The Guardian Angel
THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A Magazine of Literature, Science, Art, and Politics.
VOL. XX. — OCTOBER, 1867. — NO. CXX.
MINE AND COUNTERMINE.
WHAT the nature of the telegram was which had produced such an effect on the feelings and plans of Mr. William Murray Bradshaw nobody especially interested knew but himself. We may conjecture that it announced some fact, which had leaked out a little prematurely, relating to the issue of the great land-case in which the firm was interested. However that might be, Mr. Bradshaw no sooner heard that Myrtle had suddenly left the city for Oxbow Village, — for what reason he puzzled himself to guess, — than he determined to follow her at once, and take up the conversation he had begun at the party where it left off. And as the young poet had received his quietus for the present at the publisher’s, and as Master Gridley had nothing specially to detain him, they too returned at about the same time, and our old acquaintances were once more together within the familiar precincts where we have been accustomed to see them.
Master Gridley did not like playing tne part of a spy, but it must be remembered that he was an old college officer, and had something of the detective’s sagacity, and a certain cunning derived from the habit of keeping an eye on mischievous students. If any underhand contrivance was at work, involving the welfare of any one in whom he was interested, he was a dangerous person for the plotters, for he had plenty of time to attend to them, and would be apt to take a kind of pleasure in matching his wits against another crafty person’s, — such a one, for instance, as Mr. Macchiavelli Bradshaw.
Perhaps he caught some words of that gentleman’s conversation at the party ; at any rate, he could not fail to observe his manner. When he found that the young man had followed Myrtle back to the village, he suspected something more than a coincidence. When he learned that he was assiduously visiting The Poplars, and that he was in close communication with Miss Cynthia Badlam, he felt sure that he was pressing the siege of Myrtle’s heart. But that there was some difficulty in the way was equally clear to him, for he ascertained, through channels which the attentive reader will soon have means of conjecturing, that Myrtle had seen him but once in the week following his return, and that in the presence of her dragons. She had various excuses when he called, — headaches, perhaps, among the rest, as these are staple articles on such occasions. But Master Gridley knew his man too well to think that slight obstacles would prevent his going forward to effect his purpose.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1867, by TICKNOR AND FIELDS, in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts.
VOL. XX. — NO. 120. 25
“I think he will get her, if he holds on,” the old man said to himself, "and he won’t let go in a hurry. If there were any real love about it — but surely he is incapable of such a human weakness as the tender passion. What does all this sudden concentration upon the girl mean ? He knows something about her that we don't know, — that must be it. What did he hide that paper for a year ago and more ? Could that have anything to do with his pursuit of Myrtle Hazard to-day ? ”
Master Gridley paused as he asked this question of himself, for a luminous idea had struck him. Consulting daily with Cynthia Badlam, was he ? Could there be a conspiracy between these two persons to conceal some important fact, or to keep something back until it would be for their common interest to have it made known ?
Now Mistress Kitty Fagan was devoted, heart and soul, to Myrtle Hazard, and ever since she had received the young girl from Mr. Gridley’s hands, when he brought her back safe and sound after her memorable adventure, had considered him as Myrtle’s best friend and natural protector. These simple creatures, whose thoughts are not taken up, like those of educated people, with the care of a great museum of dead phrases, are very quick to see the live facts which are going on about them. Mr. Gridley had met her, more or less accidentally, several times of late, and inquired very particularly about Myrtle, and how she got along at the house since her return, and whether she was getting over her headaches, and how they treated her in the family.
“ Bliss your heart, Mr. Gridley,” Kitty said to him, on one of these occasions, “it’s ahltogither changed intirely. Sure Miss Myrtle does jist iverythin’ she likes, an’ Miss Withers niver middles with her at ahl, excip’ jist to roll up her eyes an’ look as if she was the hid-moorner at a funeril whiniver Miss Myrtle says she wants to do this or that, or to go here or there. It ’s Miss Badlam that ’s ahlwiz after her, an’ a-watchin’ her,— she thinks she s cunnin’er than a cat, but there’s other folks that’s got eyes an’ ears as good as hers. It’s that Mr. Bridshaw that’s a puttin’ his head together with Miss Badlam for somethin’ or other, an’ I don’t believe there ’s no good in it,— for what does the fox an' the cat be a whisperin’ about, as if they was thaves an’ incind'ries, if there ain't no mischief hatchin’ ? ”
“ Why, Kitty,” he said, “ what mischief do you think is going on, and who is to be harmed ? ”
“ O Mr. Gridley,” she answered, “if there ain’t somebody to be chated somehow, then I don’ know an honest man and woman from two rogues. An’ have n’t I heard Miss Myrtle’s name whispered as if there was somethin’ goin’ on agin’ her, an’ they was afraid the tahk would go out through the doors, an’ up through the chimbley ? I don’t want to tell no tales, Mr. Gridley, nor to hurt no honest body, for I ’m a poor woman, Mr. Gridley ; but I comes of dacent folks, an’ I vallies my repitation an’ character as much as if I was dressed in silks and satins instead of this mane old gown, savin’ your presence, which is the best I ’ve got, an1 niver a dollar to buy another. But if iver I hears a word, Mr. Gridley, that manes any kind of a mischief to Miss Myrtle, — the Lard bliss her soul an’ keep ahl the divils away from her ! — I ’ll be runnin’ straight down here to tell ye ahl about it, - be right sure o’ that, Mr. Gridley. ’
“ Nothing must happen to Myrtle,” he said, “ that we can help. If you see anything more that looks wrong, you had better come down here at once, and let me know, as you say you will. At once, you understand. And, Kitty, I am a little particular about the dress of people who come to see me, so that if you would just take the trouble to get you a tidy pattern of gingham or calico, or whatever you like of that sort for a gown, you would please me ; and perhaps this little trifle will be a convenience to you when you come to pay for it.”
