- CHAPTER XVII "I CANNOT"
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HOPE CHETWYNDE lets two days pass before she feels that she dare move in any direction, and sometimes she wishes that she had never called in the aid of this cool, calculating reasoner, this sheriff who wrests secrets from the very ground and compels answers to his riddles from "stocks and stones."
There are hours when she weeps over her brother's unhappy fate, and she is ready at that moment to denounce his slayer, for at such times she does not doubt that Loyd Hilton's hand directed the fatal bullet.
Then she endeavours, judicially, impartially, to review the case. She pictures Lorna and Felix together upon the Heights; she puts aside for the moment her sisterly faith in a brother's uprightness, and imagines him confessing his love, boldly, brutally almost, and demanding Lorna's like a Corsair; at last, using his man's strength, passionately resolved never to relinquish his prize; and then comes the question, Why, if Lorna Hilton is | | 198 across the ravine, and if, being there, she has found the friend she trusted suddenly transformed into a foe to fear--why, in her alarm, her desperation, may not she have broken from his too fierce grasp, and, catching his own pistol from its place somewhere near, why may not she have fired that shot?
But Hope Chetwynde is a woman, though so young in years, and she knows her sister woman. Lorna Hilton could not have committed that deed and still be Lorna Hilton, clothed and in her right mind. "She might have killed herself--never him," Hope muses, and turns to another hateful thought.
And now she weighs the dead in the balance, sternly, and then shrinks back at the thought of pronouncing judgment. And lastly she pictures Loyd Hilton there, sees his sister's arms reached vainly out to him, fancies a pursuit in which the aggressor is gaining--for Hope is not a graduate in logic--and then hears, as a last resort, a pistol-shot.
And so her distracted mind works on--sisterly affection, sisterly doubt, pity, duty, dread lest she may stir up a yet darker pool of guilt, self-scorn at the thought of a brother slain and unavenged.
In her calmer moments other thoughts have weight; she thinks of the hired team, the destroyed bridge, of the letter from Inez. Once she brings a charge against the living, who may not stand up and defame the dead? What shameful secret, of that part of which she knows so little, may not be dragged to light?
And yet--there is a murderer unpunished, and--there is Sheriff Cook.
On the morning of the third day of her doubts | | 199 and hesitancy Hope knocks at her aunt's door very early. She has been very silent, very reticent during this time of uncertainty, and wise Aunt Cassandra has not vexed her with question or comment. Now Hope throws herself upon her aunt's less complicated methods of thought, her direct reasoning from fact to fact.
"I can't see my way, Aunt Cass!" she declares. "The thing grows more awful, more threatening, the longer I think of it. Tell me what to do! I have thought till I can think no longer." She drops wearily into the nearest seat. "I want to act, and yet--there are so many obstacles!"
Aunt Cass tosses back the long, pale hair she has been brushing, puts down the ivory brush, and turns towards her niece, leaning against the dressing-table as she talks, all the blonde length of the thick hair, in which as yet there is no grey, reflected in the mirror at her back.
"Tell me these obstacles--first," she says quietly. "Let's disperse some of them at once--if we can."
And Hope, sitting before her, enumerates them, each and all, and is herself surprised to see how little they seem to surprise or impress her practical aunt.
"You poor child!" the lady says, when all is told. "You are not yourself, or you would never have given three days, or three hours, to these side issues. You have nothing to do with these things. In fact, there is but one of two things that you can do."
"And what are they?"
"You admit that Sheriff Cook has fixed suspicions, at least, upon Loyd Hilton or his sister?"| | 200
"She never did it."
"I quite agree with you. Then you have either to instruct the sheriff to arrest Hilton openly, or you must inform him yourself, or through another, of your doubts, and hear anything he may say in justification."
"Hope, you have nothing to do with these possibilities! If you are going to put this young man on trial for his life, you must, in some degree, put your brother's character also on trial; and, just as Hilton and his friends must accept and endure whatever revelations may be made concerning him, so must you submit to whatever is made known concerning Felix."
"Your brother has been murdered--or so we believe. You cannot let the matter rest as it is at present. Drop these reasonings from cause to effect, and consider but three things--Right, Justice, Duty."
The morning is still early when Hope Chetwynde rides again to Redlands, and, as on a former occasion, she declines her aunt's proffered companionship, and faces her unpleasant task alone.
Having determined upon her course, she now appears quite calm, though very sad and pale. "My business, Mrs. Hilton," she says, "concerns you all. But, first, I wish to make it known to you, to ask you to help me, and to believe that, if I could have seen any other way out of this awful trouble, I would not have sought this one. I must first tell | | 201 you that I have caused a most thorough search to be made in and about the scene of my brother's death, and I have learned--much."
