That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

xxii.

A Blank Card.

The next day at noon Lena brought me up a card on her tray. It was a perfectly blank one.

“Miss Van Burnam’s maid said you sent for this,” was her demure announcement.

“Miss Van Burnam’s maid is right,” said I, taking the card and with it a fresh installment of courage.

Nothing happened for two days, then there came word from the kitchen that a bushel of potatoes had arrived. Going down to see them, I drew from their midst a large square envelope, which I immediately carried to my room. It failed to contain a photograph; but there was a letter in it couched in these terms:

“DEAR MISS BUTTERWORTH:

“The esteem which you are good enough to express for me is returned. I regret that I cannot oblige you. There are no photographs to be found in Mrs. Van Burnam’s rooms. Perhaps this fact may be accounted for by the curiosity shown in those apartments by a very spruce new boarder we have had from New York. His taste for that particular quarter of the house was such that I could not keep him away from it except by lock and key. If there was a picture there of Mrs. Van Burnam, he took it, for he departed very suddenly one night. I am glad he took nothing more with him. The talks he had with my servant-girl have almost led to my dismissing her.

“Praying your pardon for the disappointment I am forced to give you, I remain,

“Yours sincerely,

“SUSAN FERGUSON.”

So! so! balked by an emissary of Mr. Gryce. Well, well, we would do without the photograph! Mr. Gryce might need it, but not Amelia Butterworth.

This was on a Thursday, and on the evening of Saturday the long-desired clue was given me. It came in the shape of a letter brought me by Mr. Alvord.

Our interview was not an agreeable one. Mr. Alvord is a clever man and an adroit one, or I should not persist in employing him as my lawyer; but he never understood me. At this time, and with this letter in his hand, he understood me less than ever, which naturally called out my powers of self-assertion and led to some lively conversation between us. But that is neither here nor there. He had brought me an answer to my advertisement and I was presently engrossed by it. It was an uneducated woman’s epistle and its chirography and spelling were dreadful; so I will just mention its contents, which were highly interesting in themselves, as I think you will acknowledge.

She, that is, the writer, whose name, as nearly as I could make out, was Bertha Desberger, knew such a person as I described, and could give me news of her if I would come to her house in West Ninth Street at four o’clock Sunday afternoon.

If I would! I think my face must have shown my satisfaction, for Mr. Alvord, who was watching me, sarcastically remarked:

“You don’t seem to find any difficulties in that communication. Now, what do you think of this one?”

He held out another letter which had been directed to him, and which he had opened. Its contents called up a shade of color to my cheek, for I did not want to go through the annoyance of explaining myself again:

“DEAR SIR:

“From a strange advertisement which has lately appeared in the Herald, I gather that information is wanted of a young woman who on the morning of the eighteenth inst. entered my store without any bonnet on her head, and saying she had met with an accident, bought a hat which she immediately put on. She was pale as a girl could be and looked so ill that I asked her if she was well enough to be out alone; but she gave me no reply and left the store as soon as possible. That is all I can tell you about her.”

With this was enclosed his card:

PHINEAS COX,

Millinery,

Trimmed and Untrimmed Hats,

—— Sixth Avenue.

“Now, what does this mean?” asked Mr. Alvord. “The morning of the eighteenth was the morning when the murder was discovered in which you have shown such interest.”

“It means,” I retorted with some spirit, for simple dignity was thrown away on this man, “that I made a mistake in choosing your office as a medium for my business communications.”

This was to the point and he said no more, though he eyed the letter in my hand very curiously, and seemed more than tempted to renew the hostilities with which we had opened our interview.

Had it not been Saturday, and late in the day at that, I would have visited Mr. Cox’s store before I slept, but as it was I felt obliged to wait till Monday. Meanwhile I had before me the still more important interview with Mrs. Desberger.

As I had no reason to think that my visiting any number in Ninth Street would arouse suspicion in the police, I rode there quite boldly the next day, and with Lena at my side, entered the house of Mrs. Bertha Desberger.

For this trip I had dressed myself plainly, and drawn over my eyes — and the puffs which I still think it becoming in a woman of my age to wear — a dotted veil, thick enough to conceal my features, without robbing me of that aspect of benignity necessary to the success of my mission. Lena wore her usual neat gray dress, and looked the picture of all the virtues.

A large brass door-plate, well rubbed, was the first sign vouchsafed us of the respectability of the house we were about to enter; and the parlor, when we were ushered into it, fully carried out the promise thus held forth on the door-step. It was respectable, but in wretched taste as regards colors. I, who have the nicest taste in such matters, looked about me in dismay as I encountered the greens and blues, the crimsons and the purples which everywhere surrounded me.

But I was not on a visit to a temple of art, and resolutely shutting my eyes to the offending splendor about me — worsted splendor, you understand — I waited with subdued expectation for the lady of the house.

