Next morning Mr. Gryce and I met in serious consultation. How, and in what direction should we extend the inquiries necessary to a discovery of these Schoenmakers?
“I advise a thorough overhauling of the German quarter,” said my superior. “Schmidt, and Rosenthal will help us and the result ought to be satisfactory.”
But I shook my head at this. “I don’t believe,” said I, “that they will hide among their own people. You must remember they are not alone, but have with them a young woman of a somewhat distinguished appearance, whose presence in a crowded district, like that, would be sure to awaken gossip; something which above all else they must want to avoid.”
“That is true; the Germans are a dreadful race for gossip.”
“If they dared to ill-dress her or ill-treat her, it would be different. But she is a valuable piece of property to them you see, a choice lot of goods which it is for their interest to preserve in first-class condition till the day comes for its disposal. For I presume you have no doubt that it is for the purpose of extorting money from Mr. Blake that they have carried off his young wife.”
“For that reason or one similar. He is a man of resources, they may have hoped he would help them to escape the country.”
“If they don’t hide in the German quarter they certainly won’t in the Italian, French or Irish. What they want is too keep close and rouse no questions. I think they will be found to have gone up the river somewhere, or over to Jersey. Hoboken would’nt be a bad place to send Schmidt to.”
“You forget what it is they’ve got on their minds; besides no conspicuous party such as they could live in a rural district without attracting more attention than in the most crowded tenement house in the city.”
“Where do you think, then, they would be liable to go?”
“Well my most matured thought on the subject,” returned Mr. Gryce, after a moment’s deliberation, “is this, you say, and I agree, that they have hampered themselves with this woman at this time for the purpose of using her hereafter in a scheme of black-mail upon Mr. Blake. He, then, must be the object about which their thoughts revolve and toward which whatever operations or plans they may be engaged upon must tend. What follows? When a company of men have made up their minds to rob a bank, what is the first thing they do? They hire, if possible, a house next to the especial building they intend to enter, and for months work upon the secret passage through which they hope to reach the safe and its contents; or they make friends with the watchman that guards its treasures, and the janitor who opens and shuts the doors. In short they hang about their prey before they pounce upon it. And so will these Schoenmakers do in the somewhat different robbery which they plan sooner or later to effect. Whatever may keep them close at this moment, Mr. Blake and Mr. Blake’s house is the point toward which their eyes are turned, and if we had time”
“But we have’nt,” I broke in impetuously. “It is horrible to think of that grand woman languishing away in the power of such rascals.”
“If we had time,” Mr. Gryce persisted, “all it would be necessary to do would be to wait, they would come into our hands as easily and naturally as a hawk into the snare of the fowler. But as you say we have not, and therefore, I would recommend a little beating of the bush directly about Mr. Blake’s house; for if all my experience is not at fault, those men are already within eye-shot of the prey they intend to run down.”
“But,” said I, “I have been living myself in that very neighborhood and know by this time the ways of every house in the vicinity. There is not a spot up and down the Avenue for ten blocks where they could hide away for two days much less two weeks. And as for the side streets,—why I could tell you the names of those who live in each house for a considerable distance. Yet if you say so I will go to work”
“Do, and meanwhile Schmidt and Rosenthal shall rummage the German quarter and even go through Williamsburgh and Hoboken. The end justifies any amount of labor that can be spent upon this matter.”
“And you,” I asked.
“Will do my part when you have done yours.”
THE MARK OF THE RED CROSS
And what success did I meet? The best in the world. And by what means did I attain it? By that of the simplest, prettiest clue I ever came upon. But let me explain.
When after a wearisome day spent in an ineffectual search through the neighborhood, I went home to my room, which as you remember was a front one in a lodging-house on the opposite corner from Mr. Blake, I was so absorbed in mind and perhaps I may say shaken in nerve, by the strain under which I had been laboring for some time now, that I stumbled up an extra flight of stairs, and without any suspicion of the fact, tried the door of the room directly over mine. It is a wonder to me now that I could have made the mistake, for the halls were totally dissimilar, the one above being much more cut up than the one below, besides being flanked by a greater number of doors. But the intoxication of the mind is not far removed from that of the body, and as I say it was not till I had tried the door and found it locked, that I became aware of the mistake I had made.
With the foolish sense of shame that always overcomes us at the committal of any such trivial error, I stumbled hastily back, when my foot trod upon something that broke under my weight. I never let even small things pass without some notice. Stooping, then, for what I had thus inadvertently crushed, I carried it to where a single gas jet turned down very low, made a partial light in the long hall, and examining it, found it to be a piece of red chalk.
What was there in that simple fact to make me start and hastily recall one or two half-forgotten incidents which, once brought to mind, awoke a train of thought that led to the discovery and capture of those two desperate thieves? I will tell you.
I don’t remember now whether in my account of the visit I paid to the Schoenmakers’ house in Vermont, I informed you of the red cross I noticed scrawled on the panel of one of the doors. It seemed a trivial thing at the time and made little or no impression upon me, the chances being that I should never have thought of it again, if I had not come upon the article just mentioned at a moment when my mind was full of those very Schoenmakers. But remembered now, together with another half-forgotten fact, that some days previous I had been told by the woman who kept the house I was in, that the parties over my head (two men and a woman I believe she said) were giving her some trouble, but that they paid well and therefore she did not like to turn them out, it aroused a vague suspicion in my mind, and led to my walking back to the door I had endeavored to open in my abstraction, and carefully looking at it.
It was plain and white, rather ruder of make than those below, but offering no inducements for prolonged scrutiny. But not so with the one that stood at right angles to it on the left. Full in the centre of that, I beheld distinctly scrawled, probably with the very piece of chalk I then held, a red cross precisely similar in outline to the one I had seen a few days before on the panel of the Schoenmakers’ door at Granby.
The discovery sent a thrill over me that almost raised my hair on end. Was, then, this famous trio to be found in the very house in which I had been myself living for a week or more? over my head in fact? I could not withdraw my gaze from the mysterious looking object. I bent near, I listened, I heard what sounded like the suppressed snore of a powerful man, and almost had to lay hold of myself to prevent my hand from pushing open that closed door and my feet from entering. As it was I did finger the knob a little, but an extra loud snore from within reminded me by its suggestion of strength that I was but a small man and that in this case and at this hour, discretion was the better part of valor.
I therefore withdrew, but for the whole night lay awake listening to catch any sounds that might come from above, and going so far as to plan what I would do if it should be proved that I was indeed upon the trail of the men I was so anxious to encounter.
With the breaking of day I was upon my feet. A rude step had gone up the stairs a few minutes before and I was all alert to follow. But I presently considered that my wisest course would be to sound the landlady and learn if possible with what sort of characters I had to deal. Routing her out of the kitchen, where at that early hour she was already engaged in domestic duties, I drew her into a retired corner and put my questions. She was not backward in replying. She had conceived an innocent liking for me in the short time I had been with her a display of weakness for which I was myself, perhaps, as much to blame as she and was only too ready to pour out her griefs into my sympathizing ear. For those men were a grief to her, acceptable as was the money they were careful to provide her with. They were not only always in the house, that is one of them, smoking his old pipe and blackening up the walls, but they looked so shabby, and kept the girl so close, and if they did go out, came in at such unheard of hours. It was enough to drive her crazy; yet the money, the money
“Yes,” said I, “I know; and the money ought to make you overlook all the small disagreeablenesses you mention. What is a landlady without patience.” And I urged her not to turn them out.
