MORE OF MY OBSTINACY.
ARIEL was downstairs in the shadowy hall, half asleep, half awake, waiting to see the visitors clear of the house. Without speaking to us, without looking at us, she led the way down the dark garden walk, and locked the gate behind us. "Good-night, Ariel," I called out to her over the paling. Nothing answered me but the tramp of her heavy footsteps returning to the house, and the dull thump, a moment afterward, of the closing door.
The footman had thoughtfully lighted the carriage lamps. Carrying one of them to serve as a lantern, he lighted us over the wilds of the brick desert, and landed us safely on the path by the high-road.
"Well!" said my mother-in-law, when we were comfortably seated in the carriage again. "You have seen Miserrimus Dexter, and I hope you are satisfied. I will do him the justice to declare that I never, in all my experience, saw him more completely crazy than he was to-night. What do you say?"
"I don't presume to dispute your opinion," I answered. "But, speaking for myself, I'm not quite sure that he is mad."
"Not mad!" cried Mrs. Macallan, "after those frantic performances in his chair? Not mad, after the exhibition he made of his unfortunate cousin? Not mad, after the song that he sang in your honor, and the falling asleep by way of conclusion? Oh, Valeria! Valeria! Well said the wisdom of our ancestors--there are none so blind as those who won't see."
"Pardon me, dear Mrs. Macallan, I saw everything that you mention, and I never felt more surprised or more confounded in my life. But now I have recovered from my amazement, and can think it over quietly, I must still venture to doubt whether this strange man is really mad in the true meaning of the word. It seems to me that he only expresses--I admit in a very reckless and boisterous way--thoughts and feelings which most of us are ashamed of as weaknesses, and which we keep to ourselves accordingly. I confess I have often fancied myself transformed into some other person, and have felt a certain pleasure in seeing myself in my new character. One of our first amusements as children (if we have any imagination at all) is to get out of our own characters, and to try the characters of other personages as a change--to fairies, to be queens, to be anything, in short, but what we really are. Mr. Dexter lets out the secret just as the children do, and if that is madness, he is certainly mad. But I noticed that when his imagination cooled down he became Miserrimus Dexter again--he no more believed himself than we believed him to be Napoleon or Shakespeare. Besides, some allowance is surely to be made for the solitary, sedentary life that he leads. I am not learned enough to trace the influence of that life in making him what he is; but I think I can see the result in an over-excited imagination, and I fancy I can trace his exhibiting his power over the poor cousin and his singing of that wonderful song to no more formidable cause than inordinate self-conceit. I hope the confession will not lower me seriously in your good opinion; but I must say I have enjoyed my visit, and, worse still, Miserrimus Dexter really interests me."
"Does this learned discourse on Dexter mean that you are going to see him again?" asked Mrs. Macallan.
"I don't know how I may feel about it tomorrow morning," I said; "but my impulse at this moment is decidedly to see him again. I had a little talk with him while you were away at the other end of the room, and I believe he really can be of use to me--"
"Of use to you in what?" interposed my mother-in-law.
"In the one object which I have in view--the object, dear Mrs. Macallan, which I regret to say you do not approve."
"And you are going to take him into your confidence? to open your whole mind to such a man as the man we have just left?"
"Yes, if I think of it to-morrow as I think of it to-night. I dare say it is a risk; but I must run risks. I know I am not prudent; but prudence won't help a woman in my position, with my end to gain."
Mrs. Macallan made no further remonstrance in words. She opened a capacious pocket in front of the carriage, and took from it a box of matches and a railway reading-lamp.
"You provoke me," said the old lady, "into showing you what your husband thinks of this new whim of yours. I have got his letter with me--his last letter from Spain. You shall judge for yourself, you poor deluded young creature, whether my son is worthy of the sacrifice--the useless and hopeless sacrifice--which you are bent on making of yourself for his sake. Strike a light!"
I willingly obeyed her. Ever since she had informed me of Eustace's departure to Spain I had been eager for more news of him, for something to sustain my spirits, after so much that had disappointed and depressed me. Thus far I did not even know whether my husband thought of me sometimes in his self-imposed exile. As to his regretting already the rash act which had separated us, it was still too soon to begin hoping for that.
The lamp having been lighted, and fixed in its place between the two front windows of the carriage, Mrs. Macallan produced her son's letter. There is no folly like the folly of love. It cost me a hard struggle to restrain myself from kissing the paper on which the dear hand had rested.
"There!" said my mother-in-law. "Begin on the second page, the page devoted to you. Read straight down to the last line at the bottom, and, in God's name, come back to your senses, child, before it is too late!"
I followed my instructions, and read these words:
"Can I trust myself to write of Valeria? I must write of her. Tell me how she is, how she looks, what she is doing. I am always thinking of her. Not a day passes but I mourn the loss of her. Oh, if she had only been contented to let matters rest as they were! Oh, if she had never discovered the miserable truth!
"She spoke of reading the Trial when I saw her last. Has she persisted in doing so? I believe--I say this seriously, mother--I believe the shame and the horror of it would have been the death of me if I had met her face to face when she first knew of the ignominy that I have suffered, of the infamous suspicion of which I have been publicly made the subject. Think of those pure eyes looking at a man who has been accused (and never wholly absolved) of the foulest and the vilest of all murders, and then think of what that man must feel if he have any heart and any sense of shame left in him. I sicken as I write of it.
"Does she still meditate that hopeless project--the offspring, poor angel, of her artless, unthinking generosity? Does she still fancy that it is in her power to assert my innocence before the world? Oh, mother (if she do), use your utmost influence to make her give up the idea! Spare her the humiliation, the disappointment, the insult, perhaps, to which she may innocently expose herself. For her sake, for my sake, leave no means untried to attain this righteous, this merciful end.
"I send her no message--I dare not do it. Say nothing, when you see her, which can recall me to her memory. On the contrary, help her to forget me as soon as possible. The kindest thing I can do--the one atonement I can make to her--is to drop out of her life."
With those wretched words it ended. I handed his letter back to his mother in silence. She said but little on her side.
"If this doesn't discourage you," she remarked, slowly folding up the letter, "nothing will. Let us leave it there, and say no more."
I made no answer--I was crying behind my veil. My domestic prospect looked so dreary! my unfortunate husband was so hopelessly misguided, so pitiably wrong! The one chance for both of us, and the one consolation for poor Me, was to hold to my desperate resolution more firmly than ever. If I had wanted anything to confirm me in this view, and to arm me against the remonstrances of every one of my friends, Eustace's letter would have proved more than sufficient to answer the purpose. At least he had not forgotten me; he thought of me, and he mourned the loss of me every day of his life. That was encouragement enough--for the present. "If Ariel calls for me in the pony-chaise to-morrow," I thought to myself, "with Ariel I go."
Mrs. Macallan set me down at Benjamin's door.
I mentioned to her at parting--I stood sufficiently in awe of her to put it off till the last moment--that Miserrimus Dexter had arranged to send his cousin and his pony-chaise to her residence on the next day; and I inquired thereupon whether my mother-in-law would permit me to call at her house to wait for the appearance of the cousin, or whether she would prefer sending the chaise on to Benjamin's cottage. I fully expected an explosion of anger to follow this bold avowal of my plans for the next day. The old lady agreeably surprised me. She proved that she had really taken a liking to me: she kept her temper.
"If you persist in going back to Dexter, you certainly shall not go to him from my door," she said. "But I hope you will not persist. I hope you will awake a wiser woman to-morrow morning."
The morning came. A little before noon the arrival of the pony-chaise was announced at the door, and a letter was brought in to me from Mrs. Macallan.
"I have no right to control your movements," my mother-in-law wrote. "I send the chaise to Mr. Benjamin's house; and I sincerely trust that you will not take your place in it. I wish I could persuade you, Valeria, how truly I am your friend. I have been thinking about you anxiously in the wakeful hours of the night. How anxiously, you will understand when I tell you that I now reproach myself for not having done more than I did to prevent your unhappy marriage. And yet, what more I could have done I don't really know. My son admitted to me that he was courting you under an assumed name, but he never told me what the name was. Or who you were, or where your friends lived. Perhaps I ought to have taken measures to find this out. Perhaps, if I had succeeded, I ought to have interfered and enlightened you, even at the sad sacrifice of making an enemy of my own son. I honestly thought I did my duty in expressing my disapproval, and in refusing to be present at the marriage. Was I too easily satisfied? It is too late to ask. Why do I trouble you with an old woman's vain misgivings and regrets? My child, if you come to any harm, I shall feel (indirectly) responsible for it. It is this uneasy state of mind which sets me writing, with nothing to say that can interest you. Don't go to Dexter! The fear has been pursuing me all night that your going to Dexter will end badly. Write him an excuse. Valeria! I firmly believe you will repent it if you return to that house."
Was ever a woman more plainly warned, more carefully advised, than I? And yet warning and advice were both thrown away on me.
Let me say for myself that I was really touched by the kindness of my mother-in-law's letter, though I was not shaken by it in the smallest degree. As long as I lived, moved, and thought, my one purpose now was to make Miserrimus Dexter confide to me his ideas on the subject of Mrs. Eustace Macallan's death. To those ideas I looked as my guiding stars along the dark way on which I was going. I wrote back to Mrs. Macallan, as I really felt gratefully and penitently. And then I went out to the chaise.
MR. DEXTER AT HOME.
I made up my mind to perform the journey to the distant northern suburb in silence. It was evidently useless for me to attempt to speak, and experience informed me that I need not expect to hear a word fall from the lips of my companion. Experience, however, is not always infallible. After driving for half an hour in stolid silence, Ariel astounded me by suddenly bursting into speech.
"Do you know what we are coming to?" she asked, keeping her eyes straight between the pony's ears.
"No," I answered. "I don't know the road. What are we coming to?"
"We are coming to a canal."
"Well, I have half a mind to upset you in the canal."
This formidable announcement appeared to require some explanation. I took the liberty of asking for it.
"Why should you upset me?" I inquired.
"Because I hate you," was the cool and candid reply.
"What have I done to offend you?" I asked next.
"What do you want with the Master?" Ariel asked, in her turn.
"Do you mean Mr. Dexter?"
"I want to have some talk with Mr. Dexter."
"You don't! You want to take my place. You want to brush his hair and oil his beard, instead of me. You wretch!"
I now began to understand. The idea which Miserrimus Dexter had jestingly put into her head, in exhibiting her to us on the previous night, had been ripening slowly in that dull brain, and had found its way outward into words, about fifteen hours afterward, under the irritating influence of my presence!
"I don't want to touch his hair or his beard," I said. "I leave that entirely to you."
She looked around at me, her fat face flushing, her dull eyes dilating, with the unaccustomed effort to express herself in speech, and to understand what was said to her in return.
"Say that again," she burst out. "And say it slower this time."
I said it again, and I said it slower.
"Swear it!" she cried, getting more and more excited.
I preserved my gravity (the canal was just visible in the distance), and swore it.
"Are you satisfied now?" I asked.
There was no answer. Her last resources of speech were exhausted. The strange creature looked back again straight between the pony's ears, emitted hoarsely a grunt of relief, and never more looked at me, never more spoke to me, for the rest of the journey. We drove past the banks of the canal, and I escaped immersion. We rattled, in our jingling little vehicle, through the streets and across the waste patches of ground, which I dimly remembered in the darkness, and which looked more squalid and more hideous than ever in the broad daylight. The chaise turned down a lane, too narrow for the passage of any larger vehicle, and stopped at a wall and a gate that were new objects to me. Opening the gate with her key, and leading the pony, Ariel introduced me to the back garden and yard of Miserrimus Dexter's rotten and rambling old house. The pony walked off independently to his stable, with the chaise behind him. My silent companion led me through a bleak and barren kitchen, and along a stone passage. Opening a door at the end, she admitted me to the back of the hall, into which Mrs. Macallan and I had penetrated by the front entrance to the house. Here Ariel lifted a whistle which hung around her neck, and blew the shrill trilling notes with the sound of which I was already familiar as the means of communication between Miserrimus Dexter and his slave. The whistling over, the slave's unwilling lips struggled into speech for the last time.
"Wait till you hear the Master's whistle," she said; "then go upstairs."
So! I was to be whistled for like a dog! And, worse still, there was no help for it but to submit like a dog. Had Ariel any excuses to make? Nothing of the sort.
She turned her shapeless back on me and vanished into the kitchen region of the house.
After waiting for a minute or two, and hearing no signal from the floor above, I advanced into the broader and brighter part of the hall, to look by daylight at the pictures which I had only imperfectly discovered in the darkness of the night. A painted inscription in many colors, just under the cornice of the ceiling, informed me that the works on the walls were the production of the all-accomplished Dexter himself. Not satisfied with being poet and composer, he was painter as well. On one wall the subjects were described as "Illustrations of the Passions;" on the other, as "Episodes in the Life of the Wandering Jew." Chance speculators like myself were gravely warned, by means of the inscription, to view the pictures as efforts of pure imagination. "Persons who look for mere Nature in works of Art" (the inscription announced) "are persons to whom Mr. Dexter does not address himself with the brush. He relies entirely on his imagination. Nature puts him out."
Taking due care to dismiss all ideas of Nature from my mind, to begin with, I looked at the pictures which represented the Passions first.
Little as I knew critically of Art, I could see that Miserrimus Dexter knew still less of the rules of drawing, color, and composition. His pictures were, in the strictest meaning of that expressive word, Daubs. The diseased and riotous delight of the painter in representing Horrors was (with certain exceptions to be hereafter mentioned) the one remarkable quality that I could discover in the series of his works.
The first of the Passion pictures illustrated Revenge. A corpse, in fancy costume, lay on the bank of a foaming river, under the shade of a giant tree. An infuriated man, also in fancy costume, stood astride over the dead body, with his sword lifted to the lowering sky, and watched, with a horrid expression of delight, the blood of the man whom he had just killed dripping slowly in a procession of big red drops down the broad blade of his weapon. The next picture illustrated Cruelty, in many compartments. In one I saw a disemboweled horse savagely spurred on by his rider at a bull-fight. In another, an aged philosopher was dissecting a living cat, and gloating over his work. In a third, two pagans politely congratulated each other on the torture of two saints: one saint was roasting on a grid-iron; the other, hung up to a tree by his heels, had been just skinned, and was not quite dead yet. Feeling no great desire, after these specimens, to look at any more of the illustrated Passions, I turned to the opposite wall to be instructed in the career of the Wandering Jew. Here a second inscription informed me that the painter considered the Flying Dutchman to be no other than the Wandering Jew, pursuing his interminable Journey by sea. The marine adventures of this mysterious personage were the adventures chosen for representation by Dexter's brush. The first picture showed me a harbor on a rocky coast. A vessel was at anchor, with the helmsman singing on the deck. The sea in the offing was black and rolling; thunder-clouds lay low on the horizon, split by broad flashes of lightning. In the glare of the lightning, heaving and pitching, appeared the misty form of the Phantom Ship approaching the shore. In this work, badly as it was painted, there were really signs of a powerful imagination, and even of a poetical feeling for the supernatural. The next picture showed the Phantom Ship, moored (to the horror and astonishment of the helmsman) behind the earthly vessel in the harbor. The Jew had stepped on shore. His boat was on the beach. His crew--little men with stony, white faces, dressed in funeral black--sat in silent rows on the seats of the boat, with their oars in their lean, long hands. The Jew, also a black, stood with his eyes and hands raised imploringly to the thunderous heaven. The wild creatures of land and sea--the tiger, the rhinoceros, the crocodile, the sea-serpent, the shark, and the devil-fish--surrounded the accursed Wanderer in a mystic circle, daunted and fascinated at the sight of him. The lightning was gone. The sky and sea had darkened to a great black blank. A faint and lurid light lighted the scene, falling downward from a torch, brandished by an avenging Spirit that hovered over the Jew on outspread vulture wings. Wild as the picture might be in its conception, there was a suggestive power in it which I confess strongly impressed me. The mysterious silence in the house, and my strange position at the moment, no doubt had their effect on my mind. While I was still looking at the ghastly composition before me, the shrill trilling sound of the whistle upstairs burst on the stillness. For the moment my nerves were so completely upset that I started with a cry of alarm. I felt a momentary impulse to open the door and run out. The idea of trusting myself alone with the man who had painted those frightful pictures actually terrified me; I was obliged to sit down on one of the hall chairs. Some minutes passed before my mind recovered its balance, and I began to feel like my own ordinary self again. The whistle sounded impatiently for the second time. I rose and ascended the broad flight of stairs which led to the first story. To draw back at the point which I had now reached would have utterly degraded me in my own estimation. Still, my heart did certainly beat faster than usual as I approached the door of the circular anteroom; and I honestly acknowledge that I saw my own imprudence, just then, in a singularly vivid light.
There was a glass over the mantel-piece in the anteroom. I lingered for a moment (nervous as I was) to see how I looked in the glass.
The hanging tapestry over the inner door had been left partially drawn aside. Softly as I moved, the dog's ears of Miserrimus Dexter caught the sound of my dress on the floor. The fine tenor voice, which I had last heard singing, called to me softly.
"Is that Mrs. Valeria? Please don't wait there. Come in!"
I entered the inner room.
The wheeled chair advanced to meet me, so slowly and so softly that I hardly knew it again. Miserrimus Dexter languidly held out his hand. His head inclined pensively to one side; his large blue eyes looked at me piteously. Not a vestige seemed to be left of the raging, shouting creature of my first visit, who was Napoleon at one moment, and Shakespeare at another. Mr. Dexter of the morning was a mild, thoughtful, melancholy man, who only recalled Mr. Dexter of the night by the inveterate oddity of his dress. His jacket, on this occasion, was of pink quilted silk. The coverlet which hid his deformity matched the jacket in pale sea-green satin; and, to complete these strange vagaries of costume, his wrists were actually adorned with massive bracelets of gold, formed on the severely simple models which have descended to us from ancient times.
"How good of you to cheer and charm me by coming here!" he said, in his most mournful and most musical tones. "I have dressed, expressly to receive you, in the prettiest clothes I have. Don't be surprised. Except in this ignoble and material nineteenth century, men have always worn precious stuffs and beautiful colors as well as women. A hundred years ago a gentleman in pink silk was a gentleman properly dressed. Fifteen hundred years ago the patricians of the classic times wore bracelets exactly like mine. I despise the brutish contempt for beauty and the mean dread of expense which degrade a gentleman's costume to black cloth, and limit a gentleman's ornaments to a finger-ring, in the age I live in. I like to be bright and beautiful, especially when brightness and beauty come to see me. You don't know how precious your society is to me. This is one of my melancholy days. Tears rise unbidden to my eyes. I sigh and sorrow over myself; I languish for pity. Just think of what I am! A poor solitary creature, cursed with a frightful deformity. How pitiable! how dreadful! My affectionate heart--wasted. My extraordinary talents--useless or misapplied. Sad! sad! sad! Please pity me."
His eyes were positively filled with tears--tears of compassion for himself! He looked at me and spoke to me with the wailing, querulous entreaty of a sick child wanting to be nursed. I was utterly at a loss what to do. It was perfectly ridiculous--but I was never more embarrassed in my life.
"Please pity me!" he repeated. "Don't be cruel. I only ask a little thing. Pretty Mrs. Valeria, say you pity me!"
I said I pitied him--and I felt that I blushed as I did it.
"Thank you," said Miserrimus Dexter, humbly. "It does me good. Go a little further. Pat my hand."
I tried to restrain myself; but the sense of the absurdity of this last petition (quite gravely addressed to me, remember!) was too strong to be controlled. I burst out laughing.
Miserrimus Dexter looked at me with a blank astonishment which only increased my merriment. Had I offended him? Apparently not. Recovering from his astonishment, he laid his head luxuriously on the back of his chair, with the expression of a man who was listening critically to a performance of some sort. When I had quite exhausted myself, he raised his head and clapped his shapely white hands, and honored me with an "encore."
"Do it again," he said, still in the same childish way. "Merry Mrs. Valeria, you have a musical laugh--I have a musical ear. Do it again."
I was serious enough by this time. "I am ashamed of myself, Mr. Dexter," I said. "Pray forgive me."
He made no answer to this; I doubt if he heard me. His variable temper appeared to be in course of undergoing some new change. He sat looking at my dress (as I supposed) with a steady and anxious attention, gravely forming his own conclusions, steadfastly pursuing his own train of thought.
"Mrs. Valeria," he burst out suddenly, "you are not comfortable in that chair."
"Pardon me," I replied; "I am quite comfortable."
"Pardon me," he rejoined. "There is a chair of Indian basket-work at that end of the room which is much better suited to you. Will you accept my apologies if I am rude enough to allow you to fetch it for yourself? I have a reason."
He had a reason! What new piece of eccentricity was he about to exhibit? I rose and fetched the chair. It was light enough to be quite easily carried. As I returned to him, I noticed that his eyes were strangely employed in what seemed to be the closest scrutiny of my dress. And, stranger still, the result of this appeared to be partly to interest and partly to distress him.
I placed the chair near him, and was about to take my seat in it, when he sent me back again, on another errand, to the end of the room.
"Oblige me indescribably," he said. "There is a hand-screen hanging on the wall, which matches the chair. We are rather near the fire here. You may find the screen useful. Once more forgive me for letting you fetch it for yourself. Once more let me assure you that I have a reason."
Here was his "reason," reiterated, emphatically reiterated, for the second time! Curiosity made me as completely the obedient servant of his caprices as Ariel herself. I fetched the hand-screen. Returning with it, I met his eyes still fixed with the same incomprehensible attention on my perfectly plain and unpretending dress, and still expressing the same curious mixture of interest and regret.
"Thank you a thousand times," he said. "You have (quite innocently) wrung my heart. But you have not the less done me an inestimable kindness. Will you promise not to be offended with me if I confess the truth?"
He was approaching his explanation! I never gave a promise more readily in my life.
"I have rudely allowed you to fetch your chair and your screen for yourself," he went on. "My motive will seem a very strange one, I am afraid. Did you observe that I noticed you very attentively--too attentively, perhaps?"
"Yes," I said. "I thought you were noticing my dress."
He shook his head, and sighed bitterly.
"Not your dress," he said; "and not your face. Your dress is dark. Your face is still strange to me. Dear Mrs. Valeria, I wanted to see you walk."
To see me walk! What did he mean? Where was that erratic mind of his wandering to now?
"You have a rare accomplishment for an Englishwoman," he resumed--"you walk well. She walked well. I couldn't resist the temptation of seeing her again, in seeing you. It was her movement, her sweet, simple, unsought grace (not yours), when you walked to the end of the room and returned to me. You raised her from the dead when you fetched the chair and the screen. Pardon me for making use of you: the idea was innocent, the motive was sacred. You have distressed--and delighted me. My heart bleeds--and thanks you."
He paused for a moment; he let his head droop on his breast, then suddenly raised it again.
"Surely we were talking about her last night?" he said. "What did I say? what did you say? My memory is confused; I half remember, half forget. Please remind me. You're not offended with me--are you?"
I might have been offended with another man. Not with him. I was far too anxious to find my way into his confidence--now that he had touched of his own accord on the subject of Eustace's first wife--to be offended with Miserrimus Dexter.
"We were speaking," I answered, "of Mrs. Eustace Macallan's death, and we were saying to one another--"
He interrupted me, leaning forward eagerly in his chair.
"Yes! yes!" he exclaimed. "And I was wondering what interest you could have in penetrating the mystery of her death. Tell me! Confide in me! I am dying to know!"
"Not even you have a stronger interest in that subject than the interest that I feel," I said. "The happiness of my whole life to come depends on my clearing up the mystery."
"Good God--why?" he cried. "Stop! I am exciting myself. I mustn't do that. I must have all my wits about me; I mustn't wander. The thing is too serious. Wait a minute!"
An elegant little basket was hooked on to one of the arms of his chair. He opened it, and drew out a strip of embroidery partially finished, with the necessary materials for working, a complete. We looked at each other across the embroidery. He noticed my surprise.
"Women," he said, "wisely compose their minds, and help themselves to think quietly, by doing needle-work. Why are men such fools as to deny themselves the same admirable resource--the simple and soothing occupation which keeps the nerves steady and leaves the mind calm and free? As a man, I follow the woman's wise example. Mrs. Valeria, permit me to compose myself."
Gravely arranging his embroidery, this extraordinary being began to work with the patient and nimble dexterity of an accomplished needle-woman.
"Now," said Miserrimus Dexter, "if you are ready, I am. You talk--I work. Please begin."
I obeyed him, and began.
IN THE DARK.
"Thus far, you know little or nothing about me, Mr. Dexter," I said. "You are, as I believe, quite unaware that my husband and I are not living together at the present time."
"Is it necessary to mention your husband?" he asked, coldly, without looking up from his embroidery, and without pausing in his work.
"It is absolutely necessary," I answered. "I can explain myself to you in no other way."
He bent his head, and sighed resignedly.
"You and your husband are not living together at the present time," he resumed. "Does that mean that Eustace has left you?"
"He has left me, and has gone abroad."
"Without any necessity for it?"
"Without the least necessity."
"Has he appointed no time for his return to you?"
"If he persevere in his present resolution, Mr. Dexter, Eustace will never return to me."
For the first time he raised his head from his embroidery--with a sudden appearance of interest.
"Is the quarrel so serious as that?" he asked. "Are you free of each other, pretty Mrs. Valeria, by common consent of both parties?"
The tone in which he put the question was not at all to my liking. The look he fixed on me was a look which unpleasantly suggested that I had trusted myself alone with him, and that he might end in taking advantage of it. I reminded him quietly, by my manner more than by my words, of the respect which he owed to me.
"You are entirely mistaken," I said. "There is no anger--there is not even a misunderstanding between us. Our parting has cost bitter sorrow, Mr. Dexter, to him and to me."
He submitted to be set right with ironical resignation. "I am all attention," he said, threading his needle. "Pray go on; I won't interrupt you again." Acting on this invitation, I told him the truth about my husband and myself quite unreservedly, taking care, however, at the same time, to put Eustace's motives in the best light that they would bear. Miserrimus Dexter dropped his embroidery on his lap, and laughed softly to himself, with an impish enjoyment of my poor little narrative, which set every nerve in me on edge as I looked at him.
"I see nothing to laugh at," I said, sharply.
His beautiful blue eyes rested on me with a look of innocent surprise.
"Nothing to laugh at," he repeated, "in such an exhibition of human folly as you have just described?" His expression suddenly changed; his face darkened and hardened very strangely. "Stop!" he cried, before I could answer him. "There can be only one reason for your taking it as seriously as you do. Mrs. Valeria! you are fond of your husband."
"Fond of him isn't strong enough to express it," I retorted. "I love him with my whole heart."
Miserrimus Dexter stroked his magnificent beard, and contemplatively repeated my words. "You love him with your whole heart? Do you know why?"
"Because I can't help it," I answered, doggedly.
He smiled satirically, and went on with his embroidery. "Curious!" he said to himself; "Eustace's first wife loved him too. There are some men whom the women all like, and there are other men whom the women never care for. Without the least reason for it in either case. The one man is just as good as the other; just as handsome, as agreeable, as honorable, and as high in rank as the other. And yet for Number One they will go through fire and water, and for Number Two they won't so much as turn their heads to look at him. Why? They don't know themselves--as Mrs. Valeria has just said! Is there a physical reason for it? Is there some potent magnetic emanation from Number One which Number Two doesn't possess? I must investigate this when I have the time, and when I find myself in the humor." Having so far settled the question to his own entire satisfaction, he looked up at me again. "I am still in the dark about you and your motives," he said. "I am still as far as ever from understanding what your interest is in investigating that hideous tragedy at Gleninch. Clever Mrs. Valeria, please take me by the hand, and lead me into the light. You're not offended with me are you? Make it up; and I will give you this pretty piece of embroidery when I have done it. I am only a poor, solitary, deformed wretch, with a quaint turn of mind; I mean no harm. Forgive me! indulge me! enlighten me!"
He resumed his childish ways; he recovered his innocent smile, with the odd little puckers and wrinkles accompanying it at the corners of his eyes. I began to doubt whether I might not have been unreasonably hard on him. I penitently resolved to be more considerate toward his infirmities of mind and body during the remainder of my visit.
"Let me go back for a moment, Mr. Dexter, to past times at Gleninch," I said. "You agree with me in believing Eustace to be absolutely innocent of the crime for which he was tried. Your evidence at the Trial tells me that."
He paused over his work, and looked at me with a grave and stern attention which presented his face in quite a new light.
"That is our opinion," I resumed. "But it was not the opinion of the Jury. Their verdict, you remember, was Not Proven. In plain English, the Jury who tried my husband declined to express their opinion, positively and publicly, that he was innocent. Am I right?"
Instead of answering, he suddenly put his embroidery back in the basket, and moved the machinery of his chair, so as to bring it close by mine.
"Who told you this?" he asked.
"I found it for myself in a book."
Thus far his face had expressed steady attention--and no more. Now, for the first time, I thought I saw something darkly passing over him which betrayed itself to my mind as rising distrust.
"Ladies are not generally in the habit of troubling their heads about dry questions of law," he said. "Mrs. Eustace Macallan the Second, you must have some very powerful motive for turning your studies that way."
"I have a very powerful motive, Mr. Dexter. My husband is resigned to the Scotch Verdict. His mother is resigned to it. His friends (so far as I know) are resigned to it--"
"Well! I don't agree with my husband, or his mother, or his friends. I refuse to submit to the Scotch Verdict."
The instant I said those words, the madness in him which I had hitherto denied, seemed to break out. He suddenly stretched himself over his chair: he pounced on me, with a hand on each of my shoulders; his wild eyes questioned me fiercely, frantically, within a few inches of my face.
"What do you mean?" he shouted, at the utmost pitch of his ringing and resonant voice.
A deadly fear of him shook me. I did my best to hide the outward betrayal of it. By look and word, I showed him, as firmly as I could, that I resented the liberty he had taken with me.
"Remove your hands, sir," I said, "and retire to your proper place."
He obeyed me mechanically. He apologized to me mechanically. His whole mind was evidently still filled with the words that I had spoken to him, and still bent on discovering what those words meant.
"I beg your pardon," he said; "I humbly beg your pardon. The subject excites me, frightens me, maddens me. You don't know what a difficulty I have in controlling myself. Never mind. Don't take me seriously. Don't be frightened at me. I am so ashamed of myself--I feel so small and so miserable at having offended you. Make me suffer for it. Take a stick and beat me. Tie me down in my chair. Call up Ariel, who is as strong as a horse, and tell her to hold me. Dear Mrs. Valeria! Injured Mrs. Valeria! I'll endure anything in the way of punishment, if you will only tell me what you mean by not submitting to the Scotch Verdict." He backed his chair penitently as he made that entreaty. "Am I far enough away yet?" he asked, with a rueful look. "Do I still frighten you? I'll drop out of sight, if you prefer it, in the bottom of the chair."
He lifted the sea-green coverlet. In another moment he would have disappeared like a puppet in a show if I had not stopped him.
"Say nothing more, and do nothing more; I accept your apologies," I said. "When I tell you that I refuse to submit to the opinion of the Scotch Jury, I mean exactly what my words express. That verdict has left a stain on my husband's character. He feels the stain bitterly. How bitterly no one knows so well as I do. His sense of his degradation is the sense that has parted him from me. It is not enough for him that I am persuaded of his innocence. Nothing will bring him back to me--nothing will persuade Eustace that I think him worthy to be the guide and companion of my life--but the proof of his innocence, set before the Jury which doubts it, and the public which doubts it, to this day. He and his friends and his lawyers all despair of ever finding that proof now. But I am his wife; and none of you love him as I love him. I alone refuse to despair; I alone refuse to listen to reason. If God spare me, Mr. Dexter, I dedicate my life to the vindication of my husband's innocence. You are his old friend--I am here to ask you to help me."
It appeared to be now my turn to frighten him. The color left his face. He passed his hand restlessly over his forehead, as if he were trying to brush some delusion out of his brain.
"Is this one of my dreams?" he asked, faintly. "Are you a Vision of the night?"
"I am only a friendless woman," I said, "who has lost all that she loved and prized, and who is trying to win it back again."
He began to move his chair nearer to me once more. I lifted my hand. He stopped the chair directly. There was a moment of silence. We sat watching one another. I saw his hands tremble as he laid them on the coverlet; I saw his face grow paler and paler, and his under lip drop. What dead and buried remembrances had I brought to life in him, in all their olden horror?
He was the first to speak again.
"So this is your interest," he said, "in clearing up the mystery of Mrs. Eustace Macallan's death?"
"And you believe that I can help you?"
He slowly lifted one of his hands, and pointed at me with his long forefinger.
"You suspect somebody," he said.
The tone in which he spoke was low and threatening; it warned me to be careful. At the same time, if I now shut him out of my confidence, I should lose the reward that might yet be to come, for all that I had suffered and risked at that perilous interview.
"You suspect somebody," he repeated.
"Perhaps!" was all that I said in return.
"Is the person within your reach?"
"Do you know where the person is?"
He laid his head languidly on the back of his chair, with a trembling long-drawn sigh. Was he disappointed? Or was he relieved? Or was he simply exhausted in mind and body alike? Who could fathom him? Who could say?
"Will you give me five minutes?" he asked, feebly and wearily, without raising his head. "You know already how any reference to events at Gleninch excites and shakes me. I shall be fit for it again, if you will kindly give me a few minutes to myself. There are books in the next room. Please excuse me."
I at once retired to the circular antechamber. He followed me in his chair, and closed the door between us.
IN THE LIGHT.
Startling doubts beset me as I walked restlessly backward and forward, now in the anteroom, and now in the corridor outside. It was plain that I had (quite innocently) disturbed the repose of some formidable secrets in Miserrimus Dexter's mind. I confused and wearied my poor brains in trying to guess what the secrets might be. All my ingenuity--as after-events showed me--was wasted on speculations not one of which even approached the truth. I was on surer ground when I arrived at the conclusion that Dexter had really kept every mortal creature out of his confidence. He could never have betrayed such serious signs of disturbance as I had noticed in him, if he had publicly acknowledged at the Trial, or if he had privately communicated to any chosen friend, all that he knew of the tragic and terrible drama acted in the bedchamber at Gleninch. What powerful influence had induced him to close his lips? Had he been silent in mercy to others? or in dread of consequences to himself? Impossible to tell! Could I hope that he would confide to Me what he had kept secret from Justice and Friendship alike? When he knew what I really wanted of him, would he arm me, out of his own stores of knowledge, with the weapon that would win me victory in the struggle to come? The chances were against it--there was no denying that. Still the end was worth trying for. The caprice of the moment might yet stand my friend, with such a wayward being as Miserrimus Dexter. My plans and projects were sufficiently strange, sufficiently wide of the ordinary limits of a woman's thoughts and actions, to attract his sympathies. "Who knows," I thought to myself, "if I may not take his confidence by surprise, by simply telling him the truth?"
The interval expired; the door was thrown open; the voice of my host summoned me again to the inner room.
"Welcome back!" said Miserrimus Dexter. "Dear Mrs. Valeria, I am quite myself again. How are you?"
He looked and spoke with the easy cordiality of an old friend. During the period of my absence, short as it was, another change had passed over this most multiform of living beings. His eyes sparkled with good-humor; his cheeks were flushing under a new excitement of some sort. Even his dress had undergone alteration since I had seen it last. He now wore an extemporized cap of white paper; his ruffles were tucked up; a clean apron was thrown over the sea-green coverlet. He backed his chair before me, bowing and smiling, and waved me to a seat with the grace of a dancing master, chastened by the dignity of a lord in waiting.
"I am going to cook," he announced, with the most engaging simplicity. "We both stand in need of refreshment before we return to the serious business of our interview. You see me in my cook's dress; forgive it. There is a form in these things. I am a great stickler for forms. I have been taking some wine. Please sanction that proceeding by taking some wine too."
He filled a goblet of ancient Venetian glass with a purple-red liquor, beautiful to see.
"Burgundy!" he said--"the king of wine: And this is the king of Burgundies--Clos Vougeot. I drink to your health and happiness!"
