As I did so, I could catch the murmur of the crowd outside as it seethed forward at the first intimation of the door being opened; but my attention was not so distracted by it, loud as it sounded after the quiet of the shut-up house, that I failed to notice that the door had not been locked by the gentleman leaving the night before, and that, consequently, only the night latch was on. With a turn of the knob it opened, showing me the mob of shouting boys and the forms of two gentlemen awaiting admittance on the door-step. I frowned at the mob and smiled on the gentlemen, one of whom was portly and easy-going in appearance, and the other spare, with a touch of severity in his aspect. But for some reason these gentlemen did not seem to appreciate the honor I had done them, for they both gave me a displeased glance, which was so odd and unsympathetic in its character that I bridled a little, though I soon returned to my natural manner. Did they realize at the first glance that I was destined to prove a thorn in the sides of every one connected with this matter, for days to come?
“Are you the woman who called from the window?” asked the larger of the two, whose business here I found it difficult at first to determine.
“I am,” was my perfectly self-possessed reply. “I live next door and my presence here is due to the anxious interest I always take in my neighbors. I had reason to think that all was not as it should be in this house, and I was right. Look in the parlor, sirs.”
They were already as far as the threshold of that room and needed no further encouragement to enter. The heavier man went first and the other followed, and you may be sure I was not far behind. The sight meeting our eyes was ghastly enough, as you know; but these men were evidently accustomed to ghastly sights, for they showed but little emotion.
“I thought this house was empty,” observed the second gentleman, who was evidently a doctor.
“So it was till last night,” I put in; and was about to tell my story, when I felt my skirts jerked.
Turning, I found that this warning had come from the cleaner who stood close beside me.
“What do you want?” I asked, not understanding her and having nothing to conceal.
“I?” she faltered, with a frightened air. “Nothing, ma’am, nothing.”
“Then don’t interrupt me,” I harshly admonished her, annoyed at an interference that tended to throw suspicion upon my candor. “This woman came here to scrub and clean,” I now explained; “it was by means of the key she carried that we were enabled to get into the house. I never spoke to her till a half hour ago.”
At which, with a display of subtlety I was far from expecting in one of her appearance, she let her emotions take a fresh direction, and pointing towards the dead woman, she impetuously cried:
“But the poor child there! Aint you going to take those things off of her? It’s wicked to leave her under all that stuff. Suppose there was life in her!”
“Oh! there’s no hope of that,” muttered the doctor, lifting one of the hands, and letting it fall again.
“Still —” he cast a side look at his companion, who gave him a meaning nod —“it might be well enough to lift this cabinet sufficiently for me to lay my hand on her heart.”
They accordingly did this; and the doctor, leaning down, placed his hand over the poor bruised breast.
“No life,” he murmured. “She has been dead some hours. Do you think we had better release the head?” he went on, glancing up at the portly man at his side.
But the latter, who was rapidly growing serious, made a slight protest with his finger, and turning to me, inquired, with sudden authority:
“What did you mean when you said that the house had been empty till last night?”
“Just what I said, sir. It was empty till about midnight, when two persons ——” Again I felt my dress twitched, this time very cautiously. What did the woman want? Not daring to give her a look, for these men were only too ready to detect harm in everything I did, I gently drew my skirt away and took a step aside, going on as if no interruption had occurred. “Did I say persons? I should have said a man and a woman drove up to the house and entered. I saw them from my window.”
“You did?” murmured my interlocutor, whom I had by this time decided to be a detective. “And this is the woman, I suppose?” he proceeded, pointing to the poor creature lying before us.
“Why, yes, of course. Who else can she be? I did not see the lady’s face last night, but she was young and light on her feet, and ran up the stoop gaily.”
“And the man? Where is the man? I don’t see him here.”
“I am not surprised at that. He went very soon after he came, not ten minutes after, I should say. That is what alarmed me and caused me to have the house investigated. It did not seem natural or like any of the Van Burnams to leave a woman to spend the night in so large a house alone.”
“You know the Van Burnams?”
“Not well. But that don’t signify. I know what report says of them; they are gentlemen.”
“But Mr. Van Burnam is in Europe.”
“He has two sons.”
“No; the unmarried one spends his nights at Long Branch, and the other is with his wife somewhere in Connecticut.”
“How did the young couple you saw get in last night? Was there any one here to admit them?”
“No; the gentleman had a key.”
“Ah, he had a key.”
The tone in which this was said recurred to me afterwards, but at the moment I was much more impressed by a peculiar sound I heard behind me, something between a gasp and a click in the throat, which came I knew from the scrub-woman, and which, odd and contradictory as it may appear, struck me as an expression of satisfaction, though what there was in my admission to give satisfaction to this poor creature I could not conjecture. Moving so as to get a glimpse of her face, I went on with the grim self-possession natural to my character:
“And when he came out he walked briskly away. The carriage had not waited for him.”
“Ah!” again muttered the gentleman, picking up one of the broken pieces of china which lay haphazard about the floor, while I studied the cleaner’s face, which, to my amazement, gave evidences of a confusion of emotions most unaccountable to me.
