That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

xxv.

“The Rings! Where are the Rings?”

Had Mr. Gryce been present, I would have instantly triumphed over my disappointment, bottled up my chagrin, and been the inscrutable Amelia Butterworth before he could say, “Something has gone wrong with this woman!” But Mr. Gryce was not present, and though I did not betray the half I felt. I yet showed enough emotion for Miss Althorpe to remark:

“You seemed surprised by what I have told you. Has any one said that these two women were alike?”

Having to speak, I became myself again in a trice, and nodded vigorously.

“Some one was so foolish,” I remarked.

Miss Althorpe looked thoughtful. While she was interested she was not so interested as to take the subject in fully. Her own concerns made her abstracted, and I was very glad of it.

“Louise Van Burnam had a sharp chin and a very cold blue eye. Yet her face was a fascinating one to some.”

“Well, it was a dreadful tragedy!” I observed, and tried to turn the subject aside, which fortunately I was able to do after a short effort.

Then I picked the basket up, and perceiving the sick woman’s lips faintly moving, I went over to her and found her murmuring to herself.

As Miss Althorpe had risen when I did, I did not dare to listen to these murmurs, but when my charming hostess had bidden me good-night, with many injunctions not to tire myself, and to be sure and remember that a decanter and a plate of biscuits stood on a table outside, I hastened back to the bedside, and leaning over my patient, endeavored to catch the words as they fell from her lips.

As they were simple and but the echo of those running at that very moment through my own brain, I had no difficulty in distinguishing them.

“Van Burnam!” she was saying, “Van Burnam!” varied by a short “Howard!” and once by a doubtful “Franklin!”

“Ah,” thought I, with a sudden reaction, “she is the woman I seek, if she is not Louise Van Burnam.” And unheeding the start she gave, I pulled off the blanket I had spread over her, and willy-nilly drew off her left shoe and stocking.

Her bare ankle showed no scar, and covering it quickly up I took up her shoe. Immediately the trepidation she had shown at the approach of a stranger’s hand towards that article of clothing was explained. In the lining around the top were sewn bills of no ordinary amount, and as the other shoe was probably used as a like depository, she naturally felt concern at any approach which might lead to a discovery of her little fortune.

Amazed at a mystery possessing so many points of interest, I tucked the shoe in under the bedclothes and sat down to review the situation.

The mistake I had made was in concluding that because the fugitive whose traces I had followed had worn the clothes of Louise Van Burnam, she must necessarily be that unfortunate lady. Now I saw that the murdered woman was Howard’s wife after all, and this patient of mine her probable rival.

But this necessitated an entire change in my whole line of reasoning. If the rival and not the wife lay before me, then which of the two accompanied him to the scene of tragedy? He had said it was his wife; I had proven to myself that it was the rival; was he right, or was I right, or were neither of us right?

Not being able to decide, I fixed my mind upon another query. When did the two women exchange clothes, or rather, when did this woman procure the silk habiliments and elaborate adornments of her more opulent rival? Was it before either of them entered Mr. Van Burnam’s house? Or was it after their encounter there?

Running over in my mind certain little facts of which I had hitherto attempted no explanation, I grouped them together and sought amongst them for inspiration.

These are the facts:

1. One of the garments found on the murdered woman had been torn down the back. As it was a new one, it had evidently been subjected to some quick strain, not explainable by any appearance of struggle.

2. The shoes and stockings found on the victim were the only articles she wore which could not be traced back to Altman’s. In the re-dressing of the so-called Mrs. James Pope, these articles had not been changed. Could not that fact be explained by the presence of a considerable sum of money in her shoes?

3. The going out bareheaded of a fugitive, anxious to avoid observation, leaving hat and gloves behind her in a dining-room closet.

I had endeavored to explain this last anomalous action by her fear of being traced by so conspicuous an article as this hat; but it was not a satisfactory explanation to me then and much less so now.

4. And last, and most vital of all, the words which I had heard fall from this half-conscious girl: “O how can I touch her! She is dead, and I have never touched a dead body!

Could inspiration fail me before such a list? Was it not evident that the change had been made after death, and by this seemingly sensitive girl’s own hands?

It was a horrible thought and led to others more horrible. For the very commission of such a revolting act argued a desire for concealment only to be explained by great guilt. She had been the offender and the wife the victim; and Howard — Well, his actions continued to be a mystery, but I would not admit his guilt even now. On the contrary, I saw his innocence in a still stronger light. For if he had openly or even covertly connived at his wife’s death, would he have so immediately forsaken the accomplice of his guilt, to say nothing of leaving to her the dreadful task of concealing the crime? No, I would rather think that the tragedy took place after his departure, and that his action in denying his wife’s identity, as long as it was possible to do so, was to be explained by the fact of his ignorance in regard to his wife’s presence in the house where he had supposed himself to have simply left her rival. As the exchange made in the clothing worn by the two women could only have taken place later, and as he naturally judged the victim by her clothing, perhaps he was really deceived himself as to her identity. It was certainly not an improbable supposition, and accounted for much that was otherwise inexplicable in Mr. Van Burnam’s conduct.

But the rings? Why could I not find the rings? If my present reasoning were correct, this woman should have those evidences of guilt about her. But had I not searched for them in every available place without success? Annoyed at my failure to fix this one irrefutable proof of guilt upon her, I took up the knitting-work I saw in Miss Oliver’s basket, and began to ply the needles by way of relief to my thoughts. But I had no sooner got well under way than some movement on the part of my patient drew my attention again to the bed, and I was startled by beholding her sitting up again, but this time with a look of fear rather than of suffering on her features.

“Don’t!” she gasped, pointing with an unsteady hand at the work in my hand. “The click, click of the needles is more than I can stand. Put them down, pray; put them down!”

Her agitation was so great and her nervousness so apparent that I complied at once. However much I might be affected by her guilt, I was not willing to do the slightest thing to worry her nerves even at the expense of my own. As the needles fell from my hand, she sank back and a quick, short sigh escaped her lips. Then she was again quiet, and I allowed my thoughts to return to the old theme. The rings! the rings! Where were the rings, and was it impossible for me to find them?

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