A Lonely House
A secret curse, on that old building hung,
And its deserted garden, ”
HOOD’S Haunted House.
ONE autumn evening, not very long ago, I was driving out with my uncle. I had been spending several weeks at his house, and in that time had driven with him very often, so that I supposed myself familiar with nearly all the, roads that stretched away from the pleasant village where he resided ; but on this occasion he proposed taking me in an entirely new direction, over a tract of country I had never before seen.
For a mile or two after we left home, we bowled rapidly along on a well-travelled turnpike; then a sudden turn to the right brought us, with slackened speed, into a quiet country-road. Passing through the fields that bordered the highway, we came into a wild, romantic region of hill and dale that fully deserved all that my uncle had said in its praise.
Giving ourselves up to the sweet influences of the scene, we trotted our horses slowly, past dusky bits of forest that made the air fragrant with the damp smell of the woods, and by occasional shining pools adorned with floating pond-lilies, and shaded with thick, low bushes of witch-hazel. The sunlight had that orange glow that comes only on autumn evenings, the long, slant rays striking across the yellow fields and lighting up the dark evergreens which dotted the landscape with a tawny illumination, like dull flames. The locusts hummed drowsily, as if they were almost asleep, and the frogs in the ponds sent out an occasional muffled croak. Altogether, it was deliciously calm and deserted; we did not meet a human being or a habitation for miles, as we wound along the secluded path, now up and now down, but on the whole gradually ascending, till we reached the summit of a hill larger and steeper than the rest. Here there stood a lonely house.
Pausing to allow our horses a moment's rest, my eye was caught by its deserted and dilapidated appearance. It had evidently been uninhabited for years. The fence bad gone to decay, the gate lay rotting on the ground, and a forlorn sleigh, looking strangely out of place in contrast with the summer-flowers that had overgrown it, was drawn up before the entrance. The grass had obliterated every trace of the path that once led to the decayed steps, bushes had grown up thickly around the lower story of the house, and tangled vines, creeping in through the broken panes of the windows, hung in festoons from the moss-covered sills. The door had dropped from its hinges, and on one side of the front the boards had fallen off, so that I could see quite into the interior, where I noticed, with surprise, some furniture yet remained, though in great confusion, a broken chair and an overturned table being the most prominent objects. Outside, the same disorder was manifest in the great farm-wagon left standing where it had last been used, and the neglected out-buildings fast going to decay. About the whole place there was an aspect of peculiar gloom, and the house itself stood on this bleak hill looking out over the lonesome landscape with a sort of tragic melancholy in its black and weather-beaten front.
Now such a sight as this is very rare in our busy New England, where everything is turned to advantage, and where the thrifty owner of a tenement too old for habitation is sure to tear it down and convert the materials of which it is built to some other use. My curiosity was, therefore, at once excited regarding this place, and I turned to my uncle with an inquiry as to its history. “ It is a very sad one,” he answered,— " So sad that it gives a terrible dreariness to this solitary spot.”
“ Then I am sure you will tell me the causes which led to its desertion. You know how much I like a story.”
My uncle complied with the request, and, as we wended our way home through the deepening twilight, related a series of strange facts, which, at the time, took a powerful hold on my imagination, and which I have since endeavored to group into a continuous narrative.
This house, now so forlorn, was once a neat and happy home. It was built by a young farmer named James Blount, who went into it with his young wife when he brought her home from the distant State where he had married her. For several years they seemed very prosperous and happy; then a heavy affliction came. The healthy young farmer was thrown from his horse, and carried to his home only to linger a few terrible hours and expire in great agony. Thus early in its history was the doomed house overshadowed with the gloom of sudden and violent death.
Every one was heartily sorry for the widow with her two little boys, and the people of the country-side did all that they could to cheer her loneliness and lighten her grief. But, as I have said, she was a stranger among them, and she seems to have been naturally of a reserved disposition, preferring solitude in her affliction ; for she so repelled their attentions, that, one by one, even her husband’s friends deserted her. Then, too, her house was three miles from the nearest neighbor, and this was necessarily a barrier to frequent social intercourse. She very rarely went into the village, even to church, and thus people came to know very little of her manner of life ; it was only guessed at by those few acquaintance who, at rare intervals, made their way to the Blount farm-house.
