Hand and Ring, by Anna Katharine Green

37. Under the Great Tree.

We but teach

Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return

To plague the inventor. This even-handed justice

Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice

To our own lips.

Macbeth.

IMOGENE went to her home. Confused, disordered, the prey of a thousand hopes and a thousand fears, she sought for solitude and found it within the four walls of the small room which was now her only refuge.

The two detectives who had followed her to the house — the one in the carriage, the other on foot — met, as the street-door closed upon her retreating form, and consulted together as to their future course.

“Mr. Ferris thinks we ought to keep watch over the house, to make sure she does not leave it again,” announced Mr. Byrd.

“Does he? Well, then, I am the man for that job,” quoth Hickory. “I was on this very same beat last night.”

“Good reason why you should rest and give me a turn at the business,” declared the other.

“Do you want it?”

“I am willing to take it,” said Byrd.

“Well, then, after nine o’clock you shall.”

“Why after nine?”

“Because if she’s bent on skylarking, she’ll leave the house before then,” laughed the other.

“And you want to be here if she goes out?”

“Well, yes, rather!”

They compromised matters by both remaining, Byrd within view of the house and Hickory on a corner within hail. Neither expected much from this effort at surveillance, there seeming to be no good reason why she should venture forth into the streets again that night. But the watchfulness of the true detective mind is unceasing.

Several hours passed. The peace of evening had come at last to the troubled town. In the streets, especially, its gentle influence was felt, and regions which had seethed all day with a restless and impatient throng were fast settling into their usual quiet and solitary condition. A new moon hung in the west, and to Mr. Byrd, pacing the walk in front of Imogene’s door, it seemed as if he had never seen the town look more lovely or less like the abode of violence and crime. All was so quiet, especially in the house opposite him, he was fast becoming convinced that further precautions were needless, and that Imogene had no intention of stirring abroad again, when the window where her light burned suddenly became dark, and he perceived the street door cautiously open, and her tall, vailed figure emerge and pass rapidly up the street. Merely stopping to give the signal to Hickory, he hastened after her with rapid but cautious steps.

She went like one bound on no uncertain errand. Though many of the walks were heavily shaded, and the light of the lamps was not brilliant, she speeded on from corner to corner, threading the business streets with rapidity, and emerging upon the large and handsome avenue that led up toward the eastern district of the town before Hickory could overtake Byrd, and find sufficient breath to ask:

“Where is she bound for? Who lives up this way?”

“I don’t know,” answered Byrd, lowering his voice in the fear of startling her into a knowledge of their presence. “It may be she is going to Miss Tremaine’s; the High School is somewhere in this direction.”

But even as they spoke, the gliding figure before them turned into another street, and before they knew it, they were on the car-track leading out to Somerset Park.

“Ha! I know now,” whispered Hickory. “It is Orcutt she is after.” And pressing the arm of Byrd in his enthusiasm, he speeded after her with renewed zeal.

Byrd, seeing no reason to dispute a fact that was every moment becoming more evident, hurried forward also, and after a long and breathless walk — for she seemed to be urged onward by flying feet — they found themselves within sight of the grand old trees that guarded the entrance to the lawyer’s somewhat spacious grounds.

“What are we going to do now?” asked Byrd, stopping, as they heard the gate click behind her.

“Wait and watch,” said Hickory. “She has not led us this wild-goose chase for nothing.” And leaping the hedge, he began creeping up toward the house, leaving his companion to follow or not, as he saw fit.

Meantime Imogene had passed up the walk and paused before the front door. But a single look at it seemed to satisfy her, for, moving hurriedly away, she flitted around the corner of the house and stopped just before the long windows whose brightly illumined sashes proclaimed that the master of the house was still in his library.

She seemed to feel relieved at this sight. Pausing, she leaned against the frame of a trellis-work near by to gather up her courage or regain her breath before proceeding to make her presence known to the lawyer. As she thus leaned, the peal of the church clock was heard, striking the hour of nine. She started, possibly at finding it so late, and bending forward, looked at the windows before her with an anxious eye that soon caught sight of a small opening left by the curtains having been drawn together by a too hasty or a too careless hand, and recognizing the opportunity it afforded for a glimpse into the room before her, stepped with a light tread upon the piazza and quietly peered within.

The sight she saw never left her memory.

