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- The Golden Slipper - 30/54 -
seemed to awaken demon instincts within her. When he ventured to hint that his little girl needed a mother's care, her irony bit like corroding acid. He became speechless before it and had not a protest to raise when she declared that the secret he had kept so long and so successfully he must continue to keep to his dying day. That the child he had failed to own in his first wife's lifetime should remain disowned in hers, and if possible be forgotten. She should never give the girl a thought nor acknowledge her in any way.
"She was Fury embodied; but the fury was of that grand order which allures rather than repels. As I felt myself succumbing to its fascination and beheld how he was weakening under it even more perceptibly than myself, I started from my chair, and sought to glide away before I should hear him utter a fatal acquiescence.
"But the movement I made unfortunately drew their attention to me, and after an instant of silent contemplation of my distracted countenance, Frank said, as though he were the elder by the forty years which separated us:
"'You have listened to Mrs. Postlethwaite's wishes. You will respect them of course.'"
That was all. He knew and she knew that I was to be trusted; but neither of them has ever known why.
A month later her child came, and was welcomed as though it were the first to bear his name. It was a boy, and their satisfaction was so great that I looked to see their old affection revive. But it had been cleft at the root, and nothing could restore it to life. They loved the child; I have never seen evidence of greater parental passion than they both displayed, but there their feelings stopped. Towards each other they were cold. They did not even unite in worship of their treasure. They gloated over him and planned for him, but always apart. He was a child in a thousand, and as he developed, the mother especially, nursed all her energies for the purpose of ensuring for him a future commensurate with his talents. Never a very conscientious woman, and alive to the advantages of wealth as demonstrated by the power wielded by her rich brother-in-law, she associated all the boy's prospects with money, great money, such money as Andrew had accumulated, and now had at his disposal for his natural heirs.
"Hence came her great temptation,--a temptation to which she yielded, to the lasting trouble of us all. Of this I must now make confession though it kills me to do so, and will soon kill her. The deeds of the past do not remain buried, however deep we dig their graves, but rise in an awful resurrection when we are old--old--"
Silence. Then a tremulous renewal of his painful speech.
Violet held her breath to listen. Possibly the doctor, hidden in the darkest corner of the room, did so also.
"I never knew how she became acquainted with the terms of her brother-in-law's will. He certainly never confided them to her, and as certainly the lawyer who drew up the document never did. But that she was well aware of its tenor is as positive a fact as that I am the most wretched man alive tonight. Otherwise, why the darksome deed into which she was betrayed when both the brothers lay dying among strangers, of a dreadful accident?"
"I was witness to that deed. I had accompanied her on her hurried ride and was at her side when she entered the inn where the two Postlethwaites lay. I was always at her side in great joy or in great trouble, though she professed no affection for me and gave me but scanty thanks."
"During our ride she had been silent and I had not disturbed that silence. I had much to think of. Should we find him living, or should we find him dead? If dead, would it sever the relations between us two? Would I ever ride with her again?"
"When I was not dwelling on this theme, I was thinking of the parting look she gave her boy; a look which had some strange promise in it. What had that look meant and why did my flesh creep and my mind hover between dread and a fearsome curiosity when I recalled it? Alas! There was reason for all these sensations as I was soon to learn.
We found the inn seething with terror and the facts worse than had been represented in the telegram. Her husband was dying. She had come just in time to witness the end. This they told her before she had taken off her veil. If they had waited--if I had been given a full glimpse of her face--But it was hidden, and I could only judge of the nature of her emotions by the stern way in which she held herself.
"'Take me to him,' was the quiet command, with which she met this disclosure. Then, before any of them could move:
"'And his brother, Mr. Andrew Postlethwaite? Is he fatally injured too?'
"The reply was unequivocal. The doctors were uncertain which of the two would pass away first.
