A Strange Disappearance by Anna Katharine Green - HTML preview
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12. A Woman's Love
"Shall I ever forget the blast of driving rain that struck our faces and enveloped us in a cloud of wet, as the door swung on its hinges and let us forth into the night; or the electric thrill that shot through me as that slender girl grasped my hand and drew me away through the blinding darkness. It was not that I was so much affected by her beauty as influenced by her power and energy. The fury of the gale seemed to bend to her will, the wind lend wings to her feet. I began to realize what intellect was. Arrived at the roadside, she paused and looked back. The two burly forms of the men we had left behind us were standing in the door of the inn; in another moment they had plunged forth and towards us. With a low cry the young girl leaped towards a tree where to my unbounded astonishment I beheld my horse standing ready saddled. Dragging the mare from her fastenings, she hung the lantern, burning as it was, on the pommel of the saddle, struck the panting creature a smart blow upon the flank, and drew back with a leap to my side.
"The startled horse snorted, gave a plunge of dismay and started away from us down the road.
"'We will wait,' said Luttra.
"The words were no sooner out of her mouth than her father and brother rushed by.
"'They will follow the light,' whispered she; and seizing me again by the hand, she hurried me away in the direction opposite to that which the horse had taken. 'If you will trust me, I will bring you to shelter,' she murmured, bending her slight form to the gusty wind but relaxing not a whit of her speed.
"'You are too kind,' I murmured in return. 'Why should you expose yourself to such an extent for a stranger?'
"Her hand tightened on mine, but she did not reply, and we hastened on as speedily as the wind and rain would allow. After a short but determined breasting of the storm, during which my breath had nearly failed me, she suddenly stopped.
"'Do you know,' she exclaimed in a low impressive tone, 'that we are on the verge of a steep and dreadful precipice? It runs along here for a quarter of a mile and it is not an uncommon thing for a horse and rider to be dashed over it in a night like this.'
"There was something in her manner that awakened a chill in my veins almost as if she had pointed out some dreadful doom which I had unwittingly escaped.
"'This is, then, a dangerous road,' I murmured. "'Very,' was her hurried and almost incoherent reply.
"How far we travelled through the mud and tangled grasses of that horrible road I do not know. It seemed a long distance; it was probably not more than three quarters of a mile. At last she paused with a short 'Here we are;' and looking up, I saw that we were in front of a small unlighted cottage.
"No refuge ever appeared more welcome to a pair of sinking wanderers I am sure. Wet to the skin, bedrabbled with mud, exhausted with breasting the gale, we stood for a moment under the porch to regain our breath, then with her characteristic energy she lifted the knocker and struck a smart blow on the door. "'We will find shelter here,' said she.
"She was not mistaken. In a few moments we were standing once more before a comfortable fire hastily built by the worthy couple whose slumbers we had thus interrupted. As I began to realize the sweetness of conscious safety, all that this young, heroic creature had done for me swept warmly across my mind. Looking up from the fire that was begining to infuse its heat through my grateful system, I surveyed her as she slowly undid her long braids and shook them dry over the blaze, and almost started to see how young she was. Not more than sixteen I should say, and yet what an invincible will shone from her dark eyes and dignified her slender form; a will gentle as it was strong, elevated as it was unbending. I bowed my head as I watched her, in grateful thankfulness which I presently put into words.
"At once she drew herself erect. 'I did but my duty,' said she quietly. 'I am glad I was prospered in it.' Then slowly. 'If you are grateful, sir, will you promise to say nothing of--of what took place at the inn?'
"Instantly I remembered a suspicion which had crossed my mind while there, and my hand went involuntarily to my vest pocket. The roll of bills was gone.
"She did not falter. 'I would be relieved if you would,' continued she.
"I drew out my empty hand, looked at it, but said nothing.
"'Have you lost anything?' asked she. 'Search in your overcoat pockets.'
"I plunged my hand into the one nearest her and drew it out with satisfaction; the roll of bills was there. 'I give you my promise,' said I.
"'You will find a bill missing,' she murmured; 'for what amount I do not know; the sacrifice of something was inevitable.'
"'I can only wonder over the ingenuity you displayed, as well as express my appreciation for your bravery,' returned I with enthusiasm. 'You are a noble girl.' "She put out her hand as if compliments hurt her. 'It is the first time they have ever attempted anything like that,' cried she in a quick low tone full of shame and suffering. 'They have shown a disposition to--to take money sometimes, but they never threatened life before. And they did threaten yours. They saw you take out your money, through a hole pierced in the wall of the room you occupied, and the sight made them mad. They were going to kill you and then tumble you and your horse over the precipice below there. But I overheard them talking and when they went out to saddle the horse, I hurried up to your room to wake you. I had to take possession of the bills; you were not safe while you held them. I took them quietly because I hoped to save you without betraying them. But I failed in that. You must remember they are my father and my brother.'
