THE HERMIT OF ——— STREET.
By Anna Katharine Green
(Mrs. Charles Rohlfs)
Copyright, 1898, by Anna Katharine Rohlfs
I COMMIT AN INDISCRETION.
A STRANGE WEDDING BREAKFAST.
ONE BEAD FROM A NECKLACE.
I LEARN HYPOCRISY.
THE STOLEN KEY.
WHILE OTHERS DANCED.
CHAPTER I. I COMMIT AN INDISCRETION.
I should have kept my eyes for the many brilliant and interesting sights
constantly offered me. Another girl would have done so. I myself might
have done so, had I been over eighteen, or, had I not come from the
country, where my natural love of romance had been fostered by uncongenial
surroundings and a repressed life under the eyes of a severe and
unsympathetic maiden aunt.
I was visiting in a house where fashionable people made life a perpetual
holiday. Yet of all the pleasures which followed so rapidly, one upon
another, that I have difficulty now in separating them into distinct
impressions, the greatest, the only one I never confounded with any other,
was the hour I spent in my window after the day's dissipations were all
over, watching—what? Truth and the necessities of my story oblige me
to say—a man's face, a man's handsome but preoccupied face, bending
night after night over a study-table in the lower room of the great house
in our rear.
I had been in the city three weeks, and I had already received—pardon
the seeming egotism of the confession—four offers, which,
considering I had no fortune and but little education or knowledge of the
great world, speaks well for something: I leave you to judge what. All of
these offers were from young men; one of them from a very desirable young
man, but I had listened to no one's addresses, because, after accepting
them, I should have felt it wrong to contemplate so unremittingly the
face, which, for all its unconsciousness of myself, held me spell-bound to
an idea I neither stopped nor cared to analyze.
Why, at such a distance and under circumstances of such distraction, did
it affect me so? It was not a young face (Mr. Allison at that time was
thirty-five); neither was it a cheerful or even a satisfied one; but it
was very handsome, as I have said; far too handsome, indeed, for a
romantic girl to see unmoved, and it was an enigmatic face; one that did
not lend itself to immediate comprehension, and that, to one of my
temperament, was a fatal attraction, especially as enough was known of his
more than peculiar habits to assure me that character, rather than whim,
lay back of his eccentricities.
But first let me explain more fully my exact position in regard to this
gentleman on that day in early spring, destined to be such a memorable one
in my history.
I had never seen him, save in the surreptitious way I have related, and he
had never seen me. The day following my arrival in the city I had noticed
the large house in our rear, and had asked some questions about it. This
was but natural, for it was one of the few mansions in the great city with
an old-style lawn about it. Besides, it had a peculiarly secluded and
secretive look, which even to my unaccustomed eyes, gave it an appearance
strangely out of keeping with the expensive but otherwise ordinary houses
visible in all other directions. The windows—and there were many—were
all shuttered and closed, with the exception of the three on the lower
floor and two others directly over these. On the top story they were even
boarded up, giving to that portion of the house a blank and desolate air,
matched, I was told, by that of the large drawing-room windows on either
side of the front door, which faced, as you must see, on another street.
The grounds which, were more or less carefully looked after, were
separated from the street by a brick wall, surmounted by urns, from which
drooped the leafless tendrils of some old vines; but in the rear, that is,
in our direction, the line of separation was marked by a high iron fence,
in which, to my surprise, I saw a gate, which, though padlocked now,
marked old habits of intercourse, interesting to contemplate, between the
two houses. Through this fence I caught glimpses of the green turf and
scattered shrubs of a yard which had once sloped away to the avenues on
either side, and, more interesting still, those three windows whose
high-drawn shades offered such a vivid contrast to the rest of the house.
In one of these windows stood a table, with a chair before it. I had as
yet seen no one in the chair, but I had noted that the table was heavily
covered with papers and books, and judged that the room was a library and
the table that of a busy man engaged in an endless amount of study and
The Vandykes, whom I had questioned on the matter, were very short in
their replies. Not because the subject was uninteresting, or one they in
any way sought to avoid, but because the invitations to a great party had
just come in, and no other topic was worthy their discussion. But I
learned this much. That the house belonged to one of New York's oldest
families. That its present owner was a widow of great eccentricity of
character, who, with her one child, a daughter, unfortunately blind from
birth, had taken up her abode in some foreign country, where she thought
her child's affliction would attract less attention than in her native
city. The house had been closed to the extent I have mentioned,
immediately upon her departure, but had not been left entirely empty. Mr.
Allison, her man of business, had moved into it, and, being fully as
eccentric as herself, had contented himself for five years with a solitary
life in this dismal mansion, without friends, almost without
acquaintances, though he might have had unlimited society and any amount
of attention, his personal attractions being of a very uncommon order, and
his talent for business so pronounced, that he was already recognized at
thirty-five as one of the men to be afraid of in Wall Street. Of his birth
and connections little was known; he was called the Hermit of ———
Street, and—well,that is about all they told me at this time.
After I came to see him (as I did that very evening), I could ask no
further questions concerning him. The beauty of his countenance, the
mystery of his secluded life, the air of melancholy and mental distress
which I imagined myself to detect in his manner—he often used to sit
for minutes together with his eyes fixed on vacancy and his whole face
expressive of the bitterest emotion—had wrought this spell upon my
imagination, and I could no more mingle his name with that of the ordinary
men and women we discussed than I could confound his solitary and
expressive figure with the very proper but conventional forms of the
simpering youths who followed me in parlors or begged to be allowed the
honor of a dance at the balls I attended with the Vandykes. He occupied an
unique place in my regard, and this without another human being's
knowledge. I wish I could say without my own; but, alas! I have promised
myself to be true in all the details of this history, and, child as I was,
I could not be ignorant of the fascination which held me for hours at my
window when I should have been in bed and asleep.
But let me hasten to the adventure which put an end to my dreams by
launching me into realities of a still more absorbing nature. I was not
very well one day, and even Mrs. Vandyke acknowledged that it would not do
for me to take the long-planned drive to Tuxedo. So, as I would not let
any one else miss this pleasure on my account, I had been left alone in
the house, and, not being ill enough for bed, had spent the most of the
morning in my window—not because he was in his; I was yet too timid,
and, let me hope, too girlishly modest, to wish to attract in any way his
attention—but because the sun shone there, and I was just chilly
enough to enjoy its mingled light and heat. Thus it was I came to notice
the following petty occurrence. In the yard of the house next to that
occupied by Mr. Allison was kept a tame rabbit, which often took advantage
of a hole it had made for itself under the dividing fence to roam over the
neighboring lawn. On this day he was taking his%c-customed ramble, when
something startled him, and he ran, not back to his hole, but to our
fence, through which he squeezed himself, evidently to his own great
discomfort; for once in our yard, and under the refuge of a small bush he
found there, nothing would lure him back, though every effort was made to
do so, both by the small boy to whom he belonged, and the old serving-man
or gardener, who was the only other person besides Mr. Allison whom I ever
saw on the great place. Watching them, I noted three things: first, that
it was the child who first thought of opening the gate; secondly, that it
was the serving-man who brought the key; and, thirdly, that after the gate
had been opened and the rabbit recovered, the gate had not been locked
again; for, just as the man was about to do this, a call came from the
front, of so imperative a nature, that he ran forward, without readjusting
the padlock, and did not come back, though I watched for him in idle
curiosity for a good half-hour. This was in the morning. At seven o'clock—how
well I remember the hour!—I was sitting again in my window, waiting
for the return of the Vandykes, and watching the face which had now
reappeared at its usual place in the study. It was dark everywhere save
there, and I was marveling over the sense of companionship it gave me
under circumstances of loneliness, which some girls might have felt most
keenly, when suddenly my attention was drawn from him to a window in the
story over his head, by the rapid blowing in and out of a curtain, which
had been left hanging loose before an open sash. As there was a lighted
gas-jet near by, I watched the gyrating muslin with some apprehension, and
was more shocked than astonished when, in another moment, I saw the flimsy
folds give one wild flap and flare up into a brilliant and dangerous
flame. To shriek and throw up my window was the work of a moment, but I
attracted no attention by these means, and, what was worse, saw, with
feelings which may be imagined, that nothing I could do would be likely to
arouse Mr. Allison to an immediate sense of his danger, for not only were
the windows shut between us, but he was lost in one of his brooding
spells, which to all appearance made him quite impassible to surrounding
"Will no one see? Will no one warn him?" I cried out, in terror of the
flames burning so brightly in the room above him. Seemingly not. No other
window was raised in the vicinity, and, frightened quite beyond the
exercise of reason or any instincts of false modesty, I dashed out of my
room downstairs, calling for the servants. But Lucy was in the front area
and Ellen above, and I was on the back porch and in the garden before
either of them responded.
