Dark Hollow, by Anna Katherine Green

21

In the Court Room

About this time, the restless pacing of the judge in his study at nights became more frequent and lasted longer. In vain Reuther played her most cheerful airs and sang her sweetest songs, the monotonous tramp kept up with a regularity nothing could break.

“He’s worried by the big case now being tried before him,” Deborah would say, when Reuther’s eyes grew wide and misty in her sympathetic trouble. And there was no improbability in the plea, for it was a case of much moment, and of great local interest. A man was on trial for his life and the circumstances of the case were such that the feeling called forth was unusually bitter; so much so, indeed, that every word uttered by the counsel and every decision made by the judge were discussed from one end of the county to the other, and in Shelby, if nowhere else, took precedence of all other topics, though it was a Presidential year and party sympathies ran high.

The more thoughtful spirits were inclined to believe in the innocence of the prisoner; but the lower elements of the town, moved by class prejudice, were bitterly antagonistic to his cause and loud for his conviction.

Did the judge realise his position and the effect made upon the populace by his very evident leaning towards this dissipated but well-connected young man accused of a crime so brutal, that he must either have been the sport of most malicious circumstances, or a degenerate of the worst type. The time of Judge Ostrander’s office was nearly up, and his future continuance on the bench might very easily depend upon his attitude at the present hearing. Yet HE, without apparent recognition of this fact, showed without any hesitancy or possibly without self-consciousness, the sympathy he felt for the man at the bar, and ruled accordingly almost without variation.

No wonder he paced the floor as the proceedings drew towards its close and the inevitable hour approached when a verdict must be rendered. Mrs. Scoville, reading his heart by the light of her recent discoveries, understood as nobody else, the workings of his conscience and the passion of sympathy which this unhappy father must have for misguided youth. She began to fear for his health and count the days till this ordeal was over.

In other regards, quiet had come to them all and less tempestuous fears. Could the judge but weather the possible conviction of this man and restrain himself from a disclosure of his own suffering, more cheerful days might be in store for them, for no further missives were to be seen on the lawn, nor had anything occurred for days to recall to Deborah’s mind the move she had made towards re-establishing her husband’s innocence.

A week passed, and the community was all agog, in anticipation of the judge’s charge in the case just mentioned. It was to be given at noon, and Mrs. Scoville, conscious that he had not slept an hour the night before (having crept down more than once to listen if his step had ceased), approached him as he prepared to leave the house for the court room, and anxiously asked if he were quite well.

“Oh, yes, I’m well,” he responded sharply, looking about for Reuther.

The young girl was standing a little behind him, with his gloves in her hand — a custom she had fallen into in her desire to have his last look and fond good morning.

“Come here, child,” said he, in a way to make her heart beat; and, as he took the gloves from her hand, he stooped and kissed her on the forehead — something he had never done before. “Let me see you smile,” said he. “It’s a memory I like to take with me into the court room.”

But when in her pure delight at his caress and the fatherly feeling which gave a tremor to his simple request, she lifted her face with that angelic look of hers which was far sweeter and far more moving than any smile, he turned away abruptly as though he had been more hurt than comforted, and strode out of the house without another word.

Deborah’s hand went to her heart, in the dark corner whither she had withdrawn herself, and when she turned again towards the spot where Reuther had stood, it was in some fear lest she had betrayed her understanding of this deeply tried father’s passionate pain. But Reuther was no longer there. She had fled quickly away with the memory of what was to make this day a less dreary one for her.

Morning passed and the noon came, bringing Deborah an increased uneasiness. When lunch was over and Reuther sat down to her piano, the feeling had grown into an obsession, which soon resolved itself into a definite fear.

“What if an attack, such as I once saw, should come upon him while he sits upon the bench! Why have I not thought of this before? O God! these evil days! When will they be over!”

She found herself so restless that she decided upon going out. Donning her quietest gown and veil, she looked in on Reuther and expressed her intention; then slipped out of the front door, hardly knowing whither her feet would carry her.

They did not carry her far — not at this moment at least. On the walk outside she met Miss Weeks hurrying towards her from the corner, stumbling in her excitement and so weakened in body or spirit that she caught at the unresponsive fence for the support which its smooth surface refused to give her.

