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The Australian authoress Mary Helena Fortune (ca. 1833-1911) was one of the first women to write detective fiction, and probably the first to write it from the viewpoint of the detective. Her opus includes several novels and over 500 stories, many of which feature a detective by the name of Mark Sinclair. She wrote under the pseudonyms "Waif Wander" and "W.W."
DR. SMYTHSON, "one of the most eminent practitioners of the day," as the papers have it, was sitting in his surgery one evening, some years ago, when a servant announced a gentleman to consult the doctor, and, having obtained due permission, introduced him into the room and closed the door behind him.
"I have the pleasure of seeing Dr. Smythson?"
"Yes, Mr. Yorke," returned the doctor, as he glanced at the card his servant had placed before him. "What can I do for you? Pray be seated."
The visitor was a rather tall and decidedly thin man of about forty years, and he had the perfect manner and air that announced the well-bred and educated man at one glance. He was not to say handsome, but his dark hair and eyes were fine, and his features delicate and well formed, though there was an expression of weakness in the lines of his lips that a physiognomist would have avoided as denoting one who, as common parlance has it, "could not say no."
"I have come to consult you on the state of my health, and I have come fifty miles to do so."
"Had you no medical men in your neighborhood?" the doctor asked rather brusquely.
"Yes; but there were reasons why I should not make known my private affairs to any one with whom I am acquainted in OK around Wyranta."
"Wyranta! Do you belong to that neighborhood?"
"I do, and am well known there; in fact, I am myself a medical man."
"Ah! Indeed? Well, if you will tell me your symptoms I shall prescribe for you with pleasure."
"I shall find it difficult to do so, for bodily ailments I do not appear to have at all, unless some unaccountable feelings that seem to proceed from the mind may be traced to disease of the brain, which I fear."
Dr. Smythson became at once interested, as he was deeply read and had had wide practice in the treatment of brain diseases.
"Try and describe the sensations you allude to as closely as you can," he said, as he prepared to listen intently.
"I first noticed what I am about to describe to you about two months ago. There is on the road between my residence and the township a house belonging to a gentleman, who is a solicitor, and it is impossible to pass by that way without noticing the house in question, as it stands not more than twenty-five yards, or so, off the public road. I have for some time attended that house, professionally, one of Mr. Balmire's daughters being in delicate health."
"Balmire?" questioned Dr. Smythson.
"Yes, Balmire is the name—Jaspar Balmire. Are you by any chance acquainted with the gentleman?"
"The name seems familiar to me, but you know we often see a patient from the country. Pray proceed in your own case."
"Well, as I have said, I have visited at Mr. Balmire's place— it is called Heatherville—for some time, and did not, until about six weeks ago, observe the odd feeling in connection with it which has so grown upon me as to suggest serious brain disease. At first I felt uncomfortable in going to the house, or crossing the threshold; then the discomfort increased to a positive repugnance, and at last to a terror indescribable, and it fortunately happened at that juncture that Miss Balmire's health improved, and I was able to make my visits rarer. Notwithstanding the rarity of my visits, however, the influence which that house possessed over me increased, and now I cannot even pass it on horseback, or even in a vehicle, without shuddering from head to foot, and feeling the horror of some terrible thing making my very blood cold."
"And you can in no way account for the strange influence that house appears to have over you?"
"No; how should I? On the contrary, it is to others, and was to myself, one of the most attractive homes in the district. The place itself occupies a lovely position, and Mr. and Mrs. Balmire are everything a visitor could desire; while the young ladies are beautiful and accomplished—beautiful and accomplished, both of them."
While Mr. Yorke spoke, the doctor was watching his face and eyes closely. Yorke's looks were fixed strangely on the opposite wall as he added, suddenly, "There; I can see the house, Heatherville, as plainly as I ever saw it, and my very heart feels cold!"
And indeed the speaker shuddered visibly as he said the words.
"Is your sleep disturbed?"
"No—yes; I dream too much sometimes."
"Yes, yes, and of darkness and fire or blood; yes my sleep is often disturbed."
"And your appetite?"
"It is reasonably good."
"Are you a great student? Are you reading or writing too closely, or doing anything, in short, that might overtax the brain?"
"No; indeed I cannot concentrate my ideas sufficiently for any application."
Many other questions Dr. Smythson put to this strange patient, and very closely he examined him before writing his prescription and dismissing Mr. Yorke.
"Your case greatly interests me," he said, "and I hope you will at least let me know by letter how you progress, even should you not find it convenient to visit town again."
"You shall certainly hear from me," he promised, as he took his leave, while the doctor turned to his writing-table, and penned the following letter:—
I have just had a visit from a medical gentleman of your neighborhood, whose case has so much interested me that I take advantage of our old acquaintance to ask some particulars about him. The gentleman I allude to is Dr. Yorke, and his visit to me was for the purpose of taking my advice on the state of his own health.
Of course this is quite private, nor would I in any but an extreme case allude to it at all, but I want, in his own interests, to know if there is any reason known to you that your residence (Heatherville) should possess any extraordinary physical or mental influence over him?
Hoping all is well with you,—
I am faithfully yours,
And this letter was addressed—
Jaspar Balmire, Solicitor, Heatherville, Wyranta.
At Wyranta summer had fallen in warm rays over the vine-wreathed slopes and sheltered uplands, and roses waved and rustled their perfume abroad on the morning breeze as it floated over the breakfast table at Heatherville, the home of Mr. Balmire and his family. The party of four were collected around the board, Mr. and Mrs. Balmire and two fair daughters, aged nineteen and twenty-three respectively.
The eldest was a tall and largely built but most elegantly formed woman, with a Spanish cast of feature and large lustrous black eyes. The beauty of Inez Balmire was spoken of through all the neighborhood as inherited from her Spanish mother, but she was yet no general favourite. Her natural hauteur and regal style of receiving the compliments of would-be lovers or friends chilled their advances, and in most oases turned their admiration and attentions to her younger and fairer stepsister, Myra.
Myra, as I have said, was nineteen and a picture of shy, blushing, and beautiful youth. Her hair was like spun gold, her eyes like forest bluebells, her lips like the fairest petals of a red rose. She was formed in nature's fairest and most delicately sweet mould, and was as innocent and good as she was fair. Was there any wonder that her fond mother and proud father idolized her as though there had but been one daughter under the roof of Heatherville?
The mail had been delivered and two letters lay beside the solicitor's plate. The breakfast was being duly honored when the servant brought them in, and Mr. Balmire only allowed one glance toward them, for he was busy with a favourite dish and in no hurry to read business correspondence.
"I am quite curious about the contents of that upper envelope, my dear," said Mrs. Balmire, with a pleasant smile.
"Why so?" mumbled the busy solicitor, as he enjoyed a very agreeable breakfast.
"For a very good and sufficient reason, as you will acknowledge when I tell you what it is—I am a woman, and the envelope has a great 'private' on one corner."
"Private, eh? Has it so?" and Mr. Balmire laid down his knife and fork and lifted the letter.
"Never speak of female curiosity again, papa," said the stately, cold-looking Inez; "you see even you have succumbed to the weakness."
"Hum—um—ah? Yes—s—hum—um-um," was something of the sounds framed by the lawyer's lips as he read his letter.
"Who is it from?"
"Eh? Oh! You forget the private, Mrs. Balmire!" and Mr. Balmire, with a merry laugh, put the letter in his pocket and resumed his breakfast.
"Well, now, there is no "private" on the other one, Jaspar—may I open it?"
"Open it?—No! Lay it down at once! A pretty how-do-you-do it would be if a man's wife were permitted to read all his letters!" the merry gentleman returned gaily; "but to gratify you I will open it, for the writing is our friend the doctor's."
"Yes, Dr. Yorke. There, you can have it, it is only an enclosed note for his housekeeper, which he requests me to forward, as there is no delivery out at Grange Hall, and she may not send to the post during his absence. Are any of you girls going out to-day?"
"I, as the oldest girl, may say no," replied Mrs. Balmire; "and I, as the youngest, may say I don't know yet, papa," said fair Myra, with a pretty flash spreading in her sweet face.
"And you, Inez?"
