Hand and Ring, by Anna Katharine Green

3. The Unfinished Letter.

Faith, thou hast some crotchets in thy head now.

Merry Wives of Windsor.

“WOULD there be any indiscretion in my asking who that young lady is?” inquired Mr. Byrd of Mr. Ferris, as, after ascertaining that the stricken sufferer still breathed, they stood together in a distant corner of the dining-room.

“No,” returned the other, in a low tone, with a glance in the direction of the lawyer, who was just re-entering the house, after an unsuccessful effort to rejoin the person of whom they were speaking. “She is a Miss Dare, a young lady much admired in this town, and believed by many to be on the verge of matrimony with ——” He nodded toward Mr. Orcutt, and discreetly forbore to finish the sentence.

“Ah!” exclaimed the youthful detective, “I understand.” And he cast a look of suddenly awakened interest at the man who, up to this time, he had merely regarded as a more than usually acute criminal lawyer.

He saw a small, fair, alert man, of some forty years of age, of a good carriage, easy manner, and refined cast of countenance, overshadowed now by a secret anxiety he vainly tried to conceal. He was not as handsome as Coroner Tredwell, nor as well built as Mr. Ferris, yet he was, without doubt, the most striking-looking man in the room, and, to the masculine eyes of the detective, seemed at first glance to be a person to win the admiration, if not the affection, of women.

“She appears to take a great interest in this affair,” he ventured again, looking back at Mr. Ferris.

“Yes, that is woman’s way,” replied the other, lightly, without any hint of secret feeling or curiosity. “Besides, she is an inscrutable girl, always surprising you by her emotions — or by her lack of them,” he added, dismissing the topic with a wave of his hand.

“Which is also woman’s way,” remarked Mr. Byrd, retiring into his shell, from which he had momentarily thrust his head.

“Does it not strike you that there are rather more persons present than are necessary for the purposes of justice?” asked the lawyer, now coming forward with a look of rather pointed significance at the youthful stranger.

Mr. Ferris at once spoke up. “Mr. Orcutt,” said he, “let me introduce to you Mr. Byrd, of New York. He is a member of the police force, and has been rendering me assistance in the case just adjourned.”

“A detective!” repeated the other, eying the young man with a critical eye. “It is a pity, sir,” he finally observed, “that your present duties will not allow you to render service to justice in this case of mysterious assault.” And with a bow of more kindness than Mr. Byrd had reason to look for, he went slowly back to his former place near the door that hid the suffering woman from sight.

However kindly expressed, Mr. Byrd felt that he had received his dismissal, and was about to withdraw, when the coroner, who had been absent from their midst for the last few minutes, approached them from the foot of the stairs, and tapped the detective on the arm.

“I want you,” said he.

Mr. Byrd bowed, and with a glance toward the District Attorney, who returned him a nod of approval, went quickly out with the coroner.

“I hear you are a detective,” observed the latter, taking him up stairs into a room which he carefully locked behind them. “A detective on the spot in a case like this is valuable; are you willing to assume the duties of your profession and act for justice in this matter?”

“Dr. Tredwell,” returned the young man, instantly conscious of a vague, inward shrinking from meddling further in the affair, “I am not at present master of my proceedings. To say nothing of the obedience I owe my superiors at home, I am just now engaged in assisting Mr. Ferris in the somewhat pressing matter now before the court, and do not know whether it would meet with his approval to have me mix up matters in this way.”

“Mr. Ferris is a reasonable man,” said the coroner. “If his consent is all that is necessary ——”

“But it is not, sir. I must have orders from New York.”

“Oh, as to that, I will telegraph at once.”

But still the young man hesitated, lounging in his easy way against the table by which he had taken his stand.

“Dr. Tredwell,” he suggested, “you must have men in this town amply able to manage such a matter as this. A woman struck in broad daylight and a man already taken up on suspicion! ’Tis simple, surely; intricate measures are not wanted here.”

“So you still think it is the tramp that struck her?” quoth the coroner, a trifle baffled by the other’s careless manner.

