A mingled sound of shrieks and exclamations greeted me.
“Joe!” cried Edith, bounding forward.
But I waved her back, and turned with a severe gesture toward Hartley Benson.
“What are your reasons,” I demanded, “for thinking the poisoning that has taken place here was the work of the Yellow Domino?”
“Do you ask me?” he retorted, after a moment’s pause, during which my voice echoed through the room, waking strange gleams of doubt on the faces of more than one person present. “You wish to dare me, then?” he hissed, coming a step nearer.
“I wish to know what the Yellow Domino has done that you or any one should consider him as responsible for the tragedy that has here taken place,” I steadily replied.
“Are you not my brother, then?” he cried, in mingled rage and anxiety. “Was it not you I met under the evergreens and supplied with a yellow domino, in order to give you the opportunity of seeing our father to-night and effecting the reconciliation which you had so long desired? Are you not he who afterward followed me to this room and hid himself in the closet from which you have just come, all for the purpose, as you said, of throwing yourself at your father’s feet and begging pardon for a past of which you had long ago repented? Or are you some reckless buffoon who has presumed to step into the domino my brother left behind him, and careless of the terrible trouble that has overwhelmed this family, come here with your criminal jests to puzzle and alarm us?”
“I am the man to whom you gave the domino, if that is what you wish to know, Hartley Benson; and I am the man whom you led into the ambush of this closet, for such reasons as your own conscience must inform you. If the Yellow Domino put poison into Mr. Benson’s wine, then upon me must lie the burden of the consequences, for I alone have worn the disguise of this mask from the moment we met under the evergreens till now, as I think may be proved by this gentleman you call Uncle Joe, and this lady you address as Edith.”
This mode of attack had the desired effect.
“Who are you?” burst from Hartley’s lips, now blanched to the color of clay. “Unmask him, doctor; let us see the man who dares to play us tricks on such a night as this!”
“Wait!” cried I, motioning back not only the doctor, but Uncle Joe and the ladies — the whole group having started forward at Hartley’s words. “Let us first make sure I am the Yellow Domino who has been paraded through the parlors this evening. Miss Benson, will you pardon me if I presume to ask you what were the words of salutation with which you greeted me to-night?”
“Oh!” she cried, in a tremble of doubt and dismay, “I do not know as I can remember; something about being glad to see you, I believe, and my hope that your plans for the evening might succeed.”
“To which,” said I, “I made no audible reply, but pressed your hand in mine, with the certainty you were a friend though you had not used the word ‘Counterfeit.’”
“Yes, yes,” she returned, blushing and wildly disturbed, as she had reason to be.
“And you, Uncle Joe,” I went on; “what were your words? How did you greet the man you had been told was your erring nephew?”
“I said: ‘To counterfeit wrong when one is right, necessarily opens one to a misunderstanding.’”
“To which ambiguous phrase I answered, as you will remember, with a simple, ‘That is true,’ a reply by the way that seemed to arouse your curiosity and lead to strange revelations.”
“God defend us!” cried Uncle Joe.
The exclamation was enough. I turned to the trembling Edith.
“I shall not attempt,” said I, “to repeat or ask you to repeat any conversation which may have passed between us, for you will remember it was too quickly interrupted by Mr. Benson for us to succeed in uttering more than a dozen or so words. However, you will do me the kindness to acknowledge your belief that I am the man who stood with you behind the parlor curtains an hour ago.”
“I will,” she replied, with a haughty lift of her head that spoke more loudly than her blushes.
“It only remains, then, for Mr. Benson to assure himself I am the person who followed him to the closet. I know of no better way of his doing this than to ask him if he remembers the injunctions which he was pleased to give me, when he bestowed upon me this domino.”
“No — that is — whatever they were, they were given to the man I supposed to be my brother.”
“Ha, then; it was to your brother,” I rejoined, “you gave that hint about the glass I would find on the library table; saying that if it did not smell of wine I would know your father had not had his nightly potion and would yet come to the library to drink it; — an intimation, as all will acknowledge, which could have but the one result of leading me to go to the table and take up the glass and look into it in the suspicious manner which has been reported to you.”
He was caught in his own toils and saw it. Muttering a deep curse, he drew back, while a startled “Humph!” broke from the doctor, followed by a quick, “Is that true? Did you tell him that, Mr. Benson?”
For reply the now thoroughly alarmed villain leaped at my throat. “Off with that toggery! Let us see your face! I shall and will know who you are.”
But I resisted for another moment while I added: “It is, then, established to your satisfaction that I am really the man who has worn the yellow domino this evening. Very well, now look at me, one and all, and say if you think I am likely to be a person to destroy Mr. Benson.” And with a quick gesture I threw aside my mask, and yielded the fatal yellow domino to the impatient hands of Mr. Hartley Benson.