"I am going out, papa, and I shall be pleased to deliver the note to Mrs. Crane as I pass Grange Hall," returned Miss Balmire, as she rose to leave the table.
"Good! That is straightforward and to the point; there is the letter for you. Wife, have you any idea what business took Dr. Yorke to town?"
"Not the least, Jaspar;" and the solicitor said no more until both the girls had left the room, but then he laid down the daily and reproduced his "private" letter from his coat pocket.
"Maggie, I want to speak to you about this letter," he explained, with a very serious air.
"It is private, you know, Jaspar!"
"Don't chaff, now, dear. Of course the letter is private, but my old friend, Dr. Smythson, knows very well that no sensible man ever keeps a letter private from his wife; but the 'private' refers to all but you, my dear."
"The letter is from Dr. Smythson, then?"
"Yes, and referring to Dr. Yorke. But read it for yourself." Mrs. Balmire read every word, and then raised her eyes to her husband's face.
"Strange, is it not?" he asked.
"More than strange. What can he mean? I wonder what is the matter with Dr. Yorke. I never heard him complain of illness in any way."
"Men do not complain for trifles, like you women," observed Mr. Balmire, with an attempt at loftiness, at which, as well as at the absurd assertion, his wife laughed immensely; "but it is satisfactory to find one medical man consulting another, as it proves that they believe in the science, which we are sometimes inclined to doubt."
"Or have no faith in their own thorough acquaintance with it," added Mrs. Balmire.
"Nonsense! You know it is not considered proper for a medical man to prescribe for any member of his own family."
"Or for himself."
"Oh, bother! Do try and tell me what sort of reply I can give to my friend's strange communication."
"Strange communication indeed! Let me see how it runs: he wants to know if you are acquainted with any reason why your residence, Heatherville, should possess any extraordinary mental or physical influence over him—that is how Dr. Smythson expresses it. But I must say that I think, if he has any idea himself what he means, he might have expressed it with considerably more lucidity."
There was a little pause, during which Mr. Balmire drummed on the table with his fingers, and his wife re-perused Dr. Smythson's letter.
"Maggie," at length said the solicitor, "have you ever thought that Dr. Yorke admired one or other of the girls?"
"Never!" was the prompt reply.
"There would be nothing surprising in it if he had, and that, in itself, may cause Heatherville to possess at least a mental influence over him."
"He is the last man I should expect of what is called 'falling in love', and, besides, think of his years."
"His years has nothing to do with the sentiment, save, indeed, to intensify it. I don't believe myself in a man knowing what real love is before at least thirty, and I'm sure that a man might be excused for being a victim to such beauty as Inez's at any age." Mrs. Balmire was an amiable woman, but she was also a mother, and a stepmother, and her maternal jealousy exhibited itself in her retort.
"It's a matter of taste, I suppose, though I cannot understand how people can admire that which is all oscuro. They, however (I mean the dark complexioned women), are not untruthfully accredited with being more open themselves to the warm influence of the rosy god."
"You are quite beyond me, Maggie; what do you mean?"
"Well, I mean then, that, from my own observations only, I am almost certain that Inez has bestowed her affections, entirely unsought, on our medico."
"Oh, it is only my idea, Jaspar; but you can watch for yourself."
"If there has been any real ground for your belief, why did you not tell me this before?"
"Why should I tell you? There is nothing degrading in a woman loving a worthy man, if her love is returned."
"But if it is not?"
"Of course, no delicate-minded woman would let any one perceive that her heart was no longer alone before she was certain that she had one in return."
"You think, then, that Dr. Yorke is enamored of Inez?"
"On the contrary, I think such an idea has never entered into the man's head."
"Good heavens, are you trying to drive me crazy, Maggie? You insinuate that Inez has given her heart unasked, and say that no delicate-minded woman would permit such a fact to be observed. What am I to think?"
"Only that I am a very observing woman, my dear, and that I am also a stepmother. Now, do reply to your friend's letter at once, while I go and see about what we are to have for dinner," and Mrs. Balmire went away, victorious in her assertion of jealous maternity, leaving her husband in a state of utter bewilderment.
As she was passing through the hall Mrs. Balmire met Inez, who was gracefully attired in the rather foreign but entirely becoming style she affected, and looked a very stately queen of beauty in gauzy black lace and ruby ribbons. She carried a parasol in one hand and a small basket in the other, and bowed to her stepmother with a stately grace as she passed.
"Going out so early, Inez?"
"Yes, before the heat. I have promised Mrs. Bernard a visit, and shall take Grange Hall on my way."
"Is the walk not too long for you?"
"To Grange Hall! It is only half-a-mile."
"I mean to Mrs. Bernard's. That is two miles away, if an inch."
"Oh! Well, if I feel unequal to it, I shall turn back from the Hall."
"As if she ever meant to go farther," soliloquized Mrs. Balmire, as she smiled cunningly. "I fancy indolent Inez walking two miles for all the Mrs. Bernards in the world."
Inez had passed out among the roses, and commenced her dainty walk to Grange Hall. Of course she was acquainted with the master's absence, or she would have considered the proprieties far more than to personally call, and alone, at the establishment of any bachelor, even though the bachelor should happen to be the medical man of the family. It was a smooth and pleasant path she had to go, nearly all the time under the shadow of old trees, and across patches of unmown grass that lay at their feet.
I have said that Inez Balmire was twenty-three—a mature age in these colonies it is true—but the woman's face had the stamp of thought and character indicative of many more years, at least when she was, as now, free to exhibit the workings of a determined and constructive mind on a countenance but too well calculated to display them. One accustomed to the almost perfect and placid beauty which Inez exhibited on all occasions when a single eye could scan her features, would have been astounded at the change could they have but seen them as she moved toward Grange Hall under the shadow of the great indigenous trees.
Her beautifully formed lips were so firmly compressed as to form but one ruby line, and there was a cloud of unpleasant thought on the low brow that pressed down the straight and rather too heavy black eyebrows. Her large, black eyes, now bent to the grass she stepped upon, and again raised suddenly to seek the roof of the hall, sometimes flashed with a fierceness that evidently proceeded from no pleasant feeling, while her small hand would clench on the handle of her little ornamental basket and bend it out of shape ruthlessly. More than once, too, she took Dr. Yorke's note from the basket, and turned it over and over with a strange lingering touch and a light pressure of her slender fingers ere she returned it to its place.
Mrs. Crane, the old housekeeper at the hall, sat at a window of an upper room when Miss Balmire opened the garden gate and entered. The old lady had lived long in her present service, and had got to consider "the doctor" some what in the light of personal property. She was a shrewd woman, too, and undoubtedly attached to her master, in whom she believed as one of, if not, the greatest of physicians. When she saw the young lady enter the garden she put away her work and went down to receive her, murmuring to herself all the way—
"I wonder what's brought her here, and she so proud a young lady, too? Good Heaven a mercy, I hope nothing has happened to the master!"
"Good morning, Mrs. Crane," was Inez's greeting, given in the attractive manner she knew so well how to assume becomingly.
"Good morning, Miss Balmire. I hope there is nothing wrong? It is such an unusual thing to see you, that I was afraid something was wrong."
"Oh, no, at least not that I am aware of. Papa got a letter from Dr. Yorke this morning, and he enclosed a note for you, which I undertook to deliver, as I was on my way to Mrs. Bernard's."
"Oh, that was very kind of you, Miss Balmire. Do come in and rest. I wonder what the doctor sent a note in such a roundabout way for?"
"Papa said it was to ensure its immediate delivery. Thank you, yes, I will sit down for a little while you read your note, as I shall be glad to know that Dr. Yorke is quite well.
Mrs. Crane placed a seat near a window for her unusual visitor, and fussily began to put her spectacles over her nose, preparatory to reading the, to her, important document. Her old hands were trembling with excitement, and the letter rustled as she tried to hold it steady.
Inez looked out of the window and tried to control her impatience. She could see in the distance Macedon's grand sides and a sweep of lovely country with threads of silvery creeks creeping through it under a sky as pure and blue as her sister's eyes; not that she once thought of such a comparison, or would have believed it held good had any one expressed it, for in the fair delicacy of her young sister the proud Inez saw nothing of a beauty she was only too self-conscious of possessing herself.
