Elsie Venner/Chapter XXIV

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"Able!" said the old Doctor, one morning, "after you've harnessed Caustic, come into the study a few minutes, will you?"

Abel nodded. He was a man of few words, and he knew that the "will you" did not require an answer, being the true New-England way of rounding the corners of an employer's order,--a tribute to the personal independence of an American citizen.

The hired man came into the study in the course of a few minutes. His face was perfectly still, and he waited to be spoken to; but the Doctor's eye detected a certain meaning in his expression, which looked as if he had something to communicate.

"Well?" said the Doctor.

"He's up to mischief o' some kind, I guess," said Abel. "I jest happened daown by the mansion-haouse last night, 'n' he come aout o' the gate on that queer-lookin' creator' o' his. I watched him, 'n' he rid, very slow, all raoun' by the Institoot, 'n' acted as ef he was spyin' abaout. He looks to me like a man that's calc'latin' to do some kind of ill-turn to somebody. I should n't like to have him raoun' me, 'f there wa'n't a pitchfork or an eel-spear or some sech weep'n within reach. He may be all right; but I don't like his looks, 'n' I don't see what he's lurkin' raoun' the Institoot for, after folks is abed."

"Have you watched him pretty close for the last few days?" said the Doctor.

"W'll, yes,--I've had my eye on him consid'ble o' the time. I haf to be pooty shy abaout it, or he'll find aout th't I'm on his tracks. I don' want him to get a spite ag'inst me, 'f I c'n help it; he looks to me like one o' them kind that kerries what they call slung-shot, 'n' hits ye on the side o' th' head with 'em so suddin y' never know what hurts ye."

"Why," said the Doctor, sharply,--"have you ever seen him with any such weapon about him?"

"W'll, no,--I caan't say that I hev," Abel answered. "On'y he looks kin' o' dangerous. Maybe he's all jest 'z he ought to be,--I caan't say that he a'n't,--but he's aout late nights, 'n' lurkin' raonn' jest 'z ef he was spyin' somebody, 'n' somehaow I caan't help mistrustin' them Portagee-lookin' fellahs. I caan't keep the run o' this chap all the time; but I've a notion that old black woman daown 't the mansion-haouse knows 'z much abaout him 'z anybody."

The Doctor paused a moment, after hearing this report from his private detective, and then got into his chaise, and turned Caustic's head in the direction of the Dudley mansion. He had been suspicious of Dick from the first. He did not like his mixed blood, nor his looks, nor his ways. He had formed a conjecture about his projects early. He had made a shrewd guess as to the probable jealousy Dick would feel of the schoolmaster, had found out something of his movements, and had cautioned Mr. Bernard,--as we have seen. He felt an interest in the young man,--a student of his own profession, an intelligent and ingenuously unsuspecting young fellow, who had been thrown by accident into the companionship or the neighborhood of two persons, one of whom he knew to be dangerous, and the other he believed instinctively might be capable of crime.

The Doctor rode down to the Dudley mansion solely for the sake of seeing old Sophy. He was lucky enough to find her alone in her kitchen. He began taking with her as a physician; he wanted to know how her rheumatism had been. The shrewd old woman saw through all that with her little beady black eyes. It was something quite different he had come for, and old Sophy answered very briefly for her aches and ails.

"Old folks' bones a'n't like young folks'," she said. "It's the Lord's doin's, 'n' 't a'n't much matter. I sha'n' be long roan' this kitchen. It's the young Missis, Doctor,--it 's our Elsie,--it 's the baby, as we use' t' call her,--don' you remember, Doctor? Seventeen year ago, 'n' her poor mother cryin' for her,--'Where is she? where is she? Let me see her! '--'n' how I run up-stairs,--I could run then,--'n' got the coral necklace 'n' put it round her little neck, 'n' then showed her to her mother,--'n' how her mother looked at her, 'n' looked, 'n' then put out her poor thin fingers 'n' lifted the necklace,--'n' fell right back on her piller, as white as though she was laid out to bury?"

The Doctor answered her by silence and a look of grave assent. He had never chosen to let old Sophy dwell upon these matters, for obvious reasons. The girl must not grow up haunted by perpetual fears and prophecies, if it were possible to prevent it.

"Well, how has Elsie seemed of late?" he said, after this brief pause.

The old woman shook her head. Then she looked up at the Doctor so steadily and searchingly that the diamond eyes of Elsie herself could hardly have pierced more deeply.

The Doctor raised his head, by his habitual movement, and met the old woman's look with his own calm and scrutinizing gaze, sharpened by the glasses through which he now saw her.

