- CHAPTER XXX AND LAST
|<< chapter 29||< chapter 1|
IN silence they file into the room and group themselves about the bed, the spinster close to the pillow, Mrs. Hilton opposite, with the doctor at the bed's head, close to the patient. Mrs. Hilton bends a kindly glance upon the small, pale face with the burning eyes; but Hope presses close to the bed, stoops down, and, looking with infinite pity into those dark, inquiring orbs, whispers softly, "Poor child, I am sorry for you--so sorry!"
"You don't know!" breaks from the pale lips.
"I can guess, and I am sorry just the same."
For just a moment the wide open eyes droop their lids; then the sheriff and the two young men take their places, not far from the foot of the bed, which faces the window, the light from which shines upon the weird, pinched face, already bearing the stamp of death.
A moment the dark eyes range from face to face. Then she says, in the weak but clear voice which halts at times, as if to husband its strength--
"She--did not come--then?"| | 321
"I thought you would not wish to see her," says Aunt Cass gently. "Do you?"
"No. I might grow weak and ask her to forgive me, and--I don't--want--her to!"
"You must save your strength, you know," admonishes the doctor, as if addressing a child. "Say what you most wish to say--first."
"First!" A gleam of sarcasm leaps to the dusky eyes. "As if there would ever be any 'last'--for--me!"
She turns her eyes towards the spinster, and a softer look comes into her face.
"Shall I begin? Are they all here?"
"You know Mrs. Hilton, in whose house you are, surely?"
The roving eyes turn toward the lady.
"You are a good woman," she says, very low. "I can say I am sorry--to you."
"I know--I understand," murmurs the lady, and lays a soft hand upon the jetty curls.
"And you"--the girl looks at Hope--"you were very sweet and kind to me--once."
"I wish I had been kinder," whispered Hope, and a spasm of pain crosses the girl's face.
"I tried to hate you--once," she says. "I thought you were--his sweetheart--then."
Miss Cassandra bends over her, and whispers softly, "Remember!" And again the dark eyes turn to her face and linger there. Then she turns them slowly to where Loyd Hilton and his friend stand side by side.
"I want you both to know," she says slowly, "that I saw you that day at the Heights. I want to | | 322 tell you that you are free, from to-day, from any blame or suspicion. It was I who killed the man you have all called Felix Chetwynde. I shot him with his own air gun--the gun he had more than once threatened to turn upon me to silence my tongue. I am going to tell you why." She raises her eyes to the doctor's face.
"Higher!" she says, and when she is lifted and pillowed higher she hurries on with a sort of feverish eagerness. "He says I may talk, that nothing can hurt me now, and I prefer to tell you myself. If I--stop--she"--with a look of submission toward the spinster--"will finish the story. It is not long.
"I was just fifteen when Willard Beale came riding up to our ranche in the far west, bringing a sick comrade to us for shelter, because the road to the post town, farther on, was too hard and long for him to travel. The name of the sick man was Hall--at least that was his army name. There are many false names among the privates out there. I had never known such a man as Lieutenant Beale--so handsome, and a gentleman.
"I did not care for him at first, but we got acquainted out there very soon.
"I need not talk of that time. I know now how old my story is all the world over. One night we had stolen out from the ranche to go to the post town to a circus. I had never seen a circus--it was the first in the town--and I went wild over it, especially the wheel--the bicycle--which was a wonder to me, and fascinated me utterly. Then and there I determined to run away and learn to perform upon a wheel.| | 323
"I told him of this wish as we rode home, and when we parted I could not sleep for thinking and planning.
"I knew he was still up, and I crept out to talk with him more about my craze. I cared far more for it than for him then.
"He was not outside the house smoking, as I had expected, but I heard his voice in the room where the sick man lay. I sat down close under the window, not thinking of their talk at first, and I heard the sick man--your brother, Miss Chetwynde--tell of his home, of his sister, who was so sweet and good, and of his regrets because he had made her trouble.
"He knew he was dying, and he asked Lieutenant Beale to carry home his dying messages when he should go out, and his love to his sister. He left all he had to the lieutenant's care, and the false friend swore to fulfil all his wishes."
She paused a moment. Hope was sobbing softly, sitting upon the foot of the bed with her face in her hands.
