A Strange Disappearance by Anna Katharine Green
Chapter VIII. A Word Overheard
That evening I had a talk with Fanny over the area gate. She came out when she saw me approach, with her eyes staring and her whole form in a flutter.
"O," she cried, "such things as I have heard this day!"
"Well," said I, "what? let me hear too." She put her hand on her heart. "I never was so frightened," whispered she, "I thought I should have fainted right away. To hear that elegant lady use such a word as crime,--"
"What elegant lady?" interrupted I. "Don't begin in the middle of your story, that's a good girl; I want to hear it all."
"Well," said she, calming down a little, "Mrs. Daniels had a visitor to-day, a lady. She was dressed--"
"O, now," interrupted I for the second time, "you can leave that out. Tell me what her name was and let the fol-de-rols go."
"Her name?" exclaimed the girl with some sharpness, "how should I know her name; she did'nt come to see me."
"How did she look then? You saw her I suppose?"
"And was'nt that what I was telling you, when you stopped me. She looked like a queen, that she did; as grand a lady as ever I see, in her velvet dress sweeping over the floor, and her diamonds as big as--"
"Was she a dark woman?" I asked.
"Her hair was black and so were her eyes, if that is what you mean."
"And was she very tall and proud looking ?"
The girl nodded. "You know her? 'whispered she.
"No," said I, "not exactly; but I think I can tell who she is. And so she called to-day on Mrs. Daniels, did she."
"Yes, but I guess she knew master would be home before she got away."
"Come," said I, "tell me all about it; I'm getting impatient."
"And ain't I telling you?" said she. "It was about three o'clock this afternoon, the time I go up stairs to dress, so I just hangs about in the hall a bit, near the parlor door, and I hear her gossiping with Mrs. Daniels almost as if she was an old friend, and Mrs. Daniels answering her mighty stiffly and as if she was'nt glad to see her at all. But the lady didn't seem to mind, but went on talking as sweet as honey, and when they came out, you would have thought she loved the old woman like a sister to see her look into her face and say something about knowing how busy she was, but that it would give her so much pleasure if she would come some day to see her and talk over old times. But Mrs. Daniels was'nt pleased a bit and showed plain enough she did'nt like the lady, fine as she was in her ways. She was going to answer her too, but just then the front door opened and Mr. Blake with his satchel in his hand, came into the house. And how he did start, to be sure, when he saw them, though he tried to say something perlite which she did'nt seem to take to at all, for after muttering something about not expecting to see him, she put her hand on the knob and was going right out. But he stopped her and they went into the parlor together while Mrs. Daniels stood staring after them like one mad, her hand held out with his bag and umbrella in it, stiff as a statter in the Central Park. She did'nt stand so long, though, but came running down the hall, as if she was bewitched. I was dreadful flustered, for though I was hid behind the wall that juts out there by the back stairs, I was afraid she would see me and shame me before Mr. Blake. But she passed right by and never looked up. 'There is something dreadful mysterious in this,' thought I, and I just made up my mind to stay where I was till Mr. Blake and the lady should come out again from the parlor. I did'nt have to wait very long. In a few minutes the door opened and they stepped out, he ahead and she coming after. I thought this was queer, he is always so dreadful perlite in his ways, but I thought it was a deal queerer when I saw him go up the front stairs, she hurrying after, looking I cannot tell you how, but awful troubled and anxious, I should say.
"They went into that room of his he calls his studio and though I knew it might cost me my place if I was found out, I could'nt help following and listening at the keyhole."
"And what did you hear?" I asked, for she paused to take breath.
"Well, the first thing I heard was a cry of pleasure from her, and the words, 'You keep that always before you? You cannot dislike me, then, as much as you pertend.' I don't know what she meant nor what he did, but he stepped across the room and I heard her cry out this time as if she was hurt as well as awful surprised; and he talked and talked, and I could'nt catch a word, he spoke so low; and by and by she sobbed just a little, and I got scared and would have run away but she cried out with a kind of shriek, 'O, don't say any more; to think that crime should come into our family, the proudest in the land. How could you, Holman, how could you.' Yes," the girl went on, flushing in her excitement till she was as red as the cherry ribbons in her cap, "those were the very words she used: 'To think that crime should come into our family! the proudest one in the land!' And she called him by his first name, and asked him how he could do it."
"And what did Mr. Blake say" returned I, a little taken back myself at this result of my efforts with Fanny.
