A Strange Disappearance/Chapter 13
"That was the last time my eyes ever I rested upon my wife. Whither she went or what refuge she gained, I never knew. My father who had received in this scene a great shock, began to fail so rapidly, he demanded my constant care; and though from time to time as I ministered to him and noted with what a yearning persistency he would eye the door and then turn and meet my gaze with a look I could not understand, I caught myself asking whether I had done a deed destined to hang forever about me like a pall; it was not till after his death that the despairing image of the bright young creature to whom I had given my name, returned with any startling distinctness to my mind, or that I allowed myself to ask whether the heavy gloom which I now felt settling upon me was owing to the sense of shame that overpowered me at the remembrance of the past, or to the possible loss I had sustained in the departure of my young unloved bride.
"The announcement at this time of the engagement between Evelyn Blake and the Count De Mirac may have had something to do with this. Though I had never in the most passionate hours of my love for her, lost sight of that side of her nature which demanded as her right the luxury of great wealth; and though in my tacit abandonment of her and secret marriage with another I had certainly lost the right to complain of her actions whatever they might be, this manifest surrendering of herself to the power of wealth and show at the price of all that women are believed to hold dear, was an undoubted blow to my pride and the confidence I had till now unconsciously reposed in her inherent womanliness and affection. That she had but made on a more conspicuous scale, the same sacrifice as myself to the god of Wealth and Position, was in my eyes at that time, no palliation of her conduct. I was a man none too good or exalted at the best; she, a woman, should have been superior to the temptations that overpowered me. That she was not, seemed to drag all womanhood a little nearer the dust; fashionable womanhood I ought to say, for somehow even at that early day her conduct did not seem to affect the vivid image of Luttra standing upon my threshold, shorn of her joy but burning with a devotion I did not comprehend, and saying,
"'I loved you. Ah, and I do yet, my husband, love you so that I leave you. When the day comes--if the day comes--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.'
"Yes, with the fading away of other faces and other forms, that face and that form now began to usurp the chief place in my thoughts. Not to my relief and pleasure. That could scarcely be, remembering all that had occurred; rather to my increasing distress and passionate resentment. I longed to forget I was held by a tie, that known to the world would cause me the bitterest shame. For by this time the true character of her father and brother had been revealed and I found myself bound to the daughter of a convicted criminal.
"But I could not forget her. The look with which she had left me was branded into my consciousness. Night and day it floated before me, till to escape it I resolved to fasten it upon canvas, if by that means I might succeed in eliminating it from my dreams.
"The painting you have seen this night is the result. Born with an artist's touch and insight that under other circumstances might, perhaps, have raised me into the cold dry atmosphere of fame, the execution of this piece of work, presented but few difficulties to my somewhat accustomed hand. Day by day her beauty grew beneath my brush, startling me often with its spiritual force and significance till my mind grew feverish over its work, and I could scarcely refrain from rising at night to give a touch here or there to the floating golden hair or the piercing, tender eyes turned, ah, ever turned upon the inmost citadel of my heart with that look that slew my father before his time and made me, yes me, old in spirit even in the ardent years of my first manhood.
"At last it was finished and she stood before me life-like and real in the very garments and with almost the very aspect of that never to be forgotten moment. Even the roses which in the secret uneasiness of my conscience I had put in her hand on our departure from Troy, as a sort of visible token that I regarded her as my bride, and which through all her interview with my father she had never dropped, blossomed before me on the canvas. Nothing that could give reality to the likeness, was lacking; the vision of my dreams stood embodied in my sight, and I looked for peace. Alas, that picture now became my dream.
"Inserting it behind that of Evelyn which for two years had held its place above my armchair, I turned its face to the wall when I rose in the morning. But at night it beamed ever upon me, becoming as the months passed, the one thing to hold to and muse over when the world grew a little noisy in my ears and the never ceasing conflict of the ages beat a trifle too loudly on heart and brain.
"Meanwhile no word of her, only of her villainous father and brother; no token that she had escaped evil or was removed from want. If I had loved her I could not have succored her, for I did not know where to find her. Her countenance illumined my wall, but her fair young self lay for all I knew sheltered within the darkness and silence of the tomb.
"At length my morbid broodings worked out their natural result. A dull melancholy settled upon me which nothing could break. Even the news that my cousin who had lost her husband a month after marriage, had returned to America with expectation to remain, scarcely caused a ripple in my apathy. Was I sinking into a hypochrondriac? or was my passion for the beautiful brunette dead? I determined to solve the doubt.