“But the girl,” she went on, “so nice, so quiet, so sick-looking! I cannot stand it to see her cooped up in that small room, always watched over by one or both of those burly wretches. The old man says she is his daughter and she does not deny it, but I would as soon think of that little rosy child you see cooing in the window over the way, belonging to the beggar going in at the gate, as of her with her lady-like ways having any connection with him and his rough-acting son. You ought to see her”
“That is just what I want to do,” interrupted I. “Not because you have tempted my fancy by a recital of her charms,” I hastened to add, “but because she is, if I don’t mistake, a woman for whose discovery and rescue, a large sum of money has been offered.”
And without further disguise I acquainted the startled woman before me with the fact that I was not, as she had always considered, the clerk out of employment whose daily business it was to sally forth in quest of a situation, but a member of the city police.
She was duly impressed and easily persuaded to second all my operations as far as her poor wits would allow, giving me free range of her upper story, and above all, promising that secrecy without which all my finely laid plans for capturing the rogues without raising a scandal, would fall headlong to the ground.
Behold me, then, by noon of that same day domiciled in an apartment next to the one whose door bore that scarlet sign which had aroused within me such feverish hopes the night before. Clad in the seedy garments of a broken down French artist whose acquaintance I had once made, with something of his air and general appearance and with a few of his wretched daubs hung about on the whitewashed wall, I commenced with every prospect of success as I thought, that quiet espionage of the hall and its inhabitants which I considered necessary to a proper attainment of the end I had in view.
A racking cough was one of the peculiarities of my friend, and determined to assume the character in toto, I allowed myself to startle the silence now and then with a series of gasps and chokings that whether agreeable or not, certainly were of a character to show that I had no desire to conceal my presence from those I had come among. Indeed it was my desire to acquaint them as fully and as soon as possible with the fact of their having a neighbor: a weak-eyed half-alive innocent to be sure, but yet a neighbor who would keep his door open night and day for the warmth of the hall of course and who with the fretful habit of an old man who had once been a gentleman and a beau, went rambling about through the hall speaking to those he met and expecting a civil word in return. When he was not rambling or coughing he made architectural monsters out of cardboard, wherewith to tempt the pennies out of the pockets of unwary children, an employment that kept him chained to a small table in the centre of his room directly opposite the open door.
As I expected I had scarcely given way to three separate fits of coughing, when the door next me opened with a jerk and a rough voice called out,
“Who’s that making all that to do about here? If you don’t stop that infernal noise in a hurry”
A soft voice interrupted him and he drew back. “I will go see,” said those gentle tones, and Luttra Blake, for I knew it was she before the skirt of her robe had advanced beyond the door, stepped out into the hall.
I was yet bent over my work when she paused before me. The fact is I did not dare look up, the moment was one of such importance to me.
“You have a dreadful cough,” said she with that low ring of sympathy in her voice that goes unconsciously to the heart. “Is there no help for it?”
I pushed back my work, drew my hand over my eyes, (I did not need to make it tremble) and glanced up. “No,” said I with a shake of my head, “but it is not always so bad. I beg your pardon, miss, if it disturbs you.”
She threw back the shawl which she had held drawn tightly over her head, and advanced with an easy gliding step close to my side. “You do not disturb me, but my father is, well a trifle cross sometimes, and if he should speak up a little harsh now and then, you must not mind. I am sorry you are so ill.”
What is there in some women’s look, some women’s touch that more than all beauty goes to the heart and subdues it. As she stood there before me in her dark worsted dress and coarse shawl, with her locks simply braided and her whole person undignified by art and ungraced by ornament, she seemed just by the power of her expression and the witchery of her manner, the loveliest woman I had ever beheld.
“You are veree kind, veree good,” I murmured, half ashamed of my disguise, though it was assumed for the purpose of rescuing her. “Your sympathy goes to my heart.” Then as a deep growl of impatience rose from the room at my side, I motioned her to go and not irritate the man who seemed to have such control over her.
“In a minute,” answered she, “first tell me what you are making.”
So I told her and in the course of telling, let drop such other facts about my fancied life as I wished to have known to her and through her to her father. She looked sweetly interested and more than once turned upon me that dark eye, of which I had heard so much, full of tears that were as much for me, scamp that I was, as for her own secret trouble. But the growls becoming more and more impatient she speedily turned to go, repeating, however, as she did so,
“Now remember what I say, you are not to be troubled if they do speak cross to you. They make noise enough themselves sometimes, as you will doubtless be assured of tonight.”
And the lips which seemed to have grown stiff and cold with her misery, actually softened into something like a smile.
The nod which I gave her in return had the solemnity of a vow in it.
My mind thus assured as to the correctness of my suspicions, and the way thus paved to the carrying out of my plans, I allowed some few days to elapse without further action on my part. My motive was to acquaint myself as fully as possible with the habits and ways of these two desperate men, before making the attempt to capture them upon which so many interests hung. For while I felt it would be highly creditable to my sagacity, as well as valuable to my reputation as a detective, to restore these escaped convicts in any way possible into the hands of justice, my chief ambition after all was to so manage the affair as to save the wife of Mr. Blake, not only from the consequences of their despair, but from the publicity and scandal attendant upon the open arrest of two heavily armed men. Strategy, therefore, rather than force was to be employed, and strategy to be successful must be founded upon the most thorough knowledge of the matter with which one has to deal. Three days, then, did I give to the acquiring of that knowledge, the result of which was the possession of the following facts.
1. That the landlady was right when she told me the girl was never left alone, one of the men, if not the father then the son, always remaining with her.
2. That while thus guarded, she was not so restricted but that she had the liberty of walking in the hall, though never for any length of time.
3. That the cross on the door seemed to possess some secret meaning connected with their presence in the house, it having been erased one evening when the whole three went out on some matter or other, only to be chalked on again when in an hour or so later, father and daughter returned alone.
4. That it was the father and not the son who made such purchases as were needed, while it was the son and not the father who carried on whatever operations they had on hand; nightfall being the favorite hour for the one and midnight for the other; though it not infrequently happened that the latter sauntered out for a short time also in the afternoon, probably for the drink he could not go long without.
5. That they were men of great strength but little alertness; the stray glimpses I had had of them, revealing a breadth of back that was truly formidable, if it had not been joined to a heaviness of motion that proclaimed a certain stolidity of mind that was eminently in our favor.
How best to use these facts in the building up of a matured plan of action, was, then, the problem. By noon of a certain day I believed it to have been solved, and reluctant as I was to leave the spot of my espionage even for the hour or two necessary to a visit to headquarters, I found myself compelled to do so. Packing up in a small basket I had for the purpose, the little articles I had been engaged during the last few days in making, I gave way to a final fit of coughing so hollow and sepulchral in its tone, that it awoke a curse from the next room deep as the growl of a wild beast, and still continuing, finally brought Luttra to the door with that look of compassion on her face that always called up a flush to my cheek whether I wished it or no.
“Ah, Monsieur, I am afraid your cough is very bad to-day. O I see; you have been getting ready to go out”
“Come back here,” broke in a heavy voice from the room she had left. “What do you mean by running off to palaver with that old rascal every time he opens his battery of a cough?”
