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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 14. In The Shadow Of The Mill
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The Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 14. In The Shadow Of The Mill Post by :catalin Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :2183

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The Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 14. In The Shadow Of The Mill

CHAPTER XIV. IN THE SHADOW OF THE MILL

Later on Sara, in sober reflection, endorsed what had appeared at the time to be a whimsical, quixotic proceeding on her part. She brought herself completely to the point where she could view her action with complacency. At first, there was an irritating, nagging fear that Mr. Wrandall had been genuinely soul-sacrificing in his effort to defend her; that his decisive falsehood was a sincere declaration of loyalty to her and not the transparent outburst of one actuated by a sort of fanatical selfishness, in that he dreaded the further dragging in the dust of the name of Wrandall, and all that in spite of his positive belief that she was being wrongly, unfairly attacked. She knew that her father-in-law had no doubt in his mind that she could successfully combat any charge Smith might bring against her; that her innocence would prevail even in the opinion of the scheming detective. But behind all this was the Wrandall conclusion that a skin was to be saved, and that skin the one which covered the Wrandall pride.

His lie was not glorifying. She even consented that it might be the first deliberate falsehood this honourable, discriminating gentleman had told in all his life. At the moment, he may have been actuated by a motive that deceived him, but even unknown to him the Wrandall self-interest was at work. He was not lying for her, but for the Wrandalls! And she would have to remain his debtor all her life because of that amiable falsehood!

She intuitively felt the force of that secret motive almost the instant it found expression, and she resented it even as she applauded it in the first wave of inward enthusiasm. She might have marked it down to his credit, and loved him a little for it, had not his rather distorted integrity impelled him to confess his transgression to the lawyers, whereas it was perfectly plain that they appreciated his distortion of the truth without having it explained to them in so many words. That virtuous little speech of his was all-illuminating; it let in a great light and laid bare the weakness that was too strong for him.

Her abrupt change of front, her suddenly formed resolve to pay the man his price, was the result of a natural opposition to the elder Wrandall. She acted hastily, even ruthlessly, in direct contradiction to her original intentions, but she now felt that she had acted wisely. There could be no doubt in the mind of the keen-witted Smith that Mr. Wrandall had lied; his lips therefore were sealed, not by the declaration, but by her own surprising offer to remunerate.

When she told Hetty what she had done, the girl, who had been tortured by doubts and misgivings, threw herself into her arms and sobbed out her gratitude.

"I could die for you, Sara. I could die a thousand deaths," she cried.

"Oh, I dare say Smith is quite delighted," said Sara carelessly. "He had come up against a brick wall, don't you see. He could go no further. There was but one thing for him to do and he did it. He had no case, but he felt that he ought to be paid just the same. Mr. Wrandall would never have paid him, he was sure of that. His game failed. He thinks better of me now than he ever did before, and I have made a friend of him, strange as it may appear."

"Oh, I hope so."

Sara stroked her cheek gently. "Don't be afraid, Hetty. We are quite safe."

Hetty secretly gloated over that little pronoun 'we.' It spelt security.

"And wasn't it splendid of Mr. Wrandall to say what he did?" she mused, lying back among the cushions with a sigh of relaxation.

Sara did not at once reply. She smiled rather oddly.

"It was," she said succinctly. "I am sure Leslie will go into raptures over his father's decline and fall."

"Must he be told?" in some dismay.

"Certainly. Every son should know his own father," she explained, with a quiet laugh.

The next day but one was overcast. On cloudy, bleak days Hetty Castleton always felt depressed. Shadowless days, when the sun was obscured, filled her with a curious sense of apprehension, as if when the sun came out again he would not find the world as he had left it. She did not mope; it was not in her nature. She was more than ever mentally alert on such days, for the very reason that the world seemed to have lapsed into a state of indifference, with the sun nowhere to be seen. There was a queer sensation of dread in knowing that that great ball of fire was somewhere in the vault above her and yet unlocated in the sinister pall that spread over the skies. Her fancy ofttimes pictured him sailing in the west when he should be in the east, dodging back and forth in impish abandon behind the screen, and she wondered at such times if he would be where he belonged when the clouds lifted.

Leslie was to return from the wilds on the following day. Early in the morning Booth had telephoned to enquire if she did not want to go for a long walk with him before luncheon. The portrait was finished, but he could not afford to miss the morning hour with her. He said as much to her in pressing his invitation.

