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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 24. The Jury Of Four
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The Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 24. The Jury Of Four Post by :catalin Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :3102

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The Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 24. The Jury Of Four


The Wrandalls sat waiting and wondering. They had been sent for and they had deigned to respond, much to their own surprise. Redmond Wrandall occupied a place at the head of the library table. At his right sat his wife. Vivian and Leslie, by direction, took seats at the side of the long table, which had been cleared of its mass of books and magazines. Lawyer Carroll was at the other end of the table, perceptibly nervous and anxious. Hetty sat a little apart from the others, a rather forlorn, detached member of the conclave. Brandon Booth, pale-faced and alert, drew up a chair alongside Carroll, facing Sara who alone remained standing, directly opposite the four Wrandalls.

Not one of the Wrandalls knew why they, as a family, were there. They had not the slightest premonition of what was to come.

The strong glare of an electric chandelier, seldom used in this quiet, subdued little library, threw its light down upon the group, outlining every feature with a sharpness that almost created shadows. It was a trying light. No play of the emotions could be lost under its convicting glow. A clock struck nine. Outside the first savage storm of the winter was raging.

The Wrandalls had been routed from their comfortable fireside--for what? They were asking the question of themselves and they were waiting stonily for the answer.

"It is very stuffy in here," Vivian had said with a glance at the closed doors after Sara had successfully placed her jury in the box.

"Keep still, Viv," whispered Leslie, with a fine assumption of awe. "It's a spiritualistic meeting. You'll scare the spooks away."

It was at this juncture that Sara rose from her chair and faced them, as calmly, as complacently as if she were about to ask them to proceed to the dining-room instead of to throw a bomb into their midst that would shatter their smug serenity for all time to come. With a glance at Mr. Carroll she began, clearly, firmly and without a prefatory apology for what was to follow.

"I have asked you to come here to-night to be my judges. I am on trial. You are about to hear the story of my unspeakable perfidy. I only require of you that you hear me to the end before passing judgment."

At her words, Hetty and Booth started perceptibly; a quick glance passed between them, as if each was inquiring whether the other had caught the extraordinary words of self-indictment. A puzzled frown appeared on Hetty's brow.

"Perfidy?" interposed Mr. Wrandall. His wife's expression changed from one of bored indifference to sharp inquiry. Leslie paused in the act of lighting a cigarette.

"It is the mildest term I can command," said Sara. "I shall be as brief as possible in stating the case, Mr. Wrandall. You will be surprised to hear that I have taken it upon myself, as the wife of Challis Wrandall and, as I regard it, the one MOST vitally concerned if not interested in the discovery and punishment of the person who took his life,--I say I have taken it upon myself to shield, protect and defend the unhappy young woman who accompanied him to Burton's Inn on that night in March. She has had my constant, my personal protection for more than twenty months."

The Wrandalls leaned forward in their chairs. The match burned Leslie's fingers, and he dropped it without appearing to notice the pain.

"What is this you are saying?" demanded Redmond Wrandall.

"When I left the inn that night, after seeing my husband's body in the little upstairs room, I said to myself that the one who took his life had unwittingly done me a service. He was my husband; I loved him, I adored him. To the end of my days I could have gone on loving him in spite of the cruel return he gave for my love and loyalty. I shall not attempt to tell you of the countless lapses of fidelity on his part. You would not believe me. But he always came back to me with the pitiful love he had for me, and I forgave him his transgressions. These things you know. He confessed many things to you, Mr. Wrandall. He humbled himself to me. Perhaps you will recall that I never complained to you of him. What rancour I had was always directed toward you, his family, who would see no wrong in your king but looked upon me as dirt beneath his feet. There were moments when I could have slain him with my own hands, but my heart rebelled. There were times when he said to me that I ought to kill him for the things he had done. You may now understand what I mean when I say that the girl who went to Burton's Inn with him did me a service. I will not say that I considered her guiltless at the time. On the contrary, I looked upon her in quite a different way. I had no means of knowing then that she was as pure as snow and that he would have despoiled her of everything that was sweet and sacred to her. She took his life in order to save that which was dearer to her than her own life, and she was on her way to pay for her deed with her life if necessary when I came upon her and intervened."

"You--you know who she is?" said Mr. Wrandall, in a low, incredulous voice.

"I have known almost from the beginning. Presently you will hear her story, from her own lips."

Involuntarily four pairs of eyes shifted. They looked blankly at Hetty Castleton.

Speaking swiftly, Sara depicted the scenes and sensations experienced during that memorable motor journey to New York City.