A smile that went through me like the cut of a knife, flashed for a moment on her face.
“My father is in one of his impatient moods,” said she, “you had better go. I hope you will be successful,” she murmured, glancing wistfully at my basket.
“What is that?” again came thundering on our ears. “Successful? What are you two up to?” And we heard the rough clatter of advancing steps.
“Go,” said she; “you are weak and old; and when you come back, try and not cough.” And she gave me a gentle push towards the door.
“When I come back,” I began, but was forced to pause, the elder Schoenmaker having by this time reached the open doorway where he stood frowning in upon us in a way that made my heart stand still for her.
“What are you two talking about?” said he; “and what have you got in your basket there?” he continued with a stride forward that shook the floor.
“Only some little toys that he has been making, and is now going out to sell,” was her low answer given with a quick deprecatory gesture such as I doubt if she ever used for herself.
“Nothing more?” asked he in German with a red glare in the eye he turned towards her.
“Nothing more,” replied she in the same tongue. “You may believe me.”
He gave a deep growl and turned away. “If there was,” said he, “you know what would happen.” And unheeding the wild keen shudder that seized her at the word, making her insensible for the moment to all and everything about her, he laid one heavy hand upon her slight shoulder and led her from the room.
I waited no longer than was necessary to carry my feeble and faltering steps appropriately down the stairs, to reach the floor below and gain the landlady’s presence.
“Do you go up,” said I, “and sit on those stairs till I come back. If you hear the least cry of pain or sound of struggle from that young girl’s room, do you call at once for help. I will have a policeman standing on the corner below.”
The good woman nodded and proceeded at once to take up her work-basket. “Lucky there’s a window up there, so I can see,” I heard her mutter. “I’ve no time to throw away even on deeds of charity.”
Notwithstanding which precaution, I was in constant anxiety during my absence; an absence necessarily prolonged as I had to stop and explain matters to the Superintendent, as well as hunt up Mr. Gryce and get his consent to assist me in the matter of the impending arrest.
I found the latter in his own home and more than enthusiastic upon the subject.
“Well,” said he after I had informed him of the discoveries I had made, “the fates seem to prosper you in this. I have not received an inkling of light upon the matter since I parted from you at Mr. Blake’s house. By the way I saw that gentleman this morning and I tell you we will find him a grateful man if this affair can be resolved satisfactorily.”
“That is good,” said I,” gratitude is what we want.” Then shortly, “Perhaps it is no more than our duty to let him know that his wife is safe and under my eye; though I would by no means advocate his knowing just how near him she is, till the moment comes when he is wanted, or we shall have a lover’s impetuosity to deal with as well as all the rest.” Then with a hurried remembrance of a possible contingency, went on to say, “But, by the way, in case we should need the cooperation of Mrs. Blake in what we have before us, you had better get a line written in French from Mrs. Daniels, expressive of her belief in Mr. Blake’s present affection for his wife. The latter will not otherwise trust us, or understand that we are to be obeyed in whatever we may demand. Let it be unsigned and without names in case of accident; and if the housekeeper don’t understand French, tell her to get some one to help her that does, only be sure that the handwriting employed is her own.”
Mr. Gryce seemed to perceive the wisdom of this precaution and promised to procure me such a note by a certain hour, after which I related to him the various other details of the capture such as I had planned it, meeting to my secret gratification an unqualified approval that went far towards alleviating that wound to my pride which I had received from him in the beginning of this affair.
“Let all things proceed as you have determined, and we shall accomplish something that it will be a life-long satisfaction to remember,” said he; “but you must be prepared for some twist of the screw which you do not anticipate. I never knew anything to go off just as one prognosticates it must, except once,” he added thoughtfully, “and then it was with a surprise attached to it that well nigh upset me notwithstanding all my preparations.”
“You won a great success that day,” remarked I. “I hope the fates will be as propitious to me to-morrow. Failure now would break my heart.”
“But you won’t fail,” exclaimed he. “I myself am resolved to see you through this matter with credit.”
And in this assurance I returned to my lodgings where I found the landlady sitting where I had left her, darning her twenty-third sock.
“I have to mend for a dozen men and three boys,” said she, “and the boys are the worst by a heap sight. Look at that, will you,” holding up a darn with a bit of stocking attached. “That hole was made playing shinny.”
I uttered my condolences and asked if any sound or disturbance had reached her ears from above.
“O no, all is right up there; I’ve scarcely heard a whisper since you’ve been gone.”
I gave her a pat on the chin scarcely consistent with my aged and tottering mien and proceeded to shamble painfully to my room.
Promptly next morning at the designated hour, came the little note promised me by Mr. Gryce. It was put in my hand with many sly winks by the landlady herself, who developed at this crisis quite an adaptation for, if not absolute love of intrigue and mystery. Glancing over it was unsealed and finding it entirely unintelligible, I took it for granted it was all right and put it by till chance, or if that failed, strategy, should give me an opportunity to communicate with Mrs. Blake. An hour passed; the doors of their rooms remained unclosed. A half hour more dragged its slow minutes away, and no sound had come from their precincts save now and then a mumbled word of parley between the father and son, a short command to the daughter, or a not-to-be-restrained oath of annoyance from one or both of the heavy-limbed brutes as something was said or done to disturb them in their indolent repose. At last my impatience was to be no longer restrained. Rising, I took a bold resolution. If the mountain would not come to Mahomet, Mahomet would go to the mountain. Taking my letter in the hand, I deliberately proceeded to the door marked with the ominous red cross and knocked.
A surprised snarl from within, followed by a sudden shuffling of feet as the two men leaped upright from what I presume had been a recumbent position, warned me to be ready to face defiance if not the fury of despair; and curbing with a determined effort the slight sinking of heart natural to a man of my make on the threshold of a very doubtful adventure, I awaited with as much apparent unconcern as possible, the quick advance of that light foot which seemed to be ready to perform all the biddings of these hardened wretches, much as it shrunk from following in the ways of their infamy.
“Ah miss,” said I, as the door opened revealing in the gap her white face clouded with some new and sudden apprehension, “I beg your pardon but I am an old man, and I got a letter today and my eyes are so weak with the work I’ve been doing that I cannot read it. It is from some one I love, and would you be so kind as to read off the words for me and so relieve an old man from his anxiety.”
The murmur of suspicion behind her, warned her to throw wide open the door. “Certainly,” said she, “if I can,” taking the paper in her hand.
“Just let me get a squint at that first,” said a sullen voice behind her; and the youngest of the two Schoenmakers stepped forward and tore the paper out of her grasp.
“You are too suspicious,” murmured she, looking after him with the first assumption of that air of power and determination which I had heard so eloquently described by the man who loved her. “There is nothing in those lines which concerns us; let me have them back.”
“You hold your tongue,” was the brutal reply as the rough man opened the folded paper and read or tried to read what was written within. “Blast it! it’s French,” was his slow exclamation after a moment spent in this way. “See,” and he thrust it towards his father who stood frowning heavily a few feet off.
“Of course, it’s French,” cried the girl. “Would you write a note in English to father there? The man’s friends are French like himself, and must write in their own language.”
“Here take it and read it out,” commanded her father; “and mind you tell us what it means. I’ll have nothing going on here that I don’t understand.”
