That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

xxxi.

Some Fine Work.

“O perfectly!” I assented, with just the shade of irony necessary to rob the assertion of its mendacity. “But go on, go on. You have not begun to satisfy me yet. You did not stop with finding a motive for the crime I am sure.”

“Madam, you are a female Shylock; you will have the whole of the bond or none.”

“We are not here to draw comparisons,” I retorted. “Keep to the subject, Mr. Gryce; keep to the subject.”

He laughed; laid down the little basket he held, took it up again, and finally resumed:

“Madam, you are right; we did not stop at finding a motive. Our next step was to collect evidence directly connecting him with the crime.”

“And you succeeded in this?”

My tone was unnecessarily eager, this was all so unaccountable to me; but he did not appear to notice it.

“We did. Indeed the evidence against him is stronger than that against his brother. For if we ignore the latter part of Howard’s testimony, which was evidently a tissue of lies, what remains against him? Three things: his dogged persistency in not recognizing his wife in the murdered woman; the receiving of the house keys from his brother; and the fact that he was seen on the stoop of his father’s house at an unusual hour in the morning following this murder. Now what have we against Franklin? Many things.

“First:

“That he can no more account for the hours between half-past eleven on Tuesday morning and five o’clock on the following Wednesday morning than his brother can. In one breath he declares that he was shut up in his rooms at the hotel, for which no corroborative evidence is forthcoming; and in another that he was on a tramp after his brother, which seems equally improbable and incapable of proof.

“Second:

“That he and not Howard was the man in a linen duster, and that he and not Howard was in possession of the keys that night. As these are serious statements to make, I will give you my reasons for them. They are distinct from the recognition of his person by the inmates of the Hotel D— — and added to that recognition, form a strong case against him. The janitor who has charge of the offices in Duane Street, happening to have a leisure moment on the morning of the day on which Mrs. Van Burnam was murdered, was making the most of it by watching the unloading of a huge boiler some four doors below the Van Burnam warehouse. He was consequently looking intently in that direction when Howard passed him, coming from the interview with his brother in which he had been given the keys. Mr. Van Burnam was walking briskly, but finding the sidewalk blocked by the boiler to which I have alluded, paused for a moment to let it pass, and being greatly heated, took out his handkerchief to wipe his forehead. This done, he moved on, just as a man dressed in a long duster came up behind him, stopping where he stopped and picking up from the ground something which the first gentleman had evidently dropped. This last man’s figure looked more or less familiar to the janitor, so did the duster, and later he discovered that the latter was the one which he had seen hanging for so long a time in the little disused closet under the warehouse stairs. Its wearer was Franklin Van Burnam, who, as I took pains to learn, had left the office immediately in the wake of his brother, and the object he picked up was the bunch of keys which the latter had inadvertently dropped. He may have thought he lost them later, but it was then and there they slipped from his pocket. I will here add that the duster found by the hackman in his coach has been identified as the one missing from the closet just mentioned.

“Third:

“The keys with which Mr. Van Burnam’s house was unlocked were found hanging in their usual place by noon of the next day. They could not have been taken there by Howard, for he was not seen at the office after the murder. By whom then were they returned, if not by Franklin?

“Fourth:

“The letter, for the possession of which I believe this crime to have been perpetrated, was found by us in a supposedly secret drawer of this gentleman’s desk. It was much crumpled, and bore evidences of having been rather rudely dealt with since it was last seen in Mrs. Van Burnam’s hand in that very office.

“But the fact which is most convincing, and which will tell most heavily against him, is the unexpected discovery of the murdered lady’s rings, also in this same desk. How you became aware that anything of such importance could be found there, knowing even the exact place in which they were secreted, I will not stop to ask at this moment. Enough that when your maid entered the Van Burnam offices and insisted with so much ingenuousness that she was expected by Mr. Van Burnam and would wait for his return, the clerk most devoted to my interests became distrustful of her intentions, having been told to be on the look-out for a girl in gray or a lady in black with puffs on each side of two very sharp eyes. You will pardon me, Miss Butterworth. He therefore kept his eyes on the girl and presently espied her stretching out her hand towards a hook at the side of Mr. Franklin Van Burnam’s desk. As it is upon this hook this gentleman strings his unanswered letters, the clerk rose from his place as quickly as possible, and coming forward with every appearance of polite solicitude — did she not say he was polite, Miss Butterworth? — inquired what she wished, thinking she was after some letter, or possibly anxious for a specimen of some one’s handwriting. But she gave him no other reply than a blush and a confused look, for which you must rebuke her, Miss Butterworth, if you are going to continue to employ her as your agent in these very delicate affairs. And she made another mistake. She should not have left so abruptly upon detection, for that gave the clerk an opportunity to telephone for me, which he immediately did. I was at liberty, and I came at once, and, after hearing his story, decided that what was of interest to you must be of interest to me, and so took a look at the letters she had handled, and discovered, what she also must have discovered before she let them slip from her hand, that the five missing rings we were all in search of were hanging on this same hook amid the sheets of Franklin’s correspondence. You can imagine, madam, my satisfaction, and the gratitude which I felt towards my agent, who by his quickness had retained to me the honors of a discovery which it would have been injurious to my pride to have had confined entirely to yourself.”

