Hand and Ring, by Anna Katharine Green

5. Horace Byrd.

But now, I am cabin’d, cribbed, confin’d, bound in

To saucy doubts and fears.

Macbeth.

HORACE BYRD was by birth and education a gentleman. He was the son of a man of small means but great expectations, and had been reared to look forward to the day when he should be the possessor of a large income. But his father dying, both means and expectations vanished into thin air, and at the age of twenty, young Horace found himself thrown upon the world without income, without business, and, what was still worse, without those habits of industry that serve a man in such an emergency better than friends and often better than money itself.

He had also an invalid mother to look after, and two young sisters whom he loved with warm and devoted affection; and though by the kindness and forethought of certain relatives he was for a time spared all anxiety on their account, he soon found that some exertion on his part would be necessary to their continued subsistence, and accordingly set about the task of finding suitable employment, with much spirit and no little hope.

But a long series of disappointments taught him that young men cannot leap at a bound into a fine salary or even a promising situation; and baffled in every wish, worn out with continued failures, he sank from one state of hope to another, till he was ready to embrace any prospect that would insure ease and comfort to the helpless beings he so much loved.

It was while he was in this condition that Mr. Gryce — a somewhat famous police detective of New York — came upon him, and observing, as he thought, some signs of natural aptitude for fine work, as he called it, in this elegant but decidedly hard-pushed young gentleman, seized upon him with an avidity that can only be explained by this detective’s long-cherished desire to ally to himself a man of real refinement and breeding; having, as he privately admitted more than once to certain chosen friends, a strong need of such a person to assist him in certain cases where great houses were to be entered and fine gentlemen if not fair ladies subjected to interviews of a delicate and searching nature.

To join the police force and be a detective was the last contingency that had occurred to Horace Byrd. But men in decidedly straitened circumstances cannot pick and choose too nicely; and after a week of uncertainty and fresh disappointment, he went manfully to his mother and told her of the offer that had been made him. Meeting with less discouragement than he had expected from the broken-down and unhappy woman, he gave himself up to the guiding hand of Mr. Gryce, and before he realized it, was enrolled among the secret members of the New York force.

He was not recognized publicly as a detective. His name was not even known to any but the highest officials. He was employed for special purposes, and it was not considered desirable that he should be seen at police head-quarters. But being a man of much ability and of a solid, reliable nature, he made his way notwithstanding, and by the time he had been in the service a year, was looked upon as a good-fellow and a truly valuable acquisition to the bureau. Indeed, he possessed more than the usual qualifications for his calling, strange as the fact appeared not only to himself but to the few friends acquainted with his secret. In the first place, he possessed much acuteness without betraying it. Of an easy bearing and a polished address, he was a man to please all and alarm none, yet he always knew what he was about and what you were about, too, unless indeed you possessed a power of dissimulation much beyond ordinary, when the chances were that his gentlemanly instincts would get in his way, making it impossible for him to believe in a guilt that was too hardy to betray itself, and too insensible to shame to blush before the touch of the inquisitor.

In the second place, he liked the business. Yes, notwithstanding the theories of that social code to which he once paid deference, notwithstanding the frankness and candor of his own disposition, he found in this pursuit a nice adjustment of cause to effect and effect to cause that at once pleased and satisfied his naturally mathematical mind.

He did not acknowledge the fact, not even to himself. On the contrary, he was always threatening that in another month he should look up some new means of livelihood, but the coming month would invariably bring a fresh case before his notice, and then it would be: “Well, after this matter is probed to the bottom,” or, “When that criminal is made to confess his guilt,” till even his little sisters caught the infection, and would whisper over their dolls:

“Brother Horace is going to be a great man when all the bad and naughty people in the world are put in prison.”

