear it out, and we will."

Rousing, she hastened to obey him.

"Mr. Quimby told the truth when he said that he asked me if I would have
supper, also when he repeated what I said about a gentleman, but not
when he declared that I wished to be told if my mother should come and
ask for me. My mother was at my side all the time we stood there
talking, and I did not need to make any requests concerning her. When
we went to our rooms a woman accompanied us. He says she is his wife. I
should like to see that woman."

"I am here, miss," spoke up a voice from a murky corner no one had
thought of looking in till now.

Miss Demarest at once rose, waiting for the woman to come forward. This
she did with a quick, natural step which insensibly prepared the mind
for the brisk, assertive woman who now presented herself. Mr.
Hammersmith, at sight of her open, not unpleasing face, understood for
the first time the decided attitude of the coroner. If this woman
corroborated her husband's account, the poor young girl, with her
incongruous beauty and emotional temperament, would not have much show.
He looked to see her quailing now. But instead of that she stood firm,
determined, and feverishly beautiful.

"Let her tell you what took place upstairs," she cried. "She showed us
the rooms and carried water afterward to the one my mother occupied."

"I am sorry to contradict the young lady," came in even tones from the
unembarrassed, motherly-looking woman thus appealed to. "She thinks that
her mother was with her and that I conducted this mother to another room
after showing her to her own. I don't doubt in the least that she has
worked herself up to the point of absolutely believing this. But the
facts are these: She came alone and went to her room unattended by any
one but myself. And what is more, she seemed entirely composed at the
time, and I never thought of suspecting the least thing wrong. Yet her
mother lay all that time in the wood----"

"Silence!"

This word was shot at her by Miss Demarest, who had risen to her full
height and now fairly flamed upon them all in her passionate
indignation. "I will not listen to such words till I have finished all I
have to say and put these liars to the blush. My mother _was_ with me,
and this woman witnessed our good-night embrace, and then showed my
mother to her own room. I watched them going. They went down the hall to
the left and around a certain corner. I stood looking after them till
they turned this corner, then I closed my door and began to take off my
hat. But I wasn't quite satisfied with the good-night which had passed
between my poor mother and myself, and presently I opened my door and
ran down the hall and around the corner on a chance of finding her room.
I don't remember very well how that hall looked. I passed several doors
seemingly shut for the night, and should have turned back, confused, if
at that moment I had not spied the landlady's figure, your figure,
madam, coming out of one room on your way to another. You were carrying
a pitcher, and I made haste and ran after you and reached the door just
before you turned to shut it. Can you deny that, or that you stepped
aside while I ran in and gave my mother another hug? If you can and do,
then you are a dangerous and lying woman, or I----But I won't admit
that I'm not all right. It is you, base and untruthful woman, who for
some end I cannot fathom persist in denying facts on which my honour, if
not my life, depends. Why, gentlemen, you, one of you at least, have
heard me describe the very room in which I saw my mother. It is
imprinted on my mind. I didn't know at the time that I took especial
notice of it, but hardly a detail escaped me. The paper on the wall----"

"We have been looking through the rooms," interpolated the coroner. "We
do not find any papered with the muddy pink you talk about."

She stared, drew back from them all, and finally sank into a chair. "You
do not find----But you have not been shown them all."

"I think so."

"You have not. There _is_ such a room. I could not have dreamed it."

Silence met this suggestion.

Throwing up her hands like one who realises for the first time that the
battle is for life, she let an expression of her despair and desolation
rush in frenzy from her lips:

"It's a conspiracy. The whole thing is a conspiracy. If my mother had
had money on her or had worn valuable jewelry, I should believe her to
have been a victim of this lying man and woman. As it is, I don't trust
them. They say that my poor mother was found lying ready dressed and
quite dead in the wood. That may be true, for I saw men bringing her
in. But if so, what warrant have we that she was not lured there,
slaughtered, and made to seem the victim of accident by this
unscrupulous man and woman? Such things have been done; but for a
daughter to fabricate such a plot as they impute to me is past belief,
out of Nature and impossible. With all their wiles, they cannot prove
it. I dare them to do so; I dare any one to do so."

Then she begged to be allowed to search the house for the room she so
well remembered. "When I show you that," she cried, with ringing
assurance, "you will believe the rest of my story."

"Shall I take the young lady up myself?" asked Mr. Quimby. "Or will it
be enough if my wife accompanies her?"

"We will all accompany her," said the coroner.

"Very good," came in hearty acquiescence.

"It's the only way to quiet her," he whispered in Mr. Hammersmith's ear.

The latter turned on him suddenly.

"None of your insinuations," he cried. "She's as far from insane as I am
myself. We shall find the room."

"You, too," fell softly from the other's lips as he stepped back into
the coroner's wake. Mr. Hammersmith gave his arm to Miss Demarest, and
the landlady brought up the rear.

"Upstairs," ordered the trembling girl. "We will go first to the room I
occupied."

As they reached the door, she motioned them all back, and started away
from them down the hall. Quickly they followed. "It was around a
corner," she muttered broodingly, halting at the first turning. "That is
all I remember. But we'll visit every room."

"We have already," objected the coroner, but meeting Mr. Hammersmith's
warning look, he desisted from further interference.

"I remember its appearance perfectly. I remember it as if it were my
own," she persisted, as door after door was thrown back and as quickly
shut again at a shake of her head. "Isn't there another hall? Might I
not have turned some other corner?"

"Yes, there is another hall," acquiesced the landlord, leading the way
into the passage communicating with the extension.

"Oh!" she murmured, as she noted the increased interest in both the
coroner and his companion; "we shall find it here."

"Do you recognise the hall?" asked the coroner as they stepped through a
narrow opening into the old part.

"No, but I shall recognise the room."

"Wait!" It was Hammersmith who called her back as she was starting
forward. "I should like you to repeat just how much furniture this room
contained and where it stood."

She stopped, startled, and then said:

"It was awfully bare; a bed was on the left----"

"On the left?"

"She said the left," quoth the landlord, "though I don't see that it
matters; it's all fancy with her."

"Go on," kindly urged Hammersmith.

"There was a window. I saw the dismal panes and my mother standing
between them and me. I can't describe the little things."

"Possibly because there were none to describe," whispered Hammersmith in
his superior's ear.

Meanwhile the landlord and his wife awaited their advance with studied
patience. As Miss Demarest joined him, he handed her a bunch of keys,
with the remark:

"None of these rooms are occupied to-day, so you can open them without
hesitation."

She stared at him and ran quickly forward. Mr. Hammersmith followed
speedily after. Suddenly both paused. She had lost the thread of her
intention before opening a single door.

"I thought I could go straight to it," she declared. "I shall have to
open all the doors, as we did in the other hall."

"Let me help you," proffered Mr. Hammersmith. She accepted his aid, and
the search recommenced with the same results as before. Hope sank to
disappointment as each door was passed. The vigour of her step was gone,
and as she paused heartsick before the last and only remaining door, it
was with an ashy face she watched Mr. Hammersmith stoop to insert the
key.

He, on his part, as the door fell back, watched her for some token of
awakened interest. But he watched in vain. The smallness of the room,
its bareness, its one window, the absence of all furniture save the
solitary cot drawn up on the right (not on the left, as she had said),
seemed to make little or no impression on her.

"The last! the last! and I have not found it. Oh, sir," she moaned,
catching at Mr. Hammersmith's arm, "am I then mad? Was it a dream? Or is
this a dream? I feel that I no longer know." Then, as the landlady
officiously stepped up, she clung with increased frenzy to Mr.
Hammersmith, crying, with positive wildness, "_This_ is the dream! The
room I remember is a real one and my story is real. Prove it, or my
reason will leave me. I feel it going--going----"

"Hush!" It was Hammersmith who sought thus to calm her. "Your story _is_
real and I will prove it so. Meanwhile trust your reason. It will not
fail you."

He had observed the corners of the landlord's hitherto restrained lips
settle into a slightly sarcastic curl as the door of this room closed
for the second time.


II

"The girl's beauty has imposed on you."

"I don't think so. I should be sorry to think myself so weak. I simply
credit her story more than I do that of Quimby."

"But his is supported by several witnesses. Hers has no support at all."

"That is what strikes me as so significant. This man Quimby understands
himself. Who are his witnesses? His wife and his head man. There is
nobody else. In the half-hour which has just passed I have searched
diligently for some disinterested testimony supporting his assertion,
but I have found none. No one knows anything. Of the three persons
occupying rooms in the extension last night, two were asleep and the
third overcome with drink. The maids won't talk. They seem uneasy, and I
detected a sly look pass from the one to the other at some question I
asked, but they won't talk. There's a conspiracy somewhere. I'm as sure
of it as that I am standing here."

"Nonsense! What should there be a conspiracy about? You would make this
old woman an important character. Now we know that she wasn't. Look at
the matter as it presents itself to an unprejudiced mind. A young and
susceptible girl falls in love with a man, who is at once a gentleman
and a scamp. She may have tried to resist her feelings, and she may not
have. Your judgment and mine would probably differ on this point. What
she does _not_ do is to let her mother into her confidence. She sees the
man--runs upon him, if you will, in places or under circumstances she
cannot avoid--till her judgment leaves her and the point of catastrophe
is reached. Then, possibly, she awakens, or what is more probable, seeks
to protect herself from the penetration and opposition of his friends
by meetings less open than those in which they had lately indulged. She
says that she left the house to escape seeing him again last night. But
this is not true. On the contrary, she must have given him to understand
where she was going, for she had an interview with him in the woods
before she came upon her mother. He acknowledges to the interview. I
have just had a talk with him over the telephone."

"Then you know his name?"

"Yes, of course, she had to tell me. It's young Maxwell. I suspected it
from the first."

"Maxwell!" Mr. Hammersmith's cheek showed an indignant colour. Or was it
a reflection from the setting sun? "You called him a scamp a few minutes
ago. A scamp's word isn't worth much."

"No, but it's evidence when on oath, and I fancy he will swear to the
interview."

"Well, well, say there was an interview."

"It changes things, Mr. Hammersmith. It changes things. It makes
possible a certain theory of mine which accounts for all the facts."

"It does!"

"Yes. I don't think this girl is really responsible. I don't believe she
struck her mother or is deliberately telling a tissue of lies to cover
up some dreadful crime. I consider her the victim of a mental
hallucination, the result of some great shock. Now what was the shock?
I'll tell you. This is how I see it, how Mr. Quimby sees it, and such
others in the house as have ventured an opinion. She was having this
conversation with her lover in the woods below here when her mother came
in sight. Surprised, for she had evidently not expected her mother to be
so prompt, she hustled her lover off and hastened to meet the
approaching figure. But it was too late. The mother had seen the man,
and in the excitement of the discovery and the altercation which
undoubtedly followed, made such a sudden move, possibly of indignant
departure, that her foot was caught by one of the roots protruding at
this point and she fell her whole length and with such violence as to
cause immediate death. Now, Mr. Hammersmith, stop a minute and grasp the
situation. If, as I believe at this point in the inquiry, Miss Demarest
had encountered a passionate opposition to her desires from this upright
and thoughtful mother, the spectacle of this mother lying dead before
her, with all opposition gone and the way cleared in an instant to her
wishes, but cleared in a manner which must haunt her to her own dying
day, was enough to turn a brain already heated with contending emotions.
Fancies took the place of facts, and by the time she reached this house
had so woven themselves into a concrete form that no word she now utters
can be relied on. This is how I see it, Mr. Hammersmith, and it is on
this basis I shall act."

Hammersmith made an effort and, nodding slightly, said in a restrained
tone:

"Perhaps you are justified. I have no wish to force my own ideas upon
you; they are much too vague at present. I will only suggest that this
is not the first time the attention of the police has been drawn to this
house by some mysterious occurrence. You remember the Stevens case?
There must have been notes to the amount of seven thousand dollars in
the pile he declared had been taken from him some time during the day
and night he lodged here."

"Stevens! I remember something about it. But they couldn't locate the
theft here. The fellow had been to the fair in Chester all day and
couldn't swear that he had seen his notes after leaving the grounds."

"I know. But he always looked on Quimby as the man. Then there is the
adventure of little Miss Thistlewaite."

"I don't remember that."

"It didn't get into the papers; but it was talked about in the
neighbourhood. She is a quaint one, full of her crotchets, but
clear--clear as a bell where her interests are involved. She took a
notion to spend a summer here--in this house, I mean. She had a room in
one of the corners overlooking the woods, and professing to prefer
Nature to everything else, was happy enough till she began to miss
things--rings, pins, a bracelet and, finally, a really valuable chain.
She didn't complain at first--the objects were trivial, and she herself
somewhat to blame for leaving them lying around in her room, often
without locking the door. But when the chain went, the matter became
serious, and she called Mr. Quimby's attention to her losses. He advised
her to lock her door, which she was careful to do after that, but not
with the expected result. She continued to miss things, mostly jewelry
of which she had a ridiculous store. Various domestics were dismissed,
and finally one of the permanent boarders was requested to leave, but
still the thefts went on till, her patience being exhausted, she
notified the police and a detective was sent: I have always wished I had
been that detective. The case ended in what was always considered a
joke. Another object disappeared while he was there, and it having been
conclusively proved to him that it could not have been taken by way of
the door, he turned his attention to the window which it was one of her
freaks always to keep wide open. The result was curious. One day he
spied from a hiding-place he had made in the bushes a bird flying out
from that window, and following the creature till she alighted in her
nest he climbed the tree and searched that nest. It was encrusted with
jewels. The bird was a magpie and had followed its usual habits,
but--the chain was not there, nor one or two other articles of decided
value. Nor were they ever found. The bird bore the blame; the objects
missing were all heavy and might have been dropped in its flight, but I
have always thought that the bird had an accomplice, a knowing fellow
who understood what's what and how to pick out his share."

The coroner smiled. There was little conviction and much sarcasm in that
smile. Hammersmith turned away. "Have you any instructions for me?" he
said.

"Yes, you had better stay here. I will return in the morning with my
jury. It won't take long after that to see this thing through."

The look he received in reply was happily hidden from him.


III

"Yes, I'm going to stay here to-night. As it's a mere formality, I shall
want a room to sit in, and if you have no objection I'll take Number 3
on the rear corridor."

"I'm sorry, but Number 3 is totally unfit for use, as you've already
seen."

"Oh, I'm not particular. Put a table in and a good light, and I'll get
along with the rest. I have something to do. Number 3 will answer."

The landlord shifted his feet, cast a quick scrutinising look at the
other's composed face, and threw back his head with a quick laugh.

"As you will. I can't make you comfortable on such short notice, but
that's your lookout. I've several other rooms vacant."

"I fancy that room," was all the reply he got.

Mr. Quimby at once gave his orders. They were received by Jake with
surprise.

Fifteen minutes later Hammersmith prepared to install himself in these
desolate quarters. But before doing so he walked straight to the small
parlour where he had last seen Miss Demarest and, knocking, asked for
the privilege of a word with her. It was not her figure, however, which
appeared in the doorway, but that of the landlady.

"Miss Demarest is not here," announced that buxom and smooth-tongued
woman. "She was like to faint after you gentlemen left the room, and I
just took her upstairs to a quiet place by herself."

"On the rear corridor?"

"Oh, no, sir; a nice front room; we don't consider money in a case like
this."

"Will you give me its number?"

Her suave and steady look changed to one of indignation.

"You're asking a good deal, aren't you? I doubt if the young lady----"

"The number, if you please," he quietly put in.

"Thirty-two," she snapped out. "She will have every care," she hastened
to assure him as he turned away.

"I've no doubt. I do not intend to sleep to to-night; if the young lady
is worse, you will communicate the fact to me. You will find _me_ in
Number 3."

He had turned back to make this reply, and was looking straight at her
as the number dropped from his lips. It did not disturb her set smile,
but in some inscrutable way all meaning seemed to leave that smile, and
she forgot to drop her hand which had been stretched out in an attempted
gesture.

"Number 3," he repeated. "Don't forget, madam."

The injunction seemed superfluous. She had not dropped her hand when he
wheeled around once more in taking the turn at the foot of the
staircase.

Jake and a very sleepy maid were on the floor above when he reached it.
He paid no attention to Jake, but he eyed the girl somewhat curiously.
She was comparatively a new domestic in the tavern, having been an
inmate there for only three weeks. He had held a few minutes'
conversation with her during the half-hour of secret inquiry in which he
had previously indulged and he remembered some of her careful answers,
also the air of fascination with which she had watched him all the time
they were together. He had made nothing of her then, but the impression
had remained that she was the one hopeful source of knowledge in the
house. Now she looked dull and moved about in Jake's wake like an
automaton. Yet Hammersmith made up his mind to speak to her as soon as
the least opportunity offered.

"Where is 32?" he asked as he moved away from them in the opposite
direction from the course they were taking.

"I thought you were to have room Number 3," blurted out Jake.

"I am. But where is 32?"

"Round there," said she. "A lady's in there now. The one----"

"Come on," urged Jake. "Huldah, you may go now. I'll show the gentleman
his room."

Huldah dropped her head, and began to move off, but not before
Hammersmith had caught her eye.

"Thirty-two," he formed with his lips, showing her a scrap of paper
which he held in his hand.

He thought she nodded, but he could not be sure. Nevertheless, he
ventured to lay the scrap down on a small table he was passing, and when
he again looked back, saw that it was gone and Huldah with it. But
whither, he could not be quite sure. There was always a risk in these
attempts, and he only half trusted the girl. She might carry it to 32,
and she might carry it to Quimby. In the first case, Miss Demarest would
know that she had an active and watchful friend in the house; in the
other, the dubious landlord would but receive an open instead of veiled
intimation that the young deputy had his eye on him and was not to be
fooled by appearances and the lack of evidence to support his honest
convictions.

They had done little more than he had suggested to make Number 3
habitable. As the door swung open under Jake's impatient hand, the
half-lighted hollow of the almost empty room gaped uninvitingly before
them, with just a wooden-bottomed chair and a rickety table added to the
small cot-bed which had been almost its sole furnishing when he saw it
last. The walls, bare as his hand, stretched without relief from
baseboard to ceiling, and the floor from door to window showed an
unbroken expanse of unpainted boards, save for the narrow space between
chair and table, where a small rug had been laid. A cheerless outlook
for a tired man, but it seemed to please Hammersmith. There was paper
and ink on the table, and the lamp which he took care to examine held
oil enough to last till morning. With a tray of eatables, this ought to
suffice, or so his manner conveyed, and Jake, who had already supplied
the eatables, was backing slowly out when his eye, which seemingly
against his will had been travelling curiously up and down the walls,
was caught by that of Hammersmith, and he plunged from the room, with a
flush visible even in that half light.

It was a trivial circumstance, but it fitted in with Hammersmith's trend
of thought at the moment, and when the man was gone he stood for several
minutes with his own eye travelling up and down those dusky walls in an
inquiry which this distant inspection did not seem thoroughly to
satisfy, for in another instant he had lifted a glass of water from the
tray and, going to the nearest wall, began to moisten the paper at one
of the edges. When it was quite wet, he took out his penknife, but
before using it, he looked behind him, first at the door, and then at
the window. The door was shut; the window seemingly guarded by an
outside blind; but the former was not locked, and the latter showed,
upon closer inspection, a space between the slats which he did not like.
Crossing to the door, he carefully turned the key, then proceeding to
the window, he endeavoured to throw up the sash in order to close the
blinds more effectually. But he found himself balked in the attempt. The
cord had been cut and the sash refused to move under his hand.

Casting a glance of mingled threat and sarcasm out into the night, he
walked back to the wall and, dashing more water over the spot he had
already moistened, began to pick at the loosened edges of the paper
which were slowly falling away. The result was a disappointment; how
great a disappointment he presently realised, as his knife-point
encountered only plaster under the peeling edges of the paper. He had
hoped to find other paper under the blue--the paper which Miss Demarest
remembered--and not finding it, was conscious of a sinking of the heart
which had never attended any of his miscalculations before. Were his own
feelings involved in this matter? It would certainly seem so.

Astonished at his own sensations, he crossed back to the table, and
sinking into the chair beside it, endeavoured to call up his common
sense, or at least shake himself free from the glamour which had seized
him. But this especial sort of glamour is not so easily shaken off.
Minutes passed--an hour, and little else filled his thoughts than the
position of this bewitching girl and the claims she had on his sense of
justice. If he listened, it was to hear her voice raised in appeal at
his door. If he closed his eyes, it was to see her image more plainly on
the background of his consciousness. The stillness into which the house
had sunk aided this absorption and made his battle a losing one. There
was naught to distract his mind, and when he dozed, as he did for a
while after midnight, it was to fall under the conjuring effect of
dreams in which her form dominated with all the force of an unfettered
fancy. The pictures which his imagination thus brought before him were
startling and never to be forgotten. The first was that of an angry sea
in the blue light of an arctic winter. Stars flecked the zenith and shed
a pale lustre on the moving ice-floes hurrying toward a horizon of
skurrying clouds and rising waves. On one of those floes stood a woman
alone, with face set toward her death.

The scene changed. A desert stretched out before him. Limitless, with
the blazing colours of the arid sand topped by a cloudless sky, it
revealed but one suggestion of life in its herbless, waterless,
shadowless solitude. _She_ stood in the midst of this desert, and as he
had seen her sway on the ice-floe, so he saw her now stretching
unavailing arms to the brazen heavens and sink--No! it was not a desert,
it was not a sea, ice-bound or torrid, it was a toppling city, massed
against impenetrable night one moment, then shown to its awful full the
next by the sudden tearing through of lightning-flashes. He saw it
all--houses, churches, towers, erect and with steadfast line, a
silhouette of quiet rest awaiting dawn; then at a flash, the doom, the
quake, the breaking down of outline, the caving in of walls, followed by
the sickening collapse in which life, wealth, and innumerable beating
human hearts went down into the unseen and unknowable. He saw and he
heard, but his eyes clung to but one point, his ears listened for but
one cry. There at the extremity of a cornice, clinging to a bending
beam, was the figure again--the woman of the ice-floe and the desert.
She seemed nearer now. He could see the straining muscles of her arm,
the white despair of her set features. He wished to call aloud to her
not to look down--then, as the sudden darkness yielded to another
illuminating gleam, his mind changed and he would fain have begged her
to look, slip, and end all, for subtly, quietly, ominously somewhere
below her feet, he had caught the glimpsing of a feathery line of smoke
curling up from the lower débris. Flame was there; a creeping devil
which soon----

Horror! it was no dream! He was awake, he, Hammersmith, in this small
solitary hotel in Ohio, and there was fire, real fire in the air, and in
his ears the echo of a shriek such as a man hears but few times in his
life, even if his lot casts him continually among the reckless and the
suffering. Was it _hers_? Had these dreams been forerunners of some
menacing danger? He was on his feet, his eyes staring at the floor
beneath him, through the cracks of which wisps of smoke were forcing
their way up. The tavern was not only on fire, _but on fire directly
under him_. This discovery woke him effectually. He bounded to the door;
it would not open. He wrenched at the key; but it would not turn, it was
hampered in the lock. Drawing back, he threw his whole weight against
the panels, uttering loud cries for help. The effort was useless. No
yielding in the door, no rush to his assistance from without. Aroused
now to his danger--reading the signs of the broken cord and hampered
lock only too well--he desisted from his vain attempts and turned
desperately toward the window. Though it might be impossible to hold up
the sash and crawl under it at the same time, his only hope of exit lay
there, as well as his only means of surviving the inroad of smoke which
was fast becoming unendurable. He would break the sash and seek escape
that way. They had doomed him to death, but he could climb roofs like a
cat and feared nothing when once relieved from this smoke. Catching up
the chair, he advanced toward the window.

But before reaching it he paused. It was not only he they sought to
destroy, but the room. There was evidence of crime in the room. In that
moment of keenly aroused intelligence he felt sure of it. What was to be
done? How could he save the room, and, by these means, save himself and
her? A single glance about assured him that he could not save it. The
boards under his feet were hot. Glints of yellow light streaking
through the shutters showed that the lower storey had already burst into
flame. The room must go and with it every clue to the problem which was
agitating him. Meanwhile, his eyeballs were smarting, his head growing
dizzy. No longer sure of his feet, he staggered over to the wall and was
about to make use of its support in his effort to reach the window, when
his eyes fell on the spot from which he had peeled the paper, and he
came to a sudden standstill. A bit of pink was showing under one edge of
the blue.

Dropping the chair which he still held, he fumbled for his knife, found
it, made a dash at that wall, and for a few frenzied moments worked at
the plaster till he had hacked off a piece which he thrust into his
pocket. Then seizing the chair again, he made for the window and threw
it with all his force against the panes. They crashed and the air came
rushing in, reviving him enough for the second attempt. This not only
smashed the pane, but loosened the shutters, and in one instant two
sights burst upon his view--the face of a man in an upper window of the
adjoining barn and the sudden swooping up from below of a column of
deadly smoke which seemed to cut off all hope of his saving himself by
the means he had calculated on. Yet no other way offered. It would be
folly to try the door again. This was the only road, threatening as it
looked, to possible safety for himself and her. He would take it, and if
he succumbed in the effort, it should be with a final thought of her
who was fast becoming an integral part of his own being.

Meanwhile he had mounted to the sill and taken another outward look.
This room, as I have already intimated, was in the rear of an extension
running back from the centre of the main building. It consisted of only
two stories, surmounted by a long, slightly-peaked roof. As the ceilings
were low in this portion of the house, the gutter of this roof was very
near the top of the window. To reach it was not a difficult feat for one
of his strength and agility, and if only the smoke would blow aside--Ah,
it is doing so! A sudden change of wind had come to his rescue, and for
the moment the way is clear for him to work himself out and up on to the
ledge above. But once there, horror makes him weak again. A window, high
up in the main building overlooking the extension, had come in sight,
and in it sways a frantic woman ready to throw herself out. She screamed
as he measured with his eye the height of that window from the sloping
roof and thence to the ground, and he recognised the voice. It was the
same he had heard before, but it was not _hers_. She would not be up so
high, besides the shape and attitude, shown fitfully by the light of the
now leaping flames, were those of a heavier, and less-refined woman. It
was one of the maids--it was _the_ maid Huldah, the one from whom he had
hoped to win some light on this affair. Was she locked in, too? Her
frenzy and mad looking behind and below her seemed to argue that she
was. What deviltry! and, ah! what a confession of guilt on the part of
the vile man who had planned this abominable end for the two persons
whose evidence he dreaded. Helpless with horror, he became a man again
in his indignation. Such villainy should not succeed. He would fight not
only for his own life, but for this woman's. Miss Demarest was doubtless
safe. Yet he wished he were sure of it; he could work with so much
better heart. Her window was not visible from where he crouched. It was
on the other side of the house. If she screamed, he would not be able to
hear her. He must trust her to Providence. But his dream! his dream! The
power of it was still upon him; a forerunner of fate, a picture possibly
of her doom. The hesitation which this awful thought caused him warned
him that not in this way could he make himself effective. The woman he
saw stood in need of his help, and to her he must make his way. The
bustle which now took place in the yards beneath, the sudden shouts and
the hurried throwing up of windows all over the house showed that the
alarm had now become general. Another moment, and the appalling cry--the
most appalling which leaves human lips--of fire! fire! rang from end to
end of the threatened building. It was followed by women's shrieks and
men's curses and then--by flames.

"She will hear, she will wake now," he thought, with his whole heart
pulling him her way. But he did not desist from his intention to drop
his eyes from the distraught figure entrapped between a locked door and
a fall of thirty feet. He could reach her if he kept his nerve. A slow
but steady hitch along the gutter was bringing him nearer every instant.
Would she see him and take courage? No! her eyes were on the flames
which were so bright now that he could actually see them glassed in her
eyeballs. Would a shout attract her? The air was full of cries as the
yards filled with escaping figures, but he would attempt it at the first
lull--now--while her head was turned his way. Did she hear him? Yes. She
is looking at him.

"Don't jump," he cried. "Tie your sheet to the bedpost. Tie it strong
and fasten the other one to it and throw down the end. I will be here to
catch it. Then you must come down hand over hand."

She threw up her arms, staring down at him in mortal terror; then, as
the whole air grew lurid, nodded and tottered back. With incredible
anxiety he watched for her reappearance. His post was becoming perilous.
The fire had not yet reached the roof, but it was rapidly undermining
its supports, and the heat was unendurable. Would he have to jump to the
ground in his own despite? Was it his duty to wait for this girl,
possibly already overcome by her fears and lying insensible? Yes; so
long as he could hold out against the heat, it was his duty, but--Ah!
what was that? Some one was shouting to him. He had been seen at last,
and men, half-clad but eager, were rushing up the yard with a ladder.
He could see their faces. How they glared in the red light. Help and
determination were there, and perhaps when she saw the promise of this
support, it would give nerve to her fingers and----

But it was not to be. As he watched their eager approach, he saw them
stop, look back, swerve and rush around the corner of the house. Some
one had directed them elsewhere. He could see the pointing hand, the
baleful face. Quimby had realised his own danger in this prospect of
Hammersmith's escape, and had intervened to prevent it. It was a
murderer's natural impulse, and did not surprise him, but it added
another element of danger to his position, and if this woman delayed
much longer--but she is coming; a blanket is thrown out, then a dangling
end of cloth appears above the sill. It descends. Another moment he has
crawled up the roof to the ridge and grasped it.

"Slowly now!" he shouts. "Take time and hold on tight. I will guide
you." He feels the frail support stiffen. She has drawn it into her
hands; now she is on the sill, and is working herself off. He clutched
his end firmly, steadying himself as best he might by bestriding the
ridge of the roof. The strain becomes greater, he feels her weight, she
is slipping down, down. Her hands strike a knot; the jerk almost throws
him off his balance. He utters a word of caution, lost in the growing
roar of the flames whose hungry tongues have begun to leap above the
gutter. She looks down, sees the approaching peril, and hastens her
descent. He is all astrain, with heart and hand nerved for the awful
possibilities of the coming moments when--ping! Something goes whistling
by his ear, which for the instant sets his hair bristling on his head,
and almost paralyses every muscle. A bullet! The flame is not
threatening enough! Some one is shooting at him from the dark.


IV

Well! death which comes one way cannot come another, and a bullet is
more merciful than flame. The thought steadies Hammersmith; besides he
has nothing to do with what is taking place behind his back. His duty is
here, to guide and support this rapidly-descending figure now almost
within his reach. And he fulfils this duty, though that deadly "ping" is
followed by another, and his starting eyes behold the hole made by the
missile in the clap-board just before him.

She is down. They stand toppling together on the slippery ridge with no
support but the rapidly heating wall down which she had come. He looks
one way, then another. Ten feet either way to the gutter! On one side
leap the flames; beneath the other crouches their secret enemy. They
cannot meet the first and live; needs must they face the latter. Bullets
do not always strike the mark, as witness the two they had escaped.
Besides, there are friends as well as enemies in the yard on this side.
He can hear their encouraging cries. He will toss down the blanket;
perhaps there will be hands to hold it and so break her fall, if not
his.

With a courage which drew strength from her weakness, he carried out
this plan and saw her land in safety amid half a dozen upstretched arms.
Then he prepared to follow her, but felt his courage fail and his
strength ooze without knowing the cause. Had a bullet struck him? He did
not feel it. He was conscious of the heat, but of no other suffering;
yet his limbs lacked life, and it no longer seemed possible for him to
twist himself about so as to fall easily from the gutter.

"Come on! Come on!" rose in yells from below, but there was no movement
in him.

"We can't wait. The wall will fall," rose affrightedly from below. But
he simply clung and the doom of flame and collapsing timbers was rushing
mercilessly upon him when, in the glare which lit up the whole dreadful
scenery, there rose before his fainting eyes the sight of Miss
Demarest's face turned his way from the crowd below, with all the terror
of a woman's bleeding heart behind it. The joy which this recognition
brought cleared his brain and gave him strength to struggle with his
lethargy. Raising himself on one elbow, he slid his feet over the
gutter, and with a frantic catch at its frail support, hung for one
instant suspended, then dropped softly into the blanket which a dozen
eager hands held out for him.

As he did so, a single gasping cry went up from the hushed throng. He
knew the voice. His rescue had relieved one heart. His own beat
tumultuously and the blood throbbed in his veins as he realised this.

The next thing he remembered was standing far from the collapsing
building, with a dozen men and boys grouped about him. A woman at his
feet was clasping his knees in thankfulness, another sinking in a faint
at the edge of the shadow, but he saw neither, for the blood was
streaming over his eyes from a wound not yet accounted for, and as he
felt the burning flow, he realised a fresh duty.

"Where is Quimby?" he demanded loudly. "He made this hole in my
forehead. He's a murderer and a thief, and I order you all in the name
of the law to assist me in arresting him."

With the confused cry of many voices, the circle widened. Brushing the
blood from his brow, he caught at the nearest man, and with one glance
toward the tottering building, pointed to the wall where he and the girl
Huldah had clung.

"Look!" he shouted, "do you see that black spot? Wait till the smoke
blows aside. There! now! the spot just below the dangling sheet. It's a
bullet-hole. It was made while I crouched there. Quimby held the gun. He
had his reasons for hindering our escape. The girl can tell you----"

"Yes, yes," rose up from the ground at his feet. "Quimby is a wicked
man. He knew that I knew it and he locked my door when he saw the
flames coming. I'm willing to tell now. I was afraid before."

They stared at her with all the wonder of uncomprehending minds as she
rose with a resolute air to confront them; but as the full meaning of
her words penetrated their benumbed brains, slowly, man by man, they
crept away to peer about in the barns, and among the clustering shadows
for the man who had been thus denounced. Hammersmith followed them, and
for a few minutes nothing but chase was in any man's mind. That part of
the building in which lay hidden the room of shadows shook, tottered,
and fell, loading the heavens with sparks and lighting up the pursuit
now become as wild and reckless as the scene itself. To Miss Demarest's
eyes, just struggling back to sight and hearing from the nethermost
depths of unconsciousness, it looked like the swirling flight of spirits
lost in the vortex of hell. For one wild moment she thought that she
herself had passed the gates of life and was one of those unhappy souls
whirling over a gulf of flame. The next moment she realised her mistake.
A kindly voice was in her ear, a kindly hand was pressing a half-burned
blanket about her.

"Don't stare so," the voice said. "It is only people routing out Quimby.
They say he set fire to the tavern himself, to hide his crime and do
away with the one man who knew about it. I know that he locked me in
because I--Oh, see! they've got him! they've got him! and with a gun in
his hand!"

The friendly hand fell; both women started upright panting with terror
and excitement. Then one of them drew back, crying in a tone of sudden
anguish, "Why, no! It's Jake, Jake!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Daybreak! and with it Doctor Golden, who at the first alarm had ridden
out post-haste without waiting to collect his jury. As he stepped to the
ground before the hollow shell and smoking pile which were all that
remained to mark the scene of yesterday's events, he looked about among
the half-clad, shivering men and women peering from the barns and
stables where they had taken refuge, till his eyes rested on Hammersmith
standing like a sentinel before one of the doors.

"What's this? what's this?" he cried, as the other quickly approached.
"Fire, with a man like you in the house?"

"Fire because I was in the house. They evidently felt obliged to get rid
of me somehow. It's been a night of great experiences for me. When they
found I was not likely to perish in the flames they resorted to
shooting. I believe that my forehead shows where one bullet passed.
Jake's aim might be improved. Not that I am anxious for it."

"Jake? Do you mean the clerk? Did he fire at you?"

"Yes, while I was on the roof engaged in rescuing one of the women."

"The miserable cur! You arrested him, of course, as soon as you could
lay your hands on him?"

"Yes. He's back of me in this outhouse."

"And Quimby? What about Quimby?"

"He's missing."

"And Mrs. Quimby?"

"Missing, too. They are the only persons unaccounted for."

"Lost in the fire?"

"We don't think so. He was the incendiary and she, undoubtedly, his
accomplice. They would certainly look out for themselves. Doctor Golden,
it was not for insurance money they fired the place; it was to cover up
a crime."

The coroner, more or less prepared for this statement by what
Hammersmith had already told him, showed but little additional
excitement as he dubiously remarked:

"So you still hold to that idea."

Hammersmith glanced about him and, catching more than one curious eye
turned their way from the crowd now rapidly collecting in all
directions, drew the coroner aside and in a few graphic words related
the night's occurrences and the conclusions these had forced upon him.
Doctor Golden listened and seemed impressed at last, especially by one
point.

"You saw Quimby," he repeated; "saw his face distinctly looking toward
your room from one of the stable windows?"

"I can swear to it. I even caught his expression. It was malignant in
the extreme, quite unlike that he usually turns upon his guests."

"Which window was it?"

Hammersmith pointed it out.

"You have been there? Searched the room and the stable?"

"Thoroughly, just as soon as it was light enough to see."

"And found----"

"Nothing; not even a clue."

"The man is lying dead in that heap. She, too, perhaps. We'll have to
put the screws on Jake. A conspiracy like this must be unearthed. Show
me the rascal."

"He's in a most careless mood. _He_ doesn't think his master and
mistress perished in the fire."

"Careless, eh? Well, we'll see. I know that sort."

But when a few minutes later he came to confront the clerk he saw that
his task was not likely to prove quite so easy as his former experience
had led him to expect. Save for a slight nervous trembling of limb and
shoulder--surely not unnatural after such a night--Jake bore himself
with very much the same indifferent ease he had shown the day before.

Doctor Golden surveyed him with becoming sternness.

"At what time did this fire start?" he asked.

Jake had a harsh voice, but he mellowed it wonderfully as he replied:

"Somewhere about one. I don't carry a watch, so I don't know the exact
time."

"The exact time isn't necessary. Near one answers well enough. How came
you to be completely dressed at near one in a country tavern like this?"

"I was on watch. There was death in the house."

"Then you were in the house?"

"Yes." His tongue faltered, but not his gaze; that was as direct as
ever. "I was in the house, but not at the moment the fire started. I had
gone to the stable to get a newspaper. My room is in the stable, the
little one high in the cock-loft. I did not find the paper at once and
when I did I stopped to read a few lines. I'm a slow reader, and by the
time I was ready to cross back to the house, smoke was pouring out of
the rear windows, and I stopped short, horrified! I'm mortally afraid of
fire."

"You have shown it. I have not heard that you raised the least alarm."

"I'm afraid you're right. I lost my head like a fool. You see, I've
never lived anywhere else for the last ten years, and to see my home on
fire was more than I could stand. You wouldn't think me so weak to look
at these muscles."

Baring his arm, he stared down at it with a forlorn shake of his head.
The coroner glanced at Hammersmith. What sort of fellow was this! A
giant with the air of a child, a rascal with the smile of a humourist.
Delicate business, this; or were they both deceived and the man just a
good-humoured silly?

Hammersmith answered the appeal by a nod toward an inner door. The
coroner understood and turned back to Jake with the seemingly irrelevant
inquiry:

"Where did you leave Mr. Quimby when you went to the cock-loft?"

"In the house?"

"Asleep?"

"No, he was making up his accounts."

"In the office?"

"Yes."

"And that was where you left him?"

"Yes, it was."

"Then, how came he to be looking out of your window just before the fire
broke out?"

"He?" Jake's jaw fell and his enormous shoulders drooped; but only for a
moment. With something between a hitch and a shrug, he drew himself
upright and with some slight display of temper cried out, "Who says he
was there?"

The coroner answered him. "The man behind you. He saw him."

Jake's hand closed in a nervous grip. Had the trigger been against his
finger at that moment it would doubtless have been snapped with some
satisfaction, so the barrel had been pointing at Hammersmith.

"Saw him distinctly," the coroner repeated. "Mr. Quimby's face is not to
be mistaken."

"If he saw him," retorted Jake, with unexpected cunning, "then the
flames had got a start. One don't see in the dark. They hadn't got much
of a start when I left. So he must have gone up to my room after I came
down."

"It was before the alarm was given; before Mr. Hammersmith here had
crawled out of his room window."

"I can't help that, sir. It was after I left the stable. You can't mix
me up with Quimby's doings."

"Can't we? Jake, you're no lawyer and you don't know how to manage a
lie. Make a clean breast of it. It may help you and it won't hurt
Quimby. Begin with the old lady's coming. What turned Quimby against
her? What's the plot?"

"I don't know of any plot. What Quimby told you is true. You needn't
expect me to contradict it!"

A leaden doggedness had taken the place of his whilom good nature.
Nothing is more difficult to contend with. Nothing is more dreaded by
the inquisitor. Hammersmith realised the difficulties of the situation
and repeated the gesture he had previously made toward the door leading
into an adjoining compartment. The coroner nodded as before and changed
the tone of his inquiry.

"Jake," he declared, "you are in a more serious position than you
realise. You may be devoted to Quimby, but there are others who are not.
A night such as you have been through quickens the conscience of women
if it does not that of men. One has been near death. The story of such a
woman is apt to be truthful. Do you want to hear it? I have no
objections to your doing so."

"What story? I don't know of any story. Women have easy tongues; they
talk even when they have nothing to say."

"This woman has something to say, or why should she have asked to be
confronted with you? Have her in, Mr. Hammersmith. I imagine that a
sight of this man will make her voluble."

A sneer from Jake; but when Hammersmith, crossing to the door I've just
mentioned, opened it and let in Huldah, this token of bravado gave way
to a very different expression and he exclaimed half ironically, half
caressingly:

"Why, she's my sweetheart! What can she have to say except that she was
mighty fortunate not to have been burned up in the fire last night?"

Doctor Golden and the detective crossed looks in some anxiety. They had
not been told of this relation between the two, either by the girl
herself or by the others. Gifted with a mighty close mouth, she had
nevertheless confided to Hammersmith that she could tell things and
would, if he brought her face to face with the man who tried to shoot
him while he was helping her down from the roof. Would her indignation
hold out under the insinuating smile with which the artful rascal
awaited her words? It gave every evidence of doing so, for her eye
flashed threateningly and her whole body showed the tension of extreme
feeling as she came hastily forward, and pausing just beyond the reach
of his arm, cried out:

"You had a hand in locking me in. You're tired of me. If you're not, why
did you fire those bullets my way? I was escaping and----"

Jake thrust in a quick word. "That was Quimby's move--locking your door.
He had some game up. I don't know what it was. I had nothing to do with
it."

This denial seemed to influence her. She looked at him and her breast
heaved. He was good to look at; he must have been more than that to one
of her restricted experience. Hammersmith trembled for the success of
their venture. Would this blond young giant's sturdy figure and
provoking smile prevail against the good sense which must tell her that
he was criminal to the core, and that neither his principle nor his love
were to be depended on? No, not yet. With a deepening flush, she flashed
out:

"You hadn't? You didn't want me dead? Why, then, those bullets? You
might have killed me as well as Mr. Hammersmith when you fired!"

"Huldah!" Astonishment and reproach in the tone and something more than
either in the look which accompanied it. Both were very artful and
betrayed resources not to be expected from one of his ordinarily
careless and good-humoured aspect. "You haven't heard what I've said
about that?"

"What could you say?"

"Why, the truth, Huldah. I saw you on the roof. The fire was near. I
thought that neither you nor the man helping you could escape. A death
of that kind is horrible. I loved you too well to see you suffer. My gun
was behind the barn door. I got it and fired out of mercy."

She gasped. So, in a way, did the two officials. The plea was so
specious, and its likely effect upon her so evident.

"Jake, can I believe you?" she murmured.

For answer, he fumbled in his pocket and drew out a small object which
he held up before her between his fat forefinger and thumb. It was a
ring, a thin, plain hoop of gold worth possibly a couple of dollars, but
which in her eyes seemed to possess an incalculable value, for she had
no sooner seen it than her whole face flushed and a look of positive
delight supplanted the passionately aggrieved one with which she had
hitherto faced him.

"You had bought _that_?"

He smiled and returned it to his pocket.

"For you," he simply said.

The joy and pride with which she regarded him, despite the protesting
murmur of the discomfited Hammersmith, proved that the wily Jake had
been too much for them.

"You see!" This to Hammersmith, "Jake didn't mean any harm, only
kindness to us both. If you will let him go, I'll be more thankful than
when you helped me down off the roof. We're wanting to be married.
Didn't you see him show me the ring?"

It was for the coroner to answer.

"We'll let him go when we're assured that he means all that he says. I
haven't as good an opinion of him as you have. I think he's deceiving
you and that you are a very foolish girl to trust him. Men don't fire on
the women they love, for any reason. You'd better tell me what you have
against him."

"I haven't anything against him _now_."

"But you were going to tell us something----"

"I guess I was fooling."

"People are not apt to fool who have just been in terror of their
lives."

Her eyes sought the ground. "I'm just a hardworking girl," she muttered
almost sullenly. "What should I know about that man Quimby's dreadful
doings?"

"Dreadful? You call them dreadful?" It was Doctor Golden who spoke.

"He locked me in my room," she violently declared. "That wasn't done for
fun."

"And is that all you can tell us? Don't look at Jake. Look at me."

"But I don't know what to say. I don't even know what you want."

"I'll tell you. Your work in the house has been upstairs work, hasn't
it?"

"Yes, sir. I did up the rooms--some of them," she added cautiously.

"What rooms? Front rooms, rear rooms, or both?"

"Rooms in front; those on the third floor."

"But you sometimes went into the extension?"

"I've been down the hall."

"Haven't you been in any of the rooms there,--Number 3, for instance?"

"No, sir; my work didn't take me there."

"But you've heard of the room?"

"Yes, sir. The girls sometimes spoke of it. It had a bad name, and
wasn't often used. No girl liked to go there. A man was found dead in it
once. They said he killed his own self."

"Have you ever heard any one describe this room?"

"No, sir."

"Tell what paper was on the wall?"

"No, sir."

"Perhaps Jake here can help us. He's been in the room often."

"The paper was blue; you know that; you saw it yourselves yesterday,"
blurted forth the man thus appealed to.

"Always blue? Never any other colour that you remember?"

"No; but I've been in the house only ten years."

"Oh, is that all! And do you mean to say that this room has not been
redecorated in ten years?"

"How can I tell? I can't remember every time a room is repapered."

"You ought to remember this one."

"Why?"

"Because of a very curious circumstance connected with it."

"I don't know of any circumstance."

"You heard what Miss Demarest had to say about a room whose walls were
covered with muddy pink scrolls."

"Oh, she!" His shrug was very expressive. Huldah continued to look down.

"Miss Demarest seemed to know what she was talking about," pursued the
coroner in direct contradiction of the tone he had taken the day before.
"Her description was quite vivid. It would be strange now if those walls
had once been covered with just such paper as she described."

An ironic stare, followed by an incredulous smile from Jake; dead
silence and immobility on the part of Huldah.

"Was it?" shot from Doctor Golden's lips with all the vehemence of
conscious authority.

There was an instant's pause, during which Huldah's breast ceased its
regular rise and fall; then the clerk laughed sharply and cried with the
apparent lightness of a happy-go-lucky temperament:

"I should like to know if it was. I'd think it a very curious
quin--quin----What's the word? quincedence, or something like that."

"The deepest fellow I know," grumbled the baffled coroner into
Hammersmith's ear, as the latter stepped his way, "or just the most
simple." Then added aloud: "Lift up my coat there, please."

Hammersmith did so. The garment mentioned lay across a small table which
formed the sole furnishing of the place, and when Hammersmith raised it,
there appeared lying underneath several small pieces of plaster which
Doctor Golden immediately pointed out to Jake.

"Do you see these bits from a papered wall?" he asked. "They were torn
from that of Number 3, between the breaking out of the fire and Mr.
Hammersmith's escape from the room. Come closer; you may look at them,
but keep your fingers off. You see that the coincidence you mentioned
holds."

Jake laughed again loudly, in a way he probably meant to express
derision; then he stood silent, gazing curiously down at the pieces
before him. The blue paper peeling away from the pink made it impossible
for him to deny that just such paper as Miss Demarest described had been
on the wall prior to the one they had all seen and remembered.[A]

[Footnote A: Hammersmith's first attempt to settle this fact must have
failed from his having chosen a spot for his experiment where the old
paper had been stripped away before the new was put on.]

"Well, I vum!" Jake finally broke out, turning and looking from one face
to another with a very obvious attempt to carry off the matter jovially.
"She must have a great eye; a--a--(another hard word! What is it now?)
Well! no matter. One of the kind what sees through the outside of things
to what's underneath. I always thought her queer, but not so queer as
that. I'd like to have that sort of power myself. Wouldn't you, Huldah?"

The girl, whose eye, as Hammersmith was careful to note, had hardly
dwelt for an instant on these bits, not so long by any means as a
woman's natural curiosity would seem to prompt, started as attention was
thus drawn to herself and attempted a sickly smile.

But the coroner had small appreciation for this attempted display of
humour, and motioning to Hammersmith to take her away, he subjected the
clerk to a second examination which, though much more searching and
rigorous than the first, resulted in the single discovery that for all
his specious love-making he cared no more for the girl than for one of
his old hats. This the coroner confided to Hammersmith when he came in
looking disconsolate at his own failure to elicit anything further from
the resolute Huldah.

"But you can't make her believe that now," whispered Hammersmith.

"Then we must trick him into showing her his real feelings."

"How would you set to work? He's warned, she's warned, and life if not
love is at stake."

"It don't look very promising," muttered Doctor Golden, "but----"

He was interrupted by a sudden sound of hubbub without.

"It's Quimby, Quimby!" declared Hammersmith in his sudden excitement.

But again he was mistaken. It was not the landlord, but his wife,
wild-eyed, dishevelled, with bits of straw in her hair from some
sheltering hayrick and in her hand a heavy gold chain which, as the
morning sun shone across it, showed sparkles of liquid clearness at
short intervals along its whole length.

Diamonds! Miss Thistlewaite's diamonds, and the woman who held them was
gibbering like an idiot!

The effect on Jake was remarkable. Uttering a piteous cry, he bounded
from their hands and fell at the woman's feet.

"Mother Quimby!" he moaned. "Mother Quimby!" and sought to kiss her hand
and wake some intelligence in her eye.

Meanwhile the coroner and Hammersmith looked on, astonished at these
evidences of real feeling. Then their eyes stole behind them, and
simultaneously both started back for the outhouse they had just left.
Huldah was standing in the doorway, surveying the group before her with
trembling, half-parted lips.

"Jealous!" muttered Hammersmith. "Providence has done our little trick
for us. She will talk now. Look! She's beckoning to us."


V

"Speak quickly. You'll never regret it, Huldah. He's no mate for you,
and you ought to know it. You have seen this paper covered with the pink
scrolls before?"

The coroner had again drawn aside his coat from the bits of plaster.

"Yes," she gasped, with quick glances at her lover through the open
doorway. "He never shed tears for me!" she exclaimed bitterly. "I didn't
know he could for anybody. Oh, I'll tell what I've kept quiet here," and
she struck her breast violently. "I wouldn't keep the truth back now if
the minister was waiting to marry us. He loves that old woman and he
doesn't love me. Hear him call her 'mother.' Are mothers dearer than
sweethearts? Oh, I'll tell! I don't know anything about the old lady,
but I do know that room 3 was repapered the night before last, and
secretly, by him. I didn't see him do it, nobody did, but this is how I
know: Some weeks ago I was hunting for something in the attic, when I
stumbled upon some rolls of old wall-paper lying in a little cubby-hole
under the eaves. The end of one of the rolls was torn and lay across the
floor. I couldn't help seeing it or remembering its colour. It was like
this, blue and striped. Exactly like it," she repeated, "just as shabby
and old-looking. The rain had poured in on it, and it was all mouldy and
stained. It smelt musty. I didn't give two thoughts to it then, but when
after the old lady's death I heard one of the girls say something in
the kitchen about a room being blue now which only a little while ago
was pink, I stole up into the attic to see if those rolls were still
there and found them every one gone. Oh, what is happening now?"

"One of the men is trying to take the diamonds from the woman and she
won't let him. Her wits are evidently gone--frightened away by the
horrors of the night--or she wouldn't try to cling to what has branded
her at once as a thief."

The word seemed to pierce the girl. She stared out at her former
mistress, who was again being soothed by the clerk, and murmured
hoarsely:

"A thief! and he don't seem to mind, but is just as good to her! Oh, oh,
I once served a term myself for--for a smaller thing than that and I
thought that was why----Oh, sir, oh, sir, there's no mistake about the
paper. For I went looking about in the barrels and where they throw the
refuse, for bits to prove that this papering had been done in the night.
It seemed so wonderful to me that any one, even Jake, who is the
smartest man you ever saw, could do such a job as that and no one know.
And though I found nothing in the barrels, I did in the laundry stove.
It was full of burned paper, and some of it showed colour, and it was
just that musty old blue I had seen in the attic."

She paused with a terrified gasp; Jake was looking at her from the open
door.

"Oh, Jake!" she wailed out, "why weren't you true to me? Why did you
pretend to love me when you didn't?"

He gave her a look, then turned on his heel. He was very much subdued in
aspect and did not think to brush away the tear still glistening on his
cheek.

"I've said my last word to _you_," he quietly declared, then stood
silent a moment, with slowly labouring chest and an air of deepest
gloom. But, as his eye stole outside again, they saw the spirit melt
within him and simple human grief take the place of icy resolution. "She
was like a mother to me," he murmured. "And now they say she'll never be
herself again as long as she lives." Suddenly his head rose and he faced
the coroner.

"You're right," said he. "It's all up with me. No home, no sweetheart,
no missus. _She_ [there was no doubt as to whom he meant by that
tremulous _she_] was the only one I've ever cared for and she's just
shown herself a thief. I'm no better. This is our story."

I will not give it in his words, but in my own. It will be shorter and
possibly more intelligible.

The gang, if you may call it so, consisted of Quimby and these two, with
a servant or so in addition. Robbery was its aim; a discreet and none
too frequent spoliation of such of their patrons as lent themselves to
their schemes. Quimby was the head, his wife the soul of this business,
and Jake their devoted tool. The undermining of the latter's character
had been begun early; a very dangerous undermining, because it had for
one of its elements good humour and affectionate suggestion. At
fourteen he was ready for any crime, but he was mercifully kept out of
the worst till he was a full-grown man. Then he did his part. The affair
of the old woman was an unpremeditated one. It happened in this wise:
Miss Demarest's story had been true in every particular. Her mother
_was_ with her when she came to the house, and he, Jake, was the person
sitting far back in the shadows at the time the young lady registered.
There was nothing peculiar in the occurrence or in their behaviour
except the decided demand which Miss Demarest made for separate rooms.
This attracted his attention, for the house was pretty full and only one
room was available in the portion reserved for transients. What would
Quimby do? He couldn't send two women away, and he was entirely too
conciliatory and smooth to refuse a request made so peremptorily. Quimby
did nothing. He hemmed, hawed, and looked about for his wife. She was in
the inner office back of him, and, attracted by his uneasy movements,
showed herself. A whispered consultation followed, during which she cast
a glance Jake's way. He understood her instantly and lounged carelessly
forward. "Let them have Number 3," he said. "It's all fixed for the
night. I can sleep anywhere, on the settle here or even on the floor of
the inner office."

