I Grasped her hands hard.
"What is it?" I began;—then, looking round I saw that the hall was full of panic-stricken servants, some of whom came forward, confusedly murmuring together about being 'afraid' and 'not knowing what to do.' I motioned them back by a gesture and turned again to Mavis Clare.
"Tell me,—quick—what is wrong?"
"We fear something has happened to Lady Sibyl," she replied at once. "Her rooms are locked, and we cannot make her hear. Her maid got alarmed, and ran over to my house to ask me what was best to be done,—I came at once, and knocked and called, but could get no response. You know the windows are too high to reach from the ground,— there is no ladder on the premises long enough for the purpose, and no one can climb up that side of the building. I begged some of the servants to break open the door by force,—but they would not,—they were all afraid; and I did not like to act on my own responsibility, so I telegraphed for you"
I sprang away from her before she had finished speaking and hurried upstairs at once,—outside the door of the anteroom which led into my wife's luxurious 'suite' of apartments, I paused breathless.
"Sibyl!" I cried.
There was not a sound. Mavis had followed me, and stood by my side trembling a little. Two or three of the servants had also crept up the stairs, and were clinging to the banisters, listening nervously.
"Sibyl!" I called again. Still absolute silence. I turned round upon the waiting and anxious domestics with an assumption of calmness.
"Lady Sibyl is probably not in her rooms at all," I said. "She may have gone out unobserved. This door of the antechamber has a spring-lock,—it can easily get fast shut by the merest accident. Bring a strong hammer,—or a crowbar,— anything that will break it open,—if you had had sense you would have obeyed Miss Clare, and done this a couple of hours ago."
And I waited with enforced composure, while my instructions were carried out as rapidly as possible. Two of the menservants appeared with the necessary tools, and very soon the house resounded with clamour,—blow after blow was dealt upon the solid oaken door for some time without success,—the spring-lock would not yield,—neither would the strong hinges give way. Presently, however, after ten minutes' hard labour, one of the finely carved panels was smashed in,—then another, —and, springing over the debris, I rushed through the anteroom into the boudoir,—then paused, listening, and calling again, "Sibyl!" No one followed me,—some indefinable instinct, some nameless dread, held the servants back, and Mavis Clare as well. I was alone, … and in complete darkness. Groping about, with my heart beating furiously, I sought for the ivory button in the wall which would, at pressure, flood the rooms with electric light, but somehow I could not find it. My hand came in contact with various familiar things which I recognised by touch,—rare bits of china, bronzes, vases, pictures,—costly trifles that were heaped up, as I knew, in this particular apartment with a lavish luxury and disregard of cost befitting a wanton eastern empress of old time,—cautiously feeling my way along, I started with terror to see, as I thought, a tall figure outline itself suddenly against the darkness,—white, spectral and luminous,—a figure that, as I stared at it aghast, raised a pallid hand and pointed me forward with a menacing air of scorn. In my dazed horror at this apparition, or delusion, I stumbled over the heavy trailing folds of a velvet portiere, and knew by this that I had passed from the boudoir into the adjoining bedroom. Again I stopped,—calling, "Sibyl!" but my voice had scarcely strength enough to raise itself above a whisper. Giddy and confused as I was, I remembered that the electric light in this room was fixed at the side of the toilet-table, and I stepped hurriedly in that direction, when all at once in the thick gloom I touched something clammy and cold like dead flesh, and brushed against a garment that exhaled faint perfume, and rustled at my touch with a silken sound. This alarmed me more thoroughly than the spectre I fancied I had just seen,—I drew back shudderingly against the wall,—and in so doing, my fingers involuntarily closed on the polished ivory stud, which, like a fairy talisman in modern
civilization, emits radiance at the owner's will. I pressed it nervously,—the light blazed forth through the rose-tinted shells which shaded its dazzling clearness, and showed me where I stood, … within an arm's length of a strange, stiff white creature, that sat staring at itself in the silver-framed mirror with wide-open, fixed and glassy eyes.
