Lost Man’s Lane, by Anna Katharine Green

xxiv

The Enigma of Numbers

“When in our first conversation on this topic I told you that Mother Jane was not to be considered in this matter, I meant she was not to be considered by you. She was a subject to be handled by the police, and we have handled her. Yesterday afternoon I made a search of her cabin.” Here Mr. Gryce paused and eyed me quizzically. He sometimes does eye me, which same I cannot regard as a compliment, considering how fond he is of concentrating all his wisdom upon small and insignificant objects.

“I wonder,” said he, “what you would have done in such a search as that. It was no common one, I assure you. There are not many hiding-places between Mother Jane’s four walls.”

I felt myself begin to tremble, with eagerness, of course.

“I wish I had been given the opportunity,” said I—“that is, if anything was to be found there.”

He seemed to be in a sympathetic mood toward me, or perhaps — and this is the likelier supposition — he had a minute of leisure and thought he could afford to give himself a little quiet amusement. However that was, he answered me by saying:

“The opportunity is not lost. You have been in her cabin and have noted, I have no doubt, its extreme simplicity. Yet it contains, or rather did contain up till last night, distinct evidences of more than one of the crimes which have been perpetrated in this lane.”

“Good! And you want me to guess where you found them? Well, it’s not fair.”

“Ah, and why not?”

“Because you probably did not find them on your first attempt. You had time to look about. I am asked to guess at once and without second trial what I warrant it took you several trials to determine.”

He could not help but laugh. “And why do you think it took me several trials?”

“Because there is more than one thing in that room made up of parts.”

“Parts?” He attempted to look puzzled, but I would not have it.

“You know what I mean,” I declared; “seventy parts, twenty-eight, or whatever the numbers are she so constantly mutters.”

His admiration was unqualified and sincere.

“Miss Butterworth,” said he, “you are a woman after my own heart. How came you to think that her mutterings had anything to do with a hiding-place?”

“Because it did not have anything to do with the amount of money I gave her. When I handed her twenty-five cents, she cried, ‘Seventy, twenty-eight, and now ten!’ Ten what? Not ten cents or ten dollars, but ten ——”

“Why do you stop?”

“I do not want to risk my reputation on a guess. There is a quilt on the bed made up of innumerable pieces. There is a floor of neatly laid brick ——”

“And there is a Bible on the stand whose leaves number many over seventy.”

“Ah, it was in the Bible you found ——”

His smile put mine quite to shame.

“I must acknowledge,” he cried, “that I looked in the Bible, but I found nothing there beyond what we all seek when we open its sacred covers. Shall I tell my story?”

He was evidently bursting with pride. You would think that after a half-century of just such successes, a man would take his honors more quietly. But pshaw! Human nature is just the same in the old as in the young. He was no more tired of compliment or of awakening the astonishment of those he confided in, than when he aroused the admiration of the force by his triumphant handling of the Leavenworth Case. Of course in presence of such weakness I could do nothing less than give him a sympathetic ear. I may be old myself some day. Besides, his story was likely to prove more or less interesting.

“Tell your story?” I repeated. “Don’t you see that I am”— I was going to say “on pins and needles till I hear it,” but the expression is too vulgar for a woman of my breeding; so I altered the words, happily before they were spoken, into “that I am in a state of the liveliest curiosity concerning the whole matter? Tell your story, of course.”

“Well, Miss Butterworth, if I do, it is because I know you will appreciate it. You, like myself, placed weight upon the numbers she is forever running over, and you, like myself, have conceived the possibility of these numbers having reference to something in the one room she inhabits. At first glance the extreme bareness of the spot seemed to promise nothing to my curiosity. I looked at the floor and detected no signs of any disturbance having taken place in its symmetrically laid bricks for years. Yet I counted up to seventy one way and twenty-eight the other, and marking the brick thus selected, began to pry it out. It came with difficulty and showed me nothing underneath but green mold and innumerable frightened insects. Then I counted the bricks the other way, but nothing came of it. The floor does not appear to have been disturbed for years. Turning my attention away from the floor, I began upon the quilt. This was a worse job than the other, and it took me an hour to rip apart the block I settled upon as the suspicious one, but my labor was entirely wasted. There was no hidden treasure in the quilt. Then I searched the walls, using the measurements seventy by twenty-eight, but no result followed these endeavors, and — well, what do you think I did then?”