Kitty thanked him with all the national accompaniments, and trotted off to the store, where Mr. Gifted Hopkins displayed the native amiability of his temper by tumbling down everything in the shape of ginghams and calicos they had on the shelves, without a murmur at the taste of his customer, who found it hard to get a pattern sufficiently emphatic for her taste. She succeeded at last, and laid down a five-dollar bill as if she were as used to the pleasing figure on its face as to the sight of her own five digits.
Master Byles Gridley had struck a spade deeper than he knew into his first countermine, for Kitty had none of those delicate scruples about the means of obtaining information which might have embarrassed a diplomatist of higher degree.
MR. BRADSHAW CALLS ON MISS BADLAM.
“ Is Miss Hazard in, Kitty ?”
“ Indade she’s in, Mr. Bridshaw, but she won't see nobody.”
“ What's the meaning of that, Kitty? Here is the third time within three days you’ve told me I could n't see her. She saw Mr. Gridley yesterday, I know ; why won’t she see me today ? ”
“Y’ must ask Miss Myrtle what the rason is, — it s none o’ my business, Mr. Bridshaw. That ’s the order she give me.”
“ Is Miss Badlam in ? ”
“ Indade she’s in, Mr. Bridshaw, an’ I ’ll go cahl her.”
“ Bedad,” said Kitty Fagan to herself, “ the cat an’ the fox is goin’ to have another o’ thim big tahks togither, an’ sure the old hole for the stove-pipe has niver been stopped up yet.”
Mr. Bradshaw and Miss Cynthia went into the parlor together, and Mistress Kitty retired to her kitchen. There was a deep closet belonging to this apartment, separated by a partition from the parlor. There was a round hole high up in this partition through which a stove-pipe had once passed. Mistress Kitty placed a stool just under this opening, upon which, as on a pedestal, she posed herself with great precaution in the attitude of the goddess of other people’s secrets, that is to say, with her head a little on one side, so as to bring her liveliest ear close to the opening. The conversation which took place in the hearing of the invisible third party began in a singularly free-and-easy manner on Mr. Bradshaw's part.
“ What the d is the reason I can’t see Myrtle, Cynthia ? ”
“That’s more than I can tell you, Mr. Bradshaw. I can watch her goings on, but I can’t account for her tantrums.”
“ You say she has had some of her old nervous whims, — has the doctor been to see her ? ”
“ No indeed. She has kept to herself a good deal, but I don’t think there’s anything in particular the matter with her. She looks well enough, only she seems a little queer, — as girls do that have taken a fancy into their heads that they ’re in love, you know, — absent-minded. — does n’t seem to be interested in things as you would expect after being away so long.”
Mr. Bradshaw looked as if this did not please him particularly. If he was the object of her thoughts she would not avoid him, surely.
“ Have you kept your eye on her steadily ? ”
“ I don’t believe there is an hour we can’t account for, — Kitty and I between us.”
“ Are you sure you can depend on Kitty ? ”
[“ Depind on Kitty, is it ? O, an’ to be sure ye can depind on Kitty to kape watch at the stove-pipe hole, an' to tell all y’r plottin’s an’ contrivin’s to them that ’ll get the cheese out o’ y’r mousetrap for ye before ye catch any poor cratur in it.” This was the inaudible comment of the unseen third party.]
“ Of course I can depend on her as far as I trust her. All she knows is that she must look out for the girl to see that she does not run away or do herself a mischief. The Biddies don’t know much, but they know enough to keep a watch on the — ”
“ Chickens.” Mr. Bradshaw playfully finished the sentence for Miss Cynthia.
[“ An’ on the foxes, an’ the cats, an’ the wazels, and the hen-hahks, an’ ahl the other bastes,” added the invisible witness, in unheard soliloquy.]
“I ain’t sure whether she’s quite as stupid as she looks,” said the suspicious young lawyer. “There’s a little cunning twinkle in her eye sometimes that makes me think she might be up to a trick on occasion. Does she ever listen about to hear what people are saying ? ”
“ Don’t trouble yourself about Kitty Fagan, for pity’s sake, Mr. Bradshaw. The Biddies are all alike, and they’re all as stupid as owls, except when you tell ’em just what to do, and how to do it. A pack of priest-ridden fools ! ”
The hot Celtic blood in Kitty Fagan’s heart gave a leap. The stout muscles gave an involuntary jerk. The substantial frame felt the thrill all through, and the rickety stool on which she was standing creaked sharply under its burden.
Murray Bradshaw started. He got up and opened softly all the doors leading from the room, one after another, and looked out.
“ I thought I heard a noise as if somebody was moving, Cynthia. It’s just as well to keep our own matters to ourselves.”
