That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

xli.

Secret History.

It was hours before I found myself able to realize that the scene I had just witnessed had a deeper and much more dreadful significance than appeared to the general eye, and that Ruth Oliver, in her desperate interruption of these treacherous nuptials, had not only made good her prior claim to Randolph Stone as her husband, but had pointed him out to all the world as the villainous author of that crime which for so long a time had occupied my own and the public’s attention.

Thinking that you may find the same difficulty in grasping this terrible fact, and being anxious to save you from the suspense under which I myself labored for so many hours, I here subjoin a written statement made by this woman some weeks later, in which the whole mystery is explained. It is signed Olive Randolph; the name to which she evidently feels herself best entitled.

“The man known in New York City as Randolph Stone was first seen by me in Michigan five years ago. His name then was John Randolph, and how he has since come to add to this the further appellation of Stone, I must leave to himself to explain.

“I was born in Michigan myself, and till my eighteenth year I lived with my father, who was a widower without any other child, in a little low cottage amid the sand mounds that border the eastern side of the lake.

“I was not pretty, but every man who passed me on the beach or in the streets of the little town where we went to market and to church, stopped to look at me, and this I noticed, and from this perhaps my unhappiness arose.

“For before I was old enough to know the difference between poverty and riches, I began to lose all interest in my simple home duties, and to cast longing looks at the great school building where girls like myself learned to speak like ladies and play the piano. Yet these ambitious promptings might have come to nothing if I had never met him. I might have settled down in my own sphere and lived a useful if unsatisfied life like my mother and my mother’s mother before her.

“But fate had reserved me for wretchedness, and one day just as I was on the verge of my eighteenth year, I saw John Randolph.

“I was coming out of church when our eyes first met, and I noticed after the first shock my simple heart received from his handsome face and elegant appearance, that he was surveying me with that strange look of admiration I had seen before on so many faces; and the joy this gave me, and the certainty which came with it of my seeing him again, made that moment quite unlike any other in my whole life, and was the beginning of that passion which has undone me, ruined him, and brought death and sorrow to many others of more worth than either of us.

“He was not a resident of the town, but a passing visitor; and his intention had been, as he has since told me, to leave the place on the following day. But the dart which had pierced my breast had not glanced entirely aside from his, and he remained, as he declared, to see what there was in this little country-girl’s face to make it so unforgettable. We met first on the beach and afterwards under the strip of pines which separate our cottage from the sand mounds, and though I have no reason to believe he came to these interviews with any honest purpose or deep sincerity of feeling, it is certain he exerted all his powers to make them memorable to me, and that, in doing so, he awoke some of the fire in his own breast which he took such wicked pleasure in arousing in mine.

“In fact he soon showed that this was so, for I could take no step from the house without encountering him; and the one indelible impression remaining to me from those days is the expression his face wore as, one sunny afternoon, he laid my hand on his arm and drew me away to have a look at the lake booming on the beach below us. There was no love in it as I understand love now, but the passion which informed it almost amounted to intoxication, and if such a passion can be understood between a man already cultivated and a girl who hardly knew how to read, it may, in a measure, account for what followed.

“My father, who was no fool, and who saw the selfish quality in this attractive lover of mine, was alarmed by our growing intimacy. Taking an opportunity when we were both in a more sensible mood than common, he put the case before Mr. Randolph in a very decided way. He told him that either he must marry me at once or quit seeing me altogether. No delay was to be considered and no compromise allowed.

“As my father was a man with whom no one ever disputed, John Randolph prepared to leave the town, declaring that he could marry no one at that stage of his career. But before he could carry out his intention, the old intoxication returned, and he came back in a fever of love and impatience to marry me.

“Had I been older or more experienced in the ways of the world, I would have known that such passion as this evinced was short-lived; that there is no witchery in a smile lasting enough to make men like him forget the lack of those social graces to which they are accustomed. But I was mad with happiness, and was unconscious of any cloud lowering upon our future till the day of our first separation came, when an event occurred which showed me what I might expect if I could not speedily raise myself to his level.

“We were out walking, and we met a lady who had known Mr. Randolph elsewhere. She was well dressed, which I was not, though I had not realized it till I saw how attractive she looked in quiet colors and with only a simple ribbon on her hat; and she had, besides, a way of speaking which made my tones sound harsh, and robbed me of that feeling of superiority with which I had hitherto regarded all the girls of my acquaintance.

