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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 6. Southlook
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The Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 6. Southlook Post by :catalin Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :3279

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The Hollow Of Her Hand - Chapter 6. Southlook

CHAPTER VI. SOUTHLOOK

Sara Wrandall's house in the country stood on a wooded knoll overlooking the Sound. It was rather remotely located, so far as neighbours were concerned. Her father, Sebastian Gooch, shrewdly foresaw the day when land in this particular section of the suburban world would return dollars for the pennies, and wisely bought thousands of acres: woodland, meadowland, beachland and hills, inserted between the environs of New York City and the rich towns up the coast. Years afterward he built a commodious summer home on the choicest point that his property afforded, named it Southlook, and transformed that particular part of his wilderness into a millionaire's paradise, where he could dawdle and putter to his heart's content, where he could spend his time and his money with a prodigality that came so late in life to him that he made waste of both in his haste to live down a rather parsimonious past.

Two miles and a half away, in the heart of a scattered colony of purse-proud New Yorkers, was the country home of the Wrandalls, an imposing place and older by far than Southlook. It had descended from well-worn and time-stained ancestors to Redmond Wrandall, and, with others of its kind, looked with no little scorn upon the modern, mushroom structures that sprouted from the seeds of trade. There was no friendship between the old and the new. Each had recourse to a bitter contempt for the other, though consolation was small in comparison.

It was in the wooded by-ways of this despised domain that Challis Wrandall and Sara, the earthly daughter of Midas, met and loved and defied all things supernal, for matches are made in heaven. Their marriage did not open the gates of Nineveh. Sebastian Gooch's paradise was more completely ostracised than it was before the disaster. The Wrandalls spoke of it as a disaster.

Clearly the old merchant was not over-pleased with his daughter's choice, a conclusion permanently established by the alteration he made in his will a year or two after the marriage. True, he left the vast estate to his beloved daughter Sara, but he fastened a stout string to it, and with this string her hands were tied. It must have occurred to him that Challis was a profligate in more ways than one, for he deliberately stipulated in his will that Sara was not to sell a foot of the ground until a period of twenty years had elapsed. A very polite way, it would seem, of making his investment safe in the face of considerable odds.

He lived long enough after the making of his will, I am happy to relate, to find that he had made no mistake. As he preceded his son-in-law into the Great Beyond by a scant three years, it readily may be seen that he wrought too well by far. Seventeen unnecessary years of proscription remained, and he had not intended them for Sara ALONE. He was not afraid of Sara, but for her.

When the will was read and the condition revealed, Challis Wrandall took it in perfect good humour. He had the grace to proclaim in the bosom of his father's family that the old gentleman was a father-in-law to be proud of. "A canny old boy," he had announced with his most engaging smile, quite free from rancour or resentment. Challis was well acquainted with himself.

And so the acres were strapped together snugly and firmly, without so much as a town-lot protruding.

So impressed was Challis by the farsightedness of his father-in-law that he forthwith sat him down and made a will of his own. He would not have it said that Sara's father did a whit better by her than he would do. He left everything he possessed to his wife, but put no string to it, blandly implying that all danger would be past when she came into possession. There was a sort of grim humour in the way he managed to present himself to view as the real and ready source of peril.

Among certain of the Wrandall clan there was serious talk of contesting the will. It was a distinct shock to all of them. Some one made bold to assert that Challis was not in his right mind at the time it was executed. For that matter, a couple of uncles on his mother's side were of the broad opinion that he never had been mentally adequate.

During a family conference four days after the funeral, Leslie launched forth at some length and with considerable heat, expressing an opinion that met with small favour at the outset but which had its results later on.

"Why," he declaimed, standing before the fireplace with his hands in his pockets, "if Sara dreamed that we even so much as contemplate making a fuss about Chal's will, she'd up and chuck the whole blooming legacy in our faces, and be glad to do it. She's got plenty of her own. She doesn't need the little that Challis left her. Then, what would we look like, tell me that? What would the world say? Why, it would say that she didn't think our money was clean enough to mix with old man Gooch's. She'd throw it in our faces and the whole town would snicker."