"To-morrow Leslie will be here and I shan't see as much of you as I'd like," he explained, rather wistfully. "Three is a crowd, you know. I've got so used to having you all to myself, it's hard to break off suddenly."

"I will be ready at eleven," she said, and was instantly surprised to find that her voice rang with new life, new interest. The greyness seemed to lift from the view that stretched beyond the window; she even looked for the sun in her eagerness.

It was then that she knew why the world had been bleaker than usual, even in its cloak of grey.

A little before eleven she set out briskly to intercept him at the gates. Unknown to her, Sara sat in her window, and viewed her departure with gloomy eyes. The world also was grey for her.

They came upon each other unexpectedly at a sharp turn in the avenue. Hetty coloured with a sudden rush of confusion, and had all she could do to meet his eager, happy eyes as he stood over her and proclaimed his pleasure in jerky, awkward sentences. Then they walked on together, a strange shyness attending them. She experienced the faintness of breath that comes when the heart is filled with pleasant alarms. As for Booth, his blood sang. He thrilled with the joy of being near her, of the feel of her all about him, of the delicious feminine appeal that made her so wonderful to him. He wanted to crush her in his arms, to keep her there for ever, to exert all of his brute physical strength so that she might never again be herself but a part of him.

They uttered commonplaces. The spell was on them. It would lift, but for the moment they were powerless to struggle against it. At length he saw the colour fade from her cheeks; her eyes were able to meet his without the look in them that all men love. Then he seemed to get his feet on the ground again, and a strange, ineffably sweet sense of calm took possession of him.

"I must paint you all over again," he said, suddenly breaking in on one of her remarks. "Just as you are to-day,--an outdoor girl, a glorious outdoor girl in--"

"In muddy boots," she laughed, drawing her skirt away to reveal a shapely foot in an American walking shoe.

He smiled and gave voice to a new thought. "By Jove, how much better looking our American shoes are than the kind they wear in London!"

"Sara insists on American shoes, so long as I am with her. I don't think our boots are so villainous, do you?"

"Just the same, I'm going to paint you again, boots and all. You--"

"Oh, how tired you will become of me!"

"Try me!"

"Besides, you are to do Sara at once. She has consented to sit to you. She will be wonderful, Mr. Booth, oh, how wonderful!"

There was no mistaking the sincerity of this rapt opinion.

"Stunning," was his brief comment. "By the way, I've hesitated about asking how she and Mr. Wrandall came out with the detective chap."

Her face clouded. "It was so perfectly ridiculous, Mr. Booth. The man is satisfied that he was wrong. The matter is ended."

"Pure blackmail, I'd call it. I hope it isn't ended so far as she is concerned. I'd have him in jail so quick his--"

"She's tender-hearted, and sensitive. No real harm has been done. She refuses to prosecute him."

"You can't mean it."

"If you knew her as I do, you would understand."

"But her lawyer, what had he to say about it? And Mr. Wrandall? I should have thought they--"

"I believe they quite approve of what she has done. Nothing will come of it."

He walked on in silence for a couple of rods. "I have a feeling they will never know who killed Challis Wrandall," he said. "It is a mystery that can't be solved by deduction or theory, and there is nothing else for them to work on, as I understand the case. The earth seems to have been generous enough to swallow her completely. She's safe unless she chooses to confess, and that isn't likely. To be perfectly frank with you, Miss Castleton, I rather hope they never get her. He was something of a beast, you know."

She was looking straight ahead. "You used the word generous, Mr. Booth. Do you mean that she deserves pity?"

"Without knowing all the circumstances, I would say yes. I've had the feeling that she was more sinned against than sinning."

"Would you believe that she acted in self-defence?"

"It is quite possible."

"Then, will you explain why she does not give herself up to the authorities and assert her innocence? There is no proof to the contrary." She spoke hurriedly, with an eagerness which he mistook for doubt.

"For one reason, she may be a good woman who was indiscreet. She may have some one else to think of besides herself. A second reason: she may lack moral courage."

"Moral courage!"

"It is one thing to claim self-defence and another thing to get people to believe in it. I suppose you know what Leslie thinks about it?"

"He has not discussed it with me."

"He believes his brother deserved what he got."

"Oh!"

"For that reason he has not taken an active part in hounding her down."

