THE CHIMNEY CORNER.
THE THREE NUMBERS. “ I say again, Edmund, I will not read it. Keep it, and gloat over it as the evidence of your ingratitude and my misery, if you will ; but put it out of my sight, or I will not be answerable for my actions ! ” Still he held the letter towards me, silently, with the same strange smile lighting up his boyish face. “ Why do you torture me 1 ” I cried, restraining myself with an'effort. “You have robbed me of ray one treasure. You have destroyed the sole aim of my life. Let that content you.” “You are mad!” he said, with irritating calmness. “If you read the letter, yon might better understand the full extent of the wrong I have done you. ” I tore tho letter from his hand, and flung it upon the glowing grate. It sprang into flame, and rolled off upon the floor in three little heaps cf ashes. Then I turned and confronted him. The quiet, half-pitying disdain in his face acted upon me as the fire had acted upon the paper. Every foul and dangerous impulse of my nature burst into fierce flames. But I controlled all outward signs, and
stood looking at him in breathless silence. He was leaning against the door of the roomy steel safe which was built into the wall. Whether something in his attitude, or some whisper from my evil heart, suggested it, I know not, but a cold, terrible thought crept upon me as I gazed at him. The safe was empty ; for I had removed its contents earlier in the afternoon, and I saw with a shudder that it would contain his body. In the delirium of my rage and jealousy, the temptation of an awful revenge took a firm hold of me. For a moment, however, I resisted it.
“ Edmund,” I said, calmly, “leave me! As you hope to live another hour, get out of my sight. ” “Ho, I will not,” he said firmly, ’’unless you know the contents of the letter you so foolishly destroyed. ” I struggled no longer against the temptation ; but I waited to have one doubt confirmed. “ Do you love her, Edmund ? ” I asked, in a smothered tone. “ Yes dearly,” he replied, with the old strange smile crossing his lips. “ And does ” the words stuck in my throat—“ does she love you 2 ” “Even as I do her,” he answered as before. “ Then love each other in the next world, for you shall never meet again in this ! ” I cried, seizing him in my arms and forcing him towards the safe. For a moment he struggled wildly, but in vain. His boyish frame was like an infant’s beside my maturer strength. Then he desisted and looked up at me appealingly. “ Would you murder me, Arthur 2 ” he said hoarsely. ‘•' Madman you know not what you are doing ! In heaven’s name, let me explain ! ” “ Too late ! ” I muttered, as I savagely forced him into the safe and crushed the giant door upon him. With scarce a look at the dial plate, which regulated the lock, I whirled the combination round, and the bolt slid into its socket with a dull thud. He was buried alive in a tomb more impenetrable than the deepest grave ever dug.
Insanely exulting oyer my detestable crime, I sat down to reflect. Surely, I said, I have done no more than justice. I have administered a well-merited punishment with my own hands. He who betrays his friend and benefactor deserves no better fate. For did not Edmund owe his very life to me 1 Did I not take him in, a homeless nameless orphan, and make him as a younger brother to me ? Had I not, when young in the world and struggling with every adversity, divided my poor pittance with him, and made every sacrifice that he might profit thereby. And how had he rewarded me ? Late in life I. met the woman who I believed might secure to me the contentment I had always longed for but never known. I had trusted her when she told me that my love for her was returned. At my age love is no floating waif, but a rock whose foundations lie deep in the heart, and I had tied my soul to it. I had made Edmund my confidant, and her friend. I had seen them together day after day, only too happy that they seemed to appreciate each other. Only of late the demon of suspicion had entered my mind. Then I frankly acknowledged my fears, and asked that they should see each other no more. And both had refused, not gently or considerately, but with a cool insolence that maddened me. I saw that there was a secret between them. I saw that there was a secret between them, and I knew it meant that I had lost the woman I loved, and the man I had so befriended had robbed me of her. The thought had rankled in my bosom like the sting of a scorpion I had become moody and ill, separating myself from both of them, that I might not witness the happiness I had lost. This day Edmund had come to me, and, with affected pity, offered me a letter from her, which lie said would explain all. Ay, explain with cool insolence the utter falseness of them both. I had done well. My act was justice not revenge ! I had been sitting with my eyes bent upon the floor. As I raised them they rested full upon the portrait of Edmund, which hung upon the wall before me. My gaze fastened upon it with a kind of fascination. The frank, boyish eyes looked down upon me with what seemed to be a mute
appeal for the man slowly dying in the safe. I tried to turn away my head, for I felt my evil resolution melting away beneath its influence ; but I could not.
