1. Where Is Bela?
A high and narrow gate of carefully joined boards, standing ajar in a fence of the
same construction! What is there in this to rouse a whole neighbourhood and
collect before it a group of eager, anxious, hesitating people?
I will tell you.
This fence is no ordinary fence, and this gate no ordinary gate; nor is the fact of
the latter standing a trifle open, one to be lightly regarded or taken an
inconsiderate advantage of. For this is Judge Ostrander's place, and any one
who knows Shelby or the gossip of its suburbs, knows that this house of his has
not opened its doors to any outsider, man or woman, for over a dozen years; nor
have his gates--in saying which, I include the great one in front--been seen in all
that time to gape at any one's instance or to stand unclosed to public intrusion,
no, not for a moment. The seclusion sought was absolute. The men and women
who passed and repassed this corner many times a day were as ignorant as the
townspeople in general of what lay behind the grey, monotonous exterior of the
weather-beaten boards they so frequently brushed against. The house was
there, of course,--they all knew the house, or did once--but there were rumours
(no one ever knew how they originated) of another fence, a second barrier,
standing a few feet inside the first and similar to it in all respects, even to the
gates which corresponded exactly with these outer and visible ones and probably
were just as fully provided with bolts and bars.
To be sure, these were reports rather than acknowledged facts, but the
possibility of their truth roused endless wonder and gave to the eccentricities of
this well-known man a mysterious significance which lost little or nothing in the
slow passage of years.
And now! in the freshness of this summer morning, without warning or any
seeming reason for the change, the strict habit of years has been broken into and
this gate of gates is not only standing unlocked before their eyes, but a woman--a
stranger to the town as her very act shows--has been seen to enter there!--to
enter, but not come out; which means that she must still be inside, and possibly
in the very presence of the judge.
Where is Bela? Why does he allow his errands--But it was Bela, or so they have
been told, who left this gate ajar ... he, the awe and terror of the town, the
enormous, redoubtable, close-mouthed negro, trusted as man is seldom trusted,
and faithful to his trust, yes, up to this very hour, as all must acknowledge, in
spite of every temptation (and they had been many and alluring) to disclose the
secret of this home of which he was not the least interesting factor. What has
made him thus suddenly careless, he who has never been careless before?
Money? A bribe from the woman who had entered there?
Impossible to believe, his virtue has always been so impeccable, his devotion to
his strange and dominating master so sturdy and so seemingly unaffected by
time and chance!
Yet, what else was there to believe? There stood the gate with the pebble
holding it away from the post; and here stood half the neighbourhood, staring at