The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green
III. Anson Durand
With benumbed senses and a dismayed heart, I stared at the fallen jewel as at some hateful thing menacing both my life and honor.
"I have had nothing to do with it," I vehemently declared. "I did not put the gloves in my bag, nor did I know the diamond was in them. I fainted at the first alarm, and
"There! there! I know," interposed the inspector kindly. "I do not doubt you in the least; not when there is a man to doubt. Miss Van Arsdale, you had better let your uncle take you home. I will see that the hall is cleared for you. Tomorrow I may wish to talk to you again, but I will spare you all further importunity tonight."
I shook my head. It would require more courage to leave at that moment than to stay. Meeting the inspector's eye firmly, I quietly declared,
"If Mr. Durand's good name is to suffer in any way, I will not forsake him. I have confidence in his integrity, if you have not. It was not his hand, but one much more guilty, which dropped this jewel into the bag."
"So! so! do not be too sure of that, little woman. You had better take your lesson at once. It will be easier for you, and more wholesome for him."
Here he picked up the jewel.
"Well, they said it was a wonder!" he exclaimed, in sudden admiration. "I am not surprised, now that I have seen a great gem, at the famous stories I have read of men risking life and honor for their possession. If only no blood had been shed!"
"Uncle! uncle!" I wailed aloud in my agony.
It was all my lips could utter, but to uncle it was enough. Speaking for the first time, he asked to have a passage made for us, and when the inspector moved forward to comply, he threw his arm about me, and was endeavoring to find fitting words with which to fill up the delay, when a short altercation was heard from the doorway, and Mr. Durand came rushing in, followed immediately by the inspector.
His first look was not at myself, but at the bag, which still hung from my arm. As I noted this action, my whole inner self seemed to collapse, dragging my happiness down with it. But my countenance remained unchanged, too much so, it seems; for when his eye finally rose to my face, he found there what made him recoil and turn with something like fierceness on his companion.
"You have been talking to her," he vehemently protested. "Perhaps you have gone further than that. What has happened here? I think I ought to know. She is so guileless, Inspector Dalzell; so perfectly free from all connection with this crime. Why have you shut her up here, and plied her with questions, and made her look at me with such an expression, when all you have against me is just what you have against some half-dozen others,--that I was weak enough, or unfortunate enough, to spend a few minutes with that unhappy woman in the alcove before she died?"
"It might be well if Miss Van Arsdale herself would answer you," was the inspector's quiet retort. "What you have said may constitute all that we have against you, but it is not all we have against her."
I gasped, not so much at this seeming accusation, the motive of which I believed myself to understand, but at the burning blush with which it was received by Mr. Durand.
"What do you mean?" he demanded, with certain odd breaks in his voice. "What can you have against her?"
"A triviality," returned the inspector, with a look in my direction that was, I felt, not to be mistaken.
"I do not call it a triviality," I burst out. "It seems that Mrs. Fairbrother, for all her elaborate toilet, was found without gloves on her arms. As she certainly wore them on entering the alcove, the police have naturally been looking for them. And where do you think they have found them? Not in the alcove with her, not in the possession of the man who undoubtedly carried them away with him, but--"
"I know, I know," Mr. Durand hoarsely put in. "You need not say any more. Oh, my poor Rita! what have I brought upon you by my weakness?"
He started; I started; my voice was totally unrecognizable.
"I should give it another name," I added coldly.
For a moment he seemed to lose heart, then he lifted his head again, and looked as handsome as when he pleaded for my hand in the little conservatory.