Seated before a deadened fire, she beheld Mr. Orcutt. He was neither writing nor reading, nor, in the true sense of the word, thinking. The papers he had evidently taken from his desk, lay at his side undisturbed, and from one end of the room to the other, solitude, suffering, and despair seemed to fill the atmosphere and weigh upon its dreary occupant, till the single lamp which shone beside him burned dimmer and dimmer, like a life going out or a purpose vanishing in the gloom of a stealthily approaching destiny.

Imogene, who had come to this place thus secretly and at this late hour of the day with the sole intent of procuring the advice of this man concerning the deception which had been practised upon her before the trial, felt her heart die within her as she surveyed this rigid figure and realized all it implied. Though his position was such she could not see his face, there was that in his attitude which bespoke hopelessness and an utter weariness of life, and as ash after ash fell from the grate, she imagined how the gloom deepened on the brow which till this hour had confronted the world with such undeviating courage and confidence.

It was therefore a powerful shock to her when, in another moment, he looked up, and, without moving his body, turned his head slowly around in such a way as to afford her a glimpse of his face. For, in all her memory of it — and she had seen it distorted by many and various emotions during the last few weeks — she had never beheld it wear such a look as now. It gave her a new idea of the man; it filled her with dismay, and sent the life-blood from her cheeks. It fascinated her, as the glimpse of any evil thing fascinates, and held her spell-bound long after he had turned back again to his silent contemplation of the fire and its ever-drifting ashes. It was as if a vail had been rent before her eyes, disclosing to her a living soul writhing in secret struggle with its own worst passions; and horrified at the revelation, more than horrified at the remembrance that it was her own action of the morning which had occasioned this change in one she had long reverenced, if not loved, she sank helplessly upon her knees and pressed her face to the window in a prayer for courage to sustain this new woe and latest, if not heaviest, disappointment.

It came while she was kneeling — came in the breath of the cold night wind, perhaps; for, rising up, she turned her forehead gratefully to the breeze, and drew in long draughts of it before she lifted her hand and knocked upon the window.

The sharp, shrill sound made by her fingers on the pane reassured her as much as it startled him. Gathering up her long cloak, which had fallen apart in her last hurried movement, she waited with growing self-possession for his appearance at the window.

He came almost immediately — came with his usual hasty step and with much of his usual expression on his well-disciplined features. Flinging aside the curtains, he cried impatiently: “Who is there?” But at sight of the tall figure of Imogene standing upright and firm on the piazza without, he drew back with a gesture of dismay, which was almost forbidding in its character.

She saw it, but did not pause. Pushing up the window, she stepped into the room; then, as he did not offer to help her, turned and shut the window behind her and carefully arranged the curtains. He meantime stood watching her with eyes in whose fierce light burned equal love and equal anger.

When all was completed, she faced him. Instantly a cry broke from his lips:

“You here!” he exclaimed, as if her presence were more than he could meet or stand. But in another moment the forlornness of her position seemed to strike him, and he advanced toward her, saying in a voice husky with passion: “Wretched woman, what have you done? Was it not enough that for weeks, months now, you have played with my love and misery as with toys, that you should rise up at the last minute and crush me before the whole world with a story, mad as it is false, of yourself being a criminal and the destroyer of the woman for whose death your miserable lover is being tried? Had you no consideration, no pity, if not for yourself, ruined by this day’s work, for me, who have sacrificed every thing, done every thing the most devoted man or lawyer could do to save this fellow and win you for my wife?”

“Sir,” said she, meeting the burning anger of his look with the coldness of a set despair, as if in the doubt awakened by his changed demeanor she sought to probe his mind for its hidden secret, “I did what any other woman would have done in my place. When we are pushed to the wall we tell the truth.”

“The truth!” Was that his laugh that rang startlingly through the room? “The truth! You told the truth! Imogene, Imogene, is any such farce necessary with me?”

Her lips, which had opened, closed again, and she did not answer for a moment; then she asked:

“How do you know that what I said was not the truth?”

“How do I know?” He paused as if to get his breath. “How do I know?” he repeated, calling up all his self-control to sustain her gaze unmoved. “Do you think I have lost my reason, Imogene, that you put me such a question as that? How do I know you are innocent? Recall your own words and acts since the day we met at Mrs. Clemmens’ house, and tell me how it would be possible for me to think any thing else of you?”

But her purpose did not relax, neither did she falter as she returned:

“Mr. Orcutt, will you tell me what has ever been said by me or what you have ever known me to do that would make it certain I did not commit this crime myself?”

