« PreviousContinue »
though they were looking in another direction, out of the picture, but not at the spectator. I got up under an uncontrollable impulse, and turned the face to the wall. In doing so, I discovered that on the back of the frame there was pasted one of those . funeral cards' which some people are in the habit of sending to their friends on the occasion of a death in the family. That tủere might be no mistake as to the identity of the · Laura Steel' here mentioned, a miniature photograph was affixed at the top of the card. So Laura Steel was the name of the unprepossessing young lady, and she was dead. All the nameless fascination went out of those singular orbs at the thought, and I felt something like remorse for my fancies about her.
I ought to have begun to feel fatigued by this time; but though I lay back as comfortably as possible in the easy-chair, put my feet on the fender, and stared at the fire, no drooping of the eyelids hinted at an approaching doze. It was no use trying to persuade myself that I wanted to take · forty winks.' The fact was not to be disguised that I was most distressingly wakeful, restless, and listening ; distinctly listening, for I caught myself in the act. It was very plain that nature was revenging itself for my ill-spent day in the abnormal activity of my nervous system. I got up, and going to a book-case in a recess, took down a volume at random. It proved to be a collection of German plays of the sanguinary school : Lessing's Emilia Galotti, Schiller’s Robbers, and others of the same type. This proved a fortunate speculation ; and I soon found myself going through the most harrowing and bloodthirsty scenes with that luxurious sense of suspended attention which is the first phase of an inevitable doze. Emilia was about to stab herself, and I was just nodding my admiration of her courage and virtue, when suddenly I started up broad awake, and let the book fall. I glanced almost involuntarily at the photograph, and saw, or fancied I saw, in the averted glittering eyes the same indefinable expression revived that had struck me so unpleasantly at first. What was it that had startled me? I did not know. Still less could I explain the intensity of a new sensation, possessing me completely, which seemed to hold all my being in the one act of listening.
A house does not need to be old and dilapidated in order to supply plenty of mysterious noises ; indeed, new houses are more prolific in this respect than old ones. I heard any quantity of the usual creaking, straining, and flapping in Laburnum Villa, but nothing to which I felt inclined to give any special significance. After a few minutes, therefore, the acute tension of my nerves began to relax, and I turned once more to my book. Here I met with a disappointment; for I soon became sensible that the horrors of the German dramatist had lost their soporific effect, and, inexplicably enough, were acting as an irritant. I was reading with sharpened senses, and realising what I read. It was another disagreeable surprise to find that the late Miss Steel—or, at least, my idea of her—was getting involved in the scenes, identifying herself with the sanguinary interest as a pervading evil influence. The criminal personages seemed to gleam at me from the page with the snake-like brilliancy of her eyes, and the malignant bitterness of the wicked speeches to come from the same lax unsmiling lips. I threw down the book impatiently, and began to trim the candles; but though I smiled while doing so at the idea of being reduced to candles in this age of gas, I could not help noticing that my hands trembled violently. I was so awkward about my work that I nearly extinguished the light. I poked the fire into a blaze, and set myself resolutely to think.
Some considerable time passed in a vain attempt to resume the mastery of myself; but I gave up the struggle at last, and resigned myself passively to wait and listen. I was sensible of no alarm, or even anxiety; I was simply held down, physically and mentally, and kept quiet. An imperious expectation of something, I did not know what, absorbed every sense and faculty of my being. How long I half sat, half lay thus, I do not know. Nature seemed to stand still ; there was no time, and everything came to a breathless pause.
Then over this dead peace there came stealing a subtle infection of terror. The air was charged with it as with a plague. This horror gathered and thickened, like the darkness before a storm, until it became a palpable oppression. My body was paralysed; only my soul struggled feebly against the threatenings of madness or death.
It came at last. With my quickened senses, I could hear the stir in the air that heralded its approach, as if the atmosphere of Nature recoiled from the awful thing. It was in the room, and I recognised the figure at once, though the face was turned from me: the girl of the portrait with the snake-like eyes. I felt that if those eyes met mine, I should go mad; and yet I was powerless to look away, or move, or cry out. My heart stood still, and life was slipping away from my paralysed grasp. It was kneeling before the drawers in the lower part of the book-case, and appeared to be searching anxiously in one of them. Suddenly it recoiled, and threw its arms wildly above its head. It arose swiftly, and in the instant it stood erect was confronted by another figure, that of an old man. It seemed to read a sentence of condemnation in the face of this second comer, for it sank into a kneeling position, and clasped the other despairingly by the knees. There were savagely-rapid blows rained upon the face of the petitioner, upturned in an agony of entreaty, and a furious thrusting away. With a long wailing scream, it rolled writhing almost at my feet, and the awful eyes glared full into mine. Merciful oblivion came upon me, and I fell into a death-like unconsciousness.
When I revived, it was to find myself in a state of physical prostration as great as if I had just been recovering from a severe illness. The nervous restlessness from which I had suffered in the early part of the night had completely disappeared. It seemed that I had exhausted my powers of endurance, and my capacity for receiving violent mental impressions. I could only lie still and try, in a feeble groping way, to renew my hold upon the familiar every-day life which had become so distant and indistinct. I endeavoured to remember the incidents that had preceded my arrival at the villa ; but I could only do so in a confused wandering style, without sequence or coherency. Mr. Leese the house-agent got mixed up with the cabman, and both receded into some indefinite past, the duration of which it was impossible to calculate. And all the time I was thus trying to rearrange the history of the day, I was sensible of a shadowy horror in the background of my thoughts, which I knew, evade it as I might, I should be obliged to face by and by. That dreadful remembrance, I was conscious, would force itself upon me with returning physical strength, without any effort of mine to rouse it. Let it sleep now, like a coiled serpent; there were hours enough of depression in store in the future to be darkened by its malignant influence. Should I ever forget it? I could not help asking myself, even in my almost imbecile state of prostration. Would it be always, as it was now, a lurking horror, crouching for a spring when its victim was most helpless ?
