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   Chapter 4 HE DRANK IT ALONE

One of My Sons By Anna Katharine Green Characters: 7642

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


n making this statement it is not my wish to create any special prejudice against Alfred. Indeed, I have no right to do so, for when a few minutes later his brother Leighton came running up the stairs at sound of his child's voice, I noticed the same recoil on her part, followed by the same impassibility. Nor did she show a different feeling when in the hall below George came forward with the inquiries her surprising absence had naturally provoked. From one and all she involuntarily shrank, but not without suffering to herself and an obvious attempt to hide this natural impulse under a demeanour more in accordance with her near relationship to these three men. In Alfred this chilling conduct awakened emotions only too easy to read; in Leighton, surprise, and in George, a distrust bordering upon a passion so fierce that he turned from white to red and from red to white in an instant. Evanescent expressions all of them, but important as showing the feelings entertained towards her by these men among whom she had been living for more or less time as a sister.

But of my personal sensations you have already heard too much, especially at this period of my story. Happily, I was able to hide them from other eyes, and simply showed a natural curiosity when Dr. Bennett, with a sly look in her direction, whispered in my ear:

"How came she to know of her uncle's death so soon after its occurrence? You say you heard her rush upstairs while you were in Alfred's room. That was very soon after you laid the old gentleman out of your arms. Is it possible that you had already met Miss Meredith? Did she share that first alarm with you?"

"Not to my knowledge," I returned. "My first view of her was in the attic with you. Yet she may have been somewhere in this great hall, or in some of the many rooms I see about us."

Meanwhile I was taking in her beauty, or what I must call beauty from the lack of any other adequate word. I believe she was not what people call beautiful. She did not need to be; her charm was incontestable without it; too incontestable, I fear, for the peace of mind of more men than Alfred and George Gillespie.

She was standing by the newel-post, in a position startlingly like that she had maintained above; and while I shrank from the doubts thus called up, I could not but perceive in the straightforward look of her eyes, and the fierce clutch of her hands behind her, that some determination was absorbing all her energies; a determination little in accord, I fear, with the attitude of simple grief she made such an effort to maintain. Leighton appeared to see this also, for he set down the child he had been straining to his breast, and approaching his cousin, plied her with a few hurried questions.

But the coroner, who had shown some embarrassment at the appearance on the scene of so young and charming a lady, advanced at this juncture and prevented the answer which was slowly forming on her lips.

"If you are Miss Meredith, Mr. Gillespie's niece and assistant, you are justified in your grief. Mr. Gillespie has passed away under very extraordinary circumstances."

Her hands which had been behind her, came suddenly together in front, but she did not shift her eyes from the point where she had fixed them. Perhaps she dreaded to encounter the gaze of the three young men grouped behind the man addressing her.

"Have those circumstances been related to you?" resumed Dr. Frisbie with the encouragement in his tone which her loveliness and sorrow naturally called forth.

"No."

The answer came quickly, and with a sharp accentuation which showed her to be a woman of force, notwithstanding the condition in which we had first found her.

"Then this little one had said nothing," he continued with a glance at Claire who had nestled again at

her cousin's feet.

"Claire?" she exclaimed in evident surprise. "Claire?" and her eyes followed his till they fell inquiringly upon the child whose presence up to this moment she had probably not noticed. "No, she has said nothing; at least nothing that I have heard." And her hand went out as if she would urge the child away. But she did not complete the gesture, and I doubt if anyone understood her movement unless it was myself.

The coroner seemed anxious to spare her feelings. "Dr. Bennett will communicate to you our conclusions in this matter," said he. "I simply want to ask you when you last saw Mr. Gillespie."

"Alive?" she asked, her eyes stealing towards the door of the little den.

"Yes, miss; you surely have not seen him dead."

"I was with him at supper," she returned. "We were all there"; and for the first time she let her gaze fall on each one of her cousins in succession. "My uncle seemed as well then as at any time since his illness. He ate a good meal and drank--"

"And drank," repeated the coroner with a stern look behind him at the young men who had all moved at this.

"His usual glass of wine at dessert. He drank it alone!" she suddenly emphasised, her tone rising in sudden excitement. "I can never forget that he drank it alone."

A sigh or a suspicion of a sigh answered her. It came from one of her cousins, but I never knew from which. At its sound she shrank as if heart-pierced, and put up her hands-those tell-tale hands-and covered her ears; then she as quickly dropped them, and regarded the young men before her slowly, separately, and with a heartrending significance.

"I would so gladly have joined him in this attempt at old-time sociability had I but known it would have been his last," she said, and dropped her head again with a sob.

At this look and simple action a burden rolled from my heart. But upon the coroner and the physician lingering near my side, both look and words fell with a weight which made this investigation, if investigation it could be called, halt a moment.

"I do not understand you," observed the former after a momentary interval surcharged with deep emotion. "Was Mr. Gillespie in the habit of sharing his wine with those who sat at his board, that you feel the pathos of that lonely glass so keenly?"

"Yes. I never knew the dinner to close before without some sort of toast from one of his sons. It is the coincidence that affects me. But I should not have mentioned it. No one could have known that this was destined to be our last meal together."

She was looking straight before her now. Though it seems more or less incredible, she was evidently unconscious of having raised the black banner of suspicion over the heads of her three cousins. But the blank silence which followed her words appeared to give her some idea of what she had done, for with a sudden start and a change in her appearance which startled us all, she threw out her arms with the cry:

"You are keeping something from me. How did my uncle die? Tell me! tell me at once!"

Leighton sprang for his child, caught her up and fled with her into a farther room. George tottered, then drew himself proudly erect. Alfred, who had been gnawing his finger-ends in restrained passion, alone stepped forward to her aid, though in a deprecatory way which robbed him of a large part of his natural grace. But she appeared insensible to them all. Her attention was fixed upon the doctor, whom she followed with an agonising gaze, which warned him to be brief if she was to hear his words at all.

"Your uncle is the victim of poison," said he. "But we have reason to think he took it some time later than at the evening meal. Prussic acid makes quick work."

The latter explanation fell unheeded. She had fallen at the word poison.

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