“Thus far we run before the wind.”
IN the interview which Mr. Byrd had held with Miss Dare he had been conscious of omitting one test which many another man in his place would have made. This was the utterance of the name of him whom he really believed to be the murderer of Mrs. Clemmens. Had he spoken this name, had he allowed himself to breathe the words “Craik Mansell” into the ears of this agitated woman, or even gone so far as to allude in the most careless way to the widow’s nephew, he felt sure his daring would have been rewarded by some expression on her part that would have given him a substantial basis for his theories to rest upon.
But he had too much natural chivalry for this. His feelings as a man got in the way of his instinct as a detective. Nevertheless, he felt positive that his suspicions in regard to this nephew of Mrs. Clemmens were correct, and set about the task of fitting facts to his theory, with all that settled and dogged determination which follows the pursuit of a stern duty unwillingly embraced.
Two points required instant settling.
First, the truth or falsehood of his supposition as to the identification of the person confronted by Miss Dare in the Syracuse depot with the young man described by Miss Firman as the nephew of Widow Clemmens.
Secondly, the existence or non-existence of proof going to show the presence of this person at or near the house of Mrs. Clemmens, during the time of the assault.
But before proceeding to satisfy himself in regard to these essentials, he went again to the widow’s house and there spent an hour in a careful study of its inner and outer arrangements, with a view to the formation of a complete theory as to the manner and method of the murder. He found that in default of believing Mr. Hildreth the assailant, one supposition was positively necessary, and this was that the murderer was in the house when this gentleman came to it. A glance at the diagram on next page will explain why.
The house, as you will see, has but three entrances: the front door, at which Mr. Hildreth unconsciously stood guard; the kitchen door, also unconsciously guarded during the critical moment by the coming and going of the tramp through the yard; and the dining-room door, which, though to all appearance free from the surveillance of any eye, was so situated in reference to the clock at which the widow stood when attacked, that it was manifestly impossible for any one to enter it and cross the room to the hearth without attracting the attention of her eye if not of her ear.
To be sure, there was the bare possibility of his having come in by the kitchen-door, after the departure of the tramp, but such a contingency was scarcely worth considering. The almost certain conclusion was that he had been in the house for some time, and was either in the dining-room when Mrs. Clemmens returned to it from her interview with Mr. Hildreth, or else came down to it from the floor above by means of the staircase that so strangely descended into that very room.
Another point looked equally clear. The escape of the murderer — still in default of considering Mr. Hildreth as such — must have been by means of one of the back doors, and must have been in the direction of the woods. To be sure there was a stretch of uneven and marshy ground to be travelled over before the shelter of the trees could be reached; but a person driven by fear could, at a pinch, travel it in five minutes or less; and a momentary calculation on the part of Mr. Byrd sufficed to show him that more time than this had elapsed from the probable instant of assault to the moment when Mr. Ferris opened the side door and looked out upon the swamp.
The dearth of dwellings on the left-hand side of the street, and, consequently, the comparative immunity from observation which was given to that portion of the house which over-looked the swamp, made him conclude that this outlet from the dining-room had been the one made use of in the murderer’s flight. A glance down the yard to the broken fence that separated the widow’s land from the boggy fields beyond, only tended to increase the probabilities of this supposition, and, alert to gain for himself that full knowledge of the situation necessary to a successful conduct of this mysterious affair, he hastily left the house and started across the swamp, with the idea of penetrating the woods and discovering for himself what opportunity they afforded for concealment or escape.
He had more difficulty in doing this than he expected. The ground about the hillocks was half-sunk in water, and the least slip to one side invariably precipitated him among the brambles that encumbered this spot. Still, he compassed his task in little more than five minutes, arriving at the firm ground, and its sturdy growth of beeches and maples, well covered with mud, but so far thoroughly satisfied with the result of his efforts.
The next thing to be done was to search the woods, not for the purpose of picking up clues — it was too late for that — but to determine what sort of a refuge they afforded, and whether, in the event of a man’s desiring to penetrate them quickly, many impediments would arise in the shape of tangled underground or loose-lying stones.
He found them remarkably clear; so much so, indeed, that he travelled for some distance into their midst before he realized that he had passed beyond their borders. More than this, he came ere long upon something like a path, and, following it, emerged into a sort of glade, where, backed up against a high rock, stood a small and seemingly deserted hut. It was the first object he had met with that in any way suggested the possible presence of man, and advancing to it with cautious steps, he looked into its open door-way. Nothing met his eyes but an empty interior, and without pausing to bestow upon the building a further thought, he hurried on through a path he saw opening beyond it, till he came to the end of the wood.
Stepping forth, he paused in astonishment. Instead of having penetrated the woods in a direct line, he found that he had merely described a half circle through them, and now stood on a highway leading directly back into the town.
Likewise, he was in full sight of the terminus of a line of horse-cars that connected this remote region of Sibley with its business portion, and though distant a good mile from the railway depot, was, to all intents and purposes, as near that means of escape as he would have been in the street in front of Widow Clemmens’ house.
Full of thoughts and inly wondering over the fatality that had confined the attention of the authorities to the approaches afforded by the lane, to the utter exclusion of this more circuitous, but certainly more elusive, road of escape, he entered upon the highway, and proceeded to gain the horse-car he saw standing at the head of the road, a few rods away. As he did so, he for the first time realized just where he was. The elegant villa of Professor Darling rising before him on the ridge that ran along on the right-hand side of the road, made it at once evident that he was on the borders of that choice and aristocratic quarter known as the West Side. It was a new region to him, and, pausing for a moment, he cast his eyes over the scene which lay stretched out before him. He had frequently heard it said that the view commanded by the houses on the ridge was the finest in the town, and he was not disappointed in it. As he looked across the verdant basin of marshy ground around which the road curved like a horseshoe, he could see the city spread out like a map before him. So unobstructed, indeed, was the view he had of its various streets and buildings, that he thought he could even detect, amid the taller and more conspicuous dwellings, the humble walls and newly-shingled roof of the widow’s cottage.
But he could not be sure of this; his eyesight was any thing but trustworthy for long distances, and hurrying forward to the car, he took his seat just as it was about to start.
It carried him straight into town, and came to a standstill not ten feet from the railroad depot. As he left it and betook himself back to his hotel, he gave to his thoughts a distinct though inward expression.
“If,” he mused, “my suppositions in regard to this matter are true, and another man than Mr. Hildreth struck the fatal blow, then I have just travelled over the self-same route he took in his flight.”
But were his suppositions true? It remained for him to determine.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55