Sophy spoke presently in an awed tone, as if telling a vision.

"We shall be havin' trouble before long. The' 's somethin' comin' from the Lord. I've had dreams, Doctor. It's many a year I've been a-dreamin', but now they're comin' over 'n' over the same thing. Three times I've dreamed one thing, Doctor,--one thing!"

"And what was that?" the Doctor said, with that shade of curiosity in his tone which a metaphysician would probably say is an index of a certain tendency to belief in the superstition to which the question refers.

"I ca'n' jestly tell y' what it was, Doctor," the old woman answered, as if bewildered and trying to clear up her recollections; "but it was somethin' fearful, with a great noise 'n' a great cryin' o' people,--like the Las' Day, Doctor! The Lord have mercy on my poor chil', 'n' take care of her, if anything happens! But I's feared she'll never live to see the Las' Day, 'f 't don' come pooty quick."

Poor Sophy, only the third generation from cannibalism, was, not unnaturally, somewhat confused in her theological notions. Some of the Second-Advent preachers had been about, and circulated their predictions among the kitchen--population of Rockland. This was the way in which it happened that she mingled her fears in such a strange manner with their doctrines.

The Doctor answered solemnly, that of the day and hour we knew not, but it became us to be always ready.--"Is there anything going on in the household different from common?"

Old Sophy's wrinkled face looked as full of life and intelligence, when she turned it full upon the Doctor, as if she had slipped off her infirmities and years like an outer garment. All those fine instincts of observation which came straight to her from her savage grandfather looked out of her little eyes. She had a kind of faith that the Doctor was a mighty conjurer, who, if he would, could bewitch any of them. She had relieved her feelings by her long talk with the minister, but the Doctor was the immediate adviser of the family, and had watched them through all their troubles. Perhaps he could tell them what to do. She had but one real object of affection in the world,--this child that she had tended from infancy to womanhood. Troubles were gathering thick round her; how soon they would break upon her, and blight or destroy her, no one could tell; but there was nothing in all the catalogue of terrors which might not come upon the household at any moment. Her own wits had sharpened themselves in keeping watch by day and night, and her face had forgotten its age in the excitement which gave life to its features.

"Doctor," old Sophy said, "there's strange things goin' on here by night and by day. I don' like that man,--that Dick,--I never liked him. He giv' me some o' these things I' got on; I take 'em 'cos I know it make him mad, if I no take 'em; I wear 'em, so that he need n' feel as if I did n' like him; but, Doctor, I hate him,--jes' as much as a member of the church has the Lord's leave to hate anybody."

Her eyes sparkled with the old savage light, as if her ill-will to Mr. Richard Veneer might perhaps go a little farther than the Christian limit she had assigned. But remember that her grandfather was in the habit of inviting his friends to dine with him upon the last enemy he had bagged, and that her grandmother's teeth were filed down to points, so that they were as sharp as a shark's.

"What is that you have seen about Mr. Richard Veneer that gives you such a spite against him, Sophy?" asked the Doctor.

"What I' seen 'bout Dick Veneer?" she replied, fiercely. "I'll tell y' what I' seen. Dick wan's to marry our Elsie,--that 's what he wan's; 'n' he don' love her, Doctor,--he hates her, Doctor, as bad as I hate him! He wan's to marry our Elsie, In' live here in the big house, 'n' have nothin' to do but jes' lay still 'n' watch Massa Venner 'n' see how long 't Ill take him to die, 'n' 'f he don' die fas' 'puff, help him some way t' die fasser!--Come close up t' me, Doctor! I wan' t' tell you somethin' I tol' th' minister t' other day. Th' minister, he come down 'n' prayed 'n' talked good,--he's a good man, that Doctor Honeywood, 'n' I tol' him all 'bout our Elsie, but he did n' tell nobody what to do to stop all what I' been dreamin' about happenin'. Come close up to me, Doctor!"

The Doctor drew his chair close up to that of the old woman.

"Doctor, nobody mus'n' never marry our Elsie 's longs she lives! Nobody mus' n' never live with Elsie but ol Sophy; 'n' ol Sophy won't never die 's long 's Elsie 's alive to be took care of. But I's feared, Doctor, I's greatly feared Elsie wan' to marry somebody. The' 's a young gen'l'm'n up at that school where she go,--so some of 'em tells me, 'n' she loves t' see him 'n' talk wi' him, 'n' she talks about him when she 's asleep sometimes. She mus 'n' never marry nobody, Doctor! If she do, he die, certain!"

