A Strange Disappearance by Anna Katharine Green
Chapter X. The Secret of Mr. Blake's Studio
"Mr. Blake is at dinner, sir, with company, but I will call him if you say so."
"No," returned Mr. Gryce; "show us into some room where we can be comfortable and we will wait till he has finished."
The servant bowed, and stepping forward down the hall, opened the door of a small and cosy room heavily hung with crimson curtains. "I will let him know that you are here," said he, and vanished towards the dining-room.
"I doubt if Mr. Blake will enjoy the latter half of his bill of fare as much as the first," said I, drawing up one of the luxurious arm-chairs to the side of my principal. "I wonder if he will break away from his guests and come in here?"
"No; if I am not mistaken we shall find Mr. Blake a man of nerve. Not a muscle of his face will show that he is disturbed."
"Well," said I, "I dread it."
Mr. Gryce looked about on the gorgeous walls and the rich old fashioned furniture that surrounded him, and smiled one of his grimmest smiles.
"Well, you may," said he.
The next instant a servant stood in the doorway, bearing to our great astonishment, a tray well set with decanter and glasses.
"Mr. Blake's compliments, gentlemen," said he, setting it down on the table before us. "He hopes you will make yourselves at home and he will see you as soon as possible."
The humph! of Mr. Gryce when the servant had gone would have done your soul good, also the look he cast at the pretty Dresden Shepherdess on the mantel-piece, as I reached out my hand towards the decanter. Somehow it made me draw back.
"I think we had better leave his wine alone," said he.
And for half an hour we sat there, the wine untouched between us, listening alternately to the sound of speech-making and laughter that came from the dining-room, and the solemn ticking of the clock as it counted out the seconds on the mantel-piece. Then the guests came in from the table, filing before us past the open door on their way to the parlors. They were all gentlemen of course--Mr. Blake never invited ladies to his house--and gentlemen of well known repute. The dinner had been given in honor of a certain celebrated statesman, and the character of his guests was in keeping with that of the one thus complimented.
As they went by us gaily indulging in the jokes and light banter with which such men season a social dinner, I saw Mr. Gryce's face grow sober by many a shade; and when in the midst of it all, we heard the voice of Mr. Blake rise in that courteous and measured tone for which it is distinguished, I saw him reach forward and grasp his cane with an uneasiness I had never seen displayed by him before. But when some time later, the guests having departed, the dignified host advanced with some apology to where we were, I never beheld a firmer look on Mr. Gryce's face than that with which he rose and confronted him. Mr. Blake's own had not more character in it.
"You have called at a rather inauspicious time, Mr. Gryce," said the latter, glancing at the card which he held in his hand. "What may your business be? Something to do with politics, I suppose."
I surveyed the man in amazement. Was this great politician stooping to act a part, or had he forgotten our physiognomies as completely as appeared.
"Our business is not politics," replied Mr. Gryce; "but fully as important. May I request the doors be closed?"
I thought Mr. Blake looked surprised, but he immediately stepped to the door and shut it. Then coming back, he looked at Mr. Gryce more closely and a change took place in his manner.
"I think I have seen you before," said he.
Mr. Gryce bowed with just the suspicion of a smile. "I have had the honor of consulting you before in this very house," observed he.
A look of full recognition passed over the dignified countenance of the man before us.
"I remember," said he, shrugging his shoulders in the old way. "You are interested in some servant girl or other who ran away from this house a week or so ago. Have you found her?" This with no apparent concern.
"We think we have," rejoined Mr. Gryce with some solemnity. "The river gives up its prey now and then, Mr. Blake."
Still only that look of natural surprise.
"Indeed! You do not mean to say she has drowned herself? I am sorry for that, a girl who had once lived in my house. What trouble could she have had to drive her to such an act?"
Mr. Gryce advanced a step nearer the gentleman.
