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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesViola Gwyn - Chapter 18. Rachel Delivers A Message
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Viola Gwyn - Chapter 18. Rachel Delivers A Message Post by :dbhatta Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :1069

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Viola Gwyn - Chapter 18. Rachel Delivers A Message


Rachel was standing on her porch as they came up the walk. The light through the open door at her back revealed her tall, motionless figure but not her face which was in shadow.

"Kenneth wants to talk to you about something very important," said Viola unevenly, as they drew near.

The woman on the porch did not speak until they paused at the bottom of the steps.

"Have you been over at his house, Viola?" she asked levelly.

"Yes, mother."

After a moment's hesitation: "Come in, Kenneth." She stood aside to let Viola pass. Kenneth, who had hastily donned his coat, followed the two women into the house. There was a light in the parlor. "Will you sit down, or do you prefer to remain standing in my house, Kenneth Gwynne?"

He bowed stiffly, indicating a chair with a gesture. "Will you be seated first, madam?"

His sophomoric dignity drew a faint, ironic smile to her lips. "Thank you," she said calmly, and seated herself on the little horsehair sofa. If there was any uneasiness in the look she sent from one to the other of the young people it was not noticeable. "Hattie came in a little while ago," she said, "scared out of her wits. I suspected that you were up to one of your pranks, Viola. I do wish you would stop frightening the girl."

"Kenneth will tell you what happened," said the girl, hurriedly. "He wants to see you alone. I am going upstairs."

She left the room, closing the door behind her. Neither spoke until they heard her footsteps on the floor overhead.

"Well, what have you been telling her?" asked Rachel, leaning forward, her eyes narrowing.

He drew a chair up close to the sofa and sat down. "Nothing that she should not know," he answered. "I will first tell you what happened a little while ago, and then--the rest of it. There is evil afoot. I have been wrong, I realize, in not warning you and Viola."

She listened intently to the end; not once did she interrupt him, but as he proceeded to unfold the meagre details of the plot as presented to him by Isaac Stain, her brow darkened and her fingers began to work nervously, restlessly in her lap. His account of the frightening of Zachariah and its immediate results took up but little time. He was careful to avoid any mention of that stirring scene at the fence, its effect upon the startled girl, or how near he was to betraying the great secret.

Rachel Gwyn's eyes never left his face during the whole of the unbroken recital. Toward the end he had the disconcerting impression that she was reading his turbulent thoughts, that she was successfully searching his soul.

"That's the story as it came to me," he concluded. "I deserve your condemnation for not preparing Viola against a trick that might have resulted disastrously while we were marking time."

"Why did Isaac Stain go to you instead of coming to me?" was her first question.

"Because he believes I am her brother, and this happens to be a man's job," he said, lowering his voice. "It is only fair, however, to state that he wanted to come to you and I, in my folly, advised him not to do so."

She was silent for a moment. Then: "And why did you think it not advisable to tell me?"

"I will be frank with you," he replied, colouring under her steady gaze. "I wanted her to find out for herself just what kind of man Lapelle really is. I was prepared to let the plot go almost to the point of consummation. I--I wanted to be the one to save her." He lowered his eyes, afraid that she would discover the truth in them.

Again she hesitated, apparently weighing her words.

"You are in love with her, Kenneth."

He looked up, startled, almost aghast. Involuntarily he started to rise to his feet, his eyes still fixed on hers, vehement denial on his parted lips, only to sink back into the chair again, convicted. There was no use attempting to deceive this cold, clear-headed woman. She knew. No lie, no evasion could meet that direct statement. For a long time they looked straight into each other's eyes, and at length his fell in mute confession.

"God help me,--I am," he groaned.

"Oh, the pity of it!" she cried out. He looked up and saw that she was trembling, her ashen face working as in pain.

"No! The curse of it, Rachel Carter!"

She appeared not to have heard his words. "'God works in a mysterious way,'" she muttered, almost inaudibly. "The call of the blood is unfailing. The brain may be deceived, the heart never." With an effort, she regained control of herself. "She has broken off with Barry Lapelle. Do you know the reason why? Because, all unbeknownst to her, she has fallen in love with you. Yes! It is true. I know. I have seen it coming."