He filled a second goblet for himself, and honored the toast by draining it to the bottom. I now understood the sparkle in his eyes and the flush in his cheeks. It was my interest not to offend him. I drank a little of his wine, and I quite agreed with him. I thought it delicious.
"What shall we eat?" he asked. "It must be something worthy of our Clos Vougeot. Ariel is good at roasting and boiling joints, poor wretch! but I don't insult your taste by offering you Ariel's cookery. Plain joints!" he exclaimed, with an expression of refined disgust. "Bah! A man who eats a plain joint is only one remove from a cannibal or a butcher. Will you leave it to me to discover something more worthy of us? Let us go to the kitchen."
He wheeled his chair around, and invited me to accompany him with a courteous wave of his hand.
I followed the chair to some closed curtains at one end of the room, which I had not hitherto noticed. Drawing aside the curtains, he revealed to view an alcove, in which stood a neat little gas-stove for cooking. Drawers and cupboards, plates, dishes, and saucepans, were ranged around the alcove--all on a miniature scale, all scrupulously bright and clean. "Welcome to the kitchen!" said Miserrimus Dexter. He drew out of a recess in the wall a marble slab, which served as a table, and reflected profoundly, with his hand to his head. "I have it!" he cried, and opening one of the cupboards next, took from it a black bottle of a form that was new to me. Sounding this bottle with a spike, he pierced and produced to view some little irregularly formed black objects, which might have been familiar enough to a woman accustomed to the luxurious tables of the rich, but which were a new revelation to a person like myself, who had led a simple country life in the house of a clergyman with small means. When I saw my host carefully lay out these occult substances of uninviting appearance on a clean napkin, and then plunge once more into profound reflection at the sight of them, my curiosity could be no longer restrained. I ventured to say, "What are those things, Mr. Dexter, and are we really going to eat them?"
He started at the rash question, and looked at me with hands outspread in irrepressible astonishment.
"Where is our boasted progress?" he cried. "What is education but a name? Here is a cultivated person who doesn't know Truffles when she sees them!"
"I have heard of truffles," I answered, humbly, "but I never saw them before. We had no such foreign luxuries as those, Mr. Dexter, at home in the North."
Miserrimus Dexter lifted one of the truffles tenderly on his spike, and held it up to me in a favorable light.
"Make the most of one of the few first sensations in this life which has no ingredient of disappointment lurking under the surface," he said. "Look at it; meditate over it. You shall eat it, Mrs. Valeria, stewed in Burgundy!"
He lighted the gas for cooking with the air of a man who was about to offer me an inestimable proof of his good-will.
"Forgive me if I observe the most absolute silence," he said, "dating from the moment when I take this in my hand." He produced a bright little stew-pan from his collection of culinary utensils as he spoke. "Properly pursued, the Art of Cookery allows of no divided attention," he continued, gravely. "In that observation you will find the reason why no woman ever has reached, or ever will reach, the highest distinction as a cook. As a rule, women are incapable of absolutely concentrating their attention on any one occupation for any given time. Their minds will run on something else--say; typically, for the sake of illustration, their sweetheart or their new bonnet. The one obstacle, Mrs. Valeria, to your rising equal to the men in the various industrial processes of life is not raised, as the women vainly suppose, by the defective institutions of the age they live in. No! the obstacle is in themselves. No institutions that can be devised to encourage them will ever be strong enough to contend successfully with the sweetheart and the new bonnet. A little while ago, for instance, I was instrumental in getting women employed in our local post-office here. The other day I took the trouble--a serious business to me--of getting downstairs, and wheeling myself away to the office to see how they were getting on. I took a letter with me to register. It had an unusually long address. The registering woman began copying the address on the receipt form, in a business-like manner cheering and delightful to see. Half way through, a little child-sister of one of the other women employed trotted into the office, and popped under the counter to go and speak to her relative. The registering woman's mind instantly gave way. Her pencil stopped; her eyes wandered off to the child with a charming expression of interest. 'Well, Lucy,' she said, 'how d'ye do?' Then she remembered business again, and returned to her receipt. When I took it across the counter, an important line in the address of my letter was left out in the copy. Thanks to Lucy. Now a man in the same position would not have seen Lucy--he would have been too closely occupied with what he was about at the moment. There is the whole difference between the mental constitution of the sexes, which no legislation will ever alter as long as the world lasts! What does it matter? Women are infinitely superior to men in the moral qualities which are the true adornments of humanity. Be content--oh, my mistaken sisters, be content with that!"
He twisted his chair around toward the stove. It was useless to dispute the question with him, even if I had felt inclined to do so. He absorbed himself in his stew-pan.
I looked about me in the room.
The same insatiable relish for horrors exhibited downstairs by the pictures in the hall was displayed again here. The photographs hanging on the wall represented the various forms of madness taken from the life. The plaster casts ranged on the shelf opposite were casts (after death) of the heads of famous murderers. A frightful little skeleton of a woman hung in a cupboard, behind a glazed door, with this cynical inscription placed above the skull: "Behold the scaffolding on which beauty is built!" In a corresponding cupboard, with the door wide open, there hung in loose folds a shirt (as I took it to be) of chamois leather. Touching it (and finding it to be far softer than any chamois leather that my fingers had ever felt before), I disarranged the folds, and disclosed a ticket pinned among them, describing the thing in these horrid lines: "Skin of a French Marquis, tanned in the Revolution of Ninety-three. Who says the nobility are not good for something? They make good leather."
After this last specimen of my host's taste in curiosities, I pursued my investigation no further. I returned to my chair, and waited for the truffles.
After a brief interval, the voice of the poet-painter-composer-and-cook summoned me back to the alcove.
The gas was out. The stew-pan and its accompaniments had vanished. On the marble slab were two plates, two napkins, two rolls of bread, and a dish, with another napkin in it, on which reposed two quaint little black balls. Miserrimus Dexter, regarding me with a smile of benevolent interest, put one of the balls on my plate, and took the other himself. "Compose yourself, Mrs. Valeria," he said. "This is an epoch in your life. Your first Truffle! Don't touch it with the knife. Use the fork alone. And--pardon me; this is most important--eat slowly."
I followed my instructions, and assumed an enthusiasm which I honestly confess I did not feel. I privately thought the new vegetable a great deal too rich, and in other respects quite unworthy of the fuss that had been made about it. Miserrimus Dexter lingered and languished over his truffles, and sipped his wonderful Burgundy, and sang his own praises as a cook until I was really almost mad with impatience to return to the real object of my visit. In the reckless state of mind which this feeling produced, I abruptly reminded my host that he was wasting our time, by the most dangerous question that I could possibly put to him.
"Mr. Dexter," I said, "have you seen anything lately of Mrs. Beauly?"
The easy sense of enjoyment expressed in his face left it at those rash words, and went out like a suddenly extinguished light. That furtive distrust of me which I had already noticed instantly made itself felt again in his manner and in his voice.
"Do you know Mrs. Beauly?" he asked.
"I only know her," I answered, "by what I have read of her in the Trial."
He was not satisfied with that reply.
"You must have an interest of some sort in Mrs. Beauly," he said, "or you would not have asked me about her. Is it the interest of a friend, or the interest of an enemy?"
Rash as I might be, I was not quite reckless enough yet to meet that plain question by an equally plain reply. I saw enough in his face to warn me to be careful with him before it was too late.
"I can only answer you in one way," I rejoined. "I must return to a subject which is very painful to you--the subject of the Trial."
"Go on," he said, with one of his grim outbursts of humor. "Here I am at your mercy--a martyr at the stake. Poke the fire! poke the fire!"
"I am only an ignorant woman," I resumed, "and I dare say I am quite wrong; but there is one part of my husband's trial which doesn't at all satisfy me. The defense set up for him seems to me to have been a complete mistake."
"A complete mistake?" he repeated. "Strange language, Mrs. Valeria, to say the least of it!" He tried to speak lightly; he took up his goblet of wine; but I could see that I had produced an effect on him. His hand trembled as it carried the wine to his lips.
"I don't doubt that Eustace's first wife really asked him to buy the arsenic," I continued. "I don't doubt that she used it secretly to improve her complexion. But what I do not believe is that she died of an overdose of the poison, taken by mistake."
He put back the goblet of wine on the table near him so unsteadily that he spilled the greater part of it. For a moment his eyes met mine, then looked down again.
"How do you believe she died?" he inquired, in tones so low that I could barely hear them.
"By the hand of a poisoner," I answered.
He made a movement as if he were about to start up in the chair, and sank back again, seized, apparently, with a sudden faintness.
"Not my husband!" I hastened to add. "You know that I am satisfied of his innocence."
I saw him shudder. I saw his hands fasten their hold convulsively on the arms of his chair.
"Who poisoned her?" he asked, still lying helplessly back in the chair.
At the critical moment my courage failed me. I was afraid to tell him in what direction my suspicions pointed.
"Can't you guess?" I said.
There was a pause. I supposed him to be secretly following his own train of thought. It was not for long. On a sudden he started up in his chair. The prostration which had possessed him appeared to vanish in an instant. His eyes recovered their wild light; his hands were steady again; his color was brighter than ever. Had he been pondering over the secret of my interest in Mrs. Beauly? and had he guessed? He had!
"Answer on your word of honor!" he cried. "Don't attempt to deceive me! Is it a woman?"
"What is the first letter of her name? Is it one of the first three letters of the alphabet?"
He threw his hands up above his head, and burst into a frantic fit of laughter.
"I have lived long enough!" he broke out, wildly. "At last I have discovered one other person in the world who sees it as plainly as I do. Cruel Mrs. Valeria! why did you torture me? Why didn't you own it before?"
"What!" I exclaimed, catching the infection of his excitement. "Are your ideas my ideas? Is it possible that you suspect Mrs. Beauly too?"
He made this remarkable reply:
"Suspect?" he repeated, contemptuously. "There isn't the shadow of a doubt about it. Mrs. Beauly poisoned her."
THE INDICTMENT OF MRS. BEAULY.
My utmost expectations had not prepared me for the tone of absolute conviction in which he had spoken. At the best, I had anticipated that he might, by the barest chance, agree with me in suspecting Mrs. Beauly. And now his own lips had said it, without hesitation or reserve! "There isn't the shadow of a doubt: Mrs. Beauly poisoned her."
"Sit down," he said, quietly. "There's nothing to be afraid of. Nobody can hear us in this room."
I sat down again, and recovered myself a little.
"Have you never told any one else what you have just told me?" was the first question that I put to him.
"Never. No one else suspected her."
"Not even the lawyers?"
"Not even the lawyers. There is no legal evidence against Mrs. Beauly. There is nothing but moral certainty."
"Surely you might have found the evidence if you had tried?"
He laughed at the idea.
"Look at me!" he said. "How is a man to hunt up evidence who is tied to this chair? Besides, there were other difficulties in my way. I am not generally in the habit of needlessly betraying myself--I am a cautious man, though you may not have noticed it. But my immeasurable hatred of Mrs. Beauly was not to be concealed. If eyes can tell secrets, she must have discovered, in my eyes, that I hungered and thirsted to see her in the hangman's hands. From first to last, I tell you, Mrs. Borgia-Beauly was on her guard against me. Can I describe her cunning? All my resources of language are not equal to the task. Take the degrees of comparison to give you a faint idea of it: I am positively cunning; the devil is comparatively cunning; Mrs. Beauly is superlatively cunning. No! no! If she is ever discovered, at this distance of time, it will not be done by a man--it will be done by a woman: a woman whom she doesn't suspect; a woman who can watch her with the patience of a tigress in a state of starvation--"
"Say a woman like Me!" I broke out. "I am ready to try."
His eyes glittered; his teeth showed themselves viciously under his mustache; he drummed fiercely with both hands on the arms of his chair.
"Do you really mean it?" he asked.
"Put me in your position," I answered. "Enlighten me with your moral certainty (as you call it)--and you shall see!"
"I'll do it!" he said. "Tell me one thing first. How did an outside stranger, like you, come to suspect her?"
I set before him, to the best of my ability, the various elements of suspicion which I had collected from the evidence at the Trial; and I laid especial stress on the fact (sworn to by the nurse) that Mrs. Beauly was missing exactly at the time when Christina Ormsay had left Mrs. Eustace Macallan alone in her room.
"You have hit it!" cried Miserrimus Dexter. "You are a wonderful woman! What was she doing on the morning of the day when Mrs. Eustace Macallan died poisoned? And where was she during the dark hours of the night? I can tell you where she was not--she was not in her own room."
"Not in her own room?" I repeated. "Are you really sure of that?"
"I am sure of everything that I say, when I am speaking of Mrs. Beauly. Mind that: and now listen! This is a drama; and I excel in dramatic narrative. You shall judge for yourself. Date, the twentieth of October. Scene the Corridor, called the Guests' Corridor, at Gleninch. On one side, a row of windows looking out into the garden. On the other, a row of four bedrooms, with dressing-rooms attached. First bedroom (beginning from the staircase), occupied by Mrs. Beauly. Second bedroom, empty. Third bedroom, occupied by Miserrimus Dexter. Fourth bedroom, empty. So much for the Scene! The time comes next--the time is eleven at night. Dexter discovered in his bedroom, reading. Enter to him Eustace Macallan. Eustace speaks: 'My dear fellow, be particularly careful not to make any noise; don't bowl your chair up and down the corridor to-night.' Dexter inquires, 'Why?' Eustace answers: 'Mrs. Beauly has been dining with some friends in Edinburgh, and has come back terribly fatigued: she has gone up to her room to rest.' Dexter makes another inquiry (satirical inquiry, this time): 'How does she look when she is terribly fatigued? As beautiful as ever?' Answer: 'I don't know; I have not seen her; she slipped upstairs, without speaking to anybody.' Third inquiry by Dexter (logical inquiry, on this occasion): 'If she spoke to nobody, how do you know she is fatigued?' Eustace hands Dexter a morsel of paper, and answers: 'Don't be a fool! I found this on the hall table. Remember what I have told you about keeping quiet; good-night!' Eustace retires. Dexter looks at the paper, and reads these lines in pencil: 'Just returned. Please forgive me for going to bed without saying good-night. I have overexerted myself; I am dreadfully fatigued. (Signed) Helena.' Dexter is by nature suspicious. Dexter suspects Mrs. Beauly. Never mind his reasons; there is no time to enter into his reasons now. He puts the case to himself thus: 'A weary woman would never have given herself the trouble to write this. She would have found it much less fatiguing to knock at the drawing-room door as she passed, and to make her apologies by word of mouth. I see something here out of the ordinary way; I shall make a night of it in my chair.' Very good. Dexter proceeds to make a night of it. He opens his door; wheels himself softly into the corridor; locks the doors of the two empty bedrooms, and returns (with the keys in his pocket) to his own room. 'Now,' says D. to himself, 'if I hear a door softly opened in this part of the house, I shall know for certain it is Mrs. Beauly's door!' Upon that he closes his own door, leaving the tiniest little chink to look through; puts out his light; and waits and watches at his tiny little chink, like a cat at a mouse-hole. The corridor is the only place he wants to see; and a lamp burns there all night. Twelve o'clock strikes; he hears the doors below bolted and locked, and nothing happens. Half-past twelve--and nothing still. The house is as silent as the grave. One o'clock; two o'clock--same silence. Half-past two--and something happens at last. Dexter hears a sound close by, in the corridor. It is the sound of a handle turning very softly in a door--in the only door that can be opened, the door of Mrs. Beauly's room. Dexter drops noiselessly from his chair onto his hands; lies flat on the floor at his chink, and listens. He hears the handle closed again; he sees a dark object flit by him; he pops his head out of his door, down on the floor where nobody would think of looking for him. And what does he see? Mrs. Beauly! There she goes, with the long brown cloak over her shoulders, which she wears when she is driving, floating behind her. In a moment more she disappears, past the fourth bedroom, and turns at a right angle, into a second corridor, called the South Corridor. What rooms are in the South Corridor? There are three rooms. First room, the little study, mentioned in the nurse's evidence. Second room, Mrs. Eustace Macallan's bedchamber. Third room, her husband's bedchamber. What does Mrs. Beauly (supposed to be worn out by fatigue) want in that part of the house at half-past two in the morning? Dexter decides on running the risk of being seen--and sets off on a voyage of discovery. Do you know how he gets from place to place without his chair? Have you seen the poor deformed creature hop on his hands? Shall he show you how he does it, before he goes on with his story?"
I hastened to stop the proposed exhibition.
"I saw you hop last night," I said. "Go on!--pray go on with your story!"
"Do you like my dramatic style of narrative?" he asked. "Am I interesting?"
"Indescribably interesting, Mr. Dexter. I am eager to hear more."
He smiled in high approval of his own abilities.
"I am equally good at the autobiographical style," he said. "Shall we try that next, by way of variety?"
"Anything you like," I cried, losing all patience with him, "if you will only go on!"
"Part Two; Autobiographical Style," he announced, with a wave of his hand. "I hopped along the Guests' Corridor, and turned into the South Corridor. I stopped at the little study. Door open; nobody there. I crossed the study to the second door, communicating with Mrs. Macallan's bedchamber. Locked! I looked through the keyhole Was there something hanging over it, on the other side? I can't say--I only know there was nothing to be seen but blank darkness. I listened. Nothing to be heard. Same blank darkness, same absolute silence, inside the locked second door of Mrs. Eustace's room, opening on the corridor. I went on to her husband's bedchamber. I had the worst possible opinion of Mrs. Beauly--I should not have been in the least surprised if I had caught her in Eustace's room. I looked through the keyhole. In this case, the key was out of it--or was turned the right way for me--I don't know which. Eustace's bed was opposite the door. No discovery. I could see him, all by himself, innocently asleep. I reflected a little. The back staircase was at the end of the corridor, beyond me. I slid down the stairs, and looked about me on the lower floor, by the light of the night-lamp. Doors all fast locked and keys outside, so that I could try them myself. House door barred and bolted. Door leading into the servants' offices barred and bolted. I got back to my own room, and thought it out quietly. Where could she be? Certainly in the house, somewhere. Where? I had made sure of the other rooms; the field of search was exhausted. She could only be in Mrs. Macallan's room--the one room which had baffled my investigations; the only room which had not lent itself to examination. Add to this that the key of the door in the study, communicating with Mrs. Macallan's room, was stated in the nurse's evidence to be missing; and don't forget that the dearest object of Mrs. Beauly's life (on the showing of her own letter, read at the Trial) was to be Eustace Macallan's happy wife. Put these things together in your own mind, and you will know what my thoughts were, as I sat waiting for events in my chair, without my telling you. Toward four o'clock, strong as I am, fatigue got the better of me. I fell asleep. Not for long. I awoke with a start and looked at my watch. Twenty-five minutes past four. Had she got back to her room while I was asleep? I hopped to her door and listened. Not a sound. I softly opened the door. The room was empty. I went back again to my own room to wait and watch. It was hard work to keep my eyes open. I drew up the window to let the cool air refresh me; I fought hard with exhausted nature, and exhausted nature won. I fell asleep again. This time it was eight in the morning when I awoke. I have goodish ears, as you may have noticed. I heard women's voices talking under my open window. I peeped out. Mrs. Beauly and her maid in close confabulation! Mrs. Beauly and her maid looking guiltily about them to make sure that they were neither seen nor heard! 'Take care, ma'am,' I heard the maid say; 'that horrid deformed monster is as sly as a fox. Mind he doesn't discover you.' Mrs. Beauly answered, 'You go first, and look out in front; I will follow you, and make sure there is nobody behind us.' With that they disappeared around the corner of the house. In five minutes more I heard the door of Mrs. Beauly's room softly opened and closed again. Three hours later the nurse met her in the corridor, innocently on her way to make inquiries at Mrs. Eustace Macallan's door. What do you think of these circumstances? What do you think of Mrs. Beauly and her maid having something to say to each other, which they didn't dare say in the house--for fear of my being behind some door listening to them? What do you think of these discoveries of mine being made on the very morning when Mrs. Eustace was taken ill--on the very day when she died by a poisoner's hand? Do you see your way to the guilty person? And has mad Miserrimus Dexter been of some assistance to you, so far?"
I was too violently excited to answer him. The way to the vindication of my husband's innocence was opened to me at last!
"Where is she?" I cried. "And where is that servant who is in her confidence?"
"I can't tell you," he said. "I don't know."
"Where can I inquire? Can you tell me that?"
He considered a little. "There is one man who must know where she is--or who could find it out for you," he said.
"Who is he? What is his name?"
"He is a friend of Eustace's. Major Fitz-David."
"I know him! I am going to dine with him next week. He has asked you to dine too."
Miserrimus Dexter laughed contemptuously.
"Major Fitz-David may do very well for the ladies," he said. "The ladies can treat him as a species of elderly human lap-dog. I don't dine with lap-dogs; I have said, No. You go. He or some of his ladies may be of use to you. Who are the guests? Did he tell you?"
"There was a French lady whose name I forget," I said, "and Lady Clarinda--"
"That will do! She is a friend of Mrs. Beauly's. She is sure to know where Mrs. Beauly is. Come to me the moment you have got your information. Find out if the maid is with her: she is the easiest to deal with of the two. Only make the maid open her lips, and we have got Mrs. Beauly. We crush her," he cried, bringing his hand down like lightning on the last languid fly of the season, crawling over the arm of his chair--"we crush her as I crush this fly. Stop! A question--a most important question in dealing with the maid. Have you got any money?"
"Plenty of money."
He snapped his fingers joyously.
"The maid is ours!" he cried. "It's a matter of pounds, shillings, and pence with the maid. Wait! Another question. About your name? If you approach Mrs. Beauly in your own character as Eustace's wife, you approach her as the woman who has taken her place--you make a mortal enemy of her at starting. Beware of that!"
My jealousy of Mrs. Beauly, smoldering in me all through the interview, burst into flames at those words. I could resist it no longer--I was obliged to ask him if my husband had ever loved her.
"Tell me the truth," I said. "Did Eustace really--?"
He burst out laughing maliciously, he penetrated my jealousy, and guessed my question almost before it had passed my lips.
"Yes," he said, "Eustace did really love her--and no mistake about it. She had every reason to believe (before the Trial) that the wife's death would put her in the wife's place. But the Trial made another man of Eustace. Mrs. Beauly had been a witness of the public degradation of him. That was enough to prevent his marrying Mrs. Beauly. He broke off with her at once and forever--for the same reason precisely which has led him to separate himself from you. Existence with a woman who knew that he had been tried for his life as a murderer was an existence that he was not hero enough to face. You wanted the truth. There it is! You have need to be cautious of Mrs. Beauly--you have no need to be jealous of her. Take the safe course. Arrange with the Major, when you meet Lady Clarinda at his dinner, that you meet her under an assumed name."
"I can go to the dinner," I said, "under the name in which Eustace married me. I can go as 'Mrs. Woodville.'"
"The very thing!" he exclaimed. "What would I not give to be present when Lady Clarinda introduces you to Mrs. Beauly! Think of the situation. A woman with a hideous secret hidden in her inmost soul: and another woman who knows of it--another woman who is bent, by fair means or foul, on dragging that secret into the light of day. What a struggle! What a plot for a novel! I am in a fever when I think of it. I am beside myself when I look into the future, and see Mrs. Borgia-Beauly brought to her knees at last. Don't be alarmed!" he cried, with the wild light flashing once more in his eyes. "My brains are beginning to boil again in my head. I must take refuge in physical exercise. I must blow off the steam, or I shall explode in my pink jacket on the spot!"
The old madness seized on him again. I made for the door, to secure my retreat in case of necessity--and then ventured to look around at him.
He was off on his furious wheels--half man, half chair--flying like a whirlwind to the other end of the room. Even this exercise was not violent enough for him in his present mood. In an instant he was down on the floor, poised on his hands, and looking in the distance like a monstrous frog. Hopping down the room, he overthrew, one after another, all the smaller and lighter chairs as he passed them; arrived at the end, he turned, surveyed the prostrate chairs, encouraged himself with a scream of triumph, and leaped rapidly over chair after chair on his hands--his limbless body now thrown back from the shoulders, and now thrown forward to keep the balance--in a manner at once wonderful and horrible to behold. "Dexter's Leap-frog!" he cried, cheerfully, perching himself with his birdlike lightness on the last of the prostrate chairs when he had reached the further end of the room. "I'm pretty active, Mrs. Valeria, considering I'm a cripple. Let us drink to the hanging of Mrs. Beauly in another bottle of Burgundy!"
I seized desperately on the first excuse that occurred to me for getting away from him.
"You forget," I said--"I must go at once to the Major. If I don't warn him in time, he may speak of me to Lady Clarinda by the wrong name."
Ideas of hurry and movement were just the ideas to take his fancy in his present state. He blew furiously on the whistle that summoned Ariel from the kitchen regions, and danced up and down on his hands in the full frenzy of his delight.
"Ariel shall get you a cab!" he cried. "Drive at a gallop to the Major's. Set the trap for her without losing a moment. Oh, what a day of days this has been! Oh, what a relief to get rid of my dreadful secret, and share it with You! I am suffocating with happiness--I am like the Spirit of the Earth in Shelley's poem." He broke out with the magnificent lines in "Prometheus Unbound," in which the Earth feels the Spirit of Love, and bursts into speech. "'The joy, the triumph, the delight, the madness! the boundless, overflowing, bursting gladness! the vaporous exultation not to be confined! Ha! ha! the animation of delight, which wraps me like an atmosphere of light, and bears me as a cloud is borne by its own wind.' That's how I feel, Valeria!--that's how I feel!"
I crossed the threshold while he was still speaking. The last I saw of him he was pouring out that glorious flood of words--his deformed body, poised on the overthrown chair, his face lifted in rapture to some fantastic heaven of his own making. I slipped out softly into the antechamber. Even as I crossed the room, he changed once more. I heard his ringing cry; I heard the soft thump-thump of his hands on the floor. He was going down the room again, in "Dexter's Leap-frog," flying over the prostrate chairs.
In the hall, Ariel was on the watch for me.
As I approached her, I happened to be putting on my gloves. She stopped me; and, taking my right arm, lifted my hand toward her face. Was she going to kiss it? or to bite it? Neither. She smelt it like a dog--and dropped it again with a hoarse chuckling laugh.
"You don't smell of his perfumes," she said. "You haven't touched his beard. Now I believe you. Want a cab?"
"Thank you. I'll walk till I meet a cab."
She was bent on being polite to me--now I had not touched his beard.
"I say!" she burst out, in her deepest notes.
"I'm glad I didn't upset you in the canal. There now!"
She gave me a friendly smack on the shoulder which nearly knocked me down--relapsed, the instant after, into her leaden stolidity of look and manner--and led the way out by the front door. I heard her hoarse chuckling laugh as she locked the gate behind me. My star was at last in the ascendant! In one and the same day I had found my way into the confidence of Ariel and Ariel's master.
THE DEFENSE OF MRS. BEAULY.
My long interview with Miserrimus Dexter had disturbed me far more seriously than I suspected at the time. It was not until some hours after I had left him that I really began to feel how my nerves had been tried by all that I had seen and heard during my visit at his house. I started at the slightest noises; I dreamed of dreadful things; I was ready to cry without reason at one moment, and to fly into a passion without reason at another. Absolute rest was what I wanted, and (thanks to my good Benjamin) was what I got. The dear old man controlled his anxieties on my account, and spared me the questions which his fatherly interest in my welfare made him eager to ask. It was tacitly understood between us that all conversation on the subject of my visit to Miserrimus Dexter (of which, it is needless to say, he strongly disapproved) should be deferred until repose had restored my energies of body and mind. I saw no visitors. Mrs. Macallan came to the cottage, and Major Fitz-David came to the cottage--one of them to hear what had passed between Miserrimus Dexter and myself, the other to amuse me with the latest gossip about the guests at the forthcoming dinner. Benjamin took it on himself to make my apologies, and to spare me the exertion of receiving my visitors. We hired a little open carriage, and took long drives in the pretty country lanes still left flourishing within a few miles of the northern suburb of London. At home we sat and talked quietly of old times, or played at backgammon and dominoes--and so, for a few happy days, led the peaceful unadventurous life which was good for me. When the day of the dinner arrived, I felt restored to my customary health. I was ready again, and eager again, for the introduction to Lady Clarinda and the discovery of Mrs. Beauly.
Benjamin looked a little sadly at my flushed face as we drove to Major Fitz-David's house.
"Ah, my dear," he said, in his simple way, "I see you are well again! You have had enough of our quiet life already."
My recollection of events and persons, in general, at the dinner-party, is singularly indistinct.
I remember that we were very merry, and as easy and familiar with one another as if we had been old friends. I remember that Madame Mirliflore was unapproachably superior to the other women present, in the perfect beauty of her dress, and in the ample justice which she did to the luxurious dinner set before us. I remember the Major's young prima donna, more round-eyed, more overdressed, more shrill and strident as the coming "Queen of Song," than ever. I remember the Major himself, always kissing our hands, always luring us to indulge in dainty dishes and drinks, always making love, always detecting resemblances between us, always "under the charm," and never once out of his character as elderly Don Juan from the beginning of the evening to the end. I remember dear old Benjamin, completely bewildered, shrinking into corners, blushing when he was personally drawn into the conversation, frightened at Madame Mirliflore, bashful with Lady Clarinda, submissive to the Major, suffering under the music, and from the bottom of his honest old heart wishing himself home again. And there, as to the members of that cheerful little gathering, my memory finds its limits--with one exception. The appearance of Lady Clarinda is as present to me as if I had met her yesterday; and of the memorable conversation which we two held together privately, toward the close of the evening, it is no exaggeration to say that I can still call to mind almost every word.
I see her dress, I hear her voice again, while I write.
She was attired, I remember, with that extreme assumption of simplicity which always defeats its own end by irresistibly suggesting art. She wore plain white muslin, over white silk, without trimming or ornament of any kind. Her rich brown hair, dressed in defiance of the prevailing fashion, was thrown back from her forehead, and gathered into a simple knot behind--without adornment of any sort. A little white ribbon encircled her neck, fastened by the only article of jewelry that she wore--a tiny diamond brooch. She was unquestionably handsome; but her beauty was of the somewhat hard and angular type which is so often seen in English women of her race: the nose and chin too prominent and too firmly shaped; the well-opened gray eyes full of spirit and dignity, but wanting in tenderness and mobility of expression. Her manner had all the charm which fine breeding can confer--exquisitely polite, easily cordial; showing that perfect yet unobtrusive confidence in herself which (in England) seems to be the natural outgrowth of pre-eminent social rank. If you had accepted her for what she was, on the surface, you would have said, Here is the model of a noble woman who is perfectly free from pride. And if you had taken a liberty with her, on the strength of that conviction, she would have made you remember it to the end of your life.
We got on together admirably. I was introduced as "Mrs. Woodville," by previous arrangement with the Major--effected through Benjamin. Before the dinner was over we had promised to exchange visits. Nothing but the opportunity was wanting to lead Lady Clarinda into talking, as I wanted her to talk, of Mrs. Beauly.
Late in the evening the opportunity came.
I had taken refuge from the terrible bravura singing of the Major's strident prima donna in the back drawing-room. As I had hoped and anticipated, after a while Lady Clarinda (missing me from the group around the piano) came in search of me. She seated herself by my side, out of sight and out of hearing of our friends in the front room; and, to my infinite relief and delight, touched on the subject of Miserrimus Dexter of her own accord. Something I had said of him, when his name had been accidentally mentioned at dinner, remained in her memory, and led us, by perfectly natural gradations, into speaking of Mrs. Beauly. "At last," I thought to myself, "the Major's little dinner will bring me my reward!"
And what a reward it was, when it came! My heart sinks in me again--as it sank on that never-to-be-forgotten evening--while I sit at my desk thinking of it.
"So Dexter really spoke to you of Mrs. Beauly!" exclaimed Lady Clarinda. "You have no idea how you surprise me."
"May I ask why?"
"He hates her! The last time I saw him he wouldn't allow me to mention her name. It is one of his innumerable oddities. If any such feeling as sympathy is a possible feeling in such a nature as his, he ought to like Helena Beauly. She is the most completely unconventional person I know. When she does break out, poor dear, she says things and does things which are almost reckless enough to be worthy of Dexter himself. I wonder whether you would like her?"
"You have kindly asked me to visit you, Lady Clarinda. Perhaps I may meet her at your house?"
"I hope you will not wait until that is likely to happen," she said. "Helena's last whim is to fancy that she has got--the gout, of all the maladies in the world! She is away at some wonderful baths in Hungary or Bohemia (I don't remember which)--and where she will go, or what she will do next, it is perfectly impossible to say.--Dear Mrs. Woodville! is the heat of the fire too much for you? You are looking quite pale."
I felt that I was looking pale. The discovery of Mrs. Beauly's absence from England was a shock for which I was quite unprepared. For a moment it unnerved me.
"Shall we go into the other room?" asked Lady Clarinda.
To go into the other room would be to drop the conversation. I was determined not to let that catastrophe happen. It was just possible that Mrs. Beauly's maid might have quitted her service, or might have been left behind in England. My information would not be complete until I knew what had become of the maid. I pushed my chair back a little from the fire-place, and took a hand-screen from a table near me; it might be made useful in hiding my face, if any more disappointments were in store for me.
"Thank you, Lady Clarinda; I was only a little too near the fire. I shall do admirably here. You surprise me about Mrs. Beauly. From what Mr. Dexter said to me, I had imagined--"
"Oh, you must not believe anything Dexter tells you!" interposed Lady Clarinda. "He delights in mystifying people; and he purposely misled you, I have no doubt. If all that I hear is true, he ought to know more of Helena Beauly's strange freaks and fancies than most people. He all but discovered her in one of her adventures (down in Scotland), which reminds me of the story in Auber's charming opera--what is it called? I shall forget my own name next! I mean the opera in which the two nuns slip out of the convent, and go to the ball. Listen! How very odd! That vulgar girl is singing the castanet song in the second act at this moment. Major! what opera is the young lady singing from?"
The Major was scandalized at this interruption. He bustled into the back room--whispered, "Hush! hush! my dear lady; the 'Domino Noir'"--and bustled back again to the piano.
"Of course!" said Lady Clarinda. "How stupid of me! The 'Domino Noir.' And how strange that you should forget it too!"
I had remembered it perfectly; but I could not trust myself to speak. If, as I believed, the "adventure" mentioned by Lady Clarinda was connected, in some way, with Mrs. Beauly's mysterious proceedings on the morning of the twenty-first of October, I was on the brink of the very discovery which it was the one interest of my life to make! I held the screen so as to hide my face; and I said, in the steadiest voice that I could command at the moment,
"Pray go on!--pray tell me what the adventure was!"
Lady Clarinda was quite flattered by my eager desire to hear the coming narrative.