"Deary me! Deary me!" was the exclamation that turned the young lady's face toward Mrs. Crane inquiringly. "Deary me, was ever the like? I can't make it out at all, at all. Something queer must have gone wrong with the doctor."
"He is not ill, I hope?"
"No, no, Miss Balmire, there's nothing about illness; but of all things in the world I have orders to immediately change the furniture of his own room to the other side of the house. I never saw the master so decided about anything. I am to have it all ready today, for he is coming back by tomorrow's coach."
"To change his room?" repeated Inez inquiringly.
"Yes, and it's the strangest thing, for I have a hundred times heard the doctor say that he wouldn't give the view he owned from the window of his own room for the value of his practice. Deary me! Deary me!"
"Is the room he means on this floor, Mrs. Crane?"
"No, it's upstairs; and he chose it entirely on account of the view I'm telling you about. I don't know what I'm to do, for on account of the doctor being away I let Mary go home for a day or two, and he has the man with him. Certainly, Miss Balmire, there is nothing to prevent you having a look at the view, and it's worth seeing I can assure you."
This was in reply to a hint from Inez, who now followed the garrulous old lady up a broad staircase and into a large front room, from which two deep windows overlooked the scene in question. In one of the window recesses a writing-table and easy-chair were placed, and to that comfortable spot Mrs. Crane led the way.
"You see what a lovely room it is, Miss Balmire, so large and airy and lofty, and with his bedchamber so convenient, and such windows as these! I cannot understand it at all; but I must obey, for I never knew the doctor so decided in his orders. Would you mind sitting a little bit by yourself, Miss Balmire! I must go and see for a messenger to send for the servant, and I think I see the gardener's boy crossing the paddock."
Mind sitting alone indeed! If one could have seen the light gather in Inez's face as she sat down in Dr. Yorke's own chair, the question would have been needless. She bent forward and scanned the view so lauded, but her greatest interest in it was her own home, which was plainly visible in its verdurous surrounding of garden and vines.
"And I never guessed that this was his favourite window, though I have day and day watched the sun upon it and night by night the lamps gleam softly in its shelter," was how her thoughts ran; "and there is his pen and his books, and all the little articles sanctified by the touch of his fingers. How pleasant it would be to sit here for hours in sweet communion with them all!"
As she mused, the splendid black eyes of the impressionable girl wandered hither and thither among the various articles upon the writing-table, and her fingers touched softly those nearest to her with a touch that was almost caressing. At the right-hand side was a paper-weight of bronze and gold, and she lifted it gently, as though with a sensation of touch communicated from the last hand that had lingered upon it, and under it she saw a folded piece of tissue paper, on which was laid a pressed rose. As Inez recognized this rose to be one of a rare variety, possessed by no one in the neighborhood save the Balmires, a red rose flush of joy mounted to her very forehead, and under its influence her beauty was perfectly glorious in the glow of blushing happiness.
"Oh, I am not mistaken in my dearest hopes!" she mentally exclaimed; "and I am so happy. Can he—can he have valued it thus? It must be more than a month since I wore a rose in my belt, and I recollect losing it. Happy rose, to be at home in Grange Hall!"
As Inez spoke her thoughts thus, she laid the faded rose, against her lips, and, with a curiosity that proved deadly, she lifted the tissue paper to examine its contents.
"Some other little memento surreptitiously obtained," she guessed, with smiling fondness, and she opened it to meet the lovely face of her sister, Myra, gazing at her from a photographed card! The horrified and outraged woman stared at the awful thing for an instant, and then dashed it violently to the table in a vehemence of jealous rage.
"She? She! If I thought it was so, woe to them both! But it is so, how else could he have possession of that?"
Seconds that were uncounted, as the wretched Inez sat there staring at the pictured card, with every good feeling she had ever possessed in total abeyance to the fierce jealousy she inherited with her Spanish mother's blood. To be preferred to her? A colourless and commonplace chit of a child to be preferred to a woman in the zenith of undeniable charms? And she had believed him a godlike man! Bah, he was a fool, and she, Inez Balmire, hated him!
Just then she heard the returning foot of Mrs. Crane, and she hurriedly replaced the card and flower beneath the bronze paperweight, as she rose to leave the detested room.
"La, how pale you are, Miss Balmire! Do sit down while I get you a glass of wine."
"Thank you, no, Mrs. Crane, I do not feel ill, and it is later than I thought. Have you succeeded in getting help to make the alterations the doctor wishes you?"
"Oh yes; Mrs. Burrage is coming herself, and we can manage nicely. Take care of the stairs, Miss Balmire. Indeed you do look pale, and, if I was you, I would not go any farther today, for the walk has tired you already."
Yes, the walk had tired her exceedingly, tired her of the sunlight that fell upon her brightly, of the soft air that wooed her dark cheek, of the very life whose possession had so suddenly become a burden to her. No, she would not go any farther; she would go straight home and plot a revenge that should secure a peace of mind she would never again know until it was accomplished.
Darkly thus, and with the Evil One moving in close though unknown communion with her, the deluded girl went on her homeward way. Only once she paused to look back at the hall she had so lately approached in hopeful anticipation, and in the look she fixed upon it Bender Yorke might have read his doom. Poor being, could she have read her own—could she have pierced the few days that lay between her and horror, would she have paused so long by that steep river bank without plunging over to the comparative safety of death?
During her half-sister's visit to Grange Hall, Myra Balmire had slipped from the house into the beautiful garden attached to it, and paused before a certain rose bush, on which several lovely buds were blushingly opening to the warm embrace of the sun. The girl's sweet, pure face was more beautiful than ever as she selected a nearly open bud and smiled to herself as she pulled it gently from its stem. The golden hair in its wavy folds, the soft and liquid blue eyes, the sweet smile ingrained in the dimples around the rosy lips, the fair forehead, the pink-tinged cheek, like the flush in a sea-shell, formed in lovely Myra a picture of youthful loveliness nearly peerless. The broad garden hat, with its drapery of Indian muslin and lace, set off the beauty of Myra's simply clad form, as, with her hand, she waved an au revoir to her father and mother, who were standing at the breakfast-room window apparently, and in reality, engaged in admiring their mutual darling.
"Where is Myra going to, I wonder," said Mrs. Balmire. "See, she has gone out of the garden and down towards the creek. I don't think it is quite safe for the child to be rambling so much by herself."
"Ha, ha!" laughed Mr. Balmire pleasantly, as he looked queerly at his wife. "do you think Myra is so much by herself, Maggie?"
"What do you mean, Jaspar?"
"Oh! Oh! I can't help laughing, wife. You are such a closely observing stepmother, by your own showing, yet here you are, where Myra is concerned, as blind as a bat."
"As blind as a bat!" the astonished and somewhat alarmed woman repeated.
"Yes, or as a mole. Alone, indeed! Don't you see our girl is shaping up to Emilia Markham, eh?"
"Oh, certainly! Now I think of it, Myra did say something about going over to teach Emilia some new stitch or other in point lace, of course!"
"Yes, and also, of course, as Emilia happens to be in Melbourne just now, she has deputed her brother Wilder to take lessons in her stead."
"Good gracious! Yes, that is young Markham sure enough! Jaspar, I hope you do not think our Myra guilty of anything clandestine."
"She is incapable of either guilt or deception, my dear, for her heart and character are as lovely as her face; but I truly believe she has placed her affections on Wilder Markham. I have seen it for some time, but I have in no way interfered. Nothing can be said against the young fellow, and when they understand each other fully they will speak plainly."
"They are too young," murmured the fond mother.
"They will grow older, my dear, and age comes soon enough. Let them be happy while they can. Is not that Inez coming down the road?"
"Yes, it is. Have you answered Dr. Smythson's letter yet?"
"No; in truth I do not know how to answer it. Perhaps Inez may be able to give me some clue from the contents of the doctor's note to his housekeeper. By-the-by, I have been thinking a good deal about what you said regarding Inez. Have you any foundation for your suspicion that Inez appreciates Dr. Yorke more than can be accounted by the fact that he has been her medical attendant?"
