Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The silver cord - Part 35
THE SILVER CORD.
BY SHIRLEY BROOKS.
Henderson had doubtless expected that the announcement she had to make would produce its natural effect upon Mrs. Lygon. For terror, for bewilderment, and for their commonplace manifestation, the messenger had been prepared, nay, had even had a moment to think of the equally commonplace means of calming another woman’s sudden agitation. But when the girl’s message was fully delivered, and Mrs. Lygon, after her first astonishment, had comprehended the situation of affairs, her excitement took a form which baffled the understanding of her companion. With lips and cheek pale as ashes, Mrs. Lygon resumed the seat from which she had sprung, and gazed steadily upon Henderson.
“This must not be,” said Mrs. Lygon, after a pause. “It must be prevented.”
Henderson could utter only a meaningless exclamation.
“You must come with me to the police,” Mrs. Lygon continued. “Yes, that is the only way. Women can do nothing. Come with me.”
And she hastily sought for hat and scarf.
“All the police in the world would be too late, m’m,” exclaimed Henderson.
“Why do you say so?”
“They are in the house together—they were in the house together before I came away.”
“It may not be too late. I will go. It must not be. it shall not be,” she added, to herself rather than to Henderson, and descended the stair. “He dares not meet Robert Urquhart, unless—. We must walk faster, Mary,” Mrs. Lygon said, impatiently, as they came into the road.
“But I have something more to say, m’m, if you will let me,” said Henderson, keeping pace with the rapid step of Mrs. Lygon.
“When we have seen the police,” said Laura, hastening in the direction of the house where Adair had been conveyed after the affray at Silvain’s, and whence Robert Urquhart had come, with the fatal knowledge that he had used so terribly.
“We shall only lose time, m’m,” said Henderson, despairingly, “but it is no matter. If we hurried to the avenue ourselves—”
“I must not,” said Mrs. Lygon, in a low voice. “But the police-station is in the way there,” she added, increasing her pace. “O, this is dreadful. But he dares not die thus.”
And they hurried on together.
“Formerly Allingham,” was very neatly written under the name engraved upon the card brought in to Mrs. Hawkesley.
She had availed herself of Bertha’s having fallen asleep, and had come down to the study to hurry off a few lines to her husband.
“Mr. Berry—certainly, yes. Here. And be sure to let me know the moment I am wanted.”
“It is many years since I saw you, my dear lady,” said Mr. Berry, “and I suppose that you will hardly remember me. Yet I think I should recognise something of the expression of the young lady who came to me two or three times about some alterations in her papa’s house—something which I had to obtain leave for him to do.”
“That must have been my sister Laura,” said Mrs. Hawkesley. “There were no alterations in my time: we were not rich enough then to make improvements,” she added, with her customary naïveté.
“Was it so?” returned the old gentleman, smiling for a moment, but immediately becoming grave again. “My eyes and my memory alike warn me that my work is nearly over. Can you spare me a few minutes for a little conversation?”
“Certainly,” replied Mrs. Hawkesley. “But have you come up from Lipthwaite? Let me offer you—”
Her hand was on the bell, but he stopped her, with the apologetic courtesy of what is called the old school, which means the school whose teaching included the lesson that though women, of course, are created to serve us, it is as well to make their servitude appear voluntary.
“I am staying in town,” he said, “and have recently breakfasted. At all events, let me say what I have to say at once. Mr. Hawkesley is in Paris.”
“You know that! You have no bad news for me! He is not ill?”
“No, no, certainly not, my dear lady. I was merely about to say that I know he is in Paris, and why.”
“Thank God. This is very foolish, but I have been under a great deal of excitement lately, and have not had much sleep. Do not suppose that I am a victim to nerves,” added Mrs. Hawkesley, smiling, but perceptibly relieved.
“I ought to beg pardon for my abruptness. But at my time of life, when one has something to say, one is too apt to make haste to say it. I should have been more careful in my old professional days, when you were one of the ornaments of Lipthwaite.”
“I will not hear that, after you have shown that you have quite forgotten me, Mr. Berry. Is it business that you came about—I mean that it is a pity Charles is away.”
“You had a visit, some time ago, from Mrs. Berry?” said he, without more direct reply to her inquiry.
“Yes, and I ought to have asked at once after her.”
“Forgive me, but I am aware of the nature of the interview you had, and that it was not likely to create any great friendliness of feeling. I am sure that you will, however, allow me to speak openly to you, and will not think that I have come needlessly to renew a painful discussion.”