"I hope my story will be worthy of the interest which you are so good as to feel in it," she said. "If you only knew Helena--it is so like her! I have it, you must know, from her maid. She has taken a woman who speaks foreign languages with her to Hungary and she has left the maid with me. A perfect treasure! I should be only too glad if I could keep her in my service: she has but one defect, a name I hate--Phoebe. Well! Phoebe and her mistress were staying at a place near Edinburgh, called (I think) Gleninch. The house belonged to that Mr. Macallan who was afterward tried--you remember it, of course?--for poisoning his wife. A dreadful case; but don't be alarmed--my story has nothing to do with it; my story has to do with Helena Beauly. One evening (while she was staying at Gleninch) she was engaged to dine with some English friends visiting Edinburgh. The same night--also in Edinburgh--there was a masked ball, given by somebody whose name I forget. The ball (almost an unparalleled event in Scotland!) was reported to be not at all a reputable affair. All sorts of amusing people were to be there. Ladies of doubtful virtue, you know, and gentlemen on the outlying limits of society, and so on. Helena's friends had contrived to get cards, and were going, in spite of the objections--in the strictest incognito, of course, trusting to their masks. And Helena herself was bent on going with them, if she could only manage it without being discovered at Gleninch. Mr. Macallan was one of the strait-laced people who disapproved of the ball. No lady, he said, could show herself at such an entertainment without compromising her reputation. What stuff! Well, Helena, in one of her wildest moments, hit on a way of going to the ball without discovery which was really as ingenious as a plot in a French play. She went to the dinner in the carriage from Gleninch, having sent Phoebe to Edinburgh before her. It was not a grand dinner--a little friendly gathering: no evening dress. When the time came for going back to Gleninch, what do you think Helena did? She sent her maid back in the carriage, instead of herself! Phoebe was dressed in her mistress's cloak and bonnet and veil. She was instructed to run upstairs the moment she got to the house, leaving on the hall table a little note of apology (written by Helena, of course!), pleading fatigue as an excuse for not saying good-night to her host. The mistress and the maid were about the same height; and the servants naturally never discovered the trick. Phoebe got up to her mistress's room safely enough. There, her instructions were to wait until the house was quiet for the night, and then to steal up to her own room. While she was waiting, the girl fell asleep. She only awoke at two in the morning, or later. It didn't much matter, as she thought. She stole out on tiptoe, and closed the door behind her. Before she was at the end of the corridor, she fancied she heard something. She waited until she was safe on the upper story, and then she looked over the banisters. There was Dexter--so like him!--hopping about on his hands (did you ever see it? the most grotesquely horrible exhibition you can imagine!)--there was Dexter, hopping about, and looking through keyholes, evidently in search of the person who had left her room at two in the morning; and no doubt taking Phoebe for her mistress, seeing that she had forgotten to take her mistress's cloak off her shoulders. The next morning, early, Helena came back in a hired carriage from Edinburgh, with a hat and mantle borrowed from her English friends. She left the carriage in the road, and got into the house by way of the garden--without being discovered, this time, by Dexter or by anybody. Clever and daring, wasn't it? And, as I said just now, quite a new version of the 'Domino Noir.' You will wonder, as I did, how it was that Dexter didn't make mischief in the morning? He would have done it no doubt. But even he was silenced (as Phoebe told me) by the dreadful event that happened in the house on the same day. My dear Mrs. Woodville! the heat of this room is certainly too much for you, take my smelling-bottle. Let me open the window."
I was just able to answer, "Pray say nothing! Let me slip out into the open air!"
I made my way unobserved to the landing, and sat down on the stairs to compose myself where nobody could see me. In a moment more I felt a hand laid gently on my shoulder, and discovered good Benjamin looking at me in dismay. Lady Clarinda had considerately spoken to him, and had assisted him in quietly making his retreat from the room, while his host's attention was still absorbed by the music.
"My dear child!" he whispered, "what is the matter?"
"Take me home, and I will tell you," was all that I could say.
A SPECIMEN OF MY WISDOM.
I gave him my promise, on one condition. "If I fail to find the person," I said, "will you undertake to help me?"
Benjamin pledged himself to help me, cheerfully.
The next morning, when I was brushing my hair, and thinking over my affairs, I called to mind a forgotten resolution of mine at the time I first read the Report of my husband's Trial. I mean the resolution--if Miserrimus Dexter failed me--to apply to one of the two agents (or solicitors, as we should term them) who had prepared Eustace's defense--namely, Mr. Playmore. This gentleman, it may be remembered, had especially recommended himself to my confidence by his friendly interference when the sheriff's officers were in search of my husband's papers. Referring back to the evidence of "Isaiah Schoolcraft," I found that Mr. Playmore had been called in to assist and advise Eustace by Miserrimus Dexter. He was therefore not only a friend on whom I might rely, but a friend who was personally acquainted with Dexter as well. Could there be a fitter man to apply to for enlightenment in the darkness that had now gathered around me? Benjamin, when I put the question to him, acknowledged that I had made a sensible choice on this occasion, and at once exerted himself to help me. He discovered (through his own lawyer) the address of Mr. Playmore's London agents; and from these gentlemen he obtained for me a letter of introduction to Mr. Playmore himself. I had nothing to conceal from my new adviser; and I was properly described in the letter as Eustace Macallan's second wife.
The same evening we two set forth (Benjamin refused to let me travel alone) by the night mail for Edinburgh.
I had previously written to Miserrimus Dexter (by my old friend's advice), merely saying that I had been unexpectedly called away from London for a few days, and that I would report to him the result of my interview with Lady Clarinda on my return. A characteristic answer was brought back to the cottage by Ariel: "Mrs. Valeria, I happen to be a man of quick perceptions; and I can read the unwritten part of your letter. Lady Clarinda has shaken your confidence in me. Very good. I pledge myself to shake your confidence in Lady Clarinda. In the meantime I am not offended. In serene composure I await the honor and the happiness of your visit. Send me word by telegraph whether you would like Truffles again, or whether you would prefer something simpler and lighter--say that incomparable French dish, Pig's Eyelids and Tamarinds. Believe me always your ally and admirer, your poet and cook--DEXTER."
Arrived in Edinburgh, Benjamin and I had a little discussion. The question in dispute between us was whether I should go with him, or go alone, to Mr. Playmore. I was all for going alone.
"My experience of the world is not a very large one," I said. "But I have observed that, in nine cases out of ten, a man will make concessions to a woman, if she approaches him by herself, which he would hesitate even to consider if another man was within hearing. I don't know how it is--I only know that it is so; If I find that I get on badly with Mr. Playmore, I will ask him for a second appointment, and, in that case, you shall accompany me. Don't think me self-willed. Let me try my luck alone, and let us see what comes of it."
Benjamin yielded, with his customary consideration for me. I sent my letter of introduction to Mr. Playmore's office--his private house being in the neighborhood of Gleninch. My messenger brought back a polite answer, inviting me to visit him at an early hour in the afternoon. At the appointed time, to the moment, I rang the bell at the office door.
A SPECIMEN OF MY FOLLY.
Public opinion looks at the institution of "The Sabbath" in Scotland; finds it unparalleled in Christendom for its senseless and savage austerity; sees a nation content to be deprived by its priesthood of every social privilege on one day in every week--forbidden to travel; forbidden to telegraph; forbidden to eat a hot dinner; forbidden to read a newspaper; in short, allowed the use of two liberties only, the liberty of exhibiting one's self at the Church and the liberty of secluding one's self over the bottle--public opinion sees this, and arrives at the not unreasonable conclusion that the people who submit to such social laws as these are the most stolid, stern and joyless people on the face of the earth. Such are Scotchmen supposed to be, when viewed at a distance. But how do Scotchmen appear when they are seen under a closer light, and judged by the test of personal experience? There are no people more cheerful, more companionable, more hospitable, more liberal in their ideas, to be found on the face of the civilized globe than the very people who submit to the Scotch Sunday! On the six days of the week there is an atmosphere of quiet humor, a radiation of genial common-sense, about Scotchmen in general, which is simply delightful to feel. But on the seventh day these same men will hear one of their ministers seriously tell them that he views taking a walk on the Sabbath in the light of an act of profanity, and will be the only people in existence who can let a man talk downright nonsense without laughing at him.
I am not clever enough to be able to account for this anomaly in the national character; I can only notice it by way of necessary preparation for the appearance in my little narrative of a personage not frequently seen in writing--a cheerful Scotchman.
In all other respects I found Mr. Playmore only negatively remarkable. He was neither old nor young, neither handsome nor ugly; he was personally not in the least like the popular idea of a lawyer; and he spoke perfectly good English, touched with only the slightest possible flavor of a Scotch accent.
"I have the honor to be an old friend of Mr. Macallan," he said, cordially shaking hands with me; "and I am honestly happy to become acquainted with Mr. Macallan's wife. Where will you sit? Near the light? You are young enough not to be afraid of the daylight just yet. Is this your first visit to Edinburgh? Pray let me make it as pleasant to you as I can. I shall be delighted to present Mrs. Playmore to you. We are staying in Edinburgh for a little while. The Italian opera is here, and we have a box for to-night. Will you kindly waive all ceremony and dine with us and go to the music afterward?"
"You are very kind," I answered. "But I have some anxieties just now which will make me a very poor companion for Mrs. Playmore at the opera. My letter to you mentions, I think, that I have to ask your advice on matters which are of very serious importance to me."
"Does it?" he rejoined. "To tell you the truth, I have not read the letter through. I saw your name in it, and I gathered from your message that you wished to see me here. I sent my note to your hotel--and then went on with something else. Pray pardon me. Is this a professional consultation? For your own sake, I sincerely hope not!"
"It is hardly a professional consultation, Mr. Playmore. I find myself in a very painful position; and I come to you to advise me, under very unusual circumstances. I shall surprise you very much when you hear what I have to say; and I am afraid I shall occupy more than my fair share of your time."
"I and my time are entirely at your disposal," he said. "Tell me what I can do for you--and tell it in your own way."
The kindness of this language was more than matched by the kindness of his manner. I spoke to him freely and fully--I told him my strange story without the slightest reserve.
He showed the varying impressions that I produced on his mind without the slightest concealment. My separation from Eustace distressed him. My resolution to dispute the Scotch Verdict, and my unjust suspicions of Mrs. Beauly, first amused, then surprised him. It was not, however, until I had described my extraordinary interview with Miserrimus Dexter, and my hardly less remarkable conversation with Lady Clarinda, that I produced my greatest effect on the lawyer's mind. I saw him change color for the first time. He started, and muttered to himself, as if he had completely forgotten me. "Good God!" I heard him say--"can it be possible? Does the truth lie that way after all?"
I took the liberty of interrupting him. I had no idea of allowing him to keep his thoughts to himself.
"I seem to have surprised you?" I said.
He started at the sound of my voice.
"I beg ten thousand pardons!" he exclaimed. "You have not only surprised me--you have opened an entirely new view to my mind. I see a possibility, a really startling possibility, in connection with the poisoning at Gleninch, which never occurred to me until the present moment. This is a nice state of things," he added, falling back again into his ordinary humor. "Here is the client leading the lawyer. My dear Mrs. Eustace, which is it--do you want my advice? or do I want yours?"
"May I hear the new idea?" I asked.
"Not just yet, if you will excuse me," he answered. "Make allowances for my professional caution. I don't want to be professional with you--my great anxiety is to avoid it. But the lawyer gets the better of the man, and refuses to be suppressed. I really hesitate to realize what is passing in my own mind without some further inquiry. Do me a great favor. Let us go over a part of the ground again, and let me ask you some questions as we proceed. Do you feel any objection to obliging me in this matter?"
"Certainly not, Mr. Playmore. How far shall we go back?"
"To your visit to Dexter with your mother-in-law. When you first asked him if he had any ideas of his own on the subject of Mrs. Eustace Macallan's death, did I understand you to say that he looked at you suspiciously?"
"And his face cleared up again when you told him that your question was only suggested by what you had read in the Report of the Trial?"
He drew a slip of paper out of the drawer in his desk, dipped his pen in the ink, considered a little, and placed a chair for me close at his side.
"The lawyer disappears," he said, "and the man resumes his proper place. There shall be no professional mysteries between you and me. As your husband's old friend, Mrs. Eustace, I feel no common interest in you. I see a serious necessity for warning you before it is too late; and I can only do so to any good purpose by running a risk on which few men in my place would venture. Personally and professionally, I am going to trust you--though I am a Scotchman and a lawyer. Sit here, and look over my shoulder while I make my notes. You will see what is passing in my mind if you see what I write."
I sat down by him, and looked over his shoulder, without the smallest pretense of hesitation.
He began to write as follows:
"The poisoning at Gleninch. Queries: In what position does Miserrimus Dexter stand toward the poisoning? And what does he (presumably) know about that matter?
"He has ideas which are secrets. He suspects that he has betrayed them, or that they have been discovered in some way inconceivable to himself. He is palpably relieved when he finds that this is not the case."
The pen stopped; and the questions went on.
"Let us advance to your second visit," said Mr. Playmore, "when you saw Dexter alone. Tell me again what he did, and how he looked when you informed him that you were not satisfied with the Scotch Verdict."
I repeated what I have already written in these pages. The pen went back to the paper again, and added these lines:
"He hears nothing more remarkable than that a person visiting him, who is interested in the case, refuses to accept the verdict at the Macallan Trial as a final verdict, and proposes to reopen the inquiry. What does he do upon that?
"He exhibits all the symptoms of a panic of terror; he sees himself in some incomprehensible danger; he is frantic at one moment and servile at the next; he must and will know what this disturbing person really means. And when he is informed on that point, he first turns pale and doubts the evidence of his own senses; and next, with nothing said to justify it, gratuitously accuses his visitor of suspecting somebody. Query here: When a small sum of money is missing in a household, and the servants in general are called together to be informed of the circumstance, what do we think of the one servant in particular who speaks first, and who says, 'Do you suspect me?'"
He laid down the pen again. "Is that right?" he asked.
I began to see the end to which the notes were drifting. Instead of answering his question, I entreated him to enter into the explanations that were still wanting to convince my own mind. He held up a warning forefinger, and stopped me.
"Not yet," he said. "Once again, am I right--so far?"
"Very well. Now tell me what happened next. Don't mind repeating yourself. Give me all the details, one after another, to the end."
I mentioned all the details exactly as I remembered them. Mr. Playmore returned to his writing for the third and last time. Thus the notes ended:
"He is indirectly assured that he at least is not the person suspected. He sinks back in his chair; he draws a long breath; he asks to be left a while by himself, under the pretense that the subject excites him. When the visitor returns, Dexter has been drinking in the interval. The visitor resumes the subject--not Dexter. The visitor is convinced that Mrs. Eustace Macallan died by the hand of a poisoner, and openly says so. Dexter sinks back in his chair like a man fainting. What is the horror that has got possession of him? It is easy to understand if we call it guilty horror; it is beyond all understanding if we call it anything else. And how does it leave him? He flies from one extreme, to another; he is indescribably delighted when he discovers that the visitor's suspicions are all fixed on an absent person. And then, and then only, he takes refuge in the declaration that he has been of one mind with his visitor, in the matter of suspicion, from the first. These are facts. To what plain conclusion do they point?"
He shut up his notes, and, steadily watching my face, waited for me to speak first.
"I understand you, Mr. Playmore," I began, impetuously. "You believe that Mr. Dexter--"
His warning forefinger stopped me there.
"Tell me," he interposed, "what Dexter said to you when he was so good as to confirm your opinion of poor Mrs. Beauly."
"He said, 'There isn't a doubt about it. Mrs. Beauly poisoned her.'"
"I can't do better than follow so good an example--with one trifling difference. I say too, There isn't a doubt about it. Dexter poisoned her."
"Are you joking, Mr. Playmore?"
"I never was more in earnest in my life. Your rash visit to Dexter, and your extraordinary imprudence in taking him into your confidence have led to astonishing results. The light which the whole machinery of the Law was unable to throw on the poisoning case at Gleninch has been accidentally let in on it by a Lady who refuses to listen to reason and who insists on having her own way. Quite incredible, and nevertheless quite true."
"Impossible!" I exclaimed.
"What is impossible?" he asked, coolly.
"That Dexter poisoned my husband's first wife."
"And why is that impossible, if you please?" I began to be almost enraged with Mr. Playmore.
"Can you ask the question?" I replied, indignantly. "I have told you that I heard him speak of her in terms of respect and affection of which any woman might be proud. He lives in the memory of her. I owe his friendly reception of me to some resemblance which he fancies he sees between my figure and hers. I have seen tears in his eyes, I have heard his voice falter and fail him, when he spoke of her. He may be the falsest of men in all besides, but he is true to her--he has not misled me in that one thing. There are signs that never deceive a woman when a man is talking to her of what is really near his heart: I saw those signs. It is as true that I poisoned her as that he did. I am ashamed to set my opinion against yours, Mr. Playmore; but I really cannot help it. I declare I am almost angry with you."
He seemed to be pleased, instead of offended by the bold manner in which I expressed myself.
"My dear Mrs. Eustace, you have no reason to be angry with me. In one respect, I entirely share your view--with this difference, that I go a little further than you do."
"I don't understand you."
"You will understand me directly. You describe Dexter's feeling for the late Mrs. Eustace as a happy mixture of respect and affection. I can tell you it was a much warmer feeling toward her than that. I have my information from the poor lady herself--who honored me with her confidence and friendship for the best part of her life. Before she married Mr. Macallan--she kept it a secret from him, and you had better keep it a secret too--Miserrimus Dexter was in love with her. Miserrimus Dexter asked her--deformed as he was, seriously asked her--to be his wife."
"And in the face of that," I cried, "you say that he poisoned her!"
"I do. I see no other conclusion possible, after what happened during your visit to him. You all but frightened him into a fainting fit. What was he afraid of?"
I tried hard to find an answer to that. I even embarked on an answer without quite knowing where my own words might lead me.
"Mr. Dexter is an old and true friend of my husband," I began. "When he heard me say I was not satisfied with the Verdict, he might have felt alarmed--"
"He might have felt alarmed at the possible consequences to your husband of reopening the inquiry," said Mr. Playmore, ironically finishing the sentence for me. "Rather far-fetched, Mrs. Eustace; and not very consistent with your faith in your husband's innocence. Clear your mind of one mistake," he continued, seriously, "which may fatally mislead you if you persist in pursuing your present course. Miserrimus Dexter, you may take my word for it, ceased to be your husband's friend on the day when your husband married his first wife. Dexter has kept up appearances, I grant you, both in public and in private. His evidence in his friend's favor at the Trial was given with the deep feeling which everybody expected from him. Nevertheless, I firmly believe, looking under the surface, that Mr. Macallan has no bitterer enemy living than Miserrimus Dexter."
He turned me cold. I felt that here, at least, he was right. My husband had wooed and won the woman who had refused Dexter's offer of marriage. Was Dexter the man to forgive that? My own experience answered me, and said, No. "Bear in mind what I have told you," Mr. Playmore proceeded. "And now let us get on to your own position in this matter, and to the interests that you have at stake. Try to adopt my point of view for the moment; and let us inquire what chance we have of making any further advance toward a discovery of the truth. It is one thing to be morally convinced (as I am) that Miserrimus Dexter is the man who ought to have been tried for the murder at Gleninch; and it is another thing, at this distance of time, to lay our hands on the plain evidence which can alone justify anything like a public assertion of his guilt. There, as I see it, is the insuperable difficulty in the case. Unless I am completely mistaken, the question is now narrowed to this plain issue: The public assertion of your husband's innocence depends entirely on the public assertion of Dexter's guilt. How are you to arrive at that result? There is not a particle of evidence against him. You can only convict Dexter on Dexter's own confession. Are you listening to me?"
I was listening, most unwillingly. If he were right, things had indeed come to that terrible pass. But I could not--with all my respect for his superior knowledge and experience--I could not persuade myself that he was right. And I owned it, with the humility which I really felt.
He smiled good-humoredly.
"At any rate," he said, "you will admit that Dexter has not freely opened his mind to you thus far? He is still keeping something from your knowledge which you are interested in discovering?"
"Yes. I admit that."
"Very good. What applies to your view of the case applies to mine. I say, he is keeping from you the confession of his guilt. You say, he is keeping from you information which may fasten the guilt on some other person. Let us start from that point. Confession, or information, how are you to get at what he is now withholding from you? What influence can you bring to bear on him when you see him again?"
"Surely I might persuade him?"
"Certainly. And if persuasion fail--what then? Do you think you can entrap him into speaking out? or terrify him into speaking out?"
"If you will look at your notes, Mr. Playmore, you will see that I have already succeeded in terrifying him--though I am only a woman and though I didn't mean to do it."
"Very well answered. You mark the trick. What you have done once you think you can do again. Well, as you are determined to try the experiment, it can do you no harm to know a little more of Dexter's character and temperament than you know now. Suppose we apply for information to somebody who can help us?"
I started, and looked round the room. He made me do it--he spoke as if the person who was to help us was close at our elbows.
"Don't be alarmed," he said. "The oracle is silent; and the oracle is here."
He unlocked one of the drawers of his desk; produced a bundle of letters, and picked out one.
"When we were arranging your husband's defense," he said, "we felt some difficulty about including Miserrimus Dexter among our witnesses. We had not the slightest suspicion of him, I need hardly tell you. But we were all afraid of his eccentricity; and some among us even feared that the excitement of appearing at the Trial might drive him completely out of his mind. In this emergency we applied to a doctor to help us. Under some pretext, which I forget now, we introduced him to Dexter. And in due course of time we received his report. Here it is."
He opened the letter, and marking a certain passage in it with a pencil, handed it to me.
"Read the lines which I have marked," he said; "they will be quite sufficient for our purpose."
I read these words:
"Summing up the results of my observation, I may give it as my opinion that there is undoubtedly latent insanity in this case, but that no active symptoms of madness have presented themselves as yet. You may, I think, produce him at the Trial, without fear of consequences. He may say and do all sorts of odd things; but he has his mind under the control of his will, and you may trust his self-esteem to exhibit him in the character of a substantially intelligent witness.
"As to the future, I am, of course, not able to speak positively. I can only state my views.
"That he will end in madness (if he live), I entertain little or no doubt. The question of when the madness will show itself depends entirely on the state of his health. His nervous system is highly sensitive, and there are signs that his way of life has already damaged it. If he conquer the bad habits to which I have alluded in an earlier part of my report, and if he pass many hours of every day quietly in the open air, he may last as a sane man for years to come. If he persist in his present way of life--or, in other words, if further mischief occur to that sensitive nervous system--his lapse into insanity must infallibly take place when the mischief has reached its culminating point. Without warning to himself or to others, the whole mental structure will give way; and, at a moment's notice, while he is acting as quietly or speaking as intelligently as at his best time, the man will drop (if I may use the expression) into madness or idiocy. In either case, when the catastrophe has happened, it is only due to his friends to add that they can (as I believe) entertain no hope of his cure. The balance once lost, will be lost for life."
There it ended. Mr. Playmore put the letter back in his drawer.
"You have just read the opinion of one of our highest living authorities," he said. "Does Dexter strike you as a likely man to give his nervous system a chance of recovery? Do you see no obstacles and no perils in your way?"
My silence answered him.
"Suppose you go back to Dexter," he proceeded. "And suppose that the doctor's opinion exaggerates the peril in his case. What are you to do? The last time you saw him, you had the immense advantage of taking him by surprise. Those sensitive nerves of his gave way, and he betrayed the fear that you aroused in him. Can you take him by surprise again? Not you! He is prepared for you now; and he will be on his guard. If you encounter nothing worse, you will have his cunning to deal with next. Are you his match at that? But for Lady Clarinda he would have hopelessly misled you on the subject of Mrs. Beauly."
There was no answering this, either. I was foolish enough to try to answer it, for all that.
"He told me the truth so far as he knew it," I rejoined. "He really saw what he said he saw in the corridor at Gleninch."
"He told you the truth," returned Mr. Playmore, "because he was cunning enough to see that the truth would help him in irritating your suspicions. You don't really believe that he shared your suspicions?"
"Why not?" I said. "He was as ignorant of what Mrs. Beauly was really doing on that night as I was--until I met Lady Clarinda. It remains to be seen whether he will not be as much astonished as I was when I tell him what Lady Clarinda told me."
This smart reply produced an effect which I had not anticipated.
To my surprise, Mr. Playmore abruptly dropped all further discussion on his side. He appeared to despair of convincing me, and he owned it indirectly in his next words.
"Will nothing that I can say to you," he asked, "induce you to think as I think in this matter?"
"I have not your ability or your experience," I answered. "I am sorry to say I can't think as you think."
"And you are really determined to see Miserrimus Dexter again?"
"I have engaged myself to see him again."
He waited a little, and thought over it.
"You have honored me by asking for my advice," he said. "I earnestly advise you, Mrs. Eustace, to break your engagement. I go even further than that--I entreat you not to see Dexter again."
Just what my mother-in-law had said! just what Benjamin and Major Fitz-David had said! They were all against me. And still I held out.
I wonder, when I look back at it, at my own obstinacy. I am almost ashamed to relate that I made Mr. Playmore no reply. He waited, still looking at me. I felt irritated by that fixed look. I arose, and stood before him with my eyes on the floor.
He arose in his turn. He understood that the conference was over.
"Well, well," he said, with a kind of sad good-humor, "I suppose it is unreasonable of me to expect that a young woman like you should share any opinion with an old lawyer like me. Let me only remind you that our conversation must remain strictly confidential for the present; and then let us change the subject. Is there anything that I can do for you? Are you alone in Edinburgh?"
"No. I am traveling with an old friend of mine, who has known me from childhood."
"And do you stay here to-morrow?"
"I think so."
"Will you do me one favor? Will you think over what has passed between us, and will you come back to me in the morning?"
"Willingly, Mr. Playmore, if it is only to thank you again for your kindness."
On that understanding we parted. He sighed--the cheerful man sighed, as he opened the door for me. Women are contradictory creatures. That sigh affected me more than all his arguments. I felt myself blush for my own head-strong resistance to him as I took my leave and turned away into the street.
(I had of course respected Mr. Playmore's confidence in me when Benjamin and I met on my return to the hotel. Not a word relating to the lawyer's horrible suspicion of Miserrimus Dexter had passed my lips.)
"You must forgive me, my old friend," I said, answering Benjamin. "I am afraid it has come to this--try as I may, I can listen to nobody who advises me. On our way here I honestly meant to be guided by Mr. Playmore--we should never have taken this long journey if I had not honestly meant it. I have tried, tried hard to be a teachable, reasonable woman. But there is something in me that won't be taught. I am afraid I shall go back to Dexter."
Even Benjamin lost all patience with me this time.
"What is bred in the bone," he said, quoting the old proverb, "will never come out of the flesh. In years gone by, you were the most obstinate child that ever made a mess in a nursery. Oh, dear me, we might as well have stayed in London."
"No," I replied, "now we have traveled to Edinburgh, we will see something (interesting to me at any rate) which we should never have seen if we had not left London. My husband's country-house is within a few miles of us here. To-morrow--we will go to Gleninch."
"Where the poor lady was poisoned?" asked Benjamin, with a look of dismay. "You mean that place?"
"Yes. I want to see the room in which she died; I want to go all over the house."
Benjamin crossed his hands resignedly on his lap. "I try to understand the new generation," said the old man, sadly; "but I can't manage it. The new generation beats me."
I sat down to write to Mr. Playmore about the visit to Gleninch. The house in which the tragedy had occurred that had blighted my husband's life was, to my mind, the most interesting house on the habitable globe. The prospect of visiting Gleninch had, indeed (to tell the truth), strongly influenced my resolution to consult the Edinburgh lawyer. I sent my note to Mr. Playmore by a messenger, and received the kindest reply in return. If I would wait until the afternoon, he would get the day's business done, and would take us to Gleninch in his own carriage.
Benjamin's obstinacy--in its own quiet way, and on certain occasions only--was quite a match for mine. He had privately determined, as one of the old generation, to have nothing to do with Gleninch. Not a word on the subject escaped him until Mr. Playmore's carriage was at the hotel door. At that appropriate moment Benjamin remembered an old friend of his in Edinburgh. "Will you please to excuse me, Valeria? My friend's name is Saunders; and he will take it unkindly of me if I don't dine with him to-day."
Apart from the associations that I connected with it, there was nothing to interest a traveler at Gleninch.
The country around was pretty and well cultivated, and nothing more. The park was, to an English eye, wild and badly kept. The house had been built within the last seventy or eighty years. Outside, it was as bare of all ornament as a factory, and as gloomily heavy in effect as a prison. Inside, the deadly dreariness, the close, oppressive solitude of a deserted dwelling wearied the eye and weighed on the mind, from the roof to the basement. The house had been shut up since the time of the Trial. A lonely old couple, man and wife, had the keys and the charge of it. The man shook his head in silent and sorrowful disapproval of our intrusion when Mr. Playmore ordered him to open the doors and shutters, and let the light in on the dark, deserted place. Fires were burning in the library and the picture-gallery, to preserve the treasures which they contained from the damp. It was not easy, at first, to look at the cheerful blaze without fancying that the inhabitants of the house must surely come in and warm themselves. Ascending to the upper floor, I saw the rooms made familiar to me by the Report of the Trial. I entered the little study, with the old books on the shelves, and the key still missing from the locked door of communication with the bedchamber. I looked into the room in which the unhappy mistress of Gleninch had suffered and died. The bed was left in its place; the sofa on which the nurse had snatched her intervals of repose was at its foot; the Indian cabinet, in which the crumpled paper with the grains of arsenic had been found, still held its little collection of curiosities. I moved on its pivot the invalid-table on which she had taken her meals and written her poems, poor soul. The place was dreary and dreadful; the heavy air felt as if it were still burdened with its horrid load of misery and distrust. I was glad to get out (after a passing glance at the room which Eustace had occupied in those days) into the Guests' Corridor. There was the bedroom, at the door of which Miserrimus Dexter had waited and watched. There was the oaken floor along which he had hopped, in his horrible way, following the footsteps of the servant disguised in her mistress's clothes. Go where I might, the ghosts of the dead and the absent were with me, step by step. Go where I might, the lonely horror of the house had its still and awful voice for Me: "I keep the secret of the Poison! I hide the mystery of the death!"
The oppression of the place became unendurable. I longed for the pure sky and the free air. My companion noticed and understood me.
"Come," he said. "We have had enough of the house. Let us look at the grounds."
In the gray quiet of the evening we roamed about the lonely gardens, and threaded our way through the rank, neglected shrubberies. Wandering here and wandering there, we drifted into the kitchen garden--with one little patch still sparely cultivated by the old man and his wife, and all the rest a wilderness of weeds. Beyond the far end of the garden, divided from it by a low paling of wood, there stretched a patch of waste ground, sheltered on three sides by trees. In one lost corner of the ground an object, common enough elsewhere, attracted my attention here. The object was a dust-heap. The great size of it, and the curious situation in which it was placed, aroused a moment's languid curiosity in me. I stopped, and looked at the dust and ashes, at the broken crockery and the old iron. Here there was a torn hat, and there some fragments of rotten old boots, and scattered around a small attendant litter of torn paper and frowzy rags.
"What are you looking at?" asked Mr. Playmore.
"At nothing more remarkable than the dust-heap," I answered.
"In tidy England, I suppose, you would have all that carted away out of sight," said the lawyer. "We don't mind in Scotland, as long as the dust-heap is far enough away not to be smelt at the house. Besides, some of it, sifted, comes in usefully as manure for the garden. Here the place is deserted, and the rubbish in consequence has not been disturbed. Everything at Gleninch, Mrs. Eustace (the big dust-heap included), is waiting for the new mistress to set it to rights. One of these days you may be queen here--who knows?"
"I shall never see this place again," I said.
"Never is a long day," returned my companion. "And time has its surprises in store for all of us."
We turned away, and walked back in silence to the park gate, at which the carriage was waiting.
On the return to Edinburgh, Mr. Playmore directed the conversation to topics entirely unconnected with my visit to Gleninch. He saw that my mind stood in need of relief; and he most good-naturedly, and successfully, exerted himself to amuse me. It was not until we were close to the city that he touched on the subject of my return to London.
"Have you decided yet on the day when you leave Edinburgh?" he asked.
"We leave Edinburgh," I replied, "by the train of to-morrow morning."
"Do you still see no reason to alter the opinions which you expressed yesterday? Does your speedy departure mean that?"
"I am afraid it does, Mr. Playmore. When I am an older woman, I may be a wiser woman. In the meantime, I can only trust to your indulgence if I still blindly blunder on in my own way."
He smiled pleasantly, and patted my hand--then changed on a sudden, and looked at me gravely and attentively before he opened his lips again.
"This is my last opportunity of speaking to you before you go," he said. "May I speak freely?"
"As freely as you please, Mr. Playmore. Whatever you may say to me will only add to my grateful sense of your kindness."
"I have very little to say, Mrs. Eustace--and that little begins with a word of caution. You told me yesterday that, when you paid your last visit to Miserrimus Dexter, you went to him alone. Don't do that again. Take somebody with you."
"Do you think I am in any danger, then?"
"Not in the ordinary sense of the word. I only think that a friend may be useful in keeping Dexter's audacity (he is one of the most impudent men living) within proper limits. Then, again, in case anything worth remembering and acting on should fall from him in his talk, a friend may be valuable as witness. In your place, I should have a witness with me who could take notes--but then I am a lawyer, and my business is to make a fuss about trifles. Let me only say--go with a companion when you next visit Dexter; and be on your guard against yourself when your talk turns on Mrs. Beauly."
"On my guard against myself? What do you mean?"
"Practice, my dear Mrs. Eustace, has given me an eye for the little weaknesses of human nature. You are (quite naturally) disposed to be jealous of Mrs. Beauly; and you are, in consequence, not in full possession of your excellent common-sense when Dexter uses that lady as a means of blindfolding you. Am I speaking too freely?"
"Certainly not. It is very degrading to me to be jealous of Mrs. Beauly. My vanity suffers dreadfully when I think of it. But my common-sense yields to conviction. I dare say you are right."
"I am delighted to find that we agree on one point," he rejoined, dryly. "I don't despair yet of convincing you in that far more serious matter which is still in dispute between us. And, what is more, if you will throw no obstacles in the way, I look to Dexter himself to help me."
This aroused my curiosity. How Miserrimus Dexter could help him, in that or in any other way, was a riddle beyond my reading.
"You propose to repeat to Dexter all that Lady Clarinda told you about Mrs. Beauly," he went on. "And you think it is likely that Dexter will be overwhelmed, as you were overwhelmed, when he hears the story. I am going to venture on a prophecy. I say that Dexter will disappoint you. Far from showing any astonishment, he will boldly tell you that you have been duped by a deliberately false statement of facts, invented and set afloat, in her own guilty interests, by Mrs. Beauly. Now tell me--if he really try, in that way, to renew your unfounded suspicion of an innocent woman, will that shake your confidence in your own opinion?"
"It will entirely destroy my confidence in my own opinion, Mr. Playmore."
"Very good. I shall expect you to write to me, in any case; and I believe we shall be of one mind before the week is out. Keep strictly secret all that I said to you yesterday about Dexter. Don't even mention my name when you see him. Thinking of him as I think now, I would as soon touch the hand of the hangman as the hand of that monster! God bless you! Good-by."
So he said his farewell words, at the door of the hotel. Kind, genial, clever--but oh, how easily prejudiced, how shockingly obstinate in holding to his own opinion! And what an opinion! I shuddered as I thought of it.
MR. PLAYMORE'S PROPHECY.
Arriving at the villa, we were obliged to wait for a moment to let a pony-chaise get by us before we could draw up at Benjamin's door. The chaise passed very slowly, driven by a rough-looking man, with a pipe in his mouth. But for the man, I might have doubted whether the pony was quite a stranger to me. As things were, I thought no more of the matter.
Benjamin's respectable old housekeeper opened the garden gate, and startled me by bursting into a devout ejaculation of gratitude at the sight of her master. "The Lord be praised, sir!" she cried; "I thought you would never come back!"
"Anything wrong?" asked Benjamin, in his own impenetrably quiet way.
The housekeeper trembled at the question, and answered in these enigmatical words:
"My mind's upset, sir; and whether things are wrong or whether things are right is more than I can say. Hours ago, a strange man came in and asked"--she stopped, as if she were completely bewildered--looked for a moment vacantly at her master--and suddenly addressed herself to me. "And asked," she proceeded, "when you was expected back, ma'am. I told him what my master had telegraphed, and the man says upon that, 'Wait a bit,' he says; 'I'm coming back.' He came back in a minute or less; and he carried a Thing in his arms which curdled my blood--it did!--and set me shaking from the crown of my head to the sole of my foot. I know I ought to have stopped it; but I couldn't stand upon my legs, much less put the man out of the house. In he went, without 'with your leave,' or 'by your leave,' Mr. Benjamin, sir--in he went, with the Thing in his arms, straight through to your library. And there It has been all these hours. And there It is now. I've spoken to the police; but they wouldn't interfere; and what to do next is more than my poor head can tell. Don't you go in by yourself, ma'am! You'll be frightened out of your wits--you will!"
I persisted in entering the house, for all that. Aided by the pony, I easily solved the mystery of the housekeeper's otherwise unintelligible narrative. Passing through the dining-room (where the supper-table was already laid for us), I looked through the half-opened library door.
