The day was a grey one, the first of the kind in weeks. As Doris stepped into the room where Oswald sat, she felt how much a ray of sunshine would have encouraged her and yet how truly these leaden skies and this dismal atmosphere expressed the gloom which soon must fall upon this hopeful, smiling man.
He smiled because any man must smile at the entrance of so lovely a woman, but it was an abstracted smile, and Doris, seeing it, felt her courage falter for a moment, though her steps did not, nor her steady compassionate gaze. Advancing slowly, and not answering because she did not hear some casual remark of his, she took her stand by his side and then slowly and with her eyes on his face, sank down upon her knees, still without speaking, almost without breathing.
His astonishment was evident, for her air was strange and full of presage — as, indeed, she had meant it to be. But he remained as silent as she, only reached out his emaciated hand and, laying it on her head, smiled again but this time far from abstractedly. Then, as he saw her cheeks pale in terror of the task before her, he ventured to ask gently:
“What is the matter, child? So weary, eh? Nothing worse than that, I hope.”
“Are you quite strong this morning? Strong enough to listen to my troubles; strong enough to bear your own if God sees fit to send them?” came hesitatingly from her lips as she watched the effect of each word, in breathless anxiety.
“Troubles? There can be but one trouble for me,” was his unexpected reply. “That I do not fear — will not fear in my hour of happy recovery. So long as Edith is well — Doris! Doris! You alarm me. Edith is not ill; — not ill?”
The poor child could not answer save with her sympathetic look and halting, tremulous breath; and these signs, he would not, could not read, his own words had made such an echo in his ears.
“Ill! I cannot imagine Edith ill. I always see her in my thoughts, as I saw her on that day of our first meeting; a perfect, animated woman with the joyous look of a glad, harmonious nature. Nothing has ever clouded that vision. If she were ill I would have known it. We are so truly one that — Doris, Doris, you do not speak. You know the depth of my love, the terror of my thoughts. Is Edith ill?”
The eyes gazing wildly into his, slowly left his face and raised themselves aloft, with a sublime look. Would he understand? Yes, he understood, and the cry which rang from his lips stopped for a moment the beating of more than one heart in that little cottage.
“Dead!” he shrieked out, and fell back fainting in his chair, his lips still murmuring in semi-unconsciousness, “Dead! dead!”
Doris sprang to her feet, thinking of nothing but his wavering, slipping life till she saw his breath return, his eyes refill with light. Then the horror of what was yet to come — the answer which must be given to the how she saw trembling on his lips, caused her to sink again upon her knees in an unconscious appeal for strength. If that one sad revelation had been all!
But the rest must be told; his brother exacted it and so did the situation. Further waiting, further hiding of the truth would be insupportable after this. But oh, the bitterness of it! No wonder that she turned away from those frenzied, wildly-demanding eyes.
She trembled and looked behind her. She had not recognised his voice. Had another entered? Had his brother dared — No, they were alone; seemingly so, that is. She knew — no one better — that they were not really alone, that witnesses were within hearing, if not within sight.
“Doris,” he urged again, and this time she turned in his direction and gazed, aghast. If the voice were strange, what of the face which now confronted her. The ravages of sickness had been marked, but they were nothing to those made in an instant by a blasting grief. She was startled, although expecting much, and could only press his hands while she waited for the question he was gathering strength to utter. It was simple when it came; just two words:
She answered them as simply.
“Just as long as you have been ill,” said she; then, with no attempt to break the inevitable shock, she went on: Miss Challoner was struck dead and you were taken down with typhoid on the self-same day.”
“Struck dead! Why do you use that word, struck? Struck dead! she, a young woman. Oh, Doris, an accident! My darling has been killed in an accident!
“They do not call it accident. They call it what it never was. What it never was,” she insisted, pressing him back with frightened hands, as he strove to rise. “Miss Challoner was —” How nearly the word shot had left her lips. How fiercely above all else, in that harrowing moment had risen the desire to fling the accusation of that word into the ears of him who listened from his secret hiding-place. But she refrained out of compassion for the man she loved, and declared instead, “Miss Challoner died from a wound; how given, why given, no one knows. I had rather have died myself than have to tell you this. Oh, Mr. Brotherson, speak, sob, do anything but —”
She started back, dropping his hands as she did so. With quick intuition she saw that he must be left to himself if he were to meet this blow without succumbing. The body must have freedom if the spirit would not go mad. Conscious, or perhaps not conscious, of his release from her restraining hand, albeit profiting by it, he staggered to his feet, murmuring that word of doom: “Wound! wound! my darling died of a wound! What kind of a wound?” he suddenly thundered out. “I cannot understand what you mean by wound. Make it clear to me. Make it clear to me at once. If I must bear this grief, let me know its whole depth. Leave nothing to my imagination or I cannot answer for myself. Tell it all, Doris.”
