|*Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of fertility, was abducted and taken to Hades by Pluto, the god of the underworld. Her mother begged Jupiter to intercede, and he did so. But Persephone had broken her vow of abstinence in Hades by eating some pomegranate seeds. She was therefore required to spend a certain number of months each year essentially the winter months — with Pluto.|
|CHARLOTTE ASHBY paused on her doorstep. Dark had descended on the brilliancy of the March afternoon, and the grinding, rasping street life of the city was at its highest. She turned her back on it, standing for a moment in the old-fashioned, marble-flagged vestibule before she inserted her key in the lock. The sash curtains drawn across the panes of the inner door softened the light within to a warm blur through which no details showed. It was the hour when, in the first months of her marriage to Kenneth Ashby, she had most liked to return to that quiet house in a street long since deserted by business and fashion. The contrast between the soulless roar of New York, its devouring blaze of lights, the oppression of its congested traffic, congested houses, lives, minds and this veiled sanctuary she called home, always stirred her profoundly. In the very heart of the hurricane she had found her tiny islet — or thought she had. And now, in the last months, everything was changed, and she always wavered on the doorstep and had to force herself to enter.
While she stood there she called up the scene within: the hall hung with old prints, the ladder-like stairs, and on the left her husband’s long shabby library, full of books and pipes and worn armchairs inviting to meditation. How she had loved that room! Then, upstairs, her own drawing room, in which, since the death of Kenneth’s first wife, neither furniture nor hangings had been changed, because there had never been money enough, but which Charlotte had made her own by moving furniture about and adding more books, another lamp, a table for the new reviews. Even on the occasion of her only visit to the first Mrs. Ashby — a distant, self-centered woman, whom she had known very slightly — she had looked about her with an innocent envy, feeling it to be exactly the drawing room she would have liked for herself; and now for more than a year it had been hers to deal with as she chose — the room to which she hastened back at dusk on winter days, where she sat reading by the fire, or answering notes at the pleasant roomy desk, or going over her stepchildren’s copybooks, till she heard her husband’s step.
Sometimes friends dropped in; sometimes — oftener — she was alone; and she liked that best, since it was another way of being with Kenneth, thinking over what he had said when they parted in the morning, imagining what he would say when he sprang up the stairs, found her by herself and caught her to him.
Now, instead of this, she thought of one thing only — the letter she might or might not find on the hall table. Until she had made sure whether or not it was there, her mind had no room for anything else. The letter was always the same — a square grayish envelope with “Kenneth Ashby, Esquire,” written on it in bold but faint characters. From the first it had struck Charlotte as peculiar that anyone who wrote such a firm hand should trace the letters so lightly; the address was always written as though there were not enough ink in the pen, or the writer’s wrist were too weak to bear upon it. Another curious thing was that, in spite of its masculine curves, the writing was so visibly feminine. Some hands are sexless, some masculine, at first glance; the writing on the gray envelope, for all its strength and assurance, was without doubt a woman’s. The envelope never bore anything but the recipient’s name; no stamp, no address. The letter was presumably delivered by hand — but by whose? No doubt it was slipped into the letter box, whence the parlormaid, when she closed the shutters and lit the lights, probably extracted it. At any rate, it was always in the evening, after dark, that Charlotte saw it lying there. She thought of the letter in the singular, as “it,” because, though there had been several since her marriage — seven, to be exact — they were so alike in appearance that they had become merged in one another in her mind, become one letter, become “it.”
The first had come the day after their return from their honeymoon — a journey prolonged to the West Indies, from which they had returned to New York after an absence of more than two months. Re-entering the house with her husband, late on that first evening — they had dined at his mother’s — she had seen, alone on the hall table, the gray envelope. Her eye fell on it before Kenneth’s, and her first thought was: “Why, I’ve seen that writing before”; but where she could not recall. The memory was just definite enough for her to identify the script whenever it looked up at her faintly from the same pale envelope; but on that first day she would have thought no more of the letter if, when her husband’s glance lit on it, she had not chanced to be looking at him. It all happened in a flash — his seeing the letter, putting out his hand for it, raising it to his shortsighted eyes to decipher the faint writing, and then abruptly withdrawing the arm he had slipped through Charlotte’s, and moving away to the hanging light, his back turned to her. She had waited — waited for a sound, an exclamation; waited for him to open the letter; but he had slipped it into his pocket without a word and followed her into the library. And there they had sat down by the fire and lit their cigarettes, and he had remained silent, his head thrown back broodingly against the armchair, his eyes fixed on the hearth, and presently had passed his hand over his forehead and said: “Wasn’t it unusually hot at my mother’s tonight? I’ve got a splitting head. Mind if I take myself off to bed?”
That was the first time. Since then Charlotte had never been present when he had received the letter. It usually came before he got home from his office, and she had to go upstairs and leave it lying there. But even if she had not seen it, she would have known it had come by the change in his face when he joined her — which, on those evenings, he seldom did before they met for dinner. Evidently, whatever the letter contained, he wanted to be by himself to deal with it; and when he reappeared he looked years older, looked emptied of life and courage, and hardly conscious of her presence. Sometimes he was silent for the rest of the evening; and if he spoke, it was usually to hint some criticism of her household arrangements, suggest some change in the domestic administration, to ask, a little nervously, if she didn’t think Joyce’s nursery governess was rather young and flighty, or if she herself always saw to it that Peter — whose throat was delicate — was properly wrapped up when he went to school. At such times Charlotte would remember the friendly warnings she had received when she became engaged to Kenneth Ashby: “Marrying a heartbroken widower! Isn’t that rather risky? You know Elsie Ashby absolutely dominated him”; and how she had jokingly replied: “He may be glad of a little liberty for a change.” And in this respect she had been right. She had needed no one to tell her, during the first months, that her husband was perfectly happy with her. When they came back from their protracted honeymoon the same friends said: “What have you done to Kenneth? He looks twenty years younger”; and this time she answered with careless joy: “I suppose I’ve got him out of his groove.”
But what she noticed after the gray letters began to come was not so much his nervous tentative faultfinding — which always seemed to be uttered against his will — as the look in his eyes when he joined her after receiving one of the letters. The look was not unloving, not even indifferent; it was the look of a man who had been so far away from ordinary events that when he returns to familiar things they seem strange. She minded that more than the faultfinding.
Though she had been sure from the first that the handwriting on the gray envelope was a woman’s, it was long before she associated the mysterious letters with any sentimental secret. She was too sure of her husband’s love, too confident of filling his life, for such an idea to occur to her. It seemed far more likely that the letters — which certainly did not appear to cause him any sentimental pleasure — were addressed to the busy lawyer than to the private person. Probably they were from some tiresome client — women, he had often told her, were nearly always tiresome as clients — who did not want her letters opened by his secretary and therefore had them carried to his house. Yes; but in that case the unknown female must be unusually troublesome, judging from the effect her letters produced. Then again, though his professional discretion was exemplary, it was odd that he had never uttered an impatient comment, never remarked to Charlotte, in a moment of expansion, that there was a nuisance of a woman who kept badgering him about a case that had gone against her. He had made more than one semiconfidence of the kind — of course without giving names or details; but concerning this mysterious correspondent his lips were sealed.
There was another possibility: what is euphemistically called an “old entanglement.” Charlotte Ashby was a sophisticated woman. She had few illusions about the intricacies of the human heart; she knew that there were often old entanglements. But when she had married Kenneth Ashby, her friends, instead of hinting at such a possibility, had said: “You’ve got your work cut out for you. Marrying a Don Juan is a sinecure to it. Kenneth’s never looked at another woman since he first saw Elsie Corder. During all the years of their marriage he was more like an unhappy lover than a comfortably contented husband. He’ll never let you move an armchair or change the place of a lamp; and whatever you venture to do, he’ll mentally compare with what Elsie would have done in your place.”
Except for an occasional nervous mistrust as to her ability to manage the children — a mistrust gradually dispelled by her good humor and the children’s obvious fondness for her — none of these forebodings had come true. The desolate widower, of whom his nearest friends said that only his absorbing professional interests had kept him from suicide after his first wife’s death, had fallen in love, two years later, with Charlotte Gorse, and after an impetuous wooing had married her and carried her off on a tropical honeymoon. And ever since he had been as tender and lover-like as during those first radiant weeks. Before asking her to marry him he had spoken to her frankly of his great love for his first wife and his despair after her sudden death; but even then he had assumed no stricken attitude, or implied that life offered no possibility of renewal. He had been perfectly simple and natural, and had confessed to Charlotte that from the beginning he had hoped the future held new gifts for him. And when, after their marriage, they returned to the house where his twelve years with his first wife had been spent, he had told Charlotte at once that he was sorry he couldn’t afford to do the place over for her, but that he knew every woman had her own views about furniture and all sorts of household arrangements a man would never notice, and had begged her to make any changes she saw fit without bothering to consult him. As a result, she made as few as possible; but his way of beginning their new life in the old setting was so frank and unembarrassed that it put her immediately at her ease, and she was almost sorry to find that the portrait of Elsie Ashby, which used to hang over the desk in his library, had been transferred in their absence to the children’s nursery. Knowing herself to be the indirect cause of this banishment, she spoke of it to her husband; but he answered: “Oh, I thought they ought to grow up with her looking down on them.” The answer moved Charlotte, and satisfied her; and as time went by she had to confess that she felt more at home in her house, more at ease and in confidence with her husband, since that long coldly beautiful face on the library wall no longer followed her with guarded eyes. It was as if Kenneth’s love had penetrated to the secret she hardly acknowledged to her own heart — her passionate need to feel herself the sovereign even of his past.
With all this stored-up happiness to sustain her, it was curious that she had lately found herself yielding to a nervous apprehension. But there the apprehension was; and on this particular afternoon — perhaps because she was more tired than usual, or because of the trouble of finding a new cook or, for some other ridiculously trivial reason, moral or physical — she found herself unable to react against the feeling. Latchkey in hand, she looked back down the silent street to the whirl and illumination of the great thoroughfare beyond, and up at the sky already aflare with the city’s nocturnal life. “Outside there,” she thought, “skyscrapers, advertisements, telephones, wireless, airplanes, movies, motors, and all the rest of the twentieth century; and on the other side of the door something I can’t explain, can’t relate to them. Something as old as the world, as mysterious as life . . . . Nonsense! What am I worrying about? There hasn’t been a letter for three months now — not since the day we came back from the country after Christmas . . . . Queer that they always seem to come after our holidays! . . . Why should I imagine there’s going to be one tonight!”
No reason why, but that was the worst of it — one of the worst! — that there were days when she would stand there cold and shivering with the premonition of something inexplicable, intolerable, to be faced on the other side of the curtained panes; and when she opened the door and went in, there would be nothing; and on other days when she felt the same premonitory chill, it was justified by the sight of the gray envelope. So that ever since the last had come she had taken to feeling cold and premonitory every evening, because she never opened the door without thinking the letter might be there.
Well, she’d had enough of it: that was certain. She couldn’t go on like that. If her husband turned white and had a headache on the days when the letter came, he seemed to recover afterward; but she couldn’t. With her the strain had become chronic, and the reason was not far to seek. Her husband knew from whom the letter came and what was in it; he was prepared beforehand for whatever he had to deal with, and master of the situation, however bad; whereas she was shut out in the dark with her conjectures.
“I can’t stand it! I can’t stand it another day!” she exclaimed aloud, as she put her key in the lock. She turned the key and went in; and there, on the table, lay the letter.
She was almost glad of the sight. It seemed to justify everything, to put a seal of definiteness on the whole blurred business. A letter for her husband; a letter from a woman — no doubt another vulgar case of “old entanglement.” What a fool she had been ever to doubt it, to rack her brains for less obvious explanations! She took up the envelope with a steady contemptuous hand, looked closely at the faint letters, held it against the light and just discerned the outline of the folded sheet within. She knew that now she would have no peace till she found out what was written on that sheet.
Her husband had not come in; he seldom got back from his office before half-past six or seven, and it was not yet six. She would have time to take the letter up to the drawing room, hold it over the tea kettle which at that hour always simmered by the fire in expectation of her return, solve the mystery and replace the letter where she had found it. No one would be the wiser, and her gnawing uncertainty would be over. The alternative, of course, was to question her husband; but to do that seemed even more difficult. She weighed the letter between thumb and finger, looked at it again under the light, started up the stairs with the envelope — and came down again and laid it on the table.
“No, I evidently can’t,” she said, disappointed.
What should she do, then? She couldn’t go up alone to that warm welcoming room, pour out her tea, look over her correspondence, glance at a book or review — not with that letter lying below and the knowledge that in a little while her husband would come in, open it and turn into the library alone, as he always did on the days when the gray envelope came.
Suddenly she decided. She would wait in the library and see for herself; see what happened between him and the letter when they thought themselves unobserved. She wondered the idea had never occurred to her before. By leaving the door ajar, and sitting in the corner behind it, she could watch him unseen . . . . Well, then, she would watch him! She drew a chair into the corner, sat down, her eyes on the crack, and waited.
As far as she could remember, it was the first time she had ever tried to surprise another person’s secret, but she was conscious of no compunction. She simply felt as if she were fighting her way through a stifling fog that she must at all costs get out of.
At length she heard Kenneth’s latchkey and jumped up. The impulse to rush out and meet him had nearly made her forget why she was there; but she remembered in time and sat down again. From her post she covered the whole range of his movements — saw him enter the hall, draw the key from the door and take off his hat and overcoat. Then he turned to throw his gloves on the hall table, and at that moment he saw the envelope. The light was full on his face, and what Charlotte first noted there was a look of surprise. Evidently he had not expected the letter — had not thought of the possibility of its being there that day. But though he had not expected it, now that he saw it he knew well enough what it contained. He did not open it immediately, but stood motionless, the color slowly ebbing from his face. Apparently he could not make up his mind to touch it; but at length he put out his hand, opened the envelope, and moved with it to the light. In doing so he turned his back on Charlotte, and she saw only his bent head and slightly stooping shoulders. Apparently all the writing was on one page, for he did not turn the sheet but continued to stare at it for so long that he must have reread it a dozen times — or so it seemed to the woman breathlessly watching him. At length she saw him move; he raised the letter still closer to his eyes, as though he had not fully deciphered it. Then he lowered his head, and she saw his lips touch the sheet.
“Kenneth!” she exclaimed, and went on out into the hall.
The letter clutched in his hand, her husband turned and looked at her. “Where were you?” he said, in a low bewildered voice, like a man waked out of his sleep.
“In the library, waiting for you.” She tried to steady her voice: “What’s the matter! What’s in that letter? You look ghastly.”
Her agitation seemed to calm him, and he instantly put the envelope into his pocket with a slight laugh. “Ghastly? I’m sorry. I’ve had a hard day in the office — one or two complicated cases. I look dog-tired, I suppose.”
“You didn’t look tired when you came in. It was only when you opened that letter ——”
He had followed her into the library, and they stood gazing at each other. Charlotte noticed how quickly he had regained his self-control; his profession had trained him to rapid mastery of face and voice. She saw at once that she would be at a disadvantage in any attempt to surprise his secret, but at the same moment she lost all desire to maneuver, to trick him into betraying anything he wanted to conceal. Her wish was still to penetrate the mystery, but only that she might help him to bear the burden it implied. “Even if it is another woman,” she thought.
“Kenneth,” she said, her heart beating excitedly, “I waited here on purpose to see you come in. I wanted to watch you while you opened that letter.”
His face, which had paled, turned to dark red; then it paled again. “That letter? Why especially that letter?”
“Because I’ve noticed that whenever one of those letters comes it seems to have such a strange effect on you.”
A line of anger she had never seen before came out between his eyes, and she said to herself: “The upper part of his face is too narrow; this is the first time I ever noticed it.”
She heard him continue, in the cool and faintly ironic tone of the prosecuting lawyer making a point: “Ah, so you’re in the habit of watching people open their letters when they don’t know you’re there?”
“Not in the habit. I never did such a thing before. But I had to find out what she writes to you, at regular intervals, in those gray envelopes.”
He weighed this for a moment; then: “The intervals have not been regular,” he said.
“Oh, I dare say you’ve kept a better account of the dates than I have,” she retorted, her magnanimity vanishing at his tone. “All I know is that every time that woman writes to you ——”
“Why do you assume it’s a woman?”
“It’s a woman’s writing. Do you deny it?”
He smiled. “No, I don’t deny it. I asked only because the writing is generally supposed to look more like a man’s.”
Charlotte passed this over impatiently. “And this woman — what does she write to you about?”
Again he seemed to consider a moment. “About business.”
“In a way, yes. Business in general.”
“You look after her affairs for her?”
“You’ve looked after them for a long time?”
“Yes. A very long time.”
“Kenneth, dearest, won’t you tell me who she is?”
“No. I can’t.” He paused, and brought out, as if with a certain hesitation: “Professional secrecy.”
The blood rushed from Charlotte’s heart to her temples. “Don’t say that — don’t!”
“Because I saw you kiss the letter.”
The effect of the words was so disconcerting that she instantly repented having spoken them. Her husband, who had submitted to her cross-questioning with a sort of contemptuous composure, as though he were humoring an unreasonable child, turned on her a face of terror and distress. For a minute he seemed unable to speak; then, collecting himself, with an effort, he stammered out: “The writing is very faint; you must have seen me holding the letter close to my eyes to try to decipher it.”
“No; I saw you kissing it.” He was silent. “Didn’t I see you kissing it?”
He sank back into indifference. “Perhaps.”
“Kenneth! You stand there and say that — to me?”
“What possible difference can it make to you? The letter is on business, as I told you. Do you suppose I’d lie about it? The writer is a very old friend whom I haven’t seen for a long time.”
“Men don’t kiss business letters, even from women who are very old friends, unless they have been their lovers, and still regret them.”
He shrugged his shoulders slightly and turned away, as if he considered the discussion at an end and were faintly disgusted at the turn it had taken.
“Kenneth!” Charlotte moved toward him and caught hold of his arm.
He paused with a look of weariness and laid his hand over hers. “Won’t you believe me?” he asked gently.
“How can I? I’ve watched these letters come to you — for months now they’ve been coming. Ever since we came back from the West Indies — one of them greeted me the very day we arrived. And after each one of them I see their mysterious effect on you, I see you disturbed, unhappy, as if someone were trying to estrange you from me.”
“No, dear; not that. Never!”