The result was a cry of astonishment from those to whom the face thus revealed was a strange one, and a curse deep and loud from him to whom the shock of that moment’s surprise must have been nearly overwhelming.
“Villain!” he shrieked, losing his self-possession in a sudden burst of fury; “spy! informer! I understand it all now. You have been set over me by my brother. Instructed by him, you have dared to enter this house, worm yourself into its secrets, and by a deviltry only equalled by your presumption, taken advantage of your position to poison my father and fling the dreadful consequences of your crime in the faces of his mourning family. It was a plot well laid; but it is foiled, sir, foiled, as you will see when I have you committed to prison to-morrow.”
“Mr. Benson,” I returned, shaking him loose as I would a feather, “this is all very well; but in your haste and surprise you have made a slight mistake. You call me a spy; so I am; but a spy backed by the United States Government is not a man to be put lightly into prison. I am a detective, sir, connected at present with the Secret Service at Washington. My business is to ferret out crime and recognize a rogue under any disguise and in the exercise of any vile or deceptive practices.” And I looked him steadily in the face.
Then indeed his cheek turned livid, and the eye which had hitherto preserved its steadiness sought the floor.
“A detective!” murmured Miss Carrie, shrinking back from the cringing form of the brother whom, but a few hours before, she had deemed every thing that was noble and kind.
“A detective!” echoed Edith, brightening like a rose in the sunshine.
“In government employ!” repeated Uncle Joe, honoring me with a stare that was almost comic in its mingled awe and surprise.
“Yes,” I rejoined; “if any one doubts me, I have papers with me to establish my identity. By what means I find myself in this place, a witness of Mr. Benson’s death and the repository of certain family secrets, it is not necessary for me to inform you. It is enough that I am here, have been here for a good hour, posted behind that curtain; that I heard Jonas’ exclamation as he withdrew from the balcony, saw Mr. Benson come in from his bedroom, drink his glass of wine, and afterward fall at the feet of his son and daughter; and that having been here, and the witness of all this, I can swear that if Mr. Benson drank poison from yonder decanter, he drank poison that was put into it before either he or the Yellow Domino entered this room. Who put it there, it is for you to determine; my duty is done for to-night.” And with a bow I withdrew from the group about me and crossed to the door.
But Miss Carrie’s voice, rising in mingled shame and appeal, stopped me. “Don’t go,” said she; “not at least until you tell me where my brother Joseph is. Is he in this town, or has he planned this deception from a distance? I— I am an orphan, sir, who at one blow has lost not only a dearly beloved father but, as I fear, a brother too, in whom, up to this hour, I have had every confidence. Tell me, then, if any support is left for a most unhappy girl, or whether I must give up all hopes of even my brother Joe’s sympathy and protection.”
“Your brother Joe,” I replied, “has had nothing to do with my appearance here. He and I are perfect strangers; but if he is a tall, broad-shouldered, young man, shaped something like myself, but with a ruddy cheek and light curling hair, I can tell you I saw such a person enter the shrubbery at the southwest corner of the garden an hour or so ago.”
“No, he is here!” came in startling accents over my shoulders. And with a quick leap Joe Benson sprang by me and stood handsome, tall, and commanding in the centre of the room. “Hartley! Carrie! Edith! what is this I hear? My father stricken down, my father dying or dead, and I left to wander up and down through the shrubbery, while you knelt at his bedside and received his parting blessing? Is this the recompense you promised me, Hartley? this your sisterly devotion, Carrie? this your love and attention to my interests, Edith?”
“O Joe, dear Joe, do not blame us!” Carrie made haste to reply. “We thought you were here. A man was here, that man behind you, simulating you in every regard, and to him we gave the domino, and from him we have learned ——”
“What?” sprang in thundering tones from the young giant’s throat as he wheeled on his heel and confronted me.
“That your brother Hartley is a villain,” I declared, looking him steadily in the eye.
“God!” was his only exclamation as he turned slowly back and glanced toward his trembling brother.
“Sir,” said I, taking a step toward Uncle Joe, who, between his eagerness to embrace the new-comer and his dread of the consequences of this unexpected meeting, stood oscillating from one side to the other in a manner ridiculous enough to see, “what do you think of the propriety of uttering aloud and here, the suspicions which you were good enough to whisper into my ears an hour ago? Do you see any reason for altering your opinion as to which of the two sons of Mr. Benson invaded his desk and appropriated the bonds afterward found in their common apartment, when you survey the downfallen crest of the one and compare it with the unfaltering look of the other?”