She came in presently, bedecked in a flowered gown that was an epitome of the blaze of colors everywhere surrounding us; but her face was a good one, and I saw that I had neither guile nor over-much shrewdness to contend with.

She had seen the coach at the door, and she was all smiles and flutter.

“You have come for the poor girl who stopped here a few days ago,” she began, glancing from my face to Lena’s with an equally inquiring air, which in itself would have shown her utter ignorance of social distinctions if I had not bidden Lena to keep at my side and hold her head up as if she had business there as well as myself.

“Yes,” returned I, “we have. Lena here, has lost a relative (which was true), and knowing no other way of finding her, I suggested the insertion of an advertisement in the paper. You read the description given, of course. Has the person answering it been in this house?”

“Yes; she came on the morning of the eighteenth. I remember it because that was the very day my cook left, and I have not got another one yet.” She sighed and went on. “I took a great interest in that unhappy young woman — Was she your sister?” This, somewhat doubtfully, to Lena, who perhaps had too few colors on to suit her.

“No,” answered Lena, “she wasn’t my sister, but ——”

I immediately took the words out of her mouth.

“At what time did she come here, and how long did she stay? We want to find her very much. Did she give you any name, or tell where she was going?”

“She said her name was Oliver.” (I thought of the O. R. on the clothes at the laundry.) “But I knew this wasn’t so; and if she had not looked so very modest, I might have hesitated to take her in. But, lor! I can’t resist a girl in trouble, and she was in trouble, if ever a girl was. And then she had money — Do you know what her trouble was?” This again to Lena, and with an air at once suspicious and curious. But Lena has a good face, too, and her frank eyes at once disarmed the weak and good-natured woman before us.

“I thought”— she went on before Lena could answer —“that whatever it was, you had nothing to do with it, nor this lady either.”

“No,” answered Lena, seeing that I wished her to do the talking. “And we don’t know” (which was true enough so far as Lena went) “just what her trouble was. Didn’t she tell you?”

“She told nothing. When she came she said she wanted to stay with me a little while. I sometimes take boarders ——” She had twenty in the house at that minute, if she had one. Did she think I couldn’t see the length of her dining-room table through the crack of the parlor door? “‘I can pay,’ she said, which I had not doubted, for her blouse was a very expensive one; though I thought her skirt looked queer, and her hat — Did I say she had a hat on? You seemed to doubt that fact in your advertisement. Goodness me! if she had had no hat on, she wouldn’t have got as far as my parlor mat. But her blouse showed her to be a lady — and then her face — it was as white as your handkerchief there, madam, but so sweet — I thought of the Madonna faces I had seen in Catholic churches.”

I started; inwardly commenting: “Madonna-like, that woman!” But a glance at the room about me reassured me. The owner of such hideous sofas and chairs and of the many pictures effacing or rather defacing the paper on the walls, could not be a judge of Madonna faces.

“You admire everything that is good and lovely,” I suggested, for Mrs. Desberger had paused at the movement I made.

“Yes, it is my nature to do so, ma’am. I love the beautiful,” and she cast a half-apologetic, half-proud look about her. “So I listened to the girl and let her sit down in my parlor. She had had nothing to eat that morning, and though she didn’t ask for it, I went to order her a cup of tea, for I knew she couldn’t get up-stairs without it. Her eyes followed me when I went out of the room in a way that haunted me, and when I came back — I shall never forget it, ma’am — there she lay stretched out on the floor with her face on the ground and her hands thrown out. Wasn’t it horrible, ma’am? I don’t wonder you shudder.”

Did I shudder? If I did, it was because I was thinking of that other woman, the victim of this one, whom I had seen, with her face turned upward and her arms outstretched, in the gloom of Mr. Van Burnam’s half-closed parlor.

“She looked as if she was dead,” the good woman continued, “but just as I was about to call for help, her fingers moved and I rushed to lift her. She was neither dead nor had she fainted; she was simply dumb with misery. What could have happened to her? I have asked myself a hundred times.”

My mouth was shut very tight, but I shut it still tighter, for the temptation was great to cry: “She had just committed murder!” As it was, no sound whatever left my lips, and the good woman doubtless thought me no better than a stone, for she turned with a shrug to Lena, repeating still more wistfully than before:

Don’t you know what her trouble was?”

But, of course, poor Lena had nothing to say, and the woman went on with a sigh:

“Well, I suppose I shall never know what had used that poor creature up so completely. But whatever it was, it gave me enough trouble, though I do not want to complain of it, for why are we here, if not to help and comfort the miserable. It was an hour, ma’am; it was an hour, miss, before I could get that poor girl to speak; but when I did succeed, and had got her to drink the tea and eat a bit of toast, then I felt quite repaid by the look of gratitude she gave me and the way she clung to my sleeve when I tried to leave her for a minute. It was this sleeve, ma’am,” she explained, lifting a cluster of rainbow flounces and ribbons which but a minute before had looked little short of ridiculous in my eyes, but which in the light of the wearer’s kind-heartedness had lost some of their offensive appearance.