"No foundation whatever, save what I have observed with my own eyes. A woman notices a woman more in matters of the heart than men do, and the first thing that aroused my suspicion was the frequent necessity she feigned to call in his attendance as a physician."
"Yes, feigned. There never was a healthier girl than Inez, and the doctor knows it."
"Wife! Why Dr. Yorke told me himself that she was of an exceedingly nervous temperament, and required careful treatment."
"Bah! Medical men must use some kind of formula to put off unpleasant questions, but nothing can have been more evident than that he avoided visiting here of late as much as ever Inez would let him. He has found it difficult no doubt, for Inez is very absolute and peremptory."
"Well, there is no excuse of that kind now at all events, for she told me only this morning that she felt perfectly well; but if you think she really does like him—but nonsense, I cannot entertain the idea for a moment."
"Such a beautiful woman to waste her heart on a man of Dr. Yorke's years and mediocre appearance, as well as ability? No, it is absurd!"
"Did you never know of greater vagaries in a woman's heart? And, after all, the doctor is of a gentlemanly appearance, and not more than thirty-seven or eight I should say; but I am certain he does not care for her. However, use your own eyes, and never mind mine."
"I'll go and write to Smythson," was Mr. Balmire's reply; and he did write, stating in a point-blank way his disbelief that there was no reason whatever why Heatherville should possess any influence one way or other over any part of Dr. Yorke's system. Yet, while he was writing he was consumed by a humiliating dread that Heatherville might really have an influence, and a repelling one, over the gentleman in question, if his wife's surmise was correct, and that Dr. Yorke was conscious of Inez's favour, but was unwilling to encourage it by his presence.
"If things don't work out this problem satisfactorily," he decided as he folded his note, "I shall go right down and see Smythson personally, to find out what his strange inquiry meant." As soon as he had completed his letter his daughter Inez entered the room, just as she returned from her visit to Grange Hall, and seated herself wearily on a chair near him. Looking at her with more than usual interest, as connected in his mind with the contents of the note he had just dispatched, Mr. Balmire could not fail to observe the extreme pallor of her beautiful face.
"How ill you look, Inez, my dear! Your face appears to me strangely changed. What is the matter, love?"
"I am not so strong as I thought, papa, and the walk has fatigued me. I shall have to return to Dr. Yorke's prescriptions again, I fear."
"Um—m! You have delivered his note to Mrs. Crane? She happen to mention when his return was expected."
"Dr. Yorke is to arrive by tomorrow's coach, papa; and l left Mrs. Crane half demented with the work his coming entails upon her."
"Work! Why, I thought Orange Hall was one of the easiest households to keep straight in Wyranta—no company, no dinners, no dances. What fuss can she possible make about preparing for the doctor?"
"A fadge of his own, as Mrs. Crane would most probably term such a strange notion did it concern any one else but her idol. The doctor has sent orders to have his private sitting-room or study changed from the front to the back of the house."
"To the back? Why, he will see nothing but the face of that dreary hill!"
"That is what makes the notion so unaccountable, for one of the finest views of Wyranta scenery is commanded from his writing-table in the room Mrs. Crane is by this time busy dismantling."
"I know, I have seen it—the best view of Heatherville too. I think the house looks better from the hall than from any other point in the neighborhood."
"Heatherville?" Here was a new idea for Inez too. Could it be to avoid the sight of her home that Dr. Yorke insisted on seeing the barren ranges? The very possibility of such a thing sent the blood up in a living stream to flood the proud woman's face and neck, ere a second thought of Myra's portrait and its attendant rosebud helped to restore the balance of circulation. "If Dr. Yorke was enamored of Myra's milk-and-water style he would not object to seeing Heatherville," and a fierce joy flashed into her grand eyes as she rose to seek her own room. Perhaps after all she was mistaken; she must watch him and her, and watch them closely.
The night of that same day had fallen quietly, as usual, and only Myra remained in the drawing-room with her parents; for Inez had retired, complaining of feeling very much indisposed, and they were conversing about her case.
"I shall meet Yorke tomorrow and ask him to see her before he goes home," Mr. Balmire said firmly; "he understands the girl's constitution, and she says she would prefer his being consulted."
"Very well," calmly replied Mrs. Balmire; but she could not help adding, "if you can induce him to come."
"Why should he have any objection?" was the angry return, and, strange to say, sweet Myra's face blushed hotly up to the very roots of her golden hair, as she bent lower over the bit of embroidery on which her white fingers were feigning to be busy. Mrs. Balmire noticed the blush, but her husband did not.
"Why should you suggest the possibility of Dr. Yorke's objecting to come?" repeated the solicitor.
"I explained my reasons before, Jaspar; and I must remind you that they will not bear repeating at present."
The mother's glance toward her daughter pointed the remark, and Balmire remained silent, as he mentally commiserated the unhappy position of a man whose family consists of two unmarried daughters and a second wife. Poor man, the very treason of the thought was indicative of great mental irritation, for he loved all three women with the warm devotion due to each.
Shortly after Myra bade her father good-night, with her accustomed embrace, and left the room. It was Mrs. Balmire's custom to spend a few minutes with her darling before she retired herself, so Myra knew she should see her mother again, but she paused at her sister's door and knocked softly.
"Are you in bed, Inez? May I come in?" but with the privilege of her close relationship the young girl awaited no reply, but opened the door and entered.
Inez had removed her dress and donned a dressing gown of pale pink, that suited her dark style of loveliness to perfection; but there was such a terrible look of hate and loathing in her eyes as she suddenly turned to look at Myra, that made the gentle being's heart chill with a sudden and awful terror. Inez was sitting opposite her toilet, and her loosened hair of intense black partly shaded her face; but though she changed its expression instantly, the effect of that awful look made Myra's voice tremble as she spoke.
"How dreadful you look, dear Inez. I hope you do not feel worse. Should you like me to stop with you?"
"Nonsense, Myra; I am only fatigued, and it is this tumbled hair that makes me look what you call dreadful. I shall be all right when I get a night's rest."
"I wish Dr. Yorke was back," Myra murmured.
"Why? Why do you wish Dr. Yorke was back?" and again that awful fierceness glowed in the questioner's eyes.
"Because he might prescribe something to do you good. Good-night, Inez, I hope you will rest well. If you should want me in the night just knock at the wall."
While Myra sat before her glass and combed out the rich abundance of her lovely hair, and her eyes glanced occasionally at her own sweet face as it gazed at her from the mirror, a blush would ever and anon tinge the pink cheeks and white throat with the daintiest crimson. That her thoughts were very sweet and very innocent no onlooker could have doubted, for the fair face was a reflex of a purely happy maiden's heart. If, indeed, there was a shade of uneasiness or uncertainty, it was when she recalled the awful expression in her sister's eyes a short time previous, but all was joy and blushes again on her mother's entrance.
Mrs. Balmire had left her husband engaged in some writing he had overlooked, and gladly sat down to have the happiest moments of the day in full communion of soul with her darling child, and Myra's arms were around her and her head down on her warm bosom before they were sixty seconds together.
"What is it, my dear? You have something extra to tell me tonight. Is it not so?"
"Yes, indeed, mamma; oh yes, yet I do not know how to frame words in which to tell you."
"Myra love, to tell me? Surely I must be dreaming when I fancy I hear my darling say she feels any difficulty in telling her own mother anything!"
"I have never hidden anything from you until—until—dear, it makes a difference when one is a woman.""Do you think it ought, Myra? Until a girl is a wife, do you think she ought to have any secrets from her best friend and loving adviser."
Myra was silent a little, and her eyes remained hidden on her mother's shoulder; but then she raised herself, and fixed them lovingly on Mrs. Balmire's face.
"I do not think she ought, mamma, and I will tell you all; but it will be in confidence, for you know a girl may tell her mother what she would not like any one else to know."
"Yes, dear, so tell me all, and I will keep your counsel faithfully. Why do you hesitate, my love? Shall I help you just a little bit? Is it about Wilder Markham you wish to speak?" and Mrs. Balmire smiled pleasantly in her child's flushed face.
"Oh, you guess, mamma. I'm so glad. Yes, it is about Wilder. He told me today that he loved me with his whole heart, and the world is all heaven since I heard him."
