Dark Hollow by Anna Katharine Green
Book II. The House and the Room
XXV. "What Do You Think of Him Now?"
This was the document and these the words which Deborah, widow of the man thus doubly denounced, had been given to read by the father of the writer, in the darkened room which had been and still was to her, an abode of brooding thought and unfathomable mystery.
No wonder that during its reading more than one exclamation of terror and dismay escaped her, as the once rehabilitated form of the dead and gone started into dreadful life again before her eyes. There were so many reasons for believing this record to be an absolute relation of the truth.
Incoherent phrases which had fallen from those long-closed lips took on new meaning with this unveiling of an unknown past. Repugnances for which she could not account in those old days, she now saw explained. He would never, even in passing, give a look at the ruin on the bluff, so attractive to every eye but his own. As for entering its gates--she had never dared so much as to ask him to do so. He had never expressed his antipathy for the place, but he had made her feel it. She doubted now if he would have climbed to it from the ravine even to save his child from falling over its verge. Indeed, she saw the reason now why he could not explain the reason for the apathy he showed in his hunt for Reuther on that fatal day, and his so marked avoidance of the height where she was found.
Then the watch! Deborah knew well that watch. She had often asked him by what stroke of luck he had got so fine a timepiece. But he had never told her. Later, it had been stolen from him; and as he had a mania for watches, that was why, perhaps--
God! was her mind veering back to her old idea as to his responsibility for the crime committed in Dark Hollow? Yes; she could not help it. Denial from a monster like this--a man who with such memories and such spoil, could return home to wife and child, with some gay and confused story of a great stroke in speculation which had brought him in the price of the tavern it had long been his ambition to own--what was denial from such lips worth, though emphasised by the most sacred of oaths, and uttered under the shadow of death. The judge was right. Oliver--whose ingenuous story had restored his image to her mind, with some of its old graces--had been the victim of circumstances and not John Scoville. Henceforth, she would see him as such, and when she had recovered a little from the effect of this sudden insight into the revolting past, she would--
Her thoughts had reached this stage and her hand, in obedience to the new mood, was lightly ruffling up the pages before her, when she felt a light touch on her shoulder and turned with a start.
The judge was at her back. How long he had stood there she did not know, nor did he say. The muttered exclamations which had escaped her, the irrepressible cry of despair she had given when she first recognised the identity of the "stranger" may have reached him where he sat at the other end of the room, and drawn him insensibly forward till he could overlook her shoulder as she read, and taste with her the horror of these revelations which yet were working so beneficent a result for him and his. It may have been so, and it may have been that he had not made his move till he saw her attitude change and her head droop disconsolately at the reading of the last line. She did not ask, as I have said, nor did he tell her; but when upon feeling his hand upon her shoulder she turned, he was there; and while his lips failed to speak, his eyes were eloquent and their question single and imperative.
"What do you think of him now?" they seemed to ask, and rising to her feet, she met him with a smile, ghastly perhaps with the lividness of the shadows through which she had been groping, but encouraging withal and soothing beyond measure to his anxious and harassed soul.
"Oliver is innocent," she declared, turning once more to lay her hand upon the sheets containing his naive confession. "The dastard who could shoot his host for plunder is capable of a second crime holding out a similar inducement. Nothing now will ever make me connect Oliver with the crime at the bridge. As you said, he was simply near enough the Hollow to toss into it the stick he had been whittling on his way from the oak tree. I am his advocate from this minute."
Her eyes were still resting mechanically upon that last page lying spread out before her, and she did not observe in its full glory the first gleam of triumphant joy which, in all probability, Judge Ostrander's countenance had shown in years. Nor did he see, in the glad confusion of the moment, the quick shudder with which she lifted her trembling hand away from those papers and looked up, squarely at last, into his transfigured visage.
"Oh, judge!" she murmured, bursting into a torrent of tears. "How you must have suffered to feel so great a relief!" Then she was still, very still, and waited for him to speak.