Meanwhile, no movement was observable in the brooding figure of Mr.
Allison, and no diminution in the red glare which now filled the room
above him. To see him sitting there so much at his ease, and to behold at
the same moment the destruction going on so rapidly over his head,
affected me more than I can tell, and casting to the winds all selfish
considerations, I sprang through the gate so providentially left ajar and
knocked with all my might on a door which opened upon a side porch not
many feet away from the spot where he sat so unconcernedly.
The moment I had done this I felt like running away again, but hearing his
advancing step, summoned up my courage and stood my ground bravely,
determined to say one word and run.
But when the door opened and I found myself face to face with the man
whose face I knew only too well, that word, important as it was, stuck in
my throat; for, agitated as I was, both by my errand and my sudden
encounter with one I had dreamed about for weeks, he seemed to be much
more so, though by other reasons—by far other reasons—than
myself. He was so moved—was it by the appearance of a strange young
girl on his doorstep, or was it at something in my face or manner, or
some-thing in his thoughts to which that face or manner gave a shock?—that
my petty fears for the havoc going on above seemed to pale into
insignificance before the emotions called up by my presence. Confronting
me with dilating eyes, he faltered slowly back till his natural instincts
of courtesy recalled him to himself, and he bowed, when I found courage to
"Fire! Your house is on fire! Up there, overhead!"
The sound which left his lips as these words slipped from mine struck me
speechless again. Appalling as the cry "Fire!" is at all times and to all
men, it roused in this man at this time something beyond anything my
girlish soul had ever imagined of terror or dismay. So intense were the
feelings I saw aroused in him that I expected to see him rush into the
open air with loud cries for help. But instead of that, he pushed the door
to behind me, and locking me in, said, in a strange and hoarsened tone?
"Don't call out, don't make any sound or outcry, and above all, don't let
any one in; I will fight the flames alone!" and seizing a lamp from the
study-table, he dashed from me towards a staircase I could faintly see in
the distance. But half-way down the hall he looked back at me, and again I
saw that look on his face which had greeted my unexpected appearance in
Alas! it was a thrilling look—a look which no girl could sustain
without emotion; and spellbound under it, I stood in a maze, alone and in
utter darkness, not knowing whether to unlock the door and escape or to
stand still and wait for his reappearance, as he evidently expected me to
Meanwhile, the alarm had spread, and more than one cry arose from the
houses in the rear. I could hear feet running over the walks without, and
finally a knock on the door I was leaning against, followed by the cry:
"Let us in! Fire! fire!"
But I neither moved nor answered. I was afraid to be found there,
crouching alone in a bachelor's residence, but I was equally afraid of
disobeying him, for his voice had been very imperious when he commanded me
not to let any one in; and I was too young to brave such a nature, even if
I had wished to, which I do not think I did.
"He is overhead! See him—see him!" I now heard shouted from the
lawn. "He has dragged the curtains down! He is showering the walls with
water! Look—look! how wildly he works! He will be burnt himself. Ah!
ah!" All of which gave me strange thrills, and filled the darkness which
encompassed me with startling pictures, till I could hardly stand the
stress or keep myself from rushing to his assistance.
While my emotions were at their height a bell rang. It was the front
doorbell, and it meant the arrival of the engines.
"Oh!" thought I, "what shall I do now? If I run out I shall encounter half
the neighborhood in the back yard; if I stay here how shall I be able to
meet the faces of the firemen who will come rushing in?"
But I was not destined to suffer from either contingency. As the bell rang
a second time, a light broke on the staircase I was so painfully watching,
and Mr. Allison descended, lamp in hand, as he had gone up. He appeared
calm now, and without any show of emotion proceeded at once to the front
door, which he opened.
What passed between him and the policeman whose voice I heard in the hall,
I do not know. I heard them go up-stairs and presently come down again,
and I finally heard the front door close. Then I began to make an effort
to gain some control over my emotions, for I knew he had not forgotten me,
and that he soon would be in the vestibule at my side.
But it was impossible for me to hope to meet him with an unconcerned air.
The excitement I was under and the cold—for I was dressed lightly
and the vestibule was chilly—had kept me trembling so, that my curls
had fallen all about my cheeks, and one had fallen so low that it hung in
shameful disorder to my very waist. This alone was enough to disconcert
me, but had my heart been without its secret—a secret I was in
mortal terror of disclosing in my confusion—I could have risen above
my embarrassment and let simple haste been my excuse. As it was, I must
have met him with a pleading aspect, very much like that of a frightened
child, for his countenance visibly changed as he approached me, and showed
quite an extraordinary kindness, if not contrition, as he paused in the
narrow vestibule with the blazing lamp held low in his hand.
"My little girl," he began, but instantly changed the phrase to "My dear
young lady, how can I thank you enough, and how can I sufficiently express
my regret at having kept you a prisoner in this blazing house? I fear I
have frightened you sorely, but—-" And here, to my astonishment, he
found nothing to say, moved overmuch by some strong feeling, or checked in
his apologies by some great embarrassment.
Astonished, for he did not look like a man who could be lightly disturbed,
I glowed a fiery red and put my hand out towards the door. Instantly he
found speech again.
"One moment," said he. "I feel that I ought to explain the surprise, the
consternation, which made me forget. You know this is not my house, that I
am here in trust for another, that the place is full of rare treasures."
Had he stopped again? I was in such a state of inner perturbation that I
hardly knew whether he had ceased to speak or I to hear. Something, I did
not know what, had shaken my very life's center—something in the
shape of dread, yet so mixed with delight that my hand fell from the knob
I had been blindly groping for and sank heavily at my side. His eyes had
not left my face.
"May I ask whom I have the honor of addressing?" he asked, in a tone I
might better never have heard from his lips.
To this I must make reply. Shuddering, for I felt something uncanny in the
situation, but speaking up, notwithstanding, with the round and vibrating
tones I had inherited from my mother, I answered, with the necessary
"I am Delight Hunter, a country girl, sir, visiting the Vandykes."
A flash that was certainly one of pleasure lighted up his face with a
brilliance fatal to my poor, quivering girl's heart.
"Allow me, Miss Hunter, to believe that you will not bring down the
indignation of my neighbors upon me by telling them of my carelessness and
indiscretion." Then, as my lips settled into a determined curve, he
himself opened the door, and bowing low, asked if I would accept his
protection to the gate.
But at the rush of the night air, such a sensation of shame overpowered me
that I only thought of retreat; and, declining his offer with a wild shake
of the head, I dashed from the house and fled with an incomprehensible
sense of relief back to that of the Vandykes. The servants, who had seen
me rush towards Mr. Allison's, were still in the yard watching for me. I
did not vouchsafe them a word. I could hardly formulate words in my own
mind. A great love and a great dread had seized upon me at once. A great
love for the man by whose face I had been moved for weeks and a great
dread—well, I cannot explain my dread, not as I felt it that night.
It was formless and without apparent foundation; but it would no more
leave me than my uneasy memory of the fierce instinct which had led him at
such a critical instant to close his door against all help, though in so
doing he had subjected a young girl to many minutes of intense
embarrassment and mortifying indecision.
CHAPTER II. A STRANGE WEDDING BREAKFAST.
