Chapter XI.
 

For more than a week after Edith's call on Dr. Radcliffe she seemed to take but little interest in anything, and remained alone in her room for a greater part of the time, except when her father was in the house. Since her questions about her baby a slight reserve had risen up between them. During this time she went out at least once every day, and when questioned by her mother as to where she had been, evaded any direct answer. If questioned more closely, she would show a rising spirit and a decision of manner that had the effect to silence and at the same time to trouble Mrs. Dinneford, whose mind was continually on the rack.

One day the mother and daughter met in a part of the city where neither of them dreamed of seeing the other. It was not far from where Mrs. Bray lived. Mrs. Dinneford had been there on a purgational visit, and had come away lighter in purse and with a heavier burden of fear and anxiety on her heart.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

"I've been to St. John's mission sewing-school," replied Edith. "I have a class there."

"You have! Why didn't you tell me this before? I don't like such doings. This is no place for you."

"My place is where I can do good," returned Edith, speaking slowly, but with great firmness.

"Good! You can do good if you want to without demeaning yourself to work like this. I don't want you mixed up with these low, vile people, and I won't have it!" Mrs. Dinneford spoke in a sharp, positive voice.

Edith made no answer, and they walked on together.

"I shall speak to your father about this," said Mrs. Dinneford. "It isn't reputable. I wouldn't have you seen here for the world."

"I shall walk unhurt; you need not fear," returned Edith.

There was silence between them for some time, Edith not caring to speak, and her mother in doubt as to what it were best to say.

"How long have you been going to St. John's mission school?" at length queried Mrs. Dinneford.

"I've been only a few times," replied Edith.

"And have a class of diseased and filthy little wretches, I suppose--gutter children?"

"They are God's children," said Edith, in a tone of rebuke.

"Oh, don't preach to me!" was angrily replied.

"I only said what was true," remarked Edith.

There was silence again.

"Are you going directly home?" asked Mrs. Dinneford, after they had walked the distance of several blocks. Edith replied that she was.

"Then you'd better take that car. I shall not be home for an hour yet."

They separated, Edith taking the car. As soon as she was alone Mrs. Dinneford quickened her steps, like a person who had been held back from some engagement. A walk of ten minutes brought her to one of the principal hotels of the city. Passing in, she went up to a reception-parlor, where she was met by a man who rose from a seat near the windows and advanced to the middle of the room. He was of low stature, with quick, rather nervous movements, had dark, restless eyes, and wore a heavy black moustache that was liberally sprinkled with gray. The lower part of his face was shaved clean. He showed some embarrassment as he came forward to meet Mrs. Dinneford.

"Mr. Feeling," she said, coldly.

The man bowed with a mixture of obsequiousness and familiarity, and tried to look steadily into Mrs. Dinneford's face, but was not able to do so. There was a steadiness and power in her eyes that his could not bear.

"What do you want with me, sir?" she demanded, a little sharply.

"Take a chair, and I will tell you," replied Freeling, and he turned, moving toward a corner of the room, she following. They sat down, taking chairs near each other.

"There's trouble brewing," said the man, his face growing dark and anxious.

"What kind of trouble?"

"I had a letter from George Granger yesterday."

"What!" The color went out of the lady's face.

"A letter from George Granger. He wished to see me."

"Did you go?"

"Yes."

"What did he want?"

Freeling took a deep breath, and sighed. His manner was troubled.

"What did he want?" Mrs. Dinneford repeated the question.

"He's as sane as you or I," said Freeling.

"Is he? Oh, very well! Then let him go to the State's prison." Mrs. Dinneford said this with some bravado in her manner. But the color did not come back to her face.

"He has no idea of that," was replied.

"What then?" The lady leaned toward Freeling. Her hands moved nervously.

"He means to have the case in court again, but on a new issue."

"He does!"

"Yes; says that he's innocent, and that you and I know it--that he's the victim of a conspiracy, and that we are the conspirators!"

"Talk!--amounts to nothing," returned Mrs. Dinneford, with a faint little laugh.

"I don't know about that. It's ugly talk, and especially so, seeing that it's true."

"No one will give credence to the ravings of an insane criminal."

"People are quick to credit an evil report. They will pity and believe him, now that the worst is reached. A reaction in public feeling has already taken place. He has one or two friends left who do not hesitate to affirm that there has been foul play. One of these has been tampering with a clerk of mine, and I came upon them with their heads together on the street a few days ago, and had my suspicions aroused by their startled look when they saw me."

"'What did that man want with you?' I inquired, when the clerk came in.

"He hesitated a moment, and then replied, 'He was asking me something about Mr. Granger.'

"'What about him?' I queried. 'He asked me if I knew anything in regard to the forgery,' he returned.

"I pressed him with questions, and found that suspicion was on the right track. This friend of Granger's asked particularly about your visits to the store, and whether he had ever noticed anything peculiar in our intercourse--anything that showed a familiarity beyond what would naturally arise between a customer and salesman."

"There's nothing in that," said Mrs. Dinneford. "If you and I keep our own counsel, we are safe. The testimony of a condemned criminal goes for nothing. People may surmise and talk as much as they please, but no one knows anything about those notes but you and I and George."

"A pardon from the governor may put a new aspect on the case."

"A pardon!" There was a tremor of alarm in Mrs. Dinneford's voice.

"Yes; that, no doubt, will be the first move."

"The first move! Why, Mr. Freeling, you don't think anything like this is in contemplation?"

"I'm afraid so. George, as I have said, is no more crazy than you or I. But he cannot come out of the asylum, as the case now stands, without going to the penitentiary. So the first move of his friends will be to get a pardon. Then he is our equal in the eyes of the law. It would be an ugly thing for you and me to be sued for a conspiracy to ruin this young man, and have the charge of forgery added to the count."