Mr. Gryce may have noticed this too, for he immediately addressed her, though he continued to look at the broken piece of china in his hand.
“And how come you to be cleaning the house?” he asked. “Is the family coming home?”
“They are, sir,” she answered, hiding her emotion with great skill the moment she perceived attention directed to herself, and speaking with a sudden volubility that made us all stare. “They are expected any day. I didn’t know it till yesterday — was it yesterday? No, the day before — when young Mr. Franklin — he is the oldest son, sir, and a very nice man, a very nice man — sent me word by letter that I was to get the house ready. It isn’t the first time I have done it for them, sir, and as soon as I could get the basement key from the agent, I came here, and worked all day yesterday, washing up the floors and dusting. I should have been at them again this morning if my husband hadn’t been sick. But I had to go to the infirmary for medicine, and it was noon when I got here, and then I found this lady standing outside with a policeman, a very nice lady, a very nice lady indeed, sir, I pay my respects to her”— and she actually dropped me a curtsey like a peasant woman in a play —“and they took my key from me, and the policeman opens the door, and he and me go upstairs and into all the rooms, and when we come to this one ——”
She was getting so excited as to be hardly intelligible. Stopping herself with a jerk, she fumbled nervously with her apron, while I asked myself how she could have been at work in this house the day before without my knowing it. Suddenly I remembered that I was ill in the morning and busy in the afternoon at the Orphan Asylum, and somewhat relieved at finding so excellent an excuse for my ignorance, I looked up to see if the detective had noticed anything odd in this woman’s behavior. Presumably he had, but having more experience than myself with the susceptibility of ignorant persons in the presence of danger and distress, he attached less importance to it than I did, for which I was secretly glad, without exactly knowing my reasons for being so.
“You will be wanted as a witness by the Coroner’s jury,” he now remarked to her, looking as if he were addressing the piece of china he was turning over in his hand. “Now, no nonsense!” he protested, as she commenced to tremble and plead. “You were the first one to see this dead woman, and you must be on hand to say so. As I cannot tell you when the inquest will be held, you had better stay around till the Coroner comes. He’ll be here soon. You, and this other woman too.”
By other woman he meant me, Miss Butterworth, of Colonial ancestry and no inconsiderable importance in the social world. But though I did not relish this careless association of myself with this poor scrub-woman, I was careful to show no displeasure, for I reasoned that as witnesses we were equal before the law, and that it was solely in this light he regarded us.
There was something in the manner of both these gentlemen which convinced me that while my presence was considered desirable in the house, it was not especially wanted in the room. I was therefore moving reluctantly away, when I felt a slight but peremptory touch on the arm, and turning, saw the detective at my side, still studying his piece of china.
He was, as I have said, of portly build and benevolent aspect; a fatherly-looking man, and not at all the person one would be likely to associate with the police. Yet he could take the lead very naturally, and when he spoke, I felt bound to answer him.
“Will you be so good, madam, as to relate over again, what you saw from your window last night? I am likely to have charge of this matter, and would be pleased to hear all you may have to say concerning it.”
“My name is Butterworth,” I politely intimated.
“And my name is Gryce.”
“You must think this matter very serious,” I ventured.
“Death by violence is always serious.”
“You must regard this death as something more than an accident, I mean.”
His smile seemed to say: “You will not know to-day how I regard it.”
“And you will not know to-day what I think of it either,” was my inward rejoinder, but I said nothing aloud, for the man was seventy-five if he was a day, and I have been taught respect for age, and have practised the same for fifty years and more.
I must have shown what was passing in my mind, and he must have seen it reflected on the polished surface of the porcelain he was contemplating, for his lips showed the shadow of a smile sufficiently sarcastic for me to see that he was far from being as easy-natured as his countenance indicated.
“Come, come,” said he, “there is the Coroner now. Say what you have to say, like the straightforward, honest woman you appear.”
“I don’t like compliments,” I snapped out. Indeed, they have always been obnoxious to me. As if there was any merit in being honest and straightforward, or any distinction in being told so!
“I am Miss Butterworth, and not in the habit of being spoken to as if I were a simple countrywoman,” I objected. “But I will repeat what I saw last night, as it is no secret, and the telling of it won’t hurt me and may help you.”
Accordingly I went over the whole story, and was much more loquacious than I had intended to be, his manner was so insinuating and his inquiries so pertinent. But one topic we both failed to broach, and that was the peculiar manner of the scrub-woman. Perhaps it had not struck him as peculiar and perhaps it should not have struck me so, but in the silence which was preserved on the subject I felt I had acquired an advantage over him, which might lead to consequences of no small importance. Would I have felt thus or congratulated myself quite so much upon my fancied superiority, if I had known he was the man who managed the Leavenworth case, and who in his early years had experienced that very wonderful adventure on the staircase of the Heart’s Delight? Perhaps I would; for though I have had no adventures, I feel capable of them, and as for any peculiar acumen he may have shown in his long and eventful career, why that is a quality which others may share with him, as I hope to be able to prove before finishing these pages.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55