“Dear Mr. Challoner:
“With every apology for the intrusion, may I request a few minutes of private conversation with you this evening at seven o’clock? Let it be in your own room.
Mr. Challoner had been called upon to face many difficult and heartrending duties since the blow which had desolated his home fell upon him.
But from none of them had he shrunk as he did from the interview thus demanded. He had supposed himself rid of this man. He had dismissed him from his life when he had dismissed Sweetwater. His face, accordingly, wore anything but a propitiatory look, when promptly at the hour of seven, Orlando Brotherson entered his apartments.
His pleasure or his displeasure was, however, a matter of small consequence to his self-invited visitor. He had come there with a set purpose, and nothing in heaven or earth could deter him from it now. Declining the offer of a seat, with the slightest of acknowledgments in the way of a bow, he took a careful survey of the room before saying:
“Are we alone, Mr. Challoner, or is that man Sweetwater lurking somewhere within hearing?”
“Mr. Sweetwater is gone, as I had the honour of telling you yesterday,” was the somewhat stiff reply. “There are no witnesses to this conference, if that is what you wish to know.”
“Thank you, but you will pardon my insistence if I request the privilege of closing that door.” He pointed to the one communicating with the bedroom. “The information I have to give you is not such as I am willing to have shared, at least for the present.”
“You may close the door,” said Mr. Challoner coldly. “But is it necessary for you to give me the information you mention, to-night? If it is of such a nature that you cannot accord me the privilege of sharing it, as yet, with others, why not spare me till you can? I have gone through much, Mr. Brotherson.”
“You have,” came in steady assent as the man thus addressed stepped to the door he had indicated and quietly closed it. “But,” he continued, as he crossed back to his former position, “would it be easier for you to go through the night now in anticipation of what I have to reveal than to hear it at once from my lips while I am in the mood to speak?”
The answer was slow in coming. The courage which had upheld this rapidly aging man through so many trying interviews, seemed inadequate for the test put so cruelly upon it. He faltered and sank heavily into a chair, while the stern man watching him, gave no signs of responsive sympathy or even interest, only a patient and icy-tempered resolve.
“I cannot live in uncertainty;” such were finally Mr. Challoner’s words. “What you have to say concerns Edith?” The pause he made was infinitesimal in length, but it was long enough for a quick disclaimer. But no such disclaimer came. “I will hear it,” came in reluctant finish.
Mr. Brotherson took a step forward. His manner was as cold as the heart which lay like a stone in his bosom.
“Will you pardon me if I ask you to rise?” said he. “I have my weaknesses too.” (He gave no sign of them.) “I cannot speak down from such a height to the man I am bound to hurt.”
As if answering to the constraint of a will quite outside his own, Mr. Challoner rose. Their heads were now more nearly on a level and Mr. Brotherson’s voice remained low, as he proceeded, with quiet intensity.
“There has been a time — and it may exist yet, God knows — when you thought me in some unknown and secret way the murderer of your daughter. I do not quarrel with the suspicion; it was justified, Mr. Challoner. I did kill your daughter, and with this hand! I can no longer deny it.”
The wretched father swayed, following the gesture of the hand thus held out; but he did not fall, nor did a sound leave his lips.
Brotherson went coldly on:
“I did it because I regarded her treatment of my suit as insolent. I have no mercy for any such display of intolerance on the part of the rich and the fortunate. I hated her for it; I hated her class, herself and all she stood for. To strike the dealer of such a hurt I felt to be my right. Though a man of small beginnings and of a stock which such as you call common, I have a pride which few of your blood can equal. I could not work, or sleep or eat with such a sting in my breast as she had planted there. To rid myself of it, I determined to kill her, and I did. How? Oh, that was easy, though it has proved a great stumbling-block to the detectives, as I knew it would! I shot her — but not with an ordinary bullet. My charge was a small icicle made deliberately for the purpose. It had strength enough to penetrate, but it left no trace behind it. ‘A bullet of ice for a heart of ice,’ I had said in the torment of my rage. But the word was without knowledge, Mr. Challoner. I see it now; I have seen it for two whole weeks. I did not misjudge her condemnation of me, but I misjudged its cause. It was not to the comparatively poor, the comparatively obscure man she sought to show contempt, but to the brother of Oswald whose claims she saw insulted. A woman I should have respected, not killed. A woman of no pride of station; a woman who loved a man not only of my own class but of my own blood — a woman, to avenge whose unmerited death I stand here before you a self-condemned criminal. That is but justice, Mr. Challoner. That is the way I look at things. Though no sentimentalist; and dead to all beliefs save the eternal truths of science, I have that in me which will not let me profit, now that I know myself unworthy, by the great success I have earned. Hence this confession, Mr. Challoner. It has not come easily, nor do I shut my eyes in the least to the results which must follow. But I can not do differently. To-morrow, you may telegraph to New York. Till then I desire to be left undisturbed. I have many things to dispose of in the interim.”
Mr. Challoner, very white by now, pointed to the door before he sank again into his chair. Brotherson took it for dismissal and stepped slowly back. Then their eyes met again and Mr. Challoner spoke his first word:
“There was another — a poor woman — she died suddenly — and her wound was not unlike that inflicted upon Edith. Did you —”
“I did.” The answer came without a tremour. “You may say and so may others that I was less justified in this attack than in the other; but I do not see it that way. A theory does not always work in practice. I wished to test the unusual means I contemplated, and the woman I saw before me across the court was hard-working and with nothing in life to look forward to, so —”
A cry of bitter execration from Mr. Challoner cut him short. Turning with a shrug he was about to lift his hand to the door, when he gave a violent start and fell hastily back before a quickly entering figure of such passion and fury as neither of these men had ever seen before.
It was Oswald! Oswald, the kindly! Oswald, the lover of men and the adorer of women! Oswald, with the words of the dastardly confession he had partly overheard searing hot within his brain! Oswald, raised in a moment from the desponding invalid to a terrifying ministrant of retributive justice.
Orlando could scarcely raise his hand before the other’s was upon his throat.
“Murderer! doubly-dyed murderer of innocent women!” was hissed in the strong man’s ears. “Not with the law but with me you must reckon, and may God and the spirit of my mother nerve my arm!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50