The shock of these words — if false, most horrible; if true, still more horrible — threw us all aback and made even Mr. Gryce’s features assume an aspect quite uncommon to them.
“Your mother’s grave?” said he, looking from her to Loreen with very evident doubt. “I thought your mother died seven or more years ago, and this grave has been dug within three days.”
“I know,” she whispered. “To the world my mother has been dead many, many years, but not to us. We closed her eyes night before last, and it was to preserve this secret, which involves others affecting our family honor, that we resorted to expedients which have perhaps attracted the notice of the police and drawn this humiliation down upon us. I can conceive no other reason for this visit, ushered in as it was by Mr. Trohm.”
“Miss Lucetta”— Mr. Gryce spoke quickly; if he had not I certainly could not have restrained some expression of the emotions awakened in my own breast by this astounding revelation —“Miss Lucetta, it is not necessary to bring Mr. Trohm’s name into this matter or that of any other person than myself. I saw the coffin lowered here, which you say contained the body of your mother. Thinking this a strange place of burial and not knowing it was your mother to whom you were paying these last dutiful rites, I took advantage of my position as detective to satisfy myself that nothing wrong lay behind so mysterious a death and burial. Can you blame me, Miss? Would I have been a man to trust if I had let such an event as this go by unchallenged?”
She did not answer. She had heard but one sentence of all this long speech.
“You saw my mother’s coffin lowered? Where were you that you should see that? In some of these dark passages, let in by I know not what traitor to our peace of mind.” And her eyes, which seemed to have grown almost supernaturally large and bright under her emotions, turned slowly in their sockets till they rested with something like doubtful accusation upon mine. But not to remain there, for Mr. Gryce recalled them almost instantly by this short, sharp negative.
“No, I was nearer than that. I lent my strength to this burial. If you had thought to look under Mother Jane’s hood, you would have seen what would have forced these explanations then and there.”
“And you ——”
“I was Mother Jane for the nonce. Not from choice, Miss, but from necessity. I was impersonating the old woman when your brother came to the cottage. I could not give away my plans by refusing the task your brother offered me.”
“It is well.” Lucetta had risen and was now standing by the side of Loreen. “Such a secret as ours defies concealment. Even Providence takes part against us. What you want to know we must tell, but I assure you it has nothing to do with the business you profess to be chiefly interested in — nothing at all.”
“Then perhaps you and your sister will retire,” said he. “Distracted as you are by family griefs, I would not wish to add one iota to your distress. This lady, whom you seem to regard with more or less favor as friend or relative, will stay to see that no dishonor is paid to your mother’s remains. But your mother’s face we must see, Miss Lucetta, if only to lighten the explanations you will doubtless feel called upon to make.”
It was Loreen who answered this.
“If it must be,” said she, “remember your own mother and deal reverently with ours.” Which entreaty and the way it was uttered, gave me my first distinct conviction that these girls were speaking the truth, and that the diminutive body we had come to unearth was that of Althea Knollys, whose fairy-like form I had so long supposed commingled with foreign soil.
The thought was almost too much for my self-possession, and I advanced upon Loreen with a dozen burning questions on my lips when the voice of Mr. Gryce stopped me.
“Explanations later,” said he. “For the present we want you here.”
It was no easy task for me to linger there with all my doubts unsolved, waiting for the decisive moment when Mr. Gryce should say: “Come! Look! Is it she?” But the will that had already sustained me through so many trying experiences did not fail me now, and, grievous as was the ordeal, I passed steadily through it, being able to say, though not without some emotion, I own: “It is Althea Knollys! Changed almost beyond conception, but still these girls’ mother!” which was a happier end to this adventure than that we had first feared, mysterious as the event was, not only to myself, but, as I could see, to the acute detective as well.
The girls had withdrawn long before this, just as Mr. Gryce had desired, and I now expected to be allowed to join them, but Mr. Gryce detained me till the grave was refilled and made decent again, when he turned and to my intense astonishment — for I had thought the matter was all over and the exoneration of this household complete — said softly and with telling emphasis in my ear:
“Our work is not done yet. They who make graves so readily in cellars must have been more or less accustomed to the work. We have still some digging to do.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55