"No; not at all. In fact, you simply arouse all the housekeeping instincts within me. I will be down in a minute. Reuther, I leave you with the judge."
She ran lightly up. The next instant they heard her sneeze, then they caught the sound of a window rattling up, followed by a streak of light falling slant-wise across the dismal stairs.
The judge drew a breath of relief and led Reuther towards a door at the end of the hall.
"This is the way to the dining-room and kitchen," he explained." I have been accustomed to having my meals served in my own room, but after this I shall join you at table. Here," he continued, leading her up to the iron door, "is the entrance to my den. You may knock here if you want me, but there is a curtain beyond, which no one lifts but myself. You understand, my dear, and will excuse an old man's eccentricities?"
She smiled, rejoicing only in the caressing voice, and in the yearning, almost fatherly, manner with which he surveyed her.
"I quite understand," said she; "and so will mother."
"Reuther," he now observed with a strange intermixture of gentleness and authority, "there is one thing I wish to say to you at the very start. I may grow to love you—God knows that a little affection would be a welcome change in my life—but I want you to know and know now, that all the love in the world will not change my decision as to the impropriety of a match between you and my son Oliver. That settled, there is no reason why all should not be clear between us."
"All is clear."
Faint and far off the words sounded, though she was standing so near he could have laid his hand on her shoulder. Then she gave one sob as though in saying this she heard the last clod fall upon what would never see resurrection again in this life, and, lifting her head, looked him straight in the eye with a decision and a sweetness which bowed his spirit and caused his head in turn to fall upon his breast.
"What a father can do for a child, I will do for you," he murmured, and led her back to her mother, who was now coming down stairs.
A week, and Deborah Scoville had evolved a home out of chaos. That is, within limits. There was one door on that upper story which she had simply opened and shut; nor had she entered the judge's rooms, or even offered to do so. The ban which had been laid upon her daughter she felt applied equally to herself; that is for the present. Later, there must be a change. So particular a man as the judge would soon find himself too uncomfortable to endure the lack of those attentions which he had been used to in Bela's day. He had not even asked for clean sheets, and sometimes she had found herself wondering, with a strange shrinking of her heart, if his bed was ever made, or whether he had not been driven at times to lie down in his clothes.
She had some reason for these doubtful conclusions. In her ramblings through the house she had come upon Bela's room. It was in a loft over the kitchen and she had been much amazed at its condition. In some respects it looked as decent as she could expect, but in the matter of bed and bedclothes it presented an aspect somewhat startling. The clothes were there, tossed in a heap on the floor, but there was no bed in sight nor anything which could have served as such.
IT HAD BEEN DRAGGED OUT. Evidences of this were everywhere; dragged out, and down the narrow, twisted staircase which was the only medium of communication between the lower floor and this loft. As she noted the marks made by its passage down the steps, the unhappy vision rose before her of the judge, immaculate in attire and unaccustomed of hand, tugging at this bed and alternately pushing and pulling it by main strength down this contracted, many-cornered staircase. A smile, half pitiful, half self-scornful curved her lips as she remembered the rat-tat-tat she had heard on that dismal night when she clung listening to the fence, and wondered now if it had not been the bumping of this cot sliding from step to step.
But no! the repeated stroke of a hammer is unmistakable. He had played the carpenter that night as well as the mover, and with no visible results. Mystery still reigned in the house for all the charm and order she had brought into it; a mystery which deeply interested her, and which she yet hoped to solve, notwithstanding its remoteness from the real problem of her existence.
NIGHT! and Deborah Scoville waiting anxiously for Reuther to sleep, that she might brood undisturbed over a new and disturbing event which for the whole day had shaken her out of her wonted poise, and given, as it were, a new phase to her life in this house.
Already had she stepped several times to her daughter's room and looked in, only to meet Reuther's unquiet eye turned towards hers in silent inquiry. Was her own uneasiness infectious? Was the child determined to share her vigil? She would wait a little longer this time and see.
Their rooms were over the parlour and thus as far removed as possible from the judge's den. In her own, which was front, she felt at perfect ease, and it was without any fear of disturbing either him or Reuther that she finally raised her window and allowed the cool wind to soothe her heated cheeks.
How calm the aspect of the lawn and its clustering shrubs. Dimly seen though they were through the leaves of the vines she had but partially clipped, she felt the element of peace which comes with perfect quiet, and was fain to forget for awhile the terrors it so frequently conceals. The moon, which had been invisible up to this moment, emerged from skurrying clouds as she quietly watched the scene; and in an instant her peace was gone and all the thronging difficulties of her position came rushing back upon her in full force, as all the details of the scene, so mercifully hidden just now, flashed again upon her vision.
Perched, as she was, in a window overlooking the lane, she had but to lift her eyes from the double fence (that symbol of sad seclusion) to light on the trees rising above that unspeakable ravine, black with memories she felt strangely like forgetting to- night. Beyond ... how it stood out on the bluff! it had never seemed to stand out more threateningly! ... the bifurcated mass of dismal ruin from which men had turned their eyes these many years now! But the moon loved it; caressed it; dallied with it, lighting up its toppling chimney and empty, staring gable. There, where the black streak could be seen, she had stood with the judge in that struggle of wills which had left its scars upon them both to this very day. There, hidden but always seen by those who remembered the traditions of the place, mouldered away the walls of that old closet where the timorous, God-stricken suicide had breathed out his soul. She had stood in it only the other day, penned from outsiders' view by the judge's outstretched arms. Then, she had no mind for bygone horrors, her own tragedy weighed too heavily upon her; but to-night, as she gazed, fascinated, anxious to forget herself, anxious to indulge in any thought which would relieve her from dwelling on the question she must settle before she slept, she allowed her wonder and her revulsion to have free course. Instead of ignoring, she would recall the story of the place as it had been told her when she first came to settle in its neighbourhood.
Spencer's Folly! Well, it had been that, and Spencer's den of dissipation too! There were great tales—but it was not of these she was thinking, but of the night of storm—(of the greatest storm of which any record remained in Shelby) when the wind tore down branches and toppled down chimneys; when cattle were smitten in the field and men on the highway; when the old bridge, since replaced, buckled up and sank in the roaring flood it could no longer span, and the bluff towering overhead, flared into flame, and the house which was its glory, was smitten apart by the descending bolt as by a Titan sword, and blazed like a beacon to the sky.
This was long before she herself had come to Shelby; but she had been told the story so often that it was quite as vivid to her as if she had been one of the innumerable men and women who had crowded the glistening, swimming streets to view this spectacle of destruction. The family had been gone for months, and so no pity mingled with the excitement. Not till the following day did the awful nature of the event break in its full horror upon the town. Among the ruins, in a closet which the flames had spared, they found hunched up in one corner, the body of a man, in whose seared throat a wound appeared which had not been made by lightning or fire. Spencer! Spencer himself, returned they knew not how, to die of this self-inflicted wound, in the dark corner of his grand but neglected dwelling.
And this was what made the horror of the place till the tragedy of the opposite hollow added crime to crime, and the spot became outlawed to all sensitive citizens. Folly and madness and the vengeance of high heaven upon unhallowed walls, spoke to her from that towering mass, bathed though it was just now in liquid light under the impartial moon.
But as she continued to survey it, the clouds came trooping up once more, and the vision was wiped out and with it all memories save those of a nearer trouble—a more pressing necessity.
Withdrawing from the window, she crept again to Reuther's room and peered carefully in. Innocence was asleep at last. Not a movement disturbed the closed lids on the wax-like cheek. Even the breath came so softly that it hardly lifted the youthful breast. Repose the most perfect and in the form of all others the sweetest to a tender mother, lay before her and touched her already yearning heart to tears. Lighting a candle and shielding it with her hand, she gazed long and earnestly at Reuther's sweet face. Yes, she was right. Sorrow was slowly sapping the fountain of her darling's youth. If Reuther was to be saved, hope must come soon. With a sob and a prayer, the mother left the room, and locking herself into her own, sat down at last to face the new perplexity, the monstrous enigma which had come into her life.
It had followed in natural sequence from a proposal made by the judge that some attention should be given his long-neglected rooms. He had said on rising from the breakfast table—(the words are more or less important):
"I am really sorry to trouble you, Mrs. Scoville; but if you have time this morning, will you clean up my study before I leave? The carriage is ordered for half-past nine."
The task was one she had long desired to perform, and would have urged upon him daily had she dared, but the limitations he set for its accomplishment struck her aghast.
"Do you mean that you wish to remain there while I work? You will be choked, Judge."
"No more than I have been for the last two days. You may enter any time." And going in, he left the door open behind him.
"He will lock it when he goes out," she commented to herself. "I had better hasten."
Giving Reuther the rest of the work to do, she presently appeared before him with pail and broom and a pile of fresh linen. Nothing more commonplace could be imagined, but to her, if not to him, there underlay this especial act of ordinary housewifery a possible enlightenment on a subject which had held the whole community in a state of curiosity for years. She was going to enter the room which had been barred from public sight by poor Bela's dying body. She was going to see—or had he only meant that she was to have her way with the library—the room where she had already been and much of which she remembered. The doubt gave a tremulous eagerness to her step and caused her eye to wander immediately to that forbidden corner soon as she had stepped over the threshold.
The bedroom door was open;—proof that she was expected to enter there. Meanwhile, she felt the eye of the judge upon her and endeavoured to preserve a perfect composure and to sink the curious and inquiring woman in the diligent housekeeper.
But she could not, quite. Two facts of which she immediately became cognisant, prevented this. First, the great room before her presented a bare floor, whereas on her first visit it had been very decently, if not cheerfully, covered by a huge carpet rug. Secondly, the judge's chair, which had once looked immovable, had been dragged forward into such a position that he could keep his own eye on the bedroom door. Manifestly she was not to be allowed to pursue her duties unwatched. Certainly she had to take more than one look at the everyday implements she carried to retain that balance of judgment which should prevent her from becoming the dupe of her own expectations.