And Doris told him:
“She was on the mezzanine floor of the hotel where she lives. She was seemingly happy and had been writing a letter — a letter to me which they never forwarded. There was no one else by but some strangers — good people whom one must believe. She was crossing the floor when suddenly she threw up her hands and fell. A thin, narrow paper-cutter was in her grasp; and it flew into the lobby. Some say she struck herself with that cutter; for when they picked her up they found a wound in her breast which that cutter might have made.”
The words were chokingly said; he was swaying, almost falling, but he steadied himself.
“Who says that?” he asked.
“It was the coroner’s verdict.”
“And she died that way — died?”
“After writing to you?”
“What was in that letter?”
“Nothing of threat, they say. Only just cheer and expressions of hope. Just like the others, Mr. Brotherson.”
“And they accuse her of taking her own life? Their verdict is a lie. They did not know her.”
Then, after some moments of wild and confused feeling, he declared, with a desperate effort at self-control: “You said that some believe this. Then there must be others who do not. What do they say?”
“Nothing. They simply feel as you do. They see no reason for the act and no evidence of her having meditated it. Her father and her friend insist besides, that she was incapable of such a horror. The mystery of it is killing us all; me above others, for I’ve had to show you a cheerful face, with my brain reeling and my heart like lead in my bosom.”
She held out her hands. She tried to draw his attention to herself; not from any sentiment of egotism, but to break, if she could, the strain of these insupportable horrors where so short a time before Hope sang and Life revelled in re-awakened joys.
Perhaps some faint realisation of this reached him, for presently he caught her by the hands and bowed his head upon her shoulder and finally let her seat him again, before he said:
“Do they know of — of my interest in this?”
“Yes; they know about the two O. B.s.”
“The two —” He was on his feet again, but only for a moment; his weakness was greater than his will power.
“Orlando and Oswald Brotherson,” she explained, in answer to his broken appeal. “Your brother wrote letters to her as well as you, and signed them just as you did, with his initials only. These letters were found in her desk, and he was supposed, for a time, to have been the author of all that were so signed. But they found out the difference after awhile. Yours were easily recognised after they learned there was another O. B. who loved her.”
The words were plain enough, but the stricken listener did not take them in. They carried no meaning to him. How should they? The very idea she sought to impress upon him by this seemingly careless allusion was an incredible one. She found it her dreadful task to tell him the hard, bare truth.
“Your brother,” said she, “was devoted to Miss Challoner, too. He even wanted to marry her. I cannot keep back this fact. It is known everywhere, and by everybody but you.
“Orlando?” His lips took an ironical curve, as he uttered the word. This was a young girl’s imaginative fancy to him. “Why Orlando never knew her, never saw her, never —”
“He met her at Lenox.”
The name produced its effect. He stared, made an effort to think, repeated Lenox over to himself; then suddenly lost his hold upon the idea which that word suggested, struggled again for it, seized it in an instant of madness and shouted out:
“Yes, yes, I remember. I sent him there —” and paused, his mind blank again.
Poor Doris, frightened to her very soul, looked blindly about for help; but she did not quit his side; she did not dare to, for his lips had reopened; the continuity of his thoughts had returned; he was going to speak.
“I sent him there.” The words came in a sort of shout. “I was so hungry to hear of her and I thought he might mention her in his letter. Insane! Insane! He saw her and — What’s that you said about his loving her? He couldn’t have loved her; he’s not of the loving sort. They’ve deceived you with strange tales. They’ve deceived the whole world with fancies and mad dreams. He may have admired her, but loved her — no! or if he had, he would have respected my claims.”
“He did not know them.”
A laugh; a laugh which paled Doris’ cheek; then his tones grew even again, memory came back and he muttered faintly:
“That is true. I said nothing to him. He had the right to court her — and he did, you say; wrote: to her; imposed himself upon her, drove her mad with importunities she was forced to rebuke; and — and what else? There is something else. Tell me; I will know it all.”
He was standing now, his feebleness all gone, passion in every lineament and his eye alive and feverish, with emotion. “Tell me,” he repeated, with unrestrained vehemence. “Tell me all. Kill me with sorrow but save me from being unjust.”
“He wrote her a letter; it frightened her. He followed it up by a visit —”
Doris paused; the sentence hung suspended. She had heard a step — a hand on the door.
Orlando had entered the room.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55