Initials Only, by Anna Katharine Green

Chapter 9

The Incident of the Partly Lifted Shade

The fellow had a way with him, hard to resist. Cold as George was and exhausted by an excitement of a kind to which he was wholly unaccustomed, he found himself acceding to the detective’s request; and after a quick lunch and a huge cup of coffee in a restaurant which I wish I had time to describe, the two took a car which eventually brought them into one of the oldest quarters of the Borough of Brooklyn. The sleet which had stung their faces in the streets of New York had been left behind them somewhere on the bridge, but the chill was not gone from the air, and George felt greatly relieved when Sweetwater paused in the middle of a long block before a lofty tenement house of mean appearance, and signified that here they were to stop, and that from now on, mum was to be their watchword.

George was relieved I say, but he was also more astonished than ever. What kind of haunts were these for the cultured gentleman who spent his evenings at the Clermont? It was easy enough in these days of extravagant sympathies, to understand such a man addressing the uneasy spirits of lower New York — he had been called an enthusiast, and an enthusiast is very often a social agitator — but to trace him afterwards to a place like this was certainly a surprise. A tenement — such a tenement as this — meant home — home for himself or for those he counted his friends, and such a supposition seemed inconceivable to my poor husband, with the memory of the gorgeous parlour of the Clermont in his mind. Indeed, he hinted something of the kind to his affable but strangely reticent companion, but all the answer he got was a peculiar smile whose humorous twist he could barely discern in the semi-darkness of the open doorway into which they had just plunged.

“An adventure! certainly an adventure!” flashed through poor George’s mind, as he peered, in great curiosity down the long hall before him, into a dismal rear, opening into a still more dismal court. It was truly a novel experience for a business man whose philanthropy was carried on entirely by proxy — that is, by his wife. Should he be expected to penetrate into those dark, ill-smelling recesses, or would he be led up the long flights of naked stairs, so feebly illuminated that they gave the impression of extending indefinitely into dimmer and dimmer heights of decay and desolation?

Sweetwater seemed to decide for the rear, for leaving George, he stepped down the hall into the court beyond, where George could see him casting inquiring glances up at the walls above him. Another tenement, similar to the one whose rear end he was contemplating, towered behind but he paid no attention to that. He was satisfied with the look he had given and came quickly back, joining George at the foot of the staircase, up which he silently led the way.

It was a rude, none-too-well-cared-for building, but it seemed respectable enough and very quiet, considering the mass of people it accommodated. There were marks of poverty everywhere, but no squalor. One flight — two flights — three — and then George’s guide stopped, and, looking back at him, made a gesture. It appeared to be one of caution, but when the two came together at the top of the staircase, Sweetwater spoke quite naturally as he pointed out a door in their rear:

“That’s the room. We’ll keep a sharp watch and when any man, no matter what his dress or appearance comes up these stairs and turns that way, give him a sharp look. You understand?”

“Yes; but-”

“Oh, he hasn’t come in yet. I took pains to find that out. You saw me go into the court and look up. That was to see if his window was lighted. Well, it wasn’t.”

George felt non-plussed.

“But surely,” said he, “the gentleman named Brotherson doesn’t live here.”

“The inventor does.”

“Oh!”

“And — but I will explain later.”

The suppressed excitement contained in these words made George stare. Indeed, he had been wondering for some time at the manner of the detective which showed a curious mixture of several opposing emotions. Now, the fellow was actually in a tremble of hope or impatience; — and, not content with listening, he peered every few minutes down the well of the staircase, and when he was not doing that, tramped from end to end of the narrow passage-way separating the head of the stairs from the door he had pointed out, like one to whom minutes were hours. All this time he seemed to forget George who certainly had as much reason as himself for finding the time long. But when, after some half hour of this tedium and suspense, there rose from below the faint clatter of ascending footsteps, he remembered his meek companion and beckoning him to one side, began a studied conversation with him, showing him a note-book in which he had written such phrases as these:

Don’t look up till he is fairly in range with the light.

There’s nothing to fear; he doesn’t know either of us.

If it is a face you have seen before; — if it is the one we are expecting to see, pull your necktie straight. It’s a little on one side.

These rather startling injunctions were read by George, with no very perceptible diminution of the uneasiness which it was only natural for him to feel at the oddity of his position. But only the demand last made produced any impression on him. The man they were waiting for was no further up than the second floor, but instinctively George’s hand had flown to his necktie, and he was only stopped from its premature re-arrangement by a warning look from Sweetwater.

“Not unless you know him,” whispered the detective; and immediately launched out into an easy talk about some totally different business which George neither understood, nor was expected to, I dare say.

Suddenly the steps below paused, and George heard Sweetwater draw in his breath in irrepressible dismay. But they were immediately resumed, and presently the head and shoulders of a workingman of uncommon proportions appeared in sight on the stairway.