His indignation was too much for his courtesy.

“Imogene,” he commanded, “be silent! I will not listen to any further arguments of this sort. Isn’t it enough that you have destroyed my happiness, that you should seek to sport with my good-sense? I say you are innocent as a babe unborn, not only of the crime itself but of any complicity in it. Every word you have spoken, every action you have taken, since the day of Mrs. Clemmens’ death, proves you to be the victim of a fixed conviction totally at war with the statement you were pleased to make to-day. Only your belief in the guilt of another and your — your ——”

He stopped, choked. The thought of his rival maddened him.

She immediately seized the opportunity to say:

“Mr. Orcutt, I cannot argue about what I have done. It is over and cannot be remedied. It is true I have destroyed myself, but this is no time to think of that. All I can think of or mourn over now is that, by destroying myself, I have not succeeded in saving Craik Mansell.”

If her purpose was to probe the lawyer’s soul for the deadly wound that had turned all his sympathies to gall, she was successful at last. Turning upon her with a look in which despair and anger were strangely mingled, he cried:

“And me, Imogene — have you no thought for me?”

“Sir,” said she, “any thought from one disgraced as I am now, would be an insult to one of your character and position.”

It was true. In the eyes of the world Tremont Orcutt and Imogene Dare henceforth stood as far apart as the poles. Realizing it only too well, he uttered a half-inarticulate exclamation, and trod restlessly to the other end of the room. When he came back, it was with more of the lawyer’s aspect and less of the baffled lover’s.

“Imogene,” he said, “what could have induced you to resort to an expedient so dreadful? Had you lost confidence in me? Had I not told you I would save this man from his threatened fate?”

“You cannot do every thing,” she replied. “There are limits even to a power like yours. I knew that Craik was lost if I gave to the court the testimony which Mr. Ferris expected from me.”

“Ah, then,” he cried, seizing with his usual quickness at the admission which had thus unconsciously, perhaps, slipped from her, “you acknowledge you uttered a perjury to save yourself from making declarations you believed to be hurtful to the prisoner?”

A faint smile crossed her lips, and her whole aspect suddenly changed.

“Yes,” she said; “I have no motive for hiding it from you now. I perjured myself to escape destroying Craik Mansell. I was scarcely the mistress of my own actions. I had suffered so much I was ready to do any thing to save the man I had so relentlessly pushed to his doom. I forgot that God does not prosper a lie.”

The jealous gleam which answered her from the lawyer’s eyes was a revelation.

“You regret, then,” he said, “that you tossed my happiness away with a breath of your perjured lips?”

“I regret I did not tell the truth and trust God.”

At this answer, uttered with the simplicity of a penitent spirit, Mr. Orcutt unconsciously drew back.

“And, may I ask, what has caused this sudden regret?” he inquired, in a tone not far removed from mockery; “the generous action of the prisoner in relieving you from your self-imposed burden of guilt by an acknowledgment that struck at the foundation of the defence I had so carefully prepared?”

“No,” was her short reply; “that could but afford me joy. Of whatever sin he may be guilty, he is at least free from the reproach of accepting deliverance at the expense of a woman. I am sorry I said what I did to-day, because a revelation has since been made to me, which proves I could never have sustained myself in the position I took, and that it was mere suicidal folly in me to attempt to save Craik Mansell by such means.”

“A revelation?”

“Yes.” And, forgetting all else in the purpose which had actuated her in seeking this interview, Imogene drew nearer to the lawyer and earnestly said: “There have been some persons — I have perceived it — who have wondered at my deep conviction of Craik Mansell’s guilt. But the reasons I had justified it. They were great, greater than any one knew, greater even than you knew. His mother — were she living — must have thought as I did, had she been placed beside me and seen what I have seen, and heard what I have heard from the time of Mrs. Clemmens’ death. Not only were all the facts brought against him in the trial known to me, but I saw him — saw him with my own eyes, running from Mrs. Clemmens’ dining-room door at the very time we suppose the murder to have been committed; that is, at five minutes before noon on the fatal day.”

“Impossible!” exclaimed Mr. Orcutt, in his astonishment. “You are playing with my credulity, Imogene.”

But she went on, letting her voice fall in awe of the lawyer’s startled look.