Mr. Allison, who had never before been known to leave his books and
papers, not only called the next day to express his gratitude for what he
was pleased to style my invaluable warning, but came every day after, till
not only my heart but my reason told me that the great house in the rear
might ultimately be my home, if the passion which had now become my life
should prove greater than the dread which had not yet entirely left me.
Mr. Allison loved me—oh, what pride in the thought!—but Mr.
Allison had a secret, or why did he so often break off abruptly in some
telltale speech and drop his eyes, which were otherwise always upon me.
Something not easy to understand lay between us—something which he
alternately defied and succumbed to, something which kept him from being
quite the good man I had pictured myself as marrying. Why I was so certain
of this latter fact, I cannot say. Perhaps my instinct was keen; perhaps
the signs of goodness are so unmistakable that even a child feels their
want where her heart leans hardest.
Yet everything I heard of him only tended to raise him in my estimation.
After he became an habitué of the house, Mrs. Vandyke grew more
communicative in regard to him. He was eccentric, of course, but his
eccentricities were such as did him credit. One thing she told me made a
lasting impression on me. Mrs. Ransome, the lady in whose house he lived,
had left her home very suddenly. He anticipated a like return; so, ever
since her departure, it had been his invariable custom to have the table
set for three, so that he might never be surprised by her arrival. It had
become a monomania with him. Never did he sit down without there being
enough before him for a small family, and as his food was all brought in
cooked from a neighboring restaurant, this eccentricity of his was well
known, and gave an added éclat to his otherwise hermit-like habits.
To my mind, it added an element of pathos to his seclusion, and so
affected me that one day I dared to remark to him:
"You must have liked Mrs. Ransome very much you are so faithful in your
remembrance of her."
I never presumed again to attack any of his foibles. He gave me first a
hard look, then an indulgent one, and finally managed to say, after a
moment of quiet hesitation:
"You allude to my custom of setting two chairs at the table to which they
may return at any minute? Miss Hunter, what I do in the loneliness of that
great house is not worth the gossip of those who surround you."
Flushing till I wished my curls would fall down and hide my cheeks, I
tried to stammer out some apology. But he drove it back with a passionate
"Delight, idol of my heart, come and see what a lonely place that old
house is. Come and live in that house—at least for a little time,
till I can arrange for you a brighter and a happier home—come and be
It was sudden, it was all but unlooked-for, and like all his expressions
of feeling, frenzied rather than resolute. But it was a declaration that
met my most passionate longings, and in the elation it brought I forgot
for the moment the doubts it called up. Otherwise I had been a woman
rather than a girl, and this tale had never been written.
"You love me, Delight" (he was already pressing me in his arms), "you love
me or you would never have rushed so impetuously to warn me of my danger
that night. Make me the maddest, happiest man in all the world by saying
you will not wait; that you will not ask counsel of anybody or anything
but your affection, but marry me at once; marry me while my heart yearns
for you so deeply; marry me before I go away——"
"Yes, I am going away. Mrs. Ransome and her daughter are coming back and I
am going away. Will you go with me?"
With what intensity he spoke, yet with what hardness. I quivered while I
listened, yet I made no move to withdraw from him. Had he asked me to step
with him from the housetop I should hardly have refused while his heart
throbbed so wildly against mine and his eyes lured me on with such a
promise of ecstasy.
"You will?" How peremptory he could be. "You will?" How triumphant, also.
I hardly realized what I had done till I stood abashed before Mrs.
Vandyke, and told her I had engaged myself to marry Mr. Allison before he
went to Europe. Then it seemed I had done a very good thing. She
congratulated me heartily, and, seeing I had a certain fear of taking my
aunt into my confidence, promised to sit down and write to her herself,
using every encomium she could think of to make this sudden marriage, on
my part, seem like the result of reason and wise forethought.
"Such an estimable man! such an old neighbor! so domestic in his tastes!
and, oh! so wise to find out and make his own the slyest and most
bewildering little beauty that has come into New York this many a season!"
These were some of her words, and, though pleasing at the time, they made
me think deeply—much more deeply than I wished to, after I went
upstairs to my room.
"Estimable! an old neighbor! domestic in his tastes!" Had she said:
"Handsome! masterful in his air and spirit! a man to make a girl forget
the real end of life and think only of present pleasure!" I should not
have had such a fierce reaction. But estimable! Was he estimable? I tried
to cry out yes! I tried to keep down the memory of that moment when, with
a dozen passions suddenly let loose (one of them fear), he strode by me
and locked the door against all help, under an impetus he had tried in
vain to explain. Nothing would quiet the still, small voice speaking in my
breast, or give to the moment that unalloyed joy which belongs to a young
girl's betrothal. I was afraid. Why?
Mr. Allison never came in the evening, another of his peculiarities. Other
men did, but what were other men to me now? This night I pleaded weariness
(Mrs. Vandyke understood me), and remained in my room. I wanted to study
the face of my lover under the new conditions. Was he in his old seat?
Yes. And would he read, as usual, or study? No. He had thoughts of his own
to-night, engrossing enough to hold him enthralled without the aid of his
ordinary occupations; thoughts, thoughts of me, thoughts which should have
cleared his brow and made his face a study of delight to me. But was it
so? Alas! I had never seen it so troubled; lit with gleams of hope or
happiness by spells, but mostly sunk in depths of profoundest
contemplation, which gave to it a melancholy from which I shrank, and not
the melancholy one longs to comfort and allay. What was on his mind? What
was in his heart? Something he feared to have noted, for suddenly he rose
with a start, and, for the first time since my eyes had sought that
window, pulled down the shades and thus shut himself out from my view
altogether. Was it a rebuke to my insistent watchfulness? or the
confession of a reticent nature fearing to be surprised in its moment of
weakness? I ought to know—I would know. To-morrow I would ask him if
there was any sorrow in his life which a confiding girl ought to be made
acquainted with before she yielded him her freedom. But the pang which
pierced me at the thought, proved that I feared his answer too much to
ever question him.
I am thus explicit in regard to my thoughts and feelings at this time,
that I may more fully account to you for what I did later. I had not, what
every one else seemed to have, full confidence in this man, and yet the
thrall in which I was held by the dominating power of his passion, kept me
from seeking that advice even from my own intuitions, which might have led
to my preservation. I was blind and knew I was blind, yet rushed on
headlong. I asked him no questions till our wedding day.
My aunt, who seemed quite satisfied with Mrs. Vandyke's explanations,
promised to be present at the ceremony, which was set at an alarmingly
near day. My lovers on the contrary—by whom I mean the half dozen
men who had been attentive to me—refused to attend, so I had one
care less; for the lack of time—perhaps I should say my lack of
means—precluded me from obtaining a very elaborate wedding dress,
and I did not choose to have them see me appear on such an occasion in any
less charming guise than I had been accustomed to wear at party or play.
He did not care what I wore. When I murmured something about the
haste with which he had hurried things forward, and how it was likely to
interfere with what most brides considered necessary to the proper
celebration of such an event, he caught me to his breast with a feverish
gesture and vowed that if he could have his way, there would be no
preparation at all, but just a ceremony before a minister which would make
me his without the least delay.
Men may enjoy such precipitation, but women do not. I was so troubled by
what seemed the meagerness of my wardrobe and the lack of everything I had
been accustomed to see brides bring their husbands, that I asked Mrs.
Vandyke one day if Mr. Allison was a rich man. She answered, with a smile:
"No, my dear, not as we New-Yorkers count riches. Having the power of
attorney for Mrs. Ransome, he handles a good deal of money; but very
little of it is his own, though to you his five-thousand-a-year salary may
seem a fortune."
This was so much Greek to me, though I did understand he was not
"Then my fawn-colored cloth will not be so very inappropriate for a
wedding dress?" I asked.
"I wish you could see yourself in it," she said, and that satisfied me.
