That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

xix.

A Decided Step Forward.

I felt that I had made an advance. It was a small one, no doubt, but it was an advance. It would not do to rest there, however, or to draw definite conclusions from what I had seen without further facts to guide me. Mrs. Boppert could supply these facts, or so I believed. Accordingly I decided to visit Mrs. Boppert.

Not knowing whether Mr. Gryce had thought it best to put a watch over my movements, but taking it for granted that it would be like him to do so, I made a couple of formal calls on the avenue before I started eastward. I had learned Mrs. Boppert’s address before leaving home, but I did not ride directly to the tenement where she lived. I chose, instead, to get out at a little fancy store I saw in the neighborhood.

It was a curious place. I never saw so many or such variety of things in one small spot in my life, but I did not waste any time upon this quaint interior, but stepped immediately up to the good woman I saw leaning over the counter.

“Do you know a Mrs. Boppert who lives at 803?” I asked.

The woman’s look was too quick and suspicious for denial; but she was about to attempt it, when I cut her short by saying:

“I wish to see Mrs. Boppert very much, but not in her own rooms. I will pay any one well who will assist me to five minutes’ conversation with her in such a place, say, as that I see behind the glass door at the end of this very shop.”

The woman, startled by so unexpected a proposition, drew back a step, and was about to shake her head, when I laid on the counter before her (shall I say how much? Yes, for it was not thrown away) a five-dollar bill, which she no sooner saw than she gave a gasp of delight.

“Will you give me that?” she cried.

For answer I pushed it towards her, but before her fingers could clutch it, I resolutely said:

“Mrs. Boppert must not know there is anybody waiting here to see her, or she will not come. I have no ill-will towards her, and mean her only good, but she’s a timid sort of person, and ——”

“I know she’s timid,” broke in the good woman, eagerly. “And she’s had enough to make her so! What with policemen drumming her up at night, and innocent-looking girls and boys luring her into corners to tell them what she saw in that grand house where the murder took place, she’s grown that feared of her shadow you can hardly get her out after sundown. But I think I can get her here; and if you mean her no harm, why, ma’am ——” Her fingers were on the bill, and charmed with the feel of it, she forgot to finish her sentence.

“Is there any one in the room back there?” I asked, anxious to recall her to herself.

“No, ma’am, no one at all. I am a poor widder, and not used to such company as you; but if you will sit down, I will make myself look more fit and have Mrs. Boppert over here in a minute.” And calling to some one of the name of Susie to look after the shop, she led the way towards the glass door I have mentioned.

Relieved to find everything working so smoothly and determined to get the worth of my money out of Mrs. Boppert when I saw her, I followed the woman into the most crowded room I ever entered. The shop was nothing to it; there you could move without hitting anything; here you could not. There were tables against every wall, and chairs where there were no tables. Opposite me was a window-ledge filled with flowering plants, and at my right a grate and mantel-piece covered, that is the latter, with innumerable small articles which had evidently passed a long and forlorn probation on the shop shelves before being brought in here. While I was looking at them and marvelling at the small quantity of dust I found, the woman herself disappeared behind a stack of boxes, for which there was undoubtedly no room in the shop. Could she have gone for Mrs. Boppert already, or had she slipped into another room to hide the money which had come so unexpectedly into her hands?

I was not long left in doubt, for in another moment she returned with a flower-bedecked cap on her smooth gray head, that transformed her into a figure at once so complacent and so ridiculous that, had my nerves not been made of iron, I should certainly have betrayed my amusement. With it she had also put on her company manner, and what with the smiles she bestowed upon me and her perfect satisfaction with her own appearance, I had all I could do to hold my own and keep her to the matter in hand. Finally she managed to take in my anxiety and her own duty, and saying that Mrs. Boppert could never refuse a cup of tea, offered to send her an invitation to supper. As this struck me favorably, I nodded, at which she cocked her head on one side and insinuatingly whispered:

“And would you pay for the tea, ma’am?”

I uttered an indignant “No!” which seemed to surprise her. Immediately becoming humble again, she replied it was no matter, that she had tea enough and that the shop would supply cakes and crackers; to all of which I responded with a look which awed her so completely that she almost dropped the dishes with which she was endeavoring to set one of the tables.