Among them it was remarked, that the widow, still quite young, was unnaturally stern and cold, and that her two sons, who were growing up in this sad isolation, were strangely like their mother, not only in appearance, but in manners. Their names were James and John. There was but little over a year between them, and they were so much alike that most persons found a difficulty in distinguishing one from the other. Both had fierce, black eyes, short, crisp, black hair, and swarthy skins,—quite unlike our freckledface Yankee boys,—so that the older villagers declared, with a sigh, that there was not a trace of the good-hearted father about them ; they wholly resembled their strange mother. The boys themselves did nothing to lessen this disagreeable impression ; they were unusually grave and reserved for their years, taking no interest in the sports of other children ; and after a time, it became painfully evident to those who watched them that they had no fondness for each other; on the contrary, that affection which would naturally have sprung from their nearness in age and their constant companionship seemed to be entirely wanting, and its place usurped by an absolute dislike.
When this was first, discovered, it was supposed to account for the widow’s aversion to society. This idea, being once started, made those idle busy bodies there are in every village eager to discover if the suspicion were correct. Through the men hired to work on the farm, it was ascertained that the poor mother, with all her sternness and her iron law, had difficulty in keeping peace between the boys. Twenty times a day they would fall into angry dispute about some trifle; and so violent were these altercations, that it was said that she durst not for a moment have them both out of her sight, lest one should inflict some deadly injury upon the other. That this was no illfounded fear was evinced by a quarrel that took place between them, when John was perhaps eleven, and James twelve years old.
It was witnessed by a village lad named Isaac Welles. He was an alert, active person, who liked to earn a penny or two on his own account, out of work-hours. With this notable intention, he arose soon after dawn of a pleasant summer-morning, for the purpose of picking blackberries. Now he knew that they were very plentiful in a field near the Blount farmhouse, and, thinking such small theft no robbery, he made his way thither with all speed, and was soon filling his basket with the dew-sprinkled fruit. Early as it was, however, he soon discovered that there was some one up before him. He heard a sound of talking in low, caressing tones, and, glancing in the direction whence it Came, he saw John Blount sitting under a tree near by, and playing with a little black squirrel, which appeared to be quite tame. Not earing to be discovered and warned off, Isaac went on with his work quietly, taking care to keep where he could see without being seen.
John was not long left alone in his innocent amusement, for in a few moments James Blount came running down from the house towards him. As he approached, John’s face darkened; he caught up the squirrel, and made an endeavor to hide it under his jacket.
“No, you don’t!” said James, as he came up, breathless. “ I see you have got him, plain enough ; he shan'n't get away this time, — so you might as well give him to me.”
“No, I won't!” replied John, sullenly.
“ You won’t ? ”
“No!” said John, more fiercely, and then burst out, passionately, — “I don’t see why you want to tease me about it; he a’n’t your pet; I have found him and tamed him.; be knows me and loves me, andh he don’t care for you ; besides, you only want him to torment him. No! you sha’n’t have him ! ”
“ Sha'n't I? we’ll see!” And James made a step forward.
John drew back several paces, at the same time trying to soothe the squirrel, which was becoming impatient of its confinement. His face quivered with excitement, as he went on, passionately,—
“ I know what you want him for: you want him to hurt some way. You wrung my black kitten’s neck, and now you want to kill my squirrel. You are a bad, wicked boy, and I hate you!”
With the last words he started to run ; but he had not gone far when his foot struck a stone, and he fell. At this, the squirrel, terrified, jumped from his arms; but James was close by, and before it could escape, he had caught it. John was up in an instant, and James, seeing that he could not avoid him, gave the poor little creature’s neck a sudden twist and flung it gasping at his brother’s feet, exclaiming. —
“There, now, you may have it!”
For one moment John stood still, white with rage and grief; then lie uttered a sort of choking howl, and sprang at James, —
“ You cruel coward ! ”
The words were accompanied with a half-articulate curse, as he struck at him, blindly, fiercely, and they closed in what seemed a deadly struggle. John, being the younger, bad a slight disadvantage in size and weight, but wrath gave him more than his usual strength; while James fought desperately, as if for life. After a few moments they rolled on the ground together.
It was a fearful sight, those two brothers, boys though they were, fighting in that mad way. Their faces, so much alike that they seemed almost reflections of each ether, were crimson with anger ; their eyes shot fire ; their breath came in sobbing pants; and very soon blood was drawn on both. After a brief contest, John, with a; tremendous effort, threw James under him. With one hand he pinioned his arms, while the other was at bis throat, where it closed with a deadly gripe. James made one last effort to save himself; with a violent wrench he succeeded in fixing his teeth in his brother’s arm, but he failed in making him relax his hold, though they met in the firm flesh. John’s brow grew darker, but he only tightened his clasp closer and closer, muttering,—
“ So help me, God ! I will kill you !”
