I was so astounded I hardly took in this final question.
He had been the sixth party in the funeral cortÃ¨ge I had seen pause in the Flower Parlor. Well, what might I not expect from this man next!
But I am methodical even under the greatest excitement and at the most critical instants, as those who have read That Affair Next Door have had ample opportunity to know. Once having taken in the startling fact he mentioned, I found it impossible to proceed to establish my standpoint till I knew a little more about his.
“Wait,” I said; “tell me first if I have ever seen the real Mother Jane; or were you the person I saw stooping in the road, and of whom I bought the pennyroyal?”
“No,” he replied; “that was the old woman herself. My appearance in the cottage dates from yesterday noon. I felt the need of being secretly near you, and I also wished for an opportunity to examine this humble interior unsuspected and unobserved. So I prevailed upon the old woman to exchange places with me; she taking up her abode in the woods for the night and I her old stool on the hearthstone. She was the more willing to do this from the promise I gave her to watch out for Lizzie. That I would don her own Sunday suit and personate her in her own home she evidently did not suspect. Had not wit enough, I suppose. At the present moment she is back in her old place.”
I nodded my thanks for this explanation, but was not deterred from pressing the point I was anxious to have elucidated.
“If,” I went on to urge, “you took advantage of your disguise to act as assistant in the burial which took place last night, you are in a much better situation than myself to decide the question we are at present considering. Was it because of any secret knowledge thus gained you declare so positively that it was not a human being you helped lower in its grave?”
“Partially. Having some skill in these disguises, especially where my own infirmities can have full play, as in the case of this strong but half-bent woman, I had no reason to think my own identity was suspected, much less discovered. Therefore I could trust to what I saw and heard as being just what Mother Jane herself would be allowed to see or hear under the same circumstances. If, therefore, these young people and this old crone had been, as you seem to think they are, in league for murder, Lucetta would hardly have greeted me as she did when she came down to meet me in the kitchen.”
“And how was that? What did she say?”
“She said: ‘Ah, Mother Jane, we have a piece of work for you. You are strong, are you not?’”
“And then she commiserated me a bit and gave me food which, upon my word, I found hard to eat, though I had saved my appetite for the occasion. Before she left me she bade me sit in the inglenook till she wanted me, adding in Hannah’s ear as she passed her: ‘There is no use trying to explain anything to her. Show her when the time comes what there is to do and trust to her short memory to forget it before she leaves the house. She could not understand my brother’s propensity or our shame in pandering to it. So attempt nothing, Hannah. Only keep the money in her view.’”
“So, and that gave you no idea?”
“It gave me the idea I have imparted to you, or, rather, added to the idea which had been instilled in me by others.”
“And this idea was not affected by what you saw afterwards?”
“Not in the least — rather strengthened. Of the few words I overheard, one was uttered in reference to yourself by Miss Knollys. She said: ‘I have locked Miss Butterworth again into her room. If she accuses me of having done so, I shall tell her our whole story. Better she should know the family’s disgrace than imagine us guilty of crimes of which we are utterly incapable.’”
“So! so!” I cried, “you heard that?”
“Yes, madam, I heard that, and I do not think she knew she was dropping that word into the ear of a detective, but on this point you are, of course, at liberty to differ with me.”
“I am not yet ready to avail myself of the privilege,” I retorted. “What else did these girls let fall in your hearing?”
“Not much. It was Hannah who led me into the upper hall, and Hannah who by signs and signals rather than words showed me what was expected of me. However, when, after the box was lowered into the cellar, Hannah was drawing me away, Lucetta stepped up and whispered in her ear: ‘Don’t give her the biggest coin. Give her the little one, or she may mistake our reasons for secrecy. I wouldn’t like even a fool to do that even for the moment it would remain lodged in Mother Jane’s mind.’”
“Well, well,” I again cried, certainly puzzled, for these stray expressions of the sisters were in a measure contradictory not only of the suspicions I entertained, but of the facts which had seemingly come to my attention.
Mr. Gryce, who was probably watching my face more closely than he did the cane with whose movements he was apparently engrossed, stopped to give a caressing rub to the knob of that same cane before remarking:
“One such peep behind the scenes is worth any amount of surmise expended on the wrong side of the curtain. I let you share my knowledge because it is your due. Now if you feel willing to explain what you mean by a knot of crape on the shutter, I am at your service, madam.”
I felt that it would be cruel to delay my story longer, and so I began it. It was evidently more interesting than he expected, and as I dilated upon the special features which had led me to believe that it was a thinking, suffering mortal like ourselves who had been shut up in William’s room and afterwards buried in the cellar under the Flower Parlor, I saw his face lengthen and doubt take the place of the quiet assurance with which he had received my various intimations up to this time. The cane was laid aside, and from the action of his right forefinger on the palm of his left hand I judged that I was making no small impression on his mind. When I had finished, he sat for a minute silent; then he said:
“Thanks, Miss Butterworth; you have more than fulfilled my hopes. What we buried was undoubtedly human, and the question now is, Who was it, and of what death did he die?” Then, after a meaning pause: “You think it was Silly Rufus.”
I will astonish you with my reply. “No,” said I, “I do not. That is where you make a mistake, Mr. Gryce.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50