Dark Hollow, by Anna Katherine Green

22

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point of escaping from her corner when she perceived a movement take place in the rigid form from which she had not yet withdrawn her eyes, and, regarding Judge Ostrander more attentively, she caught the gleam of his suspicious eye as it glanced this way and that to see if his lapse of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.

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