At an early hour the next morning, Sweetwater stood before the coroner’s desk, urging a plea he feared to hear refused. He wished to be present at the interview soon to be held with Mr. Brotherson, and he had no good reason to advance why such a privilege should be allotted him.
“It’s not curiosity,” said he. “There’s a question I hope to see settled. I can’t communicate it — you would laugh at me; but it’s an important one, a very important one, and I beg that you will let me sit in one of the corners and hear what he says. I won’t bother and I’ll be very still, so still that he’ll hardly notice me. Do grant me this favour, sir.”
The coroner, who had had some little experience with this man, surveyed him with a smile less forbidding than the poor fellow expected.
“You seem to lay great store by it,” said he; “if you want to sort those papers over there, you may.”
“Thank you. I don’t understand the job, but I promise you not to increase the confusion. If I do; if I rattle the leaves too loudly, it will mean, ‘Press him further on this exact point,’ but I doubt if I rattle them, sir. No such luck.”
The last three words were uttered sotto voce, but the coroner heard him, and followed his ungainly figure with a glance of some curiosity, as he settled himself at the desk on the other side of the room.
“Is the man —” he began, but at this moment the man entered, and Dr. Heath forgot the young detective, in his interest in the new arrival.
Neither dressed with the elegance known to the habitues of the Clermont, nor yet in the workman’s outfit in which he had thought best to appear before the Associated Brotherhood, the newcomer advanced, with an aspect of open respect which could not fail to make a favourable impression upon the critical eye of the official awaiting him. So favourable, indeed, was this impression that that gentleman half rose, infusing a little more consideration into his greeting than he was accustomed to show to his prospective witnesses. Such a fearless eye he had seldom encountered, nor was it often his pleasure to confront so conspicuous a specimen of physical and intellectual manhood.
“Mr. Brotherson, I believe,” said he, as he motioned his visitor to sit.
“That is my name, sir.”
“The same, sir.”
“I’m glad we have made no mistake,” smiled the doctor. “Mr. Brotherson, I have sent for you under the supposition that you were a friend of the unhappy lady lately dead at the Hotel Clermont.”
“Certainly; Miss Challoner.”
“I knew the lady. But —” here the speaker’s eye took on a look as questioning as that of his interlocutor —“but in a way so devoid of all publicity that I cannot but feel surprised that the fact should be known.”
At this, the listening Sweetwater hoped that Dr. Heath would ignore the suggestion thus conveyed and decline the explanation it apparently demanded. But the impression made by the gentleman’s good looks had been too strong for this coroner’s proverbial caution, and, handing over the slip of a note which had been found among Miss Challoner’s effects by her father, he quietly asked:
“Do you recognise the signature?”
“Yes, it is mine.”
“Then you acknowledge yourself the author of these lines?”
“Most certainly. Have I not said that this is my signature?”
“Do you remember the words of this note, Mr. Brotherson?”
“Hardly. I recollect its tenor, but not the exact words.”
“Excuse me, I had rather not. I am aware that they were bitter and should be the cause of great regret. I was angry when I wrote them.”
“That is evident. But the cause of your anger is not so clear, Mr. Brotherson. Miss Challoner was a woman of lofty character, or such was the universal opinion of her friends. What could she have done to a gentleman like yourself to draw forth such a tirade?”
“You ask that?”
“I am obliged to. There is mystery surrounding her death; — the kind of mystery which demands perfect frankness on the part of all who were near her on that evening, or whose relations to her were in any way peculiar. You acknowledge that your friendship was of such a guarded nature that it surprised you greatly to hear it recognised. Yet you could write her a letter of this nature. Why?”
“Because —” the word came glibly; but the next one was long in following. “Because,” he repeated, letting the fire of some strong feeling disturb for a moment his dignified reserve, “I offered myself to Miss Challoner, and she dismissed me with great disdain.”
“Ah! and so you thought a threat was due her?”
“These words contain a threat, do they not?”
“They may. I was hardly master of myself at the time. I may have expressed myself in an unfortunate manner.”
“Read the words, Mr. Brotherson. I really must insist that you do so.”
There was no hesitancy now. Rising, he leaned over the table and read the few words the other had spread out for his perusal. Then he slowly rose to his full height, as he answered, with some slight display of compunction:
“I remember it perfectly now. It is not a letter to be proud of. I hope —”
“Pray finish, Mr. Brotherson.”
