“A young girl named Doris Scott?”
The station-master looked somewhat sharply at the man he was addressing, and decided to give the direction asked.
“There is but one young girl in town of that name,” he declared, “and she lives in that little house you see just beyond the works. But let me tell you, stranger,” he went on with some precipitation —
But here he was called off, and Sweetwater lost the conclusion of his warning, if warning it was meant to be. This did not trouble the detective. He stood a moment, taking in the prospect; decided that the Works and the Works alone made the town, and started for the house which had been pointed out to him. His way lay through the chief business street, and greatly preoccupied by his errand, he gave but a passing glance to the rows on rows of workmen’s dwellings stretching away to the left in seemingly endless perspective. Yet in that glance he certainly took in the fact hat the sidewalks were blocked with people and wondered if it were a holiday. If so, it must be an enforced one, for the faces showed little joy. Possibly a strike was on. The anxiety he everywhere saw pictured on young faces and old, argued some trouble; but if the trouble was that, why were all heads turned indifferently from the Works, and why were the Works themselves in full blast?
These questions he may have asked himself and he may not. His attention was entirely centred on the house he saw before him and on the possible developments awaiting him there. Nothing else mattered. Briskly he stepped out along the sandy road, and after a turn or two which led him quite away from the Works and its surrounding buildings, he came out upon the highway and this house.
It was a low and unpretentious one, and had but one distinguishing feature. The porch which hung well over the doorstep was unique in shape and gave an air of picturesqueness to an otherwise simple exterior; a picturesqueness which was much enhanced in its effect by the background of illimitable forest, which united the foreground of this pleasing picture with the great chain of hills which held the Works and town in its ample basin.
As he approached the doorstep, his mind involuntarily formed an anticipatory image of the child whose first stitches in embroidery were like a fairy’s weaving to the strong man who worked in ore and possibly figured out bridges. That she would prove to be of the anemic type, common among working girls gifted with an imagination they have but scant opportunity to exercise, he had little doubt.
He was therefore greatly taken aback, when at his first step upon the porch, the door before him flew open and he beheld in the dark recess beyond a young woman of such bright and blooming beauty that he hardly noticed her expression of extreme anxiety, till she lifted her hand and laid an admonitory finger softly on her lip:
“Hush!” she whispered, with an earnestness which roused him from his absorption and restored him to the full meaning of this encounter. “There is sickness in the house and we are very anxious. Is your errand an important one? If not —” The faltering break in the fresh, young voice, the look she cast behind her into the darkened interior, were eloquent with the hope that he would recognise her impatience and pass on.
And so he might have done — so he would have done under all ordinary circumstances. But if this was Doris — and he did not doubt the fact after the first moment of startled surprise — how dare he forego this opportunity of settling the question which had brought him here.
With a slight stammer but otherwise giving no evidence of the effect made upon him by the passionate intensity with which she had urged this plea, he assured her that his errand was important, but one so quickly told that it would delay her but a moment. “But first,” said he, with very natural caution, “let me make sure that it is to Miss Doris Scott I am speaking. My errand is to her and her only.
Without showing any surprise, perhaps too engrossed in her own thoughts to feel any, she answered with simple directness, “Yes, I am Doris Scott. Whereupon he became his most persuasive self, and pulling out a folded paper from his pocket, opened it and held it before her, with these words:
“Then will you be so good as to glance at this letter and tell me if the person whose initials you will find at the bottom happens to be in town at the present moment?”
In some astonishment now, she glanced down at the sheet thus boldly thrust before her, and recognising the O and the B of a well-known signature, she flashed a look back at Sweetwater in which he read a confusion of emotions for which he was hardly prepared.
“Ah,” thought he, “it’s coming. In another moment I shall hear what will repay me for the trials and disappointments of all these months.”
But the moment passed and he had heard nothing. Instead, she dropped her hands from the door-jamb and gave such unmistakable evidences of intended flight, that but one alternative remained to him; he became abrupt.
Thrusting the paper still nearer, he said, with an emphasis which could not fail of making an impression, “Read it. Read the whole letter. You will find your name there. This communication was addressed to Miss Challoner, but —”
Oh, now she found words! With a low cry, she put out her hand in quick entreaty, begging him to desist and not speak that name on any pretext or for any purpose. “He may rouse and hear,” she explained, with another quick look behind her. “The doctor says that this is the critical day. He may become conscious any minute. If he should and were to hear that name, it might kill him.”
“He!” Sweetwater perked up his ears. “Who do you mean by he?”
“Mr. Brotherson, my patient, he whose letter —” But here her impatience rose above every other consideration. Without attempting to finish her sentence, or yielding in the least to her curiosity or interest in this man’s errand, she cried out with smothered intensity, “Go! go! I cannot stay another moment from his bedside.”