“But it was not her possession of these advantages, keenly as I felt them, which awakened me to the sense of my position. It was the surprise she showed (a surprise the source of which was not to be mistaken) when he introduced me to her as his wife; and though she recovered herself in a moment, and tried to be kind and gracious, I felt the sting of it and saw that he felt it too, and consequently was not at all astonished when, after she had passed us, he turned and looked at me critically for the first time.

“But his way of showing his dissatisfaction gave me a shock it took me years to recover from. ‘Take off that hat,’ he cried, and when I had obeyed him, he tore out the spray which to my eyes had been its chief adornment, and threw it into some bushes near by; then he gave me back the hat and asked for the silk neckerchief which I had regarded as the glory of my bridal costume. Giving it to him I saw him put it in his pocket, and understanding now that he was trying to make me look more like the lady we had passed, I cried out passionately: ‘It is not these things that make the difference, John, but my voice and way of walking and speaking. Give me money and let me be educated, and then we will see if any other woman can draw your eyes away from me.’

“But he had received a shock that made him cruel. ‘You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,’ he sneered, and was silent all the rest of the way home. I was silent too, for I never talk when I am angry, but when we arrived in our own little room I confronted him.

“‘Are you going to say any more such cruel things to me?’ I asked, ‘for if you are, I should like you to say them now and be done with it.’

“He looked desperately angry, but there was yet a little love left in his heart for me, for he laughed after he had looked at me for a minute, and took me in his arms and said some of the fine things with which he had previously won my heart, but not with the old fire and not with the old effect upon me. Yet my love had not grown cold, it had only changed from the unthinking stage to the thinking one, and I was quite in earnest when I said: ‘I know I am not as pretty or as nice as the ladies you are accustomed to. But I have a heart that has never known any other passion than its love for you, and from such a heart you ought to expect a lady to grow, and there will. Only give me the chance, John; only let me learn to read and write.’

“But he was in an incredulous state of mind, and it ended in his going away without making any arrangements for my education. He was bound for San Francisco, where he had business to transact, and he promised to be back in four weeks, but before the four weeks elapsed, he wrote me that it would be five, and later on that it would be six, and afterwards that it would be when he had finished a big piece of work he was engaged upon, and which would bring him a large amount of money. I believed him and I doubted him at the same time, but I was not altogether sorry he delayed his return for I had begun school on my own account and was fast laying the foundation of a solid education.

“My means came from my father, who, now it was too late, saw the necessity of my improving myself. The amount of studying I did that first year was amazing, but it was nothing to what I went through the second, for my husband’s letters had begun to fail me, and I was forced to work in order to drown grief and keep myself from despair. Finally no letters came at all, and when the second year was over, and I could at least express myself correctly, I woke to the realization that, so far as my husband was concerned, I had gone through all this labor for nothing, and that unless by some fortunate chance I could light upon some clue to his whereabouts in the great world beyond our little town, I would be likely to pass the remainder of my days in widowhood and desolation.

“My father dying at this time and leaving me a thousand dollars, I knew no better way of spending it than in the hopeless search I have just mentioned. Accordingly after his burial I started out on my travels, gaining experience with every mile. I had not been away a week before I realized what a folly I had indulged in in ever hoping to see John Randolph back at my side. I saw the homes in which such men as he lived, and met in cars and on steamboats the kind of people with whom he must associate to be happy, and a gulf seemed to open between us which even such love as mine would be powerless to bridge.

“But though hope thus sank in my breast, I did not lose my old ambition of making myself as worthy of him as circumstances would permit. I read only the best books and I allowed myself to become acquainted with only the best people, and as I saw myself liked by such the awkwardness of my manner gradually disappeared, and I began to feel that the day would come when I should be universally recognized as a lady.

“Meantime I did not advance an iota in the object of my journey; and at last, with every expectation gone of ever seeing my husband again, I made my way to Toledo. Here I speedily found employment, and what was better still to one of my ambitious tendencies, an opportunity to add to the sum of my accomplishments a knowledge of French and music. The French I learned from the family I lived with, and the music from a professor in the same house whose love for his pet art was so great that he found it simple happiness to impart it to one so greedy for improvement as myself.

