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Unjudged by Will Lillibridge

 

The source of this manuscript lies in tragedy. My possession of it is purely adventitious. That I have had it long you may know, for it came to me at an inland prairie town, far removed from water or mountain, while for ten years or more my name, above the big-lettered dentist sign, has stood here on my office window in this city by the lake. I have waited, hoping some one would come as claimant; but my hair is turning white and I can wait no longer. As now I write of the past, the time of the manuscript's coming stands clear amid a host of hazy, half-forgotten things.

It was after regular hours, of the day I write, that a man came hurriedly into my office, complaining of a fiercely aching tooth. Against my advice he insisted on an immediate extraction, and the use of an anæsthetic. I telephoned for a physician, and while awaiting his coming my patient placed in my keeping an expansible leather-covered book of a large pocket size.

“Should anything go wrong,” he said, “there are instructions inside.”

The request is common from those unused to an operation, and I accepted without other comment than to assure him he need fear no danger.

Upon arriving, the physician made the customary examination and proceeded to administer chloroform. The patient was visibly excited, but neither of us attached any importance to that under the circumstances. Almost before the effect of the anæsthetic was noticeable, however, there began a series of violent muscular spasms and contractions. The inhaler was removed and all restoratives known to the profession used, but without avail. He died in a few moments, and without regaining consciousness. The symptoms were suspicious, entirely foreign to any caused by the anæsthetic, and at the inquest the cause came to light. In the man's stomach was a large quantity of strychnine. That he knew something of medicine is certain, for the action of the alkaloid varies little, and he had the timing to a nicety.

The man was, I should judge, thirty years of age, smooth of face and slightly built. Nerve was in every line of face and body. He was faultlessly dressed and perfectly groomed. He wore no jewelry, not even a watch; but within the pocket of his vest was found a small jewel-case containing two beautiful white diamonds, each of more than a carat weight. One was unset, the other mounted in a lady's ring. There was money in plenty upon his person, but not an article that would give the slightest clue to his identity.

One peculiar thing about him I noticed, and could not account for: upon the palm of each hand was a row of irregular abrasions, but slightly healed, and which looked as though made by some dull instrument.

The book with which he entrusted me had begun as a journal, but with the passage of events it had outgrown its original plan. Being expansible, fresh sheets had been added as it grew, and at the back of the book, on one of these blanks, had been hastily scratched, in pencil, the message of which he spoke:

“You will find sufficient money in my pockets to cover all expenses. Do not take my trinkets, please! Associations make them dear to me. Any attempt to discover my friends will be useless.”

Notwithstanding the last sentence the body was embalmed and the death advertised; but no response came, and after three days the body and the tokens he loved were quietly buried here in the city.

Meantime I had read the book, beginning from a sense of duty that grew into a passing interest, and ended by making me unaware of both time and place. I give you the journal as it stands, word for word and date for date. Would that I could show you the handwriting in the original as well. No printed page can tell the story of mood as can the lines of this journal. There were moments of passion when words slurred and overtook each other, as thought moved more rapidly than the characters which recorded; and again, periods of uncertainty when the hand tarried and busied itself with forming meaningless figures, while the conscious mind roamed far away.

                  * * * * *

March 17. Why do I begin a journal now, a thing I have never done before? Had another asked the question, I could have turned it off with a laugh, but with myself it will not do. I must answer it, and honestly. Know then, my ego who catechises, I have things to tell, feelings to describe that are new to me and which I cannot tell to another. The excuse sounds childish; but listen: I speak it softly: I love, and he who loves is ever as a child. I smile at myself for making the admission. I, a man whose hair is thinning and silvering, who has written of love all his life, and laughed at it. Oh, it's humorous, deliciously humorous. To think that I have become, in reality, the fool I pictured others in fancy!

April 2. Gods, she was beautiful to-night!—the way she came to meet me: the long skirt that hung so gracefully, and that fluffy, white, sleeveless thing that fitted her so perfectly and showed her white arms and the curves of her throat. I forgot to rise, and I fear I stared at her. I can yet see the smile that crept through the long lashes as she looked at me, and as I stumbled an apology she was smiling all the time. How I came away I swear I don't know. Instinct, I suppose; for now at last I have an incentive. I must work mightily, and earn a name—for her.

