Hand and Ring, by Anna Katharine Green

11. Decision.

Who dares

To say that he alone has found the truth.

Longfellow.

THE next morning Mr. Ferris was startled by the appearance in his office of Mr. Byrd, looking wretchedly anxious and ill.

“I have come,” said the detective, “to ask you what you think of Mr. Hildreth’s prospects. Have you made up your mind to have him arrested for this crime?”

“Yes,” was the reply. “The evidence against him is purely circumstantial, but it is very strong; and if no fresh developments occur, I think there can be no doubt about my duty. Each and every fact that comes to light only strengthens the case against him. When he came to be examined last night, a ring was found on his person, which he acknowledged to having worn on the day of the murder.”

“He took it off during the inquest,” murmured Mr. Byrd; “I saw him.”

“It is said by Hickory — the somewhat questionable cognomen of your fellow-detective from New York — that the young man manifested the most intense uneasiness during the whole inquiry. That in fact his attention was first drawn to him by the many tokens which he gave of suppressed agitation and alarm. Indeed, Mr. Hickory at one time thought he should be obliged to speak to this stranger in order to prevent a scene. Once Mr. Hildreth got up as if to go, and, indeed, if he had been less hemmed in by the crowd, there is every reason to believe he would have attempted an escape.”

“Is this Hickory a man of good judgment?” inquired Mr. Byrd, anxiously.

“Why, yes, I should say so. He seems to understand his business. The way he procured us the testimony of Mr. Hildreth was certainly satisfactory.”

“I wish that, without his knowing it, I could hear him give his opinion of this matter,” intimated the other.

“Well, you can,” rejoined Mr. Ferris, after a quick and comprehensive survey of Mr. Byrd’s countenance. “I am expecting him here any moment, and if you see fit to sit down behind that screen, you can, without the least difficulty to yourself or him, hear all he has to impart.”

“I will, then,” the detective declared, a gloomy frown suddenly corrugating his brow; and he stepped across to the screen which had been indicated to him, and quietly withdrew from view.

He had scarcely done this, when a short, quick step was heard at the door, and a wide-awake voice called out, cheerily:

“Are you alone, sir?”

“Ah!” ejaculated Mr. Ferris, “come in, come in. I have been awaiting you for some minutes,” he declared, ignoring the look which the man threw hastily around the room. “Any news this morning?”

“No,” returned the other, in a tone of complete self-satisfaction. “We’ve caged the bird and mustn’t expect much more in the way of news. I’m on my way to Albany now, to pick up such facts about him as may be lying around there loose, and shall be ready to start for Toledo any day next week that you may think proper.”

“You are, then, convinced that Mr. Hildreth is undeniably the guilty party in this case?” exclaimed the District Attorney, taking a whiff at his cigar.

“Convinced? That is a strong word, sir. A detective is never convinced,” protested the man. “He leaves that for the judge and jury. But if you ask me if there is any doubt about the direction in which all the circumstantial evidence in this case points, I must retort by asking you for a clue, or the tag-end of a clue, guiding me elsewhere. I know,” he went on, with the volubility of a man whose work is done, and who feels he has the right to a momentary indulgence in conversation, “that it is not an agreeable thing to subject a gentleman like Mr. Hildreth to the shame of a public arrest. But facts are not partial, sir; and the gentleman has no more rights in law than the coarsest fellow that we take up for butchering his mother. But you know all this without my telling you, and I only mention it to excuse any obstinacy I may have manifested on the subject. He is mightily cut up about it,” he again proceeded, as he found Mr. Ferris forebore to reply. “I am told he didn’t sleep a wink all night, but spent his time alternately in pacing the floor like a caged lion, and in a wild sort of stupor that had something of the hint of madness in it. ‘If my grandfather had only known!’ was the burden of his song; and when any one approached him he either told them to keep their eyes off him, or else buried his face in his hands with an entreaty for them not to disturb the last hours of a dying man. He evidently has no hope of escaping the indignity of arrest, and as soon as it was light enough for him to see, he asked for paper and pencil. They were brought him, and a man stood over him while he wrote. It proved to be a letter to his sisters enjoining them to believe in his innocence, and wound up with what was very much like an attempt at a will. Altogether, it looks as if he meditated suicide, and we have been careful to take from him every possible means for his effecting his release in this way, as well as set a strict though secret watch upon him.”

A slight noise took place behind the screen, which at any other time Mr. Hickory would have been the first to notice and inquire into. As it was, it had only the effect of unconsciously severing his train of thought and starting him alertly to his feet.

“Well,” said he, facing the District Attorney with cheerful vivacity, “any orders?”

“No,” responded Mr. Ferris. “A run down to Albany seems to be the best thing for you at present. On your return we will consult again.”

“Very well, sir. I shall not be absent more than two days, and, in the meantime, you will let me know if any thing important occurs?” And, handing over his new address, Hickory speedily took his leave.

“Well, Byrd, what do you think of him?”

For reply, Mr. Byrd stepped forth and took his stand before the District Attorney.

“Has Coroner Tredwell informed you,” said he, “that the superintendent has left it to my discretion to interfere in this matter if I thought that by so doing I could further the ends of justice?”

“Yes,” was the language of the quick, short nod he received.

“Very well,” continued the other, “you will pardon me, then, if I ask you to convey to Mr. Hildreth the following message: That if he is guiltless of this crime he need have no fear of the results of the arrest to which he may be subjected; that a man has interested himself in this matter who pledges his word not to rest till he has discovered the guilty party and freed the innocent from suspicion.”

“What!” cried Mr. Ferris, astonished at the severe but determined bearing of the young man who, up to this time, he had only seen under his lighter and more indifferent aspect. “You don’t agree with this fellow, then, in his conclusions regarding Mr. Hildreth?”

“No, sir. Hickory, as I judge, is an egotist. He discovered Mr. Hildreth and brought him to the notice of the jury, therefore Mr. Hildreth is guilty.”

“And you?”

“I am open to doubt about it. Not that I would acknowledge it to any one but you, sir.”

“Why?”

“Because if I work in this case at all, or make any efforts to follow up the clue which I believe myself to have received, it must be done secretly, and without raising the suspicion of any one in this town. I am not in a position, as you know, to work openly, even if it were advisable to do so, which it certainly is not. What I do must be accomplished under cover, and I ask you to help me in my self-imposed and by no means agreeable task, by trusting me to pursue my inquiries alone, until such time as I assure myself beyond a doubt that my own convictions are just, and that the man who murdered Mrs. Clemmens is some one entirely separated from Mr. Hildreth and any interests that he represents.”

“You are, then, going to take up this case?”

The answer given was short, but it meant the deliberate shivering of the fairest dream of love that had ever visited Mr. Byrd’s imagination.

“I am.”

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