"Figuratively speaking, young man, figuratively speaking," said one of the uncles, a stockholder and director.

"What do you mean by that?"

"That she--ahem! That she couldn't actually THROW it."

"I'm not so literal as you, Uncle George."

"Then why use the word THROW?"

"Of course, Uncle George, I don't mean to say she'd have it reduced to gold coin and stand off and take shots at us. You understand that, don't you?"

"Leslie," put in his father, "you have a most distressing way of--er--putting it. Your Uncle George is not so dense as all that."

"I didn't use the word 'throw' in the first place," said Leslie, with a shrug. "I said 'chuck.'"

"I distinctly heard you use the word 'throw,'" said Uncle George, very red in the face.

"It was on the second occasion, George," said Mrs. Wrandall, loyal to Leslie.

"In either case," said her son, "we'd be made ridiculous. That's the long and short of it. Even if she HANDED it to us on a silver plate,--figuratively speaking, Uncle George,--we'd be made to look like thirty cents."

"Well, I'm damn--" began Uncle George, almost forgetting where he was, but remembering in time. He was afraid to utter a word for the next ten minutes, and Leslie was spared the interruptions.

It was decided that the will should stand. Later on, the alarming prospect of Sara's perfect right to marry again came up to mar the peace of mind of all the Wrandalls, and it grew to be horribly real without a single move on her part to warrant the fears they were encouraging.

Sara and Hetty did not stay long in town. The newspapers announced the return of Challis Wrandall's widow and reporters sought her out for interviews. The old interest was revived and columns were printed about the murder at Burton's Inn, with sharp editorial comments on the failure of the police to clear up the mystery.

The woods were green and the earth was redolent of rich spring odours; wild flowers peeped shyly from the leaf-strewn soil in the shadow of the trees; some, more bold than others, came down to the roadway, and from the banks and hedges smiled saucily upon all who passed; the hillsides were like spotless carpets, the meadows a riot of clover hues. The world was light with the life of the new-born year, for who shall say that the year does not begin with the birth of spring? May! May, when the earth begins to bear, not January when it sets out in sorrow to bury its dead. New Year's day it is, when the first tiny flower of spring comes to life and smiles oh the face of Mother Earth, and the sun is warm with the love of a gentle father.

"I shall ask Leslie down for the week-end," said Sara, the third day after their arrival in the country. The house was huge and lonely, and time hung rather heavily despite the glorious uplift of spring.

Hetty looked up quickly from her book. A look of dismay flickered in her eyes for an instant and then gave way to the calmness that had come to dwell in their depths of late. Her lips parted in the sudden impulse to cry out against the plan, but she checked the words. For a moment, her dark, questioning eyes studied the face of her benefactress; then, as if nothing had been revealed to her, she allowed her gaze to drift pensively out toward the sunset sea.

They were sitting on the broad verandah overlooking the Sound. The dusk of evening was beginning to steal over the earth. She laid her book aside.

"Will you telephone in to him after dinner, Hetty?" went on Sara, after a long period of silence.

Again Hetty started. This time a look of actual pain flashed in her eyes.

"Would not a note by post be more certain to find him in the--" she began hurriedly.

"I dislike writing notes," said Sara calmly. "Of course, dear, if you feel that you'd rather not telephone to him, I can--"

"I dare say I am finicky, Sara," apologised Hetty in quick contrition. "Of course, he is your brother. I should remem--"

"My brother-in-law, dear," said Sara, a trifle too literally.

"He will come often to your house," went on Hetty rapidly. "I must make the best of it."

"He is your friend, Hetty. He admires you."

"I cannot see him through your eyes, Sara."

"But he IS charming and agreeable, you'll admit," persisted the other.

"He is very kind, and he is devoted to you. I should like him for that."

"You have no cause for disliking him."

