To return to my own observations. I was almost as ignorant of what I wanted to know at ten o’clock on that memorable night as I was at five, but I was determined not to remain so. When the two Misses Van Burnam had retired to their room, I slipped away to the neighboring house and boldly rang the bell. I had observed Mr. Gryce enter it a few minutes before, and I was resolved to have some talk with him.
The hall-lamp was lit, and we could discern each other’s faces as he opened the door. Mine may have been a study, but I am sure his was. He had not expected to be confronted by an elderly lady at that hour of night.
“Well!” he dryly ejaculated, “I am sensible of the honor, Miss Butterworth.” But he did not ask me in.
“I expected no less,” said I. “I saw you come in, and I followed as soon after as I could. I have something to say to you.”
He admitted me then and carefully closed the door. Feeling free to be myself, I threw off the veil I had tied under my chin and confronted him with what I call the true spirit.
“Mr. Gryce,” I began, “let us make an exchange of civilities. Tell me what you have done with Howard Van Burnam, and I will tell you what I have observed in the course of this afternoon’s investigation.”
This aged detective is used to women, I have no doubt, but he is not used to me. I saw it by the way he turned over and over the spectacles he held in his hand. I made an effort to help him out.
“I have noted something to-day which I think has escaped you. It is so slight a clue that most women would not speak of it. But being interested in the case, I will mention it, if in return you will acquaint me with what will appear in the papers to-morrow.”
He seemed to like it. He peered through his glasses and at them with the smile of a discoverer. “I am your very humble servant,” he declared; and I felt as if my father’s daughter had received her first recognition.
But he did not overwhelm me with confidences. O, no, he is very sly, this old and well-seasoned detective; and while appearing to be very communicative, really parted with but little information. He said enough, however, for me to gather that matters looked grim for Howard, and if this was so, it must have become apparent that the death they were investigating was neither an accident nor a suicide.
I hinted as much, and he, for his own ends no doubt, admitted at last that a wound had been found on the young woman which could not have been inflicted by herself; at which I felt such increased interest in this remarkable murder that I must have made some foolish display of it, for the wary old gentleman chuckled and ogled his spectacles quite lovingly before shutting them up and putting them into his pocket.
“And now what have you to tell me?” he inquired, sliding softly between me and the parlor door.
“Nothing but this. Question that queer-acting house-cleaner closely. She has something to tell which it is your business to know.”
I think he was disappointed. He looked as if he regretted the spectacles he had pocketed, and when he spoke there was an edge to his tone I had not noticed in it before.
“Do you know what that something is?” he asked.
“No, or I should tell you myself.”
“And what makes you think she is hiding anything from us?”
“Her manner. Did you not notice her manner?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“It conveyed much to me,” I insisted. “If I were a detective I would have the secret out of that woman or die in the attempt.”
He laughed; this sly, old, almost decrepit man laughed outright. Then he looked severely at his old friend on the newel-post, and drawing himself up with some show of dignity, made this remark:
“It is my very good fortune to have made your acquaintance, Miss Butterworth. You and I ought to be able to work out this case in a way that will be satisfactory to all parties.”
He meant it for sarcasm, but I took it quite seriously, that is to all appearance. I am as sly as he, and though not quite as old — now I am sarcastic — have some of his wits, if but little of his experience.
“Then let us to work,” said I. “You have your theories about this murder, and I have mine; let us see how they compare.”
If the image he had under his eye had not been made of bronze, I am sure it would have become petrified by the look he now gave it. What to me seemed but the natural proposition of an energetic woman with a special genius for his particular calling, evidently struck him as audacity of the grossest kind. But he confined his display of astonishment to the figure he was eying, and returned me nothing but this most gentlemanly retort:
“I am sure I am obliged to you, madam, and possibly I may be willing to consider your very thoughtful proposition later, but now I am busy, very busy, and if you will await my presence in your house for a half hour ——”
“Why not let me wait here,” I interposed. “The atmosphere of the place may sharpen my faculties. I already feel that another sharp look into that parlor would lead to the forming of some valuable theory.”