Yes, there was Miserrimus Dexter, arrayed in his pink jacket, fast asleep in Benjamin's favorite arm-chair! No coverlet hid his horrible deformity. Nothing was sacrificed to conventional ideas of propriety in his extraordinary dress. I could hardly wonder that the poor old housekeeper trembled from head to foot when she spoke of him.
"Valeria," said Benjamin, pointing to the Portent in the chair. "Which is it--an Indian idol, or a man?"
I have already described Miserrimus Dexter as possessing the sensitive ear of a dog: he now allowed that he also slept the light sleep of a dog. Quietly as Benjamin had spoken, the strange voice aroused him on the instant. He rubbed his eyes, and smiled as innocently as a waking child.
"How do you do, Mrs. Valeria?" he said. "I have had a nice little sleep. You don't know how happy I am to see you again. Who is this?"
He rubbed his eyes once more, and looked at Benjamin. Not knowing what else to do in this extraordinary emergency, I presented my visitor to the master of the house.
"Excuse my getting up, sir," said Miserrimus Dexter. "I can't get up--I have no legs. You look as if you thought I was occupying your chair? If I am committing an intrusion, be so good as to put your umbrella under me, and give me a jerk. I shall fall on my hands, and I shan't be offended with you. I will submit to a tumble and a scolding--but please don't break my heart by sending me away. That beautiful woman there can be very cruel sometimes, sir, when the fit takes her. She went away when I stood in the sorest need of a little talk with her--she went away, and left me to my loneliness and my suspense. I am a poor deformed wretch, with a warm heart, and, perhaps, an insatiable curiosity as well. Insatiable curiosity (have you ever felt it?) is a curse. I bore it until my brains began to boil in my head; and then I sent for my gardener, and made him drive me here. I like being here. The air of your library soothes me; the sight of Mrs. Valeria is balm to my wounded heart. She has something to tell me--something that I am dying to hear. If she is not too tired after her journey, and if you will let her tell it, I promise to have myself taken away when she has done. Dear Mr. Benjamin, you look like the refuge of the afflicted. I am afflicted. Shake hands like a good Christian, and take me in."
He held out his hand. His soft blue eyes melted into an expression of piteous entreaty. Completely stupefied by the amazing harangue of which he had been made the object, Benjamin took the offered hand, with the air of a man in a dream. "I hope I see you well, sir," he said, mechanically--and then looked around at me, to know what he was to do next.
"I understand Mr. Dexter," I whispered. "Leave him to me."
Benjamin stole a last bewildered look at the object in the chair; bowed to it, with the instinct of politeness which never failed him; and (still with the air of a man in a dream) withdrew into the next room.
Left together, we looked at each other, for the first moment, in silence.
Whether I unconsciously drew on that inexhaustible store of indulgence which a woman always keeps in reserve for a man who owns that he has need of her, or whether, resenting as I did Mr. Playmore's horrible suspicion of him, my heart was especially accessible to feelings of compassion in his unhappy case, I cannot tell. I only know that I pitied Miserrimus Dexter at that moment as I had never pitied him yet; and that I spared him the reproof which I should certainly have administered to any other man who had taken the liberty of establishing himself, uninvited, in Benjamin's house.
He was the first to speak.
"Lady Clarinda has destroyed your confidence in me!" he began, wildly.
"Lady Clarinda has done nothing of the sort," I replied. "She has not attempted to influence my opinion. I was really obliged to leave London, as I told you."
He sighed, and closed his eyes contentedly, as if I had relieved him of a heavy weight of anxiety.
"Be merciful to me," he said, "and tell me something more. I have been so miserable in your absence." He suddenly opened his eyes again, and looked at me with an appearance of the greatest interest. "Are you very much fatigued by traveling?" he proceeded. "I am hungry for news of what happened at the Major's dinner party. Is it cruel of me to tell you so, when you have not rested after your journey? Only one question to-night, and I will leave the rest till to-morrow. What did Lady Clarinda say about Mrs. Beauly? All that you wanted to hear?"
"All, and more," I answered.
"What? what? what?" he cried wild with impatience in a moment.
Mr. Playmore's last prophetic words were vividly present to my mind. He had declared, in the most positive manner, that Dexter would persist in misleading me, and would show no signs of astonishment when I repeated what Lady Clarinda had told me of Mrs. Beauly. I resolved to put the lawyer's prophecy--so far as the question of astonishment was concerned--to the sharpest attainable test. I said not a word to Miserrimus Dexter in the way of preface or preparation: I burst on him with my news as abruptly as possible.
"The person you saw in the corridor was not Mrs. Beauly," I said. "It was the maid, dressed in her mistress's cloak and hat. Mrs. Beauly herself was not in the house at all. Mrs. Beauly herself was dancing at a masked ball in Edinburgh. There is what the maid told Lady Clarinda; and there is what Lady Clarinda told me."
In the absorbing interest of the moment, I poured out those words one after another as fast as they would pass my lips. Miserrimus Dexter completely falsified the lawyer's prediction. He shuddered under the shock. His eyes opened wide with amazement. "Say it again!" he cried. "I can't take it all in at once. You stun me."
I was more than contented with this result--I triumphed in my victory. For once, I had really some reason to feel satisfied with myself. I had taken the Christian and merciful side in my discussion with Mr. Playmore; and I had won my reward. I could sit in the same room with Miserrimus Dexter, and feel the blessed conviction that I was not breathing the same air with a poisoner. Was it not worth the visit to Edinburgh to have made sure of that?
In repeating, at his own desire, what I had already said to him, I took care to add the details which made Lady Clarinda's narrative coherent and credible. He listened throughout with breathless attention--here and there repeating the words after me, to impress them the more surely and the more deeply on his mind.
"What is to be said? what is to be done?" he asked, with a look of blank despair. "I can't disbelieve it. From first to last, strange as it is, it sounds true."
(How would Mr. Playmore have felt if he had heard those words? I did him the justice to believe that he would have felt heartily ashamed of himself.)
"There is nothing to be said," I rejoined, "except that Mrs. Beauly is innocent, and that you and I have done her a grievous wrong. Don't you agree with me?"
"I entirely agree with you," he answered, without an instant's hesitation. "Mrs. Beauly is an innocent woman. The defense at the Trial was the right defense after all."
He folded his arms complacently; he looked perfectly satisfied to leave the matter there.
I was not of his mind. To my own amazement, I now found myself the least reasonable person of the two!
Miserrimus Dexter (to use the popular phrase) had given me more than I had bargained for. He had not only done all that I had anticipated in the way of falsifying Mr. Playmore's prediction--he had actually advanced beyond my limits. I could go the length of recognizing Mrs. Beauly's innocence; but at that point I stopped. If the Defense at the Trial were the right defense, farewell to all hope of asserting my husband's innocence. I held to that hope as I held to my love and my life.
"Speak for yourself," I said. "My opinion of the Defense remains unchanged."
He started, and knit his brows as if I had disappointed and displeased him.
"Does that mean that you are determined to go on?"
He was downright angry with me. He cast his customary politeness to the winds.
"Absurd! impossible!" he cried, contemptuously. "You have yourself declared that we wronged an innocent woman when we suspected Mrs. Beauly. Is there any one else whom we can suspect? It is ridiculous to ask the question. There is no alternative left but to accept the facts as they are, and to stir no further in the matter of the poisoning at Gleninch. It is childish to dispute plain conclusions. You must give up."
"You may be angry with me if you will, Mr. Dexter. Neither your anger nor your arguments will make me give up."
He controlled himself by an effort--he was quiet and polite again when he next spoke to me.
"Very well. Pardon me for a moment if I absorb myself in my own thoughts. I want to do something which I have not done yet."
"What may that be, Mr. Dexter?"
"I am going to put myself into Mrs. Beauly's skin, and to think with Mrs. Beauly's mind. Give me a minute. Thank you."
What did he mean? what new transformation of him was passing before my eyes? Was there ever such a puzzle of a man as this? Who that saw him now, intently pursuing his new train of thought, would have recognized him as the childish creature who had awoke so innocently, and had astonished Benjamin by the infantine nonsense which he talked? It is said, and said truly, that there are many sides to every human character. Dexter's many sides were developing themselves at such a rapid rate of progress that they were already beyond my counting.
He lifted his head, and fixed a look of keen inquiry on me.
"I have come out of Mrs. Beauly's skin," he announced. "And I have arrived at this result: We are two impetuous people; and we have been a little hasty in rushing at a conclusion."
He stopped. I said nothing. Was the shadow of a doubt of him beginning to rise in my mind? I waited, and listened.
"I am as fully satisfied as ever of the truth of what Lady Clarinda told you," he proceeded. "But I see, on consideration, what I failed to see at the time. The story admits of two interpretations--one on the surface, and another under the surface. I look under the surface, in your interests; and I say, it is just possible that Mrs. Beauly may have been cunning enough to forestall suspicion, and to set up an Alibi."
I am ashamed to own that I did not understand what he meant by the last word--Alibi. He saw that I was not following him, and spoke out more plainly.
"Was the maid something more than her mistress's passive accomplice?" he said. "Was she the Hand that her mistress used? Was she on her way to give the first dose of poison when she passed me in this corridor? Did Mrs. Beauly spend the night in Edinburgh--so as to have her defense ready, if suspicion fell upon her?"
My shadowy doubt of him became substantial doubt when I heard that. Had I absolved him a little too readily? Was he really trying to renew my suspicions of Mrs. Beauly, as Mr. Playmore had foretold? This time I was obliged to answer him. In doing so, I unconsciously employed one of the phrases which the lawyer had used to me during my first interview with him.
"That sounds rather far-fetched, Mr. Dexter," I said.
To my relief, he made no attempt to defend the new view that he had advanced.
"It is far-fetched," he admitted. "When I said it was just possible--though I didn't claim much for my idea--I said more for it perhaps than it deserved. Dismiss my view as ridiculous; what are you to do next? If Mrs. Beauly is not the poisoner (either by herself or by her maid), who is? She is innocent, and Eustace is innocent. Where is the other person whom you can suspect? Have I poisoned her?" he cried, with his eyes flashing, and his voice rising to its highest notes. "Do you, does anybody, suspect Me? I loved her; I adored her; I have never been the same man since her death. Hush! I will trust you with a secret. (Don't tell your husband; it might be the destruction of our friendship.) I would have married her, before she met with Eustace, if she would have taken me. When the doctors told me she had died poisoned--ask Doctor Jerome what I suffered; he can tell you! All through that horrible night I was awake; watching my opportunity until I found my way to her. I got into the room, and took my last leave of the cold remains of the angel whom I loved. I cried over her. I kissed her for the first and last time. I stole one little lock of her hair. I have worn it ever since; I have kissed it night and day. Oh, God! the room comes back to me! the dead face comes back to me! Look! look!"
He tore from its place of concealment in his bosom a little locket, fastened by a ribbon around his neck. He threw it to me where I sat, and burst into a passion of tears.
A man in my place might have known what to do. Being only a woman, I yielded to the compassionate impulse of the moment.
I got up and crossed the room to him. I gave him back his locket, and put my hand, without knowing what I was about, on the poor wretch's shoulder. "I am incapable of suspecting you, Mr. Dexter," I said, gently. "No such idea ever entered my head. I pity you from the bottom of my heart."
He caught my hand in his, and devoured it with kisses. His lips burned me like fire. He twisted himself suddenly in the chair, and wound his arm around my waist. In the terror and indignation of the moment, vainly struggling with him, I cried out for help.
The door opened, and Benjamin appeared on the threshold.
Dexter let go his hold of me.
I ran to Benjamin, and prevented him from advancing into the room. In all my long experience of my fatherly old friend I had never seen him really angry yet. I saw him more than angry now. He was pale--the patient, gentle old man was pale with rage! I held him at the door with all my strength.
"You can't lay your hand on a cripple," I said. "Send for the man outside to take him a way."
I drew Benjamin out of the room, and closed and locked the library door. The housekeeper was in the dining-room. I sent her out to call the driver of the pony-chaise into the house.
The man came in--the rough man whom I had noticed when we were approaching the garden gate. Benjamin opened the library door in stern silence. It was perhaps unworthy of me, but I could not resist the temptation to look in.
Miserrimus Dexter had sunk down in the chair. The rough man lifted his master with a gentleness that surprised me. "Hide my face," I heard Dexter say to him, in broken tones. He opened his coarse pilot-jacket, and hid his master's head under it, and so went silently out--with the deformed creature held to his bosom, like a woman sheltering her child.
The outrage that had been offered to me was bad enough in itself. But consequences were associated with it which might affect me more seriously still. In so far as the attainment of the one object of my life might yet depend on my personal association with Miserrimus Dexter, an insurmountable obstacle appeared to be now placed in my way. Even in my husband's interests, ought I to permit a man who had grossly insulted me to approach me again? Although I was no prude, I recoiled from the thought of it.
I arose late, and sat down at my desk, trying to summon energy enough to write to Mr. Playmore--and trying in vain.
Toward noon (while Benjamin happened to be out for a little while) the housekeeper announced the arrival of another strange visitor at the gate of the villa.
"It's a woman this time, ma'am--or something like one," said this worthy person, confidentially. "A great, stout, awkward, stupid creature, with a man's hat on and a man's stick in her hand. She says she has got a note for you, and she won't give it to anybody but you. I'd better not let her in--had I?"
Recognizing the original of the picture, I astonished the housekeeper by consenting to receive the messenger immediately.
Ariel entered the room--in stolid silence, as usual. But I noticed a change in her which puzzled me. Her dull eyes were red and bloodshot. Traces of tears (as I fancied) were visible on her fat, shapeless cheeks. She crossed the room, on her way to my chair, with a less determined tread than was customary with her. Could Ariel (I asked myself) be woman enough to cry? Was it within the limits of possibility that Ariel should approach me in sorrow and in fear?
"I hear you have brought something for me?" I said. "Won't you sit down?"
She handed me a letter--without answering and without taking a chair. I opened the envelope. The letter inside was written by Miserrimus Dexter. It contained these lines:
"Try to pity me, if you have any pity left for a miserable man; I have bitterly expiated the madness of a moment. If you could see me--even you would own that my punishment has been heavy enough. For God's sake, don't abandon me! I was beside myself when I let the feeling that you have awakened in me get the better of my control. It shall never show itself again; it shall be a secret that dies with me. Can I expect you to believe this? No. I won't ask you to believe me; I won't ask you to trust me in the future. If you ever consent to see me again, let it be in the presence of any third person whom you may appoint to protect you. I deserve that--I will submit to it; I will wait till time has composed your angry feeling against me. All I ask now is leave to hope. Say to Ariel, 'I forgive him; and one day I will let him see me again.' She will remember it, for love of me. If you send her back without a message, you send me to the mad-house. Ask her, if you don't believe me.
I finished the strange letter, and looked at Ariel.
She stood with her eyes on the floor, and held out to me the thick walking-stick which she carried in her hand.
"Take the stick" were the first words she said to me.
"Why am I to take it?" I asked.
She struggled a little with her sluggishly working mind, and slowly put her thoughts into words.
"You're angry with the Master," she said. "Take it out on Me. Here's the stick. Beat me."
"Beat you!" I exclaimed.
"My back's broad," said the poor creature. "I won't make a row. I'll bear it. Drat you, take the stick! Don't vex him. Whack it out on my back. Beat me."
She roughly forced the stick into my hand; she turned her poor shapeless shoulders to me; waiting for the blow. It was at once dreadful and touching to see her. The tears rose in my eyes. I tried, gently and patiently, to reason with her. Quite useless! The idea of taking the Master's punishment on herself was the one idea in her mind. "Don't vex him," she repeated. "Beat me."
"What do you mean by 'vexing him'?" I asked.
She tried to explain, and failed to find the words. She showed me by imitation, as a savage might have shown me, what she meant. Striding to the fire-place, she crouched on the rug, and looked into the fire with a horrible vacant stare. Then she clasped her hands over her forehead, and rocked slowly to and fro, still staring into the fire. "There's how he sits!" she said, with a sudden burst of speech. "Hours on hours, there's how he sits! Notices nobody. Cries about you."
The picture she presented recalled to my memory the Report of Dexter's health, and the doctor's plain warning of peril waiting for him in the future.
Even if I could have resisted Ariel, I must have yielded to the vague dread of consequences which now shook me in secret.
"Don't do that!" I cried. She was still rocking herself in imitation of the "Master," and still staring into the fire with her hands to her head. "Get up, pray! I am not angry with him now. I forgive him."
She rose on her hands and knees, and waited, looking up intently into my face. In that attitude--more like a dog than a human being--she repeated her customary petition when she wanted to fix words that interested her in her mind.
"Say it again!"
I did as she bade me. She was not satisfied.
"Say it as it is in the letter," she went on. "Say it as the Master said it to Me."
I looked back at the letter, and repeated the form of message contained in the latter part of it, word for word:
"I forgive him; and one day I will let him see me again."
She sprang to her feet at a bound. For the first time since she had entered the room her dull face began to break slowly into light and life.
"That's it!" she cried. "Hear if I can say it, too; hear if I've got it by heart."
Teaching her exactly as I should have taught a child, I slowly fastened the message, word by word, on her mind.
"Now rest yourself," I said; "and let me give you something to eat and drink after your long walk."
I might as well have spoken to one of the chairs. She snatched up her stick from the floor, and burst out with a hoarse shout of joy. "I've got it by heart!" she cried. "This will cool the Master's head! Hooray!" She dashed out into the passage like a wild animal escaping from its cage. I was just in time to see her tear open the garden gate, and set forth on her walk back at a pace which made it hopeless to attempt to follow and stop her.
I returned to the sitting-room, pondering on a question which has perplexed wiser heads than mine. Could a man who was hopelessly and entirely wicked have inspired such devoted attachment to him as Dexter had inspired in the faithful woman who had just left me? in the rough gardener who had carried him out so gently on the previous night? Who can decide? The greatest scoundrel living always has a friend--in a woman or a dog.
I sat down again at my desk, and made another attempt to write to Mr. Playmore.
Recalling, for the purpose of my letter, all that Miserrimus Dexter had said to me, my memory dwelt with special interest on the strange outbreak of feeling which had led him to betray the secret of his infatuation for Eustace's first wife. I saw again the ghastly scene in the death-chamber--the deformed creature crying over the corpse in the stillness of the first dark hours of the new day. The horrible picture took a strange hold on my mind. I arose, and walked up and down, and tried to turn my thoughts some other way. It was not to be done: the scene was too familiar to me to be easily dismissed. I had myself visited the room and looked at the bed. I had myself walked in the corridor which Dexter had crossed on his way to take his last leave of her.
The corridor? I stopped. My thoughts suddenly took a new direction, uninfluenced by any effort of my will.
What other association besides the association with Dexter did I connect with the corridor? Was it something I had seen during my visit to Gleninch? No. Was it something I had read? I snatched up the Report of the Trial to see. It opened at a page which contained the nurse's evidence. I read the evidence through again, without recovering the lost remembrance until I came to these lines close at the end:
"Before bed-time I went upstairs to prepare the remains of the deceased lady for the coffin. The room in which she lay was locked; the door leading into Mr. Macallan's room being secured, as well as the door leading into the corridor. The keys had been taken away by Mr. Gale. Two of the men-servants were posted outside the bedroom to keep watch. They were to be relieved at four in the morning--that was all they could tell me."
There was my lost association with the corridor! There was what I ought to have remembered when Miserrimus Dexter was telling me of his visit to the dead!
How had he got into the bedroom--the doors being locked, and the keys being taken away by Mr. Gale? There was but one of the locked doors of which Mr. Gale had not got the key--the door of communication between the study and the bedroom. The key was missing from this. Had it been stolen? And was Dexter the thief? He might have passed by the men on the watch while they were asleep, or he might have crossed the corridor in an unguarded interval while the men were being relieved. But how could he have got into the bedchamber except by way of the locked study door? He must have had the key! And he must have secreted it weeks before Mrs. Eustace Macallan's death! When the nurse first arrived at Gleninch, on the seventh of the month, her evidence declared the key of the door of communication to be then missing.
To what conclusion did these considerations and discoveries point? Had Miserrimus Dexter, in a moment of ungovernable agitation, unconsciously placed the clew in my hands? Was the pivot on which turned the whole mystery of the poisoning at Gleninch the missing key?
I went back for the third time to my desk. The one person who might be trusted to find the answer to those questions was Mr. Playmore. I wrote him a full and careful account of all that had happened; I begged him to forgive and forget my ungracious reception of the advice which he had so kindly offered to me; and I promised beforehand to do nothing without first consulting his opinion in the new emergency which now confronted me.
The day was fine for the time of year; and by way of getting a little wholesome exercise after the surprises and occupations of the morning, I took my letter to Mr. Playmore to the post.
Returning to the villa, I was informed that another visitor was waiting to see me: a civilized visitor this time, who had given her name. My mother-in-law--Mrs. Macallan.
AT THE BEDSIDE.
"Eustace?" I said.
She answered me by a look.
"Let me hear it at once!" I cried. "I can bear anything but suspense."
Mrs. Macallan lifted her hand, and showed me a telegraphic dispatch which she had hitherto kept concealed in the folds of her dress.
"I can trust your courage," she said. "There is no need, my child, to prevaricate with you. Read that."
I read the telegram. It was sent by the chief surgeon of a field-hospital; and it was dated from a village in the north of Spain.
"Mr. Eustace severely wounded in a skirmish by a stray shot. Not in danger, so far. Every care taken of him. Wait for another telegram."
I turned away my face, and bore as best I might the pang that wrung me when I read those words. I thought I knew how dearly I loved him: I had never known it till that moment.
My mother-in-law put her arm round me, and held me to her tenderly. She knew me well enough not to speak to me at that moment.
I rallied my courage, and pointed to the last sentence in the telegram.
"Do you mean to wait?" I asked.
"Not a day!" she answered. "I am going to the Foreign Office about my passport--I have some interest there: they can give me letters; they can advise and assist me. I leave to-night by the mail train to Calais."
"You leave?" I said. "Do you suppose I will let you go without me? Get my passport when you get yours. At seven this evening I will be at your house."
She attempted to remonstrate; she spoke of the perils of the journey. At the first words I stopped her. "Don't you know yet, mother, how obstinate I am? They may keep you waiting at the Foreign Office. Why do you waste the precious hours here?"
She yielded with a gentleness that was not in her everyday character. "Will my poor Eustace ever know what a wife he has got?" That was all she said. She kissed me, and went away in her carriage.
My remembrances of our journey are strangely vague and imperfect.
As I try to recall them, the memory of those more recent and more interesting events which occurred after my return to England gets between me and my adventures in Spain, and seems to force these last into a shadowy background, until they look like adventures that happened many years since. I confusedly recollect delays and alarms that tried our patience and our courage. I remember our finding friends (thanks to our letters of recommendation) in a Secretary to the Embassy and in a Queen's Messenger, who assisted and protected us at a critical point in the journey. I recall to mind a long succession of men in our employment as travelers, all equally remarkable for their dirty cloaks and their clean linen, for their highly civilized courtesy to women and their utterly barbarous cruelty to horses. Last, and most important of all, I see again, more clearly than I can see anything else, the one wretched bedroom of a squalid village inn in which we found our poor darling, prostrate between life and death, insensible to everything that passed in the narrow little world that lay around his bedside.
There was nothing romantic or interesting in the accident which had put my husband's life in peril.
He had ventured too near the scene of the conflict (a miserable affair) to rescue a poor lad who lay wounded on the field--mortally wounded, as the event proved. A rifle-bullet had struck him in the body. His brethren of the field-hospital had carried him back to their quarters at the risk of their lives. He was a great favorite with all of them; patient and gentle and brave; only wanting a little more judgment to be the most valuable recruit who had joined the brotherhood.
In telling me this, the surgeon kindly and delicately added a word of warning as well.
The fever caused by the wound had brought with it delirium, as usual. My poor husband's mind, in so far as his wandering words might interpret it, was filled by the one image of his wife. The medical attendant had heard enough in the course of his ministrations at the bedside, to satisfy him that any sudden recognition of me by Eustace (if he recovered) might be attended by the most lamentable results. As things were at that sad time, I might take my turn at nursing him, without the slightest chance of his discovering me, perhaps for weeks and weeks to come. But on the day when he was declared out of danger--if that happy day ever arrived--I must resign my place at his bedside, and must wait to show myself until the surgeon gave me leave.
My mother-in-law and I relieved each other regularly, day and night, in the sick-room.
In the hours of his delirium--hours that recurred with a pitiless regularity--my name was always on my poor darling's fevered lips. The ruling idea in him was the fine dreadful idea which I had vainly combated at our last interview. In the face of the verdict pronounced at the Trial, it was impossible even for his wife to be really and truly persuaded that he was an innocent man. All the wild pictures which his distempered imagination drew were equally inspired by that one obstinate conviction. He fancied himself to be still living with me under those dreaded conditions. Do what he might, I was always recalling to him the terrible ordeal through which he had passed. He acted his part, and he acted mine. He gave me a cup of tea; and I said to him, "We quarreled yesterday, Eustace. Is it poisoned?" He kissed me, in token of our reconciliation; and I laughed, and said, "It's morning now, my dear. Shall I die by nine o'clock to-night?" I was ill in bed, and he gave me my medicine. I looked at him with a doubting eye. I said to him, "You are in love with another woman. Is there anything in the medicine that the doctor doesn't know of?" Such was the horrible drama which now perpetually acted itself in his mind. Hundreds and hundreds of times I heard him repeat it, almost always in the same words. On other occasions his thoughts wandered away to my desperate project of proving him to be an innocent man. Sometimes he laughed at it. Sometimes he mourned over it. Sometimes he devised cunning schemes for placing unsuspected obstacles in my way. He was especially hard on me when he was inventing his preventive stratagems--he cheerfully instructed the visionary people who assisted him not to hesitate at offending or distressing me. "Never mind if you make her angry; never mind if you make her cry. It's all for her good; it's all to save the poor fool from dangers she doesn't dream of. You mustn't pity her when she says she does it for my sake. See! she is going to be insulted; she is going to be deceived; she is going to disgrace herself without knowing it. Stop her! stop her!" It was weak of me, I know; I ought to have kept the plain fact that he was out of his senses always present to my mind: still it is true that my hours passed at my husband's pillow were many of them hours of mortification and misery of which he, poor dear, was the innocent and only cause.
The weeks passed; and he still hovered between life and death.
I kept no record of the time, and I cannot now recall the exact date on which the first favorable change took place. I only remember that it was toward sunrise on a fine winter morning when we were relieved at last of our heavy burden of suspense. The surgeon happened to be by the bedside when his patient awoke. The first thing he did, after looking at Eustace, was to caution me by a sign to be silent and to keep out of sight. My mother-in-law and I both knew what this meant. With full hearts we thanked God together for giving us back the husband and the son.
The same evening, being alone, we ventured to speak of the future--for the first time since we had left home.
"The surgeon tells me," said Mrs. Macallan, "that Eustace is too weak to be capable of bearing anything in the nature of a surprise for some days to come. We have time to consider whether he is or is not to be told that he owes his life as much to your care as to mine. Can you find it in your heart to leave him, Valeria, now that God's mercy has restored him to you and to me?"
"If I only consulted my own heart," I answered, "I should never leave him again."
Mrs. Macallan looked at me in grave surprise.
"What else have you to consult?" she asked.
"If we both live," I replied, "I have to think of the happiness of his life and the happiness of mine in the years that are to come. I can bear a great deal, mother, but I cannot endure the misery of his leaving me for the second time."
"You wrong him, Valeria--I firmly believe you wrong him--in thinking it possible that he can leave you again."
"Dear Mrs. Macallan, have you forgotten already what we have both heard him say of me while we have been sitting by his bedside?"
"We have heard the ravings of a man in delirium. It is surely hard to hold Eustace responsible for what he said when he was out of his senses."
"It is harder still," I said, "to resist his mother when she is pleading for him. Dearest and best of friends! I don't hold Eustace responsible for what he said in the fever--but I do take warning by it. The wildest words that fell from him were, one and all, the faithful echo of what he said to me in the best days of his health and his strength. What hope have I that he will recover with an altered mind toward me? Absence has not changed it; suffering has not changed it. In the delirium of fever, and in the full possession of his reason, he has the same dreadful doubt of me. I see but one way of winning him back: I must destroy at its root his motive for leaving me. It is hopeless to persuade him that I believe in his innocence: I must show him that belief is no longer necessary; I must prove to him that his position toward me has become the position of an innocent man!"
"Valeria! Valeria! you are wasting time and words. You have tried the experiment; and you know as well as I do that the thing is not to be done."
I had no answer to that. I could say no more than I had said already.
"Suppose you go back to Dexter, out of sheer compassion for a mad and miserable wretch who has already insulted you," proceeded my mother-in-law. "You can only go back accompanied by me, or by some other trustworthy person. You can only stay long enough to humor the creature's wayward fancy, and to keep his crazy brain quiet for a time. That done, all is done--you leave him. Even supposing Dexter to be still capable of helping you, how can you make use of him but by admitting him to terms of confidence and familiarity--by treating him, in short, on the footing of an intimate friend? Answer me honestly: can you bring yourself to do that, after what happened at Mr. Benjamin's house?"
I had told her of my last interview with Miserrimus Dexter, in the natural confidence that she inspired in me as relative and fellow-traveler; and this was the use to which she turned her information! I suppose I had no right to blame her; I suppose the motive sanctioned everything. At any rate, I had no choice but to give offense or to give an answer. I gave it. I acknowledged that I could never again permit Miserrimus Dexter to treat me on terms of familiarity as a trusted and intimate friend.
Mrs. Macallan pitilessly pressed the advantage that she had won.
"Very well," she said, "that resource being no longer open to you, what hope is left? Which way are you to turn next?"
There was no meeting those questions, in my present situation, by any adequate reply. I felt strangely unlike myself--I submitted in silence. Mrs. Macallan struck the last blow that completed her victory.
"My poor Eustace is weak and wayward," she said; "but he is not an ungrateful man. My child, you have returned him good for evil--you have proved how faithfully and how devotedly you love him, by suffering all hardships and risking all dangers for his sake. Trust me, and trust him! He cannot resist you. Let him see the dear face that he has been dreaming of looking at him again with all the old love in it, and he is yours once more, my daughter--yours for life." She rose and touched my forehead with her lips; her voice sank to tones of tenderness which I had never heard from her yet. "Say yes, Valeria," she whispered; "and be dearer to me and dearer to him than ever!"
My heart sided with her. My energies were worn out. No letter had arrived from Mr. Playmore to guide and to encourage me. I had resisted so long and so vainly; I had tried and suffered so much; I had met with such cruel disasters and such reiterated disappointments--and he was in the room beneath me, feebly finding his way back to consciousness and to life--how could I resist? It was all over. In saying Yes (if Eustace confirmed his mother's confidence in him), I was saying adieu to the one cherished ambition, the one dear and noble hope of my life. I knew it--and I said Yes.
And so good-by to the grand struggle! And so welcome to the new resignation which owned that I had failed.
My mother-in-law and I slept together under the only shelter that the inn could offer to us--a sort of loft at the top of the house. The night that followed our conversation was bitterly cold. We felt the chilly temperature, in spite of the protection of our dressing-gowns and our traveling-wrappers. My mother-in-law slept, but no rest came to me. I was too anxious and too wretched, thinking over my changed position, and doubting how my husband would receive me, to be able to sleep.
Some hours, as I suppose, must have passed, and I was still absorbed in my own melancholy thoughts, when I suddenly became conscious of a new and strange sensation which astonished and alarmed me. I started up in the bed, breathless and bewildered. The movement awakened Mrs. Macallan. "Are you ill?" she asked. "What is the matter with you?" I tried to tell her, as well as I could. She seemed to understand me before I had done; she took me tenderly in her arms, and pressed me to her bosom. "My poor innocent child," she said, "is it possible you don't know? Must I really tell you?" She whispered her next words. Shall I ever forget the tumult of feelings which the whisper aroused in me--the strange medley of joy and fear, and wonder and relief, and pride and humility, which filled my whole being, and made a new woman of me from that moment? Now, for the first time, I knew it! If God spared me for a few months more, the most enduring and the most sacred of all human joys might be mine--the joy of being a mother.
I don't know how the rest of the night passed. I only find my memory again when the morning came, and when I went out by myself to breathe the crisp wintry air on the open moor behind the inn.
I have said that I felt like a new woman. The morning found me with a new resolution and a new courage. When I thought of the future, I had not only my husband to consider now. His good name was no longer his own and mine--it might soon become the most precious inheritance that he could leave to his child. What had I done while I was in ignorance of this? I had resigned the hope of cleansing his name from the stain that rested on it--a stain still, no matter how little it might look in the eye of the Law. Our child might live to hear malicious tongues say, "Your father was tried for the vilest of all murders, and was never absolutely acquitted of the charge." Could I face the glorious perils of childbirth with that possibility present to my mind? No! not until I had made one more effort to lay the conscience of Miserrimus Dexter bare to my view! not until I had once again renewed the struggle, and brought the truth that vindicated the husband and the father to the light of day!
I went back to the house, with my new courage to sustain me. I opened my heart to my friend and mother, and told her frankly of the change that had come over me since we had last spoken of Eustace.
She was more than disappointed--she was almost offended with me. The one thing needful had happened, she said. The happiness that might soon come to us would form a new tie between my husband and me. Every other consideration but this she treated as purely fanciful. If I left Eustace now, I did a heartless thing and a foolish thing. I should regret, to the end of my days, having thrown away the one golden opportunity of my married life.
It cost me a hard struggle, it oppressed me with many a painful doubt; but I held firm this time. The honor of the father, the inheritance of the child--I kept these thoughts as constantly as possible before my mind. Sometimes they failed me, and left me nothing better than a poor fool who had some fitful bursts of crying, and was always ashamed of herself afterward. But my native obstinacy (as Mrs. Macallan said) carried me through. Now and then I had a peep at Eustace, while he was asleep; and that helped me too. Though they made my heart ache and shook me sadly at the times those furtive visits to my husband fortified me afterward. I cannot explain how this happened (it seems so contradictory); I can only repeat it as one of my experiences at that troubled time.
I made one concession to Mrs. Macallan--I consented to wait for two days before I took any steps for returning to England, on the chance that my mind might change in the interval.
It was well for me that I yielded so far. On the second day the director of the field-hospital sent to the post-office at our nearest town for letters addressed to him or to his care. The messenger brought back a letter for me. I thought I recognized the handwriting, and I was right. Mr. Playmore's answer had reached me at last!
If I had been in any danger of changing my mind, the good lawyer would have saved me in the nick of time. The extract that follows contains the pith of his letter; and shows how he encouraged me when I stood in sore need of a few cheering and friendly words.
"Let me now tell you," he wrote, "what I have done toward verifying the conclusion to which your letter points.
"I have traced one of the servants who was appointed to keep watch in the corridor on the night when the first Mrs. Eustace died at Gleninch. The man perfectly remembers that Miserrimus Dexter suddenly appeared before him and his fellow-servant long after the house was quiet for the night. Dexter said to them, 'I suppose there is no harm in my going into the study to read? I can't sleep after what has happened; I must relieve my mind somehow.' The men had no orders to keep any one out of the study. They knew that the door of communication with the bedchamber was locked, and that the keys of the two other doors of communication were in the possession of Mr. Gale. They accordingly permitted Dexter to go into the study. He closed the door (the door that opened on the corridor), and remained absent for some time--in the study as the men supposed; in the bedchamber as we know from what he let out at his interview with you. Now he could enter that room, as you rightly imagine, in but one way--by being in possession of the missing key. How long he remained there I cannot discover. The point is of little consequence. The servant remembers that he came out of the study again 'as pale as death,' and that he passed on without a word on his way back to his own room.
"These are facts. The conclusion to which they lead is serious in the last degree. It justifies everything that I confided to you in my office at Edinburgh. You remember what passed between us. I say no more.
