Ten o’clock! and one of the five listed to be present had arrived~-the rector of the church which the Ostranders had formerly attended.
He was ushered into the parlour by Deborah, where he found himself received not by the judge in whose name he had been invited, but by Mr. Black, the lawyer, who tendered him a simple good morning and pointed out a chair.
There was another person in the room — a young man who stood in one of the windows, gazing abstractedly out at the line of gloomy fence rising between him and the street. He had not turned at the rector’s approach, and the latter had failed to recognise him.
And so with each new arrival. He neither turned nor moved at any one’s entrance, but left it to Mr. Black to do the honours and make the best of a situation, difficult, if not inexplicable to all of them. Nor could it be seen that any of these men — city officials, prominent citizens and old friends, recognised his figure or suspected his identity. Beyond a passing glance his way, they betrayed neither curiosity nor interest, being probably sufficiently occupied in accounting for their own presence in the home of their once revered and now greatly maligned compeer. Judge Ostrander, attacked through his son, was about to say or do something which each and every one of them secretly thought had better be left unsaid or undone. Yet none showed any disposition to leave the place; and when, after a short, uneasy pause during which all attempts at conversation failed, they heard a slow and weighty step approaching through the hall, the suspense was such that no one but Mr. Black noticed the quick whirl with which Oliver turned himself about, nor the look of mortal anguish with which he awaited the opening of the door and his father’s entrance among them. No one noticed, I say, until, simultaneously with the appearance of Judge Ostrander on the threshold, a loud cry swept through the room of “Don’t! don’t!” and the man they had barely noticed, flashed by them all, and fell at the judge’s feet with a smothered repetition of his appeal: “Don’t, father, don’t!”
Then, each man knew why he had been summoned there, and knowing, gazed earnestly at these two faces. Twelve years of unappeased longing, of smothered love, rising above doubts, persisting in spite of doubts, were concentrated into that one instant of mutual recognition. The eye of the father was upon that of the son and that of the son upon that of the father and for them, at least in this first instant of reunion, the years were forgotten and sin, sorrow and on-coming doom effaced from their mutual consciousness.
Then the tide of life flowed back into the present, and the judge, motioning to his son to rise, observed very distinctly:
“DON’T is an ambiguous word, my son, and on your lips, at this juncture, may mislead those whom I have called here to hear the truth from us and the truth only. You have heard what happened here a few days ago. How a long-guarded, long-suppressed suspicion — so guarded and so suppressed that I had no intimation of its existence even, found vent at a moment of public indignation, and I heard you, you, Oliver Ostrander, accused to my face of having in some boyish fit of rage struck down the man for whose death another has long since paid the penalty. This you have already been told.”
“Yes.” The word cut sharply through the silence; but the fire with which the young man rose and faced them all showed him at his best. “But surely, no person present believes it. No one can who knows you and the principles in which I have been raised. This fellow whom I beat as a boy has waited long to start this damnable report. Surely he will get no hearing from unprejudiced and intelligent men.”
“The police have listened to him. Mr. Andrews, who is one of the gentlemen present, has heard his story and you see that he stands here silent, my son. And that is not all. Mrs. Scoville, who has loved you like a mother, longs to believe in your innocence, and cannot.”
A low cry from the hall.
It died away unheeded.
“And Mr. Black, her husband’s counsel,” continued the father, in the firm, low tones of one who for many long days and nights had schooled himself for the duty of this hour, “shares her feeling. He has tried not to; but he does. They have found evidences — you know them; proofs which might not have amounted to much had it not been for the one mischievous fact which has undermined public confidence and given point to these attacks. I refer to the life we have led and the barriers we have ourselves raised against our mutual intercourse. These have undone us. To the question, ‘Why these barriers?’ I can find no answer but the one which ends this struggle. Succumbing myself, I ask you to do so also. Out of the past comes a voice — the voice of Algernon Etheridge, demanding vengeance for his untimely end. It will not be gainsaid. Not satisfied with the toll we have both paid in these years of suffering and repression — unmindful of the hermit’s life I have led and of the heart disappointments you have borne, its cry for punishment remains insistent. Gentlemen — Hush! Oliver, it is for me to cry DON’T now — John Scoville was a guilty man — a murderer and a thief — but he did not wield the stick which killed Algernon Etheridge. Another hand raised that. No, do not look at the boy. He is innocent! Look here! look here!’” And with one awful gesture, he stood still — while horror rose like a wave and engulfed the room — choking back breath and speech from every living soul there, and making a silence more awful than any sound~-or so they all felt, till his voice rose again and they heard —
“You have trusted to appearances; you must trust now to my word. I am the guilty man, not Scoville, and not Oliver, though Oliver may have been in the ravine that night and even handled the bludgeon I found at my feet in the recesses of Dark Hollow.”
