Initials Only, by Anna Katharine Green

Chapter 34

The Hut Changes its Name

That night Oswald was taken very ill. For three days his life hung in the balance, then youth and healthy living triumphed over shock and bereavement, and he came slowly back to his sad and crippled existence.

He had been conscious for a week or more of his surroundings, and of his bitter sorrows as well, when one morning he asked Doris whose face it was he had seen bending over him so often during the last week: “Have you a new doctor? A man with white hair and a comforting smile? Or have I dreamed this face? I have had so many fancies this might easily be one of them.”

“No, it is not a fancy,” was the quiet reply. “Nor is it the face of a doctor. It is that of friend. One whose heart is bound up in your recovery; one for whom you must live, Mr. Brotherson.”

“I don’t know him, Doris. It’s a strange face to me. And yet, it’s not altogether strange. Who is this man and why should he care for me so deeply?”

“Because you share one love and one grief. It is Edith’s father whom you see at your bedside. He has helped to nurse you ever since you came down this second time.”

“Edith’s father! Doris, it cannot be. Edith’s father!”

“Yes, Mr. Challoner has been in Derby for the last two weeks. He has only one interest now; to see you well again.”

“Why?”

Doris caught the note of pain, if not suspicion, in this query, and smiled as she asked in turn:

“Shall he answer that question himself? He is waiting to come in. Not to talk. You need not fear his talking. He’s as quiet as any man I ever saw.”

The sick man closed his eyes, and Doris watching, saw the flush rise to his emaciated cheek, then slowly fade away again to a pallor that frightened her. Had she injured where she would heal? Had she pressed too suddenly and too hard on the ever gaping wound in her invalid’s breast? She gasped in terror at the thought, then she faintly smiled, for his eyes had opened again and showed a calm determination as he said:

“I should like to see him. I should like him to answer the question I have just put you. I should rest easier and get well faster — or not get well at all.”

This latter he half whispered, and Doris, tripping from the room may not have heard it, for her face showed no further shadow as she ushered in Mr. Challoner, and closed the door behind him. She had looked forward to this moment for days. To Oswald, however, it was an unexpected excitement and his voice trembled with something more than physical weakness as he greeted his visitor and thanked him for his attentions.

“Doris says that you have shown me this kindness from the desire you have to see me well again Mr. Challoner. Is this true?”

“Very true. I cannot emphasise the fact too strongly.”

Oswald’s eyes met his again, this time with great earnestness.

“You must have serious reasons for feeling so — reasons which I do not quite understand. May I ask why you place such value upon a life which, if ever useful to itself or others, has lost and lost forever, the one delight which gave it meaning?”

It was for Mr. Challoner’s voice to tremble now, as reaching out his hand, he declared, with unmistakable feeling:

“I have no son. I have no interest left in life, outside this room and the possibilities it contains for me. Your attachment to my daughter has created a bond between us, Mr. Brotherson, which I sincerely hope to see recognised by you.”

Startled and deeply moved, the young man stretched out a shaking hand towards his visitor, with the feeble but exulting cry:

“Then you do not blame me for her wretched and mysterious death. You hold me guiltless of the misery which nerved her despairing arm?”

“Quite guiltless.”

Oswald’s wan and pinched features took on a beautiful expression and Mr. Challoner no longer wondered at his daughter’s choice.

“Thank God!” fell from the sick man’s lips, and then there was a silence during which their two hands met.

It was some minutes before either spoke and then it was Oswald who said:

“I must confide to you certain facts. I honoured your daughter and realised her position fully. Our plight was never made in words, nor should I have presumed to advance any claim to her hand if I had not made good my expectations, Mr. Challoner. I meant to win both her regard and yours by acts, not words. I felt that I had a great deal to do and I was prepared to work and wait. I loved her —” He turned away his head and the silence which filled up the gap, united those two hearts, as the old and young are seldom united.

But when a little later, Mr. Challoner rejoined Doris, in her little sitting-room, he nevertheless showed a perplexity she had hoped to see removed by this understanding with the younger Brotherson.

The cause became apparent as soon as he spoke.

“These brothers hold by each other,” said he. “Oswald will hear nothing against Orlando. He says that he has redeemed his fault. He does not even protest that his brother’s word is to be believed in this matter. He does not seem to think that necessary. He evidently regards Orlando’s personality as speaking as truly and satisfactorily for itself, as his own does. And I dared not undeceive him.”

“He does not know all our reasons for distrust. He has heard nothing about the poor washerwoman.”

“No, and he must not — not for weeks. He has borne all that he can.”

“His confidence in his older brother is sublime. I do not share it; but I cannot help but respect him for it.”

It was warmly said, and Mr. Challoner could not forbear casting an anxious look at her upturned face. What he saw there made him turn away with a sigh.

“This confidence has for me a very unhappy side,” he remarked. “It shows me Oswald’s thought. He who loved her best, accepts the cruel verdict of an unreasoning public.”

Doris’ large eyes burned with a weird light upon his face.

“He has not had my dream,” she murmured, with all the quiet of an unmoved conviction.

Yet as the days went by, even her manner changed towards the busy inventor. It was hardly possible for it not to. The high stand he took; the regard accorded him on every side; his talent; his conversation, which was an education in itself, and, above all, his absorption in a work daily advancing towards completion, removed him so insensibly and yet so decidedly, from the hideous past of tragedy with which his name, if not his honour, was associated, that, unconsciously to herself, she gradually lost her icy air of repulsion and lent him a more or less attentive ear, when he chose to join their small company of an evening. The result was that he turned so bright a side upon her that toleration merged from day to day into admiration and memory lost itself in anticipation of the event which was to prove him a man of men, if not one of the world’s greatest mechanical geniuses.

