“I’ll go back to the house with you,” she said. “After all, what difference does it make?”
The woman who stood there holding the lantern above her head was the most tragically beautiful creature I had ever seen. She did not appear to be very young. Possibly she was in her later thirties, but her small, almost childish, stature gave her the appearance of extreme youth. Great dark eyes burnt in a small ashen pale face, whose pallor was accentuated by her vivid scarlet mouth. Masses of blue-black hair tumbled about her shoulders, and on to the leather collar of my coat. Evidently the coat had been hastily donned, for it wasn’t fastened, and exposed to view the shimmery satin of an evening gown she wore.
In a brief glance I noted her sodden silver shoes, and the mud-stained hem of her gown. The silver lace which bordered it was mud-stained and spattered with blood. A pongee cloak, which she had evidently used to motor in, lay a drenched and soggy mass on the seat of the roadster.
For a strained moment we stared at each other. The fragile, infinitely pathetic woman facing Alan and myself. Then she swayed as if about to fall. I started toward her, but she straightened up bravely and gave a little laugh.
“It — it isn’t very pleasant out here,” she said in a musical voice, “the house is a trifle better.”
Silently we trudged back through the overgrown grass and weeds, our feet sinking deep into the spongy ground. Alan relieved her of the lantern and lighted us into the house.
“I — I’ll return your coat to you.” she said in a half-apologetic tone, going towards the stove, which still glowed red and cheerful from the fire Alan had built. “I shan’t need it now. I really didn’t mean to steal it. I hoped to return it somehow — some way. I was desperate.”
As we were silent, she choked and then with an air of bravado, continued: “I am sorry I cannot offer you any better hospitality, but — “ a wave of a very thin white hand expressed more than words could have done.
“Offer us any better hospitality — ?” Alan repeated dumbly after her.
“Yes. This is my home, but it isn’t the same as it was when I lived here.”
“I — I don’t quite understand,” I stammered.
A thin white line settled about Alan’s rigid mouth. I knew he was wondering what connection the beautiful pallid woman had with the dead man lying upstairs. If she had herself killed him — or if she even knew of his existence. She seemed to sense what I did; for the half-born smile on her lips faded, the dark eyes became darker, if possible, as they widened. Her hands fluttered upward, then dropped helplessly to the side of her orchid-colored gown.
“Yes,” she said dully, as if in reply to a question — “I killed him. I was in the closet upstairs when you went into the other room. While you were in there I stole out through the door I had locked on the inside, and down the stairs. I took your cloak, and ran out to the stable. I was going to drive away, when you called me back. Perhaps it is just as well you did. It doesn’t matter much one way or another.”
“You killed Judge MacPherson?” I gasped. “Why?”
“You knew him ?”
An enigmatical smile played about her lips, full and softly rounded like a child’s. That smile held a world of wisdom and tragedy in a moment’s flicker. It made her face strangely old and careworn in the light of the oil lamp. I suddenly seemed to be looking at the remnants of a once beautiful woman, at a battered and bruised soul — not at the woman herself.
“I wonder just how well you knew him,” she said as though to herself. “Not as well as I did, at any rate.”
“He was your lover?” Alan asked.
We lowered our voices as if taking our key from her. Curiously, I felt more of an interest in the woman herself than the fact that she had killed Judge MacPherson. She shook her head in reply to Alan’s question and her lips curled scornfully.
After a little, she said:
“Would you like to have me tell you all about it? Somehow, I feel as if I should be relieved if I did so; I’m really very unnerved and shaken. After all, it’s a terrible thing to take a human life — to watch a soul leave a man’s body, even though you know that man to be a reptile and deserving of more than one death. I shan’t speak when I am arrested. They can do as they like with me. But I’ll not have the newspapers and their ravenous readers gloating over my miserable downfall. You do not know who I am, nor do I know you — we shall never meet again — and something tells me that when morning comes you will allow me to go my way, and you will go another, so — I should like you to know the truth.”
She was strangely calm. Only the pallid whiteness of her face, and a glitter to her dark eyes, showed any of the tumult seething within her. Alan and I both hung upon her words. Somehow it seemed unnecessary for us to talk. She shivered. Without a word Alan pulled the box on which he had flung his coat nearer the fire, and half assisted her to sit upon it.
“Shall I go upstairs and fetch you a chair?” he said.
“No! No! Oh, no!” For one instant she lost control of herself. The next moment she was as calm and restrained as a society matron serving tea.
Alan and I seated ourselves on the floor at her feet. The thunder and lightning had ceased, and but for the steady drip, drip of the rain, the night was placid and quiet.
For a long time it seemed to my overwrought nerves the woman sat there with her hands clasped loosely in her lap, her great eyes staring at a red glowing spot on the old stove. Once or twice she glanced apprehensively over her shoulder as though she expected the man she had slain to appear in the doorway behind her.
