Chapter XIII.
 

As General and Mrs. Abercrombie reached the vestibule, and the door shut behind them, the latter, seeing, that her husband was going out into the storm, which was now at its height, drew back, asking at the same time if their carriage had been called.

The only answer made by General Abercrombie was a fiercely-uttered imprecation. Seizing at the same time the arm she had dropped from his, he drew her out of the vestibule and down the snow-covered step with a sudden violence that threw her to the ground. As he dragged her up he cursed her again in a cruel undertone, and then, grasping her arm, moved off in the very teeth of the blinding tempest, going so swiftly that she could not keep pace with him. Before they had gone a dozen steps she fell again.

Struggling to her feet, helped up by the strong grasp of the madman whose hand was upon her arm, Mrs. Abercrombie tried to rally her bewildered thoughts. She knew that her life was in danger, but she knew also that much, if not everything, depended on her own conduct. The very extremity of her peril calmed her thoughts and gave them clearness and decision. Plunging forward as soon as his wife could recover herself again, General Abercrombie strode away with a speed that made it almost impossible for her to move on without falling, especially as the snow was lying deep and unbroken on the pavement, and her long dress, which she had not taken time to loop up before starting, dragged about her feet and impeded her steps. They had not gone half a block before she fell again. A wild beast could hardly have growled more savagely than did this insane man as he caught her up from the bed of snow into which she had fallen and shook her with fierce passion. A large, strong man, with an influx of demoniac, strength in every muscle, his wife was little more than a child in his hands. He could have crushed the life out of her at a single grip.

Not a word or sound came from Mrs. Abercrombie. The snow that covered the earth was scarcely whiter than her rigid face. Her eyes, as the light of a flickering gas-lamp shone into them, hardly reflected back its gleam, so leaden was their despair.

He shook her fiercely, the tightening grasp on her arms bruising the tender flesh, cursed her, and then, in a blind fury, cast her from him almost into the middle of the street, where she lay motionless, half buried in the snow. For some moments he stood looking at the prostrate form of his wife, on which the snow sifted rapidly down, making the dark garments white in so short a space of time that she seemed to fade from his view. It was this, perhaps, that wrought a sudden change in his feelings, for he sprang toward her, and taking her up in his arms, called her name anxiously. She did not reply by word or sign, He carried her back to the pavement and turned her face to the lamp; it was white and still, the eyes closed, the mouth shut rigidly.

But Mrs. Abercrombie was not unconscious. Every sense was awake.

"Edith! Edith!" her husband cried. His tones, anxious at first, now betrayed alarm. A carriage went by at the moment. He called to the driver, but was unheard or unheeded. Up and down the street, the air of which was so filled with snow that he could see only a short distance, he looked in vain for the form of a policeman or citizen. He was alone in the street at midnight, blocks away from his residence, a fierce storm raging in the air, the cold intense, and his wife apparently insensible in his arms. If anything could free his brain from its illusions, cause enough was here. He shouted aloud for help, but there came no answer on the wild careering winds. Another carriage went by, moving in ghostly silence, but his call to the driver was unheeded, as before.

Feeling the chill of the intensely cold air going deeper and deeper, and conscious of the helplessness of their situation unless she used the strength that yet remained, Mrs. Abercrombie showed symptoms of returning life and power of action. Perceiving this, the general drew an arm around her for support and made a motion to go on again, to which she responded by moving forward, but with slow and not very steady steps. Soon, however, she walked more firmly, and began pressing on with a haste that ill accorded with the apparent condition out of which she had come only a few moments before.

The insane are often singularly quick in perception, and General Abercrombie was for the time being as much insane as any patient of an asylum. It flashed into his mind that his wife had been deceiving him, had been pretending a faint, when she was as strong of limb and clear of intellect as when they left Mr. Birtwell's. At this thought the half-expelled devil that had been controlling him leaped back into his heart, filling it again with evil passions. But the wind was driving the fine, sand-like, sharp-cutting snow into his face with such force and volume as to half suffocate and bewilder him. Turning at this moment a corner of the street that brought him into the clear sweep of the storm, the wind struck him with a force that seemed given by a human hand, and threw him staggering against his wife, both falling.

Struggling to his feet, General Abercrombie cursed his wife as he jerked her from the ground with a sudden force that came near dislocating her arm. She gave no word of remonstrance nor cry of pain or fear, but did all in her power to keep up with her husband as he drove on again with mad precipitation.

How they got home Mrs. Abercrombie hardly knew, but home they were at last and in their own room, the door closed and locked and the key withdrawn by her husband, out of whose manner all the wild passion had gone. His movements were quiet and his voice when he spoke low, but his wife knew by the gleam of his restless eyes that thought and purpose were active.

Their room was in the third story of a large boarding-house in a fashionable part of the city. The outlook was upon the street. The house was double, a wide hall running through the centre. There were four or five large rooms on this floor, all occupied. In the one adjoining theirs were a lady and gentleman who had been at Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell's party, and who drove up in a carriage just as the general and Mrs. Abercrombie, white with snow, came to the door. They entered together, the lady expressing surprise at their appearance, at which the general growled some incoherent sentences and strode away from them and up the stairs, Mrs. Abercrombie following close after him.

