Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Mysterious Key and What It Opened

Louisa May Alcott

  Produced by David Garcia, Beginners Projects, Lee Ann Rael,and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team

  The Mysterious Key and What it Opened

  By L. M. Alcott

  Chapter I


  _Trevlyn lands and Trevlyn gold, Heir nor heiress e'er shall hold, Undisturbed, till, spite of rust, Truth is found in Trevlyn dust._

  "This is the third time I've found you poring over that old rhyme. Whatis the charm, Richard? Not its poetry I fancy." And the young wife laida slender hand on the yellow, time-worn page where, in Old English text,appeared the lines she laughed at.

  Richard Trevlyn looked up with a smile and threw by the book, as ifannoyed at being discovered reading it. Drawing his wife's hand throughhis own, he led her back to her couch, folded the soft shawls about her,and, sitting in a low chair beside her, said in a cheerful tone, thoughhis eyes betrayed some hidden care, "My love, that book is a history ofour family for centuries, and that old prophecy has never yet beenfulfilled, except the 'heir and heiress' line. I am the last Trevlyn,and as the time draws near when my child shall be born, I naturallythink of his future, and hope he will enjoy his heritage in peace."

  "God grant it!" softly echoed Lady Trevlyn, adding, with a look askanceat the old book, "I read that history once, and fancied it must be aromance, such dreadful things are recorded in it. Is it all true,Richard?"

  "Yes, dear. I wish it was not. Ours has been a wild, unhappy race tillthe last generation or two. The stormy nature came in with old SirRalph, the fierce Norman knight, who killed his only son in a fit ofwrath, by a blow with his steel gauntlet, because the boy's strong willwould not yield to his."

  "Yes, I remember, and his daughter Clotilde held the castle during asiege, and married her cousin, Count Hugo. 'Tis a warlike race, and Ilike it in spite of the mad deeds."

  "Married her cousin! That has been the bane of our family in times past.Being too proud to mate elsewhere, we have kept to ourselves till idiotsand lunatics began to appear. My father was the first who broke the lawamong us, and I followed his example: choosing the freshest, sturdiestflower I could find to transplant into our exhausted soil."

  "I hope it will do you honor by blossoming bravely. I never forget thatyou took me from a very humble home, and have made me the happiest wifein England."

  "And I never forget that you, a girl of eighteen, consented to leaveyour hills and come to cheer the long-deserted house of an old man likeme," returned her husband fondly.

  "Nay, don't call yourself old, Richard; you are only forty-five, theboldest, handsomest man in Warwickshire. But lately you look worried;what is it? Tell me, and let me advise or comfort you."

  "It is nothing, Alice, except my natural anxiety for you--Well,Kingston, what do you want?"

  Trevlyn's tender tones grew sharp as he addressed the entering servant,and the smile on his lips vanished, leaving them dry and white as heglanced at the card he handed him. An instant he stood staring at it,then asked, "Is the man here?"

  "In the library, sir."

  "I'll come."

  Flinging the card into the fire, he watched it turn to ashes before hespoke, with averted eyes: "Only some annoying business, love; I shallsoon be with you again. Lie and rest till I come."

  With a hasty caress he left her, but as he passed a mirror, his wife sawan expression of intense excitement in his face. She said nothing, andlay motionless for several minutes evidently struggling with some strongimpulse.

  "He is ill and anxious, but hides it from me; I have a right to know,and he'll forgive me when I prove that it does no harm."

  As she spoke to herself she rose, glided noiselessly through the hall,entered a small closet built in the thickness of the wall, and, bendingto the keyhole of a narrow door, listened with a half-smile on her lipsat the trespass she was committing. A murmur of voices met her ear. Herhusband spoke oftenest, and suddenly some word of his dashed the smilefrom her face as if with a blow. She started, shrank, and shivered,bending lower with set teeth, white cheeks, and panic-stricken heart.Paler and paler grew her lips, wilder and wilder her eyes, fainter andfainter her breath, till, with a long sigh, a vain effort to saveherself, she sank prone upon the threshold of the door, as if struckdown by death.

  "Mercy on us, my lady, are you ill?" cried Hester, the maid, as hermistress glided into the room looking like a ghost, half an hour later.

  "I am faint and cold. Help me to my bed, but do not disturb SirRichard."

  A shiver crept over her as she spoke, and, casting a wild, woeful lookabout her, she laid her head upon the pillow like one who never cared tolift it up again. Hester, a sharp-eyed, middle-aged woman, watched thepale creature for a moment, then left the room muttering, "Something iswrong, and Sir Richard must know it. That black-bearded man came for nogood, I'll warrant."

