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The Ghost of Little Jacques - The Atlantic

How quiet the saloon was, that morning, as I groped my way through the little white tables, the light chairs, and the dimness of early dawn to the windows. It was my business to open the windows every morning, finding my way down as best I could; for it was not permitted to light the gas at that hour, and no candles were allowed, lest they should soil the furniture. This morning the glass dome which brightened the ceiling, and helped to lighten the saloon, was of very little effect, so cloudy and dusk was the sky. The high houses which shut in the strip of garden on all sides reflected not a ray of light. A chill struck through me, as I passed along the marble pavement; a saloon-dampness, empty, vault-like, hung about the fireless, sunless place; and the plashing of the fountain which dripped into the marble basin beyond—dropping, dropping, incessantly—struck upon my ear like water trickling down the side of a cave.

It had never occurred to me to think the place lonely or dreary before, or to demur at this morning operation of opening it for the day; a tawdry, gilded, showy hall, it had seemed to me quite a grand affair, compared with those in which I had hitherto found employment. Now I shuddered and shivered, and felt the task, always regarded as a compliment to my honesty, to be indeed hard and heavy enough.

It might have been—yet I was not a coward—that the little coffin in that little room at the end of the saloon had something to do with this uneasiness. On each side of that narrow room (which opened upon a long hall leading to the front of the building) were the small windows looking out upon the garden, which I always unbolted first. I say I do not know that this presence of death had anything to do with my trepidation. The death of a child was no very solemn or very uncommon thing in my master's family. He had many children, and, when death thinned their ranks, took the loss like a philosopher,—as he was,—a French philosopher. He philosophized that his utmost exertions could not do much more for the child than bequeath to him just such a life as he led, and a share in just such a saloon as he owned; and therefore, if a priest and a coffin insured the little innocent admission into heaven without any extra charge, he would not betray such lack of wisdom as to demur at the proposition. Therefore, very quietly, since I had been in his employ, (about a twelvemonth,) three of his children, one by one, had been brought down to that little room at the end of the saloon, and thence through the long hall, through the crowded street out to some unheard-of burying-ground, where a pot of flowers and a painted cross supplied the place of a head-stone. The shop was not shut up on these occasions: that would have been an unnecessary interference with the comfort of customers, and loss of time and money. The necessity of providing for his little living family had quite disenthralled Monsieur C—— from any weakly sentimentality in regard to his little dead family.

So I do not know why I shuddered, being also myself somewhat of a philosopher,—of such cool philosophy as grows out inevitably from the hard and stony strata of an overworked life. The sleeper within was certainly better cared for now than he ever had been in life. Monsieur's purse afforded no holiday-dress but a shroud; three of these in requisition within so short a time quite scanted the wardrobe of the other children. Little Jacques had always been a somewhat restless and unhappy baby, longing for fresh air, and a change which he never got; it seemed likely, so far as the child's promise was concerned, that the "great change" was his only chance of variety, and the very best thing that could have happened to him.

And yet, after all, there was something about his death which individualized it, and hung a certain sadness over its occurrence that does not often belong to the death of children, or at least had not marked the departure of his two stout little brothers. Scarlet-fever and croup and measles are such every-day, red-winged, mottled angels, that no one is appalled at their presence; they take off the little sufferer in such vigorous fashion, clutch him with so hearty a grip, that one is compelled to open the door, let them out, and feel relieved when the exit is made. It is only when some dim-eyed, white-robed shape, scarcely seen, scarcely felt, steps softly in and steals away the little troublesome bundle of life with solemn eye and hushed lip, that we have time to pause, to look, to grieve.

This little Jacques, when I came to his father's house, was a rampant, noisy, cunning child, with the vivacity of French and American blood mingling in his veins, and filling him with strongest tendencies to mischief, and prompting elfish feats of activity. He was not by any means a fascinating child,—in fact, no children ever fascinated me,—but this little fellow was rather disagreeable, a wonder to his father, a horror to his mother, and a great annoyance generally; we were all rather cross with him, and he was universally put down, thrust aside, and ordered out of the way.

This was the state of affairs when I came. It was little Jacques, with a high forehead, white, tightly curling hair, and mischief-full blue eye, who made himself translator of all imaginable inquisitorial French phrases for my benefit,—who questioned, and tormented, and made faces at me,—who pulled my apron, disappeared with my carpet-bag, and placed a generous slice of molasses-candy upon the seat of my chair, when I sat down to rest myself.

Little Jacques ardently loved a sly fishing-expedition on the edge of the marble fountain-basin, and had lured one or two unthinking gold-fish to destruction with fly and a crooked pin. He would sit perched up there at an odd chance, when his father was away, and he dared venture into the saloon,—his little bare feet twinkling against the water, his plump figure curled up into the minutest size, but ready for a spring and a dart up-stairs at the shortest notice of danger. This piscatory propensity had been severely punished by both Monsieur and Madame C——, who could not afford to encourage such an expensive Izaak Walton; but there was no managing the child. He seemed to possess an impish capability of eluding detection and angry denunciations. To be sure, circumstances were against any very strict guard being kept over the youngster. Madame C—— was a very weak woman, a very weak woman indeed,—she declared that such was the case,—a nervous, dispirited woman, whom everything troubled, who could not bear the noise and tramp of life, and altogether sank under it. Destiny had had no mercy on her weakness, however, and had left her to get along with an innumerable family of children, a philosophic husband, who took all her troubles coolly, and a constant demand for her services either in the shop or at the cradle. She could not, therefore, have patience with the incessant anxiety which little Jacques excited by his pranks.

