THE WOMAN WITH A SECRET

Durgan had ridden down the hills in rather leisurely fashion; now he
urged his horse to speed. He had come uncertain how to meet the issue of
the day; now he was eager to forestall the issue of the next.

He had brought from his interview with the dying prisoner a strong
impression that the poor fellow had more mind and purpose than he had
supposed, and that he certainly had some scheme on hand from the
development of which he expected excitement and some lively
satisfaction.

The hints thrown out sounded madder than the supposed raving of his last
night of freedom. He had control over some unknown person, or persons,
of wealth in New York, who would send to save him, and he would
sacrifice something–perhaps his salvation–to Miss Claxton; further, he
threatened Durgan with discomfiture.

What could seem more mad than all this? But to-day Durgan was not at
all sure that the poor creature did not mean all he said and could not
do all he promised. The development of the mulatto’s purpose might be
left to time, but Durgan’s purpose was to follow up the clues he had
obtained, and two facts had to be dealt with now. ‘Dolphus had freely
expressed the belief that Miss Claxton had shielded an unknown criminal
of the male sex whom she loved. Durgan had been so astonished, and even
shocked, at hearing his own bold surmise so quickly and fully
corroborated, that he knew now for the first time how little confidence
he had had in his own detective powers. Further, it was probably this
guilty person over whom ‘Dolphus had power. He was rich, and could not
be unknown; he was within reach, for he had recently telegraphed, and
the address given must be meant to find him. Durgan felt that it would
be criminal to lose a moment in putting this clue in Alden’s hand.

Bertha had desired that Alden should be left in ignorance of the
mulatto’s identity because she feared it might lead to her sister’s
condemnation; now that ‘Dolphus himself had implied that he could clear
the sister’s reputation, Bertha could not, must not, hesitate. Miss
Claxton’s desire to hide from Alden who the mulatto was and what he
knew must be part of her desire to hide the miscreant; but with time,
Durgan was ready to believe, this desire must have lessened or almost
failed, as love must have cooled. In any case, Miss Claxton held all her
desires as subordinate to the will of God; persuasion, reason, pressure,
must move her. Durgan urged on his horse.

All the way home he passed over shady roads flecked with pink sunlight.
The heaviest foliage of summer mantled the valleys. The birds were
almost still, resting in the deep shadows of the mature season.

When Durgan was almost within hearing of the waterfall and the hum of
the saw-mill at Deer Cove, he met three riders. Mr. Alden and Bertha, in
company with young Blount, were descending for a gallop in the cool of
the evening. They all stopped to say they had heard by post that the
trial was deferred, and to inquire after Adam’s welfare.

Durgan could reply cheerfully as to Adam, that he was spending his time
in ablutions and pious exercises, and that the authorities were bent
upon having him acquitted.

“Reckon they are,” said young Blount. “My father saw to that when he
went over.”

Durgan saw that neither Bertha nor Mr. Alden would ask about the other
prisoner in his cousin’s presence. He said in a casual tone, “The
yellow fellow seems assured that he will have money and influence behind
him, too, by next week.”

“Yes,” cried Blount, interested always in minutiæ, “he sent a letter and
received a telegram.”

Durgan rode on. He must wait now an hour or two for an opportunity to
speak to Alden or Bertha, and he began to wonder whether it would not be
more honorable to approach Miss Claxton direct, confess what he had
chanced to see of her secret actions, and tell her frankly what the
mulatto had let fall that day. His borrowed horse had been offered the
hospitality of her stable for the night, so he must, perforce, reach the
summit.

The horse rubbed down and fed in the spacious stable, Durgan sought the
front of the low house, now richly decorated by the scarlet
trumpet-flower, which had conquered the other creepers of earlier
summer, and had thrown out its triumphal flag from the very chimneys.

