Part 6 out of 6
to this conference, if that is what you wish to know."
"Thank you, but you will pardon my insistence if I request the
privilege of closing that door." He pointed to the one communicating
with the bedroom. "The information I have to give you is not such
as I am willing to have shared, at least for the present."
"You may close the door," said Mr. Challoner coldly. "But is it
necessary for you to give me the information you mention, to-night?
If it is of such a nature that you cannot accord me the privilege of
sharing it, as yet, with others, why not spare me till you can? I
have gone through much, Mr. Brotherson."
"You have," came in steady assent as the man thus addressed stepped
to the door he had indicated and quietly closed it. "But," he
continued, as he crossed back to his former position, "would it be
easier for you to go through the night now in anticipation of what
I have to reveal than to hear it at once from my lips while I am in
the mood to speak?"
The answer was slow in coming. The courage which had upheld this
rapidly aging man through so many trying interviews, seemed
inadequate for the test put so cruelly upon it. He faltered and
sank heavily into a chair, while the stern man watching him, gave
no signs of responsive sympathy or even interest, only a patient
and icy-tempered resolve.
"I cannot live in uncertainty;" such were finally Mr. Challoner's
words. "What you have to say concerns Edith?" The pause he made
was infinitesimal in length, but it was long enough for a quick
disclaimer. But no such disclaimer came. "I will hear it," came
in reluctant finish.
Mr. Brotherson took a step forward. His manner was as cold as the
heart which lay like a stone in his bosom.
"Will you pardon me if I ask you to rise?" said he. "I have my
weaknesses too." (He gave no sign of them.) "I cannot speak down
from such a height to the man I am bound to hurt."
As if answering to the constraint of a will quite outside his own,
Mr. Challoner rose. Their heads were now more nearly on a level
and Mr. Brotherson's voice remained low, as he proceeded, with quiet
"There has been a time--and it may exist yet, God knows--when you
thought me in some unknown and secret way the murderer of your
daughter. I do not quarrel with the suspicion; it was justified, Mr.
Challoner. I did kill your daughter, and with this hand! I can no
longer deny it."
The wretched father swayed, following the gesture of the hand thus
held out; but he did not fall, nor did a sound leave his lips.
Brotherson went coldly on:
"I did it because I regarded her treatment of my suit as insolent.
I have no mercy for any such display of intolerance on the part of
the rich and the fortunate. I hated her for it; I hated her class,
herself and all she stood for. To strike the dealer of such a hurt
I felt to be my right. Though a man of small beginnings and of a
stock which such as you call common, I have a pride which few of
your blood can equal. I could not work, or sleep or eat with such
a sting in my breast as she had planted there. To rid myself of it,
I determined to kill her, and I did. How? Oh, that was easy,
though it has proved a great stumbling-block to the detectives, as I
knew it would! I shot her--but not with an ordinary bullet. My
charge was a small icicle made deliberately for the purpose. It
had strength enough to penetrate, but it left no trace behind it.
'A bullet of ice for a heart of ice,' I had said in the torment
of my rage. But the word was without knowledge, Mr. Challoner. I
see it now; I have seen it for two whole weeks. I did not misjudge
her condemnation of me, but I misjudged its cause. It was not to
the comparatively poor, the comparatively obscure man she sought to
show contempt, but to the brother of Oswald whose claims she saw
insulted. A woman I should have respected, not killed. A woman of
no pride of station; a woman who loved a man not only of my own
class but of my own blood--a woman, to avenge whose unmerited
death I stand here before you a self-condemned criminal. That is
but justice, Mr. Challoner. That is the way I look at things.
Though no sentimentalist; and dead to all beliefs save the eternal
truths of science, I have that in me which will not let me profit,
now that I know myself unworthy, by the great success I have earned.
Hence this confession, Mr. Challoner. It has not come easily, nor
do I shut my eyes in the least to the results which must follow.
But I can not do differently. To-morrow, you may telegraph to New
York. Till then I desire to be left undisturbed. I have many
things to dispose of in the interim."
Mr. Challoner, very white by now, pointed to the door before he
sank again into his chair. Brotherson took it for dismissal and
stepped slowly back. Then their eyes met again and Mr. Challoner
spoke his first word:
"There was another--a poor woman--she died suddenly--and her
wound was not unlike that inflicted upon Edith. Did you--"
"I did." The answer came without a tremour. "You may say and so
may others that I was less justified in this attack than in the
other; but I do not see it that way. A theory does not always work
in practice. I wished to test the unusual means I contemplated,
and the woman I saw before me across the court was hard-working and
with nothing in life to look forward to, so--"
A cry of bitter execration from Mr. Challoner cut him short.
