Uncle Abner, Master Of Mysteries

by Melville Davisson Post

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The Devil's Tools

I WAS ABOUT to follow my Uncle Abner into the garden when at a turn of the hedge, I stopped. A step or two beyond me in the sun, screened by a lattice of vines, was a scene that filled me full of wonder. Abner was standing quite still in the path, and a girl was clinging to his arm, with her face buried against his coat. There was no sound, but the girl's hands trembled and her shoulders were convulsed with sobs.

Whenever I think of pretty women, even now, I somehow always begin with Betty Randolph, and yet, I cannot put her before the eye, for all the memories. She remains in the fairy-land of youth, and her description is with the poets; their extravagances intrude and possess me, and I give it up.

I cannot say that a woman is an armful of apple blossoms, as they do, or as white as milk, and as playful as a kitten. These are happy collocations of words and quite descriptive of her, but they are not mine. Nor can I draw her in the language of a civilization to which she does not belong-one of wheels and spindles with its own type; superior, no doubt, but less desirable, I fancy. The age that grew its women in romance and dowered them with poetic fancies was not so impracticable as you think. It is a queer world; those who put their faith in the plow are rewarded by the plow, and those who put their faith in miracles are rewarded by miracles.

I remained in the shelter of the hedge in some considerable wonder. We had come to pay our respects to this young woman on her approaching marriage, and to be received like this was somewhat beyond our expectations. There could be nothing in this marriage on which to found a tragedy of tears. It was a love match if ever there was one.

Edward Duncan was a fine figure of a man; his lands adjoined, and he had ancestors enough for Randolph. He stood high in the hills, but I did not like him. You will smile at that, seeing what I have written of Betty Randolph, and remembering how, at ten, the human heart is desperately jealous.

The two had been mated by the county gossips from the cradle, and had lived the prophecy. The romance, too, had got its tang of denial to make it sharper. The young man had bought his lands and builded his house, but he must pay for them before he took his bride in, Randolph said, and he had stood by that condition.

There had been some years of waiting, and Randolph had been stormed. The debt had been reduced, but a mortgage remained, until now, by chance, it had been removed, and the gates of Paradise were opened. Edward Duncan had a tract of wild land in the edge of Maryland which his father had got for a song at a judicial sale. He had sold this land, he said, to a foreign purchaser, and so got the money to clear off his debt. He had written to Betty, who was in Baltimore at the time, and she had hurried back with frocks and furbelows. The day was set, we had come to see how happy she would be, and here she was clinging to my Uncle Abner's arm and crying like her heart would break.

It was some time before the girl spoke, and Abner stood caressing her hair, as though she were a little child. When the paroxysms of tears was over she told him what distressed her, and I heard the story, for the turn of the hedge was beside them, and I could have touched the girl with my hand. She took a worn ribbon from around her neck and held it out to Abner. There was a heavy gold cross slung to it on a tiny ring. I knew this cross, as every one did; it had been her mother's, and the three big emeralds set in it were of the few fine gems in the county. They were worth five thousand dollars, and had been passed down from the divided heirlooms of an English grandmother. I knew what the matter was before Betty Randolph said it. The emeralds were gone. The cross lying in her hand was bare.

She told the story in a dozen words. The jewels had been gone for some time, but her father had not known it until today. She had hoped he would never know, but by accident he had found it out. Then he had called an inquisition, and sat down to discover who had done the robbery. And here it was that Betty Randolph's greatest grief came in. The loss of the emeralds was enough; but to have her old Mammy Liza, who had been the only mother that she could remember, singled out and interrogated for the criminal, was too much to be borne. Her father was now in his office proceeding with the outrage. Would my Uncle Abner go and see him before he broke her heart?

Abner took the cross and held it in his hand. He asked a question or two, but, on the whole, he said very little, which seemed strange to me, with the matter to clear up. How long had the emeralds been missing? And she replied that they had been in the cross before her trip to Baltimore, and missing at her return. She had not taken the cross on the journey. It had remained among her possessions in her room. She did not know when she had seen it on her return.

And she began once more to cry, and her dainty mouth to tremble, and the big tears to gather in her brown eyes.

Abner promised to go in and brave Randolph at his inquisition, and bring Mammy Liza out. He bade Betty walk in the garden until he returned, and she went away comforted.

