A Strange Disappearance by Anna Katharine Green
Chapter XVIII. Love and Duty
Dismissing the men who had assisted us in the capture of these two hardy villains, we ranged our prisoners before us.
"Now," said Mr. Gryce, "no fuss and no swearing; you are in for it, and you might as well take it quietly as any other way."
"Give me a clutch on that girl, that's all," said her father, "Where is she? Let me see her; every father has a right to see his own daughter,"
"You shall see her," returned my superior, "but not till her husband is here to protect her."
"Her husband? ah, you know about that do you?" growled the heavy voice of the son. "A rich man they say he is and a proud one. Let him come and look at us lying here like dogs and say how he will enjoy having his wife's father and brother grinding away their lives in prison."
"Mr. Blake is coming," quoth Mr. Gryce, who by some preconcerted signal from the window had drawn that gentleman across the street. "He will tell you himself that he considers prison the best place for you. Blast you! but he--"
"But he, what?" inquired I, as the door opened and Mr. Blake with a pale face and agitated mien entered the room.
The wretch did not answer. Rousing from the cowering position in which they had both lain since their capture, the father and son struggled up in some sort of measure to their feet, and with hot, anxious eyes surveyed the countenance of the gentleman before them, as if they felt their fate hung upon the expression of his pallid face. The son was the first to speak.
"How do you do, brother-in-law," were his sullen and insulting words.
Mr. Blake shuddered and cast a look around.
"My wife?" murmured he.
"She is well," was the assurance given by Mr. Gryce, "and in a room not far from this. I will send for her if you say so."
"No, not yet," came in a sort of gasp; "let me look at these wretches first, and understand if I can what my wife has to suffer from her connection with them."
"Your wife," broke in the father, "what's that to do with it; the question is how do you like it and what will you do to get us clear of this thing."
"I will do nothing," returned Mr. Blake. "You amply merit your doom and you shall suffer it to the end for all time."
"It will read well in the papers," exclaimed the son.
"The papers are to know nothing about it," I broke in. "All knowledge of your connection with Mr. or Mrs. Blake is to be buried in this spot before we or you leave it. Not a word of her or him is to cross the lips of either of you from this hour. I have set that down as a condition and it has got to be kept."
"You have, have you," thundered in chorus from father and son. "And who are you to make conditions, and what do you think we are that you expect us to keep them? Can you do anymore than put us back from where we came from?"
For reply I took from my pocket the ring I had fished out of the ashes of their kitchen stove on that memorable visit to their house, and holding it up before their faces, looked them steadily in the eye.
A sudden wild glare followed by a bluish palor that robbed their countenances of their usual semblance of daring ferocity, answered me beyond my fondest hopes.
"I got that out of the stove where you had burned your prison clothing," said I. "It is a cheap affair, but it will send you to the gallows if I choose to use it against you. The pedlar--"
"Hush," exclaimed the father in a low choked tone greatly in contrast to any he had yet used in all our dealings with him. "Throw that ring out of the window and I promise to hold my tongue about any matter you don't want spoke of. I'm not a fool--"
"Nor I," was my quick reply, as I restored the ring to my pocket. "While that remains in my possession together with certain facts concerning your habits in that old house of yours which have lately been made known to me, your life hangs by a thread I can any minute snip in two. Mr. Blake here, has spent some portion of a night in your house and knows how near it lies to a certain precipice, at foot of which--"
"Mein Gott, father, why don't you say something!" leaped in cowed accents from the son's white lips. "If they want us to keep quiet, let them say so and not go talking about things that--"
"Now look here," interposed Mr. Gryce stepping before them with a look that closed their mouths at once. "I will just tell you what we propose to do. You are to go back to prison and serve your time out, there is no help for that, but as long as you behave yourselves and continue absolutely silent regarding your relationship to the wife of this gentleman, you shall have paid into a certain bank that he will name, a monthly sum that upon your dismissal from jail shall be paid you with whatever interest it may have accumulated. You are ready to promise that, are you not?" he inquired turning to Mr. Blake.
