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17. Unwelcome Truths
Silence. Yes, silence was the one and only refuge remaining to her. Yet, after a
few days, the constant self-restraint which it entailed, ate like a canker into her
peace, and undermined a strength which she had always considered
inexhaustible. Reuther began to notice her pallor, and the judge to look grave.
She was forced to complain of a cold (and in this she was truthful enough) to
account for her alternations of feverish impulse and deadly lassitude.
The trouble she had suppressed was having its quiet revenge. Should she
continue to lie inert and breathless under the threatening hand of Fate, or risk
precipitating the doom she sought to evade, by proceeding with inquiries upon
the result of which she could no longer calculate?
She recalled the many mistakes made by those who had based their conclusions
upon circumstantial evidence (her husband's conviction in fact) and made up her
mind to brave everything by having this matter out with Mr. Black. Then the
pendulum swung back, and she found that she could not do this because, deep
down in her heart, there burrowed a monstrous doubt (how born or how
cherished she would not question), which Mr. Black, with an avidity she could not
combat, would at once detect and pounce upon. Better silence and a slow death
than that.
But was there no medium course? Could she not learn from some other source
where Oliver had been on the night of that old-time murder? Miss Weeks was a
near neighbour and saw everything. Miss Weeks never forgot;--to Miss Weeks
she would go.
With instructions to Reuther calculated to keep that diligent child absorbed and
busy in her absence, she started out upon her quest. She had reached the first
gate, passed it and was on the point of opening the second one, when she saw
on the walk before her a small slip of brown paper. Lifting it, she perceived upon
it an almost illegible scrawl which she made out to read thus:--
For Mrs. Scoville:
Do not go wandering all over the town for clews. Look closer home.
And below:
You remember the old saying about jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Let
your daughter be warned. It is better to be singed than consumed.
Warned! Reuther? Better be singed than consumed? What madness was this?
How singed and how consumed? Then because Deborah's mind was quick, it all
flashed upon her, bowing her in spirit to the ground. Reuther had been singed by
the knowledge of her father's ignominy, she would be consumed if inquiry were
carried further and this ignominy transferred to the proper culprit. CONSUMED!
There was but one person whose disgrace could consume Reuther. Oliver alone
could be meant. The doubts she had tried to suppress from her own mind were
shared by others,--OTHERS!
The discovery overpowered her and she caught herself crying aloud in utter self-