“I still think it was not the man who sat in court all the morning and held me fascinated by his eye.”

“Ah, he held you fascinated, did he?” repeated the other, a trifle suspiciously.

“Well, that is,” Mr. Byrd allowed, with the least perceptible loss of his easy bearing, “he made me look at him more than once. A wandering eye always attracts me, and his wandered constantly.”

“Humph! and you are sure he was in the court every minute of the morning?”

“There must be other witnesses who can testify to that,” answered the detective, with the perceptible irritation of one weary of a subject which he feels he has already amply discussed.

“Well,” declared the other, dropping his eyes from the young man’s countenance to a sheet of paper he was holding in his hand, “whatever rôle this humpback has played in the tragedy now occupying us, whether he be a wizard, a secret accomplice, a fool who cannot keep his own secret, or a traitor who cannot preserve that of his tools, this affair, as you call it, is not likely to prove the simple matter you seem to consider it. The victim, if not her townsfolk, knew she possessed an enemy, and this half-finished letter which I have found on her table, raises the question whether a common tramp, with no motive but that of theft or brutal revenge, was the one to meditate the fatal blow, even if he were the one to deal it.”

A perceptible light flickered into the eyes of Mr. Byrd, and he glanced with a new but unmistakable interest at the letter, though he failed to put out his hand for it, even though the coroner held it toward him.

“Thank you,” said he; “but if I do not take the case, it would be better for me not to meddle any further with it.”

“But you are going to take it,” insisted the other, with temper, his anxiety to secure this man’s services increasing with the opposition he so unaccountably received. “The officers at the detective bureau in New York are not going to send another man up here when there is already one on the spot. And a man from New York I am determined to have. A crime like this shall not go unpunished in this town, whatever it may do in a great city like yours. We don’t have so many murder cases that we need to stint ourselves in the luxury of professional assistance.”

“But,” protested the young man, still determined to hold back, whatever arguments might be employed or inducements offered him, “how do you know I am the man for your work? We have many sorts and kinds of detectives in our bureau. Some for one kind of business, some for another; the following up of a criminal is not mine.”

“What, then, is yours?” asked the coroner, not yielding a jot of his determination.

The detective was silent.

“Read the letter,” persisted Dr. Tredwell, shrewdly conscious that if once the young man’s professional instinct was aroused, all the puerile objections which influenced him would immediately vanish.

There was no resisting that air of command. Taking the letter in his hand, the young man read:

“DEAR EMILY:— I don’t know why I sit down to write to you to-day. I have plenty to do, and morning is no time for indulging in sentimentalities; but I feel strangely lonely and strangely anxious. Nothing goes just to my mind, and somehow the many causes for secret fear which I have always had, assume an undue prominence in my mind. It is always so when I am not quite well. In vain I reason with myself, saying that respectable people do not lightly enter into crime. But there are so many to whom my death would be more than welcome, that I constantly see myself in the act of being ——”

“Struck, shot, murdered,” suggested Dr. Tredwell, perceiving the young man’s eye lingering over the broken sentence.

“The words are not there,” remonstrated Mr. Byrd; but the tone of his voice showed that his professional complacency had been disturbed at last.

The other did not answer, but waited with the wisdom of the trapper who sees the quarry nosing round the toils.

“There is evidently some family mystery,” the young man continued, glancing again at the letter. “But,” he remarked, “Mr. Orcutt is a good friend of hers, and can probably tell us what it all means.”

“Very likely,” the other admitted, “if we choose to ask him.”

Quick as lightning the young man’s glance flashed to the coroner’s face.

“You would rather not put the question to him?” he inquired.

“No. As he is the lawyer who, in all probability, will be employed by the criminal in this case, I am sure he would rather not be mixed up in any preliminary investigation of the affair.”

The young man’s eye did not waver. He appeared to take a secret resolve.

“Has it not struck you,” he insinuated, “that Mr. Orcutt might have other reasons for not wishing to give any expression of opinion in regard to it?”

The surprise in the coroner’s eye was his best answer.

“No,” he rejoined.

Mr. Byrd at once resumed all his old nonchalance.

