Hand and Ring, by Anna Katharine Green

20. A Crisis.

Queen. Alas, how is it with you?

That you do bend your eye on vacancy,

And with the incorporeal air do hold discourse?

. . . Your bedded hair, like life in excrements,

Starts up and stands on end.

. . . Whereon do you look?

Hamlet. On him! On him! Look you how pale he glares!

His form and cause conjoined, preaching to stones,

Would make them capable. Do not look upon me;

Lest, with this piteous action, you convert

My stern effects! then what I have to do

Will want true color; tears, perchance, for blood.

Hamlet.

THAT my readers may understand even better than Byrd and Hickory how it was that Imogene came to write this letter, I must ask them to consider certain incidents that had occurred in a quarter far removed from the eye of the detectives.

Mr. Orcutt’s mind had never been at rest concerning the peculiar attitude assumed by Imogene Dare at the time of Mrs. Clemmens’ murder. Time and thought had not made it any more possible for him to believe now than then that she knew any thing of the matter beyond what appeared to the general eye: but he could not forget the ring. It haunted him. Fifty times a day he asked himself what she had meant by claiming as her own a jewel which had been picked up from the floor of a strange house at a time so dreadful, and which, in despite of her explanations to him, he found it impossible to believe was hers or ever could have been hers? He was even tempted to ask her; but he never did. The words would not come. Though they faltered again and again upon his lips, he could not give utterance to them; no, though with every passing day he felt that the bond uniting her to him was growing weaker and weaker, and that if something did not soon intervene to establish confidence between them, he would presently lose all hope of the treasure for the possession of which he was now ready to barter away half the remaining years of his life.

Her increasing reticence, and the almost stony look of misery that now confronted him without let or hindrance from her wide gray eyes, were not calculated to reassure him or make his future prospects look any brighter. Her pain, if pain it were, or remorse, if remorse it could be, was not of a kind to feel the influence of time; and, struck with dismay, alarmed in spite of himself, if not for her reason at least for his own, he watched her from day to day, feeling that now he would give his life not merely to possess her, but to understand her and the secret that was gnawing at her heart.

At last there came a day when he could no longer restrain himself. She had been seated in his presence, and had been handed a letter which for the moment seemed to thoroughly overwhelm her. We know what that letter was. It was the note which had been sent as a decoy by the detective Hickory, but which she had no reason to doubt was a real communication from Craik Mansell, despite the strange handwriting on the envelope. It prayed her for an interview. It set the time and mentioned the place of meeting, and created for the instant such a turmoil in her usually steady brain that she could not hide it from the searching eyes that watched her.

“What is it, Imogene?” inquired Mr. Orcutt, drawing near her with a gesture of such uncontrollable anxiety, it looked as if he were about to snatch the letter from her hand.

For reply she rose, walked to the grate, in which a low wood fire was burning, and plunged the paper in among the coals. When it was all consumed she turned and faced Mr. Orcutt.

“You must excuse me,” she murmured; “but the letter was one which I absolutely desired no one to see.”

But he did not seem to hear her apology. He stood with his gaze fixed on the fire, and his hand clenched against his heart, as if something in the fate of that wretched sheet of paper reminded him of the love and hope that were shrivelling up before his eyes.

She saw his look and drooped her head with a sudden low moan of mingled shame and suffering.

“Am I killing you?” she faintly cried. “Are my strange, wild ways driving you to despair? I had not thought of that. I am so selfish, I had not thought of that!”

This evidence of feeling, the first she had ever shown him, moved Mr. Orcutt deeply. Advancing toward her, with sudden passion, he took her by the hand.

“Killing me?” he repeated. “Yes, you are killing me. Don’t you see how fast I am growing old? Don’t you see how the dust lies thick upon the books that used to be my solace and delight? I do not understand you, Imogene. I love you and I do not understand your grief, or what it is that is affecting you in this terrible way. Tell me. Let me know the nature of the forces with which I have to contend, and I can bear all the rest.”

This appeal, forced as it was from lips unused to prayer, seemed to strike her, absorbed though she was in her own suffering. Looking at him with real concern, she tried to speak, but the words faltered on her tongue. They came at last, however, and he heard her say:

“I wish I could weep, if only to show you I am not utterly devoid of womanly sympathy for an anguish I cannot cure. But the fountain of my tears is dried at its source. I do not think I can ever weep again. I am condemned to tread a path of misery and despair, and must traverse it to the end without weakness and without help. Do not ask me why, for I can never tell you. And do not detain me now, or try to make me talk, for I must go where I can be alone and silent.”

She was slipping away, but he caught her by the wrist and drew her back. His pain and perplexity had reached their climax.

“You must speak,” he cried. “I have paltered long enough with this matter. You must tell me what it is that is destroying your happiness and mine.”

But her eyes, turning toward him, seemed to echo that must in a look of disdain eloquent enough to scorn all help from words, and in the indomitable determination of her whole aspect he saw that he might slay her, but that he could never make her speak.

