To Deborah, who had succeeded in getting a seat in a remote and inconspicuous corner, these looks conveyed a spirit of so much threat that she gazed about her in wonder that so few saw where the real tragedy in this room lay.
But the jury is now seated, and the clatter of moving feet which but a moment before filled the great room, sinks as if under a charm, and silence, that awesome precursor of doom, lay in all its weight upon every ear and heart, as the clerk advancing with the cry, "Order in the court," put his momentous question:
"Gentlemen of the jury, are you ready with your verdict?"
A hush!—then, the clear voice of the foreman:
"How do you find? Guilty or not guilty?"
Another hesitation. Did the foreman feel the threat lurking in the air about him? If so, he failed to show it in his tones as he uttered the words which released the prisoner:
A growl from the crowd, almost like that of a beast stirring its lair, then a quick cessation of all hubbub as every one turned to the judge to whose one-sided charge they attributed this release.
Again he was a changed man. With the delivery of this verdict he had regained his natural poise, and never had he looked more authoritative or more pre-eminently the dominating spirit of the court than in the few following moments in which he expressed the thanks of the court to the jury and dismissed the prisoner. And yet, though each person there, from the disappointed prosecutor to the least aggressive spectator, appeared to feel the influence of a presence and voice difficult to duplicate on the bench of this country, Deborah experienced in her quiet corner no alleviation of the fear which had brought her into this forbidding spot and held her breathless through all these formalities.
For the end was not yet. Through all the turmoil of noisy departure and the drifting out into the square of a vast, dissatisfied throng, she had caught the flash of a bit of paper (how introduced into this moving mass of people no one ever knew) passing from hand to hand, towards the solitary figure of the judge who had not as yet left his seat.
She knew—no one better—what this meant, and instinct bade her cry out and bid those thoughtless hands to cease their work and let this letter drop. But her discretion still held, and, subduing the mad impulse, she watched with dilating eyes and heaving breast the slow passage of this fatal note through the now rapidly thinning crowd, its delay as it reached the open space between the last row of seats and the judge's bench and its final delivery by some officious hand, who thrust it upon his notice just as he was rising to leave.
The picture he made in that instant of hesitation never left her mind. To the end of her days she will carry a vision of his tall form, imposing in his judicial robes and with the majesty of his office still upon him, fingering this envelope in sight of such persons as still lingered in his part of the room. Nemesis was lowering its black wings over his devoted head, and, with feelings which left her dazed and transfixed in silent terror, Deborah saw his finger tear its way through the envelope and his eyes fall frowningly on the paper he drew out.
Then the People's counsel and the counsel for the Defence and such clerks and hangers-on as still lingered in the upper end of the room experienced a decided sensation.
The judge, who a moment before had towered above them all in melancholy but impressive dignity, shrunk with one gasp into feebleness and sank back stricken, if not unconscious, into his chair.
Was it a stroke, or just one of his attacks of which all had heard? Was he aware of his own condition and the disturbance it caused or was he, on the contrary, dead to his own misery and oblivious of the rush which was made from all sides to his assistance? Even Deborah could not tell, and was forced to sit quiet in her corner, waiting for the parting of the group which hid the judge from her sight.
It happened suddenly and showed her the same figure she had seen once before—a man with faculties suspended, but not impaired, facing them all with open gaze but absolutely dead for the moment to his own condition and to the world about.
But, horrible as this was, what she saw going on behind him was infinitely worse. A man had caught up the bit of paper Judge Ostrander had let fall from his hand and was opening his lips to read it to the curious people surrounding him.
She tried to stop him. She forced a cry to her lips which should have rung through the room, but which died away on the air unheard. The terror which had paralysed her limbs had choked her voice.
But her ears remained true. Low as he spoke, no trumpet-call could have made its meaning clearer to Deborah Scoville than did these words:
"We know why you favour criminals. Twelve years is a long time, but not long enough to make wise men forget."
BEFORE THE GATES
Had she not caught the words themselves she would have recognised their import from the blighting effect they produced upon the persons grouped within hearing.
Schooled as most of them were to face with minds secure and tempers quite unruffled the countless surprises of a court room, they paled at the insinuation conveyed in these two sentences, and with scarcely the interchange of glance or word, drew aside in a silence which no man seemed inclined to break.
As for the people still huddled in the doorway, they rushed away helter-skelter into the street, there to proclaim the judge's condition and its probable cause;—an event which to many quite eclipsed in interest the more ordinary one which had just released to freedom a man seemingly doomed.
Few persons were now left in the great room, and Deborah, embarrassed to find that she was the only woman present, was on the point of escaping from her corner when she perceived a movement take place in the rigid form from which she had not yet withdrawn her eyes, and, regarding Judge Ostrander more attentively, she caught the gleam of his suspicious eye as it glanced this way and that to see if his lapse of consciousness had been noticed by those about him.
Would the man still in possession of the paper whose contents had brought about this attack understand these evidences of apprehension? Yes; and what is more, he seems to take such means as offers to hide from the judge all knowledge of the fact that any other eyes than his own have read these invidious words. With unexpected address, he waits for the judge to turn his head aside when with a quick and dextrous movement he so launches the paper from his hand that it falls softly and without flurry within an inch of the judicial seat. Then he goes back to his papers.
This suggestion, at once so marked and so delicate, did not fail of its effect upon those about. Wherever the judge looked he saw abstracted faces and busy hands, and, taking heart at not finding himself watched, he started to rise. Then memory came,—blasting, overwhelming memory of the letter he had been reading; and, rousing with a start, he looked down at his hand, then at the floor before him, and, seeing the letter lying there, picked it up with a secret, side-long glance to right and left, which sank deep into the heart of the still watchful Deborah.
If those about him saw, they made no motion. Not an eye looked round and not a head turned as he straightened himself and proceeded to leave the room. Only Deborah noted how his steps faltered and how little he was to be trusted to find his way unguided to the door. It lay to the right and he was going left. Now he stumbles—Isn't there any one to—Yes, she is not the sole one on watch. The same man who had read aloud the note and then dropped it within his reach, had stepped after him, and kindly, if artfully, turned him towards the proper place of exit. As the two disappear, Deborah wakes from her trance, and, finding herself alone among the seats, hurries to quit her corner and leave the building.
The glare—the noise of the square, as she dashes down into it seems for the moment unendurable. The pushing, panting mass of men and women of which she has now become a part, closes about her, and for the moment she can see nothing but faces,—faces with working mouths and blazing eyes,—a medley of antagonistic expression, all directed against herself;—or so she felt in the heat of her self-consciousness. But after the first recoil she knew that no such universal recognition could be hers; that she was merely a new and inconsiderable atom caught in a wave of feeling which engulfed all it met; that this mob was not raised from the stones to overwhelm her but HIM, and that if she flew, it should be to his aid, and not to save herself. But how was she to reach him? He would not come out by the main entrance; that she knew. Where look for him, then? Suddenly she remembered; and using some of her strength of which she had good measure, and more of that address to which I have already alluded, she began to worm herself along through this astounding collection of people much too large already for the ordinary force of police to handle, to that corner of the building where a small door opened upon a rear street. She remembered it from those old days when she had once entered this courthouse as a witness.
But alas, others knew it also, and thick as the crowd was in front, it was even thicker here, and far more tumultuous. Word had gone about that the father of Oliver Ostrander had been given his lesson at last, and the curiosity of the populace had risen to fever-heat in their anxiety to see how the proud Ostrander would bear himself in his precipitate downfall. They had crowded there to see and they would see. Were he to shirk the ordeal! Were he to wait for the square to be cleared—But they knew him too well to fear this. He will come—nay, he is coming now—and coming alone! No other figure looms so grandly in a doorway, nor is there any other face in Shelby whose pallor could strike so coldly to the heart, or rouse such conflicting emotions.
He was evidently not prepared to see his path quite so heavily marked out for him by the gaping throng; but after one look, he assumed some show of his old commanding presence and advanced bravely down the steps, awing some and silencing all, until he had reached his carriage step and the protection of the officers on guard.
Then a hoot rose from some far-off quarter of the square, and he turned short about and the people saw his face. Despair had seized it, and if any one there desired vengeance, he had it. The knell of active life had been rung for this man. He would never remount the courthouse steps, or face again a respectful jury.
As for Deborah, she had shrunk out of sight at his approach, but as soon as he had ridden off, she looked eagerly for a taxicab to carry her in his wake. She could not let him ride that mile alone. She was still fearful for him, though the mass of people about her was rapidly dissolving away, and the streets growing clear.
But an apprehension still greater, because more personal, seized her when she found herself behind him on the long road. Several minutes had been lost in obtaining a taxicab and she feared that she would be unable to overtake him before he reached his own gates. This would be to subject Reuther to a shock which the poor child had little strength to meet. She could not escape the truth long. Soon, very soon she would have to be told that the man who stood so high in her esteem was now regarded as a common criminal. But she must be prepared for the awful news. She must be within reach of her mother's arms when the blow fell destroying her past as well as her future.
Were minutes really so long—the house really so far away? Deborah gazes eagerly forward. There is very little traffic in the streets to-day and the road ahead looks clear—too clear, she cannot even see the dust raised by the judge's rapidly disappearing carriage. Can he have arrived home already? No, or the carriage would be coming back, and not a vehicle is in view.
Her anxiety increases. She has reached the road debouching towards the bridge—has crossed it—is drawing near—nearer—when, what is this? Men—women—coming from the right, coming from the left, running out of houses, flocking from every side street, filling up the road! A lesser mob than that from which she had just escaped, but still, a mob, and all making for one point—the judge's house! And he? She can see his carriage now. Held up for a moment by the crowd, it has broken through, and is rolling quickly towards Ostrander Lane. But the mob is following, and she is yet far behind.
