Hand and Ring, by Anna Katharine Green

10. The Final Test.

Men are born with two eyes, but with one tongue, in order that they should see twice as much as they say.

Colton.

THE fact was, he wanted to think. Detective though he was and accustomed to the bravado with which every sort of criminal will turn to meet their fate when fully driven to bay, there had been something in the final manner of this desperate but evidently cultured gentleman, which had impressed him against his own will, and made him question whether the suspected man was not rather the victim of a series of extraordinary circumstances, than the selfish and brutal criminal which the evidence given seemed to suggest.

Not that Mr. Byrd ever allowed his generous heart to blind him to the plain language of facts. His secret and not to be smothered doubts in another direction were proof enough of this; and had it not been for those very doubts, the probabilities are that he would have agreed with the cooler-headed portion of the crowd, which listened unmoved to that last indignant burst of desperate manhood.

But with those doubts still holding possession of his mind, he could not feel so sure of Mr. Hildreth’s guilt; and the struggle that was likely to ensue between his personal feelings on the one side and his sense of duty on the other did not promise to be so light as to make it possible for him to remain within eye and earshot of an unsympathetic crowd.

“If only the superintendent had not left it to my judgment to interfere,” thought he, pacing the streets with ever-increasing uneasiness, “the responsibility would have been shifted from my shoulders, and I would have left the young man to his fate in peace. But now I would be criminally at fault if I were to let him drift hopelessly to his doom, when by a lift of my finger I might possibly turn the attention of justice toward the real culprit.”

Yet the making up of his mind to interfere was a torture to Horace Byrd. If he was not conscious of any love for Imogene Dare, he was sufficiently under the dominion of her extraordinary fascinations to feel that any movement on his part toward the unravelling of the mystery that enveloped her, would be like subjecting his own self to the rack of public inquiry and suspicion.

Nor, though he walked the streets for hours, each moment growing more and more settled in his conviction of Mr. Hildreth’s innocence, could he bring himself to the point of embracing the duty presented to him, till he had subjected Miss Dare to a new test, and won for himself absolute certainty as to the fact of her possessing a clue to the crime, which had not been discovered in the coroner’s inquiry.

“The possibility of innocence on her part is even greater than on that of Mr. Hildreth,” he considered, “and nothing, not even the peril of those dearest to me, could justify me in shifting the weight of suspicion from a guiltless man to an equally guiltless woman.”

It was, therefore, for the purpose of solving this doubt, that he finally sought Mr. Ferris, and after learning that Mr. Hildreth was under surveillance, and would in all probability be subjected to arrest on the morrow, asked for some errand that would take him to Mr. Orcutt’s house.

“I have a great admiration for that gentleman and would like to make his acquaintance,” he remarked carelessly, hiding his true purpose under his usual nonchalant tones. “But I do not want to seem to be pushing myself forward; so if you could give me some papers to carry to him, or some message requiring an introduction to his presence, I should feel very much obliged.”

Mr. Ferris, who had no suspicions of his own to assist him in understanding the motives that led to this request, easily provided the detective with the errand he sought. Mr. Byrd at once started for the lawyer’s house.

It was fully two miles away, but once arrived there, he was thankful that the walk had been so long, as the fatigue, following upon the activity of the afternoon, had succeeded in quieting his pulses and calming down the fierce excitement which had held him under its control ever since he had taken the determination to satisfy his doubts by an interview with Miss Dare.

Ringing the bell of the rambling old mansion that spread out its wide extensions through the vines and bushes of an old-fashioned and most luxuriant garden, he waited the issue with beating heart. A respectable-looking negro servant came to the door.

“Is Mr. Orcutt in?” he asked; “or, if not, Miss Dare? I have a message from Mr. Ferris and would be glad to see one of them.”

This, in order to ascertain at a word if the lady was at home.

“Miss Dare is not in,” was the civil response, “and Mr. Orcutt is very busily engaged; but if you will step into the parlor I will tell him you are here.”

“No,” returned the disappointed detective, handing her the note he held in his hand. “If your master is busy I will not disturb him.” And, turning away, he went slowly down the steps.

“If I only knew where she was gone!” he muttered, bitterly.

But he did not consider himself in a position to ask.

Inwardly chafing over his ill-luck, Mr. Byrd proceeded with reluctant pace to regain the street, when, hearing the gate suddenly click, he looked up, and saw advancing toward him a young gentleman of a peculiarly spruce and elegant appearance.

“Ha! another visitor for Miss Dare,” was the detective’s natural inference. And with a sudden movement he withdrew from the path, and paused as if to light his cigar in the shadow of the thick bushes that grew against the house.

