I welcomed the Misses Van Burnam with just enough good-will to show that I had not been influenced by any unworthy motives in asking them to my house.
I gave them my guest-chamber, but I invited them to sit in my front room as long as there was anything interesting going on in the street. I knew they would like to look out, and as this chamber boasts of a bay with two windows, we could all be accommodated. From where I sat I could now and then hear what they said, and I considered this but just, for if the young woman who had suffered so untimely an end was in any way connected with them, it was certainly best that the fact should not lie concealed; and one of them, that is Isabella, is such a chatterbox.
Mr. Van Burnam and his son had returned next door, and so far as we could observe from our vantage-point, preparations were being made for the body’s removal. As the crowd below, driven away by the policemen one minute, only to collect again in another, swayed and grumbled in a continual expectation that was as continually disappointed, I heard Caroline’s voice rise in two or three short sentences.
“They can’t find Howard, or he would have been here before now. Did you see her that time when we were coming out of Clark’s? Fanny Preston did, and said she was pretty.”
“No, I didn’t get a glimpse ——” A shout from the street below.
“I can’t believe it,” were the next words I heard, “but Franklin is awfully afraid ——”
“Hush! or the ogress ——” I am sure I heard her say ogress; but what followed was drowned in another loud murmur, and I caught nothing further till these sentences were uttered by the trembling and over-excited Caroline: “If it is she, pa will never be the same man again. To have her die in our house! O, there’s Howard now!”
The interruption came quick and sharp, and it was followed by a double cry and an anxious rustle, as the two girls sprang to their feet in their anxiety to attract their brother’s attention or possibly to convey him some warning.
But I did not give much heed to them. My eyes were on the carriage in which Howard had arrived, and which, owing to the ambulance in front, had stopped on the other side of the way. I was anxious to see him descend that I might judge if his figure recalled that of the man I had seen cross the pavement the night before. But he did not descend. Just as his hand was on the carriage door, a half dozen men appeared on the adjoining stoop carrying a burden which they hastened to deposit in the ambulance. He sank back when he saw it, and when his face became visible again, it was so white it seemed to be the only face in the street, though fifty people stood about staring at the house, at the ambulance, and at him.
Franklin Van Burnam had evidently come to the door with the rest; for Howard no sooner showed his face the second time than we saw the former dash down the steps and try to part the crowd in a vain attempt to reach his brother’s side. Mr. Gryce was more successful. He had no difficulty in winning his way across the street, and presently I perceived him standing near the carriage exchanging a few words with its occupant. A moment later he drew back, and addressing the driver, jumped into the carriage with Howard, and was speedily driven off. The ambulance followed and some of the crowd, and as soon as a hack could be obtained, Mr. Van Burnam and his son took the same road, leaving us three women in a state of suspense, which as far as one of us was concerned, ended in a nervous attack that was not unlike heart failure. I allude, of course, to Caroline, and it took Isabella and myself a good half hour to bring her back to a normal condition, and when this was done, Isabella thought it incumbent upon her to go off into hysterics, which, being but a weak simulation of the other’s state, I met with severity and cured with a frown. When both were in trim again I allowed myself one remark.
“One would think,” said I, “that you knew the young woman who has fallen victim to her folly next door.”
At which Isabella violently shook her head and Caroline observed:
“It is the excitement which has been too much for me. I am never strong, and this is such a dreadful home-welcoming. When will father and Franklin come back? It was very unkind of them to go off without one word of encouragement.”
“They probably did not consider the fate of this unknown woman a matter of any importance to you.”
The Van Burnam girls were unlike in appearance and character, but they showed an equal embarrassment at this, casting down their eyes and behaving so strangely that I was driven to wonder, without any show of hysterics I am happy to say, what would be the upshot of this matter, and how far I would become involved in it before the truth came to light.
At dinner they displayed what I should call their best society manner. Seeing this, I assumed my society manner also. It is formed on a different pattern from theirs, but is fully as impressive, I judge.
A most formal meal was the result. My best china was in use, but I had added nothing to my usual course of viands. Indeed, I had abstracted something. An entrée, upon which my cook prides herself, was omitted. Was I going to allow these proud young misses to think I had exerted myself to please them? No; rather would I have them consider me niggardly and an enemy to good living; so the entrée was, as the French say, suppressed.
In the evening their father came in. He was looking very dejected, and half his bluster was gone. He held a telegram crushed in his hand, and he talked very rapidly. But he confided none of his secrets to me, and I was obliged to say good-night to these young ladies without knowing much more about the matter engrossing us than when I left their house in the afternoon.
But others were not as ignorant as myself. A dramatic and highly exciting scene had taken place that evening at the undertaker’s to which the unknown’s body had been removed, and as I have more than once heard it minutely described, I will endeavor to transcribe it here with all the impartiality of an outsider.
When Mr. Gryce entered the carriage in which Howard sat, he noted first, that the young man was frightened; and secondly, that he made no effort to hide it. He had heard almost nothing from the detective. He knew that there had been a hue and cry for him ever since noon, and that he was wanted to identify a young woman who had been found dead in his father’s house, but beyond these facts he had been told little, and yet he seemed to have no curiosity nor did he venture to express any surprise. He merely accepted the situation and was troubled by it, showing no inclination to talk till very near the end of his destination, when he suddenly pulled himself together and ventured this question:
“How did she — the young woman as you call her — kill herself?”
The detective, who in his long career among criminals and suspected persons, had seen many men and encountered many conditions, roused at this query with much of his old spirit. Turning from the man rather than toward him, he allowed himself a slight shrug of the shoulders as he calmly replied:
“She was found under a heavy piece of furniture; the cabinet with the vases on it, which you must remember stood at the left of the mantel-piece. It had crushed her head and breast. Quite a remarkable means of death, don’t you think? There has been but one occurrence like it in my long experience.”