We were married simply, but to the sound of wonderful music, in a certain
little church not far from ——— Street. My aunt was there
and my four lovers, though they had said, one and all, they would not
come. But I saw nothing, realized nothing, save the feverish anxiety of my
bridegroom, who, up to the minute the final vows were uttered, seemed to
be on a strain of mingled emotions, among which I seemed to detect that
old one of fear. A pitiful outlook for an adoring bride, you will think,
who, without real friends to interest themselves in her, allows herself to
be pushed to a brink she is wise enough to see, but not strong enough to
recoil from. Yes, but its full pathos did not strike me then. I only felt
anxious to have the ceremony over, to know that the die was cast beyond my
own powers of retraction; and when the words of the benediction at last
fell upon my ears, it was with real joy I turned to see if they brought
him as much rapture as they did me. Happily for that moment's satisfaction
they did, and if a friend had been there with eyes to see and heart to
feel, there would have been nothing in the air of open triumph with which
Mr. Allison led me down the aisle to awaken aught but hope and confidence.
My own hopes rose at the sight, and when at the carriage door he turned to
give me a smile before he helped me in, nothing but the obstinacy of my
nature prevented me from accepting the verdict of my acquaintances, "That
for a little country girl, with nothing but her good looks to recommend
her, Delight Hunter had done remarkably well in the one short month she
had been in the city."
Mr. Allison had told me that it would be impossible for him to take me out
of the city at present. It was therefore to the house on ———
Street we were driven. On the way he attempted to reconcile me to what he
feared might strike me as dreary in the prospect.
"The house is partially closed," said he, "and many of the rooms are
locked. Even the great drawing-rooms have an uninhabited look, which will
make them anything but attractive to a lover of sunshine and comfort; but
the library is cheerful, and in that you can sit and imagine yourself at
home till lean wind up my business affairs and make possible the trip upon
which I have set my heart."
"Does that mean," I faintly ventured, "that you will leave me to spend
much of my time alone in that great echoing house?"
"No," was his quick response, "you shall spend no time there alone. When I
go out you shall go too, and if business takes me where you cannot
accompany me I will give you money to shop with, which will keep you
pleasantly occupied till I can rejoin you. Oh, we will make it a happy
honeymoon, in spite of all obstacles, my darling. I should be a wretch if
I did not make it happy for you."
Here was my opportunity. I trembled as I thought of it, and stammered
quite like a foolish child as I softly suggested:
"For me? Is it not likely to be a happy one for you?"
I will not give his answer; it was a passionate one, but it was not
convincing. Pondering it and trying to persuade myself he alluded only to
business cares and anxieties, I let the minute slip by and entered the
house with doubts unsolved, but with no further effort to understand him.
Remember, he was thirty-five and I but a chit of eighteen.
In the hall stood the old serving-man with whose appearance I was already
so familiar. He had a smile on his face, which formed my only welcome. He
also had a napkin over his arm.
"Luncheon is served," he announced, with great formality; and then I saw
through an open door the glitter of china and glass, and realized I was
about to take my first meal with my husband.
Mr. Allison had already told me that he intended to make no changes in his
domestic arrangements for the few days we were likely to occupy this
house. I had therefore expected that our meals would be served from the
restaurant, and that Ambrose (the waiting-man) would continue to be the
only other occupant of the house. But I was not sure whether the table
would be still set for four, or whether he would waive this old custom now
that he had a wife to keep him company at the once lonely board. I was
eager to know, and as soon as I could lay aside my hat in the little
reception-room, I turned my face towards the dining-room door, where my
husband stood awaiting me with a bunch of great white roses in his hand.
"Sweets to the sweet," said he, with a smile that sunk down deep into my
heart and made my eyes moisten with joy. In the hackneyed expression there
rang nothing false. He was proud and he was glad to see me enter that
dining-room as his wife.
The next moment I was before the board, which had been made as beautiful
as possible with flowers and the finest of dinner services. But the table
was set for four, two of whom could only be present in spirit.
I wondered if I were glad or sorry to see it—if I were more pleased
with his loyalty to his absent employer, or disappointed that my presence
had not made everybody else forgotten. To be consistent, I should have
rejoiced at this evidence of sterling worth on his part; but girls are not
consistent—at least, brides of an hour are not—and I may have
pouted the least bit in the world as I pointed to the two places set as
elaborately as our own, and said with the daring which comes with the
rights of a wife:
"It would be a startling coincidence if Mrs. Ransome and her daughter
should return today. I fear I would not like it."
I was looking directly at him as I spoke, with a smile on my lips and my
hand on the back of my chair. But the jest I had expected in reply did not
come. Something in my tone or choice of topic jarred upon him, and his
answer was a simple wave of his hand towards Ambrose, who at once relieved
me of my bouquet, placing it in a tall glass at the side of my plate.
"Now we will sit," said he.
I do not know how the meal would have passed had Ambrose not been present.
As it was, it was a rather formal affair, and would have been slightly
depressing, if I had not caught, now and then, flashing glances from my
husband's eye which assured me that he found as much to enchain him in my
presence as I did in his. What we ate I have no idea of. I only remember
that in every course there was enough for four.
As we rose, I was visited by a daring impulse. Ambrose had poured me out a
glass of wine, which stood beside my plate undisturbed. As I stooped to
recover my flowers again, I saw this glass, and at once lifted it towards
"To Mrs. Ransome and her daughter, who did not return to enjoy our
He recoiled. Yes, I am sure he gave a start back, though he recovered
himself immediately and responded with grave formality to my toast.
"Does he not like Mrs. Ransome?" I thought. "Is the somewhat onerous
custom he maintains here the result of a sense of duty rather than of
My curiosity was secretly whetted by the thought. But with a girl's
lightness I began to talk of other things, and first of the house, which I
now for the first time looked at with anything like seeing eyes.
He was patient with me, but I perceived he did not enjoy this topic any
more than the former one. "It is not ours," he kept saying; "remember that
none of these old splendors are ours."
"They are more ours than they are Mrs. Ransome's, just now," I at last
retorted, with one of my girlhood's saucy looks. "At all events, I am
going to play that it is ours tonight," I added, dancing away from him
towards the long drawing-rooms where I hoped to come upon a picture of the
absent lady of the house.
"Delight "—he was quite peremptory now—
"I must ask you not to enter those rooms, however invitingly the doors may
stand open. It is a notion, a whim of mine, that you do not lend your
beauty to light up that ghostly collection of old pictures and ugly
upholstery, and if you feel like respecting my wishes——"
"But may I not stand in the doorway?" I asked, satisfied at having been
able to catch a glimpse of a full-length portrait of a lady who could be
no other than Mrs. Ransome. "See! my shadow does not even fall across the
carpet. I won't do the room any harm, and I am sure that Mrs. Ransome's
picture won't do me any."
"Come! come away!" he cried; and humoring his wishes, I darted away, this
time in the direction of the dining-room and Ambrose. "My dear,"
remonstrated my husband, quickly following me, "what has brought you back
"I want to see," said I, "what Ambrose does with the food we did not eat.
Such a lot of it!"
It was childish, but then I was a child and a nervous one, too. Perhaps he
considered this, for, while he was angry enough to turn pale, he did not
attempt any rebuke, but left it to Ambrose to say:
"Mr. Allison is very good, ma'am. This food, which is very nice, is given
each day to a poor girl who comes for it, and takes it home to her
parents. I put it in this basket, and Mr. Allison gives it to the girl
when she calls for it in the evening."
"You are good," I cried, turning to my husband with a fond look.
Did he think the em-phasis misplaced, or did he consider it time for me to
begin to put on more womanly ways, for drawing me again into the library,
he made me sit beside him on the big lounge, and after a kiss or two,
demanded quietly, but oh, how peremptorily:
"Delight, why do you so often speak of Mrs. Ransome? Have you any reason
for it? Has any one talked to you about her, that her name seems to be
almost the only one on your lips in the few, short minutes we have been
I did not know why this was so, myself, so I only shook my head and
sighed, repentingly. Then, seeing that he would have some reply, I
answered with what naiveté I could summon up at the moment:
"I think it was because you seem so ashamed of your devotion to them. I
love to see your embarrassment, founded as it is upon the most generous
His hand closed over mine with a fierceness that hurt me.
