A Tragedy in Black and White and Other Stories
Just before his wedding, Dick had written to his godfather, announcing the happy termination of his wooing, and Sylvia had sent a note to Dolores, thanking her for her present and kind wishes.
While the young people were away, Major Darrell got a letter from Mr. Egerton. He said he had received Dick's communication, and he repeated what he had said about leaving his West Indian property to his godson. Then he went on to say that he was in great trouble about his daughter. She had been caught in a storm while out riding, and the wetting and exposure had brought on a severe attack of bronchitis. The doctor, the same who had attended her mother, feared that the lungs were page 30 seriously affected. Mr. Egerton wanted to know when Dick thought of bringing his bride home, as he hoped that the society of young people might rouse Dolores from the listless state of mind she seemed to have fallen into.
This letter was forwarded to Dick and Sylvia, who decided that they would curtail their travels and hasten back to the West Indies; Dick remarking: “After all, we have had a two months' honeymoon, and I think, considering how kind Uncle Dick has been, that we ought to settle down if he wants us to.”
So the next few weeks were spent in doing a little shopping, and in paying farewell visits to various relatives, and then they sailed. The voyage was greatly enjoyed by both; Sylvia, indeed, was almost sorry when it was ended, much as she looked forward to having a house of her own. When they arrived at their destination and had landed, they found the waggonette waiting for them, and a note from Mr. Egerton saying that he was sorry he could not come to meet them himself, but he did not like to leave Dolores for so long. They were to drive straight to their own house, and he would come down that evening to see them.
“Is Miss Dolores so ill, then?” asked Dick anxiously of the servant who had given him the note.
The man answered that the doctor had said that she was dying.
This news was a great shock to Dick and Sylvia. Young, healthy, and happy themselves, they had neither of them realised that Dolores' illness might be dangerous; though Major Darrell, on reading his friend's letter, had remarked to his wife that the feared the poor girl would follow in her mother's footsteps.
Dick made arrangements for the heavy luggage to follow next day, and then they started on their long drive. He asked the servant several questions as they went along, and learnt that Dolores never left her bed now, Mamie nursed her night and day, and that Mr. Egerton was nearly broken-hearted.page 31
Dick did as he had been told, and drove straight to the manager's house, which was to be his and Sylvia's for the future. He was warmly welcomed by MacPherson, who succumbed to Sylvia's pretty face on the spot, and mentally forgave Dick for what he had hitherto considered his bad taste, in not falling in love with Dolores. He confirmed all that they had heard about Dolores' illness, saying that it was only a question of time.
According to promise, Mr. Egerton himself came down that evening. Dick was fairly startled to see how his godfather had aged during their brief separation; his hair, which had been only just grizzled, was now almost white, and his face was lined and sad. He did not stay long, evidently wishing not to depress the young couple, but unable to rouse himself to take any real interest in the conversation. He said that Dolores was very anxious to see them both, and to renew her acquaintance with Sylvia; so it was settled that they should go up to the big house next morning. Then he kissed Sylvia, and wishing her every happiness, went away.
Sylvia, saddened by the sight of such deep grief and tired with her journey, went to bed early, but Dick stayed late, talking with MacPherson. That gentleman said that anxious as he was to go home, he should not leave till, as he phrased it, everything was over. “Doctor says it is a galloping consumption she is in, and that she can't live a couple of months longer. It was foolish of Egerton to marry her mother, he knew there was consumption in the family; but there! he never gave it a thought, and she certainly was a lovely girl; Dolores is the very image of her. “T'is a sad home-coming for you young folks; your poor little wife looks scared to death, Dick. Take care of her, man; she's a bonny lass.”
“I mean to take care of her,” said Dick, rather indignantly. Then altering his tone, he went on:
“Poor Dolores! how sad for her to die so young; I think she is just my wife's age. I suppose Mamie takes it dreadfully to heart.” MacPherson could not repress a kindly grin at the unconscious pride with which Dick uttered the words “my wife.”page 32
“Yes!” he said, filling his pipe afresh, “yes, Mamie is almost beside herself, as people say, with grief. Seriously, I believe that old woman is daft. She mutters and talks to herself all day, and the servants say that she speaks mysteriously of avenging someone's wrongs on someone else, but they don't know what she means, and very likely she doesn't know herself. But nobody could be a more devoted nurse.”
“Poor old thing!” said Dick, compassionately; and then the talk passed to other subjects.
