Mrs. Carteret Seeks an Explanation

As a stone dropped into a pool of water sets in motion a series of concentric circles which disturb the whole mass in varying degree, so Mrs. Ochiltree’s enigmatical remark had started in her niece’s mind a disturbing train of thought. Had her words, Mrs. Carteret asked herself, any serious meaning, or were they the mere empty babblings of a clouded intellect?

“William,” she said to the coachman when they reached Mrs. Ochiltree’s house, “you may tie the horse and help us out. I shall be here a little while.”

William helped the ladies down, assisted Mrs. Ochiltree into the house, and then went round to the kitchen. Dinah was an excellent hand at potato-pone and other culinary delicacies dear to the Southern heart, and William was a welcome visitor in her domain.

“Now, Aunt Polly,” said Mrs. Carteret resolutely, as soon as they were alone, “I want to know what you meant by what you said about my father and Julia, and this⁠—this child of hers?”

The old woman smiled cunningly, but her expression soon changed to one more grave.

“Why do you want to know?” she asked suspiciously. “You’ve got the land, the houses, and the money. You’ve nothing to complain of. Enjoy yourself, and be thankful!”

“I’m thankful to God,” returned Olivia, “for all his good gifts⁠—and He has blessed me abundantly⁠—but why should I be thankful to you for the property my father left me?”

“Why should you be thankful to me?” rejoined Mrs. Ochiltree with querulous indignation. “You’d better ask why shouldn’t you be thankful to me. What have I not done for you?”

“Yes, Aunt Polly, I know you’ve done a great deal. You reared me in your own house when I had been cast out of my father’s; you have been a second mother to me, and I am very grateful⁠—you can never say that I have not shown my gratitude. But if you have done anything else for me, I wish to know it. Why should I thank you for my inheritance?”

“Why should you thank me? Well, because I drove that woman and her brat away.”

“But she had no right to stay, Aunt Polly, after father died. Of course she had no moral right before, but it was his house, and he could keep her there if he chose. But after his death she surely had no right.”

“Perhaps not so surely as you think⁠—if she had not been a negro. Had she been white, there might have been a difference. When I told her to go, she said”⁠—

“What did she say, Aunt Polly,” demanded Olivia eagerly.

It seemed for a moment as though Mrs. Ochiltree would speak no further: but her once strong will, now weakened by her bodily infirmities, yielded to the influence of her niece’s imperious demand.

“I’ll tell you the whole story,” she said, “and then you’ll know what I did for you and yours.” Mrs. Ochiltree’s eyes assumed an introspective expression, and her story, as it advanced, became as keenly dramatic as though memory had thrown aside the veil of intervening years and carried her back directly to the events which she now described.

“Your father,” she said, “while living with that woman, left home one morning the picture of health. Five minutes later he tottered into the house groaning with pain, stricken unto death by the hand of a just God, as a punishment for his sins.”

Olivia gave a start of indignation, but restrained herself.

“I was at once informed of what had happened, for I had means of knowing all that took place in the household. Old Jane⁠—she was younger then⁠—had come with you to my house; but her daughter remained, and through her I learned all that went on.

“I hastened immediately to the house, entered without knocking, and approached Mr. Merkell’s bedroom, which was on the lower floor and opened into the hall. The door was ajar, and as I stood there for a moment I heard your father’s voice.

“ ‘Listen, Julia,’ he was saying. ‘I shall not live until the doctor comes. But I wish you to know, dear Julia!’⁠—he called her ‘dear Julia!’⁠—‘before I die, that I have kept my promise. You did me one great service, Julia⁠—you saved me from Polly Ochiltree!’ Yes, Olivia, that is what he said! ‘You have served me faithfully and well, and I owe you a great deal, which I have tried to pay.’

“ ‘Oh, Mr. Merkell, dear Mr. Merkell,’ cried the hypocritical hussy, falling to her knees by his bedside, and shedding her crocodile tears, ‘you owe me nothing. You have done more for me than I could ever repay. You will not die and leave me⁠—no, no, it cannot be!’

“ ‘Yes, I am going to die⁠—I am dying now, Julia. But listen⁠—compose yourself and listen, for this is a more important matter. Take the keys from under my pillow, open the desk in the next room, look in the second drawer on the right, and you will find an envelope containing three papers: one of them is yours, one is the paper I promised to make, and the third is a letter which I wrote last night. As soon as the breath has left my body, deliver the envelope to the address endorsed upon it. Do not delay one moment, or you may live to regret it. Say nothing until you have delivered the package, and then be guided by the advice which you receive⁠—it will come from a friend of mine who will not see you wronged.’

“I slipped away from the door without making my presence known and entered, by a door from the hall, the room adjoining the one where Mr. Merkell lay. A moment later there was a loud scream. Returning quickly to the hall, I entered Mr. Merkell’s room as though just arrived.

