To one who swoons but seldom, the moment of returning consciousness is often fraught with great pain and sometimes with unimaginable horror. It was such to Deborah; the pain and horror holding her till her eyes, accustomed to realities again, saw in the angel face which floated before her vision amid a swarm of demon masks, the sweet and solicitous countenance of Reuther.
As she took this in, she took in other facts also: that there were no demons, no strangers even about her: That she and her child were comparatively alone in their own little parlour, and that Reuther’s sweet face wore a look of lofty courage which reminded her of something she could not at the moment grasp, but which was so beautiful. At that instant her full memory came, and, uttering a low cry, she started up, and struggling to her feet, confronted her child, this time with a look full of agonised inquiry.
Reuther seemed to understand her; for, taking her mother’s hand in hers, she softly said:
“I knew you were not seriously ill, only frightened by the crowd and their senseless shoutings. Don’t think of it any more, dear mother. The people are dispersing now, and you will soon be quite restored and ready to smile with us at an attack so groundless it is little short of absurd.”
Astounded at such tranquillity where she had expected anguish if not stark unreason, doubting her eyes, her ears — for this was no longer her delicate, suffering Reuther to be shielded from all unhappy knowledge, but a woman as strong if not as wise to the situation as herself — she scrutinised the child closely, then turned her gaze slowly about the room, and started in painful surprise, as she perceived standing in the space behind her the tall figure of Judge Ostrander.
He! and she must face him! the man whom she by her blind and untimely efforts to regain happiness for Reuther, had brought to this woful pass! The ordeal was too bitter for her broken spirit and, shrinking aside, she covered her face with her hands like one who stands detected in a guilty act.
“Pardon,” she entreated, forgetting Reuther’s presence in her consciousness of the misery she had brought upon her benefactor. “I never meant — I never dreamed —”
“Oh, no apologies!” Was this the judge speaking? The tone was an admonitory, not a suffering one. It was not even that of a man humiliated or distressed. “You have had an unfortunate experience, but that is over now and so must your distress be.” Then, as in her astonishment she dropped her hands and looked up, he added very quietly, “Your daughter has been much disturbed about you, but not at all about Oliver or his good name. She knows my son too well, and so do you and I, to be long affected by the virulent outcries of a mob seeking for an object upon which to expend their spleen.”
Swaying yet in body and mind, quite unable in the turmoil of her spirits to reconcile this strong and steady man with the crushed and despairing figure she had so lately beheld shrinking under the insults of the crowd, Deborah was glad to sit silent under this open rebuke and listen to Reuther’s ingenuous declarations, though she knew that they brought no conviction and distilled no real comfort either to his mind or hers.
“Yes, mother darling,” the young girl was saying. “These people have not seen Oliver in years, but we have, and nothing they can say, nothing that any one can say but himself could ever shake my belief in him as a man incapable of a really wicked act. He might be capable of striking a sudden blow — most men are under great provocation — but to conceal such a fact — to live for years enjoying the respect of all who knew him, with the knowledge festering in his heart of another having suffered for his crime — that, THAT would be impossible to Oliver Ostrander.”
Some words ring in the heart long after their echo has left the ear. IMPOSSIBLE! Deborah stole a look at the judge. But he was gazing at Reuther, where he well might gaze, if his sinking heart craved support or his abashed mind sought to lose itself in the enthusiasm of this pure soul, with its loving, uncalculating instincts.
“Am I not right, mother?”
Ah! must she answer that?
“Tell the judge who is as confident of Oliver as I am myself that you are confident, too. That you could no more believe him capable of this abominable act than you could believe it of my father.”
“I will — tell — the judge,” stammered the unhappy mother. “Judge,” she briefly declared, as she rose with the help of her daughter’s arm, “my mind agrees with yours in this matter. What you think, I think.” And that was all she could say.
As she fell again into her seat, the judge turned to Reuther:
“Leave your mother for a little while,” he urged with that rare gentleness he always showed her. “Let her rest here a few minutes longer, alone with me.”
“Yes, Reuther,” murmured Deborah, seeing no way of avoiding this inevitable interview. “I am feeling better every minute. I will come soon.”
The young girl’s eye faltered from one to the other, then settled, with a strange and imploring look upon her mother. Had her clear intelligence pierced at last to the core of that mother’s misery? Had she seen what Deborah would have spared her at the cost of her own life? It would seem so, for when the mother, with great effort, began some conciliatory speech, the young girl smiled with a certain sad patience, and, turning towards Judge Ostrander, said as she softly withdrew:
“You have been very kind to allow me to mention a name and discuss a subject you have expressly forbidden. I want to show my gratitude, Judge Ostrander, by never referring to it again without your permission. That you know my mind,”— here her head rose with a sort of lofty pride which lent a dazzling quality to her usually quiet beauty — “and that I know yours, is quite enough for me.”