“I can understand,” I repeated, and trusted myself to say no more, hot as my secret felt upon my lips.

“You have read Poe’s story of the filigree basket?” he now suggested, running his finger up and down the filigree work he himself held.

I nodded. I saw what he meant at once.

“Well, the principle involved in that story explains the presence of the rings in the midst of this stack of letters. Franklin Van Burnam, if he is the murderer of his sister-in-law, is one of the subtlest villains this city has ever produced, and knowing that, if once suspected, every secret drawer and professed hiding-place within his reach would be searched, he put these dangerous evidences of his guilt in a place so conspicuous, and yet so little likely to attract attention, that even so old a hand as myself did not think of looking for them there.”

He had finished, and the look he gave me was for myself alone.

“And now, madam,” said he, “that I have stated the facts of the case against Franklin Van Burnam, has not the moment come for you to show your appreciation of my good nature by a corresponding show of confidence on your part?”

I answered with a distinct negative. “There is too much that is unexplained as yet in your case against Franklin,” I objected. “You have shown that he had motive for the murder and that he was connected more or less intimately with the crime we are considering, but you have by no means explained all the phenomena accompanying this tragedy. How, for instance, do you account for Mrs. Van Burnam’s whim in changing her clothing, if her brother-in-law, instead of her husband, was her companion at the Hotel D——?”

You see I was determined to know the whole story before introducing Miss Oliver’s name into this complication.

He who had seen through the devices of so many women in his day did not see through mine, perhaps because he took a certain professional pleasure in making his views on this subject clear to the attentive Inspector. At all events, this is the way he responded to my half-curious, half-ironical question:

“A crime planned and perpetrated for the purpose I have just mentioned, Miss Butterworth, could not have been a simple one under any circumstances. But conceived as this one was by a man of more than ordinary intelligence, and carried out with a skill and precaution little short of marvellous, the features which it presents are of such a varying and subtle character that only by the exercise of a certain amount of imagination can they be understood at all. Such an imagination I possess, but how can I be sure that you do?”

“By testing it,” I suggested.

“Very good, madam, I will. Not from actual knowledge, then, but from a certain insight I have acquired in my long dealing with such matters, I have come to the conclusion that Franklin Van Burnam did not in the beginning plan to kill this woman in his father’s house.

“On the contrary, he had fixed upon a hotel room as the scene of the conflict he foresaw between them, and that he might carry it on without endangering their good names, had urged her to meet him the next morning in the semi-disguise of a gossamer over her fine dress and a heavy veil over her striking features; making the pretence, no doubt, of this being the more appropriate costume for her to appear in before the old gentleman should he so far concede to her demands as to take her to the steamer. For himself he had planned the adoption of a disfiguring duster which had been hanging for a long time in a closet on the ground-floor of the building in Duane Street. All this promised well, but when the time came and he was about to leave his office, his brother unexpectedly appeared and asked for the key to their father’s house. Disconcerted no doubt by the appearance of the very person he least wished to see, and astonished by a request so out of keeping with all that had hitherto passed between them, he nevertheless was in too much haste to question him, so gave him what he wanted and Howard went away. As soon after as he could lock his desk and don his hat, Franklin followed, and merely stopping to cover his coat with the old duster, he went out and hastened towards the place of meeting. Under most circumstances all this might have happened without the brothers encountering each other again, but a temporary obstruction on the sidewalk having, as we know, detained Howard, Franklin was enabled to approach him sufficiently close to see him draw his pocket-handkerchief out of his pocket, and with it the keys which he had just given him. The latter fell, and as there was a great pounding of iron going on in the building just over their heads, Howard did not perceive his loss but went quickly on. Franklin coming up behind him picked up the keys, and with a thought, or perhaps as yet with no thought, of the use to which they might be applied, put them in his own pocket before proceeding on his way.

“New York is a large place, and much can take place in it without comment. Franklin Van Burnam and his sister-in-law met and went together to the Hotel D—— without being either recognized or suspected till later developments drew attention to them. That she should consent to accompany him to this place, and that after she was there should submit, as she did, to taking all the business of the scheme upon herself, would be inconceivable in a woman of a self-respecting character; but Louise Van Burnam cared for little save her own aggrandisement, and rather enjoyed, so far as we can see, this very doubtful escapade, whose real meaning and murderous purpose she was so far from understanding.