"I suffered," he presently proceeded to state, "because of the knowledge which had come to me of the scandal with which circumstances threatened us. Oliver had confided to me (after the trial, mind, not before) the unfortunate fact of his having been in possession of the stick during those few odd minutes preceding the murder. He had also told me how he had boasted once, and in a big crowd, too, of his intention to do Etheridge. He had meant nothing by the phrase, beyond what any body means who mingles boasting with temper, but it was a nasty point of corroborative evidence; and heart-breaking as it was for me to part with him, I felt that his future career would be furthered by a fresh start in another town. You see," he continued, a faint blush dyeing his old cheek ... old in sorrow not in years ... "I am revealing mysteries of my past life which I have hitherto kept strictly within my own breast. I cannot do this without shame, because while in the many serious conversations we have had on this subject, I have always insisted upon John Scoville's guilt. I have never allowed myself to admit the least fact which would in any way compromise Oliver. A cowardly attitude for a judge you will say, and you are right; but for a father--Mrs. Scoville, I love my boy. I--What's that?"
The front door-bell was ringing.
In a flash Deborah was out of the room. It was as if she had flown with unnecessary eagerness to answer a bidding which, after all, Reuther could easily have attended to. It struck him aghast for the instant, then he began slowly to gather up the papers before him and carry them back into the other room. Had he, instead, made straight for the doorway leading to the front of the house, he would have come upon the figure of Deborah standing alone and with her face pressed in anguish and unspeakable despair against the lintel. Something had struck her heart and darkened her soul since that exalted moment in which she cried:
"Henceforth I will be Oliver's advocate."
When the judge at last came forth, it was at Reuther's bidding.
A gentleman wished to see him in the parlour.
This was so unprecedented,--even of late when the ladies did receive some callers, that he stopped short after his first instinctive step, to ask her if the gentleman had given his name.
She said no; but added that he was not alone; that he had a very strange and not very nice-looking person with him whom mother insisted should remain in the hall. "Mother requests you to see the gentleman, Judge Ostrander. She said you would wish to, if you once saw the person accompanying him."
With a dark glance, not directed against her, however, the judge bade her run away to the kitchen and as far from all these troubles as she could, then, locking his door behind him, as he always did, he strode towards the front.
He found Deborah standing guard over an ill-conditioned fellow whose slouching figure slouched still more under his eye, but gave no other acknowledgment of his presence. Passing him without a second look, Judge Ostrander entered the parlour where he found no less a person than Mr. Black awaiting him.
There was no bad blood between these two whatever their past relations or present suspicions, and they were soon shaking hands with every appearance of mutual cordiality.
The judge was especially courteous.
"I am glad," said he, "of any occasion which brings you again under my roof, though from the appearance of your companion I judge the present one to be of no very agreeable character."
"He's honest enough," muttered Black, with a glance towards Deborah, for the understanding of which the judge held no key. Then, changing the subject, "You had a very unfortunate experience this afternoon. Allow me to express my regret at an outbreak so totally unwarranted."
A grumble came from the hall without. Evidently his charge, if we may so designate the fellow he had brought there, had his own ideas on this subject.
"Quiet out there!" shouted Mr. Black. "Mrs. Scoville, you need not trouble yourself to stand over Mr. Flannagan any longer. I'll look after him."
She bowed and was turning away when the judge intervened.
"Is there any objection," he asked, "to Mrs. Scoville's remaining present at this interview?"
"None whatever," answered the lawyer.
"Then, Mrs. Scoville, may I request you to come in?"
If she hesitated, it was but natural. Exhaustion is the obvious result of so many excitements, and that she was utterly exhausted was very apparent. Mr. Black cast her a commiserating smile, but the judge only noticed that she entered the room at his bidding and sat down by the window. He was keying himself up to sustain a fresh excitement. He was as exhausted as she, possibly more so. He had a greater number of wearing years to his credit.
"Judge, I'm your friend;" thus Mr. Black began. "Thinking you must wish to know who started the riotous procedure which disgraced our town to-day, I have brought the ringleader here to answer for himself--that is, if you wish to question him."
Judge Ostrander wheeled about, gave the man a searching look, and failing to recognise him as any one he had ever seen before, beckoned him in.
"I suppose," said he, when the lounging and insolent figure was fairly before their eyes, "that this is not the first time you have been asked to explain your enmity to my long absent son."
