X Y Z, by Anna Katherine Green

iv.

In the Library.

Mr. Benson was really dead. The fact being announced, most of the guests withdrew. In ten minutes after he fell, the room was comparatively clear. Only the various members of the family, together with the gentleman I have already mentioned, remained behind; and, even of these, the two ladies were absent, they having followed the body into the adjoining room, where it had been reverently carried by the attached Jonas and another servant whose face I did not see.

“A most unlooked-for catastrophe,” burst from the lips of Uncle Joe. “Did you ever suspect he was a victim to heart disease?” he now asked, this time with looks directed toward the doctor.

“No,” came from that gentleman in a short, sharp way, which made Hartley Benson’s pale face flush, though his eye did not waver from its steady solemn look toward the door through which his father’s form had just been carried. “Mr. Benson was sound through and through a month ago. I know, because I examined him previous to his making his will. There was no heart disease then; that I am ready to take my oath upon.”

Hartley Benson’s rigid look unfastened itself from the door and turned slowly toward the sombre face of the speaker, while Uncle Joe, with an increased expression of distress, looked slowly around as if he half hoped, half feared to behold his favorite nephew advance upon them from some shadowy corner.

“My father consulted you, then?” said the former, in his slow, reserved way. “Did not that evince some suspicion of disease on his part?”

“Possibly; a man in a despondent frame of mind will often imagine he has some deadly complaint or other. But he was quite sound; too sound, he seemed to think. Your father was not a happy man, Mr. Benson.”

There was meaning in the tone, and I was not surprised to observe Hartley draw back. “Why,” said he, “do you think —”

“I think nothing,” broke in the doctor; “only”— and here he brought down his hand vigorously upon the table —“there has been prussic acid in the glass from which Mr. Benson drank this evening. The smell of bitter almonds is not to be mistaken.”

An interval of silent horror followed this announcement, then a vehement “Great Heaven!” broke from the lips of Uncle Joe, while Hartley Benson, growing more and more rigid in his bearing, fixed his eyes on the doctor’s face and barely ejaculated:

“Poison?”

“I say this,” continued the doctor, too intent upon his own theory to notice either the growth of a terrible fear on the face of Uncle Joe, or the equally remarkable expression of subdued expectation on that of the son, “because long experience has taught me the uselessness of trying to hide such a fact as suicide, and also because, being the coroner of the county, it is my duty to warn you that an investigation will have to take place which will require certain precautions on my part, such as the sealing up of his papers, etc.”

“That is true,” came from the lips of both brother and son, over whom a visible change had passed at the word “suicide.”

“But I cannot think —” the former began in an agitated voice.

“That my father would do such a deed,” interposed the latter. “It does not seem probable, and yet he was a very wretched man, and grief will often drive the best of us to despair.”

Uncle Joe gave his nephew a strange look, but said no more. The doctor went quietly on:

“I do not know what your father’s troubles were, but that he committed suicide I greatly fear, unless it can be proved the acid was taken by mistake, a conclusion which does not seem probable, for from the smell of the decanter it is evident the acid was mixed with the wine, in which I now remember advising him to take the nightly powder I prescribed to him for quite a trivial disorder a few days ago. The only thing that puzzles me is, why, if he meditated death, he should have troubled himself to take this powder. And yet it is certain he did take it, for there is still some of the sediment of it remaining in the bottom of the glass.”

“He took the powder because it was already in the glass,” broke in Hartley, in a heavy tone of voice. “My sister put it there before she went up stairs to dress. I think she was afraid he would forget it. My father was very careless about small matters.”

“He was careful enough not to poison any one else in the family,” quoth the doctor. “There was scarcely a drop left in the decanter; he took the whole dose.”

“I beg your pardon, sirs, but is it suicide you are talking about?” cried a voice suddenly over their shoulders, making them all start. Jonas, the servant, had entered from the inner room, and unseen by all but myself, had been listening to the last few words as if his life depended upon what they had to say. “If it is, why I have a bit of an observation of my own to make that may help you to settle the matter.”

“You! What have you to say?” quoth the doctor, turning in surprise at the confident tone of voice in which the man spoke.

“Not much, I am sure,” cried Hartley, to whom the appearance at that moment of his father’s old servant was evidently most unwelcome.

“That is for you to judge, gentlemen. I can only tell you what I’ve seen, and that not ten minutes ago. Mr. Hartley, do you mind the man in the yellow dress that was flitting about the parlors all the evening?”

