That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

xxi.

A Shrewd Conjecture.

The text of which I speak was as follows:

I would advertise for a person dressed as I believed Mrs. Van Burnam to have been when she left the scene of crime. If I received news of such a person, I might safely consider my theory established.

I accordingly wrote the following advertisement:

“Information wanted of a woman who applied for lodgings on the morning of the eighteenth inst., dressed in a brown silk skirt and a black and white plaid blouse of fashionable cut. She was without a hat, or if a person so dressed wore a hat, then it was bought early in the morning at some store, in which case let shopkeepers take notice. The person answering this description is eagerly sought for by her relatives, and to any one giving positive information of the same, a liberal reward will be paid. Please address, T. W. Alvord, —— Liberty Street.”

I purposely did not mention her personal appearance, for fear of attracting the attention of the police.

This done, I wrote the following letter:

“DEAR MISS FERGUSON:

“One clever woman recognizes another. I am clever and am not ashamed to own it. You are clever and should not be ashamed to be told so. I was a witness at the inquest in which you so notably distinguished yourself, and I said then, ‘There is a woman after my own heart!’ But a truce to compliments! What I want and ask of you to procure for me is a photograph of Mrs. Van Burnam. I am a friend of the family, and consider them to be in more trouble than they deserve. If I had her picture I would show it to the Misses Van Burnam, who feel great remorse at their treatment of her, and who want to see how she looked. Cannot you find one in their rooms? The one in Mr. Howard’s room here has been confiscated by the police.*

“Hoping that you will feel disposed to oblige me in this — and I assure you that my motives in making this request are most excellent — I remain,

“Cordially yours,

“AMELIA BUTTERWORTH.

“P. S. — Address me, if you please, at 564 —— Avenue. Care of J. H. Denham.”

* This was so probable, it cannot be considered an untruth. — A. B.

This was my grocer, with whom I left word the next morning to deliver this package in the next bushel of potatoes he sent me.

My smart little maid, Lena, carried these two communications to the east side, where she posted the letter herself and entrusted the advertisement to a lover of hers who carried it to the Herald office. While she was gone I tried to rest by exercising my mind in other directions. But I could not. I kept going over Howard’s testimony in the light of my own theory, and remarking how the difficulty he experienced in maintaining the position he had taken, forced him into inconsistencies and far-fetched explanations. With his wife for a companion at the Hotel D— — his conduct both there and on the road to his father’s house was that of a much weaker man than his words and appearance led one to believe; but if, on the contrary, he had with him a woman with whom he was about to elope (and what did the packing up of all his effects mean, if not that?), all the precautions they took seemed reasonable.

Later, my mind fixed itself on one point. If it was his wife who was with him, as he said, then the bundle they dropped at the old woman’s feet contained the much-talked of plaid silk. If it was not, then it was a gown of some different material. Now, could this bundle be found? If it could, then why had not Mr. Gryce produced it? The sight of Mrs. Van Burnam’s plaid silk spread out on the Coroner’s table would have had a great effect in clinching the suspicion against her husband. But no plaid silk had been found (because it was not dropped in the bundle, but worn away on the murderess’s back), and no old woman. I thought I knew the reason of this too. There was no old woman to be found, and the bundle they carried had been got rid of some other way. What way? I would take a walk down that same block and see, and I would take it at the midnight hour too, for only so could I judge of the possibilities there offered for concealing or destroying such an article.

Having made this decision, I cast about to see how I could carry it into effect. I am not a coward, but I have a respectability to maintain, and what errand could Miss Butterworth be supposed to have in the streets at twelve o’clock at night! Fortunately, I remembered that my cook had complained of toothache when I gave her my orders for breakfast, and going down at once into the kitchen, where she sat with her cheek propped up in her hand waiting for Lena, I said with an asperity which admitted of no reply:

“You have a dreadful tooth, Sarah, and you must have something done for it at once. When Lena comes home, send her to me. I am going to the drug-store for some drops, and I want Lena to accompany me.”

She looked astounded, of course, but I would not let her answer me. “Don’t speak a word,” I cried, “it will only make your toothache worse; and don’t look as if some hobgoblin had jumped up on the kitchen table. I guess I know my duty, and just what kind of a breakfast I will have in the morning, if you sit up all night groaning with the toothache.” And I was out of the room before she had more than begun to say that it was not so bad, and that I needn’t trouble, and all that, which was true enough, no doubt, but not what I wanted to hear at that moment.

When Lena came in, I saw by the brightness of her face that she had accomplished her double errand. I therefore signified to her that I was satisfied, and asked if she was too tired to go out again, saying quite peremptorily that Sarah was ill, and that I was going to the drug-store for some medicine, and did not wish to go alone.

Lena’s round-eyed wonder was amusing; but she is very discreet, as I have said before, and she ventured nothing save a meek, “It’s very late, Miss Butterworth,” which was an unnecessary remark, as she soon saw.

I do not like to obtrude my aristocratic tendencies too much into this narrative, but when I found myself in the streets alone with Lena, I could not help feeling some secret qualms lest my conduct savored of impropriety. But the thought that I was working in the cause of truth and justice came to sustain me, and before I had gone two blocks, I felt as much at home under the midnight skies as if I were walking home from church on a Sunday afternoon.

There is a certain drug-store on Third Avenue where I like to deal, and towards this I ostensibly directed my steps. But I took pains to go by the way of Lexington Avenue and Twenty-seventh Street, and upon reaching the block where this mysterious couple were seen, gave all my attention to the possible hiding-places it offered.