Turning with a shrug he was about to lift his hand to the door,
when he gave a violent start and fell hastily back before a quickly
entering figure of such passion and fury as neither of these men had
ever seen before.
It was Oswald! Oswald, the kindly! Oswald, the lover of men and
the adorer of women! Oswald, with the words of the dastardly
confession he had partly overheard searing hot within his brain!
Oswald, raised in a moment from the desponding invalid to a
terrifying ministrant of retributive justice.
Orlando could scarcely raise his hand before the other's was upon
"Murderer! doubly-dyed murderer of innocent women!" was hissed in
the strong man's ears. "Not with the law but with me you must
reckon, and may God and the spirit of my mother nerve my arm!"
The struggle was fierce but momentary. Oswald with his weakened
powers could not long withstand the steady exertion of Orlando's
giant strength, and ere long sank away from the contest into Mr.
"You should not have summoned the shade of our mother to your aid,"
observed the other with a smile, in which the irony was lost in
terrible presage. "I was always her favourite."
Oswald shuddered. Orlando had spoken truly; she had always been
blindly, arrogantly trustful of her eldest son. No fault could she
see in him; and now--
Impetuously Oswald struggled with his weakness, raised himself in
Mr. Challoner's arms and cried in loud revolt:
"But God is just. He will not let you escape. If He does, I will
not. I will hound you to the ends of this earth and, if necessary,
into the eternities. Not with the threat of my arm--you are my
master there, but with the curse of a brother who believed you
innocent of his darling's blood and would have believed you so in
face of everything but your own word."
"Peace!" adjured Orlando. "There is no account I am not ready to
settle. I have robbed you of the woman you love, but I have
despoiled myself. I stand desolate in the world, who but an hour
ago could have chosen my seat among the best and greatest. What
can your curses do after that?"
"Nothing." The word came slowly like a drop wrung from a nearly
spent heart. "Nothing; nothing. Oh, Orlando, I wish we were both
dead and buried and that there were no further life for either of
The softened tone, the wistful prayer which would blot out an
immortality of joy for the one, that it might save the other from
an immortality of retribution, touched some long unsounded chord
in Orlando's extraordinary nature.
Advancing a step, he held out his hand--the left one. "We'll
leave the future to itself, Oswald, and do what we can with the
present," said he. "I've made a mess of my life and spoiled a
career which might have made us both kings. Forgive me, Oswald.
I ask for nothing else from God or man. I should like that. It
would strengthen me for to-morrow."
But Oswald, ever kindly, generous and more ready to think of others
than of himself, had yet some of Orlando's tenacity. He gazed at
that hand and a flush swept up over his cheek which instantly became
"I cannot," said he--"not even the left one. May God forgive me!"
Orlando, struck silent for a moment, dropped his hand and slowly
turned away. Mr. Challoner felt Oswald stiffen in his arms, and
break suddenly away, only to stop short before he had taken one of
the half dozen steps between himself and his departing brother.
"Where are you going?" he demanded in tones which made Orlando turn.
"I might say, To the devil," was the sarcastic reply. "But I doubt
if he would receive me. No," he added, in more ordinary tones as
the other shivered and again started forward, "you will have no
trouble in finding me in my own room to-night. I have letters to
write and--other things. A man like me cannot drop out without a
ripple. You may go to bed and sleep. I will keep awake for two."
"Orlando!" Visions were passing before Oswald's eyes, soul-crushing
visions such as in his blameless life he never thought could enter
into his consciousness or blast his tranquil outlook upon life.
"Orlando!" he again appealed, covering his eyes in a frenzied
attempt to shut out these horrors, "I cannot let you go like this.
"To-morrow, in every niche and corner of this world, wherever Edith
Challoner's name has gone, wherever my name has gone, it will be
known that the discoverer of a practical air-ship, is a man whom
they can no longer honour. Do you think that is not hell enough
for me; or that I do not realise the hell it will be for you? I've
never wearied you or any man with my affection; but I'm not all
demon. I would gladly have spared you this additional anguish; but
that was impossible. You are my brother and must suffer from the
connection whether we would have it so of not. If it promises too
much misery--and I know no misery like that of shame--come with
me where I go to-morrow. There will be room for two."
