I first met Césarine Vivian in the stalls at the Ambiguities Theatre.
I had promised to take Mrs. Latham and Irene to see the French plays which were then being acted by Marie Leroux’s celebrated Palais Royal company. I wasn’t at the time exactly engaged to poor Irene: it has always been a comfort to me that I wasn’t engaged to her, though I knew Irene herself considered it practically equivalent to an understood engagement. We had known one another intimately from childhood upward, for the Lathams were a sort of second cousins of ours, three times removed: and we had always called one another by our Christian names, and been very fond of one another in a simple girlish and boyish fashion as long as we could either of us remember. Still, I maintain, there was no definite understanding between us; and if Mrs. Latham thought I had been paying Irene attentions, she must have known that a young man of two and twenty, with a decent fortune and a nice estate down in Devonshire, was likely to look about him for a while before he thought of settling down and marrying quietly.
I had brought the yacht up to London Bridge, and was living on board in picnic style, and running about town[Pg 2] casually, when I took Irene and her mother to see “Faustine,” at the Ambiguities. As soon as we had got in and taken our places, Irene whispered to me, touching my hand lightly with her fan, “Just look at the very dark girl on the other side of you, Harry! Did you ever in your life see anybody so perfectly beautiful?”
It has always been a great comfort to me, too, that Irene herself was the first person to call my attention to Césarine Vivian’s extraordinary beauty.
I turned round, as if by accident, and gave a passing glance, where Irene waved her fan, at the girl beside me. She was beautiful, certainly, in a terrible, grand, statuesque style of beauty; and I saw at a glimpse that she had Southern blood in her veins, perhaps Negro, perhaps Moorish, perhaps only Spanish, or Italian, or Provençal. Her features were proud and somewhat Jewish-looking; her eyes large, dark, and haughty; her black hair waved slightly in sinuous undulations as it passed across her high, broad forehead; her complexion, though a dusky olive in tone, was clear and rich, and daintily transparent; and her lips were thin and very slightly curled at the delicate corners, with a peculiarly imperious and almost scornful expression of fixed disdain. I had never before beheld anywhere such a magnificently repellent specimen of womanhood. For a second or so, as I looked, her eyes met mine with a defiant inquiry, and I was conscious that moment of some strange and weird fascination in her glance that seemed to draw me irresistibly towards her, at the same time that I hardly dared to fix my gaze steadily upon the piercing eyes that looked through and through me with their keen penetration.
“She’s very beautiful, no doubt,” I whispered back to Irene in a low undertone, “though I must confess I don’t exactly like the look of her. She’s a trifle too much of a tragedy queen for my taste: a Lady Macbeth, or a Beatrice Cenci, or a Clytemnestra. I prefer our simple little English prettiness to this southern splendour. It’s more to our English liking than these tall and stately Italian enchantresses. Besides, I fancy the girl looks as if she had a drop or two of black blood somewhere about her.”
“Oh, no,” Irene cried warmly. “Impossible, Harry. She’s exquisite: exquisite. Italian, you know, or something of that sort. Italian girls have always got that peculiar gipsy-like type of beauty.”
Low as we spoke, the girl seemed to know by instinct we were talking about her; for she drew away the ends of her light wrap coldly, in a significant fashion, and turned with her opera-glass in the opposite direction, as if on purpose to avoid looking towards us.
A minute later the curtain rose, and the first act of Halévy’s “Faustine” distracted my attention for the moment from the beautiful stranger.
Marie Leroux took the part of the great empress. She was grand, stately, imposing, no doubt, but somehow it seemed to me she didn’t come up quite so well as usual that evening to one’s ideal picture of the terrible, audacious, superb Roman woman. I leant over and murmured so to Irene. “Don’t you know why?” Irene whispered back to me with a faint movement of the play-bill toward the beautiful stranger.
“No,” I answered; “I haven’t really the slightest conception.”
“Why,” she whispered, smiling; “just look beside you. Could anybody bear comparison for a moment as a Faustine with that splendid creature in the stall next to you?”
I stole a glance sideways as she spoke. It was quite true. The girl by my side was the real Faustine, the exact embodiment of the dramatist’s creation; and Marie Leroux, with her stagey effects and her actress’s pretences, could not in any way stand the contrast with the genuine empress who sat there eagerly watching her.
The girl saw me glance quickly from her towards the actress and from the actress back to her, and shrank aside, not with coquettish timidity, but half angrily and half as if flattered and pleased at the implied compliment. “Papa,” she said to the very English-looking gentleman who sat beyond her, “ce monsieur-ci….” I couldn’t catch the end of the sentence.
She was French, then, not Italian or Spanish; yet a more perfect Englishman than the man she called “papa” it would be difficult to discover on a long summer’s day in all London.
“My dear,” her father whispered back in English, “if I were you….” and the rest of that sentence also was quite inaudible to me.
My interest was now fully roused in the beautiful stranger, who sat evidently with her father and sister, and drank in every word of the play as it proceeded with the intensest interest. As for me, I hardly cared to look at the actors, so absorbed was I in my queenly neighbour. I made a bare pretence of watching the stage every five minutes, and saying a few words now and again to Irene or her mother; but my real attention was all the time furtively directed to the girl beside me. Not that I was taken with her; quite the contrary; she distinctly repelled me; but she seemed to exercise over me for all that the same strange and indescribable fascination which is often possessed by some horrible sight that you would give worlds to avoid, and yet cannot for your life help intently gazing upon.
Between the third and fourth acts Irene whispered to me again, “I can’t keep my eyes off her, Harry. She’s wonderfully beautiful. Confess now: aren’t you over head and ears in love with her?”
I looked at Irene’s sweet little peaceful English face, and I answered truthfully, “No, Irene. If I wanted to fall in love, I should find somebody——”
“Nonsense, Harry,” Irene cried, blushing a little, and holding up her fan before her nervously. “She’s a thousand times prettier and handsomer in every way——”
“Than I am.”
At that moment the curtain rose, and Marie Leroux came forward once more with her imperial diadem, in the very act of defying and bearding the enraged emperor.
It was a great scene. The whole theatre hung upon her words for twenty minutes. The effect was sublime. Even I myself felt my interest aroused at last in the consummate spectacle. I glanced round to observe my neighbour. She sat there, straining her gaze upon the stage, and heaving her bosom with suppressed emotion. In a second, the spell was broken again. Beside that tall, dark southern girl, in her queenly beauty, with her flashing eyes and quivering nostrils, intensely moved by the passion of the play, the mere actress who mouthed and gesticulated before us by the footlights was as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. My companion in the stalls was the genuine Faustine: the player on the stage was but a false pretender.
As I looked a cry arose from the wings: a hushed cry at first, a buzz or hum; rising louder and ever louder still, as a red glare burst upon the scene from the background. Then a voice from the side boxes rang out suddenly above the confused murmur and the ranting of the actors “Fire! Fire!”
Almost before I knew what had happened, the mob in the stalls, like the mob in the gallery, was surging and swaying wildly towards the exits, in a general struggle for life of the fierce old selfish barbaric pattern. Dense clouds of smoke rolled from the stage and filled the length and breadth of the auditorium; tongues of flame licked up the pasteboard scenes and hangings, like so much paper; women screamed, and fought, and fainted; men pushed one another aside and hustled and elbowed, in one wild effort to make for the doors at all hazards to the lives of their neighbours. Never before had I so vividly realized how near the savage lies to the surface in our best and highest civilized society. I had to realize it still more vividly and more terribly afterwards.
One person alone I observed calm and erect, resisting quietly all pushes and thrusts, and moving with slow deliberateness to the door, as if wholly unconcerned at the universal noise and hubbub and tumult around her. It was the dark girl from the stalls beside me.
For myself, my one thought of course was for poor Irene and Mrs. Latham. Fortunately, I am a strong and well-built man, and by keeping the two women in front of me, and thrusting hard with my elbows on either side to keep off the crush, I managed to make a tolerably clear road for them down the central row of stalls and out on to the big external staircase. The dark girl, now separated from her father and sister by the rush, was close in front of me. By a careful side movement, I managed to include her also in our party. She looked up to me gratefully with her big eyes, and her mouth broke into a charming smile as she turned and said in perfect English, “I am much obliged to you for your kind assistance.” Irene’s cheek was pale as death; but through the strange young lady’s olive skin the bright blood still burned and glowed amid that frantic panic as calmly as ever.
We had reached the bottom of the steps, and were out into the front, when suddenly the strange lady turned around and gave a little cry of disappointment. “Mes lorgnettes! Mes lorgnettes!” she said. Then glancing round carelessly to me she went on in English: “I have left my opera-glasses inside on the vacant seat. I think, if you will excuse me, I’ll go back and fetch them.”
“It’s impossible,” I cried, “my dear madam. Utterly impossible. They’ll crush you underfoot. They’ll tear you to pieces.”
She smiled a strange haughty smile, as if amused at the idea, but merely answered, “I think not,” and tried to pass lightly by me.
I held her arm. I didn’t know then she was as strong as I was. “Don’t go,” I said imploringly. “They will certainly kill you. It would be impossible to stem a mob like this one.”
She smiled again, and darted back in silence before I could stop her.
Irene and Mrs. Latham were now fairly out of all danger. “Go on, Irene,” I said loosing her arm. “Policeman, get these ladies safely out. I must go back and take care of that mad woman.”
“Go, go quick,” Irene cried. “If you don’t go, she’ll be killed, Harry.”
I rushed back wildly after her, battling as well as I was able against the frantic rush of panic-stricken fugitives, and found my companion struggling still upon the main staircase. I helped her to make her way back into the burning theatre, and she ran lightly through the dense smoke to the stall she had occupied, and took the opera-glasses from the vacant place. Then she turned to me once more with a smile of triumph. “People lose their heads so,” she said, “in all these crushes. I came back on purpose to show papa I wasn’t going to be frightened into leaving my opera-glasses. I should have been eternally ashamed of myself if I had come away and left them in the theatre.”
“Quick,” I answered, gasping for breath. “If you don’t make haste, we shall be choked to death, or the roof itself will fall in upon us and crush us!”
She looked up where I pointed with a hasty glance, and then made her way back again quickly to the staircase. As we hurried out, the timbers of the stage were beginning to fall in, and the engines were already playing fiercely upon the raging flames. I took her hand and almost dragged her out into the open. When we reached the Strand, we were both wet through, and terribly blackened with smoke and ashes. Pushing our way through the dense crowd, I called a hansom. She jumped in lightly. “Thank you so much,” she said, quite carelessly. “Will you kindly tell him where to drive? Twenty-seven, Seymour Crescent.”
“I’ll see you home, if you’ll allow me,” I answered. “Under these circumstances, I trust I may be permitted.”
“As you like,” she said, smiling enchantingly. “You are very good. My name is Césarine Vivian. Papa will be very much obliged to you for your kind assistance.”
I drove round to the Lathams’ after dropping Miss Vivian at her father’s door, to assure myself of Irene’s safety, and to let them know of my own return unhurt from my perilous adventure. Irene met me on the doorstep, pale as death still. “Thank heaven,” she cried, “Harry, you’re safe back again! And that poor girl? What has become of her?”
“I left her,” I said, “at Seymour Crescent.”
Irene burst into a flood of tears. “Oh, Harry,” she cried, “I thought she would have been killed there. It was brave of you, indeed, to help her through with it.”
Next day, Mr. Vivian called on me at the Oxford and Cambridge, the address on the card I had given his daughter. I was in the club when he called, and I found him a pleasant, good-natured Cornishman, with very little that was strange or romantic in any way about him. He thanked me heartily, but not too effusively, for the care I had taken of Miss Vivian overnight; and he was not so overcome with parental emotion as not to smoke a very good Havana, or to refuse my offer of a brandy and seltzer. We got on very well together, and I soon gathered from what my new acquaintance said that, though he belonged to one of the best families in Cornwall, he had been an English merchant in Haiti, and had made his money chiefly in the coffee trade. He was a widower, I learned incidentally, and his daughters had been brought up for some years in England, though at their mother’s request they had also passed part of their lives in convent schools in Paris and Rouen. “Mrs. Vivian was a Haitian, you know,” he said casually: “Catholic of course. The girls are Catholics. They’re good girls, though they’re my own daughters; and Césarine, your friend of last night, is supposed to be clever. I’m no judge myself: I don’t know about it. Oh, by the way, Césarine said she hadn’t thanked you half enough herself yesterday, and I was to be sure and bring you round this afternoon to a cup of tea with us at Seymour Crescent.”