"I do not expect you to clean up here as thoroughly as you have your own rooms up stairs," he remarked, as she passed him. "You haven't the time, or I the patience for too many strokes of the broom. And Mrs. Scoville," he called out as she slipped through the doorway, "leave the door open and keep away as much as possible from the side of the room where I have nailed up the curtain. I had rather not have that touched."
She turned with a smile and nodded. She felt that she had been set to work with a string tied round her feet. Not touch the curtain! Why, that was the one thing in the room she wanted to touch; for in it she not only saw the carpet which had been taken up from the floor of the study, but a possible screen behind which anything might lurk—even his redoubtable secret.
Or had it another and much simpler explanation? Might it not have been hung there merely as a shield to the window. The room must have a window and there was none to be seen elsewhere. It would be like him to shut out light and air. She would ask.
"There is no window," she observed, looking back at the judge.
"No," was his short reply.
Slowly she set down her pail. One thing was settled. It was Bela's cot she saw before her—a cot without any sheets. These had been left behind in the dead negro's room, and the judge had been sleeping just as she had feared, wrapped in a rug and with uncovered pillow. This pillow was his own; it had not been brought down with the bed. She hastily slipped a cover on it, and without calling any further attention to her act, began to make up the bed.
Conscious that the papers he made a feint of reading were but a cover for his watchfulness, she moved about in a matter-of-fact way and did not spare him the clouds of dust which presently rose before her broom. She could have managed it more deftly,—would have done so at another time, but it was her express intention just now to make him move back out of her way, if only to give her an opportunity to disturb by a backward stroke of her broom the folds of the carpet-rug and learn if she could what lay hidden behind it.
But the judge was impervious to discomfort. He coughed and shook his head, but did not budge an inch. Before she had begun to put things in order, the clock struck the half-hour.
"Oh!" she protested, with a pleading glance his way, "I'm not half done."
"There's another day to follow," he dryly remarked, rising and taking a key from his pocket.
The act expressed his wishes; and she was proceeding to carry out her things when a quick sliding noise from the wall she was passing, drew her attention and caused her to spring forward in an involuntary effort to catch a picture which had slipped its cord and was falling to the floor.
A shout from the judge of "Stand aside, let me come!" reached her too late. She had grasped and lifted the picture and seen—
But first, let me explain. This picture was not like the others hanging about. It was a veiled one. From some motive of precaution or characteristic desire for concealment on the part of the judge, it had been closely wrapped about in heavy brown paper before being hung, and in the encounter which ensued between the falling picture and the spear of an image standing on a table underneath, this paper had received a slit through which Deborah had been given a glimpse of the canvas beneath.
The shock of what she saw would have unnerved a less courageous woman.
IT WAS A HIGHLY FINISHED PORTRAIT OF OLIVER IN HIS YOUTH, WITH A BROAD BAND OF BLACK PAINTED DIRECTLY ACROSS THE EYES.
In recalling this startling moment, Deborah wondered as much at her own aplomb as at that of Judge Ostrander. Not only had she succeeded in suppressing all recognition of what had thus been discovered to her, but had carried her powers of self-repression so far as to offer, and with good grace too, to assist him in rehanging the picture. This perfection of acting had its full reward. With equal composure he excused her from the task, and, adding some expression of regret at his well-known carelessness in not looking better after his effects, bowed her from the room with only a slight increase of his usual courteous reserve.
But later, when thought came and with it a certain recollections, what significance the incident acquired in her mind, and what a long line of terrors it brought in its train!
It was no casual act, this defacing of a son's well-loved features. It had a meaning—a dark and desperate meaning. Nor was the study-wall the natural home of this picture. An unfaded square which she had noted on the wall-paper of the inner room showed where its original place had been. There in full view of the broken-hearted father when he woke and in darksome watchfulness while he slept, it had played its heavy part in his long torment— a galling reminder of—what?
It was to answer this question—to face this new view of Oliver and the bearing it had on the relations she had hoped to establish between him and Reuther, that she had waited for the house to be silent and her child asleep. If the defacing marks she had seen meant that the cause of separation between father and son lay in some past fault of Oliver himself, serious enough for such a symbol to be necessary to reconcile the judge to their divided lives, she should know it and know it soon. The night should not pass without that review of the past by which alone she could now judge Oliver Ostrander.
She had spoken of him as noble; she had forced herself to believe him so, and in profession and in many of his actions he had been so, but had she ever been wholly pleased with him? To go back to their first meeting, what impression had he made upon her then? Had it been altogether favourable and such as would be natural in one of his repute? Hardly; but then the shock of her presentation to one who had possibly seen her under other and shameful conditions had been great, and her judgment could scarcely have full play while her whole attention was absorbed in watching for some hint of recognition on his part.
But when this apprehension had vanished; when quite assured that he had failed to see in the widowed Mrs. Averill the wife of the man who had died a felon's death in Shelby, had her spirits risen and her eyes cleared to his great merits as she had heard them extolled by people of worth and intellectual standing? Alas, no. There had been something in his look—a lack of spontaneity which had not fitted in with her expectations.
And in the months which followed, when as Reuther's suitor she saw him often and intimately—how had she regarded him then? More leniently of course. In her gratification at prospects so far beyond any she had a right to expect for her child, she had taken less note of this successful man's defects. Peculiarities of conversation and manner which had seemed to bespeak a soul far from confident in its hopes, resolved themselves into the uneasy moods of a man who had a home he never visited, a father he never saw.
But had she been really justified in this easy view of things? If the break between his father and himself was the result of nothing deeper than a difference of temperament, tastes or even opinions, why should he have shrunk with such morbid distaste from all allusions to that father? Was it natural? She may have looked upon it as being so in the heyday of her hopes and when she had a secret herself to hide, but could she so degrade her judgment now?
And what of his conduct towards Reuther? Had that been all her mother heart could ask of a man of his seemingly high instincts? She had assured his father in her first memorable interview with him that it had been perfectly honourable and above all reproach. And so it had been as far as mere words went. But words are not all; it is the tender look, the manly bearing, the tone which springs from the heart which tells in great crises; and these had all been lacking. Generous as he attempted to show himself, there was nothing in his bearing to match that of Reuther as she took her quiet leave of him and entered upon a fate so much bitterer for her than for him.
This lack of grace in him had not passed unnoted by her even at the time, but being herself so greatly in fault she had ascribed it to the recoil of a proud man from the dread of social humiliation. But it took another aspect under the strong light just thrown upon his early life by her discovery in the room below. Nothing but some act, unforgivable and unforgettable would account for that black mark drawn between a father's eyes and his son's face. No bar sinister could tell a stronger tale. But this was no bar sinister; rather the deliberate stigmatising of one yet loved, but banned for a reason which was little short of—Here her conclusions stopped; she would not allow her imagination to carry her any farther.
Unhappy mother, just as she saw something like a prospect of releasing her long-dead husband from the odium of an unjust sentence, to be shaken by this new doubt as to the story and character of the man for whose union with her beloved child she was so anxiously struggling! Should it not make her pause? Should she not show wisdom in giving a different meaning from any she had hitherto done, to that stern and inexorable dictum of the father, that no marriage between the two could or should ever be considered?
It was a question for which no ready answer seemed possible in her present mood. Better to await the time when some move had to be made or some definite decision reached. Now she must rest,—rest and not think.
Have any of us ever made the like acknowledgment and then tried to sleep? In half an hour Mrs. Scoville was again upon her feet, this time with a determination which ignored the hour and welcomed night as though it were broad noon day.
There was a room on this upper floor into which neither she nor Reuther had ever stepped. She had once looked in but that was all. To-night—because she could not sleep; because she must not think- -she was resolved to enter it. Oliver's room! left as he had left it years before! What might it not tell of a past concerning which she longed to be reassured?
The father had laid no restrictions upon her, in giving her this floor for her use. Rights which he ignored she could afford to appropriate. Dressing sufficiently for warmth, she lit a candle, put out the light in her own room and started down the hall.
If she paused on reaching the threshold of this long-closed room, it was but natural. The clock on Reuther's mantel had sent its three clear strokes through the house as her hand fell on the knob, and to her fearing heart and now well-awakened imagination these strokes had sounded in her ear like a "DON'T! DON'T!" The silence, so gruesome, now that this shrill echo had ceased, was poor preparation for her task. Yet would she have welcomed any sound—the least which could have been heard? No, that were a worse alternative than silence; and, relieved of that momentary obsession consequent upon an undertaking of doubtful outcome, she pushed the door fully open and entered.
A smother of dust—an odour of decay—a lack of all order in the room's arrangements and furnishings—even a general disarray, hallowed, if not affected, by time—for all this she was prepared. But not for the wild confusion—the inconceivable litter and all the other signs she saw about her of a boy's mad packing and reckless departure. Here her imagination, so lively at times, had failed her; and, as her eye became accustomed to the semi- obscurity, and she noted the heaps of mouldering clothing lying amid overturned chairs and trampled draperies, she felt her heart grow cold with a nameless dread she could only hope to counteract by quick and impulsive action.