April 4. He says it is a strong plot and that he will help me. That means the book will succeed. I wonder how a man feels who can do things, not merely dream them. I expected he would laugh when I told him the plot, especially when I told whom the woman was; but he didn't say a word. He thinks, as I do, that it would be better to leave the story's connection with her a surprise until the book is published. He is coming up here to work to-morrow. “Keep a plot warm,” he says: “especially one with a love in it.” He looked at me out of the corner of his eye as he spoke, so peculiarly I hardly knew whether he was laughing at me or not. I suppose, just now, my state of mind is rather obvious and amusing.

May 3. As I expected, the reaction is on. What a price we have to pay for our happy moments in this world! I'm tired to-night and a little discouraged, for I worked hard all day, and did not accomplish much. “Lack of inspiration,” he said. “The heroine is becoming a trifle dim. Hadn't you better go and enthuse a little to-night?”

I was not in a mood to be chaffed; I told him shortly: “No, you had better go yourself.”

He smiled and thanked me. “With your permission,” he said, “I will.”

Nature certainly has been kind to him, for he is handsome and fascinating beyond any man I ever knew. I wanted to use him in the story, but he positively refused. He said that I would do better. So we finally compromised on a combination. “The man” has his hair and my eyes, his nose and my mouth. Over the chin we each smiled a little grimly, for it is stubborn—square, and fits us both. After all, it is not a bad ensemble. The character has his weak points, but, all in all, he is not bad to look upon.

June 10. We went driving this evening, she and I, far out into the country, going and coming slowly. The night was perfect, with a full moon and a soft south wind. Nature's music makers were all busy. On the high places, the crickets sang loudly their lonesome song to the night, while from the distant river and lowlands there came the uncertain minor of countless frogs in chorus.

For two hours I tasted happiness, divine happiness, happiness so complete that I forgot time.

I have known many beautiful women, women splendid as animals are splendid, but never before one whose intense womanliness made me forget that she was beautiful. I can't explain; it is too subtle and holy a thing. I sat by her side, so near that we touched, and worshipped as I never worshipped at church. If but for this night alone, my life is worth the living.

June 12. It seems peculiar that he should be working with me at this story; strange that he should care to know me at all. Perhaps I stand a little in awe of the successful man; I think we all do. At least, he is the example par excellence. I have seen him go into a room filled with total strangers, and though he never spoke a word, have heard the question all about,—“Who is he?” Years ago, when he as well as I was an unknown writer, we each submitted a story to the same editor, by the same mail. Both were returned. I can still see the expression on his face as he opened his envelope, and thrust the manuscript into his pocket. He did not say a word, but his manner of donning his top-coat and hat, and the crash of the front door behind him betrayed his disappointment. His work was afterwards published at his own risk. The ink on my story is fading, but I have it still.

July 2. She is going to the coast for the season, and I called to-night to say au revoir. I could see her only a few minutes as her carriage was already waiting; something, I believe, in honor of her last night in town. She was in evening dress, and beautiful—I cannot describe. Think of the most beautiful woman you have ever known, and then—but it is useless, for you have not known her.

I was intoxicated; happy as a boy; happy as a god. I filled the few moments I had, full to overflowing. I told her what every man tells some woman some time in his life. For once I felt the power of a master, and I spoke well.

She did not answer; I asked her not to. I could not tell her all, and I would have no reply before. Her face was turned from me as I spoke, but her ears turned pink and her breath came quickly. I looked at her and the magnitude of my presumption held me dumb; yet a warm happy glow was upon me, and the tapping of feet on the pavement below sounded as sweetest music.

