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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 33
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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 33 Post by :dave607 Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :997

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The Debtor: A Novel - Chapter 33

Chapter XXXIII

For the first time in his life Arthur Carroll had a perfect sense of the staying power, of the impregnable support, of love and the natural ties of humanity. Charlotte's slender arms closed around his neck; she stood, half-weeping, half-laughing, leaning against him, but in reality he leaned against her, the soul of the man against the soul of the girl, and he got from it a strength which was stronger than life or death. He felt that it bent not one whit before his terrible weight of misery and perplexity. He was stayed.

"I came back, papa," Charlotte repeated. She was herself a little terrified by what seemed to her a daring action; then, too, she dimly perceived something beneath the surface which made her tremble. She felt the despairing weight of the other soul against her own. She stood still, clinging to her father, saying in her little, quivering voice that she had come back, and he was quite still, until at last he made a little sound like a dry sob, and Charlotte straightened herself and took his hand firmly in her little, soft one. The girl became all in a second a woman, with the full-fledged instincts of one. She knew just what to do for a man in a moment of weakness. She towered, by virtue of the maternal instinct within her, high above her father in spiritual strength.

"Papa, come into the house," said she, and her voice seemed no longer Charlotte's, but echoed from the man's far-off childhood. "Come into the house, papa," she said; "come." And Carroll followed her into the house, like a child, his hands clasped firmly and commandingly by the little, soft one of his daughter.

Charlotte led her father into the dining-room, which was warm and light. There was a Franklin stove in there, and a bright fire burned in it.

"The furnace fire had gone out, and I could not do anything with that, so I made a fire in this stove," Charlotte explained. "I made it burn very easily." She spoke with a childish pride. It was, in fact, the first time she had ever made a fire. "The fire in the kitchen-range was low, too," she said, "but I put some coal on and I poked it, and there is a beautiful bed of coals to cook the beefsteak." Then Charlotte caught herself up short. "Oh, the beefsteak will burn!" she cried, anxiously. "Do sit down, papa, and wait a minute. I must see to the beefsteak."

With that Charlotte ran into the kitchen, and Carroll dropped into the nearest chair. He felt dazed and happy, with the happiness of a man waking to consciousness from an awful incubus of nightmare, and yet a deadly sense of guilt and shame was beginning to steal over him. That bottle of chloroform in his pocket stung his soul like the worm, which gnaweth the conscience unceasingly, of the Scriptures. He thought vaguely of removing it, of concealing it somewhere. He looked at the china-closet, the door of which stood ajar; he looked at the sideboard with its glitter of cut glass and silver; but reflected that Charlotte might directly go to either and discover it, and make inquiries. He kept it in his pocket.

He heard Charlotte running about in the kitchen. He continued to smell the broiling beefsteak and tea, and also toast. He became conscious of a healthy hunger. He had eaten nothing since morning, and very little then. Then he gathered his faculties together enough to wonder how this had come about; how and why Charlotte had returned. But he sat still in the chair beside the Franklin stove. He gazed steadily into the red glow of the coals, and a strange dimness came over his vision. A species of counter-hypnotism seemed to overcome him. He had been in an abnormal state, superinduced by unhealthy suggestions of the imagination acting upon a mind ill at ease; now his natural state gradually asserted itself. His mind swung slowly back to its normal poise. When Charlotte entered, bearing a platter of beefsteak, he turned to her quite naturally.

"How did it happen, darling?" he asked.

Charlotte looked at him, and her face, which had been anxious and puzzled, lightened. She laughed. "I had my mind all made up, papa," she replied, in a triumphant little voice.

"That you would come back?"

"Yes, papa. I knew there was no use in saying I would not go. I knew if I did, Amy would directly declare that she would not go either, and I should spoil everything. So I decided that I would start with the rest, and come back."

"How far did you go?"

"I went to Lancaster. I did not mean to go so far. I meant to get off at New Sanderson, but I could not manage it. Amy wanted to play pinochle, and I could not get away. But when we got to Lancaster, we stopped awhile, and Amy was having a nap, and Anna was reading, and the train made a long stop, and Eddy and I got out, and I told Eddy what I was going to do, and gave him a little note. I had it all written before I started. I said in the note that I was coming back, that I did not want to go to Kentucky; that I was coming back and would stay with you a little while, and then we would both go to Kentucky and join the others. I said they were not to worry about me."