Oswald, swaying with weakness, but maddened by the sight of an
overthrow which carried with it the stifled affections and the
admiration of his whole life, gave a bound forward, opened his
Orlando stopped short. Gazing down on his prostrate brother, he
stood for a moment with a gleam of something like human tenderness
showing through the flare of dying passions and perishing hopes;
then he swung open the door and passed quietly out, and Mr.
Challoner could hear the laughing remark with which he met and
dismissed the half-dozen men and women who had been drawn to this
end of the hall by what had sounded to them like a fracas between
FIVE O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING
The clock in the hotel office struck three. Orlando Brotherson
counted the strokes; then went on writing. His transom was partly
open and he had just heard a step go by his door. This was nothing
new. He had already heard it several times before that night. It
was Mr. Challoner's step, and every time it passed, he had rustled
his papers or scratched vigorously with his pen. "He is keeping
watch for Oswald," was his thought. "They fear a sudden end to this.
No one, not the son of my mother knows me. Do I know myself?"
Four o'clock! The light was still burning, the pile of letters he
was writing increasing.
Five o'clock! A rattling shade betrays an open window. No other
sound disturbs the quiet of the room. It is empty now; but Mr.
Challoner, long since satisfied that all was well, goes by no
more. Silence has settled upon the hotel;--that heavy silence
which precedes the dawn.
There was silence in the streets also. The few who were abroad,
crept quietly along. An electric storm was in the air and the
surcharged clouds hung heavy and low, biding the moment of outbreak.
A man who had left a place of many shadows for the more open road,
paused and looked up at these clouds; then went calmly on.
Suddenly the shriek of an approaching train tears through the
valley. Has it a call for this man? No. Yet he pauses in the
midst of the street he is crossing and watches, as a child might
watch, for the flash of its lights at the end of the darkened vista.
It comes--filling the empty space at which he stares with moving
life--engine, baggage car and a long string of Pullmans. Then all
is dark again and only the noise of its slackening wheels comes to
him through the night. It has stopped at the station. A minute
longer and it has started again, and the quickly lessening rumble
of its departure is all that remains of this vision of man's
activity and ceaseless expectancy. When it is quite gone and all
is quiet, a sigh falls from the man's lips and he moves on, but
this time, for some unexplainable reason, in the direction of the
station. With lowered head he passes along, noting little till he
arrives within sight of the depot where some freight is being
handled, and a trunk or two wheeled down the platform. No sight
could be more ordinary or unsuggestive, but it has its attraction
for him, for he looks up as he goes by and follows the passage of
that truck down the platform till it has reached the corner and
disappeared. Then he sighs again and again moves on.
A cluster of houses, one of them open and lighted, was all which
lay between him now and the country road. He was hurrying past,
for his step had unconsciously quickened as he turned his back
upon the station, when he was seized again by that mood of
curiosity and stepped up to the door from which a light issued
and looked in. A common eating-room lay before him, with rudely
spread tables and one very sleepy waiter taking orders from a new
arrival who sat with his back to the door. Why did the lonely
man on the sidewalk start as his eye fell on the latter's
commonplace figure, a hungry man demanding breakfast in a cheap,
country restaurant? His own physique was powerful while that of
the other looked slim and frail. But fear was in the air, and
the brooding of a tempest affects some temperaments in a totally
unexpected manner. As the man inside turns slightly and looks up,
the master figure on the sidewalk vanishes, and his step, if any
one had been interested enough to listen, rings with a new note as
it turns into the country road it has at last reached.
But no one heeded. The new arrival munches his roll and waits
impatiently for his coffee, while without, the clouds pile
soundlessly in the sky, one of them taking the form of a huge
hand with clutching fingers reaching down into the hollow void beneath.
Mr. Challoner had been honest in his statement regarding the
departure of Sweetwater. He had not only paid and dismissed our
young detective, but he had seen him take the train for New York.
And Sweetwater had gone away in good faith, too, possibly with his
convictions undisturbed, but acknowledging at last that he had
reached the end of his resources. But the brain does not loose
its hold upon its work as readily as the hand does. He was halfway
to New York and had consciously bidden farewell to the whole subject,
when he suddenly startled those about him by rising impetuously to
his feet. He sat again immediately, but with a light in his small
grey eye which Mr. Gryce would have understood and revelled in. The
idea for which he had searched industriously for months had come at
last, unbidden; thrown up from some remote recess of the mind which
had seemingly closed upon the subject forever.