“You —” Well, he did not say what I was, or rather, what the image he was apostrophizing, was. But he must have meant to utter a compliment of no common order.
The prim courtesy I made in acknowledgment of his good intention satisfied him that I had understood him fully; and changing his whole manner to one more in accordance with business, he observed after a moment’s reflection:
“You came to a conclusion this afternoon, Miss Butterworth, for which I should like some explanation. In investigating the hat which had been drawn from under the murdered girl’s remains, you made the remark that it had been worn but once. I had already come to the same conclusion, but by other means, doubtless. Will you tell me what it was that gave point to your assertion?”
“There was but one prick of a hat-pin in it,” I observed. “If you have been in the habit of looking into young women’s hats, you will appreciate the force of my remark.”
“The deuce!” was his certainly uncalled for exclamation. “Women’s eyes for women’s matters! I am greatly indebted to you, ma’am. You have solved a very important problem for us. A hat-pin! humph!” he muttered to himself. “The devil in a man is not easily balked; even such an innocent article as that can be made to serve, when all other means are lacking.”
It is perhaps a proof that Mr. Gryce is getting old, that he allowed these words to escape him. But having once given vent to them, he made no effort to retract them, but proceeded to take me into his confidence so far as to explain:
“The woman who was killed in that room owed her death to the stab of a thin, long pin. We had not thought of a hat-pin, but upon your mentioning it, I am ready to accept it as the instrument of death. There was no pin to be seen in the hat when you looked at it?”
“None. I examined it most carefully.”
He shook his head and seemed to be meditating. As I had plenty of time I waited, expecting him to speak again. My patience seemed to impress him. Alternately raising and lowering his hands like one in the act of weighing something, he soon addressed me again, this time in a tone of banter:
“This pin — if pin it was — was found broken in the wound. We have been searching for the end that was left in the murderer’s hand, and we have not found it. It is not on the floors of the parlors nor in this hallway. What do you think the ingenious user of such an instrument would do with it?”
This was said, I am now sure, out of a spirit of sarcasm. He was amusing himself with me, but I did not realize it then. I was too full of my subject.
“He would not have carried it away,” I reasoned shortly, “at least not far. He did not throw it aside on reaching the street, for I watched his movements so closely that I would have observed him had he done this. It is in the house then, and presumably in the parlor, even if you do not find it on the floor.”
“Would you like to look for it?” he impressively asked. I had no means of knowing at that time that when he was impressive he was his least candid and trustworthy self.
“Would I,” I repeated; and being spare in figure and much more active in my movements that one would suppose from my age and dignified deportment, I ducked under his arms and was in Mr. Van Burnam’s parlor before he had recovered from his surprise.
That a man like him could look foolish I would not have you for a moment suppose. But he did not look very well satisfied, and I had a chance to throw more than one glance around me before he found his tongue again.
“An unfair advantage, ma’am; an unfair advantage! I am old and I am rheumatic; you are young and sound as a nut. I acknowledge my folly in endeavoring to compete with you and must make the best of the situation. And now, madam, where is that pin?”
It was lightly said, but for all that I saw that my opportunity had come. If I could find this instrument of murder, what might I not expect from his gratitude. Nerving myself for the task thus set me, I peered hither and thither, taking in every article in the room before I made a step forward. There had been some attempt to rectify its disorder. The broken pieces of china had been lifted and laid carefully away on newspapers upon the shelves from which they had fallen. The cabinet stood upright in its place, and the clock which had tumbled face upward, had been placed upon the mantel shelf in the same position. The carpet was therefore free, save for the stains which told such a woful story of past tragedy and crime.
“You have moved the tables and searched behind the sofas,” I suggested.
“Not an inch of the floor has escaped our attention, madam.”
My eyes fell on the register, which my skirts half covered. It was closed; I stooped and opened it. A square box of tin was visible below, at the bottom of which I perceived the round head of a broken hat-pin.
Never in my life had I felt as I did at that minute. Rising up, I pointed at the register and let some of my triumph become apparent; but not all, for I was by no means sure at that moment, nor am I by any means sure now, that he had not made the discovery before I did and was simply testing my pretensions.
