The Vagaries of the Higher Law

Mr. Delamere went immediately to his grandson’s room, which he entered alone, closing and locking the door behind him. He had requested Ellis to wait in the carriage.

The bed had been made, and the room was apparently in perfect order. There was a bureau in the room, through which Mr. Delamere proceeded to look thoroughly. Finding one of the drawers locked, he tried it with a key of his own, and being unable to unlock it, took a poker from beside the stove and broke it ruthlessly open.

The contents served to confirm what he had heard concerning his grandson’s character. Thrown together in disorderly confusion were bottles of wine and whiskey; soiled packs of cards; a dice-box with dice; a box of poker chips, several revolvers, and a number of photographs and paper-covered books at which the old gentleman merely glanced to ascertain their nature.

So far, while his suspicion had been strengthened, he had found nothing to confirm it. He searched the room more carefully, and found, in the wood-box by the small heating-stove which stood in the room, a torn and crumpled bit of paper. Stooping to pick this up, his eye caught a gleam of something yellow beneath the bureau, which lay directly in his line of vision.

First he smoothed out the paper. It was apparently the lower half of a label, or part of the cover of a small box, torn diagonally from corner to corner. From the business card at the bottom, which gave the name of a firm of manufacturers of theatrical supplies in a Northern city, and from the letters remaining upon the upper and narrower half, the bit of paper had plainly formed part of the wrapper of a package of burnt cork.

Closing his fingers spasmodically over this damning piece of evidence, Mr. Delamere knelt painfully, and with the aid of his cane drew out from under the bureau the yellow object which had attracted his attention. It was a five-dollar gold piece of a date back toward the beginning of the century.

To make assurance doubly sure, Mr. Delamere summoned the cook from the kitchen in the back yard. In answer to her master’s questions, Sally averred that Mr. Tom had got up very early, had knocked at her window⁠—she slept in a room off the kitchen in the yard⁠—and had told her that she need not bother about breakfast for him, as he had had a cold bite from the pantry; that he was going hunting and fishing, and would be gone all day. According to Sally, Mr. Tom had come in about ten o’clock the night before. He had forgotten his night-key, Sandy was out, and she had admitted him with her own key. He had said that he was very tired and was going, immediately to bed.

Mr. Delamere seemed perplexed; the crime had been committed later in the evening than ten o’clock. The cook cleared up the mystery.

“I reckon he must ’a’ be’n dead ti’ed, suh, fer I went back ter his room fifteen er twenty minutes after he come in fer ter fin’ out w’at he wanted fer breakfus’; an’ I knock’ two or three times, rale ha’d, an’ Mistuh Tom didn’ wake up no mo’ d’n de dead. He sho’ly had a good sleep, er he’d never ’a’ got up so ea’ly.”

“Thank you, Sally,” said Mr. Delamere, when the woman had finished, “that will do.”

“Will you be home ter suppah, suh?” asked the cook.


It was a matter of the supremest indifference to Mr. Delamere whether he should ever eat again, but he would not betray his feelings to a servant. In a few minutes he was driving rapidly with Ellis toward the office of the Morning Chronicle. Ellis could see that Mr. Delamere had discovered something of tragic import. Neither spoke. Ellis gave all his attention to the horses, and Mr. Delamere remained wrapped in his own sombre reflections.

When they reached the office, they were informed by Jerry that Major Carteret was engaged with General Belmont and Captain McBane. Mr. Delamere knocked peremptorily at the door of the inner office, which was opened by Carteret in person.

“Oh, it is you, Mr. Delamere.”

“Carteret,” exclaimed Mr. Delamere, “I must speak to you immediately, and alone.”

“Excuse me a moment, gentlemen,” said Carteret, turning to those within the room. “I’ll be back in a moment⁠—don’t go away.”

Ellis had left the room, closing the door behind him. Mr. Delamere and Carteret were quite alone.

“Carteret,” declared the old gentleman, “this murder must not take place.”

“ ‘Murder’ is a hard word,” replied the editor, frowning slightly.

“It is the right word,” rejoined Mr. Delamere, decidedly. “It would be a foul and most unnatural murder, for Sandy did not kill Mrs. Ochiltree.”

Carteret with difficulty restrained a smile of pity. His old friend was very much excited, as the tremor in his voice gave proof. The criminal was his trusted servant, who had proved unworthy of confidence. No one could question Mr. Delamere’s motives; but he was old, his judgment was no longer to be relied upon. It was a great pity that he should so excite and overstrain himself about a worthless negro, who had forfeited his life for a dastardly crime. Mr. Delamere had had two paralytic strokes, and a third might prove fatal. He must be dealt with gently.