“ If you wait till this old house keeps still, Mr. Bradshaw, you might as well wait till the river has run by. It’s as full of rats and mice as an old cheese is of mites. There’s a hundred old rats in this house, and that’s what you hear.”
[“An’ one old cat; that’s what I hear.” Third party.]
“ I told you, Cynthia, I must be off on this business to-morrow. I want to know that everything is safe before I go. And, besides, I have got something to say to you that’s important, — very important, mind you.”
He got up once more and opened every door softly and looked out. He fixed his eye suspiciously on a large sofa at the other side of the room, and went, looking half ashamed of his extreme precaution, and peeped under it, to see if there was any one hidden there to listen. Then he came back and drew his chair close up to the table at which Miss Badlam had seated herself. The conversation which followed was in a low tone, and a portion of it must be given in another place in the words of the third party. The beginning of it we are able to supply in this connection.
“ Look here, Cynthia ; you know what I am going for. It ’s all right, I feel sure, for I have had private means of finding out. It’s a sure thing; but I must go once more to see that the other fellows don’t try any trick on us. You understand what is for my advantage is for yours, and, if I go wrong, you go overboard with me. Now I must leave the — you know — behind me. I can't leave it in the house or the office : they might burn up. I won’t have it about me when I am travelling. Draw your chair a little more this way. Now listen.”
[“ Indade I will,” said the third party to herself. The reader will find out in due time whether she listened to any purpose or not.]
In the mean time Myrtle, who for some reason was rather nervous and restless, had found a pair of half-finished slippers which she had left behind her. The color came into her cheeks when she remembered the state of mind she was in when she was working on them for the Rev. Mr. Stoker. She recollected Master Gridley’s mistake about their destination, and determined to follow the hint he had given. It would please him better if she sent them to good Father Pemberton, she felt sure, than if he should get them himself. So she enlarged them somewhat, (for the old man did not pinch his feet, as the younger clergyman was in the habit of doing, and was, besides, of portly dimensions, as the old orthodox three-deckers were apt to be,) and worked E. P. very handsomely into the pattern, and sent them to him with her love and respect, to his great delight; for old ministers do not have quite so many tokens of affection from fair hands as younger ones.
What made Myrtle nervous and restless? Why had she quitted the city so abruptly, and fled to her old home, leaving all the gayeties behind her which had so attracted and dazzled her ?
She had not betrayed herself at the third meeting with the young man who stood in such an extraordinary relation to her, — who had actually given her life from his own breath, — as when she met him for the second time. Whether his introduction to her at the party, just at the instant when Murray Bradshaw was about to make a declaration, saved her from being in another moment the promised bride of that young gentleman, or not, we will not be so rash as to say. It looked, certainly, as if he was in a fair way to carry his point; but perhaps she would have hesitated, or shrunk back, when the great question came to stare her in the face.
She was excited, at any rate, by the conversation, so that, when Clement was presented to her, her thoughts could not at once be all called away from her other admirer, and she was saved from all danger of that sudden disturbance which had followed their second meeting. Whatever impression he made upon her developed itself gradually, — still, she felt strangely drawn towards him. It was not simply in his good looks, in his good manners, in his conversation, that she found this attraction, but there was a singular fascination which she felt might be dangerous to her peace, without explaining it to herself in words. She could hardly be in love with this young artist; she knew that his affections were plighted to another, — a fact which keeps most young women from indulging unruly fancies ; yet her mind was possessed by his image to such an extent that it left little room for that of Mr. William Murray Bradshaw.
Myrtle Hazard had been just ready to enter on a career of worldly vanity and ambition. It is hard to blame her, for we know how she came by the tendency. She had every quality, too, which fitted her to shine in the gay world ; and the general law is, that those who have the power have the instinct to use it. We do not suppose that the bracelet on her arm was an amulet, but it was a symbol. It reminded her of her descent ; it kept alive the desire to live over the joys and excitements of a bygone generation. If she had accepted Murray Bradshaw, she would have pledged herself to a worldly life. If she had refused him, it would perhaps have given her a taste of power that might have turned her into a coquette. This new impression saved her for the time. She had come back to her nest in the village like a frightened bird ; her heart was throbbing, her nerves were thrilling, her dreams were agitated ; she wanted to be quiet, and could not listen to the flatteries or entreaties of her old lover.
It was a strong will and a subtle intellect that had arrayed their force and skill against the ill-defended citadel of Myrtle's heart. Murray Bradshaw was perfectly determined, and not to be kept back by any trivial hindrances, such as her present unwillingness to accept him, or even her repugnance to him, if a freak of the moment had carried her so far. It was a settled thing : Myrtle Hazard must become Mrs. Bradshaw ; and nobody could deny that, if he gave her his name, they had a chance, at least, for a brilliant future.
MISTRESS KITTY FAGAN CALLS ON MASTER BYLES GRIDLEY.
“ I ’D like to go down to the store this marnin’, Miss Withers, plase. Sure I ’ve niver a shoe to my fut, only jist these two that I ’ve got on, an’ one other pair, and thim is so full of holes that whin I ’m standin’ in ’em I ’m outside of’em intirely.”
“You can go, Kitty,” Miss Silence answered, funereally.