"Let us talk of love," he whispered. "Delight, this is our wedding-day."
CHAPTER III. ONE BEAD FROM A NECKLACE.
After supper Mr. Allison put before me a large book. "Amuse yourself with
these pictures," said he; "I have a little task to perform. After it is
done I will come again and sit with you."
"You are not going out," I cried, starting up. "No," he smiled, "I am not
going out." I sank back and opened the book, but I did not look at the
pictures. Instead of that I listened to his steps moving about the house,
rear and front, and finally going up what seemed to be a servant's
staircase, for I could see the great front stairs from where I sat, and
there was no one on them. "Why do I not hear his feet overhead?" I asked
myself. "That is the only room he has given me leave to enter. Does his
task take him elsewhere?" Seemingly so, for, though he was gone a good
half hour, he did not enter the room above. Why should I think of so small
a matter? It would be hard to say; perhaps I was afraid of being left in
the great rooms alone; perhaps I was only curious; but I asked myself a
dozen times before he reappeared, "Where is he gone, and why does he stay
away so long?" But when he returned and sat down I said nothing. There was
a little thing I noted, however. His hands were trembling, and it was five
minutes before he met my inquiring look. This I should not consider worth
mentioning if I had not observed the same hesitancy follow the same
disappearance up-stairs on the succeeding night. It was the only time in
the day when he really left me, and, when he came back, he was not like
himself for a good half hour or more. "I will not displease him with
questions," I decided; "but some day I will find my own way into those
lofts above. I shall never be at rest till I do."
What I expected to find there is as much a mystery to my understanding as
my other doubts and fears. I hardly think I expected to find anything but
a desk of papers, or a box with money in it or other valuables. Still the
idea that something on the floor above had power to shadow my husband's
face, even in the glow of his first love for me, possessed me so
completely that, when he fell asleep one evening on the library lounge, I
took the opportunity of stealing away and mounting the forbidden staircase
to the third floor. I had found a candle in my bedroom, and this I took to
light me. But it revealed nothing to me except a double row of unused
rooms, with dust on the handles of all the doors. I scrutinized them all;
for, young as I was, I had wit enough to see that if I could find one knob
on which no dust lay that would be the one my husband was accustomed to
turn. But every one showed tokens of not having been touched in years,
and, baffled in my search, I was about to retreat, when I remembered that
the house had four stories, and that I had not yet come upon the staircase
leading to the one above. A hurried search (for I was mortally afraid of
being surprised by my husband,) revealed to me at last a distant door,
which had no dust on its knob. It lay at the bottom of a shut-in
stair-case, and, convinced that here was, the place my husband was in the
habit of visiting, I carefully fingered the knob, which turned very softly
in my hand. But it did not open the door. There was a lock visible just
below, and that lock was fastened.
My first escapade was without visible results, but I was uneasy from that
hour. I imagined all sorts of things hidden beyond that closed, door. I
remembered that the windows of the fourth story were all boarded up, and
asked myself why this had been done when the lower ones had been left
open. I was young, but I had heard of occupations which could only be
entered into by a man secretly. Did he amuse himself with forbidden tasks
in that secluded place above, or was I but exaggerating facts which might
have their basis simply in a quondam bachelor's desire for solitude and a
quiet smoke. "I will follow him up some night," thought I, "and see if I
cannot put an end at once to my unworthy fears and unhappy suspicions."
But I never did; something happened very soon to prevent me.
I was walking one morning in the grounds that lay about the house, when
suddenly I felt something small but perceptibly hard strike my hat and
bound quickly off. Astonished, for I was under no tree, under nothing
indeed but the blue of heaven, I looked about for the object that had
struck me. As I did so, I perceived my husband in his window, but his
eyes, while upon me, did not see me, for no change passed over him as I
groped about in the grass. "In one of his contemplative moods," thought I,
continuing my search. In another instant I started up. I had found a
little thing like a bullet wrapped up in paper; but it was no bullet; it
was a bead, a large gold bead, and on the paper which surrounded it were
written words so fine I could not at first decipher them, but as soon as I
had stepped away far enough to be out of the reach of the eyes I both
loved and feared more than any in the world, I managed, by dint of great
patience, and by placing the almost transparent paper on which they were
written over one of the white satin strings of the cape I wore, to read
"Help from the passing stranger! I am Elizabeth Ransome, owner of the
house in which I have been imprisoned five years. Search for me in the
upper story. You will find me there with my blind daughter. He who placed
us here is below; beware his cunning."
And underneath, these words:
"This is the twenty-fifth attempt I have made to attract attention to our
unhappy fate. I can make but two more. There are but two beads left of
"What is the matter, ma'am? Are you ill?" It was Ambrose; I knew his
Crushing the paper in my hand, I tried to look up; but it was in vain. The
sting of sudden and complete disillusion had struck me to the heart; I
knew my husband to be a villain.
CHAPTER IV. I LEARN HYPOCRISY.
Only eighteen, but from that moment, a woman. Sunk in horror as I was, I
yet had wit enough to clap my hands to my head and say I had been dazzled
by the sun.
Ambrose, who, in the week I had been with them, had shown himself
delighted with the change my coming had made in the house, looked alarmed
at this and wanted to call Mr. Allison; but I forbade him, and said I
would go in by myself, which I did under a stress of will-power rarely
exercised, I dare believe, by a girl so young and so miserable.
"What shall I say to him? how shall I meet him? how can I hide my
knowledge and act as if this thing had never been?" For even in that rush
of confusing emotions I recognized one fact; that I must not betray by
look or word that I knew his dreadful secret. If he were villain enough to
keep a woman, and that woman the rightful owner of the property he was
himself enjoying, in a prison he had made for her in her own house, then
he was villain enough to strangle the one who had discovered this fact,
were she the cherished darling of his seared and calculating heart. I was
afraid of him now that I knew him, yet I never thought of flying his
presence or revealing his crime. He was, villain or no villain, my
husband, and nothing could ever undo that fact or make it true that I had
never loved him.
So I went in, but went in slowly and with downcast eyes. The bead and the
paper I had dropped into my vinaigrette, which fortunately hung at
"Humphrey," I said, "when are we going to leave this house? I begin to
find it lonesome."
He was preparing to gather up his papers for his accustomed trip down
town, but he stopped as I spoke, and look at me curiously.
"You are pale," he remarked, "change and travel will benefit you. Dearest,
we will try to sail for Europe in a week."
A week! What did he mean? Leave his prisoners—alas, I understood his
journeys to the top of the house now—and go away to Europe? I felt
myself grow livid at the thought, and caught a spray of lilac from the
table where I stood and held it to my face.
"Will your business affairs warrant it?" I asked. "Are you sure Mrs.
Ransome's affairs will not suffer by your absence?" Then, as I saw him
turn white, I made a ghastly effort, happily hid by the flowers I held
pressed against my face, and suggested, laughingly, "How, if she should
come back after your departure! would she meet the greeting she deserves?"
He was half the room away from me, but I heard the click of subdued
passion in his throat, and turned sick almost to the point of fainting.
"It is four days since you mentioned Mrs. Ransome's name," he said. "When
we are gone from here you must promise that it shall never again pass your
lips. Mrs. Ransome is not a good woman, Delight."
It was a lie yet his manner of speaking it, and the look with which he now
approached me, made me feel helpless again, and I made haste to rush from
the room, ostensibly to prepare for our trip down town, in order to escape
my own weakness and gain a momentary self-possession before we faced the
outside world. Only eighteen years old and confronted by such a diabolical
CHAPTER V. THE STOLEN KEY.
