Hand and Ring, by Anna Katharine Green

7. Miss Firman.

I confess with all humility that at times the line of demarcation between truth and fiction is rendered so indefinite and indistinct, that I cannot always determine, with unerring certainty, whether an event really happened to me, or whether I only dreamed it.

Longfellow.

MR. BYRD, upon waking next morning, found himself disturbed by a great perplexity. Were the words then ringing in his ears, real words, which he had overheard spoken outside of his door some time during the past night, or were they merely the empty utterances of a more than usually vivid dream?

He could not tell. He could remember the very tone of voice in which he fancied them to have been spoken — a tone which he had no difficulty in recognizing as that of the landlord of the hotel; could even recall the faint sounds of bustle which accompanied them, as though the person using them had been showing another person through the hall; but beyond that, all was indistinct and dream-like.

The words were these:

“Glad to see you back, sir. This murder following so close upon your visit must have been a great surprise. A sad occurrence, that, sir, and a very mysterious one. Hope you have some information to give.”

“If it is a remembrance and such words were uttered outside of my door last night,” argued the young detective to himself, “the guest who called them forth can be no other than the tall and florid gentleman whom I encountered in the bar-room. But is it a remembrance, or only a chimera of my own overwrought brain struggling with a subject it will not let drop? As Shakespeare says, ‘That is the question!’”

Fortunately, it was not one which it behooved him to decide. So, for the twentieth time, he put the subject by and resolved to think of it no more.

But perplexities of this kind are not so easily dismissed, and more than once during his hurried and solitary breakfast, did he ask himself whether, in case the words were real, he had not found in the landlord of this very hotel the one witness for which the coroner was so diligently seeking.

A surprise awaited him after breakfast, in the sudden appearance at his room door of the very gentleman last alluded to.

“Ha, Byrd,” said he, with cheerful vivacity: “here is a line from the superintendent which may prove interesting to you.”

And with a complacent smile, Dr. Tredwell handed over a letter which had been brought to him by the detective who had that morning arrived from New York.

With a dim sense of foreboding which he would have found difficult to explain, Mr. Byrd opened the note and read the following words:

DEAR SIR— I send with this a man fully competent to conduct a case of any ordinary difficulty. I acknowledge it is for our interest that you employ him to the exclusion of the person mentioned in your letter. But if you or that person think that he can render you any real assistance by his interference, he is at liberty to act in his capacity of detective in as far as he can do so without divulging too widely the secret of his connection with the force. ————.

“The superintendent need not be concerned,” said Mr. Byrd, returning the note with a constrained bow. “I shall not interfere in this matter.”

“You will miss a good thing, then,” remarked the coroner, shortly, looking keenly at the young man.

“I cannot help it,” observed the other, with a quick sigh of impatience or regret. “I should have to see my duty very clearly and possess the very strongest reasons for interfering before I presumed to offer either advice or assistance after a letter of this kind.”

“And who knows but what such reasons may yet present themselves?” ventured the coroner. Then seeing the young man shake his head, made haste to add in the business-like tone of one preparing to take his leave, “At all events the matter stands open for the present; and if during the course of to-day’s inquiry you see fit to change your mind, it will be easy enough for you to notify me.” And without waiting for any further remonstrance, he gave a quick nod and passed hastily out.

The state of mind in which he left Mr. Byrd was any thing but enviable. Not that the young man’s former determination to let this matter alone had been in any wise shaken by the unexpected concession on the part of the superintendent, but that the final hint concerning the inquest had aroused his old interest to quite a formidable degree, and, what was worse, had reawakened certain feelings which since last night it had been his most earnest endeavor to subdue. He felt like a man pursued by an implacable fate, and dimly wondered whether he would be allowed to escape before it was too late to save himself from lasting uneasiness, if not lifelong regret.

A final stroke of business for Mr. Ferris kept him at the court-house most of the morning; but his duty in that direction being at an end, he no longer found any excuse for neglecting the task imposed upon him by the coroner. He accordingly proceeded to the cottage where the inquest was being held, and finding each and every available room there packed to its uttermost by interested spectators, took up his stand on the outside of a curtained window, where with but a slight craning of his neck he could catch a very satisfactory view of the different witnesses as they appeared before the jury. The day was warm and he was by no means uncomfortable, though he could have wished that the advantages of his position had occasioned less envy in the breasts of the impatient crowd that was slowly gathering at his back; or, rather, that their sense of these advantages might have been expressed in some more pleasing way than by the various pushes he received from the more or less adventurous spirits who endeavored to raise themselves over his shoulder or insinuate themselves under his arms.

