Late in the afternoon of the following day, the expected car entered Mr. Roberts’ spacious grounds. It contained, besides the chauffeur, just two persons, the District Attorney and the Chief Inspector. But it was followed by another in which could be seen Mr. Gryce and a stenographer from the District Attorney’s office.
The house was finished by this time, and to one approaching through the driveway presented a very attractive appearance. As the last turn was made, the sea burst upon the view — a somewhat tumultuous sea, for the wind was keen that day and whipped the waves into foam and froth from the horizon to the immediate shore-line. To add to the scene, a low black cloud with coppery edges hovered at the meeting of sea and sky, between which and themselves one taut sail could be seen trailing its boom in the water.
To one of them — to Mr. Gryce, in fact, upon whose age Fancy had begun to work, this battling craft presented an ominous appearance. It was doomed. The gale was too much for it. Did he see in this obvious fact a prophecy of what lay before the man upon whose privacy they were on the point of intruding?
The house was so arranged that to reach the main entrance it was necessary to pass a certain window. As they did so, the figure of Mr. Roberts could be seen in the room beyond moving about in an interested survey of its new furnishings and present comfortable arrangement. To these men bent on an errand as far as possible removed from interests of this kind, this evidence of Mr. Roberts’ pleasure in the promise of future domesticity gave a painful shock, and raised in the minds of more than one of them a doubt — perhaps the first in days — whether a man so heavily weighted with a burden of unacknowledged guilt could show this pleasurable absorption in his new surroundings.
However, when they came to see him nearer, and marked the stiffening of his body and the slight toss-up of his head, as he noted the number and the exact character of his guests, their spirits fell again, for he was certainly a broken man, however much he might seek to disguise it. Yet there was something in this extraordinary man’s personality — a force or a charm wholly dissociated it may be from worth or the sterling qualities which insure respect — which appealed to them in spite of their new-found prejudice, and prevented any dallying with his suspense or the use of any of the common methods usually employed in an encounter of this kind.
The Chief Inspector to whom the first say had been given faced the director squarely, as he saw how the hand which had just welcomed the District Attorney fell at his approach.
“You are surprised, Mr. Roberts, and rightly, to see me here not only in connection with the Prosecuting Attorney of the City of New York, but with a member of my own force. This, you will say, is no political delegation such as you have been led to expect. Nor is it, Mr. Roberts. But let us hope you will pardon this subterfuge when you learn that it was resorted to for the sole purpose of sparing you all unnecessary unpleasantness in an interview which can no longer be avoided or delayed.”
“Let us sit.”
It was his only answer.
When they had all complied, the District Attorney took the lead by saying:
“I am disposed to omit all preliminaries, Mr. Roberts. We have but one object in this visit and that is to clear up to your satisfaction, as well as to our own, certain difficulties of an unexpected nature which have met us in our investigation into the crime in which you, as a director of the museum in which it occurred, and ourselves as protectors of the public peace, are all vitally concerned.”
“Granted,” came in the most courteous manner from their involuntary host. “Yet I fail to understand why so many are needed for a purpose so laudable.”
“Perhaps this will no longer surprise you, if you will allow me to draw your attention to this chart,” was the answer made to this by the District Attorney.
Here he took from a portfolio which he carried a square of paper which he proceeded to lay out on a table standing conveniently near.
Mr. Roberts threw a glance at it and straightened again.
“Explain yourself,” said he. “I am quite at your service.”
The District Attorney made, perhaps, one of the greatest efforts of his life.
“I see that you recognize this chart, Mr. Roberts. You know when it was made and why. But what you may not know is this: that in serving its original purpose, it has proved to be our guide in another of equal, if not greater, importance. For instance, it shows us quite plainly who of all the persons present at the time of first alarm were near enough to the Curator’s office to be in the line of escape from the particularly secluded spot from which the arrow was delivered. Of these persons, only one fulfills all other necessary conditions with an exactness which excuses any special interest we may feel in him. It is he who is tabulated here as number 3.”
