“This is the short and the long of it.”
Merry Wives of Windsor.
PROMPTLY at the hour named, I made my appearance at Mr. Gryce’s door. I found him awaiting me on the threshold.
“I have met you,” said he gravely, “for the purpose of requesting you not to speak during the coming interview. I am to do the talking; you the listening. Neither are you to be surprised at anything I may do or say. I am in a facetious mood”— he did not look so —“and may take it into my head to address you by another name than your own. If I do, don’t mind it. Above all, don’t talk: remember that.” And without waiting to meet my look of doubtful astonishment, he led me softly up-stairs.
The room in which I had been accustomed to meet him was at the top of the first flight, but he took me past that into what appeared to be the garret story, where, after many cautionary signs, he ushered me into a room of singularly strange and unpromising appearance. In the first place, it was darkly gloomy, being lighted simply by a very dim and dirty skylight. Next, it was hideously empty; a pine table and two hard-backed chairs, set face to face at each end of it, being the only articles in the room. Lastly, it was surrounded by several closed doors with blurred and ghostly ventilators over their tops which, being round, looked like the blank eyes of a row of staring mummies. Altogether it was a lugubrious spot, and in the present state of my mind made me feel as if something unearthly and threatening lay crouched in the very atmosphere. Nor, sitting there cold and desolate, could I imagine that the sunshine glowed without, or that life, beauty, and pleasure paraded the streets below.
Mr. Gryce’s expression, as he took a seat and beckoned me to do the same, may have had something to do with this strange sensation, it was so mysteriously and sombrely expectant.
“You’ll not mind the room,” said he, in so muffled a tone I scarcely heard him. “It’s an awful lonesome spot, I know; but folks with such matters before them mustn’t be too particular as to the places in which they hold their consultations, if they don’t want all the world to know as much as they do. Smith,” and he gave me an admonitory shake of his finger, while his voice took a more distinct tone, “I have done the business; the reward is mine; the assassin of Mr. Leavenworth is found, and in two hours will be in custody. Do you want to know who it is?” leaning forward with every appearance of eagerness in tone and expression.
I stared at him in great amazement. Had anything new come to light? any great change taken place in his conclusions? All this preparation could not be for the purpose of acquainting me with what I already knew, yet —
He cut short my conjectures with a low, expressive chuckle. “It was a long chase, I tell you,” raising his voice still more; “a tight go; a woman in the business too; but all the women in the world can’t pull the wool over the eyes of Ebenezer Gryce when he is on a trail; and the assassin of Mr. Leavenworth and”— here his voice became actually shrill in his excitement —“and of Hannah Chester is found.
“Hush!” he went on, though I had neither spoken nor made any move; “you didn’t know Hannah Chester was murdered. Well, she wasn’t in one sense of the word, but in another she was, and by the same hand that killed the old gentleman. How do I know this? look here! This scrap of paper was found on the floor of her room; it had a few particles of white powder sticking to it; those particles were tested last night and found to be poison. But you say the girl took it herself, that she was a suicide. You are right, she did take it herself, and it was a suicide; but who terrified her into this act of self-destruction? Why, the one who had the most reason to fear her testimony, of course. But the proof, you say. Well, sir, this girl left a confession behind her, throwing the onus of the whole crime on a certain party believed to be innocent; this confession was a forged one, known from three facts; first, that the paper upon which it was written was unobtainable by the girl in the place where she was; secondly, that the words used therein were printed in coarse, awkward characters, whereas Hannah, thanks to the teaching of the woman under whose care she has been since the murder, had learned to write very well; thirdly, that the story told in the confession does not agree with the one related by the girl herself. Now the fact of a forged confession throwing the guilt upon an innocent party having been found in the keeping of this ignorant girl, killed by a dose of poison, taken with the fact here stated, that on the morning of the day on which she killed herself the girl received from some one manifestly acquainted with the customs of the Leavenworth family a letter large enough and thick enough to contain the confession folded, as it was when found, makes it almost certain to my mind that the murderer of Mr. Leavenworth sent this powder and this so-called confession to the girl, meaning her to use them precisely as she did: for the purpose of throwing off suspicion from the right track and of destroying herself at the same time; for, as you know, dead men tell no tales.”