But a thunderbolt could not have moved Sweetwater after the hearing of that name. “Mr. Brotherson!” he echoed. “Brotherson! Not Orlando?”
“No, no; his name is Oswald. He’s the manager of these Works. He’s sick with typhoid. We are caring for him. If you belonged here you would know that much. There! that’s his voice you hear. Go, if you have any mercy.” And she began to push to the door.
But Sweetwater was impervious to all hint. With eager eyes straining into the shadowy depths just visible over her shoulder, he listened eagerly for the disjointed words now plainly to be heard in some near-by but unseen chamber.
“The second O. B.!” he inwardly declared. “And he’s a Brotherson also, and — sick! Miss Scott,” he whisperingly entreated as her hand fell in manifest despair from the door, “don’t send me away yet. I’ve a question of the greatest importance to put you, and one minute more cannot make any difference to him. Listen! those cries are the cries of delirium; he cannot miss you; he’s not even conscious.”
“He’s calling out in his sleep. He’s calling her, just as he has called for the last two weeks. But he will wake conscious — or he will not wake at all.”
The anguish trembling in that latter phrase would have attracted Sweetwater’s earnest, if not pitiful, attention at any other time, but now he had ears only for the cry which at that moment came ringing shrilly from within —
The living shouting for the dead! A heart still warm sending forth its longing to the pierced and pulseless one, hidden in a far-off tomb! To Sweetwater, who had seen Miss Challoner buried, this summons of distracted love came with weird force.
Then the present regained its sway. He heard her name again, and this time it sounded less like a call and more like the welcoming cry of meeting spirits. Was death to end this separation? Had he found the true O. B., only to behold another and final seal fall upon this closely folded mystery? In his fear of this possibility, he caught at Doris’ hand as she was about to bound away, and eagerly asked:
“When was Mr. Brotherson taken ill? Tell me, I entreat you; the exact day and, if you can, the exact hour. More depends upon this than you can readily realise.”
She wrenched her hand from his, panting with impatience and a vague alarm. But she answered him distinctly:
“On the Twenty-fifth of last month, just an hour after he was made manager. He fell in a faint at the Works.”
The day — the very day of Miss Challoner’s death!
“Had he heard — did you tell him then or afterwards what happened in New York on that very date?”
“No, no, we have not told him. It would have killed him — and may yet.”
“Edith! Edith!” came again through the hush, a hush so deep that Sweetwater received the impression that the house was empty save for patient and nurse.
This discovery had its effects upon him. Why should he subject this young and loving girl to further pain? He had already learned more than he had expected to. The rest would come with time. But at the first intimation he gave of leaving, she lost her abstracted air and turned with absolute eagerness towards him.
“One moment,” said she. “You are a stranger and I do not know your name or your purpose here. But I cannot let you go without begging you not to mention to any one in this town that Mr. Brotherson has any interest in the lady whose name we must not speak. Do not repeat that delirious cry you have heard or betray in any way our intense and fearful interest in this young lady’s strange death. You have shown me a letter. Do not speak of that letter, I entreat you. Help us to retain our secret a little longer. Only the doctor and myself know what awaits Mr. Brotherson if he lives. I had to tell the doctor, but a doctor reveals nothing. Promise that you will not either, at least till this crisis is passed. It will help my father and it will help me; and we need all the help we can get.”
Sweetwater allowed himself one minute of thought, then he earnestly replied:
“I will keep your secret for to-day, and longer, if possible.”
“Thank you,” she cried; “thank you. I thought I saw kindness in your face.” And she again prepared to close the door.
But Sweetwater had one more question to ask. “Pardon me,” said he, as he stepped down on the walk, “you say that this is a critical day with your patient. Is that why every one whom I have seen so far wears such a look of anxiety?”
“Yes, yes,” she cried, giving him one other glimpse of her lovely, agitated face. “There’s but one feeling in town to-day, but one hope, and, as I believe, but one prayer. That the man whom every one loves and every one trusts may live to run these Works.”
“Edith! Edith!” rose in ceaseless reiteration from within.
But it rang but faintly now in the ears of our detective. The door had fallen to, and Sweetwater’s share in the anxieties of that household was over.
Slowly he moved away. He was in a confused yet elated condition of mind. Here was food for a thousand new thoughts and conjectures. An Orlando Brotherson and an Oswald Brotherson — relatives possibly, strangers possibly; but whether relatives or strangers, both given to signing their letters with their initials simply; and both the acknowledged admirers of the deceased Miss Challoner. But she had loved only one, and that one, Oswald. It not difficult to recognise the object of this high hearted woman’s affections in this man whose struggle with the master-destroyer had awakened the solicitude of a whole town.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55