But Mary Leavenworth, rising to her feet, looked judge and jury calmly in the face, and, without raising her voice, giving it an indescribably clear and sharp intonation, replied:
"No; I have neither suspicion nor reason for any. The assassin of my uncle is not only entirely unknown to, but completely unsuspected by, me."
It was like the removal of a stifling pressure. Amid a universal outgoing of the breath, Mary Leavenworth stood aside and Eleanore was called in her place.
VIII. CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE
"O dark, dark, dark!"
AND now that the interest was at its height, that the veil which shrouded this horrible tragedy seemed about to be lifted, if not entirely withdrawn, I felt a desire to fly the scene, to leave the spot, to know no more. Not that I was conscious of any particular fear of this woman betraying herself. The cold steadiness of her now fixed and impassive countenance was sufficient warranty in itself against the possibility of any such catastrophe. But if, indeed, the suspicions of her cousin were the offspring, not only of hatred, but of knowledge; if that face of beauty was in truth only a mask, and Eleanore Leavenworth was what the words of her cousin, and her own after behavior would seem to imply, how could I bear to sit there and see the frightful serpent of deceit and sin evolve itself from the bosom of this white rose! And yet, such is the fascination of uncertainty that, although I saw something of my own feelings reflected in the countenances of many about me, not a man in all that assemblage showed any disposition to depart, I least of all.
The coroner, upon whom the blonde loveliness of Mary had impressed itself to Eleanor's apparent detriment, was the only one in the room who showed himself unaffected at this moment. Turning toward the witness with a look which, while respectful, had a touch of austerity in it, he began:
"You have been an intimate of Mr. Leavenworth's family from childhood, they tell me, Miss Leavenworth?"
"From my tenth year," was her quiet reply.
It was the first time I had heard her voice, and it surprised me; it was so like, and yet so unlike, that of her cousin. Similar in tone, it lacked its expressiveness, if I may so speak; sounding without vibration on the ear, and ceasing without an echo.
"Since that time you have been treated like a daughter, they tell me?"
"Yes, sir, like a daughter, indeed; he was more than a father to both of us."
"You and Miss Mary Leavenworth are cousins, I believe. When did she enter the family?"
"At the same time I did. Our respective parents were victims of the same disaster. If it had not been for our uncle, we should have been thrown, children as we were, upon the world. But he"—here she paused, her firm lips breaking into a half tremble—"but he, in the goodness of his heart, adopted us into his family, and gave us what we had both lost, a father and a home."
"You say he was a father to you as well as to your cousin—that he adopted you. Do you mean by that, that he not only surrounded you with present luxury, but gave you to understand that the same should be secured to you after his death; in short, that he intended to leave any portion of his property to you?"
"No, sir; I was given to understand, from the first, that his property would be bequeathed by will to my cousin."
"Your cousin was no more nearly related to him than yourself, Miss Leavenworth; did he never give you any reason for this evident partiality?"
"None but his pleasure, sir."
Her answers up to this point had been so straightforward and satisfactory that a gradual confidence seemed to be taking the place of the rather uneasy doubts which had from the first circled about this woman's name and person. But at this admission, uttered as it was in a calm, unimpassioned voice, not only the jury, but myself, who had so much truer reason for distrusting her, felt that actual suspicion in her case must be very much shaken before the utter lack of motive which this reply so clearly betokened.
Meanwhile the coroner continued: "If your uncle was as kind to you as you say, you must have become very much attached to him?"
"Yes, sir," her mouth taking a sudden determined curve.
"His death, then, must have been a great shock to you?"
"Very, very great."
"Enough of itself to make you faint away, as they tell me you did, at the first glimpse you had of his body?"
"And yet you seemed to be prepared for it?"
"The servants say you were much agitated at finding your uncle did not make his appearance at the breakfast table."
"The servants!" her tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of her mouth; she could hardly speak.
"That when you returned from his room you were very pale."
Was she beginning to realize that there was some doubt, if not actual suspicion, in the mind of the man who could assail her with questions like these? I had not seen her so agitated since that one memorable instant up in her room. But her mistrust, if she felt any, did not long betray itself. Calming herself by a great effort, she replied, with a quiet gesture—
"That is not so strange. My uncle was a very methodical man; the least change in his habits would be likely to awaken our apprehensions."
"You were alarmed, then?"
"To a certain extent I was."
"Miss Leavenworth, who is in the habit of overseeing the regulation of your uncle's private apartments?"
"I am, sir."
"You are doubtless, then, acquainted with a certain stand in his room containing a drawer?"
"How long is it since you had occasion to go to this drawer?"
"Yesterday," visibly trembling at the admission.
"At what time?"
"Near noon, I should judge."
"Was the pistol he was accustomed to keep there in its place at the time?"
"I presume so; I did not observe."
"Did you turn the key upon closing the drawer?"
"Take it out?"
"Miss Leavenworth, that pistol, as you have perhaps observed, lies on the table before you. Will you look at it?" And lifting it up into view, he held it towards her.
If he had meant to startle her by the sudden action, he amply succeeded. At the first sight of the murderous weapon she shrank back, and a horrified, but quickly suppressed shriek, burst from her lips. "Oh, no, no!" she moaned, flinging out her hands before her.
"I must insist upon your looking at it, Miss Leavenworth," pursued the coroner. "When it was found just now, all the chambers were loaded."
Instantly the agonized look left her countenance. "Oh, then—" She did not finish, but put out her hand for the weapon.
But the coroner, looking at her steadily, continued: "It has been lately fired off, for all that. The hand that cleaned the barrel forgot the cartridge-chamber, Miss Leavenworth."
She did not shriek again, but a hopeless, helpless look slowly settled over her face, and she seemed about to sink; but like a flash the reaction came, and lifting her head with a steady, grand action I have never seen equalled, she exclaimed, "Very well, what then?"
The coroner laid the pistol down; men and women glanced at each other; every one seemed to hesitate to proceed. I heard a tremulous sigh at my side, and, turning, beheld Mary Leavenworth staring at her cousin with a startled flush on her cheek, as if she began to recognize that the public, as well as herself, detected something in this woman, calling for explanation.
At last the coroner summoned up courage to continue.
"You ask me, Miss Leavenworth, upon the evidence given, what then? Your question obliges me to say that no burglar, no hired assassin, would have used this pistol for a murderous purpose, and then taken the pains, not only to clean it, but to reload it, and lock it up again in the drawer from which he had taken it."
She did not reply to this; but I saw Mr. Gryce make a note of it with that peculiar emphatic nod of his.
"Nor," he went on, even more gravely, "would it be possible for any one who was not accustomed to pass in and out of Mr. Leavenworth's room at all hours, to enter his door so late at night, procure this pistol from its place of concealment, traverse his apartment, and advance as closely upon him as the facts show to have been necessary, without causing him at least to turn his head to one side; which, in consideration of the doctor's testimony, we cannot believe he did."
It was a frightful suggestion, and we looked to see Eleanore Leavenworth recoil. But that expression of outraged feeling was left for her cousin to exhibit. Starting indignantly from her seat, Mary cast one hurried glance around her, and opened her lips to speak; but Eleanore, slightly turning, motioned her to have patience, and replied in a cold and calculating voice: "You are not sure, sir, that this was done. If my uncle, for some purpose of his own, had fired the pistol off yesterday, let us say—which is surely possible, if not probable—the like results would be observed, and the same conclusions drawn."
"Miss Leavenworth," the coroner went on, "the ball has been extracted from your uncle's head!"
"It corresponds with those in the cartridges found in his stand drawer, and is of the number used with this pistol."
Her head fell forward on her hands; her eyes sought the floor; her whole attitude expressed disheartenment. Seeing it, the coroner grew still more grave.
"Miss Leavenworth," said he, "I have now some questions to put you concerning last night. Where did you spend the evening?"
"Alone, in my own room."
"You, however, saw your uncle or your cousin during the course of it?"
"No, sir; I saw no one after leaving the dinner table—except Thomas," she added, after a moment's pause.
"And how came you to see him?"
"He came to bring me the card of a gentleman who called."
"May I ask the name of the gentleman?"
"The name on the card was Mr. Le Roy Robbins."
The matter seemed trivial; but the sudden start given by the lady at my side made me remember it.
"Miss Leavenworth, when seated in your room, are you in the habit of leaving your door open?"
A startled look at this, quickly suppressed. "Not in the habit; no, sir."
"Why did you leave it open last night?"
"I was feeling warm."
"No other reason?"
"I can give no other."
"When did you close it?"
"Was that before or after the servants went up?"
"Did you hear Mr. Harwell when he left the library and ascended to his room?"
"I did, sir."
"How much longer did you leave your door open after that?"
"I—I—a few minutes—a—I cannot say," she added, hurriedly.
"Cannot say? Why? Do you forget?"
"I forget just how long after Mr. Harwell came up I closed it."
"Was it more than ten minutes?"
"More than twenty?"
"Perhaps." How pale her face was, and how she trembled!
"Miss Leavenworth, according to evidence, your uncle came to his death not very long after Mr. Harwell left him. If your door was open, you ought to have heard if any one went to his room, or any pistol shot was fired. Now, did you hear anything?"
"I heard no confusion; no, sir."
"Did you hear anything?"
"Nor any pistol shot."
"Miss Leavenworth, excuse my persistence, but did you hear anything?"
"I heard a door close."
"The library door."
"I do not know." She clasped her hands hysterically. "I cannot say. Why do you ask me so many questions?"
