"Come at once; Hannah Chester is found."
"So we have reason to think."
"When? where? by whom?"
"Sit down, and I will tell you."
Drawing up a chair in a flurry of hope and fear, I sat down by Mr. Gryce's side.
"She is not in the cupboard," that person dryly assured me, noting without doubt how my eyes went travelling about the room in my anxiety and impatience. "We are not absolutely sure that she is anywhere. But word has come to us that a girl's face believed to be Hannah's has been seen at the upper window of a certain house in—don't start—R——, where a year ago she was in the habit of visiting while at the hotel with the Misses Leavenworth. Now, as it has already been determined that she left New York the night of the murder, by the ——— ——Railroad, though for what point we have been unable to ascertain, we consider the matter worth inquiring into."
"If she is there," resumed Mr. Gryce, "she is secreted; kept very close. No one except the informant has ever seen her, nor is there any suspicion among the neighbors of her being in town."
"Hannah secreted at a certain house in R——? Whose house?"
Mr. Gryce honored me with one of his grimmest smiles. "The name of the lady she's with is given in the communication as Belden; Mrs. Amy Belden."
"Amy Belden! the name found written on a torn envelope by Mr. Clavering's servant girl in London?"
I made no attempt to conceal my satisfaction. "Then we are upon the verge of some discovery; Providence has interfered, and Eleanore will be saved! But when did you get this word?"
"Last night, or rather this morning; Q brought it."
"It was a message, then, to Q?"
"Yes, the result of his molings while in R——, I suppose."
"Whom was it signed by?"
"A respectable tinsmith who lives next door to Mrs. B."
"And is this the first you knew of an Amy Belden living in R——?"
"Widow or wife?"
"Don't know; don't know anything about her but her name."
"But you have already sent Q to make inquiries?"
"No; the affair is a little too serious for him to manage alone. He is not equal to great occasions, and might fail just for the lack of a keen mind to direct him."
"I wish you to go. Since I cannot be there myself, I know of no one else sufficiently up in the affair to conduct it to a successful issue. You see, it is not enough to find and identify the girl. The present condition of things demands that the arrest of so important a witness should be kept secret. Now, for a man to walk into a strange house in a distant village, find a girl who is secreted there, frighten her, cajole her, force her, as the case may be, from her hiding-place to a detective's office in New York, and all without the knowledge of the next-door neighbor, if possible, requires judgment, brains, genius. Then the woman who conceals her I She must have her reasons for doing so; and they must be known. Altogether, the affair is a delicate one. Do you think you can manage it?"
"I should at least like to try."
Mr. Gryce settled himself on the sofa. "To think what pleasure I am losing on your account!" he grumbled, gazing reproachfully at his helpless limbs. "But to business. How soon can you start?"
"Good! a train leaves the depot at 12.15. Take that. Once in R——, it will be for you to decide upon the means of making Mrs. Belden's acquaintance without arousing her suspicions. Q, who will follow you, will hold himself in readiness to render you any assistance you may require. Only this thing is to be understood: as he will doubtless go in disguise, you are not to recognize him, much less interfere with him and his plans, till he gives you leave to do so, by some preconcerted signal. You are to work in your way, and he in his, till circumstances seem to call for mutual support and countenance. I cannot even say whether you will see him or not; he may find it necessary to Keep um of the way; but you may be sure of one thing, that he will know where you are, and that the display of, well, let us say a red silk handkerchief—have you such a thing?"
"I will get one."
"Will be regarded by him as a sign that you desire his presence or assistance, whether it be shown about your person or at the window of your room."
"And these are all the instructions you can give me?" I said, as he paused.
"Yes, I don't know of anything else. You must depend largely upon your own discretion, and the exigencies of the moment. I cannot tell you now what to do. Your own wit will be the best guide. Only, if possible, let me either hear from you or see you by to-morrow at this time."
And he handed me a cipher in case I should wish to telegraph.
BOOK III. HANNAH
XXVII. AMY BELDEN
"A merrier man Within the limits of becoming mirth, I never spent an hour's talk withal." —Love's Labour's Last.
I HAD a client in R—— by the name of Monell; and it was from him I had planned to learn the best way of approaching Mrs. Belden. When, therefore, I was so fortunate as to meet him, almost on my arrival, driving on the long road behind his famous trotter Alfred, I regarded the encounter as a most auspicious beginning of a very doubtful enterprise.
"Well, and how goes the day?" was his exclamation as, the first greetings passed, we drove rapidly into town.
"Your part in it goes pretty smoothly," I returned; and thinking I could never hope to win his attention to my own affairs till I had satisfied him in regard to his, I told him all I could concerning the law-suit then pending; a subject so prolific of question and answer, that we had driven twice round the town before he remembered he had a letter to post. As it was an important one, admitting of no delay, we hasted at once to the post-office, where he went in, leaving me outside to watch the rather meagre stream of goers and comers who at that time of day make the post-office of a country town their place of rendezvous. Among these, for some reason, I especially noted one middle-aged woman; why, I cannot say; her appearance was anything but remarkable. And yet when she came out, with two letters in her hand, one in a large and one in might be induced to give a bed to a friend of mine who is very anxious to be near the post-office on account of a business telegram he is expecting, and which when it comes will demand his immediate attention. And Mr. Monell gave me a sly wink of his eye, little imagining how near the mark he had struck.
"You need not say that. Tell her I have a peculiar dislike to sleeping in a public house, and that you know of no one better fitted to accommodate me, for the short time I desire to be in town, than herself."
"And what will be said of my hospitality in allowing you under these circumstances to remain in any other house than my own?"
"I don't know; very hard things, no doubt; but I guess your hospitality can stand it."
"Well, if you persist, we will see what can be done." And driving up to a neat white cottage of homely, but sufficiently attractive appearance, he stopped.
"This is her house," said he, jumping to the ground; "let's go in and see what we can do."
Glancing up at the windows, which were all closed save the two on the veranda overlooking the street, I thought to myself, "If she has anybody in hiding here, whose presence in the house she desires to keep secret, it is folly to hope she will take me in, however well recommended I may come." But, yielding to the example of my friend, I alighted in my turn and followed him up the short, grass-bordered walk to the front door.
"As she has no servant, she will come to the door herself, so be ready," he remarked as he knocked.
I had barely time to observe that the curtains to the window at my left suddenly dropped, when a hasty step made itself heard within, and a quick hand drew open the door; and I saw before me the woman whom I had observed at the post-office, and whose action with the letters had struck me as peculiar. I recognized her at first glance, though she was differently dressed, and had evidently passed through some worry or excitement that had altered the expression of her countenance, and made her manner what it was not at that time, strained and a trifle uncertain. But I saw no reason for thinking she remembered me. On the contrary, the look she directed towards me had nothing but inquiry in it, and when Mr. Monell pushed me forward with the remark, "A friend of mine; in fact my lawyer from New York," she dropped a hurried old-fashioned curtsey whose only expression was a manifest desire to appear sensible of the honor conferred upon her, through the mist of a certain trouble that confused everything about her.
"We have come to ask a favor, Mrs. Belden; but may we not come in? "said my client in a round, hearty voice well calculated to recall a person's thoughts into their proper channel. "I have heard many times of your cosy home, and am glad of this opportunity of seeing it." And with a blind disregard to the look of surprised resistance with which she met his advance, he stepped gallantly into the little room whose cheery red carpet and bright picture-hung walls showed invitingly through the half-open door at our left.
Finding her premises thus invaded by a sort of French coup d'etat, Mrs. Belden made the best of the situation, and pressing me to enter also, devoted herself to hospitality. As for Mr. Monell, he quite blossomed out in his endeavors to make himself agreeable; so much so, that I shortly found myself laughing at his sallies, though my heart was full of anxiety lest, after all, our efforts should fail of the success they certainly merited. Meanwhile, Mrs. Belden softened more and more, joining in the conversation with an ease hardly to be expected from one in her humble circumstances. Indeed, I soon saw she was no common woman. There was a refinement in her speech and manner, which, combined with her motherly presence and gentle air, was very pleasing. The last woman in the world to suspect of any underhanded proceeding, if she had not shown a peculiar hesitation when Mr. Monell broached the subject of my entertainment there.
"I don't know, sir; I would be glad, but," and she turned a very scrutinizing look upon me, "the fact is, I have not taken lodgers of late, and I have got out of the way of the whole thing, and am afraid I cannot make him comfortable. In short, you will have to excuse me."
"But we can't," returned Mr. Monell. "What, entice a fellow into a room like this"—and he cast a hearty admiring glance round the apartment which, for all its simplicity, both its warm coloring and general air of cosiness amply merited, "and then turn a cold shoulder upon him when he humbly entreats the honor of staying a single night in the enjoyment of its attractions? No, no, Mrs. Belden; I know you too well for that. Lazarus himself couldn't come to your door and be turned away; much less a good-hearted, clever-headed young gentleman like my friend here."