"If she has a fancy for the young man up at the school there," the Doctor said, "I shouldn't think there would be much danger from Dick."

"Doctor, nobody know nothin' 'bout Elsie but of Sophy. She no like any other creator' th't ever drawed the bref o' life. If she ca'n' marry one man 'cos she love him, she marry another man 'cos she hate him."

"Marry a man because she hates him, Sophy? No woman ever did such a thing as that, or ever will do it."

"Who tol' you Elsie was a woman, Doctor?" said old Sophy, with a flash of strange intelligence in her eyes.

The Doctor's face showed that he was startled. The old woman could not know much about Elsie that he did not know; but what strange superstition had got into her head, he was puzzled to guess. He had better follow Sophy's lead and find out what she meant.

"I should call Elsie a woman, and a very handsome one," he said. "You don't mean that she has any mark about her, except--you know--under the necklace?"

The old woman resented the thought of any deformity about her darling.

"I did n' say she had nothin'--but jes' that--you know. My beauty have anything ugly? She's the beautifullest-shaped lady that ever had a shinin' silk gown drawed over her shoulders. On'y she a'n't like no other woman in none of her ways. She don't cry 'n' laugh like other women. An' she ha'n' got the same kind o' feelin's as other women.--Do you know that young gen'l'm'n up at the school, Doctor?"

"Yes, Sophy, I've met him sometimes. He's a very nice sort of young man, handsome, too, and I don't much wonder Elsie takes to him. Tell me, Sophy, what do you think would happen, if he should chance to fall in love with Elsie, and she with him, and he should marry her?"

"Put your ear close to my lips, Doctor, dear!" She whispered a little to the Doctor, then added aloud, "He die,--that's all."

"But surely, Sophy, you a'n't afraid to have Dick marry her, if she would have him for any reason, are you? He can take care of himself, if anybody can."

"Doctor!" Sophy answered, "nobody can take care of hisself that live wi' Elsie! Nobody never in all this worl' mus' live wi' Elsie but of Sophy, I tell you. You don' think I care for Dick? What do I care, if Dick Venner die? He wan's to marry our Elsie so 's to live in the big house 'n' get all the money 'n' all the silver things 'n' all the chists full o' linen 'n' beautiful clothes. That's what Dick wan's. An' he hates Elsie 'cos she don' like him. But if he marry Elsie, she 'll make him die some wrong way or other, 'n' they'll take her 'n' hang her, or he'll get mad with her 'n' choke her.--Oh, I know his chokin' tricks!--he don' leave his keys roun' for nothin.'"

"What's that you say, Sophy? Tell me what you mean by all that."

So poor Sophy had to explain certain facts not in all respects to her credit. She had taken the opportunity of his absence to look about his chamber, and, having found a key in one of his drawers, had applied it to a trunk, and, finding that it opened the trunk, had made a kind of inspection for contraband articles, and, seeing the end of a leather thong, had followed it up until she saw that it finished with a noose, which, from certain appearances, she inferred to have seen service of at least doubtful nature. An unauthorized search; but old Sophy considered that a game of life and death was going on in the household, and that she was bound to look out for her darling.

The Doctor paused a moment to think over this odd piece of information. Without sharing Sophy's belief as to the kind of use this mischievous-looking piece of property had been put to, it was certainly very odd that Dick should have such a thing at the bottom of his trunk. The Doctor remembered reading or hearing something about the lasso and the lariat and the bolas, and had an indistinct idea that they had been sometimes used as weapons of warfare or private revenge; but they were essentially a huntsman's implements, after all, and it was not very strange that this young man had brought one of them with him. Not strange, perhaps, but worth noting.

"Do you really think Dick means mischief to anybody, that he has such dangerous-looking things?" the Doctor said, presently.

"I tell you, Doctor. Dick means to have Elsie. If he ca'n' get her, he never let nobody else have her! Oh, Dick 's a dark man, Doctor! I know him! I 'member him when he was little boy,--he always cunin'. I think he mean mischief to somebody. He come home late nights,--come in softly,--oh, I hear him! I lay awake, 'n' got sharp ears,--I hear the cats walkin' over the roofs,--'n' I hear Dick Veneer, when he comes up in his stockin'-feet as still as a cat. I think he mean' mischief to somebody. I no like his looks these las' days.--Is that a very pooty gen'l'm'n up at the schoolhouse, Doctor?"

"I told you he was good-looking. What if he is?"

"I should like to see him, Doctor,--I should like to see the pooty gen'l'm'n that my poor Elsie loves. She mus 'n' never marry nobody, --but, oh, Doctor, I should like to see him, 'n' jes' think a little how it would ha' been, if the Lord had n' been so hard on Elsie."