That gentleman bowed and named the sum, which was liberal enough, and the bank.
"But," continued the detective, ignoring the sudden flash of eye that passed between the father and son, "let me or any of us hear of a word having been uttered by you, which in the remotest way shall suggest that you have in the world such a connection as Mrs. Blake, and the money not only stops going into the bank, but old scores shall be raked up against you with a zeal which if it does not stop your mouth in one way, will in another, and that with a suddenness you will not altogether relish."
The men with a dogged air from which the bravado had however fled, turned and looked from one to the other of us in a fearful, inquiring way that duly confessed to the force of the impression made by these words upon their slow but not unimaginative minds.
"Do you three promise to keep our secret if we keep yours?" muttered the father with an uneasy glance at my pocket.
"We certainly do," was our solemn return.
"Very well; call in the girl and let me just look at her, then, before we go. We won't say nothing," continued he, seeing Mr. Blake shrink, "only she is my daughter and if I cannot bid her good-bye--"
"Let him see his child," cried Mr. Blake turning with a shudder to the window. "I--I wish it," added he.
Straightway with hasty foot I left the room. Going to the little closet where I had ordered his wife to remain concealed, I knocked and entered. She was crouched in an attitude of prayer on the floor, her face buried in her hands, and her whole person breathing that agony of suspense that is a torture to the sensitive soul.
"Mrs. Blake," said I, dismissing the landlady who stood in helpless distress beside her, "the arrest has been satisfactorily made and your father calls for you to say good-bye before going away with us. Will you come?"
"But my--my--Mr. Blake?" exclaimed she leaping to her feet. "I am sure I heard his footstep in the hall?"
"He is with your father and brother. It was at his command I came for you."
A gleam hard to interpret flashed for an instant over her face. With her eye on the door she towered in her womanly dignity, while thoughts innumerable seemed to rush in wild succession through her mind.
"Will you not come?" I urged.
"I--," she paused. "I will go see my father," she murmured, "but--"
Suddenly she trembled and drew back; a step was in the hall, on the threshold, at her side; Mr. Blake had come to reclaim his bride.
The word came from her in a low tone shaken with the concentrated anguish of many a month of longing and despair, but there was no invitation in its sound, and he who had held out his arms, stopped and surveying her with a certain deprecatory glance in his proud eye, said,
"You are right; I have first my acknowledgments to make and your forgiveness to ask before I can hope--"
"No, no," she broke in, "your coming here is enough, I request no more. If you felt unkindly toward me--"
"Unkindly?" A world of love thrilled in that word. "Luttra, I am your husband and rejoice that I am so; it is to lay the devotion of my heart and life at your feet that I seek your presence this hour. The year has taught me--ah, what has not the year taught me of the worth of her I so recklessly threw from me on my wedding day. Luttra,"--he held out his hand--"will you crown all your other acts of devotion with a pardon that will restore me to my manhood and that place in your esteem which I covet above every other earthly good?"
Her face which had been raised to his with that earnest look we knew so well, softened with an ineffable smile, but still she did not lay her hand in his.
"And you say this to me in the very hour of my father's and brother's arrest! With the remembrance in your mind of their bound and abject forms lying before you guarded by police; knowing too, that they deserve their ignominy and the long imprisonment that awaits them?"
"No, I say it on the day of the discovery and the restoration of that wife for whom I have long searched, and to whom when found I have no word to give but welcome, welcome, welcome."
With the same deep smile she bowed her head, "Now let come what will, I can never again be unhappy," were the words I caught, uttered in the lowest of undertones. But in another moment her head had regained its steady poise and a great change had passed over her manner.
"Mr. Blake," said she, "you are good; how good, I alone can know and duly appreciate who have lived in your house this last year and seen with eyes that missed nothing, just what your surroundings are and have been from the earliest years of your proud life. But goodness must not lead you into the committal of an act you must and will repent to your dying day; or if it does, I who have learned my duty in the school of adversity, must show the courage of two and forbid what every secret instinct of my soul declares to be only provocative of shame and sorrow. You would take me to your heart as your wife; do you realize what that means?"
