The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green
XI. The Inspector Astonishes Me
But before I proceed to relate what happened at the end of those two weeks, I must say a word or two in regard to what happened during them.
Nothing happened to improve Mr. Durand's position, and nothing openly to compromise Mr. Grey's. Mr. Fairbrother, from whose testimony many of us hoped something would yet be gleaned calculated to give a turn to the suspicion now centered on one man, continued ill in New Mexico; and all that could be learned from him of any importance was contained in a short letter dictated from his bed, in which he affirmed that the diamond, when it left him, was in a unique setting procured by himself in France; that he knew of no other jewel similarly mounted, and that if the false gem was set according to his own description, the probabilities were that the imitation stone had been put in place of the real one under his wife's direction and in some workshop in New York, as she was not the woman to take the trouble to send abroad for anything she could get done in this country. The description followed. It coincided with the one we all knew.
This was something of a blow to me. Public opinion would naturally reflect that of the husband, and it would require very strong evidence indeed to combat a logical supposition of this kind with one so forced and seemingly extravagant as that upon which my own theory was based. Yet truth often transcends imagination, and, having confidence in the inspector's integrity, I subdued my impatience for a week, almost for two, when my suspense and rapidly culminating dread of some action being taken against Mr. Durand were suddenly cut short by a message from the inspector, followed by his speedy presence in my uncle's house.
We have a little room on our parlor floor, very snug and secluded, and in this room I received him. Seldom have I dreaded a meeting more and seldom have I been met with greater kindness and consideration. He was so kind that I feared he had only disappointing news to communicate, but his first words reassured me. He said:
"I have come to you on a matter of importance. We have found enough truth in the suppositions you advanced at our last interview to warrant us in the attempt you yourself proposed for the elucidation of this mystery. That this is the most risky and altogether the most unpleasant duty which I have encountered during my several years of service, I am willing to acknowledge to one so sensible and at the same time of so much modesty as yourself. This English gentleman has a reputation which lifts him far above any unworthy suspicion, and were it not for the favorable impression made upon us by Mr. Durand in a long talk we had with him last night, I would sooner resign my place than pursue this matter against him. Success would create a horror on both sides the water unprecedented during my career, while failure would bring down ridicule on us which would destroy the prestige of the whole force. Do you see my difficulty, Miss Van Arsdale? We can not even approach this haughty and highly reputable Englishman with questions without calling down on us the wrath of the whole English nation. We must be sure before we make a move, and for us to be sure where the evidence is all circumstantial, I know of no better plan than the one you were pleased to suggest, which, at the time, I was pleased to call quixotic."
Drawing a long breath I surveyed him timidly. Never had I so realized my presumption or experienced such a thrill of joy in my frightened yet elated heart. They believed in Anson's innocence and they trusted me. Insignificant as I was, it was to my exertions this great result was due. As I realized this, I felt my heart swell and my throat close. In despair of speaking I held out my hands. He took them kindly and seemed to be quite satisfied.
"Such a little, trembling, tear-filled Amazon!" he cried. "Shall you have courage to undertake the task before you? If not--"
"Oh, but I have," said I. "It is your goodness and the surprise of it all which unnerves me. I can go through what we have planned if you think the secret of my personality and interest in Mr. Durand can be kept from the people I go among."
"It can if you will follow our advice implicitly. You say that you know the doctor and that he stands ready to recommend you in case Miss Pierson withdraws her services."
"Yes, he is eager to give me a chance. He was a college mate of my father's."
"How will you explain to him your wish to enter upon your duties under another name?"
"Very simply. I have already told him that the publicity given my name in the late proceedings has made me very uncomfortable; that my first case of nursing would require all my self-possession and that if he did not think it wrong I should like to go to it under my mother's name. He made no dissent and I think I can persuade him that I would do much better work as Miss Ayers than as the too well-known Miss Van Arsdale."
"You have great powers of persuasion. But may you not meet people at the hotel who know you?"
