Her hands were thrust out to repel, her features were fixed; her beauty something wonderful. Orlando Brotherson, thus met, stared for a moment at the vision before him, then slowly and with effort withdrawing his gaze, he sought the face of Mr. Challoner with the first sign of open disturbance that gentleman had ever seen in him.
“Ah,” said he, “my welcome is readily understood. I see you far from home, sir.” And with an ironical bow he turned again to Doris, who had dropped her hands, but in whose cheeks the pallor still lingered in a way to check the easy flow of words with which he might have sought to carry off the situation. “Am I in Oswald Brotherson’s house?” he asked. “I was directed here. But possibly there may be some mistake.”
“It is here he lives,” said she; moving back automatically till she stood again by the threshold of the small room in which she had received Mr. Challoner. “Do you wish to see him to-night? If so, I fear it is impossible. He has been very ill and is not allowed to receive visits from strangers.”
“I am not a stranger,” announced the newcomer, with a smile few could see unmoved, it offered such a contrast to his stern and dominating figure. “I thought I heard some words of recognition which would prove your knowledge of that fact.”
She did not answer. Her lips had parted, but her thought or at least the expression of her thought hung suspended in the terror of this meeting for which she was not at all prepared. He seemed to note this terror, whether or not he understood its cause, and smiled again, as he added:
“Mr. Brotherson must have spoken of his brother Orlando. I am he, Miss Scott. Will you let me come in now?”
Her eyes sought those of Mr. Challoner, who quietly nodded. Immediately she stepped from before the door which her figure had guarded and, motioning him to enter, she begged Mr. Challoner, with an imploring look, to sustain her in the interview she saw before her. He had no desire for this encounter, especially as Mr. Brotherson’s glance in his direction had been anything but conciliatory. He was quite convinced that nothing was to be gained by it, but he could not resist her appeal, and followed them into the little room whose limited dimensions made the tall Orlando look bigger and stronger and more lordly in his self-confidence than ever.
“I am sorry it is so late,” she began, contemplating his intrusive figure with forced composure. “We have to be very quiet in the evenings so as not to disturb your brother’s first sleep which is of great importance to him.”
“Then I’m not to see him to-night?”
“I pray you to wait. He’s — he’s been a very sick man.”
Orlando continued to regard her with a peculiar awakening gaze, showing, Mr. Challoner thought, more interest in her than in his brother, and when he spoke it was mechanically and as if in sole obedience to the proprieties of the occasion.
“I did not know he was ill till very lately. His last letter was a cheerful one, and I supposed that all was right till chance revealed the truth. I came on at once. I was intending to come anyway. I have business here, as you probably know, Miss Scott.”
She shook her head. “I know very little about business,” said she.
“My brother has not told you why he expected me?”
“He has not even told me that he expected you.”
“No?” The word was highly expressive; there was surprise in it and a touch of wonder, but more than all, satisfaction. “Oswald was always close-mouthed,” he declared. “It’s a good fault; I’m obliged to the boy.”
These last words were uttered with a lightness which imposed upon his two highly agitated hearers, causing Mr. Challoner to frown and Doris to shrink back in indignation at the man who could indulge in a sportive suggestion in presence of such fears, if not of such memories, as the situation evoked. But to one who knew the strong and self-contained man — to Sweetwater possibly, had he been present, — there was in this very attempt — in his quiet manner and in the strange and fitful flash of his ordinarily quick eye, that which showed he was labouring — and had been labouring almost from his first entrance, under an excitement of thought and feeling which in one of his powerfully organised nature must end and that soon in an outburst of mysterious passion which would carry everything before it. But he did not mean that it should happen here. He was too accustomed to self-command to forget himself in this presence. He would hold these rampant dogs in leash till the hour of solitude; then — a glittering smile twisted his lips as he continued to gaze, first at the girl who had just entered his life, and then at the man he had every reason to distrust, and with that firm restraint upon himself still in full force, remarked, with a courteous inclination:
“The hour is late for further conversation. I have a room at the hotel and will return to it at once. In the morning I hope to see my brother.”
He was going, Doris not knowing what to say, Mr. Challoner not desirous of detaining him, when there came the sound of a little tinkle from the other side of the hall, blanching the young girl’s cheeks and causing Orlando Brotherson’s brows to rise in peculiar satisfaction.
“My brother?” he asked.
“Yes,” came in faltering reply. “He has heard our voices; I must go to him.”
“Say that Orlando wishes him a good night,” smiled her heart’s enemy, with a bow of infinite grace.
She shuddered, and was hastening from the room when her glance fell on Mr. Challoner. He was pale and looked greatly disturbed. The prospect of being left alone with a man whom she had herself denounced to him as his daughter’s murderer, might prove a tax to his strength to which she had no right to subject him. Pausing with an appealing air, she made him a slight gesture which he at once understood.