One day Madame C—— had gone out for a walk, leaving the children locked in a room above, five of them, two younger and two older than Jacques; and these together had been in a state of riotous insurrection the whole morning. Little Jacques was not of a disposition to submit to ignominious imprisonment, when human ingenuity could devise means of escape; while his brothers were running wild together, he soberly hunted up another key, screwed and scraped and got it into the key-hole; it turned, and he was out.

Half an hour afterwards, his mother, returning, caught the unfortunate fugitive contemplatively perched on the edge of the fountain-basin. In such a frenzy of anger as only unreasonable people are subject to, she caught the child, shivering with terror, and thrust him into the water. The gold-fish splashed and swirled, and the water streamed over the sides of the basin. It was only an instant's work; snatching up the forlorn fisher, she shook him unmercifully, and set him upon the floor, dripping and breathless. I saw nothing of them until night. His mother had then recovered her usual peevishness, weakness, and inefficiency; the ebullition of energy had entirely subsided. I was curious to know whether the summary punishment had had any effect upon Jacques; but he was asleep, as soundly as usual after a day's hard frolic.

My curiosity was likely to be gratified to satiety. A strange change came over the little fellow after this. To one accustomed to his apish activity, and to being annoyed by it, there was something plaintive in the fact of having got rid of that trouble. The child was silent, mopish, "good," as his mother said, congratulating herself on the effect of her summary visitation upon the offender.

When, however, a month passed without any return of the evil propensities, this continued quiescence grew to be something ghostly, and, to people who had only their own hands to depend on for a living, a subject of anxiety and alarm: it was expensive to clothe and feed a child who promised but little service in future.

"The enfant will never come to anything," said Monsieur; "we could better have spared him than Jean."

To which his wife shook her head, and solemnly assented.

The 'enfant,' however, gave no signs of taking the hint. Day after day his little ministerial head and flaxen curls were visible over the top of his old-fashioned arm-chair, and day after day his food was demanded, and his appetite was as good as ever.

Watching the child, whose blue eyes, now the mischief was out of them, grew utterly vacant of expression, I unaccountably to myself came to feel an uncomfortable interest in, a morbid sympathy with him,—an uneasy, unhappy sympathy, more physical than mental.

No fault could have been found with the motherly carefulness and attention of Madame C——. It was charmingly polite and French. But the sight of her preparing the child's food, or coaxing him with unaccustomed delicacies and bonbons, grew to be utterly distasteful,—an infliction so nervously annoying that I could not overcome it. A secret antipathy which I had nourished against Madame seemed to be germinating; every action of hers irritated me, every sound of her sharp, yet well-modulated voice gave me a tremor. The truth was, that plunge into the water, taking place so unexpectedly in my presence, had startled and upset me almost as completely as if it had befallen myself. A hard-working woman had no business with such nerves. I knew that, and tried to annihilate them; but the more I cut them down, the more they bled. The thing was a mere trifle,—the fountain-basin was shallow, the water healthy,—nothing could be more healthy than bathing,—and, at any rate, it was no affair of mine. Yet my mind in some unhealthy mood aggravated the circumstances, and colored everything with its own dark hue.

I could not give up my place, of course not; I was not likely to get so good a situation anywhere else; I could not risk it; and yet the servitude of horror under which I was held for a few weeks was almost enough to reconcile one to starvation. Only that I was kept busy in the shop most of the time, and had little leisure to observe the course of affairs, or to be in Madame's society, I should have given warning,—foolishly enough,—for there was not a tangible thing of which I had to complain. But a shapeless suspicion which for some days had been brooding in my mind was taking form, too dim for me to dare to recognize it, but real enough to make me feel a miserable fascination to the house while little Jacques still lived, a magnetic, uncomfortable necessity for my presence, as though it were in some sort a protection against an impending evil.

Such suspicion I did not, of course, presume to name, scarcely presumed to think, it seemed so like an unnatural monstrosity of my own mind. But when, one morning, the child died, holding in his hands the bonbons his mother had given him, and Madame C——, all agitation and frenzy and weeping, still contrived to extract them from the tightly closed, tiny fists, and threw them into the grate, I felt a horrid thrill like the effect of the last scene in a tragedy. I knew that the bonbons were poisoned.

So that is the reason I shuddered as I passed through the saloon.

Throwing open the window, a dim light flickered through, and a sickly ray fell upon the fountain. It shivered upon the dripping marble column in its centre, and struck with an icy hue the water in the basin below. The fountain was not in my range of vision from the window; but I often turned to look at it as I opened the shutters, thinking it a pretty sight when the drops sparkled in the misty light against the background of the otherwise darkened room. It pleased my imagination to watch the effect produced by a little more or a little less opening of the shutters,—a nonsensical morning play-spell, which quite enlivened me for the sedate occupations of the day. It was, however, not imagination now which whispered to me that there was something else to look at beside the jet of water and the shadowy play of light. Stooping down upon the fountain-brink, absorbed in contemplating the gold-fish swimming below, and with its naked little feet touching the water's edge, a tiny figure sat. My first thought (the first thoughts of fear are never reasonable) was, that some child from up-stairs had stolen down unawares, (as children are quite as fond as grown folks of forbidden pleasures,) to amuse itself with the water. But the children were not risen yet, and the saloon was too utterly dark and dismal at that hour to tempt the bravest of them. Second thoughts reminded me of that certainty, and I looked again. The figure raised its head from its drooping posture, and gazed vacantly, out of a pair of dim blue eyes, at me. The eyes were the eyes of little Jacques.

