Hand and Ring, by Anna Katharine Green

4. Imogene.

You are a riddle, solve you who can.

Knowles.

MR. ORCUTT was a man who for many years had turned a deaf ear and a cold eye to the various attractions and beguilements of woman. Either from natural coldness of disposition, or for some other latent cause, traceable, perhaps, to some fact in his past history, and not to be inquired into by gossiping neighbors and so-called friends, he had resisted, even to the point of disdain, both the blandishments of acknowledged belles, and the more timid but no less pleasing charms of the shy country misses that he met upon his travels.

But one day all this was changed. Imogene Dare entered his home, awakening a light in the dim old place that melted his heart and made a man out of what was usually considered a well-ordered machine.

She had been a foundling. Yes, this beautiful, disdainful, almost commanding woman, had in the beginning been that most unfortunate of beings — a child without a name. But though this fact may have influenced the course of her early days, it gradually disappeared from notice as she grew up and developed, till in Sibley, at least, it became wellnigh a fact forgotten. Her beauty, as well as the imposing traits of her character, was the cause. There are some persons so gifted with natural force that, once brought in contact with them, you forget their antecedents, and, indeed, every thing but themselves. Either their beauty overawes you or they, by conversation or bearing, so completely satisfy you of their right to your respect, that indifference takes the place of curiosity, and you yield your regard as if you have already yielded your admiration, without question and without stint.

The early years of her life were passed in the house of a poor widow, to whom the appearance of this child on her door-step one fine day had been nothing more nor less than a veritable godsend. First, because she was herself alone in the world, and needed the mingled companionship and care which a little one invariably gives; and, secondly, because Imogene, from the very first, had been a noticeable child, who early attracted the attention of the neighbors, and led to many a substantial evidence of favor from them, as well as from the strangers who passed their gate or frequented their church. Insensibly to herself, and without help of circumstances or rearing, the girl was a magnet toward which all good things insensibly tended; and the widow saw this, and, while reaping the reward, stinted neither her affection nor her gratitude.

When Imogene was eleven, this protector of her infancy died. But another home instantly offered. A wealthy couple of much kindness, if little culture, adopted her as their child, and gave her every benefit in life save education. This never having possessed themselves, they openly undervalued. But she was not to be kept down by the force of any circumstances, whether favorable or otherwise. All the graces of manner and refinements of thought which properly belong to the station she had now attained, but which, in the long struggle after wealth, had escaped the honest couple that befriended her, became by degrees her own, tempering without destroying her individuality, any more than the new life of restraint that now governed her physical powers, was able to weaken or subdue that rare and splendid physique which had been her fairest birthright.

In the lap of luxury, therefore, and in full possession of means to come and go and conform herself to the genteel world and its fashions, she passed the next four years; but scarcely had she attained the age of fifteen, when bankruptcy, followed by death, again robbed her of her home and set her once more adrift upon the world.

This time she looked to no one for assistance. Refusing all offers, many of them those of honorable marriage, she sought for work, and after a short delay found it in the household of Mr. Orcutt. The aged sister who governed his home and attended to all its domestic details, hired her as a sort of assistant, rightly judging that the able young body and the alert hand would bring into the household economy just that life and interest which her own failing strength had now for some time refused to supply.

That the girl was a beauty and something more, who could not from the nature of things be kept in that subordinate position, she either failed to see, or, seeing, was pleased to disregard. She never sought to impose restraint upon the girl any more than she did upon her brother, when in the course of events she saw that his eye was at last attracted and his imagination fired by the noble specimen of girlhood that made its daily appearance at his own board.

That she had introduced a dangerous element into that quiet home, that ere long would devastate its sacred precincts, and endanger, if not destroy, its safety and honor, she had no reason to suspect. What was there in youth, beauty, and womanly power that one should shrink from their embodiment and tremble as if an evil instead of a good had entered that hitherto undisturbed household? Nothing, if they had been all. But alas for her, and alas for him — they were not all! Mixed with the youth, beauty, and power was a something else not to be so readily understood — a something, too, which, without offering explanation to the fascinated mind that studied her, made the beauty unique, the youth a charm, and the power a controlling force. She was not to be sounded. Going and coming, smiling and frowning, in movement or at rest, she was always a mystery; the depths of her being remaining still in hiding, however calmly she spoke or however graciously she turned upon you the light of her deep gray eyes.

Mr. Orcutt loved her. From the first vision he had of her face and form dominating according to their nature at his board and fireside, he had given up his will into her unconscious keeping. She was so precisely what all other women he had known were not. At first so distant, so self-contained, so unapproachable in her pride; then as her passion grew for books, so teachable, so industrious, so willing to listen to his explanations and arguments; and lastly ——

But that did not come at once. A long struggle took place between those hours when he used to encourage her to come into his study and sit at his side, and read from his books, and the more dangerous time still, when he followed her into the drawing-room and sat at her side, and sought to read, not from books, but from her eyes, the story of his own future fate.

