Wednesday evening Eric went to the orchard again; and again he was disappointed. He went home, determined to solve the mystery by open inquiry. Fortune favoured him, for he found Mrs. Williamson alone, sitting by the west window of her kitchen and knitting at a long gray sock. She hummed softly to herself as she knitted, and Timothy slept blackly at her feet. She looked at Eric with quiet affection in her large, candid eyes. She had liked Mr. West. But Eric had found his way into the inner chamber of her heart, by reason that his eyes were so like those of the little son she had buried in the Lindsay churchyard many years before.
"Mrs. Williamson," said Eric, with an affectation of carelessness, "I chanced on an old deserted orchard back behind the woods over there last week, a charming bit of wilderness. Do you know whose it is?"
"I suppose it must be the old Connors orchard," answered Mrs. Williamson after a moment's reflection. "I had forgotten all about it. It must be all of thirty years since Mr. and Mrs. Connors moved away. Their house and barns were burned down and they sold the land to Thomas Gordon and went to live in town. They're both dead now. Mr. Connors used to be very proud of his orchard. There weren't many orchards in Lindsay then, though almost everybody has one now."
"There was a young girl in it, playing on a violin," said Eric, annoyed to find that it cost him an effort to speak of her, and that the blood mounted to his face as he did so. "She ran away in great alarm as soon as she saw me, although I do not think I did or said anything to frighten or vex her. I have no idea who she was. Do you know?"
Mrs. Williamson did not make an immediate reply. She laid down her knitting and gazed out of the window as if pondering seriously some question in her own mind. Finally she said, with an intonation of keen interest in her voice,
"I suppose it must have been Kilmeny Gordon, Master."
"Kilmeny Gordon? Do you mean the niece of Thomas Gordon of whom your husband spoke?"
"I can hardly believe that the girl I saw can be a member of Thomas Gordon's family."
"Well, if it wasn't Kilmeny Gordon I don't know who it could have been. There is no other house near that orchard and I've heard she plays the violin. If it was Kilmeny you've seen what very few people in Lindsay have ever seen, Master. And those few have never seen her close by. I have never laid eyes on her myself. It's no wonder she ran away, poor girl. She isn't used to seeing strangers."
"I'm rather glad if that was the sole reason of her flight," said Eric. "I admit I didn't like to see any girl so frightened of me as she appeared to be. She was as white as paper, and so terrified that she never uttered a word, but fled like a deer to cover."
"Well, she couldn't have spoken a word in any case," said Mrs. Williamson quietly. "Kilmeny Gordon is dumb."
Eric sat in dismayed silence for a moment. That beautiful creature afflicted in such a fashion--why, it was horrible! Mingled with his dismay was a strange pang of personal regret and disappointment.
"It couldn't have been Kilmeny Gordon, then," he protested at last, remembering. "The girl I saw played on the violin exquisitely. I never heard anything like it. It is impossible that a deaf mute could play like that."
"Oh, she isn't deaf, Master," responded Mrs. Williamson, looking at Eric keenly through her spectacles. She picked up her knitting and fell to work again. "That is the strange part of it, if anything about her can be stranger than another. She can hear as well as anybody and understands everything that is said to her. But she can't speak a word and never could, at least, so they say. The truth is, nobody knows much about her. Janet and Thomas never speak of her, and Neil won't either. He has been well questioned, too, you can depend on that; but he won't ever say a word about Kilmeny and he gets mad if folks persist."
"Why isn't she to be spoken of?" queried Eric impatiently. "What is the mystery about her?"
"It's a sad story, Master. I suppose the Gordons look on her existence as a sort of disgrace. For my own part, I think it's terrible, the way she's been brought up. But the Gordons are very strange people, Mr. Marshall. I kind of reproved father for saying so, you remember, but it is true. They have very strange ways. And you've really seen Kilmeny? What does she look like? I've heard that she was handsome. Is it true?"
"I thought her very beautiful," said Eric rather curtly. "But how has she been brought up, Mrs. Williamson? And why?"
"Well, I might as well tell you the whole story, Master. Kilmeny is the niece of Thomas and Janet Gordon. Her mother was Margaret Gordon, their younger sister. Old James Gordon came out from Scotland. Janet and Thomas were born in the Old Country and were small children when they came here. They were never very sociable folks, but still they used to visit out some then, and people used to go there. They were kind and honest people, even if they were a little peculiar.