"I think I do," was his earnest reply. "Relief from heart-ache, Luttra."
Her smooth brow wrinkled with a sudden spasm of pain but her firm lips did not quiver.
"It means," said she, drawing nearer but not with that approach which indicates yielding, "it means, shame to the proudest family that lives in the land. It means silence as regards a past blotted by suggestions of crime; and apprehension concerning a future across which the shadow of prison walls must for so many years lie. It means, the hushing of certain words upon beloved lips; the turning of cherished eyes from visions where fathers and daughters ay, brothers and sisters are seen joined together in tender companionship or loving embrace. It means,--God help me to speak out--a home without the sanctity of memories; a husband without the honors he has been accustomed to enjoy; a wife with a fear gnawing like a serpent into her breast; and children, yes, perhaps children from whose innocent lips the sacred word of grandfather can never fall without wakening a blush on the cheeks of their parents, which all their lovesome prattle will be helpless to chase away."
"Luttra, your father and your brother have given their consent to go their dark way alone and trouble you no more. The shadow you speak of may lie on your heart, dear wife, for these men are of your own blood, but it need never invade the hearthstone beside which I ask you to sit. The world will never know, whether you come with me or not, that Luttra Blake was ever Luttra Schoenmaker. Will you not then give me the happiness of striving to make such amends for the past, that you too, will forget you ever bore any other name than the one you now honor so truly?"
"O do not," she began but paused with a sudden control of her emotion that lifted her into an atmosphere almost holy in its significance. "Mr. Blake," said she, "I am a woman and therefore weak to the voice of love pleading in my ear. But in one thing I am strong, and that is in my sense of what is due to the man I have sworn to honor. Eleven months ago I left you because your pleasure and my own dignity demanded it; to-day I put by all the joy and exaltation you offer, because your position as a gentleman, and your happiness as a man equally requires it."
"My happiness as a man!" he broke in. "Ah, Luttra if you love me as I do you--"
"I might perhaps yield," she allowed with a faint smile. "But I love you as a girl brought up amid surroundings from which her whole being recoiled, must love the one who first brought light into her darkness and opened up to her longing feet the way to a life of culture, purity and honor. I were the basest of women could I consent to repay such a boundless favor--"
"But Luttra," he again broke in, "you married me knowing what your father and brother were capable of committing."
"Yes, yes; I was blinded by passion, a girl's passion, Mr. Blake, born of glamour and gratitude; not the self-forgetting devotion of a woman who has tasted the bitterness of life and so learned its lesson of sacrifice. I may not have thought, certainly I did not realize, what I was doing. Besides, my father and brother were not convicted criminals at that time, however weak they had proved themselves under temptation. And then I believed I had left them behind me on the road of life; that we were sundered, irrevocably cut loose from all possible connection. But such ties are not to be snapped so easily. They found me, you see, and they will find me again--"
"Never!" exclaimed her husband. "They are as dead to you as if the grave had swallowed them. I have taken care of that."
"But the shame! you have not taken care of that. That exists and must, and while it does I remain where I can meet it alone. I love you; God's sun is not dearer to my eyes; but I will never cross your threshold as your wife till the opprobrium can be cut loose from my skirts, and the shadow uplifted from my brow. A queen with high thoughts in her eyes and brave hopes in her heart were not too good to enter that door with you. Shall a girl who has lived three weeks in an atmosphere of such crime and despair, that these rooms have often seemed to me the gateway to hell, carry there, even in secrecy, the effects of that atmosphere? I will cherish your goodness in my heart but do not ask me to bury that heart in any more exalted spot, than some humble country home, where my life may be spent in good deeds and my love in prayers for the man I hold dear, and because I hold dear, leave to his own high path among the straight and unshadowed courses of the world."
And with a gesture that inexorably shut him off while it expressed the most touching appeal, she glided by him and took her way to the room where her father and brother awaited her presence.