“The young lady who was here appeared to show such agitated interest in this horrible crime, I thought that, in kindness to her, he might wish to keep out of the affair as much as possible.”

“Miss Dare? Bless your heart, she would not restrict him in any way. Her interest in the matter is purely one of curiosity. It has been carried, perhaps, to a somewhat unusual length for a woman of her position and breeding. But that is all, I assure you. Miss Dare’s eccentricities are well known in this town.”

“Then the diamond ring was really hers?” Mr. Byrd was about to inquire, but stopped; something in his memory of this beautiful woman made it impossible for him to disturb the confidence of the coroner in her behalf, at least while his own doubts were so vague and shadowy.

The coroner, however, observed the young detective’s hesitation, and smiled.

“Are you thinking of Miss Dare as having any thing to do with this shocking affair?” he asked.

Mr. Byrd shook his head, but could not hide the flush that stole up over his forehead.

The coroner actually laughed, a low, soft, decorous laugh, but none the less one of decided amusement. “Your line is not in the direction of spotting criminals, I must allow,” said he. “Why, Miss Dare is not only as irreproachable a young lady as we have in this town, but she is a perfect stranger to this woman and all her concerns. I doubt if she even knew her name till to-day.”

A laugh is often more potent than argument. The face of the detective lighted up, and he looked very manly and very handsome as he returned the letter to the coroner, saying, with a sweep of his hand as if he tossed an unworthy doubt away forever:

“Well, I do not wish to appear obstinate. If this woman dies, and the inquest fails to reveal who her assailant is, I will apply to New York for leave to work up the case; that is, if you continue to desire my assistance. Meanwhile ——”

“You will keep your eyes open,” intimated the coroner, taking back the letter and putting it carefully away in his breast-pocket. “And now, mum!”

Mr. Byrd bowed, and they went together down the stairs.

It was by this time made certain that the dying woman was destined to linger on for some hours. She was completely unconscious, and her breath barely lifted the clothes that lay over the slowly laboring breast; but such vitality as there was held its own with scarcely perceptible change, and the doctor thought it might be midnight before the solemn struggle would end. “In the meantime, expect nothing,” he exclaimed; “she has said her last word. What remains will be a mere sinking into the eternal sleep.”

This being so, Mr. Orcutt and Mr. Ferris decided to leave. Mr. Byrd saw them safely out, and proceeded to take one or two private observations of his own. They consisted mostly in noting the precise position of the various doors in reference to the hearth where the stick was picked up, and the clock where the victim was attacked. Or, so the coroner gathered from the direction which Mr. Byrd’s eye took in its travels over the scene of action, and the diagram which he hastily drew on the back of an envelope. The table was noticed, too, and an inventory of its articles taken, after which he opened the side-door and looked carefully out into the lane.

To observe him now with his quick eye flashing from spot to spot, his head lifted, and a visible air of determination infused through his whole bearing, you would scarcely recognize the easy, gracefully indolent youth who, but a little while before, lounged against the tables and chairs, and met the most penetrating eye with the sleepy gaze of a totally uninterested man. Dr. Tredwell, alert to the change, tapped the letter in his pocket complacently. “I have roused up a weasel,” he mentally decided, and congratulated himself accordingly.

It was two o’clock when Mr. Byrd went forth to join Mr. Ferris in the court-room. As he stepped from the door, he encountered, to all appearance, just the same crowd that had encumbered its entrance a half hour before. Even the old crone had not moved from her former position, and seeing him, fairly pounced upon him with question after question, all of which he parried with a nonchalant dexterity that drew shout after shout from those who stood by, and, finally, as he thought, won him the victory, for, with an angry shake of the head, she ceased her importunities, and presently let him pass. He hastened to improve the chance to gain for himself the refuge of the streets; and, having done this, stood for an instant parleying with a trembling young girl, whose real distress and anxiety seemed to merit some attention. Fatal delay. In that instant the old woman had got in front of him, and when he arrived at the head of the street he found her there.