“Poor Mary!” murmured Lena, with what I considered most admirable presence of mind.

“What name did you say?” cried Mrs. Desberger, eager enough to learn all she could of her late mysterious lodger.

“I had rather not tell her name,” protested Lena, with a timid air that admirably fitted her rather doll-like prettiness. “She didn’t tell you what it was, and I don’t think I ought to.”

Good for little Lena! And she did not even know for whom or what she was playing the rôle I had set her.

“I thought you said Mary. But I won’t be inquisitive with you. I wasn’t so with her. But where was I in my story? Oh, I got her so she could speak, and afterwards I helped her up-stairs; but she didn’t stay there long. When I came back at lunch time — I have to do my marketing no matter what happens — I found her sitting before a table with her head on her hands. She had been weeping, but her face was quite composed now and almost hard.

“‘O you good woman!’ she cried as I came in. ‘I want to thank you.’ But I wouldn’t let her go on wasting words like that, and presently she was saying quite wildly: ‘I want to begin a new life. I want to act as if I had never had a yesterday. I have had trouble, overwhelming trouble, but I will get something out of existence yet. I will live, and in order to do so, I will work. Have you a paper, Mrs. Desberger, I want to look at the advertisements?’ I brought her a Herald and went to preside at my lunch table. When I saw her again she looked almost cheerful. ‘I have found just what I want,’ she cried, ‘a companion’s place. But I cannot apply in this dress,’ and she looked at the great puffs of her silk blouse as if they gave her the horrors, though why, I cannot imagine, for they were in the latest style and rich enough for a millionaire’s daughter, though as to colors I like brighter ones myself. ‘Would you’— she was very timid about it —‘buy me some things if I gave you the money?’

“If there is one thing more than another that I like, it is to shop, so I expressed my willingness to oblige her, and that afternoon I set out with a nice little sum of money to buy her some clothes. I should have enjoyed it more if she had let me do my own choosing — I saw the loveliest pink and green blouse — but she was very set about what she wanted, and so I just got her some plain things which I think even you, ma’am, would have approved of. I brought them home myself, for she wanted to apply immediately for the place she had seen advertised, but, O dear, when I went up to her room ——”

“Was she gone?” burst in Lena.

“O no, but there was such a smudge in it, and — and I could cry when I think of it — there in the grate were the remains of her beautiful silk blouse, all smoking and ruined. She had tried to burn it, and she had succeeded too. I could not get a piece out as big as my hand.”

“But you got some of it!” blurted out Lena, guided by a look which I gave her.

“Yes, scraps, it was so handsome. I think I have a bit in my work-basket now.”

“O get it for me,” urged Lena. “I want it to remember her by.”

“My work-basket is here.” And going to a sort of etagère covered with a thousand knick-knacks picked up at bargain counters, she opened a little cupboard and brought out a basket, from which she presently pulled a small square of silk. It was, as she said, of the richest weaving, and was, as I had not the least doubt, a portion of the dress worn by Mrs. Van Burnam from Haddam.

“Yes, it was hers,” said Lena, reading the expression of my face, and putting the scrap away very carefully in her pocket.

“Well, I would have given her five dollars for that blouse,” murmured Mrs. Desberger, regretfully. “But girls like her are so improvident.”

“And did she leave that day?” I asked, seeing that it was hard for this woman to tear her thoughts away from this coveted article.

“Yes, ma’am. It was late, and I had but little hopes of her getting the situation she was after. But she promised to come back if she didn’t; and as she did not come back I decided that she was more successful than I had anticipated.”

“And don’t you know where she went? Didn’t she confide in you at all?”

“No; but as there were but three advertisements for a lady-companion in the Herald that day, it will be easy to find her. Would you like to see those advertisements? I saved them out of curiosity.”

I assented, as you may believe, and she brought us the clippings at once. Two of them I read without emotion, but the third almost took my breath away. It was an advertisement for a lady-companion accustomed to the typewriter and of some taste in dressmaking, and the address given was that of Miss Althorpe.

If this woman, steeped in misery and darkened by crime, should be there!

As I shall not mention Mrs. Desberger again for some time, I will here say that at the first opportunity which presented itself I sent Lena to the shops with orders to buy and have sent to Mrs. Desberger the ugliest and most flaunting of silk blouses that could be found on Sixth Avenue; and as Lena’s dimples were more than usually pronounced on her return, I have no doubt she chose one to suit the taste and warm the body of the estimable woman, whose kindly nature had made such a favorable impression upon me.

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