It was said. Mr. Roberts was well acquainted with his own number. He did not have to follow with his eye the point of the District Attorney’s finger to know upon whose name it had settled; and for a moment, surprise, shock — the greatest which can befall a man — struggled with countless other emotions in his usually impassive countenance. Then he regained his poise, and with a curiously sarcastic smile such as his lips had seldom shown, he coldly asked:
“And by what stretch of probability do you pick me out for this attack? There were other men and women in this court, some very near me if I remember rightly. In what are their characters superior, or their claims to respect greater, that you should thus single me out as the fool or knave who could not only commit so wild and despicable an act, but go so far in folly — let alone knavery — as to conceal it afterward?”
“No evidence has been found against the others you have named which could in any way connect them with this folly — or shall we say knavery, since you yourself have made use of the word. But hard as it is for me to say this, in a presence so highly esteemed, this is not true of you, Mr. Roberts, however high are our hopes that you will have such explanations ready as will relieve our minds from further doubts, and send us home rejoicing. Shall I be frank in stating the precise reasons which seem to justify our present presumption?”
The director bowed, the same curious smile giving an unnatural expression to his mouth.
“Let me begin then,” the other continued, “by reading to you a list of questions made out at Headquarters, as a test by which suspicion might be conscientiously held or summarily dismissed. They are few in number,” he added, as he unfolded a slip of paper taken from his vest pocket. “But they are very vital, Mr. Roberts. Here is the first:
“‘Whose hand carried the bow from cellar to gallery?’”
The director remained silent; but the oppression of that silence was difficult for them all to endure.
“This the second:
“‘Was it the same that carried the arrow from one gallery to another?’”
Still no word; but Mr. Gryce, who was watching Mr. Roberts’ every move without apparently looking up from the knob of his own cane, turned resolutely aside; the strain was too great. How long could such superhuman composure endure? And which word of all that were to come would break it?
Meanwhile, the District Attorney was reading the third question.
“‘Is it possible for an arrow, shot through the loophole made by the curving in of the vase, to reach the mark set for it by Mr. Travis’ testimony?’
“That question was answered when Mr. La Flèche made his experiments from behind the two pedestals. It could not have been done from the one behind which Mr. Travis crouched, but was entirely possible from the rear of the other.”
With a wave of his hand, Mr. Roberts dismissed this, and the District Attorney proceeded.
“‘Which of the men and women known to be in the museum when this arrow was delivered has enough knowledge of archery to string a bow? A mark can be reached by chance, but only an accustomed hand can string a bow as unyielding as this one.’
“I will pause there, Mr. Roberts. You may judge by our presence here to whose hand and to whose skill we have felt forced to ascribe this wanton shooting of a young and lovely girl. We wish to be undeceived, and stand ready to listen to anything you may have to say in contradiction of these conclusions. That is, if you wish to speak. You know that you will be well within your rights to remain silent. Likewise that if you decide to speak, it will be our painful duty to make record of your words for any use our duty may hereafter suggest.”
“I will speak.” The words came with difficulty — but they came. “Ask what you will. Satisfy my curiosity, as well as your own.”
“First then, the bow. It was brought up from the cellar a fortnight or more before it was used, and placed on end in the Curator’s office, where it was seen more than once by the woman who wipes up the floors. The person who did this cast a shadow on the cellar wall — that shadow was seen. Need I say more? A man’s shadow is himself — sometimes.”
“I brought up the bow; but I do not see how that implicates me in the use which was afterward made of it. My reasons for bringing it up were innocent enough ——”
He stopped — not even knowing that he stopped. His eyes had been drawn to a small article which the District Attorney had dropped from his hand onto the table. It looked like an end of black tape; but whether it was this or something quite different, it held the gaze of the man who was speaking, so completely that he forgot to go on.
The hush which followed paled the cheeks of more than one man there. To release the tension, the District Attorney resumed his argument, observing quietly, and as if no interruption had occurred:
“As to the arrow and its means of secret transfer from one side of the building to the other in the face of a large crowd, let me direct your attention to this little strip of folded silk. You have seen it before. Surely, I am quite justified in asking whether indeed you have not handled it both before and after the lamentable occurrence we are discussing?”
“I see it for the first time,” came from lips so stiff that the words were with difficulty articulated. “What is its purpose?” he asked after a short pause.
“I hardly think it necessary to tell you,” came in chilling response from the now thoroughly disenchanted official. “It looks like a loop, and notwithstanding your assertion that you see it now for the first time, we have ample evidence that it was once attached to the coat you wore on that fatal day and later carefully severed from it and dropped on the museum floor.”