“Such of us as have known you, Mr. Berry, know you too well to believe anything that you would not like believed.”
“Mrs. Berry is exceedingly, I fear dangerously ill, and under other circumstances I should not be in London. But I have a duty to do, and I am obliged to take the most direct means of doing it, in order to be able to return to Lipthwaite at the earliest moment. Your husband and Mr. Lygon being both absent from England, I am compelled to see you, Mrs. Hawkesley, upon the subject in question, and you will I know forgive me.”
“Mrs. Berry is so ill—?”
“Yes. But for her illness it would have been her own place to make certain explanations which are due, but this is entirely out of the question, unless those whom she ought to see could be summoned to Lipthwaite. Therefore, however painful it may be to me to be the medium of communication, and to you to receive it, we have no choice, and I am sure that you will hear me with all womanly forbearance.”
“Pray speak freely, Mr. Berry, and be sure that I know you mean kindly.”
“At all events, I mean justly. You are aware, Mrs. Hawkesley, that when your brother-in-law suddenly found himself placed in the most painful of circumstances, he came to consult me, as his oldest friend, and that acting upon impressions which he received in my house, he left England for France, placing his daughter under our charge during his absence. The little one, weary of the restraint of our quiet house—”
“Let me say a word for my little niece, Mr. Berry. Not weary of a quiet house, but unable to bear the continued stream of false and cruel things which she had to hear about her mother.”
The old man’s face assumed an expression of humiliation which it was painful to see upon his kindly features, and Mrs. Hawkesley hastened to add,
“But things which she never heard from you, Mr. Berry, as she has told me over and over again.”
“No matter,” said Mr. Berry. “Perhaps there has been no time to tell me everything, but no matter. I did not know—”
And his eyes dimmed, and his lips trembled for a moment or two. Then he said,
“I am glad that the little girl has not much to say against me.”
“She loves you heartily, Mr. Berry, and she shall tell you so herself before you go out of the house.”
“Let me go on,” he said, with a sad smile. “It is necessary that I should recall one or two things which you may never have heard, or having heard then, were not interested enough to recollect them. And remember, it is only as matter of duty, and at the special desire of her who is now unable to act for herself, that I enter into such details. You understand this?”
“I do indeed, dear Mr. Berry.”
“To a wife who is upon a wife’s terms with a husband, to a wife who is his best friend, and who cares for no friend on earth in comparison with him, to a wife, in fact, who loves her husband, it may seem strange for me to talk of restricted confidence and of questions avoided by mutual consent. But it happens, and that is all that need be said on the matter, that my marriage with Miss Wagstaffe was a union of esteem to a certain extent, and of convenience, perhaps, to a still greater extent, and even before our wedding it was quite well understood between us that what is called love was out of the question. I was not foolish enough, at my age, to suppose that her heart had anything to do with her consent to marry me, or that she had not previously seen more than one person whom she would not sooner have married than the middle-aged, quiet, well-to-do country lawyer. But this is the history of many a match that has turned out very well, so far as the world knows, and I am not going to say that either of us acted unwisely.”
Mrs. Hawkesley listened quietly, and made no sign of dissent from doctrines against which, under other circumstances, she would have protested according to her custom. Perhaps she had in her mind another marriage in which a similar element had worked to the destruction of happiness.
“It pleased God that our children should not live.”
“Yes, I understand that pity, but it is misplaced. I thank God that our children did not live.”
“Mr. Berry!” exclaimed Beatrice, with a mother’s unfeigned horror.
“They are sad words, are they not?”
“I would call them wicked words if I were not speaking to one who might be my own father,” she answered, energetically.
“They are not, but let them pass.”
Be it said that she continued to listen, but that the kindliness of feeling with which she had begun to regard Mr. Berry was chilled by his strange language on a subject on which her heart would tolerate no profanity.
“I repeat,” he said, “that I am thankful to be childless. When an old man tells that to a young mother, let her think well before she condemns him—let her think what she would have to feel and to suffer before words like those could come from her lips. And then let her listen to him with patience.”
Beatrice looked pityingly at him, but did not answer.
