The Allen House, or Twenty Years Ago and Now by T.S. Arthur
The morning which broke after that night of storm was serene and beautiful. The air had a crystal clearness, and as you looked away up into the cloudless azure, it seemed as if the eye could penetrate to an immeasurable distance. The act of breathing was a luxury. You drew in draught after draught of the rich air, feeling, with every inhalation, that a new vitality was absorbed through the lungs, giving to the heart a nobler beat, and to the brain a fresh activity. With what a different feeling did I take up my round of duties for the day! Yesterday I went creeping forth like a reluctant school boy; to-day, with an uplifted countenance and a willing step.
Having a few near calls to make, I did not order my horse, as both health and inclination were better served by walking. Soon after breakfast I started out, and was going in the direction of Judge Bigelow's office, when, hearing a step behind me that had in it a familiar sound, I turned to find myself face to face with Henry Wallingford! He could hardly have failed to see the look of surprise in my face.
"Good morning, Henry," I said, giving him my hand, and trying to speak with that cheerful interest in the young man which I had always endeavored to show.
He smiled in his usual quiet way as he took my hand and said in return,
"You were not out, I believe, yesterday," I remarked, as we moved on together.
"I didn't feel very well," he answered, in a voice pitched to a lower key than usual; "and, the day being a stormy one, I shut myself up at home."
"Ah," said I, in a cheerful way, "you lawyers have the advantage of us knights of the pill box and lancet. Rain or shine, sick or well, we must travel round our parish."
"All have their share of the good as well as the evil things of life," he replied, a little soberly. "Doctors and lawyers included."
I did not observe any marked change in the young man, except that he was paler, and had a different look out of his eyes from any that I had hitherto noticed; a more matured look, which not only indicated deeper feeling, but gave signs of will and endurance. I carried that new expression away with me as we parted at the door of his office, and studied it as a new revelation of the man. It was very certain that profounder depths had been opened in his nature--opened to his own consciousness--than had ever seen the light before. That he was more a man than he had ever been, and more worthy to be mated with a true woman. Up to this time I had thought of him more as a boy than as a man, for the years had glided by so quietly that bore him onward with the rest, that he had not arisen in my thought to the full mental stature which the word manhood includes.
"Ah," said I, as I walked on, "what a mistake in Delia Floyd! She is just as capable of high development as a woman as he is as a man. How admirably would they have mated. In him, self-reliance, reason, judgment, and deep feeling would have found in her all the qualities they seek--taste, perception, tenderness and love. They would have grown upwards into higher ideas of life, not downwards into sensualism and mere worldliness, like the many. Alas! This mistake on her part may ruin them both; for a man of deep, reserved feelings, who suffers a disappointment in love, is often warped in his appreciation of the sex, and grows one-sided in his character as he advances through the cycles of life.
I had parted from Henry only a few minutes when I met his rival, Ralph Dewey. Let me describe him. In person he was taller than Wallingford, and had the easy, confident manner of one who had seen the world, as we say. His face was called handsome; but it was not a manly face--manly in that best sense which includes character and thought. The chin and mouth were feeble, and the forehead narrow, throwing the small orbs close together. But he had a fresh complexion, dark, sprightly eyes, and a winning smile. His voice was not very good, having in it a kind of unpleasant rattle; but he managed it rather skillfully in conversation, and you soon, ceased to notice the peculiarity.
Ralph lived in New York, where he had recently been advanced to the position of fourth partner in a dry goods jobbing house, with a small percentage on the net profits. Judging from the air with which he spoke of his firm's operations, and his relation to the business, you might have inferred that he was senior instead of junior partner, and that the whole weight of the concern rested on his shoulders.
Judge Bigelow, a solid man, and from professional habit skilled in reading character, was, singularly enough, quite carried away with his smart nephew, and really believed his report of himself. Prospectively, he saw him a merchant prince, surrounded by palatial splendors.