In spite of the impression Mdlle. Césarine had made upon me the night before, I somehow didn’t feel at all desirous of meeting her again. I was impressed, it is true, but not favourably. There seemed to me something uncanny and weird about her which made me shrink from seeing anything more of her if I could possibly avoid it. And as it happened, I was luckily engaged that very afternoon to tea at Irene’s. I made the excuse, and added somewhat pointedly—on purpose that it might be repeated to Mdlle. Césarine—”Miss Latham is a very old and particular friend of mine—a friend whom I couldn’t for worlds think of disappointing.”
Mr. Vivian laughed the matter off. “I shall catch it from Césarine,” he said good-humouredly, “for not bringing her cavalier to receive her formal thanks in person. Our West-Indian born girls, you know, are very imperious. But if you can’t, you can’t, of course, so there’s an end of it, and it’s no use talking any more about it.”
I can’t say why, but at that moment, in spite of my intense desire not to meet Césarine again, I felt I would have given whole worlds if he would have pressed me to come in spite of myself. But, as it happened, he didn’t.
At five o’clock, I drove round in a hansom as arranged, to Irene’s, having almost made up my mind, if I found her alone, to come to a definite understanding with her and call it an engagement. She wasn’t alone, however. As I entered the drawing-room, I saw a tall and graceful lady sitting opposite her, holding a cup of tea, and with her back towards me. The lady rose, moved round, and bowed. To my immense surprise, I found it was Césarine.
I noted to myself at the moment, too, that in my heart, though I had seen her but once before, I thought of her already simply as Césarine. And I was pleased to see her: fascinated: spell-bound.
Césarine smiled at my evident surprise. “Papa and I met Miss Latham this afternoon in Bond Street,” she said gaily, in answer to my mute inquiry, “and we stopped and spoke to one another, of course, about last night; and papa said you couldn’t come round to tea with us in the Crescent, because you were engaged already to Miss Latham. And Miss Latham very kindly asked me to drive over and take tea with her, as I was so anxious to thank you once more for your great kindness to me yesterday.”
“And Miss Vivian was good enough to waive all ceremony,” Irene put in, “and come round to us as you see, without further introduction.”
I stopped and talked all the time I was there to Irene; but, somehow, whatever I said, Césarine managed to intercept it, and I caught myself quite guiltily looking at her from time to time, with an inexpressible attraction that I could not account for.
By-and-by, Mr. Vivian’s carriage called for Césarine, and I was left a few minutes alone with Irene.
“Well, what do you think of her?” Irene asked me simply.
I turned my eyes away: I dare not meet hers. “I think she’s very handsome,” I replied evasively.
“Handsome! I should think so. She’s wonderful. She’s splendid. And doesn’t she talk magnificently, too, Harry?”
“She’s clever, certainly,” I answered shuffling. “But I don’t know why, I mistrust her, Irene.”
I rose and stood by the door with my hat in my hand, hesitating and trembling. I felt as if I had something to say to Irene, and yet I was half afraid to venture upon saying it. My fingers quivered, a thing very unusual with me. At last I came closer to her, after a long pause, and said, “Irene.”
Irene started, and the colour flushed suddenly into her cheeks. “Yes, Harry,” she answered tremulously.
I don’t know why, but I couldn’t utter it. It was but to say “I love you,” yet I hadn’t the courage. I stood there like a fool, looking at her irresolutely, and then—
The door opened suddenly, and Mrs. Latham entered and interrupted us.
I didn’t speak again to Irene. The reason was that three days later I received a little note of invitation to lunch at Seymour Crescent from Césarine Vivian.
I didn’t want to accept it, and yet I didn’t know how to help myself. I went, determined beforehand as soon as ever lunch was over to take away the yacht to the Scotch islands, and leave Césarine and all her enchantments for ever behind me. I was afraid of her, that’s the fact, positively afraid of her. I couldn’t look her in the face without feeling at once that she exerted a terrible influence over me.
The lunch went off quietly enough, however. We talked about Haiti and the West Indies; about the beautiful foliage and the lovely flowers; about the moonlight nights and the tropical sunsets; and Césarine grew quite enthusiastic over them all. “You should take your yacht out there some day, Mr. Tristram,” she said softly. “There is no place on earth so wild and glorious as our own beautiful neglected Haiti.”
She lifted her eyes full upon me as she spoke. I stammered out, like one spell-bound, “I must certainly go, on your recommendation, Mdlle. Césarine.”
“Why Mademoiselle?” she asked quickly. Then, perceiving I misunderstood her by the start I gave, she added with a blush, “I mean, why not ‘Miss Vivian’ in plain English?”
“Because you aren’t English,” I said confusedly. “You’re Haitian, in reality. Nobody could ever for a moment take you for a mere Englishwoman.”
I meant it for a compliment, but Césarine frowned. I saw I had hurt her, and why; but I did not apologize. Yet I was conscious of having done something very wrong, and I knew I must try my best at once to regain my lost favour with her.
“You will take some coffee after lunch?” Césarine said, as the dishes were removed.
“Oh, certainly, my dear,” her father put in. “You must show Mr. Tristram how we make coffee in the West Indian fashion.”
Césarine smiled, and poured it out—black coffee, very strong, and into each cup she poured a little glass of excellent pale neat cognac. It seemed to me that she poured the cognac like a conjuror’s trick; but everything about her was so strange and lurid that I took very little notice of the matter at that particular moment. It certainly was delicious coffee: I never tasted anything like it.
After lunch, we went into the drawing-room, and thence Césarine took me alone into the pretty conservatory. She wanted to show me some of her beautiful Haitian orchids, she said; she had brought the orchids herself years ago from Haiti. How long we stood there I could never tell. I seemed as if intoxicated with her presence. I had forgotten now all about my distrust of her: I had forgotten all about Irene and what I wished to say to her: I was conscious only of Césarine’s great dark eyes, looking through and through me with their piercing glance, and Césarine’s figure, tall and stately, but very voluptuous, standing close beside me, and heaving regularly as we looked at the orchids. She talked to me in a low and dreamy voice; and whether the Château Larose at lunch had got into my head, or whatever it might be, I felt only dimly and faintly aware of what was passing around me. I was unmanned with love, I suppose: but, however it may have been, I certainly moved and spoke that afternoon like a man in a trance from which he cannot by any effort of his own possibly awake himself.
“Yes, yes,” I overheard Césarine saying at last, as through a mist of emotion, “you must go some day and see our beautiful mountainous Haiti. I must go myself. I long to go again. I don’t care for this gloomy, dull, sunless England. A hand seems always to be beckoning me there. I shall obey it some day, for Haiti—our lovely Haiti, is too beautiful.”
Her voice was low and marvellously musical. “Mademoiselle Césarine,” I began timidly.
She pouted and looked at me. “Mademoiselle again,” she said in a pettish way. “I told you not to call me so, didn’t I?”
“Well, then, Césarine,” I went on boldly. She laughed low, a little laugh of triumph, but did not correct or check me in any way.
“Césarine,” I continued, lingering I know not why over the syllables of the name, “I will go, as you say. I shall see Haiti. Why should we not both go together?”
She looked up at me eagerly with a sudden look of hushed inquiry. “You mean it?” she asked, trembling visibly. “You mean it, Mr. Tristram? You know what you are saying?”
“Césarine,” I answered, “I mean it. I know it. I cannot go away from you and leave you. Something seems to tie me. I am not my own master…. Césarine, I love you.”
My head whirled as I said the words, but I meant them at the time, and heaven knows I tried ever after to live up to them.
She clutched my arm convulsively for a moment. Her face was aglow with a wonderful light, and her eyes burned like a pair of diamonds. “But the other girl!” she cried. “Her! Miss Latham! The one you call Irene! You are … in love with her! Are you not? Tell me!”
“I have never proposed to Irene,” I replied slowly. “I have never asked any other woman but you to marry me, Césarine.”
She answered me nothing, but my face was very near hers, and I bent forward and kissed her suddenly. To my immense surprise, instead of struggling or drawing away, she kissed me back a fervent kiss, with lips hard pressed to mine, and the tears trickled slowly down her cheeks in a strange fashion. “You are mine,” she cried. “Mine for ever. I have won you. She shall not have you. I knew you were mine the moment I looked upon you. The hand beckoned me. I knew I should get you.”
“Come up into my den, Mr. Tristram, and have a smoke,” my host interrupted in his bluff voice, putting his head in unexpectedly at the conservatory door. “I think I can offer you a capital Manilla.”
The sound woke me as if from some terrible dream, and I followed him still in a sort of stupor up to the smoking room.
That very evening I went to see Irene. My brain was whirling even yet, and I hardly knew what I was doing; but the cool air revived me a little, and by the time I reached the Lathams’ I almost felt myself again.
Irene came down to the drawing-room to see me alone. I saw what she expected, and the shame of my duplicity overcame me utterly.
I took both her hands in mine and stood opposite her, ashamed to look her in the face, and with the terrible confession weighing me down like a burden of guilt. “Irene,” I blurted out, without preface or comment, “I have just proposed to Césarine Vivian.”
Irene drew back a moment and took a long breath. Then she said, with a tremor in her voice, but without a tear or a cry, “I expected it, Harry. I thought you meant it. I saw you were terribly, horribly in love with her.”
“Irene,” I cried, passionately and remorsefully flinging myself upon the sofa in an agony of repentance, “I do not love her. I have never cared for her. I’m afraid of her, fascinated by her. I love you, Irene, you and you only. The moment I’m away from her, I hate her, I hate her. For heaven’s sake, tell me what am I to do! I do not love her. I hate her, Irene.”
Irene came up to me and soothed my hair tenderly with her hand. “Don’t, Harry,” she said, with sisterly kindliness. “Don’t speak so. Don’t give way to it. I know what you feel. I know what you think. But I am not angry with you. You mustn’t talk like that. If she has accepted you, you must go and marry her. I have nothing to reproach you with: nothing, nothing. Never say such words to me again. Let us be as we have always been, friends only.”
“Irene,” I cried, lifting up my head and looking at her wildly, “it is the truth: I do not love her, except when I am with her: and then, some strange enchantment seems to come over me. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t escape it. In my heart, Irene, in my heart of hearts, I love you, and you only. I can never love her as I love you, Irene. My darling, my darling, tell me how to get myself away from her.”
“Hush,” Irene said, laying her hand on mine persuasively. “You’re excited to-night, Harry. You are flushed and feverish. You don’t know what you’re saying. You mustn’t talk so. If you do, you’ll make me hate you and despise you. You must keep your word now, and marry Miss Vivian.”
The next six weeks seem to me still like a vague dream: everything happened so hastily and strangely. I got a note next day from Irene. It was very short. “Dearest Harry,—Mamma and I think, under the circumstances, it would be best for us to leave London for a few weeks. I am not angry with you. With best love, ever yours affectionately, Irene.”
I was wild when I received it. I couldn’t bear to part so with Irene. I would find out where they were going and follow them immediately. I would write a note and break off my mad engagement with Césarine. I must have been drunk or insane when I made it. I couldn’t imagine what I could have been doing.
On my way round to inquire at the Latham’s, a carriage came suddenly upon me at a sharp corner. A lady bowed to me from it. It was Césarine with her father. They pulled up and spoke to me. From that moment my doom was sealed. The old fascination came back at once, and I followed Césarine blindly home to her house to luncheon, her accepted lover.
In six weeks more we were really married.
The first seven or eight months of our married life passed away happily enough. As soon as I was actually married to Césarine, that strange feeling I had at first experienced about her slowly wore off in the closer, commonplace, daily intercourse of married life. I almost smiled at myself for ever having felt it. Césarine was so beautiful and so queenly a person, that when I took her down home to Devonshire, and introduced her to the old manor, I really found myself immensely proud of her. Everybody at Teignbury was delighted and struck with her; and, what was a great deal more to the point, I began to discover that I was positively in love with her myself, into the bargain. She softened and melted immensely on nearer acquaintance; the Faustina air faded slowly away, when one saw her in her own home among her own occupations; and I came to look on her as a beautiful, simple, innocent girl, delighted with all our country pleasures, fond of a breezy canter on the slopes of Dartmoor, and taking an affectionate interest in the ducks and chickens, which I could hardly ever have conceived even as possible when I first saw her in Seymour Crescent. The imperious, mysterious, terrible Césarine disappeared entirely, and I found in her place, to my immense relief, that I had married a graceful, gentle, tender-hearted English girl, with just a pleasant occasional touch of southern fire and impetuosity.