“Read me the French words first, miss,” said I. “It is my letter and I want to know what my friend has to say to me.”
Nodding at me with a gentle look, she cast her eyes on the paper and began to read:
“Calmez vous, mon amie, il vous aime et il vous cherche. Dans
quatre heures vous serez heureuse. Allons du courage, et surtout
soyez maitre de vous meme.”
“Thanks!” I exclaimed in a calm matter of fact way as I perceived the sudden tremor that seized her as she recognized the handwriting and realized that the words were for her. “My friend says he will pay my week’s rent and bids me be at home to receive him,” said I, turning upon the two ferocious faces peering over her shoulder, with a look of meek unsuspiciousness in my eye, that in a theatre would have brought down the house.
“Is that what those words say, you?” asked the father, pointing over her shoulder to the paper she held.
“I will translate for you word by word what it says,” replied she, nerving herself for the crisis till her face was like marble, though I could see she could not prevent the gleam of secret rapture that had visited her, from flashing fitfully across it. “Calmez vous, mon amie. Do not be afraid, my friend. Il vous aime et il vous cherche. He loves you and is hunting for you. Dans quatre heures vous serez heureuse. In four hours you will be happy. Allons du courage, et surtout soyez maitre de vous meme. Then take courage and above all preserve your self-possession. It is the French way of expressing one’s self,” observed she. “I am glad your friend is disposed to help you,” she continued, giving me back the letter with a smile. “I am afraid you needed it.”
In a sort of maze I folded up the letter, bowed my very humble thanks to her and shuffled slowly back. The fact is I had no words; I was utterly dumbfounded. Half way through that letter, with whose contents you must remember I was unacquainted, I would have given my whole chance of expected reward to have stopped her. Read out such words as those before these men! Was she crazy? But how naturally at the conclusion did she with a word make its language seem consistent with the meaning I had given it. With a fresh sense of my obligation to her, I hurried to my room, there to count out the minutes of another long hour in anxious expectation of her making that endeavor to communicate with me, which her new hopes and fears must force her to feel almost necessary to her existence. At length, my confidence in her was rewarded. Coming out into the hall, she hurried past my door, her finger on her lip. I immediately rose and stood on the threshold with another paper in my hand, which I had prepared against this opportunity. As she glided back, I put it in her hand, and warning her with a look not to speak, resumed my usual occupation. The words I had written were as follows:
At or as near the time as possible of your brother’s going out, you are to come to this room wrapped in an extra skirt and with
your shawl over your head. Leave the skirt and shawl behind you, and withdraw at once to the room at the head of the stairs. You
are not to speak, and you are not to vary from the plan thus laid down. Your brother and father are to be arrested, whether or no;
but if you will do as this commands, they will be arrested without bloodshed and without shame to one you know.
Her face while she read these lines, was a study, but I dared not soften toward it. Dropping the paper from her hand, she gave me one inquiring look. But I pointed determinedly to the words lying upward on the floor, and would listen to no appeal. My resolve had its effect. Bowing her head with a sorrowful gesture, she laid her hand on her heart, looked up and glided from the room. I took up that paper and tore it into bits.
And now for the first time since I had been in the house, I closed the door of my room. I had a part to perform that rendered the dropping of my disguise indispensable. The old French artist had finished his work, and henceforth must merge into Q. the detective. Shortly before two o’clock my assistants began to arrive. First, Mr. Gryce appeared on the scene and was stowed away in a large room on the other side of mine. Next, two of the most agile, as well as muscular men in the force who, thanks to having taken off their shoes in the lower hall, gained the same refuge without awakening the suspicions of those we were anxious to surprise. Lastly, the landlady who went into the closet to which I had bidden Mrs. Blake retire after leaving in my room the articles I had mentioned.
All was now ready and waiting for the departure of the youngest Schoenmaker. Would he disappoint us and remain at home that day? Had any suspicions been awakened in the stolid breasts of these men, that would serve to make them more watchful than usual against running unnecessary risks? No; at or near the time for the clock to strike two, their door opened and the tread of a lumbering foot was heard in the hall. On it came, passing my room with a rude stamping that gradually grew less distinct as the hardy rough went down the corridor, brushing the wall behind which Mr. Gryce and his men lay concealed with his thick cane, and even stopping to light his pipe in front of the small apartment where cowered our good landlady with her eternal basket of mending in her lap.
At length all was quiet, and throwing open my door, I withdrew into a small closet connected with my room, to wait with indescribable impatience, the appearance of Mrs. Blake. She came in a very few minutes, remained for an instant, and departed, leaving behind her as I had requested, the skirt and shawl in which she had left her father’s presence. I at once endued myself in these articles of apparel taking care to draw the shawl well over my head and with a pocket handkerchief to my face, (a proceeding made natural enough by the sneeze which at that very moment I took care should assail me) walked boldly back to the room from which she had just come.
The door was of course ajar, and as I swung it open with as near a simulation of her manner as possible, the vision of her powerful father lolling on a bench directly before me, offered anything but an encouraging spectacle to my eyes. But doubling myself almost together with as ladylike an atch-ee as my masculine nostrils would allow, I succeeded in closing the door and reaching a low stool by the window without calling from him anything worse than a fretful “I hope you are not going to bark too.”
I did not reply to this of course, but sat with my face turned towards the street in an attitude which I hoped would awaken his attention sufficiently to cause him to get up and come over to my side. For as he sat face to the door it would be impossible to take him by surprise, and that, now that I saw what a huge and muscular creature he was, seemed to me to be the only safe method before us. But, whether from the sullenness of his disposition or the very evident laziness of the moment, he manifested no disposition to move, and hearing or thinking I did, the stealthy advance of Mr. Gryce and his companions down the hall, I allowed myself to give way to a suppressed exclamation, and leaning forward, pressed my forehead against the pane of glass before me as if something of absorbing interest had just taken place in the street beneath.
His fears at once took alarm. Bounding up with a curse, he strode towards me, muttering,
“What’s up now? What’s that you are looking at?” reaching my side just as Mr. Gryce and his two men softly opened the door and with a quick leap threw their arms about him, closing upon him with a force he could not resist, desperate as he was and mighty in the huge strength of an unusually developed muscular organization.
“You, you girl there, are to blame for this!” came mingled with curses from his lips, as with one huge pant he submitted to his captors. “Only let me get my hand well upon you once—Damn it!” he suddenly exclaimed, dragging the whole three men forward in his effort to get his mouth down to my ear, “go and rub that sign out on the door or I’ll....you know what I’ll do well enough. Do you hear?”
Rising, still with face averted, I proceeded to do what he asked. But in another moment seeing that he had been effectually bound and gagged, I took out the piece of red chalk I had kept in my pocket, and deliberately chalked it on again, after which operation I came back and took my seat as before on the low stool by the window.
The object now was to secure the second rascal in the same way we had the first; and for this purpose Mr. Gryce ordered the now helpless giant to be dragged into the adjoining small room formerly occupied by Mrs. Blake, where he and his men likewise took up their station leaving me to confront as best I might, the surprise and consternation of the one whose return we now awaited.
I did not shrink. With that brave woman’s garments drawn about me, something of her dauntless spirit seemed to invade my soul, and though I expected but let that come in its place, I am not here to interest you in myself or my selfish thoughts.
