NIGHT! and Deborah Scoville waiting anxiously for Reuther to sleep, that she might brood undisturbed over a new and disturbing event which for the whole day had shaken her out of her wonted poise, and given, as it were, a new phase to her life in this house.
Already had she stepped several times to her daughter’s room and looked in, only to meet Reuther’s unquiet eye turned towards hers in silent inquiry. Was her own uneasiness infectious? Was the child determined to share her vigil? She would wait a little longer this time and see.
Their rooms were over the parlour and thus as far removed as possible from the judge’s den. In her own, which was front, she felt at perfect ease, and it was without any fear of disturbing either him or Reuther that she finally raised her window and allowed the cool wind to soothe her heated cheeks.
How calm the aspect of the lawn and its clustering shrubs. Dimly seen though they were through the leaves of the vines she had but partially clipped, she felt the element of peace which comes with perfect quiet, and was fain to forget for awhile the terrors it so frequently conceals. The moon, which had been invisible up to this moment, emerged from skurrying clouds as she quietly watched the scene; and in an instant her peace was gone and all the thronging difficulties of her position came rushing back upon her in full force, as all the details of the scene, so mercifully hidden just now, flashed again upon her vision.
Perched, as she was, in a window overlooking the lane, she had but to lift her eyes from the double fence (that symbol of sad seclusion) to light on the trees rising above that unspeakable ravine, black with memories she felt strangely like forgetting to~night. Beyond . . . how it stood out on the bluff! it had never seemed to stand out more threateningly! . . . the bifurcated mass of dismal ruin from which men had turned their eyes these many years now! But the moon loved it; caressed it; dallied with it, lighting up its toppling chimney and empty, staring gable. There, where the black streak could be seen, she had stood with the judge in that struggle of wills which had left its scars upon them both to this very day. There, hidden but always seen by those who remembered the traditions of the place, mouldered away the walls of that old closet where the timorous, God-stricken suicide had breathed out his soul. She had stood in it only the other day, penned from outsiders’ view by the judge’s outstretched arms. Then, she had no mind for bygone horrors, her own tragedy weighed too heavily upon her; but to-night, as she gazed, fascinated, anxious to forget herself, anxious to indulge in any thought which would relieve her from dwelling on the question she must settle before she slept, she allowed her wonder and her revulsion to have free course. Instead of ignoring, she would recall the story of the place as it had been told her when she first came to settle in its neighbourhood.
Spencer’s Folly! Well, it had been that, and Spencer’s den of dissipation too! There were great tales — but it was not of these she was thinking, but of the night of storm —(of the greatest storm of which any record remained in Shelby) when the wind tore down branches and toppled down chimneys; when cattle were smitten in the field and men on the highway; when the old bridge, since replaced, buckled up and sank in the roaring flood it could no longer span, and the bluff towering overhead, flared into flame, and the house which was its glory, was smitten apart by the descending bolt as by a Titan sword, and blazed like a beacon to the sky.
This was long before she herself had come to Shelby; but she had been told the story so often that it was quite as vivid to her as if she had been one of the innumerable men and women who had crowded the glistening, swimming streets to view this spectacle of destruction. The family had been gone for months, and so no pity mingled with the excitement. Not till the following day did the awful nature of the event break in its full horror upon the town. Among the ruins, in a closet which the flames had spared, they found hunched up in one corner, the body of a man, in whose seared throat a wound appeared which had not been made by lightning or fire. Spencer! Spencer himself, returned they knew not how, to die of this self-inflicted wound, in the dark corner of his grand but neglected dwelling.
And this was what made the horror of the place till the tragedy of the opposite hollow added crime to crime, and the spot became outlawed to all sensitive citizens. Folly and madness and the vengeance of high heaven upon unhallowed walls, spoke to her from that towering mass, bathed though it was just now in liquid light under the impartial moon.
But as she continued to survey it, the clouds came trooping up once more, and the vision was wiped out and with it all memories save those of a nearer trouble — a more pressing necessity.
Withdrawing from the window, she crept again to Reuther’s room and peered carefully in. Innocence was asleep at last. Not a movement disturbed the closed lids on the wax-like cheek. Even the breath came so softly that it hardly lifted the youthful breast. Repose the most perfect and in the form of all others the sweetest to a tender mother, lay before her and touched her already yearning heart to tears. Lighting a candle and shielding it with her hand, she gazed long and earnestly at Reuther’s sweet face. Yes, she was right. Sorrow was slowly sapping the fountain of her darling’s youth. If Reuther was to be saved, hope must come soon. With a sob and a prayer, the mother left the room, and locking herself into her own, sat down at last to face the new perplexity, the monstrous enigma which had come into her life.