Mrs. Dinneford gave a low cry, and shivered.

"But it may come to that."

"Impossible!"

"The prudent man foreseeth the evil and hideth himself, but the simple pass on and are punished," said Freeling. "It is for this that I have sent for you. It's an ugly business, and I was a weak fool ever to have engaged in it."

"You were a free agent."

"I was a weak fool."

"As you please," returned Mrs. Dinneford, coldly, and drawing herself away from him.

It was some moments before either of them spoke again. Then Freeling said,

"I was awake all night, thinking over this matter, and it looks uglier the more I think of it. It isn't likely that enough evidence could be found to convict either of us, but to be tried on such an accusation would be horrible."

"Horrible! horrible!" ejaculated Mrs. Dinneford. "What is to be done?" She gave signs of weakness and terror. Freeling observed her closely, then felt his way onward.

"We are in great peril," he said. "There is no knowing what turn affairs will take. I only wish I were a thousand miles from here. It would be safer for us both." Then, after a pause, he added, "If I were foot-free, I would be off to-morrow."

He watched Mrs. Dinneford closely, and saw a change creep over her face.

"If I were to disappear suddenly," he resumed, "suspicion, if it took a definite shape, would fall on me. You would not be thought of in the matter."

He paused again, observing his companion keenly but stealthily. He was not able to look her fully in the face.

"Speak out plainly," said Mrs. Dinneford, with visible impatience.

"Plainly, then, madam," returned Freeling, changing his whole bearing toward her, and speaking as one who felt that he was master of the situation, "it has come to this: I shall have to break up and leave the city, or there will be a new trial in which you and I will be the accused. Now, self-preservation is the first law of nature. I don't mean to go to the State's prison if I can help it. What I am now debating are the chances in my favor if Granger gets a pardon, and then makes an effort to drive us to the wall, which he most surely will. I have settled it so far--"

Mrs. Dinneford leaned toward him with an anxious expression on her countenance, waiting for the next sentence. But Freeling did not go on.

"How have you settled it?" she demanded, trembling as she spoke with the excitement of suspense.

"That I am not going to the wall if I can help it."

"How will you help it?"

"I have an accomplice;" and this time he was able to look at Mrs. Dinneford with such a fixed and threatening gaze that her eyes fell.

"You have?" she questioned, in a husky voice.

"Yes."

"Who?"

"Mrs. Helen Dinneford. And do you think for a moment that to save myself I would hesitate to sacrifice her?"

The lady's face grew white. She tried to speak, but could not.

"I am talking plainly, as you desired, madam," continued Freeling. "You led me into this thing. It was no scheme of mine; and if more evil consequences are to come, I shall do my best to save my own head. Let the hurt go to where it rightfully belongs."

"What do you mean?" Mrs. Dinneford tried to rally herself.

"Just this," was answered: "if I am dragged into court, I mean to go in as a witness, and not as a criminal. At the first movement toward an indictment, I shall see the district attorney, whom I know very well, and give him such information in the case as will lead to fixing the crime on you alone, while I will come in as the principal witness. This will make your conviction certain."

"Devil!" exclaimed Mrs. Dinneford, her white face convulsed and her eyes starting from their sockets with rage and fear. "Devil!" she repeated, not able to control her passion.

"Then you know me," was answered, with cool self-possession, "and what you have to expect."

Neither spoke for a considerable time. Up to this period they had been alone in the parlor. Guests of the house now came in and took seats near them. They arose and walked the floor for a little while, still in silence, then passed into an adjoining parlor that happened to be empty, and resumed the conference.

"This is a last resort," remarked Freeling, softening his voice as they sat down--"a card that I do not wish to play, and shall not if I can help it. But it is best that you should know that it is in my hand. If there is any better way of escape, I shall take it."

"You spoke of going away," said Mrs. Dinneford.

"Yes. But that involves a great deal."

"What?"

"The breaking up of my business, and loss of money and opportunities that I can hardly hope ever to regain."

"Why loss of money?"

"I shall have to wind up hurriedly, and it will be impossible to collect more than a small part of my outstanding claims. I shall have to go away under a cloud, and it will not be prudent to return. Most of these claims will therefore become losses. The amount of capital I shall be able to take will not be sufficient to do more than provide for a small beginning in some distant place and under an assumed name. On the other hand, if I remain and fight the thing through, as I have no doubt I can, I shall keep my business and my place in society here--hurt, it may be, in my good name, but still with the main chance all right. But it will be hard for you. If I pass the ordeal safely, you will not. And the question to consider is whether you can make it to my interest to go away, to drop out of sight, injured in fortune and good name, while you go unscathed. You now have it all in a nutshell. I will not press you to a decision to-day. Your mind is too much disturbed. To-morrow, at noon, I would like to see you again."

Freeling made a motion to rise, but Mrs. Dinneford did not stir.

"Perhaps," he said, "you decide at once to let things take their course. Understand me, I am ready for either alternative. The election is with yourself."

Mrs. Dinneford was too much stunned by all this to be able to come to any conclusion. She seemed in the maze of a terrible dream, full of appalling reality. To wait for twenty-four hours in this state of uncertainty was more than her thoughts could endure. And yet she must have time to think, and to get command of her mental resources.

"Will you be disengaged at five o'clock?" she asked.

"Yes."

"I will be here at five."

"Very well."

Mrs. Dinneford arose with a weary air.

"I shall want to hear from you very explicitly," she said. "If your demand is anywhere in the range of reason and possibility, I may meet it. If outside of that range, I shall of course reject it. It is possible that you may not hold all the winning cards--in fact, I know that you do not."

"I will be here at five," said Freeling.

"Very well. I shall be on time."

And they turned from each other, passing from the parlor by separate doors.