Anna Green.

X Y Z: A Detective Story



скачать книгу бесплатно

The first person who approached me was a gay little shepherdess.

"Ah, ha!" was the sportive exclamation with which she greeted me. "Here is one of my wandering sheep!" And with a laugh, she endeavored to hook me to her side by means of her silver crook.

But this blithesome puppet possessed no interest for me. So with a growl and a bound I assured her I was nothing more than a wolf in sheep's clothing, and would eat her up if she did not run away; at which she gayly laughed and vanished, and for a moment I was left alone. But only for a moment. A masked lady, whom I had previously observed standing upright and solitary in a distant corner of the room, now approached, and taking me by the arm, led me eagerly to one side.

"Oh, Joe!" she whispered, "is it you? How glad I am to have you here, and how I hope we are going to be happy at last!"

Fearing to address a person seemingly so well acquainted with the young man whose place I had usurped, I merely pressed, with most perfidious duplicity, the little hand that was so confidingly clasped in mine. It seemed to satisfy her, for she launched at once into ardent speech.

"Oh, Joe, I have been so anxious to have you with us once again! Hartley is a good brother, but he is not my old playmate. Then father will be so much happier if you only succeed in making him forget the past."

Seeing by this that it was Miss Carrie Benson with whom I had to deal, I pressed the little hand again, and tenderly drew her closer to my side. That I felt all the time like a villain of the blackest dye, it is quite unnecessary for me to state.

"Has Hartley told you just what you are to do?" was her next remark. "Father is very determined not to relent and has kept himself locked in his library all day, for fear you should force yourself upon his presence. I could never have gained his consent to give this ball if I had not first persuaded him it would serve as a means to keep you at a distance; that if you saw the house thronged with guests, natural modesty would restrain you from pushing yourself forward. I think he begins to distrust his own firmness. He fears he will melt at the sight of you. He has been failing this last year and – " A sudden choke stopped her voice.

I was at once both touched and alarmed; touched at the grief which showed her motives to be pure and good, and alarmed at the position in which I had thrust myself to the apparent detriment of these same laudable motives. Moved by a desire to right matters, I ventured to speak:

"And do you think," I whispered, in purposely smothered accents, "that if he sees me he will relent?"

"I am sure of it. He yearns over you, Joe; and if he had not sworn never to speak to you again, he would have sent for you long ago. Hartley believes as well as I that the time for reconciliation has come."

"And is Hartley," I ventured again, not without a secret fear of the consequences, "really anxious for reconciliation?"

"Oh, Joe! can you doubt it? Has he not striven from the first to make father forget? Would he encourage you to come here to-night, furnish you with a disguise, and consent to act both as your champion and adviser, if he did not want to see you and father friends again? You don't understand Hartley; you never have.

You would not have repelled his advances so long, if you had realized how truly he had forgiven every thing and forgotten it. Hartley has the pride of a person who has never done wrong himself. But even pride gives way before brotherly affection; and you have suffered so much and so long, poor Joe!"

"So, so," thought I, "Joe is then the aggressor!" And for a moment, I longed to be the man I represented, if only to clasp this dear little sister in my arms and thank her for her goodness. "You are a darling," I faintly articulated, inwardly determined to rush forthwith into the garden, hand over my domino to the person for whom it was intended, and make my escape from a scene which I had so little right to enjoy. But at this instant an interruption occurred which robbed me of my companion, but kept me effectually in my place. A black domino swept by us, dragging Miss Benson from my side, while at the same time a harsh voice whispered in my ear:

"To counterfeit wrong when one is right, necessarily opens one to misunderstanding."

I started, recognizing in this mode of speech a friend, and therefore one from whom I could not escape without running the risk of awakening suspicion.

"That is true," I returned, hoping by my abrupt replies to cut short this fresh colloquy and win a speedy release.

But something in my answer roused the interest of the person at my side, and caused a display of emotion that led to quite an opposite result from what I desired.

"You awaken a thousand conjectures in my mind by that reply," exclaimed my friend, edging me a little farther back from the crowd. "I have always had my doubts about – about – " he paused, hunting for the proper phrase – "about your having done what they said," he somewhat lamely concluded. "It was so unlike you. But now I begin to see the presence of a possibility that might perhaps explain much we never understood. Joe, my boy, you never said you were innocent, but – "

"Who are you?" I asked boldly, peering into the twinkling eyes that shone upon me from his sedate mask. "In the discussion of such matters as these, it would be dreadful to make a mistake."