He had whispered these words, for the offer meant more than appeared.
Number 3 was never given to guests. It was little more than a closet
and was not even furnished. A cot had been put in that very afternoon,
but only to meet a special emergency. A long-impending conference was
going to be held between him and his employers subsequent to closing up
time, and he had planned this impromptu refuge to save himself a late
walk to the stable. At his offer to pass the same over to the Demarests,
the difficulty of the moment vanished. Miss Demarest was shown to the
one empty room in front, and the mother--as being the one less likely to
be governed by superstitious fears if it so happened that some rumour of
the undesirability of the haunted Number 3 should have reached them--to
the small closet so hastily prepared for the clerk. Mrs. Quimby
accompanied her, and afterward visited her again for the purpose of
carrying her a bowl and some water. It was then she encountered Miss
Demarest, who, anxious for a second and more affectionate good-night
from her mother, had been wandering the halls in a search for her room.
There was nothing to note in this simple occurrence, and Mrs. Quimby
might have forgotten all about it if Miss Demarest had not made a
certain remark on leaving the room. The bareness and inhospitable aspect
of the place may have struck her, for she stopped in the doorway and,
looking back, exclaimed: "What ugly paper! Magenta, too, the one colour
my mother hates." This Mrs. Quimby remembered, for she also hated
magenta, and never went into this room if she could help it.

The business which kept them all up that night was one totally
disconnected with the Demarests or any one else in the house. A large
outstanding obligation was coming due which Quimby lacked the money to
meet. Something must be done with the stolen notes and jewelry which
they had accumulated in times past and had never found the will or
courage to dispose of. A choice must be made of what was salable. But
what choice? It was a question that opened the door to endless
controversy and possibly to a great difference of opinion; for in his
way Quimby was a miser of the worst type and cared less for what money
would do than for the sight and feeling of the money itself, while Mrs.
Quimby was even more tenacious in her passion for the trinkets and gems
which she looked upon as her part of the booty. Jake, on the contrary,
cared little for anything but the good of the couple to whom he had
attached himself. He wished Quimby to be satisfied, but not at Mrs.
Quimby's expense. He was really fond of the woman and he was resolved
that she should have no cause to grieve, even if he had to break with
the old man. Little did any of them foresee what the night really held
for them, or on what a jagged and unsuspected rock their frail bark was
about to split.

Shutting-up time came, and with it the usual midnight quiet. All the
doors had been locked and the curtains drawn over the windows and across
the glass doors of the office. They were determined to do what they had
never done before, lay out the loot and make a division. Quimby was
resolved to see the diamonds which his wife had kept hidden for so
long, and she, the securities, concerning the value of which he had
contradicted himself so often. Jake's presence would keep the peace;
they had no reason to fear any undue urging of his claims. All this he
knew, and he was not therefore surprised, only greatly excited, when,
after a last quiet look and some listening at the foot of the stairs,
Mr. Quimby beckoned him into the office and, telling him to lock the
door behind him, stepped around the bar to summon his wife. Jake never
knew how it happened. He flung the door to and locked it, as he thought,
but he must have turned the key too quickly, for the bolt of the lock
did not enter the jamb, as they afterward found. Meanwhile they felt
perfectly secure. The jewels were brought out of Mrs. Quimby's bedroom
and laid on the desk. The securities were soon laid beside them. They
had been concealed behind a movable brick at the side of the fireplace.
Then the discussion began, involving more or less heat and excitement.

How long this lasted no one ever knew. At half-past eleven no change of
attitude had taken place either in Quimby or his wife. At twelve the
only difference marked by Jake was the removal of the securities to
Quimby's breast pocket, and of the diamond-studded chain to Mrs.
Quimby's neck. The former were too large for the pocket, the latter too
brilliant for the dark calico background they blazed against. Jake, who
was no fool, noted both facts, but had no words for the situation. He
was absorbed, and he saw that Quimby was absorbed, in watching her
broad hand creeping over those diamonds and huddling them up in a
burning heap against her heart. There was fear in the action, fierce and
overmastering fear, and so there was in her eyes which, fixed and
glassy, stared over their shoulders at the wall behind, as though
something had reached out from that wall and struck at the very root of
her being. What did it mean? There was nothing in the room to affright
her. Had she gone daft? Or----

Suddenly they both felt the blood congeal in their own veins; each
turned to each a horrified face, then slowly and as if drawn by a power
supernatural and quite outside of their own will, their two heads turned
in the direction she was looking, and they beheld standing in their
midst a spectre--no, it was the figure of a living, breathing woman,
with eyes fastened on those jewels,--those well-known, much-advertised
jewels! So much they saw in that instant flash, then nothing! For
Quimby, in a frenzy of unreasoning fear, had taken the chair from under
him and had swung it at the figure. A lamp had stood on the bar top. It
was caught by the backward swing of the chair, overturned and quenched.
The splintering of glass mingled its small sound with an ominous thud in
the thick darkness. It was the end of all things; the falling of an
impenetrable curtain over a horror half sensed, yet all the greater for
its mystery.

The silence--the terror--the unspeakable sense of doom which gripped
them all was not broken by a heart-beat. All listened for a stir, a
movement where they could see nothing. But the stillness remained
unbroken. The silence was absolute. The figure which they had believed
themselves to have seen had been a dream, an imagination of their
overwrought minds. It could not be otherwise. The door had been locked,
entrance was impossible; yet doubt held them powerless. The moments were
making years of themselves. To each came in a flash a review of every
earthly incident they had experienced, every wicked deed, every unholy
aspiration. Quimby gritted his teeth. It was the first sound which had
followed that thud and, slight as it was, it released them somewhat from
their awful tension. Jake felt that he could move now, and was about to
let forth his imprisoned breath when he felt the touch of icy fingers
trailing over his cheek, and started back with a curse. It was Mrs.
Quimby feeling about for him in the impenetrable darkness, and in
another moment he could hear her smothered whisper:

"Are you there, Jake?"

"Yes; where are you?"

"Here," said the woman, with an effort to keep her teeth from striking
together.

"For God's sake, a light!" came from the hollow darkness beyond.

It was Quimby's voice at last. Jake answered:

"No light for me. I'll stay where I am till daybreak."

"Get a light, you fool!" commanded Quimby, but not without a tremble in
his usually mild tone.

Hard breathing from Jake, but no other response, Quimby seemed to take a
step nearer, for his voice was almost at their ears now.

"Jake, you can have anything I've got so as you get a light now."

"There ain't nothing to light here. You broke the lamp."

Quiet for a moment, then Quimby muttered hoarsely:

"If you ain't scared out of your seven senses, you can go down cellar
and bring up that bit of candle 'longside the ale-barrels."

Into the cellar! Not Jake. The moving of the rickety table which his fat
hand had found and rested on spoke for him.

Another curse from Quimby. Then the woman, though with some hesitation,
said with more self-control than could be expected:

"I'll get it," and they heard her move away from _it_ toward the
trap-door behind the bar.

The two men made no objection. To her that cold, black cellar might seem
a refuge from the unseen horror centred here. It had not struck them so.
It had its own possibilities, and Jake wondered at her courage, as he
caught the sound of her groping advance and the sudden clatter and clink
of bottles as the door came up and struck the edge of the bar. There was
life and a suggestion of home in that clatter and clink, and all
breathed easier for a moment, but only for a moment. The something
lying there behind them, or was it almost under their feet, soon got its
hold again upon their fears, and Jake found himself standing
stock-still, listening both ways for that dreaded, or would it be
welcome, movement on the floor behind, and to the dragging sound of Mrs.
Quimby's skirt and petticoat as she made her first step down those
cellar-stairs. What an endless time it took! He could rush down there in
a minute, but she--she could not have reached the third step yet, for
that always creaked. Now it did creak. Then there was no sound for some
time, unless it was the panting of Quimby's breath somewhere over by the
bar. Then the stair creaked again. She must be nearly up.

"Here's matches and the candle," came in a hollow voice from the
trap-stairs.

A faint streak appeared for an instant against the dark, then
disappeared. Another; but no lasting light. The matches were too damp to
burn.

"Jake, ain't you got a match?" appealed the voice of Quimby in
half-choked accents.

After a bit of fumbling a small blaze shot up from where Jake stood. Its
sulphurous smell may have suggested to all, as it did to one, the
immeasurable distance of heaven at that moment, and the awful nearness
of hell. They could see now, but not one of them looked in the direction
where all their thoughts lay. Instead of that, they rolled their eyes on
each other, while the match burned slowly out: Mrs. Quimby from the
trap, her husband from the bar, and Jake. Suddenly he found words, and
his cry rang through the room:

"The candle! the candle! this is my only match. Where is the candle?"

Quimby leaped forward and with shaking hand held the worn bit of candle
to the flame. It failed to ignite. The horrible, dreaded darkness was
about to close upon them again before--before----But another hand had
seized the candle. Mrs. Quimby has come forward, and as the match sends
up its last flicker, thrusts the wick against the flame and the candle
flares up. It is lighted.

Over it they give each other one final appealing stare. There's no help
for it now; they must look. Jake's head turned first, then Mrs. Quimby,
and then that of the real aggressor.

A simultaneous gasp from them all betrays the worst. It had been no
phantom called into being by their overtaxed nerves. A woman lay before
them, face downward on the hard floor. A woman dressed in black, with
hat on head and a little satchel clutched in one stiff, outstretched
hand. Miss Demarest's mother! The little old lady who had come into the
place four hours before!

With a muttered execration, Jake stepped over to her side and
endeavoured to raise her; but he instantly desisted, and looking up at
Quimby and his wife, moved his lips with the one fatal word which ends
all hope:

"Dead!"

They listened appalled, "Dead?" echoed the now terrified Quimby.

"Dead?" repeated his no less agitated wife.

Jake was the least overcome of the three. With another glance at the
motionless figure, he rose, and walking around the body, crossed to the
door and seeing what he had done to make entrance possible, cursed
himself and locked it properly. Meanwhile, Mrs. Quimby, with her eyes on
her husband, had backed slowly away till she had reached the desk,
against which she now stood with fierce and furious eyes, still
clutching at her chain.

Quimby watched her fascinated. He had never seen her look like this
before. What did it portend? They were soon to know.

"Coward!" fell from her lips, as she stared with unrelenting hate at her
husband. "An old woman who was not even conscious of what she saw! I'll
not stand for this killing, Jacob. You may count me out of this and the
chain, too. If you don't----" a threatening gesture finished the
sentence and the two men looking at her knew that they had come up
against a wall.

"Susan!" Was that Quimby speaking? "Susan, are you going back on me
now?"

She pointed at the motionless figure lying in its shrouding black like
an ineffaceable blot on the office floor, then at the securities showing
above the edge of his pocket.

"Were we not close enough to discovery, without drawing the attention of
the police by such an unnecessary murder? She was walking in her sleep.
I remember her eyes as she advanced toward me; there was no sight in
them."

"You lie!" It was the only word which Quimby found to ease the shock
which this simple statement caused him. But Jake saw from the nature of
the glance he shot at his poor old victim that her words had struck
home. His wife saw it, too, but it did not disturb the set line of her
determined mouth.

"You'll let me keep the chain," she said, "and you'll use your wits, now
that you have used your hand, to save yourself and myself from the
charge of murder."

Quimby, who was a man of great intelligence when his faculties were
undisturbed by anger or shock, knelt and turned his victim carefully
over so that her face was uppermost.

"It was not murder," he uttered in an indescribable tone after a few
minutes of cautious scrutiny. "The old lady fell and struck her
forehead. See! the bruise is scarcely perceptible. Had she been
younger----"

"A sudden death from any cause in this house at just this time is full
of danger for us," coldly broke in his wife.

The landlord rose to his feet, walked away to the window, dropped his
head, thought for a minute, and then slowly came back, glanced at the
woman again, at her dress, her gloved hands, and her little satchel.

"She didn't die in this house," fell from his lips in his most oily
accents. "She fell in the woods; the path is full of bared roots, and
there she must be found to-morrow morning. Jake, are you up to the
little game?"

Jake, who was drawing his first full breath, answered with a calm enough
nod, whereupon Quimby bade his wife to take a look outside and see if
the way was clear for them to carry the body out.

She did not move. He fell into a rage; an unusual thing for him.

"Bestir yourself! do as I bid you," he muttered.

Her eyes held his; her face took on the look he had learned to dread.
Finally she spoke:

"And the daughter! What about the daughter?"

Quimby stood silent; then with a sidelong leer, and in a tone smooth as
oil, but freighted with purpose, "The mother first; we'll look after the
daughter later."

Mrs. Quimby shivered; then as her hand spread itself over the precious
chain sparkling with the sinister gleam of serpent's eyes on her broad
bosom, she grimly muttered:

"How? I'm for no more risks, I tell you."

Jake took a step forward. He thought his master was about to rush upon
her. But he was only gathering up his faculties to meet the new problem
she had flung at him.

"The girl's a mere child; we shall have no difficulty with her," he
muttered broodingly. "Who saw these two come in?"

Then it came out that no one but themselves had been present at their
arrival. Further consultation developed that the use to which Number 3
had been put was known to but one of the maids, who could easily be
silenced. Whereupon Quimby told his scheme. Mrs. Quimby was satisfied,
and he and Jake prepared to carry it out.

The sensations of the next half-hour, as told by Jake, would make your
flesh creep. They did not dare to carry a lamp to light the gruesome
task, and well as they knew the way, the possibilities of a stumble or a
fall against some one of the many trees they had to pass filled them
with constant terror. They did stumble once, and the low cry Jake
uttered caused them new fears. Was that a window they heard flying up?
No; but something moved in the bushes. They were sure of this and
guiltily shook in their shoes; but nothing advanced out of the shadows,
and they went on.

But the worst was when they had to turn their backs upon the body left
lying face downward in the cold, damp woods. Men of no compassion,
unreached by ordinary sympathies, they felt the furtive skulking back,
step by step, along ways commonplace enough in the daytime, but begirt
with terrors now and full of demoniac suggestion.

The sight of a single thread of light marking the door left ajar for
them by Mrs. Quimby was a beacon of hope which was not even disturbed by
the sight of her wild figure walking in a circle round and round the
office, the stump of candle dripping unheeded over her fingers, and her
eyes almost as sightless as those of the form left in the woods.

"Susan!" exclaimed her husband, laying hand on her.

She paused at once. The presence of the two men had restored her
self-possession.

But all was not well yet. Jake drew Quimby's attention to the register
where the two names of mother and daughter could be seen in plain black
and white.

"Oh, that's nothing!" exclaimed the landlord, and, taking out his knife,
he ripped the leaf out, together with the corresponding one in the back.
"The devil's on our side all right, or why did she pass over the space
at the bottom of the page and write their two names at the top of the
next one?"

He started, for his wife had clutched his arm.

"Yes, the devil's on our side thus far," said she, "but here he stops. I
have just remembered something that will upset our whole plan and
possibly hang us. Miss Demarest visited her mother in Number 3 and
noticed the room well, and particularly the paper. Now if she is able to
describe that paper, it might not be so easy for us to have our story
believed."

For a minute all stood aghast, then Jake quietly remarked: "It is now
one by the clock. If you can find me some of that old blue paper I once
chucked under the eaves in the front attic, I will engage to have it on
those four walls before daylight. Bring the raggedest rolls you can
find. If it shouldn't be dry to the touch when they come to see it
to-morrow, it must look so stained and old that no one will think of
laying hand on it. I'll go make the paste."

As Jake was one of the quickest and most precise of workers at anything
he understood, this astonishing offer struck the other two as quite
feasible. The paper was procured, the furniture moved back, and a
transformation made in the room in question which astonished even those
concerned in it. Dawn rose upon the completed work and, the
self-possession of all three having been restored with the burning up of
such scraps as remained after the four walls were covered, they each
went to their several beds for a half-hour of possible rest. Jake's was
in Number 3. He has never said what that half-hour was to him!

The rest we know. The scheme did not fully succeed, owing to the
interest awakened in one man's mind by the beauty and seeming truth of
Miss Demarest. Investigation followed which roused the landlord to the
danger threatening them from the curiosity of Hammersmith, and it being
neck or nothing with him, he planned the deeper crime of burning up room
and occupant before further discoveries could be made. What became of
him in the turmoil which followed, no one could tell, not even Jake.
They had been together in Jake's room before the latter ran out with his
gun, but beyond that the clerk knew nothing. Of Mrs. Quimby he could
tell more. She had not been taken into their confidence regarding the
fire, some small grains of humanity remaining in her which they feared
might upset their scheme. She had only been given some pretext for
locking Huldah in her room, and it was undoubtedly her horror at her own
deed when she saw to what it had committed her which unsettled her brain
and made her a gibbering idiot for life.

Or was it some secret knowledge of her husband's fate, unknown to
others? We cannot tell, for no sign nor word of Jacob Quimby ever came
to dispel the mystery of his disappearance.

And this is the story of Three Forks Tavern and the room numbered 3.



MIDNIGHT IN BEAUCHAMP ROW


It was the last house in Beauchamp Row, and it stood several rods away
from its nearest neighbour. It was a pretty house in the daytime, but
owing to its deep, sloping roof and small bediamonded windows it had a
lonesome look at night, notwithstanding the crimson hall-light which
shone through the leaves of its vine-covered doorway.

Ned Chivers lived in it with his six months' married bride, and as he
was both a busy fellow and a gay one there were many evenings when
pretty Letty Chivers sat alone until near midnight.

She was of an uncomplaining spirit, however, and said little, though
there were times when both the day and evening seemed very long and
married life not altogether the paradise she had expected.

On this evening--a memorable evening for her, the 24th of December,
1911--she had expected her husband to remain with her, for it was not
only Christmas eve, but the night when, as manager of a large
manufacturing concern, he brought up from New York the money with which
to pay off the men on the next working day, and he never left her when
there was any unusual amount of money in the house. But with the first
glimpse she had of his figure coming up the road she saw that for some
reason it was not to be thus to-night, and, indignant, alarmed almost,
at the prospect of a lonesome evening under such circumstances, she ran
hastily down to the gate to meet him, crying:

"Oh, Ned, you look so troubled I know you have only come home for a
hurried supper. But you cannot leave me to-night. Tennie" (their only
maid) "has gone for a holiday, and I never can stay in this house alone
with all that." She pointed to the small bag he carried, which, as she
knew, was filled to bursting with bank notes.

He certainly looked troubled. It is hard to resist the entreaty in a
young bride's uplifted face. But this time he could not help himself,
and he said:

"I am dreadfully sorry, but I must ride over to Fairbanks to-night. Mr.
Pierson has given me an imperative order to conclude a matter of
business there, and it is very important that it should be done. I
should lose my position if I neglected the matter, and no one but
Hasbrouck and Suffern knows that we keep the money in the house. I have
always given out that I intrusted it to Hale's safe over night."

"But I cannot stand it," she persisted. "You have never left me on these
nights. That is why I let Tennie go. I will spend the evening at The
Larches, or, better still, call in Mr. and Mrs. Talcott to keep me
company."

But her husband did not approve of her going out or of her having
company. The Larches was too far away, and as for Mr. and Mrs. Talcott,
they were meddlesome people, whom he had never liked; besides, Mrs.
Talcott was delicate, and the night threatened storm. Let her go to bed
like a good girl, and think nothing about the money, which he would take
care to put away in a very safe place.

"Or," said he, kissing her downcast face, "perhaps you would rather hide
it yourself; women always have curious ideas about such things."

"Yes, let me hide it," she entreated. "The money, I mean, not the bag.
Every one knows the bag. I should never dare to leave it in that." And
begging him to unlock it, she began to empty it with a feverish haste
that rather alarmed him, for he surveyed her anxiously and shook his
head as if he dreaded the effects of this excitement upon her.

But as he saw no way out of the difficulty, he confined himself to using
such soothing words as were at his command, and then, humouring her
weakness, helped her to arrange the bills in the place she had chosen,
and restuffing the bag with old receipts till it acquired its former
dimensions, he put a few bills on top to make the whole look natural,
and, laughing at her white face, relocked the bag and put the key back
in his pocket.

"There, dear; a notable scheme and one that should relieve your mind
entirely!" he cried. "If any one should attempt burglary in my absence
and should succeed in getting into a house as safely locked as this will
be when I leave it, then trust to their being satisfied when they see
this booty, which I shall hide where I always hide it--in the cupboard
over my desk."

"And when will you be back?" she questioned, trembling in spite of
herself at these preparations.

"By one o'clock if possible. Certainly by two."

"And our neighbours go to bed at ten," she murmured. But the words were
low, and she was glad he did not hear them, for if it was his duty to
obey the orders he had received, then it was her duty to meet the
position in which it left her as bravely as she could.

At supper she was so natural that his face rapidly brightened, and it
was with quite an air of cheerfulness that he rose at last to lock up
the house and make such preparations as were necessary for his dismal
ride over the mountains to Fairbanks. She had the supper dishes to wash
up in Tennie's absence, and as she was a busy little housewife she found
herself singing a snatch of song as she passed back and forth from
dining-room to kitchen. He heard it, too, and smiled to himself as he
bolted the windows on the ground floor and examined the locks of the
three lower doors, and when he finally came into the kitchen with his
greatcoat on to give her his final kiss, he had but one parting
injunction to urge, and this was for her to lock and bolt the front door
after him and then forget the whole matter till she heard his double
knock at midnight.

She smiled and held up her ingenuous face.

"Be careful of yourself," she begged of him. "I hate this dark ride for
you, and on such a night too." And she ran with him to the door to look
out.

"It is certainly very dark," he responded, "but I'm to have one of
Brown's safest horses. Do not worry about me. I shall do well enough,
and so will you, too, or you are not the plucky little woman I have
always thought you."

She laughed, but there was a choking sound in her voice that made him
look at her again. But at sight of his anxiety she recovered herself,
and pointing to the clouds said earnestly:

"It's going to snow. Be careful as you ride by the gorge, Ned; it is
very deceptive there in a snowstorm."

But he vowed that it would not snow before morning and giving her one
final embrace he dashed down the path toward Brown's livery stable. "Oh,
what is the matter with me?" she murmured to herself as his steps died
out in the distance. "I never knew I was such a coward." And she paused
for a moment, looking up and down the road, as if in despite of her
husband's command she had the desperate idea of running away to some
neighbour.

But she was too loyal for that, and smothering a sigh she retreated into
the house. As she did so the first flakes fell of the storm that was not
to have come till morning.

It took her an hour to get her kitchen in order, and nine o'clock struck
before she was ready to sit down. She had been so busy she had not
noticed how the wind had increased or how rapidly the snow was falling.
But when she went to the front door for another glance up and down the
road she started back, appalled at the fierceness of the gale and at
the great pile of snow that had already accumulated on the doorstep.

Too delicate to breast such a wind, she saw herself robbed of her last
hope of any companionship, and sighing heavily she locked and bolted the
door for the night and went back into her little sitting-room, where a
great fire was burning. Here she sat down, and determined, since she
must pass the evening alone, to do it as cheerfully as possible, she
began to sew. "Oh, what a Christmas eve!" she thought, as a picture of
other homes rose before her eyes,--homes in which husbands sat by wives
and brothers by sisters; and a great wave of regret poured over her and
a longing for something, she hardly dared say what, lest her unhappiness
should acquire a sting that would leave traces beyond the passing
moment.

The room in which she sat was the only one on the ground floor except
the dining-room and kitchen. It therefore was used both as parlour and
sitting-room, and held not only her piano, but her husband's desk.

Communicating with it was the tiny dining-room. Between the two,
however, was an entry leading to a side entrance. A lamp was in this
entry, and she had left it burning, as well as the one in the kitchen,
that the house might look cheerful and as if the whole family were at
home.

She was looking toward this entry and wondering what made it seem so
dismally dark to her, when there came a faint sound from the door at
its further end.

Knowing that her husband must have taken peculiar pains with the
fastenings of this door, as it was the one toward the woods and
therefore most accessible to wayfarers, she sat where she was, with all
her faculties strained to listen. But no further sound came from that
direction, and after a few minutes of silent terror she was allowing
herself to believe that she had been deceived by her fears when she
suddenly heard the same sound at the kitchen door, followed by a muffled
knock.

Frightened now in good earnest, but still alive to the fact that the
intruder was as likely to be a friend as foe, she stepped to the door,
and with her hand on the lock stooped and asked boldly enough who was
there. But she received no answer, and more affected by this unexpected
silence than by the knock she had heard, she recoiled farther and
farther till not only the width of the kitchen, but the dining-room
also, lay between her and the scene of her alarm, when to her utter
confusion the noise shifted again to the side of the house, and the door
she thought so securely fastened, swung violently open as if blown in by
a fierce gust, and she saw precipitated into the entry the burly figure
of a man covered with snow and shaking with the violence of the storm
that seemed at once to fill the house.

Her first thought was that it was her husband come back, but before she
could clear her eyes from the snow which had rushed tumultuously in, he
had thrown off his outer covering and she found herself face to face
with a man in whose powerful frame and cynical visage she saw little to
comfort her and much to surprise and alarm.

"Ugh!" was his coarse and rather familiar greeting. "A hard night,
missus! Enough to drive any man indoors. Pardon the liberty, but I
couldn't wait for you to lift the latch; the wind drove me right in."

"Was--was not the door locked?" she feebly asked, thinking he must have
staved it in with his foot, which was certainly well fitted for such a
task.

"Not much," he chuckled. "I s'pose you're too hospitable for that." And
his eyes passed from her face to the comfortable firelight shining
through the sitting-room.

"Is it refuge you want?" she demanded, suppressing as much as possible
all signs of fear.

"Sure, missus--what else! A man can't live in a gale like that,
specially after a tramp of twenty miles or more. Shall I shut the door
for you?" he asked, with a mixture of bravado and good nature that
frightened her more and more.

"I will shut it," she replied, with a half notion of escaping this
sinister stranger by a flight through the night.

But one glance into the swirling snowstorm deterred her, and making the
best of the alarming situation, she closed the door, but did not lock
it, being now more afraid of what was inside the house than of anything
left lingering without.

The man, whose clothes were dripping with water, watched her with a
cynical smile, and then, without any invitation, entered the
dining-room, crossed it, and moved toward the kitchen fire.

"Ugh! ugh! But it is warm here!" he cried, his nostrils dilating with an
animal-like enjoyment, that in itself was repugnant to her womanly
delicacy. "Do you know, missus, I shall have to stay here all night?
Can't go out in that gale again; not such a fool." Then with a sly look
at her trembling form and white face he insinuatingly added, "All alone,
missus?"

The suddenness with which this was put, together with the leer that
accompanied it, made her start. Alone? Yes, but should she acknowledge
it? Would it not be better to say that her husband was upstairs? The man
evidently saw the struggle going on in her mind, for he chuckled to
himself and called out quite boldly:

"Never mind, missus; it's all right. Just give me a bit of cold meat and
a cup of tea or something, and we'll be very comfortable together.
You're a slender slip of a woman to be minding a house like this. I'll
keep you company if you don't mind, leastwise until the storm lets up a
bit, which ain't likely for some hours to come. Rough night, missus,
rough night."

"I expect my husband home at any time," she hastened to say. And
thinking she saw a change in the man's countenance at this she put on
quite an air of sudden satisfaction and bounded toward the front of the
house. "There! I think I hear him now," she cried.

Her motive was to gain time, and if possible to obtain the opportunity
of shifting the money from the place where she had first put it into
another and safer one. "I want to be able," she thought, "to swear that
I have no money with me in this house. If I can only get it into my
apron I will drop it outside the door into the snowbank. It will be as
safe there as in the vaults it came from." And dashing into the
sitting-room she made a feint of dragging down a shawl from a screen,
while she secretly filled her skirt with the bills which had been put
between some old pamphlets on the bookshelves.

She could hear the man grumbling in the kitchen, but he did not follow
her front, and taking advantage of the moment's respite from his none
too encouraging presence she unbarred the door and cheerfully called out
her husband's name.

The ruse was successful. She was enabled to fling the notes where the
falling flakes would soon cover them from sight, and feeling more
courageous, now that the money was out of the house, she went slowly
back, saying she had made a mistake, and that it was the wind she had
heard.

The man gave a gruff but knowing guffaw and then resumed his watch over
her, following her steps as she proceeded to set him out a meal, with a
persistency that reminded her of a tiger just on the point of springing.
But the inviting look of the viands with which she was rapidly setting
the table soon distracted his attention, and allowing himself one grunt
of satisfaction, he drew up a chair and set himself down to what to him
was evidently a most savoury repast.

"No beer? No ale? Nothing o' that sort, eh? Don't keep a bar?" he
growled, as his teeth closed on a huge hunk of bread.

She shook her head, wishing she had a little cold poison bottled up in a
tight-looking jug.

"Nothing but tea," she smiled, astonished at her own ease of manner in
the presence of this alarming guest.

"Then let's have that," he grumbled, taking the bowl she handed him,
with an odd look that made her glad to retreat to the other side of the
room.

"Jest listen to the howling wind," he went on between the huge mouthfuls
of bread and cheese with which he was gorging himself. "But we're very
comfortable, we two! We don't mind the storm, do we?"

Shocked by his familiarity and still more moved by the look of mingled
inquiry and curiosity with which his eyes now began to wander over the
walls and cupboards, she hurried to the window overlooking her nearest
neighbour, and, lifting the shade, peered out. A swirl of snowflakes
alone confronted her. She could neither see her neighbours, nor could
she be seen by them. A shout from her to them would not be heard. She
was as completely isolated as if the house stood in the centre of a
desolate western plain.

"I have no trust but in God," she murmured as she came from the window.
And, nerved to meet her fate, she crossed to the kitchen.

It was now half-past ten. Two hours and a half must elapse before her
husband could possibly arrive.

She set her teeth at the thought and walked resolutely into the room.

"Are you done?" she asked.

"I am, ma'am," he leered. "Do you want me to wash the dishes? I kin, and
I will." And he actually carried his plate and cup to the sink, where he
turned the water upon them with another loud guffaw.

"If only his fancy would take him into the pantry," she thought, "I
could shut and lock the door upon him and hold him prisoner till Ned
gets back."

But his fancy ended its flight at the sink, and before her hopes had
fully subsided he was standing on the threshold of the sitting-room
door.

"It's pretty here," he exclaimed, allowing his eye to rove again over
every hiding-place within sight. "I wonder now----" He stopped. His
glance had fallen on the cupboard over her husband's desk.

"Well?" she asked, anxious to break the thread of his thought, which was
only too plainly mirrored in his eager countenance.

He started, dropped his eyes, and, turning, surveyed her with a
momentary fierceness. But, as she did not let her own glance quail, but
continued to meet his gaze with what she meant for an ingratiating
smile, he subdued this outward manifestation of passion, and, chuckling
to hide his embarrassment, began backing into the entry, leering in
evident enjoyment of the fears he caused.

However, once in the hall, he hesitated for a long time; then slowly
made for the garment he had dropped on entering, and stooping, drew from
underneath its folds a wicked-looking stick. Giving a kick to the coat,
which sent it into a remote corner, he bestowed upon her another smile,
and still carrying the stick, went slowly and reluctantly away into the
kitchen.

"Oh, God Almighty, help me!" was her prayer.

There was nothing left for her now but to endure, so throwing herself
into a chair, she tried to calm the beating of her heart and summon up
courage for the struggle which she felt was before her. That he had come
to rob and only waited to take her off her guard she now felt certain,
and rapidly running over in her mind all the expedients of self-defence
possible to one in her situation, she suddenly remembered the pistol
which Ned kept in his desk.

Oh, why had she not thought of it before! Why had she let herself grow
mad with terror when here, within reach of her hand, lay such a means of
self-defence? With a feeling of joy (she had always hated pistols before
and scolded Ned when he bought this one) she started to her feet and
slid her hand into the drawer. But it came back empty. Ned had taken
the weapon away with him.

For a moment, a surge of the bitterest feeling she had ever experienced
passed over her; then she called reason to her aid and was obliged to
acknowledge that the act was but natural, and that from his standpoint
he was much more likely to need it than herself. But the disappointment,
coming so soon after hope, unnerved her, and she sank back in her chair,
giving herself up for lost.

How long she sat there with her eyes on the door through which she
momentarily expected her assailant to reappear, she never knew. She was
conscious only of a sort of apathy that made movement difficult and even
breathing a task. In vain she tried to change her thoughts. In vain she
tried to follow her husband in fancy over the snow-covered roads and
into the gorge of the mountains. Imagination failed her at this point.
Do what she would, all was misty to her mind's eye, and she could not
see that wandering image. There was blankness between his form and her,
and no life or movement anywhere but here in the scene of her terror.

Her eyes were on a strip of rug covering the entry floor, and so strange
was the condition of her mind that she found herself mechanically
counting the tassels finishing off its edge, growing wroth over one that
was worn, till she hated that sixth tassel and mentally determined that
if she ever outlived this night she would strip them all off and be done
with them.

The wind had lessened, but the air had grown cooler and the snow made a
sharp sound where it struck the panes. She felt it falling, though she
had cut off all view of it. It seemed to her that a pall was settling
over the world and that she would soon be smothered under its folds.

Meanwhile no sound came from the kitchen. A dreadful sense of doom was
creeping upon her--a sense growing in intensity till she found herself
watching for the shadow of that lifted stick on the wall of the entry
and almost imagined she saw the tip of it appearing.

But it was the door which again blew in, admitting another man of so
threatening an aspect that she succumbed instantly before him and forgot
all her former fears in this new terror.

The second intruder was a negro of powerful frame and lowering aspect,
and as he came forward and stood in the doorway there was observable in
his fierce and desperate countenance no attempt at the insinuation of
the other, only a fearful resolution that made her feel like a puppet
before him, and drove her, almost without her volition, to her knees.

"Money? Is it money you want?" was her desperate greeting. "If so,
here's my purse and here are my rings and watch. Take them and go."

But the stolid wretch did not even stretch out his hands. His eyes went
beyond her, and the mingled anxiety and resolve which he displayed would
have cowed a stouter heart than that of this poor woman.

"Keep de trash," he growled. "I want de company's money. You've got
it--two thousand dollars. Show me where it is, that's all, and I won't
trouble you long after I close on it."

"But it's not in the house," she cried. "I swear it is not in the house.
Do you think Mr. Chivers would leave me here alone with two thousand
dollars to guard?"

But the negro, swearing that she lied, leaped into the room, and tearing
open the cupboard above her husband's desk, seized the bag from the
corner where they had put it.

"He brought it in this," he muttered, and tried to force the bag open,
but finding this impossible he took out a heavy knife and cut a big hole
in its side. Instantly there fell out the pile of old receipts with
which they had stuffed it, and seeing these he stamped with rage, and
flinging them at her in one great handful, rushed to the drawers below,
emptied them, and, finding nothing, attacked the bookcase.

"The money is somewhere here. You can't fool me," he yelled. "I saw the
spot your eyes lit on when I first came into the room. Is it behind
these books?" he growled, pulling them out and throwing them
helter-skelter over the floor. "Women is smart in the hiding business.
Is it behind these books, I say?"

They had been, or rather had been placed between the books, but she had
taken them away, as we know, and he soon began to realise that his
search was bringing him nothing. Leaving the bookcase he gave the books
one kick, and seizing her by the arm, shook her with a murderous glare
on his strange and distorted features.

"Where's the money?" he hissed. "Tell me, or you are a goner."

He raised his heavy fist. She crouched and all seemed over, when, with a
rush and cry, a figure dashed between them and he fell, struck down by
the very stick she had so long been expecting to see fall upon her own
head. The man who had been her terror for hours had at the moment of
need acted as her protector.

       *       *       *       *       *

She must have fainted, but if so, her unconsciousness was but momentary,
for when she woke again to her surroundings she found the tramp still
standing over her adversary.

"I hope you don't mind, ma'am," he said, with an air of humbleness she
certainly had not seen in him before, "but I think the man's dead." And
he stirred with his foot the heavy figure before him.

"Oh, no, no, no!" she cried. "That would be too fearful. He's shocked,
stunned; you cannot have killed him."

But the tramp was persistent. "I'm 'fraid I have," he said. "I done it
before. I'm powerful strong in the biceps. But I couldn't see a man of
that colour frighten a lady like you. My supper was too warm in me,
ma'am. Shall I throw him outside the house?"

"Yes," she said, and then, "No; let us first be sure there is no life
in him." And, hardly knowing what she did, she stooped down and peered
into the glassy eyes of the prostrate man.

Suddenly she turned pale--no, not pale, but ghastly, and cowering back,
shook so that the tramp, into whose features a certain refinement had
passed since he had acted as her protector, thought she had discovered
life in those set orbs, and was stooping down to make sure that this was
so, when he saw her suddenly lean forward and, impetuously plunging her
hand into the negro's throat, tear open the shirt and give one look at
his bared breast.

It was white.

"O God! O God!" she moaned, and lifting the head in her two hands she
gave the motionless features a long and searching look. "Water!" she
cried. "Bring water." But before the now obedient tramp could respond,
she had torn off the woolly wig disfiguring the dead man's head, and
seeing the blond curls beneath had uttered such a shriek that it rose
above the gale and was heard by her distant neighbours.

It was the head and hair of her husband.

       *       *       *       *       *

They found out afterwards that he had contemplated this theft for
months; that each and every precaution necessary to the success of this
most daring undertaking had been made use of and that but for the
unexpected presence in the house of the tramp, he would doubtless not
only have extorted the money from his wife, but have so covered up the
deed by a plausible alibi as to have retained her confidence and that of
his employers.

Whether the tramp killed him out of sympathy for the defenceless woman
or in rage at being disappointed in his own plans has never been
determined. Mrs. Chivers herself thinks he was actuated by a rude sort
of gratitude.



THE RUBY AND THE CALDRON

(Copyright, 1905, by The Bobbs-Merrill Company Used by special
permission of the publishers)


As there were two good men on duty that night, I did not see why I
should remain at my desk, even though there was an unusual stir created
in our small town by the grand ball given at The Evergreens.

But just as I was preparing to start for home, an imperative ring called
me to the telephone, and I heard:

"Halloo! Is this the police-station?"

"It is."

"Well, then, a detective is wanted at once at The Evergreens. He cannot
be too clever or too discreet. A valuable jewel has been lost, which
must be found before the guests disperse for home. Large reward if the
matter ends successfully."

"May I ask who is speaking to me?"

"Mrs. Ashley."

It was the mistress of The Evergreens and giver of the ball.

"Madam, a man shall be sent at once. Where will you see him?"

"In the butler's pantry at the rear. Let him give his name as Jennings."

"Very good. Good-bye."

"Good-bye."

A pretty piece of work! Should I send Hendricks or should I send Hicks?
Hendricks was clever and Hicks discreet, but neither united both
qualifications in the measure demanded by the sensible and quietly
resolved woman with whom I had just been talking. What alternative
remained? But one: I must go myself.

It was not late--not for a ball-night, at least--and as half the town
had been invited to the dance, the streets were alive with carriages. I
was watching the blink of their lights through the fast-falling snow
when my attention was drawn to a fact which struck me as peculiar. These
carriages were all coming my way instead of rolling in the direction of
The Evergreens. Had they been empty this would have needed no
explanation; but, so far as I could see, most of them were full, and
that, too, of loudly-talking women and gesticulating men.

Something of a serious nature must have occurred at The Evergreens.
Rapidly I paced on, and soon found myself before the great gates.

A crowd of vehicles of all descriptions blocked the entrance. None
seemed to be passing up the driveway; all stood clustered at the gates;
and as I drew nearer I perceived many an anxious head thrust forth from
their quickly-opened doors, and heard many an ejaculation of
disappointment as the short interchange of words went on between the
drivers of these various turnouts and a man drawn up in quiet resolution
before the unexpectedly barred entrance.

Slipping round to this man's side, I listened to what he was saying. It
was simple, but very explicit.

"Mrs. Ashley asks everybody's pardon, but the ball can't go on to-night.
Something has happened which makes the reception of further guests
impossible. To-morrow evening she will be happy to see you all. The
dance is simply postponed."

This he had probably repeated forty times, and each time it had probably
been received with the same mixture of doubt and curiosity which now
held the lengthy procession in check.

Not wishing to attract attention, yet anxious to lose no time, I pressed
up still nearer, and, bending towards him from the shadow cast by a
convenient post, uttered the one word:

"Jennings."

Instantly he unlocked a small gate at his right. I passed in, and with
professional _sang-froid_ proceeded to take my way to the house through
the double row of evergreens bordering the semicircular approach.

As these trees stood very close together, and were, besides, heavily
laden with fresh-fallen snow, I failed to catch a glimpse of the
building itself until I stood in front of it. Then I saw that it was
brilliantly lighted, and gave evidence here and there of some festivity;
but the guests were too few for the effect to be very exhilarating, and,
passing around to the rear, I sought the special entrance to which I had
been directed.

A heavy-browed porch, before which stood a caterer's wagon, led me to a
door which had every appearance of being the one I sought. Pushing it
open, I entered without ceremony, and speedily found myself in the midst
of twenty or more coloured waiters and chattering housemaids. To one of
the former I addressed the question:

"Where is the butler's pantry? I am told that I shall find the lady of
the house there."

"Your name?" was the curt demand.

"Jennings."

"Follow me."

I was taken through narrow passages and across one or two storerooms to
a small but well-lighted closet, where I was left, with the assurance
that Mrs. Ashley would presently join me. I had never seen this lady,
but I had often heard her spoken of as a woman of superior character and
admirable discretion.

She did not keep me waiting. In two minutes the door opened, and this
fine, well-poised woman was telling her story in the straightforward
manner I so much admire.

The article lost was a large ruby of singular beauty and great value,
the property of Mrs. Burton, the Senator's wife, in whose honour this
ball was being given. It had not been lost in the house, nor had it been
originally missed this evening. Mrs. Burton and herself had attended the
great football game in the afternoon, and it was on the college campus
that Mrs. Burton had first dropped her invaluable jewel. But a reward of
five hundred dollars having been at once offered to whomever should find
and restore it, a great search had followed, which ended in its being
picked up by one of the students, and brought back as far as the
driveway in front of The Evergreens, when it had again disappeared, and
in a way to rouse conjecture of the strangest and most puzzling
character.

The young man who had brought it thus far bore the name of John Deane,
and was a member of the senior class. He had been the first to detect
its sparkle in the grass, and those who were near enough to see his face
at that happy moment say that it expressed the utmost satisfaction at
his good luck.

"You see," said Mrs. Ashley, "he has a sweetheart, and five hundred
dollars looks like a fortune to a young man just starting life. But he
was weak enough to take this girl into his confidence; and on their way
here--for both were invited to the ball--he went so far as to pull it
out of his pocket and show it to her.

"They were admiring it together, and vaunting its beauties to the young
lady friend who had accompanied them, when their carriage turned into
the driveway and they saw the lights of the house flashing before them.
Hastily restoring the jewel to the little bag he had made for it out of
the finger-end of an old glove--a bag in which he assured me he had been
careful to keep it safely tied ever since picking it up on the college
green--he thrust it back into his pocket and prepared to help the ladies
out. But just then a disturbance arose in front. A horse which had been
driven up was rearing in a way that threatened to overturn the light
buggy to which it was attached. As the occupants of this buggy were
ladies, and seemed to have no control over the plunging beast, young
Deane naturally sprang to the rescue. Bidding his own ladies alight and
make for the porch, he hurriedly ran forward and, pausing in front of
the maddened animal, waited for an opportunity to seize him by the rein.
He says that as he stood there facing the beast with fixed eye and
raised hand, he distinctly felt something strike or touch his breast.
But the sensation conveyed no meaning to him in his excitement, and he
did not think of it again till, the horse well in hand and the two
alarmed occupants of the buggy rescued, he turned to see where his own
ladies were, and beheld them looking down at him from the midst of a
circle of young people, drawn from the house by the screaming of the
women. Instantly a thought of the treasure he carried recurred to his
mind, and releasing the now quieted horse, he thrust his hand hastily
into his pocket. The jewel was gone. He declares that for a moment he
felt as if he had been struck on the head by one of the hoofs of the
frantic horse he had just handled. But immediately the importance of his
loss and the necessity he felt for instant action restored him to
himself, and shouting aloud, "I have dropped Mrs. Burton's ruby!" he
begged every one to stand still while he made a search for it.

"This all occurred, as you must know, more than an hour and a half ago,
consequently before many of my guests had arrived. My son, who was one
of the few spectators gathered on the porch, tells me that there was
only one other carriage behind the one in which Mr. Deane had brought
his ladies. Both of these had stopped short of the stepping-stone, and
as the horse and buggy which had made all this trouble had by this time
been driven to the stable, nothing stood in the way of his search but
the rapidly accumulating snow, which, if you remember, was falling very
thick and fast at the time.

"My son, who had rushed in for his overcoat, came running down the steps
to help him. So did some others. But, with an imploring gesture, he
begged to be allowed to conduct the search alone, the ground being in
such a state that the delicately-mounted jewel ran great risk of being
trodden into the snow and thus injured or lost. They humoured him for a
moment, then, seeing that his efforts bade fair to be fruitless, my son
insisted upon joining him, and the two looked the ground over, inch by
inch, from the place where Mr. Deane had set foot to ground in alighting
from his carriage to the exact spot where he had stood when he had
finally seized hold of the horse. But no ruby. Then Harrison (that is my
son's name) sent for a broom and went over the place again, sweeping
aside the surface snow and examining carefully the ground beneath, but
with no better results than before. No ruby could be found. My son came
to me panting. Mrs. Burton and myself stood awaiting him in a state of
suspense. Guests and fête were alike forgotten. We had heard that the
jewel had been found on the campus by one of the students, and had been
brought back as far as the step in front, and then lost again in some
unaccountable manner in the snow, and we hoped, nay, expected from
moment to moment, that it would be brought in.

"When Harrison finally entered, pale, dishevelled and shaking his head,
Mrs. Burton caught me by the hand, and I thought she would faint. For
this jewel is of far greater value to her than its mere worth in money,
though that is by no means small.

"It is a family jewel, and was given to her by her husband under special
circumstances. He prizes it even more than she does, and he is not here
to counsel or assist her in this extremity. Besides, she was wearing it
in direct opposition to his expressed wishes. This I must tell you, to
show how imperative it is for us to recover it; also to account for the
large reward she is willing to pay. When he last looked at it he noticed
that the fastening was a trifle slack, and, though he handed the trinket
back, he told her distinctly that she was not to wear it till it had
been either to Tiffany's or Starr's. But she considered it safe enough,
and put it on to please the boys, and lost it. Senator Burton is a hard
man and--in short, the jewel must be found. I give you just one hour in
which to do it."

"But, madam----" I protested.

"I know," she put in, with a quick nod and a glance over her shoulder to
see if the door was shut. "I have not finished my story. Hearing what
Harrison had to say, I took action at once. I bade him call in the
guests, whom curiosity or interest still detained in the porch, and seat
them in a certain room which I designated to him. Then, after telling
him to send two men to the gates with orders to hold back all further
carriages from entering, and two others to shovel up and cart away to
the stable every particle of snow for ten feet each side of the front
step, I asked to see Mr. Deane. But here my son whispered something into
my ear, which it is my duty to repeat. It was to the effect that Mr.
Deane believed that the jewel had been taken from him; that he insisted,
in fact, that he had felt a hand touch his breast while he stood
awaiting an opportunity to seize the horse. 'Very good,' said I, 'we'll
remember that too; but first see that my orders are carried out, and
that all approaches to the grounds are guarded and no one allowed to
come in or go out without permission from me.'

"He left us, and I was turning to encourage Mrs. Burton when my
attention was caught by the eager face of a little friend of mine, who,
quite unknown to me, was sitting in one of the corners of the room. She
was studying my countenance with a subdued anxiety, hardly natural in
one so young, and I was about to relieve my mind by questioning her when
she made a sudden rush and vanished from the room. Some impulse made me
follow her. She is a conscientious little thing, but timid as a hare,
and though I saw she had something to say, it was with difficulty I
could make her speak. Only after the most solemn assurances that her
name should not be mentioned in the matter would she give me the
following bit of information, which you may possibly think throws
another light upon the affair. It seems that she was looking out of one
of the front windows when Mr. Deane's carriage drove up. She had been
watching the antics of the horse attached to the buggy, but as soon as
she saw Mr. Deane going to the assistance of those in danger, she let
her eyes stray back to the ladies whom he had left behind him in the
carriage.

"She did not know these ladies, but their looks and gestures interested
her, and she watched them quite intently as they leaped to the ground
and made their way toward the porch. One went on quickly, and without
pause, to the step; but the other--the one who came last--did not do
this. She stopped a moment, perhaps to watch the horse in front, perhaps
to draw her cloak more closely about her, and when she again moved on it
was with a start and a hurried glance at her feet, terminating in a
quick turn and a sudden stooping to the ground. When she again stood
upright she had something in her hand which she thrust furtively into
her breast."

"How was this lady dressed?" I inquired.

"In a white cloak, with an edging of fur. I took pains to learn that
too, and it was with some curiosity, I assure you, that I examined the
few guests that had now been admitted to the room I had so carefully
pointed out to my son. Two of them wore white cloaks, but one of these
was Mrs. Dalrymple, and I did not give her or her cloak a second
thought. The other was a tall, fine-looking girl, with an air and
bearing calculated to rouse admiration if she had not looked so
disturbed. But her preoccupation was evident, a circumstance which, had
she been Mr. Deane's _fiancée_, would have needed no explanation; but,
as she was only that lady's friend, its cause was not so apparent.

"The floor of the room, as I had happily remembered, was covered with
crash, and as I lifted each garment off--I allowed no maid to assist me
in this--I shook it well; ostensibly because of the few flakes clinging
to it, really to see if anything could be shaken out of it. Of course, I
met with no success. I had not expected to, but it is my disposition to
be thorough. These wraps I saw all hung in an adjoining closet, the door
of which I locked--here is the key--after which I handed my guests over
to my son, and went to notify the police."

I bowed, and asked where the young people were now.

"Still in the drawing-room. I have ordered the musicians to play, and
consequently there is more or less dancing. But, of course, nothing can
remove the wet blanket which has fallen over us all--nothing but the
finding of this jewel. Do you see your way to accomplishing this? We are
from this very moment at your disposal; only I pray that you will make
no more disturbance than is necessary, and, if possible, arouse no
suspicions you cannot back up by facts. I dread a scandal almost as much
as I do sickness and death, and these young people--well, their lives
are all before them, and neither Mrs. Burton nor myself would wish to
throw the shadow of a false suspicion over any one of them."

I assured her that I sympathised with her scruples, and would do my best
to recover the ruby without inflicting undue annoyance upon the
innocent. Then I inquired whether it was known that a detective had been
called in. She seemed to think it was suspected by some, if not by all.
At which my way seemed a trifle complicated.

We were about to proceed when another thought struck me.

"Madam, you have not said whether the carriage itself was searched."

"I forgot. Yes, the carriage was thoroughly overhauled before the
coachman left the box."

"Who did this overhauling?"

"My son. He would not trust any one else in a business of this kind."

"One more question, madam. Was any one seen to approach Mr. Deane on the
carriage-drive prior to his assertion that the jewel was lost?"

"No. _And there were no tracks in the snow of any such person._ My son
looked."

And I would look, or so I decided within myself, but I said nothing; and
in silence we proceeded toward the drawing-room.

I had left my overcoat behind me, and always being well dressed, I did
not present so bad an appearance. Still, I was not in party attire, and
naturally could not pass for a guest even if I had wanted to, which I
did not. I felt that I must rely on insight in this case, and on a
certain power I had always possessed of reading faces. That the case
called for just this species of intuition I was positive. Mrs. Burton's
ruby was within a hundred yards of us at this very moment, probably
within a hundred feet; but to lay hands on it and without scandal--well,
that was a problem calculated to rouse the interest of even an old
police-officer like myself.

A strain of music--desultory, however, and spiritless, like everything
else about the place that night--greeted us as Mrs. Ashley opened the
door leading directly into the large front hall.

Immediately a scene meant to be festive, but which was, in fact,
desolate, burst upon us. The lights, the flowers, and the brilliant
appearance of such ladies as flitted into sight from the almost empty
parlours, were all suggestive of the cheer suitable to a great occasion;
but, in spite of this, the effect was altogether melancholy, for the
hundreds who should have graced this scene, and for whom this
illumination had been made and these festoons hung, had been turned away
from the gates, and the few who felt they must remain, because their
hostess showed no disposition to let them go, wore any but holiday
faces, for all their forced smiles and pitiful attempts at nonchalance
and gaiety.

I scrutinised these faces carefully. I detected nothing in them but
annoyance at a situation which certainly was anything but pleasant.

Turning to Mrs. Ashley, I requested her to be kind enough to point out
her son, adding that I should be glad to have a moment's conversation
with him before I spoke to Mr. Deane.

"That will give Mr. Deane time to compose himself. He is quite upset.
Not even Mrs. Burton can comfort him. My son--oh, there is Harrison!"

A tall, fine-looking young man was crossing the hall. Mrs. Ashley
beckoned to him, and in another moment we were standing together in one
of the empty parlours. I gave him my name and told him my business. Then
I said:

"Your mother has allotted me an hour in which to find the valuable jewel
which has just been lost on these premises." Here I smiled. "She
evidently has great confidence in my ability. I must see that I do not
disappoint her."

All this time I was examining his face. It was not only handsome, but
expressive of great candour. The eyes looked straight into mine, and,
while showing anxiety, betrayed no deeper emotion than the occasion
naturally called for.

"Have you any suggestions to offer? I understand that you were on the
ground almost as soon as Mr. Deane discovered his loss."

His eyes changed a trifle, but did not swerve. Of course, he had been
informed by his mother of the suspicious action of the young lady who
had been a member of that gentleman's party, and shrank, as any one in
his position would, from the responsibilities entailed by this
knowledge.

"No," said he. "We have done all we can. The next move must come from
you."

"I know of one that will settle the matter at once," I assured him,
still with my eyes fixed scrutinisingly on his face--"a universal
search, not of places, but of persons. But it is a harsh measure."

"A most disagreeable one," he emphasised, flushing. "Such an indignity
offered to guests would never be forgotten or forgiven."

"True. But if they offered to submit to this themselves?"

"They? How?"

"If _you_, the son of the house--their host, we may say--should call
them together, and for your own satisfaction empty out your pockets in
the sight of every one, don't you think that all the men, and possibly
all the women too"--here I let my voice fall suggestively--"would be
glad to follow suit? It could be done in apparent joke."

He shook his head with a straightforward air, which set him high in my
estimation.

"That would call for little but effrontery on my part," said he. "But
think how it would affect these boys who came here for the sole purpose
of enjoying themselves. I will not so much as mention the ladies."

"Yet one of the latter----"

"I know," he quietly acknowledged, growing restless for the first time.

I withdrew my eyes from his face. I had learned what I wished.
Personally, he did not shrink from search, therefore the jewel was not
in his pockets. This left but two persons for suspicion to halt between.
But I disclosed nothing of my thoughts; I merely asked pardon for a
suggestion that, while pardonable in a man accustomed to handle crime
with ungloved hands, could not fail to prove offensive to a gentleman
like himself.

"We must move by means less open," I concluded. "It adds to our
difficulties, but that cannot be helped. I should now like a glimpse of
Mr. Deane."

"Do you not wish to speak to him?"

"I should prefer a sight of his face first."

He led me across the hall and pointed through an open door. In the
centre of a small room containing a table and some chairs I perceived a
young man sitting, with fallen head and dejected air, staring at
vacancy. By his side, with hand laid on his, knelt a young girl,
striving in this gentle but speechless way to comfort him. It made a
pathetic picture. I drew Ashley away.