“Here, in course of time, I also learned type-writing, and it was for the purpose of seeking employment in this capacity that I finally came to New York. This was three months ago.

“I was in complete ignorance of the city when I entered it, and for a day or two I wandered to and fro, searching for a suitable lodging-house. It was while I was on my way to Mrs. Desberger’s that I saw advancing towards me a gentleman in whose air and manner I detected a resemblance to the husband who some five years since had deserted me. The shock was too much for my self-control. Quaking in every limb, I stood awaiting his approach, and when he came up to me, and I saw by his startled recognition of me that it was indeed he, I gave a loud cry and threw myself upon his arm. The start he gave was nothing to the frightful expression which crossed his face at this encounter, but I thought both due to his surprise, though now I am convinced they had their origin in the deepest and worst emotions of which a man is capable.

“‘John! John!’ I cried, and could say no more, for the agitations of five solitary, despairing years were choking me; but he was entirely voiceless, stricken, I have no doubt, beyond any power of mine to realize. How could I dream that in consideration, power, and prestige he had advanced even more rapidly than myself, and that at this very moment he was not only the idol of society, but on the verge of uniting himself to a woman — I will not say of marrying her, for marry her he could not while I lived — who would make him the envied possessor of millions. Such fortune, such daring, yes and such depravity, were beyond the reach of my imagination, and while I thought his pleasure less than mine, I did not dream that my existence was a menace to all his hopes, and that during this moment of speechlessness he was sounding his nature for means to rid himself of me even at the cost of my life.

“His first movement was to push me away, but I clung to him all the harder; at which his whole manner changed and he began to make futile efforts to calm me and lead me away from the spot. Seeing that these attempts were unavailing, he turned pale and raised his arm up passionately, but speedily dropped it again, and casting glances this way and that, broke suddenly into a loud laugh and became, as by the touch of a magician’s wand, my old lover again.

“‘Why, Olive!’ he cried; ‘why, Olive! is it you? (Did I say my name was Olive?) Happily met, my dear! I did not know what I had been missing all these years, but now I know it was you. Will you come with me, or shall I go home with you?’

“‘I have no home,’ said I, ‘I have just come into town.’

“‘Then I see but one alternative.’ He smiled, and what a power there was in his smile when he chose to exert it! ‘You must come to my apartments; are you willing?’

“‘I am your wife,’ I answered.

“He had taken me on his arm by this time and the recoil he made at these words was quite perceptible; but his face still smiled, and I was too mad with joy to be critical.

“‘And a very pretty and charming wife you have become,’ said he, drawing me on for a few steps. Suddenly he paused, and I felt the old shadow fall between us again. ‘But your dress is very shabby,’ he remarked.

“It was not; it was not near as shabby as the linen duster he himself wore.

“‘Is that rain?’ he inquired, looking up as a drop or two fell.

“‘Yes, it is raining.’

“‘Very well, let us go into this store we are coming to and buy a gossamer. That will cover up your gown. I cannot take you to my house dressed as you are now.’

“Surprised, for I had thought my dress very neat and lady-like, but never dreaming of questioning his taste any more than in the old days in Michigan, I went with him into the shop he had pointed out and bought me a gossamer, for which he paid. When he had helped me to put it on and had tied my veil well over my face, he seemed more at his ease and gave me his arm quite cheerfully.

“‘Now,’ said he, ‘you look well, but how about the time when you will have to take the gossamer off? I tell you what it is, my dear, you will have to refit yourself entirely before I shall be satisfied.’ And again I saw him cast about him that furtive and inquiring look which would have awakened more surprise in me than it did had I known that we were in a part of the city where he ran but little chance of meeting any one he knew.

“‘This old duster I have on,’ he suddenly laughed, ‘is a very appropriate companion to your gossamer,’ and though I did not agree with him, for my clothes were new, and his old and shabby, I laughed also and never dreamed of evil.