"And don't you recognize your Uncle Joe?" he asked, with a certain plaintive reproach somewhat out of keeping with his costume of "potent, grave, and reverend signior." "I came over from Hollowell on purpose, because Carrie intimated that you were going to make one final effort to see your father. Edith is here too," he murmured, thrusting his face alarmingly near mine. "She would not stay away, though we were all afraid she might betray herself; her emotions are so quick. Poor child! she never doubted you; and if my suspicions are correct – "

"Edith?" I interrupted, – "Edith?" An Edith was the last person I desired to meet under these circumstances. "Where is she?" I tremulously inquired, starting aside in some dismay at the prospect of encountering this unknown quantity of love and devotion.

But my companion, seizing me by the arm, drew me back. "She is not far away; of that you may be sure. But it will never do for you to try and hunt her up. You would not know her in her mask. Besides, if you remain still she will come to you."

That was just what I feared, but upon looking round and seeing no suspicious-looking damsel anywhere near me, I concluded to waive my apprehensions on her account and proceed to the development of an idea that had been awakened by the old gentleman's words.

"You are right," I acquiesced, edging, in my turn, toward the curtained recess of a window near by. "Let us wait here, and meantime you shall tell me what your suspicions are, for I feel the time has come for the truth to be made known, and who could better aid me in proclaiming it than you who have always stood my friend?"

"That is true," he murmured, all eagerness at once. Then in a lower tone and with a significant gesture: "There is something, then, which has never been made known? Edith was right when she said you did not steal the bonds out of your father's desk?"

As he paused and looked me in the face, I was obliged to make some reply. I chose one of the non-committal sort.

"Don't ask me!" I murmured, turning away with every appearance of profound agitation.

He did not suspect the ruse.

"But, my boy, I shall have to ask you; if I am to help you out of this scrape, I must know the truth. Yet if it is as I suspect, I can see why you should hesitate even now. You are a generous fellow, Joe, but even generosity can be carried past its proper limits."

"Uncle," I exclaimed, leaning over him and whispering tremulously in his ear, "what are your suspicions? If I hear you give utterance to them, perhaps it will not be so hard for me to speak."

He hesitated, looked all about us with a questioning glance, put his mouth to my ear, and whispered:

"If I should use the name of Hartley in connection with what I have to say, would you be so very much surprised?"

With a quick semblance of emotion, I drew back.

"You think – " I tremulously commenced, and as suddenly broke off.

"That it was he who did it, and that you, knowing how your father loved him and built his hopes upon him, bore the blame of it yourself."

"Ha!" I exclaimed, with a deep breath as of relief. The suspicions of Uncle Joe were worth hearing.

He seemed to be satisfied with the ejaculation, and with an increase of eagerness in his tone, went quickly on:

"Am I not right, my boy? Is not this the secret of your whole conduct from that dreadful day to this?"

"Don't ask me," I again pleaded, taking care, however, to draw a step nearer and exclaim in almost the same breath: "Why should you think it must necessarily have been one of us? What did you know that you should be so positive it was either he or I who committed this dishonest action?"

"What did I know? Why, what everybody else did. That your father, hearing a noise in his study one night, rose up quietly and slipped to the door of communication in time to hear a stealthy foot leave the room and proceed down the hall toward the apartment usually occupied by you and your brother; that, alarmed and filled with vague distrust, he at once lit the lamp, only to discover his desk had been forcibly broken into and a number of coupon bonds taken out; that, struck to the heart, he went immediately to the room where you and your brother lay, found him lying quiet, and to all appearance asleep, while you looked flushed and with difficulty met his eye; that without hesitation he thereupon accused you of theft, and began to search the apartment; that he found the bonds, as we both know, in a cupboard at the head of your bed, and when you were asked if you had put them there you remained silent, and neither then nor afterward made any denial of being the one who stole them."

A mournful "Yes" was all the reply I ventured upon.

"Now it never seemed to occur to your father to doubt your guilt. The open window and the burglar's jimmy found lying on the floor of the study, being only so many proofs, to his mind, of your deep calculation and great duplicity. But I could not help thinking, even on that horrible morning, that your face did not wear a look of guilt so much as it did that of firm and quiet resolution. But I was far from suspecting the truth, my boy, or I should never have allowed you to fall a victim to your father's curse, and be sent forth like a criminal from home and kindred. If only for Edith's sake I would have spoken – dear, trusting, faithful girl that she is!"