I must have sat for a long time in this state of mental suspension; for when I gained energy enough to take active note of external things, I found the candles burnt out, and the fire a black mass, with some faint red sparks here and there. My first act of vitality was to seize the brandy-bottle, and take a draught of raw spirit such as would have completely stupefied me under ordinary circumstances. As it was, it produced such an immediate effect, in my weak state, that I could just stagger to the sofa, where I fell into a heavy and dreamless sleep.
It was broad daylight when I wakened again, and found a singular-looking old woman standing by the side of my improvised couch. We stared at each other, with much bewilderment on my side, and apparently much solemn relish on hers, for several minutes. She was the first to break the awkward silence, by remarking in a husky tone, ‘Lor' a-mussy!' Then I sat up, and became aware that I had a very active collection of steam-hammers at work in my head. This indisposed me for conversation, especially with an old woman who seemed to breathe gin, and I lay down again. She wheezed interrogatively, and did not appear to have any intention of going away. I turned towards her, and she repeated the exclamation or observation before quoted. What do you want ?' I asked at last, feeling under an obligation to say something. This simple question confused her so much, that she could only wheeze louder than ever, and rub her hands aimlessly with a very dirty duster. 'I suppose you are the person who takes care of the house ?' I added, with the benevolent design of assisting her comprehension. “Yes, sir; Mrs. Panting, sir, as Mr. Leese allus 'as engaged, me bein', as 'e says, trustworthy, with the 'ighest of characters, as was wrote out most beautiful by Mr. Leese's young man; an' I 'ope, sir, if you've took the 'ouse, as your good lady'll keep me on, sir, bein' easy satisfied, with a pore appetite, through bein' a widow, sir, with a small fambly, as allus did the charin' and washin' for pore Mr. Steel, and giv' the 'ighest satisfaction. I had collapsed at first, under this sudden shower-bath of information ; but the name of Steel roused me, and I determined to extract what information Mrs. Panting possessed about the family. She possessed a great deal, as it proved, and no doubt invented whatever was necessary to fill-up the gaps in her knowledge ; but in its broad outlines the story was probable enough.
Miss Steel's was one of those histories, commonplace in appearance to the outside spectator, the external features of which may be summed - up in a few lines, while an internal analysis would fill volumes. Mrs. Panting's amplified, decorated, and very discursive history may be told in a few words. Laura Steel had conceived a violent and unreasoning passion for a man who was utterly and hopelessly unworthy of the slightest public notice from any woman who valued her reputation. There had been a clandestine correspondence, and a regular series of stolen meetings, before her father discovered the state of affairs. Then came a sickening struggle for supremacy between the father and daughter : she bold, defiant, and reckless; he mad with passionate rage and the bare possibility of social disgrace. There was a short and deceitful truce, but it was only the sullen calm that precedes the fury of the storm. It came to a sudden end one day, for he had been searching among her papers during her absence, and found a certificate of marriage dated about seven months before. There was a terrible scene when she returned home at night ; a scene which even imaginative Mrs. Panting trembled at the mere recollection of. He cast his daughter off with such frightful imprecations as raving demons might have uttered, and swore a horrible oath of hatred even beyond the grave. A few days after, she died in giving birth to a still-born child. The terrible passion of the old man was too much for his enfeebled frame; and he too succumbed soon after to an attack of paralysis, which, though it deprived him of speech, could not quench the hatred that burned in his eyes to the last.
When Mrs. Panting had finished her story, she exhibited as corroborative evidence a manuscript volume, much burned on the outside, which she had picked up from under the grate the morning
after the tragedy. As she could not read, however, she had no idea how irresistible that corroboration was. It was Miss Steel's diary, or at any rate all that was left of it. A more appalling production, for a woman's hand, I never met before, and devoutly hope never to meet again.
How is it that the worst women, if they have the power of expression, are always the most eager to make a morbid analysis of their wickedness on paper ? Let philosophers answer, if they can. Miss Steel's diary was not one of incident; about her personal surroundings she wrote little beyond the facts that her mother had died while she was an infant, and that she had never loved her father. The 'sentiment,' as she considered it, of filial affection was the subject of her most caustic sarcasms. Her father, on the other hand, had reciprocated her indifference most thoroughly, and thus she had grown in a state of complete isolation. An intelligence so acute and observant that it only wanted a touch of human sympathy to produce the fruits of genius, had been perverted by indiscriminate and unwholesome reading into a field for the growth of the wildest and most unhealthy fancies. No question was too high, or too low, or too sacred for the effrontery of her amazing speculations. Themes that mankind have been accustomed to approach with reverent awe were treated with revolting flippancy, as almost unworthy of serious thought. But it was when she had passed under the dominion of a new passion that all the distorted strength of her character was put forth. It was simply raving, with few intervals of lucidity; and I was compelled to give up the task of reading it from sheer inability to bear the painful feeling of mental irritation it produced. I need only add, that I felt it a duty to superintend carefully the process of reducing it by fire to a harmless pile of feathery ashes.
Human nature, even nervous human nature, will bear a great deal, we know; and I must have got over the effects of my night's experience to some extent when I could feel a sort of grim satisfaction in despatching the following telegram to Mrs. Withers at Llanfairfechan : ‘Don't come. Laburnum Villa won't do.'