That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

iii.

Amelia Discovers Herself.

There is a small room at the extremity of the Van Burnam mansion. In this I took refuge after my interview with Mr. Gryce. As I picked out the chair which best suited me and settled myself for a comfortable communion with my own thoughts, I was astonished to find how much I was enjoying myself, notwithstanding the thousand and one duties awaiting me on the other side of the party-wall.

Even this very solitude was welcome, for it gave me an opportunity to consider matters. I had not known up to this very hour that I had any special gifts. My father, who was a shrewd man of the old New England type, said more times than I am years old (which was not saying it as often as some may think) that Araminta (the name I was christened by, and the name you will find in the Bible record, though I sign myself Amelia, and insist upon being addressed as Amelia, being, as I hope, a sensible woman and not the piece of antiquated sentimentality suggested by the former cognomen)— that Araminta would live to make her mark; though in what capacity he never informed me, being, as I have observed, a shrewd man, and thus not likely to thoughtlessly commit himself.

I now know he was right; my pretensions dating from the moment I found that this affair, at first glance so simple, and at the next so complicated, had aroused in me a fever of investigation which no reasoning could allay. Though I had other and more personal matters on my mind, my thoughts would rest nowhere but on the details of this tragedy; and having, as I thought, noticed some few facts in connection with it, from which conclusions might be drawn, I amused myself with jotting them down on the back of a disputed grocer’s bill I happened to find in my pocket.

Valueless as explaining this tragedy, being founded upon insufficient evidence, they may be interesting as showing the workings of my mind even at this early stage of the matter. They were drawn up under three heads.

First, was the death of this young woman an accident?

Second, was it a suicide?

Third, was it a murder?

Under the first head I wrote:

My reasons for not thinking it an accident.

1. If it had been an accident and she had pulled the cabinet over upon herself, she would have been found with her feet pointing towards the wall where the cabinet had stood.

(But her feet were towards the door and her head under the cabinet.)

2. The decent, even precise, arrangement of the clothing about her feet, which precludes any theory involving accident.

Under the second:

Reason for not thinking it suicide.

She could not have been found in the position observed without having lain down on the floor while living and then pulled the shelves down upon herself.

(A theory obviously too improbable to be considered.)

Under the third:

Reason for not thinking it murder.

She would need to have been held down on the floor while the cabinet was being pulled over on her; something which the quiet aspect of the hands and feet made appear impossible.

To this I added:

Reasons for accepting the theory of murder.

1. The fact that she did not go into the house alone; that a man entered with her, remained ten minutes, and then came out again and disappeared up the street with every appearance of haste and an anxious desire to leave the spot.

2. The front door, which he had unlocked on entering, was not locked by him on his departure, the catch doing the locking. Yet, though he could have re-entered so easily, he had shown no disposition to return.

3. The arrangement of the skirts, which show the touch of a careful hand after death.

Nothing clear, you see. I was doubtful of all; and yet my suspicions tended most toward murder.

I had eaten my luncheon before interfering in this matter, which was fortunate for me, as it was three o’clock before I was summoned to meet the Coroner, of whose arrival I had been conscious some time before.

He was in the front parlor where the dead girl lay, and as I took my way thither I felt the same sensations of faintness which had so nearly overcome me on the previous occasion. But I mastered them, and was quite myself before I crossed the threshold.

There were several gentlemen present, but of them all I only noticed two, one of whom I took to be the Coroner, while the other was my late interlocutor, Mr. Gryce. From the animation observable in the latter, I gathered that the case was growing in interest from the detective standpoint.

“Ah, and is this the witness?” asked the Coroner, as I stepped into the room.

“I am Miss Butterworth,” was my calm reply. “Amelia Butterworth. Living next door and present at the discovery of this poor murdered body.”

“Murdered,” he repeated. “Why do you say murdered?”

For reply I drew from my pocket the bill on which I had scribbled my conclusions in regard to this matter.

“Read this,” said I.

Evidently astonished, he took the paper from my hand, and, after some curious glances in my direction, condescended to do as I requested. The result was an odd but grudging look of admiration directed towards myself and a quick passing over of the paper to the detective.

The latter, who had exchanged his bit of broken china for a very much used and tooth-marked lead-pencil, frowned with a whimsical air at the latter before he put it in his pocket. Then he read my hurried scrawl.

“Two Richmonds in the field!” commented the Coroner, with a sly chuckle. “I am afraid I shall have to yield to their allied forces. Miss Butterworth, the cabinet is about to be raised; do you feel as if you could endure the sight?”

“I can stand anything where the cause of justice is involved,” I replied.

“Very well, then, sit down, if you please. When the whole body is visible I will call you.”

And stepping forward he gave orders to have the clock and broken china removed from about the body.

As the former was laid away on one end of the mantel some one observed:

“What a valuable witness that clock might have been had it been running when the shelves fell!”

But the fact was so patent that it had not been in motion for months that no one even answered; and Mr. Gryce did not so much as look towards it. But then we had all seen that the hands stood at three minutes to five.