"You are very good," she began, an almost weak love of praise showing itself for a moment in her eyes; "but I have no room prepared. I have been house-cleaning, and everything is topsy-turvy Mrs. Wright, now, over the way——"
"My young friend is going to stop here," Mr. Mouell broke in, with frank positiveness. "If I cannot have him at my own house,—and for certain reasons it is not advisable,—I shall at least have the satisfaction of knowing he is in the charge of the best housekeeper in R——."
"Yes," I put in, but without too great a show of interest; "I should be sorry, once introduced here, to be obliged to go elsewhere."
The troubled eye wavered away from us to the door.
"I was never called inhospitable," she commenced; "but everything in such disorder. What time would you like to come?"
"I was in hopes I might remain now," I replied; "I have some letters to write, and ask nothing better than for leave to sit here and write them."
At the word letters I saw her hand go to her pocket in a movement which must have been involuntary, for her countenance did not change, and she made the quick reply:
"Well, you may. If you can put up with such poor accommodations as I can offer, it shall not be said I refused you what Mr. Monell is pleased to call a favor."
And, complete in her reception as she had been in her resistance, she gave us a pleasant smile, and, ignoring my thanks, bustled out with Mr. Monell to the buggy, where she received my bag and what was, doubtless, more to her taste, the compliments he was now more than ever ready to bestow upon her.
"I will see that a room is got ready for you in a very short space of time," she said, upon re-entering. "Meanwhile, make yourself at home here; and if you wish to write, why I think you will find everything for the purpose in these drawers." And wheeling up a table to the easy chair in which I sat, she pointed to the small compartments beneath, with an air of such manifest desire to have me make use of anything and everything she had, that I found myself wondering over my position with a sort of startled embarrassment that was not remote from shame.
"Thank you; I have materials of my own," said I, and hastened to open my bag and bring out the writing-case, which I always carried with me.
"Then I will leave you," said she; and with a quick bend and a short, hurried look out of the window, she hastily quitted the room.
I could hear her steps cross the hall, go up two or three stairs, pause, go up the rest of the flight, pause again, and then pass on. I was left on the first floor alone.
XXVIII. A WEIRD EXPERIENCE
"Flat burglary an ever was committed." —Much Ado about Nothing.
THE first thing I did was to inspect with greater care the room in which I sat.
It was a pleasant apartment, as I have already said; square, sunny, and well furnished. On the floor was a crimson carpet, on the walls several pictures, at the windows, cheerful curtains of white, tastefully ornamented with ferns and autumn leaves; in one corner an old melodeon, and in the centre of the room a table draped with a bright cloth, on which were various little knick-knacks which, without being rich or expensive, were both pretty and, to a certain extent, ornamental. But it was not these things, which I had seen repeated in many other country homes, that especially attracted my attention, or drew me forward in the slow march which I now undertook around the room. It was the something underlying all these, the evidences which I found, or sought to find, not only in the general aspect of the room, but in each trivial object I encountered, of the character, disposition, and history of the woman with whom I now had to deal. It was for this reason I studied the daguerreotypes on the mantel-piece, the books on the shelf, and the music on the rack; for this and the still further purpose of noting if any indications were to be found of there being in the house any such person as Hannah.
First then, for the little library, which I was pleased to see occupied one corner of the room. Composed of a few well-chosen books, poetical, historical, and narrative, it was of itself sufficient to account for the evidences of latent culture observable in Mrs. Belden's conversation. Taking out a well-worn copy of Byron, I opened it. There were many passages marked, and replacing the book with a mental comment upon her evident impressibility to the softer emotions, I turned towards the melodeon fronting me from the opposite wall. It was closed, but on its neatly-covered top lay one or two hymn-books, a basket of russet apples, and a piece of half-completed knitting work.
I took up the latter, but was forced to lay it down again without a notion for what it was intended. Proceeding, I next stopped before a window opening upon the small yard that ran about the house, and separated it from the one adjoining. The scene without failed to attract me, but the window itself drew my attention, for, written with a diamond point on one of the panes, I perceived a row of letters which, as nearly as I could make out, were meant for some word or words, but which utterly failed in sense or apparent connection. Passing it by as the work of some school-girl, I glanced down at the work-basket standing on a table at my side. It was full of various kinds of work, among which I spied a pair of stockings, which were much too small, as well as in too great a state of disrepair, to belong to Mrs. Belden; and drawing them carefully out, I examined them for any name on them. Do not start when I say I saw the letter H plainly marked upon them. Thrusting them back, I drew a deep breath of relief, gazing, as I did so, out of the window, when those letters again attracted my attention.
What could they mean? Idly I began to read them backward, when—But try for yourself, reader, and judge of my surprise! Elate at the discovery thus made, I sat down to write my letters. I had barely finished them, when Mrs. Belden came in with the announcement that supper was ready. "As for your room," said she, "I have prepared my own room for your use, thinking you would like to remain on the first floor." And, throwing open a door at my side, she displayed a small, but comfortable room, in which I could dimly see a bed, an immense bureau, and a shadowy looking-glass in a dark, old-fashioned frame.
"I live in very primitive fashion," she resumed, leading the way into the dining-room; "but I mean to be comfortable and make others so."
"I should say you amply succeeded," I rejoined, with an appreciative glance at her well-spread board.
She smiled, and I felt I had paved the way to her good graces in a way that would yet redound to my advantage.
Shall I ever forget that supper! its dainties, its pleasant freedom, its mysterious, pervading atmosphere of unreality: and the constant sense which every bountiful dish she pressed upon me brought of the shame of eating this woman's food with such feelings of suspicion in my heart! Shall I ever forget the emotion I experienced when I first perceived she had something on her mind, which she longed, yet hesitated, to give utterance to! Or how she started when a cat jumped from the sloping roof of the kitchen on to the grass-plot at the back of the house; or how my heart throbbed when I heard, or thought I heard, a board creak overhead! We were in a long and narrow room which seemed, curiously enough, to run crosswise of the house, opening on one side into the parlor, and on the other into the small bedroom, which had been allotted to my use.
"You live in this house alone, without fear?" I asked, as Mrs. Belden, contrary to my desire, put another bit of cold chicken on my plate. "Have you no marauders in this town: no tramps, of whom a solitary woman like you might reasonably be afraid?"
"No one will hurt me," said she; "and no one ever came here for food or shelter but got it."
"I should think, then, that living as you do, upon a railroad, you would be constantly overrun with worthless beings whose only trade is to take all they can get without giving a return."
"I cannot turn them away. It is the only luxury I have: to feed the poor."
"But the idle, restless ones, who neither will work, nor let others work——"
"Are still the poor."
Mentally remarking, here is the woman to shield an unfortunate who has somehow become entangled in the meshes of a great crime, I drew back from the table As I did so, the thought crossed me that, in case there was any such person in the house as Hannah, she would take the opportunity of going up-stairs with something for her to eat; and that she might not feel hampered by my presence, I stepped out on the veranda with my cigar.
While smoking it, I looked about for Q. I felt that the least token of his presence in town would be very encouraging at this time. But it seemed I was not to be afforded even that small satisfaction. If Q was anywhere near, he was lying very low.
Once again seated with Mrs. Belden (who I know came down-stairs with an empty plate, for going into the kitchen for a drink, I caught her in the act of setting it down on the table), I made up my mind to wait a reasonable length of time for what she had to say; and then, if she did not speak, make an endeavor on my own part to surprise her secret.
But her avowal was nearer and of a different nature from what I expected, and brought its own train of consequences with it.
"You are a lawyer, I believe," she began, taking down her knitting work, with a forced display of industry.
"Yes," I said; "that is my profession."
She remained for a moment silent, creating great havoc in her work I am sure, from the glance of surprise and vexation she afterwards threw it. Then, in a hesitating voice, remarked:
"Perhaps you may be willing, then, to give me some advice. The truth is, I am in a very curious predicament; one from which I don't know how to escape, and yet which demands immediate action. I should like to tell you about it; may I?"
"You may; I shall be only too happy to give you any advice in my power."
She drew in her breath with a sort of vague relief, though her forehead did not lose its frown.
"It can all be said in a few words. I have in my possession a package of papers which were intrusted to me by two ladies, with the understanding that I should neither return nor destroy them without the full cognizance and expressed desire of both parties, given in person or writing. That they were to remain in my hands till then, and that nothing or nobody should extort them from me."
"That is easily understood," said I; for she stopped.
"But, now comes word from one of the ladies, the one, too, most interested in the matter, that, for certain reasons, the immediate destruction of those papers is necessary to her peace and safety."
"And do you want to know what your duty is in this case?"
"Yes," she tremulously replied.
I rose. I could not help it: a flood of conjectures rushing in tumult over me.
"It is to hold on to the papers like grim death till released from your guardianship by the combined wish of both parties."
"Is that your opinion as a lawyer?"