She drew back and looked at him with passionate entreaty. “Well, then, prove it to me, darling. It’s so easy!”
He forced a smile. “It’s not easy to prove anything to a woman who’s once taken an idea into her head.”
“You’ve only got to show me the letter.”
His hand slipped from hers and he drew back and shook his head.
“Then the woman who wrote it is your mistress.”
“No, dear. No.”
“Not now, perhaps. I suppose she’s trying to get you back, and you’re struggling, out of pity for me. My poor Kenneth!”
“I swear to you she never was my mistress.”
Charlotte felt the tears rushing to her eyes. “Ah, that’s worse, then — that’s hopeless! The prudent ones are the kind that keep their hold on a man. We all know that.” She lifted her hands and hid her face in them.
Her husband remained silent; he offered neither consolation nor denial, and at length, wiping away her tears, she raised her eyes almost timidly to his.
“Kenneth, think! We’ve been married such a short time. Imagine what you’re making me suffer. You say you can’t show me this letter. You refuse even to explain it.”
“I’ve told you the letter is on business. I will swear to that too.”
“A man will swear to anything to screen a woman. If you want me to believe you, at least tell me her name. If you’ll do that, I promise you I won’t ask to see the letter.”
There was a long interval of suspense, during which she felt her heart beating against her ribs in quick admonitory knocks, as if warning her of the danger she was incurring.
“I can’t,” he said at length.
“Not even her name?”
“You can’t tell me anything more?”
Again a pause; this time they seemed both to have reached the end of their arguments and to be helplessly facing each other across a baffling waste of incomprehension.
Charlotte stood breathing rapidly, her hands against her breast. She felt as if she had run a hard race and missed the goal. She had meant to move her husband and had succeeded only in irritating him; and this error of reckoning seemed to change him into a stranger, a mysterious incomprehensible being whom no argument or entreaty of hers could reach. The curious thing was that she was aware in him of no hostility or even impatience, but only of a remoteness, an inaccessibility, far more difficult to overcome. She felt herself excluded, ignored, blotted out of his life. But after a moment or two, looking at him more calmly, she saw that he was suffering as much as she was. His distant guarded face was drawn with pain; the coming of the gray envelope, though it always cast a shadow, had never marked him as deeply as this discussion with his wife.
Charlotte took heart; perhaps, after all, she had not spent her last shaft. She drew nearer and once more laid her hand on his arm. “Poor Kenneth! If you knew how sorry I am for you ——”
She thought he winced slightly at this expression of sympathy, but he took her hand and pressed it.
“I can think of nothing worse than to be incapable of loving long,” she continued, “to feel the beauty of a great love and to be too unstable to bear its burden.”
He turned on her a look of wistful reproach. “Oh, don’t say that of me. Unstable!”
She felt herself at last on the right tack, and her voice trembled with excitement as she went on: “Then what about me and this other woman? Haven’t you already forgotten Elsie twice within a year?”
She seldom pronounced his first wife’s name; it did not come naturally to her tongue. She flung it out now as if she were flinging some dangerous explosive into the open space between them, and drew back a step, waiting to hear the mine go off.
Her husband did not move; his expression grew sadder, but showed no resentment. “I have never forgotten Elsie,” he said.
Charlotte could not repress a faint laugh. “Then, you poor dear, between the three of us ——”
“There are not ——” he began; and then broke off and put his hand to his forehead.
“I’m sorry; I don’t believe I know what I’m saying. I’ve got a blinding headache.” He looked wan and furrowed enough for the statement to be true, but she was exasperated by his evasion.
“Ah, yes; the gray envelope headache!”
She saw the surprise in his eyes. “I’d forgotten how closely I’ve been watched,” he said coldly. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go up and try an hour in the dark, to see if I can get rid of this neuralgia.”
She wavered; then she said, with desperate resolution: “I’m sorry your head aches. But before you go I want to say that sooner or later this question must be settled between us. Someone is trying to separate us, and I don’t care what it costs me to find out who it is.” She looked him steadily in the eyes. “If it costs me your love, I don’t care! If I can’t have your confidence I don’t want anything from you.”
He still looked at her wistfully. “Give me time.”
“Time for what? It’s only a word to say.”
“Time to show you that you haven’t lost my love or my confidence.”
“Well, I’m waiting.”
He turned toward the door, and then glanced back hesitatingly. “Oh, do wait, my love,” he said, and went out of the room.
She heard his tired step on the stairs and the closing of his bedroom door above. Then she dropped into a chair and buried her face in her folded arms. Her first movement was one of compunction; she seemed to herself to have been hard, unhuman, unimaginative. “Think of telling him that I didn’t care if my insistence cost me his love! The lying rubbish!” She started up to follow him and unsay the meaningless words. But she was checked by a reflection. He had had his way, after all; he had eluded all attacks on his secret, and now he was shut up alone in his room, reading that other woman’s letter.
She was still reflecting on this when the surprised parlormaid came in and found her. No, Charlotte said, she wasn’t going to dress for dinner; Mr. Ashby didn’t want to dine. He was very tired and had gone up to his room to rest; later she would have something brought on a tray to the drawing room. She mounted the stairs to her bedroom. Her dinner dress was lying on the bed, and at the sight the quiet routine of her daily life took hold of her and she began to feel as if the strange talk she had just had with her husband must have taken place in another world, between two beings who were not Charlotte Gorse and Kenneth Ashby, but phantoms projected by her fevered imagination. She recalled the year since her marriage — her husband’s constant devotion; his persistent, almost too insistent tenderness; the feeling he had given her at times of being too eagerly dependent on her, too searchingly close to her, as if there were not air enough between her soul and his. It seemed preposterous, as she recalled all this, that a few moments ago she should have been accusing him of an intrigue with another woman! But, then, what ——
Again she was moved by the impulse to go up to him, beg his pardon and try to laugh away the misunderstanding. But she was restrained by the fear of forcing herself upon his privacy. He was troubled and unhappy, oppressed by some grief or fear; and he had shown her that he wanted to fight out his battle alone. It would be wiser, as well as more generous, to respect his wish. Only, how strange, how unbearable, to be there, in the next room to his, and feel herself at the other end of the world! In her nervous agitation she almost regretted not having had the courage to open the letter and put it back on the hall table before he came in. At least she would have known what his secret was, and the bogy might have been laid. For she was beginning now to think of the mystery as something conscious, malevolent: a secret persecution before which he quailed, yet from which he could not free himself. Once or twice in his evasive eyes she thought she had detected a desire for help, an impulse of confession, instantly restrained and suppressed. It was as if he felt she could have helped him if she had known, and yet had been unable to tell her!
There flashed through her mind the idea of going to his mother. She was very fond of old Mrs. Ashby, a firm-fleshed clear-eyed old lady, with an astringent bluntness of speech which responded to the forthright and simple in Charlotte’s own nature. There had been a tacit bond between them ever since the day when Mrs. Ashby Senior, coming to lunch for the first time with her new daughter-in-law, had been received by Charlotte downstairs in the library, and glancing up at the empty wall above her son’s desk, had remarked laconically: “Elsie gone, eh?” adding, at Charlotte’s murmured explanation: “Nonsense. Don’t have her back. Two’s company.” Charlotte, at this reading of her thoughts, could hardly refrain from exchanging a smile of complicity with her mother-in-law; and it seemed to her now that Mrs. Ashby’s almost uncanny directness might pierce to the core of this new mystery. But here again she hesitated, for the idea almost suggested a betrayal. What right had she to call in anyone, even so close a relation, to surprise a secret which her husband was trying to keep from her? “Perhaps, by and by, he’ll talk to his mother of his own accord,” she thought, and then ended: “But what does it matter? He and I must settle it between us.”
She was still brooding over the problem when there was a knock on the door and her husband came in. He was dressed for dinner and seemed surprised to see her sitting there, with her evening dress lying unheeded on the bed.
“Aren’t you coming down?”
“I thought you were not well and had gone to bed,” she faltered.
He forced a smile. “I’m not particularly well, but we’d better go down.” His face, though still drawn, looked calmer than when he had fled upstairs an hour earlier.
“There it is; he knows what’s in the letter and has fought his battle out again, whatever it is,” she reflected, “while I’m still in darkness.” She rang and gave a hurried order that dinner should be served as soon as possible — just a short meal, whatever could be got ready quickly, as both she and Mr. Ashby were rather tired and not very hungry.
Dinner was announced, and they sat down to it. At first neither seemed able to find a word to say; then Ashby began to make conversation with an assumption of ease that was more oppressive than his silence. “How tired he is! How terribly overtired!” Charlotte said to herself, pursuing her own thoughts while he rambled on about municipal politics, aviation, an exhibition of modern French painting, the health of an old aunt and the installing of the automatic telephone. “Good heavens, how tired he is!”
When they dined alone they usually went into the library after dinner, and Charlotte curled herself up on the divan with her knitting while he settled down in his armchair under the lamp and lit a pipe. But this evening, by tacit agreement, they avoided the room in which their strange talk had taken place, and went up to Charlotte’s drawing room.
They sat down near the fire, and Charlotte said: “Your pipe?” after he had put down his hardly tasted coffee.
He shook his head. “No, not tonight.”
“You must go to bed early; you look terribly tired. I’m sure they overwork you at the office.”
“I suppose we all overwork at times.”
She rose and stood before him with sudden resolution. “Well, I’m not going to have you use up your strength slaving in that way. It’s absurd. I can see you’re ill.” She bent over him and laid her hand on his forehead. “My poor old Kenneth. Prepare to be taken away soon on a long holiday.”
He looked up at her, startled. “A holiday?”
“Certainly. Didn’t you know I was going to carry you off at Easter? We’re going to start in a fortnight on a month’s voyage to somewhere or other. On any one of the big cruising steamers.” She paused and bent closer, touching his forehead with her lips. “I’m tired, too, Kenneth.”
He seemed to pay no heed to her last words, but sat, his hands on his knees, his head drawn back a little from her caress, and looked up at her with a stare of apprehension. “Again? My dear, we can’t; I can’t possibly go away.”
“I don’t know why you say ‘again,’ Kenneth; we haven’t taken a real holiday this year.”
“At Christmas we spent a week with the children in the country.”
“Yes, but this time I mean away from the children, from servants, from the house. From everything that’s familiar and fatiguing. Your mother will love to have Joyce and Peter with her.”
He frowned and slowly shook his head. “No, dear; I can’t leave them with my mother.”
“Why, Kenneth, how absurd! She adores them. You didn’t hesitate to leave them with her for over two months when we went to the West Indies.”
He drew a deep breath and stood up uneasily. “That was different.”
“I mean, at that time I didn’t realize ——” He broke off as if to choose his words and then went on: “My mother adores the children, as you say. But she isn’t always very judicious. Grandmothers always spoil children. And sometimes she talks before them without thinking.” He turned to his wife with an almost pitiful gesture of entreaty. “Don’t ask me to, dear.”
Charlotte mused. It was true that the elder Mrs. Ashby had a fearless tongue, but she was the last woman in the world to say or hint anything before her grandchildren at which the most scrupulous parent could take offense. Charlotte looked at her husband in perplexity.
“I don’t understand.”
He continued to turn on her the same troubled and entreating gaze. “Don’t try to,” he muttered.
“Not try to?”
“Not now — not yet.” He put up his hands and pressed them against his temples. “Can’t you see that there’s no use in insisting? I can’t go away, no matter how much I might want to.”
Charlotte still scrutinized him gravely. “The question is, do you want to?”
He returned her gaze for a moment; then his lips began to tremble, and he said, hardly above his breath: “I want — anything you want.”
“And yet ——”
“Don’t ask me. I can’t leave — I can’t!”
“You mean that you can’t go away out of reach of those letters!”
Her husband had been standing before her in an uneasy half-hesitating attitude; now he turned abruptly away and walked once or twice up and down the length of the room, his head bent, his eyes fixed on the carpet.
Charlotte felt her resentfulness rising with her fears. “It’s that,” she persisted. “Why not admit it? You can’t live without them.”
He continued his troubled pacing of the room; then he stopped short, dropped into a chair and covered his face with his hands. From the shaking of his shoulders, Charlotte saw that he was weeping. She had never seen a man cry, except her father after her mother’s death, when she was a little girl; and she remembered still how the sight had frightened her. She was frightened now; she felt that her husband was being dragged away from her into some mysterious bondage, and that she must use up her last atom of strength in the struggle for his freedom, and for hers.
“Kenneth — Kenneth!” she pleaded, kneeling down beside him. “Won’t you listen to me? Won’t you try to see what I’m suffering? I’m not unreasonable, darling, really not. I don’t suppose I should ever have noticed the letters if it hadn’t been for their effect on you. It’s not my way to pry into other people’s affairs; and even if the effect had been different — yes, yes, listen to me — if I’d seen that the letters made you happy, that you were watching eagerly for them, counting the days between their coming, that you wanted them, that they gave you something I haven’t known how to give — why, Kenneth, I don’t say I shouldn’t have suffered from that, too; but it would. have been in a different way, and I should have had the courage to hide what I felt, and the hope that someday you’d come to feel about me as you did about the writer of the letters. But what I can’t bear is to see how you dread them, how they make you suffer, and yet how you can’t live without them and won’t go away lest you should miss one during your absence. Or perhaps,” she added, her voice breaking into a cry of accusation — “perhaps it’s because she’s actually forbidden you to leave. Kenneth, you must answer me! Is that the reason? Is it because she’s forbidden you that you won’t go away with me?”
She continued to kneel at his side, and raising her hands, she drew his gently down. She was ashamed of her persistence, ashamed of uncovering that baffled disordered face, yet resolved that no such scruples should arrest her. His eyes were lowered, the muscles of his face quivered; she was making him suffer even more than she suffered herself. Yet this no longer restrained her.
“Kenneth, is it that? She won’t let us go away together?”
Still he did not speak or turn his eyes to her; and a sense of defeat swept over her. After all, she thought, the struggle was a losing one. “You needn’t answer. I see I’m right,” she said.
Suddenly, as she rose, he turned and drew her down again. His hands caught hers and pressed them so tightly that she felt her rings cutting into her flesh. There was something frightened, convulsive in his hold; it was the clutch of a man who felt himself slipping over a precipice. He was staring up at her now as if salvation lay in the face she bent above him. “Of course we’ll go away together. We’ll go wherever you want,” he said in a low confused voice; and putting his arm about her, he drew her close and pressed his lips on hers.
Charlotte had said to herself: “I shall sleep tonight,” but instead she sat before her fire into the small hours, listening for any sound that came from her husband’s room. But he, at any rate, seemed to be resting after the tumult of the evening. Once or twice she stole to the door and in the faint light that came in from the street through his open window she saw him stretched out in heavy sleep — the sleep of weakness and exhaustion. “He’s ill,” she thought “he’s undoubtedly ill. And it’s not overwork; it’s this mysterious persecution.”
She drew a breath of relief. She had fought through the weary fight and the victory was hers — at least for the moment. If only they could have started at once — started for anywhere! She knew it would be useless to ask him to leave before the holidays; and meanwhile the secret influence — as to which she was still so completely in the dark — would continue to work against her, and she would have to renew the struggle day after day till they started on their journey. But after that everything would be different. If once she could get her husband away under other skies, and all to herself, she never doubted her power to release him from the evil spell he was under. Lulled to quiet by the thought, she too slept at last.
When she woke, it was long past her usual hour, and she sat up in bed surprised and vexed at having overslept herself. She always liked to be down to share her husband’s breakfast by the library fire; but a glance at the clock made it clear that he must have started long since for his office. To make sure, she jumped out of bed and went into his room, but it was empty. No doubt he had looked in on her before leaving, seen that she still slept, and gone downstairs without disturbing her; and their relations were sufficiently lover-like for her to regret having missed their morning hour.
She rang and asked if Mr. Ashby had already gone. Yes, nearly an hour ago, the maid said. He had given orders that Mrs. Ashby should not be waked and that the children should not come to her till she sent for them . . . . Yes, he had gone up to the nursery himself to give the order. All this sounded usual enough, and Charlotte hardly knew why she asked: “And did Mr. Ashby leave no other message?”
Yes, the maid said, he did; she was so sorry she’d forgotten. He’d told her, just as he was leaving, to say to Mrs. Ashby that he was going to see about their passages, and would she please be ready to sail tomorrow?
Charlotte echoed the woman’s “Tomorrow,” and sat staring at her incredulously. “Tomorrow — you’re sure he said to sail tomorrow?”
“Oh, ever so sure, ma’am. I don’t know how I could have forgotten to mention it.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter. Draw my bath, please.” Charlotte sprang up, dashed through her dressing, and caught herself singing at her image in the glass as she sat brushing her hair. It made her feel young again to have scored such a victory. The other woman vanished to a speck on the horizon, as this one, who ruled the foreground, smiled back at the reflection of her lips and eyes. He loved her, then — he loved her as passionately as ever. He had divined what she had suffered, had understood that their happiness depended on their getting away at once, and finding each other again after yesterday’s desperate groping in the fog. The nature of the influence that had come between them did not much matter to Charlotte now; she had faced the phantom and dispelled it. “Courage — that’s the secret! If only people who are in love weren’t always so afraid of risking their happiness by looking it in the eyes.” As she brushed back her light abundant hair it waved electrically above her head, like the palms of victory. Ah, well, some women knew how to manage men, and some didn’t — and only the fair — she gaily paraphrased — deserve the brave! Certainly she was looking very pretty.
The morning danced along like a cockleshell on a bright sea — such a sea as they would soon be speeding over. She ordered a particularly good dinner, saw the children off to their classes, had her trunks brought down, consulted with the maid about getting out summer clothes — for of course they would be heading for heat and sunshine — and wondered if she oughtn’t to take Kenneth’s flannel suits out of camphor. “But how absurd,” she reflected, “that I don’t yet know where we’re going!” She looked at the clock, saw that it was close on noon, and decided to call him up at his office. There was a slight delay; then she heard his secretary’s voice saying that Mr. Ashby had looked in for a moment early, and left again almost immediately . . . . Oh, very well; Charlotte would ring up later. How soon was he likely to be back? The secretary answered that she couldn’t tell; all they knew in the office was that when he left he had said he was in a hurry because he had to go out of town.
