Marietta, or the Two Students/Chapter 10
Cecil was now within a few paces of the aperture; hence the warning of the body snatcher. To fall from that height would be to meet a horrible death. What now should she do ! Her persecutor was advancing towards her. Her resolution was soon taken. By the feeble light admitted through the fissures, and crevices of the old walls, she could just discern the chasm before her, and stepping as near it as her safety would allow, she said in a resolute voice: “Advance another step and I throw myself off, and am dashed to pieces.”
Her pursuer halted, fearful that she might put her threat in execution, then moved carefully towards his victim.
“Another step, and I take the fearful leap,” continued Cecil, inclining her body towards the chasm, and placing her feet in attitude of springing from the dangerous position. Again the body snatcher paused, with his whole frame trembling with rage and disappointment. “Curse you” he muttered through his fixed teeth, “Curse your ingenuity. But you shall be mine yet.”
Her eyes becoming more accustomed to the darkness, and gazing intently about, to her joy she beheld another flight of steps, passing directly over the opening, into the attic. It was evident that they were not built there in the first instance, but had been placed there recently.
“I will risk all upon that treacherous fabric,” said Cecil to herself, “and he will not dare follow.”
In another moment, she was upon the decaying structure, ascending fearlessly to the top, unmindful of the shouts and entreaties of Thick to desist, who expected to see it yield beneath her, causing her destruction. But her feet seemed scarcely to touch the rotten boards. In an instant more he beheld her at the top in safety, while a cry of astonishment, and incensed anger arose coupled with an oath, to her ears. For the present, at least, she considered herself safe ; for she believed that he had not sufficient temerity to induce him to attempt to follow. She was mistaken. Being so many times baffled, had stimulated him to greater exertion, and deprived him of discretion. Uttering shocking blasphemies, he began the ascent. Cecil in her turn, warns him of the danger, and rashness of the attempt. Her words fell upon deaf ears. He is half to the top, the crumbling steps are tottering under him, and with terror, he hears the rotten wood yielding. Ah ! now he discovers his error, but to retreat is as hazardous, or more so, than to proceed. Half frozen with horror, he continues to ascend, the treacherous fabric still settling beneath him, threatening the next instant, to plunge him into the yawning chasm below, breaking in the descent every bone in his body. That was a terrible moment to the wretched man—an age of suspense and terror. He has accomplished two thirds of the distance, and is reaching forth his hands to grasp the floor above, when with a startling crush, the structure upon which he has trusted himself falls, and Cecil hears it with fearful distinctness whirling through the several appertures, and striking with a still louder crash at the bottom.
But where was her pursuer. He had caught as before, by his hands, and was now clinging with all the energy of despair, to his slight uncertain support. He held only by his fingers, and with a frightful desperation, he put forth his strength to lift his body to a place of safety. He could not do that, though his strength were doubled. His powers are fast failing. His fingers cannot much longer retain their hold, and see ! the blood starts from under his nails, in his efforts to raise himself. He entreats Cecil to assist him in the most abject manner.
“Stretch forth your hand and save me. I swear by heaven—I will not harm you. An instant more, and I shall be dashed in pieces—horrible—I shall not be in the shape of a human being—a mass of bruised trembling flesh. In the name of God help me. I am not fit to die Cecil—I cannot die,—for there are many black sins weighing upon me. Will you not save me? I am a murderer—I cannot appear in the presence of God with all my crimes upon me. As you hope for mercy save me.”
“I would save you,” shrieked Cecil, “but I cannot—it will be only to hasten my own death. I have not the strength to save you, if I would. Pray, miserable man—pray for that mercy which I cannot give,—and which I dare not ask. There may yet be hope for you in the next world, but there is none for you here.”
“I cannot pray, I never prayed,” groaned Thick despairingly, “and if I could, think you it would avail me. Oh no—no!” he shrieked, “I feel more like cursing my ill luck, than praying. But I am falling—give me your hand, for the sake of Christ.”
“And you will not harm me,” cried Cecil touched with pity.
“I swear it by the great God.”
Approaching as near as she dares, she reaches out one hand, while with the other, she grasps firmly the end of a projecting board. With difficulty, the body snatcher relinquished his slight hold upon the floor, and took the small hand of Cecil. She put forth all her strength, and Thick now fast raising himself to a place of security, and imagining himself safe, exclaimed in a triumphant voice, “now you cannot escape me.”
With a sudden effort she wrested her hand from the grasp of the miscreant. For an instant he clung with one hand to the floor.
