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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Chief Legatee - Part 4. The Man Of Mystery - Chapter 28. Fifteen Minutes
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The Chief Legatee - Part 4. The Man Of Mystery - Chapter 28. Fifteen Minutes Post by :Prd2BHawn Category :Long Stories Author :Anna Katharine Green Date :May 2012 Read :3531

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The Chief Legatee - Part 4. The Man Of Mystery - Chapter 28. Fifteen Minutes

PART IV. THE MAN OF MYSTERY
CHAPTER XXVIII. FIFTEEN MINUTES

"There have never been but one of us since I came into this house."

Monstrous assertion! or so it seemed to Ransom as the whirl of his thoughts settled and reason resumed its sway. Only one! But he had himself seen two; so had Mrs. Deo and the maids; he could even relate the differences between them on that first night. Yet had he ever seen them together, or even the shadow of one at the same moment he saw the person of the other? No, and with such an actress as she had shown herself to be these last two days, such changes of appearance might be possible, though why she should engage in such a deep, almost incredible plot was a mystery to make the hair rise,--she, the tender, exquisite, the beloved woman of his dreams.

She saw the maddening nature of his confusion and, springing to him, fell on her knees with the imploring cry:

"Patience! Do not try to think--I will tell you. It can all be said in a word. I was bound to this brother of mine, to do his bidding, to follow his fortunes through life, and up to death, by promises and oaths to which those uttered by me at the marriage altar were but toys and empty air. Anitra, or the dream sister my misery took from the dead, was not so bound, so I strove to secure our joy by the seeming death of Georgian and a new life as her twin. You do not understand; you cannot. You have no measure with which to gauge such men as my brother. But it will be given you. There is no hope now. The weakness of a moment has undone us."

Ransom must have heard her, after events proved that he did, but he gave no token of it. The visions that were whirling through his mind still held it engrossed. He saw her, not as she stood before him now, trembling and appealing, but as she had looked to him in the hall that first night, as she had looked to him down by the mill-stream, as she had looked when she told her story as Anitra, and later when she had faced the landlady as Georgian, and the confusion of it all left no room in his conscience for any other impression. But Mr. Harper, though surprised as he had never been before in all his professional career, lost himself in no such abyss. With the freedom which long-delayed insight into the truth gives to a man of his positive nature and training, he left speculation and all endeavor to reconcile events with her declaration, and plunged at once to the obvious question of the moment.

Fixing his keen gaze on Hazen, he observed very quietly, but with an underlying note of sarcasm:

"If this lady is your sister, Georgian Ransom, and there is no Anitra save the fast fading memory of the child commemorated in your family's monument, then your statement as to the body you saw under the ledge was false?"

The answer came deliberately, unaffected both by the manner of the accusation or by the accusation itself.

"Perfectly so," said he, "I saw no body. Perhaps my description would have been less vivid if I had. My intention you know. This woman had deceived me to the point of making me believe that she was indeed Anitra, the twin, and not my millionaire sister, and Georgian's fortune being necessary to her heir, I wished to cut short the law's delay by an apparent identification. I never doubted from the moment this woman faced with such well-played ignorance the mark of great meaning we had placed upon her door, that Georgian was in the river, as you all believed. Why then not give her a positive resting-place, since this would smooth out all difficulties and hasten the very end for which she had apparently sacrificed herself."

If there was any irony in his heart, his tongue did not show it. Indeed his manner betrayed little. Immobility had again replaced all tokens of anger, and immobility which only yielded now and then to a slight contortion more expressive of physical pain than of mental agitation. Yet in Georgian's eyes he had lost none of his formidable qualities, for the dismay with which she followed his words grew as she listened, and reached its height as he added in final explanation:

"The bag I did draw out of the pool, but only because I had taken it down there in my blouse front. Did you think a man could see that or anything else indeed in that maddening swirl of water?"

"But it was Mrs. Ransom's bag," came from Harper in ill-disguised amazement. Even his sang-froid was leaving him before these evidences of a plot so deep as to awaken awe. "Where did you get it? Not from Mrs. Ransom herself? Her own surprise is warranty for that."

"No, I got it from the river, another reason why I credited her drowning. It was fished up from the sand, a little way from the Fall. My man found it; I had sent him there in a vain hope that he might find evidence of the tragedy which others had overlooked. He did, but he told no one but me. You flung the thing too far," he remarked to Georgian. "You should have dropped it nearer the bank. Only such a prodder as my man Ives would ever have discovered it."

Georgian shook her head, impatient at such banalities, in the face of the important matters they had to discuss. "To the point," she cried, "tell these men what will clear me of everything but a wild attempt at freedom."

"I have said what I had to say," returned her brother.

Georgian's head fell. For a moment her courage seemed to fail her.

Mr. Harper rose and locked the door.

"We must have no intruders here," said he, pausing with a certain sense of shock, as he noticed the faint smile, full of some sinister meaning, which for an instant twisted Hazen's lips at these words.

But the delay was but momentary. With an odd sense of haste he rushed at once to the attack.