But what action? Was it for her to touch, to rearrange, to render clean and orderly this place of unknown memories? She shrank with inconceivable distaste from the very idea of such meddling; and, though she saw and noted all, she did not put out so much as a finger towards any object there till—There was an inner door, and this some impulse drove her to open. A small closet stood revealed, empty but for one article. When she saw this article she gave a great gasp; then she uttered a low PSHAW! and with a shrug of the shoulders drew back and flung to the door. But she opened it again. She had to. One cannot live in hideous doubt, without an effort to allay it. She must look at that small, black article again; look at it with candle in hand; see for herself that her fears were without foundation; that a shadow had made the outline on the wall which—
She found herself laughing. There was nothing else to do. SHE with thoughts like these; SHE, Reuther's mother! Verily, the early hours of morning were unsuited for any such work as this. She would go back to her own room and bed—But she only went as far as the bureau where she had left the candlestick, which having seized, she returned to the closet and slowly, reluctantly reopened the door. Before her on the wall hung a cap,—and it was no shadow which gave it that look like her husband's; the broad peak was there. She had not been mistaken; it was the duplicate of the one she had picked up in the attic of the Claymore Inn when that inn was simply a tavern.
Well, and what if it was!—Such was her thought a moment later. She would take down the cap, set it before her and look at it till her brain grew clear of its follies.
But after she had it in her hand she found herself looking anywhere but at the cap. She stared at the floor, the walls about, the desk she had mechanically approached. She even noticed the books lying about on the shelves before her and took down one or two, to glance at their title-pages in a blind curiosity she could not account for the next minute. Then she found herself looking into a drawer half drawn out and filled with all sorts of heterogeneous articles: sealing-wax, a roll of pins, a pen-holder, a knife—A KNIFE! Why should she recoil again at that? Nothing could be more ordinary than to find a knife in the desk-drawer of a young man! The fact was not worth a thought; yet before she knew it, her fingers were creeping towards this knife, had picked it up from among the other scattered articles, had closed upon it, let it drop again, only to seize hold of it yet more determinedly and carry it straight to the light.
Who spoke? Had any one spoken? Was there any sound in the air at all? She heard none, yet the sense of sound was in her ear, as though it had been and passed. When the glance she threw about her came back to her outstretched hand, she knew that the cry, if cry it were, had been within, and that the echoes of the room had remained undisturbed. The knife was lying open on her palm, and from one of the blades the end had been nipped, just enough of it to match—
Was she mad! She thought so for a moment; then she laid down the knife close against the cap and contemplated them both for more minutes than she ever reckoned.
And the stillness, which had been profound, became deeper yet. Not even Reuther's clock sounded its small note.
The candle fluttering low in its socket roused her at last from her abstraction. Catching up the two articles which had so enthralled her, she restored the one to the closet, the other to the drawer, and, with swift but silent step, regained her own room where she buried her head in her pillow, weeping and praying until the morning light, breaking in upon her grief, awoke her to the obligations of her position and the necessity of silence concerning all the experiences of this night.
Silence. Yes, silence was the one and only refuge remaining to her. Yet, after a few days, the constant self-restraint which it entailed, ate like a canker into her peace, and undermined a strength which she had always considered inexhaustible. Reuther began to notice her pallor, and the judge to look grave. She was forced to complain of a cold (and in this she was truthful enough) to account for her alternations of feverish impulse and deadly lassitude.
The trouble she had suppressed was having its quiet revenge. Should she continue to lie inert and breathless under the threatening hand of Fate, or risk precipitating the doom she sought to evade, by proceeding with inquiries upon the result of which she could no longer calculate?
She recalled the many mistakes made by those who had based their conclusions upon circumstantial evidence (her husband's conviction in fact) and made up her mind to brave everything by having this matter out with Mr. Black. Then the pendulum swung back, and she found that she could not do this because, deep down in her heart, there burrowed a monstrous doubt (how born or how cherished she would not question), which Mr. Black, with an avidity she could not combat, would at once detect and pounce upon. Better silence and a slow death than that.
But was there no medium course? Could she not learn from some other source where Oliver had been on the night of that old-time murder? Miss Weeks was a near neighbour and saw everything. Miss Weeks never forgot;—to Miss Weeks she would go.
With instructions to Reuther calculated to keep that diligent child absorbed and busy in her absence, she started out upon her quest. She had reached the first gate, passed it and was on the point of opening the second one, when she saw on the walk before her a small slip of brown paper. Lifting it, she perceived upon it an almost illegible scrawl which she made out to read thus:—
For Mrs. Scoville:
Do not go wandering all over the town for clews. Look closer home.
You remember the old saying about jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Let your daughter be warned. It is better to be singed than consumed.
Warned! Reuther? Better be singed than consumed? What madness was this? How singed and how consumed? Then because Deborah's mind was quick, it all flashed upon her, bowing her in spirit to the ground. Reuther had been singed by the knowledge of her father's ignominy, she would be consumed if inquiry were carried further and this ignominy transferred to the proper culprit. CONSUMED! There was but one person whose disgrace could consume Reuther. Oliver alone could be meant. The doubts she had tried to suppress from her own mind were shared by others,—OTHERS!
The discovery overpowered her and she caught herself crying aloud in utter self-abandonment:
"I will not go to Miss Weeks. I will take Reuther and fly to some wilderness so remote and obscure that we can never be found."
Yet in five minutes she was crossing the road, her face composed, her manner genial, her tongue ready for any encounter. The truth must be hers at all hazards. If it could be found here, then here would she seek it. Her long struggle with fate had brought to the fore every latent power she possessed.
One stroke on the tiny brass knocker, old-fashioned and quaint like everything else in this doll-house, brought Miss Weeks' small and animated figure to the door. She had seen Mrs. Scoville coming, and was ready with her greeting. A dog from the big house across the way would have been welcomed there. The eager little seamstress had never forgotten her hour in the library with the half-unconscious judge.
"Mrs. Scoville!" she exclaimed, fluttering and leading the way into the best room; "how very kind you are to give me this chance for making my apologies. You know we have met before."
"Have we?" Mrs. Scoville did not remember, but she smiled her best smile and was gratified to note the look of admiration with which Miss Weeks surveyed her more than tasty dress before she raised her eyes to meet the smile to whose indefinable charm so many had succumbed. "It is a long time since I lived here," Deborah proceeded as soon as she saw that she had this woman, too, in her net. "The friends I had then, I scarcely hope to have now; my trouble was of the kind which isolates one completely. I am glad to have you acknowledge an old acquaintance. It makes me feel less lonely in my new life."
"Mrs. Scoville, I am only too happy." It was bravely said, for the little woman was in a state of marked embarrassment. Could it be that her visitor had not recognised her as the person who had accosted her on that memorable morning she first entered Judge Ostrander's forbidden gates?
"I have been told—" thus Deborah easily proceeded, "that for a small house yours contains the most wonderful assortment of interesting objects. Where did you ever get them?"
"My father was a collector, on a very small scale of course, and my mother had a passion for hoarding which prevented anything from going out of this house after it had once come into it,—and a great many strange things have come into it. There have even been bets made as to the finding or not finding of a given object under this roof. Pardon me, perhaps I bore you."
"Not at all. It's very interesting. But what about the bets?"
"Oh, just this. One day two men were chaffing each other in one of the hotel lobbies, and the conversation turning upon what this house held, one of them wagered that he knew of something I could not fish out of my attic, and when the other asked what, he said an aeroplane—Why he didn't say a locomotive, I don't know; but he said an aeroplane, and the other, taking him up, they came here together and put me the question straight. Mrs. Scoville, you may not believe it, but my good friend won that bet. Years ago when people were just beginning to talk about air-sailing machines, my brother who was visiting me, amused his leisure hours in putting together something he called a 'flyer.' And what is more, he went up in it, too, but he came down so rapidly that he kept quite still about it, and it fell to me to lug the broken thing in. So when these gentlemen asked to see an aeroplane, I took them into a lean-to where I store my least desirable things, and there pointed out a mass of wings and bits of tangled wire, saying as dramatically as I could: 'There she is!' And they first stared, then laughed; and when one complained: 'That's a ruin, not an aeroplane,' I answered with all the demureness possible; 'and what is any aeroplane but a ruin in prospect? This has reached the ruin stage; that's all.' So the bet was paid and my reputation sustained. Don't you find it a little amusing?"
"I do, indeed," smiled Deborah. "Now, if I wanted to make the test, I should take another course from these men. I should not pick out something strange, or big, or unlikely. I should choose some every-day object, some little matter—" She paused as if to think.
"What little matter?" asked the other complacently.
"My husband once had a cap," mused Mrs. Scoville thoughtfully. "It had an astonishingly broad peak in front. Have you a cap like that?"
Miss Weeks' eyes opened. She stared in some consternation at Mrs. Scoville, who hastened to say:
"You wonder that I can mention my husband. Perhaps you will not be so surprised when I tell you that in my eyes he is a martyr, and quite guiltless of the crime for which he was punished."
"You think that?" There was real surprise in the manner of the questioner. Mrs. Scoville's brow cleared. She was pleased at this proof that her affairs had not yet reached the point of general gossip.
"Miss Weeks, I am a mother. I have a young and lovely daughter. Can I look in her innocent eyes and believe her father to have so forgotten his responsibilities as to overshadow her life with crime? No, I will not believe it. Circumstances were in favour of his conviction, but he never lifted the stick which struck down Algernon Etheridge."
Miss Weeks, who had sat quite still during the utterance of these remarks, fidgetted about at their close, with what appeared to the speaker, a sudden and quite welcome relief.
"Oh!" she murmured; and said no more. It was not a topic she found easy of discussion.
"Let us go back to the cap," suggested Deborah, with another of her fascinating smiles. "Are you going to show me one such as I have described?"
"Let me see. A man's cap with an extra broad peak! Mrs. Scoville, I fear that you have caught me. There are caps hanging up in various closets, but I don't remember any with a peak beyond the ordinary."
"Yet they are worn? You have seen such?"
A red spot sprang out on the faded cheek of the woman as she answered impulsively:
"Oh, yes. Young Mr. Oliver Ostrander used to wear one. I wish I had asked him for it," she pursued, naively. "I should not have had to acknowledge defeat at your very first inquiry."
