Read THE AUTOMATIC SHEIK: CHAPTER V of The Blue Wall A Story of Strangeness and Struggle , free online book, by Richard Washburn Child, on ReadCentral.com.

AT DAWN

I think it must have been nearly a half-hour though the minutes were themselves hours before I, waiting in the upper hall beside the window, through which the arc lights from the street threw jumping white patches on the ceiling, heard the sound of the old dog’s claws on the floor below and her little catches of breath as she came up.

At the top she buried her face for a moment on my shoulder.

“I love you more than ever,” she whispered. “I want you to stay. Call Margaret and do what you can. I will come to you by and by.”

With these words she pressed my forearm in the grip of her strong fingers and, entering her own room, shut the door.

I found, when I did mechanically as she had bade me do, that Margaret, with the instinct of an old servant, which is sometimes as keen as that of an animal, had already sensed the presence of some crisis and prowled about in her soft-footed way until she had discovered the truth. She was lying at the bottom of the stairs, her face buried in her hands and her broad back rising and falling with slow and silent tides of grief. Julianna and her father were together the old woman’s life. One half had gone.

“Come, Margaret,” said I softly.

“Very well, sir,” she answered after a minute, and rising, straightened her cap, preparing for duty like a broken-hearted soldier. And so she went on in that next hour or two, telephoning, directing, arranging and doing with me all those necessary things. In spite of her labors she seemed always to be at my elbow, a ceaseless little whimpering in her throat. Her spectacles were befogged with the mist from her old blue eyes, which, like the color of old china, had faded with wetting and drying in years of family use, but she did not again give up to her grief.

Therefore, when at last we looked at each other in the hall in one of those moments when, at the end of a task, a mental inventory is taken to be sure that all is done, I was surprised to see her expression change suddenly, to hear a cry of dismay escape her, and to observe her trundle herself toward the library door in grotesque haste.

When, following her, I went into the room, I found her thick fingers pulling open drawer after drawer of the desk, and turning over the papers they contained.

“It was here, Mr. Estabrook. Oh, my God! Mr. Estabrook, I saw him put it here!” she cried.

“What?” I asked, with a glimmer of memory.

“The papers. They was marked for her, but she mustn’t ever have ’em! I’d rather they should pluck me from my bones, sir! And I saw him put ’em here!”

“He took them out again,” I cried, touched by her contagious fear. “He died with them on the floor beside him. I know what you mean. The blue seal.”

“Yes, the blue seal!” she cried in recognition, and stumbling across the room she fell upon her knees, reaching under the old easy-chair and the desk, patting over the rug with her hand, turning up its corners, searching with her face bent down, like a devotee of some strange sect, muttering to herself.

“She must never see,” she exclaimed monotonously. “Poor child, she must never see. It is worse than death a hundred times. Oh, what has he done with that terrible package!”

Suddenly, throwing herself upward and backward, until the upper half of her body was erect, and with a small object held up to my astonished eyes between her forefinger and thumb, she uttered a cry of despair and rage. She had found a piece of the sealing wax with which the packet, once offered to my eyes, had been fastened!

“It’s too late,” she wailed miserably. “Do you see that? The girl has read it. She would not let me in her room. It’s too late!”

There was no keeping back the question.

“What was in it?” I cried. “What was written there?”

I saw her old mouth shut as if she meant to show me that I need expect no disclosure from her.

“I don’t know, Mr. Estabrook,” said she.

In her eyes, perhaps distorted by the strong lenses of her glasses, I saw the challenge of stubbornness. I felt myself growing wild with a desire to break through the unwholesome mystery which had entangled me, and overcome by any means the silence of this woman. She had arisen. She was within my reach. And I believe that I put my hands upon her, catching her two round and fleshy shoulders under my curved palms, shaking her to and fro with the excess of my excitement. In that moment before I spoke to her, she looked up at me, surprise and terror written on her face.

“Tell me!” I roared. “You know this horrible, hidden thing. Confound you, tell me!”

Her expression changed. I saw surprise become craftiness and fear, distrust. I saw in her eyes the beginning of that hate which I believe has never, since that irresponsible moment, diminished.

“You had best leave go of me, Mr. Estabrook,” she said calmly. “You would not act so if the old Judge was alive and here. Nor his daughter, sir!”

The rebuke, you may believe, was enough.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

The old woman, however, wrung her hands and looked toward the room above as if to indicate to me that nothing was important but the fact that Julianna had possession of the Judge’s post-mortem message.

“Let her tell you if she will,” she cried. Then covering her face with her fat hands, as if to hide some terrible picture of the imagination, she stumbled forward out of the library.

I have often wondered since, as I wonder to-night, when those spectres have arisen again, what that old servant meant. At the time it never occurred to me that but one thing could happen. I had the utmost confidence in Julianna, and indeed, without thinking much of my own troubles, I passed that long vigil in the library only with regret that I could not wrest away from the true and noble woman who had promised to be my wife, all the terrible grief which, alone in the chamber above, she must have been suffering. For the first time, I think, in all my life, which, by training and inherited instincts, had been devoted, I might say, to the welfare of the Estabrook name and of myself, I felt my mind and even my body filled with a strange and passionate desire to be the instrument of good, not for myself, but in the name of others and perhaps in the name of God. My eyes filled with tears, springing not so much from grief as from belief in myself, not so much from weakness as from strength. I called upon an unknown force that I felt to be near me and directing me.