She arose and crossed to the door, which she cautiously opened. For a moment she remained there listening, then closing it gently, she came over and stood before him.

"Love is a wonderful thing, Kenneth," she said slowly. "It is the most powerful force in all the world. It overcomes reason, it crushes the conscience, it makes strong men weak and weak men strong. For love a woman will give her honour, for love a man will barter his chance for eternal salvation. It overlooks faults, it condones crime, it rises above every obstacle that the human mind can put before it. It knows no fear, it has no religion, it serves no God. You love my girl, Kenneth. She is the daughter of the woman you despise, the daughter of one you call evil. Is your love for her great enough,--or will it ever be great enough,--to overcome these obstacles? In plain words, would you take her unto yourself as your wife, to love and cherish and honour,--mind you, HONOUR,--to the end of your days on earth?"

He stood up, facing her, his face white.

"She has done nothing dishonourable," he said levelly.

"'The sins of the mother,'" she paraphrased, without taking her eyes from his.

"Was her mother any worse than my father? Has the sin been visited upon one of us and not upon the other?"

"Then, you WOULD be willing to take Viola as your wife?"

He seemed to wrench his gaze away. "Oh, what is the use of talking about the impossible?" he exclaimed. "I have confessed that I love her,--yes, in spite of everything,--and you--"

"You have not answered my question."

"No, I have not," he said deliberately,--"and I do not intend to answer it. You know as well as I that I cannot ask her to marry me, so why speak of it? Good God, could I ask my own sister to be my wife?"

"She is not your sister. She has not one drop of Gwynne blood in her veins."

He gave a short, bitter laugh. "But who is going to tell her that, may I ask, Rachel Carter?"

She turned away, took two or three turns up and down the room, her head bent, a heavy frown between her eyes, and then sank wearily into a chair.

"I will put it this way, Kenneth," she said. "Would you ask her to be your wife if the time should ever come when she knows the truth?"

He hesitated a long time. "Will you be kind enough to tell me what your object is in asking me these questions?"

"I want to know whether you are truly in love with her," she replied steadily.

"And if I say that I could not ask her to marry me, would that prove anything to you?"

"Yes. It would prove two things. It would prove that you do not love her with all your heart and soul, and it would prove that you are the same kind of man that your father was before you."

He started. It was the second reason that caused him to look at her curiously. "What do you mean?"

"When you have answered my question, I will answer yours, Kenneth."

"Well," he began, setting his jaw, "I DO love her enough to ask her to be my wife. But I would ask her as Owen Carter's daughter. And," he added, half closing his eyes as with pain, "she would refuse to have me. She could not look at the matter as I do. Her love,--if she should ever come to have such a feeling for me,--her love would revolt against--Oh, you know what I mean! Do you suppose it would survive the shock of realization? No! She has a clean heart. She would never marry the son of the man who--who--" He found himself unable to finish the sentence. A strange, sudden reluctance to hurt his enemy checked the words even as they were being framed on his lips,--reluctance due not to compassion nor to consideration but to a certain innate respect for an adversary whose back is to the wall and yet faces unequal odds without a sign of shrinking.

"Shall I say it for you?" she asked in a cold, level voice. But she had winced, despite her iron control.

"It is not necessary," said he, embarrassed.

"In any case," she said, with a sigh, "you have answered my question. If you could do this for my girl I am sure of your love for her. There could be no greater test. I shall take a little more time before answering your question. There are one or two more things I must say to you before I come to that,--and then, if you like, we will take up this story of Isaac Stain's. Kenneth, the time may come,--I feel that it is sure to come, when--" She stopped. A sound from above caught her ear,--a regular, rhythmic thumping on the floor. After a few seconds she remarked:

"It is all right. That is a rocking-chair. She is getting impatient." Nevertheless she lowered her voice and leaned forward in her chair. "The time is sure to come when Viola will learn the truth about herself and me,--and you, as well. I feel it in my bones. It may not come till after I am dead. But no matter when it comes, I want to feel sure now,--to-night, Kenneth,--that you will never undertake to deprive her of the lands and money I shall leave to her."