“I have no long story to tell you, Mrs. Hawkesley, my business being only to help in an act of justice. I am not here to enter upon revelations of a life that might have been cheerful, if not happy, but which was incessantly embittered by the abiding pressure of a conviction, not only that I was not loved—I had bargained for that—but that I was disliked. I was not long in discovering that my wife’s old thoughts and old loves came perpetually between me and herself, that at the best I was tolerated, but that at the times when she gave way to her rapidly increasing irritability and melancholy, I was almost the object of her hate. Whether I bore this conviction well or ill is between me and Heaven; whether I remembered that though I had given this wife much which the world esteems, I could not be to her that which woman covets amid all the advantages of life; whether I gladly recognised any of her few kindnesses, and bore in silent patience with her habitual coldness and repugnance, let her say when she has to answer for all. It is enough for me that I can reveal this part of my history to you, and feel I have no excuses to make for myself,—no self-accusation to tender as excuse for her.”
“You do not mean to ask that I shall judge—” began Mrs. Hawkesley, in a troubled voice.
“I have only to ask you to hear, and I will make what you have to hear as brief as I can. I pass over the years spent in this manner. The world thought that the rich lawyer had married a rather strangely-tempered woman, but supposed that they got on as many other couples do, and will do to the end of the chapter. And so the world might have continued to think, for what I had borne so long, I might have borne to the last, but it was not to be so. I need not dwell upon the circumstances which, some few years back, directed the mind of Mrs. Berry into what is termed religion. Enough to say that she devoted herself to its external pursuits with an ardour that was strange to those who had known her slightly, detestable to me, who had my own insight into her character. I will only tell you that the real influences of religion never approached her heart and never softened her nature—never caused her to shed a tear of penitence, or to show any womanly gentleness to the husband who had sought to fulfil his duty. You look at me as if I were drawing too harsh a picture—as if this was not language in which I ought to speak of my own wife—”
“It is very painful language.”
“It is the language which I am sent here to speak. It is what Marion Berry herself ought to say, were she here, making her confession. I will soon relieve you of your care for her, for the story now connects itself with your own family—with your own sister. I told you just now that what I had borne so long I could have borne to the end. It was destined that I should have more to bear. Your sister, Mrs. Lygon, left her husband’s roof, and among the consequences that followed were revelations which I little expected would disturb the later hours of my life.”
“Yes. Do not apprehend a scene, or that a man of my years is about to give way to what would befit a man of Lygon’s. I am here as the messenger from a sick bed which may have been changed to a dying bed before I return to my home. I am here to say, for one who cannot say it for herself, that when Marion Berry was in this house she uttered much which was intended to make you and your husband believe that your sister Laura was unworthy, and that now, stretched upon her bed, Marion Berry begs you to believe, on the word of one who may never rise again, that she spoke falsely. That is a fitting message for a husband to bring from his wife!”
“Did she ever say to you,” asked Mrs. Hawkesley, in a low voice, though her eyes were shining with excitement, “that either Charles or myself believed one word of her tale?”
“Your husband believed it, in spite of his affected indignation with her,—so run my instructions,” said the old man.
“He did not,” replied Beatrice, “and it is needless to say that I knew it to be false. It is right that the retractation should be made, but it is utterly unnecessary.”
“This, of course, I expected to hear. Yet you will do well not to throw away a single link in the chain of evidence that is required to establish the innocence of your sister.”
“We want no evidence, Mr. Berry, and I wish that she were here, that you might see how much credence we have given to the wicked slanders that have been spoken against her.”
“You speak well, and nobly, dear lady,” said Mr. Berry, looking at her animated face with some admiration; “but what says Mrs. Lygon’s husband?”
“By this time, I trust, he has told Laura herself that he never really doubted her.”
“You picture her in his arms, and all forgiven?”
“God is just, and it surely will be so.”
“Ay, He is just; but not with such justice as we measure out. Do not deceive yourself. I should not have come here to assure you of that which you believed without me, unless I had more to tell you. You imagine that Arthur Lygon has forgiven his wife. How, then, do you suppose that she has answered the one question which must have gone before forgiveness?”
“The first that must spring to the lips of a husband, abandoned by his wife. Why did she fly to France?”
“Bertha is in this house, and has told me,” said Mrs. Hawkesley, calmly.
“Mrs. Urquhart? She is here!”
“She is here.”
“Tell me, Mrs. Hawkesley,” said the old man, in much agitation, “tell me, for Heaven’s sake, and in a word—you know that I ask only for the good and happiness of you all—Mrs. Urquhart is here—but—but—let me speak plainly—she has not persuaded you that she is innocent?”
“My husband brought her here,” said Beatrice, with dignity.
