Pol. What do you read, my lord?
Ham. Words, words, words.
MRS. BELDEN paused, lost in the sombre shadow which these words were calculated to evoke, and a short silence fell upon the room. It was broken by my asking for some account of the occurrence she had just mentioned, it being considered a mystery how Hannah could have found entrance into her house without the knowledge of the neighbors.
“Well,” said she, “it was a chilly night, and I had gone to bed early (I was sleeping then in the room off this) when, at about a quarter to one — the last train goes through R—— at 12.50 — there came a low knock on the window-pane at the head of my bed. Thinking that some of the neighbors were sick, I hurriedly rose on my elbow and asked who was there. The answer came in low, muffled tones, ‘Hannah, Miss Leavenworth’s girl! Please let me in at the kitchen door.’ Startled at hearing the well-known voice, and fearing I knew not what, I caught up a lamp and hurried round to the door. ‘Is any one with you?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘Then come in.’ But no sooner had she done so than my strength failed me, and I had to sit down, for I saw she looked very pale and strange, was without baggage, and altogether had the appearance of some wandering spirit. ‘Hannah!’ I gasped, ‘what is it? what has happened? what brings you here in this condition and at this time of night?’ ‘Miss Leavenworth has sent me,’ she replied, in the low, monotonous tone of one repeating a lesson by rote. ‘She told me to come here; said you would keep me. I am not to go out of the house, and no one is to know I am here.’ ‘But why?’ I asked, trembling with a thousand undefined fears; ‘what has occurred?’ ‘I dare not say,’ she whispered; ‘I am forbid; I am just to stay here, and keep quiet.’ ‘But,’ I began, helping her to take off her shawl — the dingy blanket advertised for in the papers —‘you must tell me. She surely did not forbid you to tell me?’ ‘Yes she did; every one,’ the girl replied, growing white in her persistence, ‘and I never break my word; fire couldn’t draw it out of me.’ She looked so determined, so utterly unlike herself, as I remembered her in the meek, unobtrusive days of our old acquaintance, that I could do nothing but stare at her. ‘You will keep me,’ she said; ‘you will not turn me away?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I will not turn you away.’ ‘And tell no one?’ she went on. ‘And tell no one,’ I repeated.
“This seemed to relieve her. Thanking me, she quietly followed me up-stairs. I put her into the room in which you found her, because it was the most secret one in the house; and there she has remained ever since, satisfied and contented, as far as I could see, till this very same horrible day.”
“And is that all?” I asked. “Did you have no explanation with her afterwards? Did she never give you any information in regard to the transactions which led to her flight?”
“No, sir. She kept a most persistent silence. Neither then nor when, upon the next day, I confronted her with the papers in my hand, and the awful question upon my lips as to whether her flight had been occasioned by the murder which had taken place in Mr. Leavenworth’s household, did she do more than acknowledge she had run away on this account. Some one or something had sealed her lips, and, as she said, ‘Fire and torture should never make her speak.’”
Another short pause followed this; then, with my mind still hovering about the one point of intensest interest to me, I said:
“This story, then, this account which you have just given me of Mary Leavenworth’s secret marriage and the great strait it put her into — a strait from which nothing but her uncle’s death could relieve her — together with this acknowledgment of Hannah’s that she had left home and taken refuge here on the insistence of Mary Leavenworth, is the groundwork you have for the suspicions you have mentioned?”
“Yes, sir; that and the proof of her interest in the matter which is given by the letter I received from her yesterday, and which you say you have now in your possession.”
Oh, that letter!
“I know,” Mrs. Belden went on in a broken voice, “that it is wrong, in a serious case like this, to draw hasty conclusions; but, oh, sir, how can I help it, knowing what I do?”
I did not answer; I was revolving in my mind the old question: was it possible, in face of all these later developments, still to believe Mary Leavenworth’s own hand guiltless of her uncle’s blood?
“It is dreadful to come to such conclusions,” proceeded Mrs. Belden, “and nothing but her own words written in her own hand would ever have driven me to them, but ——”
“Pardon me,” I interrupted; “but you said in the beginning of this interview that you did not believe Mary herself had any direct hand in her uncle’s murder. Are you ready to repeat that assertion?”