“A noble girl! a mate for the best!” fell from the judge’s lips after a silence disturbed only by the faint, far-off murmur of a slowly dispersing throng.
Deborah made no answer. She could not yet trust her courage or her voice.
The judge, who was standing near, concentrated his look upon her features. Still she made no effort to meet his eye. He did not speak, and the silence grew appalling. To break it, he stepped away and took a glance out of the window. There was nothing to be seen there; the fence hid all, but he continued to look, the shadows from his soul settling deeper and deeper upon his countenance as each heavy moment dragged by. When he finally turned, it was with a powerful effort which communicated itself to her and forced her long-bowed head to rise and her troubled mind to disclose itself.
“You wish to express your displeasure, and hesitate on account of Reuther,” she faltered. “You need not. We are quite prepared to leave your house if our presence reminds you too much of the calamity I have brought upon you by my inconsiderate revival of a past you had every reason to believe buried.”
His reply was uttered with great courtesy.
“Madam,” said he, “I have never had a thought from the first moment of your coming, of any change in the arrangements we then entered into; nor is the demonstration we have just witnessed a calamity of sufficient importance to again divide this household. To connect my high-minded son with a crime for which he had no motive and from which he could reap no benefit is, if you will pardon my plain speaking at a moment so critical, even greater folly than to exculpate, after all these years, the man whom a conscientious jury found guilty. Only a mob could so indulge itself; individuals will not dare.”
She thought of the letter which had been passed up to him in court, and surveyed him with an astonishment she made no effort to conceal. Never had she felt at a greater disadvantage with him. Never had she understood him less. Was this attempt at unconcern, so pitiably transparent to her, made in an endeavour to probe her mind or to deceive his own? In her anxiety to determine, she hesitatingly remarked:
“Not the man who writes those anonymous letters?”
“Letters?” Involuntarily his hand flew to one of his inner pockets.
“Yes, you have found them, have you not, lying about the grounds?”
“No.” He looked startled. “Explain yourself,” said he. “What letters? Not such as —” Again his hand went to his pocket, but shrunk hastily back as she pulled out a crumpled bit of paper and began to smooth it out for his perusal.
“What have you there?” he cried.
“Such a letter as I speak of, Judge Ostrander. I picked it up from the walk a day or so ago. Perhaps you have come upon the like?”
“No; why should I?”
He had started back, but his eye falling involuntarily upon the words she had spread out before him, he rapidly read them, and aghast at their import, glanced from the paper to her face and back again, crying:
“He means Oliver! We have an enemy, Mrs. Scoville, an enemy! Do you know”— here he leaned forward, and plunged his eye, now burning with many passions, into hers —“who this enemy is?”
“Yes.” Softly as the word came, it seemed to infuriate him. Seizing her by the arm, he was about to launch against her the whole weight of his aroused nature, when she said simply: “He is a common bill-poster. I took pains to find this out. I was as interested as you could be to discover the author of such an outrage.”
“Yes, Judge Ostrander.”
“What is his name?”
“I do not know. I only know that he is resolved upon making you trouble. It was he who incited this riot. He did it by circulating anonymous missives and by — forgive me for telling you this — affixing scrawls of the same ambiguous character on fences and on walls, and even on — on —” (Here terror tied her tongue, for his hand had closed about her arm in a forceful grip, and the fire in the eye holding hers was a consuming one) “the rails — of — of BRIDGES.”
The cry was involuntary, but not so the steady settling of the lips which followed it and the determined poise of his body as he waited for her next word.
“Miss Weeks, the little lady opposite, saw the latter and tore it off. But the mischief had already spread. Oh, strike me! Send me from your house!”
He gave no token of hearing her.
“Why is this man my enemy?” he asked. “I do not know any such person as you describe.”
“Nor I,” she answered more quietly.
“A bill-poster! Well, he has done his worst. I shall think no more about him.” And the burning eye grew mild and the working lip calm again, with a determination too devoid of sarcasm to be false.