Thereupon Kitty Fagan proceeded to array herself in her most tidy apparel, including a pair of shoes not exactly answering to her description, and set out straight for the house of the Widow Hopkins. Arrived at that respectable mansion, she inquired for Mr. Gridley, and was informed that he was at home. Had a message for him, — could she see him in his study ? She could if she would wait a little while. Mr. Gridley was busy just at this minute. Sit down, Kitty, and warm yourself at the cookingstove.
Mistress Kitty accepted Mrs. Hopkins's hospitable offer, and presently began orienting herself, and getting ready to make herself agreeable. The kind-hearted Mrs. Hopkins had gathered about her several other pensioners besides the twins. These two little people, it may be here mentioned, were just taking a morning airing in charge of Susan Posey, who strolled along in company with Giited Hopkins on his way to “ the store.”
Mistress Kitty soon began the conversational blandishments so natural to her good-humored race. “ It’s a little blarney that ’ll jist suit th’ old lady,” she said to herself, as she made her first conciliatory advance.
“An’sure an’its a beautiful kitten you’ve got there, Mrs. Hopkins. An’ it’s a splindid mouser she is, I ’ll be bound. Does n’t she look as if she’d clane the house out o’ them little bastes, — bad luck to ’em ! ”
Mrs. Hopkins looked benignantly upon the more than middle-aged tabby, slumbering as if she had never known an enemy, and turned smiling to Mistress Kitty. “Why, bless your heart, Kitty, our old puss would n’t know a mouse by sight, if you showed her one. If I was a mouse, I ’d as lieves have a nest in one of that old cat's ears as anywhere else. You could n't find a safer place for one.”
“ Indade, an’ to be sure she’s too big an’ too handsome a pussy to be after wastin’ her time on them little bastes. It’s that little tarrier dog of yours, Mrs. Hopkins, that will be after worryin’ the mice an’ the rats, an’ the thaves too, I ’ll warrant. Is n’t he a fust-rate-lookin’ watch-dog, an’ a rig'lar rat-hound?”
Mrs. Hopkins looked at the little short-legged and short-winded animal of miscellaneous extraction with an expression of contempt and affection, mingled about half and halt. “ Worry ’em ! If they wanted to sleep, I rather guess he would worry ’em ! If barkin’ would do their job for ’em, nary a mouse nor rat would board tree gratis in my house as they do now. Noisy little good-for-nothing tike, — ain’t you, Fret ? ”
Mistress Kitty was put back a little by two such signal failures. There was another chance, however, to make her point, which she presently availed herself of, — feeling pretty sure this time that she should effect a lodgement. Mrs. Hopkins’s parrot had been observing Kitty, first with one eye and then with the other, evidently preparing to make a remark, but awkward with a stranger. “That’s a beautiful par’t y’ve got there,” Kitty said, buoyant with the certainty that she was on safe ground this time ; “ and tahks like a book, I ’ll be bound. Poll! Poll! Poor Poll ! ”
She put forth her hand to caress the intelligent and affable bird, which, instead of responding as expected, “ squawked,” as our phonetic language has it, and, opening a beak imitated from a tooth-drawing instrument of the good old days, made a shrewd nip at Kitty’s forefinger. She drew it back with a jerk.
“ An’ is that the way your par't tahks, Mrs. Hopkins ? ”
“ Talks, bless you, Kitty! why, that parrot has n’t said a word this ten year. He used to say Poor Poll !. when we first had him, but he found it was easier to squawk, and that ’s all he ever does now-a-days, — except bite once in a while.”
“ Well, an1 to be sure,” Kitty answered, radiant as she rose from her defeats, “ if you 'll kape a cat that does n’t know a mouse when she sees it, an’ a dog that only barks for his livin’, and a par t that only squawks an’ bites an’ niver spakes a word, ye must be the best-hearted woman that ’s alive, an’ bliss ye, if ye was only a good Catholic, the Holy Father’d make a saint of ye in less than no time.”
So Mistress Kitty Fagan got in her bit of Celtic flattery, in spite of her three successive discomfitures.
“ You may come up now, Kitty,” said Mr. Gridley, over the stairs. He had just finished and sealed a letter.
“Well, Kitty, how are things going on up at The Poplars ? And how does our young lady seem to be of late ? ”
“Whisht! whisht! your honor.”
Mr. Bradshaw's lessons had not been thrown away on his attentive listener. She opened every door in the room, “ by your lave,” as she said. She looked all over the walls to see if there was any old stove-pipe hole or other avenue to eye or ear. Then she went, in her excess of caution, to the window. She saw nothing noteworthy except Mr. Gifted Hopkins and the charge he convoyed, large and small, in the distance. The whole living fleet was stationary for the moment, he leaning on the fence with his cheek on his hand, in one of the attitudes of the late Lord Byron ; she, very near him, listening, apparently, in the pose of Mignon aspirant au ciel, as rendered by Carlo Dolce Scheffer.
Kitty came back, apparently satisfied, and stood close to .Mr. Gridley, who told her to sit down, which she did, first making a catch at her apron to dust the chair with, and then remembering that she had left that part of her costume at home. — Automatic movements, curious.