"What did you tell Eddy?"

"I told Eddy that you could not be left alone with nobody to cook for you, and he must get on the train and not make any fuss, and tell the others, and be a good boy, and he said he would. I saw him safely on the train."

"How did you get here from Lancaster, child?"

"I took the trolley," Charlotte said. "There is a trolley from Lancaster to New Sanderson, you know, papa."

Charlotte did not explain that the trolley from Lancaster to New Sanderson was not running, and that she had walked six miles before connecting with the trolley to Banbridge. "I got the meat in New Sanderson," said she. "I got some other things, too. You will see. We have a beautiful supper, papa."

Carroll looked at her, and she answered the question he was ashamed to ask. "Aunt Catherine sent me a little money," she said. "She sent me twenty-five dollars in a post-office order. She wrote me a letter and sent me the money for myself. She said the shops were not very good down there--you know they are not, papa--and I might like to buy some little things for myself in New York before coming. I said nothing about the money to Amy or the others, because I had this plan. I even let Amy take that extra money and buy me the hat. I was afraid I was mean, but I could not tell her I had the money, because I wanted to carry out this plan, and I did not see how I could get back or do anything unless I kept it, for I had no money at all before. I have written a letter to Aunt Catherine, and she will get it as soon as they get there. I don't think she will be angry; and if she is, I don't care." Charlotte's voice had a ring of charming defiance. She looked gayly at her father. "Come, papa," said she, "the beefsteak is hot. Sit right up, and I will bring in the tea and toast. There are some cakes, too, and a salad. I have got a beautiful supper, papa. I never cooked any beefsteak before, but just look how nice that is. Come, papa."

Carroll obediently drew his chair up to the table. It was daintily set; there was even a little vase of flowers, rusty red chrysanthemums, in the centre on the embroidered centrepiece. Charlotte spoke of them when she brought in the tea and toast. "I suppose I was extravagant, papa," she said, "but I stopped at a florist's in New Sanderson and bought these. They did not cost much--only ten cents for all these." She took her seat opposite her father, and poured the tea. She put in the lumps of sugar daintily with the silver tongs. Her face was beaming; she was lovely; she was a darling. She looked over at her father as she extended his cup of tea, and there was not a trace of self-love in the little face; it was all love for and tender care of him. "Oh, I am so glad to be home!" she said, with a deep sigh.

Carroll looked across at her with a sort of adoration and dependence which were painful, coming from a father towards a child. His face had lightened, but he still looked worn and pale and old. He was become more and more conscious of the chloroform in his pocket, and the shame and guilt of it.

"Why did you come back, honey?" he asked.

"I didn't want to go," Charlotte said, simply. "I wasn't happy going away and leaving you alone, papa. I want to stay here with you, and if you have to leave Banbridge I will go with you. I don't mind at all not having much to get along with. I can get along with very little."

"You would have been more comfortable with the others, dear," said Carroll. He did not begin to eat his supper, but looked over it at the girl's face.

"You are not eating anything, papa," said Charlotte. "Isn't the beefsteak cooked right?"

"It is cooked beautifully, honey; just right. All is. I am glad to see you come back. You don't just know what it means to me, dear, but I am afraid--"

Charlotte laughed gayly. "I am not," said she. "Talk about comfort--isn't this comfort? Please _do eat the beefsteak, papa."

Carroll began obediently to eat his supper. When he had fairly begun he realized that he was nearly famished. In spite of his stress of mind, the needs of the flesh reasserted themselves. He could not remember anything tasting so good since his boyhood. He ate his beefsteak and potatoes and toast; then Charlotte brought forward with triumph a little dish of salad, and finally a charlotte-russe.

"I got these at the baker's in New Sanderson," said she. She was dimpling with delight. She looked very young, and yet the man continued to have that sense of dependence upon her. She exulted openly over her supper, her cooking, and her return. "I don't know but I was very deceitful, papa," she said, but with glee rather than compunction. "Amy and Anna had no idea that I did not mean to go with them to Aunt Catherine's, and oh, papa, what do you think I did? What do you?"

"What, dear?"