“Pray,” said Cecil, “for your time is short.”
“Curse you” gasped the body snatcher, and then she heard a shriek, and in a moment a dull shock away many feet below her. She shuddered, and covered her face with her hands, as though to shut out some terrible sight, and then creeping cautiously to the edge of the aperture, and straining her vision to its utmost, she beheld a dark shapeless mass, without a pulse of life.
About ten o’clock the succeeding morning, the body of the resurrectionist was found, but it was as unlike the remains of a human being, as it well could be. There was a pool of blood, and something resembling the hair of an animal, with a crushed heap of flesh, and bones. When the shadows of night, dark and gloomy, had fallen upon the earth, Gaunt took those mangled, shapeless remains, and the body of the man he had assisted in “raising” at C. and by the assistance of the old virago, placed them in the boat ; then throwing in several large stones, he pushed silently from the shore. When he had gained the middle of the stream, he lay down his oars, and fastening to each of the bodies a large stone, threw them over the side ; being borne down by the weight, they sank quickly, disturbing the smooth surface of the water, only by a few light surges which soon settled away, and left it calm as before the remains of the two human bodies had disappeared beneath. Resuming his oars, he rowed to the shore, from whence he came. The virago awaited him in the dead-room.
“You must go another voyage, Gaunt ; this carcase has a terrible odour, no physician would put a scalpel to it,” she said, pointing to the corpse of Alice Conway ; “besides,” continued she in a whisper, “there is poison in it—Nitric Acid enough to kill ten persons. How rapidly it decays, the stench is horrible. Perhaps you’ll have to make another trip on the Mystic to-night,” she added mysteriously, and with a grim smile, “but it is not impossible, that some better way may offer.”
Again Gaunt launched his frail bark, and rowed into the stream as before. He had attached a weight to the emaciated body of Alice, and was about to precipitate it into the water, when a dark looking object arose to the surface. It was the body of the man, which he had thrown in a little while before. Having become disengaged from the stone, it had arisen. “Ah! this is fortunate,” said Gaunt brutally, “I will give you a grave together. You are old friends, and it is a pity to part you, even in death. Here is your Alice, Mr. Libertine, reach us your hand old fellow.” Saying this, he lashed them firmly together, those diseased—wasted—ghastly bodies, and adding heavier weights, they sank together.
Having returned from his second voyage, he proceeded with the virago to set fire to several parts of the house, then stepping into the boat, suffered themselves to float down the stream. The hiding place of Cecil had been discovered, and the fire was kindled evidently for her destruction.
Through the long hours of that day, had she hoped for succour through the agency of Levator and Eugene ; but in vain. No one came to her aid, and to leave her prison, was impossible without assistance.
The loneliness and silence of her situation were favorable to reflection, and not without a salutary influence upon the erring girl. She thought long and deeply of what she had been, and then of what she was. She wept, the betrayed and sinful one wept tears of heart-felt repentance. The work of reformation had commenced. With deep humiliation she confessed to Him who was best acquainted with her frailties, soliciting mercy and pardon. It was now dark, and she shuddered when she thought of passing the night where she then was. It was eight o’clock. Weary with watching, and exhausted for want of food, she was endeavoring to sleep, when the strong, suffocating fumes of smoke reached her, and caused her to start with terror. A horrible suspicion crossed her mind—they had fired the building for the purpose of destroying her. Then she strove to banish the idea as being to diabolical in its nature to be true. Meanwhile the smoke kept increasing, and rolling up in large black masses, filled the wretched attic, and threatened ere long to suffocate her. The house was on fire, she could no longer doubt, and she shrieked loudly, frantically for assistance. But who was there to hear her cries? No one, no mortal ear. They only arose with startling clearness to the slated roof of that old dwelling, and then settled down, making a thousand echoes, not one of which could avail her. Thicker, heavier the dark volumes of smoke came curling upward, accompanied by an ominous crackling sound, the import of which could not be mistaken. The air grew hot and oppressive; it was with difficulty she could breathe it. Believing her time had come, and escape beyond human possibility, she abandoned herself to her fate, while the low, crackling noise she had heard, increased to a roaring, rushing sound, and she saw the flames darting up, communicating with fearful rapidity from room to room, chamber to chamber, and spreading in all directions. Suffocated and blinded as she was, she could no longer remain in one position, but ran shrieking about the narrow limits of her prison like a maniac. To respire much longer without fresh air was impossible, and in a distracted manner she searched to find some rent or seam in the tiling over her head, through which she might inhale a draught of fresh air. To her joy she is successful, and putting her mouth to it she breathes more freely. The flames mounted to the roof, and she now heard the destructive element over her head, while the excessive heat caused her frequently to change her position, and shrink into the smallest possible space. How horrible must be the emotions of that person, who hemmed in by the flames upon all sides, with no hope of escape, awaits her doom—a death of exquisite torture. We can hardly conceive of a situation more awful, and so wholly fraught with agonizing suspense and keen living horror. A human being we verily believe, could not by an ingenious, hellish device, be placed in a more fearful condition. The roar of cannon would be music to the roaring of the malicious element ; and the rush of armed thousands to mortal combat mere pastime to the lightning rush of the approaching flames. Cecil’s strength was fast failing, and fear and torture were doing their work upon her. The roof was now one liquid sheet of fire, darting along the rafters, thrusting its forked tongues through every fissure, licking up every thing that was combustible in its passage. The burning timbers with the fabric they supported would soon fall, and offering up an audible, fervent prayer, she prepared to die. At that dreadful moment, she fancied she heard a voice calling loudly her name. ’Twas Eugene, he was in the next chamber below. Rushing to the aperture where the stairs had been, she shrieked for help.
