“I could have better spared a better man.”
I DO not think I called immediately for help. The awful shock of this discovery, coming as it did at the very moment life and hope were strongest within me; the sudden downfall which it brought of all the plans based upon this woman’s expected testimony; and, worst of all, the dread coincidence between this sudden death and the exigency in which the guilty party, whoever it was, was supposed to be at that hour were much too appalling for instant action. I could only stand and stare at the quiet face before me, smiling in its peaceful rest as if death were pleasanter than we think, and marvel over the providence which had brought us renewed fear instead of relief, complication instead of enlightenment, disappointment instead of realization. For eloquent as is death, even on the faces of those unknown and unloved by us, the causes and consequences of this one were much too important to allow the mind to dwell upon the pathos of the scene itself. Hannah, the girl, was lost in Hannah the witness.
But gradually, as I gazed, the look of expectation which I perceived hovering about the wistful mouth and half-open lids attracted me, and I bent above her with a more personal interest, asking myself if she were quite dead, and whether or not immediate medical assistance would be of any avail. But the more closely I looked, the more certain I became that she had been dead for some hours; and the dismay occasioned by this thought, taken with the regrets which I must ever feel, that I had not adopted the bold course the evening before, and, by forcing my way to the hiding-place of this poor creature, interrupted, if not prevented the consummation of her fate, startled me into a realization of my present situation; and, leaving her side, I went into the next room, threw up the window, and fastened to the blind the red handkerchief which I had taken the precaution to bring with me.
Instantly a young man, whom I was fain to believe Q, though he bore not the least resemblance, either in dress or facial expression to any renderings of that youth which I had yet seen, emerged from the tinsmith’s house, and approached the one I was in.
Observing him cast a hurried glance in my direction, I crossed the floor, and stood awaiting him at the head of the stairs.
“Well?” he whispered, upon entering the house and meeting my glance from below; “have you seen her?”
“Yes,” I returned bitterly, “I have seen her!”
He hurriedly mounted to my side. “And she has confessed?”
“No; I have had no talk with her.” Then, as I perceived him growing alarmed at my voice and manner, I drew him into Mrs. Belden’s room and hastily inquired: “What did you mean this morning when you informed me you had seen this girl? that she was in a certain room where I might find her?”
“What I said.”
“You have, then, been to her room?”
“No; I have only been on the outside of it. Seeing a light, I crawled up on to the ledge of the slanting roof last night while both you and Mrs. Belden were out, and, looking through the window, saw her moving round the room.” He must have observed my countenance change, for he stopped. “What is to pay?” he cried.
I could restrain myself no longer. “Come,” I said, “and see for yourself!” And, leading him to the little room I had just left, I pointed to the silent form lying within. “You told me I should find Hannah here; but you did not tell me I should find her in this condition.”
“Great heaven!” he cried with a start: “not dead?”
“Yes,” I said, “dead.”
It seemed as if he could not realize it. “But it is impossible!” he returned. “She is in a heavy sleep, has taken a narcotic ——”
“It is not sleep,” I said, “or if it is, she will never wake. Look!” And, taking the hand once more in mine, I let it fall in its stone weight upon the bed.
The sight seemed to convince him. Calming down, he stood gazing at her with a very strange expression upon his face. Suddenly he moved and began quietly turning over the clothes that were lying on the floor.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “What are you looking for?”
“I am looking for the bit of paper from which I saw her take what I supposed to be a dose of medicine last night. Oh, here it is!” he cried, lifting a morsel of paper that, lying on the floor under the edge of the bed, had hitherto escaped his notice.
“Let me see!” I anxiously exclaimed.
He handed me the paper, on the inner surface of which I could dimly discern the traces of an impalpable white powder.
“This is important,” I declared, carefully folding the paper together. “If there is enough of this powder remaining to show that the contents of this paper were poisonous, the manner and means of the girl’s death are accounted for, and a case of deliberate suicide made evident.”
“I am not so sure of that,” he retorted. “If I am any judge of countenances, and I rather flatter myself I am, this girl had no more idea she was taking poison than I had. She looked not only bright but gay; and when she tipped up the paper, a smile of almost silly triumph crossed her face. If Mrs. Belden gave her that dose to take, telling her it was medicine ——”
“That is something which yet remains to be learned; also whether the dose, as you call it, was poisonous or not. It may be she died of heart disease.”