“As this garment which so disfigured him that morning has been the occasion of much false speculation on the part of those whose business it was to inquire into the crime with which it is in a most unhappy way connected, I may as well explain here and now why so fastidious a gentleman as Randolph Stone came to wear it. The gentleman called Howard Van Burnam was not the only person who visited the Van Burnam offices on the morning preceding the murder. Randolph Stone was there also, but he did not see the brothers, for finding them closeted together, he decided not to interrupt them. As he was a frequent visitor there, his presence created no remark nor was his departure noted. Descending the stairs separating the offices from the street, he was about to leave the building, when he noticed that the clouds looked ominous. Being dressed for a luncheon with Miss Althorpe, he felt averse to getting wet, so he stepped back into the adjoining hall and began groping for an umbrella in a little closet under the stairs where he had once before found such an article. While doing this he heard the younger Van Burnam descend and go out, and realizing that he could now see Franklin without difficulty, he was about to return up-stairs when he heard that gentleman also come down and follow his brother into the street.

“His first impulse was to join him, but finding nothing but an old duster in the closet, he gave up this intention, and putting on this shabby but protecting garment, started for his apartments, little realizing into what a course of duplicity and crime it was destined to lead him. For to the wearing of this old duster on this especial morning, innocent as the occasion was, I attribute John Randolph’s temptation to murder. Had he gone out without it, he would have taken his usual course up Broadway and never met me; or even if he had taken the same roundabout way to his apartments as that which led to our encounter, he would never have dared, in his ordinary fine dress, conspicuous as it made him, to have entered upon those measures, which, as he is clever enough to know, lead to disgrace, if they do not end in a felon’s cell. It was John Randolph, then, or Randolph Stone, as he is pleased to call himself in New York, and not Franklin Van Burnam (who had doubtless proceeded in another direction) who came up to where Howard had stood, saw the keys he had dropped, and put them in his own pocket. It was as innocent an action as the donning of the duster, and yet it was fraught with the worst consequences to himself and others.

“Being of the same height and complexion as Franklin Van Burnam, and both gentlemen wearing at that time a moustache (my husband shaved his off after the murder), the mistakes which arose out of this strange equipment were but natural. Seen from the rear or in the semi-darkness of a hotel-office they might look alike, though to me or to any one studying them well, their faces are really very different.

“But to return. Leading me through streets of which I knew nothing, he presently stopped before the entrance of a large hotel.

“‘I tell you what, Olive,’ said he, ‘we had better go in here, take a room, and send for such things as you require to make you look like a lady.’

“As I had no objection to anything which kept me at his side, I told him that whatever suited him suited me, and followed him quite eagerly into the office. I did not know then that this hotel was a second-rate one, not having had experience with the best, but if I had, I should not have wondered at his choice, for there was nothing in his appearance, as I have already intimated, or in his manners up to this point, to lead me to think he was one of the city’s great swells, and that it was only in such an unfashionable house as this he would be likely to pass unrecognized. How with his markedly handsome features and distinguished bearing he managed so to carry himself as to look like a man of inferior breeding, I can no more explain than I can the singular change which took place in him when once he found himself in the midst of the crowd which lounged about this office.

“From a man to attract all eyes he became at once a man to attract none, and slouched and looked so ordinary that I stared at him in astonishment, little thinking that he had assumed this manner as a disguise. Seeing me at a loss, he spoke up quite peremptorily:

“‘Let us keep our secret, Olive, till you can appear in the world full-fledged. And look here, darling, won’t you go to the desk and ask for a room? I am no hand at any such business.’

“Confounded at a proposition so unexpected, but too much under the spell of my feelings to dispute his wishes, I faltered out:

“‘But supposing they ask me to register?’

“At which he gave me a look which recalled the old days in Michigan, and quietly sneered:

“‘Give them a fictitious name. You have learned to write by this time, have you not?’

“Stung by his taunt, but more in love with him than ever, for his momentary display of passion had made him look both masterful and handsome, I went up to the desk to do his bidding.

“‘A room!’ said I; and when asked to write our names in the book that lay before me, I put down the first that suggested itself. I wrote with my gloves on, which was why the writing looked so queer that it was taken for a disguised hand.

“This done, he rejoined me, and we went up-stairs, and I was too happy to be in his company again to wonder at his peculiarities or weigh the consequences of the implicit confidence I accorded him. I was desperately in love once more, and entered into every plan he proposed without a thought beyond the joyous present. He was so handsome without his hat; and when after some short delay he threw aside the duster, I felt myself for the first time in my life in the presence of a finished gentleman. Then his manner was so changed. He was so like his oldest and best self, so dangerously like what he was in those long vanished hours under the pines in my sand-swept home on the shores of Lake Michigan. That he faltered at times and sank into strange spells of silence which had something in them that made my breath come fitfully, did not awaken my apprehension or rouse in me more than a passing curiosity. I thought he regretted the past, and when, after one such pause in our conversation, he drew out of his pocket a couple of keys tied together with a string, and surveyed the card attached to them with a strange look, easily enough to be understood by me now, I only laughed at his abstraction, and indulged in a fresh caress to make him more mindful of my presence.