"I do not dislike him. I--I am--Oh, you always have been so thoughtful, so considerate, Sara, I can't understand your failing to see how hard it is for me to--to--well, to endure his open-hearted friendship."

Sara was silent for a moment. "You draw a pretty fine line, Hetty," she said gently.

Hetty flushed. "You mean that there is little to choose between wife and brother? That isn't quite fair. You know everything, he knows nothing. I wear a mask for him; you have seen into the very heart of me. It isn't the same."

Sara came over and stood beside the girl's chair. After a moment of indecision, she laid her hand on Hetty's shoulder. The girl looked up, the ever-recurring question in her eyes.

"We haven't spoken of--of these things in many months, Hetty."

"Not since Mrs. Wrandall and Vivian came to Nice. I was upset--dreadfuly upset then, Sara. I don't know how I managed to get through with it."

"But you managed it," pronounced Sara. Her fingers seemed to tighten suddenly on the girl's shoulder. "I think we were quite wonderful, both of us. It wasn't easy for me."

"Why did we come back to New York, Sara?" burst out Hetty, clasping her friend's hand as if suddenly spurred by terror. "We were happy over there. And free!"

"Listen, my dear," said Sara, a hard note growing in her voice: "this is my home. I do not love it, but I can see no reason for abandoning it. That is why we came back to New York."

Hetty pressed her friend's hand to her lips. "Forgive me," she cried impulsively. "I shouldn't have complained. It was detestable."

"Besides," went on Sara evenly, "you were quite free to remain on the other side. I left it to you."

"You gave me a week to decide," said Hetty, in a hurried manner of speaking. "I--I took but twenty-four hours--less than that. Over night, you remember. I love you, Sara. I could not leave you. All that night I could feel you pulling at my heart-strings, pulling me closer and closer, and holding me. You were in your room, I in mine, and yet all the time you seemed to be bending over me in the darkness, urging me to stay with you and love you and be loved by you. It couldn't have been a dream."

"It was not a dream," said Sara, with a queer smile.

"You DO love me?" tensely.

"I DO love you," was the firm answer. Sara was staring out across the water, her eyes big and as black as night itself. She seemed to be looking far beyond the misty lights that bobbled with nearby schooners, far beyond the yellow mass on the opposite shore where a town lay cradled in the shadows, far into the fast darkening sky that came up like a wall out of the east.

Hetty's fingers tightened in a warmer clasp. Unconsciously perhaps, Sara's grip on the girl's shoulder tightened also: unconsciously, for her thoughts were far away. The younger woman's pensive gaze rested on the peaceful waters below, taking in the slow approach of the fog that was soon to envelop the land. Neither spoke for many minutes: inscrutable thinkers, each a prey to thoughts that leaped backward to the beginning and took up the puzzle at its inception.

"I wonder--" began Hetty, her eyes narrowing with the intensity of thought. She did not complete the sentence.

Sara answered the unspoken question. "It will never be different from what it is now, unless you make it so."

Hetty started. "How could you have known what I was thinking?" she cried in wonder.

"It is what you are always thinking, my dear. You are always asking yourself when will I turn against you."

"Sara!"

"Your own intelligence should supply the answer to all the questions you are asking of yourself. It is too late for me to turn against you." She abruptly removed her hand from Hetty's shoulder and walked to the edge of the verandah. For the first time, the English girl was conscious of pain. She drew her arm up and cringed. She pulled the light scarf about her bare shoulders.

The butler appeared in the doorway.

"The telephone, if you please, Miss Castleton. Mr. Leslie Wrandall is calling."

The girl stared. "For me, Watson?"

"Yes, Miss. I forgot to say that he called up this afternoon while you were out," very apologetically, with a furtive glance at Mrs. Wrandall, who had turned.

"Loss of memory, Watson, is a fatal affliction," she said, with a smile.

"Yes, Mrs. Wrandall. I don't see 'ow it 'appened."

"It is not likely to happen again."

"No, madam."

Hetty had risen, visibly agitated.