"Yes, and as a man. Once pledged in that way, you have no choice. It would be a betrayal of trust to yield to the solicitations of one party what you have undertaken to return to both. The fact that grief or loss might follow your retention of these papers does not release you from your bond. You have nothing to do with that; besides, you are by no means sure that the representations of the so-called interested party are true. You might be doing a greater wrong, by destroying in this way, what is manifestly considered of value to them both, than by preserving the papers intact, according to compact."
"But the circumstances? Circumstances alter cases; and in short, it seems to me that the wishes of the one most interested ought to be regarded, especially as there is an estrangement between these ladies which may hinder the other's consent from ever being obtained."
"No," said I; "two wrongs never make a right; nor are we at liberty to do an act of justice at the expense of an injustice. The papers must be preserved, Mrs. Belden."
Her head sank very despondingly; evidently it had been her wish to please the interested party. "Law is very hard," she said; "very hard."
"This is not only law, but plain duty," I remarked. "Suppose a case different; suppose the honor and happiness of the other party depended upon the preservation of the papers; where would your duty be then?"
"A contract is a contract," said I, "and cannot be tampered with. Having accepted the trust and given your word, you are obliged to fulfil, to the letter, all its conditions. It would be a breach of trust for you to return or destroy the papers without the mutual consent necessary."
An expression of great gloom settled slowly over her features. "I suppose you are right," said she, and became silent.
Watching her, I thought to myself, "If I were Mr. Gryce, or even Q, I would never leave this seat till I had probed this matter to the bottom, learned the names of the parties concerned, and where those precious papers are hidden, which she declares to be of so much importance." But being neither, I could only keep her talking upon the subject until she should let fall some word that might serve as a guide to my further enlightenment; I therefore turned, with the intention of asking her some question, when my attention was attracted by the figure of a woman coming out of the back-door of the neighboring house, who, for general dilapidation and uncouthness of bearing, was a perfect type of the style of tramp of whom we had been talking at the supper table. Gnawing a crust which she threw away as she reached the street, she trudged down the path, her scanty dress, piteous in its rags and soil, flapping in the keen spring wind, and revealing ragged shoes red with the mud of the highway.
"There is a customer that may interest you," said I.
Mrs. Belden seemed to awake from a trance. Rising slowly, she looked out, and with a rapidly softening gaze surveyed the forlorn creature before her.
"Poor thing!" she muttered; "but I cannot do much for her to-night. A good supper is all I can give her."
And, going to the front door, she bade her step round the house to the kitchen, where, in another moment, I heard the rough creature's voice rise in one long "Bless you!" that could only have been produced by the setting before her of the good things with which Mrs. Belden's larder seemed teeming.
But supper was not all she wanted. After a decent length of time, employed as I should judge in mastication, I heard her voice rise once more in a plea for shelter.
"The barn, ma'am, or the wood-house. Any place where I can lie out of the wind." And she commenced a long tale of want and disease, so piteous to hear that I was not at all surprised when Mrs. Belden told me, upon re-entering, that she had consented, notwithstanding her previous determination, to allow the woman to lie before the kitchen fire for the night.
"She has such an honest eye," said she; "and charity is my only luxury."
The interruption of this incident effectually broke up our conversation. Mrs. Belden went up-stairs, and for some time I was left alone to ponder over what I had heard, and determine upon my future course of action. I had just reached the conclusion that she would be fully as liable to be carried away by her feelings to the destruction of the papers in her charge, as to be governed by the rules of equity I had laid down to her, when I heard her stealthily descend the stairs and go out by the front door. Distrustful of her intentions, I took up my hat and hastily followed her. She was on her way down the main street, and my first thought was, that she was bound for some neighbor's house or perhaps for the hotel itself; but the settled swing into which she soon altered her restless pace satisfied me that she had some distant goal in prospect; and before long I found myself passing the hotel with its appurtenances, even the little schoolhouse, that was the last building at this end of the village, and stepping out into the country beyond. What could it mean?
But still her fluttering figure hasted on, the outlines of her form, with its close shawl and neat bonnet, growing fainter and fainter in the now settled darkness of an April night; and still I followed, walking on the turf at the side of the road lest she should hear my footsteps and look round. At last we reached a bridge. Over this I could hear her pass, and then every sound ceased. She had paused, and was evidently listening. It would not do for me to pause too, so gathering myself into as awkward a shape as possible, I sauntered by her down the road, but arrived at a certain point, stopped, and began retracing my steps with a sharp lookout for her advancing figure, till I had arrived once more at the bridge. She was not there.
Convinced now that she had discovered my motive for being in her house and, by leading me from it, had undertaken to supply Hannah with an opportunity for escape, I was about to hasten back to the charge I had so incautiously left, when a strange sound heard at my left arrested me. It came from the banks of the puny stream which ran under the bridge, and was like the creaking of an old door on worn-out hinges.
Leaping the fence, I made my way as best I could down the sloping field in the direction from which the sound came. It was quite dark, and my progress was slow; so much so, that I began to fear I had ventured upon a wild-goose chase, when an unexpected streak of lightning shot across the sky, and by its glare I saw before me what seemed, in the momentary glimpse I had of it, an old barn. From the rush of waters near at hand, I judged it to be somewhere on the edge of the stream, and consequently hesitated to advance, when I heard the sound of heavy breathing near me, followed by a stir as of some one feeling his way over a pile of loose boards; and presently, while I stood there, a faint blue light flashed up from the interior of the barn, and I saw, through the tumbled-down door that faced me, the form of Mrs. Belden standing with a lighted match in her hand, gazing round on the four walls that encompassed her. Hardly daring to breathe, lest I should alarm her, I watched her while she turned and peered at the roof above her, which was so old as to be more than half open to the sky, at the flooring beneath, which was in a state of equal dilapidation, and finally at a small tin box which she drew from under her shawl and laid on the ground at her feet. The sight of that box at once satisfied me as to the nature of her errand. She was going to hide what she dared not destroy; and, relieved upon this point, I was about to take a step forward when the match went out in her hand. While she was engaged in lighting another, I considered that perhaps it would be better for me not to arouse her apprehensions by accosting her at this time, and thus endanger the success of my main scheme; but to wait till she was gone, before I endeavored to secure the box. Accordingly I edged my way up to the side of the barn and waited till she should leave it, knowing that if I attempted to peer in at the door, I ran great risk of being seen, owing to the frequent streaks of lightning which now flashed about us on every side. Minute after minute went by, with its weird alternations of heavy darkness and sudden glare; and still she did not come. At last, just as I was about to start impatiently from my hiding-place, she reappeared, and began to withdraw with faltering steps toward the bridge. When I thought her quite out of hearing, I stole from my retreat and entered the barn. It was of course as dark as Erebus, but thanks to being a smoker I was as well provided with matches as she had been, and having struck one, I held it up; but the light it gave was very feeble, and as I did not know just where to look, it went out before I had obtained more than a cursory glimpse of the spot where I was. I thereupon lit another; but though I confined my attention to one place, namely, the floor at my feet, it too went out before I could conjecture by means of any sign seen there where she had hidden the box. I now for the first time realized the difficulty before me. She had probably made up her mind, before she left home, in just what portion of this old barn she would conceal her treasure; but I had nothing to guide me: I could only waste matches. And I did waste them. A dozen had been lit and extinguished before I was so much as sure the box was not under a pile of debris that lay in one corner, and I had taken the last in my hand before I became aware that one of the broken boards of the floor was pushed a little out of its proper position. One match! and that board was to be raised, the space beneath examined, and the box, if there, lifted safely out. I concluded not to waste my resources, so kneeling down in the darkness, I groped for the board, tried it, and found it to be loose. Wrenching at it with all my strength, I tore it free and cast it aside; then lighting my match looked into the hole thus made. Something, I could not tell what, stone or box, met my eye, but while I reached for it, the match flew out of my hand. Deploring my carelessness, but determined at all hazards to secure what I had seen, I dived down deep into the hole, and in another moment had the object of my curiosity in my hands. It was the box!
Satisfied at this result of my efforts, I turned to depart, my one wish now being to arrive home before Mrs. Belden. Was this possible? She had several minutes the start of me; I would have to pass her on the road, and in so doing might be recognized. Was the end worth the risk? I decided that it was.
Regaining the highway, I started at a brisk pace. For some little distance I kept it up, neither overtaking nor meeting any one. But suddenly, at a turn in the road, I came unexpectedly upon Mrs. Belden, standing in the middle of the path, looking back. Somewhat disconcerted, I hastened swiftly by her, expecting her to make some effort to stop me. But she let me pass without a word. Indeed, I doubt now if she even saw or heard me. Astonished at this treatment, and still more surprised that she made no attempt to follow me, I looked back, when I saw what enchained her to the spot, and made her so unmindful of my presence. The barn behind us was on fire!
Instantly I realized it was the work of my hands; I had dropped a half-extinguished match, and it had fallen upon some inflammable substance.
