Chesty Todd had spoken so lightly, in a serio-comic vein, and had so belittled the “reformed villain” and contemptuously made him appear pitiful and weak, that he had somewhat disarmed his hearers and led them to forget the seriousness of the contemplated crime. But Mrs. Kane, listening intently to the story, found no humor in the situation, and the blind woman’s gentle remark promptly recalled to every mind the full horror of the dastardly attempt.
She was quite right in declaring that Orissa alone could approve or condemn Tyler’s statement. If he spoke truly he was entitled to a degree of mercy at their hands; if, knowing that a girl was operating the Kane Aircraft, he had still persisted in his frantic attempt to wreck it and send her to her death, then no punishment could be too great for such a cowardly deed.
This was instantly appreciated by all present. Even Tyler, seeing that his fate hinged on Orissa’s evidence, ventured to raise his head and cast at 216her an imploring glance. Chesty Todd dropped his flippant air and earnestly watched the girl’s face; the others with equal interest awaited her decisive statement.
As for Orissa, the gravity of the situation awed her. Recalling the dreadful moments when she battled in the air for her life she saw before her the scowling, vicious face of her enemy and remembered how his eyes had glared wickedly into her own time and again as he attacked her aëroplane, determined to destroy it at all hazards. There was no question in her mind as to the truth of Tyler’s claim; she knew he had recognized her and still persisted in his purpose. She knew the accident to his machine was caused by his own carelessness and its faulty construction, and not by any desire of his to arrest its speed. Tyler had deliberately lied in order to condone his cowardly act, and she experienced a feeling of indignation that he should resort to such an infamous falsehood, knowing as he must that her evidence would render it impotent.
Orissa contemplated her erstwhile assailant with reflective deliberation. She noted his miserable appearance, his abject manner, the moods of alternate despair and hope that crossed his withered features. An enemy so contemptible and mean was scarcely worthy of her vengeance. 217It seemed dreadful that such a despicable creature had been made in man’s image. Could he possess a soul, she wondered? Could such an one own a conscience, or have any perception, however dim, of the brutal inhumanity of his offense? Being in man’s image he must have such things. Perhaps in his nature was still some element of good, dormant and unrecognized as yet, which might develop in time and redeem him. To send him to prison, she reflected, would not be likely to correct the perversity of such a nature, while generous treatment and the forbearance of those he had wronged might tend to awaken in him remorse and a desire to retrieve his past. Without knowing it the girl was arguing on the side of the world’s most expert criminologists, who hold that to destroy an offender cannot benefit society so much as to redeem him.
Whether Tyler’s ultimate redemption was probable or not, Orissa did not care to assume the responsibility of crushing him in order to avenge the shameful attempt, made in a moment of frenzy, to destroy her life. While those assembled hung breathless upon her words she said with assumed composure:
“The man knows better than I whether he speaks the truth. Could one be so utterly vile as to try to murder a girl who had never injured 218him? I think not. It is more reasonable to suppose that in his excitement he forgot himself—his manhood and his sense of justice—and only at the last moment realized what he was doing. I believe,” she added, simply, “I shall give him the credit of the doubt and accept his statement.”
Tyler stared at her as if he could scarcely believe his senses, while an expression of joy slowly spread over his haggard face. Radley-Todd gave Orissa a quiet smile of comprehension and approval. Cumberford said, musingly: “Ah; this interests me; indeed it does.” But Stephen exclaimed, in an impatient tone:
“That does not clear Tyler of his attempt to murder Mr. Cumberford and destroy the aircraft. He admits that such was his design and that Burthon paid him to do it. He is not less a criminal because Orissa happened to be in the aëroplane. Therefore it is Mr. Cumberford’s duty to prosecute this scoundrel and put him in prison.”
Tyler cast a frightened look at the speaker and began to tremble again. Said Chesty Todd, leaning back in his chair with his hands thrust into his pockets:
“That’s the idea. The prisoner belongs to Mr. Cumberford.”
Cumberford sat in his characteristic attitude, stooping forward and thoughtfully stroking his grizzled mustache.
219“Did I hurt you very much when I kicked you, Tyler?” he meekly asked.
“No, sir!” protested the man, eagerly.
“Would you have thought of such a revenge had not Burthon suggested it, and paid you to carry it out?”
“M—m. Would you like to murder me now?”
“What will you do if I set you at liberty?”
“Clear out, sir,” said Tyler earnestly.
“Ah; that interests me,” declared Mr. Cumberford.
“It doesn’t interest me, though,” Stephen said angrily. “The brute tried to wreck my aircraft.”
“But he failed,” suggested Mr. Cumberford. “The aircraft is still in apple-pie order.”
“My son,” said the boy’s mother, in her gentle voice, “can you afford to be less generous than Mr. Cumberford and—your sister?”
Stephen flushed. Then he glanced toward Sybil and found the girl eyeing him curiously, expectantly.
“Oh, well,” he said, with reluctance, “let him go. Such a fiend, at large, is a menace to society. That is why I wished to make an example of him. If aëroplanes are to be attacked in mid-air, after this, the dangers of aviation will be redoubled.”
220“I wouldn’t worry about that,” carelessly remarked Todd. “This fellow is too abject a coward to continue a career of crime along those lines. He’s had his lesson, and he’ll remember it. I don’t say he’ll turn honest, for I imagine it isn’t in him; but he’ll be mighty careful hereafter how he conducts himself.”
“I—I’ll never step foot in an aëroplane again!” growled Tyler, hoarsely but with great earnestness.
“Suppose you meet Burthon again?” suggested Steve, distrustfully.
“If I do,” said the man, scowling and clinching his fists, “I—I’ll strangle him!”
“A nice, reformed character, I must say,” observed Steve, with fine contempt.
“But he interests me—he interests me greatly,” asserted Cumberford. “Let him go, Steve.”
Radley-Todd looked round the circle of faces with an amused smile, which grew tender as his eye rested upon the placid features of Mrs. Kane. The boy loved to study human nature; it had possessed a fascination for him ever since he could remember, and here was a fertile field for observation. Reading accurately the desire of those assembled to be rid of the abhorrent creature he had brought before them, the young man slowly rose and opened the door.
221“Tyler,” said he, “you’ve saved your skin. Not by your whining falsehoods and misrepresentations, but because these people are too noble to be revenged upon one so ignoble and degraded. But I’m not built that way myself. I’m longing to kick you till you can’t stand, and there’s a mighty power to my hamstrings, I assure you. I refrain just now, because ladies are present, but if I ever set eyes on your carcass again you’ll think Cumberford’s kick was a mere love-pat. Get out!”
Tyler cringed, turned without a word and shuffled through the doorway.
Orissa came forward and took the young fellow’s hand in her own, impulsively.
“Thank you, Mr. Todd!” she said.
He held the hand a moment and looked admiringly into her upturned face.
“It is I who should give thanks, and I do,” he answered reverently. “I thank God to-day, as I have had occasion to do before, for his noblest creation—the American girl.”
“Good!” cried Cumberford, with approval. “That interests me.”