Dark Hollow by Anna Katharine Green
Book II. The House and the Room
XVII. Unwelcome Truths
Silence. Yes, silence was the one and only refuge remaining to her. Yet, after a few days, the constant self-restraint which it entailed, ate like a canker into her peace, and undermined a strength which she had always considered inexhaustible. Reuther began to notice her pallor, and the judge to look grave. She was forced to complain of a cold (and in this she was truthful enough) to account for her alternations of feverish impulse and deadly lassitude.
The trouble she had suppressed was having its quiet revenge. Should she continue to lie inert and breathless under the threatening hand of Fate, or risk precipitating the doom she sought to evade, by proceeding with inquiries upon the result of which she could no longer calculate?
She recalled the many mistakes made by those who had based their conclusions upon circumstantial evidence (her husband's conviction in fact) and made up her mind to brave everything by having this matter out with Mr. Black. Then the pendulum swung back, and she found that she could not do this because, deep down in her heart, there burrowed a monstrous doubt (how born or how cherished she would not question), which Mr. Black, with an avidity she could not combat, would at once detect and pounce upon. Better silence and a slow death than that.
But was there no medium course? Could she not learn from some other source where Oliver had been on the night of that old-time murder? Miss Weeks was a near neighbour and saw everything. Miss Weeks never forgot;--to Miss Weeks she would go.
With instructions to Reuther calculated to keep that diligent child absorbed and busy in her absence, she started out upon her quest. She had reached the first gate, passed it and was on the point of opening the second one, when she saw on the walk before her a small slip of brown paper. Lifting it, she perceived upon it an almost illegible scrawl which she made out to read thus:--
For Mrs. Scoville:
Do not go wandering all over the town for clews. Look closer home.
You remember the old saying about jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Let your daughter be warned. It is better to be singed than consumed.
Warned! Reuther? Better be singed than consumed? What madness was this? How singed and how consumed? Then because Deborah's mind was quick, it all flashed upon her, bowing her in spirit to the ground. Reuther had been singed by the knowledge of her father's ignominy, she would be consumed if inquiry were carried further and this ignominy transferred to the proper culprit. Consumed! There was but one person whose disgrace could consume Reuther. Oliver alone could be meant. The doubts she had tried to suppress from her own mind were shared by others,--Others!
The discovery overpowered her and she caught herself crying aloud in utter self-abandonment:
"I will not go to Miss Weeks. I will take Reuther and fly to some wilderness so remote and obscure that we can never be found."
Yet in five minutes she was crossing the road, her face composed, her manner genial, her tongue ready for any encounter. The truth must be hers at all hazards. If it could be found here, then here would she seek it. Her long struggle with fate had brought to the fore every latent power she possessed.
One stroke on the tiny brass knocker, old-fashioned and quaint like everything else in this doll-house, brought Miss Weeks' small and animated figure to the door. She had seen Mrs. Scoville coming, and was ready with her greeting. A dog from the big house across the way would have been welcomed there. The eager little seamstress had never forgotten her hour in the library with the half-unconscious judge.
"Mrs. Scoville!" she exclaimed, fluttering and leading the way into the best room; "how very kind you are to give me this chance for making my apologies. You know we have met before."
"Have we?" Mrs. Scoville did not remember, but she smiled her best smile and was gratified to note the look of admiration with which Miss Weeks surveyed her more than tasty dress before she raised her eyes to meet the smile to whose indefinable charm so many had succumbed. "It is a long time since I lived here," Deborah proceeded as soon as she saw that she had this woman, too, in her net. "The friends I had then, I scarcely hope to have now; my trouble was of the kind which isolates one completely. I am glad to have you acknowledge an old acquaintance. It makes me feel less lonely in my new life."
"Mrs. Scoville, I am only too happy." It was bravely said, for the little woman was in a state of marked embarrassment. Could it be that her visitor had not recognised her as the person who had accosted her on that memorable morning she first entered Judge Ostrander's forbidden gates?
"I have been told--" thus Deborah easily proceeded, "that for a small house yours contains the most wonderful assortment of interesting objects. Where did you ever get them?"
"My father was a collector, on a very small scale of course, and my mother had a passion for hoarding which prevented anything from going out of this house after it had once come into it,--and a great many strange things have come into it. There have even been bets made as to the finding or not finding of a given object under this roof. Pardon me, perhaps I bore you."
"Not at all. It's very interesting. But what about the bets?"
