That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

xxxviii.

A White Satin Gown.

The events just related did not come to my knowledge for some days after they occurred, but I have recorded them at this time that I might in some way prepare you for an interview which shortly after took place between myself and Mr. Gryce.

I had not seen him since our rather unsatisfactory parting in front of Miss Althorpe’s house, and the suspense which I had endured in the interim made my greeting unnecessarily warm. But he took it all very naturally.

“You are glad to see me,” said he; “been wondering what has become of Miss Oliver. Well, she is in good hands; with Mrs. Desberger, in short; a woman whom I believe you know.”

“With Mrs. Desberger?” I was surprised. “Why, I have been looking every day in the papers for an account of her arrest.”

“No doubt,” he answered. “But we police are slow; we are not ready to arrest her yet. Meanwhile you can do us a favor. She wants to see you; are you willing to visit her?”

My answer contained but little of the curiosity and eagerness I really felt.

“I am always at your command. Do you wish me to go now?”

“Miss Oliver is impatient,” he admitted. “Her fever is better, but she is in an excited condition of mind which makes her a little unreasonable. To be plain, she is not quite herself, and while we still hope something from her testimony, we are leaving her very much to her own devices, and do not cross her in anything. You will therefore listen to what she says, and, if possible, aid her in anything she may undertake, unless it points directly towards self-destruction. My opinion is that she will surprise you. But you are becoming accustomed to surprises, are you not?”

“Thanks to you, I am.”

“Very well, then, I have but one more suggestion to make. You are working for the police now, madam, and nothing that you see or learn in connection with this girl is to be kept back from us. Am I understood?”

“Perfectly; but it is only proper for me to retort that I am not entirely pleased with the part you assign me. Could you not have left thus much to my good sense, and not put it into so many words?”

“Ah, madam, the case at present is too serious for risks of that kind. Mr. Van Burnam’s reputation, to say nothing of his life, depends upon our knowledge of this girl’s secret; surely you can stretch a point in a matter of so much moment?”

“I have already stretched several, and I can stretch one more, but I hope the girl won’t look at me too often with those miserable appealing eyes of hers; they make me feel like a traitor.”

“You will not be troubled by any appeal in them. The appeal has vanished; something harder and even more difficult to meet is to be found in them now: wrath, purpose, and a desire for vengeance. She is not the same woman, I assure you.”

“Well,” I sighed, “I am sorry; there is something about the girl that lays hold of me, and I hate to see such a change in her. Did she ask for me by name?”

“I believe so.”

“I cannot understand her wanting me, but I will go; and I won’t leave her either till she shows me she is tired of me. I am as anxious to see the end of this matter as you are.” Then, with some vague idea that I had earned a right to some show of confidence on his part, I added insinuatingly: “I supposed you would feel the case settled when she almost fainted at the sight of the younger Mr. Van Burnam.”

The old ambiguous smile I remembered so well came to modify his brusque rejoinder.

“If she had been a woman like you, I should; but she is a deep one, Miss Butterworth; too deep for the success of a little ruse like mine. Are you ready?”

I was not, but it did not take me long to be so, and before an hour had elapsed I was seated in Mrs. Desberger’s parlor in Ninth Street. Miss Oliver was in, and ere long made her appearance. She was dressed in street costume.

I was prepared for a change in her, and yet the shock I felt when I first saw her face must have been apparent, for she immediately remarked:

“You find me quite well, Miss Butterworth. For this I am partially indebted to you. You were very good to nurse me so carefully. Will you be still kinder, and help me in a new matter which I feel quite incompetent to undertake alone?”

Her face was flushed, her manner nervous, but her eyes had an extraordinary look in them which affected me most painfully, notwithstanding the additional effect it gave to her beauty.

“Certainly,” said I. “What can I do for you?”

“I wish to buy me a dress,” was her unexpected reply. “A handsome dress. Do you object to showing me the best shops? I am a stranger in New York.”