He paused and looked at the dingy skylight above us. Why did the air seem to grow heavier and heavier? Why did I shudder in vague apprehension? I knew all this before; why did it strike me, then, as something new?
“But who was this? you ask. Ah, that is the secret; that is the bit of knowledge which is to bring me fame and fortune. But, secret or not, I don’t mind telling you”; lowering his voice and rapidly raising it again. “The fact is, I can’t keep it to myself; it burns like a new dollar in my pocket. Smith, my boy, the murderer of Mr. Leavenworth — but stay, who does the world say it is? Whom do the papers point at and shake their heads over? A woman! a young, beautiful, bewitching woman! Ha, ha, ha! The papers are right; it is a woman; young, beautiful, and bewitching too. But what one? Ah, that’s the question. There is more than one woman in this affair. Since Hannah’s death I have heard it openly advanced that she was the guilty party in the crime: bah! Others cry it is the niece who was so unequally dealt with by her uncle in his will: bah! again. But folks are not without some justification for this latter assertion. Eleanore Leavenworth did know more of this matter than appeared. Worse than that, Eleanore Leavenworth stands in a position of positive peril today. If you don’t think so, let me show you what the detectives have against her.
“First, there is the fact that a handkerchief, with her name on it, was found stained with pistol grease upon the scene of murder; a place which she explicitly denies having entered for twenty-four hours previous to the discovery of the dead body.
“Secondly, the fact that she not only evinced terror when confronted with this bit of circumstantial evidence, but manifested a decided disposition, both at this time and others, to mislead inquiry, shirking a direct answer to some questions and refusing all answer to others.
“Thirdly, that an attempt was made by her to destroy a certain letter evidently relating to this crime.
“Fourthly, that the key to the library door was seen in her possession.
“All this, taken with the fact that the fragments of the letter which this same lady attempted to destroy within an hour after the inquest were afterwards put together, and were found to contain a bitter denunciation of one of Mr. Leavenworth’s nieces, by a gentleman we will call X in other words, an unknown quantity — makes out a dark case against you, especially as after investigations revealed the fact that a secret underlay the history of the Leavenworth family. That, unknown to the world at large, and Mr. Leavenworth in particular, a marriage ceremony had been performed a year before in a little town called F—— between a Miss Leavenworth and this same X. That, in other words, the unknown gentleman who, in the letter partly destroyed by Miss Eleanore Leavenworth, complained to Mr. Leavenworth of the treatment received by him from one of his nieces, was in fact the secret husband of that niece. And that, moreover, this same gentle man, under an assumed name, called on the night of the murder at the house of Mr. Leavenworth and asked for Miss Eleanore’s.
“Now you see, with all this against her, Eleanore Leavenworth is lost if it cannot be proved, first that the articles testifying against her, viz.: the handkerchief, letter, and key, passed after the murder through other hands, before reaching hers; and secondly, that some one else had even a stronger reason than she for desiring Mr. Leavenworth’s death at this time.
“Smith, my boy, both of these hypotheses have been established by me. By dint of moling into old secrets, and following unpromising clues, I have finally come to the conclusion that not Eleanore Leavenworth, dark as are the appearances against her, but another woman, beautiful as she, and fully as interesting, is the true criminal. In short, that her cousin, the exquisite Mary, is the murderer of Mr. Leavenworth, and by inference of Hannah Chester also.”
He brought this out with such force, and with such a look of triumph and appearance of having led up to it, that I was for the moment dumbfounded, and started as if I had not known what he was going to say. The stir I made seemed to awake an echo. Something like a suppressed cry was in the air about me. All the room appeared to breathe horror and dismay. Yet when, in the excitement of this fancy, I half turned round to look, I found nothing but the blank eyes of those dull ventilators staring upon me.
