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Moth and Rust; Together with Geoffrey's Wife and The Pitfall By Mary Cholmondeley Characters: 12127

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Doch wenn du sagst, 'Ich liebe dich,'

Dann muss Ich weinen bitterlich."

Janet listened to the retreating footsteps, and then flew to the cabinet.

The key would not turn, and for one sickening moment, while she wrenched clumsily at it, she feared she was not going to succeed in opening the cabinet. Janet had through life a great difficulty in all that involved delicate manipulation, except a horse's mouth. If a lock resisted, she used force, generally shooting it; if the hinge of a door gave, she jammed it. But in this instance, contrary to her usual experience, the lock did turn at last, and the whole front of the cabinet, dolphins and mermaid and all, came suddenly forwards towards her, disclosing within a double tier of ebony drawers, all exquisitely inlaid with ivory, and each having its tiny, silver-scrolled lock.

Some water had dripped on to the cabinet from a damp place in the ceiling, and a few drops had penetrated down to the inner drawers, rusting the silver of the lowest drawer-the left-hand one.

Janet fitted the key into it. It turned easily, but the drawer resisted. It came out a little way, and then stuck. It was quite full. Janet gave another pull, and the narrow, shallow drawer came out, with difficulty-but still, it did come out.

On the top, methodically folded, were some hand-written directions for fancy work. Cuckoo never did any needlework. Janet raised them, and looked underneath. Where was the packet tied with hair? It was nowhere to be seen. There were a quantity of letters loosely laid together. Could these be they? Evidently they had not been touched for a long time, for the grime of London air and fog had settled on them. Janet wiped the topmost with her handkerchief, and a few words came clearly out: "My darling. My treasure." Her handkerchief had touched something loose in the corner of the drawer. Could this dim, moth-fretten lock have once been Cuckoo's yellow hair? Even as she looked, out of it came a moth, dragging itself slowly over the face of the letter, opening its unused wings. It crawled up over the rusted silver scroll-work, and flew away into the room.

Yes. These must be the letters. They had been tied once, and the moth had eaten away the tie. She took them carefully up. There were a great many. She gathered them all together, as she thought; looked again at the back of the drawer to make sure, and found a few more, with a little gilt heart rusted into them. Then she replaced the needlework directions, pushed to the drawer-which resisted again, and then went back into its place-locked it, extracted the key, locked the cabinet, and threw the key out of a broken pane of the window. She saw it light on the roof lower down, and slide into the safe keeping of the gutter.

Then she moved away the shrivelled hydrangeas which stood in the fire-place, and put the letters into the empty grate. Once more she went to the door and listened. All was quite still. She came back. On the chimney-piece stood a photograph of Monkey Brand grinning smugly through its cracked glass. Behind it was a silver match-box with a pig on it, and "Scratch me" written on it. Cuckoo affected everything she called "quaint."

Janet struck a match, knelt down, and held it to the pile of letters.

But love-letters never yet burned easily. Perhaps they have passed through the flame of life, and after that no feebler fire can reach them quickly. The fire shrank from them, and match after match went out, flame after flame wavered, and refused to meddle with them.

After wasting time in several exactly similar attempts when one failure would have been sufficient, Janet opened and crumpled some of them to let the air get to them. The handwriting was strangely familiar. She observed the fact without reasoning on it. Then she sprinkled the remainder of the letters on the top of the crumpled ones, and again set the pile alight.

The fire got hold now. It burned up fiercely, bringing down upon itself the upper letters, which toppled into the heart of the miniature conflagration much as the staircase must have toppled on to the stairs below, in the bigger conflagration of yesterday. How familiar the handwriting was! How some of the sentences shone out as if written in fire on black sheets: "Love like ours can never fade." The words faded out at once, as the dying letters gave up the ghost-the ghost of dead love. Janet gazed fascinated. Another letter fell in, opening as it fell, disclosing a photograph. Fred's face looked full at Janet for a moment out of the little greedy flames that licked it up. Janet drew back trembling, suddenly sick unto death.

Fred's face! Fred's writing!

She trembled so violently that she did not notice that the smoke was no longer going up the chimney, but was filling the room. The chimney was evidently blocked higher up.

She was so paralysed that she did not notice a light footfall in the passage, and a figure in the doorway. Janet was not of those who see behind their backs. The painter, alarmed by the smoke, stood for a moment, brush in hand, looking fixedly at her. Then his eye fell on the smoking papers in the grate, and he withdrew noiselessly.

It was out now. The second fire was out. What violent passions had been consumed in it! That tiny fire in the grate seemed to Janet more black with horror than the appalling scene of havoc in the next room. She knelt down and parted the hot films of the little bonfire. There was no scrap of paper left. The thing was done.

Then she noticed the smoke, and her heart stood still.

She pushed the cinders into the back of the grate with her hands, replaced the hydrangeas in the fire-place, and ran to the window. But the wood-work was warped by the heat. It would not open. She wasted time trying to force it, and then broke the glass and let in the air. But the air only blew the smoke out into the passage. It was like a bad dream. She seized the prostrate door, and tried to raise it. But it was too heavy for her.

She stood up panting, watching

the telltale smoke curl lightly through the doorway.

More steps in the passage.

