The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green
I prayed uncle that we might be driven home by the way of Eighty-sixth Street. I wanted to look at the Fairbrother house. I had seen it many times, but I felt that I should see it with new eyes after the story I had just heard in the inspector's office. That an adventure of this nature could take place in a New York house taxed my credulity. I might have believed it of Paris, wicked, mysterious Paris, the home of intrigue and every redoubtable crime, but of our own homely, commonplace metropolis--the house must be seen for me to be convinced of the fact related.
Many of you know the building. It is usually spoken of with a shrug, the sole reason for which seems to be that there is no other just like it in the city. I myself have always considered it imposing and majestic; but to the average man it is too suggestive of Old-World feudal life to be pleasing. On this afternoon--a dull, depressing one--it looked undeniably heavy as we approached it; but interesting in a very new way to me, because of the great turret at one angle, the scene of that midnight descent of two men, each in deadly fear of the other, yet quailing not in their purpose,--the one of flight, the other of pursuit.
There was no railing in front of the house. It may have seemed an unnecessary safeguard to the audacious owner. Consequently, the small door in the turret opened directly upon the street, making entrance and exit easy enough for any one who had the key. But the shaft and the small room at the bottom--where were they? Naturally in the center of the great mass, the room being without windows.
It was, therefore, useless to look for it, and yet my eye ran along the peaks and pinnacles of the roof, searching for the skylight in which it undoubtedly ended. At last I espied it, and, my curiosity satisfied on this score, I let my eyes run over the side and face of the building for an open window or a lifted shade. But all were tightly closed and gave no more sign of life than did the boarded-up door. But I was not deceived by this. As we drove away, I thought how on the morrow there would be a regular procession passing through this street to see just the little I had seen to-day. The detective's adventure was like to make the house notorious. For several minutes after I had left its neighborhood my imagination pictured room after room shut up from the light of day, but bearing within them the impalpable aura of those two shadows flitting through them like the ghosts of ghosts, as the detective had tellingly put it.
The heart has its strange surprises. Through my whole ride and the indulgence in these thoughts I was conscious of a great inner revulsion against all I had intimated and even honestly felt while talking with the inspector. Perhaps this is what this wise old official expected. He had let me talk, and the inevitable reaction followed. I could now see only Mr. Grey's goodness and claims to respect, and began to hate myself that I had not been immediately impressed by the inspector's views, and shown myself more willing to drop every suspicion against the august personage I had presumed to associate with crime. What had given me the strength to persist? Loyalty to my lover? His innocence had not been involved. Indeed, every word uttered in the inspector's office had gone to prove that he no longer occupied a leading place in police calculations: that their eyes were turned elsewhere, and that I had only to be patient to see Mr. Durand quite cleared in their minds.
But was this really so? Was he as safe as that? What if this new clue failed? What if they failed to find Sears or lay hands on the doubtful Wellgood? Would Mr. Durand be released without a trial? Should we hear nothing more of the strange and to many the suspicious circumstances which linked him to this crime? It would be expecting too much from either police or official discrimination.
No; Mr. Durand would never be completely exonerated till the true culprit was found and all explanations made. I had therefore been simply fighting his battles when I pointed out what I thought to be the weak place in their present theory, and, sore as I felt in contemplation of my seemingly heartless action, I was not the unimpressionable, addle-pated nonentity I must have seemed to the inspector.
Yet my comfort was small and the effort it took to face Mr. Grey and my young patient was much greater than I had anticipated. I blushed as I approached to take my place at Miss Grey's bedside, and, had her father been as suspicious of me at that moment as I was of him, I am sure that I should have fared badly in his thoughts.
But he was not on the watch for my emotions. He was simply relieved to see me back. I noticed this immediately, also that something had occurred during my absence which absorbed his thought and filled him with anxiety.
