Chapter 25




"WHO WILL TELL THE MAN INSIDE THERE


Later I saw this letter. It was like no other that has ever come under my eye. Written at intervals, as her hand had power or her misery found words, it bore on its face all the evidences of that restless, suffering spirit which for thirty-six hours drove her in frenzy about her room, and caused Loretta to say, in her effort to describe her mistress' face as it appeared to her at the end of this awful time: "It was as if a blight had passed over it. Once gay and animated beyond the power of any one to describe, it had become a ghost's face, with the glare of some awful resolve upon it." I give this letter just as it was written-disjointed paragraphs, broken sentences, unfinished words and all. The breaks show where she laid down her pen, possibly for that wild pacing of the floor which left such unmistakable signs behind it. It opens abruptly:

"I killed him. I am all that I said I was, and you can never again give me a thought save in the way of cursing and to bewail the day I came into your life. But you can not hate me more than I hate myself, my wicked self, who, seeing an obstacle in the way to happiness, stamped it out of existence, and so forfeited all right to happiness forever.

"It was so easy! Had it been a hard thing to do; had it been necessary to lay hand on knife or lift a pistol, I might have realized the act and paused. But just a little spring which a child's hand could manage--Who, feeling for it, could help pressing it, if only to see -

"I was always a reckless girl, mad for pleasure and without any thought of consequences. When school bored me, I took all my books out of my desk, called upon my mates to do the same, and, stacking them up into a sort of rostrum in a field where we played, first delivered an oration from them in which reverence for my teachers had small part, then tore them into pieces and burned them in full sight of my admiring school-fellows. I was dismissed, but not with disgrace. Teachers and scholars bewailed my departure, not because they liked me, or because of any good they had found in me, but because my money had thrown luster on them and on the whole establishment.

This was when I was twelve, and it was on account of this reckless escapade that I was sent west and kept so long from home and all my flatterers. My guardian meant well by this, but in saving me from one pitfall he plunged me into another. I grew up without Cora and also without any idea of the requirements of my position or what I might anticipate from the world when the time came for me to enter it. I knew that I had money; so did those about me; but I had little or no idea of the amount, nor what that money would do for me when I returned to Washington. So, in an evil day, and when I was just eighteen, I fell in love, or thought I did, with a man --(Oh, Francis, imagine it, now that I have seen you!)--of sufficient attraction to satisfy one whose prospects were limited to a contracted existence in some small town, but no more fitted to content me after seeing Washington life than if he had been a common farm hand or the most ordinary of clerks in a country store. But I was young, ignorant and self-willed, and thought because my cheek burned under his look that he was the man of men, and suited to be my husband. That is, if I thought at all, which is not likely; for I was in a feverish whirl, and just followed the impulse of the moment, which was to be with him whenever I could without attracting the teacher's attention. And this, alas! was only too often, for he was the brother of one of our storekeepers, a visitor in Owosso, and often in the store where we girls went. Why the teachers did not notice how often we needed things there, I do not know. But they did not, and matters went on and -

"I can not write of those days, and you do not want to hear about them. They seem impossible to me now, and almost as if it had all happened to some one else, so completely have I forgotten the man except as the source and cause of an immeasurable horror. Yet he was not bad himself; only ordinary and humdrum. Indeed, I believe he was very good in ways, or so his brother once assured me. We would not have been married in the way we were if he had not wanted to go to the Klondike for the purpose of making money and making it quickly, so that his means might match mine.

"I do not know which of us two was most to blame for that marriage. He urged it because he was going so far away and wanted to be sure of me. I accepted it because it seemed to be romantic and because it pleased me to have my own way in spite of my hard old guardian and the teachers, who were always prying about, and the girls, who went silly over him--for he was really handsome in his way--and who thought, (at least many of them did,) that he cared for them when he cared only for me.

"I have hated black eyes for a year. He had black eyes.