Then consternation spoke, and muttered cries were heard of “Madness! It is not we who are needed here but a physician!” and dominating all, the ringing shout:
“You cannot save me so, father. I hated Etheridge and I slew him. Gentlemen,” he prayed in his agony, coming close into their midst, “do not be misled for a moment by a father’s devotion.”
His lifted head, his flashing eye, drew every look. Honour confronted them in a countenance from which all reserve had melted away. No guilt showed there; he stood among them, a heroic figure.
Slowly, and with a dread which no man might measure, the glances which had just devoured his young but virile countenance passed to that of the father. They did not leave it again. “Son?” With what tenderness he spoke, but with what a ring of desolation. “I understand your effort and appreciate it; but it is a useless one. You cannot deceive these friends of ours — men who have known my life. If you were in the ravine that night, so was I. If you handled John Scoville’s stick, so did I, AND AFTER YOU! Let us not struggle for the execration of mankind; let it fall where it rightfully belongs. It can bring no sting keener than that to which my breast has long been subject. Or —” and here his tones sank, in a last recognition of all he was losing forever, “if there is suffering in a once proud man flinging from him the last rag of respect with which he sought to cover the hideous nakedness of an unsuspected crime, it is lost in the joy of doing justice to the son who would take advantage of circumstances to assume his father’s guilt.”
But Oliver, with a fire which nothing could damp, spoke up again:
“Gentlemen, will you see my father so degrade himself? He has dwelt so continually upon the knowledge which separated us a dozen years ago that he no longer can discriminate between the guilty and the innocent. Would he have sat in court; would he have uttered sentences; would he have kept his seat upon the bench for all these years, if he had borne within his breast this secret of personal guilt? No. It is not in human nature to play such a part. I was guilty — and I fled. Let the act speak for itself. The respect due my father must not be taken from him.”
Confession and counter-confession! What were they to think! Alanson Black, aghast at this dread dilemma, ran over in his mind all that had led him to accept Oliver’s guilt as proven, and then, in immediate opposition to it, the details of that old trial and the judge’s consequent life; and, voicing the helpless confusion of the others, observed with forced firmness:
“We have heard much of Oliver’s wanderings in the ravine on that fatal night, but nothing of yours, Judge Ostrander. It is not enough for you to say that you were there; you must prove it.”
“The proof is in my succumbing to the shock of hearing Oliver’s name associated with this crime. Had he been guilty — had our separation come through his crime and not through my own, I should have been prepared for such a contingency, and not overwhelmed by it.”
“And were you not prepared?”
“No, before God!”
The gesture accompanying this oath was a grand one, convincing in its fervour, its majesty and power.
But facts are stubborn things, and while most of those present were still thrilling under the effect of this oath, the dry voice of District Attorney Andrews was heard for the first time, in these words:
“Why, then, did you, on the night of Bela’s death, stop on your way across the bridge to look back upon Dark Hollow and cry in the bitterest tones which escape human lips, ‘Oliver! Oliver! Oliver!’ You were heard to speak this name, Judge Ostrander,” he hastily put in, as the miserable father raised his hand in ineffectual protest. “A man was lurking in the darkness behind you, who both saw and heard you. He may not be the most prepossessing of witnesses, but we cannot discredit his story.”
“Mr. Andrews, you have no children. To the man who has, I make my last appeal. Mr. Renfrew, you know the human heart both as a father and a pastor. Do you find anything unnatural in a guilty soul bemoaning its loss rather than its sin, in the spot which recalled both to his overburdened spirit?”
The word came sharply, and it sounded decisive; but the ones which followed from Mr. Andrews were no less so.
“That is not enough. We want evidence, actual evidence that you are not playing the part your son ascribes to you.”
The judge’s eyes glared, then suddenly and incomprehensively softened till the quick fear that his mind as well as his memory had gone astray, vanished in a feeling none of them could have characterised, but which gave to them all an expression of awe.
“I have such evidence,” announced the judge. “Come.”
Turning, he stepped into the hall. Oliver, with bended head and a discouraged mien, quickly followed. Alanson Black and the others, casting startled and inquiring looks at each other, brought up the rear. Deborah Scoville was nowhere to be seen.
At the door of his own room, the judge paused, and with his hand on the curtain, remarked with unexpected composure: “You have all wondered, and others with you why for the last ten years I have kept the gates of my house shut against every comer. I am going to show you.”
And with no further word or look, scarcely even giving attention to Oliver’s anguished presence, he led them into the study and from there on to that inner door known and talked of through the town as the door of mystery. This he slowly opened with the key he took from his pocket; then, pausing with the knob in his hand, he said:
“In the years which are past, but two persons beside myself have crossed this threshold, and these only under my eye. Its secret was for my own breast. Judge what my remorse has been; judge the power of my own secret self-condemnation, by what you see here.”
And, entering, he reached up, and pulled aside the carpet he had strung up over one end of the room, disclosing amid a number of loosened boards, the barred cell of a condemned convict.
“This was my bed, gentlemen, till a stranger coming into my home, made such an acknowledgment of my sin impossible!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55