"So you love him, my Myra? Don't you see I am jealous. Love any one but your mother, indeed."
"Don't laugh at me, mamma, for indeed it is a serious affair to me. I cannot imagine how I lived before I was sure of Wilder's love; and oh, I pity now with all my heart any one who loves and meets with no response to their affections. It must be a dreadful pain to suffer."
"Is your pity bestowed on any person in particular, dear?"
"Yes," and the reply was in a slow, hesitating voice; "it is Dr. Yorke I was thinking of, and what you said made me feel that I should have told you before, but I thought it might seem like boasting, and—and—I couldn't."
"Do you mean that Dr. Yorke has done you the honour to offer you his hand, my dear Myra?"
"Yes, mamma, and I was so sorry to see him suffer, but how could I help it, since I loved Wilder even then? I could not help it, could I, mamma!"
"Of course not, child; but I think your dear papa ought to know this."
"Oh, please no, mamma; there is no use, and he might unconsciously let his knowledge show in his manner to Dr. Yorke, and so give him pain. You may tell him about Wilder; but as Wilder is going away, and we cannot be married for a long time, even he must keep our secret, for indeed I could not bear to be smiled and hinted at as the young lady who is engaged. Girls are great teases, you know, mamma, even when they like one."
And so the mother and daughter heard and told the story of a first love with all its joys and hopes and fears, and mingled their embraces and words together in a sweet confusion until the subject of Inez cropped up, when Myra tried to explain to Mrs. Balmire the strange look she had seen in her stepsister's face that night.
"It is an odd thing, dear," the young girl said thoughtfully; "but I seem to have become a woman all at once, as it were, since I heard Wilder tell me he loved me, for now that I look back I can recall the same look in Inez's eyes very often of late. Mamma, do you think Inez likes me? If she positively hated me, she could not look more awfully at me than she did tonight."
"Myra, I confess to you that Inez is a character that has long puzzled me, and I am sure she is capable of very strong feelings, although she has every movement under control. You know that I have never seemed to gain her confidence, nor have I even tried since she reached womanhood and has, as it were, asserted her independent position in the house; but I cannot see why she should feel any unpleasantness respecting you, my darling; as for hating, it is absurd. No one could hate my unpresuming child!"
"I should be miserable if any one disliked me; but now you must go, mamma. You will look in to see if Inez is comfortable?"
"Yes, dear. God bless you; good-night."
When the next day's coach bowled in at a spanking pace, and drew up opposite the principal hotel in Wyranta, Mr. Balmire was among the little crowd assembled to see it arrive, and he seized Dr. Yorke before that gentleman had time to disentangle himself and make his escape. He looked as well as usual, and rather gratified at his home coming the solicitor thought, until he impeded the doctor's hasty steps, and welcomed him home, when a sudden cloud seemed to fall over the medical gentleman's eyes, and his forehead grew all at once wrinkled and heavy.
"I'm so glad I caught you, Yorke, for I want you to call at my place. I sent your note to Mrs. Crane all right; indeed it was Inez who took it, and the walk has been too much for her; she is far from well, and I should like you to resume your prescriptions for her."
"Go to Heatherville? Now? Oh, you may be assured that there is nothing serious about Miss Balmire's ailments, which are entirely nervous. I am really tired and anxious to get home after my journey. There is Dr. Milne, perhaps you would like his advice for the present, and I should be happy to consult with him if necessary."
The look of astonishment with which Mr. Balmire listened to this strange suggestion from his family doctor reminded Dr. Yorke that, no matter what was the depth of his private feelings, they must give way to appearances, and, with a strong effort over himself, he added—
"But I see you are anxious, and perhaps, as I understand Miss Balmire's case, I had better go with you."
"If you are quite certain you are well enough," was the hesitating reply of the solicitor; for the poor man recalled with humiliation his wife's words, "if you can induce him to come," and he would have given more than Dr. Yorke's fee to have prevented him from acceding to the request he had so lately made him to call professionally at Heatherville.
The two gentlemen together walked the short distance that intervened between the township and the doctor's residence, but the latter kept his eyes fixed obstinately on the ground. In spite of that, however, a chill struck him when he knew that Heatherville could be seen by the lifting of an eyelid.
"Are you cold?" asked Mr. Balmire, who was closely observing his companion, and could not help acknowledging that he looked ill.
"Not exactly, but I feel very uncomfortable. In fact, I am, as I hinted to you, far from well; indeed, I may add in confidence that it was to consult a physician on my own case that I went to town."
"Indeed? I hope he did not consider it serious?"
"He does not know what to make of the symptoms any more than I do myself, they are very strange and very uncommon. I have always been a nervous subject, and open to what might seem abnormal influences, and I confess to you that I have dreaded the soundness of my own brain lately."
"You surprise me! I should never guess such a thing; but do you know what, Yorke, I think you live too much alone and avoid society more than is good for you, and nothing could please me better than to see a young mistress at the hall. She would put life and sunshine in it."
At this awkward speech the faces of both men flushed. The poor doctor fancied that his proposal to Myra had become known to Balmire; and the solicitor feared that his imprudent words might be construed into a hint in aid of Inez's infatuation, or suspected infatuation, for Dr. Yorke.
"Such a change might be pleasant and beneficial, my friend, but it will never take place. The only one woman I could love on this side of the grave does not respond to my affection, and I could not marry a queen unless my heart chose her."
"Quite right, of course not. Well, here we are at Heatherville; come in."
Mr. Balmire was holding the gate open as he spoke, and Dr. Yorke looked desperately up. The front of the house, with its rose-wreathed verandahs and daintily lace-draped window, lay full before him with the sunbeams bathing it richly and the summer breeze rustling musically among its foliage. There was no one spot or mote before him that could suggest a painful thought, yet the doctor's veins ran cold with a chill like death.
A very glory of rays rested on the bowed golden head of lovely Myra, as she sat in one of the garden chairs, with her eyes drooped in a dreamy reverie of happy youth, yet, at sight of her sweet face, a strong shudder shook him from head to foot, as he grasped the gate and shut his eyes. It was at that moment that Mr. Balmire recalled Dr. Smythson's peculiar question if Heatherville could possess any peculiar influence over Dr. Yorke. Here were was the influence, but of what could it consist?
"You are really ill," was what he said aloud; "let me give you an arm, and we will get inside for a glass of wine."
"No, no! I beg of you to excuse me, Balmire; but I am not really in a position to see Miss Balmire. I shall get home at once, and Mrs. Crane will doctor me up."
"At least, you shall not go alone," insisted the solicitor; "I am determined to see you safe in your housekeeper's charge at all events. Why your colour is returning again already, Yorke; what a nervous being you are, to be sure."
Yes; he was better. No sooner had he placed a little distance between himself and Heatherville, than a weight seemed to be lifted from him, and a warmth to creep into his veins, and by the time he reached his own gate he was himself again.
The old housekeeper received him with effusion, and detailed her pleasure at his return, and her sorrow for being obliged to carry out his wishes with regard to moving the furniture of his study, in such a confused way that he was glad to escape from her and go upstairs to inspect for himself.
The doctor turned involuntarily into his old room and found there—desolation. He felt as if some one had died and been buried from that chamber. He paused a moment on the threshold, with his eyes turned longingly toward the window where his writing-table used to be, and then, with a fierce, sudden impulse, he strode toward it. There lay before him all the loveliness of land and water, mountain and valley he had been wont to scan, and there in the middle distance, glorious in summer sunbeams, shone the gleaming windows and pointed gables of Heatherville House. He gazed at it as one might at a shrine or a grave, and then a horror grew into his pale countenance as he staggered back, clutching his forehead and moaning to himself.
"Am I going mad? O God, help me! Is that what it means?" It was long before he could compose himself, but before night he had penned the following letter to Dr. Smythson:—
You wished to hear from me as to how my extraordinary case progressed, and I can quite understand how great an interest you take in it, outside of any mere personal interest in myself. I have only reached home today, yet I have experienced a new and terrible symptom, and am decided upon writing to you fully if it were for no other reason than to assure myself that I still possess sufficient brain power to write such a letter.