“She does so hate to talk about the murder that it will be a perfect godsend to her to drop into good company like this with no prying neighbors about. Shall I set a chair for you, ma’am?”

I declined the honor, saying that I would remain seated where I was, adding, as I saw her about to go:

“Let her walk straight in, and she will be in the middle of the room before she sees me. That will suit her and me too; for after she has once seen me, she won’t be frightened. But you are not to listen at the door.

This I said with great severity, for I saw the woman was becoming very curious, and having said it, I waved her peremptorily away.

She didn’t like it, but a thought of the five dollars comforted her. Casting one final look at the table, which was far from uninvitingly set, she slipped out and I was left to contemplate the dozen or so photographs that covered the walls. I found them so atrocious and their arrangement so distracting to my bump of order, which is of a pronounced character, that I finally shut my eyes on the whole scene, and in this attitude began to piece my thoughts together. But before I had proceeded far, steps were heard in the shop, and the next moment the door flew open and in popped Mrs. Boppert, with a face like a peony in full blossom. She stopped when she saw me and stared.

“Why, if it isn’t the lady ——”

“Hush! Shut the door. I have something very particular to say to you.”

“O,” she began, looking as if she wanted to back out. But I was too quick for her. I shut the door myself and, taking her by the arm, seated her in the corner.

“You don’t show much gratitude,” I remarked.

I did not know what she had to be grateful to me for, but she had so plainly intimated at our first interview that she regarded me as having done her some favor, that I was disposed to make what use of it I could, to gain her confidence.

“I know, ma’am, but if you could see how I’ve been harried, ma’am. It’s the murder, and nothing but the murder all the time; and it was to get away from the talk about it that I came here, ma’am, and now it’s you I see, and you’ll be talking about it too, or why be in such a place as this, ma’am?”

“And what if I do talk about it? You know I’m your friend, or I never would have done you that good turn the morning we came upon the poor girl’s body.”

“I know, ma’am, and grateful I am for it, too; but I’ve never understood it, ma’am. Was it to save me from being blamed by the wicked police, or was it a dream you had, and the gentleman had, for I’ve heard what he said at the inquest, and it’s muddled my head till I don’t know where I’m standing.”

What I had said and what the gentleman had said! What did the poor thing mean? As I did not dare to show my ignorance, I merely shook my head.

“Never mind what caused us to speak as we did, as long as we helped you. And we did help you? The police never found out what you had to do with this woman’s death, did they?”

“No, ma’am, O no, ma’am. When such a respectable lady as you said that you saw the young lady come into the house in the middle of the night, how was they to disbelieve it. They never asked me if I knew any different.”

“No,” said I, almost struck dumb by my success, but letting no hint of my complacency escape me. “And I did not mean they should. You are a decent woman, Mrs. Boppert, and should not be troubled.”

“Thank you, ma’am. But how did you know she had come to the house before I left. Did you see her?”

I hate a lie as I do poison, but I had to exercise all my Christian principles not to tell one then.

“No,” said I, “I didn’t see her, but I don’t always have to use my eyes to know what is going on in my neighbor’s houses.” Which is true enough, if it is somewhat humiliating to confess it.

“O ma’am, how smart you are, ma’am! I wish I had some smartness in me. But my husband had all that. He was a man — O what’s that?”

“Nothing but the tea-caddy; I knocked it over with my elbow.”

“How I do jump at everything! I’m afraid of my own shadow ever since I saw that poor thing lying under that heap of crockery.”

“I don’t wonder.”

“She must have pulled those things over herself, don’t you think so, ma’am? No one went in there to murder her. But how came she to have those clothes on. She was dressed quite different when I let her in. I say it’s all a muddle, ma’am, and it will be a smart man as can explain it.”

“Or a smart woman,” I thought.

“Did I do wrong, ma’am? That’s what plagues me. She begged so hard to come in, I didn’t know how to shut the door on her. Besides her name was Van Burnam, or so she told me.”

