For a day Sweetwater acknowledged himself to be mentally crushed, disillusioned and defeated. Then his spirits regained their poise. It would take a heavy weight indeed to keep them down permanently.
His opinion was not changed in regard to his neighbour’s secret guilt. A demeanour of this sort suggested bravado rather than bravery to the ever suspicious detective. But he saw, very plainly by this time, that he would have to employ more subtle methods yet ere his hand would touch the goal which so tantalisingly eluded him.
His work at the bench suffered that week; he made two mistakes. But by Saturday night he had satisfied himself that he had reached the point where he would be justified in making use of Miss Challoner’s letters. So he telephoned his wishes to New York, and awaited the promised developments with an anxiety we can only understand by realising how much greater were his chances of failure than of success. To ensure the latter, every factor in his scheme must work to perfection. The medium of communication (a young, untried girl) must do her part with all the skill of artist and author combined. Would she disappoint them? He did not think so. Women possess a marvellous adaptability for this kind of work and this one was French, which made the case still more hopeful.
But Brotherson! In what spirit would he meet the proposed advances? Would he even admit the girl, and, if he did, would the interview bear any such fruit as Sweetwater hoped for? The man who could mock the terrors of the night by a careless repetition of a strain instinct with the most sacred memories, was not to be depended upon to show much feeling at sight of a departed woman’s writing. But no other hope remained, and Sweetwater faced the attempt with heroic determination.
The day was Sunday, which ensured Brotherson’s being at home. Nothing would have lured Sweetwater out for a moment, though he had no reason to expect that the affair he was anticipating would come off till early evening.
But it did. Late in the afternoon he heard the expected steps go by his door — a woman’s steps. But they were not alone. A man’s accompanied them. What man? Sweetwater hastened to satisfy himself on this point by laying his ear to the partition.
Instantly the whole conversation became audible. “An errand? Oh, yes, I have an errand!” explained the evidently unwelcome intruder, in her broken English. “This is my brother Pierre. My name is Celeste; Celeste Ledru. I understand English ver well. I have worked much in families. But he understands nothing. He is all French. He accompanies me for — for the — what you call it? les convenances. He knows nothing of the beesiness.”
Sweetwater in the darkness of his closet laughed in his gleeful appreciation.
“Great!” was his comment. “Just great! She has thought of everything — or Mr. Gryce has.”
Meanwhile, the girl was proceeding with increased volubility.
“What is this beesiness, monsieur? I have something to sell — so you Americans speak. Something you will want much — ver sacred, ver precious. A souvenir from the tomb, monsieur. Will you give ten — no, that is too leetle — fifteen dollars for it? It is worth — Oh, more, much more to the true lover. Pierre, tu es bete. Teins-tu droit sur ta chaise. M. Brotherson est un monsieur comme il faut.”
This adjuration, uttered in sharp reprimand and with but little of the French grace, may or may not have been understood by the unsympathetic man they were meant to impress. But the name which accompanied them — his own name, never heard but once before in this house, undoubtedly caused the silence which almost reached the point of embarrassment, before he broke it with the harsh remark:
“Your French may be good, but it does not go with me. Yet is it more intelligible than your English. What do you want here? What have you in that bag you wish to open; and what do you mean by the sentimental trash with which you offer it?”
“Ah, monsieur has not memory of me,” came in the sweetest tones of a really seductive voice. “You astonish me, monsieur. I thought you knew — everybody else does — Oh, tout le monde, monsieur, that I was Miss Challoner’s maid — near her when other people were not — near her the very day she died.”
A pause; then an angry exclamation from some one. Sweetwater thought from the brother, who may have misinterpreted some look or gesture on Brotherson’s part. Brotherson himself would not be apt to show surprise in any such noisy way.
“I saw many things — Oh many things —” the girl proceeded with an admirable mixture of suggestion and reserve. “That day and other days too. She did not talk — Oh, no, she did not talk, but I saw — Oh, yes, I saw that she — that you — I’ll have to say it, monsieur, that you were tres bons amis after that week in Lenox.”
“Well?” His utterance of this word was vigorous, but not tender. “What are you coming to? What can you have to show me in this connection that I will believe in for a moment?”
“I have these — is monsieur certaine that no one can hear? I wouldn’t have anybody hear what I have to tell you, for the world — for all the world.”
“No one can overhear.”
For the first time that day Sweetwater breathed a full, deep breath. This assurance had sounded heartfelt. “Blessings on her cunning young head. She thinks of everything.”
“You are unhappy. You have thought Miss Challoner cold; — that she had no response for your ver ardent passion. But —” these words were uttered sotto voce and with telling pauses “— but — I— know — ver much better than that. She was ver proud. She had a right; she was no poor girl like me — but she spend hours — hours in writing letters she — nevaire send. I saw one, just once, for a leetle minute; while you could breathe so short as that; and began with Cheri, or your English for that, and ended with words — Oh, ver much like these: You may nevaire see these lines, which was ver interesting, veree so, and made one want to see what she did with letters she wrote and nevaire mail; so I watch and look, and one day I see them. She had a leetle ivory box — Oh, ver nice, ver pretty. I thought it was jewels she kept locked up so tight. But, non, non, non. It was letters — these letters. I heard them rattle, rattle, not once but many times. You believe me, monsieur?
