Dark Hollow, by Anna Katherine Green

20

What had Made the Change?

“Reuther, sit up here close by mother and let me talk to you for a little while.”

“Yes, mother; oh, yes, mother.” Deborah felt the beloved head pressed close to her shoulder and two soft arms fall about her neck.

“Are you very unhappy? Is my little one pining too much for the old days?”

A closer pressure of the head, a more vehement clasp of the encircling arms, but no words.

“You have seemed brighter lately. I have heard you sing now and then as if the joy of youth was not quite absent from your heart. Is that true, or were you merely trying to cheer your mother?”

“I am afraid I was trying to cheer the judge,” came in low whisper to her ear. “When I hear his step in the study — that monotonous tramp, tramp, which we both dread, I feel such an ache here, such a desire to comfort him, that I try the one little means I have to divert him from his thoughts. He must be so lonely without —”

“Reuther, you forget how many years have passed since he had a companion. A man becomes used to loneliness. A judge with heavy cases on his mind must think and think very closely, you know.”

“Oh, mamma, it’s not of his cases our judge is thinking when he walks like that. I know him too well, love him too well, not to feel the trouble in his step. I may be wrong, but all the sympathy and understanding I may not give to Oliver I devote to his father, and when he walks like that he seems to drag my heart after him. Mamma, mamma, do not blame me. I have just as much affection for you, and I suffer just as keenly when I see you unhappy. And, mamma, are you sure that you are quite happy to-day? You look as if something had happened to trouble you — something more than usual, I mean.”

They were sitting in the dark, with just the light of the stars shining through the upper panes of the one unshaded window. Deborah, therefore, had little to fear from her daughter’s eye, only from the sensitiveness of her touch and the quickness of her ear. Alas, in this delicately organised girl these were both attuned to the nicest discrimination, and before the mother could speak, Reuther had started up, crying:

“Oh, how your heart beats! Something has happened, darling mother; something which —”

“Hush, Reuther; it is only this: When I came to Shelby it was with a hope that I might some day smooth the way to your happiness. But it was only a wild dream, Reuther; and the hour has come for me to tell you so. What joys are left us must come in other ways; love unblessed must be put aside resolutely and forever.”

She felt the shudder pass through the slender form which had thrown itself again at her side; but when the young girl spoke it was with unexpected bravery and calm.

“I have long ago done that, mamma. I’ve had no hopes from the first. The look with which Oliver accepted my refusal to go on with the ceremony was one of gratitude, mother. I can never forget that. Relief struggled with grief. Would you have me cherish any further illusions after that?”

Mrs. Scoville was silent. So, after all, Reuther had not been so blind on that day as she had always feared.

“Oliver has faults — Oh, let me talk about him just for once, darling mother,” the poor, stricken child babbled on. “His temper is violent, or so he has often told me, coming and going like a gust of — No, mamma, don’t make me stop. If he has faults he has good traits too. He was always gentle with me and if that far-away look you did not like would come at times and take him, as it were, out of our world, such a sweet awakening would follow when he realised that I was waiting for his spirit to come back, that I never minded the mystery, in my joy at the comfort which my love gave him.”

“My child, my child!”

“Mother, I can soothe the father, but I can no longer soothe Oliver. That is my saddest thought. It makes me wish, sometimes, that he would find another loving heart on which he could lean without any self-reproach. I should soon learn to bear it. It would so assure his future and rid me of the fear that he may fail to hold the place he has won by such hard work and persistence.”

A moment’s silence, then a last appeal on the part of the mother.

“Reuther, have I ever been harsh to you?”

“No, no.”

“Then you will not think me unkind or even untender if I say that every loving thought you give now to Oliver is hurtful both to yourself and to me. Don’t indulge in them, my darling. Put your heart into work or into music, and your mother will bless you. Won’t it help you to know this, Reuther? Your mother, who has had her griefs, will bless you.”

“Mother, mother!”

That night, at a later hour, Deborah struggled with a great temptation.

The cap which hung in Oliver’s closet — the knife which lay in the drawer of Oliver’s desk — were to her mind positive proofs of his actual connection with the crime she now wished to see buried for all time in her husband’s grave. The threat of that unknown indicter of mysterious letters, I KNOW A WITNESS, had sunk deep into her mind. A witness of what? Of anything which the discovery of these articles might substantiate? If so, what peril remained in their continued preservation when an effort on her part might so easily destroy them.

Sleep, long a stranger to her pillow, forsook her entirely as she faced this question and realised the gain in peace which might be hers if cap and knife were gone. Why then did she allow them to remain, the one in the closet, the other in the drawer? Because she could not help herself. Instinct was against her meddling with these possible proofs of crime.

