The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green
XXI. Grizel! Grizel!
I indulged in some very serious thoughts after Mr. Grey's departure. A fact was borne in upon me to which I had hitherto closed my prejudiced eyes, but which I could no longer ignore, whatever confusion it brought or however it caused me to change my mind on a subject which had formed one of the strongest bases to the argument by which I had sought to save Mr. Durand. Miss Grey cherished no such distrust of her father as I, in my ignorance of their relations, had imputed to her in the early hours of my ministrations. This you have already seen in my account of their parting. Whatever his dread, fear or remorse, there was no evidence that she felt toward him anything but love and confidence: but love and confidence from her to him were in direct contradiction to the doubts I had believed her to have expressed in the half-written note handed to Mrs. Fairbrother in the alcove. Had I been wrong, then, in attributing this scrawl to her? It began to look so. Though forbidden to allow her to speak on the one tabooed subject, I had wit enough to know that nothing would keep her from it, if the fate of Mrs. Fairbrother occupied any real place in her thoughts.
Yet when the opportunity was given me one morning of settling this fact beyond all doubt, I own that my main feeling was one of dread. I feared to see this article in my creed destroyed, lest I should lose confidence in the whole. Yet conscience bade me face the matter boldly, for had I not boasted to myself that my one desire was the truth?
I allude to the disposition which Miss Grey showed on the morning of the third day to do a little surreptitious writing. You remember that a specimen of her handwriting had been asked for by the inspector, and once had been earnestly desired by myself. Now I seemed likely to have it, if I did not open my eyes too widely to the meaning of her seemingly chance requests. A little pencil dangled at the end of my watch-chain. Would I let her see it, let her hold it in her hand for a minute? it was so like one she used to have. Of course I took it off, of course I let her retain it a little while in her hand. But the pencil was not enough. A few minutes later she asked for a book to look at--I sometimes let her look at pictures. But the book bothered her--she would look at it later; would I give her something to mark the place--that postal over there. I gave her the postal. She put it in the book and I, who understood her thoroughly, wondered what excuse she would now find for sending me into the other room. She found one very soon, and with a heavily-beating heart I left her with that pencil and postal. A soft laugh from her lips drew me back. She was holding up the postal.
"See! I have written a line to him! Oh, you good, good nurse, to let me! You needn't look so alarmed. It hasn't hurt me one bit."
I knew that it had not; knew that such an exertion was likely to be more beneficial than hurtful to her, or I should have found some excuse for deterring her. I endeavored to make my face more natural. As she seemed to want me to take the postal in my hand I drew near and took it.
"The address looks very shaky," she laughed. "I think you will have to put it in an envelope."
I looked at it,--I could not help it,--her eye was on me, and I could not even prepare my mind for the shock of seeing it like or totally unlike the writing of the warning. It was totally unlike; so distinctly unlike that it was no longer possible to attribute those lines to her which, according to Mr. Durand's story, had caused Mrs. Fairbrother to take off her diamond.
"Why, why!" she cried. "You actually look pale. Are you afraid the doctor will scold us? It hasn't hurt me nearly so much as lying here and knowing what he would give for one word from me."
"You are right, and I am foolish," I answered with all the spirit left in me. "I should be glad--I am glad that you have written these words. I will copy the address on an envelope and send it out in the first mail."
"Thank you," she murmured, giving me back my pencil with a sly smile. "Now I can sleep. I must have roses in my cheeks when papa comes home."
And she bade fair to have ruddier roses than myself, for conscience was working havoc in my breast. The theory I had built up with such care, the theory I had persisted in urging upon the inspector in spite of his rebuke, was slowly crumbling to pieces in my mind with the falling of one of its main pillars. With the warning unaccounted for in the manner I have stated, there was a weakness in my argument which nothing could make good. How could I tell the inspector, if ever I should be so happy or so miserable as to meet his eye again? Humiliated to the dust, I could see no worth now in any of the arguments I had advanced. I flew from one extreme to the other, and was imputing perfect probity to Mr. Grey and an honorable if mysterious reason for all his acts, when the door opened and he came in. Instantly my last doubt vanished. I had not expected him to return so soon.
He was glad to be back; that I could see, but there was no other gladness in him. I had looked for some change in his manner and appearance,--that is, if he returned at all,--but the one I saw was not a cheerful one, even after he had approached his daughter's bedside and found her greatly improved. She noticed this and scrutinized him strangely. He dropped his eyes and turned to leave the room, but was stopped by her loving cry; he came back and leaned over her.
"What is it, father? You are fatigued, worried--"
"No, no, quite well," he hastily assured her. "But you! are you as well as you seem?"
"Indeed, yes. I am gaining every day. See! see! I shall soon be able to sit up. Yesterday I read a few words."
He started, with a side glance at me which took in a table near by on which a little book was lying.
"Oh, a book?"
"Yes, and--and Arthur's letters."
The father flushed, lifted himself, patted her arm tenderly and hastened into another room.
