Initials Only, by Anna Katharine Green

Chapter 27

The Image of Dread

In the comfortable little sitting-room of the Scott cottage Doris stood, looking eagerly from the window which gave upon the road. Behind her on the other side of the room, could be seen through a partly opened door, a neatly spread bed, with a hand lying quietly on the patched coverlet. It was a strong looking hand which, even when quiescent, conveyed the idea of purpose and vitality. As Doris said, the fingers never curled up languidly, but always with the hint of a clench. Several weeks had passed since the departure of Sweetwater and the invalid was fast gaining strength. To-morrow, he would be up.

Was Doris thinking of him? Undoubtedly, for her eyes often flashed his way; but her main attention was fixed upon the road, though no one was in sight at the moment. Some one had passed for whose return she looked; some one whom, if she had been asked to describe, she would have called a tall, fine-looking man of middle age, of a cultivated appearance seldom seen in this small manufacturing town; seldom seen, possibly, in any town. He had glanced up at the window as he went by, in a manner too marked not to excite her curiosity. Would he look up again when he came back? She was waiting there to see. Why, she did not know. She was not used to indulging in petty suppositions of this kind; her life was too busy, her anxieties too keen. The great dread looming ever before her — the dread of that hour when she must speak — left her very little heart for anything dissociated with this coming event. For a girl of seventeen she was unusually thoughtful. Life had been hard in this little cottage since her mother died, or rather she had felt its responsibilities keenly.

Life itself could not be hard where Oswald Brotherson lived; neither to man, nor woman. The cheer of some natures possesses a divine faculty. If it can help no other way, it does so by the aid of its own light. Such was the character of this man’s temperament. The cottage was a happy place; only — she never fathomed the depths of that only. If in these days she essayed at times to do so, she gave full credit to the Dread which rose ever before her — rose like a ghost! She, Doris, led by inscrutable Fate, was waiting to hurt him who hurt nobody; whose mere presence was a blessing.

But her interest had been caught to-day, caught by this stranger, and when during her eager watch the small messenger from the Works came to the door with the usual daily supply of books and magazines for the patient, she stepped out on the porch to speak to him and to point out the gentleman who was now rapidly returning from his stroll up the road.

“Who is that, Johnny?” she asked. “You know everybody who comes to town. What is the name of the gentleman you see coming?”

The boy looked, searched his memory, not without some show of misgiving.

“A queer name,” he admitted at last. “I never heard the likes of it here before. Shally something. Shally — Shally —”

“Challoner?”

“Yes, that’s it. How could you guess? He’s from New York. Nobody knows why he’s here. Don’t seem to have no business.”

“Well, never mind. Run on, Johnny. And don’t forget to come earlier to-morrow; Mr. Brotherson gets tired waiting.”

“Does he? I’ll come quick then; quick as I can run.” And he sped off at a pace which promised well for the morrow.

Challoner! There was but one Challoner in the world for Doris Scott — Edith’s father. Was this he? It must be, or why this haunting sense of something half remembered as she caught a glimpse of his face. Edith’s father! and he was approaching, approaching rapidly, on his way back to town. Would he stop this time? As the possibility struck her, she trembled and drew back, entering the house, but pausing in the hall with her ear turned to the road. She had not closed the door; something within — a hope or a dread — had prevented that. Would he take it as an invitation to come in? No, no; she was not ready for such an encounter yet. He might speak Edith’s name; Oswald might hear and — with a gasp she recognised the closeness of his step; heard it lag, almost halt just where the path to the house ran into the roadside. But it passed on. He was not going to force an interview yet. She could hear him retreating further and further away. The event was not for this day, thank God! She would have one night at least in which to prepare herself.

With a sense of relief so great that she realised, for one shocked moment, the full extent of her fears, she hastened back into the sitting-room, with her collection of books and pamphlets. A low voice greeted her. It came from the adjoining room.

“Doris, come here, sweet child. I want you.”

How she would have bounded joyously at the summons, had not that Dread raised its bony finger in every call from that dearly loved voice. As it was, her feet moved slowly, lingering at the sound. But they carried her to his side at last, and once there, she smiled.

“See what an armful,” she cried in joyous greeting, as she held out the bundle she had brought. “You will be amused all day. Only, do not tire yourself.”

“I do not want the papers, Doris; not yet. There’s something else which must come first. Doris, I have decided to let you write to her. I’m so much better now, she will not feel alarmed. I must — must get a word from her. I’m starving for it. I lie here and can think of nothing else. A message — one little message of six short words would set me on my feet again. So get your paper and pen, dear child, and write her one of your prettiest letters.”

Had he loved her, he would have perceived the chill which shook her whole body, as he spoke. But his first thought, his penetrating thought, was not for her and he saw only the answering glance, the patient smile. She had not expected him to see more. She knew that she was quite safe from the divining look; otherwise, he would have known her secret long ago.

“I’m ready,” said she. But she did not lay down her bundle. She was not ready for her task, poor child. She quailed before it. She quailed so much that she feared to stir lest he should see that she had no command over her movements.

The man who watched without seeing wondered that she stood so still and spoke so briefly. But only for a moment. He thought he understood her hesitation, and a look of great earnestness replaced his former one of grave decision.

“I know that in doing this I am going beyond my sacred compact with Miss Challoner,” he said. “I never thought of illness — at least, of illness on my part. I never dreamt that I, always so well, always so full of life, could know such feebleness as this, feebleness which is all of the body, Doris, leaving the mind free to dream and long. Talk of her, child. Tell me all over again just how she looked and spoke that day you saw her in New York.”