His words were near being verified ; already the fallen boy’s mouth had unclosed, the red of his face turned to livid purple, and his eyes stared wildly, when Mrs. Blount, pale, with disordered attire, as if she had but just risen and dressed hastily, ran, screaming, down the hill. Seizing John around the waist, she dragged him back, and flung him to the ground, exclaiming, —
“ Oh, my sons ! my sons ! are you not brothers ? Will you never be at peace ? ”
At this moment, Isaac arrived, breathless With running, at the spot. When she saw him, the widow ceased speaking, and made no further allusion to the quarrel while he remained. However, she gladly accepted his offered assistance in lifting James, who lay gasping, and wellnigh dead. As they turned towards the house, John rose, sullenly, and wrapping a handkerchief round his wounded arm, which was bleeding profusely, he glanced scowlingiy at his brother.
“ He will get over this,” he muttered, with an oath ; “ but, sooner or later, I swear I will kill him!”
Without noticing his mother’s appealing look, he walked back to the tree where the dead pet lay.
The half-strangled boy was carried to his bed, and a few simple remedies restored him to consciousness. As soon as possible, Mrs. Blount dismissed Isaac, declining his offers of going for a doctor, with cold thanks. As he went back to resume his interrupted blackberrying, he saw John sitting at the foot of the tree, He had dug a hole in which to bury the poor squirrel; it lay on his knee, a stream of dark gore oozing through its tiny white teeth. John was vainly endeavoring to wipe this with the handkerchief already stained with his own blood, while his hot tears fell fast and heavy.
As John had said, James recovered from the choking, and the only apparent results of the fight were that both boy's -were scarred for life. John bore on his ridit wrist the impression of his brother’s teeth ; and James’s throat was disfigured by two deep, black marks, on each side, which were quite visible till his beard concealed them. Yet, I doubt not, that desperate struggle, in that dawning summerday, laid the foundation of the inextinguishablfe hatred that blasted those men’s lives and was to be quenched only in death.
Several years passed after this, in which very little was known of what passed at the lonely house. The boys were old enough to perform most of the work of the farm, so that they no longer hired laborers except at harvest. Mrs. Blount had herself given her sons all the instruction they had ever received, and, being a woman of attainments beyond those usual in her station, she seemed quite competent to the task. Nothing more was heard of their quarrels ; they were always coldly civil to each other, when in the presence of others, and were regarded by their companions with respect, though, I imagine, never with any cordial liking. So they grew up to be grave, taciturn men, still retaining the same strong resemblance of face and figure, though time had somewhat altered the features, by fixing a different expression on each, giving to John a fierce resolution, and to James a lurking distrustfulness of look. These years made less change in Mrs. Blount than in her sons ; she was the same active, blaek-eyed woman, only that her sternness and reserve seemed to increase with her age, and a few silver threads appeared in her raven hair.
I have said that it was three miles from the Blount place to the nearest house. This was at the toll-gate, which was kept by a man named Curtis. He was a person of progressive tastes, supposed to have aristocratic inclinations. As he was a well-to-do man, these were evinced in a Brussels carpet and a piano-forte which figured in his small parlor, and by his sending his only child, a daughter, to a city boarding-school. She returned, as might have been expected, with ideas and desires far beyond the hill-side cottage where she was condemned to vegetate. Now she was very pretty, with dancing blue eyes and a profusion of golden curls; she had, too, a most winning manner, hard for any one to resist; and these personal attractions, added to a style of dress that had never been seen or imagined among the simple countryfolk, rendered her a most important person, so that no “ tea-fight ” or merrymaking was complete without Nelly Curtis.
However, it might have been long enough before the recluse young Blounts would have encountered the gay little belle, had it not been that they were of necessity obliged to pass through the tollgate, and sometimes forced to stop there. From some of her friends Nelly heard what a secluded life the two brothers led, and how especially averse they seemed to female society, and, with the appetite for conquest of a true flirt, she at once determined on adding them to the list of her victims. It was no long before she had an opportunity for beginning her wiles.
One fine spring morning, John Blount started on horseback to go to the village. The sun shone very brightly, the hedgerows blushed with early blossoms, and the birds sang a song of rejoicing. It was one of those clear, soft days when one feels new life and vigor at the thought of the coming summer. Arrived at the toll-gate, John was surprised at seeing no one there to open it; he waited a moment, somewhat impatiently, and then called out, —
“ Holloa! ”
At this, as if startled at his voice, there appeared in the cottage door-way a slender, rosy-cheeked maiden, who looked blooming and graceful enough to be the incarnation of the fresh and beautiful May.