George cast him a keen look, and his hand rose doubtfully to his neck and then fell back again. The approaching man was tall, very well-proportioned and easy of carriage; but the face — such of it as could be seen between his cap and the high collar he had pulled up about his ears, conveyed no exact impression to George’s mind, and he did not dare to give the signal Sweetwater expected from him. Yet as the man went by with a dark and sidelong glance at them both, he felt his hand rise again, though he did not complete the action, much to his own disgust and to the evident disappointment of the watchful detective.

“You’re not sure?” he now heard, oddly interpolated in the stream of half-whispered talk with which the other endeavoured to carry off the situation.

George shook his head. He could not rid himself of the old impression he had formed of the man in the snow.

“Mr. Dunn, a word with you,” suddenly spoke up Sweetwater, to the man who had just passed them. “That’s your name, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that is my name,” was the quiet response, in a voice which was at once rich and resonant; a voice which George knew — the voice of the impassioned speaker he had heard resounding through the sleet as he cowered within hearing in the shed behind the Avenue A tenement. “Who are you who wish to speak to me at so late an hour?”

He was returning to them from the door he had unlocked and left slightly ajar.

“Well, we are — You know what,” smiled the ready detective, advancing half-way to greet him. “We’re not members of the Associated Brotherhood, but possibly have hopes of being so. At all events, we should like to talk the matter over, if, as you say, it’s not too late.”

“I have nothing to do with the club —”

“But you spoke before it.”

Yes.”

“Then you can give us some sort of an idea how we are to apply for membership.”

Mr. Dunn met the concentrated gaze of his two evidently unwelcome visitors with a frankness which dashed George’s confidence in himself, but made little visible impression upon his daring companion.

“I should rather see you at another time,” said he. “But —” his hesitation was inappreciable save to the nicest ear —“if you will allow me to be brief, I will tell you what I know — which is very little.”

Sweetwater was greatly taken aback. All he had looked for, as he was careful to tell my husband later, was a sufficiently prolonged conversation to enable George to mark and study the workings of the face he was not yet sure of. Nor did the detective feel quite easy at the readiness of his reception; nor any too well pleased to accept the invitation which this man now gave them to enter his room.

But he suffered no betrayal of his misgivings to escape him, though he was careful to intimate to George, as they waited in the doorway for the other to light up, that he should not be displeased at his refusal to accompany him further in this adventure, and even advised him to remain in the hall till he received his summons to enter.

But George had not come as far as this to back out now, and as soon as he saw Sweetwater advance into the now well-lighted interior, he advanced too and began to look around him.

The room, like many others in these old-fashioned tenements, had a jog just where the door was, so that on entering they had to take several steps before they could get a full glimpse of its four walls. When they did, both showed surprise. Comfort, if not elegance, confronted them, which impression, however, was immediately lost in the evidences of work, manual, as well as intellectual, which were everywhere scattered about.

The man who lived here was not only a student, as was evinced by a long wall full of books, but he was an art-lover, a musician, an inventor and an athlete.

So much could be learned from the most cursory glance. A more careful one picked up other facts fully as startling and impressive. The books were choice; the invention to all appearance a practical one; the art of a high order and the music, such as was in view, of a character of which the nicest taste need not be ashamed. George began to feel quite conscious of the intrusion of which they had been guilty, and was amazed at the ease with which the detective carried himself in the presence of such manifestations of culture and good, hard work. He was trying to recall the exact appearance of the figure he had seen stooping in the snowy street two nights before, when he found himself staring at the occupant of the room, who had taken up his stand before them and was regarding them while they were regarding the room.

He had thrown aside his hat and rid himself of his overcoat, and the fearlessness of his aspect seemed to daunt the hitherto dauntless Sweetwater, who, for the first time in his life, perhaps, hunted in vain for words with which to start conversation.

Had he made an awful mistake? Was this Mr. Dunn what he seemed an unknown and careful genius, battling with great odds in his honest struggle to give the world something of value in return for what it had given him? The quick, almost deprecatory glance he darted at George betrayed his dismay; a dismay which George had begun to share, notwithstanding his growing belief that the man’s face was not wholly unknown to him even if he could not recognise it as the one he had seen outside the Clermont.

“You seem to have forgotten your errand,” came in quiet, if not good-natured, sarcasm from their patiently waiting host.

“It’s the room,” muttered Sweetwater, with an attempt at his old-time ease which was not as fully successful as usual. “What an all-fired genius you must be. I never saw the like. And in a tenement house too! You ought to be in one of those big new studio buildings in New York where artists be and everything you see is beautiful. You’d appreciate it, you would.”

The detective started, George started, at the gleam which answered him from a very uncommon eye. It was a temporary flash, however, and quickly veiled, and the tone in which this Dunn now spoke was anything but an encouraging one.