A Western Union envelope lay at his feet,--proof that he had just received a telegram. This, under ordinary circumstances, would not have occasioned me a second thought, such a man being naturally the recipient of all sorts of communications from all parts of the world; but at this crisis, with the worm of a half-stifled doubt still gnawing at my heart, everything that occurred to him took on importance and roused questions.
When he had left the room, Miss Grey nestled up to me with the seemingly ingenuous remark:
"Poor papa! something disturbs him. He will not tell me what. I suppose he thinks I am not strong enough to share his troubles. But I shall be soon. Don't you see I am gaining every day?"
"Indeed I do," was my hearty response. In face of such a sweet confidence and open affection doubt vanished and I was able to give all my thoughts to her.
"I wish papa felt as sure of this as you do," she said. "For some reason he does not seem to take any comfort from my improvement. When Doctor Freligh says, 'Well, well! we are getting on finely to-day,' I notice that he does not look less anxious, nor does he even meet these encouraging words with a smile. Haven't you noticed it? He looks as care-worn and troubled about me now as he did the first day I was taken sick. Why should he? Is it because he has lost so many children he can not believe in his good fortune at having the most insignificant of all left to him?"
"I do not know your father very well," I protested; "and can not judge what is going on in his mind. But he must see that you are quite a different girl from what you were a week ago, and that, if nothing unforeseen happens, your recovery will only be a matter of a week or two longer."
"Oh, how I love to hear you say that! To be well again! To read letters!" she murmured, "and to write them!" And I saw the delicate hand falter up to pinch the precious packet awaiting that happy hour. I did not like to discuss her father with her, so took this opportunity to turn the conversation aside into safer channels. But we had not proceeded far before Mr. Grey returned and, taking his stand at the foot of the bed, remarked, after a moment's gloomy contemplation of his daughter's face:
"You are better today, the doctor says,--I have just been telephoning to him. But do you feel well enough for me to leave you for a few days? There is a man I must see--must go to, if you have no dread of being left alone with your good nurse and the doctor's constant attendance."
Miss Grey looked startled. Doubtless she found it difficult to understand what man in this strange country could interest her father enough to induce him to leave her while he was yet laboring under such solicitude. But a smile speedily took the place of her look of surprised inquiry and she affectionately exclaimed:
"Oh, I haven't the least dread in the world, not now. See, I can hold up my arms. Go, papa, go; it will give me a chance to surprise you with my good looks when you come back."
He turned abruptly away. He was suffering from an emotion deeper than he cared to acknowledge. But he gained control over himself speedily and, coming back, announced with forced decision:
"I shall have to go to-night. I have no choice. Promise me that you will not go back in my absence; that you will strive to get well; that you will put all your mind into striving to get well."
"Indeed, I will," she answered, a little frightened by the feeling he showed. "Don't worry so much. I have more than one reason for living, papa."
He shook his head and went immediately to make his preparations for departure. His daughter gave one sob, then caught me by the hand.
"You look dumfounded," said she. "But never mind, we shall get on very well together. I have the most perfect confidence in you."
Was it my duty to let the inspector know that Mr. Grey anticipated absenting himself from the city for a few days? I decided that I would only be impressing my own doubts upon him after a rebuke which should have allayed them.
Yet, when Mr. Grey came to take his departure I wished that the inspector might have been a witness to his emotion, if only to give me one of his very excellent explanations. The parting was more like that of one who sees no immediate promise of return than of a traveler who intends to limit his stay to a few days. He looked her in the eyes and kissed her a dozen times, each time with an air of heartbreak which was good neither for her nor for himself, and when he finally tore himself away it was to look back at her from the door with an expression I was glad she did not see, or it would certainly have interfered with the promise she had made to concentrate all her energies on getting well.
What was at the root of his extreme grief at leaving her? Did he fear the person he was going to meet, or were his plans such as involved a much longer stay than he had mentioned? Did he even mean to return at all?
Ah, that was the question! Did he intend to return, or had I been the unconscious witness of a flight?