"I am disposed to believe in that young man," said I. "If he still has
the jewel, he would not try to carry off the situation just this way. He
really looks broken-hearted."

"Oh, he is dreadfully cut up! If you could have seen how frantically he
searched for the stone, and the depression into which he fell when he
realised that it was not to be found, you would not doubt him for an
instant. What made you think he might still have the ruby?"

"Oh, we police-officers think of everything. Then the fact that he
insists that something or some one touched his breast on the driveway
strikes me as a trifle suspicious. Your mother says that no second
person could have been there, or the snow would have given evidence of
it."

"Yes; I looked expressly. Of course, the drive itself was full of
hoof-marks and wheel-tracks, for several carriages had already passed
over it. Then there were all of Deane's footsteps, but no other man's,
so far as I could see."

"Yet he insists that he was touched or struck."

"Yes."

"With no one there to touch or strike him."

Mr. Ashley was silent.

"Let us step out and take a view of the place," I suggested. "I should
prefer doing this to questioning the young man in his present state of
mind." Then, as we turned to put on our coats, I asked with suitable
precautions: "Do you suppose that he has the same secret suspicions as
ourselves, and that it is to hide these he insists upon the jewel's
having been taken away from him at a point the ladies are known not to
have approached?"

Young Ashley looked more startled than pleased.

"Nothing has been said to him of what Miss Peters saw Miss Glover do. I
could not bring myself to mention it. I have not even allowed myself to
believe----"

Here a fierce gust, blowing in from the door he had just opened, cut
short his words, and neither of us spoke again till we stood on the
exact spot in the driveway where the episode we were endeavouring to
understand had taken place.

"Oh," I cried, as soon as I could look about me; "the mystery is
explained. Look at that bush, or perhaps you call it a shrub. If the
wind were blowing as freshly as it is now, and very probably it was, one
of those slender branches might easily be switched against his breast,
especially if he stood, as you say he did, close against this border."

"Well, I'm a fool. Only the other day I told the gardener that these
branches would need trimming in the spring, and yet I never so much as
thought of them when Mr. Deane spoke of something striking his breast."

As we turned back I made this remark:

"With this explanation of the one doubtful point in his otherwise
plausible account, we can credit his story as being in the main true,
which," I calmly added, "places him above suspicion and narrows our
inquiry down to _one_."

We had moved quickly, and were now at the threshold of the door by which
we had come out.

"Mr. Ashley," I continued, "I shall have to ask you to add to your
former favours that of showing me the young lady in whom, from this
moment on, we are especially interested. If you can manage to let me
see her first without her seeing me, I shall be infinitely obliged to
you."

"I do not know where she is. I shall have to search for her."

"I will wait by the hall door."

In a few minutes he returned to me.

"Come," said he, and led me into what I judged to be the library.

With a gesture towards one of the windows, he backed quickly out,
leaving me to face the situation alone. I was rather glad of this.
Glancing in the direction he had indicated, and perceiving the figure of
a young lady standing with her back to me on the farther side of a
flowing lace curtain, I took a few steps toward her, hoping that the
movement would cause her to turn. But it entirely failed to produce this
effect, nor did she give any sign that she noted the intrusion. This
prevented me from catching the glimpse of her face which I so desired,
and obliged me to confine myself to a study of her dress and attitude.

The former was very elegant, more elegant than the appearance of her two
friends had led me to expect. Though I am far from being an authority on
feminine toilets, I yet had experience enough to know that such a gown
represented not only the best efforts of the dressmaker's art, but very
considerable means on the part of the woman wearing it.

This was a discovery which instantly altered the complexion of my
thoughts; for I had presupposed her a girl of humble means, willing to
sacrifice certain scruples to obtain a little extra money. This
imposing figure might be that of a millionaire's daughter; how, then,
could I associate her, even in my own mind, with theft? I decided that I
must see her face before giving answer to these doubts.

She did not seem inclined to turn. She had raised the shade from before
the wintry panes and was engaged in looking out. Her attitude was not
that of one simply enjoying a moment's respite from the dance. It was
rather that of an absorbed mind brooding upon what gave little or no
pleasure; and as I further gazed and noted the droop of her lovely
shoulders and the languor visible in her whole bearing, I saw that a
full glimpse of her features was imperative. Moving forward, I came upon
her suddenly.

"Excuse me, Miss Smith," I boldly exclaimed; then paused, for she had
turned instinctively, and I had seen that for which I had risked this
daring move. "Your pardon," I hastily apologised. "I mistook you for
another young lady," and drew back with a low bow to let her pass, for I
saw that her mind was bent on escape.

And I did not wonder at this, for her eyes were streaming with tears,
and her face, which was doubtless a pretty one under ordinary
conditions, looked so distorted with distracting emotions that she was
no fit subject for any man's eye, let alone that of a hard-hearted
officer of the law on the lookout for the guilty hand which had just
appropriated a jewel worth anywhere from eight to ten thousand dollars.

Yet I was glad to see her weep, for only first offenders weep, and first
offenders are amenable to influence, especially if they have been led
into wrong by impulse, and are weak rather than wicked.

Anxious to make no blunder, I resolved, before proceeding further, to
learn what I could of the character and antecedents of the suspected
one, and this from the only source which offered--Mr. Deane's affianced.

This young lady was a delicate girl, with a face like a flower.
Recognising her sensitive nature, I approached her with the utmost
gentleness. Not seeking to disguise either the nature of my business or
my reasons for being in the house, since all this gave me authority, I
modulated my tone to suit her gentle spirit, and, above all, I showed
the utmost sympathy for her lover, whose rights in the reward had been
taken from him as certainly as the jewel had been taken from Mrs.
Burton. In this way I gained her confidence, and she was quite ready to
listen when I observed:

"There is a young lady here who seems to be in a state of even greater
trouble than Mr. Deane. Why is this? You brought her here. Is her
sympathy with Mr. Deane so great as to cause her to weep over his loss?"

"Frances? Oh no. She likes Mr. Deane and she likes me, but not well
enough to cry over our misfortunes. I think she has some trouble of her
own."

"One that you can tell me?"

Her surprise was manifest.

"Why do you ask that? What interest can a police-officer, called in, as
I understand, to recover a stolen jewel, have in Frances Glover's
personal difficulties?"

I saw that I must make my position perfectly plain.

"Only this: She was seen to pick up something from the driveway, where
no one else had succeeded in finding anything."

"She? When? Who saw her?"

"I cannot answer all these questions at once," I said, smiling. "She was
seen to do this--no matter by whom--while you were stepping down from
the carriage. As you preceded her, you naturally did not observe this
action, which was fortunate, perhaps, as you would scarcely have known
what to do or say about it."

"Yes, I should," she retorted with a most unexpected display of spirit.
"I should have asked her what she had found, and I should have insisted
upon an answer. I love my friends, but I love the man I am to marry
better."

Here her voice fell, and a most becoming blush suffused her cheek.

"Quite right," I assented. "Now will you answer my former question? What
troubles Miss Glover? Can you tell me?"

"That I cannot. I only know that she has been very silent ever since she
left the house. I thought her beautiful new dress would please her, but
it does not seem to. She has been unhappy and preoccupied all the
evening. She only roused a bit when Mr. Deane showed us the ruby, and
said----Oh, I forgot!"

"What's that? What have you forgot?"

"Your remark of a moment ago. I wouldn't add a word----"

"Pardon me," I smilingly interrupted, looking as fatherly as I could,
"but you _have_ added this word, and now you must tell me what it means.
You were going to speak of the interest she showed in the extraordinary
jewel which Mr. Deane took from his pocket, and----"

"In what he said about the reward he expected. That is, she looked
eagerly at the ruby, and sighed when he acknowledged that he expected it
to bring him five hundred dollars before midnight. But any girl of means
no larger than hers might do that. It would not be fair to lay too much
stress on a sigh."

"Is not Miss Glover wealthy? She wears a very expensive dress, I
observe."

"I know it, and I have wondered a little at it, for her father is not
called very well off. But perhaps she bought it with her own money. I
know she has some; she is an artist in burnt wood."

I let the subject of Miss Glover's dress drop. I had heard enough to
satisfy me that my first theory was correct. This young woman,
beautifully dressed, and with a face from which the rounded lines of
early girlhood had not yet departed, held in her possession, probably at
this very moment, Mrs. Burton's magnificent jewel. But where? On her
person or hidden in some of her belongings? I remembered the cloak in
the closet, and thought it wise to assure myself that the jewel was not
secreted in this garment before I proceeded to extreme measures. Mrs.
Ashley, upon being consulted, agreed with me as to the desirability of
this, and presently I had this poor girl's cloak in my hands.

Did I find the ruby? No; but I found something else tucked away in an
inner pocket which struck me as bearing quite pointedly upon this case.
It was the bill--crumpled, soiled, and tear-stained--of the dress whose
elegance had so surprised her friends and made me for a short time
regard her as the daughter of wealthy parents. An enormous bill, which
must have struck dismay to the soul of this self-supporting girl, who
probably had no idea of how a French dressmaker can foot up items. Four
hundred and fifty dollars, and for one gown! I declare I felt indignant
myself, and could quite understand why she heaved that little sigh when
Mr. Deane spoke of the five hundred dollars he expected from Mrs.
Burton, and, later, when, in following the latter's footsteps up the
driveway, she stumbled upon this same jewel, fallen, as it were, from
his pocket into her very hands, how she came to succumb to the
temptation of endeavouring to secure this sum for herself.

That he would shout aloud his loss, and thus draw the whole household
out on the porch, was, naturally, not anticipated by her. Of course,
when this occurred, the feasibility of her project was gone, and I only
wished that I had been present and able to note her countenance, as,
crowded in with others on that windy porch, she watched the progress of
the search, which every moment made it not only less impossible for her
to attempt the restoration upon which the reward depended, but must have
caused her to feel, if she had been as well brought up as all
indications showed, that it was a dishonest act of which she had been
guilty, and that, willing or not, she must look upon herself as a thief
so long as she held the jewel back from Mr. Deane or its rightful owner.
But how face the publicity of restoring it now, after so elaborate and
painful a search, in which even the son of her hostess had taken part!

That would be to proclaim her guilt, and thus effectually ruin her in
the eyes of everybody concerned. No, she would keep the compromising
article a little longer, in the hope of finding some opportunity of
returning it without risk to her good name. And so she allowed the
search to proceed.

I have entered thus elaborately into the supposed condition of this
girl's mind on this critical evening that you may understand why I felt
a certain sympathy for her, which forbade harsh measures. I was sure,
from the glimpse I had caught of her face, that she longed to be
relieved from the tension she was under, and that she would gladly rid
herself of this valuable jewel if she only knew how. This opportunity I
proposed to give her; and this is why, on returning the bill to its
place, I assumed such an air of relief on rejoining Mrs. Ashley.

She saw, and drew me aside.

"You have not found it," she said.

"No," I returned; "but I am positive where it is."

"And where is that?"

"Over Miss Glover's uneasy heart."

Mrs. Ashley turned pale.

"Wait," said I. "I have a scheme for getting it back without making her
shame public. Listen!" and I whispered a few words in her ear.

She surveyed me in amazement for a moment, then nodded, and her face
lighted up.

"You are certainly earning your reward," she declared; and summoning her
son, who was never far away from her side, she whispered her wishes. He
started, bowed, and hurried from the room.

By this time my business in the house was well known to all, and I could
not appear in hall or parlour without a great silence falling upon every
one present, followed by a breaking up of the only too small circle of
unhappy guests into agitated groups. But I appeared to see nothing of
all this till the proper moment, when, turning suddenly upon them all, I
cried out cheerfully, but with a certain deference I thought would
please them:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have an interesting fact to announce. The snow
which was taken up from the driveway has been put to melt in the great
feed caldron over the stable fire. We expect to find the ruby at the
bottom, and Mrs. Ashley invites you to be present at its recovery. It
has now stopped snowing, and she thought you might enjoy the excitement
of watching the water ladled out."

A dozen girls bounded forward.

"Oh yes! What fun! Where are our cloaks--our rubbers?"

Two only stood hesitating. One of these was Mr. Deane's lady-love, and
the other her friend, Miss Glover. The former, perhaps, secretly
wondered. The latter--but I dared not look long enough or closely enough
in her direction to judge rightly of her emotions. Amid the bustle which
now ensued I caught sight of Mr. Deane's face peering from an open
doorway. It was all alive with hope. I also perceived a lady looking
down from the second storey, who I felt sure was Mrs. Burton herself.
Evidently my confident tone had produced more effect than the words
themselves. Every one looked upon the jewel as already recovered, and
regarded my invitation to the stable as a ruse by which I hoped to
restore universal good feeling by giving them all a share in my triumph.

All but one! Nothing could make Miss Glover look otherwise than anxious,
restless, and unsettled; and though she followed in the wake of the
rest, it was with hidden face and lagging step, as if she recognised
the whole thing as a farce, and doubted her own power to go through it
calmly.

"Ah, ha! my lady," thought I, "only be patient and you will see what I
shall do for you." And, indeed, I thought her eye brightened as we all
drew up around the huge caldron standing full of water over the stable
stove. As pains had already been taken to put out the fire in this
stove, the ladies were not afraid of injuring their dresses, and
consequently crowded as close as their numbers would permit. Miss Glover
especially stood within reach of the brim, and as soon as I noted this,
I gave the signal which had been agreed upon between Mr. Ashley and
myself. Instantly the electric lights went out, leaving the place in
total darkness.

A scream from the girls, a burst of hilarious laughter from their
escorts, mingled with loud apologies from their seemingly mischievous
host, filled up the interval of darkness which I had insisted should not
be too soon curtailed; then the lights flared up as suddenly as they had
gone out, and while the glare was fresh on every face, I stole a glance
at Miss Glover to see if she had made good use of the opportunity given
her for ridding herself of the jewel by dropping it into the caldron. If
she had, both her troubles and mine were at an end; if she had not, then
I need feel no further scruple in approaching her with the direct
question I had hitherto found it so difficult to put.

She stood with both hands grasping her cloak, which she had drawn
tightly about the rich folds of her new and expensive dress; but her
eyes were fixed straight before her, with a soft light in their depths
which made her positively beautiful.

The jewel is in the pot, I inwardly decided, and ordered the two waiting
stablemen to step forward with their ladles. Quickly those ladles went
in, but before they could be lifted out dripping, half the ladies had
scurried back, afraid of injury to their pretty dresses. But they soon
sidled forward again, and watched with beaming eyes the slow but sure
emptying of the great caldron at whose bottom they anticipated finding
the lost jewel.

As the ladles were plunged deeper and deeper, the heads drew closer, and
so great was the interest shown that the busiest lips forgot to chatter,
and eyes whose only business up till now had been to follow with shy
curiosity every motion made by their handsome young host now settled on
the murky depths of the great pot whose bottom was almost in sight.

As I heard the ladles strike this bottom, I instinctively withdrew a
step in anticipation of the loud hurrah which would naturally hail the
first sight of the lost ruby. Conceive, then, my chagrin, my bitter and
mortified disappointment, when, after one look at the broad surface of
the now exposed bottom, the one shout which rose was: "_Nothing!_"

I was so thoroughly put out that I did not wait to hear the loud
complaints which burst from every lip. Drawing Mr. Ashley aside (who, by
the way, seemed as much affected as myself by the turn affairs had
taken), I remarked to him that, after this, there was only one course
left for me to take.

"And what is that?"

"To ask Miss Glover to show me what she picked up from your driveway."

"And if she refuses?"

"To take her quietly with me to the station, where we have women who can
make sure that the ruby is not on her person."

Mr. Ashley made an involuntary gesture of strong repugnance.

"Let us pray that it will not come to that," he objected hoarsely. "Such
a fine figure of a girl! Did you notice how bright and happy she looked
when the lights sprang up? I declare she struck me as lovely."

"So she did me, and caused me to draw some erroneous conclusions. I
shall have to ask you to procure me an interview with her as soon as we
return to the house."

"She shall meet you in the library."

But when, a few minutes later, she joined me in the room just
designated, I own that my task became suddenly hateful to me. She was
not far from my own daughter's age, and, had it not been for her furtive
look of care, appeared almost as blooming and bright. Would it ever come
to pass that a harsh man of the law should feel it his duty to speak to
my Flora as I must now speak to the young girl before me? The thought
made me inwardly recoil, and it was in as gentle a manner as possible
that I made my bow and began with the following remark:

"I hope you will pardon me, Miss Glover--I am told that is your name. I
hate to disturb your pleasure"--this with the tears of alarm and grief
rising in her eyes--"but you can tell me something which will greatly
simplify my task, and possibly put matters in such shape that you and
your friends can be released to your homes."

"I?"

She stood before me with amazed eyes, the colour rising in her cheeks. I
had to force my next words, which, out of consideration for her, I made
as direct as possible.

"Yes, miss. What was the article you were seen to pick up from the
driveway soon after leaving your carriage?"

She started, then stumbled backward, tripping in her long train.

"I pick up?" she murmured. Then with a blush, whether of anger or pride
I could not tell, she coldly answered: "Oh, that was something of my
own--something I had just dropped. I had rather not tell you what it
was."

I scrutinised her closely. She met my eyes squarely, yet not with just
the clear light I should, remembering Flora, have been glad to see
there.

"I think it would be better for you to be entirely frank," said I. "It
was the only article known to have been picked up from the driveway
after Mr. Deane's loss of the ruby; and though we do not presume to say
that it was the ruby, yet the matter would look clearer to us all if you
would frankly state what this object was."

Her whole body seemed to collapse, and she looked as if about to sink.

"Oh, where is Minnie? Where is Mr. Deane?" she moaned, turning and
staring at the door, as if she hoped they would fly to her aid. Then, in
a burst of indignation which I was fain to believe real, she turned on
me with the cry: "It was a bit of paper which I had thrust into the
bosom of my gown. It fell out----"

"Your dressmaker's bill?" I intimated.

"She stared, laughed hysterically for a moment, then sank upon a sofa
nearby, sobbing spasmodically.

"Yes," she cried, after a moment; "my dressmaker's bill. You seem to
know all my affairs." Then suddenly, and with a startling impetuosity,
which drew her to her feet: "Are you going to tell everybody that? Are
you going to state publicly that Miss Glover brought an unpaid bill to
the party, and that because Mr. Deane was unfortunate enough, or
careless enough, to drop and lose the jewel he was bringing to Mrs.
Burton she is to be looked upon as a thief, because she stooped to pick
up this bill which had slipped inadvertently from its hiding-place? I
shall die if you do!" she cried. "I shall die if it is already known,"
she pursued with increasing emotion. "Is it? Is it?"

Her passion was so great, so much greater than any likely to rise in a
breast wholly innocent, that I began to feel very sober.

"No one but Mrs. Ashley, and possibly her son, know about the bill,"
said I, "and no one shall if you will go with that lady to her room, and
make plain to her, in the only way you can, that the extremely valuable
article which has been lost to-night is not in your possession."

She threw up her arms with a scream. "Oh, what a horror! I cannot! I
cannot! Oh, I shall die of shame! My father! My mother!" And she burst
from the room like one distraught.

But in another moment she came cringing back.

"I cannot face them," she said. "They all believe it; they will always
believe it unless I submit! Oh, why did I ever come to this dreadful
place? Why did I order this hateful dress, which I can never pay for,
and which, in spite of the misery it has caused me, has failed to bring
me the----" She did not continue. She had caught my eye and seen there,
perhaps, some evidence of the pity I could not but experience for her.
With a sudden change of tone she advanced upon me with the appeal: "Save
me from this humiliation. I have not seen the ruby. I am as ignorant of
its whereabouts as--as Mr. Ashley himself. Won't you believe me? Won't
they be satisfied if I swear----"

I was really sorry for her. I began to think, too, that some dreadful
mistake had been made. Her manner seemed too ingenuous for guilt. Yet
where could that ruby be, if not with this young girl? Certainly, all
other possibilities had been exhausted, and her story of the bill, even
if accepted, would never quite exonerate her from secret suspicion while
that elusive jewel remained unfound.

"You give me no hope," she moaned. "I must go out before them all, and
ask to have it proved that I am no thief. Oh, if God would only have
pity----!"

"Or some one should succeed in finding----Halloo, what's that?"

A shout had risen from the hall beyond.

She gasped, and we both plunged forward. Mr. Ashley, still in his
overcoat, stood at the other end of the hall, and facing him were ranged
the whole line of young people whom I had left scattered about in the
various parlours. I thought he appeared to be in a peculiar frame of
mind; and when he glanced our way, and saw who was standing with me in
the library doorway, his voice took on a tone which made me doubt
whether he was about to announce good news or bad.

But his first word settled that question.

"Rejoice with me!" he cried. "_The ruby has been found!_ Do you want to
see the culprit, for there is a culprit? We have him at the door. Shall
we bring him in?"

"Yes, yes!" cried several voices, among them that of Mr. Deane, who now
strode forward with beaming eyes and instinctively lifted hand. But some
of the ladies looked frightened, and Mr. Ashley, noting this, glanced
for encouragement in our direction.

He seemed to find it in Miss Glover's eyes. She had quivered and nearly
fallen at that word _found_, but had drawn herself up by this time, and
was awaiting his further action in a fever of relief and hope, which,
perhaps, no one but myself could fully appreciate.

"A vile thief! A most unconscionable rascal!" vociferated Mr. Ashley.
"You must see him, mother; you must see him, ladies, else you will not
realise our good fortune. Open the door there, and bring in the robber!"

At this command, uttered in ringing tones, the huge leaves of the great
front-door swung slowly forward, revealing two sturdy stablemen leading
into view--_a huge horse_.

The scream of astonishment which went up from all sides, united to Mr.
Ashley's shout of hilarity, caused the animal, unused, no doubt, to
drawing-rooms, to rear to the length of his bridle. At which Mr. Ashley
laughed again, and gaily cried:

"Confound the fellow! Look at him, mother! look at him, ladies! Do you
not see guilt written on his brow? It is he who has made us all this
trouble. First, he must needs take umbrage at the two lights with which
we presumed to illuminate our porch; then, envying Mrs. Burton her ruby
and Mr. Deane his reward, seek to rob them both by grinding his hoofs
all over the snow of the driveway till he came upon the jewel which Mr.
Deane had dropped from his pocket, and, taking it up in a ball of snow,
secrete it in his left hind shoe--where it might be yet, if Mr.
Spencer"--here he bowed to a strange gentleman who at that moment
entered--"had not come himself for his daughters, and, going first to
the stable, found his horse so restless and seemingly lame--there, boys,
you may take the wretch away now and harness him, but first hold up that
guilty left hind hoof for the ladies to see--that he stooped to examine
him, and so came upon _this_."

Here the young gentleman brought forward his hand. In it was a
nondescript little wad, well soaked and shapeless; but once he had
untied the kid, such a ray of rosy light burst from his outstretched
palm that I doubt if a single woman there noted the clatter of the
retiring beast or the heavy clang made by the two front-doors as they
shut upon the _robber_. Eyes and tongues were too busy, and Mr. Ashley,
realising, probably, that the interest of all present would remain, for
a few minutes at least, with this marvellous jewel so astonishingly
recovered, laid it, with many expressions of thankfulness, in Mrs.
Burton's now eagerly outstretched palm, and advancing towards us,
greeted Miss Glover with a smile.

"Congratulate me," he prayed. "All our troubles are over. Oh, what now?"

The poor young thing, in trying to smile, had turned as white as a
sheet. Before either of us could interpose an arm, she had slipped to
the floor in a dead faint. With a murmur of pity and possibly of inward
contrition, he stooped over her, and together we carried her into the
library, where I left her in his care, confident, from certain
indications, that my presence would not be greatly missed by either of
them.

Whatever hope I may have had of reaping the reward offered by Mrs.
Ashley was now lost, but in the satisfaction I experienced at finding
this young girl as innocent as my Flora, I did not greatly care.

Well, it all ended even more happily than may here appear. The horse not
putting in his claim to the reward, and Mr. Spencer repudiating all
right to it, it was paid in full to Mr. Deane, who, accompanied by his
two ladies, went home in as buoyant a state of mind as was possible to
him after the great anxieties of the preceding two hours. I was told
that Mr. Ashley declined to close the carriage door upon them till the
whole three had promised to come again the following night.

Anxious to make such amends as I personally could for my share in the
mortification to which Miss Glover had been subjected, I visited her in
the morning, with the intention of offering a suggestion or two in
regard to that little bill. But she met my first advance with a radiant
smile and the glad exclamation:

"Oh, I have settled all that! I have just come from Madame Dupré's. I
told her that I had never imagined the dress could possibly cost more
than a hundred dollars, and I offered her that sum if she would take the
garment back. And she did, she did, and I shall never have to wear that
dreadful satin again!"

I made a note of this dressmaker's name. She and I may have a bone to
pick some day. But I said nothing to Miss Glover. I merely exclaimed:

"And to-night?"

"Oh, I have an old spotted muslin which, with a few natural flowers,
will make me look festive enough. One does not need fine clothes when
one is--happy."

The dreamy far-off smile with which she finished the sentence was more
eloquent than words, and I was not surprised when some time later I read
of her engagement to Mr. Ashley.

But it was not till she could sign herself with his name that she told
me just what underlay the misery of that night. She had met Harrison
Ashley more than once before, and, though she did not say so, had
evidently conceived an admiration for him which made her especially
desirous of attracting and pleasing him. Not understanding the world
very well, certainly having very little knowledge of the tastes and
feelings of wealthy people, she conceived that the more brilliantly she
was attired the more likely she would be to please this rich young man.
So in a moment of weakness she decided to devote all her small savings
(a hundred dollars, as we know) to buying a gown such as she felt she
could appear in at his house without shame.

It came home--as dresses from French dress-makers are very apt to
do--just in time for her to put it on for the party. The bill came with
it, and when she saw the amount--it was all itemised, and she could find
no fault with anything but the summing up--she was so overwhelmed that
she nearly fainted. But she could not give up her ball; so she dressed
herself, and, being urged all the time to hurry, hardly stopped to give
one look at the new and splendid gown which had cost so much. The
bill--the incredible, the enormous bill--was all she could think of, and
the figures, which represented nearly her whole year's earnings, danced
constantly before her eyes. She could not possibly pay it, nor could she
ask her father to do so. She was ruined. But the ball and Mr.
Ashley--these still awaited her; so presently she worked herself up to
some anticipation of enjoyment, and, having thrown on her cloak, was
turning down her light preparatory to departure, when her eye fell on
the bill lying open on her dresser.

It would never do to leave it there--never do to leave it anywhere in
her room. There were prying eyes in the house, and she was as ashamed of
that bill as she might have been of a contemplated theft. So she tucked
it into her corsage, and went down to join her friends in the carriage.

The rest we know, with the exception of one small detail which turned to
gall whatever enjoyment she was able to get out of the evening. There
was a young girl present, dressed in a simple muslin gown. While looking
at it, and inwardly contrasting it with her own splendour, Mr. Ashley
passed by with another gentleman, and she heard him say:

"How much better young girls look in simple white than in the elaborate
silks suited only to their mothers!"

Thoughtless words--possibly forgotten as soon as uttered--they sharply
pierced this already sufficiently stricken and uneasy breast, and were
the cause of the tears which had aroused my suspicion when I came upon
her in the library, standing with her face to the night.

But who can say whether, if the evening had been devoid of these
occurrences, and no emotions of contrition and pity had been awakened in
her behalf in the breast of her chivalrous host, she would ever have
become Mrs. Ashley?



THE LITTLE STEEL COILS


I

"A Lady to see you, sir."

I looked up and was at once impressed by the grace and beauty of the
person thus introduced to me.

"Is there anything I can do to serve you?" I asked, rising.

She cast me a childlike look full of trust and candour as she seated
herself in the chair I had pointed out.

"I believe so; I hope so," she earnestly assured me. "I--I am in great
trouble. I have just lost my husband--but it is not that. It is the slip
of paper I found on my dresser, and which--which----"

She was trembling violently and her words were fast becoming incoherent.
I calmed her and asked her to relate her story just as it had happened;
and after a few minutes of silent struggle she succeeded in collecting
herself sufficiently to respond with some degree of connection and
self-possession.

"I have been married six months. My name is Lucy Holmes. For the last
few weeks my husband and I have been living in an apartment house on
Fifty-ninth Street, and, as we had not a care in the world, we were very
happy till Mr. Holmes was called away on business to Philadelphia. This
was two weeks ago. Five days later I received an affectionate letter
from him, in which he promised to come back the next day; and the news
so delighted me that I accepted an invitation to the theatre from some
intimate friends of ours. The next morning I naturally felt fatigued and
rose late; but I was very cheerful, for I expected my husband at noon.
And now comes the perplexing mystery. In the course of dressing myself I
stepped to my bureau, and seeing a small newspaper slip attached to the
cushion by a pin, I drew it off and read it. It was a death notice, and
my hair rose and my limbs failed me as I took in its fatal and
incredible words.

"'Died this day at the Colonnade, James Forsythe De Witt Holmes. New
York papers please copy.'

"James Forsythe De Witt Holmes was my husband, and his last letter,
which was at that very moment lying beside the cushion, had been dated
from the Colonnade. Was I dreaming or under the spell of some frightful
hallucination which led me to misread the name on the slip of paper
before me? I could not determine. My head, throat, and chest seemed
bound about with iron, so that I could neither speak nor breathe with
freedom, and, suffering thus, I stood staring at this demoniacal bit of
paper which in an instant had brought the shadow of death upon my happy
life. Nor was I at all relieved when a little later I flew with the
notice into a neighbour's apartment, and praying her to read it to me,
found that my eyes had not deceived me and that the name was indeed my
husband's and the notice one of death.

"Not from my own mind but from hers came the first suggestion of
comfort.

"'It cannot be your husband who is meant,' said she; 'but some one of
the same name. Your husband wrote to you yesterday, and this person must
have been dead at least two days for the printed notice of his decease
to have reached New York. Some one has remarked the striking similarity
of names, and wishing to startle you, cut the slip out and pinned it on
your cushion.'

"I certainly knew of no one inconsiderate enough to do this, but the
explanation was so plausible, I at once embraced it and sobbed aloud in
my relief. But in the midst of my rejoicing I heard the bell ring in my
apartment, and, running thither, encountered a telegraph boy holding in
his outstretched hand the yellow envelope which so often bespeaks death
or disaster. The sight took my breath away. Summoning my maid, whom I
saw hastening toward me from an inner room, I begged her to open the
telegram for me. Sir, I saw in her face, before she had read the first
line, a confirmation of my very worst fears. My husband was----"

The young widow, choked with her emotions, paused, recovered herself for
the second time, and then went on.

"I had better show you the telegram."

Taking it from her pocketbook, she held it toward me. I read it at a
glance. It was short, simple, and direct:

"Come at once. Your husband found dead in his room this morning. Doctors
say heart disease. Please telegraph."

"You see it says this morning," she explained, placing her delicate
finger on the word she so eagerly quoted. "That means a week ago
Wednesday, the same day on which the printed slip recording his death
was found on my cushion. Do you not see something very strange in this?"

I did; but, before I ventured to express myself on this subject, I
desired her to tell me what she had learned in her visit to
Philadelphia.

Her answer was simple and straightforward.

"But little more than you find in this telegram. He died in his room. He
was found lying on the floor near the bell-button, which he had
evidently risen to touch. One hand was clenched on his chest, but his
face wore a peaceful look, as if death had come too suddenly to cause
him much suffering. His bed was undisturbed; he had died before
retiring, possibly in the act of packing his trunk, for it was found
nearly ready for the expressman. Indeed, there was every evidence of his
intention to leave on an early morning train. He had even desired to be
awakened at six o'clock; and it was his failure to respond to the
summons of the bellboy which led to so early a discovery of his death.
He had never complained of any distress in breathing, and we had always
considered him a perfectly healthy man; but there was no reason for
assigning any other cause than heart failure to his sudden death, and so
the burial certificate was made out to that effect, and I was allowed to
bring him home and bury him in our vault at Woodlawn. But"--and here her
earnestness dried up the tears which had been flowing freely during this
recital of her husband's lonely death and sad burial--"do you not think
an investigation should be made into a death preceded by a false
obituary notice? For I found when I was in Philadelphia that no
paragraph such as I had found pinned to my cushion had been inserted in
any paper there, nor had any other man of the same name ever registered
at the Colonnade, much less died there."

"Have you this notice with you?" I asked.

She immediately produced it, and while I was glancing it over remarked:

"Some persons would give a superstitious explanation to the whole
matter; think I had received a supernatural warning and been satisfied
with what they would call a spiritual manifestation. But I have not a
bit of such folly in my composition. Living hands set up the type and
printed the words which gave me so deathly a shock; and hands, with a
real purpose in them, cut it from the paper and pinned it to my cushion
for me to see when I woke on that fatal morning. But whose hands? That
is what I want you to discover."

I had caught the fever of her suspicions long before this and now felt
justified in showing my interest.

"First, let me ask," said I, "who has access to your rooms besides your
maid?"

"No one; absolutely no one."

"And what of her?"

"She is innocence herself. She is no common housemaid, but a girl my
mother brought up, who for love of me consents to do such work in the
household as my simple needs require."

"I should like to see her."

"There is no objection to your doing so; but you will gain nothing by
it. I have already talked the subject over with her a dozen times and
she is as much puzzled by it as I am myself. She says she cannot see how
any one could have found an entrance to my room during my sleep, as the
doors were all locked. Yet, as she very naturally observes, some one
must have done so, for she was in my bedroom herself just before I
returned from the theatre, and can swear, if necessary, that no such
slip of paper was to be seen on my cushion at that time, for her duties
led her directly to my bureau and kept her there for full five minutes."

"And you believed her?" I suggested.

"Implicitly."

"In what direction, then, do your suspicions turn?"

"Alas! in no direction. That is the trouble. I don't know whom to
mistrust. It was because I was told that you had the credit of seeing
light where others can see nothing but darkness that I have sought your
aid in this emergency. For the uncertainty surrounding this matter is
killing me and will make my sorrow quite unendurable if I cannot obtain
relief from it."

"I do not wonder," I began, struck by the note of truth in her tones.
"And I shall certainly do what I can for you. But before we go any
further, let us examine this scrap of newspaper and see what we can make
out of it."

I had already noted two or three points in connection with it to which I
now proceeded to direct her attention.

"Have you compared this notice," I pursued, "with such others as you
find every day in the papers?"

"No," was her eager answer. "Is it not like them all----"

"Read," was my quiet interruption. "'On this day at the Colonnade'--on
what day? The date is usually given in all the bona fide notices I have
seen."

"Is it?" she asked, her eyes, moist with unshed tears, opening widely in
her astonishment.

"Look in the papers on your return home and see. Then the print. Observe
that the type is identical on both sides of this make-believe clipping,
while in fact there is always a perceptible difference between that used
in the obituary column and that to be found in the columns devoted to
other matter. Notice also," I continued, holding up the scrap of paper
between her and the light, "that the alignment on one side is not
exactly parallel with that on the other; a discrepancy which would not
exist if both sides had been printed on a newspaper press. These facts
lead me to conclude, first, that the effort to match the type exactly
was the mistake of a man who tried to do too much; and, secondly, that
one of the sides at least, presumably that containing the obituary
notice, was printed on a hand-press, on the blank side of a piece of
galley proof picked up in some newspaper office."

"Let me see." And stretching out her hand with the utmost eagerness, she
took the slip and turned it over. Instantly a change took place in her
countenance. She sank back in her seat and a blush of manifest confusion
suffused her cheeks. "Oh!" she exclaimed; "what will you think of me! I
brought this scrap of print into the house _myself_, and it was I who
pinned it on the cushion with my own hands! I remember it now. The sight
of those words recalls the whole occurrence."

"Then there is one mystery less for us to solve," I remarked, somewhat
drily.

"Do you think so?" she protested, with a deprecatory look. "For me the
mystery deepens, and becomes every minute more serious. It is true that
I brought this scrap of newspaper into the house, and that it had, then
as now, the notice of my husband's death upon it, but the time of my
bringing it in was Tuesday night, and he was not found dead till
Wednesday morning."

"A discrepancy worth noting," I remarked.

"Involving a mystery of some importance," she concluded.

I agreed to that.

"And since we have discovered how the slip came into your room, we can
now proceed to the clearing up of this mystery," I observed. "You can,
of course, inform me where you procured this clipping which you say you
brought into the house?"

"Yes. You may think it strange, but when I alighted from the carriage
that night, a man on the sidewalk put this tiny scrap of paper into my
hand. It was done so mechanically that it made no more impression on my
mind than the thrusting of an advertisement upon me. Indeed, I supposed
it was an advertisement, and I only wonder that I retained it in my hand
at all. But that I did do so, and that, in a moment of abstraction, I
went so far as to pin it to my cushion, is evident from the fact that a
vague memory remains in my mind of having read this recipe which you see
printed on the reverse side of the paper."

"It was the recipe, then, and not the obituary notice which attracted
your attention the night before?"

"Probably, but in pinning it to the cushion, it was the obituary notice
that chanced to come uppermost. Oh, why should I not have remembered
this till now! Can you understand my forgetting a matter of so much
importance?"

"Yes," I allowed, after a momentary consideration of her ingenuous
countenance. "The words you read in the morning were so startling that
they disconnected themselves from those you had carelessly glanced at
the night before."

"That is it," she replied; "and since then I have had eyes for the one
side only. How could I think of the other? But who could have printed
this thing and who was the man who put it into my hand? He looked like a
beggar, but----Oh!" she suddenly exclaimed, her cheeks flushing scarlet
and her eyes flashing with a feverish, almost alarming glitter.

"What is it now?" I asked. "Another recollection?"

"Yes." She spoke so low I could hardly hear her. "He coughed and----"

"And what?" I encouragingly suggested, seeing that she was under some
new and overwhelming emotion.

"That cough had a familiar sound, now that I think of it. It was like
that of a friend who----But no, no; I will not wrong him by any false
surmises. He would stoop to much, but not to that; yet----"

The flush on her cheeks had died away, but the two vivid spots which
remained showed the depth of her excitement.

"Do you think," she suddenly asked, "that a man out of revenge might
plan to frighten me by a false notice of my husband's death, and that
God to punish him, made the notice a prophecy?"

"I think a man influenced by the spirit of revenge might do almost
anything," I answered, purposely ignoring the latter part of her
question.

"But I always considered him a good man. At least I never looked upon
him as a wicked one. Every other beggar we meet has a cough; and yet,"
she added after a moment's pause, "if it was not he who gave me this
mortal shock, who was it? He is the only person in the world I ever
wronged."

"Had you not better tell me his name?" I suggested.

"No, I am in too great doubt. I should hate to do him a second injury."

"You cannot injure him if he is innocent. My methods are very safe."

"If I could forget his cough! but it had that peculiar catch in it that
I remembered so well in the cough of John Graham. I did not pay any
especial heed to it at the time. Old days and old troubles were far
enough from my thoughts; but now that my suspicions are raised, that
low, choking sound comes back to me in a strangely persistent way, and I
seem to see a well-remembered form in the stooping figure of this
beggar. Oh, I hope the good God will forgive me if I attribute to this
disappointed man a wickedness he never committed."

"Who is John Graham?" I urged, "and what was the nature of the wrong you
did him?"

She rose, cast me one appealing glance, and perceiving that I meant to
have her whole story, turned towards the fire and stood warming her feet
before the hearth, with her face turned away from my gaze.

"I was once engaged to marry him," she began. "Not because I loved him,
but because we were very poor--I mean my mother and myself--and he had
a home and seemed both good and generous. The day came when we were to
be married--this was in the West, way out in Kansas--and I was even
dressed for the wedding, when a letter came from my uncle here, a rich
uncle, very rich, who had never had anything to do with my mother since
her marriage, and in it he promised me fortune and everything else
desirable in life if I would come to him, unencumbered by any foolish
ties. Think of it! And I within half an hour of marriage with a man I
had never loved and now suddenly hated. The temptation was overwhelming,
and, heartless as my conduct may appear to you, I succumbed to it.
Telling my lover that I had changed my mind, I dismissed the minister
when he came, and announced my intention of proceeding East as soon as
possible. Mr. Graham was simply paralysed by his disappointment, and
during the few days which intervened before my departure, I was haunted
by his face, which was like that of a man who had died from some
overwhelming shock. But when I was once free of the town, especially
after I arrived in New York, I forgot alike his misery and himself.
Everything I saw was so beautiful! Life was so full of charm, and my
uncle so delighted with me and everything I did! Then there was James
Holmes, and after I had seen him----But I cannot talk of that. We loved
each other, and under the surprise of this new delight how could I be
expected to remember the man I had left behind me in that barren region
in which I had spent my youth? But he did not forget the misery I had
caused him. He followed me to New York; and on the morning I was married
found his way into the house, and mixing with the wedding guests,
suddenly appeared before me just as I was receiving the congratulations
of my friends. At sight of him I experienced all the terror he had
calculated upon causing, but remembering our old relations and my new
position, I assumed an air of apparent haughtiness. This irritated John
Graham. Flushing with anger, and ignoring my imploring look, he cried
peremptorily, 'Present me to your husband!' and I felt forced to present
him. But his name produced no effect upon Mr. Holmes. I had never told
him of my early experience with this man, and John Graham, perceiving
this, cast me a bitter glance of disdain and passed on, muttering
between his teeth, 'False to me and false to him! Your punishment be
upon you!' and I felt as if I had been cursed."

She stopped here, moved by emotions readily to be understood. Then with
quick impetuosity she caught up the thread of her story and went on.

"That was six months ago; and again I forgot. My mother died and my
husband soon absorbed my every thought. How could I dream that this man,
who was little more than a memory to me and scarcely that, was secretly
planning mischief against me? Yet this scrap about which we have talked
so much may have been the work of his hands; and even my husband's
death----"

She did not finish, but her face, which was turned towards me, spoke
volumes.

"Your husband's death shall be inquired into," I assured her. And she,
exhausted by the excitement of her discoveries, asked that she might be
excused from further discussion of the subject at that time.

As I had no wish, myself, to enter any more fully into the matter just
then, I readily acceded to her request, and the pretty widow left me.


II

Obviously the first fact to be settled was whether Mr. Holmes had died
from purely natural causes. I accordingly busied myself the next few
days with the question, and was fortunate enough to so interest the
proper authorities that an order was issued for the exhumation and
examination of the body.

The result was disappointing. No traces of poison were to be found in
the stomach nor was there to be seen on the body any mark of violence
with the exception of a minute prick upon one of his thumbs.

This speck was so small that it escaped every eye but my own.

The authorities assuring the widow that the doctor's certificate given
her in Philadelphia was correct, the body was again interred. But I was
not satisfied; and confident that this death had not been a natural one,
I entered upon one of those secret and prolonged investigations which
for so many years have constituted the pleasure of my life. First, I
visited the Colonnade in Philadelphia, and being allowed to see the room
in which Mr. Holmes died, went through it carefully. As it had not been
used since that time I had some hopes of coming upon a clue.

But it was a vain hope, and the only result of my journey to this place
was the assurance I received that the gentleman had spent the entire
evening preceding his death in his own room, where he had been brought
several letters and one small package, the latter coming by mail. With
this one point gained--if it was a point--I went back to New York.

Calling on Mrs. Holmes, I asked her if, while her husband was away, she
had sent him anything besides letters, and upon her replying to the
contrary, requested to know if in her visit to Philadelphia she had
noted among her husband's effects anything that was new or unfamiliar to
her. "For he received a package while there," I explained, "and though
its contents may have been perfectly harmless, it is just as well for us
to be assured of this before going any further."

"Oh, you think, then, he was really the victim of some secret violence."

"We have no proof of it," I said. "On the contrary, we are assured that
he died from natural causes. But the incident of the newspaper slip
outweighs, in my mind, the doctor's conclusions, and until the mystery
surrounding that obituary notice has been satisfactorily explained by
its author I shall hold to the theory that your husband has been made
away with in some strange and seemingly unaccountable manner, which it
is our duty to bring to light."

"You are right! You are right! Oh, John Graham!"

She was so carried away by this plain expression of my belief that she
forgot the question I had put to her.

"You have not said whether or not you found anything among your
husband's effects that can explain this mystery," I suggested.

She at once became attentive.

"Nothing," said she; "his trunks were already packed and his bag nearly
so. There were a few things lying about the room which I saw thrust into
the latter. Would you like to look through them? I have not had the
heart to open the bag since I came back."

As this was exactly what I wished, I said as much, and she led me into a
small room, against the wall of which stood a trunk with a
travelling-bag on top of it. Opening the latter, she spread the contents
out on the trunk.

"I know all these things," she sadly murmured, the tears welling in her
eyes.

"This?" I inquired, lifting up a bit of coiled wire with two or three
rings dangling from it.

"No; why, what is that?"

"It looks like a puzzle of some kind."

"Then it is of no consequence. My husband was forever amusing himself
over some such contrivance. All his friends knew how well he liked
these toys and frequently sent them to him. This one evidently reached
him from Philadelphia."

Meanwhile I was eyeing the bit of wire curiously. It was undoubtedly a
puzzle, but it had appendages to it that I did not understand.

"It is more than ordinarily complicated," I observed, moving the rings
up and down in a vain endeavour to work them off.

"The better he would like it," she said.

I kept working with the rings. Suddenly I gave a painful start. A little
prong in the handle of the toy had started out and pierced me.

"You had better not handle it," said I, and laid it down. But the next
moment I took it up again and put it in my pocket. The prick made by
this treacherous bit of mechanism was in or near the same place on my
thumb as the one I had noticed on the hand of the deceased Mr. Holmes.

There was a fire in the room, and before proceeding further I cauterised
that prick with the end of a red-hot poker. Then I made my adieux to
Mrs. Holmes and went immediately to a chemist friend of mine.

"Test the end of this bit of steel for me," said I. "I have reason to
believe it carries with it a deadly poison."

He took the toy, promising to subject it to every test possible and let
me know the result. Then I went home. I felt ill, or imagined I did,
which under the circumstances was almost as bad.

Next day, however, I was quite well, with the exception of a certain
inconvenience in my thumb. But not till the following week did I receive
the chemist's report. It overthrew my whole theory. He found nothing,
and returned me the bit of steel.

But I was not convinced.

"I will hunt up this John Graham," thought I, "and study him."

But this was not so easy a task as it may appear. As Mrs. Holmes
possessed no clue to the whereabouts of her quondam lover, I had nothing
to aid me in my search for him, save her rather vague description of his
personal appearance and the fact that he was constantly interrupted in
speaking by a low, choking cough. However, my natural perseverance
carried me through. After seeing and interviewing a dozen John Grahams
without result, I at last lit upon a man of that name who presented a
figure of such vivid unrest and showed such a desperate hatred of his
fellows, that I began to entertain hopes of his being the person I was
in search of. But determined to be sure of this before proceeding
further, I confided my suspicions to Mrs. Holmes, and induced her to
accompany me down to a certain spot on the "Elevated" from which I had
more than once seen this man go by to his usual lounging place in
Printing House Square.

She showed great courage in doing this, for she had such a dread of him
that she was in a state of nervous excitement from the moment she left
her house, feeling sure that she would attract his attention and thus
risk a disagreeable encounter. But she might have spared herself these
fears. He did not even glance up in passing us, and it was mainly by his
walk she recognised him. But she did recognise him; and this nerved me
at once to set about the formidable task of fixing upon him a crime
which was not even admitted as a fact by the authorities.

He was a man-about-town, living, to all appearances, by his wits. He was
to be seen mostly in the downtown portions of the city, standing for
hours in front of some newspaper office, gnawing at his finger-ends, and
staring at the passers-by with a hungry look alarming to the timid and
provoking alms from the benevolent. Needless to say that he rejected the
latter expression of sympathy with angry contempt.

His face was long and pallid, his cheek-bones high, and his mouth bitter
and resolute in expression. He wore neither beard nor moustache, but
made up for their lack by an abundance of light-brown hair, which hung
very nearly to his shoulders. He stooped in standing, but as soon as he
moved, showed decision and a certain sort of pride which caused him to
hold his head high and his body more than usually erect. With all these
good points his appearance was decidedly sinister, and I did not wonder
that Mrs. Holmes feared him.

My next move was to accost him. Pausing before the doorway in which he
stood, I addressed him some trivial question. He answered me with
sufficient politeness, but with a grudging attention which betrayed the
hold which his own thoughts had upon him. He coughed while speaking, and
his eye, which for a moment rested on mine, produced an impression upon
me for which I was hardly prepared, great as was my prejudice against
him. There was such an icy composure in it; the composure of an
envenomed nature conscious of its superiority to all surprises. As I
lingered to study him more closely, the many dangerous qualities of the
man became more and more apparent to me; and convinced that to proceed
further without deep and careful thought would be to court failure where
triumph would set me up for life, I gave up all present attempt at
enlisting him in conversation and went away in an inquiring and serious
mood.

In fact, my position was a peculiar one, and the problem I had set for
myself one of unusual difficulty. Only by means of some extraordinary
device such as is seldom resorted to by the police of this or any other
nation, could I hope to arrive at the secret of this man's conduct, and
triumph in a matter which to all appearance was beyond human
penetration.

But what device? I knew of none, nor through two days and nights of
strenuous thought did I receive the least light on the subject. Indeed,
my mind seemed to grow more and more confused the more I urged it into
action. I failed to get inspiration indoors or out; and feeling my
health suffer from the constant irritation of my recurring
disappointment, I resolved to take a day off and carry myself and my
perplexities into the country.

I did so. Governed by an impulse which I did not then understand, I went
to a small town in New Jersey and entered the first house on which I saw
the sign "Room to Let." The result was most fortunate. No sooner had I
crossed the threshold of the neat and homely apartment thrown open to my
use, than it recalled a room in which I had slept two years before and
in which I had read a little book I was only too glad to remember at
this moment. Indeed, it seemed as if a veritable inspiration had come to
me through this recollection, for though the tale to which I allude was
a simple child's story written for moral purposes, it contained an idea
which promised to be invaluable to me at this juncture. Indeed, by means
of it, I believed myself to have solved the problem that was puzzling
me, and, relieved beyond expression, I paid for the night's lodging I
had now determined to forego, and returned immediately to New York,
having spent just fifteen minutes in the town where I had received this
happy inspiration.

My first step on entering the city was to order a dozen steel coils made
similar to the one which I still believed answerable for James Holmes's
death. My next to learn as far as possible all of John Graham's haunts
and habits. At a week's end I had the springs and knew almost as well as
he did himself where he was likely to be found at all times of the day
and night. I immediately acted upon this knowledge. Assuming a slight
disguise, I repeated my former stroll through Printing House Square,
looking into each doorway as I passed. John Graham was in one of them,
staring in his old way at the passing crowd, but evidently seeing
nothing but the images formed by his own disordered brain. A manuscript
roll stuck out of his breast-pocket, and from the way his nervous
fingers fumbled with it, I began to understand the restless glitter of
his eyes, which were as full of wretchedness as any eyes I have ever
seen.

Entering the doorway where he stood, I dropped at his feet one of the
small steel coils with which I was provided. He did not see it. Stopping
near him, I directed his attention to it by saying:

"Pardon me, but did I not see something drop out of your hand?"

He started, glanced at the seemingly inoffensive toy I had pointed out,
and altered so suddenly and so vividly that it became instantly apparent
that the surprise I had planned for him was fully as keen and searching
a one as I had anticipated. Recoiling sharply, he gave me a quick look,
then glanced down again at his feet as if half expecting to find the
object of his terror gone. But, perceiving it still lying there, he
crushed it viciously with his heel, and uttering some incoherent words
dashed impetuously from the building.

Confident that he would regret this hasty impulse and return, I withdrew
a few steps and waited. And sure enough, in less than five minutes, he
came slinking back. Picking up the coil with more than one sly look
about, he examined it closely. Suddenly he gave a sharp cry and went
staggering out. Had he discovered that the seeming puzzle possessed the
same invisible spring which had made the one handled by James Holmes so
dangerous?

Certain as to the place he would be found next, I made a short cut to an
obscure little saloon in Nassau Street, where I took up my stand in a
spot convenient for seeing without being seen. In ten minutes he was
standing at the bar asking for a drink.

"Whiskey!" he cried. "Straight."

It was given him, but as he set the empty glass down on the counter he
saw lying before him another of the steel springs, and was so confounded
by the sight that the proprietor, who had put it there at my
instigation, thrust out his hand toward him as if half afraid he would
fall.

"Where did that--that _thing_ come from?" stammered John Graham,
ignoring the other's gesture and pointing with a trembling hand at the
insignificant bit of wire between them.

"Didn't it drop from your coat-pocket?" inquired the proprietor. "It
wasn't lying here before you came in."

With a horrible oath the unhappy man turned and fled from the place. I
lost sight of him after that for three hours, then I suddenly came upon
him again. He was walking uptown with a set purpose in his face that
made him look more dangerous than ever. Of course I followed him,
expecting him to turn towards Fifty-ninth Street, but at the corner of
Madison Avenue and Forty-seventh Street he changed his mind and dashed
toward Third Avenue. At Park Avenue he faltered and again turned north,
walking for several blocks as if the fiends were behind him. I began to
think that he was but attempting to walk off his excitement, when, at a
sudden rushing sound in the cut beside us, he stopped and trembled. An
express train was shooting by. As it disappeared in the tunnel beyond,
he looked about him with a blanched face and wandering eye; but his
glance did not turn my way, or, if it did, he failed to attach any
meaning to my near presence.

He began to move on again and this time towards the bridge spanning the
cut. I followed him very closely. In the centre of it he paused and
looked down at the track beneath him. Another train was approaching. As
it came near he trembled from head to foot, and, catching at the railing
against which he leaned, was about to make a quick move forward when a
puff of smoke arose from below and sent him staggering backward, gasping
with a terror I could hardly understand till I saw that the smoke had
taken the form of a spiral and was sailing away before him in what to
his disordered imagination must have looked like a gigantic image of the
coil with which twice before on this day he had found himself
confronted.

It may have been chance and it may have been providence; but whichever
it was it saved him. He could not face that semblance of his haunting
thought; and turning away he cowered down on the neighbouring curbstone,
where he sat for several minutes, with his head buried in his hands;
when he arose again he was his own daring and sinister self. Knowing
that he was now too much master of his faculties to ignore me any
longer, I walked quickly away and left him. I knew where he would be at
six o'clock and had already engaged a table at the same restaurant. It
was seven, however, before he put in an appearance, and by this time he
was looking more composed. There was a reckless air about him, however,
which was perhaps only noticeable to me; for none of the habitués of
this especial restaurant were entirely without it; wild eyes and unkempt
hair being in the majority.

I let him eat. The dinner he ordered was simple and I had not the heart
to interrupt his enjoyment of it.

But when he had finished and came to pay, then I allowed the shock to
come. Under the bill which the waiter laid at the side of his plate was
the inevitable steel coil; and it produced even more than its usual
effect. I own I felt sorry for him.

He did not dash from the place, however, as he had from the liquor
saloon. A spirit of resistance had seized him and he demanded to know
where this object of his fear had come from. No one could tell him (or
would). Whereupon he began to rave and would certainly have done himself
or somebody else an injury if he had not been calmed by a man almost as
wild-looking as himself. Paying his bill, but vowing he would never
enter the place again, he went out, clay white, but with the swaggering
air of a man who had just asserted himself.

