Initials Only, by Anna Katharine Green

Chapter 4

Sweet Little Miss Clarke

When we took our seats at the breakfast-table, it was with the feeling of being no longer looked upon as connected in any way with this case. Yet our interest in it was, if anything, increased, and when I saw George casting furtive glances at a certain table behind me, I leaned over and asked him the reason, being sure that the people whose faces I saw reflected in the mirror directly before us had something to do with the great matter then engrossing us. His answer conveyed the somewhat exciting information that the four persons seated in my rear were the same four who had been reading at the round table in the mezzanine at the time of Miss Challoner’s death.

Instantly they absorbed all my attention, though I dared not give them a direct look, and continued to observe them only in the glass.

“Is it one family?” I asked.

“Yes, and a very respectable one. Transients, of course, but very well known in Denver. The lady is not the mother of the boys, but their aunt. The boys belong to the gentleman, who is a widower.”

“Their word ought to be good.”

George nodded.

“The boys look wide-awake enough if the father does not. As for the aunt, she is sweetness itself. Do they still insist that Miss Challoner was the only person in the room with them at this time?”

“They did last night. I don’t know how they will meet this statement of the doctor’s.”

“George?”

He leaned nearer.

“Have you ever thought that she might have been a suicide? That she stabbed herself?

“No, for in that case a weapon would have been found.”

“And are you sure that none was?”

“Positive. Such a fact could not have been kept quiet. If a weapon had been picked up there would be no mystery, and no necessity for further police investigation.”

“And the detectives are still here?

“I just saw one.”

“George?”

Again his head came nearer.

“Have they searched the lobby? I believe she had a weapon.”

“Laura!”

“I know it sounds foolish, but the alternative is so improbable. A family like that cannot be leagued together in a conspiracy to hide the truth concerning a matter so serious. To be sure, they may all be short-sighted, or so little given to observation that they didn’t see what passed before their eyes. The boys look wide-awake enough, but who can tell? I would sooner believe that —”

I stopped short so suddenly that George looked startled. My attention had been caught by something new I saw in the mirror upon which my attention was fixed. A man was looking in from the corridor behind, at the four persons we were just discussing. He was watching them intently, and I thought I knew his face.

“What kind of a looking person was the man who took you outside last night?” I inquired of George, with my eyes still on this furtive watcher.

“A fellow to make you laugh. A perfect character, Laura; hideously homely but agreeable enough. I took quite a fancy to him. Why?”

“I am looking at him now.”

“Very likely. He’s deep in this affair. Just an everyday detective, but ambitious, I suppose, and quite alive to the importance of being thorough.”

“He is watching those people. No, he isn’t. How quickly he disappeared!”

“Yes, he’s mercurial in all his movements. Laura, we must get out of this. There happens to be something else in the world for me to do than to sit around and follow up murder clews.”

But we began to doubt if others agreed with him, when on passing out we were stopped in the lobby by this same detective, who had something to say to George, and drew him quickly aside.

“What does he want?” I asked, as soon as George had returned to my side.

“He wants me to stand ready to obey any summons the police may send me.”

“Then they still suspect Brotherson?”

“They must.”

My head rose a trifle as I glanced up at George.

“Then we are not altogether out of it?” I emphasised, complacently.

He smiled which hardly seemed apropos. Why does George sometimes smile when I am in my most serious moods.

As we stepped out of the hotel, George gave my arm a quiet pinch which served to direct my attention to an elderly gentleman who, was just alighting from a taxicab at the kerb. He moved heavily and with some appearance of pain, but from the crowd collected on the sidewalk many of whom nudged each other as he passed, he was evidently a person of some importance, and as he disappeared within the hotel entrance, I asked George who this kind-faced, bright-eyed old gentleman could be.

He appeared to know, for he told me at once that he was Detective Gryce; a man who had grown old in solving just such baffling problems as these.

“He gave up work some time ago, I have been told,” my husband went on; “but evidently a great case still has its allurement for him. The trail here must be a very blind one for them to call him in. I wish we had not left so soon. It would have been quite an experience to see him at work.”

“I doubt if you would have been given the opportunity. I noticed that we were slightly de trop towards the last.”

