A Village Ophelia and Other Stories/An African Discovery
"Of course it is very curious; but if you'll pardon me, my dear fellow, you might as well tell me you had found a philosopher's stone."
Still, the rough glass phial, with odd metal bands around its neck, had a fascination for me. I picked it up again, and tilted it idly back and forth in my hand, watching the slimy brown fluid, the color of poppy-juice, slip along its sides.
Hilyard smoked on imperturbably. The color mounted under his bronzed skin up to the light rings of his hair; there was a momentary angry flash in his pale blue eyes, but it was only for an instant.
"Perhaps you would like to try it, since you are so skeptical," he said, grimly.
"Thanks, I have no wish to poison myself, and I have no doubt it is a poison; but what I do doubt is the remarkable qualities you claim for it. How did you come across the vile stuff, anyway?"
Hilyard stretched himself comfortably in his chair, and took his beloved pipe from his handsome mouth. "Oh! well, you know," he said, lazily, "I don't claim to be a Stanley by any means, but I did go a good bit into Africa. I wasn't bent on discovering anything, and I loafed around, and shot big game when there was any to shoot, and I learned some odd things from those devils of witch-doctors, as well as a few on my own account. You remember my old craze for medicine and chemistry?"
"I fell in with a tribe of savages who interested me immensely. The art of torture was brought to a perfection among them that would have made the persecutors of the Inquisition turn green with envy. It was refined torture, such as one would not expect to see save among those who possessed mental powers equal to their cruelty. No decapitations, no stranglings, among these delicate fiends, I can assure you; nor were they satisfied with a day's torment, that should culminate in death. Captives were kept for weeks, frequently for months: the wounds made by one day's torture were dressed at night, and stimulating drink given to keep up the strength, that they might endure for a longer period. It was the custom to deliver prisoners or offenders to the family of the chief or king for the first day's torment; then down through the various nobles, or what corresponded to the aristocracy (and I assure you the class distinctions were as closely drawn as in May-Fair), until, if the unfortunate possessed a fine physique, it was not unusual for almost every family in the tribe to have had a day's amusement with him; and it was considered a point of honor not to actually take life, but rather let it spend itself to the last drop, in agonies undreamed of among what we call the civilized, while to invent some new and horrible form of torture conferred an honor upon the discoverer such as we give men who have made some wonderful advance in art or science.
"'How could I endure such sights?' Oh! well, one gets hardened to anything, you know, and to tell the truth, I was in search of a new sensation, and I found it. I watched with as much fascination as the savages—no, more—for it was new to me and old to them. Oh! come, Lewis, you needn't draw off your chair; and that reproving, Sunday-school expression is rather refreshing from a man who upholds vivisection. I tell you candidly that there is nothing on earth comparable to the fearful, curious combination of pleasure and horror with which one watches torture one is powerless to stop. It is morbid, and probably loathsome. No. It is not morbid, after all; it is natural, and not a diseased state of mind. Have you never seen a sweet little child, with a face like an angel, pull the wings from a butterfly, or half kill a pet animal, and laugh joyfully when it writhed about? I have. The natural man loves bloodshed, and loves to hurt men and creatures. It is bred in the bone with all of us, only, as far as the body is concerned, this love is an almost impotent factor in modern civilization, for we have deified the soul and intellect to such an extent, that it is them we seek to goad and wound, when the lust of cruelty oppresses us, since they have grown to be considered the more important part; and we know, too, that the embittered soul avenges itself upon its own body, so that we strike the subtler blow. What we call teasing, is the most diluted form of the appetite. Well, this is wide of the mark, I suppose. At any rate, my dusky friends, presumably having no sensitive souls to attack, did their very best with their enemies' bodies, and as I was saying, theirs was no mean accomplishment in that line.
"I am not going to wound your susceptibilities by describing some of the functions which I have witnessed under that blazing sun. I will only tell you that during one especial occasion of rejoicing, a feast was given after a victory over a neighboring tribe, when the bound captives were piled together in black, shining heaps, that had a constant vermicular movement, each human pile guarded by a soldier. The chief at whose right hand I sat, being filled with joy, as well as rather too much drink, began boasting to me of the glories of his tribe, of his possessions, of the valor of his warriors, and above all of the great wisdom and learning of his medicine-man, who was beyond all wizards, and upon whom witchcraft was powerless, and who prepared a poison for such of the chief's enemies as it was not expedient to openly destroy; and this poison, he explained to me, was of a secret and mysterious nature, and unknown to any other tribe.