However that may be, he came forward quickly and after some little effort drew out the broken pin and examined it curiously.
“I should say that this is what we want,” he declared, and from that moment on showed me a suitable deference.
“I account for its being there in this way,” I argued. “The room was dark; for whether he lighted it or not to commit his crime, he certainly did not leave it lighted long. Coming out, his foot came in contact with the iron of the register and he was struck by a sudden thought. He had not dared to leave the head of the pin lying on the floor, for he hoped that he had covered up his crime by pulling the heavy cabinet over upon his victim; nor did he wish to carry away such a memento of his cruel deed. So he dropped it down the register, where he doubtless expected it would fall into the furnace pipes out of sight. But the tin box retained it. Is not that plausible, sir?”
“I could not have reasoned better myself, madam. We shall have you on the force, yet.”
But at the familiarity shown by this suggestion, I bridled angrily. “I am Miss Butterworth,” was my sharp retort, “and any interest I may take in this matter is due to my sense of justice.”
Seeing that he had offended me, the astute detective turned the conversation back to business.
“By the way,” said he, “your woman’s knowledge can help me out at another point. If you are not afraid to remain in this room alone for a moment, I will bring an article in regard to which I should like your opinion.”
I assured him I was not in the least bit afraid, at which he made me another of his anomalous bows and passed into the adjoining parlor. He did not stop there. Opening the sliding-doors communicating with the dining-room beyond, he disappeared in the latter room, shutting the doors behind him. Being now alone for a moment on the scene of crime, I crossed over to the mantel-shelf, and lifted the clock that lay there.
Why I did this I scarcely know. I am naturally very orderly (some people call me precise) and it probably fretted me to see so valuable an object out of its natural position. However that was, I lifted it up and set it upright, when to my amazement it began to tick. Had the hands not stood as they did when my eyes first fell on the clock lying face up on the floor at the dead girl’s side, I should have thought the works had been started since that time by Mr. Gryce or some other officious person. But they pointed now as then to a few minutes before five and the only conclusion I could arrive at was, that the clock had been in running order when it fell, startling as this fact appeared in a house which had not been inhabited for months.
But if it had been in running order and was only stopped by its fall upon the floor, why did the hands point at five instead of twelve which was the hour at which the accident was supposed to have happened? Here was matter for thought, and that I might be undisturbed in my use of it, I hastened to lay the clock down again, even taking the precaution to restore the hands to the exact position they had occupied before I had started up the works. If Mr. Gryce did not know their secret, why so much the worse for Mr. Gryce.
I was back in my old place by the register before the folding-doors unclosed again. I was conscious of a slight flush on my cheek, so I took from my pocket that perplexing grocer-bill and was laboriously going down its long line of figures, when Mr. Gryce reappeared.
He had to my surprise a woman’s hat in his hand.
“Well!” thought I, “what does this mean!”
It was an elegant specimen of millinery, and was in the latest style. It had ribbons and flowers and bird wings upon it, and presented, as it was turned about by Mr. Gryce’s deft hand, an appearance which some might have called charming, but to me was simply grotesque and absurd.
“Is that a last spring’s hat?” he inquired.
“I don’t know, but I should say it had come fresh from the milliner’s.”
“I found it lying with a pair of gloves tucked inside it on an otherwise empty shelf in the dining-room closet. It struck me as looking too new for a discarded hat of either of the Misses Van Burnam. What do you think?”
“Let me take it,” said I.
“O, it’s been worn,” he smiled, “several times. And the hat-pin is in it, too.”
“There is something else I wish to see.”
He handed it over.
“I think it belongs to one of them,” I declared. “It was made by La Mole of Fifth Avenue, whose prices are simply — wicked.”
“But the young ladies have been gone — let me see — five months. Could this have been bought before then?”
“Possibly, for this is an imported hat. But why should it have been left lying about in that careless way? It cost twenty dollars, if not thirty, and if for any reason its owner decided not to take it with her, why didn’t she pack it away properly? I have no patience with the modern girl; she is made up of recklessness and extravagance.”