To begin, then, at the beginning, my dear sir. I must say that I have led a lonely and visionary life ever since I was sent, a shy and nervous youth, to a German university. From choice I have avoided all unnecessary society, and reached the mature age of thirty-nine without ever seeing a woman it would make me happy to call a companion for life. I tell you this with seeming irrelevance to the subject, to make you in part understand with what power my first impression of the passion known as love seized me, and how I brooded over and cherished it until it became incorporated with my very being. Add to this, that the object of my affection is very young, and as beautiful and pure in heart and mind as any angel, and you will understand the miserable height of my folly and infatuation.
Now, I may tell you that I proposed to the young lady in
question, though I must confess with little hope of receiving any reply save
that which I did. My case was hopeless from the first, and Heatherville is
the home of the lady I am to entirely, yet so hopelessly, devoted
Still you cannot, nor can any man, find in that fact any reasonable (as if reason had anything to do with my case!) cause for the shuddering feeling of terror that attacks me at the mere sight of the walls within which the one person in the world resides. I have changed my sitting-room, so as to avoid looking out of one window, yet, like an idiot as I am, I could not finally leave it without one last look at Heatherville. It was what I fancied I saw then that made me pen this to you as a fresh symptom of—what? God only knows.
I went to the window, as I have told you, and I saw Heatherville in the full bloom of summer-surrounded loveliness, and with warm bright sunbeams resting on its walls. I was thinking bitterly of the sweet and pure being the hallowed walls enclosed, and what a great blank was the life which lay before me, when all at once a great shadow seemed to fall down like a pall over the home of the too-beloved woman. I thought I was dreaming, that the numbness of death was floating over my brain, and I shut my eyes momentarily to open them on something so awful that I have rushed to you with my story. The shadow has partially cleared, and from it emerged, down the carriage-drive, out of the gates, into the white road, a funeral with many black-robed mourners and a hearse that had white plumes. I fled from the window, from which I shall never dare to look again. For mercy sake write, my dear sir, and tell me what you think of this. Am I going mad?—
This letter dispatched, the unhappy man threw himself on a couch, and slept so profoundly and heavily that when Mrs. Crane was retiring for the night it was with difficulty she could arouse him.
"It is late, sir, and getting chilly; you had better go to bed or we shall have you laid up with a cold. I have brought your night-tray, doctor, and I am going to my room."
"Very well," he answered, so sharply that the old woman stared at him in wonder; "go to bed, but I should have been glad if you had let me sleep when nature permitted me. Go, I can manage myself. Stay, you have turned everything upside down, did you see a—"
"What, sir?" inquired Mrs. Crane as he paused.
"A bottle of chloroform I left on my writing-table?"
"No, sir, I saw no bottle, and I put everything just as I found it. There was a picture and a withered rose under the bronze paper-weight, and I put them in the same place."
"Very well," and poor puzzled Mrs. Crane went out grieved at the doctor's abruptness, and wondering what could have upset him so.
When the door had closed behind her Dr. Yorke went to the table and sat down before it. The paper-weight was on his right, and he raised it with a trembling hand. Yes, there was the rosebud, the innocent gift of Myra Balmire, which had bestowed on him the courage to tell her the secret of his heart, and there was the pictured face he had actually stolen from the album of a mutual friend. Fair and innocent as a white dove, pure and lovely as an angel of heaven, she seemed to gaze at him from the paper with pity, with sympathy, but, alas! not with the burning love he had felt for her. Fool as he was to gaze at her semblance so! A physician indeed who would continue to inhale the sweet poison that was destroying him! He lifted the card and the rose and pressed both to his lips, and then drove them down into the embers of the fire with a fierce grasp on the poker, as though he was making an auto da fé of his weakness and his love together.
Inez was much better, at least so she had told them all, and fair Myra went about her little duties like one enchanted by the sweetest of all dreams—a maiden's first pure love. How unconscious was she of the viperous espionage in which she was held all the day, as Inez followed her movements with the large black eyes that could flash an unholy fire and melt with Southern languor at will. An awful suspicion had seized upon the jealous Spanish blood, a suspicion so terrible that her heart nearly stopped when it first occurred to her, and which was strengthened by hints which the fond and proud mother let drop involuntarily, and to which Myra responded most by brightly flushed cheeks.
"I think Myra must be in love," Inez complained crabbedly, as a button of her sister's dress caught accidently in her work and dragged it from her hands. "See what you have done, girl! A whole row ripped!"
"I am so sorry, Inez," replied Myra, with blushing cheeks. "Shall I do the row for you?"
"No, you would only spoil it! Look now, you have pulled out half-a-dozen stitches more!"
"My dear Myra, you must be in love!" Mrs. Balmire said archly.
"Mamma, please don't."
"Be more careful then, dear, or I shall certainly send for Dr. Yorke!"
"Is love a physical complaint, then?" asked Inez, sneeringly, as she kept her eyes grimly on her victim.
"Sometimes. My dear Myra, I am sure you would like to consult Dr. Yorke."
"Mamma, please—please don't," and poor Myra turned hurriedly and left the room.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," cried Mrs. Balmire, as she put away her work hurriedly and rose. "It was cruel of me, but I quite forgot. I must go at once and explain to the poor child."
"Stay a moment to enlighten me a little. Pray, what did you forget? Why is Myra behaving in that ridiculous and mysterious manner? Though she is only a child, she is quite old enough to behave a little better."
This was delivered with such an intolerable air of self-respect, and so determinedly deprecative of her darling's sense and sensibility, that all the mother—ay, and the stepmother—was roused in Mrs. Balmire.
"A child! I wonder what you call a child, Inez? Myra is in her twentieth year, and is quite old enough, and quite beautiful enough, to have won the heart you have vainly coveted."
In her rage at hearing this awful confirmation of her worst fears, Inez forgot the point of Mrs. Balmire's retort that would otherwise have wounded her pride too deeply, and she let her work fall to her lap.
"Do you mean Dr. Yorke?" she cried hoarsely. "Do you hint that a man like Dr. Bender Yorke could be taken by such a girl as Myra?"
"I do mean that, if you are so anxious to know," retorted the now really angry woman. "Dr. Yorke worships Myra as no one will ever worship you, and my darling will be a proud and happy wife before many weeks are over her fair head. You are my husband's daughter, Inez, but take care how you insult my child or me;" and the irritated mother left the room rapidly, little dreaming of the awful future her rash words had opened out before her.
"His wife? Never!" said the dark-looking woman as the door closed behind her stepmother. "My fate is nearer than I thought; but let it come in the form of death, for she shall never be his wife!"
Only a trio gathered that night around the drawing-room fire which the chilliness made acceptable, for Inez's indisposition had returned and she had retired to her own room. Quite innocent of what had occurred between Inez and her mother, Myra repeatedly asked why her sister kept her room and why she had not replied to her repeated knocks.
"She has got one of her awful headaches," the father said. "I was in her room a little ago and she told me she would not appear again tonight. Inez has inherited her poor mother's nervous organization, and there is nothing better for her than perfect quiet."
There was no reply. Indeed, they had all been unusually silent that evening, and it was with a great effort to arouse them that poor Mrs. Balmire spoke. The painful little scene she had enacted with her stepdaughter had left a weight like lead upon her heart, and shake it off fully she could not.
"I think Inez's headache has affected us all," she cried with an affectation of cheerfulness; "we are all so silent. What are you thinking about, dear Myra?"
Myra grew rosy as usual, and lifted her sweet blue eyes to her mother's.
"I can hardly tell, mamma, indeed I cannot," as Mrs. Balmire laughingly shook her head. "Just now as you spoke, indeed, I was thinking how very happy I was, and how strange it was, that I should feel low spirited and queer."
"Low spirited and queer, my love? Are you sure you do not feel ill?" questioned the anxious mother.
"I feel quite well, mamma, quite; only I am low spirited and lonely. Somehow I cannot help thinking as if I was going a long journey, and had forgotten something I wanted to take with me, without being able to discover what it is."
"Have you and Inez been quarrelling, Myra?" Mr. Balmire asked.
"Quarrelling, papa? Oh no!"