Mr. Delamere,” he said, with patient tolerance, “I think you are deceived. There is but one sure way to stop this execution. If your servant is innocent, you must produce the real criminal. If the negro, with such overwhelming proofs against him, is not guilty, who is?”

“I will tell you who is,” replied Mr. Delamere. “The murderer is,”⁠—the words came with a note of anguish, as though torn from his very heart⁠—“the murderer is Tom Delamere, my own grandson!”

“Impossible, sir!” exclaimed Carteret, starting back involuntarily. “That could not be! The man was seen leaving the house, and he was black!”

“All cats are gray in the dark, Carteret; and, moreover, nothing is easier than for a white man to black his face. God alone knows how many crimes have been done in this guise! Tom Delamere, to get the money to pay his gambling debts, committed this foul murder, and then tried to fasten it upon as honest and faithful a soul as ever trod the earth.”

Carteret, though at first overwhelmed by this announcement, perceived with quick intuition that it might easily be true. It was but a step from fraud to crime, and in Delamere’s need of money there lay a palpable motive for robbery⁠—the murder may have been an afterthought. Delamere knew as much about the cedar chest as the negro could have known, and more.

But a white man must not be condemned without proof positive.

“What foundation is there, sir,” he asked, “for this astounding charge?”

Mr. Delamere related all that had taken place since he had left Belleview a couple of hours before, and as he proceeded, step by step, every word carried conviction to Carteret. Tom Delamere’s skill as a mimic and a negro impersonator was well known; he had himself laughed at more than one of his performances. There had been a powerful motive, and Mr. Delamere’s discoveries had made clear the means. Tom’s unusual departure, before breakfast, on a fishing expedition was a suspicious circumstance. There was a certain devilish ingenuity about the affair which he would hardly have expected of Tom Delamere, but for which the reason was clear enough. One might have thought that Tom would have been satisfied with merely blacking his face, and leaving to chance the identification of the negro who might be apprehended. He would hardly have implicated, out of pure malignity, his grandfather’s old servant, who had been his own caretaker for many years. Here, however, Carteret could see where Tom’s own desperate position operated to furnish a probable motive for the crime. The surest way to head off suspicion from himself was to direct it strongly toward some particular person, and this he had been able to do conclusively by his access to Sandy’s clothes, his skill in making up to resemble him, and by the episode of the silk purse. By placing himself beyond reach during the next day, he would not be called upon to corroborate or deny any inculpating statements which Sandy might make, and in the very probable case that the crime should be summarily avenged, any such statements on Sandy’s part would be regarded as mere desperate subterfuges of the murderer to save his own life. It was a bad affair.

“The case seems clear,” said Carteret reluctantly but conclusively. “And now, what shall we do about it?”

“I want you to print a handbill,” said Mr. Delamere, “and circulate it through the town, stating that Sandy Campbell is innocent and Tom Delamere guilty of this crime. If this is not done, I will go myself and declare it to all who will listen, and I will publicly disown the villain who is no more grandson of mine. There is no deeper sink of iniquity into which he could fall.”

Carteret’s thoughts were chasing one another tumultuously. There could be no doubt that the negro was innocent, from the present aspect of affairs, and he must not be lynched; but in what sort of position would the white people be placed, if Mr. Delamere carried out his Spartan purpose of making the true facts known? The white people of the city had raised the issue of their own superior morality, and had themselves made this crime a race question. The success of the impending “revolution,” for which he and his confrères had labored so long, depended in large measure upon the maintenance of their race prestige, which would be injured in the eyes of the world by such a fiasco. While they might yet win by sheer force, their cause would suffer in the court of morals, where they might stand convicted as pirates, instead of being applauded as patriots. Even the negroes would have the laugh on them⁠—the people whom they hoped to make approve and justify their own despoilment. To be laughed at by the negroes was a calamity only less terrible than failure or death.

Such an outcome of an event which had already been heralded to the four corners of the earth would throw a cloud of suspicion upon the stories of outrage which had gone up from the South for so many years, and had done so much to win the sympathy of the North for the white South and to alienate it from the colored people. The reputation of the race was threatened. They must not lynch the negro, and yet, for the credit of the town, its aristocracy, and the race, the truth of this ghastly story must not see the light⁠—at least not yet.

Mr. Delamere,” he exclaimed, “I am shocked and humiliated. The negro must be saved, of course, but⁠—consider the family honor.”

“Tom is no longer a member of my family. I disown him. He has covered the family name⁠—my name, sir⁠—with infamy. We have no longer a family honor. I wish never to hear his name spoken again!”