"As to yourself next. You have innocently aroused in Miserrimus Dexter a feeling toward you which I need not attempt to characterize. There is a certain something--I saw it myself--in your figure, and in some of your movements, which does recall the late Mrs. Eustace to those who knew her well, and which has evidently had its effect on Dexter's morbid mind. Without dwelling further on this subject, let me only remind you that he has shown himself (as a consequence of your influence over him) to be incapable, in his moments of agitation, of thinking before he speaks while he is in your presence. It is not merely possible, it is highly probable, that he may betray himself far more seriously than he has betrayed himself yet if you give him the opportunity. I owe it to you (knowing what your interests are) to express myself plainly on this point. I have no sort of doubt that you have advanced one step nearer to the end which you have in view in the brief interval since you left Edinburgh. I see in your letter (and in my discoveries) irresistible evidence that Dexter must have been in secret communication with the deceased lady (innocent communication, I am certain, so far as she was concerned), not only at the time of her death, but perhaps for weeks before it. I cannot disguise from myself or from you, my own strong persuasion that if you succeed in discovering the nature of this communication, in all human likelihood you prove your husband's innocence by the discovery of the truth. As an honest man, I am bound not to conceal this. And, as an honest man also, I am equally bound to add that, not even with your reward in view, can I find it in my conscience to advise you to risk what you must risk if you see Miserrimus Dexter again. In this difficult and delicate matter I cannot and will not take the responsibility: the final decision must rest with yourself. One favor only I entreat you to grant--let me hear what you resolve to do as soon as you know it yourself."
The difficulties which my worthy correspondent felt were no difficulties to me. I did not possess Mr. Playmore's judicial mind. My resolution was settled before I had read his letter through.
The mail to France crossed the frontier the next day. There was a place for me, under the protection of the conductor, if I chose to take it. Without consulting a living creature--rash as usual, headlong as usual--I took it.
ON THE JOURNEY BACK.
Who can be always resolute?
In asking that question, I speak of the women, not of the men. I had been resolute in turning a deaf ear to Mr. Playmore's doubts and cautions; resolute in holding out against my mother-in-law; resolute in taking my place by the French mail. Until ten minutes after we had driven away from the inn my courage held out--and then it failed me; then I said to myself, "You wretch, you have deserted your husband!" For hours afterward, if I could have stopped the mail, I would have done it. I hated the conductor, the kindest of men. I hated the Spanish ponies that drew us, the cheeriest animals that ever jingled a string of bells. I hated the bright day that would make things pleasant, and the bracing air that forced me to feel the luxury of breathing whether I liked it or not. Never was a journey more miserable than my safe and easy journey to the frontier. But one little comfort helped me to bear my heart-ache resignedly--a stolen morsel of Eustace's hair. We had started at an hour of the morning when he was still sound asleep. I could creep into his room, and kiss him, and cry over him softly, and cut off a stray lock of his hair, without danger of discovery. How I summoned resolution enough to leave him is, to this hour, not clear to my mind. I think my mother-in-law must have helped me, without meaning to do it. She came into the room with an erect head and a cold eye; she said, with an unmerciful emphasis on the word, "If you mean to go, Valeria, the carriage is here." Any woman with a spark of spirit in her would have "meant" it under those circumstances. I meant it--and did it.
And then I was sorry for it. Poor humanity! Time has got all the credit of being the great consoler of afflicted mortals. In my opinion, Time has been overrated in this matter. Distance does the same beneficent work far more speedily, and (when assisted by Change) far more effectually as well. On the railroad to Paris, I became capable of taking a sensible view of my position. I could now remind myself that my husband's reception of me--after the first surprise and the first happiness had passed away--might not have justified his mother's confidence in him. Admitting that I ran a risk in going back to Miserrimus Dexter, should I not have been equally rash, in another way, if I had returned, uninvited, to a husband who had declared that our conjugal happiness was impossible, and that our married life was at an end? Besides, who could say that the events of the future might not yet justify me--not only to myself, but to him? I might yet hear him say, "She was inquisitive when she had no business to inquire; she was obstinate when she ought to have listened to reason; she left my bedside when other women would have remained; but in the end she atoned for it all--she turned out to be right!"
I rested a day at Paris and wrote three letters.
One to Benjamin, telling him to expect me the next evening. One to Mr. Playmore, warning him, in good time, that I meant to make a last effort to penetrate the mystery at Gleninch. One to Eustace (of a few lines only), owning that I had helped to nurse him through the dangerous part of his illness; confessing the one reason which had prevailed with me to leave him; and entreating him to suspend his opinion of me until time had proved that I loved him more dearly than ever. This last letter I inclosed to my mother-in-law, leaving it to her discretion to choose the right time for giving it to her son. I positively forbade Mrs. Macallan, however, to tell Eustace of the new tie between us. Although he had separated himself from me, I was determined that he should not hear it from other lips than mine. Never mind why. There are certain little matters which I must keep to myself; and this is one of them.
My letters being written, my duty was done. I was free to play my last card in the game--the darkly doubtful game which was neither quite for me nor quite against me as the chances now stood.
ON THE WAY TO DEXTER.
This was Benjamin's opinion of me (on my safe arrival at the villa) after I had announced my intention of returning Miserrimus Dexter's visit, in his company.
Being determined to carry my point, I could afford to try the influence of mild persuasion. I begged my good friend to have a little patience with me. "And do remember what I have already told you," I added. "It is of serious importance to me to see Dexter again."
I only heaped fuel on the fire. "See him again?" Benjamin repeated indignantly. "See him, after he grossly insulted you, under my roof, in this very room? I can't be awake; I must be asleep and dreaming!"
It was wrong of me, I know. But Benjamin's virtuous indignation was so very virtuous that it let the spirit of mischief loose in me. I really could not resist the temptation to outrage his sense of propriety by taking an audaciously liberal view of the whole matter.
"Gently, my good friend, gently," I said. "We must make allowances for a man who suffers under Dexter's infirmities, and lives Dexter's life. And really we must not let our modesty lead us beyond reasonable limits. I begin to think that I took rather a prudish view of the thing myself at the time. A woman who respects herself, and whose whole heart is with her husband, is not so very seriously injured when a wretched crippled creature is rude enough to put his arm around her waist. Virtuous indignation (if I may venture to say so) is sometimes very cheap indignation. Besides, I have forgiven him--and you must forgive him too. There is no fear of his forgetting himself again, while you are with me. His house is quite a curiosity--it is sure to interest you; the pictures alone are worth the journey. I will write to him to-day, and we will go and see him together to-morrow. We owe it to ourselves (if we don't owe it to Mr. Dexter) to pay this visit. If you will look about you, Benjamin, you will see that benevolence toward everybody is the great virtue of the time we live in. Poor Mr. Dexter must have the benefit of the prevailing fashion. Come, come, march with the age! Open your mind to the new ideas!"
Instead of accepting this polite invitation, worthy old Benjamin flew at the age we lived in like a bull at a red cloth.
"Oh, the new ideas! the new ideas! By all manner of means, Valeria, let us have the new ideas! The old morality's all wrong, the old ways are all worn out. Let's march with the age we live in. Nothing comes amiss to the age we live in. The wife in England and the husband in Spain, married or not married living together or not living together--it's all one to the new ideas. I'll go with you, Valeria; I'll be worthy of the generation I live in. When we have done with Dexter, don't let's do things by halves. Let's go and get crammed with ready made science at a lecture--let's hear the last new professor, the man who has been behind the scenes at Creation, and knows to a T how the world was made, and how long it took to make it. There's the other fellow, too: mind we don't forget the modern Solomon, who has left his proverbs behind him--the brand-new philosopher who considers the consolations of religion in the light of harmless playthings, and who is kind enough to say that he might have been all the happier if he could only have been childish enough to play with them himself. Oh, the new ideas! the new ideas!--what consoling, elevating, beautiful discoveries have been made by the new ideas! We were all monkeys before we were men, and molecules before we were monkeys! and what does it matter? And what does anything matter to anybody? I'm with you, Valeria, I'm ready. The sooner the better. Come to Dexter! Come to Dexter!"
"I am so glad you agree with me," I said. "But let us do nothing in a hurry. Three o'clock to-morrow will be time enough for Mr. Dexter. I will write at once and tell him to expect us. Where are you going?"
"I am going to clear my mind of cant," said Benjamin, sternly. "I am going into the library."
"What are you going to read?"
"I am going to read--Puss in Boots, and Jack and the Bean-stalk, and anything else I can find that doesn't march with the age we live in."
With that parting shot at the new ideas, my old friend left me for a time.
Having dispatched my note, I found myself beginning to revert, with a certain feeling of anxiety, to the subject of Miserrimus Dexter's health. How had he passed through the interval of my absence from England? Could anybody, within my reach, tell me news of him? To inquire of Benjamin would only be to provoke a new outbreak. While I was still considering, the housekeeper entered the room on some domestic errand. I asked, at a venture, if she had heard anything more, while I had been away of the extraordinary person who had so seriously alarmed her on a former occasion.
The housekeeper shook her head, and looked as if she thought it in bad taste to mention the subject at all.
"About a week after you had gone away ma'am," she said, with extreme severity of manner, and with excessive carefulness in her choice of words, "the Person you mention had the impudence to send a letter to you. The messenger was informed, by my master's orders, that you had gone abroad, and he and his letter were both sent about their business together. Not long afterward, ma'am, I happened, while drinking tea with Mrs. Macallan's housekeeper, to hear of the Person again. He himself called in his chaise, at Mrs. Macallan's, to inquire about you there. How he can contrive to sit, without legs to balance him, is beyond my understanding--but that is neither here nor there. Legs or no legs, the housekeeper saw him, and she says, as I say, she will never forget him to her dying day. She told him (as soon as she recovered herself) of Mr. Eustace's illness, and of you and Mrs. Macallan being in foreign parts nursing him. He went away, so the housekeeper told me, with tears in his eyes, and oaths and curses on his lips--a sight shocking to see. That's all I know about the Person, ma'am, and I hope to be excused if I venture to say that the subject is (for good reasons) extremely disagreeable to me."
She made a formal courtesy, and quitted the room.
Left by myself, I felt more anxious and more uncertain than ever when I thought of the experiment that was to be tried on the next day. Making due allowance for exaggeration, the description of Miserrimus Dexter on his departure from Mrs. Macallan's house suggested that he had not endured my long absence very patiently, and that he was still as far as ever from giving his shattered nervous system its fair chance of repose.
The next morning brought me Mr. Playmore's reply to the letter which I had addressed to him from Paris.
He wrote very briefly, neither approving nor blaming my decision, but strongly reiterating his opinion that I should do well to choose a competent witness as my companion at my coming interview with Dexter. The most interesting part of the letter was at the end. "You must be prepared," Mr. Playmore wrote, "to see a change for the worse in Dexter. A friend of mine was with him on a matter of business a few days since, and was struck by the alteration in him. Your presence is sure to have its effect, one way or another. I can give you no instructions for managing him--you must be guided by the circumstances. Your own tact will tell you whether it is wise or not to encourage him to speak of the late Mrs. Eustace. The chances of his betraying himself all revolve (as I think) round that one topic: keep him to it if you can." To this was added, in a postscript: "Ask Mr. Benjamin if he were near enough to the library door to hear Dexter tell you of his entering the bedchamber on the night of Mrs. Eustace Macallan's death."
I put the question to Benjamin when we met at the luncheon-table before setting forth for the distant suburb in which Miserrimus Dexter lived. My old friend disapproved of the contemplated expedition as strongly as ever. He was unusually grave and unusually sparing of his words when he answered me.
"I am no listener," he said. "But some people have voices which insist on being heard. Mr. Dexter is one of them."
"Does that mean that you heard him?" I asked.
"The door couldn't muffle him, and the wall couldn't muffle him," Benjamin rejoined. "I heard him--and I thought it infamous. There!"
"I may want you to do more than hear him this time," I ventured to say. "I may want you to make notes of our conversation while Mr. Dexter is speaking to me. You used to write down what my father said, when he was dictating his letters to you. Have you got one of your little note-books to spare?"
Benjamin looked up from his plate with an aspect of stern surprise.
"It's one thing," he said, "to write under the dictation of a great merchant, conducting a vast correspondence by which thousands of pounds change hands in due course of post. And it's another thing to take down the gibberish of a maundering mad monster who ought to be kept in a cage. Your good father, Valeria, would never have asked me to do that."
"Forgive me, Benjamin; I must really ask you to do it. You may be of the greatest possible use to me. Come, give way this once, dear, for my sake."
Benjamin looked down again at his plate, with a rueful resignation which told me that I had carried my point.
"I have been tied to her apron-string all my life," I heard him grumble to himself; "and it's too late in the day to get loose from her now." He looked up again at me. "I thought I had retired from business," he said; "but it seems I must turn clerk again. Well? What is the new stroke of work that's expected from me this time?"
The cab was announced to be waiting for us at the gate as he asked the question. I rose and took his arm, and gave him a grateful kiss on his rosy old cheek.
"Only two things," I said. "Sit down behind Mr. Dexter's chair, so that he can't see you. But take care to place yourself, at the same time, so that you can see me."
"The less I see of Mr. Dexter the better I shall be pleased," growled Benjamin. "What am I to do after I have taken my place behind him?"
"You are to wait until I make you a sign; and when you see it you are to begin writing down in your note-book what Mr. Dexter is saying--and you are to go on until I make another sign, which means, Leave off!"
"Well?" said Benjamin, "what's the sign for Begin? and what's the sign for Leave off?"
I was not quite prepared with an answer to this. I asked him to help me with a hint. No! Benjamin would take no active part in the matter. He was resigned to be employed in the capacity of passive instrument--and there all concession ended, so far as he was concerned.
Left to my own resources, I found it no easy matter to invent a telegraphic system which should sufficiently inform Benjamin, without awakening Dexter's quick suspicion. I looked into the glass to see if I could find the necessary suggestion in anything that I wore. My earrings supplied me with the idea of which I was in search.
"I shall take care to sit in an arm-chair," I said. "When you see me rest my elbow on the chair, and lift my hand to my earring, as if I were playing with it--write down what he says; and go on until--well, suppose we say, until you hear me move my chair. At that sound, stop. You understand me?"
"I understand you."
We started for Dexter's house.
NEMESIS AT LAST.
"Mrs. Valeria?" he asked.
"Please to step upstairs. You know the house."
Crossing the hall, I stopped for a moment, and looked at a favorite walking-cane which Benjamin still kept in his hand.
"Your cane will only be in your way," I said. "Had you not better leave it here?"
"My cane may be useful upstairs," retorted Benjamin, gruffly. "I haven't forgotten what happened in the library."
It was no time to contend with him. I led the way up the stairs.
Arriving at the upper flight of steps, I was startled by hearing a sudden cry from the room above. It was like the cry of a person in pain; and it was twice repeated before we entered the circular antechamber. I was the first to approach the inner room, and to see the many-sided Miserrimus Dexter in another new aspect of his character.
The unfortunate Ariel was standing before a table, with a dish of little cakes placed in front of her. Round each of her wrists was tied a string, the free ends of which (at a distance of a few yards) were held in Miserrimus Dexter's hands. "Try again, my beauty!" I heard him say, as I stopped on the threshold of the door. "Take a cake." At the word of command, Ariel submissively stretched out one arm toward the dish. Just as she touched a cake with the tips of her fingers her hand was jerked away by a pull at the string, so savagely cruel in the nimble and devilish violence of it that I felt inclined to snatch Benjamin's cane out of his hand and break it over Miserrimus Dexter's back. Ariel suffered the pain this time in Spartan silence. The position in which she stood enabled her to be the first to see me at the door. She had discovered me. Her teeth were set; her face was flushed under the struggle to restrain herself. Not even a sigh escaped her in my presence.
"Drop the string!" I called out, indignantly. "Release her, Mr. Dexter, or I shall leave the house."
At the sound of my voice he burst out with a shrill cry of welcome. His eyes fastened on me with a fierce, devouring delight.
"Come in! come in!" he cried. "See what I am reduced to in the maddening suspense of waiting for you. See how I kill the time when the time parts us. Come in! come in! I am in one of my malicious humors this morning, caused entirely, Mrs. Valeria, by my anxiety to see you. When I am in my malicious humors I must tease something. I am teasing Ariel. Look at her! She has had nothing to eat all day, and she hasn't been quick enough to snatch a morsel of cake yet. You needn't pity her. Ariel has no nerves--I don't hurt her."
"Ariel has no nerves," echoed the poor creature, frowning at me for interfering between her master and herself. "He doesn't hurt me."
I heard Benjamin beginning to swing his cane behind him.
"Drop the string!" I reiterated, more vehemently than ever. "Drop it, or I shall instantly leave you."
Miserrimus Dexter's delicate nerves shuddered at my violence. "What a glorious voice!" he exclaimed--and dropped the string. "Take the cakes," he added, addressing Ariel in his most imperial manner.
She passed me, with the strings hanging from her swollen wrists, and the dish of cakes in her hand. She nodded her head at me defiantly.
"Ariel has got no nerves," she repeated, proudly. "He doesn't hurt me."
"You see," said Miserrimus Dexter, "there is no harm done--and I dropped the strings when you told me. Don't begin by being hard on me, Mrs. Valeria, after your long absence." He paused. Benjamin, standing silent in the doorway, attracted his attention for the first time. "Who is this?" he asked, and wheeled his chair suspiciously nearer to the door. "I know!" he cried, before I could answer. "This is the benevolent gentleman who looked like the refuge of the afflicted when I saw him last.--You have altered for the worse since then, sir. You have stepped into quite a new character--you personify Retributive Justice now.--Your new protector, Mrs. Valeria--I understand!" He bowed low to Benjamin, with ferocious irony. "Your humble servant, Mr. Retributive Justice! I have deserved you--and I submit to you. Walk in, sir! I will take care that your new office shall be a sinecure. This lady is the Light of my Life. Catch me failing in respect to her if you can!" He backed his chair before Benjamin (who listened to him in contemptuous silence) until he reached the part of the room in which I was standing. "Your hand, Light of my Life!" he murmured in his gentlest tones. "Your hand--only to show that you have forgiven me!" I gave him my hand. "One?" he whispered, entreatingly. "Only one?" He kissed my hand once, respectfully--and dropped it with a heavy sigh. "Ah, poor Dexter!" he said, pitying himself with the whole sincerity of his egotism. "A warm heart--wasted in solitude, mocked by deformity. Sad! sad! Ah, poor Dexter!" He looked round again at Benjamin, with another flash of his ferocious irony. "A beauteous day, sir," he said, with mock-conventional courtesy. "Seasonable weather indeed after the late long-continued rains. Can I offer you any refreshment? Won't you sit down? Retributive Justice, when it is no taller than you are, looks best in a chair."
"And a monkey looks best in a cage," rejoined Benjamin, enraged at the satirical reference to his shortness of stature. "I was waiting, sir, to see you get into your swing."
The retort produced no effect on Miserrimus Dexter: it appeared to have passed by him unheard. He had changed again; he was thoughtful, he was subdued; his eyes were fixed on me with a sad and rapt attention. I took the nearest arm-chair, first casting a glance at Benjamin, which he immediately understood. He placed himself behind Dexter, at an angle which commanded a view of my chair. Ariel, silently devouring her cakes, crouched on a stool at "the Master's" feet, and looked up at him like a faithful dog. There was an interval of quiet and repose. I was able to observe Miserrimus Dexter uninterruptedly for the first time since I had entered the room.
I was not surprised--I was nothing less than alarmed by the change for the worse in him since we had last met. Mr. Playmore's letter had not prepared me for the serious deterioration in him which I could now discern.
His features were pinched and worn; the whole face seemed to have wasted strangely in substance and size since I had last seen it. The softness in his eyes was gone. Blood-red veins were intertwined all over them now: they were set in a piteous and vacant stare. His once firm hands looked withered; they trembled as they lay on the coverlet. The paleness of his face (exaggerated, perhaps, by the black velvet jacket that he wore) had a sodden and sickly look--the fine outline was gone. The multitudinous little wrinkles at the corners of his eyes had deepened. His head sank into his shoulders when he leaned forward in his chair. Years appeared to have passed over him, instead of months, while I had been absent from England. Remembering the medical report which Mr. Playmore had given me to read--recalling the doctor's positively declared opinion that the preservation of Dexter's sanity depended on the healthy condition of his nerves--I could not but feel that I had done wisely (if I might still hope for success) in hastening my return from Spain. Knowing what I knew, fearing what I feared, I believed that his time was near. I felt, when our eyes met by accident, that I was looking at a doomed man.
I pitied him.
Yes, yes! I know that compassion for him was utterly inconsistent with the motive which had taken me to his house--utterly inconsistent with the doubt, still present to my mind, whether Mr. Playmore had really wronged him in believing that his was the guilt which had compassed the first Mrs. Eustace's death. I felt this: I knew him to be cruel; I believed him to be false. And yet I pitied him! Is there a common fund of wickedness in us all? Is the suppression or the development of that wickedness a mere question of training and temptation? And is there something in our deeper sympathies which mutely acknowledges this when we feel for the wicked; when we crowd to a criminal trial; when we shake hands at parting (if we happen to be present officially) with the vilest monster that ever swung on a gallows? It is not for me to decide. I can only say that I pitied Miserrimus Dexter--and that he found it out.
"Thank you," he said, suddenly. "You see I am ill, and you feel for me. Dear and good Valeria!"
"This lady's name, sir, is Mrs. Eustace Macallan," interposed Benjamin, speaking sternly behind him. "The next time you address her, remember, if you please, that you have no business with her Christian name."
Benjamin's rebuke passed, like Benjamin's retort, unheeded and unheard. To all appearance, Miserrimus Dexter had completely forgotten that there was such a person in the room.
"You have delighted me with the sight of you," he went on. "Add to the pleasure by letting me hear your voice. Talk to me of yourself. Tell me what you have been doing since you left England."
It was necessary to my object to set the conversation afloat; and this was as good a way of doing it as any other. I told him plainly how I had been employed during my absence.
"So you are still fond of Eustace?" he said, bitterly.
"I love him more dearly than ever."
He lifted his hands, and hid his face. After waiting a while, he went on, speaking in an odd, muffled manner, still under cover of his hands.
"And you leave Eustace in Spain," he said; "and you return to England by yourself! What made you do that?"
"What made me first come here and ask you to help me, Mr. Dexter?"
He dropped his hands, and looked at me. I saw in his eyes, not amazement only, but alarm.
"Is it possible," he exclaimed, "that you won't let that miserable matter rest even yet? Are you still determined to penetrate the mystery at Gleninch?"
"I am still determined, Mr. Dexter; and I still hope that you may be able to help me."
The old distrust that I remembered so well darkened again over his face the moment I said those words.
"How can I help you?" he asked. "Can I alter facts?" He stopped. His face brightened again, as if some sudden sense of relief had come to him. "I did try to help you," he went on. "I told you that Mrs. Beauly's absence was a device to screen herself from suspicion; I told you that the poison might have been given by Mrs. Beauly's maid. Has reflection convinced you? Do you see something in the idea?"
This return to Mrs. Beauly gave me my first chance of leading the talk to the right topic.
"I see nothing in the idea," I answered. "I see no motive. Had the maid any reason to be an enemy to the late Mrs. Eustace?"
"Nobody had any reason to be an enemy to the late Mrs. Eustace!" he broke out, loudly and vehemently. "She was all goodness, all kindness; she never injured any human creature in thought or deed. She was a saint upon earth. Respect her memory! Let the martyr rest in her grave!" He covered his face again with his hands, and shook and shuddered under the paroxysm of emotion that I had roused in him.
Ariel suddenly and softly left her stool, and approached me.
"Do you see my ten claws?" she whispered, holding out her hands. "Vex the Master again, and you will feel my ten claws on your throat!"
Benjamin rose from his seat: he had seen the action, without hearing the words. I signed to him to keep his place. Ariel returned to her stool, and looked up again at her master.
"Don't cry," she said. "Come on. Here are the strings. Tease me again. Make me screech with the smart of it."
He never answered, and never moved.
Ariel bent her slow mind to meet the difficulty of attracting his attention. I saw it in her frowning brows, in her colorless eyes looking at me vacantly. On a sudden, she joyfully struck the open palm of one of her hands with the fist of the other. She had triumphed. She had got an idea.
"Master!" she cried. "Master! You haven't told me a story for ever so long. Puzzle my thick head. Make my flesh creep. Come on. A good long story. All blood and crimes."
Had she accidentally hit on the right suggestion to strike his wayward fancy? I knew his high opinion of his own skill in "dramatic narrative." I knew that one of his favorite amusements was to puzzle Ariel by telling her stories that she could not understand. Would he wander away into the regions of wild romance? Or would he remember that my obstinacy still threatened him with reopening the inquiry into the tragedy at Gleninch? and would he set his cunning at work to mislead me by some new stratagem? This latter course was the course which my past experience of him suggested that he would take. But, to my surprise and alarm, I found my past experience at fault. Ariel succeeded in diverting his mind from the subject which had been in full possession of it the moment before she spoke! He showed his face again. It was overspread by a broad smile of gratified self-esteem. He was weak enough now to let even Ariel find her way to his vanity. I saw it with a sense of misgiving, with a doubt whether I had not delayed my visit until too late, which turned me cold from head to foot.
Miserrimus Dexter spoke--to Ariel, not to me.
"Poor devil!" he said, patting her head complacently. "You don't understand a word of my stories, do you? And yet I can make the flesh creep on your great clumsy body--and yet I can hold your muddled mind, and make you like it. Poor devil!" He leaned back serenely in his chair, and looked my way again. Would the sight of me remind him of the words that had passed between us not a minute since? No! There was the pleasantly tickled self-conceit smiling at me exactly as it had smiled at Ariel. "I excel in dramatic narrative, Mrs. Valeria," he said. "And this creature here on the stool is a remarkable proof of it. She is quite a psychological study when I tell her one of my stories. It is really amusing to see the half-witted wretch's desperate efforts to understand me. You shall have a specimen. I have been out of spirits while you were away--I haven't told her a story for weeks past; I will tell her one now. Don't suppose it's any effort to me! My invention is inexhaustible. You are sure to be amused--you are naturally serious--but you are sure to be amused. I am naturally serious too; and I always laugh at her."
Ariel clapped her great shapeless hands. "He always laughs at me!" she said, with a proud look of superiority directed straight at me.
I was at a loss, seriously at a loss, what to do.
The outbreak which I had provoked in leading him to speak of the late Mrs. Eustace warned me to be careful, and to wait for my opportunity before I reverted to that subject. How else could I turn the conversation so as to lead him, little by little, toward the betrayal of the secrets which he was keeping from me? In this uncertainty, one thing only seemed to be plain. To let him tell his story would be simply to let him waste the precious minutes. With a vivid remembrance of Ariel's "ten claws," I decided, nevertheless on discouraging Dexter's new whim at every possible opportunity and by every means in my power.
"Now, Mrs. Valeria," he began, loudly and loftily, "listen. Now, Ariel, bring your brains to a focus. I improvise poetry; I improvise fiction. We will begin with the good old formula of the fairy stories. Once upon a time--"
I was waiting for my opportunity to interrupt him when he interrupted himself. He stopped, with a bewildered look. He put his hand to his head, and passed it backward and forward over his forehead. He laughed feebly.
"I seem to want rousing," he said
Was his mind gone? There had been no signs of it until I had unhappily stirred his memory of the dead mistress of Gleninch. Was the weakness which I had already noticed, was the bewilderment which I now saw, attributable to the influence of a passing disturbance only? In other words, had I witnessed nothing more serious than a first warning to him and to us? Would he soon recover himself, if we were patient, and gave him time? Even Benjamin was interested at last; I saw him trying to look at Dexter around the corner of the chair. Even Ariel was surprised and uneasy. She had no dark glances to cast at me now.
We all waited to see what he would do, to hear what he would say, next.
"My harp!" he cried. "Music will rouse me."
Ariel brought him his harp.
"Master," she said, wonderingly, "what's come to you?"
He waved his hand, commanding her to be silent.
"Ode to Invention," he announced, loftily, addressing himself to me. "Poetry and music improvised by Dexter. Silence! Attention!"
His fingers wandered feebly over the harpstrings, awakening no melody, suggesting no words. In a little while his hand dropped; his head sank forward gently, and rested on the frame of the harp. I started to my feet, and approached him. Was it a sleep? or was it a swoon?
I touched his arm, and called to him by his name.
Ariel instantly stepped between us, with a threatening look at me. At the same moment Miserrimus Dexter raised his head. My voice had reached him. He looked at me with a curious contemplative quietness in his eyes which I had never seen in them before.
"Take away the harp," he said to Ariel, speaking in languid tones, like a man who was very weary.
The mischievous, half-witted creature--in sheer stupidity or in downright malice, I am not sure which--irritated him once more.
"Why, Master?" she asked, staring at him with the harp hugged in her arms. "What's come to you? where is the story?"
"We don't want the story," I interposed. "I have many things to say to Mr. Dexter which I have not said yet."
Ariel lifted her heavy hand. "You will have it!" she said, and advanced toward me. At the same moment the Master's voice stopped her.
"Put away the harp, you fool!" he repeated, sternly. "And wait for the story until I choose to tell it."
She took the harp submissively back to its place at the end of the room. Miserrimus Dexter moved his chair a little closer to mine. "I know what will rouse me," he said, confidentially. "Exercise will do it. I have had no exercise lately. Wait a little, and you will see."
He put his hands on the machinery of the chair, and started on his customary course down the room. Here again the ominous change in him showed itself under a new form. The pace at which he traveled was not the furious pace that I remembered; the chair no longer rushed under him on rumbling and whistling wheels. It went, but it went slowly. Up the room and down the room he painfully urged it--and then he stopped for want of breath.
We followed him. Ariel was first, and Benjamin was by my side. He motioned impatiently to both of them to stand back, and to let me approach him alone.
"I'm out of practice," he said, faintly. "I hadn't the heart to make the wheels roar and the floor tremble while you were away."
Who would not have pitied him? Who would have remembered his misdeeds at that moment? Even Ariel felt it. I heard her beginning to whine and whimper behind me. The magician who alone could rouse the dormant sensibilities in her nature had awakened them now by his neglect. Her fatal cry was heard again, in mournful, moaning tones--
"What's come to you, Master? Where's the story?"
"Never mind her," I whispered to him. "You want the fresh air. Send for the gardener. Let us take a drive in your pony-chaise."
It was useless. Ariel would be noticed. The mournful cry came once more--
"Where's the story? where's the story?"
The sinking spirit leaped up in Dexter again.
"You wretch! you fiend!" he cried, whirling his chair around, and facing her. "The story is coming. I can tell it! I will tell it! Wine! You whimpering idiot, get me the wine. Why didn't I think of it before? The kingly Burgundy! that's what I want, Valeria, to set my invention alight and flaming in my head. Glasses for everybody! Honor to the King of the Vintages--the Royal Clos Vougeot!"
Ariel opened the cupboard in the alcove, and produced the wine and the high Venetian glasses. Dexter drained his gobletful of Burgundy at a draught; he forced us to drink (or at least to pretend to drink) with him. Even Ariel had her share this time, and emptied her glass in rivalry with her master. The powerful wine mounted almost instantly to her weak head. She began to sing hoarsely a song of her own devising, in imitation of Dexter. It was nothing but the repetition, the endless mechanical repetition, of her demand for the story--"Tell us the story. Master! master! tell us the story!" Absorbed over his wine, the Master silently filled his goblet for the second time. Benjamin whispered to me while his eye was off us, "Take my advice, Valeria, for once; let us go."
"One last effort," I whispered back. "Only one!"
Ariel went drowsily on with her song--
"Tell us the story. Master! master! tell us the story."
Miserrimus Dexter looked up from his glass. The generous stimulant was beginning to do its work. I saw the color rising in his face. I saw the bright intelligence flashing again in his eyes. The Burgundy had roused him! The good wine stood my friend, and offered me a last chance!
"No story," I said. "I want to talk to you, Mr. Dexter. I am not in the humor for a story."
"Not in the humor?" he repeated, with a gleam of the old impish irony showing itself again in his face. "That's an excuse. I see what it is! You think my invention is gone--and you are not frank enough to confess it. I'll show you you're wrong. I'll show you that Dexter is himself again. Silence, you Ariel, or you shall leave the room! I have got it, Mrs. Valeria, all laid out here, with scenes and characters complete." He touched his forehead, and looked at me with a furtive and smiling cunning before he added his next words. "It's the very thing to interest you, my fair friend. It's the story of a Mistress and a Maid. Come back to the fire and hear it."
The Story of a Mistress and a Maid? If that meant anything, it meant the story of Mrs. Beauly and her maid, told in disguise.
The title, and the look which had escaped him when he announced it, revived the hope that was well-nigh dead in me. He had rallied at last. He was again in possession of his natural foresight and his natural cunning. Under pretense of telling Ariel her story, he was evidently about to make the attempt to mislead me for the second time. The conclusion was irresistible. To use his own words--Dexter was himself again.
I took Benjamin's arm as we followed him back to the fire-place in the middle of the room.
"There is a chance for me yet," I whispered. "Don't forget the signals."
We returned to the places which we had already occupied. Ariel cast another threatening look at me. She had just sense enough left, after emptying her goblet of wine, to be on the watch for a new interruption on my part. I took care, of course, that nothing of the sort should happen. I was now as eager as Ariel to hear the story. The subject was full of snares for the narrator. At any moment, in the excitement of speaking, Dexter's memory of the true events might show itself reflected in the circumstances of the fiction. At any moment he might betray himself.
He looked around him, and began.
"My public, are you seated? My public, are you ready?" he asked, gayly. "Your face a little more this way," he added, in his softest and tenderest tones, motioning to me to turn my full face toward him. "Surely I am not asking too much? You look at the meanest creature that crawls--look at Me. Let me find my inspiration in your eyes. Let me feed my hungry admiration on your form. Come, have one little pitying smile left for the man whose happiness you have wrecked. Thank you, Light of my Life, thank you!" He kissed his hand to me, and threw himself back luxuriously in his chair. "The story," he resumed. "The story at last! In what form shall I cast it? In the dramatic form--the oldest way, the truest way, the shortest way of telling a story! Title first. A short title, a taking title: 'Mistress and Maid.' Scene, the land of romance--Italy. Time, the age of romance--the fifteenth century. Ha! look at Ariel. She knows no more about the fifteenth century than the cat in the kitchen, and yet she is interested already. Happy Ariel!"
Ariel looked at me again, in the double intoxication of the wine and the triumph.
"I know no more than the cat in the kitchen," she repeated, with a broad grin of gratified vanity. "I am 'happy Ariel!' What are you?"
Miserrimus Dexter laughed uproariously.
"Didn't I tell you?" he said. "Isn't she fun?--Persons of the Drama." he resumed: "three in number. Women only. Angelica, a noble lady; noble alike in spirit and in birth. Cunegonda, a beautiful devil in woman's form. Damoride, her unfortunate maid. First scene: a dark vaulted chamber in a castle. Time, evening. The owls are hooting in the wood; the frogs are croaking in the marsh.--Look at Ariel! Her flesh creeps; she shudders audibly. Admirable Ariel!"
My rival in the Master's favor eyed me defiantly. "Admirable Ariel!" she repeated, in drowsy accents. Miserrimus Dexter paused to take up his goblet of Burgundy--placed close at hand on a little sliding table attached to his chair. I watched him narrowly as he sipped the wine. The flush was still mounting in his face; the light was still brightening in his eyes. He set down his glass again, with a jovial smack of his lips--and went on:
"Persons present in the vaulted chamber: Cunegonda and Damoride. Cunegonda speaks. 'Damoride!' 'Madam?' 'Who lies ill in the chamber above us?' 'Madam, the noble lady Angelica.' (A pause. Cunegonda speaks again.) 'Damoride!' 'Madam?' 'How does Angelica like you?' 'Madam, the noble lady, sweet and good to all who approach her, is sweet and good to me.' 'Have you attended on her, Damoride?' 'Sometimes, madam, when the nurse was weary.' 'Has she taken her healing medicine from your hand.' 'Once or twice, madam, when I happened to be by.' 'Damoride, take this key and open the casket on the table there.' (Damoride obeys.) 'Do you see a green vial in the casket?' 'I see it, madam.' 'Take it out.' (Damoride obeys.) 'Do you see a liquid in the green vial? can you guess what it is?' 'No, madam.' 'Shall I tell you?' (Damoride bows respectfully ) 'Poison is in the vial.' (Damoride starts; she shrinks from the poison; she would fain put it aside. Her mistress signs to her to keep it in her hand; her mistress speaks.) 'Damoride, I have told you one of my secrets; shall I tell you another?' (Damoride waits, fearing what is to come. Her mistress speaks.) 'I hate the Lady Angelica. Her life stands between me and the joy of my heart. You hold her life in your hand.' (Damoride drops on her knees; she is a devout person; she crosses herself, and then she speaks.) 'Mistress, you terrify me. Mistress, what do I hear?' (Cunegonda advances, stands over her, looks down on her with terrible eyes, whispers the next words.) 'Damoride! the Lady Angelica must die--and I must not be suspected. The Lady Angelica must die--and by your hand.'"