“I will accompany you into the hall,” said he. “Then if anything is wrong, you have but to speak my name.”
But Orlando Brotherson, displeased by this move, took a step which brought him between the two.
“You can hear her from here if she chooses to speak. There’s a point to be settled between us before either of us leaves this house, and this opportunity is as good as another. Go to my brother, Miss Scott; we will await your return.”
A flash from the proud banker’s eye; but no demur, rather a gesture of consent. Doris, with a look of deep anxiety, sped away, and the two men stood face to face.
It was one of those moments which men recognise as memorable. What had the one to say or the other to hear, worthy of this preamble and the more than doubtful relation in which they stood each to each? Mr. Challoner had more time than he expected in which to wonder and gird himself for whatever suffering or shock awaited him. For, Orlando Brotherson, unlike his usual self, kept him waiting while he collected his own wits, which, strange to say, seemed to have vanished with the girl.
But the question finally came.
“Mr. Challoner, do you know my brother?”
“I have never seen him.”
“Do you know him? Does he know you?”
“Not at all. We are strangers.”
It was said honestly. They did not know each other. Mr. Challoner was quite correct in his statement.
But the other had his doubts. Why shouldn’t he have? The coincidence of finding this mourner if not avenger of Edith Challoner, in his own direct radius again, at a spot so distant, so obscure and so disconnected with any apparent business reason, was certainly startling enough unless the tie could be found in his brother’s name and close relationship to himself.
He, therefore, allowed himself to press the question:
“Men sometimes correspond who do not know each other. You knew that a Brotherson lived here?”
“And hoped to learn something about me
“No; my interest was solely with your brother.”
“With my brother? With Oswald? What interest can you have in him apart from me? Oswald is —”
Suddenly a thought name — an unimaginable one; one with power to blanch even his hardy cheek and shake a soul unassailable by all small emotions.
“Oswald Brotherson!” he repeated; adding in unintelligible tones to himself —“O. B. The same initials! They are following up these initials. Poor Oswald.” Then aloud: “It hardly becomes me, perhaps, to question your motives in this attempt at making my brother’s acquaintance. I think I can guess them; but your labour will be wasted. Oswald’s interests do not extend beyond this town; they hardly extend to me. We are strangers, almost. You will learn nothing from him on the subject which naturally engrosses you.”
Mr. Challoner simply bowed. “I do not feel called upon,” said he, “to explain my reasons for wishing to know your brother. I will simply satisfy you upon a point which may well rouse your curiosity. You remember that — that my daughter’s last act was the writing of a letter to a little protegee of hers. Miss Scott was that protegee. In seeking her, I came upon him. Do you require me to say more on this subject? Wait till I have seen Mr. Oswald Brotherson and then perhaps I can do so.”
Receiving no answer to this, Mr. Challoner turned again to the man who was the object of his deepest suspicions, to find him still in the daze of that unimaginable thought, battling with it, scoffing at it, succumbing to it and all without a word. Mr. Challoner was without clew to this struggle, but the might of it and the mystery of it, drove him in extreme agitation from the room. Though proof was lacking, though proof might never come, nothing could ever alter his belief from this moment on that Doris was right in her estimate of this man’s guilt, however unsubstantial her reasoning might appear.
How far he might have been carried by this new conviction; whether he would have left the house without seeing Doris again or exchanging another word with the man whose very presence stifled him, he had no opportunity to show, for before he had taken another step, he encountered the hurrying figure of Doris, who was returning to her guests with an air of marked relief.
“He does not know that you are here,” she whispered to Mr. Challoner, as she passed him. Then, as she again confronted Orlando who hastened to dismiss his trouble at her approach, she said quite gaily, “Mr. Brotherson heard your voice, and is glad to know that you’re here. He bade me give you this key and say that you would have found things in better shape if he had been in condition to superintend the removal of the boxes to the place he had prepared for you before he became ill. I was the one to do that,” she added, controlling her aversion with manifest effort. “When Mr. Brotherson came to himself he asked if I had heard about any large boxes having arrived at the station shipped to his name. I said that several notices of such had come to the house. At which he requested me to see that they were carried at once to the strange looking shed he had had put up for him in the woods. I thought that they were for him, and I saw to the thing myself. Two or three others have come since and been taken to the same place. I think you will find nothing broken or disturbed; Mr. Brotherson’s wishes are usually respected.”
“That is fortunate for me,” was the courteous reply.
But Orlando Brotherson was not himself, not at all himself as he bowed a formal adieu and past the drawn-up sentinel-like figure of Mr. Challoner, without a motion on his part or on the part of that gentleman to lighten an exit which had something in it of doom and dread presage.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50