Robert Coverdale's Struggle - LightNovelOnl.com
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"But should I not call the doctor?"
"It will be of no avail. Your uncle is past the help of any physician.
Go, and I will stay here till you return."
The startling news which Robert brought to the fishermen served to bring men, women and children to the spot where John Trafton lay, ghastly with blood.
Well known as he was, the sight startled and agitated them, and, in their ignorance of the real murderer, suspicion fastened upon the hermit, who, tall and dignified, with his white hair falling upon his shoulders, stood among them like a being from another world.
Trafton's habits were well known, but the manner of his death enlisted public sympathy.
"Poor John!" said Tom Scott. "I've known him, man and boy, for a'most fifty years, and I never thought to see him lying like this."
"And what will you do with his murderer?" asked his wife in a shrill voice.
Mrs. Scott was somewhat of a virago, but she voiced the popular thought, and all looked to Scott for an expression of feeling.
"He ought to be strung up when he's found," said Scott.
"You won't have to look far for him, I'm thinkin'," said Mrs. Scott.
"What do you mean, wife?" asked Scott, who was not of a suspicious turn.
"There he stands!" said the virago, pointing with her extended finger to the hermit.
As this was a thought which had come to others, hostile eyes looked upon the hermit, and two or three moved forward as if to seize him.
The old man regarded the fishermen with surprise and said with dignity:
"My friends, what manner of man do you think I am that you suspect me of such a deed?"
"There's no one could have done it but you," said a young man doggedly.
"Here lies Trafton at the foot of your ladder, with no one near him but you. You was found with him. It's a clear case."
"To be sure!" exclaimed two or three of the women. "Didn't Robert find you here, standin' by the dead body of his uncle?"
The hermit turned to our hero, who stood a little in the background, and said quietly:
"Robert, do you think I killed your uncle?"
"I am sure you didn't," said Robert, manfully meeting the angry glances which were now cast upon him.
"I am glad to have one friend here," said the hermit--"one who judges me better than the rest of my neighbors."
"He doesn't know anything about you and he's only a boy!" said Mrs.
Scott, thrusting herself forward with arms akimbo. "I allus said there was something wrong about you or you wouldn't hide yourself away from the sight of men in a cave. Like as not you've committed murder before!"
"My good woman," said the hermit with a sad smile, "I am sorry you have so poor an opinion of me."
"Don't you call me good woman!" said Mrs. Scott, provoked. "I'm no more a good woman than yourself! I tell you, friends and neighbors, you'll do wrong if you let this man go. We may all be murdered in our beds!"
She was interrupted by the arrival of Mrs. Trafton, who had not been apprised of the tragedy from considerations for her feelings, but hearing the stir and excitement, had followed her neighbors to the spot and just ascertain what had happened.
"Where is my husband?" she cried.
All made way for her, feeling that hers was the foremost place, and she stood with startled gaze before her dead husband. Ill as he had provided for her and unworthy of her affections as he had proved, at that moment she forgot all but that the husband of her youth lay before her, bereft of life, and she kneeled, sobbing, at his side.
The hermit took off his hat and stood reverently by her side.
"Oh, John!" she sobbed, "I never thought it would come to this! Who could have had the heart to kill you?"
"That's the man! He murdered him!" said Mrs. Scott harshly, pointing to the hermit.
The widow lifted her eyes to the man of whom she had heard so much from Robert with a glance of incredulity.
He was too proud to defend himself from the coarse accusation and returned her look with a glance of sympathy and compassion.
"I never can believe that!" said the widow in utter incredulity. "He has been kind to my boy. He never would lift his hand against my husband!"
The hermit looked deeply gratified.
"Mrs. Trafton," he said, "you are right. I had no cause to harm your husband, nor would I have killed him for Robert's sake, whatever wrong he might have done me. But, in truth, I know of no reason why I should seek to injure him."
"If you are an innocent man," persisted Mrs. Scott, "tell us who you are and what brought you here."
"Yes, tell us who you are!" echoed two others who had always felt curious about the hermit.
"I do not choose to declare myself now," said the hermit gravely. "The time may come when I shall do so, but not now."
"That's because you're a thief or murderer!" exclaimed Mrs. Scott, exasperated.
"Wife, you're goin' too far!" said her husband.
"Mind your own business, Tom Scott!" retorted his wife in a tone with which he was only too familiar. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself tryin' to screen the murderer of your next-door neighbor."
"I am doing nothing of the kind. There's no proof that the hermit of the cliff murdered John Trafton."
"You must be a fool if you can't see it," said Mrs. Scott.
Robert Coverdale was shocked to hear his friend so abused and he said boldly:
"Mrs. Scott, I don't know who murdered my poor uncle, but I know the hermit did not. He has been a good friend to me, and he is no murderer."
"Go home and go to bed, boy!" said Mrs. Scott violently. "You take that man's part against your poor uncle."
Robert was provoked and answered with energy:
"I would sooner suspect you than him. I never heard the hermit say a word against my uncle, while only yesterday you called him a drunken vagabond."