The Bronze Hand, by Anna Katharine Green

iv.

Checkmate.

I HASTENED at once home, and knocked at Miss Calhoun’s door. While waiting for a response, the mockery of my return without the token I had undertaken to restore to her, impressed itself upon me in full force. It seemed to me that in that instant my face must have taken on a haggard look. I could not summon up the necessary will to make it otherwise. Any effort in that direction would have made my failure at cheerfulness pitiable.

The door opened. There she stood. Whatever expectancy of success she may have had fled at once. Our eyes met and her countenance changed. My face must have told the whole story, for she exclaimed:

“You have failed!”

I was obliged to acknowledge it in a whisper, but hastened to assure her that the ring had not yet been placed upon the bronze hand, and was not likely to be till the lock had been cleaned, out. This interested her, and called out a hurried but complete recital of my adventure. She hung upon it breathlessly, and when I reached the point where Madame and her prophetic voice entered the tale, she showed so much excitement that any doubts I may have cherished as to the importance of the communication Madame had made us vanished in a cold horror I with difficulty hid from my companion. But the end agitated her more than the beginning, and when she heard that I had taken upon myself a direct connection with this mysterious matter, she grew so pale that I felt forced to inquire if the folly I had committed was likely to result badly, at which she shuddered and replied:

“You have brought death upon yourself. I see nothing but destruction before us both. This woman — this horrible woman — has seen your face, and, if she is what you describe, she will never forget it. The man, who is her guardian or agent, no doubt, must have tracked you, and finding you here with me, from whose hand he himself may have torn the ring last night, will record it as treason against a cause which punishes all treason with death.

“Pshaw!” I ejaculated, with a jocular effort at indifference, which I acknowledge I did not feel. “You seem to forget the law. We live in the city of Baltimore. Charlatans such as I have just left behind me do not make away with good citizens with impunity. We have only to seek the protection of the police.”

She met my looks with a slowly increasing intentness, which stilled this protest on my lips.

“I am under no oath,” she ruminated. “I can tell this man what I will. Mr. Abbott, there has been formed in this city an organization against which the police are powerless. I am an involuntary member of it, and I know its power. It has constrained me and it has constrained others, and no one who has opposed it once has lived to do so twice. Yet it has no recognized head (though there is a chief to whom we may address ourselves), and it has no oaths of secrecy. All is left to the discretion of its members, and to their fears. The object of this society is the breaking of the power of the North, and the means by which it works is death. I joined it under a stress of feeling I called patriotism, and I believed myself right till the sword was directed against my own breast. Then I quailed; then I began to ask by what right we poor mortals constitute ourselves into instruments of destruction to our kind, and having once stopped to question, I saw the whole matter in such a different light that I knowingly put a stumbling-block in the path of so-called avenging justice, and thus courted the doom that at any moment may fall upon my head.” And she actually looked up, as if expecting to see it fall then and there. “This Madame,” she went on in breathless haste, “is doubtless one of the members. How so grotesque and yet redoubtable an individuality should have become identified with a cause demanding the coolest judgment as well as the most acute political acumen, I cannot stop to conjecture. But that she is a member of our organization, and an important one, too, her prophecies, which have so strangely become facts, are sufficient proof, even had you not seen my ring on her finger. Perhaps, incredible as it may appear, she is the chief. If so — But I do not make myself intelligible,” she continued, meeting my eyes. “I will be more explicit. One peculiar feature of this organization is the complete ignorance which we all have concerning our fellow-members. We can reveal nothing, for we know nothing. I know that I am allied to a cause which has for its end the destruction of all who oppose the supremacy of the South, but I cannot give you the name of another person attached to this organization, though I feel the pressure of their combined power upon every act of my life. You may be a member without my knowing it — a secret and fearful thought, which forms one of the greatest safeguards to the institution, though it has failed in this instance, owing”— here her voice fell —“to my devotion to the man I love. What?”—(I had not spoken; my heart was dying within me, but I had given no evidence of a wish to interrupt her; she, however, feared a check, and rushed vehemently on.) “I shall have to tell you more. When, through pamphlets and unsigned letters — dangerous communications, which have long since become ashes — I was drawn into this society (and only those of the most radical and impressionable natures are approached) a ring and a key were sent me with this injunction: ‘When the man or woman whose name will be forwarded to you in an otherwise empty envelope, shall have, in your honest judgment, proved himself or herself sufficiently dangerous to the cause we love, to merit removal, you are to place this ring on the middle finger of the bronze hand locked up in the box openly displayed in the office of a Dr. Merriam on ——— Street. With the pressure of the whole five rings on the fingers of this piece of mechanism, the guardian of our rights will be notified by a bell, that a victim awaits justice, and the end to be accomplished will be begun. As there are five fingers, and each one of these must feel the pressure of its own ring before connection can be made between this hand and the bell mentioned, no injustice can be done and no really innocent person destroyed. For, when five totally disconnected persons devoted to the cause agree that a certain individual is worthy of death, mistake is impossible. You are now one of the five. Use the key and the ring according to your conscience.’ This was well, if I had been allowed to follow my conscience; but when, six weeks ago, they sent me the name of a man of lofty character and unquestioned loyalty, I recoiled, scarcely believing my eyes. Yet, fearing that my own judgment was warped, or that some hidden hypocrisy was latent in a man thus given over to our attention, I made it my business to learn this man’s inner life. I found it so beautiful ——” She choked, turned away for a moment, controlled herself, and went on rapidly and with increased earnestness: “I learned to love this man, and as I learned to love him I grew more and more satisfied of the dangerous character of the organization I was pledged to. But I had one comfort. He could not be doomed without my ring, and that was safe on my finger. Safe! You know how safe it was. The monster whom you have just seen, and who may have been the person to subject this noble man to suspicion, must have discovered my love and the safeguard it offered to this man. The ring, as you know, was stolen, and as you have failed to recover it, and I to get any reply from the chief to whom I forwarded my protest, to-morrow will without doubt see it placed upon the finger of the bronze hand. The result you know. Fantastic as this may strike you, it is the dreadful truth.”