"Oh! you needn't care about that," laughed Deborah, in rather a hard tone for her. She had made her point, but was rather more frightened than pleased at her success. "There must be a thousand articles you naturally would lack. I could name—"
"Don't, don't!" the little woman put in breathlessly. "I have many odd things but of course not everything. For instance—" But here she caught sight of the other's abstracted eye, and dropped the subject. The sadness which now spread over the very interesting countenance of her visitor, offered her an excuse for the introduction of a far more momentous topic; one she had burned to introduce but had not known how.
"Mrs. Scoville, I hear that Judge Ostrander has got your daughter a piano. That is really a wonderful thing for him to do. Not that he is so close with his money, but that he has always been so set against all gaiety and companionship. I suppose you did not know the shock it would be to him when you asked Bela to let you into the gates."
"No! I didn't know. But it is all right now. The judge seems to welcome the change. Miss Weeks, did you know Algernon Etheridge well enough to tell me if he was as good and irreproachable a man as they all say?"
"He was a good man, but he had a dreadfully obstinate streak in his disposition and very set ideas. I have heard that he and the judge used to argue over a point for hours. And he was most always wrong. For instance, he was wrong about Oliver."
"Judge Ostrander's son, you know. Mr. Etheridge wanted him to study for a professorship; but the boy was determined to go into journalism, and you see what a success he has made of it. As a professor he would probably have been a failure."
"Was this difference of opinion on the calling he should pursue, the cause of Oliver's leaving home in the way he did?" continued Deborah, conscious of walking on very thin ice.
But Miss Weeks rather welcomed than resented this curiosity. Indeed she was never tired of enlarging upon the Ostranders. It was, therefore, with a very encouraging alacrity she responded:
"I have never thought so. The judge would not quarrel with Oliver on so small a point as that. My idea is, though I never talk of it much, that they had a great quarrel over Mr. Etheridge. Oliver never liked the old student; I've watched them and I've seen. He hated his coming to the house so much; he hated the way his father singled him out and deferred to him and made him the confidant of all his troubles. When they went on their walks, Oliver always hung back, and more than once I have seen him make a grimace of distaste when his father urged him forward. He was only a boy, I know, but his dislikes meant something, and if it ever happened that he spoke out his whole mind, you may be sure that some very bitter words passed."
Was this meant as an innuendo? Could it be that she shared the very serious doubts of Deborah's anonymous correspondent?
Impossible to tell. Such nervous, fussy little bodies often possess minds of unexpected subtlety. Deborah gave up all hope of understanding her, and, accepting her statements at their face value, effusively remarked:
"You must have a very superior mind to draw such conclusions from the little you have seen. I have heard many explanations given for the breach you name, but never any so reasonable."
A flash from the spinster's wary eye, then a burst of courage and the quick retort:
"And what explanation does Oliver himself give? You ought to know, Mrs. Scoville."
The attack was as sudden as it was unexpected. Deborah flushed and trimmed her sails for this new tack, and insinuating gently, "Then you have heard—" waited for the enlightenment these words were likely to evoke.
It came quickly enough.
"That he expected to marry your daughter? Oh, yes, Mrs. Scoville; it's the common talk here now. I hope you don't mind my mentioning it."
Deborah's head went up. She faced the other fairly, with the look born of mother passion, and mother passion only.
"Reuther is blameless in this matter," she protested. "She was brought up in ignorance of what I felt sure would prove a handicap and misery to her. She loves Oliver as she will never love any other man, but when she was told her real name and understood fully what that name carries with it, she declined to saddle him with her shame. That's her story, Miss Weeks; one that hardly fits her appearance which is very delicate. And, let me add, having once accepted her father's name, she refuses to be known by any other. I have brought her to Shelby where to our own surprise and Reuther's great happiness, we have been taken in by Judge Ostrander, an act of kindness for which we are very grateful." Miss Weeks got up, took down one of her rarest treasures from an old etagere standing in one corner and laid it in Mrs. Scoville's hand.
"For your daughter," she declared. "Noble girl! I hope she will be happy."
The mother was touched. But not quite satisfied yet of the giver's real feelings towards Oliver, she was not willing to conclude the interview until she understood her small hostess better. She, therefore, looked admiringly at the vase (it was really choice); and, after thanking its donor warmly, proceeded to remark:
"There is but one thing that will ever make Reuther happy, and that she cannot have unless a miracle occurs."
"Oliver?" suggested the other, with a curious, wan little smile.
"And what miracle—"
"Oh, I do not wonder you pause. This is not the day of miracles. But if my belief in my husband could be shared; if by some fortuitous chance I should be enabled to clear his name, might not love and loyalty be left to do the rest? Wouldn't the judge's objections, in that case, be removed? What do you think, Miss Weeks?"
The warmth, the abandon, the confidence she expressed in this final question were indescribable. Miss Weeks' conventional mannerisms melted before it. She could no more withstand the witchery of this woman's tone and manner than if she had been a man subdued by the charm of sex. But nothing, not even her newly awakened sympathy for this agreeable woman, could make her untruthful. She might believe in the miracle of a reversal of judgment in the case of a falsely condemned criminal, but not of an Ostrander accepting humiliation, even at the hands of Love. She felt that in justice to this new friendship she should say so.
"Do you ask me?" she began. "Then I feel that I must admit to you that the Ostrander pride is proverbial. Oliver may think he would be happy if he married your daughter under these changed conditions; but I should be fearful of the reaction which would certainly follow when he found that old shames are not so easily outlived. There is temper in the family, though you would never think it to hear the judge speak; and if your daughter is delicate—"
"Is it of her you are thinking?" interrupted Deborah, with a new tone in her voice.
"Not altogether; you see I knew Oliver first."
"And are fond of him?"
"Fond is a big word. But I cannot help having some feeling for the boy I have seen grow up from a babe in arms to a healthy, brilliant manhood."
"And having this feeling—" "There! we will say no more about it." The little woman's attitude and voice were almost prayerful. "You have judgment enough for two. Besides the miracle has not happened," she interjected, with a smile which seemed to say it never would be.
Deborah sighed. Whether or not it was quite an honest expression of her feeling we will not inquire. She was there for a definite purpose and her way to it was, as yet, far from plain. All that she had really learned was this: that it was she, and not Miss Weeks who was playing a part, and that whatever her inquiries, she need have no fear of rousing suspicion against Oliver in a mind already dominated by a belief in John Scoville's guilt. The negative with which she followed up this sigh was consequently one of sorrowful acceptance. She made haste, however, to qualify it with the remark:
"But I have not given up all hope. My cause is too promising. True, I may not succeed in marrying Reuther into the Ostrander family, even if it should be my good lot to clear her father's name; but my efforts would have one good result, as precious— perhaps more precious than the one I name. She would no longer have to regard that father as guilty of a criminal act. If such relief can be hers she should have it. But how am I to proceed? I know as well as any one how impossible the task must prove, unless I can light upon fresh evidence. And where am I to get that? Only from some new witness."
Miss Weeks' polite smile took on an expression of indulgence. This roused Deborah's pride, and, hesitating no longer, she anxiously remarked:
"I have sometimes thought that Oliver Ostrander might be that witness. He certainly was in the ravine the night Algernon Etheridge was struck down."
Had she been an experienced actress of years she could not have thrown into this question a greater lack of all innuendo. Miss Weeks, already under her fascination, heard the tone but never thought to notice the quick rise and fall of her visitor's uneasy bosom, and so unwarned, responded with all due frankness:
"I know he was. But how will that help you? He had no testimony to give in relation to this crime, or he would have given it."
"That is true." The admission fell mechanically from Deborah's lips; she was not conscious, even, of making it. She was struggling with the shock of the simple statement, confirming her own fears that Oliver had actually been in the ravine at the hour of Etheridge's murder. "Not even a boy would hide knowledge of that kind," she stumblingly continued. Then, as her emotion choked her into silence, she sat with piteous eyes searching Miss Weeks' face, till she had recovered her voice, when she added this vital question:
"How did you know that Oliver was in the ravine that night? I only guessed it."
"Well, it was in this way. I do not often keep my eye on my neighbours (oh, no, Miss Weeks!), but that night I chanced to be looking over the way just at the minute Mr. Etheridge came out, and something I saw in his manner and in that of the judge who had followed him to the door, and in that of Oliver who, cap on head, was leaning towards them from a window over the porch, made me think that a controversy was going on between the two old people of which Oliver was the subject. This naturally interested me, and I watched them long enough to see Oliver suddenly raise his fist and shake it at old Etheridge; then, in great rage, slam down the window and disappear inside. The next minute, and before the two below had done talking; I caught another glimpse of him as he dashed around the corner of the house on his way to the ravine."
"And Mr. Etheridge?"
"Oh, he left soon after. I watched him as he went by, his long cloak flapping in the wind. Little did I think he would never pass my window again."
So interested were they both, the one in telling to new and sympathetic ears the small experiences of her life, the other in listening for the chance phrase or the unconscious admission which would fix the suspicion already struggling into strong life within her breast, that neither for the moment realised the strangeness of the situation or that it was in connection with a crime for which the husband of one of them had suffered, they were raking up this past, and gossiping over its petty details. Possibly recollection returned to them both, when Mrs. Scoville sighed and said:
"It couldn't have been very long after you saw him that Mr. Etheridge was struck?"
"Only some twenty minutes. It takes just that long for a man to walk from this corner to the bridge."
"And you never heard where Oliver went?"
"It was never talked about at the time. Later, when some hint got about of his having been in the ravine that night, he said he had gone up the ravine not down it. And we all believed him, madam."
