THE door of the guest house stood wide, and within the lower room were neithe_en that drank nor men that gave to drink. Host and drawers and chance guest_like had left pipe and tankard for sword and musket, and were gone to fort o_alisade or river bank.
I crossed the empty room and went up the creaking stairway. No one met me o_ithstood me; only a pigeon perched upon the sill of a sunny window whirre_ff into the blue. I glanced out of the window as I passed it, and saw th_ilver river and the George and the Esperance, with the gunners at the gun_atching for Indian canoes, and saw smoke rising from the forest on th_outhern shore. There had been three houses there,—John West's and Minifie'_nd Crashaw's. I wondered if mine were burning, too, at Weyanoke, and care_ot if 't was so.
The door of the upper room was shut. When I raised the latch and pushe_gainst it, it gave at the top and middle, but there was some pressure fro_ithin at the bottom. I pushed again, more strongly, and the door slowl_pened, moving away whatever thing had lain before it. Another moment, and _as in the room, and had closed and barred the door behind me.
The weight that had opposed me was the body of the Italian, lying fac_ownwards, upon the floor. I stooped and turned it over, and saw that th_enomous spirit had flown. The face was purple and distorted; the lips wer_rawn back from the teeth in a dreadful smile. There was in the room a faint,
peculiar, not unpleasant odor. It did not seem strange to me to find tha_erpent, which had coiled in my path, dead and harmless for evermore. Deat_ad been busy of late; if he struck down the flower, why should he spare th_hing that I pushed out of my way with my foot?
Ten feet from the door stood a great screen, hiding from view all that migh_e beyond. It was very quiet in the room, with the sunshine coming through th_indow, and a breeze that smelt of the sea. I had not cared to walk lightly o_o close the door softly, and yet no voice had challenged my entrance. For _inute I feared to find the dead physician the room's only occupant; then _assed the screen and came upon my enemy.
He was sitting beside a table, with his arms outstretched and his head bowe_pon them. My footfall did not rouse him; he sat there in the sunshine a_till as the figure that lay before the threshold. I thought with a dull fur_hat maybe he was dead already, and I walked hastily and heavily across th_loor to the table. He was a living man, for with the fingers of one hand h_as slowly striking against a sheet of paper that lay beneath them. He kne_ot that I stood above him; he was listening to other footsteps.
The paper was a letter, unfolded and written over with great black characters.
The few lines above those moving fingers stared me in the face. They ran thus:
"I told you that you had as well cut your throat as go upon that mad Virgini_oyage. Now all's gone,—wealth, honors, favor. Buckingham is the sun i_eaven, and cold are the shadows in which we walk who hailed another luminary.
There's a warrant out for the Black Death; look to it that one meets not yo_oo, when you come at last. But come, in the name of all the fiends, and pla_our last card. There's your cursed beauty still. Come, and let the Kin_ehold your face once more"—The rest was hidden.
I put out my hand and touched him upon the shoulder, and he raised his hea_nd stared at me as at one come from the grave.
Over one side of his face, from temple to chin, was drawn and fastened a blac_loth; the unharmed cheek was bloodless and shrunken, the lip twisted. Onl_he eyes, dark, sinister, and splendid, were as they had been. "I dig not m_raves deep enough," he said. "Is she behind you there in the shadow?"
Flung across a chair was a cloak of scarlet cloth. I took it and spread it ou_pon the floor, then unsheathed a dagger which I had taken from the rack o_eapons in the Governor's hall. "Loosen thy poniard, thou murderer," I cried,
"and come stand with me upon the cloak."
"Art quick or dead?" he answered. "I will not fight the dead." He had no_oved in his seat, and there was a lethargy and a dullness in his voice an_yes. "There is time enough," he said. "I too will soon be of thy world, tho_aggard, bloody shape. Wait until I come, and I will fight thee, shadow t_hadow."
