Initials Only, by Anna Katharine Green

Chapter 30

Chaos

It is not difficult to understand Mr. Challoner’s feelings or even those of Doris at the moment of Mr. Brotherson’s departure. But why this change in Brotherson himself? Why this sense of something new and terrible rising between him and the suddenly beclouded future? Let us follow him to his lonely hotel-room and see if we can solve the puzzle.

But first, does he understand his own trouble? He does not seem to. For when, his hat thrown aside, he stops, erect and frowning under the flaring gas-jet he had no recollection of lighting, his first act was to lift his hand to his head in a gesture of surprising helplessness for him, while snatches of broken sentences fell from his lips among which could be heard:

“What has come to me? Undone in an hour! Doubly undone! First by a face and then by this thought which surely the devils have whispered to me. Mr. Challoner and Oswald! What is the link between them? Great God! what is the link? Not myself? Who then or what?”

Flinging himself into a chair, he buried his face in his hands. There were two demons to fight — the first in the guise of an angel. Doris! Unknown yesterday, unknown an hour ago; but now! Had there ever been a day — an hour — when she had not been as the very throb of his heart, the light of his eyes, and the crown of all imaginable blisses?

He was startled at his own emotion as he contemplated her image in his fancy and listened for the lost echo of the few words she had spoken — words so full of music when they referred to his brother, so hard and cold when she simply addressed himself.

This was no passing admiration of youth for a captivating woman. This was not even the love he had given to Edith Challoner. This was something springing full-born out of nothing! a force which, for the first time in his life, made him complaisant to the natural weaknesses of man! a dream and yet a reality strong enough to blot out the past, remake the present, change the aspect of all his hopes, and outline a new fate. He did not know himself. There was nothing in his whole history to give him an understanding of such feelings as these.

Can a man be seized as it were by the hair, and swung up on the slopes of paradise or down the steeps of hell — without a forewarning, without the chance even to say whether he wished such a cataclysm in his life or no?

He, Orlando Brotherson, had never thought much of love. Science had been his mistress; ambition his lode-star. Such feeling as he had acknowledged to had been for men — struggling men, men who were down-trodden and gasping in the narrow bounds of poverty and helplessness. Miss Challoner had roused — well, his pride. He could see that now. The might of this new emotion made plain many things he had passed by as useless, puerile, unworthy of a man of mental calibre and might. He had never loved Edith Challoner at any moment of their acquaintanceship, though he had been sincere in thinking that he did. Doris’ beauty, the hour he had just passed with her, had undeceived him.

Did he hail the experience? It was not likely to bring him joy. This young girl whose image floated in light before his eyes, would never love him. She loved his brother. He had heard their names mentioned together before he had been in town an hour. Oswald, the cleverest man, Doris, the most beautiful girl in Western Pennsylvania.

He had accepted the gossip then; he had not seen her and it all seemed very natural; — hardly worth a moment’s thought. But now!

And here, the other Demon sprang erect and grappled with him before the first one had let go his hold. Oswald and Challoner! The secret, unknown something which had softened that hard man’s eye when his brother’s name was mentioned! He had noted it and realised the mystery; a mystery before which sleep and rest must fly; a mystery to which he must now give his thought, whatever the cost, whatever the loss to those heavenly dreams the magic of which was so new it seemed to envelope him in the balm of Paradise. Away, then, image of light! Let the faculties thou hast dazed, act again. There is more than Fate’s caprice in Challoner’s interest in a man he never saw. Ghosts of old memories rise and demand a hearing. Facts, trivial and commonplace enough to have been lost in oblivion with the day which gave them birth, throng again from the past, proving that nought dies without a possibility of resurrection. Their power over this brooding man is shown by the force with which his fingers crush against his bowed forehead. Oswald and Challoner! Had he found the connecting link? Had it been — could it have been Edith? The preposterous is sometimes true; could it be true in this case?