As a rule, Mr. Byrd was not sent out of town. But, on the occasion of Mr. Ferris desiring a man of singular discretion to assist him in certain inquiries connected with the case then on trial in Sibley, there happened to be a deficiency of capable men in the bureau, and the superintendent was obliged to respond to the call by sending Mr. Byrd. He did not do it, however, without making the proviso that all public recognition of this officer, in his real capacity, was to be avoided. And so far the wishes of his superiors had been respected. No one outside of the few persons mentioned in the first chapter of this story suspected that the easy, affable, and somewhat distinguished-looking young gentleman who honored the village hotel with his patronage was a secret emissary of the New York police.

Mr. Byrd was, of all men, then, the very one to feel the utmost attraction toward, and at the same time the greatest shrinking from, the pursuit of such investigations as were likely to ensue upon the discovery of the mysterious case of murder which had so unexpectedly been presented to his notice. As a professional, he could not fail to experience that quick start of the blood which always follows the recognition of a “big affair,” while as a gentleman, he felt himself recoil from probing into a matter that was blackened by a possibility against which every instinct in his nature rebelled.

It was, therefore, with oddly mingled sensations that he read Mr. Orcutt’s letter, and found himself compelled to admit that the coroner had possessed a truer insight than himself into the true cause of Miss Dare’s eccentric conduct upon the scene of the tragedy. His main feeling, however, was one of relief. It was such a comfort to think he could proceed in the case without the dread of stumbling upon a clue that, in some secret and unforeseen way, should connect this imposing woman with a revolting crime. Or so he fondly considered. But he had not spent five minutes at the railroad station, where, in pursuance to the commands of Mr. Ferris, he went to take the train for Monteith, before he saw reason to again change his mind. For, there among the passengers awaiting the New York express, he saw Miss Dare, with a travelling-bag upon her arm and a look on her face that, to say the least, was of most uncommon character in a scene of so much bustle and hurry. She was going away, then — going to leave Sibley and its mystery behind her! He was not pleased with the discovery. This sudden departure looked too much like escape, and gave him, notwithstanding the assurance he had received from Mr. Orcutt, an uneasy sense of having tampered with his duty as an officer of justice, in thus providing this mysterious young woman with a warning that could lead to a result like this.

Yet, as he stood at the depot surveying Miss Dare, in the few minutes they both had to wait, he asked himself over and over again how any thought of her possessing a personal interest in the crime which had just taken place could retain a harbor in his mind. She looked so noble in her quiet aspect of solemn determination, so superior in her young, fresh beauty — a determination that, from the lofty look it imparted, must have its birth in generous emotion, even if her beauty was but the result of a rarely modelled frame and a health of surpassing perfection. He resolved he would think of her no more in that or any other connection; that he would follow the example of her best friend, and give his doubts to the wind.

And yet such a burr is suspicion, that he no sooner saw a young man approaching her with the evident intention of speaking, than he felt an irresistible desire to hear what she would have to say, and, led by this impulse, allowed himself to saunter nearer and nearer the pair, till he stood almost at their backs.

The first words he heard were:

“How long do you expect to remain in Buffalo, Miss Dare?”

To which she replied:

“I have no idea whether I shall stay a week or a month.”

Then the whistle of the advancing train was heard, and the two pressed hurriedly forward.

The business which had taken Mr. Byrd to Monteith kept him in that small town all day. But though he thus missed the opportunity of attending the opening of the inquest at Sibley, he did not experience the vivid disappointment which might have been expected, his interest in that matter having in some unaccountable way subsided from the moment he saw Imogene Dare take the cars for Buffalo.

It was five o’clock when he again returned to Sibley, the hour at which the western train was also due. In fact, it came steaming in while he stood there, and, as was natural, perhaps, he paused a moment to watch the passengers alight. There were not many, and he was about to turn toward home, when he saw a lady step upon the platform whose appearance was so familiar that he stopped, disbelieving the evidence of his own senses. Miss Dare returned? Miss Dare, who but a few hours before had left this very depot for the purpose, as she said, of making a visit of more or less length in the distant city of Buffalo? It could not be. And yet there was no mistaking her, disguised though she was by the heavy veil that covered her features. She had come back, and the interest which Mr. Byrd had lost in Sibley and its possible mystery, revived with a suddenness that called up a self-conscious blush to his hardy cheek.