The room into which he looked was the sitting-room, and it was, so far as he could judge in the first casual glance he threw into it, occupied entirely by strangers. This was a relief. Since it had become his duty to attend this inquiry, he wished to do so with a free mind, unhindered by the watchfulness of those who knew his interest in the affair, or by the presence of persons around whom his own imagination had involuntarily woven a network of suspicion that made his observation of them at once significant and painful.

The proceedings were at a standstill when he first came upon the scene.

A witness had just stepped aside, who, from the impatient shrugs of many persons present, had evidently added little if any thing to the testimony already given. Taking advantage of the moment, Mr. Byrd leaned forward and addressed a burly man who sat directly under him.

“What have they been doing all the morning?” he asked. “Any thing important?”

“No,” was the surly reply. “A score of folks have had their say, but not one of them has told any thing worth listening to. Nobody has seen any thing, nobody knows any thing. The murderer might have risen up through the floor to deal his blow, and having given it, sunk back again with the same supernatural claptrap, for all these stupid people seem to know about him.”

The man had a loud voice, and as he made no attempt to modulate it, his words were heard on all sides. Naturally many heads were turned toward him, and more than one person looked at him with an amused smile. Indeed, of all the various individuals in his immediate vicinity, only one forbore to take any notice of his remark. This was a heavy, lymphatic, and somewhat abstracted-looking fellow of nondescript appearance, who stood stiff and straight as an exclamation point against the jamb of the door-way that led into the front hall.

“But have no facts been obtained, no conclusions reached, that would serve to awaken suspicion or put justice on the right track?” pursued Mr. Byrd, lowering his voice in intimation for the other to do the same.

But that other was of an obstinate tendency, and his reply rose full and loud.

“No, unless it can be considered proved that it is only folly to try and find out who commits a crime in these days. Nothing else has come to light, as far as I can see, and that much we all knew before.”

A remark of this kind was not calculated to allay the slight inclination to mirth which his former observation had raised; but the coroner rapping with his gavel on the table at this moment, every other consideration was lost in the natural curiosity which every one felt as to who the next witness would be.

But the coroner had something to say before he called for further testimony.

“Gentlemen,” he remarked, in a clear and commanding tone that at once secured attention and awakened interest, “we have spent the morning in examining the persons who live in this street, with a view to ascertaining, if possible, who was in conversation with Mrs. Clemmens at the time the tramp went up to her door.”

Was it a coincidence, or was there something in the words themselves that called forth the stir that at this moment took place among the people assembled directly before Mr. Byrd? It was of the slightest character, and was merely momentary in its duration; nevertheless, it attracted his attention, especially as it seemed to have its origin in a portion of the room shut off from his observation by the corner of the wall already alluded to.

The coroner proceeded without pause.

“The result, as you know, has not been satisfactory. No one seems to be able to tell us who it was that visited Mrs. Clemmens on that day. I now propose to open another examination of a totally different character, which I hope may be more conclusive in its results. Miss Firman, are you prepared to give your testimony?”

Immediately a tall, gaunt, but pleasant-faced woman arose from the dim recesses of the parlor. She was dressed with decency, if not taste, and took her stand before the jury with a lady-like yet perfectly assured air that promised well for the correctness and discretion of her answers. The coroner at once addressed her.

“Your full name, madam?”

“Emily Letitia Firman, sir.”

“Emily!” ejaculated Mr. Byrd, to himself, with a throb of sudden interest. “That is the name of the murdered woman’s correspondent.”

“Your birthplace,” pursued the coroner, “and the place of your present residence?”

“I was born in Danbury, Connecticut,” was the reply, “and I am living in Utica, where I support my aged mother by dress-making.”

“How are you related to Mrs. Clemmens, the lady who was found murdered here two days ago?”

“I am her second cousin; her grandmother and my mother were sisters.”

“Upon what terms have you always lived, and what can you tell us of her other relatives and connections?”