“I thought you were desirous of joining a socialistic fraternity,” said he; “a true aspirant for such honours don’t care for beautiful things unless all can have them. I prefer my tenement. How is it with you, friends?”

Sweetwater found some sort of a reply, though the thing which this man now did must have startled him, as it certainly did George. They were so grouped that a table quite full of anomalous objects stood at the back of their host, and consequently quite beyond their own reach. As Sweetwater began to speak, he whom he had addressed by the name of Dunn, drew a pistol from his breast pocket and laid it down barrel towards them on this table top. Then he looked up courteously enough, and listened till Sweetwater was done. A very handsome man, but one not to be trifled with in the slightest degree. Both recognised this fact, and George, for one, began to edge towards the door.

“Now I feel easier,” remarked the giant, swelling out his chest. He was unusually tall, as well as unusually muscular. “I never like to carry arms; but sometimes it is unavoidable. Damn it, what hands!” He was looking at his own, which certainly showed soil. “Will you pardon me?” he pleasantly apologised, stepping towards a washstand and plunging his hands into the basin. “I cannot think with dirt on me like that. Humph, hey! did you speak?”

He turned quickly on George who had certainly uttered an ejaculation, but receiving no reply, went on with his task, completing it with a care and a disregard of their presence which showed him up in still another light.

But even his hardihood showed shock, when, upon turning round with a brisk, “Now I’m ready to talk,” he encountered again the clear eye of Sweetwater. For, in the person of this none too welcome intruder, he saw a very different man from the one upon whom he had just turned his back with so little ceremony; and there appeared to be no good reason for the change. He had not noted in his preoccupation, how George, at sight of his stooping figure, had made a sudden significant movement, and if he had, the pulling of a necktie straight, would have meant nothing to him. But to Sweetwater it meant every thing, and it was in the tone of one fully at ease with himself that he now dryly remarked: “Mr. Brotherson, if you feel quite clean; and if you have sufficiently warmed yourself, I would suggest that we start out at once, unless you prefer to have me share this room with you till the morning.”

There was silence. Mr. Dunn thus addressed attempted no answer; not for a full minute. The two men were measuring each other — George felt that he did not count at all — and they were quite too much occupied with this task to heed the passage of time. To George, who knew little, if anything, of what this silent struggle meant to either, it seemed that the detective stood no show before this Samson of physical strength and intellectual power, backed by a pistol just within reach of his hand. But as George continued to look and saw the figure of the smaller man gradually dilate, while that of the larger, the more potent and the better guarded, gave unmistakable signs of secret wavering, he slowly changed his mind and, ranging himself with the detective, waited for the word or words which should explain this situation and render intelligible the triumph gradually becoming visible in the young detective’s eyes.

But he was not destined to have his curiosity satisfied so far. He might witness and hear, but it was long before he understood.

“Brotherson?” repeated their host, after the silence had lasted to the breaking-point. “Why do you call me that?”

“Because it is your name.”

“You called me Dunn a minute ago.”

“That is true.”

“Why Dunn if Brotherson is my name?”

“Because you spoke under the name of Dunn at the meeting to-night, and if I don’t mistake, that is the name by which you are known here.”

“And you? By what name are you known?”

“It is late to ask, isn’t it? But I’m willing to speak it now, and I might not have been so a little earlier in our conversation. I am Detective Sweetwater of the New York Department of Police, and my errand here is a very simple one. Some letters signed by you have been found among the papers of the lady whose mysterious death at the hotel Clermont is just now occupying the attention of the New York authorities. If you have any information to give which will in any way explain that death, your presence will be welcome at Coroner Heath’s office in New York. If you have not, your presence will still be welcome. At all events, I was told to bring you. You will be on hand to accompany me in the morning, I am quite sure, pardoning the unconventional means I have taken to make sure of my man?”

The humour with which this was said seemed to rob it of anything like attack, and Mr. Brotherson, as we shall hereafter call him, smiled with an odd acceptance of the same, as he responded:

“I will go before the police certainly. I haven’t much to tell, but what I have is at their service. It will not help you, but I have no secrets. What are you doing?”

He bounded towards Sweetwater, who had simply stepped to the window, lifted the shade and looked across at the opposing tenement.

“I wanted to see if it was still snowing,” explained the detective, with a smile, which seemed to strike the other like a blow. “If it was a liberty, please pardon it.”

Mr. Brotherson drew back. The cold air of self possession which he now assumed, presented such a contrast to the unwarranted heat of the moment before that George wondered greatly over it, and later, when he recapitulated to me the whole story of this night, it was this incident of the lifted shade, together with the emotion it had caused, which he acknowledged as being for him the most inexplicable event of the evening and the one he was most anxious to hear explained.

As this ends our connection with this affair, I will bid you my personal farewell. I have often wished that circumstances had made it possible for me to accompany you through the remaining intricacies of this remarkable case.

But you will not lack a suitable guide.

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