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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 23. Sara Wrandall's Decision
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The Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 23. Sara Wrandall's Decision Post by :catalin Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :628

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The Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 23. Sara Wrandall's Decision

CHAPTER XXIII. SARA WRANDALL'S DECISION

When Smith returned from the Far West, a few days after the events narrated in the foregoing chapter, he repaired at once to Sara's apartment, bringing with him not only the signed statement of the Ashtley girl, but the well-worn and apparently cherished prayer-book that had been her solace during the last few months of her life. On the fly-leaf she had written: "I have nothing of God's earthly gifts to leave behind but this. It has brought me riches, but it is a poor thing in itself. I bequeath it, my only earthly possession, to the kind and merciful one who taught me that there is good in this bad world of ours." It was inscribed to "Mrs. Challis Wrandall."

"She made me promise to give it to you with my own hands, Mrs. Wrandall," said Smith, in the library, putting as much emotion into his voice and manner as he thought the occasion and the audience demanded. Miss Castleton and Mr. Booth were also present. "She was a queer girl. I never saw one just like her, believe me. Just after she signed that paper, I had a chance to be alone with her for a minute or two. She asked me to stoop over so's I could hear what she had to say, and she made me promise not to say a word about it until after she was gone. Well, it will surprise you just as much as it did me, what she had to say with her dying breath, so to speak." He paused for the effect.

"What did she say to you?" demanded Sara.

"Well, sir, do you know that that girl knew all along who it was that went up to Burton's Inn that evening with your husband? What do you think of that?"

There was not a sound in the room. Even the coals in the fireplace seemed to take that instant to hush their blithe crackling. Smith's listeners might have been absolutely breathless, they were so rigid. Each had the grotesque fear that he was about to point his finger at Hetty Glynn and call upon her to aaswer to an accusation from the grave.

The next moment they drew a deep, quivering breath of relief. The detective went on, almost apologetically. "I tried to bluff her into telling me who she was, Mrs. Wrandall, but she wouldn't fall for it. After a little while, I saw it was no use questioning her. She was as firm as a rock about it. And she was pretty near gone, I can tell you. As a matter of fact, her heart went back on her suddenly not ten minutes later, sort of surprising all of us. But she did manage to whisper a few things to me while the others were conversing in the hall. She said that she saw another girl with Mr. Wrandall about a week before the murder, a stranger and a very pretty one. He knew how to pick out the pretty--I--I beg your pardon, ma'am. That sort of slipped out. You see--"

"Never mind. I understand. Go on."

"Right after that he told her he was through with her. Chucked her, that's the sum and substance of it, for the new one, whoever she was. She raised a row with him about it, and he laughed at her. For nearly a week she spied on him, and she saw him out in the car with the stranger at least half a dozen times. Now comes the queer part of it, and the thing that made her keep her lips closed at first, right after the killing--the murder, I mean. She laid for him in front of his home on the very day of the murder and swore she'd do something desperate if he didn't give the other one up. He took her to a cheap restaurant on the West Side, and she was sure that several waiters saw that they were quarrelling. To get her out of the place, he induced her to get in his car and they went for a ride out as far as Van Courtlandt Park. The police never got onto all this. But she lived in terror for a few days, believing that the waiters might remember them, although neither of them had ever been in the place before. When she was taken up for examination, she still wondered if they would be called on to identify her. Nothing doing. It was right then, Mrs. Wrandall, that you stepped in and said that her alibi was sufficient, and staked her for life out there in the West. She says she saw the other girl after the murder, but she wouldn't say where it was or when. Of course, she couldn't swear that this girl did the job up there at Burton's, but she was pretty nearly dead certain she was the one who went up there with him. She was just on the point of telling the police about this girl, to save herself, when you helped her out of the fix, and then she got to thinking strange things, she said. This is what she said to me, there on her death-bed, and I want to tell you it gave me an idea of character that I had never come across before in all my experience. She said that if Mrs. Wrandall here could be fine enough to befriend her, knowing all you did, ma'am, about her and your husband, it oughtn't to be hard for her to help another erring girl by keeping her mouth shut. And that's just what she did. She kept still. That sort of reasoning was new to me. But, when you stop to think it over, maybe she was right. A word from her might have sent a fellow creature to the chair. She had had her lesson in charity from you, Mrs. Wrandall, and, while you didn't mean it to have that effect, you undoubtedly spoiled the best chance we'll ever have to get the real woman in the case."

There was a moment of tense silence. Booth was the first to risk the effort at speech.

"And she wouldn't say a word more? She gave you no--no clue?"

"Not the faintest idea, sir. She took that girl's name to the grave with her."

"Her name! She knew her name?" cried Sara, leaning forward.

