The Filigree Ball by Anna Katharine Green - HTML preview
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I am in some ways hypersensitive. Among my other weaknesses I have a wholesome dread of ridicule, and this is probably why I failed to press my theory on the captain when he appeared, and even forbore to mention the various small matters which had so attracted my attention. If he and the experienced men who came with him saw suicide and nothing but suicide in this lamentable shooting of a bride of two weeks, then it was not for me to suggest a deeper crime, especially as one of the latter eyed me with open scorn when I proposed to accompany them upstairs into the room where the light had been seen burning. No, I would keep my discoveries to myself or, at least, forbear to mention them till I found the captain alone, asking nothing at this juncture but permission to remain in the house till Mr. Jeffrey arrived.
I had been told that an officer had gone for this gentleman, and when I heard the sound of wheels in front I made a rush for the door, in my anxiety to catch a glimpse of him. But it was a woman who alighted.
As this woman was in a state of great agitation, one of the men hastened down to offer his arm. As she took it, I asked Hibbard, who had suddenly reappeared upon the scene, who she was.
He said that she was probably the sister of the woman who lay inside. Upon which I remembered that this lady, under the name of Miss Tuttle - she was but half-sister to Miss Moore - had been repeatedly mentioned by the reporters, in the accounts of the wedding before mentioned, as a person of superior attainments and magnificent beauty.
This did not take from my interest, and flinging decorum to the winds, I approached as near as possible to the threshold which she must soon cross. As I did so I was astonished to hear the strains of Uncle David's organ still pealing from the opposite side of the way. This at a moment so serious and while matters of apparent consequence were taking place in the house to which he had himself directed the attention of the police, struck me as carrying stoicism to the extreme. Not very favorably impressed by this display of open if not insulting indifference on the part of the sole remaining Moore, - an indifference which did not appear quite natural even in a man of his morbid eccentricity, - I resolved to know more of this old man and, above all, to make myself fully acquainted with the exact relations which had existed between him and his unhappy niece.
Meanwhile Miss Tuttle had stepped within the circle of light cast by our lanterns.
I have never seen a finer woman, nor one whose features displayed a more heart-rending emotion. This called for respect, and I, for one, endeavored to show it by withdrawing into the background. But I soon stepped forward again. My desire to understand her was too great, the impression made by her bearing too complex, to be passed over lightly by one on the lookout for a key to the remarkable tragedy before us.
Meanwhile her lips had opened with the cry:
"My sister! Where is my sister?"
The captain made a hurried movement toward the rear and then with the laudable intention, doubtless, of preparing her for the ghastly sight which awaited her, returned and opened a way for her into the drawing-room. But she was not to be turned aside from her course. Passing him by, she made directly for the library which she entered with a bound. Struck by her daring, we all crowded up behind her, and, curious brutes that we were, grouped ourselves in a semicircle about the doorway as she faltered toward her sister's outstretched form and fell on her knees beside it. Her involuntary shriek and the fierce recoil she made as her eyes fell on the long white ribbon trailing over the floor from her sister's wrist, struck me as voicing the utmost horror of which the human soul is capable. It was as though her very soul were pierced. Something in the fact itself, something in the appearance of this snowy ribbon tied to the scarce whiter wrist, seemed to pluck at the very root of her being; and when her glance, in traveling its length, lighted on the death dealing weapon at its end, she cringed in such apparent anguish that we looked to see her fall in a swoon or break out into delirium. We were correspondingly startled when she suddenly burst forth with this word of stern command:
"Untie that knot! Why do you leave that dreadful thing fast to her? Untie it, I say, it is killing me; I can not bear the sight." And from trembling she passed to shuddering till her whole body shook convulsively.
The captain, with much consideration, drew back the hand he had impulsively stretched toward the ribbon.
"No, no," he protested; "we can not do that; we can do nothing till the coroner comes. It is necessary that he should see her just as she was found. Besides, Mr. Jeffrey has a right to the same privilege. We expect him any moment."
The beautiful head of the woman before us shook involuntarily, but her lips made no protest. I doubt if she possessed the power of speech at that moment. A change, subtle, but quite perceptible, had taken place in her emotions at mention of her sister's husband, and, though she exerted herself to remain calm, the effort seemed too much for her strength. Anxious to hide this evidence of weakness, she rose impetuously; and then we saw how tall she was, how the long lines of her cloak became her, and what a glorious creature she was altogether.
"It will kill him," she groaned in a deep inward voice. Then, with a certain forced haste and in a tone of surprise which to my ear had not quite a natural ring, she called aloud on her who could no longer either listen or answer:
"Oh, Veronica, Veronica! What cause had you for death? And why do we find you lying here in a spot you so feared and detested?"
