The struggle was fierce but momentary. Oswald with his weakened powers could not long withstand the steady exertion of Orlando’s giant strength, and ere long sank away from the contest into Mr. Challoner’s arms.
“You should not have summoned the shade of our mother to your aid,” observed the other with a smile, in which the irony was lost in terrible presage. “I was always her favourite.”
Oswald shuddered. Orlando had spoken truly; she had always been blindly, arrogantly trustful of her eldest son. No fault could she see in him; and now —
Impetuously Oswald struggled with his weakness, raised himself in Mr. Challoner’s arms and cried in loud revolt:
“But God is just. He will not let you escape. If He does, I will not. I will hound you to the ends of this earth and, if necessary, into the eternities. Not with the threat of my arm — you are my master there, but with the curse of a brother who believed you innocent of his darling’s blood and would have believed you so in face of everything but your own word.”
“Peace!” adjured Orlando. “There is no account I am not ready to settle. I have robbed you of the woman you love, but I have despoiled myself. I stand desolate in the world, who but an hour ago could have chosen my seat among the best and greatest. What can your curses do after that?”
“Nothing.” The word came slowly like a drop wrung from a nearly spent heart. “Nothing; nothing. Oh, Orlando, I wish we were both dead and buried and that there were no further life for either of us.”
The softened tone, the wistful prayer which would blot out an immortality of joy for the one, that it might save the other from an immortality of retribution, touched some long unsounded chord in Orlando’s extraordinary nature.
Advancing a step, he held out his hand — the left one. “We’ll leave the future to itself, Oswald, and do what we can with the present,” said he. “I’ve made a mess of my life and spoiled a career which might have made us both kings. Forgive me, Oswald. I ask for nothing else from God or man. I should like that. It would strengthen me for to-morrow.”
But Oswald, ever kindly, generous and more ready to think of others than of himself, had yet some of Orlando’s tenacity. He gazed at that hand and a flush swept up over his cheek which instantly became ghastly again.
“I cannot,” said he —“not even the left one. May God forgive me!”
Orlando, struck silent for a moment, dropped his hand and slowly turned away. Mr. Challoner felt Oswald stiffen in his arms, and break suddenly away, only to stop short before he had taken one of the half dozen steps between himself and his departing brother.
“Where are you going?” he demanded in tones which made Orlando turn.
“I might say, To the devil,” was the sarcastic reply. “But I doubt if he would receive me. No,” he added, in more ordinary tones as the other shivered and again started forward, “you will have no trouble in finding me in my own room to-night. I have letters to write and — other things. A man like me cannot drop out without a ripple. You may go to bed and sleep. I will keep awake for two.”
“Orlando!” Visions were passing before Oswald’s eyes, soul-crushing visions such as in his blameless life he never thought could enter into his consciousness or blast his tranquil outlook upon life. “Orlando!” he again appealed, covering his eyes in a frenzied attempt to shut out these horrors, “I cannot let you go like this. To-morrow —”
“To-morrow, in every niche and corner of this world, wherever Edith Challoner’s name has gone, wherever my name has gone, it will be known that the discoverer of a practical air-ship, is a man whom they can no longer honour. Do you think that is not hell enough for me; or that I do not realise the hell it will be for you? I’ve never wearied you or any man with my affection; but I’m not all demon. I would gladly have spared you this additional anguish; but that was impossible. You are my brother and must suffer from the connection whether we would have it so of not. If it promises too much misery — and I know no misery like that of shame — come with me where I go to-morrow. There will be room for two.”
Oswald, swaying with weakness, but maddened by the sight of an overthrow which carried with it the stifled affections and the admiration of his whole life, gave a bound forward, opened his arms and — fell.
Orlando stopped short. Gazing down on his prostrate brother, he stood for a moment with a gleam of something like human tenderness showing through the flare of dying passions and perishing hopes; then he swung open the door and passed quietly out, and Mr. Challoner could hear the laughing remark with which he met and dismissed the half-dozen men and women who had been drawn to this end of the hall by what had sounded to them like a fracas between angry men.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09