Here was a coil. Subduing my surprise, I remarked:

“If she asked you to let her in, I do not see how you could refuse her. Was it in the morning or late in the afternoon she came?”

“Don’t you know, ma’am? I thought you knew all about it from the way you talked.”

Had I been indiscreet? Could she not bear questioning? Eying her with some severity, I declared in a less familiar tone than any I had yet used:

“Nobody knows more about it than I do, but I do not know just the hour at which this lady came to the house. But I do not ask you to tell me if you do not want to.”

“O ma’am,” she humbly remonstrated, “I am sure I am willing to tell you everything. It was in the afternoon while I was doing the front basement floor.”

“And she came to the basement door?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And asked to be let in?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Young Mrs. Van Burnam?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Dressed in a black and white plaid silk, and wearing a hat covered with flowers?”

“Yes, ma’am, or something like that. I know it was very bright and becoming.”

“And why did she come to the basement door — a lady dressed like that?”

“Because she knew I couldn’t open the front door; that I hadn’t the key. O she talked beautiful, ma’am, and wasn’t proud with me a bit. She made me let her stay in the house, and when I said it would be dark after a while and that I hadn’t done nothing to the rooms upstairs, she laughed and said she didn’t care, that she wasn’t afraid of the dark and had just as lieve as not stay in the big house alone all night, for she had a book — Did you say anything, ma’am?”

“No, no, go on, she had a book.”

“Which she could read till she got sleepy. I never thought anything would happen to her.”

“Of course not, why should you? And so you let her into the house and left her there when you went out of it? Well, I don’t wonder you were shocked to see her lying dead on the floor next morning.”

“Awful, ma’am. I was afraid they would blame me for what had happened. But I didn’t do nothing to make her die. I only let her stay in the house. Do you think they will do anything to me if they know it?”

“No,” said I, trying to understand this woman’s ignorant fears, “they don’t punish such things. More’s the pity!”— this in confidence to myself. “How could you know that a piece of furniture would fall on her before morning. Did you lock her in when you left the house?”

“Yes, ma’am. She told me to.”

Then she was a prisoner.

Confounded by the mystery of the whole affair, I sat so still the woman looked up in wonder, and I saw I had better continue my questions.

“What reason did she give for wanting to stay in the house all night?”

“What reason, ma’am? I don’t know. Something about her having to be there when Mr. Van Burnam came home. I didn’t make it out, and I didn’t try to. I was too busy wondering what she would have to eat.”

“And what did she have?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. She said she had something, but I didn’t see it.”

“Perhaps you were blinded by the money she gave you. She gave you some, of course?”

“O, not much, ma’am, not much. And I wouldn’t have taken a cent if it had not seemed to make her so happy to give it. The pretty, pretty thing! A real lady, whatever they say about her!”

“And happy? You said she was happy, cheerful-looking, and pretty.”

“O yes, ma’am; she didn’t know what was going to happen. I even heard her sing after she went up-stairs.”

I wished that my ears had been attending to their duty that day, and I might have heard her sing too. But the walls between my house and that of the Van Burnams are very thick, as I have had occasion to observe more than once.

“Then she went up-stairs before you left?”

“To be sure, ma’am; what would she do in the kitchen?”

“And you didn’t see her again?”

“No, ma’am; but I heard her walking around.”

“In the parlors, you mean?”

“Yes, ma’am, in the parlors.”

“You did not go up yourself?”

“No, ma’am, I had enough to do below.”

“Didn’t you go up when you went away?”

“No, ma’am; I didn’t like to.”

“When did you go?”

“At five, ma’am; I always go at five.”

“How did you know it was five?”

“The kitchen clock told me; I wound it, ma’am and set it when the whistles blew at twelve.”

“Was that the only clock you wound?”

“Only clock? Do you think I’d be going around the house winding any others?”

Her face showed such surprise, and her eyes met mine so frankly, that I was convinced she spoke the truth. Gratified — I don’t know why — I bestowed upon her my first smile, which seemed to affect her, for her face softened, and she looked at me quite eagerly for a minute before she said:

“You don’t think so very bad of me, do you, ma’am?”