He found the lady, as he had expected, sitting quietly busy at some
woman’s work in the front porch. The house mastiff lay at her feet, and
round the corner came the low, sweet song of the colored maid who had
taken Eve’s place in the kitchen. The rich crimson plant called
“love-lies-bleeding,” now in full flower, trailed its tassels on the
earth on either side of the low doorway. It seemed, indeed, a fit emblem
of the tragedy of the life beside it.

Miss Claxton welcomed Durgan with her usual self-effacing gentleness.
“Bertha and Mr. Alden have ridden out with Mr. Blount. Thought likely
you would have met them.”

Durgan’s avowal of the meeting caused her to expect an explanation of
his visit; but for some minutes he dallied, glad to rest in her gentle
presence, and feeling now the extreme difficulty of saying things he
thought it only honorable to say.

He had hitherto blamed Bertha and Alden for not addressing themselves to
Miss Claxton more openly. He now realized to what degree she had the
power which many of the meekest people possess, of hiding from the
strife of tongues behind their own gentle, inapproachable dignity.

Durgan rested in pacific mood while she uttered gentle words of sympathy
for his fatigue, and fell into a muse of astonishment that she should be
the center of such pressing and tragic interests. So strong was his
silent thought that it would have forced him into questions had she been
less strong. He longed to ask, “Why do you assume that this ‘Dolphus
will not expose the criminal you have suffered so much to hide?”

Instead, he only began to describe his visits to the prisoners, taking
Adam first, and coming naturally to ‘Dolphus.

“It was real kind of you, Mr. Durgan, to see after him; and it was very
mean of the jail folks not to wash up for him. He had money to pay
them.”

“The doctor will make them stand round. But I wanted to tell you that I
have been wondering upon what or whom ‘Dolphus relies for his defence.
Adam has such a strong backing, there seems to be no doubt of his
acquittal. I did not know this till I went to-day, or how little
difference the emancipation has really made as to the justice or
injustice meted out to niggers. I supposed–I have been absent since the
close of the war–that the evidence given at the trial would be
all-important. Now I think the conclusion is foregone; judge and jury,
whoever the jurors may be, have already fallen into the belief that I
and my cousins have insisted on.”

She had dropped her work; she was absorbed in his every word. “It’s a
bad principle, of course,” she said; “but as to Adam, it is working out
all right. I suppose–I suppose, Mr. Durgan, that ‘Dolphus did kill poor
Eve? I’d feel pretty mean if he’s being punished for nothing.”

“I believe he did; but I have no proof.”

“I don’t mind telling you, Mr. Durgan, that I got Mr. Alden to get a
lawyer–quite privately, of course–to offer his services to
‘Dolphus–to tell him we would pay the costs, because Adam and Eve were
our ‘help,’ and of course we wanted to see only justice done. ‘Dolphus
wouldn’t accept it. He refused; we don’t know why. He told the lawyer he
knew ‘a game worth two of that.’ Of course, if there is miscarriage of
justice, we can’t feel quite so badly as if we hadn’t made the offer.”

“What do you think he meant by ‘knowing a better game’?”

“It wasn’t just fooling, was it, Mr. Durgan?” Underneath her quiet there
was now a tremulous eagerness; her faded eyes looked to his with
sorrowful appeal.

“No; after seeing him to-day, I am inclined to think more of him than I
did; but I think he’s up to tricks of some sort. May I tell you what he
said to me, Miss Claxton?”

“I’m just praying to the Lord all the time, Mr. Durgan, and trying to
leave it all in His hands. He won’t let us suffer more than is right;
and I hope He’ll give us grace to bear what He sends, if it isn’t the
full deliverance I pray for.”

Durgan was nonplused. “Do you mean to say you would rather not hear
what the man said? because I must tell Alden, and as it concerns you
most, I thought—-”

“Yes, I guess perhaps I ought to hear it. And if you tell me you don’t
need to tell Mr. Alden, because I know better than you what he ought to
hear–that is, if it concerns me.”

This seemed a simple and self-evident view of the case; Durgan hardly
knew how he could have thought of interfering. Nor did he find it at all
easy to put significance into the prisoner’s words apart from his own
foreknowledge and prejudgment of the case.