He drooped, however, as soon as he reached the street, and I had no
difficulty in following him to a certain gambling den, where he gained
three dollars and lost five. From there he went to his lodgings in West
Tenth Street.

I did not follow him. He had passed through many deep and wearing
emotions since noon, and I had not the heart to add another to them.

But late the next day I returned to this house and rang the bell. It was
already dusk, but there was light enough for me to notice the unrepaired
condition of the iron railings on either side of the old stoop and to
compare this abode of decayed grandeur with the spacious and elegant
apartment in which pretty Mrs. Holmes mourned the loss of her young
husband. Had any such comparison ever been made by the unhappy John
Graham, as he hurried up these battered steps into the dismal halls
beyond?

In answer to my summons there came to the door a young woman to whom I
had but to intimate my wish to see Mr. Graham for her to let me in with
the short announcement:

"Top floor, back room! Door open, he's out; door shut, he's in."

As an open door meant liberty to enter, I lost no time in following the
direction of her finger, and presently found myself in a low attic
chamber overlooking an acre of roofs. A fire had been lighted in the
open grate, and the flickering red beams danced on ceiling and walls
with a cheeriness greatly in contrast to the nature of the business
which had led me there. As they also served to light the room, I
proceeded to make myself at home; and drawing up a chair, sat down at
the fireplace in such a way as to conceal myself from any one entering
the door.

In less than half an hour he came in.

He was in a state of high emotion. His face was flushed and his eyes
burning. Stepping rapidly forward, he flung his hat on the table in the
middle of the room, with a curse that was half cry and half groan. Then
he stood silent and I had an opportunity of noting how haggard he had
grown in the short time which had elapsed since I had seen him last. But
the interval of his inaction was short, and in a moment he flung up his
arms with a loud "Curse her!" that rang through the narrow room and
betrayed the source of his present frenzy. Then he again stood still,
grating his teeth and working his hands in a way terribly suggestive of
the murderer's instinct. But not for long. He saw something that
attracted his attention on the table, a something upon which my eyes had
long before been fixed, and starting forward with a fresh and quite
different display of emotion, he caught up what looked like a roll of
manuscript and began to tear it open.

"Back again! Always back!" wailed from his lips; and he gave the roll a
toss that sent from its midst a small object which he no sooner saw
than he became speechless and reeled back. It was another of the steel
coils.

"Good God!" fell at last from his stiff and working lips. "Am I mad or
has the devil joined in the pursuit against me? I cannot eat, I cannot
drink, but this diabolical spring starts up before me. It is here,
there, everywhere. The visible sign of my guilt; the--the----" He had
stumbled back upon my chair, and turning, saw me.

I was on my feet at once, and noting that he was dazed by the shock of
my presence, I slid quietly between him and the door.

The movement roused him. Turning upon me with a sarcastic smile in which
was concentrated the bitterness of years, he briefly said:

"So I am caught! Well, there has to be an end to men as well as to
things, and I am ready for mine. She turned me away from her door
to-day, and after the hell of that moment I don't much fear any other."

"You had better not talk," I admonished him. "All that falls from you
now will only tell against you on your trial."

He broke into a harsh laugh. "And do you think I care for that? That
having been driven by a woman's perfidy into crime I am going to bridle
my tongue and keep down the words which are my only safeguard from
insanity? No, no; while my miserable breath lasts I will curse her, and
if the halter is to cut short my words, it shall be with her name
blistering my lips."

I attempted to speak, but he would not give me an opportunity. The
passion of weeks had found vent and he rushed on recklessly:

"I went to her house to-day. I wanted to see her in her widow's weeds; I
wanted to see her eyes red with weeping over a grief which owed its
bitterness to me. But she would not grant me admittance. She had me
thrust from her door, and I shall never know how deeply the iron has
sunk into her soul. But"--and here his face showed a sudden change--"I
shall see her if I am tried for murder. She will be in the courtroom--on
the witness stand----"

"Doubtless," I interjected; but his interruption came quickly and with
vehement passion.

"Then I am ready. Welcome trial, conviction, death, even. To confront
her eye to eye is all I wish. She shall never forget it, never!"

"Then you do not deny----" I began.

"I deny nothing," he returned, and held out his hands with a grim
gesture. "How can I, when there falls from everything I touch the
devilish thing which took away the life I hated?"

"Have you anything more to say or do before you leave these rooms?" I
asked.

He shook his head, and then, bethinking himself, pointed to the roll of
paper which he had flung on the table.

"Burn that!" he cried.

I took up the roll and looked at it. It was the manuscript of a poem in
blank verse.

"I have been with it into a dozen newspaper and magazine offices," he
explained with great bitterness. "Had I succeeded in getting a
publisher for it I might have forgotten my wrongs and tried to build up
a new life on the ruins of the old. But they would not have it, none of
them; so I say, burn it! that no memory of me may remain in this
miserable world."

"Keep to the facts!" I severely retorted. "It was while carrying this
poem from one newspaper to another that you secured that bit of print
upon the blank side of which yourself printed the obituary notice with
which you savoured your revenge upon the woman who had disappointed
you."

"You know that? Then you know where I got the poison with which I tipped
the silly toy with which that weak man fooled away his life?"

"No," said I, "I do not know where you got it. I merely know it was no
common poison bought at a druggist's, or from any ordinary chemist."

"It was woorali; the deadly, secret woorali. I got it from--but that is
another man's secret. You will never hear from me anything that will
compromise a friend. I got it, that is all. One drop, but it killed my
man."

The satisfaction, the delight, which he threw into these words are
beyond description. As they left his lips a jet of flame from the
neglected fire shot up and threw his figure for one instant into bold
relief upon the lowering ceiling; then it died out, and nothing but the
twilight dusk remained in the room and on the countenance of this doomed
and despairing man.



THE STAIRCASE AT HEART'S DELIGHT


In the spring of 18--, the attention of the New York police was
attracted by the many cases of well-known men found drowned in the
various waters surrounding the lower portion of our great city. Among
these may be mentioned the name of Elwood Henderson, the noted tea
merchant, whose remains were washed ashore at Redhook Point; and of
Christopher Bigelow, who was picked up off Governor's Island after
having been in the water for five days, and of another well-known
millionaire whose name I cannot now recall, but who, I remember, was
seen to walk towards the East River one March evening, and was not met
with again till the 5th of April, when his body floated into one of the
docks near Peck's Slip.

As it seemed highly improbable that there should have been a concerted
action among so many wealthy and distinguished men to end their lives
within a few weeks of each other, and all by the same method of
drowning, we soon became suspicious that a more serious verdict than
that of suicide should have been rendered in the case of Henderson,
Bigelow, and the other gentleman I have mentioned. Yet one fact, common
to all these cases, pointed so conclusively to deliberate intention on
the part of the sufferers that we hesitated to take action.

This was, that upon the body of each of the above-mentioned persons
there were found, not only valuables in the shape of money and jewelry,
but papers and memoranda of a nature calculated to fix the identity of
the drowned man, in case the water should rob him of his personal
characteristics. Consequently, we could not ascribe these deaths to a
desire for plunder on the part of some unknown person.

I was a young man in those days, and full of ambition. So, though I said
nothing, I did not let this matter drop when the others did, but kept my
mind persistently upon it and waited, with odd results as you will hear,
for another victim to be reported at police headquarters.

Meantime I sought to discover some bond or connection between the
several men who had been found drowned, which would serve to explain
their similar fate. But all my efforts in this direction were fruitless.
There was no bond between them, and the matter remained for a while an
unsolved mystery.

Suddenly one morning a clue was placed, not in my hands, but in those of
a superior official who at that time exerted a great influence over the
whole force. He was sitting in his private room, when there was ushered
into his presence a young man of a dissipated but not unprepossessing
appearance, who, after a pause of marked embarrassment, entered upon the
following story:

"I don't know whether or no I should offer an excuse for the
communication I am about to make; but the matter I have to relate is
simply this: Being hard up last night (for though a rich man's son I
often lack money), I went to a certain pawnshop in the Bowery where I
had been told I could raise money on my prospects. This place--you may
see it some time, so I will not enlarge upon it--did not strike me
favourably; but, being very anxious for a certain definite sum of money,
I wrote my name in a book which was brought to me from some unknown
quarter and proceeded to follow the young woman who attended me into
what she was pleased to call her good master's private office.

"He may have been a good master, but he was anything but a good man. In
short, sir, when he found out who I was, and how much I needed money, he
suggested that I should make an appointment with my father at a place he
called Groll's in Grand Street, where, said he, 'your little affair will
be arranged, and you made a rich man within thirty days. That is,' he
slily added, 'unless your father has already made a will, disinheriting
you.'

"I was shocked, sir, shocked beyond all my powers of concealment, not so
much at his words, which I hardly understood, as at his looks, which had
a world of evil suggestion in them; so I raised my fist and would have
knocked him down, only that I found two young fellows at my elbows, who
held me quiet for five minutes, while the old fellow talked to me. He
asked me if I came to him on a fool's errand or really to get money; and
when I admitted that I had cherished hopes of obtaining a clear two
thousand dollars from him, he coolly replied that he knew of but one
way in which I could hope to get such an amount, and that if I was too
squeamish to adopt it, I had made a mistake in coming to his shop, which
was no missionary institution, etc., etc.

"Not wishing to irritate him, for there was menace in his eye, I asked,
with a certain weak show of being sorry for my former heat, whereabouts
in Grand Street I should find this Groll.

"The retort was quick. 'Groll is not his name,' said he, 'and Grand
Street is not where you are to go to find him. I threw out a bait to see
if you would snap at it, but I find you timid, and therefore advise you
to drop the matter entirely.'

"I was quite willing to do so, and answered him to this effect;
whereupon, with a side glance I did not understand, but which made me
more or less uneasy in regard to his intentions towards me, he motioned
to the men who held my arms to let go their hold, which they at once
did.

"'We have your signature,' growled the old man as I went out. 'If you
peach on us or trouble us in any way we will show it to your father and
that will put an end to all your hopes of future fortune.' Then raising
his voice, he shouted to the girl in the outer office, 'Let the young
man see what he has signed.'

"She smiled and again brought forward the book in which I had so
recklessly placed my name, and there at the top of the page I read these
words: 'For moneys received, I agree to notify Rube Goodman, within the
month, of the death of my father, so that he may recover from me,
without loss of time, the sum of ten thousand dollars as his part of the
amount I am bound to receive as my father's heir.'

"The sight of these lines knocked me hollow. But I am less of a coward
morally than physically, and I determined to acquaint my father at once
with what I had done, and get his advice as to whether or not I should
inform the police of my adventure. He heard me with more consideration
than I expected, but insisted that I should immediately make known to
you my experience in this Bowery pawnbroker's shop."

The officer, highly interested, took down the young man's statement in
writing, and, after getting a more accurate description of the house
itself, allowed his visitor to go.

Fortunately for me, I was in the building at the time, and was able to
respond when a man was called up to investigate this matter. Thinking
that I saw a connection between it and the various mysterious deaths of
which I have previously spoken, I entered into the affair with much
spirit. But, wishing to be sure that my possibly unwarranted conclusions
were correct, I took pains to inquire, before proceeding upon my errand,
into the character of the heirs who had inherited the property of Elwood
Henderson and Christopher Bigelow, and found that in each case there was
one among the rest who was well known for his profligacy and reckless
expenditure. It was a significant discovery, and increased, if
possible, my interest in running down this nefarious trafficker in the
lives of wealthy men.

Knowing that I could hope for no success in my character of detective, I
made an arrangement with the father of the young gentleman before
alluded to, by which I was to enter the pawnshop as an emissary of the
latter. Accordingly, I appeared there, one dull November afternoon, in
the garb of a certain Western sporting man, who, for a consideration,
allowed me the temporary use of his name and credentials.

Entering beneath the three golden balls, with the swagger and general
air of ownership I thought most likely to impose upon the self-satisfied
female who presided over the desk, I asked to see her boss.

"On your own business?" she queried, glancing with suspicion at my short
coat, which was rather more showy than elegant.

"No," I returned, "not on my own business, but on that of a young
gent----"

"Any one whose name is written here?" she interposed, reaching towards
me the famous book, over the top of which, however, she was careful to
lay her arm.

I glanced down the page she had opened and instantly detected that of
the young gentleman on whose behalf I was supposed to be there, and
nodded "Yes," with all the assurance of which I was capable.

"Come, then," said she, ushering me without more ado into a den of
discomfort where sat a man with a great beard and such heavy overhanging
eyebrows that I could hardly detect the twinkle of his eyes, keen and
incisive as they were.

Smiling upon him, but not in the same way I had upon the girl, I glanced
behind me at the open door, and above me at the partitions, which failed
to reach the ceiling. Then I shook my head and drew a step nearer.

"I have come," I insinuatingly whispered, "on behalf of a certain party
who left this place in a huff a day or so ago, but who since then has
had time to think the matter over, and has sent me with an apology which
he hopes"--here I put on a diabolical smile, copied, I declare to you,
from the one I saw at that moment on his own lips--"you will accept."

The old wretch regarded me for full two minutes in a way to unmask me
had I possessed less confidence in my disguise and in my ability to
support it.

"And what is this young gentleman's name?" he finally asked.

For reply, I handed him a slip of paper. He took it and read the few
lines written on it, after which he began to rub his palms softly
together with an unction eminently in keeping with the stray glints of
light that now and then found their way through his bushy eyebrows.

"And so the young gentleman had not the courage to come again himself?"
he softly suggested, with just the suspicion of an ironical laugh.
"Thought, perhaps, I would exact too much commission; or make him pay
too roundly for his impertinent assurance."

I shrugged my shoulders, but vouchsafed no immediate reply, and he saw
that he had to open the business himself. He did it warily and with many
an incisive question which would have tripped me up if I had not been
very much on my guard; but it all ended, as such matters usually do, in
mutual understanding, and a promise that if the young gentleman was
willing to sign a certain paper, which, by the way, was not shown me, he
would in exchange give him an address which, if made proper use of,
would lead to my patron finding himself an independent man within a very
few days.

As this address was the one thing I was most desirous of obtaining, I
professed myself satisfied with the arrangement, and proceeded to hunt
up my patron, as he was called. Informing him of the result of my visit,
I asked if his interest in ferreting out these criminals was strong
enough to lead him to sign the vile document which the pawnbroker would
probably have in readiness for him on the morrow; and being told it was,
we separated for that day, with the understanding that we were to meet
the next morning at the spot chosen by the pawnbroker for the completion
of his nefarious bargain.

Being certain that I was being followed in all my movements by the
agents of this adept in villainy, I took care, upon leaving Mr. L----,
to repair to the hotel of the sporting man I was personifying. Making
myself square with the proprietor I took up my quarters in the room of
my sporting friend, and the better to deceive any spy who might be
lurking about, I received his letters and sent out his telegrams, which,
if they did not create confusion in the affairs of "The Plunger," must
at least have occasioned him no little work the next day.

Promptly at ten o'clock on the following morning I met my patron at the
appointed place of rendezvous; and when I tell you that this was no
other than the ancient and now disused cemetery of which a portion is
still to be seen off Chatham Square, you will understand the uncanny
nature of this whole adventure, and the lurking sense there was in it of
brooding death and horror. The scene, which in these days is disturbed
by elevated railroad trains and the flapping of long lines of
parti-coloured clothes strung high up across the quiet tombstones, was
at that time one of peaceful rest, in the midst of a quarter devoted to
everything for which that rest is the fitting and desirable end; and as
we paused among the mossy stones, we found it hard to realise that in a
few minutes there would be standing beside us the concentrated essence
of all that was evil and despicable in human nature.

He arrived with a smile on his countenance that completed his ugliness,
and would have frightened any honest man from his side at once. Merely
glancing my way, he shuffled up to my companion, and leading him aside,
drew out a paper which he laid on a flat tombstone with a gesture
significant of his desire that the other should affix to it the
required signature.

Meantime I stood guard, and while attempting to whistle a light air, was
carelessly taking in the surroundings, and conjecturing, as best I
might, the reasons which had induced the old ghoul to make use of this
spot for his diabolical business, and had about decided that it was
because he was a ghoul, and thus felt at home among the symbols of
mortality, when I caught sight of two or three young fellows who were
lounging on the other side of the fence.

These were so evidently accomplices that I wondered if the two sly boys
I had engaged to stand by me through this affair had spotted them, and
would know enough to follow them back to their haunts.

A few minutes later, the old rascal came sneaking towards me, with a
gleam of satisfaction in his half-closed eyes.

"You are not wanted any longer," he grunted. "The young gentleman told
me to say that he could look out for himself now."

"The young gentleman had better pay me the round fifty he promised me,"
I grumbled in return, with that sudden change from indifference to
menace which I thought best calculated to further my plans; and
shouldering the miserable wretch aside, I stepped up to my companion,
who was still lingering in a state of hesitation among the gravestones.

"Quick! Tell me the number and street which he has given you!" I
whispered, in a tone quite out of keeping with the angry and
reproachful air I had assumed.

He was about to answer, when the old fellow came sidling up behind us.
Instantly the young man before me rose to the occasion, and putting on
an air of conciliation, said in a soothing tone:

"There, there, don't bluster. Do one thing more for me, and I will add
another fifty to that I promised you. Conjure up an anonymous
letter--you know how--and send it to my father, saying that if he wants
to know where his son loses his hundreds, he must go to the place on the
dock, opposite 5 South Street, some night shortly after nine. It would
not work with most men, but it will with my father, and when he has been
in and out of that place, and I succeed to the fortune he will leave me,
then I will remember you, and----"

"Say, too," a sinister voice here added in my ear, "that if he wishes to
effect an entrance into the gambling den which his son haunts, he must
take the precaution of tying a bit of blue ribbon in his buttonhole. It
is a signal meaning business, and must not be forgotten," chuckled the
old fellow, evidently deceived at last into thinking I was really one of
his own kind.

I answered by a wink, and taking care to attempt no further
communication with my patron, I left the two, as soon as possible, and
went back to the hotel, where I dropped "the sport," and assumed a
character and dress which enabled me to make my way undetected to the
house of my young patron, where for two days I lay low, waiting for a
suitable time in which to make my final attempt to penetrate this
mystery.

I knew that for the adventure I was now contemplating considerable
courage was required. But I did not hesitate. The time had come for me
to show my mettle. In the few communications I was enabled to hold with
my superiors I told them of my progress and arranged with them my plan
of work. As we all agreed that I was about to encounter no common
villainy, these plans naturally partook of finesse, as you will see if
you follow my narrative to the end.

Early in the evening of a cool November day I sallied forth into the
streets, dressed in the habiliments and wearing the guise of the wealthy
old gentleman whose secret guest I had been for the last few days. As he
was old and portly, and I young and spare, this disguise had cost me no
little thought and labour. But assisted as I was by the darkness, I had
but little fear of betraying myself to any chance spy who might be upon
the watch, especially as Mr. L---- had a peculiar walk, which, in my
short stay with him, I had learned to imitate perfectly. In the lapel of
my overcoat I had tied a tag of blue ribbon, and, though for all I knew
this was a signal devoting me to a secret and mysterious death, I walked
along in a buoyant condition of mind, attributable, no doubt, to the
excitement of the venture and to my desire to test my powers, even at
the risk of my life.

It was nine o'clock when I reached South Street. It was no new region
to me, nor was I ignorant of the specified drinking den on the dock to
which I had been directed. I remembered it as a bright spot in a mass of
ship-prows and bow-rigging, and was possessed, besides, of a vague
consciousness that there was something odd in connection with it which
had aroused my curiosity sufficiently in the past for me to have once
formed the resolution of seeing it again under circumstances which would
allow me to give it some attention. But I never thought that the
circumstances would involve my own life, impossible as it is for a
detective to reckon upon the future or to foresee the events into which
he will be hurried by the next crime which may be reported at police
headquarters.

There were but few persons in the street when I crossed to The Heart's
Delight--so named from the heart-shaped opening in the framework of the
door, through which shone a light, inviting enough to one chilled by the
keen November air and oppressed by the desolate appearance of the almost
deserted street. But amongst those persons I thought I recognised more
than one familiar form, and felt reassured as to the watch which had
been set upon the house.

The night was dark and the river especially so, but in the gloomy space
beyond the dock I detected a shadow blacker than the rest, which I took
for the police boat they had promised to have in readiness in case I
needed rescue from the waterside. Otherwise the surroundings were as
usual, and saving the gruff singing of some drunken sailor coming from a
narrow side street near by, no sound disturbed the somewhat lugubrious
silence of this weird and forsaken spot.

Pausing an instant before entering, I glanced up at the building, which
was about three stories high, and endeavoured to see what there was
about it which had once arrested my attention, and came to the
conclusion that it was its exceptional situation on the dock, and the
ghostly effect of the hoisting-beam projecting from the upper story like
a gibbet. And yet this beam was common to many a warehouse in the
vicinity, though in none of them were there any such signs of life as
proceeded from the curious mixture of sail loft, boat shop, and drinking
saloon, now before me. Could it be that the ban of criminality was upon
the house, and that I had been conscious of this without being able to
realise the cause of my interest?

Not stopping to solve my sensations further, I tried the door, and,
finding it yield easily to my touch, turned the knob and entered. For a
moment I was blinded by the smoky glare of the heated atmosphere into
which I stepped, but presently I was able to distinguish the vague
outlines of an oyster bar in the distance, and the motionless figures of
some half-dozen men, whose movements had been arrested by my sudden
entrance. For an instant this picture remained; then the drinking and
card playing were resumed, and I stood, as it were, alone, on the sanded
floor near the door.

Improving the opportunity for a closer inspection of the place, I was
struck by its picturesqueness. It had evidently been once used as a ship
chandlery, and on the walls, which were but partly plastered, there
still hung old bits of marlin, rusty rings, and such other evidences of
former traffic as did not interfere with the present more lucrative
business.

Below were the two bars, one at the right of the door, and the other at
the lower end of the room near a window, through whose small, square
panes I caught a glimpse of the coloured lights of a couple of
ferryboats, passing each other in midstream.

At a table near me sat two men, grumbling at each other over a game of
cards. They were large and powerful figures in the contracted space of
this long and narrow room, and my heart gave a bound of joy as I
recognised on them certain marks by which I was to know friend from foe
in this possible den of thieves and murderers.

Two sailors at the bar were bona fide habitués of the place and so were
the two other waterside characters I could faintly discern in one of the
dim corners. Meantime a man was approaching me.

Let me see if I can describe him. He was about thirty, and had the
complexion and figure of a consumptive, but his eye shone with the
yellow glare of a beast of prey, and in the cadaverous hollows of his
ashen cheeks and amid the lines about his thin drawn lips there lay, for
all his conciliatory smile, an expression so cold and yet so ferocious
that I spotted him at once as the man to whose genius we were indebted
for the new scheme of murder which I was jeopardising my life to
understand. But I allowed none of the repugnance with which he inspired
me to appear in my manner, and, greeting him with half a nod, waited for
him to speak. His voice had that smooth quality which betrays the
hypocrite.

"Has the gentleman any appointment here?" he asked, letting his glance
fall for the merest instant on the lapel of my coat.

I returned a decided affirmative. "Or rather," I went on, with a meaning
look he evidently comprehended, "my son has, and I have made up my mind
to know just what deviltry he is up to these days. I can make it worth
your while to give me the opportunity."

"Oh, I see," he assented with a glance at the pocketbook I had just
drawn out. "You want a private room from which you can watch the young
scapegrace. I understand, I understand. But the private rooms are above.
Gentlemen are not comfortable here."

"I should say not," I murmured, and drew from the pocketbook a bill
which I slid quietly into his hand. "Now take me where I shall be safe,"
I suggested, "and yet in full sight of the room where the young
gentlemen play. I wish to catch him at his tricks. Afterwards----"

"All will be well," he finished smoothly, with another glance at my blue
ribbon. "You see I do not ask you the young gentleman's name. I take
your money and leave all the rest to you. Only don't make a scandal, I
pray, for my house has the name of being quiet."

"Yes," thought I, "too quiet!" and for an instant felt my spirits fail
me. But it was only for an instant. I had friends about me and a pistol
at half-cock in the pocket of my overcoat. Why should I fear any
surprise, prepared as I was for every emergency?

"I will show you up in a moment," said he; and left me to put up a heavy
board shutter over the window opening on the river. Was this a signal or
a precaution? I glanced towards my two friends playing cards, took
another note of their broad shoulders and brawny arms, and prepared to
follow my host, who now stood bowing at the other end of the room,
before a covered staircase which was manifestly the sole means of
reaching the floor above.

The staircase was quite a feature in the room. It ran from back to
front, and was boarded all the way up to the ceiling. On these boards
hung a few useless bits of chain, wire, and knotted ends of tarred
ropes, which swung to and fro as the sharp November blast struck the
building, giving out a weird and strangely muffled sound. Why did this
sound, so easily to be accounted for, ring in my ears like a note of
warning? I understand now, but I did not then, full of expectation as I
was for developments out of the ordinary.

Crossing the room, I entered upon the staircase, in the wake of my
companion. Though the two men at cards did not look up as I passed them,
I noticed that they were alert and ready for any signal I might choose
to give them. But I was not ready to give one yet. I must see danger
before I summoned help, and there was no token of danger yet.

When we were about half-way up the stairs the faint light which had
illuminated us from below suddenly vanished, and we found ourselves in
total darkness. The door at the foot had been closed by a careful hand,
and I felt, rather than heard, the stealthy pushing of a bolt across it.

My first impulse was to forsake my guide and rush back, but I subdued
the unworthy impulse and stood quite still, while my companion,
exclaiming, "Damn that fellow! What does he mean by shutting the door
before we're half-way up!" struck a match and lit a gas jet in the room
above, which poured a flood of light upon the staircase.

Drawing my hand from the pocket in which I had put my revolver, I
hastened after him into the small landing at the top of the stairs. An
open door was before me, in which he stood bowing, with the half-burnt
match in his hand. "This is the place, sir," he announced, motioning me
in.

I entered and he remained by the door, while I passed quickly about the
room, which was bare of every article of furniture save a solitary table
and chair. There was not even a window in it, with the exception of one
small light situated so high up in the corner made by the jutting
staircase that I wondered at its use, and was only relieved of extreme
apprehension at the prison-like appearance of the place by the gleam of
light which came through this dusty pane, showing that I was not
entirely removed from the presence of my foes if I was from that of my
friends.

"Ah, you have spied the window," remarked my host, advancing toward me
with a countenance he vainly endeavoured to make reassuring and
friendly. "That is your post of observation, sir," he whispered, with a
great show of mystery. "By mounting on the table you can peer into the
room where my young friends sit securely at play."

As it was not part of my scheme to show any special mistrust, I merely
smiled a little grimly, and cast a glance at the table on which stood a
bottle of brandy and one glass.

"Very good brandy," he whispered; "not such stuff as we give those
fellows downstairs."

I shrugged my shoulders and he slowly backed towards the door.

"The young men you bid me watch are very quiet," I suggested, with a
careless wave of my hand towards the room he had mentioned.

"Oh, there is no one there yet. They begin to straggle in about ten
o'clock."

"Ah," was my quiet rejoinder, "I am likely, then, to have use for your
brandy."

He smiled again and made a swift motion towards the door.

"If you want anything," said he, "just step to the foot of the staircase
and let me know. The whole establishment is at your service." And with
one final grin that remains in my mind as the most threatening and
diabolical I have ever witnessed, he laid his hand on the knob of the
door and slid quickly out.

It was done with such an air of final farewell that I felt my
apprehensions take a positive form. Rushing towards the door through
which he had just vanished, I listened and heard, as I thought, his
stealthy feet descend the stair. But when I sought to follow, I found
myself for the second time overwhelmed by darkness. The gas jet, which
had hitherto burned with great brightness in the small room, had been
turned off from below, and beyond the faint glimmer which found its way
through the small window of which I have spoken, not a ray of light now
disturbed the heavy gloom of this gruesome apartment.

I had thought of every contingency but this, and for a few minutes my
spirits were dashed. But I soon recovered some remnants of
self-possession, and began feeling for the knob I could no longer see.
Finding it after a few futile attempts, I was relieved to discover that
this door at least was not locked; and, opening it with a careful hand,
I listened intently, but could hear nothing save the smothered sound of
men talking in the room below.

Should I signal for my companions? No, for the secret was not yet mine
as to how men passed from this room into the watery grave which was the
evident goal for all wearers of the blue ribbon.

Stepping back into the middle of the room, I carefully pondered my
situation, but could get no further than the fact that I was somehow,
and in some way, in mortal peril. Would it come in the form of a bullet,
or a deadly thrust from an unseen knife? I did not think so. For, to say
nothing of the darkness, there was one reassuring fact which recurred
constantly to my mind in connection with the murders I was endeavouring
to trace to this den of iniquity.

None of the gentlemen who had been found drowned had shown any marks of
violence on their bodies, so it was not attack I was to fear, but some
mysterious, underhanded treachery which would rob me of consciousness
and make the precipitation of my body into the water both safe and easy.
Perhaps it was in the bottle of brandy that the peril lay; perhaps--but
why speculate further! I would watch till midnight and then, if nothing
happened, signal my companions to raid the house.

Meantime a peep into the next room might help me towards solving the
mystery. Setting the bottle and glass aside, I dragged the table across
the floor, placed it under the lighted window, mounted, and was about to
peer through, when the light in that apartment was put out also. Angry
and overwhelmed, I leaped down, and, stretching out my hands till they
touched the wainscoting, I followed the wall around till I came to the
knob of the door, which I frantically clutched. But I did not turn it
immediately, I was too anxious to catch these villains at work.

Would I be conscious of the harm they meditated against me, or would I
imperceptibly yield to some influence of which I was not yet conscious,
and drop to the floor before I could draw my revolver or put to my mouth
the whistle upon which I depended for assistance and safety? It was hard
to tell, but I determined to cling to my first intention a little
longer, and so stood waiting and counting the minutes, while wondering
if the captain of the police boat was not getting impatient, and whether
I had not more to fear from the anxiety of my friends than the cupidity
of my foes.

You see, I had anticipated communicating with the men in this boat by
certain signals and tokens which had been arranged between us. But the
lack of windows in the room had made all such arrangements futile, so I
knew as little of their actions as they did of my sufferings; all of
which did not tend to add to the cheerfulness of my position.

However, I held out for a half-hour, listening, waiting, and watching in
a darkness which, like that of Egypt, could be felt, and when the
suspense grew intolerable I struck a match and let its blue flame
flicker for a moment over the face of my watch. But the matches soon
gave out and with them my patience, if not my courage, and I determined
to end the suspense by knocking at the door beneath.

This resolution taken, I pulled open the door before me and stepped out.
Though I could see nothing, I remembered the narrow landing at the top
of the stairs, and, stretching out my arms, I felt for the boarding on
either hand, guiding myself by it, and began to descend, when something
rising, as it were, out of the cavernous darkness before me made me halt
and draw back in mingled dread and horror.

But the impression, strong as it was, was only momentary, and, resolved
to be done with the matter, I precipitated myself downward, when
suddenly, at about the middle of the staircase, my feet slipped and I
slid forward, plunging and reaching out with hands whose frenzied grasp
found nothing to cling to, down a steep inclined plane--or what to my
bewildered senses appeared such--till I struck a yielding surface and
passed with one sickening plunge into the icy waters of the river, which
in another moment had closed dark and benumbing above my head.

It was all so rapid I did not think of uttering a cry. But happily for
me the splash I made told the story, and I was rescued before I could
sink a second time.

It was full half an hour before I had sufficiently recovered from the
shock to relate my story. But when once I had made it known, you can
imagine the gusto with which the police prepared to enter the house and
confound the obliging host with a sight of my dripping garments and
accusing face. And, indeed, in all my professional experience I have
never beheld a more sudden merging of the bully into a coward than was
to be seen in this slick villain's face, when I was suddenly pulled from
the crowd and placed before him, with the old man's wig gone from my
head, and the tag of blue ribbon still clinging to my wet coat.

His game was up, and he saw it; and Ebenezer Gryce's career had begun.

Like all destructive things the device by which I had been run into the
river was simple enough when understood. In the first place it had been
constructed to serve the purpose of a stairway and chute. The latter was
in plain sight when it was used by the sailmakers to run the finished
sails into the waiting yawls below. At the time of my adventure, and for
some time before, the possibilities of the place had been discovered by
mine host, who had ingeniously put a partition up the entire stairway,
dividing the steps from the smooth runway. At the upper part of the
runway he had built a few steps, wherewith to lure the unwary far enough
down to insure a fatal descent. To make sure of his game he had likewise
ceiled the upper room all around, including the inclosure of the stairs.

The door to the chute and the door to the stairs were side by side, and
being made of the same boards as the wainscoting, were scarcely visible
when closed, while the single knob that was used, being transferable
from one to the other, naturally gave the impression that there was but
one door. When this adroit villain called my attention to the little
window around the corner, he no doubt removed the knob from the stairs'
door and quickly placed it in the one opening upon the chute. Another
door, connecting the two similar landings without, explains how he got
from the chute staircase into which he passed on leaving me, to the one
communicating with the room below.

The mystery was solved, and my footing on the force secured; but to this
day--and I am an old man now--I have not forgotten the horror of the
moment when my feet slipped from under me, and I felt myself sliding
downward, without hope of rescue, into a pit of heaving waters, where so
many men of conspicuous virtue had already ended their valuable lives.

Myriad thoughts flashed through my brain in that brief interval, and
among them the whole method of operating this death-trap, together with
every detail of evidence that would secure the conviction of the entire
gang.



THE AMETHYST BOX


I

THE FLASK WHICH HELD BUT A DROP

It was the night before the wedding. Though Sinclair, and not myself,
was the happy man, I had my own causes for excitement, and, finding the
heat of the billiard-room insupportable, I sought the veranda for a
solitary smoke in sight of the ocean and a full moon.

I was in a condition of rapturous, if unreasoning, delight. That
afternoon a little hand had lingered in mine for just an instant longer
than the circumstances of the moment strictly required; and small as the
favour may seem to those who do not know Dorothy Camerden, to me, who
realised fully both her delicacy and pride, it was a sign that my long,
if secret, devotion was about to be rewarded, and that at last I was
free to cherish hopes whose alternative had once bid fair to wreck the
happiness of my life.

I was revelling in the felicity of these anticipations, and contrasting
this hour of ardent hope with others of whose dissatisfaction and gloom
I was yet mindful, when a sudden shadow fell across the broad band of
light issuing from the library window, and Sinclair stepped out.

He had the appearance of being disturbed--very much disturbed, I
thought, for a man on the point of marrying the woman for whom he
professed to entertain the one profound passion of his life; but
remembering his frequent causes of annoyance--causes quite apart from
his bride and her personal attributes--I kept on placidly smoking till I
felt his hand on my shoulder, and turned to see that the moment was a
serious one.

"I have something to say to you," he whispered. "Come where we shall run
less risk of being disturbed."

"What's wrong?" I asked, facing him with curiosity, if not with alarm.
"I never saw you look like this before. Has the old lady taken this last
minute to----"

"Hush!" he prayed, emphasising the word with a curt gesture not to be
mistaken. "The little room over the west porch is empty just now. Follow
me there."

With a sigh for the cigar I had so lately lighted, I tossed it into the
bushes and sauntered in after him. I thought I understood his trouble.
The prospective bride was young--a mere slip of a girl indeed--bright,
beautiful, and proud, yet with odd little restraints in her manner and
language, due probably to her peculiar bringing up, and the surprise,
not yet overcome, of finding herself, after an isolated, if not
despised, childhood, the idol of society and the recipient of general
homage. The fault was not with her. But she had for guardian (alas! my
dear girl had the same) an aunt who was a gorgon. This aunt must have
been making herself disagreeable to the prospective bridegroom, and he,
being quick to take offence--quicker than myself, it was said--had
probably retorted in a way to make things unpleasant. As he was a guest
in the house, he and all the other members of the bridal party--Mrs.
Armstrong having insisted upon opening her magnificent Newport villa for
this wedding and its attendant festivities--the matter might well look
black to him. Yet I did not feel disposed to take much interest in it,
even though his case might be mine some day, with all its accompanying
drawbacks.

But once confronted with Sinclair in the well-lighted room above, I
perceived that I had better drop all selfish regrets and give my full
attention to what he had to say. For his eye, which had flashed with an
unusual light at dinner, was clouded now; and his manner, when he strove
to speak, betrayed a nervousness I had considered foreign to his nature
ever since the day I had seen him rein in his horse so calmly on the
extreme edge of a precipice, where a fall would have meant certain
death, not only to himself, but also to the two riders who unwittingly
were pressing closely behind him.

"Walter," he faltered, "something has happened--something dreadful,
something unprecedented! You may think me a fool--God knows, I would be
glad to be proved so!--but this thing has frightened me. I"--he paused
and pulled himself together--"I will tell you about it, then you can
judge for yourself. I am in no condition----"

"Don't beat about the bush! Speak up! What's the matter?"

He gave me an odd look full of gloom--a look I felt the force of, though
I could not interpret it; then, coming closer, though there was no one
within hearing--possibly no one any nearer than the drawing-room
below--he whispered in my ear:

"I have lost a little vial of the deadliest drug ever compounded--a
Venetian curiosity, which I was foolish enough to take out and show the
ladies, because the little box which holds it is such an exquisite
example of jeweller's work. There's death in its taste, almost in its
smell; and it's out of my hands, and----"

"Well, I'll tell you how to fix that up," I put in with my usual frank
decision. "Order the music stopped; call everybody into the
drawing-room, and explain the dangerous nature of this toy. After which,
if anything happens, it will not be your fault, but that of the person
who has so thoughtlessly appropriated it."

His eyes, which had been resting eagerly on mine, shifted aside in
visible embarrassment.

"Impossible! It would only aggravate matters, or, rather, would not
relieve my fears at all. The person who took it knew its nature very
well, and that person----"

"Oh, then you know who took it!" I broke in in increasing astonishment.
"I thought from your manner that----"

"No," he moodily corrected, "I do not know who took it. If I did, I
should not be here. That is, I do not know the exact person. Only----"
Here he again eyed me with his former singular intentness, and,
observing that I was nettled, made a fresh beginning. "When I came here
I brought with me a case of rarities chosen from my various collections.
In looking over them preparatory to making a present to Gilbertine, I
came across the little box I have just mentioned. It is made of a single
amethyst, and contains--or so I was assured when I bought it--a tiny
flask of old but very deadly poison. How it came to be included with the
other precious and beautiful articles I had picked out for her _cadeau_
I cannot say. But there it was; and conceiving that the sight of it
would please the ladies, I carried it down into the library, and in an
evil hour called three or four of those about me to inspect it. This was
while you boys were in the billiard-room, so the ladies could give their
entire attention to the little box, which is certainly worth the most
careful scrutiny.

"I was holding it out on the palm of my hand, where it burned with a
purple light which made more than one feminine eye glitter, when
somebody inquired to what use so small and yet so rich a receptacle
could be put. The question was such a natural one I never thought of
evading it; besides, I enjoy the fearsome delight which women take in
the marvellous. Expecting no greater result than lifted eyebrows or
flushed cheeks, I answered by pressing a little spring in the
filigree-work surrounding the gem. Instantly the tiniest of lids flew
back, revealing a crystal flask of such minute proportions that the
usual astonishment followed its disclosure.

"'You see!' I cried, 'it was made to hold _that_!' And moving my hand to
and fro under the gas jet, I caused to shine in their eyes the single
drop of yellow liquid it still held. 'Poison!' I impressively announced.
'This trinket may have adorned the bosom of a Borgia or flashed from the
arm of some great Venetian lady as she flourished her fan between her
embittered heart and the object of her wrath or jealousy.'

"The first sentence had come naturally, but the last was spoken at
random, and almost unconsciously. For at the utterance of the word
'poison' a quickly suppressed cry had escaped the lips of some one
behind me, which, while faint enough to elude the attention of any ear
less sensitive than my own, contained such an astonishing, if
involuntary, note of self-betrayal that my mind grew numb with horror,
and I stood staring at the fearful toy which had called up such a
revelation of--what? That is what I am here to ask, first of myself,
then of you. For the two women pressing behind me were----"

"Who?" I sharply demanded, partaking in some indefinable way of his
excitement and alarm.

"Gilbertine Murray and Dorothy Camerden!"--his prospective bride and the
woman I loved and whom he knew I loved, though I had kept my secret
quite successfully from every one else!

The look we exchanged neither of us will ever forget.

"Describe the sound," I presently said.

"I cannot," he replied. "I can only give you my impression of it. You,
like myself, fought in more than one skirmish in the Cuban War. Did you
ever hear the cry made by a wounded man when the cup of cool water for
which he has long agonised is brought suddenly before his eyes? Such a
sound, with all that goes to make it eloquent, did I hear from one of
the two girls who leaned over my shoulder. Can you understand this
amazing, this unheard-of circumstance? Can you name the woman--can you
name the grief capable of making either of these seemingly happy and
innocent girls hail the sight of such a doubtful panacea, with an
unconscious ebullition of joy? You would clear my wedding-eve of a great
dread if you could, for if this expression of concealed misery came from
Gilbertine----"

"Do you mean," I cried in vehement protest, "that you really are in
doubt as to which of these two women uttered the cry which so startled
you? That you positively cannot tell whether it was Gilbertine
or--or----"

"I cannot; as God lives, I cannot! I was too dazed, too confounded by
the unexpected circumstance, to turn at once, and when I did, it was to
see both pairs of eyes shining, and both faces dimpling with real or
affected gaiety. Indeed, if the matter had stopped there, I should have
thought myself the victim of some monstrous delusion; but when, a
half-hour later, I found this box missing from the cabinet where I had
hastily thrust it at the peremptory summons of our hostess, I knew that
I had not misunderstood the nature of the cry I had heard; that it was
indeed one of secret longing, and that the hand had simply taken what
the heart desired. If a death occurs in this house to-night----"

"Sinclair, you are mad!" I exclaimed with great violence. No lesser word
would fit either the intensity of my feeling or the confused state of my
mind. "Death _here_! where all are so happy! Remember your bride's
ingenuous face! Remember the candid expression of Dorothy's eye--her
smile, her noble ways! You exaggerate the situation. You neither
understand aright the simple expression of surprise you heard, nor the
feminine frolic which led these girls to carry off this romantic
specimen of Italian deviltry."

"You are losing time," was his simple comment. "Every minute we allow to
pass in inaction only brings the danger nearer."

"What! You imagine----"

"I imagine nothing. I simply know that one of these girls has in her
possession the means of terminating life in an instant; that the girl so
having it is not happy; and that if anything happens to-night it will be
because we rested supine in the face of a very real and possible danger.
Now, as Gilbertine has never given me reason to doubt either her
affection for myself or her satisfaction in our approaching union, I
have allowed myself----"

"To think that the object of your fears is Dorothy," I finished, with a
laugh I vainly strove to make sarcastic.

He did not answer, and I stood battling with a dread I could neither
conceal nor avow. For, preposterous as his idea was, reason told me that
he had some grounds for his doubt.

Dorothy, unlike Gilbertine Murray, was not to be read at a glance, and
her trouble--for she certainly had a trouble--was not one she chose to
share with any one, even with me. I had flattered myself in days gone by
that I understood it well enough, and that any lack of sincerity I might
observe in her could be easily explained by the position of dependence
she held toward an irascible aunt. But now that I forced myself to
consider the matter carefully, I could not but ask if the varying moods
by which I had found myself secretly harrowed had not sprung from a very
different cause--a cause for which my persistent love was more to blame
than the temper of her relative. The aversion she had once shown to my
attentions had yielded long ago to a shy but seemingly sincere
appreciation of them, and gleams of what I was fain to call real feeling
had shown themselves now and then in her softened manner, culminating
to-day in that soft pressure of my hand which had awakened my hopes and
made me forget all the doubts and caprices of a disturbing courtship.

But, had I interpreted that strong, nervous pressure aright? Had it
necessarily meant love? Might it not have sprung from a sudden desperate
resolution to accept a devotion which offered her a way out of
difficulties especially galling to one of her gentle but lofty spirit?
Her expression when she caught my look of joy had little of the demure
tenderness of a maiden blushing at her first involuntary avowal. There
was shrinking in it, but it was the shrinking of a frightened woman, not
of an abashed girl; and when I strove to follow her, the gesture with
which she waved me back had that in it which would have alarmed a more
exacting lover. Had I mistaken my darling's feelings? Was her heart
still cold, her affection unwon? Or--thought insupportable!--had she
secretly yielded to another what she had so long denied me, and----?

"Ah!" quoth Sinclair at this juncture, "I see that I have roused you at
last." And unconsciously his tone grew lighter and his eye lost the
strained look which had made it the eye of a stranger. "You begin to see
that a question of the most serious import is before us, and that this
question must be answered before we separate for the night."

"I do," said I.

His relief was evident.

"Then, so much is gained. The next point is, how are we to settle our
doubts? We cannot approach either of these ladies with questions. A girl
wretched enough to contemplate suicide would be especially careful to
conceal both her misery and its cause. Neither can we order a search to
be made for an object so small that it can be concealed about the
person."

"Yet this jewel must be recovered. Listen, Sinclair. I will have a talk
with Dorothy, you with Gilbertine. A kind talk, mind you! one that will
soothe, not frighten. If a secret lurks in either breast, our tenderness
should find it out. Only, as you love me, promise to show me the same
frankness I here promise to show you. Dear as Dorothy is to me, I swear
to communicate to you the full result of my conversation with her,
whatever the cost to myself or even to her."

"And I will be equally fair as regards Gilbertine. But before we proceed
to such extreme measures let us make sure that there is no shorter road
to the truth. Some one may have seen which of our two dear girls went
back to the library after we all came out of it. That would narrow down
our inquiry, and save one of them, at least, from unnecessary
disturbance."

It was a happy thought, and I told him so, but at the same time bade him
look in the glass and see how impossible it would be for him to venture
below without creating an alarm which might precipitate the dread event
we both feared.

He replied by drawing me to his side before the mirror and pointing to
my own face. It was as pale as his own.

Most disagreeably impressed by this self-betrayal, I coloured deeply
under Sinclair's eye, and was but little, if any, relieved when I
noticed that he coloured under mine. For his feelings were no enigma to
me. Naturally, he was glad to discover that I shared his apprehensions,
since it gave him leave to hope that the blow he so dreaded was not
necessarily directed toward his own affections. Yet, being a generous
fellow, he blushed to be detected in his egotism, while I--well, I own
that at that moment I should have felt a very unmixed joy at being
assured that the foundations of my own love were secure, and that the
tiny flask Sinclair had missed had not been taken by the hand of her
upon whom I depended for all my earthly happiness.

And my wedding-day was as yet a vague and distant hope, while his was
set for the morrow.

"We must carry downstairs very different faces from these," he remarked,
"or we shall be stopped before we reach the library."

I made an effort at composure, so did he; and both being determined men,
we soon found ourselves in a condition to descend among our friends
without attracting any closer attention than was naturally due to him as
prospective bridegroom and to myself as best man.


II

BEATON'S DREAM

Mrs. Armstrong, our hostess, was fond of gaiety, and amusements were
never lacking. As we stepped down into the great hall we heard music in
the drawing-room, and saw that a dance was in progress.

"That is good," observed Sinclair. "We shall run less risk of finding
the library occupied."

"Shall I not look and see where the girls are? It would be a great
relief to find them both among the dancers."

"Yes," said he; "but don't allow yourself to be inveigled into joining
them. I could not stand the suspense."

I nodded, and slipped toward the drawing-room. He remained in the
bay-window overlooking the terrace.

A rush of young people greeted me as soon as I showed myself. But I was
able to elude them, and catch the one full glimpse I wanted of the great
room beyond. It was a magnificent apartment, and so brilliantly lighted
that every nook stood revealed. On a divan near the centre was a lady
conversing with two gentlemen. Her back was toward me, but I had no
difficulty in recognising Miss Murray. Some distance from her, but with
her face also turned away, stood Dorothy. She was talking with an
unmarried friend, and appeared quite at ease and more than usually
cheerful.

Relieved, yet sorry that I had not succeeded in catching a glimpse of
their faces, I hastened back to Sinclair, who was watching me with
furtive eyes from between the curtains of the window in which he had
secreted himself. As I joined him a young man, who was to act as usher,
sauntered from behind one of the great pillars forming a colonnade down
the hall, and, crossing to where the music-room door stood invitingly
open, disappeared behind it with the air of a man perfectly contented
with his surroundings.

With a nervous grip Sinclair seized me by the arm.

"Was that Beaton?" he asked.

"Certainly; didn't you recognise him?"

He gave me a very strange look.

"Does the sight of him recall anything?"

"No."

"You were at the breakfast-table yesterday morning?"

"I was."

"Do you remember the dream he related for the delectation of such as
would listen?"

Then it was my turn to go white.

"You don't mean----" I began.

"I thought at the time that it sounded more like a veritable adventure
than a dream; now I am sure that it was such."

"Sinclair! You do not mean that the young girl he professed himself to
have surprised one moonlit night standing on the verge of the cliff,
with arms upstretched and a distracted air, was a real person?"

"I do. We laughed at the time; he made it seem so tragic and
preposterous. I do not feel like laughing now."

I gazed at Sinclair in horror. The music was throbbing in our ears, and
the murmur of gay voices and swiftly-moving feet suggested nothing but
joy and hilarity. Which was the dream? This scene of seeming mirth and
happy promise, or the fancies he had conjured up to rob us both of
peace?

"Beaton mentioned no names," I stubbornly protested. "He did not even
call the vision he encountered a woman. It was a wraith, you remember, a
dream-maiden, a creature of his own imagination, born of some tragedy he
had read."

"Beaton is a gentleman," was Sinclair's cold reply. "He did not wish to
injure, but to warn the woman for whose benefit he told his tale."

"Warn?"

"He doubtless reasoned in this way: If he could make this young and
probably sensitive girl realise that she had been seen and her
intentions recognised, she would beware of such attempts in the future.
He is a kind-hearted fellow. Did you notice which end of the table he
ignored when relating this dramatic episode?"

"No."

"If you had we might be better able to judge where his thoughts were.
Probably you cannot even tell how the ladies took it?"

"No, I never thought of looking. Good God, Sinclair, don't let us harrow
up ourselves unnecessarily! I saw them both a moment ago, and nothing in
their manner showed that anything was amiss with either of them."

For answer he drew me toward the library.

This room was not frequented by the young people at night. There were
two or three elderly people in the party, notably the husband and the
brother of the lady of the house, and to their use the room was more or
less given up after nightfall. Sinclair wished to show me the cabinet
where the box had been.

There was a fire in the grate, for the evenings were now more or less
chilly. When the door had closed behind us we found that this fire
supplied all the light there was in the room. Both gas jets had been put
out, and the rich yet homelike room glowed with ruddy hues, interspersed
with great shadows. A solitary scene, yet an enticing one.

Sinclair drew a deep breath. "Mr. Armstrong must have gone elsewhere to
read the evening papers," he remarked.

I replied by casting a scrutinising look into the corners. I dreaded
finding a pair of lovers hid somewhere in the many nooks made by the
jutting bookcases. But I saw no one. However, at the other end of the
large room there stood a screen near one of the many lounges, and I was
on the point of approaching this place of concealment when Sinclair drew
me toward a tall cabinet upon whose glass doors the firelight was
shimmering, and, pointing to a shelf far above our heads, cried:

"No woman could reach that unaided. Gilbertine is tall, but not tall
enough for that. I purposely put it high."

I looked about for a stool. There was one just behind Sinclair. I drew
his attention to it.

He flushed and gave it a kick, then shivered slightly and sat down in a
chair nearby. I knew what he was thinking. Gilbertine was taller than
Dorothy. This stool might have served Gilbertine, if not Dorothy.

I felt a great sympathy for him. After all, his case was more serious
than mine. The Bishop was coming to marry him the next day.

"Sinclair," said I, "the stool means nothing. Dorothy has more inches
than you think. With this under her feet, she could reach the shelf by
standing tiptoe. Besides, there are the chairs."

"True, true!" and he started up; "there are the chairs! I forgot the
chairs. I fear my wits have gone wool-gathering. We shall have to take
others into our confidence." Here his voice fell to a whisper. "Somehow
or by some means we must find out if either of them was seen to come
into this room."

"Leave that to me," said I. "Remember that a word might raise suspicion,
and that in a case like this----Halloa, what's that?"

A gentle snore had come from behind the screen.

"We are not alone," I whispered. "Some one is over there on the lounge."

Sinclair had already bounded across the room. I pressed hurriedly behind
him, and together we rounded the screen and came upon the recumbent
figure of Mr. Armstrong, asleep on the lounge, with his paper fallen
from his hand.

"That accounts for the lights being turned out," grumbled Sinclair.
"Dutton must have done it."

Dutton was the butler.

I stood contemplating the sleeping figure before me.

"He must have been lying here for some time," I muttered.

Sinclair started.

"Probably some little while before he slept," I pursued. "I have often
heard that he dotes on the firelight."

"I have a notion to wake him," suggested Sinclair.

"It will not be necessary," said I, drawing back, as the heavy figure
stirred, breathed heavily, and finally sat up.

"I beg pardon," I now entreated, backing politely away. "We thought the
room empty."

Mr. Armstrong, who, if slow to receive impressions, is far from lacking
intelligence, eyed us with sleepy indifference for a moment, then rose
ponderously to his feet, and was on the instant the man of manner and
unfailing courtesy we had ever found him.

"What can I do to oblige you?" he asked, his smooth, if hesitating,
tones sounding strange to our excited ears.

I made haste to forestall Sinclair, who was racking his brains for words
with which to propound the question he dared not put too boldly.

"Pardon me, Mr. Armstrong, we were looking about for a small pin dropped
by Miss Camerden." (How hard it was for me to use her name in this
connection only my own heart knew.) "She was in here just now, was she
not?"

The courteous gentleman bowed, hemmed, and smiled a very polite but
unmeaning smile. Evidently he had not the remotest notion whether she
had been in or not.

"I am sorry, but I am afraid I lost myself for a moment on that lounge,"
he admitted. "The firelight always makes me sleepy. But if I can help
you," he cried, starting forward, but almost immediately pausing again
and giving us rather a curious look. "Some one was in the room. I
remember it now. It was just before the warmth and glow of the fire
became too much for me. I cannot say that it was Miss Camerden, however.
I thought it was some one of quicker movement. She made quite a rattle
with the chairs."

I purposely did not look back at Sinclair.

"Miss Murray?" I suggested.

Mr. Armstrong made one of his low, old-fashioned bows. This, I doubt
not, was out of deference to the bride-to-be.

"Does Miss Murray wear white to-night?"

"Yes," muttered Sinclair, coming hastily forward.

"Then it may have been she, for as I lay there deciding whether or not
to yield to the agreeable somnolence I felt creeping over me, I caught a
glimpse of the lady's skirt as she passed out. And that skirt was
white--white silk I suppose you call it. It looked very pretty in the
firelight."