At sight of Deborah’s figure, she paused and threw up her hands.

“Oh, Mrs. Scoville, such a dreadful thing!” she cried. “Look here!” And, opening one of her hands, she showed a few torn scraps of paper whose familiarity made Deborah’s blood run cold.

“On the bridge,” gasped the little lady, leaning against the fence for support. “Pasted on the railing of the bridge. I should never have seen it, nor looked at it, if it hadn’t been that I—”

“Don’t tell me here,” urged Deborah. “Let’s go over to your house. See, there are people coming.”

The little lady yielded to the other’s constraining hand and together they crossed the street. Once in the house, Deborah allowed her full apprehension to show itself.

“What were the words? What was on the paper? Anything about —”

The little woman’s look of horror stopped her.

“It’s a lie, an awful, abominable lie. But think of such a lie being pasted up on that dreadful bridge for any one to see. After twelve years, Mrs. Scoville! After —” But here indignation changed suddenly into suspicion, and eyeing her visitor with sudden disfavour she cried: “This is your work, madam. Your inquiries and your talk of John Scoville’s innocence has set wagging all the villainous tongues in town. And I remember something else. How you came smirking into this very room one day, with your talk about caps and Oliver Ostrander’s doings on the day when Algernon Etheridge was murdered. You were in search of information, I see; information against the best, the brightest — Well, why don’t you speak? I’ll give you the chance if you want it. Don’t stand looking at me like that. I’m not used to it, Mrs. Scoville. I’m a peaceable woman and I’m not used to it.”

“Miss Weeks —” Ah, the oil of that golden speech on troubled waters! What was its charm? What message did it carry from Deborah’s warm, true heart that its influence should be so miraculous? “Miss Weeks, you have forgotten my interest in Oliver Ostrander. He was my daughter’s lover. He was my own ideal of a gifted, kind-hearted, if somewhat mysterious, young man. No calumny uttered against him can awaken in you half the sorrow and indignation it does in me. Let me see those lines or what there is left of them so that I may share your feelings. They must be dreadful —”

“They are more than dreadful. I don’t know how I had strength to pull these pieces off. I couldn’t have done it if they had been quite dry. But what do you want to see them for? I’d have left them there if I had been willing to have them seen. They are for the kitchen fire. Wait a moment and then we will talk.”

But Deborah had no mind to let these pieces escape her eye. Sick as she felt at heart, she exerted herself to win the little woman’s confidence; and when Deborah exerted herself, even under such adverse conditions as these, she seldom failed to succeed.

Nor did she fail now. At the end of fifteen minutes she had the torn bits of paper arranged in their proper position and was reading these words:

The scene of Oliver’s crime.

Nothing could be more explicit nothing more damaging. As the glances of the two women met, it would be difficult to tell on which face Distress hung out the whiter flag.

“The beginning of the end!” was Deborah’s thought. “If after Mr. Black’s efforts, a charge like this is found posted up in the public ways, the ruin of the Ostranders is determined upon, and nothing we can do can stop it.”

In five minutes more she had said good-bye to Miss Weeks and was on her way to the courthouse.

This building occupied one end of a large paved square in the busiest part of the town. As Deborah approached it, she was still further alarmed by finding this square full of people, standing in groups or walking impatiently up and down with their eyes fixed on the courthouse doors. The case which had agitated the whole country for days was now in the hands of the jury and a verdict was momentarily expected.

So much for appearances outside. Within, there was the uneasy hum, the anxious look, the subdued movement which marks an universal suspense. Announcement had been made that the jury had reached their verdict, and counsel were resuming their places and the judge his seat.

Those who had eyes only for the latter — and these were many — noticed a change in him. He looked older by years than when he delivered his charge. Not the prisoner himself gave greater evidence of the effect which this hour of waiting had had upon a heart whose covered griefs were, consciously or unconsciously, revealing themselves to the public eye. He did not wish this man sentenced. This was shown by his charge — the most one-sided one he had given in all his career. Yet the man awaiting verdict had small claim to his consideration — none, in fact, save that he was young and well connected; facts in his favour with which the people who packed the courthouse that day had little sympathy, as their cold looks proved.

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:

“We are.”

“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:

“NOT GUILTY.”

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.”

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