The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green
Book II. Henry Clavering
XXIII. The Story of a Charming Woman
"Fe, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman." --Old Song. "I hold you as a thing enskied and sainted." --Measure for Measure.
"You have never heard, then, the particulars of Mr. Leavenworth's marriage?"
It was my partner who spoke. I had been asking him to explain to me Mr. Leavenworth's well-known antipathy to the English race.
"If you had, you would not need to come to me for this explanation. But it is not strange you are ignorant of the matter. I doubt if there are half a dozen persons in existence who could tell you where Horatio Leavenworth found the lovely woman who afterwards became his wife, much less give you any details of the circumstances which led to his marriage."
"I am very fortunate, then, in being in the confidence of one who can. What were those circumstances, Mr. Veeley?"
"It will aid you but little to hear. Horatio Leavenworth, when a young man, was very ambitious; so much so, that at one time he aspired to marry a wealthy lady of Providence. But, chancing to go to England, he there met a young woman whose grace and charm had such an effect upon him that he relinquished all thought of the Providence lady, though it was some time before he could face the prospect of marrying the one who had so greatly interested him; as she was not only in humble circumstances, but was encumbered with a child concerning whose parentage the neighbors professed ignorance, and she had nothing to say. But, as is very apt to be the case in an affair like this, love and admiration soon got the better of worldly wisdom. Taking his future in his hands, he offered himself as her husband, when she immediately proved herself worthy of his regard by entering at once into those explanations he was too much of a gentleman to demand. The story she told was pitiful. She proved to be an American by birth, her father having been a well-known merchant of Chicago. While he lived, her home was one of luxury, but just as she was emerging into womanhood he died. It was at his funeral she met the man destined to be her ruin. How he came there she never knew; he was not a friend of her father's. It is enough he was there, and saw her, and that in three weeks--don't shudder, she was such a child--they were married. In twenty-four hours she knew what that word meant for her; it meant blows. Everett, I am telling no fanciful story. In twenty-four hours after that girl was married, her husband, coming drunk into the house, found her in his way, and knocked her down. It was but the beginning. Her father's estate, on being settled up, proving to be less than expected, he carried her off to England, where he did not wait to be drunk in order to maltreat her. She was not free from his cruelty night or day. Before she was sixteen, she had run the whole gamut of human suffering; and that, not at the hands of a coarse, common ruffian, but from an elegant, handsome, luxury-loving gentleman, whose taste in dress was so nice he would sooner fling a garment of hers into the fire than see her go into company clad in a manner he did not consider becoming. She bore it till her child was born, then she fled. Two days after the little one saw the light, she rose from her bed and, taking her baby in her arms, ran out of the house. The few jewels she had put into her pocket supported her till she could set up a little shop. As for her husband, she neither saw him, nor heard from him, from the day she left him till about two weeks before Horatio Leavenworth first met her, when she learned from the papers that he was dead. She was, therefore, free; but though she loved Horatio Leavenworth with all her heart, she would not marry him. She felt herself forever stained and soiled by the one awful year of abuse and contamination. Nor could he persuade her. Not till the death of her child, a month or so after his proposal, did she consent to give him her hand and what remained of her unhappy life. He brought her to New York, surrounded her with luxury and every tender care, but the arrow had gone too deep; two years from the day her child breathed its last, she too died. It was the blow of his life to Horatio Leavenworth; he was never the same man again. Though Mary and Eleanore shortly after entered his home, he never recovered his old light-heartedness. Money became his idol, and the ambition to make and leave a great fortune behind him modified all his views of life. But one proof remained that he never forgot the wife of his youth, and that was, he could not bear to have the word 'Englishman' uttered in his hearing."
Mr. Veeley paused, and I rose to go. "Do you remember how Mrs. Leavenworth looked?" I asked. "Could you describe her to me?"
He seemed a little astonished at my request, but immediately replied: "She was a very pale woman; not strictly beautiful, but of a contour and expression of great charm. Her hair was brown, her eyes gray--"
"And very wide apart?"