Stepping in front of Hazen, he observed with force and unmistakable resolution:

"Your devotion to the legatee Auchincloss cannot possibly be explained by any ordinary feeling of obligation. Your sister has mentioned a Cause. Can he by any possibility be the treasurer of that Cause?"

But Hazen was as impervious to direct attack as he had been to a covert one.

"Georgian will tell you," said he. "When a woman looks as she looks now, and is so given over to her own personal longings that she forgets the most serious oaths, the most binding promises, nothing can hold back her speech. She will talk, and since this must be, let her talk now and in my presence. But let it be briefly," he admonished her, "and with discretion. An unnecessary word will weigh heavily in the end. You know in what scales. You shall have just fifteen minutes."

He looked about for a clock, but seeing none drew out his watch from his vest pocket and laid it on the table. Then he settled himself again in his chair, with a look and gesture of imperative command towards Georgian.

Struck with dismay, she hesitated and he had time to add: "I shall not interrupt unless you pass the bounds where narrative ends and disclosure begins." And Harper and Ransom, glancing up at this, wondered at his rigidity and the almost marble-like quiet into which his restless eye and frenzied movements had now subsided.

Georgian seemed to wonder also, for she gave him a long and piercing look before she spoke. But once she had begun her story, she forgot to look anywhere but at the man whose forgiveness she sought and for the restoration of whose sympathy she was unconsciously pleading.

Her first words settled one point which up to this moment had disturbed Ransom greatly.

"You must forget Anitra's story. It was suggested by facts in my own life, but it was not true of me or mine in any of its particulars. Nor must you remember what the world knows, or what my relations say about my life. The open facts tell little of my real history, which from childhood to the day I believed my brother dead was indissolubly bound up in his. Though our fathers were not the same and he has old-world blood in his veins, while I am of full American stock, we loved each other as dearly and shared each other's life as intimately as if the bond between us had been one in blood as it was in taste and habit. This was when we were both young. Later, a change came. Some old papers of his father fell into his hands. A new vision of life,--sympathies quite remote from those which had hitherto engrossed him, led him further and further into strange ways and among strange companions. Ignorant of what it all meant, but more alive than ever to his influence, I blindly followed him, receiving his friends as my friends and subscribing to such of their convictions as they thought wise to express before me. Another year and he and I were living a life apart, owning no individual existence but devoting brain, heart, all we had and all we were, to the advancement and perpetuation of an idea. I have called this idea the Cause. Let that name suffice. I can give you no other."

Pausing, she waited for some look of comprehension from the man she sought to enlighten. But he was yet too dazed to respond to her mute appeal, and she was forced to continue without it. Indicating Hazen with a gesture, she said, with her eyes still fixed on those of her husband:

"You see him now as he came from under the harrow; but in those days--I must speak of you as you were, Alfred--he was a man to draw all eyes and win all hearts. Men loved him, women adored him. Little as he cared for our sex, he had but to speak, for the coldest breast to heave, the most indifferent eye to beam. I felt his power as strong as the rest, only differently. No woman was more his slave than I, but it was a sister's devotion I felt, a devotion capable of being supplanted by another. But I did not know this. I thought him my whole world and let him engross me in his plans and share his passions for subjects I did not even seek to understand.

"I was only seventeen, he twenty-five. It was for him to think, not me. And he did think but to my eternal undoing. The Cause needed a woman's help, a woman's enthusiasm. Without considering my motherless condition, my helplessness, the immaturity of my mind, he drew me day by day into the secret meshes of his great scheme, a scheme which, as I failed to understand till it had absorbed me, meant the unequivocal devotion of my whole life to the exclusion of every other hope or purpose. Favored, he called it, favored to stand for liberty, the advancement of men, the right of every human being to an untrammeled existence. And favored I thought myself, till one awful day when my brother, coming suddenly into my room, found me making plans for an innocent pleasure and told me such things were no longer for me, that a great and immortal duty awaited me, one that had come sooner than he expected, but which my youth, beauty, and spirit eminently fitted me to carry on to triumph.

"I was frightened. For the first time in my memory of him he looked like his Italian father, the man we had all tried to forget. Once while rummaging amongst my mother's treasures I had come across a miniature of Signor Toritti. He was a handsome man but there was something terrible in his eye; something to make the ordinary heart stand still. Alfred's burned with the same meaning at this moment, and as I noted his manner, which was elevated, almost godlike, I realized the difference in our heredity and how natural to him were the sacrifices for which my mind and temper were as naturally unprepared. With difficulty I asked him to explain himself, and it was with terror that I listened when he did. He may have been made to ask, but I was not made to hear such words. He saw my inner rebellion and stopped in mid-harangue. He has never forgiven me the disappointment of that moment. I have never forgiven him for making me sign away my independence, my holdings, and my life to a Cause I did not thoroughly understand."

"Your life?" echoed Ransom, roused to involuntary expression by this word.

"Surely not your life," echoed the lawyer, with the slow credulity of the matter-of-fact man.

"I have said it," she murmured, her head falling on her breast. At which token of weakness, Hazen stirred and took the words from her mouth.

