X Y Z: A Detective Story
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Meanwhile the mingled splendor and elegance of my surroundings were slowly making their impression upon me. The hall by which I had entered was spacious and imposing; the room in which I sat, a model of beauty in design and finish. I was allowing myself the luxury of studying its pictures and numerous works of art, when the sound of voices reached my ear from the next room. A man and woman were conversing there in smothered tones, but my senses are very acute, and I had no difficulty in overhearing what was said.
"Oh, what an exciting day this has been!" cried the female voice. "I have wanted to ask you a dozen times what you think of it all. Will he succeed this time? Has he the nerve to embrace his opportunity, or what is more, the tact to make one? Failure now would be fatal. Father – "
"Hush!" broke in the other voice, in a masculine tone of repressed intensity. "Do not forget that success depends upon your prudence. One whisper of what you are about, and the whole scheme is destroyed."
"I will be careful; only do you think that all is going well and as we planned it?"
"It will not be my fault if it does not," was the reply, uttered with an accent so sinister I was conscious of a violent surprise when, in the next instant, the other, with a burst of affectionate fervor, cried in an ardent tone:
"Oh, how good you are, and what a comfort you are to me!"
I was just pondering over the incongruity thus presented, when the servant returned with my card.
"Mr. Benson wishes to know the nature of your business," said he, in a voice I was uncomfortably conscious must penetrate to the next room and awake its inmates to a knowledge of my proximity.
"Let me have the card," said I; and taking it, I added to my words the simple phrase, "On behalf of the Constable of the town," remembering I had heard the postmaster say this position was held by his brother. "There," said I, "carry that back to your master."
The servant took the card, glanced down at the words I had written, started and hastily drew back. "You had better come," said he, leading the way into the hall.
I was only too glad to comply; in fact, escape from that room seemed imperative. But just as I was crossing the threshold, a sudden, quick cry, half joyful, half fearful, rose behind me, and turning, I met the eyes of a young lady peering upon me from a lifted porti?re, with an expression of mingled terror and longing that would have astonished me greatly, if it had not instantly disappeared at the first sight of my face.
"Pardon me," she exclaimed, drawing back with an embarrassed movement into the room from which she had emerged. But soon recovering herself, she stepped hastily forward, and ignoring me, said to the servant at my side: "Jonas, who is this gentleman, and where are you taking him?"
With a bow, Jonas replied: "He comes on business, miss, and Mr. Benson consents to see him."
"But I thought my father had expressly commanded that no one was to be allowed to enter the library to-day," she exclaimed, but in a musing tone that asked for no response.And hastily as we passed down the hall, I could not escape the uneasy sense that her eager eyes were following us as we went.
"Too much emotion for so small a matter, and a strange desire on the part of every one to keep Mr. Benson from being intruded upon to-day," was my mental comment. And I was scarcely surprised when upon our arrival at the library door we found it locked. However, a knock, followed by a few whispered words on the part of the servant, served to arouse the hermit within, and with a quick turn of the key, the door flew back on its hinges, and the master of the house stood before me.
It was a moment to be remembered: first, because the picture presented to my eyes was of a marked and impressive character; and secondly, because something in the expression of the gentleman before me showed that he had received a shock at my introduction which was not to be expected after the pains which had been taken to prepare his mind for my visit. He was a tall, remarkable-looking man, with a head already whitened, and a form which, if not bowed, had only retained its upright carriage by means of the indomitable will that betrayed itself in his eyes. Seen against the rich background of the stained-glass window that adorned one end of the apartment, his stern, furrowed face and eagerly repellant aspect imprinted itself upon me like a silhouette, while the strong emotion I could not but detect in his bearing, lent to the whole a poetic finish that made it a living picture which, as I have said, I have never been able to forget.
"You have come from the constable of the town," said he, in a firm, hard tone, impressive as his look. "May I ask for what purpose?"
Looking around, I saw the servant had disappeared. "Sir," said I, gathering up my courage, as I became convinced that in this case I had a thoroughly honest man to deal with, "you are going to give a fancy ball to-night. Such an event is a novelty in these parts, and arouses much curiosity. Some of the men about town have even been heard to threaten to leap the fences and steal a look at your company, whether you will or not. Mr. White wants to know whether you need any assistance in keeping the grounds clear of all but your legitimate guests; if so, he is ready to supply whatever force you may need."