"What shall I say to him, Sara?" she cried.

"Apparently it is he who has something to say to you," said the other, still smiling. "Wait and see what it is. Please don't neglect to say that we'd like to have him over Sunday."

"A box of flowers has just come up from the station for you, Miss," said Watson.

Hetty was very white as she passed into the house. Mrs. Wrandall resumed her contemplation of the fog-screened Sound.

"Shall I fetch you a wrap, ma'am?" asked Watson, hesitating.

"I am coming in, Watson. Open the box of flowers for Miss Castleton. Is there a fire in the library?"

"Yes, Mrs. Wrandall."

"Mr. Leslie will be out on Saturday. Tell Mrs. Conkling."

"The evening train, ma'am?"

"No. The eleven-thirty. He will be here for luncheon."

When Hetty hurried into the library a few minutes later, her manner was that of one considerably disturbed by something that has transpired almost on the moment. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were reflectors of a no uncertain distress of mind. Mrs. Wrandall was standing before the fireplace, an exquisite figure in the slinky black evening gown which she affected in these days. Her perfectly modelled neck and shoulders gleamed like pink marble in the reflected glow of the burning logs. She wore no jewellery, but there was a single white rose in her dark hair, where it had been placed by the whimsical Hetty an hour earlier as they left the dinner table.

"He is coming out on the eleven-thirty, Sara," said the girl nervously, "unless you will send the motor in for him. The body of his car is being changed and it's in the shop. He must have been jesting when he said he would pay for the petrol--I should have said gasoline."

Sara laughed. "You will know him better, my dear," she said. "Leslie is very light-hearted."

"He suggested bringing a friend," went on Hetty hurriedly. "A Mr. Booth, the portrait painter."

"I met him in Italy. He is charming. You will like HIM, too, Hetty." The emphasis did not escape notice.

"It seems that he is spending a fortnight in the village, this Mr. Booth, painting spring lambs for rest and recreation, Mr. Leslie says."

"Then he is at our very gates," said Sara, looking up suddenly.

"I wonder if he can be the man I saw yesterday at the bridge," mused Hetty. "Is he tall?"

"I really can't say. He's rather vague. It was six or seven years ago."

"It was left that Mr. Wrandall is to come out on the eleven-thirty," explained Hetty. "I thought you wouldn't like sending either of the motors in."

"And Mr. Booth?"

"We are to send for him after Mr. Wrandall arrives. He is stopping at the inn, wherever that may be."

"Poor fellow!" sighed Sara, with a grimace. "I am sure he will like us immensely if he has been stopping at the inn."

Hetty stood staring down at the blazing logs for a full minute before giving expression to the thought that troubled her.

"Sara," she said, meeting her friend's eyes with a steady light in her own, "why did Mr. Wrandall ask for me instead of you? It is you he is coming to visit, not me. It is your house. Why should--"

"My dear," said Sara glibly, "I am merely his sister-in-law. It wouldn't be neecssary to ask me if he should come. He knows he is welcome."

"Then why should he feel called upon to--"

"Some men like to telephone, I suppose," said the other coolly.

"I wonder if you will ever understand how I feel about--about certain things, Sara."

"What, for instance?"

"Well, his very evident interest in me," cried the girl hotly. "He sends me flowers,--this is the second box this week,--and he is so kind, so VERY friendly, Sara, that I can't bear it--I really can't."

Mrs. Wrandall stared at her. "You can't very well send him about his business," she said, "unless he becomes more than friendly. Now, can you?"

"But it seems so--so horrible, so beastly," groaned the girl.

Sara faced her squarely. "See here, Hetty," she said levelly, "we have made our bed, you and I. We must lie in it--together. If Leslie Wrandall chooses to fall in love with you, that is his affair, not ours. We must face every condition. In plain words, we must play the game."

"What could be more appalling than to have him fall in love with me?"

"The other way 'round would be more dramatic, I should say."

"Good God, Sara!" cried the girl in horror. "How can you even speak of such a thing?"