I do not know how I should have been so utterly overcome, but I started up in terror as I felt the dreamy phantom-gaze fixed upon me, raising my hands wildly above my head. The hammer which I held in my hand to drive back the bolts of the shutters flew from my grasp and struck the great mirror,—the new mirror which had just been bought, and was not yet hung up. All the savings of a year were shivered to fragments in an instant. My horror at this catastrophe recalled my presence of mind; for I was a poor woman, dependent for my bread on the family. Poor women cannot afford to have fancies; some prompt reality always startles them out of dream or superstition. My superstition fled in dismay as I stooped over the fragments of the looking-glass. What should I do? Where should I hide myself? I involuntarily took hold of the mirror with the instinctive intention of turning it to the wall. It was very heavy; I could scarcely lift it. Pausing a moment, and looking forward at its shattered face in utter anguish of despair, I saw again, repeated in a hundred jagged splinters, up and down in zigzag confusion, in demoniac omnipresence, the uncanny eye, the spectral shape, which had so appalled me. The little phantom had arisen, its slim finger was outstretched,—it beckoned, slowly beckoned, growing indistinct, it receded farther and farther out from the saloon towards the shop.

The fascination of a spell was upon me; I turned and followed the retreating figure. The shutters of the show-window were not yet taken down, but thin lines of light filtered through them,—light enough to see that the apparition made its way to a forbidden spot slyly haunted by the little boy in his days of mischief,—a certain shelf where a box of some peculiar sort of expensive confections was kept. I had seen his mother, with unwonted generosity, give the child a handful of these a day or two before his death. I could go no farther. A mighty fear fell upon me, a dimness of vision and a terrible faintness; for that child-phantom, gliding on before, stopped like a retribution at that very spot, and, raising its little hand, pointed to that very box, glancing upward with its solemn eye, as, rising slowly in the air, it grew indistinct, its outlines fading into darkness, and disappeared.

I did not fall or faint, however; I hastened out to the saloon again.
The door of the little room where the coffin stood was open, and
Madame stepping out, looked vaguely about her.

"Madame! Madame!" I cried, "oh, I have seen—I have seen a terrible sight!"

Madame's face grew white, very white. She grasped me harshly by the arm.

"What are you talking about, you crazy woman? You are getting quite wild, I think. Do you imagine you can hide your guilt in that way?" and she shook me with a savage fierceness that made my very bones ache. "This is carrying it with a high hand, to be sure, to flatter yourself that such wilful carelessness will not be discovered. Do you suppose," she cried, pointing to the fragments of glass, "that my nerves could feel a crash like that, and I not come down to see what had happened?"

She spoke so volubly, and kept so firm a grip of my arm, that I could not get breath to utter a word of self-defence,—indeed, what defence could I make? Yet I should say, from my mistress's singular manner, that she had seen that vision too, so wild were her eyes, so haggard her face.

Little Jacques was buried. His attentive parents enjoyed a carriage-ride, with his miniature coffin between them, quite as well as if the little fellow had accompanied them alive and full of mischief.

Outside matters, as Monsieur said, being now off his mind, he could attend to business again.

The mirror belonged to "business." I had been writhing under that knowledge all the morning of their absence.

Monsieur took the sight of his despoiled glass as calmly as Diogenes might have viewed a similar disaster from his tub. Monsieur's philosophy was grounded upon common sense. He knew that the frame was valuable. He knew also that I had saved enough to pay for the accident. I knew it, too, and was well aware that he would exact payment to the uttermost farthing. Monsieur, therefore, was quite cool. He laughed loudly at Madame's excitement, and the feverish account she gave of my fright, my deceitfulness, and pretending to see what nobody else saw.

"Little Jacques!" I heard him exclaim, as I entered the room, shrugging his shoulders with such a contemptuously good-natured sneer as only a Frenchman can manufacture; and raising both his hands derisively, he went off with vivacity to his business.

In the morning I left. Monsieur endeavored to persuade me to stay. But my business there was finished. I was quite as cool as Monsieur,—in fact, a little chilly. I was determined to go. Madame was determined also; we could no longer get along together; each hated and feared the other; and Madame C—— having used overnight what influence she possessed to bring her husband to see the necessity of my departure, his objections were not very difficult to remove.

I could not afford to be out of work, that was true, and it might take me a long time to get it; but I was tired to death, and glad of any excuse for a little rest. What, after all, if I did lie by for a little while? there was not much pleasure or profit either way.

I should not grow rich by my work; I could not grow much poorer by being idle. The past year, which I had spent in the service of Monsieur and Madame C——, had been one of constant annoyance and irritating variety of employment. I had grown fretful in the constant hurry and drive, and the baneful atmosphere of Madame's peevishness. Body and soul cried out for a season of release, which never in all my life of service had I thought of before.