A half hour passed; he had never lingered away so long before, or so it seemed, and I was beginning to wonder if we should have to keep up this strain of nerve for hours, when the heavy tread was again heard in the hall, and with a blow of the fist that argued anger or a brutal impatience, he flung open the door and came in, I did not turn my head.
“Where’s father?” he growled, stopping where he was a foot or so from the door.
I shook my head with a slight gesture and remained looking out.
He brought his cane down on the floor with a thump. “What do you mean by sitting there staring out of the window like mad and not answering when I ask you a decent question?”
Still I made no reply.
Provoked beyond endurance, yet held in check by that vague sense of danger in the air, which while not amounting to apprehension is often sufficient to hold back from advance the most daring foot, he stood glaring at me in what I felt to be a very ferocious attitude, but made no offer to move. Instantly I rose and still looking out of the window, made with my hand what appeared to be a signal to some one on the opposite side of the way. The ruse was effective. With an oath that rings in my ears yet, he lifted his heavy cane and advanced upon me with a bound, only to meet the same fate as his father at the hands of the watchful detectives. Not, however, before that heavy cane came down upon my head in a way to lay me in a heap at his feet and to sow the seeds of that blinding head-ache, which has afflicted me by spells ever since. But this termination of the affair was no more than I had feared from the beginning; and indeed it was as much to protect Mrs. Blake from the wrath of these men, as from any requirements of the situation I had assumed the disguise I then wore. I therefore did not allow this mishap to greatly trouble me, unpleasant as it was at the time, but, as soon as ever I could do so, rose from the floor and throwing off my strange habiliments, proceeded to finish up to my satisfaction, the work already so successfully begun.
LOVE AND DUTY
Dismissing the men who had assisted us in the capture of these two hardy villains, we ranged our prisoners before us.
“Now,” said Mr. Gryce, “no fuss and no swearing; you are in for it, and you might as well take it quietly as any other way.”
“Give me a clutch on that girl, that’s all,” said her father, “Where is she? Let me see her; every father has a right to see his own daughter,”
“You shall see her,” returned my superior, “but not till her husband is here to protect her.”
“Her husband? ah, you know about that do you?” growled the heavy voice of the son. “A rich man they say he is and a proud one. Let him come and look at us lying here like dogs and say how he will enjoy having his wife’s father and brother grinding away their lives in prison.”
“Mr. Blake is coming,” quoth Mr. Gryce, who by some preconcerted signal from the window had drawn that gentleman across the street. “He will tell you himself that he considers prison the best place for you. Blast you! but he...”
“But he, what?” inquired I, as the door opened and Mr. Blake with a pale face and agitated mien entered the room.
The wretch did not answer. Rousing from the cowering position in which they had both lain since their capture, the father and son struggled up in some sort of measure to their feet, and with hot, anxious eyes surveyed the countenance of the gentleman before them, as if they felt their fate hung upon the expression of his pallid face. The son was the first to speak.
“How do you do, brother-in-law,” were his sullen and insulting words.
Mr. Blake shuddered and cast a look around.
“My wife?” murmured he.
“She is well,” was the assurance given by Mr. Gryce, “and in a room not far from this. I will send for her if you say so.”
“No, not yet,” came in a sort of gasp; “let me look at these wretches first, and understand if I can what my wife has to suffer from her connection with them.”
“Your wife,” broke in the father, “what’s that to do with it; the question is how do you like it and what will you do to get us clear of this thing.”
“I will do nothing,” returned Mr. Blake. “You amply merit your doom and you shall suffer it to the end for all time.”
“It will read well in the papers,” exclaimed the son.
“The papers are to know nothing about it,” I broke in. “All knowledge of your connection with Mr. or Mrs. Blake is to be buried in this spot before we or you leave it. Not a word of her or him is to cross the lips of either of you from this hour. I have set that down as a condition and it has got to be kept.”
“You have, have you,” thundered in chorus from father and son. “And who are you to make conditions, and what do you think we are that you expect us to keep them? Can you do anymore than put us back from where we came from?”
For reply I took from my pocket the ring I had fished out of the ashes of their kitchen stove on that memorable visit to their house, and holding it up before their faces, looked them steadily in the eye.
A sudden wild glare followed by a bluish palor that robbed their countenances of their usual semblance of daring ferocity, answered me beyond my fondest hopes.
“I got that out of the stove where you had burned your prison clothing,” said I. “It is a cheap affair, but it will send you to the gallows if I choose to use it against you. The pedlar...”
“Hush,” exclaimed the father in a low choked tone greatly in contrast to any he had yet used in all our dealings with him. “Throw that ring out of the window and I promise to hold my tongue about any matter you don’t want spoke of. I’m not a fool”
“Nor I,” was my quick reply, as I restored the ring to my pocket. “While that remains in my possession together with certain facts concerning your habits in that old house of yours which have lately been made known to me, your life hangs by a thread I can any minute snip in two. Mr. Blake here, has spent some portion of a night in your house and knows how near it lies to a certain precipice, at foot of which...”
“Mein Gott, father, why don’t you say something!” leaped in cowed accents from the son’s white lips. “If they want us to keep quiet, let them say so and not go talking about things that...”
“Now look here,” interposed Mr. Gryce stepping before them with a look that closed their mouths at once. “I will just tell you what we propose to do. You are to go back to prison and serve your time out, there is no help for that, but as long as you behave yourselves and continue absolutely silent regarding your relationship to the wife of this gentleman, you shall have paid into a certain bank that he will name, a monthly sum that upon your dismissal from jail shall be paid you with whatever interest it may have accumulated. You are ready to promise that, are you not?” he inquired turning to Mr. Blake.
That gentleman bowed and named the sum, which was liberal enough, and the bank.
“But,” continued the detective, ignoring the sudden flash of eye that passed between the father and son, “let me or any of us hear of a word having been uttered by you, which in the remotest way shall suggest that you have in the world such a connection as Mrs. Blake, and the money not only stops going into the bank, but old scores shall be raked up against you with a zeal which if it does not stop your mouth in one way, will in another, and that with a suddenness you will not altogether relish.”
The men with a dogged air from which the bravado had however fled, turned and looked from one to the other of us in a fearful, inquiring way that duly confessed to the force of the impression made by these words upon their slow but not unimaginative minds.
“Do you three promise to keep our secret if we keep yours?” muttered the father with an uneasy glance at my pocket.
“We certainly do,” was our solemn return.
“Very well; call in the girl and let me just look at her, then, before we go. We won’t say nothing,” continued he, seeing Mr. Blake shrink, “only she is my daughter and if I cannot bid her goodbye”
“Let him see his child,” cried Mr. Blake turning with a shudder to the window. “I wish it,” added he.
Straightway with hasty foot I left the room. Going to the little closet where I had ordered his wife to remain concealed, I knocked and entered. She was crouched in an attitude of prayer on the floor, her face buried in her hands, and her whole person breathing that agony of suspense that is a torture to the sensitive soul.
“Mrs. Blake,” said I, dismissing the landlady who stood in helpless distress beside her, “the arrest has been satisfactorily made and your father calls for you to say good-bye before going away with us. Will you come?”
“But my...Mr. Blake?” exclaimed she leaping to her feet. “I am sure I heard his footstep in the hall?”