As winter came round again, however, Césarine’s cheeks began to look a little thinner than usual, and she had such a constant, troublesome cough, that I began to be a trifle alarmed at her strange symptoms. Césarine herself laughed off my fears. “It’s nothing, Harry,” she would say; “nothing at all, I assure you, dear. A few good rides on the moor will set me right again. It’s all the result of that horrid London. I’m a country-born girl, and I hate big towns. I never want to live in town again, Harry.”
I called in our best Exeter doctor, and he largely confirmed Césarine’s own simple view of the situation. “There’s nothing organically wrong with Mrs. Tristram’s constitution,” he said confidently. “No weakness of the lungs or heart in any way. She has merely run down—outlived her strength a little. A winter in some warm, genial climate would set her up again, I haven’t the least hesitation in saying.”
“Let us go to Algeria with the yacht, Reeney,” I suggested, much reassured.
“Why Algeria?” Césarine replied, with brightening eyes. “Oh, Harry, why not dear old Haiti? You said once you would go there with me—you remember when, darling; why not keep your promise now, and go there? I want to go there, Harry: I’m longing to go there.” And she held out her delicately moulded hand in front of her, as if beckoning me, and drawing me on to Haiti after her.
“Ah, yes; why not the West Indies?” the Exeter doctor answered meditatively. “I think I understood you that Mrs. Tristram is West Indian born. Quite so. Quite so. Her native air. Depend upon it, that’s the best place for her. By all means, I should say, try Haiti.”
I don’t know why, but the notion for some reason displeased me immensely. There was something about Césarine’s eyes, somehow, when she beckoned with her hand in that strange fashion, which reminded me exactly of the weird, uncanny, indescribable impression she had made upon me when I first knew her. Still I was very fond of Césarine, and if she and the doctor were both agreed that Haiti would be the very best place for her, it would be foolish and wrong for me to interfere with their joint wisdom. Depend upon it, a woman often knows what is the matter with her better than any man, even her husband, can possibly tell her.
The end of it all was, that in less than a month from that day, we were out in the yacht on the broad Atlantic, with the cliffs of Falmouth and the Lizard Point fading slowly behind us in the distance, and the white spray dashing in front of us, like fingers beckoning us on to Haiti.
The bay of Port-au-Prince is hot and simmering, a deep basin enclosed in a ringing semicircle of mountains, with scarce a breath blowing on the harbour, and with tall cocoa-nut palms rising unmoved into the still air above on the low sand-spits that close it in to seaward. The town itself is wretched, squalid, and hopelessly ramshackled, a despondent collection of tumbledown wooden houses, interspersed with indescribable negro huts, mere human rabbit-hutches, where parents and children herd together, in one higgledy-piggledy, tropical confusion. I had never in my days seen anything more painfully desolate and dreary, and I feared that Césarine, who had not been here since she was a girl of fourteen, would be somewhat depressed at the horrid actuality, after her exalted fanciful ideals of the remembered Haiti. But, to my immense surprise, as it turned out, Césarine did not appear at all shocked or taken aback at the squalor and wretchedness all around her. On the contrary, the very air of the place seemed to inspire her from the first with fresh vigour; her cough disappeared at once as if by magic; and the colour returned forthwith to her cheeks, almost as soon as we had fairly cast anchor in Haitian waters.
The very first day we arrived at Port-au-Prince, Césarine said to me, with more shyness than I had ever yet seen her exhibit, “If you wouldn’t mind it, Harry, I should like to go at once, this morning—and see my grandmother.”
I started with astonishment. “Your grandmother, Césarine!” I cried incredulously. “My darling! I didn’t know you had a grandmother living.”
“Yes, I have,” she answered, with some slight hesitation, “and I think if you wouldn’t object to it, Harry, I’d rather go and see her alone, the first time at least, please dearest.”
In a moment, the obvious truth, which I had always known in a vague sort of fashion, but never thoroughly realized, flashed across my mind in its full vividness, and I merely bowed my head in silence. It was natural she should not wish me to see her meeting with her Haitian grandmother.
She went alone through the streets of Port-au-Prince, without inquiry, like one who knew them familiarly of old, and I dogged her footsteps at a distance unperceived, impelled by the same strange fascination which had so often driven me to follow Césarine wherever she led me. After a few hundred yards, she turned out of the chief business place, and down a tumbledown alley of scattered negro cottages, till she came at last to a rather better house that stood by itself in a little dusty garden of guava-trees and cocoa-nuts. A rude paling, built negro-wise of broken barrel-staves, nailed rudely together, separated the garden from the compound next to it. I slipped into the compound before Césarine observed me, beckoned the lazy negro from the door of the hut, with one finger placed as a token of silence upon my lips, dropped a dollar into his open palm, and stood behind the paling, looking out into the garden beside me through a hole made by a knot in one of the barrel staves.
Césarine knocked with her hand at the door, and in a moment was answered by an old negress, tall and bony, dressed in a loose sack-like gown of coarse cotton print, with a big red bandanna tied around her short grey hair, and a huge silver cross dangling carelessly upon her bare and wrinkled black neck. She wore no sleeves, and bracelets of strange beads hung loosely around her shrunken and skinny wrists. A more hideous old hag I had never in my life beheld before; and yet I saw, without waiting to observe it, that she had Césarine’s great dark eyes and even white teeth, and something of Césarine’s figure lingered still in her lithe and sinuous yet erect carriage.
“Grand’mère!” Césarine said convulsively, flinging her arms with wild delight around that grim and withered gaunt black woman. It seemed to me she had never since our marriage embraced me with half the fervour she bestowed upon this hideous old African witch creature.
“Hé, Césarine, it is thee, then, my little one,” the old negress cried out suddenly, in her thin high voice and her muffled Haitian patois. “I did not expect thee so soon, my cabbage. Thou hast come early. Be the welcome one, my granddaughter.”
I reeled with horror as I saw the wrinkled and haggard African kissing once more my beautiful Césarine. It seemed to me a horrible desecration. I had always known, of course, since Césarine was a quadroon, that her grandmother on one side must necessarily have been a full-blooded negress, but I had never yet suspected the reality could be so hideous, so terrible as this.
I crouched down speechless against the paling in my disgust and astonishment, and motioned with my hand to the negro in the hut to remain perfectly quiet. The door of the house closed, and Césarine disappeared: but I waited there, as if chained to the spot, under a hot and burning tropical sun, for fully an hour, unconscious of anything in heaven or earth, save the shock and surprise of that unexpected disclosure.
At last the door opened again, and Césarine apparently came out once more into the neighbouring garden. The gaunt negress followed her close, with one arm thrown caressingly about her beautiful neck and shoulders. In London, Césarine would not have permitted anybody but a great lady to take such a liberty with her; but here in Haiti, she submitted to the old negress’s horrid embraces with perfect calmness. Why should she not, indeed! It was her own grandmother.
They came close up to the spot where I was crouching in the thick drifted dust behind the low fence, and then I heard rather than saw that Césarine had flung herself passionately down upon her knees on the ground, and was pouring forth a muttered prayer, in a tongue unknown to me, and full of harsh and uncouth gutturals. It was not Latin; it was not even the coarse Creole French, the negro patois in which I heard the people jabbering to one another loudly in the streets around me: it was some still more hideous and barbaric language, a mass of clicks and inarticulate noises, such as I could never have believed might possibly proceed from Césarine’s thin and scornful lips.
At last she finished, and I heard her speaking again to her grandmother in the Creole dialect. “Grandmother, you will pray and get me one. You will not forget me. A boy. A pretty one; an heir to my husband!” It was said wistfully, with an infinite longing. I knew then why she had grown so pale and thin and haggard before we sailed away from England.
The old hag answered in the same tongue, but in her shrill withered note, “You will bring him up to the religion, my little one, will you?”
Césarine seemed to bow her head. “I will,” she said. “He shall follow the religion. Mr. Tristram shall never know anything about it.”
They went back once more into the house, and I crept away, afraid of being discovered, and returned to the yacht, sick at heart, not knowing how I should ever venture again to meet Césarine.
But when I got back, and had helped myself to a glass of sherry to steady my nerves, from the little flask on Césarine’s dressing-table, I thought to myself, hideous as it all seemed, it was very natural Césarine should wish to see her grandmother. After all, was it not better, that proud and haughty as she was, she should not disown her own flesh and blood? And yet, the memory of my beautiful Césarine wrapped in that hideous old black woman’s arms made the blood curdle in my very veins.
As soon as Césarine returned, however, gayer and brighter than I had ever seen her, the old fascination overcame me once more, and I determined in my heart to stifle the horror I could not possibly help feeling. And that evening, as I sat alone in the cabin with my wife, I said to her, “Césarine, we have never spoken about the religious question before: but if it should be ordained we are ever to have any little ones of our own, I should wish them to be brought up in their mother’s creed. You could make them better Catholics, I take it, than I could ever make them Christians of any sort.”
Césarine answered never a word, but to my intense surprise she burst suddenly into a flood of tears, and flung herself sobbing on the cabin floor at my feet in an agony of tempestuous cries and writhings.
A few days later, when we had settled down for a three months’ stay at a little bungalow on the green hills behind Port-au-Prince, Césarine said to me early in the day, “I want to go away to-day, Harry, up into the mountains, to the chapel of Notre Dame de Bon Secours.”
I bowed my head in acquiescence. “I can guess why you want to go, Reeney,” I answered gently. “You want to pray there about something that’s troubling you. And if I’m not mistaken, it’s the same thing that made you cry the other evening when I spoke to you down yonder in the cabin.”
The tears rose hastily once more into Césarine’s eyes, and she cried in a low distressed voice, “Harry, Harry, don’t talk to me so. You are too good to me. You will kill me. You will kill me.”
I lifted her head from the table, where she had buried it in her arms, and kissed her tenderly. “Reeney,” I said, “I know how you feel, and I hope Notre Dame will listen to your prayers, and send you what you ask of her. But if not, you need never be afraid that I shall love you any the less than I do at present.”
Césarine burst into a fresh flood of tears. “No, Harry,” she said, “you don’t know about it. You can’t imagine it. To us, you know, who have the blood of Africa running in our veins, it is not a mere matter of fancy. It is an eternal disgrace for any woman of our race and descent not to be a mother. I cannot help it. It is the instinct of my people. We are all born so: we cannot feel otherwise.”
It was the only time either of us ever alluded in speaking with one another to the sinister half of Césarine’s pedigree.
“You will let me go with you to the mountains, Reeney?” I asked, ignoring her remark. “You mustn’t go so far by yourself, darling.”
“No, Harry, you can’t come with me. It would make my prayers ineffectual, dearest. You are a heretic, you know, Harry. You are not Catholic. Notre Dame won’t listen to my prayer if I take you with me on my pilgrimage, my darling.”
I saw her mind was set upon it, and I didn’t interfere. She would be away all night, she said. There was a rest-house for pilgrims attached to the chapel, and she would be back again at Maisonette (our bungalow) the morning after.
That afternoon she started on her way on a mountain pony I had just bought for her, accompanied only by a negro maid. I couldn’t let her go quite unattended through those lawless paths, beset by cottages of half savage Africans; so I followed at a distance, aided by a black groom, and tracked her road along the endless hill-sides up to a fork in the way where the narrow bridle-path divided into two, one of which bore away to leftward, leading, my guide told me, to the chapel of Notre Dame de Bon Secours.
At that point the guide halted. He peered with hand across his eyebrows among the tangled brake of tree-ferns with a terrified look; then he shook his woolly black head ominously. “I can’t go on, Monsieur,” he said, turning to me with an unfeigned shudder. “Madame has not taken the path of Our Lady. She has gone to the left along the other road, which leads at last to the Vaudoux temple.”
I looked at him incredulously. I had heard before of Vaudoux. It is the hideous African canibalistic witchcraft of the relapsing half-heathen Haitian negroes. But Césarine a Vaudoux worshipper! It was too ridiculous. The man must be mistaken: or else Césarine had taken the wrong road by some slight accident.
Next moment, a horrible unspeakable doubt seized upon me irresistibly. What was the unknown shrine in her grandmother’s garden at which Césarine had prayed in those awful gutturals? Whatever it was, I would probe this mystery to the very bottom. I would know the truth, come what might of it.
“Go, you coward!” I said to the negro. “I have no further need of you. I will make my way alone to the Vaudoux temple.”
“Monsieur,” the man cried, trembling visibly in every limb, “they will tear you to pieces. If they ever discover you near the temple, they will offer you up as a victim to the Vaudoux.”