I had my desire now. I had put away my bondage. I had ceased my unprofitable labor. The rest I had so long craved was at hand. I might take a jubilee, a siesta, if I pleased, of half a year, and nobody be the wiser. I was responsible to nobody. Nobody had any demands upon my time or exertion. Free! I stood in a vacuum; no rush of air, no tempest or whirlpool stirred its infinite profundity. At length I was at peace,—a peace which seemed likely to last as long as my slim purse held out; for employment was not easy to obtain. Did I enjoy it? Did I lap myself in the long-desired repose in thankful quiescence of spirit? Perhaps,—I cannot tell; restlessness had become a chronic disease with me. I felt like a ship drifted from its moorings: the winds and the tides were pleasant; the ocean was at lull; but the ship rocked aimless and unsteady upon the waters. The heavy weights of life and activity so suddenly withdrawn left painful lightness akin to emptiness. The broken chains trailed noisily after me. The time hung heavily which I had so long prayed for. Long years of monotonous servitude had made a very machine of me. I could only rust in inaction. Some other power, to rack and grind and urge me on, was necessary to my very existence.

So it happened, that, at last, my holiday having spun out to the end of my means, I left the city, and engaged work at very low wages in a country-village. The situation and the remuneration were not in the least calculated to stimulate ambition or avarice; and I remained obscurely housed, incessantly busy, and coarsely clothed and fed, in this place, for two years. They were not long years either. I had no hard taskmaster, however hard my task, no uneasy, unexplainable apprehensions, no moody forebodings of evil, no troublesome children to distress me. At the end of that time I heard of a better situation, and returned to the city.

I had been engaged about a twelvemonth in my new place, a very pleasant little shop, though the pay was less and the work harder than I had had with Monsieur C——, when, one morning, standing at the shop-window, I saw that gentleman pass: very brisk, very spruce, very plump he looked. Glancing in, (I flatter myself that a show-window arranged as I could arrange it would attract any one's eye,) he espied me. A speedy recognition and a long conversation were the result. It was early morning, and we had the store to ourselves. Monsieur was very friendly. His business was very good. Poor Madame! he wished she could have lived to see it; but she was gone, poor soul! out of a world of trouble. And Monsieur plaintively fixed his eyes on the black crape upon his hat. The unhappy exit took place a few months after my departure. The children had gone to one or another relative. Monsieur was all alone; he had been away since then himself, had been doing as well as a bereaved man could do, and, having saved a snug little sum, had returned to buy out the old stand, and reëstablish himself in the old place. No one was with him; he wished he could get a good hand to superintend the concern, now his own hands were so full. It would be a good situation for somebody. In short, Monsieur came again and again, until, as I was poor and lonely, and had almost overworked myself just to keep soul and body together, whose union, after all, was of no importance to any one save myself, and as I was quite glad to find some one else who was interested in the preservation of the partnership, I consented to be his wife. It was a very sensible and philosophic arrangement for both of us. We could make more money together than apart, and were stout and well able to help each other, if only well taken care of. So we settled the business, and settled ourselves as partners in the saloon.

Three years had passed, and we were in the old place still. We had been very busy that day. Many orders to fill, many customers to wait upon. Monsieur, completely worn out, was sound asleep on the sofa up-stairs. It was late; I was very much fatigued, as I descended, according to my usual custom, to see that everything was safe about the house and shop. The place was all shut and empty; the lights were all out. A cushioned lounge in one corner of the saloon—my saloon now—attracted my weary limbs, and I threw myself upon it, setting the lamp upon a marble table by its side. With a complacent sense of rest settling upon me, I drowsily looked about at the dim magnificence of loneliness which surrounded me. The night-lamp made more shadow than shine; but even by its obscured rays one who had known the old place would have been struck with the wonderful improvement we had made. So I thought. It was almost like a palace, gilded, and mirrored, and hung with silken curtains. Monsieur and I had thriven together, had worked hard and saved much these many years to produce the change. But the change had been, as everything we effected was, well considered, and had proved very profitable in the end. Better reception-rooms brought better customers; higher prices a higher class of patronage. It was very pleasant, lying there, to reflect that we were actually succeeding in the world; and a pleasant and quiet mood fell upon me, as, hopeful of the future, I looked back at the past. I thought of my old days in that saloon; I thought of little Jacques. Little Jacques was still a thought of some horror to me, and I generally avoided any allusion to him. But to-night, in this subdued and contemplative mood, I even let the little phantom glide into my reverie without being startled. I even speculated on the old theme which had so haunted me. I wondered whether my suspicions had been correct, and whether—whether Madame C—— was guilty of sending her little son before her into the other world. So thinking,—I might have been almost dreaming,—a slight rustle in the shop aroused me. I was not alarmed; my nerves are now much healthier, and I wisely make a point of not getting them unstrung by violent movements, or unaccustomed feats of activity, when anything astonishing happens. I therefore lifted my head calmly and looked about,—it might be a mouse. The noise ceased that instant, as if the intruder were aware of being observed. Mice sometimes have this instinct. We had some valuable new confections, which I had no desire should be disposed of by such customers. So, taking up my lamp, and peering cautiously about me, I proceeded to the shop. The light flickered,—flickered on something tall and white,—something white and shadowy, standing erect, and shrinking aside, behind the counter. My heart stood still; a sepulchral chill came over me. My old self, trembling, angry, foreboding, stepped suddenly within the niche whence the self-confident, full-grown, sensible woman had vanished utterly. For an instant, I felt like a ghost myself. It seemed natural that ghosts, if such there were, should spy me out, and appall my heart with their presence. For there, in that old, haunted spot, where long years ago the spectre of little Jacques had lifted its menacing finger, stood the form of Marie, Madame C——. I knew it well; shuddering and shivering myself, more like an intruder than one intruded upon, I laid my hand upon the chill marble counter for support. It was no creation of imagination; the figure laid its hand also upon the marble, and, stretching over its gaunt neck, stood and peered into my eyes.

