“You recognise me?”
“Too well.” The tone was deep with meaning but there was no accusation in it; nor was there any note of relief. It was more as if some hope deeply, and perhaps unconsciously, cherished had suffered a sudden and complete extinction.
The change this made in him was too perceptible for her not to observe it. The shadow lying deep in her eyes now darkened her whole face. She had tried to prepare him for this moment; tried to prepare herself. But who can prepare the soul for the return of old troubles or make other than startling the resurrection of a ghost laid, as men thought, forever.
“You see that it was no fault of my own I was trying to hide,” she finally remarked in her rich and sympathetic voice.
“Put back your veil.”
It was all he said.
Trembling she complied, murmuring as she fumbled with its folds:
“Disgrace to an Ostrander! I know that I was mad to risk it for a moment. Forgive me for the attempt, and listen to my errand. Oliver was willing to marry my child, even after he knew the shame it would entail. But Reuther would not accept the sacrifice. When she learned, as she was obliged to now, that her father had not only been sentenced to death for the worst crime in the calendar, but had suffered the full penalty, leaving only a legacy of eternal disgrace to his wife and innocent child, she showed a spirit becoming a better parentage. In his presence, and in spite of his dissuasions (for he acted with all the nobility one might expect) she took off her veil with her own hands and laid it aside with a look expressive of eternal renunciation. She loves him, sir; and there is no selfishness in her heart and never has been. For all her frail appearance and the mildness of her temper, she is like flint where principle is involved or the welfare of those she loves is at stake. My daughter may die from shock or shame, but she will never cloud your son’s prospects with the obloquy which has settled over her own. Judge Ostrander, I am not worthy of such a child, but such she is. If John —”
“We will not speak his name,” broke in Judge Ostrander, assuming a peremptory bearing quite unlike his former one of dignified reserve. “I should like to hear, instead, your explanation of how my son became inveigled into an engagement of which you, if no one else, knew the preposterous nature.”
“Judge Ostrander, you do right to blame me. I should never have given my consent, never. But I thought our past so completely hidden — our identity so entirely lost under the accepted name of Averill.”
“You thought!” He towered over her in his anger. He looked and acted as in the old days, when witnesses cowered under his eye and voice. “Say that you KNEW, madam; that you planned this unholy trap for my son. You had a pretty daughter, and you saw to it that she came under his notice; nay, more, ignoring the claims of decency, you allowed the folly to proceed, if you did not help it on in your misguided ambition to marry your daughter well.”
“Judge Ostrander, I did not plan their meeting, nor did I at first encourage his addresses. Not till I saw the extent of their mutual attachment, did I yield to the event and accept the consequences. But I was wrong, wholly wrong to allow him to visit her a second time; but now that the mischief is done —”
Judge Ostrander was not listening.
“I have a question to put you,” said he, when he realised that she had ceased speaking. “Oliver was never a fool. When he was told who your daughter was, what did he say of the coincidence which made him the lover of the woman against whose father, his father had uttered a sentence of death? Didn’t he marvel and call it extraordinary — the work of the devil?”
“Possibly; but if he did, it was not in any conversation he had with me.”
“Detroit is a large city and must possess hundreds of sweet young girls within its borders. Could he contemplate without wonder the fact that he had been led to the door of the one above all others between whom and himself Fate had set such an insurmountable barrier? He must have been struck deeply by the coincidence; he must have been, madam.”
Astonished at his manner, at the emphasis he placed upon this point which seemed to her so much less serious than many others, she regarded him doubtfully before saying:
“I was if he was not. From the very first I wondered. But I got used to the fact during the five months of his courtship. And I got used to another fact too; that my secret was safe so far as it ran the risk of being endangered by a meeting with yourself. Mr. Ostrander made it very plain to us that we need never expect to see you in Detroit.”
“He did? Did he offer any explanation for this lack of — of sympathy between us?”