“‘Dolphus suggested to me that I would not wish to see justice done
in–to say the truth–in your own case, Miss Claxton. He challenged me,
asking if I were willing to make a sacrifice to prove your innocence.”

She looked at him straight. Her eyes were not faded now; he was amazed
at the flash and flush of energy and youth he had brought to her face.
He thought he had never in his life seen so honest, so spiritual a face
as that which confronted him; but whether her present expression was one
of astonishment or dismay he could not tell.

“You could not have expected him to speak on this subject; and you
never had any connection with our trouble? What more did he say?”

“He never really mentioned your name; I only assumed that his reference
was to you. He said that he knew a lady who would die to save a–well,
he _said_, a gentleman she loved, but would let even _him_ die rather
than swear falsely.”

She never flinched. “Was that all?” she asked.

But Durgan was already cut with remorse to think how impertinent his
words must sound. “No, that was not all. He asked me to give you a
message, to tell you that he would not harm you–that he would rather
die than harm you. This was in answer to my suggestion that you would
not wish your real name to be known in these parts.”

She looked relieved. “I have always believed that he had more good in
him than you thought. But tell me all. I’d liefer hear every word, if
you please.”

“I hope I remember all that he said. I think that was all that I took to
be a direct reference to you, Miss Claxton; but what I thought most
needful to tell Alden—-”

“Yes?” The little word pulsed with restrained excitement.

“I asked the fellow on what defence he relied, and he said what made me
think he had the pull of some threat over the person he relied on. He
had had a telegram.”




“I don’t exactly understand, Mr. Durgan.”

“Neither do I, I assure you.”

“But I mean, what has that to do with Mr. Alden?”

“Oh, I think I assumed that ‘Dolphus believed this person to be the
criminal, and his address was on the telegram.”

“May I ask why you made this assumption?”

“It may have been unwarranted, but taken in connection with his boast
that he could establish your entire freedom from blame—-” Durgan was
floundering in his effort to find words for the very painful subject. He
paused, with face red and dew on his brow.

“I guess, Mr. Durgan, if you’ll speak quite plainly what you mean, it
will be better for us both.”

“Why do you include me? Do you know why this boy threatens me,
reproaches me, challenges me?”

“Tell me first, Mr. Durgan, what you made out, and what you think this
telegram has to do with it?”

“To be plain, I suspect that this man knows who was guilty of the crime
for which you were tried, that he is now in communication with him, and
I saw an address in the telegram he had received.”

“What was the address?”

“‘Corner of Beard and 84th Street,’ and it was signed ‘B. D.'” He told
her its contents.

She went into the house and brought out a New York directory a year or
two old. “I guess there isn’t any such corner,” she said, and in a
moment she showed him there was not.

“Do you know of anyone who has these initials?”

“I do not.”

“If Alden sent a detective to the office where it was received, I wonder
if he could find out who sent it?”

“Is it likely that if anyone took the trouble to give a wrong address,
they would leave any clew to their whereabouts?”

“Could ‘Dolphus give Alden any information of moment?”

“He could give him none that would do anyone any good.”

“Might that not be a matter of opinion?”

“I don’t see that folks who don’t know what they are doing can have a
right to an opinion about the results.”

There was then a silence. The sun had long set on the valley, but from
this eminence its last rays were still seen mingling with a foam of
crimson cloud in a vista of the western hills. Both the man and the
woman had their faces turned to the great red cloud-flower in which the
light of day was declining. The mountains were solemn and tender; the
valleys dim and wide. It was not a scene on which the sober mind could
gaze without gaining for the hour some reflection of the greatness and
earnestness of God.

But the world about could only be environment to their thought, not for
a moment its object. Durgan was roused in spirit. The quiescent temper
which he had sought to obtain in compensation for a stormy and
disappointed youth was lost for the time. This woman, who bore the odium
of a cruel and dastardly deed, was still intent on shielding the real
doer. Durgan looked at the splendid arena of the mountains and the
manifest struggle of light and darkness therein; the many tracks of
suspicion in which his thoughts had all day been moving gathered
together.

