In the iron solitude of his soul he tortured himself with these questions. His stupor lasted for days—was it the abrupt fall or was it the result of his absinthe-like dreams? He was haunted by an odour that assailed his brain like one tune persistently played. The odour! Whence did it come with its sickly sweetness? Perhaps therein lay the secret of his hallucinating visions. Perhaps a drug had perverted his brain. But within the week the dangerous perfume had become dissipated, and with it vanished all hope of solving the riddle. Oh, to sense once more the enchantments of its fragrance, once more revel in the sublimated intoxication of mighty forces weaving at the loom of life! By the cadences of what infernal art had he been vouchsafed a glimpse of the profiles of the gods? Henceforth Ferval became a lover of shadows.
The tenderness of the growing night disquieted the dying woman.
“Aline!” she called. But it was only the name that reverberated within the walls of her brain, harrowed by fever. A soft air rustled the drawn curtains of lawn; and on the dressing table the two little lamps fluttered in syncopated sympathy. One picture the room held. It was after a painting by Goya, and depicted a sneering skeleton scrawling on his dusty tomb, with a bony fore-finger, the sinister word, Nada—nothing! The perturbation of the woman increased, though physical power seemed denied her. “Aline, my child!” This time a clucking sound issued from her throat.
The girl went to the bedside and gently fanned. Her aunt wagged her head negatively. “No, no!” she stuttered. Aline stopped, and kneeling, took the sick hands in her own. Their eyes met and Aline, guided by the glance, looked over at the picture with its sardonic motto.
“Shall I take it away, Aunt Mary?” The elder woman closed her eyes as if to shut out the ghoulish mockery. Then Aline saw the tabouret that stood between the windows—it was burdened with magnolias in a deep white bowl.
“Do you wish them nearer?”
“No, no,” murmured her aunt. Her eyes brightened. She pushed her chin forward, and the young girl removed the flowers, knowing that their odour had become oppressive. She was not absent more than a few seconds. As she returned the maid touched her arm.
“The gentlemen are waiting below, miss. They won’t leave until they see you.”
“How can I go now? Send them away, send them away!”
“Yes, miss; but I told them what you said this afternoon about the danger of Holiest Mother—”
“Hush! she is calling.” Aline slipped into the room on hurried feet, her eyes dilated, her hair in anxious disorder. But the invalid made no signal. She lay with closed eyelids, the contraction of her nostrils a faint proclamation of life. Again the niece took her place at the headboard, and with folded fingers watched the whispering indications of speedy flight. The maid soon beckoned her from a narrowed door. Aline joined her.