“Never. It was a topic he forbore to enter into and I think he only said what he did, to prevent any expectations on our part of ever seeing you.”
“And your daughter? Was he as close-mouthed in speaking of me to her as he was to you?”
“I have no doubt of it. Reuther betrays no knowledge of you or of your habits, and has never expressed but one curiosity in your regard. As you can imagine what that is, I will not mention it.”
“You are at liberty to. I have listened to much and can well listen to a little more.”
“Judge, she is of a very affectionate nature and her appreciation of your son’s virtues is very great. Though her conception of yourself is naturally a very vague one, it is only to be expected that she should wonder how you could live so long without a visit from Oliver.”
Expectant as he was of this reply, and resolved as he was, to hear it unmoved, he had miscalculated his strength or his power of concealment, for he turned aside immediately upon hearing it, and walked away from her towards the further extremity of the room. Covertly she watched him; first through her veil, and then with it partly removed. She did not understand his mood; and she hardly understood her own. When she entered upon this interview, her mind had been so intent upon one purpose that it seemed to absorb all her faculties and reach every corner of her heart; yet here she was, after the exchange of many words between them, with her purpose uncommunicated and her heart unrelieved, staring at him not in the interest of her own griefs, but in commiseration of his.
Yet when he faced her once more every thought vanished from her mind save the one which had sustained her through the extraordinary measures she had taken to secure herself this opportunity of presenting her lost cause to the judgment of the only man from whom she could expect aid.
But her impulse was stayed and her thoughts sent wandering again by the penetrating look he gave her before she let her veil fall again.
“How long have you been in Detroit?” he asked.
“Ever since —”
“And how old is Reuther?”
“Eighteen, but —”
“Twelve years ago, then.” He paused and glanced about him before adding, “She was about the age of the child you brought to my house today.”
“Yes, sir, very nearly.”
His lips took a strange twist. There was self-contempt in it, and some other very peculiar and contradictory emotion. But when this semblance of a smile had passed, it was no longer Oliver’s father she saw before her, but the county’s judge. Even his tone partook of the change as he dryly remarked:
“What you have told me concerning your daughter and my son is very interesting. But it was not for the simple purpose of informing me that this untoward engagement was at an end that you came to Shelby. You have another purpose. What is it? I can remain with you just five minutes longer.”
Five minutes! It only takes one to kill a hope but five are far too few for the reconstruction of one. But she gave no sign of her secret doubts, as she plunged at once into her subject.
“I will be brief,” said she; “as brief as any mother can be who is pleading for her daughter’s life as well as happiness. Reuther has no real ailment, but her constitution is abnormally weak, and she will die of this grief if some miracle does not save her. Strong as her will is, determined as she is to do her duty at all cost, she has very little physical stamina. See! here is her photograph taken but a short time ago. Look at it I beg. See what she was like when life was full of hope; and then imagine her with all hope eliminated.”
“Excuse me. What use? I can do nothing. I am very sorry for the child, but —” His very attitude showed his disinclination to look at the picture.
But she would not be denied. She thrust it upon him and once his eyes had fallen upon it, they clung there though evidently against his will. Ah, she knew that Reuther’s exquisite countenance would plead for itself! God seldom grants to such beauty, so lovely a spirit. If the features themselves failed to appeal, certainly he must feel the charm of an expression which had already netted so many hearts. Breathlessly she watched him, and, as she watched, she noted the heavy lines carved in his face by thought and possibly by sorrow, slowly relax and his eyes fill with a wistful tenderness.