Shouting to the chauffeur to hasten, the insistent honk! honk! of the cab adds its raucous note to the turmoil. They have dashed through one group;—they are dashing through another;—naught can withstand an on-rushing automobile. She catches glimpses of raised arms threatening retaliation; of eager, stolid, uncertain and furious faces—and her breath held back during that one instant of wild passage rushes pantingly forth again. Ostrander Lane is within sight. If only they can reach it!—if only they can cross it! But they cannot without sowing death in their track. No scattered groups here, the mob fills the corner. It is packed close as a wall. Brought up against it, the motor necessarily comes to a standstill.
Balked? No, not yet. Opening the door, Deborah leaps to the ground and in one instant finds herself but a mote in this seethe of humanity. In vain her efforts, she cannot move arm or limb. The gate is but a few paces off, but all hope of reaching it is futile. She can only hold herself still and listen as all around are listening. But to what? To nothing. It is expectation which holds them all silent. She will have to wait until the crowd sways apart, allowing her to—Ah, there, some heads are moving now! She catches one glimpse ahead of her, and sees—What does she see? The noble but shrunk figure of the judge drawn up before his gate. His lips are moving, but no sound issues from them; and while those about are waiting for his words, they peer, with an insolence barely dashed by awe, at his white head and his high fence and now at the gate swerving gently inward under the hand of some one whose figure is invisible.
But no words coming, a change passes like a stroke of lightning over the surging mass. Some one shouts out COWARD! another, TRAITOR! and the lifted head falls, the moving lips cease from their efforts and in place of the great personality which filled their eyes a moment before, they see a man entrapped, waking to the horror of a sudden death in life for which no visions of the day, no dreams of the night, had been able to prepare him.
It was a sight to waken pity not derision. But these people had gathered here in a bitter mood and their rancour had but scented the prey. Calls of "Oliver!" and such threats as "You saved him at a poor man's expense, but we'll have him yet, we'll have him yet!" began to rise about him; followed by endless repetitions of the name from near and far: "Oliver! Oliver!"
Oliver! His own lips seemed to re-echo the word. Then like a lion baited beyond his patience the judge lifted his head and faced them all with a fiery intensity which for the moment made him a terrible figure to contemplate.
"Let no one utter that name to me here!" shot from his lips in tones of unspeakable menace and power. "Spare me that name, or the curse of my ruined life be upon you. I can bear no more to-day."
Thrilled by his aspect, cowering under his denunciation, emphasised as it was by a terrifying gesture, the people, pressing closest about him, drew back and left the passage open to the gate. He took it with a bound, and would have entered but that from the outskirts of the crowd where his voice had not reached, the cry arose again of "Oliver! Oliver! The sons of the rich go free, but ours have to hang!"
At which he turned his head about, gave them one stare and fell back against the door. It yielded and a woman's arms received him. The gentle Reuther in that hour of dire extremity, showed herself stronger than her mother who had fallen in a faint amid the crowd.
THE MISFORTUNES OF MY HOUSE
To one who swoons but seldom, the moment of returning consciousness is often fraught with great pain and sometimes with unimaginable horror. It was such to Deborah; the pain and horror holding her till her eyes, accustomed to realities again, saw in the angel face which floated before her vision amid a swarm of demon masks, the sweet and solicitous countenance of Reuther.
As she took this in, she took in other facts also: that there were no demons, no strangers even about her: That she and her child were comparatively alone in their own little parlour, and that Reuther's sweet face wore a look of lofty courage which reminded her of something she could not at the moment grasp, but which was so beautiful. At that instant her full memory came, and, uttering a low cry, she started up, and struggling to her feet, confronted her child, this time with a look full of agonised inquiry.
Reuther seemed to understand her; for, taking her mother's hand in hers, she softly said:
"I knew you were not seriously ill, only frightened by the crowd and their senseless shoutings. Don't think of it any more, dear mother. The people are dispersing now, and you will soon be quite restored and ready to smile with us at an attack so groundless it is little short of absurd."
Astounded at such tranquillity where she had expected anguish if not stark unreason, doubting her eyes, her ears—for this was no longer her delicate, suffering Reuther to be shielded from all unhappy knowledge, but a woman as strong if not as wise to the situation as herself—she scrutinised the child closely, then turned her gaze slowly about the room, and started in painful surprise, as she perceived standing in the space behind her the tall figure of Judge Ostrander.
He! and she must face him! the man whom she by her blind and untimely efforts to regain happiness for Reuther, had brought to this woful pass! The ordeal was too bitter for her broken spirit and, shrinking aside, she covered her face with her hands like one who stands detected in a guilty act.
"Pardon," she entreated, forgetting Reuther's presence in her consciousness of the misery she had brought upon her benefactor. "I never meant—I never dreamed—"
"Oh, no apologies!" Was this the judge speaking? The tone was an admonitory, not a suffering one. It was not even that of a man humiliated or distressed. "You have had an unfortunate experience, but that is over now and so must your distress be." Then, as in her astonishment she dropped her hands and looked up, he added very quietly, "Your daughter has been much disturbed about you, but not at all about Oliver or his good name. She knows my son too well, and so do you and I, to be long affected by the virulent outcries of a mob seeking for an object upon which to expend their spleen."
Swaying yet in body and mind, quite unable in the turmoil of her spirits to reconcile this strong and steady man with the crushed and despairing figure she had so lately beheld shrinking under the insults of the crowd, Deborah was glad to sit silent under this open rebuke and listen to Reuther's ingenuous declarations, though she knew that they brought no conviction and distilled no real comfort either to his mind or hers.
"Yes, mother darling," the young girl was saying. "These people have not seen Oliver in years, but we have, and nothing they can say, nothing that any one can say but himself could ever shake my belief in him as a man incapable of a really wicked act. He might be capable of striking a sudden blow—most men are under great provocation—but to conceal such a fact,—to live for years enjoying the respect of all who knew him, with the knowledge festering in his heart of another having suffered for his crime— that, THAT would be impossible to Oliver Ostrander."
Some words ring in the heart long after their echo has left the ear. IMPOSSIBLE! Deborah stole a look at the judge. But he was gazing at Reuther, where he well might gaze, if his sinking heart craved support or his abashed mind sought to lose itself in the enthusiasm of this pure soul, with its loving, uncalculating instincts.
"Am I not right, mother?"
Ah! must she answer that?
"Tell the judge who is as confident of Oliver as I am myself that you are confident, too. That you could no more believe him capable of this abominable act than you could believe it of my father."
"I will—tell—the judge," stammered the unhappy mother. "Judge," she briefly declared, as she rose with the help of her daughter's arm, "my mind agrees with yours in this matter. What you think, I think." And that was all she could say.
As she fell again into her seat, the judge turned to Reuther:
"Leave your mother for a little while," he urged with that rare gentleness he always showed her. "Let her rest here a few minutes longer, alone with me."
"Yes, Reuther," murmured Deborah, seeing no way of avoiding this inevitable interview. "I am feeling better every minute. I will come soon."
The young girl's eye faltered from one to the other, then settled, with a strange and imploring look upon her mother. Had her clear intelligence pierced at last to the core of that mother's misery? Had she seen what Deborah would have spared her at the cost of her own life? It would seem so, for when the mother, with great effort, began some conciliatory speech, the young girl smiled with a certain sad patience, and, turning towards Judge Ostrander, said as she softly withdrew:
"You have been very kind to allow me to mention a name and discuss a subject you have expressly forbidden. I want to show my gratitude, Judge Ostrander, by never referring to it again without your permission. That you know my mind,"—here her head rose with a sort of lofty pride which lent a dazzling quality to her usually quiet beauty,—"and that I know yours, is quite enough for me."
"A noble girl! a mate for the best!" fell from the judge's lips after a silence disturbed only by the faint, far-off murmur of a slowly dispersing throng.
Deborah made no answer. She could not yet trust her courage or her voice.
The judge, who was standing near, concentrated his look upon her features. Still she made no effort to meet his eye. He did not speak, and the silence grew appalling. To break it, he stepped away and took a glance out of the window. There was nothing to be seen there; the fence hid all, but he continued to look, the shadows from his soul settling deeper and deeper upon his countenance as each heavy moment dragged by. When he finally turned, it was with a powerful effort which communicated itself to her and forced her long-bowed head to rise and her troubled mind to disclose itself.
"You wish to express your displeasure, and hesitate on account of Reuther," she faltered. "You need not. We are quite prepared to leave your house if our presence reminds you too much of the calamity I have brought upon you by my inconsiderate revival of a past you had every reason to believe buried."
His reply was uttered with great courtesy.
"Madam," said he, "I have never had a thought from the first moment of your coming, of any change in the arrangements we then entered into; nor is the demonstration we have just witnessed a calamity of sufficient importance to again divide this household. To connect my high-minded son with a crime for which he had no motive and from which he could reap no benefit is, if you will pardon my plain speaking at a moment so critical, even greater folly than to exculpate, after all these years, the man whom a conscientious jury found guilty. Only a mob could so indulge itself; individuals will not dare."
She thought of the letter which had been passed up to him in court, and surveyed him with an astonishment she made no effort to conceal. Never had she felt at a greater disadvantage with him. Never had she understood him less. Was this attempt at unconcern, so pitiably transparent to her, made in an endeavour to probe her mind or to deceive his own? In her anxiety to determine, she hesitatingly remarked:
"Not the man who writes those anonymous letters?"
"Letters?" Involuntarily his hand flew to one of his inner pockets.
"Yes, you have found them, have you not, lying about the grounds?"
"No." He looked startled. "Explain yourself," said he. "What letters? Not such as—" Again his hand went to his pocket, but shrunk hastily back as she pulled out a crumpled bit of paper and began to smooth it out for his perusal.
"What have you there?" he cried.