"You have that right," said he; "besides, weakness at such a time, and under such an exigency, is little short of wrong. It was unmanly in me to endeavor to secrete these gloves; more than unmanly for me to choose for their hiding-place the recesses of an article belonging exclusively to yourself. I acknowledge it, Rita, and shall meet only my just punishment if you deny me in the future both your sympathy and regard. But you must let me assure you and these gentlemen also, one of whom can make it very unpleasant for me, that consideration for you, much more than any miserable anxiety about myself, lay at the bottom of what must strike you all as an act of unpardonable cowardice. From the moment I learned of this woman's murder in the alcove, where I had visited her, I realized that every one who had been seen to approach her within a half-hour of her death would be subjected to a more or less rigid investigation, and I feared, if her gloves were found in my possession, some special attention might be directed my way which would cause you unmerited distress. So, yielding to an impulse which I now recognize as a most unwise, as well as unworthy one, I took advantage of the bustle about us, and of the insensibility into which you had fallen, to tuck these miserable gloves into the bag I saw lying on the floor at your side. I do not ask your pardon. My whole future life shall be devoted to winning that; I simply wish to state a fact."
"Very good!" It was the inspector who spoke; I could not have uttered a word to save my life. "Perhaps you will now feel that you owe it to this young lady to add how you came to have these gloves in your possession?"
"Mrs. Fairbrother handed them to me."
"Handed them to you?"
"Yes, I hardly know why myself. She asked me to take care of them for her. I know that this must strike you as a very peculiar statement. It was my realization of the unfavorable effect it could not fail to produce upon those who beard it, which made me dread any interrogation on the subject. But I assure you it was as I say. She put the gloves into my hand while I was talking to her, saying they incommoded her."
"Well, I held them for a few minutes, then I put them in my pocket, but quite automatically, and without thinking very much about it. She was a woman accustomed to have her own way. People seldom questioned it, I judge."
Here the tension about my throat relaxed, and I opened my lips to speak. But the inspector, with a glance of some authority, forestalled me.
"Were the gloves open or rolled up when she offered them to you?"
"They were rolled up."
"Did you see her take them off?"
"And roll them up?"
"After which she passed them over to you?"
"Not immediately. She let them lie in her lap for a while."
"While you talked?"
Mr. Durand bowed.
"And looked at the diamond?"
Mr. Durand bowed for the second time.
"Had you ever seen so fine a diamond before?"
"Yet you deal in precious stones?"
"That is my business."
"And are regarded as a judge of them?"
"I have that reputation."
"Mr. Durand, would you know this diamond if you saw it?"
"I certainly should."
"The setting was an uncommon one, I hear."
"Quite an unusual one."
The inspector opened his hand.
"Is this the article?"
"Good God! Where--"
"Don't you know?"
"I do not."
The inspector eyed him gravely.
"Then I have a bit of news for you. It was hidden in the gloves you took from Mrs. Fairbrother. Miss Van Arsdale was present at their unrolling."
Do we live, move, breathe at certain moments? It hardly seems so. I know that I was conscious of but one sense, that of seeing; and of but one faculty, that of judgment. Would he flinch, break down, betray guilt, or simply show astonishment? I chose to believe it was the latter feeling only which informed his slowly whitening and disturbed features. Certainly it was all his words expressed, as his glances flew from the stone to the gloves, and back again to the inspector's face.
"I can not believe it. I can not believe it." And his hand flew wildly to his forehead.
"Yet it is the truth, Mr. Durand, and one you have now to face. How will you do this? By any further explanations, or by what you may consider a discreet silence?"
"I have nothing to explain,--the facts are as I have stated."
The inspector regarded him with an earnestness which made my heart sink.
"You can fix the time of this visit, I hope; tell us, I mean, just when you left the alcove. You must have seen some one who can speak for you."
"I fear not."
Why did he look so disturbed and uncertain?
"There were but few persons in the hall just then," he went on to explain. "No one was sitting on the yellow divan."
"You know where you went, though? Whom you saw and what you did before the alarm spread?"
"Inspector, I am quite confused. I did go somewhere; I did not remain in that part of the hall. But I can tell you nothing definite, save that I walked about, mostly among strangers, till the cry rose which sent us all in one direction and me to the side of my fainting sweetheart."
"Can you pick out any stranger you talked to, or any one who might have noted you during this interval? You see, for the sake of this little woman, I wish to give you every chance."
"Inspector, I am obliged to throw myself on your mercy. I have no such witness to my innocence as you call for. Innocent people seldom have. It is only the guilty who take the trouble to provide for such contingencies."