But why had she so changed her plans? What could have occurred during the few hours that had elapsed since her departure, to turn her about on her path and drive her homeward before her journey was half completed? He could not imagine. True, it was not his present business to do so; and yet, however much he endeavored to think of other things, he found this question occupying his whole mind long after his return to the village hotel. She was such a mystery, this woman, it might easily be that she had never intended to go to Buffalo; that she had only spoken of that place as the point of her destination under the stress of her companion’s importunities, and that the real place for which she was bound had been some spot very much nearer home. The fact, that her baggage had consisted only of a small bag that she carried on her arm, would lend probability to this idea, yet, such was the generous character of the young detective, he hesitated to give credit to this suspicion, and indeed took every pains to disabuse himself of it by inquiring of the ticket-agent, whether it was true, as he had heard, that Miss Dare had left town on that day for a visit to her friends in Buffalo.

He received for his reply that she had bought a ticket for that place, though she evidently had not used it, a fact which seemed at least to prove she was honest in the expression of her intentions that morning, whatever alteration may have taken place in her plans during the course of her journey.

Mr. Byrd did not enjoy his supper that night, and was heartily glad when, in a few moments after its completion, Mr. Ferris came in for a chat and a cigar.

They had many things to discuss. First, their own case now drawing to a successful close; next, the murder of the day before; and lastly, the few facts which had been elicited in regard to that murder, in the inquiry which had that day been begun before the coroner.

Of the latter Mr. Ferris spoke with much interest. He had attended the inquest himself, and, though he had not much to communicate — the time having been mainly taken up in selecting and swearing in a jury — a few witnesses had been examined and certain conclusions reached, which certainly added greatly to the impression already made upon the public mind, that an affair of great importance had arisen; an affair, too, promising more in the way of mystery than the simple nature of its earlier manifestations gave them reason to suppose.

In the first place, the widow had evidently been assaulted with a deliberate purpose and a serious intent to slay.

Secondly, no immediate testimony was forthcoming calculated to point with unerring certainty to the guilty party.

To be sure, the tramp and the hunchback still offered possibilities of suspicion; but even they were slight, the former having been seen to leave the widow’s house without entering, and the latter having been proved beyond a question to have come into town on the morning train and to have gone at once to court where he remained till the time they all saw him disappear down the street.

That the last-mentioned individual may have had some guilty knowledge of the crime was possible enough. The fact of his having wiped himself out so completely as to elude all search, was suspicious in itself, but if he was connected with the assault it must have been simply as an accomplice employed to distract public attention from the real criminal; and in a case like this, the interest naturally centres with the actual perpetrator; and the question was now and must be: Who was the man who, in broad daylight, dared to enter a house situated like this in a thickly populated street, and kill with a blow an inoffensive woman?

“I cannot imagine,” declared Mr. Ferris, as his communication reached this point. “It looks as if she had an enemy, but what enemy could such a person as she possess — a woman who always did her own work, attended to her own affairs, and made it an especial rule of her life never to meddle with those of anybody else?”

“Was she such a woman?” inquired Mr. Byrd, to whom as yet no knowledge had come of the widow’s life, habits, or character.

“Yes. In all the years I have been in this town I have never heard of her visiting any one or encouraging any one to visit her. Had it not been for Mr. Orcutt, she would have lived the life of a recluse. As it was, she was the most methodical person in her ways that I ever knew. At just such an hour she rose; at just such an hour put on her kettle, cooked her meal, washed her dishes, and sat herself down to her sewing or whatever work it was she had to do. The dinner was the only meal that waited, and that, Mr. Orcutt says, was always ready and done to a turn at whatever moment he chose to present himself.”

