THE EARTHLY PURGATORY

Waking or sleeping, one figure stood forth in Durgan’s imagination that
night, and was the center of all his mental activity–it was Hermione
Claxton.

He had been accustomed to regard her as the very incarnation of the
commonplace, in so far as good sense and good feeling can be common.

Now he knew her as the chief actor in a story wherein the heights and
depths of human passion had been so displayed that it might seem
impossible for one mind to habitually hold so wide a gamut of experience
in its conscious memory. This quiet little gray-haired housewife, who
lived beside him, baking, sweeping, and sewing her placid days away, had
stood in the criminal dock almost convicted of the most inhuman of
crimes. Having passed through the awful white flame of public
execration, she had accepted her blackened reputation with quiet
dignity; for years she had lived a hidden life of perfect
self-sacrifice, devoting herself to the purest service of sister-love.
With character still uncleared, she had been urged to take her place as
the wife of one of New York’s best-known philanthropists, with whom, it
seemed, she had long suffered the sorrows of mutual love and
disappointment. Of more than this Durgan felt assured. As he reviewed
all that had been told him that day, he was the more convinced that she
had been no involuntary victim of false accusation, that she knew the
secret that had puzzled the world, and had chosen to shield the
criminal, to bear the odium, and also inflict it on the objects of her
love. She had done all this for the sake of–what? What motive could
have been strong enough to induce a wise and good woman to make such a
sacrifice and endure the intolerable keeping of such a secret?

Durgan very naturally sought again the bundle of criminal reports which
had fallen into his hands after the fire. Packed in the pile which fed
the miners’ stove, they had not, as yet, been burned. He reconsidered
them, supposing now that they had been collected by Miss Claxton
herself. A motley band of prisoners was thus evoked. They passed in
procession before Durgan, beginning with Hermione Claxton, and ending
with that curious figure of the dilettante priest who had beaten a
sister to death in fear that she was an apparition. The well-born woman
who, without temptation, had stolen jewels; the French peasant who had
killed a loved wife to save her from the sufferings of a painful
disease, and all the other members of this strange procession,
represented the eccentricities of the respectable, rather than the
characteristics of the degraded class. From a fresh scrutiny of each
Durgan gained no information, only a strong suspicion that the criminal
for whom Miss Claxton had so bravely stood scapegoat belonged to the
same respectable class. He assumed that while her lawyers had been
hunting for some inconsequent housebreaker who had taken a maniacal
delight in dealing death, she had covered the guilt of someone whose
reputation defied suspicion. Love, blind love, could have been the only
motive strong enough to initiate and sustain such a course of action.
The only way to discover the villain to whom she had sacrificed herself
was to discover the man to whom she had given her heart. No doubt, since
the crime and cowardice had betrayed his true value, such a woman would
turn with some affection to a man like Alden. But Durgan’s surmise
required that before the crime she should have had another lover. Such a
lover, if at enmity with the father and in need of money, would have
had all the motive that the prosecution had attributed to Miss Claxton.
She was supposed to have sent all witnesses out of the house before the
crime; if her lover was demanding a private interview with her father,
and her engagement was as yet private, such action on her part—- But
Durgan paused, vexed at the nimbleness of his fancy. He derided himself
for assuming that so obvious a suspicion had not long ago been probed to
the bottom by acuter minds than his.

When he came to question more soberly what clues he held by which he
might himself seek for any truth in his new suspicion, more unquiet
suggestions came thick and fast.

More than once lately he had had the unpleasant sensation of hearing his
wife’s name very unexpectedly. Bertha had more than once referred to
her; and what was it the raving mulatto had said? It took him some time
to recollect words that had fallen on his astonished ears only to
convince him of their nonsense. The mulatto had implied that his wife
had concealed something for years which put her in some rivalry or
enmity with Miss Claxton. His advice that Durgan should look into his
wife’s conduct and take Miss Claxton’s part could, if it meant anything,
only point to some mutual interest both women had with the
spiritualist, Charlton Beardsley.

Durgan was amazed at such an idea. He remained for some time, as he said
to himself, “convinced” that the mulatto was raving; and yet he went as
far as to reflect that there had never been any visible reason for his
wife’s devotion to this man; furthermore, that Bertha had said that Mr.
Claxton, an hour before his sad death, had received a message from
Charlton Beardsley, that the mulatto had come from Beardsley, and was it
not likely that he had sought shelter with his employer? The mulatto
evidently knew Hermione to be innocent; in that case Beardsley would
know it, and perhaps Durgan’s own wife knew it. They had come forward
with no evidence. What possible motive could they have had for
concealment?

Durgan broke from his camp bed and from his hut, hot and stifled by the
disagreeable rush of indignant and puzzled thoughts. He stood in the
free air and dark starlight, trying to shake off his growing suspicions.
Details gathered from different sources were darting into his mind, and
it seemed to him that fancy, not reason, was rapidly constructing a dark
story of which he could conceive no explanation, but which involved even
himself–through tolerance of his wife’s conduct–in the guilt of Miss
Claxton’s unmerited sufferings.

Alarmed at the trend of these memories and hasty inferences, he
controlled himself, to reflect only on the more instant question of
Eve’s death, and the evidence he must give at the trial. It would appear
that until ‘Dolphus was condemned, even the Claxtons did not fear his
tongue. To give evidence against him, and at the same time to seal his
tongue, appeared to be Durgan’s immediate duty, but the performance
seemed difficult. What bribe, what threat could move a condemned man who
was but a waif in the world, and need care for none but himself?

