Hark! she speaks. I will set down what comes from her. . . .
Heaven knows what she has known.
“MISS FIRMAN, I believe?” The staid, pleasant-faced lady whom we know, but who is looking older and considerably more careworn than when we saw her at the coroner’s inquest, rose from her chair in her own cozy sitting-room, and surveyed her visitor curiously. “I am Mr. Gryce,” the genial voice went on. “Perhaps the name is not familiar?”
“I never heard it before,” was the short but not ungracious reply.
“Well, then, let me explain,” said he. “You are a relative of the Mrs. Clemmens who was so foully murdered in Sibley, are you not? Pardon me, but I see you are; your expression speaks for itself.” How he could have seen her expression was a mystery to Miss Firman, for his eyes, if not attention, were seemingly fixed upon some object in quite a different portion of the room. “You must, therefore,” he pursued, “be in a state of great anxiety to know who her murderer was. Now, I am in that same state, madam; we are, therefore, in sympathy, you see.”
The respectful smile and peculiar intonation with which these last words were uttered, robbed them of their familiarity and allowed Miss Firman to perceive his true character.
“You are a detective,” said she, and as he did not deny it, she went on: “You say I must be anxious to know who my cousin’s murderer was. Has Craik Mansell, then, been acquitted?”
“A verdict has not been given,” said the other. “His trial has been adjourned in order to give him an opportunity to choose a new counsel.”
Miss Firman motioned her visitor to be seated, and at once took a chair herself.
“What do you want with me?” she asked, with characteristic bluntness.
The detective was silent. It was but for a moment, but in that moment he seemed to read to the bottom of this woman’s mind.
“Well,” said he, “I will tell you. You believe Craik Mansell to be innocent?”
“I do,” she returned.
“Very well; so do I.”
“Let me shake hands with you,” was her abrupt remark. And without a smile she reached forth her hand, which he took with equal gravity.
This ceremony over, he remarked, with a cheerful mien:
“We are fortunately not in a court of law, and so can talk freely together. Why do you think Mansell innocent? I am sure the evidence has not been much in his favor.”
“Why do you think him innocent?” was the brisk retort.
“I have talked with him.”
“I have talked with Miss Dare.”
A different “Ah!” this time.
“And I was present when Mr. Orcutt breathed his last.”
The look she gave was like cold water on Mr. Gryce’s secretly growing hopes.
“What has that to do with it?” she wonderingly exclaimed.
The detective took another tone.
“You did not know Mr. Orcutt then?” he inquired.
“I had not that honor,” was the formal reply.
“You have never, then, visited your cousin in Sibley?”
“Yes, I was there once; but that did not give me an acquaintance with Mr. Orcutt.”
“Yet he went almost every day to her house.”
“And he came while I was there, but that did not give me an acquaintance with him.”
“He was reserved, then, in his manners, uncommunicative, possibly morose?”
“He was just what I would expect such a gentleman to be at the table with women like my cousin and myself.”
“Not morose, then; only reserved.”
“Exactly,” the short, quick bow of the amiable spinster seemed to assert.
Mr. Gryce drew a deep breath. This well seemed to be destitute of even a drop of moisture.
“Why do you ask me about Mr. Orcutt? Has his death in any way affected young Mansell’s prospects?”
“That is what I want to find out,” declared Mr. Gryce. Then, without giving her time for another question, said: “Where did Mrs. Clemmens first make the acquaintance of Mr. Orcutt? Wasn’t it in some town out West?”
“Out West? Not to my knowledge, sir. I always supposed she saw him first in Sibley.”
This well was certainly very dry.
“Yet you are not positive that this is so, are you?” pursued the patient detective. “She came from Nebraska, and so did he; now, why may they not have known each other there?”
“I did not know that he came from Nebraska.”
“She has never talked about him then?”
Mr. Gryce drew another deep breath and let down his bucket again.
“I thought your cousin spent her childhood in Toledo?”
“She did, sir.”
“How came she to go to Nebraska then?”
“Well, she was left an orphan and had to look out for herself. A situation in some way opened to her in Nebraska, and she went there to take it.”
“A situation at what?”
“As waitress in some hotel.”
“Humph! And was she still a waitress when she married?”
“Yes, I think so, but I am not sure about it or any thing else in connection with her at that time. The subject was so painful we never discussed it.”
“She lost her husband so soon.”
“But you can tell me the name of the town in which this hotel was, can you not?”
“It was called Swanson then, but that was fifteen years ago. Its name may have been changed since.”
Swanson! This was something to learn, but not much. Mr. Gryce returned to his first question. “You have not told me,” said he, “why you believe Craik Mansell to be innocent?”
