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- The Hollow of Her Hand - 5/75 -
in a great buffalo coat waited for her outside, hiccoughing and bandying jest with the half-frozen men who had spent the night with him in the forlorn hope of finding THE GIRL.
Mrs. Wrandall gave final instructions to the coroner and his deputy, who happened to be the undertaker's assistant. She had answered all the questions that had been put to her, and had signed the document with a firm, untrembling hand. Her veil had been lowered since the beginning of the examination. They did not see her face; they only heard the calm, low voice, sweet with fatigue and dread.
"I shall notify my brother-in-law as soon as I reach the city," she said. "He will attend to everything. Mr. Leslie Wrandall, I mean. My husband's only brother. He will be here in the morning, Dr. Sheef. My own apartment is not open. I have been staying in a hotel since my return from Europe two days ago. But I shall attend to the opening of the place to-morrow. You will find me there."
The coroner hesitated a moment before putting the question that had come to his mind as she spoke.
"Two days ago, madam? May I inquire where your husband has been living during your absence abroad? When did you last see him alive?"
She did not reply for many seconds, and then it was with a perceptible effort.
"I have not seen him since my return until--to-night," she replied, a hoarse note creeping into her voice. "He did not meet me on my return. His brother Leslie came to the dock. He--he said that Challis, who came back from Europe two weeks ahead of me, had been called to St. Louis on very important, business. My husband had been living at his club, I understand. That is all I can tell you, sir."
"I see," said the coroner gently.
He opened the door for her and she passed out. A number of men were grouped about the throbbing motor-car. They fell away as she approached, silently fading into the shadows like so many vast, unwholesome ghosts. The sheriff and Drake came forward.
"This man will go with you, madam," said the sheriff, pointing to an unsteady figure beside the machine. "He is the only one who will undertake it. They're all played out, you see. He has been drinking, but only on account of the hardships he has undergone to-night. You will be quite safe with Morley."
No snow was falling, but a bleak wind blew meanly. The air was free from particles of sleet; wetly the fall of the night clung to the earth where it had fallen.
"If he will guide me to the Post-road, that is all I ask," said she hurriedly. Involuntarily she glanced upward. The curtains in an upstairs window were blowing inward and a dim light shone out upon the roof of the porch. She shuddered and then climbed up to the seat and took her place at the wheel.
A few moments later, the three men standing in the middle of the road watched the car as it rushed away.
"By George, she's a wonder!" said the sheriff.
THE PASSING OF A NIGHT
The sheriff was right. Sara Wrandall was an extraordinary woman, if I may be permitted to modify his rather crude estimate of her. It is difficult to understand, much less to describe a nature like hers. Fine-minded, gently bred women who can go through an ordeal such as she experienced without breaking under the strain are rare indeed. They must be wonderful. It is hard to imagine a more heart-breaking crisis in life than the one which confronted her on this dreadful night, and yet she had faced it with a fortitude that seems almost unholy.
She had loved her handsome, wayward husband. He had hurt her deeply more times than she chose to remember during the six years of their married life, but she had loved him in spite of the wounds up to the instant when she stood beside his dead body in the cold little room at Burton's Inn. She went there loving him as he had lived, yet prepared, almost foresworn, to loathe him as he had died, and she left him lying there alone in that dreary room without a spark of the old affection in her soul. Her love for him died in giving birth to the hatred that now possessed her. While he lived it was not in her power to control the unreasoning resistless thing that stands for love in woman: he WAS her love, the master of her impulses. Dead, he was an unwholesome, unlovely clod, a pallid thing to be scorned, a hulk of worthless clay. His blood was cold. He could no longer warm her with it; it could no longer kill the chill that his misdeeds cast about her tender sensitiveness; his lips and eyes never more could smile and conquer. He was a dead thing. Her love was a dead thing. They lay separate and apart. The tie was broken. With love died the final spark of respect she had left for him in her tired, loyal, betrayed heart. He was at last a thing to be despised, even by her. She despised him.
She sent the car down the slope and across the moonless valley with small regard for her own or her companion's safety. It swerved from side to side, skidded and leaped with terrifying suddenness, but held its way as straight as the bird that flies, driven by a steady hand and a mind that had no thought for peril. A sober man at her side would have been afraid; this man swayed mildly to and fro and chuckled with drunken glee.
Her bitter thoughts were not of the dead man back there, but of the live years that she was to bury with him: years that would never pass beyond her ken, that would never die. He had loved her in his wild, ruthless way. He had left her times without number in the years gone by, but he had always come back, gaily unchastened, to remould the love that waited with dog-like fidelity for the touch of his cunning hand. But he had taken his last flight. He would not come back again. It was all over. Once too often he had tried his reckless wings. She would not have to forgive him again. Uppermost in her mind was the curiously restful thought that his troubles were over, and with them her own. A hand less forgiving than hers had struck him dead.
Somehow, she envied the woman to whom that hand belonged. It had been her divine right to kill, and yet another took it from her.
Back there at the inn she had said to the astonished sheriff:
"Poor thing, if she can escape punishment for this, let it be so. I shall not help the law to kill her simply because she took it in her own hands to pay that man what she owed him. I shall not be the one to say that he did not deserve death at her hands, whoever she may be. No, I shall offer no reward. If you catch her, I shall be sorry for her, Mr. Sheriff. Believe me, I bear her no grudge."
"But she robbed him," the sheriff had cried.
"From my point of view, Mr. Sheriff, that hasn't anything to do with the case," was her significant reply.
"Of course, I am not defending HIM."
"Nor am I defending her," she had retorted. "It would appear that she is able to defend herself."
Now, on the cold, trackless road, she was saying to herself that she did have a grudge against the woman who had destroyed the life that belonged to her, who had killed the thing that was hers to kill. She could not mourn for him. She could only wonder what the poor, hunted terrified creature would do when taken and made to pay for the thing she had done.
Once, in the course of her bitter reflections, she spoke aloud in a shrill, tense voice, forgetful of the presence of the man beside her:
"Thank God, they will see him now as I have seen him all these years. They will know him as they have never known him. Thank God for that!"
The man looked at her stupidly and muttered something under his breath. She heard him, and recalling her wits, asked which turn she was to take for the station. The fellow lopped back in the seat, too drunk to reply.
For a moment she was dismayed, frightened. Then she resolutely reached out and shook him by the shoulder. She had brought the car to a full stop.
"Arouse yourself, man!" she cried. "Do you want to freeze to death? Where is the station?"
He straightened up with an effort, and, after vainly seeking light in the darkness, fell back again with a grunt, but managed to wave his hand toward the left. She took the chance. In five minutes she brought the car to a standstill beside the station. Through the window she saw a man with his feet cocked high, reading. He leaped to his feet in amazement as she entered the waiting-room.
"Are you the agent?" she demanded.
"No, ma'am. I'm simply stayin' here for the sheriff. We're lookin' for a woman--Say!" He stopped short and stared at the veiled face with wide, excited eyes. "Gee whiz! Maybe you--"
"No, I am not the woman you want. Do you know anything about the trains?"
"I guess I'll telephone to the sheriff before I--"
"If you will step outside you will find one of the sheriff's deputies in my automobile, helplessly intoxicated. I am Mrs. Wrandall."
"Oh," he gasped. "I heard 'em say you were coming up to-night. Well, say! What do you think of--"
"Is there a train in before morning?"
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