The District Attorney waited, they all waited with eyes on the subject of this attack, for some token of shame or indignation at this scarcely veiled insinuation. But beyond a certain stillness of expression, still further masking a countenance naturally cold and irresponsive, no hint was given that any effect had been produced upon him by these words. The coal before it falls apart into ash holds itself intact though its heart of flame has departed; so he — or such was Mr. Gryce’s thought as he waited for the District Attorney’s next move.
It was of a sort which recalls that soul-harrowing legend of the man hung up in an iron cage above a yawning precipice, from under whose madly shifting feet one plank after another is withdrawn from the cage’s bottom, till no spot is left for him to stand on; and he falls.
“I hear that you are an expert with the bow and arrow, Mr. Roberts, or rather were at an earlier stage of your career. You have even taken a prize for the same from an Alpine Club.”
Ah! that told. It was such an unexpected blow; and it showed so much knowledge. But the man who thus beheld his own youth brought up in accusation against him quickly recovered; and with an entire change of demeanor, faced them all and spoke up at last quickly and defiantly:
“Gentlemen, I have shown patience up till now, because I saw that you had something on your minds which it might be better for you and possibly for me to be rid of. This affair of Miss Willett’s death is, as all must acknowledge, baffling enough to strain even to the point of folly any effort made to explain it. I had sympathy with your difficulties, and have still enough of that sympathy left, not to express too much indignation at what you are pleased to call your suspicions. I will merely halt for the moment your attempts in my direction, by asking, what have you or anybody else ever seen in me to think I would practise my old-time skill on a young and beautiful stranger enjoying herself in a place so dear to my heart as the museum of which I have been a director now these many years? Am I a madman, or a destroyer of youth? I love the young. This inhuman death of one so fair and innocent has whitened my locks and seared my very heart-strings. I shall never get over it; and whatever evidence you may have or think you have, of my having handled bow and arrow in that museum gallery, it must fall before the fact of my natural incapability to do the thing with which you have charged me. No act possible to man is more in contradiction to my instincts, than the wanton or even casual killing of a young girl.”
“I believe you.”
It was the Inspector who spoke, and the emphasis which he gave to his words lifted the director’s head again into its old self-reliant poise. But the silence which followed was so weighted with possibilities of something yet to be said by this portentous holder of secrets, that it caused the nobly lifted head slowly to droop again and the lips which had opened impulsively to close.
Were the words coming — the words which might at a stroke pull down the whole fabric of his life, past, present and to come?
In his excited state of mind he seemed already to hear them. Doom was in their sound, and the world, once so bright, was growing dark about him — dark!
Yet how could these men know? And if they did why did they not speak? And they did not; they did not. There was silence in the air, not words; and life for him was taking on once more its ancient colors, when sharp and merry through the heavy quiet there rang out the five clear calls of a cuckoo clock from some near-by room. One, two, three, four, five! Jolly reminder of old days! But to the men who listened, the voice of doom spoke in its gladsome peal, whether the ears which caught it were those of accuser or accused. Old days were not the days to be rejoiced in at a moment so perilous to the one and so painful to the others.
With the cessation of the last shrill cry, the Inspector repeated the phrase:
“I believe you, Mr. Roberts. But how about the woman who was troubling you with demands you had no wish to grant? Miss Willetts, as you choose to call her, though you must know that her name is Duclos, was not the only person in the line of the arrow shot on that day from one gallery to the other. Perhaps this weapon of destruction was meant for one it failed to reach. Perhaps — but I have gone far enough. I should not have gone so far if it had not been my wish to avoid any misunderstanding with one of such undoubted claims to consideration as yourself. If you have explanations to offer — if you can in any way relieve our minds from the responsibilities which are weighing upon us, pray believe in our honest desire to have you do so. There may be something back of appearances which has escaped our penetration; but it will have to be something startlingly clear, for we know facts in your life which are not open to the world at large, I may even say to your most intimate friends.”
“As, for instance?”
“That Mrs. Taylor is no stranger to you, even if Mademoiselle Duclos was. We have evidence you will find it hard to dispute that you knew and — liked each other, fifteen years or so ago.”
“Incontrovertible, Mr. Roberts.”