“Pooh,” I answered, contemptuous of the fellow’s slavish terror. “Where Madame, a woman, dares to go, I, her husband, am certainly not afraid to follow her.”
“Monsieur,” he replied, throwing himself submissively in the dust on the path before me, “Madame is Creole; she has the blood of the Vaudoux worshippers flowing in her veins. Nobody will hurt her. She is free of the craft. But Monsieur is a pure white and uninitiated…. If the Vaudoux people catch him at their rites, they will rend him in pieces, and offer his blood as an expiation to the Unspeakable One.”
“Go,” I said, with a smile, turning my horse’s head up the right-hand path toward the Vaudoux temple. “I am not afraid. I will come back again to Maisonette to-morrow.”
I followed the path through a tortuous maze, beset with prickly cactus, agave, and fern-brake, till I came at last to a spur of the hill, where a white wooden building gleamed in front of me, in the full slanting rays of tropical sunset. A skull was fastened to the lintel of the door. I knew at once it was the Vaudoux temple.
I dismounted at once, and led my horse aside into the brake, though I tore his legs and my own as I went with the spines of the cactus plants; and tying him by the bridle to a mountain cabbage palm, in a spot where the thick underbrush completely hid us from view, I lay down and waited patiently for the shades of evening.
It was a moonless night, according to the Vaudoux fashion; and I knew from what I had already read in West Indian books that the orgies would not commence till midnight.
From time to time, I rubbed a fusee against my hand without lighting it, and by the faint glimmer of the phosphorus on my palm, I was able to read the figures of my watch dial without exciting the attention of the neighbouring Vaudoux worshippers.
Hour after hour went slowly by, and I crouched there still unseen among the agave thicket. At last, as the hands of the watch reached together the point of twelve, I heard a low but deep rumbling noise coming ominously from the Vaudoux temple. I recognized at once the familiar sound. It was the note of the bull-roarer, that mystic instrument of pointed wood, whirled by a string round the head of the hierophant, by whose aid savages in their secret rites summon to their shrines their gods and spirits. I had often made one myself for a toy when I was a boy in England.
I crept out through the tangled brake, and cautiously approached the back of the building. A sentinel was standing by the door in front, a powerful negro, armed with revolver and cutlas. I skulked round noiselessly to the rear, and lifting myself by my hands to the level of the one tiny window, I peered in through a slight scratch on the white paint, with which the glass was covered internally.
I only saw the sight within for a second. Then my brain reeled, and my fingers refused any longer to hold me. But in that second, I had read the whole terrible, incredible truth: I knew what sort of a woman she really was whom I had blindly taken as the wife of my bosom.
Before a rude stone altar covered with stuffed alligator skins, human bones, live snakes, and hideous sorts of African superstition, a tall and withered black woman stood erect, naked as she came from her mother’s womb, one skinny arm raised aloft, and the other holding below some dark object, that writhed and struggled awfully in her hand on the slab of the altar, even as she held it. I saw in a flash of the torches behind it was the black hag I had watched before at the Port-au-Prince cottage.
Beside her, whiter of skin, and faultless of figure, stood a younger woman, beautiful to behold, imperious and haughty still, like a Greek statue, unmoved before that surging horrid background of naked black and cringing savages. Her head was bent, and her hand pressed convulsively against the swollen veins in her throbbing brow; and I saw at once it was my own wife—a Vaudoux worshipper—Césarine Tristram.
In another flash, I knew the black woman had a sharp flint knife in her uplifted hand; and the dark object in the other hand I recognized with a thrill of unspeakable horror as a negro girl of four years old or thereabouts, gagged and bound, and lying on the altar.
Before I could see the sharp flint descend upon the naked breast of the writhing victim, my fingers in mercy refused to bear me, and I fell half fainting on the ground below, too shocked and unmanned even to crawl away at once out of reach of the awful unrealizable horror.
But by the sounds within, I knew they had completed their hideous sacrifice, and that they were smearing over Césarine—my own wife—the woman of my choice—with the warm blood of the human victim.
Sick and faint, I crept away slowly through the tangled underbrush, tearing my skin as I went with the piercing cactus spines; untied my horse from the spot where I had fastened him; and rode him down without drawing rein, cantering round sharp angles and down horrible ledges, till he stood at last, white with foam, by the grey dawn, in front of the little piazza at Maisonette.
That night, the thunder roared and the lightning played with tropical fierceness round the tall hilltops away in the direction of the Vaudoux temple. The rain came down in fearful sheets, and the torrents roared and foamed in cataracts, and tore away great gaps in the rough paths on the steep hill-sides. But at eight o’clock in the morning Césarine returned, drenched with wet, and with a strange frown upon her haughty forehead.
I did not know how to look at her or how to meet her.
“My prayers are useless,” she muttered angrily as she entered. “Some heretic must have followed me unseen to the chapel of Notre Dame de Bon Secours. The pilgrimage is a failure.”
“You are wet,” I said, trembling. “Change your things, Césarine.” I could not pretend to speak gently to her.
She turned upon me with a fierce look in her big black eyes. Her instinct showed her at once I had discovered her secret. “Tell them, and hang me,” she cried fiercely.
It was what the law required me to do. I was otherwise the accomplice of murder and cannibalism. But I could not do it. Profoundly as I loathed her and hated her presence, now, I couldn’t find it in my heart to give her up to justice, as I knew I ought to do.
I turned away and answered nothing.
Presently, she came out again from her bedroom, with her wet things still dripping around her. “Smoke that,” she said, handing me a tiny cigarette rolled round in a leaf of fresh tobacco.
“I will not,” I answered with a vague surmise, taking it from her fingers. “I know the smell. It is manchineal. You cannot any longer deceive me.”
She went back to her bedroom once more. I sat, dazed and stupefied, in the bamboo chair on the front piazza. What to do, I knew not, and cared not. I was tied to her for life, and there was no help for it, save by denouncing her to the rude Haitian justice.
In an hour or more, our English maid came out to speak to me. “I’m afraid, sir,” she said, “Mrs. Tristram is getting delirious. She seems to be in a high fever. Shall I ask one of these poor black bodies to go out and get the English doctor?”
I went into my wife’s bedroom. Césarine lay moaning piteously on the bed, in her wet clothes still; her cheeks were hot, and her pulse was high and thin and feverish. I knew without asking what was the matter with her. It was yellow fever.
The night’s exposure in that terrible climate, and the ghastly scene she had gone through so intrepidly, had broken down even Césarine’s iron constitution.
I sent for the doctor and had her put to bed immediately. The black nurse and I undressed her between us. We found next her bosom, tied by a small red silken thread, a tiny bone, fresh and ruddy-looking. I knew what it was, and so did the negress. It was a human finger-bone—the last joint of a small child’s fourth finger. The negress shuddered and hid her head. “It is Vaudoux, Monsieur!” she said. “I have seen it on others. Madame has been paying a visit, I suppose, to her grandmother.”
For six long endless days and nights I watched and nursed that doomed criminal, doing everything for her that skill could direct or care could suggest to me: yet all the time fearing and dreading that she might yet recover, and not knowing in my heart what either of our lives could ever be like if she did live through it.
A merciful Providence willed it otherwise.
On the sixth day, the fatal vomito negro set in—the symptom of the last incurable stage of yellow fever—and I knew for certain that Césarine would die. She had brought her own punishment upon her. At midnight that evening she died delirious.
Thank God, she had left no child of mine behind her to inherit the curse her mother’s blood had handed down to her!
On my return to London, whither I went by mail direct, leaving the yacht to follow after me, I drove straight to the Lathams’ from Waterloo Station. Mrs. Latham was out, the servant said, but Miss Irene was in the drawing-room.
Irene was sitting at the window by herself, working quietly at a piece of crewel work. She rose to meet me with her sweet simple little English smile. I took her hand and pressed it like a brother.
“I got your telegram,” she said simply. “Harry, I know she is dead; but I know something terrible besides has happened. Tell me all. Don’t be afraid to speak of it before me. I am not afraid, for my part, to listen.”
I sat down on the sofa beside her, and told her all, without one word of excuse or concealment, from our last parting to the day of Césarine’s death in Haiti: and she held my hand and listened all the while with breathless wonderment to my strange story.
At the end I said, “Irene, it has all come and gone between us like a hideous nightmare. I cannot imagine even now how that terrible woman, with all her power, could ever for one moment have bewitched me away from you, my beloved, my queen, my own heart’s darling.”
Irene did not try to hush me or to stop me in any way. She merely sat and looked at me steadily, and said nothing.
“It was fascination,” I cried. “Infatuation, madness, delirium, enchantment.”
“It was worse than that, Harry,” Irene answered, rising quietly. “It was poison; it was witchcraft; it was sheer African devilry.”
In a flash of thought, I remembered the cup of coffee at Seymour Crescent, the curious sherry at Port-au-Prince, the cigarette with the manchineal she had given me on the mountains, and I saw forthwith that Irene with her woman’s quickness had divined rightly. It was more than infatuation; it was intoxication with African charms and West Indian poisons.
“What a man does in such a woman’s hands is not his own doing,” Irene said slowly. “He has no more control of himself in such circumstances than if she had drugged him with chloroform or opium.”
“Then you forgive me, Irene?”
“I have nothing to forgive, Harry. I am grieved for you. I am frightened.” Then bursting into tears, “My darling, my darling; I love you, I love you!”
Maisie Llewelyn had never been asked to Wolverden before; therefore, she was not a little elated at Mrs. West’s invitation. For Wolverden Hall, one of the loveliest Elizabethan manor-houses in the Weald of Kent, had been bought and fitted up in appropriate style (the phrase is the upholsterer’s) by Colonel West, the famous millionaire from South Australia. The Colonel had lavished upon it untold wealth, fleeced from the backs of ten thousand sheep and an equal number of his fellow-countrymen; and Wolverden was now, if not the most beautiful, at least the most opulent country-house within easy reach of London.
Mrs. West was waiting at the station to meet Maisie. The house was full of Christmas guests already, it is true; but Mrs. West was a model of stately, old-fashioned courtesy: she would not have omitted meeting one among the number on any less excuse than a royal command to appear at Windsor. She kissed Maisie on both cheeks–she had always been fond of Maisie–and, leaving two haughty young aristocrats (in powdered hair and blue-and-gold livery) to hunt up her luggage by the light of nature, sailed forth with her through the door to the obsequious carriage.
The drive up the avenue to Wolverden Hall Maisie found quite delicious. Even in their leafless winter condition the great limes looked so noble; and the ivy-covered hall at the end, with its mullioned windows, its Inigo Jones porch, and its creeper-clad gables, was as picturesque a building as the ideals one sees in Mr. Abbey’s sketches. If only Arthur Hume had been one of the party now, Maisie’s joy would have been complete. But what was the use of thinking so much about Arthur Hume, when she didn’t even know whether Arthur Hume cared for her?
A tall, slim girl, Maisie Llewelyn, with rich black hair, and ethereal features, as became a descendant of Llewelyn ap Iorwerth. The sort of girl we none of us would have called anything more than “interesting” till Rossetti and Burne-Jones found eyes for us to see that the type is beautiful with a deeper beauty than that of your obvious pink-and-white prettiness. Her eyes, in particular, had a lustrous depth that was almost superhuman, and her fingers and nails were strangely transparent in their waxen softness.
“You won’t mind my having put you in a ground-floor room in the new wing, my dear, will you?” Mrs West inquired, as she led Maisie personally to the quarters chosen for her. “You see, we ‘re so unusually full, because of these tableaux!”
Maisie gazed round the ground-floor room in the new wing with eyes of mute wonder. If this was the kind of lodging for which Mrs. West thought it necessary to apologise, Maisie wondered of what sort were those better rooms which she gave to the guests she delighted to honour. It was a large and exquisitely decorated chamber, with the softest and deepest Oriental carpet Maisie’s feet had ever felt, and the daintiest curtains her eyes had ever lighted upon. True, it opened by French windows on to what was nominally the ground in front; but as the Italian terrace, with its formal balustrade and its great stone balls, was raised several feet above the level of the sloping garden below, the room was really on the first floor for all practical purposes. Indeed, Maisie rather liked the unwonted sense of space and freedom which was given by this easy access to the world without; and, as the windows were secured by great shutters and fasteners, she had no counterbalancing fear lest a nightly burglar should attempt to carry off her little pearl necklet or her amethyst brooch, instead of directing his whole attention to Mrs. West’s famous diamond tiara.