"I could not believe that she was a vicious creature, even then. Something told me that she was a tender, gentle thing who had fallen into evil hands and had struck because she was unevil. I did not doubt that she had been my husband's mistress, but I could not destroy the conviction that somehow she had been justified in doing the thing she had done. My gravest mistake was in refusing to hear her story in all of its details. I only permitted her to acknowledge that she had killed him, no more. I did not want to hear the thing which I assumed to be true. Therein lies my deepest fault. For months and months I misjudged her in my heart, yet secretly loved her. Now I understand why I loved her. It was because she was innocent of the only crime I could lay at her feet. Now I come to the crime of which I stand self-accused. I must have been mad all these months. I have no other defence to offer. You may take it as you see it for yourselves. I do not ask for pardon. After I deliberately had set about to shield this unhappy girl,--to cheat the law, if you please,--to cheat you, perhaps,--I conceived the horrible thought to avenge myself for ALL the indignities I had sustained at the hands of you Wrandalls, and at the same time to even my account with the one woman whom I could put my finger upon as having robbed me of my husband's love. You see I put it mildly. I have hated all of you, Mrs. Wrandall, even as you have hated me. To-day,--now,--I do not feel as I did in other days toward you. I do not love you, still I do not hate you. I do not forgive you, and yet I think I have come to see things from your point of view. I can only repeat that I do not hate you as I once did."

She paused. The Wrandalls were too deeply submerged in horror to speak. They merely stared at her as if stupefied; as breathless, as motionless as stones.

"There came a day when I observed that Leslie was attracted by the guest in my house. On that day the plan took root in my brain. I--"

"Good God!" fell from Leslie's lips. "You--you had THAT in mind?"

"It became a fixed, inflexible purpose, Leslie. Not that I hated you as I hated the rest, for you tried to be considerate. The one grudge I held against you was that in seeking to sustain me you defamed your own brother. You came to me with stories of his misdeeds; you said that he was a scoundrel and that you would not blame me for 'showing him up.' Do you not remember? And so my plot involved you; you were the only one through whom I could strike. There were times when I faltered. I could not bear the thought of sacrificing Hetty Castleton, nor was it easy to thoroughly appease my conscience in respect to you. Still, if I could have had my way a few months ago, if coercion had been of any avail, you would now be the husband of your brother's slayer. Then I came to know that she was not what I had thought she was. She was honest. My bubble burst. I came out of the maze in which I had been living and saw clearly that what I had contemplated was the most atrocious--"

"Atrocious?" cried Mrs. Redmond Wrandall between her set teeth. "Diabolical! Diabolical! My God, Sara, what a devil you--" She did not complete the sentence, but sank back in her chair and stared with wide, horror-struck eyes at her rigid daughter-in-law.

Her husband, his hand shaking as if with palsy, pointed a finger at Hetty. "And so YOU are the one we have been hunting for all these months, Miss Castleton! You are the one we want! You who have sat at our table, you who have smiled in our faces--"

"Stop, Mr. Wrandall!" commanded Sara, noting the ashen face of the girl. "Don't let the fact escape you that I am the guilty person. Don't forget that she owed her freedom, if not her life to me. I alone kept her from giving herself up to the law. All that has transpired since that night in March must be placed to my account. Hetty Castleton has been my prisoner. She has rebelled a thousand times and I have conquered--not by threats but by LOVE! Do you understand? Because of her love for me, and because she believed that I loved her, she submitted. You are not to accuse her, Mr. Wrandall. Accuse me! I am on trial here. Hetty Castleton is a witness against me, if you choose to call upon her as such. If not, I shall ask her to speak in my defence, if she can do so."

"This is lunacy!" cried Mr. Wrandall, coming to his feet. "I don't care what your motives may have been. They do not make her any the less a murderess. She--"

"We must give her over to the police--" began his wife, struggling to her feet. She staggered. It was Booth who stepped quickly to her side to support her. Leslie was staring at Hetty.

Vivian touched her father's arm. She was very pale but vastly more composed than the others.

"Father, listen to me," she said. Her voice trembled in spite of her effort to control it. "We are condemning Miss Castleton unheard. Let us hear everything before we--"

"Good God, Vivian! Do you mean to--"

"How can we place any reliance on what she may say?" cried Mrs. Wrandall.

"Nevertheless," said Vivian firmly, "I for one shall not condemn her unheard. I mean to be as fair to her as Sara has been. It shall not be said that ALL the Wrandalls are smaller than Sara Gooch!"

"My child--" began her father incredulously. His jaw dropped suddenly. His daughter's shot had landed squarely in the heart of the Wrandall pride.

"If she has anything to say,"--said Mrs. Wrandall, waving Booth aside and sinking stiffly into her chair. Her husband sat down. Their jaws set hard.