"My curiosity was somewhat aroused, and I questioned him, whereupon he told me that the drug, being tasteless, was given in food or drink, and that the victim was seized with a terrible and immeasurable sadness and depth of despair, in which life appeared too horrible to endure, and which the unfortunate always ended by seizing a weapon of some sort and killing himself; and the chief, being of an inquiring mind, had caused the poison to be administered to a man who was carefully guarded and allowed no weapon.
"'And what did he do?' I queried, for the chief assured me that the drug itself did not produce death, but only caused an irresistible desire for it.
"The chief did not reply in words, but with a meaning smile, pointed to a vein on his black wrist, and set his sharp, pointed teeth against it, in a way that was a reply.
"I was anxious to see for myself, naturally, suspecting some hocus-pocus, so I ventured to be respectfully dubious.
"The chief was in an amiable mood; he bade me visit his tent with my servant at moon-rise, and he would prove that this was no lie, but the truth.
"When we went out, it was about eleven o'clock, and the surrounding jungle was full of the horrible noises of an African night; the wail of the small lemur, that sounds like the death-moan of a child; the more distant roar of the lion in the black depths of the forest, too thick for the moonlight to ever penetrate; the giant trees of the bombax around the encampment, wreathed with llianes and parasitical poison vines that cast fantastic shadows on the ground, white with the perfectly white moonlight of the tropics, that reminds one of the electric light in its purity of ray and the blackness of the shadows that contrast with it.
"Noiselessly my black servant and I proceeded to the chief's enclosure. His slaves permitted us to pass, by his orders, and we found ourselves in his tent, where he sat in grave silence on a pile of skins, the flare of a torch revealing fitfully the ugly face of the medicine-man, crouched with due humility on the earthen floor at his master's feet. After an exchange of compliments, his highness informed me that he had ordered one of his female slaves to be brought, that the poison had already been administered without her knowledge, and he also briefly remarked, as a proof of his clemency, that it was fortunate for her that the white man had doubted the drink, as otherwise she would have been given over to torture, since she had proved unfaithful to her lord, the chief having bestowed her on one of his sentries, whom she had betrayed with a soldier.
"As he spoke sounds were heard outside, and, between two guards, the unfortunate woman was dragged into the tent. It was not lawful for her to address the chief, so she stood, panting, dishevelled, but silent, in the yellow torchlight. Her hair was nearly straight and hung in tangles on her beautiful shoulders; without so much as a girdle for covering, she felt no shame, but only looked about with rolling, terrified eyes, the picture of a snared animal.
"No one spoke. She stood swaying from side to side, her beautiful figure pliant as grass.
"Finally, with a long moan, she threw herself at the chief's feet. He regarded her impassively, and she gathered herself into a sitting posture, rocking to and fro, her head buried in her arms."
"And you made no remonstrance?" I said.
"The poison had already been administered, my dear Lewis," said Hilyard. "And beside, it was in the interest of science. It really seemed a shame to pick out such a beautiful creature; they are so rare in those tribes," he continued, regretfully.
"Well, we sat there, perfectly mute, for about half an hour, I suppose. The chief was almost as impassive as an Englishman. I have seen the Almehs in Cairo, but I have never seen real poetry of motion—mind more completely expressed by matter—than that woman's body translating the anguish she endured; languor turning to deep weariness, weariness to agony, agony to despair. There was not a note in the gamut of mental suffering that she left unstruck—that savage, whom one would not guess possessed a mind. There came a pause. She looked about with a wild, fixed purpose in her eyes; like a panther she leaped on me with her sinuous body, in a second she had snatched the knife from my belt, and had fallen on the earthen floor, her head almost severed from the trunk by the violence of the blow she had struck at her throat with the keen blade. The chief made a sign to the guards who had brought her in (one of whom, by the way, was her deceived husband) to remove the body, and then he inquired, with some satisfaction, if I believed in the drug.
"I was about to leave on the morrow for the coast, and I begged with all humility for the formula, or what answered for it, of the medicine-man, who shook his head decidedly.