Out of town! Charlotte hung up the receiver and sat blankly gazing into new darkness. Why had he gone out of town? And where had he gone? And of all days, why should he have chosen the eve of their suddenly planned departure? She felt a faint shiver of apprehension. Of course he had gone to see that woman — no doubt to get her permission to leave. He was as completely in bondage as that; and Charlotte had been fatuous enough to see the palms of victory on her forehead. She burst into a laugh and, walking across the room, sat down again before her mirror. What a different face she saw! The smile on her pale lips seemed to mock the rosy vision of the other Charlotte. But gradually her color crept back. After all, she had a right to claim the victory, since her husband was doing what she wanted, not what the other woman exacted of him. It was natural enough, in view of his abrupt decision to leave the next day, that he should have arrangements to make, business matters to wind up; it was not even necessary to suppose that his mysterious trip was a visit to the writer of the letters. He might simply have gone to see a client who lived out of town. Of course they would not tell Charlotte at the office; the secretary had hesitated before imparting even such meager information as the fact of Mr. Ashby’s absence. Meanwhile she would go on with her joyful preparations, content to learn later in the day to what particular island of the blest she was to be carried.
The hours wore on, or rather were swept forward on a rush of eager preparations. At last the entrance of the maid who came to draw the curtains roused Charlotte from her labors, and she saw to her surprise that the clock marked five. And she did not yet know where they were going the next day! She rang up her husband’s office and was told that Mr. Ashby had not been there since the early morning. She asked for his partner, but the partner could add nothing to her information, for he himself, his suburban train having been behind time, had reached the office after Ashby had come and gone. Charlotte stood perplexed; then she decided to telephone to her mother-in-law. Of course Kenneth, on the eve of a month’s absence, must have gone to see his mother. The mere fact that the children — in spite of his vague objections — would certainly have to be left with old Mrs. Ashby, made it obvious that he would have all sorts of matters to decide with her. At another time Charlotte might have felt a little hurt at being excluded from their conference, but nothing mattered now but that she had won the day, that her husband was still hers and not another woman’s. Gaily she called up Mrs. Ashby, heard her friendly voice, and began: “Well, did Kenneth’s news surprise you? What do you think of our elopement?”
Almost instantly, before Mrs. Ashby could answer, Charlotte knew what her reply would be. Mrs. Ashby had not seen her son, she had had no word from him and did not know what her daughter-in-law meant. Charlotte stood silent in the intensity of her surprise. “But then, where has he been?” she thought. Then, recovering herself, she explained their sudden decision to Mrs. Ashby, and in doing so, gradually regained her own self-confidence, her conviction that nothing could ever again come between Kenneth and herself. Mrs. Ashby took the news calmly and approvingly. She, too, had thought that Kenneth looked worried and overtired, and she agreed with her daughter-in-law that in such cases change was the surest remedy. “I’m always so glad when he gets away. Elsie hated traveling; she was always finding pretexts to prevent his going anywhere. With you, thank goodness, it’s different.” Nor was Mrs. Ashby surprised at his not having had time to let her know of his departure. He must have been in a rush from the moment the decision was taken; but no doubt he’d drop in before dinner. Five minutes’ talk was really all they needed. “I hope you’ll gradually cure Kenneth of his mania for going over and over a question that could be settled in a dozen words. He never used to be like that, and if he carried the habit into his professional work he’d soon lose all his clients . . . . Yes, do come in for a minute, dear, if you have time; no doubt he’ll turn up while you’re here.” The tonic ring of Mrs. Ashby’s voice echoed on reassuringly in the silent room while Charlotte continued her preparations.
Toward seven the telephone rang, and she darted to it. Now she would know! But it was only from the conscientious secretary, to say that Mr. Ashby hadn’t been back, or sent any word, and before the office closed she thought she ought to let Mrs. Ashby know. “Oh, that’s all right. Thanks a lot!” Charlotte called out cheerfully, and hung up the receiver with a trembling hand. But perhaps by this time, she reflected, he was at his mother’s. She shut her drawers and cupboards, put on her hat and coat and called up to the nursery that she was going out for a minute to see the children’s grandmother.
Mrs. Ashby lived nearby, and during her brief walk through the cold spring dusk Charlotte imagined that every advancing figure was her husband’s. But she did not meet him on the way, and when she entered the house she found her mother-in-law alone. Kenneth had neither telephoned nor come. Old Mrs. Ashby sat by her bright fire, her knitting needles flashing steadily through her active old hands, and her mere bodily presence gave reassurance to Charlotte. Yes, it was certainly odd that Kenneth had gone off for the whole day without letting any of them know; but, after all, it was to be expected. A busy lawyer held so many threads in his hands that any sudden change of plan would oblige him to make all sorts of unforeseen arrangements and adjustments. He might have gone to see some client in the suburbs and been detained there; his mother remembered his telling her that he had charge of the legal business of a queer old recluse somewhere in New Jersey, who was immensely rich but too mean to have a telephone. Very likely Kenneth had been stranded there.
But Charlotte felt her nervousness gaining on her. When Mrs. Ashby asked her at what hour they were sailing the next day and she had to say she didn’t know — that Kenneth had simply sent her word he was going to take their passages — the uttering of the words again brought home to her the strangeness of the situation. Even Mrs. Ashby conceded that it was odd; but she immediately added that it only showed what a rush he was in.
“But, mother, it’s nearly eight o’clock! He must realize that I’ve got to know when we’re starting tomorrow.”
“Oh, the boat probably doesn’t sail till evening. Sometimes they have to wait till midnight for the tide. Kenneth’s probably counting on that. After all, he has a level head.”
Charlotte stood up. “It’s not that. Something has happened to him.”
Mrs. Ashby took off her spectacles and rolled up her knitting. “If you begin to let yourself imagine things ——”
“Aren’t you in the least anxious?”
“I never am till I have to be. I wish you’d ring for dinner, my dear. You’ll stay and dine? He’s sure to drop in here on his way home.”
Charlotte called up her own house. No, the maid said, Mr. Ashby hadn’t come in and hadn’t telephoned. She would tell him as soon as he came that Mrs. Ashby was dining at his mother’s. Charlotte followed her mother-in-law into the dining room and sat with parched throat before her empty plate, while Mrs. Ashby dealt calmly and efficiently with a short but carefully prepared repast. “You’d better eat something, child, or you’ll be as bad as Kenneth . . . . Yes, a little more asparagus, please, Jane.”
She insisted on Charlotte’s drinking a glass of sherry and nibbling a bit of toast; then they returned to the drawing room, where the fire had been made up, and the cushions in Mrs. Ashby’s armchair shaken out and smoothed. How safe and familiar it all looked; and out there, somewhere in the uncertainty and mystery of the night, lurked the answer to the two women’s conjectures, like an indistinguishable figure prowling on the threshold.
At last Charlotte got up and said: “I’d better go back. At this hour Kenneth will certainly go straight home.”
Mrs. Ashby smiled indulgently. “It’s not very late, my dear. It doesn’t take two sparrows long to dine.”
“It’s after nine.” Charlotte bent down to kiss her. “The fact is, I can’t keep still.”
Mrs. Ashby pushed aside her work and rested her two hands on the arms of her chair. “I’m going with you,” she said, helping herself up.
Charlotte protested that it was too late, that it was not necessary, that she would call up as soon as Kenneth came in, but Mrs. Ashby had already rung for her maid. She was slightly lame, and stood resting on her stick while her wraps were brought. “If Mr. Kenneth turns up, tell him he’ll find me at his own house,” she instructed the maid as the two women got into the taxi which had been summoned. During the short drive Charlotte gave thanks that she was not returning home alone. There was something warm and substantial in the mere fact of Mrs. Ashby’s nearness, something that corresponded with the clearness of her eyes and the texture of her fresh firm complexion. As the taxi drew up she laid her hand encouragingly on Charlotte’s. “You’ll see; there’ll be a message.”
The door opened at Charlotte’s ring and the two entered. Charlotte’s heart beat excitedly; the stimulus of her mother-in-law’s confidence was beginning to flow through her veins.
“You’ll see — you’ll see,” Mrs. Ashby repeated.
The maid who opened the door said no, Mr. Ashby had not come in, and there had been no message from him.
“You’re sure the telephone’s not out of order?” his mother suggested; and the maid said, well, it certainly wasn’t half an hour ago; but she’d just go and ring up to make sure. She disappeared, and Charlotte turned to take off her hat and cloak. As she did so her eyes lit on the hall table, and there lay a gray envelope, her husband’s name faintly traced on it. “Oh!” she cried out, suddenly aware that for the first time in months she had entered her house without wondering if one of the gray letters would be there.
“What is it, my dear?” Mrs. Ashby asked with a glance of surprise.
Charlotte did not answer. She took up the envelope and stood staring at it as if she could force her gaze to penetrate to what was within. Then an idea occurred to her. She turned and held out the envelope to her mother-in-law.
“Do you know that writing?” she asked.
Mrs. Ashby took the letter. She had to feel with her other hand for her eyeglasses, and when she had adjusted them she lifted the envelope to the light. “Why!” she exclaimed; and then stopped. Charlotte noticed that the letter shook in her usually firm hand. “But this is addressed to Kenneth,” Mrs. Ashby said at length, in a low voice. Her tone seemed to imply that she felt her daughter-in-law’s question to be slightly indiscreet.
“Yes, but no matter,” Charlotte spoke with sudden decision. “I want to know — do you know the writing?”
Mrs. Ashby handed back the letter. “No,” she said distinctly.
The two women had turned into the library. Charlotte switched on the electric light and shut the door. She still held the envelope in her hand.
“I’m going to open it,” she announced.
She caught her mother-in-law’s startled glance. “But, dearest — a letter not addressed to you? My dear, you can’t!”
“As if I cared about that — now!” She continued to look intently at Mrs. Ashby. “This letter may tell me where Kenneth is.”
Mrs. Ashby’s glossy bloom was effaced by a quick pallor; her firm cheeks seemed to shrink and wither. “Why should it? What makes you believe —— It can’t possibly ——”
Charlotte held her eyes steadily on that altered face. “Ah, then you do know the writing?” she flashed back.
“Know the writing? How should I? With all my son’s correspondents . . . . What I do know is ——” Mrs. Ashby broke off and looked at her daughter-in-law entreatingly, almost timidly.
Charlotte caught her by the wrist. “Mother! What do you know? Tell me! You must!”
“That I don’t believe any good ever came of a woman’s opening her husband’s letters behind his back.”
The words sounded to Charlotte’s irritated ears as flat as a phrase culled from a book of moral axioms. She laughed impatiently and dropped her mother-in-law’s wrist. “Is that all? No good can come of this letter, opened or unopened. I know that well enough. But whatever ill comes, I mean to find out what’s in it.” Her hands had been trembling as they held the envelope, but now they grew firm, and her voice also. She still gazed intently at Mrs. Ashby. “This is the ninth letter addressed in the same hand that has come for Kenneth since we’ve been married. Always these same gray envelopes. I’ve kept count of them because after each one he has been like a man who has had some dreadful shock. It takes him hours to shake off their effect. I’ve told him so. I’ve told him I must know from whom they come, because I can see they’re killing him. He won’t answer my questions; he says he can’t tell me anything about the letters; but last night he promised to go away with me — to get away from them.”
Mrs. Ashby, with shaking steps, had gone to one of the armchairs and sat down in it, her head drooping forward on her breast. “Ah,” she murmured.
“So now you understand ——”
“Did he tell you it was to get away from them?”
“He said, to get away — to get away. He was sobbing so that he could hardly speak. But I told him I knew that was why.”
“And what did he say?”
“He took me in his arms and said he’d go wherever I wanted.”
“Ah, thank God!” said Mrs. Ashby. There was a silence, during which she continued to sit with bowed head, and eyes averted from her daughter-in-law. At last she looked up and spoke. “Are you sure there have been as many as nine?”
“Perfectly. This is the ninth. I’ve kept count.”
“And he has absolutely refused to explain?”
Mrs. Ashby spoke through pale contracted lips. “When did they begin to come? Do you remember?”
Charlotte laughed again. “Remember? The first one came the night we got back from our honeymoon.”
“All that time?” Mrs. Ashby lifted her head and spoke with sudden energy. “Then — yes, open it.”
The words were so unexpected that Charlotte felt the blood in her temples, and her hands began to tremble again. She tried to slip her finger under the flap of the envelope, but it was so tightly stuck that she had to hunt on her husband’s writing table for his ivory letter opener. As she pushed about the familiar objects his own hands had so lately touched, they sent through her the icy chill emanating from the little personal effects of someone newly dead. In the deep silence of the room the tearing of the paper as she slit the envelope sounded like a human cry. She drew out the sheet and carried it to the lamp.
“Well?” Mrs. Ashby asked below her breath.
Charlotte did not move or answer. She was bending over the page with wrinkled brows, holding it nearer and nearer to the light. Her sight must be blurred, or else dazzled by the reflection of the lamplight on the smooth surface of the paper, for, strain her eyes as she would, she could discern only a few faint strokes, so faint and faltering as to be nearly undecipherable.
“I can’t make it out,” she said.
“What do you mean, dear?”
“The writing’s too indistinct . . . . Wait.”
She went back to the table and, sitting down close to Kenneth’s reading lamp, slipped the letter under a magnifying glass. All this time she was aware that her mother-in-law was watching her intently.
“Well?” Mrs. Ashby breathed.
“Well, it’s no clearer. I can’t read it.”
“You mean the paper is an absolute blank?”
“No, not quite. There is writing on it. I can make out something like ‘mine’ — oh, and ‘come.’ It might be ‘come.'”
Mrs. Ashby stood up abruptly. Her face was even paler than before. She advanced to the table and, resting her two hands on it, drew a deep breath. “Let me see,” she said, as if forcing herself to a hateful effort.
Charlotte felt the contagion of her whiteness. “She knows,” she thought. She pushed the letter across the table. Her mother-in-law lowered her head over it in silence, but without touching it with her pale wrinkled hands.
Charlotte stood watching her as she herself, when she had tried to read the letter, had been watched by Mrs. Ashby. The latter fumbled for her glasses, held them to her eyes, and bent still closer to the outspread page, in order, as it seemed, to avoid touching it. The light of the lamp fell directly on her old face, and Charlotte reflected what depths of the unknown may lurk under the clearest and most candid lineaments. She had never seen her mother-in-law’s features express any but simple and sound emotions — cordiality, amusement, a kindly sympathy; now and again a flash of wholesome anger. Now they seemed to wear a look of fear and hatred, of incredulous dismay and almost cringing defiance. It was as if the spirits warring within her had distorted her face to their own likeness. At length she raised her head. “I can’t — I can’t,” she said in a voice of childish distress.
“You can’t make it out either?”
She shook her head, and Charlotte saw two tears roll down her cheeks.
“Familiar as the writing is to you?” Charlotte insisted with twitching lips.
Mrs. Ashby did not take up the challenge. “I can make out nothing — nothing.”
“But you do know the writing?”
Mrs. Ashby lifted her head timidly; her anxious eyes stole with a glance of apprehension around the quiet familiar room. “How can I tell? I was startled at first . . . .”
“Startled by the resemblance?”
“Well, I thought ——”
“You’d better say it out, mother! You knew at once it was her writing?”
“Oh, wait, my dear — wait.”
“Wait for what?”
Mrs. Ashby looked up; her eyes, traveling slowly past Charlotte, were lifted to the blank wall behind her son’s writing table.
Charlotte, following the glance, burst into a shrill laugh of accusation. “I needn’t wait any longer! You’ve answered me now! You’re looking straight at the wall where her picture used to hang!”
Mrs. Ashby lifted her hand with a murmur of warning. “Sh-h.”
“Oh, you needn’t imagine that anything can ever frighten me again!” Charlotte cried.
Her mother-in-law still leaned against the table. Her lips moved plaintively. “But we’re going mad — we’re both going mad. We both know such things are impossible.”
Her daughter-in-law looked at her with a pitying stare. “I’ve known for a long time now that everything was possible.”
“Yes, exactly this.”
“But this letter — after all, there’s nothing in this letter ——”
“Perhaps there would be to him. How can I tell? I remember his saying to me once that if you were used to a handwriting the faintest stroke of it became legible. Now I see what he meant. He was used to it.
“But the few strokes that I can make out are so pale. No one could possibly read that letter.”
Charlotte laughed again. “I suppose everything’s pale about a ghost,” she said stridently.
“Oh, my child — my child — don’t say it!”
“Why shouldn’t I say it, when even the bare walls cry it out? What difference does it make if her letters are illegible to you and me? If even you can see her face on that blank wall, why shouldn’t he read her writing on this blank paper? Don’t you see that she’s everywhere in this house, and the closer to him because to everyone else she’s become invisible?” Charlotte dropped into a chair and covered her face with her hands. A turmoil of sobbing shook her from head to foot. At length a touch on her shoulder made her look up, and she saw her mother-in-law bending over her. Mrs. Ashby’s face seemed to have grown still smaller and more wasted, but it had resumed its usual quiet look. Through all her tossing anguish, Charlotte felt the impact of that resolute spirit.
“Tomorrow — tomorrow. You’ll see. There’ll be some explanation tomorrow.”
Charlotte cut her short. “An explanation? Who’s going to give it, I wonder?”
Mrs. Ashby drew back and straightened herself heroically. “Kenneth himself will,” she cried out in a strong voice. Charlotte said nothing, and the old woman went on: “But meanwhile we must act; we must notify the police. Now, without a moment’s delay. We must do everything — everything.”
Charlotte stood up slowly and stiffly; her joints felt as cramped as an old woman’s. “Exactly as if we thought it could do any good to do anything?”
Resolutely Mrs. Ashby cried: “Yes!” and Charlotte went up to the telephone and unhooked the receiver.
Lady Jane Lynke was unlike other people: when she heard that she had inherited Bells, the beautiful old place which had belonged to the Lynkes of Thudeney for something like six hundred years, the fancy took her to go and see it unannounced. She was staying at a friend’s near by, in Kent, and the next morning she borrowed a motor and slipped away alone to Thudeney–Blazes, the adjacent village.
It was a lustrous motionless day. Autumn bloom lay on the Sussex downs, on the heavy trees of the weald, on streams moving indolently, far off across the marshes. Farther still, Dungeness, a fitful streak, floated on an immaterial sky which was perhaps, after all, only sky.
In the softness Thudeney–Blazes slept: a few aged houses bowed about a duck-pond, a silvery spire, orchards thick with dew. Did Thudeney–Blazes ever wake?