“Had she no intimates, no relatives?” asked Mr. Byrd, remembering that fragment of a letter he had read — a letter which certainly contradicted this assertion in regard to her even and quiet life.

“None that I am aware of,” was the response. “Wait, I believe I have been told she has a nephew somewhere — a sister’s son, for whom she had some regard and to whom she intended to leave her money.”

“She had money, then?”

“Some five thousand, maybe. Reports differ about such matters.”

“And this nephew, where does he live?”

“I cannot tell you. I don’t know as any one can. My remembrances in regard to him are of the vaguest character.”

“Five thousand dollars is regarded as no mean sum in a town like this,” quoth Mr. Byrd, carelessly.

“I know it. She is called quite rich by many. How she got her money no one knows; for when she first came here she was so poor she had to eat and sleep all in one room. Mr. Orcutt paid her something for his daily dinner, of course, but that could not have enabled her to put ten dollars in the bank as she has done every week for the last ten years. And to all appearances she has done nothing else for her living. You see, we have paid attention to her affairs, if she has paid none to ours.”

Mr. Byrd again remembered that scrap of a letter which had been shown him by the coroner, and thought to himself that their knowledge was in all probability less than they supposed.

“Who was that horrid crone I saw shouldering herself through the crowd that collected around the gate yesterday?” was his remark, however. “Do you remember a wizen, toothless old wretch, whose eye has more of the Evil One in it than that of many a young thief you see locked up in the county jails?”

“No; that is, I wonder if you mean Sally Perkins. She is old enough and ugly enough to answer your description; and, now I think of it, she has a way of leering at you as you go by that is slightly suggestive of a somewhat bitter knowledge of the world. What makes you ask about her?”

“Because she attracted my attention, I suppose. You must remember that I don’t know any of these people, and that an especially vicious-looking person like her would be apt to awaken my curiosity.”

“I see, I see; but, in this case, I doubt if it leads to much. Old Sally is a hard one, no doubt. But I don’t believe she ever contemplated a murder, much less accomplished it. It would take too much courage, to say nothing of strength. It was a man’s hand struck that blow, Mr. Byrd.”

“Yes,” was the quick reply — a reply given somewhat too quickly, perhaps, for it made Mr. Ferris look up inquiringly at the young man.

“You take considerable interest in the affair,” he remarked, shortly. “Well, I do not wonder. Even my old blood has been somewhat fired by its peculiar features. I foresee that your detective instinct will soon lead you to risk a run at the game.”

“Ah, then, you see no objection to my trying for the scent, if the coroner persists in demanding it?” inquired Mr. Byrd, as he followed the other to the door.

“On the contrary,” was the polite response.

And Mr. Byrd found himself satisfied on that score.

Mr. Ferris had no sooner left the room than the coroner came in.

“Well,” cried he, with no unnecessary delay, “I want you.”

Mr. Byrd rose.

“Have you telegraphed to New York?” he asked.

“Yes, and expect an answer every minute. There will be no difficulty about that. The superintendent is my friend, and will not be likely to cross me in my expressed wish.”

“But ——” essayed the detective.

“We have no time for buts,” broke in the coroner. “The inquest begins in earnest to-morrow, and the one witness we most want has not yet been found. I mean the man or the woman who can swear to seeing some one approach or enter the murdered woman’s house between the time the milkman left it at half-past eleven and the hour she was found by Mr. Orcutt, lying upon the floor of her dining-room in a dying condition. That such a witness exists I have no doubt. A street in which there are six houses, every one of which has to be passed by the person entering Widow Clemmens’ gate, must produce one individual, at least, who can swear to what I want. To be sure, all whom I have questioned so far say that they were either eating dinner at the time or were in the kitchen serving it up; but, for all that, there were plenty who saw the tramp, and two women, at least, who are ready to take their oath that they not only saw him, but watched him long enough to observe him go around to the Widow Clemmens’ kitchen door and turn about again and come away as if for some reason he had changed his mind about entering. Now, if there were two witnesses to see all that, there must have been one somewhere to notice that other person, known or unknown, who went through the street but a few minutes before the tramp. At all events, I believe such a witness can be found, and I mean to have him if I call up every man, woman, and child who was in the lane at the time. But a little foreknowledge helps a coroner wonderfully, and if you will aid me by making judicious inquiries round about, time will be gained, and, perhaps, a clue obtained that will lead to a direct knowledge of the perpetrator of this crime.”

