The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green
To relate the full experiences of the next few days would be to encumber my narrative with unnecessary detail.
I did not see Mr. Durand again. My uncle, so amenable in most matters, proved Inexorable on this point. Till Mr. Durand's good name should be restored by the coroner's verdict, or such evidence brought to light as should effectually place him beyond all suspicion, I was to hold no communication with him of any sort whatever. I remember the very words with which my uncle ended the one exhaustive conversation we had on the subject. They were these:
"You have fully expressed to Mr. Durand your entire confidence In his Innocence. That must suffice him for the present. If he Is the honest gentleman you think him, It will."
As uncle seldom asserted himself, and as he is very much in earnest when he does, I made no attempt to combat this resolution, especially as it met the approval of my better judgment. But though my power to convey sympathy fell thus under a yoke, my thoughts and feelings remained free, and these were all consecrated to the man struggling under an imputation, the disgrace and humiliation of which he was but poorly prepared, by his former easy life of social and business prosperity, to meet.
For Mr. Durand, in spite of the few facts which came up from time to time in confirmation of his story, continued to be almost universally regarded as a suspect.
This seemed to me very unjust. What if no other clue offered--no other clue, I mean, recognized as such by police or public! Was he not to have the benefit of whatever threw a doubt on his own culpability? For instance, that splash of blood on his shirt-front, which I had seen, and the shape of which I knew! Why did not the fact that it was a splash and not a spatter (and spatter it would have been had it spurted there, instead of falling from above, as he stated), count for more in the minds of those whose business it was to probe into the very heart of this crime ? To me, it told such a tale of innocence that I wondered how a man like the inspector could pass over it. But later I understood. A single word enlightened me. The stain, it was true, was In the form of a splash and not a spurt, but a splash would have been the result of a drop falling from the reeking end of the stiletto, whether it dislodged itself early or late. And what was there to prove that this drop had not fallen at the instant the stiletto was being thrust Into the lantern, instead of after the escape of the criminal, and the entrance of another man?
But the mystery of the broken coffee-cups! For that no explanation seemed to be forthcoming.
And the still unsolved one of the written warning found in the murdered woman's hand--a warning which had been deciphered to read: "Be warned! He means to be at the ball! Expect trouble if--" Was that to be looked upon as directed against a man who, from the nature of his projected attempt, would take no one into his confidence?
Then the stiletto--a photographic reproduction of which was in all the papers--was that the kind of instrument which a plain New York gentleman would be likely to use In a crime of this nature? It was a marked and unique article, capable, as one would think, of being easily traced to its owner. Had it been claimed by Mr. Ramsdell, had it been recognized as one of the many works of art scattered about the highly-decorated alcove, its employment as a means of death would have gone only to prove the possibly unpremeditated nature of the crime, and so been valueless as the basis of an argument in favor of Mr. Durand's innocence. But Mr. Ramsdell had disclaimed from the first all knowledge of it, consequently one could but feel justified in asking whether a man of Mr. Durand's judgment would choose such an extraordinary weapon in meditating so startling a crime which from its nature and circumstance could not fail to attract the attention of the whole civilized world.
Another argument, advanced by himself and subscribed to by all his friends, was this: That a dealer in precious stones would be the last man to seek by any unlawful means to possess so conspicuous a jewel. For he, better than any one else, would know the impossibility of disposing of a gem of this distinction in any market short of the Orient. To which the unanswerable reply was made that no one attributed to him any such folly; that if he had planned to possess himself of this great diamond, it was for the purpose of eliminating it from competition with the one he had procured for Mr. Smythe; an argument, certainly, which drove us back on the only plea we had at our command--his hitherto unblemished reputation and the confidence which was felt In him by those who knew him.
But the one circumstance which affected me most at the time, and which undoubtedly was the source of the greatest confusion to all minds, whether official or otherwise, was the unexpected confirmation by experts of Mr. Grey's opinion in regard to the diamond. His name was not used, indeed it had been kept out of the papers with the greatest unanimity, but the hint he had given the inspector at Mr. Ramsdell's ball had been acted upon and, the proper tests having been made, the stone, for which so many believed a life to have been risked and another taken, was declared to be an imitation, fine and successful beyond all parallel, but still an imitation, of the great and renowned gem which had passed through Tiffany's hands a twelve-month before: a decision which fell like a thunderbolt on all such as had seen the diamond blazing in unapproachable brilliancy on the breast of the unhappy Mrs. Fairbrother only an hour or two before her death.
On me the effect was such that for days I lived in a dream, a condition that, nevertheless, did not prevent me from starting a certain little inquiry of my own, of which more hereafter.