“These keys were the ones which Mrs. Van Burnam’s husband had dropped, and which he had picked up before meeting me; and after he had put them back into his pocket he became more talkative than before, and more systematically lover-like. I think he had not seen his way clearly till this moment, the dark and dreadful way which was to end, as he supposed, in my death.

“But I feared nothing, suspected nothing. Such deep and desperate wickedness as he was planning was beyond the wildest flight of my imagination. When he insisted upon sending for a complete set of clothing for me, and when at his dictation I wrote a list of the articles I wanted, I thought he was influenced by his wish as my husband to see me dressed in articles of his own buying. That it was all a plot to rob me of my identity could not strike such a mind as mine, and when the packages came and were received by him in the sly way already known to the public, I saw nothing in his caution but a playful display of mystery that was to end in my romantic establishment in a home of love and luxury.

“Or rather it is thus that I account for my conduct now, and yet the precaution I took not to change the shoes in which my money was hidden, may argue that I was not without some underlying doubt of his complete sincerity. But if so, I hid it from myself, and, as I have every reason to believe, from him also, doubtless excusing my action to myself by considering that I would be none the worse off for a few dollars of my own, even if he was my husband, and had promised me no end of pleasure and comfort.

“That he did intend to make me happy, he had assured me more than once. Indeed, before we had been long in this hotel room, he informed me that great experiences lay before me; that he had prospered much in the last five years and had now a house of his own to offer me and a large circle of friends to make our life in it agreeable.

“‘We will go to our house to-night,’ said he. ‘I have not been living in it lately, and you may find it a little uncomfortable, but we will remedy that to-morrow. Anything is better than staying here under a false name and I cannot take you to my bachelor apartment.’

“I had doubted some of his previous statements, but this one I implicitly believed. Why should not so elegant a man have a house of his own; and if he had told me it was built of marble and hung with Florentine tapestries, I should still have credited it all. I was in fairy-land and he was my knight of romance, even when he again hung his head in leaving the hotel and looked at once so ordinary and uninteresting.

“The ruse he made use of to cut off all connection between ourselves and the Mr. and Mrs. James Pope who had registered at the Hotel D—— was accepted by me with the same lack of suspicion. That he should wish to carry no remembrance of our old life into our new home I thought a delightful piece of folly, and when he proposed that we should bequeath my gossamer and his own disfiguring duster to the coachman in whose hack we were then riding, I laughed gleefully and helped him fold them up and place them under the cushions, though I did wonder why he cut a piece out of the neck of the former, and pouted with the happy freedom of a self-confident woman when he said:

“‘It is the first thing I ever bought for you, and I am just foolish enough to wish to preserve this much of it for a keepsake. Do you object, my dear?’

“As I was conscious of cherishing a similar folly in his regard, and could have pressed even that old duster of his to my heart, I offered him a kiss and said ‘No,’ and he put the scrap away in his pocket. That it was the portion on which was stamped the name of the firm from which it was bought did not occur to me.

“When the coach stopped, he urged me away on foot in a direction entirely strange to me, saying we would take another hack as soon as we had disposed of the bundles we were carrying. How he intended to do this, I did not know. But presently he drew me towards a Chinese laundry, where he bade me leave one of them as washing, and the other he dropped before the opening of a sewer as we stepped up a neighboring curb-stone.

“And still I did not suspect.

“Our ride to Gramercy Park was short, but during it he had time to put a bill in my hand and tell me I was to pay the driver. He had also time to secure the weapon upon which he had probably had his eye fixed from the first. His manner of doing this I can never forgive, for it was a lover’s manner, and as such intended to deceive and cajole me. Drawing my head down on his shoulder, he drew off my veil, saying that it was the only article left of my own buying, and that we would leave it behind us in this coach as we had left the gossamer in the other. ‘Only I will make sure that no other woman ever wears it,’ he laughed, slitting it up and down with his knife. When this was done he kissed me, and then while my heart was tender and the warm tears stood in my eyes, he drew out the pin from my hat, meeting my remonstrances with the assurance that he hated to see my head covered, and that no hat was as pretty as my own brown hair.