"That is what we have come here to learn," said he with a deliberation that yet was not lacking in the respect due to a man so universally esteemed as Mr. Blake. "You who have seen her so lately ought to be able to throw some light upon the subject at least."
"Mr.--" he again glanced at the card, "Mr. Gryce,--excuse me--I believe I told you when you were here before that I had no remembrance of this girl at all. That if such a person was in my house I did not know it, and that all questions put to me on that subject would be so much labor thrown away."
Mr. Gryce bowed. "I remember," said he. "I was not alluding to any connection you may have had with the girl in this house, but to the interview you were seen to have with her on the corner of Broome Street some days ago. You had such an interview, did you not?"
A flush, deep as it was sudden, swept over Mr. Blake's usually unmoved cheek. "You are transgressing sir," said he and stopped. Though a man of intense personal pride, he had but little of that quality called temper, or perhaps if he had, thought it unwise to display it on this occasion. "I saw and spoke to a girl on the corner of that street some days ago," he went on more mildly, "but that she was the one who lived here, I neither knew at the time nor feel willing to believe now without positive proof." Then in a deep ringing tone the stateliness of which it would be impossible to describe, he inquired, "Have the city authorities presumed to put a spy on my movements, that the fact of my speaking to a poor forsaken creature on the corner of the street should be not only noted but remembered?"
"Mr. Blake," observed Mr. Gryce, and I declare I was proud of my superior at that moment, "no man who is a true citizen and a Christian should object to have his steps followed, when by his own thoughtlessness, perhaps, he has incurred a suspicion which demands it."
"And do you mean to say that I have been followed," inquired he, clenching his hand and looking steadily, but with a blanching cheek, first at Mr. Gryce then at me.
"It was indispensable," quoth that functionary gently.
The outraged gentleman riveted his gaze upon me. "In town and out of town?" demanded he.
I let Mr. Gryce reply. "It is known that you have lately sought to visit the Schoenmakers," said he.
Mr. Blake drew a deep breath, cast his eyes about the handsome apartment in which we were, let them rest for a moment upon a portrait that graced one side of the wall, and which was I have since learned a picture of his father, and slowly drew forward a chair. "Let me hear what your suspicions are," said he.
I noticed Mr. Gryce colored at this; he had evidently been met in a different way from what he expected. "Excuse me," said he, "I do not say I have any suspicions; my errand is simply to notify you of the death of the girl you were seen to speak with, and to ask whether or not you can give us any information that can aid us in the matter before the coroner."
"You know I have not. If I have been as closely followed as you say, you must know why I spoke to that girl and others, why I went to the house of the Schoenmakers and--Do you know?" he suddenly inquired.
Mr. Gryce was not the man to answer such a question as that. He eyed the rich signet ring that adorned the hand of the gentleman before him and suavely smiled. "I am ready to listen to any explanations," said he.
Mr. Blake's haughty countenance became almost stern. "You consider you have a right to demand them; let me hear why."