“But,” inquired the detective, willing, at least, to discuss the subject with the coroner, “is it absolutely necessary that the murderer should have advanced from the street? Is there no way he could have reached the house from the back, and so have eluded the gaze of the neighbors round about?”

“No; that is, there is no regular path there, only a stretch of swampy ground, any thing but pleasant to travel through. Of course a man with a deliberate purpose before him might pursue that route and subject himself to all its inconveniences; but I would scarcely expect it of one who — who chose such an hour for his assault,” the coroner explained, with a slight stammer of embarrassment that did not escape the detective’s notice. “Nor shall I feel ready to entertain the idea till it has been proved that no person, with the exception of those already named, was seen any time during that fatal half-hour to advance by the usual way to the widow’s house.”

“Have you questioned the tramp, or in any way received from him an intimation of the reason why he did not go into the house after he came to it?”

“He said he heard voices quarrelling.”

“Ah!”

“Of course he was not upon his oath, but as the statement was volunteered, we have some right to credit it, perhaps.”

“Did he say”— it was Mr. Byrd now who lost a trifle of his fluency —“what sort of voices he heard?”

“No; he is an ignorant wretch, and is moreover thoroughly frightened. I don’t believe he would know a cultivated from an uncultivated voice, a gentleman’s from a quarryman’s. At all events, we cannot trust to his discrimination.”

Mr. Byrd started. This was the last construction he had expected to be put upon his question. Flushing a trifle, he looked the coroner earnestly in the face. But that gentleman was too absorbed in the train of thought raised by his own remark to notice the look, and Mr. Byrd, not feeling any too well assured of his own position, forbore to utter the words that hovered on his tongue.

“I have another commission for you,” resumed the coroner, after a moment. “Here is a name which I wish you would look at ——”

But at this instant a smart tap was heard at the door, and a boy entered with the expected telegram from New York. Dr. Tredwell took it, and, after glancing at its contents with an annoyed look, folded up the paper he was about to hand to Mr. Byrd and put it slowly back into his pocket. He then referred again to the telegram.

“It is not what I expected,” he said, shortly, after a moment of perplexed thought. “It seems that the superintendent is not disposed to accommodate me.” And he tossed over the telegram.

Mr. Byrd took it and read:

“Expect a suitable man by the midnight express. He will bring a letter.”

A flush mounted to the detective’s brow.

“You see, sir,” he observed, “I was right when I told you I was not the man.”

“I don’t know,” returned the other, rising. “I have not changed my opinion. The man they send may be very keen and very well-up in his business, but I doubt if he will manage this case any better than you would have done,” and he moved quietly toward the door.

“Thank you for your too favorable opinion of my skill,” said Mr. Byrd, as he bowed the other out. “I am sure the superintendent is right. I am not much accustomed to work for myself, and was none too eager to take the case in the first place, as you will do me the justice to remember. I can but feel relieved at this shifting of the responsibility upon shoulders more fitted to bear it.”

Yet, when the coroner was gone, and he sat down alone by himself to review the matter, he found he was in reality more disappointed than he cared to confess. Why, he scarcely knew. There was no lessening of the shrinking he had always felt from the possible developments which an earnest inquiry into the causes of this crime might educe. Yet, to be severed in this way from all professional interest in the pursuit cut him so deeply that, in despite of his usual good-sense and correct judgment, he was never nearer sending in his resignation than he was in that short half-hour which followed the departure of Dr. Tredwell. To distract his thoughts, he at last went down to the bar-room.

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