“As this was nonsense, and as the coach was beginning to stop, I shook my head at him and put my hat on again, but he had dropped the pin, or so he said, and I had to alight without it.

“When I had paid the driver and the coach had driven off, I had a chance to look up at the house before which we had stopped. Its height and imposing appearance daunted me in spite of the great expectations I had formed, and I ran up the stoop after him in a condition of mingled awe and wild delight that was the poorest preparation possible for what lay before me in the dark interior we were entering.

“He was fumbling nervously in the keyhole with his key, and I heard a whispered oath escape him. But presently the door fell back, and we stepped in to what looked to me like a cavern of darkness.

“‘Do not be frightened!’ he admonished me. ‘I will strike a light in a moment.’ And after carefully closing the street door behind us, he stretched out his hand to take mine, or so I judge, for I heard him whisper impatiently, ‘Where are you?’

“I was on the threshold of the parlor, to which I had groped my way while he was closing the front door, so I whispered back, ‘Here!’ but found voice for nothing further, for at that instant I heard a sound proceeding from the depths of darkness in front of me, and was so struck with terror that I fell back against the staircase, just as he passed me and entered the room from which that stealthy noise had issued.

“‘Darling!’ he whispered, ‘darling!’ and went stumbling on in the void of darkness before me, till suddenly by some power I cannot explain I seemed to see, faintly but distinctly, and as if with my mind’s eye rather than with my bodily one.

“I perceived the shadowy form of a woman standing in the space before him, and beheld him suddenly grasp her with what he meant to be a loving cry, but which to my ears at that moment sounded strangely ferocious, and after holding her a moment suddenly release her, at which she uttered one low, curdling moan and sank at his feet. At the same instant I heard a click, which I did not understand then, but which I now know to have been the head of the hat-pin striking the register.

“Horrified past all power of speech and action, for I saw that he had intended this blow for me, I cowered against the stairs, waiting for him to pass out. This he did not do at once, though the delay must have been short. He stopped long enough by the prostrate form to stir it with his foot, probably to see if life was extinct, but no longer, yet it seemed an eternity before I perceived him groping his way over the threshold; an eternity in which every act of my life passed before me, and every word and every expression with which he had beguiled me came to rack my soul and made the horror of this mad awakening greater.

“No thought of her, or of the guilt with which he had forever damned his soul, came to me in that first moment of misery. My loss, my escape, and the danger in which I still stood if the least hint reached him of the mistake he had made, filled my mind too entirely for me to dwell on any less impersonal theme. His words, for he muttered several in that short passage out, showed me in what a fools’ paradise I had been revelling, and how certainly I had turned his every thought towards murder when I seized him in the street and proclaimed myself his wife. The satisfaction with which he uttered, ‘Well struck!’ gave little hint of remorse; and the gloating delight with which he added something about the devil having assisted him to make it a safe blow as well as a deadly one, was proof not only of his having used all his cunning in planning this crime, but of his pleasure in its apparent success.

“That he continued in this frame of mind, and that he never lost confidence in the precautions he had taken and in the mystery with which the deed was surrounded, is apparent from the fact that he revisited the Van Burnam office on the following morning, and hung again on its accustomed nail the keys of the Gramercy Park house.

“When the front door had closed, and I knew that he had gone away in the full belief that it was my form he had left lying behind him on that midnight floor, all the accumulated terrors of the situation came to me in full force, and I began to think of her as well as of myself, and longed for courage to approach her or even the daring to call out for help. But the thought that it was my husband who had committed this crime held me tongue-tied, and though I soon began to move inch by inch in her direction, it was some time before I could so far overcome my terror as to enter the room where she lay.

“I had supposed, and still supposed (as was natural after seeing him open the door with the keys he took from his pocket), that the house was his, and the victim a member of his own household. But when, after innumerable hesitations and a bodily shrinking that was little short of torment, I managed to drag myself into the room and light a match which I found on a farther mantel-shelf, I saw enough in the general appearance of the rooms and of the figure at my feet to make me doubt the truth of both these suppositions. Yet no other explanation came to lighten the mystery of the occasion, and dazed as I was by the horror of my position and the mortal dread I felt of the man who in one instant had turned the heaven of my love into a hell of fathomless horrors, I soon had eyes for the one fact only, that the woman lying before me was sufficiently like myself to inspire me with the hope of preserving my secret and keeping from my would-be slayer the knowledge of my having escaped the doom he had prepared for me.

