The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green
XIII. The Missing Recommendation
My patient slept that night, but I did not. The shock given by this sudden cry of Halt! at the very moment I was about to make my great move, the uncertainty as to what it meant and my doubt of its effect upon Mr. Durand's position, put me on the anxious seat and kept my thoughts fully occupied till morning.
I was very tired and must have shown it, when, with the first rays of a very meager sun, Miss Grey softly unclosed her eyes and found me looking at her, for her smile had a sweet compassion in it, and she said as she pressed my hand:
"You must have watched me all night. I never saw any one look so tired,--or so good," she softly finished.
I had rather she had not uttered that last phrase. It did not fit me at the moment,--did not fit me, perhaps, at any time. Good! I! when my thoughts had not been with her, but with Mr. Durand; when the dominating feeling in my breast was not that of relief, but a vague regret that I had not been allowed to make my great test and so establish, to my own satisfaction, at least, the perfect innocence of my lover even at the cost of untold anguish to this confiding girl upon whose gentle spirit the very thought of crime would cast a deadly blight.
I must have flushed; certainly I showed some embarrassment, for her eyes brightened with shy laughter as she whispered:
"You do not like to be praised,--another of your virtues. You have too many. I have only one--I love my friends."
She did. One could see that love was life to her.
For an instant I trembled. How near I had been to wrecking this gentle soul! Was she safe yet? I was not sure. My own doubts were not satisfied. I awaited the papers with feverish impatience. They should contain news. News of what? Ah, that was the question!
"You will let me see my mail this morning, will you not?" she asked, as I busied myself about her.
"That is for the doctor to say," I smiled. "You are certainly better this morning."
"It is so hard for me not to be able to read his letters, or to write a word to relieve his anxiety."
Thus she told me her heart's secret, and unconsciously added another burden to my already too heavy load.
I was on my way to give some orders about my patient's breakfast, when Mr. Grey came into the sitting-room and met me face to face. He had a newspaper in his hand and my heart stood still as I noted his altered looks and disturbed manner. Were these due to anything he had found in those columns? It was with difficulty that I kept my eyes from the paper which he held in such a manner as to disclose its glaring head-lines. These I dared not read with his eyes fixed on mine.
"How is Miss Grey? How is my daughter?" he asked in great haste and uneasiness. "Is she better this morning, or--worse?"
"Better," I assured him, and was greatly astonished to see his brow instantly clear.
"Really?" he asked. "You really consider her better? The doctors say so' but I have not very much faith in doctors in a case like this," he added.
"I have seen no reason to distrust them," I protested. "Miss Grey's illness, while severe, does not appear to be of an alarming nature. But then I have had very little experience out of the hospital. I am young yet, Mr. Grey."
He looked as if he quite agreed with me in this estimate of myself, and, with a brow still clouded, passed into his daughter's room, the paper in his hand. Before I joined them I found and scanned another journal. Expecting great things, I was both surprised and disappointed to find only a small paragraph devoted to the Fairbrother case. In this it was stated that the authorities hoped for new light on this mystery as soon as they had located a certain witness, whose connection with the crime they had just discovered. No more, no less than was contained in Inspector Dalzell's letter. How could I bear it,--the suspense, the doubt,--and do my duty to my patient! Happily, I had no choice. I had been adjudged equal to this business and I must prove myself to be so. Perhaps my courage would revive after I had had my breakfast; perhaps then I should be able to fix upon the identity of the new witness,--something which I found myself incapable of at this moment.
These thoughts were on my mind as I crossed the rooms on my way back to Miss Grey's bedside. By the time I reached her door I was outwardly calm, as her first words showed:
"Oh, the cheerful smile! It makes me feel better in spite of myself."
If she could have seen into my heart!
Mr. Grey, who was leaning over the foot of the bed, cast me a quick glance which was not without its suspicion. Had he detected me playing a part, or were such doubts as he displayed the product simply of his own uneasiness? I was not able to decide, and, with this unanswered question added to the number already troubling me, I was forced to face the day which, for aught I knew, might be the precursor of many others equally trying and unsatisfactory.
But help was near. Before noon I received a message from my uncle to the effect that if I could be spared he would be glad to see me at his home as near three o'clock as possible. What could he want of me? I could not guess, and it was with great inner perturbation that, having won Mr. Grey's permission, I responded to his summons.
I found my uncle awaiting me in a carriage before his own door, and I took my seat at his side without the least idea of his purpose. I supposed that he had planned this ride that he might talk to me unreservedly and without fear of interruption. But I soon saw that he had some very different object in view, for not only did he start down town instead of up, but his conversation, such as it was, confined itself to generalities and studiously avoided the one topic of supreme interest to us both.
At last, as we turned into Bleecker Street, I let my astonishment and perplexity appear.
"Where are we bound?" I asked. "It can not be that you are taking me to see Mr. Durand?"