"Mrs. Gordon died a few years after they came out, and four years later James Gordon went home to Scotland and brought a new wife back with him. She was a great deal younger than he was and a very pretty woman, as my mother often told me. She was friendly and gay and liked social life. The Gordon place was a very different sort of place after she came there, and even Janet and Thomas got thawed out and softened down a good bit. They were real fond of their stepmother, I've heard. Then, six years after she was married, the second Mrs. Gordon died too. She died when Margaret was born. They say James Gordon almost broke his heart over it.
"Janet brought Margaret up. She and Thomas just worshipped the child and so did their father. I knew Margaret Gordon well once. We were just the same age and we set together in school. We were always good friends until she turned against all the world.
"She was a strange girl in some ways even then, but I always liked her, though a great many people didn't. She had some bitter enemies, but she had some devoted friends too. That was her way. She made folks either hate or love her. Those who did love her would have gone through fire and water for her.
"When she grew up she was very pretty--tall and splendid, like a queen, with great thick braids of black hair and red, red cheeks and lips. Everybody who saw her looked at her a second time. She was a little vain of her beauty, I think, Master. And she was proud, oh, she was very proud. She liked to be first in everything, and she couldn't bear not to show to good advantage. She was dreadful determined, too. You couldn't budge her an inch, Master, when she once had made up her mind on any point. But she was warm-hearted and generous. She could sing like an angel and she was very clever. She could learn anything with just one look at it and she was terrible fond of reading.
"When I'm talking about her like this it all comes back to me, just what she was like and how she looked and spoke and acted, and little ways she had of moving her hands and head. I declare it almost seems as if she was right here in this room instead of being over there in the churchyard. I wish you'd light the lamp, Master. I feel kind of nervous."
Eric rose and lighted the lamp, rather wondering at Mrs. Williamson's unusual exhibition of nerves. She was generally so calm and composed.
"Thank you, Master. That's better. I won't be fancying now that Margaret Gordon's here listening to what I'm saying. I had the feeling so strong a moment ago.
"I suppose you think I'm a long while getting to Kilmeny, but I'm coming to that. I didn't mean to talk so much about Margaret, but somehow my thoughts got taken up with her.
"Well, Margaret passed the Board and went to Queen's Academy and got a teacher's license. She passed pretty well up when she came out, but Janet told me she cried all night after the pass list came out because there were some ahead of her.
"She went to teach school over at Radnor. It was there she met a man named Ronald Fraser. Margaret had never had a beau before. She could have had any young man in Lindsay if she had wanted him, but she wouldn't look at one of them. They said it was because she thought nobody was good enough for her, but that wasn't the way of it at all, Master. I knew, because Margaret and I used to talk of those matters, as girls do. She didn't believe in going with anybody unless it was somebody she thought everything of. And there was nobody in Lindsay she cared that much for.
"This Ronald Fraser was a stranger from Nova Scotia and nobody knew much about him. He was a widower, although he was only a young man. He had set up store-keeping in Radnor and was doing well. He was real handsome and had taking ways women like. It was said that all the Radnor girls were in love with him, but I don't think his worst enemy could have said he flirted with them. He never took any notice of them; but the very first time he saw Margaret Gordon he fell in love with her and she with him.
"They came over to church in Lindsay together the next Sunday and everybody said it would be a match. Margaret looked lovely that day, so gentle and womanly. She had been used to hold her head pretty high, but that day she held it drooping a little and her black eyes cast down. Ronald Fraser was very tall and fair, with blue eyes. They made as handsome a couple as I ever saw.
"But old James Gordon and Thomas and Janet didn't much approve of him. I saw that plain enough one time I was there and he brought Margaret home from Radnor Friday night. I guess they wouldn't have liked anybody, though, who come after Margaret. They thought nobody was good enough for her.
"But Margaret coaxed them all round in time. She could do pretty near anything with them, they were so fond and proud of her. Her father held out the longest, but finally he give in and consented for her to marry Ronald Fraser.
"They had a big wedding, too--all the neighbours were asked. Margaret always liked to make a display. I was her bridesmaid, Master. I helped her dress and nothing would please her; she wanted to look that nice for Ronald's sake. She was a handsome bride; dressed in white, with red roses in her hair and at her breast. She wouldn't wear white flowers; she said they looked too much like funeral flowers. She looked like a picture. I can see her this minute, as plain as plain, just as she was that night, blushing and turning pale by turns, and looking at Ronald with her eyes of love. If ever a girl loved a man with all her heart Margaret Gordon did. It almost made me feel frightened. She gave him the worship it isn't right to give anybody but God, Master, and I think that is always punished.
