Hand and Ring, by Anna Katharine Green

8. The Thick-Set Man.

Springs to catch woodcocks.

Hamlet.

IN the pause that followed, Miss Firman stepped aside, and Mr. Byrd, finding his attention released, stole a glance toward the hall-way and its nearly concealed occupant. He found the elbow in agitated movement, and, as he looked at it, saw it disappear and a hand project into view, groping for the handkerchief which was, doubtless, hidden in the hat which he now perceived standing on the floor in the corner of the door-way. He looked at that hand well. It was large, white, and elegantly formed, and wore a seal ring of conspicuous size upon the little finger. He had scarcely noticed this ring, and wondered if others had seen it too, when the hand plunged into the hat, and drawing out the kerchief, vanished with it behind the jamb that had already hidden so much from his view.

“A fine gentleman’s hand, and a fine gentleman’s ring,” was Mr. Byrd’s mental comment; and he was about to glance aside, when, to his great astonishment, he saw the hand appear once more with the handkerchief in it, but without the ring which a moment since had made it such a conspicuous mark for his eyes.

“Our fine gentleman is becoming frightened,” he thought, watching the hand until it dropped the handkerchief back into the hat. “One does not take off a ring in a company like this without a good reason.” And he threw a quick glance at the man he considered his rival in the detective business.

But that worthy was busily engaged in stroking his chin in a feeling way, strongly suggestive of a Fledgerby-like interest in his absent whisker; and well versed as was Mr. Byrd in the ways of his fellow-detectives, he found it impossible to tell whether the significant action he had just remarked had escaped the attention of this man or not. Confused if not confounded, he turned back to the coroner, in a maze of new sensations, among which a growing hope that his own former suspicions had been of a wholly presumptuous character, rose predominant.

He found that functionary preparing to make a remark.

“Gentlemen,” said he; “you have listened to the testimony of Mrs. Clemmens’ most confidential friend, and heard such explanations as she had to give, of the special fears which Mrs. Clemmens acknowledges herself to have entertained in regard to her personal safety. Now, while duly impressing upon you the necessity of not laying too much stress upon the secret apprehensions of a woman living a life of loneliness and seclusion, I still consider it my duty to lay before you another bit of the widow’s writing, in which ——”

Here he was interrupted by the appearance at his side of a man with a telegram in his hand. In the pause which followed his reading of the same, Mr. Byrd, with that sudden impulse of interference which comes upon us all at certain junctures, tore out a leaf from his memorandum-book, and wrote upon it some half dozen or so words indicative of the advisability of examining the proprietor of the Eastern Hotel as to the name and quality of the several guests entertained by him on the day of the murder; and having signed this communication with his initial letters H. B., looked about for a messenger to carry it to the coroner. He found one in the person of a small boy, who was pressing with all his might against his back, and having despatched him with the note, regained his old position at the window, and proceeded to watch, with a growing interest in the drama before him, the result of his interference upon the coroner.

He had not long to wait. The boy had no sooner shown himself at the door with the note, than Dr. Tredwell laid down the telegram he was perusing and took this new communication. With a slight smile Mr. Byrd was not slow in attributing to its true source, he read the note through, then turned to the officer at his side and gave him some command that sent him from the room. He then took up the slip he was on the point of presenting to the jury at the time he was first interrupted, and continuing his remarks in reference to it, said quietly:

“Gentlemen, this paper which I here pass over to you, was found by me in the recess of Mrs. Clemmens’ desk at the time I examined it for the address of Miss Firman. It was in an envelope that had never been sealed, and was, if I may use the expression, tucked away under a pile of old receipts. The writing is similar to that used in the letter you have just read, and the signature attached to it is ‘Mary Ann Clemmens.’ Will Mr. Black of the jury read aloud the words he will there find written?”

Mr. Black, in whose hand the paper then rested, looked up with a flush, and slowly, if not painfully, complied:

“I desire”— such was the language of the writing before him —“that in case of any sudden or violent death on my part, the authorities should inquire into the possible culpability of a gentleman living in Toledo, Ohio, known by the name of Gouverneur Hildreth. He is a man of no principle, and my distinct conviction is, that if such a death should occur to me, it will be entirely due to his efforts to gain possession of property which cannot be at his full disposal until my death.

“Mary Ann Clemmens, Sibley, N. Y.”

“A serious charge!” quoth a juryman, breaking the universal silence occasioned by this communication from the dead.

“I should think so,” echoed the burly man in front of Mr. Byrd.

But Mr. Byrd himself and the quiet man who leaned so stiffly and abstractedly against the wall, said nothing. Perhaps they found themselves sufficiently engaged in watching that half-seen elbow, which since the reading of this last slip of paper had ceased all movement and remained as stationary as though it had been paralyzed.