As I watched her she turned, her eyes glistening and her throat all a-tremble. She held out her hand to say good-bye. I took it in mine; and at the touch my resolution and all other things of earth were forgotten, and I did that which I had come hoping to do. Gently, I slipped a ring with a single setting over her finger, then bending low, I touched the hand with my lips—whitest, softest, dearest hand in God's world. Then I heard her breath break in a sob, and felt upon my hair the falling of a tear.

August 5. I am homesick to-night and tired. It is ten-thirty, and, I have just gotten dinner. I forgot all about it before. The story is moving swiftly. It is nearly finished now, moreover it is good; I know it. I sent a big roll of manuscript to him to-day. He is at the coast, and polishes the rough draft as fast as I send it in. He tells me he has secured a publisher, and that the book will be out in a few months. I can hardly wait to finish, for then I, too, can leave town. I will not go before; I have work to do, and can do it better here. He tells me he has seen her several times. God! a man who writes novels and can mention her incidentally, as though speaking of a dinner-party!

August 30. I finished to-day and expressed him the last scrap of copy. I wanted to sing, I was so happy. Then I bethought me, it is her birthday. I went down town and picked out a stone that pleased me. Their messenger will deliver it, and she can choose her own setting. How I'd like to carry it myself, but I have a little more work to do before I go. Only two more days, and then—

I have been counting the time since she left: almost two months; it seems incredible when I think of it.

How I have worked! Next time I write, my journal confessor, I will have something to tell: I will have seen her—she who wears my ring.... Ah! here comes my man for orders. A few of my bachelor friends help me celebrate here to-night. I have not told them it is the last time.

September 5. Let me think; I am confused. This hotel is vile, abominable, but there is no other. That cursed odor of stale tobacco, and of cookery!

The landlord says they were here yesterday and went West. It's easy to trace them—everybody notices. A tall man, dark, with a firm jaw; the most beautiful woman they have ever seen—they all say the same. My God! and I'm hung up here, inactive a whole day! But I'll find them, they can't escape; and then they'll laugh at me, probably.

What can I do? I don't know. I can't think. I must find them first ... that cursed odor again!

Oh, what a child, a worse than fool I have been! To sit there in town pouring the best work of my life into his hands! I must have that book, I will have it. To think how I trusted her—waited until my hair began to turn—for this!

But I must stop. This is useless, it's madness.

September 9. It is a beautiful night. I have just come in from a long walk, how long I don't know. I went to the suburbs and through the parks, watching the young people sitting, two and two, in the shadow. I smiled at the sight, for in fancy I could hear what they were saying. Then I wandered over to the lakefront and stood a long time, with the waves lapping musically against the rocks below, and the moonlight glistening on a million reflectors. The great stretch of water in front, and the great city behind me sang low in concord, while the stars looked down smiling at the refrain. “Be calm, little mortal, be calm,” they said; “calm, tiny mortal, calm,” repeated endlessly, until the mood took hold of me, and in sympathy I smiled in return.

Was it yesterday? It seems a month since I found them. Was it I who was so hot and angry? I hold up my hand; it is as steady as my mother's when, years ago, as a boy, she laid it on my forehead with her good-night. The murmur of this big hotel speaks soothingly, like the voice of an old friend. The purr of the elevator is a voice I know. It all seems incredible. To-day is so commonplace and real, and yesterday so remote and fantastic.

He was lounging in the lobby, a hand in either pocket, when I touched him on the shoulder. He turned, but neither hands nor face failed him by a motion.

“I presume you would prefer to talk in private?” I said, “Will you come to my room?”

A smile formed slowly over his lips.

“I don't wish to deprive my—” He paused, and his eyes met mine,”—my wife of a pleasant chat with an old friend. I would suggest that you come with us to our suite.”

I nodded. In silence we went up the elevator; in equal silence, he leading, we passed along the corridor over carpets that gave out no telltale sound.

She was standing by the window when we entered. Her profile stood out clear in the shaded room, and in spite of myself a great heart-throb passed over me. She did not move at first, but at last turning she saw him and me. Then I could see her tremble; she started quickly to leave, but he barred the way. The smile was still upon his face.

“Pardon me, my dear,” he protested, “but certainly you recognize an old friend.”

