It was a very still night and frosty. My candle had long burnt out. There was still a faint moonlight, which fell in a square of yellow on the floor near the window, leaving the rest of the room in what to an eye less accustomed than mine had become to that faint light would have been total darkness. Now, I am sure, I heard a soft whispering outside my door. I knew that I was in a state of siege! The crisis was come, and strange to say, I felt myself grow all at once resolute and self-possessed. It was not a subsidence, however, of the dreadful excitement, but a sudden screwing-up of my nerves to a pitch such as I cannot describe.
I suppose the people outside moved with great caution; and the perfect solidity of the floor, which had not anywhere a creaking board in it, favoured their noiseless movements. It was well for me that there were in the house three persons whom it was part of their plan to mystify respecting my fate. This alone compelled the extreme caution of their proceedings. They suspected that I had placed furniture against the door, and were afraid to force it, lest a crash, a scream, perhaps a long and shrilly struggle, might follow.
I remained for a space which I cannot pretend to estimate in the same posture, afraid to stir—afraid to move my eye from the door.
A very peculiar grating sound above my head startled me from my watch—something of the character of sawing, only more crunching, and with a faint continued rumble in it—utterly inexplicable. It sounded over that portion of the roof which was farthest from the door, toward which I now glided; and as I took my stand under cover of the projecting angle of a clumsy old press that stood close by it, I perceived the room a little darkened, and I saw a man descend and take his stand upon the window-stone. He let go a rope, which, however, was still fast round his body, and employed both his hands, with apparently some exertion, about something at the side of the window, which in a moment more, in one mass, bars and all, swung noiselessly open, admitting the frosty night-air; and the man, whom I now distinctly saw to be Dudley Ruthyn, kneeled on the sill, and stept, after a moment's listening, into the room. His foot made no sound upon the floor; his head was bare, and he wore his usual short shooting-jacket.
I cowered to the ground in my post of observation. He stood, as it seemed to me irresolutely for a moment, and then drew from his pocket an instrument which I distinctly saw against the faint moonlight. Imagine a hammer, one end of which had been beaten out into a longish tapering spike, with a handle something longer than usual. He drew stealthily to the window, and seemed to examine this hurriedly, and tested its strength with a twist or two of his hand. And then he adjusted it very carefully in his grasp, and made two or three little experimental picks with it in the air.
I remained perfectly still, with a terrible composure, crouched in my hiding-place, my teeth clenched, and prepared to struggle like a tigress for my life when discovered. I thought his next measure would be to light a match. I saw a lantern, I fancied, on the window-sill. But this was not his plan. He stole, in a groping way, which seemed strange to me, who could distinguish objects in this light, to the side of my bed, the exact position of which he evidently knew; he stooped over it. Madame was breathing in the deep respiration of heavy sleep. Suddenly but softly he laid, as it seemed to me, his left hand over her face, and nearly at the same instant there came a scrunching blow; an unnatural shriek, beginning small and swelling for two or three seconds into a yell such as are imagined in haunted houses, accompanied by a convulsive sound, as of the motion of running, and the arms drumming on the bed; and then another blow—and with a horrid gasp he recoiled a step or two, and stood perfectly still. I heard a horrible tremor quivering through the joints and curtains of the bedstead—the convulsions of the murdered woman. It was a dreadful sound, like the shaking of a tree and rustling of leaves. Then once more he steps to the side of the bed, and I heard another of those horrid blows—and silence—and another—and more silence—and the diabolical surgery was ended. For a few seconds, I think, I was on the point of fainting; but a gentle stir outside the door, close to my ear, startled me, and proved that there had been a watcher posted outside. There was a little tapping at the door.
'Who's that?' whispered Dudley, hoarsely.
'A friend,' answered a sweet voice.
And a key was introduced, the door quickly unlocked, and Uncle Silas entered. I saw that frail, tall, white figure, the venerable silver locks that resembled those upon the honoured head of John Wesley, and his thin white hand, the back of which hung so close to my face that I feared to breathe. I could see his fingers twitching nervously. The smell of perfumes and of ether entered the room with him.
Dudley was trembling now like a man in an ague-fit.
'Look what you made me do!' he said, maniacally.
'Steady, sir!' said the old man, close beside me.
'Yes, you damned old murderer! I've a mind to do for you.'
'There, Dudley, like a dear boy, don't give way; it's done. Right or wrong, we can't help it. You must be quiet,' said the old man, with a stern gentleness.
