The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green
Was he Wellgood? Sears? Who? A lover of the woman certainly; that was borne in on us by the passion of his cry:
But how here? and why such fury in Mr. Grey's face and such amazement in that of the inspector?
This question was not to be answered offhand. Mr. Grey, advancing, laid a finger on the man's shoulder. "Come," said he, "we will have our conversation in another room."
The man, who, in dress and appearance looked oddly out of place in those gorgeous rooms, shook off the stupor into which he had fallen and started to follow the Englishman. A waiter crossed their track with the soup for our table. Mr. Grey motioned him aside.
"Take that back," said he. "I have some business to transact with this gentleman before I eat. I'll ring when I want you."
Then they entered where I was. As the door closed I caught sight of the inspector's face turned earnestly toward me. In his eyes I read my duty, and girded up my heart, as it were, to meet--what? In that moment it was impossible to tell.
The next enlightened me. With a total ignoring of my presence, due probably to his great excitement, Mr. Grey turned on his companion the moment he had closed the door and, seizing him by the collar, cried:
"Fairbrother, you villain, why have you called on your wife like this? Are you murderer as well as thief?"
Fairbrother! this man? Then who was he who was being nursed back to life on the mountains beyond Santa Fe? Sears? Anything seemed possible in that moment.
Meanwhile, dropping his hand from the other's throat as suddenly as he had seized it, Mr. Grey caught up the stiletto from the table where he had flung it, crying: "Do you recognize this?"
Ah, then I saw guilt!
In a silence worse than any cry, this so-called husband of the murdered woman, the man on whom no suspicion had fallen, the man whom all had thought a thousand miles away at the time of the deed, stared at the weapon thrust under his eyes, while over his face passed all those expressions of fear, abhorrence and detected guilt which, fool that I was, I had expected to see reflected in response to the same test in Mr. Grey's equable countenance.
The surprise and wonder of it held me chained to the spot. I was in a state of stupefaction, so that I scarcely noted the broken fragments at my feet. But the intruder noticed them. Wrenching his gaze from the stiletto which Mr. Grey continued to hold out, he pointed to the broken cup and saucer, muttering:
"That is what startled me into this betrayal--the noise of breaking china. I can not bear it since--"
He stopped, bit his lip and looked around him with an air of sudden bravado.
"Since you dropped the cups at your wife's feet in Mr. Ramsdell's alcove," finished Mr. Grey with admirable self-possession.
"I see that explanations from myself are not in order," was the grim retort, launched with the bitterest sarcasm. Then as the full weight of his position crushed in on him, his face assumed an aspect startling to my unaccustomed eyes, and, thrusting his hand into his pocket he drew forth a small box which he placed in Mr. Grey's hands.
"The Great Mogul," he declared simply.
It was the first time I had heard this diamond so named.
Without a word that gentleman opened the box, took one look at the contents, assumed a satisfied air, and carefully deposited the recovered gem in his own pocket. As his eyes returned to the man before him, all the passion of the latter burst forth.
"It was not for that I killed her!" cried he. "It was because she defied me and flaunted her disobedience in my very face. I would do it again, yet--"
Here his voice broke and it was in a different tone and with a total change of manner he added: "You stand appalled at my depravity. You have not lived my life." Then quickly and with a touch of sullenness: "You suspected me because of the stiletto. It was a mistake, using that stiletto. Otherwise, the plan was good. I doubt if you know now how I found my way into the alcove, possibly under your very eyes; certainly, under the eyes of many who knew me."
"I do not. It is enough that you entered it; that you confess your guilt."
Here Mr. Grey stretched his hand toward the electric button.
"No, it is not enough." The tone was fierce, authoritative. "Do not ring the bell, not yet. I have a fancy to tell you how I managed that little affair."
Glancing about, he caught up from a near-by table a small brass tray. Emptying it of its contents, he turned on us with drawn-down features and an obsequious air so opposed to his natural manner that it was as if another man stood before us.
"Pardon my black tie," he muttered, holding out the tray toward Mr. Grey.
The room turned with me. It was he, then, the great financier, the multimillionaire, the husband of the magnificent Grizel, who had entered Mr. Ramsdell's house as a waiter!
Mr. Grey did not show surprise, but he made a gesture, when instantly the tray was thrown aside and the man resumed his ordinary aspect.
"I see you understand me," he cried. "I who have played host at many a ball, passed myself off that night as one of the waiters. I came and went and no one noticed me. It is such a natural sight to see a waiter passing ices that my going in and out of the alcove did not attract the least attention. I never look at waiters when I attend balls. I never look higher than their trays. No one looked at me higher than my tray. I held the stiletto under the tray and when I struck her she threw up her hands and they hit the tray and the cups fell. I have never been able to bear the sound of breaking china since. I loved her--"
A gasp and he recovered himself.
"That is neither here nor there," he muttered. "You summoned me under threat to present myself at your door to-day. I have done so. I meant to restore you your diamond, simply. It has become worthless to me. But fate exacted more. Surprise forced my secret from me. That young lady with her damnable awkwardness has put my head in a noose. But do not think to hold it there. I did not risk this interview without precautions, I assure you, and when I leave this hotel it will be as a free man."
With one of his rapid changes, wonderful and inexplicable to me at the moment, he turned toward me with a bow, saying courteously enough:
"We will excuse the young lady."
Next moment the barrel of a pistol gleamed in his hand.
The moment was critical. Mr. Grey stood directly in the line of fire, and the audacious man who thus held him at his mercy was scarcely a foot from the door leading into the hall. Marking the desperation of his look and the steadiness of his finger on the trigger, I expected to see Mr. Grey recoil and the man escape. But Mr. Grey held his own, though he made no move, and did not venture to speak. Nerved by his courage, I summoned up all my own. This man must not escape, nor must Mr. Grey suffer. The pistol directed against him must be diverted to myself. Such amends were due one whose good name I had so deeply if secretly insulted. I had but to scream, to call out for the inspector, but a remembrance of the necessity we were now under of preserving our secret, of keeping from Mr. Grey the fact that he had been under surveillance, was even at that moment surrounded by the police, deterred me, and I threw myself toward the bell instead, crying out that I would raise the house if he moved, and laid my finger on the button.
The pistol swerved my way. The face above it smiled. I watched that smile. Before it broadened to its full extent, I pressed the button.
Fairbrother stared, dropped his pistol, and burst forth with these two words:
The tone I can never convey.
Then he made for the door.
As he laid his hand on the knob, he called back:
"I have been in worse straits than this!"
But he never had; when he opened the door, he found himself face to face with the inspector.