"After all, why shouldn't--" began Sara, but stopped in the middle of her suggestion, with the result that it had its full effect without being uttered in so many cold-blooded words. The girl shuddered.

"I wish, Sara, you would let me unburden myself completely to you," she pleaded, seizing her friend's hands. "You have forbidden me--"

Sara jerked her hands away. Her eyes flashed. "I do not want to hear it," she cried fiercely. "Never, never! Do you understand? It is your secret. I will not share it with you. I should hate you if I knew everything. As it is, I love you because you are a woman who suffered at the hand of one who made me suffer. There is nothing more to say. Don't bring up the subject again. I want to be your friend for ever, not your confidante. There is a distinction. You may be able to see how very marked it is in our case, Hetty. What one does not know, seldom hurts."

"But I want to justify myself--"

"It isn't necessary," cut in the other so peremptorily that the girl's eyes spread into a look of anger. Whereupon Sara Wrandall threw her arm about her and drew her down beside her on the chaise-longue. "I didn't mean to be harsh," she cried. "We must not speak of the past, that's all. The future is not likely to hurt us, dear. Let us avoid the past."

"The future!" sighed the girl, staring blankly before her.

"To appreciate what it is to be," said the other, "you have but to think of what it might have been."

"I know," said Hetty, in a low voice. "And yet I sometimes wonder if--"

Sara interrupted. "You are paying me, dear, instead of the law," she said gently. "I am not a harsh creditor, am I?"

"My life belongs to you. I give it cheerfully, even gladly."

"So you have said before. Well, if it belongs to me, you might at least permit me to develop it as I would any other possession. I take it as an investment. It will probably fluctuate."

"Now you are jesting!"

"Perhaps," said Sara laconically.

The next morning Hetty set forth for her accustomed tramp over the roads that wound through the estate. Sara, the American, dawdled at home, resenting the chill spring drizzle that did not in the least discourage the Englishwoman. The mistress of the house and of the girl's destiny stood in the broad French window watching her as she strode springily, healthily down the maple lined avenue in the direction of the gates. The gardeners doffed their caps to her as she passed, and also looked after her with surreptitious glances.

There was a queer smile on Sara's lips that remained long after the girl was lost to view beyond the lodge. It was still on her lips but gone from her eyes as she paused beside the old English table to bury her nose in one of the gorgeous roses that Leslie had sent out to Hetty the day before. They were all about the room, dozens of them. The girl had insisted on having them downstairs instead of in her own little sitting-room, for which they plainly were intended.

A nasty sea turn had brought lowering grey skies and a dreary, enveloping mist that never quite assumed the dignity of a drizzle and yet blew wet and cold to the very marrow of the bones. Hetty was used to such weather. Her English blood warmed to it. As she strode briskly across the meadow-land road in the direction of the woods that lay ahead, a soft ruddy glow crept up to her cheeks, and a sparkle of joy into her eyes. She walked strongly, rapidly. Her straight, lithe young figure was a joyous thing to behold. High boots, short skirt, a loose jacket and a broad felt hat made up her costume. She was graceful, adorable; a young, healthy, beautiful creature in whom the blood surged quickly, strongly: the type of woman men are wont to classify as "ineffably feminine," though why we should differentiate is no small mystery unless there really is such a thing as one woman possessing an adorably feminine quality denied to her sisters. Be that as it may, there IS a distinction and men pride themselves on knowing it. Hetty was alluringly feminine. Leaving out the matter of morals, whatever they are, and coming right up to her as an example of her sex, pure and simple if you please, we are bound to say that she was perfect. The best thing we can say of Challis Wrandall is that he took the same view of her that we should, and fell in love with her. He would have married her if he could, there isn't much doubt as to that, no matter what she had been before he knew her or what she was at the time of his discovery. No more is it to be considered unique that his brother should have experienced a similar interest in her, knowing even less.

She was the sort of girl one falls in love with and remembers it the rest of his life.

