The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green
Book III. Hannah
XXVII. Amy Belden
"A merrier man Within the limits of becoming mirth, I never spent an hour's talk withal." --Love's Labour's Last.
I had a client in R---- by the name of Monell; and it was from him I had planned to learn the best way of approaching Mrs. Belden. When, therefore, I was so fortunate as to meet him, almost on my arrival, driving on the long road behind his famous trotter Alfred, I regarded the encounter as a most auspicious beginning of a very doubtful enterprise.
"Well, and how goes the day?" was his exclamation as, the first greetings passed, we drove rapidly into town.
"Your part in it goes pretty smoothly," I returned; and thinking I could never hope to win his attention to my own affairs till I had satisfied him in regard to his, I told him all I could concerning the law-suit then pending; a subject so prolific of question and answer, that we had driven twice round the town before he remembered he had a letter to post. As it was an important one, admitting of no delay, we hasted at once to the post-office, where he went in, leaving me outside to watch the rather meagre stream of goers and comers who at that time of day make the post-office of a country town their place of rendezvous. Among these, for some reason, I especially noted one middle-aged woman; why, I cannot say; her appearance was anything but remarkable. And yet when she came out, with two letters in her hand, one in a large and one in might be induced to give a bed to a friend of mine who is very anxious to be near the post-office on account of a business telegram he is expecting, and which when it comes will demand his immediate attention." And Mr. Monell gave me a sly wink of his eye, little imagining how near the mark he had struck.
"You need not say that. Tell her I have a peculiar dislike to sleeping in a public house, and that you know of no one better fitted to accommodate me, for the short time I desire to be in town, than herself."
"And what will be said of my hospitality in allowing you under these circumstances to remain in any other house than my own?"
"I don't know; very hard things, no doubt; but I guess your hospitality can stand it."
"Well, if you persist, we will see what can be done." And driving up to a neat white cottage of homely, but sufficiently attractive appearance, he stopped.
"This is her house," said he, jumping to the ground; "let's go in and see what we can do."
Glancing up at the windows, which were all closed save the two on the veranda overlooking the street, I thought to myself, "If she has anybody in hiding here, whose presence in the house she desires to keep secret, it is folly to hope she will take me in, however well recommended I may come." But, yielding to the example of my friend, I alighted in my turn and followed him up the short, grass-bordered walk to the front door.
"As she has no servant, she will come to the door herself, so be ready," he remarked as he knocked.
I had barely time to observe that the curtains to the window at my left suddenly dropped, when a hasty step made itself heard within, and a quick hand drew open the door; and I saw before me the woman whom I had observed at the post-office, and whose action with the letters had struck me as peculiar. I recognized her at first glance, though she was differently dressed, and had evidently passed through some worry or excitement that had altered the expression of her countenance, and made her manner what it was not at that time, strained and a trifle uncertain. But I saw no reason for thinking she remembered me. On the contrary, the look she directed towards me had nothing but inquiry in it, and when Mr. Monell pushed me forward with the remark, "A friend of mine; in fact my lawyer from New York," she dropped a hurried old-fashioned curtsey whose only expression vas a manifest desire to appear sensible of the honor conferred upon her, through the mist of a certain trouble that confused everything about her,
"We have come to ask a favor, Mrs. Belden; but may we not come in? "said my client in a round, hearty voice well calculated to recall a person's thoughts into their proper channel. "I have heard many times of your cosy home, and am glad of this opportunity of seeing it." And with a blind disregard to the look of surprised resistance with which she met his advance, he stepped gallantly into the little room whose cheery red carpet and bright picture-hung walls showed invitingly through the half-open door at our left.
Finding her premises thus invaded by a sort of French coup d'etat, Mrs. Belden made the best of the situation, and pressing me to enter also, devoted herself to hospitality. As for Mr. Monell, he quite blossomed out in his endeavors to make himself agreeable; so much so, that I shortly found myself laughing at his sallies, though my heart was full of anxiety lest, after all, our efforts should fail of the success they certainly merited. Meanwhile, Mrs. Belden softened more and more, joining in the conversation with an ease hardly to be expected from one in her humble circumstances. Indeed, I soon saw she was no common woman. There was a refinement in her speech and manner, which, combined with her motherly presence and gentle air, was very pleasing. The last woman in the world to suspect of any underhanded proceeding, if she had not shown a peculiar hesitation when Mr. Monell broached the subject of my entertainment there.
"I don't know, sir; I would be glad, but," and she turned a very scrutinizing look upon me, "the fact is, I have not taken lodgers of late, and I have got out of the way of the whole thing, and am afraid I cannot make him comfortable. In short, you will have to excuse me."
"But we can't," returned Mr. Monell. "What, entice a fellow into a room like this"--and he cast a hearty admiring glance round the apartment which, for all its simplicity, both its warm coloring and general air of cosiness amply merited, "and then turn a cold shoulder upon him when he humbly entreats the honor of staying a single night in the enjoyment of its attractions? No, no, Mrs. Belden; I know you too well for that. Lazarus himself couldn't come to your door and be turned away; much less a good-hearted, clever-headed young gentleman like my friend here."
"You are very good," she began, an almost weak love of praise showing itself for a moment in her eyes; "but I have no room prepared. I have been house-cleaning, and everything is topsy-turvy. Mrs. Wright. now, over the way----"
"My young friend is going to stop here," Mr. Mouell broke in, with frank positiveness. "If I cannot have him at my own house,--and for certain reasons it is not advisable,--I shall at least have the satisfaction of knowing he is in the charge of the best housekeeper in R----."
"Yes," I put in, but without too great a show of interest; "I should be sorry, once introduced here, to be obliged to go elsewhere."
The troubled eye wavered away from us to the door.
"I was never called inhospitable," she commenced; "but everything in such disorder. What time would you like to come?"
"I was in hopes I might remain now," I replied; "I have some letters to write, and ask nothing better than for leave to sit here and write them."
At the word letters I saw her hand go to her pocket in a movement which must have been involuntary, for her countenance did not change, and she made the quick reply:
"Well, you may. If you can put up with such poor accommodations as I can offer, it shall not be said I refused you what Mr. Monell is pleased to call a favor."
And, complete in her reception as she had been in her resistance, she gave us a pleasant smile, and, ignoring my thanks, bustled out with Mr. Monell to the buggy, where she received my bag and what was, doubtless, more to her taste, the compliments he was now more than ever ready to bestow upon her.
"I will see that a room is got ready for you in a very short space of time," she said, upon re-entering. "Meanwhile, make yourself at home here; and if you wish to write, why I think you will find everything for the purpose in these drawers." And wheeling up a table to the easy chair in which I sat, she pointed to the small compartments beneath, with an air of such manifest desire to have me make use of anything and everything she had, that I found myself wondering over my position with a sort of startled embarrassment that was not remote from shame.
"Thank you; I have materials of my own," said I, and hastened to open my bag and bring out the writing-case, which I always carried with me.
"Then I will leave you," said she; and with a quick bend and a short, hurried look out of the window, she hastily quitted the room.
I could hear her steps cross the hall, go up two or three stairs, pause, go up the rest of the flight, pause again, and then pass on. I was left on the first floor alone.