Next day, according to the arrangement made with Mr. Egerton, Dick and Sylvia went up to the big house. They were met on the verandah by Mr. Egerton, who in the bright sunlight looked even older and more worn than on the previous night.
“I am glad you've come early,” he said, shaking hands, “Dolores has been asking for you. She seems brighter to-day. Will you come and see her now, Sylvia? Not you, Dick; she is not allowed to see more than one visitor at a time.”
So saying, he led the way to Dolores' room, Sylvia following in silence. Mr. Egerton opened the door.
“Well, dear, I've brought an old friend to see you. You could recognise her from her photograph, couldn't you?”
Dolores raised herself on her elbow, eagerly stretching out a wasted hand.
“Dear Sylvia,” she said, “I am so glad to see you again. Sit down and tell me all the news about everyone in England. Mamie,” to that repulsive individual, “give Mr. Dick's wife a chair.”
The old negress sulkily handed Sylvia a seat, who, as she took it, uttering a word of thanks, was half-frightened at the look of dislike the woman cast on her. Gladly she turned to Dolores, who was asking after mutual friends. Sylvia answered as well as she could, but, in fact, she was so horrified at the difference in Dolores from what she had been led to expect, that she hardly knew what she was page 33 saying. Was this wan, thin girl, who seemed all eyes, the same as the beautiful, brilliant creature Dick had raved about, and of whom Sylvia, with a pang of regret, acknowledged to herself she had been so jealous.
Dolores did not seem to notice her abstraction, and Sylvia at last roused herself to talk and give an account of the voyage. Presently Mr. Egerton came in again, followed by Dick. Sylvia watched her husband intently as he took Dolores' hand, but she could find no cause for uneasiness in the look of great pity that shone out of Dick's blue eyes. He said very little, and indeed Mr. Egerton soon hurried them both away, fearing lest his daughter should suffer from the excitement. Dolores begged Sylvia to come again, which she promised to do, and then she and Dick walked home together. On the way, they spoke of nothing but the sick girl, and as Sylvia listened to Dick's frank comments on the change in Dolores, and heard his outspoken words of affection and pity, she felt all her jealousy fade away, and resolved that Dick, at least, should never know how foolish she had been.
Sylvia went again next day to see Dolores, and it grew to be a settled thing that she should spend part of every morning with the invalid, and that in the evening she and Dick should stroll up after dinner and stay a short time with Mr. Egerton and his daughter.
Thus the time passed tranquilly for more than a month, and by then Sylvia had won the love of Mr. Egerton, and indeed of every soul on the plantation except Mamie. Do what she would, be as winning as she knew how, still the woman remained sulky and uncivil. Dolores spoke to her on the subject, but it was of no use. She only muttered something to herself; and the general impression was the same as MacPherson's, that the old negress was half crazy with grief.
Dolores sank every day, but so gradually that the watchers scarcely knew it. As she and Sylvia grew more intimate, she would speak sometimes of her own approaching death.page 34
The first time she did so, Sylvia, who had grown passionately fond of her, burst into a fit of weeping. Dolores kissed and soothed her.
“Don't cry about it, my dear!” she said, “I have got quite used to the idea, myself. Somehow, I always fancied that I should die young as my mother did. And I don't mind so much now, leaving the padre, for, Sylvia dear, I am sure you will try and take my place. I used at first to think that he would be so lonely; but now, I hope you will be his second daughter. He is very fond of you already, and said the other day, that, good fellow as Dick was, he was in luck to get such a nice little wife. Don't cry so, dear, don't cry.
But Sylvia, thoroughly overcome, sobbed out a piteous confession of her jealousy on Dick's account, and the unjust, bitter thoughts she had entertained towards Dolores.
Dolores listened patiently, stroking Sylvia's hair the while, then she said:
“Poor little girl, how unhappy you must have been. My dear, Dick never cared for me except as a sister. I am sure he never gave a thought to any woman but you, Now, kiss me, dear, and go; he will be wondering what has kept you.”
Sylvia did as she was bid, and the subject was never mentioned again between the two girls.
One morning, Sylvia had paid her customary visit to Dolores, who seemed unusually weak and exhausted. She kissed Sylvia very affectionately when she left, and bade her come early next day.