"No," said he, and said no more.
"Ah, Police Headquarters!" I faltered as the carriage made another turn and drew up before a building I had reason to remember. "Uncle, what am I to do here?"
"See a friend," he answered, as he helped me to alight. Then as I followed him in some bewilderment, he whispered in my ear: "Inspector Dalzell. He wants a few minutes conversation with you."
Oh, the weight which fell from my shoulders at these words! I was to hear, then, what had intervened between me and my purpose. The wearing night I had anticipated was to be lightened with some small spark of knowledge. I had confidence enough in the kind-hearted inspector to be sure of that. I caught at my uncle's arm and squeezed it delightedly, quite oblivious of the curious glances I must have received from the various officials we passed on our way to the inspector's office.
We found him waiting for us, and I experienced such pleasure at sight of his kind and earnest face that I hardly noticed uncle's sly retreat till the door closed behind him.
"Oh, Inspector, what has happened?" I impetuously exclaimed in answer to his greeting. "Something that will help Mr. Durand without disturbing Mr. Grey--have you as good news for me as that?"
"Hardly," he answered, moving up a chair and seating me in it with a fatherly air which, under the circumstances, was more discouraging than consolatory. "We have simply heard of a new witness, or rather a fact has come to light which has turned our inquiries into a new direction."
"And--and--you can not tell me what this fact is?" I faltered as he showed no intention of adding anything to this very unsatisfactory explanation.
"I should not, but you were willing to do so much for us I must set aside my principles a little and do something for you. After all, it is only forestalling the reporters by a day. Miss Van Arsdale, this is the story: Yesterday morning a man was shown into this room, and said that he had information to give which might possibly prove to have some bearing on the Fairbrother case. I had seen the man before and recognized him at the first glance as one of the witnesses who made the inquest unnecessarily tedious. Do you remember Jones, the caterer, who had only two or three facts to give and yet who used up the whole afternoon in trying to state those facts?"
"I do, indeed," I answered.
"Well, he was the man, and I own that I was none too delighted to see him. But he was more at his ease with me than I expected, and I soon learned what he had to tell. It was this: One of his men had suddenly left him, one of his very best men, one of those who had been with him in the capacity of waiter at the Ramsdell ball. It was not uncommon for his men to leave him, but they usually gave notice. This man gave no notice; he simply did not show up at the usual hour. This was a week or two ago. Jones, having a liking for the man, who was an excellent waiter, sent a messenger to his lodging-house to see if he were ill. But he had left his lodgings with as little ceremony as he had left the caterer.
"This, under ordinary circumstances, would have ended the business, but there being some great function in prospect, Jones did not feel like losing so good a man without making an effort to recover him, so he looked up his references in the hope of obtaining some clue to his present whereabouts.
"He kept all such matters in a special book and expected to have no trouble in finding the man's name, James Wellgood, or that of his former employer But when he came to consult this book, he was astonished to find that nothing was recorded against this man's name but the date of his first employment--March 15.
"Had he hired him without a recommendation? He would not be likely to, yet the page was clear of all reference; only the name and the date. But the date! You have already noted its significance, and later he did, too. The day of the Ramsdell ball! The day of the great murder! As he recalled the incidents of that day he understood why the record of Wellgood's name was unaccompanied by the usual reference. It had been a difficult day all round. The function was an important one, and the weather bad. There was, besides, an unusual shortage in his number of assistants. Two men had that very morning been laid up with sickness, and when this able-looking, self-confident Wellgood presented himself for immediate employment, he took him out of hand with the merest glance at what looked like a very satisfactory reference. Later, he had intended to look up this reference, which he had been careful to preserve by sticking it, along with other papers, on his spike-file. But in the distractions following the untoward events of the evening, he had neglected to do so, feeling perfectly satisfied with the man's work and general behavior. Now it was a different thing. The man had left him summarily, and he felt impelled to hunt up the person who had recommended him and see whether this was the first time that Wellgood had repaid good treatment with bad. Running through the papers with which his file was now full, he found that the one he sought was not there. This roused him in good earnest, for he was certain that he had not removed it himself and there was no one else who had the right to do so. He suspected the culprit,--a young lad who occasionally had access to his desk. But this boy was no longer in the office. He had dismissed him for some petty fault the previous week, and it took him several days to find him again. Meantime his anger grew and when he finally came face to face with the lad, he accused him of the suspected trick with so much vehemence that the inevitable happened, and the boy confessed. This is what he acknowledged. He had taken the reference off the file, but only to give it to Wellgood himself, who had offered him money for it. When asked how much money, the boy admitted that the sum was ten dollars,-- an extraordinary amount from a poor man for so simple a service, if the man merely wished to secure his reference for future use; so extraordinary that Mr. Jones grew more and more pertinent in his inquiries, eliciting finally what he surely could not have hoped for in the beginning,--the exact address of the party referred to in the paper he had stolen, and which, for some reason, the boy remembered. It was an uptown address, and, as soon as the caterer could leave his business, he took the elevated and proceeded to the specified street and number.