  At the door of the library she paused. No sound of voices came fromwithin; a stifled groan was all she heard; and without waiting to knockshe went in, fearing she knew not what. Sir Richard sat at his writingtable pen in hand, but his face was hidden on his arm, and his wholeattitude betrayed the presence of some overwhelming despair.

  "Please, sir, my lady is ill. Shall I send for anyone?"

  No answer. Hester repeated her words, but Sir Richard never stirred.Much alarmed, the woman raised his head, saw that he was unconscious,and rang for help. But Richard Trevlyn was past help, though he lingeredfor some hours. He spoke but once, murmuring faintly, "Will Alice cometo say good-bye?"

  "Bring her if she can come," said the physician.

  Hester went, found her mistress lying as she left her, like a figurecarved in stone. When she gave the message, Lady Trevlyn answeredsternly, "Tell him I will not come," and turned her face to the wall,with an expression which daunted the woman too much for another word.

  Hester whispered the hard answer to the physician, fearing to utter italoud, but Sir Richard heard it, and died with a despairing prayer forpardon on his lips.

  When day dawned Sir Richard lay in his shroud and his little daughter inher cradle, the one unwept, the other unwelcomed by the wife and mother,who, twelve hours before, had called herself the happiest woman inEngland. They thought her dying, and at her own command gave her thesealed letter bearing her address which her husband left behind him. Sheread it, laid it in her bosom, and, waking from the trance which seemedto have so strongly chilled and changed her, besought those about herwith passionate earnestness to save her life.

  For two days she hovered on the brink of the grave, and nothing but theindomitable will to live saved her, the doctors said. On the third dayshe rallied wonderfully, and some purpose seemed to gift her withunnatural strength. Evening came, and the house was very still, for allthe sad bustle of preparation for Sir Richard's funeral was over, and helay for the last night under his own roof. Hester sat in the darkenedchamber of her mistress, and no sound broke the hush but the low lullabythe nurse was singing to the fatherless baby in the adjoining room. LadyTrevlyn seemed to sleep, but suddenly put back the curtain, sayingabruptly, "Where does he lie?"

  "In the state chamber, my lady," replied Hester, anxiously watching thefeverish glitter of her mistress's eye, the flush on her cheek, and theunnatural calmness of her manner.

  "Help me to go there; I must see him."

  "It would be your death, my lady. I beseech you, don't think of it,"began the woman; but Lady Trevlyn seemed not to hear her, and somethingin the stern pallor of her face awed the woman into submission.

  Wrapping the slight form of her mistress in a warm cloak, Hesterhalf-led, half-carried her to the state room, and left her on thethreshold.

  "I must go in alone; fear nothing, but wai
t for me here," she said, andclosed the door behind her.

  Five minutes had not elapsed when she reappeared with no sign of griefon her rigid face.

  "Take me to my bed and bring my jewel box," she said, with a shudderingsigh, as the faithful servant received her with an exclamation ofthankfulness.

  When her orders had been obeyed, she drew from her bosom the portrait ofSir Richard which she always wore, and, removing the ivory oval from thegold case, she locked the former in a tiny drawer of the casket,replaced the empty locket in her breast, and bade Hester give the jewelsto Watson, her lawyer, who would see them put in a safe place till thechild was grown.

  "Dear heart, my lady, you'll wear them yet, for you're too young togrieve all your days, even for so good a man as my blessed master. Takecomfort, and cheer up, for the dear child's sake if no more."

  "I shall never wear them again" was all the answer as Lady Trevlyn drewthe curtains, as if to shut out hope.

  Sir Richard was buried and, the nine days' gossip over, the mystery ofhis death died for want of food, for the only person who could haveexplained it was in a state which forbade all allusion to that tragicday.

  For a year Lady Trevlyn's reason was in danger. A long fever left her soweak in mind and body that there was little hope of recovery, and herdays were passed in a state of apathy sad to witness. She seemed to haveforgotten everything, even the shock which had so sorely stricken her.The sight of her child failed to rouse her, and month after monthslipped by, leaving no trace of their passage on her mind, and butslightly renovating her feeble body.

  Who the stranger was, what his aim in coming, or why he neverreappeared, no one discovered. The contents of the letter left by SirRichard were unknown, for the paper had been destroyed by Lady Trevlynand no clue could be got from her. Sir Richard had died of heartdisease, the physicians said, though he might have lived years had nosudden shock assailed him. There were few relatives to makeinvestigations, and friends soon forgot the sad young widow; so theyears rolled on, and Lillian the heiress grew from infancy to childhoodin the shadow of this mystery.