It happened to be a particularly warm morning, and as Sylvia walked home, she thought she had never felt anything so oppressive as the heavy, sultry heat, and in the afternoon she was glad to lie down and sleep, but she woke with a violent headache. After dinner, she told Dick that she should not go up to the big house that everning but would go early to bed. He thought that she was wise, and said that he himself would just go and see how Dolores was, and then return.page 35
Sylvia stood on the verandah, watching him slowly walk away, and then turned into the drawing room. Everything was intensely still and quiet, with an almost unnatural silence, only broken now and then by the barking of a distant dog, or a burst of laughter from the servants' part of the house. MacPherson had gone away on business, and Sylvia felt very lonely and miserable. Her head was still aching badly, and the heat seemed to increase till she felt as if she could scarcely breathe.
She wandered from room to room, unable to settle to any employment and longing for the sound of Dick's voice and step. Surely she heard a foot-fall outside. She went on to the verandah and listened, her nerves strained to the utmost, but all was silent again, only a bird uttered a plaintive cry.
Again she turned back into the house; the pain in her head seemed almost too bad to bear, and she determined to try if gently brushing her hair would do any good, she had heard that it was an excellent thing for calming the nerves. So she went into her room, and exchanging her dress for a looae white wrapper, sat down before the dressing-table, and began to unfasten and let down her hair.
It happened that, only that very day, the position of the furniture had been slightly altered, and the dressing-table, which had a large glass, had been placed exactly opposite the door of Dick's dressing-room. Curiously enough, this arrangement seemed familiar to Sylvia as she sat down, and for a moment or two she wondered where she had seen a room arranged in a similar manner. She did not puzzle long, however, her thoughts wandered away to Dolores and then to her own far off home in Devonshire.
Presently she noticed that one of the candles had a “thief” in. it, so she raised her hand to remove it. As she did so, the loose sleeve of her dressing-gown caught the handle of her hair-brush and knocked it off the table.
She stooped to pick it up, and the half mechanical action suddenly recalled to her mind, where and how she had seen a room arranged in the same way as the one she was now occupying.page 36
It was in a dream, that she had dreamt the night she heard of Dick's return to England; and again she remembered that she had had a precisely similar dream, years ago, the night before Dick had gone away to the West Indies.
Like a flash, the two dreams, with every detail, came back to her, and involuntarily she raised her head and looked in the glass, sickening with fear as she did so.
At first she saw nothing but the reflection of her own face, pale and drawn with fright, and behind her the half-open door of the dressing-room; but though she was apparently alone, she had a horrible feeling that someone or something was near her.
She gazed steadily at the mirror, indeed she could not turn her eyes away, and as she looked, she saw the door at her back swing open, noiselessly and very slowly, while in the doorway appeared that ghastly face she had seen in her dreams. As the creature crept forward, she dimly recognised that it was in the likeness of Mamie—Dolores' old black nurse; but she was too frightened to wonder what she could be doing there; and indeed, to the girl's excited imagination, the apparition seemed more like a supernatural being than human flesh and blood. She could neither move nor scream, only look steadily into the glass. Nearer and nearer came the repulsive thing, the white teeth gleaming in the dim light, and the black eyes flashing with unutterable hatred. It had now, woman or demon whichever it was, drawn so close to Sylvia that she could feel the hot breath on her neck. Then, as in her dreams, she saw a lean arm raised, with some glittering object grasped tightly in the powerful black hand. There was a second's pause which seemed to the terrified girl a century. The hand moved, and at that instant, as though in obedience to a signal, a vivid streak of blue lightning darted through the room, eclipsing the feeble glimmer of the candles, and lighting up and playing round the hideous, scowling face, an awful peal of thunder crashed over-head deadening the sound of a heavy fall, and Sylvia sank gently forward with her face on the table; whilst out of doors the rain descended in all the pitiless fury of a tropieal storm.page 37
The moments passed, yet still Sylvia lay motionless; while on the spotless white of her wrapper appeared a little crimson stain that grew gradually deeper.
After a while, the violence of the storm abated, it broke out again once or twice, but less furiously each time, and at last died slowly away; the stars appeared once more in a cloudless heaven, and a soft little breeze arose, gently stirring the trees and shaking showers of drops from the branches.
When Dick left his wife, he strolled slowly up the drive to the big house. He had nearly reached the end of his walk, when he saw by the starlight a negro running, who stopped when he met Dick and gasped out a message that Mr. Egerton had sent for him.
“Anything the matter?”
“Miss Dolores dying, sir.”