She went swiftly into the next room, and stood in the doorway. The lift man came cautiously down the passage, accompanied by an alert, spectacled young man, notebook in hand. The lift man bore the embarrassed expression of one whose sense of duty has succumbed before too large a tip. The young man had the decided manner of one who intends to have his money's worth.

"Where are we now?" he said, scribbling for dear life, his spectacles turning all ways at once. "I don't like this smoke. Can the beastly place be on fire still?"

But the lift man had caught sight of Janet, and the sight of her was obviously unwelcome.

"The floors ain't safe here," he said confusedly. "There's a deal more damage to be seen in the left wing."

"Is there?" said the young man drily. "We'll go there next"; and he went on peering and scribbling.

A voice in the distance shouted imperiously, "Number Two, where does this smoke come from?"

There was a plodding of heavy, hastening feet above.

In an instant the young man and the lift man had disappeared round the corner.

Janet ran swiftly down the black passage along which they had come, almost brushing against the painter in her haste, without perceiving him. She flew on, recognising by instinct the once familiar way to the central hall on each landing. Here it was at last. She paused a moment by the gaping lift, and then walked slowly to the head of the iron outer staircase.

A policeman was speaking austerely to a short, stout, shabbily-dressed woman of determined aspect, who bore the unmistakable stamp of those whose unquenchable desire it is to be where their presence is not desired, where it is even deprecated.

"Only ladies and gents with passes is admitted," the policeman was saying.

"But how can I get a pass?"

"I don't precisely know," said the policeman cautiously, "but I know it must be signed by Mr Vanbrunt or Mr Brown."

"I am the Duchess of Quorn, and I am an intimate friend of Mr Vanbrunt."

Janet passed the couple with a beating heart. But apparently there were no restrictions about persons going out, only about those trying to get in. The policeman made way for her at once, and she went down unchallenged.

* * *

In the billiard-room time was waxing short; was obviously running out.

The child had arrived from the country with his nurse. Monkey Brand took him in his arms at the door, and knelt down with him beside Cuckoo.

"Arty has come to say 'good-morning' to Mammy," he said, in a strangled, would-be cheerful voice.

Cuckoo looked at the child wildly for a moment, as the little laughing face came within the radius of her fading sight. She suffered the cool, flower-like cheek to touch hers, but then she whispered to her husband, "Take him away. I want only you."

He took Arty back to his nurse, holding him closely to him, and returned to her.

Death seemed to have advanced a step nearer with the advent of the child.

They both waited for it in silence.

"Don't kneel, Arthur," said Cuckoo at last. "You will be so tired."

He obediently drew up a little stool, and crouched hunched up upon it, her cold hand between his cold hands.

"Is there any one at the door?" she asked, after an age of silence.

"No one, dearest; we are quite alone."

"I should like to see Janet to say 'good-bye.'"

"Must I go and look for her?"

"No. I sent her to see if my picture was really safe. It is all you will have to remember me by. She will come and tell me directly."

"I do not want any picture of you, Cuckoo."

Another silence.

"I can't wait much longer," said Cuckoo below her breath; but he heard it. "Are you sure there is no one at the door, Arthur?"

"No one."

Silence again.

"Ask God to have pity on me," said Cuckoo faintly. "Isn't there some one coming in now?"

"No one."

"Ask God to have pity on us both," said Cuckoo again. "Pray so that I can hear."

But apparently Monkey Brand could not pray aloud.

"Say something to make the time pass," she whispered.

"The Lord is my Shepherd," said Monkey Brand brokenly, his mind throwing back thirty years; "I shall not want. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He--"

"I seem to hear steps," interrupted Cuckoo.

"He leadeth me beside the still waters. Yea, though I walk"-the voice broke down-"though I walk in the valley of the shadow of--"

"Some one is coming in now," said Cuckoo, in a faint, acute voice.

"It is Janet."

"I can't see her plainly. Tell her to come nearer."

He beckoned to Janet.

"I can see her now," said Cuckoo, the blindness of death in her wide eyes, which stared vacantly where Janet was not; "at least, I see some one. Isn't she holding her hand to her forehead?"

"Yes."

The last tears Cuckoo was destined to shed stood in her blind eyes.

"Good-bye, dear Janet," she gasped.

"Good-bye, Cuckoo."

"Send her away. Is she quite gone, Arthur?"

"Yes, dearest."

"I must go too. I don't know how to leave you, but I must. I cannot see you, but you are with me in the darkness. Take me in your arms and let me die in them. Is that your cheek against mine? How cold it is! Hold your dear hands to my face that I may kiss them too. They have been kind, kind hands to me. How my poor Arthur trembles! You were too good for me, Arthur. You have been the only real friend I've ever had in the world. More than father and mother to me. More than any one."

"You did love me, little one?"

"Yes."

"Only me?"

"Only you."

He burst into a passion of tears.

"Forgive me for having doubted you," he said hoarsely.

"Did you ever doubt me?"

"Yes, once. I ought to have known better. I can't forgive myself. Forgive me, my wife."

Cuckoo was silent. Death was hard upon her, heavy on voice and breath.

"Say, 'Arthur, I forgive you,'" whispered her husband through the darkness.

"Arthur, I forgive you," said Cuckoo with a sob. And her head fell forward on his breast.

* * *

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