"Sibyl!" I gasped. "My wife … !" but the words died chokingly in my throat. Was it indeed my wife !—this frozen statue of a woman, watching her own impassive image thus intently! I looked upon her wonderingly,—doubtingly, —as if she were some stranger;—it took me time to recognise her features, and the bronze-gold darkness of her long hair which fell loosely about her in a lavish wealth of rippling waves, … her left hand hung limply over the arm of the chair in which, like some carven ivory goddess, she sat enthroned,—and tremblingly, slowly, reluctantly, I advanced and took that hand. Cold as ice it lay in my palm much as though it were a waxen model of itself;—it glittered with jewels,—and I studied every ring upon it with a curious, dull pertinacity, like one who seeks a clue to identity. That large turquoise in a diamond setting was a marriage-gift from a duchess,—that opal her father gave her,—the lustrous circle of sapphires and brilliants surmounting her wedding-ring was my gift,—that ruby I seemed to know,—well well! what a mass of sparkling value wasted on such fragile clay! I peered into her face,—then at the reflection of that face in the mirror,—and again I grew perplexed,—was it, could it be Sibyl after all? Sibyl was beautiful, —this dead thing had a devilish smile on its blue, parted lips, and frenzied horror in its eyes! Suddenly something tense in my brain seemed to snap and give way,—dropping the chill fingers I held, I cried aloud
"Mavis! Mavis Clare!"
In a moment she was with me,—in a glance she comprehended all. Falling on her knees by the dead woman she broke into a passion of weeping.
"Oh, poor girl!" she cried—"Oh, poor, unhappy, misguided girl!"
I stared at her gloomily. It seemed to me very strange that she should weep for sorrows not her own. There was a fire in my brain,—a confused trouble in my thoughts,—I looked at my dead wife with her fixed gaze and evil smile, sitting rigidly upright, and robed in the mocking sheen of her rose-silk peignoir, showered with old lace, after the costliest of Paris fashions,—then at the living, tender-souled, earnest creature, famed for her genius throughout the world, who knelt on the ground, sobbing over the stiffening hand on which so many rare gems glistened derisively,—and an impulse rose in me stronger than myself, moving me to wild and clamorous speech.
"Getup, Mavis!" I cried. "Do not kneel there! Go,— go out of this room,—out of my sight! You do not know what she was—this woman whom I married,—I deemed her an angel, but she was a fiend,—yes, Mavis, a fiend! Look at her staring at her own image in the glass,—you cannot call her beautiful—now! She smiles, you see,—just as she smiled last night when, … ah, you know nothing of last night! I tell you, go!" and I stamped my foot almost furiously. "This air is contaminated,—it will poison you! The perfume of Paris and the effluvia of death intermingled are sufficient to breed a pestilence! Go quickly,—inform the household their mistress is dead,—have the blinds drawn down,— show all the exterior signs of decent and fashionable woe,"— and I began laughing deliriously. "Tell the servants they may count upon expensive mourning,—for all that money can do shall be done in homage to King Death! Let everyone in the place eat and drink as much as they can or will,—and sleep, or chatter as such menials love to do, of hearses, graves and sudden disasters;—but let me be left alone,—alone with her ;—we have much to say to one another!"
White and trembling, Mavis rose up and stood gazing at me in fear and pity.
"Alone?" she faltered. "You are not fit to be alone."
"No, I am not fit to be, but I must be," I rejoined quickly and harshly. "This woman and I loved—after the manner of brutes, and were wedded or rather mated in a similar manner, though an archbishop blessed the pairing and called upon Heaven to witness its sanctity! Yet we parted ill friends,—and dead though she is, I choose to pass the night with her,—I shall learn much knowledge from her silence. Tomorrow the grave and the servants of the grave may claim her, but to-night she is mine."
The girl's sweet eyes brimmed over with tears.
"Oh, you are too distracted to know what you are saying," she murmured. "You do not even try to discover how she died!"
"That is easy enough to guess," I answered quickly, and I took up a small dark-coloured bottle labelled 'Poison' that I had already perceived on the toilet-table. "This is uncorked and empty. What it contained I do not know,—but there must be an inquest of course,—people must be allowed to make money for themselves out of her ladyship's rash act. And see there—'' here I pointed to some loose sheets of note-paper covered with writing, and partially concealed by a filmy lace handkerchief which had evidently been hastily thrown across them, and a pen and inkstand close by. "There is some admirable reading prepared for me doubtless !—the last message from the beloved dead is sacred, Mavis Clare; surely you, a writer of tender romances can realize this !—and realizing it, you will do as I ask you,—leave me!"