I leaped to my feet; she was swaying, almost fainting. But before I could reach her, she had drawn herself up again, and resumed her former demeanor. "Excuse me," said she; "I am not myself this morning. I beg your pardon," and she turned steadily to the coroner. "What was it you asked?"
"I asked," and his voice grew thin and high,—evidently her manner was beginning to tell against her,—"when it was you heard the library door shut?"
"I cannot fix the precise time, but it was after Mr. Harwell came up, and before I closed my own."
"And you heard no pistol shot?"
The coroner cast a quick look at the jury, who almost to a man glanced aside as he did so.
"Miss Leavenworth, we are told that Hannah, one of the servants, started for your room late last night after some medicine. Did she come there?"
"When did you first learn of her remarkable disappearance from this house during the night?"
"This morning before breakfast. Molly met me in the hall, and asked how Hannah was. I thought the inquiry a strange one, and naturally questioned her. A moment's talk made the conclusion plain that the girl was gone."
"What did you think when you became assured of this fact?"
"I did not know what to think."
"No suspicion of foul play crossed your mind?"
"You did not connect the fact with that of your uncle's murder?"
"I did not know of this murder then."
"Oh, some thought of the possibility of her knowing something about it may have crossed my mind; I cannot say."
"Can you tell us anything of this girl's past history?"
"I can tell you no more in regard to it than my cousin has done."
"Do you not know what made her sad at night?"
Her cheek flushed angrily; was it at his tone, or at the question itself? "No, sir! she never confided her secrets to my keeping."
"Then you cannot tell us where she would be likely to go upon leaving this house?"
"Miss Leavenworth, we are obliged to put another question to you. We are told it was by your order your uncle's body was removed from where it was found, into the next room."
She bowed her head.
"Didn't you know it to be improper for you or any one else to disturb the body of a person found dead, except in the presence and under the authority of the proper officer?"
"I did not consult my knowledge, sir, in regard to the subject: only my feelings."
"Then I suppose it was your feelings which prompted you to remain standing by the table at which he was murdered, instead of following the body in and seeing it properly deposited? Or perhaps," he went on, with relentless sarcasm, "you were too much interested, just then, in the piece of paper you took away, to think much of the proprieties of the occasion?"
"Paper?" lifting her head with determination. "Who says I took a piece of paper from the table?"
"One witness has sworn to seeing you bend over the table upon which several papers lay strewn; another, to meeting you a few minutes later in the hall just as you were putting a piece of paper into your pocket. The inference follows, Miss Leavenworth."
This was a home thrust, and we looked to see some show of agitation, but her haughty lip never quivered.
"You have drawn the inference, and you must prove the fact."
The answer was stateliness itself, and we were not surprised to see the coroner look a trifle baffled; but, recovering himself, he said:
"Miss Leavenworth, I must ask you again, whether you did or did not take anything from that table?"
She folded her arms. "I decline answering the question," she quietly said.
"Pardon me," he rejoined: "it is necessary that you should."
Her lip took a still more determined curve. "When any suspicious paper is found in my possession, it will be time enough then for me to explain how I came by it."
This defiance seemed to quite stagger the coroner.
"Do you realize to what this refusal is liable to subject you?"
She dropped her head. "I am afraid that I do; yes, sir."
Mr. Gryce lifted his hand, and softly twirled the tassel of the window curtain.
"And you still persist?"
She absolutely disdained to reply.
The coroner did not press it further.
It had now become evident to all, that Eleanore Leavenworth not only stood on her defence, but was perfectly aware of her position, and prepared to maintain it. Even her cousin, who until now had preserved some sort of composure, began to show signs of strong and uncontrollable agitation, as if she found it one thing to utter an accusation herself, and quite another to see it mirrored in the countenances of the men about her.
"Miss Leavenworth," the coroner continued, changing the line of attack, "you have always had free access to your uncle's apartments, have you not?"
"Might even have entered his room late at night, crossed it and stood at his side, without disturbing him sufficiently to cause him to turn his head?"
"Yes," her hands pressing themselves painfully together.
"Miss Leavenworth, the key to the library door is missing."
She made no answer.
"It has been testified to, that previous to the actual discovery of the murder, you visited the door of the library alone. Will you tell us if the key was then in the lock?"
"It was not."
"Are you certain?"
"Now, was there anything peculiar about this key, either in size or shape?"
She strove to repress the sudden terror which this question produced, glanced carelessly around at the group of servants stationed at her back, and trembled. "It was a little different from the others," she finally acknowledged.
"In what respect?"
"The handle was broken."
"Ah, gentlemen, the handle was broken!" emphasized the coroner, looking towards the jury.
Mr. Gryce seemed to take this information to himself, for he gave another of his quick nods.
"You would, then, recognize this key, Miss Leavenworth, if you should see it?"
She cast a startled look at him, as if she expected to behold it in his hand; but, seeming to gather courage at not finding it produced, replied quite easily:
"I think I should, sir."
The coroner seemed satisfied, and was about to dismiss the witness when Mr. Gryce quietly advanced and touched him on the arm. "One moment," said that gentleman, and stooping, he whispered a few words in the coroner's ear; then, recovering himself, stood with his right hand in his breast pocket and his eye upon the chandelier.
I scarcely dared to breathe. Had he repeated to the coroner the words he had inadvertently overheard in the hall above? But a glance at the latter's face satisfied me that nothing of such importance had transpired. He looked not only tired, but a trifle annoyed.
"Miss Leavenworth," said he, turning again in her direction; "you have declared that you did not visit your uncle's room last evening. Do you repeat the assertion?"
He glanced at Mr. Gryce, who immediately drew from his breast a handkerchief curiously soiled. "It is strange, then, that your handkerchief should have been found this morning in that room."
The girl uttered a cry. Then, while Mary's face hardened into a sort of strong despair, Eleanore tightened her lips and coldly replied, "I do not see as it is so very strange. I was in that room early this morning."
"And you dropped it then?"
A distressed blush crossed her face; she did not reply.
"Soiled in this way?" he went on.
"I know nothing about the soil. What is it? let me see."
"In a moment. What we now wish, is to know how it came to be in your uncle's apartment."
"There are many ways. I might have left it there days ago. I have told you I was in the habit of visiting his room. But first, let me see if it is my handkerchief." And she held out her hand.
"I presume so, as I am told it has your initials embroidered in the corner," he remarked, as Mr. Gryce passed it to her.
But she with horrified voice interrupted him. "These dirty spots! What are they? They look like—"
"—what they are," said the coroner. "If you have ever cleaned a pistol, you must know what they are, Miss Leavenworth."
She let the handkerchief fall convulsively from her hand, and stood staring at it, lying before her on the floor. "I know nothing about it, gentlemen," she said. "It is my handkerchief, but—" for some cause she did not finish her sentence, but again repeated, "Indeed, gentlemen, I know nothing about it!"
This closed her testimony.
Kate, the cook, was now recalled, and asked to tell when she last washed the handkerchief?
"This, sir; this handkerchief? Oh, some time this week, sir," throwing a deprecatory glance at her mistress.
"Well, I wish I could forget, Miss Eleanore, but I can' t. It is the only one like it in the house. I washed it day before yesterday."
"When did you iron it?"
"Yesterday morning," half choking over the words.
"And when did you take it to her room?"
The cook threw her apron over her head. "Yesterday afternoon, with the rest of the clothes, just before dinner. Indade, I could not help it, Miss Eleanore!" she whispered; "it was the truth."
Eleanore Leavenworth frowned. This somewhat contradictory evidence had very sensibly affected her; and when, a moment later, the coroner, having dismissed the witness, turned towards her, and inquired if she had anything further to say in the way of explanation or otherwise, she threw her hands up almost spasmodically, slowly shook her head and, without word or warning, fainted quietly away in her chair.
A commotion, of course, followed, during which I noticed that Mary did not hasten to her cousin, but left it for Molly and Kate to do what they could toward her resuscitation. In a few moments this was in so far accomplished that they were enabled to lead her from the room. As they did so, I observed a tall man rise and follow her out.
A momentary silence ensued, soon broken, however, by an impatient stir as our little juryman rose and proposed that the jury should now adjourn for the day. This seeming to fall in with the coroner's views, he announced that the inquest would stand adjourned till three o'clock the next day, when he trusted all the jurors would be present.
A general rush followed, that in a few minutes emptied the room of all but Miss Leavenworth, Mr. Gryce, and myself.
IX. A DISCOVERY
"His rolling Eies did never rest in place, But walkte each where for feare of hid mischance, Holding a lattis still before his Pace, Through which he still did peep as forward he did pace."
MISS LEAVENWORTH, who appeared to have lingered from a vague terror of everything and everybody in the house not under her immediate observation, shrank from my side the moment she found herself left comparatively alone, and, retiring to a distant corner, gave herself up to grief. Turning my attention, therefore, in the direction of Mr. Gryce, I found that person busily engaged in counting his own fingers with a troubled expression upon his countenance, which may or may not have been the result of that arduous employment. But, at my approach, satisfied perhaps that he possessed no more than the requisite number, he dropped his hands and greeted me with a faint smile which was, considering all things, too suggestive to be pleasant.
"Well," said I, taking my stand before him, "I cannot blame you. You had a right to do as you thought best; but how had you the heart? Was she not sufficiently compromised without your bringing out that wretched handkerchief, which she may or may not have dropped in that room, but whose presence there, soiled though it was with pistol grease, is certainly no proof that she herself was connected with this murder?"