"Madame C——! Madame C——!" I cried; "what in the name of God would you have of me?"

"Nothing," she answered,—"nothing of you,—and nothing in the name of God. Oh, you need not shudder at me,—Christine C——! I know you well enough. You haven't got over your old tricks yet. I'm no ghost, though. Mayhap you'd rather I'd be, for all your nerves, eh?"—and she shook her head in the old vengeful, threatening way.

It was true enough. "What evil atmosphere surrounded me? What fell snare environed me? I looked about like a hunted animal brought to bay,—like a robber suddenly entrapped in the midst of his ill-gotten gains. For this was no dead woman, but a living vengeance, more terrible than death, brought to my very door. Some unseen power, it seemed, full of evil influence, full of malignant justice, stretched its long arms through my life, and would not let me by any means escape to peace, to rest. A direful vision of horrible struggles yet to come—of want, despair, disgrace in reservation—sickened my soul.

"I will call—I will call," said I, gasping,—"I will call Monsieur
C——; he"——

"Don't, don't, I beg of you!" she cried, catching me by the sleeve, with a sardonic laugh; low, whispering, full of direful meaning, it stealthily echoed through the saloon. "Don't disturb the good man. He sleeps so soundly after his well-spent days! He doesn't have any bad dreams, I fancy,—rid of such a troublesome, vicious wife,—a wife who harassed her husband to death, and murdered her little boy,—he sleeps sound, doesn't he? And yet—I declare, in the name of God, Christine C——,"—and she lifted up her bony finger like an avenging fate,—"he did it!"

I had been endeavoring to calm myself while this woman of spectral face and form stared at me with her maniac eye across the counter. I had succeeded. At any rate, this was a tangible horror, and could be grappled with; it was not beyond human reach, a shadowy retribution from the invisible world. To face the circumstances, however repulsive, is less depressing than to await in suspense the coming of their footsteps, and the descent of that blow we know they will inflict. I had always found that policy best which was bravest. I remembered this now. Dropping my high tone, and soothing my excited features, I beckoned the woman and gave her a chair; I took a chair myself, wrapping a shawl close about me to repress the shivering I could not yet overcome, and I and that woman, returned from the grave, as it seemed to me, sat calmly down in business-fashion, and held a long conversation.

Madame C—— had loved her husband with that sort of respectful, awe-filled affection which lower natures experience towards those which are a grade above them. She had loved her children, too, although they were her torment. Her inability to manage or keep them in order fretted and irritated her excessively. Monsieur, as a philosopher, could not understand the anomaly, that a woman who was perpetually unhappy and ill-tempered, while her children, young, buoyant, and mischievous, were about her, should sympathize with and care for them when sick. He could not understand her conscience-stricken misery when little Jacques drooped after her severity towards him. Monsieur was a kind husband, however, and a wise man in many things. He had studied much in his youth, chiefly medical works, of which he had quite a collection. He could not understand the whimsical nervousness of women, but, when so slight a thing as a child's illness appeared to be the cause of it, could unhesitatingly undertake to remove the difficulty. He had prescribed attentively for the two children who died before Jacques, thereby rendering them comfortable and quiet, and saving quite an item in the doctor's bill.

When little Jacques fell ill, and Madame fretted incessantly about his loss of vigor and vivacity, Monsieur, with fatherly kindness, undertook, in the midst of his pressing business, to give the child his medicine, which had to be most carefully prepared. Sometimes the powders were disguised in bonbons, the more agreeably to dose the patient little fellow; these were prepared with Monsieur's own fatherly hands, and during his absence were once in a while left for Madame to administer. Madame had great faith in these medicines,—great faith in her husband's skill; but the child's disease was obstinate, very; no progress could be discovered. It was a comforting thought, at least, that, if his recovery was beyond possibility, something had been done to soothe his pain and quiet the vexed spirit in its bitter struggle with dissolution. Yes, the medicines were certainly very quieting,—so quieting, so death-like in their influence,—she could not tell how a suspicion (perhaps the strange expression of the child's eye, when they were administered) glided into her imagination (having so great a reverence for her husband, it took no place in her mind for an instant,—it was merely a spectral, haunting shadow) that these things were getting the child no better,—that they were not medicine for keeping him here, but for helping him away. This suspicion, breathing its baleful breath across her mind, weak, vacillating, incapable of energetic action, had rendered her miserable, morose, irritable, more so than ever before. Yet little Jacques in his last hour hankered for the medicine, and craved feverishly the delicate powder, the sweet confection, his father prepared for him.