"Such a letter as I speak of, Judge Ostrander. I picked it up from the walk a day or so ago. Perhaps you have come upon the like?"
"No; why should I?"
He had started back, but his eye falling involuntarily upon the words she had spread out before him, he rapidly read them, and aghast at their import, glanced from the paper to her face and back again, crying:
"He means Oliver! We have an enemy, Mrs. Scoville, an enemy! Do you know"—here he leaned forward, and plunged his eye, now burning with many passions, into hers—"who this enemy is?"
"Yes." Softly as the word came, it seemed to infuriate him. Seizing her by the arm, he was about to launch against her the whole weight of his aroused nature, when she said simply: "He is a common bill-poster. I took pains to find this out. I was as interested as you could be to discover the author of such an outrage."
"Yes, Judge Ostrander."
"What is his name?"
"I do not know. I only know that he is resolved upon making you trouble. It was he who incited this riot. He did it by circulating anonymous missives and by—forgive me for telling you this— affixing scrawls of the same ambiguous character on fences and on walls, and even on—on—" (Here terror tied her tongue, for his hand had closed about her arm in a forceful grip, and the fire in the eye holding hers was a consuming one) "the rails—of—of BRIDGES."
The cry was involuntary, but not so the steady settling of the lips which followed it and the determined poise of his body as he waited for her next word.
"Miss Weeks, the little lady opposite, saw the latter and tore it off. But the mischief had already spread. Oh, strike me! Send me from your house!"
He gave no token of hearing her.
"Why is this man my enemy?" he asked. "I do not know any such person as you describe."
"Nor I," she answered more quietly.
"A bill-poster! Well, he has done his worst. I shall think no more about him." And the burning eye grew mild and the working lip calm again, with a determination too devoid of sarcasm to be false.
It was a change for which Deborah was in no wise prepared. She showed her amazement as ingenuously as a child, and he, observing it, remarked in a different tone from any he had used yet:
"You do not look well. You are still suffering from the distress and confusion into which this wretched swoon has thrown you. Or can it be that you are not yet convinced of our wisdom in ignoring this diabolic attack upon one whose reputation is as dear to us as our own? If that is so, and I see that it is, let me remind you of a fact which cannot be new to you if it is to others of happier memories, that no accusation of this kind, however plausible—and this is not plausible—can hold its own for a day without evidence to back it. And there is no evidence against my son in this ancient matter of my friend Etheridge's violent death, save the one coincidence known to many, that he chanced to be somewhere in the ravine at that accursed hour. A petty point upon which to hang this late and elaborate insult of suspicion!" And his voice rang out in a laugh, but not as it would have rung, or as Deborah thought it would have rung, had his mind been as free as his words.
When it had quite ceased, Deborah threw off the last remnant of physical as well as moral weakness, and deliberately rose to her feet. She believed she understood him now; and she respected the effort he was making, and would have seconded it gladly had she dared.
But she did not dare. If he were really as ignorant as he appeared of the extent of the peril threatening Oliver's good name; if he had cheated himself during these long years into supposing that the secret which had undermined his own happiness was an unshared one, and that his own conduct since that hour he had characterised as accursed, had given no point to the charges they had just heard hurled against his son, then he ought to be undeceived and that right speedily. Evidence did exist connecting Oliver with this crime; evidence as sure, nay, yet surer, than that raised against her husband; and no man's laughter, no, not even his father's— least of all his father's—could cover up the fact or avail against the revelations which must follow, now that the scent was on. Honouring as she did the man before her, understanding both his misery and the courage he displayed in this superhuman effort to hide his own convictions, she gathered up all her resources, and with a resolution no less brave than his, said firmly:
"You are too much respected in this town, Judge Ostrander, for any collection of people, however thoughtless or vile, to so follow the lead of a lowdown miscreant as to greet you to your face with these damaging assertions, unless they THOUGHT they had evidence, and good evidence, too, with which to back these assertions."
It was the hurling of an arrow poisoned at the point; the launching of a bomb into the very citadel of his security. Had he burst into outbreak—gripped her again or fiercely shown her the door, she would not have been astonished. Indeed, she was prepared for some such result, but it did not come. On the contrary, his answer was almost mild, though tinged for the first time with a touch of that biting sarcasm for which he had once been famous.
"If they had not THOUGHT!" he repeated. "If you had said if they had not KNOWN, then I might indeed have smelt danger. People THINK strange things. Perhaps YOU think them, too."
"I?" The moment was critical. She saw now that he was sounding her,—had been sounding her from the first. Should she let everything go and let him know her mind, or should she continue to conceal it? In either course lay danger, if not to herself and Reuther, then to himself and Oliver. She decided for the truth. Subterfuge had had its day. The menace of the future called for the strongest weapons which lie at the hand of man. She, therefore, answered:
"Yes; I have been thinking, and this is the result: You must either explain publicly and quite satisfactorily to the people of this town, the mystery of your long separation from Oliver and the life you have since led in this trebly barred house, or accept the opprobrium of such accusations as we have listened to to-day. There is no middle course, Judge Ostrander. I who have loved Oliver almost like a son;—who have a daughter who not only loves him but regards him as a perfect model of noble manhood, tell you so, though it breaks my heart to do it. I cannot see you both fall headlong to destruction for lack of understanding the nearness or the depth of the precipice you are approaching."
The ejaculation came after a moment of intense silence—a silence during which she seemed to discern the sturdiness of years drop slowly away from him.
"So that is the explanation which people give to my desire for retirement and a life of contemplation. Well," he slowly added, with the halting utterance of one to whom each word is an effort, "I can see some justification for their conclusions now. I have been too self-centred, and too short-sighted to recognise my own folly. I might have known that anything out of the common course rouses a curiosity which supplies its own explanation at any cost to propriety or respect. I have courted my own doom. I am the victim of my own mistake. But," he continued, with a flash of his old fire which made him a dignified figure again, "I'm not going to cringe because I have lost ground in the first skirmish. I come of fighting blood. Oliver's reputation shall not suffer long, whatever I may have done in my parental confidence to endanger it. I have not spent ten years at the bar, and fifteen on the bench for nothing. Let the people look to it! I will stand by my own."
He had as completely forgotten her as if she had never existed. John Scoville, his widow, even the child bowed under troubles not unlike his own, had faded alike from his consciousness. But the generous Deborah felt no resentment at the determination which would only press her and hers deeper into contumely. She had seen the father in the man for the first time, and her whole heart went out in passionate sympathy which blinded her to everything but her present duty. Alas, that it should be so hard a one! Alas, that instead of encouraging him, she must point out the one weakness of his cause which he did not or would not see, that is, his own conviction of his absent son's guilt as typified by the line he had deliberately smeared across Oliver's pictured countenance. The task seemed so difficult, the first steps so blind, that she did not know how to begin and stood staring at him with interest and dread struggling for mastery in her heavily labouring breast.
Did he perceive this or was it the silence which drew his attention to her condition and the evils still threatening him? Whichever it was, the light vanished from his face as he surveyed her and it was with a return of his old manner, that he finally observed:
"You are keeping something from me—some fancied discovery—some clew, as they call it, to what you may consider my dear boy's guilt."
With a deep breath she woke from her trance of indecision and letting forth the full passion of her nature, she cried out in her anguish:
"I have but one answer for that, Judge Ostran-der. Look into your own heart! Question your own conscience. I have seen what reveals it. I—"
She stopped appalled. Rage, such as she had never even divined spoke from every feature. He was no longer the wretched but calmly reasoning man, but a creature hardly human, and when he spoke, it was in a frenzy which swept everything before it.
"You have SEEN!" he shouted. "You have broken your promise! You have touched what you were forbidden to touch! You have—"
"Not so," she broke in softly but very firmly. "I have touched nothing that I was told not to, nor have I broken any promise. I simply saw more than I was expected to, I suppose, of the picture which fell the day you first allowed me to enter your study."
"Is that true?"
"It is true."
They were whispering now.
Drawing a deep breath, he gathered up his faculties. "Upon such accidents," he muttered, "hang the fate and honour of men. And you have gossiped about this picture," he again vociferated with sudden and unrestrained violence, "told Reuther—told others—"
"No." The denial was peremptory,—not to be disbelieved. "What I have learned, I have kept religiously to myself. Alas!" she half moaned, half cried, "that I should feel the necessity!"
"Madam!"—he was searching her eyes, searching her very soul, as men seldom search the mind of another. "You believe in the truth of these calumnies that have just been shouted in our ears. You believe what they say of Oliver. You with every prejudice in his favour; with every desire to recognise his worth! You, who have shown yourself ready to drop your husband's cause though you consider it an honest one, when you saw what havoc it would entail to my boy's repute. YOU believe—and on what evidence?" he broke in. "Because of the picture?"
"And the coincidence of his presence in the ravine?"
"But these are puerile reasons." He was speaking peremptorily now and with all the weight of a master mind. "And you are not the woman to be satisfied with anything puerile. There is something back of all this; something you have not imparted. What is that something? Tell—tell—"
"Oliver was a mere boy in those days and a very passionate one. He hated Etheridge—the obtrusive mentor who came between him and yourself."
"Yes, there is proof."
"Of his hate?"
He did not ask where. Possibly he knew. And because he did not ask, she did not tell him, holding on to her secret in a vague hope that so much at least might never see light.
"I knew the boy shrank sometimes from Algernon's company," the judge admitted, after another glance at her face; "but that means nothing in a boy full of his own affairs. What else have you against him? Speak up! I can bear it all."
"He handled the stick that—that-"
"Never! Now you have gone mad, madam."
"I would be willing to end my days in an asylum if that would disprove this fact."
"But, madam, what proof—what reason can you have for an assertion so monstrous?"
"You remember the shadow I saw which was not that of John Scoville? The person who made that shadow was whittling a stick; that was a trick of Oliver's. I have heard that he even whittled furniture."