"Don't you know?" insinuated the captain, with a mild persuasiveness, such as he was seldom heard to use. "Do you mean that you can not account for your sister's violent end, you, who have lived with her - or so I have been told-ever since her marriage with Mr. Jeffrey?"
Keen and clear the word rang out, fierce in its keenness and almost too clear to be in keeping with the half choked tones with which she added: "I know that she was not happy, that she never has been happy since the shadow which this room suggests fell upon her marriage. But how could I so much as dream that her dread of the past or her fear of the future would drive her to suicide, and in this place of all places! Had I done so - had I imagined in the least degree that she was affected to this extent - do you think that I would have left her for one instant alone? None of us knew that she contemplated death. She had no appearance of it; she laughed when I -"
What had she been about to say? The captain seemed to wonder, and after waiting in vain for the completion of her sentence, he quietly suggested:
"You have not finished what you had to say, Miss Tuttle."
She started and seemed to come back from some remote region of thought into which she had wandered. "I don't know - I forget," she stammered, with a heart-broken sigh. "Poor Veronica! Wretched Veronica! How shall I ever tell him! How, how, can we ever prepare him!"
The captain took advantage of this reference to Mr. Jeffrey to ask where that gentleman was. The young lady did not seem eager to reply, but when pressed, answered, though somewhat mechanically, that it was impossible for her to say; Mr. Jeffrey had many friends with any one of whom he might be enjoying a social evening.
"But it is far past midnight now," remarked the captain. "Is he in the habit of remaining out late?"
"Sometimes," she faintly admitted. "Two or three times since his marriage he has been out till one."
Were there other causes for the young bride's evident disappointment and misery besides the one intimated? There certainly was some excuse for thinking so.
Possibly some one of as may have shown his doubts in this regard, for the woman before us suddenly broke forth with this vehement assertion:
"Mr. Jeffrey was a loving husband to my sister. A very loving husband," she emphasized. Then, growing desperately pale, she added, "I have never known a better man," and stopped.
Some hidden anguish in this cry, some self-consciousness in this pause, suggested to me a possibility which I was glad to see ignored by the captain in his next question.
"When did you see your sister last?" he asked. "Were you at home when she left her husband's house?"
"Alas!" she murmured. Then seeing that a more direct answer was expected of her, she added with as little appearance of effort as possible: "I was at home and I heard her go out. But I had no idea that it was for any purpose other than to join some social gathering."
"Dressed this way?"
The captain pointed to the floor and her eyes followed. Certainly Mrs. Jeffrey was not appareled for an evening company. As Miss Tuttle realized the trap into which she had been betrayed, her words rushed forth and tripped each other up.
"I did not notice. She often wore black - it became her. My sister was eccentric."
Worse, worse than useless. Some slips can not be explained away. Miss Tuttle seemed to realize that this was one of them, for she paused abruptly, with the words half finished on her tongue. Yet her attitude commanded respect, and I for one was ready to accord it to her.
Certainly, such a woman was not to be seen every day, and if her replies lacked candor, there was a nobility in her presence which gave the lie to any doubt. At least, that was the effect she produced on me. Whether or not her interrogator shared my feeling I could not so readily determine, for his attention as well as mine was suddenly diverted by the cry which now escaped her lips.
"Her watch! Where is her watch? It is gone! I saw it on her breast and it's gone. It hung just - just where -"
"Wait!" cried one of the men who had been peering about the floor. "Is this it?"
He held aloft a small object blazing with jewels.
"Yes," she gasped, trying to take it.
But the officer gave it to the captain instead. "It must have slipped from her as she fell," remarked the latter, after a cursory examination of the glittering trinket. "The pin by which she attached it to her dress must have been insecurely fastened." Then quickly and with a sharp look at Miss Tuttle: "Do you know if this was considered an accurate timepiece?"
"Yes. Why do you ask? Is it -"
"Look!" He held it up with the face toward us. The hands stood at thirteen minutes past seven. "The hour and the moment when it struck the floor," he declared. "And consequently the hour and the moment when Mrs. Jeffrey fell," finished Durbin.
Miss Tuttle said nothing, only gasped.
"Valuable evidence," quoth the captain, putting the watch in his pocket. Then, with a kind look at her, called forth by the sight of her misery:
"Does this hour agree with the time of her leaving the house?"
"I can not say. I think so. It was some time before or after seven. I don't remember the exact minute."
"It would take fifteen for her to walk here. Did she walk?"