"Mr. Raymond," he returned, "I have been detailed as police officer and detective to look after this case, and I propose to do it."
"Of course," I hastened to reply. "I am the last man to wish you to shirk your duly; but you cannot have the temerity to declare that this young and tender creature can by any possibility be considered as at all likely to be implicated in a crime so monstrous and unnatural. The mere assertion of another woman's suspicions on the subject ought not——"
But here Mr. Gryce interrupted me. "You talk when your attention should be directed to more important matters. That other woman, as you are pleased to designate the fairest ornament of New York society, sits over there in tears; go and comfort her."
Looking at him in amazement, I hesitated to comply; but, seeing he was in earnest, crossed to Mary Leavenworth and sat down by her side. She was weeping, but in a slow, unconscious way, as if grief had been mastered by fear. The fear was too undisguised and the grief too natural for me to doubt the genuineness of either.
"Miss Leavenworth," said I, "any attempt at consolation on the part of a stranger must seem at a time like this the most bitter of mockeries; but do try and consider that circumstantial evidence is not always absolute proof."
Starting with surprise, she turned her eyes upon me with a slow, comprehensive gaze wonderful to see in orbs so tender and womanly.
"No," she repeated; "circumstantial evidence is not absolute proof, but Eleanore does not know this. She is so intense; she cannot see but one thing at a time. She has been running her head into a noose, and oh,—" Pausing, she clutched my arm with a passionate grasp: "Do you think there is any danger? Will they—" She could not go on.
"Miss Leavenworth," I protested, with a warning look toward the detective, "what do you mean?"
Like a flash, her glance followed mine, an instant change taking place in her bearing.
"Your cousin may be intense," I went on, as if nothing had occurred; "but I do not know to what you refer when you say she has been running her head into a noose."
"I mean this," she firmly returned: "that, wittingly or unwittingly, she has so parried and met the questions which have been put to her in this room that any one listening to her would give her the credit of knowing more than she ought to of this horrible affair. She acts"—Mary whispered, but not so low but that every word could be distinctly heard in all quarters of the room—"as if she were anxious to conceal something. But she is not; I am sure she is not. Eleanore and I are not good friends; but all the world can never make me believe she has any more knowledge of this murder than I have. Won't somebody tell her, then—won't you—that her manner is a mistake; that it is calculated to arouse suspicion; that it has already done so? And oh, don't forget to add"—her voice sinking to a decided whisper now—"what you have just repeated to me: that circumstantial evidence is not always absolute proof."
I surveyed her with great astonishment. What an actress this woman was!
"You request me to tell her this," said I. "Wouldn't it be better for you to speak to her yourself?"
"Eleanore and I hold little or no confidential communication," she replied.
I could easily believe this, and yet I was puzzled. Indeed, there was something incomprehensible in her whole manner. Not knowing what else to say, I remarked, "That is unfortunate. She ought to be told that the straightforward course is the best by all means."
Mary Leavenworth only wept. "Oh, why has this awful trouble come to me, who have always been so happy before!"
"Perhaps for the very reason that you have always been so happy."
"It was not enough for dear uncle to die in this horrible manner; but she, my own cousin, had to——"
I touched her arm, and the action seemed to recall her to herself. Stopping short, she bit her lip.
"Miss Leavenworth," I whispered, "you should hope for the best. Besides, I honestly believe you to be disturbing yourself unnecessarily. If nothing fresh transpires, a mere prevarication or so of your cousin's will not suffice to injure her."
I said this to see if she had any reason to doubt the future. I was amply rewarded.
"Anything fresh? How could there be anything fresh, when she is perfectly innocent?"
Suddenly, a thought seemed to strike her. Wheeling round in her seat till her lovely, perfumed wrapper brushed my knee, she asked: "Why didn't they ask me more questions? I could have told them Eleanore never left her room last night."
"You could?" What was I to think of this woman?
"Yes; my room is nearer the head of the stairs than hers; if she had passed my door, I should have heard her, don't you see?"
Ah, that was all.
"That does not follow," I answered sadly. "Can you give no other reason?"
"I would say whatever was necessary," she whispered.
I started back. Yes, this woman would lie now to save her cousin; had lied during the inquest. But then I felt grateful, and now I was simply horrified.
"Miss Leavenworth," said I, "nothing can justify one in violating the dictates of his own conscience, not even the safety of one we do not altogether love."
"No?" she returned; and her lip took a tremulous curve, the lovely bosom heaved, and she softly looked away.
If Eleanore's beauty had made less of an impression on my fancy, or her frightful situation awakened less anxiety in my breast, I should have been a lost man from that moment.
"I did not mean to do anything very wrong," Miss Leavenworth continued. "Do not think too badly of me."
"No, no," said I; and there is not a man living who would not have said the same in my place.
What more might have passed between us on this subject I cannot say, for just then the door opened and a man entered whom I recognized as the one who had followed Eleanore Leavenworth out, a short time before.
"Mr. Gryce," said he, pausing just inside the door; "a word if you please."
The detective nodded, but did not hasten towards him; instead of that, he walked deliberately away to the other end of the room, where he lifted the lid of an inkstand he saw there, muttered some unintelligible words into it, and speedily shut it again. Immediately the uncanny fancy seized me that if I should leap to that inkstand, open it and peer in, I should surprise and capture the bit of confidence he had intrusted to it. But I restrained my foolish impulse, and contented myself with noting the subdued look of respect with which the gaunt subordinate watched the approach of his superior.
"Well?" inquired the latter as he reached him: "what now?"
The man shrugged his shoulders, and drew his principal through the open door. Once in the hall their voices sank to a whisper, and as their backs only were visible, I turned to look at my companion. She was pale but composed.
"Has he come from Eleanore?"
"I do not know; I fear so. Miss Leavenworth," I proceeded, "can it be possible that your cousin has anything in her possession she desires to conceal?"
"Then you think she is trying to conceal something?"
"I do not say so. But there was considerable talk about a paper——"
"They will never find any paper or anything else suspicious in Eleanore's possession," Mary interrupted. "In the first place, there was no paper of importance enough"—I saw Mr. Gryce's form suddenly stiffen—"for any one to attempt its abstraction and concealment."
"Can you be sure of that? May not your cousin be acquainted with something——"
"There was nothing to be acquainted with, Mr. Raymond. We lived the most methodical and domestic of lives. I cannot understand, for my part, why so much should be made out of this. My uncle undoubtedly came to his death by the hand of some intended burglar. That nothing was stolen from the house is no proof that a burglar never entered it. As for the doors and windows being locked, will you take the word of an Irish servant as infallible upon such an important point? I cannot. I believe the assassin to be one of a gang who make their living by breaking into houses, and if you cannot honestly agree with me, do try and consider such an explanation as possible; if not for the sake of the family credit, why then"—and she turned her face with all its fair beauty upon mine, eyes, cheeks, mouth all so exquisite and winsome—"why then, for mine."
Instantly Mr. Gryce turned towards us. "Mr. Raymond, will you be kind enough to step this way?"
Glad to escape from my present position, I hastily obeyed.
"What has happened?" I asked.
"We propose to take you into our confidence," was the easy response. "Mr. Raymond, Mr. Fobbs."
I bowed to the man I saw before me, and stood uneasily waiting. Anxious as I was to know what we really had to fear, I still intuitively shrank from any communication with one whom I looked upon as a spy.
"A matter of some importance," resumed the detective. "It is not necessary for me to remind you that it is in confidence, is it?"
"I thought not. Mr. Fobbs you may proceed."
Instantly the whole appearance of the man Fobbs changed. Assuming an expression of lofty importance, he laid his large hand outspread upon his heart and commenced.
"Detailed by Mr. Gryce to watch the movements of Miss Eleanore Leavenworth, I left this room upon her departure from it, and followed her and the two servants who conducted her up-stairs to her own apartment. Once there—-"
Mr. Gryce interrupted him. "Once there? where?"
"Her own room, sir."
"At the head of the stairs."
"That is not her room. Go on."
"Not her room? Then it was the fire she was after!" he cried, clapping himself on the knee.
"Excuse me; I am ahead of my story. She did not appear to notice me much, though I was right behind her. It was not until she had reached the door of this room—which was not her room!" he interpolated dramatically, "and turned to dismiss her servants, that she seemed conscious of having been followed. Eying me then with an air of great dignity, quickly eclipsed, however, by an expression of patient endurance, she walked in, leaving the door open behind her in a courteous way I cannot sufficiently commend."
I could not help frowning. Honest as the man appeared, this was evidently anything but a sore subject with him. Observing me frown, he softened his manner.
"Not seeing any other way of keeping her under my eye, except by entering the room, I followed her in, and took a seat in a remote corner. She flashed one look at me as I did so, and commenced pacing the floor in a restless kind of way I'm not altogether unused to. At last she stopped abruptly, right in the middle of the room. 'Get me a glass of water!' she gasped; 'I'm faint again—quick! on the stand in the corner.' Now in order to get that glass of water it was necessary for me to pass behind a dressing mirror that reached almost to the ceiling; and I naturally hesitated. But she turned and looked at me, and—Well, gentlemen, I think either of you would have hastened to do what she asked; or at least"—with a doubtful look at Mr. Gryce—"have given your two ears for the privilege, even if you didn't succumb to the temptation."
"Well, well!" exclaimed Mr. Gryce, impatiently.
