Counsel for the defense, p.10
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       Counsel for the Defense, p.10

           Leroy Scott
 
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  CHAPTER X

  SUNSET AT THE SYCAMORES

  When the door had closed behind the pleasant figure of Mr. Brown,Blake pressed the button upon his desk. His stenographer appeared.

  "I have some important matters to consider," he said. "Do not allow meto be disturbed until Doctor and Mrs. Sherman come with the car."

  His privacy thus secured, Blake sat at his desk, staring fixedlybefore him. His brow was compressed into wrinkles, his dark face,still showing a yellowish pallor, was hard and set. He reviewed theentire situation, and as his consuming ambition contemplated theglories of success, and the success after that, and the succession ofsuccesses that led up and ever up, his every nerve was afire with anexcruciating, impatient pleasure.

  For a space while Katherine had confronted him, and for a space aftershe had gone, he had shrunk from this business he was carryingthrough. But he had spoken truthfully to Mr. Brown when he had saidthat his revulsion was but a temporary feeling, and that of his ownaccord he would have come back to his original decision. He had hadsuch revulsions before, and each time he had swung as surely back tohis purpose as does the disturbed needle to the magnetic pole.

  Westville considered Harrison Blake a happy blend of the best of hisfather and mother; whereas, in point of fact, his father and hismother lived in him with their personalities almost intact. There washis mother, with her idealism and her high sense of honour; and hisfather, with his boundless ambition and his lack of principles. In theearlier years of Blake's manhood his mother's qualities had dominated.He had sincerely tried to do great work for Westville, and had doneit; and the reputation he had then made, and the gratitude he had thenwon, were the seed from which had grown the great esteem with whichWestville now regarded him.

  But a few years back he had found that rise, through virtue, was slowand beset with barriers. His ambition had become impatient. Now thathe was a figure of local power and importance, temptation began toassail him with offers of rapid elevation if only he would becomplaisant. In this situation, the father in him rose into theascendency; he had compromised and yielded, though always managing tokeep his dubious transactions secret. And now at length ambition ruledhim--though as yet not undisturbed, for conscience sometimes rose inunexpected revolt and gave him many a bitter battle.

  When his stenographer told Blake that Doctor and Mrs. Sherman werewaiting at the curb, he descended with something more like his usualcast of countenance. Elsie and her husband were in the tonneau, and asBlake crossed the sidewalk to the car she stretched out a nervous handand gave him a worn, excited smile.

  "It is so good of you to take us out to The Sycamores for over night!"she exclaimed. "It's such a pleasure--and such a relief!"

  She did not need to explain that it was a relief because the motion,the company, the change of scene, would help crowd from her mind thedread of to-morrow when her husband would have to take the standagainst Doctor West; she did not need to explain this, because Blake'seyes read it all in her pale, feverish face.

  Blake shook hands with Doctor Sherman, dismissed his chauffeur, andtook the wheel. They spun out of the city and down into the RiverRoad--the favourite drive with Westville folk--which followed thestream in broad sweeping curves and ran through arcades ofthick-bodied, bowing willows and sycamores lofty and severe, theirfoliage now a drought-crisped brown. After half an hour the car turnedthrough a stone gateway into a grove of beech and elm and sycamore. Ata comfortable distance apart were perhaps a dozen houses whose outerwalls were slabs of trees with the bark still on. This was TheSycamores, a little summer resort established by a small group of theselect families of Westville.

  Blake stopped the car before one of these houses--"cabins" theirowners called them, though their primitiveness was all in that outershell of bark. A rather tall, straight, white-haired old lady, with asweet nobility and strength of face, was on the little porch to greetthem. She welcomed Elsie and her husband warmly and graciously. Thenwith no relaxation of her natural dignity into emotional effusion, sheembraced her son and kissed him--for to her, as to Westville, he wasthe same man as five years before, and to him she had given not onlythe love a mother gives her only son, but the love she had formerlyborne her husband who, during his last years, had been to her a bittergrief. Blake returned the kiss with no less feeling. His love of hismother was the talk of Westville; it was the one noble sentiment whichhe still allowed to sway him with all its original sincerity andmight.