“As the steamer, contrary to all expectation, had not yet been sighted off Fire Island, they took a room and prepared to wait for it. That is, she prepared to wait. He had no intention of waiting for its arrival or of going to it when it came; he only wanted his letter. But Louise Van Burnam was not the woman to relinquish it till she had obtained the price she had put on it, and he becoming very soon aware of this fact, began to ask himself if he should not be obliged to resort to extreme measures in order to regain it. One chance only remained for avoiding these. He would seem to embrace her later and probably much-talked-of scheme of presenting herself before his father in his own house rather than at the steamer; and by urging her to make its success more certain by a different style of dress from that she wore, induce a change of clothing, during which he might come upon the letter he was more than confident she carried about her person. Had this plan worked; had he been able to seize upon this compromising bit of paper, even at the cost of a scratch or two from her vigorous fingers, we should not be sitting here at this moment trying to account for the most complicated crime on record. But Louise Van Burnam, while weak and volatile enough to enjoy the romantic features of this transformation scene, even going so far as to write out the order herself with the same effort at disguise she had used in registering their assumed names at the desk, was not entirely his dupe, and having hidden the letter in her shoe ——”

“What!” I cried.

Having hidden the letter in her shoe,” repeated Mr. Gryce, with his finest smile, “she had but to signify that the boots sent by Altman were a size too small, for her to retain her secret and keep the one article she traded upon from his envious clutch. You seem struck dumb by this, Miss Butterworth. Have I enlightened you on a point that has hitherto troubled you?”

“Don’t ask me; don’t look at me.” As if he ever looked at any one! “Your perspicacity is amazing, but I will try and not show my sense of it, if it is going to make you stop.”

He smiled; the Inspector smiled: neither understood me.

“Very well then, I will go on; but the non-change of shoes had to be accounted for, Miss Butterworth.”

“You are right; and it has been, of course.”

“Have you any better explanation to give?”

I had, or thought I had, and the words trembled on my tongue. But I restrained myself under an air of great impatience. “Time is flying!” I urged, with as near a simulation of his own manner in saying the words as I could affect. “Go on, Mr. Gryce.”

And he did, though my manner evidently puzzled him.

“Being foiled in this his last attempt, this smooth and diabolical villain hesitated no longer in carrying out the scheme which had doubtless been maturing in his mind ever since he dropped the key of his father’s house into his own pocket. His brother’s wife must die, but not in a hotel room with him for a companion. Though scorned, detested, and a stumbling-block in the way of the whole family’s future happiness and prosperity, she still was a Van Burnam, and no shadow must fall upon her reputation. Further than this, for he loved life and his own reputation also, and did not mean to endanger either by this act of self-preservation, she must perish as if from accident, or by some blow so undiscoverable that it would be laid to natural causes. He thought he knew how this might be brought about. He had seen her put on her hat with a very thin and sharp pin, and he had heard how one thrust into a certain spot in the spine would effect death without a struggle. A wound like that would be small; almost indiscernible. True it would take skill to inflict it, and it would require dissimulation to bring her into the proper position for the contemplated thrust; but he was not lacking in either of these characteristics; and so he set himself to the task he had promised himself, and with such success that ere long the two left the hotel and proceeded to the house in Gramercy Park with all the caution necessary for preserving a secret which meant reputation to the one, and liberty, if not life, to the other. That he and not she felt the greater need of secrecy, witness their whole conduct, and when, their goal reached, she and not he put the money into the driver’s hand, the last act of this curious drama of opposing motives was reached, and only the final catastrophe was wanting.

“With what arts he procured her hat-pin, and by what show of simulated passion he was able to approach near enough to her to inflict that cool and calculating thrust which resulted in her immediate death, I leave to your imagination. Enough that he compassed his ends, killing her and regaining the letter for the possession of which he had been willing to take a life. Afterwards ——”

“Well, afterwards?”

“The deed he had thought so complete began to assume a different aspect. The pin had broken in the wound, and, knowing the scrutiny which the body would receive at the hands of a Coroner’s jury, he began to see what consequences might follow its discovery. So to hide that wound and give to her death the wished-for appearance of accident, he went back and drew down the cabinet under which she was found. Had he done this at once his hand in the tragedy might have escaped detection, but he waited, and by waiting allowed the blood-vessels to stiffen and all that phenomena to become apparent by means of which the eyes of the physicians were opened to the fact that they must search deeper for the cause of death than the bruises she had received. Thus it is that Justice opens loop-holes in the finest web a criminal can weave.”