"Oh, just this. One day two men were chaffing each other in one of the hotel lobbies, and the conversation turning upon what this house held, one of them wagered that he knew of something I could not fish out of my attic, and when the other asked what, he said an aeroplane--Why he didn't say a locomotive, I don't know; but he said an aeroplane, and the other, taking him up, they came here together and put me the question straight. Mrs. Scoville, you may not believe it, but my good friend won that bet. Years ago when people were just beginning to talk about air-sailing machines, my brother who was visiting me, amused his leisure hours in putting together something he called a 'flyer.' And what is more, he went up in it, too, but he came down so rapidly that he kept quite still about it, and it fell to me to lug the broken thing in. So when these gentlemen asked to see an aeroplane, I took them into a lean-to where I store my least desirable things, and there pointed out a mass of wings and bits of tangled wire, saying as dramatically as I could: 'There she is!' And they first stared, then laughed; and when one complained: 'That's a ruin, not an aeroplane,' I answered with all the demureness possible; 'and what is any aeroplane but a ruin in prospect? This has reached the ruin stage; that's all.' So the bet was paid and my reputation sustained. Don't you find it a little amusing?"
"I do, indeed," smiled Deborah. "Now, if I wanted to make the test, I should take another course from these men. I should not pick out something strange, or big, or unlikely. I should choose some every-day object, some little matter--" She paused as if to think.
"What little matter?" asked the other complacently.
"My husband once had a cap," mused Mrs. Scoville thoughtfully. "It had an astonishingly broad peak in front. Have you a cap like that?"
Miss Weeks' eyes opened. She stared in some consternation at Mrs. Scoville, who hastened to say:
"You wonder that I can mention my husband. Perhaps you will not be so surprised when I tell you that in my eyes he is a martyr, and quite guiltless of the crime for which he was punished."
"You think that?" There was real surprise in the manner of the questioner. Mrs. Scoville's brow cleared. She was pleased at this proof that her affairs had not yet reached the point of general gossip.
"Miss Weeks, I am a mother. I have a young and lovely daughter. Can I look in her innocent eyes and believe her father to have so forgotten his responsibilities as to overshadow her life with crime? No, I will not believe it. Circumstances were in favour of his conviction, but he never lifted the stick which struck down Algernon Etheridge."
Miss Weeks, who had sat quite still during the utterance of these remarks, fidgetted about at their close, with what appeared to the speaker, a sudden and quite welcome relief.
"Oh!" she murmured; and said no more. It was not a topic she found easy of discussion.
"Let us go back to the cap," suggested Deborah, with another of her fascinating smiles. "Are you going to show me one such as I have described?"
"Let me see. A man's cap with an extra broad peak! Mrs. Scoville, I fear that you have caught me. There are caps hanging up in various closets, but I don't remember any with a peak beyond the ordinary."
"Yet they are worn? You have seen such?"
A red spot sprang out on the faded cheek of the woman as she answered impulsively:
"Oh, yes. Young Mr. Oliver Ostrander used to wear one. I wish I had asked him for it," she pursued, naively. "I should not have had to acknowledge defeat at your very first inquiry."
"Oh! you needn't care about that," laughed Deborah, in rather a hard tone for her. She had made her point, but was rather more frightened than pleased at her success. "There must be a thousand articles you naturally would lack. I could name--"
"Don't, don't!" the little woman put in breathlessly. "I have many odd things but of course not everything. For instance--" But here she caught sight of the other's abstracted eye, and dropped the subject. The sadness which now spread over the very interesting countenance of her visitor, offered her an excuse for the introduction of a far more momentous topic; one she had burned to introduce but had not known how.
"Mrs. Scoville, I hear that Judge Ostrander has got your daughter a piano. That is really a wonderful thing for him to do. Not that he is so close with his money, but that he has always been so set against all gaiety and companionship. I suppose you did not know the shock it would be to him when you asked Bela to let you into the gates."
"No! I didn't know. But it is all right now. The judge seems to welcome the change. Miss Weeks, did you know Algernon Etheridge well enough to tell me if he was as good and irreproachable a man as they all say?"
"He was a good man, but he had a dreadfully obstinate streak in his disposition and very set ideas. I have heard that he and the judge used to argue over a point for hours. And he was most always wrong. For instance, he was wrong about Oliver."
"Judge Ostrander's son, you know. Mr. Etheridge wanted him to study for a professorship; but the boy was determined to go into journalism, and you see what a success he has made of it. As a professor he would probably have been a failure."
"Was this difference of opinion on the calling he should pursue, the cause of Oliver's leaving home in the way he did?" continued Deborah, conscious of walking on very thin ice.
But Miss Weeks rather welcomed than resented this curiosity. Indeed she was never tired of enlarging upon the Ostranders. It was, therefore, with a very encouraging alacrity she responded:
"I have never thought so. The judge would not quarrel with Oliver on so small a point as that. My idea is, though I never talk of it much, that they had a great quarrel over Mr. Etheridge. Oliver never liked the old student; I've watched them and I've seen. He hated his coming to the house so much; he hated the way his father singled him out and deferred to him and made him the confidant of all his troubles. When they went on their walks, Oliver always hung back, and more than once I have seen him make a grimace of distaste when his father urged him forward. He was only a boy, I know, but his dislikes meant something, and if it ever happened that he spoke out his whole mind, you may be sure that some very bitter words passed."