But Abner did not at once go in. He remained for some moments standing there with the cross in his hand; then, to my surprise, he turned about and went back the way that he had come. I had barely time to get out of his way, for he walked swiftly along the path to the gate, and down to the stable. I followed, for I wondered why he went here instead of to the house, as he had promised. He crossed before the tables and entered a big shed where the plows and farm tools were kept, the scythes hung up, and the corn hoes. The shed was of huge logs, roofed with clapboards, and open at each end.

I lost a little time in making a detour around the stable, but when I looked into the shed between a crack of the logs, my Uncle Abner was sitting before the big grindstone, turning it with his foot, and very delicately holding the cross on the edge of the stone. He paused and examined his work, and then continued. I could not understand what he was at. Why had he come here, and why did he grind the cross on the stone? At any rate, he presently stopped, looked about until he found a piece of old leather, and again sat down to rub the cross, as though to polish what he had ground.

He examined his work from time to time, until at last it pleased him, and he got up. He went out of the shed and up the path toward the garden. I knew where he was going now and I took some short cuts.

Randolph's office was a wing built on to the main residence, after the fashion of the old Virginia mansion house. It was a single story with a separate entrance, so arranged that the master of the house could receive his official visitors and transact his business without disturbing his domestic household.

I was a very good Indian at that period of my life, and skilled in the acts of taking cover. I was ten years old and had lived the life of the Mohawk, with much care for accuracy of detail. True, it was a life I had now given up for larger affairs, but I retained its advantages. One does not spend whole afternoons at the blood-thirsty age of five, in stalking the turkeycock in the wooded pasture, noiselessly on his belly, with his wooden knife in his hand, and not come to the maturity of ten with the accomplishments of Uncas.

I was presently in a snowball bush, with a very good view of Randolph's inquisition, and I think that if Betty had waited to see it, she need not have gone away in so great a grief. Randolph was sitting behind his table in his pompous manner and with the dignity of kings. But for all his attitudes, he took no advantage over Mammy Liza.

The old woman sat beyond him, straight as a rod in her chair, her black silk dress smoothed into straight folds, her white cap prim and immaculate, her square-rimmed spectacles on her nose, and her hands in her lap. If there was royal blood on the Congo, she carried it in her veins, for her dignity was real. And there I think she held Randolph back from any definite accusation. He advanced with specious and sententious innuendoes and arguments, a priori and conclusion post hoc ergo propter hoc to inclose her as the guilty agent. But from the commanding position of a blameless life, she did not see it, and he could not make her see it. She regarded this conference as that of two important persons in convention assembled,-a meeting together of the heads of the House of Randolph to consider a certain matter touching its goods and its honor. And, for all his efforts, he could not dislodge her from the serenity of that position.

"Your room adjoins Betty's?" he said.

"Yes, Mars Ran," she answered. "I's always slep' next to my chile, ever since her ma handed her to me outen the bed she was borned in."

"And no one goes into her room but you?"

"No, sah, 'ceptin' when I's there to see what they's doin'."

"Then no other servant in this house could have taken anything out of Betty's room without your knowing it?"

"That's right, Mars Ran. I'd 'a' knowed it."

"Then," said Randolph, tightening the lines of his premises, "if you alone have access to the room, and no one goes in without your consent or knowledge, how could any other servant in this house have taken these jewels?"

"They didn't!" said the old woman. "I's done had all the niggers up before me, an' I's ravaged 'em an' searchified 'em." Her mouth tightened with the savage memory. "I knows 'em! I knows 'em all-mopin' niggers, an' mealy mouthed niggers, an' shoutin' niggers, an' cussin' niggers, an' I knows all their carryin's-on, an' all their underhan' oneryness, an' all their low-down contraptions. An' they knows I knows it." She paused and lifted a long, black finger.

"They fools Miss Betty, an' they fools you, Mars Ran, but they don't fool Mammy Liza."

She replaced her hands together primly in the lap of her silk dress and continued in a confidential tone.

"'Course we knows niggers steals, but they steals eatables, an' nobody pays any 'tention to that. Your Grandpa never did, nor your pap, nor us. You can't be too hard on niggers, jist as you can't be too easy on 'em. If you's too hard, they gits down in the mouth, an' if you's too easy they takes the place. A down in the mouth nigger is always a wuthless nigger, an' a biggity nigger is a 'bomination!"

She paused a moment, but she had entered upon her discourse, and she continued.