“A just remark, Mr. Gryce, but in this fine-spun web of your weaving, you have not explained how the clock came to be running and to stop at five.”

“Cannot you see? A man capable of such a crime would not forget to provide himself with an alibi. He expected to be in his rooms at five, so before pulling down the shelves at three or four, he wound the clock and set it at an hour when he could bring forward testimony to his being in another place. Is not such a theory consistent with his character and with the skill he has displayed from the beginning to the end of this woful affair?”

Aghast at the deftness with which this able detective explained every detail of this crime by means of a theory necessarily hypothetical if the discoveries I had made in the matter were true, and for the moment subjected to the overwhelming influence of his enthusiasm, I sat in a maze, asking myself if all the seemingly irrefutable evidence upon which men had been convicted in times gone by was as false as this. To relieve myself and to gain renewed confidence in my own views and the discoveries I had made in this matter, I repeated the name of Howard, and asked how, in case the whole crime was conceived and perpetrated by his brother, he came to utter such equivocations and to assume that position of guilt which had led to his own arrest.

“Do you think,” I inquired, “that he was aware of his brother’s part in this affair, and that out of compassion for him he endeavored to take the crime upon his own shoulders?”

“No, madam. Men of the world do not carry their disinterestedness so far. He not only did not know the part his brother took in this crime, but did not even suspect it, or why acknowledge that he lost the key by which the house was entered?”

“I do not understand Howard’s actions, even under these circumstances. They seem totally inconsistent to me.”

“Madam, they are easily explainable to one who knows the character of his mind. He prizes his honor above every consideration, and regarded it as threatened by the suggestion that his wife had entered his father’s empty house at midnight with another man. To save himself that shame, he was willing not only to perjure himself, but to take upon himself the consequences of his perjury. Quixotic, certainly, but some men are constituted that way, and he, for all his amiable characteristics, is the most dogged man I ever encountered. That he ran against snags in his attempted explanations, seemed to make no difference to him. He was bound that no one should accuse him of marrying a false woman, even if he must bear the opprobrium of her death. It is hard to understand such a nature, but re-read his testimony, and see if this explanation of his conduct is not correct.”

And still I mechanically repeated: “I do not understand.”

Mr. Gryce may not have been a patient man under all circumstances, but he was patient with me that day.

“It was his ignorance, Miss Butterworth, his total ignorance of the whole affair that led him into the inconsistencies he manifested. Let me present his case as I already have his brother’s. He knew that his wife had come to New York to appeal to his father, and he gathered from what she said that she intended to do this either in his house or on the dock. To cut short any opportunity she might have for committing the first folly, he begged the key of the house from his brother, and, supposing that he had it all right, went to his rooms, not to Coney Island as he said, and began to pack up his trunks. For he meant to flee the country if his wife disgraced him. He was tired of her caprices and meant to cut them short as far as he was himself concerned. But the striking of the midnight hour brought better counsel. He began to wonder what she had been doing in his absence. Going out, he haunted the region of Gramercy Park for the better part of the night, and at daybreak actually mounted the steps of his father’s house and prepared to enter it by means of the key he had obtained from his brother. But the key was not in his pocket, so he came down again and walked away, attracting the attention of Mr. Stone as he did so. The next day he heard of the tragedy which had taken place within those very walls; and though his first fears led him to believe that the victim was his wife, a sight of her clothes naturally dispelled this apprehension, for he knew nothing of her visit to the Hotel D—— or of the change in her habiliments which had taken place there. His father’s persistent fears and the quiet pressure brought to bear upon him by the police only irritated him, and not until confronted by the hat found on the scene of death, an article only too well known as his wife’s, did he yield to the accumulated evidence in support of her identity. Immediately he felt the full force of his unkindness towards her, and rushing to the Morgue had her poor body taken to that father’s house and afterwards given a decent burial. But he could not accept the shame which this acknowledgment naturally brought with it, and, blind to all consequences, insisted, when brought up again for examination, that he was the man with whom she came to that lonely house. The difficulties into which this plunged him were partly foreseen and partly prepared for, and he showed some skill in surmounting them. But falsehoods never fit like truths, and we all felt the strain on our credulity as he met and attempted to parry the Coroner’s questions.

“And now, Miss Butterworth, let me again ask if your turn has not come at last for adding the sum of your evidence to ours against Franklin Van Burnam?”

It had; I could not deny it, and as I realized that with it had also come the opportunity for justifying the pretensions I had made, I raised my head with suitable spirit and, after a momentary pause for the purpose of making my words the more impressive, I asked:

“And what has made you think that I was interested in fixing the guilt on Franklin Van Burnam?”

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