Aghast at the sight, I paused in my turn, and stood staring. Higher and higher the red flames mounted, brighter and brighter glowed the clouds above, the stream beneath; and in the fascination of watching it all, I forgot Mrs. Belden. But a short, agitated gasp in my vicinity soon recalled her presence to my mind, and drawing nearer, I heard her exclaim like a person speaking in a dream, "Well, I didn't mean to do it"; then lower, and with a certain satisfaction in her tone, "But it's all right, any way; the thing is lost now for good, and Mary will be satisfied without any one being to blame."
I did not linger to hear more; if this was the conclusion she had come to, she would not wait there long, especially as the sound of distant shouts and running feet announced that a crowd of village boys was on its way to the scene of the conflagration.
The first thing I did, upon my arrival at the house, was to assure myself that no evil effects had followed my inconsiderate desertion of it to the mercies of the tramp she had taken in; the next to retire to my room, and take a peep at the box. I found it to be a neat tin coffer, fastened with a lock. Satisfied from its weight that it contained nothing heavier than the papers of which Mrs. Belden had spoken, I hid it under the bed and returned to the sitting-room. I had barely taken a seat and lifted a book when Mrs. Belden came in.
"Well!" cried she, taking off her bonnet and revealing a face much flushed with exercise, but greatly relieved in expression; "this u a night! It lightens, and there is a fire somewhere down street, and altogether it is perfectly dreadful out. I hope you have not been lonesome," she continued, with a keen searching of my face which I bore in the best way I could. "I had an errand to attend to, but didn't expect to stay so long."
I returned some nonchalant reply, and she hastened from the room to fasten up the house.
I waited, but she did not come back; fearful, perhaps, of betraying herself, she had retired to her own apartment, leaving me to take care of myself as best I might. I own that I was rather relieved at this. The fact is, I did not feel equal to any more excitement that night, and was glad to put off further action until the next day. As soon, then, as the storm was over, I myself went to bed, and, after several ineffectual efforts, succeeded in getting asleep.
XXIX. THE MISSING WITNESS
"I fled and cried out death." —Milton.
The voice was low and searching; it reached me in my dreams, waked me, and caused me to look up. Morning had begun to break, and by its light I saw, standing in the open door leading into the dining-room, the forlorn figure of the tramp who had been admitted into the house the night before. Angry and perplexed, I was about to bid her be gone, when, to my great surprise, she pulled out a red handkerchief from her pocket, and I recognized Q.
"Read that," said he, hastily advancing and putting a slip of paper into my hand. And, without another word or look, left the room, closing the door behind him.
Rising in considerable agitation, I took it to the window, and by the rapidly increasing light, succeeded in making out the rudely scrawled lines as follows:
"She is here; I have seen her; in the room marked with a cross in the accompanying plan. Wait till eight o'clock, then go up. I will contrive some means of getting Mrs. B—— out of the house."
Sketched below this was the following plan of the upper floor:
Hannah, then, was in the small back room over the dining-room, and I had not been deceived in thinking I had heard steps overhead, the evening before. Greatly relieved, and yet at the same time much moved at the near prospect of being brought face to face with one who we had every reason to believe was acquainted with the dreadful secret involved in the Leavenworth murder, I lay down once more, and endeavored to catch another hour's rest. But I soon gave up the effort in despair, and contented myself with listening to the sounds of awakening life which now began to make themselves heard in the house and neighborhood.
As Q had closed the door after him, I could only faintly hear Mrs. Belden when she came down-stairs. But the short, surprised exclamation which she uttered upon reaching the kitchen and finding the tramp gone and the back-door wide open, came plainly enough to my ears, and for a moment I was not sure but that Q had made a mistake in thus leaving so unceremoniously. But he had not studied Mrs. Belden's character in vain. As she came, in the course of her preparations for breakfast, into the room adjoining mine, I could hear her murmur to herself:
"Poor thing! She has lived so long in the fields and at the roadside, she finds it unnatural to be cooped up in the house all night."
The trial of that breakfast! The effort to eat and appear unconcerned, to chat and make no mistake,—may I never be called upon to go through such another! But at last it was over, and I was left free to await in my own room the time for the dreaded though much-to-be-desired interview. Slowly the minutes passed; eight o'clock struck, when, just as the last vibration ceased, there came a loud knock at the backdoor, and a little boy burst into the kitchen, crying at the top of his voice: "Papa's got a fit! Oh, Mrs. Belden! papa's got a fit; do come!"
Rising, as was natural, I hastened towards the kitchen, meeting Mrs. Belden's anxious face in the doorway.
"A poor wood-chopper down the street has fallen in a fit," she said. "Will you please watch over the house while I see what I can do for him? I won't be absent any longer than I can help."
And almost without waiting for my reply, she caught up a shawl, threw it over her head, and followed the urchin, who was in a state of great excitement, out into the street.
Instantly the silence of death seemed to fill the house, and a dread the greatest I had ever experienced settled upon me. To leave the kitchen, go up those stairs, and confront that girl seemed for the moment beyond my power; but, once on the stair, I found myself relieved from the especial dread which had overwhelmed me, and possessed, instead, of a sort of combative curiosity that led me to throw open the door which I saw at the top with a certain fierceness new to my nature, and not altogether suitable, perhaps, to the occasion.
I found myself in a large bedroom, evidently the one occupied by Mrs. Belden the night before. Barely stopping to note certain evidences of her having passed a restless night, I passed on to the door leading into the room marked with a cross in the plan drawn for me by Q. It was a rough affair, made of pine boards rudely painted. Pausing before it, I listened. All was still. Raising the latch, I endeavored to enter. The door was locked. Pausing again, I bent my ear to the keyhole. Not a sound came from within; the grave itself could not have been stiller. Awe-struck and irresolute, I looked about me and questioned what I had best do. Suddenly I remembered that, in the plan Q had given me, I had seen intimation of another door leading into this same room from the one on the opposite side of the hall. Going hastily around to it, I tried it with my hand. But it was as fast as the other. Convinced at last that nothing was left me but force, I spoke for the first time, and, calling the girl by name, commanded her to open the door. Receiving no response, I said aloud with an accent of severity:
"Hannah Chester, you are discovered; if you do not open the door, we shall be obliged to break it down; save us the trouble, then, and open immediately."
Still no reply.
Going back a step, I threw my whole weight against the door. It creaked ominously, but still resisted.
Stopping only long enough to be sure no movement had taken place within, I pressed against it once more, this time with all my strength, when it flew from its hinges, and I fell forward into a room so stifling, chill, and dark that I paused for a moment to collect my scattered senses before venturing to look around me. It was well I did so. In another moment, the pallor and fixity of the pretty Irish face staring upon me from amidst the tumbled clothes of a bed, drawn up against the wall at my side, struck me with so deathlike a chill that, had it not been for that one instant of preparation, I should have been seriously dismayed. As it was, I could not prevent a feeling of sickly apprehension from seizing me as I turned towards the silent figure stretched so near, and observed with what marble-like repose it lay beneath the patchwork quilt drawn across it, asking myself if sleep could be indeed so like death in its appearance. For that it was a sleeping woman I beheld, I did not seriously doubt. There were too many evidences of careless life in the room for any other inference. The clothes, left just as she had stepped from them in a circle on the floor; the liberal plate of food placed in waiting for her on the chair by the door, —food amongst which I recognized, even in this casual glance, the same dish which we had had for breakfast —all and everything in the room spoke of robust life and reckless belief in the morrow.
And yet so white was the brow turned up to the bare beams of the unfinished wall above her, so glassy the look of the half-opened eyes, so motionless the arm lying half under, half over, the edge of the coverlid that it was impossible not to shrink from contact with a creature so sunk in unconsciousness. But contact seemed to be necessary; any cry which I could raise at that moment would be ineffectual enough to pierce those dull ears. Nerving myself, therefore, I stooped and lifted the hand which lay with its telltale scar mockingly uppermost, intending to speak, call, do something, anything, to arouse her. But at the first touch of her hand on mine an unspeakable horror thrilled me. It was not only icy cold, but stiff. Dropping it in my agitation, I started back and again surveyed the face. Great God! when did life ever look like that? What sleep ever wore such pallid hues, such accusing fixedness? Bending once more I listened at the lips. Not a breath, nor a stir. Shocked to the core of my being, I made one final effort. Tearing down the clothes, I laid my hand upon her heart. It was pulseless as stone.
XXX. BURNED PAPER
"I could have better spared a better man." —Henry IV.
I DO not think I called immediately for help. The awful shock of this discovery, coming as it did at the very moment life and hope were strongest within me; the sudden downfall which it brought of all the plans based upon this woman's expected testimony; and, worst of all, the dread coincidence between this sudden death and the exigency in which the guilty party, whoever it was, was supposed to be at that hour were much too appalling for instant action. I could only stand and stare at the quiet face before me, smiling in its peaceful rest as if death were pleasanter than we think, and marvel over the providence which had brought us renewed fear instead of relief, complication instead of enlightenment, disappointment instead of realization. For eloquent as is death, even on the faces of those unknown and unloved by us, the causes and consequences of this one were much too important to allow the mind to dwell upon the pathos of the scene itself. Hannah, the girl, was lost in Hannah the witness.
