“It is true; there seems to be something extraordinary in the coincidence.”
Thus Mr. Brotherson, in the presence of the Inspector.
“But that is all there is to it,” he easily proceeded. “I knew Miss Challoner and I have already said how much and how little I had to do with her death. The other woman I did not know at all; I did not even know her name. A prosecution based on grounds so flimsy as those you advance would savour of persecution, would it not?”
The Inspector, surprised by this unexpected attack, regarded the speaker with an interest rather augmented than diminished by his boldness. The smile with which he had uttered these concluding words yet lingered on his lips, lighting up features of a mould too suggestive of command to be associated readily with guilt. That the impression thus produced was favourable, was evident from the tone of the Inspector’s reply:
“We have said nothing about prosecution, Mr. Brotherson. We hope to avoid any such extreme measures, and that we may the more readily do so, we have given you this opportunity to make such explanations as the situation, which you yourself have characterised as remarkable, seems to call for.”
“I am ready. But what am I called upon to explain? I really cannot see, sir. Knowing nothing more about either case than you do, I fear that I shall not add much to your enlightenment.”
“You can tell us why with your seeming culture and obvious means, you choose to spend so much time in a second-rate tenement like the one in Hicks Street.”
Again that chill smile preceding the quiet answer:
“Have you seen my room there? It is piled to the ceiling with books. When I was a poor man, I chose the abode suited to my purse and my passion for first-rate reading. As I grew better off, my time became daily more valuable. I have never seen the hour when I felt like moving that precious collection. Besides, I am a man of the people. I like the working class, and am willing to be thought one of them. I can find time to talk to a hard-pushed mechanic as easily as to such members of the moneyed class as I encounter on stray evenings at the Hotel Clermont I have led — I may say that I am leading — a double life; but of neither am I ashamed, nor have I cause to be. Love drove me to ape the gentleman in the halls of the Clermont; a broad human interest in the work of the world, to live as a fellow among the mechanics of Hicks Street.”
“But why make use of one name as a gentleman of leisure and quite a different one as the honest workman?”
“Ah, there you touch upon my real secret. I have a reason for keeping my identity quiet till my invention is completed.”
“A reason connected with your anarchistic tendencies?”
“Possibly.” But the word was uttered in a way to carry little conviction. “I am not much of an anarchist,” he now took the trouble to declare, with a careless lift of his shoulders. “I like fair play, but I shall never give you much trouble by my manner of insuring it. I have too much at stake. My invention is dearer to me than the overthrow of present institutions. Nothing must stand in the way of its success, not even the satisfaction of inspiring terror in minds shut to every other species of argument. I have uttered my last speech; you can rely on me for that.
“We are glad to hear it, Mr. Dunn. Physical overthrow carries more than the immediate sufferer with it.”
If this were meant as an irritant, it did not act successfully. The social agitator, the political demagogue, the orator whose honeyed tones had rung with biting invective in the ears of the United Brotherhood of the Awl, the Plane and the Trowel, simply bowed and calmly waited for the next attack.
Perhaps it was of a nature to surprise even him.
“We have no wish,” continued the Inspector, “to probe too closely into concerns seemingly quite removed from the main issue. You say that you are ready, nay more, are even eager to answer all questions. You will probably be anxious then to explain away a discrepancy between your word and your conduct, which has come to our attention. You were known to have expressed the intention of spending the afternoon of Mrs. Spotts’ death in New York and were supposed to have done so, yet you were certainly seen in the crowd which invaded that rear building at the first alarm. Are you conscious of possessing a double, or did you fail to cross the river as you expected to?”
“I am glad this has come up.” The tone was one of self-congratulation which would have shaken Sweetwater sorely had he been admitted to this unofficial examination. “I have never confided to any one the story of my doings on that unhappy afternoon, because I knew of no one who would take any interest in them. But this is what occurred. I did mean to go to New York and I even started on my walk to the Bridge at the hour mentioned. But I got into a small crowd on the corner of Fulton Street, in which a poor devil who had robbed a vendor’s cart of a few oranges, was being hustled about. There was no policeman within sight, and so I busied myself there for a minute paying for the oranges and dragging the poor wretch away into an alley, where I could have the pleasure of seeing him eat them. When I came out of the alley the small crowd had vanished, but a big one was collecting up the street very near my home. I always think of my books when I see anything suggesting fire, and naturally I returned, and equally naturally, when I heard what had happened, followed the crowd into the court and so up to the poor woman’s doorway. But my curiosity satisfied, I returned at once to the street and went to New York as I had planned.”