"I forgot Cora, or, rather, I did not let any remembrance of her hinder me. She was a very shadowy person to me in those days. I had not seen her since we were both children, and as for her letters--they were almost a bore to me; she lived such a different life from mine and wrote of so many things I had no interest in. On my knees I ask her pardon now. I never understood her. I never understood myself. I was light as thistledown and blown by every breeze. There came a gust one day which blew me into the mouth of hell. I am hovering there yet and am sinking, Francis, sinking--Save me! I love you--I--I -

"It was all planned by him--I have no head for such things. Sadie helped him--Sadie was my friend--but Sadie had not much to say about it, for he seemed to know just how to arrange it all so that no one at the seminary should know or even suspect what had occurred till we got ready to tell them. He did not even take his brother into his confidence, for Wallace kept store and gossiped very much with his customers. Besides, he was very busy just then selling out, for he was going to the Klondike with William, and he had too much on his mind to be bothered, or so William said. All this I must tell you or you will never understand the temptation which assailed me when, having returned to Washington, I awoke to my own position and the kind of men whom I could now hope to meet. I was the wife--oh, the folly of it --but this was known to so few, and those were so far removed, and one even--my friend Sadie--being dead-- Why not ignore the miserable secret ceremony and cheat myself into believing myself free, and enjoy this world of pleasure and fashion as Cora was enjoying it and--trust. Trust what? Why the Klondike! That swallower-up of men. Why shouldn't it swallow one more-- Oh, I know that it sounds hateful. But I was desperate; I had seen you.

"I had one letter from him after he reached Alaska, but that was before I left Owosso. I never got another. And I never wrote to him. He told me not to do so until he could send me word how and where to write; but when these directions came my heart had changed and my only wish was to forget his existence. And I did forget it --almost. I rode and danced with you and went hither and yon, lavishing money and time and heart on the frivolities which came in my way, calling myself Veronica and striving by these means to crush out every remembrance of the days when I was known as Antoinette and Antoinette only. For the Klondike was far and its weather bitter, and men were dying there every day, and no letters came (I used to thank God for this), and I need not think--not yet--whither I was tending. One thing only made me recall my real position. That was when your eyes turned on mine--your true eyes, so bright with confidence and pride. I wanted to meet them full, and when I could not, I suddenly knew why, and suffered.

"Do you remember the night when we stood together on the balcony at the Ocean View House and you laid your hand on my arm and wondered why I persisted in looking at the moon instead of into your expectant face? It was because the music then being played within recalled another night and the pressure of another hand on my arm--a hand whose touch I hoped never to feel again, but which at that moment was so much more palpable than yours that I came near screaming aloud and telling you in one rush of maddened emotion my whole abominable secret.

"I did not accept your attentions nor agree to marry you, without a struggle. You know that. You can tell, as no one else can, how I held back and asked for time and still for time, thus grieving you and tearing my own breast till a day came--you remember the day when you found me laughing like a mad woman in a circle of astonished friends? You drew me aside and said words which I hardly waited for you to finish, for at last I was free to love you, free to love and free to say so. The morning paper had brought news. A telegraphic despatch from Seattle told how a man had struggled into Nome, frozen, bleeding and without accouterments or companion. It was with difficulty he had kept his feet and turned in at the first tent he came to. Indeed, he had only time to speak his name before he fell dead. This name was what made this despatch important to me. It was William Pfeiffer. For me there was but one William Pfeiffer in the Klondike--my husband--and he was dead! That was why you found me laughing. But not in mirth. I am not so bad as that; but because I could breathe again without feeling a clutch about my throat. I did not know till then how nearly I had been stifled.

"We were not long in marrying after that. I was terrified at delay, not because I feared any contradiction of the report which had given this glorious release, but because I dreaded lest some hint of my early folly should reach you and dim the pride with which you regarded me. I wanted to feel myself yours so closely and so dearly that you would not mind if any one told you that I had once cared, or thought I had cared, for another. The week of our marriage came; I was mad with gaiety and ecstatic with hope. Nothing had occurred to mar my prospects. No letter from Denver--no memento from the Klondike, no word even from Wallace, who had gone north with his brother. Soon I should be called wife again, but by lips I loved, and to whose language my heart thrilled. The past, always vague, would soon be no more than a forgotten dream--an episode quite closed. I could afford from this moment on to view life like other girls and rejoice in my youth and the love which every day was becoming more and more to me.