"I ain't specifyin' but what there's some on this place that would b'ar watchin', an' I's had my eye on 'em; but they's like the unthinking horse, they'd slip a fril-fral outen the kitchen, or a side of bacon outen the smoke-house, but they wouldn't do none of your gran' stealin'.

"No, sah! No, sah! Mars Ran,-them jules wasn't took by nobody in this house."

She paused and reflected, and her face filled with the energy of battle.

"I'd jist like to see a nigger tech a whip-stitch that belongs to my chile. I'd shore peel the hide offen 'em. Tech it! No, sah, they ain't no nigger on this place that's a-goin' to rile me." And in her energy she told Randolph some homely truths.

"They ain't afeared of you, Mars Ran, 'caase they knows they can make up some cock an' bull story to fool you; an' they ain't afeared of Miss Betty 'cause they knows they can whip it 'roun' her with a pitiful face; but I's different. I rules 'em with the weepen of iron! They ain't none of 'em that can stand up before me with a lie, for I knows the innermost and hidden searchings of a nigger."

She extended her clenched hand with a savage gesture.

"An' I tells 'em. Mars Ran'll welt you with a withe, but I'll scarify you with a scorpeen!"

It was at this moment that my Uncle Abner entered.

Mammy Liza immediately assumed her company manners. She rose and made a little courtesy.

"'Eben', Mars Abner," she said; "is you all well?"

Abner replied, and Randolph came forward to receive him. He got my uncle a chair, and began to explain the matter with which he was engaged. Abner said that he had already got the story from Betty.

Randolph went back to his place behind the table, and to his judicial attitudes.

"There is no direct evidence bearing upon this robbery," he said, "consequently, in pursuing an investigation of it, we must follow the established and orderly formula laid down by the law writers. We must carefully scrutinize all the circumstances of time, place, motive, means, opportunity, and conduct. And, while upon a trial, a judge must assume the innocence of everybody indicated, upon an investigation, the inquisitor must assume their guilt."

He compressed his lips and continued with exalted dignity. "No one is to be exempt from consideration, not even the oldest and most trusted servants. The wisdom of this course was strikingly shown in Lord William Russell's case, where the facts indicated suicide, but a rigid application of this rule demonstrated that my Lord Russell had been, in fact, murdered by his valet."

My uncle did not interrupt. But Mammy Liza could not restrain her enthusiasm. She was very proud of Randolph, and, like all Negroes, associated ability with high sounding words. His grandiloquence and his pomposity were her delight. Her eyes beamed with admiration.

"Go on, Mars Ran," she said; "you certainly is a gran' talker." Randolph banged the table.

"Shut up!" he roared. "A man can't open his mouth in this house without being interrupted."

But Mammy Liza only beamed serenely. She was accustomed to these outbursts of her lord, and unembarrassed by them. She sat primly in her chair with the radiance of the beloved disciple.

It is one of the excellences of vanity that it cannot be overthrown by a chance blow. However desperately rammed, it always topples back upon its pedestal. Another would have gone hopelessly to wreckage under that, but not Randolph. He continued in his finest manner.

"Bearing this in mind," he said, "let us analyze the indicatory circumstances. It is possible, of course, that a criminal agent may plan his crime with skill, execute it without accident, and maintain the secret with equanimity, and that all interrogation following upon his act, will be wholly futile; but this is not usually true, as was conspicuously evidenced in Sir Ashby Cooper's case."

He paused and put the tips of his extended fingers together.

"What have we here to indicate the criminal agent? No human eye has seen the robber at his work, and there are no witnesses to speak; but we are not to abandon our investigation for that. The writers on the law tell us that circumstantial evidence in the case of crimes committed in secret is the most satisfactory from which to draw conclusions of guilt, for men may be seduced to perjury from base motives, but facts, as Mr. Baron Legg so aptly puts it, 'cannot lie'."

He made a large indicatory gesture toward his bookshelf.

"True," he said, "I would not go so far as Mr. Justice Butler in Donellan's case. I would not hold circumstantial evidence to be superior to direct evidence, nor would I take the position that it is wholly beyond the reach and compass of human abilities to invent a train of circumstances that might deceive the ordinary inexperienced magistrate. I would recall the Vroom case, and the lamentable error of Sir Matthew Hale, in hanging some sailors for the murder of a shipmate who was, in fact, not dead. But even that error, sir," and he addressed my uncle directly in the heat and eloquence of his oration, "if in the law one may ever take an illustration from the poets, bore a jewel in its head. It gave us Hale's Rule."

