The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green
I had gone up stairs for my wraps--my uncle having insisted on my withdrawing from a scene where my very presence seemed in some degree to compromise me.
Soon prepared for my departure, I was crossing the hall to the small door communicating with the side staircase where my uncle had promised to await me, when I felt myself seized by a desire to have another look below before leaving the place in which were centered all my deepest interests.
A wide landing, breaking up the main flight of stairs some few feet from the top, offered me an admirable point of view. With but little thought of possible consequences, and no thought at all of my poor, patient uncle, I slipped down to this landing, and, protected by the unusual height of its balustrade, allowed myself a parting glance at the scene with which my most poignant memories were henceforth to be connected.
Before me lay the large square of the central hall. Opening out from this was the corridor leading to the front door, and incidentally to the library. As my glance ran down this corridor, I beheld, approaching from the room just mentioned, the tall figure of the Englishman.
He halted as he reached the main hall and stood gazing eagerly at a group of men and women clustered near the fireplace--a group on which I no sooner cast my own eye than my attention also became fixed.
The inspector had come from the room where I had left him with Mr. Durand and was showing to these people the extraordinary diamond, which he had just recovered under such remarkable if not suspicious circumstances. Young heads and old were meeting over it, and I was straining my ears to hear such comments as were audible above the general hubbub, when Mr. Grey made a quick move and I looked his way again in time to mark his air of concern and the uncertainty he showed whether to advance or retreat.
Unconscious of my watchful eye, and noting, no doubt, that most of the persons in the group on which his own eye was leveled stood with their backs toward him, he made no effort to disguise his profound interest in the stone. His eye followed its passage from hand to hand with a covetous eagerness of which he may not have been aware, and I was not at all surprised when, after a short interval of troubled indecision, he impulsively stepped forward and begged the privilege of handling the gem himself.
Our host, who stood not far from the inspector, said something to that gentleman which led to this request being complied with. The stone was passed over to Mr. Grey, and I saw, possibly because my heart was in my eyes, that the great man's hand trembled as it touched his palm. Indeed, his whole frame trembled, and I was looking eagerly for the result of his inspection when, on his turning to hold the jewel up to the light, something happened so abnormal and so strange that no one who was fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to be present in the house at that instant will ever forget it.
This something was a cry, coming from no one knew where, which, unearthly in its shrillness and the power it had on the imagination, reverberated through the house and died away in a wail so weird, so thrilling and so prolonged that it gripped not only my own nerveless and weakened heart, but those of the ten strong men congregated below me. The diamond dropped from Mr. Grey's hand, and neither he nor any one else moved to pick it up. Not till silence had come again--a silence almost as unendurable to the sensitive ear as the cry which had preceded it--did any one stir or think of the gem. Then one gentleman after another bent to look for it, but with no success, till one of the waiters, who possibly had followed it with his eye or caught sight of its sparkle on the edge of the rug, whither it had rolled, sprang and picked it up and handed it back to Mr. Grey.
Instinctively the Englishman's hand closed on it, but it was very evident to me, and I think to all, that his interest in it was gone. If he looked at it he did not see it, for he stood like one stunned all the time that agitated men and women were running hither and thither in unavailing efforts to locate the sound yet ringing in their ears. Not till these various searchers had all come together again, in terror of a mystery they could not solve, did he let his hand fall and himself awake to the scene about him.
The words he at once gave utterance to were as remarkable as all the rest.
"Gentlemen," said he, "you must pardon my agitation. This cry-- you need not seek its source--is one to which I am only too well accustomed. I have been the happy father of six children. Five I have buried, and, before the death of each, this same cry has echoed in my ears. I have but one child left, a daughter,--she is ill at the hotel. Do you wonder that I shrink from this note of warning, and show myself something less than a man under its influence? I am going home; but, first, one word about this stone." Here he lifted it and bestowed, or appeared to bestow on it, an anxious scrutiny, putting on his glasses and examining it carefully before passing it back to the inspector.
"I have heard," said he, with a change of tone which must have been noticeable to every one, "that this stone was a very superior one, and quite worthy of the fame it bore here in America. But, gentlemen, you have all been greatly deceived in it; no one more than he who was willing to commit murder for its possession. The stone, which you have just been good enough to allow me to inspect, is no diamond, but a carefully manufactured bit of paste not worth the rich and elaborate setting which has been given to it. I am sorry to be the one to say this, but I have made a study of precious stones, and I can not let this bare-faced imitation pass through my hands without a protest. Mr. Ramsdell," this to our host, "I beg you will allow me to utter my excuses, and depart at once. My daughter is worse,--this I know, as certainly as that I am standing here. The cry you have heard is the one superstition of our family. Pray God that I find her alive!"