For, powerful as was his passion and deeply as his heart had been touched, he did not yield to the thought of marriage which such a passion involves, without a conflict. He would make her his child, the heiress of his wealth, and the support of his old age; this was his first resolve. But it did not last; the first sight he had of her on her return from a visit to Buffalo, which he had insisted upon her making during the time of his greatest mental conflict, had assured him that this could never be; that he must be husband and she wife, or else their relations must entirely cease. Perhaps the look with which she met him had something to do with this. It was such a blushing, humble — yes, for her, really humble and beautiful — look. He could not withstand it. Though no one could have detected it in his manner, he really succumbed in that hour. Doubt and hesitation flew to the winds, and to make her his own became the sole aim and object of his life.

He did not, however, betray his purpose at once. Neighbors and friends might and did suspect the state of his feelings, but to her he was silent. That vague something which marked her off from the rest of her sex, seemed to have deepened in her temporary sojourn from his side, and whatever it meant of good or of ill, it taught him at least to be wary. At last, was it with premeditation or was it in some moment of uncontrollable impulse, he spoke; not with definite pleading, or even with any very clear intimation that he desired some day to make her his wife, but in a way that sufficed to tear the veil from their previous intercourse and let her catch a glimpse, if no more, of his heart, and its devouring passion.

He was absolutely startled at the result. She avowed that she had never thought of his possessing such a regard for her; and for two days shut herself up in her room and refused to see either him or his sister. Then she came down, blooming like a rose, but more distant, more quiet, and more inscrutable than ever. Pride, if pride she felt, was subdued under a general aspect of womanly dignity that for a time held all further avowals in check, and made all intercourse between them at once potent in its attraction and painful in its restraint.

“She is waiting for a distinct offer of marriage,” he decided.

And thus matters stood, notwithstanding the general opinion of their friends, when the terrible event recorded in the foregoing chapters of this story brought her in a new light before his eyes, and raised a question, shocking as it was unexpected, as to whether this young girl, immured as he had believed her to be in his own home, had by some unknown and inexplicable means run upon the secret involving, if not explaining, the mystery of this dreadful and daring crime.

Such an idea was certainly a preposterous one to entertain. He neither could nor would believe she knew more of this matter than any other disinterested person in town, and yet there had certainly been something in her bearing upon the scene of tragedy, that suggested a personal interest in the affair; nor could he deny that he himself had been struck by the incongruity of her behavior long before it attracted the attention of others.

But then he had opportunities for judging of her conduct which others did not have. He not only had every reason to believe that the ring to which she had so publicly laid claim was not her own, but he had observed how, at the moment the dying woman had made that tell-tale exclamation of “Ring and Hand!” Miss Dare had looked down at the jewel she had thus appropriated, with a quick horror and alarm that seemed to denote she had some knowledge of its owner, or some suspicion, at least, as to whose hand had worn it before she placed it upon her own.

It was not, therefore, a matter of wonder that he was visibly affected at finding her conduct had attracted the attention of others, and one of those a detective, or that the walk home after his interview with Mr. Byrd should have been fraught with a dread to which he scarcely dared to give a name.

The sight of Miss Dare coming down the path as he reached his own gate did not tend to greatly allay his apprehensions, particularly as he observed she was dressed in travelling costume, and carried a small satchel on her arm.

“Imogene,” he cried, as she reached him, “what is the meaning of this? Where are you going?”

Her face, which wore a wholly unnatural and strained expression, turned slowly toward his.

“I am going to Buffalo,” she said.

“To Buffalo?”

“Yes.”

This was alarming, surely. She was going to leave the town — leave it suddenly, without excuse or explanation!

Looking at her with eyes which, for all their intense inquiry, conveyed but little of the serious emotions that were agitating his mind, he asked, hurriedly:

“What takes you to Buffalo — to-day — so suddenly?”

Her answer was set and mechanical.

“I have had news. One of my — my friends is not well. I must go. Do not detain me.”

And she moved quickly toward the gate.

But his tremulous hand was upon it, and he made no offer to open a passage for her.

“Pardon me,” said he, “but I cannot let you go till I have had some conversation with you. Come with me to the house, Imogene. I will not detain you long.”

But with a sad and abstracted gesture she slowly shook her head.

“It is too late,” she murmured. “I shall miss the train if I stop now.”

“Then you must miss it,” he cried, bitterly, forgetting every thing else in the torture of his uncertainty. “What I have to say cannot wait. Come!”

This tone of command from one who had hitherto adapted himself to her every whim, seemed to strike her. Paling quickly, she for the first time looked at him with something like a comprehension of his feelings, and quietly replied:

“Forgive me. I had forgotten for the moment the extent of your claims upon me. I will wait till to-morrow before going.” And she led the way back to the house.