"There's something wrong, I'm afraid," said the gentleman, whose name was Craig, as he and his wife gained their own room. They went in a carriage, I know. What can it mean?"

"I hope the general has not been drinking too much," remarked the wife.

"I'm afraid he has. He used to be very intemperate, I've heard, but reformed a year or two ago, A man with any weakness in this direction would be in danger at an entertainment such as Mr. and Mrs. Birtwell gave to-night."

"I saw the general taking wine with a lady," said Mrs. Craig.

If he took one glass, he would hardly set that as a limit. It were much easier to abstain altogether; and we know that if a man over whom drink has once gained the mastery ventures upon the smallest indulgence of his appetite he is almost sure to give way and to fall again. It's a strange thing, and sad as strange."

"Hark!"

Mr. Craig turned quickly toward the door which when opened made a communication between their apartment and that of General and Mrs. Abercrombie. It was shut, and fastened on both sides, so that it could not be opened by the occupants, of either room.

A low but quickly-stifled cry had struck on the ears of Mr. and Mrs. Craig. They looked at each other with questioning glances for several moments, listening intently, but the cry was not repeated.

"I don't like that," said Mr. Craig. He spoke with concern.

"What can it mean?" asked his wife.

"Heaven knows!" he replied.

They sat silent and listening. A sharp click, which the ear of Mr. Craig detected as the sound made by the cocking of a pistol, struck upon the still air. He sprang to his feet and took a step or two toward the door leading into the hall, but his wife caught his arm and clung to it tightly.

"No, no! Wait! wait!" she cried, in a deep whisper, while her face grew-ashen pale. For some moments they stood with repressed breathing, every instant expecting to hear the loud report of a pistol. But the deep silence remained unbroken for nearly a minute; then a dull movement of feet was heard in the room, and the opening and shutting of a drawer.

"No, general, you will not do that," they heard Mrs. Abercrombie say, in a low, steady tone in which fear struggled with tenderness.

"Why will I not do it?" was sternly demanded.

They were standing near the door, so that their voices could be heard distinctly in the next room.

"Because you love me too well," was the sweet, quiet answer. The voice of Mrs. Abercrombie did not betray a single tremor.

All was hushed again. Then came another movement in the room, and the sound of a closing drawer. Mr. and Mrs. Craig were beginning to breathe more freely, when the noise as of some one springing suddenly upon another was heard, followed by a struggle and a choking cry. It continued so long that Mr. Craig ran out into the hall and knocked at the door of General Abercrombie's room. As he did so the noise of struggling ceased, and all grew still. The door was not opened to his summons, and after waiting for a little while he went back to his own room.

"This is dreadful," he said. "What can it mean? The general must be insane from drink. Something will have to be done. He may be strangling his poor wife at this very moment. I cannot bear it. I must break open the door."

Mr. Craig started toward the hall, but his wife seized hold of him and held him back.

"No, no, no!" she cried, in a low voice. "Let them alone. It may be her only chance of safety. Hark!"

The silence in General Abercrombie's room was again broken. A man's firm tread was on the floor and it could be heard passing clear across the apartment, then returning and then going from side to side. At length the sound of moving furniture was heard. It was as if a person were lifting a heavy wardrobe or bureau, and getting it with some difficulty from one part of the room to the other.

"What can he be doing?" questioned Mrs. Craig, with great alarm.

"He is going to barricade the door, most likely," replied her husband.

"Barricade the door? What for? Good heavens, Mr. Craig! He may have killed his wife. She may be lying in there dead at this very moment. Oh, it is fearful! Can nothing be done?"

"Nothing, that I know of, except to break into the room."

"Hadn't you better rouse some of the boarders, or call a waiter and send for the police?"

The voice of Mrs. Abercrombie was heard at this moment. It was calm and clear.

"Let me help you, general," she said.

The noise of moving furniture became instantly still. It seemed as if the madman had turned in surprise from his work and stood confronting his wife, but whether in wrath, or not it was impossible to conjecture. They might hear her fall to the floor, stricken down by her husband, or cry out in mortal agony at any moment. The suspense was dreadful.

"Do it! I am ready."

It was Mrs. Abercrombie speaking again, and in a calm, even voice. They heard once more and with curdling blood, the sharp click of a pistol-lock as the hammer was drawn back. They held their breaths in horror and suspense, not moving lest even the slightest sound they made should precipitate the impending tragedy.

"I have been a good and true wife to you always, and I shall remain so even unto death."

The deep pathos of her quiet voice brought tears to the eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Craig.

"If you are tired of me, I am ready to go. Look into my eyes. You see that I am not afraid."

It was still as death again. The clear, tender eyes that looked so steadily into those of General Abercrombie held him like a spell, and made his fingers so nerveless that they could not respond to the passion of the murderous fiend that possessed him. That was why the scared listeners did not hear the deadly report of the pistol he was holding within a few inches of his wife's head.