“You evade my question, or it is as I suspect, and Laura is made the sacrifice,” exclaimed Mr. Berry, eagerly.
“It is not so,” said Mrs. Hawkesley, moved by his evident sympathy with Laura. “We will not speak of Bertha.”
“Ah, so far I am answered.”
“And she has declared that Arthur has nothing to forgive.”
“Nothing to forgive—is she mad? Will she say that to Arthur Lygon when he demands why his wife went away, and hid herself from him, and sent him no word of explanation, or petition, or apology. Nothing to forgive!”
“I have said enough,” replied Mrs. Hawkesley, quietly. “The rest will be set right in Paris, and I shall hear that it has been set right.”
“You are one of the best of women, I see that,” said the old man, so earnestly that the strangeness of the speech was lost in the sincerity of the speaker. “But here is nothing but misery in store, unless we clear up the mystery, and you will not hear me, or be convinced that there is anything to be done. Do you not know that Mrs. Lygon is accused, on solemn evidence, of being that which you will not believe her?”
“Yes,” answered Mrs. Hawkesley, promptly, “and her husband and mine are gone over to tear that evidence to pieces.”
“And will that destroy its effects?”
“I do not understand.”
“Will tearing up those papers cancel the testimony they bore?”
“Ah! you take up my words literally—I meant that Charles and Mr. Lygon would disprove all.”
“And that is what they cannot do.”
“Without the aid which I have come to bring. It is this which has hurried me up to town from the house in which a woman, who bears my name, is lying, probably on a death-bed, and it is this which you must accept, or all that may be attempted in Paris will be worse than failure—worse, for if the breach be not now closed, it will be so widened that it will close no more until the judgment.”
“What do you come to tell me?” asked Beatrice, partaking his agitation.
“Do you know the evidence against your sister?”
“There are some letters, I am told. There is a book of letters, and it is a wicked lie to say that she wrote a word of them.”
“It is not.”
Mrs. Hawkesley looked at him with indignation for a moment, but his face expressed so much unfeigned sorrow, and was so utterly divested of anything like the triumph which a vulgar nature permits to be visible when an apparent advantage has been gained, even in a sad discussion, that she was almost disarmed. Yet she could not help replying,
“Mr. Berry, you have the kindest meaning, and I should be ashamed to answer you with a word of unkindness. But you have told me that you come only as a messenger, and there is no offence to you in my saying that you bring a false message. This is another malignant effort made by one who, if she is so prostrated as you say, should be repentant, and not give you falsehoods to bring us, and try to create fresh wretchedness.”
“It is natural—very natural, that you should say this,” said the old man, quietly. “I have heard enough, and far more than enough, to make me well aware that you must hate her who has sent me here to-day. But do not blind yourself, even with a natural passion. You have heard the truth from me.”
“I am writing to my husband. I will write down what you have just said. He will believe it no more than I do; but you will wish him to hear it?”
“He must do much more than that,” said Mr. Berry, “and I beg that you will not be rash. I am an old man, and I assure you, with all the sincerity of one who has nothing to hope or fear in this world, that unless you are guided in this business, you, or your husband, will destroy for ever the chance of re-uniting Laura and her husband. Do you believe that she was justified in leaving him?”
“I believe that she will justify herself to him.”
“You do not—you cannot. You are deceiving yourself between hope and love. But what earthly excuse have you devised for a virtuous wife and mother who rushes away from a happy home? What excuse, if you yourself should commit such an act of madness, would you hold to justify you?”
“This is for Arthur, not for me to decide,” replied Beatrice.
“Nay, nay, you have no solution of the mystery. Do you not know that when Mrs. Lygon left, Arthur hurried down to me, and that it was this very question which exhausted our best energies, and left us without a clue or guide? Has the case mended by her long absence, since then? Yet you will not see this, and will not hear that there is indeed evidence against her.”
“Mr. Berry,” said Mrs. Hawkesley, “I know that you will acquit me of intending offence, but I cannot help answering that everything that comes from—from Lipthwaite—”
“From Mrs. Berry.”
“That is my meaning; and I regret that everything from that quarter is so tainted with the poison of her wicked hatred that I refuse to have anything to do with such suggestions. I will not say that you are influenced by her—”
“Yes, say it, if you think it. An old man, married to a younger woman, and one of an artful and resolute nature, has been deluded into believing whatever her malice may have dictated. It is true that he has humiliated himself by describing his own sorrow and misery, but that may be only part of the fraud, and may have been enjoined upon him by his wife, in order to give a better colour to the story.”
