Her step was royal — queen-like.
IT was now half-past one. An hour and a half had elapsed since the widow had been laid upon her bed, and to all appearance no change had taken place in her condition. Within the room where she lay were collected the doctor and one or two neighbors of the female sex, who watched every breath she drew, and stood ready to notice the slightest change in the stony face that, dim with the shadow of death, stared upon them from the unruffled pillows. In the sitting-room Lawyer Orcutt conversed in a subdued voice with Mr. Ferris, in regard to such incidents of the widow’s life as had come under his notice in the years of their daily companionship, while the crowd about the gate vented their interest in loud exclamations of wrath against the tramp who had been found, and the unknown humpback who had not. Our story leads us into the crowd in front.
“I don’t think she’ll ever come to,” said one, who from his dusty coat might have been a miller. “Blows like that haven’t much let-up about them.”
“Doctor says she will die before morning,” put in a pert young miss, anxious to have her voice heard.
“Then it will be murder and no mistake, and that brute of a tramp will hang as high as Haman.”
“Don’t condemn a man before you’ve had a chance to hear what he has to say for himself,” cried another in a strictly judicial tone. “How do you know as he came to this house at all?”
“Miss Perkins says he did, and Mrs. Phillips too; they saw him go into the gate.”
“And what else did they see? I warrant he wasn’t the only beggar that was roaming round this morning.”
“No; there was a tin peddler in the street, for I saw him my own self, and Mrs. Clemmens standing in the door flourishing her broom at him. She was mighty short with such folks. Wouldn’t wonder if some of the unholy wretches killed her out of spite. They’re a wicked lot, the whole of them.”
“Widow Clemmens had a quick temper, but she had a mighty good heart notwithstanding. See how kind she was to them Hubbells.”
“And how hard she was to that Pratt girl.”
“Well, I know, but ——” And so on and so on, in a hum and a buzz about the head of Mr. Byrd, who, engaged in thought seemingly far removed from the subject in hand, stood leaning against the fence, careless and insouciant. Suddenly there was a lull, then a short cry, then a woman’s voice rose clear, ringing, and commanding, and Mr. Byrd caught the following words:
“What is this I hear? Mrs. Clemmens dead? Struck down by some wandering tramp? Murdered and in her own house?”
In an instant, every eye, including Mr. Byrd’s, was fixed upon the speaker. The crowd parted, and the young girl, who had spoken from the street, came into the gate. She was a remarkable-looking person. Tall, large, and majestic in every proportion of an unusually noble figure, she was of a make and possessed a bearing to attract attention had she borne a less striking and beautiful countenance. As it was, the glance lingered but a moment on the grand curves and lithe loveliness of that matchless figure, and passed at once to the face. Once there, it did not soon wander; for though its beauty was incontestable, the something that lay behind that beauty was more incontestable still, and held you, in spite of yourself, long after you had become acquainted with the broad white brow, the clear, deep, changing gray eye, the straight but characteristic nose, and the ruddy, nervous lip. You felt that, young and beautiful as she was, and charming as she might be, she was also one of nature’s unsolvable mysteries — a woman whom you might study, obey, adore, but whom you could never hope to understand; a Sphinx without an Oedipus. She was dressed in dark green, and held her gloves in her hand. Her appearance was that of one who had been profoundly startled.
“Why don’t some one answer me?” she asked, after an instant’s pause, seemingly unconscious that, alike to those who knew her and to those who did not, her air and manner were such as to naturally impose silence. “Must I go into the house in order to find out if this good woman is dead or not?”
“Shure she isn’t dead yet,” spoke up a brawny butcher-boy, bolder than the rest. “But she’s sore hurt, miss, and the doctors say as how there is no hope.”
A change impossible to understand passed over the girl’s face. Had she been less vigorous of body, she would have staggered. As it was, she stood still, rigidly still, and seemed to summon up her faculties, till the very clinch of her fingers spoke of the strong control she was putting upon herself.
“It is dreadful, dreadful!” she murmured, this time in a whisper, and as if to some rising protest in her own soul. “No good can come of it, none.” Then, as if awakening to the scene about her, shook her head and cried to those nearest: “It was a tramp who did it, I suppose; at least, I am told so.”
“A tramp has been took up, miss, on suspicion, as they call it.”
“If a tramp has been taken up on suspicion, then he was the one who assailed her, of course.” And pushing on through the crowd that fell back still more awe-struck than before, she went into the house.
The murmur that followed her was subdued but universal. It made no impression on Mr. Byrd. He had leaned forward to watch the girl’s retreating form, but, finding his view intercepted by the wrinkled profile of an old crone who had leaned forward too, had drawn impatiently back. Something in that crone’s aged face made him address her.
“You know the lady?” he inquired.
“Yes,” was the cautious reply, given, however, with a leer he found not altogether pleasant.
“She is a relative of the injured woman, or a friend, perhaps?”
The old woman’s face looked frightful.
“No,” she muttered grimly; “they are strangers.”
At this unexpected response Mr. Byrd made a perceptible start forward. The old woman’s hand fell at once on his arm.
