The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green
XV. Sears or Wellgood
Not till the inspector had given several orders was I again summoned into his presence. He smiled as our eyes met, but did not allude, any more than I did, to what had just passed. Nevertheless, we understood each other.
When I was again seated, he took up the conversation where we had left it.
"The description I was just about to read to you," he went on; "will you listen to it now?"
"Gladly," said I; "it is Wellgood's, I believe."
He did not answer save by a curious glance from under his brows, but, taking the paper again from his desk, went on reading:
"A man of fifty-five looking like one of sixty. Medium height, insignificant features, head bald save for a ring of scanty dark hair. No beard, a heavy nose, long mouth and sleepy half-shut eyes capable of shooting strange glances. Nothing distinctive in face or figure save the depth of his wrinkles and a scarcely observable stoop in his right shoulder. Do you see Wellgood in that?" he suddenly asked.
"I have only the faintest recollection of his appearance," was my doubtful reply. "But the impression I get from this description is not exactly the one I received of that waiter in the momentary glimpse I got of him."
"So others have told me before;' he remarked, looking very disappointed. "The description is of Sears given me by a man who knew him well, and if we could fit the description of the one to that of the other, we should have it easy. But the few persons who have seen Wellgood differ greatly in their remembrance of his features, and even of his coloring. It is astonishing how superficially most people see a man, even when they are thrown into daily contact with him. Mr. Jones says the man's eyes are gray, his hair a wig and dark, his nose pudgy, and his face without much expression. His land-lady, that his eyes are blue, his hair, whether wig or not, a dusty auburn, and his look quick and piercing,--a look which always made her afraid. His nose she don't remember. Both agree, or rather all agree, that he wore no beard--Sears did, but a beard can be easily taken off--and all of them declare that they would know him instantly if they saw him. And so the matter stands. Even you can give me no definite description,--one, I mean, as satisfactory or unsatisfactory as this of Sears."
I shook my head. Like the others, I felt that I should know him if I saw him, but I could go no further than that. There seemed to be so little that was distinctive about the man.
The inspector, hoping, perhaps, that all this would serve to rouse my memory, shrugged his shoulders and put the best face he could on the matter.
"Well, well," said he, "we shall have to be patient. A day may make all the difference possible in our outlook. If we can lay hands on either of these men--"
He seemed to realize he had said a word too much, for he instantly changed the subject by asking if I had succeeded in getting a sample of Miss Grey's writing. I was forced to say no; that everything had been very carefully put away. "But I do not know what moment I may come upon it," I added. "I do not forget its importance in this investigation."
"Very good. Those lines handed up to Mrs. Fairbrother from the walk outside are the second most valuable clue we possess."
I did not ask him what the first was. I knew. It was the stiletto.
"Strange that no one has testified to that handwriting," I remarked.
He looked at me in surprise.
"Fifty persons have sent in samples of writing which they think like it," he observed. "Often of persons who never heard of the Fairbrothers. We have been bothered greatly with the business. You know little of the difficulties the police labor under."
"I know too much," I sighed.
He smiled and patted me on the hand.
"Go back to your patient," he said. "Forget every other duty but that of your calling until you get some definite word from me. I shall not keep you in suspense one minute longer than is absolutely necessary."
He had risen. I rose too. But I was not satisfied. I could not leave the room with my ideas (I might say with my convictions) in such a turmoil.
"Inspector," said I, "you will think me very obstinate, but all you have told me about Sears, all I have heard about him, in fact,"--this I emphasized,--"does not convince me of the entire folly of my own suspicions. Indeed, I am afraid that, if anything, they are strengthened. This steward, who is a doubtful character, I acknowledge, may have had his reasons for wishing Mrs. Fairbrother's death, may even have had a hand in the matter; but what evidence have you to show that he, himself, entered the alcove, struck the blow or stole the diamond? I have listened eagerly for some such evidence, but I have listened in vain."
"I know," he murmured, "I know. But it will come; at least I think so."
This should have reassured me, no doubt, and sent me away quiet and happy. But something--the tenacity of a deep conviction, possibly--kept me lingering before the inspector and finally gave me the courage to say:
"I know I ought not to speak another word; that I am putting myself at a disadvantage in doing so; but I can not help it, Inspector; I can not help it when I see you laying such stress upon the few indirect clues connecting the suspicious Sears with this crime, and ignoring the direct clues we have against one whom we need not name."