He paused for emphasis, and my uncle spoke.

"And what was that rule?" he said.

"That rule, sir," replied Randolph, "ought not to be stated from memory. It is a nefarious practice of our judges, whereby errors creep into the sound text. It should be read as it stands, sir, in the elegant language of Sir Matthew."

"Leaving out the elegant language of Sir Matthew," replied Abner, "what does the rule mean?"

"In substance and effect," continued Randolph, "but by no means in these words, the rule directs the magistrate to be first certain that a crime has been committed before he undertakes to punish anybody for it."

"Precisely!" said my uncle; "and it is the very best sense that I ever heard of in the law."

He held the gold cross out in his big palm.

"Take this case," he said. "What is the use to speculate about who stole the emeralds, when it is certain that they have not been stolen!"

"Not stolen!" cried Randolph. "They are gone!"

"Yes," replied Abner, "they are gone, but they are not stolen....I would ask you to consider this fact: If these emeralds had been stolen out of the cross, the tines of the metal which held the stones in place, would have been either broken off or pried up, and we would find either the new break in the metal, or the twisted projecting tines...But, instead," he continued, "the points of the setting are all quite smooth. What does that indicate?"

Randolph took the cross and examined it with care. "You are right, Abner," he said; "the settings are all worn away. I am not surprised; the cross is very old."

"And if the settings are worn away," continued my uncle, "what has become of the stones?" Randolph banged the table with his clenched hand.

"They have fallen out. Lost! By gad, sir!" My uncle leaned back in his chair, like one to whom a comment is superfluous. But Randolph delivered an oration. It was directed to Mammy Liza, and the tenor of it was felicitations upon the happy incident that turned aside suspicion from any member of his household. He grew eloquent, pictured his distress, and how his stern, impartial sense of justice had restrained it, and finally, with what seigniorial joy he now received the truth.

And the old woman sat under it in ecstatic rapture. She made little audible sighs and chirrups. Her elbows were lifted and she moved her body rhythmically to the swing of Randolph's periods. She was entranced at the eloquence, but the intent of Randolph's speech never reached her. She was beyond the acquittal, as she had been beyond the accusation. She continued to bow radiantly after Randolph had made an end.

"Yes, sah," she said; "yes, sah. Mars Ran, I done tole you that them jules wan't took by none of our niggers."

But, as for me, I was overcome with wonder. Here was my uncle convincing Randolph by a piece of evidence which he, himself, had deliberately manufactured on the face of the grindstone.

So that was what he had been at in the shed-grinding off the tines and polishing the settings with a piece of leather, so they would give the appearance of being worn. From my point of vantage in the snowball bush, I looked upon him with a growing interest. He sat, oblivious to Randolph's vaporings, looking beyond him, through the open window at the far-off green fields. He had taken these pains to acquit Mammy Liza. But some one was guilty then! And who? I got a hint of that within the next five minutes, and I was appalled.

"Liza," said Randolph, descending to the practical, "who sweeps Miss Betty's room?"

"Laws, Mars Ran," replied the old negro, "'course I does everything fo' my chile. The house niggers don't do nothin'-that is, they don't do nothin' 'thouten I sets an' watches 'em. I sets when they washes the winders, and I sets when they sweeps, an' I sets when they makes the bed up. I's been a-settin' there all the time Miss Betty's been gone, 'ceptin', of course, when Mars Cedward was there."

She paused and tittered.

"Bless my life, how young folks does carry on! Every day heah comes Mars Cedward a-ridin' up, an' he says, 'Howdy, Mammy, I reckon if I can't see Miss Betty, I'll have to run upstairs an' look at her Ma.' An' he lights offen his horse, 'Get your key, Mammy,' he says, 'an' open the sacred po'tals.' And I gets the key outen my pocket an' unlocks the do' an' he whippits in there to that little picture of Miss Betty's Ma, that hangs over her bureau."

The old woman paused and wiped a mist from her spectacles with an immaculate and carefully folded handkerchief.

"Yes, yes, sah, 'co'se Miss Betty does look like her Ma-she's the very spit-an'-image of her...Well, I goes along back an' sets down on the stair-steps, an' waits till Mars Cedward gets done with his worshiping, an' he comes along an' says, Thankee, Mammy, I reckon that'll have to last me until tomorrow,' an' then I goes back an' locks the do'. I's mighty keerful to lock do's. I ain't minded to have no 'quisitive nigger ramshakin' 'roun'."