More astonished than I can express, but carefully concealing it in remembrance of the caution received from Mr. Gryce, I replied that I would be only too happy to accompany her on such an errand. Upon which she lost her nervousness and prepared at once to go out with me.

“I would have asked Mrs. Desberger,” she observed while fitting on her gloves, “but her taste”— here she cast a significant look about the room —“is not quiet enough for me.”

“I should think not!” I cried.

“I shall be a trouble to you,” the girl went on, with a gleam in her eye that spoke of the restless spirit within. “I have many things to buy, and they must all be rich and handsome.”

“If you have money enough, there will be no trouble about that.”

“Oh, I have money.” She spoke like a millionaire’s daughter. “Shall we go to Arnold’s?”

As I always traded at Arnold’s, I readily acquiesced, and we left the house. But not before she had tied a very thick veil over her face.

“If we meet any one, do not introduce me,” she begged. “I cannot talk to people.”

“You may rest easy,” I assured her.

At the corner she stopped. “Is there any way of getting a carriage?” she asked.

“Do you want one?”

“Yes.”

I signalled a hack.

“Now for the dress!” she cried.

We rode at once to Arnold’s.

“What kind of a dress do you want?” I inquired as we entered the store.

“An evening one; a white satin, I think.”

I could not help the exclamation which escaped me; but I covered it up as quickly as possible by a hurried remark in favor of white, and we proceeded at once to the silk counter.

“I will trust it all to you,” she whispered in an odd, choked tone as the clerk approached us. “Get what you would for your daughter — no, no! for Mr. Van Burnam’s daughter, if he has one, and do not spare expense. I have five hundred dollars in my pocket.”

Mr. Van Burnam’s daughter! Well, well! A tragedy of some kind was portending! But I bought the dress.

“Now,” said she, “lace, and whatever else I need to make it up suitably. And I must have slippers and gloves. You know what a young girl requires to make her look like a lady. I want to look so well that the most critical eye will detect no fault in my appearance. It can be done, can it not, Miss Butterworth? My face and figure will not spoil the effect, will they?”

“No,” said I; “you have a good face and a beautiful figure. You ought to look well. Are you going to a ball, my dear?”

“I am going to a ball,” she answered; but her tone was so strange the people passing us turned to look at her.

“Let us have everything sent to the carriage,” said she, and went with me from counter to counter with her ready purse in her hand, but not once lifting her veil to look at what was offered us, saying over and over as I sought to consult her in regard to some article: “Buy the richest; I leave it all to you.”

Had Mr. Gryce not told me she must be humored, I could never have gone through this ordeal. To see a girl thus expend her hoarded savings on such frivolities was absolutely painful to me, and more than once I was tempted to decline any further participation in such extravagance. But a thought of my obligations to Mr. Gryce restrained me, and I went on spending the poor girl’s dollars with more pain to myself than if I had taken them out of my own pocket.

Having purchased all the articles we thought necessary, we were turning towards the door when Miss Oliver whispered:

“Wait for me in the carriage for just a few minutes. I have one more thing to buy, and I must do it alone.”

“But ——” I began.

“I will do it, and I will not be followed,” she insisted, in a shrill tone that made me jump.

And seeing no other way of preventing a scene, I let her leave me, though it cost me an anxious fifteen minutes.

When she rejoined me, as she did at the expiration of that time, I eyed the bundle she held with decided curiosity. But I could make no guess at its contents.

“Now,” she cried, as she reseated herself and closed the carriage door, “where shall I find a dressmaker able and willing to make up this satin in five days?”

I could not tell her. But after some little search we succeeded in finding a woman who engaged to make an elegant costume in the time given her. The first measurements were taken, and we drove back to Ninth Street with a lasting memory in my mind of the cold and rigid form of Miss Oliver standing up in Madame’s triangular parlor, submitting to the mechanical touches of the modiste with an outward composure, but with a brooding horror in her eyes that bespoke an inward torment.

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