I Was too young to reason in those days. Had I not been, had I been able
to say to myself that no act requiring such continued precaution could
take place in the heart of a great city without ultimate, if not instant,
detection, instinct would still have assured me that what I read was true,
however improbable or unheard of it might seem. That the recognition of
this fact imposed upon me two almost irreconcilable duties I was slower to
perceive. But soon, too soon, it became apparent even to my girlish mind,
that, as the wife of the man who had committed this great and
inconceivable wrong, I was bound, not only to make an immediate attempt to
release the women he so outrageously held imprisoned in their own house,
but to so release them that he should escape the opprobrium of his own
That I might have time to think, and that I might be saved, if but for one
day, contact with one it was almost my duty to hate, I came back to him
with the plea that I might spend the day with the Vandykes instead of
accompanying him down town as usual. I think he was glad of the freedom my
absence offered him, for he gave me the permission I asked, and in ten
minutes I was in my old home. Mrs. Vandyke received me with effusion. It
was not the first time she had seen me since my marriage, but it was the
first time she had seen me alone.
"My dear!" she exclaimed, turning me about till my unwilling face met the
light, "is this the wild-wood lassie I gave into Mr. Allison's keeping a
"It is the house!" I excitedly gasped, "the empty, lonely, echoing house!
I am afraid in it, even with my husband. It gives me creepy feelings, as
if a murder had been committed in it."
She broke into a laugh; I hear the sound now, an honest, amused and
entirely reassuring laugh, that relieved me in one way and depressed me in
another. "The idea! that house!" she cried. "I never thought you a
girl to have nervous fancies. Why, it is the most matter-of-fact old
mansion in the city. All its traditions are of the most respectable kind;
no skeleton in those closets! By the way, my dear, has Mr. Allison shown
you any of the curious old things those rooms must contain?"
I managed to stammer out a reply, "Mr. Allison does not consider that his
rights extend so far. I have never crossed the drawing-room floor."
"Well! that is carrying honor to an extreme. I am afraid I should not be
able to suppress my curiosity to that extent. Is he afraid of the old lady
returning unexpectedly and catching him?"
I could not echo her laugh; I could not even smile; I could only pucker up
my brows as if angry.
"Everything is kept in shape, so that if she does return she will find the
house comfortable," I said; then, with a rising sense of having by this
speech suggested a falsehood, I hastily dropped the topic, and, with an
entire change of manner, remarked, airily:
"Mrs. Ransome must have gone off very suddenly, to leave everything so
exposed in a house as splendid as that. Most people, however rich, see to
their choice things more carefully."
She rose to the bait. "Mrs. Ransome is a queer woman. Her things are of
but little account to her; to save her daughter from a moment's pain she
would part with the house itself, let alone the accumulations it contains.
That is why she left the country so suddenly."
I waited a moment under the pretense of admiring a locket she wore, then I
"My husband told you that?"
The answer was as careless as the speaker.
"Oh, I don't know who told me. It's five years ago now, but every one at
the time understood that she was angry, because some one mentioned
blindness before her daughter. Mrs. Ransome had regarded it as a religious
duty to raise her daughter in ignorance of her affliction. When she found
she could not do so among her friends and acquaintances, she took her away
to a strange land. It is the only tradition, which is not commonplace,
which belongs to the family. Let us go up and see my new gowns. I have had
two come home from Arnold's since you went away."
I thought the gowns would keep a minute longer. "Did Mrs. Ransome say
good-by to her friends?" I asked. "Somehow this matter strikes me as being
"Oh, that shows what a puss you are. No, Mrs. Ransome did not say good-by
to her friends, that is, not to us. She just went, leaving everything in
your husband's charge, who certainly has acquitted himself of the
obligation most religiously. And now will you see the gowns?"
I tortured myself by submitting to this ordeal, then I ventured on another
and entirely different attempt to clear up the mystery that was fast
stifling out my youth, love and hope. I professed to have an extraordinary
desire to see the city from the house-top. I had never been any higher up
than the third story of any house I had been in, and could not, I told
her, go any higher in the house in which I was then living. Might I go up
on her roof? Her eyes opened, but she was of an amiable, inconsequent
disposition and let me have my way without too much opposition. So,
together with a maid she insisted upon sending with me, I made my way
through the skylight on to the roof, and so into full view of the
One glance at the spot I was most interested in, and I found myself too
dizzy to look further. In the center of Mrs. Ransome's roof there was to
be seen what I can best describe as an extended cupola without windows. As
there was no other break visible in the roof, the top of this must have
held the skylight, which, being thus lifted many feet above the level of
the garret floor, would admit air and light enough to the boarded-up space
below, but would make any effort to be heard or seen, on the part of any
one secreted there, quite ineffectual. One might, by a great effort, fling
up a bead out of this funnel-shaped opening, but, even to my limited sense
of mechanics, the chances seemed very unfavorable towards it doing much
more than roll over the spacious roof into the huge gutters surrounding
Yet, if it chose to bound, it might clear the coping and fall, as one had
fallen, on the devoted head of a person walking on the lawn below. All
this I saw at a glance, and then, sick and dizzy, I crept back, and, with
but little apology for my abruptness, took leave of Mrs. Vandyke and left
The resolution I took in doing this was worthy of an older head and a more
disciplined heart. By means that were fair, or by means that were foul, I
meant to win my way into that boarded-up attic and see for myself if the
words hidden away in my vinaigrette were true. To do this openly would
cause a scandal I was yet too much under my husband's influence to risk;
while to do it secretly meant the obtaining of keys which I had every
reason to believe he kept hidden about his person. How was I to obtain
them? I saw no way, but that did not deter me from starting at once down
town in the hope of being struck by some brilliant idea while waiting for
him in his office.
Was it instinct that suggested this, or was the hand of Providence in all
that I did at this time? I had no sooner seated myself in the little room,
where I had been accustomed to wait for him, than I saw what sent the
blood tingling to my finger-tips in sudden hope. It was my husband's vest
hanging in one corner, the vest he had worn down town that morning. The
day was warm and he had taken it off. If the key should be in it!
I had never done a mean or underhanded thing before in my life, but I
sprang at that vest without the least hesitation, and fingering it with
the lightest of touches, found in the smallest of inside pockets a key,
which instinct immediately told me was that of the door I had once
endeavored to pass. Oh, the rush of feeling overwhelming me as I held it
in my hand! Would he miss it if I carried it off? Would I be able to
return to the house, see what I wanted to see, and get back in time to
restore it before he wanted his vest? It was early yet, and he was very
busy; I might succeed, and if I failed, and he detected his loss, why I
alone would be the sufferer; and was I not a sufferer now? Dropping the
key into my pocket, I went back into the outer room, and leaving word that
I had remembered a little shopping which would take me again up town, I
left the building and returned to ——— Street. My
emotions were indescribable, but I preserved as sedate an appearance as
possible, and was able to account for my return in a natural enough way to
Ambrose when he opened the door for me. To brave his possible curiosity by
going up-stairs, required a still greater effort; but the thought that my
intentions were pure and my daring legitimate, sustained me in the ordeal,
and I ran, singing, up the first flight, glad that Ambrose had no better
ear for music than to be pleased with what he probably considered an
evidence of happiness on the part of his young mistress.
I was out of breath with suspense, as well as with my rapid movements,
when I reached the shut-in staircase and carefully unlocked its narrow
door. But by the time I had reached the fourth floor, and unlocked, with
the same key, the only other door that had a streak of light under it, I
had gained a certain degree of tense composure born of the desperate
nature of the occasion. The calmness with which I pushed open the door
proved this—a calmness which made the movement noiseless, which was
the reason, I suppose, why I was enabled to suppress the shriek that rose
to my lips as I saw that the room had occupants, and that my worst fears
were thus realized.
A woman was sitting, with her back to me, at a table, and before her, with
her face turned my way, was a young girl in whom, even at first glance, I
detected some likeness to myself. Was this why Mr. Allison's countenance
expressed so much agitation when he first saw me? The next moment this
latter lifted her head and looked directly at me, but with no change in
her mobile features; at which token of blindness I almost fell on my
knees, so conclusively did it prove that I was really looking upon Mrs.
Ransome and her daughter.