While inwardly brooding over this unnamed terror, and cowering before this shapeless thought which loomed in the darkness of her mental gloom, an idea entered her mind that I, too, was suspicious that something was going wrong,—that I was watching,—waiting the evil to come. The child died. Her fear for him was utterly superseded by fear for her husband. What if I should find him out and betray him? The anxiety occasioned by this possibility made her hate me. The agony of her little one's departure, the fear of some dire discovery, the consciousness of guilt near enough of vicinage almost to seem her own, combined to nearly distract her mind, and it seemed like a joyful relief when I departed. The sudden release from that constant pressure of fear (she knew I could do nothing against them without money, credit, or friends) made her ill for a time, quite ill, she said. She knew not what was done for her during this sickness,—who nursed her, or who gave her medicine. But one morning, on waking from what seemed a long sleep, in which she had dreamed strangely and talked wildly, she beheld Monsieur, smiling kindly, standing beside her bed with a vial and a spoon in his hand.

"It is a cordial, my dear, which will strengthen and bring you round again very soon. You need a sedative,—something to allay fever and excitement."

"Is it little Jacques's medicine?"

"Quite similar, my dear,—not the powders,—the liquid. Equally soothing to the nerves, and promotive of sleep."

She turned her face away. She had slept long enough. She thanked Monsieur, not daring to look up, but capriciously refused to touch little Jacques's medicine.

"And Monsieur," she said, "Monsieur was very angry. He said I was a disobedient wife, who did not wish to get well, but desired to be a constant expense and trouble to her husband.

"And so, Christine C——, I trembled and shook, and let fall words I never meant to have uttered to Monsieur, and I said he had killed the child, and wished to kill me, that he might marry Mademoiselle Christine. I did not say any more that day. In the morning, Monsieur and I discoursed together again. I declared I would get well and go away. Oh! Monsieur knew well I would not betray him. He was willing, very willing to consent to my departure. He cared for me well, and gave me much money; and I went away to my old aunt, who lived in Paris. I have been dead,—I have died to Monsieur. I should never have returned, but that my good aunt is gone. When I buried her,—shut her kind eyes, and wrapped her so snugly in her shroud,—I thought it a horrible thing to be living without a soul to care for me, or comfort me, or even to wrap me up as I did her when the time was come. I felt then a thirsty spirit rising within me to see my old place where I had comfort and shelter long ago, and to see my children. I have been to see them: they are in B——; they did not know me there. I did not tell them who I was. I have been faithful to my promise. I tell no one but you, Christine C——, who have stepped into my place, and stolen away my home. A prettier home you have made of it for a prettier wife; but it's the old place yet, with the old stain upon it."

Wishing to consider a moment what I should do, half paralyzed, like one who is stricken with death, I left that other ME, (for was she not also my husband's wife?) apparently exhausted, lying upon the sofa, and went wearily up-stairs, with heavy steps, like one whose life has suddenly become a weight to him. What, indeed, should I do? Starvation and misery stared me in the face. If I left the house, casting its guilt and its comfort behind me, where could I go? I could do nothing, earn nothing now. My reputation, now that we were so lone established, would be entirely gone. And if I left all for which I had labored so hard, for another to enjoy, would that better the matter? Great God! would anything help me? Before me in terrific vision rose a dim vista of future ruin, of ineffectual years writhing in the inescapable power of the law, of long trial, of horrible suspense, of garish publicity, of my name handed from mouth to mouth, a forlorn, duped, degraded thing, whose blighted life was a theme of newspaper comment and cavil. These thoughts swept over me as a tempest sweeps over the young tree whose roots are not firm in the soil, whose writhing and wrestling are impotent to defend it from certain destruction. There was no one I loved especially, no one I cared for anxiously, to relieve the bitter thoughts which centred in myself alone. Monsieur awoke as I was sitting thus, in ineffectual effort to compose myself. Seeing me sitting near him, still dressed, the door open, and the light burning, he inquired what was the matter. I had something below requiring his attention, I said, and, taking up the lamp, ushered him down-stairs. My chaotic thoughts were beginning to settle themselves,—to form a nucleus about the first circumstance that thrust itself definitely before them. That poor wretch waiting below,—that forsaken, abject, dishonored wife,—I would confront him with her, and charge him with his guilt. Opening the saloon-door, I stepped in before him. The lamp which I had left upon the stand was out, and the slender thread of light which fell from the one in my hand, sweeping across the gloom, rested upon the deserted sofa. The saloon was empty; no trace, no sign could be discovered of any human being. The hush, the solemnity of night brooded over the place. Monsieur mockingly, but unsteadily, inquired what child's game I was playing,—he was too tired to be fooled with. He spoke hotly and quickly, as he never had spoken to me before,—like one who has long been ill at ease, and deems a slight circumstance portentous.

So I turned upon him, with all the bitterness in my heart rising to my tongue. I told him the story. I charged him with the guilt. He listened in silence; marble-like he stood with folded arms, and heard the conclusion of the whole matter. When I was silent, he strode up to me, and, stooping, peered into my face steadily. His teeth were clenched, his eyes shot fire; otherwise he was calm, quite composed. He said, quietly,—

"Would you blame me for making an angel out of an idiot?"

Monsieur's philosophy was too subtile for me. GUILTY seemed a coarse word to apply to so fine a nature.

He denied having attempted to injure his wife in any way.