“That you are not seeking to establish a connection between this letter and her violent death?”
“Letters of this sort are often very mischievous, Mr. Brotherson. The harshness with which this is written might easily rouse emotions of a most unhappy nature in the breast of a woman as sensitive as Miss Challoner.”
“Pardon me, Dr. Heath; I cannot flatter myself so far. You overrate my influence with the lady you name.”
“You believe, then, that she was sincere in her rejection of your addresses?”
A start, too slight to be noted by any one but the watchful Sweetwater, showed that this question had gone home. But the self-poise and mental control of this man were perfect, and in an instant he was facing the coroner again, with a dignity which gave no clew to the disturbance into which his thoughts had just been thrown. Nor was this disturbance apparent in his tones when he made his reply:
“I have never allowed myself to think otherwise. I have seen no reason why I should. The suggestion you would convey by such a question is hardly welcome, now. I pray you to be careful in your judgment of such a woman’s impulses. They often spring from sources not to be sounded even by her dearest friends.”
Just; but how cold! Dr. Heath, eyeing him with admiration rather than sympathy, hesitated how to proceed; while Sweetwater, peering up from his papers, sought in vain for some evidence of the bereaved lover in the impressive but wholly dispassionate figure of him who had just spoken. Had pride got the better of his heart? or had that organ always been subordinate to the will in this man of instincts so varying, that at one time he impressed you simply as a typical gentleman of leisure; at another, as no more than a fiery agitator with powers absorbed by, if not limited to the one cause he advocated; and again — and this seemed the most contradictory of all — just the ardent inventor, living in a tenement, with Science for his goddess and work always under his hand? As the young detective weighed these possibilities and marvelled over the contradictions they offered, he forgot the papers now lying quiet under his hand. He was too interested to remember his own part — something which could not often be said of Sweetwater.
Meantime, the coroner had collected his thoughts. With an apology for the extremely personal nature of his inquiry, he asked Mr. Brotherson if he would object to giving him some further details of his acquaintanceship with Miss Challoner; where he first met her and under what circumstances their friendship had developed.
“Not at all,” was the ready reply. “I have nothing to conceal in the matter. I only wish that her father were present that he might listen to the recital of my acquaintanceship with his daughter. He might possibly understand her better and regard with more leniency the presumption into which I was led by my ignorance of the pride inherent in great families.”
“Your wish can very easily be gratified,” returned the official, pressing an electric button on his desk;
“Mr. Challoner is in the adjoining room.” Then, as the door communicating with the room he had mentioned swung ajar and stood so, Dr. Heath added, without apparent consciousness of the dramatic character of this episode, “You will not need to raise your voice beyond its natural pitch. He can hear perfectly from where he sits.”
“Thank you. I am glad to speak in his presence,” came in undisturbed self-possession from this not easily surprised witness. “I shall relate the facts exactly as they occurred, adding nothing and concealing nothing. If I mistook my position, or Miss Challoner’s position, it is not for me to apologise. I never hid my business from her, nor the moderate extent of my fortune. If she knew me at all, she knew me for what I am; a man of the people who glories in work and who has risen by it to a position somewhat unique in this city. I feel no lack of equality even with such a woman as Miss Challoner.”
A most unnecessary preamble, no doubt, and of doubtful efficacy in smoothing his way to a correct understanding with the deeply bereaved father. But he looked so handsome as he thus asserted himself and made so much of his inches and the noble poise of his head — though cold of eye and always cold of manner — that those who saw, as well as heard him, forgave this display of egotism in consideration of its honesty and the dignity it imparted to his person.
