Dark Hollow by Anna Katharine Green
Book III. The Door of Mystery
XXXIV. Dark Hollow
Later, when the boards he had loosened in anticipation of this hour were all removed, they came upon a packet of closely written words hidden in the framework of the bed.
It read as follows:
Whosoever lays hands on this Ms. will already be acquainted with my crime. If he would also know its cause and the full story of my hypocrisy, let him read these lines written, as it were, with my heart's blood.
I loved Algernon Etheridge; I shall never have a dearer friend. His odd ways, his lank, possibly ungainly figure crowned by a head of scholarly refinement, his amiability when pleased, his irascibility when crossed, formed a character attractive to me from its very contradictions; and after my wife's death and before my son Oliver reached a companionable age, it was in my intercourse with this man I found my most solid satisfaction.
Yet we often quarrelled. His dogmatism frequently ran counter to my views, and, being myself a man of quick and violent temper, hard words sometimes passed between us, to be forgotten the next minute in a hand-shake, or some other token of mutual esteem. These dissensions--if such they could be called--never took place except in the privacy of his study or mine. We thought too much of each other to display our differences of opinion abroad or even in the presence of Oliver; and however heated our arguments or whatever our topic we invariably parted friends, till one fateful night.
O God! that years of repentance, self-hatred and secret immolation can never undo the deed of an infuriated moment. Eternity may console, but it can never make me innocent of the blood of my heart's brother.
We had had our usual wordy disagreement over some petty subject in which he was no nearer wrong nor I any nearer right than we had been many times before; but for some reason I found it harder to pardon him. Perhaps some purely physical cause lay back of this; perhaps the nervous irritation incident upon a decision then pending in regard to Oliver's future, heightened my feelings and made me less reasonable than usual. The cause does not matter, the result does. For the first time in our long acquaintance, I let Algernon Etheridge leave me, without any attempt at conciliation.
If only I had halted there! If, at sight of my empty study, I had not conceived the mad notion of waylaying him at the bridge for the hand-shake I missed, I might have been a happy man now, and Oliver--But why dwell upon these might-have-beens! What happened was this:
Disturbed in mind, and finding myself alone in the house, Oliver having evidently gone out while we two were disputing, I decided to follow out the impulse I have mentioned. Leaving by the rear, I went down the lane to the path which serves as a short cut to the bridge. That I did this unseen by anybody is not so strange when you consider the hour, and how the only person then living in the lane was, in all probability, in her kitchen. It would have been better for me, little as I might have recognised it at the time, had she been where she could have witnessed both my going and coming and faced me with the fact.
John Scoville, in his statement, says that after giving up his search for his little girl, he wandered up the ravine before taking the path back which led him through Dark Hollow. This was false, as well as the story he told of leaving his stick by the chestnut tree in the gully at foot of Ostrander Lane. For I was on the spot, and I know the route by which he reached Dark Hollow and also through whose agency the stick came to be there.
Read, and learn with what tricks the devil beguiles us men.
I was descending this path, heavily shadowed, as you know, by a skirting of closely growing trees and bushes, when just where it dips into the Hollow, I heard the sound of a hasty foot come crashing up through the underbrush from the ravine and cross the path ahead of me. A turn in the path prevented me from seeing the man himself, but as you will perceive and as I perceived later when circumstances recalled it to my mind, I had no need to see him to know who it was or with what intent he took this method of escape from the ravine into the fields leading to the highway. Scoville's stick spoke for him, the stick which I presently tripped over and mechanically picked up, without a thought of the desperate use to which I was destined to put it.
Etheridge was coming. I could hear his whistle on Factory Road. There was no mistaking it. It was an unusually shrill one and had always been a cause of irritation to me, but at this moment it was more; it roused every antagonistic impulse within me. He whistling like a galliard, after a parting which had dissatisfied me to such an extent that I had come all this distance to ask his pardon and see his old smile again! Afterwards, long afterwards, I was able to give another interpretation to his show of apparent self- satisfaction, but then I saw nothing but the contrast it offered to my own tender regrets, and my blood began to boil and my temper rise to such a point that recrimination took the place of apology when in another moment we came together in the open space between the end of the bridge and Dark Hollow.