“No,” she persisted; “I was in Professor Darling’s observatory. I was looking through a telescope, which had been pointed toward the town. Mrs. Clemmens was much in my mind at the time, and I took the notion to glance at her house, when I saw what I have described to you. I could not help remembering the time,” she added, “for I had looked at the clock but a moment before.”

“And it was five minutes before noon?” broke again from the lawyer’s lips, in what was almost an awe-struck tone.

Troubled at an astonishment which seemed to partake of the nature of alarm, she silently bowed her head.

“And you were looking at him — actually looking at him — that very moment through a telescope perched a mile or so away?”

“Yes,” she bowed again.

Turning his face aside, Mr. Orcutt walked to the hearth and began kicking the burnt-out logs with his restless foot. As he did so, Imogene heard him mutter between his set teeth:

“It is almost enough to make one believe in a God!”

Struck, horrified, she glided anxiously to his side.

“Do not you believe in a God?” she asked.

He was silent.

Amazed, almost frightened, for she had never heard him breathe a word of scepticism before — though, to be sure, he had never mentioned the name of the Deity in her presence — she stood looking at him like one who had received a blow; then she said:

“I believe in God. It is my punishment that I do. It is He who wills blood for blood; who dooms the guilty to a merited death. Oh, if He only would accept the sacrifice I so willingly offer! — take the life I so little value, and give me in return ——”

“Mansell’s?” completed the lawyer, turning upon her in a burst of fury he no longer had power to suppress. “Is that your cry — always and forever your cry? You drive me too far, Imogene. This mad and senseless passion for a man who no longer loves you ——”

“Spare me!” rose from her trembling lips. “Let me forget that.”

But the great lawyer only laughed.

“You make it worth my while to save you the bitterness of such a remembrance,” he cried. Then, as she remained silent, he changed his tone to one of careless inquiry, and asked:

“Was it to tell this story of the prisoner having fled from his aunt’s house that you came here to-night?”

Recalled to the purpose of the hour, she answered, hurriedly:

“Not entirely; that story was what Mr. Ferris expected me to testify to in court this morning. You see for yourself in what a position it would have put the prisoner.”

“And the revelation you have received?” the lawyer coldly urged.

“Was of a deception that has been practised upon me — a base deception by which I was led to think long ago that Craik Mansell had admitted his guilt and only trusted to the excellence of his defence to escape punishment.”

“I do not understand,” said Mr. Orcutt. “Who could have practised such deception upon you?”

“The detectives,” she murmured; “that rough, heartless fellow they call Hickory.” And, in a burst of indignation, she told how she had been practised upon, and what the results had been upon her belief, if not upon the testimony which grew out of that belief.

The lawyer listened with a strange apathy. What would once have aroused his fiercest indignation and fired him to an exertion of his keenest powers, fell on him now like the tedious repetition of an old and worn-out tale. He scarcely looked up when she was done; and despair — the first, perhaps, she had ever really felt — began to close in around her as she saw how deep a gulf she had dug between this man and herself by the inconsiderate act which had robbed him of all hope of ever making her his wife. Moved by this feeling, she suddenly asked:

“Have you lost all interest in your client, Mr. Orcutt? Have you no wish or hope remaining of seeing him acquitted of this crime?”

“My client,” responded the lawyer, with bitter emphasis, “has taken his case into his own hands. It would be presumptuous in me to attempt any thing further in his favor.”

“Mr. Orcutt!”

“Ah!” he scornfully laughed, with a quick yielding to his passion as startling as it was unexpected, “you thought you could play with me as you would; use my skill and ignore the love that prompted it. You are a clever woman, Imogene, but you went too far when you considered my forbearance unlimited.”

“And you forsake Craik Mansell, in the hour of his extremity?”

“Craik Mansell has forsaken me.”

This was true; for her sake her lover had thrown his defence to the winds and rendered the assistance of his counsel unavailable. Seeing her droop her head abashed, Mr. Orcutt dryly proceeded.

“I do not know what may take place in court to-morrow,” said he. “It is difficult to determine what will be the outcome of so complicated a case. The District Attorney, in consideration of the deception which has been practised upon you, may refuse to prosecute any further; or, if the case goes on and the jury is called upon for a verdict, they may or may not be moved by its peculiar aspects to acquit a man of such generous dispositions. If they are, I shall do nothing to hinder an acquittal; but ask for no more active measures on my part. I cannot plead for the lover of the woman who has disgraced me.”

This decision, from one she had trusted so implicitly, seemed to crush her.

