That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

xxiii.

Ruth Oliver.

From Mrs. Desberger’s I rode immediately to Miss Althorpe’s, for the purpose of satisfying myself at once as to the presence there of the unhappy fugitive I was tracing.

Six o’clock Sunday night is not a favorable hour for calling at a young lady’s house, especially when that lady has a lover who is in the habit of taking tea with the family. But I was in a mood to transgress all rules and even to forget the rights of lovers. Besides, much is forgiven a woman of my stamp, especially by a person of the good sense and amiability of Miss Althorpe.

That I was not mistaken in my calculations was evident from the greeting I received. Miss Althorpe came forward as graciously and with as little surprise in her manner as any one could expect under the circumstances, and for a moment I was so touched by her beauty and the unaffected charm of her manners that I forgot my errand and only thought of the pleasure of meeting a lady who fairly comes up to the standard one has secretly set for one’s self. Of course she is much younger than I— some say she is only twenty-three; but a lady is a lady at any age, and Ella Althorpe might be a model for a much older woman than myself.

The room in which we were seated was a large one, and though I could hear Mr. Stone’s voice in the adjoining apartment, I did not fear to broach the subject I had come to discuss.

“You may think this intrusion an odd one,” I began, “but I believe you advertised a few days ago for a young lady-companion. Have you been suited, Miss Althorpe?”

“O yes; I have a young person with me whom I like very much.”

“Ah, you are supplied! Is she any one you know?”

“No, she is a stranger, and what is more, she brought no recommendations with her. But her appearance is so attractive and her desire for the place was so great, that I consented to try her. And she is very satisfactory, poor girl! very satisfactory indeed!”

Ah, here was an opportunity for questions. Without showing too much eagerness and yet with a proper show of interest, I smilingly remarked:

“No one can be called poor long who remains under your roof, Miss Althorpe. But perhaps she has lost friends; so many nice girls are thrown upon their own resources by the death of relatives?”

“She does not wear mourning; but she is in some great trouble for all that. But this cannot interest you, Miss Butterworth; have you some protégé whom you wished to recommend for the position?”

I heard her, but did not answer at once. In fact, I was thinking how to proceed. Should I take her into my confidence, or should I continue in the ambiguous manner in which I had begun. Seeing her smile, I became conscious of the awkward silence.

“Pardon me,” said I, resuming my best manner, “but there is something I want to say which may strike you as peculiar.”

“O no,” said she.

“I am interested in the girl you have befriended, and for very different reasons from those you suppose. I fear — I have great reason to fear — that she is not just the person you would like to harbor under your roof.”

“Indeed! Why, what do you know about her? Anything bad, Miss Butterworth?”

I shook my head, and prayed her first to tell me how the girl looked and under what circumstances she came to her; for I was desirous of making no mistake concerning her identity with the person of whom I was in search.

“She is a sweet-looking girl,” was the answer I received; “not beautiful, but interesting in expression and manner. She has brown hair,”— I shuddered — “brown eyes, and a mouth that would be lovely if it ever smiled. In fact, she is very attractive and so lady-like that I have desired to make a companion of her. But while attentive to all her duties, and manifestly grateful to me for the home I have given her, she shows so little desire for company or conversation that I have desisted for the last day or so from urging her to speak at all. But you asked me under what circumstances she came to me?”

“Yes, on what day, and at what time of day? Was she dressed well, or did her clothes look shabby?”

“She came on the very day I advertised; the eighteenth — yes, it was the eighteenth of this month; and she was dressed, so far as I noticed, very neatly. Indeed, her clothes appeared to be new. They needed to have been, for she brought nothing with her save what was contained in a small hand-bag.”

“Also new?” I suggested.

“Very likely; I did not observe.”

“O Miss Althorpe!” I exclaimed, this time with considerable vehemence, “I fear, or rather I hope, she is the woman I want.”

You want!”

“Yes, I; but I cannot tell you for what just yet. I must be sure, for I would not subject an innocent person to suspicion any more than you would.”

“Suspicion! She is not honest, then? That would worry me, Miss Butterworth, for the house is full now, as you know, of wedding presents, and — But I cannot believe such a thing of her. It is some other fault she has, less despicable and degrading.”

“I do not say she has any faults; I only said I feared. What name does she go by?”

“Oliver; Ruth Oliver.”

Again I thought of the O. R. on the clothes at the laundry.

“I wish I could see her,” I ventured. “I would give anything for a peep at her face unobserved.”