"Good God!" The judge's panoply was pierced at last.
"They tried to prove, as you will remember, that it was John who thus disfigured the bludgeon he always carried with pride. But the argument was a sorry one and in itself would have broken down the prosecution had he been a man of better repute. Now, those few chips taken from the handle of this weapon will carry a different significance. For in my folly I asked to see this stick which still exists at Police Headquarters, and there in the wood I detected and pointed out a trifle of steel which never came from the unbroken blades of the knife taken from John's pocket."
Fallen was the proud head now and fallen the great man's aspect. If he spoke it was to utter a low "Oliver! Oliver!"
The pathos of it—the heart-rending wonder in the tone brought the tears to Deborah's eyes and made her last words very difficult.
"But the one great thing which gives to these facts their really dangerous point is the mystery you have made of your life and of this so-called hermitage. If you can clear up that, you can afford to ignore the rest."
"The misfortunes of my house!" was his sole response. "The misfortunes of my house!"
ONE SECRET LESS
Suddenly he faced Deborah again. The crisis of feeling had passed, and he looked almost cold.
"You have had advisers," said he. "Who are they?"
"I have talked with Mr. Black."
The judge's brows met.
"Well, you were wise," said he. Then shortly, "What is his attitude?"
Feeling that her position was fast becoming intolerable she falteringly replied, "Friendly to you and Oliver but, even without all the reasons which move me, sharing my convictions."
"He has told you so?"
"Not directly; but there was no misjudging his opinion of the necessity you were under to explain, the mysteries of your life. AND IT WAS YESTERDAY WE TALKED; NOT TODAY."
Like words thrown into a void, these slow, lingering, half-uttered phrases seemed to awaken an echo which rung not only in his inmost being, but in hers. Not till in both natures silence had settled again (the silence of despair, not peace), did he speak. When he did, it was simply to breathe her name.
Startled, for it had always before been Madam, she looked up to find him standing very near her and with his hand held out.
"I am going through deep waters," said he. "Am I to have your support?"
"O, Judge Ostrander, how can you doubt it?" she cried, dropping her hand into his, and her eyes swimming with tears. "But what can I do? If I remain here I will be questioned. If I fly—but, possibly, that is what you want;—for me to go—to disappear—to take Reuther and sink out of all men's sight forever. If this is your wish, I am ready to do it. Gladly will we be gone—now—at once—this very night if you say so."
His disclaimer was peremptory.
"No; not that. I ask no such sacrifice. Neither would it avail. There is but one thing which can reinstate Oliver and myself in the confidence and regard of these people. Cannot you guess it, madam? I mean your own restored conviction that the sentence passed upon John Scoville was a just one. Once satisfied of this, your temperament is such that you would be our advocate whether you wished it or no. Your very silence would be eloquent."
"Convince me; I am willing to have you, Judge Ostrander. But how can you do so? A shadow stands between my wishes and the belief you mention. The shadow cast by Oliver as he made his way towards the bridge, with my husband's bludgeon in his hand."
"Did you see him strike the blow? Were there any opportune shadows to betray what happened between the instant of—let us say Oliver's approach and the fall of my friend? Much can happen in a minute, and this matter is one of minutes. Granted that the shadow you saw was that of Oliver, and the stick he carried was the one under which Algernon succumbed, what is to hinder the following from, having occurred. The stick which Oliver may have caught up in an absent frame of mind becomes burdensome; he has broken his knife against a knot in the handle and he is provoked. Flinging the bludgeon down, he hurries up the embankment and so on into town. John Scoville, lurking in the bushes, sees his stick fall and regains it at or near the time Algernon Etheridge steps into sight at the end of the bridge beyond Dark Hollow. Etheridge carries a watch greatly desired by the man who finds himself thus armed. The place is quiet; the impulse to possess himself of this watch is sudden and irresistible, and the stick falls on Etheridge's head. Is there anything impossible or even improbable about all this? Scoville had a heart open to crime, Oliver not. This I knew when I sat upon the bench at his trial; and now you shall know it too. Come! I have something to show you."
He turned towards the door and mechanically she followed. Her thoughts were all in a whirl. She did not know what to make of him or of herself. The rooted dread of weeks was stirring in its soil. This suggestion of the transference of the stick from hand to hand was not impossible. Only Scoville had sworn to her, and that, too, upon their child's head, that he had not struck this blow. And she had believed him after finding the cap; AND SHE BELIEVED HIM NOW. Yes, against her will, she believed him now. Why? and again, why?
They had crossed the hall and he was taking the turn to his room.
"Enter," said he, lifting the curtain.
Involuntarily she recoiled. Not from him, but from the revelation she felt to be awaiting her in this place of unguessed mystery. Looking back into the space behind her, she caught a fleeting glimpse of Reuther hovering on a distant threshold. Leaving the judge, without even a murmured word of apology, she ran to the child, embraced her, and promised to join her soon; and then, satisfied with the comfort thus gained, she returned quickly to where the judge still awaited her, with his hand on the curtain.
"Forgive me," said she; and meeting with no reply, stood trembling while he unlocked the door and ushered her in.
A new leaf in the history of this old crime was about to be turned.
Once within the room, he became his courteous self once more. "Be seated," he begged, indicating a chair in the half gloom. As she took it, the room sprang into sudden light. He had pulled the string which regulated the curtains over the glazed panes in the ceiling. Then as quickly all was gloom again; he had let the string escape from his hand.
"Half light is better," he muttered in vague apology.
It was a weird beginning to an interview whose object was as yet incomprehensible to her. One minute a blinding glimpse of the room whose details were so varied that many of them still remained unknown to her,—the next, everything swept again into shadow through which the tall form of the genius of the place loomed with melancholy suggestion!
She was relieved when he spoke.
"Mrs. Scoville (not Deborah now) have you any confidence in Oliver's word?"
She did not reply at once. Too much depended upon a simple yes or no. Her first instinctive cry would have been YES, but if Oliver had been guilty and yet held back his dreadful secret all these years, how could she believe his word, when his whole life had been a lie?
"Has there ever been anything in his conversation as you knew it in Detroit to make you hesitate to reply?" the judge persisted, as she continued speechless.
"No; nothing. I had every confidence in his assertions. I should have yet, if it were not for this horror."
"Forget it for a moment. Recall his effect upon you as a man, a prospective son-in-law,—for you meant him to marry Reuther."
"I trusted him. I would trust him in many ways yet."
"Would you trust him enough to believe that he would tell you the truth if you asked him point-blank whether his hands were clean of crime?"
"Yes." The word came in a whisper; but there was no wavering in it. She had felt the conviction dart like an arrow through her mind that Oliver might slay a man in his hate,—might even conceal his guilt for years—but that he could not lie about it when brought face to face with an accuser like herself.
"Then I will let you read something he wrote at my request these many years ago: An experience—the tale of one awful night, the horrors of which, locked within his mind and mine, have never been revealed to a third person. That you should share our secret now, is not only necessary but fitting. It becomes the widow of John Scoville to know what sort of a man she persists in regarding innocent. Wait here for me."
With a quick step he wound his way among the various encumbering pieces of furniture, to the door opening into his bedroom. A breathless moment ensued, during which she heard his key turn in the lock, followed by the repeating sound of his footsteps, as he wended his way inside to a point she could only guess at from her knowledge of the room, to be a dresser in one of the corners. Here he lingered so long that, without any conscious volition of her own,—almost in spite of her volition which would have kept her where she was,—she found herself on her feet, then moving step by step, more cautiously than he, in and out of huddling chairs and cluttering tables till she came to a stand-still before the reflection (in some mirror, no doubt) of the judge's tall form, bending not over the dresser, as she had supposed, but before a cupboard in the wall—a cupboard she had never seen, in a wall she had never seen, but now recognised for the one hitherto concealed by the great carpet rug. He had a roll of paper in his hand, which he bundled together as he dropped the curtain back into place and then stopped to smooth it out over the floor with the precision of long habit. All this she saw in the mirror as though she had been at his back in the other room; but when she beheld him turn, then panic seized her and she started breathlessly for the spot where he had left her, glad that there was so little light, and praying that he might be deaf to her steps, which, gently as they fell, sounded portentously loud in her own ears.
She had reached her chair, but she had not had time to reseat herself when she beheld him approaching with the bundle of loose sheets clutched in his hand.
"I want you to sit here and read," said he, laying the manuscript down on a small table near the wall under a gas-jet which he immediately lighted. "I am going back to my own desk. If you want to speak, you may; I shall not be working." And she heard his footsteps retreating again in and out among the furniture till he reached his own chair and sat before his own table.
This ended all sound in the room excepting the beating of her own heart, which had become tumultuous.
How could she sit there and read words, with the blood pounding in her veins and her eyes half blind with terror and excitement? It was only the necessity of the case which made it possible. She knew that she would never be released from that spot until she had read what had been placed before her. Thank God! the manuscript was legible. Oliver's handwriting possessed the clearness of print. She had begun to read before she knew it, and having begun, she never paused till she reached the end.
I was fifteen. It was my birthday and I had my own ideas of how I wanted to spend it. My hobby was modelling. My father had no sympathy with this hobby. To him it was a waste of time better spent in study or such sports as would fit me for study. But he had never absolutely forbidden me to exercise my talent this way, and when on the day I mention I had a few hours of freedom, I decided to begin a piece of work of which I had long dreamed. This was the remodelling in clay of an exquisite statue which had greatly aroused my admiration.
This statue stood in a forbidden place. It was one of the art treasures of the great house on the bluff commonly called Spencer's Folly. I had seen this marble once, when dining there with father, and was so impressed by its beauty, that it haunted me night and day, standing out white and wonderful in my imagination, against backgrounds of endless variation. To copy its lovely lines, to caress with a creative hand those curves of beauty instinct, as I then felt, with soul, became my one overmastering desire,—a desire which soon deepened into purpose. The boy of fifteen would attempt the impossible. I procured my clay and then awaited my opportunity. It came, as I have said, on my birthday.