“I first met Miss Challoner in the Berkshires,” he began, after a moment of quiet listening for any possible sound from the other room. “I had been on the tramp, and had stopped at one of the great hotels for a seven days’ rest. I will acknowledge that I chose this spot at the instigation of a relative who knew my tastes and how perfectly they might be gratified there. That I should mingle with the guests may not have been in his thought, any more than it was in mine at the beginning of my stay. The panorama of beauty spread out before me on every side was sufficient in itself for my enjoyment, and might have continued so to the end if my attention had not been very forcibly drawn on one memorable morning to a young lady — Miss Challoner — by the very earnest look she gave me as I was crossing the office from one verandah to another. I must insist on this look, even if it shock the delicacy of my listeners, for without the interest it awakened in me, I might not have noticed the blush with which she turned aside to join her friends on the verandah. It was an overwhelming blush which could not have sprung from any slight embarrassment, and, though I hate the pretensions of those egotists who see in a woman’s smile more than it by right conveys, I could not help being moved by this display of feeling in one so gifted with every grace and attribute of the perfect woman. With less caution than I usually display, I approached the desk where she had been standing and, meeting the eyes of the clerk, asked the young lady’s name. He gave it, and waited for me to express the surprise he expected it to evoke. But I felt none and showed none. Other feelings had seized me. I had heard of this gracious woman from many sources, in my life among the suffering masses of New York, and now that I had seen her and found her to be not only my ideal of personal loveliness but seemingly approachable and not uninterested in myself, I allowed my fancy to soar and my heart to become touched. A fact which the clerk now confided to me naturally deepened the impression. Miss Challoner had seen my name in the guest-book and asked to have me pointed out to her. Perhaps she had heard my name spoken in the same quarter where I had heard hers. We have never exchanged confidences on the subject, and I cannot say. I can only give you my reason for the interest I felt in Miss Challoner and why I forgot, in the glamour of this episode, the aims and purposes of a not unambitious life and the distance which the world and the so-called aristocratic class put between a woman of her wealth and standing and a simple worker like myself.
“I must be pardoned. She had smiled upon me once, and she smiled again. Days before we were formally presented, I caught her softened look turned my way, as we passed each other in hall or corridor. We were friends, or so it appeared to me, before ever a word passed between us, and when fortune favoured us and we were duly introduced, our minds met in a strange sympathy which made this one interview a memorable one to me. Unhappily, as I then considered it, this was my last day at the hotel, and our conversation, interrupted frequently by passing acquaintances, was never resumed. I exchanged a few words with her by way of good-bye but nothing more. I came to New York, and she remained in Lenox. A month after and she too came to New York.”
“This good-bye — do you remember it? The exact language, I mean?”
“I do; it made a great impression on me. ‘I shall hope for our further acquaintance,’ she said. ‘We have one very strong interest in common. And if ever a human face spoke eloquently, it was hers at that moment. The interest, as I understood it, was our mutual sympathy for our toiling, half-starved, down-trodden brothers and sisters in the lower streets of this city; but the eloquence — that I probably mistook. I thought it sprang from personal interest, and it gave me courage to pursue the intention which had taken the place of every other feeling and ambition by which I had hitherto been moved. Here was a woman in a thousand; one who could make a man of me indeed. If she could ignore the social gulf between us, I felt free to take the leap. Cowardice had never been a fault of mine. But I was no fool even then. I realised that I must first let her see the manner of man I was and what life meant to me and must mean to her if the union I contemplated should become an actual fact. I wrote letters to her, but I did not give her my address or even request a reply. I was not ready for any word from her. I am not like other men and I could wait. And I did, for weeks, then I suddenly appeared at her hotel.”
The change of voice — the bitterness which he infused into this final sentence made every one look up. Hitherto he had spoken calmly, almost monotonously, as if no present heart-beat responded to this tale of vanished love; but with the words, “Then I suddenly appeared at her hotel,” he showed himself human again, and betrayed a passion which though curbed was of the fiery quality, befitting his extraordinary attributes of mind and person.
“This was when?” put in Dr. Heath, anxious to bridge the pause which must have been very painful to the listening father.
“The week after Thanksgiving. I did not see her the first day, and only casually the second. But she knew I was in the building, and when I came upon her one evening seated at the very desk in the mezzanine which we all have such bitter cause to remember, I could not forbear expressing myself in a way she could not misunderstand. The result was of a kind to drive a man like myself to an extremity of self-condemnation and rage. She rose up as if insulted, and flung me one sentence and one sentence only before she hailed the elevator and left my presence. A cur could not have been dismissed with less ceremony.”
“That is not like my daughter. What was the sentence you allude to? Let me hear the very words.” Mr. Challoner had come forward and now stood awaiting his reply, a dignified but pathetic figure, which all must view with respect.