“I don’t know how I can manage that; she is very shy, and never shows herself in the front of the house. She even dines in her own room, having begged for that privilege till after I was married and the household settled on a new basis. But you can go to her room with me. If she is all right, she can have no objection to a visitor; and if she is not, it would be well for me to know it at once.”

“Certainly,” said I, and rose to follow her, turning over in my mind how I should account to this young woman for my intrusion. I had just arrived at what I considered a sensible conclusion, when Miss Althorpe, leaning towards me, said with a whole-souled impetuosity for which I could not but admire her:

“The girl is very nervous, she looks and acts like a person who has had some frightful shock. Don’t alarm her, Miss Butterworth, and don’t accuse her of anything wrong too suddenly. Perhaps she is innocent, and perhaps if she is not innocent, she has been driven into evil by very great temptations. I am sorry for her, whether she is simply unhappy or deeply remorseful. For I never saw a sweeter face, or eyes with such boundless depths of misery in them.”

Just what Mrs. Desberger had said! Strange, but I began to feel a certain sort of sympathy for the wretched being I was hunting down.

“I will be careful,” said I. “I merely want to satisfy myself that she is the same girl I heard of last from a Mrs. Desberger.”

Miss Althorpe, who was now half-way up the rich staircase which makes her house one of the most remarkable in the city, turned and gave me a quick look over her shoulder.

“I don’t know Mrs. Desberger,” she remarked.

At which I smiled. Did she think Mrs. Desberger in society?

At the end of an upper passage-way we paused.

“This is the door,” whispered Miss Althorpe. “Perhaps I had better go in first and see if she is at all prepared for company.”

I was glad to have her do so, for I felt as if I needed to prepare myself for encountering this young girl, over whom, in my mind, hung the dreadful suspicion of murder.

But the time between Miss Althorpe’s knock and her entrance, short as it was, was longer than that which elapsed between her going in and her hasty reappearance.

“You can have your wish,” said she. “She is lying on her bed asleep, and you can see her without being observed. But,” she entreated, with a passionate grip of my arm, which proclaimed her warm nature, “doesn’t it seem a little like taking advantage of her?”

“Circumstances justify it in this case,” I replied, admiring the consideration of my hostess, but not thinking it worth while to emulate it. And with very little ceremony I pushed open the door and entered the room of the so-called Ruth Oliver.

The hush and quiet which met me, though nothing more than I had reason to expect, gave me my first shock, and the young figure outstretched on a bed of dainty whiteness, my second. Everything about me was so peaceful, and the delicate blue and white of the room so expressive of innocence and repose, that my feet instinctively moved more softly over the polished floor and paused, when they did pause, before that dimly shrouded bed, with something like hesitation in their usually emphatic tread.

The face of that bed’s occupant, which I could now plainly see, may have had an influence in producing this effect. It was so rounded with health, and yet so haggard with trouble. Not knowing whether Miss Althorpe was behind me or not, but too intent upon the sleeping girl to care, I bent over the half-averted features and studied them carefully.

They were indeed Madonna-like, something which I had not expected, notwithstanding the assurances I had received to that effect, and while distorted with suffering, amply accounted for the interest shown in her by the good-hearted Mrs. Desberger and the cultured Miss Althorpe.

Resenting this beauty, which so poorly accommodated itself to the character of the woman who possessed it, I leaned nearer, searching for some defect in her loveliness, when I saw that the struggle and anguish visible in her expression were due to some dream she was having.

Moved, even against my will, by the touching sight of her trembling eyelids and working mouth, I was about to wake her when I was stopped by the gentle touch of Miss Althorpe on my shoulder.

“Is she the girl you are looking for?”

I gave one quick glance around the room, and my eyes lighted on the little blue pin-cushion on the satin-wood bureau.

“Did you put those pins there?” I asked, pointing to a dozen or more black pins grouped in one corner.

I did not, no; and I doubt if Crescenze did. Why?”

I drew a small black pin from my belt where I had securely fastened it, and carrying it over to the cushion, compared it with those I saw. They were identical.

“A small matter,” I inwardly decided, “but it points in the right direction”; then, in answer to Miss Althorpe, added aloud: “I fear she is. At least I have seen no reason yet for doubting it. But I must make sure. Will you allow me to wake her?”

“O it seems cruel! She is suffering enough already. See how she twists and turns!”

“It will be a mercy, it seems to me, to rouse her from dreams so full of pain and trouble.”

“Perhaps, but I will leave you alone to do it. What will you say to her? How account for your intrusion?”

“O I will find means, and they won’t be too cruel either. You had better stand back by the bureau and listen. I think I had rather not have the responsibility of doing this thing alone.”

