“But who would force the soul, tilts with a straw
Against a champion cased in adamant.”
WHEN we re-entered the parlor below, the first sight that met our eyes was Mary, standing wrapped in her long cloak in the centre of the room. She had arrived during our absence, and now awaited us with lifted head and countenance fixed in its proudest expression. Looking in her face, I realized what the embarrassment of this meeting must be to these women, and would have retreated, but something in the attitude of Mary Leavenworth seemed to forbid my doing so. At the same time, determined that the opportunity should not pass without some sort of reconcilement between them, I stepped forward, and, bowing to Mary, said:
“Your cousin has just succeeded in convincing me of her entire innocence, Miss Leavenworth. I am now ready to join Mr. Gryce, heart and soul, in finding out the true culprit.”
“I should have thought one look into Eleanore Leavenworth’s face would have been enough to satisfy you that she is incapable of crime,” was her unexpected answer; and, lifting her head with a proud gesture, Mary Leavenworth fixed her eyes steadfastly on mine.
I felt the blood flash to my brow, but before I could speak, her voice rose again still more coldly than before.
“It is hard for a delicate girl, unused to aught but the most flattering expressions of regard, to be obliged to assure the world of her innocence in respect to the committal of a great crime. Eleanore has my sympathy.” And sweeping her cloak from her shoulders with a quick gesture, she turned her gaze for the first time upon her cousin.
Instantly Eleanore advanced, as if to meet it; and I could not but feel that, for some reason, this moment possessed an importance for them which I was scarcely competent to measure. But if I found myself unable to realize its significance, I at least responded to its intensity. And indeed it was an occasion to remember. To behold two such women, either of whom might be considered the model of her time, face to face and drawn up in evident antagonism, was a sight to move the dullest sensibilities. But there was something more in this scene than that. It was the shock of all the most passionate emotions of the human soul; the meeting of waters of whose depth and force I could only guess by the effect. Eleanore was the first to recover. Drawing back with the cold haughtiness which, alas, I had almost forgotten in the display of later and softer emotions, she exclaimed:
“There is something better than sympathy, and that is justice”; and turned, as if to go. “I will confer with you in the reception room, Mr. Raymond.”
But Mary, springing forward, caught her back with one powerful hand. “No,” she cried, “you shall confer with me! I have something to say to you, Eleanore Leavenworth.” And, taking her stand in the centre of the room, she waited.
I glanced at Eleanore, saw this was no place for me, and hastily withdrew. For ten long minutes I paced the floor of the reception room, a prey to a thousand doubts and conjectures. What was the secret of this home? What had given rise to the deadly mistrust continually manifested between these cousins, fitted by nature for the completest companionship and the most cordial friendship? It was not a thing of today or yesterday. No sudden flame could awake such concentrated heat of emotion as that of which I had just been the unwilling witness. One must go farther back than this murder to find the root of a mistrust so great that the struggle it caused made itself felt even where I stood, though nothing but the faintest murmur came to my ears through the closed doors.
Presently the drawing-room curtain was raised, and Mary’s voice was heard in distinct articulation.
“The same roof can never shelter us both after this. To-morrow, you or I find another home.” And, blushing and panting, she stepped into the hall and advanced to where I stood. But at the first sight of my face, a change came over her; all her pride seemed to dissolve, and, flinging out her hands, as if to ward off scrutiny, she fled from my side, and rushed weeping up-stairs.
I was yet laboring under the oppression caused by this painful termination of the strange scene when the parlor curtain was again lifted, and Eleanore entered the room where I was. Pale but calm, showing no evidences of the struggle she had just been through, unless by a little extra weariness about the eyes, she sat down by my side, and, meeting my gaze with one unfathomable in its courage, said after a pause: “Tell me where I stand; let me know the worst at once; I fear that I have not indeed comprehended my own position.”
Rejoiced to hear this acknowledgment from her lips, I hastened to comply. I began by placing before her the whole case as it appeared to an unprejudiced person; enlarged upon the causes of suspicion, and pointed out in what regard some things looked dark against her, which perhaps to her own mind were easily explainable and of small account; tried to make her see the importance of her decision, and finally wound up with an appeal. Would she not confide in me?
“But I thought you were satisfied?” she tremblingly remarked.
“And so I am; but I want the world to be so, too.”
“Ah; now you ask too much! The finger of suspicion never forgets the way it has once pointed,” she sadly answered. “My name is tainted forever.”
“And you will submit to this, when a word —”
“I am thinking that any word of mine now would make very little difference,” she murmured.
I looked away, the vision of Mr. Fobbs, in hiding behind the curtains of the opposite house, recurring painfully to my mind.
“If the affair looks as bad as you say it does,” she pursued, “it is scarcely probable that Mr. Gryce will care much for any interpretation of mine in regard to the matter.”
“Mr. Gryce would be glad to know where you procured that key, if only to assist him in turning his inquiries in the right direction.”
She did not reply, and my spirits sank in renewed depression.