“Stay!” she hoarsely whispered. “By strangers I mean they don’t visit each other. The town is too small for any of us to be strangers.”
Mr. Byrd nodded and escaped her clutch.
“This is worth seeing through,” he murmured, with the first gleam of interest he had shown in the affair. And, hurrying forward, he succeeded in following the lady into the house.
The sight he met there did not tend to allay his newborn interest. There she stood in the centre of the sitting-room, tall, resolute, and commanding, her eyes fixed on the door of the room that contained the still breathing sufferer, Mr. Orcutt’s eyes fixed upon her. It seemed as if she had asked one question and been answered; there had not been time for more.
“I do not know what to say in apology for my intrusion,” she remarked. “But the death, or almost the death, of a person of whom we have all heard, seems to me so terrible that ——”
But here Mr. Orcutt interrupted gently, almost tenderly, but with a fatherly authority which Mr. Byrd expected to see her respect.
“Imogene,” he observed, “this is no place for you; the horror of the event has made you forget yourself; go home and trust me to tell you on my return all that it is advisable for you to know.”
But she did not even meet his glance with her steady eyes. “Thank you,” she protested; “but I cannot go till I have seen the place where this woman fell and the weapon with which she was struck. I want to see it all. Mr. Ferris, will you show me?” And without giving any reason for this extraordinary request, she stood waiting with that air of conscious authority which is sometimes given by great beauty when united to a distinguished personal presence.
The District Attorney, taken aback, moved toward the dining-room door. “I will consult with the coroner,” said he.
But she waited for no man’s leave. Following close behind him, she entered upon the scene of the tragedy.
“Where was the poor woman hit?” she inquired.
They told her; they showed her all she desired and asked her no questions. She awed them, all but Mr. Orcutt — him she both astonished and alarmed.
“And a tramp did all this?” she finally exclaimed, in the odd, musing tone she had used once before, while her eye fell thoughtfully to the floor. Suddenly she started, or so Mr. Byrd fondly imagined, and moved a pace, setting her foot carefully down upon a certain spot in the carpet beneath her.
“She has spied something,” he thought, and watched to see if she would stoop.
But no, she held herself still more erectly than before, and seemed, by her rather desultory inquiries, to be striving to engage the attention of the others from herself.
“There is some one surely tapping at this door,” she intimated, pointing to the one that opened into the lane.
Dr. Tredwell moved to see.
“Is there not?” she repeated, glancing at Mr. Ferris.
He, too, turned to see.
But there was still an eye regarding her from behind the sitting-room door, and, perceiving it, she impatiently ceased her efforts. She was not mistaken about the tapping. A man was at the door whom both gentlemen seemed to know.
“I come from the tavern where they are holding this tramp in custody,” announced the new-comer in a voice too low to penetrate into the room. “He is frightened almost out of his wits. Seems to think he was taken up for theft, and makes no bones of saying that he did take a spoon or two from a house where he was let in for a bite. He gave up the spoons and expects to go to jail, but seems to have no idea that any worse suspicion is hanging over him. Those that stand around think he is innocent of the murder.”
“Humph! well, we will see,” ejaculated Mr. Ferris; and, turning back, he met, with a certain sort of complacence, the eyes of the young lady who had been somewhat impatiently awaiting his reappearance. “It seems there are doubts, after all, about the tramp being the assailant.”
The start she gave was sudden and involuntary. She took a step forward and then paused as if hesitating. Instantly, Mr. Byrd, who had not forgotten the small object she had been covering with her foot, sauntered leisurely forward, and, spying a ring on the floor where she had been standing, unconcernedly picked it up.
She did not seem to notice him. Looking at Mr. Ferris with eyes whose startled, if not alarmed, expression she did not succeed in hiding from the detective, she inquired, in a stifled voice:
“What do you mean? What has this man been telling you? You say it was not the tramp. Who, then, was it?”
“That is a question we cannot answer,” rejoined Mr. Ferris, astonished at her heat, while Lawyer Orcutt, moving forward, attempted once more to recall her to herself.
“Imogene,” he pleaded — “Imogene, calm yourself. This is not a matter of so much importance to you that you need agitate yourself so violently in regard to it. Come home, I beseech you, and leave the affairs of justice to the attention of those whose duty it is to look after them.”
But beyond acknowledging his well-meant interference by a deprecatory glance, she stood immovable, looking from Dr. Tredwell to Mr. Ferris, and back again to Dr. Tredwell, as if she sought in their faces some confirmation of a hideous doubt or fear that had arisen in her own mind. Suddenly she felt a touch on her arm.
“Excuse me, madam, but is this yours?” inquired a smooth and careless voice over her shoulder.
As though awakening from a dream she turned; they all turned. Mr. Byrd was holding out in his open palm a ring blazing with a diamond of no mean lustre or value.
The sight of such a jewel, presented at such a moment, completed the astonishment of her friends. Pressing forward, they stared at the costly ornament and then at her, Mr. Orcutt’s face especially assuming a startled expression of mingled surprise and apprehension, that soon attracted the attention of the others, and led to an interchange of looks that denoted a mutual but not unpleasant understanding.