“I wouldn’t have minded that; not on my own account, that is. It might not have been pleasant for you. However, the office is waiting. Come, let me put you on the car.”

That night I bided his coming with an impatience I could not control. He was late, of course, but when he did appear, I almost forgot our usual greeting in my hurry to ask him if he had seen the evening papers.

“No,” he grumbled, as he hung up his overcoat. “Been pushed about all day. No time for anything.”

“Then let me tell you —”

But he would have dinner first.

However, a little later we had a comfortable chat. Mr. Gryce had made a discovery, and the papers were full of it. It was one which gave me a small triumph over George. The suggestion he had laughed at was not so entirely foolish as he had been pleased to consider it. But let me tell the story of that day, without any further reference to myself.

The opinion had become quite general with those best acquainted with the details of this affair, that the mystery was one of those abnormal ones for which no solution would ever be found, when the aged detective showed himself in the building and was taken to the room, where an Inspector of Police awaited him. Their greeting was cordial, and the lines on the latter’s face relaxed a little as he met the still bright eye of the man upon whose instinct and judgment so much reliance had always been placed.

“This is very good of you,” he began, glancing down at the aged detective’s bundled up legs, and gently pushing a chair towards him. “I know that it was a great deal to ask, but we’re at our wits’ end, and so I telephoned. It’s the most inexplicable — There! you have heard that phrase before. But clews — there are absolutely none. That is, we have not been able to find any. Perhaps you can. At least, that is what we hope. I’ve known you more than once to succeed where others have failed.”

The elderly man thus addressed, glanced down at his legs, now propped up on a stool which someone had brought him, and smiled, with the pathos of the old who sees the interests of a lifetime slipping gradually away.

“I am not what I was. I can no longer get down on my hands and knees to pick up threads from the nap of a rug, or spy out a spot of blood in the crimson woof of a carpet.”

“You shall have Sweetwater here to do the active work for you. What we want of you is the directing mind — the infallible instinct. It’s a case in a thousand, Gryce. We’ve never had anything just like it. You’ve never had anything at all like it. It will make you young again.”

The old man’s eyes shot fire and unconsciously one foot slipped to the floor. Then he bethought himself and painfully lifted it back again.

“What are the points? What’s the difficulty?” he asked. “A woman has been shot —”

“No, not shot, stabbed. We thought she had been shot, for that was intelligible and involved no impossibilities. But Drs. Heath and Webster, under the eye of the Challoners’ own physician, have made an examination of the wound — an official one, thorough and quite final so far as they are concerned, and they declare that no bullet is to be found in the body. As the wound extends no further than the heart, this settles one great point, at least.”

“Dr. Heath is a reliable man and one of our ablest coroners.”

“Yes. There can be no question as to the truth of his report. You know the victim? Her name, I mean, and the character she bore?”

“Yes; so much was told me on my way down.”

“A fine girl unspoiled by riches and seeming independence. Happy, too, to all appearance, or we should be more ready to consider the possibility of suicide.”

“Suicide by stabbing calls for a weapon. Yet none has been found, I hear.”

“None.”

“Yet she was killed that way?

“Undoubtedly, and by a long and very narrow blade, larger than a needle but not so large as the ordinary stiletto.”

“Stabbed while by herself, or what you may call by herself? She had no companion near her?”

“None, if we can believe the four members of the Parrish family who were seated at the other end of the room.

“And you do believe them?”

“Would a whole family lie — and needlessly? They never knew the woman — father, maiden aunt and two boys, clear-eyed, jolly young chaps whom even the horror of this tragedy, perpetrated as it were under their very nose, cannot make serious for more than a passing moment.”

“It wouldn’t seem so.”

“Yet they swear up and down that nobody crossed the room towards Miss Challoner.”

“So they tell me.”

“She fell just a few feet from the desk where she had been writing. No word, no cry, just a collapse and sudden fall. In olden days they would have said, struck by a bolt from heaven. But it was a bolt which drew blood; not much blood, I hear, but sufficient to end life almost instantly. She never looked up or spoke again. What do you make of it, Gryce?”

“It’s a tough one, and I’m not ready to venture an opinion yet. I should like to see the desk you speak of, and the spot where she fell.”