In the egotism of her relief, she thought to deepen the impression she had made by one vivid picture of her daughter as she was now. Mistaking his temperament or his story, classing him in with other strong men, the well of whose feeling once roused overflows in sympathetic emotion, she observed very gently but, as she soon saw, unwisely:
“Such delicacy can withstand a blow, but not a steady heartbreak. When, on that dreadful night I crept in from my sleepless bed to see how my darling was bearing her long watch, this was what I saw. She had not moved, no, not an inch in the long hours which had passed since I left her. She had not even stirred the hand from which, at her request, I had myself drawn her engagement ring. I doubt even if her lids had shut once over her strained and wide-staring eyes. It was as if she were laid out for her grave —”
The harsh tone recalled her to herself. She took back the picture he was holding towards her and was hardly surprised when he said:
“Parents must learn to endure bitterness. I have not been exempt myself from such. Your child will not die. You have years of mutual companionship before you, while I have nothing. And now let us end this interview so painful to both. You have said —”
“No,” she broke in with sudden vehemence, all the more startling from the restraint in which she had — held herself up to this moment, “I have not said — I have not begun to say what seethes like a consuming fire in my breast. Judge Ostrander, I do not know what has estranged you from Oliver. It must be something serious;- -for you are both good men. But whatever it is, of this I am certain: you would not wilfully deliver an innocent child like mine to a wretched fate which a well-directed effort might avert. I spoke of a miracle — Will you not listen, judge? I am not wild; I am not unconscious of presumption. I am only in earnest, in deadly earnest. A miracle is possible. The gulf between these two may yet be spanned. I see a way —”
What change was this to which she had suddenly become witness? The face which had not lost all its underlying benignancy even when it looked its coldest, had now become settled and hard. His manner was absolutely repellent as he broke in with the quick disclaimer:
“But there IS no way. What miracle could ever make your daughter, lovely as she undoubtedly is, a fitting match for my son! None, madam, absolutely none. Such an alliance would be monstrous; unnatural.”
“Why?” The word came out boldly. If she was intimidated by this unexpected attack from a man accustomed to deference and altogether able to exact it, she did not show it. “Because her father died the death of a criminal?” she asked.
The answer was equally blunt:
“Yes; a criminal over whose trial his father presided as judge.”
Was she daunted? No. Quick as a flash came the retort.
“A judge, however, who showed him every consideration possible. I was told at the time and I have been assured by many since that you were more than just to him in your rulings. Such a memory creates a bond of gratitude, not hate. Judge Ostrander”— He had taken a step towards the hall-door; but he paused at this utterance of his name —“answer me this one question. Why did you do this? As his widow, as the mother of his child, I implore you to tell me why you showed him this leniency? You must have hated him deeply —”
“Yes. I have never hated any one more.”
“The slayer of your dearest friend; of your inseparable companion; of the one person who stood next to your son in your affections and regard!”
He put up his hand. The gesture, the way he turned his face aside showed that she had touched the raw of a wound still unhealed. Insensibly, the woman in her responded to this evidence of an undying sorrow, and modulating her voice, she went on, with just a touch of the subtle fascination which made her always listened to:
“Your feeling for Mr. Etheridge was well known. THEN WHY SUCH MAGNANIMITY TOWARDS THE MAN WHO STOOD ON TRIAL FOR KILLING HIM?”
Unaccustomed to be questioned, though living in an atmosphere of continual yes and no, he stared at the veiled features of one who so dared, as if he found it hard to excuse such presumption. But he answered her nevertheless, and with decided emphasis:
“Possibly because his victim was my friend and lifelong companion. A judge fears his own prejudices.”
“Possibly; but you had another reason, judge; a reason which justified you in your own eyes at the time and which justifies you in mine now and always. Am I not right? This is no court-room; the case is one of the past; it can never be reopened; the prisoner is dead. Answer me then, as one sorrowing mortal replies to another, hadn’t you another reason?”
The judge, panoplied though he was or thought he was, against all conceivable attack, winced at this repetition of a question he had hoped to ignore, and in his anxiety to hide this involuntary betrayal of weakness, allowed his anger to have full vent, as he cried out in no measured terms:
“What is the meaning of all this? What are you after? Why are you raking up these bygones which only make the present condition of affairs darker and more hopeless? You say that you know some way of making the match between your daughter and my son feasible and proper. I say that nothing can do this. Fact — the sternest of facts is against it. If you found a way, I shouldn’t accept it. Oliver Ostrander, under no circumstances and by means of no sophistries, can ever marry the daughter of John Scoville. I should think you would see that for yourself.”