Sinclair, turning on his heel, stalked in a dazed way toward the door.
To cover this show of abruptness, which was quite unusual on his part,
I made the effort of my life, and, remarking lightly, "She must have
been here looking for the pin her friend has lost," I launched forth
into an impromptu dissertation on one of the subjects I knew to be dear
to the heart of the bookworm before me--and kept it up, too, till I saw
by his brightening eye and suddenly freed manner that he had forgotten
the insignificant episode of a minute ago, never in all probability to
recall it again. Then I made another effort, and released myself with
something like deftness from the long-drawn-out argument I saw
impending, and making for the door in my turn, glanced about for
Sinclair. So far as I was concerned the question as to who had taken the
box from the library was settled.

It was now half-past eight. I made my way from room to room and from
group to group looking for Sinclair. At last I returned to my old post
near the library door, and was instantly rewarded by the sight of his
figure approaching from a small side-passage in company with the butler,
Dutton. His face, as he stepped into the full light of the open hall,
showed discomposure, but not the extreme distress I had anticipated.
Somehow, at sight of it, I found myself seeking the shadow just as he
had done a short time before, and it was in one of the recesses made by
a row of bay-trees that we came face to face.

He gave me one look, then his eyes dropped.

"Miss Camerden has lost a pin from her hair," he impressively explained
to me. Then, turning to Dutton, he nonchalantly remarked: "It must be
somewhere in this hall; perhaps you will be good enough to look for it."

"Certainly," replied the man. "I thought she had lost something when I
saw her come out of the library a little while ago, holding her hand to
her hair."

My heart gave a leap, then sank cold and almost pulseless in my breast.
In the hum to which all sounds had sunk, I heard Sinclair's voice rise
again in the question with which my own mind was full.

"When was that? After Mr. Armstrong went into the room, or before?"

"Oh, after he fell asleep. I had just come from putting out the gas when
I saw Miss Camerden slip in and almost immediately come out again. I
will search for the pin very carefully, sir."

So Mr. Armstrong had made a mistake! It was Dorothy, and not Gilbertine,
whom he had seen leaving the room. I braced myself up and met Sinclair's
eye.

"Dorothy's dress is grey to-night; but Mr. Armstrong's eye may not be
very good for colours."

"It is possible that both were in the room," was Sinclair's reply. But I
could see that he advanced this theory solely out of consideration for
me; that he did not really believe it. "At all events," he went on, "we
cannot prove anything this way; we must revert to our original idea. I
wonder if Gilbertine will give me the chance to speak to her."

"You will have an easier task than I," was my half-sullen retort. "If
Dorothy perceives that I wish to approach her, she has but to lift her
eyes to any of the half-dozen fellows here, and the thing becomes
impossible."

"There is to be a rehearsal of the ceremony at half-past ten. I might
get a word in then; only, this matter must be settled first. I could
never go through the farce of standing up before you all at Gilbertine's
side, with such a doubt as this in my mind."

"You will see her before then. Insist on a moment's talk. If she
refuses----"

"Hush!" he here put in. "We part now to meet in this same place again at
ten. Do I look fit to enter among the dancers? I see a whole group of
them coming for me."

"You will be in another moment. Approaching matrimony has made you
sober, that's all."

It was some time before I had the opportunity, even if I had the
courage, to look Dorothy in the face. When the moment came she was
flushed with dancing and looked beautiful. Ordinarily she was a little
pale, but not even Gilbertine, with her sumptuous colouring, showed a
warmer cheek than she, as, resting from the waltz, she leaned against
the rose-tinted wall, and let her eyes for the first time rise slowly to
where I stood talking mechanically to my partner.

Gentle eyes they were, made for appeal, and eloquent with a subdued
heart language. But they were held in check by an infinite discretion.
Never have I caught them quite off their guard, and to-night they were
wholly unreadable. Yet she was trembling with something more than the
fervour of the dance, and the little hand which had touched mine in
lingering pressure a few hours before was not quiet for a moment. I
could not see it fluttering in and out of the folds of her
smoke-coloured dress without a sickening wonder if the little purple box
which was the cause of my horror lay somewhere concealed amid the airy
puffs and ruffles that rose and fell so rapidly over her heaving breast.
Could her eye rest on mine, even in this cold and perfunctory manner, if
the drop which could separate us for ever lay concealed over her heart?
She knew that I loved her. From the first hour we met in her aunt's
forbidding parlour in Thirty-sixth Street she had recognised my passion,
however perfectly I had succeeded in concealing it from others.
Inexperienced as she was in those days, she had noted as quickly as any
society belle the effect produced upon me by her chill prettiness and
her air of meek reserve, under which one felt the heart break; and
though she would never openly acknowledge my homage, and frowned down
every attempt on my part at lover-like speech or attention, I was as
sure that she rated my feelings at their real value as that she was the
dearest, yet most incomprehensible, mortal my narrow world contained.
When, therefore, I encountered her eyes at the end of the dance, I said
to myself:

"She may not love me, but she knows that I love her, and, being a woman
of sympathetic instincts, would never meet my eyes with so calm a look
if she were meditating an act which must infallibly plunge me into
misery."

Yet I was not satisfied to go away without a word. So, taking the bull
by the horns, I excused myself to my partner, and crossed to Dorothy's
side.

"Will you dance the next waltz with me?" I asked.

Her eyes fell from mine directly, and she drew back in a way that
suggested flight.

"I shall dance no more to-night," said she, her hand rising in its
nervous fashion to her hair.

I made no appeal. I just watched that hand, whereupon she flushed
vividly, and seemed more than ever anxious to escape. At which I spoke
again.

"Give me a chance, Dorothy. If you will not dance, come out on the
veranda and look at the ocean. It is glorious to-night. I will not keep
you long. The lights here trouble my eyes; besides, I am most anxious to
ask you----"

"No, no," she vehemently objected, very much as if frightened. "I cannot
leave the drawing-room--do not ask me! Seek some other partner--do,
to-night."

"You wish it?"

"Very much."

She was panting, eager. I felt my heart sink, and dreaded lest I should
betray my feelings.

"You do not honour me, then, with your regard," I retorted, bowing
ceremoniously as I became assured that we were attracting more
attention than I considered desirable.

She was silent. Her hand went again to her hair.

I changed my tone. Quietly, but with an emphasis which moved her in
spite of herself, I whispered: "If I leave you now, will you tell me
to-morrow why you are so peremptory with me to-night?"

With an eagerness which was anything but encouraging, she answered,
almost gaily:

"Yes, yes, after all this excitement is over."

And slipping her hand into that of a friend who was passing, she was
soon in the whirl again and dancing--she who had just assured me that
she did not mean to dance again that night.


III

A SCREAM IN THE NIGHT

I turned and, hardly conscious of my actions, stumbled from the room. A
bevy of young people at once surrounded me. What I said to them I hardly
know. I only remember that it was several minutes before I found myself
again alone and making for the little room into which Beaton had
vanished a half-hour before. It was the one given up to card-playing.
Did I expect to find him seated at one of the tables? Possibly; at all
events, I approached the doorway, and was about to enter, when a heavy
step shook the threshold before me, and I found myself confronted by the
advancing figure of an elderly lady, whose portrait it is now time for
me to draw. It is no pleasurable task, but one I cannot escape.

Imagine, then, a broad, weighty woman of not much height, with a face
whose features were usually forgotten in the impression made by her
great cheeks and falling jowls. If the small eyes rested on you, you
found them sinister and strange, but if they were turned elsewhere, you
asked in what lay the power of the face, and sought in vain amid its
long wrinkles and indeterminate lines for the secret of that spiritual
and bodily repulsion which the least look into this impassive
countenance was calculated to produce. She was a woman of immense means,
and an oppressive consciousness of this spoke in every movement of her
heavy frame, which always seemed to take up three times as much space as
rightfully belonged to any human creature. Add to this that she was
seldom seen without a display of diamonds which made her broad bust look
like the bejewelled breast of some Eastern idol, and some idea may be
formed of this redoubtable woman whom I have hitherto confined myself to
speaking of as _the gorgon_.

The stare she gave me had something venomous and threatening in it.
Evidently for the moment I was out of her books, and while I did not
understand in what way I had displeased her, for we always had met
amicably before, I seized upon this sign of displeasure on her part as
explanatory, perhaps, of the curtness and show of contradictory feelings
on the part of her dependent niece. Yet why should the old woman frown
on me? I had been told more than once that she regarded me with great
favour. Had I unwittingly done something to displease her, or had the
game of cards she had just left gone against her, ruffling her temper
and making it imperative for her to choose some object on which to vent
her spite? I entered the room to see. Two men and one woman stood in
rather an embarrassed silence about a table on which lay some cards,
which had every appearance of having been thrown down by an impatient
hand. One of the men was Will Beaton, and it was he who now remarked:

"She has just found out that the young people are enjoying themselves. I
wonder upon which of her two unfortunate nieces she will expend her
ill-temper to-night."

"Oh, there's no question about that," remarked the lady who stood near
him. "Ever since she has had a reasonable prospect of working Gilbertine
off her hands, she has devoted herself quite exclusively to her
remaining burden. I hear," she impulsively continued, craning her neck
to be sure that the object of her remarks was quite out of earshot,
"that the south hall was blue to-day with the talk she gave Dorothy
Camerden. No one knows what about, for the girl evidently tries to
please her. But some women have more than their own proper share of
bile; they must expend it on some one." And she in turn threw down her
cards, which up till now she had held in her hand.

I gave Beaton a look and stepped out on the veranda. In a minute he
followed me, and in the corner facing the ocean, where the vines cluster
the thickest, we held our conversation.

I began it, with a directness born of my desperation.

"Beaton," said I, "we have not known each other long, but I recognise a
man when I see him, and I am disposed to be frank with you. I am in
trouble. My affections are engaged, deeply engaged, in a quarter where I
find some mystery. You have helped make it." (Here a gesture escaped
him.) "I allude to the story you related the other morning of the young
girl you had seen hanging over the verge of the cliff, with every
appearance of intending to throw herself over."

"It was as a dream I related that," he gravely remarked.

"That I am aware of. But it was no dream to me, Beaton. I fear I know
that young girl; I also fear that I know what drove her into
contemplating so rash an act. The conversation just held in the
card-room should enlighten you. Beaton, am I wrong?"

The feeling I could not suppress trembled in my tones. He may have been
sensitive to it, or he may have been simply good-natured. Whatever the
cause, this is what he said in reply:

"It was a dream. Remember that I insist upon its being a dream. But some
of its details are very clear in my mind. When I stumbled upon this
dream-maiden in the moonlight her face was turned from me toward the
ocean, and I did not see her features then or afterwards. Startled by
some sound I made, she crouched, drew back, and fled to cover. That
cover, I have good reason to believe, was this very house."

I reached out my hand and touched him on the arm.

"This dream-maiden was a woman?" I inquired. "One of the women now in
this house?"

He replied reluctantly:

"She was a young woman, and she wore a long cloak. My dream ends there.
I cannot even say whether she was fair or dark."

I recognised that he had reached the limit of his explanations, and,
wringing his hand, I started for the nearest window, which proved to be
that of the music-room. I was about to enter when I saw two women
crossing to the opposite doorway, and paused with a full heart to note
them, for one was Mrs. Lansing and the other Dorothy. The aunt had
evidently come for the niece, and they were leaving the room together.
Not amicably, however. Harsh words had passed, or I am no judge of the
human countenance. Dorothy especially bore herself like one who finds
difficulty in restraining herself from some unhappy outburst, and as she
disappeared from my sight in the wake of her formidable companion my
attention was again called to her hands, which she held clenched at her
sides.

I was stepping into the room when my impulse was again checked. Another
person was sitting there, a person I had been most anxious to see ever
since my last interview with Sinclair. It was Gilbertine Murray, sitting
alone in an attitude of deep, and possibly not altogether happy thought.

I paused to study the sweet face. Truly she was a beautiful woman. I had
never before realised how beautiful. Her rich colouring, her noble
traits, and the spirited air which gave her such marked distinction,
bespoke at once an ardent nature and a pure soul.

I did not wonder that Sinclair had succumbed to charms so pronounced and
uncommon, and as I gazed longer and noted the tremulous droop of her
ripe lips and the far-away look of eyes which had created a great stir
in the social world when they first flashed upon it, I felt that if
Sinclair could see her now he would never doubt her again, despite the
fact that the attitude into which she had fallen was one of great
fatigue, if not despondency.

She held a fan in her hand, and as I stood looking at her she dropped
it. As she stooped to pick it up her eyes met mine, and a startling
change passed over her. Springing up, she held out her hands in wordless
appeal, then let them drop again as if conscious that I would not be
likely to understand either herself or her mood. She was very beautiful.

Entering the room, I approached her. Had Sinclair managed to have his
little conversation with her? Something must have happened, for never
had I seen her in such a state of suppressed excitement, and I had seen
her many times, both here and in her aunt's house when I was visiting
Dorothy. Her eyes were shining, not with a brilliant, but a soft light,
and the smile with which she met my advance had something in it
strangely tremulous and expectant.

"I am glad to have a moment in which to speak to you alone," I said. "As
Sinclair's oldest and closest friend, I wish to tell you how truly you
can rely both on his affection and esteem. He has an infinitely good
heart."

She did not answer as brightly and as quickly as I expected. Something
seemed to choke her--something which she finally mastered, though only
by an effort which left her pale, but self-contained, and even more
lovely, if that is possible, than before.

"Thank you," she then said, "my prospects are very happy. No one but
myself knows how happy."

And she smiled again, but with an expression which recalled to my mind
Sinclair's fears.

I bowed. Some one was calling her name; evidently our interview was to
be short.

"I am obliged," she murmured. Then quickly: "I have not seen the moon
to-night. Is it beautiful? Can you see it from this veranda?"

But before I could answer she was surrounded and dragged off by a knot
of young people, and I was left free to keep my engagement with
Sinclair.

I did not find him at his post, nor could any one tell where he had
vanished.

It was plain that his conduct was looked upon as strange, and I felt
some anxiety lest it should appear more so before the evening was over.
I found him at last in his room, sitting with his head buried in his
arms. He started up as I entered.

"Well?" he asked sharply.

"I have learned nothing decisive."

"Nor I."

"I exchanged some words with both ladies and I tackled Beaton; but the
matter remains just about where it was. It may have been Dorothy who
took the box and it may have been Gilbertine. But there seems to be
greater reason for suspecting Dorothy. She lives a terrible life with
that aunt."

"And Gilbertine is on the point of escaping that bondage. I know; I have
thought of that. Walter, you are a generous fellow;" and for a moment
Sinclair looked relieved. Before I could speak, however, he was sunk
again in his old despondency. "But the doubt," he cried--"the doubt! How
can I go through this rehearsal with such a doubt in my mind? I cannot
and will not. Go, tell them I am ill, and cannot come down again
to-night. God knows you will tell no untruth."

I saw that he was quite beside himself, but ventured upon one
remonstrance.

"It will be unwise to rouse comment," I said. "If that box was taken for
the death it holds, the one restraint most likely to act upon the young
girl who retains it will be the conventionalities of her position and
the requirements of the hour. Any break in the settled order of
things--anything which would give her a moment by herself--might
precipitate the dreadful event we fear. Remember, one turn of the hand,
and all is lost. A drop is quickly swallowed."

"Frightful!" he murmured, the perspiration oozing from his forehead.
"What a wedding-eve! And they are laughing down there. Listen to them. I
even imagine I hear Gilbertine's voice. Is there unconsciousness in it,
or just the hilarity of a distracted mind bent on self-destruction? I
cannot tell; the sound conveys no meaning to me."

"She has a sweet, true face," I said, "and she wears a very beautiful
smile to-night."

He sprang to his feet.

"Yes, yes--a smile that maddens me; a smile that tells me nothing,
nothing! Walter, Walter, don't you see that, even if that cursed box
remains unopened, and nothing ever comes of its theft, the seeds of
distrust are sown thick in my breast, and I must always ask: 'Was there
a moment when my young bride shrank from me enough to dream of death?'
That is why I cannot go through the mockery of this rehearsal."

"Can you go through the ceremony of marriage?"

"I must--if nothing happens to-night."

"And then?"

I spoke involuntarily. I was thinking not of him, but of myself. But he
evidently found in my words an echo of his own thought.

"Yes, it is the _then_," he murmured. "Well may a man quail before that
_then_."

He did go downstairs, however, and later on went through the rehearsal
very much as I had expected him to do--quietly and without any outward
show of emotion.

As soon as possible after this the company separated, Sinclair making me
an imperceptible gesture as he went upstairs. I knew what it meant, and
was in his room as soon as the fellows who accompanied him had left him
alone.

"The danger is from now on," he cried, as soon as I had closed the door
behind me. "I shall not undress to-night."

"Nor I."

"Happily we both have rooms by ourselves in this great house. I shall
put out my light, and then open my door as far as need be. Not a move in
the house will escape me."

"I will do the same."

"Gilbertine--God be thanked!--is not alone in her room. Little Miss Lane
shares it with her."

"And Dorothy?"

"Oh, she is under the strictest bondage night and day. She sleeps in a
little room off her aunt's. Do you know her door?"

I shook my head.

"I will pass down the hall and stop an instant before the two doors we
are most interested in. When I pass Gilbertine's I will throw out my
right hand."

I stood on the threshold of his room and watched him. When the two doors
were well fixed in my mind, I went to my own room and prepared for my
self-imposed watch. When quite ready, I put out my light. It was then
eleven o'clock.

The house was very quiet. There had been the usual bustle attending the
separation of a party of laughing, chattering girls for the night; but
this had not lasted long, for the great doings of the morrow called for
bright eyes and fresh cheeks, and these can only be gained by sleep. In
this stillness twelve o'clock struck, and the first hour of my anxious
vigil was at an end. I thought of Sinclair. He had given no token of the
watch he was keeping, but I knew he was sitting with his ear to the
door, listening for the alarm which must come soon if it came at all.

But would it come at all? Were we not wasting strength and a great deal
of emotion on a dread which had no foundation in fact? What were we two
sensible and, as a rule, practical men thinking of, that we should
ascribe to either of these dainty belles of a conventional and shallow
society the wish to commit a deed calling for the vigour and daring of
some wilful child of nature? It was not to be thought of in this sober,
reasoning hour. We had given ourselves over to a ghastly nightmare, and
would yet awake.

Why was I on my feet? Had I heard anything?

Yes, a stir, a very faint stir somewhere down the hall--the slow,
cautious opening of a door, then a footfall--or had I imagined the
latter? I could hear nothing now.

Pushing open my own door, I looked cautiously out. Only the pale face of
Sinclair confronted me. He was peering from the corner of an adjacent
passage-way, the moonlight at his back. Advancing, we met in silence.
For the moment we seemed to be the only persons awake in the vast house.

"I thought I heard a step," was my cautious whisper after a moment of
intense listening.

"Where?"

I pointed toward that portion of the house where the ladies' rooms were
situated.

"That is not what I heard," was his murmured protest; "what I heard was
a creak in the small stairway running down at the end of the hall where
my room is."

"One of the servants," I ventured, and for a moment we stood irresolute.
Then we both turned rigid as some sound arose in one of the far-off
rooms, only to quickly relax again as that sound resolved itself into a
murmur of muffled voices. Where there was talking there could be no
danger of the special event we feared. Our relief was so great we both
smiled. Next instant his face, and, I have no doubt, my own, turned the
colour of clay, and Sinclair went reeling back against the wall.

A scream had risen in this sleeping house--a piercing and insistent
scream such as raises the hair and curdles the blood.


IV

WHAT SINCLAIR HAD TO TELL ME

This scream seemed to come from the room where we had just heard voices.
With a common impulse Sinclair and I both started down the hall, only to
find ourselves met by a dozen wild interrogations from behind as many
quickly opened doors. Was it fire? Had burglars got in? What was the
matter? Who had uttered that dreadful shriek? Alas! that was the
question which we of all men were most anxious to hear answered. Who?
Gilbertine or Dorothy?

Gilbertine's door was reached first. In it stood a short, slight figure,
wrapped in a hastily-donned shawl. The white face looked into ours as we
stopped, and we recognised little Miss Lane.

"What has happened?" she gasped. "It must have been an awful cry to
waken everybody so!"

We never thought of answering her.

"Where is Gilbertine?" demanded Sinclair, thrusting his hand out as if
to put her aside.

She drew herself up with sudden dignity.

"In bed," she replied. "It was she who told me that somebody had
shrieked. I didn't wake."

Sinclair uttered a sigh of the greatest relief that ever burst from a
man's overcharged breast.

"Tell her we will find out what it means," he answered kindly, drawing
me rapidly away.

By this time Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong were aroused, and I could hear the
slow and hesitating tones of the former in the passage behind us.

"Let us hasten," whispered Sinclair, "Our eyes must be the first to see
what lies behind that partly-opened door."

I shivered. The door he had designated was Dorothy's.

Sinclair reached it first and pushed it open. Pressing up behind him, I
cast a fearful look over his shoulder. Only emptiness confronted us.
Dorothy was not in the little chamber. With an impulsive gesture
Sinclair pointed to the bed--it had not been lain in--then to the
gas--it was still burning. The communicating-room, in which Mrs. Lansing
slept, was also lighted, but silent as the one in which we stood. This
last fact struck us as the most incomprehensible of all. Mrs. Lansing
was not the woman to sleep through a disturbance. Where was she, then?
And why did we not hear her strident and aggressive tones rising in
angry remonstrance at our intrusion? Had she followed her niece from the
room? Should we in another minute encounter her ponderous figure in the
group of people we could now hear hurrying toward us? I was for
retreating and hunting the house over for Dorothy. But Sinclair, with
truer instinct, drew me across the threshold of this silent room.

Well was it for us that we entered there together, for I do not know how
either of us, weakened as we were by our forebodings and all the alarms
of this unprecedented night, could have borne alone the sight that
awaited us.

On the bed situated at the right of the doorway lay a form--awful,
ghastly, and unspeakably repulsive. The head, which lay high but inert
upon the pillow, was surrounded with the grey hairs of age, and the
eyes, which seemed to stare into ours, were glassy with reflected light
and not with inward intelligence. This glassiness told the tale of the
room's grim silence. It was death we looked on, not the death we had
anticipated, and for which we were in a measure prepared, but one fully
as awful, and having for its victim, not Dorothy Camerden nor even
Gilbertine Murray, but the heartless aunt, who had driven them both like
slaves, and who now lay facing the reward of her earthly deeds _alone_.

As a realisation of the awful truth came upon me I stumbled against the
bedpost, looking on with almost blind eyes as Sinclair bent over the
rapidly whitening face, whose naturally ruddy colour no one had ever
before seen disturbed. And I was still standing there when Mr. Armstrong
and all the others came pouring in. Nor have I any distinct remembrance
of what was said or how I came to be in the antechamber again. All
thought, all consciousness even, seemed to forsake me, and I did not
really waken to my surroundings till some one near me whispered:

"Apoplexy!"

Then I began to look about me and peer into the faces crowding up on
every side for the only one which could give me back my self-possession.
But though there were many girlish countenances to be seen in the
awestruck groups huddled in every corner, I beheld no Dorothy, and was
therefore but little astonished when in another moment I heard the cry
go up:

"Where is Dorothy? Where was she when her aunt died?"

Alas! there was no one there to answer, and the looks of those about,
which hitherto had expressed little save awe and fright, turned to
wonder, and more than one person left the room as if to look for her. I
did not join them. I was rooted to the place. Nor did Sinclair stir a
foot, though his eye, which had been wandering restlessly over the faces
about him, now settled inquiringly on the doorway. For whom was he
looking? Gilbertine or Dorothy? Gilbertine, no doubt, for he visibly
brightened as her figure presently appeared clad in a négligée, which
emphasised her height, and gave to her whole appearance a womanly
sobriety unusual to it.

She had evidently been told what had occurred, for she asked no
questions, only leaned in still horror against the doorpost, with her
eyes fixed on the room within. Sinclair, advancing, held out his arm.
She gave no sign of seeing it. Then he spoke. This seemed to rouse her,
for she gave him a grateful look, though she did not take his arm.

"There will be no wedding to-morrow," fell from her lips in
self-communing murmur.

Only a few minutes had passed since they had started to find Dorothy,
but it seemed an age to me. My body remained in the room, but my mind
was searching the house for the girl I loved. Where was she hidden?
Would she be found huddled but alive in some far-off chamber? Or was
another and more dreadful tragedy awaiting us? I wondered that I could
not join the search. I wondered that even Gilbertine's presence could
keep Sinclair from doing so. Didn't he know what in all probability this
missing girl had with her? Didn't he know what I had suffered, was
suffering? Ah! what now? She is coming! I can hear them speaking to her.
Gilbertine moves from the door, and a young man and woman enter with
Dorothy between them.

But what a Dorothy! Years could have made no greater change in her. She
looked and she moved like one who is done with life, yet fears the few
remaining moments left her. Instinctively we fell back before her;
instinctively we followed her with our eyes as, reeling a little at the
door, she cast a look of inconceivable shrinking, first at her own bed,
then at the group of older people watching her with serious looks from
the room beyond. As she did so I noted that she was still clad in her
evening dress of grey, and that there was no more colour on cheek or
lip than in the neutral tints of her gown.

Was it our consciousness of the relief which Mrs. Lansing's death,
horrible as it was, must bring to this unhappy girl, and of the
inappropriateness of any display of grief on her part, which caused the
silence with which we saw her pass with forced step and dread
anticipation into the room where that image of dead virulence awaited
her? Impossible to tell. I could not read my own thoughts. How, then,
the thoughts of others!

But thoughts, if we had any, all fled when, after one slow turn of her
head towards the bed, this trembling young girl gave a choking shriek,
and fell, face down, on the floor. Evidently she had not been prepared
for the look which made her aunt's still face so horrible. How could she
have been? Had it not imprinted itself upon my mind as the one revolting
vision of my life? How, then, if this young and tender-hearted girl had
been insensible to it! As her form struck the floor Mr. Armstrong rushed
forward; I had not the right. But it was not by his arms she was lifted.
Sinclair was before him, and it was with a singularly determined look I
could not understand, and which made us all fall back, that he raised
her and carried her into her own bed, where he laid her gently down.
Then, as if not content with this simple attention, he hovered over her
for a moment, arranging the pillows and smoothing her dishevelled hair.
When at last he left her the women rushed forward.

"Not too many of you," was his final adjuration, as, giving me a look,
he slipped out into the hall.

I followed him immediately. He had gained the moon-lighted corridor near
his own door, where he stood awaiting me with something in his hand. As
I approached, he drew me to the window and showed me what it was. It was
the amethyst box, open and empty, and beside it, shining with a yellow
instead of a purple light, the little vial void of the one drop which
used to sparkle within it.

"I found the vial in the bed with the old woman," said he. "The box I
saw glittering among Dorothy's locks before she fell. That was why I
lifted her."


V

THREE O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING

As he spoke, youth with its brilliant hopes, illusions, and beliefs,
passed from me, never to return in the same measure again. I stared at
the glimmering amethyst, I stared at the empty vial, and, as a full
realisation of all his words implied seized my benumbed faculties, I
felt the icy chill of some grisly horror moving among the roots of my
hair, lifting it on my forehead and filling my whole being with
shrinking and dismay.

Sinclair, with a quick movement, replaced the tiny flask in its old
receptacle, and then, thrusting the whole out of sight, seized my hand
and wrung it.

"I am your friend," he whispered. "Remember, under all circumstances and
in every exigency, your friend."

"What are you going to do with _those_?" I demanded, when I regained
control of my speech.

"I do not know."

"What are you going to do with--with Dorothy?"

He drooped his head; I could see his fingers working in the moonlight.

"The physicians will soon be here. I heard the telephone going a few
minutes ago. When they have pronounced the old woman dead we will give
the--the lady you mention an opportunity to explain herself."

Explain herself, she! Simple expectation. Unconsciously I shook my head.

"It is the least we can do," he gently persisted. "Come, we must not be
seen with our heads together--not yet. I am sorry that we two were found
more or less dressed at the time of the alarm. It may cause comment."

"She was dressed, too," I murmured, as much to myself as to him.

"Unfortunately, yes," was the muttered reply, with which he drew off and
hastened into the hall, where the now thoroughly-aroused household stood
in a great group about the excited hostess.

Mrs. Armstrong was not the woman for an emergency. With streaming hair
and tightly-clutched kimono, she was gesticulating wildly and bemoaning
the break in the festivities which this event must necessarily cause. As
Sinclair approached, she turned her tirade on him, and as all stood
still to listen and add such words of sympathy or disappointment as
suggested themselves in the excitement of the moment, I had an
opportunity to note that neither of the two girls most interested was
within sight. This troubled me. Drawing up to the outside of the circle,
I asked Beaton, who was nearest to me, if he knew how Miss Camerden was.

"Better, I hear. Poor girl! it was a great shock to her."

I ventured nothing more. The conventionality of his tone was not to be
mistaken. Our conversation on the veranda was to be ignored. I did not
know whether to feel relief at this or an added distress. I was in a
whirl of emotion which robbed me of all discrimination. As I realised my
own condition, I concluded that my wisest move would be to withdraw
myself for a time from every eye. Accordingly, and at the risk of
offending more than one pretty girl who still had something to say
concerning this terrible mischance, I slid away to my room, happy to
escape the murmurs and snatches of talk rising on every side. One bitter
speech, uttered by I do not know whom, rang in my ears and made all
thinking unendurable. It was this:

"Poor woman! she was angry once too often. I heard her scolding Dorothy
again after she went to her room. That is why Dorothy is so overcome.
She says it was the violence of her aunt's rage which killed her--a
rage of which she unfortunately was the cause."

So there were words again between these two after the door closed upon
them for the night! Was this what we heard just before that scream went
up? It would seem so. Thereupon, quite against my will, I found myself
thinking of Dorothy's changed position before the world. Only yesterday
a dependent slave; to-day, the owner of millions. Gilbertine would have
her share--a large one--but there was enough to make them both wealthy.
Intolerable thought! Would that no money had been involved! I hated to
think of those diamonds and----

Oh, anything was better than this! Dashing from my room, I joined one of
the groups into which the single large circle had now broken up. The
house had been lighted from end to end, and some effort had been made at
a more respectable appearance by such persons as I now saw; some even
were fully dressed. All were engaged in discussing the one great topic.
Listening and not listening, I waited for the front-door bell to ring.
It sounded while one woman was saying to another:

"The Sinclairs will now be able to take their honeymoon in their own
yacht."

I made my way to where I could watch Sinclair while the physicians were
in the room. I thought his face looked very noble. The narrowness of his
own escape, the sympathy for me which the event, so much worse than
either of us anticipated, had wakened in his generous breast,
had called out all that was best in his naturally reserved and
not-always-to-be-understood nature. A tower of strength he was to me at
that hour. I knew that mercy, and mercy only, would influence his
conduct. He would be guilty of no rash or inconsiderate act. He would
give this young girl a chance.

Therefore, when the physicians had pronounced the case one of apoplexy
(a conclusion most natural under the circumstances), and the excitement
which had held together the various groups of uneasy guests had begun to
subside, it was with perfect confidence I saw him approach and address
Gilbertine. She was standing fully dressed at the stair-head, where she
had stopped to hold some conversation with the retiring physicians; and
the look she gave him in return, and the way she moved off in obedience
to his command or suggestion, assured me that he was laying plans for an
interview with Dorothy. Consequently, I was quite ready to obey him when
he finally stepped up to me and said:

"Go below, and if you find the library empty, as I have no doubt you
will, light one gas jet, and see that the door to the conservatory is
unlocked. I require a place in which to make Gilbertine comfortable
while I have some words with her cousin."

"But how will you be able to influence Miss Camerden to come down?"
Somehow, the familiar name of Dorothy would not pass my lips. "Do you
think she will recognise your right to summon her to an interview?"

"Yes."

I had never seen his lip take that firm line before, yet I had always
known him to be a man of great resolution.

"But how can you reach her? She is shut up in her own room, under the
care, I am told, of Mrs. Armstrong's maid."

"I know; but she will escape that dreadful place as soon as her feet
will carry her. I shall wait in the hall till I see her come out; then I
will urge her to follow me, and she will do so, attended by Gilbertine."

"And I? Do you mean me to be present at an interview so painful--nay, so
serious and so threatening? It would cut short every word you hope to
hear. I--cannot----"

"I have not asked you to. It is imperative that I should see Miss
Camerden alone." (He could not call her Dorothy, either.) "I shall ask
Gilbertine to accompany us, so that appearances may be preserved. I want
you to be able to inform any one who approaches the door that you saw me
go in there with Miss Murray."

"Then I am to stay in the hall?"

"If you will be so kind."

The clock struck three.

"It is very late," I exclaimed. "Why not wait till morning?"

"And have the whole house about our ears? No. Besides, some things will
not keep an hour, a moment. I must hear what this young girl has to say
in response to my questions. Remember, I am the owner of the flask
whose contents killed the old woman!"

"You believe she died from swallowing that drop?"

"Absolutely."

I said no more, but hastened downstairs to do his bidding.

I found the lower hall partly lighted, but none of the rooms.

Entering the library, I lit the gas as Sinclair had requested. Then I
tried the conservatory door. It was unlocked. Casting a sharp glance
around, I made sure that the lounges were all unoccupied, and that I
could safely leave Sinclair to hold his contemplated interview without
fear of interruption. Then, dreading a premature arrival on his part, I
slid quickly out, and moved down the hall to where the light of the one
burning jet failed to penetrate. "I will watch from here," thought I,
and entered upon the quick pacing of the floor which my impatience and
the overwrought condition of my nerves demanded.

But before I had turned on my steps more than half a dozen times, a
brilliant ray coming from some half-open door in the rear caught my eye,
and I stepped back to see if any one was sharing my watch. In doing so I
came upon the little spiral staircase which, earlier in the evening,
Sinclair had heard creak under some unknown footstep. Had this footstep
been Dorothy's, and if so, what had brought her into this remote portion
of the house? Fear? Anguish? Remorse? A flying from herself or from
_it_? I wished I knew just where she had been found by the two young
persons who had brought her back into her aunt's room. No one had
volunteered the information, and I had not seen the moment when I felt
myself in a position to demand it.

Proceeding further, I stood amazed at my own forgetfulness. The light
which had attracted my attention came from the room devoted to the
display of Miss Murray's wedding-gifts. This I should have known
instantly, having had a hand in their arrangement. But all my faculties
were dulled that night, save such as responded to dread and horror.
Before going back I paused to look at the detective whose business it
was to guard the room. He was sitting very quietly at his post, and if
he saw me he did not look up. Strange that I had forgotten this man when
keeping my own vigil above. I doubted if Sinclair had remembered him
either. Yet he must have been unconsciously sharing our watch from start
to finish--must even have heard the cry as only a waking man could hear
it. Should I ask him if this was so? No. Perhaps I had not the courage
to hear his answer.

Shortly after my return into the main hall I heard steps on the grand
staircase. Looking up, I saw the two girls descending, followed by
Sinclair. He had been successful, then, in inducing Dorothy to come
down. What would be the result? Could I stand the suspense of the
impending interview?

As they stepped within the rays of the solitary gas jet already
mentioned, I cast one quick look into Gilbertine's face, then a long one
into Dorothy's. I could read neither. If it was horror and horror only
which rendered both so pale and fixed of feature, then their emotion was
similar in character and intensity. But if in either breast the one
dominant sentiment was fear--horrible, blood-curdling fear--then was
that fear confined to Dorothy; for while Gilbertine advanced bravely,
Dorothy's steps lagged, and at the point where she should have turned
into the library, she whirled sharply about, and made as if she would
fly back upstairs.

But one stare from Gilbertine, one word from Sinclair, recalled her to
herself, and she passed in, and the door closed upon the three. I was
left to prevent possible intrusion, and to eat out my heart in
intolerable suspense.


VI

DOROTHY SPEAKS

I shall not subject you to the ordeal from which I suffered. You shall
follow my three friends into the room. According to Sinclair's
description, the interview proceeded thus:

As soon as the door had closed upon them, and before either of the girls
had a chance to speak, he remarked to Gilbertine:

"I have brought you here because I wish to express to you, in the
presence of your cousin, my sympathy for the bereavement which in an
instant has robbed you both of a lifelong guardian. I also wish to say,
in the light of this sad event, that I am ready, if propriety so exacts,
to postpone the ceremony which I hoped would unite our lives to-day.
Your wish shall be my wish, Gilbertine; though I would suggest that
possibly you never more needed the sympathy and protection which only a
husband can give than you do to-day."

He told me afterward that he was so taken up with the effect of this
suggestion on Gilbertine that he forgot to look at Dorothy, though the
hint he strove to convey of impending trouble was meant as much for her
as for his affianced bride. In another moment he regretted this,
especially when he saw that Dorothy had changed her attitude, and was
now looking away from them both.

"What do you say, Gilbertine?" he asked earnestly, as she sat flushing
and paling before him.

"Nothing. I have not thought--it is a question for others to
decide--others who know what is right better than I. I appreciate your
consideration," she suddenly burst out, "and should be glad to tell you
at this moment what to expect. But--give me a little time--let me see
you later--in the morning, Mr. Sinclair, after we are all somewhat
rested, and when I can see you quite alone."

Dorothy rose.

"Shall I go?" she asked.

Sinclair advanced, and with quiet protest touched her on the shoulder.
Quietly she sank back into her seat.

"I want to say a half-dozen words to you, Miss Camerden. Gilbertine will
pardon us; it is about matters which must be settled to-night. There are
decisions to arrive at and arrangements to be made. Mrs. Armstrong has
instructed me to question you in regard to these, as the one best
acquainted with Mrs. Lansing's affairs and general tastes. We will not
trouble Gilbertine. She has her own decisions to reach. Dear, will you
let me make you comfortable in the conservatory while I talk for five
minutes with Dorothy?"

He said she met this question with a look so blank and uncomprehending
that he just lifted her and carried her in among the palms.

"I must speak to Dorothy," he pleaded, placing her in the chair where he
had often seen her sit of her own accord. "Be a good girl; I will not
keep you here long."

"But why cannot I go to my room? I do not understand--I am
frightened--what have you to say to Dorothy you cannot say to me?"

She seemed so excited that for a minute, just a minute, he faltered in
his purpose. Then he took her gravely by the hand.

"I have told you," said he. Then he kissed her softly on the forehead.
"Be quiet, dear, and rest. See, here are roses!"

He plucked and flung a handful into her lap. Then he crossed back to the
library and shut the conservatory door behind him. I am not surprised
that Gilbertine wondered at her peremptory bridegroom.

When Sinclair re-entered the library, he found Dorothy standing with her
hand on the knob of the door leading into the hall. Her head was bent
thoughtfully forward, as though she were inwardly debating whether to
stand her ground or fly. Sinclair gave her no further opportunity for
hesitation. Advancing rapidly, he laid his hand gently on hers, and with
a gravity which must have impressed her, quietly remarked:

"I must ask you to stay and hear what I have to say. I wished to spare
Gilbertine; would that I could spare you! But circumstances forbid. You
know and I know that your aunt did not die of apoplexy."

She gave a violent start, and her lips parted. If the hand under his
clasp had been cold, it was now icy. He let his own slip from the
contact.

"You know!" she echoed, trembling and pallid, her released hand flying
instinctively to her hair.

"Yes; you need not feel about for the little box. I took it from its
hiding-place when I laid you fainting on the bed. Here it is."

He drew it from his pocket and showed it to her. She hardly glanced at
it; her eyes were fixed in terror on his face, and her lips seemed to be
trying in vain to formulate some inquiry.

He tried to be merciful.

"I missed it many hours ago from the shelf yonder where you all saw me
place it. Had I known that you had taken it, I would have repeated to
you how deadly were the contents, and how dangerous it was to handle the
vial or to let others handle it, much less to put it to the lips."

She started, and instinctively her form rose to its full height.

"Have you looked in that little box since you took it from my hair?" she
asked.

"Yes."

"Then you know it to be empty?"

For answer he pressed the spring, and the little lid flew open.

"It is not empty now, you see." Then more slowly and with infinite
meaning: "But the little flask is."

She brought her hands together and faced him with a noble dignity which
at once put the interview on a different footing.

"Where was this vial found?" she demanded.

He found it difficult to answer. They seemed to have exchanged
positions. When he did speak it was in a low tone, and with less
confidence than he had shown before.

"In the bed with the old lady. I saw it there myself. Mr. Worthington
was with me. Nobody else knows anything about it. I wish to give you an
opportunity to explain. I begin to think you can--but how, God only
knows. The box was hidden in your hair from early evening. I saw your
hand continually fluttering toward it all the time we were dancing in
the parlour."

She did not lose an iota of her dignity or pride.

"You are right," she said. "I put it there as soon as I took it from the
cabinet. I could think of no safer hiding-place. Yes, I took it," she
acknowledged, as she saw the flush rise to his cheek. "I took it; but
with no worse motive than the dishonest one of having for my own an
object which bewitched me. I was hardly myself when I snatched it from
the shelf and thrust it into my hair."

He stared at her in amazement, her confession and her attitude so
completely contradicted each other.

"But I had nothing to do with the vial," she went on. And with this
declaration her whole manner, even her voice changed, as if with the
utterance of these few words she had satisfied some inner demand of
self-respect, and could now enter into the sufferings of those about
her. "This I think it right to make plain to you. I supposed the vial to
be in the box when I took it, but when I got to my room and had an
opportunity to examine the deadly trinket, I found it empty, just as you
found it when you took it from my hair. Some one had taken the vial out
before my hand had ever touched the box."

Like a man who feels himself suddenly seized by the throat, yet who
struggles for the life slowly but inexorably leaving him, Sinclair cast
one heart-rending look toward the conservatory, then heavily demanded:

"Why were you out of your room? Why did they have to look for you? _And
who was the person who uttered that scream?_"

She confronted him sadly, but with an earnestness he could not but
respect.

"I was not in the room because I was troubled by my discovery. I think I
had some idea of returning the box to the shelf from which I had taken
it. At all events, I found myself on the little staircase in the rear
when that cry rang through the house. I do not know who uttered it; I
only know that it did not spring from my lips."

In a rush of renewed hope he seized her by the hand.

"It was your aunt!" he whispered. "It was she who took the vial out of
the box; who put it to her own lips; who shrieked when she felt her
vitals gripped. Had you stayed you would have known this. Can't you say
so? Don't you think so? Why do you look at me with those incredulous
eyes?"

"Because you must not believe a lie. Because you are too good a man to
be sacrificed. It was a younger throat than my aunt's which gave
utterance to that shriek. Mr. Sinclair, be advised; _do not be married
to-morrow_!"

Meanwhile I was pacing the hall without in a delirium of suspense. I
tried hard to keep within the bounds of silence. I had turned for the
fiftieth time to face that library door, when suddenly I heard a hoarse
cry break from within, and saw the door fly open and Dorothy come
hurrying out. She shrank when she saw me, but seemed grateful that I
did not attempt to stop her, and soon was up the stairs and out of
sight. I rushed at once into the library.

I found Sinclair sitting before a table with his head buried in his
hands. In an instant I knew that our positions were again reversed, and,
without stopping to give heed to my own sensations, I approached him as
near as I dared and laid my hand on his shoulder.

He shuddered, but did not look up, and it was minutes before he spoke.
Then it all came in a rush.

"Fool! fool that I was! And I saw that she was consumed by fright the
moment it became plain that I was intent upon having some conversation
with Dorothy. Her fingers where they gripped my arm must have left marks
behind them. But I saw only womanly nervousness when a man less blind
would have detected guilt. Walter, I wish that the mere scent of this
empty flask would kill. Then I should not have to re-enter that
conservatory door--or look again in her face, or----"

He had taken out the cursed jewel and was fingering it in a nervous way
which went to my heart of hearts. Gently removing it from his hand, I
asked with all the calmness possible:

"What is all this mystery? Why have your suspicions returned to
Gilbertine? I thought you had entirely dissociated her with this matter,
and that you blamed Dorothy, and Dorothy only, for the amethyst's
loss?"

"Dorothy had the empty box; but the vial! the vial!--that had been taken
by a previous hand. Do you remember the white silk train which Mr.
Armstrong saw slipping from this room? I cannot talk, Walter; my duty
leads me _there_."

He pointed towards the conservatory. I drew back and asked if I should
take up my watch again outside the door.

He shook his head.

"It makes no difference; nothing makes any difference. But if you want
to please me, stay here."

I at once sank into a chair. He made a great effort and advanced to the
conservatory door. I studiously looked another way; my heart was
breaking with sympathy for him.

But in another instant I was on my feet. I could hear him rushing about
among the palms. Presently I heard his voice shout out the wild cry:

"She is gone! I forgot the other door communicating with the hall."

I crossed the floor and entered where he stood gazing down at an empty
seat and a trail of scattered roses. Never shall I forget his face. The
dimness of the spot could not hide his deep, unspeakable emotions. To
him this flight bore but one interpretation--guilt.

I did not advocate Sinclair's pressing the matter further that night. I
saw that he was exhausted, and that any further movement would tax him
beyond his strength. We therefore separated immediately after leaving
the library, and I found my way to my own room alone. It may seem
callous in me, but I fell asleep very soon after, and did not wake till
roused by a knock at my door. On opening it I confronted Sinclair,
looking haggard and unkempt. As he entered, the first clear notes of the
breakfast-call could be heard rising from the lower hall.

"I have not slept," he said. "I have been walking the hall all night,
listening by spells at her door, and at other times giving what counsel
I could to the Armstrongs. God forgive me, but I have said nothing to
any one of what has made this affair an awful tragedy to me! Do you
think I did wrong? I waited to give Dorothy a chance. Why should I not
show the same consideration to Gilbertine?"

"You should." But our eyes did not meet, and neither voice expressed the
least hope.

"I shall not go to breakfast," he now declared. "I have written this
line to Gilbertine. Will you see that she gets it?"

For reply I held out my hand. He placed the note in it, and I was
touched to see that it was unsealed.

"Be sure, when you give it to her, that she will have an opportunity of
reading it alone. I shall request the use of one of the little
reception-rooms this morning. Let her come there if she is so impelled.
She will find a friend as well as a judge."

I endeavoured to express sympathy, urge patience, and suggest hope. But
he had no ear for words, though he tried to listen, poor fellow! so I
soon stopped, and he presently left the room. I immediately made myself
as presentable as a night of unprecedented emotions would allow, and
went below to do him such service as opportunity offered and the
exigencies of the case permitted.

I found the lower hall alive with eager guests and a few outsiders. News
of the sad event was slowly making its way through the avenue, and some
of the Armstrongs' nearest neighbours had left their breakfast-tables to
express their interest and to hear the particulars. Among these stood
the lady of the house; but Mr. Armstrong was nowhere within sight. For
him the breakfast waited. Not wishing to be caught in any little swirl
of conventional comment, I remained near the staircase waiting for some
one to descend who could give me news concerning Miss Murray. For I had
small expectation of her braving the eyes of these strangers, and
doubted if even Dorothy would be seen at the breakfast-table. But little
Miss Lane, if small, was gifted with a great appetite. She would be sure
to appear prior to the last summons, and as we were good friends, she
would listen to my questions and give me the answer I needed for the
carrying out of Sinclair's wishes. But before her light footfall was
heard descending I was lured from my plans by an unexpected series of
events. Three men came down, one after the other, followed by Mr.
Armstrong, looking even more grave and ponderous than usual. Two of them
were the physicians who had been called in the night, and whom I myself
had seen depart somewhere near three o'clock. The third I did not know,
but he looked like a doctor also. Why were they here again so early? Had
anything new come to light?

It was a question which seemed to strike others as well as myself. As
Mr. Armstrong ushered them down the hall and out of the front-door many
were the curious glances which followed them, and it was with difficulty
that the courteous host on his return escaped the questions and
detaining hands of some of his inquisitive guests. A pleasant word, an
amiable smile, he had for all; but I was quite certain, when I saw him
disappear into the little room he retained for his own use, that he had
told them nothing which could in any way relieve their curiosity.

This filled me with a vague alarm. Something must have
occurred--something which Sinclair ought to know. I felt a great
anxiety, and was closely watching the door behind which Mr. Armstrong
had vanished when it suddenly opened, and I perceived that he had been
writing a telegram. As he gave it to one of the servants he made a
gesture to the man standing with extended hand by the Chinese gong, and
the summons rang out for breakfast. Instantly the hum of voices ceased,
and young and old turned toward the dining-room, but the host did not
enter with them. Before the younger and more active of his guests could
reach his side he had slid into the room which I have before described
as set apart for the display of Gilbertine's wedding-presents. Instantly
I lost all inclination for breakfast, and lingered about in the hall
until every one had passed me, even little Miss Lane, who had come down
unperceived while I was watching Mr. Armstrong's door. Not very well
pleased with myself for having missed the one opportunity which might
have been of service to me, I was asking myself whether I should follow
her, and make the best attempt I could at sociability, if not at eating,
when Mr. Armstrong approached from the side hall, and, accosting me,
inquired if Mr. Sinclair had come down yet.

I assured him that I had not seen him, and did not think he meant to
come to breakfast, adding that he had been very much affected by the
affairs of the night, and had told me that he was going to shut himself
up in his room and rest.

"I am sorry, but there is a question I must ask him immediately. It is
about a little Italian trinket which I am told he displayed to the
ladies yesterday afternoon."


VII

CONSTRAINT

So our dreadful secret was not confined to ourselves, as we had
supposed, but was shared, or at least suspected, by our host.

Thankful that it was I, rather than Sinclair, who was called upon to
meet and sustain this shock, I answered with what calmness I could:

"Yes; Sinclair mentioned the matter to me. Indeed, if you have any
curiosity on the subject, I think I can enlighten you as fully as he
can."

Mr. Armstrong glanced up the stairs, hesitated, then drew me into his
private room.

"I find myself in a very uncomfortable position," he began. "A strange
and quite unaccountable change has shown itself in the appearance of
Mrs. Lansing's body during the last few hours--a change which baffles
the physicians and raises in their minds very unfortunate conjectures.
What I want to know is whether Mr. Sinclair still has in his possession
the box which is said to hold a vial of deadly poison, or whether it has
passed into any other hand since he showed it to certain ladies in the
library."

We were standing directly in the light of an eastern window. Deception
was impossible, even if I had felt like employing it. In Sinclair's
interests, if not in my own, I resolved to be as true to our host as our
positions demanded, yet, at the same time, to save Gilbertine as much as
possible from premature, if not final suspicion.

I therefore replied: "That is a question I can answer as well as
Sinclair." (Happy was I to save him this cross-examination.) "While he
was showing this toy, Mrs. Armstrong came into the room and proposed a
stroll, which drew all of the ladies from the room and called for his
attendance as well. With no thought of the danger involved, he placed
the trinket on a high shelf in the cabinet, and went out with the rest.
When he came back for it, it was gone."

The usually ruddy aspect of my host's face deepened, and he sat down in
the great armchair which did duty before his writing-table.

"This is dreadful!" was his comment; "entailing I do not know what
unfortunate consequences upon this household and on the unhappy
girl----"

"Girl?" I repeated.

He turned upon me with great gravity. "Mr. Worthington, I am sorry to
have to admit it, but something strange, something not easily
explainable, took place in this house last night. It has only just come
to light, otherwise the doctors' conclusions might have been different.
You know there is a detective in the house. The presents are valuable,
and I thought best to have a man here to look after them."

I nodded; I had no breath for speech.

"This man tells me," continued Mr. Armstrong, "that just a few minutes
previous to the time the whole household was aroused last night he heard
a step in the hall overhead, then the sound of a light foot descending
the little staircase in the servants' hall. Being anxious to find out
what this person wanted at an hour so late, he lowered the gas, closed
his door, and listened. The steps went by his door. Satisfied that it
was a woman he heard, he pulled open the door again and looked out. A
young girl was standing not very far from him in a thin streak of
moonlight. She was gazing intently at something in her hand, and that
something had a purple gleam to it. He is ready to swear to this. Next
moment, frightened by some noise she heard, she fled back, and vanished
again in the region of the little staircase. It was soon, very soon,
after this that the shriek came. Now, Mr. Worthington, what am I to do
with this knowledge? I have advised this man to hold his peace till I
can make inquiries, but where am I to make them? I cannot think that
Miss Camerden----"

The ejaculation which escaped me was involuntary. To hear her name for
the second time in this association was more than I could bear.

"Did he say it was Miss Camerden?" I hurriedly inquired, as he looked at
me in some surprise. "How should he know Miss Camerden?"

"He described her," was the unanswerable reply. "Besides, we know that
she was circulating in the halls at that time. I declare I have never
known a worse business," this amiable man bemoaned. "Let me send for
Sinclair; he is more interested than any one else in Gilbertine's
relatives; or, stay, what if I should send for Miss Camerden herself?
She should be able to tell how she came by this box."

I subdued my own instincts, which were all for clearing Dorothy on the
spot, and answered as I thought Sinclair would like me to answer.

"It is a serious and very perplexing piece of business," said I; "but if
you will wait a short time I do not think you will have to trouble Miss
Camerden. I am sure that explanations will be given. Give the lady a
chance," I stammered. "Imagine what her feelings would be if questioned
on so delicate a topic. It would make a breach which nothing could
heal. Later, if she does not speak, it will be only right for you to ask
her why."

"She did not come down this morning."

"Naturally not."

"If I could take counsel of my wife! But she is of too nervous a
temperament. I am anxious to keep her from knowing this fresh
complication as long as possible. Do you think I can look for Miss
Camerden to explain herself before the doctors return, or before Mrs.
Lansing's physician, for whom I have telegraphed, can arrive from New
York?"

"I am sure that three hours will not pass before you hear the truth.
Leave me to work out the situation. I promise that if I cannot bring it
about to your satisfaction, Sinclair shall be asked to lend his
assistance. Only keep the gossips from Miss Camerden's good name. Words
can be said in a moment that will not be forgotten in years. I tremble
at such a prospect for her."

"No one knows of her having been seen with the box," he protested; and,
relieved as much by his manner as by his words, I took my leave of him,
and made my way at once to the dining-room. Should I find Miss Lane
there? Yes, and what was better still, the fortunes of the day had
decreed that the place beside her should be unoccupied.

I was on my way to that place when I was struck by the extreme quiet
into which the room had fallen. It had been humming with talk when I
first entered, but now not a voice was raised and scarcely an eye. In
the hurried glance I cast about the board, not a look met mine in
recognition or welcome.

What did it mean? Had they been talking about me? Possibly; and in a
way, it would seem, that was not altogether flattering to my vanity.

Unable to hide my sense of the general embarrassment which my presence
had called forth, I passed to the seat I have indicated, and let my
inquiring look settle on Miss Lane. She was staring, in imitation of the
others, straight into her plate; but as I saluted her with a quiet
"Good-morning," she looked up and acknowledged my courtesy with a faint,
almost sympathetic, smile. At once the whole tableful broke again into
chatter, and I could safely put the question with which my mind was
full.

"How is Miss Murray?" I asked. "I do not see her here."

"Did you expect to? Poor Gilbertine! This is not the bridal-day she
expected." Then, with irresistible naïveté, entirely in keeping with her
fairy-like figure and girlish face, she added: "I think it was just
horrid in the old woman to die the night before the wedding, don't you?"

"Indeed I do," I emphatically rejoined, humouring her in the hope of
learning what I wished to know. "Does Miss Murray still cherish the
expectation of being married to-day? No one seems to know."