'Whoever advised it, you're a gainer, Dudley,' said Uncle Silas.
Then there was a pause.
'I hope that was not heard,' said Uncle Silas.
Dudley walked to the window and stood there.
'Come, Dudley, you and Hawkes must use expedition. You know you must get that out of the way.'
'I've done too much. I won't do nout; I'll not touch it. I wish my hand was off first; I wish I was a soger. Do as ye like, you an' Hawkes. I won't go nigh it; damn ye both—and that!' and he hurled the hammer with all his force upon the floor.
'Come, come, be reasonable, Dudley, dear boy. There's nothing to fear but your own folly. You won't make a noise?'
'Oh, oh, my God!' said Dudley, hoarsely, and wiped his forehead with his open hand.
'There now, you'll be all well in a minute,' continued the old man.
'You said 'twouldn't hurt her. If I'd a known she'd a screeched like that I'd never a done it. 'Twas a damn lie. You're the damndest villain on earth.'
'Come, Dudley!' said the old man under his breath, but very sternly, 'make up your mind. If you don't choose to go on, it can't be helped; only it's a pity you began. For you it is a good deal—it does not much matter for me.'
'Ay, for you!' echoed Dudley, through his set teeth. 'The old talk!'
'Well, sir,' snarled the old man, in the same low tones, 'you should have thought of all this before. It's only taking leave of the world a year or two sooner, but a year or two's something. I'll leave you to do as you please.'
'Stop, will you? Stop here. I know it's a fixt thing now. If a fella does a thing he's damned for, you might let him talk a bit anyhow. I don't care much if I was shot.'
'There now—there—just stick to that, and don't run off again. There's a box and a bag here; we must change the direction, and take them away. The box has some jewels. Can you see them? I wish we had a light.'
'No, I'd rayther not; I can see well enough. I wish we were out o' this. Here's the box.'
'Pull it to the window,' said the old man, to my inexpressible relief advancing at last a few steps.
Coolness was given me in that dreadful moment, and I knew that all depended on my being prompt and resolute. I stood up swiftly. I often thought if I had happened to wear silk instead of the cachmere I had on that night, its rustle would have betrayed me.
I distinctly saw the tall stooping figure of my uncle, and the outline of his venerable tresses, as he stood between me and the dull light of the window, like a shape cut in card.
He was saying 'just to there,' and pointing with his long arm at that contracting patch of moonlight which lay squared upon the floor. The door was about a quarter open, and just as Dudley began to drag Madame's heavy box, with my jewel-case in it, across the floor from her room, inhaling a great breath—with a mental prayer for help—I glided on tiptoe from the room and found myself on the gallery floor.
I turned to my right, simply by chance, and followed a long gallery in the dark, not running—I was too fearful of making the least noise—but walking with the tiptoe-swiftness of terror. At the termination of this was a cross-gallery, one end of which—that to my left—terminated in a great window, through which the dusky night-view was visible. With the instinct of terror I chose the darker, and turned again to my right; hurrying through this long and nearly dark passage, I was terrified by a light, about thirty feet before me, emerging from the ceiling. In spotted patches this light fell through the door and sides of a stable lantern, and showed me a ladder, down which, from an open skylight I suppose for the cool night-air floated in my face, came Dickon Hawkes notwithstanding his maimed condition, with so much celerity as to leave me hardly a moment for consideration.
He sat on the last round of the ladder, and tightened the strap of his wooden leg.
At my left was a door-case open, but no door. I entered; it was a short passage about six feet long, leading perhaps to a backstair, but the door at the end was locked.
I was forced to stand in this recess, then, which afforded no shelter, while Pegtop stumped by with his lantern in his hand. I fancy he had some idea of listening to his master unperceived, for he stopped close to my hiding-place, blew out the candle, and pinched the long snuff with his horny finger and thumb.
Having listened for a few seconds, he stumped stealthily along the gallery which I had just traversed, and turned the corner in the direction of the chamber where the crime had just been committed, and the discovery was impending. I could see him against the broad window which in the daytime lighted this long passage, and the moment he had passed the corner I resumed my flight.
I descended a stair corresponding with that backstair, as I am told, up which Madame had led me only the night before. I tried the outer door. To my wild surprise it was open. In a moment I was upon the step, in the free air, and as instantaneously was seized by the arm in the gripe of a man.
It was Tom Brice, who had already betrayed me, and who was now, in surtout and hat, waiting to drive the carriage with the guilty father and son from the scene of their abhorred outrage.