That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

xxiv.

A House of Cards.

I did not return immediately to my patient. I waited till her supper came up. Then I took the tray, and assured by the face of the girl who brought it that Miss Althorpe had explained my presence in her house sufficiently for me to feel at my ease before her servants, I carried in the dainty repast she had provided and set it down on the table.

The poor woman was standing where we had left her; but her whole figure showed languor, and she more than leaned against the bedpost behind her. As I looked up from the tray and met her eyes, she shuddered and seemed to be endeavoring to understand who I was and what I was doing in her room. My premonitions in regard to her were well based. She was in a raging fever, and was already more than half oblivious to her surroundings.

Approaching her, I spoke as gently as I could, for her hapless condition appealed to me in spite of my well founded prejudices against her; and seeing she was growing incapable of response, I drew her up on the bed and began to undress her.

I half expected her to recoil at this, or at least to make some show of alarm, but she submitted to my ministrations almost gratefully, and neither shrank nor questioned me till I laid my hands upon her shoes. Then indeed she quivered, and drew her feet away with such an appearance of terror that I was forced to desist from my efforts or drive her into violent delirium.

This satisfied me that Louise Van Burnam lay before me. The scar concerning which so much had been said in the papers would be ever present in the thoughts of this woman as the tell-tale mark by which she might be known, and though at this moment she was on the borders of unconsciousness, the instinct of self-preservation still remained in sufficient force to prompt her to make this effort to protect herself from discovery.

I had told Miss Althorpe that my chief reason for intruding upon Miss Oliver, was to determine if she had in her possession certain rings supposed to have been taken from a friend of mine; and while this was in a measure true — the rings being an important factor in the proof I was accumulating against her — I was not so anxious to search for them at this time as to find the scar which would settle at once the question of her identity.

When she drew her foot away from me then, so violently, I saw that I needed to search no farther for the evidence required, and could give myself up to making her comfortable. So I bathed her temples, now throbbing with heat, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing her fall into a deep and uneasy slumber. Then I tried again to draw off her shoes, but the start she gave and the smothered cry which escaped her warned me that I must wait yet longer before satisfying my curiosity; so I desisted at once, and out of pure compassion left her to get what good she might from the lethargy into which she had fallen.

Being hungry, or at least feeling the necessity of some slight aliment to help me sustain the fatigues of the night, I sat down now at the table and partook of some of the dainties with which Miss Althorpe had kindly provided me. After which I made out a list of such articles as were necessary to my proper care of the patient who had so strangely fallen into my hands, and then, feeling that I had a right at last to indulge in pure curiosity, I turned my attention to the clothing I had taken from the self-styled Miss Oliver.

The dress was a simple gray one, and the skirts and underclothing all white. But the latter was of the finest texture, and convinced me, before I had given them more than a glance, that they were the property of Howard Van Burnam’s wife. For, besides the exquisite quality of the material, there were to be seen, on the edges of the bands and sleeves, the marks of stitches and clinging threads of lace, where the trimming had been torn off, and in one article especially, there were tucks such as you see come from the hands of French needlewomen only.

This, taken with what had gone before, was proof enough to satisfy me that I was on the right track, and after Crescenze had come and gone with the tray and all was quiet in this remote part of the house, I ventured to open a closet door at the foot of the bed. A brown silk skirt was hanging within, and in the pocket of that skirt I found a purse so gay and costly that all doubt vanished as to its being the property of Howard’s luxurious wife.

There were several bills in this purse, amounting to about fifteen dollars in money, but no change and no memoranda, which latter seemed a pity. Restoring the purse to its place and the skirt to its peg, I came softly back to the bedside and examined my patient still more carefully than I had done before. She was asleep and breathing heavily, but even with this disadvantage her face had its own attraction, an attraction which evidently had more or less influenced men, and which, for the reason perhaps that I have something masculine in my nature, I discovered to be more or less influencing me, notwithstanding my hatred of an intriguing character.

However, it was not her beauty I came to study, but her hair, her complexion, and her hands. The former was brown, the brown of that same lock I remembered to have seen in the jury’s hands at the inquest; and her skin, where fever had not flushed it, was white and smooth. So were her hands, and yet they were not a lady’s hands. That I noticed when I first saw her. The marks of the rings she no longer wore, were not enough to blind me to the fact that her fingers lacked the distinctive shape and nicety of Miss Althorpe’s, say, or even of the Misses Van Burnam; and though I do not object to this, for I like strong-looking, capable hands myself, they served to help me understand the face, which otherwise would have looked too spiritual for a woman of the peevish and self-satisfied character of Louise Van Burnam. On this innocent and appealing expression she had traded in her short and none too happy career. And as I noted it, I recalled a sentence in Miss Ferguson’s testimony, in which she alluded to Mrs. Van Burnam’s confidential remark to her husband upon the power she exercised over people when she raised her eyes in entreaty towards them. “Am I not pretty,” she had said, “when I am in distress and looking up in this way?” It was the suggestion of a scheming woman, but from what I had seen and was seeing of the woman before me, I could imagine the picture she would thus make, and I do not think she overrated its effects.

