The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green
My love for Anson Durand died at sight oŁ that crimson splash or I thought it did. In this spot of blood on the breast of him to whom I had given my heart I could read but one word--guilt-- heinous guilt, guilt denied and now brought to light in language that could be seen and read by all men. Why should I stay in such a presence? Had not the inspector himself advised me to go?
Yes, but another voice bade me remain. Just as I reached the door, Anson Durand found his voice and I heard, in the full, sweet tones I loved so well:
"Wait I am not to be judged like this. I will explain!"
But here the inspector interposed.
"Do you think it wise to make any such attempt without the advice of counsel, Mr. Durand?"
The indignation with which Mr. Durand wheeled toward him raised in me a faint hope.
"Good God, yes!" he cried. "Would you have me leave Miss Van Arsdale one minute longer than is necessary to such dreadful doubts? Rita--Miss Van Arsdale--weakness, and weakness only, has brought me into my present position. I did not kill Mrs. Fairbrother, nor did I knowingly take her diamond, though appearances look that way, as I am very ready to acknowledge. I did go to her in the alcove, not once, but twice, and these are my reasons for doing so: About three months ago a certain well-known man of enormous wealth came to me with the request that I should procure for him a diamond of superior beauty. He wished to give it to his wife, and he wished it to outshine any which could now be found in New York. This meant sending abroad-- an expense he was quite willing to incur on the sole condition that the stone should not disappoint him when he saw it, and that it was to be in his hands on the eighteenth of March, his wife's birthday. Never before had I had such an opportunity for a large stroke of business. Naturally elated, I entered at once into correspondence with the best known dealers on the other side, and last week a diamond was delivered to me which seemed to fill all the necessary requirements. I had never seen a finer stone, and was consequently rejoicing in my success, when some one, I do not remember who now, chanced to speak in my hearing of the wonderful stone possessed by a certain Mrs. Fairbrother--a stone so large, so brilliant and so precious altogether that she seldom wore it, though it was known to connoisseurs and had a great reputation at Tiffany's, where it had once been sent for some alteration in the setting. Was this stone larger and finer than the one I had procured with so much trouble? If so, my labor had all been in vain, for my patron must have known of this diamond and would expect to see it surpassed.
"I was so upset by this possibility that I resolved to see the jewel and make comparisons for myself. I found a friend who agreed to introduce me to the lady. She received me very graciously and was amiable enough until the subject of diamonds was broached, when she immediately stiffened and left me without an opportunity of proffering my request. However, on every other subject she was affable, and I found it easy enough to pursue the acquaintance till we were almost on friendly terms. But I never saw the diamond, nor would she talk about it, though I caused her some surprise when one day I drew out before her eyes the one I had procured for my patron and made her look at it. 'Fine,' she cried, 'fine!' But I failed to detect any envy in her manner, and so knew that I had not achieved the object set me by my wealthy customer. This was a woeful disappointment; yet, as Mrs. Fairbrother never wore her diamond, it was among the possibilities that he might be satisfied with the very fine gem I had obtained for him, and, influenced by this hope, I sent him this morning a request to come and see it tomorrow. Tonight I attended this ball, and almost as soon as I enter the drawing-room I hear that Mrs. Fairbrother is present and is wearing her famous jewel. What could you expect of me? Why, that I would make an effort to see it and so be ready with a reply to my exacting customer when he should ask me to-morrow if the stone I showed him had its peer in the city. But was not in the drawing-room then, and later I became interested elsewhere"--here he cast a look at me--"so that half the evening passed before I had an opportunity to join her in the so-called alcove, where I had seen her set up her miniature court. What passed between us in the short interview we held together you will find me prepared to state, if necessary. It was chiefly marked by the one short view I succeeded in obtaining of her marvelous diamond, in spite of the pains she took to hide it from me by some natural movement whenever she caught my eyes leaving her face. But in that one short look I had seen enough. This was a gem for a collector, not to be worn save in a royal presence. How had she come by it? And could Mr. Smythe expect me to procure him a stone like that? In my confusion I arose to depart, but the lady showed a disposition to keep me, and began chatting so vivaciously that I scarcely noticed that she was all the time engaged in drawing off her gloves. Indeed, I almost forgot the jewel, possibly because her movements hid it so completely, and only remembered it when, with a sudden turn from the window where she had drawn me to watch the falling flakes, she pressed the gloves into my hand with the coquettish request that I should take care of them for her. I remember, as I took them, of striving to catch another glimpse of the stone, whose brilliancy had dazzled me, but she had opened her fan between us. A moment after, thinking I heard approaching steps, I quitted the room. This was my first visit."