“Ah,” she murmured, “if you did not believe him guilty you would not leave him thus to his fate.”

He gave her a short, side-long glance, half-mocking, half-pitiful.

“If,” she pursued, “you had felt even a passing gleam of doubt, such as came to me when I discovered that he had never really admitted his guilt, you would let no mere mistake on the part of a woman turn you from your duty as counsellor for a man on trial for his life.”

His glance lost its pity and became wholly mocking.

“And do you cherish but passing gleams?” he sarcastically asked.

She started back.

“I laugh at the inconsistency of women,” he cried. “You have sacrificed every thing, even risked your life for a man you really believe guilty of crime; yet if another man similarly stained asked you for your compassion only, you would fly from him as from a pestilence.”

But no words he could utter of this sort were able to raise any emotion in her now.

“Mr. Orcutt,” she demanded, “do you believe Craik Mansell innocent?”

His old mocking smile came back.

“Have I conducted his case as if I believed him guilty?” he asked.

“No, no; but you are his lawyer; you are bound not to let your real thoughts appear. But in your secret heart you did not, could not, believe he was free from a crime to which he is linked by so many criminating circumstances?”

But his strange smile remaining unchanged, she seemed to waken to a sudden doubt, and leaping impetuously to his side, laid her hand on his arm and exclaimed:

“Oh, sir, if you have ever cherished one hope of his innocence, no matter how faint or small, tell me of it, even if this last disclosure has convinced you of its folly!”

Giving her an icy look, he drew his arm slowly from her grasp and replied:

“Mr. Mansell has never been considered guilty by me.”

“Never?”

“Never.”

“Not even now?”

“Not even now.”

It seemed as if she could not believe his words.

“And yet you know all there is against him; all that I do now!”

“I know he visited his aunt’s house at or after the time she was murdered, but that is no proof he killed her, Miss Dare.”

“No,” she admitted with slow conviction, “no. But why did he fly in that wild way when he left it? Why did he go straight to Buffalo and not wait to give me the interview he promised?”

“Shall I tell you?” Mr. Orcutt inquired, with a dangerous sneer on his lips. “Do you wish to know why this man — the man you have so loved — the man for whom you would die this moment, has conducted himself with such marked discretion?”

“Yes,” came like a breath from between Imogene’s parted lips.

“Well,” said the lawyer, dropping his words with cruel clearness, “Mr. Mansell has a great faith in women. He has such faith in you, Imogene Dare, he thinks you are all you declare yourself to be; that in the hour you stood up before the court and called yourself a murderer, you spoke but the truth; that ——” He stopped; even his scornful aplomb would not allow him to go on in the face of the look she wore.

“Say — say those words again!” she gasped. “Let me hear them once more. He thinks what?”

“That you are what you proclaimed yourself to be this day, the actual assailant and murderer of Mrs. Clemmens. He has thought so all along, Miss Dare, why, I do not know. Whether he saw any thing or heard any thing in that house from which you saw him fly so abruptly, or whether he relied solely upon the testimony of the ring, which you must remember he never acknowledged having received back from you, I only know that from the minute he heard of his aunt’s death, his suspicions flew to you, and that, in despite of such suggestions as I felt it judicious to make, they have never suffered shock or been turned from their course from that day to this. Such honor,” concluded Mr. Orcutt, with dry sarcasm, “does the man you love show to the woman who has sacrificed for his sake all that the world holds dear.”

“I— I cannot believe it. You are mocking me,” came inarticulately from her lips, while she drew back, step by step, till half the room lay between them.

“Mocking you? Miss Dare, he has shown his feelings so palpably, I have often trembled lest the whole court should see and understand them.”

“You have trembled”— she could scarcely speak, the rush of her emotion was so great —“you have trembled lest the whole court should see he suspected me of this crime?”

“Yes.”

“Then,” she cried, “you must have been convinced — Ah!” she hurriedly interposed, with a sudden look of distrust, “you are not amusing yourself with me, are you, Mr. Orcutt? So many traps have been laid for me from time to time, I dare not trust the truth of my best friend. Swear you believe Craik Mansell to have thought this of me! Swear you have seen this dark thing lying in his soul, or I——”

“What?”

“Will confront him myself with the question, if I have to tear down the walls of the prison to reach him. His mind I must and will know.”

“Very well, then, you do. I have told you,” declared Mr. Orcutt. “Swearing would not make it any more true.”

Lifting her face to heaven, she suddenly fell on her knees.