For several minutes Carteret argued with his old friend. Then he went into the other room and consulted with General Belmont. As a result of these conferences, and of certain urgent messages sent out, within half an hour thirty or forty of the leading citizens of Wellington were gathered in the Morning Chronicle office. Several other curious persons, observing that there was something in the wind, and supposing correctly that it referred to the projected event of the evening, crowded in with those who had been invited.

Carteret was in another room, still arguing with Mr. Delamere. “It’s a mere formality, sir,” he was saying suavely, “accompanied by a mental reservation. We know the facts; but this must be done to justify us, in the eyes of the mob, in calling them off before they accomplish their purpose.”

“Carteret,” said the old man, in a voice eloquent of the struggle through which he had passed, “I would not perjure myself to prolong my own miserable existence another day, but God will forgive a sin committed to save another’s life. Upon your head be it, Carteret, and not on mine!”

“Gentlemen,” said Carteret, entering with Mr. Delamere the room where the men were gathered, and raising his hand for silence, “the people of Wellington were on the point of wreaking vengeance upon a negro who was supposed to have been guilty of a terrible crime. The white men of this city, impelled by the highest and holiest sentiments, were about to take steps to defend their hearthstones and maintain the purity and ascendency of their race. Your purpose sprung from hearts wounded in their tenderest susceptibilities.”

“ ’Rah, ’rah!” shouted a tipsy sailor, who had edged in with the crowd.

“But this same sense of justice,” continued Carteret oratorically, “which would lead you to visit swift and terrible punishment upon the guilty, would not permit you to slay an innocent man. Even a negro, as long as he behaves himself and keeps in his place, is entitled to the protection of the law. We may be stern and unbending in the punishment of crime, as befits our masterful race, but we hold the scales of justice with even and impartial hand.”

“ ’Rah f’ ’mpa’tial ban’!” cried the tipsy sailor, who was immediately ejected with slight ceremony.

“We have discovered, beyond a doubt, that the negro Sandy Campbell, now in custody, did not commit this robbery and murder, but that it was perpetrated by some unknown man, who has fled from the city. Our venerable and distinguished fellow townsman, Mr. Delamere, in whose employment this Campbell has been for many years, will vouch for his character, and states, furthermore, that Campbell was with him all last night, covering any hour at which this crime could have been committed.”

“If Mr. Delamere will swear to that,” said someone in the crowd, “the negro should not be lynched.”

There were murmurs of dissent. The preparations had all been made. There would be great disappointment if the lynching did not occur.

“Let Mr. Delamere swear, if he wants to save the nigger,” came again from the crowd.

“Certainly,” assented Carteret. “Mr. Delamere can have no possible objection to taking the oath. Is there a notary public present, or a justice of the peace?”

A man stepped forward. “I am a justice of the peace,” he announced.

“Very well, Mr. Smith,” said Carteret, recognizing the speaker. “With your permission, I will formulate the oath, and Mr. Delamere may repeat it after me, if he will. I solemnly swear,”⁠—

“I solemnly swear,”⁠—

Mr. Delamere’s voice might have come from the tomb, so hollow and unnatural did it sound.

“So help me God,”⁠—

“So help me God,”⁠—

“That the negro Sandy Campbell, now in jail on the charge of murder, robbery, and assault, was in my presence last night between the hours of eight and two o’clock.”

Mr. Delamere repeated this statement in a firm voice; but to Ellis, who was in the secret, his words fell upon the ear like clods dropping upon the coffin in an open grave.

“I wish to add,” said General Belmont, stepping forward, “that it is not our intention to interfere, by anything which may be done at this meeting, with the orderly process of the law, or to advise the prisoner’s immediate release. The prisoner will remain in custody, Mr. Delamere, Major Carteret, and I guaranteeing that he will be proved entirely innocent at the preliminary hearing tomorrow morning.”

Several of those present looked relieved; others were plainly, disappointed; but when the meeting ended, the news went out that the lynching had been given up. Carteret immediately wrote and had struck off a handbill giving a brief statement of the proceedings, and sent out a dozen boys to distribute copies among the people in the streets. That no precaution might be omitted, a call was issued to the Wellington Grays, the crack independent military company of the city, who in an incredibly short time were on guard at the jail. Thus a slight change in the point of view had demonstrated the entire ability of the leading citizens to maintain the dignified and orderly processes of the law whenever they saw fit to do so.

The night passed without disorder, beyond the somewhat rough handling of two or three careless negroes that came in the way of small parties of the disappointed who had sought alcoholic consolation.