"From a corner of the tent he produced a small wicker cage, in the bottom of which lay coiled a snake of a bright orange yellow color, whose very triangular head showed it to be an especially venomous variety of the naja species.
"Muttering a few words and crooning to it after the manner of snake-charmers, it presently became lethargic, and he seized it by the neck and poured a few drops from an earthen bottle down its throat; then he dropped its tawny coils into its cage again, and placed the cage in front of me. Soon the serpent roused. It glided frantically about its cage; like a trail of molten gold was its color. Suddenly it coiled upon itself in a spiral, and stung itself to death!
"After the most profound praise and flattery, and the present of a little glass medicine dropper which I chanced to have with me, and a small quantity of arsenic, which he tested with very satisfactory results, on a dog, he gave me a portion of the drug, but I'm sorry to say I could not prevail on the old scoundrel to give or sell the secret of its composition," concluded Hilyard regretfully, lifting the phial with tenderness. "I've tried to analyze it myself, and I sent it to a celebrated chemist, but the ingredients completely defy classification, and tests seem powerless to determine anything except that they are purely vegetable," he said, shaking the liquid angrily, and then rising to lock it in his cabinet.
I, too, rose with a shudder, half-believing, half-sceptical, yet none the less with a strong distaste for the memory of the story I had just heard. I left Hilyard arranging the shelf of his cabinet, and opening the long French window I walked out on the lawn.
Under the elm I saw Mrs. Mershon, Amy's aunt, with whom we were all staying. Kate Mershon was idly tossing a tennis-ball into the air, and making ineffectual strokes at it with a racquet, and at Mrs. Mershon's feet sat Amy, reading, the golden sunlight resting tenderly on her head, and bringing out the reddish tones of her hair. We were to be married in a month, and she looked so beautiful in the peace and quiet of the waning day, that I wished we two were alone that I might take her in my yearning arms and raise that exquisite colorless face to my lips. She never seemed so lovely as when contrasted with Kate's mature, sensual beauty, dark and rich as the Creole, and completely devoid of that touch of the pure and heavenly without which no woman's face is perfect to me. Amy was brilliant, full of raillery at times, but in the depths of those great clear eyes, like agates, in the candor of that white face, like a tea-rose, one read the beautiful chastity of soul in whose presence passion becomes mixed with a reverence that sanctifies it.
Later that evening, when the drawing-room was gay with light and music, and Kate was singing one of Judie's least objectionable songs, with a verve and grace of gesture that the prima donna herself need not have despised, Amy and I went out on the moonlit lawn, leaving Hilyard leaning over the piano, and Mrs. Mershon sleeping peacefully in a corner. We strolled up and down the gravelled path in a silence more pregnant than words, and I felt my darling's hands clasped on my arm, and heard her gown sweep the little pebbles along the walk.
Something brought to my mind the conversation with Hilyard, and I half thought to repeat it, but the night seemed too peaceful to sully by telling a tale of such horrors, and beside, I fancied Amy disliked Hilyard, although he had been intimate with the family for years, and in fact, he and Amy had almost grown up together; but he had been travelling for three years, and since his return Amy declared that he had grown cynical and hard, and altogether disagreeable, and as I really liked him, although our ideas on most subjects were radically opposed, I thought I would not connect him, in Amy's mind, with an unpleasant story.
I looked down into the delicate face lifted to mine, and pressed a fervent kiss on the cream-white cheek. There was usually, even in her tenderest moments, a certain virginal shrinking from a caress that was an added charm, but to-night she moved closer to my side, and even touched her lips to mine shyly, an occurrence so rare that I trembled with joy, realizing as never before, that this sweet white flower was all my own. I wanted to kiss her again, and with more fervor, upon the mouth, but for her I had the feeling that I could not guard her, this dear blossom of purest whiteness, too jealously. I would no more have permitted myself, during our betrothal, to give her a very ardent caress, the memory of which, however harmless it might seem to the majority of affianced people, might cause her a troubled thought, than I would have permitted a stranger to kiss my sister. Her maiden shyness was a bloom which I did not wish to brush off. I took her hand in my own as we turned to retrace our steps to the house, and stood looking down at her in the wonderful September moonlight. She seemed a vestal virgin, in her long, clinging dress of white wool, with a scarf thrown about her head and throat.