"Nor do I. I haven't seen her since the middle of the night. She didn't
come back to her room. They say she is sobbing out her terror and
disappointment in some attic corner. Think of that for Gilbertine
Murray! But even that is better than----"

The sentence trailed away into an indistinguishable murmur, the murmur
into silence. Was it because of a fresh lull in the conversation about
us? I hardly think so, for though the talk was presently resumed, she
remained silent, not even giving the least sign of wishing to prolong
this particular topic. I finished my coffee as soon as possible and
quitted the room, but not before many had preceded me. The hall was
consequently as full as before of a gossiping crowd.

I was on the point of bowing myself through the various groups blocking
my way to the library door, when I noticed renewed signs of
embarrassment on all the faces turned my way. Women who were clustered
about the newel-post drew back, and some others sauntered away into
side-rooms with an appearance of suddenly wishing to go somewhere. This
certainly was very singular, especially as these marks of disapproval
did not seem to be directed so much at myself as at some one behind me.
Who could this some one be? Turning quickly, I cast a glance up the
staircase, before which I stood, and saw the figure of a young girl
dressed in black hesitating on the landing. This young girl was Dorothy
Camerden, and it took but a moment's contemplation of the scene for me
to feel assured that it was against her this feeling of universal
constraint had been directed.


VIII

GILBERTINE SPEAKS

Knowing my darling's innocence, I felt the insult shown her in my heart
of hearts, and might in the heat of the moment have been betrayed into
an unwise utterance of my indignation, if at that moment I had not
encountered the eye of Mr. Armstrong fixed on me from the rear hall. In
the mingled surprise and distress he displayed, I saw that it was not
from any indiscretion of his that this feeling against her had started.
He had not betrayed the trust I had placed in him, yet the murmur had
gone about which virtually ostracised her, and instead of confronting
the eager looks of friends, she found herself met by averted glances and
coldly turned backs, and soon by an almost empty hall.

She flushed as she realised the effect of her presence, and cast me an
agonised look which, without her expectation, perhaps, roused every
instinct of chivalry within me. Advancing, I met her at the foot of the
stairs, and with one quick word seemed to restore her to herself.

"Be patient!" I whispered. "To-morrow they will all be around you again.
Perhaps sooner. Go into the conservatory and wait."

She gave me a grateful pressure of the hand, while I bounded upstairs,
determined that nothing should stop me from finding Gilbertine, and
giving her the letter with which Sinclair had entrusted me.

But this was more easily planned than accomplished. When I had reached
the third floor (an unaccustomed and strange spot for me to find myself
in) I at first found no one who could tell me to which room Miss Murray
had retired. Then, when I did come across a stray housemaid, and she,
with an extraordinary stare, had pointed out the door, I found it quite
impossible to gain any response from within, though I could hear a quick
step moving restlessly to and fro, and now and then catch the sound of a
smothered sob or low cry. The wretched girl would not heed me, though I
told her who I was, and that I had a letter from Mr. Sinclair in my
hand. Indeed, she presently became perfectly quiet, and let me knock
again and again, till the situation became ridiculous, and I felt
obliged to draw off.

Not that I thought of yielding. No, I would stay there till her own
fancy drove her to open the door, or till Mr. Armstrong should come up
and force it. A woman upon whom so many interests depended would not be
allowed to remain shut up the whole morning. Her position as a possible
bride forbade it. Guilty or innocent, she must show herself before long.
As if in answer to my expectation, a figure appeared at this very moment
at the other end of the hall. It was Dutton, the butler, and in his hand
he held a telegram. He seemed astonished to see me there, but passed me
with a simple bow, and stopped before the door I had so unavailingly
assailed a few minutes before.

"A telegram, miss," he shouted, as no answer was made to his knock.
"Mr. Armstrong asked me to bring it to you. It is from the Bishop, and
calls for an immediate reply."

There was a stir within, but the door did not open. Meanwhile, I had
sealed and thrust forth the letter I had held concealed in my breast
pocket.

"Give her this, too," I signified, and pointed to the crack under the
door.

He took the letter, laid the telegram on it, and pushed them both in.
Then he stood up, and eyed the unresponsive panels with the set look of
a man who does not easily yield his purpose.

"I will wait for the answer!" he shouted through the keyhole, and,
falling back, he took up his stand against the opposite wall.

I could not keep him company there. Withdrawing into a big dormer
window, I waited with beating heart to see if her door would open.
Apparently not; yet as I still lingered I heard the lock turn, followed
by the sound of a measured but hurried step. Dashing from my retreat, I
reached the main hall in time to see Miss Murray disappear toward the
staircase. This was well, and I was about to follow, when, to my
astonishment, I perceived Dutton standing in the doorway she had just
left, staring down at the floor with a puzzled look.

"She didn't pick up the letters!" he cried in amazement. "She just
walked over them. What shall I do now? It's the strangest thing I ever
saw!"

"Take them to the little boudoir over the porch," I suggested. "Mr.
Sinclair is there, and if she is not on her way to join him now, she
certainly will be soon."

Without a word Dutton caught up the letters and made for the stairs.

Left to await the result, I found myself so worked upon that I wondered
how much longer I should be able to endure these shifts of feeling and
constantly recurring moments of extreme suspense. To escape the torture
of my own thoughts, or, possibly, to get some idea of how Dorothy was
sustaining an ordeal which was fast destroying my own self-possession, I
prepared to go downstairs. What was my astonishment, in passing the
little boudoir on the second floor, to find its door ajar and the place
empty. Either the interview between Sinclair and Gilbertine had been
very much curtailed, or it had not yet taken place. With a heart heavy
with forebodings I no longer sought to analyse, I made my way down, and
reached the lower step of the great staircase just as a half-dozen
girls, rushing from different quarters of the hall, surrounded the heavy
form of Mr. Armstrong coming from his own little room.

Their questions made a small hubbub. With a good-natured gesture he put
them all back, and, raising his voice, said to the assembled crowd:

"It has been decided by Miss Murray that, under the circumstances, it
will be wiser for her to postpone the celebration of her marriage to
some time and place less fraught with mournful suggestions. A telegram
has just been sent to the Bishop to that effect, and while we all suffer
from this disappointment, I am sure there is no one here who will not
see the propriety of her decision."

As he finished, Gilbertine appeared behind him. At the same moment I
caught, or thought I did, the flash of Sinclair's eye from the recesses
of the room beyond; but I could not stop to make sure of this, for
Gilbertine's look and manner were such as to draw my full attention, and
it was with a mixture of almost inexplicable emotions that I saw her
thread her way among her friends, in a state of high feeling which made
her blind to their outstretched hands and deaf to the murmur of interest
and sympathy which instinctively followed her. She was making for the
stairs, and whatever her thoughts, whatever the state of her mind, she
moved superbly, in her pale, yet seemingly radiant abstraction. I
watched her, fascinated, yet when she left the last group and began to
cross the small square of carpet which alone separated us, I stepped
down and aside, feeling that to meet her eye just then without knowing
what had passed between her and Sinclair would be cruel to her and
well-nigh unbearable to myself.

She saw the movement and seemed to hesitate an instant, then she turned
for one brief instant in my direction, and I saw her smile. Great God!
it was the smile of innocence. Fleeting as it was, the pride that was in
it, the sweet assertion and the joy were unmistakable. I felt like
springing to Sinclair's side in the gladness of my relief, but there was
no time; another door had opened down the hall, another person had
stepped upon the scene, and Miss Murray, as well as myself, recognised
by the hush which at once fell upon every one present that something of
still more startling import awaited us.

"Mr. Armstrong and ladies!" said this stranger--I knew he was a stranger
by the studied formality of the former's bow--"I have made a few
inquiries since I came here a short time ago, and I find that there is
one young lady in the house who ought to be able to tell me better than
any one else under what circumstances Mrs. Lansing breathed her last. I
allude to her niece, who slept in the adjoining room. Is that young lady
here? Her name, if I remember rightly, is Camerden--Miss Dorothy
Camerden."

A movement as of denial passed from group to group down the hall, and,
while no one glanced toward the library and some did glance upstairs, I
felt the dart of sudden fear--or was it hope--that Dorothy, hearing her
name called, would leave the conservatory and proudly confront the
speaker in face of this whole suspicious throng. But no Dorothy
appeared. On the contrary, it was Gilbertine who turned, and, with an
air of authority for which no one was prepared, asked in tones vibrating
with feeling:

"Has this gentleman the official right to question who was and who was
not with my aunt when she died?"

Mr. Armstrong, who showed his surprise as ingenuously as he did every
other emotion, glanced up at the light figure hovering over them from
the staircase, and made out to answer:

"This gentleman has every right, Miss Murray. He is the coroner of the
town, accustomed to inquire into all cases of sudden death."

"Then," she vehemently rejoined, her pale cheeks breaking out into a
scarlet flush, above which her eyes shone with an almost unearthly
brilliancy, "do not summon Dorothy Camerden. She is not the witness you
want. I am. I am the one who uttered that scream; I am the one who saw
our aunt die. Dorothy cannot tell you what took place in her room and at
her bedside, for Dorothy was not there; but _I_ can."

Amazed, not as others were, at the assertion itself, but at the manner
and publicity of the utterance, I contemplated this surprising girl in
ever-increasing wonder. Always beautiful, always spirited and proud, she
looked at that moment as if nothing in the shape of fear, or even
contumely, could touch her. She faced the astonishment of her best
friends with absolute fearlessness, and before the general murmur could
break into words, added:

"I feel it my duty to speak thus publicly, because, by keeping silent so
long, I have allowed a false impression to go about. Stunned with
terror, I found it impossible to speak during that first shock. Besides,
I was in a measure to blame for the catastrophe itself, and lacked
courage to own it. It was I who took the little crystal flask into my
aunt's room. I had been fascinated by it from the first, fascinated
enough to long to see it closer, and to hold it in my hand. But I was
ashamed of this fascination--ashamed, I mean, to have any one know that
I could be moved by such a childish impulse; so, instead of taking the
box itself, which might easily be missed, I simply abstracted the tiny
vial, and, satisfied with its possession, carried it about till I got to
my room. Then, when the house was quiet and my room-mate asleep, I took
it out and looked at it, and feeling an irresistible desire to share my
amusement with my cousin, I stole to her room by means of the connecting
balcony, just as I had done many times before when our aunt was in bed
and asleep. But unlike any previous occasion, I found the room empty.
Dorothy was not there; but as the light was burning high, I knew she
would soon be back, and so ventured to step in.

"Instantly, I heard my aunt's voice. She was awake, and wanted
something. She had evidently called before, for her voice was sharp with
impatience, and she used some very harsh words. When she heard me in
Dorothy's room, she shouted again, and, as I have always been accustomed
to obey her commands, I hastened to her side, with the little vial
concealed in my hand. As she expected to see Dorothy and not me, she
rose up in unreasoning anger, asking where my cousin was, and why I was
not in bed. I attempted to answer her, but she would not listen to me,
and bade me turn up the gas, which I did.

"Then, with her eyes fixed on mine as though she knew I was trying to
conceal something from her, she commanded me to rearrange her hair and
make her more comfortable. This I could not do with the tiny flask still
in my hand, so with a quick movement, which I hoped would pass
unobserved, I slid it behind some bottles standing on a table by the
bedside, and bent to do what she required. But to attempt to escape her
eyes was useless. She had seen my action, and at once began to feel
about for what I had attempted to hide from her. Coming in contact with
the tiny flask, she seized it, and, with a smile I shall never forget,
held it up between us.

"'What's this?' she cried, showing such astonishment at its minuteness
and perfection of shape that it was immediately apparent she had heard
nothing of the amethyst box displayed by Mr. Sinclair in the library. 'I
never saw a bottle as small as this before. What is in it, and why were
you so afraid of my seeing it?'

"As she spoke she attempted to wrench out the stopper. It stuck, so I
was in hopes she would fail in the effort, but she was a woman of
uncommon strength, and presently it yielded, and I saw the vial open in
her hand.

"Aghast with terror, I caught at the table beside me, fearing to drop
before her eyes. Instantly her look of curiosity changed to one of
suspicion, and repeating, 'What's in it? What's in it?' she raised the
flask to her nostrils, and when she found she could make out nothing
from the smell, lowered it to her lips, with the intention, I suppose,
of determining its contents by tasting them. As I caught sight of this
fatal action, and beheld the one drop, which Mr. Sinclair had said was
enough to kill a man, slip from its hiding-place of centuries into her
open throat, I felt as if the poison had entered my own veins; I could
neither speak nor move. But when, an instant later, I met the look which
spread suddenly over her face--a look of horror and hatred, accusing
horror and unspeakable hatred mingled with what I dimly felt must mean
death--an agonised cry burst from my lips, after which, panic-stricken,
I flew, as if for life, back by the way I had come, to my own room. This
was a great mistake. I should have remained with my aunt and boldly met
the results of the tragedy which my folly had brought about. But terror
knows no law, and having once yielded to the instinct of concealment, I
knew no other course than to continue to maintain an apparent ignorance
of what had just occurred. With chattering teeth and an awful numbness
at my heart, I tore off my wrapper and slid into bed. Miss Lane had not
wakened, but every one else had, and the hall was full of people. This
terrified me still more, and for the moment I felt that I could never
own the truth and bring down upon myself all this wonder and curiosity.
So I allowed a wrong impression of the event to go about, for which act
of cowardice I now ask the pardon of every one here, as I have already
asked that of Mr. Sinclair and of our kind friend Mr. Armstrong."

She paused, and stood for a moment confronting us all with proud eyes
and flaming cheeks, then amid a hubbub which did not seem to affect her
in the least, she stepped down, and approaching the man who, she had
been told, had a right to her full confidence, she said, loud enough for
all who wished to hear her:

"I am ready to give you whatever further information you may require.
Shall I step into the drawing-room with you?"

He bowed, and as they disappeared from the great hall the hubbub of
voices became tumultuous.

Naturally I should have joined in the universal expressions of surprise
and the gossip incident to such an unexpected revelation. But I found
myself averse to any kind of talk. Till I could meet Sinclair's eye and
discern in it the happy clearing-up of all his doubts, I should not feel
free to be my own ordinary and sociable self again. But Sinclair showed
every evidence of wishing to keep in the background; and while this was
natural enough, so far as people in general were concerned, I thought it
odd and very unlike him not to give me an opportunity to express my
congratulations at the turn affairs had taken and the frank attitude
assumed by Gilbertine. I own I felt much disturbed by this neglect, and
as the minutes passed and he failed to appear, I found my satisfaction
in her explanations dwindle under the consciousness that they had
failed, in some respects, to account for the situation; and before I
knew it I was the prey of fresh doubts, which I did my best to smother,
not only for the sake of Sinclair, but because I was still too much
under the influence of Gilbertine's imposing personality to wish to
believe aught but what her burning words conveyed.

She must have spoken the truth, but was it the entire truth? I hated
myself for asking the question; hated myself for being more critical
with her than I had been with Dorothy, who certainly had not made her
own part in this tragedy as clear as one who loved her could wish. Ah,
Dorothy! it was time some one told her that Gilbertine had openly
vindicated her, and that she could now come forth and face her friends
without hesitation and without dread. Was she still in the conservatory?
Doubtless. But it would be better, perhaps, for me to make sure.

Approaching the place by the small door connecting it with the hallway
in which I stood, I took a hurried look within, and, seeing no one,
stepped boldly down between the palms to the little nook where lovers of
this quiet spot were accustomed to sit. It was empty, and so was the
library beyond. Coming back, I accosted Dutton, whom I found
superintending the removal of the potted plants which encumbered the
passages, and asked him if he knew where Miss Camerden was? He answered
without hesitation that she had stood in the rear hall a little while
before, listening to Miss Murray; that she had then gone upstairs by the
spiral staircase, leaving word with him that if anybody wanted her she
would be found in the small boudoir over the porch.

I thanked him, and was on my way to join her when Mr. Armstrong called
me. He must have kept me a half-hour in his room discussing every aspect
of the affair and apologising for the necessity which he now felt of
bidding farewell to most of his guests, among whom, he was careful to
state, he did not include me. Then, when I thought this topic exhausted,
he began to talk about his wife, and what this dreadful occurrence was
to her, and how he despaired of ever reconciling her to the fact that it
had been considered necessary to call in a coroner. Then he spoke of
Sinclair, but with some constraint and a more careful choice of words,
at which, realising that I was to reap nothing from this interview, only
suffer strong and continued irritation at a delay which was costing me
the inestimable privilege of being the first to tell Dorothy of her
re-establishment in every one's good opinion, I exerted myself for
release, and to such good purpose that I presently found myself again in
the hall, where the first person I ran against was Sinclair.

He started, and so did I, at this unexpected encounter. Then we stood
still, and I stared at him in amazement, for everything about the man
was changed, and--inexplicable fact!--in nothing was this change more
marked than in his attitude toward myself. Yet he tried to be friendly
and meet me on the old footing, and observed as soon as we found
ourselves beyond the hearing of others:

"You heard what Gilbertine said. There is no reason for doubting her
words. _I_ do not doubt them, and you will show yourself my friend by
not doubting them either." Then, with some impetuosity and a gleam in
his eye quite foreign to its natural expression, he pursued, with a
pitiful effort to speak dispassionately: "Our wedding is
postponed--indefinitely. There are reasons why this seemed best to Miss
Murray. To you I will say that postponed nuptials seldom culminate in
marriage. In fact, I have just released Miss Murray from all obligations
to myself."

The stare of utter astonishment I gave him provoked the first and only
sneer I have ever seen on his face. What was I to say--what could I say,
in response to such a declaration, following so immediately upon his
warm assertion of her innocence? Nothing. With that indefinable chill
between us, which had come I know not how, I felt tongue-tied.

He saw my embarrassment, possibly my emotion, for he smiled somewhat
bitterly, and put a step or so between us before he remarked:

"Miss Murray has my good wishes. Out of respect to her position, I shall
show her a friend's attention while we remain in this house. That is all
I have to say, Walter. You and I have held our last conversation on this
subject."

He was gone before I had sufficiently recovered to realise that in this
conversation I had had no part, neither had it contained any explanation
of the very facts which had once formed our greatest grounds for
doubt--namely, Beaton's dream; the smothered cry uttered behind
Sinclair's shoulder when he first made known the deadly qualities of
the little vial; and, lastly, the strange desire acknowledged to by both
these young ladies, to touch and hold an object calculated rather to
repel than to attract the normal feminine heart.

At every previous stage of this ever-shifting drama my instinct had been
to set my wits against the facts, and, if I could, puzzle out the
mystery. But I felt no such temptation now. My one desire was to act,
and that immediately. Dorothy, for all Gilbertine's intimation to the
contrary, held in her own breast the key to the enigma. Otherwise she
would not have ventured upon the surprising and necessarily unpalatable
advice to Sinclair--an advice he seemed to have followed--not to marry
Gilbertine Murray at the time proposed. Nothing short of a secret
acquaintanceship with facts unknown as yet to the rest of us could have
nerved her to such an act.

My one hope, then, of understanding the matter lay with her. To seek her
at once in the place where I had been told she awaited me seemed the
only course to take. If any real gratitude underlay the look of trust
which she had given me at the termination of our last interview, she
would reward my confidence by unbosoming herself to me.

I was at the door of the boudoir immediately upon forming this
resolution. Finding it ajar, I pushed it softly open, and as softly
entered. To my astonishment the place was very dark. Not only had the
shades been drawn down, but the shutters had been closed, so that it
was with difficulty I detected the slight, black-robed figure which lay
face down among the cushions of a lounge. She had evidently not heard my
entrance, for she did not move; and, struck by her pathetic attitude, I
advanced in a whirl of feeling, which made me forget all
conventionalities, and everything else, in fact, but that I loved her,
and had the utmost confidence in her power to make me happy. Laying my
hand softly on her head, I tenderly whispered:

"Look up, dear. Whatever barrier may have intervened between us has
fallen. Look up and hear how I love you."

She thrilled as a woman only thrills when her secret soul is moved, and,
rising with a certain grand movement, turned her face upon me, glorious
with a feeling that not even the dimness of the room could hide.

Why, then, did my brain whirl and my heart collapse?

It was Gilbertine and not Dorothy who stood before me.


IX

IN THE LITTLE BOUDOIR

Never had a suspicion crossed my mind of any such explanation of our
secret troubles. I had seen as much of one cousin as the other in my
visits to Mrs. Lansing's house, but Gilbertine being from the first day
of our acquaintance engaged to my friend Sinclair, I naturally did not
presume to study her face for any signs of interest in myself, even if
my sudden and uncontrollable passion for Dorothy had left me the heart
to do so. Yet now, in the light of her unmistakable smile, of her
beaming eyes, from which all troublous thoughts seemed to have fled for
ever, a thousand recollections forced themselves upon my attention,
which not only made me bewail my own blindness, but which served to
explain the peculiar attitude always maintained towards me by Dorothy,
and many other things which a moment before had seemed fraught with
impenetrable mystery.

All this in the twinkling of an eye. Meanwhile, misled by my words,
Gilbertine drew back a step, and, with her face still bright with the
radiance I have mentioned, murmured in low, but full-toned accents:

"Not just yet; it is too soon. Let me simply enjoy the fact that I am
free, and that the courage to win my release came from my own suddenly
acquired trust in Mr. Sinclair's goodness. Last night"--and she
shuddered--"I saw only another way--a way the horrors of which I hardly
realised. But God saved me from so dreadful, yea, so unnecessary a
crime, and this morning----"

It was cruel to let her go on--cruel to stand there and allow this
ardent, if mistaken, nature to unfold itself so ingenuously, while I,
with ear half turned toward the door, listened for the step of her whom
I had never so much loved as at that moment, possibly because I had only
just come to understand the cause of her seeming vacillations. My
instincts were so imperative, my duty and the obligations of my position
so unmistakable, that I made a move as Gilbertine reached this point,
which caused her first to hesitate, then to stop. How should I fill up
this gap of silence? How tell her of the great, the grievous mistake she
had made? The task was one to try the courage of stouter souls than
mine. But the thought of Dorothy nerved me; perhaps also my real
friendship and commiseration for Sinclair.

"Gilbertine," I began, "I will make no pretence of misunderstanding you.
The situation is too serious, the honour which you do me too great;
only, I am not free to accept that honour. The words which I uttered
were meant for your cousin Dorothy. I expected to find her in this room.
I have long loved your cousin--in secrecy, I own, but honestly and with
every hope of some day making her my wife. I--I----"

There was no need for me to finish. The warm hand turning to ice in my
clasp, the wide-open blind-struck eyes, the recoil, the maiden flush
rising, deepening, covering cheek and chin and forehead, then fading out
again till the whole face was white as marble and seemingly as
cold--told me that the blow had gone home, and that Gilbertine Murray,
the unequalled beauty, the petted darling of a society ready to
recognise every charm she possessed save her ardent nature and great
heart, had reached the height of her many miseries, and that it was I
who had placed her there.

Overcome with pity, but conscious also of a profound respect, I
endeavoured to utter some futile words, which she at once put an end to
by an appealing gesture.

"You can say nothing," she began. "I have made an awful mistake, the
worst a woman can make, I think." Then, with long pauses, as though her
tongue were clogged by shame--perhaps by some deeper if less apparent
feeling: "You love Dorothy. Does Dorothy love you?"

My answer was an honest one.

"I have dared to hope so, despite the little opportunity she has given
me to express my feelings. She has always held me back, and that very
decidedly, or my devotion would have been apparent to everybody."

"Oh, Dorothy!"

Regret, sorrow, infinite tenderness, all were audible in that cry.
Indeed, it seemed as if for the moment her thoughts were more taken up
with her cousin's unhappiness than with her own.

"How I must have made her suffer! I have been a curse to those who loved
me. But I am humbled now, and very rightly."

I began to experience a certain awe of this great nature. There was
grandeur even in her contrition, and as I took in the expression of her
colourless features, sweet with almost an unearthly sweetness in spite
of the anguish consuming her, I suddenly realised what Sinclair's love
for her must be. I also as suddenly realised the depth and extent of his
suffering. To call such a woman his, to lead her almost to the foot of
the altar, and then to see her turn aside and leave him! Surely his lot
was an intolerable one, and though the interference I had unconsciously
made in his wishes had been involuntary, I felt like cursing myself for
not having been more open in my attentions to the girl I really loved.

Gilbertine seemed to divine my thoughts, for, pausing at the door she
had unconsciously approached, she stood with the knob in her hand, and,
with averted brow, remarked gravely:

"I am going out of your life. Before I do so, however, I should like to
say a few words in palliation of my conduct. I have never known a
mother. I early fell under my aunt's charge, who, detesting children,
sent me away to school, where I was well enough treated, but never
loved. I was a plain child, and felt my plainness. This gave an
awkwardness to my actions, and as my aunt had caused it to be distinctly
understood that her sole intention in sending me to the Academy was to
have me educated for a teacher, my position awakened little interest,
and few hearts, if any, warmed toward me. Meanwhile, my breast was
filled with but one thought, one absorbing wish. I longed to love
passionately, and be passionately loved in return. Had I found a
mate--but I never did. I was not destined for any such happiness.

"Years passed. I was a woman, but neither my happiness nor my
self-confidence had kept pace with my growth. Girls who once passed me
with a bare nod now stopped to stare, sometimes to whisper comments
behind my back. I did not understand this change, and withdrew more and
more into myself and the fairy-land made for me by books. Romance was my
life, and I had fallen into the dangerous habit of brooding over the
pleasures and excitements which would have been mine had I been born
beautiful and wealthy, when my aunt suddenly visited the school, saw me,
and at once took me away and placed me in the most fashionable school in
New York City. From there I was launched, without any word of motherly
counsel, into the gay society you know so well. Almost with my coming
out I found the world at my feet, and though my aunt showed me no love,
she evinced a certain pride in my success, and cast about to procure for
me a great match. Mr. Sinclair was the victim. He visited me, took me to
theatres, and eventually proposed. My aunt was in ecstasies. I, who felt
helpless before her will, was glad that the husband she had chosen for
me was at least a gentleman, and, to all appearances, respectable in his
living and nice in his tastes. But he was not the man I had dwelt on in
my dreams; and while I accepted him (it was not possible to do anything
else, with my aunt controlling every action, if not every thought), I
cared so little for Mr. Sinclair himself that I forgot to ask if his
many attentions were the result of any real feeling on his part, or only
such as he considered due to the woman he expected to make his wife.
You see what girls are. How I despise myself now for this miserable
frivolity!

"All this time I knew that I was not my aunt's only niece; that Dorothy
Camerden, whom I had never met, was as closely related to her as myself.
True to her heartless code, my aunt had placed us in separate schools,
and not till she found that I was to leave her, and that soon there
would be nobody to see that her dresses were bought with discretion, and
her person attended to with something like care, did she send for
Dorothy. I shall never forget my first impression of her. I had been
told that I need not expect much in the way of beauty and style, but
from my first glimpse of her dear face I saw that my soul's friend had
come, and that, marriage or no marriage, I need never be solitary again.

"I do not think I made as favourable an impression on my cousin as she
did on me. Dorothy was new to elaborate dressing and to all the follies
of fashionable life, and her look had more of awe than expectation in
it. But I gave her a hearty kiss, and in a week she was as brilliantly
equipped as myself.

"I loved her, but, from blindness of eye or an overwhelming egotism
which God has certainly punished, I did not consider her beautiful. This
I must acknowledge to you, if only to complete my humiliation. I never
imagined for a moment, even after I became the daily witness of your
many attentions to her, that it was on her account you visited the house
so often. I had been so petted and spoiled since entering society that
I thought you were kind to her simply because honour forbade you to be
too kind to me; and under this delusion _I confided my folly to
Dorothy_.

"You will have many a talk with her in the future, and some day she may
succeed in proving to you that it was vanity and not badness of heart
which led me to misunderstand your feelings. Having repressed my own
impulses so long, I saw in your reticence the evidences of a like
struggle; and when, immediately upon my break with Mr. Sinclair, you
entered here and said the words you did----Well, we have finished with
this subject for ever.

"The explanations which I gave below of the part I played in my aunt's
death were true. I only omitted one detail, which you may consider a
very important one. The fact which paralysed my hand and voice when I
saw her lift the drop of death to her lips was this: I had meant to die
by this drop myself, in Dorothy's room, and with Dorothy's arms about
me. This was my secret--a secret which no one can blame me for keeping
as long as I could, and one which I should hardly have the courage to
disclose to you now if I had not already parted with it to the coroner,
who would not credit my story till I had told him the whole truth."

"Gilbertine," I urged, for I saw her fingers closing upon the knob she
had held lightly till now, "do not go till I have said this. A young
girl does not always know the demands of her own nature. The heart you
have ignored is one in a thousand. Do not let it slip from you. God
never gives a woman such a love twice."

"I know it," she murmured, and turned the knob.

I thought she was gone, and let the sigh which had been labouring at my
breast have vent, when I caught one last word whispered from the
threshold:

"Throw back the shutters and let in the light. Dorothy is coming. I am
going now to call her."

An hour had passed, the hour of hours for me, for in it the sun of my
happiness rose full-orbed, and Dorothy and I came to understand each
other. We were sitting hand in hand in this blessed little boudoir, when
suddenly she turned her sweet face toward me and gently remarked:

"This seems like selfishness on our part; but Gilbertine insisted. Do
you know what she is doing now? Helping old Mrs. Cummings and holding
Mrs. Barnstable's baby while her maid packs. She will work like that all
day, and with a smile, too. Oh, it is a rich nature, an ideal nature. I
think we can trust her now."

I did not like to discuss Gilbertine, even with Dorothy, so I said
nothing. But she was too full of her theme to stop. I think she wished
to unburden her mind once and for ever of all that had disturbed it.

"Our aunt's death," she continued, "will be a sort of emancipation for
her. I don't think you, or any one out of our immediate household, can
realise the control which Aunt Hannah exerted over every one who came
within her daily influence. It would have been the same had she
occupied a dependent position instead of being the wealthy autocrat she
was. In her cold nature dwelt an imperiousness which no one could
withstand. You know how her friends, some of them as rich and
influential as herself, bowed to her will and submitted to her
interference. What, then, could you expect from two poor girls entirely
dependent upon her for everything they enjoyed? Gilbertine, with all her
spirit, could not face Aunt Hannah's frown, while I studied to have no
wishes. Had this been otherwise, had we found a friend instead of a
tyrant in the woman who took us into her home, Gilbertine might have
gained more control over her feelings. It was the necessity she felt of
smothering her natural impulses, and of maintaining in the house and
before the world an appearance of satisfaction in her position as
bride-elect, which caused her to fall into such extremes of despondency
and deep despair. Her self-respect was shocked. She felt she was a
living lie, and hated herself in consequence.

"You may think I did wrong not to tell her of your affection for myself,
especially after what you whispered into my ear that night at the
theatre. I did do wrong; I see it now. She was really a stronger woman
than I thought, and we might all have been saved the horrors which have
befallen us had I acted with more firmness at that time. But I was weak
and frightened. I held you back and let her go on deceiving herself,
which meant deceiving Mr. Sinclair, too. I thought, when she found
herself really married and settled in her own home, she would find it
easier to forget, and that soon, perhaps very soon, all this would seem
like a troubled dream to her. And there was reason for this hope on my
part. She showed a woman's natural interest in her outfit and the plans
for her new house, but when she heard you were to be Mr. Sinclair's best
man every feminine instinct within her rebelled, and it was with
difficulty she could prevent herself from breaking out into a loud 'No!'
in face of aunt and lover. From this moment on her state of mind grew
desperate. In the parlour, at the theatre, she was the brilliant girl
whom all admired and many envied; but in my little room at night she
would bury her face in my lap and talk of death, till I moved in a
constant atmosphere of dread. Yet, because she looked gay and laughed, I
turned a like face to the world and laughed also. We felt it was
expected of us, and the very nervous tension we were under made these
ebullitions easy. But I did not laugh so much after coming here. One
night I found her out of her bed long after every one else had retired
for the night. Next morning Mr. Beaton told a dream--I hope it was a
dream--but it frightened me. Then came that moment when Mr. Sinclair
displayed the amethyst box and explained with such a nonchalant air how
a drop from the little flask inside would kill a person. A toy, but so
deadly! I felt the thrill which shot like lightning through her, and
made up my mind she should never have the opportunity of touching that
box. And that is why I stole into the library, took it down and hid it
in my hair. I never thought to look inside; I did not pause to think
that it was the flask and not the box she wanted, and consequently felt
convinced of her safety so long as I kept the latter successfully
concealed in my hair. You know the rest."

Yes, I knew it. How she opened the box in her room and found it empty.
How she flew to Gilbertine's room, and, finding the door unlocked,
looked in, and saw Miss Lane lying there asleep, but no Gilbertine. How
her alarm grew at this, and how, forgetting that her cousin often stole
to her room by means of the connecting balcony, she had wandered over
the house in the hope of coming upon Gilbertine in one of the downstairs
rooms. How her mind misgave her before she had entered the great hall,
and how she turned back only to hear that awful scream go up as she was
setting foot upon the spiral stair. I had heard it all before, and could
imagine her terror and dismay; and why she found it impossible to
proceed any further, but clung to the stair-rail, half alive and half
dead, till she was found there by those seeking her, and taken up to her
aunt's room. But she never told me, and I do not yet know, what her
thoughts or feelings were when, instead of seeing her cousin
outstretched in death on the bed they led her to, she beheld the
lifeless figure of her aunt. The reserve she maintained on this point
has always been respected by me. Let it continue to be so.

When, therefore, she said, "You know the rest," I took her in my arms
and gave her my first kiss. Then I softly released her, and by tacit
consent we each went our way for that day.

Mine took me into the hall below, which was all alive with the hum of
departing guests. Beaton was among them, and as he stepped out on the
porch I gave him a parting hand-clasp, and quietly whispered:

"When all dark things are made light, you will find that there was both
more and less to your dream than you were inclined to make out."

He bowed, and that was the last word which ever passed between us on
this topic.

But what chiefly impressed me in connection with this afternoon's events
was the short talk I had with Sinclair. I fear I forced this talk, but I
could not let the dreary day settle into still drearier night without
making clear to him a point which, in the new position he held toward
Gilbertine, if not toward myself, might seem to be involved in some
doubt. When, therefore, the opportunity came, I accosted him with these
words:

"It is not a very propitious time for me to intrude my personal affairs
upon you, but I feel as if I should like you to know that the clouds
have been cleared away between Dorothy and myself, and that some day we
expect to marry."

He gave me the earnest look of a man who has recovered his one friend.
Then he grasped my hand warmly, saying, with something like his old
fervour:

"You deserve all the happiness that awaits you. Mine is gone; but if I
can regain it I will. Trust me for that, Worthington."

The coroner, who had seen much of life and human nature, managed with
much discretion the inquest he felt bound to hold. Mrs. Lansing was
found to have come to her death by a meddlesome interference with one of
her niece's wedding trinkets; and, as every one acquainted with Mrs.
Lansing knew her to be quite capable of such an act of malicious folly,
the verdict was duly accepted, and the real heart of this tragedy closed
for ever from every human eye.

As we were leaving Newport Sinclair stepped up to me.

"I have reason to know," said he, "that Mrs. Lansing's bequests will be
a surprise, not only to her nieces, but to the world at large. Let me
advise you to announce your engagement before reaching New York."

I followed his advice, and in a few days understood why it had been
given. All the vast property owned by this woman had been left to
Dorothy. Gilbertine had been cut off without a cent.

We never knew Mrs. Lansing's reason for this act. Gilbertine had always
been considered her favourite, and, had the will been a late one, it
would have been generally thought that she had left her thus unprovided
for solely in consideration of the great match which she expected her to
make. But the will was dated back several years--long before Gilbertine
had met Mr. Sinclair, long before either niece had come to live with
Mrs. Lansing in New York. Had it always been the latter's wish, then, to
enrich the one and slight the other? It would seem so; but why should
the slighted one have been Gilbertine?

The only explanation I ever heard given was the partiality which Mrs.
Lansing felt for Dorothy's mother, or, rather, her lack of affection for
Gilbertine's. Whether or not this is the true one, the discrimination
she showed in her will put poor Gilbertine in a very unfortunate
position. At least, it would have done so if Sinclair, with an
adroitness worthy of his love, had not proved to her that a break at
this time in their supposed relations would reflect most seriously upon
his disinterestedness, and thus secured for himself opportunities for
urging his suit which ended, as such opportunities often do, in a
renewal of their engagement. But this time with mutual love as its
basis. This was evident to any one who saw them together. But how the
magic was wrought--how this hard-to-be-won heart learned at last its
true allegiance I did not know till later, and then it was told me by
Gilbertine herself.

I had been married for some months and she for some weeks, when one
evening chance threw us together. Instantly, and as if she had waited
for this hour, she turned upon me with the beautiful smile which has
been hers ever since her new happiness came to her, and said:

"You once gave me some very good advice, Mr. Worthington; but it was
not that which led me to realise Mr. Sinclair's affection. It was a
short conversation which passed between us on the day my aunt's will was
read. Do you remember my turning to speak to him the moment after that
word _all_ fell from the lawyer's lips?"

"Yes, Mrs. Sinclair."

Alas! did I not! It was one of the most poignant memories of my life.
The look she gave him and the look he gave her! Indeed, I did remember.

"It was to ask him one question--a question to which misfortune only
could have given so much weight. Had my aunt taken him into her
confidence? Had he known that I had no place in her will? His answer was
very simple; a single word, 'Always.' But after that do I need to say
why I am a wife--why I am _his_ wife?"



THE GREY LADY


Was it a spectre?

For days I could not answer this question. I am no believer in spiritual
manifestations, yet----But let me tell my story.

I was lodging with my wife on the first floor of a house in
Twenty-seventh Street. I had taken the apartments for three months, and
we had already lived in them two and found them sufficiently
comfortable. The back room we used as a bedroom, and as we received but
few friends, the two great leaves of old mahogany connecting the rooms,
usually stood wide open.

One morning, my wife being ill, I left her lying in bed and stepped into
the parlour preparatory to going out for breakfast. It was late--nine
o'clock probably--and I was hastening to leave, when I heard a sound
behind me--or did I merely feel a presence?--and, turning, saw a strange
and totally unknown woman coming toward me from my wife's room.

As I had just left that room, and as there was no other way of entrance
save through a door we always kept locked, I was so overpowered by my
astonishment that I never thought of speaking or moving until she had
passed me. Then I found voice, and calling out "Madam!" endeavoured to
stop her.

But the madam, if madam she was, passed on as quietly, as mechanically
even, as if I had not raised my voice, and before I could grasp the fact
that she was melting from before me flitted through the hall to the
front door and so out, leaving behind on the palm of my hand the "feel"
of her wool dress, which I had just managed to touch.

Not understanding her or myself or the strange thrill awakened by this
contact, I tore open the front door and looked out, expecting, of
course, to see her on the steps or on the sidewalk in front. But there
was no one of her appearance visible, and I came back questioning
whether I was the victim of a hallucination or just an everyday fool. To
satisfy myself on this important question I looked about for the
hallboy, with the intention of asking him if he had seen any such person
go out, but that young and inconsequent scamp was missing from his post
as usual and there was no one within sight to appeal to.

There was nothing to do but to re-enter my rooms, where my attention was
immediately arrested by the sight of my wife sitting up in bed and
surveying me with a look of unmistakable astonishment.

"Who was that woman?" she asked. "And how came she in here?"

So she had seen her too.

"What woman, Lydia? I have not let in any woman. Did you think there was
a woman in this room?"

"Not in that room," she answered hoarsely, "but in this one. I saw her
just now passing through the folding doors. Wilbur, I am frightened.
See how my hands shake. Do you think I am sick enough to imagine
things?"

I knew she was not, but I did not say so. I thought it would be better
for her to think herself under some such delusion.

"You were dozing," said I. "If you had seen a woman here you could tell
me how she looked."

"And I can," my wife broke in excitedly. "She was like the ghosts we
read of, only that her dress and the veil or drapery she wore were all
grey. Didn't you see her? You must have seen her. She went right by
you--a grey woman, all grey; a lady, Wilbur, and slightly lame. Could I
have dreamed all that?"

"You must have!" I protested, shaking the door leading directly into the
hall so she might see it was locked, and even showing her the key to it
lying in its accustomed place behind the bureau cushion. Yet I was in no
satisfied condition myself, for she had described with the greatest
accuracy the very person I had myself seen. Had we been alike the
victims of a spiritual manifestation?

This was Tuesday. On Friday my question seemed to receive an answer. I
had been downtown, as usual, and on returning found a crowd assembled in
front of my lodging-house. A woman had been run over and was being
carried into our rooms. In the glimpse I caught of her I saw that she
was middle-aged and was wrapped in a long black cloak. Later this cloak
fell off, as her hat had done long before, and I perceived that her
dress was black and decent.

She was laid on our bed and every attention paid her. But she had been
grievously injured about the head and gradually but surely sank before
our eyes. Suddenly she roused and gave a look about her. It was a
remarkable one--a look of recognition and almost of delight. Then she
raised one hand and, pointing with a significant gesture into the empty
space before her, sank back and died.

It was a sudden ending, and, anxious to see its effect upon my wife, who
was standing on the other side of the bed, I glanced her way with some
misgiving. She showed more feeling than I had anticipated. Indeed her
countenance was a study, and when, under the influence of my scrutiny,
she glanced my way, I saw that something of deeper import than this
unexpected death in our rooms lay at the bottom of her uneasy look.

What that was I was soon to know, for catching up from amid the folds of
the woman's grey-lined cloak a long grey veil which had fallen at the
bedside, she disposed it softly about the woman's face, darting me a
look full of significance.

"You remember the vision I had the morning when I was sick?" she
whispered softly in my ear.

I nodded, secretly thrilled to my very heart's core.

"Well, it was a vision of this woman. If she were living and on her feet
and wrapped, as I have shown you, in this veil, you would behold a
living picture of the person I saw passing out of this room that
morning."

"I shall not dispute you," I answered. Alas! I had myself perceived the
likeness the instant the veil had fallen about the pinched but handsome
features!

"A forewarning," whispered my wife; "a forewarning of what has this day
happened under our roof. It was a wraith we saw. Wilbur, I shall not
spend another night in these rooms."

And we did not. I was as anxious to leave as she was. Yet I am not a
superstitious man. As proof of it, after the first effect of these
events had left me I began to question my first impressions and feel
tolerably ashamed of my past credulity. Though the phenomenon we had
observed could not to all appearance be explained by any natural
hypothesis; though I had seen, and my wife had seen, a strange woman
suddenly become visible in a room which a moment before had held no one
but ourselves, and into which no live woman could have entered without
our knowledge, something--was it my natural good sense?--recoiled before
a supernatural explanation of this, and I found myself forced to believe
that our first visitor had been as real as the last; in other words, the
same woman.

But could I prove it? Could the seemingly impossible be made possible
and the unexplainable receive a solution satisfying to a rational mind?
I determined to make an effort to accomplish this, if only to relieve
the mind of my wife, who had not recovered her equanimity as readily as
myself.

Starting with the assumption above mentioned--that the woman who had
died in our presence was the same who had previously found an
unexplainable entrance into our rooms--I first inquired if the black
cloak lined with grey did not offer a solution to some of my previous
difficulties. It was a long cloak, enveloping her completely. When worn
with the black side out she would present an inconspicuous appearance,
but with the grey side out and the effect of this heightened by a long
grey veil hung over her hat, she would look like the grey lady I had
first seen. Now, a cloak can be turned in an instant, and if she had
chosen to do this in flitting through my door I would naturally find
only a sedate, black-clothed woman passing up the street, when, rousing
from the apathy into which her appearance had thrown me, I rushed to the
front door and looked out. Had I seen such a woman? I seemed to remember
that I had.

Thus much, then, was satisfactory, but to account for her entrance into
our rooms was not so easy. Had she slipped by me in coming in as she had
on going out? The parlour door was open, for I had been out to get the
paper. Could she have glided in by me unperceived and thus found her way
into the bedroom from which I afterward saw her issue? No, for I had
stood facing the front hall door all the time. Through the bedroom door,
then? But that was, as I have said, locked. Here, then, was a mystery;
but it was one worth solving.

My first step was to recall all that I had heard of the actual woman who
had been buried from our rooms. Her name, as ascertained in the cheap
boarding-house to which she was traced, was Helmuth, and she was, so far
as any one knew, without friends or relatives in the city. To those who
saw her daily she was a harmless, slightly demented woman with money
enough to live above want, but not enough to warrant her boasting talk
about the rich things she was going to buy some day and the beautiful
presents she would soon be in a position to give away. The money found
on her person was sufficient to bury her, but no papers were in her
possession nor any letters calculated to throw light upon her past life.

Her lameness had been caused by paralysis, but the date of her attack
was not known.

Finding no clue in this to what I wished to learn, I went back to our
old rooms, which had not been let since our departure, and sought for
one there, and, strangely enough, found it. I thought I knew everything
there was to be known about the apartment we had lived in two months,
but one little fact had escaped me which, under the scrutiny that I now
gave it, became apparent. This was simply that the key which opened the
hall door of the bedroom and which we had seldom if ever used was not as
old a key as that of the corresponding door in the parlour, and this
fact, small as it was, led me to make inquiries.

The result was that I learned something about the couple who had
preceded us in the use of these rooms. They were of middle age and of
great personal elegance but uncertain pay, the husband being nothing
more nor less than a professional gambler. Their name was L'Hommedieu.

When I first heard of them I thought that Mrs. L'Hommedieu might be the
Mrs. Helmuth in whose history I was so interested, but from all I could
learn she was a very different sort of person. Mrs. L'Hommedieu was gay,
dashing, and capable of making a show out of flimsy silk a shopgirl
would hesitate to wear. Yet she looked distinguished and wore her cheap
jewelry with more grace than many a woman her diamonds. I would,
consequently, have dropped this inquiry if some one had not remarked
upon her having had a paralytic stroke after leaving the house. This,
together with the fact that the key to the rear door, which I had found
replaced by a new one, had been taken away by her and never returned,
connected her so indubitably with my mysterious visitor that I resolved
to pursue my investigations into Mrs. L'Hommedieu's past.

For this purpose I sought out a quaint little maiden lady living on the
top floor who, I was told, knew more about the L'Hommedieus than any one
in the building. Miss Winterburn, whose acquaintance I had failed to
make while residing in the house, was a fluttering, eager, affable
person whose one delight was, as I soon found, to talk about the
L'Hommedieus. Of the story she related I give as much of it as possible
in her own words.

"I was never their equal," said she, "but Mrs. L'Hommedieu was lonely,
and, having no friends in town, was good enough to admit me to her
parlour now and then and even to allow me to accompany her to the
theatre when her husband was away on one of his mysterious visits. I
never liked Mr. L'Hommedieu, but I did like her. She was so different
from me, and, when I first knew her, so gay and so full of conversation.
But after a while she changed and was either feverishly cheerful or
morbidly sad, so that my visits caused me more pain than pleasure. The
reason for these changes in her was patent to everybody. Though her
husband was a handsome man, he was as unprincipled as he was
unfortunate. He gambled. This she once admitted to me, and while at long
intervals he met with some luck he more often returned dispirited and
with that hungry, ravaging look you expect to see in a wolf cheated of
its prey.

"I used to be afraid he would strike her after some one of these
disappointments, but I do not think he ever did. She had a determined
character of her own, and there have been times when I have thought he
was as much afraid of her as she was of him. I became sure of this after
one night. Mrs. L'Hommedieu and myself were having a little supper
together in the front parlour you have so lately occupied. It was a very
ordinary supper, for the L'Hommedieus' purse had run low, and Mrs.
L'Hommedieu was not the woman to spend much at any time on her eating.
It was palatable, however, and I would have enjoyed it greatly, if Mrs.
L'Hommedieu had shown more appetite. But she ate scarcely anything and
seemed very anxious and unhappy, though she laughed now and then with
sudden gusts of mirth too hysterical to be real. It was not late, and
yet we were both very much surprised when there came a knock at the
door, followed by the entrance of a visitor.

"Mrs. L'Hommedieu, who was always _la grande dame_, rose without
apparent embarrassment to meet the gentleman who entered, though I knew
she could not help but feel keenly the niggardly appearance of the board
she left with such grace. The stranger--he was certainly a stranger;
this I could see by the formality of her manner--was a gentleman of
urbane bearing and a general air of prosperity.

"I remember every word that passed.

"'My name is Lafarge,' said he. 'I am, or rather have been, under great
obligations to your husband, and I have come to discharge my debt. Is he
at home?'

"Mrs. L'Hommedieu's eye, which had sparkled at his name, dropped
suddenly as he put the final question.

"'I am sorry,' she returned after a moment of embarrassment, 'but my
husband is very seldom home evenings. If you will come about noon some
day----'

"'Thank you,' said he, with a bright smile, 'but I will finish my
business now and with you, seeing that Mr. L'Hommedieu is not at home.
Years ago--I am sure you have heard your husband mention my name--I
borrowed quite a sum of money from him, which I have never paid. You
recall the amount, no doubt?'

"'I have heard Mr. L'Hommedieu say it was a thousand dollars,' she
replied, with a sudden fluttering of her hands indicative of great
excitement.

"'That is the sum,' he allowed, either not noticing me or thinking me
too insignificant to be considered. 'I regret to have kept him so long
out of it, but I have not forgotten to add the interest in making out
this statement of my indebtedness, and if you will look over this paper
and acknowledge its correctness I will leave the equivalent of my debt
here and now, for I sail for Europe to-morrow morning and wish to have
all my affairs in order before leaving.'

"Mrs. L'Hommedieu, who looked ready to faint from excess of feeling,
summoned up her whole strength, looking so beautiful as she did so that
one forgot the ribbons on her sleeves were no longer fresh and that the
silk dress she wore hung in the very limpest of folds.

"'I am obliged to you,' she said in a tone from which she strove in vain
to suppress all eagerness. 'And if I can speak for Mr. L'Hommedieu he
will be as grateful for your remembrance of us as for the money you so
kindly offer to return to him.'

"The stranger bowed low and took out a folded paper, which he handed to
her. He was not deceived, I am sure, by her grand airs, and knew as well
as I did that no woman ever stood in greater need of money. But nothing
in his manner betrayed this knowledge.

"'It is a bond I give you,' he now explained. 'As you will see, it has
coupons attached to it which you can cash at any time. It will prove as
valuable to you as so much ready money and possibly more convenient.'

"And with just this hint, which I took as significant of his complete
understanding of her position, he took her receipt and politely left the
house.

"Once alone with me, who am nobody, her joy had full vent. I have never
seen any one so lost in delight as she was for a few minutes. To have
this money thrust upon her just at a moment when actual want seemed
staring her in the face was too much of a relief for her to conceal
either the misery she had been under or the satisfaction she now
enjoyed. Under the gush of her emotions her whole history came out, but
as you have often heard the like I will not repeat it, especially as it
was all contained in the cry with which a little later she thrust the
bond into my hand.

"'He must not see it! He must not! It would go like all the rest, and I
should again be left without a cent. Take it and keep it, for I have no
means of concealing it here. He is too suspicious.'

"But this was asking more than I was willing to grant. Seeing how I
felt, she took the paper back and concealed it in her bosom with a look
I had rather not have seen. 'You will not charge yourself with such a
responsibility,' said she. 'But I can trust you not to tell him?'

"'Yes,' I nodded, feeling sick of the whole business.

"'Then----' But here the door was violently flung open and Mr.
L'Hommedieu burst into the room in a state of as much excitement as his
wife, only his was the excitement of desperation.

"'Gone! Gone!' he cried, ignoring me as completely as Mr. Lafarge had
done. 'Not a dollar left; not even my studs! See!' And he pointed to his
shirt-front hanging apart in a way I would never have looked for in this
reckless but fastidious gentleman. 'Yet if I had had a dollar more or
even a ring worth a dollar or so, I might have----Theresa, have you any
money at all? A coin now might save us.'

"Mrs. L'Hommedieu, who had turned alarmingly pale, drew up her fine
figure and resolutely confronted him. 'No!' said she, and shifting her
gaze she turned it meaningly upon me.

"He misunderstood this movement. Thinking it simply a reminder of my
presence, he turned, with his false but impressive show of courtesy, and
made me a low bow. Then he forgot me utterly again, and, facing his
wife, growled out:

"'Where are you going to get breakfast then? You don't look like a woman
who expects to starve!'

"It was a fatal remark, for, do what she would, she could not prevent a
slight smile of disdain, and, seeing it, he kept his eye riveted on her
face till her uneasiness became manifest. Instantly his suspicion took
form, and, surveying her still more fixedly, he espied a corner of the
precious envelope protruding slightly above her corsage. To snatch it
out, open it, and realise its value was the work of a moment. Her cry of
dismay and his shout of triumph rang out simultaneously, and never have
I seen such an ebullition of opposing passions as I was made witness to
as his hand closed over this small fortune and their staring eyes met in
the moral struggle they had now entered upon for its ultimate
possession.

"She was the first to speak. 'It was given to me, it was meant for me.
If I keep it both of us will profit by it, but if you----'

"He did not wait for her to finish. 'Where did you get it?' he cried. 'I
can break the bank with what I can raise on this bond at the club.
Darraugh's in town. You know what that means. Luck's in the air, and
with a hundred dollars----But I've no time to talk. I came for a dollar,
a fifty-cent piece, a dime even, and go back with a bond worth----'

"But she was already between him and the door. 'You will never carry
that bond out of this house,' she whispered in the tone which goes
further than a cry. 'I have not held it in my hand to see it follow
every other good thing I have had in life. I will not, Henry. Take that
bond and sink it as you have all the rest and I fall at your feet a dead
woman. I will never survive the destruction of my last hope.'

"He was cowed--for a moment, that is; she looked so superb and so
determined. Then all that was mean and despicable in his thinly veneered
nature came to the surface, and, springing forward with an oath, he was
about to push her aside, when, without the moving of a finger on her
part, he reeled back, recovered himself, caught at a chair, missed it,
and fell heavily to the floor.

"'My God, I thank thee!' was the exclamation with which she broke from
the trance of terror into which she had been thrown by his sudden
attempt to pass her; and without a glance at his face, which to me
looked like the face of a dead man, she tore the paper from his hand and
stood looking about her with a wild and searching gaze, in the desperate
hope that somehow the walls would open and offer her a safe place of
concealment for the precious sheet of paper.

"Meanwhile I had crept near the prostrate man. He was breathing, but was
perfectly unconscious.

"'Don't you mean to do something for him?' I asked. 'He may die.'

"She met my question with the dazed air of one suddenly awakened. 'No,
he'll not die; but he'll not come to for some minutes, and this must be
hidden first. But where? where? I cannot trust it on my person or in any
place a man like him would search. I must devise some means--ah!'

"With this final exclamation she had dashed into the other room. I did
not see where she went--I did not want to--but I soon realised she was
working somewhere in a desperate hurry. I could hear her breath coming
in quick, short pants as I bent over her husband, waiting for him to
rouse and hating my inaction even while I succumbed to it.

"Suddenly she was back in the parlour again, and to my surprise passed
immediately to the little table in the corner where we had sat at
supper. We had had for our simple refreshment that homeliest of all
dishes, boiled milk thickened with flour. There was still some left in a
bowl, and taking this away with her she called back hoarsely:

"'Pray that he does not come to till I have finished. It will be the
best prayer you ever made.'

