The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green
I caught my breath sharply. I did not say anything. I felt that I did not understand the inspector sufficiently yet to speak. He seemed to be pleased with my reticence. At all events, his manner grew even kinder as he said:
"This Sears is a witness we must have. He is being looked for now, high and low, and we hope to get some clue to his whereabouts before night. That is, if he is in this city. Meanwhile, we are all glad--I am sure you are also--to spare so distinguished a gentleman as Mr. Grey the slightest annoyance."
"And Mr. Durand? What of him in this interim?"
"He will have to await developments. I see no other way, my dear."
It was kindly said, but my head drooped. This waiting was what was killing him and killing me. The inspector saw and gently patted my hand.
"Come," said he, "you have head enough to see that it is never wise to force matters." Then, possibly with an intention of rousing me, he remarked: "There is another small fact which may interest you. It concerns the waiter, Wellgood, recommended, as you will remember, by this Sears. In my talk with Jones it leaked out as a matter of small moment, and so it was to him, that this Wellgood was the waiter who ran and picked up the diamond after it fell from Mr. Grey's hand."
"This may mean nothing--it meant nothing to Jones--but I inform you of it because there is a question I want to put to you in this connection. You smile."
"Did I?" I meekly answered. "I do not know why."
This was not true. I had been waiting to see why the inspector had so honored me with all these disclosures, almost with his thoughts. Now I saw. He desired something in return.
"You were on the scene at this very moment," he proceeded, after a brief contemplation of my face, "and you must have seen this man when he lifted the jewel and handed it back to Mr. Grey. Did you remark his features?"
"No, sir; I was too far off; besides, my eyes were on Mr. Grey." "That is a pity. I was in hopes you could satisfy me on a very important point."
"What point is that, Inspector Dalzell?"
"Whether he answered the following description." And, taking up another paper, he was about to read it aloud to me, when an interruption occurred. A man showed himself at the door, whom the inspector no sooner recognized than he seemed to forget me in his eagerness to interrogate him. Perhaps the appearance of the latter had something to do with it; he looked as if he had been running, or had been the victim of some extraordinary adventure. At all events, the inspector arose as he entered, and was about to question him when he remembered me, and, casting about for some means of ridding himself of my presence without injury to my feelings, he suddenly pushed open the door of an adjoining room and requested me to step inside while he talked a moment with this man.
Of course I went, but I cast him an appealing look as I did so. It evidently had its effect, for his expression changed as his band fell on the doorknob. Would he snap the lock tight, and so shut me out from what concerned me as much as it did any one in the whole world? Or would he recognize my anxiety--the necessity I was under of knowing just the ground I was standing on--and let me hear what this man had to report?
I watched the door. It closed slowly, too slowly to latch. Would he catch it anew by the knob? No; he left it thus, and, while the crack was hardly perceptible, I felt confident that the least shake of the floor would widen it and give me the opportunity I sought. But I did not have to wait for this. The two men in the office I had just left began to speak, and to my unbounded relief were sufficiently intelligible, even now, to warrant me in giving them my fullest attention.
After some expressions of astonishment on the part of the inspector as to the plight in which the other presented himself, the latter broke out:
"I've just escaped death! I'll tell you about that later. What I want to tell you now is that the man we want is in town. I saw him last night, or his shadow, which is the same thing. It was in the house in Eighty-sixth Street,--the house they all think closed. He came in with a key and--"
"Wait! You have him?"
"No. It's a long story, sir--"
The tone was dry. The inspector was evidently disappointed.
"Don't blame me till you hear," said the other. "He is no common crook. This is how it was: You wanted the suspect's photograph and a specimen of his writing. I knew no better place to look for them than in his own room in Mr. Fairbrother's house. I accordingly got the necessary warrant and late last evening undertook the job. I went alone I was always an egotistical chap, more's the pity--and with no further precaution than a passing explanation to the officer I met at the corner, I hastened up the block to the rear entrance on Eighty-seventh Street. There are three doors to the Fairbrother house, as you probably know. Two on Eighty-sixth Street (the large front one and a small one connecting directly with the turret stairs), and one on Eighty-seventh Street. It was to the latter I had a key. I do not think any one saw me go in. It was raining, and such people as went by were more concerned in keeping their umbrellas properly over their heads than in watching men skulking about in doorways.