"But God had His eye upon me, and in the midst of my happiness and the hurry of our final preparations His bolt fell. It struck me while I was at the--don't laugh; rather shudder--at the dressmaker's shop in Fourteenth Street. I was leaning over a table, chattering like a magpie over the way I wanted a gown trimmed, when my eye fell on a scrap of newspaper in which something had come rolled to madame. It was torn at the edge, but on the bit lying under my eyes I saw my husband's name, William Pfeiffer, and that the paper was a Denver one. There was but one William Pfeiffer in Denver--and he was my husband. And I read--feeling nothing. Then I read again, and the world, my world, went from under my feet; for the man who had fallen dead in the camp at Nome was Wallace, William's brother, and not William himself. William had been left behind on the road by his more energetic brother, who had pushed on for succor through the worst storm and under the worst conditions possible even in that God-forsaken region. With the lost one in mind, the one word that Wallace uttered in sight of rescue, was William. A hope was expressed of finding the latter alive and a party had started out--Did I read more? I do not think so. Perhaps there was no more to read; here was where the paper was torn across. But it was no matter. I had seen enough. It was Wallace who had fallen dead, and while William might have perished also, and doubtless had, I had no certainty of it. And my wedding day was set for Thursday.

"Why didn't I tell Cora; why didn't I tell you? Pride held my tongue; besides, I had had time to think before I saw either of you, and to reason a bit and to feel sure that if Wallace had been spent enough to fall dead on reaching the camp, William could never have survived on the open road. For Wallace was the stronger of the two and the most hardy every way. Free I certainly was. Some later paper would assure me of this. I would hunt them up and see--but I never did. I do not think I dared. I was afraid I should see some account of his rescue. I was afraid of being made certain of what was now but a possibility, and so I did nothing. But for three nights I did not sleep.

"The caprice which had led me to choose the old Moore house to be married in led me to plan dressing there on my wedding morning. It was early when we started, Cora and I, for Waverley Avenue, but not too early for the approaches to that dreadful house to be crowded with people, eager to see the daring bride. Why I should have shrunk so from that crowd I can not say. I trembled at sight of their faces and at the sound of their voices, and if by chance a head was thrust forward farther than the rest I cowered back instinctively and nearly screamed. Did I dread to recognize a too familiar face? The paper I had seen bore a date six months back. A man could arrive here from Alaska in that time. Or was my conscience aroused at last and clamoring to be heard when it was too late? On the corner of N Street the carriage suddenly stopped. A man had crossed in front of it. I caught one glimpse of this man and instantly the terrors of a lifetime were concentrated into one instant of agonizing fear. It was William Pfeiffer. I knew the look; I knew the gait. He was gone in a moment and the carriage rolled on. But I knew my doom as well that minute as I did an hour later. My husband was alive and he was here. He had escaped the perils of the Klondike and wandered east to reclaim his recreant wife. There had been time for him to do this since the rescue party left home in search of him; time for him to recover, time for him to reach home, time for him to reach the east. He had heard of my wedding; it was in all the papers, and I should find him at the house when I got there, and you would know and Cora would know, and the wedding would stop and my name be made a by-word the world over. Instead of the joy awaiting me a moment since, I should have to go away with him into some wilderness or distant place of exile where my maiden name would never be heard, and all the memories of this year of stolen delights be effaced. Oh, it was horrible! And all in a minute! And Cora sat there, pale, calm and beautiful as an angel, beaming on me with tender eyes whose expression I have never understood! Hell in my heart, --and she, in happy ignorance of this, brooding over my joy and smiling to herself while the soft tears rose!

