Read CHAPTER LV of The Quality of Mercy , free online book, by William Dean Howells, on ReadCentral.com.

Northwick, after the Pinneys went home, lapsed into a solitude relieved only by the daily letters that Suzette sent him.  He shrank from the offers of friendly kindness on the part of people at the hotel, who pitied his loneliness; and he began to live in a dream of his home again.  He had relinquished that notion of attempting a new business life, which had briefly revived in his mind; the same causes that had operated against it in the beginning, controlled and defeated it now.  He felt himself too old to begin life over; his energies were spent.  Such as he had been, he had made himself very slowly and cautiously, in familiar conditions; he had never been a man of business dash, and he could not pick himself up and launch himself in a new career, as a man of different make might have done, even at his age.  Perhaps there had been some lesion of the will in that fever of his at Haha Bay, which disabled him from forming any distinct purpose, or from trying to carry out any such purpose as he did form.  Perhaps he was, in his helplessness, merely of that refugee-type which exile moulds men to:  a thing of memories and hopes, without definite aims or plans.

As the days passed, he dwelt in an outward inertness, while his dreams and longings incessantly rehabilitated the home whose desolation he had seen with his own eyes.  It would be better to go back and suffer the sentence of the law, and then go to live again in the place which, in spite of his senses, he could only imagine clothed in the comfort and state that had been stripped from it.  Elbridge’s talk, on the way to West Hatboro’, about the sale, and what had become of the horses and cattle, and the plants, went for no more than the evidence of his own eyes that they were all gone.  He did not realize, except in the shocks that the fact imparted at times, that death as well as disaster had invaded his home.  Adeline was, for the most part, still alive:  in his fond reveries she was present, and part of that home as she had always been.

He began to flatter himself that if he went back he could contrive that compromise with the court which his friends had failed to bring about; he persuaded himself that if it came to a trial he could offer evidence that would result in his acquittal.  But if he must undergo some punishment for the offence of being caught in transactions which were all the time carried on with impunity, he told himself that interest could be used to make his punishment light.  In these hopeful moods it was a necessity of his drama that his transgression of the law should seem venial to him.  It was only when he feared the worst that he felt guilty of wrong.

It could not be said that these moments of a consciousness of guilt were so frequent as ever to become confluent, and to form a mood.  They came and went; perhaps toward the last they were more frequent.  What seems certain is that in the end there began to mix with his longing for home a desire, feeble and formless enough, for expiation.  There began to be suggested to him from somewhere, somehow, something like the thought that if he had really done wrong, there might be rest and help in accepting the legal penalty, disproportionate and excessive as it might be.  He tried to make this notion appreciable to Pinney when they first met after he summoned Pinney to Quebec; he offered it as an explanation of his action.

In making up his mind to return at all hazards and to take all the chances, he remembered what Pinney had said to him about his willingness to bear him company.  It was not wholly a generous impulse that prompted him to send for Pinney, or the self-sacrificing desire to make Pinney’s fortune in his new quality of detective; he simply dreaded the long journey alone; he wanted the comfort of Pinney’s society.  He liked Pinney, and he longed for the vulgar cheerfulness of his buoyant spirit.  He felt that he could rest upon it in the fate he was bringing himself to face; he instinctively desired the kindly, lying sympathy of a soul that had so much affinity with his own.  He telegraphed Pinney to come for him, and he was impatient till he came.

Pinney started the instant he received Northwick’s telegram, and met him with an enthusiasm of congratulation.  “Well, Mr. Northwick, this is a great thing.  It’s the right thing, and it’s the wise thing.  It’s going to have a tremendous effect.  I suppose,” he added, a little tremulously, “that you’ve thought it all thoroughly over?”

“Yes; I’m prepared for the worst,” said Northwick.

“Oh, there won’t be any worst,” Pinney returned gayly.  “There’ll be legal means of delaying the trial; your lawyer can manage that; or if he can’t, and you have to face the music at once, we can have you brought into court without the least publicity, and the judge will go through with the forms, and it’ll be all over before anybody knows anything about it.  I’ll see that there’s no interviewing, and that there are no reporters present.  There’ll probably be a brief announcement among the cases in court; but there won’t be anything painful.  You needn’t be afraid.  But what I’m anxious about now is, not to bring any influence to bear on you.  I promised my wife I wouldn’t urge you, and I won’t; I know I’m a little optimistic, and if you don’t see this thing exactly couleur de rose, don’t you do it from anything I say.”  Pinney apparently put great stress upon himself to get this out.

“I’ve looked it in the face,” said Northwick.

“And your friends know you’re coming back?”

“They expect me at any time.  You can notify them.”