Lady Jane left the motor to the care of the geese on a miniature common, pushed open a white gate into a field (the griffoned portals being padlocked), and struck across the park toward a group of carved chimney-stacks. No one seemed aware of her.
In a dip of the land, the long low house, its ripe brick masonry overhanging a moat deeply sunk about its roots, resembled an aged cedar spreading immemorial red branches. Lady Jane held her breath and gazed.
A silence distilled from years of solitude lay on lawns and gardens. No one had lived at Bells since the last Lord Thudeney, then a penniless younger son, had forsaken it sixty years before to seek his fortune in Canada. And before that, he and his widowed mother, distant poor relations, were housed in one of the lodges, and the great place, even in their day, had been as mute and solitary as the family vault.
Lady Jane, daughter of another branch, to which an earldom and considerable possessions had accrued, had never seen Bells, hardly heard its name. A succession of deaths, and the whim of an old man she had never known, now made her heir to all this beauty; and as she stood and looked she was glad she had come to it from so far, from impressions so remote and different. “It would be dreadful to be used to it — to be thinking already about the state of the roof, or the cost of a heating system.”
Till this her thirty-fifth year, Lady Jane had led an active, independent and decided life. One of several daughters, moderately but sufficiently provided for, she had gone early from home, lived in London lodgings, travelled in tropic lands, spent studious summers in Spain and Italy, and written two or three brisk business-like little books about cities usually dealt with sentimentally. And now, just back from a summer in the south of France, she stood ankle deep in wet bracken, and gazed at Bells lying there under a September sun that looked like moonlight.
“I shall never leave it!” she ejaculated, her heart swelling as if she had taken the vow to a lover.
She ran down the last slope of the park and entered the faded formality of gardens with clipped yews as ornate as architecture, and holly hedges as solid as walls. Adjoining the house rose a low deep-buttressed chapel. Its door was ajar, and she thought this of good augury: her forebears were waiting for her. In the porch she remarked fly-blown notices of services, an umbrella stand, a dishevelled door-mat: no doubt the chapel served as the village church. The thought gave her a sense of warmth and neighbourliness. Across the damp flags of the chancel, monuments and brasses showed through a traceried screen. She examined them curiously. Some hailed her with vocal memories, others whispered out of the remote and the unknown: it was a shame to know so little about her own family. But neither Crofts nor Lynkes had ever greatly distinguished themselves; they had gathered substance simply by holding on to what they had, and slowly accumulating privileges and acres. “Mostly by clever marriages,” Lady Jane thought with a faint contempt.
At that moment her eyes lit on one of the less ornate monuments: a plain sarcophagus of gray marble niched in the wall and surmounted by the bust of a young man with a fine arrogant head, a Byronic throat and tossed-back curls.
“Peregrine Vincent Theobald Lynke, Baron Clouds, fifteenth Viscount Thudeney of Bells, Lord of the Manors of Thudeney, Thudeney–Blazes, Upper Lynke, Lynke–Linnet — ” so it ran, with the usual tedious enumeration of honours, titles, court and county offices, ending with; “Born on May 1st, 1790, perished of the plague at Aleppo in 1828.” And underneath, in small cramped characters, as if crowded as an afterthought into an insufficient space: “Also His Wife.”
That was all. No name, dates, honours, epithets, for the Viscountess Thudeney. Did she too die of the plague at Aleppo? Or did the “also” imply her actual presence in the sarcophagus which her husband’s pride had no doubt prepared for his own last sleep, little guessing that some Syrian drain was to receive him? Lady Jane racked her memory in vain. All she knew was that the death without issue of this Lord Thudeney had caused the property to revert to the Croft–Lynkes, and so, in the end, brought her to the chancel step where, shyly, she knelt a moment, vowing to the dead to carry on their trust.
She passed on to the entrance court, and stood at last at the door of her new home, a blunt tweed figure in heavy mud-stained shoes. She felt as intrusive as a tripper, and her hand hesitated on the door-bell. “I ought to have brought some one with me,” she thought; an odd admission on the part of a young woman who, when she was doing her books of travel, had prided herself on forcing single-handed the most closely guarded doors. But those other places, as she looked back, seemed easy and accessible compared to Bells.
She rang, and a tinkle answered, carried on by a flurried echo which seemed to ask what in the world was happening. Lady Jane, through the nearest window, caught the spectral vista of a long room with shrouded furniture. She could not see its farther end, but she had the feeling that someone stationed there might very well be seeing her.
“Just at first,” she thought, “I shall have to invite people here — to take the chill off.”
She rang again, and the tinkle again prolonged itself; but no one came.
At last she reflected that the care-takers probably lived at the back of the house, and pushing open a door in the court-yard wall she worked her way around to what seemed a stable-yard. Against the purple brick sprawled a neglected magnolia, bearing one late flower as big as a planet. Lady Jane rang at a door marked “Service.” This bell, though also languid, had a wakefuller sound, as if it were more used to being rung, and still knew what was likely to follow; and after a delay during which Lady Jane again had the sense of being peered at — from above, through a lowered blind — a bolt shot, and a woman looked out. She was youngish, unhealthy, respectable and frightened; and she blinked at Lady Jane like someone waking out of sleep.
“Oh,” said Lady Jane — “do you think I might visit the house?”
“I’m staying near here — I’m interested in old houses. Mightn’t I take a look?”
The young woman drew back. “The house isn’t shown.”
“Oh, but not to — not to — ” Jane weighed the case. “You see,” she explained, “I know some of the family: the Northumberland branch.”
“You’re related, madam?”
“Well — distantly, yes.” It was exactly what she had not meant to say; but there seemed no other way.
The woman twisted her apron-strings in perplexity.
“Come, you know,” Lady Jane urged, producing half-a-crown. The woman turned pale.
“I couldn’t, madam; not without asking.” It was clear that she was sorely tempted.
“Well, ask, won’t you?” Lady Jane pressed the tip into a hesitating hand. The young woman shut the door and vanished. She was away so long that the visitor concluded her half-crown had been pocketed, and there was an end; and she began to be angry with herself, which was more often her habit than to be so with others.
“Well, for a fool, Jane, you’re a complete one,” she grumbled.
A returning footstep, listless, reluctant — the tread of one who was not going to let her in. It began to be rather comic.
The door opened, and the young woman said in her dull sing-song: “Mr. Jones says that no one is allowed to visit the house.”
She and Lady Jane looked at each other for a moment, and Lady Jane read the apprehension in the other’s eyes.
“Mr. Jones? Oh? — Yes; of course, keep it . . . ” She waved away the woman’s hand.
“Thank you, madam.” The door closed again, and Lady Jane stood and gazed up at the inexorable face of her old home.
“But you didn’t get in? You actually came back without so much as a peep?”
Her story was received, that evening at dinner, with mingled mirth and incredulity.
“But, my dear! You mean to say you asked to see the house, and they wouldn’t let you? WHO wouldn’t?” Lady Jane’s hostess insisted.
“He said no one was allowed to visit it.”
“Who on earth is Mr. Jones?”
“The care-taker, I suppose. I didn’t see him.”
“Didn’t see him either? But I never heard such nonsense! Why in the world didn’t you insist?”
“Yes; why didn’t you?” they all chorused; and she could only answer, a little lamely: “I think I was afraid.”
“Afraid? YOU, darling?” There was fresh hilarity. “Of Mr. Jones?”
“I suppose so.” She joined in the laugh, yet she knew it was true: she had been afraid.
Edward Stramer, the novelist, an old friend of her family, had been listening with an air of abstraction, his eyes on his empty coffee-cup. Suddenly, as the mistress of the house pushed back her chair, he looked across the table at Lady Jane. “It’s odd: I’ve just remembered something. Once, when I was a youngster, I tried to see Bells; over thirty years ago it must have been.” He glanced at his host. “Your mother drove me over. And we were not let in.”
There was a certain flatness in this conclusion, and someone remarked that Bells had always been known as harder to get into than any house thereabouts.
“Yes,” said Stramer; “but the point is that we were refused in exactly the same words. Mr. Jones said no one was allowed to visit the house.”
“Ah — he was in possession already? Thirty years ago? Unsociable fellow, Jones. Well, Jane, you’ve got a good watch-dog.”
They moved to the drawing-room, and the talk drifted to other topics. But Stramer came and sat down beside Lady Jane. “It is queer, though, that at such a distance of time we should have been given exactly the same answer.”
She glanced up at him curiously. “Yes; and you didn’t try to force your way in either?”
“Oh no: it was not possible.”
“So I felt,” she agreed.
“Well, next week, my dear, I hope we shall see it all, in spite of Mr. Jones,” their hostess intervened, catching their last words as she moved toward the piano.
“I wonder if we shall see Mr. Jones,” said Stramer.
Bells was not nearly as large as it looked; like many old houses it was very narrow, and but one storey high, with servant’s rooms in the low attics, and much space wasted in crooked passages and superfluous stairs. If she closed the great saloon, Jane thought, she might live there comfortably with the small staff which was the most she could afford. It was a relief to find the place less important than she had feared.
For already, in that first hour of arrival, she had decided to give up everything else for Bells. Her previous plans and ambitions — except such as might fit in with living there — had fallen from her like a discarded garment, and things she had hardly thought about, or had shrugged away with the hasty subversiveness of youth, were already laying quiet hands on her; all the lives from which her life had issued, with what they bore of example or admonishment. The very shabbiness of the house moved her more than splendours, made it, after its long abandonment, seem full of the careless daily coming and going of people long dead, people to whom it had not been a museum, or a page of history, but cradle, nursery, home, and sometimes, no doubt, a prison. If those marble lips in the chapel could speak! If she could hear some of their comments on the old house which had spread its silent shelter over their sins and sorrows, their follies and submissions! A long tale, to which she was about to add another chapter, subdued and humdrum beside some of those earlier annals, yet probably freer and more varied than the unchronicled lives of the great-aunts and great-grandmothers buried there so completely that they must hardly have known when they passed from their beds to their graves. “Piled up like dead leaves,” Jane thought, “layers and layers of them, to preserve something forever budding underneath.”
Well, all these piled-up lives had at least preserved the old house in its integrity; and that was worth while. She was satisfied to carry on such a trust.
She sat in the garden looking up at those rosy walls, iridescent with damp and age. She decided which windows should be hers, which rooms given to the friends from Kent who were motoring over, Stramer among them, for a modest house-warming; then she got up and went in.
The hour had come for domestic questions; for she had arrived alone, unsupported even by the old family housemaid her mother had offered her. She preferred to start afresh, convinced that her small household could be staffed from the neighbourhood. Mrs. Clemm, the rosy-cheeked old person who had curtsied her across the threshold, would doubtless know.
Mrs. Clemm, summoned to the library, curtsied again. She wore black silk, gathered and spreading as to skirt, flat and perpendicular as to bodice. On her glossy false front was a black lace cap with ribbons which had faded from violet to ash-colour, and a heavy watch-chain descended from the lava brooch under her crochet collar. Her small round face rested on the collar like a red apple on a white plate: neat, smooth, circular, with a pursed-up mouth, eyes like black seeds, and round ruddy cheeks with the skin so taut that one had to look close to see that it was as wrinkled as a piece of old crackly.
Mrs. Clemm was sure there would be no trouble about servants. She herself could do a little cooking: though her hand might be a bit out. But there was her niece to help; and she was quite of her ladyship’s opinion, that there was no need to get in strangers. They were mostly a poor lot; and besides, they might not take to Bells. There were persons who didn’t. Mrs. Clemm smiled a sharp little smile, like the scratch of a pin, as she added that she hoped her ladyship wouldn’t be one of them.
As for under-servants . . . well, a boy, perhaps? She had a great-nephew she might send for. But about women — under-housemaids — if her ladyship thought they couldn’t manage as they were; well, she really didn’t know. Thudeney–Blazes? Oh, she didn’t think so . . . There was more dead than living at Thudeney–Blazes . . . everyone was leaving there . . . or in the church-yard . . . one house after another being shut . . . death was everywhere, wasn’t it, my lady? Mrs. Clemm said it with another of her short sharp smiles, which provoked the appearance of a frosty dimple.
“But my niece Georgiana is a hard worker, my lady; her that let you in the other day . . . ”
“That didn’t,” Lady Jane corrected.
“Oh, my lady, it was too unfortunate. If only your ladyship had have said . . . poor Georgiana had ought to have seen; but she never DID have her wits about her, not for answering the door.”
“But she was only obeying orders. She went to ask Mr. Jones.”
Mrs. Clemm was silent. Her small hands, wrinkled and resolute, fumbled with the folds of her apron, and her quick eyes made the circuit of the room and then came back to Lady Jane’s.
“Just so, my lady; but, as I told her, she’d ought to have known — ”
“And who is Mr. Jones?”
Mrs. Clemm’s smile snapped out again, deprecating, respectful. “Well, my lady, he’s more dead than living, too . . . if I may say so,” was her surprising answer.
“Is he? I’m sorry to hear that; but who is he?”
“Well, my lady, he’s . . . he’s my great-uncle, as it were . . . my grandmother’s own brother, as you might say.”
“Ah; I see.” Lady Jane considered her with growing curiosity. “He must have reached a great age, then.”
“Yes, my lady; he has that. Though I’m not,” Mrs. Clemm added, the dimple showing, “as old myself as your ladyship might suppose. Living at Bells all these years has been ageing to me; it would be to anybody.”
“I suppose so. And yet,” Lady Jane continued, “Mr. Jones has survived; has stood it well — as you certainly have?”
“Oh. Not as well as I have,” Mrs. Clemm interjected, as if resentful of the comparison.
“At any rate, he still mounts guard; mounts it as well as he did thirty years ago.”
“Thirty years ago?” Mrs. Clemm echoed, her hands dropping from her apron to her sides.
“Wasn’t he here thirty years ago?”
“Oh, yes, my lady; certainly; he’s never once been away that I know of.”
“What a wonderful record! And what exactly are his duties?”
Mrs. Clemm paused again, her hands still motionless in the folds of her skirt. Lady Jane noticed that the fingers were tightly clenched, as if to check an involuntary gesture.
“He began as pantry-boy; then footman; then butler, my lady; but it’s hard to say, isn’t it, what an old servant’s duties are, when he’s stayed on in the same house so many years?”
“Yes; and that house always empty.”
“Just so, my lady. Everything came to depend on him; one thing after another. His late lordship thought the world of him.”
“His late lordship? But he was never here! He spent all his life in Canada.”
Mrs. Clemm seemed slightly disconcerted. “Certainly, my lady.” (Her voice said: “Who are you, to set me right as to the chronicles of Bells?”) “But by letter, my lady; I can show you the letters. And there was his lordship before, the sixteenth Viscount. He DID come here once.”
“Ah, did he?” Lady Jane was embarrassed to find how little she knew of them all. She rose from her seat. “They were lucky, all these absentees, to have some one to watch over their interests so faithfully. I should like to see Mr. Jones — to thank him. Will you take me to him now?”
“Now?” Mrs. Clemm moved back a step or two; Lady Jane fancied her cheeks paled a little under their ruddy varnish. “Oh, not today, my lady.”
“Why? Isn’t he well enough?”
“Not nearly. He’s between life and death, as it were,” Mrs. Clemm repeated, as if the phrase were the nearest approach she could find to a definition of Mr. Jones’s state.
“He wouldn’t even know who I was?”
Mrs. Clemm considered a moment. “I don’t say THAT, my lady;” her tone implied that to do so might appear disrespectful. “He’d know you, my lady; but you wouldn’t know HIM.” She broke off and added hastily: “I mean, for what he is: he’s in no state for you to see him.”
“He’s so very ill? Poor man! And is everything possible being done?”
“Oh, everything; and more too, my lady. But perhaps,” Mrs. Clemm suggested, with a clink of keys, “this would be a good time for your ladyship to take a look about the house. If your ladyship has no objection, I should like to begin with the linen.”
“And Mr. Jones?” Stramer queried, a few days later, as they sat, Lady Jane and the party from Kent, about an improvised tea-table in a recess of one of the great holly-hedges.
The day was as hushed and warm as that on which she had first come to Bells, and Lady Jane looked up with a smile of ownership at the old walls which seemed to smile back, the windows which now looked at her with friendly eyes.
“Mr. Jones? Who’s Mr. Jones?” the others asked; only Stramer recalled their former talk.
Lady Jane hesitated. “Mr. Jones is my invisible guardian; or rather, the guardian of Bells.”
They remembered then. “Invisible? You don’t mean to say you haven’t seen him yet?”
“Not yet; perhaps I never shall. He’s very old — and very ill, I’m afraid.”
“And he still rules here?”
“Oh, absolutely. The fact is,” Lady Jane added “I believe he’s the only person left who really knows all about Bells.”
“Jane, my DEAR! That big shrub over there against the wall! I verily believe it’s Templetonia retusa. It IS! Did any one ever hear of it standing an English winter?” Gardeners all, they dashed towards the shrub in its sheltered angle. “I shall certainly try it on a south wall at Dipway,” cried the hostess from Kent.
Tea over, they moved on to inspect the house. The short autumn day was drawing to a close; but the party had been able to come only for an afternoon, instead of staying over the week-end, and having lingered so long in the gardens they had only time, indoors, to puzzle out what they could through the shadows. Perhaps, Lady Jane thought, it was the best hour to see a house like Bells, so long abandoned, and not yet warmed into new life.
The fire she had had lit in the saloon sent its radiance to meet them, giving the great room an air of expectancy and welcome. The portraits, the Italian cabinets, the shabby armchairs and rugs, all looked as if life had but lately left them; and Lady Jane said to herself: “Perhaps Mrs. Clemm is right in advising me to live here and close the blue parlour.”
“My dear, what a fine room! Pity it faces north. Of course you’ll have to shut it in winter. It would cost a fortune to heat.”
Lady Jane hesitated. “I don’t know: I HAD meant to. But there seems to be no other . . . ”
“No other? In all this house?” They laughed; and one of the visitors, going ahead and crossing a panelled anteroom, cried out: “But here! A delicious room; windows south — yes, and west. The warmest of the house. This is perfect.”
They followed, and the blue room echoed with exclamations. “Those charming curtains with the parrots . . . and the blue of that petit point fire-screen! But, Jane, of course you must live here. Look at this citron-wood desk!”