A young fellow who had been hovering in the background at once stepped forward. He was the plain-faced detective who had spoken to George.

“Will you take my arm, sir?”

Mr. Gryce’s whole face brightened. This Sweetwater, as they called him, was, I have since understood, one of his proteges and more or less of a favourite.

“Have you had a chance at this thing?” he asked. “Been over the ground — studied the affair carefully?”

“Yes, sir; they were good enough to allow it.”

“Very well, then, you’re in a position to pioneer me. You’ve seen it all and won’t be in a hurry.”

“No; I’m at the end of my rope. I haven’t an idea, sir.”

“Well, well, that’s honest at all events.” Then, as he slowly rose with the other’s careful assistance, “There’s no crime without its clew. The thing is to recognise that clew when seen. But I’m in no position, to make promises. Old days don’t return for the asking.”

Nevertheless, he looked ten years younger than when he came in, or so thought those who knew him.

The mezzanine was guarded from all visitors save such as had official sanction. Consequently, the two remained quite uninterrupted while they moved about the place in quiet consultation. Others had preceded them; had examined the plain little desk and found nothing; had paced off the distances; had looked with longing and inquiring eyes at the elevator cage and the open archway leading to the little staircase and the musicians’ gallery. But this was nothing to the old detective. The locale was what he wanted, and he got it. Whether he got anything else it would be impossible to say from his manner as he finally sank into a chair by one of the openings, and looked down on the lobby below. It was full of people coming and going on all sorts of business, and presently he drew back, and, leaning on Sweetwater’s arm, asked him a few questions.

“Who were the first to rush in here after the Parrishes gave the alarm?”

“One or two of the musicians from the end of the hall. They had just finished their programme and were preparing to leave the gallery. Naturally they reached her first.”

“Good! their names?”

“Mark Sowerby and Claus Hennerberg. Honest Germans — men who have played here for years.”

“And who followed them? Who came next on the scene?

“Some people from the lobby. They heard the disturbance and rushed up pell-mell. But not one of these touched her. Later her father came.”

“Who did touch her? Anybody, before the father came in?”

“Yes; Miss Clarke, the middle-aged lady with the Parrishes. She had run towards Miss Challoner as soon as she heard her fall, and was sitting there with the dead girl’s head in her lap when the musicians showed themselves.”

“I suppose she has been carefully questioned?”

“Very, I should say.”

“And she speaks of no weapon?”

“No. Neither she nor any one else at that moment suspected murder or even a violent death. All thought it a natural one — sudden, but the result of some secret disease.”

“Father and all?”

“Yes.”

“But the blood? Surely there must have been some show of blood?”

“They say not. No one noticed any. Not till the doctor came — her doctor who was happily in his office in this very building. He saw the drops, and uttered the first suggestion of murder.”

“How long after was this? Is there any one who has ventured to make an estimate of the number of minutes which elapsed from the time she fell, to the moment when the doctor first raised the cry of murder?”

“Yes. Mr. Slater, the assistant manager, who was in the lobby at the time, says that ten minutes at least must have elapsed.”

“Ten minutes and no blood! The weapon must still have been there. Some weapon with a short and inconspicuous handle. I think they said there were flowers over and around the place where it struck?”

“Yes, great big scarlet ones. Nobody noticed — nobody looked. A panic like that seems to paralyse people.”

“Ten minutes! I must see every one who approached her during those ten minutes. Every one, Sweetwater, and I must myself talk with Miss Clarke.”

“You will like her. You will believe every word she says.”

“No doubt. All the more reason why I must see her. Sweetwater, someone drew that weapon out. Effects still have their causes, notwithstanding the new cult. The question is who? We must leave no stone unturned to find that out.”

“The stones have all been turned over once.”

“By you?

“Not altogether by me.”

“Then they will bear being turned over again. I want to be witness of the operation.”

“Where will you see Miss Clarke?

“Wherever she pleases — only I can’t walk far.”

“I think I know the place. You shall have the use of this elevator. It has not been running since last night or it would be full of curious people all the time, hustling to get a glimpse of this place. But they’ll put a man on for you.”

“Very good; manage it as you will. I’ll wait here till you’re ready. Explain yourself to the lady. Tell her I’m an old and rheumatic invalid who has been used to asking his own questions. I’ll not trouble her much. But there is one point she must make clear to me.”