"Mr. White is very kind," returned Mr. Benson, in a voice which, despite his will-power, showed that his agitation had in some unaccountable way been increased by my communication. "I had not thought of any such contingency," he murmured, moving over to a window and looking out. "An invasion of rowdies would not be agreeable. They might even find their way into the house." He paused and cast a sudden look at me. "Who are you?" he abruptly asked.
The question took me by surprise, but I answered bravely if not calmly: "I am a man who sometimes assists Mr. White in the performance of his duties, and in case you need it, will be the one to render you assistance to-night. A line to Mr. White, if you doubt me – "
A wave of his meagre hand stopped me. "Do you think you could keep out of my house to-night, any one I did not wish to enter?" he asked.
"I should at least like to try."
"A ticket is given to every invited guest; but if men are going to climb the fences, tickets will amount to but little."
"I will see that the fences are guarded," cried I, gratified at the prospect of being allowed upon the scene of action. "I can hinder any one from coming in that way, if – " Here I paused, conscious of something, I could hardly say what, that bade me be cautious and weigh my words well. "If you desire it and will give me the authority to act for you," I added in a somewhat more indifferent tone.
"I do desire it," he replied shortly, moving over to the table and taking up a card. "Here is a ticket that will insure you entrance into the grounds; the rest you will manage without scandal. I do not want any disturbance, but if you see any one hanging about the house or peering into the windows or attempting to enter in any way except through the front door, you are to arrest them, no matter who they are. I have an especial reason for desiring my wishes attended to in this regard," he went on, not noticing the preoccupation that had seized me, "and will pay well if on the morrow I find that every thing has gone off according to my desires."
"Money is a powerful incentive to duty," I rejoined, with marked emphasis, directing a sly glance at the mirror opposite, in whose depths I had but a moment before been startled by the sudden apparition of the pale and strongly agitated face of young Mr. Benson, who was peering from a door-way half hidden by a screen at our back. "I will be on hand to-night." And with what I meant to be a cynical look, I made my bow and disappeared from the room.
As I expected, I was met at the front door by Mr. Hartley. "A word with you," said he. "Jonas tells me you are from the constable of the town. May I ask what has gone amiss that you come here to disturb my father on a day like this?"
His tone was not unkind, his expression not without suavity. If I had not had imprinted on my memory the startling picture of his face as I had seen it an instant before in the mirror, I should have been tempted to believe in his goodness and integrity at this moment. As it was, I doubted him through and through, yet replied with frankness and showed him the ticket I had received from his father.
"And you are going to make it your business to guard the grounds to-night?" he asked, gloomily glancing at the card in my hand as if he would like to annihilate it.
"Yes," said I.
He drew me into a small room half filled with plants.
"Now," said he, "see here. Such a piece of interference is entirely uncalled for, and you have been alarming my father unnecessarily. There are no rowdies in this town, and if one or two of the villagers should get into the grounds, where is the harm? They cannot get into the house even if they wanted to, which they don't. I do not wish this, our first show of hospitality, to assume a hostile aspect, and whatever my father's expectations may be, I must request you to curtail your duties as much as possible and limit them to responding by your presence when called upon."
"But your father has a right to expect the fullest obedience to his wishes," I protested. "He would not be satisfied if I should do no more than you request, and I cannot afford to disappoint him."
He looked at me with a calculating eye, and I expected to see him put his hand in his pocket; but Hartley Benson played his cards better than that. "Very well," said he, "if you persist in regarding my father's wishes as paramount, I have nothing to say. Fulfil your duties as you conceive them, but don't look for my support if any foolish misadventure makes you ashamed of yourself." And drawing back, he motioned me out of the room.
I felt I had received a check, and hurried out of the house. But scarcely had I entered upon the walk that led down to the gate, when I heard a light step behind me. Turning, I encountered the pretty daughter of the house, the youthful Miss Carrie.
"Wait," she cried, allowing herself to display her emotion freely in face and bearing. "I have heard who you are from my brother," she continued, approaching me with a soft grace that at once put me upon my guard. "Now, tell me who are the rowdies that threaten to invade our grounds?"