Mistress Kitty began telling in an undertone cf the meeting between Mr. Bradshaw and Miss Badlam, and of the arrangements she made for herself as the reporter of the occasion. She then repeated to him, in her own way, that part of the conversation which has been already laid before the reader. There is no need of going over the whole of this again in Kitty's version, but we may fit what followed into the joints of what has been already told.
“ He cahled her Cynthy, d’ ye see, Mr. Gridley, an’ tahked to her jist as asy as if they was two rogues, and she knowed it as well as he did. An’ so, says he, I ’m goin’ away, says he, an’ I’m goin to be gahn siveral days, or perhaps longer, says he, an’ you ’d better kape it, says he.”
“Keep what, Kitty? What was it he wanted her to keep ? ” said Mr. Gridley, who no longer doubted that he was on the trail of a plot, and meant to follow it. He was getting impatient with the “says he’s” with which Kitty double-leaded her discourse.
“ An’ to be sure ain’t I tellin’ you, Mr. Gridley, jist as fast as my breath will let me ? An’ so, says he, you’d better kape it, says he, mixed up with your other paäpers, says he,” (Mr. Gridley started.) “an’ thin we can find it in the garret, says he, whinever we want it, says he. An’ if it ahl goes right out there, says he, it won’t be lahng before we shall want to find it, says he. And I can dipind on you, says he, for we ’re both in the same boat, says he, an’ you knows what I knows, says he, an’ I knows what you knows, says he. And thin he taks a stack o’ papers out of his pocket, an’ he pulls out one of ’em, an’ he says to her, says he, that ’s the paper, says he, an’ if you die, says he, niver lose sight of that day or night, says he, for its life an’ dith to both of us, says he. An’ then he asks her if she has n’t got one o’ them paäpers — what is’t they cahls ’em ? — divilops, or some sich kind of a name — that they wraps up their letters in ; an' she says no, she has n’t got none that’s big enough to hold it. So he says, give me a shate o’ paaper says he. An’ thin he takes the paaper that she give him, an’ he folds it up like one o’ them — divilops, if that’s the name of ’em ; and then he pulls a stick o' salin'-wax out of his pocket, an’ a stamp, an’ he takes the paaper an’ puts it into th’ other paaper, along with the rest of the paapers, an’ thin he folds th’ other paaper over the paapers, and thin he lights a candle, an’ he milts the salin’-wax, and he sales up the paaper that was outside th5 other paapers, an’ he writes on the back of the paaper, and thin he hands it to Miss Badlam.”
“ Did you see the paper that he showed her before he fastened it up with the others, Kitty?”
“ I did see it, indade, Mr. Gridley, and it's the truth I ’m tellin’ ye.”
“ Did you happen to notice anything about it, Kitty.”
“ I did, indade, Mr. Gridley. It was a longish kind of a paaper, and there was some blotches of ink on the back of it, — an’ they looked like a face without any mouth, for, says I, there’s two spots for the eyes, says I, and there ’s a spot for the nose, says I, and there’s niver a spot for the mouth, says I.”
This was the substance of what Master Byles Gridley got out of Kitty Fagan. It was enough, — yes, it was too much. There was some deep-laid plot between Murray Bradshaw and Cynthia Badlam, involving the interests of some of the persons connected with the late Malachi Withers ; for that the paper described by Kitty was the same that he had seen the young man conceal in the Corpus Juris Civilis, it was impossible to doubt. If It had been a single spot on the back of it, or two, he might have doubted. But three large spots — “blotches ” she had called them, disposed thus ∵ — would not have happened to be on two different papers, in all human probability.
After grave consultation of all his mental faculties in committee of the whole, he arrived at the following conclusion, — that Miss Cynthia Badlam was the depositary of a secret involving interests which he felt it his business to defend, and of a document which was fraudulently withheld and meant to be used for some unfair purpose. And most assuredly, Master Gridley said to himself, he held a master-key, which, just so certainly as he could make up his mind to use it, would open any secret in the keeping of Miss Cynthia Badlam.
He proceeded, therefore, without delay, to get ready for a visit to that lady, at The Poplars. He meant to go thoroughly armed, for he was a very provident old gentleman. His weapons were not exactly of the kind which a housebreaker would provide himself with, but of a somewhat peculiar nature.
Weapon number one was a slip of paper with a date and a few words written upon it. “ I think this will fetch the document,” he said to himself, “ if it comes to the worst. — Not if I can help it, — not if I can help it. But if I cannot get at the heart of this thing otherwise, why, I must come to this. Poor woman ! - Poor woman ! ”
Weapon number two was a small phial containing spirits of hartshorn, sal volatile, very strong, that would stab through the nostrils, like a stiletto, deep into the gray kernels that lie in the core of the brain. Excellent in cases of sudden syncope or fainting, such as sometimes require the opening of windows, the dashing on of cold water, the cutting of stays, perhaps, with a scene of more or less tumultuous perturbation and afflux of clamorous womanhood.
So armed, Byles Gridley, A. M., champion of unprotected innocence, grasped his ivory-handled cane and sallied forth on his way to The Poplars.
MASTER BYLES GRIDLEY CALLS ON MISS CYNTHIA BADLAM.
MISS CYNTHIA BADLAM was seated in a small parlor which she was accustomed to consider her own during her long residences at The Poplars. The entry stove warmed it but imperfectly, and she looked pinched and cold, for the evenings were still pretty sharp, and the old house let in the chill blasts, as old houses are in the habit of doing. She was sitting at her table with a little trunk open before her. She had taken some papers from it, which she was looking over, when a knock at her door announced a visitor, and Master Byles Gridley entered the parlor.
