« PreviousContinue »
THE RECTOR'S HAT
he was surprised by a visit from Judge Barnwell. The Judge, neighbor and friend, had often called to inquire after the Rector's state, during the critical stages of his long confinement; but, so
"I think I may venture," the invalid said, with a faint smile. "The Judge is a gentleman; he will not agitate or shock me, I am sure. You may bring him in with my compliments, although the doctors may object when they find it out."
rigorous were the orders of the physician in charge, not even Judge Barnwell had been permitted to cross the threshold of the door that opened into the sick man's chamber.
"Says he must see me at once on business of importance?" said the Rector, feebly, when the housekeeper told him that Judge Barnwell was imperative in his demand to see him. The giving of his deposition to a man learned in the law, but unlearned in the art of caring for the sick, had been a severe ordeal to the Rector, when the trial of the dissolute and idle apprentice, Jack Dunning, was going on; and since then, no man without the approval of the doctor had been brought to his bedside.
But it was the Judge, and not the Rector, who was agitated when the two men met. The sick man was startled, but his good breeding stood him well, and he suppressed from his face the surprise he felt in his mind as he looked at the haggard and drawn countenance of the Judge, once so full and rubicund, so suggestive of good living and an occasional bottle of sound old wine, but now cleared of color.
"You look as if you had had a fit of sickness," said the Rector, when the two men were left together.
"I have," replied the Judge, sententiously. Then rising and carefully locking the door to guard against intrusion, Judge Barnwell said: "My dear doctor, I have a terrible and sorrowful communication to make." He paused and gulped down what seemed to be a sob. The Rector, dazed and speechless, waited in silence.
Slowly unbuttoning his overcoat, the Judge drew forth from its concealment a soft, black hat which the Rector instantly recognized as his own. Even in his excitement at seeing again the head-covering which he had worn on that fatal night, Dr. Littlefield noticed trifles. He saw that the Judge's hands were white and fine; he looked at the seal ring on the third finger of his left hand, and vaguely wondered if that ring did not have some reference to the Judge's dead wife. He took note of the card which the Judge drew from the lining of the hat and laid on the coverlet. He knew that that card bore his name and title: "The Reverend Justinian Littlefield, Trinity Parish, Millbrook, Mass." To be sure it was his hat; but what of it?
Suddenly he heard, as if from afar, a
familiar voice cry, "Oh, you'll damn my father, the Judge, will you?"
'I found this hat in my son's private locker, this morning," said Judge Barnwell, huskily, his cold blue eyes fixed on the face of the broken man there lying, a hopeless and helpless cripple. "Found it in his private locker, where he had unwittingly directed me, by letter, to look for garments to be sent to him." The Rector's brain reeled in a vain endeavor to comprehend what this should mean to the Judge, and why his face was so aged all at once by this discovery. He feebly tried to grasp the situation; even men who are in full possession of all their faculties are of ten bothered to see what relation to a crime some trivial fact may have, although the fact is the key of an intricate puzzle. The Rector's mind was weak and enfeebled. He was never again the strong, sane man he had been before his fall.
The Judge remorselessly went on with his story, in spite of the Rector's evident weakness and inability to understand what was said. My son," and here the Judge gulped down another sob; "my son.wore this hat on the night when you were assaulted in Red Lane. I saw him come into the house with it on his head, and marvelled much that he should have a hat so different from that which he customarily wore. He never, to my knowledge, wore it after that night. It is not my habit to inquire of George concerning his wearing apparel; and I never asked of him why he procured this hat, nor why he never wore it after that fatal night."
Still the Rector was unable to take in the meaning of Judge Barnwell's revelation. He regarded his visitor with silent surprise. Noticing this, the Judge patiently added: My dear doctor, my unfortunate and misguided son was your assailant in Red Lane. He may have been an accessory only, or he may have been so far gone in his cups that he assaulted you blindly and alone. But he was in the fracas that so nearly cost you your life. He wore home your hat without noticing that it was not his, I presume, having lost his own. If he were wholly guiltless of
"My poor friend," said the Rector, at last, touched by the emotion of a strong man in his grief, "do not take this thing so hard. There is some dreadful mistake here. I gave nobody any provocation on that night, nor indeed on any other night. It could not have been George who threw me from the bridge. He had no reason.”
'He was not himself that night. He shut himself in his room when he returned home, and saw no one. If he assaulted you, he did it while in temporary delirium, ignorant of the person assaulted."
Judge Barnwell, Senior Warden of Trinity, was a stern man, a citizen of dignity and standing in Millbrook ; he was one of the pillars of society. His son's waywardness had often humiliated him. Could it be possible that the son should now be justly the inmate of a cell in the penitentiary in the place of Jack Dunning? Jack Dunning, the idle apprentice whose illrepute was wide, though Jack too had his friends and boon companions?
"Was nothing said in the darkness, no word to indicate why you were so grievously assaulted?" asked the Judge, knitting his brows.