"You were waiting at the curb when I arrived, and I remember how my heart stood still when you laid your hand on the carriage door and confronted me with that light on your face I had never seen disturbed since we first pledged ourselves to marry. Would he see it, too, and come forward from the secret place where he held himself hidden? Was I destined to behold a struggle in the streets, an unseemly contest of words in sight of the door I had expected to enter so joyously? In terror of such an event, I seized the hand which seemed my one refuge in this hour of mortal trouble, and hastened into the house which, for all its doleful history, had never received within its doors a heart more burdened or rebellious. As this thought rushed over me, I came near crying out, 'The house of doom! The house of doom!' I had thought to brave its terrors and its crimes and it has avenged itself. But instead of that, I pressed your hand with mine and smiled. O God! if you could have seen what lay beneath that smile! For, with my entrance beneath those fatal doors a thought had come. I remembered my heritage. I remembered how I had been told by my father when I was a very little girl,--I presume when he first felt the hand of death upon him,--that if ever I was in great trouble,--very great trouble, he had said, where no deliverance seemed possible--I was to open a little golden ball which he showed me and take out what I should find inside and hold it close up before a picture which had hung from time immemorial in the southwest corner of this old house. He could not tell me what I should encounter there this I remember his saying--but something that would assist me, something which had passed with good effect from father down to child for many generations. Only, if I would be blessed in my undertakings, I must not open the golden ball nor endeavor to find out its mystery unless my trouble threatened death or some great disaster. Such a trouble had indeed come to me, and --startling coincidence--I was at this moment in the very house where this picture hung, and--more startling fact yet--the golden ball needed to interpret its meaning was round my neck--for with such jealousy was this family trinket always guarded by its owner. Why then not test their combined effect? I certainly needed help from some quarter. Never would William allow me to be married to another while he lived. He would yet appear and I should need thus great assistance (great enough to be transmitted from father to son) as none of the Moores had needed it yet; though what it was I did not know and did not even try to guess.

"Yet when I got to the room I did not drag out the filigree ball at once nor even take more than one fearful side-long look at the picture. In drawing off my glove I had seen his ring--the ring you had once asked about. It was such a cheap affair; the only one he could get in that obscure little town where we were married. I lied when you asked me if it was a family jewel; lied but did not take it off, perhaps because it clung so tightly, as if in remembrance of the vows it symbolized. But now the very sight of it gave me a fright. With his ring on my finger I could not defy him and swear his claim to be false the dream of a man maddened by his experiences in the Klondike. It must come off. Then, perhaps, I should feel myself a free woman. But it would not come off. I struggled with it and tugged in vain; then I bethought me of using a nail file to sever it. This I did, grinding and grinding at it till the ring finally broke, and I could wrench it off and cast it away out of sight and, as I hoped, out of my memory also. I breathed easier when rid of this token, yet choked with terror whenever a step approached the door. I was clad in my bridal dress, but not in my bridal veil or ornaments, and naturally Cora, and then my maid, came to assist me. But I would not let them in. I was set upon testing the secret of the filigree ball and so preparing myself for what my conscience told me lay between me and the ceremony arranged for high noon.

"I did not guess that the studying out of that picture would take so long. The contents of the ball turned out to be a small magnifying-glass, and the picture a maze of written words. I did not decipher it all; I did not decipher the half. I did not need to. A spirit of divination was given me in that awful hour which enabled me to grasp its full meaning from the few sentences I did pick out. And that meaning! It was horrible, inconceivable. Murder was taught; but murder from a distance, and by an act too simple to awake revulsion. Were the wraiths of my two ancestors who had played with the spring hidden in the depths of this old closet, drawn up in mockery beside me during the hour when I stood spellbound in the middle of the floor, thinking of what I had just read, and listening--listening for something less loud than the sound of carriages now beginning to roll up in front or the stray notes of the band tuning up below?--less loud, but meaning what? A step into the empty closet yawning so near--an effort with a drawer--a--a-- Do not ask me to recall it. I did not shudder when the moment came and I stood there. Then I was cold as marble. But I shudder now in thinking of it till soul and body seem separating, and the horror which envelopes me gives me such a foretaste of hell that I wonder I can contemplate the deed which, if it releases me from this earthly anguish, will only plunge me into a possibly worse hereafter. Yet I shall surely take my life before you see me again, and in that old house. If it is despair I feel, then despair will take me there. If it is repentance, then repentance will suffice to drive me to the one expiation possible to me--to perish where I caused an innocent man to perish, and so relieve you of a wife who was never worthy of you and whom it would be your duty to denounce if she let another sun rise upon her guilt.

