- CHAPTER XXIII FACE TO FACE
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FACE TO FACE
"WHEN the cat's away, the mice will play," is a time-honoured saying, and sometimes a true one. But in the absence of the watchful cat the mice sometimes nibble as well as play, and often do serious mischief.
If the "cat" as represented by Sheriff Cook could have foreseen the complications which would follow his departure, he might have laid upon his uneasy and mentally tormented "mice" injunctions more strict, as well as glimpsed for their benefit a hint of his future plans.
But "mice" were left to their own devices, and each, having his own particular woe or worry, grew restless, and each phase of restlessness developed after its own particular kind.
Hope's position is very trying. If the sheriff's latest revelation of a new possibility has raised in her breast a new hope, it has also planted a new fear. She knows that in the eyes of the community she stands in the position of the aggressive one, who must move, if at all, upon the home of her neigh- | | 249 bour--move against Loyd Hilton, for to the public eye there is nothing else to be done.
She knows how the rumour against Loyd is spreading and growing, and that he too, like the rest, must live in daily anticipation of her next act, and she still believes him the slayer of Felix Chetwynde. That they claim for Loyd extenuating circumstances may be better for him, but for her! Sometimes she tells herself bitterly that if he were only guilty, without a plea or excuse, red-handed with wanton and malicious intent, her heart would be less torn with conflicting feelings, if not less heavy. And her duty and her inclination would not be so sadly at war.
"Why don't she have that man locked up!" demands the cook, in the kitchen. "Shootin' down her own brother in cold blood. It's queer sort of doin's, that's what I think."
It is not the first time the queen of the kitchen had made this or a similar speech, but it was the first time that Hope--about to enter the kitchen at the moment--had heard it, and it grated harshly upon sorely tried nerves.
"Cook," she said, entering with uplifted head and a look quite new to the kitchen contingent; "you are employed to prepare my food, not to criticize my conduct. You will bear this in mind in future!" and she swept out, her errand undone.
This happens on the third day of the sheriff's absence; and as Hope mounts the stairs and reenters the morning-room, she murmurs wearily, "And I must endure two weeks of this, perhaps! How can I?"| | 250
But before the day is ended she has more endure.
Early in the afternoon Loyd Hilton--for the first time since the burial of Felix Chetwynde--wheels in at the open south gate, leaves his wheel beside the porch, and sends his card to Miss Hope Chetwynde.
The girl receives it in the morning-room, and reads--almost in a panic of something like fear--these pencilled words--
"I beg that you will receive me for a few moments in justice to yourself and to me.--L. H."
Still trembling, she puts the message down. "Wait five minutes," she says to the maid, "and then show him in here."
Five minutes later, when Loyd Hilton enters, she is outwardly calm at least, and frigidly cold because only thus can she meet him with perfect self-command.
He pauses, standing erect before her, and begins at once his explanation, allowing her neither time for greeting or any other formality.
"I have called this morning, Miss Chetwynde," he begins, "because to sit inactive longer, in the face of all the miserable rumours that are current, is impossible. Once before you allowed me to tell you how I came to be in my present unhappy position. Then I told you that I would make no resistance, would remain here, and let you do with me as you would, since the only reason for my silence in regard to my share in your brother's unhappy death was removed when my sister learned the truth. Now I come to to | | 251 ask you, in Heaven's name, to act. I can face my accusers, but this ordeal at the hands of the public is too hateful for my sister's sake, for my mother's sake, if not for mine. And for your own sake let me stand where at least I shall not seem blacker than I am!"
He has spoken impetuously, but Hope's voice is very low and lifeless as she asks--
"What do you wish? I do not understand."
"Is it possible? Can you not see that, having let all the country round know me for your brother's slayer, you can do no less than put me where the people may judge between myself and Felix Chetwynde? Yes, Miss Chetwynde. I would do much for you. Heaven only knows how much; but having publicly denounced me, pointed me out as the guilty man, you should end the drama and--"
"Stop!"--the lifelessness has gone from Hope's voice now--"do you mean--do you charge me with thus spreading abroad this shameful--this charge against you? Do you not know--" She stops breathlessly.
"I know little that transpires beyond my own door," he says, a touch of pride in the lift of the head. "I am the last one to whom such news could come because the one most concerned. My story, the truth about your brother's death, was told to you, to you only. How else should it have gone abroad? Pray understand. I do not dispute your right to make my--guilt public, but I had hoped it would have been in another manner."
