X Y Z, by Anna Katherine Green

iii.

An Unexpected Calamity.

Five minutes passed, during which I threaded more laughing groups and sauntered down more mysterious passage-ways than I would care to count. Still the mysterious Black Domino glided on before me, leading me from door to door till my patience was nearly exhausted, and I had well-nigh determined to give him the slip and make my way at once to the garden, and the no-doubt-by-this-time-highly-impatient Joe.

But before I had the opportunity of carrying out this scheme, the ominous Black Domino paused, and carelessly pointing to a door at the termination of a narrow corridor, bowed, and hastily withdrew.

“Now,” said I, as soon as I found myself alone, “shall I proceed with this farce, or shall I end it? To go on means to interview Mr. Benson, acquaint him with what has come to my knowledge during the last half hour in which I have so successfully personified his son, and by these means perhaps awake him to the truth concerning this serious matter of Joseph’s innocence or Hartley’s guilt; while to stop now implies nothing more nor less than a full explanation with his son, a man of whose character, manners, and disposition I know little or nothing.”

Either alternative presented infinite difficulties, but of the two the former seemed to me more feasible and less embarrassing. At all events, in talking with Mr. Benson, I should not have the sensibilities of a lover to contend with, and however unfortunate in its results our interview might be, would be at the mercy of old blood instead of young, a point always to be considered in a case where one’s presumption has been carried beyond the bounds of decorum.

Unlocking the door, I stepped, as I had been told I should, into a small room adjoining the library. All around me were books. Even the door by which I had entered was laden with them, so that when it was closed, all vestige of the door itself disappeared. Across the opening into the library stood a screen, and it was not until I had pushed this somewhat aside that I was able to look into that room.

My first glance assured me it was empty. Stark and bare of any occupant, the high-backed chairs loomed in the funereal gloom, while on the table, toward which I inadvertently glanced, stood a decanter with a solitary wineglass at its side. Instantly I remembered what had been told me concerning that glass, and stepping forward, I took it up and looked at it.

Immediately I heard, or thought I heard, an exclamation uttered somewhere near me. But upon glancing up and down the room and perceiving no one, I concluded I was mistaken, and deliberately proceeded to examine the wineglass and assure myself that no wine had as yet been poured upon the powder I found in it. Satisfied at last that Mr. Benson had not yet taken his usual evening potion, I put the glass back and withdrew again to my retreat.

I do not think another minute could have elapsed, before I heard a step in the room behind me. A door leading into an adjoining apartment had opened and Mr. Benson had come in. He passed immediately to the table, poured out the wine upon the powder, and drank it off without a moment’s hesitation. I heard him sigh as he put the glass down.

With a turn of my hand I slipped off both domino and mask, and prepared to announce my presence by tapping on the lintel of the door beside which I stood. But a sudden change in Mr. Benson’s lofty figure startled me. He was swaying, and the arms which had fallen to his side were moving with a convulsive action that greatly alarmed me. But almost instantly he recovered himself, and paced with a steady step toward the hall door, which at that moment resounded with a short loud knock.

“Who is there?” he asked, with every appearance of his usual sternness.

“Hartley,” was the reply.

“Are you alone?” the old gentleman again queried, making a move as if to unlock the door.

“Carrie is with me; no one else,” came in smothered accents from without.

Mr. Benson at once turned the key, but no sooner had he done so than he staggered back. For an instant or two of horror he stood oscillating from side to side, then his frame succumbed, and the terrified eyes of his children beheld his white head lying low, all movement and appearance of life gone from the form that but a moment before towered so proudly before them.

With a shriek, the daughter flung herself down at his side, and even the cheek of Hartley Benson grew white as he leaned over his father’s already inanimate body.

“He is dead!” came in a wild cry from her lips. “See! he does not breathe. Oh! Hartley, what could have happened? Do you think that Joe —”

“Hush!” he exclaimed, with a furtive glance around him. “He may be here; let me look. If Joe has done this—” He did not continue, but rose, and with a rapid tread began to cross the floor in my direction.

In a flash I realized my situation. To be found by him now, without a domino, and in the position of listener, would be any thing but desirable. But I knew of no way of escape, or so for the moment it seemed. But great emergencies call forth sudden resources. In the quick look I inadvertently threw around me, I observed that the portière hanging between me and the library was gathered at one side in very heavy folds. If I could hide behind them perhaps I might elude the casual glance he would probably cast into my place of concealment. At all events it was worth trying, and at the thought I glided behind the curtain. I was not disappointed in my calculations. Arrived at the door, he looked in, perceived the domino lying in a heap on the floor, and immediately drew back with an exclamation of undoubted satisfaction.

“He is gone,” said he, crossing back to his sister’s side. Then in a tone of mingled irony and bitterness, hard to describe, cried aloud with a glance toward the open door: “He has first killed his father and then fled. Fool that I was to think he could be trusted!”

A horrified “Hartley!” burst from his sister’s lips and a suppressed but equally vehement “Villain!” from mine; but neither of us had time for more, for almost at the same instant the room filled with frightened guests, among which I discerned the face and form of the old servant Jonas, and the flowing robes and the white garments of Uncle Joe and the graceful Edith.

To describe the confusion that followed would be beyond my powers, especially as my attention was at the time not so much directed to the effect produced by this catastrophe, as to the man whom, from the moment Mr. Benson fell to the floor, I regarded as my lawful prey. He did not quake and lose his presence of mind in this terrible crisis. He was gifted with too much self-control to betray any unseemly agitation even over such a matter as his father’s sudden death. Once only did I detect his lip tremble, and that was when an elderly gentleman (presumably a doctor) exclaimed after a careful examination of the fallen man:

“This is no case of apoplexy, gentlemen!”

Then indeed Mr. Hartley Benson shivered, and betrayed an emotion for which I considered myself as receiving a due explanation when, a few minutes later, I observed the same gentleman lay his hand upon the decanter and glass that stood on the table, and after raising them one after the other to his nose, slowly shake his head, and with a furtive look around him, lock them both in a small cupboard that opened over the mantel-piece.

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