Sweetwater did not presume to ask what point, but he hoped to be fully enlightened when the time came.

And he was. Mr. Gryce had undertaken to educate him for this work, and never missed the opportunity of giving him a lesson. The three met in a private sitting-room on an upper floor, the detectives entering first and the lady coming in soon after. As her quiet figure appeared in the doorway, Sweetwater stole a glance at Mr. Gryce. He was not looking her way, of course; he never looked directly at anybody; but he formed his impressions for all that, and Sweetwater was anxious to make sure of these impressions. There was no doubting them in this instance. Miss Clarke was not a woman to rouse an unfavourable opinion in any man’s mind. Of slight, almost frail build, she had that peculiar animation which goes with a speaking eye and a widely sympathetic nature. Without any substantial claims to beauty, her expression was so womanly and so sweet that she was invariably called lovely.

Mr. Gryce was engaged at the moment in shifting his cane from the right hand to the left, but his manner was never more encouraging or his smile more benevolent.

“Pardon me,” he apologised, with one of his old-fashioned bows, “I’m sorry to trouble you after all the distress you must have been under this morning. But there is something I wish especially to ask you in regard to the dreadful occurrence in which you played so kind a part. You were the first to reach the prostrate woman, I believe.”

“Yes. The boys jumped up and ran towards her, but they were frightened by her looks and left it for me to put my hands under her and try to lift her up.”

“Did you manage it?”

“I succeeded in getting her head into my lap, nothing more.”

“And sat so?”

“For some little time. That is, it seemed long, though I believe it was not more than a minute before two men came running from the musicians’ gallery. One thinks so fast at such a time — and feels so much.”

“You knew she was dead, then?”

“I felt her to be so.”

“How felt?”

“I was sure — I never questioned it.”

“You have seen women in a faint?”

“Yes, many times.”

“What made the difference? Why should you believe Miss Challoner dead simply because she lay still and apparently lifeless?

“I cannot tell you. Possibly, death tells its own story. I only know how I felt.”

“Perhaps there was another reason? Perhaps, that, consciously or unconsciously, you laid your palm upon her heart?”

Miss Clarke started, and her sweet face showed a moment’s perplexity.

“Did I?” she queried, musingly. Then with a sudden access of feeling, “I may have done so, indeed, I believe I did. My arms were around her; it would not have been an unnatural action.”

“No; a very natural one, I should say. Cannot you tell me positively whether you did this or not?”

“Yes, I did. I had forgotten it, but I remember now.” And the glance she cast him while not meeting his eye showed that she understood the importance of the admission. “I know,” she said, “what you are going to ask me now. Did I feel anything there but the flowers and the tulle? No, Mr. Gryce, I did not. There was no poniard in the wound.”

Mr. Gryce felt around, found a chair and sank into it.

“You are a truthful woman,” said he. “And,” he added more slowly, “composed enough in character I should judge not to have made any mistake on this very vital point.”

“I think so, Mr. Gryce. I was in a state of excitement, of course; but the woman was a stranger to me, and my feelings were not unduly agitated.”

“Sweetwater, we can let my suggestion go in regard to those ten minutes I spoke of. The time is narrowed down to one, and in that one, Miss Clarke was the only person to touch her.”

“The only one,” echoed the lady, catching perhaps the slight rising sound of query in his voice.

“I will trouble you no further.” So said the old detective, thoughtfully. “Sweetwater, help me out of this.” His eye was dull and his manner betrayed exhaustion. But vigour returned to him before he had well reached the door, and he showed some of his old spirit as he thanked Miss Clarke and turned to take the elevator.

“But one possibility remains,” he confided to Sweetwater, as they stood waiting at the elevator door. “Miss Challoner died from a stab. The next minute she was in this lady’s arms. No weapon protruded from the wound, nor was any found on or near her in the mezzanine. What follows? She struck the blow herself, and the strength of purpose which led her to do this, gave her the additional force to pull the weapon out and fling it from her. It did not fall upon the floor around her; therefore, it flew through one of those openings into the lobby, and there it either will be, or has been found.”

It was this statement, otherwise worded, which gave me my triumph over George.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37