"Your only business in my pupil's bedroom," I said to the housekeeper, "is to see that it is kept clean, and that it is properly aired. There must be no interference, if you please, with his letters, or his papers, or with anything else that he has left behind him. Put back directly whatever you may have found in his room."
The housekeeper had her full share of a woman's temper as well as of a woman's curiosity. She listened to me with a rising color, and a just perceptible toss of the head.
"Must I put it back, sir, on the floor, between the bed and the wall?" she inquired, with an ironical assumption of the humblest deference to my wishes. " That's where the girl found it when she was sweeping the room. Anybody can see for themselves," pursued the housekeeper indignantly, "that the poor gentleman has gone away broken-hearted. And there, in my opinion, is the hussy who is the cause of it!"
With those words, she made me a low curtsey, and laid a small photographic portrait on the desk at which I was sitting.
I looked at the photograph.
In an instant, my heart was beating wildly--my head turned giddy--the housekeeper, the furniture, the walls of the room, all swayed and whirled round me.
The portrait that had been found in my senior pupil's bedroom was the portrait of Jeromette!
I HAD sent the housekeeper out of my study. I was alone, with the photograph of the Frenchwoman on my desk.
There could surely be little doubt about the discovery that had burst upon me. The man who had stolen his way into my house, driven by the terror of a temptation that he dared not reveal, and the man who had been my unknown rival in the by-gone time, were one and the same!
Recovering self-possession enough to realize this plain truth, the inferences that followed forced their way into my mind as a matter of course. The unnamed person who was the obstacle to my pupil's prospects in life, the unnamed person in whose company he was assailed by temptations which made him tremble for himself, stood revealed to me now as being, in all human probability, no other than Jeromette. Had she bound him in the fetters of the marriage which he had himself proposed? Had she discovered his place of refuge in my house? And was the letter that had been delivered to him of her writing? Assuming these questions to be answered in the affirmative, what, in that case, was his "business in London"? I remembered how he had spoken to me of his temptations, I recalled the expression that had crossed his face when he recognized the handwriting on the letter--and the conclusion that followed literally shook me to the soul. Ordering my horse to be saddled, I rode instantly to the railway-station.
The train by which he had traveled to London had reached the terminus nearly an hour since. The one useful course that I could take, by way of quieting the dreadful misgivings crowding one after another on my mind, was to telegraph to Jeromette at the address at which I had last seen her. I sent the subjoined message--prepaying the reply:
"If you are in any trouble, telegraph to me. I will be with you by the first train. Answer, in any case."
There was nothing in the way of the immediate dispatch of my message. And yet the hours passed, and no answer was received. By the advice of the clerk, I sent a second telegram to the London office, requesting an explanation. The reply came back in these terms:
"Improvements in street. Houses pulled down. No trace of person named in telegram."
I mounted my horse, and rode back slowly to the rectory.
"The day of his return to me will bring with it the darkest days of my life." . . . . . "I shall die young, and die miserably. Have you interest enough still left in me to wish to hear of it?" .... "You shall hear of it." Those words were in my memory while I rode home in the cloudless moonlight night. They were so vividly present to me that I could hear again her pretty foreign accent, her quiet clear tones, as she spoke them. For the rest, the emotions of that memorable day had worn me out. The answer from the telegraph office had struck me with a strange and stony despair. My mind was a blank. I had no thoughts. I had no tears.
I was about half-way on my road home, and I had just heard the clock of a village church strike ten, when I became conscious, little by little, of a chilly sensation slowly creeping through and through me to the bones. The warm, balmy air of a summer night was abroad. It was the month of July. In the month of July, was it possible that any living creature (in good health) could feel cold? It was not possible--and yet, the chilly sensation still crept through and through me to the bones.
I looked up. I looked all round me.
My horse was walking along an open highroad. Neither trees nor waters were near me. On either side, the flat fields stretched away bright and broad in the moonlight.
I stopped my horse, and looked round me again.
Yes: I saw it. With my own eyes I saw it. A pillar of white mist--between five and six feet high, as well as I could judge--was moving beside me at the edge of the road, on my left hand. When I stopped, the white mist stopped. When I went on, the white mist went on. I pushed my horse to a trot--the pillar of mist was with me. I urged him to a gallop---the pillar of mist was with me. I stopped him again--the pillar of mist stood still.
The white color of it was the white color of the fog which I had seen over the river--on the night when I had gone to bid her farewell. And the chill which had then crept through me to the bones was the chill that was creeping through me now.