"Well," said Mr. Gryce with a change of tone, "you shall. Unprofessional as it is, I will tell you why I, a member of the police force, dare enter the house of such a man as you are, and put him the questions I have concerning his domestic affairs. Mr. Blake, imagine yourself in a detective's office. A woman comes in, the housekeeper of a respected citizen, and informs us that a girl employed by her as seamstress has disappeared in a very unaccountable way from her master's house the night before; in fact been abducted as she thinks from certain evidences, through the window. Her manner is agitated, her appeal for assistance urgent, though she acknowledges no relationship to the girl or expresses any especial cause for her interest beyond that of common humanity. 'She must be found,' she declares, and hints that any sum necessary will be forthcoming, though from what source after her own pittance is expended she does not state. When asked if her master has no interest in the matter, she changes color and puts us off. He never noticed his servants, left all such concerns to her, etc.; but shows fear when a proposition is made to consult him. Next imagine yourself with the detectives in that gentleman's house. You enter the girl's room; what is the first thing you observe? Why that it is not only one of the best in the house, but that it is conspicuous for its comforts if not for its elegancies. More than that, that there are books of poetry and history lying around, showing that the woman who inhabited it was above her station; a fact which the housekeeper is presently brought to acknowledge. You notice also that the wild surmise of her abduction by means of the window, has some ground in appearance, though the fact that she went with entire unwillingness is not made so apparent. The housekeeper, however, insists in a way that must have had some special knowledge of the girl's character or circumstances to back it, that she never went without compulsion; a statement which the torn curtains and the track of blood over the roof of the extension, would seem to emphasize. A few other facts are made known. First, a pen-knife is picked up from the grass plot in the yard beneath, showing with what instrument the wound was inflicted, whose drippings made those marks of blood alluded to. It was a pearl-handled knife belonging to the writing desk found open on her table, and its frail and dainty character proved indisputably, that it was employed by the girl herself, and that against manifest enemies; no man being likely to snatch up any such puny weapon for the purpose either of offence or defence. That these enemies were two and were both men, was insisted upon by Mrs. Daniels who overheard their voices the night before.
"Mr. Blake, such facts as these arouse curiosity, especially when the master of the house being introduced upon the scene, he fails to manifest common human interest, while his housekeeper betrays in every involuntary gesture and expression she makes use of, her horror if not her fear of his presence, and her relief at his departure. Yes," he exclaimed, unheeding the sudden look here cast him by Mr. Blake, "and curiosity begets inquiry, and inquiry elucidated further facts such as these, that the mysterious master of the house was in his garden at the hour of the girl's departure, was even looking through the bars of his gate when she, having evidently escaped from her captors, came back with every apparent desire to reenter her home, but seeing him, betrayed an unreasonable amount of fear and fled back even into the very arms of the men she had endeavored to avoid. Did you speak sir?" asked Mr. Gryce suddenly stopping, with a sly look at his left boot tip.
Mr. Blake shook his head. "No," said he shortly, "go on." But that last remark of Mr. Gryce had evidently made its impression.
"Inquiry revealed, also, two or three other interesting facts. First, that this gentleman qualified though he was to shine in ladies' society, never obtruded himself there, but employed his leisure time instead, in walking the lower streets of the city, where he was seen more than once conversing with certain poor girls at street corners and in blind alleys. The last one he talked with, believed from her characteristics to be the same one that was abducted from his house--"
"Hold there," said Mr. Blake with some authority in his tone, "there you are mistaken; that is impossible."
"Ah, and why?"
"The girl you allude to had bright golden hair, something which the woman who lived in my house did not possess."
"Indeed. I thought you had never noticed the woman who sewed for you, sir,--did not know how she looked?"
"I should have noticed her if she had had such hair as the girl you speak of."
Mr. Gryce smiled and opened his pocketbook.
"There is a sample of her hair, sir," said he, taking out a thin strand of brilliant hair and showing it to the gentleman before him. "Bright you see, and golden as that of the unfortunate creature you talked with the other night."
Mr. Blake stooped forward and lifted it with a hand that visibly trembled. "Where did you get this?" asked he at last, clenching it to his breast with sudden passion.
"From out of the comb which the girl had been using the night before."
The imperious man flung it hastily from him.
"We waste our time," said he, looking Mr. Gryce intently in the face. "All that you have said does not account for your presence here nor the tone you have used while addressing me. What are you keeping back? I am not a man to be trifled with."
Mr. Gryce rose to his feet. "You are right," said he, and he gave a short glance in my direction. "All that I have said would not perhaps justify me in this intrusion, if--" he looked again towards me. "Do you wish me to continue?" he asked.
Mr. Blake's intent look deepened. "I see no reason why you should not utter the whole," said he. "A good story loses nothing by being told to the end. You wish to say something about my journey to Schoenmaker's house, I suppose."
Mr. Gryce gravely shook his head.
"What, you can let such a mystery as that go without a word?"