“For ascribe it to what motive you will, that was the one idea now dominating my mind. I wanted him to believe me dead. I wanted to feel that all connection between us was severed forever. He had killed me. By killing my love and faith in him he had murdered the better part of myself, and I shrank with inconceivable horror from anything that would bring me again under his eye, or force me to assert claims that it would be the future business of my life to forget.

“When the first match went out I had not courage to light another, so I crept away in the darkness to listen at the foot of the stairs. There was no sound from above, and a terrifying sense began to pervade me that I was in that house alone. Yet there was safety in the thought, and opportunity for what I was planning, and finally, under the stress of the purpose that was every moment developing within me, I went softly up-stairs and listened at all the doors till I was certain that the house was unoccupied. Then I came down and walked resolutely back into the parlor, for I knew if I allowed any time to pass I could never again summon up strength to cross its grisly threshold. Yet I did nothing for hours but crouch in one of its dismal corners, waiting for morning. That I did not go mad in that awful interval is a wonder. I must have been near it more than once.

“I have been asked, and Miss Butterworth has been asked, how in the light of what we now know concerning this poor victim’s presence there, we account for her being in the darkness and showing so little terror at our entrance and Mr. Stone’s approach. I account for it in this way: Two half-burned matches were found in the parlor grate. One I flung there; the other had probably been used by her to light the dining-room gas. If this was still lighted when we drove up, as it may have been, then, alarmed by the sound of the stopping coach, she had put it out, with a vague idea of hiding herself till she knew whether it was the old gentleman who was coming or only her suspicious and unreasonable husband. If it was not lighted then, she was probably aroused from a sleep on the parlor sofa, and was for the moment too dazed to cry out or resent an embrace she had not time to understand before she succumbed to the cruel stab that killed her. Miss Butterworth, however, thinks that the poor creature took the intruder for Franklin till she heard my voice, when she probably became so amazed that she was in a measure paralyzed and found it impossible to move or cry out. As Miss Butterworth is a woman of great discretion I should think her explanation the truest, if I did not consider her a little prejudiced against Mrs. Van Burnam.

“But to return to myself.

“With the first glimmer of light that came through the closed shutters I rose and began my dreadful task. Upheld by a purpose as relentless as that which drove the author of this horror into murder, I stripped the body and put upon it my own clothing, with the one exception of the shoes. Then, when I had re-dressed myself in hers, I steadied up my heart and with one wild pull dragged down the cabinet upon her so that her face might lose its traits and her identification become impossible.

“How I had strength to do this, and how I could contemplate the result without shrieking, I cannot now imagine. Perhaps I was hardly human at this crisis; perhaps something of the demon which had informed him in his awful work had entered into my breast, making this thing possible. I only know that I did what I have said and did it calmly. More than that, that I had mind and judgment left to give to my own appearance. Observing that the dress I had put on was of a conspicuous plaid, I exchanged the skirt portion with the brown silk petticoat under it, and when I observed that it hung below the other, as of course it would, I went through the house till I came upon some pins with which I pinned it up out of sight. Thus equipped, I was still a person to attract attention, especially as I had no hat to put on; my own having fallen from my head and been covered by the dead woman’s body, which nothing would induce me to move again.

“But I had confidence in my own powers to escape question, toned up as I was in every nerve by the dreadfulness of my situation, and as soon as I was in decent shape for flight, I opened the front door and prepared to slip out.

“But here the intense dread I felt of my husband, a dread which had actuated all my movements and sustained me in as harrowing a task as ever woman performed, seized me with renewed force, and I quailed at the prospect of entering the streets alone. Supposing he should be on the stoop! Supposing he should be in an opposite window even! Could I encounter him again and live? He was not far away, or so I felt. A murderer, it is said, cannot help haunting the scene of his crime, and if he should see me alive and well, what might I not expect from his astonishment and alarm? I did not dare go out. But neither did I dare remain, so after quaking for a good five minutes on the threshold, I made one wild dash through the door.

