Hand and Ring, by Anna Katharine Green

14. A Last Attempt.

When Fortune means to men most good,

She looks upon them with a threatening eye.

King John.

THE sleep of Horace Byrd that night was any thing but refreshing. In the first place, he was troubled about this fellow Brown, whose last impertinence showed he was a man to be watched, and, if possible, understood. Secondly, he was haunted by a vision of the unhappy youth he had just left; seeing, again and again, both in his dreams and in the rush of heated fancies which followed his awaking, that picture of utter despair which the opening of his neighbor’s door had revealed. He could not think of that poor mortal as sleeping. Whether it was the result of his own sympathetic admiration for Miss Dare, or of some subtle clairvoyance bestowed upon him by the darkness and stillness of the hour, he felt assured that the quiet watch he had interrupted by his careless importunity, had been again established, and that if he could tear down the partition separating their two rooms, he should see that bowed form and buried face crouched despairingly above the disfigured picture. The depths of human misery and the maddening passions that underlie all crime had been revealed to him for the first time, perhaps, in all their terrible suggestiveness, and he asked himself over and over as he tossed on his uneasy pillow, if he possessed the needful determination to carry on the scheme he had undertaken, in face of the unreasoning sympathies which the fathomless misery of this young man had aroused. Under the softening influences of the night, he answered, No; but when the sunlight came and the full flush of life with its restless duties and common necessities awoke within him, he decided, Yes.

Mr. Mansell was not at the breakfast-table when Mr. Byrd came down. His duties at the mill were peremptory, and he had already taken his coffee and gone. But Mr. Brown was there, and at sight of him Mr. Byrd’s caution took alarm, and he bestowed upon this intrusive busybody a close and searching scrutiny. It, however, elicited nothing in the way of his own enlightenment beyond the fact that this fellow, total stranger though he seemed, was for some inexplicable reason an enemy to himself or his plans.

Not that Mr. Brown manifested this by any offensive token of dislike or even of mistrust. On the contrary, he was excessively polite, and let slip no opportunity of dragging Mr. Byrd into the conversation. Yet, for all that, a secret influence was already at work against the detective, and he could not attribute it to any other source than the jealous efforts of this man. Miss Hart was actually curt to him, and in the attitude of the various persons about the board he detected a certain reserve which had been entirely absent from their manner the evening before.

But while placing, as he thought, due weight upon this fellow’s animosity, he had no idea to what it would lead, till he went up-stairs. Mrs. Hart, who had hitherto treated him with the utmost cordiality, now called him into the parlor, and told him frankly that she would be obliged to him if he would let her have his room. To be sure, she qualified the seeming harshness of her request by an intimation that a permanent occupant had applied for it, and offered to pay his board at the hotel till he could find a room to suit him in another house; but the fact remained that she was really in a flutter to rid herself of him, and no subterfuge could hide it, and Mr. Byrd, to whose plans the full confidence of those around him was essential, found himself obliged to acquiesce in her desires, and announce at once his willingness to depart.

Instantly she was all smiles, and overwhelmed him with overtures of assistance; but he courteously declined her help, and, flying from her apologies with what speed he could, went immediately to his room. Here he sat down to deliberate.

The facts he had gleaned, despite the interference of his unknown enemy, were three:

First, that Craik Mansell had found excuses for not attending the inquest, or even the funeral, of his murdered aunt.

Secondly, that he had a strong passion for invention, and had even now the model of a machine on hand.

And third, that he was not at home, wherever else he may have been, on the morning of the murder in Sibley.

“A poor and meagre collection of insignificant facts,” thought Mr. Byrd. “Too poor and meagre to avail much in stemming the tide threatening to overwhelm Gouverneur Hildreth.”

But what opportunity remained for making them weightier? He was turned from the house that held the few persons from whom he could hope to glean more complete and satisfactory information, and he did not know where else to seek it unless he went to the mill. And this was an alternative from which he shrank, as it would, in the first place, necessitate a revelation of his real character; and, secondly, make known the fact that Mr. Mansell was under the surveillance of the police, if not in the actual attitude of a suspected man.

A quick and hearty, “Shure, you are very good, sir!” uttered in the hall without roused him from his meditations and turned his thoughts in a new direction. What if he could learn something from the servants? He had not thought of them. This girl, now, whose work constantly carried her into the various rooms on this floor, would, of course, know whether Mr. Mansell had been away on the day of the murder, even if she could not tell the precise time of his return. At all events, it was worth while to test her with a question or two before he left, even if he had to resort to the means of spurring her memory with money. His failure in other directions did not necessitate a failure here.

He accordingly called her in, and showing her a bright silver dollar, asked her if she thought it good enough pay for a short answer to a simple question.

To his great surprise she blushed and drew back, shaking her head and muttering that her mistress didn’t like to have the girls talk to the young men about the house, and finally going off with a determined toss of her frowsy head, that struck Mr. Byrd aghast, and made him believe more than ever that his evil star hung in the ascendant, and that the sooner he quit the house the better.

In ten minutes he was in the street.

But one thing now remained for him to do. He must make the acquaintance of one of the mill-owners, or possibly of an overseer or accountant, and from him learn where Mr. Mansell had been at the time of his aunt’s murder. To this duty he devoted the day; but here also he was met by unexpected difficulties. Though he took pains to disguise himself before proceeding to the mill, all the endeavors which he made to obtain an interview there with any responsible person were utterly fruitless. Whether his ill-luck at the house had followed him to this place he could not tell, but, for some reason or other, there was not one of the gentlemen for whom he inquired but had some excuse for not seeing him; and, worn out at last with repeated disappointments, if not oppressed by the doubtful looks he received from the various subordinates who carried his messages, he left the building, and proceeded to make use of the only means now left him of compassing his end.

