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The old Master of Arts had a great reputation in the house where he lived for knowing everything that was going on. He rather enjoyed it; and sometimes amused himself with surprising his simple-hearted landlady and her boarders with the unaccountable results of his sagacity. One thing was quite beyond her comprehension. She was perfectly sure that Mr. Gridley could see out of the back of his head, just as other people see with their natural organs. Time and again he had told her what she was doing when his back was turned to her, just as if he had been sitting squarely in front of her. Some laughed at this foolish notion; but others, who knew more of the nebulous sciences, told her it was like's not jes' so. Folks had read letters laid ag'in' the pits o' their stomachs, 'n' why should n't they see out o' the backs o' their heads?
Now there was a certain fact at the bottom of this belief of Mrs. Hopkins; and as it world be a very small thing to make a mystery of so simple a matter, the reader shall have the whole benefit of knowing all there is in it,--not quite yet, however, of knowing all that came of it. It was not the mirror trick, of course, which Mrs. Felix Lorraine and other dangerous historical personages have so long made use of. It was nothing but this: Mr. Byles Gridley wore a pair of formidable spectacles with large round glasses. He had often noticed the reflection of objects behind him when they caught their images at certain angles, and had got the habit of very often looking at the reflecting surface of one or the other of the glasses, when he seemed to be looking through them. It put a singular power into his possession, which might possibly hereafter lead to something more significant than the mystification of the Widow Hopkins.
A short time before Myrtle Hazard's disappearance, Mr. Byles Gridley had occasion to call again at the office of Penhallow and Bradshaw on some small matter of business of his own. There were papers to look over, and he put on his great round-glassed spectacles. He and Mr. Penhallow sat down at the table, and Mr. Bradshaw was at a desk behind them. After sitting for a while, Mr. Penhallow seemed to remember something he had meant to attend to, for he said all at once: "Excuse me, Mr. Gridley. Mr. Bradshaw, if you are not busy, I wish you would look over this bundle of papers. They look like old receipted bills and memoranda of no particular use; but they came from the garret of the Withers place, and might possibly have something that would be of value. Look them over, will you, and see whether there is anything there worth saving."
The young man took the papers, and Mr. Penhallow sat down again at the table with Mr. Byles Gridley.
This last-named gentleman felt just then a strong impulse to observe the operations of Murray Bradshaw. He could not have given any very good reason for it, any more than any of us can for half of what we do.
"I should like to examine that conveyance we were speaking of once more," said he. "Please to look at this one in the mean time, will you, Mr. Penhallow?"
Master Gridley held the document up before him. He did not seem to find it quite legible, and adjusted his spectacles carefully, until they were just as he wanted them. When he had got them to suit himself, sitting there with his back to Murray Bradshaw, he could see him and all his movements, the desk at which he was standing, and the books in the shelves before him,--all this time appearing as if he were intent upon his own reading.
The young man began in a rather indifferent way to look over the papers. He loosened the band round them, and took them up one by one, gave a careless glance at them, and laid them together to tie up again when he had gone through them. Master Gridley saw all this process, thinking what a fool he was all the time to be watching such a simple proceeding. Presently he noticed a more sudden movement: the young man had found something which arrested his attention, and turned his head to see if he was observed. The senior partner and his client were both apparently deep in their own affairs. In his hand Mr. Bradshaw held a paper folded like the others, the back of which he read, holding it in such a way that Master Gridley saw very distinctly three large spots of ink upon it, and noticed their position. Murray Bradshaw took another hurried glance at the two gentlemen, and then quickly opened the paper. He ran it over with a flash of his eye, folded it again, and laid it by itself. With another quick turn of his head, as if to see whether he were observed or like to be, he reached his hand out and took a volume down from the shelves. In this volume he shut the document, whatever it was, which he had just taken out of the bundle, and placed the book in a very silent and as it were stealthy way back in its place. He then gave a look at each of the other papers, and said to his partner: "Old bills, old leases, and insurance policies that have run out. Malachi seems to have kept every scrap of paper that had a signature to it."
"That 's the way with the old misers, always," said Mr. Penhallow.
Byles Gridley had got through reading the document he held,--or pretending to read it. He took off his spectacles.
"We all grow timid and cautious as we get old, Mr. Penhallow." Then turning round to the young man, he slowly repeated the lines,
"'Multa senem circumveniunt incommoda, vel quod Quaerit et inventis miser abstinet, ac timet uti; Vel quod res omnes timide, gelideque ministrat '
You remember the passage, Mr. Bradshaw?"
While he was reciting these words from Horace, which he spoke slowly as if he relished every syllable, he kept his eyes on the young man steadily, but with out betraying any suspicion. His old habits as a teacher made that easy.
Murray Bradshaw's face was calm as usual, but there was a flush on his cheek, and Master Gridley saw the slight but unequivocal signs of excitement.
"Something is going on inside there," the old man said to himself. He waited patiently, on the pretext of business, until Mr. Bradshaw got up and left the office. As soon as he and the senior partner were alone, Master Gridley took a lazy look at some of the books in his library. There stood in the book-shelves a copy of the Corpus Juris Civilis,--the fine Elzevir edition of 1664. It was bound in parchment, and thus readily distinguishable at a glance from all the books round it. Now Mr. Penhallow was not much of a Latin scholar, and knew and cared very little about the civil law. He had fallen in with this book at an auction, and bought it to place in his shelves with the other "properties" of the office, because it would look respectable. Anything shut up in one of those two octavos might stay there a lifetime without Mr. Penhallow's disturbing it; that Master Gridley knew, and of course the young man knew it too.
We often move to the objects of supreme curiosity or desire, not in the lines of castle or bishop on the chess-board, but with the knight's zigzag, at first in the wrong direction, making believe to ourselves we are not after the thing coveted. Put a lump of sugar in a canary-bird's cage, and the small creature will illustrate the instinct for the benefit of inquirers or sceptics. Byles Gridley went to the other side of the room and took a volume of Reports from the shelves. He put it back and took a copy of "Fearne on Contingent Remainders," and looked at that for a moment in an idling way, as if from a sense of having nothing to do. Then he drew the back of his forefinger along the books on the shelf, as if nothing interested him in them, and strolled to the shelf in front of the desk at which Murray Bradshaw had stood. He took down the second volume of the Corpus Juris Civilis, turned the leaves over mechanically, as if in search of some title, and replaced it.
He looked round for a moment. Mr. Penhallow was writing hard at his table, not thinking of him, it was plain enough. He laid his hand on the FIRST volume of the Corpus Juris Civilis. There was a document shut up in it. His hand was on the book, whether taking it out or putting it back was not evident, when the door opened and Mr. William Murray Bradshaw entered.
"Ah, Mr. Gridley," he said, "you are not studying the civil law, are you?" He strode towards him as he spoke, his face white, his eyes fixed fiercely on him.
"It always interests me, Mr. Bradshaw," he answered, "and this is a fine edition of it. One may find a great many valuable things in the Corpus Juris Civilis."
He looked impenetrable, and whether or not he had seen more than Mr. Bradshaw wished him to see, that gentleman could not tell. But there stood the two books in their place, and when, after Master Gridley had gone, he looked in the first volume, there was the document he had shut up in it.
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