“You will tell me,” I said, “if I give you one more minute to do it in.”

“Very well,” said he. “I see you do not know, madam. Having searched below and around me, I next turned my attention overhead. Do you remember the strings and strings of dried vegetables that decorate the beams above?”

“I do,” I replied, not stinting any of the astonishment I really felt.

“Well, I began to count them next, and when I reached the seventieth onion from the open doorway, I crushed it between my fingers and — these fell out, madam — worthless trinkets, as you will immediately see, but ——”

“Well, well,” I urged.

“They have been identified as belonging to the peddler who was one of the victims in whose fate we are interested.”

“Ah, ah!” I ejaculated, somewhat amazed, I own. “And number twenty-eight?”

“That was a carrot, and it held a really valuable ring — a ruby surrounded by diamonds. If you remember, I once spoke to you of this ring. It was the property of young Mr. Chittenden and worn by him while he was in this village. He disappeared on his way to the railway station, having taken, as many can vouch, the short detour by Lost Man’s Lane, which would lead him directly by Mother Jane’s cottage.”

“You thrill me,” said I, keeping down with admirable self-possession my own thoughts in regard to this matter. “And what of No. ten, beyond which she said she could not count?”

“In ten was your twenty-five-cent piece, and in various other vegetables, small coins, whose value taken collectively would not amount to a dollar. The only numbers which seemed to make any impression on her mind were those connected with these crimes. Very good evidence, Miss Butterworth, that Mother Jane holds the clue to this matter, even if she is not responsible for the death of the individuals represented by this property.”

“Certainly,” I acquiesced, “and if you examined her after her return from the Knollys mansion last night you would probably have found upon her some similar evidence of her complicity in the last crime of this terrible series. It would needs have been small, as Silly Rufus neither indulged in the brass trinkets sold by the old peddler nor the real jewelry of a well-to-do man like Mr. Chittenden.”

“Silly Rufus?”

“He was the last to disappear from these parts, was he not?”

“Yes, madam.”

“And as such, should have left some clue to his fate in the hands of this old crone, if her motive in removing him was, as you seem to think, entirely that of gain.”

“I did not say it was entirely so. Silly Rufus would be the last person any one, even such a non compos mentis as Mother Jane, would destroy for hope of gain.”

“But what other motive could she have? And, Mr. Gryce, where could she bestow the bodies of so many unfortunate victims, even if by her great strength she could succeed in killing them?”

“There you have me,” said he. “We have not been able as yet to unearth any bodies. Have you?”

“No,” said I, with some little show of triumph showing through my disdain, “but I can show you where to unearth one.”

He should have been startled, profoundly startled. Why wasn’t he? I asked this of myself over and over in the one instant he weighed his words before answering.

“You have made some definite discoveries, then,” he declared. “You have come across a grave or a mound which you have taken for a grave.”

I shook my head.

“No mound,” said I. Why should I not play for an instant or more with his curiosity? He had with mine.

“Ah, then, why do you talk of unearthing? No one has told you where you can lay hand on Silly Rufus’ body, I take it.”

“No,” said I. “The Knollys house is not inclined to give up its secrets.”

He started, glancing almost remorsefully first at the tip, then at the head of the cane he was balancing in his hand.

“It’s too bad,” he muttered, “but you’ve been led astray, Miss Butterworth — excusably, I acknowledge, quite excusably, but yet in a way to give you quite wrong conclusions. The secret of the Knollys house — But wait a moment. Then you were not locked up in your room last night?”

“Scarcely,” I returned, wavering between the doubts he had awakened by his first sentence and the surprise which his last could not fail to give me.

“I might have known they would not be likely to catch you in a trap,” he remarked. “So you were up and in the halls?”

“I was up,” I acknowledged, “and in the halls. May I ask where you were?”

He paid no heed to the last sentence. “This complicates matters,” said he, “and yet perhaps it is as well. I understand you now, and in a few minutes you will understand me. You thought it was Silly Rufus who was buried last night. That was rather an awful thought, Miss Butterworth. I wonder, with that in your mind, you look as well as you do this morning, madam. Truly you are a wonderful woman — a very wonderful woman.”

“A truce to compliments,” I begged. “If you know as much as your words imply of what went on in that ill-omened house last night, you ought to show some degree of emotion yourself, for if it was not Silly Rufus who was laid away under the Flower Parlor, who, then, was it? No one for whom tears could openly be shed or of whose death public acknowledgment could be made, or we would not be sitting here talking away at cross purposes the morning after his burial.”