Lady Jane stood on the threshold. “It seems that the chimney smokes hopelessly.”
“Hopelessly? Nonsense! Have you consulted anybody? I’ll send you a wonderful man . . . ”
“Besides, if you put in one of those one-pipe heaters . . . At Dipway . . . ”
Stramer was looking over Lady Jane’s shoulder. “What does Mr. Jones say about it?”
“He says no one has ever been able to use this room; not for ages. It was the housekeeper who told me. She’s his great-niece, and seems simply to transmit his oracles.”
Stramer shrugged. “Well, he’s lived at Bells longer than you have. Perhaps he’s right.”
“How absurd!” one of the ladies cried. “The housekeeper and Mr. Jones probably spend their evenings here, and don’t want to be disturbed. Look — ashes on the hearth! What did I tell you?”
Lady Jane echoed the laugh as they turned away. They had still to see the library, damp and dilapidated, the panelled dining-room, the breakfast-parlour, and such bedrooms as had any old furniture left; not many, for the late lords of Bells, at one time or another, had evidently sold most of its removable treasures.
When the visitors came down their motors were waiting. A lamp had been placed in the hall, but the rooms beyond were lit only by the broad clear band of western sky showing through uncurtained casements. On the doorstep one of the ladies exclaimed that she had lost her hand-bag — no, she remembered; she had laid it on the desk in the blue room. Which way was the blue room?
“I’ll get it,” Jane said, turning back. She heard Stramer following. He asked if he should bring the lamp.
“Oh, no; I can see.”
She crossed the threshold of the blue room, guided by the light from its western window; then she stopped. Some one was in the room already; she felt rather than saw another presence. Stramer, behind her, paused also; he did not speak or move. What she saw, or thought she saw, was simply an old man with bent shoulders turning away from the citron-wood desk. Almost before she had received the impression there was no one there; only the slightest stir of the needlework curtain over the farther door. She heard no step or other sound.
“There’s the bag,” she said, as if the act of speaking, and saying something obvious were a relief.
In the hall her glance crossed Stramer’s, but failed to find there the reflection of what her own had registered.
He shook hands, smiling. “Well, goodbye. I commit you to Mr. Jones’s care; only don’t let him say that YOU’RE not shown to visitors.”
She smiled: “Come back and try,” and then shivered a little as the lights of the last motor vanished beyond the great black hedges.
Lady Jane had exulted in her resolve to keep Bells to herself till she and the old house should have had time to make friends. But after a few days she recalled the uneasy felling which had come over her as she stood on the threshold after her first tentative ring. Yes; she had been right in thinking she would have to have people about her to take the chill off. The house was too old, too mysterious, too much withdrawn into its own secret past, for her poor little present to fit into it without uneasiness.
But it was not a time of year when, among Lady Jane’s friends, it was easy to find people free. Her own family were all in the north, and impossible to dislodge. One of her sisters, when invited, simply sent her back a list of shooting-dates; and her mother wrote: “Why not come to us? What can you have to do all alone in that empty house at this time of year? Next summer we’re all coming.”
Having tried one or two friends with the same result, Lady Jane bethought her of Stramer. He was finishing a novel, she knew, and at such times he liked to settle down somewhere in the country where he could be sure of not being disturbed. Bells was a perfect asylum, and though it was probable that some other friend had anticipated her, and provided the requisite seclusion, Lady Jane decided to invite him. “Do bring your work and stay till it’s finished — and don’t be in a hurry to finish. I promise that no one shall bother you — ” and she added, half-nervously: “Not even Mr. Jones.” As she wrote she felt an absurd impulse to blot the words out. “He might not like it,” she thought; and the “he” did not refer to Stramer.
Was the solitude already making her superstitious? She thrust the letter into an envelope, and carried it herself to the post-office at Thudeney–Blazes. Two days later a wire from Stramer announced his arrival.
He came on a cold stormy afternoon, just before dinner, and as they went up to dress Lady Jane called after him: “We shall sit in the blue parlour this evening.” The housemaid Georgiana was crossing the passage with hot water for the visitor. She stopped and cast a vacant glance at Lady Jane. The latter met it, and said carelessly: “You hear Georgiana? The fire in the blue parlour.”
While Lady Jane was dressing she heard a knock, and saw Mrs. Clemm’s round face just inside the door, like a red apple on a garden wall.
“Is there anything wrong about the saloon, my lady? Georgiana understood — ”
“That I want the fire in the blue parlour. Yes. What’s wrong with the saloon is that one freezes there.”
“But the chimney smokes in the blue parlour.”
“Well, we’ll give it a trial, and if it does I’ll send for some one to arrange it.”
“Nothing can be done, my lady. Everything has been tried, and — ”
Lady Jane swung about suddenly. She had heard Stramer singing a cheerful hunting-song in a cracked voice, in his dressing-room at the other end of the corridor.
“That will do, Mrs. Clemm. I want the fire in the blue parlour.”
“Yes, my lady.” The door closed on the housekeeper.
“So you decided on the saloon after all?” Stramer said, as Lady Jane led the way there after their brief repast.
“Yes, I hope you won’t be frozen. Mr. Jones swears that the chimney in the blue parlour isn’t safe; so, until I can fetch the mason over from Strawbridge — ”
“Oh, I see.” Stramer drew up to the blaze in the great fire-place. “We’re very well off here; though heating this room is going to be ruinous. Meanwhile, I note that Mr. Jones still rules.”
Lady Jane gave a slight laugh.
“Tell me,” Stramer continued, as she bent over the mixing of the Turkish coffee, “what is there about him? I’m getting curious.”
Lady Jane laughed again, and heard the embarrassment in her laugh. “So am I.”
“Why — you don’t mean to say you haven’t seen him yet?”
“No. He’s still too ill.”
“What’s the matter with him? What does the doctor say?”
“He won’t see the doctor.”
“But, look here — if things take a worse turn — I don’t know; but mightn’t you be held to have been negligent?”
“What can I do? Mrs. Clemm says he has a doctor who treats him by correspondence. I don’t see that I can interfere.”
“Isn’t there some one beside Mrs. Clemm whom you can consult?”
She considered: certainly, as yet, she had not made much effort to get into relation with her neighbours. “I expected the vicar to call. But I’ve enquired: there’s no vicar any longer at Thudeney–Blazes. A curate comes from Strawbridge every other Sunday. And the one who comes now is new: nobody about the place seems to know him.”
“But I thought the chapel here was in use? It looked so when you showed it to us the other day.”
“I thought so too. It used to be the parish church of Lynke–Linnet and Lower–Lynke; but it seems that was years ago. The parishioners objected to coming so far; and there weren’t enough of them. Mrs. Clemm says that nearly everybody has died off or left. It’s the same at Thudeney–Blazes.”
Stramer glanced about the great room, with its circle of warmth and light by the hearth, and the sullen shadows huddled at its farther end, as if hungrily listening. “With this emptiness at the centre, life was bound to cease gradually on the outskirts.”
Lady Jane followed his glance. “Yes; it’s all wrong. I must try to wake the place up.”
“Why not open it to the public? Have a visitors’ day?”
She thought a moment. In itself the suggestion was distasteful; she could imagine few things that would bore her more. Yet to do so might be a duty, a first step toward reestablishing relations between the lifeless house and its neighbourhood. Secretly, she felt that even the coming and going of indifferent unknown people would help to take the chill from those rooms, to brush from their walls the dust of too-heavy memories.
“Who’s that?” asked Stramer. Lady Jane started in spite of herself, and glanced over her shoulder; but he was only looking past her at a portrait which a dart of flame from the hearth had momentarily called from its obscurity.
“That’s a Lady Thudeney.” She got up and went toward the picture with a lamp. “Might be an Opie, don’t you think? It’s a strange face, under the smirk of the period.”
Stramer took the lamp and held it up. The portrait was that of a young woman in a short-waisted muslin gown caught beneath the breast by a cameo. Between clusters of beribboned curls a long fair oval looked out dumbly, inexpressively, in a stare of frozen beauty. “It’s as if the house had been too empty even then,” Lady Jane murmured. “I wonder which she was? Oh, I know: it must be ‘Also His Wife’.”
“It’s the only name on her monument. The wife of Peregrine Vincent Theobald, who perished of the plague at Aleppo in 1828. Perhaps she was very fond of him, and this was painted when she was an inconsolable widow.”
“They didn’t dress like that as late as 1828.” Stramer holding the lamp closer, deciphered the inscription on the border of the lady’s India scarf; “Juliana, Viscountess Thudeney, 1818”. “She must have been inconsolable before his death, then.”
Lady Jane smiled. “Let’s hope she grew less so after it.”
Stramer passed the lamp across the canvas. “Do you see where she was painted? In the blue parlour. Look: the old panelling; and she’s leaning on the citron-wood desk. They evidently used the room in winter then.” The lamp paused on the background of the picture: a window framing snow-laden paths and hedges in icy perspective.
“Curious,” Stramer said — “and rather melancholy: to be painted against that wintry desolation. I wish you could find out more about her. Have you dipped into your archives?”
“No. Mr. Jones — ”
“He won’t allow that either?”
“Yes; but he’s lost the key of the muniment-room. Mrs. Clemm has been trying to get a locksmith.”
“Surely the neighbourhood can still produce one?”
“There WAS one at Thudeney–Blazes; but he died the week before I came.”
“Well, in Mrs. Clemm’s hands keys get lost, chimneys smoke, locksmith’s die . . . ” Stramer stood, light in hand, looking down the shadowy length of the saloon. “I say, let’s go and see what’s happening now in the blue parlour.”
Lady Jane laughed: a laugh seemed easy with another voice nearby to echo it. “Let’s — ”
She followed him out of the saloon, across the hall in which a single candle burned on a far-off table, and past the stairway yawning like a black funnel above them. In the doorway of the blue parlour Stramer paused. “Now, then, Mr. Jones!”
It was stupid, but Lady Jane’s heart gave a jerk: she hoped the challenge would not evoke the shadowy figure she had half seen that other day.
“Lord, it’s cold!” Stramer stood looking about him. “Those ashes are still on the hearth. Well, it’s all very queer.” He crossed over to the citron-wood desk. “There’s where she sat for her picture — and in this very arm-chair — look!”
“Oh, don’t!” Lady Jane exclaimed. The words slipped out unawares.
“Don’t — what?”
“Try those drawers — ” she wanted to reply; for his hand was stretched toward the desk.
“I’m frozen; I think I’m starting a cold. Do come away,” she grumbled, backing toward the door.
Stramer lighted her out without comment. As the lamplight slid along the walls Lady Jane fancied that the needle-work curtain over the farther door stirred as it had that other day. But it may have been the wind rising outside . . .
The saloon seemed like home when they got back to it.
“There IS no Mr. Jones!”
Stramer proclaimed it triumphantly when they met the next morning. Lady Jane had motored off early to Strawbridge in quest of a mason and a locksmith. The quest had taken longer than she had expected, for everybody in Strawbridge was busy on jobs nearer by, and unaccustomed to the idea of going to Bells, with which the town seemed to have had no communication within living memory. The younger workmen did not even know where the place was, and the best Lady Jane could do was to coax a locksmith’s apprentice to come with her, on the understanding that he would be driven back to the nearest station as soon as his job was over. As for the mason, he had merely taken note of her request, and promised half-heartedly to send somebody when he could. “Rather off our beat, though.”
She returned, discouraged and somewhat weary, as Stramer was coming downstairs after his morning’s work.
“No Mr. Jones?” she echoed.
“Not a trace! I’ve been trying the old Glamis experiment — situating his room by its window. Luckily the house is smaller . . . ”
Lady Jane smiled. “Is this what you call locking yourself up with your work?”
“I can’t work: that’s the trouble. Not till this is settled. Bells is a fidgety place.”
“Yes,” she agreed.
“Well, I wasn’t going to be beaten; so I went to try to find the head-gardener.”
“But there isn’t — ”
“No. Mrs. Clemm told me. The head-gardener died last year. That woman positively glows with life whenever she announces a death. Have you noticed?”
Yes: Lady Jane had.
“Well — I said to myself that if there wasn’t a head-gardener there must be an underling; at least one. I’d seen somebody in the distance, raking leaves, and I ran him down. Of course he’d never seen Mr. Jones.”
“You mean that poor old half-blind Jacob? He couldn’t see anybody.”
“Perhaps not. At any rate, he told me that Mr. Jones wouldn’t let the leaves be buried for leaf-mould — I forget why. Mr. Jones’s authority extends even to the gardens.”
“Yet you say he doesn’t exist!”
“Wait. Jacob is half-blind, but he’s been here for years, and knows more about the place than you’d think. I got him talking about the house, and I pointed to one window after another, and he told me each time whose the room was, or had been. But he couldn’t situate Mr. Jones.”
“I beg your ladyship’s pardon — ” Mrs. Clemm was on the threshold, cheeks shining, skirt rustling, her eyes like drills. “The locksmith your ladyship brought back; I understand it was for the lock of the muniment-room — ”
“He’s lost one of his tools, and can’t do anything without it. So he’s gone. The butcher’s boy gave him a lift back.”
Lady Jane caught Stramer’s faint chuckle. She stood and stared at Mrs. Clemm, and Mrs. Clemm stared back, deferential but unflinching.
“Gone? Very well; I’ll motor after him.”
“Oh, my lady, it’s too late. The butcher’s boy had his motor-cycle . . . Besides, what could he do?”
“Break the lock,” exclaimed Lady Jane, exasperated.
“Oh, my lady — ” Mrs. Clemm’s intonation marked the most respectful incredulity. She waited another moment, and then withdrew, while Lady Jane and Stramer considered each other.
“But this is absurd,” Lady Jane declared when they had lunched, waited on, as usual, by the flustered Georgiana. “I’ll break in that door myself, if I have to. — Be careful please, Georgiana,” she added; “I was speaking of doors, not dishes.” For Georgiana had let fall with a crash the dish she was removing from the table. She gathered up the pieces in her tremulous fingers, and vanished. Jane and Stramer returned to the saloon.
“Queer!” the novelist commented.
“Yes.” Lady Jane, facing the door, started slightly. Mrs. Clemm was there again; but this time subdued, unrustling, bathed in that odd pallour which enclosed but seemed unable to penetrate the solid crimson of her cheeks.
“I beg pardon, my lady. The key is found.” Her hand, as she held it out, trembled like Georgiana’s.
“It’s not here,” Stramer announced a couple of hours later.
“What isn’t?” Lady Jane queried, looking up from a heap of disordered papers. Her eyes blinked at him through the fog of yellow dust raised by her manipulations.
“The clue. — I’ve got all the 1800 to 1840 papers here; and there’s a gap.”
She moved over to the table above which he was bending. “A gap?”
“A big one. Nothing between 1815 and 1835. No mention of Peregrine or Juliana.”
They looked at each other across the tossed papers, and suddenly Stramer exclaimed: “Some one has been here before us — just lately.”
Lady Jane stared, incredulous, and then followed the direction of his downward pointing hand.
“Do you wear flat heelless shoes?” he questioned.
“And of that size? Even my feet are too small to fit into those foot-prints. Luckily there wasn’t time to sweep the floor!”
Lady Jane felt a slight chill, a chill of a different and more inward quality than the shock of stuffy coldness which had met them as they entered the unaired attic set apart for the storing of the Thudeney archives.
“But how absurd! Of course when Mrs. Clemm found we were coming up she came — or sent some one — to open the shutters.”
“That’s not Mrs. Clemm’s foot, or the other woman’s. She must have sent a man — an old man with a shaky uncertain step. Look how it wanders.”
“Mr. Jones, then!” said Lady Jane, half impatiently.
“Mr. Jones. And he got what he wanted, and put it — where?”
“Ah, THAT—! I’m freezing, you know; let’s give this up for the present.” She rose, and Stramer followed her without protest; the muniment-room was really untenable.
“I must catalogue all this stuff some day, I suppose,” Lady Jane continued, as they went down the stairs. “But meanwhile, what do you say to a good tramp, to get the dust out of our lungs?”
He agreed, and turned back to his room to get some letters he wanted to post at Thudeney–Blazes.
Lady Jane went down alone. It was a fine afternoon, and the sun, which had made the dust-clouds of the muniment-room so dazzling, sent a long shaft through the west window of the blue parlour, and across the floor of the hall.
Certainly Georgiana kept the oak floors remarkably well; considering how much else she had to do, it was surp —
Lady Jane stopped as if an unseen hand had jerked her violently back. On the smooth parquet before her she had caught the trace of dusty foot-prints — the prints of broad-soled heelless shoes — making for the blue parlour and crossing its threshold. She stood still with the same inward shiver that she had felt upstairs; then, avoiding the foot-prints, she too stole very softly toward the blue parlour, pushed the door wider, and saw, in the long dazzle of autumn light, as if translucid, edged with the glitter, an old man at the desk.
A step came up behind her: Mrs. Clemm with the post-bag. “You called, my lady?”
“I . . . yes . . . ”
When she turned back to the desk there was no one there.
She faced about on the housekeeper. “Who was that?”
“Where, my lady?”
Lady Jane, without answering, moved toward the needlework curtain, in which she had detected the same faint tremor as before. “Where does that door go to — behind the curtain?”
“Nowhere, my lady. I mean; there is no door.”
Mrs. Clemm had followed; her step sounded quick and assured. She lifted up the curtain with a firm hand. Behind it was a rectangle of roughly plastered wall, where an opening had visibly been bricked up.
“When was that done?”
“The wall built up? I couldn’t say. I’ve never known it otherwise,” replied the housekeeper.
The two women stood for an instant measuring each other with level eyes; then the housekeeper’s were slowly lowered, and she let the curtain fall from her hand. “There are a great many things in old houses that nobody knows about,” she said.
“There shall be as few as possible in mine,” said Lady Jane.
“My lady!” The housekeeper stepped quickly in front of her. “My lady, what are you doing?” she gasped.
Lady Jane had turned back to the desk at which she had just seen — or fancied she had seen — the bending figure of Mr. Jones.
“I am going to look through these drawers,” she said.
The housekeeper still stood in pale immobility between her and the desk. “No, my lady — no. You won’t do that.”
Mrs. Clemm crumpled up her black silk apron with a despairing gesture. “Because — if you WILL have it — that’s where Mr. Jones keeps his private papers. I know he’d oughtn’t to . . . ”
“Ah — then it was Mr. Jones I saw here?”
