A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill by Alice Hegan Rice
The fatal accident which Phineas Flathers' misguided patriotism had precipitated, changed the course of many a life, but to none did it bring more far-reaching consequences than to the daughter of old Bob Carsey.
Miss Lady could never clearly recall those first days after her father's death. They seemed to her a confused nightmare of strange doctors and nurses, of a strange man hovering between life and death in the guest-room bed, of strange people coming and going, or sitting in hushed groups on the stiff horsehair chairs in the hall, waiting for news. Two facts alone remained fixed in the whirling chaos of unrealities; her father was dead, and no letter had come from Donald Morley.
Each day when the mail arrived she roused from her apathy, and with trembling fingers sorted out the letters, going over them again and again, and never finding the one she sought. Gradually beneath the poignant grief for her father, came the dull persistent pain of a first disillusion. The belief and loyalty with which she had started out to defend Donald began to weaken before his silence. In his trouble she had been ready to rush to him, to succor and forgive, but he had not called upon her. Now in her great need, she was calling to him, and he did not come. Suspicion began to crowd on the heels of doubt.
Had he not acknowledged his instability? Had her father not seen it from the first? Was his desire to settle down in the country but one of the whims of which his life seemed made up? Perhaps she herself had only been a passing fancy, something wanted for the moment, but soon forgotten. At the end of a week her pride rushed to arms. Whatever reason he might offer now would come too late.
The sudden plunge from irresponsible girlhood into this mysterious region of grief and doubt, where one must tread the thorny path alone, terrified and bewildered her. She did all the last sad, futile things one can do for the dead; then when all was over, fled from the confusion at Thornwood, and sought the silence of the woods. Here fierce outbursts of rebellious grief were followed by hours of apathy when she tramped for miles, seeing and hearing nothing, but urged on by an insistent desire to be in motion.
It was at the end of one of these tramps that Noah Wicker found her late one evening, on the grass by the river, sobbing out her heart at the spot where the Colonel used to fish.
Noah's words of comfort were as scarce as his other words, so he sat on a log near by and waited silently until she was ready to go home. At the stile, where he left her, he handed her a letter.
"I got it at the station this noon," he said. "Thought I'd be over earlier, but didn't know if you wanted me."
She did not hear him, the letter had come! Her fingers thrilled at its touch, and the warm blood surged to her heart. Without another thought for Noah, she sped up the walk to the house, where she locked herself into the living-room. Match after match sputtered and went out in her nervous fingers, before the lamp was lighted.
He had written! He cared! He was coming! Over and over she whispered the words to herself. Then she looked at the postmark on the heavy envelope, and her heart sank. San Francisco! After all he was not coming back!
Her eager finger was at the seal, when her eyes fell upon a briar-wood pipe that lay on the table beside a half-filled pouch of tobacco. In an instant she seemed to see a stubby brown hand reaching for it, the quick spurt of the match, the flare of light on an old weather-beaten face, then a deep-drawn breath of contentment as the Colonel settled back and held out his other hand to his little girl.
And her last promise to him had been to do nothing until Donald's name should be cleared. She could keep her promise now, but could she after she had read Donald's letter? If the mere touch of it in her hand plead for him, what would the living words do?
She looked hopelessly around the cheerful, homely room, every foot of which spoke to her of her father, and of his love for her. On the white door-frame were penciled the proud records he had made of her height on each successive birthday. On the walls were pictures of her he had treasured, from the time she was a round-eyed baby, to the present day. In the cupboard was a green box containing her first shoes, her little dresses, her first letter, her baby curls.
Over the harpsichord was a portrait of the Colonel himself, painted before she was born. It represented a dashing, young sportsman, surrounded by his pack of hounds. Twenty years ago this gallant hunter had given up the chase, with many another joy, to minister to her baby needs, to share her joys and sorrows, and be father, mother, play- fellow, all in one.
She clasped Donald Morley's letter tightly and closed her eyes. Never in her short life had she wanted to do anything so desperately as she wanted to read that letter, and yet the reading of it would mean breaking a promise to one whom she could never promise anything again. Her newly awakened love and her sense of justice pleaded hotly for Donald, but the empty room and her empty heart, and a passionate sense of loyalty to the dead, spoke mutely for her father.
After all, nothing could justify those long days of silence, that failure on Donald's part to come to her in her trouble. Her father's judgment was probably right after all, and it was best she should put an end to the matter once and for all.
Sobbing like a child, she kissed the letter again and again, and kneeling by the fire, held it to the flame, and watched it burn to ashes on the hearth.
After that one dreary week followed another, with the same invasion of strangers, the same varying reports from the sick room. Gradually, however, the reports became more favorable, the tension eased, visitors became less frequent, and Thornwood began to settle down to its normal state.
Owing to the nature of Doctor Queerington's injury, and the severe shock he had sustained, it was not thought best to move him to the city until he was stronger. The quiet country house was an excellent place for convalescence, and under the direction of his trained nurse he could be allowed to read and write, free from the annoyance that must beset him when once he returned home.
This arrangement was listlessly agreed to by Miss Lady, who had no plans for the future, and dreaded another adjustment. She was singularly alone in the world, and too dazed for the present to know what her next step should be. The only thing of which she was certain, was that she would never leave Thornwood.