“Tears are not shed or public acknowledgment made for the subject of a half-crazy man’s love for scientific investigation. It was no human being whom you saw buried, madam, but a victim of Mr. Knollys’ passion for vivisection.”

“You are playing with me,” was my indignant answer; “outrageously and inexcusably playing with me. Only a human being would be laid away in such secrecy and with such manifestations of feeling as I was witness to. You must think me in my dotage, or else ——”

“We will take the rest of the sentence for granted,” he dryly interpolated. “You know that I can have no wish to insult your intelligence, Miss Butterworth, and that if I advance a theory on my own account I must have ample reasons for it. Now can you say the same for yours? Can you adduce irrefutable proof that the body we buried last night was that of a man? If you can, there is no more to be said, or, rather, there is everything to be said, for this would give to the transaction a very dreadful and tragic significance which at present I am not disposed to ascribe to it.”

Taken aback by his persistence, but determined not to acknowledge defeat until forced to it, I stolidly replied: “You have made an assertion, and it is for you to adduce proof. It will be time enough for me to talk when your own theory is proved untenable.”

He was not angry: fellow-feeling for my disappointment made him unusually gentle. His voice was therefore very kind when he said:

“Madam, if you know it to have been a man, say so. I do not wish to waste my time.”

“I do not know it.”

“Very well, then, I will tell you why I think my supposition true. Mr. Knollys, as you probably have already discovered, is a man with a secret passion for vivisection.”

“Yes, I have discovered that.”

“It is known to his family, and it is known to a very few others, but it is not known to the world at large, not even to his fellow-villagers.’

“I can believe it,” said I.

“His sisters, who are gentle girls, regard the matter as the gentle-hearted usually do. They have tried in every way to influence him to abandon it, but unsuccessfully so far, for he is not only entirely unamenable to persuasion, but has a nature of such brutality he could not live without some such excitement to help away his life in this dreary house. All they can do, then, is to conceal these cruelties from the eyes of the people who already execrate him for his many roughnesses and the undoubted shadow under which he lives. Time was when I thought this shadow had a substance worth our investigation, but a further knowledge of his real fault and a completer knowledge of his sisters’ virtues turned my inquiries in a new direction, where I have found, as I have told you, actual reason for arresting Mother Jane. Have you anything to say against these conclusions? Cannot you see that all your suspicions can be explained by the brother’s cruel impulses and the sisters’ horror of having those impulses known?”

I thought a moment; then I cried out boldly: “No, I cannot, Mr. Gryce. The anxiety, the fear, which I have seen depicted on these sisters’ faces for days might be explained perhaps by this theory; but the knot of crape on the window-shutter, the open Bible in the room of death — William’s room, Mr. Gryce — proclaim that it was a human being, and nothing less, for whom Lucetta’s sobs went up.”

“I do not follow you,” he said, moved for the first time from his composure. “What do you mean by a knot of crape, and when was it you obtained entrance into William’s room?”

“Ah,” I exclaimed in dry retort; “you are beginning to see that I have something as interesting to report as yourself. Did you think me a superficial egotist, without facts to back my assertions?”

“I should not have done you that injustice.”

“I have penetrated, I think, deeper than even yourself, into William’s character. I think him capable — But do satisfy my curiosity on one point first, Mr. Gryce. How came you to know as much as you do about last night’s proceedings? You could not have been in the house. Did Mother Jane talk after she got back?”

The tip of his cane was up, and he frowned at it. Then the handle took its place, and he gave it a good-natured smile.

“Miss Butterworth,” said he, “I have not succeeded in making Mother Jane at any time go beyond her numerical monologue. But you have been more successful.” And with a sudden marvellous change of expression, pose, and manner he threw over his head my shawl, which had fallen to the floor in my astonishment, and, rocking himself to and fro before me, muttered grimly:

“Seventy! Twenty-eight! Ten! No more! I can count no more! Go.”

“Mr. Gryce, it was you ——”

“Whom you interviewed in Mother Jane’s cottage with Mr. Knollys,” he finished. “And it was I who helped to bury what you now declare, to my real terror and astonishment, to have been a human being. Miss Butterworth, what about the knot of crape? Tell me.”

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Last updated Friday, February 28, 2014 at 11:57