She moved naturally to the window. She was fond of nature. The view it disclosed over the Weald at her feet was wide and varied. Misty range lay behind misty range, in a faint December haze, receding and receding, till away to the south, half hidden by vapour, the Sussex downs loomed vague in the distance. The village church, as happens so often in the case of old lordly manors, stood within the grounds of the Hall, and close by the house. It had been built, her hostess said, in the days of the Edwards, but had portions of an older Saxon edifice still enclosed in the chancel. The one eyesore in the view was its new white tower, recently restored (or rather, rebuilt), which contrasted most painfully with the mellow grey stone and mouldering corbels of the nave and transept.
“What a pity it’s been so spoiled!” Maisie exclaimed, looking across at the tower. Coming straight as she did from a Merioneth rectory, she took an ancestral interest in all that concerned churches.
“Oh, my dear!” Mrs. West cried, “please don’t say that, I beg of you, to the Colonel. If you were to murmur ‘spoiled’ to him you’d wreck his digestion. He’s spent ever so much money over securing the foundations and reproducing the sculpture on the old tower we took down, and it breaks his dear heart when anybody disapproves of it. For some people, you know, are so absurdly opposed to reasonable restoration.”
“Oh, but this isn’t even restoration, you know,” Maisie said, with the frankness of twenty, and the specialist interest of an antiquary’s daughter. “This is pure reconstruction.”
“Perhaps so,” Mrs. West answered. “But if you think so, my dear, don’t breathe it at Wolverden.”
A fire, of ostentatiously wealthy dimensions, and of the best glowing coal burned bright on the hearth, but the day was mild, and hardly more than autumnal. Maisie found the room quite unpleasantly hot. She opened the windows and stepped out on the terrace. Mrs. West followed her. They paced up and down the broad gravelled platform for a while–Maisie had not yet taken off her travelling-cloak and hat? and then strolled half unconsciously towards the gate of the church. The churchyard, to hide the tombstones of which the parapet had been erected, was full of quaint old monuments, with broken-nosed cherubs, some of them dating from a comparatively early period. The porch, with its sculptured niches deprived of their saints by puritan hands, was still rich and beautiful in its carved detail. On the seat inside an old woman was sitting. She did not rise as the lady of the manor approached, but went on mumbling and muttering inarticulately to herself in a sulky undertone. Still, Maisie was aware, none the less, that the moment she came near a strange light gleamed suddenly in the old woman’s eyes, and that her glance was fixed upon her. A faint thrill of recognition seemed to pass like a flash through her palsied body. Maisie knew not why, but she was dimly afraid of the old woman’s gaze upon her.
“It’s a lovely old church!” Maisie said, looking up at the trefoil finials on the porch–“all, except the tower.”
“We had to reconstruct it,” Mrs. West answered apologetically. Mrs. West’s general attitude in life was apologetic, as though she felt she had no right to so much more money than her fellow-creatures. “It would have fallen if we hadn’t done something to buttress it up. It was really in a most dangerous and critical condition.”
“Lies! lies! lies!” the old woman burst out suddenly, though in a strange, low tone, as if speaking to herself. “It would not have fallen–they knew it would not. It could not have fallen. It would never have fallen if they had not destroyed it. And even then–I was there when they pulled it down–each stone clung to each, with arms and legs and hands and claws, till they burst them asunder by main force with their new-fangled stuff–I don’t know what they call it–dynamite, or something. It was all of it done for one man’s vainglory!”
“Come away, dear,” Mrs. West whispered. But Maisie loitered.
“Wolverden Tower was fasted thrice,” the old woman continued, in a sing-song quaver. “It was fasted thrice with souls of maids against every assault of man or devil. It was fasted at the foundation against earthquake and ruin. It was fasted at the top against thunder and lightning. It was fasted in the middle against storm and battle. And there it would have stood for a thousand years if a wicked man had not raised a vainglorious hand against it. For that’s what the rhyme says?
"Fasted thrice with souls of men. Stands the tower of Wolverden; Fasted thrice with maidens' blood. A thousand years of fire and flood Shall see it stand as erst it stood."
She paused a moment, then, raising one skinny hand towards the brand-new stone, she went on in the same voice, but with malignant fervour?
"A thousand years the tower shall stand Till ill assailed by evil hand; By evil hand in evil hour. Fasted thrice with warlock's power. Shall fall the stanes of Wulfhere's tower."
She tottered off as she ended, and took her seat on the edge of a depressed vault in the churchyard close by, still eyeing Maisie Llewellyn with a weird and curious glance, almost like the look which a famishing man casts upon the food in a shop-window.
“Who is she?” Maisie asked, shrinking away in undefined terror.
“Oh, old Bessie,” Mrs. West answered, looking more apologetic (for the parish) than ever. “She’s always hanging about here. She has nothing else to do, and she’s an outdoor pauper. You see, that’s the worst of having the church in one’s grounds, which is otherwise picturesque and romantic and baronial; the road to it’s public; you must admit all the world; and old Bessie will come here. The servants are afraid of her. They say she’s a witch. She has the evil eye, and she drives girls to suicide. But they cross her hand with silver all the same, and she tells them their fortunes–gives them each a butler. She’s full of dreadful stories about Wolverden Church? stories to make your blood run cold, my dear, compact with old superstitions and murders, and so forth. And they’re true, too, that’s the worst of them. She’s quite a character. Mr. Blaydes, the antiquary, is really attached to her; he says she’s now the sole living repository of the traditional folklore and history of the parish. But I don’t care for it myself. It ‘gars one greet,’ as we say in Scotland. Too much burying alive in it, don’t you know, my dear, to quite suit my fancy.”
They turned back as she spoke towards the carved wooden lych-gate, one of the oldest and most exquisite of its class in England. When they reached the vault by whose doors old Bessie was seated, Maisie turned once more to gaze at the pointed lancet windows of the Early English choir, and the still more ancient dog-tooth ornament of the ruined Norman Lady Chapel.
“How solidly it’s built!” she exclaimed, looking up at the arches which alone survived the fury of the Puritan. “It really looks as if it would last for ever.”
Old Bessie had bent her head, and seemed to be whispering something at the door of the vault. But at the sound she raised her eyes, and, turning her wizened face towards the lady of the manor, mumbled through her few remaining fang-like teeth an old local saying, “Bradbury for length, Wolverden for strength, and Church Hatton for beauty!”
"Three brothers builded churches three; And fasted thrice each church shall be: Fasted thrice with maidens' blood. To make them safe from fire and flood; Fasted thrice with souls of men. Hatton, Bradbury, Wolverden!"
“Come away,” Maisie said, shuddering. “I’m afraid of that woman. Why was she whispering at the doors of the vault down there? I don’t like the look of her.”
“My dear,” Mrs. West answered, in no less terrified a tone, “I will confess I don’t like the look of her myself. I wish she’d leave the place. I’ve tried to make her. The Colonel offered her fifty pounds down and a nice cottage in Surrey if only she’d go–she frightens me so much; but she wouldn’t hear of it. She said she must stop by the bodies of her dead–that’s her style, don’t you see: a sort of modern ghoul, a degenerate vampire–and from the bodies of her dead in Wolverden Church no living soul should ever move her.”
For dinner Maisie wore her white satin Empire dress, high-waisted, low-necked, and cut in the bodice with a certain baby-like simplicity of style which exactly suited her strange and uncanny type of beauty. She was very much admired. She felt it, and it pleased her. The young man who took her in, a subaltern of engineers, had no eyes for any one else; while old Admiral Wade, who sat opposite her with a plain and skinny dowager, made her positively uncomfortable by the persistent way in which he stared at her simple pearl necklet.
After dinner, the tableaux. They had been designed and managed by a famous Royal Academician, and were mostly got up by the members of the house-party. But two or three actresses from London had been specially invited to help in a few of the more mythological scenes; for, indeed, Mrs. West had prepared the entire entertainment with that topsy-turvy conscientiousness and scrupulous sense of responsibility to society which pervaded her view of millionaire morality. Having once decided to offer the county a set of tableaux, she felt that millionaire morality absolutely demanded of her the sacrifice of three weeks’ time and several hundred pounds’ money in order to discharge her obligations to the county with becoming magnificence.
The first tableau, Maisie learned from the gorgeous programme, was “Jephthah’s Daughter.” The subject was represented at the pathetic moment when the doomed virgin goes forth from her father’s house with her attendant maidens to bewail her virginity for two months upon the mountains, before the fulfilment of the awful vow which bound her father to offer her up for a burnt offering. Maisie thought it too solemn and tragic a scene for a festive occasion. But the famous R.A. had a taste for such themes, and his grouping was certainly most effectively dramatic.
“A perfect symphony in white and grey,” said Mr. Wills, the art critic.
“How awfully affecting!” said most of the young girls.
“Reminds me a little too much, my dear, of old Bessie’s stories,” Mrs. West whispered low, leaning from her seat across two rows to Maisie.
A piano stood a little on one side of the platform, just in front of the curtain. The intervals between the pieces were filled up with songs, which, however, had been evidently arranged in keeping with the solemn and half-mystical tone of the tableaux. It is the habit of amateurs to take a long time in getting their scenes in order, so the interposition of the music was a happy thought as far as its prime intention went. But Maisie wondered they could not have chosen some livelier song for Christmas Eve than “Oh, Mary, go and call the cattle home, and call the cattle home, and call the cattle home, across the sands of Dee.” Her own name was Mary when she signed it officially, and the sad lilt of the last line, “But never home came she,” rang unpleasantly in her ear through the rest of the evening.
The second tableau was the “Sacrifice of Iphigenia.” It was admirably rendered. The cold and dignified father, standing, apparently unmoved, by the pyre; the cruel faces of the attendant priests; the shrinking form of the immolated princess; the mere blank curiosity and inquiring interest of the helmeted heroes looking on, to whom this slaughter of a virgin victim was but an ordinary incident of the Achean religion. All these had been arranged by the Academical director with consummate skill and pictorial cleverness. But the group that attracted Maisie most among the components of the scene was that of the attendant maidens, more conspicuous here in their flowing white chitons than even they had been when posed as companions of the beautiful and ill-fated Hebrew victim. Two in particular excited her close attention–two very graceful and spiritual-looking girls, in long white robes of no particular age or country, who stood at the very end near the right edge of the picture. “How lovely they are, the two last on the right!” Maisie whispered to her neighbour–an Oxford undergraduate with a budding moustache. “I do so admire them!”
“Do you?” he answered, fondling the moustache with one dubious finger. “Well, now, do you know, I don’t think I do. They’re rather coarse-looking. And besides, I don’t quite like the way they’ve got their hair done up in bunches; too fashionable, isn’t it?–too much of the present day–I don’t care to see a girl in a Greek costume, with her coiffure so evidently turned out by Truefitt’s!”
“Oh, I don’t mean those two,” Maisie answered, a little shocked he should think she had picked out such meretricious faces; “I mean the two beyond them again–the two with their hair so simply and sweetly done–the ethereal-looking dark girls.”
The undergraduate opened his mouth, and stared at her in blank amazement for a moment. “Well, I don’t see??” he began, and broke off suddenly. Something in Maisie’s eye seemed to give him pause. He fondled his moustache, hesitated and was silent.
“How nice to have read the Greek and know what it all means!” Maisie went on, after a minute. “It’s a human sacrifice, of course; but, please, what is the story?”
The undergraduate hummed and hawed. “Well, it’s in Euripides, you know,” he said, trying to look impressive, “and–er–and I haven’t taken up Euripides for my next examination. But I think it’s like this. Iphigenia was a daughter of Agamemnon’s, don’t you know, and he had offended Artemis or somebody–some other Goddess; and he vowed to offer up to her the most beautiful thing that should be born that year, by way of reparation–just like Jephthah. Well, Iphigenia was considered the most beautiful product of the particular twelvemonth? don’t look at me like that, please! you–you make me nervous–and so, when the young woman grew up–well, I don’t quite recollect the ins and outs of the details, but it’s a human sacrifice business, don’t you see; and they’re just going to kill her, though I believe a hind was finally substituted for the girl, like the ram for Isaac; but I must confess I’ve a very vague recollection of it.” He rose from his seat uneasily. “I’m afraid,” he went on, shuffling about for an excuse to move, “these chairs are too close. I seem to be incommoding you.”