He was in no better mood than myself to encounter insult, and what had been a simple difference between us flamed into a quarrel which reached its culmination when he mentioned Oliver's name with a taunt, which the boy, for all his obstinate clinging to his journalistic idea, did not deserve.
Knowing my own temper, I drew back into the Hollow.
He followed me.
I tried to speak.
He took the word out of my mouth. This may have been with the intent of quelling my anger, but the tone was rasping, and noting this and not his words, my hand tightened insensibly about the stick which the devil (or John Scoville) had put in my hand. Did he see this, or was he prompted by some old memory of boyish quarrels that he should give utterance to that quick, sharp laugh of scorn! I shall never know, but ere the sound had ceased, the stick was whirling over my head--there came a crash and he fell. My friend! My friend!
Next moment the earth seemed too narrow, the heavens too contracted for my misery. That he was dead--that my blow had killed him, I never doubted for an instant. I knew it, as we know the face of Doom when once it has risen upon us. Never, never again would this lump of clay, which a few minutes before had filled the Hollow with shrillest whistling, breathe or think or speak. He was dead, dead, dead!--And I? What was I?
The name which no man hears unmoved, no amount of repetition makes easy to the tongue or welcome to the ear! ... the name which I had heard launched in full forensic eloquence so many times in accusation against the wretches I had hardly regarded as being in the same human class as myself, rang in my ear as though intoned from the very mouth of hell. I could not escape it. I should never be able to escape it again. Though I was standing in a familiar scene--a scene I had known and frequented from childhood, I felt myself as isolated from my past and as completely set apart from my fellows as the shipwrecked mariner tossed to precarious foot- hold on his wave-dashed rock. I forgot that other criminals existed. In that one awful moment I was in my own eyes the only blot upon the universe--the sole inhabitant of the new world into which I had plunged--the world of crime--the world upon which I had sat in judgment before I knew--
What broke the spell? A noise? No, I heard no noise. The sense of some presence near, if not intrusive? God knows; all I can say is that, drawn, by some other will than my own, I found my glance travelling up the opposing bluff till at its top, framed between the ragged wall and towering chimney of Spencer's Folly, I saw the presence I had dreaded, the witness who was to undo me.
It was a woman--a woman with a little child in hand. I did not see her face, for she was just on the point of turning away from the dizzy verge, but nothing could have been plainer than the silhouette which these two made against the flush of that early evening sky. I see it yet in troubled dreams and desperate musings. I shall see it always; for hard upon its view, fear entered my soul, horrible, belittling fear, torturing me not with a sense of guilt but of its consequences. I had slain a man to my hurt, I a judge, just off the Bench; and soon ... possibly before I should see Oliver again ... I should be branded from end to end of the town with that name which had made such havoc in my mind when I first saw Algernon Etheridge lying stark before me.
I longed to cry out--to voice my despair in the spot where my sin had found me out; but my throat had closed, and the blood in my veins ceased flowing. As long as I could catch a glimpse of this woman's fluttering skirt as she retreated through the ruins, I stood there, self-convicted, above the man I had slain, staring up at that blotch of shining sky which was as the gate of hell to me. Not till their two figures had disappeared and it was quite clear again did the instinct of self-preservation return, and with it the thought of flight.
But where could I fly? No spot in the wide world was secret enough to conceal me now. I was a marked man. Better to stand my ground, and take the consequences, than to act the coward's part and slink away like those other men of blood I had so often sat in judgment upon.
Had I but followed this impulse! Had I but gone among my fellows, shown them the mark of Cain upon my forehead, and prayed, not for indulgence, but punishment, what days of gnawing misery I should have been spared!
But the horror of what lay at my feet drove me from the Hollow and drove me the wrong way. As my steps fell mechanically into the trail down which I had come in innocence and kindly purpose only a few minutes before, a startling thought shot through my benumbed mind. The woman had shown no haste in her turning! There had been a naturalness in her movement, a dignity and a grace which spoke of ease, not shock. What if she had not seen! What if my deed was as yet unknown! Might I not have time for--for what? I did not stop to think; I just pressed on, saying to myself, "Let Providence decide. If I meet any one before I reach my own door, my doom is settled. If I do not--"
And I did not. As I turned into the lane from the ravine I heard a sound far down the slope, but it was too distant to create apprehension, and I went calmly on, forcing myself into my usual leisurely gait, if only to gain some control over my own emotions before coming under Oliver's eye.