The mother, who had been directing her daughter's hands in some
needlework, felt that the latter's attention had been diverted.
"What is it, dear?" she asked, with an indescribable mellowness of voice,
whose tone thrilled me with a fresh and passionate pity.
"I thought I heard Mr. Allison come in, but he always knocks; besides, it
is not time for him yet." And she sighed.
That sigh went through my heart, rousing new feelings and deeper terrors;
but I had no time to indulge in them, for the mother turned at the gasp
which left my lips, and rising up, confronted me with an amazement which
left her without any ability to speak.
"Who is it, mother?" inquired the blind girl, herself rising and beaming
upon me with the sweetest of looks.
"Let me answer," I ventured, softly. "I am Mr. Allison's wife. I have come
to see if there is anything I can do to make your stay here more
The look that passed over the mother's face warned me to venture no
further in the daughter's presence. Whatever that mother had suffered, the
daughter had experienced nothing but satisfied love and companionship in
these narrow precincts. Her rounded cheeks showed this, and the
indescribable atmosphere of peace and gladness which surrounded her. As I
saw this, and realized the mother's life and the self-restraint which had
enabled her to accept the inevitable without raising a complaint
calculated to betray to the daughter that all was not as it should be with
them, I felt such a rush of awe sweep over me that some of my fathomless
emotion showed in my face; for Mrs. Ransome's own countenance assumed a
milder look, and advancing nearer, she pointed out a room where we could
speak apart. As I moved towards it she whispered a few words in her
daughter's ear, then she rejoined me.
"I did not know Mr. Allison was married," were her first words.
"Madame," said I, "I did not know we were the guests of a lady who chooses
to live in retirement." And opening my vinaigrette, I took out the bead
and the little note which had enwrapped it. "This was my first warning
that my husband was not what I had been led to consider him," I murmured.
"Mrs. Ransome, I am in need of almost as much pity as yourself. I have
been married just six days."
She gave a cry, looked me wildly in the face, and then sank upon her
knees, lifting up thanks to heaven. "Twenty-four of these notes," said
she; "have I written, and flung upward through that lofty skylight,
weighted by the beads he left wound about my darling daughter's neck. This
one only has brought me the least response. Does he know? Is he willing
that you should come up here?"
"I have come at the risk of my life," I quietly answered. "He does not
know that I have surprised his secret. He would kill me if he did. Madame,
I want to free you, but I want to do it without endangering him. I am his
wife, and three hours ago I loved him."
Her face, which had turned very pale, approached mine with a look I hardly
expected to encounter there. "I understand," she said; "I comprehend
devotion; I have felt it for my daughter. Else I could not have survived
the wrong of this incarceration, and my forcible severance from old
associations and friends. I loved her, and since the knowledge of
her affliction, and the still worse knowledge that she had been made the
victim of a man's greed to an extent not often surpassed in this world,
would have made her young life wretched without securing the least
alleviation to our fate, I have kept both facts from her, and she does not
know that closed doors mean bondage any more than she knows that
unrelieved darkness means blindness. She is absolutely ignorant that there
is such a thing as light."
"Oh, madame!" I murmured, "Oh, madame! Show a poor girl what she can do to
restore you to your rights. The door is open and you can descend; but that
means——- Oh, madame, I am filled with terror when I think
what. He may be in the hall now. He may have missed the key and returned.
If only you were out of the house!"
"My dear girl," she quietly replied, "we will be some day. You will see to
that, I know. I do not think I could stay here, now that I have seen
another face than his. But I do not want to go now, to-day. I want to
prepare Theresa for freedom; she has lived so long quietly with me that I
dread the shock and excitement of other voices and the pressure of city
sounds upon her delicate ears. I must train her for contact with the
world. But you won't forget me if I allow you to lock us in again? You
will come back and open the doors, and let me go down again through my old
halls into the room where my husband died; and if Mr. Allison objects——
My dear girl, you know now that he is an unscrupulous man, that it is my
money he begrudged me, and that he has used it and made himself a rich
man. But he has one spark of grace in him. He has never forgotten that we
needed bread and clothes. He has waited on us himself, and never have we
suffered from physical want. Therefore, he may not object now. He may feel
that he has enriched himself sufficiently to let us go free, and if I must
give my oath to let the past go without explanation, why I am ready, my
dear; nothing can undo it now, and I am grown too old to want money except
for her." "I cannot," I murmured, "I cannot find courage to present the
subject to him so. I do not know my husband's mind. It is a fathomless
abyss to me. Let me think of some other way. Oh, madam! if you were out of
the house, and could then come——" Suddenly a thought struck
me. "I can do it; I see the way to do it—a way that will place you
in a triumphant position, and yet save him from suspicion. He is weary of
this care. He wants to be relieved of the dreadful secret which anchors
him to this house, and makes a hell of the very spot in which he has fixed
his love. Shall we undertake to do his for him? Can you trust me if I
promise to take an immediate impression of this key, and have one made for
myself, which shall insure my return here?"
"My dear," she said, taking my head between her two trembling hands, "I
have never looked upon a sweeter face than my daughter's till I looked
upon yours to-day. If you bid me hope, I will hope, and if you bid me
trust, I will trust. The remembrance of this kiss will not let you
forget." And she embraced me in a warm and tender manner.
"I will write you," I murmured. "Some day look for a billet under the
door. It will tell you what to do; now I must go back to my husband."
And, with a sudden access of fear, caused by my dread of meeting his eyes
with this hidden knowledge between us, I hastened out and locked the door
When I reached the office, I was in a fainting condition, but all my hopes
revived again when I saw the vest still hanging where I had left it, and
heard my husband's voice singing cheerfully in the adjoining room.
CHAPTER VI. WHILE OTHERS DANCED.
I CANNOT enter into the feelings of this dreadful time. I do not know if I
loved or hated the man I had undertaken to save. I only know I was
determined to bring light out of darkness in a way that would compromise
nobody, possibly not even myself. But to do this I must dazzle him into
giving me a great pleasure. A crowd in the ——— Street
house was necessary to the quiet escape of Mrs. Ran-some and her daughter;
so a crowd we must have, and how have a crowd without giving a grand
party? I knew that this would be a shocking proposition to him, but I was
prepared to meet all objections; and when, with every nerve alert and
every charm exerted to its utmost, I sat down at his side that evening to
plead my cause, I knew by the sparkle of his eye and the softening of the
bitter lines that sometimes hardened his mouth, that the battle was half
won before I spoke, and that I should have my party whatever it might cost
him in mental stress and worry.
Perhaps he was glad to find me given over to folly at a time when he was
waiting for a miracle to release him from the net of crime in which he had
involved himself; perhaps he merely thought it would please me, and aid
him to thus strengthen our position in the social world before taking our
flight to a foreign land; but whatever lay at the bottom of his amenity,
he gave me carte blanche that night for an entertainment that
should embrace all his friends and mine and some of Mrs. Vandyke's. So I
saw that doubt removed.
The next thing I did was to procure a facsimile of his key from the
wax impression I had taken of it in accordance with my promise to Mrs.
Ransome. Then I wrote her a letter, in which I gave her the minutest
directions as to her own movements on that important evening. After which
I gave myself up entirely to the business of the party. Certain things I
had insisted on. All the rooms were to be opened, even those on the third
floor; and I was to have a band to play in the hall. He did not deny me
anything. I think his judgment was asleep, or else he was so taken up with
the horrible problem presented by his desire to leave the city and the
existence of those obligations which made departure an impossibility, that
he failed to place due stress on matters which, at another time, might
very well seem to threaten the disclosure of his dangerous secret.
At last the night came.
An entertainment given in this great house had aroused much interest. Most
of our invitations had been accepted, and the affair promised to be
brilliant. As a bride, I wore white, and when, at the moment of going
downstairs, my husband suddenly clasped about my neck a rich necklace of
diamonds, I was seized by such a bitter sense of the contrast between
appearances and the awful reality underlying these festivities, that I
reeled in his arms, and had to employ all the arts which my dangerous
position had taught me, to quiet his alarm, and convince him that my
emotion sprang entirely from pleasure.