"The organization," said he, "is a secret one and its code is self-sacrifice. To the band of noble men and women, of whose integrity and far-reaching purpose you can judge little from the whinings of a love-sick girl, life and all personal gratifications are as dust in the balance against the preservation and advancement of universal happiness and the great Cause. I thought my sister, young as she was, sufficiently great-minded to comprehend this and sufficiently great-hearted to do the society's bidding with joy at the sacrifice. But I found her lacking, and--" He stopped and almost lost himself again, but roused and cried with sudden fire, "Tell what I did, Georgian."

"You took my duty on yourself," she conceded, but coldly. "That was brotherly; that was noble, if you had not exacted a vow from me in return, destined to lay waste my whole life. Released from this one great duty, I was to hold myself ready to fulfil all others. At the lift of a hand--a finger--I was to leave whatever held me and go after the one who beckoned in the name of the Cause. No circumstances were to be considered; no other human duty or affection. If it were to enter upon a fuller and more adventurous life, well and good; if it were to encounter death and the cessation of all earthly things, that was well too, and a good to be embraced with ardor. Obedience was all, and obedience at a mere signal! I took the oath and then--"

"Yes, _then_--" emphasized Hazen in wavering but peremptory tones.

"He told me what had led to all this misery. That as yet this compact was between us two, and us two only. That he had considered my youth, and in speaking of me to the Chief had held back my name even while promising my assistance. That he should continue to consider it, by keeping my name in reserve till he had returned from his mission, and if that mission failed, or succeeded too well, and he did not return, I might regard myself as freed from the Cause, unless my enlarging nature led me to attach myself to it of my own free will. That said, he went, and for a year I lived under the dread of his return and all the obligations that return would entail. Then came tidings of his death, tidings for which he may not have been responsible, but which he never contradicted, and I thought myself free--free to enjoy life, and the fortune that had so unexpectedly come to me; free to love and, alas! free to marry. And that is why," she pursued, in all the anguish of a dreadful retrospect, "I recoiled in such horror and hung, a dead weight on your arm, when on turning from the altar where we had just pledged ourselves to mutual love and mutual life, I saw among the faces before me the changed but still recognizable one of my brother, and beheld him make the fatal sign which meant, 'You are wanted. Come at once.'"

"Wretch!" issued from the frenzied lips of the half-maddened bridegroom, as his glance flashed on Hazen. "Had you no mercy? Have you no mercy now, that you should torture her young, credulous soul with these fanciful obligations; obligations which no human being has any right to impose upon another, whatsoever the Cause, holy or unholy, he represents?"

"Mercy? It is the weakness of the easy soul. There is no ease here," he cried, touching his breast with no gentle hand.

"Then you forget my money," suggested Georgian. "Can you expect mercy from a man who sees a million just within his grasp? I know," she acknowledged, as Hazen lifted that same ungentle hand in haughty protest, "that it was not for himself. I do not think Alfred would disturb a fly for his own comfort, but he would wreck a woman's hopes, a good man's happiness for the Cause. He admitted as much to me, _and more_, in the interview we held that afternoon at the St. Denis. I had to go to him at once, and I had to employ subterfuge in order to do so," she went on in rapid explanation, as she saw her husband's eye refill with doubt under a remembrance of the shame and anguish of that unhappy afternoon. "I had not the courage to leave you openly at the carriage door. Besides, I hoped to work on Alfred's pity in our interview together, or, if not that, to buy my release and return to you a free woman. But the wound which had changed his face for me had changed and made hard his heart. He had other purposes for me than quiet living with a man who could have no real interest in the Cause. The money I inherited, the rare and growing beauty which he declared me to have, were too valuable to the brethren for me to hope for any existence in which their interests were not paramount. I might return to you, subject to the same authoritative beck and call which had put me in my present position, or I might leave you at once and forever. No half measures were possible. Was I, a bride, loving and beloved by my husband, to listen to either of these alternatives? I rebelled, and then the thunderbolt fell.

"I was no longer on probation, no longer subject to his will alone. I was a fully affiliated member. That day my name had been sent to the Chief. This meant obedience on my part or a vengeance I felt it impossible to consider. While I lived I need never hope again for freedom without penalty.

"'While I lived'; the words rang in my ears. I did not need to weigh them; I knew that they were words of truth. There is no power on earth so inescapable as that exercised by a secret society, and this one has a terrible safeguard. None but he who keeps the list knows the members. You, Roger, might be one, and I never suspect it, unless you chose to give me the sign. Knowing this, I realized that my life was not worth the purchase if I sought to cross the will of my own brother. Nor yours, either. It was the last thought which held me. While I dutifully listened, my mind was working out the deception which was to release me, and when I left him it was to take the first step in the complicated plot by which I hoped to recover my lost happiness. And I nearly succeeded. You have seen what I have borne, what difficulties I have faced, what discoveries eluded, but this last, this greatest ordeal, was too much. I could not listen unmoved to a description of my own drowned body. I, who had calculated on all, had not calculated on this. The horror overcame me--I forgot--perhaps because God was weary of my many deceptions!"

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