Initials Only, by Anna Katharine Green

Chapter 33

Alone

Oswald had heard nothing, seen nothing. But he took note of Doris’ silence, and turning towards her in frenzy saw what had happened, and so was in a measure prepared for the stern, short sentence which now rang through the room:

“Wait, Miss Scott! you tell the story badly. Let him listen to me. From my mouth only shall he hear the stern and seemingly unnatural part I played in this family tragedy.”

The face of Oswald hardened. Those pliant features — beloved for their gracious kindliness — set themselves in lines which altered them almost beyond recognition; but his voice was not without some of its natural sweetness, as, after a long and hollow look at the other’s composed countenance, he abruptly exclaimed:

“Speak! I am bound to listen; you are my brother.”

Orlando turned towards Doris. She was slipping away.

“Don’t go,” said he.

But she was gone.

Slowly he turned back.

Oswald raised his hand and checked the words with which he would have begun his story.

“Never mind the beginnings,” said he. “Doris has told all that. You saw Miss Challoner in Lenox — admired her — offered yourself to her and afterwards wrote her a threatening letter because she rejected you.”

“It is true. Other men have followed just such unworthy impulses — and been ashamed and sorry afterwards. I was sorry and I was ashamed, and as soon as my first anger was over went to tell her so. But she mistook my purpose and —”

“And what?”

Orlando hesitated. Even his iron nature trembled before the misery he saw — a misery he was destined to augment rather than soothe. With pains altogether out of keeping with his character, he sought in the recesses of his darkened mind for words less bitter and less abrupt than those which sprang involuntarily to his lips. But he did not find them. Though he pitied his brother and wished to show that he did, nothing but the stern language suitable to the stern fact he wished to impart, would leave his lips.

“And ended the pitiful struggle of the moment with one quick, unpremeditated blow,” was what he said. “There is no other explanation possible for this act, Oswald. Bitter as it is for me to acknowledge it, I am thus far guilty of this beloved woman’s death. But, as God hears me, from the moment I first saw her, to the moment I saw her last, I did not know, nor did I for a moment dream that she was anything to you or to any other man of my stamp and station. I thought she despised my country birth, my mechanical attempts, my lack of aristocratic pretensions and traditions.”

“Edith?”

“Now that I know she had other reasons for her contempt — that the words she wrote were in rebuke to the brother rather than to the man, I feel my guilt and deplore my anger. I cannot say more. I should but insult your grief by any lengthy expressions of regret and sorrow.”

A groan of intolerable anguish from the sick man’s lips, and then the quick thrust of his re-awakened intelligence rising superior to the overthrow of all his hopes.

“For a woman of Edith’s principle to seek death in a moment of desperation, the provocation must have been very great. Tell me if I’m to hate you through life — yea through all eternity — or if I must seek in some unimaginable failure of my own character or conduct the cause of her intolerable despair.”

“Oswald!” The tone was controlling, and yet that of one strong man to another. “Is it for us to read the heart of any woman, least of all of a woman of her susceptibilities and keen inner life? The wish to end all comes to some natures like a lightning flash from a clear sky. It comes, it goes, often without leaving a sign. But if a weapon chances to be near —(here it was in hand)— then death follows the impulse which, given an instant of thought, would have vanished in a back sweep of other emotions. Chance was the real accessory to this death by suicide. Oswald, let us realise it as such and accept our sorrow as a mutual burden and turn to what remains to us of life and labour. Work is grief’s only consolation. Then let us work.”

But of all this Oswald had caught but the one word.

“Chance?” he repeated. “Orlando, I believe in God.”

“Then seek your comfort there. I find it in harnessing the winds; in forcing the powers of nature to do my bidding.”

The other did not speak, and the silence grew heavy. It was broken, when it was broken, by a cry from Oswald:

“No more,” said he, “no more.” Then, in a yearning accent, “Send Doris to me,”

Orlando started. This name coming so close upon that word comfort produced a strange effect upon him. But another look at Oswald and he was ready to do his bidding. The bitter ordeal was over; let him have his solace if it was in her power to give it to him.

Orlando, upon leaving his brother’s room, did not stop to deliver that brother’s message directly to Doris; he left this for Truda to do, and retired immediately to his hangar in the woods. Locking himself in, he slightly raised the roof and then sat down before the car which was rapidly taking on shape and assuming that individuality and appearance of sentient life which hitherto he had only seen in dreams. But his eye, which had never failed to kindle at this sight before, shone dully in the semi-gloom. The air-car could wait; he would first have his hour in this solitude of his own making. The gaze he dreaded, the words from which he shrank could not penetrate here. He might even shout her name aloud, and only these windowless walls would respond. He was alone with his past, his present and his future.

Alone!

He needed to be. The strongest must pause when the precipice yawns before him. The gulf can be spanned; he feels himself forceful enough for that; but his eyes must take their measurement of it first; he must know its depths and possible dangers. Only a fool would ignore these steeps of jagged rock; and he was no fool, only a man to whom the unexpected had happened, a man who had seen his way clear to the horizon and then had come up against this! Love, when he thought such folly dead! Remorse, when Glory called for the quiet mind and heart!

He recognised its mordant fang, and knew that its ravages, though only just begun, would last his lifetime. Nothing could stop them now, nothing, nothing. And he laughed, as the thought went home; laughed at the irony of fate and its inexorableness; laughed at his own defeat and his nearness to a barred Paradise. Oswald loved Edith, loved her yet, with a flame time would take long to quench. Doris loved Oswald and he Doris; and not one of them would ever attain the delights each was so fitted to enjoy. Why shouldn’t he laugh? What is left to man but mockery when all props fall? Disappointment was the universal lot; and it should go merrily with him if he must take his turn at it. But here the strong spirit of the man re-asserted itself; it should be but a turn. A man’s joys are not bounded by his loves or even by the satisfaction of a perfectly untrammelled mind. Performance makes a world of its own for the capable and the strong, and this was still left to him. He, Orlando Brotherson, despair while his great work lay unfinished! That would be to lay stress on the inevitable pains and fears of commonplace humanity. He was not of that ilk. Intellect was his god; ambition his motive power. What would this casual blight upon his supreme contentment be to him, when with the wings of his air-car spread, he should spurn the earth and soar into the heaven of fame simultaneously with his flight into the open.

He could wait for that hour. He had measured the gulf before him and found it passable. Henceforth no looking back.

Rising, he stood for a moment gazing, with an alert eye now, upon such sections of his car as had not yet been fitted into their places; then he bent forward to his work, and soon the lips which had uttered that sardonic laugh a few minutes before, parted in gentler fashion, and song took the place of curses — a ballad of love and fondest truth. But Orlando never knew what he sang. He had the gift and used it.

Would his tones, however, have rung out with quite so mellow a sweetness had he seen the restless figure even then circling his retreat with eyes darting accusation and arms lifted towards him in wild but impotent threat?

Yes, I think they would; for he knew that the man who thus expressed his helplessness along with his convictions, was no nearer the end he had set himself to attain than on the day he first betrayed his suspicions.

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