"Of course, of course. What a discriminating mind you have, Miss Weeks, and what a wonderful memory! To think that after all these years you can recall that Oliver had a cap on his head when he looked out of the window at his father and Mr. Etheridge. If you were asked, I have no doubt you could tell its very colour. Was it the peaked one?—the like of which you haven't in your marvelous collection?"
"Yes, I could swear to it." And Miss Weeks gave a little laugh, which sounded incongruous enough to Deborah in whose heart at that moment, a leaf was turned upon the past, which left the future hopelessly blank.
"Must you go?" Deborah had risen mechanically. "Don't, I beg, till you have relieved my mind about Judge Ostrander. I don't suppose that there is really anything behind that door of his which it would alarm any one to see?"
Then, Deborah understood Miss Weeks.
But she was ready for her.
"I've never seen anything of the sort," said she, "and I make up his bed in that very room every morning."
"Oh!" And Miss Weeks drew a deep breath. "No article of immense value such as that rare old bit of real Satsuma in the cabinet over there?"
"No," answered Deborah, with all the patience she could muster. "Judge Ostrander seems very simple in his tastes. I doubt if he would know Satsuma if he saw it."
Miss Weeks sighed. "Yes, he has never expressed the least wish to look over my shelves. So the double fence means nothing?"
"A whim," ejaculated Deborah, making quietly for the door. "The judge likes to walk at night when quite through with his work; and he doesn't like his ways to be noted. But he prefers the lawn now. I hear his step out there every night."
"Well, it's something to know that he leads a more normal life than formerly!" sighed the little lady as she prepared to usher her guest out. "Come again, Mrs. Scoville; and, if I may, I will drop in and see you some day."
Deborah accorded her permission and made her final adieux. She felt as if a hand which had been stealing up her chest had suddenly gripped her throat, choking her. She had found the man who had cast that fatal shadow down the ravine, twelve years before.
Deborah re-entered the judge's house a stricken woman. Evading Reuther, she ran up stairs, taking off her things mechanically on the way. She must have an hour alone. She must learn her first lesson in self-control and justifiable duplicity before she came under her daughter's eyes. She must—
Here she reached her room door and was about to enter, when at a sudden thought she paused and let her eyes wander down the hall, till they settled on another door, the one she had closed behind her the night before, with the deep resolve never to open it again except under compulsion.
Had the compulsion arisen? Evidently, for a few minutes later she was standing in one of the dim corners of Oliver's musty room, reopening a book which she had taken down from the shelves on her former visit. She remembered it from its torn back and the fact that it was an Algebra. Turning to the fly leaf, she looked again at the names and schoolboy phrases she had seen scribbled all over its surface, for the one which she remembered as, I HATE ALGEBRA.
It had not been a very clearly written ALGEBRA, and she would never have given this interpretation to the scrawl, had she been in a better mood. Now another thought had come to her, and she wanted to see the word again. Was she glad or sorry to have yielded to this impulse, when by a closer inspection she perceived that the word was not ALGEBRA at all, but ALGERNON, I HATE A ETHERIDGE.—I HATE A. E.—I HATE ALGERNON E. all over the page, and here and there on other pages, sometimes in characters so rubbed and faint as to be almost unreadable and again so pressed into the paper by a vicious pencil-point as to have broken their way through to the leaf underneath.
The work of an ill-conditioned schoolboy! but—this hate dated back many years. Paler than ever, and with hands trembling almost to the point of incapacity, she put the book back, and flew to her own room, the prey of thoughts bitter almost to madness.
It was the second time in her life that she had been called upon to go through this precise torture. She remembered the hour only too well, when first it was made known to her that one in closest relation to herself was suspected of a hideous crime. And now, with her mind cleared towards him and readjusted to new developments, this crushing experience of seeing equal indications of guilt in another almost as dear and almost as closely knit into her thoughts and future expectations as John had ever been. Can one endure a repetition of such horror? She had never gauged her strength, but it did not seem possible. Besides of the two blows, this seemed the heaviest and the most revolting. Then, only her own happiness and honour were involved; now it was Reuther's; and the fortitude which sustained her through the ignominy of her own trouble, failed her at the prospect of Reuther's. And again, the two cases were not equal. Her husband had had traits which, in a manner, had prepared her for the ready suspicion of people. But Oliver was a man of reputation and kindly heart; and yet, in the course of time THIS had come, and the question once agitating her as to whether Reuther was a fit mate for him had now evolved itself into this: WAS HE A FIT MATE FOR HER?
She had rather have died, nay, have had Reuther die than to find herself forced to weigh and decide so momentous a question.
For, however she might feel about it, not a single illusion remained as to whose hand had made use of John Scoville's stick to strike down Algernon Etheridge. How could she have when she came to piece the whole story together, and weigh the facts she had accumulated against Oliver with those which had proved so fatal to her husband.
First: the uncontrolled temper of the lad, hints of which she was daily receiving.
Secondly: his absolute, if unreasonable, hatred of the man thus brutally assailed. She knew what such hatred was and how it eats into an undeveloped mind. She had gone through its agonies herself when she was a young girl, and knew its every stage. With jealousy and personal distaste for a start, it was easy to trace the revolt of this boyish heart from the intrusive, ever present mentor who not only shared his father's affections but made use of them to influence that father against the career he had chosen, in favour of one he not only disliked but for which he lacked all aptitude.
She saw it all from the moment his pencil dug into the paper these tell-tale words: I HATE OLD E to that awful and final one when the detested student fell in the woods and his reign over the judgment, as well as over the heart, of Judge Ostrander was at an end.
In hate, bitter, boiling, long-repressed hate, was found the motive for an act so out of harmony with the condition and upbringing of a lad like Oliver. She need look for no other.
But motive goes for little if not supported by evidence. Was it possible, with this new theory for a basis, to reconstruct the story of this crime without encountering the contradiction of some well-known fact?
She would see.
First, this matter of the bludgeon left, as her husband declared, leaning against the old oak in the bottom of the ravine. All knew the tree and just where it stood. If Oliver, in his eagerness to head off Etheridge at the bridge, had rushed straight down into the gully from Ostrander Lane, he would almost strike this tree in his descent. The diagram sketched on page 185 [Proofreaders Note: Illustration removed] will make this plain. What more natural, then, than for him to catch up the stick he saw there, even if his mind had not been deliberately set on violence. A weapon is a weapon; and an angry man feels easier with something of the kind in hand.
Armed, then, in this unexpected way, but evidently not yet decided upon crime (or why his nervous whittling of the stick) he turned towards the bridge, following the meandering of the stream which in time led him across the bare spot where she had seen the shadow. That it was his shadow no one could doubt who knew all the circumstances, and that she should have leant just long enough from the ruins to mark this shadow and take it for her husband's— and not long enough to see the man himself and so detect her error, was one of those anomalies of crime which make for judicial errors. John skurrying away through the thicket towards Claymore, Oliver threading his way down the ravine, and she hurrying away from the ruin above with her lost Reuther in hand! Such was the situation at this critical moment. Afterwards when she came back for the child's bucket, some power had withheld her from looking again into the ravine or she might have been witness to the meeting at the bridge, and so been saved the misery and shame of believing as long as she did that the man who intercepted Algernon Etheridge at that place was her unhappy husband.
The knife with the broken point, which she had come upon in her search among the lad's discarded effects, proved only too conclusively that it was his hand which had whittled the end of the bludgeon; for the bit of steel left in the wood and the bit lost from the knife were to her exact eye of the same size and an undoubted fit.
Oliver's remorse, the judge's discovery of his guilt (a discovery which may have been soon but probably was late—so late that the penalty of the doing had already been paid by the innocent), can only be guessed from the terrible sequel: a son dismissed, a desolated home in which the father lived as a recluse.
How the mystery cleared, as she looked at it! The house barred from guests—the double fence where, hidden from all eyes, the wretched father might walk his dreary round when night forbade him rest or memory became a whip of scorpions to lash him into fury or revolt—the stairs never passed—(how could he look upon rooms where his wife had dreamed the golden dreams of motherhood and the boy passed his days of innocent youth)—aye, and his own closed-up room guarded by Bela from intrusion as long as breath remained to animate his sinking body! What was its secret? Why, Oliver's portrait! Had this been seen, marked as it was for all men's reprobation, nothing could have stemmed inquiry; and inquiry was to be dreaded as Judge Ostrander's own act had shown. Not till he had made his clumsy attempt to cover this memorial of love and guilt and rehanging it, thus hidden, where it would attract less attention, had she been admitted to his room. Alas! alas! that he had not destroyed it then and there. That, clinging to habits old as his grief and the remorse which had undoubtedly devoured him for the part he had played in this case of perverted justice, he had trusted to a sheet of paper to cover what nothing on earth could cover, once Justice were aroused or the wrath of God awakened.
Deborah shuddered. Aye, the mystery had cleared, but only to enshroud her spirits anew and make her long with all her bursting heart and shuddering soul that death had been her portion before ever she had essayed to lift the veil held down so tightly by these two remorseful men.
But was her fault irremediable? The only unanswerable connection between this old crime and Oliver lay in the evidence she had herself collected. As she had every intention of suppressing this evidence, and as she had small dread of any one else digging out the facts to which she only possessed a clew, might she not hope that any suspicions raised by her inquiries would fall like a house of cards when she withdrew her hand from the toppling structure?
She would make her first effort and see. Mr. Black had heard her complaint; he should be the first to learn that the encouragement she had received was so small that she had decided to accept her present good luck without further query, and not hark back to a past which most people had buried.
"You began it, as women begin most things, without thought and a due weighing of consequences. And now you propose to drop it in the same freakish manner. Isn't that it?"