Within, Kate had finished her selections from opera and bouffe, and out into the soft evening drifted her rich contralto in the yearning strains of the "Blumenlied."
"I long to lay in blessing My hands upon thy hair, Praying that God may preserve thee So pure, so bright, so fair!"
I bent over and touched my lips to Amy's forehead reverently. "God keep you, my snow-flower!" I whispered. And then we went silently in together.
The next day was so fine that Mrs. Mershon decided to drive over to the neighboring town in the afternoon for some shopping, and Hilyard, needing some simple chemicals for an experiment, which he hoped to find there at the chemist's, accompanied her. Kate and Amy and I had intended to go to a friend's for tennis, but at luncheon I received a telegram calling me to the city on urgent business. We were only a half hour's trip out, but I thought I might be detained until too late for dinner, so promising to return as early in the evening as possible, I hurried off.
On arriving in New York, I found the affair which had threatened to be a prolix one, only demanded a few minutes' attention from me. I strolled into the Club; there chanced to be no one there whom I cared to see; the city was hot and ill-smelling, and I decided I could not do better than surprise Amy by returning earlier than she expected, and accordingly I took the first train out, walking up from the station.
The little villa looked quite deserted as I approached. I wondered if Amy and Kate had gone to the Waddells' without me. I went to the side door, and hearing voices in the library, I went softly into the back drawing-room, with the foolish, boyish thought that I would walk in suddenly and interrupt an exchange of confidences which I should pretend to have overheard. I do not know what impelled me to play such an antiquated, worn-out trick; however, I was just advancing into the room through the wide-open but curtained doorway, when a chance sentence made me pause, struck as by a blow in the face. Through an interstice, left by an ill-adjusted fold of the portière, I had a glimpse of the room. My betrothed, in one of her favorite white negligées, was stretched on the Turkish divan by the open fireplace, filled now with an enormous bowl of flowers. Her arms were raised above her head, and there was an enigmatic smile on her lips; her face had the sleepy wisdom of the Sphinx. Kate was crouched on the floor by her side, listening eagerly. Now and then she would say: "Oh! how clever you were!" "So he never guessed." "Yes, yes, and then, what did he say then?" urging her on with a feverish greed for details, which my affianced did not disdain to impart lazily, the faint, contemptuous smile always upon the pink lips I had not ventured to kiss with ardor.
I did not know that I was listening, as I stood there, panting for breath, my hand clutched against my throat, lest I should groan in my agony. Phrase by phrase, I heard the whole dreadful story, told, without the shadow of regret or repentance, by the woman in whom I believed as I believed in Heaven, told with cynical laughter instead, and impatient contempt of the innocence, sullied years ago by Hilyard—the friend I trusted and loved. I could draw to-day exactly the pattern of that portière, the curling leaves of dull crimson, the intricate tracery of gold thread.
"And Lewis?" suggested Kate, at length.
Amy rolled her head restlessly on the pillow. The soft golden hair was loosened from its pins, and fell over the slender shoulders. "Oh! well, one must marry, you know," she said, indifferently.
I moved away silently and unnoticed. I went to brush my hair aside from my wet forehead, and noticed, parenthetically, that my hand was soiled with blood, where my nails had bitten the palm. With the death of love and faith in me had come an immense capacity for cunning, concealment and cruelty, the trinity of power that abides in certain beasts. Came also a dull purpose, growing each moment in strength.
I do not remember that I felt a single throe of expiring love, the love that had filled my heart to the brim. An immeasurable nausea of disgust overcame me, to the exclusion of other ideas, a fixed sense that a thing so dangerous in its angelic disguise, so poisonous and loathsome, must not remain on earth; this jest of Satan must be removed lest it contaminate all with whom it came in contact. Yet did there live any being uncontaminated already? Were not all vile, even as she was vile? My brain reeled. Surely to the eyes of any beholder, she was the incarnation of purity! That which animated me was not a personal sense of grievance so much as the inborn, natural desire one feels to exterminate a pest, to crush a reptile, the more dangerous that it crawls through flowers to kill. As I have said, I felt power for strategy, unknown to my nature before, rising in me. Certain ideas were suggested to me, on which I acted with coolness and promptness. I felt like a minister of God's will, charged with destruction. It no longer remained for me to decide what to do: some power dwelling in me impelled me, against which I could not, even if I would, have struggled.
