Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1861–1889
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889
 
“You Thought I did it!”
By Harold Frederic (1856–1898)
 
[Born in Utica, N. Y., 1856. Died in Kenley, England, 1898. Seth’s Brother’s Wife. 1887.]

WHEN Seth awoke next morning, the position of the shadow cast by the thick green-paper curtain which covered the upper half of his window told his practised faculties that it was very late, and impelled him to get out of bed, before he began at all to remember the several momentous events of the previous evening. As he dressed he strove to get these arranged in their proper order in his mind. Curiously enough there were certain inchoate recollections of feminine screams, of bursts of hysterical sobbing, of low but rough and strange male voices, doleful and haunting, which confusedly struggled for place in his sleepy thoughts, and seemed now to be a part of the evening’s occurrences, now to belong to this present morning, and to have come to him while he was nearing the end of his sleep.
  1
  As he passed his Aunt Sabrina’s door on his way to the stairs, he heard from within this same sound of suppressed weeping. This much at least of the unlocated recollections must have belonged to the first stages of his waking. “Another quarrel with Isabel!” he thought, as he descended the stairs. “Why is it that women must always be rowing it with each other!” Then his own dispute with Albert came fresh and overpowering in distinctness of impression across his mind, and the grounds of his grievance against the temper of the other sex faded away.  2
  The living-room was vacant—the breakfast-table still standing in the disorder of a meal just finished, and the shades down as though the day had not yet begun, although the clock showed it to be past ten. One of the folding doors of the parlor was open and he heard Isabel’s voice—it struck him as being strangely altered toward harshness of fibre—calling him to enter.  3
  She stood, as he remembered her once before, in front of the piano. In the dusk of the drawn curtains—how gloomy and distrait everything about the house was this morning!—her figure was not very clearly visible, but her face was so pale that it seemed to be independent of any light. Her eyes had the effect of slight distention, and, in the shadow, were singularly dark of tint. They were gazing at him with a strange, intent, troubled look, and the expression of the pallid face went with this to disturb him vaguely. He said to himself, in the moment of waiting for her to speak, that he must keep his troth with Annie resolutely in mind, and, if needs be, not shrink from avowing and standing by it.  4
  Isabel did not offer him her hand, or tender him any greeting whatever; only looked him through and through with that searching, unaccustomed gaze.  5
  “I wouldn’t let them call you,” she said at last, speaking slowly, as if with an effort to both form these words and repress others. “I knew that you needed the sleep.”  6
  “I am sorry if I put anybody out by my laziness. But it is such a relief to be able to sleep like that once in a while, instead of having to get down to the office by eight.”  7
  “I heard you go out last night. I heard you come in this morning. But not another soul in the house suspects that you were out; not one!”  8
  The tone was unmistakably solemn, and weighted with deep feeling of some sort. Seth uneasily felt that a scene was impending, though he could not foresee its form. He felt, too, that the part he must play in it would of necessity be an awkward one.  9
  “Yes,” he answered, “the night seemed too fine to stay in-doors. Besides, I was nervous, and it did me good to walk it off. You can’t imagine how light-hearted I was when I returned, or—for that matter—how heavy-hearted when I went out.”  10
  “Seth!”  11
  The word came forth like the red flash from clouds which can no longer retain their pent-up, warring, swelling forces—an interjection of passion, of dread, of infinite troubling, of doubt wreathed in struggle with pain. She swayed slightly toward him, her hands clasped and stretched down and forward with a gesture of excessive perturbation, her great eyes lustrous with the excitement of this battle of emotions. Seth fancied that the dominant meaning of the look was reproach. He could not in the least see his way through the dilemma, or even understand it. He could only say to himself that the enchantment was ended, and that, come what might, he would not forget Annie.  12
  The woman glided a step nearer to him. She put one hand to her brow with a sudden movement, and rested the other upon the piano, as if all at once conscious of needing support. With a painful little laugh, hysterically incongruous, she said:  13
  “I am almost beside myself, am I not? I cannot speak to you, it seems! And yet there is so much to say—or no! isn’t silence better still?” Her voice trembled as she went on: “For what could we say? How meaningless all our words would be in the face of—of”——  14
  She swept both hands to her eyes, with an impetuous gesture. Her form seemed to totter for a moment, so that Seth instinctively moved toward her. Then with a wild outburst of sobs she threw herself upon his breast, convulsed with incessant paroxysms of passionate weeping.  15
  They stood thus together for some minutes. The young man, moved to great tenderness by her evident suffering, the cause of which he vaguely referred to the previous evening’s events, put his arm about her, whispered gently to her to be comforted, and stroked her hair with a soft, caressing touch. His hand touched her cheek, and she shuddered at the contact; then swiftly took the hand in hers, and raised it to her lips, murmuring between the sobs:  16
  “Ungrateful! was it not done for me? Ah, dear, I shall not shudder again.”  17
  She kissed the hand repeatedly, and pressed it to her bosom, as she spoke. She was still trembling like a leaf in his arms.  18
  What could it all mean? he asked himself—and found no answer.  19