“It is worth your while to satisfy him,” I pursued; “and though it may compromise some one you desire to shield ——”
She rose impetuously. “I shall never divulge to any one how I came in possession of that key.” And sitting again, she locked her hands in fixed resolve before her.
I rose in my turn and paced the floor, the fang of an unreasoning jealousy striking deep into my heart.
“Mr. Raymond, if the worst should come, and all who love me should plead on bended knees for me to tell, I will never do it.”
“Then,” said I, determined not to disclose my secret thought, but equally resolved to find out if possible her motive for this silence, “you desire to defeat the cause of justice.”
She neither spoke nor moved.
“Miss Leavenworth,” I now said, “this determined shielding of another at the expense of your own good name is no doubt generous of you; but your friends and the lovers of truth and justice cannot accept such a sacrifice.”
She started haughtily. “Sir!” she said.
“If you will not assist us,” I went on calmly, but determinedly, “we must do without your aid. After the scene I have just witnessed above; after the triumphant conviction which you have forced upon me, not only of your innocence, but your horror of the crime and its consequences, I should feel myself less than a man if I did not sacrifice even your own good opinion, in urging your cause, and clearing your character from this foul aspersion.”
Again that heavy silence.
“What do you propose to do?” she asked, at last.
Crossing the room, I stood before her. “I propose to relieve you utterly and forever from suspicion, by finding out and revealing to the world the true culprit.”
I expected to see her recoil, so positive had I become by this time as to who that culprit was. But instead of that, she merely folded her hands still more tightly and exclaimed:
“I doubt if you will be able to do that, Mr. Raymond.”
“Doubt if I will be able to put my finger upon the guilty man, or doubt if I will be able to bring him to justice?”
“I doubt,” she said with strong effort, “if any one ever knows who is the guilty person in this case.”
“There is one who knows,” I said with a desire to test her.
“The girl Hannah is acquainted with the mystery of that night’s evil doings, Miss Leavenworth. Find Hannah, and we find one who can point out to us the assassin of your uncle.”
“That is mere supposition,” she said; but I saw the blow had told.
“Your cousin has offered a large reward for the girl, and the whole country is on the lookout. Within a week we shall see her in our midst.”
A change took place in her expression and bearing.
“The girl cannot help me,” she said.
Baffled by her manner, I drew back. “Is there anything or anybody that can?”
She slowly looked away.
“Miss Leavenworth,” I continued with renewed earnestness, “you have no brother to plead with you, you have no mother to guide you; let me then entreat, in default of nearer and dearer friends, that you will rely sufficiently upon me to tell me one thing.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“Whether you took the paper imputed to you from the library table?”
She did not instantly respond, but sat looking earnestly before her with an intentness which seemed to argue that she was weighing the question as well as her reply. Finally, turning toward me, she said:
“In answering you, I speak in confidence. Mr. Raymond, I did.”
Crushing back the sigh of despair that arose to my lips, I went on.
“I will not inquire what the paper was,”— she waved her hand deprecatingly — “but this much more you will tell me. Is that paper still in existence?”
She looked me steadily in the face.
“It is not.”
I could with difficulty forbear showing my disappointment. “Miss Leavenworth,” I now said, “it may seem cruel for me to press you at this time; nothing less than my strong realization of the peril in which you stand would induce me to run the risk of incurring your displeasure by asking what under other circumstances would seem puerile and insulting questions. You have told me one thing which I strongly desired to know; will you also inform me what it was you heard that night while sitting in your room, between the time of Mr. Harwell’s going up-stairs and the closing of the library door, of which you made mention at the inquest?”
I had pushed my inquiries too far, and I saw it immediately.
“Mr. Raymond,” she returned, “influenced by my desire not to appear utterly ungrateful to you, I have been led to reply in confidence to one of your urgent appeals; but I can go no further. Do not ask me to.”
Stricken to the heart by her look of reproach, I answered with some sadness that her wishes should be respected. “Not but what I intend to make every effort in my power to discover the true author of this crime. That is a sacred duty which I feel myself called upon to perform; but I will ask you no more questions, nor distress you with further appeals. What is done shall be done without your assistance, and with no other hope than that in the event of my success you will acknowledge my motives to have been pure and my action disinterested.”
“I am ready to acknowledge that now,” she began, but paused and looked with almost agonized entreaty in my face. “Mr. Raymond, cannot you leave things as they are? Won’t you? I don’t ask for assistance, nor do I want it; I would rather ——”
But I would not listen. “Guilt has no right to profit by the generosity of the guiltless. The hand that struck this blow shall not be accountable for the loss of a noble woman’s honor and happiness as well.
“I shall do what I can, Miss Leavenworth.”
As I walked down the avenue that night, feeling like an adventurous traveller that in a moment of desperation has set his foot upon a plank stretching in narrow perspective over a chasm of immeasurable depth, this problem evolved itself from the shadows before me: How, with no other clue than the persuasion that Eleanore Leavenworth was engaged in shielding another at the expense of her own good name, I was to combat the prejudices of Mr. Gryce, find out the real assassin of Mr. Leavenworth, and free an innocent woman from the suspicion that had, not without some show of reason, fallen upon her?
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09