The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katharine Green
VII. Night and a Voice
Not to be outdone by the editor, I insert the article here with all its details, the importance of which I trust I have anticipated.
SANTA FE, N.M., April --.
Arrived in Santa Fe, I inquired where Abner Fairbrother could be found. I was told that he was at his mine, sick.
Upon inquiring as to the location of the Placide, I was informed that it was fifteen miles or so distant in the mountains, and upon my expressing an intention of going there immediately, I was given what I thought very unnecessary advice and then directed to a certain livery stable, where I was told I could get the right kind of a horse and such equipment as I stood in need of.
I thought I was equipped all right as it was, but I said nothing and went on to the livery stable. Here I was shown a horse which I took to at once and was about to mount, when a pair of leggings was brought to me.
"You will need these for your journey," said the man.
"Journey!" I repeated. "Fifteen miles!"
The livery stable keeper--a half-breed with a peculiarly pleasant smile--cocked up his shoulders with the remark:
"Three men as willing but as inexperienced as yourself have attempted the same journey during the last week and they all came back before they reached the divide. You will probably come back, too; but I shall give you as fair a start as if I knew you were going straight through."
"But a woman has done it," said I; "a nurse from the hospital went up that very road last week."
"Oh, women! they can do anything--women who are nurses. But they don't start off alone. You are going alone."
"Yes," I remarked grimly. "Newspaper correspondents make their journeys singly when they can."
"Oh! you are a newspaper correspondent! Why do so many men from the papers want to see that sick old man? Because he's so rich?"
"Don't you know?" I asked.
He did not seem to.
I wondered at his ignorance but did not enlighten him.
"Follow the trail and ask your way from time to time. All the goatherds know where the Placide mine is.
Such were his simple instructions as he headed my horse toward the canyon. But as I drew off, he shouted out:
"If you get stuck, leave it to the horse. He knows more about it than you do."
With a vague gesture toward the northwest, he turned away, leaving me in contemplation of the grandest scenery I had yet come upon in all my travels.
Fifteen miles! but those miles lay through the very heart of the mountains, ranging anywhere from six to seven thousand feet high. In ten minutes the city and all signs of city life were out of sight. In five more I was seemingly as far removed from all civilization as if I had gone a hundred miles into the wilderness.
As my horse settled down to work, picking his way, now here and now there, sometimes over the brown earth, hard and baked as in a thousand furnaces, and sometimes over the stunted grass whose needle-like stalks seemed never to have known moisture, I let my eyes roam to such peaks as were not cut off from view by the nearer hillsides, and wondered whether the snow which capped them was whiter than any other or the blue of the sky bluer, that the two together had the effect upon me of cameo work on a huge and unapproachable scale.
Certainly the effect of these grand mountains, into which you leap without any preparation from the streets and market-places of America's oldest city, is such as is not easily described.
We struck water now and then,--narrow water--courses which my horse followed in mid stream, and, more interesting yet, goatherds with their flocks, Mexicans all, who seemed to understand no English, but were picturesque enough to look at and a welcome break in the extreme lonesomeness of the way.
I had been told that they would serve me as guides if I felt at all doubtful of the trail, and in one or two instances they proved to be of decided help. They could gesticulate, if they could not speak English, and when I tried them with the one word Placide they would nod and point out which of the many side canyons I was to follow. But they always looked up as they did so, up, up, till I took to looking up, too, and when, after miles multiplied indefinitely by the winding of the trail, I came out upon a ledge from which a full view of the opposite range could be had, and saw fronting me, from the side of one of its tremendous peaks, the gap of a vast hole not two hundred feet from the snowline, I knew that, inaccessible as it looked, I was gazing up at the opening of Abner Fairbrother's new mine, the Placide.
The experience was a strange one. The two ranges approached so nearly that it seemed as if a ball might be tossed from one to the other. But the chasm between was stupendous. I grew dizzy as I looked downward and saw the endless zigzags yet to be traversed step by step before the bottom of the canyon could be reached, and then the equally interminable zigzags up the acclivity beyond, all of which I must trace, still step by step, before I could hope to arrive at the camp which, from where I stood, looked to be almost within hail of my voice.
I have described the mine as a hole. That was all I saw at first--a great black hole in the dark brown earth of the mountain-side, from which ran down a still darker streak into the waste places far below it. But as I looked longer I saw that it was faced by a ledge cut out of the friable soil, on which I was now able to descry the pronounced white of two or three tent-tops and some other signs of life, encouraging enough to the eye of one whose lot it was to crawl like a fly up that tremendous mountain-side.