She was silent for a long time, so long indeed that he turned to look at her.

"A thoroughly decent, fair-minded chap is Leslie Wrandall," he pronounced, for want of something better to say. "Still, I'm bound to say, I'm sorry he is coming home to-morrow."

The red crept into her cheeks again.

"I thought you were such pals," she said nervously.

"I expect to be his best man if he ever marries," said he, whacking a stone at the road-side with his walking stick. Then he looked up at her furtively and added, with a quizzical smile: "Unless something happens."

"What COULD happen?"

"He MIGHT marry the girl I'm in love with, and, in that case, I'd have to be excused."

"Where shall we walk to this morning?" she asked abruptly. He had drawn closer to her in the roadway. "Is it too far to the old stone mill? That's where I first saw you, if you remember."

"Yes, let us go there," she said, but her heart sank. She knew what was coming. Perhaps it were best to have it over with; to put it away with the things that were to always be her lost treasures. It would mean the end of their companionship, the end of a love dream. She would have to lie to him: to tell him she did not love him.

One would go many a fruitless day in quest of a more attractive pair than they as they strode swiftly down the shady road. They lagged not, for they were strong and healthy, and walking was a joy to them, not an exercise. She kept pace beside him, with her free stride; half a head shorter than he, she did not demand it of him that he should moderate his stride to suit hers. He was tall and long-limbed, but not camel-like in his manner of walking, as so many tall men are apt to be. His eyes were bright with the excitement that predicted a no uncertain encounter, although he had no definite purpose in mind. There was something singularly wistful, unfathomable, in her velvety blue eyes that gave him hope, he knew not why.

Coming to the jog in the broad macadam, they were striking off into the narrow road that led to the quaint old mill, long since abandoned in the forest glade beyond, when their attention was drawn to a motor-car, which was slowing down for the turn into Sara's domain. A cloud of dust swam in the air far behind the machine.

A bare-headed man on the seat beside the driver, waved his hand to them, and two women in the tonneau bowed gravely. Both Hetty and Booth flushed uncomfortably, and hesitated in their progress up the forest road.

The man was Leslie Wrandall. His mother and sister were in the back seat of the touring car.

"Why--why, it was Leslie," cried Booth, looking over his shoulder at the rapidly receding car. "Shall we turn back, Miss Castleton?"

"No," she cried instantly, with something like impatience in her voice. "And spoil our walk?" she added in the next breath, adding a nervous little laugh.

"It seems rather--" he began dubiously.

"Oh, let us have our day," she cried sharply, and led the way into the by-road.

They came, in the course of a quarter-of-an-hour, to the bridge over the mill-race. Beyond, in the mossy shades, stood a dilapidated, centurion structure known as Rangely's Mill, a landmark with a history that included incidents of the revolutionary war, when eager patriots held secret meetings inside its walls and plotted under the very noses of Tory adherents to the crown.

Pausing for a few minutes on the bridge, they leaned on the rail and looked down into the clear, mirror-like water of the race. Their own eyes looked up at them; they smiled into their own faces. And a fleecy white cloud passed over the glittering stream and swept through their faces, off to the bank, and was gone for ever.

Suddenly he looked up from the water and fixed his eyes on her face. He had seen her clear blue eyes fill with tears as he gazed into them from the rail above.

"Oh, my dear!" he cried. "What is it?"

She put her handkerchief to her eyes as she quickly turned away. In another instant, she was smiling up at him, a soft, pleading little smile that went straight to his heart.

"Shall we start back?" she asked, a quaver in her voice.

"No," he exclaimed. "I've got to go on with it now, Hetty. I didn't intend to, but--come, let us go up and sit on that familiar old log in the shade of the mill. You must, dear!"

She suffered him to lead her up the steep bank beyond and through the rocks and rotten timbers to the great beam that protruded from the shattered foundations of the mill. The rickety old wheel, weather-beaten and sad, rose above them and threatened to topple over if they so much as touched its flimsy supports.

He did not release her hand after drawing her up beside him.

"You must know that I love you," he said simply.

She made no response. Her hand lay limp in his. She was staring straight before her.

"You DO know it, don't you?" he went on.

"I--God knows I don't want you to love me. I never meant that you should--" she was saying, as if to herself.

"I suppose it's hopeless," he said dumbly, as her voice trailed off in a whisper.

"Yes, it is utterly hopeless," she said, and she was white to the lips.