"I am not here to discuss mysteries that have no connection with the sewing-girl in whose cause I am interested."
"Then," said Mr. Blake, turning for the first time upon my superior with all the dignified composure for which he was eminent, "it is no longer necessary for us to prolong this interview. I have allowed, nay encouraged you to state in the plainest terms what it was you had or imagined you had against me, knowing that my actions of late, seen by those who did not possess the key to them, must have seemed a little peculiar. But when you say you have no interest in any mystery disconnected with the girl who has lived the last few months in my house, I can with assurance say that it is time we quitted this unprofitable conversation, as nothing which I have lately done, said or thought here or elsewhere has in any way had even the remotest bearing upon that individual; she having been a stranger to me while in my house, and quite forgotten by me, after her unaccountable departure hence."
Mr. Gryce's hand which had been stretched out towards the hitherto untouched decanter before him, suddenly dropped. "You deny then," said he, "all connection between yourself and the woman, lady or sewing-girl, who occupied that room above our heads for eleven months previous to the Sunday morning I first had the honor to make your acquaintance."
"I am not in the habit of repeating my assertions," said Mr. Blake with some severity, "even when they relate to a less disagreeable matter than the one under discussion."
Mr. Gryce bowed, and slowly reached out for his hat; I had never seen him so disturbed. "I am sorry," he began and stopped, fingering his hat-brim nervously. Suddenly he laid his hat back, and drew up his form into as near a semblance of dignity as its portliness would allow.
"Mr. Blake," said he, "I have too much respect for the man I believed you to be when I entered this house to-night, to go with the thing unsaid which is lying at present like a dead weight upon my lips. I dare not leave you to the consequence of my silence; for duty will compel me to speak some day and in some presence where you may not have the opportunity which you can have here, to explain yourself with satisfaction. Mr. Blake I cannot believe you when you say the girl who lived in this house was a stranger to you."
Mr. Blake drew his proud form up in a disdain that was only held in check by the very evident honesty of the man before him. "You are courageous at least," said he. "I regret you are not equally discriminating." And raising Mr. Gryce's hat he placed it in his hand.
"Pardon me," said that gentleman, "I would like to justify myself before I go. Not with words," he proceeded as the other folded his arms with a sarcastic bow. "I am done with words; action accomplishes the rest. Mr. Blake I believe you consider me an honest officer and a reliable man. Will you accompany me to your private room for a moment? There is something there which may convince you I was neither playing the fool nor the bravado when I uttered the phrase I did an instant ago."
I expected to hear the haughty master of the house refuse a request so peculiar. But he only bowed, though in a surprised way that showed his curiosity if no more was aroused. "My room and company are at your disposal," said he, "but you will find nothing there to justify you in your assertions."
"Let me at least make the effort," entreated my superior.
Mr. Blake smiling bitterly immediately led the way to the door. "The man may come," he remarked carelessly as Mr. Gryce waved his hand in my direction. "Your justification if not mine may need witnesses."
Rejoiced at the permission, for my curiosity was by this time raised to fever pitch, I at once followed. Not without anxiety. The assured poise of Mr. Blake's head seemed to argue that the confidence betrayed by my superior might receive a shock; and I felt it would be a serious blow to his pride to fail now. But once within the room above, my doubts speedily fled. There was that in Mr. Gryce's face which anyone acquainted with him could not easily mistake. Whatever might be the mysterious something which the room contained, it was evidently sufficient in his eyes to justify his whole conduct.
"Now sir," said Mr. Blake, turning upon my superior with his sternest expression, "the room and its contents are before you; what have you to say for yourself."
Mr. Gryce equally stern, if not equally composed, cast one of his inscrutable glances round the apartment and without a word stepped before the picture that was as I have said, the only ornamentation of the otherwise bare and unattractive room.
I thought Mr. Blake looked surprised, but his face was not one that lightly expressed emotion.