As he stopped, possibly for breath, possibly to judge to what extent I was impressed by his account, the inspector seized the opportunity to ask if Mrs. Fairbrother had been standing any of this time with her back to him. To which he answered yes, while they were in the window.
"Long enough for her to pluck off the jewel and thrust it into the gloves, if she had so wished?"
"Quite long enough."
"But you did not see her do this?"
"I did not."
"And so took the gloves without suspicion?"
"And carried them away?"
"Without thinking that she might want them the next minute?"
"I doubt if I was thinking seriously of her at all. My thoughts were on my own disappointment."
"Did you carry these gloves out in your hand?"
"No, in my pocket."
"I see. And you met--"
"No one. The sound I heard must have come from the rear hall."
"And there was nobody on the steps?"
"No. A gentleman was standing at their foot--Mr. Grey, the Englishman--but his face was turned another way, and he looked as if he had been in that same position for several minutes."
"Did this gentleman--Mr. Grey--see you?"
"I can not say, but I doubt it. He appeared to be in a sort of dream. There were other people about, but nobody with whom I was acquainted."
"Very good. Now for the second visit you acknowledge having paid this unfortunate lady."
The inspector's voice was hard. I clung a little more tightly to my uncle, and Mr. Durand, after one agonizing glance my way, drew himself up as if quite conscious that he had entered upon the most serious part of the struggle.
"I had forgotten the gloves in my hurried departure; but presently I remembered them, and grew very uneasy. I did not like carrying this woman's property about with me. I had engaged myself, an hour before, to Miss Van Arsdale, and was very anxious to rejoin her. The gloves worried me, and finally, after a little aimless wandering through the various rooms, I determined to go back and restore them to their owner. The doors of the supper-room had just been flung open, and the end of the hall near the alcove was comparatively empty, save for a certain quizzical friend of mine, whom I saw sitting with his partner on the yellow divan. I did not want to encounter him just then, for he had already joked me about my admiration for the lady with the diamond, and so I conceived the idea of approaching her by means of a second entrance to the alcove, unsuspected by most of those present, but perfectly well-known to me, who have been a frequent guest in this house. A door, covered by temporary draperies, connects, as you may know, this alcove with a passageway communicating directly with the hall of entrance and the up-stairs dressing-rooms. To go up the main stairs and come down by the side one, and so on, through a small archway, was a very simple matter for me. If no early-departing or late arriving guests were in that hall, I need fear but one encounter, and that was with the servant stationed at the carriage entrance. But even he was absent at this propitious instant, and I reached the door I sought without any unpleasantness. This door opened out instead of in,--this I also knew when planning this surreptitious intrusion, but, after pulling it open and reaching for the curtain, which hung completely across it, I found it not so easy to proceed as I had imagined. The stealthiness of my action held back my hand; then the faint sounds I heard within advised me that she was not alone, and that she might very readily regard with displeasure my unexpected entrance by a door of which she was possibly ignorant. I tell you all this because, if by any chance I was seen hesitating in face of that curtain, doubts might have been raised which I am anxious to dispel." Here his eyes left my face for that of the inspector.