  They had tea out upon the porch, with its view of the river twinklingdown the easy hill between the trees. Mrs. Blake, seeing how agitatedElsie was, and under what a strain was Doctor Sherman, and guessingthe cause, deftly guided the conversation away from to-morrow's trial.She led the talk around to the lecture room which was being added toDoctor Sherman's church--a topic of high interest to them all, for shewas a member of the church, Blake was chairman of the buildingcommittee, and Doctor Sherman was treasurer of the committee andactive director of the work. This manoeuvre had but moderatesuccess. Blake carried his part of the conversation well enough, andElsie talked with a feverish interest which was too great a drain uponher meagre strength. But the stress of Doctor Sherman, which he stroveto conceal, seemed to grow greater rather than decrease.

  Presently Blake excused himself and Doctor Sherman, and the two menstrolled down a winding, root-obstructed path toward the river. Asthey left the cabin behind them, Blake's manner became cold and hard,as in his office, and Doctor Sherman's agitation, which he had withsuch an effort kept in hand, began to escape his control. Once hestumbled over the twisted root which a beech thrust across their pathand would have fallen had not Blake put out a swift hand and caughthim. Yet at this neither uttered a word, and in silence theycontinued walking on till they reached a retired spot upon the river'sbank.

  Here Doctor Sherman sank to a seat upon a mossy, rotting log. Blake,erect, but leaning lightly against the scaling, mottled body of agiant sycamore, at first gave no heed to his companion. He gazedstraight ahead down the river, emaciated by the drought till thebowlders of its bottom protruded through the surface like so manybones--with the ranks of austere sycamores keeping their stately watchon either bank--with the sun, blood red in the September haze,suspended above the river's west-most reach.

  Thus the pair remained for several moments. Then Blake looked slowlyabout at the minister.

  "I brought you down here because there is something I want to tellyou," he said calmly.

  "I supposed so; go ahead," responded Doctor Sherman in a choked voice,his eyes upon the ground.

  "You seem somewhat disturbed," remarked Blake in the same cold, eventone.

  "Disturbed!" cried Doctor Sherman. "Disturbed!"

  His voice told how preposterously inadequate was the word. He did notlift his eyes, but sat silent a moment, his white hands crushing oneanother, his face bent upon the rotted wood beneath his feet.

  "It's that business to-morrow!" he groaned; and at that he suddenlysprang up and confronted Blake. His fine face was wildly haggard andwas working in convulsive agony. "My God," he burst out, "when I lookback at myself as I was four years ago, and then look at myself as Iam to-day--oh, I'm sick, sick!" A hand gripped the cloth over hisbreast. "Why, when I came to Westville I was on fire to serve God withall my heart and never a compromise! On fire to preach the new gospelthat the way to make people better is to make this an easier world forpeople to be better in!"

  That passion-shaken figure was not a pleasant thing to look upon.Blake turned his eyes back to the glistening river and the sun, andsteeled himself.

  "Yes, I remember you preached some great sermons in those days," hecommented in his cold voice. "And what happened to you?"

  "You know what happened to me!" cried the young minister with his wildpassion. "You know well enough, even if you were not in that group ofprominent members who gave me to understand that I'd either have tochange my sermons or they'd have to change their minister!"

  "At least they gave you a choice," returned Blake.<
br />
  "And I made the wrong choice! I was at the beginning of my career--thechurch here seemed a great chance for so young a man--and I did notwant to fail at the very beginning. And so--and so--I compromised!"

  "Do you suppose you are the first man that has ever made acompromise?"

  "That compromise was the direct cause of to-morrow!" the youngclergyman went on in his passionate remorse. "That compromise was thebeginning of my fall. After the prominent members took me up, favouredme, it became easy to blink my eyes at their business methods. Andthen it became easy for me to convince myself that it would be allright for me to gamble in stocks."

  "That was your great mistake," said the dry voice of the motionlessfigure against the tree. "A minister has no business to fool with thestock market."

  "But what was I to do?" Doctor Sherman cried desperately. "No moneybehind me--the salary of a dry goods clerk--my wife up there, whom Ilove better than my own life, needing delicacies, attention, a longstay in Colorado--what other chance, I ask you, did I have of gettingthe money?"