He stared at her in astonishment. "What is this you are saying?" She slowly repeated the words. "Why, how could I dispossess her? It is yours to bequeath as you see fit, madam. Do you think I am a mercenary scoundrel,--that I would try to take it away from her? I know she is not my father's daughter, but--why, good heaven, I would never dream of fighting for what you--"

"Your love for her,--though unrequited,--aye, even though she became embittered toward you because of what happened years ago,--you love her enough to stand aside and allow her to hold what I shall leave to her?"

"You are talking in riddles. What on earth are you driving at?" "You will not fight her right, her claim to my estate?" she insisted, leaning still closer.

"Why, of course not!" he exclaimed, angrily.

"Even though the law might say she is not entitled to it?"

"The law can take no action unless I invoke its aid," said he. "And that is something I shall never do," he added, with finality.

"I wish I could be sure of that," she murmured, wistfully.

He came to his feet. "You may be sure of it," he said, with dignity. "Possess your soul in peace, if that is all that is troubling it."

"Sit down," she said, a strange huskiness in her voice. He obeyed her. "Your father left a certain part of his fortune to me. There was no provision made for Viola. You understand that, don't you?"

"Yes. I know all about that," said he, plainly bewildered. "On the other hand, he did not impose any restrictions upon you. You are at liberty to dispose of your share by will, as you see fit, madam. I am not likely to deny my step-sister what is rightfully hers. And that reminds me. She is not my blood relation, it's true. But she is my step-sister. That settles another point. I could not ask my step-sister to be my wife. The law would--"

"Now we have come to the point where I shall answer the question you asked a while ago," she interrupted, straightening up in her chair and regarding him with a fixed, steady light in her eyes that somehow seemed to forewarn him of what was about to be revealed. "I said it would prove two things to me. One of them was that you are the same kind of man that your father was before you. I mean if you had said you could not ask Viola to be your wife." She paused, and then went on slowly, deliberately. "I lived with your father for nearly twenty years. In all that time he never asked me to be his wife."

At first he stared blankly at her, uncomprehending.

Then a slow, dark flush spread over his face. He half-started up from his chair.

"You--you mean--" he stammered.

"He never asked me to be his wife," she repeated without emotion.

He sank back, incredulous, dumbfounded. "My God! Am I to understand that you--that you were never married to my father?"

"Yes. I waited twenty years for him to ask me to marry him,--but he never did."

He was still somewhat stupefied. The disclosure was so unexpected, so utterly at odds with all his understanding that he could not wholly grasp its significance. Somewhat footlessly he burst out:

"But surely you must have demanded--I mean, did you never ask him to--to marry you?"

Her eyebrows went up slightly.

"How could I?" she inquired, as if surprised by the question. "I had not sunk so low in my own estimation as that, Kenneth Gwynne. My bed was made the day I went away with him. Some day you may realize that even such as I may possess the thing called pride. No! I would have died rather than ask him to marry me. I chose my course with my eyes open. It was not for me to demand more than I gave. He was not a free man when I went to him. He made no promises, nor did I exact any."

She spoke in the most matter-of-fact way. He regarded her in sheer wonder.

"But he SHOULD have made you his wife," he exclaimed, his sense of fairness rising above the bitter antipathy he felt toward her.

"That was for him to decide," said she, calmly. "I respected his feelings in the matter,--and still do. He had no right to marry me when we went away together. He did not take me as a wife, Kenneth Gwynne. He took me as a woman. He had a wife. Up to the day he died he looked upon her as his wife. I was his woman. I could never take her place. Not even after she had been in her grave for twenty years. He never forgot her. I see the scorn in your eyes. He does not quite deserve it, Kenneth. After all is said and done, he was fair to me. Not one man in a thousand would have done his part so well as he.