"I am going on," said he. "I stepped cut of sight, then, for a moment; but it seemed long enough for her purpose; for when I emerged, glass in hand, she was kneeling at the grate full five feet from the spot where she had been standing, and was fumbling with the waist of her dress in a way to convince me she had something concealed there which she was anxious to dispose of. I eyed her pretty closely as I handed her the glass of water, but she was gazing into the grate, and didn't appear to notice. Drinking barely a drop, she gave it back, and in another moment was holding out her hands over the fire. 'Oh, I am so cold!' she cried, 'so cold.' And I verily believe she was. At any rate, she shivered most naturally. But there were a few dying embers in the grate, and when I saw her thrust her hand again into the folds of her dress I became distrustful of her intentions and, drawing a step nearer, looked over her shoulder, when I distinctly saw her drop something into the grate that clinked as it fell. Suspecting what it was, I was about to interfere, when she sprang to her feet, seized the scuttle of coal that was upon the hearth, and with one move emptied the whole upon the dying embers. 'I want a fire,' she cried, 'a fire!' 'That is hardly the way to make one,' I returned, carefully taking the coal out with my hands, piece by piece, and putting it back into the scuttle, till—"
"Till what?" I asked, seeing him and Mr. Gryce exchange a hurried look.
"Till I found this!" opening his large hand, and showing me a broken-handled key.
X. MR. GRYCE RECEIVES NEW IMPETUS
"There's nothing ill Can dwell in such a temple."
THIS astounding discovery made a most unhappy impression upon me. It was true, then. Eleanore the beautiful, the lovesome, was—I did not, could not finish the sentence, even in the silence of my own mind.
"You look surprised," said Mr. Gryce, glancing curiously towards the key. "Now, I ain't. A woman does not thrill, blush, equivocate, and faint for nothing; especially such a woman as Miss Leavenworth."
"A woman who could do such a deed would be the last to thrill, equivocate, and faint," I retorted. "Give me the key; let me see it."
He complacently put it in my hand. "It is the one we want. No getting out of that."
I returned it. "If she declares herself innocent, I will believe her."
He stared with great amazement. "You have strong faith in the women," he laughed. "I hope they will never disappoint you."
I had no reply for this, and a short silence ensued, first broken by Mr. Gryce. "There is but one thing left to do," said he. "Fobbs, you will have to request Miss Leavenworth to come down. Do not alarm her; only see that she comes. To the reception room," he added, as the man drew off.
No sooner were we left alone than I made a move to return to Mary, but he stopped me.
"Come and see it out," he whispered. "She will be down in a moment; see it out; you had best."
Glancing back, I hesitated; but the prospect of beholding Eleanore again drew me, in spite of myself. Telling him to wait, I returned to Mary's side to make my excuses.
"What is the matter—what has occurred?" she breathlessly asked.
"Nothing as yet to disturb you much. Do not be alarmed." But my face betrayed me.
"There is something!" said she.
"Your cousin is coming down."
"Down here?" and she shrank visibly.
"No, to the reception room."
"I do not understand. It is all dreadful; and no one tells me anything."
"I pray God there may be nothing to tell. Judging from your present faith in your cousin, there will not be. Take comfort, then, and be assured I will inform you if anything occurs which you ought to know."
Giving her a look of encouragement, I left her crushed against the crimson pillows of the sofa on which she sat, and rejoined Mr. Gryce. We had scarcely entered the reception room when Eleanore Leavenworth came in.
More languid than she was an hour before, but haughty still, she slowly advanced, and, meeting my eye, gently bent her head.
"I have been summoned here," said she, directing herself exclusively to Mr. Gryce, "by an individual whom I take to be in your employ. If so, may I request you to make your wishes known at once, as I am quite exhausted, and am in great need of rest."
"Miss Leavenworth," returned Mr. Gryce, rubbing his hands together and staring in quite a fatherly manner at the door-knob, "I am very sorry to trouble you, but the fact is I wish to ask you——"
But here she stopped him. "Anything in regard to the key which that man has doubtless told you he saw me drop into the ashes?"
"Then I must refuse to answer any questions concerning it. I have nothing to say on the subject, unless it is this:"—giving him a look full of suffering, but full of a certain sort of courage, too—"that he was right if he told you I had the key in hiding about my person, and that I attempted to conceal it in the ashes of the grate."
But she had already withdrawn to the door. "I pray you to excuse me," said she. "No argument you could advance would make any difference in my determination; therefore it would be but a waste of energy on your part to attempt any." And, with a flitting glance in my direction, not without its appeal, she quietly left the room.
For a moment Mr. Gryce stood gazing after her with a look of great interest, then, bowing with almost exaggerated homage, he hastily followed her out.
I had scarcely recovered from the surprise occasioned by this unexpected movement when a quick step was heard in the hall, and Mary, flushed and anxious, appeared at my side.
"What is it?" she inquired. "What has Eleanore been saying?"
"Alas!" I answered, "she has not said anything. That is the trouble, Miss Leavenworth. Your cousin preserves a reticence upon certain points very painful to witness. She ought to understand that if she persists in doing this, that——"
"That what?" There was no mistaking the deep anxiety prompting this question.
"That she cannot avoid the trouble that will ensue."
For a moment she stood gazing at me, with great horror-stricken, incredulous eyes; then sinking back into a chair, flung her hands over her face with the cry:
"Oh, why were we ever born! Why were we allowed to live! Why did we not perish with those who gave us birth!"
In the face of anguish like this, I could not keep still.
"Dear Miss Leavenworth," I essayed, "there is no cause for such despair as this. The future looks dark, but not impenetrable. Your cousin will listen to reason, and in explaining——"
But she, deaf to my words, had again risen to her feet, and stood before me in an attitude almost appalling.
"Some women in my position would go mad! mad! mad!"
I surveyed her with growing wonder. I thought I knew what she meant. She was conscious of having given the cue which had led to this suspicion of her cousin, and that in this way the trouble which hung over their heads was of her own making. I endeavored to soothe her, but my efforts were all unavailing. Absorbed in her own anguish, she paid but little attention to me. Satisfied at last that I could do nothing more for her, I turned to go. The movement seemed to arouse her.
"I am sorry to leave," said I, "without having afforded you any comfort. Believe me; I am very anxious to assist you. Is there no one I can send to your side; no woman friend or relative? It is sad to leave you alone in this house at such a time."
"And do you expect me to remain here? Why, I should die! Here to-night?" and the long shudders shook her very frame.
"It is not at all necessary for you to do so, Miss Leavenworth," broke in a bland voice over our shoulders.
I turned with a start. Mr. Gryce was not only at our back, but had evidently been there for some moments. Seated near the door, one hand in his pocket, the other caressing the arm of his chair, he met our gaze with a sidelong smile that seemed at once to beg pardon for the intrusion, and to assure us it was made with no unworthy motive. "Everything will be properly looked after, Miss; you can leave with perfect safety."
I expected to see her resent this interference; but instead of that, she manifested a certain satisfaction in beholding him there.
Drawing me to one side, she whispered, "You think this Mr. Gryce very clever, do you not?"
"Well," I cautiously replied, "he ought to be to hold the position he does. The authorities evidently repose great confidence in him."
Stepping from my side as suddenly as she had approached it, she crossed the room and stood before Mr. Gryce.
"Sir," said she, gazing at him with a glance of entreaty: "I hear you have great talents; that you can ferret out the real criminal from a score of doubtful characters, and that nothing can escape the penetration of your eye. If this is so, have pity on two orphan girls, suddenly bereft of their guardian and protector, and use your acknowledged skill in finding out who has committed this crime. It would be folly in me to endeavor to hide from you that my cousin in her testimony has given cause for suspicion; but I here declare her to be as innocent of wrong as I am; and I am only endeavoring to turn the eye of justice from the guiltless to the guilty when I entreat you to look elsewhere for the culprit who committed this deed." Pausing, she held her two hands out before him. "It must have been some common burglar or desperado; can you not bring him, then, to justice?"
Her attitude was so touching, her whole appearance so earnest and appealing, that I saw Mr. Gryce's countenance brim with suppressed emotion, though his eye never left the coffee-urn upon which it had fixed itself at her first approach.
"You must find out—you can!" she went on. "Hannah—the girl who is gone—must know all about it. Search for her, ransack the city, do anything; my property is at your disposal. I will offer a large reward for the detection of the burglar who did this deed!"
Mr. Gryce slowly rose. "Miss Leavenworth," he began, and stopped; the man was actually agitated. "Miss Leavenworth, I did not need your very touching appeal to incite me to my utmost duty in this case. Personal and professional pride were in themselves sufficient. But, since you have honored me with this expression of your wishes, I will not conceal from you that I shall feel a certain increased interest in the affair from this hour. What mortal man can do, I will do, and if in one month from this day I do not come to you for my reward, Ebenezer Gryce is not the man I have always taken him to be."
"We will mention no names," said he, gently waving his hand to and fro.
A few minutes later, I left the house with Miss Leavenworth, she having expressed a wish to have me accompany her to the home of her friend, Mrs. Gilbert, with whom she had decided to take refuge. As we rolled down the street in the carriage Mr. Gryce had been kind enough to provide for us, I noticed my companion cast a look of regret behind her, as if she could not help feeling some compunctions at this desertion of her cousin.