He paused again. To sip the wine once more? No; to drink a deep draught of it this time.
Was the stimulant beginning to fail him already?
I looked at him attentively as he laid himself back again in his chair to consider for a moment before he went on.
The flush on his face was as deep as ever; but the brightness in his eyes was beginning to fade already. I had noticed that he spoke more and more slowly as he advanced to the later dialogue of the scene. Was he feeling the effort of invention already? Had the time come when the wine had done all that the wine could do for him?
We waited. Ariel sat watching him with vacantly staring eyes and vacantly open mouth. Benjamin, impenetrably expecting the signal, kept his open note-book on his knee, covered by his hand. Miserrimus Dexter went on:
"Damoride hears those terrible words; Damoride clasps her hands in entreaty. 'Oh, madam! madam! how can I kill the dear and noble lady? What motive have I for harming her?' Cunegonda answers, 'You have the motive of obeying Me.' (Damoride falls with her face on the floor at her mistress's feet.) 'Madam, I cannot do it! Madam, I dare not do it!' Cunegonda answers, 'You run no risk: I have my plan for diverting discovery from myself, and my plan for diverting discovery from you.' Damoride repeats, 'I cannot do it! I dare not do it!' Cunegonda's eyes flash lightnings of rage. She takes from its place of concealment in her bosom--"
He stopped in the middle of the sentence, and put his hand to his head--not like a man in pain, but like a man who had lost his idea.
Would it be well if I tried to help him to recover his idea? or would it be wiser (if I could only do it) to keep silence?
I could see the drift of his story plainly enough. His object, under the thin disguise of the Italian romance, was to meet my unanswerable objection to suspecting Mrs. Beauly's maid--the objection that the woman had no motive for committing herself to an act of murder. If he could practically contradict this, by discovering a motive which I should be obliged to admit, his end would be gained. Those inquiries which I had pledged myself to pursue--those inquiries which might, at any moment, take a turn that directly concerned him--would, in that case, be successfully diverted from the right to the wrong person. The innocent maid would set my strictest scrutiny at defiance; and Dexter would be safely shielded behind her.
I determined to give him time. Not a word passed my lips.
The minutes followed each other. I waited in the deepest anxiety. It was a trying and a critical moment. If he succeeded in inventing a probable motive, and in shaping it neatly to suit the purpose of his story, he would prove, by that act alone, that there were reserves of mental power still left in him which the practiced eye of the Scotch doctor had failed to see. But the question was--would he do it?
He did it! Not in a new way; not in a convincing way; not without a painfully evident effort. Still, well done or ill done, he found a motive for the maid.
"Cunegonda," he resumed, "takes from its place of concealment in her bosom a written paper, and unfolds it. 'Look at this,' she says. Damoride looks at the paper, and sinks again at her mistress's feet in a paroxysm of horror and despair. Cunegonda is in possession of a shameful secret in the maid's past life. Cunegonda can say to her, 'Choose your alternative. Either submit to an exposure which disgraces you and--disgraces your parents forever--or make up your mind to obey Me.' Damoride might submit to the disgrace if it only affected herself. But her parents are honest people; she cannot disgrace her parents. She is driven to her last refuge--there is no hope of melting the hard heart of Cunegonda. Her only resource is to raise difficulties; she tries to show that there are obstacles between her and the crime. 'Madam! madam!' she cries; 'how can I do it, when the nurse is there to see me?' Cunegonda answers, 'Sometimes the nurse sleeps; sometimes the nurse is away.' Damoride still persists. 'Madam! madam! the door is kept locked, and the nurse has got the key.'"
The key! I instantly thought of the missing key at Gleninch. Had he thought of it too? He certainly checked himself as the word escaped him. I resolved to make the signal. I rested my elbow on the arm of my chair, and played with my earring. Benjamin took out his pencil and arranged his note-book so that Ariel could not see what he was about if she happened to look his way.
We waited until it pleased Miserrimus Dexter to proceed. The interval was a long one. His hand went up again to his forehead. A duller and duller look was palpably stealing over his eyes. When he did speak, it was not to go on with the narrative, but to put a question.
"Where did I leave off?" he asked.
My hopes sank again as rapidly as they had risen. I managed to answer him, however, without showing any change in my manner.
"You left off," I said, "where Damoride was speaking to Cunegonda--"
"Yes, yes!" he interposed. "And what did she say?"
"She said, 'The door is kept locked, and the nurse has got the key.'"
He instantly leaned forward in his chair.
"No!" he answered, vehemently. "You're wrong. 'Key?' Nonsense! I never said 'Key.'"
"I thought you did, Mr. Dexter."
"I never did! I said something else, and you have forgotten it."
I refrained from disputing with him, in fear of what might follow. We waited again. Benjamin, sullenly submitting to my caprices, had taken down the questions and answers that had passed between Dexter and myself. He still mechanically kept his page open, and still held his pencil in readiness to go on. Ariel, quietly submitting to the drowsy influence of the wine while Dexter's voice was in her ears, felt uneasily the change to silence. She glanced round her restlessly; she lifted her eyes to "the Master."
There he sat, silent, with his hand to his head, still struggling to marshal his wandering thoughts, still trying to see light through the darkness that was closing round him.
"Master!" cried Ariel, piteously. "What's become of the story?"
He started as if she had awakened him out of a sleep; he shook his head impatiently, as though he wanted to throw off some oppression that weighed upon it.
"Patience, patience," he said. "The story is going on again."
He dashed at it desperately; he picked up the first lost thread that fell in his way, reckless whether it were the right thread or the wrong one:
"Damoride fell on her knees. She burst into tears. She said--"
He stopped, and looked about him with vacant eyes.
"What name did I give the other woman?" he asked, not putting the question to me, or to either of my companions: asking it of himself, or asking it of the empty air.
"You called the other woman Cunegonda," I said.
At the sound of my voice his eyes turned slowly--turned on me, and yet failed to look at me. Dull and absent, still and changeless, they were eyes that seemed to be fixed on something far away. Even his voice was altered when he spoke next. It had dropped to a quiet, vacant, monotonous tone. I had heard something like it while I was watching by my husband's bedside, at the time of his delirium--when Eustace's mind appeared to be too weary to follow his speech. Was the end so near as this?
"I called her Cunegonda," he repeated. "And I called the other--"
He stopped once more.
"And you called the other Damoride," I said.
Ariel looked up at him with a broad stare of bewilderment. She pulled impatiently at the sleeve of his jacket to attract his notice.
"Is this the story, Master?" she asked.
He answered without looking at her, his changeless eyes still fixed, as it seemed, on something far away.
"This is the story," he said, absently. "But why Cunegonda? why Damoride? Why not Mistress and Maid? It's easier to remember Mistress and Maid--"
He hesitated; he shivered as he tried to raise himself in his chair. Then he seemed to rally. "What did the Maid say to the Mistress?" he muttered. "What? what? what?" He hesitated again. Then something seemed to dawn upon him unexpectedly. Was it some new thought that had struck him? or some lost thought that he had recovered? Impossible to say.
He went on, suddenly and rapidly went on, in these strange words:
"'The letter,' the Maid said; 'the letter. Oh my heart. Every word a dagger. A dagger in my heart. Oh, you letter. Horrible, horrible, horrible letter.'"
What, in God's name, was he talking about? What did those words mean?
Was he unconsciously pursuing his faint and fragmentary recollections of a past time at Gleninch, under the delusion that he was going on with the story? In the wreck of the other faculties, was memory the last to sink? Was the truth, the dreadful truth, glimmering on me dimly through the awful shadow cast before it by the advancing, eclipse of the brain? My breath failed me; a nameless horror crept through my whole being.
Benjamin, with his pencil in his hand, cast one warning look at me. Ariel was quiet and satisfied. "Go on, Master," was all she said. "I like it! I like it! Go on with the story."
He went on--like a man sleeping with his eyes open, and talking in his sleep.
"The Maid said to the Mistress. No--the Mistress said to the Maid. The Mistress said, 'Show him the letter. Must, must, must do it.' The Maid said, 'No. Mustn't do it. Shan't show it. Stuff. Nonsense. Let him suffer. We can get him off. Show it? No. Let the worst come to the worst. Show it, then.' The Mistress said--" He paused, and waved his hand rapidly to and fro before his eyes, as if he were brushing away some visionary confusion or entanglement. "Which was it last?" he said--"Mistress or Maid? Mistress? No. Maid speaks, of course. Loud. Positive. 'You scoundrels. Keep away from that table. The Diary's there. Number Nine, Caldershaws. Ask for Dandie. You shan't have the Diary. A secret in your ear. The Diary will hang, him. I won't have him hanged. How dare you touch my chair? My chair is Me! How dare you touch Me?'"
The last words burst on me like a gleam of light! I had read them in the Report of the Trial--in the evidence of the sheriff's officer. Miserrimus Dexter had spoken in those very terms when he had tried vainly to prevent the men from seizing my husband's papers, and when the men had pushed his chair out of the room. There was no doubt now of what his memory was busy with. The mystery at Gleninch! His last backward flight of thought circled feebly and more feebly nearer and nearer to the mystery at Gleninch!
Ariel aroused him again. She had no mercy on him; she insisted on hearing the whole story.
"Why do you stop, Master? Get along with it! get along with it! Tell us quick--what did the Missus say to the Maid?"
He laughed feebly, and tried to imitate her.
"'What did the Missus say to the Maid?'" he repeated. His laugh died away. He went on speaking, more and more vacantly, more and more rapidly. "The Mistress said to the Maid. We've got him off. What about the letter? Burn it now. No fire in the grate. No matches in the box. House topsy-turvy. Servants all gone. Tear it up. Shake it up in the basket. Along with the rest. Shake it up. Waste paper. Throw it away. Gone forever. Oh, Sara, Sara, Sara! Gone forever.'"
Ariel clapped her hands, and mimicked him in her turn.
"'Oh, Sara, Sara, Sara!'" she repeated. "'Gone forever.' That's prime, Master! Tell us--who was Sara?"
His lips moved, but his voice sank so low that I could barely hear him. He began again, with the old melancholy refrain:
"The Maid said to the Mistress. No--the Mistress said to the Maid--" He stopped abruptly, and raised himself erect in the chair; he threw up both his hands above his head, and burst into a frightful screaming laugh. "Aha-ha-ha-ha! How funny! Why don't you laugh? Funny, funny, funny, funny. Aha-ha-ha-ha-ha--"
He fell back in the chair. The shrill and dreadful laugh died away into a low sob. Then there was one long, deep, wearily drawn breath. Then nothing but a mute, vacant face turned up to the ceiling, with eyes that looked blindly, with lips parted in a senseless, changeless grin. Nemesis at last! The foretold doom had fallen on him. The night had come.
But one feeling animated me when the first shock was over. Even the horror of that fearful sight seemed only to increase the pity that I felt for the stricken wretch. I started impulsively to my feet. Seeing nothing, thinking of nothing but the helpless figure in the chair, I sprang forward to raise him, to revive him, to recall him (if such a thing might still be possible) to himself. At the first step that I took, I felt hands on me--I was violently drawn back. "Are you blind?" cried Benjamin, dragging me nearer and nearer to the door. "Look there!"
He pointed; and I looked.
Ariel had been beforehand with me. She had raised her master in the chair; she had got one arm around him. In her free hand she brandished an Indian club, torn from a "trophy" of Oriental weapons that ornamented the wall over the fire-place. The creature was transfigured! Her dull eyes glared like the eyes of a wild animal. She gnashed her teeth in the frenzy that possessed her. "You have done this!" she shouted to me, waving the club furiously around and around over her head. "Come near him, and I'll dash your brains out! I'll mash you till there's not a whole bone left in your skin!" Benjamin, still holding me with one hand opened the door with the other. I let him do with me as he would; Ariel fascinated me; I could look at nothing but Ariel. Her frenzy vanished as she saw us retreating. She dropped the club; she threw both arms around him, and nestled her head on his bosom, and sobbed and wept over him. "Master! master! They shan't vex you any more. Look up again. Laugh at me as you used to do. Say, 'Ariel, you're a fool.' Be like yourself again!" I was forced into the next room. I heard a long, low, wailing cry of misery from the poor creature who loved him with a dog's fidelity and a woman's devotion. The heavy door was closed between us. I was in the quiet antechamber, crying over that piteous sight; clinging to my kind old friend as helpless and as useless as a child.
Benjamin turned the key in the lock.
"There's no use in crying about it," he said, quietly. "It would be more to the purpose, Valeria, if you thanked God that you have got out of that room safe and sound. Come with me."
He took the key out of the lock, and led me downstairs into the hall. After a little consideration, he opened the front door of the house. The gardener was still quietly at work in the grounds.
"Your master is taken ill," Benjamin said; "and the woman who attends upon him has lost her head--if she ever had a head to lose. Where does the nearest doctor live?"
The man's devotion to Dexter showed itself as the woman's devotion had shown itself--in the man's rough way. He threw down his spade with an oath.
"The Master taken bad?" he said. "I'll fetch the doctor. I shall find him sooner than you will."
"Tell the doctor to bring a man with him," Benjamin added. "He may want help."
The gardener turned around sternly.
"I'm the man," he said. "Nobody shall help but me."
He left us. I sat down on one of the chairs in the hall, and did my best to compose myself. Benjamin walked to and fro, deep in thought. "Both of them fond of him," I heard my old friend say to himself. "Half monkey, half man--and both of them fond of him. That beats me."
The gardener returned with the doctor--a quiet, dark, resolute man. Benjamin advanced to meet them. "I have got the key," he said. "Shall I go upstairs with you?"
Without answering, the doctor drew Benjamin aside into a corner of the hall. The two talked together in low voices. At the end of it the doctor said, "Give me the key. You can be of no use; you will only irritate her."
With those words he beckoned to the gardener. He was about to lead the way up the stairs when I ventured to stop him.
"May I stay in the hall, sir?" I said. "I am very anxious to hear how it ends."
He looked at me for a moment before he replied.
"You had better go home, madam," he said. "Is the gardener acquainted with your address?"
"Very well. I will let you know how it ends by means of the gardener. Take my advice. Go home."
Benjamin placed my arm in his. I looked back, and saw the doctor and the gardener ascending the stairs together on their way to the locked-up room.
"Never mind the doctor," I whispered. "Let's wait in the garden."
Benjamin would not hear of deceiving the doctor. "I mean to take you home," he said. I looked at him in amazement. My old friend, who was all meekness and submission so long as there was no emergency to try him, now showed the dormant reserve of manly spirit and decision in his nature as he had never (in my experience) shown it yet. He led me into the garden. We had kept our cab: it was waiting for us at the gate.
On our way home Benjamin produced his note-book.
"What's to be done, my dear, with the gibberish that I have written here?" he said.
"Have you written it all down?" I asked, in surprise.
"When I undertake a duty, I do it," he answered. "You never gave me the signal to leave off--you never moved your chair. I have written every word of it. What shall I do? Throw it out of the cab window?"
"Give it to me."
"What are you going to do with it?"
"I don't know yet. I will ask Mr. Playmore."
MR. PLAYMORE IN A NEW CHARACTER.
The notes in Benjamin's book were partly written in shorthand, and were, on that account, of no use to me in their existing condition. At my request, he made two fair copies. One of the copies I inclosed in my letter to Mr. Playmore. The other I laid by me, on my bedside table, when I went to rest.
Over and over again, through the long hours of the wakeful night, I read and re-read the last words which had dropped from Miserrimus Dexter's lips. Was it possible to interpret them to any useful purpose? At the very outset they seemed to set interpretation at defiance. After trying vainly to solve the hopeless problem, I did at last what I might as well have done at first--I threw down the paper in despair. Where were my bright visions of discovery and success now? Scattered to the winds! Was there the faintest chance of the stricken man's return to reason? I remembered too well what I had seen to hope for it. The closing lines of the medical report which I had read in Mr. Playmore's office recurred to my memory in the stillness of the night--"When the catastrophe has happened, his friends can entertain no hope of his cure: the balance once lost, will be lost for life."
The confirmation of that terrible sentence was not long in reaching me. On the next morning the gardener brought a note containing the information which the doctor had promised to give me on the previous day.
Miserrimus Dexter and Ariel were still where Benjamin and I had left them together--in the long room. They were watched by skilled attendants, waiting the decision of Dexter's nearest relative (a younger brother, who lived in the country, and who had been communicated with by telegraph). It had been found impossible to part the faithful Ariel from her master without using the bodily restraints adopted in cases of raging insanity. The doctor and the gardener (both unusually strong men) had failed to hold the poor creature when they first attempted to remove her on entering the room. Directly they permitted her to return to her master the frenzy vanished: she was perfectly quiet and contented so long as they let her sit at his feet and look at him.
Sad as this was, the report of Miserrimus Dexter's condition was more melancholy still.
"My patient is in a state of absolute imbecility"--those were the words in the doctor's letter; and the gardener's simple narrative confirmed them as the truest words that could have been used. He was utterly unconscious of poor Ariel's devotion to him--he did not even appear to know that she was present in the room. For hours together he remained in a state of utter lethargy in his chair. He showed an animal interest in his meals, and a greedy animal enjoyment of eating and drinking as much as he could get--and that was all. "This morning," the honest gardener said to me at parting, "we thought he seemed to wake up a bit. Looked about him, you know, and made queer signs with his hands. I couldn't make out what he meant; no more could the doctor. She knew, poor thing--She did. Went and got him his harp, and put his hand up to it. Lord bless you! no use. He couldn't play no more than I can. Twanged at it anyhow, and grinned and gabbled to himself. No: he'll never come right again. Any person can see that, without the doctor to help 'em. Enjoys his meals, as I told you; and that's all. It would be the best thing that could happen if it would please God to take him. There's no more to be said. I wish you good-morning, ma'am."
He went away with the tears in his eyes; and he left me, I own it, with the tears in mine.
An hour later there came some news which revived me. I received a telegram from Mr. Playmore, expressed in these welcome words: "Obliged to go to London by to-night's mail train. Expect me to breakfast to-morrow morning."
The appearance of the lawyer at our breakfast-table duly followed the appearance of his telegram. His first words cheered me. To my infinite surprise and relief, he was far from sharing the despondent view which I took of my position.
"I don't deny," he said, "that there are some serious obstacles in your way. But I should never have called here before attending to my professional business in London if Mr. Benjamin's notes had not produced a very strong impression on my mind. For the first time, as I think, you really have a prospect of success. For the first time, I feel justified in offering (under certain restrictions) to help you. That miserable wretch, in the collapse of his intelligence, has done what he would never have done in the possession of his sense and his cunning--he has let us see the first precious glimmerings of the light of truth."
"Are you sure it is the truth?" I asked.
"In two important particulars," he answered, "I know it to be the truth. Your idea about him is the right one. His memory (as you suppose) was the least injured of his faculties, and was the last to give way under the strain of trying to tell that story. I believe his memory to have been speaking to you (unconsciously to himself) in all that he said from the moment when the first reference to 'the letter' escaped him to the end."
"But what does the reference to the letter mean?" I asked. "For my part, I am entirely in the dark about it."
"So am I," he answered, frankly. "The chief one among the obstacles which I mentioned just now is the obstacle presented by that same 'letter.' The late Mrs. Eustace must have been connected with it in some way, or Dexter would never have spoken of it as 'a dagger in his heart'; Dexter would never have coupled her name with the words which describe the tearing up of the letter and the throwing of it away. I can arrive with some certainty at this result, and I can get no further. I have no more idea than you have of who wrote the letter, or of what was written in it. If we are ever to make that discovery--probably the most important discovery of all--we must dispatch our first inquiries a distance of three thousand miles. In plain English, my dear lady, we must send to America."
This, naturally enough, took me completely by surprise. I waited eagerly to hear why we were to send to America.
"It rests with you," he proceeded, "when you hear what I have to tell you, to say whether you will go to the expense of sending a man to New York, or not. I can find the right man for the purpose; and I estimate the expense (including a telegram)--"
"Never mind the expense!" I interposed, losing all patience with the eminently Scotch view of the case which put my purse in the first place of importance. "I don't care for the expense; I want to know what you have discovered."
He smiled. "She doesn't care for the expense," he said to himself, pleasantly. "How like a woman!"
I might have retorted, "He thinks of the expense before he thinks of anything else. How like a Scotchman!" As it was, I was too anxious to be witty. I only drummed impatiently with my fingers on the table, and said, "Tell me! tell me!"
He took out the fair copy from Benjamin's note-book which I had sent to him, and showed me these among Dexter's closing words: "What about the letter? Burn it now. No fire in the grate. No matches in the box. House topsy-turvy. Servants all gone."
"Do you really understand what those words mean?" I asked.
"I look back into my own experience," he answered, "and I understand perfectly what the words mean."
"And can you make me understand them too?"
"Easily. In those incomprehensible sentences Dexter's memory has correctly recalled certain facts. I have only to tell you the facts, and you will be as wise as I am. At the time of the Trial, your husband surprised and distressed me by insisting on the instant dismissal of all the household servants at Gleninch. I was instructed to pay them a quarter's wages in advance, to give them the excellent written characters which their good conduct thoroughly deserved, and to see the house clear of them at an hour's notice. Eustace's motive for this summary proceeding was much the same motive which animated his conduct toward you. 'If I am ever to return to Gleninch,' he said, 'I cannot face my honest servants after the infamy of having stood my trial for murder.' There was his reason. Nothing that I could say to him, poor fellow, shook his resolution. I dismissed the servants accordingly. At an hour's notice, they quitted the house, leaving their work for the day all undone. The only persons placed in charge of Gleninch were persons who lived on the outskirts of the park--that is to say, the lodge-keeper and his wife and daughter. On the last day of the Trial I instructed the daughter to do her best to make the rooms tidy. She was a good girl enough, but she had no experience as a housemaid: it would never enter her head to lay the bedroom fires ready for lighting, or to replenish the empty match-boxes. Those chance words that dropped from Dexter would, no doubt, exactly describe the state of his room when he returned to Gleninch, with the prisoner and his mother, from Edinburgh. That he tore up the mysterious letter in his bedroom, and (finding no means immediately at hand for burning it) that he threw the fragments into the empty grate, or into the waste-paper basket, seems to be the most reasonable conclusion that we can draw from what we know. In any case, he would not have much time to think about it. Everything was done in a hurry on that day. Eustace and his mother, accompanied by Dexter, left for England the same evening by the night train. I myself locked up the house, and gave the keys to the lodge-keeper. It was understood that he was to look after the preservation of the reception-rooms on the ground-floor; and that his wife and daughter were to perform the same service between them in the rooms upstairs. On receiving your letter, I drove at once to Gleninch to question the old woman on the subject of the bedrooms, and of Dexter's room especially. She remembered the time when the house was shut up by associating it with the time when she was confined to her bed by an attack of sciatica. She had not crossed the lodge door, she was sure, for at least a week if not longer after Gleninch had been left in charge of her husband and herself. Whatever was done in the way of keeping the bedrooms aired and tidy during her illness was done by her daughter. She, and she only, must have disposed of any letter which might have been lying about in Dexter's room. Not a vestige of torn paper, as I can myself certify, is to be discovered in any part of the room now. Where did the girl find the fragments of the letter? and what did she do with them? Those are the questions (if you approve of it) which we must send three thousand miles away to ask--for this sufficient reason, that the lodge-keeper's daughter was married more than a year since, and that she is settled with her husband in business at New York. It rests with you to decide what is to be done. Don't let me mislead you with false hopes! Don't let me tempt you to throw away your money! Even if this woman does remember what she did with the torn paper, the chances, at this distance of time, are enormously against our ever recovering a single morsel of it. Be in no haste to decide. I have my work to do in the city--I can give you the whole day to think it over."
"Send the man to New York by the next steamer," I said. "There is my decision, Mr. Playmore, without keeping you waiting for it!"
He shook his head, in grave disapproval of my impetuosity. In my former interview with him we had never once touched on the question of money. I was now, for the first time, to make acquaintance with Mr. Playmore on the purely Scotch side of his character.
"Why, you don't even know what it will cost you!" he exclaimed, taking out his pocket-book with the air of a man who was equally startled and scandalized. "Wait till I tot it up," he said, "in English and American money."
"I can't wait! I want to make more discoveries!"
He took no notice of my interruption; he went on impenetrably with his calculations.
"The man will go second-class, and will take a return-ticket. Very well. His ticket includes his food; and (being, thank God, a teetotaler) he won't waste your money in buying liquor on board. Arrived at New York, he will go to a cheap German house, where he will, as I am credibly informed, be boarded and lodged at the rate--"
By this time (my patience being completely worn out) I had taken my check-book from the table-drawer, had signed my name, and had handed the blank check across the table to my legal adviser.
"Fill it in with whatever the man wants," I said. "And for Heaven's sake let us get back to Dexter!"
Mr. Playmore fell back in his chair, and lifted his hands and eyes to the ceiling. I was not in the least impressed by that solemn appeal to the unseen powers of arithmetic and money. I insisted positively on being fed with more information.
"Listen to this," I went on, reading from Benjamin's notes. "What did Dexter mean when he said, 'Number Nine, Caldershaws. Ask for Dandie. You shan't have the Diary. A secret in your ear. The Diary will hang him?' How came Dexter to know what was in my husband's Diary? And what does he mean by 'Number Nine, Caldershaws,' and the rest of it? Facts again?"
"Facts again!" Mr. Playmore answered, "muddled up together, as you may say--but positive facts for all that. Caldershaws, you must know, is one of the most disreputable districts in Edinburgh. One of my clerks (whom I am in the habit of employing confidentially) volunteered to inquire for 'Dandie' at 'Number Nine.' It was a ticklish business in every way; and my man wisely took a person with him who was known in the neighborhood. 'Number Nine' turned out to be (ostensibly) a shop for the sale of rags and old iron; and 'Dandie' was suspected of trading now and then, additionally, as a receiver of stolen goods. Thanks to the influence of his companion, backed by a bank-note (which can be repaid, by the way, out of the fund for the American expenses), my clerk succeeded in making the fellow speak. Not to trouble you with needless details, the result in substance was this: A fortnight or more before the date of Mrs. Eustace's death, 'Dandie' made two keys from wax models supplied to him by a new customer. The mystery observed in the matter by the agent who managed it excited Dandie's distrust. He had the man privately watched before he delivered the keys; and he ended in discovering that his customer was--Miserrimus Dexter. Wait a little! I have not done yet. Add to this information Dexter's incomprehensible knowledge of the contents of your husband's diary, and the product is--that the wax models sent to the old-iron shop in Caldershaws were models taken by theft from the key of the Diary and the key of the table-drawer in which it was kept. I have my own idea of the revelations that are still to come if this matter is properly followed up. Never mind going into that at present. Dexter (I tell you again) is answerable for the late Mrs. Eustace's death. How he is answerable I believe you are in a fair way of finding out. And, more than that, I say now, what I could not venture to say before--it is a duty toward Justice, as well as a duty toward your husband, to bring the truth to light. As for the difficulties to be encountered, I don't think they need daunt you. The greatest difficulties give way in the end, when they are attacked by the united alliance of patience resolution--and economy."
With a strong emphasis on the last words, my worthy adviser, mindful of the flight of time and the claims of business, rose to take his leave.
"One word more," I said, as he held out his hand. "Can you manage to see Miserrimus Dexter before you go back to Edinburgh? From what the gardener told me, his brother must be with him by this time. It would be a relief to me to hear the latest news of him, and to hear it from you."
"It is part of my business in London to see him," said Mr. Playmore. "But mind! I have no hope of his recovery; I only wish to satisfy myself that his brother is able and willing to take care of him. So far as we are concerned, Mrs. Eustace, that unhappy man has said his last words."
He opened the door--stopped--considered--and came back to me.
"With regard to that matter of sending the agent to America," he resumed--"I propose to have the honor of submitting to you a brief abstract--"
"Oh, Mr. Playmore!"
"A brief abstract in writing, Mrs. Eustace, of the estimated expenses of the whole proceeding. You will be good enough maturely to consider the same, making any remarks on it, tending to economy, which may suggest themselves to your mind at the time. And you will further oblige me, if you approve of the abstract, by yourself filling in the blank space on your check with the needful amount in words and figures. No, madam! I really cannot justify it to my conscience to carry about my person any such loose and reckless document as a blank check. There's a total disregard of the first claims of prudence and economy implied in this small slip of paper which is nothing less than a flat contradiction of the principles that have governed my whole life. I can't submit to flat contradiction. Good-morning, Mrs. Eustace--good-morning."
He laid my check on the table with a low bow, and left me. Among the curious developments of human stupidity which occasionally present themselves to view, surely the least excusable is the stupidity which, to this day, persists in wondering why the Scotch succeed so well in life!
It was an intensely characteristic document. My expenses were remorselessly calculated downward to shillings and even to pence; and our unfortunate messenger's instructions in respect to his expenditure were reduced to a nicety which must have made his life in America nothing less than a burden to him. In mercy to the man, I took the liberty, when I wrote back to Mr. Playmore, of slightly increasing the indicated amount of the figures which were to appear on the check. I ought to have better known the correspondent whom I had to deal with. Mr. Playmore's reply (informing me that our emissary had started on his voyage) returned a receipt in due form, and the whole of the surplus money, to the last farthing!
A few hurried lines accompanied the "abstract," and stated the result of the lawyer's visit to Miserrimus Dexter.
There was no change for the better--there was no change at all. Mr. Dexter, the brother, had arrived at the house accompanied by a medical man accustomed to the charge of the insane. The new doctor declined to give any definite opinion on the case until he had studied it carefully with plenty of time at his disposal. It had been accordingly arranged that he should remove Miserrimus Dexter to the asylum of which he was the proprietor as soon as the preparations for receiving the patient could be completed. The one difficulty that still remained to be met related to the disposal of the faithful creature who had never left her master, night or day, since the catastrophe had happened. Ariel had no friends and no money. The proprietor of the asylum could not be expected to receive her without the customary payment; and Mr. Dexter's brother "regretted to say that he was not rich enough to find the money." A forcible separation from the one human being whom she loved, and a removal in the character of a pauper to a public asylum--such was the prospect which awaited the unfortunate creature unless some one interfered in her favor before the end of the week.
Under these sad circumstances, good Mr. Playmore--passing over the claims of economy in favor of the claims of humanity--suggested that we should privately start a subscription, and offered to head the list liberally himself.
I must have written all these pages to very little purpose if it is necessary for me to add that I instantly sent a letter to Mr. Dexter, the brother, undertaking to be answerable for whatever money was to be required while the subscriptions were being collected, and only stipulating that when Miserrimus Dexter was removed to the asylum, Ariel should accompany him. This was readily conceded. But serious objections were raised when I further requested that she might be permitted to attend on her master in the asylum as she had attended on him in the house. The rules of the establishment forbade it, and the universal practice in such cases forbade it, and so on, and so on. However, by dint of perseverance and persuasion, I so far carried my point as to gain a reasonable concession. During certain hours in the day, and under certain wise restrictions, Ariel was to be allowed the privilege of waiting on the Master in his room, as well as of accompanying him when he was brought out in his chair to take the air in the garden. For the honor of humanity, let me add that the liability which I had undertaken made no very serious demands on my resources. Placed in Benjamin's charge, our subscription-list prospered. Friends, and even strangers sometimes, opened their hearts and their purses when they heard Ariel's melancholy story.
The day which followed the day of Mr. Playmore's visit brought me news from Spain, in a letter from my mother-in-law. To describe what I felt when I broke the seal and read the first lines is simply impossible. Let Mrs. Macallan be heard on this occasion in my place.
Thus she wrote:
"Prepare yourself, my dearest Valeria, for a delightful surprise. Eustace has justified my confidence in him. When he returns to England, he returns--if you will let him--to his wife.
"This resolution, let me hasten to assure you, has not been brought about by any persuasions of mine. It is the natural outgrowth of your husband's gratitude and your husband's love. The first words he said to me, when he was able to speak, were these: 'If I live to return to England, and if I go to Valeria, do you think she will forgive me?' We can only leave it to you, my dear, to give the answer. If you love us, answer us by return of post.
"Having now told you what he said when I first informed him that you had been his nurse--and remember, if it seem very little, that he is still too weak to speak except with difficulty--I shall purposely keep my letter back for a few days. My object is to give him time to think, and to frankly tell you of it if the interval produce any change in his resolution.
"Three days have passed, and there is no change. He has but one feeling now--he longs for the day which is to unite him again to his wife.
"But there is something else connected with Eustace that you ought to know, and that I ought to tell you.
"Greatly as time and suffering have altered him in many respects, there is no change, Valeria, in the aversion--the horror I may even say--with which he views your idea of inquiring anew into the circumstances which attended the lamentable death of his first wife. It makes no difference to him that you are only animated by a desire to serve his interests. 'Has she given up that idea? Are you positively sure she has given up that idea?' Over and over again he has put these questions to me. I have answered--what else could I do in the miserably feeble state in which he still lies?--I have answered in such a manner as to soothe and satisfy him. I have said, 'Relieve your mind of all anxiety on that subject: Valeria has no choice but to give up the idea; the obstacles in her way have proved to be insurmountable--the obstacles have conquered her.' This, if you remember, was what I really believed would happen when you and I spoke of that painful topic; and I have heard nothing from you since which has tended to shake my opinion in the smallest degree. If I am right (as I pray God I may be) in the view that I take, you have only to confirm me in your reply, and all will be well. In the other event--that is to say, if you are still determined to persevere in your hopeless project--then make up your mind to face the result. Set Eustace's prejudices at defiance in this particular, and you lose your hold on his gratitude, his penitence, and his love--you will, in my belief, never see him again.
"I express myself strongly, in your own interests, my dear, and for your own sake. When you reply, write a few lines to Eustace, inclosed in your letter to me.
"As for the date of our departure, it is still impossible for me to give you any definite information. Eustace recovers very slowly; the doctor has not yet allowed him to leave his bed; and when we do travel we must journey by easy stages. It will be at least six weeks, at the earliest, before we can hope to be back again in dear Old England.
I laid down the letter, and did my best (vainly enough for some time) to compose my spirits. To understand the position in which I now found myself, it is only necessary to remember one circumstance: the messenger to whom we had committed our inquiries was at that moment crossing the Atlantic on his way to New York.
What was to be done?
I hesitated. Shocking as it may seem to some people, I hesitated. There was really no need to hurry my decision. I had the whole day before me.
I went out and took a wretched, lonely walk, and turned the matter over in my mind. I came home again, and turned the matter over once more by the fireside. To offend and repel my darling when he was returning to me, penitently returning of his own free will, was what no woman in my position, and feeling as I did, could under any earthly circumstances have brought herself to do. And yet on the other hand, how in Heaven's name could I give up my grand enterprise at the very time when even wise and prudent Mr. Playmore saw such a prospect of succeeding in it that he had actually volunteered to help me? Placed between those two cruel alternatives, which could I choose? Think of your own frailties, and have some mercy on mine. I turned my back on both the alternatives. Those two agreeable fiends, Prevarication and Deceit, took me, as it were, softly by the hand: "Don't commit yourself either way, my dear," they said, in their most persuasive manner. "Write just enough to compose your mother-in-law and to satisfy your husband. You have got time before you. Wait and see if Time doesn't stand your friend, and get you out of the difficulty."
