'It is as I supposed,' resumed the doctor, with the same measured utterance. 'You recoil from this arrangement. Do you expect me to convince you? You know very well that I have never held the Mormon view of women. Absorbed in the most arduous studies, I have left the slatterns whom they call my wives to scratch and quarrel among themselves; of me, they have had nothing but my purse; such was not the union I desired, even if I had the leisure to pursue it. No: you need not, madam, and my old friend'--and here the doctor rose and bowed with something of gallantry--'you need not apprehend my importunities. On the contrary, I am rejoiced to read in you a Roman spirit; and if I am obliged to bid you follow me at once, and that in the name, not of my wish, but of my orders, I hope it will be found that we are of a common mind.'
So, bidding us dress for the road, he took a lamp (for the night had now fallen) and set off to the stable to prepare our horses.
'What does it mean?--what will become of us?' I cried.
'Not that, at least,' replied my mother, shuddering. 'So far we can trust him. I seem to read among his words a certain tragic promise. Asenath, if I leave you, if I die, you will not forget your miserable parents?'
Thereupon we fell to cross-purposes: I beseeching her to explain her words; she putting me by, and continuing to recommend the doctor for a friend. 'The doctor!' I cried at last; 'the man who killed my father?'
'Nay,' said she, 'let us be just. I do believe before, Heaven, he played the friendliest part. And he alone, Asenath, can protect you in this land of death.'
At this the doctor returned, leading our two horses; and when we were all in the saddle, he bade me ride on before, as he had matter to discuss with Mrs. Fonblanque. They came at a foot's pace, eagerly conversing in a whisper; and presently after the moon rose and showed them looking eagerly in each other's faces as they went, my mother laying her hand upon the doctor's arm, and the doctor himself, against his usual custom, making vigorous gestures of protest or asseveration.
At the foot of the track which ascended the talus of the mountain to his door, the doctor overtook me at a trot.
'Here,' he said, 'we shall dismount; and as your mother prefers to be alone, you and I shall walk together to my house.'
'Shall I see her again?' I asked.
'I give you my word,' he said, and helped me to alight. 'We leave the horses here,' he added. 'There are no thieves in this stone wilderness.'
The track mounted gradually, keeping the house in view. The windows were once more bright; the chimney once more vomited smoke; but the most absolute silence reigned, and, but for the figure of my mother very slowly following in our wake, I felt convinced there was no human soul within a range of miles. At the thought, I looked upon the doctor, gravely walking by my side, with his bowed shoulders and white hair, and then once more at his house, lit up and pouring smoke like some industrious factory. And then my curiosity broke forth. 'In Heaven's name,' I cried, 'what do you make in this inhuman desert?'
He looked at me with a peculiar smile, and answered with an evasion -
'This is not the first time,' said he, 'that you have seen my furnaces alight. One morning, in the small hours, I saw you driving past; a delicate experiment miscarried; and I cannot acquit myself of having startled either your driver or the horse that drew you.'
'What!' cried I, beholding again in fancy the antics of the figure, 'could that be you?'
'It was I,' he replied; 'but do not fancy that I was mad. I was in agony. I had been scalded cruelly.'
We were now near the house, which, unlike the ordinary houses of the country, was built of hewn stone and very solid. Stone, too, was its foundation, stone its background. Not a blade of grass sprouted among the broken mineral about the walls, not a flower adorned the windows. Over the door, by way of sole adornment, the Mormon Eye was rudely sculptured; I had been brought up to view that emblem from my childhood; but since the night of our escape, it had acquired a new significance, and set me shrinking.