She looked at me in deep compassion, and slowly turned to go.
"God help you!" she said sobbingly. "God console you!"
At this some demon in me broke loose, and springing to her side I caught her hands in mine.
"Do not dare to talk of God!" I said in passionate accents. "Not in this room,—not in that presence. Why should you call curses down upon me? The help of God means punishment,—the consolations of God are terrible! For strength must acknowledge itself weak before He will help it,—and a heart must be broken before He will console it. But what do I say!—I believe in no God! I believe in an unknown Force that encompasses me and hunts me down to the grave, but nothing more! She thought as I do,—and with reason,—for what has God done for her? She was made evil from the first,—a born snare of Satan … "
Something caught my breath here—I stopped, unable to utter another word. Mavis stared at me affrighted, and I stared back again.
"What is it?" she whispered alarmingly. I struggled to speak,—finally, with difficulty I answered her—
And I motioned her away with a gesture of entreaty. The expression of my face must have startled or intimidated her I fancy, for she retreated hastily and I watched her disappearing as if she were the phantom of a dream,—then, as she passed out through the boudoir I drew close the velvet portiere behind her and locked the intermediate door. This done I went slowly back to the side of my dead wife.
"Now, Sibyl," I said aloud, "we are alone, you and I— alone with our own reflected images,—you dead, and I living. You have no terrors for me in your present condition,—your beauty has gone. Your smile, your eyes, your touch cannot stir me to a throb of the passion you craved, yet wearied of. What have you to say to me ?—I have heard that the dead can speak at times,—and you owe me reparation,—reparation for the wrong you did me,—the lie on which you based our marriage,—the guilt you cherished in your heart. Shall I read your petition for forgiveness here?"
And I gathered up the written sheets of note-paper in one hand, feeling them rather than seeing them, for my eyes were fixed on the pallid corpse in its rose-silk 'negligee' and jewels, that gazed at itself so pertinaciously in the shining mirror. I drew a chair close to it, and sat down, observing likewise the reflection of my own haggard face in the glass beside that of the self-murdered woman. Turning presently, I began to scrutinize my immovable companion more closely—and perceived that she was very lightly clothed,—under the silk peignoir there was only a flowing white garment of soft fine material lavishly embroidered, through which the statuesque contour of her rigid limbs could be distinctly seen. Stooping, I felt her heart,—I knew it was pulseless; yet I half imagined I should feel its beat. As I withdrew my hand, something scaly and glistening caught my eye, and looking I perceived Lucio's marriage-gift circling her waist,—the flexible emerald snake with its diamond crest and ruby eyes. It fascinated me,—coiled round that dead body it seemed alive and sentient,—if it had lifted its glittering head and hissed at me I should scarcely have been surprised. I sat back for a moment in my chair, almost as rigid as the corpse beside me,—I stared again, as the corpse stared always, into the mirror which pictured us both, we 'twain in one,' as the sentimentalists aver of wedded folk, though in truth it often happens that there are no two creatures in the world more widely separated than husband and wife. I heard stealthy movements and suppressed whisperings in the passage outside, and guessed that some of the servants were there watching and waiting,—but I cared nothing for that. I was absorbed in the ghastly night interview I had planned for myself, and I so entered into the spirit of the thing that I turned on all the electric lamps in the room, besides lighting two tall clusters of shaded candles on either side of the toilet-table. When all the surroundings were thus rendered as brilliant as possible, so that the corpse looked more livid and ghastly by comparison, I seated myself once more, and prepared to read the last message of the dead. "Now Sibyl," I muttered, leaning forward a little, and noting with a morbid interest that the jaws of the corpse had relaxed a little within the last few minutes, and that the smile on the face was therefore more hideous, "confess your sins, —for I am here to listen. Such dumb, impressive eloquence as yours deserves attention !''
A gust of wind fled round the house with a wailing cry,— the windows shook, and the candles flickered. I waited till every sound had died away, and then—with a glance at my dead wife, under the sudden impression that she had heard what I said and knew what I was doing, I began to read.