“ Excuse me,” she said, with a little curtsy; " I did not see you come up."
This, as Nelly informed the friend to whom she related the adventure, was a fib, — for Mr. Curtis was away, and she had been watching all the morning, in hopes one of the Blounts would pass; but she considered it a justifiable stratagem, as likely to secure his attention. Meantime John was gazing spellbound at this apparition, which appeared to him charming beyond anything he had ever imagined. He was so far carried away, that he was quite speechless and wholly oblivious of the toll, until she came up to the side of the horse and held out her hand. Then he colored, and, with an awkward apology, gave her the change.
“ Thank you, Sir.”
Nelly smiled sweetly, and was just about to undo the latch of the gate, when John anticipated her by springing from his horse, and laying his powerful brown hand over her small white one, saying, —
“ You can’t do anything with this great, heavy gate. Stand aside, and let me open it.”
Of course the offer was kindly accepted, and Nelly fairly overwhelmed him with her thanks, being herself somewhat touched by the unusual civility. John appeared quite overcome with confusion, and, remounting his horse, he rode off with a gruff “ Good day.” However, I fancy, that pleasant voice, and the accidental touch of that little hand, made an impression that never was effaced.
Having thus enslaved John, it was not long before a similar opportunity occurred for captivating James; though it would seem from Nelly’s confessions to her confidante that this was not so easily accomplished with him as with his brother. The first time she opened the gate for him, he paid but little more heed to her than he would have to her father, and she never considered her conquest complete until one day when Mr. Curtis availed himself of a vacant seat in James's wagon to get Nelly taken into the village: that ride, she fancied, insured the wished-for result. Whether this was a correct supposition or not, certain it is that not many weeks elapsed before both the Blounts were completely fascinated by the gay coquette.
For some time the passion of each brother remained a secret to the other. Accident revealed it.
One soft summer-evening, John rode down to the village for letters. As he passed through the toll-gate, he succeeded in making an appointment with Nelly for a walk on his return. He came back an hour later, and soon after sunset the two strolled down a shady path into the woods. It was moonlight, and Nelly was doubtless very charming in the mysterious radiance,—certainly her companion thought so, — for, when their walk was over, he induced her to sit with him on a fallen log that lay just within the shade of the trees, instead of returning to the house. They had been chatting there perhaps half an hour, when they were interrupted by the girl the Curtises kept to do “chores.”
“ Please, Miss Nelly, there’s a gentleman wants to see you.”
“ Very well, tell him I will be there in a moment.”
When the girl was gone, Nelly suddenly exclaimed, rather regretfully,—
“ How stupid of me, not to ask who it was ! ”
John’s answer is not reported, only that he succeeded in lengthening the “moment” into a quarter of an hour, and then half an hour; and it might, perhaps, have lasted the whole evening, had they not, in the midst of a most interesting conversation, been startled by a rustling in the bushes behind them.
“ There is some one watching us! ” cried John, excitedly, and half rising.
“Nonsense!” said Nelly; “it is only a cat. Sit down again.”
This invitation was not to be declined. John sat down again, though still a little restless and uneasy. For some moments all was still. John had concluded that Nelly’s suggestion was a correct one, and they had begun to chat quite unconcernedly, when they were again interrupted. This time the sound was that of an approaching footstep, and for an instant a dark shadow fell across the moonlit path in front of them. Nelly was now fairly frightened, she uttered a faint shriek, and clung to John for protection. Doubtless this was a very pleasant appeal to the young farmer, but just now wrath mastered every other feeling. He was ever easily angered, and, to be sure, the thought that they were watched was by no means agreeable. So, with a quick caress, he loosened her clasp and started to his feet, exclaiming, - -
“ Don’t be frightened, dear ! I’ll punish the rascal! ”
He made a dash in the direction whence the sound had come. In the shade of the trees stood the intruder quite still, making no attempt to avoid the furious onset. Mad with rage, John seized him by the collar, and, striking him repeatedly, and muttering curses, dragged him towards the bench where Nelly sat trembling. A few staggering steps, and they were on the path, with the pure, peaceful light of the moon falling full on the stranger’s face.
“Good God!” cried John, loosening his hold,— “it is my brother!”
James drew himself up, tossing back his disordered hair, and for a moment the two men regarded each other with stern, fixed looks, as if they were preparing for another encounter. By this time, Nelly, who was completely terrified, had begun to weep convulsively, and her sobs broke the ominous silence, as she gasped,—
“ Oh, John, please don’t strike him again ! ”
At these words, John started, as if stung, and, looking at her with indignant sadness, said,—
“ There, you needn’t cry, Nelly! I won’t hurt him; I will leave him to you safely.”