He simply shrugged his shoulders, and pointed first at the plate of breakfast left on the chair, and secondly at the broken-down door.
“Yes,” I said, answering his look, “Mrs. Belden has been in here this morning, and Mrs. Belden locked the door when she went out; but that proves nothing beyond her belief in the girl’s hearty condition.”
“A belief which that white face on its tumbled pillow did not seem to shake?”
“Perhaps in her haste she may not have looked at the girl, but have set the dishes down without more than a casual glance in her direction?”
“I don’t want to suspect anything wrong, but it is such a coincidence!”
This was touching me on a sore point, and I stepped back. “Well,” said I, “there is no use in our standing here busying ourselves with conjectures. There is too much to be done. Come!” and I moved hurriedly towards the door.
“What are you going to do?” he asked. “Have you forgotten this is but an episode in the one great mystery we are sent here to unravel? If this girl has come to her death by some foul play, it is our business to find it out.”
“That must be left for the coroner. It has now passed out of our hands.”
“I know; but we can at least take full note of the room and everything in it before throwing the affair into the hands of strangers. Mr. Gryce will expect that much of us, I am sure.”
“I have looked at the room. The whole is photographed on my mind. I am only afraid I can never forget it.”
“And the body? Have you noticed its position? the lay of the bed-clothes around it? the lack there is of all signs of struggle or fear? the repose of the countenance? the easy fall of the hands?”
“Yes, yes; don’t make me look at it any more.”
“Then the clothes hanging on the wall?”— rapidly pointing out each object as he spoke. “Do you see? a calico dress, a shawl — not the one in which she was believed to have run away, but an old black one, probably belonging to Mrs. Belden. Then this chest,”— opening it — “containing a few underclothes marked — let us see, ah, with the name of the lady of the house, but smaller than any she ever wore; made for Hannah, you observe, and marked with her own name to prevent suspicion. And then these other clothes lying on the floor, all new, all marked in the same way. Then this — Halloo! look here!” he suddenly cried.
Going over to where he stood I stooped down, when a wash-bowl half full of burned paper met my eye.
“I saw her bending over something in this corner, and could not think what it was. Can it be she is a suicide after all? She has evidently destroyed something here which she didn’t wish any one to see.”
“I do not know,” I said. “I could almost hope so.”
“Not a scrap, not a morsel left to show what it was; how unfortunate!”
“Mrs. Belden must solve this riddle,” I cried.
“Mrs. Belden must solve the whole riddle,” he replied; “the secret of the Leavenworth murder hangs upon it.” Then, with a lingering look towards the mass of burned paper, “Who knows but what that was a confession?”
The conjecture seemed only too probable.
“Whatever it was,” said I, “it is now ashes, and we have got to accept the fact and make the best of it.”
“Yes,” said he with a deep sigh; “that’s so; but Mr. Gryce will never forgive me for it, never. He will say I ought to have known it was a suspicious circumstance for her to take a dose of medicine at the very moment detection stood at her back.”
“But she did not know that; she did not see you.”
“We don’t know what she saw, nor what Mrs. Belden saw. Women are a mystery; and though I flatter myself that ordinarily I am a match for the keenest bit of female flesh that ever walked, I must say that in this case I feel myself thoroughly and shamefully worsted.”
“Well, well,” I said, “the end has not come yet; who knows what a talk with Mrs. Belden will bring out? And, by the way, she will be coming back soon, and I must be ready to meet her. Everything depends upon finding out, if I can, whether she is aware of this tragedy or not. It is just possible she knows nothing about it.”
And, hurrying him from the room, I pulled the door to behind me, and led the way down-stairs.
“Now,” said I, “there is one thing you must attend to at once. A telegram must be sent Mr. Gryce acquainting him with this unlooked-for occurrence.”
“All right, sir,” and Q started for the door.
“Wait one moment,” said I. “I may not have another opportunity to mention it. Mrs. Belden received two letters from the postmaster yesterday; one in a large and one in a small envelope; if you could find out where they were postmarked ——”
Q put his hand in his pocket. “I think I will not have to go far to find out where one of them came from. Good George, I have lost it!” And before I knew it, he had returned up-stairs.
That moment I heard the gate click.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55