The housekeeper’s arms sank to her sides and her mouth hung open on an unspoken word. “You SAW him.” The question came out in a confused whisper; and before Lady Jane could answer, Mrs. Clemm’s arms rose again, stretched before her face as if to fend off a blaze of intolerable light, or some forbidden sight she had long since disciplined herself not to see. Thus screening her eyes she hurried across the hall to the door of the servant’s wing.
Lady Jane stood for a moment looking after her; then, with a slightly shaking hand, she opened the desk and hurriedly took out from it all the papers — a small bundle — that it contained. With them she passed back into the saloon.
As she entered it her eye was caught by the portrait of the melancholy lady in the short-waisted gown, whom she and Stramer had christened “Also His Wife.” The lady’s eyes, usually so empty of all awareness save of her own frozen beauty, seemed suddenly waking to an anguished participation in the scene.
“Fudge!” muttered Lady Jane, shaking off the spectral suggestion as she turned to meet Stramer on the threshold.
The missing papers were all there. Stramer and she spread them out hurriedly on a table and at once proceeded to gloat over their find. Not a particularly important one, indeed; in the long history of the Lynkes and Crofts it took up hardly more space than the little handful of documents did, in actual bulk, among the stacks of the muniment room. But the fact that these papers filled a gap in the chronicles of the house, and situated the sad-faced beauty as veritably the wife of the Peregrine Vincent Theobald Lynke who had “perished of the plague at Aleppo in 1828” — this was a discovery sufficiently exciting to whet amateur appetites, and to put out of Lady Jane’s mind the strange incident which had attended the opening of the cabinet.
For a while she and Stramer sat silently and methodically going through their respective piles of correspondence; but presently Lady Jane, after glancing over one of the yellowing pages, uttered a startled exclamation.
“How strange! Mr. Jones again — always Mr. Jones!”
Stramer looked up from the papers he was sorting. “You too? I’ve got a lot of letters here addressed to a Mr. Jones by Peregrine Vincent, who seems to have been always disporting himself abroad, and chronically in want of money. Gambling debts, apparently . . . ah and women . . . a dirty record altogether . . . ”
“Yes? My letter is not written to a Mr. Jones; but it’s about one. Listen.” Lady Jane began to read. “‘Bells, February 20th, 1826 . . . ’ (It’s from poor ‘Also His Wife’ to her husband.) ‘My dear Lord, Acknowledging as I ever do the burden of the sad impediment which denies me the happiness of being more frequently in your company, I yet fail to conceive how anything in my state obliges that close seclusion in which Mr. Jones persists — and by your express orders, so he declares — in confining me. Surely, my lord, had you found it possible to spend more time with me since the day of our marriage, you would yourself have seen it to be unnecessary to put this restraint upon me. It is true, alas, that my unhappy infirmity denies me the happiness to speak with you, or to hear the accents of the voice I should love above all others could it but reach me; but, my dear husband, I would have you consider that my mind is in no way affected by this obstacle, but goes out to you, as my heart does, in a perpetual eagerness of attention, and that to sit in this great house alone, day after day, month after month, deprived of your company, and debarred also from any intercourse but that of the servants you have chosen to put about me, is a fate more cruel than I deserve and more painful than I can bear. I have entreated Mr. Jones, since he seems all-powerful with you, to represent this to you, and to transmit this my last request — for should I fail I am resolved to make no other — that you should consent to my making the acquaintance of a few of your friends and neighbours, among whom I cannot but think there must be some kind hearts that would take pity on my unhappy situation, and afford me such companionship as would give me more courage to bear your continual absence . . . ”
Lady Jane folded up the letter. “Deaf and dumb — ah, poor creature! That explains the look — ”
“And this explains the marriage,” Stramer continued, unfolding a stiff parchment document. “Here are the Viscountess Thudeney’s marriage settlements. She appears to have been a Miss Portallo, daughter of Obadiah Portallo Esquire, of Purflew Castle, Caermarthenshire, and Bombay House, Twickenham, East India merchant, senior member of the banking house of Portallo and Prest — and so on and so on. And the figures run up into hundreds of thousands.”
“It’s rather ghastly — putting the two things together. All the millions and — imprisonment in the blue parlour. I suppose her Viscount had to have the money, and was ashamed to have it known how he had got it . . . ” Lady Jane shivered. “Think of it — day after day, winter after winter, year after year . . . speechless, soundless, alone . . . under Mr. Jones’s guardianship. Let me see: what year were they married?”
“And only a year later that portrait was painted. And she had the frozen look already.”
Stramer mused: “Yes; it’s grim enough. But the strangest figure in the whole case is still — Mr. Jones.”
“Mr. Jones — yes. Her keeper,” Lady Jane mused “I suppose he must have been this one’s ancestor. The office seems to have been hereditary at Bells.”
“Well — I don’t know.”
Stramer’s voice was so odd that Lady Jane looked up at him with a stare of surprise. “What if it were the same one?” suggested Stramer with a queer smile.
“The same?” Lady Jane laughed. “You’re not good at figures are you? If poor Lady Thudeney’s Mr. Jones were alive now he’d be — ”
“I didn’t say ours was alive now,” said Stramer.
“Oh — why, what . . .?” she faltered.
But Stramer did not answer; his eyes had been arrested by the precipitate opening of the door behind his hostess, and the entry of Georgiana, a livid, dishevelled Georgiana, more than usually bereft of her faculties, and gasping out something inarticulate.
“Oh, my lady — it’s my aunt — she won’t answer me,” Georgiana stammered in a voice of terror.
Lady Jane uttered an impatient exclamation. “Answer you? Why — what do you want her to answer?”
“Only whether she’s alive, my lady,” said Georgiana with streaming eyes.
Lady Jane continued to look at her severely. “Alive? Alive? Why on earth shouldn’t she be?”
“She might as well be dead — by the way she just lies there.”
“Your aunt dead? I saw her alive enough in the blue parlour half an hour ago,” Lady Jane returned. She was growing rather blase with regard to Georgiana’s panics; but suddenly she felt this to be of a different nature from any of the others. “Where is it your aunt’s lying?”
“In her own bedroom, on her bed,” the other wailed, “and won’t say why.”
Lady Jane got to her feet, pushing aside the heaped-up papers, and hastening to the door with Stramer in her wake.
As they went up the stairs she realized that she had seen the housekeeper’s bedroom only once, on the day of her first obligatory round of inspection, when she had taken possession of Bells. She did not even remember very clearly where it was, but followed Georgiana down the passage and through a door which communicated, rather surprisingly, with a narrow walled-in staircase that was unfamiliar to her. At its top she and Stramer found themselves on a small landing upon which two doors opened. Through the confusion of her mind Lady Jane noticed that these rooms, with their special staircase leading down to what had always been called his lordship’s suite, must obviously have been occupied by his lordship’s confidential servants. In one of them, presumably, had been lodged the original Mr. Jones, the Mr. Jones of the yellow letters, the letters purloined by Lady Jane. As she crossed the threshold, Lady Jane remembered the housekeeper’s attempt to prevent her touching the contents of the desk.
Mrs. Clemm’s room, like herself, was neat, glossy and extremely cold. Only Mrs. Clemm herself was no longer like Mrs. Clemm. The red-apple glaze had barely faded from her cheeks, and not a lock was disarranged in the unnatural lustre of her false front; even her cap ribbons hung symmetrically along either cheek. But death had happened to her, and had made her into someone else. At first glance it was impossible to say if the unspeakable horror in her wide-open eyes were only the reflection of that change, or of the agent by whom it had come. Lady Jane, shuddering, paused a moment while Stramer went up to the bed.
“Her hand is warm still — but no pulse.” He glanced about the room. “A glass anywhere?” The cowering Georgiana took a hand-glass from the neat chest of drawers, and Stramer held it over the housekeeper’s drawn-back lip . . .
“She’s dead,” he pronounced.
“Oh, poor thing! But how —?” Lady Jane drew near, and was kneeling down, taking the inanimate hand in hers, when Stramer touched her on the arm, then silently raised a finger of warning. Georgiana was crouching in the farther corner of the room, her face buried in her lifted arms.
“Look here,” Stramer whispered. He pointed to Mrs. Clemm’s throat, and Lady Jane, bending over, distinctly saw a circle of red marks on it — the marks of recent bruises. She looked again into the awful eyes.
“She’s been strangled,” Stramer whispered.
Lady Jane, with a shiver of fear, drew down the housekeeper’s lids. Goergiana, her face hidden, was still sobbing convulsively in the corner. There seemed, in the air of the cold orderly room, something that forbade wonderment and silenced conjecture. Lady Jane and Stramer stood and looked at each other without speaking. At length Stramer crossed over to Georgiana, and touched her on the shoulder. She appeared unaware of the touch, and he grasped her shoulder and shook it. “Where is Mr. Jones?” he asked.
The girl looked up, her face blurred and distorted with weeping, her eyes dilated as if with the vision of some latent terror. “Oh, sir, she’s not really dead, is she?”
Stramer repeated his question in a loud authoritative tone; and slowly she echoed it in a scarce-heard whisper. “Mr. Jones —?”
“Get up, my girl, and send him here to us at once, or tell us where to find him.”
Georgiana, moved by the old habit of obedience, struggled to her feet and stood unsteadily, her heaving shoulders braced against the wall. Stramer asked her sharply if she had not heard what he had said.
“Oh, poor thing, she’s so upset — ” Lady Jane intervened compassionately. “Tell me, Georgiana: where shall we find Mr. Jones?”
The girl turned to her with eyes as fixed as the dead woman’s. “You won’t find him a anywhere,” she slowly said.
“Because he’s not here.”
“Not here? Where is he, then?” Stramer broke in.
Georgiana did not seem to notice the interruption. She continued to stare at Lady Jane with Mrs. Clemm’s awful eyes. “He’s in his grave in the church-yard — these years and years he is. Long before ever I was born . . . my aunt hadn’t ever seen him herself, not since she was a tiny child . . . That’s the terror of it . . . that’s why she always had to do what he told her to . . . because you couldn’t ever answer him back . . . ” Her horrified gaze turned from Lady Jane to the stony face and fast-glazing pupils of the dead woman. “You hadn’t ought to have meddled with his papers, my lady . . . That’s what he’s punished her for . . . When it came to those papers he wouldn’t ever listen to human reason . . . he wouldn’t . . . ” Then, flinging her arms above her head, Georgiana straightened herself to her full height before falling in a swoon at Stramer’s feet.
It was clear that the sleigh from Weymore had not come; and the shivering young traveller from Boston, who had counted on jumping into it when he left the train at Northridge Junction, found himself standing alone on the open platform, exposed to the full assault of night-fall and winter.
The blast that swept him came off New Hampshire snow-fields and ice-hung forests. It seemed to have traversed interminable leagues of frozen silence, filling them with the same cold roar and sharpening its edge against the same bitter black-and-white landscape. Dark, searching and sword-like, it alternately muffled and harried its victim, like a bull-fighter now whirling his cloak and now planting his darts. This analogy brought home to the young man the fact that he himself had no cloak, and that the overcoat in which he had faced the relatively temperate air of Boston seemed no thicker than a sheet of paper on the bleak heights of Northridge. George Faxon said to himself that the place was uncommonly well-named. It clung to an exposed ledge over the valley from which the train had lifted him, and the wind combed it with teeth of steel that he seemed actually to hear scraping against the wooden sides of the station. Other building there was none: the village lay far down the road, and thither—since the Weymore sleigh had not come—Faxon saw himself under the necessity of plodding through several feet of snow.
He understood well enough what had happened: his hostess had forgotten that he was coming. Young as Faxon was, this sad lucidity of soul had been acquired as the result of long experience, and he knew that the visitors who can least afford to hire a carriage are almost always those whom their hosts forget to send for. Yet to say that Mrs. Culme had forgotten him was too crude a way of putting it Similar incidents led him to think that she had probably told her maid to tell the butler to telephone the coachman to tell one of the grooms (if no one else needed him) to drive over to Northridge to fetch the new secretary; but on a night like this, what groom who respected his rights would fail to forget the order?
Faxon’s obvious course was to struggle through the drifts to the village, and there rout out a sleigh to convey him to Weymore; but what if, on his arrival at Mrs. Culme’s, no one remembered to ask him what this devotion to duty had cost? That, again, was one of the contingencies he had expensively learned to look out for, and the perspicacity so acquired told him it would be cheaper to spend the night at the Northridge inn, and advise Mrs. Culme of his presence there by telephone. He had reached this decision, and was about to entrust his luggage to a vague man with a lantern, when his hopes were raised by the sound of bells.
Two sleighs were just dashing up to the station, and from the foremost there sprang a young man muffled in furs.
“Weymore?—No, these are not the Weymore sleighs.”
The voice was that of the youth who had jumped to the platform—a voice so agreeable that, in spite of the words, it fell consolingly on Faxon’s ears. At the same moment the wandering station-lantern, casting a transient light on the speaker, showed his features to be in the pleasantest harmony with his voice. He was very fair and very young—hardly in the twenties, Faxon thought—but his face, though full of a morning freshness, was a trifle too thin and fine-drawn, as though a vivid spirit contended in him with a strain of physical weakness. Faxon was perhaps the quicker to notice such delicacies of balance because his own temperament hung on lightly quivering nerves, which yet, as he believed, would never quite swing him beyond a normal sensibility.
“You expected a sleigh from Weymore?” the newcomer continued, standing beside Faxon like a slender column of fur.
Mrs. Culme’s secretary explained his difficulty, and the other brushed it aside with a contemptuous “Oh, Mrs. Culme!” that carried both speakers a long way toward reciprocal understanding.
“But then you must be—” The youth broke off with a smile of interrogation.
“The new secretary? Yes. But apparently there are no notes to be answered this evening.” Faxon’s laugh deepened the sense of solidarity which had so promptly established itself between the two.
His friend laughed also. “Mrs. Culme,” he explained, “was lunching at my uncle’s to-day, and she said you were due this evening. But seven hours is a long time for Mrs. Culme to remember anything.”
“Well,” said Faxon philosophically, “I suppose that’s one of the reasons why she needs a secretary. And I’ve always the inn at Northridge,” he concluded.
“Oh, but you haven’t, though! It burned down last week.”
“The deuce it did!” said Faxon; but the humour of the situation struck him before its inconvenience. His life, for years past, had been mainly a succession of resigned adaptations, and he had learned, before dealing practically with his embarrassments, to extract from most of them a small tribute of amusement.
“Oh, well, there’s sure to be somebody in the place who can put me up.”
“No one you could put up with. Besides, Northridge is three miles off, and our place—in the opposite direction—is a little nearer.” Through the darkness, Faxon saw his friend sketch a gesture of self-introduction. “My name’s Frank Rainer, and I’m staying with my uncle at Overdale. I’ve driven over to meet two friends of his, who are due in a few minutes from New York. If you don’t mind waiting till they arrive I’m sure Overdale can do you better than Northridge. We’re only down from town for a few days, but the house is always ready for a lot of people.”
“But your uncle—?” Faxon could only object, with the odd sense, through his embarrassment, that it would be magically dispelled by his invisible friend’s next words.
“Oh, my uncle—you’ll see! I answer for him! I daresay you’ve heard of him—John Lavington?”
John Lavington! There was a certain irony in asking if one had heard of John Lavington! Even from a post of observation as obscure as that of Mrs. Culme’s secretary the rumour of John Lavington’s money, of his pictures, his politics, his charities and his hospitality, was as difficult to escape as the roar of a cataract in a mountain solitude. It might almost have been said that the one place in which one would not have expected to come upon him was in just such a solitude as now surrounded the speakers—at least in this deepest hour of its desertedness. But it was just like Lavington’s brilliant ubiquity to put one in the wrong even there.
“Oh, yes, I’ve heard of your uncle.”
“Then you will come, won’t you? We’ve only five minutes to wait.” young Rainer urged, in the tone that dispels scruples by ignoring them; and Faxon found himself accepting the invitation as simply as it was offered.
A delay in the arrival of the New York train lengthened their five minutes to fifteen; and as they paced the icy platform Faxon began to see why it had seemed the most natural thing in the world to accede to his new acquaintance’s suggestion. It was because Frank Rainer was one of the privileged beings who simplify human intercourse by the atmosphere of confidence and good humour they diffuse. He produced this effect, Faxon noted, by the exercise of no gift but his youth, and of no art but his sincerity; and these qualities were revealed in a smile of such sweetness that Faxon felt, as never before, what Nature can achieve when she deigns to match the face with the mind.
He learned that the young man was the ward, and the only nephew, of John Lavington, with whom he had made his home since the death of his mother, the great man’s sister. Mr. Lavington, Rainer said, had been “a regular brick” to him—”But then he is to every one, you know”—and the young fellow’s situation seemed in fact to be perfectly in keeping with his person. Apparently the only shade that had ever rested on him was cast by the physical weakness which Faxon had already detected. Young Rainer had been threatened with tuberculosis, and the disease was so far advanced that, according to the highest authorities, banishment to Arizona or New Mexico was inevitable. “But luckily my uncle didn’t pack me off, as most people would have done, without getting another opinion. Whose? Oh, an awfully clever chap, a young doctor with a lot of new ideas, who simply laughed at my being sent away, and said I’d do perfectly well in New York if I didn’t dine out too much, and if I dashed off occasionally to Northridge for a little fresh air. So it’s really my uncle’s doing that I’m not in exile—and I feel no end better since the new chap told me I needn’t bother.” Young Rainer went on to confess that he was extremely fond of dining out, dancing and similar distractions; and Faxon, listening to him, was inclined to think that the physician who had refused to cut him off altogether from these pleasures was probably a better psychologist than his seniors.
“All the same you ought to be careful, you know.” The sense of elder-brotherly concern that forced the words from Faxon made him, as he spoke, slip his arm through Frank Rainer ‘s.
The latter met the movement with a responsive pressure. “Oh, I am: awfully, awfully. And then my uncle has such an eye on me!”
“But if your uncle has such an eye on you, what does he say to your swallowing knives out here in this Siberian wild?”
Rainer raised his fur collar with a careless gesture. “It’s not that that does it—the cold’s good for me.”
“And it’s not the dinners and dances? What is it, then?” Faxon good-humouredly insisted; to which his companion answered with a laugh: “Well, my uncle says it’s being bored; and I rather think he’s right!”
