A Strange Disappearance by Anna Katharine Green
Chapter XVI. The Mark of the Red Cross
And what success did I meet? The best in the world. And by what means did I attain it? By that of the simplest, prettiest clue I ever came upon. But let me explain.
When after a wearisome day spent in an ineffectual search through the neighborhood, I went home to my room, which as you remember was a front one in a lodging-house on the opposite corner from Mr. Blake, I was so absorbed in mind and perhaps I may say shaken in nerve, by the strain under which I had been laboring for some time now, that I stumbled up an extra flight of stairs, and without any suspicion of the fact, tried the door of the room directly over mine. It is a wonder to me now that I could have made the mistake, for the halls were totally dissimilar, the one above being much more cut up than the one below, besides being flanked by a greater number of doors. But the intoxication of the mind is not far removed from that of the body, and as I say it was not till I had tried the door and found it locked, that I became aware of the mistake I had made.
With the foolish sense of shame that always overcomes us at the committal of any such trivial error, I stumbled hastily back, when my foot trod upon something that broke under my weight. I never let even small things pass without some notice. Stooping, then, for what I had thus inadvertently crushed, I carried it to where a single gas jet turned down very low, made a partial light in the long hall, and examining it, found it to be a piece of red chalk.
What was there in that simple fact to make me start and hastily recall one or two half-forgotten incidents which, once brought to mind, awoke a train of thought that led to the discovery and capture of those two desperate thieves? I will tell you.
I don't remember now whether in my account of the visit I paid to the Schoenmakers' house in Vermont, I informed you of the red cross I noticed scrawled on the panel of one of the doors. It seemed a trivial thing at the time and made little or no impression upon me, the chances being that I should never have thought of it again, if I had not come upon the article just mentioned at a moment when my mind was full of those very Schoenmakers. But remembered now, together with another half-forgotten fact,--that some days previous I had been told by the woman who kept the house I was in, that the parties over my head (two men and a woman I believe she said) were giving her some trouble, but that they paid well and therefore she did not like to turn them out,--it aroused a vague suspicion in my mind, and led to my walking back to the door I had endeavored to open in my abstraction, and carefully looking at it.
It was plain and white, rather ruder of make than those below, but offering no inducements for prolonged scrutiny. But not so with the one that stood at right angles to it on the left. Full in the centre of that, I beheld distinctly scrawled, probably with the very piece of chalk I then held, a red cross precisely similar in outline to the one I had seen a few days before on the panel of the Schoenmakers' door at Granby.
The discovery sent a thrill over me that almost raised my hair on end. Was, then, this famous trio to be found in the very house in which I had been myself living for a week or more? over my head in fact? I could not withdraw my gaze from the mysterious looking object. I bent near, I listened, I heard what sounded like the suppressed snore of a powerful man, and almost had to lay hold of myself to prevent my hand from pushing open that closed door and my feet from entering. As it was I did finger the knob a little, but an extra loud snore from within reminded me by its suggestion of strength that I was but a small man and that in this case and at this hour, discretion was the better part of valor.
I therefore withdrew, but for the whole night lay awake listening to catch any sounds that might come from above, and going so far as to plan what I would do if it should be proved that I was indeed upon the trail of the men I was so anxious to encounter.
With the breaking of day I was upon my feet. A rude step had gone up the stairs a few minutes before and I was all alert to follow. But I presently considered that my wisest course would be to sound the landlady and learn if possible with what sort of characters I had to deal. Routing her out of the kitchen, where at that early hour she was already engaged in domestic duties, I drew her into a retired corner and put my questions. She was not backward in replying. She had conceived an innocent liking for me in the short time I had been with her--a display of weakness for which I was myself, perhaps, as much to blame as she--and was only too ready to pour out her griefs into my sympathizing ear. For those men were a grief to her, acceptable as was the money they were careful to provide her with. They were not only always in the house, that is one of them, smoking his old pipe and blackening up the walls, but they looked so shabby, and kept the girl so close, and if they did go out, came in at such unheard of hours. It was enough to drive her crazy; yet the money, the money--
"Yes," said I, "I know; and the money ought to make you overlook all the small disagreeablenesses you mention. What is a landlady without patience." And I urged her not to turn them out.
