Deborah re-entered the judge’s house a stricken woman. Evading Reuther, she ran up stairs, taking off her things mechanically on the way. She must have an hour alone. She must learn her first lesson in self-control and justifiable duplicity before she came under her daughter’s eyes. She must —
Here she reached her room door and was about to enter, when at a sudden thought she paused and let her eyes wander down the hall, till they settled on another door, the one she had closed behind her the night before, with the deep resolve never to open it again except under compulsion.
Had the compulsion arisen? Evidently, for a few minutes later she was standing in one of the dim corners of Oliver’s musty room, reopening a book which she had taken down from the shelves on her former visit. She remembered it from its torn back and the fact that it was an Algebra. Turning to the fly leaf, she looked again at the names and schoolboy phrases she had seen scribbled all over its surface, for the one which she remembered as, I HATE ALGEBRA.
It had not been a very clearly written ALGEBRA, and she would never have given this interpretation to the scrawl, had she been in a better mood. Now another thought had come to her, and she wanted to see the word again. Was she glad or sorry to have yielded to this impulse, when by a closer inspection she perceived that the word was not ALGEBRA at all, but ALGERNON, I HATE A ETHERIDGE. — I HATE A. E. — I HATE ALGERNON E. all over the page, and here and there on other pages, sometimes in characters so rubbed and faint as to be almost unreadable and again so pressed into the paper by a vicious pencil-point as to have broken their way through to the leaf underneath.
The work of an ill-conditioned schoolboy! but — this hate dated back many years. Paler than ever, and with hands trembling almost to the point of incapacity, she put the book back, and flew to her own room, the prey of thoughts bitter almost to madness.
It was the second time in her life that she had been called upon to go through this precise torture. She remembered the hour only too well, when first it was made known to her that one in closest relation to herself was suspected of a hideous crime. And now, with her mind cleared towards him and readjusted to new developments, this crushing experience of seeing equal indications of guilt in another almost as dear and almost as closely knit into her thoughts and future expectations as John had ever been. Can one endure a repetition of such horror? She had never gauged her strength, but it did not seem possible. Besides of the two blows, this seemed the heaviest and the most revolting. Then, only her own happiness and honour were involved; now it was Reuther’s; and the fortitude which sustained her through the ignominy of her own trouble, failed her at the prospect of Reuther’s. And again, the two cases were not equal. Her husband had had traits which, in a manner, had prepared her for the ready suspicion of people. But Oliver was a man of reputation and kindly heart; and yet, in the course of time THIS had come, and the question once agitating her as to whether Reuther was a fit mate for him had now evolved itself into this: WAS HE A FIT MATE FOR HER?
She had rather have died, nay, have had Reuther die than to find herself forced to weigh and decide so momentous a question.
For, however she might feel about it, not a single illusion remained as to whose hand had made use of John Scoville’s stick to strike down Algernon Etheridge. How could she have when she came to piece the whole story together, and weigh the facts she had accumulated against Oliver with those which had proved so fatal to her husband.
First: the uncontrolled temper of the lad, hints of which she was daily receiving.
Secondly: his absolute, if unreasonable, hatred of the man thus brutally assailed. She knew what such hatred was and how it eats into an undeveloped mind. She had gone through its agonies herself when she was a young girl, and knew its every stage. With jealousy and personal distaste for a start, it was easy to trace the revolt of this boyish heart from the intrusive, ever present mentor who not only shared his father’s affections but made use of them to influence that father against the career he had chosen, in favour of one he not only disliked but for which he lacked all aptitude.
She saw it all from the moment his pencil dug into the paper these tell-tale words: I HATE OLD E to that awful and final one when the detested student fell in the woods and his reign over the judgment, as well as over the heart, of Judge Ostrander was at an end.
In hate, bitter, boiling, long-repressed hate, was found the motive for an act so out of harmony with the condition and upbringing of a lad like Oliver. She need look for no other.