“We have always been friends, and I can tell you all that is generally known of the two or three remaining persons of her blood and kindred. They are, first, my mother and myself, who, as I have before said, live in Utica, where I am connected with the dress-making establishment of Madame Trebelle; and, secondly, a nephew of hers, the son of a favorite brother, whom she has always supported, and to whom she has frequently avowed her intention of leaving her accumulated savings.”

“The name of this gentleman and his place of residence?”

“His name is Mansell — Craik Mansell — and he lives in Buffalo, where he has a situation of some trust in the large paper manufactory of Harrison, Goodman, & Chamberlin.”

Buffalo! Mr. Byrd gave an involuntary start, and became, if possible, doubly attentive.

The coroner’s questions went on.

“Do you know this young man?”

“Yes, sir. He has been several times to our house in the course of the last five years.”

“What can you tell us of his nature and disposition, as well as of his regard for the woman who proposed to benefit him so materially by her will?”

“Well, sir,” returned Miss Firman, “it is hard to read the nature and feelings of any man who has much character, and Craik Mansell has a good deal of character. But I have always thought him a very honest and capable young man, who might do us credit some day, if he were allowed to have his own way and not be interfered with too much. As for his feelings toward his aunt, they were doubtless those of gratitude, though I have never heard him express himself in any very affectionate terms toward her, owing, no doubt, to a natural reticence of disposition which has been observable in him from childhood.”

“You have, however, no reason to believe he cherished any feelings of animosity toward his benefactress?” continued the coroner, somewhat carelessly, “or possessed any inordinate desire after the money she was expecting to leave him at her death?”

“No, sir. Both having minds of their own, they frequently disagreed, especially on business matters; but there was never any bitterness between them, as far as I know, and I never heard him say any thing about his expectations one way or the other. He is a man of much natural force, of strong, if not violent, traits of character; but he has too keen a sense of his own dignity to intimate the existence of desires so discreditable to him.”

There was something in this reply and the impartial aspect of the lady delivering it that was worthy of notice, perhaps. And such it would have undoubtedly received from Mr. Byrd, at least, if the words she had used in characterizing this person had not struck him so deeply that he forgot to note any thing further.

“A man of great natural force — of strong, if not violent traits of character,” he kept repeating to himself. “The description, as I live, of the person whose picture I attempted to draw last night.”

And, ignoring every thing else, he waited with almost sickening expectation for the question that would link this nephew of Mrs. Clemmens either to the tragedy itself, or to that person still in the background, of whose secret connection with a man of this type, he had obtained so curious and accidental a knowledge.

But it did not come. With a quiet abandonment of the by no means exhausted topic, which convinced Mr. Byrd that the coroner had plans and suspicions to which the foregoing questions had given no clue, Dr. Tredwell leaned slowly forward, and, after surveying the witness with a glance of cautious inquiry, asked in a way to concentrate the attention of all present:

“You say that you knew the Widow Clemmens well; that you have always been on friendly terms with her, and are acquainted with her affairs. Does that mean you have been made a confidante of her troubles, her responsibilities, and her cares?”

“Yes, sir; that is, in as far as she ever made a confidant of any one. Mrs. Clemmens was not of a complaining disposition, neither was she by nature very communicative. Only at rare times did she make mention of herself or her troubles: but when she did, it was invariably to me, sir — or so she used to say; and she was not a woman to deceive you in such matters.”

“Very well, then, you are in a position to tell us something of her history, and why it is she kept herself so close after she came to this town?”

But Miss Firman uttered a vigorous disclaimer to this. “No, sir,” said she, “I am not. Mrs. Clemmens’ history was simple enough, but her reasons for living as she did have never been explained. She was not naturally a quiet woman, and, when a girl, was remarkable for her spirits and fondness for company.”

“Has she had any great sorrow since you knew her — any serious loss or disappointment that may have soured her disposition, and turned her, as it were, against the world?”

“Perhaps; she felt the death of her husband very much — indeed, has never been quite the same since she lost him.”

“And when was that, if you please?”

“Full fifteen years ago, sir; just before she came to this town.”

“Did you know Mr. Clemmens?”

“No, sir; none of us knew him. They were married in some small village out West, where he died — well, I think she wrote — a month if not less after their marriage. She was inconsolable for a time, and, though she consented to come East, refused to take up her abode with any of her relatives, and so settled in this place, where she has remained ever since.”