Our acquaintance was as yet but slight, so we only nodded in passing. As we were in the neighborhood of Squire Floyd's pleasant cottage, I was naturally curious, under the circumstances, to see whether the young man was going to make a visit at so early an hour; and I managed to keep long enough in sight to have this matter determined. Ralph called at the Squire's, and I saw him admitted. So I shook my head disapprovingly, and kept on my way.
Not until late in the afternoon did I find occasion to go into that part of the town where the old Allen house was located, though the image of its gleaming north-west windows was frequently in my thought. The surprise occasioned by that incident was in no way lessened on seeing a carriage drive in through the gateway, and two ladies alight therefrom and enter the house. Both were in mourning. I did not see their faces; but, judging from the dress and figure of each, it was evident that one was past the meridian of life, and the other young. Still more to my surprise, the carriage was not built after our New England fashion, but looked heavy, and of a somewhat ancient date. It was large and high, with a single seat for the driver perched away up in the air, and a footman's stand and hangings behind. There was, moreover, a footman in attendance, who sprung to his place after the ladies had alighted, and rode off to the stables.
"Am I dreaming?" said I to myself, as I kept on my way, after witnessing this new incident in the series of strange events that were half-bewildering me. But it was in vain that I rubbed my eyes; I could not wake up to a different reality.
It was late when I got home from my round of calls, and found tea awaiting my arrival.
"Any one been here?" I asked--my usual question.
"No one.' The answer pleased me for I had many things on my mind, and I wished to have a good long evening with my wife. Baby Mary and Louis were asleep: but we had the sweet, gentle face of Agnes, our first born, to brighten the meal-time. After she was in dream-land, guarded by the loving angels who watch with children in sleep, and Constance was through with her household cares for the evening, I came into the sitting-room from my office, and taking the large rocking-chair, leaned my head back, mind and body enjoying a sense of rest and comfort.
"You are not the only one," said my wife, looking up from the basket of work through which she had been searching for some article, "who noticed lights in the Allen House last evening."
"Who else saw them?" I asked.
"Mrs. Dean says she heard two or three people say that the house was lit up all over--a perfect illumination."
"Stories lose nothing in being re-told. The illumination was confined to the room in which Captain Allen died. I am witness to that. But I have something more for your ears. This afternoon, as I rode past, I saw an old-fashioned English coach, with a liveried driver and footman, turn into the gate. From this two ladies alighted and went into the house; when the coach was driven to the stables. Now, what do you think of that?"
"We are to have a romance enacted in our very midst, it would seem," replied my wife, in her unimpassioned way. "Other eyes have seen this also, and the strange fact is buzzing through the town. I was only waiting until we were alone to tell you that these two ladies whom you saw, arrived at the Allen House in their carriage near about daylight, on the day before yesterday. But no one knows who they are, or from whence they came. It is said that they made themselves as completely at home as if they were in their own house; selected the north-west chamber as their sleeping apartment; and ordered the old servants about with an air of authority that subdued them to obedience."
"But what of Mrs. Allen?" I asked, in astonishment at all this.
"The stories about her reception of the strangers do not agree. According to one, the old lady was all resistance and indignation at this intrusion; according to another, she gave way, passively, as if she were no longer sole mistress of the house."
Constance ceased speaking, for there came the usual interruption to our evening tete-a-tete--the ringing of my office bell.
"You are wanted up at the Allen House, Doctor, said my boy, coming in from the office a few moments afterwards.
"Who is sick?" I asked.
"The old lady."
"Any thing serious?"
"I don't know, sir. But I should think there was from the way old Aunty looked. She says, come up as quickly as you can."
"Is she in the office?"
"No, sir. She just said that, and then went out in a hurry."
"The plot thickens," said I, looking at Constance.
"Poor old lady!" There was a shade of pity in her tones.
"You have not seen her for many years?"
"Poor old witch of Endor! were better said."
"Oh!" answered my wife, smiling, "you know that the painter's idea of this celebrated individual has been reversed by some, who affirm that she was young and handsome instead of old and ugly like modern witches."