“He is with your father and brother. It was at his command I came for you.”
A gleam hard to interpret flashed for an instant over her face. With her eye on the door she towered in her womanly dignity, while thoughts innumerable seemed to rush in wild succession through her mind.
“Will you not come?” I urged.
“I...,” she paused. “I will go see my father,” she murmured, “but...”
Suddenly she trembled and drew back; a step was in the hall, on the threshold, at her side; Mr. Blake had come to reclaim his bride.
The word came from her in a low tone shaken with the concentrated anguish of many a month of longing and despair, but there was no invitation in its sound, and he who had held out his arms, stopped and surveying her with a certain deprecatory glance in his proud eye, said,
“You are right; I have first my acknowledgments to make and your forgiveness to ask before I can hope”
“No, no,” she broke in, “your coming here is enough, I request no more. If you felt unkindly toward me”
“Unkindly?” A world of love thrilled in that word. “Luttra, I am your husband and rejoice that I am so; it is to lay the devotion of my heart and life at your feet that I seek your presence this hour. The year has taught me, ah, what has not the year taught me of the worth of her I so recklessly threw from me on my wedding day. Luttra,” he held out his hand “will you crown all your other acts of devotion with a pardon that will restore me to my manhood and that place in your esteem which I covet above every other earthly good?”
Her face which had been raised to his with that earnest look we knew so well, softened with an ineffable smile, but still she did not lay her hand in his.
“And you say this to me in the very hour of my father’s and brother’s arrest! With the remembrance in your mind of their bound and abject forms lying before you guarded by police; knowing too, that they deserve their ignominy and the long imprisonment that awaits them?”
“No, I say it on the day of the discovery and the restoration of that wife for whom I have long searched, and to whom when found I have no word to give but welcome, welcome, welcome.”
With the same deep smile she bowed her head, “Now let come what will, I can never again be unhappy,” were the words I caught, uttered in the lowest of undertones. But in another moment her head had regained its steady poise and a great change had passed over her manner.
“Mr. Blake,” said she, “you are good; how good, I alone can know and duly appreciate who have lived in your house this last year and seen with eyes that missed nothing, just what your surroundings are and have been from the earliest years of your proud life. But goodness must not lead you into the committal of an act you must and will repent to your dying day; or if it does, I who have learned my duty in the school of adversity, must show the courage of two and forbid what every secret instinct of my soul declares to be only provocative of shame and sorrow. You would take me to your heart as your wife; do you realize what that means?”
“I think I do,” was his earnest reply. “Relief from heart-ache, Luttra.”
Her smooth brow wrinkled with a sudden spasm of pain but her firm lips did not quiver.
“It means,” said she, drawing nearer but not with that approach which indicates yielding, “it means, shame to the proudest family that lives in the land. It means silence as regards a past blotted by suggestions of crime; and apprehension concerning a future across which the shadow of prison walls must for so many years lie. It means, the hushing of certain words upon beloved lips; the turning of cherished eyes from visions where fathers and daughters ay, brothers and sisters are seen joined together in tender companionship or loving embrace. It means, - God help me to speak out - a home without the sanctity of memories; a husband without the honors he has been accustomed to enjoy; a wife with a fear gnawing like a serpent into her breast; and children, yes, perhaps children from whose innocent lips the sacred word of grandfather can never fall without wakening a blush on the cheeks of their parents, which all their lovesome prattle will be helpless to chase away.”
“Luttra, your father and your brother have given their consent to go their dark way alone and trouble you no more. The shadow you speak of may lie on your heart, dear wife, for these men are of your own blood, but it need never invade the hearthstone beside which I ask you to sit. The world will never know, whether you come with me or not, that Luttra Blake was ever Luttra Schoenmaker. Will you not then give me the happiness of striving to make such amends for the past, that you too, will forget you ever bore any other name than the one you now honor so truly?”
“O do not,” she began but paused with a sudden control of her emotion that lifted her into an atmosphere almost holy in its significance. “Mr. Blake,” said she, “I am a woman and therefore weak to the voice of love pleading in my ear. But in one thing I am strong, and that is in my sense of what is due to the man I have sworn to honor. Eleven months ago I left you because your pleasure and my own dignity demanded it; to-day I put by all the joy and exaltation you offer, because your position as a gentleman, and your happiness as a man equally requires it.”
“My happiness as a man!” he broke in. “Ah, Luttra if you love me as I do you”
“I might perhaps yield,” she allowed with a faint smile. “But I love you as a girl brought up amid surroundings from which her whole being recoiled, must love the one who first brought light into her darkness and opened up to her longing feet the way to a life of culture, purity and honor. I were the basest of women could I consent to repay such a boundless favor”
“But Luttra,” he again broke in, “you married me knowing what your father and brother were capable of committing.”
“Yes, yes; I was blinded by passion, a girl’s passion, Mr. Blake, born of glamour and gratitude; not the self-forgetting devotion of a woman who has tasted the bitterness of life and so learned its lesson of sacrifice. I may not have thought, certainly I did not realize, what I was doing. Besides, my father and brother were not convicted criminals at that time, however weak they had proved themselves under temptation. And then I believed I had left them behind me on the road of life; that we were sundered, irrevocably cut loose from all possible connection. But such ties are not to be snapped so easily. They found me, you see, and they will find me again”
“Never!” exclaimed her husband. “They are as dead to you as if the grave had swallowed them. I have taken care of that.”
“But the shame! you have not taken care of that. That exists and must, and while it does I remain where I can meet it alone. I love you; God’s sun is not dearer to my eyes; but I will never cross your threshold as your wife till the opprobrium can be cut loose from my skirts, and the shadow uplifted from my brow. A queen with high thoughts in her eyes and brave hopes in her heart were not too good to enter that door with you. Shall a girl who has lived three weeks in an atmosphere of such crime and despair, that these rooms have often seemed to me the gateway to hell, carry there, even in secrecy, the effects of that atmosphere? I will cherish your goodness in my heart but do not ask me to bury that heart in any more exalted spot, than some humble country home, where my life may be spent in good deeds and my love in prayers for the man I hold dear, and because I hold dear, leave to his own high path among the straight and unshadowed courses of the world.”
And with a gesture that inexorably shut him off while it expressed the most touching appeal, she glided by him and took her way to the room where her father and brother awaited her presence.
“I cannot endure this,” came in one burst of feeling from the lips of Mr. Blake. “She don’t know, she don’t realize, Sir,” cried he, suddenly becoming conscious of my presence in the room, “will you be good enough to see that this note,” he hastily scribbled one, “is carried across the way to my house and given to Mrs. Daniels.”
I bowed assent, routed up one of the men in the next room and despatched it at once.
“Perhaps she will listen to the voice of one of her own sex if not to me,” said he; and began pacing the floor of the narrow room in which we were, with a wildness of impatience that showed to what depths had sunk the hope of gaining this lovely woman for his own.
Feeling myself no longer necessary in that spot, I followed where my wishes led and entered the room where Luttra was bidding good-bye to her father.
“I shall never forget,” I heard her say as I crossed the floor to where Mr. Gryce stood looking out of the window, “that your blood runs in my veins together with that of my gentle-hearted, never-to-be-forgotten mother. Whatever my fate may be or wherever I may hide the head you have bowed to the dust, be sure I shall always lift up my hands in prayer for your repentance and return to an honest life. God grant that my prayers may be heard and that I may yet receive at your hands, a father’s kindly blessing.”