“Good heavens!” burst in uncontrollable agitation from Uncle Joe; and he caught his nephew by the arm with a look that called back the old rigid expression to the latter’s face.

“Yes,” was the quiet reply; “I remember seeing such a person.”

“Well, sirs, I don’t know as you will think any thing of it, but a little while ago I was walking up and down the balcony outside there, when I happened to look into this room, and I saw that man in the yellow dress leaning over this very table, looking into the wineglass Miss Carrie had put there for master. He had it in his hand, and his head was down very close to it, but what he did to it or to the decanter either, I am sure, sirs, I don’t know, for I was that frightened at seeing this spectre in the room master had kept locked all day, that I just slipped off the balcony and ran round the house to find Mr. Hartley. But you wasn’t in the parlors, sir, nor Miss Carrie neither, and when I got to this room, there was master lying dead on the floor, and everybody crowding around him horror-struck.”

“Humph!” ejaculated the doctor, looking at Uncle Joe, who had sunk in a heap into the arm-chair his nephew abstractedly pushed toward him.

“You see, sirs,” Jonas resumed, with great earnestness, “Mr. Benson, for some reason or other, had been very particular about keeping his own room to-day. The library door was locked as early as six this morning, and he would let no one in without first asking who was there. That’s why I felt so dumbfoundered at seeing this yellow man in the room; besides ——”

But no sooner had the good man arrived at this point than he stopped, with a gasp, and after a quick look at Hartley, flushed, and drew back in a state of great agitation and embarrassment. Evidently a suspicion had just crossed the mind of this old and attached servant as to whom the Yellow Domino might be.

“Well, well,” cried the doctor, “go on; let us hear the rest.”

“I— I have nothing more to say,” mumbled the man, while Hartley, with an equal display of embarrassment, motioned the discomfited servant to withdraw, and turned as if to hide his face over some papers on the table.

“I think the man in the yellow domino had better be found,” quoth the physician, dryly, glancing from Hartley to the departing form of the servant, with a sharp look. “At all events it would be well enough for us to know who he is.”

“I don’t see —” began Uncle Joe, but stopped as he perceived the face of Hartley Benson slowly composing itself. Evidently he was as much interested as myself in observing what this not-easily-to-be-understood man would say and do in this sudden crisis.

We were not long left in doubt.

“Doctor,” he began, in a slow, hesitating tone, well calculated to produce the effect he desired, “we unfortunately already know who wore a yellow domino this evening. My brother Joe ——”

“Hush!” implored his uncle, laying a hand on his nephew’s arm with a quick look of distress not lost on the doctor.

“Brother?” repeated the latter. “Pardon me, I did not know —— Ah, but I do remember now to have heard that Mr. Benson had another son.”

The face of Hartley grew graver and graver. “My brother has been alienated from my father for some time, so you have never seen him here. But to-night he hoped, or made me think he hoped, to effect a reconciliation; so I managed, with my sister, to provide him with the domino necessary to insure him an entrance here. Indeed, I did more; I showed him a private door by which he could find his way into the library, never suspecting any harm could come of son and father meeting even in this surreptitious way. I— I loved my brother, and notwithstanding the past, had confidence in him. Nor can I think now he had any thing to do with the ——” Here the voice of this inimitable actor broke in well-simulated distress. He sank on a chair and put his hands before his face.

The doctor had no reason to doubt this man. He therefore surveyed him with a look of grave regard.

“Mr. Benson,” said he, “you have my profoundest sympathy. A tragedy like this in a family of such eminent respectability, is enough to overwhelm the stoutest heart. If your brother is here ——”

“Dr. Travis,” broke in the other, rising and grasping the physician’s hand with an appearance of manly impulse impressive in one usually so stern and self contained, “you are, or were, my father’s friend; can you or will you be ours? Dreadful as it is to think, my father undoubtedly committed suicide. He had a great dread of this day. It is the anniversary of an occurrence harrowing for him to remember. My brother — you see I shall have to break the secrecy of years — was detected by him in the act of robbing his desk three years ago to-night, and upon each and every recurrence of the day, has returned to his father’s house to beg for the forgiveness and restoration to favor which he lost by that deed of crime. Hitherto my father has been able to escape his importunities, by absence or the address of his servants, but to-day he seemed to have a premonition that his children were in league against him, notwithstanding Carrie’s ruse of the ball, and the knowledge may have worked upon him to that extent that he preferred death to a sight of the son that had ruined his life and made him the hermit you have seen.”