The Rector hesitated for a moment, then, with an effort of the memory, he said, in an unnatural voice, that seemed like the voice of some other man, “Oh, you'll damn my father, the Judge, will you?" Then he stopped and with an appealing look at his Senior Warden, seemed to ask that he might be spared further questions. He had great respect for the Judge who was also Senior Warden.
The upright Judge covered his eyes with the Rector's hat and bitterly thought. His mind was occupied with a single-minded sentiment, his dignity.
Must his son, the son of the upright Judge and Senior Warden, be denounced as an accessory, possibly as a principal, in the shameful affair for which Jack Dunning, the idle apprentice, was now securely locked in a felon's cell? So far the secret of George Barnwell's complicity was safe; the Rector would never tell. The Judge, dropping the brim of the Rector's hat from his face, looked at the mild and almost vacuous countenance of the invalid, who would always be an invalid. Jack Dunning was a ne'er-do-well and would soon reach the gallows if he were out of jail. To keep him there was to prolong his life, perhaps reform him altogether. The law was satisfied. What good could come of the trial and conviction of an accomplice, or of the substitution of the real criminal for the innocent man? Who could tell whether Jack Dunning were not justly convicted, after all? He had had a fair trial; the upright Judge had seen to that. And it was all a mystery.
"I never said a word that could be construed into a condemnation of you or any other Judge," said the Rector, weakly.
"Of course you never did, my dear friend and pastor. Of course you never did; and I cannot imagine why any man should put such atrocious words into your mouth or impute to you such wicked intentions." The Senior Warden was looking into the Rector's hat now. As he gazed into the hollow of its crown he seemed to see, as in a phantasmagoria, the figure of a stalwart and comely youth who leaned against the grated window of his cell and looked hopelessly and listlessly over a dim landscape, in which he should have no nearer relation for many a weary year. He saw the dull look of the convict; he noticed that the thick hair which the man had worn so jauntily on his trial and when he had been sentenced by the upright Judge, was gone from his head; he looked the jail-bird that he was. He called to mind the stammering protes
tations of innocence and the pas-
"Jack Dunning is a bad and dissolute young man," said the Judge. "Very, very," replied the Rector. "I am sorry for his poor widowed mother; but after Jack has served out his sentence, I have no doubt that he will be a better boy, a better boy." The Rector's mind slightly wandered.
The Judge picked up the hat and gazed into it with eyes that saw nothing. But in his mental vision stood his handsome son, his only son, heir to his name and fair repute. Village gossips had said that George Barnwell was a wild young fellow; but he meant no harm; he "Tenderly lifted and carried up the bank by willing hands."-Page 207. would come out all right after he
THE high road just over the eastern ridge from the village by the river was impassable for even the stoutest teams. It had been driven full of snow by December winds, and the snow had fallen, and frozen, and thawed, and settled, and frozen again, all through the winter. It mattered nothing that the road was not broken out; there were but two dwellings on it, and their men went over the ridge and to the village on snowshoes, on their infrequent errands.
One day in March a young man in blue was making his way slowly along this road. A thaw was on, and the deep snow was treacherously soft; he would take a few steps securely, and at the next sink to his hips. It was hard work. The sun shone bright and warm; the fresh, cold smell of snowwater was in the air; in the deep gorge below the road, on the east, a black stream rushed violently between icy banks. A saw-mill was farther down, with the houses, where the gorge became a valley, and the wind, setting up, brought the odor of new pine-boards. swallowed at it hungrily. The road dipped beneath some heavy hemlocks, and the snow was hard and supporting. He stood a moment there, resting; broke some small twigs over his head, stripped the green needles in his hand, crushing them and smelling at them. He took some of them between his lips experimentally, but they were very bitter and he spat them out. Then the whir of saws came loud on the fresher wind, and he started on.
A bend in the road would have brought him in sight of the mill; but
By George I. Putnam
ILLUSTRATIONS BY CORWIN KNAPP LINSON
he turned sharply to his right behind the bold ridge-spur, stumbled over the stone boundary wall, half - buried in snow, and climbed the wind-swept slope. The skirt of his long blue overcoat beat an irregular tattoo under his knees with its broken fringe of gathered snow, and he marched for the nearest point of the wood that hung above him. He passed among the trees quickly.
On the river side of the ridge, in the edge of the wood, he stood some minutes, narrowly watching. He had avoided the village by the high-road detour, and was about two miles south of it. The line of the turnpike could be seen, up and down, far along the valley. No moving object was in sight. A square old farm-house, with the comfortable smoke of a wood fire drifting from its central chimney, was below him. He watched as keenly as an Indian for suspicious signs about it, or on the road, or in the far-off edge of the village. Satisfied at last, or impelled by hunger, he broke from the wood, hastened down the cleared slope, gained the south door of the farm-house, and knocked.
It was opened almost immediately by a girl, who had seen him coming and noted his military dress. She spoke cordially:
"Come in, won't you?"
He stepped into the kitchen, took off his cap, and she closed the door behind him. She was a large girl, with a full, serious face. Her figure was youthfully slender, but her step was firm as that of a person of decided judgment;