“ ‘How is Mr. Merkell?’ I demanded, as I crossed the threshold.

“ ‘He is dead,’ sobbed the woman, without lifting her head⁠—she had fallen on her knees by the bedside. She had good cause to weep, for my time had come.

“ ‘Get up,’ I said. ‘You have no right here. You pollute Mr. Merkell’s dead body by your touch. Leave the house immediately⁠—your day is over!’

“ ‘I will not!’ she cried, rising to her feet and facing me with brazen-faced impudence. ‘I have a right to stay⁠—he has given me the right!’

“ ‘Ha, ha!’ I laughed. ‘Mr. Merkell is dead, and I am mistress here henceforth. Go, and go at once⁠—do you hear?’

“ ‘I hear, but I shall not heed. I can prove my rights! I shall not leave!’

“ ‘Very well,’ I replied, ‘we shall see. The law will decide.’

“I left the room, but did not leave the house. On the contrary, I concealed myself where I could see what took place in the room adjoining the death-chamber.

“She entered the room a moment later, with her child on one arm and the keys in the other hand. Placing the child on the floor, she put the key in the lock, and seemed surprised to find the desk already unfastened. She opened the desk, picked up a roll of money and a ladies’ watch, which first caught her eye, and was reaching toward the drawer upon the right, when I interrupted her:⁠—

“ ‘Well, thief, are you trying to strip the house before you leave it?’

“She gave an involuntary cry, clasped one hand to her bosom and with the other caught up her child, and stood like a wild beast at bay.

“ ‘I am not a thief,’ she panted. ‘The things are mine!’

“ ‘You lie,’ I replied. ‘You have no right to them⁠—no more right than you have to remain in this house!’

“ ‘I have a right,’ she persisted, ‘and I can prove it!’

“She turned toward the desk, seized the drawer, and drew it open. Never shall I forget her look⁠—never shall I forget that moment; it was the happiest of my life. The drawer was empty!

“Pale as death she turned and faced me.

“ ‘The papers!’ she shrieked, ‘the papers! You have stolen them!’

“ ‘Papers?’ I laughed, ‘what papers? Do you take me for a thief, like yourself?’

“ ‘There were papers here,’ she cried, ‘only a minute since. They are mine⁠—give them back to me!’

“ ‘Listen, woman,’ I said sternly, ‘you are lying⁠—or dreaming. My brother-in-law’s papers are doubtless in his safe at his office, where they ought to be. As for the rest⁠—you are a thief.’

“ ‘I am not,’ she screamed; ‘I am his wife. He married me, and the papers that were in the desk will prove it.’

“ ‘Listen,’ I exclaimed, when she had finished⁠—‘listen carefully, and take heed to what I say. You are a liar. You have no proofs⁠—there never were any proofs of what you say, because it never happened⁠—it is absurd upon the face of it. Not one person in Wellington would believe it. Why should he marry you? He did not need to! You are merely lying⁠—you are not even self-deceived. If he had really married you, you would have made it known long ago. That you did not is proof that your story is false.’

“She was hit so hard that she trembled and sank into a chair. But I had no mercy⁠—she had saved your father from me⁠—‘dear Julia,’ indeed!

“ ‘Stand up,’ I ordered. ‘Do not dare to sit down in my presence. I have you on the hip, my lady, and will teach you your place.’

“She struggled to her feet, and stood supporting herself with one hand on the chair. I could have killed her, Olivia! She had been my father’s slave; if it had been before the war, I would have had her whipped to death.

“ ‘You are a thief,’ I said, ‘and of that there are proofs. I have caught you in the act. The watch in your bosom is my own, the money belongs to Mr. Merkell’s estate, which belongs to my niece, his daughter Olivia. I saw you steal them. My word is worth yours a hundred times over, for I am a lady, and you are⁠—what? And now hear me: if ever you breathe to a living soul one word of this preposterous story, I will charge you with the theft, and have you sent to the penitentiary. Your child will be taken from you, and you shall never see it again. I will give you now just ten minutes to take your brat and your rags out of this house forever. But before you go, put down your plunder there upon the desk!’

“She laid down the money and the watch, and a few minutes later left the house with the child in her arms.

“And now, Olivia, you know how I saved your estate, and why you should be grateful to me.”

Olivia had listened to her aunt’s story with intense interest. Having perceived the old woman’s mood, and fearful lest any interruption might break the flow of her narrative, she had with an effort kept back the one question which had been hovering upon her lips, but which could now no longer be withheld.

“What became of the papers, Aunt Polly?”

“Ha, ha!” chuckled Mrs. Ochiltree with a cunning look, “did I not tell you that she found no papers?”

A change had come over Mrs. Ochiltree’s face, marking the reaction from her burst of energy. Her eyes were half closed, and she was muttering incoherently. Olivia made some slight effort to arouse her, but in vain, and realizing the futility of any further attempt to extract information from her aunt at this time, she called William and drove homeward.