“You began it, as women begin most things, without thought and a due weighing of consequences. And now you propose to drop it in the same freakish manner. Isn’t that it?”
Deborah Scoville lifted her eyes in manifest distress and fixed them deprecatingly upon her interrogator. She did not like his tone which was dry and suspiciously sarcastic, and she did not like his attitude which was formal and totally devoid of all sympathy. Instinctively she pushed her veil still further from her features as she deprecatingly replied:
“You are but echoing your sex in criticising mine as impulsive. And you are quite within your rights in doing this. Women are impulsive; they are even freakish. But it is given to one now and then to recognise this fact and acknowledge it. I hope I am of this number; I hope that I have the judgment to see when I have committed a mistake and to stop short before I make myself ridiculous.”
The lawyer smiled — a tight-lipped, acrid sort of smile which nevertheless expressed as much admiration as he ever allowed himself to show.
“Judgment, eh?” he echoed. “You stop because your judgment tells you that you were on the point of making a fool of yourself? No other reason, eh?”
“Is not that the best which can be given a hard-headed, clear-eyed lawyer like yourself? Would you have me go on, with no real evidence to back my claims; rouse up this town to reconsider his case when I have nothing to talk about but my husband’s oath and a shadow I cannot verify?”
“Then Miss Weeks’ neighbourliness failed in point? She was not as interesting as you had a right to expect from my recommendation?”
“Miss Weeks is a very chatty and agreeable woman, but she cannot tell what she does not know.”
Mr. Black smiled. The woman delighted him. The admiration which he had hitherto felt for her person and for the character which could so develop through misery and reproach as to make her in twelve short years, the exponent of all that was most attractive and bewitching in woman, seemed likely to extend to her mind. Sagacious, eh? and cautious, eh? He was hardly prepared for such perfection, and let the transient lighting up of his features speak for him till he was ready to say:
“You find the judge very agreeable, now that you know him better?”
“Yes, Mr. Black. But what has that got to do with the point at issue?”
And SHE smiled, but not just in his manner nor with quite as little effect.
“Much,” he growled. “It might make it easier for you to reconcile yourself to the existing order of things.”
“I am reconciled to them simply from necessity,” was her gentle response. “Nothing is more precious to me than Reuther’s happiness. I should but endanger it further by raising false hopes. That is why I have come to cry halt.”
“Madam, I commend your decision. It is that of a wise and considerate woman. Your child’s happiness is, of course, of paramount importance to you. But why should you characterise your hopes as false, just when there seems to be some justification for them.”
Her eyes widened, and she regarded him with a simulation of surprise which interested without imposing upon him.
“I do not understand you,” said she. “Have YOU come upon some clew? Have YOU heard something which I have not?”
The smile with which he seasoned his reply was of a very different nature from that which he had previously bestowed upon her. It prepared her, possibly, for the shock of his words:
“I hardly think so,” said he. “If I do not mistake, we have been the recipients of the same communications.”
She started to her feet, but sat again instantly. “Pray explain yourself,” she urged. “Who has been writing to you? And what have they written?” she added, presuming a little upon her fascinations as a woman to win an honest response.
“Must I speak first?”
If it was a tilt, it was between even forces.
“It would be gentlemanly in you to do so.”
“But I am not of a gentlemanly temper.”
“I deal with no other,” said she; but with what a glance and in what a tone!
A man may hold out long — and if a lawyer and a bachelor more than long, but there is a point at which he succumbs. Mr. Black had reached that point. Smoothing his brow and allowing a more kindly expression to creep into his regard, he took two or three crushed and folded papers from a drawer beside him and, holding them, none too plainly in sight, remarked very quietly, but with legal firmness:
“Do not let us play about the bush any longer. You have announced your intention of making no further attempt to discover the man who in your eyes merited the doom accorded to John Scoville. Your only reason for this — if you are the woman I think you — lies in your fear of giving further opportunity to the misguided rancour of an irresponsible writer of anonymous epistles. Am I not right, madam?”
Beaten, beaten by a direct assault, because she possessed the weaknesses, as well as the pluck, of a woman. She could control the language of her lips, but not their quivering; she could meet his eye with steady assurance but she could not keep the pallor from her cheeks or subdue the evidences of her heart’s turmoil. Her pitiful glance acknowledged her defeat, which she already saw mirrored in his eyes.