"I got in, then, all right, and, being careful to close the door behind me, went up the first short flight of steps to what I knew must be the main hall. I had been given a plan of the interior, and I had studied it more or less before starting out, but I knew that I should get lost if I did not keep to the rear staircase, at the top of which I expected to find the steward's room. There was a faint light in the house, in spite of its closed shutters and tightly-drawn shades; and, having a certain dread of using my torch, knowing my weakness for pretty things and how hard it would be for me to pass so many fine rooms without looking in, I made my way up stairs, with no other guide than the hand-rail. When I had reached what I took to be the third floor I stopped. Finding it very dark, I first listened--a natural instinct with us--then I lit up and looked about me.
"I was in a large hall, empty as a vault and almost as desolate. Blank doors met my eyes in all directions, with here and there an open passageway. I felt myself in a maze. I had no idea which was the door I sought, and it is not pleasant to turn unaccustomed knobs in a shut-up house at midnight, with the rain pouring in torrents and the wind making pandemonium in a half-dozen great chimneys.
"But it had to be done, and I went at it in regular order till I came to a little narrow one opening on the turret-stair. This gave me my bearings. Sears' room adjoined the staircase. There was no difficulty in spotting the exact door now and, merely stopping to close the opening I had made to this little staircase, I crossed to this door and flung it open. I had been right in my calculations. It was the steward's room, and I made at once for the desk."
"And you found--?"
"Mostly locked drawers. But a key on my bunch opened some of these and my knife the rest. Here are the specimens of his handwriting which I collected. I doubt if you will get much out of them. I saw nothing compromising in the whole room, but then I hadn't time to go through his trunks, and one of them looked very interesting,--old as the hills and--"
"You hadn't time? Why hadn't you time? What happened to cut it short?"
"Well, sir, I'll tell you." The tone in which this was said roused me if it did not the inspector. "I had just come from the desk which had disappointed me, and was casting a look about the room, which was as bare as my hand of everything like ornament--I might almost say comfort--when I heard a noise which was not that of swishing rain or even gusty wind--these had not been absent from my ears for a moment. I didn't like that noise; it had a sneakish sound, and I shut my light off in a hurry. After that I crept hastily out of the room, for I don't like a set-to in a trap.
"It was darker than ever now in the hall, or so it seemed, and as I backed away I came upon a jog in the wall, behind which I crept. For the sound I had heard was no fancy. Some one besides myself was in the house, and that some one was coming up the little turret-stair, striking matches as he approached. Who could it be? A detective from the district attorney's office? I hardly thought so. He would have been provided with something better than matches to light his way. A burglar? No, not on the third floor of a house as rich as this. Some fellow on the force, then, who had seen me come in and, by some trick of his own, had managed to follow me? I would see. Meantime I kept my place behind the jog and watched, not knowing which way the intruder would go.
"Whoever he was, he was evidently astonished to see the turret door ajar, for he lit another match as he threw it open and, though I failed to get a glimpse of his figure, I succeeded in getting a very good one of his shadow. It was one to arouse a detective's instinct at once. I did not say to myself, this is the man I want, but I did say, this is nobody from headquarters, and I steadied myself for whatever might turn up.
"The first thing that happened was the sudden going out of the match which had made this shadow visible. The intruder did not light another. I heard him move across the floor with the rapid step of one who knows his way well, and the next minute a gas-jet flared up in the steward's room, and I knew that the man the whole force was looking for had trapped himself.
"You will agree that it was not my duty to take him then and there without seeing what he was after. He was thought to be in the eastern states, or south or west, and he was here; but why here? That is what I knew you would want to know, and it was just what I wanted to know myself. So I kept my place, which was good enough, and just listened, for I could not see.