“A charge which, as yet, is nothing but a charge,” observed the coroner. “But evidence is not wanting,” he went on, “that Mr. Hildreth is not at home at this present time, but is somewhere in this region, as will be seen by the following telegram from the superintendent of the Toledo police.” And he held up to view, not the telegram he had just received, but another which he had taken from among the papers on the table before him:

“Party mentioned not in Toledo. Left for the East on midnight train of Wednesday the 27th inst. When last heard from was in Albany. He has been living fast, and is well known to be in pecuniary difficulties, necessitating a large and immediate amount of money. Further particulars by letter.

“That, gentlemen, I received last night. To-day,” he continued, taking up the telegram that had just come in, “the following arrives:

“Fresh advices. Man you are in search of talked of suicide at his club the other night. Seemed in a desperate way, and said that if something did not soon happen he should be a lost man. Horse-flesh and unfortunate speculations have ruined him. They say it will take all he will ultimately receive to pay his debts.

“And below:

“Suspected that he has been in your town.”

A crisis was approaching round the corner. This, to the skilled eyes of Mr. Byrd, was no longer doubtful. Even if he had not observed the wondering glances cast in that direction by persons who could see the owner of that now immovable elbow, he would have been assured that all was not right, by the alert expression which had now taken the place of the stolid and indifferent look which had hitherto characterized the face of the man he believed to be a detective.

A panther about to spring could not have looked more threatening, and the wonder was, that there were no more to observe this exciting by-play. Yet the panther did not spring, and the inquiry went on.

“The witness I now propose to call,” announced the coroner, after a somewhat trying delay, “is the proprietor of the Eastern Hotel. Ah, here he is. Mr. Symonds, have you brought your register for the past week?”

“Yes, sir,” answered the new-comer, with a good deal of flurry in his manner and an embarrassed look about him, which convinced Mr. Byrd that the words in regard to whose origin he had been so doubtful that morning, had been real words and no dream.

“Very well, then, submit it, if you please, to the jury, and tell us in the meantime whether you have entertained at your house this week any guest who professed to come from Toledo?”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember any such,” began the witness, in a stammering sort of way. “We have always a great many men from the West stopping at our house, but I don’t recollect any special one who registered himself as coming from Toledo.”

“You, however, always expect your guests to put their names in your book?”

“Yes, sir.”

There was something in the troubled look of the man which aroused the suspicion of the coroner, and he was about to address him with another question when one of the jury, who was looking over the register, spoke up and asked:

“Who is this Clement Smith who writes himself down here as coming from Toledo?”

“Smith? — Smith?” repeated Symonds, going up to the juryman and looking over his shoulder at the book. “Oh, yes, the gentleman who came yesterday. He ——”

But at this moment a slight disturbance occurring in the other room, the witness paused and looked about him with that same embarrassed look before noted. “He is at the hotel now,” he added, with an attempt at ease, transparent as it was futile.

The disturbance to which I have alluded was of a peculiar kind. It was occasioned by the thick-set man making the spring which, for some minutes, he had evidently been meditating. It was not a tragic leap, however, but a decidedly comic one, and had for its end and aim the recovery of a handkerchief which he had taken from his pocket at the moment when the witness uttered the name of Smith, and, by a useless flourish in opening it, flirted from his hand to the floor. At least, so the amused throng interpreted the sudden dive which he made, and the heedless haste that caused him to trip over the gentleman’s hat that stood on the floor, causing it to fall and another handkerchief to tumble out. But Mr. Byrd, who had a detective’s insight into the whole matter, saw something more than appeared in the profuse apologies which the thick-set man made, and the hurried manner in which he gathered up the handkerchiefs and stood looking at them before returning one to his pocket and the other to its place in the gentleman’s hat. Nor was Mr. Byrd at all astonished to observe that the stand which his fellow-detective took, upon resettling himself, was much nearer the unseen gentleman than before, or that in replacing the hat, he had taken pains to put it so far to one side that the gentleman would be obliged to rise and come around the corner in order to obtain it. The drift of the questions propounded to the witness at this moment opened his eyes too clearly for him to fail any longer to understand the situation.

“Now at the hotel?” the coroner was repeating. “And came yesterday? Why, then, did you look so embarrassed when I mentioned his name?”

“Oh — well — ah,” stammered the man, “because he was there once before, though his name is not registered but once in the book.”

“He was? And on what day?”

“On Tuesday,” asserted the man, with the sudden decision of one who sees it is useless to attempt to keep silence.