The manner of the coroner suddenly changed to one of great impressiveness.

“Miss Firman,” he now asked, “did it ever strike you that the hermit life she led was due to any fear or apprehension which she may have secretly entertained?”

“Sir?”

The question was peculiar and no one wondered at the start which the good woman gave. But what mainly struck Mr. Byrd, and gave to the moment a seeming importance, was the fact that she was not alone in her surprise or even her expression of it; that the indefinable stir he had before observed had again taken place in the crowd before him, and that this time there was no doubt about its having been occasioned by the movements of a person whose elbow he could just perceive projecting beyond the door-way that led into the hall.

But there was no time for speculation as to whom this person might be. The coroner’s questions were every moment growing more rapid, and Miss Firman’s answers more interesting.

“I asked,” here the coroner was heard to say, “whether, in your intercourse with Mrs. Clemmens, you have ever had reason to suppose she was the victim of any secret or personal apprehension that might have caused her to seclude herself as she did? Or let me put it in another way. Can you tell me whether you know of any other person besides this nephew of hers who is likely to be benefited by Mrs. Clemmens’ death?”

“Oh, sir,” was the hasty and somewhat excited reply, “you mean young Mr. Hildreth!”

The way in which this was said, together with the slight flush of satisfaction or surprise which rose to the coroner’s brow, naturally awoke the slumbering excitement of the crowd and made a small sensation. A low murmur ran through the rooms, amid which Mr. Byrd thought he heard a suppressed but bitter exclamation. He could not be sure of it, however, and had just made up his mind that his ears had deceived him, when his attention was attracted by a shifting in the position of the sturdy, thick-set man who had been leaning against the opposite wall, but who now crossed and took his stand beside the jamb, on the other side of which sat the unknown individual toward whom so many inquiring glances had hitherto been directed.

The quietness with which this change was made, and the slight, almost imperceptible, alteration in the manner of the person making it, brought a sudden enlightenment to Mr. Byrd, and he at once made up his mind that this dull, abstracted-looking nonentity leaning with such apparent unconcern against the wall, was the new detective who had been sent up that morning from New York. His curiosity in regard to the identity of the individual round the corner was not lessened by this.

Meantime the coroner had answered the hasty exclamation of the witness, by disclaiming the existence of any special meaning of his own, and had furthermore pressed the question as to who this Mr. Hildreth was.

She immediately answered: “A gentleman of Toledo, sir; a young man who could only come into his property by the death of Mrs. Clemmens.”

“How? You have not spoken of any such person as connected with her.”

“No,” was her steady response; “nor was he so connected by any tie of family or friendship. Indeed, I do not know as they were ever acquainted, or, as for that matter, ever saw each other’s faces. The fact to which I allude was simply the result of a will, sir, made by Mr. Hildreth’s grandfather.”

“A will? Explain yourself. I do not understand.”

“Well, sir, I do not know much about the law, and may make a dozen mistakes in telling you what you wish to know; but what I understand about the matter is this: Mr. Hildreth, the grandfather of the gentleman of whom I have just spoken, having a large property, which he wanted to leave in bulk to his grandchildren — their father being a very dissipated and reckless man — made his will in such a way as to prevent its distribution among his heirs till after the death of two persons whom he mentioned by name. Of these two persons one was the son of his head clerk, a young boy, who sickened and died shortly after Mr. Hildreth himself, and the other my cousin, the poor murdered woman, who was then a little girl visiting the family. I do not know how she came to be chosen by him for this purpose, unless it was that she was particularly round and ruddy as a child, and looked as if she might live for many years.”

“And the Hildreths? What of them during these years?”

“Well, I cannot exactly say, as I never had any acquaintance with them myself. But I know that the father, whose dissipated habits were the cause of this peculiar will tying up the property, died some little time ago; also one or two of his children, but beyond that I know little, except that the remaining heirs are a young gentleman and one or two young girls, all of the worldliest and most fashionable description.”

The coroner, who had followed all this with the greatest interest, now asked if she knew the first name of the young gentleman.

“Yes,” said she, “I do. It is Gouverneur.”