“Well,” replied she, “I believe Craik Mansell to be innocent because he is the son of his mother. I think I know him pretty well, but I am certain I knew her. She was a woman who would go through fire and water to attain a purpose she thought right, but who would stop in the midst of any project the moment she felt the least doubt of its being just or wise. Craik has his mother’s forehead and eyes, and no one will ever make me believe he has not her principles also.”
“I coincide with you, madam,” remarked the attentive detective.
“I hope the jury will,” was her energetic response.
He bowed and was about to attempt another question, when an interruption occurred. Miss Firman was called from the room, and Mr. Gryce found himself left for a few moments alone. His thoughts, as he awaited her return, were far from cheerful, for he saw a long and tedious line of inquiry opening before him in the West, which, if it did not end in failure, promised to exhaust not only a week, but possibly many months, before certainty of any kind could be obtained. With Miss Dare on the verge of a fever, and Mansell in a position calling for the utmost nerve and self-control, this prospect looked any thing but attractive to the benevolent detective; and, carried away by his impatience, he was about to give utterance to an angry ejaculation against the man he believed to be the author of all this mischief, when he suddenly heard a voice raised from some unknown quarter near by, saying in strange tones he was positive did not proceed from Miss Firman:
“Was it Clemmens or was it Orcutt? Clemmens or Orcutt? I cannot remember.”
Naturally excited and aroused, Mr. Gryce rose and looked about him. A door stood ajar at his back. Hastening toward it, he was about to lay his hand on the knob when Miss Firman returned.
“Oh, I beg you,” she entreated. “That is my mother’s room, and she is not at all well.”
“I was going to her assistance,” asserted the detective, with grave composure. “She has just uttered a cry.”
“Oh, you don’t say so!” exclaimed the unsuspicious spinster, and hurrying forward, she threw open the door herself. Mr. Gryce benevolently followed. “Why, she is asleep,” protested Miss Firman, turning on the detective with a suspicious look.
Mr. Gryce, with a glance toward the bed he saw before him, bowed with seeming perplexity.
“She certainly appears to be,” said he, “and yet I am positive she spoke but an instant ago; I can even tell you the words she used.”
“What were they?” asked the spinster, with something like a look of concern.
“She said: ‘Was it Clemmens or was it Orcutt? Clemmens or Orcutt? I cannot remember.’”
“You don’t say so! Poor ma! She was dreaming. Come into the other room and I will explain.”
And leading the way back to the apartment they had left, she motioned him again toward a chair, and then said:
“Ma has always been a very hale and active woman for her years; but this murder seems to have shaken her. To speak the truth, sir, she has not been quite right in her mind since the day I told her of it; and I often detect her murmuring words similar to those you have just heard.”
“Humph! And does she often use his name?”
“Why, yes; but not with any understanding of whom she is speaking.”
“Are you sure?” inquired Mr. Gryce, with that peculiar impressiveness he used on great occasions.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” returned the detective, dryly, “that I believe your mother does know what she is talking about when she links the name of Mr. Orcutt with that of your cousin who was murdered. They belong together; Mr. Orcutt was her murderer.”
“Hush!” cried Mr. Gryce, “you will wake up your mother.”
And, adapting himself to this emergency as to all others, he talked with the astounded and incredulous woman before him till she was in a condition not only to listen to his explanations, but to discuss the problem of a crime so seemingly without motive. He then said, with easy assurance:
“Your mother does not know that Mr. Orcutt is dead?”
“She does not even know he was counsel for Craik Mansell in the trial now going on.”
“How do you know that?” inquired Miss Firman, grimly.
“Because I do not believe you have even told her that Craik Mansell was on trial.”
“Sir, you are a magician.”
“Have you, madam?”
“No, sir, I have not.”
“Very good; what does she know about Mr. Orcutt, then; and why should she connect his name with Mrs. Clemmens?”
“She knows he was her boarder, and that he was the first one to discover she had been murdered.”
“That is not enough to account for her frequent repetition of his name.”
“You think not?”
“I am sure not. Cannot your mother have some memories connected with his name of which you are ignorant?”
“No, sir; we have lived together in this house for twenty-five years, and have never had a thought we have not shared together. Ma could not have known any thing about him or Mary Ann which I did not. The words she has just spoken sprang from mental confusion. She is almost like a child sometimes.”
Mr. Gryce smiled. If the cream-jug he happened to be gazing at on a tray near by had been full of cream, I am far from certain it would not have turned sour on the spot.
“I grant the mental confusion,” said he; “but why should she confuse those two names in preference to all others?” And, with quiet persistence, he remarked again: “She may be recalling some old fact of years ago. Was there never a time, even while you lived here together, when she could have received some confidence from Mrs. Clemmens ——”
“Mary Ann, Mary Ann!” came in querulous accents from the other room, “I wish you had not told me; Emily would be a better one to know your secret.”