“I hate the memory of them, but since you demand it, I will repeat them just as they fell from her lips,” was Mr. Brotherson’s bitter retort. “She said, ‘You of all men should recognise the unseemliness of these proposals. Had your letters given me any hint of the feelings you have just expressed, you would never have had this opportunity of approaching me.’ That was all; but her indignation was scathing. Ladies who have supped exclusively off silver, show a fine scorn for the common ware of the cottager.”
Mr. Challoner bowed. “There is some mistake,” said he. “My daughter might be averse to your addresses, but she would never show indignation to any aspirant for her hand, simply on account of extraneous conditions. She had wide sympathies — wider than I often approved. Something in your conduct or the confidence you showed shocked her nicer sense; not your lack of the luxuries she often misprised. This much I feel obliged to say, out of justice to her character, which was uniformly considerate.”
“You have seen her with men of her own world and yours,” was the harsh response. “She had another side to her nature for the man of a different sphere. And it killed my love — that you can see — and led to my sending her the injudicious letter with which you have confronted me. The hurt bull utters one bellow before he dies. I bellowed, and bellowed loudly, but I did not die. I’m my own man still and mean to remain so.”
The assertive boldness — some would call it bravado — with which he thus finished the story of his relations with the dead heiress, seemed to be more than Mr. Challoner could stand. With a look of extreme pain and perplexity he vanished from the doorway, and it fell to Dr. Heath to inquire:
“Is this letter — a letter of threat you will remember — the only communication which passed between you and Miss Challoner after this unfortunate passage of arms at the Clermont?”
“Yes. I had no wish to address her again. I had exhausted in this one outburst whatever humiliation I felt.”
“And she? Did she give no sign, make you no answer?”
“None whatever.” Then, as if he found it impossible to hide this hurt to his pride, “She did not even seem to consider me worthy the honour of an added rebuke. Such arrogance is, no doubt, commendable in a Challoner.”
This time his bitterness did not pass unrebuked by the coroner:
“Remember the grey hairs of the only Challoner who can hear you, and respect his grief.”
Mr. Brotherson bowed.
“I have finished,” said he. “I shall have nothing more to say on the subject.” And he drew himself up in expectation of the dismissal he evidently thought pending.
But the coroner was not done with him by any means. He had a theory in regard to this lamentable suicide which he hoped to establish by this man’s testimony, and, in pursuit of this plan, he not only motioned to Mr. Brotherson to reseat himself, but began at once to open a fresh line of examination by saying:
“You will pardon me, if I press this matter. I have been given to understand that notwithstanding your break with Miss Challoner, you have kept up your visits to the Clermont and were even on the spot at the time of her death.”
“On the spot?”
“In the hotel, I mean.”
“There you are right; I was in the hotel.”
“At the time of her death?”
“Very near the time. I remember hearing some disturbance in the lobby behind me, just as I was passing out at the Broadway entrance.”
“You did, and did not return?”
“Why should I return? I am not a man of much curiosity. There was no reason why I should connect a sudden alarm in the lobby of the Clermont with any cause of special interest to myself.”
This was so true and the look which accompanied the words was so frank that the coroner hesitated a moment before he said:
“Certainly not, unless — well, to be direct, unless you had just seen Miss Challoner and knew her state of mind and what was likely to follow your abrupt departure.”
“I had no interview with Miss Challoner.”
“But you saw her? Saw her that evening and just before the accident?”
Sweetwater’s papers rattled; it was the only sound to be heard in that moment of silence. Then —“What do you mean by those words?” inquired Mr. Brotherson, with studied composure. “I have said that I had no interview with Miss Challoner. Why do you ask me then, if I saw her?”
“Because I believe that you did. From a distance possibly, but yet directly and with no possibility of mistake.”
“Do you put that as a question?”
“I do. Did you see her figure or face that night?”
Nothing — not even the rattling of Sweetwater’s papers — disturbed the silence which followed this admission.
“From where?” Dr. Heath asked at last.
“From a point far enough away to make any communication between us impossible. I do not think you will require me to recall the exact spot.”
“If it were one which made it possible for her to see you as clearly as you could see her, I think it would be very advisable for you to say so.”
“It was — such — a spot.’’
“Then I think I can locate it for you, or do you prefer to locate it yourself?”