Taking it for an answer, he said gently enough:
“That we may understand each other at once, I will mention the person who has been made the subject of these attacks. He —”
“Don’t speak the name,” she prayed, leaning forward and laying her gloved hand upon his sleeve. “It is not necessary. The whole thing is an outrage.”
“Of course,” he echoed, with some of his natural brusqueness, “and the rankest folly. But to some follies we have to pay attention, and I fear that we shall have to pay attention to this one if only for your daughter Reuther’s sake. You cannot wish her to become the butt of these scandalous attempts?”
“No, no.” The words escaped her before she realised that in their utterance she had given up irretrievably her secret.
“You consider them scandalous?”
“Most scandalous,” she emphatically returned, with a vivacity and seeming candour such as he had seldom seen equalled even on the witness-stand.
His admiration was quite evident. It did not prevent him, however, from asking quite abruptly:
“In what shape and by what means did this communication reach you?”
“I found it lying on the walk between the gates.”
“The same by which Judge Ostrander leaves the house?”
“Yes,” came in faint reply.
“I see that you share my fears. If one such scrap can be thrown over the fence, why shouldn’t another be? Men who indulge themselves in writing anonymous accusations seldom limit themselves to one effusion. I will stake my word that the judge has found more than one on his lawn.”
She could not have responded if she would; her mouth was dry, her tongue half paralysed. What was coming? The glint in the lawyer’s eye forewarned her that something scarcely in consonance with her hopes and wishes might be expected.
“The judge has seen and read these barefaced insinuations against his son and has not turned this whole town topsy-turvy! What are we to think of that? A lion does not stop to meditate; HE SPRINGS. And Archibald Ostrander has the nature of a lion. There is nothing of the fox or even of the tiger in HIM. Mrs. Scoville, this is a very serious matter. I do not wonder that you are a trifle overwhelmed by the results of your ill-considered investigations.”
“Does the town know? Has the thing become a scandal — a byword? Miss Weeks gave no proof of ever having heard one word of this dreadful not-to-be-foreseen business.”
“That is good news. You relieve me. Perhaps it is not a general topic as yet.” Then shortly and with lawyer-like directness, “Show me the letter which has disturbed all your plans.”
“I haven’t it here.”
“You didn’t bring it?”
“No, Mr. Black. Why should I? I had no premonition that I should ever be induced to show it to any one, least of all to you.”
“Look over these. Do they look at all familiar?”
She glanced down at the crumpled sheets and half-sheets he had spread out before her. They were similar in appearance to the one she had picked up on the judge’s grounds but the language was more forcible, as witness these:
When a man is trusted to defend another on trial for his life, he’s supposed to know his business. How came John Scoville to hang, without a thought being given to the man who hated A. Etheridge like poison? I could name a certain chap who more than once in the old days boasted that he’d like to kill the fellow. And it wasn’t Scoville or any one of his low-down stamp either.
A high and mighty name shouldn’t shield a man who sent a poor, unfriended wretch to his death in order to save his own bacon.
“Horrible!” murmured Deborah, drawing back in terror of her own emotion. “It’s the work of some implacable enemy taking advantage of the situation I have created. Mr. Black, this man must be found and made to see that no one will believe, not even Scoville’s widow —”
“There! you needn’t go any further with that,” admonished the lawyer. “I will manage him. But first we must make sure to rightly locate this enemy of the Ostranders. You do detect some resemblance between this writing and the specimen you have at home?”
“They are very much alike.”
“You believe one person wrote them?”
“Have you any idea who this person is?”
“No; why should I?”
“Not the least in the world.”
“I ask because of this,” he explained, picking out another letter and smilingly holding it out towards her.
She read it with flushed cheeks. Listen to the lady. You can’t listen to any one nicer. What she wants she can get. There’s a witness you never saw or heard of.
A witness they had never heard of! What witness? Scarcely could she lift her eyes from the paper. Yet there was a possibility, of course, that this statement was a lie.
“Stuff, isn’t it?” muttered the lawyer. “Never mind, we’ll soon have hold of the writer.” His face had taken on a much more serious aspect, and she could no longer complain of his indifference or even of his sarcasm.