"You must remember that at this time I was ignorant of the rich man's will, and consequently of how the fate of a poor child of whom I had heard only one mention, hung in the balance at that awful moment. But in the breathlessness which seized Mrs. Postlethwaite at this sentence of double death, I realized from my knowledge of her that something more than grief was at prey upon her impenetrable heart, and shuddered to the core of my being when she repeated in that voice which was so terrible because so expressionless:
"'Take me to them.'"
They were lying in one room, her husband nearest the door, the other in a small alcove some ten feet away. Both were unconscious; both were surrounded by groups of frightened attendants who fell back as she approached. A doctor stood at the bed-head of her husband, but as her eye met his he stepped aside with a shake of the head and left the place empty for her.
"The action was significant. I saw that she understood what it meant, and with constricted heart watched her as she bent over the dying man and gazed into his wide-open eyes, already sightless and staring. Calculation was in her look and calculation only; and calculation, or something equally unintelligible, sent her next glance in the direction of his brother. What was in her mind? I could understand her indifference to Frank even at the crisis of his fate, but not the interest she showed in Andrew. It was an absorbing one, altering her whole expression. I no longer knew her for my dear young madam, and the jealousy I had never felt towards Frank rose to frantic resentment in my breast as I beheld what very likely might be a tardy recognition of the other's well-known passion, forced into disclosure by the exigencies of the moment.
"Alarmed by the strength of my feelings, and fearing an equal disclosure on my own part, I sought for a refuge from all eyes and found it in a little balcony opening out at my right. On to this balcony I stepped and found myself face to face with a star- lit heaven. Had I only been content with my isolation and the splendour of the spectacle spread out before me! But no, I must look back upon that bed and the solitary woman standing beside it! I must watch the settling of her body into rigidity as a voice rose from beside the other Postlethwaite saying, 'It is a matter of minutes now,' and then--and then--the slow creeping of her hand to her husband's mouth, the outspreading of her palm across the livid lips--its steady clinging there, smothering the feeble gasps of one already moribund, till the quivering form grew still, and Frank Postlethwaite lay dead before my eyes!
"I saw, and made no outcry, but she did, bringing the doctor back to her side with the startled exclamation:
"'Dead? I thought he had an hour's life left in him, and he has passed before his brother.'
"I thought it hate--the murderous impulse of a woman who sees her enemy at her mercy and can no longer restrain the passion of her long-cherished antagonism; and while something within me rebelled at the act, I could not betray her, though silence made a murderer of me too. I could not. Her spell was upon me as in another instant it was upon everyone else in the room. No suspicion of one so self-repressed in her sadness disturbed the universal sympathy; and encouraged by this blindness of the crowd, I vowed within myself never to reveal her secret. The man was dead, or as good as dead, when she touched him; and now that her hate was expended she would grow gentle and good.
"But I knew the worthlessness of this hope as well as my misconception of her motive, when Frank's child by another wife returned to my memory, and Bella's sin stood exposed."
"But only to myself. I alone knew that the fortune now wholly hers, and in consequence her boy's, had been won by a crime. That if her hand had fallen in comfort on her husband's forehead instead of in pressure on his mouth, he would have outlived his brother long enough to have become owner of his millions; in which case a rightful portion would have been insured to his daughter, now left a penniless waif. The thought made my hair rise, as the proceedings over, I faced her and made my first and last effort to rid my conscience of its new and intolerable burden.
But the woman I had known and loved was no longer before me. The crown had touched her brows, and her charm which had been mainly sexual up to this hour had merged into an intellectual force, with which few men's mentality could cope. Mine yielded at once to it. From the first instant, I knew that a slavery of spirit, as well as of heart, was henceforth to be mine."
She did not wait for me to speak; she had assumed the dictator's attitude at once.
"'I know of what you are thinking,"' said she, 'and it is a subject you may dismiss at once from your mind. Mr. Postlethwaite's child by his first wife is coming to live with us. I have expressed my wishes in this regard to my lawyer, and there is nothing left to be said. You, with your close mouth and dependable nature, are to remain here as before, and occupy the same position towards my boy that you did towards his father. We shall move soon into a larger house, and the nature of our duties
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