An hour later when the Chief Inspector rose to depart, it was with the understanding that until their way cleared and their duty in this matter had become inevitable, no word of this business should reach the press, or even pass beyond the three officials interested.
Strange to say, they were able to keep this compact, and days elapsed without any public recognition of the new factor which had entered into the consideration of this complicated crime.
Then a hint of what was seething in the official mind was allowed to carry its own shock to the person most interested. Mr. Roberts was summoned to an interview with Coroner Price. No reason was given for this act, but the time was set with an exactness which gave importance to a request which they all felt the director would not venture to disregard.
Nor did he. He came at the time appointed, and Coroner Price in welcoming him with becoming deference could not but notice the great change which had taken place in him since that night they stood together in the museum and saw the Indian make the trial with bow and arrow which located the point of delivery as that of the upper pedestal. In just what this change lay, the Coroner hardly knew, unless it was in the increased grayness of his hair. Mr. Roberts’ face, handsome as it was, was not an expressive one. Slight emotions made no impression there; nor did he to-day present anything but a calm and dignified appearance. Yet he was changed; and anyone who had not seen him since that night must certainly observe it.
The Coroner, who was also a man of a somewhat stolid cut, proffered him a seat and at once opened fire.
“You will pardon me any inconvenience I may have put you to, Mr. Roberts, when I tell you that Coroner D—— of Greene County, is anxious to have a few words with you. He would have visited you at your home; but I induced him to see you here.”
“Coroner D—— of Greene County!” Mr. Roberts was entirely surprised. “And what business can he have with me?”
“It is in regard to the suicide of Madame Antoinette Duclos, committed, as you know, a week since in the Catskills.”
“Ah! an extraordinarily sad affair, and of considerable moment I should judge, from its seeming connection with the one previously occurring at our museum. The girls’ mother, was she not? Grief evidently unseated her brain. But —” here he changed his position quietly but with evident effort:—“in what manner am I supposed to be in a position to help the Coroner in his inquiry into this case? I was a witness, together with many others, of what happened after the accident which took place at the museum; but I know nothing of Madame Duclos or of her self-inflicted death, beyond what has appeared in the papers.”
“The papers! An uncertain guide, Mr. Roberts. You may not believe it,” Coroner Price remarked with a strange sort of smile, “but there are secrets known to this office, as well as to Police Headquarters, which never get into the most enterprising journals.”
Was this meant to startle the director, and did it succeed in doing so?
It may have startled him, but if so, he made no betrayal of the fact. His manner continued to be perfectly natural and his voice under full control as he replied that it would be strange if in a case like this they should give out all the extraneous facts and possible clues which might be gathered in by their detectives.
This was carrying the offense into the enemy’s camp with a vengeance. But the Coroner was saved replying by Mr. Roberts remarking:
“But this is not an answer to my question. Why should the Coroner of Greene County want to see me?”
Coroner Price proffered him a cigar, during the lighting of which the former remarked:
“It’s certainly very odd. You say that you didn’t know Madame Duclos.”
“No; how should I? She was a foreigner, was she not?”
“Yes; a Frenchwoman, both by birth and marriage. Her husband, a professor of languages, was located some sixteen years ago, in New Orleans.”
“I never knew him. Indeed, I find it hard to understand why I should be expected to show any interest in him or his wife.”
“Well, I will tell you. You may not have known the Madame; but it is very certain that she knew you.”
“She?” This certainly unexpected blow seemed to make some impression. “Will you give me your reasons for such an assertion? Was the name Duclos a false one? Was her name like that of her daughter, Willetts? If so, allow me to assure you that I never heard of a Willetts any more than I have of a Duclos. That a woman of whatever name and nationality should desert her child fills me with horror. I cannot speak of her, dead though she be, with any equanimity. A mother and act as she did! She herself was to blame, and only she for what happened to that beautiful girl — so young — so sweet — so innocent. I have a weakness for youth. To me a girl of that type is sacred. Had I been blessed with such a child —— But there, I am straying again from our point. What makes you say Madame Duclos knew me?”
Before replying, the Coroner rose, and taking a small package from his desk, opened it, and laid out before the astonished eyes of Mr. Roberts the freshly printed photograph of himself with which we are so well acquainted, and then the half-demolished one which for all its imperfections showed that it had been originally struck off from the same negative.
“Do you recognize this portrait of yourself as one taken by Fredericks some dozen years ago?”
“Certainly. But this other? This end and corner of what must have been my picture too, where was it found?”
“Ah, that is what I have called you here to learn. This remnant of what you have just admitted to have been your photograph also was found in the very condition in which you see it now, in the wastebasket of the room where Madame Duclos lodged previous to her flight to the Catskills.”
“This! with the face ——”
“Just that! With the face riddled out of it by bullets! She shot six into it at intervals; waiting for the passing of an elevated train by her windows, in the hope that the bigger noise would drown the lesser.”
“It is nothing,” was Mr. Roberts’ indignant comment, as he brushed the picture aside. “That was never my picture, or she wanted a target for her skill and didn’t care what she took. That is all I have to say to you or to the Coroner of Greene County, on a matter in which I have no concern. I am sorry to disappoint both of you, but it is so.”
He rose, and the Coroner did not seek to detain him. He merely observed, as the director turned to go:
“Have you heard the latest news about Mrs. Taylor?”
“She is improving rapidly. Soon she will be able to appear before the jury already chosen to inquire into the cause and manner of Miss Willetts’ death.”
“A fine woman!” came in a burst from the director’s lips as he faced about for a good-bye nod. “I don’t know when I have seen one I admired more.”
And Coroner Price had nothing to say, he was stupefied.
But it was not so with Mr. Gryce, who entered immediately upon Mr. Roberts’ departure.
“Not a jarring note,” he remarked. Evidently he had heard the whole conversation. “I never for a moment imagined that he knew Madame Duclos. Any knowledge we gain of her will have to come from Mrs. Taylor.”
“He’s a strong man. We shall find it difficult to hold our own against him if we are brought to an actual struggle.”
“Why did he run the forefinger of his right hand so continuously into his right-hand vest pocket?” was Mr. Gryce’s sole comment.
By which it looks as if he had seen as well as heard.
“I didn’t notice it. Is the District Attorney prepared to make the next move? Mine has failed.”
“Not yet. The game is too hazardous. We should only make ourselves ridiculous in the eyes of the whole world if we should fail in an attack upon a man of such national importance. After the two inquests and a letter I hope to receive from Switzerland, we may be in a position to launch our first bomb. I don’t anticipate the act with any pleasure; the explosion will be something frightful.”
“If half you think is true, the unexpected confronting of him with Mrs. Taylor should produce some result. That’s what I reckon on now, if the business falls first to me.”
“I reckon on nothing. Chance is going to take this thing out of our hands.”
“Chance! I don’t understand you.”
“I don’t understand myself; but this is a case which will never come into court.”
“I differ with you. I almost saw confession in his face when he turned upon me at last with that extravagant expression of admiration for the woman you say he meant to kill.”
“Why did his finger go so continuously to his vest pocket? When you answer that, I will give a name to what I just called chance.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55