I had been asked to sit down, but I found this impossible. Side by side with the detective, I viewed the replacing of that heavy piece of furniture against the wall, and the slow disclosure of the upper part of the body which had so long lain hidden.

That I did not give way is a proof that my father’s prophecy was not without some reasonable foundation; for the sight was one to try the stoutest nerves, as well as to awaken the compassion of the hardest heart.

The Coroner, meeting my eye, pointed at the poor creature inquiringly.

“Is this the woman you saw enter here last night?”

I glanced down at her dress, noted the short summer cape tied to the neck with an elaborate bow of ribbon, and nodded my head.

“I remember the cape,” said I. “But where is her hat? She wore one. Let me see if I can describe it.” Closing my eyes I endeavored to recall the dim silhouette of her figure as she stood passing up the change to the driver; and was so far successful that I was ready to announce at the next moment that her hat presented the effect of a soft felt with one feather or one bow of ribbon standing upright from the side of the crown.

“Then the identity of this woman with the one you saw enter here last night is established,” remarked the detective, stooping down and drawing from under the poor girl’s body a hat, sufficiently like the one I had just described, to satisfy everybody that it was the same.

“As if there could be any doubt,” I began.

But the Coroner, explaining that it was a mere formality, motioned me to stand aside in favor of the doctor, who seemed anxious to approach nearer the spot where the dead woman lay. This I was about to do when a sudden thought struck me, and I reached out my hand for the hat.

“Let me look at it for a moment,” said I.

Mr. Gryce at once handed it over, and I took a good look at it inside and out.

“It is pretty badly crushed,” I observed, “and does not present a very fresh appearance, but for all that it has been worn but once.”

“How do you know?” questioned the Coroner.

“Let the other Richmond inform you,” was my grimly uttered reply, as I gave it again into the detective’s hand.

There was a murmur about me, whether of amusement or displeasure, I made no effort to decide. I was finding out something for myself, and I did not care what they thought of me.

“Neither has she worn this dress long,” I continued; “but that is not true of the shoes. They are not old, but they have been acquainted with the pavement, and that is more than can be said of the hem of this gown. There are no gloves on her hands; a few minutes elapsed then before the assault; long enough for her to take them off.”

“Smart woman!” whispered a voice in my ear; a half-admiring, half-sarcastic voice that I had no difficulty in ascribing to Mr. Gryce. “But are you sure she wore any? Did you notice that her hand was gloved when she came into the house?”

“No,” I answered, frankly; “but so well-dressed a woman would not enter a house like this, without gloves.”

“It was a warm night,” some one suggested.

“I don’t care. You will find her gloves as you have her hat; and you will find them with the fingers turned inside out, just as she drew them from her hand. So much I will concede to the warmth of the weather.”

“Like these, for instance,” broke in a quiet voice.

Startled, for a hand had appeared over my shoulder dangling a pair of gloves before my eyes, I cried out, somewhat too triumphantly I own:

“Yes, yes, just like those! Did you pick them up here? Are they hers?”

“You say that this is the way hers should look.”

“And I repeat it.”

“Then allow me to pay you my compliments. These were picked up here.”

“But where?” I cried. “I thought I had looked this carpet well over.”

He smiled, not at me but at the gloves, and the thought crossed me that he felt as if something more than the gloves was being turned inside out. I therefore pursed my mouth, and determined to stand more on my guard.

“It is of no consequence,” I assured him; “all such matters will come out at the inquest.”

Mr. Gryce nodded, and put the gloves back in his pocket. With them he seemed to pocket some of his geniality and patience.

“All these facts have been gone over before you came in,” said he, which statement I beg to consider as open to doubt.

The doctor, who had hardly moved a muscle during all this colloquy, now rose from his kneeling position beside the girl’s head.

“I shall have to ask the presence of another physician,” said he. “Will you send for one from your office, Coroner Dahl?”

At which I stepped back and the Coroner stepped forward, saying, however, as he passed me:

“The inquest will be held day after to-morrow in my office. Hold yourself in readiness to be present. I regard you as one of my chief witnesses.”

I assured him I would be on hand, and, obeying a gesture of his finger, retreated from the room; but I did not yet leave the house. A straight, slim man, with a very small head but a very bright eye, was leaning on the newel-post in the front hall, and when he saw me, started up so alertly I perceived that he had business with me, and so waited for him to speak.

“You are Miss Butterworth?” he inquired.

“I am, sir.”

“And I am a reporter from the New York World. Will you allow me ——”

Why did he stop? I had merely looked at him. But he did stop, and that is saying considerable for a reporter from the New York World.

“I certainly am willing to tell you what I have told every one else,” I interposed, considering it better not to make an enemy of so judicious a young man; and seeing him brighten up at this, I thereupon related all I considered desirable for the general public to know.

I was about passing on, when, reflecting that one good turn deserves another, I paused and asked him if he thought they would leave the dead girl in that house all night.