"She heard it a day or two after you had her set free, Mrs. Wrandall. Don't it beat all? Now, don't you see what might have happened if we'd let the police put the screws on her out there? Why, the chances are, a hundred to one, she would have broken down in the end, and told who this other woman is. There is where we made a fatal mistake. But it's too late now, confound it."

"Yes, it's too late now," said Sara, relaxing in her chair.

"I'm telling you this, although maybe I wasn't expected to. She made me promise not to tell the police. Well, I guess I can keep that promise. You ain't the police."

"It is a most remarkable story, Mr. Smith," said Sara, "but I do not see that it leads us anywhere. We are quite as much in the dark as before."

The detective studied the pattern in the rug at his feet, a defeated look in his eyes.

"I suppose I MIGHT have forced her to tell me, Mrs. Wrandall, but I--I didn't have the heart to bully her. I suppose you'll always have it in for me for letting the chance slip?"

"I think I have already told you, Mr. Smith, that I am not at all curious."

With the departure of the detective, the three conspirators fell into an agitated discussion of the revelations he had made; so grave had their peril appeared to be at the opening of his narrative that they were still in a state of perturbation from which they were not to recover for a long time. Their cheeks were white and their eyes were dark with the dread that remained even after the danger was past. Hetty's arms hung limp and nerveless at her sides as she lay back in the chair and stared numbly at her friends.

"Do you really believe she knew that I was the one?" she asked miserably. "Do you think she knew my name?" she shuddered.

"What if she did?" demanded Booth with an assumption of indifference he was not yet able to feel. "She was a brick to keep it to herself. The danger's past, dearest. Don't let it worry you now."

"But just think of it! At any time she could have told this story to the police and--Oh, wasn't it appalling? I thought my heart would never beat again!"

"We never knew till now how close we were to the abyss," said Sara, drawing the thin wrap closer about her shoulders. Suddenly she laughed. "But why contemplate the disaster that didn't occur? We are more secure than ever. This girl was the only one who knew, because no one else could have had the same incentive to spy upon him, Hetty. She is dead. Your name isn't likely to be shouted from the housetops, for the simple reason that it is safely locked up in a grave." She hesitated for a moment and then added: "In two graves, if it makes you feel more secure."

The others looked at her in open astonishment.

Booth was frowning. Sara glanced at his stern face and her eyes fell. "If that sounded cold and unfeeling, I am sorry, Hetty. It was my unfortunate way of trying to convince you that there is nothing left for you to fear."

She left them a moment later, bending over to kiss Hetty's cheek as she passed by her chair.

"Now, you see what I mean, Brandon, when I insist that it would be a mistake for you to marry me," said Hetty in a troubled voice. "We could never be sure of immunity."

"You refer to that remark of hers?"

"She is a strange woman. I sometimes have the feeling that she wants to keep me with her for ever. I feel that she will not let me go."

"That's pure nonsense, Hetty," he said. "She wants you to marry me, I am positive." He may have thought his tone convincing, but something caused her to regard him rather fixedly, as if she were trying to solve an elusive puzzle.

He took her by the arms and raised her to her feet. Holding her quite close, he looked down into her questioning eyes and said very seriously:

"You are suspicious, even of me, dearest. I want you. There is but one way for you to be at peace with yourself: shift your cares over to my shoulders. I will stand between you and everything that may come up to trouble you. We love one another. Why should we sacrifice our love for the sake of a shadow? For a week, dearest, I've been pleading with you; won't you end the suspense to-day--end it now--and say you will be my wife?"

The appeal was so gentle, so sincere, so full of longing that she wavered. Her tender blue eyes, lately so full of dread, grew moist with the ineffable sweetness of love, and capitulation was in them. Her warm, red lips parted in a dear little smile of surrender.

"You know I love you," she said tremulously.

He kissed the lovely, appealing lips, not once but many times.

"God, how I worship you," he whispered passionately. "I can't go on without you, darling. You are life to me. I love you! I love you!"

She drew back in his arms, the shadow chasing the light out of her eyes.

"We are both living in the present, we are both thinking only of it, Brandon. What of the future? Can we foresee the future? Dear heart, I am always thinking of your future, not my own. Is it right for me to bring you--"

"And I am thinking only of your future," he said gravely. "The future that shall be mine to shape and to make glad with the fulfilment of every promise that love has in store for both of us. Put away the doubts, drive out the shadows, dearest. Live in the light for ever. Love is light."

"If I were only sure that my shadows would not descend upon you, I--"

He drew her close and kissed her again.

"I am not afraid of your shadows. God be my witness, Hetty, I glory in them. They do not reflect weakness, but strength and nobility. They make you all the more worth having. I thank God that you are what you are, dear heart."

"Give me a few days longer, Brandon," she pleaded. "Let me conquer this strange thing that lies here in my brain. My heart is yours, my soul is yours. But the brain is a rebel. I must triumph over it, or it will always lie in wait for a chance to overthrow this little kingdom of ours. To-day I have been terrified. I am disturbed. Give me a few days longer."