Then, overcome by the rush of recollection, he burst out, passionately,—
“Oh, James! James! you have rendered my life miserable by your treacheries, and now you have robbed me of her! This is no place to settle our quarrels; but I have sworn it once, and I swear it again now, some day I will be revenged! ”
He would not stop to hear Nelly’s entreating voice ; but, full of the one dreadful thought, that all her anxieties had been for another, while he was indifferent to her, he mounted his horse, -without one backward look, and galloped fast away. I can fancy there was a wild whirl of emotion in his passionate heart: deadly hatred, jealousy, and crossed love are enough to drive any man mad.
Meantime, James apologized to Nelly for his intrusion, on the ground, that, becoming tired of waiting, and hearing she had gone out for a walk, he had started to meet them, but was about to turn back, fearing to interrupt them, when John’s rudeness compelled him to appear. The excuse was accepted; and James soon occupied the seat recently vacated by poor John. So well did he avail himself of the circumstances, that he succeeded in convincing Nelly that his brother was a very ill-tempered person, whom it would he well for her to avoid. On this, with the true instinct of a flirt, she endeavored to persuade him that she had never really eared for John’s attentions, James was but too willing to be convinced of this; and he parted from her, feeling satisfied that his suit would be successful.
Knowing well that his life was scarcely safe, if he were for a moment alone with John, after that night, James constantly exercised such caution as prevented the possibility of an encounter, He was determined as soon as possible to leave that neighborhood, always provided that Nelly would go with him. For some time he considered this as certain. John carefully avoided her, and no new suitor appeared.
I fear that pretty Nelly was a thorough coquette; for, having nearly broken one brother’s heart, she very soon tired of the other, for whom she had never really cared a straw. These two men being the last to fall into her toils, she began to sigh wearily over her too easily captured victims, when her fickle fancy was caught by game more worthy so expert a sportsman.
It happened that at this time there came to the village a gentleman from New York, named Brooke, a bachelor of known wealth. He was perhaps forty years old, and had run through a course of reckless dissipation which had rendered him thoroughly tired of city ways and city women. On the very first Sunday after his arrival, as he stood idly lounging at the church-door, his eye was caught by Nelly’s fresh, rosy face. He followed her into church, and spent the time of service in staring her out of countenance-. It will be readily imagined that she was not slow to follow up this first impression; and but few days elapsed before their acquaintance had ripened into intimacy.
Of course, his unceasing attentions could not fail of attracting notice and exciting remark ; and it was not long before they came to the ears of the Blounts. John received the news with sullen indifference. It mattered little to him whom she liked now. James, however, refused to believe that there could be anything in it, regarding it as a mere passing caprice. In this view most of the village-people coincided; they considered it absurd to suppose that there could be anything serious in Mr. Brooke’s devotion. Time would probably have proved the correctness of this supposition, had it not been, fortunately for Nelly, that she had a father with more steadiness of mind than her giddy brain was capable of. Mr. Curtis succeeded in turning the rapid attachment to such advantage, that in three weeks from the time of their first meeting they were not only engaged, but actually married.
It had been Nelly’s intention, with the vanity of a true woman, to postpone the Wedding a month longer, and then to have it on such a scale as would excite the admiration and envy of all her companions; but Mr. Curtis was too shrewd for this. He durst not put this rapid lore to the test of waiting; and he so worked upon his daughter’s fears, that she consented to a more hasty union, Mr. Brooke, too, showed some aversion to any public demonstration. Perhaps he Was conscious that his friends would think he was doing a foolish thing, and he was therefore desirous of having it over before they had time to remonstrate. So, on a fine bright Sunday, early in September, the drowsy congregation, who were dozing away the afternoon-service, were aroused by the publication of the banns of marriage between Henry Brooke and Nelly Curtis. It occasioned great whispering and tittering. But no one suspected that the wedding was near at hand ; and there were very few lingerers after the service was over, when Nelly came in at the sidedoor with her father, was joined by Mr. Brooke, and actually married then and there.
The Blount brothers never went to church, but they almost always came into the village of a Sunday afternoon, and on this memorable day they were there as usual, but not together. John was earnestly discussing a new breed of catthe with a neighboring farmer, wholly oblivious of the false Nelly. James was standing with a group of young men on the village-green, when Isaac Welles, the whilom blackberry-boy, rushed up, breathless, to say that he had been detained in the Church and had actually seen Nelly and Mr. Brooke married.