At ten o’clock the next morning, a preliminary hearing of the charge against Campbell was had before a magistrate. Mr. Delamere, perceptibly older and more wizened than he had seemed the day before, and leaning heavily on the arm of a servant, repeated his statement of the evening before. Only one or two witnesses were called, among whom was Mr. Ellis, who swore positively that in his opinion the prisoner was not the man whom he had seen and at first supposed to be Campbell. The most sensational piece of testimony was that of Dr. Price, who had examined the body, and who swore that the wound in the head was not necessarily fatal, and might have been due to a fall⁠—that she had more than likely died of shock attendant upon the robbery, she being of advanced age and feeble health. There was no evidence, he said, of any other personal violence.

Sandy was not even bound over to the grand jury, but was discharged upon the ground that there was not sufficient evidence upon which to hold him. Upon his release he received the congratulations of many present, some of whom would cheerfully have done him to death a few hours before. With the childish fickleness of a mob, they now experienced a satisfaction almost as great as, though less exciting than, that attendant upon taking life. We speak of the mysteries of inanimate nature. The workings of the human heart are the profoundest mystery of the universe. One moment they make us despair of our kind, and the next we see in them the reflection of the divine image. Sandy, having thus escaped from the Mr. Hyde of the mob, now received the benediction of its Dr. Jekyll. Being no cynical philosopher, and realizing how nearly the jaws of death had closed upon him, he was profoundly grateful for his escape, and felt not the slightest desire to investigate or criticise any man’s motives.

With the testimony of Dr. Price, the worst feature of the affair came to an end. The murder eliminated or rendered doubtful, the crime became a mere vulgar robbery, the extent of which no one could estimate, since no living soul knew how much money Mrs. Ochiltree had had in the cedar chest. The absurdity of the remaining charge became more fully apparent in the light of the reaction from the excitement of the day before.

Nothing further was ever done about the case; but though the crime went unpunished, it carried evil in its train. As we have seen, the charge against Campbell had been made against the whole colored race. All over the United States the Associated Press had flashed the report of another dastardly outrage by a burly black brute⁠—all black brutes it seems are burly⁠—and of the impending lynching with its prospective horrors. This news, being highly sensational in its character, had been displayed in large black type on the front pages of the daily papers. The dispatch that followed, to the effect that the accused had been found innocent and the lynching frustrated, received slight attention, if any, in a fine-print paragraph on an inside page. The facts of the case never came out at all. The family honor of the Delameres was preserved, and the prestige of the white race in Wellington was not seriously impaired.

Upon leaving the preliminary hearing, old Mr. Delamere had requested General Belmont to call at his house during the day upon professional business. This the general did in the course of the afternoon.

“Belmont,” said Mr. Delamere, “I wish to make my will. I should have drawn it with my own hand; but you know my motives, and can testify to my soundness of mind and memory.”

He thereupon dictated a will, by the terms of which he left to his servant, Sandy Campbell, three thousand dollars, as a mark of the testator’s appreciation of services rendered and sufferings endured by Sandy on behalf of his master. After some minor dispositions, the whole remainder of the estate was devised to Dr. William Miller, in trust for the uses of his hospital and training-school for nurses, on condition that the institution be incorporated and placed under the management of competent trustees. Tom Delamere was not mentioned in the will.

“There, Belmont,” he said, “that load is off my mind. Now, if you will call in some witnesses⁠—most of my people can write⁠—I shall feel entirely at ease.”

The will was signed by Mr. Delamere, and witnessed by Jeff and Billy, two servants in the house, neither of whom received any information as to its contents, beyond the statement that they were witnessing their master’s will. “I wish to leave that with you for safe keeping, Belmont,” said Mr. Delamere, after the witnesses had retired. “Lock it up in your safe until I die, which will not be very long, since I have no further desire to live.”

An hour later Mr. Delamere suffered a third paralytic stroke, from which he died two days afterwards, without having in the meantime recovered the power of speech.

The will was never produced. The servants stated, and General Belmont admitted, that Mr. Delamere had made a will a few days before his death; but since it was not discoverable, it seemed probable that the testator had destroyed it. This was all the more likely, the general was inclined to think, because the will had been of a most unusual character. What the contents of the will were, he of course did not state, it having been made under the seal of professional secrecy.

This suppression was justified by the usual race argument: Miller’s hospital was already well established, and, like most negro institutions, could no doubt rely upon Northern philanthropy for any further support it might need. Mr. Delamere’s property belonged of right to the white race, and by the higher law should remain in the possession of white people. Loyalty to one’s race was a more sacred principle than deference to a weak old man’s whims.

Having reached this conclusion, General Belmont’s first impulse was to destroy the will; on second thoughts he locked it carefully away in his safe. He would hold it awhile. It might some time be advisable to talk the matter over with young Delamere, who was of a fickle disposition and might wish to change his legal adviser.