The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green
"This is your patient. Your new nurse, my dear. What did you say your name is? Miss Ayers?"
"Yes, Mr. Grey, Alice Ayers."
"Oh, what a sweet name!"
This expressive greeting, from the patient herself, was the first heart-sting I received,--a sting which brought a flush into my cheek which I would fain have kept down.
"Since a change of nurses was necessary, I am glad they sent me one like you," the feeble, but musical voice went on, and I saw a wasted but eager hand stretched out.
In a whirl of strong feeling I advanced to take it. I had not counted on such a reception. I had not expected any bond of congeniality to spring up between this high-feeling English girl and myself to make my purpose hateful to me. Yet, as I stood there looking down at her bright if wasted face, I felt that it would be very easy to love so gentle and cordial a being, and dreaded raising my eyes to the gentleman at my side lest I should see something in him to hamper me, and make this attempt, which I had undertaken in such loyalty of spirit, a misery to myself and ineffectual to the man I had hoped to save by it. When I did look up and catch the first beams of Mr. Grey's keen blue eyes fixed inquiringly on me, I neither knew what to think nor how to act. He was tall and firmly knit, and had an intellectual aspect altogether. I was conscious of regarding him with a decided feeling of awe, and found myself forgetting why I had come there, and what my suspicions were,--suspicions which had carried hope with them, hope for myself and hope for my lover, who would never escape the opprobrium, even if he did the punishment, of this great crime, were this, the only other person who could possibly be associated with it, found to be the fine, clear-souled man he appeared to be in this my first interview with him.
Perceiving very soon that his apprehensions in my regard were limited to a fear lest I should not feel at ease in my new home under the restraint of a presence more accustomed to intimidate than attract strangers, I threw aside all doubts of myself and met the advances of both father and daughter with that quiet confidence which my position there demanded.
The result both gratified and grieved me. As a nurse entering on her first case I was happy; as a woman with an ulterior object in view verging on the audacious and unspeakable, I was wretched and regretful and just a little shaken in the conviction which had hitherto upheld me.
I was therefore but poorly prepared to meet the ordeal which awaited me, when, a little later in the day, Mr. Grey called me into the adjoining room, and, after saying that it would afford him great relief to go out for an hour or so, asked if I were afraid to be left alone with my patient.
"O no, sir--" I began, but stopped in secret dismay. I was afraid, but not on account of her condition; rather on account of my own. What if I should be led into betraying my feelings on finding myself under no other eye than her own! What if the temptation to probe her poor sick mind should prove stronger than my duty toward her as a nurse!
My tones were hesitating but Mr. Grey paid little heed; his mind was too fixed on what he wished to say himself.
"Before I go," said he, "I have a request to make--I may as well say a caution to give you. Do not, I pray, either now or at any future time, carry or allow any one else to carry newspapers into Miss Grey's room. They are just now too alarming. There has been, as you know, a dreadful murder in this city. If she caught one glimpse of the headlines, or saw so much as the name of Fairbrother--which--which is a name she knows, the result might be very hurtful to her. She is not only extremely sensitive from illness but from temperament. Will you be careful?"
"I shall be careful."
It was such an effort for me to say these words, to say anything in the state of mind into which I had been thrown by his unexpected allusion to this subject, that I unfortunately drew his attention to myself and it was with what I felt to be a glance of doubt that he added with decided emphasis:
"You must consider this whole subject as a forbidden one in this family. Only cheerful topics are suitable for the sick-room. If Miss Grey attempts to introduce any other, stop her. Do not let her talk about anything which will not be conducive to her speedy recovery. These are the only instructions I have to give you; all others must come from her physician."
I made some reply with as little show of emotion as possible. It seemed to satisfy him, for his face cleared as he kindly observed:
"You have a very trustworthy look for one so young. I shall rest easy while you are with her, and I shall expect you to be always with her when I am not. Every moment, mind. She is never to be left alone with gossiping servants. If a word is mentioned in her hearing about this crime which seems to be in everybody's mouth, I shall feel forced, greatly as I should regret the fad, to blame you."
This was a heart-stroke, but I kept up bravely, changing color perhaps, but not to such a marked degree as to arouse any deeper suspicion in his mind than that I had been wounded in my amour propre.