"Thank you, Vivian," said Sara, surprised in spite of herself. "You are nobler than I--"

"Please don't thank me, Sara," said Vivian icily. "I was speaking for Miss Castleton."

Sara flushed. "I suppose it is useless to ask you to be fair to Sara Gooch, as you choose to call me."

"Do you feel in your heart that we still owe you anything?"

"Enough of this, Vivian," spoke up her father harshly. "If Miss Castleton desires to speak we will listen to her. I must advise you, Miss Castleton, that the extraordinary disclosures made by my daughter-in-law do not lessen your culpability. We do not insist on this confession from you. You deliver it at your own risk. I want to be fair with you. If Mr. Carroll is your counsel, he may advise you now to refuse to make a statement."

Mr. Carroll bowed slightly in the general direction of the Wrandalls. "I have already advised Miss Castleton to state the case fully and completely to you, Mr. Wrandall. It was I who originally suggested this--well, what you might call a private trial for her. I am firmly convinced that when you have heard her story, you, as her judges, will acquit her of the charge of murder. Moreover, you will be content to let your own verdict end the matter, sparing yourselves the shame and ignominy of having her story told in a criminal court for the delectation of an eager but somewhat implacable world."

"Your language is extremely unpleasant, Mr. Carroll," said Mr. Wrandall coldly.

"I meant to speak kindly, sir."

"Do you mean, sir, that we will let the matter rest after hearing the--"

"That is precisely what I mean, Mr. Wrandall. You will not consider her guilty of a crime. Please bear in mind this fact: but for Sara and Miss Castleton you would not have known the truth. Miss Castleton could not be convicted in a court of justice. Nor will she be convicted here this evening, in this little court of ours."

"Miss Castleton is not on trial," interposed Sara calmly. "I am the offender. She has already been tried and proved innocent."

Leslie, in his impatience, tapped sharply on the table with his seal ring.

"Please let her tell the story. Permit me to say, Miss Castleton, that you will not find the Wrandalls as harsh and vindictive as you may have been led to believe."

Mrs. Wrandall passed her hand over her eyes. "To think that we have been friendly to this girl all these--"

"Calm yourself, my dear," said her husband, after a glance at his son and daughter, a glance of unspeakable helplessness. He could not understand them.

As Hetty arose, Mrs. Wrandall senior lowered her eyes and not once did she look up during the recital that followed. Her hands were lying limply in her lap, and she breathed heavily, almost stertoriously. The younger Wrandalls leaned forward with their clear, unwavering gaze fixed on the earnest face of the young Englishwoman who had slain their brother.

"You have heard Sara accuse herself," said the girl slowly, dispassionately. "The shock was no greater to you than it was to me. All that she has said is true, and yet I--I would so much rather she had left herself unarraigned. We were agreed that I should throw myself on your mercy. Mr. Carroll said that you were fair and just people, that you would not condemn me under the circumstances. But that Sara should seek to take the blame is--"

"Alas, my dear, I AM to blame," said Sara, shaking her head. "But for me your story would have been told months ago, the courts would have cleared you, and all the world would have execrated my husband for the thing HE did--my husband and your son, Mrs. Wrandall,--whom we both loved. God believe me, I think I loved him more than all of you put together!"

She sat down abruptly and buried her face in her arms on the edge of the table.

"If I could only induce you to forgive her," began Hetty, throwing out her hands to the Wrandalls, only to be met by a gesture of repugnance from the grim old man.

"Your story, Miss Castleton," he said hoarsely.

"From the beginning, if you please," added the lawyer quietly. "Leave out nothing."

Clearly, steadily and with the utmost sincerity in her voice and manner, the girl began the story of her life. She passed hastily over the earlier periods, frankly exposing the unhappy conditions attending her home life, her subsequent activities as a performer on the London stage after Colonel Castleton's defection; the few months devoted to posing for Hawkright the painter, and later on her engagement as governess in the wealthy Budlong family. She devoted some time and definiteness to her first encounter with Challis Wrandall on board the westbound steamer, an incident that came to pass in a perfectly natural way. Her deck chair stood next to his, and he was not slow in making himself agreeable. It did not occur to her till long afterwards that he deliberately had traded positions with an elderly gentleman who occupied the chair on the first day out. Before the end of the voyage they were very good friends....

"When we landed in New York, he assisted me in many ways. Afterwards, on learning that I was not to go California, I called him up on the telephone to explain my predicament. He urged me to stay in New York; he guaranteed that there would be no difficulty in securing a splendid position in the East. I had no means of knowing that he was married. I accepted him for what I thought him to be: a genuine American gentleman. They are supposed to be particularly considerate with women. His conduct toward me was beyond reproach, I have never known a man who was so courteous, so gentle. To me, he was the most fascinating man in the world. No woman could have resisted him, I am sure of that."