But this expression was soon changed for the alert look of one who dreads to see a certain face start up from some unknown quarter. Glancing up and down the street, peering furtively into doorways as we passed, starting and trembling if a sudden figure appeared on the curbstone, she did not seem to breathe with perfect ease till we had left the avenue behind us and entered upon Thirty-seventh Street. Then, all at once her natural color returned and, leaning gently toward me, she asked if I had a pencil and piece of paper I could give her. I fortunately possessed both. Handing them to her, I watched her with some little curiosity while she wrote two or three lines, wondering she could choose such a time and place for the purpose.
"A little note I wish to send," she explained, glancing at the almost illegible scrawl with an expression of doubt. "Couldn't you stop the carriage a moment while I direct it?"
I did so, and in another instant the leaf which I had torn from my note-book was folded, directed, and sealed with a stamp which she had taken from her own pocket-book.
"That is a crazy-looking epistle," she muttered, as she laid it, direction downwards, in her lap.
"Why not wait, then, till you arrive at your destination, where you can seal it properly, and direct it at your leisure?"
"Because I am in haste. I wish to mail it now. Look, there is a box on the corner; please ask the driver to stop once more."
"Shall I not post it for you?" I asked, holding out my hand.
But she shook her head, and, without waiting for my assistance, opened the door on her own side of the carriage and leaped to the ground. Even then she paused to glance up and down the street, before venturing to drop her hastily written letter into the box. But when it had left her hand, she looked brighter and more hopeful than I had yet seen her. And when, a few moments later, she turned to bid me good-by in front of her friend's house, it was with almost a cheerful air she put out her hand and entreated me to call on her the next day, and inform her how the inquest progressed.
I shall not attempt to disguise from you the fact that I spent all that long evening in going over the testimony given at the inquest, endeavoring to reconcile what I had heard with any other theory than that of Eleanore's guilt. Taking a piece of paper, I jotted down the leading causes of suspicion as follows:
1. Her late disagreement with her uncle, and evident estrangement from him, as testified to by Mr. Harwell.
2. The mysterious disappearance of one of the servants of the house.
3. The forcible accusation made by her cousin,—overheard, however, only by Mr. Gryce and myself.
4. Her equivocation in regard to the handkerchief found stained with pistol smut on the scene of the tragedy.
5. Her refusal to speak in regard to the paper which she was supposed to have taken from Mr. Leavenworth's table immediately upon the removal of the body.
6. The finding of the library key in her possession.
"A dark record," I involuntarily decided, as I looked it over; but even in doing so began jotting down on the other side of the sheet the following explanatory notes:
1. Disagreements and even estrangements between relatives are common. Cases where such disagreements and estrangements have led to crime, rare.
2. The disappearance of Hannah points no more certainly in one direction than another.
3. If Mary's private accusation of her cousin was forcible and convincing, her public declaration that she neither knew nor suspected who might be the author of this crime, was equally so. To be sure, the former possessed the advantage of being uttered spontaneously; but it was likewise true that it was spoken under momentary excitement, without foresight of the consequences, and possibly without due consideration of the facts.
4. 5. An innocent man or woman, under the influence of terror, will often equivocate in regard to matters that seem to criminate them.
But the key! What could I say to that? Nothing. With that key in her possession, and unexplained, Eleanore Leavenworth stood in an attitude of suspicion which even I felt forced to recognize. Brought to this point, I thrust the paper into my pocket, and took up the evening Express. Instantly my eye fell upon these words:
MR. LEAVENWORTH, THE WELL-KNOWN MILLIONAIRE, FOUND DEAD IN HIS ROOM
NO CLUE TO THE PERPETRATOR OF THE DEED
THE AWFUL CRIME COMMITTED WITH A PISTOL—EXTRAORDINARY FEATURES OP THE AFFAIR
Ah! here at least was one comfort; her name was not yet mentioned as that of a suspected party. But what might not the morrow bring? I thought of Mr. Gryce's expressive look as he handed me that key, and shuddered.
"She must be innocent; she cannot be otherwise," I reiterated to myself, and then pausing, asked what warranty I had of this? Only her beautiful face; only, only her beautiful face. Abashed, I dropped the newspaper, and went down-stairs just as a telegraph boy arrived with a message from Mr. Veeley. It was signed by the proprietor of the hotel at which Mr. Veeley was then stopping and ran thus:
"WASHINGTON, D. C.
"MR. Everett Raymond—
"Mr. Veeley is lying at my house ill. Have not shown him telegram, fearing results. Will do so as soon as advisable.
I went in musing. Why this sudden sensation of relief on my part? Could it be that I had unconsciously been guilty of cherishing a latent dread of my senior's return? Why, who else could know so well the secret springs which governed this family? Who else could so effectually put me upon the right track? Was it possible that I, Everett Raymond, hesitated to know the truth in any case? No, that should never be said; and, sitting down again, I drew out the memoranda I had made and, looking them carefully over, wrote against No. 6 the word suspicious in good round characters. There! do one could say, after that, I had allowed myself to be blinded by a bewitching face from seeing what, in a woman with no claims to comeliness, would be considered at once an almost indubitable evidence of guilt.
And yet, after it was all done, I found myself repeating aloud as I gazed at it: "If she declares herself innocent, I will believe her." So completely are we the creatures of our own predilections.
XI. THE SUMMONS
"The pink of courtesy." Romeo and Juliet.
THE morning papers contained a more detailed account of the murder than those of the evening before; but, to my great relief, in none of them was Eleanore's name mentioned in the connection I most dreaded.
The final paragraph in the Times ran thus: "The detectives are upon the track of the missing girl, Hannah." And in the Herald I read the following notice:
"A Liberal Reward will be given by the relatives of Horatio Leavenworth, Esq., deceased, for any news of the whereabouts of one Hannah Chester, disappeared from the house ———— Fifth Avenue since the evening of March 4. Said girl was of Irish extraction; in age about twenty-five, and may be known by the following characteristics. Form tall and slender; hair dark brown with a tinge of red; complexion fresh; features delicate and well made; hands small, but with the fingers much pricked by the use of the needle; feet large, and of a coarser type than the hands. She had on when last seen a checked gingham dress, brown and white, and was supposed to have wrapped herself in a red and green blanket shawl, very old. Beside the above distinctive marks, she had upon her right hand wrist the scar of a large burn; also a pit or two of smallpox upon the left temple."
This paragraph turned my thoughts in a new direction. Oddly enough, I had expended very little thought upon this girl; and yet how apparent it was that she was the one person upon whose testimony, if given, the whole case in reality hinged, I could not agree with those who considered her as personally implicated in the murder. An accomplice, conscious of what was before her, would have hid in her pockets whatever money she possessed. But the roll of bills found in Hannah's trunk proved her to have left too hurriedly for this precaution. On the other hand, if this girl had come unexpectedly upon the assassin at his work, how could she have been hustled from the house without creating a disturbance loud enough to have been heard by the ladies, one of whom had her door open? An innocent girl's first impulse upon such an occasion would have been to scream; and yet no scream was heard; she simply disappeared. What were we to think then? That the person seen by her was one both known and trusted? I would not consider such a possibility; so laying down the paper, I endeavored to put away all further consideration of the affair till I had acquired more facts upon which to base the theory. But who can control his thoughts when over-excited upon any one theme? All the morning I found myself turning the case over in my mind, arriving ever at one of two conclusions. Hannah Chester must be found, or Eleanore Leavenworth must explain when and by what means the key of the library door came into her possession.
At two o'clock I started from my office to attend the inquest; but, being delayed on the way, missed arriving at the house until after the delivery of the verdict. This was a disappointment to me, especially as by these means I lost the opportunity of seeing Eleanore Leavenworth, she having retired to her room immediately upon the dismissal of the jury. But Mr. Harwell was visible, and from him I heard what the verdict had been.
"Death by means of a pistol shot from the hand of some person unknown."
The result of the inquest was a great relief to me. I had feared worse. Nor could I help seeing that, for all his studied self-command, the pale-faced secretary shared in my satisfaction.
What was less of a relief to me was the fact, soon communicated, that Mr. Gryce and his subordinates had left the premises immediately upon the delivery of the verdict. Mr. Gryce was not the man to forsake an affair like this while anything of importance connected with it remained unexplained. Could it be he meditated any decisive action? Somewhat alarmed, I was about to hurry from the house for the purpose of learning what his intentions were, when a sudden movement in the front lower window of the house on the opposite side of the way arrested my attention, and, looking closer, I detected the face of Mr. Fobbs peering out from behind the curtain. The sight assured me I was not wrong in my estimate of Mr. Gryce; and, struck with pity for the desolate girl left to meet the exigencies of a fate to which this watch upon her movements was but the evident precursor, I stepped back and sent her a note, in which, as Mr. Veeley's representative, I proffered my services in case of any sudden emergency, saying I was always to be found in my rooms between the hours of six and eight. This done, I proceeded to the house in Thirty-seventh Street where I had left Miss Mary Leavenworth the day before.
Ushered into the long and narrow drawing-room which of late years has been so fashionable in our uptown houses, I found myself almost immediately in the presence of Miss Leavenworth.
"Oh," she cried, with an eloquent gesture of welcome, "I had begun to think I was forsaken!" and advancing impulsively, she held out her hand. "What is the news from home?"
"A verdict of murder, Miss Leavenworth."
Her eyes did not lose their question.
"Perpetrated by party or parties unknown."
A look of relief broke softly across her features.
"And they are all gone?" she exclaimed.
"I found no one in the house who did not belong there."