"But the girl," she went on, "so nice, so quiet, so sick-looking! I cannot stand it to see her cooped up in that small room, always watched over by one or both of those burly wretches. The old man says she is his daughter and she does not deny it, but I would as soon think of that little rosy child you see cooing in the window over the way, belonging to the beggar going in at the gate, as of her with her lady-like ways having any connection with him and his rough-acting son. You ought to see her--"
"That is just what I want to do," interrupted I. "Not because you have tempted my fancy by a recital of her charms," I hastened to add, "but because she is, if I don't mistake, a woman for whose discovery and rescue, a large sum of money has been offered."
And without further disguise I acquainted the startled woman before me with the fact that I was not, as she had always considered, the clerk out of employment whose daily business it was to sally forth in quest of a situation, but a member of the city police.
She was duly impressed and easily persuaded to second all my operations as far as her poor wits would allow, giving me free range of her upper story, and above all, promising that secrecy without which all my finely laid plans for capturing the rogues without raising a scandal, would fall headlong to the ground.
Behold me, then, by noon of that same day domiciled in an apartment next to the one whose door bore that scarlet sign which had aroused within me such feverish hopes the night before. Clad in the seedy garments of a broken down French artist whose acquaintance I had once made, with something of his air and general appearance and with a few of his wretched daubs hung about on the whitewashed wall, I commenced with every prospect of success as I thought, that quiet espionage of the hall and its inhabitants which I considered necessary to a proper attainment of the end I had in view.
A racking cough was one of the peculiarities of my friend, and determined to assume the character in toto, I allowed myself to startle the silence now and then with a series of gasps and chokings that whether agreeable or not, certainly were of a character to show that I had no desire to conceal my presence from those I had come among. Indeed it was my desire to acquaint them as fully and as soon as possible with the fact of their having a neighbor: a weak-eyed half-alive innocent to be sure, but yet a neighbor who would keep his door open night and day--for the warmth of the hall of course--and who with the fretful habit of an old man who had once been a gentleman and a beau, went rambling about through the hall speaking to those he met and expecting a civil word in return. When he was not rambling or coughing he made architectural monsters out of cardboard, wherewith to tempt the pennies out of the pockets of unwary children, an employment that kept him chained to a small table in the centre of his room directly opposite the open door.
As I expected I had scarcely given way to three separate fits of coughing, when the door next me opened with a jerk and a rough voice called out,
"Who's that making all that to do about here? If you don't stop that infernal noise in a hurry--"
A soft voice interrupted him and he drew back. "I will go see," said those gentle tones, and Luttra Blake, for I knew it was she before the skirt of her robe had advanced beyond the door, stepped out into the hall.
I was yet bent over my work when she paused before me. The fact is I did not dare look up, the moment was one of such importance to me.
"You have a dreadful cough," said she with that low ring of sympathy in her voice that goes unconsciously to the heart. "Is there no help for it?"
I pushed back my work, drew my hand over my eyes, (I did not need to make it tremble) and glanced up. "No," said I with a shake of my head, "but it is not always so bad. I beg your pardon, miss, if it disturbs you."
She threw back the shawl which she had held drawn tightly over her head, and advanced with an easy gliding step close to my side. "You do not disturb me, but my father is--is, well a trifle cross sometimes, and if he should speak up a little harsh now and then, you must not mind. I am sorry you are so ill."
What is there in some women's look, some women's touch that more than all beauty goes to the heart and subdues it. As she stood there before me in her dark worsted dress and coarse shawl, with her locks simply braided and her whole person undignified by art and ungraced by ornament, she seemed just by the power of her expression and the witchery of her manner, the loveliest woman I had ever beheld.