Meantime, Oswald was steadily improving in health, if not in spirits. He had taken his first walk without any unfavourable results, and Orlando decided from this that the time had come for an explanation of his device and his requirements in regard to it. Seated together in Oswald’s room, he broached the subject thus:

“Oswald, what is your idea about what I’m making up there?”

“That it will be a success.”

“I know; but its character, its use? What do you think it is?”

“I’ve an idea; but my idea don’t fit the conditions.”

“How’s that?”

“The shed is too closely hemmed in. You haven’t room —”

“For what?”

“To start an aeroplane.”

“Yet it is certainly a device for flying.”

“I supposed so; but —”

“It is an air-car with a new and valuable idea — the idea for which the whole world has been seeking ever since the first aeroplane found its way up from the earth. My car needs no room to start in save that which it occupies. If it did, it would be but the modification of a hundred others.”

“Orlando!”

As Oswald thus gave expression to his surprise, their two faces were a study: the fire of genius in the one; the light of sympathetic understanding in the other.

“If this car, now within three days of its completion,” Orlando proceeded, “does not rise from the oval of my hangar like a bird from its nest, and after a wide and circling flight descend again into the self same spot without any swerving from its direct course, then have I failed in my endeavour and must take a back seat with the rest. But it will not fail. I’m certain of success, Oswald. All I want just now is a sympathetic helper — you, for instance; someone who will aid me with the final fittings and hold his peace to all eternity if the impossible occurs and the thing proves a failure.”

“Have you such pride as that?”

“Precisely.”

“So much that you cannot face failure?”

“Not when attached to my name. You can see how I feel about that by the secrecy I have worked under. No other person living knows what I have just communicated to you. Every part shipped here came from different manufacturing firms; sometimes a part of a part was all I allowed to be made in any one place. My fame, like my ship, must rise with one bound into the air, or it must never rise at all. It was not made for petty accomplishment, or the slow plodding of commonplace minds. I must startle, or remain obscure. That is why I chose this place for my venture, and you for my helper and associate.

“You want me to ascend with you?”

“Exactly.”

“At the end of three days?”

“Yes.”

“Orlando, I cannot.”

“You cannot? Not strong enough yet? I’ll wait then — three days more.”

“The time’s too short. A month is scarcely sufficient. It would be folly, such as you never show, to trust a nerve so undermined as mine till time has restored its power. For an enterprise like this you need a man of ready strength and resources; not one whose condition you might be obliged to consider at a very critical moment.”

Orlando, balked thus at the outset, showed his displeasure.

“You do not do justice to your will. It is strong enough to carry you through anything.”

“It was.”

“You can force it to act for you.”

“I fear not, Orlando.”

“I counted on you and you thwart me at the most critical moment of my life.”

Oswald smiled; his whole candid and generous nature bursting into view, in one quick flash.

“Perhaps,” he assented; “but you will thank me when you realise my weakness. Another man must be found — quick, deft, secret, yet honourably alive to the importance of the occasion and your rights as a great original thinker and mechanician.”

“Do you know such a man?”

“I don’t; but there must be many such among our workmen.”

“There isn’t one; and I haven’t time to send to Brooklyn. I reckoned on you.”

“Can you wait a month?”

“No.”

“A fortnight, then?”

“No, not ten days.”

Oswald looked surprised. He would like to have asked why such precipitation was necessary, but their tone in which this ultimatum was given was of that decisive character which admits of no argument. He, therefore, merely looked his query. But Orlando was not one to answer looks; besides, he had no reply for the same importunate question urged by his own good sense. He knew that he must make the attempt upon which his future rested soon, and without risk of the sapping influence of lengthened suspense and weeks of waiting. He could hold on to those two demons leagued in attack against him, for a definite seven days, but not for an indeterminate time. If he were to be saved from folly — from himself — events must rush.

He, therefore, repeated his no, with increased vehemence, adding, as he marked the reproach in his brother’s eye, “I cannot wait. The test must be made on Saturday evening next, whatever the conditions; whatever the weather. An air-car to be serviceable must be ready to meet lightning and tempest, and what is worse, perhaps, an insufficient crew.” Then rising, he exclaimed, with a determination which rendered him majestic, “If help is not forthcoming, I’ll do it all myself. Nothing shall hold me back; nothing shall stop me; and when you see me and my car rise above the treetops, you’ll feel that I have done what I could to make you forget —”

He did not need to continue. Oswald understood and flashed a grateful look his way before saying:

“You will make the attempt at night?”

“Certainly.”

“And on Saturday?”

“I’ve said it.”

“I will run over in my mind the qualifications of such men as I know and acquaint you with the result to-morrow.”

“There are adjustments to be made. A man of accuracy is necessary.”

“I will remember.”

“And he must be likable. I can do nothing with a man with whom I’m not perfectly in accord.”

“I understand that.”

“Good-night then.” A moment of hesitancy, then, “I wish not only yourself but Miss Scott to be present at this test. Prepare her for the spectacle; but not yet, not till within an hour or two of the occasion.”

And with a proud smile in which flashed a significance which startled Oswald, he gave a hurried nod and turned away.

When in an hour afterwards, Doris looked in through the open door, she found Oswald sitting with face buried in his hands, thinking so deeply that he did not hear her. He had sat like this, immovable and absorbed, ever since his brother had left him.

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