“I hear that the young ladies are staying with you,” was his suggestive remark.
“Then you can make some inquiries about this hat; also about the gloves, which are an ordinary street pair.”
“Of what color?”
“Grey; they are quite fresh, size six.”
“Very well; I will ask the young ladies about them.”
“This third room is used as a dining-room, and the closet where I found them is one in which glass is kept. The presence of this hat there is a mystery, but I presume the Misses Van Burnam can solve it. At all events, it is very improbable that it has anything to do with the crime which has been committed here.”
“Very,” I coincided.
“So improbable,” he went on, “that on second thoughts I advise you not to disturb the young ladies with questions concerning it unless further reasons for doing so become apparent.”
“Very well,” I returned. But I was not deceived by his second thoughts.
As he was holding open the parlor door before me in a very significant way, I tied my veil under my chin, and was about to leave when he stopped me.
“I have another favor to ask,” said he, and this time with his most benignant smile. “Miss Butterworth, do you object to sitting up for a few nights till twelve o’clock?”
“Not at all,” I returned, “if there is any good reason for it.”
“At twelve o’clock to-night a gentleman will enter this house. If you will note him from your window I will be obliged.”
“To see whether he is the same one I saw last night? Certainly I will take a look, but ——”
“To-morrow night,” he went on, imperturbably, “the test will be repeated, and I should like to have you take another look; without prejudice, madam; remember, without prejudice.”
“I have no prejudices ——” I began.
“The test may not be concluded in two nights,” he proceeded, without any notice of my words. “So do not be in haste to spot your man, as the vulgar expression is. And now good-night — we shall meet again to-morrow.”
“Wait!” I called peremptorily, for he was on the point of closing the door. “I saw the man but faintly; it is an impression only that I received. I would not wish a man to hang through any identification I could make.”
“No man hangs on simple identification. We shall have to prove the crime, madam, but identification is important; even such as you can make.”
There was no more to be said; I uttered a calm good-night and hastened away. By a judicious use of my opportunities I had become much less ignorant on the all-important topic than when I entered the house.
It was half past eleven when I returned home, a late hour for me to enter my respectable front door alone. But circumstances had warranted my escapade, and it was with quite an easy conscience and a cheerful sense of accomplishment that I went up to my room and prepared to sit out the half hour before midnight.
I am a comfortable sort of person when alone, and found no difficulty in passing this time profitably. Being very orderly, as you must have remarked, I have everything at hand for making myself a cup of tea at any time of day or night; so feeling some need of refreshment, I set out the little table I reserve for such purposes and made the tea and sat down to sip it.
While doing so, I turned over the subject occupying my mind, and endeavored to reconcile the story told by the clock with my preconceived theory of this murder; but no reconcilement was possible. The woman had been killed at twelve, and the clock had fallen at five. How could the two be made to agree, and which, since agreement was impossible, should be made to give way, the theory or the testimony of the clock? Both seemed incontrovertible, and yet one must be false. Which?
I was inclined to think that the trouble lay with the clock; that I had been deceived in my conclusions, and that it was not running at the time of the crime. Mr. Gryce may have ordered it wound, and then have had it laid on its back to prevent the hands from shifting past the point where they had stood at the time of the crime’s discovery. It was an unexplainable act, but a possible one; while to suppose that it was going when the shelves fell, stretched improbability to the utmost, there having been, so far as we could learn, no one in the house for months sufficiently dexterous to set so valuable a timepiece; for who could imagine the scrub-woman engaging in a task requiring such delicate manipulation.
No! some meddlesome official had amused himself by starting up the works, and the clue I had thought so important would probably prove valueless.
There was humiliation in the thought, and it was a relief to me to hear an approaching carriage just as the clock on my mantel struck twelve. Springing from my chair, I put out my light and flew to the window.
The coach drew up and stopped next door. I saw a gentleman descend and step briskly across the pavement to the neighboring stoop. The figure he presented was not that of the man I had seen enter the night before.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09