“But if John should be proved to have suffered wrongfully? If he should be shown to have been innocent?”
“Yes. I have always had doubts of his guilt, even when circumstances bore most heavily against him; and now, as I look back upon the trial and remember certain things, I feel sure that you had doubts of it, yourself.”
His rebuke was quick, instant. With a force and earnestness which recalled the court-room he replied:
“Madam, your hopes and wishes have misled you. Your husband was a guilty man; as guilty a man as any judge ever passed sentence upon.”
“Oh!” she wailed forth, reeling heavily back and almost succumbing to the shock, she had so thoroughly convinced herself that what she said was true. But hers was a courageous soul. She rallied instantly and approaching him again with face uncovered and her whole potent personality alive with magnetism, she retorted:
“You say that, eye to my eye, hand on my hand, heart beating with my heart above the grave of our children’s mutual happiness?”
Convinced; for there was no wavering in his eye, no trembling in the hand she had clasped; convinced but ready notwithstanding to repudiate her own convictions, so much of the mother-passion, if not the wife’s, tugged at her heart, she remained immovable for a moment, waiting for the impossible, hoping against hope for a withdrawal of his words and the reillumination of hope. Then her hand fell away from his; she gave a great sob, and, lowering her head, muttered:
“John Scoville smote down Algernon Etheridge! O God! O God! what horror!”
A sigh from her one auditor welled up in the silence, holding a note which startled her erect and brought back a memory which drove her again into passionate speech:
“But he swore the day I last visited him in the prison, with his arms pressed tight about me and his eye looking straight into mine as you are looking now, that he never struck that blow. I did not believe him then, there were too many dark spots in my memory of old lies premeditated and destructive of my happiness; but I believed him later, AND I BELIEVE HIM NOW.”
“Madam, this is quite unprofitable. A jury of his peers condemned him as guilty and the law compelled me to pass sentence upon him. That his innocent child should be forced, by the inexorable decrees of fate, to suffer for a father’s misdoing, I regret as much, perhaps more, than you do; for my son — beloved, though irreconcilably separated from me — suffers with her, you say. But I see no remedy; — NO REMEDY, I repeat. Were Oliver to forget himself so far as to ignore the past and marry Reuther Scoville, a stigma would fall upon them both for which no amount of domestic happiness could ever compensate. Indeed, there can be no domestic happiness for a man and woman so situated. The inevitable must be accepted. Madam, I have said my last word.”
“But not heard mine,” she panted. “For me to acknowledge the inevitable where my daughter’s life and happiness are concerned would make me seem a coward in my own eyes. Helped or unhelped, with the sympathy or without the sympathy of one who I hoped would show himself my friend, I shall proceed with the task to which I have dedicated myself. You will forgive me, judge. You see that John’s last declaration of innocence goes farther with me than your belief, backed as it is by the full weight of the law.”
Gazing at her as at one gone suddenly demented, he said:
“I fail to understand you, Mrs. — I will call you Mrs. Averill. You speak of a task. What task?”
“The only one I have heart for: the proving that Reuther is not the child of a wilful murderer; that another man did the deed for which he suffered. I can do it. I feel confident that I can do it; and if you will not help me —”
“Help you! After what I have said and reiterated that he is guilty, GUILTY, GUILTY?”