"It certainly had a bad look,--that I don't deny; but I did not think of appearances then. I was too anxious to complete a task which had suddenly presented unexpected difficulties. That I listened before entering was very natural, and when I heard no voice, only something like a great sigh, I ventured to lift the curtain and step in. She was sitting, not where I had left her, but on a couch at the left of the usual entrance, her face toward me, and--you know how, Inspector. It was her last sigh I had heard. Horrified, for I had never looked on death before, much less crime, I reeled forward, meaning, I presume, to rush down the steps shouting for help, when, suddenly, something fell splashing on my shirt-front, and I saw myself marked with a stain of blood. This both frightened and bewildered me, and it was a minute or two before I had the courage to look up. When I did do so, I saw whence this drop had come. Not from her, though the red stream was pouring down the rich folds of her dress, but from a sharp needle-like instrument which had been thrust, point downward, in the open work of an antique lantern hanging near the doorway. What had happened to me might have happened to any one who chanced to be in that spot at that special moment, but I did not realize this then. Covering the splash with my hands, I edged myself back to the door by which I had entered, watching those deathful eyes and crushing under my feet the remnants of some broken china with which the carpet was bestrewn. I had no thought of her, hardly any of myself. To cross the room was all; to escape as secretly as I came, before the portiere so nearly drawn between me and the main hall should stir under the hand of some curious person entering. It was my first sight of blood; my first contact with crime, and that was what I did, --I fled."
The last word was uttered with a gasp. Evidently he was greatly affected by this horrible experience.
"I am ashamed of myself," he muttered, "but nothing can now undo the fact. I slid from the presence of this murdered woman as though she had been the victim of my own rage or cupidity; and, being fortunate enough to reach the dressing-room before the alarm had spread beyond the immediate vicinity of the alcove, found and put on the handkerchief, which made it possible for me to rush down and find Miss Van Arsdale, who, somebody told me, had fainted. Not till I stood over her in that remote corner beyond the supper-room did I again think of the gloves. What I did when I happened to think of them, you already know. I could have shown no greater cowardice if I had known that the murdered woman's diamond was hidden inside them. Yet, I did not know this, or even suspect it. Nor do I understand, now, her reason for placing it there. Why should Mrs. Fairbrother risk such an invaluable gem to the custody of one she knew so little? An unconscious custody, too? Was she afraid of being murdered if she retained this jewel?"
The inspector thought a moment, and then said:
"You mention your dread of some one entering by the one door before you could escape by the other. Do you refer to the friend you left sitting on the divan opposite?"
"No, my friend had left that seat. The portiere was sufficiently drawn for me to detect that. If I had waited a minute longer," he bitterly added, "I should have found my way open to the regular entrance, and so escaped all this."
"Mr. Durand, you are not obliged to answer any of my questions; but, if you wish, you may tell me whether, at this moment of apprehension, you thought of the danger you ran of being seen from outside by some one of the many coachmen passing by on the driveway?"
"No,--I did not even think of the window,--I don't know why; but, if any one passing by did see me, I hope they saw enough to substantiate my story."
The inspector made no reply. He seemed to be thinking. I heard afterward that the curtains, looped back in the early evening, had been found hanging at full length over this window by those who first rushed in upon the scene of death. Had he hoped to entrap Mr. Durand into some damaging admission? Or was he merely testing his truth? His expression afforded no clue to his thoughts, and Mr. Durand, noting this, remarked with some dignity:
"I do not expect strangers to accept these explanations, which must sound strange and inadequate in face of the proof I carry of having been with that woman after the fatal weapon struck her heart. But, to one who knows me, and knows me well, I can surely appeal for credence to a tale which I here declare to be as true as if I had sworn to it in a court of justice."
"Anson!:" I passionately cried out, loosening my clutch upon my uncle's arm. My confidence in him had returned.
And then, as I noted the inspector's businesslike air, and my uncle's wavering look and unconvinced manner, I felt my heart swell, and, flinging all discretion to the wind, I bounded eagerly forward. Laying my hands in those of Mr. Durand, I cried fervently:
"I believe in you. Nothing but your own words shall ever shake my confidence in your innocence."
The sweet, glad look I received was my best reply. I could leave the room, after that.
But not the house. Another experience awaited me, awaited us all, before this full, eventful evening came to a close.