"I would not grant you the respite, were I not so sure of the outcome," he said gently, but there was a thrill of triumph in the tones. Her eyes grew very dark and soft and her lips trembled with the tide of love that surged through her body. "Oh, how adorable you are!" he cried, straining her close in a sudden ecstasy of passion.

The door-bell rang. They drew apart, breathing rapidly, their blood leaping with the contact of opposing passions, their flesh quivering. With a shy, sweet glance at him, she turned toward the door to await the appearance of Watson. He could still feel her in his arms.

A drawling voice came to them from the vestibule, and a moment later Leslie Wrandall entered the library, pulling off his gloves as he came.

"Hello," he said glibly. "I told that fellow downstairs it wasn't necessary to announce me by telephone. Silly arrangement, I say. Why the devil should they think everybody's a thief or a book agent or a constable with a subpoena? He knows I'm one of the family. I'm likely to run in any time, I told him, and--Oh, I say, I'm not butting in, am I, Miss Castleton?"

He shook hands with both of them, and then offered his cigarette case to Booth, first selecting one for himself. Hetty assured him that he was not de trop, sheer profligacy on her part in view of his readiness to concede the point without a word from her.

"Nipping wind," he said, taking his stand before the fireplace. "Where is Sara? Never mind, don't bother her. I've got all the time in the world. By the way, Miss Castleton, what is the latest news from your father?"

"I dare say you have later news than I," she said, a trace of annoyance in her manner.

"I thought perhaps he had written you about his plans."

"My father does not know that I have returned to New York."

"Oh, I see. Of course. Um--um! By the way, I think the Colonel is a corker. One of the most amiable thoroughbreds I've ever come across. Ripping. He's never said anything to me about your antipathy toward him, but I can see with half an eye that he is terribly depressed about it. Can't you get together some way on--"

"Really, Mr. Wrandall, you are encouraging your imagination to a point where words ultimately must fail you," she said very positively. Booth could hardly repress a chuckle.

"It's not imagination on my part," said Leslie with conviction, failing utterly to recognise the obvious. "I suppose you know that he is coming over to visit me for six weeks or so. We became rattling good friends before we parted. By Jove, you should hear him on old Lord Murgatroyd's will! The quintessence of wit! I couldn't take it as he does. Expectations and all that sort of thing, you know, going up like a hot air balloon and bursting in plain view. But he never squeaked. Laughed it off. A British attribute, I dare say. I suppose you know that he is obliged to sell his estate in Ireland."

Hetty started. She could not conceal the look of shame that leaped into her eyes.

"I--I did not know," she murmured.

"Must be quite a shock to you. Sit down, Brandy. You look very picturesque standing, but chairs were made to sit upon--or in, whichever is proper."

Booth shrugged his shoulders.

"I think I'll stand, if you don't mind, Les."

"I merely suggested it, old chap, fearing you might have overlooked the possibilities. Yes, Miss Castleton, he left us in London to go up to Belfast on this dismal business." There was something in the back of his mind that he was trying to get at in a tactful manner. "By the way, is this property entailed?"

"I know nothing at all about it, Mr. Wrandall," said she, with a pleading glance at her lover, as if to inquire what stand she should take in this distressing situation.

"If it is entailed he can't sell it," said Booth quietly.

"That's true," said Leslie, somewhat dubiously. Then, with a magnanimity that covered a multitude of doubts he added: "Of course, I am only interested in seeing that you are properly protected, Miss Castleton. I've no doubt you hold an interest in the estates."

"I can't very well discuss a thing I know absolutely nothing about," she said succinctly.

"Most of it is in building lots and factories in Belfast, of course." It was more in the nature of a question than a declaration. "The old family castle isn't very much of an asset, I take it."

"I fancy you can trust Colonel Castleton to make the best possible deal in the premises," said Booth drily.

"I suppose so," said the other resignedly. "He is a shrewd beggar, I'm convinced of that. Strange, however, that I haven't heard a word from him since he left us in London, I've been expecting a cablegram from him every day for nearly a fortnight, letting me know when to expect him."

Hetty had gone over to the window and was looking out over the darkening park.

"Perhaps he means to surprise you, old man," said Booth, with a smile that Leslie did not in the least interpret.

With a furtive glance at the girl, whose back was toward them, he got up from his chair and came quite close to Booth, frowning slightly as he plucked at his moustache with nervous fingers. Lowering his voice to a cautious half-whisper, he inquired:

"I say, Brandy, what do you know about him? Is he on the level, or is he a damned old rascal?"

"Did you lend him any money?" asked Booth, with a malicious grin.

