Yet he made no effort to detain Mr. Slater, when that gentleman, under this renewed excitement, hastily left us. He was not the man to rush into anything impulsively, and not even the presence of murder could change his ways.
“I want to feel sure of myself,” he explained. “Can you bear the strain of waiting around a little longer, Laura? I mustn’t forget that you fainted just now.”
“Yes, I can bear it; much better than I could bear going to Adela’s in my present state of mind. Don’t you think the man we saw had something to do with this? Don’t you believe —”
“Hush! Let us listen rather than talk. What are they saying over there? Can you hear?”
“No. And I cannot bear to look. Yet I don’t want to go away. It’s all so dreadful.”
“It’s devilish. Such a beautiful girl! Laura, I must leave you for a moment. Do you mind?”
“No, no; yet —”
I did mind; but he was gone before I could take back my word. Alone, I felt the tragedy much more than when he was with me. Instead of watching, as I had hitherto done, every movement in the room opposite, I drew back against the wall and hid my eyes, waiting feverishly for George’s return.
He came, when he did come, in some haste and with certain marks of increased agitation.
“Laura,” said he, “Slater says that we may possibly be wanted and proposes that we stay here all night. I have telephoned Adela and have made it all right at home. Will you come to your room? This is no place for you.”
Nothing could have pleased me better; to be near and yet not the direct observer of proceedings in which we took so secret an interest! I showed my gratitude by following George immediately. But I could not go without casting another glance at the tragic scene I was leaving. A stir was perceptible there, and I was just in time to see its cause. A tall, angular gentleman was approaching from the direction of the musicians’ gallery, and from the manner of all present, as well as from the whispered comment of my husband, I recognised in him the special official for whom all had been waiting.
“Are you going to tell him?” was my question to George as we made our way down to the lobby.
“That depends. First, I am going to see you settled in a room quite remote from this business.”
“I shall not like that.”
“I know, my dear, but it is best.”
I could not gainsay this.
Nevertheless, after the first few minutes of relief, I found it very lonesome upstairs. The pictures which crowded upon me of the various groups of excited and wildly gesticulating men and women through which we had passed on our way up, mingled themselves with the solemn horror of the scene in the writing-room, with its fleeting vision of youth and beauty lying pulseless in sudden death. I could not escape the one without feeling the immediate impress of the other, and if by chance they both yielded for an instant to that earlier scene of a desolate Street, with its solitary lamp shining down on the crouched figure of a man washing his shaking hands in a drift of freshly fallen snow, they immediately rushed back with a force and clearness all the greater for the momentary lapse.
I was still struggling with these fancies when the door opened, and George came in. There was news in his face as I rushed to meet him.
“Tell me — tell,” I begged.
He tried to smile at my eagerness, but the attempt was ghastly.
“I’ve been listening and looking,” said he, “and this is all I have learned. Miss Challoner died, not from a stroke or from disease of any kind, but from a wound reaching the heart. No one saw the attack, or even the approach or departure of the person inflicting this wound. If she was killed by a pistol-shot, it was at a distance, and almost over the heads of the persons sitting at the table we saw there. But the doctors shake their heads at the word pistol-shot, though they refuse to explain themselves or to express any opinion till the wound has been probed. This they are going to do at once, and when that question is decided, I may feel it my duty to speak and may ask you to support my story.”
“I will tell what I saw,” said I.
“Very good. That is all that will be required. We are strangers to the parties concerned, and only speak from a sense of justice. It may be that our story will make no impression, and that we shall be dismissed with but few thanks. But that is nothing to us. If the woman has been murdered, he is the murderer. With such a conviction in my mind, there can be no doubt as to my duty.”
“We can never make them understand how he looked.”
“No. I don’t expect to.”
“Or his manner as he fled.”
“Nor that either.”
“We can only describe what we saw him do.”
“Oh, what an adventure for quiet people like us! George, I don’t believe he shot her.”
“He must have.”
“But they would have seen — have heard — the people around, I mean.”
“So they say; but I have a theory — but no matter about that now. I’m going down again to see how things have progressed. I’ll be back for you later. Only be ready.”
Be ready! I almost laughed — a hysterical laugh, of course, when I recalled the injunction. Be ready! This lonely sitting by myself, with nothing to do but think was a fine preparation for a sudden appearance before those men — some of them police-officers, no doubt.
But that’s enough about myself; I’m not the heroine of this story. In a half hour or an hour — I never knew which — George reappeared only to tell me that no conclusions had as yet been reached; an element of great mystery involved the whole affair, and the most astute detectives on the force had been sent for. Her father, who had been her constant companion all winter, had not the least suggestion to offer in way of its solution. So far as he knew — and he believed himself to have been in perfect accord with his daughter — she had injured no one. She had just lived the even, happy and useful life of a young woman of means, who sees duties beyond those of her own household and immediate surroundings. If, in the fulfillment of those duties, she had encountered any obstacle to content, he did not know it; nor could he mention a friend of hers — he would even say lovers, since that was what he meant — who to his knowledge could be accused of harbouring any such passion of revenge as was manifested in this secret and diabolical attack. They were all gentlemen and respected her as heartily as they appeared to admire her. To no living being, man or woman, could he point as possessing any motive for such a deed. She had been the victim of some mistake, his lovely and ever kindly disposed daughter, and while the loss was irreparable he would never make it unendurable by thinking otherwise.
Such was the father’s way of looking at the matter, and I own that it made our duty a trifle hard. But George’s mind, when once made up, was persistent to the point of obstinacy, and while he was yet talking he led me out of the room and down the hall to the elevator.
“Mr. Slater knows we have something to say, and will manage the interview before us in the very best manner,” he confided to me now with an encouraging air. “We are to go to the blue reception room on the parlour floor.”
I nodded, and nothing more was said till we entered the place mentioned. Here we came upon several gentlemen, standing about, of a more or less professional appearance. This was not very agreeable to one of my retiring disposition, but a look from George brought back my courage, and I found myself waiting rather anxiously for the questions I expected to hear put.
Mr. Slater was there according to his promise, and after introducing us, briefly stated that we had some evidence to give regarding the terrible occurrence which had just taken place in the house.
George bowed, and the chief spokesman — I am sure he was a police-officer of some kind — asked him to tell what it was.
George drew himself up — George is not one of your tall men, but he makes a very good appearance at times. Then he seemed suddenly to collapse. The sight of their expectation made him feel how flat and childish his story would sound. I, who had shared his adventure, understood his embarrassment, but the others were evidently at a loss to do so, for they glanced askance at each other as he hesitated, and only looked back when I ventured to say:
“It’s the peculiarity of the occurrence which affects my husband. The thing we saw may mean nothing.”
“Let us hear what it was and we will judge.”
Then my husband spoke up, and related our little experience. If it did not create a sensation, it was because these men were well accustomed to surprises of all kinds.
“Washed his hands — a gentleman — out there in the snow — just after the alarm was raised here?” repeated one.
“And you saw him come out of this house?” another put in.
“Yes, sir; we noticed him particularly.
“Can you describe him?”
It was Mr. Slater who put this question; he had less control over himself, and considerable eagerness could be heard in his voice.
“He was a very fine-looking man; unusually tall and unusually striking both in his dress and appearance. What I could see of his face was bare of beard, and very expressive. He walked with the swing of an athlete, and only looked mean and small when he was stooping and dabbling in the snow.”
“His clothes. Describe his clothes.” There was an odd sound in Mr. Slater’s voice.
“He wore a silk hat and there was fur on his overcoat. I think the fur was black.”
Mr. Slater stepped back, then moved forward again with a determined air.
“I know the man,” said he.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50