But gradually, as I gazed, the look of expectation which I perceived hovering about the wistful mouth and half-open lids attracted me, and I bent above her with a more personal interest, asking myself if she were quite dead, and whether or not immediate medical assistance would be of any avail. But the more closely I looked, the more certain I became that she had been dead for some hours; and the dismay occasioned by this thought, taken with the regrets which I must ever feel, that I had not adopted the bold course the evening before, and, by forcing my way to the hiding-place of this poor creature, interrupted, if not prevented the consummation of her fate, startled me into a realization of my present situation; and, leaving her side, I went into the next room, threw up the window, and fastened to the blind the red handkerchief which I had taken the precaution to bring with me.
Instantly a young man, whom I was fain to believe Q, though he bore not the least resemblance, either in dress or facial expression to any renderings of that youth which I had yet seen, emerged from the tinsmith's house, and approached the one I was in.
Observing him cast a hurried glance in my direction, I crossed the floor, and stood awaiting him at the head of the stairs.
"Well?" he whispered, upon entering the house and meeting my glance from below; "have you seen her?"
"Yes," I returned bitterly, "I have seen her!"
He hurriedly mounted to my side. "And she has confessed?"
"No; I have had no talk with her." Then, as I perceived him growing alarmed at my voice and manner, I drew him into Mrs. Belden's room and hastily inquired: "What did you mean this morning when you informed me you had seen this girl? that she was in a certain room where I might find her?"
"What I said."
"You have, then, been to her room?"
"No; I have only been on the outside of it. Seeing a light, I crawled up on to the ledge of the slanting roof last night while both you and Mrs. Belden were out, and, looking through the window, saw her moving round the room." He must have observed my countenance change, for he stopped. "What is to pay?" he cried.
I could restrain myself no longer. "Come," I said, "and see for yourself!" And, leading him to the little room I had just left, I pointed to the silent form lying within. "You told me I should find Hannah here; but you did not tell me I should find her in this condition."
"Great heaven!" he cried with a start: "not dead?"
"Yes," I said, "dead."
It seemed as if he could not realize it. "But it is impossible!" he returned. "She is in a heavy sleep, has taken a narcotic——"
"It is not sleep," I said, "or if it is, she will never wake. Look!" And, taking the hand once more in mine, I let it fall in its stone weight upon the bed.
The sight seemed to convince him. Calming down, he stood gazing at her with a very strange expression upon his face. Suddenly he moved and began quietly turning over the clothes that were lying on the floor.
"What are you doing?" I asked. "What are you looking for?"
"I am looking for the bit of paper from which I saw her take what I supposed to be a dose of medicine last night. Oh, here it is!" he cried, lifting a morsel of paper that, lying on the floor under the edge of the bed, had hitherto escaped his notice.
"Let me see!" I anxiously exclaimed.
He handed me the paper, on the inner surface of which I could dimly discern the traces of an impalpable white powder.
"This is important," I declared, carefully folding the paper together. "If there is enough of this powder remaining to show that the contents of this paper were poisonous, the manner and means of the girl's death are accounted for, and a case of deliberate suicide made evident."
"I am not so sure of that," he retorted. "If I am any judge of countenances, and I rather flatter myself I am, this girl had no more idea she was taking poison than I had. She looked not only bright but gay; and when she tipped up the paper, a smile of almost silly triumph crossed her face. If Mrs. Belden gave her that dose to take, telling her it was medicine——"
"That is something which yet remains to be learned; also whether the dose, as you call it, was poisonous or not. It may be she died of heart disease."
He simply shrugged his shoulders, and pointed first at the plate of breakfast left on the chair, and secondly at the broken-down door.
"Yes," I said, answering his look, "Mrs. Belden has been in here this morning, and Mrs. Belden locked the door when she went out; but that proves nothing beyond her belief in the girl's hearty condition."
"A belief which that white face on its tumbled pillow did not seem to shake?"
"Perhaps in her haste she may not have looked at the girl, but have set the dishes down without more than a casual glance in her direction?"
"I don't want to suspect anything wrong, but it is such a coincidence!"
This was touching me on a sore point, and I stepped back. "Well," said I, "there is no use in our standing here busying ourselves with conjectures. There is too much to be done. Come!" and I moved hurriedly towards the door.
"What are you going to do?" he asked. "Have you forgotten this is but an episode in the one great mystery we are sent here to unravel? If this girl has come to her death by some foul play, it is our business to find it out."
"That must be left for the coroner. It has now passed out of our hands."
"I know; but we can at least take full note of the room and everything in it before throwing the affair into the hands of strangers. Mr. Gryce will expect that much of us, I am sure."
"I have looked at the room. The whole is photographed on my mind. I am only afraid I can never forget it."
"And the body? Have you noticed its position? the lay of the bed-clothes around it? the lack there is of all signs of struggle or fear? the repose of the countenance? the easy fall of the hands?"
"Yes, yes; don't make me look at it any more."
"Then the clothes hanging on the wall?"—rapidly pointing out each object as he spoke. "Do you see? a calico dress, a shawl,—not the one in which she was believed to have run away, but an old black one, probably belonging to Mrs. Belden. Then this chest,"—opening it,—"containing a few underclothes marked,—let us see, ah, with the name of the lady of the house, but smaller than any she ever wore; made for Hannah, you observe, and marked with her own name to prevent suspicion. And then these other clothes lying on the floor, all new, all marked in the same way. Then this—Halloo! look here!" he suddenly cried.
Going over to where he stood I stooped down, when a wash-bowl half full of burned paper met my eye.
"I saw her bending over something in this corner, and could not think what it was. Can it be she is a suicide after all? She has evidently destroyed something here which she didn't wish any one to see."
"I do not know," I said. "I could almost hope so."
"Not a scrap, not a morsel left to show what it was; how unfortunate!"
"Mrs. Belden must solve this riddle," I cried.
"Mrs. Belden must solve the whole riddle," he replied; "the secret of the Leavenworth murder hangs upon it." Then, with a lingering look towards the mass of burned paper, "Who knows but what that was a confession?"
The conjecture seemed only too probable.
"Whatever it was," said I, "it is now ashes, and we have got to accept the fact and make the best of it."
"Yes," said he with a deep sigh; "that's so; but Mr. Gryce will never forgive me for it, never. He will say I ought to have known it was a suspicious circumstance for her to take a dose of medicine at the very moment detection stood at her back."
"But she did not know that; she did not see you."
"We don't know what she saw, nor what Mrs. Belden saw. Women are a mystery; and though I flatter myself that ordinarily I am a match for the keenest bit of female flesh that ever walked, I must say that in this case I feel myself thoroughly and shamefully worsted."
"Well, well," I said, "the end has not come yet; who knows what a talk with Mrs. Belden will bring out? And, by the way, she will be coming back soon, and I must be ready to meet her. Everything depends upon finding out, if I can, whether she is aware of this tragedy or not. It is just possible she knows nothing about it."
And, hurrying him from the room, I pulled the door to behind me, and led the way down-stairs.
"Now," said I, "there is one thing you must attend to at once. A telegram must be sent Mr. Gryce acquainting him with this unlooked-for occurrence."
"All right, sir," and Q started for the door.
"Wait one moment," said I. "I may not have another opportunity to mention it. Mrs. Belden received two letters from the postmaster yesterday; one in a large and one in a small envelope; if you could find out where they were postmarked——"
Q put his hand in his pocket. "I think I will not have to go far to find out where one of them came from. Good George, I have lost it!" And before I knew it, he had returned up-stairs.
That moment I heard the gate click.
XXXI. "THEREBY HANGS A TALE."
—Taming of the Shrew.
"IT was all a hoax; nobody was ill; I have been imposed upon, meanly imposed upon!" And Mrs. Belden, flushed and panting, entered the room where I was, and proceeded to take off her bonnet; but whilst doing so paused, and suddenly exclaimed: "What is the matter? How you look at me! Has anything happened?"
"Something very serious has occurred," I replied; "you have been gone but a little while, but in that time a discovery has been made—" I purposely paused here that the suspense might elicit from her some betrayal; but, though she turned pale, she manifested less emotion than I expected, and I went on—"which is likely to produce very important consequences."
To my surprise she burst violently into tears. "I knew it, I knew it!" she murmured. "I always said it would be impossible to keep it secret if I let anybody into the house; she is so restless. But I forget," she suddenly said, with a frightened look; "you haven't told me what the discovery was. Perhaps it isn't what I thought; perhaps——"
I did not hesitate to interrupt her. "Mrs. Belden," I said, "I shall not try to mitigate the blow. A woman who, in the face of the most urgent call from law and justice, can receive into her house and harbor there a witness of such importance as Hannah, cannot stand in need of any great preparation for hearing that her efforts, have been too successful, that she has accomplished her design of suppressing valuable testimony, that law and justice are outraged, and that the innocent woman whom this girl's evidence might have saved stands for ever compromised in the eyes of the world, if not in those of the officers of the law."
