THE DEAD SMILE
Sir Hugh Ockram smiled as he sat by the open window of his study, in the late August afternoon; and just then a curiously yellow cloud obscured the low sun, and the clear summer light turned lurid, as if it had been suddenly poisoned and polluted by the foul vapours of a plague. Sir Hugh’s face seemed, at best, to be made of fine parchment drawn skin-tight over a wooden mask, in which two eyes were sunk out of sight, and peered from far within through crevices under the slanting, wrinkled lids, alive and watchful like two toads in their holes, side by side and exactly alike. But as the light changed, then a little yellow glare flashed in each. Nurse Macdonald said once that when Sir Hugh smiled he saw the faces of two women in hell—two dead women he had betrayed. (Nurse Macdonald was a hundred years old.) And the smile widened, stretching the pale lips across the discoloured teeth in[Pg 4] an expression of profound self-satisfaction, blended with the most unforgiving hatred and contempt for the human doll. The hideous disease of which he was dying had touched his brain. His son stood beside him, tall, white and delicate as an angel in a primitive picture; and though there was deep distress in his violet eyes as he looked at his father’s face, he felt the shadow of that sickening smile stealing across his own lips and parting them and drawing them against his will. And it was like a bad dream, for he tried not to smile and smiled the more. Beside him, strangely like him in her wan, angelic beauty, with the same shadowy golden hair, the same sad violet eyes, the same luminously pale face, Evelyn Warburton rested one hand upon his arm. And as she looked into her uncle’s eyes, and could not turn her own away, she knew that the deathly smile was hovering on her own red lips, drawing them tightly across her little teeth, while two bright tears ran down her cheeks to her mouth, and dropped from the upper to the lower lip while she smiled—and the smile was like the shadow of death and the seal of damnation upon her pure, young face.
“Of course,” said Sir Hugh very slowly, and still looking out at the trees, “if you have made up your mind to be married, I cannot hinder you,[Pg 5] and I don’t suppose you attach the smallest importance to my consent——”
“Father!” exclaimed Gabriel reproachfully.
“No; I do not deceive myself,” continued the old man, smiling terribly. “You will marry when I am dead, though there is a very good reason why you had better not—why you had better not,” he repeated very emphatically, and he slowly turned his toad eyes upon the lovers.
“What reason?” asked Evelyn in a frightened voice.
“Never mind the reason, my dear. You will marry just as if it did not exist.” There was a long pause. “Two gone,” he said, his voice lowering strangely, “and two more will be four—all together—for ever and ever, burning, burning, burning bright.”
At the last words his head sank slowly back, and the little glare of the toad eyes disappeared under the swollen lids; and the lurid cloud passed from the westering sun, so that the earth was green again and the light pure. Sir Hugh had fallen asleep, as he often did in his last illness, even while speaking.
Gabriel Ockram drew Evelyn away, and from the study they went out into the dim hall, softly closing the door behind them, and each audibly drew breath, as though some sudden danger had[Pg 6] been passed. They laid their hands each in the other’s, and their strangely-like eyes met in a long look, in which love and perfect understanding were darkened by the secret terror of an unknown thing. Their pale faces reflected each other’s fear.
“It is his secret,” said Evelyn at last. “He will never tell us what it is.”
“If he dies with it,” answered Gabriel, “let it be on his own head!”
“On his head!” echoed the dim hall. It was a strange echo, and some were frightened by it, for they said that if it were a real echo it should repeat everything and not give back a phrase here and there, now speaking, now silent. But Nurse Macdonald said that the great hall would never echo a prayer when an Ockram was to die, though it would give back curses ten for one.
“On his head!” it repeated quite softly, and Evelyn started and looked round.
“It is only the echo,” said Gabriel, leading her away.
They went out into the late afternoon light, and sat upon a stone seat behind the chapel, which was built across the end of the east wing. It was very still, not a breath stirred, and there was no sound near them. Only far off in the park a song-bird was whistling the high prelude to the evening chorus.
“It is very lonely here,” said Evelyn, taking Gabriel’s hand nervously, and speaking as if she dreaded to disturb the silence. “If it were dark, I should be afraid.”
“Of what? Of me?” Gabriel’s sad eyes turned to her.
“Oh no! How could I be afraid of you? But of the old Ockrams—they say they are just under our feet here in the north vault outside the chapel, all in their shrouds, with no coffins, as they used to bury them.”
“As they always will—as they will bury my father, and me. They say an Ockram will not lie in a coffin.”
“But it cannot be true—these are fairy tales—ghost stories!” Evelyn nestled nearer to her companion, grasping his hand more tightly, and the sun began to go down.
“Of course. But there is the story of old Sir Vernon, who was beheaded for treason under James II. The family brought his body back from the scaffold in an iron coffin with heavy locks, and they put it in the north vault. But ever afterwards, whenever the vault was opened to bury another of the family, they found the coffin wide open, and the body standing upright against the wall, and the head rolled away in a corner, smiling at it.”
“As Uncle Hugh smiles?” Evelyn shivered.
“Yes, I suppose so,” answered Gabriel, thoughtfully. “Of course I never saw it, and the vault has not been opened for thirty years—none of us have died since then.”
“And if—if Uncle Hugh dies—shall you——” Evelyn stopped, and her beautiful thin face was quite white.
“Yes. I shall see him laid there too—with his secret, whatever it is.” Gabriel sighed and pressed the girl’s little hand.
“I do not like to think of it,” she said unsteadily. “O Gabriel, what can the secret be? He said we had better not marry—not that he forbade it—but he said it so strangely, and he smiled—ugh!” Her small white teeth chattered with fear, and she looked over her shoulder while drawing still closer to Gabriel. “And, somehow, I felt it in my own face—”
“So did I,” answered Gabriel in a low, nervous voice. “Nurse Macdonald——” He stopped abruptly.
“What? What did she say?”
“Oh—nothing. She has told me things—they would frighten you, dear. Come, it is growing chilly.” He rose, but Evelyn held his hand in both of hers, still sitting and looking up into his face.
“But we shall be married, just the same—Gabriel! Say that we shall!”
“Of course, darling—of course. But while my father is so very ill, it is impossible——”
“O Gabriel, Gabriel, dear! I wish we were married now!” cried Evelyn in sudden distress. “I know that something will prevent it and keep us apart.”
“Nothing human,” said Gabriel Ockram, as she drew him down to her.
And their faces, that were so strangely alike, met and touched—and Gabriel knew that the kiss had a marvellous savour of evil, but on Evelyn’s lips it was like the cool breath of a sweet and mortal fear. And neither of them understood, for they were innocent and young. Yet she drew him to her by her lightest touch, as a sensitive plant shivers and waves its thin leaves, and bends and closes softly upon what it wants; and he let himself be drawn to her willingly, as he would if her touch had been deadly and poisonous; for she strangely loved that half voluptuous breath of fear, and he passionately desired the nameless evil something that lurked in her maiden lips.
“It is as if we loved in a strange dream,” she said.
“I fear the waking,” he murmured.
“We shall not wake, dear—when the dream is over it will have already turned into death, so softly that we shall not know it. But until then——”
She paused, and her eyes sought his, and their faces slowly came nearer. It was as if they had thoughts in their red lips that foresaw and foreknew the deep kiss of each other.
“Until then——” she said again, very low, and her mouth was nearer to his.
“Dream—till then,” murmured his breath.
Categories: English Literature