"I don't know how that may be, but if you could see Mrs. Allen, you would say that 'hag' were a better term for her than woman. If the good grow beautiful as they grow old, the loving spirit shining like a lamp through the wasted and failing walls of flesh, so do the evil grow ugly and repulsive. Ah, Constance, the lesson is for all of us. If we live true lives, our countenances will grow radiant from within, as we advance in years; if selfish, worldly, discontented lives, they will grow cold, hard, and repulsive."
I drew on my boots and coat, and started on my visit to the Allen House. The night was in perfect contrast with the previous one. There was no moon, but every star shone with its highest brilliancy, while the galaxy threw its white scarf gracefully across the sky, veiling millions of suns in their own excessive brightness. I paused several times in my walk, as broader expanses opened between the great elms that gave to our town a sylvan beauty, and repeated, with a rapt feeling of awe and admiration, the opening stanza of a familiar hymn:--
"The spacious firmament on high, With all the blue ethereal sky, And spangled heavens, a shining frame, Their great Original proclaim."
How the beauty and grandeur of nature move the heart, as if it recognized something of its own in every changing aspect. The sun and moon and stars--the grand old mountains lifting themselves upwards into serene heights--the limitless expanse of ocean, girdling the whole earth--rivers, valleys, and plains--trees, flowers, the infinite forms of life--to all the soul gives some response, as if they were akin.
I half forgot my interest in old Mrs. Allen, as my heart beat responsive to the pulsings of nature, and my thoughts flew upwards and away as on the wings of eagles. But my faithful feet had borne me steadily onwards, and I was at the gate opening to the grounds of the Allen House, before I was conscious of having passed over half the distance that lay between that and my home. I looked up, and saw a light in the north-west chamber, but the curtains were down.
On entering the house, I was shown by the servant who admitted me, into the small office or reception room opening from the hall. I had scarcely seated myself, when a tall woman, dressed in black, came in, and said, with a graceful, but rather stately manner--
"The Doctor, I believe?"
How familiar the voice sounded! And yet I did not recognise it as the voice of any one whom I had known, but rather as a voice heard in dreams. Nor was the calm, dignified countenance on which my eyes rested, strange in every lineament. The lady was, to all appearance, somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty, and, for an elderly lady, handsome. I thought of my remark to Constance about the beauty and deformity of age, and said to myself, "Here is one who has not lived in vain."
I arose as she spoke, and answered in the affirmative.
"You have come too late," she said, with a touch of feeling in her voice.
"Not dead?" I ejaculated.
"Yes, dead. Will you walk up stairs and see her?"
I followed in silence, ascending to the chamber which had been occupied by Mrs. Allen since the old Captain's death. It was true as she had said; a ghastly corpse was before me. I use the word ghastly, for it fully expresses the ugliness of that lifeless face, withered, marred, almost shorn of every true aspect of humanity. I laid my hand upon her--the skin was cold. I felt for her pulse, but there was no sign of motion in the arteries.
"It is over," I said, lifting myself from my brief examination, "and may God have mercy upon her soul!" The last part of the sentence was involuntary.
I felt that this response was no idle ejaculation.
"How was she affected?" I asked. "Has she been sick for any time? Or did life go out suddenly?"
"It went out suddenly," replied the lady--"as suddenly as a lamp in the wind."
"Was she excited from any cause?"
"She has been in an excited state ever since our arrival, although every thing that lay in our power has been done to quiet her mind and give it confidence and repose."
She spoke calmly, as one, who held a controlling position there, and of right. I looked into her serene face, almost classic in its outlines, with an expression of blended inquiry and surprise, that it was evident did not escape her observation, although she offered no explanation in regard to herself.
I turned again to the corpse, and examined it with some care. There was nothing in its appearance that gave me any clue to the cause which had produced this sudden extinguishment of life.
