That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

viii.

The Misses Van Burnam.

Late as it was when I retired, I was up betimes in the morning — as soon, in fact, as the papers were distributed. The Tribune lay on the stoop. Eagerly I seized it; eagerly I read it. From its headlines you may judge what it had to say about this murder:

A STARTLING DISCOVERY IN THE VAN BURNAM MANSION IN GRAMERCY
PARK.

A YOUNG GIRL FOUND THERE, LYING DEAD UNDER AN OVERTURNED
CABINET.

EVIDENCES THAT SHE WAS MURDERED BEFORE IT WAS PULLED DOWN UPON
HER.

THOUGHT BY SOME TO BE MRS. HOWARD VAN BURNAM.

A FEARFUL CRIME INVOLVED IN AN IMPENETRABLE MYSTERY.

WHAT MR. VAN BURNAM SAYS ABOUT IT: HE DOES NOT RECOGNIZE THE
WOMAN AS HIS WIFE.

So, so, it was his wife they were talking about. I had not expected that. Well! well! no wonder the girls looked startled and concerned. And I paused to recall what I had heard about Howard Van Burnam’s marriage.

It had not been a fortunate one. His chosen bride was pretty enough, but she had not been bred in the ways of fashionable society, and the other members of the family had never recognized her. The father, especially, had cut his son dead since his marriage, and had even gone so far as to threaten to dissolve the partnership in which they were all involved. Worse than this, there had been rumors of a disagreement between Howard and his wife. They were not always on good terms, and opinions differed as to which was most in fault. So much for what I knew of these two mentioned parties.

Reading the article at length, I learned that Mrs. Van Burnam was missing; that she had left Haddam for New York the day before her husband, and had not since been heard from. Howard was confident, however, that the publicity given to her disappearance by the papers would bring immediate news of her.

The effect of the whole article was to raise grave doubts as to the candor of Mr. Van Burnam’s assertions, and I am told that in some of the less scrupulous papers these doubts were not only expressed, but actual surmises ventured upon as to the identity between the person whom I had seen enter the house with the young girl. As for my own name, it was blazoned forth in anything but a gratifying manner. I was spoken of in one paper — a kind friend told me this — as the prying Miss Amelia. As if my prying had not given the police their only clue to the identification of the criminal.

The New York World was the only paper that treated me with any consideration. That young man with the small head and beady eyes was not awed by me for nothing. He mentioned me as the clever Miss Butterworth whose testimony is likely to be of so much value in this very interesting case.

It was the World I handed the Misses Van Burnam when they came down-stairs to breakfast. It did justice to me and not too much injustice to him. They read it together, their two heads plunged deeply into the paper so that I could not watch their faces. But I could see the sheet shake, and I noticed that their social veneer was not as yet laid on so thickly that they could hide their real terror and heart-ache when they finally confronted me again.

“Did you read — have you seen this horrible account?” quavered Caroline, as she met my eye.

“Yes, and I now understand why you felt such anxiety yesterday. Did you know your sister-in-law, and do you think she could have been beguiled into your father’s house in that way?”

It was Isabella who answered.

“We never have seen her and know little of her, but there is no telling what such an uncultivated person as she might do. But that our good brother Howard ever went in there with her is a lie, isn’t it, Caroline? — a base and malicious lie?”

“Of course it is, of course, of course. You don’t think the man you saw was Howard, do you, dear Miss Butterworth?”

Dear? O dear!

“I am not acquainted with your brother,” I returned. “I have never seen him but a few times in my life. You know he has not been a very frequent visitor at your father’s house lately.”

They looked at me wistfully, so wistfully.

“Say it was not Howard,” whispered Caroline, stealing up a little nearer to my side.

“And we will never forget it,” murmured Isabella, in what I am obliged to say was not her society manner.

“I hope to be able to say it,” was my short rejoinder, made difficult by the prejudices I had formed. “When I see your brother, I may be able to decide at a glance that the person I saw entering your house was not he.”

“Yes, oh, yes. Do you hear that, Isabella? Miss Butterworth will save Howard yet. O you dear old soul. I could almost love you!”

This was not agreeable to me. I a dear old soul! A term to be applied to a butter-woman not to a Butterworth. I drew back and their sentimentalities came to an end. I hope their brother Howard is not the guilty man the papers make him out to be, but if he is, the Misses Van Burnam’s fine phrase, We could almost love you, will not deter me from being honest in the matter.

Mr. Gryce called early, and I was glad to be able to tell him that the gentleman who visited him the night before did not recall the impression made upon me by the other. He received the communication quietly, and from his manner I judged that it was more or less expected. But who can be a correct judge of a detective’s manner, especially one so foxy and imperturbable as this one? I longed to ask who his visitor was, but I did not dare, or rather — to be candid in little things that you may believe me in great — I was confident he would not tell me, so I would not compromise my dignity by a useless question.

He went after a five minutes’ stay, and I was about to turn my attention to household affairs, when Franklin came in.

His sisters jumped like puppets to meet him.

“O,” they cried, for once thinking and speaking alike, “have you found her?”

His silence was so eloquent that he did not need to shake his head.

“But you will before the day is out?” protested Caroline.

“It is too early yet,” added Isabella.

“I never thought I would be glad to see that woman under any circumstances,” continued the former, “but I believe now that if I saw her coming up the street on Howard’s arm, I should be happy enough to rush out and — and ——”

“Give her a hug,” finished the more impetuous Isabella.