Lena, who had followed me like my shadow, and who was evidently too dumfounded at my freak to speak, drew up to my side as we were half-way down it and seized me tremblingly by the arm.

“Two men are coming,” said she.

“I am not afraid of men,” was my sharp rejoinder. But I told a most abominable lie; for I am afraid of them in such places and under such circumstances, though not under ordinary conditions, and never where the tongue is likely to be the only weapon employed.

The couple who were approaching us now seemed to be in a merry mood. But when they saw us keep to our own side of the way, they stopped their chaffing and allowed us to go by, with just a mocking word or two.

“Sarah ought to be very much obliged to you,” whispered Lena.

At the corner of Third Avenue I paused. I had seen nothing so far but bare stoops and dark area-ways. Nothing to suggest a place for the disposal of such cumbersome articles as these persons had made way with. Had the avenue anything better to offer? I stopped under the gas-lamp at the corner to consider, notwithstanding Lena’s gentle pull towards the drug-store. Looking to left and right and over the muddy crossings, I sought for inspiration. An almost obstinate belief in my own theory led me to insist in my own mind that they had encountered no old woman, and consequently had not dropped their bundles in the open street. I even entered into an argument about it, standing there with the cable cars whistling by me and Lena tugging away at my arm. “If,” said I to myself, “the woman with him had been his wife and the whole thing nothing more than a foolish escapade, they might have done this; but she was not his wife, and the game they were playing was serious, if they did laugh over it, and so their disposal of these tell-tale articles would be serious and such as would protect their secret. Where, then, could they have thrust them?”

My eyes, as I muttered this, were on the one shop in my line of vision that was still open and lighted. It was the den of a Chinese laundryman, and through the windows in front I could see him still at work, ironing.

“Ah!” thought I, and made such a start across the street that Lena gasped in dismay and almost fell to the ground in her frightened attempt to follow me.

“Not that way!” she called. “Miss Butterworth, you are going wrong.”

But I kept right on, and only stopped when I reached the laundry.

“I have an errand here,” I explained. “Wait in the doorway, Lena, and don’t act as if you thought me crazy, for I was never saner in my life.”

I don’t think this reassured her much, lunatics not being supposed to be very good judges of their own mental condition, but she was so accustomed to obey, that she drew back as I opened the door before me and entered. The surprise on the face of the poor Chinaman when he turned and saw before him a lady of years and no ordinary appearance, daunted me for an instant. But another look only showed me that his very surprise was inoffensive, and gathering courage from the unexpectedness of my own position, I inquired with all the politeness I could show one of his abominable nationality:

“Didn’t a gentleman and a heavily veiled lady leave a package with you a few days ago at about the same hour of night as this?”

“Some lalee clo’ washee? Yes, ma’am. No done. She tellee me no callee for one week.”

“Then that’s all right; the lady has died very suddenly, and the gentleman gone away; you will have to keep the clothes a long time.”

“Me wantee money, no wantee clo’!”

“I’ll pay you for them; I don’t care about them being ironed.”

“Givee tickee, givee clo’! No givee tickee, no givee clo’!”

This was a poser! But as I did not want the clothes so much as a look at them, I soon got the better of this difficulty.

“I don’t want them to-night,” said I. “I only wanted to make sure you had them. What night were these people here?”

“Tuesday night, velly late; nicee man, nicee lalee. She wantee talk. Nicee man he pullee she; I no hear if muchee stasch. All washee, see!” he went on, dragging a basket out of the corner, “him no ilon.”

I was in such a quiver; so struck with amazement at my own perspicacity in surmising that here was a place where a bundle of underclothing could be lost indefinitely, that I just stared while he turned over the clothes in the basket. For by means of the quality of the articles he was preparing to show me, the question which had been agitating me for hours could be definitely decided. If they proved to be fine and of foreign manufacture, then Howard’s story was true and all my fine-spun theories must fall to the ground. But if, on the contrary, they were such as are usually worn by American women, then my own idea as to the identity of the woman who left them here was established, and I could safely consider her as the victim and Louise Van Burnam as the murderess, unless further facts came to prove that he was the guilty one, after all.

The sight of Lena’s eyes staring at me with great anxiety through the panes of the door distracted my attention for a moment, and when I looked again, he was holding up two or three garments before me. The articles thus revealed told their story in a moment. They were far from fine, and had even less embroidery on them than I expected.

“Are there any marks on them?” I asked.

He showed me two letters stamped in indelible ink on the band of a skirt. I did not have my glasses with me, but the ink was black, and I read O. R. “The minx’s initials,” thought I.

When I left the place my complacency was such that Lena did not know what to make of me. She has since informed me that I looked as if I wanted to shout Hurrah! but I cannot believe I so far forgot myself as that. But pleased as I was, I had only discovered how one bundle had been disposed of. The dress and outside fixings still had to be accounted for, and I was the woman to do it.

We had mechanically moved in the direction of the drug-store and were near the curb-stone when I reached this point in my meditations. It had rained a little while before, and a small stream was running down the gutter and emptying itself into the sewer opening. The sight of it sharpened my wits.

If I wanted to get rid of anything of a damaging character, I would drop it at the mouth of one of these holes and gently thrust it into the sewer with my foot, thought I. And never doubting that I had found an explanation of the disappearance of the second bundle, I walked on, deciding that if I had the police at my command I would have the sewer searched at those four corners.

We rode home after visiting the drug-store. I was not going to subject Lena or myself to another midnight walk through Twenty-seventh Street.

FOOTNOTES:

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/green/anna_katharine/that_affair_next_door/chapter21.html

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