“You are putting words into my mouth—”
“But not thoughts into your mind. I have but said what has been passing through it. No matter. I love Arthur Lygon as if he had been my own son, and I will shrink at nothing that can help to restore to him his happiness. You, convinced of the innocence of your sister, refuse to assist me, because you disbelieve that I am speaking the truth. I had hoped to convince you without other words, but it shall be done.”
“You must listen to me now, and if hereafter you think of this interview, and I trust that it may be one to which you will look back with gratitude in other respects, you will remember that you forced an old man to his last resource—to a confession which man should not make to woman—before you would consent to be useful to your sister.”
“You speak very unkindly.”
“We are all unkind—so be it. Mrs. Hawkesley, if those letters which have established in the mind of Mr. Urquhart the conviction which he has now imparted to Mr. Lygon and to Mr. Hawkesley—you look incredulous, but it is so—if those accursed letters, I say, are destroyed in France, Laura Lygon and her husband had better formally part for ever, for they will never again be husband and wife.”
“Will you tell me why you say so?”
“Because Arthur Lygon will never be able to efface from his mind the conviction that, though that miscreant, Ernest Adair, has chosen to repudiate the letters, he has done so from base reasons, and that the truth was really set before Mr. Urquhart.”
“Base reasons,” repeated Mrs. Hawkesley.
“That he has been bribed to declare the letters to be forgeries.”
“And who should bribe him?”
“Mrs. Lygon, or her friends, specially your husband. There, now your eye flashes, and your cheek reddens, but be calm. I am speaking for Mrs. Lygon, you are struggling against her interests. You think that Arthur Lygon will dare to entertain no such dastardly idea—even if he should cling to a suspicion that may affect his own wife—will he venture to suspect your own honourable husband? He would do ill—he would wrong a man worthy a wife like yourself, but, Mrs. Hawkesley, he will do it. You know not, and never may you know, the self-communings that pass between man and his soul at hours when both should be at rest. You know nothing of the spectres that rise in the cool dawn, when a man awakens, with his body helpless from the languor of the night, but his mind feverishly vigorous to snatch and cherish all foul and bitter thoughts. That is the time when, with his brow within the breath of his slumbering wife, Arthur Lygon will lie and weave his stubborn doubts into a damnable faith, and will scowl down upon her while she is dreaming of him and of her children.”
“I cannot answer you,” said Mrs. Hawkesley, nearly crying. “If such evil thoughts are allowed to haunt us—”
“We know where to go for the exorcism. Yes, but Arthur Lygon has never learned that lesson. Make this hollow peace if you can, destroy those letters, and on some still morning Lygon will rise up from the side of his sleeping wife, and steal from the room—and she will see him no more.”
“What would you have me do?”
“First, be convinced yourself, or you will convince no one else. And now hear me. It was with no good will that Mrs. Berry sent me on the message I have come to deliver.”
“I am sure of that.”
“The retractation of what was said here was her own voluntary act, for she believes that she is dying, and I know not what idea of reparation and of salvation may have instigated her, but the message was given, and were that all, I should have written it, not charged myself with the delivery of aught so painful. But when I tell you that we must have those letters in England, I tell you what was wrung from the abject terror of a proud woman, who yielded to a threat more fearful to her than anything which her minister could tell her of flames and tortures.”
“I do not wish to hear of this,” said Beatrice.
“But it is necessary that you should, or you will not act. Do not think that I am speaking for the sake of Mrs. Lygon, or any of you save one person, and that is Arthur Lygon, whom I will save from misery if I can. Remember that, even when I reveal to you that I, Edward Allingham Berry, master of a secret that I had kept for years, menaced my wife with its disclosure, unless she, in her turn, gave up to me the secret of those letters—”
“And she gave it?” asked Mrs. Hawkesley, almost trembling.
“Ask its price,” said the old man.
“That does not—that is not for me to know, but tell me of the letters.”
“No, I will first tell you how you may be sure that I bring you the truth about them.”
He leaned forward, and in a low voice, but without looking at her, uttered a few words.
Beatrice’s face and brow crimsoned, and she turned from him.
“You are writing to your husband,” he said. “You need say nothing of that which I have just said to you, but tell him that the truth has been bought at a great price, and bid him bring those letters to England. I think that you will do so—I think that he will obey. If not, your sister’s misery be upon the heads of both of you. It is not likely that we shall ever meet any more in this world, Mrs. Hawkesley, nor is it fit that we should. But if you do your duty in this matter as I have done mine, the old man forgives you for having forced him to say what he has said in this room. That is for little Clara,” he added, throwing an envelope on the table. “Farewell, Mrs. Hawkesley. It rests with you to save your sister!”