As he came into the room, she gathered the papers together and replaced them in the trunk, which she locked, throwing an unfinished piece of needlework over it, putting the key in her pocket, and gathering herself up for company. Something of all this Master Gridley saw through his round spectacles, but seemed not to see, and took his seat like a visitor making a call of politeness.
A visitor at such an hour, of the male sex, without special provocation, without social pretext, was an event in the life of the desolate spinster. Could it be — No, it could not — and yet — and yet ! Miss Cynthia threw back the rather common-looking but comfortable shawl which covered her shoulders, and showed her quite presentable figure, arrayed with a still lingering thought of that remote contingency which might yet offer itself at some unexpected moment; she adjusted the carefully plaited cap, which was not yet of the lasciate ogni speranza pattern, and as she obeyed these instincts of her sex, she smiled a welcome to the respectable, learned, and independent bachelor. Mr. Gridley had a frosty but kindly age before him, with a score or so of years to run, which it was after all not strange to fancy might be rendered more cheerful by the companionship of a well-conserved and amiably disposed woman, — if any such should happen to fall in his way.
That smile came very near disconcerting the plot of Master Byles Gridley. He had come on an inquisitor’s errand, his heart secure, as he thought, against all blandishments, his will steeled to break down all resistance. He had come armed with an instrument of torture worse than the thumb-screw, worse than the pulleys which attempt the miracle of adding a cubit to the stature, worse than the brazier of live coals brought close to the naked soles of the feet, — an instrument which, instead of trifling with the nerves, would clutch all the nerve-centres and the heart itself in its gripe, and hold them until it got its answer, if the white lips had life enough left to shape one. And here was this unfortunate maiden lady smiling at him, setting her limited attractions in their best light, pleading with him in that natural language which makes any contumacious bachelor feel as guilty as Cain before any single woman. If Mr. Gridley had been alone, he would have taken a good sniff at his own bottle of sal volatile; for his kind heart sunk within him as he thought of the errand upon which he had comeIt would not do to leave the subject of his vivisection under any illusion as to the nature of his designs.
“Good evening, Miss Badlam,” he said, “ I have come to visit you on a matter of business.”
What was the internal panorama which had unrolled itself at the instant of his entrance, and which rolled up as suddenly at the sound of his serious voice and the look of his grave features ? It cannot be reproduced, though pages were given to it; for some of the pictures were near, and some were distant ; some were clearly seen, and some were only hinted ; some were not recognized in the intellect at all, and yet they were implied, as it were, behind the others. Many times we have all found ourselves glad or sorry, and yet we could not tell what thought it was that reflected the sunbeam or cast the shadow. Look into Cynthia’s suddenly exalted consciousness and see the picture, actual and potential, unroll itself in all its details of the natural, the ridiculous, the selfish, the pitiful, the human. Glimpses, hints, echoes, suggestions, involving tender sentiments hitherto unknown, we may suppose, to that unclaimed sister’s breast, — pleasant excitement of receiving congratulations from suddenly cordial friends ; the fussy delights of buying furniture and shopping for new dresses, — (it seemed as if she could hear herself saying, “ Heavy silks, — best goods, if you please,”) — with delectable thumping down of flat-sided pieces of calico, cambric, “ rep,” and other stuffs, and rhythmic evolution of measured yards, followed by sharp snip of scissors, and that cry of rending tissues dearer to woman’s ear than any earthly sound until she hears the voice of her own first-born, — (much of this potentially, remember,) — thoughts of a comfortable settlement, an imposing social condition, a cheerful household, and by and by an Indian summer of serene widowhood, — all these, and infinite other involved possibilities had mapped themselves in one long swift flash before Cynthia’s inward eye, and all vanished as the old man spoke those few words. The look on his face, and the tone of his cold speech, had instantly swept them all away, like a tea-set sliding in a single crash from a slippery tray.
What could be the 44 business ” on which he had come to her with that solemn face ? she asked herself, as she returned his greeting and offered him a chair. She was conscious of a slight tremor as she put this question to her own intelligence.
44 Are we like to be alone and undisturbed ? ” Mr. Gridley asked. It was a strange question, — men do act strangely sometimes. She hardly knew whether to turn red or white.
“ Yes, there is nobody like to come in at present,” she answered. She did not know what to make of it. What was coming next, — a declaration, or an accusation of murder ?
“ My business,” Mr. Gridley said, very gravely, “ relates to this. I wish to inspect papers which I have reason to believe exist, and which have reference to the affairs of the late Malachi Withers. Can you help me to get sight of any of these papers not to be found at the Registry of Deeds or the Probate Office ? ”
“ Excuse me, Mr. Gridley, but may I ask you what particular concern you have with the affairs of my relative, Cousin Malachi Withers, that’s been dead and buried these half-dozen years ? ”
“ Perhaps it would take some time to answer that question fully, Miss Badlam. Some of these affairs do concern those I am interested in, if not myself directly.”
“May I ask who the person or persons may be on whose account you wish to look at papers belonging to my late relative, Malachi Withers ?”
