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II As Seen By Detective Sweetwater Anna Katharine Green

XIX The Danger Moment

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A loud slam - the skurrying of feet through the hall, accompanied by the slower and heavier tread of the so-called brother, then silence, and such silence that Sweetwater fancied he could catch the sound of Brotherson's heavy breathing. His own was silenced to a gasp. What a treasure of a girl! How natural her indignation! What an instinct she showed and what comprehension! This high and mighty handling of a most difficult situation and a most difficult man, had imposed on Brotherson, had almost imposed upon himself. Those letters so beautiful, so spirituelle! Yet, the odds were that she had never read them, much less abstracted them. The minx! the ready, resourceful, wily, daring minx!

But had she imposed on Brotherson? As the silence continued, Sweetwater began to doubt. He understood quite well the importance of his neighbour's first movement. Were he to tear those letters into shreds! He might be thus tempted. All depended on the strength of his present mood and the real nature of the secret which lay buried in his heart.

Was that heart as flinty as it seemed? Was there no place for doubt or even for curiosity, in its impenetrable depths? Seemingly, he had not moved foot or hand since his unwelcome visitors had left. He was doubtless still staring at the scattered sheets lying before him; possibly battling with unaccustomed impulses; possibly weighing deeds and consequences in those slow moving scales of his in which no man could cast a weight with any certainty how far its even balance would be disturbed.

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There was a sound as of settling coal. Only at night would one expect to hear so slight a sound as that in a tenement full of noisy children. But the moment chanced to be propitious, and it not only attracted the attention of Sweetwater on his side of the wall, but it struck the ear of Brotherson also. With an ejaculation as bitter as it was impatient, he roused himself and gathered up the letters. Sweetwater could hear the successive rustlings as he bundled them up in his hand. Then came another silence - then the lifting of a stove lid.

Sweetwater had not been wrong in his secret apprehension. His identification with his unimpressionable neighbour's mood had shown him what to expect. These letters - these innocent and precious outpourings of a rare and womanly soul - the only conceivable open sesame to the hard-locked nature he found himself pitted against, would soon be resolved into a vanishing puff of smoke.

But the lid was thrust back, and the letters remained in hand. Mortal strength has its limits. Even Brotherson could not shut down that lid on words which might have been meant for him, harshly as he had repelled the idea.

The pause which followed told little; but when Sweetwater heard the man within move with characteristic energy to the door, turn the key and step back again to his place at the table, he knew that the danger moment had passed and that those letters were about to be read, not casually, but seriously, as indeed their contents merited.

This caused Sweetwater to feel serious himself. Upon what result might he calculate? What would happen to this hardy soul, when the fact he so scornfully repudiated, was borne in upon him, and he saw that the disdain which had antagonised him was a mere device - a cloak to hide the secret heart of love and eager womanly devotion? Her death - little as Brotherson would believe it up till now - had been his personal loss the greatest which can befall a man. When he came to see this - when the modest fervour of her unusual nature began to dawn upon him in these self-revelations, would the result be remorse, or just the deadening and final extinction of whatever tenderness he may have retained for her memory?

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