When they were alone together in the library, he turned toward her with a look whose severity was the fruit of his condition of mind rather than of any natural harshness or imperiousness.

“Now, Imogene,” said he, “tell me why you desire to leave my house.”

Her face, which had assumed a mask of cold impassiveness, confronted him like that of a statue, but her voice, when she spoke, was sufficiently gentle.

“Mr. Orcutt,” was her answer, “I have told you. I have a call elsewhere which must be attended to. I do not leave your house; I merely go to Buffalo for a few days.”

But he could not believe this short statement of her intentions. In the light of these new fears of his, this talk of Buffalo, and a call there, looked to him like the merest subterfuge. Yet her gentle tone was not without its effect, and his voice visibly softened as he said:

“You are intending, then, to return?”

Her reply was prefaced by a glance of amazement.

“Of course,” she responded at last. “Is not this my home?”

Something in the way she said this carried a ray of hope to his heart. Taking her hand in his, he looked at her long and searchingly.

“Imogene!” he exclaimed, “there is something serious weighing upon your heart. What is it? Will you not make me the confidant of your troubles? Tell me what has made such a change in you since — since noon, and its dreadful event.”

But her expression did not soften, and her manner became even more reserved than before.

illustration
“Taking her hand in his, he looked at her long and searchingly. ‘Imogene,’ he exclaimed, ‘there is something weighing on your heart.’”

“I have not any thing to tell,” said she.

“Not any thing?” he repeated.

“Not any thing.”

Dropping her hand, he communed a moment with himself. That a secret of possible consequence lay between them he could not doubt. That it had reference to and involved the crime of the morning, he was equally sure. But how was he to make her acknowledge it? How was he to reach her mind and determine its secrets without alarming her dignity or wounding her heart?

To press her with questions seemed impossible. Even if he could have found words with which to formulate his fears, her firm, set face, and steady, unrelenting eye, assured him only too plainly that the attempt would be met by failure, if it did not bring upon him her scorn and contempt. No; some other method must be found; some way that would completely and at once ease his mind of a terrible weight, and yet involve no risk to the love that had now become the greatest necessity of his existence. But what way? With all his acumen and knowledge of the world, he could think of but one. He would ask her hand in marriage — aye, at this very moment — and from the tenor of her reply judge of the nature of her thoughts. For, looking in her face, he felt forced to acknowledge that whatever doubts he had ever cherished in reference to the character of this remarkable girl, upon one point he was perfectly clear, and this was, that she was at basis honorable in her instincts, and would never do herself or another a real injustice. If a distinct wrong or even a secret of an unhappy or debasing nature lay between them, he knew that nothing, not even the bitterest necessity or the most headlong passion, would ever drive her into committing the dishonor of marrying him.

No; if with his declaration in her ears, and with his eyes fixed upon hers, she should give any token of her willingness to accept his addresses, he felt he might know, beyond doubt or cavil, that whatever womanish excitability may have moved her in her demonstrations that day, they certainly arose from no private knowledge or suspicion detrimental to his future peace or to hers.

Bracing himself, therefore, to meet any result that might follow his attempt, he drew her gently toward him and determinedly addressed her.

“Imogene, I told you at the gate that I had something to say to you. So I have; and though it may not be wholly unexpected to you, yet I doubt if it would have left my lips to-night if the events of the day had not urged me to offer you my sympathy and protection.”

He paused, almost sickened; at that last phrase she had grown so terribly white and breathless. But something in her manner, notwithstanding, seemed to encourage him to proceed, and smothering his doubts, trampling, as it were, upon his rising apprehensions, he calmed down his tone and went quietly on:

“Imogene, I love you.”

She did not shrink.

“Imogene, I want you for my wife. Will you listen to my prayer, and make my home forever happy with your presence?”

Ah, now she showed feeling; now she started and drew back, putting out her hands as if the idea he had advanced was insupportable to her. But it was only for a moment. Before he could say to himself that it was all over, that his worst fears had been true, and that nothing but the sense of some impassable gulf between them could have made her recoil from him like this, she had dropped her hands and turned toward him with a look whose deep inquiry and evident struggle after an understanding of his claims, spoke of a mind clouded by trouble, but not alienated from himself by fear.

She did not speak, however — not for some few minutes, and when she did, her words came in short and hurried gasps.

“You are kind,” was what she said. “To be your — wife”— she had difficulty in uttering the word, but it came at last —“would be an honor and a protection. I appreciate both. But I am in no mood to-night to listen to words of love from any man. Perhaps six months hence ——”

But he already had her in his arms. The joy and relief he felt were so great he could not control himself. “Imogene,” he murmured, “my Imogene!” And scarcely heeded her when, in a burst of subdued agony, she asked to be released, saying that she was ill and tired, and must be allowed to withdraw to her room.