He moved away with a furtive air. At the end of the tableau one or two of the characters who were not needed in succeeding pieces came down from the stage and joined the body of spectators, as they often do, in their character-dresses–a good opportunity, in point of fact, for retaining through the evening the advantages conferred by theatrical costume, rouge, and pearl-powder. Among them the two girls Maisie had admired so much glided quietly toward her and took the two vacant seats on either side, one of which had just been quitted by the awkward undergraduate. They were not only beautiful in face and figure, on a closer view, but Maisie found them from the first extremely sympathetic. They burst into talk with her, frankly and at once, with charming ease and grace of manner. They were ladies in the grain, in instinct and breeding. The taller of the two, whom the other addressed as Yolande, seemed particularly pleasing. The very name charmed Maisie. She was friends with them at once. They both possessed a certain nameless attraction that constitutes in itself the best possible introduction. Maisie hesitated to ask them whence they came, but it was clear from their talk they knew Wolverden intimately.
After a minute the piano struck up once more. A famous Scotch vocalist, in a diamond necklet and a dress to match, took her place on the stage, just in front of the footlights. As chance would have it, she began singing the song Maisie most of all hated. It was Scott’s ballad of “Proud Maisie,” set to music by Carlo Ludovici?
"Proud Maisie is in the wood. Walking so early; Sweet Robin sits on the bush. Singing so rarely. 'Tell me, thou bonny bird. When shall I marry me?' 'When six braw gentlemen Kirkward shall carry ye.' 'Who makes the bridal bed. Birdie, say truly?' 'The grey-headed sexton That delves the grave duly. 'The glow-worm o'er grave and stone Shall light thee steady; 'The owl from the steeple sing. Welcome, Proud lady."
Maisie listened to the song with grave discomfort. She had never liked it, and to-night it appalled her. She did not know that just at that moment Mrs. West was whispering in a perfect fever of apology to a lady by her side, “Oh dear! oh dear! what a dreadful thing of me ever to have permitted that song to be sung here to-night! It was horribly thoughtless! Why, now I remember, Miss Llewelyn’s name, you know, is Maisie! And there she is listening to it with a face like a sheet! I shall never forgive myself!”
The tall, dark girl by Maisie’s side, whom the other called Yolande, leaned across to her sympathetically. “You don’t like that song?” she said, with just a tinge of reproach in her voice as she said it.
“I hate it!” Maisie answered, trying hard to compose herself.
“Why so?” the tall, dark girl asked, in a tone of calm and singular sweetness. “It is sad, perhaps; but it’s lovely–and natural!”
“My own name is Maisie,” her new friend replied, with an ill-repressed shudder. “And somehow that song pursues me through life I seem always to hear the horrid ring of the words, ‘When six braw gentlemen kirkward shall carry ye.’ I wish to Heaven my people had never called me Maisie!”
“And yet why?” the tall, dark girl asked again, with a sad, mysterious air. “Why this clinging to life–this terror of death? this inexplicable attachment to a world of misery? And with such eyes as yours, too! Your eyes are like mine!” which was a compliment, certainly, for the dark girl’s own pair were strangely deep and lustrous. “People with eyes such as those, that can look into futurity, ought not surely to shrink from a mere gate like death! For death is but a gate–the gate of life in its fullest beauty. It is written over the door, ‘Mors janua vit.'”
“What door?” Maisie asked, for she remembered having read those selfsame words, and tried in vain to translate them, that very day, though the meaning was now clear to her.
The answer electrified her: “The gate of the vault in Wolverden churchyard.”
She said it very low, but with pregnant expression.
“Oh, how dreadful!” Maisie exclaimed, drawing back. The tall, dark girl half frightened her.
“Not at all,” the girl answered. “This life is so short, so vain, so transitory! And beyond it is peace–eternal peace–the calm of rest–the joy of the spirit.”
“You come to anchor at last,” her companion added.
“But if–one has somebody one would not wish to leave behind?” Maisie suggested timidly.
“He will follow before long,” the dark girl replied with quiet decision, interpreting rightly the sex of the indefinite substantive. “Time passes so quickly. And if time passes quickly in time, how much more, then, in eternity!”
“Hush, Yolande,” the other dark girl put in, with a warning glance; “there’s a new tableau coming. Let me see, is this ‘The Death of Ophelia’? No, that’s number four; this is number three, ‘The Martyrdom of St. Agnes.'”
“My dear,” Mrs. West said, positively oozing apology, when she met Maisie in the supper-room, “I’m afraid you’ve been left in a corner by yourself almost all the evening!”
“Oh dear, no,” Maisie answered with a quiet smile. “I had that Oxford undergraduate at my elbow at first; and afterwards those two nice girls, with the flowing white dresses and the beautiful eyes, came and sat beside me. What’s their name, I wonder?”
“Which girls?” Mrs. West asked, with a little surprise in her tone, for her impression was rather that Maisie had been sitting between two empty chairs for the greater part of the evening, muttering at times to herself in the most uncanny way, but not talking to anybody.
Maisie glanced round the room in search of her new friends, and for some time could not see them. At last, she observed them in a remote alcove, drinking red wine by themselves out of Venetian-glass beakers. “Those two,” she said, pointing towards them. “They ‘re such charming girls! Can you tell me who they are? I’ve quite taken a fancy to them.”
Mrs. West gazed at them for a second–or rather, at the recess towards which Maisie pointed–and then turned to Maisie with much the same oddly embarrassed look and manner as the undergraduate’s. “Oh, those!” she said slowly, peering through and through her, Maisie thought. “Those–must be some of the professionals from London. At any rate?–I’m not sure which you mean–over there by the curtain, in the Moorish nook, you say–well, I can’t tell you their names! So they must be professionals.”
She went off with a singularly frightened manner. Maisie noticed it and wondered at it. But it made no great or lasting impression.
When the party broke up, about midnight or a little later, Maisie went along the corridor to her own bedroom. At the end, by the door, the two other girls happened to be standing, apparently gossiping.
“Oh, you’ve not gone home yet?” Maisie said, as she passed, to Yolande.
“No, we’re stopping here,” the dark girl with the speaking eyes answered.
Maisie paused for a second. Then an impulse burst over her. “Will you come and see my room?” she asked, a little timidly.
“Shall we go, Hedda?” Yolande said, with an inquiring glance at her companion.
Her friend nodded assent. Maisie opened the door, and ushered them into her bedroom.
The ostentatiously opulent fire was still burning brightly, the electric light flooded the room with its brilliancy, the curtains were drawn, and the shutters fastened. For a while the three girls sat together by the hearth and gossiped quietly. Maisie liked her new friends–their voices were so gentle, soft, and sympathetic, while for face and figure they might have sat as models to Burne-Jones or Botticelli. Their dresses, too, took her delicate Welsh fancy; they were so dainty, yet so simple. The soft silk fell in natural folds and dimples. The only ornaments they wore were two curious brooches of very antique workmanship–as Maisie supposed–somewhat Celtic in design, and enamelled in blood-red on a gold background. Each carried a flower laid loosely in her bosom. Yolande’s was an orchid with long, floating streamers, in colour and shape recalling some Southern lizard; dark purple spots dappled its lip and petals. Hedda’s was a flower of a sort Maisie had never before seen–the stem spotted like a viper’s skin, green flecked with russet-brown, and uncanny to look upon; on either side, great twisted spirals of red-and-blue blossoms, each curled after the fashion of a scorpion’s tail, very strange and lurid. Something weird and witch-like about flowers and dresses rather attracted Maisie; they affected her with the half-repellent fascination of a snake for a bird; she felt such blossoms were fit for incantations and sorceries. But a lily-of-the-valley in Yolande’s dark hair gave a sense of purity which assorted better with the girl’s exquisitely calm and nun-like beauty.
After a while Hedda rose. “This air is close,” she said. “It ought to be warm outside to-night, if one may judge by the sunset. May I open the window?”
“Oh, certainly, if you like,” Maisie answered, a vague foreboding now struggling within her against innate politeness.
Hedda drew back the curtains and unfastened the shutters. It was a moonlit evening. The breeze hardly stirred the bare boughs of the silver birches. A sprinkling of soft snow on the terrace and the hills just whitened the ground. The moon lighted it up, falling full upon the Hall; the church and tower below stood silhouetted in dark against a cloudless expanse of starry sky in the background. Hedda opened the window. Cool, fresh air blew in, very soft and genial, in spite of the snow and the lateness of the season. “What a glorious night!” she said, looking up at Orion overhead. “Shall we stroll out for a while in it?”
If the suggestion had not thus been thrust upon her from outside, it would never have occurred to Maisie to walk abroad in a strange place, in evening dress, on a winter’s night, with snow whitening the ground; but Hedda’s voice sounded so sweetly persuasive, and the idea itself seemed so natural now she had once proposed it, that Maisie followed her two new friends on to the moonlit terrace without a moment’s hesitation.
They paced once or twice up and down the gravelled walks. Strange to say, though a sprinkling of dry snow powdered the ground under foot, the air itself was soft and balmy. Stranger still, Maisie noticed, almost without noticing it, that though they walked three abreast, only one pair of footprints–her own–lay impressed on the snow in a long trail when they turned at either end and re-paced the platform. Yolande and Hedda must step lightly indeed; or perhaps her own feet might be warmer or thinner shod, so as to melt the light layer of snow more readily.
The girls slipped their arms through hers. A little thrill coursed through her. Then, after three or four turns up and down the terrace, Yolande led the way quietly down the broad flight of steps in the direction of the church on the lower level. In that bright, broad moonlight Maisie went with them undeterred; the Hall was still alive with the glare of electric lights in bedroom windows; and the presence of the other girls, both wholly free from any signs of fear, took off all sense of terror or loneliness. They strolled on into the churchyard. Maisie’s eyes were now fixed on the new white tower, which merged in the silhouette against the starry sky into much the same grey and indefinite hue as the older parts of the building. Before she quite knew where she was, she found herself at the head of the worn stone steps which led into the vault by whose doors she had seen old Bessie sitting. In the pallid moonlight, with the aid of the greenish reflection from the snow, she could just read the words inscribed over the portal, the words that Yolande had repeated in the drawing-room, “Mors janua vit.'”
Yolande moved down one step. Maisie drew back for the first time with a faint access of alarm. “You’re–you’re not going down there!” she exclaimed, catching her breath for a second.
“Yes, I am,” her new friend answered in a calmly quiet voice. “Why not? We live here.”
“You live here?” Maisie echoed, freeing her arms by a sudden movement and standing away from her mysterious friends with a tremulous shudder.
“Yes, we live here,” Hedda broke in, without the slightest emotion. She said it in a voice of perfect calm, as one might say it of any house in a street in London.
Maisie was far less terrified than she might have imagined beforehand would be the case under such unexpected conditions. The two girls were so simple, so natural, so strangely like herself, that she could not say she was really afraid of them. She shrank, it is true, from the nature of the door at which they stood, but she received the unearthly announcement that they lived there with scarcely more than a slight tremor of surprise and astonishment.
“You will come in with us?” Hedda said in a gently enticing tone. “We went into your bedroom.”
Maisie hardly liked to say no. They seemed so anxious to show her their home. With trembling feet she moved down the first step, and then the second. Yolande kept ever one pace in front of her. As Maisie reached the third step, the two girls, as if moved by one design, took her wrists in their hands, not unkindly, but coaxingly. They reached the actual doors of the vault itself–two heavy bronze valves, meeting in the centre. Each bore a ring for a handle, pierced through a Gorgon’s head embossed upon the surface. Yolande pushed them with her hand. They yielded instantly to her light touch, and opened inward. Yolande, still in front, passed from the glow of the moon to the gloom of the vault, which a ray of moonlight just descended obliquely. As she passed, for a second, a weird sight met Maisie’s eyes. Her face and hands and dress became momentarily self-luminous–but through them, as they glowed, she could descry within every bone and joint of her living skeleton, dimly shadowed in dark through the luminous haze that marked her body.
Maisie drew back once more, terrified. Yet her terror was not quite what one could describe as fear: it was rather a vague sense of the profoundly mystical. “I can’t! I can’t!” she cried, with an appealing glance. “Hedda! Yolande! I cannot go with you.”
Hedda held her hand tight, and almost seemed to force her. But Yolande, in front, like a mother with her child, turned round with a grave smile. “No, no,” she said reprovingly. “Let her come if she will, Hedda, of her own accord, not otherwise. The tower demands a willing victim.”
Her hand on Maisie’s wrist was strong but persuasive. It drew her without exercising the faintest compulsion. “Will you come with us, dear?” she said, in that winning silvery tone which had captivated Maisie’s fancy from the very first moment they spoke together. Maisie gazed into her eyes. They were deep and tender. A strange resolution seemed to nerve her for the effort. “Yes, yes–I–will–come–with you,” she answered slowly.