"Let me put it away. It isn't a nice thing to have in a lady's chamber. You know I can't bear the sight of a pistol, and you love me too well to give me the smallest pain or uneasiness. That's a dear, good husband."

They could almost see Mrs. Abercrombie take the deadly weapon from the general's hand. They heard her dress trailing across the room, and heard her open and shut and then lock a drawer. For some time afterward they could hear the low sound of voices, then all became silent again.

"Give me that pistol!" startled them not long afterward in a sudden wild outbreak of frenzied passion.

"What do you want with it?" they heard Mrs. Abercrombie ask. There was no sign of alarm in her tones.

"Give me that pistol, I say!" The general's voice was angry and imperious. "How dared you take, it out of my hand!"

"Oh, I thought you wished it put away because the sight of a pistol is unpleasant to me."

And they heard the dress trailing across the room again.

"Stop!" cried the general, in a commanding tone.

"Just as you please, general. You can have the pistol, if you want it," answered Mrs. Abercrombie, without the smallest tremor in her voice. Shall I get it for you?"

"No!" He flung the word out angrily, giving it emphasis by an imprecation. Then followed a growl as if from an ill-natured beast, and they could hear his heavy tread across the floor.

"Oh, general!" came suddenly from the lips of Mrs. Abercrombie, in a surprised, frightened tone. Then followed the sound of a repressed struggle, of an effort to get free without making a noise or outcry, which continued for a considerable time, accompanied by a low muttering and panting as of a man in some desperate effort.

Mr. and Mrs. Craig stood with pale faces, irresolute and powerless to help, whatever might be the extremity of their neighbor. To attempt a forcible entry into the room was a doubtful expedient, and might be attended with instant fatal consequences. The muttering and panting ceased at length, and so did all signs of struggling and resistance. The madman had wrought his will, whatever that might be. Breathlessly they listened, but not a sound broke the deep silence. Minutes passed, but the stillness reigned.

"He may have killed her," whispered Mrs. Craig, with white lips. Her husband pressed his ear closely to the door.

"Do you hear anything?"

"Yes."

"What?"

They spoke in a low whisper.

"Put your ear against the door."

Mrs. Craig did so, and after a moment or two could hear a faint movement, as of something being pulled across the carpet. The sound was intermittent, now being very distinct and now ceasing altogether. The direction of the movement was toward that part of the room occupied by the bed. The listeners' strained sense of hearing was so acute that it was able to interpret the meaning of each varying sound. A body had been slowly dragged across the floor, and now, hushed and almost noiselessly as the work went on, they knew that the body was being lifted from the floor and placed upon the bed. For a little while all was quiet, but the movements soon began again, and were confined to the bed. Something was being done with the dead or unconscious body. What, it was impossible to make out or even guess. Mrs. Abercrombie might be lifeless, in a swoon or only feigning unconsciousness.

"It won't do to let this go on any longer," said Mr. Craig as he came back from the door at which he had been listening. "I must call some of the boarders and have a consultation."

He was turning to go out, when a sound as of a falling chair came from General Abercrombie's room, and caused him to stop and turn back, This was followed by the quick tread of heavy feet going up and down the chamber floor, and continuing without intermission for as much as five minutes. It stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and all was silent again. They knew that the general was standing close by the bed.

"My God!" in a tone full, of anguish and fear dropped from his lips. "Edith! Edith! oh, Edith!" he called in a low wail of distress. "Speak to me, Edith! Why don't you speak to me?"

They listened, but heard no answer. General Abercrombie called the name of his wife over and over again, and in terms of endearment, but for all Mr. and Mrs. Craig could tell she gave back no sign.

"O my God! what have I done?" they heard him say, the words followed by a deep groan.

"It is my time now;" and Mr. Craig ran out into the hall as he said this and knocked at the general's door. But no answer came. He knocked again, and louder than at first. After waiting for a short time he heard the key turn in the lock. The door was opened a few inches, and he saw through the aperture the haggard and almost ghastly face of General Abercrombie. His eyes were wild and distended.

"What do you want?" he demanded, impatiently.

"Is Mrs. Abercrombie sick? Can we do anything for you, general?" said Mr. Craig, uttering the sentences that came first to his tongue.

"No!" in angry rejection of the offered service. The door shut with a jar, and the key turned in the lock. Mr. Craig stood for a moment irresolute, and then went back to his wife. Nothing more was heard in the adjoining room. Though they listened for a long time, no voice nor sound of any kind came to their ears. The general had, to all appearance, thrown himself upon the bed and fallen asleep.

It was late on the next morning when Mr. and Mrs. Craig awoke. Their first thought was of their neighbors, General and Mrs. Abercrombie. The profoundest silence reigned in their apartments--a silence death-like and ominous.

"If he has murdered her!" said Mrs. Craig, shivering at the thought as she spoke.

"I hope not, but I shouldn't like to be the first one who goes into that room," replied her husband. Then, after a moment's reflection, he said:

"If anything has gone wrong in there, we must be on our guard and make no admissions. It won't do for us to let it be known that we heard the dreadful things going on there that we did, and yet gave no alarm. I'm not satisfied with myself, and can hardly expect others to excuse where I condemn."