44 You can ask me almost anything, Miss Badlam, but I should really be very much obliged if you would answer my question first. Can you help me to get a sight of any papers relating to the estate of Malachi Withers, not to be found at the Registry of Deeds or the Probate Office, — any of which you may happen to have any private and particular knowledge ? ”
41I beg your pardon, Mr. Gridley; but I don't understand why you come to me with such questions. Lawyer Pcnhallow is the proper person, I should think, to go to. He and his partner that was — Mr. Wibird, you know — settled the estate, and he has got the papers, I suppose, if there are any, that ain’t to be found at the offices you mention.”
Mr. Gridley moved his chair a little, so as to bring Miss Badlam’s face a little more squarely in view.
“Does Mr. William Murray Bradshaw know anything about any papers, such as I am referring to, that may have been sent to the office ? ”
The lady felt a little moisture stealing through all her pores, and at the same time a certain dryness of the vocal organs, so that her answer came in a slightly altered tone which neither of them could help noticing.
44 You had better ask Mr. William Murray Bradshaw yourself about that, ” she answered. She felt the hook now, and her spines were rising, partly with apprehension, partly with irritation.
“ Has that young gentleman ever delivered into your hands any papers relating to the affairs of the late Malachi Withers, for your safe keeping ? ”
“ What do you mean by asking me these questions, Mr. Gridley? I don’t choose to be catechised about Murray Bradshaw’s business. Go to him, if you please, if you want to find out about it.”
“Excuse my persistence, Miss Badlam, but I must prevail upon you to answer my question. Has Mr. William Murray Bradshaw ever delivered into your hands any papers relating to the affairs of the late Malachi Withers, for your safe keeping?”
“Do you suppose I am going to answer such questions as you are putting me because you repeat them over, Mr. Gridley ? Indeed I sha’ n’t. Ask him, if you please, whatever you wish to know about his doings.”
She drew herself up and looked savagely at him. She had talked herself into her courage. There was a color in her cheeks and a sparkle in her eye ; she looked dangerous as a cobra.
“Miss Cynthia Badlam,” Master Gridley said, very deliberately, “ I am afraid we do not entirely understand each other. You must answer my question precisely, categorically, pointblank, and on the instant. Will you do this at once, or will you compel me to show you the absolute necessity of your doing it, at the expense of pain to both of us ? Six words from me will make you answer all my questions.”
“ You can’t say six words, nor sixty, Mr. Gridley, that will make me answer one question I do not choose to. I defy you! ”
“ I will not say one, Miss Cynthia Badlam. There are some things one does not like to speak in words. But I will show you a scrap of paper, containing just six words and a date, — not one more nor one less. You shall read them. Then I will burn the paper in the flame of your lamp. As soon after that as you feel ready, I will ask the same question again.”
Master Gridley took out from his pocket-book a scrap of paper, and handed it to Cynthia Badlam. Her hand shook as she received it, for she was frightened as well as enraged, and she saw that Mr. Gridley was in earnest and knew what he was doing.
She read the six words, he looking at her steadily all the time, and watching her as if he had just given her a drop of prussic acid.
No cry. No sound from her lips. She stared as if half stunned for one moment, then turned her head and glared at Mr. Gridley as if she would have murdered him if she dared. In another instant her face whitened, the scrap of paper fluttered to the floor, and she would have followed it but for the support of both Mr. Gridley’s arms. He disengaged one of them presently, and felt in his pocket for the sal volatile. It served him excellently well, and stung her back again to her senses very quickly. All her defiant aspect had gone.
“ Look ! ” he said, as he lighted the scrap of paper in the flame. “ You understand me, and you see that I must be answered the next time I ask my question.”
She opened her lips as if to speak. It was as when a bell is rung in a vacuum, — no words came from them, — only a faint gasping sound, an effort at speech. She was caught tight in the heart-screw.
“ Don’t hurry yourself, Miss Cynthia,” he said, with a certain relenting tenderness of manner. “ Here, take another sniff of the smelling-salts. Be calm, be quiet, — I am well disposed towards you, — I don’t like to give you trouble. There, now, I must have the answer to that question ; but take your time, — take your time.”
“Give me some water, — some water ! ” she said, in a strange hoarse whisper. There was a pitcher of water and a tumbler on an old marble sideboard near by. He filled the tumbler, and Cynthia emptied it as if she had just been taken from the rack, and could have swallowed a bucketful.
“ What do you want to know ? ” she asked.
“ I wish to know all that you can tell me about a certain paper, or certain papers, which I have reason to believe Mr. William Murray Bradshaw committed to your keeping.”
“ There is only one paper of any consequence. Do you want to make him kill me ? or do you want to make me kill myself?”
“Neither, Miss Cynthia, neither. I wish to see that paper, but not for any bad purpose. Don’t you think, on the whole, you have pretty good reason to trust me ? I am a very quiet man, Miss Cynthia. Don’t be afraid of me ; only do what I ask, — it will be a great deal better for you in the end.”
