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   Chapter 30 SWEET REVENGE

At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 11742

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Whistling over the hilltops and thundering through the valleys, down came the wind upon the little lonely house by the roadside; and with the wind, driving rain; and they beat together upon the walls of that corner room wherein Alice Bristo lay trembling between life and death.

The surgeon from Melmerbridge pronounced it to be brain fever. He had found the patient wildly delirious. The case was grave, very grave. Dangerous? There was always danger with an abnormal temperature and delirium. Dr. Mowbray stayed until evening and ultimately left his patient sleeping quietly. He promised to return in the early morning.

The doctor stopped, as he was driving off, to shriek something through the storm:

"Have you any one who can nurse-among the servants?"

Inquiries were immediately made.

"No," was the answer.

"I'll send over a handy woman from Melmerbridge," said Dr. Mowbray; crack went his whip, and the gig-wheels splashed away through the mud.

A young man standing at the other side of the road, bareheaded and soaked to the skin, wondered whether the nurse would be sent at once that night. Then this young man continued his wild rapid walk up and down the country road, glancing up every moment at the feeble light that shone from the casement of that corner room on the upper floor.

Up and down, never pausing nor slackening his speed, fifty paces above the house and fifty below it, this unquiet spirit strode to and fro in the wind and the rain, like Vanderdecken on his storm-proof poop.

Once, when opposite the house, he touched the skirts of a woman crouching under the hedge; but he was not aware of it-he was gazing up at the window-and, before he passed that spot again the woman was gone.

The woman had crept stealthily across the road and through the open wicket. She was crouching behind the opposite hedge, on the rough grass-plot in front of the house. Once more the swinging steps passed the house and grew faint in the distance. The crouching woman sprang erect, darted noiselessly up the steps, and grasped the door-handle. She turned the handle and pushed gently, the door was neither locked nor bolted; it opened. The woman entered, and closed the door softly behind her. She stooped, listening. The footsteps passed the house without a pause or a hitch, as before. She had been neither seen nor heard-from without. A horrid smile disfigured the woman's livid face. She stood upright for an instant, her hand raised to her forehead, pausing in thought.

A lamp was burning low on the table in the passage; its dull light flickered upon the dark, fierce, resolute face of Elizabeth Ryan.

The dark hair fell in sodden masses about a face livid and distorted with blind fury, the dark eyes burned like live coals in the dim light, the cast of the firm wide mouth was vindictive, pitiless; the fingers of the right hand twitched terribly; once they closed spasmodically upon a loose portion of the ragged dress, and wrung it so hard that the water trickled down in a stream upon the mat, and at that moment murder was written in the writhing face. The left hand was tightly clasped.

Elizabeth Ryan had crept into the chamber of death, in the Blue Bell at Melmerbridge, during the five minutes' absence of the innkeeper. It was she who had quitted that room by the window. She had fled wildly over the moor, maddened by a discovery that scorched up the grief in her heart, setting fire to her brain, changed in a flash from a bewildered, heartbroken, forlorn creature to a ruthless frantic vendetta. The substance of that discovery was hidden in her clasped left hand.

She stood for a brief interval on the mat, then stepped stealthily forward towards the stairs. A light issued from an open door on the left, near the foot of the stairs. She peeped in as she passed. Stretched on a couch lay an old white-haired man, dressed as though it were mid-day instead of mid-night, in a tweed suit. Though asleep, his face was full of trouble. Nothing in this circumstance, nor in the conduct of the man outside walking to and fro in the storm, nor in the dim lights all over the house at this hour, struck Elizabeth Ryan as extraordinary. Her power of perception was left her; her power of inference was gone, except in direct relation to the one hideous project that possessed her soul. She crept softly up the stairs. They did not creak. She appreciated their silence, since it furthered her design.

As below, a light issued from an open door. She approached this door on tip-toe. A pair of small light shoes, with the morning's dust still upon them, stood at one side of the mat; someone had mechanically placed them there. When Elizabeth Ryan saw them her burning eyes dilated, and her long nervous fingers closed with another convulsive grasp upon the folds of her skirt.

She crossed the threshold and entered the room. The first thing she saw, in the lowered light of a lamp, was an old, puckered, wrinkled face just appearing over a barrier of eiderdown and shawls, and deep-set in an easy-chair. The brown, wrinkled eyelids met the brown, furrowed cheeks. The watcher slumbered and slept.

As yet the room wore none of the common trappings of a sick-room: the illness was too young for that. The book the sick girl had been reading last night lay open, leaves downward, on the chest of drawers; the flowers that she had picked on the way to church, to fasten in her dress, had not yet lost their freshness; the very watch that she had wound with her own hand last night was still ticking noisily on the toilet-table. Thus, to one entering the room, there was no warning of sickness within, unless it was the sight of the queer old sleeping woman in the great chair by the fireside, where a small fire was burning.