Yet if rational meaning was to be granted at all to his raving on the
night of Eve’s death, it would appear that even this creature had a
reverence for Miss Claxton, and a desire to be the object of her
prayers. Was this motive strong enough to be worked upon? It would be
better, no doubt, to gain an interview with the prisoner and try to
discover if he had any tenacity of purpose, but to this Durgan felt
strong repugnance.

In avoiding this issue, his mind began to torment him regarding the
evidence against Miss Claxton, which he alone knew, and which he might
not have a right to conceal. His ardent belief in her goodness, his
firm belief that he had heard Eve die, rested only on intuitive insight,
common in men of solitary habit and unscholarly minds; he knew that this
was no basis on which to found legal evidence.

With these uneasy and unfinished thoughts he at last fell asleep in the
faint light of the dawn, and waked again soon with a vivid and bad
dream.




He dreamed that he was again on the lonely mountain on the night of
Eve’s death, groping under the stunted thicket of old oak. Again he saw
Miss Claxton come to the forked tree. She climbed as before, and reached
up one thin arm to deposit something in the highest cleft of the trunk.
The moon rose as before; Durgan saw in his dream that the thing she hid
there was a knife, and the blade was red. Rousing himself from a sleep
that brought so odious a vision, he woke to find the rays of a red
sunrise in his face.

One of his laborers brought up the borrowed horse which he had arranged
to ride to Hilyard. Before he started he went up the trail to the summit
house, hoping that Alden might be about. He had nothing definite to ask,
and yet he would have been glad to have some parting advice from him. No
one was up. The very house was drowsy under the folded petals of its
climbing flowers. Durgan went down through the stunted oak wood, and
looked up as he passed the forked tree. It was the first time he had
been close to it in daylight. In one branch of the fork, close to the
notch, there was a round hole, such as squirrels choose for their nests.
Better hiding-place for a small object could not be. To act the spy so
far as to look into the hole without Miss Claxton’s permission would
have been what Durgan called “a nigger’s trick.” Like all the better
class of slave-owners, he habitually sought to justify his own
assumption of superiority by holding himself high above all mean actions
or superstitious ideas. As he went down the hill he was vexed with
himself for having been so far influenced by a dream as to have even
looked for the hole in the tree.

Yet as he rode out into the glorious morning, he found himself arguing
that if money for the mulatto had been put in the tree, it was odd that
the mulatto had made no effort to get it before his arrest or to send
for it after. The thing which had really been put there, if not meant
for ‘Dolphus, was probably intended to be long hidden. But a dream, of
course, meant nothing, and his could easily be accounted for by the
tenor of his waking thoughts and the color of the sunrise.

When he reached the saw-mill he turned by the long, wooden mill-race and
set his horse at a gentle gallop for Hilyard. Even at that speed he
began to wonder whether if, by such evidence as had convinced Bertha, he
were induced to hold the erroneous opinion of Miss Claxton’s guilt, he
would be also forced into Bertha’s conclusion, that fits of mania were
the only explanation. Since last night he had called Bertha a fool; now,
while most unwelcome suspicions followed him like tormenting demons, he
was driven into greater sympathy with the younger sister.

He galloped gently down the slope of the valley, tree and shrub and
flower rushing past him in the freshness of the morning. Suddenly he
checked his horse to look up. He was beneath his own precipice. The mine
was on a ledge about three hundred feet above him. The rock rose sheer
some hundred and fifty feet above that. He could trace the opening of
the trail, but even the smoke of the hidden dwelling-house could not be
seen here. As Durgan listened for the faint chink of his workmen’s
tools, and sought from this unfamiliar point of view to trace each
well-known spot, he began, for the first time, to realize fully the
dreadfulness of the story which only yesterday had revealed.

Involuntarily he drew rein. The memory that had transfixed him was the
description of the Claxton murder. While the step-mother had been
killed by only one well-aimed shot, the father had been beaten with
such brutal rage that no likeness of the living man appeared in the
horrid shape of the dead.

He spoke aloud in the sunny solitude, and his words were of Bertha and
her sister. “My God! She has lived alone with her there for two years
believing this.”

He had very often of late thought slightingly of Bertha’s excitability.
Last night he had thought scorn of her conclusions. Now, when he
perceived how the terrible form of death which had befallen her loved
father must have wrought upon her nerves, and how much more reason she
had to believe her sister guilty than the most bigoted member of the
public who had tried to condemn her, he felt only reverence for the
courage and devotion of such a life. No doubt her womanly proneness to
nervous fears, and the undisciplined activity of her imagination, had
sometimes pictured scenes of impossible distress, and resulted in words
and looks inconsistent with her resolution of secrecy; but, also, how
much did this timorous and excitable disposition heighten the heroism of
the office she had so perseveringly filled.

Yet while he remained in deep admiration of this heroism, he thought
that he himself could never forgive Bertha’s suspicion of her sister.
How much less could Alden forgive? And if it ever reached the trustful
mind of that loving sister that the child of her delight had thought her
prone to madness, the word “forgiveness” would have no meaning between
them. A wound would be made that no earthly love could ever heal.

Bertha’s beauty came vividly before him–her kind, honest, impulsive
girlhood. “God help her,” he said slowly. “She has cheerfully borne
worse than hell for love’s sake, and such is the extreme tragedy of
love, that if she is mistaken, all this loyalty and suffering can never
atone for her mistake.”