Was this meant as an innuendo? Could it be that she shared the very serious doubts of Deborah's anonymous correspondent?
Impossible to tell. Such nervous, fussy little bodies often possess minds of unexpected subtlety. Deborah gave up all hope of understanding her, and, accepting her statements at their face value, effusively remarked:
"You must have a very superior mind to draw such conclusions from the little you have seen. I have heard many explanations given for the breach you name, but never any so reasonable."
A flash from the spinster's wary eye, then a burst of courage and the quick retort:
"And what explanation does Oliver himself give? You ought to know, Mrs. Scoville."
The attack was as sudden as it was unexpected. Deborah flushed and trimmed her sails for this new tack, and insinuating gently, "Then you have heard--" waited for the enlightenment these words were likely to evoke.
It came quickly enough.
"That he expected to marry your daughter? Oh, yes, Mrs. Scoville; it's the common talk here now. I hope you don't mind my mentioning it."
Deborah's head went up. She faced the other fairly, with the look born of mother passion, and mother passion only.
"Reuther is blameless in this matter," she protested. "She was brought up in ignorance of what I felt sure would prove a handicap and misery to her. She loves Oliver as she will never love any other man, but when she was told her real name and understood fully what that name carries with it, she declined to saddle him with her shame. That's her story, Miss Weeks; one that hardly fits her appearance which is very delicate. And, let me add, having once accepted her father's name, she refuses to be known by any other. I have brought her to Shelby where to our own surprise and Reuther's great happiness, we have been taken in by Judge Ostrander, an act of kindness for which we are very grateful." Miss Weeks got up, took down one of her rarest treasures from an old etagere standing in one corner and laid it in Mrs. Scoville's hand.
"For your daughter," she declared. "Noble girl! I hope she will be happy."
The mother was touched. But not quite satisfied yet of the giver's real feelings towards Oliver, she was not willing to conclude the interview until she understood her small hostess better. She, therefore, looked admiringly at the vase (it was really choice); and, after thanking its donor warmly, proceeded to remark:
"There is but one thing that will ever make Reuther happy, and that she cannot have unless a miracle occurs."
"Oliver?" suggested the other, with a curious, wan little smile.
"And what miracle--"
"Oh, I do not wonder you pause. This is not the day of miracles. But if my belief in my husband could be shared; if by some fortuitous chance I should be enabled to clear his name, might not love and loyalty be left to do the rest? Wouldn't the judge's objections, in that case, be removed? What do you think, Miss Weeks?"
The warmth, the abandon, the confidence she expressed in this final question were indescribable. Miss Weeks' conventional mannerisms melted before it. She could no more withstand the witchery of this woman's tone and manner than if she had been a man subdued by the charm of sex. But nothing, not even her newly awakened sympathy for this agreeable woman, could make her untruthful. She might believe in the miracle of a reversal of judgment in the case of a falsely condemned criminal, but not of an Ostrander accepting humiliation, even at the hands of Love. She felt that in justice to this new friendship she should say so.
"Do you ask me?" she began. "Then I feel that I must admit to you that the Ostrander pride is proverbial. Oliver may think he would be happy if he married your daughter under these changed conditions; but I should be fearful of the reaction which would certainly follow when he found that old shames are not so easily outlived. There is temper in the family, though you would never think it to hear the judge speak; and if your daughter is delicate--"
"Is it of her you are thinking?" interrupted Deborah, with a new tone in her voice.
"Not altogether; you see I knew Oliver first."
"And are fond of him?"
"Fond is a big word. But I cannot help having some feeling for the boy I have seen grow up from a babe in arms to a healthy, brilliant manhood."
"And having this feeling--" "There! we will say no more about it." The little woman's attitude and voice were almost prayerful. "You have judgment enough for two. Besides the miracle has not happened," she interjected, with a smile which seemed to say it never would be.
Deborah sighed. Whether or not it was quite an honest expression of her feeling we will not inquire. She was there for a definite purpose and her way to it was, as yet, far from plain. All that she had really learned was this: that it was she, and not Miss Weeks who was playing a part, and that whatever her inquiries, she need have no fear of rousing suspicion against Oliver in a mind already dominated by a belief in John Scoville's guilt. The negative with which she followed up this sigh was consequently one of sorrowful acceptance. She made haste, however, to qualify it with the remark:
"But I have not given up all hope. My cause is too promising. True, I may not succeed in marrying Reuther into the Ostrander family, even if it should be my good lot to clear her father's name; but my efforts would have one good result, as precious-- perhaps more precious than the one I name. She would no longer have to regard that father as guilty of a criminal act. If such relief can be hers she should have it. But how am I to proceed? I know as well as any one how impossible the task must prove, unless I can light upon fresh evidence. And where am I to get that? Only from some new witness."