“You will give me another opportunity of talking with you on this matter,” pursued he. “If you do not come here, you may expect to see me at Judge Ostrander’s. I do not quite like the position into which you have been thrown by these absurd insinuations from some unknown person who may be thinking to do you a service, but who you must feel is very far from being your friend. It may even lead to your losing the home which has been so fortunately opened for you. If this occurs, you may count on my friendship, Mrs. Scoville. I may have failed you once, but I will not fail you twice.”
Surprised, almost touched, she held out her hand, with a cordial THANK YOU, in which emotion struggled with her desire to preserve an appearance of complete confidence in Judge Ostrander, and incidentally in his son. Then, being on her feet by this time, she turned to go, anxious to escape further embarrassment from a perspicacity she no longer possessed the courage to meet.
The lawyer appeared to acquiesce in the movement of departure. But when he saw her about to vanish through the door, some impulse of compunction, as real as it was surprising, led him to call her back and seat her once more in the chair she had so lately left.
“I cannot let you go,” said he, “until you understand that these insinuations from a self-called witness would not be worth our attention if there were not a few facts to give colour to his wild claims. Oliver Ostrander WAS in that ravine connecting with Dark Hollow, very near the time of the onslaught on Mr. Etheridge; and he certainly hated the man and wanted him out of the way. The whole town knows that, with one exception. You know that exception?”
“I think so,” she acceded, taking a fresh grip upon her emotions.
“That this was anything more than a coincidence has never been questioned. He was not even summoned as a witness. With the judge’s high reputation in mind I do not think a single person could have been found in those days to suggest any possible connection between this boy and a crime so obviously premeditated. But people’s minds change with time and events, and Oliver Ostrander’s name uttered in this connection to-day would not occasion the same shock to the community as it would have done then. You understand me, Mrs. Scoville?”
“You allude to the unexplained separation between himself and father, and not to any failure on his part to sustain the reputation of his family?”
“Oh, he has made a good position for himself, and earned universal consideration. But that doesn’t weigh against the prejudices of people, roused by such eccentricities as have distinguished the conduct of these two men.”
“Alas!” she murmured, frightened to the soul for the first time, both by his manner and his words.
“You know and I know,” he went on with a grimness possibly suggested by his subject, “that no mere whim lies back of such a preposterous seclusion as that of Judge Ostrander behind his double fence. Sons do not cut loose from fathers or fathers from sons without good cause. You can see, then, that the peculiarities of their mutual history form but a poor foundation for any light refutation of this scandal, should it reach the public mind. Judge Ostrander knows this, and you know that he knows this; hence your distress. Have I not read your mind, madam?”
“No one can read my mind any more than they can read Judge Ostrander’s,” she avowed in a last desperate attempt to preserve her secret. “You may think you have done so, but what assurance can you have of the fact?”
“You are strong in their defence,” said he, “and you will need to be if the matter ever comes up. The shadows from Dark Hollow reach far, and engulf all they fall upon.”
“Mr. Black”— she had re-risen the better to face him —“you want something from me — a promise, or a condition.”
“No,” said he, “this is my affair only as it affects you. I simply wished to warn you of what you might have to face; and what Judge Ostrander will have to face (here I drop the lawyer and speak only as a man) if he is not ready to give a more consistent explanation of the curious facts I have mentioned.”
“I cannot warn him, Mr. Black.”
“You? Of course not. Nobody can warn him; possibly no one should warn him. But I have warned YOU; and now, as a last word, let us hope that no warning is necessary and that we shall soon see the last of these calumniating letters and everything readjusted once more on a firm and natural basis. Judge Ostrander’s action in reopening his house in the manner and for the purpose he has, has predisposed many in his favour. It may, before we know it, make the past almost forgotten.”
“Meanwhile you will make an attempt to discover the author of these anonymous attacks?”
“To save YOU from annoyance.”
Obliged to make acknowledgment of the courtesy if not kindness prompting these words, Mrs. Scoville expressed her gratitude and took farewell in a way which did not seem to be at all displeasing to the crusty lawyer; but when she found herself once more in the streets, her anxiety and suspense took on a new phase. What was at the bottom of Mr. Black’s contradictory assertions? Sympathy with her, as he would have her believe, or a secret feeling of animosity towards the man he openly professed to admire?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55