Had I gone too far? Had my presumption transgressed all bounds and would he show a very natural anger? No, he smiled instead, an enigmatical smile, no doubt, which I found it difficult to understand, but yet a smile.
"You mean," he suggested, "that Sears' possible connection with the crime can not eliminate Mr. Grey's very positive one; nor can the fact that Wellgood's hand came in contact with Mr. Grey's, at or near the time of the exchange of the false stone with the real, make it any less evident who was the guilty author of this exchange?"
The inspector's hand was on the door-knob, but he dropped it at this, and surveying me very quietly said:
"I thought that a few days spent at the bedside of Miss Grey in the society of so renowned and cultured a gentleman as her father would disabuse you of these damaging suspicions."
"I don't wonder that you thought so," I burst out. "You would think so all the more, if you knew how kind he can be and what solicitude he shows for all about him. But I can not get over the facts. They all point, it seems to me, straight in one direction."
"All? You heard what was said in this room--I saw it in your eye--how the man, who surprised the steward in his own room last night, heard him talking of love and death in connection with Mrs. Fairbrother. 'To kiss what I hate! It is almost as bad as to kill what I love'--he said something like that."
"Yes, I heard that. But did he mean that he had been her actual slayer? Could you convict him on those words?"
"Well, we shall find out. Then, as to Wellgood's part in the little business, you choose to consider that it took place at the time the stone fell from Mr. Grey's hand. What proof have you that the substitution you believe in was not made by him? He could easily have done it while crossing the room to Mr. Grey's side."
"Inspector!" Then hotly, as the absurdity of the suggestion struck me with full force: "He do this! A waiter, or as you think, Mr. Fairbrother's steward, to be provided with so hard-to-come-by an article as this counterpart of a great stone? Isn't that almost as incredible a supposition as any I have myself presumed to advance?"
"Possibly, but the affair is full of incredibilities, the greatest of which, to my mind, is the persistence with which you, a kind-hearted enough little woman, persevere in ascribing the deepest guilt to one you profess to admire and certainly would be glad to find innocent of any complicity with a great crime."
I felt that I must justify myself.
"Mr. Durand has had no such consideration shown him," said I.
"I know, my child, I know; but the cases differ. Wouldn't it be well for you to see this and be satisfied with the turn which things have taken, without continuing to insist upon involving Mr. Grey in your suspicions?"
A smile took off the edge of this rebuke, yet I felt it keenly; and only the confidence I had in his fairness as a man and public official enabled me to say:
"But I am talking quite confidentially. And you have been so good to me, so willing to listen to all I had to say, that I can not help but speak my whole mind. It is my only safety valve. Remember how I have to sit in the presence of this man with my thoughts all choked up. It is killing me. But I think I should go back content if you will listen to one more suggestion I have to make. It is my last."
"Say it I am nothing if not indulgent."
He had spoken the word. Indulgent, that was it. He let me speak, probably had let me speak from the first, from pure kindness. He did not believe one little bit in my good sense or logic. But I was not to be deterred. I would empty my mind of the ugly thing that lay there. I would leave there no miserable dregs of doubt to ferment and work their evil way with me in the dead watches of the night, which I had yet to face. So I took him at his word.
"I only want to ask this. In case Sears is innocent of the crime, who wrote the warning and where did the assassin get the stiletto with the Grey arms chased into its handle? And the diamond? Still the diamond! You hint that he stole that, too. That with some idea of its proving useful to him on this gala occasion, he had provided himself with an imitation stone, setting and all,--he who has never shown, so far as we have heard, any interest in Mrs. Fairbrother's diamond, only in Mrs. Fairbrother herself. If Wellgood is Sears and Sears the medium by which the false stone was exchanged for the real, then he made this exchange in Mr. Grey's interests and not his own. But I don't believe he had anything to do with it. I think everything goes to show that the exchange was made by Mr. Grey himself."
"A second Daniel," muttered the inspector lightly. "Go on, little lawyer!" But for all this attempt at banter on his part, I imagined that I saw the beginning of a very natural anxiety to close the conversation. I therefore hastened with what I had yet to say, cutting my words short and almost stammering in my eagerness.
"Remember the perfection of that imitation stone, a copy so exact that it extends to the setting. That shows plan-- forgive me if I repeat myself--preparation, a knowledge of stones, a particular knowledge of this one. Mr. Fairbrother's steward may have had the knowledge, but he would have been a fool to have used his knowledge to secure for himself a valuable he could never have found a purchaser for in any market. But a fancier--one who has his pleasure in the mere possession of a unique and invaluable gem--ah! that is different! He might risk a crime--history tells us of several."