She thrust her trembling hand into her pocket, and took out the key of the little trunk. She drew the trunk towards her, put the key in the lock, and opened it. It seemed like pressing a knife into her own bosom and turning the blade. That little trunk held all the records of her life the forlorn spinster most cherished; — a few letters that came nearer to love-letters than any others she had ever received ; an album, with flowers of the summers of 1840 and 1841 fading between its leaves ; two papers containing locks of hair, half of a broken ring, and other insignificant mementos which had their meaning, doubtless, to her, — such a collection as is often priceless to one human heart, and passed by as worthless in the auctioneer’s inventory. She took the papers out mechanically, and laid them on the table. Among them was an oblong packet, sealed with what appeared to be the office-seal of Messrs. Penhallow and Bradshaw.
“ Will you allow me to take that envelope containing papers, Miss Badlam?" Mr. Gridley asked, with a suavity and courtesy in his tone and manner that showed how he felt for her sex and her helpless position.
She seemed to obey his will as if she had none of her own left. She passed the envelope to him, and stared at him vacantly while he examined it. He read on the back of the package : 11 Withers Estate — old papers — of no account apparently. Examine hereafter.”
“ May I ask when, where, and of whom you obtained these papers, Miss Badlam ? ”
“Have pity on me, Mr. Gridley, — have pity on me. I am a lost woman if you do not. Spare me ! for God’s sake, spare me ! There will no wrong come of all this, if you will but wait a little while. The paper will come to light when it is wanted, and all will be right. But do not make me answer any more questions, and let me keep this paper. O Mr. Gridley! I am in the power of a dreadful man — ”
“You mean Mr. William Murray Bradshaw ? ”
“ I mean him.”
“ Has there not been some understanding between you that he should become the approved suitor of Miss Myrtle Hazard?”
Cynthia wrung her hands and rocked herself backward and forward in her misery, but answered not a word. What could she answer, if she had plotted with this “ dreadful man ” against a young and innocent girl, to deliver her over into his hands, at the risk of all her earthly hopes and happiness ?
Master Gridley waited long and patiently for any answer she might have the force to make. As she made none, he took upon himself to settle the whole matter without further torture of his helpless victim.
“ This package must go into the hands of the parties who had the settlement of the estate of the late Malachi Withers. Mr. Penhallow is the survivor of the two gentlemen to whom that business was intrusted. — How long is Mr. William Murray Bradshaw like to Ire away ?”
“Perhaps a few days, — perhaps weeks, — and then he will come back and kill me, — or — or — worse ! Don’t take that paper, Mr. Gridley, — he is n’t like you ; you would n’t — but he would — he would send me to everlasting misery to gain his own end, or to save himself. And yet he is n’t every way bad, and if he did marry Myrtle she ’d think there never was such a man, — for he can talk her heart out of her, and the wicked in him lies very deep and won’t ever come out, perhaps, if the world goes right with him.” The last part of this sentence showed how Cynthia talked with her own conscience ; all her mental and moral machinery lay open before the calm eyes of Master Byles Gridley.
His thoughts wandered a moment from the business before him ; he had just got a new study of human nature, which in spite of himself would be shaping itself into an axiom for an imagined new edition of “ Thoughts on the Universe,” — something like this, — The greatest saint may be a sinner that never got down to “hard pan.” — It was not the time to be framing axioms.
“ Poh! poh ! ” he said to himself: “what are you about, making phrases, when you have got a piece of work like this in hand?” Then to Cynthia, with great gentleness and kindness of manner : “ Have no fear about any consequences to yourself. Mr. Penhallow must see that paper, — I mean those papers. You shall not be a loser nor a sufferer if you do your duty now in these premises.”
Master Gridley, treating her, as far as circumstances permitted, like a gentleman, had shown no intention of taking the papers either stealthily or violently. It must be with her consent. He had laid the package down upon the table, waiting for her to give him leave to take it. But just as he spoke these last words, Cynthia, whose eye had been glancing furtively at it while he was thinking out his axiom, and taking her bearings to it pretty carefully, stretched her hand out, and, seizing the package, thrust it into the sanctuary of her bosom.
“ Mr. Penhallow must see those papers, Miss Cynthia Badlam,” Mr. Gridley repeated calmly. “ If he says they or any of them can be returned to your keeping, well and good. But see them he must, for they have his office seal and belong in his custody, and, as you see by the writing on the back, they have not been examined. Now there may be something among them which is of immediate importance to the relatives of the late deceased Malachi Withers, and therefore they must be forthwith submitted to the inspection of the surviving partner of the firm of Wibird and Penhallow. This I propose to do, with your consent, this evening. It is now twenty-five minutes past eight by the true time, as my watch has it. At half past eight exactly I shall have the honor of bidding you good evening, Miss Cynthia Badlam, whether you give me those papers or not. I shall go to the office of Jacob Penhallow, Esquire, and there make one of two communications to him ; to wit, these papers and the facts connected therewith, or another statement, the nature of which you may perhaps conjecture.”
There is no need of our speculating as to what Mr. Byles Gridley, an honorable and humane man, would have done, or what would have been the nature of that communication which he offered as an alternative to the perplexed woman. He had not at any rate miscalculated the strength of his appeal, which Cynthia interpreted as he expected. She bore the heartscrew about two minutes. Then she took the package from her bosom, and gave it with averted face to Master Byles Gridley, who, on receiving it, made her a formal but not unkindly bow, and bade her good evening.
“One would think it had been lying out in the dew,” he said, as he left the house and walked towards Mr. Penhallow’s residence.