But motive goes for little if not supported by evidence. Was it possible, with this new theory for a basis, to reconstruct the story of this crime without encountering the contradiction of some well-known fact?
She would see.
First, this matter of the bludgeon left, as her husband declared, leaning against the old oak in the bottom of the ravine. All knew the tree and just where it stood. If Oliver, in his eagerness to head off Etheridge at the bridge, had rushed straight down into the gully from Ostrander Lane, he would almost strike this tree in his descent. The diagram sketched on page 185 [Proofreaders Note: Illustration removed] will make this plain. What more natural, then, than for him to catch up the stick he saw there, even if his mind had not been deliberately set on violence. A weapon is a weapon; and an angry man feels easier with something of the kind in hand.
Armed, then, in this unexpected way, but evidently not yet decided upon crime (or why his nervous whittling of the stick) he turned towards the bridge, following the meandering of the stream which in time led him across the bare spot where she had seen the shadow. That it was his shadow no one could doubt who knew all the circumstances, and that she should have leant just long enough from the ruins to mark this shadow and take it for her husband’s — and not long enough to see the man himself and so detect her error, was one of those anomalies of crime which make for judicial errors. John skurrying away through the thicket towards Claymore, Oliver threading his way down the ravine, and she hurrying away from the ruin above with her lost Reuther in hand! Such was the situation at this critical moment. Afterwards when she came back for the child’s bucket, some power had withheld her from looking again into the ravine or she might have been witness to the meeting at the bridge, and so been saved the misery and shame of believing as long as she did that the man who intercepted Algernon Etheridge at that place was her unhappy husband.
The knife with the broken point, which she had come upon in her search among the lad’s discarded effects, proved only too conclusively that it was his hand which had whittled the end of the bludgeon; for the bit of steel left in the wood and the bit lost from the knife were to her exact eye of the same size and an undoubted fit.
Oliver’s remorse, the judge’s discovery of his guilt (a discovery which may have been soon but probably was late — so late that the penalty of the doing had already been paid by the innocent), can only be guessed from the terrible sequel: a son dismissed, a desolated home in which the father lived as a recluse.
How the mystery cleared, as she looked at it! The house barred from guests — the double fence where, hidden from all eyes, the wretched father might walk his dreary round when night forbade him rest or memory became a whip of scorpions to lash him into fury or revolt — the stairs never passed —(how could he look upon rooms where his wife had dreamed the golden dreams of motherhood and the boy passed his days of innocent youth)— aye, and his own closed-up room guarded by Bela from intrusion as long as breath remained to animate his sinking body! What was its secret? Why, Oliver’s portrait! Had this been seen, marked as it was for all men’s reprobation, nothing could have stemmed inquiry; and inquiry was to be dreaded as Judge Ostrander’s own act had shown. Not till he had made his clumsy attempt to cover this memorial of love and guilt and rehanging it, thus hidden, where it would attract less attention, had she been admitted to his room. Alas! alas! that he had not destroyed it then and there. That, clinging to habits old as his grief and the remorse which had undoubtedly devoured him for the part he had played in this case of perverted justice, he had trusted to a sheet of paper to cover what nothing on earth could cover, once Justice were aroused or the wrath of God awakened.
Deborah shuddered. Aye, the mystery had cleared, but only to enshroud her spirits anew and make her long with all her bursting heart and shuddering soul that death had been her portion before ever she had essayed to lift the veil held down so tightly by these two remorseful men.
But was her fault irremediable? The only unanswerable connection between this old crime and Oliver lay in the evidence she had herself collected. As she had every intention of suppressing this evidence, and as she had small dread of any one else digging out the facts to which she only possessed a clew, might she not hope that any suspicions raised by her inquiries would fall like a house of cards when she withdrew her hand from the toppling structure?
She would make her first effort and see. Mr. Black had heard her complaint; he should be the first to learn that the encouragement she had received was so small that she had decided to accept her present good luck without further query, and not hark back to a past which most people had buried.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55