“The day of the murder?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And why is his name not on the book at that time if he came to your house and put up?”

“Because he did not put up; he merely called in, as it were, and did not take a meal or hire a room.”

“How did you know, then, that he was there? Did you see him or talk to him?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And what did you say?”

“He asked me for directions to a certain house, and I gave them.”

“Whose house?”

“The Widow Clemmens’, sir.”

Ah, light at last! The long-sought-for witness had been found! Coroner and jury brightened visibly, while the assembled crowd gave vent to a deep murmur, that must have sounded like a knell of doom — in one pair of ears, at least.

“He asked you for directions to the house of Widow Clemmens. At what time was this?”

“At about half-past eleven in the morning.”

The very hour!

“And did he leave then?”

“Yes, sir; after taking a glass of brandy.”

“And did you not see him again?”

“Not till yesterday, sir.”

“Ah, and at what time did you see him yesterday?”

“At bedtime, sir. He came with other arrivals on the five o’clock train; but I was away all the afternoon and did not see him till I went into the bar-room in the evening.”

“Well, and what passed between you then?”

“Not much, sir. I asked if he was going to stay with us, and when he said ‘Yes,’ I inquired if he had registered his name. He replied ‘No.’ At which I pointed to the book, and he wrote his name down and then went up-stairs with me to his room.”

“And is that all? Did you say nothing beyond what you have mentioned? ask him no questions or make no allusions to the murder?”

“Well, sir, I did make some attempt that way, for I was curious to know what took him to the Widow Clemmens’ house, but he snubbed me so quickly, I concluded to hold my tongue and not trouble myself any further about the matter.”

“And do you mean to say you haven’t told any one that an unknown man had been at your house on the morning of the murder inquiring after the widow?”

“Yes, sir. I am a poor man, and believe in keeping out of all sort of messes. Policy demands that much of me, gentlemen.”

The look he received from the coroner may have convinced him that policy can be carried too far.

“And now,” said Dr. Tredwell, “what sort of a man is this Clement Smith?”

“He is a gentleman, sir, and not at all the sort of person with whom you would be likely to connect any unpleasant suspicion.”

The coroner surveyed the hotel-keeper somewhat sternly.

“We are not talking about suspicions!” he cried; then, in a different tone, repeated: “This gentleman, you say, is still at your house?”

“Yes, sir, or was at breakfast-time. I have not seen him since.”

“We will have to call Mr. Smith as a witness,” declared the coroner, turning to the officer at his side. “Go and see if you cannot bring him as soon as you did Mr. Symonds.”

But here a voice spoke up full and loud from the other room.

“It is not necessary, sir. A witness you will consider more desirable than he is in the building.” And the thick-set man showed himself for an instant to the coroner, then walking back, deliberately laid his hand on the elbow which for so long a time had been the centre of Mr. Byrd’s wondering conjectures.

In an instant the fine, gentlemanly figure of the stranger, whom he had seen the night before in the bar-room, appeared with a bound from beyond the jamb, and pausing excitedly before the man, now fully discovered to all around as a detective, asked him, in shaking tones of suppressed terror or rage, what it was he meant.

“I will tell you,” was the ready assurance, “if you will step out here in view of the coroner and jury.”

With a glance that for some reason disturbed Mr. Byrd in his newly acquired complacency, the gentleman stalked hurriedly forward and took his stand in the door-way leading into the room occupied by the persons mentioned.

“Now,” he cried, “what have you to say?”

But the detective, who had advanced behind him, still refrained from replying, though he gave a quick look at the coroner, which led that functionary to glance at the hotel-keeper and instantly ask:

“You know this gentleman?”

“It is Mr. Clement Smith.”

A flush so violent and profuse, that even Mr. Byrd could see it from his stand outside the window, inundated for an instant the face and neck of the gentleman, but was followed by no words, though the detective at his side waited for an instant before saying:

“I think you are mistaken; I should call him now Mr. Gouverneur Hildreth!”

With a start and a face grown as suddenly white as it had but an instant before been red, the gentleman turned and surveyed the detective from head to foot, saying, in a tone of mock politeness:

“And why, if you please? I have never been introduced to you that I remember.”

“No,” rejoined the detective, taking from his pocket the handkerchief which he had previously put there, and presenting it to the other with a bow, “but I have read the monogram upon your handkerchief and it happens to be ——”

“Enough!” interrupted the other, in a stern if not disdainful voice. “I see I have been the victim of espionage.” And stepping into the other room, he walked haughtily up to the coroner and exclaimed: “I am Gouverneur Hildreth, and I come from Toledo. Now, what is it you have to say to me?”

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