“No,” he returned, roused into sudden energy by the start given by Hartley. And advancing between the brothers, he looked first at one and then at the other with a long, solemn gaze that called out the color on Hartley’s pale cheek and made the crest of Joe rise still higher in manly pride and assertion. “Joe,” said he, “for three years now your life has lain under a shadow. Accused by your father of a dreadful crime, you have resolutely refused to exonerate yourself, notwithstanding the fact that a dear young girl waited patiently for the establishment of your innocence in order to marry you. To your family this silence meant guilt, but to me and mine it has told only a tale of self-renunciation and devotion. Joe, was I right in this? was Edith right? The father you so loved, and feared to grieve, is dead. Speak, then: Did you or did you not take the bonds that were found in the cupboard at the head of your bed three years ago to-night? The future welfare, not only of this faithful child but of the helpless sister, who, despite her belief in your guilt, has clung to you with unwavering devotion, depends upon your reply.”
“Let my brother speak,” was the young man’s answer, given in a steady and nobly restrained tone.
“Your brother will not speak,” his uncle returned. “Don’t you see you must answer for yourself? Say, then: Are you the guilty man your father thought you, or are you not? Let us hear, Joe.”
“I am not!” avowed the young man, bowing his head in a sort of noble shame that must have sent a pang of anguish through the heart of his brother.
“Oh, I knew it, I knew it!” came from Edith’s lips in a joyous cry, as she bounded to his side and seized him by one hand, just as his sister grasped the other in a burst of shame and contrition that showed how far she was removed from any participation in the evil machinations of her elder brother.
The sight seemed to goad Hartley Benson to madness. Looking from one to the other, he uttered a cry that yet rings in my memory: “Carrie! Edith! do you both forsake me, and all because of a word which any villain might have uttered? Is this the truth and constancy of women? Is this what I had a right to expect from a sister, a — a friend? Carrie, you at least always gave me your trust — will you take it away because a juggling spy and a recreant brother have combined to destroy me?”
But beyond a wistful look and a solemn shake of the head, Carrie made no response, while Edith, with her eyes fixed on the agitated countenance of her lover, did not even seem to hear the words of pleading that were addressed to her.
The shock of the disappointment was too much for Hartley Benson. Clenching his hand upon his breast, he gave one groan of anguish and despair and sank into a chair, inert and helpless. But before we could any of us take a step toward him, before the eyes of the doctor and mine could meet in mutual understanding, he had bounded again to his feet, and in a burst of desperation seized the chair in which he sat, and held it high above his head.
“Fools! dotards!” he exclaimed, his eyes rolling in frenzy from face to face, but lingering longest on mine, as if there he read the true secret of his overthrow, as well as the promise of his future doom. “You think it is all over with me; that there is nothing left for you to do but to stand still and watch how I take my defeat. But I am a man who never acknowledges defeat. There is still a word I have to say that will make things a little more even between us. Listen for it, you. It will not be long in coming, and when you hear it, let my brother declare how much enjoyment he will ever get out of his victory.”
And whirling the chair about his head, he plunged through our midst into the hall without.
For an instant we stood stupefied, then Carrie Benson’s voice rose in one long, thrilling cry, and with a bound she rushed toward the door. I put out my hand to stop her, but it was not necessary. Before she could cross the threshold the sudden, sharp detonation of a pistol-shot was heard in the hall, and we knew that the last dreadful word of that night’s tragedy had been spoken.
The true secret of Hartley Benson’s action in this matter was never discovered. That he planned his father’s violent death, no one who was present at the above interview ever doubted. That he went further than that, and laid his plans in such a manner that the blame, if blame ensued, should fall upon his innocent brother, was equally plain, especially after the acknowledgment we received from Jonas, that he went out on the balcony and looked in the window at the special instigation of his young master. But why this arch villain, either at his own risk or at that of the man he hated, felt himself driven to such a revolting crime, will never be known; unless, indeed, the solution be found in his undoubted passion for the beautiful Edith, and in the accumulated pressure of certain secret debts for whose liquidation he dared not apply to his father.
I never revealed to this family the true nature of the motives which actuated me in my performance of the part I played that fatal night. It was supposed by Miss Carrie and the rest, that I was but obeying instructions given me by Mr. Benson; and I never undeceived them. I was too much ashamed of the curiosity which was the mainspring of my action to publish each and every particular of my conduct abroad; though I could not but congratulate myself upon its results when, some time afterward, I read of the marriage of Joe and Edith.
The counterfeiters were discovered and taken, but not by me.
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University of Adelaide
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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09