"Women are all fools," he said; "they are all alike,—go just as they are led, and do just as they are taught. They cannot think for themselves. They have no ideas of justice but just what the law furnishes them with. It was silly to complain; it argued a narrow mind to condemn merely because the laws condemn. In that case all should be acquitted whom the laws acquit,—did we ever do this? Would his darling Jacques, happy, angelic, condemn his parent for releasing him from the drudgery of life? Was it not better to play on a golden harp than to be a confectioner? Were not all men, in fact, more or less slayers of their brothers? Was I not myself guilty in attributing to Madame a deed in my eyes worthy of death, and of which she was innocent? It was only those whose courage induced them to venture a little farther who received condemnation. In some way or other, every soul is wearing out and overtasking somebody else's soul, and shortening somebody's days. A man who should throw his child into the water, in order to save him from being burned to death, would not be arraigned for the fierce choice. Little Jacques, if he had lived, would have lingered in misery and imbecility. Was a lingering death of torture to be preferred by a tenderhearted woman to one more rapid and less painful, where the certainty of death left only such preference? Ah, well! it was consolation that his little son was safe from all vicissitude, whatever might befall his devoted father!" and Monsieur wiped his eyes, and drew out a little miniature he always carried in his bosom. It was the portrait of little Jacques.

Well, as I have said, Monsieur was a philosopher, and I was a philosopher; and yet I must have been a woman incapable of reason, incapable of comprehending an argument; for the thought of this thing, and of being in the presence of a man capable of such a deed, made me uneasy, restless, unhappy, as though I were in some sort a partaker of the crime. I could not sleep; I was haunted with horrific dreams; and when, in few days, among the "accidents" the death of an unknown woman was recorded, whose body had drifted ashore at night, and I recognized by the description poor, unknown, uncared-for Madame C——, a wild fever burned in my veins, a frenzy of anguish akin to remorse, as if I had wronged the dead, and sent her drifting, helpless, out to the unknown world. A pitiable soul, who preferred misery for her portion, rather than betray the man she loved, or become partaker of his crime, had crept back, after years of self-imposed absence, with death in her heart, to see the old place and the new wife,—and how had I received her? With horror and shuddering, as though she were some guilty thing, to be held at arm's-length. Not as one woman, generous, forgiving, hoping for mercy hereafter, should receive another, however erring. It was a sad boon, perhaps, she had endowed me with; yet it was all she prized and cherished.

With a nobleness of magnanimity, a passionate self-sacrifice, which none but a woman could be capable of, Madame C—— had divested herself of all peculiarities of clothing by which she could be identified. It was only by recognizing the features, and a singular scar upon the forehead, that I knew it was herself. She was buried by stranger hands, however; we dared not come forward to claim her.

The excitement attendant on this miserable death, and the circumstances which preceded it, laid me, for the first time in my life, upon a sick-bed. I was unconscious for many weeks of anything save intolerable pain and intolerable heat. A fiery agony of fever leaped in my veins, and scorched up my life-blood. I believe Monsieur cared for me, and nursed me attentively during this illness.

The fever left me; exhausted, spent, my life shrunken up within me, my energy burned out, a puny, spiritless remnant of the strong woman who lay down upon that couch, I lay despondent, vacant of all interest in the world hitherto so exciting to me. I had not seen Monsieur since this apparent commencement of recovery. A great, good-natured nurse kept watch over me, and fed me with spiritless dainties, tasteless, unsatisfying.

One day, when my senses began to settle a little, and things began to take shape again, I asked for Monsieur. He came and stood at my bedside.

"Christine," said he, "you have no faith in my power of making angels. I have not made one of you. Being divided in our theories, we will divide our earthly goods. We will part. Should you as a woman deem it your duty to inform against me, I shall not think it wrong. I shall bear it as a philosopher. You have no proof, you can substantiate nothing; but it may be a satisfaction. I do not understand women; therefore I cannot tell."

"Monsieur," I answered, "leave it to God to fill His heaven as He thinks best. He has not invited your assistance; neither has He invited me to avenge Him. Since He does not punish, dare I invade His prerogative?"

And we did not part.

We will live together in peace, we said, and the past shall be utterly forgotten; shall not a whole lifetime of unwavering rectitude atone for this one crime?

I accepted my fate,—weakly, in the dread of poverty, in the horror of disgrace, shrinking within myself with the secret thrust upon me. I said we are all the makers of our own destiny, and there is nothing supernatural in life. If this course is best and wisest in my judgment, nothing evil will come of it. I said this, ignorant of the mystery of existence, and inexperienced in that subtile power which penetrates all the windings and turnings of humanity, searching out hidden things,—the Purifier, and the Avenger, allotting to each one his portion of bitterness, his inexorable punishment. "We will live together in peace": it was the thought of a sudden moment of fervor, which overleaped the dreary length of life, and assumed to compass the repentance of a whole existence in a single day.

But destiny holds always in store its retribution. God suffers no dropped stitches in the web of His universe, and the smallest truth evaded, the least wretch neglected, will surely be picked up again in the unending circle that is winding its certain thread around all beings, connecting by invisible links the most insignificant chances with the most significant events.

When I said we will be one, we will endure together, I thought that so, in my enduring strength, I could bear up whatever burden came. I know not how, by what invisible process, the load which I had lifted to my shoulders grew into leaden heaviness,—heavy, heavy, like the weight of some dead soul resting its lifeless shape upon my living spirit, till I staggered under the unbearable presence. I had doomed myself to stand side by side, to work hand in hand with guilt, to feel hourly the dread lest in some moment of frenzy engendered by the dumb anguish within me I might betray the secret whose rust was eating into my soul, and shriek out my misery in the ears of all men.