He recalled the letters read to him as hers in that room of his in Brooklyn. He had hardly noted them then, he was so sure of their being forgeries, gotten up by the police to mislead him. Could they have been real, the effusions of her mind, the breathings of her heart, directed to an actual O. B., and that O. B., his brother? They had not been meant for him. He had read enough of the mawkish lines to be sure of that. None of the allusions fitted in with the facts of their mutual intercourse. But they might with those of another man; they might with the possible acts and affections of Oswald whose temperament was wholly different from his and who might have loved her, should it ever be shown that they had met and known each other. And this was not an impossibility. Oswald had been east, Oswald had even been in the Berkshires before himself. Oswald — Why it was Oswald who had suggested that he should go there — go where she still was. Why this second coincidence, if there were no tie — if the Challoners and Oswald were as far apart as they seemed and as conventionalities would naturally place them. Oswald was a sentimentalist, but very reserved about his sentimentalities. If these suppositions were true, he had had a sentimentalist’s motive for what he did. As Orlando realised this, he rose from his seat, aghast at the possibilities confronting him from this line of thought. Should he contemplate them? Risk his reason by dwelling on a supposition which might have no foundation in fact? No. His brain was too full — his purposes too important for any unnecessary strain to be put upon his faculties. No thinking! investigation first. Mr. Challoner should be able to settle this question. He would see him. Even at this late hour he ought to be able to find him in one of the rooms below; and, by the force of an irresistible demand, learn in a moment whether he had to do with a mere chimera of his own overwrought fancy, or with a fact which would call into play all the resources of an hitherto unconquered and undaunted nature.

There was a wood-fire burning in the sitting-room that night, and around it was grouped a number of men with their papers and pipes. Mr. Brotherson, entering, naturally looked that way for the man he was in search of, and was disappointed not to find him there; but on casting his glances elsewhere, he was relieved to see him standing in one of the windows overlooking the street. His back was to the room and he seemed to be lost in a fit of abstraction.

As Orlando crossed to him, he had time to observe how much whiter was this man’s head than in the last interview he had held with him in the coroner’s office in New York. But this evidence of grief in one with whom he had little, if anything, in common, neither touched his feelings nor deterred his step. The awakening of his heart to new and profound emotions had not softened him towards the sufferings of others if those others stood without the pale he had previously raised as the legitimate boundary of a just man’s sympathies.

He was, as I have said, an extraordinary specimen of manly vigour in body and in mind, and his presence in any company always attracted attention and roused, if it never satisfied, curiosity. Conversation accordingly ceased as he strode up to Mr. Challoner’s side, so that his words were quite audible as he addressed that gentleman with a somewhat curt:

“You see me again, Mr. Challoner. May I beg of you a few minutes’ further conversation? I will not detain you long.”

The grey head turned, and the many eyes watching showed surprise at the expression of dislike and repulsion with which this New York gentleman met the request thus emphatically urged. But his answer was courteous enough. If Mr. Brotherson knew a place where they would be left undisturbed, he would listen to him if he would be very brief.

For reply, the other pointed to a small room quite unoccupied which opened out of the one in which they then stood. Mr. Challoner bowed and in an other moment the door dosed upon them, to the infinite disappointment of the men about the hearth.

“What do you wish to ask?” was Mr. Challoner’s immediate inquiry.

“This; I make no apologies and expect in answer nothing more than an unequivocal yes or no. You tell me that you have never met my brother. Can that be said of the other members of your family — of your deceased daughter, in fact?”

“No.”

“She was acquainted with Oswald Brotherson?”

“She was.”

“Without your knowledge?”

“Entirely so.”

“Corresponded with him?”

“Not exactly.”

“How, not exactly?”

“He wrote to her — occasionally. She wrote to him frequently — but she never sent her letters.”

“Ah!”

The exclamation was sharp, short and conveyed little. Yet with its escape, the whole scaffolding of this man’s hold upon life and his own fate went down in indistinguishable chaos. Mr. Challoner realised a sense of havoc, though the eyes bent upon his countenance had not wavered, nor the stalwart figure moved.

“I have read some of those letters,” the inventor finally acknowledged. “The police took great pains to place them under my eye, supposing them to have been meant for me because of the initials written on the wrapper. But they were meant for Oswald. You believe that now?”

“I know it.”

“And that is why I found you in the same house with him.”

“It is. Providence has robbed me of my daughter; if this brother of yours should prove to be the man I am led to expect, I shall ask him to take that place in my heart and life which was once hers.”

A quick recoil, a smothered exclamation on the part of the man he addressed. A barb had been hidden in this simple statement which had reached some deeply-hidden but vulnerable spot in Brotherson’s breast, which had never been pierced before. His eye which alone seemed alive, still rested piercingly upon that of Mr. Challoner, but its light was fast fading, and speedily became lost in a dimness in which the other seemed to see extinguished the last upflaring embers of those inner fires which feed the aspiring soul. It was a sight no man could see unmoved. Mr. Challoner turned sharply away, in dread of the abyss which the next word he uttered might open between them.