"A portrait of my cousin the Countess De Mirac," said he with a certain dryness of tone hard to interpret.
Mr. Gryce bowed and for a moment stood looking with a strange lack of interest at the proudly brilliant face of the painting before him, then to our great amazement stepped forward and with a quick gesture turned the picture rapidly to the wall, when--Gracious heavens! what a vision started out before us from the reverse side of that painted canvas! No luxurious brunette countenance now, steeped in pride and languor, but a face--Let me see if I can describe it. But no, it was one of those faces that are indescribable. You draw your breath as you view it; you feel as if you had had an electric shock; but as for knowing ten minutes later whether the eyes that so enthralled you were blue or black, or the locks that clustered halo-like about a forehead almost awful in its expression of weird, unfathomable power, were brown or red, you could not nor would you pretend to say. It was the character of the countenance itself that impressed you. You did not even know if this woman who might have been anything wonderful or grand you ever read of, were beautiful or not. You did not care; it was as if you had been gazing on a tranquil evening sky and a lightning flash had suddenly startled you. Is the lightning beautiful? Who asks! But I know from what presently transpired, that the face was ivory pale in complexion, the eyes deeply dark, and the hair,-- strange and uncanny combination,--of a bright and peculiar golden hue.
"You dare!" came forth in strange broken tones from Mr. Blake's lips.
I instantly turned towards him. He was gazing with a look that was half indignant, half menacing at the silent detective who with eyes drooped and finger directed towards the picture, seemed to be waiting for him to finish.
"I do not understand an audacity that allows you to--to--" Was this the haughty gentleman we had known, this hesitating troubled man with bloodless lips and trembling hands?
"I declared my desire to justify myself," said my principal with a respectful bow. "This is my justification. Do you note the color of the woman's hair whose portrait hangs with its face turned to the wall in your room? Is it like or unlike that of the strand you held in your hand a few moments ago; a strand taken as I swear, hair by hair from the comb of the poor creature who occupied the room above. But that is not all," he continued as Mr. Blake fell a trifle aback; "just observe the dress in which this woman is painted; blue silk you see, dark and rich; a wide collar cunningly executed, you can almost trace the pattern; a brooch; then the roses in the hand, do you see? Now come with me upstairs."
Too much startled to speak, Mr. Blake, haughty aristocrat as he was, turned like a little child and followed the detective who with an assured step and unembarassed mien led the way into the deserted room above.
"You accuse me of insulting you, when I express disbelief of your assertion that there was no connection between you and the girl Emily," said Mr. Gryce as he lit the gas and unlocked that famous bureau drawer. "Will you do so any longer in face of these?" And drawing off the towel that lay uppermost, he revealed the neatly folded dress, wide collar, brooch and faded roses that lay beneath. "Mrs. Daniels assures us these articles belonged to the sewing-woman Emily; were brought here by her. Dare you say they are not the ones reproduced in the portrait below?"
Mr. Blake uttering a cry sank on his knees before the drawer. "My God! My God!" was his only reply, "what are these?" Suddenly he rose, his whole form quivering, his eyes burning. "Where is Mrs. Daniels?" he cried, hastily advancing and pulling the bell. "I must see her at once. Send the house-keeper here," he ordered as Fanny smiling demurely made her appearance at the door.
"Mrs. Daniels is out," returned the girl, "went out as soon as ever you got up from dinner, sir."
"Gone out at this hour?"
"Yes sir; she goes out very often nowadays, sir."
Her master frowned. "Send her to me as soon as she returns," he commanded, and dismissed the girl.
"I don't know what to make of this," he now said in a strange tone, approaching again the touching contents of that open bureau drawer with a look in which longing and doubt seemed in some way to be strangely commingled. "I cannot explain the presence of these articles in this room; but if you will come below I will see what I can do to make other matters intelligible to you. Disagreeable as it is for me to take anyone into my confidence, affairs have gone too far for me to hope any longer to preserve secrecy as to my private concerns."