Here I paused to take breath, which gave the inspector chance to say:
"In other words, this is what you think. The Englishman, desirous of covering up his tracks, conceived the idea of having this imitation on hand, in case it might be of use in the daring and disgraceful undertaking you ascribe to him. Recognizing his own inability to do this himself, he delegated the task to one who in some way, he had been led to think, cherished a secret grudge against its present possessor--a man who had had some opportunity for seeing the stone and studying the setting. The copy thus procured, Mr. Grey went to the ball, and, relying on his own seemingly unassailable position, attacked Mrs. Fairbrother in the alcove and would have carried off the diamond, if he had found it where he had seen it earlier blazing on her breast. But it was not there. The warning received by her--a warning you ascribe to his daughter, a fact which is yet to be proved--had led her to rid herself of the jewel in the way Mr. Durand describes, and he found himself burdened with a dastardly crime and with nothing to show for it. Later, however, to his intense surprise and possible satisfaction, he saw that diamond in my hands, and, recognizing an opportunity, as he thought, of yet securing it, he asked to see it, held it for an instant, and then, making use of an almost incredible expedient for distracting attention, dropped, not the real stone but the false one, retaining the real one in his hand. This, in plain English, as I take it, is your present idea of the situation."
Astonished at the clearness with which he read my mind, I answered: "Yes, Inspector, that is what was in my mind."
"Good! then it is just as well that it is out. Your mind is now free and you can give it entirely to your duties." Then, as he laid his hand on the door-knob, he added: "In studying so intently your own point of view, you seem to have forgotten that the last thing which Mr. Grey would be likely to do, under those circumstances, would be to call attention to the falsity of the gem upon whose similarity to the real stone he was depending. Not even his confidence in his own position, as an honored and highly-esteemed guest, would lead him to do that."
"Not if he were a well-known connoisseur," I faltered, "with the pride of one who has handled the best gems? He would know that the deception would be soon discovered and that it would not do for him to fail to recognize it for what it was, when the make-believe was in his hands."
"Forced, my dear child, forced; and as chimerical as all the rest. It can not stand putting into words. I will go further,-- you are a good girl and can bear to hear the truth from me. I don't believe in your theory; I can't. I have not been able to from the first, nor have any of my men; but if your ideas are true and Mr. Grey is involved in this matter, you will find that there has been more of a hitch about that diamond than you, in your simplicity, believe. If Mr. Grey were in actual possession of this valuable, he would show less care than you say he does. So would he if it were in Wellgood's hands with his consent and a good prospect of its coming to him in the near future. But if it is in Wellgood's hands without his consent, or any near prospect of his regaining it, then we can easily understand his present apprehensions and the growing uneasiness he betrays."
"True," I murmured.
"If, then," the inspector pursued, giving me a parting glance not without its humor, probably not without something really serious underlying its humor, "we should find, in following up our present clue, that Mr. Grey has had dealings with this Wellgood or this Sears; or if you, with your advantages for learning the fact, should discover that he shows any extraordinary interest in either of them, the matter will take on a different aspect. But we have not got that far yet. At present our task is to find one or the other of these men. If we are lucky, we shall discover that the waiter and the steward are identical, in spite of their seemingly different appearance. A rogue, such as this Sears has shown himself to be, would be an adept at disguise."
"You are right," I acknowledged. "He has certainly the heart of a criminal. If he had no hand in Mrs. Fairbrother's murder, he came near having one in that of your detective. You know what I mean. I could not help hearing, Inspector."
He smiled, looked me steadfastly in the face for a moment, and then bowed me out.
The inspector told me afterward that, in spite of the cavalier manner with which he had treated my suggestions, he spent a very serious half-hour, head to head with the district attorney. The result was the following order to Sweetwater, the detective.
"You are to go to the St. Regis; make yourself solid there, and gradually, as you can manage it, work yourself into a position for knowing all that goes on in Room --. If the gentleman (mind you, the gentleman; we care nothing about the women) should go out, you are to follow him if it takes you to--. We want to know his secret; but he must never know our interest in it and you are to be as silent in this matter as if possessed of neither ear nor tongue. I will add memory, for if you find this secret to be one in which we have no lawful interest, you are to forget it absolutely and for ever. You will understand why when you consult the St Regis register."
But they expected nothing from it; absolutely nothing.