“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.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09