"I thought you might have disagreed and got both a little put out, especially as Inez would not admit you."
"We had no disagreement indeed, dear papa, and I shall certainly go and see Inez before I go to bed. Good-night, dear, kind papa. You will come to me soon, mamma?"
"Very soon, my darling," and so, with a parting embrace to her father, the gentle Myra passed from her home hearth for ever.
Mrs. Balmire kept her word and joined the young girl very shortly after she had retired. Myra was reclining in her white bed, with her golden cloud of unbound hair spread around her shoulders, and a little Bible lying on the night stand beside the lamp. She had been reading, and laid the book down as her mother entered.
"I am so glad you have come, dear, for I am very unhappy about Inez. Do you know, mamma, she would not admit me or even say good-night, though I could hear her distinctly walking up and down her room. Why can she be angry with me?"
"I suspect Inez is angry with me, if with any one, dear child, and you know how sad a temper is hers. The truth is, Myra, that I had a few words with Inez to-day myself, but I didn't want to make your dear papa uneasy by telling him anything about it. Make your mind easy, my dear, for all will be well in the morning. Your sister's tempers don't last long."
Don't last long! Oh, unhappy mother, if you could have seen her as you spoke. If you had noted the white face, the clenched hands and teeth, and the fiendish light in that woman's eyes when the sound of your voice reached her in fond blessings and good-nights as you left your darling's door, would your heart have foretold you of the abyss opening so close to the happiness fleeing for ever from Heatherville House? Little did you guess, poor fond woman, that under your roof that awful night was a fiend in human shape, or that over it were waving low and broad the wings of the Shadow of Death.
It was long before Mrs. Balmire slept, for she seemed to have caught Myra's infection of low spirits, and envied the heavy breathings of her less sensitive husband, who slept so soundly by her side; but at last she became unconscious and forgot every trouble for she never knew how long.
She awakened suddenly, or did she dream? There was a wave of cold air, a breath, a movement a something she could not define, and then she saw her darling standing by her bed. Never in life had she seen the sweet face plainer, though there was only the moon struggling through the open Venetians to lighten it. A smile seemed to hover on the girl's pale lips, a low voice to murmur, "Mother darling" in her ear, and then she gazed into vacancy.
"Husband, rouse up!" she called, shaking Mr. Balmire with all her might. "Oh, do waken! Get up instantly, for something awful has happened!"
"Something awful happened? What is it, my dear?" And the startled man sprang from the bed and began to dress himself, for Mrs. Balmire had lighted a lamp to examine every corner of the room.
"I cannot tell you, Jaspar, but it is something terrible! Myra was here by the bedside, and awoke me with such a strange look in her face. Oh, let us hasten and go to her!"
"Myra here? That was impossible, wife, for I have the key of the door, as usual, under my pillow. Get to bed, dear, you have been only dreaming, and just to satisfy you I will go and see that the girls are all right."
"No, no, I must go, too! Open the door quickly, for God's sake! See how I am trembling, Jaspar! Oh, my darling, my darling!"
Wonderful premonition of a mother's love! Who can define or yet deny its existence?
Softly Mr. Balmire pushed inwards the partially open door of Myra's bedroom, and with the lamp in his hand led the way in. Mrs. Balmire stole to the bed where her darling slept, and looked piteously up into her husband's face ere she dared to draw back the curtain and look upon the young face. It was turned towards them, framed in the golden masses of bright hair. It had upon the sweet lips the strange smile the mother had seen on the white mouth by her bedside, and the pale cheeks were yet warm to the loving touch that rested tenderly on them for one fearful second; but there was no breath between the pale-parted lips, and no throbbing heart to keep the veins flowing and the sweet cheek warm, for fair Myra, the lovely and loving, was dead.
"One of the strangest and saddest events that we have had to record for some years took place at Wyranta last night, or rather early this morning, and from the telegraphic report sent us by our own correspondent we are in a position to furnish our readers with the following particulars:—An old resident of Wyranta, Jaspar Balmire, Esq., retired as usual, leaving everything in the house safe to all appearance. Mr. Balmire's family consisted of Mrs. Balmire and two daughters, aged respectively twenty-three and nineteen. Overcome during the night by what seems to have proved almost a supernatural warning, Mrs. Balmire aroused her husband, and they proceeded to the young lady's bedroom to find her dead. The horror and grief of the poor parents may be imagined at the sudden and awful discovery.
"But the worst part of the tragedy has yet to be related, for medical examination has proved that the young lady had died under the influence of chloroform, how or by whom administered there is as yet no evidence to show; but a medical gentleman who resides in the neighborhood has had grave suspicions laid at his door, yet, until an inquiry has taken place, we, in the interests of justice, refrain from remarking upon the causes of these suspicions. The sad event has thrown a deep gloom over the neighborhood, in which the family, and especially the unhappy young lady, was deservedly respected."
That was the first intimation I received of a case with which I, Mark Sinclair, had something to do immediately after, and it was Inspector —, our superior officer, who drew my attention to it.
"I had a letter by the afternoon's mail," he said, "and you had better go up by the night train. It seems there are some odd features connected with the case, but you will get all the particulars from the local men."
Well, I arrived at Wyranta in due course, and a résumé of the information I got from the police there is as follows. The youngest daughter of a solicitor named Balmire had been discovered dead, but yet warm, in her bed at about three o'clock in the morning. She had died from the effects of chloroform, and a phial which had contained the same was found among the bed clothes, which phial was one bearing the name of a local doctor named Yorke. It had come out during the inquiry that Dr. Yorke had been a rejected suitor, and had inquired on the very night of the girl's death for a bottle of chloroform he had left on his table. Dr. Yorke had flown to Heatherville, where the dead girl lay, like a man bereft of his senses, and was not lying in his own house, though in charge of the police, and so seriously ill that Dr. Smythson in town had been telegraphed for.
"Is that all?" I asked.
"Not quite. When Mr. and Mrs. Balmire went to their daughter's room they found the door ajar, though it was usually locked; the front door also was standing open."
"This was found on the floor of the dead girl's room, indeed almost under her bed."
"This" was handed to me, and proved to be a ring of rather peculiar make; it was of colonial gold, and represented a skull at the back in which grinning teeth were simulated by particles of white quartz inserted in the gold. It was a very odd-looking article, and I put it carefully in my pocket.
My arrival had been too late to admit of my doing anything in a professional way, but I was over at Heatherville the first thing in the morning. My interview with the parents of the dead girl was a painful one on both sides, as I had to put many questions that could not but cause them the keenest suffering. Fortunately, Dr. Smythson, who had been sent for on behalf of Dr. Yorke, came in shortly after I did, and we went to see the chamber of death, accompanied by Mr. Balmire.
"How is Dr. Yorke this morning, Smythson?" the lawyer asked.
"Very bad; he is decidedly suffering from brain-fever. You do not believe in his guilt, Balmire?"
"No, no; I cannot understand it at all, but he could never have harmed our darling. O God, help us; she was the very light of our hearts, and only a fiend without fear or hope in the future could have laid one hurtful finger upon her."
"You have been sent up by the Department, Sinclair? Have you heard of, or seen, any clue yet?"
"Only this," I replied, as I produced the skull ring. "It was found in this room, I believe."
"Yes, under the poor child's bed," added Mr. Balmire. With an exclamation of astonishment, the doctor seized and examined the odd ring.
"It is the queerest coincidence!" he exclaimed. "I had a man some three years ago who wore just such a ring; I had to dismiss him, for, though I had no proof, I suspected him of dishonesty. Well, I am almost sure I saw that man at the Star Hotel last night."
"Here in Wyranta?"
"Yes, I knew him as John Slowman, and when I saw him last night I recognized the face, though it was much changed."
"I must go and see after that man," I said, and I went out by the hall toward the front door.
Standing under the verandah, as I passed out, I saw a regal looking woman. Having heard of Miss Balmire's dark beauty, I guessed that I was looking at the sister of the dead girl, and I perhaps looked longer than I should have done. Her figure was magnificent; her dress from head to foot of the deepest black. Her beautiful Spanish-looking features were as white as that of the fair corpse inside the wall against which she leaned and its pallor was only intensified by the black glossy hair and long black lashes that shaded brow and cheeks. When she observed my gaze she returned it haughtily at first and then angrily, as lurid fire flashed from under her brows.