This was all very well, if it had been uttered with a straightforward air and in a clear tone. But it was not. I who loved him felt that it was not, and consequently was more or less prepared for the change which now took place in the inspector's manner. Yet it pierced me to the heart to observe this change, and I instinctively dropped my face into my hands when I saw him move toward Mr. Durand with some final order or word of caution.
Instantly (and who can account for such phenomena?) there floated into view before my retina a reproduction of the picture I had seen, or imagined myself to have seen, in the supper-room; and as at that time it opened before me an unknown vista quite removed from the surrounding scene, so it did now, and I beheld again in faint outlines, and yet with the effect of complete distinctness, a square of light through which appeared an open passage partly shut off from view by a half-lifted curtain and the tall figure of a man holding back this curtain and gazing, or seeming to gaze, at his own breast, on which he had already laid one quivering finger.
What did it mean? In the excitement of the horrible occurrence which had engrossed us all, I had forgotten this curious experience; but on feeling anew the vague sensation of shock and expectation which seemed its natural accompaniment, I became conscious of a sudden conviction that the picture which had opened before me in the supper-room was the result of a reflection in a glass or mirror of something then going on in a place not otherwise within the reach of my vision; a reflection, the importance of which I suddenly realized when I recalled at what a critical moment it had occurred. A man in a state of dread looking at his breast, within five minutes of the stir and rush of the dreadful event which had marked this evening!
A hope, great as the despair in which I had just been sunk, gave me courage to drop my hands and advance impetuously toward the inspector.
"Don't speak, I pray; don't judge any of us further till you have heard what I have to say."
In great astonishment and with an aspect of some severity, he asked me what I had to say now which I had not had the opportunity of saying before. I replied with all the passion of a forlorn hope that it was only at this present moment I remembered a fact which might have a very decided bearing on this case; and, detecting evidences, as I thought, of relenting on his part, I backed up this statement by an entreaty for a few words with him apart, as the matter I had to tell was private and possibly too fanciful for any ear but his own.
He looked as if he apprehended some loss of valuable time, but, touched by the involuntary gesture of appeal with which I supplemented my request, he led me into a corner, where, with just an encouraging glance toward Mr. Durand, who seemed struck dumb by my action, I told the inspector of that momentary picture which I had seen reflected in what I was now sure was some window-pane or mirror.
"It was at a time coincident, or very nearly coincident, with the perpetration of the crime you are now investigating," I concluded. "Within five minutes afterward came the shout which roused us all to what had happened in the alcove. I do not know what passage I saw or what door or even what figure; but the latter, I am sure, was that of the guilty man. Something in the outline (and it was the outline only I could catch) expressed an emotion incomprehensible to me at the moment, but which, in my remembrance, impresses me as that of fear and dread. It was not the entrance to the alcove I beheld--that would have struck me at once--but some other opening which I might recognize if I saw it. Can not that opening be found, and may it not give a clue to the man I saw skulking through it with terror and remorse in his heart?"
"Was this figure, when you saw it, turned toward you or away?" the inspector inquired with unexpected interest.
"Turned partly away. He was going from me."
"And you sat--where?"
"Shall I show you?"
The inspector bowed, then with a low word of caution turned to my uncle.
"I am going to take this young lady into the hall for a moment, at her own request. May I ask you and Mr. Durand to await me here?"
Without pausing for reply, he threw open the door and presently we were pacing the deserted supper-room, seeking the place where I had sat. I found it almost by a miracle,--everything being in great disorder. Guided by my bouquet, which I had left behind me in my escape from the table, I laid hold of the chair before which it lay, and declared quite confidently to the inspector:
"This is where I sat."
Naturally his glance and mine both flew to the opposite wall. A window was before us of an unusual size and make. Unlike any which had ever before come under my observation, it swung on a pivot, and, though shut at the present moment, might very easily, when opened, present its huge pane at an angle capable of catching reflections from some of the many mirrors decorating the reception-room situated diagonally across the hall. As all the doorways on this lower floor were of unusual width, an open path was offered, as it were, for these reflections to pass, making it possible for scenes to be imaged here which, to the persons involved, would seem as safe from any one's scrutiny as if they were taking place in the adjoining house.