"My trunk was packed with, with--some old sheets and blankets and newspapers--and all my clothes are hanging in my closet up-stairs." Charlotte laughed a long ring of laughter. "I knew I was deceitful," she said again, and laughed again.

Carroll did not laugh. He was thinking of the Hungarian girl in Charlotte's red dress, but Charlotte thought he was sober on account of her deceit.

"Do you think it was very wrong, papa?" she asked, with sudden seriousness, eying him wistfully. "I will write and tell Amy to-night all about it. I couldn't think of any other way to do, papa."

"I met Marie as I was coming home from the station this morning," Carroll said, irrelevantly.

Charlotte looked at him quickly, blushed, and raised her teacup.

"I thought at first, though I knew it could not be, that I saw you coming," said he; "something about her dress--"

"Papa," said Charlotte, setting down her cup, and she was half-crying--"papa, I had to. Marie was so shabby, and she said that her lover had deserted her because she was so poorly dressed; and though of course he could not be a very good man, nor very loyal to desert her for such a reason as that, yet those people are different, perhaps, and don't look at things as we do; and Marie has got another place; but--but she--didn't have any money, you know, and she didn't really have a dress fit to be seen, and that dress I gave her I did not need at all--I really did not, papa. I have plenty besides, and so I gave it to her, and my little Eton jacket, and I told her she would certainly have every cent we owed her, and she seemed very happy. She is going to a party to-night and will wear that dress. She thinks she will get her lover back. Those Hungarian men must be queer lovers. Marie said he would not marry her, anyway, until she had some money for her dowry, but she thinks she may be able to keep him until then with my red silk dress, and I told her she should certainly have it all in time." Charlotte's voice, in making the last statement, was full of pride and confidence without a trace of interrogation.

"She shall if I live, dear," said Carroll. All at once there came over him, stimulated with food for heart and body, such a rush of the natural instinct for life as to completely possess him. It seemed to him that as a short time before he had hungered for death, he now hungered for life. Even the desire to live and pay that miserable little Hungarian servant-maid was a tremendous thing. The desire to live for the smallest virtues, ambitions, and pleasures of life was compelling force.

"I have something beautiful for breakfast to-morrow morning, papa," said Charlotte, "and I know how to make coffee." And he felt that it was worth while living for to-morrow morning's breakfast alone. No doubt this state of mind, as abnormal in its way as the other had been, was largely due to physical causes, to the unprosaic quantity of food in a stomach which had been cheated of its needs for a number of days. The blood rushed through his veins with the added force of reaction, supplying his brain. He was not happier--that could scarcely be said--but he was swinging in the opposite direction. Whereas he had wanted to die, because of his misery and failures, he now wanted to live, to repair them, and the thought was dawning upon him, to take revenge because of them. In this mood the consideration of the bottle of chloroform in his pocket became more and more humiliating and condemning. The sight of the girl's innocent, triumphant, loving little face opposite overwhelmed him with a stinging consciousness of it all. He felt at one minute a terrible fear lest those clear young eyes of hers could penetrate his miserable secret, lest she should say, suddenly: "Papa, what did you go to Port Willis for? What have you in your pocket?"

Charlotte went to bed early, after she had cleared away the table and washed the dishes, unwonted tasks for her, but which she performed with a delight intensified by a feeling of daring.

"Papa, I have washed the dishes beautifully; I know I have," she said, and she looked at him for praise, her head on one side, her look half-whimsical, half-childishly earnest. "I don't see why it is at all hard work to be a maid," said she.

"There are other things to do, dear, I suppose," Carroll said.

"I think I could easily learn to do the other things," said she. "I don't quite know about the washing and ironing, and possibly the scrubbing and sweeping." Charlotte surveyed, as she spoke, her hands. She looked at the little, pink palms, made pinker and slightly wrinkled by the dish-water; she turned them and surveyed the backs with the slightly scalloping joints, and the thin-nailed fingers. She shook her head. "I don't know," said she, again.

"I know," Carroll said, quickly. "Your father is going to take care of you, Charlotte. It has not yet come to that pass that he is quite helpless."