"The next day," went on the girl, with a troubled look from aunt to niece, "the sick soldier died, and two weeks later I ran away from my home with Lieutenant Beale. In that time he had taught me to love him. He seemed to make me obey him, even against my will. I won't trouble you with my story. I did learn to ride the bicycle. I became a professional rider, and because Will was jealous--that was at first--I rode as a boy. After a time trouble came. We quarrelled and made up again and again. Sometimes my money supported him | | 324 for weeks. Then, all at once, he told me he was going abroad, and I believed him, and nearly died of grief. Six months later I found him, by accident, in a town where we were performing. I had joined a circus then, and we were friends for a little while. He was studying in a college there, and I had to go on with the company. He told me he was studying law, and I--fool that I was--felt proud of him. It was then that he came to see me one day--we were showing a week at a resort a few miles from the college town--and brought with him the 'stick,' as we always used to call it. He had won it at cards, after winning all the man's money; and when I found, as I did almost at once, that he had assumed the name of Chetwynde, and I threatened to expose the fraud, he flew in a rage and threatened to shoot me with it--the stick, you know. I had handled it often, for I know how to use firearms, and he had showed me the trick of the air chamber. He had often threatened me with the thing before when things went ill, and now, when he again threatened, I watched my chance to steal it from him, for I really began to fear it."
"Won't you rest a moment?" asks Mr. Hilton gently, but the girl shakes her head.
"I must finish now," she says, and hurries on. "On the last night of our stay, he came a little the worse for wine, which did not happen often. He dared not lose his wit, for he had become what people call a 'card sharp,' and needed all his senses. But this night he had left them behind, and when I hid the stick he never missed it." Again for a moment she looks toward Aunt Cass, and a small | | 325 brown hand goes out toward her. The spinster takes it, all blood-stained as it is, and holds it quietly in both her own.
"The next time I saw Willard Beale," the girl says wearily now, "was at Manhattan Beach Cycle Track, where I gave some exhibitions of trick and fancy riding. He was with you, Miss Chetwynde," looking again from aunt to niece. "I was on the high trestle, and the shock of seeing him there with his sweetheart, as I then thought, made me lose my poise, and fall. It came near being my death. I wish now it had! No, I don't mean that; he is better dead, and it will soon be all the same to me.
"From the moment of my seeing him thus, I never again lost sight of him. I found out the game he was playing, and I began to torment him. I took lodgings with the widow Rice, who, as I soon found, would ask no questions if she was only well paid. I told her I rode the wheel in boys' clothes because of the greater safety for a woman alone, and for the greater ease of movement. She thought me an actress, and to her my little trips upon the wheel were all 'larks.' I let her think so. I had listened and questioned where I could, and had found out that Willard Beale was making love to some rich girl. Then I went raging mad, and wrote the note which, I felt sure, would bring him quickest to the Heights, first, because he dared not stay away; and next, because he was wild to recover his 'stick'--a little water, please." They give her the drink, and, save for this, there is no sound nor movement. In the rear of the room where Lorna | | 326 has been sitting she now stands, her head bent forward, and her face eager and horror-stricken.
"I was in the woods early," the girl resumes. "I was too restless to wait for the appointed hour, and the sight of my recreant lover across the ravine astonished me, for it was two hours or more too early. A moment later I saw his companion, and, fired with jealous rage, I began to watch them. When they neared the bridge I hid my wheel, and in doing so discovered the horse tied to the fence.
"When he went to drive the mules across the bridge their backs were toward me, and, under cover of the noise the animals made in crossing, I climbed into the tree, where I sat, it seemed to me, a lifetime.
"I watched it all, and knew that he was hypnotising Miss Hilton, for I knew of this gift--or curse. I can't go over the story of that long watch, but little by little I realised his purpose, and was resolute to foil him. When they came directly beneath me I trembled lest I might be discovered, but he never took his eyes away from her face. Then, at last, came the final effort, when he went too far, and awoke some strong chord of opposition in her nature. Then she struggled to escape him, and cried aloud for help.