"Who are you," she asked with a rude haughtiness, "and what are you staring at me in that manner for?"
"I am Detective Sinclair," I replied, "and I am looking for traces of your sister's murderer."
Not until afterwards did I account for the awful look that gathered in her face at my reply; the pale face grew actually livid, the blanched lips blue. She tried to speak at first, but then turned away with a gesture of disdain or despair, and I saw her going swiftly down among the shrubbery, as though she fled from a pursuer.
"No wonder the poor thing is out of sorts," I thought; "the fright would have laid most sisters on a sick bed."
I was going out of the gate when Dr. Smythson overtook me and reminded me of a great oversight.
"Hadn't I better go with you? I suppose you are going to make inquiries at the hotel, but do you know whom to inquire for, even by description?"
"No, you are right, I do not!" and we went on, chatting over the terrible affair and its natural sequences.
"It was a cruel deed," he said; "and I cannot believe in the idea of John Slowman committing it. He was unscrupulous to a certain extent, but not a man that any one would dream of as a murderer. Why, there he is!"
"Where?" I cried.
"That man leaning over the log fence, with the branch in his hand."
"Are you sure?"
"Certain; that man is John Slowman, my late servant. Shall I speak to him?"
"Hallo, Slowman, what are you doing in this part of the world?"
"What! Oh, is that you, sir! What am I doing, sir? I am looking for a place."
"I will give you one," I said, coolly, as I held the ring before him; "do you recognize that?"
"It is mine. I—I—lost it," he stammered.
"I'll never believe that you murdered that poor child," the impulsive doctor burst in; "but appearances are against you, and you had better tell anything you may know about if for your own sake."
"Appearances against me!"
"Yes; don't you know that ring was found by the dead girl's bed?"
"My God! I didn't know I had lost it there."
"Stop!" I said, "before you say more. You ought to know that I am a detective, and that I arrest you on suspicion of murder, so it is my duty to warn you against saying anything you do not want repeated against you."
"Not say anything! Good lord, am I to hold my tongue? I have been hanging round here ever since, trying to reason myself that I was not called upon to split on my self for the sake of lagging a devil; but now I must speak! Me kill a woman? No, no; I am bad, but not that way!"
"Speak, then, if you have anything to say. I have warned you."
"Yes, I know. You have arrested me for a murder I never did; but I saw it done, and when I confess that I put myself in your hands."
"Saw it done!"
"Ay; did I not say so? And so may Heaven help me if I am not glad that you are, as it were, compelling me to tell the truth. Let me tell you all about it. Since I left the doctor's service I have been getting on as I could—that is to say, I worked when it paid me to do it, and when it didn't I stole. I came by chance to Wyranta a couple of days ago, and, passing Mr. Balmire's place pretty late, I noticed a window under the verandah wide open. I did not consider a moment, but got over the fence and went through the window into the bedroom—it was that of the poor girl now lying dead at Heatherville. The toilet was decorated prettily and all that, but there was not, as I had hoped, anything worth appropriating, and I was about to go out in search of another window when I heard some one approaching, and made for an old wardrobe that stood opposite the bed. The footstep I had heard was that of a servant who was going round fastening the outside Venetians, and so there I was trapped, and could not escape.
"There is nothing for it now, thinks I, but to wait till they are all asleep, and then I can try for a door; so I hid myself down in a corner as well as I could, and, before I knew how it happened, I was asleep. I had walked a long way, and the place was dark and quiet, and so I slept on until I was roused by voices, and I peeped out, to see one lady talking to another who was in bed; then she went away, and I listened and waited impatiently, for there were yet distant movements in the house, and I most have slept again.
"It was the door opening that once more awoke me, and it did do with such caution that I was frightened. Whoever opened it had come in darkness, but after a pause, in which I could hear the repressed breathings of some one, and soon streaks of light stole through the door of the wardrobe, and I saw a tall woman in a dark dress, with a shaded light in her hand, as she bent over the sleeper and seemed to listen intently; then I thought my time was come, for the woman put the lamp on the floor and came straight to my hiding-place, the door of which she cautiously opened. It might have been through excess of caution that she did not observe me behind the hanging gowns and things, but she did not find what she wanted; for she shut the door again, and in so doing left a bit of the lace trimming of her dress behind her."
"And you know that woman?" the detective questioned, when he reached that point of the story.
"I would know her among a thousand."
"Go on, what did she do next?"
"What did she do next? She did murder! And twenty deaths would not be enough punishment for the cold, cowardly, cruel deed! Yet I am suspected of it because of that ring. I had it in my pocket, and it must have fallen out as I crept in or out of the wardrobe."
"Go on, go on."
"It is soon told now. The heartless she-devil poured some liquid on to a handkerchief and laid it gently over the sleeping girl's month and nostrils. At first I had no idea what the fiend was about, and when I guessed it was too late; besides I would be accused and my word disbelieved, and I would be hung. I was terrified as well as horrified, and to my death I shall never forget that woman's face as she lifted the cloth and poured the rest of the stuff in the bottle over the face and pillow of the dead, or nearly dead, girl. I wonder she did not hear me, for I fled so close behind her that she shut her own door as I passed it and made for the front entrance. I might have saved her! I might even then have taken the dead girl from that fatal room to the reviving night-air, and I will never forgive myself."
"Come with me to that house," I said fiercely, for I was recalling the terror in that woman's face as she almost flew from me down the garden.
"Oh, what horror for the poor parents! It will kill them," cried Dr. Smythson.
"Better death than life, with a murderer sharing life with them," was my retort, and the man, John Slowman, followed us slowly to Heatherville.
There was the saddest of all scenes, in which the despairing mother sat by the head of her child's coffined form, and the poor father vainly tried to impart the resignation he did not feel himself.
"Spare them if you can," the sympathizing doctor begged. "If arrest is necessary, make it without them knowing at such an awful time," and I was only too willing to do so if I could. But where was that demoniac woman? We went in search of her. In her own room a dark, loose robe lay across a chair carelessly; it was trimmed with lace, and Slowman laid his hand upon it.
"That is the dress she had on, and there is the bit of lace torn out of it," he said, taking the piece from his pocket. "I took care of it, for it was all the proof I had, save my own word, and who would take that?"
The torn scrap fitted into the part it had been wrenched from. She was not in the house, and I thought of the garden; perhaps she had remained there. Following the path she had taken, we went down among the flowers and shrubs, and saw a woman in black, with an awful white, dazed-looking face, sitting on a garden chair, with her great staring black eyes turned up the hill toward Dr. Yorke's home. She did not seem to hear our approach, but when I laid my hand on her arm she started and shuddered, and turned her deathlike countenance toward me.
"Is this the woman?" I asked Slowman, and he answered, "That is the woman."
"I arrest you, Inez Balmire, for the murder of your sister." She gazed steadily at me for a second, and then burst into a shriek of maniacal laughter, as she rose to her full height, and clapped her hands like cymbals.
"It is done, and I defy you. Ha, ha! Where is her beauty now? There will be a marriage, but the bridal carriage will be a hearse, and the bridesmaids the undertaker's men. Io triomphe! And I defy you all!"
I can see the dread, terrible face of the madwoman yet, and almost fancy I hear the sound of her ringing hands as she clapped them in her unholy triumph, though she has long since passed from the asylum to the grave.
I met Dr. Smythson not very long ago and asked him if he had lately heard of his friend Balmire. Yes, he had heard. They had removed to another colony, and the strangest affection had sprung up between the solitary couple and the solitary man, Dr. Yorke.
"I saw them a few months ago," he added, "and the trio were like one family, Yorke occupying rooms under the same roof with them, and still attended by his old housekeeper, Mrs. Crane. Oh yes, Slowman is doing well too. That awful case gave him a beneficial fright, and they seem to take a sad pleasure in being attended by the man who saw the last of their living darling."
"Though he was too selfish a coward to save her," I grunted, and he answered me simply—
"Yes, there will always be cowards while the world lasts, and the cowardice of sin must always be the greatest."
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