“Miss Claxton, are you willing to tell me all you know about Charlton
Beardsley?”

She looked at him for a moment as if trying to read his thoughts, then
looked back at the outer world, as if moved by his question only to
profound and regretful reverie.

“About Charlton Beardsley I know very little,” she said, in a voice
touched as with compassion; “very, very little, Mr. Durgan; but I had
once occasion to ask your wife something about him, and she told me, I
believe truly, that he had been brought up, an orphan, in an English
charity school, that he had no relatives that he knew of and no near
friends. That was all she could tell me. He was by taste a somewhat
solitary mystic, I believe, only sought after by those who had
discovered his delusions and wished to be deluded by them. You see, I
can easily tell you all I know; it is not much.”

Durgan sat watching her, too entirely amazed at both words and manner to
find speech. Just so a good woman, treading the violets of some
neglected graveyard, might speak of the innocent dead who lay beneath.

There was silence.

Miss Claxton said, “I always like the time just after the sun goes down,
Mr. Durgan; I have a fancy it is the time one feels nearest God. I
suppose it’s only fancy, but it does say in Genesis, you know, that God
walked in the garden in the cool of the day.”

Then, as darkness grew, and finding that he made no response, she
exerted herself and rose to light the lamp.

In the full light she faced him. “Mr. Durgan, I don’t wonder you feel
the responsibility of the suspicions the negro has put into your mind. I
don’t blame you, and it’s only natural he should like the excitement of
talking. It would not be right for me to tell you exactly what I believe
he was referring to; but there are some things I can tell you, and I can
only pray God to help you believe what I say. I believe it was your wife
who sent that telegram; it was, at least, paid for with her money, and
it will be her money that will be used freely to get ‘Dolphus acquitted.
If you pursue the suspicions he has started for you, I don’t believe you
will make any discovery. But even if you did, what would happen? You
would drag your wife’s name in the mire; you would”–she paused, and
tried to steady her voice. “Oh, Mr. Durgan, think of Bertha; you would
break Bertha’s heart and mine. You think you understand justice, and
that there is someone whom you ought to bring to justice. Justice
belongs to God. He alone can mete it out in this world so as to save the
soul that has sinned. Are you afraid to leave it to Him? I am not. I
have left it to Him for five years, and I am not sorry, but glad. And I
entreat you to consider that if you interfere you don’t know what you
are doing; you may make the worst mistakes. ‘Dolphus thinks he knows the
name of the person who should be brought to justice; I assure you he
does not. I spoke to him on the night Eve died, and found out that he
did not. Believe me, Mr. Durgan, I am making no romantic and fantastic
sacrifice of myself, as this negro supposes. The truth, were it made
public, would be the worst thing for me, as for Bertha, and would bring
yourself shame and pain. And it could never be the real, whole truth,
for that you could not understand, nor could anyone. I hear their horses
on the hill. Please go. Do not let them find you here, as if you had had
news of some strange thing. You know nothing, for the thing you think
you know is not true. Do nothing, for fear you do harm. You cannot do
any good.”

“But how can you be sure this sick man will not do the thing you dread?”

“I begged him not to do anything, just as I’ve begged you. I don’t
think, anyway, that he will get the chance he reckons on. If he did, I
think that when he has to choose between accepting the help that will
get him acquitted, if anything will, of the present charge against him,
and, as he thinks, righting me, the love of life will be too strong. He
will not die on my behalf, even though his intentions are good, as I
believe yours are, Mr. Durgan.”

Durgan had turned to the door the moment she had asked him to go. He was
tarrying on the threshold to ask his last question, to hear her
response. When he heard himself, with no unkind intent, naturally linked
with the wretched mulatto, his pace was accelerated. With a word of
farewell he disappeared into the dusk, hearing the horses arrive at the
stables as he went his fugitive way down the familiar trail.