They would call Sarah in, on a pretext, and watch her face; if she had been betraying them to Mr. Burgess, it would show in her manner. They asked her some questions--questions which were so random and incoherent and seemingly purposeless that the girl felt sure that the old people's minds had been affected by their sudden good fortune; the sharp and watchful gaze which they bent upon her frightened her, and that completed the business. She blushed, she became nervous and confused, and to the old people these were plain signs of guilt--guilt of some fearful sort or other--without doubt she was a spy and a traitor. When they were alone again they began to piece many unrelated things together and get horrible results out of the combination. When things had got about to the worst Richards was delivered of a sudden gasp and his wife asked:
"Oh, what is it?--what is it?"
"The note--Burgess's note! Its language was sarcastic, I see it now." He quoted: "'At bottom you cannot respect me, KNOWING, as you do, of THAT MATTER OF which I am accused'--oh, it is perfectly plain, now, God help me! He knows that I know! You see the ingenuity of the phrasing. It was a trap--and like a fool, I walked into it. And Mary--!"
"Oh, it is dreadful--I know what you are going to say--he didn't return your transcript of the pretended test-remark."
"No--kept it to destroy us with. Mary, he has exposed us to some already. I know it--I know it well. I saw it in a dozen faces after church. Ah, he wouldn't answer our nod of recognition--he knew what he had been doing!"
In the night the doctor was called. The news went around in the morning that the old couple were rather seriously ill--prostrated by the exhausting excitement growing out of their great windfall, the congratulations, and the late hours, the doctor said. The town was sincerely distressed; for these old people were about all it had left to be proud of, now.
Two days later the news was worse. The old couple were delirious, and were doing strange things. By witness of the nurses, Richards had exhibited cheques--for $8,500? No--for an amazing sum--$38,500! What could be the explanation of this gigantic piece of luck?
The following day the nurses had more news--and wonderful. They had concluded to hide the cheques, lest harm come to them; but when they searched they were gone from under the patient's pillow--vanished away. The patient said:
"Let the pillow alone; what do you want?"
"We thought it best that the cheques--"
"You will never see them again--they are destroyed. They came from Satan. I saw the hell-brand on them, and I knew they were sent to betray me to sin." Then he fell to gabbling strange and dreadful things which were not clearly understandable, and which the doctor admonished them to keep to themselves.
Richards was right; the cheques were never seen again.
A nurse must have talked in her sleep, for within two days the forbidden gabblings were the property of the town; and they were of a surprising sort. They seemed to indicate that Richards had been a claimant for the sack himself, and that Burgess had concealed that fact and then maliciously betrayed it.
Burgess was taxed with this and stoutly denied it. And he said it was not fair to attach weight to the chatter of a sick old man who was out of his mind. Still, suspicion was in the air, and there was much talk.
After a day or two it was reported that Mrs. Richards's delirious deliveries were getting to be duplicates of her husband's. Suspicion flamed up into conviction, now, and the town's pride in the purity of its one undiscredited important citizen began to dim down and flicker toward extinction.
Six days passed, then came more news. The old couple were dying. Richards's mind cleared in his latest hour, and he sent for Burgess. Burgess said:
"Let the room be cleared. I think he wishes to say something in privacy."
"No!" said Richards; "I want witnesses. I want you all to hear my confession, so that I may die a man, and not a dog.