“Would it not be better for me to write my letter first? Papa will be coming soon and Truda can never cook your bird as you like it.”

Surprised now by something not quite natural in her manner, he caught at her hand and held her as she was moving away.

“You are tired,” said he. “I’ve wearied you with my commission and complaints. Forgive me, dear child, and —”

“You are mistaken,” she interrupted softly. “I am not tired; I only wished to do the important thing first. Shall I get my desk? Do you really wish me to write?”

“Yes,” said he, softly dropping her hand. “I wish you to write. It will ensure me good sleep, and sleep will make me strong. A few words, Doris; just a few words.”

She nodded; turning quickly away to hide her tears. His smile had gone to her very soul. It was always a beautiful one, his chief personal attraction, but at this moment it seemed to concentrate within it the unspoken fervours and the boundless expectations of a great love, and she who was the aim and cause of all this sweetness lay in unresponsive silence in a distant tomb!

But Doris’ own smile was not lacking in encouragement and beauty when she came back a few minutes later and sat down by his side to write. His melted before it, leaving his eyes very earnest as he watched her bending figure and the hard-worked little hand at its unaccustomed task.

“I must give her daily exercises,” he decided within himself. “That look of pain shows how difficult this work is for her. It must be made easy at any cost to my time. Such beauty calls for accomplishment. I must not neglect so plain a duty.”

Meantime, she was struggling to find words in face of that great Dread. She had written Dear Miss Challoner and was staring in horror at the soulless words. Only her sense of duty upheld her. Gladly would she have torn the sheet in two and rushed away. How could she add sentences to this hollow phrase, the mere employment of which seemed a sacrilege. Dear Miss Challoner. Oh, she was dear, but —

Unconsciously the young head drooped, and the pen slid from her hand.

“I cannot,” she murmured, “I cannot think what to say.”

“Shall I help you?” came softly from the bed. “I’ll try and not forget that it is Doris writing.”

“If you will be so good,” she answered, with renewed courage. “I can put the words down if you will only find them for me.”

“Write then. ‘Dear Miss Challoner!”

“I have already written that.”

“Why do you shudder?”

“I’m cold. I’ve been cold all day. But never mind that, Mr. Brotherson. Tell me how to begin my letter.”

“This way. ‘I’ve not been able to answer your kind letter, because I have had to play nurse for some three or four weeks to a very fretful and exacting patient.’ Have you written that?”

“No,” said Doris, bending over her desk till her curls fell in a tangle over her white cheeks. “I do not like to,” she protested at last, with an attempt at naivete which seemed real enough to him.

“Well, leave out the fretful if you must, but keep in the exacting. I have been exacting, you know.”

Silence, broken only by the scratching of the stubborn, illy-directed pen.

“It’s down,” she whispered. She said, afterward, that it was like writing with a ghost looking over one’s shoulder.

“Then add, ‘Mr. Brotherson has had a slight attack of fever, but he is getting well fast, and will soon — Do I run on too quickly?”

“No, no, I can follow.”

“But not without losing breath; eh, Doris?”

As he laughed, she smiled. There was a heroism in that smile, Oswald Brotherson, of which you knew nothing.

“You might speak a little more slowly,” she admitted.

Quietly he repeated the last phrase. “‘But he is getting well fast and will soon be ready to take up the management of the Works which was given him just before he was taken ill.’ That will show her that I am working up,” he brightly remarked as Doris carefully penned the last word. “Of myself you need say nothing more, unless —” he paused and his face took on a wistful look which Doris dared not meet; “unless — but no, no, she must think it has been only a passing indisposition. If she knew I had been really ill, she would suffer, and perhaps act imprudently or suffer and not dare to act at all, which might be sadder for her still. Leave it where it is and begin about yourself. Write a good deal about yourself, so that she will see that you are not worried and that all is well with us here. Cannot you do that without assistance? Surely you can tell her about that last piece of embroidery you showed me. She will be glad to hear — why, Doris!”

“Oh, Mr. Brotherson,” the poor child burst out, “you must let me cry! I’m so glad to see you better and interested in all sorts of things. These are not tears of grief. I— I— but I’m forgetting what the doctor told me. You are growing excited, and I was to see that you were calm, always calm. I will take my desk away. I will write the rest in the other room, while you look at the magazines.”

“But bring your letter back for me to seal. I want to see it in its envelope. Oh, Doris, you are a good little girl!”

She shook her head, and hastened to hide herself from him in the other room; and it was a long time before she came back with the letter folded and in its envelope. When she did, her face was composed and her manner natural. She had quite made up her mind what her duty was and how she was going to perform it.

“Here is the letter,” said she, laying it in his outstretched hand. Then she turned her back. She knew, with a woman’s unerring instinct why he wished to handle it before it went. She felt that kiss he folded away in it, in every fibre of her aroused and sympathetic heart, but the hardest part of the ordeal was over and her eyes beamed softly when she turned again to take it from his hand and affix the stamp.

“You will mail it yourself?” he asked. “I should like to have you put it into the box with your own hand.”

“I will put it in to-night, after supper,” she promised him.

His smile of contentment assured her that this trial of her courage and self-control was not without one blessed result. He would rest for several days in the pleasure of what he had done or thought he had done. She need not cringe before that image of Dread for two, three days at least. Meanwhile, he would grow strong in body, and she, perhaps, in spirit. Only one precaution she must take. No hint of Mr. Challoner’s presence in town must reach him. He must be guarded from a knowledge of that fact as certainly as from the more serious one which lay behind it.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37