Truly I could understand why those three men, probably newspaper correspondents like myself, had turned back to Santa Fe, after a glance from my present outlook. But though I understood I did not mean to duplicate their retreat.
The sight of those tents, the thought of what one of them contained, inspired me with new courage, and, releasing my grip upon the rein, I allowed my patient horse to proceed. Shortly after this I passed the divide--that is where the water sheds both ways--then the descent began. It was zigzag, just as the climb had been, but I preferred the climb. I did not have the unfathomable spaces so constantly before me, nor was my imagination so active. It was fixed on heights to be attained rather than on valleys to roll into. However, I did not roll.
The Mexican saddle held me securely at whatever angle I was poised, and once the bottom was reached I found that I could face, with considerable equanimity, the corresponding ascent. Only, as I saw how steep the climb bade fair to be, I did not see how I was ever to come down again. Going up was possible, but the descent--
However, as what goes up must in the course of nature come down, I put this question aside and gave my horse his head, after encouraging him with a few blades of grass, which he seemed to find edible enough, though they had the look and something of the feel of spun glass.
How we got there you must ask this good animal, who took all the responsibility and did all the work. I merely clung and balanced, and at times, when he rounded the end of a zigzag, for instance, I even shut my eyes, though the prospect was magnificent. At last even his patience seemed to give out, and he stopped and trembled. But before I could open my eyes on the abyss beneath he made another effort. I felt the brush of tree branches across my face, and, looking up, saw before me the ledge or platform dotted with tents, at which I had looked with such longing from the opposite hillsides.
Simultaneously I heard voices, and saw approaching a bronzed and bearded man with strongly-marked Scotch features and a determined air.
"The doctor!" I involuntarily exclaimed, with a glance at the small and curious tent before which he stood guard.
"Yes, the doctor," he answered in unexpectedly good English. "And who are you? Have you brought the mail and those medicines I sent for?"
"No," I replied with as propitiatory a smile as I could muster up in face of his brusk forbidding expression. "I came on my own errand. I am a representative of the New York--,and I hope you will not deny me a word with Mr. Fairbrother."
With a gesture I hardly knew how to interpret he took my horse by the rein and led us on a few steps toward another large tent, where he motioned me to descend. Then he laid his hand on my shoulder and, forcing me to meet his eye, said:
"You have made this journey--I believe you said from New York--to see Mr. Fairbrother. Why?"
"Because Mr. Fairbrother is at present the most sought-for man in America," I returned boldly. "His wife--you know about his wife-- "
"No. How should I know about his wife? I know what his temperature is and what his respiration is--but his wife? What about his wife? He don't know anything about her now himself; he is not allowed to read letters."
"But you read the papers. You must have known, before you left Santa Fe, of Mrs. Fairbrother's foul and most mysterious murder in New York. It has been the theme of two continents for the last ten days."
He shrugged his shoulders, which might mean anything, and confined his reply to a repetition of my own words.
"Mrs. Fairbrother murdered!" he exclaimed, but in a suppressed voice, to which point was given by the cautious look he cast behind him at the tent which had drawn my attention. "He must not know it, man. I could not answer for his life if he received the least shock in his present critical condition. Murdered? When?"
"Ten days ago, at a ball in New York. It was after Mr. Fairbrother left the city. He was expected to return, after hearing the news, but he seems to have kept straight on to his destination. He was not very fond of his wife,--that is, they have not been living together for the last year. But he could not help feeling the shock of her death which he must have heard of somewhere along the route."
"He has said nothing in his delirium to show that he knew it. It is possible, just possible, that he didn't read the papers. He could not have been well for days before he reached Santa Fe."
"When were you called in to attend him?"
"The very night after he reached this place. It was thought he wouldn't live to reach the camp. But he is a man of great pluck. He held up till his foot touched this platform. Then he succumbed."
"If he was as sick as that," I muttered, "why did he leave Santa Fe? He must have known what it would mean to be sick here."
"I don't think he did. This is his first visit to the mine. He evidently knew nothing of the difficulties of the road. But he would not stop. He was determined to reach the camp, even after he had been given a sight of it from the opposite mountain. He told them that he had once crossed the Sierras in midwinter. But he wasn't a sick man then."
"Doctor, they don't know who killed his wife."
"I know, but under such circumstances every fact bearing on the event is of immense importance. There is one which Mr. Fairbrother only can make clear. It can be said in a word--"
The grim doctor's eye flashed angrily and I stopped.
"Were you a detective from the district attorney's office in New York, sent on with special powers to examine him, I should still say what I am going to say now. While Mr. Fairbrother's temperature and pulse remain where they now are, no one shall see him and no one shall talk to him save myself and his nurse."