Loosing her with a gesture of despair, he turned away. When he glanced back again she was gone.

The result of this interview was naturally an increased doubt and anxiety on his part. He could not attend to his duties with any degree of precision, he was so haunted by uneasy surmises as to what might have been the contents of the letter which he had thus seen her destroy before his eyes. As for her words, they were like her conduct, an insolvable mystery, for which he had no key.

His failure to find her at home when he returned that night added to his alarm, especially as he remembered the vivid thunderstorm that had deluged the town in the afternoon. Nor, though she came in very soon and offered both excuses and explanations for her absence, did he experience any appreciable relief, or feel at all satisfied that he was not threatened with some secret and terrible catastrophe. Indeed, the air of vivid and feverish excitement which pervaded every look of hers from this time, making each morning and evening distinctive in his memory as a season of fresh fear and renewed suspense, was enough of itself to arouse this sense of an unknown, but surely approaching, danger. He saw she was on the look out for some event, he knew not what, and studied the papers as sedulously as she, in the hope of coming upon some revelation that should lay bare the secret of this new condition of hers. At last he thought he had found it. Coming home one day from the court, he called her into his presence, and, without pause or preamble, exclaimed, with almost cruel abruptness:

“An event of possible interest to you has just taken place. The murderer of Mrs. Clemmens has just cut his throat.”

He saw before he had finished the first clause that he had struck at the very citadel of her terrors and her woe. At the end of the second sentence he knew, beyond all doubt now, what it was she had been fearing, if not expecting. Yet she said not a word, and by no movement betrayed that the steel had gone through and through her heart.

A demon — the maddening demon of jealousy — gripped him for the first time with relentless force.

“Ah, you have been looking for it?” he cried in a choked voice. “You know this man, then — knew him, perhaps, before the murder of Mrs. Clemmens; knew him, and — and, perhaps, loved him?”

She did not reply.

He struck his forehead with his hand, as if the moment was perfectly intolerable to him.

“Answer,” he cried. “Did you know Gouverneur Hildreth or not?”

Gouverneur Hildreth?” Oh, the sharp surprise, the wailing anguish of her tone! Mr. Orcutt stood amazed. “It is not he who has made this attempt upon his life! — not he!” she shrieked like one appalled.

Perhaps because all other expression or emotion failed him, Mr. Orcutt broke forth into a loud and harrowing laugh. “And who else should it be?” he cried. “What other man stands accused of having murdered Widow Clemmens? You are mad, Imogene; you don’t know what you say or what you do.”

“Yes, I am mad,” she repeated —“mad!” and leaned her forehead forward on the back of a high chair beside which she had been standing, and hid her face and struggled with herself for a moment, while the clock went on ticking, and the wretched surveyer of her sorrow stood looking at her bended head like a man who does not know whether it is he or she who is in the most danger of losing his reason.

At last a word struggled forth from between her clasped hands.

“When did it happen?” she gasped, without lifting her head. “Tell me all about it. I think I can understand.”

The noted lawyer smiled a bitter smile, and spoke for the first time, without pity and without mercy.

“He has been trying for some days to effect his death. His arrest and the little prospect there is of his escaping trial seem to have maddened his gentlemanly brain. Fire-arms were not procurable, neither was poison nor a rope, but a pewter plate is enough in the hands of a desperate man. He broke one in two last night, and ——”

He paused, sick and horror-stricken. Her face had risen upon him from the back of the chair, and was staring upon him like that of a Medusa. Before that gaze the flesh crept on his bones and the breath of life refused to pass his lips. Gazing at her with rising horror, he saw her stony lips slowly part.

“Don’t go on,” she whispered. “I can see it all without the help of words.” Then, in a tone that seemed to come from some far-off world of nightmare, she painfully gasped, “Is he dead?”

illustration
“He paused, sick and horror-stricken. Her face had risen upon him from the back of the chair, and was staring at him like that of a Medusa.”

Mr. Orcutt was a man who, up to the last year, had never known what it was to experience a real and controlling emotion. Life with him had meant success in public affairs, and a certain social pre-eminence that made his presence in any place the signal of admiring looks and respectful attentions. But let no man think that, because his doom delays, it will never come. Passions such as he had deprecated in others, and desires such as he had believed impossible to himself, had seized upon him with ungovernable power, and in this moment especially he felt himself yielding to their sway with no more power of resistance than a puppet experiences in the grasp of a whirlwind. Meeting that terrible eye of hers, burning with an anxiety for a man he despised, and hearing that agonized question from lips whose touch he had never known, he experienced a sudden wild and almost demoniac temptation to hurl back the implacable “Yes” that he felt certain would strike her like a dead woman to the ground. But the horrid impulse passed, and, with a quick remembrance of the claims of honor upon one bearing his name and owning his history, he controlled himself with a giant resolution, and merely dropping his eyes from an anguish he dared no longer confront, answered, quietly:

“No; he has hurt himself severely and has disfigured his good looks for life, but he will not die; or so the physicians think.”