"I have it. I have it," he murmured in ceaseless reiteration to
himself. "I will go back to Mr. Challoner and let him decide if
the idea is worth pursuing. Perhaps an experiment may be necessary.
It was bitter cold that night; I wish it were icy weather now. But
a chemist can help us out. Good God! if this should be the
explanation of the mystery, alas for Orlando and alas for Oswald!"
But his sympathies did not deter him. He returned to Derby at once,
and as soon as he dared, presented himself at the hotel and asked
for Mr. Challoner.
He was amazed to find that gentleman already up and in a state of
agitation that was very disquieting. But he brightened wonderfully
at sight of his visitor, and drawing him inside the room, observed
with trembling eagerness:
"I do not know why you have come back, but never was man more
welcome. Mr. Brotherson has confessed."
"Yes, he killed both women; my daughter and his neighbour, the
washerwoman, with a--"
"Wait," broke in Sweetwater, eagerly, "let me tell you." And
stooping, he whispered something in the other's ear.
Mr. Challoner stared at him amazed, then slowly nodded his head.
"How came you to think--" he began; but Sweetwater in his great
anxiety interrupted him with a quick:
"Explanations will keep, Mr. Challoner. What of the man himself?
Where is he? That's the important thing now."
"He was in his room till early this morning writing letters, but he
is not there now. The door is unlocked and I went in. From
appearances I fear the worst. That is why your presence relieves
me so. Where do you think he is?"
"In his hangar in the woods. Where else would he go to--"
"I have thought of that. Shall we start out alone or take witnesses
"We will go alone. Does Oswald anticipate--"
"He is sure. But he lacks strength to move. He lies on my bed in
there. Doris and her father are with him."
"We will not wait a minute. How the storm holds off. I hope it
will hold off for another hour."
Mr. Challoner made no reply. He had spoken because he felt
compelled to speak, but it had not been easy for him, nor could any
trifles move him now.
The town was up by this time and, though they chose the least
frequented streets, they had to suffer from some encounters. It
was a good half hour before they found themselves in the forest and
in sight of the hangar. One look that way, and Sweetwater turned
to see what the effect was upon Mr. Challoner.
A murmur of dismay greeted him. The oval of that great lid stood
up against the forest background.
"He has escaped," cried Mr. Challoner.
But Sweetwater, laying a finger on his lip, advanced and laid his
ear against the door. Then he cast a quick look aloft. Nothing
was to be seen there. The darkness of storm in the heavens but
nothing more.--Yes! now, a flash of vivid and destructive lightning!
The two men drew back and their glances crossed.
"Let us return to the highroad," whispered Sweetwater; "we can see
Mr. Challoner, trembling very much, wheeled slowly about.
"Wait," enjoined Sweetwater. "First let me take a look inside."
Running to the nearest tree, he quickly climbed it, worked himself
along a protruding branch and looked down into the open hangar. It
was now so dark that details escaped him, but one thing was certain.
The air-ship was not there.
Descending, he drew Mr. Challoner hastily along. "He's gone," said
he. "Let us reach the high ground as quickly as we can. I'm glad
that Mr. Oswald Brotherson is not with us or--or Miss Doris."
But this expression of satisfaction died on his lips. At the point
where the forest road debouches into the highway, he had already
caught a glimpse of their two figures. They were waiting for news,
and the brother spoke up the instant he saw Sweetwater:
"Where is he? You've not found him or you wouldn't be coming alone.
He cannot have gone up. He cannot manage it without an assistant.
We must seek him somewhere else; in the forest or in our house at
home. Ah!" The lightning had forked again.
"He's not in the forest and he's not in your home," returned
Sweetwater. "He's aloft; the air-ship is not in the shed. And he
can go up alone now." Then more slowly: "But he cannot come down."
They strained their eyes in a maddening search of the heavens. But
the darkness had so increased that they could be sure of nothing.
Doris sank upon her knees.
Suddenly the lightning flashed again, this time so vividly and so
near that the whole heaven burst into fiery illumination above them
and the thunder, crashing almost simultaneously, seemed for a moment
to rock the world and bow the heavens towards them. Then a silence;
then Sweetwater's whisper in Mr. Challoner's ear:
"Take them away! I saw him; he was falling like a shot."
Mr. Challoner threw out his arms, then steadied himself. Oswald was
reeling; Oswald had seen too. But Doris was there. When the
lightning flashed again, she was standing and Oswald was weeping on