I went to my room, still unobserved, washed my face and hands, and looking in the mirror, saw my face reflected, calm and placid, unmarked by the last half-hour. I descended the stairs, and came in by the porch.
Amy sprang up from the couch as I entered, gaily humming a tune. It chanced to be the song to which we had listened the night before:
"I fain would lay in blessing,"—
She drew her loose tea-gown about her, and tried to gather up the unfastened masses of golden hair, with a charming blush.
"Lewis!" she exclaimed. "Where did you come from? How you frightened me!"
"Well, you see, after all, I was not detained so long, and I thought if I hurried back, we might go to the Waddells'! I heard nothing of you, so I just ran up to get off the city dust concluding you had gone on without me. In fact, I was starting over there, when I thought you might be in here, so I came back—and found you. But it's rather late to go, don't you think?" said I. I had retreated to the window and stood with my back studiously turned, while my betrothed repaired the ravages made in her toilet by her siesta.
"Yes, indeed," said Kate, "It is too late by far, and so hot! Let us be lazy until dinner. Do you want to read to us while we embroider? I know you do!" and going to the book-case, she brought one of Hamerton's books which I had been reading aloud to them the day before.
Amy had quietly disappeared, and came down in an incredibly short time in a fresh, simple gown, with her work in her hand. I read until dinner, or rather until it was time to dress, and then I laid the book aside, and went up-stairs with the rest. Hilyard and Mrs. Mershon might return at any time. I stole downstairs, and into the room devoted to Hilyard's chemical experiments. Fool! I had forgotten to bring a cup or bottle with me. I looked hurriedly around the bare room, and discovering a broken bottle on a shelf, I took the key of the cabinet from its place and unlocked it.
Yes, there in the corner stood the rough glass bottle, with the metal around it. I removed the stopper, and having no idea of the amount necessary to produce the desired result, poured out several tablespoonfuls, filling up the phial from the faucet at the rough sink in one corner of the room. I replaced the phial, locked the cabinet, and concealing the broken bottle in my dressing-gown, lest I should meet one of the servants, I retraced my steps to my own room. I was not wholly credulous of its marvellous properties, although Hilyard was not given to boasting or lying—except to women—but I believed it at least to be a poison, and I believed that it defied analysis, as he said.
I took from my drawer a pocket flask of sherry, and emptying all but a wine glass, I added the drug, first tasting and inhaling it, to make sure it had neither perceptible flavor nor odor. Then I locked the flask in my dressing-case as the dinner-bell rang.
We were a merry party that night. Mrs. Mershon went to sleep as usual in the easy-chair in the corner, but Hilyard was gayer than I had seen him for weeks. A capital mimic, he gave us some of his afternoon's experiences in the little country town, occasionally rousing Mrs. Mershon with a start by saying, "Isn't that so, Aunt?" and she, with a corroborative nod and smile, would doze off again. Cards were suggested, but, mindful of my hand, its palm still empurpled and scarified, I suggested that Kate sing for us instead, and we kept her at the piano until she insisted that Amy should take her place.
Amy was tired, she declared, and indeed, the rose-white face did look paler than its wont, but she went to the piano and sang Gounod's "Ave Maria," and two or three airs from Mozart. She always sang sacred music. Then she sank into a chair, looking utterly fatigued.
"There, Amy," I exclaimed, "I have just the thing for you. I went into Lafitte's to-day to order some claret down, and he insisted on filling a flask with some priceless sherry for me. I'll bring you a glass." Amy protested, "indeed she did not need it, she should be better to-morrow," with a languid glance from those clear eyes; but I ran up to my room, and returned with the flask.
"Just my clumsiness," I said, ruefully looking at the flask, "I uncorked it, to see if it were really all he said, and I've spilled nearly the whole of it."
"Oh! come now, Lewis," laughed Hilyard, "Is that the best story you can invent?"
I laughed too, as I brought a glass, and poured out all that remained. Hilyard, I had managed, should hold the glass, and as I assumed to examine the flask, he carried the wine to Amy. Not that I wished, in case of future inquiries, to implicate him, but I felt a melodramatic desire that he should give his poison to Amy with his own hand: the wish to seethe the kid in its mother's milk.