Her eyes, which had never left me during this address, flashed wide with dismay.
"What do you mean?" she cried. "I have intended no wrong; I have only tried to save people. I—I—But who are you? What have you got to do with all this? What is it to you what I do or don't do? You said you were a lawyer. Can it be you are come from Mary Leavenworth to see how I am fulfilling her commands, and——"
"Mrs. Belden," I said, "it is of small importance now as to who I am, or for what purpose I am here. But that my words may have the more effect, I will say, that whereas I have not deceived you, either as to my name or position, it is true that I am the friend of the Misses Leavenworth, and that anything which is likely to affect them, is of interest to me. When, therefore, I say that Eleanore Leavenworth is irretrievably injured by this gill's death——"
"Death? What do you mean? Death!"
The burst was too natural, the tone too horror-stricken for me to doubt for another moment as to this woman's ignorance of the true state of affairs.
"Yes," I repeated, "the girl you have been hiding so long and so well is now beyond your control. Only her dead body remains, Mrs. Belden."
I shall never lose from my ears the shriek which she uttered, nor the wild, "I don't believe it! I don't believe it!" with which she dashed from the room and rushed up-stairs.
Nor that after-scene when, in the presence of the dead, she stood wringing her hands and protesting, amid sobs of the sincerest grief and terror, that she knew nothing of it; that she had left the girl in the best of spirits the night before; that it was true she had locked her in, but this she always did when any one was in the house; and that if she died of any sudden attack, it must have been quietly, for she had heard no stir all night, though she had listened more than once, being naturally anxious lest the girl should make some disturbance that would arouse me.
"But you were in here this morning?" said I.
"Yes; but I didn't notice. I was in a hurry, and thought she was asleep; so I set the things down where she could get them and came right away, locking the door as usual."
"It is strange she should have died this night of all others. Was she ill yesterday?"
"No, sir; she was even brighter than common; more lively. I never thought of her being sick then or ever. If I had——"
"You never thought of her being sick?" a voice here interrupted. "Why, then, did you take such pains to give her a dose of medicine last night?" And Q entered from the room beyond.
"I didn't!" she protested, evidently under the supposition it was I who had spoken. "Did I, Hannah, did I, poor girl?" stroking the hand that lay in hers with what appeared to be genuine sorrow and regret.
"How came she by it, then? Where she did she get it if you didn't give it to her?"
This time she seemed to be aware that some one besides myself was talking to her, for, hurriedly rising, she looked at the man with a wondering stare, before replying.
"I don't know who you are, sir; but I can tell you this, the girl had no medicine,—took no dose; she wasn't sick last night that I know of."
"Yet I saw her swallow a powder."
"Saw her!—the world is crazy, or I am—saw her swallow a powder! How could you see her do that or anything else? Hasn't she been shut up in this room for twenty-four hours?"
"Yes; but with a window like that in the roof, it isn't so very difficult to see into the room, madam."
"Oh," she cried, shrinking, "I have a spy in the house, have I? But I deserve it; I kept her imprisoned in four close walls, and never came to look at her once all night. I don't complain; but what was it you say you saw her take? medicine? poison?"
"I didn't say poison."
"But you meant it. You think she has poisoned herself, and that I had a hand in it!"
"No," I hastened to remark, "he does not think you had a hand in it. He says he saw the girl herself swallow something which he believes to have been the occasion of her death, and only asks you now where she obtained it."
"How can I tell? I never gave her anything; didn't know she had anything."
Somehow, I believed her, and so felt unwilling to prolong the present interview, especially as each moment delayed the action which I felt it incumbent upon us to take. So, motioning Q to depart upon his errand, I took Mrs. Belden by the hand and endeavored to lead her from the room. But she resisted, sitting down by the side of the bed with the expression, "I will not leave her again; do not ask it; here is my place, and here I will stay," while Q, obdurate for the first time, stood staring severely upon us both, and would not move, though I urged him again to make haste, saying that the morning was slipping away, and that the telegram to Mr. Gryce ought to be sent.
"Till that woman leaves the room, I don't; and unless you promise to take my place in watching her, I don't quit the house."
Astonished, I left her side and crossed to him.
"You carry your suspicions too far," I whispered, "and I think you are too rude. We have seen nothing, I am sure, to warrant us in any such action; besides, she can do no harm here; though, as for watching her, I promise to do that much if it will relieve your mind."
"I don't want her watched here; take her below. I cannot leave while she remains."
"Are you not assuming a trifle the master?"
"Perhaps; I don't know. If I am, it is because I have something in my possession which excuses my conduct."
"What is that? the letter?"
Agitated now in my turn, I held out my hand. "Let me see," I said.
"Not while that woman remains in the room."
Seeing him implacable, I returned to Mrs. Belden.
"I must entreat you to come with me," said I. "This is not a common death; we shall be obliged to have the coroner here and others. You had better leave the room and go below."
"I don't mind the coroner; he is a neighbor of mine; his coming won't prevent my watching over the poor girl until he arrives."
"Mrs. Belden," I said, "your position as the only one conscious of the presence of this girl in your house makes it wiser for you not to invite suspicion by lingering any longer than is necessary in the room where her dead body lies."
"As if my neglect of her now were the best surety of my good intentions towards her in time past!"
"It will not be neglect for you to go below with me at my earnest request. You can do no good here by staying; will, in fact, be doing harm. So listen to me or I shall be obliged to leave you in charge of this man and go myself to inform the authorities."
This last argument seemed to affect her, for with one look of shuddering abhorrence at Q she rose, saying, "You have me in your power," and then, without another word, threw her handkerchief over the girl's face and left the room. In two minutes more I had the letter of which Q had spoken in my hands.
"It is the only one I could find, sir. It was in the pocket of the dress Mrs. Belden had on last night. The other must be lying around somewhere, but I haven't had time to find it. This will do, though, I think. You will not ask for the other."
Scarcely noticing at the time with what deep significance he spoke, I opened the letter. It was the smaller of the two I had seen her draw under her shawl the day before at the post-office, and read as follows:
"DEAR, DEAR FRIEND:
"I am in awful trouble. You who love me must know it. I cannot explain, I can only make one prayer. Destroy what you have, to-day, instantly, without question or hesitation. The consent of any one else has nothing to do with it. You must obey. I am lost if you refuse. Do then what I ask, and save
"ONE WHO LOVES YOU."
It was addressed to Mrs. Belden; there was no signature or date, only the postmark New York; but I knew the handwriting. It was Mary Leavenworth's.
"A damning letter!" came in the dry tones which Q seemed to think fit to adopt on this occasion. "And a damning bit of evidence against the one who wrote it, and the woman who received it!"
"A terrible piece of evidence, indeed," said I, "if I did not happen to know that this letter refers to the destruction of something radically different from what you suspect. It alludes to some papers in Mrs. Belden's charge; nothing else."
"Are you sure, sir?"
"Quite; but we will talk of this hereafter. It is time you sent your telegram, and went for the coroner."
"Very well, sir." And with this we parted; he to perform his role and I mine.
I found Mrs. Belden walking the floor below, bewailing her situation, and uttering wild sentences as to what the neighbors would say of her; what the minister would think; what Clara, whoever that was, would do, and how she wished she had died before ever she had meddled with the affair.
Succeeding in calming her after a while, I induced her to sit down and listen to what I had to say. "You will only injure yourself by this display of feeling," I remarked, "besides unfitting yourself for what you will presently be called upon to go through." And, laying myself out to comfort the unhappy woman, I first explained the necessities of the case, and next inquired if she had no friend upon whom she could call in this emergency.
To my great surprise she replied no; that while she had kind neighbors and good friends, there was no one upon whom she could call in a case like this, either for assistance or sympathy, and that, unless I would take pity on her, she would have to meet it alone—"As I have met everything," she said, "from Mr. Belden's death to the loss of most of my little savings in a town fire last year."
I was touched by this,—that she who, in spite of her weakness and inconsistencies of character, possessed at least the one virtue of sympathy with her kind, should feel any lack of friends. Unhesitatingly, I offered to do what I could for her, providing she would treat me with the perfect frankness which the case demanded. To my great relief, she expressed not only her willingness, but her strong desire, to tell all she knew. "I have had enough secrecy for my whole life," she said. And indeed I do believe she was so thoroughly frightened, that if a police-officer had come into the house and asked her to reveal secrets compromising the good name of her own son, she would have done so without cavil or question. "I feel as if I wanted to take my stand out on the common, and, in the face of the whole world, declare what I have done for Mary Leavenworth. But first," she whispered, "tell me, for God's sake, how those girls are situated. I have not dared to ask or write. The papers say a good deal about Eleanore, but nothing about Mary; and yet Mary writes of her own peril only, and of the danger she would be in if certain facts were known. What is the truth? I don't want to injure them, only to take care of myself."
