The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green
Book III. Hannah
"Thereby hangs a tale." --Taming of the Shrew.
"It was all a hoax; nobody was ill; I have been imposed upon, meanly imposed upon!" And Mrs. Belden, flushed and panting, entered the room where I was, and proceeded to take off her bonnet; but whilst doing so paused, and suddenly exclaimed: "What is the matter? How you look at me! Has anything happened?"
"Something very serious has occurred," I replied; "you have been gone but a little while, but in that time a discovery has been made--" I purposely paused here that the suspense might elicit from her some betrayal; but, though she turned pale, she manifested less emotion than I expected, and I went on--"which is likely to produce very important consequences."
To my surprise she burst violently into tears. "I knew it, I knew it!" she murmured. "I always said it would be impossible to keep it secret if I let anybody into the house; she is so restless. But I forget," she suddenly said, with a frightened look; "you haven't told me what the discovery was. Perhaps it isn't what I thought; perhaps----"
I did not hesitate to interrupt her. "Mrs. Belden," I said, "I shall not try to mitigate the blow. A woman who, in the face of the most urgent call from law and justice, can receive into her house and harbor there a witness of such importance as Hannah, cannot stand in need of any great preparation for hearing that her efforts, have been too successful, that she has accomplished her design of suppressing valuable testimony, that law and justice are outraged, and that the innocent woman whom this girl's evidence might have saved stands for ever compromised in the eyes of the world, if not in those of the officers of the law."
Her eyes, which had never left me during this address, flashed wide with dismay.
"What do you mean?" she cried. "I have intended no wrong; I have only tried to save people. I--I--But who are you? What have you got to do with all this? What is it to you what I do or don't do? You said you were a lawyer. Can it be you are come from Mary Leavenworth to see how I am fulfilling her commands, and----"
"Mrs. Belden," I said, "it is of small importance now as to who I am, or for what purpose I am here. But that my words may have the more effect, I will say, that whereas I have not deceived you, either as to my name or position, it is true that I am the friend of the Misses Leavenworth, and that anything which is likely to affect them, is of interest to me. When, therefore, I say that Eleanore Leavenworth is irretrievably injured by this gill's death----"
"Death? What do you mean? Death!"
The burst was too natural, the tone too horror-stricken for me to doubt for another moment as to this woman's ignorance of the true state of affairs.
"Yes," I repeated, "the girl you have been hiding so long and so well is now beyond your control. Only her dead body remains, Mrs. Belden."
I shall never lose from my ears the shriek which she uttered, nor the wild, "I don't believe it! I don't believe it!" with which she dashed from the room and rushed up-stairs.
Nor that after-scene when, in the presence of the dead, she stood wringing her hands and protesting, amid sobs of the sincerest grief and terror, that she knew nothing of it; that she had left the girl in the best of spirits the night before; that it was true she had locked her in, but this she always did when any one was in the house; and that if she died of any sudden attack, it must have been quietly, for she had heard no stir all night, though she had listened more than once, being naturally anxious lest the girl should make some disturbance that would arouse me.
"But you were in here this morning?" said I.
"Yes; but I didn't notice. I was in a hurry, and thought she was asleep; so I set the things down where she could get them and came right away, locking the door as usual."
"It is strange she should have died this night of all others. Was she ill yesterday?"
"No, sir; she was even brighter than common; more lively. I never thought of her being sick then or ever. If I had----"
"You never thought of her being sick?" a voice here interrupted. "Why, then, did you take such pains to give her a dose of medicine last night?" And Q entered from the room beyond.
"I didn't!" she protested, evidently under the supposition it was I who had spoken. "Did I, Hannah, did I, poor girl?" stroking the hand that lay in hers with what appeared to be genuine sorrow and regret.
"How came she by it, then? Where she did she get it if you didn't give it to her?"
This time she seemed to be aware that some one besides myself was talking to her, for, hurriedly rising, she looked at the man with a wondering stare, before replying.
"I don't know who you are, sir; but I can tell you this, the girl had no medicine,--took no dose; she wasn't sick last night that I know of."
"Yet I saw her swallow a powder."
"Saw her!--the world is crazy, or I am--saw her swallow a powder! How could you see her do that or anything else? Hasn't she been shut up in this room for twenty-four hours?"
"Yes; but with a window like that in the roof, it isn't so very difficult to see into the room, madam."
"Oh," she cried, shrinking, "I have a spy in the house, have I? But I deserve it; I kept her imprisoned in four close walls, and never came to look at her once all night. I don't complain; but what was it you say you saw her take? medicine? poison?"