Miss Althorpe, not understanding my hesitation, and only half comprehending my errand, gave me a doubtful look but retreated to the spot I had mentioned, and whether it was the rustle of her silk dress or whether the dream of the girl we were watching had reached its climax, a momentary stir took place in the outstretched form before me, and next moment she was flinging up her hands with a cry.

“O how can I touch her! She is dead, and I have never touched a dead body.”

I fell back breathing hard, and Miss Althorpe’s eyes, meeting mine, grew dark with horror. Indeed she was about to utter a cry herself, but I made an imperative motion, and she merely shrank farther away towards the door.

Meantime I had bent forward and laid my hand on the trembling figure before me.

“Miss Oliver,” I said, “rouse yourself, I pray. I have a message for you from Mrs. Desberger.”

She turned her head, looked at me like a person in a daze, then slowly moved and sat up.

“Who are you?” she asked, surveying me and the space about her with eyes which seemed to take in nothing till they lit upon Miss Althorpe’s figure standing in an attitude of mingled shame and sympathy by the half-open door.

“Oh, Miss Althorpe!” she entreated, “I pray you to excuse me. I did not know you wanted me. I have been asleep.”

“It is this lady who wants you,” answered Miss Althorpe. “She is a friend of mine and one in whom you can confide.”

“Confide!” This was a word to rouse her. She turned livid, and in her eyes as she looked my way both terror and surprise were visible. “Why should you think I had anything to confide? If I had, I should not pass by you, Miss Althorpe, for another.”

There were tears in her voice, and I had to remember the victim just laid away in Woodlawn, not to bestow much more compassion on this woman than she rightfully deserved. She had a magnetic voice and a magnetic presence, but that was no reason why I should forget what she had done.

“No one asks for your confidence,” I protested, “though it might not hurt you to accept a friend whenever you can get one. I merely wish, as I said before, to give you a message from Mrs. Desberger, under whose roof you stayed before coming here.”

“I am obliged to you,” she responded, rising to her feet, and trembling very much. “Mrs. Desberger is a kind woman; what does she want of me?”

So I was on the right track; she acknowledged Mrs. Desberger.

“Nothing but to return you this. It fell out of your pocket while you were dressing.” And I handed her the little red pin-cushion I had taken from the Van Burnams’ front room.

She looked at it, shrunk violently back, and with difficulty prevented herself from showing the full depth of her feelings.

“I don’t know anything about it. It is not mine, I don’t know it!” And her hair stirred on her forehead as she gazed at the small object lying in the palm of my hand, proving to me that she saw again before her all the horrors of the house from which it had been taken.

“Who are you?” she suddenly demanded, tearing her eyes from this simple little cushion and fixing them wildly on my face. “Mrs. Desberger never sent me this. I——”

“You are right to stop there,” I interposed, and then paused, feeling that I had forced a situation which I hardly knew how to handle.

The instant’s pause she had given herself seemed to restore her self-possession. Leaving me, she moved towards Miss Althorpe.

“I don’t know who this lady is,” said she, “or what her errand here with me may mean. But I hope that it is nothing that will force me to leave this house which is my only refuge.”

Miss Althorpe, too greatly prejudiced in favor of this girl to hear this appeal unmoved, notwithstanding the show of guilt with which she had met my attack, smiled faintly as she answered:

“Nothing short of the best reasons would make me part from you now. If there are such reasons, you will spare me the pain of making use of them. I think I can so far trust you, Miss Oliver.”

No answer; the young girl looked as if she could not speak.

“Are there any reasons why I should not retain you in my house, Miss Oliver?” the gentle mistress of many millions went on. “If there are, you will not wish to stay, I know, when you consider how near my marriage day is, and how undisturbed my mind should be by any cares unattending my wedding.”

And still the girl was silent, though her lips moved slightly as if she would have spoken if she could.

“But perhaps you are only unfortunate,” suggested Miss Althorpe, with an almost angelic look of pity — I don’t often see angels in women. “If that is so, God forbid that you should leave my protection or my house. What do you say, Miss Oliver?”

“That you are God’s messenger to me,” burst from the other, as if her tongue had been suddenly loosed. “That misfortune, and not wickedness, has driven me to your doors; and that there is no reason why I should leave you unless my secret sufferings make my presence unwelcome to you.”

Was this the talk of a frivolous woman caught unawares in the meshes of a fearful crime? If so, she was a more accomplished actress than we had been led to expect even from her own words to her disgusted husband.

