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The Master of Silence: A Romance, a novel by Irving Bacheller

Chapter 16

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Late in the afternoon of the day following our visit to Liverpool we ascended the big stone steps of my old home and pulled the bell. After all, I found that my nerves were not quite steady while we were waiting for the door to open. We had come intending to spend the night there, and my benefactor had given me certain precautions not calculated to make me feel entirely at home. Was there some deeper plan underlying his suggestion as to this visit than he had chosen to explain? I had not long to consider that point, however, for suddenly the door opened and a servant in imposing livery confronted us. I handed him my card and we were shown into the reception room at once. Presently he conducted us to my stepmother, who greeted me with a great show of cordiality and some tears. She had grown old fast since I left home, but she had artfully disguised the evidences of age upon her face and neck. Why had I stayed away so long? What had she done to deserve such shameful neglect? These and other questions taxed my wits for an answer that would neither outrage my own conscience nor offend her. Mr. Cobb, who had just returned from his office, suddenly entered the room. His face assumed an ashen pallor, and he stared at me quite dumfounded for a moment, when I arose and stood before him.

"It is Kendric. Don't you recognize him?" said my stepmother.

"So it is!" he exclaimed. "But he's grown quite out of my recollection." The man had recovered his self-possession in a moment, and treated me, it must be said to his credit, with marked coolness. I was likely to get on with him very well, I thought, but the fawning attitude of his wife quite unhorsed me. If I am to see the devil I'd rather he'd frown than smile. Cobb had very little to say to us, and left the room at the first opportunity. In doing so he had shown scant consideration for his wife, however, as it left a burden upon her shoulders that must have taxed her strength. But she was not unequal to it. Her smile broadened after he had gone, and there was a tone of deeper sincerity in her expressions of regard. We had been to dinner, and if she would kindly send a little cold lunch to our room at bedtime that would be quite sufficient. During her absence for dinner the reaction came. When my stepmother returned she seemed to have suddenly grown older, and she looked at us through haggard and sunken eyes. Surely this was a terrible punishment she was undergoing, and I pitied her. Mr. Cobb had an important engagement to keep, she said, and hoped we would excuse him. Slowly the evening wore away and at ten o'clock we were shown to our room, greatly fatigued by this trying experience. It was a room fronting the street on the third floor, which I had occupied before I left home. The walls had been painted white since then, with a frieze of gold along the ceiling. My father used to sleep in the room directly under it. Rayel had been silent and absent-minded all the evening, rarely speaking except in reply to some question.

"I feel sad for some cause I do not understand," said he, preparing to retire. "I shall be glad when to-morrow comes."

"We will go back in the morning," I said. "You don't feel at home here, do you?"

He did not seem to hear me, but tried the door, which I had already bolted, and then got into bed, yawning and shivering, for the room was cold. I turned down the light, and, opening the shutters, looked out upon the street, now deserted save by a solitary man who had just passed the house and whose slow footsteps were gradually growing less distinct. I crouched there, listening for some moments to that fading sound, when it began to grow louder again. The man had turned about and was coming back. As he passed under the lamp on the opposite corner I thought I recognized the slim figure of Mr. Murmurtot. Suddenly I was startled by a noise in the room adjoining ours, and sprang to my feet in a tremor. Plague take my imagination! It was somebody going to bed. I sat down again and for a long time looked out at the man walking back and forth in front of the house. I was rapidly getting into a condition of mind unfavorable to rest and, closing the shutters, I went to bed at once. For hours I lay tossing restlessly from one side to the other, and finally fell into a deep sleep. I must have slept a long time when I suddenly awoke, laboring with nightmare. I had heard no sound, I had felt no touch, but all at once my eyes were open and I knew that I was awake. The lamp was burning dimly on the table beside my bed. How my heart was beating! And my arm--how it trembled when I tried to raise up on my elbow and look about the room!