“There was no one in sight, and I reached Broadway before I ran across man or woman. Even then I got by without any one speaking to me, and, favored by Providence, found a nook at the end of an alley-way, where I remained undiscovered till it was late enough in the morning for me to enter a shop and buy a hat.

“The rest of my movements are known. I found my way to Mrs. Desberger’s, this time without interruption; and from that place sought and found a situation with Miss Althorpe.

“That her fate was in any way connected with mine, or that the Randolph Stone she was engaged to marry was the John Randolph from whose clutches I had just escaped, was, of course, unsuspected by me, and, incredible as it may seem, continued to be unsuspected as long as I remained in the house. There was reason for this. My duties were such as I could well attend to in my own room, and feeling a horror of the world and everything in it, I kept my room as much as possible, and never went out of it when I knew that he was in the house. The very thought of love awakened intolerable emotions in me, and much as I admired and revered Miss Althorpe, I could not bring myself to meet or even talk of the man to whom she was in expectation of being so soon united. There was another thing of which I was ignorant, and that was the circumstances which had invested with so much interest the crime of which I had been witness. I did not know that the victim had been recognized, or that an innocent man had been arrested for her murder. In fact I knew nothing concerning the affair save what I had seen with my own eyes, no one having mentioned the murder in my presence, and I having religiously avoided the very sight of a paper for fear that I should see some account of the horrible affair, and so lose what small remnants of courage I still possessed.

“This apathy concerning a matter so important to myself, or rather this almost frenzied determination to cut myself loose from my dreadful past, may seem strange and unnatural; but it will seem stranger yet when I say that for all these efforts I was haunted night and day by one small fact connected with this past, which made forgetfulness impossible. I had taken the rings from the hands of the dead woman as I had taken away her clothes, and the possession of these valuables, probably because they represented so much money, weighed on my conscience and made me feel like a thief. The purse which I found in a pocket of the skirt I had put on was a trouble to me, but the rings were a source of constant terror and disturbance. I hid them finally in a ball of yarn I was using, but even then I experienced but little peace, for they were not mine, and I lacked the courage to avow it or seek out the person to whom they now rightfully belonged.

“When, therefore, in the intervals of fever which attacked me in Miss Althorpe’s house, I overheard enough of a conversation between her and Miss Butterworth to learn that the murdered woman had been a Mrs. Van Burnam, and that her husband or relatives had an office somewhere downtown, I was so seized by the instinct of restitution, that I took the first opportunity that offered to leave my bed and hunt up these people.

“That I would injure them in any way by secretly restoring these jewels, I never dreamed. Indeed, I did not exercise my mind at all on the subject, but only followed the instincts of my delirium; and while to all appearance I showed all the cunning of an insane person, in the pursuit of my purpose, I fail to remember now how I found my way to Duane Street, or by what suggestion of my diseased brain I was induced to slip these rings upon the hook attached to Mr. Van Burnam’s desk. Probably the mere utterance of this well-known name into the ears of the passers-by was enough to obtain for me such directions as I needed, but however that may be, the result was misapprehension, and the complications which followed, serious.

“Of the emotion caused in me by the unaccountable discovery of my connection with this crime I need not speak. The love which I at one time felt for John Randolph had turned to gall and bitterness, but enough sense of duty remained in my bruised and broken heart to keep me from denouncing him to the police, till by a sudden stroke of fate or Providence, I saw him in the carriage with Miss Althorpe, and realized that he was not only the man with whom she was upon the point of allying herself, but that it was to preserve his place in her regard and to attain the lofty position promised by this union, he had attempted to murder me, and had murdered another woman only less unfortunate and miserable than myself.

“It was the last and bitterest blow that could come from his hand; and though instinct led me to throw myself into the carriage before which I stood, and thus escape a meeting which I felt I could never survive, I was determined from that moment not only to save Miss Althorpe from an alliance with this villain, but to revenge myself upon him in some never-to-be-forgotten manner.

“That this revenge involved her in a public shame from which her angelic goodness to me should have saved her, I regret now as deeply as even she can wish. But the madness that was upon me made me blind to every other consideration than that of the boundless hatred I bore him; and while I can look for no forgiveness from her on that account, I still hope the day will come when she will see that in spite of my momentary disregard of her feelings, I cherish for her an affection that nothing can efface or make other than the ruling passion of my life.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/green/anna_katharine/that_affair_next_door/chapter41.html

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