It was a startling interruption to come just at that moment The two surprised listeners glanced toward each other, and Miss Firman colored.
“That sounds as if your surmise was true,” she dryly observed.
“Let us make an experiment,” said he, and motioned her to re-enter her mother’s room, which she did with a precipitation that showed her composure had been sorely shaken by these unexpected occurrences.
He followed her without ceremony.
The old lady lay as before in a condition between sleeping and waking, and did not move as they came in. Mr. Gryce at once withdrew out of sight, and, with finger on his lip, put himself in the attitude of waiting. Miss Firman, surprised, and possibly curious, took her stand at the foot of the bed.
A few minutes passed thus, during which a strange dreariness seemed to settle upon the room; then the old lady spoke again, this time repeating the words he had first heard, but in a tone which betrayed an increased perplexity.
“Was it Clemmens or was it Orcutt? I wish somebody would tell me.”
Instantly Mr. Gryce, with his soft tread, drew near to the old lady’s side, and, leaning over her, murmured gently:
“I think it was Orcutt.”
Instantly the old lady breathed a deep sigh and moved.
“Then her name was Mrs. Orcutt,” said she, “and I thought you always called her Clemmens.”
Miss Firman, recoiling, stared at Mr. Gryce, on whose cheek a faint spot of red had appeared — a most unusual token of emotion with him.
“Did she say it was Mrs. Orcutt,” he pursued, in the even tones he had before used.
“She said ——” But here the old lady opened her eyes, and, seeing her daughter standing at the foot of her bed, turned away with a peevish air, and restlessly pushed her hand under the pillow.
Mr. Gryce at once bent nearer.
“She said ——” he suggested, with careful gentleness.
But the old lady made no answer. Her hand seemed to have touched some object for which she was seeking, and she was evidently oblivious to all else. Miss Firman came around and touched Mr. Gryce on the shoulder.
“It is useless,” said she; “she is awake now, and you won’t hear any thing more; come!”
And she drew the reluctant detective back again into the other room.
“What does it all mean?” she asked, sinking into a chair.
Mr. Gryce did not answer. He had a question of his own to put.
“Why did your mother put her hand under her pillow?” he asked.
“I don’t know, unless it was to see if her big envelope was there.”
“Her big envelope?”
“Yes; for weeks now, ever since she took to her bed, she has kept a paper in a big envelope under her pillow. What is in it I don’t know, for she never seems to hear me when I inquire.”
“And have you no curiosity to find out?”
“No, sir. Why should I? It might easily be my father’s old letters sealed up, or, for that matter, be nothing more than a piece of blank paper. My mother is not herself, as I have said before.”
“I should like a peep at the contents of that envelope,” he declared.
“Is there any name written on the outside?”
“It would not be violating any one’s rights, then, if you opened it.”
“Only my mother’s, sir.”
“You say she is not in her right mind?”
“All the more reason why I should respect her whims and caprices.”
“Wouldn’t you open it if she were dead?”
“Will it be very different then from what it is now? A father’s letters! a blank piece of paper! What harm would there be in looking at them?”
“My mother would know it if I took them away. It might excite and injure her.”
“Put another envelope in the place of this one, with a piece of paper folded up in it.”
“It would be a trick.”
“I know it; but if Craik Mansell can be saved even by a trick, I should think you would be willing to venture on one.”
“Craik Mansell? What has he got to do with the papers under my mother’s pillow?”
“I cannot say that he has any thing to do with them; but if he has — if, for instance, that envelope should contain, not a piece of blank paper, or even the letters of your father, but such a document, say, as a certificate of marriage ——”
“A certificate of marriage?”
“Yes, between Mrs. Clemmens and Mr. Orcutt, it would not take much perspicacity to prophesy an acquittal for Craik Mansell.”
“Mary Ann the wife of Mr. Orcutt! Oh, that is impossible!” exclaimed the agitated spinster. But even while making this determined statement, she turned a look full of curiosity and excitement toward the door which separated them from her mother’s apartment.
Mr. Gryce smiled in his wise way.
“Less improbable things than that have been found to be true in this topsy-turvy world,” said he. “Mrs. Clemmens might very well have been Mrs. Orcutt.”
“Do you really think so?” she asked; and yielding with sudden impetuosity to the curiosity of the moment, she at once dashed from his side and disappeared in her mother’s room. Mr. Gryce’s smile took on an aspect of triumph.
It was some few moments before she returned, but when she did, her countenance was flushed with emotion.
“I have it,” she murmured, taking out a packet from under her apron and tearing it open with trembling fingers.
A number of closely written sheets fell out.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55