There was no one living in the house at this time. Mr. Spencer had gone West for the winter. The servants had been dismissed, and the place closed. Only that morning I had heard one of his boon companions say, "Oh, Jack's done for. He's found a pretty widow in the Sierras, and there's no knowing now when we'll drink his health again in Spencer's Folly:" a statement which wakened but one picture in my mind and that was a long stretch of empty rooms teeming with art treasures amid which one gem rose supreme—the gem which through his reckless carelessness, I now proposed to make my own, if loving fingers and the responsive clay would allow it.
What to every other person in town would have seemed an insuperable obstacle to this undertaking, was no obstacle to me. I KNEW HOW TO GET IN. One day in my restless wanderings about a place which had something of the nature of a shrine to me, I had noticed that one of the windows (a swinging one) overlooking the ravine, moved as the wind took it. Either the lock had given way or it had not been properly fastened. If I could only bring myself to disregard the narrowness of the ledge separating the house from the precipice beneath, I felt that I could reach this window and sever the vines sufficiently for my body to press in; and this I did that night, finding, just as I had expected, that once a little force was brought to bear upon the sash, it yielded easily, offering a free passage to the delights within.
In all this I experienced little fear, but once inside, I began to realise the hazard of my adventure, as hanging at full length from the casement, I meditated on the drop I must take into what to my dazed eyes looked like an absolute void. This taxed my courage; but after a moment of sheer fright, I let myself go—I had to—and immediately found myself standing upright in a space so narrow I could touch the walls on either side. It was a closet I had entered, opening, as I soon discovered, into the huge dining-hall where I had once sat beside my father at the one formal meal of my life.
I remembered that room; it had made a great impression upon me, and some light finding its way through the panes of uncurtained glass which topped each of the three windows overlooking the ravine, I soon was able to find the door leading into the drawing- room.
I had brought a small lantern in the bag slung to my shoulders, but I had not hitherto dared to use it on account of the transparency of the panes I have mentioned; but once in the perfectly dark recesses of the room beyond, I drew it out, and without the least fear of detection boldly turned it upon the small alcove where stood the object of my adoration.
It was another instance of the reckless confidence of youth. I was on the verge of one of the most appalling adventures which could befall a man, and yet no premonition disturbed the ecstasy with which I knelt before the glimmering marble and unrolled my bundle of wet clay.
I was not a complete fool. I only meant to attempt a miniature copy, but my presumption led me to expect it to be like—yes, like—oh, I never doubted it!
But when, after a few minutes of rapturous contemplation of the proportions which have been the despair of all lesser adepts than the great sculptor who conceived them, I began my work, oh, then I began to realise a little the nature of the task I had undertaken and to ask myself whether if I stayed all night I could finish it to my mind. It was during one of these moments of hesitation that I heard the first growl of distant thunder. But it made little impression upon me, and I returned to my work with renewed glow,— renewed hope. I felt so secure in my shell of darkness, with only the one small beam lighting up my model and my own fingers busy with the yielding clay.
But the thunder growled again and my head rose, this time in real alarm. Not because of that far-off struggle of the elements with which I had nothing to do and hardly sensed, but because of a nearer sound, an indistinguishable yet strangely perturbing sound, suggesting a step—no, it was a voice, or if not a voice, some equally sure token of an approaching presence on the porch in front. Some one going by on the road two hundred feet away must have caught the gleam of my lantern through some unperceived crack in the parlour shutters. In another minute I should hear a shout at the window, or, perhaps, the pounding of a heavy hand on the front door. I hated the interruption, but otherwise I was but little disturbed. Whoever it was, he could not by any chance find his way in. Nevertheless, I discreetly closed the shutter of my lantern and began groping my way back to my own place of exit. I had reached the dining-room door, when the blood suddenly stopped in my veins. Another sound had reached my ear; an unmistakable one this time—the rattling of a key in its lock. A man—two men were entering by the great front door. They came in on a swoop of wind which seemed to carry everything before it. I heard a loud laugh, coarsened by drink, and the tipsy exclamation of a voice I knew:
"There! shut the door, can't you, before it's blown from its hinges? You'll find everything jolly here. Wine, lights, solitude in which to finish our game and a roaring good opportunity to sleep afterwards. No servants, no porters, not a soul to disturb us. This is my house and it's a corker. I might be away for a year and"—here there was the crackling of a match—"I've only to use my night-key to find everything a man wants right to my hand."
The answer I failed to catch. I was simply paralysed by terror. Should their way lay through the drawing-room! My clay, my tools were all lying there, and my unfinished model. Mr. Spencer was not an unkind man, but he was very drunk, and I had heard that whisky makes a brute of the most good-natured. He would trample on my work; perhaps he would destroy my tools and then hunt the house till he found me. I did not know what to expect; meantime, lights began to flame up; the room where I stood was no longer a safe refuge, and creeping like a cat, I began to move towards the closet door. Suddenly I made a dart for it; the two men, trampling heavily on the marble floor of the hall were coming my way. I could hear their rude talk—rude to me, though one of them called himself a gentleman. As the door of the room opened to admit them, I succeeded in shutting that of the closet into which I had flung myself,—or almost so. I did not dare to latch it, for they were already in the room and might hear me.
"This is the spot for us," came in Spencer's most jovial tones. "Big table, whisky handy, cards right here in my pocket. Wait, till I strike a light!"
But the lightning anticipated him. As he spoke, the walls which surrounded me, the walls which surrounded them, leapt into glaring view and I heard the second voice cry out:
"I don't like that! Let's wait till the storm is over. I can't play with such candles as those flaring about us."
"Damn it! you won't know what candles you are playing by when once you see the pile I've got ready for you. I'm in for a big bout. You have ten dollars and I have a thousand. I'll play you for that ten. If, in the meantime, you get my thousand, why, it'll be because you're the better man."
"I don't like it, I say. There, SEE!"
A flood of white light had engulfed the house. My closet, with its whitewashed walls flared about me like the mouth of a furnace.
"See, yourself!" came the careless retort, and with the words a gas-jet shot up, then two, then all that the room contained. "How's that? What's a flash more or less now!"
I heard no answer, only the slap of the cards as they were flung onto the table; then the clatter of a key as it was turned in some distant lock and the quick question:
"Rum, or whisky. Irish or Scotch?"
"Whisky and Irish."
"Good! but you'll drink it alone."
The bottles were brought forward and they sat down one on each side of the dusty mahogany table. The man facing me was Spencer, the other sat with his back my way, but I could now and then catch a glimpse of his profile as he started at some flash or lifted his head in terror of the thunder-claps.
"We'll play till the hands point to three," announced Spencer, taking out his watch and laying it down where both could see it. "Do you agree to that?—Unless I win and your funds go a-begging before the hour."
"I agree." The tone was harsh; it was almost smothered. The man was staring at the watch; there was a strange set look to his figure; a pausing as of thought—of sinister thought, I should now say; then I never stopped to characterise it; it was followed too quickly by a loud laugh and a sudden grab at the cards.
"You'll win! I feel it in my bones," came in encouraging tones from the rich man. "If you do"—here the storm lulled and his voice sank to an encouraging whisper—"you can buy the old tavern up the road. It's going for a song; and then we'll be neighbours and can play—play—"
Thunder!—a terrific peal. It shook the house; it shook my boyish heart, but it no longer had power to move the two gamesters. The fever of play had reached its height, and I heard nothing more from their lips, but such phrases as belong to the game. Why didn't I take advantage of their absorption to fly? The sill above my head was within easy reach, the sash was open and no sound that I could make would reach them in this hurly-burly of storm. Why then, with all this invitation to escape, did I remain crouched in my dark retreat with eyes fixed on the narrow crack before me which, under some impulse of movement in the walls about, had widened sufficiently for me to see all that I have related? I do not know, unless I was hypnotised by the glare of expression on those men's faces.
I remember that it was my first glimpse of the human countenance under the sway of wicked and absorbing passions. Hitherto my dreams had all been of beauty—of lovely shapes or noble figures cast in heroic mould. Henceforth, these ideal groups must visit my imagination mixed with the bulging eyes of greed and the contortions of hate masking their hideousness under false smiles or hiding them behind the motions of riotous jollity. I was horrified, I was sickened, and I was frightened to the very soul, but the fascination of the spectacle held me; I watched the men and I watched the play and soon I forgot the tempest also, or remembered it only when my small retreat flared into sudden whiteness, or some gust, heavier than the rest, toppled the bricks from the chimneys above us and sent them crashing down upon the rain-soaked roof.
The stranger was winning. I saw the heap of bills beside him grow and grow while that of his opponent dwindled. I saw the latter smile—smile softly at each toss of his losings across the board; but there was no mirth in his smile, nor was there any common satisfaction in the way the other's hand closed over his gains.
"He will have it all," I thought. "The Claymore Tavern will soon change owners;" and I was holding my breath over the final stake when suddenly the house gave a lurch, resettled, then lurched again. The tempest had become a hurricane, and with its first swoop a change took place in the stranger's luck.
The bills which had all gone one way began slowly to recross the board, first singly, then in handfuls. They fell within Spencer's grasp, and the smile with which he hailed their return was not the smile with which he had seen them go, but a steady grin such as I had beheld on the faces of sculptured demons. It frightened me, this smile. I could see nothing else; but, when at another crashing peal I ducked my head, I found on lifting it that my eyes sought instinctively the rigid back of the stranger instead of the open face of Spencer. The passion of the winner was nothing to that of the loser; and from this moment on, I saw but the one figure, and thrilled to the one hope—that an opportunity would soon come for me to see the face of the man whose back told such a tale of fury and suspense.