Advancing upon her with each repetition of the word, he towered before her, an imposing, almost formidable figure. Where was her courage now? In what pit of despair had it finally gone down? She eyed him fascinated, feeling her inconsequence and all the madness of her romantic, ill-digested effort, when from somewhere in the maze of confused memories there came to her a cry, not of the disappointed heart but of a daughter’s shame, and she saw again the desperate, haunted look with which the stricken child had said in answer to some plea, “A criminal’s daughter has no place in this world but with the suffering and the lost”; and nerved anew, she faced again his anger which might well be righteous, and with almost preternatural insight, boldly declared:
“You are too vehement to quite convince me, Judge Ostrander. Acknowledge it or not, there is more doubt than certainty in your mind; a doubt which ultimately will lead you to help me. You are too honest not to. When you see that I have some reason for the hopes I express, your sense of justice will prevail and you will confide to me the point untouched or the fact unmet, which has left this rankling dissatisfaction to fester in your mind. That known, my way should broaden; — a way, at the end of which I see a united couple — my daughter and your son. Oh, she is worthy of him~-” the woman broke forth, as he made another repellent and imperative gesture. “Ask any one in the town where we have lived.”
Abruptly, and without apology for his rudeness, Judge Ostrander again turned his back and walked away from her to an old-fashioned bookcase which stood in one corner of the room. Halting mechanically before it, he let his eyes roam up and down over the shelves, seeing nothing, as she was well aware, but weighing, as she hoped, the merits of the problem she had propounded him. She was, therefore, unduly startled when with a quick whirl about which brought him face to face with her once more, he impetuously asked:
“Madam, you were in my house this morning. You came in through a gate which Bela had left unlocked. Will you explain how you came to do this? Did you know that he was going down street, leaving the way open behind him? Was there collusion between you?”
Her eyes looked up clearly into his. She felt that she had nothing to disguise or conceal.
“I had urged him to do this, Judge Ostrander. I had met him more than once in the street when he went out to do your errands, and I used all my persuasion to induce him to give me this one opportunity of pleading my cause with you. He was your devoted servant, he showed it in his death, but he never got over his affection for Oliver. He told me that he would wake oftentimes in the night feeling about for the boy he used to carry in his arms. When I told him —”
“Enough! He knew who you were then?”
“He remembered me when I lifted my veil. Oh, I know very well that I had not the right to influence your own man to disobey your orders. But my cause was so pressing and your seclusion seemingly so arbitrary. How could I dream that your nerves could not bear any sudden shock? or that Bela — that giant among negroes — would be so affected by his emotions that he would not see or hear an approaching automobile? You must not blame me for these tragedies; and you must not blame Bela. He was torn by conflicting duties, and only yielded because of his great love for the absent.”
“I do not blame Bela.”
Startled, she looked at him with wondering eyes. There was a brooding despair in his tone which caught at her heart, and for an instant made her feel the full extent of her temerity. In a vain endeavour to regain her confidence, she falteringly remarked.
“I had listened to what folks said. I had heard that you would receive nobody; talk to nobody. Bela was my only resource.”
“Madam, I do not blame YOU.”
He was scrutinising her keenly and for the first time understandingly. Whatever her station past or present, she was certainly no ordinary woman, nor was her face without beauty, lit as it was by passion and every ardour of which a loving woman is capable. No man would be likely to resist it unless his armour were thrice forged. Would he himself be able to? He began to experience a cold fear — a dread which drew a black veil over the future; a blacker veil than that which had hitherto rested upon it.
But his face showed nothing. He was master of that yet. Only his tone. That silenced her. She was therefore scarcely surprised when, with a slight change of attitude which brought their faces more closely together, he proceeded, with a piercing intensity not to be withstood:
“When you entered my house this morning, did you come directly to my room?”
“Yes. Bela told me just how to reach it.”
“And when you saw me indisposed — unable, in fact, to greet you — what did you do then?”
With the force and meaning of one who takes an oath, she brought her hand, palm downward on the table before her, as she steadily replied:
“I flew back into the room through which I had come, undecided whether to fly the house or wait for what might happen to you, I had never seen any one in such an attack before, and almost expected to hear you fall forward to the floor. But when you did not and the silence, which seemed so awful, remained unbroken, I pulled the curtain aside and looked in again. There was no change in your posture; and, alarmed now for your sake rather than for my own, I did not dare to go till Bela came back. So I stayed watching.”