Monsieur, seeing me grow thin and pale, declared that I must have a change, I must go somewhere, to the sea-shore. To the sea-shore! No, I would not go to the sea-shore, or to any other shore; a stranded vessel, I could not struggle from the place of shipwreck.

Monsieur grew vexed and anxious, when I stubbornly shook my head. And when week after week I still refused, he grew strangely uneasy. I had better go; if I would not go alone, he would go with me, shut up the shop, and take a holiday.

I considered the matter that day. The project was a wild one; at this busiest season of the year, it would be an injury to our business. And what might the neighbors say? It might lead them to unpleasant suspicions. We were not popular among them. No, it would not do.

I explained this to Monsieur very calmly at the supper-table. His face was pale and quiet as usual. He did not interrupt me. When I concluded, he rose as if he would go out, but turning back suddenly and striking the table with his clenched fist,—

"God!" he exclaimed. "Woman would you see me die like a dog? The neighbors! for all I know, they have got me at their finger-ends now,—the vile rabble! That old hag, Madame Justine, at the ribbon-shop below,—some demon possessed her to look out that night when SHE came crawling home. She noted her well with her greedy eyes; some one so like my dear first wife, she told me. There is mischief and death in her eyes. She knows or guesses too much."

"What can she guess?" I asked; "she has only lately come into the neighborhood."

In answer to this, Monsieur informed me that she professed to have been an old friend of his wife's, who, in times gone by, half bewildered with her troubles, had probably dropped many unguarded words in this woman's presence. Madame C—— had died (to her old home) while this woman was away on a visit. "Ah!" she said, "she had her misgivings many a time. Did the same doctor attend Madame C—— who prescribed for little Jacques? He ought to be hung, then. Ah, well, if all men had their deserts, she knew many things that would hang some folks who looted all fair and square, and held their guilty heads higher than their neighbors."

"Well?" I said.

"Well!—you women are so virtuous, you have no mercy, Madame. Go, hang—go, drown the wretch who comes under the malediction of the ladies! Oh, there is nothing too hard for him! And this one owed me a grudge lately about a mistake,—a little mistake I made in an account with her, and would not alter because I thought it all right."

The preparations were going on silently and steadily that night. I would go anywhere now, anything would I do, to escape the fate whose stealthy footsteps were tracking us out. Well I knew, that, once in the power of the law, its firm grasp would wrest every secret from the deepest depths where it was hidden. Once out of the city, we could readily take flight, if immediate danger threatened.

The doors were all closed; the trunks stood corded in the hall. I was down-stairs, getting the silver together. Monsieur was in his room, packing up his medicine-chest. There was no weakness in my nerves now, no trembling in my limbs. I was determined. While thus engaged, pausing a moment amid the light tinkle of the silver spoons, I thought I heard footsteps in the saloon above. Softly ascending the stairs, I met Monsieur at the door. He had come down under the same impression, that some one was walking in the saloon, still holding in his hand the tiny cup in which he measured his medicines. It was full, and Monsieur carried it very carefully, as, opening the door, he looked cautiously about. Nothing stirred; all was silent as death; and walking forward toward the fountain, he straightened himself up, and his white face flushed as he said in a whisper,—

"Christine, everything is ready. We are safe yet; we shall escape. Once away, we will never return to this doomed place, let what will come of it. Yes, I am certain that we shall escape!"

Monsieur took a step forward as he said this, and stood transfixed. The light shook which he held in his hand, as if a strong wind had passed over it; his eye quailed; his cheek blanched to ghastly whiteness. I thought that undue excitement had brought on a fainting-fit of some kind, and was stooping to dip my hands in the water and bathe his forehead, when I saw, distinctly, like a white mist in the darkness, a visible shape sitting solemn upon the basin-edge; the room was very dim, and the falling spray fell over the shape like a weeping-willow, yet my eyes discerned it clearly. Oh, it was no dream that I had dreamed in my young days long ago! That little figure was no stranger to my vision, no stranger to the changeless waterfall. Did Monsieur see it also? He stood close beside the fountain now, with his face towards the spectre. The tiny cup in his hand fell from the loosened fingers down into the water; a lonely gold-fish, swimming there, turned over on its golden side and floated motionless upon the surface.

I scarcely noticed this, for, at the time, I heard the knob of the shop-door turn quickly, and the door was shaken violently. It was probably the night-watchman going his rounds; but, in my alarm and excitement, I thought we were betrayed. I stepped swiftly to the door, and pushed an extra bolt inside.

"Monsieur!" I cried, under my breath, "hide! hide yourself! Quick! in the name of Heaven!"

But he did not answer, and, hastening to his side, I saw the faint outlines of that shadowy visitant growing indistinct and disappearing. As it vanished, Monsieur turned deliberately toward me; his eyes were clear, the faintness was over; his voice was grave and steady, as he said,—

"Christine! I have seen it. It is the warning of death. There is no future and no escape for me. The retribution is at hand,"—and stooping swiftly down, he lifted the tiny cup brimming to his lips. "Go you," he said, huskily, "to the sea-shore. I have an errand elsewhere."

In the morning came the officers of justice; my dim eyes saw them, my ears heard unshrinking their stern voices demanding Monsieur C——. I did not answer; I pointed vaguely forward; and forward they marched, with a heavy tramp, to where the one whom they were seeking lay prone upon the marble floor, his head hanging nervelessly down over the water. He had been arrested by a Higher Power. Monsieur C—— was dead.