The coroner gave a satisfied nod, and remarked casually, “It is not a common name,” and then, leaning forward, selected a paper from among several that lay on the table before him. “Miss Firman,” he inquired, retaining this paper in his hand, “do you know when it was that Mrs. Clemmens first became acquainted with the fact of her name having been made use of in the elder Mr. Hildreth’s will?”

“Oh, years ago; when she first came of age, I believe.”

“Was it an occasion of regret to her? Did she ever express herself as sorry for the position in which she stood toward this family?”

“Yes, sir; she did.”

The coroner’s face assumed a yet greater gravity, and his manner became more and more impressive.

“Can you go a step farther and say that she ever acknowledged herself to have cherished apprehensions of her personal safety, during these years of weary waiting on the part of the naturally impatient heirs?”

A distressed look crossed the amiable spinster’s face, and she looked around at the jury with an expression almost deprecatory in its nature.

“I scarcely know what answer to give,” she hesitatingly declared. “It is a good deal to say that she was apprehensive; but I cannot help remembering that she once told me her peace of mind had left her since she knew there were persons in the world to whom her death would be a matter of rejoicing. ‘It makes me feel as if I were keeping people out of their rights,’ she remarked at the same time. ‘And, though it is not my fault, I should not be surprised if some day I had to suffer for it.’”

“Was there ever any communication made to Mrs. Clemmens by persons cognizant of the relation in which she stood to these Hildreths? — or any facts or gossip detailed to her concerning them, that would seem to give color to her fears and supply her with any actual grounds for her apprehensions?”

“No; only such tales as came to her of their expensive ways of living and somewhat headlong rush into all fashionable freaks and follies.”

“And Gouverneur Hildreth? Any special gossip in regard to him?”

“No!”

There are some noes that are equivalent to affirmations. This was one of them. Naturally the coroner pressed the question.

“I must request you to think again,” he persisted. Then, with a change of voice: “Are you sure you have never heard any thing specially derogatory to this young man, or that Mrs. Clemmens had not?”

“I have friends in Toledo who speak of him as the fastest man about town, if that could be called derogatory. As for Mrs. Clemmens, she may have heard as much, and she may have heard more, I cannot say. I know she always frowned when his father’s name was mentioned.”

“Miss Firman,” proceeded the coroner, “in the long years in which you have been more or less separated from Mrs. Clemmens, you have, doubtless, kept up a continued if not frequent correspondence with her?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you think, from the commencement and general tone of this letter, which I found lying half finished on her desk, that it was written and intended for yourself?”

Taking the letter from his outstretched hand, she fumbled nervously for her glasses, put them on, and then glanced hurriedly at the sheet, saying as she did so:

“There can be no doubt of it. She had no other friend whom she would have been likely to address as ‘Dear Emily.’”

“Gentlemen of the Jury, you have a right to hear the words written by the deceased but a few hours, if not a few minutes, previous to the brutal assault that has led to the present inquiry. Miss Firman, as the letter was intended for yourself, will you be kind enough to read it aloud, after which you will hand it over to the jury.”

With a gloomy shake of her head, and a certain trembling in her voice, that was due, perhaps, as much to the sadness of her task as to any foreboding of the real nature of the words she had to read, she proceeded to comply:

“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 ——

“Good heavens!” ejaculated the spinster, dropping the paper from her hand and looking dismally around upon the assembled faces of the now deeply interested spectators.

Seeing her dismay, a man who stood at the right of the coroner, and who seemed to be an officer of the law, quietly advanced, and picking up the paper she had let fall, handed it to the jury. The coroner meanwhile recalled her attention to herself.

“Miss Firman,” said he, “allow me to put to you one final question which, though it might not be called a strictly legal one, is surely justified by the gravity of the situation. If Mrs. Clemmens had finished this letter, and you in due course had received it, what conclusion would you have drawn from the words you have just read?”

“I could have drawn but one, sir. I should have considered that the solitary life led by my cousin was telling upon her mind.”

“But these terrors of which she speaks? To what and whom would you have attributed them?”

“I don’t like to say it, and I don’t know as I am justified in saying it, but it would have been impossible for me, under the circumstances, to have thought of any other source for them than the one we have already mentioned.”

“And that is?” inexorably pursued the coroner.

“Mr. Gouverneur Hildreth.”

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