That sound I have never understood. It could not have been Scoville since in the short time which had passed, he could not have fled from the point where I heard him last into the ravine below Ostrander Lane. But if not he, who was it? Or if it was he, and some other hand threw his stick across my path, whose was this hand and why have we never heard anything about it? It is a question which sometimes floats through my mind, but I did not give it a thought then. I was within sight of home and Oliver's possible presence; and all other dread was as nothing in comparison to what I felt at the prospect of meeting my boy's eye. My boy's eye! my greatest dread then, and my greatest dread still! In my terror of it I walked as to my doom.
The house which I had left empty, I found empty; Oliver had not yet returned. The absolute stillness of the rooms seemed appalling. Instinctively, I looked up at the clock. It had stopped. Not at the minute--I do not say it was at the minute--but near, very near the time when from an innocent man I became a guilty one. Appalled at the discovery, I fled to the front. Opening the door, I looked out. Not a creature in sight, and not a sound to be heard. The road was as lonely and seemingly as forsaken as the house. Had time stopped here too? Were the world and its interests at a pause in horror of my deed? For a moment I believed it; then more natural sensations intervened and, rejoicing at this lack of disturbance where disturbance meant discovery, I stepped inside again and went and sat down in my own room.
My own room! Was it mine any longer? Its walls looked strange; the petty objects of my daily handling, unfamiliar. The change in myself infected everything I saw. I might have been in another man's house for all connection these things seemed to have with me or my life. Like one set apart on an unapproachable shore, I stretched hands in vain towards all that I had known and all that had been of value to me.
But as the minutes passed, as the hands of the clock I had hastily rewound moved slowly round the dial, I began to lose this feeling. Hope which I thought quite dead slowly revived. Nothing had happened, and perhaps nothing would. Men had been killed before, and the slayer passed unrecognised. Why might it not be so in my case? If the woman continued to remain silent; if for any reason she had not witnessed the blow or the striker, who else was there to connect me with an assault committed a quarter of a mile away? No one knew of the quarrel; and if they did, who could be so daring as to associate one of my name with an action so brutal? A judge slay his friend! It would take evidence of a very marked character to make even my political enemies believe that.
As the twilight deepened I rose from my seat and lit the gas. I must not be found skulking in the dark. Then I began to count the ticks measuring off the hour. If thirty minutes more passed without a rush from without, I might hope. If twenty?--if ten?-- then it was five! then it was--Ah, at last! The gate had clanged to. They were coming. I could hear steps--voices--a loud ring at the bell. Laying down the pen I had taken, up mechanically, I moved slowly towards the front. Should I light the hall gas as I went by? It was a natural action, and, being natural, would show unconcern. But I feared the betrayal which my ashy face and trembling hands might make. Agitation after the news was to be expected, but not before! So I left the hall dark when I opened the door.
And thus decided my future.
For in the faces of the small crowd which blocked the doorway, I detected nothing but commiseration; and when a voice spoke and I heard Oliver's accents surcharged with nothing more grievous than pity, I realised that my secret was as yet unshared, and seeing that no man suspected me, I forebore to declare my guilt to any one.
This sudden restoration from soundless depths into the pure air of respect and sympathy confused me; and beyond the words Killed! Struck down by the bridge! I heard little, till slowly, dully like the call of a bell issuing from a smothering mist, I caught the sound of a name and then the words, "He did it just for the watch;" which hardly conveyed meaning to me, so full was I of Oliver's look and Oliver's tone and the way his arm supported me as he chided them for their abruptness and endeavoured to lead me away.
But the name! It stuck in my ear and gradually it dawned upon my consciousness that another man had been arrested for my crime and that the safety, the reverence and the commiseration that were so dear to me had been bought at a price no man of honour might pay.
But I was no longer a man of honour. I was a wretched criminal swaying above a gulf of infamy in which I had seen others swallowed but had never dreamed of being engulfed myself. I never thought of letting myself go--not at this crisis--not while my heart was warm with its resurgence into the old life.
And so I let pass this second opportunity for confession. Afterwards, it was too late--or seemed too late to my demoralised judgment.