Withdrawing from her side once more, I made a tour of the room. Nothing escaped my eyes; nothing was too small to engage my attention. But while I failed to see anything calculated to shake my confidence in the conclusions I had come to, I saw but little to confirm them. This was not strange; for, apart from a few toilet articles and some knitting-work on a shelf, she appeared to have no belongings; everything else in sight being manifestly the property of Miss Althorpe. Even the bureau drawers were empty, and her bag, found under a small table, had not so much in it as a hair-pin, though I searched it inside and out for her rings, which I was positive she had with her, even if she dared not wear them.

When every spot was exhausted I sat down and began to brood over what lay before this poor being, whose flight and the great efforts she made at concealment proved only too conclusively the fatal part she had played in the crime for which her husband had been arrested. I had reached her arraignment before a magistrate, and was already imagining her face with the appeal in it which such an occasion would call forth, when there came a low knock at the door, and Miss Althorpe re-entered.

She had just said good-night to her lover, and her face recalled to me a time when my own cheek was round and my eye was bright and — Well! what is the use of dwelling on matters so long buried in oblivion! A maiden-woman, as independent as myself, need not envy any girl the doubtful blessing of a husband. I chose to be independent, and I am, and what more is there to be said about it? Pardon the digression.

“Is Miss Oliver any better?” asked Miss Althorpe; “and have you found ——”

I put up my finger in warning. Of all things, it was most necessary that the sick woman should not know my real reason for being there.

“She is asleep,” I answered quietly, “and I think I have found out what is the matter with her.”

Miss Althorpe seemed to understand. She cast a look of solicitude towards the bed and then turned towards me.

“I cannot rest,” said she, “and will sit with you for a little while, if you don’t mind.”

I felt the implied compliment keenly.

“You can do me no greater favor,” I returned.

She drew up an easy-chair. “That is for you,” she smiled, and sat down in a little low rocker at my side.

But she did not talk. Her thoughts seemed to have recurred to some very near and sweet memory, for she smiled softly to herself and looked so deeply happy that I could not resist saying:

“These are delightful days for you, Miss Althorpe.”

She sighed softly — how much a sigh can reveal! — and looked up at me brightly. I think she was glad I spoke. Even such reserved natures as hers have their moments of weakness, and she had no mother or sister to appeal to.

“Yes,” she replied, “I am very happy; happier than most girls are, I think, just before marriage. It is such a revelation to me — this devotion and admiration from one I love. I have had so little of it in my life. My father ——”

She stopped; I knew why she stopped. I gave her a look of encouragement.

“People have always been anxious for my happiness, and have warned me against matrimony since I was old enough to know the difference between poverty and wealth. Before I was out of short dresses I was warned against fortune-seekers. It was not good advice; it has stood in the way of my happiness all my life, made me distrustful and unnaturally reserved. But now — ah, Miss Butterworth, Mr. Stone is so estimable a man, so brilliant and so universally admired, that all my doubts of manly worth and disinterestedness have disappeared as if by magic. I trust him implicitly, and — Do I talk too freely? Do you object to such confidences as these?”

“On the contrary,” I answered. I liked Miss Althorpe so much and agreed with her so thoroughly in her opinion of this man, that it was a real pleasure to me to hear her speak so unreservedly.

“We are not a foolish couple,” she went on, warming with the charm of her topic till she looked beautiful in the half light thrown upon her by the shaded lamp. “We are interested in people and things, and get half our delight from the perfect congeniality of our natures. Mr. Stone has given up his club and all his bachelor pursuits since he knew me, and ——”

O love, if at any time in my life I have despised thee, I did not despise thee then! The look with which she finished this sentence would have moved a cynic.

“Forgive me,” she prayed. “It is the first time I have poured out my heart to any one of my own sex. It must sound strange to you, but it seemed natural while I was doing it, for you looked as if you could understand.”

