“Mr. Gryce, I am either a fool or the luckiest fellow going. You must decide which.”
The aged detective, thus addressed, laid down his evening paper and endeavoured to make out the dim form he could just faintly discern standing between him and the library door.
“Sweetwater, is that you?”
“No one else. Sweetwater, the fool, or Sweetwater, much too wise for his own good. I don’t know which. Perhaps you can find out and tell me.”
A grunt from the region of the library table, then the sarcastic remark:
“I’m just in the mood to settle that question. This last failure to my account ought to make me an excellent judge of another’s folly. I’ve meddled with the old business for the last time, Sweetwater. You’ll have to go it lone from now on. The Department has no more work for Ebenezar Gryce, or rather Ebenezar Gryce will make no more fool attempts to please them. Strange that a man don’t know when his time has come to quit. I remember how I once scored Yeardsley for hanging on after he had lost his grip; and here am I doing the same thing. But what’s the matter with you? Speak out, my boy. Something new in the wind?”
“No, Mr. Gryce; nothing new. It’s the same old business. But, if what I suspect is true, this same old business offers opportunities for some very interesting and unusual effort. You’re not satisfied with the coroner’s verdict in the Challoner case?
“No. I’m satisfied with nothing that leaves all ends dangling. Suicide was not proved. It seemed the only presumption possible, but it was not proved. There was no blood-stain on that cutter-point.”
“Nor any evidence that it had ever been there.”
“No. I’m not proud of the chain which lacks a link where it should be strongest.”
“We shall never supply that link.”
“I quite agree with you.”
“That chain we must throw away.”
“And forge another?”
Sweetwater approached and sat down.
“Yes; I believe we can do it; yet I have only one indisputable fact for a starter. That is why I want you to tell me whether I’m growing daft or simply adventurous. Mr. Gryce, I don’t trust Brotherson. He has pulled the wool over Dr. Heath’s eyes and almost over those of Mr. Challoner. But he can’t pull it over mine. Though he should tell a story ten times more plausible than the one with which he has satisfied the coroner’s jury, I would still listen to him with more misgiving than confidence. Yet I have caught him in no misstatement, and his eye is steadier than my own. Perhaps it is simply a deeply rooted antipathy on my part, or the rage one feels at finding he has placed his finger on the wrong man. Again it may be —”
“A well-founded distrust. Mr. Gryce, I’m going to ask you a question.”
“Ask away. Ask fifty if you want to.”
“No; the one may involve fifty, but it is big enough in itself to hold our attention for a while. Did you ever hear of a case before, that in some of its details was similar to this?
“No, it stands alone. That’s why it is so puzzling.”
“You forget. The wealth, beauty and social consequence of the present victim has blinded you to the strong resemblance which her case bears to one you know, in which the sufferer had none of the worldly advantages of Miss Challoner. I allude to —”
“Wait! the washerwoman in Hicks Street! Sweetwater, what have you got up your sleeve? You do mean that Brooklyn washerwoman, don’t you?”
“The same. The Department may have forgotten it, but I haven’t. Mr. Gryce, there’s a startling similarity in the two cases if you study the essential features only. Startling, I assure you.”
“Yes, you are right there. But what if there is? We were no more successful in solving that case than we have been in solving this. Yet you look and act like a hound which has struck a hot scent. The young man smoothed his features with an embarrassed laugh.
“I shall never learn,” said he, “not to give tongue till the hunt is fairly started. If you will excuse me we’ll first make sure of the similarity I have mentioned. Then I’ll explain myself. I have some notes here, made at the time it was decided to drop the Hicks Street case as a wholly inexplicable one. As you know, I never can bear to say ‘die,’ and I sometimes keep such notes as a possible help in case any such unfinished matter should come up again. Shall I read them?”
“Do. Twenty years ago it would not have been necessary. I should have remembered every detail of an affair so puzzling. But my memory is no longer entirely reliable. So fire away, my boy, though I hardly see your purpose or what real bearing the affair in Hicks Street has upon the Clermont one. A poor washerwoman and the wealthy Miss Challoner! True, they were not unlike in their end.”
“The connection will come later,” smiled the young detective, with that strange softening of his features which made one at times forget his extreme plainness. “I’m sure you will not consider the time lost if I ask you to consider the comparison I am about to make, if only as a curiosity in criminal annals.”
And he read:
“‘On the afternoon of December Fourth, 1910, the strong and persistent screaming of a young child in one of the rooms of a rear tenement in Hicks Street, Brooklyn, drew the attention of some of the inmates and led them, after several ineffectual efforts to gain an entrance, to the breaking in of the door which had been fastened on the inside by an old-fashioned door-button.
“‘The tenant whom all knew for an honest, hard-working woman, had not infrequently fastened her door in this manner, in order to safeguard her child who was abnormally active and had a way of rattling the door open when it was not thus secured. But she had never refused to open before, and the child’s cries were pitiful.
“‘This was no longer a matter of wonder, when, the door having been wrenched from its hinges, they all rushed in. Across a tub of steaming clothes lifted upon a bench in the open window, they saw the body of this good woman, lying inert and seemingly dead; the frightened child tugging at her skirts. She was of a robust make, fleshy and fair, and had always been considered a model of health and energy, but at the sight of her helpless figure, thus stricken while at work, the one cry was ‘A stroke! till she had been lifted off and laid upon the floor. Then some discoloration in the water at the bottom of the tub led to a closer examination of her body, and the discovery of a bullet-hole in her breast directly over the heart.
“‘As she had been standing with face towards the window, all crowded that way to see where the shot had come from. As they were on the fourth storey it could not have come from the court upon which the room looked. It could only have come from the front tenement, towering up before them some twenty feet away. A single window of the innumerable ones confronting them stood open, and this was the one directly opposite.
