Dark Hollow by Anna Katharine Green - HTML preview
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16. Don't! Don't!
In recalling this startling moment, Deborah wondered as much at her own aplomb as at that of Judge Ostrander. Not only had she succeeded in suppressing all recognition of what had thus been discovered to her, but had carried her powers of self-repression so far as to offer, and with good grace too, to assist him in rehanging the picture. This perfection of acting had its full reward. With equal composure he excused her from the task, and, adding some expression of regret at his well-known carelessness in not looking better after his effects, bowed her from the room with only a slight increase of his usual courteous reserve.
But later, when thought came and with it a certain recollections, what significance the incident acquired in her mind, and what a long line of terrors it brought in its train!
It was no casual act, this defacing of a son's well-loved features. It had a meaning--a dark and desperate meaning. Nor was the study-wall the natural home of this picture. An unfaded square which she had noted on the wall-paper of the inner room showed where its original place had been. There in full view of the broken-hearted father when he woke and in darksome watchfulness while he slept, it had played its heavy part in his long torment-- a galling reminder of-- what?
It was to answer this question--to face this new view of Oliver and the bearing it had on the relations she had hoped to establish between him and Reuther, that she had waited for the house to be silent and her child asleep. If the defacing marks she had seen meant that the cause of separation between father and son lay in some past fault of Oliver himself, serious enough for such a symbol to be necessary to reconcile the judge to their divided lives, she should know it and know it soon. The night should not pass without that review of the past by which alone she could now judge Oliver Ostrander.
She had spoken of him as noble; she had forced herself to believe him so, and in profession and in many of his actions he had been so, but had she ever been wholly pleased with him? To go back to their first meeting, what impression had he made upon her then? Had it been altogether favourable and such as would be natural in one of his repute? Hardly; but then the shock of her presentation to one who had possibly seen her under other and shameful conditions had been great, and her judgment could scarcely have full play while her whole attention was absorbed in watching for some hint of recognition on his part.
But when this apprehension had vanished; when quite assured that he had failed to see in the widowed Mrs. Averill the wife of the man who had died a felon's death in Shelby, had her spirits risen and her eyes cleared to his great merits as she had heard them extolled by people of worth and intellectual standing? Alas, no. There had been something in his look--a lack of spontaneity which had not fitted in with her expectations.
And in the months which followed, when as Reuther's suitor she saw him often and intimately--how had she regarded him then? More leniently of course. In her gratification at prospects so far beyond any she had a right to expect for her child, she had taken less note of this successful man's defects. Peculiarities of conversation and manner which had seemed to bespeak a soul far from confident in its hopes, resolved themselves into the uneasy moods of a man who had a home he never visited, a father he never saw.
But had she been really justified in this easy view of things? If the break between his father and himself was the result of nothing deeper than a difference of temperament, tastes or even opinions, why should he have shrunk with such morbid distaste from all allusions to that father? Was it natural? She may have looked upon it as being so in the heyday of her hopes and when she had a secret herself to hide, but could she so degrade her judgment now?
And what of his conduct towards Reuther? Had that been all her mother heart could ask of a man of his seemingly high instincts? She had assured his father in her first memorable interview with him that it had been perfectly honourable and above all reproach. And so it had been as far as mere words went. But words are not all; it is the tender look, the manly bearing, the tone which springs from the heart which tells in great crises; and these had all been lacking. Generous as he attempted to show himself, there was nothing in his bearing to match that of Reuther as she took her quiet leave of him and entered upon a fate so much bitterer for her than for him.
This lack of grace in him had not passed unnoted by her even at the time, but being herself so greatly in fault she had ascribed it to the recoil of a proud man from the dread of social humiliation. But it took another aspect under the strong light just thrown upon his early life by her discovery in the room below. Nothing but some act, unforgivable and unforgettable would account for that black mark drawn between a father's eyes and his son's face. No bar sinister could tell a stronger tale. But this was no bar sinister; rather the deliberate stigmatising of one yet loved, but banned for a reason which was little short of--Here her conclusions stopped; she would not allow her imagination to carry her any farther.
Unhappy mother, just as she saw something like a prospect of releasing her long-dead husband from the odium of an unjust sentence, to be shaken by this new doubt as to the story and character of the man for whose union with her beloved child she was so anxiously struggling! Should it not make her pause? Should she not show wisdom in giving a different meaning from any she had hitherto done, to that stern and inexorable dictum of the father, that no marriage between the two could or should ever be considered?
It was a question for which no ready answer seemed possible in her present mood. Better to await the time when some move had to be made or some definite decision reached. Now she must rest,--rest and not think.