This to me, to me, Amelia Butterworth, of whom men have said I had no more sentiment than a wooden image. I looked my appreciation, and she, blushing slightly, whispered in a delicious tone of mingled shyness and pride:

“Only two weeks now, and I shall have some one to stand between me and the world. You have never needed any one, Miss Butterworth, for you do not fear the world, but it awes and troubles me, and my whole heart glows with the thought that I shall be no longer alone in my sorrows or my joys, my perplexities or my doubts. Am I to blame for anticipating this with so much happiness?”

I sighed. It was a less eloquent sigh than hers, but it was a distinct one and it had a distinct echo. Lifting my eyes, for I sat so as to face the bed, I was startled to observe my patient leaning towards us from her pillows, and staring upon us with eyes too hollow for tears but filled with unfathomable grief and yearning.

She had heard this talk of love, she, the forsaken and crime-stained one. I shuddered and laid my hand on Miss Althorpe’s.

But I did not seek to stop the conversation, for as our looks met, the sick woman fell back and lapsed, or seemed to lapse, into immediate insensibility again.

“Is Miss Oliver worse?” inquired Miss Althorpe.

I rose and went to the bedside, renewed the bandages on my patient’s head, and forced a drop or two of medicine between her half-shut lips.

“No,” I returned, “I think her fever is abating.” And it was, though the suffering on her face was yet heart-rendingly apparent.

“Is she asleep?”

“She seems to be.”

Miss Althorpe made an effort.

“I am not going to talk any more about myself.” Then as I came back and sat down by her side, she quietly asked:

“What do you think of the Van Burnam murder?”

Dismayed at the introduction of this topic, I was about to put my hand over her mouth, when I noticed that her words had made no evident impression upon my patient, who lay quietly and with a more composed expression than when I left her bedside. This assured me, as nothing else could have done, that she was really asleep, or in that lethargic state which closes the eyes and ears to what is going on.

“I think,” said I, “that the young man Howard stands in a very unfortunate position. Circumstances certainly do look very black against him.”

“It is dreadful, unprecedently dreadful. I do not know what to think of it all. The Van Burnams have borne so good a name, and Franklin especially is held in such high esteem. I don’t think anything more shocking has ever happened in this city, do you, Miss Butterworth? You saw it all, and should know. Poor, poor Mrs. Van Burnam!”

“She is to be pitied!” I remarked, my eyes fixed on the immovable face of my patient.

“When I heard that a young woman had been found dead in the Van Burnam mansion,” Miss Althorpe pursued with such evident interest in this new theme that I did not care to interrupt her unless driven to it by some token of consciousness on the part of my patient, “my thoughts flew instinctively to Howard’s wife. Though why, I cannot say, for I never had any reason to expect so tragic a termination to their marriage relations. And I cannot believe now that he killed her, can you, Miss Butterworth? Howard has too much of the gentleman in him to do a brutal thing, and there was brutality as well as adroitness in the perpetration of this crime. Have you thought of that, Miss Butterworth?”

“Yes,” I nodded, “I have looked at the crime on all sides.”

“Mr. Stone,” said she, “feels dreadfully over the part he was forced to play at the inquest. But he had no choice, the police would have his testimony.”

“That was right,” I declared.

“It has made us doubly anxious to have Howard free himself. But he does not seem able to do so. If his wife had only known ——”

Was there a quiver in the lids I was watching? I half raised my hand and then I let it drop again, convinced that I had been mistaken. Miss Althorpe at once continued:

“She was not a bad-hearted woman, only vain and frivolous. She had set her heart on ruling in the great leather-merchant’s house, and she did not know how to bear her disappointment. I have sympathy for her myself. When I saw her ——”

Saw her! I started, upsetting a small work-basket at my side which for once I did not stop to pick up.

“You have seen her!” I repeated, dropping my eyes from the patient to fix them in my unbounded astonishment on Miss Althorpe’s face.

“Yes, more than once. She was — if she were living I would not repeat this — a nursery governess in a family where I once visited. That was before her marriage; before she had met either Howard or Franklin Van Burnam.”

I was so overwhelmed, that for once I found difficulty in speaking. I glanced from her to the white form in the shrouded bed, and back again in ever-growing astonishment and dismay.

“You have seen her!” I at last reiterated in what I meant to be a whisper, but which fell little short of being a cry, “and you took in this girl?”

Her surprise at this burst was almost equal to mine.

“Yes, why not; what have they in common?”

I sank back, my house of cards was trembling to its foundations.

“Do they — do they not look alike?” I gasped. “I thought — I imagined ——”

“Louise Van Burnam look like that girl! O no, they were very different sort of women. What made you think there was any resemblance between them?”

I did not answer her; the structure I had reared with such care and circumspection had fallen about my ears and I lay gasping under the ruins.

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