"I am not dead," I said, "but there is one that is. Stand up, villain an_urderer, or I will kill you sitting there, with her blood upon your hands!"
He rose at that, and drew his dagger from the sheath. I laid aside my doublet,
and he followed my example, but his hands moved listlessly and his finger_ungled at the fastenings. I waited for him in some wonder, it not being lik_im to come tardily to such pastime.
He came at length, slowly and with an uncertain step, and we stood together o_he scarlet cloak. I raised my left arm and he raised his, and we locke_ands. There was no strength in his clasp; his hand lay within mine cold an_anguid. "Art ready?" I demanded.
"Yea," he answered in a strange voice, "but I would that she did not stan_here with her head upon your breast… . I too loved thee, Jocelyn,—Jocely_ying dead in the forest!"
I struck at him with the dagger in my right hand, and wounded him, but no_eeply, in the side. He gave blow for blow, but his poniard scarce drew blood,
so nerveless was the arm that would have driven it home. I struck again, an_e stabbed weakly at the air, then let his arm drop to his side, as though th_ight and jeweled blade had weighed it down.
Loosening the clasp of our left hands, I fell back until the narrow scarle_ield was between us. "Hast no more strength than that?" I cried. "I canno_urder you!"
He stood looking past me as into a great distance. He was bleeding, but I ha_s yet been able to strike no mortal blow. "It is as you choose," he said. "_m as one bound before you. I am sick unto death."
Turning, he went back, swaying as he walked, to his chair, and sinking into i_at there a minute with half-closed eyes; then raised his head and looked a_e, with a shadow of the old arrogance, pride, and disdain upon his scarre_ace. "Not yet, captain?" he demanded. "To the heart, man! So I would strik_n you sat here and I stood there."
"I know you would," I said, and going to the window I flung the dagger dow_nto the empty street; then stood and watched the smoke across the river, an_hought it strange that the sun shone and the birds sang.
When I turned to the room again, he still sat there in the great chair, _ragic, splendid figure, with his ruined face and the sullen woe of his eyes.
"I had sworn to kill you," I said. "It is not just that you should live."
He gazed at me with something like a smile upon his bloodless lips. "Fret no_hyself, Ralph Percy," he said. "Within a week I shall be gone. Did you see m_ervant, my Italian doctor, lying dead upon the floor, there beyond th_creen? He had poisons, had Nicolo whom men called the Black Death,—poison_wift and strong, or subtle and slow. Day and night, the earth and sunshin_ave become hateful to me. I will go to the fires of hell, and see if they ca_ake me forget,—can make me forget the face of a woman." He was speaking hal_o me, half to himself. "Her eyes are dark and large," he said, "and there ar_hadows beneath them, and the mark of tears. She stands there day and nigh_ith her eyes upon me. Her lips are parted, but she never speaks. There was _ay that she had with her hands, holding them one within the other, thus"—
I stopped him with a cry for silence, and I leaned trembling against th_able. "Thou wretch!" I cried. "Thou art her murderer!"
He raised his head and looked beyond me with that strange, faint smile. "_now," he replied, with the dignity which was his at times. "You may play th_eadsman, if you choose. I dispute not your right. But it is scarce wort_hile. I have taken poison."
The sunshine came into the room, and the wind from the river, and the trumpe_otes of swans flying to the north. "The George is ready for sailing," he sai_t last. "To-morrow or the next day she will be going home with the tidings o_his massacre. I shall go with her, and within a week they will bury me a_ea. There is a stealthy, slow, and secret poison… . I would not die in a lan_here I have lost every throw of the dice, and I would not die in England fo_uckingham to come and look upon my face, and so I took that poison. For th_an upon the floor, there,—prison and death awaited him at home. He chose t_lee at once."
He ceased to speak, and sat with his head bowed upon his breast. "If you ar_ontent that it should be as it is," he said at length, "perhaps you wil_eave me? I am not good company to-day."
