Hand and Ring, by Anna Katharine Green

24. A True Bill.

Come to me, friend or foe,

And tell me who is victor, York or Warwick.

Henry vi.

THE town of Sibley was in a state of excitement. About the court-house especially the crowd was great and the interest manifested intense. The Grand Jury was in session, and the case of the Widow Clemmens was before it.

As all the proceedings of this body are private, the suspense of those interested in the issue was naturally very great. The name of the man lastly suspected of the crime had transpired, and both Hildreth and Mansell had their partisans, though the mystery surrounding the latter made his friends less forward in asserting his innocence than those of the more thoroughly understood Hildreth. Indeed, the ignorance felt on all sides as to the express reasons for associating the name of Mrs. Clemmens’ nephew with his aunt’s murder added much to the significance of the hour. Conjectures were plenty and the wonder great, but the causes why this man, or any other, should lie under a suspicion equal to that raised against Hildreth at the inquest was a mystery that none could solve.

But what is the curiosity of the rabble to us? Our interest is in a little room far removed from this scene of excitement, where the young daughter of Professor Darling kneels by the side of Imogene Dare, striving by caress and entreaty to win a word from her lips or a glance from her heavy eyes.

“Imogene,” she pleaded — “Imogene, what is this terrible grief? Why did you have to go to the court-house this morning with papa, and why have you been almost dead with terror and misery ever since you got back? Tell me, or I shall perish of mere fright. For weeks now, ever since you were so good as to help me with my wedding-clothes, I have seen that something dreadful was weighing upon your mind, but this which you are suffering now is awful; this I cannot bear. Cannot you speak dear? Words will do you good.”

“Words!”

Oh, the despair, the bitterness of that single exclamation! Miss Darling drew back in dismay. As if released, Imogene rose to her feet and surveyed the sweet and ingenuous countenance uplifted to her own, with a look of faint recognition of the womanly sympathy it conveyed.

“Helen,” she resumed, “you are happy. Don’t stay here with me, but go where there are cheerfulness and hope.”

“But I cannot while you suffer so. I love you, Imogene. Would you drive me away from your side when you are so unhappy? You don’t care for me as I do for you or you could not do it.”

“Helen!” The deep tone made the sympathetic little bride-elect quiver. “Helen, some griefs are best borne alone. Only a few hours now and I shall know the worst. Leave me.”

But the gentle little creature was not to be driven away. She only clung the closer and pleaded the more earnestly:

“Tell me, tell me!”

The reiteration of this request was too much for the pallid woman before her. Laying her two hands on the shoulders of this child, she drew back and looked her earnestly in the face.

“Helen,” she cried, “what do you know of earthly anguish? A petted child, the favorite of happy fortune, you have been kept from evil as from a blight. None of the annoyances of life have been allowed to enter your path, much less its griefs and sins. Terror with you is but a name, remorse an unknown sensation. Even your love has no depths in it such as suffering gives. Yet, since you do love, and love well, perhaps you can understand something of what a human soul can endure who sees its only hope and only love tottering above a gulf too horrible for words to describe — a gulf, too, which her own hand —— But no, I cannot tell you. I overrated my strength. I——”

She sank back, but the next moment started again to her feet: a servant had opened the door.

“What is it!” she exclaimed; “speak, tell me.”

“Only a gentleman to see you, miss.”

“Only a ——” But she stopped in that vain repetition of the girl’s simple words, and looked at her as if she would force from her lips the name she had not the courage to demand; but, failing to obtain it, turned away to the glass, where she quietly smoothed her hair and adjusted the lace at her throat, and then catching sight of the tear-stained face of Helen, stooped and gave her a kiss, after which she moved mechanically to the door and went down those broad flights, one after one, till she came to the parlor, when she went in and encountered — Mr. Orcutt.

A glance at his face told her all she wanted to know.

“Ah!” she gasped, “it is then ——”

“Mansell!”

It was five minutes later. Imogene leaned against the window where she had withdrawn herself at the utterance of that one word. Mr. Orcutt stood a couple of paces behind her.

“Imogene,” said he, “there is a question I would like to have you answer.”

The feverish agitation expressed in his tone made her look around.

“Put it,” she mechanically replied.

But he did not find it easy to do this, while her eyes rested upon him in such despair. He felt, however, that the doubt in his mind must be satisfied at all hazards; so choking down an emotion that was almost as boundless as her own, he ventured to ask:

“Is it among the possibilities that you could ever again contemplate giving yourself in marriage to Craik Mansell, no matter what the issue of the coming trial may be?”

A shudder quick and powerful as that which follows the withdrawal of a dart from an agonizing wound shook her whole frame for a moment, but she answered, steadily:

“No; how can you ask, Mr. Orcutt?”

A gleam of relief shot across his somewhat haggard features.

“Then,” said he, “it will be no treason in me to assure you that never has my love been greater for you than to-day. That to save you from the pain which you are suffering, I would sacrifice every thing, even my pride. If, therefore, there is any kindness I can show you, any deed I can perform for your sake, I am ready to attempt it, Imogene.

“Would you —” she hesitated, but gathered courage as she met his eye —“would you be willing to go to him with a message from me?”

His glance fell and his lips took a line that startled Imogene, but his answer, though given with bitterness was encouraging.

“Yes,” he returned; “even that.”

“Then,” she cried, “tell him that to save the innocent, I had to betray the guilty, but in doing this I did not spare myself; that whatever his doom may be, I shall share it, even though it be that of death.”

“Imogene!”

“Will you tell him?” she asked.

But he would not have been a man, much less a lover, if he could answer that question now. Seizing her by the arm, he looked her wildly in the face.

“Do you mean to kill yourself?” he demanded.

“I feel I shall not live,” she gasped, while her hand went involuntarily to her heart.

He gazed at her in horror.

“And if he is cleared?” he hoarsely ejaculated.

“I— I shall try to endure my fate.”

He gave her another long, long look.

“So this is the alternative you give me?” he bitterly exclaimed. “I must either save this man or see you perish. Well,” he declared, after a few minutes’ further contemplation of her face, “I will save this man — that is, if he will allow me to do so.”

A flash of joy such as he had not perceived on her countenance for weeks transformed its marble-like severity into something of its pristine beauty.

“And you will take him my message also?” she cried.

But to this he shook his head.

“If I am to approach him as a lawyer willing to undertake his cause, don’t you see I can give him no such message as that?”

“Ah, yes, yes. But you can tell him Imogene Dare has risked her own life and happiness to save the innocent.”

“I will tell him whatever I can to show your pity and your misery.”

And she had to content herself with this. In the light of the new hope that was thus unexpectedly held out to her, it did not seem so difficult. Giving Mr. Orcutt her hand, she endeavored to thank him, but the reaction from her long suspense was too much, and, for the first time in her brave young life, Imogene lost consciousness and fainted quite away.

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