Love, had I ever felt this holy passion for her, had no longer a place in my breast; but awe, terror and commiseration for her, for him, and also perhaps for myself, were still active passions within me, and at this decided statement of the case, I laughed in the excitement of the moment, and the relief I felt at knowing just what there was to dread in the adventure.

“Absurd!” I cried. “With Madame’s address in my mind and the Baltimore police at my command, this man is as safe from assault as you or I are. Give me five minutes’ talk with Chief ——”

Her hand on my arm stopped me; the look in her eye made me dumb.

“What could you do without me?” she said; “and my evidence you cannot have. For what would give it weight can never pass my lips. The lives that have fallen with my connivance stand between me and confession. I do not wish to subject myself to the law.”

This placed her in another light before me, and I started back.

“You have ——” I stammered.

“Placed that ring three times on the hand in Dr. Merriam’s office.”

“And each time?”

“A man somewhere in this nation has died suddenly. I do not know by what means or by whose hand, but he died.”

This beautiful creature guilty of —— I tried not to show my horror.

“It is, then, a question of choice between you and him?” said I. “Either you or he must perish. Both cannot be saved.”

She recoiled, turning very pale, and for several minutes stood surveying me with a fixed gaze as if overcome by an idea which threw so immense a responsibility upon her. As she stood thus, I seemed not only to look into her nature, but her life. I saw the fanaticism that that had once held every good impulse in check, the mistaken devotion, the unreason-ing hatred, and, underneath all, a spirit of truth and rectitude which brightened and brightened as I watched her, till it dominated every evil passion and made her next words come easily, and with a natural burst of conviction which showed the innate generosity of her soul.

“You have shown me my duty, sir. There can be no question as to where the choice should fall, I am not worth one hair of his noble head. Save him, sir; I will help you by every means in my power.”

Seizing the opportunity she thus gave me, I asked her the name of the man who was threatened.

In a low voice she told me.

I was astonished; dumfounded.

“Shameful!” I cried. “What motive, what reason can they have for denouncing him?

“He is under suspicion — that is enough.”

“Great heaven!” I exclaimed. “Have we reached such a pass as that?”

“Don’t,” she uttered, hoarsely; “don’t reason; don’t talk; act.”

“I will,” I cried, and rushed from the room.

She fell back in a chair, almost fainting. I saw her lying quiet, inert and helpless as I rushed by her door on my way to the street, but I did not stop to aid her. I knew she would not suffer it.

The police are practical, and my tale was an odd one. I found it hard, therefore, to impress them with its importance, especially as in trying to save Miss Calhoun I was necessarily more or less incoherent. I did succeed, however, in awakening interest at last, and, a man being assigned me, I led the way to Madame’s door. But here a surprise awaited me. The doorplate, which had so attracted my attention, was gone, and in a few minutes we found that she had departed also, leaving no trace behind her.

This looked ominous, and with little delay we hastened to the office of Dr. Merriam. Knocking at the usual door brought no response, but when we tried the further one, by which his patients usually passed out, we found ourselves confronted by the gentleman we sought.

His face was calm and smiling, and though he made haste to tell us that we had come out of hours, he politely asked us in and inquired what he could do for us.

Not understanding how he could have forgotten me so soon, I looked at him inquiringly, at which his face lighted up, and he apologetically said:

“I remember you now. You were here this morning consulting me about a friend who is afflicted with a peculiar complaint. Have you anything further to state or ask in regard to it. I have just five minutes to spare.”

“Hear this gentleman first,” said I, pointing to the officer who accompanied me.

The doctor calmly bowed, and waited with the greatest self-possession for him to state his case.

The officer did so abruptly.

“There is a box in your ante-room which I feel it my duty to examine. I am Detective Hopkins, of the city police.”

The doctor, with a gentleness which seemed native rather than assumed, quietly replied:

“I am very sorry, but you are an hour too late.” And, throwing open the door of communication between the two rooms, he pointed to the table.

The box was gone!

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37