I turned with a sick look of disappointment toward the road up which I had so lately come. "Have I panted, sweltered, trembled, for three mortal hours on the worst trail a man ever traversed to go back with nothing for my journey? That seems to me hard lines. Where is the manager of this mine?"
The doctor pointed toward a man bending over the edge of the great hole from which, at that moment, a line of Mexicans was issuing, each with a sack on his back which he flung down before what looked like a furnace built of clay.
"That's he. Mr. Haines, of Philadelphia. What do you want of him?"
"Permission to stay the night. Mr. Fairbrother may be better to-morrow."
"I won't allow it and I am master here, so far as my patient is concerned. You couldn't stay here without talking, and talking makes excitement, and excitement is just what he can not stand. A week from now I will see about it--that is, if my patient continues to improve. I am not sure that he will."
Let me spend that week here. I'll not talk any more than the dead. Maybe the manager will let me carry sacks."
"Look here," said the doctor, edging me farther and farther away from the tent he hardly let out of his sight for a moment. "You're a canny lad, and shall have your bite and something to drink before you take your way back. But back you go before sunset and with this message: No man from any paper north or south will be received here till I hang out a blue flag. I say blue, for that is the color of my bandana. When my patient is in a condition to discuss murder I'll hoist it from his tent-top. It can be seen from the divide, and if you want to camp there on the lookout, well and good. As for the police, that's another matter. I will see them if they come, but they need not expect to talk to my patient. You may say so down there. It will save scrambling up this trail to no purpose."
"You may count on me," said I; "trust a New York correspondent to do the right thing at the right time to head off the boys. But I doubt if they will believe me."
"In that case I shall have a barricade thrown up fifty feet down the mountain-side," said he.
"But the mail and your supplies?"
"Oh, the burros can make their way up. We shan't suffer."
"You are certainly master," I remarked.
All this time I had been using my eyes. There was not much to see, but what there was was romantically interesting. Aside from the furnace and what was going on there, there was little else but a sleeping-tent, a cooking-tent, and the small one I had come on first, which, without the least doubt, contained the sick man. This last tent was of a peculiar construction and showed the primitive nature of everything at this height. It consisted simply of a cloth thrown over a thing like a trapeze. This cloth did not even come to the ground on either side, but stopped short a foot or so from the flat mound of adobe which serves as a base or floor for hut or tent in New Mexico. The rear of the simple tent abutted on the mountain-side; the opening was toward the valley. I felt an intense desire to look into this opening,--so intense that I thought I would venture on an attempt to gratify it. Scrutinizing the resolute face of the man before me and flattering myself that I detected signs of humor underlying his professional bruskness, I asked, somewhat mournfully, if he would let me go away without so much as a glance at the man I had come so far to see. "A glimpse would satisfy me I assured him, as the hint of a twinkle flashed in his eye. "Surely there will be no harm in that. I'll take it instead of supper."
He smiled, but not encouragingly, and I was feeling very despondent, indeed, when the canvas on which our eyes were fixed suddenly shook and the calm figure of a woman stepped out before us, clad in the simplest garb, but showing in every line of face and form a character of mingled kindness and shrewdness. She was evidently on the lookout for the doctor, for she made a sign as she saw him and returned instantly into the tent.
"Mr. Fairbrother has just fallen asleep," he explained. "It isn't discipline and I shall have to apologize to Miss Serra, but if you will promise not to speak nor make the least disturbance I will let you take the one peep you prefer to supper."
"I promise," said I.
Leading the way to the opening, he whispered a word to the nurse, then motioned me to look in. The sight was a simple one, but to me very impressive. The owner of palaces, a man to whom millions were as thousands to such poor devils as myself, lay on an improvised bed of evergreens, wrapped in a horse blanket and with nothing better than another of these rolled up under his head. At his side sat his nurse on what looked like the uneven stump of a tree. Close to her hand was a tolerably flat stone, on which I saw arranged a number of bottles and such other comforts as were absolutely necessary to a proper care of the sufferer.
That was all. In these few words I have told the whole story. To be sure, this simple tent, perched seven thousand feet and more above sea-level, had one advantage which even his great house in New York could not offer This was the out look. Lying as he did facing the valley, he had only to open his eyes to catch a full view of the panorama of sky and mountain stretched out before him. It was glorious; whether seen at morning, noon or night, glorious. But I doubt if he would not gladly have exchanged it for a sight of his home walls.