“Attested to by her? I do not believe it. I never shall believe it, and I deny the charge. The ravings of a sick woman — if it is such you have listened to ——”
“I advise you to stop there, Mr. Roberts,” interjected the District Attorney. “Mrs. Taylor has said nothing. Neither has Madame Duclos. What the former may say under oath I do not know. We shall both have an opportunity to hear to-morrow, when Coroner Price opens his inquest. She is in sufficiently good health now, I believe, to give her testimony. Pray, say nothing.” Mr. Roberts had started to his feet. “Do nothing. You will be one of the witnesses called ——”
There he stopped, meeting with steady gaze the wild eyes of the man who was staring at him, staring at them all in an effort to hold them back, while his finger crept stealthily and ever more stealthily toward his right-hand vest-pocket.
“You would dare,” he shouted, then suddenly dropped his hand and broke into a low, inarticulate murmur, harrowing and dreadful to hear. To some it sounded like a presage to absolute confession, but presently this murmur took on a distinctness, and they heard him say:
“I should be glad to have five minutes’ talk with Mrs. Taylor before that time. In your presence, gentlemen, or in anybody’s presence, I do not care whose.”
Did he know — had he felt whose step was in the hall, whose form was at the door? If he did, then the agitation which in another moment shook his self-possession into ashes was that of hope realized, not of fear surprised. Ermentrude Taylor entered the room and at the sight of her he rose and his arms went out; then he sank back weak and stricken into his chair, gazing as if he could never have his fill at her noble countenance luminous with a boundless pity if not with the tenderness of an unforgotten love.
When she was near enough to speak without effort and had thanked the gentlemen who had made way for her with every evidence of respect, she addressed him in quite a natural tone but with strange depths of feeling in her voice:
“What is it you want to say to me? As I stood at the door, I heard you tell these gentlemen that you would like to have a few minutes’ talk with me. I was glad to hear that; and I am ready to listen to —anything.”
The pause she made before uttering the last word caused it to ring with double force when it fell. All heads drooped at the sound and the lines came out on Mr. Gryce’s face till he looked his eighty-five years and more. But what Carleton Roberts had to say at this critical moment of his double life was not at all what they expected to hear.
Rising, for her eyes seemed to draw him to his feet, he cried in the indescribable tone of suppressed feeling:
“Shadows are falling upon me. My interview with these gentlemen may end in a way I cannot now foresee. In my uncertainty as to how and when we may meet again, I should like to make you such amends as opportunity allows me. Ermentrude, will you marry me — now — to-night, before leaving this house?”
A low cry escaped her. She was no more prepared for this astounding offer than were these others. “Carleton!” came in a groan from her lips. “Carleton! Carleton!” the word rising in intensity as thought followed thought and her spirits ran the full gamut of what this proposal on his part meant in past, present and future. Then she fell silent and they saw the great soul of the woman illumine a countenance always noble, with the light of a purpose altogether lofty. When she spoke it was to say:
“I recognize your kindness and the impulse which led to this offer. But I do not wish to add so much as a feather’s weight to your difficulties. Let matters remain as they are till after ——”
He took a quick step toward her.
“Not if my heart is full of regret?” he cried. “Not if I recognize in you now the one influence left in this world which can help me bear the burden of my own past and the threatening collapse of my whole future?”
“No,” she replied, with an access of emotion of so elevated a type it added to rather than detracted from her dignity. “It is too much or it is not enough.”
His head drooped and he fell back, throwing a glance to right and left at the two officials who had drawn up on either side of him. It was an expressive glance; it was as if he said, “You see! she knows as well as you for whom the arrow was intended — yet she is kind.”
But in an instant later he was before her again, with an aspect so changed that they all marveled.
“I had hoped,” he began, then stopped. Passion had supplanted duty in his disturbed mind; a passion so great it swept everything before it and he stood bare to the soul before the woman he had wronged and under the eyes of these men who knew it. “Life is over for us two,” said he, “whether your presence here is a trap in which I have been caught and from which it is hopeless for me to extricate myself; or whether it is by chance or an act of Providence that we should meet again with eager ears listening and eager eyes watching for such tokens of guilt as will make their own course clear, true it is that they have got what they sought; and whatever the result, nothing of real comfort or honor is left for either you or me. Our lives have gone down in shipwreck; but before we yield utterly to our fate, will you not grant me my prayer if I precede it by an appeal for forgiveness not only for old wrongs but for my latest and gravest one? Ermentrude, I entreat.”