"In what way was she excited?" I asked, looking at the stranger as I stepped back from the couch on which the dead body was lying.
She returned my steady gaze, without answering, for some moments. Either my tone or manner affected her unpleasantly, for I saw her brows contract slightly, her full lips close upon themselves, and her eyes acquire an intenser look.
"You have been her physician, I believe?" There was no sign of feeling in the steady voice which made the inquiry.
"I need not, in that case, describe to you her unhappy state of mind. I need not tell you that an evil will had the mastery over her understanding, and that, in the fierce struggle of evil passion with evil passion, mind and body had lost their right adjustment."
"I know all this," said I. "Still, madam, in view of my professional duty, I must repeat my question, and urge upon you the propriety of an undisguised answer. In what way was she excited? and what was the cause leading to an excitement which has ended thus fatally?"
"I am not in the habit of putting on disguises," she answered, with a quiet dignity that really looked beautiful.
"I pray you, madam, not to misunderstand me," said I. "As a physician, I must report the cause of all deaths in the range of my practice. If I were not to do so in this case, a permit for burial would not be issued until a regular inquest was held by the Coroner."
"Ah, I see," she replied, yet with an air of indecision. "You are perfectly right, Doctor, and we must answer to your satisfaction. But let us retire from this chamber."
She led the way down stairs. As we passed the memorable north-west room, she pushed the door open, and said,
"Blanche, dear, I wish to see you. Come down to the parlor."
I heard faintly the answer, in a very musical voice. We had scarcely entered the parlor, when the lady said--
"My daughter, Doctor."
A vision of beauty and innocence met my gaze. A young girl, not over seventeen, tall like her mother, very fair, with a face just subdued into something of womanly seriousness, stood in the door, as I turned at mention of her presence.
A single lamp gave its feeble light to the room, only half subduing the shadows that went creeping into corners and recesses. Something of a weird aspect was on every thing; and I could not but gaze at the two strangers in that strange place to them, under such peculiar circumstances, and wonder to see them so calm, dignified, and self-possessed. We sat down by the table on which the lamp was standing, the elder of the two opposite, and the younger a little turned away, so that her features were nearly concealed.
"Blanche," said the former, "the Doctor wishes to know the particular incidents connected with the death of Mrs. Allen."
I thought there was an uneasy movement on the part of the girl. She did not reply. There was a pause.
"The facts are simply these, Doctor," and the mother looked me steadily in the face, which stood out clear, as the lamp shone full on every feature. "From the moment of our arrival, Mrs. Allen has seemed like one possessed of an evil Spirit. How she conducted herself before, is known to me only as reported by the servants. From the little they have communicated, I infer that for some time past she has not been ii her right mind. How is it? You must know as to her sanity or insanity."
"She has not, in my opinion, been a truly sane woman for years," was my answer.
"As I just said," she continued, "she has seemed like one possessed of an evil spirit. In no way could we soften or conciliate her. Her conduct resembled more nearly that of some fierce wild beast whose den was invaded, than that of a human being. She would hold no friendly intercourse with us, and if we met at any time, or in any part of the house, she would fix her keen black eyes upon us, with an expression that sent a shudder to the heart. My daughter scarcely dared venture from her room. She so dreaded to meet her. Twice, as she flew past me, in her restless wanderings over the house, muttering to herself, I heard her say, as she struck her clenched hand in the air, 'I can do it again, and I will!'"
A cold chill crept over me, for I remembered the death of Captain Allen; and this was like a confirmation of what I had feared as to foul play.
"There is no trusting one wholly or even partially insane. So we were always on our guard. Not once, but many times during the few nights we have spent here, have we heard the door of our chamber tried after midnight. It was plain to us that it was not safe to live in this way, and so we had come to the reluctant conclusion that personal restraint must be secured. The question as to how this could best be done we had not yet decided, when death unraveled the difficulty."
The speaker ceased at this part of her narrative, and lifting from the table a small bell, rung it. A maid entered. I had never seen her before.