"Seeking her where I knew she would be found, I gazed again upon her beauty. It was absolutely nothing to me. A fair young face with high thoughts in every glance floated like sunshine between us and I left the haughty Countess, with the knowledge burned deep into my brain, that the love I had considered slain was alive and demanding, but that the object of it past recall, was my lost young wife.
"Once assured of this, my apathy vanished like mist before a kindled torch. Henceforth the future held a hope, and life a purpose. I would seek my wife throughout the world and bring her back if I found her in prison between the men whose existence was a curse to my pride. But where should I turn my steps? What golden thread had she left in my hand by which to trace her through the labyrinth of this world? I could think of but one, and that was the love which would restrain her from going away from me too far. The Luttra of old would not leave the city where her husband lived. If she was not changed, I ought to be able to find her somewhere within this great Babylon of ours. Wisdom told me to set the police upon her track, but pride bade me try every other means first. So with the feverish energy of one leading a forlorn hope, I began to pace the streets if haply I might see her face shine upon me from the crowd of passers by; a foolish fancy, unproductive of result! I not only failed to see her, but anyone like her.
"In the midst of the despair occasioned by this failure a thought flashed across me or rather a remembrance. One night not long since, being uncommonly restless, I had risen from my bed, dressed me and gone out into the yard back of my house for a little air. It was an unusual thing for me to do but I seemed to be suffocating where I was, and nothing else would satisfy me. As you already surmise, it was the night on which disappeared the sewing girl of which you have so often spoken, but I knew nothing of that, my thoughts were far from my own home and its concerns. You may judge what a state of mind I was in when I tell you that I even thought at one moment while I paused before the gate leading into ---- Street that I saw the face of her with whom my thoughts were ever busy, peering upon me through the bars.
"You tell me that I did see a girl there, and that it was the one who had lived as sewing woman in my house; it may be so, but at the time I considered it a vision of my wife, and the remembrance of it, coming as it did after my repeated failures to encounter her in the street, worked a change in my plans. For regard it as weakness or not, the recollection that the vision I had seen wore the garments of a working-woman rather than a lady, acted upon me like a warning not to search for her any longer among the resorts of the well-dressed, but in the regions of poverty and toil. I therefore took to wanderings such as I have no heart to describe. Nor do I need to, if, as you have informed me, I have been followed.
"The result was almost madness. Though deep in my heart I felt a steadfast trust in the purity of her intentions, the fear of what she might have been driven to by the awful poverty and despair I every day saw seething about me, was like hot steel in brain and heart. Then her father and her brother! To what might they not have forced her, innocent and loving soul though she was! Drinking the dregs of a cup such as I had never considered it possible for me to taste, I got so far as to believe that her eyes would yet flash upon me from beneath some of the tattered shawls I saw sullying the forms of the young girls upon which I hourly stumbled. Yes, and even made a move to see my cousin, if haply I could so win upon her compassion as to gain her consent to shelter the poor creature of my dreams in case the necessity came. But my heart failed me at the sight of her cold face above the splendor she had bought with her charms, and I was saved a humiliation I might never have risen above.
"At last, one day I saw a girl--no, it was not she, but her hair was similar to hers in hue, and the impulse to follow her was irresistible. I did more than that, I spoke to her. I asked her if she could tell me anything of one whose locks were golden red like hers--But I need not tell you what I said nor what she replied with a gentle delicacy that was almost a shock to me as showing from what heights to what depths a woman can fall. Enough that nothing passed between us beyond what I have intimated, and that in all she said she gave me no news of Luttra.
"Next day I started for the rambling old house in Vermont, if haply in the spot where I first saw her, I might come upon some clue to her present whereabouts. But the old inn was deserted, and whatever hope I may have had in that direction, perished with the rest.
"Concerning the contents of that bureau-drawer above, I can say nothing. If, as I scarcely dare to hope, they should prove to have been indeed brought here by the girl who has since disappeared so strangely, who knows but what in those folded garments a clue is given which will lead me at last to the knowledge for which I would now barter all I possess. My wife--But I can mention her name no more till the question that now assails us is set at rest. Mrs. Daniels must--"
But at that moment the door opened and Mrs. Daniels came in.