Miss Weeks' polite smile took on an expression of indulgence. This roused Deborah's pride, and, hesitating no longer, she anxiously remarked:
"I have sometimes thought that Oliver Ostrander might be that witness. He certainly was in the ravine the night Algernon Etheridge was struck down."
Had she been an experienced actress of years she could not have thrown into this question a greater lack of all innuendo. Miss Weeks, already under her fascination, heard the tone but never thought to notice the quick rise and fall of her visitor's uneasy bosom, and so unwarned, responded with all due frankness:
"I know he was. But how will that help you? He had no testimony to give in relation to this crime, or he would have given it."
"That is true." The admission fell mechanically from Deborah's lips; she was not conscious, even, of making it. She was struggling with the shock of the simple statement, confirming her own fears that Oliver had actually been in the ravine at the hour of Etheridge's murder. "Not even a boy would hide knowledge of that kind," she stumblingly continued. Then, as her emotion choked her into silence, she sat with piteous eyes searching Miss Weeks' face, till she had recovered her voice, when she added this vital question:
"How did you know that Oliver was in the ravine that night? I only guessed it."
"Well, it was in this way. I do not often keep my eye on my neighbours (oh, no, Miss Weeks!), but that night I chanced to be looking over the way just at the minute Mr. Etheridge came out, and something I saw in his manner and in that of the judge who had followed him to the door, and in that of Oliver who, cap on head, was leaning towards them from a window over the porch, made me think that a controversy was going on between the two old people of which Oliver was the subject. This naturally interested me, and I watched them long enough to see Oliver suddenly raise his fist and shake it at old Etheridge; then, in great rage, slam down the window and disappear inside. The next minute, and before the two below had done talking; I caught another glimpse of him as he dashed around the corner of the house on his way to the ravine."
"And Mr. Etheridge?"
"Oh, he left soon after. I watched him as he went by, his long cloak flapping in the wind. Little did I think he would never pass my window again."
So interested were they both, the one in telling to new and sympathetic ears the small experiences of her life, the other in listening for the chance phrase or the unconscious admission which would fix the suspicion already struggling into strong life within her breast, that neither for the moment realised the strangeness of the situation or that it was in connection with a crime for which the husband of one of them had suffered, they were raking up this past, and gossiping over its petty details. Possibly recollection returned to them both, when Mrs. Scoville sighed and said:
"It couldn't have been very long after you saw him that Mr. Etheridge was struck?"
"Only some twenty minutes. It takes just that long for a man to walk from this corner to the bridge."
"And you never heard where Oliver went?"
"It was never talked about at the time. Later, when some hint got about of his having been in the ravine that night, he said he had gone up the ravine not down it. And we all believed him, madam."
"Of course, of course. What a discriminating mind you have, Miss Weeks, and what a wonderful memory! To think that after all these years you can recall that Oliver had a cap on his head when he looked out of the window at his father and Mr. Etheridge. If you were asked, I have no doubt you could tell its very colour. Was it the peaked one?--the like of which you haven't in your marvelous collection?"
"Yes, I could swear to it." And Miss Weeks gave a little laugh, which sounded incongruous enough to Deborah in whose heart at that moment, a leaf was turned upon the past, which left the future hopelessly blank.
"Must you go?" Deborah had risen mechanically. "Don't, I beg, till you have relieved my mind about Judge Ostrander. I don't suppose that there is really anything behind that door of his which it would alarm any one to see?"
Then, Deborah understood Miss Weeks.
But she was ready for her.
"I've never seen anything of the sort," said she, "and I make up his bed in that very room every morning."
"Oh!" And Miss Weeks drew a deep breath. "No article of immense value such as that rare old bit of real Satsuma in the cabinet over there?"
"No," answered Deborah, with all the patience she could muster. "Judge Ostrander seems very simple in his tastes. I doubt if he would know Satsuma if he saw it."
Miss Weeks sighed. "Yes, he has never expressed the least wish to look over my shelves. So the double fence means nothing?"
"A whim," ejaculated Deborah, making quietly for the door. "The judge likes to walk at night when quite through with his work; and he doesn't like his ways to be noted. But he prefers the lawn now. I hear his step out there every night."
"Well, it's something to know that he leads a more normal life than formerly!" sighed the little lady as she prepared to usher her guest out. "Come again, Mrs. Scoville; and, if I may, I will drop in and see you some day."
Deborah accorded her permission and made her final adieux. She felt as if a hand which had been stealing up her chest had suddenly gripped her throat, choking her. She had found the man who had cast that fatal shadow down the ravine, twelve years before.