"When he began to pour out hot love words, swore he would never let her go, and caught her up in his arms, I pointed the air gun--which I had taken for another purpose, and had not dared to leave beside the wheel--I thrust my arm straight down through the branches and leaves and deliberately fired, not knowing whether the ball would strike him or her, and not caring then. At the | | 327 very instant when I fired, and they fell, my eyes met hers full, and I was sure she saw me. Then came that other report, at the same instant almost, and it startled me so that the air gun fell from my grasp. How I got down from that tree when the two young men, whom I had not seen until after the pistol shot, were not looking, I need not tell. I stole to the carriage, which I felt quite certain was there awaiting the dead man's use, and, fearing pursuit if I took the cycle track, I got my wheel into the carriage, and crouching down beside it so as not to be seen from the hill, I set the horse off with a cut of the whip, quite sure that the cyclers would not attempt that rough waggon road in pursuit.
"My one desire then was to put space between myself and that spot upon the Heights. I got on the train at Lakeville, and went straight to the city. On the train I saw Miss Hope Chetwynde, another sweetheart I supposed her then, and, jealous still, and eager to hurt others as I had been hurt, I wrote a note, accusing her lover of falseness, and then hinting at his death. I hardly knew what I wrote, and I managed to toss it into her lap unseen. When I went to the villa to try and get one look at my dead lover's face, I learned for the first time my mistake, and my hate and jealousy all turned toward Miss Hilton.
"When I met Miss Cassandra Chetwynde at the cemetery I feared her keen eyes, but I could not resist the temptation to go to the villa that night, hoping to get into his room. You knew how I was baulked then! Then I began to play ghost at Redlands, with the aid of my wheel and some of | | 328 my trick riding, in the hope, sooner or later, of getting the chance to do Miss Hilton an injury. When I encountered the two ladies at the Heights, I knew that Miss Cassandra suspected me; and when I found that the sheriff was again in Lee, I determined to make an attack upon Miss Hilton and go away at once. You see how that has ended. As for the tales about Mr. Hilton, I set them going because he was her brother, and I hated her and longed to make her suffer as I did." Her speech for some moments has been gradually growing slower, with longer intervals between the sentences, and now she pauses, and seems thinking, and gradually her gaze fixes itself upon the face of Hope Chetwynde, and as she looks Hope bends closer, drawn, it would seem, by that gaze.
"What is it?" she asks in a half-whisper. A look of pleased surprise dawns upon the pallid face.
"You knew," she says, "that I was thinking of you. May I ask you a few questions?" and the look in the eyes grows pathetically eager.
"Anything, if you are strong enough." Hope's voice is very kind.
"Ever since that day when you let me look at him, I have thought about you often. You have always been good? Always been happy?"
"Good!"--having promised to reply, Hope does not hesitate--"I fear not--not always. And happy? Except for the loss of friends I have had no troubles."
"I knew it! And you were taught goodness, and about God and heaven, and how we ought to live, were you not?"| | 329
"Yes," Hope replies wonderingly.
"Do you think that you and I, when we were little children, could have been alike--were born so, I mean, I as good as you?"
"I am sure of it, child!"
"And if you had been in my place--if you grew up among rough people--bad people? What if your mother died--the only one who was good and wise and kind that you had known--if she had died when you were just a child?"
"My mother did die then."
"But"; and here the girl's eyes go swiftly from Hope's face to that of Aunt Cass. "But you had her; and oh the difference!"
Suddenly Hope leans forward and catches the girl's hand lying limp and white upon the counter-pane. "Listen!" she says gently, firmly. "The difference will all be in your favour. If I had done what you have done mine would be the greater sin, for I knew. We came into this world alike, equal; you, Lorna Hilton, and I. The same God sent us here, the same will judge us. And if Lorna and I have been given more of love and care and friends, we shall be accountable for more. And if we sin, our sin is greater, because we knew. If you have done wrong, your Judge, who knows how you have lived, lacking the things given to us, will judge you less severely, and will forgive you the more readily because of these things. And you, poor child, if I had been in your place I might have been a worse woman, perhaps. If your sin has been great, your Judge knows your sufferings, and you are atoning for it with your life now!"| | 330
"I--say it again."