"I did not stand there long between the wraiths of my murderous ancestors. A message was shouted through the door--the message for which my ears had been strained in dreadful anticipation for the last two hours. A man named Pfeiffer wanted to see me before I went down to be married. A man named Pfeiffer!

"I looked closely at the boy who delivered this message. He showed no excitement, nor any feeling greater than impatience at being kept waiting a minute or so at the door. Then I glanced beyond him, at the people chatting in the hall. No alarm there; nothing but a very natural surprise that the bride should keep so big a crowd waiting. I felt that this fixed the event. He who had sent me this quiet message was true to himself and to our old compact. He had not published below what would have set the house in an uproar in a moment. He had left his secret to be breathed into my ear alone. I could recall the moment he passed me his word, and his firm look as he said, with his hand lifted to Heaven 'You have been good to me and given me your precious self while I was poor and a nobody. In return, I swear to keep our marriage a secret till great success shows me to be worthy of you or till you with your own lips express forgiveness of my failure and grant me leave to speak. Nothing but death or your permission shall ever unseal my lips.' When I heard that he was dead I feared lest he might have spoken, but now that I had seen him alive, I knew that in no other breast, save his, my own and that of the unknown minister in an almost unknown town, dwelt any knowledge of the fact which stood between me and the marriage which all these people had come here to see. My confidence in his rectitude determined me. Without conscious emotion, without fear even,--the ending of suspense had ended all that,--I told the boy to seat the gentleman in the library. Then "I am haunted now, I am haunted always, by one vision, horrible but persistent. It will not leave me; it rises between us now; it has stood between us ever since I left that house with the seal of your affection on my lips. Last night it terrified me into unconscious speech. I dreamed that I saw again, and plainly, what I caught but a shadowy glimpse of in that murderous hour: a man's form seated at the end of the old settle, with his head leaning back, in silent contemplation. His face was turned the other way--I thanked God for that--no, I did not thank God; I never thought of God in that moment of my blind feeling about for a chink and a spring in the wall. I thought only of your impatience, and the people waiting, and the pleasure of days to come when, free from this intolerable bond, I could keep my place at your side and bear your name unreproved and taste to the full the awe and delight of a passion such as few women ever feel, because few women were ever loved by a man like you. Had my thoughts been elsewhere, my fingers might have forgotten to fumble along that wall, and I had been simply wretched to-day,--and innocent. Innocent! O, where in God's universe can I be made innocent again and fit to look in your face and to love--heart-breaking thought--even to love you again?

"To turn and turn a miserable crank after those moments of frenzied action and silence that was the hard part-that was what tried my nerve and first robbed me of calmness. But I dared not leave that fearful thing dangling there; I had to wind. The machinery squeaked, and its noise seemed to fill the house, but no one came nor did the door below open. Sometimes I have wished that it had. I should not then have been lured on and you would not have become involved in my ruin.

"I have heard many say that I looked radiant when I came down to be married. The radiance was in their thoughts. Or if my face did shine, and if I moved as if treading on air, it was because I had triumphed over all difficulties and could pass down to the altar without fear of that interrupting voice crying out: `I forbid! She is mine! The wife of William Pfeiffer can not wed another!' No such words could be dreaded now. The lips which might have spoken them were dumb. I forgot that fleshless lips gibber loudest, and that a lifetime, long or short, lay before me, in which to hear them mumble and squeak their denunciation and threats. Oh, but I have been wretched! At ball and dinner and dance those lips have been ever at my ear, but most when we have sat alone together; most then; Oh, most then!

"He is avenged; but you! Who will avenge you, and where will you ever find happiness?