He nodded, looking still more astonished. "How came you to know? Have you seen her picture?"
I did not answer that question.
On my way downstairs, I bethought me of a letter which I had in my pocket for Mr. Veeley's son Fred, and, knowing of no surer way of getting it to him that night than by leaving it on the library table, I stepped to the door of that room, which in this house was at the rear of the parlors, and receiving no reply to my knock, opened it and looked in.
The room was unlighted, but a cheerful fire was burning in the grate, and by its glow I espied a lady crouching on the hearth, whom at first glance I took for Mrs. Veeley. But, upon advancing and addressing her by that name, I saw my mistake; for the person before me not only refrained from replying, but, rising at the sound of my voice, revealed a form of such noble proportions that all possibility of its being that of the dainty little wife of my partner fled.
"I see I have made a mistake," said I. "I beg your pardon "; and would have left the room, but something in the general attitude of the lady before me restrained me, and, believing it to be Mary Leavenworth, I inquired:
"Can it be this is Miss Leavenworth?"
The noble figure appeared to droop, the gently lifted head to fall, and for a moment I doubted if I had been correct in my supposition. Then form and head slowly erected themselves, a soft voice spoke, and I heard a low "yes," and hurriedly advancing, confronted--not Mary, with her glancing, feverish gaze, and scarlet, trembling lips--but Eleanore, the woman whose faintest .look had moved me from the first, the woman whose husband I believed myself to be even then pursuing to his doom!
The surprise was too great; I could neither sustain nor conceal it. Stumbling slowly back, I murmured something about having believed it to be her cousin; and then, conscious only of the one wish to fly a presence I dared not encounter in my present mood, turned, when her rich, heart-full voice rose once more and I heard:
"You will not leave me without a word, Mr. Raymond, now that chance has thrown us together?" Then, as I came slowly forward: "Were you so very much astonished to find me here?"
"I do not know--I did not expect--" was my incoherent reply. "I had heard you were ill; that you went nowhere; that you had no wish to see your friends."
"I have been ill," she said; "but I am better now, and have come to spend the night with Mrs. Veeley, because I could not endure the stare of the four walls of my room any longer."
This was said without any effort at plaintiveness, but rather as if she thought it necessary to excuse herself for being where she was.
"I am glad you did so," said I. "You ought to be here all the while. That dreary, lonesome boarding-house is no place for you, Miss Leavenworth. It distresses us all to feel that you are exiling yourself at this time."
"I do not wish anybody to be distressed," she returned. "It is best for me to be where I am. Nor am I altogether alone. There is a child there whose innocent eyes see nothing but innocence in mine. She will keep me from despair. Do not let my friends be anxious; I can bear it." Then, in a lower tone: "There is but one thing which really unnerves me; and that is my ignorance of what is going on at home. Sorrow I can bear, but suspense is killing me. Will you not tell me something of Mary and home? I cannot ask Mrs. Veeley; she is kind, but has no real knowledge of Mary or me, nor does she know anything of our estrangement. She thinks me obstinate, and blames me for leaving my cousin in her trouble. But you know I could not help it. You know,--" her voice wavered off into a tremble, and she did not conclude.
"I cannot tell you much," I hastened to reply; "but whatever knowledge is at my command is certainly yours. Is there anything in particular you wish to know?"
"Yes, how Mary is; whether she is well, and--and composed."
"Your cousin's health is good," I returned; "but I fear I cannot say she is composed. She is greatly troubled about you."
"You see her often, then?"
"I am assisting Mr. Harwell in preparing your uncle's book for the press, and necessarily am there much of the time."
"My uncle's book!" The words came in a tone of low horror.
"Yes, Miss Leavenworth. It has been thought best to bring it before the world, and----"
"And Mary has set you at the task?"
It seemed as if she could not escape from the horror which this caused. "How could she? Oh, how could she!"
"She considers herself as fulfilling her uncle's wishes. He was very anxious, as you know, to have the book out by July."