“Now,” said she, with full-blown triumph in her venomous eyes, “perhaps you will tell me something! You think I am a mumbling old woman who don’t know what she is bothering herself about. But I tell you I’ve not kept my eyes and ears open for seventy-five years in this wicked world without knowing a bit of the devil’s own work when I see it.” Here her face grew quite hideous, and her eyes gleamed with an aspect of gloating over the evil she alluded to, that quite sickened the young man, accustomed though he was to the worst phases of moral depravity. Leaning forward, she peered inquiringly in his face. “What has she to do with it?” she suddenly asked, emphasizing the pronoun with an expressive leer.

“She?” he repeated, starting back.

“Yes, she; the pretty young lady, the pert and haughty Miss Dare, that had but to speak to make the whole crowd stand back. What had she to do with it, I say? Something, or she wouldn’t be here!”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” he replied, conscious of a strange and unaccountable dismay at thus hearing his own passing doubt put into words by this vile and repellent being. “Miss Dare is a stranger. She has nothing to do either with this affair or the poor woman who has suffered by it. Her interest is purely one of sympathy.”

“Hi! and you call yourself a smart one, I dare say.” And the old creature ironically chuckled. “Well, well, well, what fools men are! They see a pretty face, and blind themselves to what is written on it as plain as black writing on a white wall. They call it sympathy, and never stop to ask why she, of all the soft-hearted gals in the town, should be the only one to burst into that house like an avenging spirit! But it’s all right,” she went on, in a bitterly satirical tone. “A crime like this can’t be covered up, however much you may try; and sooner or later we will all know whether this young lady has had any thing to do with Mrs. Clemmens’ murder or not.”

“Stop!” cried Mr. Byrd, struck in spite of himself by the look of meaning with which she said these last words. “Do you know any thing against Miss Dare which other folks do not? If you do, speak, and let me hear at once what it is. But —” he felt very angry, though he could not for the moment tell why —“if you are only talking to gratify your spite, and have nothing to tell me except the fact that Miss Dare appeared shocked and anxious when she came from the widow’s house just now, look out what use you make of her name, or you will get yourself into trouble. Mr. Orcutt and Mr. Ferris are not men to let you go babbling round town about a young lady of estimable character.” And he tightened the grip he had taken upon her arm and looked at her threateningly.

The effect was instantaneous. Slipping from his grasp, she gazed at him with a sinister expression and edged slowly away.

illustration

“I know any thing?” she repeated. “What should I know? I only say the young lady’s face tells a very strange story. If you are too dull or too obstinate to read it, it’s nothing to me.” And with another leer and a quick look up and down the street, as if she half feared to encounter one or both of the two lawyers whose names he had mentioned, she marched quickly away, wagging her head and looking back as she went, as much as to say: “You have hushed me up for this time, young man, but don’t congratulate yourself too much. I have still a tongue in my head, and the day may come when I can use it without any fear of being stopped by you.”

Mr. Byrd, who was not very well pleased with himself or the way he had managed this interview, watched her till she was out of sight, and then turned thoughtfully toward the court-house. The fact was, he felt both agitated and confused. In the first place, he was disconcerted at discovering the extent of the impression that had evidently been made upon him by the beauty of Miss Dare, since nothing short of a deep, unconscious admiration for her personal attributes, and a strong and secret dread of having his lately acquired confidence in her again disturbed, could have led him to treat the insinuations of this babbling old wretch in such a cavalier manner. Any other detective would have seized with avidity upon the opportunity of hearing what she had to say on such a subject, and would not only have cajoled her into confidence, but encouraged her to talk until she had given utterance to all that was on her mind. But in the stress of a feeling to which he was not anxious to give a name, he had forgotten that he was a detective, and remembered only that he was a man; and the consequence was that he had frightened the old creature, and cut short words that it was possibly his business to hear. In the second place, he felt himself in a quandary as regarded Miss Dare. If, as was more than possible, she was really the innocent woman the coroner considered her, and the insinuations, if not threats, to which he had been listening were simply the result of a wicked old woman’s privately nurtured hatred, how could he reconcile it to his duty as a man, or even as a detective, to let the day pass without warning her, or the eminent lawyer who honored her with his regard, of the danger in which she stood from this creature’s venomous tongue.