Charlotte did not seem to notice his hurt, indignant tone. She went on reflectively. "It does seem," said she, "as if there were a great many ways of being crippled besides not having all your arms and legs; as if it were really being very much crippled if you are in a place where there is work to be done, and your hands are not rightly made for doing it. Now here I am, and I can't do Marie's work as well as Marie did it, because she was really born with hands for washing and ironing and scrubbing and sweeping, and I wasn't. A person is really crippled when she is born unfitted to do the things that come her way to be done, isn't she, papa?"

"There is no question of your doing such things, Charlotte," Carroll said again, and Charlotte looked at him quickly.

"Why, papa!" said she, and went up to him and kissed him. She rubbed her cheek caressingly against his, and his cheek felt wet. She realized that with a sort of terror. "Why, papa, I did not mean any harm!" she said.

"I will get a servant for you to-morrow, Charlotte," he said, brokenly. "It has not yet come to pass that you have to do such work." He spoke brokenly. He did not trust himself to look at the girl, who was now looking at him intently and seriously.

"Papa, listen to me," said she. "Really, there is no scrubbing nor sweeping nor washing nor ironing to be done here for quite a time. Marie has left the house in very good condition. There is enough money to pay for the laundry for some time, and as for the cooking, you can see that I shall love to do that. You know Aunt Catherine used to let me cook, that I always like to."

Carroll made no reply.

"Papa, you are not well; you are all worn out," Charlotte said. "Let us go into the den, and you smoke a cigar and I will read to you."

Carroll shook his head. "No, dear, not to-night," he said.

"We will have a game of cribbage."

"No, dear, not to-night. You are tired, and you must go to bed. Take a book and go to bed and read. You are tired."

"I am not very tired," said Charlotte, but therein she did not speak the entire truth. Her spirit was leaping with happy buoyancy, but she could scarcely stand on her feet, she was so fatigued with her unaccustomed labor and the excitement of it all. There was a ringing in her ears, and her eyelids felt stiff; she was also a little hoarse. "Will you go to bed, too, papa?" said she, anxiously.

"I will go very soon, dear."

"Won't you want anything else before you go?"

"No, darling."

Charlotte stood regarding him with the sweetest expression of protection and worshipful affection, and withal the naivete of a child pleased with herself and what she has done for the beloved one. "You _did have a good supper, didn't you, papa?" she asked.

"A beautiful supper, sweetheart."

"You never had a better?"

"Never so good, never half so good," said Carroll, fervently, smiling down at her eager face.

"You are glad I came back, aren't you, papa?"

"Glad for my own sake, God knows, dear, but--"

"There are no buts at all," Charlotte cried, laughing. "No buts at all. If you don't think I am happier and better off here with you than I would be rattling down to Kentucky on that old railroad, and I am always car-sick on a long journey, you know, papa."

Charlotte lit a lamp and bade her father good-night. She kissed him and looked at him anxiously and with a little bewilderment. He had seated himself, and was smoking with an abstracted air, his eyes fixed on vacancy.

"Now, papa, you will go to bed very soon yourself, won't you?" she urged. "You look sick, and I know you are tired out."

"Very soon, honey," Carroll replied.

After Charlotte had gotten into bed, and lay there with her lamp on a stand beside her and her book in hand, she listened more than she read. When in the course of half an hour she heard her father come up the stairs and enter his own room, she gave a sigh of relief. "Good-night, papa," she called out.

"Good-night, dear," he responded. Then Charlotte fell asleep with her light burning and her book in her hand, and she did not hear her father go softly over the stairs a second time.

As was said, his mind, in regaining its normal balance, had swung too far to the opposite direction. His desire to live, that possessed him, was as much too intense as his previous desire to die. He had for the time being another fixed idea, not as dangerous in a sense as the other, at least not to himself, but still dangerous. The miserable little bottle of chloroform became, in this second abnormal state of his mind, the key-note on which his strenuous thoughts harped. It seemed to him that that bottle with its red label of "Poison" was as horrible a thing to have as a blood-stained knife of murder. It was in a sense blood-stained. It bore the stigma of the self-murderer. It bore evidence to his hideous cowardice, his unspeakable crime of spirit. He felt that he must do away with that bottle; but how? After he was in his room, and the door locked, he took the bottle from its neat wrapper of pink paper and looked at it. It seemed like an absurdly easy thing to dispose of; but it did not, when he reflected, seem easy at all. It was not a thing to burn, or throw away. He thought of opening the window and giving it a fling; but what was to hinder some one finding it in the morning under the windows? The man actually sat down and gazed awhile at the small phial of death with utter helplessness and horror; and as he did so, the always smouldering wrath of his soul towards that man in Kentucky, that man who had wronged him, swelled to its height. He had always hated him, but his hate had never assumed such strength as this. He became conscious, as he had never been before, that that man was responsible for it all, even to the crowning horror and ignominy of that bottle. He reflected that no man of his name had ever, so far as he knew, stained it as he had done by his life; that no man of his name had ever so stained the record of his race by the contemplation of such a dastardly death. He felt, gazing at that bottle, every whit as guilty as if he had drained the contents, and he told himself that that man was responsible, that that man had murdered him in the worst and subtlest way in which murder can be done; he had caused him to do away with his own honor. He felt himself alive to his furthest fancy with hate and a desire for revenge.

