The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green
Book I. The Problem
"Oh! she has beauty might ensnare A conqueror's soul, and make him leave his crown At random, to be scuffled for by slaves." OTWAY.
Third floor, rear room, first door at the head of the stairs! What was I about to encounter there?
Mounting the lower flight, and shuddering by the library wall, which to my troubled fancy seemed written all over with horrible suggestions, I took my way slowly up-stairs, revolving in my mind many things, among which an admonition uttered long ago by my mother occupied a prominent place.
"My son, remember that a woman with a secret may be a fascinating study, but she can never be a safe, nor even satisfactory, companion."
A wise saw, no doubt, but totally inapplicable to the present situation; yet it continued to haunt me till the sight of the door to which I had been directed put every other thought to flight save that I was about to meet the stricken nieces of a brutally murdered man.
Pausing only long enough on the threshold to compose myself for the interview, I lifted my hand to knock, when a rich, clear voice rose from within, and I heard distinctly uttered these astounding words: "I do not accuse your hand, though I know of none other which would or could have done this deed; but your heart, your head, your will, these I do and must accuse, in my secret mind at least; and it is well that you should know it!"
Struck with horror, I staggered back, my hands to my ears, when a touch fell on my arm, and turning, I saw Mr. Gryce standing close beside me, with his finger on his lip, and the last flickering shadow of a flying emotion fading from his steady, almost compassionate countenance.
"Come, come," he exclaimed; "I see you don't begin to know what kind of a world you are living in. Rouse yourself; remember they are waiting down below."
"But who is it? Who was it that spoke?"
"That we shall soon see." And without waiting to meet, much less answer, my appealing look, he struck his hand against the door, and flung it wide open.
Instantly a flush of lovely color burst upon us. Blue curtains, blue carpets, blue walls. It was like a glimpse of heavenly azure in a spot where only darkness and gloom were to be expected. Fascinated by the sight, I stepped impetuously forward, but instantly paused again, overcome and impressed by the exquisite picture I saw before me.
Seated in an easy chair of embroidered satin, but rousing from her half-recumbent position, like one who was in the act of launching a powerful invective, I beheld a glorious woman. Fair, frail, proud, delicate; looking like a lily in the thick creamy-tinted wrapper that alternately clung to and swayed from her finely moulded figure; with her forehead, crowned with the palest of pale tresses, lifted and flashing with power; one quivering hand clasping the arm of her chair, the other outstretched and pointing toward some distant object in the room,--her whole appearance was so startling, so extraordinary, that I held my breath in surprise, actually for the moment doubting if it were a living woman I beheld, or some famous pythoness conjured up from ancient story, to express in one tremendous gesture the supreme indignation of outraged womanhood.
"Miss Mary Leavenworth," whispered that ever present voice over my shoulder.
Ah! Mary Leavenworth! What a relief came with this name. This beautiful creature, then, was not the Eleanore who could load, aim, and fire a pistol. Turning my head, I followed the guiding of that uplifted hand, now frozen into its place by a new emotion: the emotion of being interrupted in the midst of a direful and pregnant revelation, and saw --but, no, here description fails me! Eleanore Leavenworth must be painted by other hands than mine. I could sit half the day and dilate upon the subtle grace, the pale magnificence, the perfection of form and feature which make Mary Leavenworth the wonder of all who behold her; but Eleanore--I could as soon paint the beatings of my own heart. Beguiling, terrible, grand, pathetic, that face of faces flashed upon my gaze, and instantly the moonlight loveliness of her cousin faded from my memory, and I saw only Eleanore--only Eleanore from that moment on forever.
When my glance first fell upon her, she was standing by the side of a small table, with her face turned toward her cousin, and her two hands resting, the one upon her breast, the other on the table, in an attitude of antagonism. But before the sudden pang which shot through me at the sight of her beauty had subsided, her head had turned, her gaze had encountered mine; all the horror of the situation had burst upon her, and, instead of a haughty woman, drawn up to receive and trample upon the insinuations of another, I beheld, alas! a trembling, panting human creature, conscious that a sword hung above her head, and without a word to say why it should not fall and slay her.
It was a pitiable change; a heart-rending revelation! I turned from it as from a confession. But just then, her cousin, who had apparently regained her self-possession at the first betrayal of emotion on the part of the other, stepped forward and, holding out her hand, inquired:
"Is not this Mr. Raymond? How kind of you, sir. And you?" turning to Mr. Gryce; "you have come to tell us we are wanted below, is it not so?"
It was the voice I had heard through the door, but modulated to a sweet, winning, almost caressing tone.
Glancing hastily at Mr. Gryce, I looked to see how he was affected by it. Evidently much, for the bow with which he greeted her words was lower than ordinary, and the smile with which he met her earnest look both deprecatory and reassuring. His glance did not embrace her cousin, though her eyes were fixed upon his face with an inquiry in their depths more agonizing than the utterance of any cry would have been. Knowing Mr. Gryce as I did, I felt that nothing could promise worse, or be more significant, than this transparent disregard of one who seemed to fill the room with her terror. And, struck with pity, I forgot that Mary Leavenworth had spoken, forgot her very presence in fact, and, turning hastily away, took one step toward her cousin, when Mr. Gryce's hand falling on my arm stopped me.
"Miss Leavenworth speaks," said he.
Recalled to myself, I turned my back upon what had so interested me even while it repelled, and forcing myself to make some sort of reply to the fair creature before me, offered my arm and led her toward the door.
Immediately the pale, proud countenance of Mary Leavenworth softened almost to the point of smiling;--and here let me say, there never was a woman who could smile and not smile like Mary Leavenworth. Looking in my face, with a frank and sweet appeal in her eyes, she murmured:
"You are very good. I do feel the need of support; the occasion is so horrible, and my cousin there,"--here a little gleam of alarm nickered into her eyes--"is so very strange to-day."
"Humph!" thought I to myself; "where is the grand indignant pythoness, with the unspeakable wrath and menace in her countenance, whom I saw when I first entered the room?" Could it be that she was trying to beguile us from our conjectures, by making light of her former expressions? Or was it possible she deceived herself so far as to believe us unimpressed by the weighty accusation overheard by us at a moment so critical?
But Eleanore Leavenworth, leaning on the arm of the detective, soon absorbed all my attention. She had regained by this time her self-possession, also, but not so entirely as her cousin. Her step faltered as she endeavored to walk, and the hand which rested on his arm trembled like a leaf. "Would to God I had never entered this house," said I to myself. And yet, before the exclamation was half uttered, I became conscious of a secret rebellion against the thought; an emotion, shall I say, of thankfulness that it had been myself rather than another who had been allowed to break in upon their privacy, overhear that significant remark, and, shall I acknowledge it, follow Mr. Gryce and the trembling, swaying figure of Eleanore Leavenworth down-stairs. Not that I felt the least relenting in my soul towards guilt. Crime had never looked so black; revenge, selfishness, hatred, cupidity, never seemed more loathsome; and yet--but why enter into the consideration of my feelings at that time. They cannot be of interest; besides, who can fathom the depths of his own soul, or untangle for others the secret cords of revulsion and attraction which are, and ever have been, a mystery and wonder to himself? Enough that, supporting upon my arm the half-fainting form of one woman, but with my attention, and interest devoted to another, I descended the stairs of the Leavenworth mansion, and re-entered the dreaded presence of those inquisitors of the law who had been so impatiently awaiting us.
As I once more crossed that threshold, and faced the eager countenances of those I had left so short a time before, I felt as if ages had elapsed in the interval; so much can be experienced by the human soul in the short space of a few over-weighted moments.