“Thank God, I have found you,” exclaimed Eugene. “Here be quick, when I throw you the end of this rope, make it fast, and let yourself down by it to me. In heaven’s name be quick, the roof will fall in a moment.”
She held the rope in her hand, but she knew not where she might fasten it. There was but one thing to which she could attach it, and that was a burning rafter. There was no alternative ; she threw it over the blazing timber, and made it secure by a knot. The next moment she had thrown her weight upon that uncertain support, and was rapidly descending to Eugene. It was a fearful hazard, but there was no other chance of safety. But a short time would elapse before the rope would be burned off, and should it be so before she had made the descent, instant death awaited her. She had made half the distance, when she knew by the vibrating motion that one strand had parted. With a convulsive shudder, she thought of the fall of Thick. She had made two-thirds of the descent, when the same motion of the support to which she clung for life, gave intimation that another strand had burned off, and she was suspended by only one over that chasm.
“Haste Cecil, haste, another moment and you are lost,” shouted Eugene in an agony of suspense. “Cecil,—dear Cecil, quick, quick.”
“Eugene,” cried a stentorian voice from another room, “save yourself or you perish—the roof totters, for God’s sake, Eugene, fly.”
“I perish then, or save her,” he replied with frightful calmness.
Cecil was now within a few feet of Eugene, and being directly over the aperture, he could not reach her.
“Swing yourself towards me,—give the rope a slight movement this way.”
She did as he directed. The last strand burned off at that instant, and she fell into the arms of Eugene.
“Saved, thank heaven.”
Covered with smoke, with their clothes burned in many places, Dr. Frene and Levator rushed into the chamber.
“This way,” shouted the Dr., as begrimed with smoke and ashes, grasping the helve of an axe in his stalwart hand, he sprang towards the wall which separated the tenement they were in from the next beyond, and with the strength of a Hercules, commenced opening a passage. Each well directed blow, shook fearfully the blazing fabric over their heads, and caused hot cinders to fall thickly about them. It was a wild, anxious group—Eugene, Levator, and the half suffocated, fainting Cecil, in the back ground, watching the mighty effects of Dr. Frene, their bosoms swelling with hope or tortured with fear, as his labors were successful or threatened to fail. Through the blinding smoke they could discern the bright gleam of the polished edge of the weapon he wielded with his right hand, as it whirled in quick successive circles about his head, and fell with a crash upon the yielding walls. It was a heavy broad-axe, but in that moment of danger, he wielded it as the merest toy.
“The roof is falling,” cried Eugene, folding Cecil to his bosom. “We shall perish together. God forgive us all.”
“Amen,” responded Levator fervently.
“The opening is large enough,” shouted the Dr.; “save yourselves.”
At that moment a strong grasp was laid upon Eugene, who overcome with heat and smoke was about sinking to the floor, and he felt himself dragged—with Cecil—through a narrow space, and in a place of comparative safety, while a terrible crash behind them announced that the roof had fallen. The part of the building in which they found themselves had suffered but little from the fire. After pausing a moment to recover themselves, they without difficulty found their way into the street, grateful for their wonderful preservation from a horrible death.
When the fire had been subdued, and the crowd had retired, Gaunt and the virago returned, and stole quietly into that part of the dwelling which the fire had left, congratulating themselves upon the success of their plot, and the supposed death of Cecil.