It had followed in natural sequence from a proposal made by the judge that some attention should be given his long-neglected rooms. He had said on rising from the breakfast table —(the words are more or less important):
“I am really sorry to trouble you, Mrs. Scoville; but if you have time this morning, will you clean up my study before I leave? The carriage is ordered for half-past nine.”
The task was one she had long desired to perform, and would have urged upon him daily had she dared, but the limitations he set for its accomplishment struck her aghast.
“Do you mean that you wish to remain there while I work? You will be choked, Judge.”
“No more than I have been for the last two days. You may enter any time.” And going in, he left the door open behind him.
“He will lock it when he goes out,” she commented to herself. “I had better hasten.”
Giving Reuther the rest of the work to do, she presently appeared before him with pail and broom and a pile of fresh linen. Nothing more commonplace could be imagined, but to her, if not to him, there underlay this especial act of ordinary housewifery a possible enlightenment on a subject which had held the whole community in a state of curiosity for years. She was going to enter the room which had been barred from public sight by poor Bela’s dying body. She was going to see — or had he only meant that she was to have her way with the library — the room where she had already been and much of which she remembered. The doubt gave a tremulous eagerness to her step and caused her eye to wander immediately to that forbidden corner soon as she had stepped over the threshold.
The bedroom door was open; — proof that she was expected to enter there. Meanwhile, she felt the eye of the judge upon her and endeavoured to preserve a perfect composure and to sink the curious and inquiring woman in the diligent housekeeper.
But she could not, quite. Two facts of which she immediately became cognisant, prevented this. First, the great room before her presented a bare floor, whereas on her first visit it had been very decently, if not cheerfully, covered by a huge carpet rug. Secondly, the judge’s chair, which had once looked immovable, had been dragged forward into such a position that he could keep his own eye on the bedroom door. Manifestly she was not to be allowed to pursue her duties unwatched. Certainly she had to take more than one look at the everyday implements she carried to retain that balance of judgment which should prevent her from becoming the dupe of her own expectations.
“I do not expect you to clean up here as thoroughly as you have your own rooms up stairs,” he remarked, as she passed him. “You haven’t the time, or I the patience for too many strokes of the broom. And Mrs. Scoville,” he called out as she slipped through the doorway, “leave the door open and keep away as much as possible from the side of the room where I have nailed up the curtain. I had rather not have that touched.”
She turned with a smile and nodded. She felt that she had been set to work with a string tied round her feet. Not touch the curtain! Why, that was the one thing in the room she wanted to touch; for in it she not only saw the carpet which had been taken up from the floor of the study, but a possible screen behind which anything might lurk — even his redoubtable secret.
Or had it another and much simpler explanation? Might it not have been hung there merely as a shield to the window. The room must have a window and there was none to be seen elsewhere. It would be like him to shut out light and air. She would ask.
“There is no window,” she observed, looking back at the judge.
“No,” was his short reply.
Slowly she set down her pail. One thing was settled. It was Bela’s cot she saw before her — a cot without any sheets. These had been left behind in the dead negro’s room, and the judge had been sleeping just as she had feared, wrapped in a rug and with uncovered pillow. This pillow was his own; it had not been brought down with the bed. She hastily slipped a cover on it, and without calling any further attention to her act, began to make up the bed.
Conscious that the papers he made a feint of reading were but a cover for his watchfulness, she moved about in a matter-of-fact way and did not spare him the clouds of dust which presently rose before her broom. She could have managed it more deftly — would have done so at another time, but it was her express intention just now to make him move back out of her way, if only to give her an opportunity to disturb by a backward stroke of her broom the folds of the carpet-rug and learn if she could what lay hidden behind it.
But the judge was impervious to discomfort. He coughed and shook his head, but did not budge an inch. Before she had begun to put things in order, the clock struck the half-hour.
“Oh!” she protested, with a pleading glance his way, “I’m not half done.”
“There’s another day to follow,” he dryly remarked, rising and taking a key from his pocket.
The act expressed his wishes; and she was proceeding to carry out her things when a quick sliding noise from the wall she was passing, drew her attention and caused her to spring forward in an involuntary effort to catch a picture which had slipped its cord and was falling to the floor.
A shout from the judge of “Stand aside, let me come!” reached her too late. She had grasped and lifted the picture and seen —
But first, let me explain. This picture was not like the others hanging about. It was a veiled one. From some motive of precaution or characteristic desire for concealment on the part of the judge, it had been closely wrapped about in heavy brown paper before being hung, and in the encounter which ensued between the falling picture and the spear of an image standing on a table underneath, this paper had received a slit through which Deborah had been given a glimpse of the canvas beneath.
The shock of what she saw would have unnerved a less courageous woman.
IT WAS A HIGHLY FINISHED PORTRAIT OF OLIVER IN HIS YOUTH, WITH A BROAD BAND OF BLACK PAINTED DIRECTLY ACROSS THE EYES.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09