"But – but – " I brokenly ejaculated, anxious to gain as much of the truth as was possible in the few minutes allotted me; "what has awakened your suspicions at this late day? Why should you doubt Hartley now, if you did not then?"

"Well, I cannot really say. Perhaps Edith's persistent aversion to your brother has had something to do with it. Then he has grown cold and hard, while you have preserved your boyish freshness and affection. I – I don't like him, that is the truth; and with my dislike arose doubts, and – and – well, I cannot tell how it is, but I will believe you if you say he was the one to blame in this matter; and what is more, your father will believe you too; for he does not feel the same satisfaction in Hartley's irreproachable character that he used to, and – and – "

A sudden movement in the crowd stopped him. A tall, graceful-looking woman clad entirely in white had just entered the room and seemed to be making her way toward us.

"There is Edith!" he declared. "She is hunting for the yellow domino ornamented with black that she has been told conceals her lover. Shall I go and fetch her here, or will you wait until she spies you of her own accord?"

"I will wait," I uneasily replied, edging nearer to the window with the determination of using it as a means of escape if my companion only gave me the chance. "See! she is in the hands of an old Jew, who seems to be greatly taken with the silver trimmings on her sleeves. Suppose you improve the opportunity to slip away," I laughingly suggested. "Lovers' meetings are not usually of an order to interest third parties."

"Aren't they, you rogue!" retorted the old gentleman, giving me a jocose poke in the ribs. "Well, well, I suppose you are right. But you have not told me – "

"I will tell you every thing in an hour," I hastily assured him. "I am going to meet my father in the library, and after he has heard the truth, you shall be admitted and all will be explained."

"That is only fair," he replied. "Your father has the first rights, of course. But Joe, my boy, remember I am not over and above patient of disposition, and don't keep me waiting too long." And with an affectionate squeeze of my hand, he stepped out from the recess where we stood and made his way once more into the throng.

No sooner had he left my side than I threw up the window. "Now is the time for the real Joe to appear upon the scene," was my mental decision. "I have done for him what he as a gentleman would probably never do for himself – pumped this old party and got every thing in trim for Hartley's discomfiture. But the courting business is another matter; also the interview with the outraged father in the library. That cannot be done by proxy; so here goes for a change of actors."

And with reckless disregard of consequences, I prepared to jump from the window, when a sudden light flashed over the lawn beneath and I saw I was at least twelve feet from the ground.

"Well," I exclaimed, drawing hastily back; "such a leap as that is too much to expect of any man!" And with the humiliating consciousness of being caught in a trap, I proceeded to close the window.

"Joe!"

'Twas a low whisper, but how thrilling! Turning, I greeted, with the show of fervor I considered necessary to the occasion, the white-veiled lady who had glided into my retreat.

"Did you think I was never coming, Joe? Everybody who could get in my way certainly managed to do so. Then Hartley is so suspicious, and followed me with his eyes so persistently, I did not dare show my designs too plainly. It is only this minute he left my side. If you had been anywhere else I do not know as I should have succeeded even now in getting a word with you – oh!"

This exclamation was called forth by a sudden movement that took place near us. The curtain was drawn back and a tall man dressed in a black domino glanced in, gave us a scrutinizing look, bowed, and dropped the curtain again.

"Hartley," she whisperingly explained.

I took her by the hand; there was no help for it; gesture and a lover-like demeanor must, in this case, supply the place of speech.

"Hush!" she entreated. (Not that I had spoken.) "I dare not stay. When you have seen your father, perhaps I will have courage to join you; but now it would be better for me to go." And her eyes roamed toward the curtain, while the little hand I held in mine grew cold and slightly trembled.

I pressed that little hand, but, as you may well believe, did not urge her to remain. Yet she did not seem in a hurry to depart, and I do not know what complications might have ensued, if another movement in the curtain had not reawakened her fears and caused her, notwithstanding her evident reluctance, to start quickly away.

I did not linger long behind her. Scarcely had the curtain fallen from her hand than I stepped hastily forth. But alas for my hopes of escape! No sooner had I joined the group of merry-makers circling about the open door, than I felt a touch on my arm, and looking up, saw before me the Black Domino. The hour of ten had struck and my guide to the library was at hand. There was no alternative left me but to follow him.

III.
AN UNEXPECTED CALAMITY

Five minutes passed, during which I threaded more laughing groups and sauntered down more mysterious passage-ways than I would care to count. Still the mysterious Black Domino glided on before me, leading me from door to door till my patience was nearly exhausted, and I had well-nigh determined to give him the slip and make my way at once to the garden, and the no-doubt-by-this-time-highly-impatient Joe.