It was a change for which Deborah was in no wise prepared. She showed her amazement as ingenuously as a child, and he, observing it, remarked in a different tone from any he had used yet:
“You do not look well. You are still suffering from the distress and confusion into which this wretched swoon has thrown you. Or can it be that you are not yet convinced of our wisdom in ignoring this diabolic attack upon one whose reputation is as dear to us as our own? If that is so, and I see that it is, let me remind you of a fact which cannot be new to you if it is to others of happier memories, that no accusation of this kind, however plausible — and this is not plausible — can hold its own for a day without evidence to back it. And there is no evidence against my son in this ancient matter of my friend Etheridge’s violent death, save the one coincidence known to many, that he chanced to be somewhere in the ravine at that accursed hour. A petty point upon which to hang this late and elaborate insult of suspicion!” And his voice rang out in a laugh, but not as it would have rung, or as Deborah thought it would have rung, had his mind been as free as his words.
When it had quite ceased, Deborah threw off the last remnant of physical as well as moral weakness, and deliberately rose to her feet. She believed she understood him now; and she respected the effort he was making, and would have seconded it gladly had she dared.
But she did not dare. If he were really as ignorant as he appeared of the extent of the peril threatening Oliver’s good name; if he had cheated himself during these long years into supposing that the secret which had undermined his own happiness was an unshared one, and that his own conduct since that hour he had characterised as accursed, had given no point to the charges they had just heard hurled against his son, then he ought to be undeceived and that right speedily. Evidence did exist connecting Oliver with this crime; evidence as sure, nay, yet surer, than that raised against her husband; and no man’s laughter, no, not even his father’s — least of all his father’s — could cover up the fact or avail against the revelations which must follow, now that the scent was on. Honouring as she did the man before her, understanding both his misery and the courage he displayed in this superhuman effort to hide his own convictions, she gathered up all her resources, and with a resolution no less brave than his, said firmly:
“You are too much respected in this town, Judge Ostrander, for any collection of people, however thoughtless or vile, to so follow the lead of a lowdown miscreant as to greet you to your face with these damaging assertions, unless they THOUGHT they had evidence, and good evidence, too, with which to back these assertions.”
It was the hurling of an arrow poisoned at the point; the launching of a bomb into the very citadel of his security. Had he burst into outbreak — gripped her again or fiercely shown her the door, she would not have been astonished. Indeed, she was prepared for some such result, but it did not come. On the contrary, his answer was almost mild, though tinged for the first time with a touch of that biting sarcasm for which he had once been famous.
“If they had not THOUGHT!” he repeated. “If you had said if they had not KNOWN, then I might indeed have smelt danger. People THINK strange things. Perhaps YOU think them, too.”
“I?” The moment was critical. She saw now that he was sounding her — had been sounding her from the first. Should she let everything go and let him know her mind, or should she continue to conceal it? In either course lay danger, if not to herself and Reuther, then to himself and Oliver. She decided for the truth. Subterfuge had had its day. The menace of the future called for the strongest weapons which lie at the hand of man. She, therefore, answered:
“Yes; I have been thinking, and this is the result: You must either explain publicly and quite satisfactorily to the people of this town, the mystery of your long separation from Oliver and the life you have since led in this trebly barred house, or accept the opprobrium of such accusations as we have listened to to-day. There is no middle course, Judge Ostrander. I who have loved Oliver almost like a son; — who have a daughter who not only loves him but regards him as a perfect model of noble manhood, tell you so, though it breaks my heart to do it. I cannot see you both fall headlong to destruction for lack of understanding the nearness or the depth of the precipice you are approaching.”
The ejaculation came after a moment of intense silence — a silence during which she seemed to discern the sturdiness of years drop slowly away from him.
“So that is the explanation which people give to my desire for retirement and a life of contemplation. Well,” he slowly added, with the halting utterance of one to whom each word is an effort, “I can see some justification for their conclusions now. I have been too self-centred, and too short-sighted to recognise my own folly. I might have known that anything out of the common course rouses a curiosity which supplies its own explanation at any cost to propriety or respect. I have courted my own doom. I am the victim of my own mistake. But,” he continued, with a flash of his old fire which made him a dignified figure again, “I’m not going to cringe because I have lost ground in the first skirmish. I come of fighting blood. Oliver’s reputation shall not suffer long, whatever I may have done in my parental confidence to endanger it. I have not spent ten years at the bar, and fifteen on the bench for nothing. Let the people look to it! I will stand by my own.”