But Orlando Brotherson possessed resources of strength of which, possibly, he was not aware himself. When Mr. Challoner, still more affected by the silence than by the dread I have mentioned, turned to confront him again, it was to find his features composed and his glance clear. He had conquered all outward manifestation of the mysterious emotion which for an instant had laid his proud spirit low.

“You are considerate of my brother,” were the words with which he re-opened this painful conversation. “You will not find your confidence misplaced. Oswald is a straightforward fellow, of few faults.”

“I believe it. No man can be so universally beloved without some very substantial claims to regard. I am glad to see that your opinion, though given somewhat coldly, coincides with that of his friends.”

“I am not given to exaggeration,” was the even reply.

The flush which had come into Mr. Challoner’s cheek under the effort he had made to sustain with unflinching heroism this interview with the man he looked upon as his mortal enemy, slowly faded out till he looked the wraith of himself even to the unsympathetic eyes of Orlando Brotherson. A duty lay before him which would tax to its utmost extent his already greatly weakened self-control. Nothing which had yet passed showed that this man realised the fact that Oswald had been kept in ignorance of Miss Challoner’s death. If these brothers were to meet on the morrow, it must be with the full understanding that this especial topic was to be completely avoided. But in what words could he urge such a request upon this man? None suggested themselves, yet he had promised Miss Scott that he would ensure his silence in this regard, and it was with this difficulty and no other he had been struggling when Mr. Brotherson came upon him in the other room.

“You have still something to say,” suggested the latter, as an oppressive silence swallowed up that icy sentence I have already recorded.

“I have,” returned Mr. Challoner, regaining his courage under the exigencies of the moment. “Miss Scott is very anxious to have your promise that you will avoid all disagreeable topics with your brother till the doctor pronounces him strong enough to meet the trouble which awaits him.”

“You mean —”

“He is not as unhappy as we. He knows nothing of the affliction which has befallen him. He was taken ill —” The rest was almost inaudible.

But Orlando Brotherson had no difficulty in understanding him, and for the second time in this extraordinary interview, he gave evidences of agitation and of a mind shaken from its equipoise. But only for an instant. He did not shun the other’s gaze or even maintain more than a momentary silence. Indeed, he found strength to smile, in a curious, sardonic way, as he said:

“Do you think I should be apt to broach this subject with any one, let alone with him, whose connection with it I shall need days to realise? I’m not so given to gossip. Besides, he and I have other topics of interest. I have an invention ready with which I propose to experiment in a place he has already prepared for me. We can talk about that.”

The irony, the hardy self-possession with which this was said struck Mr. Challoner to the heart. Without a word he wheeled about towards the door. Without a word, Brotherson stood, watching him go till he saw his hand fall on the knob when he quietly prevented his exit by saying:

“Unhappy truths cannot be long concealed. How soon does the doctor think my brother can bear these inevitable revelations?”

“He said this morning that if his patient were as well to-morrow as his present condition gives promise of, he might be told in another week.”

Orlando bowed his appreciation of this fact, but added quickly:

“Who is to do the telling?”

“Doris. Nobody else could be trusted with so delicate a task.”

“I wish to be present.”

Mr. Challoner looked up, surprised at the feeling with which this request was charged.

“As his brother — his only remaining relative, I have that right. Do you think that Dor — that Miss Scott, can be trusted not to forestall that moment by any previous hint of what awaits him?”

“If she so promises. But will you exact this from her? It surely cannot be necessary for me to say that your presence will add infinitely to the difficulty of her task.”

“Yet it is a duty I cannot shirk. I will consult the doctor about it. I will make him see that I both understand and shall insist upon my rights in this matter. But you may tell Miss Doris that I will sit out of sight, and that I shall not obtrude myself unless my name is brought up in an undesirable way.”

The hand on the door-knob made a sudden movement.

“Mr. Brotherson, I can bear no more to-night. With your permission, I will leave this question to be settled by others.” And with a repetition of his former bow, the bereaved father withdrew.

Orlando watched him till the door closed, then he too dropped his mask.

But it was on again, when in a little while he passed through the sitting-room on his way upstairs.

No other day in his whole life had been like this to the hardy inventor; for in it both his heart and his conscience had been awakened, and up to this hour he had not really known that he possessed either.

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