“‘Nobody was to be seen there or in the room beyond, but during the excitement, one man ran off to call the police and another to hunt up the janitor and ask who occupied this room.
“‘His reply threw them all into confusion. The tenant of that room was the best, the quietest and most respectable man in either building.
“‘Then he must be simply careless and the shot an accidental one. A rush was made for the stairs and soon the whole building was in an uproar. But when this especial room was reached, it was found locked and on the door a paper pinned up, on which these words were written: Gone to New York. Will be back at 6:30! Words that recalled a circumstance to the janitor. He had seen the gentleman go out an hour before. This terminated all inquiry in this direction, though some few of the excited throng were for battering down this door just as they had the other one. But they were overruled by the janitor, who saw no use in such wholesale destruction, and presently the arrival of the police restored order and limited the inquiry to the rear building, where it undoubtedly belonged.’
“Mr. Gryce,” (here Sweetwater laid by his notes that he might address the old gentleman more directly), “I was with the boys when they made their first official investigation. This is why you can rely upon the facts as here given. I followed the investigation closely and missed nothing which could in any way throw light on the case. It was a mysterious one from the first, and lost nothing by further inquiry into the details.
“The first fact to startle us as we made our way up through the crowd which blocked halls and staircases was this:— A doctor had been found and, though he had been forbidden to make more than a cursory examination of the body till the coroner came, he had not hesitated to declare after his first look, that the wound had not been made by a bullet but by some sharp and slender weapon thrust home by a powerful hand. (You mark that, Mr. Gryce.) As this seemed impossible in face of the fact that the door had been found buttoned on the inside, we did not give much credit to his opinion and began our work under the obvious theory of an accidental discharge of some gun from one of the windows across the court. But the doctor was nearer right than we supposed. When the coroner came to look into the matter, he discovered that the wound was not only too small to have been made by the ordinary bullet, but that there was no bullet to be found in the woman’s body or anywhere else. Her heart had been reached by a thrust and not by a shot from a gun. Mr. Gryce, have you not heard a startling repetition of this report in a case nearer at hand?
“But to go back. This discovery, so important if true, was as yet — that is, at the time of our entering the room — limited to the off-hand declaration of an irresponsible physician, but the possibility it involved was of so astonishing a nature that it influenced us unconsciously in our investigation and led us almost immediately into a consideration of the difficulties attending an entrance into, as well as an escape from, a room situated as this was.
“Up three flights from the court, with no communication with the adjoining rooms save through a door guarded on both sides by heavy pieces of furniture no one person could handle, the hall door buttoned on the inside, and the fire-escape some fifteen feet to the left, this room of death appeared to be as removed from the approach of a murderous outsider as the spot in the writing-room of the Clermont where Miss Challoner fell.
“Otherwise, the place presented the greatest contrast possible to that scene of splendour and comfort. I had not entered the Clermont at that time, and no, such comparison could have struck my mind. But I have thought of it since, and you, with your experience, will not find it difficult to picture the room where this poor woman lived and worked. Bare walls, with just a newspaper illustration pinned up here and there, a bed — tragically occupied at this moment — a kitchen stove on which a boiler, half-filled with steaming clothes still bubbled and foamed — an old bureau — a large pine wardrobe against an inner door which we later found to have been locked for months, and the key lost — some chairs — and most pronounced of all, because of its position directly before the window, a pine bench supporting a wash-tub of the old sort.
“As it was here the woman fell, this tub naturally received the closest examination. A board projected from its further side, whither it had evidently been pushed by the weight of her falling body; and from its top hung a wet cloth, marking with its lugubrious drip on the boards beneath the first heavy moments of silence which is the natural accompaniment of so serious a survey. On the floor to the right lay a half-used cake of soap just as it had slipped from her hand. The window was closed, for the temperature was at the freezing-point, but it had been found up, and it was put up now to show the height at which it had then stood. As we all took our look at the house wall opposite, a sound of shouting came up from below. A dozen children were sliding on barrel staves down a slope of heaped-up snow. They had been engaged in this sport all the afternoon and were our witnesses later that no one had made a hazardous escape by means of the ladder of the fire-escape, running, as I have said, at an almost unattainable distance towards the left.
“Of her own child, whose cries had roused the neighbours, nothing was to be seen. The woman in the extreme rear had carried it off to her room; but when we came to see it later, no doubt was felt by any of us that this child was too young to talk connectedly, nor did I ever hear that it ever said anything which could in any way guide investigation.
“And that is as far as we ever got. The coroner’s jury brought in a verdict of death by means of a stab from some unknown weapon in the hand of a person also unknown, but no weapon was ever found, nor was it ever settled how the attack could have been made or the murderer escape under the conditions described. The woman was poor, her friends few, and the case seemingly inexplicable. So after creating some excitement by its peculiarities, it fell of its own weight. But I remembered it, and in many a spare hour have tried to see my way through the no-thoroughfare it presented. But quite in vain. To-day, the road is as blind as ever, but —” here Sweetwater’s face sharpened and his eyes burned as he leaned closer and closer to the older detective —“but this second case, so unlike the first in non-essentials but so exactly like it in just those points which make the mystery, has dropped a thread from its tangled skein into my hand, which may yet lead us to the heart of both. Can you guess — have you guessed — what this thread is? But how could you without the one clew I have not given you? Mr. Gryce, the tenement where this occurred is the same I visited the other night in search of Mr. Brotherson. And the man characterised at that time by the janitor as the best, the quietest and most respectable tenant in the whole building, and the one you remember whose window opened directly opposite the spot where this woman lay dead, was Mr. Dunn himself, or, in other words, our late redoubtable witness, Mr. Orlando Brotherson.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09