As Hope repeats the words, Mrs. Hilton whispers to the doctor, "Should not this be stopped?" But he shakes his head. "It does not matter," he says, just loud enough for all to hear, but with his face turned from the bed, "she is growing deaf. It is a last symptom; and she is burning to talk. Let her be gratified. It cannot matter; and when the next change comes there may be a few hours of life, but little more speech or hearing for her." As a proof of his words, she does not hear his low but distinct utterances; and as he ceases, Aunt Cass slips down upon her knees beside the bed, with her face close to that of the dying girl.
"Inez!" she says solemnly, "listen to me, and try to understand. In some way you have done a wrong to all here--to these two young men, who have both been doubted, suspected, because of the deed you have done; to Miss Hilton, who might have been a blind, disfigured sufferer all her days, because of you, but for the sheriff here--"
"But for you, Miss Chetwynde," breaks in the sheriff in a hushed voice.
"You have hated my niece, and tried to make her unhappy; you have played the ghost, and thereby made Mrs. Hilton's home uncomfortable, and her servants afraid. You have deceived and tricked me. But, in spite of all this, there is not one of us here who does not forgive you willingly, fully, because we know that before you could sin against us you must have suffered deeply, and been deeply wronged. Can you not see, my child, that if we can forgive you your Father and | | 331 Judge, who, more forgiving and loving than any mortal, will surely forgive when you ask to be forgiven? And in taking a life--a life that belonged to Him--you have wronged Him more than all."
Slowly--slowly the hopeless shadow fades out of the dark eyes, and a new look enters there.
"Oh," she whispers, "now--I--begin to understand!" and then, after a moment, "What must I--do?"
"Forgive others from your heart, and ask to be forgiven."
"I can't!--I never can. I will-"
"Listen!" the firm but gentle voice interposes. "You are not the only one whom that man has wronged. Think of Miss Hilton, and how narrowly she has escaped a worse fate than yours. Think if she had married him, what a life hers must have been, what suffering; for, my poor child, while a wronged woman is deeply to be pitied, a wife's sufferings are most heart-breaking of all! And think, too, of my niece Hope. How he has deceived her, and how she has opened her home to him, shared her purse with him, made him a companion or intimate. How he has wronged her, and also her dear brother, in his far-off grave, outraging most sacred family ties. These wrongs are less than yours, it is true, but they are bitter wrongs notwithstanding, and ask them if they do not forgive this dead man!"
Silence for a moment, then, "May I--see--Miss--Hilton?"| | 332
Slowly, but without an instant's hesitation, Lorna moves forward, stands a moment at the bedside, and then drops upon one knee beside the spinster.
"Inez," she says softly; "I am a woman like you, full of faults, and needing to be forgiven for many things. As I hope to be forgiven, I forgive you! I forgive Felix--Willard Beale! I never meant to do you a wrong; and if I have caused you sorrow or heartache, forgive me as I pray the blessed Lord to forgive us both."
And now the dark eyes close, and two tears come slowly from beneath the white lids.
"Oh," she says, with a long quivering sigh; "you have forgiven me before I asked! And--I meant to ask, I did. I did! Oh, I didn't know folks were so good! No one has been so good to me ever before--if they only had!"
She is silent so long that the doctor lifts his finger and signals, and one by one they file from the room, all but the doctor and Aunt Cassandra.
Half an hour later the spinster enters the drawing-room, where all have remained, awaiting a final word from the room in which the sheriff has now no interest, nor place; yet where the prisoner is a prisoner still, but with death standing guard.
"The change has come," she says sadly, but yet with a look of relief. "But she is repentant--reconciled; and she does not suffer in the least. It was a sudden sinking of the vital forces, a weakness; the result, in an unusual form, the doctor says, of concussion. Her speech, hearing, life itself, will fail her altogether. She is as weak as an infant and helpless like one; and she may live like this | | 333 two weeks perhaps." She looks across at Mrs. Hilton. The look is a question.
"She shall have such care and comfort as we can give her," the lady says, as if in reply. "After all, in a strange and terrible way, she has been a benefactor to most of us."
"There is one question," says the sheriff, "still to be decided. What use, if any, shall we make of what we now know? Miss Hope, what is your will?"
Hope looks up from her place beside Loyd, where, for twenty minutes, she has been sitting in sober content, and her reply is ready.