Deborah Scoville lifted her eyes in manifest distress and fixed them deprecatingly upon her interrogator. She did not like his tone which was dry and suspiciously sarcastic, and she did not like his attitude which was formal and totally devoid of all sympathy. Instinctively she pushed her veil still further from her features as she deprecatingly replied:
"You are but echoing your sex in criticising mine as impulsive. And you are quite within your rights in doing this. Women are impulsive; they are even freakish. But it is given to one now and then to recognise this fact and acknowledge it. I hope I am of this number; I hope that I have the judgment to see when I have committed a mistake and to stop short before I make myself ridiculous."
The lawyer smiled,—a tight-lipped, acrid sort of smile which nevertheless expressed as much admiration as he ever allowed himself to show.
"Judgment, eh?" he echoed. "You stop because your judgment tells you that you were on the point of making a fool of yourself? No other reason, eh?"
"Is not that the best which can be given a hard-headed, clear-eyed lawyer like yourself? Would you have me go on, with no real evidence to back my claims; rouse up this town to reconsider his case when I have nothing to talk about but my husband's oath and a shadow I cannot verify?"
"Then Miss Weeks' neighbourliness failed in point? She was not as interesting as you had a right to expect from my recommendation?"
"Miss Weeks is a very chatty and agreeable woman, but she cannot tell what she does not know."
Mr. Black smiled. The woman delighted him. The admiration which he had hitherto felt for her person and for the character which could so develop through misery and reproach as to make her in twelve short years, the exponent of all that was most attractive and bewitching in woman, seemed likely to extend to her mind. Sagacious, eh? and cautious, eh? He was hardly prepared for such perfection, and let the transient lighting up of his features speak for him till he was ready to say:
"You find the judge very agreeable, now that you know him better?"
"Yes, Mr. Black. But what has that got to do with the point at issue?"
And SHE smiled, but not just in his manner nor with quite as little effect.
"Much," he growled. "It might make it easier for you to reconcile yourself to the existing order of things."
"I am reconciled to them simply from necessity," was her gentle response. "Nothing is more precious to me than Reuther's happiness. I should but endanger it further by raising false hopes. That is why I have come to cry halt."
"Madam, I commend your decision. It is that of a wise and considerate woman. Your child's happiness is, of course, of paramount importance to you. But why should you characterise your hopes as false, just when there seems to be some justification for them."
Her eyes widened, and she regarded him with a simulation of surprise which interested without imposing upon him.
"I do not understand you," said she. "Have YOU come upon some clew? Have YOU heard something which I have not?"
The smile with which he seasoned his reply was of a very different nature from that which he had previously bestowed upon her. It prepared her, possibly, for the shock of his words:
"I hardly think so," said he. "If I do not mistake, we have been the recipients of the same communications."
She started to her feet, but sat again instantly. "Pray explain yourself," she urged. "Who has been writing to you? And what have they written?" she added, presuming a little upon her fascinations as a woman to win an honest response.
"Must I speak first?"
If it was a tilt, it was between even forces.
"It would be gentlemanly in you to do so."
"But I am not of a gentlemanly temper."
"I deal with no other," said she; but with what a glance and in what a tone!
A man may hold out long—and if a lawyer and a bachelor more than long, but there is a point at which he succumbs. Mr. Black had reached that point. Smoothing his brow and allowing a more kindly expression to creep into his regard, he took two or three crushed and folded papers from a drawer beside him and, holding them, none too plainly in sight, remarked very quietly, but with legal firmness:
"Do not let us play about the bush any longer. You have announced your intention of making no further attempt to discover the man who in your eyes merited the doom accorded to John Scoville. Your only reason for this—if you are the woman I think you—lies in your fear of giving further opportunity to the misguided rancour of an irresponsible writer of anonymous epistles. Am I not right, madam?"
Beaten, beaten by a direct assault, because she possessed the weaknesses, as well as the pluck, of a woman. She could control the language of her lips, but not their quivering; she could meet his eye with steady assurance but she could not keep the pallor from her cheeks or subdue the evidences of her heart's turmoil. Her pitiful glance acknowledged her defeat, which she already saw mirrored in his eyes.
Taking it for an answer, he said gently enough:
"That we may understand each other at once, I will mention the person who has been made the subject of these attacks. He—"
"Don't speak the name," she prayed, leaning forward and laying her gloved hand upon his sleeve. "It is not necessary. The whole thing is an outrage."
"Of course," he echoed, with some of his natural brusqueness, "and the rankest folly. But to some follies we have to pay attention, and I fear that we shall have to pay attention to this one if only for your daughter Reuther's sake. You cannot wish her to become the butt of these scandalous attempts?"
"No, no." The words escaped her before she realised that in their utterance she had given up irretrievably her secret.
"You consider them scandalous?"
"Most scandalous," she emphatically returned, with a vivacity and seeming candour such as he had seldom seen equalled even on the witness-stand.
His admiration was quite evident. It did not prevent him, however, from asking quite abruptly:
"In what shape and by what means did this communication reach you?"
"I found it lying on the walk between the gates."
"The same by which Judge Ostrander leaves the house?"
"Yes," came in faint reply.
"I see that you share my fears. If one such scrap can be thrown over the fence, why shouldn't another be? Men who indulge themselves in writing anonymous accusations seldom limit themselves to one effusion. I will stake my word that the judge has found more than one on his lawn."
She could not have responded if she would; her mouth was dry, her tongue half paralysed. What was coming? The glint in the lawyer's eye forewarned her that something scarcely in consonance with her hopes and wishes might be expected.
"The judge has seen and read these barefaced insinuations against his son and has not turned this whole town topsy-turvy! What are we to think of that? A lion does not stop to meditate; HE SPRINGS. And Archibald Ostrander has the nature of a lion. There is nothing of the fox or even of the tiger in HIM. Mrs. Scoville, this is a very serious matter. I do not wonder that you are a trifle overwhelmed by the results of your ill-considered investigations."
"Does the town know? Has the thing become a scandal—a byword? Miss Weeks gave no proof of ever having heard one word of this dreadful not-to-be-foreseen business."
"That is good news. You relieve me. Perhaps it is not a general topic as yet." Then shortly and with lawyer-like directness, "Show me the letter which has disturbed all your plans."
"I haven't it here."
"You didn't bring it?"
"No, Mr. Black. Why should I? I had no premonition that I should ever be induced to show it to any one, least of all to you."
"Look over these. Do they look at all familiar?"
She glanced down at the crumpled sheets and half-sheets he had spread out before her. They were similar in appearance to the one she had picked up on the judge's grounds but the language was more forcible, as witness these:
When a man is trusted to defend another on trial for his life, he's supposed to know his business. How came John Scoville to hang, without a thought being given to the man who hated A. Etheridge like poison? I could name a certain chap who more than once in the old days boasted that he'd like to kill the fellow. And it wasn't Scoville or any one of his low-down stamp either.
A high and mighty name shouldn't shield a man who sent a poor, unfriended wretch to his death in order to save his own bacon.
"Horrible!" murmured Deborah, drawing back in terror of her own emotion. "It's the work of some implacable enemy taking advantage of the situation I have created. Mr. Black, this man must be found and made to see that no one will believe, not even Scoville's widow—"
"There! you needn't go any further with that," admonished the lawyer. "I will manage him. But first we must make sure to rightly locate this enemy of the Ostranders. You do detect some resemblance between this writing and the specimen you have at home?"
"They are very much alike."
"You believe one person wrote them?"
"Have you any idea who this person is?"
"No; why should I?"
"Not the least in the world."
"I ask because of this," he explained, picking out another letter and smilingly holding it out towards her.
She read it with flushed cheeks. Listen to the lady. You can't listen to any one nicer. What she wants she can get. There's a witness you never saw or heard of.
A witness they had never heard of! What witness? Scarcely could she lift her eyes from the paper. Yet there was a possibility, of course, that this statement was a lie.
"Stuff, isn't it?" muttered the lawyer. "Never mind, we'll soon have hold of the writer." His face had taken on a much more serious aspect, and she could no longer complain of his indifference or even of his sarcasm.
"You will give me another opportunity of talking with you on this matter," pursued he. "If you do not come here, you may expect to see me at Judge Ostrander's. I do not quite like the position into which you have been thrown by these absurd insinuations from some unknown person who may be thinking to do you a service, but who you must feel is very far from being your friend. It may even lead to your losing the home which has been so fortunately opened for you. If this occurs, you may count on my friendship, Mrs. Scoville. I may have failed you once, but I will not fail you twice."
Surprised, almost touched, she held out her hand, with a cordial THANK YOU, in which emotion struggled with her desire to preserve an appearance of complete confidence in Judge Ostrander, and incidentally in his son. Then, being on her feet by this time, she turned to go, anxious to escape further embarrassment from a perspicacity she no longer possessed the courage to meet.
The lawyer appeared to acquiesce in the movement of departure. But when he saw her about to vanish through the door, some impulse of compunction, as real as it was surprising, led him to call her back and seat her once more in the chair she had so lately left.
"I cannot let you go," said he, "until you understand that these insinuations from a self-called witness would not be worth our attention if there were not a few facts to give colour to his wild claims. Oliver Ostrander WAS in that ravine connecting with Dark Hollow, very near the time of the onslaught on Mr. Etheridge; and he certainly hated the man and wanted him out of the way. The whole town knows that, with one exception. You know that exception?"
"I think so," she acceded, taking a fresh grip upon her emotions.
"That this was anything more than a coincidence has never been questioned. He was not even summoned as a witness. With the judge's high reputation in mind I do not think a single person could have been found in those days to suggest any possible connection between this boy and a crime so obviously premeditated. But people's minds change with time and events, and Oliver Ostrander's name uttered in this connection to-day would not occasion the same shock to the community as it would have done then. You understand me, Mrs. Scoville?"