"Tell Jackson that I want him."
The girl curtsied respectfully, and withdrew.
Nothing more was said, until a man, whom I recognized at a glance to be a regularly trained English servant, presented himself.
"Jackson," said the lady, "I wish you to relate exactly, what occurred just previously to, and at the time of Mrs. Allen's death."
The man looked bewildered for a moment or two; but soon recovering himself, answered without hesitation.
"Hit 'appened just in this way, ma'am. I was a comin' hup stairs, when I met the hold lady a tearin' down like a mad cat. She looked kind o' awful. I never saw anybody out of an 'ospital look that way in all my life before. She 'eld an hiron poker in 'er 'and. As my young lady--" and he looked towards Blanche--" was in the 'all, I didn't think it safe for 'er if I let the hold woman go down. So I just stood in 'er way, and put my harms across the stairs so"--stretching his arms out. "My! but 'ow she did fire up! She stood almost a minute, and then sprung on me as if she was a tiger. But I was the strongest, and 'olding 'er in my harms like as I would a mad kitten, I carried 'er hup to 'er room, put 'er hin, and shut the door. My young lady saw it hall, for she followed right hup after me."
He looked towards Blanche.
"Just as it occurred," she said, in a low, sweet fluttering voice.
"I heard the strife," said her mother, "and ran up to see what was the matter. I reached the door of Mrs. Allen's room just as Jackson thrust her in. He did not use any more violence than was needed in a case of such sudden emergency. He is strong, and held her so tightly that she could not even struggle. One wild, fierce scream rent the air, as he shut the door, and then all was silent as death. I went in to her instantly. She was on the floor in a convulsion. You were sent for immediately; but it was too late for human intervention. Jackson, you can go."
The man bowed with an air of deferential respect, and retired.
"Now, sir," she added, turning to me, "you have the facts as they occurred. I have no wish to give them publicity, for they are family matters, and these are always in their degree, sacred. If, however, you think it your duty as a physician, to make the matter one of official investigation, I can have nothing to say."
I thought for some minutes before answering. The story, as related by the servant, I fully credited.
"Let me see the body again," said I, coming at length to a conclusion.
We went up stairs, all three together; but only two of us entered the chamber of death. As we neared the door, Blanche caught at her mother's arm, and I heard her say, in a whisper:
"Dear mamma! spare me that sight again. It is too horrible!"
"The presence of your daughter is not needed," said I, interposing. "Let her retire to her own room."
"Thank you!" There was a grateful expression in her voice, as she uttered these brief words, and then went back, while we passed in to the apartment where the dead woman was still lying.
As I looked upon her face again, it seemed even more ghastly than before; and I could hardly repress a shudder. My companion held a lamp; while I made as careful an examination as was possible under the circumstances. I did not expect to find any marks of violence, though I searched for them about her head, neck, and chest. But, under the circumstances, I felt it to be my duty to know, from actual search, that no such signs existed. In every aspect presented by the corpse, there was a corroboration of the story related by the serving man. It was plain, that in a fit of half insane, uncontrollable passion, the nice adjustment of physical forces had been lost.
"I am fully satisfied, madam," said I, at length, turning from my unpleasant task.
She let her calm, earnest eyes dwell on mine for a few moments, and then answered, with a softened tone, in which there was just a perceptible thrill of feeling--
"If I were a believer in omens, I should take this sad incident, following so quickly on our removal to a new country and a new home, as foreshadowing evil to me or mine. But I do not so read external events."
"Between a life like hers, and a life like yours, madam, there can be no possible nearness; nor any relation between your spiritual affinities and hers. The antipodes are not farther apart," said I, in return; "therefore, nothing that has befallen her can be ominous as to you."
"I trust not," she gravely answered, as we left the room together.
To my inquiry if I could serve her in any way, in the present matter, she simply requested me to send a respectable undertaker, who would perform what was fitting in the last rites due to the dead.
I promised, and retired.