I watched her slowly drain the glass, without one pang that I had given her death to drink. I experienced an atrocious satisfaction in feeling that no chance whim had deterred her from consuming it all. I took the flask to my room again, saying that I had forgotten a letter from my mother, which I wished Amy to read, as it contained a tender message for her.
As I stood alone in my room a fear overcame me that I had been a credulous fool. Suppose the whole story of the drug were a fabrication, what a farce were this! Who ever heard of a poison with so strange an effect? True, but who had ever heard of chloroform a century ago? Let it go that he was a discoverer, and I the first to profit by it. I would take this ground, at least until it was disproved; time enough then to devise other means.
Amy's room was next to mine; on the other side slept—and soundly, too, I would wager—her aunt. Indeed, our rooms connected by a door, always locked and without a key, of course. By a sudden impulse I took out my bunch of keys. Fortune favored me; an old key, that of my room at College, not only fitted perfectly, but opened it as softly as one could wish, and the door itself never creaked. Locking it again, I went into Amy's room through the hall. A low light was burning. I looked about anxiously. Would she find the necessary means at hand without arousing the household? It must be. Suicide must be quite apparent, and the instrument must be suggested by its presence, without any search.
Among the trinkets in the large tray on her bureau, lay a tiny dagger with a sheath. I remembered the day Hilyard gave it to her. The rainy day when we were all looking over his Eastern curiosities, and she had admired it, and he had insisted on her accepting it. The handle was of carved jade, representing a lizard whose eyes were superb rubies, and a band of uncut rubies ran around the place where the little curved blade began. Ah! that was it! The very stones made one dream of drops of blood. I laid it carelessly on the bureau, at the edge of the tray. If she noticed its displacement, she would think the maid had been looking at it, and the very fact of her picking it up and laying it among her other trinkets would bring it to her thoughts when she awoke, with mind set on death. His poison, his dagger—what fitness! Heaven itself was helping me, and approving my ridding earth of this Lamia whose blood ran evil.
When I gave Amy the letter, she took it languidly, saying she would read it in her room; she was going to bed; the wine had made her drowsy; and the others, too, declaring themselves worn with the great heat of the day, we bade each other good-night, and the house was soon silent.
I undressed on going to my room, since, in case of certain events, it would be to my interest to appear to have just risen from bed, and I even lay down, wrapped in my dressing-gown, and put out my light. I almost wondered that I felt no greater resentment and rage at Hilyard, yet my sense of justice precluded it. As well blame the tree around which the poison vine creeps and clings. I looked deeper than would the world, which doubtless, judging from the surface, would have condemned him rather than her, had all been known. She of the Madonna face and the angel smile, anything but wronged? Never! The world would have acquitted her triumphantly had she committed all the sins of the Borgias. For myself, alas! I had heard her own lips condemn her, when, led by wanton recklessness, or the occult sense of sympathy, she had talked to her cousin this afternoon. Hilyard? Yes, it had chanced to be Hilyard, but she, and not he, was most to blame. Hers was not a sin wept over and expiated by remorse and tears; it was the soul, the essence of being, that was corrupt to the very core in her. Had madness seized me when I listened? I know not. I know I lay calmly and quietly, certain only that it was well she was to die, certain that, if this failed, she must die in another way before night came again, pitying neither her nor myself in the apathy which held me, believing myself only the instrument of some mighty power which was directing me, and against whose will I could not rebel, if I wished.
For some time I could hear my betrothed moving about in her room; then all was quiet, and she had doubtless lain down to sleep. By the moonlight that filled my room I consulted my watch after a little while, feeling that I had lost all sense of time, and found that it was half past twelve, and that we had been upstairs over an hour. I concluded it would hardly be safe to open the door yet; she might not be asleep. For another half hour I lay patiently waiting. My mind was not excited, and I reviewed rather the trifling events of my few hours in the city than what had transpired since.
At last I rose, and in the dead quiet I moved softly to the connecting door. I knew that it was concealed in Amy's room by a heavy portière, and as it opened on my side, I had only to hide myself behind the curtain's folds—as once before on that previous day, alas!—and, unguessed by her, watch her at my ease.