But it remained fixed on Spencer, and the cards. The roof might fall—he was past heeding. A bill or two only lay now at his elbow, and I could perceive the further stiffening of his already rigid muscles as he dealt out the cards. Suddenly hard upon a rattling peal which seemed to unite heaven and earth, I heard shouted out:
"Half-past two! The game stops at three."
"Damn your greedy eyes!" came back in a growl. Then all was still, fearfully still, both in the atmosphere outside and in that within, during which I caught sight of the stranger's hand moving slowly around to his back and returning as slowly forward, all under cover of the table-top and a stack of half-empty bottles.
I was inexperienced. I knew nothing of the habits or the ways of such men as these, but the alarm of innocence in the face of untold, unsuspected but intuitively felt evil, seized me at this stealthy movement, and I tried to rise,—tried to shriek,—but could not; for events rushed upon us quicker than I could speak or move.
"I can buy the Claymore Tavern, can I? Well, I'm going to," rang out into the air as the speaker leaped to his feet. "Take that, you cheat! And that! And that!" And the shots rang out—one, two, three!
Spencer was dead in his Folly. I had seen him rise, throw up his hands and then fall in a heap among the cards and glasses.
Silence! Not even Heaven spoke.
Then the man who stood there alone turned slightly and I saw his face. I have seen it many times since; I have seen it at Claymore Tavern. Distorted up to this moment by a thousand emotions,—all evil ones,—it was calm now with the realisation of his act, and I could make no mistake as to his identity. Later I will mention his name.
Glancing first at his victim, then at the pistol still smoking in his hand, he put the weapon back in his pocket, and began gathering up the money for which he had just damned his soul. To get it all, he had to move an arm of the body sprawling along the board. But he did not appear to mind. When every bill was in his pockets, he reached out his hand for the watch. Then I saw him smile. He smiled as he shut the case, he smiled as he plunged it in after the bills. There was gloating in this smile. He seemed to have got what he wanted more than when he fingered the bills. I was stiff with horror. I was not conscious of noting these details, but I saw them every one. Small things make an impression when the mind is numb under the effect of a great blow.
Next moment I woke to a realisation of myself and all the danger of my own position. He was scanning very carefully the room about him. His eyes were travelling slowly—very slowly but certainly, in my direction. I saw them pause—concentrate their glances and fix them straight and full upon mine. Not that he saw me. The crack through which we were peering each in our several ways was too narrow for that. But the crack itself—that was what he saw and the promise it gave of some room beyond. I was a creature frozen. But when he suddenly turned away instead of plunging towards me with his still smoking pistol, I had the instinct to make a leap for the window over my head and clutch madly at its narrow sill in a wild attempt at escape.
But the effort ended precipitately. Terror had got me by the hair, and terror made me look back. The crack had widened still further, and what I now saw through it glued me to the wall and held me there transfixed, with dangling feet and starting eyeballs.
He was coming towards me—a straining, panting figure—half carrying, half dragging, the dead man who flopped aside from his arms.
God! what was I to do now! How meet those cold, indifferent eyes filled only with thoughts of his own safety and see them flare again with murderous impulse and that impulse directed towards myself! I couldn't meet them; I couldn't stay; but how fly when not a muscle responded. I had to stay—hanging from the sill and praying—praying—till my senses blurred and I knew nothing till on a sudden they cleared again, and I woke to the blessed realisation that the door had been pushed against my slender figure, hiding it completely from his sight, and that this door was now closed again and this time tightly, and I was safe—safe!
The relief sent the perspiration in a reek from every pore; but the icy revulsion came quickly. As I drew up my knees to get a better purchase on the sill, heaven's torch was suddenly lit up, the closet became a pit of dazzling whiteness amid which I saw the blot of that dead body, with head propped against the wall and eyes—
Remember, I was but fifteen. The legs were hunched up and almost touched mine. I could feel them—though there was no contact— pushing me—forcing me from my frail support. Would it lighten again? Would I have to see—No! any risk first. The window—I no longer thought of it. It was too remote, too difficult. The door— the door—there was my way—the only way which would rid me instantly of any proximity to this hideous object. I flung myself at it—found the knob—turned it and yelled aloud—My foot had brushed against him. I knew the difference and it sent me palpitating over the threshold; but no further. Love of life had returned with my escape from that awful prison-house, and I halted in the semidarkness into which I had plunged, thanking Heaven for the thunder peal which had drowned my loud cry.
For I was not yet safe. He was still there. He had turned out all lights but one, but this was sufficient to show me his tall figure straining up to put out this last jet.
Another instant and darkness enveloped the whole place. He had not seen me and was going. I could hear the sound of his feet as he went stumbling in his zigzag course towards the door. Then every sound both on his part and on mine was lost in a swoop of down- falling rain and I remember nothing more till out of the blankness before me, he started again into view, within the open doorway where in the glare of what he called heaven's candles he stood, poising himself to meet the gale which seemed ready to catch him up and whirl him with other inconsequent things into the void of nothingness. Then darkness settled again and I was left alone with Murder;—all the innocence of my youth gone, and my soul a very charnel house.
I had to re-enter that closet; I had to take the only means of escape proffered. But I went through it as we go through the horrors of nightmare. My muscles obeyed my volition, but my sensibilities were no longer active. How I managed to draw myself up to that slippery sill all reeking now with rain, or save myself from falling to my death in the whirling blast that carried everything about me into the ravine below, I do not know.
I simply did it and escaped all—lightning-flash and falling limb, and the lasso of swirling winds—to find myself at last lying my full length along the bridge amid a shock of elements such as nature seldom sports with. Here I clung, for I was breathless, waiting with head buried in my arm for the rain to abate before I attempted a further escape from the place which held such horror for me!
But no abatement came, and feeling the bridge shaking under me almost to cracking, I began to crawl, inch by inch, along its gaping boards till I reached its middle.
There God stopped me.
For, with a clangour as of rending worlds, a bolt, hot from the zenith, sped down upon the bluff behind me, throwing me down again upon my face and engulfing sense and understanding for one wild moment. Then I sprang upright and with a yell of terror sped across the rocking boards beneath me to the road, no longer battling with my desire to look back; no longer asking myself when and how that dead man would be found; no longer even asking my own duty in the case; for Spencer's Folly was on fire and the crime I had just seen perpetrated there would soon be a crime stricken from the sight of men forever.
In the flare of its tremendous burning I found my way up through the forest road to my home and into my father's presence. He like everybody else was up that night, and already alarmed at my continued absence.
"Spencer's Folly is on fire," I cried, as he cast dismayed eyes at my pallid and dripping figure. "If you go to the door, you can see it!"
But I told him nothing more.
Perhaps other boys of my age can understand my silence.
I not only did not tell my father, but I told nobody, even after the discovery of Spencer's charred body in the closet so miraculously preserved. With every day that passed, it became harder to part with this baleful secret. I felt it corroding my thoughts and destroying my spirits, and yet I kept still. Only my taste for modelling was gone. I have never touched clay since.
Claymore Tavern did change owners. When I heard that a man by the name of Scoville had bought it, I went over to see Scoville. He was the man. Then I began to ask myself what I ought to do with my knowledge, and the more I asked myself this question, and the more I brooded over the matter, the less did I feel like taking, not the public, but my father, into my confidence.
I had never doubted his love for me, but I had always stood in great awe of his reproof, and I did not know where I was to find courage to tell him all the details of this adventure.
There is one thing I did do, however. I made certain inquiries here and there, and soon satisfied myself as to how Scoville had been able to come into town, commit this horrid deed and escape without any one but myself being the wiser. Spencer and he had come from the west en route to New York without any intention of stopping off in Shelby. But once involved in play, they got so interested that when within a few miles of the town, Spencer proposed that they should leave the train and finish the game in his own house. Whether circumstances aided them, or Spencer took some extraordinary precautions against being recognised, will never be known. But certain it is that he escaped all observation at the station and even upon the road. When Scoville returned alone, the storm had reached such a height that the roads were deserted, and he, being an entire stranger here at that time, naturally attracted no attention, and so was able to slip away on the next train with just the drawback of buying a new ticket. I, a boy of fifteen, trespassing where I did not belong, was the only living witness of what had happened on this night of dreadful storm, in the house which was now a ruin.
I realised the unpleasantness of the position in which this put me, but not its responsibility. Scoville, ignorant that any other breast than his own held the secret of that hour of fierce temptation and murder, naturally scented no danger and rejoiced without stint in his new acquisition. What evil might I not draw down upon myself by disturbing him in it at this late day. If I were going to do anything, I should have done it at first—so I reasoned, and let the matter slide. I became interested in school and study, and the years passed and I had almost forgotten the occurrence, when suddenly the full remembrance came back upon me with a rush. A man—my father's friend—was found murdered in sight of this spot of old-time horror, and Scoville was accused of the act.
I was older now and saw my fault in all its enormity. I was guilty of that crime—or so I felt in the first heat of my sorrow and despair. I may even have said so—in dreams or in some of my self- absorbed broodings. Though I certainly had not lifted the stick against Mr. Etheridge, I had left the hand free which did, and this was a sufficient occasion for remorse—or so I truly felt.
I was so affected by the thought that even my father, with his own weight of troubles, noticed my care-worn face and asked me for an explanation. But I held him off until the verdict was reached, and then I told him. I had not liked his looks for some time; they seemed to convey some doubt of the justice of this man's sentence, and I felt that if he had such doubts, they might be eased by this certainty of Scoville's murderous tendencies and unquestionable greed.
And they were; but as Scoville was already doomed, we decided that it was unnecessary to make public his past offences. However, with an eye upon future contingencies, my father exacted from me in writing this full account of my adventure, which with all the solemnity of an oath I here declare to be the true story of what befell me in the house called Spencer's Folly, on the night of awful storm, September Eleventh, 1895.