  “We must be brave, dear,” she whispered now. “We must be on our guard every instant! Oh—h! they shall tear my heart out before they learn anything—so much as a syllable! We must keep our nerves.” She looked up into his astonished face, with almost a smile in her effort to strengthen his courage. “We will be brave, won’t we, mine? The test will come soon now. Perhaps in an hour they will bring—it!”  20
  The trembling seized her frame, and shook it with cruel force. She buried her face in his breast with a long, low cry of anguish, and sobbed there piteously, clinging to his hand still. Once she bent as if to kiss it again, but stopped, then turned her head aside, groaning “Oh how terrible! how terrible!”  21
  The mystification now demanded light of some sort.  22
  “What is it that is so terrible, my poor girl?” he asked. “What are they going to bring in an hour? Tell me, Isabel—my sweet sister—what does it all mean?”  23
  She looked up into his face, with flickering suggestions of a mechanical smile at the corners of her pale lips, and with soft reproach in her eyes:  24
  “Are you going to pretend to me, too, dear one? As if it were not all here in my heart—all, all! Ah, they shan’t get it! They shan’t get the shadow of a hint. You were home here all the while! You were asleep, sound asleep! If it be necessary, I could swear that I knew you were asleep, that—but no, there might be suspicion then. That we mustn’t have! Don’t fear for me, dear one! I shall be so discreet, so circumspect, watching, weighing every word! But oh—h—shall we dream of it? What if we should, and should cry out in our sleep—Oh—h, my God! my God!”  25
  She sank again, convulsively clutching his hand, and quivering with feverish sobs upon his breast.  26
  “Upon my soul, I don’t in the least know what you are talking about, Isabel! Do try and be calm, and tell me what it is!”  27
  “He asks me!” she cried, with the same jarring, painful half-laugh he had heard before.  28
  He held her from him, so that he might look into her face.  29
  “Come, come! You are acting like a tragedy-queen on the stage. Do be sensible, and tell me what the matter is. You make me out of patience with you!”  30
  He spoke in the vexed tone of a man needlessly perplexed with foolish mysteries. To her strained senses the simple expression of impatience was cruel mockery. She drew herself still further back from him, and dropped his hand. She was able to speak collectedly now:  31
  “It is you who are the actor. You persist in playing the part—to me!”  32
  “Still in riddles! What part, Isabel?”  33
  “You will have me tell you? You want to hear the thing—in words?”  34
  “Yes, by all means.”  35
  She had never once taken her frightened, fascinated gaze from his face. “You insist on hearing from my lips that while you were out last night your brother was murdered”——  36
  “What!”  37
  “Murdered not four miles from here, as he was driving on the road, and his body thrown down into a ravine. Some boys found it. Fortunately, everybody thinks it was an accident. The men who brought the news thought so.”  38
  She had spoken the words coldly, as if they were commonplaces and had been learned by rote; but all the passion of her being was flaming in her eyes, which transfixed him with their stare.  39
  “Mur-dered!” the young man stammered, feeling his senses reeling. “Albert murdered! Oh-h this must be nonsense! It is too terrible to think of even! You are out of your mind, Isabel!”  40
  Her lips quivered: “It would be no wonder if I were, after this!”  41
  The darkened rooms, the sobbing of his aunt upstairs, the sounds of anguish that he knew now had partially awakened him, the crazed demeanor of Isabel—all these rose around him, like a black fog, to choke and confound his mind. Her fixed gaze burned him.  42
  “Tell me what you know!” he cried, wildly.  43
  “Wouldn’t it be easier to tell me what you know?”  44
  The chilling tone of the words startled him, as might a sudden contact of warm flesh with ice, before his bewildered brain had grasped their meaning. Then, like the crimson, all-pervading outburst of a conflagration, the thing dawned upon him, and his thoughts seemed blood-red in its hideous light. He pushed her from him fiercely, returning her piteous look of fright with a glare, and biting his tongue for words that should be great enough to fairly overwhelm her. As she cowered, he strode toward her:  45
  “You thought I did it!” he shouted at her.  46
  Her only answer was to bury her face in her hands and sink weakly at his knees.  47
  He stood relentlessly glowering down upon her. The bitter, brutal words that might be heaped upon her, nay, that ought to be, crowded upon his tongue. It was too great a task to restrain them, to keep silence.  48
  “You thought I did it,” he repeated. “And you didn’t object—you didn’t shrink from me! Why, I remember—my God!—you kissed my hand! You said ‘it was done for me!’ Oh-h!”  49
  The women at his feet, her face hidden, had been sobbing violently. She lifted her eyes now, and strove appealingly to conquer him with their power. She rose, unaided, to her feet, and confronted him. Terror and tenderness visibly struggled for the mastery of her facial expression, as for the mood behind it.  50
  “Don’t, Seth, don’t! Can’t you see how I am suffering? Have you no pity? How can you have the heart to speak to me like this?”  51
  “You talk about pity—about hearts!”  52
  “How long ago was it that they were on your tongue—that you had your arms stretched open for me?”  53
  “Don’t recall it!”  54
  “If I were to die this day, this hour, it would be the one thing I should want to remember, the one thing of my life that I should hug to my heart. What is changed since then? A man dead?—a man dies every minute of the day somewhere in the world! Suppose I was wrong! Suppose it was an accident—yes, we’ll say it was! Don’t you see—how little that is, how unimportant, compared with—with”——  55
  She finished the sentence by a faltering step toward him, her arms outstretched, her lips parted, her form offering itself for his embrace with a sinuous seduction of moving outlines.  56
  The old witchery flamed up for a second in his pulses; then it was emberless ashes.  57
  Without a word he turned and left her.  58
 
 
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