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awaited him. Then, sinking under the weight of an existence no longer bearable, she perished by her own hand. On the banks of the Rhine, near this same Strasburgh, we are informed that there lived another of our members, a common gipsy or fortune-teller. It was impossible for this woman, in the situation in which she was placed, to assist any others than those beariug some special mark of being under our protection : but of these she procured the passage of no less than twenty across the river ! ”
All this time, the listener, leaning against the wooden pillar, in whose shadow he stood concealed, had scarcely seemed to draw breath, such was his eagerness not to lose a syllable which fell from the speaker's lips. The mysteries which had clouded his vision during a quarter of a century--the mysteries which had obscured to him the story of his own life, and rise, and successes, were gradually clearing away before her words. But there were other points upon which he longed for information-so earnestly, that a pause of only a few seconds which the speaker made at this place, grew insupportable to him from its very length. It seemed to him, that his respiration had, in some sense, come to be dependant upon the tones of her voice, and that, those ceasing, a faintness stole over him, so that unless she proceeded, he should reveal his presence by falling helpless on the floor.
At last, she continued : “These are merely given to you as instances of what, in other times, we have been able to effect. Our annals are full of such, And I need not tell
isolated cases there must necessarily have been, the records of which have never been preserved. Those gloomy days have happily passed away. It no longer forms part of our duty to rescue the innocent from the blind fury of mobs, or legal tribunals. But other and equally important duties remain to be performed. By combined action to assert the privileges of our sex-to taste the sweets of a power all the more influential because its springs are unseen, and its sources unsuspected to promote the objects of our favour-very often to upset the most cunningly devised schemes of men, our masters—with these and a variety of other objects you will become more particularly acquainted after your full initiation. We have, as you know, members in the palace, members in the houses of great statesmen, eat lawyers, great doctors, as well as in the workshop and the hovel. Our hands may be traced in treaties which are supposed to be the happy creations of diplomatists alone ; in provisions of laws which are believed to have sprung from the brains of their proposer in the Chambers.
How many a man now on a high pinnacle would be surprised to learn that his elevation is due to us, and us alone! Sister Léonie, take the case of your own husband.
“Sixteen years ago, he landed in France, poor, almost penniless ; no one knew then, nor does anyone know at this moment, what was his origin. But he bore on his person that which entitled him to, nay, which rendered obligatory, the assistance of every member of our society, with whom he might happen to come in contact. This, a ring, or other jewel, engraved with our mystic symbols, can never be conferred except upon rare occasions, and by the unanimous vote of a lodge, upon an individual who, of course unknowingly, has rendered some great and not-tobe-forgotten service to the sisterhood. It is generlly conveyed to him in such a way—as, for example, in the form of a present from a client, or patient, or other person indebted to him—that he never suspects it to differ in any respect from another bauble. But, from that moment, thanks to us, his success in life is certain, so long as he continues to wear it. By calling to mind, sister Léonie, the manner in which we
have pushed your husband, Doctor Longjumeau, you will form some idea of the power and resources of our association.
“On all these and many other points, you will, however, receive fuller information at a future time. It now remains for me to remind you that you have but one more enforced attendance here that of next Saturday, when you will be made acquainted with the cipher by which a greater part of our deliberations are carried on. This will not absolve you from a weekly attendance here, whenever it is in your power to come, without exciting the suspicions of your husband or household. Our rules do not compel personal attendance, only for the reason that such a scheme would be impracticable, and by calling attention to the movements of our individual members would run the risk of revealing our existence to the world.
"To complete the ceremonies of to-day, we shall now demand of you the last and most terrible oath which the forms of this lodge require of a past apprentice. Guardians, lead the way!”
As she pronounced these words, she rose from her chair, and there was an evident movement on the part of the assistants in the body of the building. The chandelier was instantly lowered from the ceiling, and the candles extinguished. The only remaining light was that thrown from two torches, one of which was carried by each of the women who had borne a naked sword, and who were apparently addressed as the “guardians.” The Doctor could see that they were moving in his direction, and that to remain where he was, was to render detection inevitable. Restored to his presence of mind by this consideration, he crawled a few feet along the flour, and so down the ladder to the passage below. Here all was darkness, but he knew that he had simply to make his way straight to the end, in order to find himself at the bottom of the secret staircase. His only fear was lest the woman whom he had before passed, should by this time be awake, and attempt to bar his progress, or give the alarm. This fear turned out to be not altogether groundless ; for he distinctly heard the rustling of her dress, and paused for a moment uncertain what to do. Happily he was relieved by hearing her exclaim, “Sister Forerunner, the Tiler wakes, ready to give notice of all intruders ! Peace and security, the salutations of the day!" She evidently took him for one of the sisterhood, and he accordingly passed on, unmolested. A few more steps brought him to the foot of the staircase, just as, turning round, he perceived the lights of the torches shining at the further end of the passage. He hurried up, without taking breath, until he reached the door at the top, which he found half open, just as he had left it. Closing it gently behind him, the Doctor stood for an instant on the landing to collect his scattered thoughts, and to consider what were best to be done.