Meantime the band was playing and the carriages were rolling up in front.
What he thought as the music filled the house and rose in piercing melody
to the very roof, I cannot say. I thought how it was a message of
release to those weary and abused ones above; and, filled with the sense
of support which the presence of so many people in the house gave me, I
drew up my girlish figure in glad excitement and prepared myself for the
ordeal, visible and invisible, which awaited me.
The next two hours form a blank in my memory. Standing under Mrs.
Ransome's picture (I would stand there), I received the
congratulations of the hundred or more people who were anxious to see Mr.
Allison's bride, and of the whole glittering pageant I remember only the
whispered words of Mrs. Vandyke as she passed with the rest: "My dear, I
take back what I said the other day about the effect of marriage upon you.
You are the most brilliant woman here, and Mr. Allison the happiest of
men." This was an indication that all was going well. But what of the
awful morning-hour that awaited us! Would that show him a happy man?
At last our guests were assembled, and I had an instant to myself.
Murmuring a prayer for courage, I slid from the room and ran up-stairs.
Here all was bustle also—a bustle I delighted in, for, with so many
people moving about, Mrs. Ransome and her daughter could pass out without
attracting more than a momentary attention. Securing a bundle I had myself
prepared, I glided up the second staircase, and, after a moment's delay,
succeeded in unlocking the door and disappearing with my bundle into the
fourth story. When I came down, the key I had carried up was left behind
me. The way for Mrs. Ransome's escape lay open.
I do not think I had been gone ten minutes from the drawing-room. When I
returned there, it was to find the festivities at their height, and my
husband just on the point of missing me. The look which he directed
to-wards me pierced me to the heart; not that I was playing him false, for
I was risking life, love and the loss of everything I prized, to save him
from himself; but that his love for me should be so strong he could forget
the two tortured hearts above, in the admiration I had awakened in the
shallow people about us. But I smiled, as a woman on the rack might smile
if the safety of her loved ones depended on her courage, and, nerving
myself for the suspense of such a waiting as few of my inexperience have
ever been called upon to endure, I turned to a group of ladies I saw near
me and began to talk.
Happily, I did not have to chatter long; happily, Mrs. Ransome was quick
in her movements and exact in all she did, and, sooner than I expected,
sooner, perhaps, than I was prepared for it, the man who attended the
front door came to my side and informed me that a lady wished to see me—a
lady who had just arrived from the steamer, and who said she was the
mistress of the house, Mrs. Ransome.
Mrs. Ransome! The name spread like wildfire, but before any movement was
made, I had bounded, in laughing confusion, to my husband's side, and,
grasping him merrily by the arm, cried:
"Your expectations have come true. Mrs. Ransome has returned without
warning, and tonight she will partake of the supper you have always had
served for her."
The shock was as great, perhaps, as ever man received. I knew what it was
likely to be, and held him upright, with the seeming merriment in my eyes
which I did not allow to stray from his. He thought I was mad, then he
thought he was—then I recalled him to the dangers and exigencies of
the moment by saying, with forced naïveté: "Shall I go and welcome
her to this gathering in her own house, or will you do the honors? She may
not know me."
He moved, but as a statue might move, shot through and through with an
electric spark. I saw that I must act, rather than he, so uttering some
girlish sentence about the mice and cat, I glided away into the hall,
where Mrs. Ran-some stood in the nondescript black cloak and bonnet I had
provided her from her own wardrobe. She had slipped a few moments before
from the house with her daughter, whom she had placed in a carriage, which
I had ordered to wait for them directly in front of the lamppost, and had
now re-entered as the mistress returning unexpectedly after a departure of
five years. All had been done as I had planned, and it only remained to
carry on the farce and prevent its developing into a tragedy.
Rushing up to her, I told her who I was, and, as we were literally
surrounded in a moment, added such apologies for the merrymaking in which
she found us indulging as my wit suggested and the occasion seemed to
demand. Then I allowed her to speak. Instantly she was the mistress of the
house. Old-fashioned as her dress was, and changed as her figure must have
been, she had that imposing bearing which great misfortune, nobly borne,
gives to some natures, and feeling the eyes of many of her old friends
upon her, she graciously smiled and said that she was delighted to receive
so public a welcome. Then she took me by the hand.
"Do not worry, child," she said, "I have a daughter about your age, which
in itself would make me lenient towards one so young and pretty. Where is
your husband, dear? He has served me well in my absence, and I should like
to shake hands with him before I withdraw with my daughter, to a hotel for
I looked up; he was standing in the open doorway leading into the
drawing-room. He had recovered a semblance of composure, but the hand
fingering the inner pocket, where he kept his keys, showed in what a
tumult of surprise and doubt he had been thrown by this unaccountable
appearance of his prisoner in the open hall; and if to other eyes he
showed no more than the natural confusion of the moment, to me he had the
look of a secretly desperate man, alive to his danger, and only holding
himself in check in order to measure it.
At the mention she made of his name, he came mechanically forward, and,
taking her proffered hand, bowed over it. "Welcome." he murmured, in
strained tones; then, startled by the pressure of her fingers on his, he
glanced doubtfully up while she said:
"We will have no talk to-night, my faithful and careful friend, but
to-morrow you may come and see me at the Fifth Avenue. You will find that
my return will not lessen your manifest happiness." Then, as he began to
tremble, she laid her hand on his arm, and I heard her smilingly whisper:
"You have too pretty a wife for me not to wish my return to be a
benefaction to her." And, with a smile to the crowd and an admonition to
those about her not to let the little bride suffer from this interruption,
she disappeared through the great front door on the arm of the man who for
five years had held her prisoner in her own house. I went back into the
drawing-room, and the five minutes which elapsed between that moment and
that of his return were the most awful of my life. When he came back I had
aged ten years, yet all that time I was laughing and talking.
He did not rejoin me immediately; he went up-stairs. I knew why; he had
gone to see if the door to the fourth floor had been unlocked or simply
broken down. When he came back he gave me one look. Did he suspect me? I
could not tell. After that, there was another blank in my memory to the
hour when the guests were all gone, the house all silent, and we stood
together in a little room, where I had at last discovered him, withdrawn
by himself, writing. There was a loaded pistol on the table. The paper he
had been writing was his will.
"Humphrey," said I, placing a finger on the pistol, "why is this?"
He gave me a look, a hungry, passionate look, then he grew as white as the
paper he had just subscribed with his name.
"I am ruined," he murmured. "I have made unwarrantable use of Mrs.
Ransome's money; her return has undone me. Delight, I love you, but I
cannot face the future. You will be provided for——"
"Will I?" I put in softly, very softly, for my way was strewn with
pitfalls and precipices. "I do not think so, Humphrey. If the money you
have put away is not yours, my first care would be to restore it. Then
what would I have left? A dowry of odium and despair, and I am scarcely
"But—but—you do not understand, Delight. I have been a
villain, a worse villain than you think. The only thing in my life I have
not to blush for is my love for you. This is pure, even if it has been
selfish. I know it is pure, because I have begun to suffer. If I could
"Mrs. Ransome has already told me," said I. "Who do you think unlocked the
door of her retreat? I, Humphrey. I wanted to save you from yourself, and
she understands me. She will never reveal the secret of the years
she has passed overhead."
Would he hate me? Would he love me? Would he turn that fatal weapon on me,
or level it again towards his own breast? For a moment I could not tell;
then the white horror in his face broke up, and, giving me a look I shall
never forget till I die, he fell prostrate on his knees and lowered his
proud head before me.
I did not touch it, but from that moment the schooling of our two hearts
began, and, though I can never look upon my husband with the frank joy I
see in other women's faces, I have learned not to look upon him with
distrust, and to thank God I did not forsake him when desertion might have
meant the destruction of the one small seed of goodness which had
developed in his heart with the advent of a love for which nothing in his
whole previous life had prepared him.