As we realized this, a look passed between us of more than ordinary significance. Pointing to the window, the inspector turned to a group of waiters watching us from the other side of the room and asked if it had been opened that evening.
The answer came quickly.
"Yes, sir,--just before the--the--"
"I understand," broke in the inspector; and, leaning over me, he whispered: "Tell me again exactly what you thought you saw."
But I could add little to my former description. "Perhaps you can tell me this," he kindly persisted. "Was the picture, when you saw it, on a level with your eye, or did you have to lift your head in order to see it?"
"It was high up,--in the air, as it were. That seemed its oddest feature."
The inspector's mouth took a satisfied curve. "Possibly I might identify the door and passage, if I saw them," I suggested.
"Certainly, certainly," was his cheerful rejoinder; and, summoning one of his men, he was about to give some order, when his impulse changed, and he asked if I could draw.
I assured him, in some surprise, that I was far from being an adept in that direction, but that possibly I might manage a rough sketch; whereupon he pulled a pad and pencil from his pocket and requested me to make some sort of attempt to reproduce, on paper, my memory of this passage and the door.
My heart was beating violently, and the pencil shook in my hand, but I knew that it would not do for me to show any hesitation in fixing for all eyes what, unaccountably to myself, continued to be perfectly plain to my own. So I endeavored to do as he bade me, and succeeded, to some extent, for he uttered a slight ejaculation at one of its features, and, while duly expressing his thanks, honored me with a very sharp look.
"Is this your first visit to this house?" he asked.
"No; I have been here before."
"In the evening, or in the afternoon?"
"In the afternoon."
"I am told that the main entrance is not in use to-night."
"No. A side door is provided for occasions like the present. Guests entering there find a special hall and staircase, by which they can reach the upstairs dressing-rooms, without crossing the main hall. Is that what you mean?"
"Yes, that is what I mean."
I stared at him in wonder. What lay back of such questions as these?
"You came in, as others did, by this side entrance," he now proceeded. "Did you notice, as you turned to go up stairs, an arch opening into a small passageway at your left?"
"I did not," I began, flushing, for I thought I understood him now. "I was too eager to reach the dressing-room to look about me."
"Very well," he replied; "I may want to show you that arch."
The outline of an arch, backing the figure we were endeavoring to identify, was a marked feature in the sketch I had shown him.
"Will you take a seat near by while I make a study of this matter?"
I turned with alacrity to obey. There was something in his air and manner which made me almost buoyant. Had my fanciful interpretation of what I had seen reached him with the conviction it had me? If so, there was hope,--hope for the man I loved, who had gone in and out between curtains, and not through any arch such as he had mentioned or I had described. Providence was working for me. I saw it in the way the men now moved about, swinging the window to and fro, under the instruction of the inspector, manipulating the lights, opening doors and drawing back curtains. Providence was working for me, and when, a few minutes later, I was asked to reseat myself in my old place at the supper-table and take another look in that slightly deflected glass, I knew that my effort had met with its reward, and that for the second time I was to receive the impression of a place now indelibly imprinted on my consciousness.
"Is not that it?" asked the inspector, pointing at the glass with a last look at the imperfect sketch I had made him, and which he still held in his hand.
"Yes," I eagerly responded. "All but the man. He whose figure I see there is another person entirely; I see no remorse, or even fear, in his looks."
"Of course not. You are looking at the reflection of one of my men. Miss Van Arsdale, do you recognize the place now under your eye?"
"I do not. You spoke of an arch in the hall, at the left of the carriage entrance, and I see an arch in the window-pane before me, but--"
"You are looking straight through the alcove,--perhaps you did not know that another door opened at its back,--into the passage which runs behind it. Farther on is the arch, and beyond that arch the side hall and staircase leading to the dressing-rooms. This door, the one in the rear of the alcove, I mean, is hidden from those entering from the main hall by draperies which have been hung over it for this occasion, but it is quite visible from the back passageway, and there can be no doubt that it was by its means the man, whose reflected image you saw, both entered and left the alcove. It is an important fact to establish, and we feel very much obliged to you for the aid you have given us in this matter."
