OUR life at the Hall soon returned to its old, dreary course. The lawyer in London wrote to my mistress to ask her to come and stay for a little while with his wife; but she declined the invitation, being averse to facing company after what had happened to her. Though she tried hard to keep the real state of her mind concealed from all about her, I, for one, could see plainly enough that she was pining under the bitter injury that had been inflicted on her. What effect continued solitude might have had on her spirits I tremble to think.
Fortunately for herself, it occurred to her, before long, to send and invite Mr. Meeke to resume his musical practicing with her at the Hall. She told him--and, as it seemed to me, with perfect truth--that any implied engagement which he had made with Mr. James Smith was now canceled, since the person so named had morally forfeited all his claims as a husband, first, by his desertion of her, and, secondly, by his criminal marriage with another woman. After stating this view of the matter, she left it to Mr. Meeke to decide whether the perfectly innocent connection between them should be resumed or not. The little parson, after hesitating and pondering in his helpless way, ended by agreeing with my mistress, and by coming back once more to the Hall with his fiddle under his arm. This renewal of their old habits might have been imprudent enough, as tending to weaken my mistress's case in the eyes of the world, but, for all that, it was the most sensible course she could take for her own sake. The harmless company of Mr. Meeke, and the relief of playing the old tunes again in the old way, saved her, I verily believe, from sinking altogether under the oppression of the shocking situation in which she was now placed.
So, with the assistance of Mr. Meeke and his fiddle, my mistress got though the weary time. The winter passed, the spring came, and no fresh tidings reached us of Mr. James Smith. It had been a long, hard winter that year, and the spring was backward and rainy. The first really fine day we had was the day that fell on the fourteenth of March.
I am particular in mentioning this date merely because it is fixed forever in my memory. As long as there is life in me I shall remember that fourteenth of March, and the smallest circumstances connected with it.
The day began ill, with what superstitious people would think a bad omen. My mistress remained late in her room in the morning, amusing herself by looking over her clothes, and by setting to rights some drawers in her cabinet which she had not opened for some time past. Just before luncheon we were startled by hearing the drawing-room bell rung violently. I ran up to see what was the matter, and the quadroon, Josephine, who had heard the bell in another part of the house, hastened to answer it also. She got into the drawing-room first, and I followed close on her heels. My mistress was standing alone on the hearth-rug, with an appearance of great discomposure in her face and manner.
"I have been robbed!" she said, vehemently, "I don't know when or how; but I miss a pair of bracelets, three rings, and a quantity of old-fashioned lace pocket-handkerchiefs."
"If you have any suspicions, ma'am," said Josephine, in a sharp, sudden way, "say who they point at. My boxes, for one, are quite at your disposal."
"Who asked about your boxes?" said my mistress, angrily. "Be a little less ready with your answer, if you please, the next time I speak."
She then turned to me, and began explaining the circumstances under which she had discovered her loss. I suggested that the missing things should be well searched for first, and then, if nothing came of that, that I should go for the constable, and place the matter under his direction.
My mistress agreed to this plan, and the search was undertaken immediately. It lasted till dinner-time, and led to no results. I then proposed going for the constable. But my mistress said it was too late to do anything that day, and told me to wait at table as usual, and to go on my errand the first thing the next morning. Mr. Meeke was coming with some new music in the evening, and I suspect she was not willing to be disturbed at her favorite occupation by the arrival of the constable.
When dinner was over the parson came, and the concert went on as usual through the evening. At ten o'clock I took up the tray, with the wine, and soda-water, and biscuits. Just as I was opening one of the bottles of soda-water, there was a sound of wheels on the drive outside, and a ring at the bell.
I had unfastened the wires of the cork, and could not put the bottle down to run at once to the door. One of the female servants answered it. I heard a sort of half scream--then the sound of a footstep that was familiar to me.
My mistress turned round from the piano, and looked me hard in the face.
"William," she said, "do you know that step?" Before I could answer the door was pushed open, and Mr. James Smith walked into the room.
He had his hat on. His long hair flowed down under it over the collar of his coat; his bright black eyes, after resting an instant on my mistress, turned to Mr. Meeke. His heavy eyebrows met together, and one of his hands went up to one of his bushy black whiskers, and pulled at it angrily.
"You here again!" he said, advancing a few steps toward the little parson, who sat trembling all over, with his fiddle hugged up in his arms as if it had been a child.
Seeing her villainous husband advance, my mistress moved, too, so as to face him. He turned round on her at the first step she took, as quick as lightning.
"You shameless woman!" he said. "Can you look me in the face in the presence of that man?" He pointed, as he spoke, to Mr. Meeke.
My mistress never shrank when he turned upon her. Not a sign of fear was in her face when they confronted each other. Not the faintest flush of anger came into her cheeks when he spoke. The sense of the insult and injury that he had inflicted on her, and the consciousness of knowing his guilty secret, gave her all her self-possession at that trying moment.