She grew white to the lips, and her eyes blazed. Her hands pressed together so tightly that the fingers became blue at the nails. She looked at him; such scorn I had never seen before. Before it, the smile slowly left his face.

“Were you the fraction of a man,” she voiced slowly, icily, “you would have stopped short of—this.”

She made a motion of her hand, so slight one could scarce see it, and without a word he stepped aside. She turned toward me and, instinctively, I bent in courtesy, my eyes on the floor and a great tumult in my heart. She hesitated at passing me; without looking up I knew it; then, slowly, moved away down the corridor.

I advanced inside, closing the door behind me and snapping the lock. Neither of us said a word; no word was needed. The fighting-blood of each was up, and on each the square jaw that marked us both was set hard. I stepped up within a yard of him and looked him square in the eye. I pray God I may never be so angry again.

“What explanation have you to offer?” I asked.

His eye never wavered, though the blood left his face and lip; even then I admired his nerve. When he spoke his voice was even and natural.

“Nothing,” he sneered. “You have lost; that's all.”

Quick as thought, I threw back the taunt.

“Lost the woman, yes, thank God; the book, never. I came for that, not for her. I demand that you turn over the copy.”

Again the cool smile and the steady voice.

“You're a trifle late. I haven't a sheet; it is all gone.”

“You lie!” I flung the hot words fair in his teeth.

A smile, mocking, maddening, formed upon his face.

“I told you before you had lost. The book is copyrighted”—a pause, while the smile broadened—“copyrighted in my name, and sold.”

The instinct of battle, primitive, uncontrollable, came over me and the room turned dark. I fought it, until my hands grew greasy from the wounds where the nails bit my palms, then I lost control; of what follows all is confused.

I dimly see myself leaping at him like a wild animal; I feel the tightening of the big neck muscles as my fingers closed on his throat; I feel a soft breath of night air as we neared the open window; then in my hands a sudden lightness, and in my ears a cry of terror.

I awoke at a pounding on the door. It seemed hours later, though it must have been but seconds. I arose—and was alone. The window was wide open; in the street below, a crowd was gathering on the run, while a policeman's shrill whistle rang out on the night. A hundred faces were turned toward me as I looked down and I dimly wondered thereat.

The knocking on the door became more insistent. I turned the lock, slowly, and a woman rushed into the room. Something about her seemed familiar to me. I passed my hand over my forehead—but it was useless. I bowed low and started to walk out, but she seized me by the arm, calling my name, pleadingly. Her soft brown hair was all loose and hanging, and her big eyes swimming; her whole body trembled so that she could scarcely speak.

The grip of the white hand on my arm tightened.

“Oh! You must not go,” she cried; “you cannot.”

I tried gently to shake her off, but she clung more closely than before.

“You must let me explain,” she wailed. “I call God to witness, I was not to blame.” She drew a case from the bosom of her dress.

“Here are those stones; I never wore them. I wanted to, God knows, but I couldn't. Take them, I beg of you.” She thrust the case into my pocket. “He made me take them, you understand; made me do everything from the first. I loved him once, long ago, and since then I couldn't get away. I can't explain.” She was pleading as I never heard woman plead before. “Forgive me—tell me you forgive me—speak to me.” The grip on my arm loosened and her voice dropped.

“Oh! God, to have brought this on you when I loved you!”

The words sounded in my ears, but made no impression. It all seemed very, very strange. Why should she say such things to me? She must be mistaken—must take me for another.

I broke away from her grasp, and groped staggeringly toward the door. A weariness intense was upon me and I wanted to be home alone. As I moved away, I heard behind me a swift step as though she would follow, and my name called softly, then another movement, away.

Mechanically I turned at the sound, and saw her profile standing clear in the open window-frame. Realization came to me with a mighty rush, and with a cry that was a great sob I sprang toward her.

Suddenly the window became clear again, and through the blackness that formed about me I dimly heard a great wail of horror arise from the street below.

                  * * * * *

There was no other entry save the hasty scrawl in pencil.

 
 
 

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