"They went to live at Radnor and for a little while everything went well. Margaret had a nice house, and was gay and happy. She dressed beautiful and entertained a good deal. Then--well, Ronald Fraser's first wife turned up looking for him! She wasn't dead after all.
"Oh, there was terrible scandal, Master. The talk and gossip was something dreadful. Every one you met had a different story, and it was hard to get at the truth. Some said Ronald Fraser had known all the time that his wife wasn't dead, and had deceived Margaret. But I don't think he did. He swore he didn't. They hadn't been very happy together, it seems. Her mother made trouble between them. Then she went to visit her mother in Montreal, and died in the hospital there, so the word came to Ronald. Perhaps he believed it a little too readily, but that he did believe it I never had a doubt. Her story was that it was another woman of the same name. When she found out Ronald thought her dead she and her mother agreed to let him think so. But when she heard he had got married again she thought she'd better let him know the truth.
"It all sounded like a queer story and I suppose you couldn't blame people for not believing it too readily. But I've always felt it was true. Margaret didn't think so, though. She believed that Ronald Fraser had deceived her, knowing all the time that he couldn't make her his lawful wife. She turned against him and hated him just as much as she had loved him before.
"Ronald Fraser went away with his real wife, and in less than a year word came of his death. They said he just died of a broken heart, nothing more nor less.
"Margaret came home to her father's house. From the day that she went over its threshold, she never came out until she was carried out in her coffin three years ago. Not a soul outside of her own family ever saw her again. I went to see her, but Janet told me she wouldn't see me. It was foolish of Margaret to act so. She hadn't done anything real wrong; and everybody was sorry for her and would have helped her all they could. But I reckon pity cut her as deep as blame could have done, and deeper, because you see, Master, she was so proud she couldn't bear it.
"They say her father was hard on her, too; and that was unjust if it was true. Janet and Thomas felt the disgrace, too. The people that had been in the habit of going to the Gordon place soon stopped going, for they could see they were not welcome.
"Old James Gordon died that winter. He never held his head up again after the scandal. He had been an elder in the church, but he handed in his resignation right away and nobody could persuade him to withdraw it.
"Kilmeny was born in the spring, but nobody ever saw her, except the minister who baptized her. She was never taken to church or sent to school. Of course, I suppose there wouldn't have been any use in her going to school when she couldn't speak, and it's likely Margaret taught her all she could be taught herself. But it was dreadful that she was never taken to church, or let go among the children and young folks. And it was a real shame that nothing was ever done to find out why she couldn't talk, or if she could be cured.
"Margaret Gordon died three years ago, and everybody in Lindsay went to the funeral. But they didn't see her. The coffin lid was screwed down. And they didn't see Kilmeny either. I would have loved to see her for Margaret's sake, but I didn't want to see poor Margaret. I had never seen her since the night she was a bride, for I had left Lindsay on a visit just after that, and what I came home the scandal had just broken out. I remembered Margaret in all her pride and beauty, and I couldn't have borne to look at her dead face and see the awful changes I knew must be there.
"It was thought perhaps Janet and Thomas would take Kilmeny out after her mother was gone, but they never did, so I suppose they must have agreed with Margaret about the way she had been brought up. I've often felt sorry for the poor girl, and I don't think her people did right by her, even if she was mysteriously afflicted. She must have had a very sad, lonely life.
"That is the story, Master, and I've been a long time telling it, as I dare say you think. But the past just seemed to be living again for me as I talked. If you don't want to be pestered with questions about Kilmeny Gordon, Master, you'd better not let on you've seen her."
Eric was not likely to. He had heard all he wanted to know and more.
"So this girl is at to core of a tragedy," he reflected, as he went to his room. "And she is dumb! The pity of it! Kilmeny! The name suits her. She is as lovely and innocent as the heroine of the old ballad. 'And oh, Kilmeny was fair to see.' But the next line is certainly not so appropriate, for her eyes were anything but 'still and steadfast'--after she had seen me, at all events."
He tried to put her out of his thoughts, but he could not. The memory of her beautiful face drew him with a power he could not resist. The next evening he went again to the orchard.
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