"She shall be well guarded," said I. "You may trust me to keep from her all avoidable knowledge of this crime."
He bowed and I was about to leave his presence, when he detained me by remarking with the air of one who felt that some explanation was necessary:
"I was at the ball where this crime took place. Naturally it has made a deep impression on me and would on her if she heard of it."
"Assuredly," I murmured, wondering if he would say more and how I should have the courage to stand there and listen if he did.
"It is the first time I have ever come in contact with crime," he went on with what, in one of his reserved nature, seemed a hardly natural insistence. "I could well have been spared the experience. A tragedy with which one has been even thus remotely connected produces a lasting effect upon the mind."
"Oh yes, oh yes!" I murmured, edging involuntarily toward the door. Did I not know? Had I not been there, too; I, little I, whom he stood gazing down upon from such a height, little realizing the fatality which united us and, what was even a more overwhelming thought to me at the moment, the fact that of all persons in the world the shrinking little being, into whose eyes he was then looking, was, perhaps, his greatest enemy and the one person, great or small, from whom he had the most to fear.
But I was no enemy to his gentle daughter and the relief I felt at finding myself thus cut off by my own promise from even the remotest communication with her on this forbidden subject was genuine and sincere.
But the father! What was I to think of the father? Alas! I could have but one thought, admirable as he appeared in all lights save the one in which his too evident connection with this crime had placed him. I spent the hours of the afternoon in alternately watching the sleeping face of my patient, too sweetly calm in its repose, or so it seemed, for the mind beneath to harbor such doubts as were shown in the warning I had ascribed to her, and vain efforts to explain by any other hypothesis than that of guilt, the extraordinary evidence which linked this man of great affairs and the loftiest repute to a crime involving both theft and murder.
Nor did the struggle end that night. It was renewed with still greater positiveness the next day, as I witnessed the glances which from time to time passed between this father and daughter,--glances full of doubt and question on both sides, but not exactly such doubt or such question as my suspicions called for. Or so I thought, and spent another day or two hesitating very much over my duty, when, coming unexpectedly upon Mr. Grey one evening, I felt all my doubts revive in view of the extraordinary expression of dread--I might with still greater truth say fear--which informed his features and made them, to my unaccustomed eyes, almost unrecognizable.
He was sitting at his desk in reverie over some papers which he seemed not to have touched for hours, and when, at some movement I made, he started up and met my eye, I could swear that his cheek was pale, the firm carriage of his body shaken, and the whole man a victim to some strong and secret apprehension he vainly sought to hide. when I ventured to tell him what I wanted, he made an effort and pulled himself together, but I had seen him with his mask off, and his usually calm visage and self-possessed mien could not again deceive me.
My duties kept me mainly at Miss Grey's bedside, but I had been provided with a little room across the hall, and to this room I retired very soon after this, for rest and a necessary understanding with myself.
For, in spite of this experience and my now settled convictions, my purpose required whetting. The indescribable charm, the extreme refinement and nobility of manner observable in both Mr. Grey and his daughter were producing their effect. I felt guilty; constrained. whatever my convictions, the impetus to act was leaving me. How could I recover it? By thinking of Anson Durand and his present disgraceful position.
Anson Durand! Oh, how the feeling surged up in my breast as that name slipped from my lips on crossing the threshold of my little room! Anson Durand, whom I believed innocent, whom I loved, but whom I was betraying with every moment of hesitation in which I allowed myself to indulge! what if the Honorable Mr. Grey is an eminent statesman, a dignified, scholarly, and to all appearance, high-minded man? what if my patient is sweet, dove-eyed and affectionate? Had not Anson qualities as excellent in their way, rights as certain, and a hold upon myself superior to any claims which another might advance? Drawing a much-crumpled little note from my pocket, I eagerly read it. It was the only one I had of his writing, the only letter he had ever written me. I had already re-read it a hundred times, but as I once more repeated to myself its well-known lines, I felt my heart grow strong and fixed in the determination which had brought me into this family.