His curiosity upon one principal point, so far from being satisfied, had only been irritated by what he had just witnessed, into still greater activity. His youthful adventure, his visit to a dead patient—these were mysteries as yet unexplained, and about which he longed to hear
But how was this to be accomplished ? No possible place of concealment presented itself to his eyes. His further stay in the house might be fraught with danger. Of what might not these women be capable towards one whom they knew to have penetrated their secret ! Would not a suspicion of his wife's fidelity to the association involve her together with himself? These considerations clustering together in his mind far more quickly than they can be reproduced in the telling, determined him to leave the house with all the speed possible. His foot was already on the first step of the principal staircase, when he was surprised at hearing the sound of voices on the landing below. The exit in that direction now evidently
guarded, and there were watchers to intercept his passage. At the same moment, the noise of feet on the secret staircase reached his
Those behind him were approaching; a few more seconds, and the light of their torches would be thrown full upon his face. With the mere impulse of deferring as long as possible a detection which was now inevitable, Doctor Longjumeau strode into the corridor
facing him, and thence on to the room with which it communicated. Already the secret door creaked on its hinges, when yielding to the instinct of the moment, he raised the red curtain and crept behind it for concealment. The curtain fell back in its usual position, and he stood there, in the darkness, side by side with what he could not see, but felt to be still there—side by side with the skeleton of the murdered lady draped in her winding-sheet.
He could hear that the room was gradually filling, no doubt with the same persons of whose rites he had been a witness below. The light of the torches was visible through the texture of the curtain, like two eyes of fire that had already spied him out. The same voice which he had heard before was again raised, and this time the deep vibrating tones—like a protracted echo which had lingered about the spot for five and twenty years—could leave no doubt on his mind as to the identity of the speaker.
“ Sister Léonie,” she said, “ before submitting you to the last and most solemn oath that our forms require of a past apprentice, I have something to say to you of its origin, by way of showing you the awful character of the obligation which it involves.
“I have told you that our secret has once, and only once, to our knowledge, been revealed. The culprit was young, like you-like you, but newly married. She betrayed our secret to her husband; she said it was in her sleep. No matter how it was done; our secret was betrayed. The day after this intelligence had by a singular chance been conveyed to us, Amedée Dutertre was brought to the home of his young wife mortally wounded in a duel. His opponent was the husband of one of our menibers. On this head I need not add another word.
“He was the last of his race, with the exception of an aged grandfather residing in Alsace. All her relations had either fled or were submerged in the tide of popular fury which at that time swept over France. When, therefore, on the day following her husband's funeral, her mind gave way, and she uttered things strange and incomprehensible to those around her, it did not excite surprise that some personal friends should seek and remove her, for the purpose of being cared for.
“She remained here three months. God bears witness how often the members of our lodge consulted together, with feelings of the deepest anxiety, on the course to be pursued. To release her in her then state, with our secret ever ready to free itself from her lips, amid the wild utterings of her madness, was clearly impossible. We were not then, as now, the sole occupants of this house, but had thought it prudent, on various accounts, to suffer the lower stories to be tenanted, chiefly by persons of a humble condition. Some of these, we had reason to believe, had conceived certain suspicions of us. The attention of the police might at any time be directed against us; the house minutely searched, our prisoner be discovered, and by her means the whole of our mysteries be published to the world.
“I tell you all this to show you how, only after painful deliberation, we consented to an idea at variance with the spirit of our society. On one side was a single life, useless henceforth to her who bore it: on the . other, the existence of our association menaced, and all the good that we were accomplishing, suddenly checked. She died. But our difficulties were not over. It was necessary to procure the means of interring the body. The persons underneath, who had seen the mad woman brought to the house would be naturally surprised at her disappearance. It is not essential that I should relate to you the means by which our end was accomplished. Suffice it, that we were lucky enough to find a young doctor already on the point of being arrested as suspect. He examined the body and gave us the certificate, necessary, among other forms, to its burial. That same night he slept in the Conciergerie! Our underhand influence with certain chiefs of the period was exerted to procure him a separate confinement, so that whatever suspicions he might have conceived could never be revealed. By the same means we caused him to be directed for trial upon Strasburgh, the scene of his supposed crimes against the people. He perished there ; and none, save the sisters of our lodge know, at this hour, of the terrible necessity which once goaded us on to take the life of a false sister ! “Léonie, upon
the remains of that one false sister-by what means recovered, it is not now essential to inform you—upon these remains hidden behind yonder curtain, but about to be revealed to you, you are required to take the last and most solemn oath demanded of a past apprentice. Guardians, raise the veil that hides the shrine of the Imprecation !"
All this time, Doctor Longjumeau had been drinking in, with an ardour difficult to be imagined, the words which fell from the speaker's lips. Yet his curiosity had not so entirely absorbed him as to cause him to lose sight of the disagreeable fact that the moment of his detection was drawing nearer and nearer. That moment appeared to be at hand, and he was preparing to stand forth with all the confidence possible to the eyes whom his presence would assuredly strike with no ordinary astonishment, when suddenly he was conscious of a strange movement on the part of the persons on the opposite side of the curtain. They whispered together hurriedly for a few moments, then the lights were extinguished; finally he could hear them moving rapidly out of the room. The creaking of the secret door caught his ear, then the sound of footsteps on the hidden staircase, the door was shut again, and he heard nothing further. He was once more alone in the room, standing in the darkness behind the curtain, beside the skeleton wrapped in the winding sheet.
It was not till some minutes had elapsed, that he ventured to lift the curtain and to issue from his place of concealment.
He had no sooner done this, than a noise behind him, like the opening and shutting of a trap-door caused him to look round. He raised the curtain again.