This was to visit Mr. Goodman, the one member of the firm who was not at his post that day, and see if from him he could gather the single fact he was in search of.

“Perhaps the atmosphere of distrust with which I am surrounded in this quarter has not reached this gentleman’s house,” thought he. And having learned from the directory where that house was, he proceeded immediately to it.

His reception was by no means cordial. Mr. Goodman had been ill the night before, and was in no mood to see strangers.

“Mansell?” he coolly repeated, in acknowledgment of the other’s inquiry as to whether he had a person of that name in his employ. “Yes, our book-keeper’s name is Mansell. May I ask”— and here Mr. Byrd felt himself subjected to a thorough, if not severe, scrutiny —“why you come to me with inquiries concerning him?”

“Because,” the determined detective responded, adopting at once the bold course, “you can put me in possession of a fact which it eminently befits the cause of justice to know. I am an emissary, sir, from the District Attorney at Sibley, and the point I want settled is, where Mr. Mansell was on the morning of the twenty-sixth of September?”

This was business, and the look that involuntarily leaped into Mr. Goodman’s eye proved that he considered it so. He did not otherwise betray this feeling, however, but turned quite calmly toward a chair, into which he slowly settled himself before replying:

“And why do you not ask the gentleman himself where he was? He probably would be quite ready to tell you.”

The inflection he gave to these words warned Mr. Byrd to be careful. The truth was, Mr. Goodman was Mr. Mansell’s best friend, and as such had his own reasons for not being especially communicative in his regard, to this stranger. The detective vaguely felt this, and immediately changed his manner.

“I have no doubt of that, sir,” he ingenuously answered. “But Mr. Mansell has had so much to distress him lately, that I was desirous of saving him from the unpleasantness which such a question would necessarily cause. It is only a small matter, sir. A person — it is not essential to state whom — has presumed to raise the question among the authorities in Sibley as to whether Mr. Mansell, as heir of poor Mrs. Clemmens’ small property, might not have had some hand in her dreadful death. There was no proof to sustain the assumption, and Mr. Mansell was not even known to have been in the town on or after the day of her murder; but justice, having listened to the aspersion, felt bound to satisfy itself of its falsity; and I was sent here to learn where Mr. Mansell was upon that fatal day. I find he was not in Buffalo. But this does not mean he was in Sibley, and I am sure that, if you will, you can supply me with facts that will lead to a complete and satisfactory alibi for him.”

But the hard caution of the other was not to be moved.

“I am sorry,” said he, “but I can give you no information in regard to Mr. Mansell’s travels. You will have to ask the gentleman himself.”

“You did not send him out on business of your own, then?”

“No.”

“But you knew he was going?”

“Yes.”

“And can tell when he came back?”

“He was in his place on Wednesday.”

The cold, dry nature of these replies convinced Mr. Byrd that something more than the sullen obstinacy of an uncommunicative man lay behind this determined reticence. Looking at Mr. Goodman inquiringly, he calmly remarked:

“You are a friend of Mr. Mansell?”

The answer came quick and coldly:

“He is a constant visitor at my house.”

Mr. Byrd made a respectful bow.

“You can, then, have no doubts of his ability to prove an alibi?”

“I have no doubts concerning Mr. Mansell,” was the stern and uncompromising reply.

Mr. Byrd at once felt he had received his dismissal. But before making up his mind to go, he resolved upon one further effort. Calling to his aid his full power of acting, he slowly shook his head with a thoughtful air, and presently murmured half aloud and half, as it were, to himself:

“I thought, possibly, he might have gone to Washington.” Then, with a casual glance at Mr. Goodman, added: “He is an inventor, I believe?”

“Yes,” was again the laconic response.

“Has he not a machine at present which he desires to bring to the notice of some capitalist?”

“I believe he has,” was the forced and none too amiable answer.

Mr. Byrd at once leaned confidingly forward.

“Don’t you think,” he asked, “that he may have gone to New York to consult with some one about this pet hobby of his? It would certainly be a natural thing for him to do, and if I only knew it was so, I could go back to Sibley with an easy conscience.”

His disinterested air, and the tone of kindly concern which he had adopted, seemed at last to produce its effect on his companion. Relaxing a trifle of his austerity, Mr. Goodman went so far as to admit that Mr. Mansell had told him that business connected with his patent had called him out of town; but beyond this he would allow nothing; and Mr. Byrd, baffled in his attempts to elicit from this man any distinct acknowledgment of Mr. Mansell’s whereabouts at the critical time of Mrs. Clemmens’ death, made a final bow and turned toward the door.

It was only at this moment he discovered that Mr. Goodman and himself had not been alone in the room; that curled up in one of the window-seats was a little girl of some ten or twelve years of age, who at the first tokens of his taking his departure slipped shyly down to the floor and ran before him out into the hall. He found her by the front door when he arrived there. She was standing with her hand on the knob, and presented such a picture of childish eagerness, tempered by childish timidity, that he involuntarily paused before her with a smile. She needed no further encouragement.

“Oh, sir, I know about Mr. Mansell!” she cried. “He wasn’t in that place you talk about, for he wrote a letter to papa just the day before he came back, and the postmark on the envelope was Monteith. I remember, because it was the name of the man who made our big map.” And, looking up with that eager zeal which marks the liking of very little folks for some one favorite person among their grown acquaintances, she added, earnestly: “I do hope you won’t let them say any thing bad about Mr. Mansell, he is so good.”

And without waiting for a reply, she ran off, her curls dancing, her eyes sparkling, all her little innocent form alive with the joy of having done a kindness, as she thought, for her favorite, Mr. Mansell.

Mr. Byrd, on the contrary, felt a strange pang that the information he had sought for so long and vainly should come at last from the lips of an innocent child.

Monteith, as you remember, was the next station to Sibley.

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