“Dying!” repeated Dick, horror-struck; and throwing away his cigar, he set off running to the house. Arrived there, he pushed his way through the groups of excited, weeping servants, and asked for Mr. Egerton. Just as he spoke, that gentleman appeared. He grasped Dick's hand, saying huskily:
“Too late, Dick. She's—–she's dead.” Then turning away, went into his study and shut the door.
Dick stood bewildered for a minute or two, not liking to follow his godfather and not knowing quite what to do, but presently he heard the sound of a horse's hoofs, and the doctor, who had been sent for, came hastily in. Dick met him and in a few words told him all he knew, which indeed was but little. The doctor immediately hurried off to Dolores' room, but soon returned.
“Too true,” he said sadly. “Poor dear girl, her troubles are over. One comfort is, she must have gone off very quietly, she looks as though she were asleep. Where's her father? In his study, you say. Ah! then I won't disturb him just now. But where's the nurse?”page 38
Dick did not know, he had not seen Mamie since he entered the house. On enquiry, it appeared that none of the servants had seen her either; she had been in the sickroom as usual, and no one had noticed her leaving it.
“Very odd,” commented the doctor. “I've thought for a long time that she was going mad, poor old woman; she was devoted to Dolores. And no wonder, for a sweeter girl never existed! I was as fond of her as of a child of my own. Poor young thing! I remember when her mother died, she went off in just the same way. I really thought Egerton would never recover from the blow; he only seemed to live for the child, and now she's gone too. I must go and speak to him.”
So the garrulous little man tapped at the study door.
“Come in,” said a muffled voice, and the doctor entered.
He stayed there some little time, and meanwhile Dick went on to the verandah, where he stood, looking out at the sea, and thinking sorrowfully of the dead girl.
Presently the doctor joined him.
“Poor Egerton,” he said, “he is fearfully upset. I am not going to leave him to-night; I have told them to make up a bed for me. Besides, I want to see the nurse, I had not the heart to question Egerton. It is most extraordinary where that woman has disappeared to. By-the-way, how is your wife?”
Dick said that she was not very well, had a bad headache.
“I am not surprised at that,” said the doctor, “she is not used to heat like this. It has been something fearful to-day, it is stifling now. We are going to have a terrible storm.”
“Yes, and soon too,” answered Dick, looking up at the rapidly clouding sky. “I think, if I cannot be of any use here, I shall go home before it breaks. Sylvia seemed rather nervous when I left. By Jove! what a flash!” he added, drawing back involuntarily; then as the thunder page 39 rumbled overhead: “Too late, here comes the rain; now I must wait till the squall is over. Don't think it will last very long, it is so violent.”
The two men stopped talking; indeed, the rush of the rain drowned their voices, and they paced up and down the verandah in silence, waiting till the storm should exhaust itself. By degrees it grew fainter, and finally ceased, while a cool, fresh air blew in from the sea.
Dick was just about to take his departure, when the study door opened, and Mr. Egerton came out. He seemed pleased to find Dick still there, but in answer to young Darrell's eager enquiry as to whether he could be of any use said no; that he had better go home, or his wife would wonder what had become of him, and that he might come up next morning.
Dick shook hands heartily with his godfather and the doctor, and departed for his own home. When he got there, he saw lights in the servants' quarters, but all the front of the house, which was one-storied, was dark.
“Sylvia has gone to bed,” he thought. “Well, I am very glad of it; I shan't tell her this bad news till to-morrow.”
He stepped on to the verandah, and seeing that the French window of his dressing-room was open, he walked through, closing it after him. In the semi-darkness, he could just see that the door leading into Sylvia's room was open, so he went towards it and called her name softly. There was no answer, so he concluded that she was asleep, and turning back, lit a candle. With this in his hand, he was going gently to the door to close it, when he saw that his wife was sitting in a chair in front of the dressing-table, with her head resting on it, and her fair hair streaming over her shoulders.
“What a curious thing that she should have fallen asleep there,” he thought; and then he perceived a dark form lying on the floor behind her. He went quickly forward, and as he did so, caught sight of the crimson stain on his wife's white robe. Dismayed and horrified, he gently lifted her head. Thank God! she was not dead, but only page 40 in a deep swoon. He sprang to the bell, and ringing loudly, told the startled servant who answered it to send one of the men to the big house for the doctor, who was to come directly. Then he returned to his wife, and scarcely pausing to move the body on the floor out of his way, he lifted Sylvia on to the bed and tried to stanch the blood, which the motion of being moved had caused to trickle afresh from a wound in her side.
