Judge Ostrander was a man of keen perception, quick to grasp an idea, quick to form an opinion. But his mind acted slowly to~night. Deborah Scoville wondered at the blankness of his gaze and the slow way in which he seemed to take in this astounding fact.
At last he found voice and with it gave some evidence of his usual acumen.
“Madam, a shadow is an uncertain foundation on which to build such an edifice as you plan. How do you know that the fact you mention was coincident with the crime? Mr. Etheridge’s body was not found till after dark. A dozen men might have come down that path with or without sticks before he reached the bridge and fell a victim to the assault which laid him low.”
“I thought the time was pretty clearly settled by the hour he left your house. The sun had not set when he turned your corner on his way home. So several people said who saw him. Besides —”
“Yes; there is a BESIDES. I’m sure of it.”
“I saw the tall figure of a man, whom I afterwards made sure was Mr. Etheridge, coming down Factory Road on his way to the bridge when I turned about to get Reuther.”
“All of which you suppressed at the trial.”
“I was not questioned on this point, sir.”
“Madam,”— he was standing very near to her now, hemming her as it were into that decaying corner —“I should have a very much higher opinion of your candour if you told me the whole story.”
“I have, sir.”
His hands rose, one to the right hand wall, the other to the left, and remained there with their palms resting heavily against the rotting plaster. She was more than ever hemmed in; but, though she felt a trifle frightened at his aspect which certainly was not usual, she faced him without shrinking and in very evident surprise.
“You went immediately home with the child after that glimpse you got of Mr. Etheridge?”
“Yes; I had no reason in the world to suppose that anything was going to happen in the ravine below us. Of course, I went straight on; there were things to be done at home, and — you don’t believe me, sir.”
His hands fell; an indefinable change had come over his aspect; he bowed and seemed about to utter an ironic apology. She felt puzzled and unconsciously she began to think. What was lacking in her statement? Something. Could she remember what? Something which he had expected; something which as presiding judge over John’s trial he had been made aware of and now recalled to render her story futile. It couldn’t be that one little thing — But yes, it might be. Nothing is little where a great crime is concerned. She smiled a dubious smile, then she said:
“It seems too slight a fact to mention, and, in-deed, I had forgotten it till you pressed me, but after we had passed the gates and were well out on the highway, I found that Reuther had left her little pail behind her here, and we came back and got it. Did you mean that, sir?”
“I meant nothing; but I felt sure you had not told all you could about that fatal ten minutes. You came back. It is quite a walk from the road. The man whose shadow you saw must have reached the bridge by this time. What did you see then or — hear?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing, judge. I was intent on finding the baby’s pail, and having found it I hurried back home all the faster.”
“And tragedy was going on or was just completed, in plain sight from this gap!”
“I have no doubt, sir; and if I had looked, possibly John might have been saved.”
The silence following this was broken by a crash and a little cry. Peggy’s house had tumbled down.
The small incident was a relief. Both assumed more natural postures.
“So the shadow is your great and only point,” remarked the judge.
“It is sufficient for me.”
“But not enough for the public?”
“Not enough for you, either?”
“Madam, I have already told you that, in my opinion, John Scoville was a guilty man.”
“And this fact, with which I have just acquainted you, has done nothing to alter this opinion?”
“I can only repeat what I have just said.”
“Oh, Reuther! Oh, Oliver!”
“Do not speak my son’s name. I am in no mood for it. The boy and girl are two and can never become one. I have other views for her~-she is an innocent victim and she has my sympathy. You, too, madam, though I consider you as following a will-o’-the-wisp which will only lead you hopelessly astray.”
“I shall not desist, Judge Ostrander.”
“You are going to pursue this Jack-o’-Lanthorn?”
“I am determined to. If you deny me aid and advice, I shall seek another counsellor. John’s name must be vindicated.”
He gave her a look, turned and glanced down at the child piling stone on stone and whimpering just a little when they fell.
“Watch that baby for a while,” he remarked, “and you will learn the lesson of most human endeavour. Madam, I have a proposition to make you. You cannot wish to remain at the inn, nor can you be long happy separated from your daughter. I have lost Bela. I do not know how, nor would I be willing, to replace him by another servant. I need a housekeeper; some one devoted to my interests and who will not ask me to change my habits too materially. Will you accept the position, if I add as an inducement my desire to have Reuther also as an inmate of my home? This does not mean that I countenance or in any way anticipate her union with my son. I do not; but any other advantages she may desire, she shall have. I will not be strict with her.”
Deborah Scoville was never more taken aback in her life. The recluse opening his doors to two women! The man of mystery flinging aside the reticences of years to harbour an innocence which he refused to let weigh against the claims of a son he has seen fit to banish from his heart and home!
“You may take time to think of it,” he continued, as he watched the confused emotions change from moment to moment the character of her mobile features. “I shall not have my affairs adjusted for such a change before a week. If you accept, I shall be very grateful. If you decline, I shall close up my two rear gates, and go into solitary seclusion. I can cook a meal if I have to.”
And she saw that he would do it; saw and wondered still more.
“I shall have to write to Reuther,” she murmured. “How soon do you want my decision?”
“In four days.”
“I am too disturbed to thank you, judge. Should — should we have to keep the gates locked?”
“No. But you would have to keep out unwelcome intruders. And the rights of my library will have to be respected. In all other regards I should wish, under these new circumstances, to live as other people live. I have been very lonely these past twelve years.”
“I will think about it.”
“And you may make note of these two conditions: Oliver’s name is not to be mentioned in my hearing, and you and Reuther are to be known by your real names.”
“You would —”
“Yes, madam. No secrecy is to be maintained in future as to your identity or my reasons for desiring you in my house. I need a housekeeper and you please me. That you have a past to forget and Reuther a disappointment to overcome, gives additional point to the arrangement.”
Her answer was:
“I cannot take back what I have said about my determined purpose.” In repeating this, she looked up at him askance.
He smiled. She remembered that smile long after the interview was over and only its memory remained.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55