I was too much overwhelmed by all these events to close my eyes that night. The revelation of Mr. Steele’s further duplicity, coming so immediately upon the first, roused fresh surmises and awakened thoughts which soon set my wits working in a direction as new as it was unexpected. I had believed my work over in this house, but as I recalled all the occurrences of the evening and turned the situation, as it now confronted me, over and over in my mind, I felt that it had just begun. There must be something in this latest development to help us in the struggle which lay before us. The rage which sprang up in him as he confronted his old aunt at this moment of his triumphant revenge argued a weakness in his armor which it might yet be my part to discover and reveal. I knew Mrs. Packard well enough to realize that the serenity into which she had fallen was a fictitious serenity, and must remain so as long as any doubt remained of the legality of the tie uniting her to this handsome fiend. Were the means suggested by the mayor of promising enough character to accomplish the looked-for end?
I remembered the man’s eyes as the mayor let fall his word of powerful threat, and doubted it. Once recovered from the indisposition which now weakened him, he would find means to thwart any attempts made by Mayor Packard to undermine the position he had taken as the legal husband of Olympia — sufficiently so, at least, to hinder happiness between the pair whose wedded life he not only envied but was determined to break up, unless some flaw in his past could be discovered through Miss Quinlan — the aunt whose goodness he had slighted and who now seemed to be in a frame of mind to help our cause if its pitiful aspects were once presented to her. I resolved to present the case without delay. Morning came at last, and I refreshed myself as well as I could, and, after a short visit to Mrs. Packard’s bedside during which my purpose grew with every moment I gazed down on her brave but pitiful face, put on my hat and jacket and went next door.
I found the two old ladies seated in their state apartment making calculations. At sight of my face they both rose and the “O my dear” from Miss Charity and the “God bless you, child,” from Miss Thankful showed that both hearts were yet warm. Gradually I introduced the topic of their nephew; gradually I approached the vital question of the disgrace.
The result upset all my growing hopes. He had never told them just what the disgrace was. They really knew nothing about his life after his early boyhood. He had come home that one time when fortune so suddenly smiled upon them and they thought then that he would tell them something; but the disappointment which had followed effectually closed his lips, and he went away after a few days of fruitless search, not to approach them again till just before he took up the position of secretary to their great neighbor. Then he paid them one short and peremptory visit, during which he was able to impress upon them his importance, his reasons for changing his name, which they could not now remember, and the great necessity which this made for them not to come near him as their nephew. They had tried to do what he asked, but it had been hard. “Charity,” Miss Thankful proceeded to bewail with a forgetfulness of her own share in the matter, “had not been able to keep her eyes long off the house which held, as she supposed, our double treasure.” So this was all! Nothing to aid me; nothing to aid Mayor Packard. Rising in my disappointment, I prepared to leave. I had sufficient self-control and I hope good feeling not to add to their distress at this time by any unnecessary revelations of a past they were ignorant of, or the part this unhappy nephew of theirs had played and still promised to play in the lives of their immediate neighbors.
Miss Thankful squeezed my hand and Miss Charity gave me a kiss; then as she saw her sister looking aside, whispered in my ear “I want to show you something, all of Johnnie’s little toys and the keepsakes he sent us when he was a good boy and loved his aunts. You will not think so badly of him then.”
I let Miss Charity lead me away. A drawer held all these treasures. I looked and felt to a degree the pathos of the scene; but did not give special attention to what she thrust under my eyes till she gave me a little old letter to read, soiled and torn with the handling of many years and signed John Silverthorn Brainard. Then something in me woke and I stared at this signature, growing more and more excited as I realized that this was not the first time I had seen it, that somewhere and in circumstances which brought a nameless thrill I had looked upon it before and that — it was not one remembrance but many which came to me. What the spoken name had not recalled came at the sight of this written one. Bess! there was her long and continued watch over the house once entered by her on any and every pretext, but now shunned by her with a secret terror which could not disguise her longing and its secret attraction; her certificate of marriage; the name on this certificate — the very one I was now staring at — John Silverthorn Brainard! Had I struck an invaluable clue? Had I, through the weakness and doting fondness of this poor woman, come upon the one link which would yet lead us to identify this hollow-hearted, false and most vindictive man of great affairs with the wandering and worthless husband of the nondescript Bess, whose hand I had touched and whose errand I had done, little realizing its purport or the influence it would have upon our lives? I dared not believe myself so fortunate; it was much too like a fairy dream for me to rely on it for a moment; yet the possibility was enough to rouse me to renewed effort. After we had returned to Miss Thankful’s side, I asked her, with an apology for my inexhaustible curiosity, if she still felt afraid of the thread and needle woman across the way.
The answer was a little sharp.
“It is Charity who is afraid of her,” said she. She had evidently forgotten her own extravagant words to me on this subject. “Charity is timid; she thinks because this woman once hung over our brother, night and day, that she knew about this money and had persuaded herself that she has some right to it. Charity is sometimes mistaken, but she has some reason, if it is inadequate, for this notion of hers. That woman, since her dismissal after my brother’s death, has never really quit this neighborhood. She worked next door in any capacity she could, whenever any of the tenants would take her; and when they would not, sewed or served in the houses near by till finally she set up a shop directly opposite its very door. But she’ll never get these bonds; we shall pay her what is her due, but she’ll never get any more.”
“That would make her out a thief,” I cried, “or —” but I thought better of uttering what was in my mind. Instead I asked how they first came to hear of her.
Miss Charity showed some flustration at this and cast her sister an appealing look; but Miss Thankful, eying her with some severity, answered me with becoming candor:
“She was a lodger in this house. We kept a few lodgers in those days — be still, Charity! Just thank God those days are over.”
“A lodger?” I repeated. “Did she ever tell you where she came from?”
“Yes, she mentioned the place — it was some town farther west. That was when we were in such trouble about our brother and how we should care for him. She could nurse him, she said, and indeed seemed very eager to do so, and we were glad to let her — very glad, till my brother showed such fear of her and of what she might do if she once got hold of his wallet.”
“You possibly did her injustice,” I said. “A sick man’s fancies are not always to be relied on. What did your nephew think of her? Did he share your distrust of her?”
“John? Oh, yes, I believe so. Why do we always come back to the subject of John? I want to forget him; I mean to forget him; I mean that Charity shall forget him.”
“Let us begin then from this moment,” I smiled; then quickly: “You knew that Bess was a married woman.”
“No, we knew nothing about her.”
“Not even the name she went by?”
“Oh, that was Brown.”
“Brown,” I muttered, turning for a second time to go. “You must think me inquisitive, but if I had not been,” I added with a merry laugh, “I should never have found your bonds for you.” Pressing both their hands in mine I ran hastily out of the room.
At once I crossed the street to Bess’ little shop.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09