"You allude to the unexplained separation between himself and father, and not to any failure on his part to sustain the reputation of his family?"
"Oh, he has made a good position for himself, and earned universal consideration. But that doesn't weigh against the prejudices of people, roused by such eccentricities as have distinguished the conduct of these two men."
"Alas!" she murmured, frightened to the soul for the first time, both by his manner and his words.
"You know and I know," he went on with a grimness possibly suggested by his subject, "that no mere whim lies back of such a preposterous seclusion as that of Judge Ostrander behind his double fence. Sons do not cut loose from fathers or fathers from sons without good cause. You can see, then, that the peculiarities of their mutual history form but a poor foundation for any light refutation of this scandal, should it reach the public mind. Judge Ostrander knows this, and you know that he knows this; hence your distress. Have I not read your mind, madam?"
"No one can read my mind any more than they can read Judge Ostrander's," she avowed in a last desperate attempt to preserve her secret. "You may think you have done so, but what assurance can you have of the fact?"
"You are strong in their defence," said he, "and you will need to be if the matter ever comes up. The shadows from Dark Hollow reach far, and engulf all they fall upon."
"Mr. Black"—she had re-risen the better to face him—"you want something from me—a promise, or a condition."
"No," said he, "this is my affair only as it affects you. I simply wished to warn you of what you might have to face; and what Judge Ostrander will have to face (here I drop the lawyer and speak only as a man) if he is not ready to give a more consistent explanation of the curious facts I have mentioned."
"I cannot warn him, Mr. Black."
"You? Of course not. Nobody can warn him; possibly no one should warn him. But I have warned YOU; and now, as a last word, let us hope that no warning is necessary and that we shall soon see the last of these calumniating letters and everything readjusted once more on a firm and natural basis. Judge Ostrander's action in reopening his house in the manner and for the purpose he has, has predisposed many in his favour. It may, before we know it, make the past almost forgotten."
"Meanwhile you will make an attempt to discover the author of these anonymous attacks?"
"To save YOU from annoyance."
Obliged to make acknowledgment of the courtesy if not kindness prompting these words, Mrs. Scoville expressed her gratitude and took farewell in a way which did not seem to be at all displeasing to the crusty lawyer; but when she found herself once more in the streets, her anxiety and suspense took on a new phase. What was at the bottom of Mr. Black's contradictory assertions? Sympathy with her, as he would have her believe, or a secret feeling of animosity towards the man he openly professed to admire?
WHAT HAD MADE THE CHANGE?
"Reuther, sit up here close by mother and let me talk to you for a little while."
"Yes, mother; oh, yes, mother." Deborah felt the beloved head pressed close to her shoulder and two soft arms fall about her neck.
"Are you very unhappy? Is my little one pining too much for the old days?"
A closer pressure of the head, a more vehement clasp of the encircling arms, but no words.
"You have seemed brighter lately. I have heard you sing now and then as if the joy of youth was not quite absent from your heart. Is that true, or were you merely trying to cheer your mother?"
"I am afraid I was trying to cheer the judge," came in low whisper to her ear. "When I hear his step in the study—that monotonous tramp, tramp, which we both dread, I feel such an ache here, such a desire to comfort him, that I try the one little means I have to divert him from his thoughts. He must be so lonely without—"
"Reuther, you forget how many years have passed since he had a companion. A man becomes used to loneliness. A judge with heavy cases on his mind must think and think very closely, you know."
"Oh, mamma, it's not of his cases our judge is thinking when he walks like that. I know him too well, love him too well, not to feel the trouble in his step. I may be wrong, but all the sympathy and understanding I may not give to Oliver I devote to his father, and when he walks like that he seems to drag my heart after him. Mamma, mamma, do not blame me. I have just as much affection for you, and I suffer just as keenly when I see you unhappy. And, mamma, are you sure that you are quite happy to-day? You look as if something had happened to trouble you—something more than usual, I mean."
They were sitting in the dark, with just the light of the stars shining through the upper panes of the one unshaded window. Deborah, therefore, had little to fear from her daughter's eye, only from the sensitiveness of her touch and the quickness of her ear. Alas, in this delicately organised girl these were both attuned to the nicest discrimination, and before the mother could speak, Reuther had started up, crying:
"Oh, how your heart beats! Something has happened, darling mother; something which—"
"Hush, Reuther; it is only this: When I came to Shelby it was with a hope that I might some day smooth the way to your happiness. But it was only a wild dream, Reuther; and the hour has come for me to tell you so. What joys are left us must come in other ways; love unblessed must be put aside resolutely and forever."
She felt the shudder pass through the slender form which had thrown itself again at her side; but when the young girl spoke it was with unexpected bravery and calm.
"I have long ago done that, mamma. I've had no hopes from the first. The look with which Oliver accepted my refusal to go on with the ceremony was one of gratitude, mother. I can never forget that. Relief struggled with grief. Would you have me cherish any further illusions after that?"
Mrs. Scoville was silent. So, after all, Reuther had not been so blind on that day as she had always feared.
"Oliver has faults—Oh, let me talk about him just for once, darling mother," the poor, stricken child babbled on. "His temper is violent, or so he has often told me, coming and going like a gust of—No, mamma, don't make me stop. If he has faults he has good traits too. He was always gentle with me and if that far-away look you did not like would come at times and take him, as it were, out of our world, such a sweet awakening would follow when he realised that I was waiting for his spirit to come back, that I never minded the mystery, in my joy at the comfort which my love gave him."
"My child, my child!"
"Mother, I can soothe the father, but I can no longer soothe Oliver. That is my saddest thought. It makes me wish, sometimes, that he would find another loving heart on which he could lean without any self-reproach. I should soon learn to bear it. It would so assure his future and rid me of the fear that he may fail to hold the place he has won by such hard work and persistence."
A moment's silence, then a last appeal on the part of the mother.
"Reuther, have I ever been harsh to you?"
"Then you will not think me unkind or even untender if I say that every loving thought you give now to Oliver is hurtful both to yourself and to me. Don't indulge in them, my darling. Put your heart into work or into music, and your mother will bless you. Won't it help you to know this, Reuther? Your mother, who has had her griefs, will bless you."
That night, at a later hour, Deborah struggled with a great temptation.
The cap which hung in Oliver's closet—the knife which lay in the drawer of Oliver's desk—were to her mind positive proofs of his actual connection with the crime she now wished to see buried for all time in her husband's grave. The threat of that unknown indicter of mysterious letters, I KNOW A WITNESS, had sunk deep into her mind. A witness of what? Of anything which the discovery of these articles might substantiate? If so, what peril remained in their continued preservation when an effort on her part might so easily destroy them.
Sleep, long a stranger to her pillow, forsook her entirely as she faced this question and realised the gain in peace which might be hers if cap and knife were gone. Why then did she allow them to remain, the one in the closet, the other in the drawer? Because she could not help herself. Instinct was against her meddling with these possible proofs of crime.
But this triumph of conscience cost her dear. The next morning found her pale—almost as pale as Reuther. Was that why the judge surveyed her so intently as she poured out the coffee, and seemed more than once on the point of addressing her particularly, as she went through the usual routine of tidying up his room?
She asked herself this question more than once, and found it answered every time she hurried by the mirror. Certainly she showed a remarkable pallor.
Knowing its cause herself, she did not invite his inquiries; and another day passed. With the following morning she felt strong enough to open the conversation which had now become necessary for her peace of mind.
She waited till the moment when, her work all done, she was about to leave his presence. Pausing till she caught his eye, which seemed a little loth, she thought, to look her way, she observed, with perhaps unnecessary distinctness:
"I hope that everything is to your mind, Judge Ostrander. I should be sorry not to make you as comfortable as is possible under the circumstances."
Roused a little suddenly, perhaps, from thoughts quite disconnected with those of material comfort, he nodded with the abstraction of one who recognises that some sort of acknowledgment is expected from him; then, seeing her still waiting, added politely:
"I am very well looked after, if that is what you mean, Mrs. Scoville. Bela could not do any better—if he ever did as well."
"I am glad," she replied, thinking with what humour this would have struck her once. "I—I ask because, having nothing on my mind but housekeeping, I desire to remedy anything which is not in accordance with your exact wishes."
His attention was caught and by the very phrase she desired.
"Nothing on your mind but housekeeping?" he repeated. "I thought you had something else of a very particular nature with which to occupy yourself."
"I had; but I have been advised against pursuing it. The folly was too great."
"Who advised you?"
The words came short and sharp just as they must have come in those old days when he confronted his antagonists at the bar.
"Mr. Black. He was my husband's counsel, you remember. He says that I should only have my trouble for my pains, and I have come to agree with him. Reuther must content herself with the happiness of living under this roof; and I, with the hope of contributing to your comfort."
Had she impressed him? Had she played her part with success? Dare she lift her eye and meet the gaze she felt concentrated upon her? No. He must speak first. She must have some clew to the effect she had produced before she risked his penetration by a direct look.
She had to wait longer than her beating heart desired. He had his own agitation to master, and possibly his own doubts. This was not the fiery, determined woman he had encountered amid the ruins of Spencer's Folly. WHAT HAD MADE THE CHANGE? Black's discouraging advice? Hardly. Why should she take from that hard-faced lawyer what she had not been willing to take from himself? There must have been some other influencing cause.
His look, his attitude, his voice, betrayed his hesitations, as he finally remarked:
"Black is a man of excellent counsel, but he is hard as a stone and not of the sort whose monitions I should expect to have weight with one like you. What did he put in the balance,—or what have others put in the balance, to send your passionate intentions flying up to the beam? I should be glad to hear."