Leslie gulped. A fine perspiration broke out on his forehead. "Yes, I did," he replied, and, on reflection, slyly kicked himself on the ankle, making sure however that Hetty was still looking the other way. "Go on! Break it rudely. He's no good, eh? A shark, eh?"

"Believe me, I don't know anything about him, Les," said Booth, with a sudden feeling of loyalty to the Colonel's daughter. "He may pay up."

Leslie snapped his fingers while they were on the way to his upper lip, and almost missed his moustache by the digression. At any rate, he seemed to be fumbling for it.

"I did it on her account," he explained, nodding his head in Hetty's direction. He thought hard for a moment. "Of course, he won't be such a blithering fool as to come over here, will he?"

"I shouldn't, if I had been able to get what I wanted at home, as he very obviously did," said Booth pitilessly. "How much was it?"

Leslie waved his hand disdainfully. "Oh, a few hundred pounds, that's all. No harm done."

"Are you going to California this winter for the flying?" asked Hetty, coming toward them.

Sara entered at that juncture, and they all sat down to listen for half an hour to Leslie's harangue on the way the California meet was being mismanaged, at the end of which he departed.

He took Booth away with him, much to that young man's disgust.

"Do you know, Brandy, old fellow," said he as they walked down Fifth Avenue in the gathering dusk of the early winter evening, "ever since I've begun to suspect that damned old humbug of a father of hers, I've been congratulating myself that there isn't the remotest chance of his ever becoming my father-in-law. And, by George, you'll never know how near I was to leaping blindly into the brambles. What a close call I had!"

Booth's sarcastic smile was hidden by the dusk. He made no pretence of openly resenting the meanness of spirit that moved Leslie to these caddish remarks. He merely announced in a dry, cutting voice:

"I think Miss Castleton is to be congratulated that her injury is no greater than Nature made it in the beginning."

"What do you mean by 'nature'?"

"Nature gave her a father, didn't it?"

"Obviously."

"Well, why add insult to injury?"

"By Jove! Oh, I SAY, old man!"

They parted at the next corner. As Booth started to cross over to the Plaza, Leslie called out after him:

"I say, Brandy, just a second, please. Are you going to marry Miss Castleton?"

"I am."

"Then, I retract the scurvy things I said back there. I asked her to marry me three times and she refused me three times. What I said about the brambles was rotten. I'd ask her again if I thought she'd have me. There you are, old fellow. I'm a rotten cad, but I apologise to you just the same."

"You're learning, Leslie," said Booth, taking the hand the other held out to him.

While the painter was dining at his club later on in the evening, he was called to the telephone. Watson was on the wire. He said that Mrs. Wrandall would like to know if Mr. Booth could drop in on her for a few minutes after dinner, "to discuss a very important matter, if you please, sir." At nine o'clock, Booth was in Sara's library, trying to grasp a new and remarkable phase in the character of that amazing woman.

He found Hetty waiting for him when he arrived.

"I don't know what it all means, Brandon," she said hurriedly, looking over her shoulder as she spoke. "Sara says that she has come to a decision of some sort. She wants us to hear her plan before making it final. I--I don't understand her at all to-night."

"It can't be anything serious, dearest," he said, but something cold and nameless oppressed him just the same.

"She asked me if I had finally decided to--to be your wife, Brandon. I said I had asked you for two or three days more in which to decide. It seemed to depress her. She said she didn't see how she could give me up, even to you. She wants to be near me always. It is--it is really tragic, Brandon."

He took he hands in his.

"We can fix that," said he confidently. "Sara can live with us if she feels that way about it. Our home shall be hers when she likes, and as long as she chooses. It will be open to her all the time, to come and go or to stay, just as she elects. Isn't that the way to put it?"

"I suggested something of the sort, but she wasn't very much impressed. Indeed, she appeared to be somewhat--yes, I could not have been mistaken,--somewhat harsh and terrified when I spoke of it. Afterwards she was more reasonable. She thanked me and--there were tears in her eyes at the time--and said she would think it over. All she asks is that I may be happy and free and untroubled all the rest of my life. This was before dinner. At dinner she appeared to be brooding over something. When we left the table she took me to her room and said that she had come to an important decision. Then she instructed Watson to find you if possible."

"'Gad, it's all very upsetting," he said, shaking his head.

"I think her conscience is troubling her. She hates the Wrandalls, but I--I don't know why I should feel as I do about it,--but I believe she wants them to know!"

He stared for a moment, and then his face brightened. "And so do I, Hetty, so do I! They ought to know!"

"I should feel so much easier if the whole world knew," said she earnestly.

Sara heard the girl's words as she stood in the door. She came forward with a strange,--even abashed,--smile, after closing the door behind her.

"I don't agree with you, dearest, when you say that the world should know, but I have come to the conclusion that you should be tried and acquitted by a jury made up of Challis Wrandall's own flesh and blood. The Wrandalls must know the truth."

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