Read CHAPTER XIX - A DOUBLE STILL HUNT of Bylow Hill, free online book, by George Washington Cable, on

Mrs. Morris’s task was too large for her.  She had always taken such care of her innocence that her cultivation of the virtues had been only incidental.  Hence, morally, she had more fat than fibre; and hence again, though to her mind guilt was horrible, publicity was so much worse that her first and ruling impulse toward any evil doing not her own was to conceal it.  That was her form of worldliness, the only fault she felt certain she was free from.  And here she was, without a helping hand or a word of counsel, laboring to hide from the servants and from the dear Byingtons, from the church and from a scoffing world, the hideous fact that Isabel was a fugitive from the murderous wrath of a jealous husband, and that the rector of All Angels had crumbled into moral ruin.

“And oh,” she cried, “is it the worst of it, or is it the best of it, that in this awful extremity he keeps so sane, so marvellously sane?” She said this the oftener because every few hours some new sign to the contrary forced itself upon her notice.  Oblivion was her cure-all.

For a while after his conference with Mrs. Morris Arthur made some feeble show-for her eye alone-of looking after clews, and then, as much to her joy as to her amazement, told her it was a part of his detective strategy to return into his study, and seemingly to his ordinary work, until time would allow certain unfoldings for which he looked with confidence.

“Have you found out anything?” she asked, with a glaringly false eagerness that gave him a new panic of suspicion and whetted his cunning.

He said he had, but must beg her not to ask yet what it was.  Then he inquired if any neighbor had left town that morning for Boston, and her heart rose into her throat as she marked the subtlety he could not keep out of his dark face.

“Why, ye-yes-n-no, no one that I know of ex-except Leonard Byington,” she replied, and thought, “If he should accuse Leonard, we are undone!”

To avoid that risk she would have told him, then and there, all she knew, had she not feared she might draw his rage upon herself for aiding the wife’s flight.  She must, must, must keep on good terms with him till she and Isabel could somehow get the child.  So passed the awful hours, mother and husband each marvelling in agony over the ghastly puzzle of the other’s apathy.

Later in the day she knocked timorously at his study door.  She had come with a silly little proposition that he let her take the infant and go South as if to join Isabel.  Thus the trunk would not lie in the express office down there, unclaimed and breeding awkward inquiries, and she from that point, with him at this, could keep up the illusion they had invented until Isabel herself should-eh-return!

But when he let her in, he stood before her a silent embodiment of such remorse and foreboding that she could have burst into sobs and cries.

Yet she broached her plan, trembling visibly, while he heard her through with melancholy deference.

In reply he commended it, but called to her notice how much better it would be for her to go alone.  Then the babe, left behind, would be an unspoken yet most eloquent guarantee that its mother would soon reappear.

“Very true,” responded the emboldened lady; “yet on the other hand”-

He put out an interrupting touch.  “The child is as safe with me as if it were in its mother’s bosom.”

“Oh, it isn’t so much a question of safety as”-

The father interrupted again, with a gleam in his eyes like the outflashing of a knife.  “I hold the child against all comers, and would if I had to slay its mother to do it.”

Mrs. Morris stifled an outcry and would have left him, but he would not let her.

“Stay!  Oh, listen to a soul in torment!  The babe is already motherless.  Isabel can never return, mother; she is with the dead.  I am not waiting idly here for her; I am waiting busily-for her slayer.  He has fled; but when he sees he is not pursued he will come back to the spot,-to the black, black hole.  He cannot help it.  I know that.  Oh, how well I know it!  And the moment he comes he is caught,-caught in the web of proofs I am weaving!”

He held her arm and gazed into her gazing eyes in ferocious fear of the web she might be weaving for him; while she, reeling sick with fear of him, tried with all her shaken wits to sham an impassioned accord.

“And you will wait?” she exclaimed approvingly.  “You will not stir till the thing is sure?”

He would not stir till the thing was sure.

As soon as it was dark enough to slip over to the Byingtons’ unseen, she went, bearing to Ruth Isabel’s apologetic good-bys, trying her small best to play at words with the General, and quickly getting away again, grateful for a breath of their atmosphere, though distressfully convinced that Ruth had divined the whole trouble, through the joy betrayed by herself on hearing that Leonard would be away for a week.

She went home and slept like a weary child, and neither the next day nor the next, nor the next, was so awful as this first had been; they lacked the crackle and glare, and the crash, of the burning and falling temple.