Pinney drew a long, anxious breath.  “Well,” he said, with a sort of desperation, “then I don’t see why we don’t start at once.”

“Have you got your papers all right?” Northwick asked.

“Yes,” said Pinney, with a blush.  “But you know,” he added, respectfully, “I can’t touch you till we get over the line, Mr. Northwick.”

“I understand that.  Let me see your warrant.”

Pinney reluctantly produced the paper, and Northwick read it carefully over.  He folded it up with a deep sigh, and took a long stiff envelope from his breast-pocket, and handed it to Pinney, with the warrant.  “Here is the money I brought with me.”

“Mr. Northwick!  It isn’t necessary yet!  Indeed it isn’t.  I’ve every confidence in your honor as a gentleman.”  Pinney’s eyes glowed with joy, and his fingers closed upon the envelope convulsively.  “But if you mean business — ”

“I mean business,” said Northwick.  “Count it.”

Pinney took the notes out and ran them over.  “Forty-one thousand six hundred and forty.”

“That is right,” said Northwick.  “Now, another matter.  Have you got handcuffs?”

“Why, Mr. Northwick!  What are you giving me?” demanded Pinney.  “I’d as soon put them on my own father.”

“I want you to put them on me,” said Northwick.  “I intend to go back as your prisoner.  If I have anything to expiate” — and he seemed to indulge a question of the fact for the last time — “I want the atonement to begin as soon as possible.  If you haven’t brought those things with you, you’d better go out to the police station and get them, while I attend to the tickets.”

“Oh, I needn’t go,” said Pinney, and his face burned.

He was full of nervous trepidation at the start, and throughout the journey he was anxious and perturbed, while on Northwick, after the first excitement, a deep quiet, a stupor, or a spiritual peace, seemed to have fallen.

“By George!” said Pinney, when they started, “anybody to see us would think you were taking me back.”  He was tenderly watchful of Northwick’s comfort; he left him free to come and go at the stations; from the restaurants he bought him things to tempt his appetite; but Northwick said he did not care to eat.

They had a long night in a day-car, for they found there was no sleeper on their train.  In the morning, when the day broke, Northwick asked Pinney what the next station was.

Pinney said he did not know.  He looked at Northwick as if the possession of him gave him very little pleasure, and asked him how he had slept.

“I haven’t slept,” said Northwick.  “I suppose I’m rather excited.  My nerves seem disordered.”

“Well, of course,” said Pinney, soothingly.

They were silent a moment, and then Northwick asked, “What did you say the next station was?”

“I’ll ask the brakeman.”  They could see the brakeman on the platform.  Pinney went out to him, and returned.  “It’s Wellwater, he says.  We get breakfast there.”

“Then we’re over the line, now,” said Northwick.

“Why, yes,” Pinney admitted, reluctantly.  He added, in a livelier note, “You get a mighty good breakfast at Wellwater, and I’m ready to meet it half way.”  He turned, and looked hard at Northwick.  “If I should happen to get left there, what would you do?  Would you keep on, anyway?  Is your mind still made up on that point?  I ask, because all kinds of accidents happen, and — ” Pinney stopped, and regarded his captive fixedly.  “Or if you don’t feel quite able to travel — ”

“Let me see your warrant again,” said Northwick.

Pinney relaxed his gaze with a shrug, and produced the paper.  Northwick read it all once more.  “I’m your prisoner,” he said, returning the paper.  “You can put the handcuffs on me now.”

“No, no, Mr. Northwick!” Pinney pleaded.  “I don’t want to do that.  I’m not afraid of your trying to get away.  I assure you it isn’t necessary between gentlemen.”

Northwick held out his wrists.  “Put them on, please.”

“Oh, well, if I must!” protested Pinney.  “But I swear I won’t lock ’em.”  He glanced round to find whether any of the other passengers were noticing.  “You can slip ’em off whenever you get tired of ’em.”  He pushed Northwick’s sleeves down over them with shame-faced anxiety.  “Don’t let people see the damned things, for God’s sake!’”

“That’s good!” murmured Northwick, as if the feel of the iron pleased him.

The incident turned Pinney rather sick.  He went out on the platform of the car for a little breath of air, and some restorative conversation with the brakeman.  When he came back, Northwick was sitting where he left him.  His head had fallen on his breast.  “Poor old fellow, he’s asleep,” Pinney thought.  He put his hand gently on Northwick’s shoulder.  “I’ll have to wake you here,” he said.  “We’ll be in, now, in a minute.”

Northwick tumbled forward at his touch, and Pinney caught him round the neck, and lifted his face.

“Oh, my God!  He’s dead!”

The loosened handcuffs fell on the floor.