In the first eager questions that followed this announcement, no one noticed James, until they were astonished to see him fall heavily to the ground. He had fainted. They had not mentioned the publication of the banns to him, and he was wholly unprepared for this utter annihilation of all his hopes. Welles sprang to his side, and they raised him quickly. He was a strong man, and before they could bring any restoratives he had recovered.
“It is nothing,” he said, with a sickly smile. “I think it must have been a sunstroke. It is confoundedly hot.”
This lame explanation was accepted, and James refused to go into any of the neighbors' houses, though he consented to seat himself, for a few moments, on a rustic bench in the shade of the trees.
Half an hour later, John, having finished his chat, strolled to the green and approached the group. He looked surprised when he caught sight of his brother, who of late had so carefully avoided him. His astonishment increased when James rose, and, advancing a step, said,—
“ John, Nelly Curtis is married to that Brooke!"
An angry flush rose to John’s brow, and his black eyes flashed ominously, as he answered, in a hoarse, low voice,—
“ So much the better, for now she will never be your wife.”
“ Neither mine nor yours,” said James, maliciously; — then, after a moment, he added, “ She was a worthless thing, and we are well rid of her.”
At this, a tornado of passion seemed to seize John. He sprang forward, crying,—
"She was not worthless, and I will kill the first man who dares to say so.”
There was an interval of dead silence; the brothers regarded each other for a moment, then James shrugged his shoulders contemptuously, and turned away. John glanced around him defiantly on the astonished crowd, and, seeing no one there likely to dispute with him, he seemed to have formed a sudden resolution, for he walked off rapidly after his brother.
Isaac Welles had stood by, no unobservant witness of this scene. He noted something in those two men’s eyes that recalled the fierce quarrel of the two boys; and as soon as it was possible for him to get away, he went off after the Blounts, determined, if possible, to prevent mischief.
Meantime John had not met his brother ; but, seeing James’s horse was gone, he mounted his own and rode away towards home, determining to catch James before lie could reach there. However, he did not overtake him. James was too cunning to ride directly to the farm-house, and John’s headlong speed availed only to bring him there in time to find his mother alone and dangerously ill.
In a moment all other thoughts were laid aside. The pent-up a affection of John’s heart had centred itself on his only parent. She had always been cold and stern with her sons, yet they loved her with a tender devotion which reclaimed natures that might otherwise have been wholly bad.
With all the tenderness of a woman, John assisted his mother to her bed, and, not daring to leave her, awaited eagerly the coming of the only other person who could summon aid,— Ins brother James.
At last he came, —riding slowly, with bowed head, up the lonely road. John went out to meet him. James looked up angry and astonished, and immediately threw himself into a position of defence. John shook his head.
“ James,” he said, “ I cannot settle our quarrel now. Mother is very ill, — perhaps dying.”
James started forward.
“Where is she? What is the matter?” he cried, eagerly.
“ I do not know,” answered John. “I will go for the doctor, now that you are come. I durst not leave her before. But, James, slop one moment. As long as she lives, you are safe, — I will not hurt you. by word or act; but when she is gone,— beware ! ”
James did not answer, except by a nod, and John, turning, saw Isaac Welles standing at the gate. He had overheard the conversation and felt that there was no danger of a quarrel, and he now came eagerly forward with offers of assistance. They were gratefully accepted; for even the taciturnity of the brothers seemed to give way before the pressing fear that beset them.
There is ever great good-will and kindness in the scattered community of a village, and, despite the unpopularity of the Blounts, neighbors and friends soon came to them, ready and willing to aid them by every means in their power.
Mrs. Blount’s illness proved to he quite as alarming as John had feared. The physician, from the first, held out very little hope of her recovery. The strong, healthy woman was stricken, as if in a moment; it was the first real illness she had ever had, and it made fearful progress. Yet her naturally iron constitution resisted desperately, so that, to the astonishment of all who saw her sufferings, she lingered on, week after week, with wonderful tenacity of life. The summer faded into autumn, and autumn died into winter, and still she lived, failing slowly, each day losing strength, growing weaker and weaker, until it seemed as if she existed only by the force of will.
Of course it had long ago been found necessary to have some other dependence than the kindness of neighbors, and a stout Irish girl had been hired for the kitchen, while Mrs. Clark, a good, responsible woman, occupied the post of nurse. From these persons, and from Isaac Welles, the rest of the story is collected.