Have any of us ever made the like acknowledgment and then tried to sleep? In half an hour Mrs. Scoville was again upon her feet, this time with a determination which ignored the hour and welcomed night as though it were broad noon day.
There was a room on this upper floor into which neither she nor Reuther had ever stepped. She had once looked in but that was all. To-night--because she could not sleep; because she must not think- -she was resolved to enter it. Oliver's room! left as he had left it years before! What might it not tell of a past concerning which she longed to be reassured?
The father had laid no restrictions upon her, in giving her this floor for her use. Rights which he ignored she could afford to appropriate. Dressing sufficiently for warmth, she lit a candle, put out the light in her own room and started down the hall.
If she paused on reaching the threshold of this long-closed room, it was but natural. The clock on Reuther's mantel had sent its three clear strokes through the house as her hand fell on the knob, and to her fearing heart and now well- awakened imagination these strokes had sounded in her ear like a "DON'T! DON'T!" The silence, so gruesome, now that this shrill echo had ceased, was poor preparation for her task. Yet would she have welcomed any sound--the least which could have been heard? No, that were a worse alternative than silence; and, relieved of that momentary obsession consequent upon an undertaking of doubtful outcome, she pushed the door fully open and entered.
A smother of dust--an odour of decay--a lack of all order in the room's arrangements and furnishings--even a general disarray, hallowed, if not affected, by time--for all this she was prepared. But not for the wild confusion--the inconceivable litter and all the other signs she saw about her of a boy's mad packing and reckless departure. Here her imagination, so lively at times, had failed her; and, as her eye became accustomed to the semi- obscurity, and she noted the heaps of mouldering clothing lying amid overturned chairs and trampled draperies, she felt her heart grow cold with a nameless dread she could only hope to counteract by quick and impulsive action.
But what action? Was it for her to touch, to rearrange, to render clean and orderly this place of unknown memories? She shrank with inconceivable distaste from the very idea of such meddling; and, though she saw and noted all, she did not put out so much as a finger towards any object there till--There was an inner door, and this some impulse drove her to open. A small closet stood revealed, empty but for one article. When she saw this article she gave a great gasp; then she uttered a low PSHAW! and with a shrug of the shoulders drew back and flung to the door. But she opened it again. She had to. One cannot live in hideous doubt, without an effort to allay it. She must look at that small, black article again; look at it with candle in hand; see for herself that her fears were without foundation; that a shadow had made the outline on the wall which--
She found herself laughing. There was nothing else to do. SHE with thoughts like these; SHE, Reuther's mother! Verily, the early hours of morning were unsuited for any such work as this. She would go back to her own room and bed--But she only went as far as the bureau where she had left the candlestick, which having seized, she returned to the closet and slowly, reluctantly reopened the door. Before her on the wall hung a cap,--and it was no shadow which gave it that look like her husband's; the broad peak was there. She had not been mistaken; it was the duplicate of the one she had picked up in the attic of the Claymore Inn when that inn was simply a tavern.
Well, and what if it was!--Such was her thought a moment later. She would take down the cap, set it before her and look at it till her brain grew clear of its follies. But after she had it in her hand she found herself looking anywhere but at the cap. She stared at the floor, the walls about, the desk she had mechanically approached. She even noticed the books lying about on the shelves before her and took down one or two, to glance at their title-pages in a blind curiosity she could not account for the next minute. Then she found herself looking into a drawer half drawn out and filled with all sorts of heterogeneous articles: sealing- wax, a roll of pins, a pen-holder, a knife--A KNIFE! Why should she recoil again at that? Nothing could be more ordinary than to find a knife in the desk-drawer of a young man! The fact was not worth a thought; yet before she knew it, her fingers were creeping towards this knife, had picked it up from among the other scattered articles, had closed upon it, let it drop again, only to seize hold of it yet more determinedly and carry it straight to the light.
Who spoke? Had any one spoken? Was there any sound in the air at all? She heard none, yet the sense of sound was in her ear, as though it had been and passed. When the glance she threw about her came back to her outstretched hand, she knew that the cry, if cry it were, had been within, and that the echoes of the room had remained undisturbed. The knife was lying open on her palm, and from one of the blades the end had been nipped, just enough of it to match-- Was she mad! She thought so for a moment; then she laid down the knife close against the cap and contemplated them both for more minutes than she ever reckoned.
And the stillness, which had been profound, became deeper yet. Not even Reuther's clock sounded its small note.
The candle fluttering low in its socket roused her at last from her abstraction. Catching up the two articles which had so enthralled her, she restored the one to the closet, the other to the drawer, and, with swift but silent step, regained her own room where she buried her head in her pillow, weeping and praying until the morning light, breaking in upon her grief, awoke her to the obligations of her position and the necessity of silence concerning all the experiences of this night.