"Do not speak of it!" she broke in, "I cannot bear it." Then, as if she feared she had hurt my feelings by her abruptness, lowered her voice and said: "I do not, however, know of any one I should be better pleased to have charged with the task than yourself. With you it will be a work of respect and reverence; but-a stranger--Oh, I could not have endured a stranger touching it."
She was fast falling into her old horror; but rousing herself, murmured: "I wanted to ask you something; ah, I know"--and she moved so as to face me. "I wish to inquire if everything is as before in the house; the servants the same and--and other things?"
"There is a Mrs. Darrell there; I do not know of any other change."
"Mary does not talk of going away?"
"I think not."
"But she has visitors? Some one besides Mrs. Darrell to help her bear her loneliness?"
I knew what was coming, and strove to preserve my composure.
"Yes," I replied; "a few."
"Would you mind naming them?" How low her tones were, but how distinct!
"Certainly not. Mrs. Veeley, Mrs. Gilbert, Miss Martin, and a--a----"
"Go on," she whispered.
"A gentleman by the name of Clavering."
"You speak that name with evident embarrassment," she said, after a moment of intense anxiety on my part. "May I inquire why?"
Astounded, I raised my eyes to her face. It was very pale, and wore the old look of self-repressed calm I remembered so well. I immediately dropped my gaze.
"Why? because there are some circumstances surrounding him which have struck me as peculiar."
"How so?" she asked.
"He appears under two nanias. To-day it is Clavering; a short time ago it was----"
Her dress rustled on the hearth; there was a sound of desolation in it; but her voice when she spoke was expressionless as that of an automaton.
"How many times has this person, of whose name you do not appear to be certain, been to see Mary?"
"When was it?"
"Did he stay long?"
"About twenty minutes, I should say."
"And do you think he will come again?"
"He has left the country."
A short silence followed this, I felt her eyes searching my face, but doubt whether, if I had known she held a loaded pistol, I could have looked up at that moment.
"Mr. Raymond," she at length observed, in a changed tone, "the last time I saw you, you told me you were going to make some endeavor to restore me to my former position before the world. I did not wish you to do so then; nor do I wish you to do so now. Can you not make me comparatively happy, then, by assuring me you have abandoned or will abandon a project so hopeless?"
"It is impossible," I replied with emphasis. "I cannot abandon it. Much as I grieve to be a source of-sorrow to you, it is best you should know that I can never give up the hope of righting you while I live."
She put out her hand in a sort of hopeless appeal inexpressibly touching to behold in the fast waning firelight. But I was relentless.
"I should never be able to face the world or my own conscience if, through any weakness of my own, I should miss the blessed privilege of setting the wrong right, and saving a noble woman from unmerited disgrace." And then, seeing she was not likely to reply to this, drew a step nearer and said: "Is there not some little kindness I can show you, Miss Leavenworth? Is there no message you would like taken, or act it would give you pleasure to see performed?"
She stopped to think. "No," said she; "I have only one request to make, and that you refuse to grant."
"For the most unselfish of reasons," I urged.
She slowly shook her head. "You think so "; then, before I could reply, "I could desire one little favor shown me, however."
"What is that?"
"That if anything should transpire; if Hannah should be found, or --or my presence required in any way,--you will not keep me in ignorance. That you will let me know the worst when it conies, without fail."
"And now, good-night. Mrs. Veeley is coming back, and you would scarcely wish to be found here by her."
"No," said I.
And yet I did not go, but stood watching the firelight flicker on her black dress till the thought of Clavering and the duty I had for the morrow struck coldly to my heart, and I turned away towards the door. But at the threshold I paused again, and looked back. Oh, the flickering, dying fire flame! Oh, the crowding, clustering shadows! Oh, that drooping figure in their midst, with its clasped hands and its hidden face! I see it all again; I see it as in a dream; then darkness falls, and in the glare of gas-lighted streets, I am hastening along, solitary and sad, to my lonely home.