"Oh! then we can breathe easily again."
I glanced hastily up and down the room.
"There is no one here," said she.
And still I hesitated. At length, in an awkward way enough, I turned towards her and said:
"I do not wish either to offend or alarm you, but I must say that I consider it your duty to return to your own home to-night."
"Why?" she stammered. "Is there any particular reason for my doing so? Have you not perceived the impossibility of my remaining in the same house with Eleanore?"
"Miss Leavenworth, I cannot recognize any so-called impossibility of this nature. Eleanore is your cousin; has been brought up to regard you as a sister; it is not worthy of you to desert her at the time of her necessity. You will see this as I do, if you will allow yourself a moment's dispassionate thought."
"Dispassionate thought is hardly possible under the circumstances," she returned, with a smile of bitter irony.
But before I could reply to this, she softened, and asked if I was very anxious to have her return; and when I replied, "More than I can say," she trembled and looked for a moment as if she were half inclined to yield; but suddenly broke into tears, crying it was impossible, and that I was cruel to ask it.
I drew back, baffled and sore. "Pardon me," said I, "I have indeed transgressed the bounds allotted to me. I will not do so again; you have doubtless many friends; let some of them advise you."
She turned upon me all fire. "The friends you speak of are flatterers. You alone have the courage to command me to do what is right."
"Excuse me, I do not command; I only entreat."
She made no reply, but began pacing the room, her eyes fixed, her hands working convulsively. "You little know what you ask," said she. "I feel as though the very atmosphere of that house would destroy me; but—why cannot Eleanore come here?" she impulsively inquired. "I know Mrs. Gilbert will be quite willing, and I could keep my room, and we need not meet."
"You forget that there is another call at home, besides the one I have already mentioned. To-morrow afternoon your uncle is to be buried."
"O yes; poor, poor uncle!"
"You are the head of the household," I now ventured, "and the proper one to attend to the final offices towards one who has done so much for you."
There was something strange in the look which she gave me. "It is true," she assented. Then, with a grand turn of her body, and a quick air of determination: "I am desirous of being worthy of your good opinion. I will go back to my cousin, Mr. Raymond."
I felt my spirits rise a little; I took her by the hand. "May that cousin have no need of the comfort which I am now sure you will be ready to give her."
Her hand dropped from mine. "I mean to do my duty," was her cold response.
As I descended the stoop, I met a certain thin and fashionably dressed young man, who gave me a very sharp look as he passed. As he wore his clothes a little too conspicuously for the perfect gentleman, and as I had some remembrance of having seen him at the inquest, I set him down for a man in Mr. Gryce's employ, and hasted on towards the avenue; when what was my surprise to find on the corner another person, who, while pretending to be on the look out for a car, cast upon me, as I approached, a furtive glance of intense inquiry. As this latter was, without question, a gentleman, I felt some annoyance, and, walking quietly up to him, asked if he found my countenance familiar, that he scrutinized it so closely.
"I find it a very agreeable one," was his unexpected reply, as he turned from me and walked down the avenue.
Nettled, and in no small degree mortified, at the disadvantage in which his courtesy had placed me, I stood watching him as he disappeared, asking myself who and what he was. For he was not only a gentleman, but a marked one; possessing features of unusual symmetry as well as a form of peculiar elegance. Not so very young—he might well be forty—there were yet evident on his face the impress of youth's strongest emotions, not a curve of his chin nor a glance of his eye betraying in any way the slightest leaning towards ennui, though face and figure were of that type which seems most to invite and cherish it.
"He can have no connection with the police force," thought I; "nor is it by any means certain that he knows me, or is interested in my affairs; but I shall not soon forget him, for all that."
The summons from Eleanore Leavenworth came about eight o'clock in the evening. It was brought by Thomas, and read as follows:
"Come, Oh, come! I—" there breaking off in a tremble, as if the pen had fallen from a nerveless hand.
It did not take me long to find my way to her home.
"Constant you are—... And for secrecy No lady closer."
"No, 't is slander, Whose edge is sharper than the sword whose tongue Outvenoms all the worms of Nile."
THE door was opened by Molly. "You will find Miss Eleanore in the drawing-room, sir," she said, ushering me in.
Fearing I knew not what, I hurried to the room thus indicated, feeling as never before the sumptuous-ness of the magnificent hall with its antique flooring, carved woods, and bronze ornamentations:—the mockery of things for the first time forcing itself upon me. Laying my hand on the drawing-room door, I listened. All was silent. Slowly pulling it open, I lifted the heavy satin curtains hanging before me to the floor, and looked within. What a picture met my eyes!
Sitting in the light of a solitary gas jet, whose faint glimmering just served to make visible the glancing satin and stainless marble of the gorgeous apartment, I beheld Eleanore Leavenworth. Pale as the sculptured image of the Psyche that towered above her from the mellow dusk of the bow-window near which she sat, beautiful as it, and almost as immobile, she crouched with rigid hands frozen in forgotten entreaty before her, apparently insensible to sound, movement, or touch; a silent figure of despair in presence of an implacable fate.
Impressed by the scene, I stood with my hand upon the curtain, hesitating if to advance or retreat, when suddenly a sharp tremble shook her impassive frame, the rigid hands unlocked, the stony eyes softened, and, springing to her feet, she uttered a cry of satisfaction, and advanced towards me.
"Miss Leavenworth!" I exclaimed, starting at the sound of my own voice.
She paused, and pressed her hands to her face, as if the world and all she had forgotten had rushed back upon her at this simple utterance of her name.
"What is it?" I asked.
Her hands fell heavily. "Do you not know? They—they are beginning to say that I—" she paused, and clutched her throat. "Read!" she gasped, pointing to a newspaper lying on the floor at her feet.
I stooped and lifted what showed itself at first glance to be the Evening Telegram. It needed but a single look to inform me to what she referred. There, in startling characters, I beheld:
THE LEAVENWORTH MURDER
LATEST DEVELOPMENTS IN THE MYSTERIOUS CASE
A MEMBER OF THE MURDERED MAN'S OWN FAMILY STRONGLY SUSPECTED OF THE CRIME
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN NEW YORK UNDER A CLOUD
PAST HISTORY OP MISS ELEANORE LEAVENWORTH
I was prepared for it; had schooled myself for this very thing, you might say; and yet I could not help recoiling. Dropping the paper from my hand, I stood before her, longing and yet dreading to look into her face.
"What does it mean?" she panted; "what, what does it mean? Is the world mad?" and her eyes, fixed and glassy, stared into mine as if she found it impossible to grasp the sense of this outrage.
I shook my head. I could not reply.
"To accuse me" she murmured; "me, me!" striking her breast with her clenched hand, "who loved the very ground he trod upon; who would have cast my own body between him and the deadly bullet if I had only known his danger. Oh!" she cried, "it is not a slander they utter, but a dagger which they thrust into my heart!"
Overcome by her misery, but determined not to show my compassion until more thoroughly convinced of her complete innocence, I replied, after a pause:
"This seems to strike you with great surprise, Miss Leavenworth; were you not then able to foresee what must follow your determined reticence upon certain points? Did you know so little of human nature as to imagine that, situated as you are, you could keep silence in regard to any matter connected with this crime, without arousing the antagonism of the crowd, to say nothing of the suspicions of the police?"
I hurriedly waved my hand. "When you defied the coroner to find any suspicious paper in your possession; when"—I forced myself to speak—"you refused to tell Mr. Gryce how you came in possession of the key—"
She drew hastily back, a heavy pall seeming to fall over her with my words.
"Don't," she whispered, looking in terror about her. "Don't! Sometimes I think the walls have ears, and that the very shadows listen."
"Ah," I returned; "then you hope to keep from the world what is known to the detectives?"
She did not answer.
"Miss Leavenworth," I went on, "I am afraid you do not comprehend your position. Try to look at the case for a moment in the light of an unprejudiced person; try to see for yourself the necessity of explaining——"
"But I cannot explain," she murmured huskily.
I do not know whether it was the tone of my voice or the word itself, but that simple expression seemed to affect her like a blow.
"Oh!" she cried, shrinking back: "you do not, cannot doubt me, too? I thought that you—" and stopped. "I did not dream that I—" and stopped again. Suddenly her whole form quivered. "Oh, I see! You have mistrusted me from the first; the appearances against me have been too strong"; and she sank inert, lost in the depths of her shame and humiliation. "Ah, but now I am forsaken!" she murmured.
The appeal went to my heart. Starting forward, I exclaimed: "Miss Leavenworth, I am but a man; I cannot see you so distressed. Say that you are innocent, and I will believe you, without regard to appearances."
Springing erect, she towered upon me. "Can any one look in my face and accuse me of guilt?" Then, as I sadly shook my head, she hurriedly gasped: "You want further proof!" and, quivering with an extraordinary emotion, she sprang to the door.
"Come, then," she cried, "come!" her eyes flashing full of resolve upon me.
Aroused, appalled, moved in spite of myself, I crossed the room to where she stood; but she was already in the hall. Hastening after her, filled with a fear I dared not express, I stood at the foot of the stairs; she was half-way to the top. Following her into the hall' above, I saw her form standing erect and noble at the door of her uncle's bedroom.
"Come!" she again cried, but this time in a calm and reverential tone; and flinging the door open before her, she passed in.
Subduing the wonder which I felt, I slowly followed her. There was no light in the room of death, but the flame of the gas-burner, at the far end of the hall, shone weirdly in, and by its glimmering I beheld her kneeling at the shrouded bed, her head bowed above that of the murdered man, her hand upon his breast.