She shot a quick, appealing glance at Booth's hard-set face. Her lip trembled for a second.

"I fell madly in love with him," she went on resolutely. "I dreamed of him, I could hardly wait for the time to come when I was to see him. He never came to the wretched little lodging house I have told you about. I--I met him outside. One night he told me that he loved me, loved me passionately. I--I said that I would be his wife. Somehow it seemed to me that he regarded me very curiously for a moment or two. He seemed to be surprised, uncertain. I remember that he laughed rather queerly. It did not occur to me to doubt him. One day he came for me, saying that he wanted me to see the little apartment he had taken, where we were to live after we were married. I went with him. He said that if I liked it, I could move in at once, but I would not consent to such an arrangement. For the first time I began to feel that everything was not as it should be. I--I remained in the apartment but a few minutes. The next day he came to me, greatly excited and more demonstrative than ever before, to say that he had arranged for a quiet, jolly little wedding up in the country. Strangely enough I experienced a queer feeling that all was not as it should be, but his eagerness his persistence dispelled the small doubt that had begun even then to shape itself. I consented to go with him on the next night to an inn out in the country, where a college friend who was a minister of the gospel would meet us, driving over from his parish a few miles away. I said that I preferred to be married in a church. He laughed and said it could be arranged when we got to the inn and had talked it over with the minister. Still uneasy, I asked why it was necessary to employ secrecy. He told me that his family were in Europe and that he wanted to surprise them by giving them a daughter who was actually related to an English nobleman. The family had been urging him to marry a stupid but rich New York girl and he--oh, well, he uttered a great deal of nonsense about my beauty, my charm, and all that sort of thing--"

She paused for a moment. No one spoke. Her audience of judges, with the exception of the elder Mrs. Wrandall, watched her as if fascinated. Their faces were almost expressionless. With a perceptible effort, she resumed her story, narrating events that carried it up to the hour when she walked into the little upstairs room at Burton's Inn with the man who was to be her husband.

"I did not see the register at the inn. I did not know till afterwards that we were not booked. Once upstairs, I refused to remove my hat or my veil or my coat until he brought his friend to me. He pretended to be very angry over his friend's failure to be there beforehand, as he had promised. He ordered a supper served in the room. I did not eat anything. Somehow I was beginning to understand, vaguely of course, but surely--and bitterly, Mr. Wrandall. Suddenly he threw off the mask.

"He coolly informed me that he knew the kind of girl I was. I had been on the stage. He said it was no use trying to work the marriage game on him. He was too old a bird and too wise to fall for that. Those were his words. I was horrified, stunned. When I began to cry out in my fury, he laughed at me but swore he would marry me even at that if it were not for the fact that he already was married....I tried to leave the room. He held me. He kissed me a hundred times before I could break away. I--I tried to scream....A little later on, when I was absolutely desperate, I--I snatched up the knife. There was nothing else left for me to do. I struck at him. He fell back on the bed....I stole out of the house--oh, hours and hours afterward it seemed to me. I cannot tell you how long I stood there watching him....I was crazed by fear. I--I--"

Redmond Wrandall held up his hand.

"We will spare you the rest, Miss Castleton," he said, his voice hoarse and unnatural. "There is no need to say more."

"You--you understand? You DO believe me?" she cried.

He looked down at his wife's bowed head, and received no sign from her; then at the white, drawn faces of his children. They met his gaze and he read something in their eyes.

"I--I think your story is so convincing that we--we could not endure the shame of having it repeated to the world."

"I--I cannot ask you to forgive me, sir. I only ask you to believe me," she murmured brokenly. "I--I am sorry it had to be. God is my witness that there was no other way."

Mr. Carroll came to his feet. There were tears in his eyes.

"I think, Mr. Wrandall, you will now appreciate my motives in--"

"Pardon me, Mr. Carroll, if I suggest that Miss Castleton does not require any defence at present," said Mr. Wrandall stiffly. "Your motives were doubtless good. Will you be so good as to conduct us to a room where we may--may be alone for a short while?"

There was something tragic in the man's face. His son and daughter arose as if moved by an instinctive realisation of a duty, and perhaps for the first time in their lives were submissive to an influence they had never quite recognised before: a father's unalterable right to command. For once in their lives they were meek in his presence. They stepped to his side and stood waiting, and neither of them spoke.