Take her now, for instance, as she swings along the highway, fresh, trim and graceful, her chin uptilted, her cheeks warm, her eyes clear and as blue as sapphires, and we experience the most intense, unreasoning desire to be near her, at her side, where hands could touch her and the very spell of her creep out over one to make a man of him.

The kind of woman one wants to draw close to him because his heart is sweet.

She had the blood of a fellow creature on her hands--the blood of one of us--and yet we men will overlook one commandment for another. It is a matter of choice.

What of her present position in the house and in the heart of the one woman who of all those we know is abnormally unfeminine in that she subordinates the natural and instinctive animosity of woman toward another who robs her of a husband, no matter how unworthy or how hateful he may have been to her behind the screen with which she hides her sores from the world. The answer is ready: Hetty was a slave bound to an extraordinary condition. There had been no coercion on the part of Challis Wrandall's wife; no actual restraint had been set upon the girl. The situation was a plain one from every point of view: Hetty owed her life to Sara, she would have paid with her life's blood the debt she owed. It had become perfectly natural for her to consider herself a willing, grateful prisoner--a prisoner on parole. She would not, could not abuse the parole. She loved her gaoler with a love that knew no bounds; she loved the walls Sara had thrown up about her; she was content to live and die in the luxurious cell, attended by love and kindness and mercy. After all, Hetty was even more feminine than we seem able to convey in words.

Not in that she lacked in pride or sensitiveness, but that she possessed to a self-satisfying degree the ability to subordinate both of these to a loyalty that had no bounds. There were fine feelings in Hetty. She was honest with herself. She did not look beyond her present horizon for brighter skies. They were as bright as they could ever be, of that she was sure; her hopes lay within the small circumference that Sara Wrandall made possible for her. She knew that her peril, her ruin lay in the desire to step outside that narrow circle, for out there the world was cold and merciless.

She lived as one charmed by some powerful influence, and was content. Not once had the fear entered her soul that Sara would turn against her. Her trust in Wrandall's wife was infinite. In her simple, devoted heart she could feel no prick of dread so far as the present was concerned. The past was dreadful, but it was the past, and its loathsomeness was moderated by subtle contrast with the present. As for the future, it belonged to Sara Wrandall. It was safe.

If Sara were to decide that she must be given up to the law, all well and good. She could meet her fate with a smile for Sara, and with love in her heart. She could pay in full if the demand was made by the wife of the man she had left in the grim little upstairs room at Burton's Inn on that never-to-be-forgotten night in March.

The one great, inexplicable mystery to her was the heart of Sara Wrandall. She could not fathom it.

She could understand her own utter subjection to the will of the other woman; she could explain it satisfactorily to herself, and she could have explained it to the world. Self-preservation in the beginning, self-surrender as time went on, self-sacrifice as the prerogative.

And so it was, on this grey spring day, that she gazed undaunted at the world, with the shadows all about her, and hummed a sprightly tune through warm red lips that were kissed by the morning mist.

She came to the bridge by the mill, long since deserted and now a thing of ruin and decay. A man in knickerbockers stood leaning against the rail, idly gazing down at the trickling stream below. The brier pipe that formed the circuit between hand and lips sent up soft blue coils to float away on the drizzle.

She passed behind him, with a single furtive, curious glance at his handsome, undisturbed profile, and in that glance recognised him as the man she had seen the day before.

When she was a dozen rods away, the tall man turned his face from the stream and sent after her the long-restrained look. There was something akin to cautiousness in that look of his, as if he were afraid that she might turn her head suddenly and catch him at it. Something began stirring in his heart, the nameless something that awakens when least expected. He felt the subtle, sweet femininity of her as she passed. It lingered with him as he looked.

She turned the bend in the road a hundred yards away. For many minutes he studied the stream below without really seeing it. Then he straightened up, knocked the ashes from his pipe, and set off slowly in her wake, although he had been walking in quite the opposite direction when he came to the bridge,--and on a mission of some consequence, too.

There was the chance that he would meet her coming back.

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