Miss Grey's eyes followed him longingly, and I heard her give utterance to a soft sigh. A few hours before, this would have conveyed to my suspicious mind deep and mysterious meanings; but I was seeing everything now in a different light, and I found myself no longer inclined either to exaggerate or to misinterpret these little marks of filial solicitude. Trying to rejoice over the present condition of my mind, I was searching in the hidden depths of my nature for the patience of which I stood in such need, when every thought and feeling were again thrown into confusion by the receipt of another communication from the inspector, in which he stated that something had occurred to bring the authorities round to my way of thinking and that the test with the stiletto was to be made at once.
Could the irony of fate go further! I dropped the letter half read, querying if it were my duty to let the inspector know of the flaw I had discovered in my own theory, before I proceeded with the attempt I had suggested when I believed in its complete soundness. I had not settled the question when I took the letter up again. Re-reading its opening sentence, I was caught by the word "something." It was a very indefinite one, yet was capable of covering a large field. It must cover a large field, or it could not have produced such a change in the minds of these men, conservative from principle and in this instance from discretion. I would be satisfied with that word something and quit further thinking. I was weary of it. The inspector was now taking the initiative, and I was satisfied to be his simple instrument and no more. Arrived at this conclusion, however, I read the rest of the letter. The test was to go on, but under different conditions. It was no longer to be made at my own discretion and in the up-stairs room; it was to be made at luncheon hour and in Mr. Grey's private dining-room, where, if by any chance Mr. Grey found himself outraged by the placing of this notorious weapon beside his plate, the blame could be laid on the waiter, who, mistaking his directions, had placed it on Mr. Grey's table when it was meant for Inspector Dalzell's, who was lunching in the adjoining room. It was I, however, who was to do the placing. With what precautions and under what circumstances will presently appear.
Fortunately, the hour set was very near. Otherwise I do not know how I could have endured the continued strain of gazing on my patient's sweet face, looking up at me from her pillow, with a shadow over its beauty which had not been there before her father's return.
And that father! I could hear him pacing the library floor with a restlessness that struck me as being strangely akin to my own inward anguish of impatience and doubt. What was he dreading? What was it I had seen darkening his face and disturbing his manner, when from time to time he pushed open the communicating door and cast an anxious glance our way, only to withdraw again without uttering a word. Did he realize that a crisis was approaching, that danger menaced him, and from me? No, not the latter, for his glance never strayed to me, but rested solely on his daughter. I was, therefore, not connected with the disturbance in his thoughts. As far as that was concerned I could proceed fearlessly; I had not him to dread, only the event. That I did dread, as any one must who saw Miss Grey's face during these painful moments and heard that restless tramp in the room beyond.
At last the hour struck,--the hour at which Mr. Grey always descended to lunch. He was punctuality itself, and under ordinary circumstances I could depend upon his leaving the room within five minutes of the stroke of one. But would he be as prompt to-day? Was he in the mood for luncheon? Would he go down stairs at all? Yes, for the tramp, tramp stopped; I heard him approaching his daughter's door for a last look in and managed to escape just in time to procure what I wanted and reach the room below before he came.
My opportunity was short, but I had time to see two things: first, that the location of his seat had been changed so that his back was to the door leading into the adjoining room; secondly, that this door was ajar. The usual waiter was in the room and showed no surprise at my appearance, I having been careful to have it understood that hereafter Miss Grey's appetite was to be encouraged by having her soup served from her father's table by her father's own hands, and that I should be there to receive it.
"Mr. Grey is coming," said I, approaching the waiter and handing him the stiletto loosely wrapped in tissue paper. "Will you be kind enough to place this at his plate, just as it is? A man gave it to me for Mr. Grey; said we were to place it there."
The waiter, suspecting nothing, did as he was bidden, and I had hardly time to catch up the tray laden with dishes, which I saw awaiting me on a side-table, when Mr. Grey came in and was ushered to his seat.
The soup was not there, but I advanced with my tray and stood waiting; not too near, lest the violent beating of my heart should betray me. As I did so the waiter disappeared and the door behind us opened. Though Mr. Grey's eye had fallen on the package, and I saw him start, I darted one glance at the room thus disclosed, and saw that it held two tables. At one, the inspector and some one I did not know sat eating; at the other a man alone, whose back was to us all, and who seemingly was entirely disconnected with the interests of this tragic moment. All this I saw in an instant,--the next my eyes were fixed on Mr. Grey's face.
He had reached out his hand to the package and his features showed an emotion I hardly understood.
"What's this?" he murmured, feeling it with wonder, I should almost say anger. Suddenly he pulled off the wrapper, and my heart stood still in expectancy. If he quailed--and how could he help doing so if guilty--what a doubt would be removed from my own breast, what an impediment from police action! But he did not quail; he simply uttered an exclamation of intense anger, and laid the weapon back on the table without even taking the precaution of covering it up. I think he muttered an oath, but there was no fear in it, not a particle.
My disappointment was so great, my humiliation so unbounded, that, forgetting myself in my dismay, I staggered back and let the tray with all its contents slip from my hands. The crash that followed stopped Mr. Grey in the act of rising. But it did something more. It awoke a cry from the adjoining room which I shall never forget. While we both started and turned to see from whom this grievous sound had sprung, a man came stumbling toward us with his hands before his eyes and this name wild on his lips:
Mrs. Fairbrother's name! and the man--