"She told me afterward that he was subject to these attacks and that she
had long ceased to be alarmed by them. But to me the sight of that man
lying there so helpless was horrible, and, though I hated him and pitied
her, I scarcely knew what to wish. While battling with my desire to run
and the feeling of loyalty which held me kneeling at that man's side, I
heard her speak again, this time in an even and slightly hard tone: 'Now
you may dash a glass of cold water in his face. I am prepared to meet
him now. Happily his memory fails after these attacks. I may succeed in
making him believe that the bond he saw was one of his fancies.'

"'Had you not better throw the water yourself?' I suggested, getting up
and meeting her eye very quietly.

"She looked at me in wonder, then moved calmly to the table, took the
glass, and dashed a few drops of water into her husband's face.
Instantly he began to stir, seeing which I arose without haste, but
without any unnecessary delay, and quickly took my leave. I could bear
no more that night.

"Next morning I awoke in a fright. I had dreamed that he had come to my
room in search of the bond. But it was only her knock at the door and
her voice asking if she might enter at this early hour. It was such a
relief I gladly let her in, and she entered with her best air and flung
herself on my little lounge with the hysterical cry:

"'He has sent me up. I told him I ought not to intrude at such an
inconvenient hour; that you would not have had your breakfast.' (How
carelessly she spoke! How hard she tried to keep the hungry note out of
her voice!) 'But he insisted on my coming up. I know why. He searched me
before I left the room, and now he wants to search the room itself.'

"'Then he did remember?' I began.

"'Yes, he remembers now. I saw it in his eyes as soon as he awoke. But
he will not find the bond. That is safe, and some day when I have
escaped his vigilance long enough to get it back again I will use it so
as to make him comfortable as well as myself. I am not a selfish woman.'

"I did not think she was, and felt pity for her, and so after dressing
and making her a cup of tea, I sat down with her, and we chatted for an
hour or so quite comfortably. Then she grew so restless and consulted
the clock so often that I tried to soothe her by remarking that it was
not an easy task he had set himself, at which she laughed in a
mysterious way, but failed to grow less anxious till our suspense was
cut short by the appearance of the janitor with a message from Mr.
L'Hommedieu.

"'Mr. L'Hommedieu's compliments,' said he, 'and he hopes Mrs.
L'Hommedieu will make herself comfortable and not think of coming down.
He is doing everything that is necessary and will soon be through. You
can rest quite easy, ma'am.'

"'What does he mean?' marvelled the poor woman as the janitor
disappeared. 'Is he spending all this time ransacking the rooms? I wish
I dared disobey him. I wish I dared go down.'

"But her courage was not equal to an open disregard of his wishes, and
she had to subdue her impatience and wait for a summons that did not
come till near two o'clock. Then Mr. L'Hommedieu himself appeared with
her hat and mantle on his arm.

"'My dear,' said he as she rose, haggard with excitement, to meet him,
'I have brought your wraps with me that you may go directly from here to
our new home. Shall I assist you to put them on? You do not look as well
as usual, and that is why I have undertaken this thing all myself--to
save you, my dear; to save you each and every exertion.'

"I had flung out my arms to catch her, for I thought she was going to
faint, but she did not, though I think it would have been better for her
if she had.

"'We are going to leave this house?' she asked, speaking very slowly and
with a studied lack of emotion that imposed upon nobody.

"'I have said so,' he smiled. 'The dray has already taken away the half
of our effects, and the rest will follow at Mrs. Latimer's convenience.'

"'Ah, I understand!' she replied, with a gasp of relief significant of
her fear that by some super-human cunning he had found the bond she
thought so safely concealed. 'I was wondering how Mrs. Latimer came to
allow us to leave.' (I tell you they always talked as if I were not
present.) 'Our goods are left as a surety, it seems.'

"'Half of our goods,' he blandly corrected. 'Would it interest you to
know which half?'

"The cunning of this insinuation was matched by the imperturbable shrug
with which she replied, 'So a bed has been allowed us and some clothes I
am satisfied,' at which he bit his lips, vexed at her self-control and
his own failure to break it.

"'You have not asked where we are going,' he observed, as with apparent
solicitude he threw her mantle over her shoulders.

"The air of lassitude with which she replied bespoke her feeling on that
point. 'I have little curiosity,' she said. 'You know I can be happy
anywhere.' And, turning toward me, she moved her lips in a way I
interpreted to mean: 'Go below with me. See me out.'

"'Say what you have to say to Miss Winterburn aloud,' he drily
suggested.

"'I have nothing to say to Miss Winterburn but thanks,' was her cold
reply, belied, however, by the trembling of her fingers as she essayed
to fit on her gloves.

"'And those I will receive below!' I cried, with affected gaiety. 'I am
going down with you to the door.' And resolutely ignoring his frown I
tripped down before them. On the last stair I felt her steps lagging.
Instantly I seemed to comprehend what was required of me, and, rushing
forward, I entered the front parlour. He followed close behind me, for
how could he know I was not in collusion with her to regain the bond?
This gave her one minute by herself in the rear, and in that minute she
secured the key which would give her future access to the spot where her
treasure lay hidden.

"The rest of the story I must give you mainly from hearsay. You must
understand by this time what Mr. L'Hommedieu's scheme was in moving so
suddenly. He knew that it would be impossible for him, by the most
minute and continuous watchfulness, to prevent his wife from recovering
the bond while they continued to inhabit the rooms in which,
notwithstanding his failure to find it, he had reason to believe it
still lay concealed. But once in other quarters it would be
comparatively easy for him to subject her to a surveillance which not
only would prevent her from returning to this house without his
knowledge, but would lead her to give away her secret by the very
natural necessity she would be under of going to the exact spot where
her treasure lay hid.

"It was a cunning plot and showed him to be as able as he was
unscrupulous. How it worked I will now proceed to tell you. It must have
been the next afternoon that the janitor came running up to me--I
suppose he had learned by this time that I had more than ordinary
interest in these people--to say that Mrs. L'Hommedieu had been in the
house and had been so frightened by a man who had followed her that she
had fainted dead away on the floor. Would I go down to her?

"I had rather have gone anywhere else, unless it was to prison; but duty
cannot be shirked, and I followed the man down. But we were too late.
Mrs. L'Hommedieu had recovered and gone away, and the person who had
frightened her was also gone, and only the hallboy remained to give any
explanations.

"This was what he had to say:

"'The man it was who went first. As soon as the lady fell he skipped
out. I don't think he meant no good here----'

"'Did she drop here in the hall?' I asked, unable to restrain my intense
anxiety.

"'Oh, no, ma'am! They was in the back room yonder, which she got in
somehow. The man followed her in, sneaking and sneaking like an eel or a
cop, and she fell right against----'

"'Don't tell me where!' I cried. 'I don't want to know where!' And I was
about to return upstairs when I heard a quick, sharp voice behind me
and realised that Mr. L'Hommedieu had come in and was having some
dispute with the janitor.

"Common prudence led me to listen. He wanted, as was very natural, to
enter the room where his wife had just been surprised, but the janitor,
alarmed by the foregoing very irregular proceedings, was disposed to
deny his right to do so.

"'The furniture is held as a surety,' said he, 'and I have orders----'

"But Mr. L'Hommedieu had a spare dollar, and before many minutes had
elapsed I heard him go into that room and close the door. Of the next
ten minutes and the suspense I felt I need not speak. When he came out
again, he looked as if the ground would not hold him.

"'I have done some mischief, I fear,' he airily said as he passed the
janitor. 'But I'll pay for it. Don't worry. I'll pay for it and the
rent, too, to-morrow. You may tell Mrs. Latimer so.' And he was gone,
leaving us all agape in the hallway.

"A minute later we all crept to that room and looked in. Now that he had
got the bond I for one was determined to know where she had hid it.
There was no mistaking the spot. A single glance was enough to show us
the paper ripped off from a portion of the wall, revealing a narrow gap
behind the baseboard large enough to hold the bond. It was near----"

"Wait!" I put in as I remembered where the so-called Mrs. Helmuth had
pointed just before she died. "Wasn't it at the left of the large
folding doors and midway to the wall?"

"How came you to know?" she asked. "Did Mrs. Latimer tell you?" But as I
did not answer she soon took up the thread of her narrative again, and,
sighing softly, said:

"The next day came and went, but no L'Hommedieu appeared; another, and I
began to grow seriously uneasy; a third, and a dreadful thing happened.
Late in the afternoon Mrs. L'Hommedieu, dressed very oddly, came sliding
in at the front door, and with an appealing smile at the hallboy, who
wished but dared not ask her for the key which made these visits
possible, glided by to her old rooms, and, finding the door unlocked,
went softly in. Her appearance is worth description, for it shows the
pitiful efforts she made at disguise, in the hope, I suppose, of
escaping the surveillance she was evidently conscious of being under.
She was in the habit of wearing on cool days a black circular with a
grey lining. This she had turned inside out so that the gray was
uppermost; while over her neat black bonnet she had flung a long veil,
also grey, which not only hid her face, but gave her appearance an
eccentric look as different as possible from her usual aspect. The
hallboy, who had never seen her save in showy black or bright colours,
said she looked like a ghost in the daytime, but it was all done for a
purpose, I am sure, and to escape the attention of the man who had
followed her before. Alas, he might have followed her this time without
addition to her suffering! Scarcely had she entered the room where her
treasure had been left than she saw the torn paper and gaping baseboard,
and, uttering a cry so piercing it found its way even to the stolid
heart of the hallboy, she tottered back into the hall, where she fell
into the arms of her husband, who had followed her in from the street in
a state of frenzy almost equal to her own.

"The janitor, who that minute appeared on the stairway, says that he
never saw two such faces. They looked at each other and were speechless.
He was the first to hang his head.

"'It is gone, Henry,' she whispered, 'It is gone. You have taken it.'

"He did not answer.

"'And it is lost! You have risked it, and it is lost!'

"He uttered a groan. 'You should have given it to me that night. There
was luck in the air then. Now the devil is in the cards and----'

"Her arms went up with a shriek. 'My curse be upon you, Henry
L'Hommedieu!' And whether it was the look with which she uttered this
imprecation, or whether there was some latent love left in his heart for
this long-suffering and once beautiful woman, he shrank at her words,
and, stumbling like a man in the darkness, uttered a heart-rending
groan, and rushed from the house. We never saw him again.

"As for her, she fell this time under a paralytic attack which robbed
her of her faculties. She was taken to a hospital, where I frequently
visited her, but either from grief or the effect of her attack she did
not know me, nor did she ever recognise any of us again. Mrs. Latimer,
who is a just woman, sold her furniture and, after paying herself out of
the proceeds, gave the remainder to the hospital nurses for the use of
Mrs. L'Hommedieu, so that when she left them she had something with
which to start life anew. But where she went or how she managed to get
along in her enfeebled condition I do not know. I never heard of her
again."

"Then you did not see the woman who died in these rooms?" I asked.

The effect of these words was magical and led to mutual explanations.
She had not seen that woman, having encountered all the sorrow she
wished to in that room. Nor was there any one else in the house at this
time likely to recognise Mrs. L'Hommedieu, the janitor and hallboy both
being new and Mrs. Latimer one of those proprietors who are only seen on
rent day. For the rest, Mrs. L'Hommedieu's defective memory, which had
led her to haunt the house and room where the bond had once been hidden,
accounted not only for her first visit, but the last, which had ended so
fatally. The cunning she showed in turning her cloak and flinging a veil
over her hat was the cunning of a partially clouded mind. It was a
reminiscence of the morning when her terrible misfortune occurred. My
habit of taking the key out of the lock of that unused door made the use
of her own key possible, and her fear of being followed caused her to
lock the door behind her. My wife, who must have fallen into a doze on
my leaving her, did not see her enter, but detected her just as she was
trying to escape through the folding doors. My presence in the parlour
probably added to her embarrassment, and she fled, turning her cloak as
she did so.

How simple it seemed now that we knew the facts; but how obscure, and,
to all appearance, unexplainable, before the clue was given to the
mystery!



THE THIEF


"And now, if you have all seen the coin and sufficiently admired it, you
may pass it back. I make a point of never leaving it off the shelf for
more than fifteen minutes."

The half dozen or more guests seated about the board of the genial
speaker, glanced casually at each other as though expecting to see the
object mentioned immediately produced.

But no coin appeared.

"I have other amusements waiting," suggested their host, with a smile in
which even his wife could detect no signs of impatience. "Now let Robert
put it back into the cabinet."

Robert was the butler.

Blank looks, negative gestures, but still no coin.

"Perhaps it is in somebody's lap," timidly ventured one of the younger
women. "It doesn't seem to be on the table."

Immediately all the ladies began lifting their napkins and shaking out
the gloves which lay under them, in an effort to relieve their own
embarrassment and that of the gentlemen who had not even so simple a
resource as this at their command.

"It can't be lost," protested Mr. Sedgwick, with an air of perfect
confidence. "I saw it but a minute ago in somebody's hand. Darrow, you
had it; what did you do with it?"

"Passed it along."

"Well, well, it must be under somebody's plate or doily." And he began
to move about his own and such dishes as were within reach of his hand.

Each guest imitated him, lifting glasses and turning over spoons till
Mr. Sedgwick himself bade them desist. "It's slipped to the floor," he
nonchalantly concluded. "A toast to the ladies, and we will give Robert
the chance of looking for it."

As they drank this toast, his apparently careless, but quietly astute,
glance took in each countenance about him. The coin was very valuable
and its loss would be keenly felt by him. Had it slipped from the table
some one's eye would have perceived it, some hand would have followed
it. Only a minute or two before, the attention of the whole party had
been concentrated upon it. Darrow had held it up for all to see, while
he discoursed upon its history. He would take Darrow aside at the first
opportunity and ask him----But--it! how could he do that? These were his
intimate friends. He knew them well, more than well, with one exception,
and he----Well, he was the handsomest of the lot and the most debonair
and agreeable. A little more gay than usual to-night, possibly a trifle
too gay, considering that a man of Mr. Blake's social weight and
business standing sat at the board; but not to be suspected, no, not to
be suspected, even if he was the next man after Darrow and had betrayed
something like confusion when the eyes of the whole table turned his way
at the former's simple statement of "I passed it on." Robert would find
the coin; he was a fool to doubt it; and if Robert did not, why, he
would simply have to pocket his chagrin, and not let a triviality like
this throw a shadow over his hospitality.

All this, while he genially lifted his glass and proposed the health of
the ladies. The constraint of the preceding moment was removed by his
manner, and a dozen jests caused as many merry laughs. Then he pushed
back his chair.

"And now, some music!" he cheerfully cried, as with lingering glances
and some further pokings about of the table furniture, the various
guests left their places and followed him into the adjoining room.

But the ladies were too nervous and the gentlemen not sufficiently sure
of their voices to undertake the entertainment of the rest at a moment
of such acknowledged suspense; and notwithstanding the exertions of
their host and his quiet but much discomfited wife, it soon became
apparent that but one thought engrossed them all, and that any attempt
at conversation must prove futile so long as the curtains between the
two rooms remained open and they could see Robert on his hands and knees
searching the floor and shoving aside the rugs.

Darrow, who was Mr. Sedgwick's brother-in-law and almost as much at home
in the house as Sedgwick himself, made a move to draw these curtains,
but something in his relative's face stopped him and he desisted with
some laughing remark which did not attract enough attention, even, to
elicit any response.

"I hope his eyesight is good," murmured one of the young girls, edging a
trifle forward. "Mayn't I help him look? They say at home that I am the
only one in the house who can find anything."

Mr. Sedgwick smiled indulgently at the speaker, (a round-faced,
round-eyed, merry-hearted girl whom in days gone by he had dandled on
his knees), but answered quite quickly for him:

"Robert will find it if it is there." Then, distressed at this
involuntary disclosure of his thought, added in his whole-hearted way:
"It's such a little thing, and the room is so big and a round object
rolls unexpectedly far, you know. Well, have you got it?" he eagerly
demanded, as the butler finally showed himself in the door.

"No, sir; and it's not in the dining-room. I have cleared the table and
thoroughly searched the floor."

Mr. Sedgwick knew that he had. He had no doubts about Robert. Robert had
been in his employ for years and had often handled his coins and, at his
order, sometimes shown them.

"Very well," said he, "we'll not bother about it any more to-night; you
may draw the curtains."

But here the clear, almost strident voice of the youngest man of the
party interposed.

"Wait a minute," said he. "This especial coin is the great treasure of
Mr. Sedgwick's valuable collection. It is unique in this country, and
not only worth a great deal of money, but cannot be duplicated at any
cost. There are only three of its stamp in the world. Shall we let the
matter pass, then, as though it were of small importance? I feel that we
cannot; that we are, in a measure, responsible for its disappearance.
Mr. Sedgwick handed it to us to look at, and while it was going through
our hands it vanished. What must he think? What has he every right to
think? I need not put it into words; you know what you would think, what
you could not help but think, if the object were yours and it was lost
in this way. Gentlemen--I leave the ladies entirely out of this--I do
not propose that he shall have further opportunity to associate me with
this very natural doubt. I demand the privilege of emptying my pockets
here and now, before any of us have left his presence. I am a
connoisseur in coins myself and consequently find it imperative to take
the initiative in this matter. As I propose to spare the ladies, let us
step back into the dining-room. Mr. Sedgwick, pray don't deny me; I'm
thoroughly in earnest, I assure you."

The astonishment created by this audacious proposition was so great, and
the feeling it occasioned so intense, that for an instant all stood
speechless. Young Hammersley was a millionaire himself, and generous to
a fault, as all knew. Under no circumstances would any one even suspect
him of appropriating anything, great or small, to which he had not a
perfect right. Nor was he likely to imagine for a moment that any one
would. That he could make such a proposition then, based upon any such
plea, argued a definite suspicion in some other quarter, which could not
pass unrecognised. In vain Mr. Sedgwick raised his voice in frank and
decided protest, two of the gentlemen had already made a quick move
toward Robert, who still stood, stupefied by the situation, with his
hand on the cord which controlled the curtains.

"He is quite right," remarked one of these, as he passed into the
dining-room. "I shouldn't sleep a wink to-night if this question
remained unsettled." The other, the oldest man present, the financier of
whose standing and highly esteemed character I have already spoken, said
nothing, but followed in a way to show that his mind was equally made
up.

The position in which Mr. Sedgwick found himself placed was far from
enviable. With a glance at the two remaining gentlemen, he turned
towards the ladies now standing in a close group at the other end of the
room. One of them was his wife, and he quivered internally as he noted
the deep red of her distressed countenance. But it was the others he
addressed, singling out, with the rare courtesy which was his by nature,
the one comparative stranger, Darrow's niece, a Rochester girl, who
could not be finding this, her first party in Boston, very amusing.

"I hope you will appreciate the dilemma in which I have been placed by
these gentlemen," he began, "and will pardon----"

But here he noticed that she was not in the least attending; her eyes
were on the handsome figure of Hugh Clifford, her uncle's neighbour at
table, who in company with Mr. Hammersley was still hesitating in the
doorway. As Mr. Sedgwick stopped his useless talk, the two passed in and
the sound of her fluttering breath as she finally turned a listening ear
his way, caused him to falter as he repeated his assurances and begged
her indulgence.

She answered with some conventional phrase which he forgot while
crossing the room. But the remembrance of her slight satin-robed figure,
drawn up in an attitude whose carelessness was totally belied by the
anxiety of her half-averted glance, followed him into the presence of
the four men awaiting him. Four? I should say five, for Robert was still
there, though in a corner by himself, ready, no doubt, to share any
attempt which the others might make to prove their innocence.

"The ladies will await us in the music-room," announced the host on
entering; and then paused, disconcerted by the picture suddenly
disclosed to his eye. On one side stood the two who had entered first,
with their eyes fixed in open sternness on young Clifford, who, quite
alone on the rug, faced them with a countenance of such pronounced
pallor that there seemed to be nothing else in the room. As his features
were singularly regular and his almost perfect mouth accentuated by a
smile as set as his figure was immobile, the effect was so startling
that not only Mr. Sedgwick, but every other person present, no doubt,
wished that the plough had never turned the furrow which had brought
this wretched coin to light.

However, the affair had gone too far now for retreat, as was shown by
Mr. Blake, the elderly financier whom all were ready to recognise as the
chief guest there. With an apologetic glance at Mr. Hammersley, the
impetuous young millionaire who had first proposed this embarrassing
procedure, he advanced to an empty side-table and began, in a quiet,
business-like way, to lay on it the contents of his various pockets. As
the pile rose, the silence grew, the act in itself was so simple, the
motive actuating it so serious and out of accord with the standing of
the company and the nature of the occasion. When all was done, he
stepped up to Mr. Sedgwick, with his arms raised and held out from his
body.

"Now accommodate me," said he, "by running your hands up and down my
chest. I have a secret pocket there which should be empty at this time."

Mr. Sedgwick, fascinated by his look, did as he was bid, reporting
shortly:

"You are quite correct. I find nothing there."

Mr. Blake stepped back. As he did so, every eye, suddenly released from
his imposing figure, flashed towards the immovable Clifford, to find him
still absorbed by the action and attitude of the man who had just
undergone what to him doubtless appeared a degrading ordeal. Pale
before, he was absolutely livid now, though otherwise unchanged. To
break the force of what appeared to be an open, if involuntary,
self-betrayal, another guest stepped forward; but no sooner had he
raised his hand to his vest-pocket than Clifford moved, and in a high,
strident voice totally unlike his usual tones remarked:

"This is all--all--very interesting and commendable, no doubt. But for
such a procedure to be of any real value it should be entered into by
all. Gentlemen"--his rigidity was all gone now and so was his pallor--"I
am unwilling to submit myself to what, in my eyes, is an act of
unnecessary humiliation. Our word should be enough. I have not the
coin----" Stopped by the absolute silence, he cast a distressed look
into the faces about him, till it reached that of Mr. Sedgwick, where it
lingered, in an appeal to which that gentleman, out of his great heart,
instantly responded.

"One _should_ take the word of the gentleman he invites to his house. We
will excuse you, and excuse all the others from the unnecessary ceremony
which Mr. Blake has been good enough to initiate."

But this show of favour was not to the mind of the last-mentioned
gentleman, and met with instant reproof.

"Not so fast, Sedgwick. I am the oldest man here and I did not feel it
was enough simply to state that this coin was not on my person. As to
the question of humiliation, it strikes me that humiliation would lie,
in this instance, in a refusal for which no better excuse can be given
than the purely egotistical one of personal pride."

At this attack, the fine head of Clifford rose, and Darrow, remembering
the girl within, felt instinctively grateful that she was not here to
note the effect it gave to his person.

"I regret to differ," said he. "To me no humiliation could equal that of
demonstrating in this open manner the fact of one's not being a thief."

Mr. Blake gravely surveyed him. For some reason the issue seemed no
longer to lie between Clifford and the actual loser of the coin, but
between him and his fellow guest, this uncompromising banker.

"A thief!" repeated the young man, in an indescribable tone full of
bitterness and scorn.

Mr. Blake remained unmoved; he was a just man but strict, hard to
himself, hard to others. But he was not entirely without heart. Suddenly
his expression lightened. A certain possible explanation of the other's
attitude had entered his mind.

"Young men sometimes have reasons for their susceptibilities which the
old forget. If you have such--if you carry a photograph, believe that we
have no interest in pictures of any sort to-night and certainly would
fail to recognise them."

A smile of disdain flickered across the young man's lip. Evidently it
was no discovery of this kind that he feared.

"I carry no photographs," said he; and, bowing low to his host, he added
in a measured tone which but poorly hid his profound agitation, "I
regret to have interfered in the slightest way with the pleasure of the
evening. If you will be so good as to make my excuses to the ladies, I
will withdraw from a presence upon which I have made so poor an
impression."

Mr. Sedgwick prized his coin and despised deceit, but he could not let a
guest leave him in this manner. Instinctively he held out his hand.
Proudly young Clifford dropped his own into it; but the lack of mutual
confidence was felt and the contact was a cold one. Half regretting his
impulsive attempt at courtesy, Mr. Sedgwick drew back, and Clifford was
already at the door leading into the hall, when Hammersley, who by his
indiscreet proposition had made all this trouble for him, sprang forward
and caught him by the arm.

"Don't go," he whispered. "You're done for if you leave like this. I--I
was a brute to propose such an asinine thing, but having done so I am
bound to see you out of the difficulty. Come into the adjoining
room--there is nobody there at present--and we will empty our pockets
together and find this lost article if we can. I may have pocketed it
myself, in a fit of abstraction."

Did the other hesitate? Some thought so; but, if he did, it was but
momentarily.

"I cannot," he muttered; "think what you will of me, but let me go." And
dashing open the door he disappeared from their sight just as light
steps and the rustle of skirts were heard again in the adjoining room.

"There are the ladies. What shall we say to them?" queried Sedgwick,
stepping slowly towards the intervening curtains.

"Tell them the truth," enjoined Mr. Blake, as he hastily repocketed his
own belongings. "Why should a handsome devil like that be treated with
any more consideration than another? He has a secret if he hasn't a
coin. Let them know this. It may save some one a future heartache."

The last sentence was muttered, but Mr. Sedgwick heard it. Perhaps that
was why his first movement on entering the adjoining room was to cross
over to the cabinet and shut and lock the heavily panelled door which
had been left standing open. At all events, the action drew general
attention and caused an instant silence, broken the next minute by an
ardent cry:

"So your search was futile?"

It came from the lady least known, the interesting young stranger whose
personality had made so vivid an impression upon him.

"Quite so," he answered, hastily facing her with an attempted smile.
"The gentlemen decided not to carry matters to the length first
proposed. The object was not worth it. I approved their decision. This
was meant for a joyous occasion. Why mar it by unnecessary
unpleasantness?"

She had given him her full attention while he was speaking, but her eye
wandered away the moment he had finished and rested searchingly on the
other gentlemen. Evidently she missed a face she had expected to find
there, for her colour changed and she drew back behind the other ladies
with the light, unmusical laugh women sometimes use to hide a secret
emotion.

It brought Mr. Darrow forward.

"Some were not willing to subject themselves to what they considered an
unnecessary humiliation," he curtly remarked. "Mr. Clifford----"

"There! let us drop it," put in his brother-in-law. "I've lost my coin
and that's the end of it. I don't intend to have the evening spoiled for
a thing like that. Music! ladies, music and a jolly air! No more dumps."
And with as hearty a laugh as he could command in face of the sombre
looks he encountered on every side, he led the way back into the
music-room.

Once there the women seemed to recover their spirits; that is, such as
remained. One had disappeared. A door opened from this room into the
main hall and through this a certain young lady had vanished before the
others had had time to group themselves about the piano. We know who
this lady was; possibly, we know, too, why her hostess did not follow
her.

Meanwhile, Mr. Clifford had gone upstairs for his coat, and was
lingering there, the prey of some very bitter reflections. Though he had
encountered nobody on the stairs, and neither heard nor saw any one in
the halls, he felt confident that he was not unwatched. He remembered
the look on the butler's face as he tore himself away from Hammersley's
restraining hand, and he knew what that fellow thought and also was
quite able to guess what that fellow would do, if his suspicions were
farther awakened. This conviction brought an odd and not very open smile
to his face, as he finally turned to descend the one flight which
separated him from the front door he was so ardently desirous of closing
behind him for ever.

A moment and he would be down; but the steps were many and seemed to
multiply indefinitely as he sped below. Should his departure be noted,
and some one advance to detain him! He fancied he heard a rustle in the
open space under the stairs. Were any one to step forth, Robert
or----With a start, he paused and clutched the banister. Some one had
stepped forth; a woman! The swish of her skirts was unmistakable. He
felt the chill of a new dread. Never in his short but triumphant career
had he met coldness or disapproval in the eye of a woman. Was he to
encounter it now? If so, it would go hard with him. He trembled as he
turned his head to see which of the four it was. If it should prove to
be his hostess----But it was not she; it was Darrow's young friend, the
pretty inconsequent girl he had chatted with at the dinner-table, and
afterwards completely forgotten in the events which had centred all his
thoughts upon himself. And she was standing there, waiting for him! He
would have to pass her,--notice her,--speak.

But when the encounter occurred and their eyes met, he failed to find in
hers any sign of the disapproval he feared, but instead a gentle
womanly interest which he might interpret deeply, or otherwise,
according to the measure of his need.

That need seemed to be a deep one at this instant, for his countenance
softened perceptibly as he took her quietly extended hand.

"Good-night," she said; "I am just going myself," and with an entrancing
smile of perfect friendliness, she fluttered past him up the stairs.

It was the one and only greeting which his sick heart could have
sustained without flinching. Just this friendly farewell of one
acquaintance to another, as though no change had taken place in his
relations to society and the world. And she was a woman and not a
thoughtless girl! Staring after her slight, elegant figure, slowly
ascending the stair, he forgot to return her cordial greeting. What
delicacy, and yet what character there was in the poise of her spirited
head! He felt his breath fail him, in his anxiety for another glance
from her eye, for some sign, however small, that she had carried the
thought of him up those few, quickly-mounted steps. Would he get it? She
is at the bend of the stair; she pauses--turns, a nod,--and she is gone.

With an impetuous gesture, he dashed from the house.

In the drawing-room the noise of the closing door was heard, and a
change at once took place in the attitude and expression of all present.
The young millionaire approached Mr. Sedgwick and confidentially
remarked:

"There goes your precious coin. I'm sure of it. I even think I can tell
the exact place in which it is hidden. His hand went to his left
coat-pocket once too often."

"That's right. I noticed the action also," chimed in Mr. Darrow, who had
stepped up, unobserved. "And I noticed something else. His whole
appearance altered from the moment this coin came on the scene. An
indefinable half-eager, half-furtive look crept into his eye as he saw
it passed from hand to hand. I remember it now, though it didn't make
much impression upon me at the time."

"And I remember another thing," supplemented Hammersley in his anxiety
to set himself straight with these men of whose entire approval he was
not quite sure. "He raised his napkin to his mouth very frequently
during the meal and held it there longer than is usual, too. Once he
caught me looking at him, and for a moment he flushed scarlet, then he
broke out with one of his witty remarks and I had to laugh like
everybody else. If I am not mistaken, his napkin was up and his right
hand working behind it, about the time Mr. Sedgwick requested the return
of his coin."

"The idiot! Hadn't he sense enough to know that such a loss wouldn't
pass unquestioned? The gem of the collection; known all over the
country, and he's not even a connoisseur."

"No; I've never even heard him mention numismatics."

"Mr. Darrow spoke of its value. Perhaps that was what tempted him. I
know that Clifford's been rather down on his luck lately."

"He? Well, he don't look it. There isn't one of us so well set up.
Pardon me, Mr. Hammersley, you understand what I mean. He perhaps relies
a little bit too much on his fine clothes."

"He needn't. His face is his fortune--all the one he's got, I hear it
said. He had a pretty income from Consolidated Silver, but that's gone
up and left him in what you call difficulties. If he has debts
besides----"

But here Mr. Darrow was called off. His niece wanted to see him for one
minute in the hall. When he came back it was to make his adieu and hers.
She had been taken suddenly indisposed and his duty was to see her
immediately home. This broke up the party, and amid general
protestations the various guests were taking their leave when the whole
action was stopped by a smothered cry from the dining-room, and the
precipitate entrance of Robert, asking for Mr. Sedgwick.

"What's up? What's happened?" demanded that gentleman, hurriedly
advancing towards the agitated butler.

"Found!" he exclaimed, holding up the coin between his thumb and
forefinger. "It was standing straight up between two leaves of the
table. It tumbled and fell to the floor as Luke and I were taking them
out."

Silence which could be felt for a moment. Then each man turned and
surveyed his neighbour, while the women's voices rose in little cries
that were almost hysterical.

"I knew that it would be found, and found here," came from the hallway
in rich, resonant tones. "Uncle, do not hurry; I am feeling better,"
followed in unconscious naïveté, as the young girl stepped in, showing a
countenance in which were small signs of indisposition or even of
depressed spirits.

Mr. Darrow, with a smile of sympathetic understanding, joined the others
now crowding about the butler.

"I noticed the crack between these two leaves when I pushed about the
plates and dishes," he was saying. "But I never thought of looking in it
for the missing coin. I'm sure I'm very sorry that I didn't."

Mr. Darrow, to whom these words had recalled a circumstance he had
otherwise completely forgotten, anxiously remarked: "That must have
happened shortly after it left my hand. I recall now that the lady
sitting between me and Clifford gave it a twirl which sent it spinning
over the bare table-top. I don't think she realised the action. She was
listening--we all were--to a flow of bright repartee going on below us,
and failed to follow the movements of the coin. Otherwise, she would
have spoken. But what a marvel that it should have reached that crack in
just the position to fall in!"

"It wouldn't happen again, not if we spun it there for a month of
Sundays."

"But Mr. Clifford!" put in an agitated voice.

"Yes, it has been rather hard on him. But he shouldn't have such keen
sensibilities. If he had emptied out his pockets cheerfully and at the
first intimation, none of this unpleasantness would have happened. Mr.
Sedgwick, I congratulate you upon the recovery of this valuable coin,
and am quite ready to offer my services if you wish to make Mr. Clifford
immediately acquainted with Robert's discovery."

"Thank you, but I will perform that duty myself," was Mr. Sedgwick's
quiet rejoinder, as he unlocked the door of his cabinet and carefully
restored the coin to its proper place.

When he faced back, he found his guests on the point of leaving. Only
one gave signs of any intention of lingering. This was the elderly
financier who had shown such stern resolve in his treatment of Mr.
Clifford's so-called sensibilities. He had confided his wife to the care
of Mr. Darrow, and now met Mr. Sedgwick with this remark:

"I'm going to ask a favour of you. If, as you have intimated, it is your
intention to visit Mr. Clifford to-night, I should like to go with you.
I don't understand this young man and his unaccountable attitude in this
matter, and it is very important that I should. Have you any objection
to my company? My motor is at the door, and we can settle the affair in
twenty minutes."

"None," returned his host, a little surprised, however, at the request.
"His pride does seem a little out of place, but he was among comparative
strangers, and seemed to feel his honour greatly impugned by
Hammersley's unfortunate proposition. I'm sorry way down to the ground
for what has occurred, and cannot carry him our apologies too soon."

"No, you cannot," retorted the other shortly. And so seriously did he
utter this that no time was lost by Mr. Sedgwick, and as soon as they
could get into their coats, they were in the motor and on their way to
the young man's apartment.

Their experience began at the door. A man was lolling there who told
them that Mr. Clifford had changed his quarters; where he did not know.
But upon the production of a five-dollar bill, he remembered enough
about it to give them a number and street where possibly they might find
him. In a rush, they hastened there; only to hear the same story from
the sleepy elevator boy anticipating his last trip up for the night.

"Mr. Clifford left a week ago; he didn't tell me where he was going."

Nevertheless the boy knew; that they saw, and another but smaller bill
came into requisition and awoke his sleepy memory.

The street and number which he gave made the two well-to-do men stare.
But they said nothing, though the looks they cast back at the
second-rate quarters they were leaving, so far below the elegant
apartment house they had visited first, were sufficiently expressive.
The scale of descent from luxury to positive discomfort was proving a
rapid one and prepared them for the dismal, ill-cared-for, altogether
repulsive doorway before which they halted next. No attendant waited
here; not even an elevator boy; the latter for the good reason that
there was no elevator. An uninviting flight of stairs was before them;
and on the few doors within sight a simple card showed the name of the
occupant.

Mr. Sedgwick glanced at his companion.

"Shall we go up?" he asked.

Mr. Blake nodded. "We'll find him," said he, "if it takes all night."

"Surely he cannot have sunk lower than this."

"Remembering his get-up I do not think so. Yet who knows? Some mystery
lies back of his whole conduct. Dining in your home, with this to come
back to! I don't wonder----"

But here a thought struck him. Pausing with his foot on the stair, he
turned a flushed countenance towards Mr. Sedgwick. "I've an idea," said
he. "Perhaps----" He whispered the rest.

Mr. Sedgwick stared and shook his shoulders. "Possibly," said he,
flushing slightly in his turn. Then, as they proceeded up, "I feel like
a brute, anyway. A sorry night's business all through, unless the end
proves better than the beginning."

"We'll start from the top. Something tells me that we shall find him
close under the roof. Can you read the names by such a light?"

"Barely; but I have matches."

And now there might have been witnessed by any chance home-comer the
curious sight of two extremely well-dressed men pottering through the
attic hall of this decaying old domicile, reading the cards on the doors
by means of a lighted match.

And vainly. On none of the cards could be seen the name they sought.

"We're on the wrong track," protested Mr. Blake. "No use keeping this
up," but found himself stopped, when about to turn away, by a gesture of
Sedgwick's.

"There's a light under the door you see there untagged," said he. "I'm
going to knock."

He did so. There was a sound within and then utter silence.

He knocked again. A man's step was heard approaching the door, then
again the silence.

Mr. Sedgwick made a third essay, and then the door was suddenly pulled
inward and in the gap they saw the handsome face and graceful figure of
the young man they had so lately encountered amid palatial surroundings.
But how changed! how openly miserable! and when he saw who his guests
were, how proudly defiant of their opinion and presence.

"You have found the coin," he quietly remarked. "I appreciate your
courtesy in coming here to inform me of it. Will not that answer,
without further conversation? I am on the point of retiring
and--and----"

Even the hardihood of a very visible despair gave way for an instant as
he met Mr. Sedgwick's eye. In the break which followed, the older man
spoke.

"Pardon us, but we have come thus far with a double purpose. First, to
tender our apologies, which you have been good enough to accept;
secondly, to ask, in no spirit of curiosity, I assure you, a question
that I seem to see answered, but which I should be glad to hear
confirmed by your lips. May we not come in?"

The question was put with a rare smile such as sometimes was seen on
this hard-grained handler of millions, and the young man, seeing it,
faltered back, leaving the way open for them to enter. The next minute
he seemed to regret the impulse, for backing against a miserable table
they saw there, he drew himself up with an air as nearly hostile as one
of his nature could assume.

"I know of no question," said he, "which I feel at this very late hour
inclined to answer. A man who has been tracked as I must have been for
you to find me here, is hardly in a mood to explain his poverty or the
mad desire for former luxuries which took him to the house of one
friendly enough, he thought, to accept his presence without inquiry as
to the place he lived in or the nature or number of the reverses which
had brought him to such a place as this."

"I do not--believe me----" faltered Mr. Sedgwick, greatly embarrassed
and distressed. In spite of the young man's attempt to hide the contents
of the table, he had seen the two objects lying there--a piece of bread
or roll, and a half-cocked revolver.

Mr. Blake had seen them, too, and at once took the word out of his
companion's mouth.

"You mistake us," he said coldly, "as well as the nature of our errand.
We are here from no motive of curiosity, as I have before said, nor from
any other which might offend or distress you. We--or rather I am here on
business. I have a position to offer to an intelligent, upright,
enterprising young man. Your name has been given me. It was given me
before this dinner, to which I went--if Mr. Sedgwick will pardon my
plain speaking--chiefly for the purpose of making your acquaintance. The
result was what you know, and possibly now you can understand my anxiety
to see you exonerate yourself from the doubts you yourself raised by
your attitude of resistance to the proposition made by that head-long,
but well-meaning, young man of many millions, Mr. Hammersley. I wanted
to find in you the honourable characteristics necessary to the man who
is to draw an eight thousand dollars a year salary under my eye. I still
want to do this. If then you are willing to make this whole thing plain
to me--for it is not plain--not wholly plain, Mr. Clifford--then you
will find in me a friend such as few young fellows can boast of, for I
like you--I will say that--and where I like----"

The gesture with which he ended the sentence was almost superfluous, in
face of the change which had taken place in the aspect of the man he
addressed. Wonder, doubt, hope, and again incredulity were lost at last
in a recognition of the other's kindly intentions toward himself, and
the prospects which they opened out before him. With a shame-faced look,
and yet with a manly acceptance of his own humiliation that was not
displeasing to his visitors, he turned about and pointing to the morsel
of bread lying on the table before them, he said to Mr. Sedgwick:

"Do you recognise that? It is from your table, and--and--it is not the
only piece I had hidden in my pockets. I had not eaten in twenty-four
hours when I sat down to dinner this evening. I had no prospect of
another morsel for to-morrow and--and--I was afraid of eating my
fill----there were ladies--and so--and so----"

They did not let him finish. In a flash they had both taken in the room.
Not an article which could be spared was anywhere visible. His
dress-suit was all that remained to him of former ease and luxury. That
he had retained, possibly for just such opportunities as had given him a
dinner to-night. Mr. Blake understood at last, and his iron lip
trembled.

"Have you no friends?" he asked. "Was it necessary to go hungry?"

"Could I ask alms or borrow what I could not pay? It was a position I
was after, and positions do not come at call. Sometimes they come
without it," he smiled with the dawning of his old-time grace on his
handsome face, "but I find that one can see his resources go, dollar by
dollar, and finally, cent by cent, in the search for employment no one
considers necessary to a man like me. Perhaps if I had had less pride,
had been willing to take you or any one else into my confidence, I might
not have sunk to these depths of humiliation; but I had not the
confidence in men which this last half hour has given me, and I went
blundering on, hiding my needs and hoping against hope for some sort of
result to my efforts. This pistol is not mine. I did borrow this, but I
did not mean to use it, unless nature reached the point where it could
stand no more. I thought the time had come to-night when I left your
house, Mr. Sedgwick, suspected of theft. It seemed the last straw;
but--but--a woman's look has held me back. I hesitated and--now you know
the whole," said he; "that is, if you can understand why it was more
possible for me to brave the contumely of such a suspicion than to open
my pockets and disclose the crusts I had hidden there."

"I can understand," said Mr. Sedgwick; "but the opportunity you have
given us for doing so must not be shared by others. We will undertake
your justification, but it must be made in our own way and after the
most careful consideration; eh, Mr. Blake?"

"Most assuredly; and if Mr. Clifford will present himself at my office
early in the morning, we will first breakfast and then talk business."

Young Clifford could only hold out his hand, but when, his two friends
gone, he sat in contemplation of his changed prospects, one word and one
only left his lips, uttered in every inflection of tenderness, hope,
and joy. "Edith! Edith! Edith!"

It was the name of the sweet young girl who had shown her faith in him
at the moment when his heart was lowest and despair at its culmination.



THE HOUSE IN THE MIST

(Copyright, 1905, by The Bobbs-Merrill Company Used by special
permission of the publishers)


I

AN OPEN DOOR

It was a night to drive any man indoors. Not only was the darkness
impenetrable, but the raw mist enveloping hill and valley made the open
road anything but desirable to a belated wayfarer like myself.

Being young, untrammelled, and naturally indifferent to danger, I was
not averse to adventure; and having my fortune to make, was always on
the lookout for El Dorado, which to ardent souls lies ever beyond the
next turning. Consequently, when I saw a light shimmering through the
mist at my right, I resolved to make for it and the shelter it so
opportunely offered.

But I did not realise then, as I do now, that shelter does not
necessarily imply refuge, or I might not have undertaken this adventure
with so light a heart. Yet who knows? The impulses of an unfettered
spirit lean toward daring, and youth, as I have said, seeks the strange,
the unknown, and sometimes the terrible.

My path towards this light was by no means an easy one. After confused
wanderings through tangled hedges, and a struggle with obstacles of
whose nature I received the most curious impression in the surrounding
murk, I arrived in front of a long, low building, which, to my
astonishment, I found standing with doors and windows open to the
pervading mist, save for one square casement, through which the light
shone from a row of candles placed on a long mahogany table.

The quiet and seeming emptiness of this odd and picturesque building
made me pause. I am not much affected by visible danger, but this silent
room, with its air of sinister expectancy, struck me most unpleasantly,
and I was about to reconsider my first impulse and withdraw again to the
road, when a second look thrown back upon the comfortable interior I was
leaving convinced me of my folly, and sent me straight toward the door
which stood so invitingly open.

But half-way up the path my progress was again stayed by the sight of a
man issuing from the house I had so rashly looked upon as devoid of all
human presence. He seemed in haste, and at the moment my eye first fell
on him was engaged in replacing his watch in his pocket.

But he did not shut the door behind him, which I thought odd, especially
as his final glance had been a backward one, and seemed to take in all
the appointments of the place he was so hurriedly leaving.

As we met he raised his hat. This likewise struck me as peculiar, for
the deference he displayed was more marked than that usually bestowed on
strangers, while his lack of surprise at an encounter more or less
startling in such a mist, was calculated to puzzle an ordinary man like
myself. Indeed, he was so little impressed by my presence there that he
was for passing me without a word or any other hint of good-fellowship
save the bow of which I have spoken. But this did not suit me. I was
hungry, cold, and eager for creature comforts, and the house before me
gave forth, not only heat, but a savoury odour which in itself was an
invitation hard to ignore. I therefore accosted the man.

"Will bed and supper be provided for me here?" I asked. "I am tired out
with a long tramp over the hills, and hungry enough to pay anything in
reason----"

I stopped, for the man had disappeared. He had not paused at my appeal,
and the mist had swallowed him. But at the break in my sentence his
voice came back in good-natured tones, and I heard:

"Supper will be ready at nine, and there are beds for all. Enter, sir;
you are the first to arrive, but the others cannot be far behind."

A queer greeting certainly. But when I strove to question him as to its
meaning, his voice returned to me from such a distance that I doubted if
my words had reached him any more than his answer had reached me.

"Well," thought I, "it isn't as if a lodging had been denied me. He
invited me to enter, and enter I will."

The house, to which I now naturally directed a glance of much more
careful scrutiny than before, was no ordinary farm-building, but a
rambling old mansion, made conspicuously larger here and there by
jutting porches and more than one convenient lean-to. Though furnished,
warmed, and lighted with candles, as I have previously described, it had
about it an air of disuse which made me feel myself an intruder, in
spite of the welcome I had received. But I was not in a position to
stand upon ceremony, and ere long I found myself inside the great room
and before the blazing logs whose glow had lighted up the doorway and
added its own attraction to the other allurements of the inviting place.

Though the open door made a draught which was anything but pleasant, I
did not feel like closing it, and was astonished to observe the effect
of the mist through the square thus left open to the night. It was not
an agreeable one, and, instinctively turning my back upon that quarter
of the room, I let my eyes roam over the wainscoted walls and the odd
pieces of furniture which gave such an air of old-fashioned richness to
the place. As nothing of the kind had ever fallen under my eyes before,
I would have thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity of gratifying my taste
for the curious and the beautiful, if the quaint old chairs I saw
standing about me on every side had not all been empty. But the solitude
of the place, so much more oppressive than the solitude of the road I
had left, struck cold to my heart, and I missed the cheer rightfully
belonging to such attractive surroundings. Suddenly I bethought me of
the many other apartments likely to be found in so spacious a dwelling,
and, going to the nearest door, I opened it and called out for the
master of the house. But only an echo came back, and returning to the
fire, I sat down before the cheering blaze, in quiet acceptance of a
situation too lonely for comfort, yet not without a certain piquant
interest for a man of free mind and adventurous disposition like myself.

After all, if supper was to be served at nine, some one must be expected
to eat it; I should surely not be left much longer without companions.

Meanwhile ample amusement awaited me in the contemplation of a picture
which, next to the large fireplace, was the most prominent object in the
room. This picture was a portrait, and a remarkable one. The countenance
it portrayed was both characteristic and forcible, and so interested me
that in studying it I quite forgot both hunger and weariness. Indeed its
effect upon me was such that, after gazing at it uninterruptedly for a
few minutes, I discovered that its various features--the narrow eyes in
which a hint of craft gave a strange gleam to their native intelligence;
the steadfast chin, strong as the rock of the hills I had wearily
tramped all day; the cunning wrinkles which yet did not interfere with a
latent great-heartedness that made the face as attractive as it was
puzzling--had so established themselves in my mind that I continued to
see them before me whichever way I turned, and even found it impossible
to shake off their influence after I had resolutely set my mind in
another direction by endeavouring to recall what I knew of the town
into which I had strayed.

I had come from Scranton, and was now, according to my best judgment, in
one of those rural districts of Western Pennsylvania which breed such
strange and sturdy characters. But of this special neighbourhood, its
inhabitants, and its industries, I knew nothing, nor was I likely to
become acquainted with it so long as I remained in the solitude I have
described.

But these impressions and these thoughts--if thoughts they
were--presently received a check. A loud "Halloo!" rose from somewhere
in the mist, followed by a string of muttered imprecations, which
convinced me that the person now attempting to approach the house was
encountering some of the many difficulties which had beset me in the
same undertaking a few minutes before.

I therefore raised my voice and shouted out, "Here! This way!" after
which I sat still and awaited developments.

There was a huge clock in one of the corners, whose loud tick filled up
every interval of silence. By this clock it was just ten minutes to
eight when two gentlemen--I should say men, and coarse men at
that--crossed the open threshold and entered the house.

Their appearance was more or less noteworthy--unpleasantly so, I am
obliged to add. One was red-faced and obese; the other was tall, thin,
and wiry, and showed as many seams in his face as a blighted apple.
Neither of the two had anything to recommend him either in appearance or
address, save a certain veneer of polite assumption as transparent as it
was offensive. As I listened to the forced sallies of the one and the
hollow laugh of the other, I was glad that I was large of frame and
strong of arm, and used to all kinds of men and--brutes.

As these two newcomers seemed no more astonished at my presence than the
man I had met at the gate, I checked the question which instinctively
rose to my lips, and with a simple bow--responded to by a more or less
familiar nod from either--accepted the situation with all the
_sang-froid_ the occasion seemed to demand. Perhaps this was wise,
perhaps it was not; there was little opportunity to judge, for the start
they both gave as they encountered the eyes of the picture before
mentioned drew my attention to a consideration of the different ways in
which men, however similar in other respects, express sudden and
unlooked-for emotion. The big man simply allowed his astonishment,
dread, or whatever the feeling was which moved him, to ooze forth in a
cold and deathly perspiration which robbed his cheeks of colour, and
cast a bluish shadow over his narrow and retreating temples; while the
thin and waspish man, caught in the same trap (for trap I saw it was),
shouted aloud in his ill-timed mirth, the false and cruel character of
which would have made me shudder, if all expression of feeling on my
part had not been held in check by the interest I immediately
experienced in the display of open bravado with which, in another
moment, these two tried to carry off their mutual embarrassment.

"Good likeness, eh?" laughed the seamy-faced man. "Quite an idea that!
Makes him one of us again! Well, he's welcome--in oils. Can't say much
to us from canvas, eh?" And the rafters above him vibrated, as his
violent efforts at joviality went up in loud and louder assertion from
his thin throat.

A nudge from the other's elbow stopped him, and I saw them both cast
half-lowering, half-inquisitive glances in my direction.

"One of the Witherspoon boys?" queried one.

"Perhaps," snarled the other. "I never saw but one of them. There are
five, aren't there? Eustace believed in marrying off his gals young."

"Damn him, yes! And he'd have married them off younger if he had known
how numbers were going to count some day among the Westonhaughs." And he
laughed again in a way I should certainly have felt it my business to
resent if my indignation, as well as the ill-timed allusions which had
called it forth, had not been put to an end by a fresh arrival through
the veiling mist which hung like a shroud at the doorway.

This time it was for me to experience a shock of something like fear.
Yet the personage who called up this unlooked-for sensation in my
naturally hardy nature was old, and to all appearance harmless from
disability, if not from good-will. His form was bent over upon itself
like a bow; and only from the glances he shot from his upturned eyes
was the fact made evident that a redoubtable nature, full of force and
malignity, had just brought its quota of evil into a room already
overflowing with dangerous and menacing passions.

As this old wretch, either from the feebleness of age or from the
infirmity I have mentioned, had great difficulty in walking, he had
brought with him a small boy, whose business it was to direct his
tottering steps as best he could.

But once settled in his chair, he drove away this boy with his pointed
oak stick, and with some harsh words about caring for the horse and
being in time in the morning, he sent him out into the mist. As this
little shivering and pathetic figure vanished, the old man drew with
gasp and haw a number of deep breaths, which shook his bent back, and
did their share, no doubt, in restoring his own disturbed circulation.
Then, with a sinister twist which brought his pointed chin and twinkling
eyes again into view, he remarked:

"Haven't ye a word for kinsman Luke, you two? It isn't often I get out
among ye. Shakee, nephew! Shakee, Hector! And now, who's the boy in the
window? My eyes aren't what they used to be, but he don't seem to favour
the Westonhaughs overmuch. One of Salmon's four grandchildren, think 'e?
Or a shoot from Eustace's gnarled old trunk? His gals all married
Americans, and one of them, I've been told, was a yellow-haired giant
like this fellow."

At this description, pointed directly toward me, I was about to venture
a response on my own account, when my attention, as well as theirs, was
freshly attracted by a loud "Whoa!" at the gate, followed by the hasty
but assured entrance of a dapper, wizen, but perfectly preserved little
old gentleman with a bag in his hand.

Looking askance with eyes that were like two beads, first at the two
men, who were now elbowing each other for the best place before the
fire, and next at the revolting figure in the chair, he bestowed his
greeting, which consisted of an elaborate bow, not on them, but upon the
picture hanging so conspicuously on the open wall before him; and then,
taking me within the scope of his quick, circling glance, cried out with
an assumption of great cordiality:

"Good-evening, gentlemen; good-evening one, good-evening all. Nothing
like being on the tick. I'm sorry the night has turned out so badly.
Some may find it too thick for travel. That would be bad, eh? very
bad--for _them_."

As none of the men he openly addressed saw fit to answer, save by the
hitch of a shoulder or a leer quickly suppressed, I kept silent also.
But this reticence, marked as it was, did not seem to offend the
newcomer. Shaking the wet from the umbrella he held, he stood the
dripping article up in a corner, and then came and placed his feet on
the fender. To do this he had to crowd between the two men already
occupying the best part of the hearth. But he showed no concern at
incommoding them, and bore their cross looks and threatening gestures
with professional equanimity.

"You know me?" he now unexpectedly snapped, bestowing another look over
his shoulder at that oppressive figure in the chair. (Did I say that I
had risen when the latter sat?) "I'm no Westonhaugh, I; nor yet a
Witherspoon nor a Clapsaddle. I'm only Smead, the lawyer--Mr. Anthony
Westonhaugh's lawyer," he repeated, with another glance of recognition
in the direction of the picture. "I drew up his last will and testament,
and, until all of his wishes have been duly carried out, am entitled by
the terms of that will to be regarded both legally and socially as his
representative. This you all know, but it is my way to make everything
clear as I proceed. A lawyer's trick, no doubt. I do not pretend to be
entirely exempt from such."

A grumble from the large man, who seemed to have been disturbed in some
absorbing calculation he was carrying on, mingled with a few muttered
words of forced acknowledgment from the restless old sinner in the
chair, made it unnecessary for me to reply, even if the last comer had
given me the opportunity.

"It's getting late!" he cried, with an easy garrulity rather amusing
under the circumstances. "Two more trains came in as I left the depot.
If old Phil was on hand with his waggon, several more members of this
interesting family may be here before the clock strikes; if not, the
assemblage is like to be small. Too small," I heard him grumble a
minute after, under his breath.

"I wish it were a matter of one," spoke up the big man, striking his
breast in a way to make it perfectly apparent whom he meant by that word
_one_. And having (if I may judge by the mingled laugh and growl of his
companions) thus shown his hand both figuratively and literally, he
relapsed into the calculation which seemed to absorb all of his
unoccupied moments.