“I believe you to have taken every advantage posible to spy upon your mistress. I believe that, yes.”
“From interest, monsieur, from great interest.”
“As monsieur pleases. But it was strange, ver strange for a grande dame like that to write letters — sheets on sheets — and then not send them, nevaire. I dreamed of those letters — I could not help it, no; and when she died so quick — with no word for any one, no word at all, I thought of those writings so secret, so of the heart, and when no one noticed — or thought about this box, or — or the key she kept shut tight, oh, always tight in her leetle gold purse, I— Monsieur, do you want to see those letters?” asked the girl, with a gulp. Evidently his appearance frightened her — or had her acting reached this point of extreme finish? “I had nevaire the chance to put them back. And — and they belong to monsieur. They are his — all his — and so beautiful! Ah, just like poetry.”
“I don’t consider them mine. I haven’t a particle of confidence in you or in your story. You are a thief — self-convicted; or you’re an agent of the police whose motives I neither understand nor care to investigate. Take up your bag and go. I haven’t a cent’s worth of interest in its contents.”
She started to her feet. Sweetwater heard her chair grate on the painted floor, as she pushed it back in rising. The brother rose too, but more calmly. Brotherson did not stir. Sweetwater felt his hopes rapidly dying down — down into ashes, when suddenly her voice broke forth in pants:
“And Marie said — everybody said — that you loved our great lady; that you, of the people, common, common, working with the hands, living with men and women working with the hands, that you had soul, sentiment — what you will of the good and the great, and that you would give your eyes for her words, si fines, si spirituelles, so like des vers de poete. False! false! all false! She was an angel. You are — read that!” she vehemently broke in, opening her bag and whisking a paper down before him. “Read and understand my proud and lovely lady. She did right to die. You are hard — hard. You would have killed her if she had not —”
“Silence, woman! I will read nothing!” came hissing from the strong man’s teeth, set in almost ungovernable anger. “Take back this letter, as you call it, and leave my room.”
“Nevaire! You will not read? But you shall, you shall. Behold another! One, two, three, four!” Madly they flew from her hand. Madly she continued her vituperative attack. “Beast! beast! That she should pour out her innocent heart to you, you! I do not want your money, Monsieur of the common street, of the common house. It would be dirt. Pierre, it would be dirt. Ah, bah! je m’oublie tout a fait. Pierre, il est bete. Il refuse de les toucher. Mais il faut qu’il les touche, si je les laisse sur le plancher. Va-t’en! Je me moque de lui. Canaille! L’homme du peuple, tout a fait du peuple!”
A loud slam — the skurrying of feet through the hall, accompanied by the slower and heavier tread of the so-called brother, then silence, and such silence that Sweetwater fancied he could catch the sound of Brotherson’s heavy breathing. His own was silenced to a gasp. What a treasure of a girl! How natural her indignation! What an instinct she showed and what comprehension! This high and mighty handling of a most difficult situation and a most difficult man, had imposed on Brotherson, had almost imposed upon himself. Those letters so beautiful, so spirituelle! Yet, the odds were that she had never read them, much less abstracted them. The minx! the ready, resourceful, wily, daring minx!
But had she imposed on Brotherson? As the silence continued, Sweetwater began to doubt. He understood quite well the importance of his neighbour’s first movement. Were he to tear those letters into shreds! He might be thus tempted. All depended on the strength of his present mood and the real nature of the secret which lay buried in his heart.
Was that heart as flinty as it seemed? Was there no place for doubt or even for curiosity, in its impenetrable depths? Seemingly, he had not moved foot or hand since his unwelcome visitors had left. He was doubtless still staring at the scattered sheets lying before him; possibly battling with unaccustomed impulses; possibly weighing deeds and consequences in those slow moving scales of his in which no man could cast a weight with any certainty how far its even balance would be disturbed.
There was a sound as of settling coal. Only at night would one expect to hear so slight a sound as that in a tenement full of noisy children. But the moment chanced to be propitious, and it not only attracted the attention of Sweetwater on his side of the wall, but it struck the ear of Brotherson also. With an ejaculation as bitter as it was impatient, he roused himself and gathered up the letters. Sweetwater could hear the successive rustlings as he bundled them up in his hand. Then came another silence — then the lifting of a stove lid.
Sweetwater had not been wrong in his secret apprehension. His identification with his unimpressionable neighbour’s mood had shown him what to expect. These letters — these innocent and precious outpourings of a rare and womanly soul — the only conceivable open sesame to the hard-locked nature he found himself pitted against, would soon be resolved into a vanishing puff of smoke.