During all these months of her illness, the two brothers had been unfailing in their devotion to their poor suffering mother. Fight and day they never tired, watching by her bedside for hours, and seeming scarcely to sleep. Of course they were much together, but no words of harshness ever passed their lips. When out of Mrs. Blount’s presence, they spoke to each other as little as possible; in her presence, there was a studied civility that might have deceived any one but a mother. Even she was puzzled. She would lie and watch them with burning, eager eyes, striving to discover if it was a heartfelt reconciliation or only a hollow truce. It was the strong feeling she had that only her life kept them apart, which gave her power to defy death. Perhaps on this very account his stroke was all the more sudden at last.
It was a dark, lowering afternoon in December when the summons came. Mrs. Blount had been lying in a half-doze for more than an hour. Her sons had taken advantage of this sleep to attend to some necessary duties. The nurse sat beside the fire, watching the flames flicker on the dark walls, and idly wondering if the lenden-hued sky portended a snow-storm. Her musings were broken by the voice of the invalid, very faint, but quite distinct,—
“ Nurse ! nurse ! Call my sons. I am dying! ”
Mrs. Clark ran to the bed. “Quick! quick!” cried Mrs. Blount. “ Do not stop for me. You cannot help me now. Call my sons before it is too late ! ”
Her tone and action were so imperative that they enforced obedience, and the nurse ran down-stairs witk all speed. She found no one but the hired girl in the kitchen, who said, in answer to her hurried inquiries, that both brothers were out, gone to bring in the cattle before the storm. Mrs. Clark sent her in all haste to recall them, and then returned to the sick-room. As she entered, the dying woman looked up quickly, her face clouded with disappointment when she saw that she was alone. The nurse said all in her power to assure her that her sons would soon be there, but she could not allay the strange excitement into which their absence seemed to have thrown her.
“ My strength is failing,” she said, sadly ; “ every moment is precious; if I die without that promise which they could not refuse to a dying mother’s prayer, God knows what will become of them ! ”
Mrs. Clark urged the necessity of quiet, but the sufferer paid no heed to the caution. She talked on, wildly, and sometimes incoherently, about the hopes she built upon the reconciliation her deathbed would effect,— showing, in these few moments of unnatural loquacity, how deeply she had felt the animosity between her sons, and how great had been the effort to conquer it. This excitement could not continue long ; her voice soon grew weaker, and at last she ceased speaking, appearing to sink into a stupor of exhaustion.
An instant after, the door opened and John ran eagerly to the couch, closely followed by James. Already the poor widow’s eyes were closed; the livid hue that is so fatally significant overspread her face; her breath came in quick gasps.
“ Mother ! mother! ” cried John, flinging himself on his knees beside her, and seizing the thin, hard hand.
At that sound, she opened her eyes, but it was too late; she no longer had the power of utterance. She glanced from one brother to the other with a piteous, entreating look ; her mouth moved convulsively ; in the effort to speak, she sat upright for an instant, ghastly and rigid, and then fell heavily back.
All was over; her life of labor was changed for eternal rest; and the two men, whom only her power had restrained, stood with the last barrier between them removed, avowed and deadly enemies.
Yet, for all that, they were sincere mourners for the sole parent they had ever known, though it seemed, that, jealous even in their grief, neither cared to have the other see how much he suffered ; for, after the first few moments, when the heart refuses to be satisfied of the certainty which it knows only too well, they turned away, and each sought his own room. Afterwards, when all was prepared and the room decently arranged, they returned, and alternately through the long night kept their vigil beside the corpse. It is strange, that, in those quiet hours of communion with the loved dead, no thought of relenting towards each other ever suggested itself.
The snow that had been hanging all day in the dark clouds above them towards evening began to fall. Stilly and continually the tiny flakes came down, hiding all the ruggedness of earth under a spotless mantle, even as the white shroud covered the toil-worn frame of the released sufferer.
In the morning the news spread rapidly, and neighbors came to the afflicted house. But the brothers seemed to resent their offers of assistance as an intrusion, refusing to allow any other watchers, themselves continuing night and day to watch beside the corpse ; and that awful vigil, instead of softening their hearts, seemed to harden them into a more deadly hatred.
The third afternoon, when all the country-side was ghastly in its winding-sheet of snow, and the clouds hung heavy as a pall over the stricken earth, the little funeral held its way from the lonely farmhouse to the village-churchyard. As a last tribute of respect to their mother, the two brothers drove side by side in the same sleigh. Those who saw them said that it was a sight not to be forgotten,— those two black figures, with their stern, pale faces, so much alike, yet so unsympathizing, sitting motionless, not even leaning on each other in that moment of grief. So they were together, yet apart, during the ceremony that consigned the wife to the grave where five-and-twenty years before they had laid the husband. So they were together, yet apart, when they turned their horse’s head towards their home and rode away silently into the sombre twilight.