“O God!” she murmured, “help me to bear this great joy!”

Joy!

The icy tone, the fierce surprise it expressed, started her at once to her feet.

“Yes,” she murmured, “joy! Don’t you see that if he thinks me guilty, he must be innocent? I am willing to perish and fall from the ranks of good men and honorable women to be sure of a fact like this!”

“Imogene, Imogene, would you drive me mad?”

She did not seem to hear.

“Craik, are you guiltless, then?” she was saying. “Is the past all a dream! Are we two nothing but victims of dread and awful circumstances? Oh, we will see; life is not ended yet!” And with a burst of hope that seemed to transfigure her into another woman, she turned toward the lawyer with the cry: “If he is innocent, he can be saved. Nothing that has been done by him or me can hurt him if this be so. God who watches over this crime has His eye on the guilty one. Though his sin be hidden under a mountain of deceit, it will yet come forth. Guilt like his cannot remain hidden.”

“You did not think this when you faced the court this morning with perjury on your lips,” came in slow, ironical tones from her companion.

“Heaven sometimes accepts a sacrifice,” she returned. “But who will sacrifice himself for a man who could let the trial of one he knew to be innocent go on unhindered?”

“Who, indeed!” came in almost stifled tones from the lawyer’s lips.

“If a stranger and not Craik Mansell slew Mrs. Clemmens,” she went on, “and nothing but an incomprehensible train of coincidences unites him and me to this act of violence, then may God remember the words of the widow, and in His almighty power call down such a doom ——”

She ended with a gasp. Mr. Orcutt, with a sudden movement, had laid his hand upon her lips.

“Hush!” he said, “let no curses issue from your mouth. The guilty can perish without that.”

Releasing herself from him in alarm, she drew back, her eyes slowly dilating as she noted the dead whiteness that had settled over his face, and taken even the hue of life from his nervously trembling lip.

“Mr. Orcutt,” she whispered, with a solemnity which made them heedless that the lamp which had been burning lower and lower in its socket was giving out its last fitful rays, “if Craik Mansell did not kill the Widow Clemmens who then did?”

Her question — or was it her look and tone? — seemed to transfix Mr. Orcutt. But it was only for a moment. Turning with a slight gesture to the table at his side, he fumbled with his papers, still oblivious of the flaring lamp, saying slowly:

“I have always supposed Gouverneur Hildreth to be the true author of this crime.”

“Gouverneur Hildreth?”

Mr. Orcutt bowed.

“I do not agree with you,” she returned, moving slowly toward the window. “I am no reader of human hearts, as all my past history shows, but something — is it the voice of God in my breast? — tells me that Gouverneur Hildreth is as innocent as Craik Mansell, and that the true murderer of Mrs. Clemmens ——” Her words ended in a shriek. The light, which for so long a time had been flickering to its end, had given one startling flare in which the face of the man before her had flashed on her view in a ghastly flame that seemed to separate it from all surrounding objects, then as suddenly gone out, leaving the room in total darkness.

In the silence that followed, a quick sound as of rushing feet was heard, then the window was pushed up and the night air came moaning in. Imogene had fled.

Horace Byrd had not followed Hickory in his rush toward the house. He had preferred to await results under the great tree which, standing just inside the gate, cast its mysterious and far-reaching shadow widely over the wintry lawn. He was, therefore, alone during most of the interview which Miss Dare held with Mr. Orcutt in the library, and, being alone, felt himself a prey to his sensations and the weirdness of the situation in which he found himself.

Though no longer a victim to the passion with which Miss Dare had at first inspired him, he was by no means without feeling for this grand if somewhat misguided woman, and his emotions, as he stood there awaiting the issue of her last desperate attempt to aid the prisoner, were strong enough to make any solitude welcome, though this solitude for some reason held an influence which was any thing but enlivening, if it was not actually depressing, to one of his ready sensibilities.

The tree under which he had taken his stand was, as I have intimated, an old one. It had stood there from time immemorial, and was, as I have heard it since said, at once the pride of Mr. Orcutt’s heart and the chief ornament of his grounds. Though devoid of foliage at the time, its vast and symmetrical canopy of interlacing branches had caught Mr. Byrd’s attention from the first moment of his entrance beneath it, and, preoccupied as he was, he could not prevent his thoughts from reverting now and then with a curious sensation of awe to the immensity of those great limbs which branched above him. His imagination was so powerfully affected at last, he had a notion of leaving the spot and seeking a nearer look-out in the belt of evergreens that hid the crouching form of Hickory; but a spell seemed to emanate from the huge trunk against which he leaned that restrained him when he sought to go, and noticing almost at the same moment that the path which Miss Dare would have to take in her departure ran directly under this tree, he yielded to the apathy of the moment and remained where he was.