“I was born here, reared here, and married in this house,” she said at last, ‘‘my little boy was born here. It was a beautiful old house then. Seeing it now, you can scarcely realize what it was in those days. When I was a girl it used to be full of young people laughing, dancing and enjoying life. We had husking bees in the barn, halloween parties, dances, in the winter sleigh rides and Christmas trees.
“Many’s the time I’ve coasted down that long hill and landed in a heap at the bottom. Then I married a man I adored. He worshipped me. He placed me on a pedestal, as something just a little more than mortal. He was an intensely religious man, perhaps a trifle austere, but because I loved society, young company, we continued to fill the home with guests. There was never a shadowy corner in the house like there is now — the lights were always bright. There were always laughing voices to be heard and music — “ she spoke very slowly, in an almost pedantic fashion, as though choosing her words, and a bit uncertain of them. It was as though she were speaking a tongue not quite familiar to her.
“When my little boy was born both my husband and myself were overjoyed. Even the fact that he was a fragile little fellow did not drown our happiness. For a year we battled to keep him alive — then he began to grow sturdy and rosy like the other children who came with their parents to visit us. About that time my husband became very absorbed in his profession. He was compiling a historical volume of intense interest to himself. Because I was lonesome I used to go into the city quite often to the theatre — generally to matinees — and come back at dinner time. Several times I went later in the day, and remained overnight.
“I did not realize then that he was jealous of me — that he was suspicious. If only he had said something to me — but he never did — until too late! I was very innocent in those days.
“Principally because I did not wish to disturb him, or impose upon my friends, the few times I remained overnight in the city, I stayed in a small hotel, walking to and from the theatre alone.
“Imagine my horror when, one night, as I turned the corner to go to the hotel (which was in a side street), a man put his hand on my shoulder, and before I could make any protest, informed me I was under arrest.
“Too dazed and bewildered to demand the reason for this outrage, I did nothing but declare my innocence. I was dragged downtown to the police court, and put upon the stand before a grinning, gaping crowd of spectators. I was asked obscene questions by that man lying upstairs, sneered at because of my protestations of virtue, then thrown in a cell with two drunken prostitutes and a half-insane old woman. I was so ashamed, so horror-stricken, yet so certain of my release in the morning, that I did not telephone my husband of what had happened.
“It never occurred to me that I would be branded as a woman of the streets and sentenced to prison. But I was! I was! Judge MacPherson — a man of the world who should be able to distinguish between women — laughed at me, and with one wave of his smug hand, with one word sentenced me to six months’ confinement and a lifetime of hell! Never so long as I live will I forget his face!
“That same night my baby was taken ill, my husband tried to find me — his search discovered to him the fact that I was in jail for soliciting on the street!
“Then the jealousy — the suspicions he had felt for me burst into flame, making him ready to believe the worst of me.
“I never saw him but once after that. That one time he denounced me as a woman unfit to live — as a thing too vile to breathe the same air as my child. Then he told me the boy was dead. Of course, he secured my release, but it was too late.
“When I came out of prison, I went to Judge MacPherson’s home. I remember he was sitting at dinner. He was very annoyed at having his meal disturbed by a pale, bedraggled, slovenly-looking woman. He was at no pains to hide his annoyance. I told him what he had done to me, an innocent woman, and I demanded that he right this wrong.
“There was the same smiling sneer on his face as when he sentenced me.
” ‘Just how can I do this, my dear lady?’ he said.
’“‘Go to my husband,’ I cried wildly, I had not learned to restrain myself then — ‘tell him that I am innocent — absolutely innocent. My baby is gone but there is still a chance for me, if he will take me — you must explain to him — you must make him understand!’
“He laughed — laughed at me.
“‘Old stuff, my dear!’ he sneered, ‘old stuff. Why can’t you women think of something original? Of course, you are all innocent, none of you will even admit to a first offense. I’m sorry if your child is dead, that is, if you had one, but I certainly won’t help to hoodwink a man — who evidently is a person of principle. If you don’t want to suffer, behave yourself; that’s all I have to say. Good evening!’
“Then he showed me the door. I think I went insane. I remember standing outside and pounding on it, screaming maledictions on him, shrieking to him that he must clear me, that he must give me back my good name. Then some one seized me, and I was dragged away to the station-house again. I left it under a six months’ sentence for disorderly conduct.
“When I got out this time, dazed, broken, aged, I realized that nothing I could ever do or say would reinstate me. This second arrest, caused by the man who had ruined me, had branded me forever and forever. I learned my husband had divorced me, disposed of everything in our home and sailed to France.
“Those who had been my friends passed me on the street without recognition. There was no one in the world I could turn to. I was practically without means. To be sure, I owned this house, but I did not have the money to keep it in repair, and I could not live in it. The memories it recalled were maddening. Then, too, I felt everyone knew my story, and I could not face their scornful glances.