"You are veree kind, veree good," I murmured, half ashamed of my disguise, though it was assumed for the purpose of rescuing her. "Your sympathy goes to my heart." Then as a deep growl of impatience rose from the room at my side, I motioned her to go and not irritate the man who seemed to have such control over her.
"In a minute," answered she, "first tell me what you are making."
So I told her and in the course of telling, let drop such other facts about my fancied life as I wished to have known to her and through her to her father. She looked sweetly interested and more than once turned upon me that dark eye, of which I had heard so much, full of tears that were as much for me, scamp that I was, as for her own secret trouble. But the growls becoming more and more impatient she speedily turned to go, repeating, however, as she did so,
"Now remember what I say, you are not to be troubled if they do speak cross to you. They make noise enough themselves sometimes, as you will doubtless be assured of to-night."
And the lips which seemed to have grown stiff and cold with her misery, actually softened into something like a smile.
The nod which I gave her in return had the solemity of a vow in it.
My mind thus assured as to the correctness of my suspicions, and the way thus paved to the carrying out of my plans, I allowed some few days to elapse without further action on my part. My motive was to acquaint myself as fully as possible with the habits and ways of these two desperate men, before making the attempt to capture them upon which so many interests hung. For while I felt it would be highly creditable to my sagacity, as well as valuable to my reputation as a detective, to restore these escaped convicts in any way possible into the hands of justice, my chief ambition after all was to so manage the affair as to save the wife of Mr. Blake, not only from the consequences of their despair, but from the publicity and scandal attendant upon the open arrest of two heavily armed men. Strategy, therefore, rather than force was to be employed, and strategy to be successful must be founded upon the most thorough knowledge of the matter with which one has to deal. Three days, then, did I give to the acquiring of that knowledge, the result of which was the possession of the following facts.
1. That the landlady was right when she told me the girl was never left alone, one of the men, if not the father then the son, always remaining with her.
2. That while thus guarded, she was not so restricted but that she had the liberty of walking in the hall, though never for any length of time.
3. That the cross on the door seemed to possess some secret meaning connected with their presence in the house, it having been erased one evening when the whole three went out on some matter or other, only to be chalked on again when in an hour or so later, father and daughter returned alone.
4. That it was the father and not the son who made such purchases as were needed, while it was the son and not the father who carried on whatever operations they had on hand; nightfall being the favorite hour for the one and midnight for the other; though it not infrequently happened that the latter sauntered out for a short time also in the afternoon, probably for the drink he could not go long without.
5. That they were men of great strength but little alertness; the stray glimpses I had had of them, revealing a breadth of back that was truly formidable, if it had not been joined to a heaviness of motion that proclaimed a certain stolidity of mind that was eminently in our favor.
How best to use these facts in the building up of a matured plan of action, was, then, the problem. By noon of a certain day I believed it to have been solved, and reluctant as I was to leave the spot of my espionage even for the hour or two necessary to a visit to headquarters, I found myself compelled to do so. Packing up in a small basket I had for the purpose, the little articles I had been engaged during the last few days in making, I gave way to a final fit of coughing so hollow aud sepulchural in its tone, that it awoke a curse from the next room deep as the growl of a wild beast, and still continuing, finally brought Luttra to the door with that look of compassion on her face that always called up a flush to my cheek whether I wished it or no.
"Ah, Monsieur, I am afraid your cough is very bad to-day. O I see; you have been getting ready to go out--"
"Come back here," broke in a heavy voice from the room she had left. "What do you mean by running off to palaver with that old rascal every time he opens his ----- battery of a cough?"
A smile that went through me like the cut of a knife, flashed for a moment on her face.
"My father is in one of his impatient moods," said she, "you had better go. I hope you will be successful," she murmured, glancing wistfully at my basket.
"What is that?" again came thundering on our ears. "Successful? What are you two up to?" And we heard the rough clatter of advancing steps.
"Go," said she; "you are weak and old; and when you come back, try and not cough." And she gave me a gentle push towards the door.