"'I will not betray them,' said I.
"She smiled. It was a wintry gleam but it ineffably softened her face. I became conscious of a movement of pity towards her.
"'You have a hard lot,' remarked I. 'Your life must be a sad one.'
"She flashed upon me one glance of her dark eye. 'I was born for hardship,' said she, 'but--' and a sudden wild shudder seized her, 'but not for crime.'
"The word fell like a drop of blood wrung from her heart. "'Good heavens!' cried I, 'and must you--'
"'No,' rang from her lips in a clarion-like peal; 'some things cut the very bonds of nature. I am not called upon to cleave to what will drag me into infamy.' Then calmly, as if speaking of the most ordinary matter in the world, 'I shall never go back to that house we have left behind us, sir.'
"'But,' cried I, glancing at her scanty garments, 'where will you go? What will you do? You are young--'
"'And very strong,' she interrupted. 'Do not fear for me.' And her smile was like a burst of sudden sunshine.
"I said no more that night.
"But when in the morning I stumbled upon her sitting in the kitchen reading a book not only above her position but beyond her years, a sudden impulse seized me and I asked her if she would like to be educated. The instantaneous illumining of her whole face was sufficient reply without her low emphatic words, "'I would be content to study on my knees to know what some women do, whom I have seen.'
"It is not necessary for me to relate with what pleasure I caught at the idea that here was a chance to repay in some slight measure the inestimable favor she had done me; nor by what arguments I finally won her to accept an education at my hands as some sort of recompense for the life she had saved. The advantage which it would give her in her struggle with the world she seemed duly to appreciate, but that so great a favor could be shown her without causing me much trouble and an unwarrantable expense, she could not at once be brought to comprehend, and till she could, she held out with that gentle but inflexible will of hers. The battle, however, was won at last and I left her in that little cottage, with the understanding that as soon as the matter could be arranged, she was to enter a certain boarding-school in Troy with the mistress of which I was acquainted. Meanwhile she was to go out to service at Melville and earn enough money to provide herself with clothes.
"I was a careless fellow in those days but I kept my promise to that girl. I not only entered her into that school for a course of three years, but acting through its mistress who had taken a great fancy to her, supplied her with the necessities her position required. It was so easy; merely the signing of a check from time to time, and it was done. I say this because I really think if it had involved any personal sacrifice on my part, even of an hour of my time, or the labor of a thought, I should not have done it. For with my return to the city my interest in my cousin revived, absorbing me to such an extent that any matter disconnected with her soon lost all charm for me.
"Two years passed; I was the slave of Evelyn Blake, but there was no engagement between us. My father's determined opposition was enough to prevent that. But there was an understanding which I fondly hoped would one day open for me the way of happiness. But I did not know my father. Sick as he was--he was at that time laboring under the disease which in a couple of months later bore him to the tomb--he kept an eye upon my movements and seemed to probe my inmost heart. At last he came to a definite decision and spoke.
"His words opened a world of dismay before me. I was his only child, as he remarked, and it had been and was the desire of his heart to leave me as rich and independent a man as himself. But I seemed disposed to commit one of those acts against which he had the most determined prejudice; marriage between cousins being in his eyes an unsanctified and dangerous proceeding, liable to consequences the most unhappy. If I persisted, he must will his property elsewhere. The Blake estate should never descend with the seal of his approbation to a race of probable imbeciles.
"Nor was this enough. He not only robbed me of the woman I loved, but with a clear insight into the future, I presume, insisted upon my marrying some one else of respectability and worth before he died. 'Anyone whose appearance will do you credit and whose virtue is beyond reproach,' said he. 'I don't ask her to be rich or even the offspring of one of our old families. Let her be good and pure and of no connection to us, and I will bless her and you with my dying breath.'
"The idea had seized upon him with great force, and I soon saw he was not to be shaken out of it. To all my objections he returned but the one word,
"'I don't restrict your choice and I give you a month in which to make it. If at the end of that time you cannot bring your bride to my bedside, I must look around for an heir who will not thwart my dying wishes.'"
"A month! I surveyed the fashionable belles that nightly thronged the parlors of my friends and felt my heart sink within me. Take one of them for my wife, loving another woman? Impossible. Women like these demanded something in return for the honor they conferred upon a man by marrying him. Wealth? they had it. Position? that was theirs also. Consideration? ah, what consideration had I to give? I turned from them with distaste.