“Time and again I was tempted to kill myself, but one thing always held me back; my undying soul-eating hatred for the man who had passed judgment on me.
“One day I realized why this monstrous thing had happened to me. I was to be the instrument with which to save innumerable women from a fate similar to mine! It was to be my task to rid the world of the viper who destroyed innocence and laughed at his handiwork. I almost became happy in contemplation of what I would do? What did it matter to me that to accomplish his destruction I must accomplish my own! The thing he had branded me, I became in reality. I was beautiful; soon I learned I was desirable, and I could be fascinating.
“I studied all the arts and wiles of the oldest profession in the world, and determined to sell myself to the highest bidder. My education, my knowledge of society, my culture all stood me in good stead. Understand, I always stayed within the law, I was never crude. I took no chances of another arrest. My new name, the one I adopted when I became of the demi-monde, I kept unsmirched, if you could call it that. I became a leader in the set where mistresses laughed at wives and where lovers were more popular than husbands.
“I discovered, to my intense delight, that although austere, and apparently religious. Judge MacPherson’s besetting sin was women, that he used the timeworn excuse of an invalid wife to cover his indiscretions. You don’t know it, of course, as he kept the scandal quiet, but it was I who brought about his divorce.
“It took me three years to secure an introduction to him, but it took less than three hours to hopelessly ensnare him. It was not strange that in the smiling, elegantly blase woman of the world he did not recognize the half-crazed, bedraggled woman of the police courts.
“He was just at that most susceptible age when he felt that youth was slipping from him, and old age waiting to claim him had put a taboo on affairs of the heart. With a desperate desire to remain young he flung himself headlong into my hands, never doubting that I was what I appeared — a divorcee whose misplaced affections had made her a trifle bitter toward men, yet who was longing and looking for a loving protector.
“I played my cards well. I used all the coyness of the ingenue with the blandishments of the courtesan to keep him on tenter-hooks before he became that protector. After that, it was easier.
“He did not realize why I suggested week-end parties, gradually making this house their setting. I had, from the first, determined that as this was the home he had destroyed, so here he should be destroyed.
“It was his money which furnished those rooms upstairs. Rather grim humor, isn’t it?
“Can you conceive of the loathing I felt at that man’s touch, how I cringed as he embraced me? How I laughed and anticipated the climax of it all ? He called me a charming child with quaint ideas when he first saw this place, abandoned and decayed. The unusualness of our rendezvous appealed to him as unique. Early I learned unwholesome things intrigued him.
“Tonight was our third visit. We arrived just before the storm broke. As usual we brought a lunch kit with our dinner in it. That meal was never eaten. I had drugged the wine just enough to befog his brain, and make him like wax in my hands. Then as he sat there, stupid, dazed and inert, I told him who I was, and why he was here.
“And I laughed! Laughed at him as he had laughed at me when he had me taken away, kicking and screaming, by the police. You would have laughed, too, had you seen his face!
“When I showed him the revolver, and told him I was going to kill him, he cringed like a sick animal, whimpering and begging for mercy — the kind of mercy he hadn’t shown me. Still I laughed! He staggered drunkenly to his feet, and came toward me. I don’t think he felt certain that I meant what I said. I whirled on him and backed him into the bedroom. Then, when he made a lurch toward me, trying to secure the pistol and stumbled against the bed, I fired — he fell across it dead.”
'’Where is the pistol?” Alan asked drily.
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “I flung it under the bed. His blood smeared my gown, see! After a little, I went out to drive the car to town, but it was raining so hard I became drenched before I reached the barn. I came back to the house. Then I heard you come in at the front door. I was frightened. I had fancied myself absolutely alone out here. I locked the bedroom door when I heard you climb the stairs — you know the rest — “
We were silent for a few moments. Then Alan said abruptly:
“I’d like to take a look at him again.” The woman rose slowly, and we all filed up the stairs again. At the bedroom door she laid a feverish hand on mine, and I felt a shudder go through her, but when we stood staring at the cold, dark figure before us, her face was unexpressive, emotionless.
Half entangled in the lace of the bedspread where it had fallen, or been thrown, as MacPherson stumbled against the bed, was the revolver. The light from the lantern, though not brilliant, illuminated more space than Alan’s spot had done, hence it had been hidden from our view before.
Alan looked steadily at her a moment. I could not read what was passing through his thoughts, then he motioned for us to follow him downstairs.
The steady drip, drip of the rain made me drowsy. We huddled in silence on the floor before the stove, the woman staring off in space. Presently I dozed, leaning against Alan’s shoulder.
When I awakened, it was breaking day — she was gone!
“Alan!” I cried, shaking him a little to waken him. “She’s gone!”
“Yes, I know. I saw her when she left.”
“But — “
“Who are we to judge?” he asked slowly.
* * * * *
· END OF PART 3 ·
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