The only answer to this was a heavily muttered growl that gave but little promise of any such peaceful termination to a deeply vicious life. Hearing it, Mr. Gryce hastened to procure his men and remove the hardened wretches from the spot. All through the preparations for their departure, she stood and watched their sullen faces with a wild yearning in her eye that could scarcely be denied, but when the door finally closed upon them, and she was left standing there with no one in the room but myself she steadied herself up as one who is conscious that all the storms of heaven are about to break upon her; and turning slowly to the door waited with arms crossed and a still determination upon her brow, the coming of the feet of him whose resolve she felt must have, as yet been only strengthened by her resistance.
She had not long to wait. Almost with the closing of the street door upon the detectives and their prisoners, Mr. Blake followed by Mrs. Daniels and another lady whose thick veil and long cloak but illy concealed the patrician features and stately form of the Countess De Mirac, entered the room.
The surprise had its effect; Luttra was evidently for the moment thrown off her guard.
“Mrs. Daniels!” she breathed, holding out her hands with a longing gesture.
“My dear mistress!” returned that good woman, taking those hands in hers but in a respectful way that proved the constraint imposed upon her by Mr. Blake’s presence. “Do I see you again and safe?”
“You must have thought I cared little for the anxiety you would be sure to feel,” said that fair young mistress, gazing with earnestness into the glad but tearful eyes of the housekeeper. “But indeed, I have been in no position to communicate with you, nor could I do so without risking that to protect which I so outraged my feelings as to leave the house at all. I mean the life and welfare of its master, Mrs. Daniels.”
“Ha, what is that?” quoth Mr. Blake. “It was to save me, you consented to follow them?”
“Yes; what else would have led me to such an action? They might have killed me, I would not have cared, but when they began to utter threats against you”
“Mrs. Blake,” exclaimed Mrs. Daniels, catching hold of her mistress’s uplifted hand, and pointing to a scar that slightly disfigured her white arm a little above the wrist, “Mrs. Blake, what’s that?”
A pink flush, the first I had seen on her usually pale countenance, rose for an instant to her cheeks, and she seemed to hesitate.
“It was not there when I last saw you, Mrs. Blake.”
“No,” was the slow reply, “I found myself forced that night to inflict upon myself a little wound. It is nothing, let it go.”
“No, Luttra I cannot let it go,” said her husband, advancing towards her with something like gentle command. “I must hear not only about this but all the other occurrences of that night. How came they to find you in the refuge you had attained?”
“I think,” said she in a low tone the underlying suffering of which it would be hard to describe, “that it was not to seek me they first invaded your house. They had heard you were a rich man, and the sight of that ladder running up the side of the new extension was too much for them. Indeed I know that it was for purposes of robbery they came, for they had hired this room opposite you some days previous to making the attempt. You see they were almost destitute of money and though they had some buried in the cellar of the old house in Vermont, they dared not leave the city to procure it. My brother was obliged to do so later, however. It was a surprise to them seeing me in your house. They had reached the roof of the extension and were just lifting up the corner of the shade I had dropped across the open window I always open my window a few minutes before preparing to retire, when I rose from the chair in which I had been brooding, and turned up the gas. I was combing my hair at the time and so of course they recognized me. Instantly they gave a secret signal I, alas, remembered only too well, and crouching back, bade me put out the light that they might enter with safety. I was at first too much startled to realize the consequences of my action, and with some vague idea that they had discovered my retreat and come for purposes of advice or assistance, I did what they bid. Immediately they threw back the shade and came in, their huge figures looming frightfully in the faint light made by a distant gas lamp in the street below. ‘What do you want?’ were my first words uttered in a voice I scarcely recognized for my own; ‘why do you steal on me like this in the night and through an open window fifty feet from the ground? Aren’t you afraid you will be discovered and sent back to the prison from which you have escaped?’ Their reply sent a chill through my blood and awoke me to a realization of what I had done in thus allowing two escaped convicts to enter a house not my own. ‘We want money and we’re not afraid of anything now you are here.’ And without heeding my exclamation of horror, they coolly told me that they would wait where they were till the household was asleep, when they would expect me to show them the way to the silver closet or what was better, the safe or wherever it was Mr. Blake kept his money. I saw they took me for a servant, as indeed I was, and for some minutes I managed to preserve that position in their eyes. But when in a sudden burst of rage at my refusal to help them, they pushed me aside and hurried to the door with the manifest intention of going below, I forgot prudence in my fears and uttered some wild appeal to them not to do injury to any one in the house for it was my husband’s. Of course that disclosure had its natural effect.
“They stopped, but only to beset me with questions till the whole truth came out. I could not have committed a worse folly than thus taking them into my confidence. Instantly the advantages to be gained by using my secret connection with so wealthy a man for the purpose of cowering me and blackmailing him, seemed to strike both their minds at once, slow as they usually are to receive impressions. The silver-closet and money-safe sank to a comparatively insignificant position in their eyes, and to get me out of the house, and with my happiness at stake, treat with the honorable man who notwithstanding his non-approval of me as a woman, still regarded me as his lawfully wedded wife, became in their eyes a thing of such wonderful promise they were willing to run any and every risk to test its value. But here to their great astonishment I rebelled; astonishment because they could not realize my desiring anything above money and the position to which they declared I was by law entitled. In vain I pleaded my love; in vain I threatened exposure of their plans if not whereabouts. The mine of gold which they fondly believed they had stumbled upon unawares, promised too richly to be easily abandoned. ‘You must go with us,’ said they, ‘if not peaceably then by force,’ and they actually advanced upon me, upsetting a chair and tearing down one of the curtains to which I clung. It was then I committed that little act concerning which you questioned me. I wanted to show them I was not to be moved by threats of that character; that I did not even fear the shedding of my blood; and that they would only be wasting their time in trying to sway me by hints of personal violence. And they were a little impressed, sufficiently so at least to turn their threats in another direction, awakening fears at last which I could not conceal, much as I felt it would be policy to do so. Gathering up a few articles I most prized, my wedding ring, Mr. Blake, and a photograph of yourself that Mrs. Daniels had been kind enough to give me, I put on my bonnet and cloak and said I would go with them, since they persisted in requiring it. The fact is I no longer possessed motive or strength to resist. Even your unexpected appearance at the door, Mrs. Daniels, offered no prospect of hope. Arouse the house? what would that do? only reveal my cherished secret and perhaps jeopardize the life of my husband. Besides, they were my own near kin, remember, and so had some little claim upon my consideration, at least to the point of my not personally betraying them unless they menaced immediate and actual harm. The escape by the window which would have been a difficult task for most women to perform, was easy enough for me. I was brought up to wild ways you know, and the descent of a ladder forty feet long was a comparatively trivial thing for me to accomplish. It was the tearing away from a life of silent peace, the reentrance of my soul into an atmosphere of sin and deadly plotting, that was the hard thing, the difficult dreadful thing which hung weights to my feet, and made me well nigh mad. And it was this which at the sight of a policeman in the street led me to make an effort to escape. But it was not successful. Though I was fortunate enough to free myself from the grasp of my father and brother, I reached the gate on - street only to encounter the eyes of him whose displeasure I most feared, looking sternly upon me from the other side. The shock was too much for me in my then weak and unnerved condition. Without considering anything but the fact that he never had known and never must, that I had been in the same house with him for so long, I rushed back to the corner and into the arms of the men who awaited me. How you came to be there, Mr. Blake, or why you did not open the gate and follow, I cannot say.”