But a second appeal woke him from his dream. If his worst fears were without foundation; if her mind was pure of aught that unfitted her to be his wife, there was yet much that was mysterious in her conduct, and, consequently, much which he longed to have explained.

“Imogene,” he said, “I must ask you to remain a moment longer. Hard as it is for me to distress you, there is a question which I feel it necessary to put to you before you go. It is in reference to the fearful crime which took place to-day. Why did you take such an interest in it, and why has it had such an effect upon you that you look like a changed woman to-night?”

Disengaging herself from his arms, she looked at him with the set composure of one driven to bay, and asked:

“Is there any thing strange in my being interested in a murder perpetrated on a person whose name I have frequently heard mentioned in this house?”

“No,” he murmured, “no; but what led you to her home? It was not a spot for a young lady to be in, and any other woman would have shrunk from so immediate a contact with crime.”

Imogene’s hand was on the door, but she turned back.

“I am not like other women,” she declared. “When I hear of any thing strange or mysterious, I want to understand it. I did not stop to ask what people would think of my conduct.”

“But your grief and terror, Imogene? They are real, and not to be disguised. Look in the glass over there, and you will yourself see what an effect all this has had upon you. If Mrs. Clemmens is a stranger to you; if you know no more of her than you have always led me to suppose, why should you have been so unnaturally impressed by to-day’s tragedy?”

It was a searching question, and her eye fell slightly, but her steady demeanor did not fail her.

“Still,” said she, “because I am not like other women. I cannot forget such horrors in a moment.” And she advanced again to the door, upon which she laid her hand.

Unconsciously his eye followed the movement, and rested somewhat inquiringly upon that hand. It was gloved, but to all appearance was without the ring which he had seen her put on at the widow’s house.

She seemed to comprehend his look. Meeting his eye with unshaken firmness, she resumed, in a low and constrained voice:

“You are wondering about the ring that formed a portion of the scene we are discussing. Mr. Orcutt, I told the gentleman who handed it to me to-day that it was mine. That should be enough for the man who professes sufficient confidence in me to wish to make me his wife. But since your looks confess a curiosity in regard to this diamond, I will say that I was as much astonished as anybody to see it picked up from the floor at my feet. The last time I had seen it was when I dropped it, somewhat recklessly, into a pocket. How or when it fell out, I cannot say. As for the ring itself,” she haughtily added, “young ladies frequently possess articles of whose existence their friends are unconscious.”

Here was an attempt at an explanation which, though meagre and far from satisfactory, had at least a basis in possibility. But Mr. Orcutt, as I have before said, was certain that the ring was lying on the floor of the room where it was picked up, before Imogene had made her appearance there, and was therefore struck with dismay at this conclusive evidence of her falsehood.

Yet, as he said to himself, she might have some association with the ring, might even have an owner’s claim upon it, incredible as this appeared, without being in the possession of such knowledge as definitely connected it with this crime. And led by this hope he laid his hand on hers as it was softly turning the knob of the door, and said, with emotion:

“Imogene, one moment. This is a subject which I am as anxious to drop as you are. In your condition it is almost cruelty to urge it upon you, but of one thing I must be assured before you leave my presence, and that is, that whatever secrets you may hide in your soul, or whatever motive may have governed your treatment of me and my suit to-night, they do not spring from any real or supposed interest in this crime, which ought from its nature to separate you and me. I ask,” he quickly added, as he saw her give a start of injured pride or irrepressible dismay, “not because I have any doubts on the subject myself, but because some of the persons who have unfortunately been witness to your strange and excited conduct to-day, have presumed to hint that nothing short of a secret knowledge of the crime or criminal could explain your action upon the scene of tragedy.”

And with a look which, if she had observed it, might have roused her to a sense of the critical position in which she stood, he paused and held his breath for her reply.

It did not come.

“Imogene?”

“I hear.”

Cold and hard the words sounded — his hand went like lightning to his heart.

“Are you going to answer?” he asked, at last.

“Yes.”

“What is that answer to be, Yes or No?”

She turned upon him her large gray eyes. There was misery in their depths, but there was a haughtiness, also, which only truth could impart.

“My answer is No!” said she.

And, without another word, she glided from the room.

Next morning, Mr. Byrd found three notes awaiting his perusal. The first was a notification from the coroner to the effect that the Widow Clemmens had quietly breathed her last at midnight. The second, a hurried line from Mr. Ferris, advising him to make use of the day in concluding a certain matter of theirs in the next town; and the third, a letter from Mr. Orcutt, couched in the following terms:

MR. BYRD: Dear Sir— I have seen the person named between us, and I here state, upon my honor, that she is in possession of no facts which it concerns the authorities to know.

Tremont B. Orcutt.

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