Ernest Adair, unconscious that he was watched, crossed the sill of the window that looked upon the garden of the house, formerly Mr. Urquhart’s, and stood in the little room at the back of the apartment in which the engineer kept his models and other lumber. It will be remembered as the chamber in which Mrs. Lygon had been secreted by Bertha and by Henderson, and into which Urquhart had forced his way, unaware that an unbidden guest was concealed behind it. The door, which had yielded to the strength of Robert Urquhart, had never been repaired, and the state of its locks and bolts gave evidence to the terrible strength that had wrenched it open. It was thrown back upon its hinges, and this was an advantage to Adair, for the room into which he had entered was somewhat gloomy with the shade of the approaching evening, and some helpful light streamed across the dusty lumber-chamber.
For the rest, the apartment looked as melancholy as a room which has been occupied by women, and forsaken by them, ever looks. A man’s relics, his book, his wasted paper, his discarded pen, and the prosaic litter of his abandoned cave, inspire little sentiment; but the scrap of woman’s work, the trace of woman’s idle business, the forgotten ribbon, the dropped embroidery, speak of gracious and playful companionship, of the light laugh and the merry glance, and speak of them as of things that have wronged us by departing. And some of these signs had been left in the chamber into which Ernest strode, across the window-sill. He had a glance for them, but not much sympathy.
“I am strangely nervous,” he said, “and yet I have been careful enough as to drinking and all that. The slight exertion of forcing that shutter and lifting the window has made my hand tremble. Is it an omen? I doubt whether I could write a neat despatch. I must take more exercise—this sort of thing will not do.”
While he spoke he drew away a table that stood near the door of a closet on one side of the room. The door itself, with its panel to match the wood-work, would almost have escaped notice, except that it had given a little, and a dingy-looking crack marked its upper line. It had no handle, but a piece of faded tape, sent through a hole where a lock had once been, answered the purpose, or rather had answered it for the last time, for Adair, pulling vigorously at the frail string, broke it off short.
“Omen number two,” said Adair, smiling at his own folly. “My hand is in a tremble, and the door refuses to open to me. But we defy auguries.”
He wrenched this door open with a piece of iron that had flown from the other when Urquhart broke into the room.
The closet, or cupboard as it had once been, presented a display of rubbish which had been cast in to be out of the way, rather than for preservation. A box or two, bundles of old papers, dusty folios, and some other engineers’ room relics, were the principal articles disclosed as the door came reluctantly open.
From the lower part of the closet Adair pulled away the litter that concealed the floor, and then stepped back to allow the dust to subside. Then he threw down a tolerably clean piece of newspaper which he found at hand, and was about to kneel upon it before the closet.
“Stop, though,” he said, “that infernal French ink comes off.”
As he spoke, he took up the piece of paper, and his eye accidentally fell upon the date, which happened to be on the fragment.
“Why,” he said, with an oath, “that is a paper of this last week!”
He looked at it again, as if expecting to find that it was a year old. But no, the date was there before his eyes, and the paper, torn and dirty, was not a week old.
“How the devil could that have come?” said Adair. “Omen number three,” passed across his mind, but the business just then was too heavy for scoffing, and it was with a hot flush that he fell upon his knees, and lifted up a sort of flap that lay at the bottom of the closet, a small trap-door that opened into a cavity of some little depth. As he pushed open this trap, and was about to plunge his arm into the cavity below, he heard a footstep on the garden gravel, and the next instant the shutter which he had opened on making his way into the house was closed.
It was not by the wind. A strong hand drove it close home, and struck it to make all sure.
Ernest Adair sprang to his feet, and his heart beat with terrible quickness—in the stillness of the chamber he could hear the throb. Another moment, and he dashed his hand across his eyes with an impatient gesture, and listened intently.
He heard, or thought he heard, the sound of retreating feet, and a word, or rather a growl, signifying that some order was understood. Then, Ernest laid his hand for a moment upon his heart, but with the danger had come the courage, and it was not to count the beatings that he placed his hand there.
Next, and unmistakably, he heard a key in the lock of the front door. He darted to the door of the apartment in which he stood, nearly closed it, and, holding it with a firm hand, listened.