"I do not know. I didn't see her leave. My room is at the back of the house."
"You can say if she left alone or in the company of her husband?"
"Mr. Jeffrey was not with her?"
"Was Mr. Jeffrey in the house?"
"He was not."
This last negative was faintly spoken.
The captain noticed this and ventured upon interrogating her further.
"How long had he been gone?"
Her lips parted; she was deeply agitated; but when she spoke it was coldly and with studied precision.
"Mr. Jeffrey was not at home to-night at all. He has not been in all day." "Not at home? Did his wife know that he was going to dine out?"
"She said nothing about it."
The captain cut short his questions and in another moment I understood why. A gentleman was standing in the doorway, whose face once seen, was enough to stop the words on any man's lips. Miss Tuttle saw this gentleman almost as quickly as we did and sank with an involuntary moan to her knees.
It was Francis Jeffrey come to look upon his dead bride.
I have been present at many tragic scenes and have beheld men under almost every aspect of grief, terror and remorse; but there was something in the face of this man at this dreadful moment that was quite new to me, and, as I judge, equally new to the other hardy officials about me. To be sure he was a gentleman and a very high-bred one at that; and it is but seldom we have to do with any of his ilk.
Breathlessly we awaited his first words.
Not that he showed frenzy or made any display of the grief or surprise natural to the occasion. On the contrary, he was the quietest person present, and among all the emotions his white face mirrored I saw no signs of what might be called sorrow. Yet his appearance was one to wring the heart and rouse the most contradictory conjectures as to just what chord in his evidently highly strung nature throbbed most acutely to the horror and astonishment of this appalling end of so short a married life.
His eye, which was fixed on the prostrate body of his bride, did not yield up its secret. When he moved and came to where she lay and caught his first sight of the ribbon and the pistol attached to it, the most experienced among us were baffled as to the nature of his feelings and thoughts. One thing alone was patent to all. He had no wish to touch this woman whom he had so lately sworn to cherish. His eyes devoured her, he shuddered and strove several times to speak, and though kneeling by her side, he did not reach forth his hand nor did he let a tear fall on the appealing features so pathetically turned upward as if to meet his look.
Suddenly he leaped to his feet.
"Must she stay here?" he demanded, looking about for the person most in authority.
The captain answered by a question:
"How do you account for her being here at all? What explanation have you, as her husband, to give for this strange suicide of your wife?"
For reply, Mr. Jeffrey, who was an exceptionally handsome man, drew forth a small slip of crumpled paper, which he immediately handed over to the speaker.
"Let her own words explain," said he. "I found this scrap of writing in our upstairs room when I returned home to-night. She must have written it just before - before -"
A smothered groan filled up the break, but it did not come from his lips, which were fixed and set, but from those of the woman who crouched amongst us. Did he catch this expression of sorrow from one whose presence he as yet had given no token of recognizing? He did not seem to. His eye was on the captain, who was slowly reading, by the light of a lantern held in a detective's hand, the almost illegible words which Mr. Jeffrey had just said were his wife's last communication.
Will they seem as pathetic to the eye as they did to the ear in that room of awesome memories and present death?
"I find that I do not love you as I thought I did. I can not live, knowing this to be so. I pray God that you may forgive me.
A gasp from the figure in the corner; then silence. We were glad to hear the captain's voice again.
"A woman's heart is a great mystery," he remarked, with a short glance at Mr. Jeffrey.
It was a sentiment we could all echo; for he, to whom she had alluded in these few lines as one she could not love, was a man whom most women would consider the embodiment of all that was admirable and attractive.
That one woman so regarded him was apparent to all. If ever the heart spoke in a human face, it spoke in that of Miss Tuttle as she watched her sister's husband struggling for composure above the prostrate form of her who but a few hours previous had been the envy of all the fashionable young women in Washington. I found it hard to fix my attention on the next question, interesting and valuable as every small detail was likely to prove in case my theory of this crime should ever come to be looked on as the true one.
"How came you to search here for the wife who had written you this vague and far from satisfactory farewell? I see no hint in these lines of the place where she intended to take her life."
"No! no!" Even this strong man shrank from this idea and showed a very natural recoil as his glances flew about the ill-omened room and finally rested on the fireside over which so repellent a mystery hung in impenetrable shadow. "She said nothing of her intentions; nothing! But the man who came for me told me where she was to be found. He was waiting at the door of my house. He had been on a search for me up and down the town. We met on the stoop."
The captain accepted this explanation without cavil. I was glad he did. But to me the affair showed inconsistencies which I secretly felt it to be my especial duty to unravel.