“Bess, why are you so white? What has happened to you in the last twenty-four hours? Have you heard from him?”
“No, no; I’m all right.” But her eyes, hunted and wandering, belied her words.
I drew her hands down into mine across the table lying between us.
“I want to help you,” I whispered; “I think I can. Something has happened which gives me great hope; only do me a favor first; show me, as you promised, the papers which I dug out for you.”
A smile, more bitter than any tear, made her face look very hard for an instant, then she quietly led the way into the small room at the back. When we were quite alone, she faced me again and putting her hand to her breast took out the much creased, much crumpled bit of paper which was her only link to youth, to her life, and to her love.
“This is all that will interest you,” said she, her eyes brimming in spite of herself. “It is my marriage certificate. The one thing that proves me an honest woman and the equal of —” she paused, biting back her words and saying instead —“of any one I see. My husband was a gentleman.”
It was with trembling hands I unfolded the worn sheet. Somehow the tragedy of the lives my own had touched so nearly for the last few days had become an essential part of me.
“John Silverthorn Brainard,” I read, the name identical with the one I had just seen as the early signature of the man who claimed a husband’s rights over Mrs. Packard. The date with what anxiety I looked at it! — preceded by two years that of the time he united himself to Olympia Brewster. No proof of the utter falsity of his dishonorable claim could be more complete. As I folded up the paper and handed it back, Bess noted the change which had come to me. Panting with excitement she cried:
“You look happy, happy! You know something you have not told me. What? what? I’m suffocating, mad to know; speak — speak —”
“Your husband is a man not unknown to any of us. You have seen him constantly. He is —”
“Yes, yes; did he tell you himself? Has he done me so much justice? Oh, say that his heart has softened at last; that he is ready to recognize me; that I have not got to find those bonds — but you do not know about the bonds — nobody does. I shouldn’t have spoken; he would be angry if he knew. Angry? and I have suffered so much from his anger! He is not a gentle man.”
How differently she said this from the gentleman of a few minutes back!
“But he doesn’t know that I am here,” she burst out in another instant, as I hunted for some word to say. “He would kill me if he did; he once swore that he would kill me if I ever approached him or put in any claim to him till he was ready to own me for his wife and give me the place that is due me. Don’t tell me that I have betrayed myself, I’ve been so careful; kept myself so entirely out of his eyes, even last night when I saw the doctor go in and felt that it was for him, and pictured him to myself as dying without a word from me or a look to help me bear the pain. He was ill, wasn’t he? — but he got better. I saw him come out, very feeble and uncertain. Not like himself, not like the strong and too, too handsome man who has wrung my heart in his hand of steel — wrung it and thrown it away.”
Sobs shook her and she stopped from lack of power to utter either her terror or her grief. But she looked the questions she could no longer put, and compassionating her misery, I gently said:
“Your love has been fixed upon a very unstable heart; but you have rights which must yet insure you his support. There is some one who will protect these rights and protect you in your efforts to substantiate them.”
“His aunt,” she put in, shaking her head. “She can do nothing, unless —” Her excitement became abnormal. “Have they found the money?” she shrieked; “have they — have they found the money?”
I could not deceive her; she had seen it in my eye.
“And they will —”
“Hardly,” I whispered. “He has displeased them; they can not be generous to him now.”
Her hopes sank as if the very basis of her life had been taken away.
“It was my only hope,” she murmured. “With that money in my hand — some, any of it, I could have dared his frown and won in a little while his good will, but now — I can only anticipate rebuff. There is nothing for me to hope for now. I must continue to be Bess, the thread and needle woman.”
“I did not say that the one to reinstate you was Miss Quinlan.”
“Who then? who then?”
And then I had to tell her.
We all know the results of the election by which Governor Packard holds his seat, but few persons outside of those mentioned in this history know why the event of his homecoming from a trip he made to Minnesota brought a brighter and more lasting light into his wife’s eyes than the news of his astonishing political triumph.
He had substantiated facts by which Mr. Steele’s claims upon Mrs. Packard were annulled and Bess restored to her rights, if not to her false husband’s heart and affections. There are times, though, when I do not even despair of the latter; constant illness is producing a perceptible change in the man, and it seemed to me, from what Mrs. John Brainard told me one day after she had been able, through the kindness of the Misses Quinlan, to place the amount of one of the bonds in his hands, that his eyes were beginning to learn their true lesson and that he would yet find charm in his long neglected wife. It was not to be wondered at, for with hope and the advantages of dress with which the Misses Quinlan now took pleasure in supplying her, she was gradually becoming an unusually fine woman.
I remained with Mrs. Packard till they left town for the capital; remained to enjoy to the full the joy of these reunited hearts, and to receive the substantial reward which they insisted on bestowing upon me. One of the tasks with which I whiled away the many hours in which I found myself alone was the understanding and proper mastery of the cipher which had played such a part in the evolution of the life-drama enacted before my eyes.
It was very simple. With the following diagram as a key and a single hint as to its management, you will at once comprehend its apparent intricacies:
The dot designated that the letter used was the second in the indicated division.
The hint to which I allude is this. With every other word the paper is turned in the hands toward the left. This alters the shape and direction of the angle or part of square symbolizing the several letters, and creates the confusion which interfered with my solution of its mysteries the night I subjected it, with such unsatisfactory results, to the tests which had elucidated the cryptogram in The Gold Bug.
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