In an instant the young stranger was on the stoop. Another, and he had rung the bell, which was answered almost as soon as his hand dropped from the knob.

“Is Miss Dare in?” was the inquiry, uttered in loud and cheery tones.

“No, sir. She is spending a few days with Miss Tremaine,” was the clear and satisfactory reply. “Shall I tell her you have been here?”

“No. I will call myself at Miss Tremaine’s,” rejoined the gentleman. And, with a gay swing of his cane and a cheerful look overhead where the stars were already becoming visible, he sauntered easily off, followed by the envious thoughts of Mr. Byrd.

“Miss Tremaine,” repeated the latter, musingly. “Who knows Miss Tremaine?”

While he was asking himself this question, the voice of the young man rose melodiously in a scrap of old song, and instantly Mr. Byrd recognized in the seeming stranger the well-known tenor singer of the church he had himself attended the Sunday before — a gentleman, too, to whom he had been introduced by Mr. Ferris, and with whom he had exchanged something more than the passing civilities of the moment.

To increase his pace, overtake the young man, recall himself to his attention, and join him in his quick walk down the street, was the work of a moment. The natural sequence followed. Mr. Byrd made himself so agreeable that by the time they arrived at Miss Tremaine’s the other felt loath to part with him, and it resulted in his being urged to join this chance acquaintance in his call.

Nothing could have pleased Mr. Byrd better. So, waiving for once his instinctive objection to any sort of personal intrusion, he signified his acquiescence to the proposal, and at once accompanied his new friend into the house of the unknown Miss Tremaine. He found it lit up as for guests. All the rooms on the ground floor were open, and in one of them he could discern a dashing and coquettish young miss holding court over a cluster of eager swains.

“Ah, I forgot,” exclaimed Mr. Byrd’s companion, whose name, by-the-way, was Duryea. “It is Miss Tremaine’s reception night. She is the daughter of one of the professors of the High School,” he went on, whispering his somewhat late explanations into the ear of Mr. Byrd. “Every Thursday evening she throws her house open for callers, and the youth of the academy are only too eager to avail themselves of the opportunity of coming here. Well, it is all the better for us. Miss Dare despises boys, and in all likelihood we shall have her entirely to ourselves.”

A quick pang contracted the breast of Mr. Byrd. If this easy, almost rakish, fellow at his side but knew the hideous errand which brought him to this house, what a scene would have ensued!

But he had no time for reflection, or even for that irresistible shrinking from his own designs which he now began to experience. Before he realized that he was fully committed to this venture, he found himself in the parlor bowing before the naïve and laughing-eyed Miss Tremaine, who rose to receive him with all the airy graciousness of a finished coquette.

Miss Dare was not visible, and Mr. Byrd was just wondering if he would be called upon to enter into a sustained conversation with his pretty hostess, when a deep, rich voice was heard in the adjoining room, and, looking up, he saw the stately figure he so longed and yet dreaded to encounter, advancing toward them through the open door. She was very pale, and, to Mr. Byrd’s eyes, looked thoroughly worn out, if not ill. Yet, she bore herself with a steadiness that was evidently the result of her will; and manifested neither reluctance nor impatience when the eager Mr. Duryea pressed forward with his compliments, though from the fixedness of her gaze and the immobility of her lip, Mr. Byrd too truly discovered that her thoughts were far away from the scene of mirth and pleasure in which she found herself.

“You see I have presumed to follow you, Miss Dare,” was the greeting with which Mr. Duryea hailed her approach. And he immediately became so engrossed with his gallantries he forgot to introduce his companion.

Mr. Byrd was rather relieved at this. He was not yet ready to submit her to the test he considered necessary to a proper understanding of the situation; and he had not the heart to approach her with any mere civility on his tongue, while matters of such vital importance to her happiness, if not to her honor, trembled in the balance.

He preferred to talk to Miss Tremaine, and this he continued to do till the young fellows at his side, one by one, edged away, leaving no one in that portion of the room but himself and Miss Tremaine, Mr. Duryea and Miss Dare.

The latter two stood together some few feet behind him, and were discussing in a somewhat languid way, the merits of a musicale which they had lately attended. They were approaching, however, and he felt that if he did not speak at once he might not have another opportunity for doing so during the whole evening. Turning, therefore, to Miss Tremaine, with more seriousness than her gay and totally inconsequent conversation had hitherto allowed, he asked, in what he meant to be a simply colloquial and courteous manner, if she had heard the news.