"I don't suppose you know what men do with their mistresses when they begin to feel that they are through with them and there is no legal bond to hold them. They desert them. They cast them off. And then they turn to some honest woman and marry her. That is the way with men. But he was not like that. I can tell what you are about to say. It is on your lips to say that he deserted an honest woman. Well, so he did. And therein lies the secret of his constancy to me,--even after he had ceased to love me and the passion that was in him died. He would never desert another woman who trusted him. He paid too dearly in his conscience for the first offence to be guilty of a second.

"You see I am laying bare my innermost soul to you. It hurts me to say that through all these years he loved and honoured and revered his wife,--and the memory of her. He was never unkind to me,--he never spoke of her. But I knew, and he knew that I knew. He loved you, his little boy. I, too, loved you once, Kenneth. When you were a little shaver I adored you. But I came to hate you as the years went by. It is needless to tell you the reason why. When it came time for him to die he left you half of his fortune. The other half,--and a little over,--he gave to me." Her voice faltered a little as she added: "For good and faithful service, I suppose."

During this long speech Kenneth had succeeded in collecting his thoughts. He had been shocked by her confession, and now he was mentally examining the possibilities that might arise from the aspect it bared.

First of all, Viola was not even his step-sister. He experienced a thrill of joy over that,--notwithstanding the ugly truth that gave her the new standing; to his simple, straightforward mind, Viola's mother was nothing more than a prostitute. (In his thoughts he employed another word, for he lived in a day when prostitutes were called by another name.) Still, Viola was not to blame for that. That could never be held against her.

"Why have you told me all this?" he asked bluntly. "I had no means of learning that you were never married to my father. There was never a question about it in my mind, nor in anybody else's, so far as I know. You have put a very dangerous weapon in my hand in case I should choose to use it against you."

She was silent for a long time, struggling with herself. He could almost feel the battle that was going on within her. Somehow it appalled him.

The wind outside was rising. It moaned softly, plaintively through the trees. A shutter creaked somewhere at the back of the house and at intervals banged against the casement. The frogs down in the hollow had ceased their clamour and no doubt took to themselves credit for the storm that was on the way in answer to their exhortations. The even, steady thump of the rocking-chair in the room overhead stopped suddenly, and Viola's quick tread was heard crossing the floor. She closed a window. Then, after a moment, the sound of the rocking-chair again.

Rachel left her chair and walked over to the window to peer out into the night.

"It is coming from the west," she said, as if to test the steadiness of her voice.

A far-off flicker of lightning cast a faint, phosphorescent glow into the dimly lighted room, quivering for a second or two on the face of the woman at the window, then dying away with what seemed to be a weird suggestion of reluctance.

She stood before him, looking down. "I have at last obeyed a command imposed by Robert Gwynne when he was on his death-bed. Almost his last words to me were in the nature of a threat. He told me that if I failed to carry out his request,--he did not call it a command,--he would haunt me to my dying day. You may laugh at me if you will, but he HAS been haunting me, Kenneth Gwynne. If I ever cherished the notion that I could ignore his command and go on living in the security of my own secret, I must have known from the beginning that it would be impossible. Day and night, ever since you came, some force that was not my own has been driving at my resistance. You will call it compunction, or conscience or an honest sense of duty. I do not call it by any of those names. Your father commanded me to tell you with my own lips,--not in writing or through the mouth of an agent,--he commanded me to say to you that your mother was the only wife he ever had. I have done this to-night. I have humbled myself,--but it was after a long, cruel fight."

She sat down, and it seemed to him that her very soul went out in the deep, long sigh that caused her bosom to flatten and her shoulders to droop forward.

"He was either an ingrate or a coward," said he harshly, after a short silence.

"It is not for you to pass judgment on my master," said she, simply. "May I beg you to refrain from putting your own judgment of him into words? Will you not spare me that?"

He stared at her in astonishment. He saw that she was in earnest, desperately in earnest. Choking back the words that had rushed to his lips, he got up from his chair and bent his head gravely.

"Yes, if it is any comfort to you, Rachel Carter," he said, acute pity in his eyes. "I cannot resist saying, however, that you have not spared yourself. It cost you a great deal to pay one of the debts he left for you to settle. I shall not forget it."