As I started to go, a stir took place in the blanket wrapped about his chin, and I caught a glimpse of the iron-gray head and hollow cheeks of the great financier. He was a very sick man. Even I could see that. Had I obtained the permission I sought and been allowed to ask him one of the many questions burning on my tongue, I should have received only delirium for reply. There was no reaching that clouded intelligence now, and I felt grateful to the doctor for convincing me of it.
I told him so and thanked him quite warmly when we were well away from the tent, and his answer was almost kindly, though he made no effort to hide his impatience and anxiety to see me go. The looks he cast at the sun were significant, and, having no wish to antagonize him and every wish to visit the spot again, I moved toward my horse with the intention of untying him.
To my surprise the doctor held me back.
"You can't go to-night," said he, "your horse has hurt himself."
It was true. There was something the matter with the animal's left forefoot. As the doctor lifted it, the manager came up. He agreed with the doctor. I could not make the descent to Santa Fe on that horse that night. Did I feel elated? Rather. I had no wish to descend. Yet I was far from foreseeing what the night was to bring me.
I was turned over to the manager, but not without a final injunction from the doctor. "Not a word to any one about your errand! Not a word about the New York tragedy, as you value Mr. Fairbrother's life."
"Not a word," said I.
Then he left me.
To see the sun go down and the moon come up from a ledge hung, as it were, in mid air! The experience was novel--but I refrain. I have more important matters to relate.
I was given a bunk at the extreme end of the long sleeping-tent, and turned in with the rest. I expected to sleep, but on finding that I could catch a sight of the sick tent from under the canvas, I experienced such fascination in watching this forbidden spot that midnight came before I had closed my eyes. Then all desire to sleep left me, for the patient began to moan and presently to talk, and, the stillness of the solitary height being something abnormal, I could sometimes catch the very words. Devoid as they were of all rational meaning, they excited my curiosity to the burning point; for who could tell if he might not say something bearing on the mystery?
But that fevered mind had recurred to early scenes and the babble which came to my ears was all of mining camps in the Rockies and the dicker of horses. Perhaps the uneasy movement of my horse pulling at the end of his tether had disturbed him. Perhaps--
But at the inner utterance of the second "perhaps" I found myself up on my elbow listening with all my ears, and staring with wide-stretched eyes at the thicket of stunted trees where the road debouched on the platform. Something was astir there besides my horse. I could catch sounds of an unmistakable nature. A rider was coming up the trail.
Slipping back into my place, I turned toward the doctor, who lay some two or three bunks nearer the opening. He had started up, too, and in a moment was out of the tent. I do not think he had observed my action, for it was very dark where I lay and his back had been turned toward me. As for the others, they slept like the dead, only they made more noise.
Interested--everything is interesting at such a height--I brought my eye to bear on the ledge, and soon saw by the limpid light of a full moon the stiff, short branches of the trees, on which my gaze was fixed, give way to an advancing horse and rider.
"Halloo!" saluted the doctor in a whisper, which was in itself a warning. "Easy there! We have sickness in this camp and it's a late hour for visitors."
The answer was subdued, but earnest.
"I'm the magistrate of this district. I've a question to ask this sick man, on behalf of the New York Chief of Police, who is a personal friend of mine. It is connected with--"
The doctor had seized him by the arm and turned his face away from the sick tent. Then the two heads came together and an argument began.
I could not hear a word of it, but their motions were eloquent. My sympathy was with the magistrate, of course, and I watched eagerly while he passed a letter over to the doctor, who vainly strove to read it by the light of the moon. Finding this impossible, he was. about to return it, when the other struck a match and lit a lantern hanging from the horn of his saddle. The two heads came together again, but as quickly separated with every appearance of irreconcilement, and I was settling back with sensations of great disappointment, when a sound fell on the night so unexpected to all concerned that with a common impulse each eye sought the sick tent.
"Water! will some one give me water?" a voice had cried, quietly and with none of the delirium which had hitherto rendered it unnatural.
The doctor started for the tent. There was the quickness of surprise in his movement and the gesture he made to the magistrate, as he passed in, reawakened an expectation in my breast which made me doubly watchful.
Providence was intervening in our favor, and I was not surprised to see him presently reissue with the nurse, whom he drew into the shadow of the trees, where they had a short conference. If she returned alone into the tent after this conference I should know that the matter was at an end and that the doctor had decided to maintain his authority against that of the magistrate. But she remained outside and the magistrate was invited to join their council; when they again left the shadow of the trees it was to approach the tent.
The magistrate, who was in the rear, could not have more than passed the opening, but I thought him far enough inside not to detect any movement on my part, so I took advantage of the situation to worm myself out of my corner and across the ledge to where the tent made a shadow in the moonlight.