My first real awakening to the extraordinary horrors of my position was when I realised that circumstances were likely to force me into presiding over the trial of the man Scoville. This I felt to be beyond even my rapidly hardening conscience. I made great efforts to evade it, but they all failed. Then I feigned sickness, only to realise that my place would be taken by Judge Grosvenor, a notoriously prejudiced man. If he sat, it would go hard with the prisoner, and I wanted the prisoner acquitted. I had no grudge against John Scoville. I was grateful to him. By his own confession he was a thief, but he was no murderer, and his bad repute had stood me in good stead. Attention had been so drawn to him by the circumstances in which the devil had entangled him, that it had never even glanced my way and now never would. Of course, I wanted to save him, and if the only help I could now give him was to sit as judge upon his case, then would I sit as judge whatever mental torture it involved.
Sending for Mr. Black, I asked him pointblank whether in face of the circumstance that the victim of this murder was my best friend, he would not prefer to plead his case before Judge Grosvenor. He answered no: that he had more confidence in my equity even under these circumstances than in that of my able, but headstrong, colleague; and prayed me to get well. He did not say that he expected me on this very account to show even more favour towards his client than I might otherwise have done, but I am sure that he meant it; and, taking his attitude as an omen, I obeyed his injunction and was soon well enough to take my seat upon the Bench.
No one will expect me to enlarge upon the sufferings of that time. By some I was thought stoical; by others, a prey to such grief that only my duty as judge kept me to my task. Neither opinion was true. What men saw facing them from the Bench was an automaton wound up to do so much work each day. The real Ostrander was not there, but stood, an unseen presence at the bar, undergoing trial side by side with John Scoville, for a crime to make angels weep and humanity hide its head: hypocrisy!
But the days went by and the inexorable hour drew nigh for the accused man's release or condemnation. Circumstances were against him--so was his bearing which I alone understood. If, as all felt, it was that of a guilty man, it was so because he had been guilty in intent if not in fact. He had meant to attack Etheridge. He had run down the ravine for that purpose, knowing my old friend's whistle and envying him his watch. Or why his foolish story of having left his stick behind him at the chestnut? But the sound of my approaching steps higher up on the path had stopped him in mid- career and sent him rushing up the slope ahead of me. When he came back after a short circuit of the fields beyond, it was to find his crime forestalled and by the very weapon he had thrown into the Hollow as he went skurrying by. It was the shock of this discovery, heightened by the use he made of it to secure the booty thus thrown in his way without crime, which gave him the hang-dog look we all noted. That there were other reasons--that the place recalled another scene of brutality in which intention had been followed by act, I did not then know. It was sufficient to me then that my safety was secured by his own guilty consciousness and the prevarications into which it led him. Instead of owning up to the encounter he had so barely escaped, he confined himself to the simple declaration of having heard voices somewhere near the bridge, which to all who know the ravine appeared impossible under the conditions named.
Yet, for all these incongruities and the failure of his counsel to produce any definite impression by the prisoner's persistent denial of having whittled the stick or even of having carried it into Dark Hollow, I expected a verdict in his favour. Indeed, I was so confident of it that I suffered less during the absence of the jury than at any other time, and when they returned, with that air of solemn decision which proclaims unanimity of mind and a ready verdict, I was so prepared for his acquittal that for the first time since the opening of the trial, I felt myself a being of flesh and blood, with human sentiments and hopes. And it was:
When I woke to a full realisation of what this entailed (for I must have lost consciousness for a minute, though no one seemed to notice), the one fact staring me in the face--staring as a live thing stares--was that it would devolve upon me to pronounce his sentence; upon me, Archibald Ostrander, an automaton no longer, but a man realising to the full his part in this miscarriage of justice.
Somehow, strange as it may appear, I had thought little of this possibility previous to this moment. I found myself upon the brink of this new gulf before the dizziness of my escape from the other had fully passed. Do you wonder that I recoiled, sought to gain time, put off delivering the sentence from day to day? I had sinned,--sinned irredeemably--but there are depths of infamy beyond which a man cannot go. I had reached that point. Chaos confronted me, and in contemplation of it, I fell ill.
What saved me? A new discovery, and the loving sympathy of my son Oliver. One night--a momentous one to me--he came to my room and, closing the door behind him, stood with his back to it, contemplating me in a way that startled me.