"When I come back," I began, but was forced to pause, the elder Schoenmaker having by this time reached the open doorway where he stood frowning in upon us in a way that made my heart stand still for her.
"What are you two talking about?" said he; "and what have you got in your basket there?" he continued with a stride forward that shook the floor.
"Only some little toys that he has been making, and is now going out to sell," was her low answer given with a quick deprecatory gesture such as I doubt if she ever used for herself.
"Nothing more?" asked he in German with a red glare in the eye he turned towards her.
"Nothing more," replied she in the same tongue. "You may believe me."
He gave a deep growl and turned away. "If there was," said he, "you know what would happen." And unheeding the wild keen shudder that seized her at the word, making her insensible for the moment to all and everything about her, he laid one heavy hand upon her slight shoulder and led her from the room.
I waited no longer than was necessary to carry my feeble and faltering steps appropriately down the stairs, to reach the floor below and gain the landlady's presence.
"Do you go up," said I, "and sit on those stairs till I come back. If you hear the least cry of pain or sound of struggle from that young girl's room, do you call at once for help. I will have a policeman standing on the corner below."
The good woman nodded and proceeded at once to take up her work-basket. "Lucky there's a window up there, so I can see," I heard her mutter. "I've no time to throw away even on deeds of charity."
Notwithstanding which precaution, I was in constant anxiety during my absence; an absence necessarily prolonged as I had to stop and explain matters to the Superintendent, as well as hunt up Mr. Gryce and get his consent to assist me in the matter of the impending arrest.
I found the latter in his own home and more than enthusiastic upon the subject.
"Well," said he after I had informed him of the discoveries I had made, "the fates seem to prosper you in this. I have not received an inkling of light upon the matter since I parted from you at Mr. Blake's house. By the way I saw that gentleman this morning and I tell you we will find him a grateful man if this affair can be resolved satisfactorily,"
'That is good," said I," gratitude is what we want." Then shortly, "Perhaps it is no more than our duty to let him know that his wife is safe and under my eye; though I would by no means advocate his knowing just how near him she is, till the moment comes when he is wanted, or we shall have a lover's impetuosity to deal with as well as all the rest." Then with a hurried rememberance of a possible contingency, went on to say, "But, by the way, in case we should need the cooperation of Mrs. Blake in what we have before us, you had better get a line written in French from Mrs. Daniels, expressive of her belief in Mr. Blake's present affection for his wife. The latter will not otherwise trust us, or understand that we are to be obeyed in whatever we may demand. Let it be unsigned and without names in case of accident; and if the housekeeper don't understand French, tell her to get some one to help her that does, only be sure that the handwriting employed is her own."
Mr. Gryce seemed to perceive the wisdom of this precaution and promised to procure me such a note by a certain hour, after which I related to him the various other details of the capture such as I had planned it, meeting to my secret gratification an unqualified approval that went far towards alleviating that wound to my pride which I had received from him in the beginning of this affair.
"Let all things proceed as you have determined, and we shall accomplish something that it will be a life-long satisfaction to remember," said he; "but you must be prepared for some twist of the screw which you do not anticipate. I never knew anything to go off just as one prognosticates it must, except once," he added thoughtfully, "and then it was with a surprise attached to it that well nigh upset me notwithstanding all my preparations."
"You won a great success that day," remarked I. "I hope the fates will be as propitious to me to-morrow. Failure now would break my heart."
"But you won't fail," exclaimed he. "I myself am resolved to see you through this matter with credit."
And in this assurance I returned to my lodgings where I found the landlady sitting where I had left her, darning her twenty-third sock.
"I have to mend for a dozen men and three boys," said she, "and the boys are the worst by a heap sight. Look at that, will you," holding up a darn with a bit of stocking attached. "That hole was made playing shinny."
I uttered my condolences and asked if any sound or disturbance had reached her ears from above.
"O no, all is right up there; I've scarcely heard a whisper since you've been gone."
I gave her a pat on the chin scarcely consistent with my aged and tottering mien and proceeded to shamble painfully to my room.