“I don’t believe what you tell me,” was the young man’s astonishing reply. “You are trying to frighten me or to make game of me. No lady would make use of any such means of death as that.”
“I did not say she was a lady,” returned Mr. Gryce, scoring one in his mind against his unwary companion.
A quiver passed down the young man’s side where he came in contact with the detective.
“No,” he muttered; “but I gathered from what you said, she was no common person; or why,” he flashed out in sudden heat, “do you require me to go with you to see her? Have I the name of associating with any persons of the sex who are not ladies?”
“Pardon me,” said Mr. Gryce, in grim delight at the prospect he saw slowly unfolding before him of one of those complicated affairs in which minds like his unconsciously revel; “I meant no insinuations. We have requested you, as we have requested your father and brother, to accompany us to the undertaker’s, because the identification of the corpse is a most important point, and every formality likely to insure it must be observed.”
“And did not they — my father and brother, I mean — recognize her?”
“It would be difficult for any one to recognize her who was not well acquainted with her.”
A horrified look crossed the features of Howard Van Burnam, which, if a part of his acting, showed him to have genius for his rôle. His head sank back on the cushions of the carriage, and for a moment he closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the carriage had stopped, and Mr. Gryce, who had not noticed his emotion, of course, was looking out of the window with his hand on the handle of the door.
“Are we there already?” asked the young man, with a shudder. “I wish you had not considered it necessary for me to see her. I shall detect nothing familiar in her, I know.”
Mr. Gryce bowed, repeated that it was a mere formality, and followed the young gentleman into the building and afterwards into the room where the dead body lay. A couple of doctors and one or two officials stood about, in whose faces the young man sought for something like encouragement before casting his eyes in the direction indicated by the detective. But there was little in any of these faces to calm him, and turning shortly away, he walked manfully across the room and took his stand by the detective.
“I am positive,” he began, “that it is not my wife ——” At this moment the cloth that covered the body was removed, and he gave a great start of relief. “I said so,” he remarked, coldly. “This is no one I know.”
His sigh was echoed in double chorus from the doorway. Glancing that way he encountered the faces of his father and elder brother, and moved towards them with a relieved air that made quite another man of him in appearance.
“I have had my say,” he remarked. “Shall I wait outside till you have had yours?”
“We have already said all that we had to,” Franklin returned. “We declared that we did not recognize this person.”
“Of course, of course,” assented the other. “I don’t see why they should have expected us to know her. Some common suicide who thought the house empty — But how did she get in?”
“Don’t you know?” said Mr. Gryce. “Can it be that I forgot to tell you? Why, she was let in at night by a young man of medium height”— his eye ran up and down the graceful figure of the young élégant before him as he spoke —“who left her inside and then went away. A young man who had a key ——”
“A key? Franklin, I——”
Was it a look from Franklin which made him stop? It is possible, for he turned on his heel as he reached this point, and tossing his head with quite a gay air, exclaimed: “But it is of no consequence! The girl is a stranger, and we have satisfied, I believe, all the requirements of the law in saying so, and may now drop the matter. Are you going to the club, Franklin?”
“Yes, but ——” Here the elder brother drew nearer and whispered something into the other’s ear, who at that whisper turned again towards the place where the dead woman lay. Seeing this movement, his anxious father wiped the moisture from his forehead. Silas Van Burnam had been silent up to this moment and seemed inclined to continue so, but he watched his younger son with painful intentness.
“Nonsense!” broke from Howard’s lips as his brother ceased his communication; but he took a step nearer the body, notwithstanding, and then another and another till he was at its side again.
The hands had not been injured, as we have said, and upon these his eyes now fell.
“They are like hers! O God! they are like hers!” he muttered, growing gloomy at once. “But where are the rings? There are no rings to be seen on these fingers, and she wore five, including her wedding-ring.”
“Is it of your wife you are speaking?” inquired Mr. Gryce, who had edged up close to his side.
The young man was caught unawares.
He flushed deeply, but answered up boldly and with great appearance of candor:
“Yes; my wife left Haddam yesterday to come to New York, and I have not seen her since. Naturally I have felt some doubts lest this unhappy victim should be she. But I do not recognize her clothing; I do not recognize her form; only the hands look familiar.”
“And the hair?”
“Is of the same color as hers, but it’s a very ordinary color. I do not dare to say from anything I see that this is my wife.”
“We will call you again after the doctor has finished his autopsy,” said Mr. Gryce. “Perhaps you will hear from Mrs. Van Burnam before then.”
But this intimation did not seem to bring comfort with it. Mr. Van Burnam walked away, white and sick, for which display of emotion there was certainly some cause, and rejoining his father tried to carry off the moment with the aplomb of a man of the world.
But that father’s eye was fixed too steadily upon him; he faltered as he sat down, and finally spoke up, with feverish energy:
“If it is she, so help me, God, her death is a mystery to me! We have quarrelled more than once lately, and I have sometimes lost my patience with her, but she had no reason to wish for death, and I am ready to swear in defiance of those hands, which are certainly like hers, and the nameless something which Franklin calls a likeness, that it is a stranger who lies there, and that her death in our house is a coincidence.”
“Well, well, we will wait,” was the detective’s soothing reply. “Sit down in the room opposite there, and give me your orders for supper, and I will see that a good meal is served you.”
The three gentlemen, seeing no way of refusing, followed the discreet official who preceded them, and the door of the doctor’s room closed upon him and the inquiries he was about to make.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55