“I found it at your feet,” explained the detective, still carelessly, but with just that delicate shade of respect in his voice necessary to express a gentleman’s sense of presumption in thus addressing a strange and beautiful young lady.
The tone, if not the explanation, seemed to calm her, as powerful natures are calmed in the stress of a sudden crisis.
“Thank you,” she returned, not without signs of great sweetness in her look and manner. “Yes, it is mine,” she added slowly, reaching out her hand and taking the ring. “I must have dropped it without knowing it.” And meeting the eye of Mr. Orcutt fixed upon her with that startled look of inquiry already alluded to, she flushed, but placed the jewel nonchalantly on her finger.
This cool appropriation of something he had no reason to believe hers, startled the youthful detective immeasurably. He had not expected such a dénouement to the little drama he had prepared with such quiet assurance, and, though with the quick self-control that distinguished him he forbore to show his surprise, he none the less felt baffled and ill at ease, all the more that the two gentlemen present, who appeared to be the most disinterested in their regard for this young lady, seemed to accept this act on her part as genuine, and therefore not to be questioned.
“It is a clue that is lost,” thought he. “I have made a mess of my first unassisted efforts at real detective work.” And, inwardly disgusted with himself, he drew back into the other room and took up his stand at a remote window.
The slight stir he made in crossing the room seemed to break a spell and restore the minds of all present to their proper balance. Mr. Orcutt threw off the shadow that had momentarily disturbed his quiet and assured mien, and advancing once more, held out his arm with even more kindness than before, saying impressively:
“Now you will surely consent to accompany me home. You cannot mean to remain here any longer, can you, Imogene?”
But before she could reply, before her hand could lay itself on his arm, a sudden hush like that of awe passed solemnly through the room, and the physician, who had been set to watch over the dying gasps of the poor sufferer within, appeared on the threshold of the bedroom door, holding up his hand with a look that at once commanded attention and awoke the most painful expectancy in the hearts of all who beheld him:
“She stirs; she moves her lips,” he announced, and again paused, listening.
Immediately there was a sound from the dimness behind him, a low sound, inarticulate at first, but presently growing loud enough and plain enough to be heard in the utmost recesses of the furthermost room on that floor.
“Hand! ring!” was the burden of the short ejaculation they heard. “Ring! hand!” till a sudden gasp cut short the fearful iteration, and all was silent again.
“Great heavens!” came in an awe-struck whisper from Mr. Ferris, as he pressed hastily toward the place from which these words had issued.
But the physician at once stopped and silenced him.
“She may speak again,” he suggested. “Wait.”
But, though they listened breathlessly, and with ever-growing suspense, no further break occurred in the deep silence, and soon the doctor announced:
“She has sunk back into her old state; she may rouse again, and she may not.”
As though released from some painful tension, the coroner, the District Attorney, and the detective all looked up. They found Miss Dare standing by the open window, with her face turned to the landscape, and Mr. Orcutt gazing at her with an expression of perplexity that had almost the appearance of dismay. This look passed instantly from the lawyer’s countenance as he met the eyes of his friends, but Mr. Byrd, who was still smarting under a sense of his late defeat, could not but wonder what that gentleman had seen in Miss Dare, during the period of their late preoccupation, to call up such an expression to his usually keen and composed face.
The clinch of her white hand on the window-sill told nothing; but when in a few moments later she turned toward them again, Mr. Byrd saw, or thought he saw, the last lingering remains of a great horror fading out of her eyes, and was not surprised when she walked up to Mr. Orcutt and said, somewhat hoarsely: “I wish to go home now. This place is a terrible one to be in.”
Mr. Orcutt, who was only too glad to comply with her request, again offered her his arm. But anxious as they evidently were to quit the house, they were not allowed to do so without experiencing another shock. Just as they were passing the door of the room where the wounded woman lay, the physician in attendance again appeared before them with that silently uplifted hand.
“Hush!” said he; “she stirs again. I think she is going to speak.”
And once more that terrible suspense held each and every one enthralled: once more that faint, inarticulate murmur eddied through the house, growing gradually into speech that this time took a form that curdled the blood of the listeners, and made Mr. Orcutt and the young woman at his side drop apart from each other as though a dividing sword had passed between them.
“May the vengeance of Heaven light upon the head of him who has brought me to this pass,” were the words that now rose ringing and clear from that bed of death. “May the fate that has come upon me be visited upon him, measure for measure, blow for blow, death for death.”
Strange and awe-inspiring words, that drew a pall over that house and made the dullest person there gasp for breath. In the silence that followed — a silence that could be felt — the white faces of lawyer and physician, coroner and detective, turned and confronted each other. But the young lady who lingered in their midst looked at no one, turned to no one. Shuddering and white, she stood gazing before her as if she already beheld that retributive hand descending upon the head of the guilty; then, as she awoke to the silence of those around her, gave a quick start and flashed forward to the door and so out into the street before Mr. Orcutt could rouse himself sufficiently from the stupor of the moment to follow her.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55