"I will live, and I will have the better of him yet," he muttered to himself.

Every nerve tingled; his fingers clutched the bottle like hot wires--that bottle which that other man had caused him to buy, and which he could not get rid of, this palpable witness to his crime and disgrace.

Finally he got up and threw up the window; then he put it down again. It did not seem to him, in his unreasoning state, that he could probably empty the chloroform out of the window without the slightest danger of detection, and then scrape the label from the bottle. It did not seem possible to him that Charlotte would not immediately perceive the fumes of the drug which would cry to her from the ground. Her room was next his own. He sat down again and gazed at the bottle with the absurd bewilderment of a drunken man. Then he tried stowing it away in a drawer of the dresser, behind a pile of shirts. He even, after doing that, began to undress, but that did not satisfy him. It seemed certain to him that Charlotte would find it in the morning, and say, "Why, papa, what is this bottle marked 'Poison' in your drawer?"

At last he unlocked his door, opened it, and stole softly down-stairs. He unfastened the kitchen door, and went across the field and garden behind the house, to the little pond beside the rustic arbor, the little sentimental Idlewild of the original dwellers in the house. It was a dark, waving night. It still did not storm, and was warmer. It would probably rain before morning. The wind smote his face damply. He had come out in his shirt-sleeves. He moved slyly, like a thief; he felt like one, like a thief and a murderer--a self-murderer, and a murderer, in will, of the man who had caused him to commit the crime. He felt burning with hate as he slunk across the field, of hate of the man who had brought him to this, who had caused his financial and moral downfall. At that time, had the man been near, his life would have been worth nothing. Carroll thought, as he hurried on, holding fast to the bottle, how he could overthrow him, uncork the bottle and hold it to his face, that he might inhale the death he had meted out to him. It seemed to him like the merest instinct of self-defence. He stumbled now and then over the tangle of dry vines in the garden, among the corn-stalks. He went like a guilty thing, instead of moving with his usual confident state, the state of a gentleman from a long line of gentlemen. He had become alive to his own shame, his own ignominy, and he had turned at bay upon the one who had caused him, as he judged, to fall.

When he reached the little pond, he paused and looked about him for a second. It was a desolate spot at that time of year and that hour. The little sheet of water gleamed dully like an obscured eye of life. The trees waved their slender arms over it. Something about the summer-house creaked as a damp wind blew on his face. He saw through the trees a faint gleam of light from a house window farther down the road. He heard a rustle in the undergrowth on his right, probably a stray cat or a bird. He stood there holding the bottle of chloroform and hating that man; then he raised his arm and flung the thing into the pond. There was a splash which sounded unnaturally loud, as if it could be heard a long distance.

Then Carroll turned and went home across the field; the evidence of his guilt was hidden away out of sight, but the memory and consciousness of it was in his very soul and had become a part of him, and his hate of the man who had brought him to it stalked by his side like a demon across the fields.

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Chapter XXXIICarroll, when he reached his house, went up to the front door, unlocked it, and entered. At once there smote upon his consciousness that strange shock of emptiness and loneliness which has the effect, for a sensitive soul entering a deserted house, of a menacing roar of sound. He went through the hall to the little smoking-room or den on the right, opposite the dining-room, and the first thing which he saw on the divan was Charlotte's little chinchilla muff which she had forgotten. He regarded it with the concern of a woman, reflecting that she would miss it; and
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