Ah, then, they were witness to the fascination of the man, hidden heretofore, but now visible even to the schooled spectators of this tragedy of human souls. The tone permeated with pathos and charm, the look, the attitude from which all formality had fled and only the natural grace remained, all were of the sort which sways without virtue and rouses in both weak and strong an answering chord of sympathy.
The woman in whom it probably awakened a thousand memories trembled under it. She drew back, but her whole countenance had softened, revealing whatever of native charm she also possessed. Would she heed his prayer? If she did not, they could well be silent. If she did ——
But the woman gave no sign of yielding.
“Cease, Carleton,” came in stern reply — stern for all the approach to concession in her manner. “If your life and my life are both over, let us talk of other things than marriage. When one faces death, whether of body or spirit, one clings to higher hopes than those of earth or its remaining interests. If my forgiveness will help you to this end, you have it. I have had but one aim in life since we parted, and that was to see your higher self triumph over the material one. If that hour has come or is coming, my life needs no other consolation. In having that, I possess all.”
The man who listened — the men who listened — stood for a moment in awe of the nobility with which she thus expressed herself. Then the only person present whom she seemed to see burst forth with a low cry, saying:
“You shall not be disappointed. I——”
But there she hushed him. “No,” said she. And he seemed to understand and was silent.
What did this mean?
The District Attorney betrayed his doubt; the Chief his, each in a characteristic way. The former frowned, the latter tapped his breast absently with his forefinger while looking askance at Mr. Gryce, who in his turn took up some little object from the desk beside which he was standing and to it confided whatever surprise he felt at this proof of some uncommunicated secret shared by these two, of which he had not yet become possessed. Then he again looked up and the glances of the three men met. Should they attempt to sound this new mystery of mutual understanding to which as yet they had received no clue? No, the inquest would do that. Neither this man nor this woman could stand a close examination. He would weaken from despair, she from the candor of her soul. They would wait. But ah, the tragedy of it! Even these men hardened by years of contact with every species of human suffering and crime were openly moved. If they needed an excuse, surely they could find it in the superior abilities and attainment of the man upon whom justice was about to wreak its vengeance. And yet, what more despicable crime had they ever encountered in the long line of their duty. The youth and innocence of the real victim and the worth of the intended one only added to its wickedness and shame. It was this thought which again steeled their hearts.
Meantime the two upon whom they now redirected their attention had attempted no further speech and made no further move. She had said No to something he was willing to concede, and he had accepted that no as final. Had this brought him any relief? Possibly. And she? Had it had a like effect on her? Hardly. Though her aspect was one of calm resignation, her physical powers were perceptibly failing. This in itself was alarming, and determined them not to subject her any longer to an interview which might rob her of all strength for the morrow. Accordingly, the District Attorney, addressing Mr. Roberts, suggestively remarked:
“Mrs. Taylor is showing fatigue. Would it not be better for you to say at once while she is yet in a condition to remain with us, whether you prefer to make a public statement of your case or leave it to unfold itself in the ordinary manner through the two impending inquests and the busy pen of the reporter?”
“First, am I under arrest? Am I to leave this house ——?”
“Not to-night. An officer will remain here with you. To-morrow — after the inquest, perhaps.”
“I will make a statement. I will make it now. I wish to be left in peace to-night, to think and to regret.” Then turning to her, “Ermentrude, a woman who has served me and my family for twenty-five years is at this very moment in the rear of the house. Go to her and let her care for you. I have business here — business of which I am sure you approve.”
“Yes, Carleton. And remember that I shall be put upon my oath to-morrow. The questions I am asked I must answer — and truthfully,” she added, with a look as full of anguish as inquiry.
“I shall be truthful myself,” he assured her, and again their eyes met.
After a while she gave a stumble backward, which Mr. Gryce perceiving, held out his arm and assisted her from the room.
But once in the hall he felt the clinch of her fingers digging into his arm.
“Is there no hope?” she whispered. “Must I live ——”
“Yes,” he interrupted kindly, but with the authority given him by his relations to this case. “You have won his heart at last, and he speaks truly when he says that to you and to you alone can he look for comfort, wherever the action of the law may leave him.”
She shivered; then glowed again with renewed fire.
“Thank you,” she said; and they passed on.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09