And now, without naming her authority for what she tells, she repeats in substance what the sheriff has told her. And then the two women sit, each studying the face of the other, and both pallid and sad and for the moment silent; and, sitting thus, neither hears a slow, languid footstep in the room without--for Lorna is never debarred her mother's "den"--a step which halts suddenly as Mrs. Hilton says, in tones low and clear and not unkind--
"Am I to understand, Miss Chetwynde, that you are here to-day to reveal to my daughter that which we have kept from her with such pains for her very life's sake, and to denounce my son?"
"I am here to know the truth! Was my brother murdered? And if so, why?"
"Pardon--you have no right to interrogate me in such a matter as this. Since you have come to me, I must know your intentions before I reply to you. Do you mean to accuse Loyd Hilton publicly?"
"If so, you cannot say you have not been warned. Mrs. Hilton, why may I not see and talk frankly with Lorna Hilton? Why may she not tell me why she went from here with my brother, and left him behind to lie all night on that dreary hilltop alone--dead?"
When Mrs. Hilton puts her question, Loyd Hilton, passing the door of that outer room--left open by Lorna--sees his sister in the attitude of a listener before the drawn curtains of the den, and, crossing the room swiftly, hears Hope's first query, and attempts to draw Lorna away.| | 202
"Wait " she whispers, and, to his amazement, grasps his hand and smiles up in his eyes. "We are not afraid!"
"Lorna--sister! For my sake!" he whispers pleadingly. "Come--come at once!"
But she answers again with that same quick look, more like the old Lorna--who has disappeared, it would seem, in Felix Chetwynde's grave--than he has seen her for days. "Wait! It is for your sake that I stay."
"Do you mean--can you be so wrought upon by all this trouble as to, suspect, perhaps accuse Lorna, Miss Chetwynde?" Mrs. Hilton asks sternly.
"No more than I would accuse you! But, could you put the same query, in the same spirit, and substitute for her name that of her brother? You are his confidante, I fully believe, madam; and can you look in my face and assure me that Loyd Hilton, in self-defence or otherwise, did not shoot my brother?"
Mrs. Hilton knows that she must parry this at any cost, and, all unconscious of the two listeners so near them, she asks--because she must reply, or let silence pass for consent--
"If you would tell me what you believe, or know. If we might understand each other, Miss Chetwynde--"
"You shall understand me at least!" There is no lack now of spirit, of firmness, of the Chetwynde pride that so ill brooks evasion or dissimilation. "Miss Hilton, I fully believe, was on the south side of the ravine as late as five o'clock that day. And if, as you have assured me, she met her brother and | | 203 he brought her home, they must have met there, and"--Hope's voice is hard; her face is white and set. The Chetwynde pride has the mastery now, even though her heart is like ice in her breast, when she says--"and I believe that it was Loyd Hilton, and no other, who killed my brother--my last reliance and only protector. Can you assure me that I am wrong?"
How her lip curls as she utters the words--the taunt!--for such she has meant it to be; and, for one long moment, how still the room is!
Then the swaying portieres are swept aside, and a voice, clear, sweet, and low, but quite distinct and calm, says--
"She cannot, for she does not know! But I can answer you, Miss Chetwynde; and I say NO! My brother's hands are as free from stain of blood as yours!" And now, before Loyd, before any one can interfere, she crosses to Mrs. Hilton's side, and takes her nervous, clammy hand. "Mother, it has all come to me in a flash--your solicitude, Loyd's tender, sad face. Some one has accused him, and he fears, or rather forgets, that I know. No need to ask my brother, my other self, the question. I know! If he were guilty I should know; if he denied, I would still know. Your brother's blood is not upon my brother's hands, Miss Chetwynde, and I thank God for it!" With a quick, impulsive movement she turns to Hope.
"Hope Chetwynde, from a heart that knows what a sister's sorrow must be, I pity you! I long to comfort you; and I am ready to answer for myself, and to tell you all I can of that unhappy last day of | | 204 your brother's life. He loved me, and though he meant me ill, I forgive and grieved for him. I ask you to believe this, to believe me even against evidence! I know. My faith in Loyd is not the faith of the lover, which springs from the heart and though earthly is sublime; my faith--my knowledge is soul knowledge; the same blood, carrying the truth from him to me. Loyd is innocent!"
She flashes a quick, clear glance toward her brother, and what she sees in his face causes her to come closer, and to say earnestly, pleadingly--
"Say that you believe me, Miss Chetwynde. Say it to him!"
But Hope Chetwynde, with her head high, and her eyes straight before her, as if unseeing, only says, hoarsely, almost harshly--
"I cannot!" and goes straight and swift from the room and the house; and as she goes Loyd Hilton, standing as he has been, shocked into speechlessness, and seemingly unseen by Hope, springs forward, and as she goes Hope is conscious of his sudden movement, of Lorna's detaining grasp upon his arm, and of his voice as he cries--
"Miss Chetwynde--stop. You are right! Lorna, you must hear it now. I did it, and I am ready to answer for the deed!"
But Hope never pauses nor turns. Fleeing for her life, she will never flee faster nor with face more strained and pale.
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