"My cousin Evelyn gave me no help. She was a proud woman and loved my money and my expectations as much as she did me.
"'If you must marry another woman to retain your wealth, marry, said she, 'but do not marry one of my associates. I will have no rival in my own empire; your wife must be a plainer and a less aspiring woman than Evelyn Blake. Yet do not discredit your name, --which is mine,' she would always add.
"Meanwhile the days flew by. If my own conscience had allowed me to forget the fact, my father's eagerly inquiring, but sternly unrelenting gaze as I came each evening to his bedside, would have kept it sufficiently in my mind. I began to feel like one in the power of some huge crushing machine whose slowly descending weight he in vain endeavors to escape.
"How or when the thought of Luttra first crossed my mind I cannot say. At first I recoiled at the suggestion and put it away from me in disdain; but it ever recurred and with it so many arguments in her favor that before long I found myself regarding it as a refuge. To be sure she was a waif and a stray, but that seemed to be the kind of wife demanded of me. She was allied to rogues if not villains, I knew; but then had she not cut all connection with them, dropped away from them, planted her feet on new ground which they would never invade? I commenced to cherish the idea. With this friendless, grateful, unassuming protegee of mine for a wife, I would be as little bound as might be. She would ask nothing, and I need give nothing, beyond a home and the common attentions required of a gentleman and a friend. Then she was not disagreeable, nor was her beauty of a type to suggest the charms of her I had lost. None of the graces of the haughty patrician lady whose lightest gesture was a command, would appear in this humble girl, to mock and constrain me. No, I should have a fair wife and an obedient one, but no vulgarized shadow of Evelyn, thank God, or of any of her fashionably dressed friends.
"Advanced thus far towards the end, I went to see Luttra. I had not beheld her since the morning we parted at the door of that little cottage in Vermont, and her presence caused me a shock. This, the humble waif with the appealing grateful eyes I had expected to encounter? this tall and slender creature with an aureola of golden hair about a face that it was an education to behold! I felt a half movement of anger as I surveyed her. I had been cheated; I had planted a grape seed and a palm tree had sprung up in its place. I was so taken aback, my salute lost something of the benevolent condescension I had intended to infuse into it. She seemed to feel my embarassment and a half smile fluttered to her lips. That smile decided me. It was sweet but above all else it was appealing.
"How I won that woman to marry me in ten days time I care not to state. Not by holding up my wealth and position before her. Something restrained me from that. I was resolved, and perhaps it was the only point of light in my conduct at that time, not to buy this young girl. I never spoke of my expectations, I never alluded to my present advantages yet I won her.
"We were married, there, in Troy in the quietest and most unpretending manner. Why the fact has never transpired I cannot say. I certainly took no especial pains to conceal it at the time, though I acknowledge that after our separation I did resort to such measures as I thought necessary, to suppress what had become gall and wormwood to my pride.
"My first move after the ceremony was to bring her immediately to New York and to this house. With perhaps a pardonable bitterness of spirit, I had refrained from any notification of my intentions, and it was as strangers might enter an unprepared dwelling, that we stepped across the threshold of this house and passed immediately to my father's room.
"'I can give you no wedding and no honeymoon,' I had told her. 'My father is dying and demands my care. From the altar to a death-bed may be sad for you, but it is an inevitable condition of your marriage with me.' And she had accepted her fate with a deep unspeakable smile it has taken me long months of loneliness and suffering to understand.
"'Father, I bring you my bride,' were my first words to him as the door closed behind us shutting us in with the dread, invisible Presence that for so long a time had been relentlessly advancing upon our home.
"I shall never forget how he roused himself in his bed, nor with what eager eyes he read her young face and surveyed her slight form swaying towards him in her sudden emotion like a flame in a breeze. Nor while I live shall I lose sight of the spasm of uncontrollable joy with which he lifted his aged arms towards her, nor the look with which she sprang from my side and nestled, yes nestled, on the breast that never to my remembrance had opened itself to me even in the years of my earliest childhood. For my father was a stern man who believed in holding love at arm's length and measured affection by the depth of awe it inspired.
"'My daughter!' broke from his lips, and he never inquired who she was or what; no, not even when after a moment of silence she raised her head and with a sudden low cry of passionate longing looked in his face and murmured, "'I never had a father.'