He answered that he did not think they would. That a telegram had been sent some time before to young Mr. Van Burnam, and that they were only awaiting his arrival to remove her.

“Do you mean Howard?” I asked.

“Is he the elder one?”

“No.”

“It is the elder one they have summoned; the one who has been staying at Long Branch.”

“How can they expect him then so soon?”

“Because he is in the city. It seems the old gentleman is going to return on the New York, and as she is due here to-day, Franklin Van Burnam has come to New York to meet him.”

“Humph!” thought I, “lively times are in prospect,” and for the first time I remembered my dinner and the orders which had not been given about some curtains which were to have been hung that day, and all the other reasons I had for being at home.

I must have shown my feelings, much as I pride myself upon my impassibility upon all occasions, for he immediately held out his arm, with an offer to pilot me through the crowd to my own house; and I was about to accept it when the door-bell rang so sharply that we involuntarily stopped.

“A fresh witness or a telegram for the Coroner,” whispered the reporter in my ear.

I tried to look indifferent, and doubtless made out pretty well, for he added, after a sly look in my face:

“You do not care to stay any longer?”

I made no reply, but I think he was impressed by my dignity. Could he not see that it would be the height of ill-manners for me to rush out in the face of any one coming in?

An officer opened the door, and when we saw who stood there, I am sure that the reporter, as well as myself, was grateful that we listened to the dictates of politeness. It was young Mr. Van Burnam — Franklin; I mean the older and more respectable of the two sons.

He was flushed and agitated, and looked as if he would like to annihilate the crowd pushing him about on his own stoop. He gave an angry glance backward as he stepped in, and then I saw that a carriage covered with baggage stood on the other side of the street, and gathered that he had not returned to his father’s house alone.

“What has happened? What does all this mean?” were the words he hurled at us as the door closed behind him and he found himself face to face with a half dozen strangers, among whom the reporter and myself stood conspicuous.

Mr. Gryce, coming suddenly from somewhere, was the one to answer him.

“A painful occurrence, sir. A young girl has been found here, dead, crushed under one of your parlor cabinets.”

“A young girl!” he repeated. (Oh, how glad I was that I had been brought up never to transgress the principles of politeness.) “Here! in this shut-up house? What young girl? You mean old woman, do you not? the house-cleaner or some one ——”

“No, Mr. Van Burnam, we mean what we say, though possibly I should call her a young lady. She is dressed quite fashionably.”

“The ——” Really I cannot repeat in this public manner the word which Mr. Van Burnam used. I excused him at the time, but I will not perpetuate his forgetfulness in these pages.

“She is still lying as we found her,” Mr. Gryce now proceeded in his quiet, almost fatherly way. “Will you not take a look at her? Perhaps you can tell us who she is?”

“I?” Mr. Van Burnam seemed quite shocked. “How should I know her! Some thief probably, killed while meddling with other people’s property.”

“Perhaps,” quoth Mr. Gryce, laconically; at which I felt so angry, as tending to mislead my handsome young neighbor, that I irresistibly did what I had fully made up my mind not to do, that is, stepped into view and took a part in this conversation.

“How can you say that,” I cried, “when her admittance here was due to a young man who let her in at midnight with a key, and then left her to eat out her heart in this great house all alone.”

I have made sensations in my life, but never quite so marked a one as this. In an instant every eye was on me, with the exception of the detective’s. His was on the figure crowning the newel-post, and bitterly severe his gaze was too, though it immediately grew wary as the young man started towards me and impetuously demanded:

“Who talks like that? Why, it’s Miss Butterworth. Madam, I fear I did not fully understand what you said.”

Whereupon I repeated my words, this time very quietly but clearly, while Mr. Gryce continued to frown at the bronze figure he had taken into his confidence. When I had finished, Mr. Van Burnam’s countenance had changed, so had his manner. He held himself as erect as before, but not with as much bravado. He showed haste and impatience also, but not the same kind of haste and not quite the same kind of impatience. The corners of Mr. Gryce’s mouth betrayed that he noted this change, but he did not turn away from the newel-post.

“This is a remarkable circumstance which you have just told me,” observed Mr. Van Burnam, with the first bow I had ever received from him. “I don’t know what to think of it. But I still hold that it’s some thief. Killed, did you say? Really dead? Well, I’d have given five hundred dollars not to have had it happen in this house.”

He had been moving towards the parlor door, and he now entered it. Instantly Mr. Gryce was by his side.

“Are they going to close the door?” I whispered to the reporter, who was taking this all in equally with myself.

“I’m afraid so,” he muttered.

And they did. Mr. Gryce had evidently had enough of my interference, and was resolved to shut me out, but I heard one word and caught one glimpse of Mr. Van Burnam’s face before the heavy door fell to. The word was: “Oh, so bad as that! How can any one recognize her ——” And the glimpse — well, the glimpse proved to me that he was much more profoundly agitated than he wished to appear, and any extraordinary agitation on his part was certainly in direct contradiction to the very sentence he was at that moment uttering.

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