Infamous advice! And yet I took it--I, who had been well brought up, and who ought to have known better. You who read this shameful confession would have known better, I am sure. You are not included, in the Prayer-book category, among the "miserable sinners."
Well! well! let me have virtue enough to tell the truth. In writing to my mother-in-law, I informed her that it had been found necessary to remove Miserrimus Dexter to an asylum--and I left her to draw her own conclusions from that fact, unenlightened by so much as one word of additional information. In the same way, I told my husband a part of the truth, and no more. I said I forgave him with all my heart--and I did! I said he had only to come to me, and I would receive him with open arms--and so I would! As for the rest, let me say with Hamlet--"The rest is silence."
Having dispatched my unworthy letters, I found myself growing restless, and feeling the want of a change. It would be necessary to wait at least eight or nine days before we could hope to hear by telegraph from New York. I bade farewell for a time to my dear and admirable Benjamin, and betook myself to my old home in the North, at the vicarage of my uncle Starkweather. My journey to Spain to nurse Eustace had made my peace with my worthy relatives; we had exchanged friendly letters; and I had promised to be their guest as soon as it was possible for me to leave London.
I passed a quiet and (all things considered) a happy time among the old scenes. I visited once more the bank by the river-side, where Eustace and I had first met. I walked again on the lawn and loitered through the shrubbery--those favorite haunts in which we had so often talked over our troubles, and so often forgotten them in a kiss. How sadly and strangely had our lives been parted since that time! How uncertain still was the fortune which the future had in store for us!
The associations amid which I was now living had their softening effect on my heart, their elevating influence over my mind. I reproached myself, bitterly reproached myself, for not having written more fully and frankly to Eustace. Why had I hesitated to sacrifice to him my hopes and my interests in the coming investigation? He had not hesitated, poor fellow--his first thought was the thought of his wife!
I had passed a fortnight with my uncle and aunt before I heard again from Mr. Playmore. When a letter from him arrived at last, it disappointed me indescribably. A telegram from our messenger informed us that the lodge-keeper's daughter and her husband had left New York, and that he was still in search of a trace of them.
There was nothing to be done but to wait as patiently as we could, on the chance of hearing better news. I remained in the North, by Mr. Playmore's advice, so as to be within an easy journey to Edinburgh--in case it might be necessary for me to consult him personally. Three more weeks of weary expectation passed before a second letter reached me. This time it was impossible to say whether the news were good or bad. It might have been either--it was simply bewildering. Even Mr. Playmore himself was taken by surprise. These were the last wonderful words--limited of course by considerations of economy--which reached us (by telegram) from our agent in America:
"Open the dust-heap at Gleninch."
"If the telegram mean anything," he wrote, "it means that the fragments of the torn letter have been cast into the housemaid's bucket (along with the dust, the ashes, and the rest of the litter in the room), and have been emptied on the dust-heap at Gleninch. Since this was done, the accumulated refuse collected from the periodical cleansings of the house, during a term of nearly three years--including, of course, the ashes from the fires kept burning, for the greater part of the year, in the library and the picture-gallery--have been poured upon the heap, and have buried the precious morsels of paper deeper and deeper, day by day. Even if we have a fair chance of finding these fragments, what hope can we feel, at this distance of time, of recovering them with the writing in a state of preservation? I shall be glad to hear, by return of post if possible, how the matter strikes you. If you could make it convenient to consult with me personally in Edinburgh, we should save time, when time may be of serious importance to us. While you are at Doctor Starkweather's you are within easy reach of this place. Please think of it."
I thought of it seriously enough. The foremost question which I had to consider was the question of my husband.
The departure of the mother and son from Spain had been so long delayed, by the surgeon's orders, that the travelers had only advanced on their homeward journey as far as Bordeaux, when I had last heard from Mrs. Macallan three or four days since. Allowing for an interval of repose at Bordeaux, and for the slow rate at which they would be compelled to move afterward, I might still expect them to arrive in England some time before a letter from the agent in America could reach Mr. Playmore. How, in this position of affairs, I could contrive to join the lawyer in Edinburgh, after meeting my husband in London, it was not easy to see. The wise and the right way, as I thought, was to tell Mr. Playmore frankly that I was not mistress of my own movements, and that he had better address his next letter to me at Benjamin's house.
Writing to my legal adviser in this sense, I had a word of my own to add on the subject of the torn letter.
In the last years of my father's life I had traveled with him in Italy, and I had seen in the Museum at Naples the wonderful relics of a bygone time discovered among the ruins of Pompeii. By way of encouraging Mr. Playmore, I now reminded him that the eruption which had overwhelmed the town had preserved, for more than sixteen hundred years, such perishable things as the straw in which pottery had been packed; the paintings on house walls; the dresses worn by the inhabitants; and (most noticeable of all, in our case) a piece of ancient paper, still attached to the volcanic ashes which had fallen over it. If these discoveries had been made after a lapse of sixteen centuries, under a layer of dust and ashes on a large scale, surely we might hope to meet with similar cases of preservation, after a lapse of three or four years only, under a layer of dust and ashes on a small scale. Taking for granted (what was perhaps doubtful enough) that the fragments of the letter could be recovered, my own conviction was that the writing on them, though it might be faded, would certainly still be legible. The very accumulations which Mr. Playmore deplored would be the means of preserving them from the rain and the damp. With these modest hints I closed my letter; and thus for once, thanks to my Continental experience, I was able to instruct my lawyer!
Another day passed; and I heard nothing of the travelers.
I began to feel anxious. I made my preparations for my journey southward overnight; and I resolved to start for London the next day--unless I heard of some change in Mrs. Macallan's traveling arrangements in the interval.
The post of the next morning decided my course of action. It brought me a letter from my mother-in-law, which added one more to the memorable dates in my domestic calendar.
Eustace and his mother had advanced as far as Paris on their homeward journey, when a cruel disaster had befallen them. The fatigues of traveling, and the excitement of his anticipated meeting with me, had proved together to be too much for my husband. He had held out as far as Paris with the greatest difficulty; and he was now confined to his bed again, struck down by a relapse. The doctors, this time, had no fear for his life, provided that his patience would support him through a lengthened period of the most absolute repose.
"It now rests with you, Valeria," Mrs. Macallan wrote, "to fortify and comfort Eustace under this new calamity. Do not suppose that he has ever blamed or thought of blaming you for leaving him with me in Spain, as soon as he was declared to be out of danger. 'It was I who left her,' he said to me, when we first talked about it; 'and it is my wife's right to expect that I should go back to her.' Those were his words, my dear; and he has done all he can to abide by them. Helpless in his bed, he now asks you to take the will for the deed, and to join him in Paris. I think I know you well enough, my child, to be sure that you will do this; and I need only add one word of caution, before I close my letter. Avoid all reference, not only to the Trial (you will do that of your own accord), but even to our house at Gleninch. You will understand how he feels, in his present state of nervous depression, when I tell you that I should never have ventured on asking you to join him here, if your letter had not informed me that your visits to Dexter were at an end. Would you believe it?--his horror of anything which recalls our past troubles is still so vivid that he has actually asked me to give my consent to selling Gleninch!"
So Eustace's mother wrote of him. But she had not trusted entirely to her own powers of persuasion. A slip of paper was inclosed in her letter, containing these two lines, traced in pencil--oh, so feebly and so wearily!--by my poor darling himself:
"I am too weak to travel any further, Valeria. Will you come to me and forgive me?" A few pencil-marks followed; but they were illegible. The writing of those two short sentences had exhausted him.
It is not saying much for myself, I know--but, having confessed it when I was wrong, let me, at least, record it when I did what was right--I decided instantly on giving up all further connection with the recovery of the torn letter. If Eustace asked me the question, I was resolved to be able to answer truly: "I have made the sacrifice that assures your tranquillity. When resignation was hardest, I have humbled my obstinate spirit, and I have given way for my husband's sake."
There was half an hour to spare before I left the vicarage for the railway station. In that interval I wrote again to Mr. Playmore, telling him plainly what my position was, and withdrawing, at once and forever, from all share in investigating the mystery which lay hidden under the dust-heap at Gleninch.
OUR NEW HONEYMOON.
To resign the one cherished purpose of my life, when I had suffered so much in pursuing it, and when I had (to all appearance) so nearly reached the realization of my hopes, was putting to a hard trial a woman's fortitude and a woman's sense of duty. Still, even if the opportunity had been offered to me, I would not have recalled my letter to Mr. Playmore. "It is done, and well done," I said to myself; "and I have only to wait a day to be reconciled to it--when I give my husband my first kiss."
I had planned and hoped to reach London in time to start for Paris by the night-mail. But the train was twice delayed on the long journey from the North; and there was no help for it but to sleep at Benjamin's villa, and to defer my departure until the morning.
It was, of course, impossible for me to warn my old friend of the change in my plans. My arrival took him by surprise. I found him alone in his library, with a wonderful illumination of lamps and candles, absorbed over some morsels of torn paper scattered on the table before him.
"What in the world are you about?" I asked.
Benjamin blushed--I was going to say, like a young girl; but young girls have given up blushing in these latter days of the age we live in.
"Oh, nothing, nothing!" he said, confusedly. "Don't notice it."
He stretched out his hand to brush the morsels of paper off the table. Those morsels raised a sudden suspicion in my mind. I stopped him.
"You have heard from Mr. Playmore!" I said. "Tell me the truth, Benjamin. Yes or no?"
Benjamin blushed a shade deeper, and answered, "Yes."
"Where is the letter?"
"I mustn't show it to you, Valeria."
This (need I say it?) made me determined to see the letter. My best way of persuading Benjamin to show it to me was to tell him of the sacrifice that I had made to my husband's wishes. "I have no further voice in the matter," I added, when I had done. "It now rests entirely with Mr. Playmore to go on or to give up; and this is my last opportunity of discovering what he really thinks about it. Don't I deserve some little indulgence? Have I no claim to look at the letter?"
Benjamin was too much surprised, and too much pleased with me, when he heard what had happened, to be able to resist my entreaties. He gave me the letter.
Mr. Playmore wrote to appeal confidentially to Benjamin as a commercial man. In the long course of his occupation in business, it was just possible that he might have heard of cases in which documents have been put together again after having been torn up by design or by accident. Even if his experience failed in this particular, he might be able to refer to some authority in London who would be capable of giving an opinion on the subject. By way of explaining his strange request, Mr. Playmore reverted to the notes which Benjamin had taken at Miserrimus Dexter's house, and informed him of the serious importance of "the gibberish" which he had reported under protest. The letter closed by recommending that any correspondence which ensued should be kept a secret from me--on the ground that it might excite false hopes in my mind if I were informed of it.
I now understood the tone which my worthy adviser had adopted in writing to me. His interest in the recovery of the letter was evidently so overpowering that common prudence compelled him to conceal it from me, in case of ultimate failure. This did not look as if Mr. Playmore was likely to give up the investigation on my withdrawal from it. I glanced again at the fragments of paper on Benjamin's table, with an interest in them which I had not felt yet.
"Has anything been found at Gleninch?" I asked.
"No," said Benjamin. "I have only been trying experiments with a letter of my own, before I wrote to Mr. Playmore."
"Oh, you have torn up the letter yourself, then?"
"Yes. And, to make it all the more difficult to put them together again, I shook up the pieces in a basket. It's a childish thing to do, my dear, at my age--"
He stopped, looking very much ashamed of himself.
"Well," I went on; "and have you succeeded in putting your letter together again?"
"It's not very easy, Valeria. But I have made a beginning. It's the same principle as the principle in the 'Puzzles' which we used to put together when I was a boy. Only get one central bit of it right, and the rest of the Puzzle falls into its place in a longer or a shorter time. Please don't tell anybody, my dear. People might say I was in my dotage. To think of that gibberish in my note-book having a meaning in it, after all! I only got Mr. Playmore's letter this morning; and--I am really almost ashamed to mention it--I have been trying experiments on torn letters, off and on, ever since. You won't tell upon me, will you?"
I answered the dear old man by a hearty embrace. Now that he had lost his steady moral balance, and had caught the infection of my enthusiasm, I loved him better than ever.
But I was not quite happy, though I tried to appear so. Struggle against it as I might, I felt a little mortified when I remembered that I had resigned all further connection with the search for the letter at such a time as this. My one comfort was to think of Eustace. My one encouragement was to keep my mind fixed as constantly as possible on the bright change for the better that now appeared in the domestic prospect. Here, at least, there was no disaster to fear; here I could honestly feel that I had triumphed. My husband had come back to me of his own free will; he had not given way, under the hard weight of evidence--he had yielded to the nobler influences of his gratitude and his love. And I had taken him to my heart again--not because I had made discoveries which left him no other alternative than to live with me, but because I believed in the better mind that had come to him, and loved and trusted him without reserve. Was it not worth some sacrifice to have arrived at this result! True--most true! And yet I was a little out of spirits. Ah, well! well! the remedy was within a day's journey. The sooner I was with Eustace the better.
Early the next morning I left London for Paris by the tidal-train. Benjamin accompanied me to the Terminus.
"I shall write to Edinburgh by to-day's post," he said, in the interval before the train moved out of the station. "I think I can find the man Mr. Playmore wants to help him, if he decides to go on. Have you any message to send, Valeria?"
"No. I have done with it, Benjamin; I have nothing more to say."
"Shall I write and tell you how it ends, if Mr. Playmore does really try the experiment at Gleninch?"
I answered, as I felt, a little bitterly.
"Yes," I said "Write and tell me if the experiment fail."
My old friend smiled. He knew me better than I knew myself.
"All right!" he said, resignedly. "I have got the address of your banker's correspondent in Paris. You will have to go there for money, my dear; and you may find a letter waiting for you in the office when you least expect it. Let me hear how your husband goes on. Good-by--and God bless you!"
That evening I was restored to Eustace.
He was too weak, poor fellow, even to raise his head from the pillow. I knelt down at the bedside and kissed him. His languid, weary eyes kindled with a new life as my lips touched his. "I must try to live now," he whispered, "for your sake."
My mother-in-law had delicately left us together. When he said those words the temptation to tell him of the new hope that had come to brighten our lives was more than I could resist.
"You must try to live now, Eustace," I said, "for some one else besides me."
His eyes looked wonderingly into mine.
"Do you mean my mother?" he asked.
I laid my head on his bosom, and whispered back--"I mean your child."
I had all my reward for all that I had given up. I forgot Mr. Playmore; I forgot Gleninch. Our new honeymoon dates, in my remembrance, from that day.
The quiet time passed, in the by-street in which we lived. The outer stir and tumult of Parisian life ran its daily course around us, unnoticed and unheard. Steadily, though slowly, Eustace gained strength. The doctors, with a word or two of caution, left him almost entirely to me. "You are his physician," they said; "the happier you make him, the sooner he will recover." The quiet, monotonous round of my new life was far from wearying me. I, too, wanted repose--I had no interests, no pleasures, out of my husband's room.
Once, and once only, the placid surface of our lives was just gently ruffled by an allusion to the past. Something that I accidentally said reminded Eustace of our last interview at Major Fitz-David's house. He referred, very delicately, to what I had then said of the Verdict pronounced on him at the Trial; and he left me to infer that a word from my lips, confirming what his mother had already told him, would quiet his mind at once and forever.
My answer involved no embarrassments or difficulties; I could and did honestly tell him that I had made his wishes my law. But it was hardly in womanhood, I am afraid, to be satisfied with merely replying, and to leave it there. I thought it due to me that Eustace too should concede something, in the way of an assurance which might quiet my mind. As usual with me, the words followed the impulse to speak them. "Eustace," I asked, "are you quite cured of those cruel doubts which once made you leave me?"
His answer (as he afterward said) made me blush with pleasure. "Ah, Valeria, I should never have gone away if I had known you then as well as I know you now!"
So the last shadows of distrust melted away out of our lives.
The very remembrance of the turmoil and the trouble of my past days in London seemed now to fade from my memory. We were lovers again; we were absorbed again in each other; we could almost fancy that our marriage dated back once more to a day or two since. But one last victory over myself was wanting to make my happiness complete. I still felt secret longings, in those dangerous moments when I was left by myself, to know whether the search for the torn letter had or had not taken place. What wayward creatures we are! With everything that a woman could want to make her happy, I was ready to put that happiness in peril rather than remain ignorant of what was going on at Gleninch! I actually hailed the day when my empty purse gave me an excuse for going to my banker's correspondent on business, and so receiving any letters waiting for me which might be placed in my hands.
I applied for my money without knowing what I was about; wondering all the time whether Benjamin had written to me or not. My eyes wandered over the desks and tables in the office, looking for letters furtively. Nothing of the sort was visible. But a man appeared from an inner office: an ugly man, who was yet beautiful to my eyes, for this sufficient reason--he had a letter in his hand, and he said, "Is this for you, ma'am?"
A glance at the address showed me Benjamin's handwriting.
Had they tried the experiment of recovering the letter? and had they failed?
Somebody put my money in my bag, and politely led me out to the little hired carriage which was waiting for me at the door. I remember nothing distinctly until I opened the letter on my way home. The first words told me that the dust-heap had been examined, and that the fragments of the torn letter had been found.
THE DUST-HEAP DISTURBED.
Looking at the letter again, after an interval, my eyes fell accidentally on a sentence near the end, which surprised and startled me.
I stopped the driver of the carriage, at the entrance to the street in which our lodgings were situated, and told him to take me to the beautiful park of Paris--the famous Bois de Boulogne. My object was to gain time enough, in this way, to read the letter carefully through by myself, and to ascertain whether I ought or ought not to keep the receipt of it a secret before I confronted my husband and his mother at home.
This precaution taken, I read the narrative which my good Benjamin had so wisely and so thoughtfully written for me. Treating the various incidents methodically, he began with the Report which had arrived, in due course of mail, from our agent in America.
Our man had successfully traced the lodgekeeper's daughter and her husband to a small town in one of the Western States. Mr. Playmore's letter of introduction at once secured him a cordial reception from the married pair, and a patient hearing when he stated the object of his voyage across the Atlantic.
His first questions led to no very encouraging results. The woman was confused and surprised, and was apparently quite unable to exert her memory to any useful purpose. Fortunately, her husband proved to be a very intelligent man. He took the agent privately aside, and said to him, "I understand my wife, and you don't. Tell me exactly what it is you want to know, and leave it to me to discover how much she remembers and how much she forgets."
This sensible suggestion was readily accepted. The agent waited for events a day and a night.
Early the next morning the husband said to him, "Talk to my wife now, and you'll find she has something to tell you. Only mind this. Don't laugh at her when she speaks of trifles. She is half ashamed to speak of trifles, even to me. Thinks men are above such matters, you know. Listen quietly, and let her talk--and you will get at it all in that way."
The agent followed his instructions, and "got at it" as follows:
The woman remembered, perfectly well, being sent to clean the bedrooms and put them tidy, after the gentlefolks had all left Gleninch. Her mother had a bad hip at the time, and could not go with her and help her. She did not much fancy being alone in the great house, after what had happened in it. On her way to her work she passed two of the cottagers' children in the neighborhood at play in the park. Mr. Macallan was always kind to his poor tenants, and never objected to the young ones round about having a run on the grass. The two children idly followed her to the house. She took them inside, along with her--not liking the place, as already mentioned, and feeling that they would be company in the solitary rooms.
She began her work in the Guests' Corridor--leaving the room in the other corridor, in which the death had happened, to the last.
There was very little to do in the two first rooms. There was not litter enough, when she had swept the floors and cleaned the grates, to even half fill the housemaid's bucket which she carried with her. The children followed her about; and, all things considered, were "very good company" in the lonely place.
The third room (that is to say, the bedchamber which had been occupied by Miserrimus Dexter) was in a much worse state than the other two, and wanted a great deal of tidying. She did not much notice the children here, being occupied with her work. The litter was swept up from the carpet, and the cinders and ashes were taken out of the grate, and the whole of it was in the bucket, when her attention was recalled to the children by hearing one of them cry.
She looked about the room without at first discovering them.
A fresh outburst of crying led her in the right direction, and showed her the children under a table in a corner of the room. The youngest of the two had got into a waste-paper basket. The eldest had found an old bottle of gum, with a brush fixed in the cork, and was gravely painting the face of the smaller child with what little remained of the contents of the bottle. Some natural struggles, on the part of the little creature, had ended in the overthrow of the basket, and the usual outburst of crying had followed as a matter of course.
In this state of things the remedy was soon applied. The woman took the bottle away from the eldest child, and gave it a "box on the ear." The younger one she set on its legs again, and she put the two "in the corner" to keep them quiet. This done, she swept up such fragments of the torn paper in the basket as had fallen on the floor; threw them back again into the basket, along with the gum-bottle; fetched the bucket, and emptied the basket into it; and then proceeded to the fourth and last room in the corridor, where she finished her work for that day.
Leaving the house, with the children after her, she took the filled bucket to the dust-heap, and emptied it in a hollow place among the rubbish, about half-way up the mound. Then she took the children home; and there was an end of it for the day.
Such was the result of the appeal made to the woman's memory of domestic events at Gleninch.
The conclusion at which Mr. Playmore arrived, from the facts submitted to him, was that the chances were now decidedly in favor of the recovery of the letter. Thrown in, nearly midway between the contents of the housemaid's bucket, the torn morsels would be protected above as well as below, when they were emptied on the dust-heap.
Succeeding weeks and months would add to that protection, by adding to the accumulated refuse. In the neglected condition of the grounds, the dust-heap had not been disturbed in search of manure. There it had stood, untouched, from the time when the family left Gleninch to the present day. And there, hidden deep somewhere in the mound, the fragments of the letter must be.
Such were the lawyer's conclusions. He had written immediately to communicate them to Benjamin. And, thereupon, what had Benjamin done?
After having tried his powers of reconstruction on his own correspondence, the prospect of experimenting on the mysterious letter itself had proved to be a temptation too powerful for the old man to resist. "I almost fancy, my dear, this business of yours has bewitched me," he wrote. "You see I have the misfortune to be an idle man. I have time to spare and money to spare. And the end of it is that I am here at Gleninch, engaged on my own sole responsibility (with good Mr. Playmore's permission) in searching the dust-heap!"
Benjamin's description of his first view of the field of action at Gleninch followed these characteristic lines of apology.
I passed over the description without ceremony. My remembrance of the scene was too vivid to require any prompting of that sort. I saw again, in the dim evening light, the unsightly mound which had so strangely attracted my attention at Gleninch. I heard again the words in which Mr. Playmore had explained to me the custom of the dust-heap in Scotch country-houses. What had Benjamin and Mr. Playmore done? What had Benjamin and Mr. Playmore found? For me, the true interest of the narrative was there--and to that portion of it I eagerly turned next.
They had proceeded methodically, of course, with one eye on the pounds, shillings, and pence, and the other on the object in view. In Benjamin, the lawyer had found what he had not met with in me--a sympathetic mind, alive to the value of "an abstract of the expenses," and conscious of that most remunerative of human virtues, the virtue of economy.
At so much a week, they had engaged men to dig into the mound and to sift the ashes. At so much a week, they had hired a tent to shelter the open dust-heap from wind and weather. At so much a week, they had engaged the services of a young man (personally known to Benjamin), who was employed in a laboratory under a professor of chemistry, and who had distinguished himself by his skillful manipulation of paper in a recent case of forgery on a well-known London firm. Armed with these preparations, they had begun the work; Benjamin and the young chemist living at Gleninch, and taking it in turns to superintend the proceedings.
Three days of labor with the spade and the sieve produced no results of the slightest importance. However, the matter was in the hands of two quietly determined men. They declined to be discouraged. They went on.
On the fourth day the first morsels of paper were found.
Upon examination, they proved to be the fragments of a tradesman's prospectus. Nothing dismayed, Benjamin and the young chemist still persevered. At the end of the day's work more pieces of paper were turned up. These proved to be covered with written characters. Mr. Playmore (arriving at Gleninch, as usual, every evening on the conclusion of his labors in the law) was consulted as to the handwriting. After careful examination, he declared that the mutilated portions of sentences submitted to him had been written, beyond all doubt, by Eustace Macallan's first wife!
This discovery aroused the enthusiasm of the searchers to fever height.
Spades and sieves were from that moment forbidden utensils. However unpleasant the task might be, hands alone were used in the further examination of the mound. The first and foremost necessity was to place the morsels of paper (in flat cardboard boxes prepared for the purpose) in their order as they were found. Night came; the laborers were dismissed; Benjamin and his two colleagues worked on by lamplight. The morsels of paper were now turned up by dozens, instead of by ones and twos. For a while the search prospered in this way; and then the morsels appeared no more. Had they all been recovered? or would renewed hand-digging yield more yet? The next light layers of rubbish were carefully removed--and the grand discovery of the day followed. There (upside down) was the gum-bottle which the lodge-keeper's daughter had spoken of. And, more precious still, there, under it, were more fragments of written paper, all stuck together in a little lump, by the last drippings from the gum-bottle dropping upon them as they lay on the dust-heap!
The scene now shifted to the interior of the house. When the searchers next assembled they met at the great table in the library at Gleninch.
Benjamin's experience with the "Puzzles" which he had put together in the days of his boyhood proved to be of some use to his companions. The fragments accidentally stuck together would, in all probability, be found to fit each other, and would certainly (in any case) be the easiest fragments to reconstruct as a center to start from.
The delicate business of separating these pieces of paper, and of preserving them in the order in which they had adhered to each other, was assigned to the practiced fingers of the chemist. But the difficulties of his task did not end here. The writing was (as usual in letters) traced on both sides of the paper, and it could only be preserved for the purpose of reconstruction by splitting each morsel into two--so as artificially to make a blank side, on which could be spread the fine cement used for reuniting the fragments in their original form.
To Mr. Playmore and Benjamin the prospect of successfully putting the letter together, under these disadvantages, seemed to be almost hopeless. Their skilled colleague soon satisfied them that they were wrong.
He drew their attention to the thickness of the paper--note-paper of the strongest and best quality--on which the writing was traced. It was of more than twice the substance of the last paper on which he had operated, when he was engaged in the forgery case; and it was, on that account, comparatively easy for him (aided by the mechanical appliances which he had brought from London) to split the morsels of the torn paper, within a given space of time which might permit them to begin the reconstruction of the letter that night.
With these explanations, he quietly devoted himself to his work. While Benjamin and the lawyer were still poring over the scattered morsels of the letter which had been first discovered, and trying to piece them together again, the chemist had divided the greater part of the fragments specially confided to him into two halves each; and had correctly put together some five or six sentences of the letter on the smooth sheet of cardboard prepared for that purpose.
They looked eagerly at the reconstructed writing so far.
It was correctly done: the sense was perfect. The first result gained by examination was remarkable enough to reward them for all their exertions. The language used plainly identified the person to whom the late Mrs. Eustace had addressed her letter.
That person was--my husband.
And the letter thus addressed--if the plainest circumstantial evidence could be trusted--was identical with the letter which Miserrimus Dexter had suppressed until the Trial was over, and had then destroyed by tearing it up.
These were the discoveries that had been made at the time when Benjamin wrote to me. He had been on the point of posting his letter, when Mr. Playmore had suggested that he should keep it by him for a few days longer, on the chance of having more still to tell me.
"We are indebted to her for these results," the lawyer had said. "But for her resolution; and her influence over Miserrimus Dexter, we should never have discovered what the dust-heap was hiding from us--we should never have seen so much as a glimmering of the truth. She has the first claim to the fullest information. Let her have it."
The letter had been accordingly kept back for three days. That interval being at an end, it was hurriedly resumed and concluded in terms which indescribably alarmed me.
"The chemist is advancing rapidly with his part of the work" (Benjamin wrote); "and I have succeeded in putting together a separate portion of the torn writing which makes sense. Comparison of what he has accomplished with what I have accomplished has led to startling conclusions. Unless Mr. Playmore and I are entirely wrong (and God grant we may be so!), there is a serious necessity for your keeping the reconstruction of the letter strictly secret from everybody about you. The disclosures suggested by what has come to light are so heartrending and so dreadful that I cannot bring myself to write about them until I am absolutely obliged to do so. Please forgive me for disturbing you with this news. We are bound, sooner or later, to consult with you in the matter; and we think it right to prepare your mind for what may be to come."
To this there was added a postscript in Mr. Playmore's handwriting:
"Pray observe strictly the caution which Mr. Benjamin impresses on you. And bear this in mind, as a warning from me: If we succeed in reconstructing the entire letter, the last person living who ought (in my opinion) to be allowed to see it is--your husband."
THE CRISIS DEFERRED.
So my mother-in-law spoke to me later in the day, when we happened to be alone. I had done my best to conceal all traces of the effect produced on me by the strange and terrible news from Gleninch. But who could read what I had read, who could feel what I now felt, and still maintain an undisturbed serenity of look and manner? If I had been the vilest hypocrite living, I doubt even then if my face could have kept my secret while my mind was full of Benjamin's letter.
Having spoken her word of caution, Mrs. Macallan made no further advance to me. I dare say she was right. Still, it seemed hard to be left, without a word of advice or of sympathy, to decide for myself what it was my duty to my husband to do next.
To show him Benjamin's narrative, in his state of health, and in the face of the warning addressed to me, was simply out of the question. At the same time, it was equally impossible, after I had already betrayed myself, to keep him entirely in the dark. I thought over it anxiously in the night. When the morning came, I decided to appeal to my husband's confidence in me.
I went straight to the point in these terms:
"Eustace, your mother said yesterday that you noticed a change in me when I came back from my drive. Is she right?"
"Quite right, Valeria," he answered--speaking in lower tones than usual, and not looking at me.
"We have no concealments from each other now," I answered. "I ought to tell you, and do tell you, that I found a letter from England waiting at the banker's which has caused me some agitation and alarm. Will you leave it to me to choose my own time for speaking more plainly? And will you believe, love, that I am really doing my duty toward you, as a good wife, in making this request?"
I paused. He made no answer: I could see that he was secretly struggling with himself. Had I ventured too far? Had I overestimated the strength of my influence? My heart beat fast, my voice faltered--but I summoned courage enough to take his hand, and to make a last appeal to him. "Eustace," I said; "don't you know me yet well enough to trust me?"
He turned toward me for the first time. I saw a last vanishing trace of doubt in his eyes as they looked into mine.
"You promise, sooner or later, to tell me the whole truth?" he said
"I promise with all my heart!"
"I trust you, Valeria!"
His brightening eyes told me that he really meant what he said. We sealed our compact with a kiss. Pardon me for mentioning these trifles--I am still writing (if you will kindly remember it) of our new honeymoon.
By that day's post I answered Benjamin's letter, telling him what I had done, and entreating him, if he and Mr. Playmore approved of my conduct, to keep me informed of any future discoveries which they might make at Gleninch.
After an interval--an endless interval, as it seemed to me--of ten days more, I received a second letter from my old friend, with another postscript added by Mr. Playmore.
"We are advancing steadily and successfully with the putting together of the letter," Benjamin wrote. "The one new discovery which we have made is of serious importance to your husband. We have reconstructed certain sentences declaring, in the plainest words, that the arsenic which Eustace procured was purchased at the request of his wife, and was in her possession at Gleninch. This, remember, is in the handwriting of the wife, and is signed by the wife--as we have also found out. Unfortunately, I am obliged to add that the objection to taking your husband into our confidence, mentioned when I last wrote, still remains in force--in greater force, I may say, than ever. The more we make out of the letter, the more inclined we are (if we only studied our own feelings) to throw it back into the dust-heap, in mercy to the memory of the unhappy writer. I shall keep this open for a day or two. If there is more news to tell you by that time you will hear of it from Mr. Playmore."
Mr. Playmore's postscript followed, dated three days later.
"The concluding part of the late Mrs. Macallan's letter to her husband," the lawyer wrote, "has proved accidentally to be the first part which we have succeeded in piecing together. With the exception of a few gaps still left, here and there, the writing of the closing paragraphs has been perfectly reconstructed. I have neither the time nor the inclination to write to you on this sad subject in any detail. In a fortnight more, at the longest, we shall, I hope, send you a copy of the letter, complete from the first line to the last. Meanwhile, it is my duty to tell you that there is one bright side to this otherwise deplorable and shocking document. Legally speaking, as well as morally speaking, it absolutely vindicates your husband's innocence. And it may be lawfully used for this purpose--if he can reconcile it to his conscience, and to the mercy due to the memory of the dead, to permit the public exposure of the letter in Court. Understand me, he cannot be tried again on what we call the criminal charge--for certain technical reasons with which I need not trouble you. But, if the facts which were involved at the criminal trial can also be shown to be involved in a civil action (and in this case they can), the entire matter may be made the subject of a new legal inquiry; and the verdict of a second jury, completely vindicating your husband, may thus be obtained. Keep this information to yourself for the present. Preserve the position which you have so sensibly adopted toward Eustace until you have read the restored letter. When you have done this, my own idea is that you will shrink, in pity to him, from letting him see it. How he is to be kept in ignorance of what we have discovered is another question, the discussion of which must be deferred until we can consult together. Until that time comes, I can only repeat my advice--wait till the next news reaches you from Gleninch."
I waited. What I suffered, what Eustace thought of me, does not matter. Nothing matters now but the facts.
In less than a fortnight more the task of restoring the letter was completed. Excepting certain instances, in which the morsels of the torn paper had been irretrievably lost--and in which it had been necessary to complete the sense in harmony with the writer's intention--the whole letter had been put together; and the promised copy of it was forwarded to me in Paris.
Before you, too, read that dreadful letter, do me one favor. Let me briefly remind you of the circumstances under which Eustace Macallan married his first wife.
Remember that the poor creature fell in love with him without awakening any corresponding affection on his side. Remember that he separated himself from her, and did all he could to avoid her, when he found this out. Remember that she presented herself at his residence in London without a word of warning; that he did his best to save her reputation; that he failed, through no fault of his own; and that he ended, rashly ended in a moment of despair, by marrying her, to silence the scandal that must otherwise have blighted her life as a woman for the rest of her days. Bear all this in mind (it is the sworn testimony of respectable witnesses); and pray do not forget--however foolishly and blamably he may have written about her in the secret pages of his Diary--that he was proved to have done his best to conceal from his wife the aversion which the poor soul inspired in him; and that he was (in the opinion of those who could best judge him) at least a courteous and a considerate husband, if he could be no more.
And now take the letter. It asks but one favor of you: it asks to be read by the light of Christ's teaching--"Judge not, that ye be not judged."
THE WIFE'S CONFESSION.
"I have something very painful to tell you about one of your oldest friends.
"You have never encouraged me to come to you with any confidences of mine. If you had allowed me to be as familiar with you as some wives are with their husbands, I should have spoken to you personally instead of writing. As it is, I don't know how you might receive what I have to say to you if I said it by word of mouth. So I write.
"The man against whom I warn you is still a guest in this house--Miserrimus Dexter. No falser or wickeder creature walks the earth. Don't throw my letter aside! I have waited to say this until I could find proof that might satisfy you. I have got the proof.
"You may remember that I ventured to express some disapproval when you first told me you had asked this man to visit us. If you had allowed me time to explain myself, I might have been bold enough to give you a good reason for the aversion I felt toward your friend. But you would not wait. You hastily (and most unjustly) accused me of feeling prejudiced against the miserable creature on account of his deformity. No other feeling than compassion for deformed persons has ever entered my mind. I have, indeed, almost a fellow-feeling for them; being that next worst thing myself to a deformity--a plain woman. I objected to Mr. Dexter as your guest because he had asked me to be his wife in past days, and because I had reason to fear that he still regarded me (after my marriage) with a guilty and a horrible love. Was it not my duty, as a good wife, to object to his being your guest at Gleninch? And was it not your duty, as a good husband, to encourage me to say more?
"Well, Mr. Dexter has been your guest for many weeks; and Mr. Dexter has dared to speak to me again of his love. He has insulted me, and insulted you, by declaring that he adores me and that you hate me. He has promised me a life of unalloyed happiness, in a foreign country with my lover; and he has prophesied for me a life of unendurable misery at home with my husband.
"Why did I not make my complaint to you, and have this monster dismissed from the house at once and forever?
"Are you sure you would have believed me if I had complained, and if your bosom friend had denied all intention of insulting me? I heard you once say (when you were not aware that I was within hearing) that the vainest women were always the ugly women. You might have accused me of vanity. Who knows?