“The gate was locked,” returned that gentleman. “You remember it closes with a spring, and can only be opened by means of a key which I did not have.”
“My father had it,” she murmured; “he spent a whole week in the endeavor to get hold of it, and finally succeeded on the evening of the very day he used it. It was left in the lock I believe.”
“So much for servants,” I whispered to myself.
“The next morning,” continued she, “they put the case very plainly before me. I was at liberty to return at once to my home if I would promise to work in their interest by making certain demands upon you as your wife. All they wanted, said they, was a snug little sum and a lift out of the country. If I would secure them these, they would trouble me no more. But I could not concede to anything of that nature, of course, and the consequence was these long weeks of imprisonment and suspense; weeks that I do not now begrudge, seeing they have brought me the assurance of your esteem and the knowledge, that wherever I go, your thoughts will follow me with compassion if not with love.”
And having told her story and thus answered his demands, she assumed once more the position of lofty reserve that seemed to shut him back from advance like a wall of invincible crystal.
THE BOND THAT UNITES
But he was not to be discouraged. “And after all this, after all you have suffered for my sake and your own, do you think you have a right to deny me the one desire of my heart? How can you reconcile it with your ideas of devotion, Luttra?”
“My ideas of devotion look beyond the present, Mr. Blake. It is to save you from years of wearing anxiety that I consent to the infliction upon you of a passing pang.”
He took a bold step forward. “Luttra, you do not know a man’s heart. To lose you now would not merely inflict a passing pang, but sow the seeds of a grief that would go with me to the grave.”
“Do you then” she began, but paused blushing. Mrs. Daniels took the opportunity to approach her on the other side.
“My dear mistress,” said she, “you are wrong to hold out in this matter.” And her manner betrayed something of the peculiar agitation that had belonged to it in the former times of her secret embarassment. “I, who have honored the family which I have so long served, above every other in the land, tell you that you can do it no greater good than to join it now, or inflict upon it any greater harm than to wilfully withdraw yourself from the position in which God has placed you.”
“And I,” said another voice, that of the Countess de Mirac, who up to this time had held herself in the background, but who now came forward and took her place with the rest, “I, who have borne the name of Blake, and who am still the proudest of them all at heart, I, the Countess de Mirac, cousin to your husband there, repeat what this good woman has said, and in holding out my hand to you, ask you to make my cousin happy and his family contented by assuming that position in his household which the law as well as his love accords you.”
The girl looked at the daintily gloved hand held out to her, colored faintly, and put her own within it.
“I thank you for your goodness,” said she, surveying with half sad, half admiring glances, the somewhat pale face of the beautiful brunette.
“And you will yield to our united requests?” She cast her eye down at the spot where her father and brother had cowered in their shackles, and shook her head. “I dare not,” said she.
Immediately Mrs. Daniels, whose emotion had been increasing every moment since she last spoke, plunged her hand into her bosom and drew out a folded paper.
“Mrs. Blake,” said she, “if you could be convinced that what I have told you was true, and that you would be irretrievably injuring your husband and his interests, by persisting in that desertion of him which you purpose, would you not consent to reconsider your determination, settled as it appears to be?”
“If I could be made to see that, most certainly,” returned she in a low voice whose broken accents betrayed at what cost she remained true to her resolve. “But I cannot.”
“Perhaps the sight of this paper will help you,” said she. And turning to Mr. Blake she exclaimed, “Your pardon for what I am called upon to do. A duty has been laid upon me which I cannot avoid, hard as it is for an old servant to perform. This paper, but it is no more than just that you, sir, should see and read it first.” And with a hand that quivered with fear or some equally strong emotion, she put it in his clasp.
The exclamation that rewarded the act made us all start forward. “My father’s handwriting!” were his words.
“Executed under my eye,” observed Mrs. Daniels.
His glance ran rapidly down the sheet and rested upon the final signature.
“Why has this been kept from me?” demanded he, turning upon Mrs. Daniels with sternness.
“Your father so willed it,” was her reply. “‘For a year’ was his command, ‘you shall keep this my last will and testament which I give into your care with my dying hands, a secret from the world. At the expiration of that time mark if my son’s wife sits at the head of her husband’s table; if she does and is happy, suppress this by deliberately giving it to the flames, but if from any reason other than death, she is not seen there, carry it at once to my son, and bid him as he honors my memory, to see that my wishes as there expressed are at once carried out.’”
The paper in Mr. Blake’s hand fluttered.
“You are aware what those wishes are?” said he.
“I steadied his hand while he wrote,” was her sad and earnest reply.
Mr. Blake turned with a look of inexpressible deference to his wife.
“Madame,” said he “when I urged you with such warmth to join your fate to mine and honor my house by presiding over it, I thought I was inviting you to share the advantages of wealth as well as the love of a lonely man’s heart. This paper undeceives me. Luttra, the daughter-in-law of Abner Blake, not Holman, his son, is the one who by the inheritance of his millions has the right to command in this presence.”
With a cry she took from him the will whose purport was thus briefly made known. “O, how could he, how could he?” exclaimed she, running her eye down the sheet, and then crushing it spasmodically to her breast. “Did he not realize that he could do me no greater wrong?” Then in one yielding up of her whole womanhood to the mighty burst of passion that had been flooding the defenses of her heart for so long, she exclaimed in a voice the mingled rapture and determination of which rings in my ears even now, “And is it a thing like this with its suggestions of mercenary interest that shall bridge the gulf that separates you and me? Shall the giving or the gaining of a fortune make necessary the unital of lives over which holier influences have beamed and loftier hopes shone? No, no; by the smile with which your dying father took me to his breast, love alone, with the hope and confidence it gives, shall be the bond to draw us together and make of the two separate planes on which we stand, a common ground where we can meet and be happy.”
And with one supreme gesture she tore into pieces the will which she held, and sank all aglow with woman’s divinest joy into the arms held out to receive her.
** ** **
I was present at the wedding-reception given them by the Countess De Mirac in her elegant apartments at the Windsor. I never saw a happier bride, nor a husband in whose eyes burned a deeper contentment. To all questions as to who this extraordinary woman could be, where she was found, and in what place and at what time she was married, the Countess had apt replies whose art of hushing curiosity without absolutely satisfying it, was one of the tokens she yet preserved, of her short sway as grand lady, in the gayest and most hollow city of the world.
As I prepared to leave a scene perhaps the most gratifying in many respects that I had ever witnessed, I felt a slight touch on my arm. It came from Mrs. Blake who with her husband had crossed the room to bid me farewell.
“Will you allow me to thank you,” said she, “for the risk you ran for me one day and of which I have just heard. It was an act that merits the gratitude of years, and as such shall be always remembered by me. If the old French artist with the racking cough ever desires a favor at my hands, let him feel free to ask it. The interest I experienced in him in the days of my trouble, will suffer no abatement in these of my joy and prosperity.” And with a look that was more than words, she gave me a flower from the bouquet she held in her hand, and smilingly withdrew.