His laugh ended in a spasm of coughing and a struggle for breath that made Faxon, still holding his arm, guide him hastily into the shelter of the fireless waitingroom.
Young Rainer had dropped down on the bench against the wall and pulled off one of his fur gloves to grope for a handkerchief. He tossed aside his cap and drew the handkerchief across his forehead, which was intensely white, and beaded with moisture, though his face retained a healthy glow. But Faxon’s gaze remained fastened to the hand he had uncovered: it was so long, so colourless, so wasted, so much older than the brow he passed it over.
“It’s queer—a healthy face but dying hands,” the secretary mused: he somehow wished young Rainer had kept on his glove.
The whistle of the express drew the young men to their feet, and the next moment two heavily-furred gentlemen had descended to the platform and were breasting the rigour of the night. Frank Rainer introduced them as Mr. Grisben and Mr. Balch, and Faxon, while their luggage was being lifted into the second sleigh, discerned them, by the roving lantern-gleam, to be an elderly greyheaded pair, of the average prosperous business cut.
They saluted their host’s nephew with friendly familiarity, and Mr. Grisben, who seemed the spokesman of the two, ended his greeting with a genial—”and many many more of them, dear boy!” which suggested to Faxon that their arrival coincided with an anniversary. But he could not press the enquiry, for the seat allotted him was at the coachman’s side, while Frank Rainer joined his uncle’s guests inside the sleigh.
A swift flight (behind such horses as one could be sure of John Lavington’s having) brought them to tall gateposts, an illuminated lodge, and an avenue on which the snow had been levelled to the smoothness of marble. At the end of the avenue the long house loomed up, its principal bulk dark, but one wing sending out a ray of welcome; and the next moment Faxon was receiving a violent impression of warmth and light, of hot-house plants, hurrying servants, a vast spectacular oak hall like a stage-setting, and, in its unreal middle distance, a small figure, correctly dressed, conventionally featured, and utterly unlike his rather florid conception of the great John Lavington.
The surprise of the contrast remained with him through his hurried dressing in the large luxurious bedroom to which he had been shown. “I don’t see where he comes in,” was the only way he could put it, so difficult was it to fit the exuberance of Lavington’s public personality into his host’s contracted frame and manner. Mr. Laving ton, to whom Faxon’s case had been rapidly explained by young Rainer, had welcomed him with a sort of dry and stilted cordiality that exactly matched his narrow face, his stiff hand, and the whiff of scent on his evening handkerchief. “Make yourself at home—at home!” he had repeated, in a tone that suggested, on his own part, a complete inability to perform the feat he urged on his visitor. “Any friend of Frank’s… delighted… make yourself thoroughly at home!”
In spite of the balmy temperature and complicated conveniences of Faxon’s bedroom, the injunction was not easy to obey. It was wonderful luck to have found a night’s shelter under the opulent roof of Overdale, and he tasted the physical satisfaction to the full. But the place, for all its ingenuities of comfort, was oddly cold and unwelcoming. He couldn’t have said why, and could only suppose that Mr. Lavington’s intense personality—intensely negative, but intense all the same—must, in some occult way, have penetrated every corner of his dwelling. Perhaps, though, it was merely that Faxon himself was tired and hungry, more deeply chilled than he had known till he came in from the cold, and unutterably sick of all strange houses, and of the prospect of perpetually treading other people’s stairs.
“I hope you’re not famished?” Rainer’s slim figure was in the doorway. “My uncle has a little business to attend to with Mr. Grisben, and we don’t dine for half an hour. Shall I fetch you, or can you find your way down? Come straight to the dining-room—the second door on the left of the long gallery.”
He disappeared, leaving a ray of warmth behind him, and Faxon, relieved, lit a cigarette and sat down by the fire.
Looking about with less haste, he was struck by a detail that had escaped him. The room was full of flowers—a mere “bachelor’s room,” in the wing of a house opened only for a few days, in the dead middle of a New Hampshire winter! Flowers were everywhere, not in senseless profusion, but placed with the same conscious art that he had remarked in the grouping of the blossoming shrubs in the hall. A vase of arums stood on the writing-table, a cluster of strange-hued carnations on the stand at his elbow, and from bowls of glass and porcelain clumps of freesia-bulbs diffused their melting fragrance. The fact implied acres of glass—but that was the least interesting part of it. The flowers themselves, their quality, selection and arrangement, attested on some one’s part—and on whose but John Lavington’s?—a solicitous and sensitive passion for that particular form of beauty. Well, it simply made the man, as he had appeared to Faxon, all the harder to understand!
The half-hour elapsed, and Faxon, rejoicing at the prospect of food, set out to make his way to the dining-room. He had not noticed the direction he had followed in going to his room, and was puzzled, when he left it, to find that two staircases, of apparently equal importance, invited him. He chose the one to his right, and reached, at its foot, a long gallery such as Rainer had described. The gallery was empty, the doors down its length were closed; but Rainer had said: “The second to the left,” and Faxon, after pausing for some chance enlightenment which did not come, laid his hand on the second knob to the left.
The room he entered was square, with dusky picture-hung walls. In its centre, about a table lit by veiled lamps, he fancied Mr. Lavington and his guests to be already seated at dinner; then he perceived that the table was covered not with viands but with papers, and that he had blundered into what seemed to be his host’s study. As he paused Frank Rainer looked up.
“Oh, here’s Mr. Faxon. Why not ask him—?”
Mr. Lavington, from the end of the table, reflected his nephew’s smile in a glance of impartial benevolence.
“Certainly. Come in, Mr. Faxon. If you won’t think it a liberty—”
Mr. Grisben, who sat opposite his host, turned his head toward the door. “Of course Mr. Faxon’s an American citizen?”
Frank Rainer laughed. “That’s all right!… Oh, no, not one of your pin-pointed pens, Uncle Jack! Haven’t you got a quill somewhere?”
Mr. Balch, who spoke slowly and as if reluctantly, in a muffled voice of which there seemed to be very little left, raised his hand to say: “One moment: you acknowledge this to be—?”
“My last will and testament?” Rainer’s laugh redoubled. “Well, I won’t answer for the ‘last.’ It’s the first, anyway.”
“It’s a mere formula,” Mr. Balch explained.
“Well, here goes.” Rainer dipped his quill in the inkstand his uncle had pushed in his direction, and dashed a gallant signature across the document.
Faxon, understanding what was expected of him, and conjecturing that the young man was signing his will on the attainment of his majority, had placed himself behind Mr. Grisben, and stood awaiting his turn to affix his name to the instrument. Rainer, having signed, was about to push the paper across the table to Mr. Balch; but the latter, again raising his hand, said in his sad imprisoned voice: “The seal—?”
“Oh, does there have to be a seal?”
Faxon, looking over Mr. Grisben at John Lavington, saw a faint frown between his impassive eyes. “Really, Frank!” He seemed, Faxon thought, slightly irritated by his nephew’s frivolity.
“Who’s got a seal?” Frank Rainer continued, glancing about the table. “There doesn’t seem to be one here.”
Mr. Grisben interposed. “A wafer will do. Lavington, you have a wafer?”
Mr. Lavington had recovered his serenity. “There must be some in one of the drawers. But I’m ashamed to say I don’t know where my secretary keeps these things. He ought to have seen to it that a wafer was sent with the document.”
“Oh, hang it—” Frank Rainer pushed the paper aside: “It’s the hand of God—and I’m as hungry as a wolf. Let’s dine first, Uncle Jack.”
“I think I’ve a seal upstairs,” said Faxon.
Mr. Lavington sent him a barely perceptible smile. “So sorry to give you the trouble—”
“Oh, I say, don’t send him after it now. Let’s wait till after dinner!”
Mr. Lavington continued to smile on his guest, and the latter, as if under the faint coercion of the smile, turned from the room and ran upstairs. Having taken the seal from his writing-case he came down again, and once more opened the door of the study. No one was speaking when he entered—they were evidently awaiting his return with the mute impatience of hunger, and he put the seal in Rainer’s reach, and stood watching while Mr. Grisben struck a match and held it to one of the candles flanking the inkstand. As the wax descended on the paper Faxon remarked again the strange emaciation, the premature physical weariness, of the hand that held it: he wondered if Mr. Lavington had ever noticed his nephew’s hand, and if it were not poignantly visible to him now.
With this thought in his mind, Faxon raised his eyes to look at Mr. Lavington. The great man’s gaze rested on Frank Rainer with an expression of untroubled benevolence; and at the same instant Faxon’s attention was attracted by the presence in the room of another person, who must have joined the group while he was upstairs searching for the seal. The new-comer was a man of about Mr. Lavington’s age and figure, who stood just behind his chair, and who, at the moment when Faxon first saw him, was gazing at young Rainer with an equal intensity of attention. The likeness between the two men—perhaps increased by the fact that the hooded lamps on the table left the figure behind the chair in shadow—struck Faxon the more because of the contrast in their expression. John Lavington, during his nephew’s clumsy attempt to drop the wax and apply the seal, continued to fasten on him a look of half-amused affection; while the man behind the chair, so oddly reduplicating the lines of his features and figure, turned on the boy a face of pale hostility.
The impression was so startling that Faxon forgot what was going on about him. He was just dimly aware of young Reiner’s exclaiming; “Your turn, Mr. Grisben!” of Mr. Grisben’s protesting: “No—no; Mr. Faxon first,” and of the pen’s being thereupon transferred to his own hand. He received it with a deadly sense of being unable to move, or even to understand what was expected of him, till he became conscious of Mr. Grisben’s paternally pointing out the precise spot on which he was to leave his autograph. The effort to fix his attention and steady his hand prolonged the process of signing, and when he stood up—a strange weight of fatigue on all his limbs—the figure behind Mr. Lavington’s chair was gone.
Faxon felt an immediate sense of relief. It was puzzling that the man’s exit should have been so rapid and noiseless, but the door behind Mr. Lavington was screened by a tapestry hanging, and Faxon concluded that the unknown looker-on had merely had to raise it to pass out. At any rate he was gone, and with his withdrawal the strange weight was lifted. Young Rainer was lighting a cigarette, Mr. Balch inscribing his name at the foot of the document, Mr. Lavington—his eyes no longer on his nephew—examining a strange white-winged orchid in the vase at his elbow. Every thing suddenly seemed to have grown natural and simple again, and Faxon found himself responding with a smile to the affable gesture with which his host declared: “And now, Mr. Faxon, we’ll dine.”
“I wonder how I blundered into the wrong room just now; I thought you told me to take the second door to the left,” Faxon said to Frank Rainer as they followed the older men down the gallery.
“So I did; but I probably forgot to tell you which staircase to take. Coming from your bedroom, I ought to have said the fourth door to the right. It’s a puzzling house, because my uncle keeps adding to it from year to year. He built this room last summer for his modern pictures.”
Young Rainer, pausing to open another door, touched an electric button which sent a circle of light about the walls of a long room hung with canvases of the French impressionist school.
Faxon advanced, attracted by a shimmering Monet, but Rainer laid a hand on his arm.
“He bought that last week. But come along—I’ll show you all this after dinner. Or he will, rather—he loves it.”
“Does he really love things?”
Rainer stared, clearly perplexed at the question. “Rather! Flowers and pictures especially! Haven’t you noticed the flowers? I suppose you think his manner’s cold; it seems so at first; but he’s really awfully keen about things.”
Faxon looked quickly at the speaker. “Has your uncle a brother?”
“Brother? No—never had. He and my mother were the only ones.”
“Or any relation who—who looks like him? Who might be mistaken for him?”
“Not that I ever heard of. Does he remind you of some one?”
“That’s queer. We’ll ask him if he’s got a double. Come on!”
But another picture had arrested Faxon, and some minutes elapsed before he and his young host reached the dining-room. It was a large room, with the same conventionally handsome furniture and delicately grouped flowers; and Faxon’s first glance showed him that only three men were seated about the dining-table. The man who had stood behind Mr. Lavington’s chair was not present, and no seat awaited him.
When the young men entered, Mr. Grisben was speaking, and his host, who faced the door, sat looking down at his untouched soup-plate and turning the spoon about in his small dry hand.
“It’s pretty late to call them rumours—they were devilish close to facts when we left town this morning,” Mr. Grisben was saying, with an unexpected incisiveness of tone.
Mr. Lavington laid down his spoon and smiled interrogatively. “Oh, facts—what are facts? Just the way a thing happens to look at a given minute….”
“You haven’t heard anything from town?” Mr. Grisben persisted.
“Not a syllable. So you see…. Balch, a little more of that petite marmite. Mr. Faxon… between Frank and Mr. Grisben, please.”
The dinner progressed through a series of complicated courses, ceremoniously dispensed by a prelatical butler attended by three tall footmen, and it was evident that Mr. Lavington took a certain satisfaction in the pageant. That, Faxon reflected, was probably the joint in his armour—that and the flowers. He had changed the subject—not abruptly but firmly—when the young men entered, but Faxon perceived that it still possessed the thoughts of the two elderly visitors, and Mr. Balch presently observed, in a voice that seemed to come from the last survivor down a mine-shaft: “If it does come, it will be the biggest crash since ’93.”
Mr. Lavington looked bored but polite. “Wall Street can stand crashes better than it could then. It’s got a robuster constitution.”
“Speaking of constitutions,” Mr. Grisben intervened: “Frank, are you taking care of yourself?”
A flush rose to young Rainer’s cheeks.
“Why, of course! Isn’t that what I’m here for?”
“You’re here about three days in the month, aren’t you? And the rest of the time it’s crowded restaurants and hot ballrooms in town. I thought you were to be shipped off to New Mexico?”
“Oh, I’ve got a new man who says that’s rot.”
“Well, you don’t look as if your new man were right,” said Mr. Grisben bluntly.
Faxon saw the lad’s colour fade, and the rings of shadow deepen under his gay eyes. At the same moment his uncle turned to him with a renewed intensity of attention. There was such solicitude in Mr. Lavington’s gaze that it seemed almost to fling a shield between his nephew and Mr. Grisben’s tactless scrutiny.
“We think Frank’s a good deal better,” he began; “this new doctor—”
The butler, coming up, bent to whisper a word in his ear, and the communication caused a sudden change in Mr. Lavington’s expression. His face was naturally so colourless that it seemed not so much to pale as to fade, to dwindle and recede into something blurred and blotted-out. He half rose, sat down again and sent a rigid smile about the table.
“Will you excuse me? The telephone. Peters, go on with the dinner.” With small precise steps he walked out of the door which one of the footmen had thrown open.
A momentary silence fell on the group; then Mr. Grisben once more addressed himself to Rainer. “You ought to have gone, my boy; you ought to have gone.”
The anxious look returned to the youth’s eyes. “My uncle doesn’t think so, really.”
“You’re not a baby, to be always governed by your uncle’s opinion. You came of age to-day, didn’t you? Your uncle spoils you…. that’s what’s the matter….”
The thrust evidently went home, for Rainer laughed and looked down with a slight accession of colour.
“But the doctor—”
“Use your common sense, Frank! You had to try twenty doctors to find one to tell you what you wanted to be told.”
A look of apprehension overshadowed Rainer’, gaiety. “Oh, come—I say!… What would you do?” he stammered.
“Pack up and jump on the first train.” Mr. Grisben leaned forward and laid his hand kindly on the young man’s arm. “Look here: my nephew Jim Grisben is out there ranching on a big scale. He’ll take you in and be glad to have you. You say your new doctor thinks it won’t do you any good; but he doesn’t pretend to say it will do you harm, does he? Well, then—give it a trial. It’ll take you out of hot theatres and night restaurants, anyhow…. And all the rest of it…. Eh, Balch?”
“Go!” said Mr. Balch hollowly. “Go at once,” he added, as if a closer look at the youth’s face had impressed on him the need of backing up his friend.
Young Rainer had turned ashy-pale. He tried to stiffen his mouth into a smile. “Do I look as bad as all that?”
Mr. Grisben was helping himself to terrapin. “You look like the day after an earthquake,” he said.
The terrapin had encircled the table, and been deliberately enjoyed by Mr. Lavington’s three visitors (Rainer, Faxon noticed, left his plate untouched) before the door was thrown open to re-admit their host. Mr. Lavington advanced with an air of recovered composure. He seated himself, picked up his napkin and consulted the gold-monogrammed menu. “No, don’t bring back the filet…. Some terrapin; yes….” He looked affably about the table. “Sorry to have deserted you, but the storm has played the deuce with the wires, and I had to wait a long time before I could get a good connection. It must be blowing up for a blizzard.”
“Uncle Jack,” young Rainer broke out, “Mr. Grisben’s been lecturing me.”
Mr. Lavington was helping himself to terrapin. “Ah—what about?”
“He thinks I ought to have given New Mexico a show.”
“I want him to go straight out to my nephew at Santa Paz and stay there till his next birthday.” Mr. Lavington signed to the butler to hand the terrapin to Mr. Grisben, who, as he took a second helping, addressed himself again to Rainer. “Jim’s in New York now, and going back the day after tomorrow in Olyphant’s private car. I’ll ask Olyphant to squeeze you in if you’ll go. And when you’ve been out there a week or two, in the saddle all day and sleeping nine hours a night, I suspect you won’t think much of the doctor who prescribed New York.”
Faxon spoke up, he knew not why. “I was out there once: it’s a splendid life. I saw a fellow—oh, a really bad case—who’d been simply made over by it.”
“It does sound jolly,” Rainer laughed, a sudden eagerness in his tone.
His uncle looked at him gently. “Perhaps Grisben’s right. It’s an opportunity—”
Faxon glanced up with a start: the figure dimly perceived in the study was now more visibly and tangibly planted behind Mr. Lavington’s chair.
“That’s right, Frank: you see your uncle approves. And the trip out there with Olyphant isn’t a thing to be missed. So drop a few dozen dinners and be at the Grand Central the day after tomorrow at five.”
Mr. Grisben’s pleasant grey eye sought corroboration of his host, and Faxon, in a cold anguish of suspense, continued to watch him as he turned his glance on Mr. Lavington. One could not look at Lavington without seeing the presence at his back, and it was clear that, the next minute, some change in Mr. Grisben’s expression must give his watcher a clue.
But Mr. Grisben’s expression did not change: the gaze he fixed on his host remained unperturbed, and the clue he gave was the startling one of not seeming to see the other figure.