  "Well, at any rate, you should have kept your fingers off that churchbuilding fund."

  "God, don't I realize that! But with the market falling, and all thelittle I had about to be swept away, what else was a half frantic manto do but to try to save himself with any money he could put his handsupon?"

  Blake shrugged his shoulders.

  "Well, if luck was against you when that church money was also sweptaway, luck was certainly with you when it happened that I was the oneto discover what you had done."

  "So I thought, when you offered to replace the money and cover thewhole thing up. But, God, I never dreamed you'd exact such a price inreturn!"

  He gripped Blake's arm and shook it. His voice was a half-muffledshriek.

  "If you wanted the water-works, if you wanted to do this to DoctorWest, why did you pick on me to bring the accusation? There are menwho would never have minded it--men without conscience and withoutcharacter!"

  Blake steadfastly kept his steely gaze upon the river.

  "I believe I have answered that a number of times," he repliedin his hard, even tone. "I picked you because I needed a man ofcharacter to give the charges weight. A minister, the president ofour reform body--no one else would serve so well. And I picked youbecause--pardon me, if in my directness I seem brutal--I picked youbecause you were all ready to my hand; you were in a situation whereyou dared not refuse me. Also I picked you, instead of a man with nocharacter to lose, because I knew that you, having a character to loseand not wanting to lose it, would be less likely than any one elseever to break down and confess. I hope my answer is sufficientlyexplicit."

  Doctor Sherman stared at the erect, immobile figure.

  "And you still intend," he asked in a dry, husky voice, "you stillintend to force me to go upon the stand to-morrow and commit----"

  "I would not use so unpleasant a word if I were you."

  "But you are going to force me to do it?"

  "I am not going to force you. You referred a few minutes ago to thetime when you had a choice. Well, here is another time when you have achoice."

  "Choice?" cried Doctor Sherman eagerly.

  "Yes. You can testify, or not testify, as you please. Only in reachingyour decision," added the dry, emotionless voice, "I suggest that youdo not forget that I have in my possession your signed confession ofthat embezzlement."

  "And you call that a choice?" cried Doctor Sherman. "When, if Irefuse, you'll expose me, ruin me forever, kill Elsie's love for me!Do you call that a choice?"

  "A choice, certainly. Perhaps you are inclined not to testify. If so,very well. But before you make your decision I desire to inform you ofone fact. You will remember that I said in the beginning that Ibrought you down here to tell you something."

  "Yes. What is it?"

  "Merely this. That Miss West has discovered that I am behind thisaffair."

  "What!" Doctor Sherman fell back a step, and his face filled withsudden terror. "Then--she knows everything?"

  "She knows little, but she suspects much. For instance, since sheknows that this is a plot, she is likely to suspect that every personin any way connected with the affair is guilty of conspiracy."

  "Even--even me?"

  "Even you."

  "Then--you think?"

  Blake turned his face sharply about upon Doctor Sherman--the firsttime since the beginning of their colloquy. It was his father'sface--his father in one of his most relentless, overriding moods--theface of a man whom nothing can stop.

  "I think," said he slowly, driving each word home, "that the onlychance for people who want to come out of this affair with a cleanname is to stick the thing right through as we planned."

  Doctor Sherman did not speak.

  "I tell you about Miss West for two reasons. First, in order to letyou know the danger you're in. Second, in order, in case you decidedto testify, that you may be forewarned and be prepared to outface her.I believe you understand everything now?"

  "Yes," was the almost breathless response.

  "Then may I be allowed to ask what you are going to do--testify, ornot testify?"

  The minister's hands opened and closed. He swallowed with difficulty.

  "Testify, or not testify?" Blake insisted.

  "Testify," whispered Doctor Sherman.

  "Just as you choose," said Blake coldly.

  The minister sank back to his seat upon the mossy log, and bowed hishead into his hands. "Oh, my God!" he breathed.

  There followed a silence, during which Blake gazed upon the huddledfigure. Then he turned his set face down the glittering, dwindledstream, and, one shoulder lightly against the sycamore, he watched thesun there at the river's end sink softly down into its golden slumber.

 
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