"Sirs, it is impossible for me to continue without revealing depths of pride and bitterness in my own nature, from which I now shrink with unspeakable pain. So far from being touched by this scene, I felt myself grow hard under it. If he had been disappointed in my choice, queried at it or even been simply pleased at my obedience, I might have accepted the wife I had won, and been tolerably grateful. But to love her, admire her, glory in her when Evelyn Blake had never succeeded in winning a glance from his eyes that was not a public disapprobation! I could not endure it; my whole being rebelled, and a movement like hate took possession of me.
"Bidding my wife to leave me with my father alone, I scarcely waited for the door to close upon the poor young thing before all that had been seething in my breast for a month, burst from me in the one cry,
"'I have brought you a daughter as you commanded me. Now give me the blessing you promised and let me go; for I cannot live with a woman I do not love.'
"Instantly, and before his lips could move, the door opened and the woman I thus repudiated in the first dawning hour of her young bliss, stood before us. My God! what a face! When I think of it now in the night season--when from dreams that gloomy as they are, are often elysian to the thoughts which beset me in my waking hours, I suddenly arouse to see starting upon me from the surrounding shadows that young fair brow with its halo of golden tresses, blotted, ay blotted by the agony that turned her that instant into stone, I wonder I did not take out the pistol that lay in the table near which I stood, and shoot her lifeless on the spot as some sort of a compensation for the misery I had caused her. I say I wonder now: then I only thought of braving it out.
"Straight as a dart, but with that look on her face, she came towards us. 'Did I hear aright?' were the words that came from her lips. 'Have you married me, a woman beneath your station as I now perceive, because you were commanded to do so? Have you not loved me? given me that which alone makes marriage a sacrament or even a possibility? and must you leave this house made sacred by the recumbent form of your dying father if I remain within it?'
"I saw my father's stiff and pallid lips move silently as though he would answer for me if he could, and summoning up what courage I possessed, I told her that I deeply regretted she had overheard my inconsiderate words. That I had never meant to wound her, whatever bitterness lay in my heart towards one who had thwarted me in my dearest and most cherished hopes. That I humbly begged her pardon and would so far acknowledge her claim upon me as to promise that I would not leave my home at this time, if it distressed her; my desire being not to injure her, only to protect myself.
"O the scorn that mounted to her brow at these weak words. Not scorn of me, thank God, worthy as I was of it that hour, but scorn of my slight opinion of her. "'Then I heard aright,' she murmured, and waited with a look that would not be gainsaid.
"I could only bow my head, cursing the day I was born.
"'Holman! Holman!' came in agonized entreaty from the bed, 'you will not rob me of my daughter now?'
"Startled, I looked up. Luttra was half way to the door.
"'What are you going to do?' cried I, bounding towards her.
"She stopped me with a look. 'The son must never forsake the father,' said she. 'If either of us must leave the house this day, let it be I.' Then in a softer tone, 'When you asked me to be your wife, I who had worshipped you from the moment you entered my father's house on the memorable night I left it, was so overcome at your condescension that I forgot you did not preface it by the usual passionate, 'I love you,' which more than the marriage ring binds two hearts together. In the glamour and glow of my joy, I did not see that the smile that was in my heart, was missing from your face. I was to be your wife and that was enough, or so I thought then, for I loved you. Ah, and I do now, my husband, love you so that I leave you. Were it for your happiness I would do more than that, I would give you back your freedom, but from what I hear, it seems that you need a wife in name and I will be but fulfilling your desire in holding that place for you. I will never disgrace the position high as it is above my poor deserts. When the day comes--if the day comes--that you need or feel you need the sustainment of my presence or the devotion of my heart, no power on earth save that of death itself, shall keep me from your side. Till that day arrives I remain what you have made me, a bride who lays no claim to the name you this morning bestowed upon her.' And with a gesture that was like a benediction, she turned, and noiselessly, breathlessly as a dream that vanishes, left the room.
"Sirs, I believe I uttered a cry and stumbled towards her. Some one in that room uttered a cry, but it may be that it only rose in my heart and that the one I heard came from my father's lips. For when at the door I turned, startled at the deathly silence, I saw he had fainted on his pillow. I could not leave him so. Calling to Mrs. Daniels, who was never far from my father in those days, I bade her stop the lady--I believe I called her my wife--who was going down the stairs, and then rushed to his side. It took minutes to revive him. When he came to himself it was to ask for the creature who had flashed like a beacon of light upon his darkening path. I rose as if to fetch her but before I could advance I heard a voice say, 'She is not here,' and looking up I saw Mrs. Daniels glide into the room.
"'Mrs. Blake has gone, sir, I could not keep her.'