The doctor fell into the trap laid for him with such diabolical art.

“Perhaps; but if that is so, why is your brother not here? Only a few minutes could have elapsed between the time that Jonas saw him leaning over the table with the glass in his hand and the moment when you and your sister entered this room in face of your father’s falling form. He must have been present, therefore, when your father came from his bedroom, if not when he drank the fatal glass; why, then, did he take such pains to escape, if actuated by no keener emotion than horror at a father’s suicide?”

“I do not know, I cannot say; but that he himself put the poison in the decanter I will not believe. A thief is not necessarily a parricide. Even if he were in great straits and needed the money my father’s will undoubtedly leaves him, he would think twice before he ran the risk of making Carrie and myself his natural enemies. No, no, if my father has died from poison, it was through a mistake, or by the administration of his own hand, never by that of Joe Benson’s.”

“Ah, and has anybody here present dared to charge him with such a deed!”

With a start both gentlemen turned; an accusing spirit stood before them.

“Edith!” broke from Hartley’s lips. “This is no place for you! Go back! go back!”

“My place is where the name of Joseph Benson is uttered,” she proudly answered, “whether the words be for good or evil. I am his betrothed wife as you know, and again I ask, who has dared to utter an insinuation, however light, that he, the tender son and generous brother, has had a criminal hand in his father’s awful death?”

“No one! no one!” essayed Hartley, taking her hand with a weak attempt at soothing. “I was but saying ——”

But she turned from him with a gesture of repugnance, and taking a step toward the doctor, looked him entreatingly in the face. “You have not been expressing doubts of Mr. Benson’s youngest son, because he happened to wear a disguise and be present when Mr. Benson fell? You do not know Joe, sir; nobody in this town knows him. His own father was ignorant of his worth; but we know him, Uncle Joe and I, and we know he could never do a deed that could stamp him either as a dishonorable or a criminal man. If Mr. Benson has died from poison, I should as soon think this man had a hand in it as his poor exiled brother.” And in a burst of uncontrollable wrath and indignation, she pointed, with a sudden gesture, at the startled Hartley.

But that worthy, though evidently taken aback, was not to be caught so easily.

“Edith, you forget yourself,” said he, with studied self-possession. “The horrors of this dreadful occurrence have upset you. I do not wonder at it myself, but the doctor will not so readily understand you. Miss Underhill has been strangely attached to my brother,” he went on, turning to the latter with an apologetic smile that made Uncle Joe grind his teeth in silent wrath. “They were engaged previous to the affair of which I have just made mention, and naturally she could never bring herself to consider him guilty of a crime which, once acknowledged, must necessarily act as a bar of separation between them. She calls him a martyr, a victim, an exile, any thing but what he actually is. Indeed, she seems really to believe in his innocence, while we,”— he paused and looked up at his sister Carrie who had entered the room — “while we,” he went on slowly and sadly, taking this new ally softly by the hand, “know only too well that the unhappy boy was in every respect guilty of the crime for which his father exiled him. But that is neither here nor there; the dreadful subject before us is not what he once did, but whether his being here to-night has had any thing to do with my father’s death. I cannot think it has, and yet ——”

The subtle inflection of his voice spoke volumes. This great actor had evidently been driven to bay.

“O Hartley!” came in a terrified cry from his sister; “what is this? You cannot think, they cannot think, Joe could do any thing so dreadful as that?” while over the face of Edith passed a look of despair, as she saw the countenance of the doctor slowly fill with the gloom of suspicion, and even the faithful Uncle Joe turn away as if he too had been touched by the blight of a secret doubt.

“Ah, but I wish Joe were here himself!” she cried with startling emphasis. “He should speak, even if it brought ruin amongst us.”

But the doctor was a man not to be moved by so simple a thing as a woman’s unreasoning emotion.

“Yes, the Yellow Domino would be very welcome just now,” he allowed, with grim decision.

“That he is not here is the most damning fact of all,” Hartley slowly observed. “He fled when he saw our father fall.”

“But he shall come back,” Edith vehemently declared.

“If he does, I shall need no further proof of his innocence,” said Uncle Joe.

“Nor I, so that he comes to-night,” returned the doctor.

“Then be satisfied, for here he is,” I exclaimed from my retreat; and drawing the mask over my face, and hastily enveloping myself in the yellow domino, I stepped forth into full view of the crowd around the table.

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