Witnesses to above signature,
ARCHIBALD OSTRANDER, BELA JEFFERSON.
Shelby........November 7, 1898.
"WHAT DO YOU THINK OF HIM NOW?"
This was the document and these the words which Deborah, widow of the man thus doubly denounced, had been given to read by the father of the writer, in the darkened room which had been and still was to her, an abode of brooding thought and unfathomable mystery.
No wonder that during its reading more than one exclamation of terror and dismay escaped her, as the once rehabilitated form of the dead and gone started into dreadful life again before her eyes. There were so many reasons for believing this record to be an absolute relation of the truth.
Incoherent phrases which had fallen from those long-closed lips took on new meaning with this unveiling of an unknown past. Repugnances for which she could not account in those old days, she now saw explained. He would never, even in passing, give a look at the ruin on the bluff, so attractive to every eye but his own. As for entering its gates—she had never dared so much as to ask him to do so. He had never expressed his antipathy for the place, but he had made her feel it. She doubted now if he would have climbed to it from the ravine even to save his child from falling over its verge. Indeed, she saw the reason now why he could not explain the reason for the apathy he showed in his hunt for Reuther on that fatal day, and his so marked avoidance of the height where she was found.
Then the watch! Deborah knew well that watch. She had often asked him by what stroke of luck he had got so fine a timepiece. But he had never told her. Later, it had been stolen from him; and as he had a mania for watches, that was why, perhaps—
God! was her mind veering back to her old idea as to his responsibility for the crime committed in Dark Hollow? Yes; she could not help it. Denial from a monster like this—a man who with such memories and such spoil, could return home to wife and child, with some gay and confused story of a great stroke in speculation which had brought him in the price of the tavern it had long been his ambition to own—what was denial from such lips worth, though emphasised by the most sacred of oaths, and uttered under the shadow of death. The judge was right. Oliver—whose ingenuous story had restored his image to her mind, with some of its old graces—had been the victim of circumstances and not John Scoville. Henceforth, she would see him as such, and when she had recovered a little from the effect of this sudden insight into the revolting past, she would—
Her thoughts had reached this stage and her hand, in obedience to the new mood, was lightly ruffling up the pages before her, when she felt a light touch on her shoulder and turned with a start.
The judge was at her back. How long he had stood there she did not know, nor did he say. The muttered exclamations which had escaped her, the irrepressible cry of despair she had given when she first recognised the identity of the "stranger" may have reached him where he sat at the other end of the room, and drawn him insensibly forward till he could overlook her shoulder as she read, and taste with her the horror of these revelations which yet were working so beneficent a result for him and his. It may have been so, and it may have been that he had not made his move till he saw her attitude change and her head droop disconsolately at the reading of the last line. She did not ask, as I have said, nor did he tell her; but when upon feeling his hand upon her shoulder she turned, he was there; and while his lips failed to speak, his eyes were eloquent and their question single and imperative.
"What do you think of him now?" they seemed to ask, and rising to her feet, she met him with a smile, ghastly perhaps with the lividness of the shadows through which she had been groping, but encouraging withal and soothing beyond measure to his anxious and harassed soul.
"Oliver is innocent," she declared, turning once more to lay her hand upon the sheets containing his naive confession. "The dastard who could shoot his host for plunder is capable of a second crime holding out a similar inducement. Nothing now will ever make me connect Oliver with the crime at the bridge. As you said, he was simply near enough the Hollow to toss into it the stick he had been whittling on his way from the oak tree. I am his advocate from this minute."
Her eyes were still resting mechanically upon that last page lying spread out before her, and she did not observe in its full glory the first gleam of triumphant joy which, in all probability, Judge Ostrander's countenance had shown in years. Nor did he see, in the glad confusion of the moment, the quick shudder with which she lifted her trembling hand away from those papers and looked up, squarely at last, into his transfigured visage.
"Oh, judge!" she murmured, bursting into a torrent of tears. "How you must have suffered to feel so great a relief!" Then she was still, very still, and waited for him to speak.
"I suffered," he presently proceeded to state, "because of the knowledge which had come to me of the scandal with which circumstances threatened us. Oliver had confided to me (after the trial, mind, not before) the unfortunate fact of his having been in possession of the stick during those few odd minutes preceding the murder. He had also told me how he had boasted once, and in a big crowd, too, of his intention to do Etheridge. He had meant nothing by the phrase, beyond what any body means who mingles boasting with temper, but it was a nasty point of corroborative evidence; and heart-breaking as it was for me to part with him, I felt that his future career would be furthered by a fresh start in another town. You see," he continued, a faint blush dyeing his old cheek ... old in sorrow not in years ... "I am revealing mysteries of my past life which I have hitherto kept strictly within my own breast. I cannot do this without shame, because while in the many serious conversations we have had on this subject, I have always insisted upon John Scoville's guilt. I have never allowed myself to admit the least fact which would in any way compromise Oliver. A cowardly attitude for a judge you will say, and you are right; but for a father—Mrs. Scoville, I love my boy. I—What's that?"
The front door-bell was ringing.
In a flash Deborah was out of the room. It was as if she had flown with unnecessary eagerness to answer a bidding which, after all, Reuther could easily have attended to. It struck him aghast for the instant, then he began slowly to gather up the papers before him and carry them back into the other room. Had he, instead, made straight for the doorway leading to the front of the house, he would have come upon the figure of Deborah standing alone and with her face pressed in anguish and unspeakable despair against the lintel. Something had struck her heart and darkened her soul since that exalted moment in which she cried:
"Henceforth I will be Oliver's advocate."
When the judge at last came forth, it was at Reuther's bidding.
A gentleman wished to see him in the parlour.
This was so unprecedented,—even of late when the ladies did receive some callers, that he stopped short after his first instinctive step, to ask her if the gentleman had given his name.
She said no; but added that he was not alone; that he had a very strange and not very nice-looking person with him whom mother insisted should remain in the hall. "Mother requests you to see the gentleman, Judge Ostrander. She said you would wish to, if you once saw the person accompanying him."
With a dark glance, not directed against her, however, the judge bade her run away to the kitchen and as far from all these troubles as she could, then, locking his door behind him, as he always did, he strode towards the front.
He found Deborah standing guard over an ill-conditioned fellow whose slouching figure slouched still more under his eye, but gave no other acknowledgment of his presence. Passing him without a second look, Judge Ostrander entered the parlour where he found no less a person than Mr. Black awaiting him.
There was no bad blood between these two whatever their past relations or present suspicions, and they were soon shaking hands with every appearance of mutual cordiality.
The judge was especially courteous.
"I am glad," said he, "of any occasion which brings you again under my roof, though from the appearance of your companion I judge the present one to be of no very agreeable character."
"He's honest enough," muttered Black, with a glance towards Deborah, for the understanding of which the judge held no key. Then, changing the subject, "You had a very unfortunate experience this afternoon. Allow me to express my regret at an outbreak so totally unwarranted."
A grumble came from the hall without. Evidently his charge, if we may so designate the fellow he had brought there, had his own ideas on this subject.
"Quiet out there!" shouted Mr. Black. "Mrs. Scoville, you need not trouble yourself to stand over Mr. Flannagan any longer. I'll look after him."
She bowed and was turning away when the judge intervened.
"Is there any objection," he asked, "to Mrs. Scoville's remaining present at this interview?"
"None whatever," answered the lawyer.
"Then, Mrs. Scoville, may I request you to come in?"
If she hesitated, it was but natural. Exhaustion is the obvious result of so many excitements, and that she was utterly exhausted was very apparent. Mr. Black cast her a commiserating smile, but the judge only noticed that she entered the room at his bidding and sat down by the window. He was keying himself up to sustain a fresh excitement. He was as exhausted as she, possibly more so. He had a greater number of wearing years to his credit.
"Judge, I'm your friend;" thus Mr. Black began. "Thinking you must wish to know who started the riotous procedure which disgraced our town to-day, I have brought the ringleader here to answer for himself—that is, if you wish to question him."
Judge Ostrander wheeled about, gave the man a searching look, and failing to recognise him as any one he had ever seen before, beckoned him in.
"I suppose," said he, when the lounging and insolent figure was fairly before their eyes, "that this is not the first time you have been asked to explain your enmity to my long absent son."
"Naw; I've had my talk wherever and whenever I took the notion. Oliver Ostrander hit me once. I was jest a little chap then and meanin' no harm to any one. I kept a-pesterin' of 'im and he hit me. He'd a better have hit a feller who hadn't my memory. I've never forgiven that hit, and I never will. That's why I'm hittin' him now. It's just my turn; that's all."
"Your turn! YOUR turn! And what do you think has given YOU an opportunity to turn on HIM?"
"I'm not in the talkin' mood just now," the fellow drawled, frankly insolent, not only in his tone but in his bearing to all present. "Nor can you make it worth my while, you gents. I'll not take money. I'm an honest hard-workin' man who can earn his own livin', and you can't pay me to keep still, or to go away from Shelby a day sooner than I want to. I was goin' away, but I gave it up when they told me that things were beginnin' to look black against Ol Ostrander;—that a woman had come into town who was a- stirrin' up things generally about that old murder for which a feller had already been 'lectrocuted, and knowin' somethin' myself about that murder and Ol Ostrander, I—well, I stayed."
The quiet threat, the suggested possibility, the attack which wraps itself in vague uncertainty, are ever the most effective. As his raucous voice, dry with sinister purpose which no man could shake, died out in an offensive drawl, Mr. Black edged a step nearer the judge, before he sprang and caught the young fellow by the coat-collar and gave him a very vigorous shake.