Mr. Wrandall laid his hand heavily on his wife's shoulder. She started, looked up rather vacantly, and then arose without assistance. He did not make the mistake of offering to assist her. He knew too well that to question her strength now would be but to invite weakness. She was strong. He knew her well.

She stood straight and firm for a few seconds, transfixing Hetty with a look that seemed to bore into the very soul of her, and then spoke.

"You ask us to be your judges?"

(Illustration: Her audience of judges, with the exception of the elder Mrs. Wrandall, watched her as if fascinated)

"I ask you to judge not me alone but--your son as well," said Hetty, meeting her look steadily. "You cannot pronounce me innocent without pronouncing him guilty. It will be hard."

Sara raised her head from her arms.

"You know the way into my sitting-room, Leslie," she said, with singular directness. Then she arose and drew her figure to its full height. "Please remember that it is I who am to be judged. Judge me as I have judged you. I am not asking for mercy."

Hetty impulsively threw her arms about the rigid figure, and swept a pleading look from one to the other of the four stony-faced Wrandalls.

They turned away without a word or a revealing look, and slowly moved off in the direction of the boudoir. They who remained behind stood still, motionless as statues. It was Vivian who opened the library door. She closed it after the others had passed through, and did not look behind.

Half an hour passed. Then the door was opened and the tall old man advanced into the room.

"We have found against my son, Miss Castleton," he said, his lips twitching. "He is not here to speak for himself, but he has already been judged. We, his family, apologise to you for what you have suffered from the conduct of one of us. Not one but all of us believe the story you have told. It must never be re-told. We ask this of all of you. It is not in our hearts to thank Sara for shielding you, for her hand is still raised against us. We are fair and just. If you had come to US on that wretched night and told the story of my son's infamy, WE, the Wrandalls, would have stood between you and the law. The law could not have touched you then; it shall not touch you now. Our verdict, if you choose to call it that, is sealed. No man shall ever hear from the lips of a Wrandall the smallest part of what has transpired here to-night. Mr. Carroll, you were right. We thank you for the counsel that led this unhappy girl to place herself in our hands,"

"Oh, God, I thank thee--I thank thee!" burst from the lips of Sara Wrandall. She strained Hetty to her breast.

"It is not for us to judge you, Sara," said Redmond Wrandall, speaking with difficulty. "You are your own judge, and a harsh one you will find yourself. As for ourselves, we can only look upon your unspeakable design as the working of a temporarily deranged mind. You could never have carried it out. You are an honest woman. At the last you would have revolted, even with victory assured. Perhaps Leslie is the only one who has a real grievance against you in this matter. I am convinced that he loved Miss Castleton deeply. The worst hurt is his, and he has been your most devoted advocate during all the years of bitterness that has existed between you and us. You thought to play him a foul trick. You could not have carried it to the end. We leave you to pass judgment on yourself."

"I have already done so, Mr. Wrandall," said Sara. "Have I not accused myself before you? Have I not confessed to the only crime that has been committed? I am not proud of myself, sir."

"You have hated us well."

"And you have hated me. The crime you hold me guilty of was committed years ago. It was when I robbed you of your son. To this day I am the leper in your path. I may be forgiven for all else, but not for allowing Challis Wrandall to become the husband of Sebastian Gooch's daughter. That is the unpardonable sin."

Mr. Wrandall was silent for a moment.

"You still are Sebastian Gooch's daughter," he said distinctly. "You can never be anything else."

She paled. "This last transaction proves it, you would say?"

"This last transaction, yes."

She looked about her with troubled, questioning eyes.

"I--I wonder if THAT can be true," she murmured, rather piteously. "Am I so different from the rest of you? Is the blood to blame?"

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Mr. Carroll nervously. "Don't be silly, Sara, my child. That is not what Mr. Wrandall means."

Wrandall turned his face away.

"You loved as deeply as you hate, Sara," he said, with a curious twitching of his chin. "My son was your god. We are not insensible to that. Perhaps we have never realised until now the depth and breadth of your love for him. Love is a bitter judge of its enemies. It knows no mercy, it knows no reason. Hate may be conquered by love, but love cannot be conquered by hate. You had reason to hate my son; Instead you persisted in your love for him. We--we owe you something for that, Sara. We owe you a great deal more than I find myself able to express in words."

Leslie entered the room at this instant. He had his overcoat on and carried his gloves and hat in his hand.

"We are ready, father," he said thickly.

After a moment's hesitation, he crossed over to Hetty, who stood beside Sara.

"I--I can now understand why you refused to marry me, Miss Castleton," he said, in a queer, jerky manner. "Won't you let me say that I wish you all the happiness still to be found in this rather uneven world of ours?"

The crowning testimonial to an absolutely sincere ego!

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