"What was his errand? What did he want in this empty house at midnight? Papers first, and then clothes. I heard him at his desk, I heard him in the closet, and afterward pottering in the old trunk I had been so anxious to look into myself. He must have brought the key with him, for it was no time before I heard him throwing out the contents in a wild search for something he wanted in a great hurry. He found it sooner than you would believe, and began throwing the things back, when something happened. Expectedly or unexpectedly, his eye fell on some object which roused all his passions, and he broke into loud exclamations ending in groans. Finally he fell to kissing this object with a fervor suggesting rage, and a rage suggesting tenderness carried to the point of agony. I have never heard the like; my curiosity was so aroused that I was on the point of risking everything for a look, when he gave a sudden snarl and cried out, loud enough for me to hear: 'Kiss what I've hated? That is as bad as to kill what I've loved.' Those were the words. I am sure he said kiss and I am sure he said kill."
"This is very interesting. Go on with your story. Why didn't you collar him while he was in this mood? You would have won by the surprise.
"I had no pistol, sir, and he had. I heard him cock it. I thought he was going to take his own life, and held my breath for the report. But nothing like that was in his mind. Instead, he laid the pistol down and deliberately tore in two the object of his anger. Then with a smothered curse he made for the door and turret staircase.
"I was for following, but not till I had seen what he had destroyed in such an excess of feeling. I thought I knew, but I wanted to feel sure. So, before risking myself in the turret, I crept to the room he had left and felt about on the floor till I came upon these."
"A torn photograph! Mrs. Fairbrother's!"
"Yes. Have you not heard how he loved her? A foolish passion, but evidently sincere and--"
"Never mind comments, Sweetwater. Stick to facts."
"I will, sir. They are interesting enough. After I had picked up these scraps I stole back to the turret staircase. And here I made my first break. I stumbled in the darkness, and the man below heard me, for the pistol clicked again. I did not like this, and had some thoughts of backing out of my job. But I didn't. I merely waited till I heard his step again; then I followed.
"But very warily this time. It was not an agreeable venture. It was like descending into a well with possible death at the bottom. I could see nothing and presently could hear nothing but the almost imperceptible sliding of my own fingers down the curve of the wall, which was all I had to guide me. Had he stopped midway, and would my first intimation of his presence be the touch of cold steel or the flinging around me of two murderous arms? I had met with no break in the smooth surface of the wall, so could not have reached the second story. When I should get there the question would be whether to leave the staircase and seek him in the mazes of its great rooms, or to keep on down to the parlor floor and so to the street, whither he was possibly bound. I own that I was almost tempted to turn on my light and have done with it, but I remembered of how little use I should be to you lying in this well of a stairway with a bullet in me, and so I managed to compose myself and go on as I had begun. Next instant my fingers slipped round the edge of an opening, and I knew that the moment of decision had come. Realizing that no one can move so softly that he will not give away his presence in some way, I paused for the sound which I knew must come, and when a click rose from the depths of the hall before me I plunged into that hall and thus into the house proper.
"Here it was not so dark; yet I could make out none of the objects I now and then ran against. I passed a mirror (I hardly know how I knew it to be such), and in that mirror I seemed to see the ghost of a ghost flit by and vanish. It was too much. I muttered a suppressed oath and plunged forward, when I struck against a closing door. It flew open again and I rushed in, turning on my light in my extreme desperation, when, instead of hearing the sharp report of a pistol, as I expected, I saw a second door fall to before me, this time with a sound like the snap of a spring lock. Finding that this was so, and that all advance was barred that way, I wheeled hurriedly back toward the door by which I had entered the place, to find that that had fallen to simultaneously with the other, a single spring acting for both. I was trapped--a prisoner in the strangest sort of passageway or closet; and, as a speedy look about presently assured me, a prisoner with very little hope of immediate escape, for the doors were not only immovable, without even locks to pick or panels to break in, but the place was bare of windows, and the only communication which it could be said to have with the outside world at all was a shaft rising from the ceiling almost to the top of the house. Whether this served as a ventilator, or a means of lighting up the hole when both doors were shut, it was much too inaccessible to offer any apparent way of escape.