The last person who saw them that night was Mrs. Clark. The brothers had insisted that both she and the Irish girl should leave early in the day, — replying to all offers of putting the house in order, that they preferred to be alone. Hut on her way home after the funeral, Mrs. Clark passed the house in a friend’s sleigh and stopped a moment for her bundle, which in the hurry of the morning had been forgotten. To her surprise, as she approached the door, she saw that there were no lights visible in any of the windows, although it was already very dark. Thinking the brothers were in the back part of the house, she pushed open the door, which yielded to her touch, and was just about to make her way towards the kitchen, when she heard a sound in the parlor, and then these words, quite distinctly : —
“ Are you ready, James ? ”
“ Yes, — only one word. It is a long account we have to settle, and it must be final,”
“It shall be. Mine is a heavy score. Years ago I swore to wipe it out, and now the time has come.”
Mrs. Clark’s knock interrupted them. There was an angry exclamation, and the door was opened. To her intense surprise, no light came from within. She could not understand how they could settle their accounts in the darkness ; but they gave her no time for reflection ; an angry voice, in answer to her inquiries, bade her go on to the kitchen, and she hastened off. There she found a single candle burning dimly; by its light she picked up her bundle, and, leaving the door open to see her way, returned to the front of the house. Though not a nervous woman, she felt an undefined fear at the mysterious darkness and silence ; and as she passed the brothers standing in the doorway, she was struck with fresh terror at the livid pallor of those two stern faces that looked out from the black shadow. When she was going out, she heard the door of the parlor bolted within, and she rejoined her friends, right glad to be away from the sad house.
So those two men were left alone, locked into the dark room together, in the horrible companionship of their inextinguishable hatred and their own bad hearts. It will forever remain unknown what passed between them through the long hours of that awful night, when the wind howled madly around the lightless house, and the clouds gathered blacker and thicker, shrouding it in impenetrable gloom.
Three days passed before any living creature approached the spot, — three days of cold unparalleled in the annals of that country, — cold so severe that it compelled even the hardy farmers to keep as much as possible by the fireside. On the fourth day, Isaac Welles began to think they had been quite long enough alone, and he started with a friend to visit the Blount brothers. Arrived at the farm-house, they saw the sleigh, standing before the door, but no sign of any one stirring. The shutters of the windows were closed, and no smoke came out of the chimney. They knocked at the door. Yo answer. Surprised at the silence, they at length tried to open it. It was not locked, but some heavy substance barred the way. With ditliculty they forced it open wide enough to go in.
To this day those men shudder and turn pale, as they recall the awful scene that awaited them within that house, which was, in fact, a tomb.
The obstacle which opposed their entrance was the dead body of John Blount, He lay stretched on the floor, — his face mutilated by cuts and disfigured with gore, his clothes disordered and bloody, and one hand nearly severed from the arm by a deep gash at the wrist; yet it was evident that none of these wounds were mortal. After that terrible conflict, he had probably crawled to the door and fallen there, faint with loss of blood ; the silent, cruel cold had completed the work of death.
Following the blood-track, the two men entered the parlor, with suspended breath and hearts that almost ceased to beat. There they found the dead body of James Blount,—his clothes half torn off, in the violence of the strife that could end only in murder. A long, deep cut on the throat had terminated that awful struggle, though many other less dangerous wounds showed how desperate it had been. He lay just as he fell, — his features still contracted with a look of defiance and hatred, and in his right hand still clasped a long, sharp knife. He had succumbed in that mortal conflict, which quenched a lifelong quarrel, and was to prove fatal alike to victor and vanquished. Thus the vow of John Blount was fulfilled, — the pent-up hatred of years satisfied in his brother’s murder.
The room was in the wildest disorder, — chairs thrown down and broken, tables overturned, and flic carpet torn. In one corner they found a second long, sharp knife. It bad been at least a fair fight.
They laid the two ghastly corpses side by side: they had been chained together all their lives ; they were chained together in death. The two fratricides are buried in one grave.
This terrible tragedy blighted the spot where it took place. No one would ever inhabit that house again. The furniture was removed, except from the one room which to this day remains unchanged, and the building left to fall to decay. The superstitious affirm, that, in the long winter nights, oaths and groans steal out, muffled, on the rising wind, from the dark shadows of the Lonely House.