Here let me say that I did not share the general confusion on this topic. I had my own theory, both as to the cause of this substitution and the moment when it was made. But the time had not yet come for me to advance it. I could only stand back and listen to the suppositions aired by the press, suppositions which fomented so much private discussion that ere long the one question most frequently heard in this connection was not who struck the blow which killed Mrs. Fairbrother (this was a question which some seemed to think settled), but whose juggling hand had palmed off the paste for the diamond, and how and when and where had the jugglery taken place?
Opinions on this point were, as I have said, many and various. Some fixed upon the moment of exchange as that very critical and hardly appreciable one elapsing between the murder and Mr. Durand's appearance upon the scene. This theory, I need not say, was advanced by such as believed that while he was not guilty of Mrs. Fairbrother's murder, lie had been guilty of taking advantage of the same to rob the body of what, in the terror and excitement of the moment, he evidently took to be her great gem. To others, among whom were many eyewitnesses of the event, it appeared to be a conceded fact that this substitution had been made prior to the ball and with Mrs. Fairbrother's full cognizance. The effectual way in which she had wielded her fan between the glittering ornament on her breast and the inquisitive glances constantly leveled upon it might at the time have been due to coquetry, but to them it looked much more like an expression of fear lest the deception in which she was indulging should be discovered. No one fixed the time where I did; but then, no one but myself had watched the scene with the eyes of love; besides, and this must be remembered, most people, among whom I ventured to count the police officials, were mainly interested in proving Mr. Durand guilty, while I, with contrary mind, was bent on establishing such facts as confirmed the explanations he had been pleased to give us, explanations which necessitated a conviction, on Mrs. Fairbrother's part, of the great value of the jewel she wore, and the consequent advisability of ridding herself of it temporarily, if, as so many believed, the full letter of the warning should read: "Be warned, he means to be at the ball. Expect trouble if you are found wearing the great diamond."
True, she may herself have been deceived concerning it. Unconsciously to herself, she may have been the victim of a daring fraud on the part of some hanger-on who had access to her jewels, but, as no such evidence had yet come to life, as she had no recognized, or, so far as could be learned, secret lover or dishonest dependent; and, moreover, as no gem of such unusual value was known to have been offered within the year, here or abroad, in public or private market, I could not bring myself to credit this assumption; possibly because I was so ignorant as to credit another, and a different one,--one which you have already seen growing in my mind, and which, presumptuous as it was, kept my courage from failing through all those dreadful days of enforced waiting and suspense. For I was determined not to intrude my suggestions, valuable as I considered them, till all hope was gone of his being righted by the judgment of those who would not lightly endure the interference of such an insignificant mote in the great scheme of justice as myself.
The inquest, which might be trusted to bring out all these doubtful points, had been delayed in anticipation of Mr. Fairbrother's return. His testimony could not but prove valuable, if not in fixing the criminal, at least in settling the moot point as to whether the stone, which the estranged wife had carried away with her on leaving the house, had been the genuine one returned to him from Tiffany's or the well-known imitation now in the hands of the police. He had been located somewhere in the mountains of lower Colorado, but, strange to say, It had been found impossible to enter into direct communication with him; nor was it known whether he was aware as yet of his wife's tragic death. So affairs went slowly in New York and the case seemed to come to a standstill, when public opinion was suddenly reawakened and a more definite turn given to the whole matter by a despatch from Santa Fe to the Associated Press. This despatch was to the effect that Abner Fairbrother had passed through that city some three days before on his way to his new mining camp, the Placide; that he then showed symptoms of pneumonia, and from advices since received might be regarded as a very sick man.
Ill,--well, that explained matters. His silence, which many had taken for indifference, was that of a man physically disabled and unfit for exertion of any kind. Ill,--a tragic circumstance which roused endless conjecture. Was he aware, or was he not aware, of his wife's death? Had he been taken ill before or after he left Colorado for New Mexico? Was he suffering mainly from shock, or, as would appear from his complaint, from a too rapid change of climate?
The whole country seethed with excitement, and my poor little unthought-of, insignificant self burned with impatience, which only those who have been subjected to a like suspense can properly estimate. Would the proceedings which were awaited with so much anxiety be further delayed? Would Mr. Durand remain indefinitely in durance and under such a cloud of disgrace as would kill some men and might kill him? Should I be called upon to endure still longer the suffering which this entailed upon me, when I thought I knew?
But fortune was less obdurate than I feared. Next morning a telegraphic statement from Santa Fe settled one of the points of this great dispute, a statement which you will find detailed at more length in the following communication, which appeared a few days later in one of our most enterprising journals.
It was from a resident correspondent in New Mexico, and was written, as the editor was careful to say, for his own eyes and not for the public. He had ventured, however, to give It in full, knowing the great interest which this whole subject had for his readers.