“You are taken aback!” Mr. Gryce went on. “I don’t wonder. Every one else is engaged in watching the movements of Eleanore Leavenworth; I only know where to put my hand upon the real culprit. You shake your head!” (Another fiction.) “You don’t believe me! Think I am deceived. Ha, ha! Ebenezer Gryce deceived after a month of hard work! You are as bad as Miss Leavenworth herself, who has so little faith in my sagacity that she offered me, of all men, an enormous reward if I would find for her the assassin of her uncle! But that is neither here nor there; you have your doubts, and you are waiting for me to solve them. Well, nothing is easier. Know first that on the morning of the inquest I made one or two discoveries not to be found in the records, viz.: that the handkerchief picked up, as I have said, in Mr. leaven worth’s library, had notwithstanding its stains of pistol grease, a decided perfume lingering about it. Going to the dressing-table of the two ladies, I sought for that perfume, and found it in Mary’s room, not Eleanore’s. This led me to examine the pockets of the dresses respectively worn by them the evening before. In that of Eleanore I found a handkerchief, presumably the one she had carried at that time. But in Mary’s there was none, nor did I see any lying about her room as if tossed down on her retiring. The conclusion I drew from this was, that she, and not Eleanore, had carried the handkerchief into her uncle’s room, a conclusion emphasized by the fact privately communicated to me by one of the servants, that Mary was in Eleanore’s room when the basket of clean clothes was brought up with this handkerchief lying on top.
“But knowing the liability we are to mistake in such matters as these, I made another search in the library, and came across a very curious thing. Lying on the table was a penknife, and scattered on the floor beneath, in close proximity to the chair, were two or three minute portions of wood freshly chipped off from the leg of the table; all of which looked as if some one of a nervous disposition had been sitting there, whose hand in a moment of self-forgetfulness had caught up the knife and unconsciously whittled the table, A little thing, you say; but when the question is, which of two ladies, one of a calm and self-possessed nature, the other restless in her ways and excitable in her disposition, was in a certain spot at a certain time, it is these little things that become almost deadly in their significance. No one who has been with these two women an hour can hesitate as to whose delicate hand made that cut in Mr. Leavenworth’s library table.
“But we are not done. I distinctly overheard Eleanore accuse her cousin of this deed. Now such a woman as Eleanore Leavenworth has proved herself to be never would accuse a relative of crime without the strongest and most substantial reasons. First, she must have been sure her cousin stood in a position of such emergency that nothing but the death of her uncle could release her from it; secondly, that her cousin’s character was of such a nature she would not hesitate to relieve herself from a desperate emergency by the most desperate of means; and lastly, been in possession of some circumstantial evidence against her cousin, seriously corroborative of her suspicions. Smith, all this was true of Eleanore Leavenworth. As to the character of her cousin, she has had ample proof of her ambition, love of money, caprice and deceit, it having been Mary Leavenworth, and not Eleanore, as was first supposed, who had contracted the secret marriage already spoken of. Of the critical position in which she stood, let the threat once made by Mr. Leavenworth to substitute her cousin’s name for hers in his will in case she had married this x be remembered, as well as the tenacity with which Mary clung to her hopes of future fortune; while for the corroborative testimony of her guilt which Eleanore is supposed to have had, remember that previous to the key having been found in Eleanore’s possession, she had spent some time in her cousin’s room; and that it was at Mary’s fireplace the half-burned fragments of that letter were found — and you have the outline of a report which in an hour’s time from this will lead to the arrest of Mary Leavenworth as the assassin of her uncle and benefactor.”
A silence ensued which, like the darkness of Egypt, could be felt; then a great and terrible cry rang through the room, and a man’s form, rushing from I knew not where, shot by me and fell at Mr. Gryce’s feet shrieking out:
“It is a lie! a lie! Mary Leavenworth is innocent as a babe unborn. I am the murderer of Mr. Leavenworth. I! I! I!”
It was Trueman Harwell.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09