After this, what could be said? Though no one who had heard him, not even my own romantic self, showed any belief in this interpretation of the remarkable sound that had just gone thrilling through the house, yet, in face of his declared acceptance of it as a warning, and the fact that all efforts had failed to locate the sound, or even to determine its source, no other course seemed open but to let this distinguished man depart with the suddenness his superstitious fears demanded.
That this was in opposition to the inspector's wishes was evident enough. Naturally, he would have preferred Mr. Grey to remain, if only to make clear his surprising conclusions in regard to a diamond which had passed through the hands of some of the best judges in the country, without a doubt having been raised as to its genuineness.
With his departure the inspector's manner changed. He glanced at the stone in his hand, and slowly shook his head.
"I doubt if Mr. Grey's judgment can be depended on, to-night," said he, and pocketed the gem as carefully as if his belief in its real value had been but little disturbed by the assertions of this renowned foreigner.
I have no distinct remembrance of how I finally left the house, or of what passed between my uncle and myself on our way home. I was numb with the shock, and neither my intelligence nor my feelings were any longer active. I recall but one impression, and that was the effect made on me by my old home on our arrival there, as of something new and strange; so much had happened, and such changes had taken place in myself since leaving it five hours before. But nothing else is vivid in my remembrance till that early hour of the dreary morning, when, on waking to the world with a cry, I beheld my uncle's anxious figure, bending over me from the foot-board.
Instantly I found tongue, and question after question leaped from my lips. He did not answer them; he could not; but when I grew feverish and insistent, he drew the morning paper from behind his back, and laid it quietly down within my reach. I felt calmed in an instant, and when, after a few affectionate words, he left me to myself, I seized on the sheet and read what so many others were reading at that moment throughout the city.
I spare you the account so far as it coincides with what I had myself seen and heard the night before. A few particulars which had not reached my ears will interest you. The instrument of death found in the place designated by Mr. Durand was one of note to such as had any taste or knowledge of curios. It was a stiletto of the most delicate type, long, keen and slender. Not an American product, not even of this century's manufacture, but a relic of the days when deadly thrusts were given in the corners and by-ways of medieval streets.
This made the first mystery.
The second was the as yet unexplainable presence, on the alcove floor, of two broken coffee-cups, which no waiter nor any other person, in fact, admitted having carried there. The tray, which had fallen from Peter Mooney's hand,--the waiter who had been the first to give the alarm of murder,-- had held no cups, only ices. This was a fact, proved. But the handles of two cups had been found among the debris,-- cups which must have been full, from the size of the coffee stain left on the rug where they had fallen.
In reading this I remembered that Mr. Durand had mentioned stepping on some broken pieces of china in his escape from the fatal scene, and, struck with this confirmation of a theory which was slowly taking form in my own mind, I passed on to the next paragraph, with a sense of expectation.
The result was a surprise. Others may have been told, I was not, that Mrs. Fairbrother had received a communication from outside only a few minutes previous to her death. A Mr. Fullerton, who had preceded Mr. Durand in his visit to the alcove, owned to having opened the window for her at some call or signal from outside, and taken in a small piece of paper which he saw lifted up from below on the end of a whip handle. He could not see who held the whip, but at Mrs. Fairbrother'S entreaty he unpinned the note and gave it to her. While she was puzzling over it, for it was apparently far from legible, he took another look out in time to mark a figure rush from below toward the carriage drive. He did not recognize the figure nor would he know it again. As to the nature of the communication itself he could say nothing, save that Mrs. Fairbrother did not seem to be affected favorably by it. She frowned and was looking very gloomy when he left the alcove. Asked if he had pulled the curtains together after closing the window, he said that he had not; that she had not requested him to do so.
This story, which was certainly a strange one, had been confirmed by the testimony of the coachman who had lent his whip for the purpose. This coachman, who was known to be a man of extreme good nature, had seen no harm in lending his whip to a poor devil who wished to give a telegram or some such hasty message to the lady sitting just above them in a lighted window. The wind was fierce and the snow blinding, and it was natural that the man should duck his head, but he remembered his appearance well enough to say that he was either very cold or very much done up and that he wore a greatcoat with the collar pulled up about his ears. When he came back with the whip he seemed more cheerful than when he asked for it, but had no "thank you" for the favor done him, or if he had, it was lost in his throat and the piercing gale.
The communication, which was regarded by the police as a matter of the highest importance, had been found in her hand by the coroner. It was a mere scrawl written in pencil on a small scrap of paper. The following facsimile of the scrawl was given to the public in the hope that some one would recognize the handwriting.
The first two lines overlapped and were confused, but the last one was clear enough. Expect trouble if--If what? Hundreds were asking the question and at this very moment. I should soon be asking it, too, but first, I must make an effort to understand the situation,--a situation which up to now appeared to involve Mr. Durand, and Mr. Durand only, as the suspected party.