"Mrs. Belden," I said, "Eleanore Leavenworth has got into her present difficulty by not telling all that was required of her. Mary Leavenworth—but I cannot speak of her till I know what you have to divulge. Her position, as well as that of her cousin, is too anomalous for either you or me to discuss. What we want to learn from you is, how you became connected with this affair, and what it was that Hannah knew which caused her to leave New York and take refuge here."
But Mrs. Belden, clasping and unclasping her hands, met my gaze with one full of the most apprehensive doubt. "You will never believe me," she cried; "but I don't know what Hannah knew. I am in utter ignorance of what she saw or heard on that fatal night; she never told, and I never asked. She merely said that Miss Leavenworth wished me to secrete her for a short time; and I, because I loved Mary Leavenworth and admired her beyond any one I ever saw, weakly consented, and——"
"Do you mean to say," I interrupted, "that after you knew of the murder, you, at the mere expression of Miss Leavenworth's wishes, continued to keep this girl concealed without asking her any questions or demanding any explanations?"
"Yes, sir; you will never believe me, but it is so. I thought that, since Mary had sent her here, she must have her reasons; and—and—I cannot explain it now; it all looks so differently; but I did do as I have said."
"But that was very strange conduct. You must have had strong reason for obeying Mary Leavenworth so blindly."
"Oh, sir," she gasped, "I thought I understood it all; that Mary, the bright young creature, who had stooped from her lofty position to make use of me and to love me, was in some way linked to the criminal, and that it would be better for me to remain in ignorance, do as I was bid, and trust all would come right. I did not reason about it; I only followed my impulse. I couldn't do otherwise; it isn't my nature. When I am requested to do anything for a person I love, I cannot refuse."
"And you love Mary Leavenworth; a woman whom you yourself seem to consider capable of a great crime?"
"Oh, I didn't say that; I don't know as I thought that. She might be in some way connected with it, without being the actual perpetrator. She could never be that; she is too dainty."
"Mrs. Belden," I said, "what do you know of Mary Leavenworth which makes even that supposition possible?"
The white face of the woman before me flushed. "I scarcely know what to reply," she cried. "It is a long story, and——"
"Never mind the long story," I interrupted. "Let me hear the one vital reason."
"Well," said she, "it is this; that Mary was in an emergency from which nothing but her uncle's death could release her."
"Ah, how's that?"
But here we were interrupted by the sound of steps on the porch, and, looking out, I saw Q entering the house alone. Leaving Mrs. Belden where she was, I stepped into the hall.
"Well," said I, "what is the matter? Haven't you found the coroner? Isn't he at home?"
"No, gone away; off in a buggy to look after a man that was found some ten miles from here, lying in a ditch beside a yoke of oxen." Then, as he saw my look of relief, for I was glad of this temporary delay, said, with an expressive wink: "It would take a fellow a long time to go to him—if he wasn't in a hurry—hours, I think."
"Indeed!" I returned, amused at his manner. "Rough road?"
"Very; no horse I could get could travel it faster than a walk."
"Well," said I, "so much the better for us. Mrs. Belden has a long story to tell, and——"
"Doesn't wish to be interrupted. I understand."
I nodded and he turned towards the door.
"Have you telegraphed Mr. Gryce?" I asked.
"Do you think he will come?"
"Yes, sir; if he has to hobble on two sticks."
"At what time do you look for him?"
"You will look for him as early as three o'clock. I shall be among the mountains, ruefully eying my broken-down team." And leisurely donning his hat he strolled away down the street like one who has the whole day on his hands and does not know what to do with it.
An opportunity being thus given for Mrs. Belden's story, she at once composed herself to the task, with the following result.
XXXII MRS. BELDEN'S NARRATIVE
"Cursed, destructive Avarice, Thou everlasting foe to Love and Honor." —Trap's Atram.
"Mischief never thrives Without the help of Woman." —The Same.
IT will be a year next July since I first saw Mary Leavenworth. J was living at that time a most monotonous existence. Loving what was beautiful, hating what was sordid, drawn by nature towards all that was romantic and uncommon, but doomed by my straitened position and the loneliness of my widowhood to spend my days in the weary round of plain sewing, I had begun to think that the shadow of a humdrum old age was settling down upon me, when one morning, in the full tide of my dissatisfaction, Mary Leavenworth stepped across the threshold of my door and, with one smile, changed the whole tenor of my life.
This may seem exaggeration to you, especially when I say that her errand was simply one of business, she having heard I was handy with my needle; but if you could have seen her as she appeared that day, marked the look with which she approached me, and the smile with which she left, you would pardon the folly of a romantic old woman, who beheld a fairy queen in this lovely young lady. The fact is, I was dazzled by her beauty and her charms. And when, a few days after, she came again, and crouching down on the stool at my feet, said she was so tired of the gossip and tumult down at the hotel, that it was a relief to run away and hide with some one who would let her act like the child she was, I experienced for the moment, I believe, the truest happiness of my life. Meeting her advances with all the warmth her manner invited, I found her ere long listening eagerly while I told her, almost without my own volition, the story of my past life, in the form of an amusing allegory.
The next day saw her in the same place; and the next; always with the eager, laughing eyes, and the fluttering, uneasy hands, that grasped everything they touched, and broke everything they grasped.
But the fourth day she was not there, nor the fifth, nor the sixth, and I was beginning to feel the old shadow settling back upon me, when one night, just as the dusk of twilight was merging into evening gloom, she came stealing in at the front door, and, creeping up to my side, put her hands over my eyes with such a low, ringing laugh, that I started.
"You don't know what to make of me!" she cried, throwing aside her cloak, and revealing herself in the full splendor of evening attire. "I don't know what to make of myself. Though it seems folly, I felt that I must run away and tell some one that a certain pair of eyes have been looking into mine, and that for the first time in my life I feel myself a woman as well as a queen." And with a glance in which coyness struggled with pride, she gathered up her cloak around her, and laughingly cried:
"Have you had a visit from a flying sprite? Has one little ray of moonlight found its way into your prison for a wee moment, with Mary's laugh and Mary's snowy silk and flashing diamonds? Say!" and she patted my cheek, and smiled so bewilderingly, that even now, with all the dull horror of these after-events crowding upon me, I cannot but feel something like tears spring to my eyes at the thought of it.
"And so the Prince has come for you?" I whispered, alluding to a story I had told her the last time she had visited me; a story in which a girl, who had waited all her life in rags and degradation for the lordly knight who was to raise her from a hovel to a throne, died just as her one lover, an honest peasant-lad whom she had discarded in her pride, arrived at her door with the fortune he had spent all his days in amassing for her sake.
But at this she flushed, and drew back towards the door. "I don't know; I am afraid not. I—I don't think anything about that. Princes are not so easily won," she murmured.
"What! are you going?" I said, "and alone? Let me accompany you."
But she only shook her fairy head, and replied: "No, no; that would be spoiling the romance, indeed. I have come upon you like a sprite, and like a sprite I will go." And, flashing like the moonbeam she was, she glided out into the night, and floated away down the street.
When she next came, I observed a feverish excitement in her manner, which assured me, even plainer than the coy sweetness displayed in our last interview, that her heart had been touched by her lover's attentions. Indeed, she hinted as much before she left, saying in a melancholy tone, when I had ended my story in the usual happy way, with kisses and marriage, "I shall never marry!" finishing the exclamation with a long-drawn sigh, that somehow emboldened me to say, perhaps because I knew she had no mother:
"And why? What reason can there be for such rosy lips saying their possessor will never marry?"
She gave me one quick look, and then dropped her eyes. I feared I had offended her, and was feeling very humble, when she suddenly replied, in an even but low tone, "I said I should never marry, because the one man who pleases me can never be my husband."
All the hidden romance in my nature started at once into life. "Why not? What do you mean? Tell me."
"There is nothing to tell," said she; "only I have been so weak as to"—she would not say, fall in love, she was a proud woman—"admire a man whom my uncle will never allow me to marry."
And she rose as if to go; but I drew her back. "Whom your uncle will not allow you to marry!" I repeated. "Why? because he is poor?"
"No; uncle loves money, but not to such an extent as that. Besides, Mr. Clavering is not poor. He is the owner of a beautiful place in his own country——"
"Own country?" I interrupted. "Is he not an American?"
"No," she returned; "he is an Englishman."
I did not see why she need say that in just the way she did, but, supposing she was aggravated by some secret memory, went on to inquire: "Then what difficulty can there be? Isn't he—" I was going to say steady, but refrained.
"He is an Englishman," she emphasized in the same bitter tone as before. "In saying that, I say it all. Uncle will never let me marry an Englishman."
I looked at her in amazement. Such a puerile reason as this had never entered my mind.
"He has an absolute mania on the subject," resumed she. "I might as well ask him to allow me to drown myself as to marry an Englishman."