"O, I did'nt wait to hear. I did'nt wait for anything. If folks was going to talk about such things as that, I thought I had better be anywhere than listening at the keyhole. I went right up stairs I can tell you."
"And whom have you told of what you heard in the half dozen hours that have gone by?"
"Nobody; how could you think so mean of me when I promised, and--"
It is not necessary to go any further into this portion of the interview.
The Countess De Mirac possessed to its fullest extent the present fine lady's taste for bric-a-brac. So much I had learned in my inquiries concerning her. Remembering this, I took the bold resolution of profiting by this weakness of hers to gain admission to her presence, she being the only one sharing Mr. Blake's mysterious secret. Borrowing a valuable antique from a friend of mine at that time in the business, I made my appearance the very next day at her apartments, and sending in an urgent request to see Madame, by the trim negress who answered my summons, waited in some doubt for her reply.
It came all too soon; Madame was ill and could see no one. I was not, however, to be baffled by one rebuff. Handing the basket I held to the girl, I urged her to take it in and show her mistress what it contained, saying it was a rare article which might never again come her way.
The girl complied, though with a doubtful shake of the head which was anything but encouraging. Her incredulity, however, must have been speedily rebuked, for she almost immediately returned without the basket, saying Madame would see me.
My first thoughts upon entering the grand lady's presence, was that the girl had been mistaken, for I found the Countess walking the floor in an abstracted way, drying a letter she had evidently but just completed, by shaking it to and fro with an unsteady hand; the placque I had brought, lying neglected on the table.
But at sight of my respectful form standing with bent head in the doorway, she hurriedly thrust the letter into a book and took up the placque. As she did so I marked her well and almost started at the change I observed in her since that evening at the Academy. It was not only that she was dressed in some sort of loose dishabille that was in eminent contrast to the sweeping silks and satins in which I had hitherto beheld her adorned; or that she was laboring under some physical disability that robbed her dark cheek of the bloom that was its chiefest charm. The change I observed went deeper than that; it was more as if a light had been extinguished in her countenance. It was the same woman I had beheld standing like a glowing column of will and strength before the melancholy form of Mr. Blake, but with the will and strength gone, and with them all the glow.
"She no longer hopes," thought I, and already felt repaid for my trouble.
"This is a very pretty article you have brought me," said she with something of the unrestrained love of art which she undoubtedly possessed, showing itself through all her languor. "Where did it come from, and what recommendations have you, to prove it is an honest sale you offer me?"
"None," returned I, ignoring with a reassuring smile the first question, "except that I should not be afraid if all the police in New York knew I was here with this fine placque for sale."
She gave a shrug of her proud shoulder that bespoke the French Countess and softly ran her finger round the edge of the placque.
"I don't need anything more of this kind," said she languidly; "besides," and she set it down with a fretful air, "I am in no mood to buy this afternoon." Then shortly, "What do you ask for it?"
I named a fabulous price.
She started and cast me a keen glance. "You had better take it to some one else; I have no money to throw away."
With a hesitating hand I lifted the placque towards the basket. "I would very much like to sell it to you," said I. " Perhaps--"
Just then a lady's fluttering voice rose from the room beyond inquiring for the Countess, and hurriedly taking the placque from my hand with an impulsive "O there's Amy," she passed into the adjoining apartment, leaving the door open behind her.
I saw a quick interchange of greetings between her and a fashionably dressed lady, then they withdrew to one side with the ornament I had brought, evidently consulting in regard to its merits. Now was my time. The book in which she had placed the letter she had been writing lay on the table right before me, not two inches from my hand. I had only to throw back the cover and my curiosity would be satisfied. Taking advantage of a moment when their backs were both turned, I pressed open the book with a careful hand, and with one eye on them and one on the sheet before me, managed to read these words:--
Here the conversation ceased in the other room, the Countess made a movement of advance and I closed the book with an inward groan over my ill-luck.
"It is very pretty," said she with a weary air; "but as I remarked before, I am not in the buying mood. If you will take half you mention, I may consider the subject, but--"
"Pardon me, Madame," I interrupted, being in no wise anxious to leave the placque behind me, "I have been considering the matter and I hold to my original price. Mr. Blake of Second Avenue may give it to me if you do not."
"Mr. Blake!" She eyed me suspiciously. "Do you sell to him?"
"I sell to anyone I can," replied I; "and as he has an artist's eye for such things--"
Her brows knitted and she turned away. "I do not want it;" said she, "sell it to whom you please."
I took up the placque and left the room.