“Do you mind telling us where you went in New York?”
“Not at all. I went shopping. I wanted a certain very fine wire, for an experiment I had on hand, and I found it in a little shop in Fourth Avenue. If I remember rightly, the name over the door was Grippus. Its oddity struck me.”
There was nothing left to the Inspector but to dismiss him. He had answered all questions willingly, and with a countenance inexpressive of guile. He even indulged in a parting shot on his own account, as full of frank acceptance of the situation as it was fearless in its attack. As he halted in the doorway before turning his back upon the room, he smiled for the third time as he quietly said:
“I have ceased visiting my friend’s apartment in upper New York. If you ever want me again, you will find me amongst my books. If my invention halts and other interests stale, you have furnished me this day with a problem which cannot fail to give continual occupation to my energies. If I succeed in solving it first, I shall be happy to share my knowledge with you. Till then, trust the laws of nature. No man when once on the outside of a door can button it on the inside, nor could any one without the gift of complete invisibility, make a leap of over fifteen feet from the sill of a fourth story window on to an adjacent fire escape, without attracting the attention of some of the many children playing down below.”
He was half-way out the door, but his name quickly spoken by the Inspector drew him back.
“Anything more?” he asked.
The Inspector smiled.
“You are a man of considerable analytic power, as I take it, Mr. Brotherson. You must have decided long ago how this woman died.”
“Is that a question, Inspector?”
“You may take it as such.”
“Then I will allow myself to say that there is but one common-sense view to take of the matter. Miss Challoner’s death was due to suicide; so was that of the washerwoman. But there I stop. As for the means — the motive — such mysteries may be within your province but they are totally outside mine! God help us all! The world is full of misery. Again I wish you good-day.”
The air seemed to have lost its vitality and the sun its sparkle when he was gone.
“Now, what do you think, Gryce?”
The old man rose and came out of his corner.
“This: that I’m up against the hardest proposition of my lifetime. Nothing in the man’s appearance or manner evinces guilt, yet I believe him guilty. I must. Not to, is to strain probability to the point of breakage. But how to reach him is a problem and one of no ordinary nature. Years ago, when I was but little older than Sweetwater, I had just such a conviction concerning a certain man against whom I had even less to work on than we have here. A murder had been committed by an envenomed spring contained in a toy puzzle. I worked upon the conscience of the suspect in that case, by bringing constantly before his eyes a facsimile of that spring. It met him in the folded napkin which he opened at his restaurant dinner. He stumbled upon it in the street, and found it lying amongst his papers at home. I gave him no relief and finally he succumbed. He had been almost driven mad by remorse. But this man has no conscience. If he is not innocent as the day, he’s as hard as unquarried marble. He might be confronted with reminders of his crime at every turn without weakening or showing by loss of appetite or interrupted sleep any effect upon his nerves. That’s my opinion of the gentleman. He is either that, or a man of uncommon force and self-restraint.”
“I’m inclined to believe him the latter.”
“And so give the whole matter the go-by?”
“It will be a terrible disappointment to Sweetwater.”
“And to me.”
“That’s different. I’m disposed to consider you, Gryce — after all these years.”
“Thank you; I have done the state some service.”
“What do you want? You say the mine is unworkable.”
“Yes, in a day, or in a week, possibly in a month. But persistence and a protean adaptability to meet his moods might accomplish something. I don’t say will, I only say might. If Sweetwater had the job, with unlimited time in which to carry out any plan he may have, or even for a change of plans to suit a changed idea, success might be his, and both time, effort and outlay justified.”
“The outlay? I am thinking of the outlay.”
“Mr. Challoner will see to that. I have his word that no reasonable amount will daunt him.”
“But this Brotherson is suspicious. He has an inventor’s secret to hide, if none other. We can’t saddle him with a guy of Sweetwater’s appearance and abnormal loquaciousness.”
“Not readily, I own. But time will bring counsel. Are you willing to help the boy, to help me and possibly yourself by this venture in the dark? The Department shan’t lose money by it; that’s all I can promise.”
“But it’s a big one. Gryce, you shall have your way. You’ll be the only loser if you fail; and you will fail; take my word for it.”
“I wish I could speak as confidently to the contrary, but I can’t. I can give you my hand though, Inspector, and Sweetwater’s thanks. I can meet the boy now. An hour ago I didn’t know how I was to do it.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09