Soon after he was visited by Hickory.

“I can see nothing and hear nothing,” was that individual’s hurried salutation. “She and Mr. Orcutt are evidently still in the library, but I cannot get a clue to what is going on. I shall keep up my watch, however, for I want to catch a glimpse of her face as she steps from the window.” And he was off again before Byrd could reply.

But the next instant he was back, panting and breathless.

“The light is out in the library,” he cried; “we shall see her no more to-night.”

But scarcely had the words left his lips when a faint sound was heard from the region of the piazza, and looking eagerly up the path, they saw the form of Miss Dare coming hurriedly toward them.

To slip around into the deepest shadow cast by the tree was but the work of a moment. Meantime, the moon shone brightly on the walk down which she was speeding, and as, in the agitation of her departure, she had forgotten to draw down her veil, they succeeded in obtaining a view of her face. It was pale, and wore an expression of fear, while her feet hasted as though she were only filled with thoughts of escape.

Seeing this, the two detectives held their breaths, preparing to follow her as soon as she had passed the tree. But she did not pass the tree. Just as she got within reach of its shadow, a commanding voice was heard calling upon her to stop, and Mr. Orcutt came hurrying, in his turn, down the path.

“I cannot let you go thus,” he cried, pausing beside her on the walk directly under the tree. “If you command me to save Craik Mansell I must do it. What you wish must be done, Imogene.”

“My wishes should not be needed to lead you to do your duty by the man you believe to be innocent of the charge for which he is being tried,” was her earnest and strangely cold reply.

“Perhaps not,” he muttered, bitterly; “but — ah, Imogene,” he suddenly broke forth, in a way to startle these two detectives, who, however suspicious they had been of his passion, had never before had the opportunity of seeing him under its control, “what have you made of me with your bewildering graces and indomitable soul? Before I knew you, life was a round of honorable duties and serene pleasures. I lived in my profession, and found my greatest delight in its exercise. But now ——”

“What now?” she asked.

“I seem”— he said, and the hard, cold selfishness that underlay all his actions, however generous they may have been in appearance, was apparent in his words and tones — “I seem to forget every thing, even my standing and fame as a lawyer, in the one fear that, although lost to me, you will yet live to give yourself to another.”

“If you fear that I shall ever be so weak as to give myself to Craik Mansell,” was her steady reply, “you have only to recall the promise I made you when you undertook his case.”

“Yes,” said he, “but that was when you yourself believed him guilty.”

“I know,” she returned; “but if he were not good enough for me then, I am not good enough for him now. Do you forget that I am blotted with a stain that can never be effaced? When I stood up in court to-day and denounced myself as guilty of crime, I signed away all my chances of future happiness.”

There was a pause; Mr. Orcutt seemed to be thinking. From the position occupied by the two detectives his shadow could be seen oscillating to and fro on the lawn, then, amid the hush of night — a deathly hush — undisturbed, as Mr. Byrd afterward remarked, by so much as the cracking of a twig, his voice rose quiet, yet vaguely sinister, in the words:

“You have conquered. If any man suffers for this crime it shall not be Craik Mansell, but ——”

The sentence was never finished. Before the words could leave his mouth a sudden strange and splitting sound was heard above their heads, then a terrifying rush took place, and a great limb lay upon the walk where but a moment before the beautiful form of Imogene Dare lifted itself by the side of the eminent lawyer.

When a full sense of the terrible nature of the calamity which had just occurred swept across the minds of the benumbed detectives, Mr. Byrd, recalling the words and attitude of Imogene in face of a similar, if less fatal, catastrophe at the hut, exclaimed under his breath:

“It is the vengeance of Heaven! Imogene Dare must have been more guilty than we believed.”

But when, after a superhuman exertion of strength, and the assistance of many hands, the limb was at length raised, it was found that, although both had been prostrated by its weight, only one remained stretched and senseless upon the ground, and that was not Imogene Dare, but the great lawyer, Mr. Orcutt.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/green/anna_katharine/hand_and_ring/chapter37.html

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