Faxon’s first impulse was to look away, to look anywhere else, to resort again to the champagne glass the watchful butler had already brimmed; but some fatal attraction, at war in him with an overwhelming physical resistance, held his eyes upon the spot they feared.
The figure was still standing, more distinctly, and therefore more resemblingly, at Mr. Lavington’s back; and while the latter continued to gaze affectionately at his nephew, his counterpart, as before, fixed young Rainer with eyes of deadly menace.
Faxon, with what felt like an actual wrench of the muscles, dragged his own eyes from the sight to scan the other countenances about the table; but not one revealed the least consciousness of what he saw, and a sense of mortal isolation sank upon him.
“It’s worth considering, certainly—” he heard Mr. Lavington continue; and as Rainer’s face lit up, the face behind his uncle’s chair seemed to gather into its look all the fierce weariness of old unsatisfied hates. That was the thing that, as the minutes laboured by, Faxon was becoming most conscious of. The watcher behind the chair was no longer merely malevolent: he had grown suddenly, unutterably tired. His hatred seemed to well up out of the very depths of balked effort and thwarted hopes, and the fact made him more pitiable, and yet more dire.
Faxon’s look reverted to Mr. Lavington, as if to surprise in him a corresponding change. At first none was visible: his pinched smile was screwed to his blank face like a gas-light to a white-washed wall. Then the fixity of the smile became ominous: Faxon saw that its wearer was afraid to let it go. It was evident that Mr. Lavington was unutterably tired too, and the discovery sent a colder current through Faxon’s veins. Looking down at his untouched plate, he caught the soliciting twinkle of the champagne glass; but the sight of the wine turned him sick.
“Well, we’ll go into the details presently,” he heard Mr. Lavington say, still on the question of his nephew’s future. “Let’s have a cigar first. No—not here, Peters.” He turned his smile on Faxon. “When we’ve had coffee I want to show you my pictures.”
“Oh, by the way, Uncle Jack—Mr. Faxon wants to know if you’ve got a double?”
“A double?” Mr. Lavington, still smiling, continued to address himself to his guest. “Not that I know of. Have you seen one, Mr. Faxon?”
Faxon thought: “My God, if I look up now they’ll both be looking at me!” To avoid raising his eyes he made as though to lift the glass to his lips; but his hand sank inert, and he looked up. Mr. Lavington’s glance was politely bent on him, but with a loosening of the strain about his heart he saw that the figure behind the chair still kept its gaze on Rainer.
“Do you think you’ve seen my double, Mr. Faxon?”
Would the other face turn if he said yes? Faxon felt a dryness in his throat. “No,” he answered.
“Ah? It’s possible I’ve a dozen. I believe I’m extremely usual-looking,” Mr. Lavington went on conversationally; and still the other face watched Rainer.
“It was… a mistake… a confusion of memory….” Faxon heard himself stammer. Mr. Lavington pushed back his chair, and as he did so Mr. Grisben suddenly leaned forward.
“Lavington! What have, we been thinking of? We haven’t drunk Frank’s health!”
Mr. Lavington reseated himself. “My dear boy!… Peters, another bottle….” He turned to his nephew. “After such a sin of omission I don’t presume to propose the toast myself… but Frank knows…. Go ahead, Grisben!”
The boy shone on his uncle. “No, no, Uncle Jack! Mr. Grisben won’t mind. Nobody but you—today!”
The butler was replenishing the glasses. He filled Mr. Lavington’s last, and Mr. Lavington put out his small hand to raise it…. As he did so, Faxon looked away.
“Well, then—All the good I’ve wished you in all the past years…. I put it into the prayer that the coming ones may be healthy and happy and many… and many, dear boy!”
Faxon saw the hands about him reach out for their glasses. Automatically, he reached for his. His eyes were still on the table, and he repeated to himself with a trembling vehemence: “I won’t look up! I won’t…. I won’t….”
His finders clasped the glass and raised it to the level of his lips. He saw the other hands making the same motion. He heard Mr. Grisben’s genial “Hear! Hear!” and Mr. Batch’s hollow echo. He said to himself, as the rim of the glass touched his lips: “I won’t look up! I swear I won’t!—” and he looked.
The glass was so full that it required an extraordinary effort to hold it there, brimming and suspended, during the awful interval before he could trust his hand to lower it again, untouched, to the table. It was this merciful preoccupation which saved him, kept him from crying out, from losing his hold, from slipping down into the bottomless blackness that gaped for him. As long as the problem of the glass engaged him he felt able to keep his seat, manage his muscles, fit unnoticeably into the group; but as the glass touched the table his last link with safety snapped. He stood up and dashed out of the room.
In the gallery, the instinct of self-preservation helped him to turn back and sign to young Rainer not to follow. He stammered out something about a touch of dizziness, and joining them presently; and the boy nodded sympathetically and drew back.
At the foot of the stairs Faxon ran against a servant. “I should like to telephone to Weymore,” he said with dry lips.
“Sorry, sir; wires all down. We’ve been trying the last hour to get New York again for Mr. Lavington.”
Faxon shot on to his room, burst into it, and bolted the door. The lamplight lay on furniture, flowers, books; in the ashes a log still glimmered. He dropped down on the sofa and hid his face. The room was profoundly silent, the whole house was still: nothing about him gave a hint of what was going on, darkly and dumbly, in the room he had flown from, and with the covering of his eyes oblivion and reassurance seemed to fall on him. But they fell for a moment only; then his lids opened again to the monstrous vision. There it was, stamped on his pupils, a part of him forever, an indelible horror burnt into his body and brain. But why into his—just his? Why had he alone been chosen to see what he had seen? What business was it of his, in God’s name? Any one of the others, thus enlightened, might have exposed the horror and defeated it; but he, the one weaponless and defenceless spectator, the one whom none of the others would believe or understand if he attempted to reveal what he knew—he alone had been singled out as the victim of this dreadful initiation!
Suddenly he sat up, listening: he had heard a step on the stairs. Some one, no doubt, was coming to see how he was—to urge him, if he felt better, to go down and join the smokers. Cautiously he opened his door; yes, it was young Rainer’s step. Faxon looked down the passage, remembered the other stairway and darted to it. All he wanted was to get out of the house. Not another instant would he breathe its abominable air! What business was it of his, in God’s name?
He reached the opposite end of the lower gallery, and beyond it saw the hall by which he had entered. It was empty, and on a long table he recognized his coat and cap. He got into his coat, unbolted the door, and plunged into the purifying night.
The darkness was deep, and the cold so intense that for an instant it stopped his breathing. Then he perceived that only a thin snow was falling, and resolutely he set his face for flight. The trees along the avenue marked his way as he hastened with long strides over the beaten snow. Gradually, while he walked, the tumult in his brain subsided. The impulse to fly still drove him forward, but he began feel that he was flying from a terror of his own creating, and that the most urgent reason for escape was the need of hiding his state, of shunning other eyes till he should regain his balance.
He had spent the long hours in the train in fruitless broodings on a discouraging situation, and he remembered how his bitterness had turned to exasperation when he found that the Weymore sleigh was not awaiting him. It was absurd, of course; but, though he had joked with Rainer over Mrs. Culme’s forgetfulness, to confess it had cost a pang. That was what his rootless life had brought him to: for lack of a personal stake in things his sensibility was at the mercy of such trifles…. Yes; that, and the cold and fatigue, the absence of hope and the haunting sense of starved aptitudes, all these had brought him to the perilous verge over which, once or twice before, his terrified brain had hung.
Why else, in the name of any imaginable logic, human or devilish, should he, a stranger, be singled out for this experience? What could it mean to him, how was he related to it, what bearing had it on his case?… Unless, indeed, it was just because he was a stranger—a stranger everywhere—because he had no personal life, no warm screen of private egotisms to shield him from exposure, that he had developed this abnormal sensitiveness to the vicissitudes of others. The thought pulled him up with a shudder. No! Such a fate was too abominable; all that was strong and sound in him rejected it. A thousand times better regard himself as ill, disorganized, deluded, than as the predestined victim of such warnings!
He reached the gates and paused before the darkened lodge. The wind had risen and was sweeping the snow into his race. The cold had him in its grasp again, and he stood uncertain. Should he put his sanity to the test and go back? He turned and looked down the dark drive to the house. A single ray shone through the trees, evoking a picture of the lights, the flowers, the faces grouped about that fatal room. He turned and plunged out into the road….
He remembered that, about a mile from Overdale, the coachman had pointed out the road to Northridge; and he began to walk in that direction. Once in the road he had the gale in his face, and the wet snow on his moustache and eye-lashes instantly hardened to ice. The same ice seemed to be driving a million blades into his throat and lungs, but he pushed on, the vision of the warm room pursuing him.
The snow in the road was deep and uneven. He stumbled across ruts and sank into drifts, and the wind drove against him like a granite cliff. Now and then he stopped, gasping, as if an invisible hand had tightened an iron band about his body; then he started again, stiffening himself against the stealthy penetration of the cold. The snow continued to descend out of a pall of inscrutable darkness, and once or twice he paused, fearing he had missed the road to Northridge; but, seeing no sign of a turn, he ploughed on.
At last, feeling sure that he had walked for more than a mile, he halted and looked back. The act of turning brought immediate relief, first because it put his back to the wind, and then because, far down the road, it showed him the gleam of a lantern. A sleigh was coming—a sleigh that might perhaps give him a lift to the village! Fortified by the hope, he began to walk back toward the light. It came forward very slowly, with unaccountable sigsags and waverings; and even when he was within a few yards of it he could catch no sound of sleigh-bells. Then it paused and became stationary by the roadside, as though carried by a pedestrian who had stopped, exhausted by the cold. The thought made Faxon hasten on, and a moment later he was stooping over a motionless figure huddled against the snow-bank. The lantern had dropped from its bearer’s hand, and Faxon, fearfully raising it, threw its light into the face of Frank Rainer.
“Rainer! What on earth are you doing here?”
The boy smiled back through his pallour. “What are you, I’d like to know?” he retorted; and, scrambling to his feet with a clutch oh Faxon’s arm, he added gaily: “Well, I’ve run you down!”
Faxon stood confounded, his heart sinking. The lad’s face was grey.
“What madness—” he began.
“Yes, it is. What on earth did you do it for?”
“I? Do what?… Why I…. I was just taking a walk…. I often walk at night….”
Frank Rainer burst into a laugh. “On such nights? Then you hadn’t bolted?”
“Because I’d done something to offend you? My uncle thought you had.”
Faxon grasped his arm. “Did your uncle send you after me?”
“Well, he gave me an awful rowing for not going up to your room with you when you said you were ill. And when we found you’d gone we were frightened—and he was awfully upset—so I said I’d catch you…. You’re not ill, are you?”
“Ill? No. Never better.” Faxon picked up the lantern. “Come; let’s go back. It was awfully hot in that diningroom.”
“Yes; I hoped it was only that.”
They trudged on in silence for a few minutes; then Faxon questioned: “You’re not too done up?”
“Oh, no. It’s a lot easier with the wind behind us.”
“All right Don’t talk any more.”
They pushed ahead, walking, in spite of the light that guided them, more slowly than Faxon had walked alone into the gale. The fact of his companion’s stumbling against a drift gave Faxon a pretext for saying: “Take hold of my arm,” and Rainer obeying, gasped out: “I’m blown!”
“So am I. Who wouldn’t be?”
“What a dance you led me! If it hadn’t been for one of the servants happening to see you—”
“Yes; all right. And now, won’t you kindly shut up?”
Rainer laughed and hung on him. “Oh, the cold doesn’t hurt me….”
For the first few minutes after Rainer had overtaken him, anxiety for the lad had been Faxon’s only thought. But as each labouring step carried them nearer to the spot he had been fleeing, the reasons for his flight grew more ominous and more insistent. No, he was not ill, he was not distraught and deluded—he was the instrument singled out to warn and save; and here he was, irresistibly driven, dragging the victim back to his doom!
The intensity of the conviction had almost checked his steps. But what could he do or say? At all costs he must get Rainer out of the cold, into the house and into his bed. After that he would act.
The snow-fall was thickening, and as they reached a stretch of the road between open fields the wind took them at an angle, lashing their faces with barbed thongs. Rainer stopped to take breath, and Faxon felt the heavier pressure of his arm.
“When we get to the lodge, can’t we telephone to the stable for a sleigh?”
“If they’re not all asleep at the lodge.”
“Oh, I’ll manage. Don’t talk!” Faxon ordered; and they plodded on….
At length the lantern ray showed ruts that curved away from the road under tree-darkness.
Faxon’s spirits rose. “There’s the gate! We’ll be there in five minutes.”
As he spoke he caught, above the boundary hedge, the gleam of a light at the farther end of the dark avenue. It was the same light that had shone on the scene of which every detail was burnt into his brain; and he felt again its overpowering reality. No—he couldn’t let the boy go back!
They were at the lodge at last, and Faxon was hammering on the door. He said to himself: “I’ll get him inside first, and make them give him a hot drink. Then I’ll see—I’ll find an argument….”
There was no answer to his knocking, and after an interval Rainer said: “Look here—we’d better go on.”
“I can, perfectly—”
“You sha’n’t go to the house, I say!” Faxon redoubled his blows, and at length steps sounded on the stairs. Rainer was leaning against the lintel, and as the door opened the light from the hall flashed on his pale face and fixed eyes. Faxon caught him by the arm and drew him in.
“It was cold out there.” he sighed; and then, abruptly, as if invisible shears at a single stroke had cut every muscle in his body, he swerved, drooped on Faxon’s arm, and seemed to sink into nothing at his feet.
The lodge-keeper and Faxon bent over him, and somehow, between them, lifted him into the kitchen and laid him on a sofa by the stove.
The lodge-keeper, stammering: “I’ll ring up the house,” dashed out of the room. But Faxon heard the words without heeding them: omens mattered nothing now, beside this woe fulfilled. He knelt down to undo the fur collar about Rainer’s throat, and as he did so he felt a warm moisture on his hands. He held them up, and they were red….
The palms threaded their endless line along the yellow river. The little steamer lay at the wharf, and George Faxon, sitting in the verandah of the wooden hotel, idly watched the coolies carrying the freight across the gang-plank.
He had been looking at such scenes for two months. Nearly five had elapsed since he had descended from the train at Northridge and strained his eyes for the sleigh that was to take him to Weymore: Weymore, which he was never to behold!… Part of the interval—the first part—was still a great grey blur. Even now he could not be quite sure how he had got back to Boston, reached the house of a cousin, and been thence transferred to a quiet room looking out on snow under bare trees. He looked out a long time at the same scene, and finally one day a man he had known at Harvard came to see him and invited him to go out on a business trip to the Malay Peninsula.
“You’ve had a bad shake-up, and it’ll do you no end of good to get away from things.”
When the doctor came the next day it turned out that he knew of the plan and approved it. “You ought to be quiet for a year. Just loaf and look at the landscape,” he advised.
Paxon felt the first faint stirrings of curiosity.
“What’s been the matter with me, anyway?”
“Well, over-work, I suppose. You must have been bottling up for a bad breakdown before you started for New Hampshire last December. And the shock of that poor boy’s death did the rest.”
Ah, yes—Rainer had died. He remembered….
He started for the East, and gradually, by imperceptible degrees, life crept back into his weary bones and leaden brain. His friend was patient and considerate, and they travelled slowly and talked little. At first Faxon had felt a great shrinking from whatever touched on familiar things. He seldom looked at a newspaper and he never opened a letter without a contraction of the heart. It was not that he had any special cause for apprehension, but merely that a great trail of darkness lay on everything. He had looked too deep down into the abyss…. But little by little health and energy returned to him, and with them the common promptings of curiosity. He was beginning to wonder how the world was going, and when, presently, the hotel-keeper told him there were no letters for him in the steamer’s mail-bag, he felt a distinct sense of disappointment. His friend had gone into the jungle on a long excursion, and he was lonely, unoccupied and wholesomely bored. He got up and strolled into the stuffy reading-room.
There he found a game of dominoes, a mutilated picture-puzzle, some copies of Zion’s Herald and a pile of New York and London newspapers.
He began to glance through the papers, and was disappointed to find that they were less recent than he had hoped. Evidently the last numbers had been carried off by luckier travellers. He continued to turn them over, picking out the American ones first. These, as it happened, were the oldest: they dated back to December and January. To Faxon, however, they had all the flavour of novelty, since they covered the precise period during which he had virtually ceased to exist. It had never before occurred to him to wonder what had happened in the world during that interval of obliteration; but now he felt a sudden desire to know.
To prolong the pleasure, he began by sorting the papers chronologically, and as he found and spread out the earliest number, the date at the top of the page entered into his consciousness like a key slipping into a lock. It was the seventeenth of December: the date of the day after his arrival at Northridge. He glanced at the first page and read in blazing characters: “Reported Failure of Opal Cement Company. Lavington’s name involved. Gigantic Exposure of Corruption Shakes Wall Street to Its Foundations.”
He read on, and when he had finished the first paper he turned to the next. There was a gap of three days, but the Opal Cement “Investigation” still held the centre of the stage. From its complex revelations of greed and ruin his eye wandered to the death notices, and he read: “Rainer. Suddenly, at Northridge, New Hampshire, Francis John, only son of the late….”
His eyes clouded, and he dropped the newspaper and sat for a long time with his face in his hands. When he looked up again he noticed that his gesture had pushed the other papers from the table and scattered them at his feet. The uppermost lay spread out before him, and heavily his eyes began their search again. “John Lavington comes forward with plan for reconstructing Company. Offers to put in ten millions of his own—The proposal under consideration by the District Attorney.”
Ten millions… ten millions of his own. But if John Lavington was ruined?… Pazon stood up with a cry. That was it, then—that was what the warning meant! And if he had not fled from it, dashed wildly away from it into the night, he might have broken the spell of iniquity, the powers of darkness might not have prevailed! He caught up the pile of newspapers and began to glance through each in turn for the head-line: “Wills Admitted to Probate.” In the last of all he found the paragraph he sought, and it stared up at him as if with Rainer’s dying eyes.
That—that was what he had done! The powers of pity had singled him out to warn and save, and he had closed his ears to their call, and washed his hands of it, and fled. Washed his hands of it! That was the word. It caught him back to the dreadful moment in the lodge when, raising himself up from Rainer’s side, he had looked at his hands and seen that they were red….