Should she tell him? She had a momentary impulse that way. Then the irrevocableness of such a move frightened her; and, pale with dismay at what she felt to be a narrow escape from a grave error of judgment, she answered with just enough truth, for her to hope that the modicum of falsehood accompanying it would escape his attention:
"What has changed my intentions? My experience here, Judge Ostrander. With every day I pass under this roof, I realise more and more the mistake I made in supposing that any change in circumstances would make a union between our two children proper or feasible. Headstrong as I am by nature, I have still some sense of the fitness of things, and it is that sense awakened by a better knowledge of what the Ostrander name stands for, which has outweighed my hopes and mad intentions. I am sorry that I ever troubled you with them."
The words were ambiguous; startlingly so, she felt; but, in hope that they would strike him otherwise, she found courage at last to raise her eyes in search of what lay in his. Nothing, or so she thought at first, beyond the glint of a natural interest; then her mind changed, and she felt that it would take one much better acquainted with his moods than herself to read to its depths a gaze so sombre and inscrutable.
His answer, coming after a moment of decided suspense, only deepened this impression. It was to this effect:
"Madam, we have said our say on this subject. If you have come to see the matter as I see it, I can but congratulate you upon your good sense, and express the hope that it will continue to prevail. Reuther is worthy of the best—" he stopped abruptly. "Reuther is a girl after my own heart," he gently supplemented, with a glance towards his papers lying in a bundle at his elbow, "and she shall not suffer because of this disappointment to her girlish hopes. Tell her so with my love."
It was a plain dismissal. Mrs. Scoville took it as such, and quietly left the room. As she did so she was approached by Reuther who handed her a letter which had just been delivered. It was from Mr. Black and read thus:
We have found the rogue and have succeeded in inducing him to leave town. He's a man in the bill-sticking business and he owns to a grievance against the person we know.
Deborah's sleep that night was without dreams.
IN THE COURT ROOM
About this time, the restless pacing of the judge in his study at nights became more frequent and lasted longer. In vain Reuther played her most cheerful airs and sang her sweetest songs, the monotonous tramp kept up with a regularity nothing could break.
"He's worried by the big case now being tried before him," Deborah would say, when Reuther's eyes grew wide and misty in her sympathetic trouble. And there was no improbability in the plea, for it was a case of much moment, and of great local interest. A man was on trial for his life and the circumstances of the case were such that the feeling called forth was unusually bitter; so much so, indeed, that every word uttered by the counsel and every decision made by the judge were discussed from one end of the county to the other, and in Shelby, if nowhere else, took precedence of all other topics, though it was a Presidential year and party sympathies ran high.
The more thoughtful spirits were inclined to believe in the innocence of the prisoner; but the lower elements of the town, moved by class prejudice, were bitterly antagonistic to his cause and loud for his conviction.
Did the judge realise his position and the effect made upon the populace by his very evident leaning towards this dissipated but well-connected young man accused of a crime so brutal, that he must either have been the sport of most malicious circumstances, or a degenerate of the worst type. The time of Judge Ostrander's office was nearly up, and his future continuance on the bench might very easily depend upon his attitude at the present hearing. Yet HE, without apparent recognition of this fact, showed without any hesitancy or possibly without self-consciousness, the sympathy he felt for the man at the bar, and ruled accordingly almost without variation.
No wonder he paced the floor as the proceedings drew towards its close and the inevitable hour approached when a verdict must be rendered. Mrs. Scoville, reading his heart by the light of her recent discoveries, understood as nobody else, the workings of his conscience and the passion of sympathy which this unhappy father must have for misguided youth. She began to fear for his health and count the days till this ordeal was over.
In other regards, quiet had come to them all and less tempestuous fears. Could the judge but weather the possible conviction of this man and restrain himself from a disclosure of his own suffering, more cheerful days might be in store for them, for no further missives were to be seen on the lawn, nor had anything occurred for days to recall to Deborah's mind the move she had made towards re-establishing her husband's innocence.
A week passed, and the community was all agog, in anticipation of the judge's charge in the case just mentioned. It was to be given at noon, and Mrs. Scoville, conscious that he had not slept an hour the night before (having crept down more than once to listen if his step had ceased), approached him as he prepared to leave the house for the court room, and anxiously asked if he were quite well.
"Oh, yes, I'm well," he responded sharply, looking about for Reuther.
The young girl was standing a little behind him, with his gloves in her hand—a custom she had fallen into in her desire to have his last look and fond good morning.
"Come here, child," said he, in a way to make her heart beat; and, as he took the gloves from her hand, he stooped and kissed her on the forehead—something he had never done before. "Let me see you smile," said he. "It's a memory I like to take with me into the court room."
But when in her pure delight at his caress and the fatherly feeling which gave a tremor to his simple request, she lifted her face with that angelic look of hers which was far sweeter and far more moving than any smile, he turned away abruptly as though he had been more hurt than comforted, and strode out of the house without another word.
Deborah's hand went to her heart, in the dark corner whither she had withdrawn herself, and when she turned again towards the spot where Reuther had stood, it was in some fear lest she had betrayed her understanding of this deeply tried father's passionate pain. But Reuther was no longer there. She had fled quickly away with the memory of what was to make this day a less dreary one for her.
Morning passed and the noon came, bringing Deborah an increased uneasiness. When lunch was over and Reuther sat down to her piano, the feeling had grown into an obsession, which soon resolved itself into a definite fear.
"What if an attack, such as I once saw, should come upon him while he sits upon the bench! Why have I not thought of this before? O God! these evil days! When will they be over!"
She found herself so restless that she decided upon going out. Donning her quietest gown and veil, she looked in on Reuther and expressed her intention; then slipped out of the front door, hardly knowing whither her feet would carry her.
They did not carry her far,—not at this moment at least. On the walk outside she met Miss Weeks hurrying towards her from the corner, stumbling in her excitement and so weakened in body or spirit that she caught at the unresponsive fence for the support which its smooth surface refused to give her.
At sight of Deborah's figure, she paused and threw up her hands.
"Oh, Mrs. Scoville, such a dreadful thing!" she cried. "Look here!" And, opening one of her hands, she showed a few torn scraps of paper whose familiarity made Deborah's blood run cold.
"On the bridge," gasped the little lady, leaning against the fence for support. "Pasted on the railing of the bridge. I should never have seen it, nor looked at it, if it hadn't been that I—"
"Don't tell me here," urged Deborah. "Let's go over to your house. See, there are people coming."
The little lady yielded to the other's constraining hand and together they crossed the street. Once in the house, Deborah allowed her full apprehension to show itself.
"What were the words? What was on the paper? Anything about—"
The little woman's look of horror stopped her.
"It's a lie, an awful, abominable lie. But think of such a lie being pasted up on that dreadful bridge for any one to see. After twelve years, Mrs. Scoville! After—" But here indignation changed suddenly into suspicion, and eyeing her visitor with sudden disfavour she cried: "This is your work, madam. Your inquiries and your talk of John Scoville's innocence has set wagging all the villainous tongues in town. And I remember something else. How you came smirking into this very room one day, with your talk about caps and Oliver Ostrander's doings on the day when Algernon Etheridge was murdered. You were in search of information, I see; information against the best, the brightest—Well, why don't you speak? I'll give you the chance if you want it. Don't stand looking at me like that. I'm not used to it, Mrs. Scoville. I'm a peaceable woman and I'm not used to it."
"Miss Weeks—" Ah, the oil of that golden speech on troubled waters! What was its charm? What message did it carry from Deborah's warm, true heart that its influence should be so miraculous? "Miss Weeks, you have forgotten my interest in Oliver Ostrander. He was my daughter's lover. He was my own ideal of a gifted, kind-hearted, if somewhat mysterious, young man. No calumny uttered against him can awaken in you half the sorrow and indignation it does in me. Let me see those lines or what there is left of them so that I may share your feelings. They must be dreadful—"
"They are more than dreadful. I don't know how I had strength to pull these pieces off. I couldn't have done it if they had been quite dry. But what do you want to see them for? I'd have left them there if I had been willing to have them seen. They are for the kitchen fire. Wait a moment and then we will talk."
But Deborah had no mind to let these pieces escape her eye. Sick as she felt at heart, she exerted herself to win the little woman's confidence; and when Deborah exerted herself, even under such adverse conditions as these, she seldom failed to succeed.
Nor did she fail now. At the end of fifteen minutes she had the torn bits of paper arranged in their proper position and was reading these words:
The scene of Olivder's crime.
Nothing could be more explicit nothing more damaging. As the glances of the two women met, it would be difficult to tell on which face Distress hung out the whiter flag.
"The beginning of the end!" was Deborah's thought. "If after Mr. Black's efforts, a charge like this is found posted up in the public ways, the ruin of the Ostranders is determined upon, and nothing we can do can stop it."
In five minutes more she had said good-bye to Miss Weeks and was on her way to the courthouse.
This building occupied one end of a large paved square in the busiest part of the town. As Deborah approached it, she was still further alarmed by finding this square full of people, standing in groups or walking impatiently up and down with their eyes fixed on the courthouse doors. The case which had agitated the whole country for days was now in the hands of the jury and a verdict was momentarily expected.
So much for appearances outside. Within, there was the uneasy hum, the anxious look, the subdued movement which marks an universal suspense. Announcement had been made that the jury had reached their verdict, and counsel were resuming their places and the judge his seat.
Those who had eyes only for the latter—and these were many— noticed a change in him. He looked older by years than when he delivered his charge. Not the prisoner himself gave greater evidence of the effect which this hour of waiting had had upon a heart whose covered griefs were, consciously or unconsciously, revealing themselves to the public eye. He did not wish this man sentenced. This was shown by his charge—the most one-sided one he had given in all his career. Yet the man awaiting verdict had small claim to his consideration—none, in fact, save that he was young and well connected; facts in his favour with which the people who packed the courthouse that day had little sympathy, as their cold looks proved.