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   Chapter 28 THE END OF IT ALL.

The Purple Parasol By George Barr McCutcheon Characters: 8383

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Celeste started. Justine's innocent query rudely tore down the curtain that had hung between her understanding and Jud's strange behavior, and it seemed to her, in that one brief, horrible moment, that she saw all that was black and ugly in life.

She could take her eyes from the mother's gentle face only to let them rest upon the features of the baby. Justine's question-"Does he not look like his father?"-could have but one answer. Dudley Sherrod's likeness was stamped on the face of the boy, unmistakable, accusing. In her terror, the face of the little one seemed to age suddenly until there loomed up before her the features of Jud, the man.

Powerless to answer, she turned abruptly and staggered to a window, leaning heavily against the casing, her heart like lead, her face as white as death. She knew now the cause of everything that had mystified and troubled her in Jud's conduct. Now she knew why the picture of Justine was before him, now she knew why the mention of her name threw him into confusion. The whole wretched truth was plain.

"Oh, Jud! Oh, Jud!" she cried to herself. "Oh, this poor ruined girl! How could he have done such a-oh, God, no, no! I must be wrong. The resemblance is not real-it is my fancy. But-but, why does she ask me if he looks like his father? What other father can there be-what other man is known to both of us? But how young the boy is; Jud has not seen her in years. He cannot be the father. Why am I afraid? Why have I doubted him?" The voice of the other woman came to her from the fireplace, indistinct, jumbled and as if through the swirl of a storm.

"Pardon me, but I do not know what your name is now," was the apologetic remark from the other side of the room, and Celeste turned to her.

"My name is-is Sherrod, Miss Van," she said, slowly. Justine looked up in surprise and bewilderment. A shadow of unbelief crossed her face.

"Sherrod?" she asked, curiously. "Why, how strange that we should have the same name."

"The same name, Miss Van?"

"My name has not been Van for a long, long time. We were married before you met us in Proctor's Falls, I'm-why, what is the matter?"

"It is not true-it is not true," half shrieked Celeste. Justine shrank back as if confronted by a mad woman, instinctively shielding her boy. "Do you mean to tell me you were married to Jud Sherrod?" she continued, scornfully.

"IT IS NOT TRUE, HALF SHRIEKED CELESTE.

"Of course I was-don't look at me like that! What in the name of heaven is the matter, Mrs.-Mrs.--" A sickening thought struggled into Justine's mind. "Your name is-is Sherrod, too," she said, dully. "Has-has Jud anything to do with it?"

"He is not your husband," cried Celeste, pityingly.

"What do you mean?" gasped Justine, limp and white. "Jud and I married three years ago--"

"Oh!" moaned Celeste. Justine's extended arm caught her as she dropped forward. The wild blue eyes looked piteously into the frightened brown ones, and the gray lips repeated hoarsely: "Are you sure? Are you sure?"

"What shall I do?" moaned Justine. "I am his wife, I know I am. Nobody can deny it. Why, why, I have the certificate--" she went on eagerly. Celeste struggled to her feet.

"Then what in the name of heaven has he made of me?" she cried, hoarsely.

"I don't understand," murmured Justine dully. "Do you-do you love him?"

"Love him? Love him? Why, woman, he is my husband!"

The world went black before Justine's eyes. She fell back in the deep chair; her big eyes closed, her hands relaxed their clasp on the boy and he slid to the protecting arm of the chair; her breath clogged her throat. As consciousness fled, she saw Celeste sink to the floor at her feet.

A man drew aside the curtains a few minutes afterwards and planted a heavy foot inside the room. His sombre eyes were on the floor and it was not until he was well inside the room that his gaze fell upon the still group at the fireplace. He paused, his tired eyes for the moment resting wearily on the scene. Slowly his mind, which had been far away, caught up the picture before him. His dull sensibilities became active.

Celeste was lying on the floor. She had fainted. He str

etched forth his arms to lift her and his eyes fell upon the upturned face of the woman in the chair. Petrified, he stood for an age, it seemed. Comprehension slowly forced its way into his brain.

"Justine!" A shriek of terror burst in his throat; the sound did not reach his lips. The end had come! It was all over! They knew-they knew! They knew him for what he was. He had not the strength to flee; he only knew that he was face to face with the end. He must stand his ground, as well now as any time. He waited. There would be cries, sobs, wails and bitterness.

But no sounds came from the lips of the two women. The baby alone stared in wonder at this strange man. The faces of the unconscious girls were deathlike, Justine's drawn with pain, Celeste's white and weak. Unconsciously his hand touched Justine's face, then her breast. She did not move, but her heart was beating. With the same mechanical calmness he dropped to one knee and half raised Celeste's head, expecting her eyes to open. The lids lay still and dark and her neck was limp. As he rose to his feet stiffly, his eyes fell upon the face of the boy and it was as if he were a child again and looking at himself in the old mirror up at the house "on the pike."

He could not meet the smile of that innocent spectator. In a fever of haste lest either woman should revive before he could be hidden from their wretched eyes, he pressed cold lips to their lips, covered the baby's face with kisses and a flood of tears that suddenly burst forth, and then dashed blindly from the room and up the broad staircase, terrified by the sound of his own footfalls, in dread of a piteous call from below, eager to escape the eyes, the condemning eyes that once had loved him. Celeste was the first to open her eyes. For many minutes she lay where she had fallen, striving to remember how she came to be there. Memory gradually pushed aside the kindly numbness-and she saw clearly. Dragging herself to the mantel post, she tried to regain her feet. The effort was vain; her strength had not returned. Leaning against the mosaic background, she turned her eyes upon the motionless figure in the chair. She never knew what her thoughts were as she sat there and gazed upon the face of the other woman, Justine Van-Justine Van, the girl of Proctor's Falls.

At last a long sigh came from Justine's lips, there was a deep shudder and then the fluttering lips parted, two wide, dazed eyes of brown staring into space. Minutes passed before the gaze of the two women met. There were no words, nothing but the fixed stare of horror. Moved by a desperate impulse, Celeste struggled to her feet, her glazed eyes bent upon the face of the baby. Steadying herself for an instant against the mantel, she lurched forward, hatred in her heart, her hands outstretched. The fingers locked themselves in the folds of the child's dress and he was raised above the head of the frenzied woman.

Justine's weak hand went up appealingly; she had not strength to rise and snatch the child from the other's clutches.

"Then kill me, too," she whispered, closing her eyes.

A crowing laugh came from the child. The laugh of an infant who is tossed on high and revels in the fun. A moment later he was lying in his mother's lap and his enemy was sobbing as she laid her hand in the dark hair of the other woman.

A distant scream came from somewhere in the house, but the two women did not hear it. A maid came scurrying downstairs, white and excited. She dashed unceremoniously into the room, panting out the single exclamation:

"Hurry!"

Celeste slowly turned toward her.

"What is it, Mary?" she asked, mechanically, almost unconsciously.

"Mr. Sherrod, ma'am-you must come quick. In the studio," gasped the maid.

"Is Jud here?" asked Justine, raising herself in the chair. A new light struggled into her eyes. Celeste, cold with the certainty of some terrible news, straightened to receive the blow.

"Is it-bad, Mary?" she asked.

"Oh, ma'am, I-I can't tell you," almost whispered the girl. "It's awful! I'll see him to my dying day."

"He-he is dead?" The question came from frozen lips.

The maid burst into tears.

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