"I ask you again," he repeated, finding that she did not answer him, "how dare you look me in the face in the presence of that man?"
She raised her steady eyes to his hat, which he still kept on his head.
"Who has taught you to come into a room and speak to a lady with your hat on?" she asked, in quiet, contemptuous tones. "Is that a habit which is sanctioned by your new wife?"
My eyes were on him as she said those last words. His complexion, naturally dark and swarthy, changed instantly to a livid yellow white; his hand caught at the chair nearest to him, and he dropped into it heavily.
"I don't understand you," he said, after a moment of silence, looking about the room unsteadily while he spoke.
"You do," said my mistress. "Your tongue lies, but your face speaks the truth."
He called back his courage and audacity by a desperate effort, and started up from the chair again with an oath.
The instant before this happened I thought I heard the sound of a rustling dress in the passage outside, as if one of the women servants was stealing up to listen outside the door. I should have gone at once to see whether this was the case or not, but my master stopped me just after he had risen from the chair.
"Get the bed made in the Red Room, and light a fire there directly," he said, with his fiercest look and in his roughest tones. "When I ring the bell, bring me a kettle of boiling water and a bottle of brandy. As for you," he continued, turning toward Mr. Meeke, who still sat pale and speechless with his fiddle hugged up in his arms, "leave the house, or you won't find your cloth any protection to you."
At this insult the blood flew into my mistress's face. Before she could say anything, Mr. James Smith raised his voice loud enough to drown hers.
"I won't hear another word from you," he cried out, brutally. "You have been talking like a mad woman, and you look like a mad woman. You are out of your senses. As sure as you live, I'll have you examined by the doctors to-morrow. Why the devil do you stand there, you scoundrel?" he roared, wheeling round on his heel to me. "Why don't you obey my orders?"
I looked at my mistress. If she had directed me to knock Mr. James Smith down, big as he was, I think at that moment I could have done it.
"Do as he tells you, William," she said, squeezing one of her hands firmly over her bosom, as if she was trying to keep down the rising indignation in that way. "This is the last order of his giving that I shall ask you to obey."
"Do you threaten me, you mad--"
He finished the question by a word I shall not repeat.
"I tell you," she answered, in clear, ringing, resolute tones, "that you have outraged me past all forgiveness and all endurance, and that you shall never insult me again as you have insulted me to-night."
After saying those words she fixed one steady look on him, then turned away and walked slowly to the door.
A minute previously Mr. Meeke had summoned courage enough to get up and leave the room quietly. I noticed him walking demurely away, close to the wall, with his fiddle held under one tail of his long frock-coat, as if he was afraid that the savage passions of Mr. James Smith might be wreaked on that unoffending instrument. He got to the door before my mistress. As he softly pulled it open, I saw him start, and the rustling of the gown caught my ear again from the outside.
My mistress followed him into the passage, turning, however, in the opposite direction to that taken by the little parson, in order to reach the staircase that led to her own room. I went out next, leaving Mr. James Smith alone.
I overtook Mr. Meeke in the hall, and opened the door for him.
"I beg your pardon, sir," I said, "but did you come upon anybody listening outside the music-room when you left it just now?"
"Yes, William," said Mr. Meeke, in a faint voice, "I think it was Josephine; but I was so dreadfully agitated that I can't be quite certain about it."
Had she surprised our secret? That was the question I asked myself as I went away to light the fire in the Red Room. Calling to mind the exact time at which I had first detected the rustling outside the door, I came to the conclusion that she had only heard the last part of the quarrel between my mistress and her rascal of a husband. Those bold words about the "new wife" had been assuredly spoken before I heard Josephine stealing up to the door.
As soon as the fire was alight and the bed made, I went back to the music-room to announce that my orders had been obeyed. Mr. James Smith was walking up and down in a perturbed way, still keeping his hat on. He followed me to the Red Room without saying a word.
Ten minutes later he rang for the kettle and the bottle of brandy. When I took them in I found him unpacking a small carpet-bag, which was the only luggage he had brought with him. He still kept silence, and did not appear to take any notice of me. I left him immediately without our having so much as exchanged a single word.
So far as I could tell, the night passed quietly. The next morning I heard that my mistress was suffering so severely from a nervous attack that she was unable to rise from her bed. It was no surprise to me to be told that, knowing as I did what she had gone through the night before.
About nine o'clock I went with the hot water to the Red Room. After knocking twice I tried the door, and, finding it not locked, went in with the jug in my hand.
I looked at the bed--I looked all round the room. Not a sign of Mr. James Smith was to be seen anywhere.
Judging by appearances, the bed had certainly been occupied. Thrown across the counterpane lay the nightgown he had worn. I took it up and saw some spots on it. I looked at them a little closer. They were spots of blood.
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