But before I had the opportunity of carrying out this scheme, the ominous Black Domino paused, and carelessly pointing to a door at the termination of a narrow corridor, bowed, and hastily withdrew.

"Now," said I, as soon as I found myself alone, "shall I proceed with this farce, or shall I end it? To go on means to interview Mr. Benson, acquaint him with what has come to my knowledge during the last half hour in which I have so successfully personified his son, and by these means perhaps awake him to the truth concerning this serious matter of Joseph's innocence or Hartley's guilt; while to stop now implies nothing more nor less than a full explanation with his son, a man of whose character, manners, and disposition I know little or nothing."

Either alternative presented infinite difficulties, but of the two the former seemed to me more feasible and less embarrassing. At all events, in talking with Mr. Benson, I should not have the sensibilities of a lover to contend with, and however unfortunate in its results our interview might be, would be at the mercy of old blood instead of young, a point always to be considered in a case where one's presumption has been carried beyond the bounds of decorum.

Unlocking the door, I stepped, as I had been told I should, into a small room adjoining the library. All around me were books. Even the door by which I had entered was laden with them, so that when it was closed, all vestige of the door itself disappeared. Across the opening into the library stood a screen, and it was not until I had pushed this somewhat aside that I was able to look into that room.

My first glance assured me it was empty. Stark and bare of any occupant, the high-backed chairs loomed in the funereal gloom, while on the table, toward which I inadvertently glanced, stood a decanter with a solitary wineglass at its side. Instantly I remembered what had been told me concerning that glass, and stepping forward, I took it up and looked at it.

Immediately I heard, or thought I heard, an exclamation uttered somewhere near me. But upon glancing up and down the room and perceiving no one, I concluded I was mistaken, and deliberately proceeded to examine the wineglass and assure myself that no wine had as yet been poured upon the powder I found in it. Satisfied at last that Mr. Benson had not yet taken his usual evening potion, I put the glass back and withdrew again to my retreat.

I do not think another minute could have elapsed, before I heard a step in the room behind me. A door leading into an adjoining apartment had opened and Mr. Benson had come in. He passed immediately to the table, poured out the wine upon the powder, and drank it off without a moment's hesitation. I heard him sigh as he put the glass down.

With a turn of my hand I slipped off both domino and mask, and prepared to announce my presence by tapping on the lintel of the door beside which I stood. But a sudden change in Mr. Benson's lofty figure startled me. He was swaying, and the arms which had fallen to his side were moving with a convulsive action that greatly alarmed me. But almost instantly he recovered himself, and paced with a steady step toward the hall door, which at that moment resounded with a short loud knock.

"Who is there?" he asked, with every appearance of his usual sternness.

"Hartley," was the reply.

"Are you alone?" the old gentleman again queried, making a move as if to unlock the door.

"Carrie is with me; no one else," came in smothered accents from without.

Mr. Benson at once turned the key, but no sooner had he done so than he staggered back. For an instant or two of horror he stood oscillating from side to side, then his frame succumbed, and the terrified eyes of his children beheld his white head lying low, all movement and appearance of life gone from the form that but a moment before towered so proudly before them.

With a shriek, the daughter flung herself down at his side, and even the cheek of Hartley Benson grew white as he leaned over his father's already inanimate body.

"He is dead!" came in a wild cry from her lips. "See! he does not breathe. Oh! Hartley, what could have happened? Do you think that Joe – "

"Hush!" he exclaimed, with a furtive glance around him. "He may be here; let me look. If Joe has done this– " He did not continue, but rose, and with a rapid tread began to cross the floor in my direction.

In a flash I realized my situation. To be found by him now, without a domino, and in the position of listener, would be any thing but desirable. But I knew of no way of escape, or so for the moment it seemed. But great emergencies call forth sudden resources. In the quick look I inadvertently threw around me, I observed that the porti?re hanging between me and the library was gathered at one side in very heavy folds. If I could hide behind them perhaps I might elude the casual glance he would probably cast into my place of concealment. At all events it was worth trying, and at the thought I glided behind the curtain. I was not disappointed in my calculations. Arrived at the door, he looked in, perceived the domino lying in a heap on the floor, and immediately drew back with an exclamation of undoubted satisfaction.



скачать книгу бесплатно

страницы: 1 2 3 4 5