On one of the first days that Doctor Queerington was allowed to sit up, she went in to see him. Her first impression in the darkened room was the kindly clasp of a hand, and a wonderful low voice that spoke words of comfort. Then gradually she saw the slender, over-serious face of a middle-aged man, with small eyes somewhat too close together, a broad intellectual forehead, and a firm, well-formed mouth that seemed a stranger to smiles.
From that time on she found his room a refuge. He had been the unknown object of her admiration since she was a child, he was her father's friend, the last to be with him before his death, and he talked to her for hours about the great mysteries of life and death. He was the only person to whom she talked who never seemed to be in doubt.
It was not the first time that the Doctor had proven a consoling presence in time of affliction. Where others conjectured, or evaded, he boldly affirmed. The universe to him was an open book, from which he enjoyed reading aloud.
One morning, six weeks after the accident, Miss Lady came into his room with a handful of flowers and found him propped up in bed, his books about him, and a note in his hand.
"I have a communication from my cousin, Mrs. Sequin," he said with the polite formality that was habitual to him. "It seems that she is going to honor me with a visit."
"Mrs. Sequin?" Miss Lady wheeled so suddenly that she overturned the vase in which she was arranging the flowers. "Now see what I've done! I'll fix it, Miss Wuster; don't bother."
It apparently required little self-control for the trained nurse to refrain from bothering. She was sitting with her heels firmly hooked under the rung of a straight-back chair, crocheting with passionate abandon. Filling hot-water bottles, taking temperatures, feeding patients, were mere interruptions to her real vocation of converting spools of linen thread into yards of linen lace.
"She states her intention of coming to see me," the Doctor continued, "but I cannot decipher her hieroglyphics sufficiently to find out the time. Perhaps you can assist me."
"Is this a D?" asked Miss Lady, looking over his shoulder.
"I judge so; an adaptation of the Greek character. Why the art of handwriting should be considered obsolete, I am at a loss to--"
"Oh, she says she is coming to-day," interrupted Miss Lady, "on the eleven train. I must go down and tell Uncle Jimpson to be at the station, and have Aunt Caroline put on another plate for dinner."
"Then what are you going to do, my dear?"
"I was going to the cemetery."
"You would better come up here instead. In your mental state a person is very sensitive to environment. You should avoid everything that excites the emotions. I think you can trust me to know what is best for you just now?"
"Indeed I can," Miss Lady said impulsively; "you have helped me more than anybody. Daddy would be so grateful if he knew."
"He does know," announced the Doctor with the finality of one to whom all things have been revealed. "But we must not discuss these things now. Miss Wuster has just been reading me the account of young Dillingham's trial. Perhaps you have been following it?"
"Yes," said Miss Lady without looking up.
"It is a matter of especial interest to me," continued the Doctor; "especial regret I should say. Young Dillingham is engaged to be married to the daughter of my cousin whom I expect to-day, and the other young man involved, Donald Morley, is Mrs. Sequin's brother."
"Well for the life of me," said Miss Wuster, counting stitches between her sentences, "I can't see how they got Mr. Dillingham off, unless it was the way Mr. Gooch said."
"Who is Mr. Gooch?" asked Miss Lady of the Doctor.
"The gentleman who came to see me yesterday. He is a lawyer and has followed the case closely. He does not scruple to affirm that the trial was a farce, one of those legal travesties that sometimes occur when a scion of a rich and influential family happens to transgress the law. It seems that the saloon-keeper, who was at first reasonably sure of what happened, suffered a strange lapse of memory when on the stand. Gooch thinks he was bought up, but Gooch is fallible where human motives are involved. His misanthropy invariably colors his judgment."
"Well, nothing on earth can keep me from thinking that Mr. Dillingham did the shooting!" declared the nurse with violent partizanship. "Look at the way he sneaked home, and left the other young man to get a doctor and help move Sheeley to the hospital. Yes, sir, it's time for your medicine, just wait 'till I finish this spool and I'll go down and heat the water."
"He--he oughtn't to have gone away?" said Miss Lady, looking at the Doctor interrogatively.
"Donald, you mean? Certainly not, it was most ill-advised, probably some quixotic idea about not wanting to testify against his friend. If you knew the boy you would understand what a hot-headed, harum-scarum person he is. He was my pupil at one time and I grew quite fond of him. He has ability, undoubted ability, but he is a ship without a rudder; he has been drifting ever since he was born."
"This acquittal of Mr. Dillingham puts the blame on--on him, doesn't it?"
"Naturally. His absence at the trial was undoubtedly one of the strongest arguments in Dillingham's favor. Mr. Gooch tells me that the counsel for the defense took especial pains to throw suspicion upon Donald. The case has been confusing in the extreme, the absence of witnesses, the failure to establish the ownership of the pistol, the absurd complication about the slot machine and crowbar,--an absolute jumble of contradictory evidence. As for Donald Morley's being guilty, it's absurd! He is not the sort of man who runs away from punishment."
Miss Lady's heart swelled with gratitude. Of course Donald Morley was nothing to her now. She had assured herself of that so continuously for two months that she was beginning to believe it. She knew that he was wild, reckless and unreliable, that he had failed her in her greatest need, and that she had put him out of her life forever. But it was good of the Doctor to take his part!
"I know now what my father meant when he said you were the justest man he ever knew!" she said timidly, lifting a pair of shining eyes.
"Unfortunately for Donald the Court does not share my opinion. It is not known even by the family as yet, but Mr. Gooch tells me that Donald has been indicted by the grand jury."
"Yes, he can never return to Kentucky without standing his trial. It is a serious affair for him, I fear."