Then, as I continued to stare at him in my elation and surprise, he added, in quick explanation:
"The lights in the alcove, and in the several parlors, are all hung with shades, as you must perceive, but the one in the hall, beyond the arch, is very bright, which accounts for the distinctness of this double reflection. Another thing,--and it is a very interesting point,--it would have been impossible for this reflection to be noticeable from where you sit, if the level of the alcove flooring had not been considerably higher than that of the main floor. But for this freak of the architect, the continual passing to and fro of people would have prevented the reflection in its passage from surface to surface. Miss Van Arsdale, it would seem that by one of those chances which happen but once or twice in a lifetime, every condition was propitious at the moment to make this reflection a possible occurrence, even the location and width of the several doorways and the exact point at which the portiere was drawn aside from the entrance to the alcove."
"It is wonderful," I cried, "wonderful!" Then, to his astonishment, perhaps, I asked if there was not a small door of communication between the passageway back of the alcove and the large central hall.
"Yes," he replied. "It opens just beyond the fireplace. Three small steps lead to it."
"I thought so," I murmured, but more to myself than to him. In my mind I was thinking how a man, if he so wished, could pass from the very heart of this assemblage into the quiet passageway, and so on into the alcove, without attracting very much attention from his fellow guests. I forgot that there was another way of approach even less noticeable that by the small staircase running up beyond the arch directly to the dressing-rooms.
That no confusion may arise in any one's mind in regard to these curious approaches, I subjoin a plan of this portion of the lower floor as it afterward appeared in the leading dailies.
"And Mr. Durand?" I stammered, as I followed the inspector back to the room where we had left that gentleman. "You will believe his statement now and look for this second intruder with the guiltily-hanging head and frightened mien?"
"Yes," he replied, stopping me on the threshold of the door and taking my hand kindly in his, "if--(don't start, my dear; life is full of trouble for young and old, and youth is the best time to face a sad experience) if he is not himself the man you saw staring in frightened horror at his breast. Have you not noticed that he is not dressed in all respects like the other gentlemen present? That, though he has not donned his overcoat, he has put on, somewhat prematurely, one might say, the large silk handkerchief lie presumably wears under it? Have you not noticed this, and asked yourself why?"
I had noticed it. I had noticed it from the moment I recovered from my fainting fit, but I had not thought it a matter of sufficient interest to ask, even of myself, his reason for thus hiding his shirt-front. Now I could not. My faculties were too confused, my heart too deeply shaken by the suggestion which the inspector's words conveyed, for me to be conscious of anything but the devouring question as to what I should do if, by my own mistaken zeal, I had succeeded in plunging the man I loved yet deeper into the toils in which he had become enmeshed.
The inspector left me no time for the settlement of this question. Ushering me back into the room where Mr. Durand and my uncle awaited our return in apparently unrelieved silence, he closed the door upon the curious eyes of the various persons still lingering in the hall, and abruptly said to Mr. Durand:
"The explanations you have been pleased to give of the manner in which this diamond came into your possession are not too fanciful for credence, if you can satisfy us on another point which has awakened some doubt in the mind of one of my men. Mr. Durand, you appear to have prepared yourself for departure somewhat prematurely. Do you mind removing that handkerchief for a moment? My reason for so peculiar a request will presently appear."
Alas, for my last fond hope! Mr. Durand, with a face as white as the background of snow framed by the uncurtained window against which he leaned, lifted his hand as if to comply with the inspector's request, then let it fall again with a grating laugh.
"I see that I am not likely to escape any of the results of my imprudence," he cried, and with a quick jerk bared his shirt-front.
A splash of red defiled its otherwise uniform whiteness! That it was the red of heart's blood was proved by the shrinking look he unconsciously cast at it.