"I do not know their names, miss," I responded; "but they are a rough-looking set you would not like to see among your guests."
"There are no very rough-looking men in our village," she declared; "you must be mistaken in regard to them. My father is nervous and easily alarmed. It was wrong to arouse his fears."
I thought of that steady eye of his, of force sufficient to hold in awe a regiment of insurgents, and smiled at her opinion of my understanding.
"Then you do not wish the grounds guarded," I said, in as indifferent a tone as I could assume.
"I do not consider it necessary."
"But I have already pledged myself to fulfil your father's commands."
"I know," she said, drawing a step nearer, with a most enchanting smile. "And that was right under the circumstances; but we, his children, who may be presumed to know more of social matters than a recluse, – I, especially," she added, with a certain emphasis, "tell you it is not necessary. We fear the scandal it may cause; besides, some of the guests may choose to linger about the grounds under the trees, and would be rather startled at being arrested as intruders."
"What, then, do you wish me to do?" I asked, leaning toward her, with an appearance of yielding.
"To accept this money," she murmured, blushing, "and confine yourself to-night to remaining in the background unless called upon."
This was a seconding of her brother's proposition with a vengeance. Taking the purse she handed me, I weighed it for a moment in my hand, and then slowly shook my head. "Impossible," I cried; "but" – and I fixed my eyes intently upon her countenance – "if there is any one in particular whom you desire me to ignore, I am ready to listen to a description of his person. It has always been my pleasure to accommodate myself as much as possible to the whims of the ladies."
It was a bold stroke that might have cost me the game. Indeed, I half expected she would raise her voice and order some of the men about her to eject me from the grounds. But instead of that she remained for a moment blushing painfully, but surveying me with an unfaltering gaze that reminded me of her father's.
"There is a person," said she, in a low, restrained voice, "whom I am especially anxious should remain unmolested, whatever he may or may not be seen to do. He is a guest," she went on, a sudden pallor taking the place of her blushes, "and has a right to be here; but I doubt if he at once enters the house, and I even suspect he may choose to loiter awhile in the grounds before attempting to join the company. I ask you to allow him to do so."
I bowed with an appearance of great respect. "Describe him," said I.
For a moment she faltered, with a distressed look I found it difficult to understand. Then, with a sudden glance over my person, exclaimed: "Look in the glass when you get home and you will see the fac-simile of his form, though not of his face. He is fair, whereas you are dark." And with a haughty lift of her head calculated to rob me of any satisfaction I might have taken in her words, she stepped slowly back.
I stopped her with a gesture. "Miss," said I, "take your purse before you go. Payment of any service I may render your father will come in time. This affair is between you and me, and I hope I am too much of a gentleman to accept money for accommodating a lady in so small a matter as this."
But she shook her head. "Take it," said she, "and assure me that I may rely on you."
"You may rely on me without the money," I replied, forcing the purse back into her hand.
"Then I shall rest easy," she returned, and retreated with a lightsome air toward the house.
The next moment I was on the highway with my thoughts. What did it all mean? Was it, then, a mere love affair across which I had foolishly stumbled, and was I busying myself unnecessarily about a rendezvous that might mean no more than an elopement from under a severe father's eye? Taking out the note which had led to all these efforts on my part, I read it for the third time.
A love-letter of course; and I had been a fool to suppose it any thing else. The young people are to surprise the old gentleman in the presence of their friends. They have been secretly married perhaps, who knows, and take this method of obtaining a public reconciliation. But that word "Counterfeit," and the sinister tone of Hartley Benson as he said: "It shall not fail through lack of effort on my part!" Such a word and such a tone did not rightly tally with this theory. Few brothers take such interest in their sister's love affairs as to grow saturnine over them. There was, beneath all this, something which I had not yet penetrated. Meantime my duty led me to remain true to the one person of whose integrity of purpose I was most thoroughly convinced.
Returning to the village, I hunted up Mr. White and acquainted him with what I had undertaken in his name; and then perceiving that the time was fast speeding by, strolled over to the tavern for my supper.
The stranger was still there, walking up and down the sitting-room. He joined us at the table, but I observed he scarcely tasted his food, and both then and afterward manifested the same anxious suspense that had characterized his movements from the time of our first encounter.