"In--what way?" Hope stands as one dazed.| | 252
"Can you ask ? You have been good enough to warn me that you have employed Sheriff Cook--and you could not have done better--but why, then, has he not sought me where I am always to be found now--in my home--with a warrant? I had hoped to spare my sister--and--your brother--"
"Oh!" Hope cries out, and then closes her lips as suddenly as she has opened them. "I have never wished nor asked," he goes on, "to be spared myself for my own sake."
Hope sinks into a seat, and her head is bowed before him.
"But every criminal may ask for justice, and this I now demand. Since my sister will not believe my own confession of guilt, and since she must appear as an actor in the hateful tragedy, let there be no more delay, no more need for this hateful spreading of a garbled and untrue statement. Let the people hear and judge between Felix Chetwynde and myself!"
"Stop! stop!" there is fire in her eyes now, and she sits erect before him. "You must hear me now, Mr. Hilton. Sit there, please!"
She speaks imperiously, and half-reluctantly he obeys her; and dropping into the seat she has indicated just opposite her own, he awaits her next words. "You have spoken of Sheriff Cook. You do not know, perhaps, that he is absent now upon my business; I have put my case entirely in his hands with but one reservation. This, I cannot make known to you, but I must tell you now 'in justice,' as you have said, to myself, that the sudden spreading of | | 253 this story concerning you was as great a surprise to Mr. Cook and to myself as to you. As for its origin, it began with the fragment of an anonymous letter. Let me tell you all I can concerning this, at least."
And she does so, not omitting the sheriff's efforts to trace the story to its source.
"And how," asks the young man, with his eyes upon her face, "does Sheriff Cook account for this?"
"He believes--we all believe--that you have an enemy."
"I have but one enemy," he says, rising to go, "who can hurt me irreparably!"
Slowly, as if by some volition other than her own, she rises also and stands again facing him, and their eyes meet and defy each other.
"I am not your enemy," she says dully, almost doggedly, inwardly she is fighting that other self that will not down. "I will say that much, I will!" it says fiercely, and then she is seized with a panic of fear. For he has taken a step toward her, and she sees through his eyes to his soul, and knows what he is about to say.
"I ought to thank you for even that," he says sadly. "I do not need to hear you say that you can never be my friend. That the merest strangers who may meet some day are nearer each to each than we--than I to you. To you that means less than nothing I know it well. To me--well, I have confessed to you my sin. Let me now confess my presumption, and absolve me, if you can, when you can. Why may I not say it, and | | 254 show you the depth of my abasement? To have slain one's one-time schoolmate would have been enough to embitter a brighter life even than mine. To have killed my sister's lover, no matter what the cause, should be horror enough to face through long days and sleepless nights; but what is left to the man who has shot down the brother of the woman he loves? Remorse? There are miseries far worse than remorse. And your sheriff can devise no punishment equal to that of this moment, when I stand--here and face the woman I have learned to love when to love was hopeless misery!"
He draws himself up, and his pale face grows suddenly set and stern.
"I have said what I did not come to say, Hope Chetwynde; and now I add only this, I regard myself as your prisoner until this case is ended. When it is ended, if I am still alive, I will pray for delivery from a mad love, for pardon for my sin, and I will flee where I may never see your face again."
What is it that has changed Hope Chetwynde's face to a sudden, glowing, burning, passionate beauty? where has fled her cowardice? her tremors? She has not moved one step toward him, yet she seems suddenly to have come very near. "Coward, after all your courage. Now--for the first--time. Well, go. But I tell you, Loyd Hilton, I would rather look from my window and see you pass sometimes, rather look in your eyes across all the sins and barriers of life once, twice, in each year, knowing what was in your heart for me, and that we might never come nearer, than to go | | 255 through life and never again see the face of the man I love. There, no, no. Don't come nearer. Go--you must go--now."
Slowly, as if compelled by her great, glowing, commanding eyes, he backs toward the door, turns and opens it. Then, with a quick cry, he springs back into the room and catches Hope's tottering figure as she sways and falls, all the glow and fire gone suddenly out of her face.
A moment he holds her close, then tenderly lays her upon the broad divan beside the fireplace, and bends as if to kiss her lips, only to start back suddenly and kneeling to kiss one limp hand instead, and thus to stride to the open door. Half-way down the hall Aunt Cass is coming toward him in bicycle array, having just returned from her "daily exercise."
"Miss Chetwynde," he says to the astonished lady, "your niece has fainted!"
As he hurries past her with a swift gesture toward the morning-room, Aunt Cass stares after him; and when Hope, restored and non-committal, is left alone at her own command still upon the divan in the morning-room, the little spinster walks out upon the piazza and looks away across the lake.
"In all my life!" she declares unto herself, "I never before saw such a look in the face of an unhappy man!"
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