Restoring the letter to its place, I opened my gripsack and from its inmost recesses drew forth an object which I had no sooner in hand than a natural sense of disquietude led me to glance apprehensively, first at the door, then at the window, though I had locked the one and shaded the other. It seemed as if some other eye besides my own must be gazing at what I held so gingerly in hand; that the walls were watching me, if nothing else, and the sensation this produced was so exactly like that of guilt (or what I imagined to be guilt), that I was forced to repeat once more to myself that it was not a good man's overthrow I sought, or even a bad man's immunity from punishment, but the truth, the absolute truth. No shame could equal that which I should feel if, by any over-delicacy now, I failed to save the man who trusted me.
The article which I held--have you guessed it?--was the stiletto with which Mrs. Fairbrother had been killed. It had been intrusted to me by the police for a definite purpose. The time for testing that purpose had come, or so nearly come, that I felt I must be thinking about the necessary ways and means.
Unwinding the folds of tissue paper in which the stiletto was wrapped, I scrutinized the weapon very carefully. Hitherto, I had seen only pictures of it, now, I had the article itself in my hand. It was not a natural one for a young woman to hold, a woman whose taste ran more toward healing than inflicting wounds, but I forced myself to forget why the end of its blade was rusty, and looked mainly at the devices which ornamented the handle. I had not been mistaken in them. They belonged to the house of Grey, and to none other. It was a legitimate inquiry I had undertaken. However the matter ended, I should always have these historic devices for my excuse.
My plan was to lay this dagger on Mr. Grey's desk at a moment when he would be sure to see it and I to see him. If he betrayed a guilty knowledge of this fatal steel; if, unconscious of my presence, he showed surprise and apprehension,--then we should know how to proceed; justice would be loosed from constraint and the police feel at liberty to approach him. It was a delicate task, this. I realized how delicate, when I had thrust the stiletto out of sight under my nurse's apron and started to cross the hall. Should I find the library clear? Would the opportunity be given me to approach his desk, or should I have to carry this guilty witness of a world-famous crime on into Miss Grey's room, and with its unholy outline pressing a semblance of itself upon my breast, sit at that innocent pillow, meet those innocent eyes, and answer the gentle inquiries which now and then fell from the sweetest lips I have ever seen smile into the face of a lonely, preoccupied stranger?
The arrangement of the rooms was such as made it necessary for me to pass through this sittting-room in order to reach my patient's bedroom.
With careful tread, so timed as not to appear stealthy, I accordingly advanced and pushed open the door. The room was empty. Mr. Grey was still with his daughter and I could cross the floor without fear. But never had I entered upon a task requiring more courage or one more obnoxious to my natural instincts. I hated each step I took, but I loved the man for whom I took those steps, and moved resolutely on. Only, as I reached the chair in which Mr. Grey was accustomed to sit, I found that it was easier to plan an action than to carry it out. Home life and the domestic virtues had always appealed to me more than a man's greatness. The position which this man held in his own country, his usefulness there, even his prestige as statesman and scholar, were facts, but very dreamy facts, to me, while his feelings as a father, the place he held in his daughter's heart--these were real to me, these I could understand; and it was of these and not of his place as a man, that this his favorite seat spoke to me. How often had I beheld him sit by the hour with his eye on the door behind which his one darling lay ill! Even now, it was easy for me to recall his face as I had sometimes caught a glimpse of it through the crack of the suddenly opened door, and I felt my breast heave and my hand falter as I drew forth the stiletto and moved to place it where his eye would fall upon it on his leaving his daughter's bedside.
But my hand returned quickly to my breast and fell hack again empty. A pile of letters lay before me on the open lid of the desk. The top one was addressed to me with the word "Important" written in the corner. I did not know the writing, but I felt that I should open and read this letter before committing myself or those who stood back of me to this desperate undertaking.
Glancing behind me and seeing that the door into Miss Grey's room was ajar, I caught up this letter and rushed with it back into my own room. As I surmised, it was from the inspector, and as I read it I realized that I had received it not one moment too soon. In language purposely non-committal, but of a meaning not to be mistaken, it advised me that some unforeseen facts had come to light which altered all former suspicions and made the little surprise I had planned no longer necessary.
There was no allusion to Mr. Durand but the final sentence ran:
"Drop all care and give your undivided attention to your patient."