"But I have no desire to shelter myself under this excuse. I am a jealous, unhappy creature; always doubtful of your affection for me; always fearing that another woman has got my place in your heart. Miserrimus Dexter has practiced on this weakness of mine. He has declared he can prove to me (if I will permit him) that I am, in your secret heart, an object of loathing to you; that you shrink from touching me; that you curse the hour when you were foolish enough to make me your wife. I have struggled as long as I could against the temptation to let him produce his proofs. It was a terrible temptation to a woman who was far from feeling sure of the sincerity of your affection for her; and it has ended in getting the better of my resistance. I wickedly concealed the disgust which the wretch inspired in me; I wickedly gave him leave to explain himself; I wickedly permitted this enemy of yours and of mine to take me into his confidence. And why? Because I loved you, and you only; and because Miserrimus Dexter's proposal did, after all, echo a doubt of you that had long been gnawing secretly at my heart.
"Forgive me, Eustace! This is my first sin against you. It shall be my last.
"I will not spare myself; I will write a full confession of what I said to him and of what he said to me. You may make me suffer for it when you know what I have done; but you will at least be warned in time; you will see your false friend in his true light.
"I said to him, 'How can you prove to me that my husband hates me in secret?'
"He answered, 'I can prove it under his own handwriting; you shall see it in his Diary.'
"I said, 'His Diary has a lock; and the drawer in which he keeps it has a lock. How can you get at the Diary and the drawer?'
"He answered, 'I have my own way of getting at both of them, without the slightest risk of being discovered by your husband. All you have to do is to give me the opportunity of seeing you privately. I will engage, in return, to bring the open Diary with me to your room.'
"I said, 'How can I give you the opportunity? What do you mean?'
"He pointed to the key in the door of communication between my room and the little study.
"He said, 'With my infirmity, I may not be able to profit by the first opportunity of visiting you here unobserved. I must be able to choose my own time and my own way of getting to you secretly. Let me take this key, leaving the door locked. When the key is missed, if you say it doesn't matter--if you point out that the door is locked, and tell the servants not to trouble themselves about finding the key--there will be no disturbance in the house; and I shall be in secure possession of a means of communication with you which no one will suspect. Will you do this?'
"I have done it.
"Yes! I have become the accomplice of this double-faced villain. I have degraded myself and outraged you by making an appointment to pry into your Diary. I know how base my conduct is. I can make no excuse. I can only repeat that I love you, and that I am sorely afraid you don't love me. And Miserrimus Dexter offers to end my doubts by showing me the most secret thoughts of your heart, in your own writing.
"He is to be with me, for this purpose (while you are out), some time in the course of the next two hours. I shall decline to be satisfied with only once looking at your Diary; and I shall make an appointment with him to bring it to me again at the same time to-morrow. Before then you will receive these lines by the hand of my nurse. Go out as usual after reading them; but return privately, and unlock the table-drawer in which you keep your book. You will find it gone. Post yourself quietly in the little study; and you will discover the Diary (when Miserrimus Dexter leaves me) in the hands of your friend.*
* Note by Mr. Playmore:--The greatest difficulties of reconstruction occurred in this first portion of the torn letter. In the fourth paragraph from the beginning we have been obliged to supply lost words in no less than three places. In the ninth, tenth, and seventeenth paragraphs the same proceeding was, in a greater or less degree, found to be necessary. In all these cases the utmost pains have been taken to supply the deficiency in exact accordance with what appeared to be the meaning of the writer, as indicated in the existing pieces of the manuscript.
"I have read your Diary.
"At last I know what you really think of me. I have read what Miserrimus Dexter promised I should read--the confession of your loathing for me, in your own handwriting.
"You will not receive what I wrote to you yesterday at the time or in the manner which I had proposed. Long as my letter is, I have still (after reading your Diary) some more words to add. After I have closed and sealed the envelope, and addressed it to you, I shall put it under my pillow. It will be found there when I am laid out for the grave--and then, Eustace (when it is too late for hope or help), my letter will be given to you.
"Yes: I have had enough of my life. Yes: I mean to die.
"I have already sacrificed everything but my life to my love for you. Now I know that my love is not returned, the last sacrifice left is easy. My death will set you free to marry Mrs. Beauly.
"You don't know what it cost me to control my hatred of her, and to beg her to pay her visit here, without minding my illness. I could never have done it if I had not been so fond of you, and so fearful of irritating you against me by showing my jealousy. And how did you reward me? Let your Diary answer: 'I tenderly embraced her this very morning; and I hope, poor soul, she did not discover the effort that it cost me.'
"Well, I have discovered it now. I know that you privately think your life with me 'a purgatory.' I know that you have compassionately hidden from me the 'sense of shrinking that comes over you when you are obliged to submit to my caresses.' I am nothing but an obstacle--an 'utterly distasteful' obstacle--between you and the woman whom you love so dearly that you 'adore the earth which she touches with her foot.' Be it so! I will stand in your way no longer. It is no sacrifice and no merit on my part. Life is unendurable to me, now I know that the man whom I love with all my heart and soul secretly shrinks from me whenever I touch him.
"I have got the means of death close at hand.
"The arsenic that I twice asked you to buy for me is in my dressing-case. I deceived you when I mentioned some commonplace domestic reasons for wanting it. My true reason was to try if I could not improve my ugly complexion--not from any vain feeling of mine: only to make myself look better and more lovable in your eyes. I have taken some of it for that purpose; but I have got plenty left to kill myself with. The poison will have its use at last. It might have failed to improve my complexion--it will not fail to relieve you of your ugly wife.
"Don't let me be examined after death. Show this letter to the doctor who attends me. It will tell him that I have committed suicide; it will prevent any innocent persons from being suspected of poisoning me. I want nobody to be blamed or punished. I shall remove the chemist's label, and carefully empty the bottle containing the poison, so that he may not suffer on my account.
"I must wait here, and rest a little while--then take up my letter again. It is far too long already. But these are my farewell words. I may surely dwell a little on my last talk with you!
"October 21. Two o'clock in the morning.
"I sent you out of the room yesterday when you came in to ask how I had passed the night. And I spoke of you shamefully, Eustace, after you had gone, to the hired nurse who attends on me. Forgive me. I am almost beside myself now. You know why.
"Oh, my husband, I have done the deed which will relieve you of the wife whom you hate! I have taken the poison--all of it that was left in the paper packet, which was the first that I found. If this is not enough to kill me, I have more left in the bottle.
"Ten minutes past five.
"You have just gone, after giving me my composing draught. My courage failed me at the sight of you. I thought to myself, 'If he look at me kindly, I will confess what I have done, and let him save my life.' You never looked at me at all. You only looked at the medicine. I let you go without saying a word.
"I begin to feel the first effects of the poison. The nurse is asleep at the foot of my bed. I won't call for assistance; I won't wake her. I will die.
"The agony was beyond my endurance--I awoke the nurse. I have seen the doctor.
"Nobody suspects anything. Strange to say, the pain has left me; I have evidently taken too little of the poison. I must open the bottle which contains the larger quantity. Fortunately, you are not near me--my resolution to die, or, rather, my loathing of life, remains as bitterly unaltered as ever. To make sure of my courage, I have forbidden the nurse to send for you. She has just gone downstairs by my orders. I am free to get the poison out of my dressing-case.
"Ten minutes to ten.
"I had just time to hide the bottle (after the nurse had left me) when you came into my room.
"I had another moment of weakness when I saw you. I determined to give myself a last chance of life. That is to say, I determined to offer you a last opportunity of treating me kindly. I asked you to get me a cup of tea. If, in paying me this little attention, you only encouraged me by one fond word or one fond look, I resolved not to take the second dose of poison.
"You obeyed my wishes, but you were not kind. You gave me my tea, Eustace, as if you were giving a drink to your dog. And then you wondered in a languid way (thinking, I suppose, of Mrs. Beauly all the time), at my dropping the cup in handing it back to you. I really could not help it; my hand would tremble. In my place, your hand might have trembled too--with the arsenic under the bedclothes. You politely hoped, before you went away, that the tea would do me good--and, oh God, you could not even look at me when you said that! You looked at the broken bits of the tea-cup.
"The instant you were out of the room I took the poison--a double dose this time.
"I have a little request to make here, while I think of it.
"After removing the label from the bottle, and putting it back, clean, in my dressing-case, it struck me that I had failed to take the same precaution (in the early morning) with the empty paper-packet, bearing on it the name of the other chemist. I threw it aside on the counterpane of the bed, among some other loose papers. My ill-tempered nurse complained of the litter, and crumpled them all up and put them away somewhere. I hope the chemist will not suffer through my carelessness. Pray bear it in mind to say that he is not to blame.
"Dexter--something reminds me of Miserrimus Dexter. He has put your Diary back again in the drawer, and he presses me for an answer to his proposals. Has this false wretch any conscience? If he has, even he will suffer--when my death answers him.
"The nurse has been in my room again. I have sent her away. I have told her I want to be alone.
"How is the time going? I cannot find my watch. Is the pain coming back again and paralyzing me? I don't feel it keenly yet.
"It may come back, though, at any moment. I have still to close my letter and to address it to you. And, besides, I must save up my strength to hide it under the pillow, so that nobody may find it until after my death.
"Farewell, my dear. I wish I had been a prettier woman. A more loving woman (toward you) I could not be. Even now I dread the sight of your dear face. Even now, if I allowed myself the luxury of looking at you, I don't know that you might not charm me into confessing what I have done--before it is too late to save me.
"But you are not here. Better as it is! better as it is!
"Once more, farewell! Be happier than you have been with me. I love you, Eustace--I forgive you. When you have nothing else to think about, think sometimes, as kindly as you can, of your poor, ugly
* Note by Mr. Playmore:--The lost words and phrases supplied in this concluding portion of the letter are so few in number that it is needless to mention them. The fragments which were found accidentally stuck together by the gum, and which represent the part of the letter first completely reconstructed, begin at the phrase, "I spoke of you shamefully, Eustace;" and end with the broken sentence, "If in paying me this little attention, you only encouraged me by one fond word or one fond look, I resolved not to take--" With the assistance thus afforded to us, the labor of putting together the concluding half of the letter (dated "October 20") was trifling, compared with the almost insurmountable difficulties which we encountered in dealing with the scattered wreck of the preceding pages.
WHAT ELSE COULD I DO?
Yes! to this end it had come. I had devoted my life to the attainment of one object; and that object I had gained. There, on the table before me, lay the triumphant vindication of my husband's innocence; and, in mercy to him, in mercy to the memory of his dead wife, my one hope was that he might never see it! my one desire was to hide it from the public view!
I looked back at the strange circumstances under which the letter had been discovered.
It was all my doing--as the lawyer had said. And yet, what I had done, I had, so to speak, done blindfold. The merest accident might have altered the whole course of later events. I had over and over again interfered to check Ariel when she entreated the Master to "tell her a story." If she had not succeeded, in spite of my opposition, Miserrimus Dexter's last effort of memory might never have been directed to the tragedy at Gleninch. And, again, if I had only remembered to move my chair, and so to give Benjamin the signal to leave off, he would never have written down the apparently senseless words which have led us to the discovery of the truth.
Looking back at events in this frame of mind, the very sight of the letter sickened and horrified me. I cursed the day which had disinterred the fragments of it from their foul tomb. Just at the time when Eustace had found his weary way back to health and strength; just at the time when we were united again and happy again--when a month or two more might make us father and mother, as well as husband and wife--that frightful record of suffering and sin had risen against us like an avenging spirit. There it faced me on the table, threatening my husband's tranquillity; nay, for all I knew (if he read it at the present critical stage of his recovery) even threatening his life!
The hour struck from the clock on the mantelpiece. It was Eustace's time for paying me his morning visit in my own little room. He might come in at any moment; he might see the letter; he might snatch the letter out of my hand. In a frenzy of terror and loathing, I caught up the vile sheets of paper and threw them into the fire.
It was a fortunate thing that a copy only had been sent to me. If the original letter had been in its place, I believe I should have burned the original at that moment.
The last morsel of paper had been barely consumed by the flames when the door opened, and Eustace came in.
He glanced at the fire. The black cinders of the burned paper were still floating at the back of the grate. He had seen the letter brought to me at the breakfast-table. Did he suspect what I had done? He said nothing--he stood gravely looking into the fire. Then he advanced and fixed his eyes on me. I suppose I was very pale. The first words he spoke were words which asked me if I felt ill.
I was determined not to deceive him, even in the merest trifle.
"I am feeling a little nervous, Eustace," I answered; "that is all."
He looked at me again, as if he expected me to say something more. I remained silent. He took a letter out of the breast-pocket of his coat and laid it on the table before me--just where the Confession had lain before I destroyed it!
"I have had a letter too this morning," he said. "And I, Valeria, have no secrets from you."
I understood the reproach which my husband's last words conveyed; but I made no attempt to answer him.
"Do you wish me to read it?" was all I said pointing to the envelope which he had laid on the table.
"I have already said that I have no secrets from you," he repeated. "The envelope is open. See for yourself what is inclosed in it."
I took out--not a letter, but a printed paragraph, cut from a Scotch newspaper.
"Read it," said Eustace.
I read as follows:
"STRANGE DOINGS AT GLENINCH--A romance in real life seems to be in course of progress at Mr. Macallan's country-house. Private excavations are taking place--if our readers will pardon us the unsavory allusion--at the dust-heap, of all places in the world! Something has assuredly been discovered; but nobody knows what. This alone is certain: For weeks past two strangers from London (superintended by our respected fellow-citizen, Mr. Playmore) have been at work night and day in the library at Gleninch, with the door locked. Will the secret ever be revealed? And will it throw any light on a mysterious and shocking event which our readers have learned to associate with the past history of Gleninch? Perhaps when Mr. Macallan returns, he may be able to answer these questions. In the meantime we can only await events."
I laid the newspaper slip on the table, in no very Christian frame of mind toward the persons concerned in producing it. Some reporter in search of news had evidently been prying about the grounds at Gleninch, and some busy-body in the neighborhood had in all probability sent the published paragraph to Eustace. Entirely at a loss what to do, I waited for my husband to speak. He did not keep me in suspense--he questioned me instantly.
"Do you understand what it means, Valeria?"
I answered honestly--I owned that I understood what it meant.
He waited again, as if he expected me to say more. I still kept the only refuge left to me--the refuge of silence.
"Am I to know no more than I know now?" he proceeded, after an interval. "Are you not bound to tell me what is going on in my own house?"
It is a common remark that people, if they can think at all, think quickly in emergencies. There was but one way out of the embarrassing position in which my husband's last words had placed me. My instincts showed me the way, I suppose. At any rate, I took it.
"You have promised to trust me," I began.
He admitted that he had promised.
"I must ask you, for your own sake, Eustace, to trust me for a little while longer. I will satisfy you, if you will only give me time."
His face darkened. "How much longer must I wait?" he asked.
I saw that the time had come for trying some stronger form of persuasion than words.
"Kiss me," I said, "before I tell you!"
He hesitated (so like a husband!). And I persisted (so like a wife!). There was no choice for him but to yield. Having given me my kiss (not over-graciously), he insisted once more on knowing how much longer I wanted him to wait.
"I want you to wait," I answered, "until our child is born."
He started. My condition took him by surprise. I gently pressed his hand, and gave him a look. He returned the look (warmly enough, this time, to satisfy me). "Say you consent," I whispered.
So I put off the day of reckoning once more. So I gained time to consult again with Benjamin and Mr. Playmore.
While Eustace remained with me in the room, I was composed, and capable of talking to him. But when he left me, after a time, to think over what had passed between us, and to remember how kindly he had given way to me, my heart turned pityingly to those other wives (better women, some of them, than I am), whose husbands, under similar circumstances, would have spoken hard words to them--would perhaps even have acted more cruelly still. The contrast thus suggested between their fate and mine quite overcame me. What had I done to deserve my happiness? What had they done, poor souls, to deserve their misery? My nerves were overwrought, I dare say, after reading the dreadful confession of Eustace's first wife. I burst out crying--and I was all the better for it afterward!
PAST AND FUTURE.
Thus it happened that we were still in Paris when I received my next news from Gleninch.
This time no letters passed on either side. To my surprise and delight, Benjamin quietly made his appearance one morning in our pretty French drawing-room. He was so preternaturally smart in his dress, and so incomprehensibly anxious (while my husband was in the way) to make us understand that his reasons for visiting Paris were holiday reasons only, that I at once suspected him of having crossed the Channel in a double character--say, as tourist in search of pleasure, when third persons were present; as ambassador from Mr. Playmore, when he and I had the room to ourselves.
Later in the day I contrived that we should be left together, and I soon found that my anticipations had not misled me. Benjamin had set out for Paris, at Mr. Playmore's express request, to consult with me as to the future, and to enlighten me as to the past. He presented me with his credentials in the shape of a little note from the lawyer.
"There are some few points" (Mr. Playmore wrote) "which the recovery of the letter does not seem to clear up. I have done my best, with Mr. Benjamin's assistance, to find the right explanation of these debatable matters; and I have treated the subject, for the sake of brevity, in the form of Questions and Answers. Will you accept me as interpreter, after the mistakes I made when you consulted me in Edinburgh? Events, I admit, have proved that I was entirely wrong in trying to prevent you from returning to Dexter--and partially wrong in suspecting Dexter of being directly, instead of indirectly, answerable for the first Mrs. Eustace's death. I frankly make my confession, and leave you to tell Mr. Benjamin whether you think my new Catechism worthy of examination or not."
I thought his "new Catechism" (as he called it) decidedly worthy of examination. If you don't agree with this view, and if you are dying to be done with me and my narrative, pass on to the next chapter by all means!
Benjamin produced the Questions and Answers; and read them to me, at my request, in these terms:
"Questions suggested by the letter discovered at Gleninch. First Group: Questions relating to the Diary. First Question: obtaining access to Mr. Macallan's private journal, was Miserrimus Dexter guided by any previous knowledge of its contents?
"Answer: It is doubtful if he had any such knowledge. The probabilities are that he noticed how carefully Mr. Macallan secured his Diary from observation; that he inferred therefrom the existence of dangerous domestic secrets in the locked-up pages; and that he speculated on using those secrets for his own purpose when he caused the false keys to be made.
"Second Question: To what motive are we to attribute Miserrimus Dexter's interference with the sheriff's officers, on the day when they seized Mr. Macallan's Diary along with his other papers?
"Answer: In replying to this question, we must first do justice to Dexter himself. Infamously as we now know him to have acted, the man was not a downright fiend. That he secretly hated Mr. Macallan, as his successful rival in the affections of the woman he loved--and that he did all he could to induce the unhappy lady to desert her husband--are, in this case, facts not to be denied. On the other hand, it is fairly to be doubted whether he were additionally capable of permitting the friend who trusted him to be tried for murder, through his fault, without making an effort to save the innocent man. It had naturally never occurred to Mr. Macallan (being guiltless of his wife's death) to destroy his Diary and his letters, in the fear that they might be used against him. Until the prompt and secret action of the Fiscal took him by surprise, the idea of his being charged with the murder of his wife was an idea which we know, from his own statement, had never even entered his mind. But Dexter must have looked at the matter from another point of view. In his last wandering words (spoken when his mind broke down) he refers to the Diary in these terms, 'The Diary will hang him; I won't have him hanged.' If he could have found his opportunity of getting at it in time--or if the sheriff's officers had not been too quick for him--there can be no reasonable doubt that Dexter would have himself destroyed the Diary, foreseeing the consequences of its production in court. So strongly does he appear to have felt these considerations, that he even resisted the officers in the execution of their duty. His agitation when he sent for Mr. Playmore to interfere was witnessed by that gentleman, and (it may not be amiss to add) was genuine agitation beyond dispute.
"Questions of the Second Group: relating to the Wife's Confession. First Question: What prevented Dexter from destroying the letter, when he first discovered it under the dead woman's pillow?
"Answer: The same motives which led him to resist the seizure of the Diary, and to give his evidence in the prisoner's favor at the Trial, induced him to preserve the letter until the verdict was known. Looking back once more at his last words (as taken down by Mr. Benjamin), we may infer that if the verdict had been Guilty, he would not have hesitated to save the innocent husband by producing the wife's confession. There are degrees in all wickedness. Dexter was wicked enough to suppress the letter, which wounded his vanity by revealing him as an object for loathing and contempt--but he was not wicked enough deliberately to let an innocent man perish on the scaffold. He was capable of exposing the rival whom he hated to the infamy and torture of a public accusation of murder; but, in the event of an adverse verdict, he shrank before the direr cruelty of letting him be hanged. Reflect, in this connection, on what he must have suffered, villain as he was, when he first read the wife's confession. He had calculated on undermining her affection for her husband--and whither had his calculations led him? He had driven the woman whom he loved to the last dreadful refuge of death by suicide! Give these considerations their due weight; and you will understand that some little redeeming virtue might show itself, as the result even of this man's remorse.
"Second Question: What motive influenced Miserrimus Dexter's conduct, when Mrs. (Valeria) Macallan informed him that she proposed reopening the inquiry into the poisoning at Gleninch?
"Answer: In all probability, Dexter's guilty fears suggested to him that he might have been watched on the morning when he secretly entered the chamber in which the first Mrs. Eustace lay dead. Feeling no scruples himself to restrain him from listening at doors and looking through keyholes, he would be all the more ready to suspect other people of the same practices. With this dread in him, it would naturally occur to his mind that Mrs. Valeria might meet with the person who had watched him, and might hear all that the person had discovered--unless he led her astray at the outset of her investigations. Her own jealous suspicions of Mrs. Beauly offered him the chance of easily doing this. And he was all the readier to profit by the chance, being himself animated by the most hostile feeling toward that lady. He knew her as the enemy who destroyed the domestic peace of the mistress of the house; he loved the mistress of the house--and he hated her enemy accordingly. The preservation of his guilty secret, and the persecution of Mrs. Beauly: there you have the greater and the lesser motive of his conduct in his relations with Mrs. Eustace the second!"*
* Note by the writer of the Narrative:--Look back for a further illustration of this point of view to the scene at Benjamin's house (Chapter XXXV.), where Dexter, in a moment of ungovernable agitation, betrays his own secret to Valeria.
Benjamin laid down his notes, and took off his spectacles.
"We have not thought it necessary to go further than this," he said. "Is there any point you can think of that is still left unexplained?"
I reflected. There was no point of any importance left unexplained that I could remember. But there was one little matter (suggested by the recent allusions to Mrs. Beauly) which I wished (if possible) to have thoroughly cleared up.
"Have you and Mr. Playmore ever spoken together on the subject of my husband's former attachment to Mrs. Beauly?" I asked. "Has Mr. Playmore ever told you why Eustace did not marry her, after the Trial?"
"I put that question to Mr. Playmore myself," said Benjamin. "He answered it easily enough. Being your husband's confidential friend and adviser, he was consulted when Mr. Eustace wrote to Mrs. Beauly, after the Trial; and he repeated the substance of the letter, at my request. Would you like to hear what I remember of it, in my turn?"
I owned that I should like to hear it. What Benjamin thereupon told me, exactly coincided with what Miserrimus Dexter had told me--as related in the thirtieth chapter of my narrative. Mrs. Beauly had been a witness of the public degradation of my husband. That was enough in itself to prevent him from marrying her: He broke off with her for the same reason which had led him to separate himself from me. Existence with a woman who knew that he had been tried for his life as a murderer was an existence which he had not resolution enough to face. The two accounts agreed in every particular. At last my jealous curiosity was pacified; and Benjamin was free to dismiss the past from further consideration, and to approach the more critical and more interesting topic of the future.
His first inquiries related to Eustace. He asked if my husband had any suspicion of the proceedings which had taken place at Gleninch.
I told him what had happened, and how I had contrived to put off the inevitable disclosure for a time.
My old friend's face cleared up as he listened to me.
"This will be good news for Mr. Playmore," he said. "Our excellent friend, the lawyer, is sorely afraid that our discoveries may compromise your position with your husband. On the one hand, he is naturally anxious to spare Mr. Eustace the distress which he must certainly feel, if he read his first wife's confession. On the other hand, it is impossible, in justice (as Mr. Playmore puts it) to the unborn children of your marriage, to suppress a document which vindicates the memory of their father from the aspersion that the Scotch Verdict might otherwise cast on it."
I listened attentively. Benjamin had touched on a trouble which was still secretly preying on my mind.
"How does Mr. Playmore propose to meet the difficulty?" I asked.
"He can only meet it in one way," Benjamin replied. "He proposes to seal up the original manuscript of the letter, and to add to it a plain statement of the circumstances under which it was discovered, supported by your signed attestation and mine, as witnesses to the fact. This done, he must leave it to you to take your husband into your confidence, at your own time. It will then be for Mr. Eustace to decide whether he will open the inclosure--or whether he will leave it, with the seal unbroken, as an heirloom to his children, to be made public or not, at their discretion, when they are of an age to think for themselves. Do you consent to this, my dear? Or would you prefer that Mr. Playmore should see your husband, and act for you in the matter?"
I decided, without hesitation, to take the responsibility on myself. Where the question of guiding Eustace's decision was concerned, I considered my influence to be decidedly superior to the influence of Mr. Playmore. My choice met with Benjamin's full approval. He arranged to write to Edinburgh, and relieve the lawyer's anxieties by that day's post.
The one last thing now left to be settled related to our plans for returning to England. The doctors were the authorities on this subject. I promised to consult them about it at their next visit to Eustace.
"Have you anything more to say to me?" Benjamin inquired, as he opened his writing-case.
I thought of Miserrimus Dexter and Ariel; and I inquired if he had heard any news of them lately. My old friend sighed, and warned me that I had touched on a painful subject.
"The best thing that can happen to that unhappy man is likely to happen," he said. "The one change in him is a change that threatens paralysis. You may hear of his death before you get back to England."
"And Ariel?" I asked.
"Quite unaltered," Benjamin answered. "Perfectly happy so long as she is with 'the Master.' From all I can hear of her, poor soul, she doesn't reckon Dexter among moral beings. She laughs at the idea of his dying; and she waits patiently, in the firm persuasion that he will recognize her again."
Benjamin's news saddened and silenced me. I left him to his letter.
THE LAST OF THE STORY.
Mrs. Macallan's house in London offered us ample accommodation. We gladly availed ourselves of her proposal, when she invited us to stay with her until our child was born, and our plans for the future were arranged.
The sad news from the asylum (for which Benjamin had prepared my mind at Paris) reached me soon after our return to England. Miserrimus Dexter's release from the burden of life had come to him by slow degrees. A few hours before he breathed his last he rallied for a while, and recognized Ariel at his bedside. He feebly pronounced her name, and looked at her, and asked for me. They thought of sending for me, but it was too late. Before the messenger could be dispatched, he said, with a touch of his old self-importance, "Silence, all of you! my brains are weary; I am going to sleep." He closed his eyes in slumber, and never awoke again. So for this man too the end came mercifully, without grief or pain! So that strange and many-sided life--with its guilt and its misery, its fitful flashes of poetry and humor, its fantastic gayety, cruelty, and vanity--ran its destined course, and faded out like a dream!
Alas for Ariel! She had lived for the Master--what more could she do, now the Master was gone? She could die for him.
They had mercifully allowed her to attend the funeral of Miserrimus Dexter--in the hope that the ceremony might avail to convince her of his death. The anticipation was not realized; she still persisted in denying that "the Master" had left her. They were obliged to restrain the poor creature by force when the coffin was lowered into the grave; and they could only remove her from the cemetery by the same means when the burial-service was over. From that time her life alternated, for a few weeks, between fits of raving delirium and intervals of lethargic repose. At the annual ball given in the asylum, when the strict superintendence of the patients was in some degree relaxed, the alarm was raised, a little before midnight, that Ariel was missing. The nurse in charge had left her asleep, and had yielded to the temptation of going downstairs to look at the dancing. When the woman returned to her post, Ariel was gone. The presence of strangers, and the confusion incidental to the festival, offered her facilities for escaping which would not have presented themselves at any other time. That night the search for her proved to be useless. The next morning brought with it the last touching and terrible tidings of her. She had strayed back to the burial-ground; and she had been found toward sunrise, dead of cold and exposure, on Miserrimus Dexter's grave. Faithful to the last, Ariel had followed the Master! Faithful to the last, Ariel had died on the Master's grave!
Having written these sad words, I turn willingly to a less painful theme.
Events had separated me from Major Fitz-David, after the date of the dinner-party which had witnessed my memorable meeting with Lady Clarinda. From that time I heard little or nothing of the Major; and I am ashamed to say I had almost entirely forgotten him--when I was reminded of the modern Don Juan by the amazing appearance of wedding-cards, addressed to me at my mother-in-law's house! The Major had settled in life at last. And, more wonderful still, the Major had chosen as the lawful ruler of his household and himself--"the future Queen of Song," the round-eyed, overdressed young lady with the strident soprano voice!
We paid our visit of congratulation in due form; and we really did feel for Major Fitz-David.
The ordeal of marriage had so changed my gay and gallant admirer of former times that I hardly knew him again. He had lost all his pretensions to youth: he had become, hopelessly and undisguisedly, an old man. Standing behind the chair on which his imperious young wife sat enthroned, he looked at her submissively between every two words that he addressed to me, as if he waited for her permission to open his lips and speak. Whenever she interrupted him--and she did it, over and over again, without ceremony--he submitted with a senile docility and admiration, at once absurd and shocking to see.
"Isn't she beautiful?" he said to me (in his wife's hearing!). "What a figure, and what a voice! You remember her voice? It's a loss, my dear lady, an irretrievable loss, to the operatic stage! Do you know, when I think what that grand creature might have done, I sometimes ask myself if I really had any right to marry her. I feel, upon my honor I feel, as if I had committed a fraud on the public!"
As for the favored object of this quaint mixture of admiration and regret, she was pleased to receive me graciously, as an old friend. While Eustace was talking to the Major, the bride drew me aside out of their hearing, and explained her motives for marrying, with a candor which was positively shameless.
"You see we are a large family at home, quite unprovided for!" this odious young woman whispered in my ear. "It's all very well about my being a 'Queen of Song' and the rest of it. Lord bless you, I have been often enough to the opera, and I have learned enough of my music-master, to know what it takes to make a fine singer. I haven't the patience to work at it as those foreign women do: a parcel of brazen-faced Jezebels--I hate them! No! no! between you and me, it was a great deal easier to get the money by marrying the old gentleman. Here I am, provided for--and there's all my family provided for, too--and nothing to do but to spend the money. I am fond of my family; I'm a good daughter and sister--I am! See how I'm dressed; look at the furniture: I haven't played my cards badly, have I? It's a great advantage to marry an old man--you can twist him round your little finger. Happy? Oh, yes! I'm quite happy; and I hope you are, too. Where are you living now? I shall call soon, and have a long gossip with you. I always had a sort of liking for you, and (now I'm as good as you are) I want to be friends."
I made a short and civil reply to this; determining inwardly that when she did visit me she should get no further than the house-door. I don't scruple to say that I was thoroughly disgusted with her. When a woman sells herself to a man, that vile bargain is none the less infamous (to my mind) because it happens to be made under the sanction of the Church and the Law.
As I sit at the desk thinking, the picture of the Major and his wife vanishes from my memory--and the last scene in my story comes slowly into view.
The place is my bedroom. The persons (both, if you will be pleased to excuse them, in bed) are myself and my son. He is already three weeks old; and he is now lying fast asleep by his mother's side. My good Uncle Starkweather is coming to London to baptize him. Mrs. Macallan will be his godmother; and his godfathers will be Benjamin and Mr. Playmore. I wonder whether my christening will pass off more merrily than my wedding?
The doctor has just left the house, in some little perplexity about me. He has found me reclining as usual (latterly) in my arm-chair; but on this particular day he has detected symptoms of exhaustion, which he finds quite unaccountable under the circumstances, and which warn him to exert his authority by sending me back to my bed.
The truth is that I have not taken the doctor into my confidence. There are two causes for those signs of exhaustion which have surprised my medical attendant--and the names of them are--Anxiety and Suspense.
On this day I have at last summoned courage enough to perform the promise which I made to my husband in Paris. He is informed, by this time, how his wife's Confession was discovered. He knows (on Mr. Playmore's authority) that the letter may be made the means, if he so will it, of publicly vindicating his innocence in a Court of Law. And, last and most important of all, he is now aware that the Confession itself has been kept a sealed secret from him, out of compassionate regard for his own peace of mind, as well as for the memory of the unhappy woman who was once his wife.
These necessary disclosures I have communicated to my husband--not by word of mouth; when the time came, I shrank from speaking to him personally of his first wife--but by a written statement of the circumstances, taken mainly out of my letters received in Paris from Benjamin and Mr. Playmore. He has now had ample time to read all that I have written to him, and to reflect on it in the retirement of his own study. I am waiting, with the fatal letter in my hand--and my mother-in-law is waiting in the next room to me--to hear from his own lips whether he decides to break the seal or not.
The minutes pass; and still we fail to hear his footstep on the stairs. My doubts as to which way his decision may turn affect me more and more uneasily the longer I wait. The very possession of the letter, in the present excited state of my nerves, oppresses and revolts me. I shrink from touching it or looking at it. I move it about restlessly from place to place on the bed, and still I cannot keep it out of my mind. At last, an odd fancy strikes me. I lift up one of the baby's hands, and put the letter under it--and so associate that dreadful record of sin and misery with something innocent and pretty that seems to hallow and to purify it.
The minutes pass; the half-hour longer strikes from the clock on the chimney-piece; and at last I hear him! He knocks softly, and opens the door.
He is deadly pale: I fancy I can detect traces of tears on his cheeks. But no outward signs of agitation escape him as he takes his seat by my side. I can see that he has waited until he could control himself--for my sake.
He takes my hand, and kisses me tenderly.
"Valeria!" he says; "let me once more ask you to forgive what I said and did in the bygone time. If I understand nothing else, my love, I understand this: The proof of my innocence has been found; and I owe it entirely to the courage and the devotion of my wife!"
I wait a little, to enjoy the full luxury of hearing him say those words--to revel in the love and the gratitude that moisten his dear eyes as they look at me. Then I rouse my resolution, and put the momentous question on which our future depends.
"Do you wish to see the letter, Eustace?"
Instead of answering directly, he questions me in his turn.
"Have you got the letter here?"
He waits a little, considering what he is going to say next before he says it.
"Let me be sure that I know exactly what it is I have to decide," he proceeds. "Suppose I insist on reading the letter--?"
There I interrupt him. I know it is my duty to restrain myself. But I cannot do my duty.
"My darling, don't talk of reading the letter! Pray, pray spare yourself--"
He holds up his hand for silence.
"I am not thinking of myself," he says. "I am thinking of my dead wife. If I give up the public vindication of my innocence, in my own lifetime--if I leave the seal of the letter unbroken--do you say, as Mr. Playmore says, that I shall be acting mercifully and tenderly toward the memory of my wife?"
"Oh, Eustace, there cannot be the shadow of a doubt of it!"
"Shall I be making some little atonement for any pain that I may have thoughtlessly caused her to suffer in her lifetime?"
"And, Valeria--shall I please You?"
"My darling, you will enchant me!"
"Where is the letter?"
"In your son's hand, Eustace."
He goes around to the other side of the bed, and lifts the baby's little pink hand to his lips. For a while he waits so, in sad and secret communion with himself. I see his mother softly open the door, and watch him as I am watching him. In a moment more our suspense is at an end. With a heavy sigh, he lays the child's hand back again on the sealed letter; and by that one little action says (as if in words) to his son--"I leave it to You!"
And so it ended! Not as I thought it would end; not perhaps as you thought it would end. What do we know of our own lives? What do we know of the fulfillment of our dearest wishes? God knows--and that is best.
Must I shut up the paper? Yes. There is nothing more for you to read or for me to say.
Except this--as a postscript. Don't bear hardly, good people, on the follies and the errors of my husband's life. Abuse me as much as you please. But pray think kindly of Eustace for my sake.
END OF "THE LAW AND THE LADY."
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