"You have said that if I declared my innocence you would believe me," she exclaimed, lifting her head as I entered. "See here," and laying her cheek against the pallid brow of her dead benefactor, she kissed the clay-cold lips softly, wildly, agonizedly, then, leaping to her feet, cried, in a subdued but thrilling tone: "Could I do that if I were guilty? Would not the breath freeze on my lips, the blood congeal in my veins, and my heart faint at this contact? Son of a father loved and reverenced, can you believe me to be a woman stained with crime when I can do this?" and kneeling again she cast her arms over and about that inanimate form, looking in my face at the same time with an expression no mortal touch could paint, nor tongue describe.
"In olden times," she went on, "they used to say that a dead body would bleed if its murderer came in contact with it. What then would happen here if I, his daughter, his cherished child, loaded with benefits, enriched with his jewels, warm with his kisses, should be the thing they accuse me of? Would not the body of the outraged dead burst its very shroud and repel me?"
I could not answer; in the presence of some scenes the tongue forgets its functions.
"Oh!" she went on, "if there is a God in heaven who loves justice and hates a crime, let Him hear me now. If I, by thought or action, with or without intention, have been the means of bringing this dear head to this pass; if so much as the shadow of guilt, let alone the substance, lies upon my heart and across these feeble woman's hands, may His wrath speak in righteous retribution to the world, and here, upon the breast of the dead, let this guilty forehead fall, never to rise again!"
An awed silence followed this invocation; then a long, long sigh of utter relief rose tremulously from my breast, and all the feelings hitherto suppressed in my heart burst their bonds, and leaning towards her I took her hand in mine.
"You do not, cannot believe me tainted by crime now?" she whispered, the smile which does not stir the lips, but rather emanates from the countenance, like the flowering of an inner peace, breaking softly out on cheek and brow.
"Crime!" The word broke uncontrollably from my lips; "crime!"
"No," she said calmly, "the man does not live who could accuse me of crime, here."
For reply, I took her hand, which lay in mine, and placed it on the breast of the dead.
Softly, slowly, gratefully, she bowed her head.
"Now let the struggle come!" she whispered. "There is one who will believe in me, however dark appearances may be."
XIII. THE PROBLEM
"But who would force the soul, tilts with a straw Against a champion cased in adamant." Wordsworth.
WHEN we re-entered the parlor below, the first sight that met our eyes was Mary, standing wrapped in her long cloak in the centre of the room. She had arrived during our absence, and now awaited us with lifted head and countenance fixed in its proudest expression. Looking in her face, I realized what the embarrassment of this meeting must be to these women, and would have retreated, but something in the attitude of Mary Leavenworth seemed to forbid my doing so. At the same time, determined that the opportunity should not pass without some sort of reconcilement between them, I stepped forward, and, bowing to Mary, said:
"Your cousin has just succeeded in convincing me of her entire innocence, Miss Leavenworth. I am now ready to join Mr. Gryce, heart and soul, in finding out the true culprit."
"I should have thought one look into Eleanore Leavenworth's face would have been enough to satisfy you that she is incapable of crime," was her unexpected answer; and, lifting her head with a proud gesture, Mary Leavenworth fixed her eyes steadfastly on mine.
I felt the blood flash to my brow, but before I could speak, her voice rose again still more coldly than before.
"It is hard for a delicate girl, unused to aught but the most flattering expressions of regard, to be obliged to assure the world of her innocence in respect to the committal of a great crime. Eleanore has my sympathy." And sweeping her cloak from her shoulders with a quick gesture, she turned her gaze for the first time upon her cousin.
Instantly Eleanore advanced, as if to meet it; and I could not but feel that, for some reason, this moment possessed an importance for them which I was scarcely competent to measure. But if I found myself unable to realize its significance, I at least responded to its intensity. And indeed it was an occasion to remember. To behold two such women, either of whom might be considered the model of her time, face to face and drawn up in evident antagonism, was a sight to move the dullest sensibilities. But there was something more in this scene than that. It was the shock of all the most passionate emotions of the human soul; the meeting of waters of whose depth and force I could only guess by the effect. Eleanore was the first to recover. Drawing back with the cold haughtiness which, alas, I had almost forgotten in the display of later and softer emotions, she exclaimed:
"There is something better than sympathy, and that is justice"; and turned, as if to go. "I will confer with you in the reception room, Mr. Raymond."
But Mary, springing forward, caught her back with one powerful hand. "No," she cried, "you shall confer with me! I have something to say to you, Eleanore Leavenworth." And, taking her stand in the centre of the room, she waited.
I glanced at Eleanore, saw this was no place for me, and hastily withdrew. For ten long minutes I paced the floor of the reception room, a prey to a thousand doubts and conjectures. What was the secret of this home? What had given rise to the deadly mistrust continually manifested between these cousins, fitted by nature for the completest companionship and the most cordial friendship? It was not a thing of to-day or yesterday. No sudden flame could awake such concentrated heat of emotion as that of which I had just been the unwilling witness. One must go farther back than this murder to find the root of a mistrust so great that the struggle it caused made itself felt even where I stood, though nothing but the faintest murmur came to my ears through the closed doors.
Presently the drawing-room curtain was raised, and Mary's voice was heard in distinct articulation.
"The same roof can never shelter us both after this. To-morrow, you or I find another home." And, blushing and panting, she stepped into the hall and advanced to where I stood. But at the first sight of my face, a change came over her; all her pride seemed to dissolve, and, flinging out her hands, as if to ward off scrutiny, she fled from my side, and rushed weeping up-stairs.
I was yet laboring under the oppression caused by this painful termination of the strange scene when the parlor curtain was again lifted, and Eleanore entered the room where I was. Pale but calm, showing no evidences of the struggle she had just been through, unless by a little extra weariness about the eyes, she sat down by my side, and, meeting my gaze with one unfathomable in its courage, said after a pause: "Tell me where I stand; let me know the worst at once; I fear that I have not indeed comprehended my own position."
Rejoiced to hear this acknowledgment from her lips, I hastened to comply. I began by placing before her the whole case as it appeared to an unprejudiced person; enlarged upon the causes of suspicion, and pointed out in what regard some things looked dark against her, which perhaps to her own mind were easily explainable and of small account; tried to make her see the importance of her decision, and finally wound up with an appeal. Would she not confide in me?
"But I thought you were satisfied?" she tremblingly remarked.
"And so I am; but I want the world to be so, too."
"Ah; now you ask too much! The finger of suspicion never forgets the way it has once pointed," she sadly answered. "My name is tainted forever."
"And you will submit to this, when a word—"
"I am thinking that any word of mine now would make very little difference," she murmured.
I looked away, the vision of Mr. Fobbs, in hiding behind the curtains of the opposite house, recurring painfully to my mind.
"If the affair looks as bad as you say it does," she pursued, "it is scarcely probable that Mr. Gryce will care much for any interpretation of mine in regard to the matter."
"Mr. Gryce would be glad to know where you procured that key, if only to assist him in turning his inquiries in the right direction."
She did not reply, and my spirits sank in renewed depression.
"It is worth your while to satisfy him," I pursued; "and though it may compromise some one you desire to shield——"
She rose impetuously. "I shall never divulge to any one how I came in possession of that key." And sitting again, she locked her hands in fixed resolve before her.
I rose in my turn and paced the floor, the fang of an unreasoning jealousy striking deep into my heart.
"Mr. Raymond, if the worst should come, and all who love me should plead on bended knees for me to tell, I will never do it."
"Then," said I, determined not to disclose my secret thought, but equally resolved to find out if possible her motive for this silence, "you desire to defeat the cause of justice."
She neither spoke nor moved.
"Miss Leavenworth," I now said, "this determined shielding of another at the expense of your own good name is no doubt generous of you; but your friends and the lovers of truth and justice cannot accept such a sacrifice."
She started haughtily. "Sir!" she said.
"If you will not assist us," I went on calmly, but determinedly, "we must do without your aid. After the scene I have just witnessed above; after the triumphant conviction which you have forced upon me, not only of your innocence, but your horror of the crime and its consequences, I should feel myself less than a man if I did not sacrifice even your own good opinion, in urging your cause, and clearing your character from this foul aspersion."
Again that heavy silence.
"What do you propose to do?" she asked, at last.
Crossing the room, I stood before her. "I propose to relieve you utterly and forever from suspicion, by finding out and revealing to the world the true culprit."
I expected to see her recoil, so positive had I become by this time as to who that culprit was. But instead of that, she merely folded her hands still more tightly and exclaimed:
"I doubt if you will be able to do that, Mr. Raymond."
"Doubt if I will be able to put my finger upon the guilty man, or doubt if I will be able to bring him to justice?"
"I doubt," she said with strong effort, "if any one ever knows who is the guilty person in this case."
"There is one who knows," I said with a desire to test her.
"The girl Hannah is acquainted with the mystery of that night's evil doings, Miss Leavenworth. Find Hannah, and we find one who can point out to us the assassin of your uncle."
"That is mere supposition," she said; but I saw the blow had told.
"Your cousin has offered a large reward for the girl, and the whole country is on the lookout. Within a week we shall see her in our midst."
A change took place in her expression and bearing.
"The girl cannot help me," she said.
Baffled by her manner, I drew back. "Is there anything or anybody that can?"
She slowly looked away.