"Who's there?" I whispered. Was it Rayel standing near the bed, his body swaying backward and forward, or was I yet asleep? Everything looked dim and weird. I seemed to be in some silent ghostland between sleeping and waking. I rubbed my eyes and peered about the half-darkened room. It was Rayel, and, as I gazed at him, his eyes seemed to shine like balls of fire. I called to him, but he made no answer. What had happened since I went to sleep? Alarmed, I threw the covers aside and leaped out of bed. As I did so he stepped up close to the opposite wall, and, as his hand moved, I could hear the grating of a crayon on its surface. In tremulous haste I turned up the wick of the lamp and tiptoed toward him, holding it in my hand. He was stepping backward and excitedly pointing at the wall. He had been drawing a picture on its white surface--the form of a woman holding something in her hand. I stepped nearer, still carrying the lamp. A sharp interjection broke from my lips. The woman pictured there was my stepmother, and it was a knife that she held! A man was lying at her feet. Again Rayel stepped forward, and again I heard the crayon grating on the wall. Then he stood aside. Great God! There were drops of blood dripping from the knife now. Rayel sank down upon the floor and covered his eyes with his hands. I stood there, dumb with fear and horror, looking first upon him and then upon the picture.

The silence of the night was unbroken save by those slow footsteps in the street to which I had listened before retiring. But suddenly I heard a low wailing cry in the room adjoining ours. It so startled me that I came near dropping the lamp. Strange and weird it sounded, gradually growing shriller and more terrible to hear! It was the voice of my stepmother. Was she dreaming? And had Rayel seen the vision that affrighted her? Was that dagger pricking her brain? In a moment the swelling cry broke into a sharp scream, such as might come from one exposed to sudden peril, and ceased. Then the sound of a bell rang sharply through the house, followed by loud knocking at the door and a man's shout.

"Open the door, I command you!" he said.

He must have heard that piercing cry. Rayel still lay motionless upon the floor. Was he asleep? Why did he not rise? I began to feel numb. I seemed to have lost the power of motion. I could hear some one rapping at our door, but I could not move.

"Kendric! Kendric! Kendric!" Was it my stepmother who was calling me? What a piteous, pleading tone! "Let me speak to you, Kendric! For God's sake, let me tell you!" I was reeling: my strength had all left me. Crash! went the lamp at my feet. There was a great flash of light, which dazzled my eyes, and I fell heavily upon the floor.

I was in the open air when thought and feeling came back to me. My hands and face were paining me as if they had been terribly burned. There were a number of men standing over a motionless figure that lay beside me.

"The poor lad!" said one of the men "he's nearly roasted. See here how the clothes have been burned away from his neck! Can't ye stop the blood? The mon'll die afore the amb'lance comes ef we don't stop the blood. A brave mon he is, too. D'ye see 'im coming down the stairs with th' other one on his back?"

Of whom were they talking? I struggled to my feet--I could feel no pain now--and bent over that still form which had been lying beside me. Oh! it was the heaven-blessed face of Rayel, now bleeding and scarred and ghastly. I raised his head. The hair fell away where my hand touched it, and a groan escaped his lips. I could not speak nor weep nor utter any sound. A strange calmness came over my spirit and I sat there motionless, bending over him I loved so well, while the crowd of men looked on in silence. "After His own image made He man;" these words came to my mind as I looked into that dear face. Then I prayed in silence--for him. Thank God! his eyes were open now and his lips were moving. I bent lower until I could feel his breath upon my cheek.

"Is it you, Kendric?" he whispered. "Did I save you from the fire? I cannot see you, but I know you are here."

I heard his words distinctly, but I could not answer. The power of speech seemed to have left me.

"The fire awoke me," he continued, moaning. "We were lying on the floor. I called to you, but you did not answer. Thank God! you are safe now."

Returning consciousness brought with it an increasing sense of his pain, and he began to struggle and groan in dreadful agony. Suddenly, extending one of his blackened hands until it touched my face, he shouted in a loud voice:

"Kendric! Kendric! help--help me!"

Then some men laid hold of me and lifted me up. I clung to Rayel with all my strength, but could not resist them, and as I was borne away I knew that Rayel and I had parted forever. _

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