With the swiftness of thought, a sense of horror for my meditated crime, and pity for my victim, rushed oyer me. Deeply as he had wronged me I felt I must forgive him. I arose and went to the safe intending, to release him ; hut first called his name. There was no answer. The iron walls were thick, but still his voice, had he spoken, would have penetrated them. Was he dead already'? With fingers weak as a child’s, I turned the index plate controlling the bolt, and pulled at the knob. The door remained immovable. I had lost the combination by which I had fastened it. My insane fury had banished every number of it from my mind. Overcome by the horror of my position, I staggered to a chair and sat down. My repentance had come too late. I must be a murderer in spite of myself. I was aware that having once lost the arrangement by which I had locked the door, it might be the task of days, perhaps weeks, to recover it again. Meanwhile •Edmund must die of suffocation.
By the closest calculation the air in the safe would be exhausted in a little over an hour, and there was not the smallest crevice by which it could be renewed.
Once again I ran to the door and tried every combination I fancied might be the true one; but the great metal panel remained as firmly closed as before. Half an hour had already gone ; but thirty minutes of life was left to the poor creature I had so madly sacrificed to my jealousy. To the latest day of my life I shall remember the awful experience of those few, short moments. All my love for the poor boy came back with redoubled intensity.
I forgot his baseness to me ; I forgot all but the years we had lived together as brothers. Vague thoughts of hastening for
aid and tools to blow the safe apart came to me, but I knew that Edmund must be dead many hours before even that could be accomplished. Back I went to the combination, and whirled it round and round until the figures seemed to glare like sparks of fire before my dizzy eyes. Still the safe refused to render up its victim. But fifteen minuses more of life remained for him.
I arose once more, uttering a wild prayer to Heaven for pardon and help, and gazed vacantly around the room. My roving eyes fell upon the three heaps of ashes from the burnt letter lying upon the floor. Whether it was from some vague recollection, or whether they really existed as I saw them, I know not, but the three heaps seemed to have assumed the shape of three distinct figures. They were the numerals, one, five, and nine.
For a moment I stared at them blankly, then the blessed hope that they might represent the one out of many thousand combinations that would open the safe, aroused me.
Without pausing to find a reason for the fancy, I set the number above the other on the dial, and with a thickiy beating heart pulled desperately at the knob. Who can imagine the passion of joy and relief that swept upon me, as the massive door swung slowly back, exposing the interior of the safe.
Edmund lay partly upon the floor, pallid as death itself, and utterly insensible ; but, thank Heaven, the heart still fluttered feebly ; he was not dead.
It was the effort of an instant to lift him out of the safe into purer air, but the ivork of an hour to call back the life I had so nearly depraved him of. At length, with a deep sigh, he opened his eyes and looked up at me inquiringly. “ Forgive me, Edmund,” I cried in an agony of shame and remorse ; “I was mad. I knew not what I was doing. Take her ; I am too sinful, too selfish, to be worthy ot her love.” “I forgive you,” he answered, with his kind smile, “ all but your self-condemna-tion ; but I cannet take her in the sense you mean. I told you we loved each other, but it was only as relatives may love. For, Arthur, she is that sister whom, as you know, I lost in childhood. We learned that from each other long ago, and meant to keep the secret until your wedding day ; but we saw you were unhappy in your doubt of us, and that letter which you burned would have told you all.”
I could make no reply. The tears that filled my eyes were those of unutterable thankfulness for my narrow escape from an awful crime ; and they sealed a firm resolve to be more worthy of the happiness I had so nearly flung away.
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Ashburton Guardian, Ashburton Guardian, Volume 1, Issue 97, 8 May 1880
THE CHIMNEY CORNER. Ashburton Guardian, Volume 1, Issue 97, 8 May 1880
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