As he sat in court that afternoon, with his eye upon Mr. Orcutt, beneath whose ordinary aspect of quiet, sarcastic attention he thought he could detect the secret workings of a deep, personal perplexity, if not of actual alarm, he asked himself what he would wish done if he were that man, and a scandal of a debasing character threatened the peace of one allied to him by the most endearing ties. “Would I wish to be informed of it?” he queried. “I most certainly should,” was his inward reply.

And so it was that, after the adjournment of court, he approached Mr. Orcutt, and leading him respectfully aside, said, with visible reluctance:

“I beg your pardon, sir, but a fact has come to my knowledge to-day with which I think you ought to be made acquainted. It is in reference to the young lady who was with us at Mrs. Clemmens’ house this morning. Did you know, sir, that she had an enemy in this town?”

Mr. Orcutt, whose thoughts had been very much with that young lady since she left him so unceremoniously a few hours before, started and looked at Mr. Byrd with surprise which was not without its element of distrust.

“An enemy?” he repeated. “An enemy? What do you mean?”

“What I say, Mr. Orcutt. As I came out of Mrs. Clemmens’ house this afternoon, an old hag whose name I do not know, but whom you will probably have no difficulty in recognizing, seized me by the arm and made me the recipient of insinuations and threats against Miss Dare, which, however foolish and unfounded, betrayed an animosity and a desire to injure her that is worthy your attention.”

“You are very kind,” returned Mr. Orcutt, with increased astonishment and a visible constraint, “but I do not understand you. What insinuations or threats could this woman have to make against a young lady of Miss Dare’s position and character?”

“It is difficult for me to tell you,” acknowledged Mr. Byrd; “but the vicious old creature presumed to say that Miss Dare must have had a special and secret interest in this murder, or she would not have gone as she did to that house. Of course,” pursued the detective, discreetly dropping his eyes from the lawyer’s face, “I did what I could to show her the folly of her suspicions, and tried to make her see the trouble she would bring upon herself if she persisted in expressing them; but I fear I only succeeded in quieting her for the moment, and that she will soon be attacking others with this foolish story.”

Mr. Orcutt who, whatever his own doubts or apprehensions, could not fail to be totally unprepared for a communication of this kind, gave utterance to a fierce and bitter exclamation, and fixed upon the detective his keen and piercing eye.

“Tell me just what she said,” he demanded.

“I will try to do so,” returned Mr. Byrd. And calling to his aid a very excellent memory, he gave a verbatim account of the conversation that had passed between him and the old woman. Mr. Orcutt listened, as he always did, without interruption or outward demonstration; but when the recital was over and Mr. Byrd ventured to look at him once more, he noticed that he was very pale and greatly changed in expression. Being himself in a position to understand somewhat of the other’s emotion, he regained by an effort the air of polite nonchalance that became him so well, and quickly suggested: “Miss Dare will, of course, be able to explain herself.”

The lawyer flashed upon him a quick glance.

“I hope you have no doubts on the subject,” he said; then, as the detective’s eye fell a trifle before his, paused and looked at him with the self-possession gained in fifteen years of practice in the criminal courts, and said: “I am Miss Dare’s best friend. I know her well, and can truly say that not only is her character above reproach, but that I am acquainted with no circumstances that could in any way connect her with this crime. Nevertheless, the incidents of the day have been such as to make it desirable for her to explain herself, and this, as you say, she will probably have no difficulty in doing. If you will, therefore, wait till to-morrow before taking any one else into your confidence, I promise you to see Miss Dare myself, and, from her own lips, learn the cause of her peculiar interest in this affair. Meanwhile, let me request you to put a curb upon your imagination, and not allow it to soar too high into the regions of idle speculation.”

And he held out his hand to the detective with a smile whose vain attempt at unconcern affected Mr. Byrd more than a violent outbreak would have done. It betrayed so unmistakably that his own secret doubts were not without an echo in the breast of this eminent lawyer.

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