“Yes, yes, indeed. Whatever I may think of her influence in inducing it, I never could imagine her as having anything to do with its actual performance. Oh, no! oh, no! whatever was done on that dreadful night, Mary Leavenworth never put hand to pistol or ball, or even stood by while they were used; that you may be sure of. Only the man who loved her, longed for her, and felt the impossibility of obtaining her by any other means, could have found nerve for an act so horrible.”
“Then you think ——”
“Mr. Clavering is the man? I do: and oh, sir, when you consider that he is her husband, is it not dreadful enough?”
“It is, indeed,” said I, rising to conceal how much I was affected by this conclusion of hers.
Something in my tone or appearance seemed to startle her. “I hope and trust I have not been indiscreet,” she cried, eying me with something like an incipient distrust. “With this dead girl lying in my house, I ought to be very careful, I know, but ——”
“You have said nothing,” was my earnest assurance as I edged towards the door in my anxiety to escape, if but for a moment, from an atmosphere that was stifling me. “No one can blame you for anything you have either said or done today. But”— and here I paused and walked hurriedly back — “I wish to ask one question more. Have you any reason, beyond that of natural repugnance to believing a young and beautiful woman guilty of a great crime, for saying what you have of Henry Clavering, a gentleman who has hitherto been mentioned by you with respect?”
“No,” she whispered, with a touch of her old agitation.
I felt the reason insufficient, and turned away with something of the same sense of suffocation with which I had heard that the missing key had been found in Eleanore Leavenworth’s possession. “You must excuse me,” I said; “I want to be a moment by myself, in order to ponder over the facts which I have just heard; I will soon return “; and without further ceremony, hurried from the room.
By some indefinable impulse, I went immediately up-stairs, and took my stand at the western window of the large room directly over Mrs. Belden. The blinds were closed; the room was shrouded in funereal gloom, but its sombreness and horror were for the moment unfelt; I was engaged in a fearful debate with myself. Was Mary Leavenworth the principal, or merely the accessory, in this crime? Did the determined prejudice of Mr. Gryce, the convictions of Eleanore, the circumstantial evidence even of such facts as had come to our knowledge, preclude the possibility that Mrs. Belden’s conclusions were correct? That all the detectives interested in the affair would regard the question as settled, I did not doubt; but need it be? Was it utterly impossible to find evidence yet that Henry Clavering was, after all, the assassin of Mr. heaven-worth?
Filled with the thought, I looked across the room to the closet where lay the body of the girl who, according to all probability, had known the truth of the matter, and a great longing seized me. Oh, why could not the dead be made to speak? Why should she lie there so silent, so pulseless, so inert, when a word from her were enough to decide the awful question? Was there no power to compel those pallid lips to move?
Carried away by the fervor of the moment, I made my way to her side. Ah, God, how still! With what a mockery the closed lips and lids confronted my demanding gaze! A stone could not have been more unresponsive.
With a feeling that was almost like anger, I stood there, when — what was it I saw protruding from beneath her shoulders where they crushed against the bed? An envelope? a letter? Yes.
Dizzy with the sudden surprise, overcome with the wild hopes this discovery awakened, I stooped in great agitation and drew the letter out. It was sealed but not directed. Breaking it hastily open, I took a glance at its contents. Good heavens! it was the work of the girl herself! — its very appearance was enough to make that evident! Feeling as if a miracle had happened, I hastened with it into the other room, and set myself to decipher the awkward scrawl.
This is what I saw, rudely printed in lead pencil on the inside of a sheet of common writing-paper:
“I am a wicked girl. I have knone things all the time which I had ought to have told but I didn’t dare to he said he would kill me if I did I mene the tall splendud looking gentulman with the black mustash who I met coming out of Mister Levenworth’s room with a key in his hand the night Mr. Levenworth was murdered. He was so scared he gave me money and made me go away and come here and keep every thing secret but I can’t do so no longer. I seem to see Miss Blenor all the time crying and asking me if I want her sent to prisuu. God knows I ‘d rathur die. And this is the truth and my last words and I pray every body’s forgivness and hope nobody will blame me and that they wont bother Miss Elenor any more but go and look after the handsome gentulman with the black mushtash.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09