"I--I shan't say anything more," said he. "Of course, I understand how it is. There's some one else. Only I want you to know that I love you with all my soul, Hetty. I--I don't see how I'm going to get on without you. But I--I won't distress you, dear."

"There isn't any one else, Brandon," she said in a very low voice. Her fingers tightened on his in a sort of desperation. "I know what you are thinking. It isn't Leslie. It never can be Leslie."

"Then,--then--" he stammered, the blood surging back into his heart--"there may be a chance--"

"No, no!" she cried, almost vehemently. "I can't let you go on hoping. It is wrong---so terribly wrong, You must forget me. You must--"

He seized her other hand and held them both firmly, masterfully.

"See here, my--look at me, dearest! What is wrong? Tell me! You are unhappy. Don't be afraid to tell me. You--you DO love me?"

She drew a long breath through her half-closed lips. Her eyes darkened with pain.

"No. I don't love you. Oh, I am so sorry to have given you--"

He was almost radiant. "Tell me the truth," he cried triumphantly. "Don't hold anything back, darling. If there is anything troubling you, let me shoulder it. I can--I will do anything in the world for you. Listen: I know there's a mystery somewhere. I have felt it about you always. I have seen it in your eyes, I have always sensed it stealing over me when I'm with you--this strange, bewildering atmosphere of--"

"Hush! You must not say anything more," she cried out. "I cannot love you. There is nothing more to be said."

"But I know it now. You do love me. I could shout it to--" The miserable, whipped expression in her eyes checked this outburst. He was struck by it. even dismayed. "My dearest one, my love," he said, with infinite tenderness, "what is it? Tell me!"

He drew her to him. His arm went about her shoulders. The final thrill of ecstasy bounded through his veins. The feel of her! The wonderful, subtle, feminine feel of her! His brain reeled in a new and vast whirl of intoxication.

She sat there very still and unresisting, her hand to her lips, uttering no word, scarcely breathing. He waited. He gave her time. After a little while her fingers strayed to the crown of her limp, rakish panama. They found the single hat-pin and drew it out. He smiled as he pushed the hat away and then pressed her dark little head against his breast. Her blue eyes were swimming.

"Just this once, just this once," she murmured with a sob in her voice. Her hand stole upward and caressed his brown cheek and throat. Tears of joy started in his eyes--tears of exquisite delight.

"Good God, Hetty, I--I can't do without you," he whispered, shaken by his passion. "Nothing can come between us. I must have you always like this."

"Che sara, sara," she sighed, like the breath of the summer wind as it sings in the trees.

The minutes passed and neither spoke. His rapt gaze hung upon the glossy crown that pressed against him so gently. He could not see her eyes, but somehow he felt they were tightly shut, as if in pain.

"I love you, Hetty. Nothing can matter," he whispered at last. "Tell me what it is."

She lifted her head and gently withdrew herself from his embrace. He did not oppose her, noting the serious, almost sombre look in her eyes as she turned to regard him steadfastly, an unwavering integrity of purpose in their depths.

She had made up her mind to tell him a part of the truth. "Brandon, I am Hetty Glynn."

He started, not so much in surprise as at the abruptness with which she made the announcement.

"I have been sure of it, dear, from the beginning," he said quietly.

Then her tongue was loosed. The words rushed to her lips. "I was Hawkright's model for six months. I posed for all those studies, and for the big canvas in the academy. It was either that or starvation. Oh, you will hate me--you must hate me."

He laid his hand on her hair, a calm smile on his lips. "I can't love and hate at the same time," he said. "There was nothing wrong in what you did for Hawkright. I am a painter, you know. I understand. Does--does Mrs. Wrandall know all this?"

"Yes--everything. She knows and understands. She is an angel, Brandon, an angel from heaven. But," she burst forth, "I am not altogether a sham. I AM the daughter of Colonel Castleton, and I AM the cousin of all the Murgatroyds,--the poor relation. It isn't as if I were the scum of the earth, is it? I AM a Castleton. My father comes of a noble family. And, Brandon, the only thing I've ever done in my life that I am really ashamed of is the deception I practised on you when you brought that magazine to me and faced me with it. I did not lie to you. I simply let you believe I was not the--the person you thought I was. But I deceived you--"

"No, you did not deceive me," he said gently. "I read the truth in your dear eyes."