It was not what Caroline meant to say, but she accepted the emendation, with just the slightest air of deprecation. They were both evidently much attached to Howard, and ready in his trouble to forget and forgive everything. I began to like them again.

“Have you read the horrid papers?” and “How is papa this morning?” and “What shall we do to save Howard?” now flew in rapid questions from their lips; and feeling that it was but natural they should have their little say, I sat down in my most uncomfortable chair and waited for these first ebullitions to exhaust themselves.

Instantly Mr. Van Burnam took them by the arm, and led them away to a distant sofa.

“Are you happy here?” he asked, in what he meant for a very confidential tone. But I can hear as readily as a deaf person anything which is not meant for my ears.

“O she’s kind enough,” whispered Caroline, “but so stingy. Do take us where we can get something to eat.”

“She puts all her money into china! Such plates! —and so little on them!

At these expressions, uttered with all the emphasis a whisper will allow, I just hugged myself in my quiet corner. The dear, giddy things! But they should see, they should see.

“I fear”— it was Mr. Van Burnam who now spoke —“I shall have to take my sisters from under your kind care to-day. Their father needs them, and has, I believe, already engaged rooms for them at the Plaza.”

“I am sorry,” I replied, “but surely they will not leave till they have had another meal with me. Postpone your departure, young ladies, till after luncheon, and you will greatly oblige me. We may never meet so agreeably again.”

They fidgeted (which I had expected), and cast secret looks of almost comic appeal at their brother, but he pretended not to see them, being disposed for some reason to grant my request. Taking advantage of the momentary hesitation that ensued, I made them all three my most conciliatory bow, and said as I retreated behind the portière:

“I shall give my orders for luncheon now. Meanwhile, I hope the young ladies will feel perfectly free in my house. All that I have is at their command.” And was gone before they could protest.

When I next saw them, they were upstairs in my front room. They were seated together in the window and looked miserable enough to have a little diversion. Going to my closet, I brought out a band-box. It contained my best bonnet.

“Young ladies, what do you think of this?” I inquired, taking the bonnet out and carefully placing it on my head.

I myself consider it a very becoming article of headgear, but their eyebrows went up in a scarcely complimentary fashion.

“You don’t like it?” I remarked. “Well, I think a great deal of young girls’ taste; I shall send it back to Madame More’s to-morrow.”

“I don’t think much of Madame More,” observed Isabella, “and after Paris ——”

“Do you like La Mole better?” I inquired, bobbing my head to and fro before the mirror, the better to conceal my interest in the venture I was making.

“I don’t like any of them but D’Aubigny,” returned Isabella. “She charges twice what La Mole does ——”

Twice! What are these girls’ purses made of, or rather their father’s!

“But she has the chic we are accustomed to see in French millinery. I shall never go anywhere else.”

“We were recommended to her in Paris,” put in Caroline, more languidly. Her interest was only half engaged by this frivolous topic.

“But did you never have one of La Mole’s hats?” I pursued, taking down a hand-mirror, ostensibly to get the effect of my bonnet in the back, but really to hide my interest in their unconscious faces.

“Never!” retorted Isabella. “I would not patronize the thing.”

“Nor you?” I urged, carelessly, turning towards Caroline.

“No; I have never been inside her shop.”

“Then whose is ——” I began and stopped. A detective doing the work I was, would not give away the object of his questions so recklessly.

“Then who is,” I corrected, “the best person after D’Aubigny? I never can pay her prices. I should think it wicked.”

“O don’t ask us,” protested Isabella. “We have never made a study of the best bonnet-maker. At present we wear hats.”

And having thus thrown their youth in my face, they turned away to the window again, not realizing that the middle-aged lady they regarded with such disdain had just succeeded in making them dance to her music most successfully.

The luncheon I ordered was elaborate, for I was determined that the Misses Van Burnam should see that I knew how to serve a fine meal, and that my plates were not always better than my viands.

I had invited in a couple of other guests so that I should not seem to have put myself out for two young girls, and as they were quiet people like myself, the meal passed most decorously. When it was finished, the Misses Caroline and Isabella had lost some of their consequential airs, and I really think the deference they have since showed me is due more to the surprise they felt at the perfection of this dainty luncheon, than to any considerate appreciation of my character and abilities.

They left at three o’clock, still without news of Mrs. Van Burnam; and being positive by this time that the shadows were thickening about this family, I saw them depart with some regret and a positive feeling of commiseration. Had they been reared to a proper reverence for their elders, how much more easy it would have been to see earnestness in Caroline and affectionate impulses in Isabella.

The evening papers added but little to my knowledge. Great disclosures were promised, but no hint given of their nature. The body at the Morgue had not been identified by any of the hundreds who had viewed it, and Howard still refused to acknowledge it as that of his wife. The morrow was awaited with anxiety.

So much for the public press!

At twelve o’clock at night, I was again seated in my window. The house next door had been lighted since ten, and I was in momentary expectation of its nocturnal visitor. He came promptly at the hour set, alighted from the carriage with a bound, shut the carriage-door with a slam, and crossed the pavement with cheerful celerity. His figure was not so positively like, nor yet so positively unlike, that of the supposed murderer that I could definitely say, “This is he,” or, “This is not he,” and I went to bed puzzled, and not a little burdened by a sense of the responsibility imposed upon me in this matter.

And so passed the day between the murder and the inquest.

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