"Naw; I've had my talk wherever and whenever I took the notion. Oliver Ostrander hit me once. I was jest a little chap then and meanin' no harm to any one. I kept a-pesterin' of 'im and he hit me. He'd a better have hit a feller who hadn't my memory. I've never forgiven that hit, and I never will. That's why I'm hittin' him now. It's just my turn; that's all."
"Your turn! Your turn! And what do you think has given you an opportunity to turn on him?"
"I'm not in the talkin' mood just now," the fellow drawled, frankly insolent, not only in his tone but in his bearing to all present. "Nor can you make it worth my while, you gents. I'll not take money. I'm an honest hard-workin' man who can earn his own livin', and you can't pay me to keep still, or to go away from Shelby a day sooner than I want to. I was goin' away, but I gave it up when they told me that things were beginnin' to look black against Ol Ostrander;--that a woman had come into town who was a- stirrin' up things generally about that old murder for which a feller had already been 'lectrocuted, and knowin' somethin' myself about that murder and Ol Ostrander, I--well, I stayed."
The quiet threat, the suggested possibility, the attack which wraps itself in vague uncertainty, are ever the most effective. As his raucous voice, dry with sinister purpose which no man could shake, died out in an offensive drawl, Mr. Black edged a step nearer the judge, before he sprang and caught the young fellow by the coat-collar and gave him a very vigorous shake.
"See here!" he threatened. "Behave yourself and treat the judge like a gentleman or--"
"Or what?" the bulldog mouth sneered. "See here yourself," he now shouted, as the lawyer's hands unloosed and he stood panting; "I'm not afeard o' you, sir, nor of the jedge, nor of the lady nuther. I knows somethin', I do; and when I gets ready to tell it, we'll just see whose coat-collar they'll be handlin'. I came 'cause I wanted to see the inside o' the house Ol Ostrander's father doesn't think him good enough to live in. It's grand; but this part here isn't the whole of it. There's a door somewhere which nobody never opens unless it's the jedge there. I'd like to see what's behind that 'ere door. If it's somethin' to make a good story out of, I might be got to keep quiet about this other thing. I don't know, but I might."
The swagger with which he said this, the confidence in himself which he showed and the reliance he so openly put in the something he knew but could not be induced to tell, acted so strongly upon Mr. Black's nerves, that he leaped towards him again, evidently with the intention of dragging him from the house.
But the judge was not ready for this. The judge had gained a new lease of life in the last half-hour and he felt no fear of this sullen bill-poster for all his sly innuendoes. He, therefore, hindered the lawyer from his purpose, by a quick gesture of so much dignity and resolve that even the lout himself was impressed and dropped some of his sullen bravado.
"I have something to say to this fellow," he announced, looking anywhere but at the drooping figure in the window which ought, above all things in the world, to have engaged his attention. "Perhaps he does not know his folly. Perhaps he thinks because I was thrown aback to-day by those public charges against my son and a string of insults for which no father could be prepared, that I am seriously disturbed over the position into which such unthinking men as himself have pushed Mr. Oliver Ostrander. I might be if there were truth in these charges or any serious reason for connecting my upright and honourable son with the low crime of a highwayman. But there is not. I aver it and so will this lady here whom you have doubtless recognised for the one who has stirred this matter up. You can bring no evidence to show guilt on my son's part,"--these words he directed straight at the discomfited poster of bills--"because there is no evidence to bring."
Mr. Black's eyes sparkled with admiration. He could not have used this method with the lad, but he recognised the insight of the man who could. Bribes were a sign of weakness, so were suggested force and counter-attack; but scorn--a calm ignoring of the power of any one to seriously shake Oliver Ostrander's established position-- that might rouse wrath and bring avowal; certainly it had shaken the man; he looked much less aggressive and self-confident than before.
However, though impressed, he was not yet ready to give in. Shuffling about with his feet but not yet shrinking from an encounter few men of his stamp would have cared to subject themselves to, he answered with a remark delivered with a little more civility than any of his previous ones:
"What you call evidence may not be the same as I calls evidence. If you're satisfied at thinkin' my word's no good, that's your business. I know how I should feel if I was Ol Ostrander's father and knew what I know."