“News,” she repeated, “no; is there any news?”

“Yes, I call it news. But, perhaps, you are not interested in the murder that has lately taken place in this town?”

“Oh, yes, I am,” she exclaimed, all eagerness at once, while he felt rather than perceived that the couple at his back stood suddenly still, as if his words had worked their spell over one heart there at least. “Papa knew Mrs. Clemmens very well,” the little lady proceeded with a bewitchingly earnest look. “Have they found the murderer, do you think? Any thing less than that would be no news to me.”

“There is every reason to suppose ——” he began, and stopped, something in the deadly silence behind him making it impossible for him to proceed. Happily he was not obliged to. An interruption occurred in the shape of a new-comer, and he was left with the fatal word on his lips to await the approach of that severely measured step behind him, which by this time he knew was bringing the inscrutable Miss Dare to his side.

“Miss Dare, allow me to present to you Mr. Byrd. Mr. Byrd, Miss Dare.”

The young detective bowed. With rigid attention to the forms of etiquette, he uttered the first few acknowledgments necessary to the occasion, and then glanced up.

She was looking him full in the face.

“We have met before,” he was about to observe, but not detecting the least sign of recognition in her gaze, restrained the words and hastily dropped his eyes.

“Mr. Duryea informs me you are a stranger in the town,” she remarked, moving slowly to one side in a way to rid herself of that gentleman’s too immediate presence. “Have you a liking for the place, or do you meditate any lengthy stay?”

“No. That is,” he rejoined, somewhat shaken in his theories by the self-possession of her tone and the ease and quietness with which she evidently prepared to enter into a sustained conversation, “I may go away to-morrow, and I may linger on for an indefinite length of time. It all depends upon certain matters that will be determined for me to-night. Sibley is a very pretty place,” he observed, startled at his own temerity in venturing the last remark.

“Yes.”

The word came as if forced, and she looked at Mr. Duryea.

“Do you wish any thing, Miss Dare?” that gentleman suddenly asked. “You do not look well.”

“I am not well,” she acknowledged. “No, thank you,” she cried, as he pushed a chair toward her. “It is too warm here. If you do not object, we will go into the other room.” And with a courteous glance that included both gentlemen in its invitation, she led the way into the adjoining apartment. Could it have been with the purpose of ridding herself of the assiduities of Mr. Duryea? The room contained half a dozen or more musical people, and no sooner did they perceive their favorite tenor approach than they seized upon him and, without listening to his excuses, carried him off to the piano, leaving Miss Dare alone with Mr. Byrd.

She seemed instantly to forget her indisposition. Drawing herself up till every queenly attribute she possessed flashed brilliantly before his eyes, she asked, with sudden determination, if she had been right in understanding him to say that there was news in regard to the murder of Mrs. Clemmens?

Subduing, by a strong inward effort, every token of the emotion which her own introduction of this topic naturally evoked, he replied in his easiest tones:

“Yes; there was an inquest held to-day, and the authorities evidently think they have discovered the person who killed her.” And obliging himself to meet half-way the fate that awaited him, he bestowed upon the lady before him a casual glance that hid beneath its easy politeness the greatest anxiety of his life.

The test worked well. From the pallor of sickness, grief, or apprehension, her complexion whitened to the deadlier hue of mortal terror.

“Impossible!” her lips seemed to breathe; and Mr. Byrd could almost fancy he saw the hair rise on her forehead.

Cursing in his heart the bitter necessity that had forced him into this duty, he was about to address her in a way calculated to break the spell occasioned by his last words, when the rich and tuneful voice of the melodious singer rose suddenly on the air, and they heard the words:

“Come rest in this bosom, my own stricken deer,

Though the herd have fled from thee, thy home is still here;

Here still is the smile that no cloud can o’ercast,

And a heart and a hand all thy own to the last.”

Instantly Mr. Byrd perceived that he should not be obliged to speak. Though the music, or possibly the words, struck her like a blow, it likewise served to recall her to herself. Dropping her gaze, which had remained fixed upon his own, she turned her face aside, saying with forced composure:

“This near contact with crime is dreadful.” Then slowly, and with a quietness that showed how great was her power of self-control when she was not under the influence of surprise, she inquired: “And who do they think this person is? What name do they presume to associate with the murderer of this woman?”

With something of the feeling of a surgeon who nerves himself to bury the steel in his patient’s quivering flesh, he gave his response unhesitatingly.

“A gentleman’s, I believe. A young man connected with her, in some strange way, by financial interests. A Mr. Hildreth, of Toledo — Gouverneur Hildreth, I think they call him.”