But this triumph of conscience cost her dear. The next morning found her pale — almost as pale as Reuther. Was that why the judge surveyed her so intently as she poured out the coffee, and seemed more than once on the point of addressing her particularly, as she went through the usual routine of tidying up his room?

She asked herself this question more than once, and found it answered every time she hurried by the mirror. Certainly she showed a remarkable pallor.

Knowing its cause herself, she did not invite his inquiries; and another day passed. With the following morning she felt strong enough to open the conversation which had now become necessary for her peace of mind.

She waited till the moment when, her work all done, she was about to leave his presence. Pausing till she caught his eye, which seemed a little loth, she thought, to look her way, she observed, with perhaps unnecessary distinctness:

“I hope that everything is to your mind, Judge Ostrander. I should be sorry not to make you as comfortable as is possible under the circumstances.”

Roused a little suddenly, perhaps, from thoughts quite disconnected with those of material comfort, he nodded with the abstraction of one who recognises that some sort of acknowledgment is expected from him; then, seeing her still waiting, added politely:

“I am very well looked after, if that is what you mean, Mrs. Scoville. Bela could not do any better — if he ever did as well.”

“I am glad,” she replied, thinking with what humour this would have struck her once. “I— I ask because, having nothing on my mind but housekeeping, I desire to remedy anything which is not in accordance with your exact wishes.”

His attention was caught and by the very phrase she desired.

“Nothing on your mind but housekeeping?” he repeated. “I thought you had something else of a very particular nature with which to occupy yourself.”

“I had; but I have been advised against pursuing it. The folly was too great.”

“Who advised you?”

The words came short and sharp just as they must have come in those old days when he confronted his antagonists at the bar.

“Mr. Black. He was my husband’s counsel, you remember. He says that I should only have my trouble for my pains, and I have come to agree with him. Reuther must content herself with the happiness of living under this roof; and I, with the hope of contributing to your comfort.”

Had she impressed him? Had she played her part with success? Dare she lift her eye and meet the gaze she felt concentrated upon her? No. He must speak first. She must have some clew to the effect she had produced before she risked his penetration by a direct look.

She had to wait longer than her beating heart desired. He had his own agitation to master, and possibly his own doubts. This was not the fiery, determined woman he had encountered amid the ruins of Spencer’s Folly. WHAT HAD MADE THE CHANGE? Black’s discouraging advice? Hardly. Why should she take from that hard-faced lawyer what she had not been willing to take from himself? There must have been some other influencing cause.

His look, his attitude, his voice, betrayed his hesitations, as he finally remarked:

“Black is a man of excellent counsel, but he is hard as a stone and not of the sort whose monitions I should expect to have weight with one like you. What did he put in the balance — or what have others put in the balance, to send your passionate intentions flying up to the beam? I should be glad to hear.”

Should she tell him? She had a momentary impulse that way. Then the irrevocableness of such a move frightened her; and, pale with dismay at what she felt to be a narrow escape from a grave error of judgment, she answered with just enough truth, for her to hope that the modicum of falsehood accompanying it would escape his attention:

“What has changed my intentions? My experience here, Judge Ostrander. With every day I pass under this roof, I realise more and more the mistake I made in supposing that any change in circumstances would make a union between our two children proper or feasible. Headstrong as I am by nature, I have still some sense of the fitness of things, and it is that sense awakened by a better knowledge of what the Ostrander name stands for, which has outweighed my hopes and mad intentions. I am sorry that I ever troubled you with them.”

The words were ambiguous; startlingly so, she felt; but, in hope that they would strike him otherwise, she found courage at last to raise her eyes in search of what lay in his. Nothing, or so she thought at first, beyond the glint of a natural interest; then her mind changed, and she felt that it would take one much better acquainted with his moods than herself to read to its depths a gaze so sombre and inscrutable.

His answer, coming after a moment of decided suspense, only deepened this impression. It was to this effect:

“Madam, we have said our say on this subject. If you have come to see the matter as I see it, I can but congratulate you upon your good sense, and express the hope that it will continue to prevail. Reuther is worthy of the best —” he stopped abruptly. “Reuther is a girl after my own heart,” he gently supplemented, with a glance towards his papers lying in a bundle at his elbow, “and she shall not suffer because of this disappointment to her girlish hopes. Tell her so with my love.”

It was a plain dismissal. Mrs. Scoville took it as such, and quietly left the room. As she did so she was approached by Reuther who handed her a letter which had just been delivered. It was from Mr. Black and read thus:

We have found the rogue and have succeeded in inducing him to leave town. He’s a man in the bill-sticking business and he owns to a grievance against the person we know.

Deborah’s sleep that night was without dreams.

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Last updated Friday, February 28, 2014 at 13:34