"I didn't say poison."
"But you meant it. You think she has poisoned herself, and that I had a hand in it!"
"No," I hastened to remark, "he does not think you had a hand in it. He says he saw the girl herself swallow something which he believes to have been the occasion of her death, and only asks you now where she obtained it."
"How can I tell? I never gave her anything; didn't know she had anything."
Somehow, I believed her, and so felt unwilling to prolong the present interview, especially as each moment delayed the action which I felt it incumbent upon us to take. So, motioning Q to depart upon his errand, I took Mrs. Belden by the hand and endeavored to lead her from the room. But she resisted, sitting down by the side of the bed with the expression, "I will not leave her again; do not ask it; here is my place, and here I will stay," while Q, obdurate for the first time, stood staring severely upon us both, and would not move, though I urged him again to make haste, saying that the morning was slipping away, and that the telegram to Mr. Gryce ought to be sent.
"Till that woman leaves the room, I don't; and unless you promise to take my place in watching her, I don't quit the house."
Astonished, I left her side and crossed to him.
"You carry your suspicions too far," I whispered, "and I think you are too rude. We have seen nothing, I am sure, to warrant us in any such action; besides, she can do no harm here; though, as for watching her, I promise to do that much if it will relieve your mind."
"I don't want her watched here; take her below. I cannot leave while she remains."
"Are you not assuming a trifle the master?"
"Perhaps; I don't know. If I am, it is because I have something in my possession which excuses my conduct."
"What is that? the letter?"
Agitated now in my turn, I held out my hand. "Let me see," I said.
"Not while that woman remains in the room."
Seeing him implacable, I returned to Mrs. Belden.
"I must entreat you to come with me," said I. "This is not a common death; we shall be obliged to have the coroner here and others. You had better leave the room and go below."
"I don't mind the coroner; he is a neighbor of mine; his coming won't prevent my watching over the poor girl until he arrives."
"Mrs. Belden," I said, "your position as the only one conscious of the presence of this girl in your house makes it wiser for you not to invite suspicion by lingering any longer than is necessary in the room where her dead body lies."
"As if my neglect of her now were the best surety of my good intentions towards her in time past!"
"It will not be neglect for you to go below with me at my earnest request. You can do no good here by staying; will, in fact, be doing harm. So listen to me or I shall be obliged to leave you in charge of this man and go myself to inform the authorities."
This last argument seemed to affect her, for with one look of shuddering abhorrence at Q she rose, saying, "You have me in your power," and then, without another word, threw her handkerchief over the girl's face and left the room. In two minutes more I had the letter of which Q had spoken in my hands.
"It is the only one I could find, sir. It was in the pocket of the dress Mrs. Belden had on last night. The other must be lying around somewhere, but I haven't had time to find it. This will do, though, I think. You will not ask for the other."
Scarcely noticing at the time with what deep significance he spoke, I opened the letter. It was the smaller of the two I had seen her draw under her shawl the day before at the post-office, and read as follows:
It was addressed to Mrs. Belden; there was no signature or date, only the postmark New York; but I knew the handwriting. It was Mary Leavenworth's.
"A damning letter!" came in the dry tones which Q seemed to think fit to adopt on this occasion. "And a damning bit of evidence against the one who wrote it, and the woman who received it!"
"A terrible piece of evidence, indeed," said I, "if I did not happen to know that this letter refers to the destruction of something radically different from what you suspect. It alludes to some papers in Mrs. Belden's charge; nothing else."
"Are you sure, sir?"
"Quite; but we will talk of this hereafter. It is time you sent your telegram, and went for the coroner."
"Very well, sir." And with this we parted; he to perform his role and I mine.
I found Mrs. Belden walking the floor below, bewailing her situation, and uttering wild sentences as to what the neighbors would say of her; what the minister would think; what Clara, whoever that was, would do, and how she wished she had died before ever she had meddled with the affair.
Succeeding in calming her after a while, I induced her to sit down and listen to what I had to say. "You will only injure yourself by this display of feeling," I remarked, "besides unfitting yourself for what you will presently be called upon to go through." And, laying myself out to comfort the unhappy woman, I first explained the necessities of the case, and next inquired if she had no friend upon whom she could call in this emergency.
To my great surprise she replied no; that while she had kind neighbors and good friends, there was no one upon whom she could call in a case like this, either for assistance or sympathy, and that, unless I would take pity on her, she would have to meet it alone--" As I have met everything," she said, "from Mr. Belden's death to the loss of most of my little savings in a town fire last year."