"Generous, very!" commented the lawyer in a murmur which was more than
audible. "Pity that sentiments of such broad benevolence should go
unrewarded."

This, because at that very instant wheels were heard in front, also a
jangle of voices, in some controversy about fares, which promised
anything but a pleasing addition to the already none too desirable
company.

"I suppose that's Sister Janet," snarled out the one addressed as
Hector. There was no love in his voice, despite the relationship hinted
at, and I awaited the entrance of this woman with some curiosity.

But her appearance, heralded by many a puff and pant which the damp air
exaggerated in a prodigious way, did not seem to warrant the interest I
had shown in it. As she stepped into the room I saw only a big frowsy
woman, who had attempted to make a show with a new silk dress and a hat
in the latest fashion, but who had lamentably failed owing to the
slouchiness of her figure and some misadventure, by which her hat had
been set awry on her head and her usual complacency destroyed. Later, I
noted that her down-looking eyes had a false twinkle in them, and that,
commonplace as she looked, she was one to steer clear of in times of
necessity and distress.

She, too, evidently expected to find the door open and people assembled,
but she had not anticipated being confronted by the portrait on the
wall, and cringed in an unpleasant way as she stumbled by it into one of
the ill-lighted corners.

The old man, who had doubtless caught the rustle of her dress as she
passed him, emitted one short sentence.

"Almost late," said he.

Her answer was a sputter of words.

"It's the fault of that driver," she complained. "If he had taken one
drop more at the half-way house I might really not have got here at all.
That would not have inconvenienced _you_. But oh! what a grudge I would
have owed that skinflint brother of ours"--here she shook her fist at
the picture--"for making our good luck depend upon our arrival within
two short strokes of the clock!"

"There are several to come yet," blandly observed the lawyer. But before
the words were well out of his mouth we all became aware of a new
presence--a woman, whose sombre grace and quiet bearing gave distinction
to her unobtrusive entrance, and caused a feeling of something like awe
to follow the first sight of her cold features and deep,
heavily-fringed eyes. But this soon passed in the more human sentiment
awakened by the soft pleading which infused her gaze with a touching
femininity. She wore a long loose garment, which fell without a fold
from chin to foot, and in her arms she seemed to carry something.

Never before had I seen so beautiful a woman. As I was contemplating
her, with respect but yet with a masculine intentness I could not quite
suppress, two or three other persons came in. And now I began to notice
that the eyes of all these people turned mainly one way, and that was
toward the clock. Another small circumstance likewise drew my attention.
Whenever any one entered--and there were one or two additional arrivals
during the five minutes preceding the striking of the hour--a frown
settled for an instant on every brow, giving to each and all a similar
look, for the interpretation of which I lacked the key. Yet not on every
brow either. There was one which remained undisturbed, and showed only a
grand patience.

As the hands of the big clock neared the point of eight a furtive smile
appeared on more than one face; and when the hour rang out a sigh of
satisfaction swept through the room, to which the little old lawyer
responded with a worldly-wise grunt as he moved from his place and
proceeded to the door.

This he had scarcely shut when a chorus of voices rose from without.
Three or four lingerers had pushed their way as far as the gate, only
to see the door of the house shut in their faces.

"Too late!" growled old man Luke from between the locks of his long
beard.

"Too late!" shrieked the woman who had come so near being late herself.

"Too late!" smoothly acquiesced the lawyer, locking and bolting the door
with a deft and assured hand.

But the four or five persons who thus found themselves barred out did
not accept without a struggle the decision of the more fortunate ones
assembled within. More than one hand began pounding on the door, and we
could hear cries of: "The train was behind time!" "Your clock is fast!"
"You are cheating us; you want it all for yourselves!" "We will have the
law on you!" and other bitter adjurations unintelligible to me from my
ignorance of the circumstances which called them forth.

But the wary old lawyer simply shook his head and answered nothing;
whereat a murmur of gratification rose from within, and a howl of almost
frenzied dismay from without, which latter presently received point from
a startling vision which now appeared at the casement where the lights
burned. A man's face looked in, and behind it, that of a woman, so wild
and maddened by some sort of heart-break that I found my sympathies
aroused in spite of the glare of evil passions which made both of these
countenances something less than human.

But the lawyer met the stare of these four eyes with a quiet chuckle,
which found its echo in the ill-advised mirth of those about him; and
moving over to the window where they still peered in, he drew together
the two heavy shutters which hitherto had stood back against the wall,
and, fastening them with a bar, shut out the sight of this despair, if
he could not shut out the protests which ever and anon were shouted
through the keyhole.

Meanwhile, one form had sat through this whole incident without a
gesture; and on the quiet brow, from which I could not keep my eyes, no
shadows appeared save the perpetual one of native melancholy, which was
at once the source of its attraction and the secret of its power.

Into what sort of gathering had I stumbled? And why did I prefer to
await developments rather than ask the simplest question of any one
about me?

Meantime the lawyer had proceeded to make certain preparations. With the
help of one or two willing hands he had drawn the great table into the
middle of the room, and, having seen the candles restored to their
places, began to open his small bag and take from it a roll of paper and
several flat documents. Laying the latter in the centre of the table and
slowly unrolling the former, he consulted, with his foxy eyes, the faces
surrounding him, and smiled with secret malevolence, as he noted that
every chair and every form was turned away from the picture before which
he had bent with such obvious courtesy on entering. I alone stood
erect, and this possibly was why a gleam of curiosity was noticeable in
his glance, as he ended his scrutiny of my countenance and bent his gaze
again upon the paper he held.

"Heavens!" thought I. "What shall I answer this man if he asks me why I
continued to remain in a spot where I have so little business?"

The impulse came to go. But such was the effect of this strange
convocation of persons, at night and in a mist which was itself a
nightmare, that I failed to take action and remained riveted to my
place, while Mr. Smead consulted his roll and finally asked in a
business-like tone, quite unlike his previous sarcastic speech, the
names of those whom he had the pleasure of seeing before him.

The old man in the chair spoke up first.

"Luke Westonhaugh," he announced.

"Very good!" responded the lawyer.

"Hector Westonhaugh," came from the thin man.

A nod and a look toward the next.

"John Westonhaugh."

"Nephew?" asked the lawyer.

"Yes."

"Go on, and be quick; supper will be ready at nine."

"Eunice Westonhaugh," spoke up a soft voice.

I felt my heart bound as if some inner echo responded to that name.

"Daughter of whom?"

"Hudson Westonhaugh," she gently faltered. "My father is dead--died last
night. I am his only heir."

A grumble of dissatisfaction and a glint of unrelieved hate came from
the doubled-up figure, whose malevolence had so revolted me.

But the lawyer was not to be shaken.

"Very good! It is fortunate you trusted your feet rather than the train.
And now you? What is your name?"

He was looking, not at me, as I had at first feared, but at the man next
to me, a slim but slippery youth, whose small red eyes made me shudder.

"William Witherspoon."

"Barbara's son?"

"Yes."

"Where are your brothers?"

"One of them, I think, is outside"--here he laughed--"the other
is--_sick_."

The way he uttered this word made me set him down as one to be
especially wary of when he smiled. But then, I had already passed
judgment on him at my first view.

"And you, madam?"--this to the large, dowdy woman with the uncertain
eye, a contrast to the young and melancholy Eunice.

"Janet Clapsaddle," she replied, waddling hungrily forward and getting
unpleasantly near the speaker, for he moved off as she approached, and
took his stand in the clear space at the head of the table.

"Very well, Mistress Clapsaddle. You were a Westonhaugh, I believe?"

"You _believe_, sneak-faced hypocrite that you are!" she blurted out. "I
don't understand your lawyer ways. I like plain speaking myself. Don't
you know me, and Luke and Hector, and--and most of us, indeed, except
that puny, white-faced girl yonder, whom, having been brought up on the
other side of the Ridge, we have none of us seen since she was a
screaming baby in Hildegarde's arms. And the young gentleman over
there"--here she indicated me--"who shows so little likeness to the rest
of the family, he will have to make his connection to us pretty plain
before we shall feel like acknowledging him, either as the son of one of
Eustace's girls, or a chip from Brother Salmon's hard old block."

As this caused all eyes to turn upon me, even _hers_, I smiled as I
stepped forward. The lawyer did not return that smile.

"What is your name?" he asked shortly and sharply, as if he distrusted
me.

"Hugh Austin," was my quiet reply.

"There is no such name on the list," snapped old Smead, with an
authoritative gesture toward those who seemed anxious to enter a
protest.

"Probably not," I returned, "for I am not a Witherspoon, a Westonhaugh,
nor yet a Clapsaddle. I am merely a chance wayfarer passing through the
town on my way West. I thought this house was a tavern, or at least a
place I could lodge in. The man I met in the doorway told me as much,
and so I am here. If my company is not agreeable, or if you wish this
room to yourselves, let me go into the kitchen. I promise not to meddle
with the supper, hungry as I am. Or perhaps you wish me to join the
crowd outside; it seems to be increasing."

"No, no," came from all parts of the room. "Don't let the door be
opened. Nothing could keep Lemuel and his crowd out if they once got
foot over the threshold."

The lawyer rubbed his chin. He seemed to be in some sort of quandary.
First he scrutinised me from under his shaggy brows with a sharp gleam
of suspicion; then his features softened, and, with a side-glance at the
young woman who called herself Eunice (perhaps, because she was worth
looking at, perhaps because she had partly risen at my words), he
slipped toward a door I had before observed in the wainscoting on the
left of the mantelpiece, and softly opened it upon what looked like a
narrow staircase.

"We cannot let you go out," said he; "and we cannot let you have a
finger in our viands before the hour comes for serving them; so if you
will be so good as to follow this staircase to the top, you will find it
ends in a room comfortable enough for the wayfarer you call yourself. In
that room you can rest till the way is clear for you to continue your
travels. Better we cannot do for you. This house is not a tavern, but
the somewhat valuable property of----" He turned with a bow and smile,
as every one there drew a deep breath; but no one ventured to end that
sentence.

I would have given all my future prospects (which, by the way, were not
very great) to remain in that room. The oddity of the situation; the
mystery of the occurrence; the suspense I saw in every face; the
eagerness of the cries I heard redoubled from time to time outside; the
malevolence but poorly disguised in the old lawyer's countenance; and,
above all, the presence of that noble-looking woman, which was the one
off-set to the general tone of villainy with which the room was charged,
filled me with curiosity, if I might call it by no other name, that made
my acquiescence in the demand thus made upon me positively heroic. But
there seemed no other course for me to follow, and with a last lingering
glance at the genial fire and a quick look about me, which, happily,
encountered hers, I stooped my head to suit the low and narrow doorway
opened for my accommodation, and instantly found myself in darkness. The
door had been immediately closed by the lawyer's impatient hand.


II

WITH MY EAR TO THE WAINSCOTING

No move more unwise could have been made by the old lawyer--that is, if
his intention had been to rid himself of an unwelcome witness. For,
finding myself thrust thus suddenly from the scene, I naturally stood
still instead of mounting the stairs, and, by standing still, discovered
that though shut from sight, I was not from sound. Distinctly through
the panel of the door, which was much thinner, no doubt, than the old
fox imagined, I heard one of the men present shout out:

"Well, that makes the number less by _one_!"

The murmur which followed this remark came plainly to my ears, and,
greatly rejoicing over what I considered my good luck, I settled myself
on the lowest step of the stairs in the hope of catching some word which
would reveal to me the mystery of this scene.

It was not long in coming. Old Smead had now his audience before him in
good shape, and his next words were of a character to make evident the
purpose of this meeting.

"Heirs of Anthony Westonhaugh, deceased," he began in a sing-song voice
strangely unmusical, "I congratulate you upon your good fortune at being
at this especial moment on the inner rather than outer side of your
amiable relative's front-door. His will, which you have assembled to
hear read, is well known to you. By it his whole property--not so large
as some of you might wish, but yet a goodly property for farmers like
yourselves--is to be divided this night, share and share alike, among
such of his relatives as have found it convenient to be present here
between the strokes of half-past seven and eight. If some of our friends
have failed us through sloth, sickness, or the misfortune of mistaking
the road, they have our sympathy, but _they cannot have his dollars_."

"Cannot have his dollars!" echoed a rasping voice which from its
smothered sound probably came from the bearded lips of the old reprobate
in the chair.

The lawyer waited for one or two other repetitions of this phrase (a
phrase which, for some unimaginable reason, seemed to give him an odd
sort of pleasure), then he went on with greater distinctness and a
certain sly emphasis, chilling in effect, but very professional:

"Ladies and gentlemen, shall I read this will?"

"No, no! The division! the division! Tell us what we are to have!" rose
in a shout about him.

There was a pause. I could imagine the sharp eyes of the lawyer
travelling from face to face as each thus gave voice to his cupidity,
and the thin curl of his lips as he remarked in a low, tantalising way:

"There was more in the old man's clutches than you think."

A gasp of greed shook the partition against which my ear was pressed.
Some one must have backed up against the wainscoting since my departure
from the room. I found myself wondering which of them it was. Meantime
old Smead was having his say, with the smoothness of a man who perfectly
understands what is required of him.

"Mr. Westonhaugh would not have put you to so much trouble or had you
wait so long if he had not expected to reward you amply. There are
shares in this bag which are worth thousands instead of hundreds. Now,
now stop that! Hands off! hands off! There are calculations to make
first. How many of you are there? Count yourselves up."

"Nine!" called out a voice with such rapacious eagerness that the word
was almost unintelligible.

"Nine." How slowly the old knave spoke! What pleasure he seemed to take
in the suspense he purposely made as exasperating as possible!

"Well, if each one gets his share, he may count himself richer by two
hundred thousand dollars than when he came in here to-night."

Two hundred thousand dollars! They had expected no more than thirty.
Surprise made them speechless--that is, for a moment; then a pandemonium
of hurrahs, shrieks, and loud-voiced enthusiasm made the room ring till
wonder seized them again, and a sudden silence fell, through which I
caught a far-off wail of grief from the disappointed ones without,
which, heard in the dark and narrow place in which I was confined, had a
peculiarly weird and desolate effect.

Perhaps it likewise was heard by some of the fortunate ones within!
Perhaps one head, to mark which, in this moment of universal elation, I
would have given a year from my life, turned toward the dark without, in
recognition of the despair thus piteously voiced; but if so, no token of
the same came to me, and I could but hope that she had shown by some
such movement the natural sympathy of her sex.

Meanwhile the lawyer was addressing the company in his smoothest and
most sarcastic tones.

"Mr. Westonhaugh was a wise man--a very wise man," he droned. "He
foresaw what your pleasure would be, and left a letter for you. But
before I read it, before I invite you to the board he ordered to be
spread for you in honour of this happy occasion, there is one appeal he
bade me make to those I should find assembled here. As you know, he was
not personally acquainted with all the children and grandchildren of his
many brothers and sisters. Salmon's sons, for instance, were perfect
strangers to him, and all those boys and girls of the Evans's branch
have never been long enough this side of the mountains for him to know
their names, much less their temper or their lives. Yet his heirs--or
such was his wish, his great wish--must be honest men, righteous in
their dealings, and of stainless lives. If, therefore, any one among you
feels that, for reasons he need not state, he has no right to accept his
share of Anthony Westonhaugh's bounty, then that person is requested to
withdraw before this letter to his heirs is read."

Withdraw? Was the man a fool? _Withdraw?_ These cormorants! these
suckers of blood! these harpies and vultures! I laughed as I imagined
sneaking Hector, malicious Luke, or brutal John responding to this naïve
appeal, and then found myself wondering why no echo of my mirth came
from the men themselves. They must have seen much more plainly than I
did the ludicrousness of their weak old kinsman's demand; yet Luke was
still, Hector was still, and even John and the three or four others I
have mentioned gave forth no audible token of disdain or surprise. I was
asking myself what sentiment of awe or fear restrained these selfish
souls, when I became conscious of a movement within, which presently
resolved itself into a departing footstep.

Some conscience there had been awakened. Some one was crossing the floor
toward the door. Who? I waited in anxious expectancy for the word which
was to enlighten me. Happily it came soon, and from the old lawyer's
lips.

"You do not feel yourself worthy?" he queried, in tones I had not heard
from him before. "Why? What have you done that you should forego an
inheritance to which these others feel themselves honestly entitled?"

The voice which answered gave both my mind and heart a shock. It was
_she_ who had risen at this call--_she_, the only true-faced person
there!

Anxiously I listened for her reply. Alas! it was one of action rather
than speech. As I afterwards heard, she simply opened her long cloak and
showed a little infant slumbering in her arms.

"This is my reason," said she. "I have sinned in the eyes of the world,
therefore I cannot take my share of Uncle Anthony's money. I did not
know he exacted an unblemished record from those he expected to enrich,
or I would not have come."

The sob which followed these last words showed at what a cost she thus
renounced a fortune of which she, of all present, perhaps, stood in the
greatest need; but there was no lingering in her step, and to me, who
understood her fault only through the faint sound of infantile wailing
which accompanied her departure, there was a nobility in her action
which raised her in an instant to an almost ideal height of unselfish
virtue.

Perhaps they felt this, too. Perhaps even these hardened men and the
more than hardened woman whose presence was in itself a blight,
recognised heroism when they saw it; for when the lawyer, with a certain
obvious reluctance, laid his hand on the bolts of the door with the
remark, "This is not my work, you know; I am but following out
instructions very minutely given me," the smothered growls and grunts
which rose in reply lacked the venom which had been infused into all
their previous comments.

"I think our friends out there are far enough withdrawn by this time for
us to hazard the opening of the door," the lawyer now remarked. "Madam,
I hope you will speedily find your way to some comfortable shelter."

Then the door opened, and after a moment closed again in a silence which
at least was respectful. Yet I warrant there was not a soul remaining
who had not already figured in his mind to what extent his own fortune
had been increased by the failure of one of their number to inherit.

As for me, my whole interest in the affair was at an end, and I was only
anxious to find my way to where this desolate woman faced the mist with
her unfed baby in her arms.


III

A LIFE DRAMA

But, to reach this wanderer, it was first necessary for me to escape
from the house. This proved simple enough. The upstairs room toward
which I rushed had a window overlooking one of the many lean-tos already
mentioned. The window was fastened, but I had little difficulty in
unlocking it or in finding my way to the ground from the top of the
lean-to. But once again on _terra-firma_, I discovered that the mist was
now so thick that it had all the effect of a fog at sea. It was icy cold
as well, and clung to me so closely that I presently began to shudder
most violently, and, strong man though I was, wish myself back in the
little attic bedroom from which I had climbed in search of one in more
unhappy case than myself.

But these feelings did not cause me to return. If I found the night
cold, she must find it biting. If desolation oppressed my naturally
hopeful spirit, must it not be more overwhelming yet to one whose
memories were sad and whose future was doubtful? And the child! What
infant could live in an air like this? Edging away from the house, I
called out her name, but no answer came back. The persons whom we had
heard flitting in restless longing about the house a few moments before
had left in rage, and she, possibly, with them. Yet I could not imagine
her joining herself to people of their stamp. There had been a
solitariness in her aspect which seemed to forbid any such
companionship. Whatever her story, at least she had nothing in common
with the two ill-favoured persons whose faces I had seen looking in at
the casement. No; I should find her alone, but where? Certainly the ring
of mist, surrounding me at that moment, offered me little prospect of
finding her anywhere, either easily or soon.

Again I raised my voice, and again I failed to meet with response. Then,
fearing to leave the house lest I should be quite lost amid the fences
and brush lying between it and the road, I began to feel my way along
the walls, calling softly now, instead of loudly, so anxious was I not
to miss any chance of carrying comfort, if not succour, to the woman I
was seeking. But the night gave back no sound, and when I came to the
open door of a shed I welcomed the refuge it offered, and stepped in. I
was, of course, confronted by darkness--a different darkness from that
without, blanket-like and impenetrable. But when after a moment of
intense listening I heard a soft sound as of weariful breathing, I was
seized anew by hope, and, feeling in my pocket for my matchbox, I made a
light and looked around.

My intuitions had not deceived me: she was there. Sitting on the floor
with her cheek pressed against the wall, she revealed to my eager
scrutiny only the outlines of her pure, pale profile; but in those
outlines and on those pure, pale features I saw such an abandonment of
hope, mingled with such quiet endurance, that my whole soul melted
before it, and it was with difficulty I managed to say:

"Pardon! I do not wish to intrude; but I am shut out of the house also,
and the night is raw and cold. Can I do nothing for your comfort or
for--for the child's?"

She turned toward me, and I saw the faintest gleam of pleasure tremble
in the sombre stillness of her face, and then the match went out in my
hand, and we were again in complete darkness. But the little wail, which
at the same instant rose from between her arms, filled up the pause as
her sweet "Hush!" filled my heart.

"I am used to the cold," came in another moment from the place where she
crouched. "It is the child--she is hungry; and I--I walked
here--feeling, hoping that, as my father's heir, I might partake in some
slight measure of Uncle Anthony's money. Though my father cast me out
before he died, and I have neither home nor money, I do not complain. I
forfeited all when----" Another wail, another gentle "Hush!" then
silence.

I lit another match. "Look in my face!" I prayed. "I am a stranger, and
you would be showing only proper prudence not to trust me. But I
overheard your words when you withdrew from the room where your fortune
lay; and I honour you, madam. If food can be got for your little one, I
will get it."

I caught sight of the convulsive clasp with which she drew to her breast
the tiny bundle she held; then darkness fell again.

"A little bread," she entreated; "a little milk--ah, baby, baby, hush!"

"But where can I get it?" I cried. "They are at table inside. I hear
them shouting over their good cheer. But perhaps there are neighbours
near by. Do you know?"

"There are no neighbours," she replied. "What is got must be got here. I
know a way to the kitchen; I used to visit Uncle Anthony when a little
child. If you have the courage----"

I laughed. This token of confidence seemed to reassure her. I heard her
move; possibly she stood up.

"In the further corner of this shed," said she, "there used to be a
trap, connecting this floor with an underground passage-way. A ladder
stood against the trap, and the small cellar at the foot communicated by
means of an iron-bound door with the large one under the house. Eighteen
years ago the wood of that door was old; now it should be rotten. If you
have the strength----"

"I will make the effort and see," said I. "But when I am in the cellar,
what then?"

"Follow the wall to the right; you will come to a stone staircase. As
this staircase has no railing, be careful in ascending it. At the top
you will find a door; it leads into a pantry adjoining the kitchen. Some
one will be in that pantry. Some one will give you a bite for the child,
and when she is quieted and the sun has risen I will go away. It is my
duty to do so. My uncle was always upright, if cold. He was perfectly
justified in exacting rectitude in his heirs."

I might have rejoined by asking if she detected rectitude in the faces
of the greedy throng she had left behind her with the guardian of this
estate, but I did not; I was too intent upon following out her
directions. Lighting another match, I sought the trap. Alas! it was
burdened with a pile of sticks and rubbish which looked as if they had
lain there for years. As these had to be removed in total darkness, it
took me some time. But once this débris had been scattered and thrown
aside, I had no difficulty in finding the trap, and, as the ladder was
still there, I was soon on the cellar-bottom. When, by the reassuring
shout I gave, she knew that I had advanced thus far, she spoke, and her
voice had a soft and thrilling sound.

"Don't forget your own needs," she said. "We two are not so hungry that
we cannot wait for you to take a mouthful. I will sing to the baby.
Good-bye."

These ten minutes we had spent together had made us friends. The warmth,
the strength which this discovery brought, gave to my arm a force that
made that old oak door go down before me in three vigorous pushes.

Had the eight fortunate ones above not been indulging in a noisy
celebration of their good luck, they must have heard the clatter of this
door when it fell. But good eating, good drink, and the prospect of an
immediate fortune far beyond their wildest dreams, made all ears deaf,
and no pause occurred in the shouts of laughter and the hum of
good-fellowship which sifted down between the beams supporting the house
above my head. Consequently, little or no courage was required for the
completion of my adventure; and before long I came upon the staircase
and the door leading from its top into the pantry. The next minute I was
in front of that door.

But here a surprise awaited me. The noise, which had hitherto been loud,
now became deafening, and I realised that, contrary to Eunice
Westonhaugh's expectation, the supper had been spread in the kitchen,
and that I was likely to run amuck of the whole despicable crowd in any
effort I might make to get a bite for the famished baby.

I therefore naturally hesitated to push open the door, fearing to draw
attention to myself; and when I did succeed in lifting the latch and
making a small crack, I was so astonished by the sudden lull in the
general babble that I drew hastily back and was for descending the
stairs in sudden retreat.

But I was prevented from carrying out this cowardly impulse by catching
the sound of the lawyer's voice, addressing the assembled guests.

"You have eaten and you have drunk," he was saying; "you are therefore
ready for the final toast. Brothers, nephews--heirs all of Anthony
Westonhaugh, I rise to propose the name of your generous benefactor,
who, if spirits walk this earth, must certainly be with us to-night."

A grumble from more than one throat and an uneasy hitch from such
shoulders as I could see through my narrow vantage-hole testified to the
rather doubtful pleasure with which this suggestion was received. But
the lawyer's tones lost none of their animation, as he went on to say:

"The bottle, from which your glasses are to be replenished for this
final draught, he has himself provided. So anxious was he that it should
be of the very best and altogether worthy of the occasion it is to
celebrate, that he gave into my charge, almost with his dying breath,
this key, telling me that it would unlock a cupboard here in which he
had placed a bottle of wine of the very rarest vintage. This is the key,
and yonder, if I do not mistake, is the cupboard."

They had already quaffed a dozen toasts. Perhaps this was why they
accepted this proposition in a sort of panting silence, which remained
unbroken while the lawyer crossed the floor, unlocked the cupboard, and
brought out before them a bottle which he held up before their eyes with
a simulated glee almost saturnine.

"Isn't that a bottle to make your eyes dance? The very cobwebs on it are
eloquent. And see! look at this label. Tokay, friends--real Tokay! Mow
many of you ever had the opportunity of drinking real Tokay before?"

A long deep sigh from a half-dozen throats, in which some strong but
hitherto repressed passion, totally incomprehensible to me, found sudden
vent, rose in one simultaneous sound from about that table, and I heard
one jocular voice sing out:

"Pass it around, Smead! I'll drink to Uncle Anthony out of that bottle
till there isn't a drop left to tell what was in it!"

But the lawyer was in no hurry.

"You have forgotten the letter, for the hearing of which you are called
together. Mr. Anthony Westonhaugh left behind him a letter. The time is
now come for reading it."

As I heard these words, and realised that the final toast was to be
delayed, and that some few moments must yet elapse before the room would
be cleared and an opportunity given me for obtaining what I needed for
the famishing mother and child, I felt such impatience with the fact,
and so much anxiety as to the condition of those I had left behind me,
that I questioned whether it would not be better for me to return to
them empty-handed than to leave them so long without the comfort of my
presence, when the fascination of the scene again seized me, and I found
myself lingering to mark its conclusion with an avidity which can only
be explained by my sudden and intense consciousness of what it all might
mean to her whose witness I had thus inadvertently become.

The careful lawyer began by quoting the injunction with which this
letter had been put in his hands. "'When they are warm with food and
wine, but not too warm'--thus his adjuration ran--'then let them hear my
first and only words to them.' I know you are eager for these words.
Folk so honest, so convinced of their own purity and uprightness that
they can stand unmoved while the youngest and most helpless among them
withdraws her claim to wealth and independence rather than share an
unmerited bounty--such folk, I say, must be eager, must be anxious, to
know why they have been made the legatees of so great a fortune under
the easy conditions and amid such slight restrictions as have been
imposed upon them by their munificent kinsman."

"I had rather go on drinking toasts," babbled one thick voice.

"I had rather finish my figuring," growled another, in whose grating
tones no echo remained of Hector Westonhaugh's formerly honeyed voice.
"I am making out a list of stock----"

"Blast your stock--that is, if you mean horses and cows!" screamed a
third. "I'm going in for city life. With less money than we have got,
Andreas Amsberger got to be Alderman----"

"Alderman!" sneered the whole pack; and the tumult became general. "If
more of us had been sick," called out one, "or if Uncle Luke, say, had
tripped into the ditch instead of on the edge of it, the fellows who
came safe through might have had anything they wanted, even to the
governorship of the State, or--or----"

"Silence!" came in commanding tones from the lawyer, who had begun to
let his disgust appear, perhaps because he held under his thumb the
bottle upon which all eyes were now lovingly centred--so lovingly,
indeed, that I ventured to increase in the smallest perceptible degree
the crack by means of which I was myself an interested, if unseen,
participator in this scene.

A sight of Smead, and a partial glimpse of old Luke's covetous profile,
rewarded this small act of daring on my part. The lawyer was standing;
all the rest were sitting. Perhaps he alone retained sufficient
steadiness to stand, for I observed by the control he exercised over
this herd of self-seekers that he had not touched the cup which had so
freely gone about among the others. The woman was hidden from me, but
the change in her voice, when by any chance I heard it, convinced me
that she had not disdained the toasts drunk by her brothers and nephews.

"Silence!" the lawyer reiterated, "or I will smash this bottle on the
hearth!" He raised it in one threatening hand, and every man there
seemed to tremble, while old Luke put out his long fingers with an
entreaty that ill became them. "You want to hear the letter?" old Smead
called out. "I thought so."

Putting the bottle down again, but still keeping one hand upon it, he
drew a folded paper from his breast. "This," said he, "contains the
final injunctions of Anthony Westonhaugh. You will listen, all of
you--listen till I am done--or I will not only smash this bottle before
your eyes, but I will keep forever buried in my breast the whereabouts
of certain drafts and bonds in which, as his heirs, you possess the
greatest interest. Nobody but myself knows where these papers can be
found."

Whether this was so, or whether the threat was an empty one, thrown out
by this subtle old schemer for the purpose of safeguarding his life from
their possible hate and impatience, it answered his end with these
semi-intoxicated men, and secured him the silence he demanded. Breaking
open the seal of the envelope he held, he showed them the folded sheet
which it contained with the remark:

"I have had nothing to do with the writing of this letter. It is in Mr.
Westonhaugh's own hand, and he was not even so good as to communicate to
me the nature of its contents. I was bidden to read it to such as should
be here assembled under the provisos mentioned in his will; and as you
are now in a condition to listen, I will proceed with my task as
required."

This was my time for leaving, but a certain brooding terror, latent in
the air, held me chained to the spot, listening with my ears, but
receiving the full sense of what was read from the expression of old
Luke's face, which was probably more plainly visible to me than to those
who sat beside him. For, being bent almost into a bow, as I have said,
his forehead came within an inch of touching his plate, and one had to
look under his arms, as I did, to catch the workings of his evil mouth,
as old Smead gave forth, in his professional sing-song, the following
words from his departed client:

"'Brothers, nephews, and heirs! Though the earth has lain upon my breast
a month, I am with you here to-night.'"

A snort from old Luke's snarling lips, and a stir--not a comfortable
one--in the jostling crowd, whose shaking arms and clawing hands I could
see projecting here and there over the board.

"'My presence at this feast--a presence which, if unseen, cannot be
unfelt, may bring you more pain than pleasure. But if so, it matters
little. You are my natural heirs, and I have left you my money. Why,
when so little love has characterised our intercourse, must be evident
to such of my brothers as can recall their youth and the promise our
father exacted from us on the day we set foot in this new land.

"'There were nine of us in those days--Luke, Salmon, Barbara, Hector,
Eustace, Janet, Hudson, William, and myself--and all save one were
promising, in appearance at least. But our father knew his offspring,
and when we stood, an alien and miserable band in front of Castle
Garden, at the foot of the great city whose immensity struck terror to
our hearts, he drew all our hands together and made us swear by the soul
of our mother, whose body we had left in the sea, that we would keep the
bond of brotherhood intact, and share with mutual confidence whatever
good fortune this untried country might hold in store for us. You were
strong, and your voices rang out loudly. Mine was faint, for I was
weak--so weak that my hand had to be held in place by my sister Barbara.
But my oath has never lost its hold upon my heart, while yours--answer
how you have kept it, Luke; or you, Janet; or you, Hector, of the smooth
tongue and vicious heart; or you, or you, who, from one stock, recognise
but one law--the law of cold-blooded selfishness, which seeks its own in
face of all oaths and at the cost of another man's heart-break.

"'This I say to such as know my story. But lest there be one amongst you
who has not heard from parent or uncle the true tale of him who has
brought you all under one roof to-night, I will repeat it here in words,
that no man may fail to understand why I remembered my oath through life
and beyond death, yet stand above you an accusing spirit while you quaff
me toasts and count the gains my justice divides among you.

"'I, as you all remember, was the weak one--the ne'er-do-weel. When all
of you were grown and had homes of your own, I still remained under the
family roof-tree, fed by our father's bounty and looking to our father's
justice for that share of his savings which he had promised to all
alike. When he died it came to me as it came to you; but I had married
before that day--married, not, like the rest of you, for what a wife
could bring, but for sentiment and true passion. This, in my case, meant
a loving wife, but a frail one; and while we lived a little while on the
patrimony left us, it was far too small to support us long without some
aid from our own hands; and our hands were feeble and could not work.
And so we fell into debt for rent and, ere long, for the commonest
necessities of life. In vain I struggled to redeem myself; the time of
my prosperity had not come, and I only sank deeper and deeper into debt,
and finally into indigence. A baby came. Our landlord was kind, and
allowed us to stay for two weeks under the roof for whose protection we
could not pay; but at the end of that time we were asked to leave, and I
found myself on the road with a dying wife, a wailing infant, no money
in my purse, and no power in my arm to earn any. Then, when heart and
hope were both failing, I recalled that ancient oath and the six
prosperous homes scattered up and down the very highway on which I
stood. I could not leave my wife; the fever was in her veins, and she
could not bear me out of her sight; so I put her on a horse, which a
kind old neighbour was willing to lend me, and holding her up with one
hand, guided the horse with the other to the home of my brother Luke.
He was a straight enough fellow in those days--physically, I mean--and
he looked able and strong that morning, as he stood in the open doorway
of his house, gazing down at us as we halted before him in the roadway.
But his temper had grown greedy with the accumulation of a few dollars,
and he shook his head as he closed his door, saying he remembered no
oath, and that spenders must expect to be beggars.

"'Struck to the heart by a rebuff which meant prolongation of the
suffering I saw in my dear wife's eyes, I stretched up and kissed her
where she sat half fainting on the horse; then I moved on. I came to
Barbara's home next. She had been a little mother to me once--that is,
she had fed and dressed me, and doled out blows and caresses, and taught
me to read and sing. But Barbara in her father's home and without
fortune was not the Barbara I saw on the threshold of the little cottage
she called her own. She heard my story; looked in the face of my wife,
and turned her back. She had no place for idle folk in her little house;
if we would work she would feed us; but we must earn our supper or go
hungry to bed. I felt the trembling of my wife's frame where she leaned
against my arm, and kissing her again, led her on to Salmon's. Luke,
Hector, Janet, have you heard him tell of that vision at his gateway,
twenty-five years ago? He is not amongst you. For twelve years he has
lain beside our father in the churchyard, but his sons may be here, for
they were ever alert when gold was in sight or a full glass to be
drained. Ask _them_, ask John, whom I saw skulking behind his cousins at
the garden fence that day, what it was they saw as I drew rein under the
great tree which shadowed their father's doorstep.

"'The sunshine had been pitiless that morning, and the head, for whose
rest in some loving shelter I would have bartered soul and body, had
fallen sidewise till it lay on my arm. Pressed to her breast was our
infant, whose little wail struck in pitifully as Salmon called out,
"What's to do here to-day?" Do you remember it, lads? Or how you all
laughed, little and great, when I asked for a few weeks' stay under my
brother's roof till we could all get well and go about our tasks again?
_I_ remember. I, who am writing these words from the very mouth of the
tomb, _I_ remember; but I did not curse you. I only rode on to the next.
The way ran uphill now; and the sun which, since our last stop, had been
under a cloud, came out and blistered my wife's cheeks, already burning
red with fever. But I pressed my lips upon them, and led her on. With
each rebuff I gave her a kiss; and her smile, as her head pressed harder
and harder upon my arm, now exerting all its strength to support her,
grew almost divine. But it vanished at my nephew Lemuel's.

"'He was shearing sheep, and could give no time to company; and when
late in the day I drew rein at Janet's, and she said she was going to
have a dance, and could not look after sick folk, the pallid lips failed
to return my despairing embrace; and in the terror which this brought
me I went down in the gathering twilight into the deep valley where
William raised his sheep, and reckoned day by day the increase among his
pigs. Oh, the chill of that descent! Oh, the gloom of the gathering
shadows! As we neared the bottom, and I heard a far-off voice shout out
a hoarse command, some instinct made me reach up for the last time and
bestow that faithful kiss, which was at once her consolation and my
prayer. My lips were cold with the terror of my soul, but they were not
so cold as the cheek they touched, and, shrieking in my misery and need,
I fell before William where he halted by the horse-trough and----He was
always a hard man, was William, and it was a shock to him, no doubt, to
see us standing in our anguish and necessity before him; but he raised
the whip in his hand, and when it fell my arm fell with it, and she
slipped from my grasp to the ground and lay in a heap in the roadway.

"'He was ashamed next minute, and pointed to the house nearby. But I did
not carry her in, and she died in the roadway. Do you remember it, Luke?
Do you remember it, Lemuel?

"'But it is not of this that I complain at this hour, nor is it for this
I ask you to drink the toast I have prepared for you.'"

The looks, the writhings of old Luke and such others as I could now see
through the widening crack my hands unconsciously made in the doorway,
told me that the rack was at work in this room so lately given up to
revelry. Yet the mutterings, which from time to time came to my ears
from one sullen lip or another, did not rise into frightened imprecation
or even into any assertion of sorrow or contrition. It seemed as if some
suspense common to all held them speechless, if not dumbly apprehensive;
and while the lawyer said nothing in recognition of this, he could not
have been quite blind to it, for he bestowed one curious glance around
the table before he proceeded with old Anthony's words.

Those words had now become short, sharp, and accusatory.

"'My child lived, and what remained to me of human passion and longing
centred in his frail existence. I managed to earn enough for his eating
and housing, and in time I was almost happy again. This was while our
existence was a struggle; but when, with the discovery of latent powers
in my own mind, I began to find my place in the world and to earn money,
then your sudden interest in my boy taught me a new lesson in human
selfishness, but not as yet new fears. My nature was not one to grasp
ideas of evil, and the remembrance of that oath still remained to make
me lenient toward you.

"'I let him see you; not much, not often, but yet often enough for him
to realise that he had uncles and cousins, or, if you like it better,
kindred. And how did you repay this confidence on my part? What hand had
ye in the removal of this small barrier to the fortune my own poor
health warranted you in looking upon even in those early days as your
own? To others' eyes it may appear none; to mine, ye are one and all
his murderers as certainly as all of you were the murderers of the good
physician hastening to his aid. For his illness was not a mortal one. He
would have been saved if the doctor had reached him; but a precipice
swallowed that good Samaritan, and only I of all who looked upon the
footprints which harrowed up the road at this dangerous point knew whose
shoes would fit those marks. God's providence, it was called, and I let
it pass for such; but it was a providence which cost me my boy and made
_you_ my heirs.'"

Silence, as sullen in character as the men who found themselves thus
openly impeached, had for some minutes now replaced the muttered
complaints which had accompanied the first portion of this denunciatory
letter. As the lawyer stopped to cast them another of those strange
looks, a gleam from old Luke's sidewise eyes startled the man next him,
who, shrugging a shoulder, passed the underhanded look on, till it had
circled the board and stopped with the man sitting opposite the crooked
sinner who had started it.

I began to have a wholesome dread of them all, and was astonished to see
the lawyer drop his hand from the bottle, which to some degree offered
itself as a possible weapon. But he knew his audience better than I did.
Though the bottle was now free for any man's taking, not a hand trembled
toward it, nor was a single glass held out.

The lawyer, with an evil smile, went on with his relentless client's
story.

"'Ye had killed my wife; ye had killed my son; but this was not enough.
Being lonesome in my great house, which was as much too large for me as
my fortune was, I had taken a child to replace the boy I had lost.
Remembering the cold blood running in the veins of those nearest me, I
chose a boy from alien stock, and for a while knew contentment again.
But as he developed and my affections strengthened, the possibility of
all my money going his way roused my brothers and sisters from the
complacency they had enjoyed since their road to fortune had been
secured by my son's death, and one day--can you recall it, Hudson? Can
you recall it, Lemuel?--the boy was brought in from the mill, and laid
at my feet dead! He had stumbled amongst the great belts, but whose was
the voice which, with the loud "Halloo!" had startled him? Can you say,
Luke? Can you say, John? I can say, in whose ear it was whispered that
three, if not more of you were seen moving among the machinery that
fatal morning.

"'Again God's providence was said to have visited my house; and again
_ye_ were my heirs.'"

"Stop there!" broke in the harsh voice of Luke, who was gradually
growing livid under his long grey locks.

"Lies! lies!" shrieked Hector, gathering courage from his brother.

"Cut it all and give us the drink!" snarled one of the younger men, who
was less under the effect of liquor than the rest.

But a trembling voice muttered "Hush!" and the lawyer, whose eye had
grown steely under these comments, took advantage of the sudden silence
which had followed this last objurgation, and went steadily on:

"'Some men would have made a will and denounced you. I made a will, but
did not denounce you. _I_ am no breaker of oaths. More than this, I
learned a new trick. I, who hated all subtlety, and looked upon craft as
the favourite weapon of the devil, learned to smile with my lips while
my heart was burning with hatred. Perhaps this was why you all began to
smile, too, and joke me about certain losses I had sustained, by which
you meant the gains which had come to me. That these gains were many
times greater than you realised added to the sting of this
good-fellowship, but I held my peace, and you began to have confidence
in a good-nature which nothing could shake. You even gave me a supper.'"

_A supper!_

What was there in these words to cause every man there to stop in
whatever movement he was making, and stare with wide-open eyes intently
at the reader? He had spoken quietly; he had not even looked up; but the
silence which for some minutes back had begun to reign over that
tumultuous gathering now became breathless, and the seams in Hector's
cheeks deepened to a bluish criss-cross.

"'_You remember that supper?_'"

As the word rang out again I threw wide the door. I might have stalked
openly into their circle; not a man there would have noticed me.

"'It was a memorable occasion,'" the lawyer read on, with stoical
impassiveness. "'There was not a brother lacking. Luke, and Hudson, and
William, and Hector, and Eustace's boys, as well as Eustace himself;
Janet too, and Salmon's Lemuel, and Barbara's son, who, even if his
mother had gone the way of all flesh, had so trained her black brood in
the love of the things of this world that I scarcely missed her when I
looked about among you all for the eight sturdy brothers and sisters who
had joined in one clasp and one oath under the eye of a true-hearted
immigrant, our father. What I did miss was one true eye lifted to my
glance; but I did not show that I missed it. And so our peace was made,
and we separated, you to wait for your inheritance, and I for the death
which was to secure it to you. For when the cup passed round that night
you each dropped into it a tear of repentance, and tears make bitter
drinking. I sickened as I quaffed, and was never myself again, as you
know. Do you understand me, you cruel, crafty ones?'"

Did they not! Heads quaking, throats gasping, teeth chattering--no
longer sitting--all risen, all looking with wild eyes for the door--was
it not apparent that they understood, and only waited for one more word
to break away and flee the accursed house?

But that word lingered. Old Smead had now grown pale himself, and read
with difficulty the lines which were to end this frightful scene. As I
saw the red gleam of terror shine out from his small eyes, I wondered if
he had been but the blind tool of his implacable client, and was as
ignorant as those before him of what was to follow this heavy
arraignment. The dread with which he finally proceeded was too marked
for me to doubt the truth of this surmise. This is what he found himself
forced to read:

"'There was a bottle reserved for me. It had a green label on it----'"

A shriek from every one there and a hurried look up and down at the
bottles standing on the table.

"'A green label,'" the lawyer repeated, "'and it made a goodly
appearance as it was set down before me. But you had no liking for wine
with a green label on the bottle. One by one you refused it, and when I
rose to quaff my final glass alone, every eye before me fell and did not
lift again until the glass was drained. I did not notice this then, but
I see it all now, just as I hear again the excuses you gave for not
filling your glasses as the bottle went round. One had drunk enough; one
suffered from qualms brought on by an unaccustomed indulgence in
oysters; one felt that wine good enough for me was too good for him, and
so on, and so on. Not one to show frank eyes and drink with me as I was
ready to drink with him! Why? Because one and all of you knew what was
in that cup, and would not risk an inheritance so nearly within your
grasp.'"

"Lies! lies!" again shrieked the raucous voice of Luke, smothered by
terror; while oaths, shouts, imprecations, rang out in horrid tumult
from one end of the table to the other, till the lawyer's face, over
which a startling change was rapidly passing, drew the whole crowd
forward again in awful fascination, till they clung, speechless, arm in
arm, shoulder propping shoulder, while he gasped out in dismay equal to
their own these last fatal words:

"'That was at your board, my brothers; now you are at mine. You have
eaten my viands, drunk of my cup; and now, through the mouth of the one
man who has been true to me because therein lies his advantage, I offer
you a final glass. Will you drink it? I drank yours. By that old-time
oath which binds us to share each other's fortune, I ask you to share
this cup with me. _You will not?_'"

"No, no, no!" shouted one after another.

"'Then,'" the inexorable voice went on, a voice which to these miserable
souls was no longer that of the lawyer, but an issue from the grave they
had themselves dug for Anthony Westonhaugh, "'know that your abstinence
comes too late; that you have already drunk the toast destined to end
your lives. The bottle which you must have missed from that board of
yours has been offered you again. A label is easily changed, and--Luke,
John, Hector, I know you all so well--that bottle has been greedily
emptied by you; and while I, who sipped sparingly, lived three weeks,
you, who have drunk deep, _have not three hours before you, possibly not
three minutes_.'"

Oh, the wail of those lost souls as this last sentence issued
in a final pant of horror from the lawyer's quaking lips!
Shrieks--howls--prayers for mercy--groans deep enough to make the hair
rise--and curses, at sound of which I shut my ears in horror, only to
open them again in dread, as, with one simultaneous impulse, they flung
themselves upon the lawyer, who, foreseeing this rush, had backed up
against the wall.

He tried to stem the tide.

"I knew nothing of the poisoning," he protested. "That was not my reason
for declining to drink. I wished to preserve my senses--to carry out my
client's wishes. As God lives, I did not know he meant to carry his
revenge so far. Mercy! mer----"

But the hands which clutched him were the hands of murderers, and the
lawyer's puny figure could not stand up against the avalanche of human
terror, relentless fury, and mad vengeance which now rolled in upon it.
As I bounded to his relief he turned his ghastly face upon me. But the
way between us was blocked, and I was preparing myself to see him sink
before my eyes when an unearthly shriek rose from behind us, and every
living soul in that mass of struggling humanity paused, set and staring,
with stiffened limbs and eyes fixed, not on him, not on me, but on one
of their own number--the only woman amongst them, Janet Clapsaddle--who,
with clutching hands clawing her breast, was reeling in solitary agony
in her place beside the board. As they looked she fell, and lay with
upturned face and staring eyes, in whose glassy depths the ill-fated
ones who watched her could see mirrored their own impending doom.

It was an awful moment. A groan, in which was concentrated the despair
of seven miserable souls, rose from that petrified band; then, man by
man, they separated and fell back, showing on each weak or wicked face
the particular passion which had driven them into crime and made them
the victims of this wholesale revenge. There had been some sort of bond
between them till the vision of death rose before each shrinking soul.
Shoulder to shoulder in crime, they fell apart as their doom approached,
and rushing, shrieking, each man for himself, they one and all sought to
escape by doors, windows, or any outlet which promised release from this
fatal spot. One rushed by me--I do not know which one--and I felt as if
a flame from hell had licked me, his breath was so hot and the moans he
uttered so like the curses we imagine to blister the lips of the lost.
None of them saw me; they did not even detect the sliding form of the
lawyer crawling away before them to some place of egress of which they
had no knowledge; and, convinced that in this scene of death I could
play no part worthy of her who awaited me, I too rushed away, and,
seeking my old path through the cellar, sought her side, where she still
crouched in patient waiting against the dismal wall.


IV

THE FINAL SHOCK

Her baby had fallen asleep. I knew this by the faint, low sweetness of
her croon; and, shuddering with the horrors I had witnessed--horrors
which acquired a double force from the contrast presented by the peace
of this quiet spot and the hallowing influence of the sleeping infant--I
threw myself down in the darkness at her feet, gasping out:

"Oh, thank God and your uncle's seeming harshness that you have escaped
the doom which has overtaken those others! You and your babe are still
alive; while they----"

"What of them? What has happened to them? You are breathless, trembling;
you have brought no bread----"

"No, no. Food in this house means death. Your relatives gave food and
wine to your uncle at a supper; he, though now in his grave, has
returned the same to them. There was a bottle----"

I stopped, appalled. A shriek, muffled by distance but quivering with
the same note of death I had heard before, had gone up again from the
other side of the wall against which we were leaning.

"Oh!" she gasped, "and my father was at that supper! my father, who died
last night cursing the day he was born! We are an accursed race! I have
known it all my life. Perhaps that was why I mistook passion for love.
And my baby--O God, have mercy! God, have mercy!"

The plaintiveness of that cry, the awesomeness of what I had seen--of
what was going on at that moment almost within the reach of our
arms--the darkness, the desolation of our two souls, affected me as I
had never been affected in my whole life before. In the concentrated
experience of the last two hours I seemed to have lived years under this
woman's eyes; to know her as I did my own heart; to love her as I did my
own soul. No growth of feeling ever brought the ecstasy of that moment's
inspiration. With no sense of doing anything strange, with no fear of
being misunderstood, I reached out my hand, and, touching hers where it
lay clasped about her infant, I said:

"We are two poor wayfarers. A rough road loses half its difficulties
when trodden by two. Shall we, then, fare on together--you, I, and the
little child?"

She gave a sob; there was sorrow, longing, grief, hope in its thrilling,
low sound. As I recognised the latter emotion I drew her to my breast.
The child did not separate us.

"We shall be happy," I murmured, and her sigh seemed to answer a
delicious "Yes," when suddenly there came a shock to the partition
against which we leaned, and, starting from my clasp, she cried:

"Our duty is in there. Shall we think of ourselves, or even of each
other, while these men, all relatives of mine, are dying on the other
side of this wall?"

Seizing my hand, she dragged me to the trap; but here I took the lead
and helped her down the ladder. When I had her safely on the floor at
the foot she passed in front of me again; but once up the steps and in
front of the kitchen door I thrust her behind me, for one glance into
the room beyond had convinced me it was no place for her.

But she would not be held back. She crowded forward beside me, and
together we looked upon the wreck within. It was a never-to-be-forgotten
scene. The demon that was in those men had driven them to demolish
furniture, dishes, everything. In one heap lay what, an hour before, had
been an inviting board surrounded by rollicking and greedy guests. But
it was not upon this overthrow we stopped to look. It was upon something
that mingled with it, dominated it, and made of this chaos only a
setting to awful death. Janet's face, in all its natural hideousness and
depravity, looked up from the floor beside this heap; and farther on,
lay the twisted figure of him they called Hector, with something more
than the seams of greedy longing round his wide-staring eyes and icy
temples. Two in this room! and on the threshold of the one beyond a
moaning third, who sank into eternal silence as we approached; and
before the fireplace in the great room a horrible crescent that had once
been aged Luke, upon whom we had no sooner turned our backs than we
caught glimpses here and there of other prostrate forms which moved
once under our eyes and then moved no more.

One only still stood upright, and he was the man whose obtrusive figure
and sordid expression had so revolted me in the beginning. There was no
colour now in his flabby and heavily fallen cheeks. The eyes, in whose
false sheen I had seen so much of evil, were glazed now, and his big and
burly frame shook the door it pressed against. He was staring at a small
slip of paper he held, and, from his anxious looks, appeared to miss
something which neither of us had power to supply. It was a spectacle to
make devils rejoice and mortals fly aghast. But Eunice had a spirit like
an angel, and, drawing near him, she said:

"Is there anything I can do for you, Cousin John?"

He started, looked at her with the same blank gaze he had hitherto cast
at the wall, then some words formed on his working lips, and we heard:

"I cannot reckon; I was never good at figures. But if Luke is gone, and
William, and Hector, and Barbara's boy, and Janet, _how much does that
leave for me_?"

He was answered almost the moment he spoke, but it was by other tongues,
and in another world than this. As his body fell forward I tore open the
door before which he had been standing, and, lifting the almost fainting
Eunice in my arms, I carried her out into the night. As I did so I
caught a final glimpse of the pictured face I had found it so hard to
understand a couple of hours before. I understood it now.

A surprise awaited us as we turned toward the gate. The mist had lifted,
and a keen but not unpleasant wind was driving from the north. Borne on
it we heard voices. The village had emptied itself, probably at the
alarm given by the lawyer, and it was these good men and women whose
approach we heard. As we had nothing to fear from them we went forward
to meet them. As we did so three crouching figures rose from some bushes
we passed and ran scurrying before us through the gateway. They were the
late-comers who had shown such despair at being shut out from this fatal
house, and who probably were not yet acquainted with the doom they had
escaped.

       *       *       *       *       *

There were lanterns in the hands of some of the men who now approached.
As we stopped before them these lanterns were held up, and by the light
they gave we saw, first, the lawyer's frightened face, then the visages
of two men who seemed to be persons of some authority.

"What news?" faltered the lawyer, seeing by our faces that we knew the
worst.

"Bad," I returned; "the poison had lost none of its virulence by being
mixed so long with the wine."

"How many?" asked the man on his right anxiously.

"Eight," was my solemn reply.

"There were but eight," faltered the lawyer; "that means, then, all?"

"All," I repeated.

A murmur of horror rose, swelled, then died out in tumult as the crowd
swept on past us.

For a moment we stood watching these people; saw them pause before the
door we had left open behind us, then rush in, leaving a wail of terror
on the shuddering midnight air. When all was quiet again, Eunice laid
her hand upon my arm.

"Where shall we go?" she asked despairingly. "I do not know of a house
that will open to me."

The answer to her question came from other lips than mine.

"I do not know one that will _not_," spoke up a voice behind our backs.
"Your withdrawal from the circle of heirs did not take from you your
rightful claim to an inheritance which, according to your uncle's will,
could be forfeited only by a failure to arrive at the place of
distribution within the hour set by the testator. As I see the matter
now, this appeal to the honesty of the persons so collected was a test
by which my unhappy client strove to save from the general fate such
members of his miserable family as fully recognised their sin and were
truly repentant."

It was Lawyer Smead. He had lingered behind the others to tell her this.
She was, then, no outcast, but rich, very rich; how rich I dared not
acknowledge to myself, lest a remembrance of the man who was the last to
perish in that house of death should return to make this calculation
hateful. It was a blow which struck deep--deeper than any either of us
had sustained that night. As we came to realise it, I stepped slowly
back, leaving her standing erect and tall in the middle of the roadway,
with her baby in her arms. But not for long; soon she was close at my
side murmuring softly:

"Two wayfarers still! Only, the road will be more difficult and the need
of companionship greater. Shall we fare on together, you, I--and the
little child?"





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