The key moved gently in the lock; the lock yielded; a moment more and I had pulled a tiny fold of the curtain aside, and commanded a full view of the silent room. It was flooded with moonlight, and as light as day. The bed was curtained, after the English fashion, but I fancied I could hear a slight rustle of the coverings, as though one were roused, and stirring restlessly. So light was the room that I could discern the articles on the bureau and dressing-table. A branch of a great elm, which grew at the side of the house, stretched across one window, and its leaves, dancing in the night-breeze, made an ever-changing pattern in shadow on the carpet. Did ever accepted lover keep such a tryst as mine before? And she, just waking from her first sleep behind the delicate white curtains of that bed, her tryst was with death, not with love.
From the grove back of the house came a whip-poor-will's plaintive song, pulsing in a tide of melody on the moonlit air. Was it a moan from the bed, half-coherent and hopeless in cadence? Heaven grant that she waken no one until it is too late, I thought fervently. I heard her step from the bed. Once I would have hidden my eyes as devoutly as the pagan blinded himself lest he should see Artemis, on whom it was desecration to look, but now I hesitated no more to gaze on her than on any other beautiful hateful thing which I should crush. Her loveliness stirred neither my senses nor my compassion; both were forever dead, I knew, to woman. Full in the stream of moonlight she stood, the soft, white folds of her nightdress enveloping her from the throat to the small feet they half hid. Her eyes were wide open, she was awake.
She remained for some moments by the window, meditating, apparently. She talked to herself rapidly and in low undertones. What would I have given to be able to hear all she thus said! Her expression was one of deep mental agony, and I began to feel a growing confidence. How can words express the hideousness of the change of countenance, the indescribable horror and distress of a creature that is being pressed closer and closer toward a yawning gulf of blackness from which there is no escape? How relate the outward signs of an inward terror at which we can but vaguely guess? Would that I could have penetrated to the depths of that soul for one instant to realize completely the bitterness of the dregs it was draining! She advanced to the middle of the room; she stretched out both arms with a gesture of horror and despair. A long, convulsive shudder shook her from head to foot. Her eyes filled with the unearthly fear of one who sees walls closing in on her, of one bound, who sees flames creeping closer and closer. In one instant I could see her pass the line dividing mere mental anguish from insanity; the unmistakable light of madness shone in her glance. With a cry of delight she seized the little dagger. She was rushing down the corridor like the wind. Should I follow her? I hesitated a moment. I heard a long, low cry of mental agony; all the sounds of a house aroused from slumber by some dreadful calamity.
Had she gone to Hilyard's room, to die on his threshold? It was silent once more, except for the exclamations from the different bed-chambers, and the hurrying sounds of footsteps down the corridor. Then I, too, following the rest of the household, entered the room of death. Amy sat curled up on the side of the bed, laughing like a pleased child at the red stream that trickled from Hilyard's breast among the light bed coverings, and dripped slowly to the floor.
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Although I am never gay any more, I am not unhappy, for I am more than satisfied with the effect of Hilyard's African drug. It is true that it did not fulfill with accuracy all that he claimed for it; perhaps I gave an overdose, or too little. If that is the case, he suffered for not having been more exact. He should have mentioned, in telling his little story, the amount necessary. However, as I say, I have no reason to find fault with its results in this case.
In looking over the effects of the deceased for Mrs. Mershon, I concluded that I should probably meet with no occasion to use the little glass phial again, and as the drug seemed to be rather uncertain in its ultimate effect, I decided, after some reflection, to throw it away, and accordingly I emptied it out of the laboratory window on the flower-bed beneath. I half expected to see the rose-bushes wither under it, but it only shone slimily on the leaves for a while, and then was washed off by a timely shower.
My friends have not tormented me with condolences, for as one of them wrote me, the grief that had befallen me was beyond the reach of human consolation. There are few indeed who lose a friend by death, and a betrothed wife by madness, in one terrible night. My fidelity, it is said, is most pathetic, to her who is hopelessly lost to me, for though years have passed by, I am still so devoted to her memory, that no other woman has claimed a moment of my attention. And my sister who is rather sentimental in her expressions, declares that the love I had for Amy drained my nature dry. I think she is possibly right.