"There are other things, too. I shall not speak of them, except to repeat that I have not done anything else in all my life that I should be ashamed of." Her eyes were burning with earnestness. He could not but understand what she meant.

Again he stroked her hair. "I am sure of that," he said.

"My mother was Kitty Glynn, the actress. My father, a younger son, fell in love with her. They were married against the wishes of his father, who cut him off. He was in the service, and he was brave enough to stick. They went to one of the South African garrisons, and I was born there. Then to India. Then back to London, where an aunt had died, leaving my father quite a comfortable fortune. But his old friends would have nothing to do with him. He had lived--well, he had made life a hell for my mother in those frontier posts. He deserted us in the end, after he had squandered the fortune. My mother made no effort to compel him to provide for her or for me. She was proud. She was hurt. To-day he is in India, still in the service, a martinet with a record for bravery on the field of battle that cannot be taken from him, no matter what else may befall. I hear from him once or twice a year. That is all I can tell you about him. My mother died three years ago, after two years of invalidism. During those years I tried to repay her for the sacrifice she had made in giving me the education, the--" She choked up for a second, and then went bravely on. "Her old manager made a place for me in one of his companies. I took my mother's name, Hetty Glynn, and--well, for a season and a half I was in the chorus. I could not stay there. I COULD not," she repeated with a shudder. "I gave it up after my mother's death. I was fairly well equipped for work as a children's governess, so I engaged myself to--"

She stopped in dismay for he was laughing.

"And now do you know what I think of you, Miss Hetty Glynn?" he cried, seizing her hands and regarding her with a serious, steadfast gleam in his eyes. "You are the pluckiest, sandiest girl I've ever known. You are the kind that heroines are made of. There is nothing in what you've told me that could in the least alter my regard for you, except to increase the love I thought could not be stronger. Will you marry me, Hetty?"

She jerked her hands away, and held them clenched against her breast.

"No! I cannot. It is impossible, Brandon. If I loved you less than I do, I might say yes, but--no, it is impossible."

His eyes narrowed. A grey shadow crept over his face.

"There can be only one obstacle so serious as all that," he said slowly. "You--you are already married."

"No!" she cried, lifting her pathetic eyes to his. "It isn't that. Oh, please be good to me! Don't ask me to say anything more. Don't make it hard for me, Brandon. I love you--I love you. To be your wife would be the most glorious--No, no! I must not even think of it. I must put it out of my mind. There IS a barrier, dearest. We cannot surmount it. Don't ask me to tell you, for I cannot. I--I am so happy in knowing that you love me, and that you still love me after I have told you how mean and shameless I was in deceiving--"

He drew her close and kissed her full on the trembling lips. She gasped and closed her eyes, lying like one in a swoon. Soft, moaning sounds came from her lips. He could not help feeling a vast pity for her, she was so gentle, so miserably hurt by something he could not understand, but knew to be monumental in its power to oppress.

"Listen, dearest," he said, after a long silence; "I understand this much, at least: you can't talk about it now. Whatever it is, it hurts, and God knows I don't want to make it worse for you in this hour when I am so selfishly happy. Time will show us the way. It can't be insurmountable. Love always triumphs. I only ask you to repeat those three little words, and I will be content. Say them."

"I love you," she murmured.

"There! You are mine! Three little words bind you to me for ever. I will wait until the barrier is down. Then I will take you."

"The barrier grows stronger every day," she said, staring out beyond the tree-tops at the scudding clouds. "It never can be removed."

"Some day you will tell me--everything?"

She hesitated long. "Yes, before God, Brandon, I will tell you. Not now, but--some day. Then you will see why--why I cannot--" She could not complete the sentence.

"I don't believe there is anything you can tell me that will alter my feelings toward you," he said firmly. "The barrier may be insurmountable, but my love is everlasting."

"I can only thank you, dear, and--love you with all my wretched heart."

"You are not pledged to some one else?"

"No."

"That's all I want to know," he said, with a deep breath. "I thought it might be--Leslie."

"No, no!" she cried out, and he caught a note of horror in her voice.

"Does--does he know this--this thing you can't tell me?" he demanded, a harsh note of jealousy in his voice.

She looked up at him, hurt by his tone. "Sara knows," she said. "There is no one else. But you are not to question her. I demand it of you."

"I will wait for you to tell me," he said gently.

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