"Never was a man more thoroughly boxed in. As I realized how little chance there was of any outside interference, how my captor, even if he was seen leaving the house by the officer on duty, would be taken for myself and so allowed to escape, I own that I felt my position a hopeless one. But anger is a powerful stimulant, and I was mortally angry, not only with Sears, but with myself. So when I was done swearing I took another look around, and, finding that there was no getting through the walls, turned my attention wholly to the shaft, which would certainly lead me out of the place if I could only find means to mount it.
"And how do you think I managed to do this at last? A look at my bedraggled, lime-covered clothes may give you some idea. I cut a passage for myself up those perpendicular walls as the boy did up the face of the natural bridge in Virginia. Do you remember that old story in the Reader? It came to me like an inspiration as I stood looking up from below, and though I knew that I should have to work most of the way in perfect darkness, I decided that a man's life was worth some risk, and that I had rather fall and break my neck while doing something than to spend hours in maddening inactivity, only to face death at last from slow starvation.
"I had a knife, an exceedingly good knife, in my pocket--and for the first few steps I should have the light of my electric torch. The difficulty (that is, the first difficulty) was to reach the shaft from the floor where I stood. There was but one article of furniture in the room, and that was something between a table and a desk. No chairs, and the desk was not high enough to enable me to reach the mouth of the shaft. If I could turn it on end there might be some hope. But this did not look feasible. However, I threw off my coat and went at the thing with a vengeance, and whether I was given superhuman power or whether the clumsy thing was not as heavy as it looked, I did finally succeed in turning it on its end close under the opening from which the shaft rose. The next thing was to get on its top. That seemed about as impossible as climbing the bare wall itself, but presently I bethought me of the drawers, and, though they were locked, I did succeed by the aid of my keys to get enough of them open to make for myself a very good pair of stairs.
"I could now see my way to the mouth of the shaft, but after that! Taking out my knife, I felt the edge. It was a good one, so was the point, but was it good enough to work holes in plaster? It depended somewhat upon the plaster. Had the masons, in finishing that shaft, any thought of the poor wretch who one day would have to pit his life against the hardness of the final covering? My first dig at it would tell. I own I trembled violently at the prospect of what that first test would mean to me, and wondered if the perspiration which I felt starting at every pore was the result of the effort I had been engaged in or just plain fear.
"Inspector, I do not intend to have you live with me through the five mortal hours which followed. I was enabled to pierce that plaster with my knife, and even to penetrate deep enough to afford a place for the tips of my fingers and afterward for the point of my toes, digging, prying, sweating, panting, listening, first for a sudden opening of the doors beneath, then for some shout or wicked interference from above as I worked my way up inch by inch, foot by foot, to what might not be safety after it was attained.
"Five hours--six. Then I struck something which proved to be a window; and when I realized this and knew that with but one more effort I should breathe freely again, I came as near falling as I had at any time before I began this terrible climb.
"Happily, I had some premonition of my danger, and threw myself into a position which held me till the dizzy minute passed. Then I went calmly on with my work, and in another half-hour had reached the window, which, fortunately for me, not only opened inward, but was off the latch. It was with a sense of inexpressible relief that I clambered through this window and for a brief moment breathed in the pungent odor of cedar. But it could have been only for a moment. It was three o'clock in the afternoon before I found myself again in the outer air. The only way I can account for the lapse of time is that the strain to which both body and nerve had been subjected was too much for even my hardy body and that I fell to the floor of the cedar closet and from a faint went into a sleep that lasted until two. I can easily account for the last hour because it took me that long to cut the thick paneling from the door of the closet. However, I am here now, sir, and in very much the same condition in which I left that house. I thought my first duty was to tell you that I had seen Hiram Sears in that house last night and put you on his track."
I drew a long breath,--I think the inspector did. I had been almost rigid from excitement, and I don't believe he was quite free from it either. But his voice was calmer than I expected when he finally said:
"I'll remember this. It was a good night's work." Then the inspector put to him some questions, which seemed to fix the fact that Sears had left the house before Sweetwater did, after which he bade him send certain men to him and then go and fix himself up.
I believe he had forgotten me. I had almost forgotten myself.