“In a dark corner of that same room. I never left it till the crowd came in. Then I slid out behind them.”
“Was the child with you — at your side I mean, all this time?”
“I never let go her hand.”
“Woman, you are keeping nothing back?”
“Nothing but my terror at the sight of Bela running in all bloody to escape the people pressing after him. I thought then that I had been the death of servant as well as master. You can imagine my relief when I heard that yours was but a passing attack.”
Sincerity was in her manner and in her voice. The judge breathed more easily, and made the remark:
“No one with hearing unimpaired can realise the suspicion of the deaf, nor can any one who is not subject to attacks like mine conceive the doubts with which a man so cursed views those who have been active about him while the world to him was blank.”
Thus he dismissed the present subject, to surprise her by a renewal of the old one.
“What are your reasons,” said he, “for the hopes you have just expressed? I think it your duty to tell me before we go any further.”
It was an acknowledgment, uttered after his own fashion, of the truth of her plea and the correctness of her woman’s insight. She contemplated his face anew, and wondered that the dart she had so inconsiderately launched should have found the one weak joint in this strong man’s armour. But she made no immediate reply, rather stopped to ponder, finally saying, with drooped head and nervously working fingers:
“Excuse me for to-night. What I have to tell — or rather, what I have to show you — requires daylight.” Then, as she became conscious of his astonishment, added falteringly:
“Have you any objection to meeting me to-morrow on the bluff overlooking Dark ——”
The voice of the clock, and that only! Tick! Tick! Tick! Tick! That only! Why then had she felt it impossible to finish her sentence? The judge was looking at her; he had not moved; nor had an eyelash stirred, but the rest of that sentence had stuck in her throat, and she found herself standing as immovably quiet as he.
Then she remembered. He had loved Algernon Etheridge. Memory still lived. The spot she had mentioned was a horror to him. Weakly she strove to apologise.
“I am sorry,” she began, but he cut her short at once.
“Why there?” he asked.
“Because”— her words came slowly, haltingly, as she tremulously, almost fearfully, felt her way with him —“because — there — is — no — other place — where — I can make — my point.”
He smiled. It was his first smile in years and naturally was a little constrained — and to her eyes at least, almost more terrifying than his frown.
“You have a point, then, to make?”
“A good one.”
He started as if to approach her, and then stood stock-still.
“Why have you waited till NOW?” he called out, forgetful that they were not alone in the house, forgetful apparently of everything but his surprise and repulsion. “Why not have made use of this point before it was too late? You were at your husband’s trial; you were even on the witness-stand?”
She nodded, thoroughly cowed at last both by his indignation and the revelation contained in this question of the judicial mind — “Why now, when the time was THEN?”
Happily, she had an answer.
“Judge Ostrander, I had a reason for that too; and, like my point, it is a good one. But do not ask me for it to-night. To-morrow I will tell you everything. But it will have to be in the place I have mentioned. Will you come to the bluff where the ruins are one-half hour before sunset? Please, be exact as to the time. You will see why, if you come.”
He leaned across the table — they were on opposite sides of it — and plunging his eyes into hers stood so, while the clock ticked out one slow minute more, then he drew back, and remarking with an aspect of gloom but with much less appearance of distrust:
“A very odd request, madam. I hope you have good reason for it;” adding, “I bury Bela to-morrow and the cemetery is in this direction. I will meet you where you say and at the hour you name.”
And, regarding him closely as he spoke, she saw that for all the correctness of his manner and the bow of respectful courtesy with which he instantly withdrew, that deep would be his anger and unquestionable the results to her if she failed to satisfy him at this meeting of the value of her POINT in reawakening justice and changing public opinion.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09