It was not the name she expected. He saw this by the relaxation that took place in all her features, by the look of almost painful relief that flashed for a moment into the eyes she turned like lightning upon him.

“Gouverneur Hildreth!” she repeated. And he knew from the tone that it was not only a different name from what she anticipated, but that it was also a strange one to her. “I never heard of such a person,” she went on after a minute, during which the relentless mellow voice of the unconscious singer filled the room with the passionate appeal:

“Oh, what was love made for, if ‘t is not the same,

Through joy and through sorrow, through glory and shame!”

“That is not strange,” explained Mr. Byrd, drawing nearer, as if to escape that pursuing sweetness of incongruous song. “He is not known in this town. He only came here the morning the unfortunate woman was murdered. Whether he really killed her or not,” he proceeded, with forced quietness, “no one can tell, of course. But the facts are very much against him, and the poor fellow is under arrest.”

“What?”

The word was involuntary. So was the tone of horrified surprise in which it was uttered. But the music, now swelling to a crescendo, drowned both word and tone, or so she seemed to fondly imagine; for, making another effort at self-control, she confined herself to a quiet repetition of his words, “‘Under arrest’?” and then waited with only a suitable display of emotion for whatever further enlightenment he chose to give her.

He mercifully spoke to the point.

“Yes, under arrest. You see he was in the house at or near the time the deadly blow was struck. He was in the front hall, he says, and nowhere near the woman or her unknown assailant, but there is no evidence against any one else, and the facts so far proved, show he had an interest in her death, and so he has to pay the penalty of circumstances. And he may be guilty, who knows,” the young detective pursued, seeing she was struck with horror and dismay, “dreadful as it is to imagine that a gentleman of culture and breeding could be brought to commit such a deed.”

But she seemed to have ears for but one phrase of all this.

“He was in the front hall,” she repeated. “How did he get there? What called him there?”

“He had been visiting the widow, and was on his way out. He paused to collect his thoughts, he said. It seems unaccountable, Miss Dare; but the whole thing is strange and very mysterious.”

She was deaf to his explanations.

“Do you suppose he heard the widow scream?” she asked, tremblingly, “or ——”

A sinking of the ringing tones whose powerful vibration had made this conversation possible, caused her to pause. When the notes grew loud enough again for her to proceed, she seemed to have forgotten the question she was about to propound, and simply inquired:

“Had he any thing to say about what he overheard — or saw?”

“No. If he spoke the truth and stood in the hall as he said, the sounds, if sounds there were, stopped short of the sitting-room door, for he has nothing to say about them.”

A change passed over Miss Dare. She dropped her eyes, and an instant’s pause followed this last acknowledgment.

“Will you tell me,” she inquired, at last, speaking very slowly, in an attempt to infuse into her voice no more than a natural tone of interest, “how it was he came to say he stood in that place during the assault?”

“He did not say he stood in that place during the assault,” was again the forced rejoinder of Mr. Byrd. “It was by means of a nice calculation of time and events, that it was found he must have been in the house at or near the fatal moment.”

Another pause; another bar of that lovely music.

“And he is a gentleman, you say?” was her hurried remark at last.

“Yes, and a very handsome one.”

“And they have put him in prison?”

“Yes, or will on the morrow.”

She turned and leaned against a window-frame near by, looking with eyes that saw nothing into the still vast night.

“I suppose he has friends,” she faintly suggested.

“Two sisters, if no one nearer and dearer.”

“Thou hast called me thy angel in moments of bliss,

And thy angel I ‘ll be, ‘mid the horrors of this —

Through the furnace, unshrinking, thy steps to pursue,

And shield thee, and save thee — or perish there too,”

rang the mellow song.

“I am not well,” she suddenly cried, leaving the window and turning quickly toward Mr. Byrd. “I am much obliged to you,” said she, lowering her voice to a whisper, for the last note of the song was dying away in a quivering pianissimo. “I have been deeply interested in this tragedy, and am thankful for any information in regard to it. I must now bid you good-evening.”

And with a stately bow into which she infused the mingled courtesy and haughtiness of her nature, she walked steadily away through the crowd that vainly sought to stay her, and disappeared, almost without a pause, behind the door that opened into the hall.

Mr. Byrd remained for a full half-hour after that, but he never could tell what he did, or with whom he conversed, or how or when he issued from the house and made his way back to his room in the hotel. He only knew that at midnight he was still walking the floor, and had not yet made up his mind to take the step which his own sense of duty now inexorably demanded.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17