The stealthy visitor took two soft, swift, bold steps forward-only to start back

in awe and horror, and press her hand before her eyes. She, Elizabeth Ryan, might do her worst now. She could not undo what had been done before. She could not kill Death, and Death had forestalled her here.

A cold dew broke out upon the woman's forehead. She could not move. She could only stand still and stare. Her brain was dazed. She could not understand, though she saw plainly enough. After a few moments she did understand, and her heart sickened as it throbbed. Oh that it would beat its last beat there and then! Oh if only she too might die! Standing, as she thought, in the presence of death for the second time that night, Elizabeth Ryan lifted her two arms, and prayed that the gracious cold hand might be extended to her also. In the quenching of the fires that had raged in her brain, in the reawakening of her heart's anguish, this poor soul besought the Angel of Death not to pass her by, praying earnestly, pitifully, dumbly, with the gestures of a fanatic.

She lowered her eyes to face for the last time her whom death had snatched from vengeance. She started backwards, as she did so, in sudden terror. What was this? The dead girl moved-the dead girl breathed-the counterpane rose and fell evenly. Had she been mistaken in her first impression? Elizabeth Ryan asked herself with chattering teeth. No! More likely she was mistaken now. This must be an illusion, like the last; she had been terrified by a like movement in the room at the Blue Bell, and it had proved but a cruel trick of the sight and the imagination; and this was a repetition of the same cruel trick.

No, again! The longer she looked the more distinct grew this movement. It was regular, and it was gentle. Faint yet regular breathing became audible. The face on the pillows was flushed. Death had stopped short at Melmerbridge; Death had not travelled so far as this-at least, not yet: there was still a chance for vengeance!

But Elizabeth Ryan had undergone a swift psychological reaction. That minute in which she stood, as she believed, for the second time that night in the presence of Death-that minute in which her spirit yearned with a mighty longing to be stilled, too, for ever-that minute had done its work. In it the mists of passion had risen from the woman's mind; in it the venom had been extracted from her heart. Her eyes, now grown soft and dim, roved slowly round the room. They fell curiously upon something upon a chair on the far side of the bed-a heap of light hair; they glanced rapidly to the head on the pillows-it was all but shaved.

Elizabeth Ryan raised her clenched left hand; the hand trembled-the woman trembled from head to foot. She laid her arms upon the chest of drawers, and her face upon her arms, and stood there until her trembling ceased. When at last she raised her head, her eyes were swimming, but a bright determination shone out through the tears.

She moved cautiously round the foot of the bed and dipped her left hand into the heap of light hair, and for the first time unclasped her hand. The hand was lifted empty, but the heap of Alice's hair remained a heap of her hair still; it had but received its own again.

This strange yet simple act seemed to afford the performer the deepest relief; she gazed kindly, even tenderly, on the young wan face before her, and sighed deeply. Then hastily she retraced her steps to the door. At the door she stopped to throw back a glance of forgiveness and farewell.

Now it happened that the head of the sleeping girl had slipped upon the pillow, so that its present position made the breathing laboured.

Quick as thought, Mrs. Ryan recrossed the room from the door, and, with her woman's clever light hand, rearranged the pillows beneath the burning head, and smoothed them gently. But in doing this the silent tears fell one after the other upon the coverlet; and when it was done some sudden impulse brought Elizabeth upon her knees by the bedside, and from that bleeding heart there went up a short and humble prayer, of which we have no knowing-at which we can make no guess, since it flew upward without the weight of words.

How cold, how bitter, how piercing were the blast and the driving rain outside! In the earlier part of the night their edge had not been half so keen; at all events, it did not cut so deep. Where was a woman to turn on such a night? A woman who had no longer any object in life, nor a single friend, nor-if it came to that-a single coin: what was such an one to do on a night like this?

The picture of the warm, dry bedroom came vividly back to Elizabeth Ryan; she felt that she would rather lie sick unto death in that room than face the wild night without an ailment more serious than a broken, bleeding heart. She looked once back at the dim light in the upper window, and then she set her face to Gateby. Before, however, she was many paces on her way, quick footsteps approached her-footsteps that she seemed to know-and a man's voice hailed her in rapid, excited tones:

"Are you from Melmerbridge?"

"Yes," she faltered. What else dared she say. It was true, too.

"Then you are the nurse! you are the nurse! I have been waiting for you, looking out for you, all the night, and now you have come; you have walked through the storm; God bless you for it!"

His voice was tremulous with thanks and joy; yet trouble must have clouded his mind, too, or he never could have believed in his words.

"I do not understand-" Mrs. Ryan was beginning, but he checked her impatiently:

"You are the nurse, are you not?" he cried, with sudden fear in his voice. "Oh don't-don't tell me I'm mistaken! Speak-yes, speak-for here we are at the house."

The pause that followed well-nigh drove him frantic. Then came the answer in a low, clear voice:

"You are not mistaken. I am waiting to be shown into the house."

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