Crouching close, and laying my ear against the canvas, I listened.
The nurse was speaking in a gently persuasive tone. I imagined her kneeling by the head of the patient and breathing words into his ear. These were what I heard:
"You love diamonds. I have often noticed that; you look so long at the ring on your hand. That is why I have let it stay there, though at times I have feared it would drop off and roll away over the adobe down the mountain-side. Was I right?"
"Yes, yes." The words came with difficulty, but they were clear enough. "It's of small value. I like it because--"
He appeared to be too weak to finish.
A pause, during which she seemed to edge nearer to him.
"We all have some pet keepsake," said she. "But I should never have supposed this stone of yours an inexpensive one. But I forget that you are the owner of a very large and remarkable diamond, a diamond that is spoken of sometimes in the papers. Of course, if you have a gem like that, this one must appear very small and valueless to you."
"Yes, this is nothing, nothing." And he appeared to turn away his head.
"Mr. Fairbrother! Pardon me, but I want to tell you something about that big diamond of yours. You have been in and have not been able to read your letters, so do not know that your wife has had some trouble with that diamond. People have said that it is not a real stone, but a well-executed imitation. May I write to her that this is a mistake, that it is all you have ever claimed for it--that is, an unusually large diamond of the first water?"
I listened in amazement. Surely, this was an insidious way to get at the truth,--a woman's way, but who would say it was not a wise one, the wisest, perhaps, which could be taken under the circumstances? What would his reply be? Would it show that he was as ignorant of his wife's death as was generally believed, both by those about him here and those who knew him well in New York? Or would the question convey nothing further to him than the doubt--in itself an insult of the genuineness of that great stone which had been his pride?
A murmur--that was all it could be called--broke from his fever-dried lips and died away in an inarticulate gasp. Then, suddenly, sharply, a cry broke from him, an intelligible cry, and we heard him say:
"No imitation! no imitation! It was a sun! a glory! No other like it! It lit the air! it blazed, it burned! I see it now! I see--"
There the passion succumbed, the strength failed; another murmur, another, and the great void of night which stretched over--I might almost say under us--was no more quiet or seemingly impenetrable than the silence of that moon-enveloped tent
Would he speak again? I did not think so. Would she even try to make him? I did not think this, either. But I did not know the woman.
Softly her voice rose again. There was a dominating insistence in her tones, gentle as they were; the insistence of a healthy mind which seeks to control a weakened one.
"You do not know of any imitation, then? It was the real stone you gave her. You are sure of it; you would be ready to swear to it if--say just yes or no," she finished in gentle urgency.
Evidently he was sinking again into unconsciousness, and she was just holding him back long enough for the necessary word.
It came slowly and with a dragging intonation, but there was no mistaking the ring of truth with which he spoke.
"Yes," said he,
When I heard the doctor's voice and felt a movement in the canvas against which I leaned, I took the warning and stole back hurriedly to my quarters.
I was scarcely settled, when the same group of three I had before watched silhouetted itself again against the moonlight. There was some talk, a mingling and separating of shadows; then the nurse glided back to her duties and the two men went toward the clump of trees where the horse had been tethered.
Ten minutes and the doctor was back in his bunk. Was it imagination, or did I feel his hand on my shoulder before he finally lay down and composed himself to sleep? I can not say; I only know that I gave no sign, and that soon all stir ceased in his direction and I was left to enjoy my triumph and to listen with anxious interest to the strange and unintelligible sounds which accompanied the descent of the horseman down the face of the cliff, and finally to watch with a fascination, which drew me to my knees, the passage of that sparkling star of light hanging from his saddle. It crept to and fro across the side of the opposite mountain as he threaded its endless zigzags and finally disappeared over the brow into the invisible canyons beyond.
With the disappearance of this beacon came lassitude and sleep, through whose hazy atmosphere floated wild sentences from the sick tent, which showed that the patient was back again in Nevada, quarreling over the price of a horse which was to carry him beyond the reach of some threatening avalanche.
When next morning I came to depart, the doctor took me by both hands and looked me straight in the eyes.
"You heard," he said.
"How do you know?" I asked.
"I can tell a satisfied man when I see him," he growled, throwing down my hands with that same humorous twinkle in his eyes which had encouraged me from the first.
I made no answer, but I shall remember the lesson.
One detail more. When I stared on my own descent I found why the leggings, with which I had been provided, were so indispensable. I was not allowed to ride; indeed, riding down those steep declivities was impossible. No horse could preserve his balance with a rider on his back. I slid, so did my horse, and only in the valley beneath did we come together again.