What had happened? What lay behind this new and penetrating look, this anxious and yet persistent manner? I dared not think. I dared not yield to the terror which must follow thought. Terror blanches the cheek and my cheek must never blanch under anybody's scrutiny. Never, never, so long as I lived.
"Father,"--the tone quieted me, for I knew from its gentleness that he was hesitating to speak more on his own account than on mine--"you are not looking well; this thing worries you. I hate to see you like this. Is it just the loss of your old friend, or--or- -"
He faltered, not knowing how to proceed. There was nothing strange in this. There could not have been much encouragement in my expression. I was holding on to myself with much too convulsive a grasp.
"Sometimes I think," he recommenced, "that you don't feel quite sure of this man Scoville's guilt. Is that so? Tell me, father."
I did not know what to make of him. There was no shrinking from me; no conscious or unconscious accusation in voice or look, but there was a desire to know, and a certain latent resolve behind it all that marked the line between obedient boyhood and thinking, determining man. With all my dread--a dread so great I felt the first grasp of age upon my heart-strings at that moment--I recognised no other course than to meet this inquiry of his with the truth--that is, with just so much of the truth as was needed. No more, not one jot more. I, therefore, answered, and with a show of self-possession at which I now wonder:
"You are not far from right, Oliver. I have had moments of doubt. The evidence, as you must have noticed, is purely circumstantial."
"But a jury has convicted him."
"On the evidence you mention?"
"What evidence would satisfy you? What would you consider a conclusive proof of guilt?"
I told him in the set phrases of my profession.
"Then," he declared as I finished, "you may rest easy as to this man's right to receive a sentence of death."
I could not trust my ears.
"I know from personal observation," he proceeded, approaching me with a firm step, "that he is not only capable of the crime for which he has been convicted, but that he has actually committed one under similar circumstances, and possibly for the same end."
And he told me the story of that night of storm and bloodshed,--a story which will be found lying near this, in my alcove of shame and contrition.
It had an overwhelming effect upon me. I had been very near death. Suicide must have ended the struggle in which I was engaged, had not this knowledge of actual and unpunished crime come to ease my conscience. John Scoville was worthy of death, and, being so, should receive the full reward of his deed. I need hesitate no longer.
That night I slept.
But there came a night when I did not. After the penalty had been paid and to most men's eyes that episode was over, I turned the first page of that volume of slow retribution which is the doom of the man who sins from impulse, and has the recoil of his own nature to face relentlessly to the end of his days.
Scoville was in his grave.
I was alive.
Scoville had shot a man for his money.
I had struck a man down in my wrath.
Scoville's widow and little child must face a cold and unsympathetic world, with small means and disgrace rising, like a wall, between them and social sympathy, if not between them and the actual means of living.
Oliver's future faced him untouched. No shadow lay across his path to hinder his happiness or to mar his chances.
The results were unequal. I began to see them so, and feel the gnawing of that deathless worm whose ravages lay waste the breast, while hand and brain fulfil their routine of work, as though all were well and the foundations of life unshaken.
I suffered as only cowards suffer. I held on to honour; I held on to home; I held on to Oliver, but with misery for my companion and a self-contempt which nothing could abate. Each time I mounted the Bench, I felt a tug at my arm as of a visible, restraining presence. Each time I returned to my home and met the clear eye of Oliver beaming upon me with its ever growing promise of future comradeship, I experienced a rebellion against my own happiness which opened my eyes to my own nature and its inevitable demand. I must give up Oliver; or yield my honours, make a full confession and accept whatever consequences it might bring. I am a proud man, and the latter alternative was beyond me. With each passing day, the certainty of this became more absolute and more fixed. In every man's nature there lurk possibilities of action which he only recognises under stress, also impossibilities which stretch like an iron barrier between him and the excellence he craves. I had come up against such an impossibility. I could forego pleasure, travel, social intercourse, and even the companionship of the one being in whom all my hopes centred, but I could not, of my own volition, pass from the judge's bench to the felon's cell. There I struck the immovable,--the impassable.
I decided in one awful night of renunciation that I would send Oliver out of my life.
The next day I told him abruptly ... hurting him to spare myself ... that I had decided after long and mature thought to yield to his desire for journalism, and that I would start him in his career and maintain him in it for three years if he would subscribe to the following conditions:
They were the hardest a loving father ever imposed upon a dutiful and loving son.