I was touched by this,--that she who, in spite of her weakness and inconsistencies of character, possessed at least the one virtue of sympathy with her kind, should feel any lack of friends. Unhesitatingly, I offered to do what I could for her, providing she would treat me with the perfect frankness which the case demanded. To my great relief, she expressed not only her willingness, but her strong desire, to tell all she knew. "I have had enough secrecy for my whole life," she said. And indeed I do believe she was so thoroughly frightened, that if a police-officer had come into the house and asked her to reveal secrets compromising the good name of her own son, she would have done so without cavil or question. "I feel as if I wanted to take my stand out on the common, and, in the face of the whole world, declare what I have done for Mary Leavenworth. But first," she whispered, "tell me, for God's sake, how those girls are situated. I have not dared to ask or write. The papers say a good deal about Eleanore, but nothing about Mary; and yet Mary writes of her own peril only, and of the danger she would be in if certain facts were known. What is the truth? I don't want to injure them, only to take care of myself."
"Mrs. Belden," I said, "Eleanore Leavenworth has got into her present difficulty by not telling all that was required of her. Mary Leavenworth--but I cannot speak of her till I know what you have to divulge. Her position, as well as that of her cousin, is too anomalous for either you or me to discuss. What we want to learn from you is, how you became connected with this affair, and what it was that Hannah knew which caused her to leave New York and take refuge here."
But Mrs. Belden, clasping and unclasping her hands, met my gaze with one full of the most apprehensive doubt. "You will never believe me," she cried; "but I don't know what Hannah knew. I am in utter ignorance of what she saw or heard on that fatal night; she never told, and I never asked. She merely said that Miss Leavenworth wished me to secrete her for a short time; and I, because I loved Mary Leavenworth and admired her beyond any one I ever saw, weakly consented, and----"
"Do you mean to say," I interrupted, "that after you knew of the murder, you, at the mere expression of Miss Leavenworth's wishes, continued to keep this girl concealed without asking her any questions or demanding any explanations?"
"Yes, sir; you will never believe me, but it is so. I thought that, since Mary had sent her here, she must have her reasons; and--and--I cannot explain it now; it all looks so differently; but I did do as I have said."
"But that was very strange conduct. You must have had strong reason for obeying Mary Leavenworth so blindly."
"Oh, sir," she gasped, "I thought I understood it all; that Mary, the bright young creature, who had stooped from her lofty position to make use of me and to love me, was in some way linked to the criminal, and that it would be better for me to remain in ignorance, do as I was bid, and trust all would come right. I did not reason about it; I only followed my impulse. I couldn't do otherwise; it isn't my nature. When I am requested to do anything for a person I love, I cannot refuse."
"And you love Mary Leavenworth; a woman whom you yourself seem to consider capable of a great crime?"
"Oh, I didn't say that; I don't know as I thought that. She might be in some way connected with it, without being the actual perpetrator. She could never be that; she is too dainty."
"Mrs. Belden," I said, "what do you know of Mary Leavenworth which makes even that supposition possible?"
The white face of the woman before me flushed. "I scarcely know what to reply," she cried. "It is a long story, and----"
"Never mind the long story," I interrupted. "Let me hear the one vital reason."
"Well," said she, "it is this; that Mary was in an emergency from which nothing but her uncle's death could release her."
"Ah, how's that?"
But here we were interrupted by the sound of steps on the porch, and, looking out, I saw Q entering the house alone. Leaving Mrs. Belden where she was, I stepped into the hall.
"Well," said I, "what is the matter? Haven't you found the coroner? Isn't he at home?"
"No, gone away; off in a buggy to look after a man that was found some ten miles from here, lying in a ditch beside a yoke of oxen." Then, as he saw my look of relief, for I was glad of this temporary delay, said, with an expressive wink: "It would take a fellow a long time to go to him--if he wasn't in a hurry--hours, I think."
"Indeed!" I returned, amused at his manner. "Rough road?"
"Very; no horse I could get could travel it faster than a walk."
"Well," said I, "so much the better for us. Mrs. Belden has a long story to tell, and----"
"Doesn't wish to be interrupted. I understand."
I nodded and he turned towards the door.
"Have you telegraphed Mr. Gryce?" I asked.
"Do you think he will come?"
"Yes, sir; if he has to hobble on two sticks."
"At what time do you look for him?"
"You will look for him as early as three o'clock. I shall be among the mountains, ruefully eying my broken-down team." And leisurely donning his hat he strolled away down the street like one who has the whole day on his hands and does not know what to do with it.
An opportunity being thus given for Mrs. Belden's story, she at once composed herself to the task, with the following result.