Great was Dick's relief to hear the Doctor's pony galloping down the drive, and then his voice in the hall, asking what was the matter. Dick called to him, and the little man bustled in, exclaiming: “They told me your wife was ill. Bless my soul, what's this? Blood—and a knife—and a dead body! Why,” stooping down to examine the corpse, “it's the missing woman, Dolores' nurse!”
“Curse her!” said Dick savagely. “Come here, doctor, and see what that black devil has done to my wife. But I don't think she is dead.”
“Dead! not a bit of it,” answered the doctor cheerfully, examining Sylvia. “It is only a flesh wound, not the least dangerous, though it might have been. She has had a narrow escape.”
So saying, he proceeded to dress the wound, and then endeavoured to rouse Sylvia from the dead faint in which she lay.
Meanwhile Dick, with the help of a servant, lifted Mamie's body into another room.
It was indeed the old negress, struck down by the lightning at the very moment when she was about to avenge the fancied wrongs of Dolores on the innocent Sylvia; whom she considered to be the cause of her darling's death. Her sharp eyes had discovered Dolores' affection for Dick, and she imagined that had it not been for the spell cast over him by Sylvia, he would have fallen in love with and married Dolores, and thereby saved her life. True, the doctor had said that Dolores was dying of consumption, but Mamie did not agree with him; she clung to the belief that her pet had died of a broken heart.page 41
So she had slipped away from the side of the dead girl, determined to wreak a terrible vengeance on the triumphant rival who had caused so much sorrow.
No doubt, her conduct in this respect was highly culpable. Nay, harsh judges might even pronounce it Quixotic; though after all her chief mistake was in not laying sufficiently to heart the great rule—“never distress yourself about the misfortunes of others.”—Stand at a safe distance, if you like, and say “Poor thing,” and you will have done enough to satisfy the most exacting. Perhaps even too much, for have we not been told from our earliest copy books—“Be virtuous and you will be happy?” Which seems to imply that if you are unhappy it is because you are wicked. And we all know that the wicked deserve no pity.
So Mamie's death was but a just punishment for her officiousness in attempting to revenge the foster-child she loved so passionately. Had she been content to show true charity, and magnanimously forgive the sufferings, real or imaginary, inflicted on another, however dear that other might be, she would probably have lived happy and respected to a good old age.
But to return to Sylvia. When, after much trouble, the doctor succeeded in restoring her to consciousness, she looked round with a great shudder, as if she expected to behold some frightful vision. Not seeing anything, however, more alarming than Dick's anxious face, she sank back with a deep sigh of relief. The doctor forbade any questions being asked, and she soon dropped off into a sleep of exhaustion, tightly clasping her husband's hand.
She was ill next day, and weak from loss of blood, and it was some time before she recovered the effects of her fright; but the wound itself proved to be very slight, and speedily healed. Evidently the knife had only grazed her as it fell from Mamie's stricken hand.
After she was well, she narrated to Dick all the events of that night, and they puzzled together over the why and wherefore of the hatred shown by the old negress. For page 42 neither of them suspected her real motive, nor, indeed, did any of the neighbours, when the exciting story became known.
The only people who had an inkling of the real state of the case were the doctor and MacPherson, who put two and two together, and arrived at much the right conclusion. But they agreed not to talk about it; the business was apparently a mystery, and the solving of it would benefit nobody. Perhaps Mr. Egerton had a glimpse of the truth, but if so, he never volunteered any information on the subject, and after creating much excitement and being a nine days' wonder, the affair was gradually forgotten.
Mr. Egerton could not bear to stay any longer in a place connected with such painful memories, so he made over the property to Dick, and spent the rest of his life in England, settling near his old friend Major Darrell.
Dick and Sylvia are a model couple, and very happy. They are the proud parents of a flourishing young family, and their eldest daughter is named Dolores. Sylvia is a firm believer in dreams, which, however, Dick rather poohpoohs. He asked her once what use did she fancy her two famous dreams had been to her.
“I think,” she answered, “they were sent as a warning to me not to marry you; because, of course, if I had not done so, I should not have come to the West Indies and been nearly killed.”
“That may be,” said Dick, “but then what is the good of being warned by a dream if you don't understand its meaning till afterwards? If you had not married me and been nearly killed, you would never have known what your dreams really meant.”
“I suppose not,” said his wife thoughtfully. Then she added: “Do you know, Dick, I believe that after all, if I had known what my dreams signified, I should not have taken the warning, but should have married you just the same.”
Dick's only comment on this speech was a kiss.