But the lid was thrust back, and the letters remained in hand. Mortal strength has its limits. Even Brotherson could not shut down that lid on words which might have been meant for him, harshly as he had repelled the idea.
The pause which followed told little; but when Sweetwater heard the man within move with characteristic energy to the door, turn the key and step back again to his place at the table, he knew that the danger moment had passed and that those letters were about to be read, not casually, but seriously, as indeed their contents merited.
This caused Sweetwater to feel serious himself. Upon what result might he calculate? What would happen to this hardy soul, when the fact he so scornfully repudiated, was borne in upon him, and he saw that the disdain which had antagonised him was a mere device — a cloak to hide the secret heart of love and eager womanly devotion? Her death — little as Brotherson would believe it up till now — had been his personal loss the greatest which can befall a man. When he came to see this — when the modest fervour of her unusual nature began to dawn upon him in these self-revelations, would the result be remorse, or just the deadening and final extinction of whatever tenderness he may have retained for her memory?
Impossible to tell. The balance of probability hung even. Sweetwater recognised this, and clung, breathless, to his loop-hole. Fain would he have seen, as well as heard.
Mr. Brotherson read the first letter, standing. As it soon became public property, I will give it here, just as it afterwards appeared in the columns of the greedy journals:
“When I sit, as I often do, in perfect quiet under the stars, and dream that you are looking at them too, not for hours as I do, but for one full moment in which your thoughts are with me as wholly as mine are with you, I feel that the bond between us, unseen by the world, and possibly not wholly recognised by ourselves, is instinct with the same power which links together the eternities.
“It seems to have always been; to have known no beginning, only a budding, an efflorescence, the visible product of a hidden but always present reality. A month ago and I was ignorant, even, of your name. Now, you seem the best known to me, the best understood, of God’s creatures. One afternoon of perfect companionship — one flash of strong emotion, with its deep, true insight into each other’s soul, and the miracle was wrought. We had met, and henceforth, parting would mean separation only, and not the severing of a mutual bond. One hand, and one only, could do that now. I will not name that hand. For us there is nought ahead but life.
“Thus do I ease my heart in the silence which conditions impose upon us. Some day I shall hear your voice again, and then-”
The paper dropped from the reader’s hand. It was several minutes before he took up another.
This one, as it happened, antedated the other, as will appear on reading it:
“I said that I could not write to you — that we must wait. You were willing; but there is much to be accomplished, and the silence may be long. My father is not an easy man to please, but he desires my happiness and will listen to my plea when the right hour comes. When you have won your place — when you have shown yourself to be the man I feel you to be, then my father will recognise your worth, and the way will be cleared, despite the obstacles which now intervene.
“But meantime! Ah, you will not know it, but words will rise — the heart must find utterance. What the lip cannot utter, nor the looks reveal, these pages shall hold in sacred trust for you till the day when my father will place my hand in yours, with heart-felt approval.
“Is it a folly? A woman’s weak evasion of the strong silence of man? You may say so some day; but somehow, I doubt it — I doubt it.”
The creaking of a chair; — the man within had seated himself. There was no other sound; a soul in turmoil wakens no echoes. Sweetwater envied the walls surrounding the unsympathetic reader. They could see. He could only listen.
A little while; then that slight rustling again of the unfolding sheet. The following was read, and then the fourth and last:
“Did you think I had never seen you till that day we met in Lenox? I am going to tell you a secret — a great, great secret — such a one as a woman hardly whispers to her own heart.
“One day, in early summer, I was sitting in St. Bartholomew’s Church on Fifth Avenue, waiting for the services to begin. It was early and the congregation was assembling. While idly watching the people coming in, I saw a gentleman pass by me up the aisle, who made me forget all the others. He had not the air of a New Yorker; he was not even dressed in city style, but as I noted his face and expression, I said way down in my heart, ‘That is the kind of man I could love; the only man I have ever seen who could make me forget my own world and my own people.’ It was a passing thought, soon forgotten. But when in that hour of embarrassment and peril on Greylock Mountain, I looked up into the face of my rescuer and saw again that countenance which so short a time before had called into life impulses till then utterly unknown, I knew that my hour was come. And that was why my confidence was so spontaneous and my belief in the future so absolute.
“I trust your love which will work wonders; and I trust my own, which sprang at a look but only gathered strength and permanence when I found that the soul of the man I loved bettered his outward attractions, making the ideal of my foolish girlhood seem as unsubstantial and evanescent as a dream in the glowing noontide.”
“I can say so now; for you have written to me, and I have the dancing words with which to silence any unsought doubt which might subdue the exuberance of these secret outpourings.
“I did not expect this. I thought that you would remain as silent as myself. But men’s ways are not our ways. They cannot exhaust longing in purposeless words on scraps of soulless paper, and I am glad that they cannot. I love you for your impatience; for your purpose, and for the manliness which will win for you yet all that you covet of fame, accomplishment and love. You expect no reply, but there are ways in which one can keep silent and yet speak. Won’t you be surprised when your answer comes in a manner you have never thought of?”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50