“I will locate it myself. I had hoped not to be called upon to mention what I cannot but consider a most unfortunate coincidence. As a gentleman you will understand my reticence and also why it is a matter of regret to me that with an acumen worthy of your position, you should have discovered a fact which, while it cannot explain Miss Challoner’s death, will drag our little affair before the public, and possibly give it a prominence in some minds which I am sure does not belong to it. I met Miss Challoner’s eye for one instant from the top of the little staircase running up to the mezzanine. I had yielded thus far to an impulse I had frequently combated, to seek by another interview to retrieve the bad effect which must have been made upon her by my angry note. I knew that she frequently wrote letters in the mezzanine at this hour, and got as far as the top of the staircase in my effort to join her. But got no further. When I saw her on her feet, with her face turned my way, I remembered the scorn with which she had received my former heart-felt proposals and, without taking another step forward, I turned away from her and fled down the steps and so out of the building by the main entrance. She saw me, for her hand flew up with a startled gesture, but I cannot think that my presence on the same floor with her could have caused her to strike the blow which terminated her life. Why should I? No woman sacrifices her life out of mere regret for the disdain she has shown a man she has taken no pains to understand.”
His tone and his attitude seemed to invite the concurrence of Dr. Heath in this statement. But the richness of the one and the grace of the other showed the handsome speaker off to such advantage that the coroner was rather inclined to consider how a woman, even of Miss Challoner’s fine taste and careful breeding, might see in such a situation much for regret, if not for active despair and the suicidal act. He gave no evidence of his thought, however, but followed up the one admission made by Mr. Brotherson which he and others must naturally view as of the first importance.
“You saw Miss Challoner lift her hand, you say. Which hand, and what was in it? Anything?”
“She lifted her right hand, but it would be impossible for me to tell you whether there was anything in it or not. I simply saw the movement before I turned away. It looked like one of alarm to me. I felt that she had some reason for this. She could not know that it was in repentance I came rather than in fulfilment of my threat.”
A sigh from the adjoining room. Mr. Brotherson rose, as he heard it, and in doing so met the clear eye of Sweetwater fixed upon his own. Its language was, no doubt, peculiar and it seemed to fascinate him for a moment, for he started as if to approach the detective, but forsook this intention almost immediately, and addressing the coroner, gravely remarked:
“Her death following so quickly upon this abortive attempt of mine at an interview startled me by its coincidence as much as it does you. If in the weakness of her woman’s nature, it was more than this — if the scorn she had previously shown me was a cloak she instinctively assumed to hide what she was not ready to disclose, my remorse will be as great as any one here could wish. But the proof of all this will have to be very convincing before my present convictions will yield to it. Some other and more poignant source will have to be found for that instant’s impulsive act than is supplied by this story of my unfortunate attachment.”
Dr. Heath was convinced, but he was willing to concede something to the secret demand made upon him by Sweetwater, who was bundling up his papers with much clatter.
Looking up with a smile which had elements in it he was hardly conscious of perhaps himself, he asked in an off-hand way:
“Then why did you take such pains to wash your hands of the affair the moment you had left the hotel?”
“I do not understand.”
“You passed around the corner into — street, did you not?”
“Very likely. I could go that way as well as another.”
“And stopped at the first lamp-post?”
“Oh, I see. Someone saw that childish action of mine.”
“What did you mean by it?”
“Just what you have suggested. I did go through the pantomime of washing my hands of an affair I considered definitely ended. I had resisted an irrepressible impulse to see and talk with Miss Challoner again, and was pleased with my firmness. Unaware of the tragic blow which had just fallen, I was full of self-congratulations at my escape from the charm which had lured me back to this hotel again and again in spite of my better judgment, and I wished to symbolise my relief by an act of which I was, in another moment, ashamed. Strange that there should have been a witness to it. (Here he stole a look at Sweetwater.) Stranger still, that circumstances by the most extraordinary of coincidences, should have given so unforeseen a point to it.”
“You are right, Mr. Brotherson. The whole occurrence is startling and most strange. But life is made up of the unexpected, as none know better than we physicians, whether our practice be of a public or private character.”
As Mr. Brotherson left the room, the curiosity to which he had yielded once before, led him to cast a glance of penetrating inquiry behind him full at Sweetwater, and if either felt embarrassment, it was not the hunted but the hunter.
But the feeling did not last.
“I’ve simply met the strongest man I’ve ever encountered,” was Sweetwater’s encouraging comment to himself. “All the more glory if I can find a joint in his armour or a hidden passage to his cold, secretive heart.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09