“You look like one accustomed to tell the truth,” proceeded Miss Althorpe. “Do you not think you have made some mistake, Miss Butterworth?” she asked, approaching me with an ingenuous smile.

I had forgotten to caution her not to make use of my name, and when it fell from her lips I looked to see her unhappy companion recoil from me with a scream.

But strange to say she evinced no emotion, and seeing this, I became more distrustful of her than ever; for, for her to hear without apparent interest the name of the chief witness in the inquest which had been held over the remains of the woman with whose death she had been more or less intimately concerned, argued powers of duplicity such as are only associated with guilt or an extreme simplicity of character. And she was not simple, as the least glance from her deep eyes amply showed.

Recognizing, therefore, that open measures would not do with this woman, I changed my manner at once, and responding to Miss Althorpe, with a gracious smile, remarked with an air of sudden conviction:

“Perhaps I have made some mistake. Miss Oliver’s words sound very ingenuous, and I am disposed, if you are, to take her at her word. It is so easy to draw false conclusions in this world.” And I put back the pin-cushion into my pocket with an air of being through with the matter, which seemed to impose upon the young woman, for she smiled faintly, showing a row of splendid teeth as she did so.

“Let me apologize,” I went on, “if I have intruded upon Miss Oliver against her wishes.” And with one comprehensive look about the room which took in all that was visible of her simple wardrobe and humble belongings, I led the way out. Miss Althorpe immediately followed.

“This is a much more serious affair than I have led you to suppose,” I confided to her as soon as we were at a suitable distance from Miss Oliver’s door. “If she is the person I think her, she is amenable to law, and the police will have to be notified of her whereabouts.”

“She has stolen, then?”

“Her fault is a very grave one,” I returned.

Miss Althorpe, deeply troubled, looked about her as if for guidance. I, who could have given it to her, made no movement to attract her attention to myself, but waited calmly for her own decision in this matter.

“I wish you would let me consult Mr. Stone,” she ventured at last. “I think his judgment might help us.”

“I had rather take no one into our confidence — especially no man. He would consider your welfare only and not hers.”

I did not consider myself obliged to acknowledge that the work upon which I was engaged could not be shared by one of the male sex without lessening my triumph over Mr. Gryce.

“Mr. Stone is very just,” she remarked, “but he might be biased in a matter of this kind. What way do you see out of the difficulty?”

“Only this. To settle at once and unmistakably, whether she is the person who carried certain articles from the house of a friend of mine. If she is, there will be some evidence of the fact visible in her room or on her person. She has not been out, I believe?”

“Not since she came into the house.”

“And has remained for the most part in her own apartment?”

“Always, except when I have summoned her to my assistance.”

“Then what I want to know I can learn there. But how can I make my investigations without offence?”

“What do you want to know, Miss Butterworth?”

“Whether she has in her keeping some half dozen rings of considerable value.”

“Oh! she could conceal rings so easily.”

“She does conceal them; I have no more doubt of it than I have of my standing here; but I must know it before I shall feel ready to call the attention of the police to her.”

“Yes, we should both know it. Poor girl! poor girl! to be suspected of a crime! How great must have been her temptation!”

I can manage this matter, Miss Althorpe, if you will entrust it to me.”

“How, Miss Butterworth?”

“The girl is ill; let me take care of her.”

“Really ill?”

“Yes, or will be so before morning. There is fever in her veins; she has worried herself ill. Oh, I will be good to her.”

This in answer to a doubtful look from Miss Althorpe.

“This is a difficult problem you have set me,” that lady remarked after a moment’s thought. “But anything seems better than sending her away, or sending for the police. But do you suppose she will allow you in her room?”

“I think so; if her fever increases she will not notice much that goes on about her, and I think it will increase; I have seen enough of sickness to be something of a judge.”

“And you will search her while she is unconscious?”

“Don’t look so horrified, Miss Althorpe. I have promised you I will not worry her. She may need assistance in getting to bed. While I am giving it to her I can judge if there is anything concealed upon her person.”

“Yes, perhaps.”

“At all events, we shall know more than we do now. Shall I venture, Miss Althorpe?”

“I cannot say no,” was the hesitating answer; “you seem so very much in earnest.”

“And I am in earnest. I have reasons for being; consideration for you is one of them.”

“I do not doubt it. And now will you come down to supper, Miss Butterworth?”

“No,” I replied. “My duty is here. Only send word to Lena that she is to drive home and take care of my house in my absence. I shall want nothing, so do not worry about me. Join your lover now, dear; and do not bestow another thought upon this self-styled Miss Oliver or what I am about to do in her room.”

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