"To blot myself from your memory I would go down deeper into the vale of suffering than ever I have gone yet. But no, no! do not quite forget me. Remember me as you saw me one night--the night you took the flower out of my hair and kissed it, saying that Washington held many beautiful women, but that none of them save myself had ever had the power to move your inmost heart-strings. Ah, low was your voice and eloquent your eyes that hour, and I forgot,--for a moment I forgot--everything but this pure love; and the heartbeat it called up and the hope, never to be realized --that I should live to hear you repeat the same sweet words in our old age, in just such a tone and with just such a look. I was innocent at that moment, innocent and good. I am willing that you should remember me as I was that night.

"When I think of him lying cold and dead in the grave I myself dug for him, my heart is like stone, but when I think of you -

"I am afraid to die; but I am more afraid of failing in courage. I shall have the pistol tied to me; this will make it seem inevitable to use it. Oh! that the next twenty-four hours could be blotted out of time! Such horror can not be. I was born for joy and gaiety; yet no dismal depth of misery and fear has been spared me! But all on account of my own act. I do not accuse God; I do not accuse man; I only accuse myself, and my thoughtless grasping after pleasure.

"I want Cora to read this as well as you. She must know me dead as she never knew me living. But I can not tell her that I have left a confession behind me. She must come upon it unexpectedly, just as I mean you to do. Only thus can it reach either of you with any power. If I could but think of some excuse for sending her to the book where I propose to hide it! that would give her a chance of reading it before you do, and this would be best. She may know how to prepare or comfort you--I hope so. Cora is a noble woman, but the secret which kept my thoughts in such a whirl has held us apart.

"You did what I asked. You found a place for Rancher's waiter in the volunteer corps. Surprised as you were at the interest I expressed in him, you honored my first request and said nothing. Would you have shown the same anxious eagerness if you had known why I whispered those few words to him from the carriage door? Why I could neither rest nor sleep till he and the other boy were safely out of town?

"I must leave a line for you to show to people if they should wonder why I killed myself so soon after my seemingly happy marriage. You will find it in the same book with this letter. Some one will tell you to look in the book--I can not write any more.

"I can not help writing. It is all that connects me now with life and with you. But I have nothing more to say except, forgive - forgive -

"Do you think that God looks at his wretched ones differently from what men do? That He will have tenderness for one so sorry--that He will even find place-- But my mother is there! my father! Oh, that makes it fearful to go--to meet-- But it was my father who led me into this--only he did not know-- There! I will think only of God.

"Good by--good by--good--"

That was all. It ended, as it began, without name and without date, - the final heart-throbs of a soul, awakened to its own act when it was quite too late. A piteous memorial which daunted each one of us as we read it, and when finished, drew us all together in the hall out of the sight and hearing of the two persons most intimately concerned in it.

Possibly because all had one thought--a thrilling one, which the major was the first to give utterance to.

"The man she killed was buried under the name of Wallace. How's that, if he was her husband, William?"

An officer we had not before noted was standing near the front door. He came forward at this and placed a second telegram in the superintendent's hand. It was from the same source as the one previously received and appeared to settle this very question.

"I have just learned that the man married was not the one who kept store in Owosso, but his brother William, who afterward died in Klondike. It is Wallace whose death you are investigating."

"What snarl is here?" asked the major.

"I think I understand," I ventured to put in. "Her husband was the one left on the road by the brother who staggered into camp for aid. He was a weak man--the weaker of the two she said--and probably died, while Wallace, after seemingly collapsing, recovered. This last she did not know, having failed to read the whole of the newspaper slip which told about it, and so when she saw some one with the Pfeiffer air and figure and was told later that a Mr. Pfeiffer was waiting to see her, she took it for granted that it was her husband, believing positively that Wallace was dead. The latter, moreover, may have changed to look more like his brother in the time that had elapsed."

"A possible explanation which adds greatly to the tragic aspects of the situation. She was probably a widow when she touched the fatal spring. Who will tell the man inside there? It will be his crowning blow."




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