She wept and wrung her hands. The kind Doctor was touched, and left her a moment to her thoughts.

"And how does Mr. Dudley Veneer take all this?" he said, by way of changing the subject a little.

"Oh, Massa Veneer, he good man, but he don' know nothin' 'bout Elsie, as of Sophy do. I keep close by her; I help her when she go to bed, 'n' set by her sometime when she--'sleep; I come to her in th' mornin' 'n' help her put on her things."--Then, in a whisper;--"Doctor, Elsie lets of Sophy take off that necklace for her. What you think she do, 'f anybody else tech it?"

"I don't know, I'm sure, Sophy,--strike the person, perhaps."

"Oh, yes, strike 'em! but not with her han's, Doctor!"--The old woman's significant pantomime must be guessed at.

"But you haven't told me, Sophy, what Mr. Dudley Veneer thinks of his nephew, nor whether he has any notion that Dick wants to marry Elsie."

"I tell you. Massa Venner, he good man, but he no see nothin' 'bout what goes on here in the house. He sort o' broken-hearted, you know,--sort o' giv up,--don' know what to do wi' Elsie, 'xcep' say 'Yes, yes.' Dick always look smilin' 'n' behave well before him. One time I thought Massa Veneer b'lieve Dick was goin' to take to Elsie; but now he don' seem to take much notice,--he kin' o' stupid-' like 'bout sech things. It's trouble, Doctor; 'cos Massa Veneer bright man naterally,--'n' he's got a great heap o' books. I don' think Massa Veneer never been jes' heself sence Elsie 's born. He done all he know how,--but, Doctor, that wa'n' a great deal. You men-folks don' know nothin' 'bout these young gals; 'n' 'f you knowed all the young gals that ever lived, y' would n' know nothin' 'bout our Elsie."

"No,--but, Sophy, what I want to know is, whether you think Mr. Veneer has any kind of suspicion about his nephew,--whether he has any notion that he's a dangerous sort of fellow,--or whether he feels safe to have him about, or has even taken a sort of fancy to him."

"Lar' bless you, Doctor, Massa Veneer no more idee 'f any mischief 'bout Dick than he has 'bout you or me. Y' see, he very fond o' the Cap'n,--that Dick's father,--'n' he live so long alone here, 'long wi' us, that he kin' o' like to see mos' anybody 't 's got any o' th' of family-blood in 'em. He ha'n't got no more suspicions 'n a baby,--y' never see sech a man 'n y'r life. I kin' o' think he don' care for nothin' in this world 'xcep' jes' t' do what Elsie wan's him to. The fus' year after young Madam die he do nothin' but jes' set at the window 'n' look out at her grave, 'n' then come up 'n' look at the baby's neck 'n' say, 'It's fadin', Sophy, a'n't it? 'n' then go down in the study 'n' walk 'n' walk, 'n' them kneel down 'n' pray. Doctor, there was two places in the old carpet that was all threadbare, where his knees had worn 'em. An' sometimes, you remember 'bout all that,--he'd go off up into The Mountain, 'n' be gone all day, 'n' kill all the Ugly Things he could find up there.--Oh, Doctor, I don' like to think o' them days!--An' by 'n' by he grew kin' o' still, 'n' begun to read a little, 'n' 't las' he got 's quiet's a lamb, 'n' that's the way he is now. I think he's got religion, Doctor; but he a'n't so bright about what's goin' on, 'n' I don' believe he never suspec' nothin' till somethin' happens; for the' 's somethin' goin' to happen, Doctor, if the Las' Day does n' come to stop it; 'n' you mus' tell us what to do, 'n' save my poor Elsie, my baby that the Lord has n' took care of like all his other childer."

The Doctor assured the old woman that he was thinking a great deal about them all, and that there were other eyes on Dick besides her own. Let her watch him closely about the house, and he would keep a look-out elsewhere. If there was anything new, she must let him know at once. Send up one of the menservants, and he would come down at a moment's warning.

There was really nothing definite against this young man; but the Doctor was sure that he was meditating some evil design or other. He rode straight up to the Institute. There he saw Mr. Bernard, and had a brief conversation with him, principally on matters relating to his personal interests.

That evening, for some unknown reason, Mr. Bernard changed the place of his desk and drew down the shades of his windows. Late that night Mr. Richard Venner drew the charge of a rifle, and put the gun back among the fowling-pieces, swearing that a leather halter was worth a dozen of it.