“You see me again, Miss Scott. I hope that yesterday’s intrusion has not prejudiced you against me.
“I have no prejudices,” was her simple but firm reply. “I am only hurried and very anxious. The doctor is with Mr. Brotherson just now; but he has several other equally sick patients to visit and I dare not keep him here too long.”
“Then you will welcome my abruptness. Miss Scott, here is a letter from Mr. Challoner. It will explain my position. As you will see, his only desire is to establish the fact that his daughter did not commit suicide. She was all he had in the world, and the thought that she could, for any reason, take her own life is unbearable to him. Indeed, he will not believe she did so, evidence or no evidence. May I ask if you agree with him? You have seen Miss Challoner, I believe. Do you think she was the woman to plunge a dagger in her heart in a place as public as a hotel reception room?
“No, Mr. Sweetwater. I’m a poor working girl, with very little education and almost no knowledge of the world and such ladies as she. But something tells me for all that, that she was too nice to do this. I saw her once and it made me want to be quiet and kind and beautiful like her. I never shall think she did anything so horrible. Nor will Mr. Brotherson ever believe it. He could not and live. You see, I am talking to you as if you knew him — the kind of man he is and just how he feels towards Miss Challoner. He is —” Her voice trailed off and a look, uncommon and almost elevated, illumined her face. “I will not tell you what he is; you will know, if you ever see him.”
“If the favourable opinion of a whole town makes a good fellow, he ought to be of the best,” returned Sweetwater, with his most honest smile. “I hear but one story of him wherever I turn.”
“There is but one story to tell,” she smiled, and her head drooped softly, but with no air of self-consciousness.
Sweetwater watched her for a moment, and then remarked: “I’m going to take one thing for granted; that you are as anxious as we are to clear Miss Challoner’s memory.”
“O yes, O yes.”
“More than that, that you are ready and eager to help us. Your very looks show that.”
“You are right; I would do anything to help you. But what can a girl like me do? Nothing; nothing. I know too little. Mr. Challoner must see that when you tell him I’m only the daughter of a foreman.”
“And a friend of Mr. Brotherson,” supplemented Sweetwater.
“Yes,” she smiled, “he would want me to say so. But that’s his goodness. I don’t deserve the honour.”
“His friend and therefore his confidante,” Sweetwater continued. “He has talked to you about Miss Challoner?”
“He had to. There was nobody else to whom he could talk; and then, I had seen her and could understand.”
“Where did you see her?”
“In New York. I was there once with father, who took me to see her. I think she had asked Mr. Brotherson to send his little friend to her hotel if ever we came to New York.”
“That was some time ago?”
“We were there in June.”
“And you have corresponded ever since with Miss Challoner?”
“She has been good enough to write, and I have ventured at times to answer her.”
The suspicion which might have come to some men found no harbour in Sweetwater’s mind. This young girl was beautiful, there was no denying that, beautiful in a somewhat startling and quite unusual way; but there was nothing in her bearing, nothing in Miss Challoner’s letters to indicate that she had been a cause for jealousy in the New York lady’s mind. He, therefore, ignored this possibility, pursuing his inquiry along the direct lines he had already laid out for himself. Smiling a little, but in a very earnest fashion, he pointed to the letter she still held and quietly said:
“Remember that I’m not speaking for myself, Miss Scott, when I seem a little too persistent and inquiring. You have corresponded with Miss Challoner; you have been told the fact of her secret engagement to Mr. Brotherson and you have been witness to his conduct and manner for the whole time he has been separated from her. Do you, when you think of it carefully, recall anything in the whole story of this romance which would throw light upon the cruel tragedy which has so unexpectedly ended it? Anything, Miss Scott? Straws show which way the stream flows.”
She was vehement, instantly vehement, in her disclaimer.
“I can answer at once,” said she, “because I have thought of nothing else for all these weeks. Here all was well. Mr. Brotherson was hopeful and happy and believed in her happiness and willingness to wait for his success. And this success was coming so fast! Oh, how can we ever tell him! How can we ever answer his questions even, or keep him satisfied and calm until he is strong enough to hear the truth. I’ve had to acknowledge already that I have had no letter from her for weeks. She never wrote to him directly, you know, and she never sent him messages, but he knew that a letter to me, was also a letter to him and I can see that he is troubled by this long silence, though he says I was right not to let her know of his illness and that I must continue to keep her in ignorance of it till he is quite well again and can write to her himself. It is hard to hear him talk like this and not look sad or frightened.”
Sweetwater remembered Miss Challoner’s last letter, and wished he had it here to give her. In default of this, he said:
“Perhaps this not hearing may act in the way of a preparation for the shock which must come to him sooner or later. Let us hope so, Miss Scott.”
Her eyes filled.
“Nothing can prepare him,” said she. Then added, with a yearning accent, “I wish I were older or had more experience. I should not feel so helpless. But the gratitude I owe him will give me strength when I need it most. Only I wish the suffering might be mine rather than his.”
Unconscious of any self-betrayal, she lifted her eyes, startling Sweetwater by the beauty of her look. “I don’t think I’m so sorry for Oswald Brotherson,” he murmured to himself as he left her. “He’s a more fortunate man than he knows, however deeply he may feel the loss of his first sweetheart.
That evening the disappointed Sweetwater took the train for New York. He had failed to advance the case in hand one whit, yet the countenance he showed Mr. Gryce at their first interview was not a wholly gloomy one.
“Fifty dollars to the bad!” was his first laconic greeting. “All I have learned is comprised in these two statements. The second O. B. is a fine fellow; and not intentionally the cause of our tragedy. He does not even know about it. He’s down with the fever at present and they haven’t told him. When he’s better we may hear something; but I doubt even that.
“Tell me about it.”
Sweetwater complied; and such is the unconsciousness with which we often encounter the pivotal circumstance upon which our future or the future of our most cherished undertaking hangs, he omitted from his story, the sole discovery which was of any real importance in the unravelling of the mystery in which they were so deeply concerned. He said nothing of his walk in the woods or of what he saw there.
“A meagre haul,” he remarked at the close.
“But that’s as it should be, if you and I are right in our impressions and the clew to this mystery lies here in the character and daring of Orlando Brotherson. That’s why I’m not down in the mouth. Which goes to show what a grip my prejudices have on me.”
“As prejudiced as a bulldog.”
“Exactly. By the way, what news of the gentleman I’ve just mentioned? Is he as serene in my absence as when under my eye?”
“More so; he looks like a man on the verge of triumph. But I fear the triumph he anticipates has nothing to do with our affairs. All his time and thought is taken up with his invention.”
“You discourage me, sir. And now to see Mr. Challoner. Small comfort can I carry him.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55