"I shall try to avoid people; and, if my identity is discovered, its effect or non-effect upon one we find it difficult to mention will give us our clue. If he has no guilty interest in the crime, my connection with it as a witness will not disturb him. Besides, two days of unsuspicious acceptance of me as Miss Grey's nurse are all I want. I shall take immediate opportunity, I assure you, to make the test I mentioned. But how much confidence you will have to repose in me! I comprehend all the importance of my undertaking, and shall work as if my honor, as well as yours, were at stake."
"I am sure you will." Then for the first time in my life I was glad that I was small and plain rather than tall and fascinating like so many of my friends, for he said: "If you had been a triumphant beauty, depending on your charms as a woman to win people to your will, we should never have listened to your proposition or risked our reputation in your hands. It is your wit, your earnestness and your quiet determination which have impressed us. You see I speak plainly. I do so because I respect you. And now to business."
Details followed. After these were well understood between us, I ventured to say: "Do you object--would it be asking too much--if I requested some enlightenment as to what facts you have discovered about Mr. Grey which go to substantiate my theory? I might work more intelligently."
"No, Miss Van Arsdale, you would not work more intelligently, and you know it. But you have the natural curiosity of one whose very heart is bound up in this business. I could deny you what you ask but I won't, for I want you to work with quiet confidence, which you would not do if your mind were taken up with doubts and questions. Miss Van Arsdale, one surmise of yours was correct. A man was sent that night to the Ramsdell house with a note from Miss Grey. We know this because he boasted of it to one of the bell-boys before he went out, saying that he was going to have a glimpse of one of the swellest parties of the season. It is also true that this man was Mr. Grey's valet, an old servant who came over with him from England. But what adds weight to all this and makes us regard the whole affair with suspicion, is the additional fact that this man received his dismissal the following morning and has not been seen since by any one we could reach. This looks bad to begin with, like the suppression of evidence, you know. Then Mr. Grey has not been the same man since that night. He is full of care and this care is not entirely in connection with his daughter, who is doing very well and bids fair to be up in a few days. But all this would be nothing if we had not received advices from England which prove that Mr. Grey's visit here has an element of mystery in it. There was every reason for his remaining in his own country, where a political crisis is approaching, yet he crossed the water, bringing his sickly daughter with him. The explanation as volunteered by one who knew him well was this: That only his desire to see or acquire some precious object for his collection could have taken him across the ocean at this time, nothing else rivaling his interest in governmental affairs. Still this would be nothing if a stiletto similar to the one employed in this crime had not once formed part of a collection of curios belonging to a cousin of his whom he often visited. This stiletto has been missing for some time, stolen, as the owner declared, by some unknown person. All this looks bad enough, but when I tell you that a week before the fatal ball at Mr. Ramsdell's, Mr. Grey made a tour of the jewelers on Broadway and, with the pretext of buying a diamond for his daughter, entered into a talk about famous stones, ending always with some question about the Fairbrother gem, you will see that his interest in that stone is established and that it only remains for us to discover if that interest is a guilty one. I can not believe this possible, but you have our leave to make your experiment and see. Only do not count too much on his superstition. If he is the deep-dyed criminal you imagine, the cry which startled us all at a certain critical instant was raised by himself and for the purpose you suggested. None of the sensitiveness often shown by a man who has been surprised into crime will be his. Relying on his reputation and the prestige of his great name, he will, if he thinks himself under fire, face every shock unmoved."
"I see; I understand. He must believe himself all alone; then, the natural man may appear. I thank you, Inspector. That idea is of inestimable value to me, and I shall act on it. I do not say immediately; not on the first day, and possibly not on the second, but as soon as opportunity offers for my doing what I have planned with any chance of success. And now, advise me how to circumvent my uncle and aunt, who must never know to what an undertaking I have committed myself."
Inspector Dalzell spared me another fifteen minutes, and this last detail was arranged. Then he rose to go. As he turned from me he said:
And I answered with a full heart, but a voice clear as my purpose: