34. 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