But my uncle stopped her and sent her to Betty as evidence in the flesh that she had come acquit of Randolph's inquisition. And the two men fell into a talk upon other matters.

But I no longer listened. I sat within my bush and studied the impassive face of my Uncle Abner, and tried to join these contradictory incidents into something that I could understand. Slowly the thing came to me! But I did not push on into the inevitable conclusion. Its consequences were too appalling. I saw it and let it lie.

Somebody had pried the emeralds out of that cross,-somebody having access to the room. And that person was not Mammy Liza! Abner knew that...And he deliberately falsified the evidence. To acquit Mammy Liza? Something more than that, I thought. She was in no danger; even Randolph behind his judicial attitudes, had never entertained the idea for a moment. Then, this thing meant that my uncle had deliberately screened the real criminal. But why? Abner was no respecter of men. He stood for justice-clean and ruthless justice, tempered by no distinctions. Why, then, indeed?

And then I had an inspiration. Abner was thinking of some one beyond the criminal, and of the consequences to that one if the truth were known; and this thing he had done, he had done for her! And now I thought about her, too.

Her faith, her trust, the dearest illusion of her life had been imperiled, had been destroyed, but for my uncle's firm, deliberate act.

And then, another thing rose up desperately before me. How could he let this girl go on in ignorance of the truth? Must he not, after all, tell her what he knew? And my tongue grew dry in contemplation of that ordeal. And yet again, why? Love of her had been ultimately the motive. She need never know, and the secret might live out everybody's life. Moreover, for all his iron ways, Abner was a man who saw justice in its large and human aspect, and he stood for the spirit, above the letter, of the truth.

And yet, even there under the limited horizon of a child, I seemed to feel that he must tell her. And so when he finally got away from Randolph, and turned into the garden, I stalked him with desperate cunning. I was on fire to know what he would do. Would he speak? Or would he keep the thing forever silent? I had sat before two acts of this drama, and I would see what the curtains went down on. And I did see it from the shelter of the tall timothy-grass.

He found Betty at the foot of the garden. She ran to him in joy at Mammy Liza's vindication, and with pretty evidences of her affection. But he took her by the hand without a word and led her to a bench.

And when she was seated he sat down beside her. I could not see her face, but I could hear his voice and it was wonderfully kind.

"My child," he said, "there is always one reason, if no other, why good people must not undertake to work with a tool of the devil, and that reason is because they handle it so badly."

He paused and took the gold cross out of his pocket.

"Now here," he continued, "I have had to help somebody out who was the very poorest bungler with a devil's tool. I am not very skilled myself with that sort of an implement, but, dear me, I am not so bad a workman as this person!...Let me show you...The one who got the emeralds out of this cross left the twisted and broken tines to indicate a deliberate criminal act, so I had to grind them off in order that the thing might look like an accident...That cleared everybody-Mammy Liza, who had no motive for this act, and Edward Duncan, who had."

The girl stood straight up.

"Oh," she said, and her voice was a long shuddering whisper, "no one could think he did it!"

"And why not?" continued my uncle. "He had the opportunity and the motive. He was in the room during your absence, and he needed the money which those emeralds would bring in order to clear his lands of debt."

The girl clenched her bands and drew them in against her heart.

"But you don't think he stole them?" And again her voice was in that shuddering whisper.

I lay trembling.

"No," replied Abner, "I do not think that Edward Duncan stole these emeralds, because I know that they were never stolen at all."

He put out his hand and drew the girl down beside him.

"My child," he continued, "we must always credit the poorest-thief with some glimmering of intelligence. When I first saw this cross in your hand, I knew that this was not the work of a thief, because no thief would have painfully pried the emeralds out, in order to leave the cross behind as an evidence of his guilt. Now, there is a reason why this cross was left behind, but it is not the reason of a thief-two reasons, in fact: because some one wished to keep it, and because they were not afraid to do so.

"Now, my child," and Abner put his arm tenderly around the girl's shoulders, "who could that person be who treasured this cross and was not afraid to keep it?"

She clung to my uncle then, and I heard the confession among her sobbings. Edward Duncan was making every sacrifice for her, and she had made one for him. She had sold the emeralds in Baltimore, and through an agent, bought his mountain land. But he must never know, never in this world, and my Uncle Abner must promise her that upon his honor.

And lying in the deep timothy-grass, I heard him promise.

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.