A long, deep, shuddering sigh swept through the room.

“Thank God!” came from her lips, and then all was quiet again.

He looked up in haste; he could not bear the silence.

“Imogene ——” he began, but instantly paused in surprise at the change which had taken place in her expression. “What do you intend to do?” was his quick demand. “You look as I have never seen you look before.”

“Do not ask me!” she returned. “I have no words for what I am going to do. What you must do is to see that Gouverneur Hildreth is released from prison. He is not guilty, mind you; he never committed this crime of which he is suspected, and in the shame of which suspicion he has this day attempted his life. If he is kept in the restraint which is so humiliating to him, and if he dies there, it will be murder — do you hear? murder! And he will die there if he is not released; I know his feelings only too well.”

“But, Imogene ——”

“Hush! don’t argue. ’Tis a matter of life and death, I tell you. He must be released! I know,” she went on, hurriedly, “what it is you want to say. You think you cannot do this; that the evidence is all against him; that he went to prison of his own free will and cannot hope for release till his guilt or innocence has been properly inquired into. But I know you can effect his enlargement if you will. You are a lawyer, and understand all the crooks and turns by which a man can sometimes be made to evade the grasp of justice. Use your knowledge. Avail yourself of your influence with the authorities, and I——” she paused and gave him a long, long look.

He was at her side in an instant.

“You would — what?” he cried, taking her hand in his and pressing it impulsively.

“I would grant you whatever you ask,” she murmured, in a weariful tone.

“Would you be my wife?” he passionately inquired.

“Yes,” was the choked reply; “if I did not die first.”

He caught her to his breast in rapture. He knelt at her side and threw his arms about her waist.

“You shall not die,” he cried. “You shall live and be happy. Only marry me to-day.”

“Not till Gouverneur Hildreth be released,” she interposed, gently.

He started as if touched by a galvanic battery, and slowly rose up and coldly looked at her.

“Do you love him so madly you would sell yourself for his sake?” he sternly demanded.

With a quick gesture she threw back her head as though the indignant “No” that sprang to her lips would flash out whether she would or not. But she restrained herself in time.

“I cannot answer,” she returned.

But he was master now — master of this dominating spirit that had held him in check for so long a time, and he was not to be put off.

“You must answer,” he sternly commanded. “I have the right to know the extent of your feeling for this man, and I will. Do you love him, Imogene Dare? Tell me, or I here swear that I will do nothing for him, either now or at a time when he may need my assistance more than you know.”

This threat, uttered as he uttered it, could have but one effect. Turning aside, so that he should not see the shuddering revolt in her eyes, she mechanically whispered:

“And what if I did? Would it be so very strange? Youth admires youth, Mr. Orcutt, and Mr. Hildreth is very handsome and very unfortunate. Do not oblige me to say more.”

Mr. Orcutt, across whose face a dozen different emotions had flitted during the utterance of these few words, drew back till half the distance of the room lay between them.

“Nor do I wish to hear any more,” he rejoined, slowly. “You have said enough, quite enough. I understand now all the past — all your terrors and all your secret doubts and unaccountable behavior. The man you loved was in danger, and you did not know how to manage his release. Well, well, I am sorry for you, Imogene. I wish I could help you. I love you passionately, and would make you my wife in face of your affection for this man if I could do for you what you request. But it is impossible. Never during the whole course of my career has a blot rested upon my integrity as a lawyer. I am known as an honest man, and honest will I remain known to the last. Besides, I could do nothing to effect his enlargement if I tried. Nothing but the plainest proof that he is innocent, or that another man is guilty, would avail now to release him from the suspicion which his own admissions have aroused.”

“Then there is no hope?” was her slow and despairing reply.

“None at present, Imogene,” was his stern, almost as despairing, answer.

As Mr. Orcutt sat over his lonely hearth that evening, a servant brought to him the following letter:

DEAR FRIEND— It is not fit that I should remain any longer under your roof. I have a duty before me which separates me forever from the friendship and protection of honorable men and women. No home but such as I can provide for myself by the work of my own hands shall henceforth shelter the disgraced head of Imogene Dare. Her fate, whatever it may prove to be, she bears alone, and you, who have been so kind, shall never suffer from any association with one whose name must henceforth become the sport of the crowd, if not the execration of the virtuous. If your generous heart rebels at this, choke it relentlessly down. I shall be already gone when you read these lines, and nothing you could do or say would make me come back. Good-by, and may Heaven grant you forgetfulness of one whose only return to your benefactions has been to make you suffer almost as much as she suffers herself.

As Mr. Orcutt read these last lines, District Attorney Ferris was unsealing the anonymous missive which has already been laid before my readers.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/green/anna_katharine/hand_and_ring/chapter20.html

Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17