She arose and all the humility fell away from her. Once more she was the strong, indomitable,--even formidable,--figure he had come to know so well. Her bosom swelled, her shoulders straightened, and into her deep-set, sombre eyes came the unflinching light of determination.

"Then we are done with that," she said quietly. "I have asked no favours save this last one for myself,--but it is a greater one than you may think. You know everything now, Kenneth. You have called me Rachel Carter. Was it divination or was it stubborn memory? I wonder. So far as I know, you are the only person left in the world who knows that I was not his wife, the only one who knows that I am still Rachel Carter. No matter what this man Braley may know, or what he may tell, he--But we are wasting time. Viola must be wondering. Now as to this plan of Barry Lapelle's. I think I can safely assure you that nothing will come of it."

"Then, you knew about it before I told you?" he exclaimed.

"No. You brought me word of Jasper Suggs this morning. You said he was staying at Martin Hawk's cabin. You may have forgotten what I said to you at the time. Now you bring me word that Barry Lapelle's plot was hatched at Martin Hawk's. Well, this afternoon I went to the Court House and swore out a warrant charging Martin Hawk with stealing some of my yearling calves and sheep. That warrant is now in the hands of the sheriff. It will be served before another day is gone."

"That's pretty sharp work," he said, but still a little puzzled. "Naturally it will upset Barry's plans, but Suggs is still to be accounted for. You mentioned something about charging him with a murder back in--"

"I guess that can wait till another day," said she, with a smile that he did not quite understand. "It would be rather stupid of me, don't you think, to have him arrested?"

"You said he was not the kind of a man to be taken alive," he remarked, knitting his brows.

"I think I said something of the kind. The name of Simon Braley is known from one end of this State to the other. It is a name to conjure fear with. Every Indian uprising in the past ten years has had Braley's name connected with it. It was he who led the band of Chippewas twelve years ago when they massacred some fifteen or eighteen women and children in a settlement on White River while their men were off in the fields at work. Isn't it rather significant that the renegade Simon Braley should turn up in these parts at a time when Black Hawk is--But that is neither here nor there. My warrant calls for the arrest of Martin Hawk. For more than two years Hawk has been suspected of stealing livestock down on the Wea, hut no one has ever been willing to make a specific charge against him. He is very cunning and he has always covered his tracks."

"Do you think he will resist the sheriff? I mean, is there likely to be fighting?"

"It all depends on whether Martin is caught napping," she replied in a most casual manner. "By the way, has Isaac Stain told you much about himself?"

Kenneth could not repress a smile. "He has mentioned one or two affairs of the heart."

"His sister was one of the women massacred by the Chippewas down on White River that time. She was the young wife of a settler. Isaac will be overjoyed when he finds out that Jasper Suggs and Simon Braley are one and the same person."

He was speechless for a moment, comprehension coming slowly to him. "By all that's holy!" he exclaimed, something like awe in his voice. "I am beginning to understand. Stain will be one of the sheriff's party?"

"We will stop at his cabin on the way to Hawk's," she replied. "If he chooses to join us after I have told him who I think this man Suggs really is, no one will object."

"You say 'we.' Do you mean to tell me that you are going along with the posse? Good God, woman, there will be shooting! You must not think of--"

She checked him with an imperious gesture. "I cannot send these men to face a peril that I am not willing to face myself. That would be dastardly. I will take my chances with the rest of them. You seem to forget that I spent a good many years of my life in the wilderness. This will not be my first experience with renegades and outlaws. When I first came to this State, the women had to know how to shoot. Not only to shoot birds and beasts, but men as well. Those were hard days. I was not like the men who cut notches in their rifle stocks for every Indian they slew, and yet there is a gun in my room upstairs that could have two notches on it if I had cared to put them there."

"What time do you start?" he said, the fire of excitement in his eyes. "I insist on being one of the--"

"You will not be needed," she said succinctly. "I think you had better go now. The storm will soon be upon us. Thank you for coming here to-night, Kenneth."

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