"Loyd must be cleared! As for the identity of the dead man, why need that be made known? We are not old residents here, only summer sojourners. If possible, I would have the whole pitiful, hateful story a secret among us who are here."
"If you will trust it to me, I think I can manage it," said the sheriff.
When the next issue of the Lee Weekly Gazette appeared the following interesting bit of news was chronicled on its foremost page, headed--
"MURDER WILL OUT.
"On Tuesday last Sheriff Cook returned from a two weeks' absence upon business of an important and very private nature.
"Sheriff Cook has been working in private upon the Chetwynde case, or the 'Tragedy of the Heights,' as our esteemed contemporary has called it; and he went ~broad in search of evidence which, being found, entirely removes from Mr. Loyd Hilton's | | 334 shoulders any faintest suspicion of guilt. It seems that learning that a strange young man had been seen in the neighbourhood at about the time of the shooting, the sheriff, who, from the first flouted the idea of Hilton's guilt, quietly traced him; and his search ended at the deathbed of the real slayer of Felix Chetwynde.
"A full and complete confession entirely exonerates Mr. Hilton, and we, with his many friends, unite in offering sincere congratulations.
"There was, it appears, an old feud between this man and Chetwynde, all the facts being known to the parties most concerned. It has been decided--death having cancelled the debt to justice--to let the details remain unpublished, as its exploitation could only whet a morbid appetite and benefit none. We have the above direct from the sheriff, and it may be regarded as official and final."
In the same issue, on another page, there appears this item:--
"We learn from Dr. Jarvis that a young lady, who is a visitor at Redlands, is in a critical condition owing to a fall from a bicycle while in rapid motion. The injury has affected the brain, and there is but little hope of her recovery."
"The best way to keep a secret," Aunt Cass has said, "is to tell it," and it proves true. Poor Vic Harch, instead of being an object of doubt or suspicion becomes a subject for commiseration, and for calls, curious or kindly; and when, some ten days after her last ghostly ride, she breathes her last, painlessly, and with her fast glazing eyes fastened upon the face of Aunt Cass, it is as a friend and guest that | | 335 he is borne to the city, where she is laid to rest in he beautiful home of the dead, not as the friendless inner, but as an erring soul, whose one hope is in he All Merciful.
"When the last day comes," says Aunt Cass, as they look the last upon the stilled face, "I would rather be poor Inez than the man we have known as Felix Chetwynde!" Who does not say Amen?
Hope and Loyd, Lorna and Terry, are too happy to long remain under the cloud cast over them by the sins and sorrows of others.
There is much to explain and to confess. But the one confession most necessary to happiness of each, has been made in many wordless ways long before that half-hour in the parlour at Redlands, when, coming from that scene of confession and approaching death, they come together without need for words and felt that life for them was at high tide at last.
As for the sheriff, he wooes in the good old-fashioned way, deliberately, but successfully at last. Lorna and Hope are married in the early autumn, and one day Aunt Cass finds Hope, the young matron, in her fine new city home, hanging over the entrance door the silvered horse-shoe that has been her mother's "lucky guard" for all the years she can recall.
"I wouldn't take that for my household lucky bit, Hope," she says. "It ought to be a tiny, gilded bicycle. Have not all the things that have really happened, begun, or ended--for you, Loyd, Lorna, Terry, myself, all of us--with the bicycle?"
"Begun?"| | 336
"Yes. Whether you place the beginning at the Manhattan Cycle meet, when that poor, unhappy girl fell from her high wheel, or whether you go further back to the day when she set the wheels of Fate in motion by running away from home to be a bicycle rider."
"Ah!" sighs Hope, "she stopped Fate's wheels then, at least for herself, when she took her last ride from the boat-house to Higgins' tennis net. Poor misguided, misled Inez!"
"Say, rather, that from the very beginning she was under Fate's wheels. Have you ever reflected, child, on the caprices of this so-called blind goddess? Some of us, a few only, she carries triumphantly on in her chariot, high above the mud and slime, secure from the pitfalls, and only touched now and then, in passing, by a flying bit from the roadway, or shaken by a jolt here and there, while others--like poor Inez--begin their journey and end it under Fate's wheel."
"Poor Inez!" murmurs the happy wife, "Heaven pity and forgive all such!"
|<< chapter 29||< chapter 1|