A woman of truer judgment than myself would have said: "Then, if that is so, why not discard from your breast all thought of him? Why dance with him, and talk to him, and let your admiration develop into love?" But I was all romance then, and, angry at a prejudice I could neither understand nor appreciate, I said:
"But that is mere tyranny! Why should he hate the English so? And why, if he does, should you feel yourself obliged to gratify him in a whim so unreasonable?"
"Why? Shall I tell you, auntie?" she said, flushing and looking away.
"Yes," I returned; "tell me everything."
"Well, then, if you want to know the worst of me, as you already know the best, I hate to incur my uncle's displeasure, because—because—I have always been brought up to regard myself as his heiress, and I know that if I were to marry contrary to his wishes, he would instantly change his mind, and leave me penniless."
"But," I cried, my romance a little dampened by this admission, "you tell me Mr. Clavering has enough to live upon, so you would not want; and if you love—"
Her violet eyes fairly flashed in her amazement.
"You don't understand," she said; "Mr. Clavering is not poor; but uncle is rich. I shall be a queen—" There she paused, trembling, and falling on my breast. "Oh, it sounds mercenary, I know, but it is the fault of my bringing up. I have been taught to worship money. I would be utterly lost without it. And yet"—her whole face softening with the light of another emotion, "I cannot say to Henry Clavering, 'Go! my prospects are dearer to me than you!' I cannot, oh, I cannot!"
"You love him, then?" said I, determined to get at the truth of the matter if possible.
She rose restlessly. "Isn't that a proof of love? If you knew me, you would say it was." And, turning, she took her stand before a picture that hung on the wall of my sitting-room.
"That looks like me," she said.
It was one of a pair of good photographs I possessed.
"Yes," I remarked, "that is why I prize it."
She did not seem to hear me; she was absorbed in gazing at the exquisite face before her. "That is a winning face," I heard her say. "Sweeter than mine. I wonder if she would ever hesitate between love and money. I do not believe she would," her own countenance growing gloomy and sad as she said so; "she would think only of the happiness she would confer; she is not hard like me. Eleanore herself would love this girl."
I think she had forgotten my presence, for at the mention of her cousin's name she turned quickly round with a half suspicious look, saying lightly:
"My dear old Mamma Hubbard looks horrified. She did not know she had such a very unromantic little wretch for a listener, when she was telling all those wonderful stories of Love slaying dragons, and living in caves, and walking over burning ploughshares as if they were tufts of spring grass?"
"No," I said, taking her with an irresistible impulse of admiring affection into my arms; "but if I had, it would have made no difference. I should still have talked about love, and of all it can do to make this weary workaday world sweet and delightful."
"Would you? Then you do not think me such a wretch?"
What could I say? I thought her the winsomest being in the world, and frankly told her so. Instantly she brightened into her very gayest self. Not that I thought then, much less do I think now, she partially cared for my good opinion; but her nature demanded admiration, and unconsciously blossomed under it, as a flower under the sunshine.
"And you will still let me come and tell you how bad I am,—that is, if I go on being bad, as I doubtless shall to the end of the chapter? You will not turn me off?"
"I will never turn you off."
"Not if I should do a dreadful thing? Not if I should run away with my lover some fine night, and leave uncle to discover how his affectionate partiality had been requited?"
It was lightly said, and lightly meant, for she did not even wait for my reply. But its seed sank deep into our two hearts for all that. And for the next few days I spent my time in planning how I should manage, if it should ever fall to my lot to conduct to a successful issue so enthralling a piece of business as an elopement. You may imagine, then, how delighted I was, when one evening Hannah, this unhappy girl who is now lying dead under my roof, and who was occupying the position of lady's maid to Miss Mary Leavenworth at that time, came to my door with a note from her mistress, running thus:
"Have the loveliest story of the season ready for me tomorrow; and let the prince be as handsome as—as some one you have heard of, and the princess as foolish as your little yielding pet,
Which short note could only mean that she was engaged. But the next day did not bring me my Mary, nor the next, nor the next; and beyond hearing that Mr. Leavenworth had returned from his trip I received neither word nor token. Two more days dragged by, when, just as twilight set in, she came. It had been a week since I had seen her, but it might have been a year from the change I observed in her countenance and expression. I could scarcely greet her with any show of pleasure, she was so unlike her former self.
"You are disappointed, are you not?" said she, looking at me. "You expected revelations, whispered hopes, and all manner of sweet confidences; and you see, instead, a cold, bitter woman, who for the first time in your presence feels inclined to be reserved and uncommunicative."
"That is because you have had more to trouble than encourage you in your love," I returned, though not without a certain shrinking, caused more by her manner than words.
She did not reply to this, but rose and paced the floor, coldly at first, but afterwards with a certain degree of excitement that proved to be the prelude to a change in her manner; for, suddenly pausing, she turned to me and said: "Mr. Clavering has left R——, Mrs. Belden."
"Yes, my uncle commanded me to dismiss him, and I obeyed."
The work dropped from my hands, in my heartfelt disappointment. "Ah! then he knows of your engagement to Mr. Clavering?"
"Yes; he had not been in the house five minutes before Eleanore told him."
"Then she knew?"
"Yes," with a half sigh. "She could hardly help it. I was foolish enough to give her the cue in my first moment of joy and weakness. I did not think of the consequences; but I might have known. She is so conscientious."
"I do not call it conscientiousness to tell another's secrets," I returned.
"That is because you are not Eleanore."
Not having a reply for this, I said, "And so your uncle did not regard your engagement with favor?"
"Favor! Did I not tell you he would never allow me to marry an Englishman? He said he would sooner see me buried."
"And you yielded? Made no struggle? Let the hard, cruel man have his way?"
She was walking off to look again at that picture which had attracted her attention the time before, but at this word gave me one little sidelong look that was inexpressibly suggestive.
"I obeyed him when he commanded, if that is what you mean."
"And dismissed Mr. Clavering after having given him your word of honor to be his wife?"
"Why not, when I found I could not keep my word."
"Then you have decided not to marry him?"
She did not reply at once, but lifted her face mechanically to the picture.
"My uncle would tell you that I had decided to be governed wholly by his wishes!" she responded at last with what I felt was self-scornful bitterness.
Greatly disappointed, I burst into tears. "Oh, Mary!" I cried, "Oh, Mary!" and instantly blushed, startled that I had called her by her first name.
But she did not appear to notice.
"Have you any complaint to make?" she asked. "Is it not my manifest duty to be governed by my uncle's wishes? Has he not brought me up from childhood? lavished every luxury upon me? made me all I am, even to the love of riches which he has instilled into my soul with every gift he has thrown into my lap, every word he has dropped into my ear, since I was old enough to know what riches meant? Is it for me now to turn my back upon fostering care so wise, beneficent, and free, just because a man whom I have known some two weeks chances to offer me in exchange what he pleases to call his love?"
"But," I feebly essayed, convinced perhaps by the tone of sarcasm in which this was uttered that she was not far from my way of thinking after all, "if in two weeks you have learned to love this man more than everything else, even the riches which make your uncle's favor a thing of such moment—"
"Well," said she, "what then?"
"Why, then I would say, secure your happiness with the man of your choice, if you have to marry him in secret, trusting to your influence over your uncle to win the forgiveness he never can persistently deny."
You should have seen the arch expression which stole across her face at that. "Would it not be better," she asked, creeping to my arms, and laying her head on my shoulder, "would it not be better for me to make sure of that uncle's favor first, before undertaking the hazardous experiment of running away with a too ardent lover?"
Struck by her manner, I lifted her face and looked at it. It was one amused smile.
"Oh, my darling," said I, "you have not, then dismissed Mr. Clavering?"
"I have sent him away," she whispered demurely.
"But not without hope?"
She burst into a ringing laugh.
"Oh, you dear old Mamma Hubbard; what a matchmaker you are, to be sure! You appear as much interested as if you were the lover yourself."
"But tell me," I urged.
In a moment her serious mood returned. "He will wait for me," said she.
The next day I submitted to her the plan I had formed for her clandestine intercourse with Mr. Clavering. It was for them both to assume names, she taking mine, as one less liable to provoke conjecture than a strange name, and he that of LeRoy Robbins. The plan pleased her, and with the slight modification of a secret sign being used on the envelope, to distinguish her letters from mine, was at once adopted.
And so it was I took the fatal step that has involved me in all this trouble. With the gift of my name to this young girl to use as she would and sign what she would, I seemed to part with what was left me of judgment and discretion. Henceforth, I was only her scheming, planning, devoted slave; now copying the letters which she brought me, and enclosing them to the false name we had agreed upon, and now busying myself in devising ways to forward to her those which I received from him, without risk of discovery. Hannah was the medium we employed, as Mary felt it would not be wise for her to come too often to my house. To this girl's charge, then, I gave such notes as I could not forward in any other way, secure in the reticence of her nature, as well as in her inability to read, that these letters addressed to Mrs. Amy Belden would arrive at their proper destination without mishap. And I believe they always did. At all events, no difficulty that I ever heard of arose out of the use of this girl as a go-between.