I went on again slowly. The white mist went on again slowly--with the clear bright night all round it.
I was awed rather than frightened. There was one moment, and one only, when the fear came to me that my reason might be shaken. I caught myself keeping time to the slow tramp of the horse's feet with the slow utterances of these words, repeated over and over again: "Jeromette is dead. Jeromette is dead." But my will was still my own: I was able to control myself, to impose silence on my own muttering lips. And I rode on quietly. And the pillar of mist went quietly with me.
My groom was waiting for my return at the rectory gate. I pointed to the mist, passing through the gate with me.
"Do you see anything there?" I said.
The man looked at me in astonishment.
I entered the rectory. The housekeeper met me in the hall. I pointed to the mist, entering with me.
"Do you see anything at my side?" I asked.
The housekeeper looked at me as the groom had looked at me.
"I am afraid you are not well, sir," she said. "Your color is all gone--you are shivering. Let me get you a glass of wine. "
I went into my study, on the ground-floor, and took the chair at my desk. The photograph still lay where I had left it. The pillar of mist floated round the table, and stopped opposite to me, behind the photograph.
The housekeeper brought in the wine. I put the glass to my lips, and set it down again. The chill of the mist was in the wine. There was no taste, no reviving spirit in it. The presence of the housekeeper oppressed me. My dog had followed her into the room. The presence of the animal oppressed me. I said to the woman: "Leave me by myself, and take the dog with you."
They went out, and left me alone in the room.
I sat looking at the pillar of mist, hovering opposite to me.
It lengthened slowly, until it reached to the ceiling. As it lengthened, it grew bright and luminous. A time passed, and a shadowy appearance showed itself in the center of the light. Little by little, the shadowy appearance took the outline of a human form. Soft brown eyes, tender and melancholy, looked at me through the unearthly light in the mist. The head and the rest of the face broke next slowly on my view. Then the figure gradually revealed itself, moment by moment, downward and downward to the feet. She stood before me as I had last seen her, in her purple-merino dress, with the black-silk apron, with the white handkerchief tied loosely round her neck. She stood before me, in the gentle beauty that I remembered so well; and looked at me as she had looked when she gave me her last kiss--when her tears had dropped on my cheek.
I fell on my knees at the table. I stretched out my hands to her imploringly. I said: "Speak to me--O, once again speak to me, Jeromette."
Her eyes rested on me with a divine compassion in them. She lifted her hand, and pointed to the photograph on my desk, with a gesture which bade me turn the card. I turned it. The name of the man who had left my house that morning was inscribed on it, in her own handwriting.
I looked up at her again, when I had read it. She lifted her hand once more, and pointed to the handkerchief round her neck. As I looked at it, the fair white silk changed horribly in color--the fair white silk became darkened and drenched in blood.
A moment more--and the vision of her began to grow dim. By slow degrees, the fi gure, then the face, faded back into the shadowy appearance that I had first seen. The luminous inner light died out in the white mist. The mist itself dropped slowly downward--floated a moment in airy circles on the floor--vanished. Nothing was before me but the familiar wall of the room, and the photograph lying face downward on my desk.
THE next day, the newspapers reported the discovery of a murder in London. A Frenchwoman was the victim. She had been killed by a wound in the throat. The crime had been discovered between ten and eleven o'clock on the previous night.
I leave you to draw your conclusion from what I have related. My own faith in the reality of the apparition is immovable. I say, and believe, that Jeromette kept her word with me. She died young, and died miserably. And I heard of it from herself.
Take up the Trial again, and look at the circumstances that were revealed during the investigation in court. His motive for murdering her is there.
You will see that she did indeed marry him privately; that they lived together contentedly, until the fatal day when she discovered that his fancy had been caught by another woman; that violent quarrels took place between them, from that time to the time when my sermon showed him his own deadly hatred toward her, reflected in the case of another man; that she discovered his place of retreat in my house, and threatened him by letter with the public assertion of her conjugal rights; lastly, that a man, variously described by different witnesses, was seen leaving the door of her lodgings on the night of the murder. The Law--advancing no further than this--may have discovered circumstances of suspicion, but no certainty. The Law, in default of direct evidence to convict the prisoner, may have rightly decided in letting him go free.
But I persisted in believing that the man was guilty. I declare that he, and he alone, was the murderer of Jeromette. And now, you know why.