Hedda on one side, Yolande on the other, now went before her, holding her wrists in their grasp, but rather enticing than drawing her. As each reached the gloom, the same luminous appearance which Maisie had noticed before spread over their bodies, and the same weird skeleton shape showed faintly through their limbs in darker shadow. Maisie crossed the threshold with a convulsive gasp. As she crossed it she looked down at her own dress and body. They were semi-transparent, like the others’, though not quite so self-luminous; the framework of her limbs appeared within in less certain outline, yet quite dark and distinguishable.
The doors swung to of themselves behind her. Those three stood alone in the vault of Wolverden.
Alone, for a minute or two; and then, as her eyes grew accustomed to the grey dusk of the interior, Maisie began to perceive that the vault opened out into a large and beautiful hall or crypt, dimly lighted at first, but becoming each moment more vaguely clear and more dreamily definite. Gradually she could make out great rock-hewn pillars, Romanesque in their outline or dimly Oriental, like the sculptured columns in the caves of Ellora, supporting a roof of vague and uncertain dimensions, more or less strangely dome-shaped. The effect on the whole was like that of the second impression produced by some dim cathedral, such as Chartres or Milan, after the eyes have grown accustomed to the mellow light from the stained-glass windows, and have recovered from the blinding glare of the outer sunlight. But the architecture, if one may call it so, was more mosque-like and magical. She turned to her companions. Yolande and Hedda stood still by her side; their bodies were now self-luminous to a greater degree than even at the threshold; but the terrible transparency had disappeared altogether; they were once more but beautiful though strangely transfigured and more than mortal women.
Then Maisie understood in her own soul, dimly, the meaning of those mystic words written over the portal. “Mors janua vit.” Death is the gate of life; and also the interpretation of that awful vision of death dwelling within them as they crossed the threshold; for through that gate they had passed to this underground palace.
Her two guides still held her hands, one on either side. But they seemed rather to lead her on now, seductively and resistlessly, than to draw or compel her. As she moved in through the hall, with its endless vistas of shadowy pillars, seen now behind, now in dim perspective, she was gradually aware that many other people crowded its aisles and corridors. Slowly they took shape as forms more or less clad, mysterious, varied, and of many ages. Some of them wore flowing robes, half mediaeval in shape, like the two friends who had brought her there. They looked like the saints on a stained-glass window. Others were girt merely with a light and floating Coan sash; while some stood dimly nude in the darker recesses of the temple or palace. All leaned eagerly forward with one mind as she approached, and regarded her with deep and sympathetic interest. A few of them murmured words–mere cabalistic sounds which at first she could not understand; but as she moved further into the hall, and saw at each step more clearly into the gloom, they began to have a meaning for her. Before long, she was aware that she understood the mute tumult of voices at once by some internal instinct. The Shades addressed her; she answered them. She knew by intuition what tongue they spoke; it was the Language of the Dead; and, by passing that portal with her two companions, she had herself become enabled both to speak and understand it.
A soft and flowing tongue, this speech of the Nether World–all vowels it seemed, without distinguishable consonants; yet dimly recalling every other tongue, and compounded, as it were, of what was common to all of them. It flowed from those shadowy lips as clouds issue inchoate from a mountain valley; it was formless, uncertain, vague, but yet beautiful. She hardly knew, indeed, as it fell upon her senses, if it were sound or perfume.
Through this tenuous world Maisie moved as in a dream, her two companions still cheering and guiding her. When they reached an inner shrine or chantry of the temple she was dimly conscious of more terrible forms pervading the background than any of those that had yet appeared to her. This was a more austere and antique apartment than the rest; a shadowy cloister, prehistoric in its severity; it recalled to her mind something indefinitely inter’ate between the huge unwrought trilithons of Stonehenge and the massive granite pillars of Philaend Luxor. At the further end of the sanctuary a sort of Sphinx looked down on her, smiling mysteriously. At its base, on a rude megalithic throne, in solitary state, a High Priest was seated. He bore in his hand a wand or sceptre. All round, a strange court of half-unseen acolytes and shadowy hierophants stood attentive They were girt, as she fancied, in what looked like leopards’ skins, or in the fells of some earlier prehistoric lion. These wore sabre-shaped teeth suspended by a string round their dusky necks; others had ornaments of uncut amber, or hatchets of jade threaded as collars on a cord of sinew. A few, more barbaric than savage in type, flaunted torques of gold as armlets and necklets.
The High Priest rose slowly and held out his two hands, just level with his head, the palms turned outward. “You have brought a willing victim as Guardian of the Tower?” he asked, in that mystic tongue, of Yolande and Hedda.
“We have brought a willing victim,” the two girls answered.
The High Priest gazed at her. His glance was piercing. Maisie trembled less with fear than with a sense of strangeness, such as a neophyte might feel on being first presented at some courtly pageant. “You come of your own accord?” the Priest inquired of her in solemn accents.
“I come of my own accord,” Maisie answered, with an inner consciousness that she was bearing her part in some immemorial ritual. Ancestral memories seemed to stir within her.
“It is well,” the Priest murmured. Then he turned to her guides. “She is of royal lineage?” he inquired, taking his wand in his hand again.
“She is a Llewelyn,” Yolande answered, “of royal lineage, and of the race that, after your own, earliest bore sway in this land of Britain. She has in her veins the blood of Arthur, of Ambrosius, and of Vortigern.”
“It is well,” the Priest said again. “I know these princes.” Then he turned to Maisie. “This is the ritual of those who build,” he said, in a very deep voice. “It has been the ritual of those who build from the days of the builders of Lokmariaker and Avebury. Every building man makes shall have its human soul, the soul of a virgin to guard and protect it. Three souls it requires as a living talisman against chance and change. One soul is the soul of the human victim slain beneath the foundation-stone; she is the guardian spirit against earthquake and ruin. One soul is the soul of the human victim slain when the building is half built up; she is the guardian spirit against battle and tempest. One soul is the soul of the human victim who flings herself of her own free will off tower or gable when the building is complete; she is the guardian spirit against thunder and lightning. Unless a building be duly fasted with these three, how can it hope to stand against the hostile powers of fire and flood and storm and earthquake?”
An assessor at his side, unnoticed till then, took up the parable. He had a stern Roman face, and bore a shadowy suit of Roman armour. “In times of old,” he said, with iron austerity, “all men knew well these rules of building. They built in solid stone to endure for ever: the works they erected have lasted to this day, in this land and others. So built we the amphitheatres of Rome and Verona; so built we the walls of Lincoln, York, and London. In the blood of a king’s son laid we the foundation-stone: in the blood of a king’s son laid we the coping-stone: in the blood of a maiden of royal line fasted we the bastions against fire and lightning. But in these latter days, since faith grows dim, men build with burnt brick and rubble of plaster; no foundation spirit or guardian soul do they give to their bridges, their walls, or their towers: so bridges break, and walls fall in, and towers crumble, and the art and mystery of building aright have perished from among you.”
He ceased. The High Priest held out his wand and spoke again. “We are the Assembly of Dead Builders and Dead Victims,” he said, “for this mark of Wolverden; all of whom have built or been built upon in this holy site of immemorial sanctity. We are the stones of a living fabric. Before this place was a Christian church, it was a temple of Woden. And before it was a temple of Woden, it was a shrine of Hercules. And before it was a shrine of Hercules, it was a grove of Nodens. And before it was a grove of Nodens, it was a Stone Circle of the Host of Heaven. And before it was a Stone Circle of the Host of Heaven, it was the grave and tumulus and underground palace of Me, who am the earliest builder of all in this place; and my name in my ancient tongue is Wolf, and I laid and hallowed it. And after me, Wolf, and my namesake Wulfhere, was this barrow called Ad Lupum and Wolverden. And all these that are here with me have built and been built upon in this holy site for all generations. And you are the last who come to join us.”
Maisie felt a cold thrill course down her spine as he spoke these words; but courage did not fail her. She was dimly aware that those who offer themselves as victims for service must offer themselves willingly; for the gods demand a voluntary victim; no beast can be slain unless it nod assent; and none can be made a guardian spirit who takes not the post upon him of his own free will. She turned meekly to Hedda. “Who are you?” she asked, trembling.
“I am Hedda,” the girl answered, in the same soft sweet voice and winning tone as before; “Hedda, the daughter of Gorm, the chief of the Northmen who settled in East Anglia. And I was a worshipper of Thor and Odin. And when my father, Gorm, fought against Alfred, King of Wessex, was I taken prisoner. And Wulfhere, the Kenting, was then building the first church and tower of Wolverden. And they baptized me, and shrived me, and I consented of my own free will to be built under the foundation-stone. And there my body lies built up to this day; and I am the guardian spirit against earthquake and ruin.”
“And who are you?” Maisie asked, turning again to Yolande.
“I am Yolande Fitz-Aylwin,” the tall dark girl answered; “a royal maiden too, sprung from the blood of Henry Plantagenet. And when Roland Fitz-Stephen was building anew the choir and chancel of Wulfhere’s minster, I chose to be immured in the fabric of the wall, for love of the Church and all holy saints; and there my body lies built up to this day; and I am the guardian against battle and tempest.”
Maisie held her friend’s hand tight. Her voice hardly trembled. “And I?” she asked once more. “What fate for me? Tell me!”
“Your task is easier far,” Yolande answered gently. “For you shall be the guardian of the new tower against thunder and lightning. Now, those who guard against earthquake and battle are buried alive under the foundation-stone or in the wall of the building; there they die a slow death of starvation and choking. But those who guard against thunder and lightning cast themselves alive of their own free will from the battlements of the tower, and die in the air before they reach the ground; so their fate is the easiest and the lightest of all who would serve mankind; and thenceforth they live with us here in our palace.”
Maisie clung to her hand still tighter. “Must I do it?” she asked, pleading.
“It is not must,” Yolande replied in the same caressing tone, yet with a calmness as of one in whom earthly desires and earthly passions are quenched for ever. “It is as you choose yourself. None but a willing victim may be a guardian spirit. This glorious privilege comes but to the purest and best amongst us. Yet what better end can you ask for your soul than to dwell here in our midst as our comrade for ever, where all is peace, and to preserve the tower whose guardian you are from evil assaults of lightning and thunderbolt?”
Maisie flung her arms round her friend’s neck. “But–I am afraid,” she murmured. Why she should even wish to consent she knew not, yet the strange serene peace in these strange girls’ eyes made her mysteriously in love with them and with the fate they offered her. They seemed to move like the stars in their orbits. “How shall I leap from the top?” she cried. “How shall I have courage to mount the stairs alone, and fling myself off from the lonely battlement?”
Yolande unwound her arms with a gentle forbearance. She coaxed her as one coaxes an unwilling child. “You will not be alone,” she said, with a tender pressure. “We will all go with you. We will help you and encourage you. We will sing our sweet songs of life-in-death to you. Why should you draw back? All we have faced it in ten thousand ages, and we tell you with one voice, you need not fear it. ‘Tis life you should fear–life, with its dangers, its toils, its heartbreakings. Here we dwell for ever in unbroken peace. Come, come, and join us!”
She held out her arms with an enticing gesture. Maisie sprang into them, sobbing. “Yes, I will come,” she cried in an access of hysterical fervour. “These are the arms of Death–I embrace them. These are the lips of Death–I kiss them. Yolande, Yolande, I will do as you ask me!”
The tall dark girl in the luminous white robe stooped down and kissed her twice on the forehead in return. Then she looked at the High Priest. “We are ready,” she murmured in a low, grave voice. “The Victim consents. The Virgin will die. Lead on to the tower. We are ready! We are ready!”
From the recesses of the temple–if temple it were–from the inmost shrines of the shrouded cavern, unearthly music began to sound of itself; with wild modulation, on strange reeds and tabors. It swept through the aisles like a rushing wind on an aeolian harp; at times it wailed with a voice like a woman’s; at times it rose loud in an organ-note of triumph; at times it sank low into a pensive and melancholy flute-like symphony. It waxed and waned; it swelled and died away again; but no man saw how or whence it proceeded. Wizard echoes issued from the crannies and vents in the invisible walls; they sighed from the ghostly interspaces of the pillars; they keened and moaned from the vast overhanging dome of the palace. Gradually the song shaped itself by weird stages into a processional measure. At its sound the High Priest rose slowly from his immemorial seat on the mighty cromlech which formed his throne. The Shades in leopards’ skins ranged themselves in bodiless rows on either hand; the ghostly wearers of the sabre-toothed lions’ fangs followed like ministrants in the footsteps of their hierarch.