First: he was to leave home immediately ... within a few hours, in fact.
Secondly: he was to regard all relations between us as finished; we were to be strangers henceforth in every particular save that of the money obligation already mentioned.
Thirdly: he was never to acknowledge this compact, or to cast any slur upon the father whose reasons for this apparently unnatural conduct were quite disconnected with any fault of his or any desire to punish or reprove.
Fourthly: he was to pray for his father every night of his life before he slept.
Was this last a confession? Had I meant it to be such? If so, it missed its point. It awed but did not enlighten him. I had to contend with his compunctions, as well as with his grief and dismay. It was an hour of struggle on his part and of implacable resolution on mine. Nothing but such hardness on my part would have served me. Had I faltered once he would have won me over, and the tale of my sleepless nights been repeated. I did not falter; and when the midnight stroke rang through the house that night, it separated by its peal, a sin-beclouded but human past from a future arid with solitude and bereft of the one possession to retain which my sin had been hidden.
I was a father without a son--as lonely and as desolate as though the separation between us were that of the grave I had merited and so weakly shunned.
And thus I lived for a year.
But I was not yet satisfied.
The toll I had paid to Grief did not seem to me a sufficient punishment for a crime which entailed imprisonment if not death. How could I insure for myself the extreme punishment which my peace demanded, without bringing down upon me the full consequences I refused to accept.
You have seen to-day how I ultimately answered this question. A convict's bed! a convict's isolation.
Bela served me in this; Bela who knew my secret and knowing continued to love me. He gathered up these rods singly and in distant places and set them up across the alcove in my room. He had been a convict once himself.
Being now in my rightful place, I could sleep again.
But after some weeks of this, fresh fears arose. An accident was possible. For all Bela's precautions, some one might gain access to this room. This would mean the discovery of my secret. Some new method must be devised for securing me absolutely against intrusion. Entrance into my simple, almost unguarded cottage must be made impossible. A close fence should replace the pickets now surrounding it--a fence with a gate having its own lock.
And this fence was built.
This should have been enough. But guilt has terrors unknown to innocence. One day I caught a small boy peering through an infinitesimal crack in the fence, and, remembering the window grilled with iron with which Bela had replaced the cheerful casement in my den of punishment, I realised how easily an opening might be made between the boards for the convenience of a curious eye anxious to penetrate the mystery of my seclusion.
And so it came about that the inner fence was put up.
This settled my position in the town. No more visits. All social life was over.
It was meet. I was satisfied at last. I could now give my whole mind to my one remaining duty. I lived only while on the Bench.
March Fifth, 1898.
There is a dream which comes to me often: a vision which I often see.
It is that of two broken and irregular walls standing apart against a background of roseate sky. Between these walls the figures of a woman and child, turning about to go.
The bridge I never see, nor the face of the man who died for my sin; but this I see always: the gaunt ruins of Spencer's Folly and the figure of a woman leading away a little child.
That woman lives. I know now who she is. Her testimony was uttered before me in court, and was not one to rouse my apprehensions. My crime was unwitnessed by her, and for years she has been a stranger to this town. But I have a superstitious horror of seeing her again, while believing that the day will come when I shall do so. When this occurs,--when I look up and find her in my path, I shall know that my sin has found me out and that the end is near.
O shade of Algernon Etheridge, unforgetting and unforgiving! The woman has appeared! She stood in this room to-day. Verily, years are nothing with God.
I thought I knew what awaited me if my hour ever came. But who can understand the ways of Providence or where the finger of retributive Justice will point. It is Oliver's name and not mine which has become the sport of calumny. Oliver's! Could the irony of life go further! Oliver's!
There is nothing against him, and such folly must soon die out; but to see doubt in Mrs. Scoville's eyes is horrible in itself and to eliminate it I may have to show her Oliver's account of that long-forgotten night of crime in Spencer's Folly. It is naively written and reveals a clean, if reticent, nature; but that its effect may be unquestionable I will insert a few lines to cover any possible misinterpretation of his manner or conduct. There is an open space, and our handwritings were always strangely alike. Only our e's differed, and I will be careful with the e's.
Her confidence must be restored at all hazards.
My last foolish attempt has undone me. Nothing remains now but that sacrifice of self which should have been made twelve years ago.