He had as completely forgotten her as if she had never existed. John Scoville, his widow, even the child bowed under troubles not unlike his own, had faded alike from his consciousness. But the generous Deborah felt no resentment at the determination which would only press her and hers deeper into contumely. She had seen the father in the man for the first time, and her whole heart went out in passionate sympathy which blinded her to everything but her present duty. Alas, that it should be so hard a one! Alas, that instead of encouraging him, she must point out the one weakness of his cause which he did not or would not see, that is, his own conviction of his absent son’s guilt as typified by the line he had deliberately smeared across Oliver’s pictured countenance. The task seemed so difficult, the first steps so blind, that she did not know how to begin and stood staring at him with interest and dread struggling for mastery in her heavily labouring breast.
Did he perceive this or was it the silence which drew his attention to her condition and the evils still threatening him? Whichever it was, the light vanished from his face as he surveyed her and it was with a return of his old manner, that he finally observed:
“You are keeping something from me — some fancied discovery — some clew, as they call it, to what you may consider my dear boy’s guilt.”
With a deep breath she woke from her trance of indecision and letting forth the full passion of her nature, she cried out in her anguish:
“I have but one answer for that, Judge Ostran-der. Look into your own heart! Question your own conscience. I have seen what reveals it. I—”
She stopped appalled. Rage, such as she had never even divined spoke from every feature. He was no longer the wretched but calmly reasoning man, but a creature hardly human, and when he spoke, it was in a frenzy which swept everything before it.
“You have SEEN!” he shouted. “You have broken your promise! You have touched what you were forbidden to touch! You have —”
“Not so,” she broke in softly but very firmly. “I have touched nothing that I was told not to, nor have I broken any promise. I simply saw more than I was expected to, I suppose, of the picture which fell the day you first allowed me to enter your study.”
“Is that true?”
“It is true.”
They were whispering now.
Drawing a deep breath, he gathered up his faculties. “Upon such accidents,” he muttered, “hang the fate and honour of men. And you have gossiped about this picture,” he again vociferated with sudden and unrestrained violence, “told Reuther — told others —”
“No.” The denial was peremptory — not to be disbelieved. “What I have learned, I have kept religiously to myself. Alas!” she half moaned, half cried, “that I should feel the necessity!”
“Madam!”— he was searching her eyes, searching her very soul, as men seldom search the mind of another. “You believe in the truth of these calumnies that have just been shouted in our ears. You believe what they say of Oliver. You with every prejudice in his favour; with every desire to recognise his worth! You, who have shown yourself ready to drop your husband’s cause though you consider it an honest one, when you saw what havoc it would entail to my boy’s repute. YOU believe — and on what evidence?” he broke in. “Because of the picture?”
“And the coincidence of his presence in the ravine?”
“But these are puerile reasons.” He was speaking peremptorily now and with all the weight of a master mind. “And you are not the woman to be satisfied with anything puerile. There is something back of all this; something you have not imparted. What is that something? Tell — tell —”
“Oliver was a mere boy in those days and a very passionate one. He hated Etheridge — the obtrusive mentor who came between him and yourself.”
“Yes, there is proof.”
“Of his hate?”
He did not ask where. Possibly he knew. And because he did not ask, she did not tell him, holding on to her secret in a vague hope that so much at least might never see light.
“I knew the boy shrank sometimes from Algernon’s company,” the judge admitted, after another glance at her face; “but that means nothing in a boy full of his own affairs. What else have you against him? Speak up! I can bear it all.”
“He handled the stick that — that-”
“Never! Now you have gone mad, madam.”
“I would be willing to end my days in an asylum if that would disprove this fact.”
“But, madam, what proof — what reason can you have for an assertion so monstrous?”
“You remember the shadow I saw which was not that of John Scoville? The person who made that shadow was whittling a stick; that was a trick of Oliver’s. I have heard that he even whittled furniture.”
“Good God!” The judge’s panoply was pierced at last.
“They tried to prove, as you will remember, that it was John who thus disfigured the bludgeon he always carried with pride. But the argument was a sorry one and in itself would have broken down the prosecution had he been a man of better repute. Now, those few chips taken from the handle of this weapon will carry a different significance. For in my folly I asked to see this stick which still exists at Police Headquarters, and there in the wood I detected and pointed out a trifle of steel which never came from the unbroken blades of the knife taken from John’s pocket.”
Fallen was the proud head now and fallen the great man’s aspect. If he spoke it was to utter a low “Oliver! Oliver!”
The pathos of it — the heart-rending wonder in the tone brought the tears to Deborah’s eyes and made her last words very difficult.
“But the one great thing which gives to these facts their really dangerous point is the mystery you have made of your life and of this so-called hermitage. If you can clear up that, you can afford to ignore the rest.”
“The misfortunes of my house!” was his sole response. “The misfortunes of my house!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09