Hedda and Yolande took their places in the procession. Maisie stood between the two, with hair floating on the air; she looked like a novice who goes up to take the veil, accompanied and cheered by two elder sisters.
The ghostly pageant began to move. Unseen music followed it with fitful gusts of melody. They passed down the main corridor, between shadowy Doric or Ionic pillars which grew dimmer and ever dimmer again in the distance as they approached, with slow steps, the earthward portal.
At the gate, the High Priest pushed against the valves with his hand. They opened outward.
He passed into the moonlight. The attendants thronged after him. As each wild figure crossed the threshold the same strange sight as before met Maisie’s eyes. For a second of time each ghostly body became self-luminous, as with some curious phosphorescence; and through each, at the moment of passing the portal, the dim outline of a skeleton loomed briefly visible. Next instant it had clothed itself as with earthly members.
Maisie reached the outer air. As she did so, she gasped. For a second, its chilliness and freshness almost choked her. She was conscious now that the atmosphere of the vault, though pleasant in its way, and warm and dry, had been loaded with fumes as of burning incense, and with somnolent vapours of poppy and mandragora. Its drowsy ether had cast her into a lethargy. But after the first minute in the outer world, the keen night air revived her. Snow lay still on the ground a little deeper than when she first came out, and the moon rode lower; otherwise, all was as before, save that only one or two lights still burned here and there in the great house on the terrace. Among them she could recognise her own room, on the ground floor in the new wing, by its open window.
The procession made its way across the churchyard towards the tower. As it wound among the graves an owl hooted. All at once Maisie remembered the lines that had so chilled her a few short hours before in the drawing-room?
"The glow-worm o'er grave and stone Shall light thee steady; The owl from the steeple sing. 'Welcome, proud lady!'"
But, marvellous to relate, they no longer alarmed her. She felt rather that a friend was welcoming her home; she clung to Yolande’s hand with a gentle pressure.
As they passed in front of the porch, with its ancient yew-tree, a stealthy figure glided out like a ghost from the darkling shadow. It was a woman, bent and bowed, with quivering limbs that shook half palsied. Maisie recognised old Bessie. “I knew she would come!” the old hag muttered between her toothless jaws. “I knew Wolverden Tower would yet be duly fasted!”
She put herself, as of right, at the head of the procession. They moved on to the tower, rather gliding than walking. Old Bessie drew a rusty key from her pocket, and fitted it with a twist into the brand-new lock. “What turned the old will turn the new,” she murmured, looking round and grinning. Maisie shrank from her as she shrank from not one of the Dead; but she followed on still into the ringers’ room at the base of the tower.
Thence a staircase in the corner led up to the summit. The High Priest mounted the stair, chanting a mystic refrain, whose runic sounds were no longer intelligible to Maisie. As she reached the outer air, the Tongue of the Dead seemed to have become a mere blank of mingled odours and murmurs to her. It was like a summer breeze, sighing through warm and resinous pinewoods. But Yolande and Hedda spoke to her yet, to cheer her, in the language of the living. She recognised that as revenants they were still in touch with the upper air and the world of the embodied.
They tempted her up the stair with encouraging fingers. Maisie followed them like a child, in implicit confidence. The steps wound round and round, spirally, and the staircase was dim; but a supernatural light seemed to fill the tower, diffused from the bodies or souls of its occupants. At the head of all, the High Priest still chanted as he went his unearthly litany; magic sounds of chimes seemed to swim in unison with his tune as they mounted. Were those floating notes material or spiritual? They passed the belfry; no tongue of metal wagged; but the rims of the great bells resounded and reverberated to the ghostly symphony with sympathetic music. Still they passed on and on, upward and upward. They reached the ladder that alone gave access to the final story. Dust and cobwebs already clung to it. Once more Maisie drew back. It was dark overhead and the luminous haze began to fail them. Her friends held her hands with the same kindly persuasive touch as ever. “I cannot!” she cried, shrinking away from the tall, steep ladder. “Oh, Yolande, I cannot!”
“Yes, dear,” Yolande whispered in a soothing voice. “You can. It is but ten steps, and I will hold your hand tight. Be brave and mount them!”
The sweet voice encouraged her. It was like heavenly music. She knew not why she should submit, or, rather, consent; but none the less she consented. Some spell seemed cast over her. With tremulous feet, scarcely realising what she did, she mounted the ladder and went up four steps of it.
Then she turned and looked down again. Old Bessie’s wrinkled face met her frightened eyes. It was smiling horribly. She shrank back once more, terrified. “I can’t do it,” she cried, “if that woman comes up! “I’m not afraid of you, dear,” she pressed Yolande’s hand, “but she, she is too terrible!”
Hedda looked back and raised a warning finger. “Let the woman stop below,” she said; “she savours too much of the evil world. We must do nothing to frighten the willing victim.”
The High Priest by this time, with his ghostly fingers, had opened the trap-door that gave access to the summit. A ray of moonlight slanted through the aperture. The breeze blew down with it. Once more Maisie felt the stimulating and reviving effect of the open air. Vivified by its freshness, she struggled up to the top, passed out through the trap, and found herself standing on the open platform at the summit of the tower.
The moon had not yet quite set. The light on the snow shone pale green and mysterious. For miles and miles around she could just make out, by its aid, the dim contour of the downs, with their thin white mantle, in the solemn silence. Range behind range rose faintly shimmering. The chant had now ceased; the High Priest and his acolytes were mingling strange herbs in a mazar-bowl or chalice. Stray perfumes of myrrh and of cardamoms were wafted towards her. The men in leopards’ skins burnt smouldering sticks of spikenard. Then Yolande led the postulant forward again, and placed her close up to the new white parapet. Stone heads of virgins smiled on her from the angles. “She must front the east,” Hedda said in a tone of authority: and Yolande turned her face towards the rising sun accordingly. Then she opened her lips and spoke in a very solemn voice. “From this new-built tower you fling yourself,” she said, or rather intoned, “that you may serve mankind, and all the powers that be, as its guardian spirit against thunder and lightning. Judged a virgin, pure and unsullied in deed and word and thought, of royal race and ancient lineage–a Cymry of the Cymry–you are found worthy to be intrusted with this charge and this honour. Take care that never shall dart or thunderbolt assault this tower, as She that is below you takes care to preserve it from earthquake and ruin, and She that is midway takes care to preserve it from battle and tempest. This is your charge. See well that you keep it.”
She took her by both hands. “Mary Llewelyn,” she said, “you willing victim, step on to the battlement.”
Maisie knew not why, but with very little shrinking she stepped as she was told, by the aid of a wooden footstool, on to the eastward-looking parapet. There, in her loose white robe, with her arms spread abroad, and her hair flying free, she poised herself for a second, as if about to shake out some unseen wings and throw herself on the air like a swift or a swallow.
“Mary Llewelyn,” Yolande said once more, in a still deeper tone, with ineffable earnestness, “cast yourself down, a willing sacrifice, for the service of man, and the security of this tower against thunderbolt and lightning.”
Maisie stretched her arms wider, and leaned forward in act to leap, from the edge of the parapet, on to the snow-clad churchyard.
One second more and the sacrifice would have been complete. But before she could launch herself from the tower, she felt suddenly a hand laid upon her shoulder from behind to restrain her. Even in her existing state of nervous exaltation she was aware at once that it was the hand of a living and solid mortal, not that of a soul or guardian spirit. It lay heavier upon her than Hedda’s or Yolande’s. It seemed to clog and burden her. With a violent effort she strove to shake herself free, and carry out her now fixed intention of self-immolation, for the safety of the tower. But the hand was too strong for her. She could not shake it off. It gripped and held her.
She yielded, and, reeling, fell back with a gasp on to the platform of the tower. At the selfsame moment a strange terror and commotion seemed to seize all at once on the assembled spirits. A weird cry rang voiceless through the shadowy company. Maisie heard it as in a dream, very dim and distant. It was thin as a bat’s note; almost inaudible to the ear, yet perceived by the brain or at least by the spirit. It was a cry of alarm, of fright, of warning. With one accord, all the host of phantoms rushed hurriedly forward to the battlements and pinnacles. The ghostly High Priest went first, with his wand held downward; the men in leopards’ skins and other assistants followed in confusion. Theirs was a reckless rout. They flung themselves from the top, like fugitives from a cliff, and floated fast through the air on invisible pinions. Hedda and Yolande, ambassadresses and intermediaries with the upper air, were the last to fly from the living presence. They clasped her hand silently, and looked deep into her eyes. There was something in that calm yet regretful look that seemed to say, “Farewell! We have tried in vain to save you, sister, from the terrors of living.”
The horde of spirits floated away on the air, as in a witches’ Sabbath, to the vault whence it issued. The doors swung on their rusty hinges, and closed behind them. Maisie stood alone with the hand that grasped her on the tower.
The shock of the grasp, and the sudden departure of the ghostly band in such wild dismay, threw Maisie for a while into a state of semi-unconsciousness. Her head reeled round; her brain swam faintly. She clutched for support at the parapet of the tower. But the hand that held her sustained her still. She felt herself gently drawn down with quiet mastery, and laid on the stone floor close by the trap-door that led to the ladder.
The next thing of which she could feel sure was the voice of the Oxford undergraduate. He was distinctly frightened and not a little tremulous. “I think,” he said very softly, laying her head on his lap, “you had better rest a while, Miss Llewelyn, before you try to get down again. I hope I didn’t catch you and disturb you too hastily. But one step more, and you would have been over the edge. I really couldn’t help it.”
“Let me go,” Maisie moaned, trying to raise herself again, but feeling too faint and ill to make the necessary effort to recover the power of motion. “I want to go with them! I want to join them!”
“Some of the others will be up before long,” the undergraduate said, supporting her head in his hands; “and they’ll help me to get you down again. Mr. Yates is in the belfry. Meanwhile, if I were you, I’d lie quite still, and take a drop or two of this brandy.”
He held it to her lips. Maisie drank a mouthful, hardly knowing what she did. Then she lay quiet where he placed her for some minutes. How they lifted her down and conveyed her to her bed she scarcely knew. She was dazed and terrified. She could only remember afterward that three or four gentlemen in roughly huddled clothes had carried or handed her down the ladder between them. The spiral stair and all the rest were a blank to her.
When she next awoke she was lying in her bed in the same room at the Hall, with Mrs. West by her side, leaning over her tenderly.
Maisie looked up through her closed eyes and just saw the motherly face and grey hair bending above her. Then voices came to her from the mist, vaguely: “Yesterday was so hot for the time of year, you see!” “Very unusual weather, of course, for Christmas.” “But a thunderstorm! So strange! I put it down to that. The electrical disturbance must have affected the poor child’s head.” Then it dawned upon her that the conversation she heard was passing between Mrs. West and a doctor.
She raised herself suddenly and wildly on her arms. The bed faced the windows. She looked out and beheld–the tower of Wolverden church, rent from top to bottom with a mighty rent, while half its height lay tossed in fragments on the ground in the churchyard.
“What is it?” she cried wildly, with a flush as of shame.
“Hush, hush!” the doctor said. “Don’t trouble! Don’t look at it!”
“Was it? after I came down?” Maisie moaned in vague terror.
The doctor nodded. “An hour after you were brought down,” he said, “a thunderstorm broke over it. The lightning struck and shattered the tower. They had not yet put up the lightning-conductor. It was to have been done on Boxing Day.”
A weird remorse possessed Maisie’s soul. “My fault!” she cried, starting up. “My fault, my fault! I have neglected my duty!”
“Don’t talk,” the doctor answered, looking hard at her. “It is always dangerous to be too suddenly aroused from these curious overwrought sleeps and trances.”
“And old Bessie?” Maisie exclaimed, trembling with an eerie presentiment.
The doctor glanced at Mrs. West. “How did she know?” he whispered. Then he turned to Maisie. “You may as well be told the truth as suspect it,” he said slowly. “Old Bessie must have been watching there. She was crushed and half buried beneath the falling tower.”
“One more question, Mrs. West,” Maisie murmured, growing faint with an access of supernatural fear. “Those two nice girls who sat on the chairs at each side of me through the tableaux, are they hurt? Were they in it?”
Mrs. West soothed her hand. “My dear child,” she said gravely, with quiet emphasis, “there were no other girls. This is mere hallucination. You sat alone by yourself through the whole of the evening.”