But I had been struck by a thought which made me for the moment oblivious to her question. She had wound the clock in the kitchen for her own uses, and why may not the lady above have wound the one in the parlor for hers? Filled with this startling idea, I remarked:

“The young lady wore a watch, of course?”

But the suggestion passed unheeded. Mrs. Boppert was as much absorbed in her own thoughts as I was.

“Did young Mrs. Van Burnam wear a watch?” I persisted.

Mrs. Boppert’s face remained a blank.

Provoked at her impassibility, I shook her with an angry hand, imperatively demanding:

“What are you thinking of? Why don’t you answer my questions?”

She was herself again in an instant.

“O ma’am, I beg your pardon. I was wondering if you meant the parlor clock.”

I calmed myself, looked severe to hide my more than eager interest, and sharply cried:

“Of course I mean the parlor clock. Did you wind it?”

“O no, no, no, I would as soon think of touching gold or silver. But the young lady did, I’m sure, ma’am, for I heard it strike when she was setting of it.”

Ah! If my nature had not been an undemonstrative one, and if I had not been bred to a strong sense of social distinctions, I might have betrayed my satisfaction at this announcement in a way that would have made this homely German woman start. As it was I sat stock-still, and even made her think I had not heard her. Venturing to rouse me a bit, she spoke again after a minute’s silence.

“She might have been lonely, you know, ma’am; and the ticking of a clock is such company.”

“Yes,” I answered with more than my accustomed vivacity, for she jumped as if I had struck her. “You have hit the nail on the head, Mrs. Boppert, and are a much smarter woman than I thought. But when did she wind the clock?”

“At five o’clock, ma’am; just before I left the house.”

“O, and did she know you were going?”

“I think so, ma’am, for I called up, just before I put on my bonnet, that it was five o’clock and that I was going.”

“O, you did. And did she answer back?”

“Yes, ma’am. I heard her step in the hall and then her voice. She asked if I was sure it was five, and I told her yes, because I had set the kitchen clock at twelve. She didn’t say any more, but just after that I heard the parlor clock begin to strike.”

O, thought I, what cannot be got out of the most stupid and unwilling witness by patience and a judicious use of questions. To know that this clock was started after five o’clock, that is, after the hour at which the hands pointed when it fell, and that it was set correctly in starting, and so would give indisputable testimony of the hour when the shelves fell, were points of the greatest importance. I was so pleased I gave the woman another smile.

Instantly she cried:

“But you won’t say anything about it, will you, ma’am? They might make me pay for all the things that were broke.”

My smile this time was not one of encouragement simply. But it might have been anything for all effect it had on her. The intricacies of the affair had disturbed her poor brain again, and all her powers of mind were given up to lament.

“O,” she bemoaned, “I wish I had never seen her! My head wouldn’t ache so with the muddle of it. Why, ma’am, her husband said he came to the house at midnight with his wife! How could he when she was inside of it all the time. But then perhaps he said that, just as you did, to save me blame. But why should a gentleman like him do that?”

“It isn’t worth while for you to bother your head about it,” I expostulated. “It is enough that my head aches over it.”

I don’t suppose she understood me or tried to. Her wits had been sorely tried and my rather severe questioning had not tended to clear them. At all events she went on in another moment as if I had not spoken:

“But what became of her pretty dress? I was never so astonished in my life as when I saw that dark skirt on her.”

“She might have left her fine gown upstairs,” I ventured, not wishing to go into the niceties of evidence with this woman.

“So she might, so she might, and that may have been her petticoat we saw.” But in another moment she saw the impossibility of this, for she added: “But I saw her petticoat, and it was a brown silk one. She showed it when she lifted her skirt to get at her purse. I don’t understand it, ma’am.”

As her face by this time was almost purple, I thought it a mercy to close the interview; so I uttered some few words of a soothing and encouraging nature, and then seeing that something more tangible was necessary to restore her to any proper condition of spirits, I took out my pocket-book and bestowed on her some of my loose silver.

This was something she could understand. She brightened immediately, and before she was well through her expressions of delight, I had quitted the room and in a few minutes later the shop.

I hope the two women had their cup of tea after that.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37