"Miss Leavenworth," I continued with renewed earnestness, "you have no brother to plead with you, you have no mother to guide you; let me then entreat, in default of nearer and dearer friends, that you will rely sufficiently upon me to tell me one thing."
"What is it?" she asked.
"Whether you took the paper imputed to you from the library table?"
She did not instantly respond, but sat looking earnestly before her with an intentness which seemed to argue that she was weighing the question as well as her reply. Finally, turning toward me, she said:
"In answering you, I speak in confidence. Mr. Raymond, I did."
Crushing back the sigh of despair that arose to my lips, I went on.
"I will not inquire what the paper was,"—she waved her hand deprecatingly,—"but this much more you will tell me. Is that paper still in existence?"
She looked me steadily in the face.
"It is not."
I could with difficulty forbear showing my disappointment. "Miss Leavenworth," I now said, "it may seem cruel for me to press you at this time; nothing less than my strong realization of the peril in which you stand would induce me to run the risk of incurring your displeasure by asking what under other circumstances would seem puerile and insulting questions. You have told me one thing which I strongly desired to know; will you also inform me what it was you heard that night while sitting in your room, between the time of Mr. Harwell's going up-stairs and the closing of the library door, of which you made mention at the inquest?"
I had pushed my inquiries too far, and I saw it immediately.
"Mr. Raymond," she returned, "influenced by my desire not to appear utterly ungrateful to you, I have been led to reply in confidence to one of your urgent appeals; but I can go no further. Do not ask me to."
Stricken to the heart by her look of reproach, I answered with some sadness that her wishes should be respected. "Not but what I intend to make every effort in my power to discover the true author of this crime. That is a sacred duty which I feel myself called upon to perform; but I will ask you no more questions, nor distress you with further appeals. What is done shall be done without your assistance, and with no other hope than that in the event of my success you will acknowledge my motives to have been pure and my action disinterested."
"I am ready to acknowledge that now," she began, but paused and looked with almost agonized entreaty in my face. "Mr. Raymond, cannot you leave things as they are? Won't you? I don't ask for assistance, nor do I want it; I would rather——"
But I would not listen. "Guilt has no right to profit by the generosity of the guiltless. The hand that struck this blow shall not be accountable for the loss of a noble woman's honor and happiness as well.
"I shall do what I can, Miss Leavenworth."
As I walked down the avenue that night, feeling like an adventurous traveller that in a moment of desperation has set his foot upon a plank stretching in narrow perspective over a chasm of immeasurable depth, this problem evolved itself from the shadows before me: How, with no other clue than the persuasion that Eleanore Leavenworth was engaged in shielding another at the expense of her own good name, I was to combat the prejudices of Mr. Gryce, find out the real assassin of Mr. Leavenworth, and free an innocent woman from the suspicion that had, not without some show of reason, fallen upon her?
BOOK II. HENRY CLAVERING
XIV. MR. GRYCE AT HOME
"Nay, but hear me." Measure for Measure.
THAT the guilty person for whom Eleanore Leavenworth stood ready to sacrifice herself was one for whom she had formerly cherished affection, I could no longer doubt; love, or the strong sense of duty growing out of love, being alone sufficient to account for such determined action. Obnoxious as it was to all my prejudices, one name alone, that of the commonplace secretary, with his sudden heats and changeful manners, his odd ways and studied self-possession, would recur to my mind whenever I asked myself who this person could be.
Not that, without the light which had been thrown upon the affair by Eleanore's strange behavior, I should have selected this man as one in any way open to suspicion; the peculiarity of his manner at the inquest not being marked enough to counteract the improbability of one in his relations to the deceased finding sufficient motive for a crime so manifestly without favorable results to himself. But if love had entered as a factor into the affair, what might not be expected? James Harwell, simple amanuensis to a retired tea-merchant, was one man; James Harwell, swayed by passion for a woman beautiful as Eleanore Leavenworth, was another; and in placing him upon the list of those parties open to suspicion I felt I was only doing what was warranted by a proper consideration of probabilities.
But, between casual suspicion and actual proof, what a gulf! To believe James Harwell capable of guilt, and to find evidence enough to accuse him of it, were two very different things. I felt myself instinctively shrink from the task, before I had fully made up my mind to attempt it; some relenting thought of his unhappy position, if innocent, forcing itself upon me, and making my very distrust of him seem personally ungenerous if not absolutely unjust. If I had liked the man better, I should not have been so ready to look upon him with doubt.
But Eleanore must be saved at all hazards. Once delivered up to the blight of suspicion, who could tell what the result might be? the arrest of her person perhaps,—a thing which, once accomplished, would cast a shadow over her young life that it would take more than time to dispel. The accusation of an impecunious secretary would be less horrible than this. I determined to make an early call upon Mr. Gryce.
Meanwhile the contrasted pictures of Eleanore standing with her hand upon the breast of the dead, her face upraised and mirroring a glory, I could not recall without emotion; and Mary, fleeing a short half-hour later indignantly from her presence, haunted me and kept me awake long after midnight. It was like a double vision of light and darkness that, while contrasting, neither assimilated nor harmonized. I could not flee from it. Do what I would, the two pictures followed me, filling my soul with alternate hope and distrust, till I knew not whether to place my hand with Eleanore on the breast of the dead, and swear implicit faith in her truth and purity, or to turn my face like Mary, and fly from what I could neither comprehend nor reconcile.
Expectant of difficulty, I started next morning upon my search for Mr. Gryce, with strong determination not to allow myself to become flurried by disappointment nor discouraged by premature failure. My business was to save Eleanore Leavenworth; and to do that, it was necessary for me to preserve, not only my equanimity, but my self-possession. The worst fear I anticipated was that matters would reach a crisis before I could acquire the right, or obtain the opportunity, to interfere. However, the fact of Mr. Leavenworth's funeral being announced for that day gave me some comfort in that direction; my knowledge of Mr. Gryce being sufficient, as I thought, to warrant me in believing he would wait till after that ceremony before proceeding to extreme measures.
I do not know that I had any vary definite ideas of what a detective's home should be; but when I stood before the neat three-story brick house to which I had been directed, I could not but acknowledge there was something in the aspect of its half-open shutters, over closely drawn curtains of spotless purity, highly suggestive of the character of its inmate.
A pale-looking youth, with vivid locks of red hair hanging straight down over either ear, answered my rather nervous ring. To my inquiry as to whether Mr. Gryce was in, he gave a kind of snort which might have meant no, but which I took to mean yes.
"My name is Raymond, and I wish to see him."
He gave me one glance that took in every detail of my person and apparel, and pointed to a door at the head of the stairs. Not waiting for further directions, I hastened up, knocked at the door he had designated, and went in. The broad back of Mr. Gryce, stooping above a desk that might have come over in the Mayflower, confronted me.
"Well!" he exclaimed; "this is an honor." And rising, he opened with a squeak and shut with a bang the door of an enormous stove that occupied the centre of the room. "Rather chilly day, eh?"
"Yes," I returned, eyeing him closely to see if he was in a communicative mood. "But I have had but little time to consider the state of the weather. My anxiety in regard to this murder——"
"To be sure," he interrupted, fixing his eyes upon the poker, though not with any hostile intention, I am sure. "A puzzling piece of business enough. But perhaps it is an open book to you. I see you have something to communicate."
"I have, though I doubt if it is of the nature you expect. Mr. Gryce, since I saw you last, my convictions upon a certain point have been strengthened into an absolute belief. The object of your suspicious is an innocent woman."
If I had expected him to betray any surprise at this, I was destined to be disappointed. "That is a very pleasing belief," he observed. "I honor you for entertaining it, Mr. Raymond."
I suppressed a movement of anger. "So thoroughly is it mine," I went on, in the determination to arouse him in some way, "that I have come here to-day to ask you in the name of justice and common humanity to suspend action in that direction till we can convince ourselves there is no truer scent to go upon."
But there was no more show of curiosity than before. "Indeed!" he cried; "that is a singular request to come from a man like you."
I was not to be discomposed, "Mr. Gryce," I went on, "a woman's name, once tarnished, remains so forever. Eleanore Leavenworth has too many noble traits to be thoughtlessly dealt with in so momentous a crisis. If you will give me your attention, I promise you shall not regret it."
He smiled, and allowed his eyes to roam from the poker to the arm of my chair. "Very well," he remarked; "I hear you; say on."
I drew my notes from my pocketbook, and laid them on the table.
"What! memoranda?" he exclaimed. "Unsafe, very; never put your plans on paper."
Taking no heed of the interruption, I went on.
"Mr. Gryce, I have had fuller opportunities than yourself for studying this woman. I have seen her in a position which no guilty person could occupy, and I am assured, beyond all doubt, that not only her hands, but her heart, are pure from this crime. She may have some knowledge of its secrets; that I do not presume to deny. The key seen in her possession would refute me if I did. But what if she has? You can never wish to see so lovely a being brought to shame for withholding information which she evidently considers it her duty to keep back, when by a little patient finesse we may succeed in our purposes without it."
"But," interposed the detective, "say this is so; how are we to arrive at the knowledge we want without following out the only clue which has yet been given us?"
"You will never reach it by following out any clue given you by Eleanore Leavenworth."
His eyebrows lifted expressively, but he said nothing.
"Miss Eleanore Leavenworth has been used by some one acquainted with her firmness, generosity, and perhaps love. Let us discover who possesses sufficient power over her to control her to this extent, and we find the man we seek."