Mr. Gryce’s fears were only too well founded. Though Mr. McElroy was kind enough to point out the exact spot where he saw Miss Watkins stoop, no trace of blood was found upon the rug which had lain there, nor had anything of the kind been washed up by the very careful man who scrubbed the lobby floor in the early morning. This was disappointing, as its presence would have settled the whole question. When, these efforts all exhausted, the two detectives faced each other again in the small room given up to their use, Mr. Gryce showed his discouragement. To be certain of a fact you cannot prove has not the same alluring quality for the old that it has for the young. Sweetwater watched him in some concern, then with the persistence which was one of his strong points, ventured finally to remark:
“I have but one idea left on the subject.”
“And what is that?” Old as he was, Mr. Gryce was alert in a moment.
“The girl wore a red cloak. If I mistake not, the lining was also red. A spot on it might not show to the casual observer. Yet it would mean much to us.”
A faint blush rose to the old man’s cheek.
“Shall I request the privilege of looking that garment over?
The young fellow ducked and left the room. When he returned, it was with a downcast air.
“Nothing doing,” said he.
And then there was silence.
“We only need to find out now that this cutter was not even Miss Challoner’s property,” remarked Mr. Gryce, at last, with a gesture towards the object named, lying openly on the table before him.
“That should be easy. Shall I take it to their rooms and show it to her maid?”
“If you can do so without disturbing the old gentleman.”
But here they were themselves disturbed. A knock at the door was followed by the immediate entrance of the very person just mentioned. Mr. Challoner had come in search of the inspector, and showed some surprise to find his place occupied by an unknown old man.
But Mr. Gryce, who discerned tidings in the bereaved father’s face, was all alacrity in an instant. Greeting his visitor with a smile which few could see without trusting the man, he explained the inspector’s absence and introduced himself in his own capacity.
Mr. Challoner had heard of him. Nevertheless, he did not seem inclined to speak.
Mr. Gryce motioned Sweetwater from the room. With a woeful look the young detective withdrew, his last glance cast at the cutter still lying in full view on the table.
Mr. Gryce, not unmindful himself of this object, took it up, then laid it down again, with an air of seeming abstraction.
The father’s attention was caught.
“What is that?” he cried, advancing a step and bestowing more than an ordinary glance at the object thus brought casually, as it were, to his notice. “I surely recognise this cutter. Does it belong here or —”
Mr. Gryce, observing the other’s, emotion, motioned him to a chair. As his visitor sank into it, he remarked, with all the consideration exacted by the situation:
“It is unknown property, Mr. Challoner. But we have some reason to think it belonged to your daughter. Are we correct in this surmise?
“I have seen it, or one like it, often in her hand.” Here his eyes suddenly dilated and the hand stretched forth to grasp it quickly drew back. “Where — where was it found?” he hoarsely demanded. “O God! am I to be crushed to the very earth by sorrow!”
Mr. Gryce hastened to give him such relief as was consistent with the truth.
“It was picked up — last night — from the lobby floor. There is seemingly nothing to connect it with her death. Yet —”
The pause was eloquent. Mr. Challoner gave the detective an agonised look and turned white to the lips. Then gradually, as the silence continued, his head fell forward, and he muttered almost unintelligibly:
“I honestly believe her the victim of some heartless stranger. I do now; but — but I cannot mislead the police. At any cost I must retract a statement I made under false impressions and with no desire to deceive. I said that I knew all of the gentlemen who admired her and aspired to her hand, and that they were all reputable men and above committing a crime of this or any other kind. But it seems that I did not know her secret heart as thoroughly as I had supposed. Among her effects I have just come upon a batch of letters — love letters I am forced to acknowledge — signed by initials totally strange to me. The letters are manly in tone — most of them — but one —”
“What about the one?”
“Shows that the writer was displeased. It may mean nothing, but I could not let the matter go without setting myself right with the authorities. If it might be allowed to rest here — if those letters can remain sacred, it would save me the additional pang of seeing her inmost concerns — the secret and holiest recesses of a woman’s heart, laid open to the public. For, from the tenor of most of these letters, she — she was not averse to the writer.”
Mr. Gryce moved a little restlessly in his chair and stared hard at the cutter so conveniently placed under his eye. Then his manner softened and he remarked:
“We will do what we can. But you must understand that the matter is not a simple one. That, in fact, it contains mysteries which demand police investigation. We do not dare to trifle with any of the facts. The inspector, and, if not he, the coroner, will have to be told about these letters and will probably ask to see them.”
“They are the letters of a gentleman.”
“With the one exception.”
“Yes, that is understood.” Then in a sudden heat and with an almost sublime trust in his daughter notwithstanding the duplicity he had just discovered:
“Nothing — not the story told by these letters, or the sight of that sturdy paper-cutter with its long and very slender blade, will make me believe that she willingly took her own life. You do not know, cannot know, the rare delicacy of her nature. She was a lady through and through. If she had meditated death — if the breach suggested by the one letter I have mentioned, should have so preyed upon her spirits as to lead her to break her old father’s heart and outrage the feelings of all who knew her, she could not, being the woman she was, choose a public place for such an act — an hotel writing-room — in face of a lobby full of hurrying men. It was out of nature. Every one who knows her will tell you so. The deed was an accident — incredible — but still an accident.”
Mr. Gryce had respect for this outburst. Making no attempt to answer it, he suggested, with some hesitation, that Miss Challoner had been seen writing a letter previous to taking those fatal steps from the desk which ended so tragically. Was this letter to one of her lady friends, as reported, and was it as far from suggesting the awful tragedy which followed, as he had been told?
“It was a cheerful letter. Such a one as she often wrote to her little protegees here and there. I judge that this was written to some girl like that, for the person addressed was not known to her maid, any more than she was to me. It expressed an affectionate interest, and it breathed encouragement — encouragement! and she meditating her own death at the moment! Impossible! That letter should exonerate her if nothing else does.”
Mr. Gryce recalled the incongruities, the inconsistencies and even the surprising contradictions which had often marked the conduct of men and women, in his lengthy experience with the strange, the sudden, and the tragic things of life, and slightly shook his head. He pitied Mr. Challoner, and admired even more his courage in face of the appalling grief which had overwhelmed him, but he dared not encourage a false hope. The girl had killed herself and with this weapon. They might not be able to prove it absolutely, but it was nevertheless true, and this broken old man would some day be obliged to acknowledge it. But the detective said nothing of this, and was very patient with the further arguments the other advanced to prove his point and the lofty character of the girl to whom, misled by appearance, the police seemed inclined to attribute the awful sin of self-destruction.
But when, this topic exhausted, Mr. Challoner rose to leave the room, Mr. Gryce showed where his own thoughts still centred, by asking him the date of the correspondence discovered between his daughter and her unknown admirer.
“Some of the letters were dated last summer, some this fall. The one you are most anxious to hear about only a month back,” he added, with unconquerable devotion to what he considered his duty.
Mr. Gryce would like to have carried his inquiries further, but desisted. His heart was full of compassion for this childless old man, doomed to have his choicest memories disturbed by cruel doubts which possibly would never be removed to his own complete satisfaction.
But when he was gone, and Sweetwater had returned, Mr. Gryce made it his first duty to communicate to his superiors the hitherto unsuspected fact of a secret romance in Miss Challoner’s seemingly calm and well-guarded life. She had loved and been loved by one of whom her family knew nothing. And the two had quarrelled, as certain letters lately found could be made to show.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09