"Miss Van Arsdale, a surprise awaited him, and awaited us when he told the result of his search. The name attached to the recommendation had been--'Hiram Sears, Steward.' He did not know of any such man--perhaps you do--but when he reached the house from which the recommendation was dated, he saw that it was one of the great houses of New York, though he could not at the instant remember who lived there. But he soon found out. The first passer-by told him. Miss Van Arsdale, perhaps you can do the same. The number was--Eighty-sixth Street."
"--!" I repeated, quite aghast. "Why, Mr. Fairbrother himself! The husband of--"
"Exactly so, and Hiram Sears, whose name you may have heard mentioned at the inquest, though for a very good reason he was not there in person, is his steward and general factotum."
"Oh! and it was he who recommended Wellgood?"
"And did Mr. Jones see him?"
"No. The house, you remember, is closed. Mr. Fairbrother, on leaving town, gave his servants a vacation. His steward he took with him,--that is, they started together. But we hear no mention made of him in our telegrams from Santa Fe. He does not seem to have followed Mr. Fairbrother into the mountains."
"You say that in a peculiar way," I remarked.
"Because it has struck us peculiarly. Where is Sears now? And why did he not go on with Mr. Fairbrother when he left home with every apparent intention of accompanying him to the Placide mine? Miss Van Arsdale, we were impressed with this fact when we heard of Mr. Fairbrother's lonely trip from where he was taken ill to his mine outside of Santa Fe; but we have only given it its due importance since hearing what has come to us to-day.
"Miss Van Arsdale," continued the inspector, as I looked up quickly, "I am going to show great confidence in you. I am going to tell you what our men have learned about this Sears. As I have said before, it is but forestalling the reporters by a day, and it may help you to understand why I sent you such peremptory orders to stop, when your whole heart was fixed on an attempt by which you hoped to right Mr. Durand. We can not afford to disturb so distinguished a person as the one you have under your eye, while the least hope remains of fixing this crime elsewhere. And we have such hope. This man, this Sears, is by no means the simple character one would expect from his position. Considering the short time we have had (it was only yesterday that Jones found his way into this office), we have unearthed some very interesting facts in his regard. His devotion to Mr. Fairbrother was never any secret, and we knew as much about that the day after the murder as we do now. But the feelings with which he regarded Mrs. Fairbrother--well, that is another thing--and it was not till last night we heard that the attachment which bound him to her was of the sort which takes no account of youth or age, fitness or unfitness. He was no Adonis, and old enough, we are told, to be her father; but for all that we have already found several persons who can tell strange stories of the persistence with which his eager old eyes would follow her whenever chance threw them together during the time she remained under her husband's roof; and others who relate, with even more avidity, how, after her removal to apartments of her own, he used to spend hours in the adjoining park just to catch a glimpse of her figure as she crossed the sidewalk on her way to and from her carriage. Indeed, his senseless, almost senile passion for this magnificent beauty became a by-word in some mouths, and it only escaped being mentioned at the inquest from respect to Mr. Fairbrother, who had never recognized this weakness in his steward, and from its lack of visible connection with her horrible death and the stealing of her great jewel. Nevertheless, we have a witness now--it is astonishing how many witnesses we can scare up by a little effort, who never thought of coming forward themselves--who can swear to having seen him one night shaking his fist at her retreating figure as she stepped haughtily by him into her apartment house. This witness is sure that the man he saw thus gesticulating was Sears, and he is sure the woman was Mrs. Fairbrother. The only thing he is not sure of is how his own wife will feel when she hears that he was in that particular neighborhood on that particular evening, when he was evidently supposed to be somewhere else." And the inspector laughed.
"Is the steward's disposition a bad one." I asked, "that this display of feeling should impress you so much?"
"I don't know what to say about that yet. Opinions differ on this point. His friends speak of him as the mildest kind of a man who, without native executive skill, could not manage the great household he has in charge. His enemies, and we have unearthed a few, say, on the contrary, that they have never had any confidence in his quiet ways; that these were not in keeping with the fact or his having been a California miner in the early fifties.
"You can see I am putting you very nearly where we are ourselves. Nor do I see why I should not add that this passion of the seemingly subdued but really hot-headed steward for a woman, who never showed him anything but what he might call an insulting indifference, struck us as a clue to be worked up, especially after we received this answer to a telegram we sent late last night to the nurse who is caring for Mr. Fairbrother in New Mexico."
He handed me a small yellow slip and I read:
"The steward left Mr. Fairbrother at El Moro. He has not heard from him since.
"ANNETTA LA SERRA
"For Abner Fairbrother."
"At El Moro?" I cried. "Why, that was long enough ago"
"For him to have reached New York before the murder. Exactly so, if he took advantage of every close connection."