"Let him go," spoke up a wavering voice. It was Deborah's.
But the judge was deaf to the warning. Deborah's voice had but reminded him of Deborah's presence. Its tone had escaped him. He was too engrossed in the purpose he had in mind to notice shades of inflection.
But Mr. Black had, and quick as thought he echoed her request:
"He is forgetting himself. Let him go, Judge Ostrander."
But that astute magistrate, wise in all other causes but his own, was no more ready now than before to do this.
"In a moment," he conceded. "Let me first make sure that this man understands me. I have said that there exists no evidence against my son. I did not mean that there may not be supposed evidence. That is more than probable. No suspicion could have been felt and none of these outrageous charges made, without that. He was unfortunate enough not only to have been in the ravine that night but to have picked up Scoville's stick and carried it towards the bridge, whittling it as he went. But his connection with the crime ends there. He dropped this stick before he came to where the wood path joins Factory Road; and another hand than his raised it against Etheridge. This I aver; and this the lady here will aver. You have probably already recognised her. If not, allow me to tell you that she is the lady whose efforts have brought back this case to the public mind: Mrs. Scoville, the wife of John Scoville and the one of all others who has the greatest interest in proving her husband's innocence. If she says, that after the most careful inquiry and a conscientious reconsideration of this case, she has found herself forced to come to the conclusion that justice has already been satisfied in this matter, you will believe her, won't you?"
"I don't know," drawled the man, a low and cunning expression lighting up his ugly countenance. "She wants to marry her daughter to your son. Any live dog is better than a dead one; I guess her opinion don't go for much."
Recoiling before a cynicism that pierced with unerring skill the one joint in his armour he knew to be vulnerable, the judge took a minute in which to control his rage and then addressing the half- averted figure in the window said:
"Mrs. Scoville, will you assure this man that you have no expectations of marrying your daughter to Oliver Ostrander?"
With a slow movement more suggestive of despair than any she had been seen to make since the hour of her indecision had first struck, she shifted in her seat and finally faced them, with the assertion:
"Reuther Scoville will never marry Oliver Ostrander. Whatever my wishes or willingness in the matter, she herself is so determined. Not because she does not believe in his integrity, for she does; but because she will not unite herself to one whose prospects in life are more to her than her own happiness."
The fellow stared, then laughed:
"She's a goodun," he sneered. "And you believe that bosh?"
Mr. Black could no longer contain himself.
"I believe you to be the biggest rascal in town," he shouted. "Get out, or I won't answer for myself. Ladies are not to be treated in this manner."
Did he remember his own rough handling of the sex on the witness stand?
"I didn't ask to see the ladies," protested Flannagan, turning with a slinking gait towards the door.
If they only had let him go! If the judge in his new self- confidence had not been so anxious to deepen the effect and make any future repetition of the situation impossible!
"You understand the lady," he interposed, with the quiet dignity which was so imposing on the bench. "She has no sympathy with your ideas and no faith in your conclusions. She believes absolutely in my son's innocence."
"Do you, ma'am?" The man had turned and was surveying her with the dogged impudence of his class. "I'd like to hear you say it, if you don't mind, ma'am. Perhaps, then, I'll believe it."
"I--" she began, trembling so, that she failed to reach her feet, although she made one spasmodic effort to do so. "I believe--Oh, I feel ill! It's been too much--I--" her head fell forward and she turned herself quite away from them all.
"You see she ain't so eager, jedge, as you thought," laughed the bill-poster, with a clumsy bow he evidently meant to be sarcastic.
"Oh, what have I done!" moaned Deborah, starting up as though she would fling herself after the retreating figure, now half way down the hall.
She saw in the look of the judge as he forcibly stopped her, and heard in the lawyer's whisper as he bounded past them both to see the fellow out: "Useless; nothing will bridle him now"; and finding no support for her despairing spirit either on earth or, as she thought, in heaven, she collapsed where she sat and fell unnoticed to the floor, where she lay prone at the feet of the equally unconscious figure of the judge, fixed in another attack of his peculiar complaint.
And thus the lawyer found them when he returned from closing the gate behind Flannagan.