“Save her from misfortune,” I said aloud in that silent room. “Protect her. Comfort her.”

The old dog, as if he now understood, raised his head and licked my hand. I realized then that the wind had died down, and, looking up, I saw that the balcony and garden were lit by the pale rays of the morning moon, that the stars shone clearly again through the still air, and that the odor of flowers, nodding below the window, perfumed the Judge’s study. The pipe, with ashes tumbling out upon the table, by curious chance had not been moved from the place where he had laid it down.

It seemed to me that I had dreamed restlessly, that the old man had not left the room, and then, when this fancy had gone, I almost believed that he had come back as he used to do when he, in his absent-minded way, had left something behind. With my heart full of him, I got up and reaching for the pipe I dropped it into my own pocket.

At last the oil in the lamp had been consumed. The burner flickered, gurgled several times, snapped, and went out; but the failure of this light served to show that morning was near at hand. The rectangular squares of the window panes now appeared luminous with the first gray flow of the east. It seemed to me that the time had come when Julianna should no longer be alone with her own thoughts; with soft steps I climbed the stairs and softly I turned the knob of her closed door. If it had been locked, it was so no longer; it yielded to my gentle, cautious pressure. The crack widened. Then, for a moment, unseen and unheard, I stood on the threshold looking in.

She was no longer dressed as I had seen her, for now she was clad in the soft drapery of some delicate Oriental silk, which, if she had been standing, would have fallen from the points of her shoulders in voluminous folds to the floor. She had unloosened her hair; it had fallen in a torrent of brown and golden light. I could not see her face.

Her back was turned toward me, for she was sitting on the floor facing the hearth in the middle of the frame of old lavender-and-gold tiles which marked the fireplace. Her hands were pressed to her temples as if her head no longer could be relied upon to retain its contents, her fingers moved this way and that through the hair above her ears, and, in strange contrast with the glimmer of early day beyond the white curtains, an uncanny flickering light burned on the hearth, painting the delicate pallor of her shoulders, neck, ears, and hands with an outline of fire. It was a picture to give the impression of a beautiful sorceress crouching to perform some unholy rite.

“Julianna!” I exclaimed softly.

She turned about as one caught red-handed in guilt, and in doing so, moved far enough to one side to expose the last remnants of written sheets of paper, which flames were rapidly consuming. A moment more and these were crisp ashes which whirled about the hearth with a soft rustle before they fell into heaps of sooty fragments. Whatever the Judge had written with infinite pain had now been destroyed. And as I looked into her eyes, I saw, too, that infinite pain had attended their destruction. Her expression had in it horror, shame, apprehension, and excruciating grief: never had I believed that a face, naturally so innocent and so happy, could have been so distorted with mature and terrible emotions as hers had become in the hours that had passed.

“Julie! my Julie!” I cried.

For answer her fingers reached out toward me in mute appeal, her body followed, and, crawling to my feet, she clutched the air as if trying to reach my hands with her own, and then fell forward, flat upon the floor, unconscious. If in that moment she appeared a groveling thing, it was only for a moment. Before I could stoop to raise her, she had regained her senses with two or three sharp inhalations and a fluttering of her eyelids, had thrust my hands from her and struggled to her feet.

“Go!” she whispered, retreating. “It is unthinkable! Go! Never come near me!”

“No no no!” I said. “Julianna, tell me! What has happened? It is not you who speaks!”

“No,” she answered. “It is not I.”

“I say it is not you who say these things,” I repeated. “Who, then?”

“My father. It is his voice. It is his message. And what he has been, I am. There is no other way.”

I moved toward her.

“Tell me this terrible menace behind us this thing that threatens us that works its evil upon us. I will not believe that any fault of it is yours.”

“It is mine because it is his,” she said, with a return of her wonderful self-control. “But no one shall ever hear of it from me no Jerry not even you.”

“He offered to show me that message,” I said. “I refused to see.”

Another little cry issued from her compressed lips.

“You were willing not to know?”

“Yes.”

She went into a corner; without taking her eyes away from mine, she wrung her hands, again and again.

“Why did I ever see you?” she whispered. “Why did I ever love you? Oh, go, while I am strong! Go, while I know that you must never ask for me again! Go, before I bargain with my conscience.”

“You cannot send me away,” I said. A thousand hidden horrors would not have daunted me then. “Will you treat my love for you so? Has your own gone so quickly?”

She shuddered then as if cold steel had been run through her body.

“I am lost,” cried she. “I am lost. I cannot do more. Promise by your love of me, by your love of God, never to ask me of those things now ashes on the hearth never to so much as speak of them to me till eternity.”

“What then? I promise,” I said.

“Then I will as solemnly swear to be as good and faithful, as true and ever-loving wife as God will let me be,” she said softly; “and may He forgive me for what I do, because I love you.”

She held out her arms to me, begging to be taken into mine, and when I had touched her she fell back, with her limp body in the curve of my elbow, and, looking up at me, offered her parted lips to the first kiss I had ever given her.