“I do not wish to seem selfish, Oliver, but sit a little nearer the window where I can see you whenever I open my eyes. Twelve years is a long time to make up, and I have such a little while in which to do it.”
Oliver moved. The moisture sprang to his eyes as he did so. He had caught a glimpse of the face on the pillow and the changes made in a week were very apparent. Always erect, his father had towered above them then even in his self-abasement, but he looked now as though twenty years, instead of a few days, had passed over his stately head and bowed his incomparable figure. And not that alone. His expression was different. Had Oliver not seen him in his old likeness for that one terrible half-hour, he would not know these features, so sunken, yet so eloquent with the peace of one for whom all struggle is over, and the haven of his long rest near.
The heart, which had held unflinchingly to its task through every stress of self-torture, succumbed under the relief of confession, and as he himself had said, there was but little time left him to fill his eyes and heart with the sight of this strong man who had replaced his boy Oliver.
He had hungered so for his presence even in those days of final shrinking and dismay. And now, the doubts, the dread, the inexpressible humiliation are all in the past and there remains only this — to feast his eyes where his heart has so long feasted, and to thank God for the blessedness of a speedy going, which has taken the sword from the hand of Justice and saved Oliver the anguished sight of a father’s public humiliation.
Had he been able at this moment to look beyond the fences which his fear had reared, he would have seen at either gate a silent figure guarding the walk, and recalled, perhaps, the horror of other days when at the contemplation of such a prospect, his spirit recoiled upon itself in unimaginable horror and revolt. And yet, who knows! Life’s passions fade when the heart is at peace. And Archibald Ostrander’s heart was at peace. Why, his next words will show.
“Oliver”— his voice was low but very distinct, “never have a secret; never hide within your bosom a thought you fear the world to know. If you’ve done wrong — if you have disobeyed the law either of God or man — seek not to hide what can never be hidden so long as God reigns or men make laws. I have suffered, as few men have suffered and kept their reason intact. Now that my wickedness is known, the whole page of my life defaced, content has come again. I am no longer a deceiver, my very worst is known.”
“Oliver?”— This some minutes later. “Are we alone?”
“Quite alone, father. Mrs. Scoville is busy and Reuther — Reuther is in the room above. I can hear her light step overhead.”
The judge was silent. He was gazing wistfully at the wall where hung the portrait of his young wife. He was no longer in his own room, but in the cheery front parlour. This Deborah had insisted upon. There was, therefore, nothing to distract him from the contemplation I have mentioned.
“There are things I want to say to you. Not many; you already know my story. But I do not know yours, and I cannot die till I do. What took you into the ravine that evening, Oliver, and why, having picked up the stick, did you fling it from you and fly back to the highway? For the reason I ascribed to Scoville? Tell me, that no cloud may remain between us. Let me know your heart as well as you now know mine.”
The reply brought the blood back into his fading cheek.
“Father, I have already explained all this to Mr. Andrews, and now I will explain it to you. I never liked Mr. Etheridge as well as you did, and I brooded incessantly in those days over the influence which he seemed to exert over you in regard to my future career. But I never dreamed of doing him a harm, and never supposed that I could so much as attempt any argument with him on my own behalf till that very night of infernal complications and coincidences. The cause of this change was as follows: I had gone up stairs, you remember, leaving you alone with him as I knew you desired. How I came to be in the room above I don’t remember, but I was there and leaning out of the window directly over the porch when you and Mr. Etheridge came out and stood in some final debate on the steps below. He was talking and you were listening, and never shall I forget the effect his words and tones had upon me. I had supposed him devoted to you, and here he was addressing you tartly and in an ungracious manner which bespoke a man very different from the one I had been taught to look upon as superior. The awe of years yielded before this display, and finding him just human like the rest of us, the courage which I had always lacked in approaching him took instant possession of me, and I determined with a boy’s unreasoning impulse to subject him to a personal appeal not to add his influence to the distaste you at present felt for the career upon which I had set my heart. Nothing could have been more foolish and nothing more natural, perhaps, than the act which followed. I ran down into the ravine with the wild intention, so strangely duplicated in yourself a few minutes later, of meeting and pleading my cause with him at the bridge, but unlike you, I took the middle of the ravine for my road and not the secluded path at the side. It was this which determined our fate, father, for here I ran up against the chestnut tree, saw the stick and, catching it up without further thought than of the facility it offered for whittling, started with it down the ravine. Scoville was not in sight. The moment was the one when he had quit looking for Reuther and wandered away up the ravine. I have thought since that perhaps the glimpse he had got of his little one peering from the scene of his crime may have stirred even his guilty conscience and sent him off on this purposeless ramble; but, however this was, I did not see him or anybody else as I took my way leisurely down towards the bridge, whittling at the stick and thinking of what I should say to Mr. Etheridge when I met him. And now for Fate’s final and most fatal touch! Nothing which came into my mind struck me quite favourably. The encounter which seemed such a very simple matter when I first contemplated it, began to assume quite a different aspect as the moment for it approached. By the time I had come abreast of the Hollow, I was tired of the whole business, and hearing his whistle and knowing by it that he was very near, I plunged up the slope to avoid him, and hurried straight away into town. That is my story, father. If I heard your steps approaching as I plunged across the path into which I had thrown the stick in my anger at having broken the point of my knife-blade upon it, I thought nothing of them then. Afterwards I believed them to be Scoville’s, which may account to you for my silence about this whole matter both before and during the trial. I was afraid of the witness-stand and of what might be elicited from me if I once got into the hands of the lawyers. My abominable reticence in regard to his former crime would be brought up against me, and I was yet too young, too shy and uninformed to face such an ordeal of my own volition. Unhappily, I was not forced into it, and — But we will not talk of that, father.”
“Son,”— a long silence had intervened — “there is one thing more. When — how — did you first learn my real reason for sending you from home? I saw that my position was understood by you when our eyes first met in this room. But twelve years had passed since you left this house in ignorance of all but my unnatural attitude towards you. When, Oliver, when?”
“That I cannot answer, father; it was just a conviction which dawned gradually upon me. Now, it seems as if I had known it always; but that isn’t so. A boy doesn’t reason; and it took reasoning for me to — to accept —”
“Yes, I understand. And that was your secret! Oh, Oliver, I shall never ask for your forgiveness. I am not worthy it. I only ask that you will not let pride or any other evil passion stand in the way of the happiness I see in the future for you. I cannot take from you the shame of my crime and long deception, but spare me this final sorrow! There is nothing to part you from Reuther now. Alike unhappy in your parentage, you can start on equal terms, and love will do the rest. Say that you will marry her, Oliver, and let me see her smile before I die.”
“Marry her? Oh, father, will such an angel marry me?”
“No, but such a woman might.”
Oliver came near, and stooped over his father’s bed.
“Father, if love and attention to my profession can make a success of the life you prize, they shall have their opportunity.”
The father smiled. If it fell to others to remember him as he appeared in his mysterious prime, to Oliver it was given to recall him as he looked then with the light on his face and the last tear he was ever to shed glittering in his fading eye.
“God is good,” came from the bed; then the solemnity of death settled over the room.
The soft footfalls overhead ceased. The long hush had brought the two women to the door where they stood sobbing. Oliver was on his knees beside the bed, his head buried in his arms. On the face so near him there rested a ray from the westering sun; but the glitter was gone from the eye and the unrest from the heart. No more weary vigils in a room dedicated to remorse and self~punishment. No more weary circling of the house in the dark lane whose fences barred out the hurrying figure within from every eye but that of Heaven. Peace for him; and for Reuther and Oliver, hope!
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55