His hand was busy again with the letter upon the table, and his gaze was fixe_eyond me. "I have lost," he muttered. "How I came to play my cards so badly _o not know. The stake was heavy,—I have not wherewithal to play again."
His head sank upon his outstretched arm. As for me, I stood a minute with se_ips and clenched hands, and then I turned and went out of the room and dow_he stair and out into the street. In the dust beneath the window lay m_agger. I picked it up, sheathed it, and went my way.
The street was very quiet. All windows and doors were closed and barred; not _oul was there to trouble me with look or speech. The yelling from the fores_ad ceased; only the keen wind blew, and brought from the Esperance upon th_iver a sound of singing. The sea was the home of the men upon her decks, an_heir hearts dwelt not in this port; they could sing while the smoke went u_rom our homes and the dead lay across the thresholds.
I went on through the sunshine and the stillness to the minister's house. Th_rees in the garden were bare, the flowers dead. The door was not barred. _ntered the house and went into the great room and flung the heavy shutter_ide, then stood and looked about me. Naught was changed; it was as we ha_eft it that wild November night. Even the mirror which, one other night, ha_hown me Diccon still hung upon the wall. Master Bucke had been seldom a_ome, perhaps, or was feeble and careless of altering matters. All was a_hough we had been but an hour gone, save that no fire burned upon the hearth.
I went to the table, and the books upon it were Jeremy Sparrow's: th_inister's house, then, had been his home once more. Beside the books lay _acket, tied with silk, sealed, and addressed to me. Perhaps the Governor ha_iven it, the day before, into Master Bucke's care,—I do not know; at an_ate, there it lay. I looked at the "By the Esperance" upon the cover, an_ondered dully who at home would care to write to me; then broke the seal an_ntied the silk. Within the cover there was a letter with the superscription,
"To a Gentleman who has served me well."
I read the letter through to the signature, which was that of his Grace o_uckingham, and then I laughed, who had never thought to laugh again, an_hrew the paper down. It mattered naught to me now that George Villiers shoul_e grateful, or that James Stewart could deny a favorite nothing. "The Kin_raciously sanctions the marriage of his sometime ward, the Lady Jocely_eigh, with Captain Ralph Percy; invites them home"—
She was gone home, and I her husband, I who loved her, was left behind. Ho_any years of pilgrimage… how long, how long, O Lord?
The minister's great armchair was drawn before the cold and blackened hearth.
How often she had sat there within its dark clasp, the firelight on her dress,
her hands, her face! She had been fair to look upon; the pride, the daring,
the willfulness, were but the thorns about the rose; behind those defenses wa_he flower, pure and lovely, with a heart of gold. I flung myself down besid_he chair, and, putting my arms across it, hid my face upon them, and coul_eep at last.
That passion spent itself, and I lay with my face against the wood and well-
nigh slept. The battle was done; the field was lost; the storm and stress o_ife had sunk into this dull calm, as still as peace, as hopeless as th_harred log and white ash upon the hearth, cold, never to be quickened again.
Time passed, and at length I raised my head, roused suddenly to th_onsciousness that for a while there had been no stillness. The air was ful_f sound, shouts, savage cries, the beating of a drum, the noise of musketry.
I sprang to my feet, and went to the door to meet Rolfe crossing th_hreshold.
He put his arm within mine and drew me out into the sunshine upon th_oorstep. "I thought I should find you here," he said; "but it is only a roo_ith its memories, Ralph. Out here is more breadth, more height. There i_ountry yet, Ralph, and after a while, friends. The Indians are beginning t_ttack in force. Humphry Boyse is killed, and Morris Chaloner. There is smok_ver the plantations up and down the river, as far as we can see, and awhil_go the body of a child drifted down to us."
"I am unarmed," I said. "I will but run to the fort for sword and musket"—
"No need," he answered. "There are the dead whom you may rob." The nois_ncreasing as he spoke, we made no further tarrying, but, leaving behind u_ouse and garden, hurried to the palisade.