This was no more than I expected, yet it came with a shock under the broad glare of this wintry morning; so impossible did it seem in the light of every-day life that guilt could be associated in any one's mind with a man of such unblemished record and excellent standing. But the evidence adduced against him was of a kind to appeal to the common mind--we all know that evidence--nor could I say, after reading the full account, that I was myself unaffected by its seeming weight. Not that my faith in his innocence was shaken. I had met his look of love and tender gratitude and my confidence in him had been restored, but I saw, with all the clearness of a mind trained by continuous study, how difficult it was going to be to counteract the prejudice induced, first, by his own inconsiderate acts, especially by that unfortunate attempt of his to secrete Mrs. Fairbrother's gloves in another woman's bag, and secondly, by his peculiar explanations--explanations which to many must seem forced and unnatural.
I saw and felt nerved to a superhuman task. I believed him innocent, and if others failed to prove him so, I would undertake to clear him myself,--I, the little Rita, with no experience of law or courts or crime, but with simply an unbounded faith in the man suspected and in the keenness of my own insight,--an insight which had already served me so well and would serve me yet better, once I had mastered the details which must be the prelude to all intelligent action.
The morning's report stopped with the explanations given by Mr. Durand of the appearances against him. Consequently no word appeared of the after events which had made such an impression at the time on all the persons present. Mr. Grey was mentioned, but simply as one of the guests, and to no one reading this early morning issue would any doubt come as to the genuineness of the diamond which, to all appearance, had been the leading motive in the commission of this great crime.
The effect on my own mind of this suppression was a curious one. I began to wonder if the whole event had not been a chimera of my disturbed brain--a nightmare which had visited me, and me alone, and not a fact to be reckoned with. But a moment's further thought served to clear my mind of all such doubts, and I perceived that the police had only exercised common prudence in withholding Mr. Grey's sensational opinion of the stone till it could be verified by experts.
The two columns of gossip devoted to the family differences which had led to the separation of Mr. and Mrs. Fairbrother, I shall compress into a few lines. They had been married three years before in the city of Baltimore. He was a rich man then, but not the multimillionaire he is to-day. Plain-featured and without manner, lie was no mate for this sparkling coquette, whose charm was of the kind which grows with exercise. Though no actual scandal was ever associated with her name, he grew tired of her caprices, and the conquests which she made no endeavor to hide either from him or from the world at large; and at some time during the previous year they had come to a friendly understanding which led to their living apart, each in grand style and with a certain deference to the proprieties which retained them their friends and an enviable place in society. He was not often invited where she was, and she never appeared in any assemblage where he was expected; but with this exception, little feeling was shown; matters progressed smoothly, and to their credit, let it be said, no one ever heard either of them speak otherwise than considerately of the other. He was at present out or town, having started some three weeks before for the southwest, but would probably return on receipt of the telegram which had been sent him.
The comments made on the murder were necessarily hurried. It was called a mystery, but it was evident enough that Mr. Durand's detention was looked on as the almost certain prelude to his arrest on the charge of murder.
I had had some discipline in life. Although a favorite of my wealthy uncle, I had given up very early the prospects he held out to me of a continued enjoyment of his bounty, and entered on duties which required self-denial and hard work. I did this because I enjoy having both my mind and heart occupied. To be necessary to some one, as a nurse is to a patient, seemed to me an enviable fate till I came under the influence of Anson Durand. Then the craving of all women for the common lot of their sex became my craving also; a craving, however, to which I failed at first to yield, for I felt that it was unshared, and thus a token of weakness. Fighting my battle, I succeeded in winning it, as I thought, just as the nurse's diploma was put in my hands. Then came the great surprise of my life. Anson Durand expressed his love for me and I awoke to the fact that all my preparation had been for home joys and a woman's true existence. One hour of ecstasy in the light of this new hope, then tragedy and something approaching chaos! Truly I had been through a schooling. But was it one to make me useful in the only way I could be useful now? I did not know; I did not care; I was determined on my course, fit or unfit, and, in the relief brought by this appeal to my energy, I rose and dressed and went about the duties of the day.
One of these was to determine whether Mr. Grey, on his return to his hotel, had found his daughter as ill as his fears had foreboded. A telephone message or two satisfied me on this point. Miss Grey was very ill, but not considered dangerously so; indeed, if anything, her condition was improved, and if nothing happened in the way of fresh complications, the prospects were that she would be out in a fortnight.
I was not surprised. It was more than I had expected. The cry of the banshee in an American house was past belief, even in an atmosphere surcharged with fear and all the horror surrounding a great crime; and in the secret reckoning I was making against a person I will not even name at this juncture, I added it as another suspicious circumstance.