"See here!" he threatened. "Behave yourself and treat the judge like a gentleman or—"
"Or what?" the bulldog mouth sneered. "See here yourself," he now shouted, as the lawyer's hands unloosed and he stood panting; "I'm not afeard o' you, sir, nor of the jedge, nor of the lady nuther. I KNOWS somethin', I do; and when I gets ready to tell it, we'll just see whose coat-collar they'll be handlin'. I came 'cause I wanted to see the inside o' the house Ol Ostrander's father doesn't think him good enough to live in. It's grand; but this part here isn't the whole of it. There's a door somewhere which nobody never opens unless it's the jedge there. I'd like to see what's behind that 'ere door. If it's somethin' to make a good story out of, I might be got to keep quiet about this other thing. I don't know, but I MIGHT."
The swagger with which he said this, the confidence in himself which he showed and the reliance he so openly put in the something he knew but could not be induced to tell, acted so strongly upon Mr. Black's nerves, that he leaped towards him again, evidently with the intention of dragging him from the house.
But the judge was not ready for this. The judge had gained a new lease of life in the last half-hour and he felt no fear of this sullen bill-poster for all his sly innuendoes. He, therefore, hindered the lawyer from his purpose, by a quick gesture of so much dignity and resolve that even the lout himself was impressed and dropped some of his sullen bravado.
"I have something to say to this fellow," he announced, looking anywhere but at the drooping figure in the window which ought, above all things in the world, to have engaged his attention. "Perhaps he does not know his folly. Perhaps he thinks because I was thrown aback to-day by those public charges against my son and a string of insults for which no father could be prepared, that I am seriously disturbed over the position into which such unthinking men as himself have pushed Mr. Oliver Ostrander. I might be if there were truth in these charges or any serious reason for connecting my upright and honourable son with the low crime of a highwayman. BUT THERE IS NOT. I aver it and so will this lady here whom you have doubtless recognised for the one who has stirred this matter up. You can bring no evidence to show guilt on my son's part,"—these words he directed straight at the discomfited poster of bills—"BECAUSE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE TO BRING."
Mr. Black's eyes sparkled with admiration. He could not have used this method with the lad, but he recognised the insight of the man who could. Bribes were a sign of weakness, so were suggested force and counter-attack; but scorn—a calm ignoring of the power of any one to seriously shake Oliver Ostrander's established position— that might rouse wrath and bring avowal; certainly it had shaken the man; he looked much less aggressive and self-confident than before.
However, though impressed, he was not yet ready to give in. Shuffling about with his feet but not yet shrinking from an encounter few men of his stamp would have cared to subject themselves to, he answered with a remark delivered with a little more civility than any of his previous ones:
"What you call evidence may not be the same as I calls evidence. If you're satisfied at thinkin' my word's no good, that's your business. I know how I should feel if I was Ol Ostrander's father and knew what I know."
"Let him go," spoke up a wavering voice. It was Deborah's.
But the judge was deaf to the warning. Deborah's voice had but reminded him of Deborah's presence. Its tone had escaped him. He was too engrossed in the purpose he had in mind to notice shades of inflection.
But Mr. Black had, and quick as thought he echoed her request:
"He is forgetting himself. Let him go, Judge Ostrander."
But that astute magistrate, wise in all other causes but his own, was no more ready now than before to do this.
"In a moment," he conceded. "Let me first make sure that this man understands me. I have said that there exists no evidence against my son. I did not mean that there may not be supposed evidence. That is more than probable. No suspicion could have been felt and none of these outrageous charges made, without that. He was unfortunate enough not only to have been in the ravine that night but to have picked up Scoville's stick and carried it towards the bridge, whittling it as he went. But his connection with the crime ends there. He dropped this stick before he came to where the wood path joins Factory Road; and another hand than his raised it against Etheridge. This I aver; and this the lady here will aver. You have probably already recognised her. If not, allow me to tell you that she is the lady whose efforts have brought back this case to the public mind: Mrs. Scoville, the wife of John Scoville and the one of all others who has the greatest interest in proving her husband's innocence. If she says, that after the most careful inquiry and a conscientious reconsideration of this case, she has found herself forced to come to the conclusion that justice has already been satisfied in this matter, you will believe her, won't you?"
"I don't know," drawled the man, a low and cunning expression lighting up his ugly countenance. "She wants to marry her daughter to your son. Any live dog is better than a dead one; I guess her opinion don't go for much."
Recoiling before a cynicism that pierced with unerring skill the one joint in his armour he knew to be vulnerable, the judge took a minute in which to control his rage and then addressing the half- averted figure in the window said:
"Mrs. Scoville, will you assure this man that you have no expectations of marrying your daughter to Oliver Ostrander?"
With a slow movement more suggestive of despair than any she had been seen to make since the hour of her indecision had first struck, she shifted in her seat and finally faced them, with the assertion:
"Reuther Scoville will never marry Oliver Ostrander. Whatever my wishes or willingness in the matter, she herself is so determined. Not because she does not believe in his integrity, for she does; but because she will not unite herself to one whose prospects in life are more to her than her own happiness."
The fellow stared, then laughed:
"She's a goodun," he sneered. "And you believe that bosh?"
Mr. Black could no longer contain himself.
"I believe you to be the biggest rascal in town," he shouted. "Get out, or I won't answer for myself. Ladies are not to be treated in this manner."
Did he remember his own rough handling of the sex on the witness stand?
"I didn't ask to see the ladies," protested Flannagan, turning with a slinking gait towards the door.
If they only had let him go! If the judge in his new self- confidence had not been so anxious to deepen the effect and make any future repetition of the situation impossible!
"You understand the lady," he interposed, with the quiet dignity which was so imposing on the bench. "She has no sympathy with your ideas and no faith in your conclusions. She believes absolutely in my son's innocence."
"Do you, ma'am?" The man had turned and was surveying her with the dogged impudence of his class. "I'd like to hear you say it, if you don't mind, ma'am. Perhaps, then, I'll believe it."
"I—" she began, trembling so, that she failed to reach her feet, although she made one spasmodic effort to do so. "I believe—Oh, I feel ill! It's been too much—I—" her head fell forward and she turned herself quite away from them all.
"You see she ain't so eager, jedge, as you thought," laughed the bill-poster, with a clumsy bow he evidently meant to be sarcastic.
"Oh, what have I done!" moaned Deborah, starting up as though she would fling herself after the retreating figure, now half way down the hall.
She saw in the look of the judge as he forcibly stopped her, and heard in the lawyer's whisper as he bounded past them both to see the fellow out: "Useless; nothing will bridle him now"; and finding no support for her despairing spirit either on earth or, as she thought, in heaven, she collapsed where she sat and fell unnoticed to the floor, where she lay prone at the feet of the equally unconscious figure of the judge, fixed in another attack of his peculiar complaint.
And thus the lawyer found them when he returned from closing the gate behind Flannagan.
"I CANNOT say anything, I cannot do anything till I have had a few words with Mrs. Scoville. How soon do you think I can speak to her?"
"Not very soon. Her daughter says she is quite worn out. Would it not be better to give her a rest for to-night, judge?"
The judge, now quite recovered, but strangely shrunk and wan, showed no surprise, at this request, odd as it was, on the lips of this honest but somewhat crabbed lawyer, but answered out of the fulness of his own heart and from the depths of his preoccupation:
"My necessity is greater than hers. The change I saw in her is inexplicable. One moment she was all fire and determination, satisfied of Oliver's innocence and eager to proclaim it. The next—but you were with us. You witnessed her hesitation—felt its force and what its effect was upon the damnable scamp who has our honour—the honour of the Ostranders under his tongue. Something must have produced this change. What? good friend, what?"
"I don't know any more than you do, judge. But I think you are mistaken about the previous nature of her feelings. I noticed that she was not at peace with herself when she came into the room."
"What's that?" The tone was short, and for the first time irritable.
"The change, if there was a change, was not so sudden as you think. She looked troubled, and as I thought, irresolute when she came into the room."
"You don't know her; you don't know what passed between us. She was all right then, but—Go to her, Black. She must have recovered by this time. Ask her to come here for a minute. I won't detain her. I will wait for her warning knock right here."
Alanson Black was a harsh man, but he had a soft streak in him—a streak which had been much developed of late. Where he loved, he could be extraordinarily kind, and he loved, had loved for years, in his own way which was not a very demonstrative one, this man whom he was now striving to serve. But a counter affection was making difficulties for him just at this minute. Against all probability, many would have said possibility, Deborah Scoville had roused in this hard nature, a feeling which he was not yet ready to name even to himself, but which nevertheless stood very decidedly in his way when the judge made this demand which meant further distress to her.
But the judge had declared his necessity to be greater than hers, and after Mr. Black had subjected him to one of his most searching looks he decided that this was so, and quietly departed upon his errand. The judge left alone, sat, a brooding figure in his great chair, with no light in heart or mind to combat the shadows of approaching night settling heavier and heavier upon the room and upon himself with every slow passing and intolerable minute.
At last, when the final ray had departed and darkness reigned supreme, there came a low knock on the door. Then a troubled cry:
"Oh, judge, are you here?"
"I am here."
"Alone and so dark?"
"I am always alone, and it is always dark. Is there any one with you?"
"No, sir. Shall I make a light?"
"No light. Is the door quite shut?"
There came the sound of a hand fumbling over the panels, then a quick snap.
"It is shut," she said.
"Don't come any nearer; it is not necessary." A pause, then the quick question ringing hollow from the darkness, "Why have your doubts returned? Why are you no longer the woman you were when not an hour ago and in this very spot you cried, 'I will be Oliver's advocate!'" Then, as no answer came,—as minutes passed, and still no answer came, he spoke again and added: "I know that you are ill and exhausted—broken between duty and sympathy; but you must answer me, Mrs. Scoville. My affairs won't wait. I must know the truth and all the truth before this day is over."