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THE LITTLE PINCUSHION.
The verdict rendered by the Coroner's jury showed it to be a more discriminating set of men than I had calculated upon. It was murder inflicted by a hand unknown.
I was so gratified by this that I left the court-room in quite an agitated frame of mind, so agitated, indeed, that I walked through one door instead of another, and thus came unexpectedly upon a group formed almost exclusively of the Van Burnam family.
Starting back, for I dislike anything that looks like intrusion, especially when no great end is to be gained by it, I was about to retrace my steps when I felt two soft arms about my neck.
"Oh, Miss Butterworth, isn't it a mercy that this dreadful thing is over! I don't know when I have ever felt anything so keenly."
It was Isabella Van Burnam.
Startled, for the embraces bestowed on me are few, I gave a subdued sort of grunt, which nevertheless did not displease this young lady, for her arms tightened, and she murmured in my ear: "You dear old soul! I like you so much."
"We are going to be very good neighbors," cooed a still sweeter voice in my other ear. "Papa says we must call on you soon." And Caroline's demure face looked around into mine in a manner some would have thought exceedingly bewitching.
"Thank you, pretty poppets!" I returned, freeing myself as speedily as possible from embraces the sincerity of which I felt open to question. "My house is always open to you." And with little ceremony, I walked steadily out and betook myself to the carriage awaiting me.
I looked upon this display of feeling as the mere gush of two over-excited young women, and was therefore somewhat astonished when I was interrupted in my afternoon nap by an announcement that the two Misses Van Burnam awaited me in the parlor.
Going down, I saw them standing there hand in hand and both as white as a sheet.
"O Miss Butterworth!" they cried, springing towards me, "Howard has been arrested, and we have no one to say a word of comfort to us."
"Arrested!" I repeated, greatly surprised, for I had not expected it to happen so soon, if it happened at all.
"Yes, and father is just about prostrated. Franklin, too, but he keeps up, while father has shut himself into his room and won't see anybody, not even us. O, I don't know how we are to bear it! Such a disgrace, and such a wicked, wicked shame! For Howard never had anything to do with his wife's death, had he, Miss Butterworth?"
"No," I returned, taking my ground at once, and vigorously, for I really believed what I said. "He is innocent of her death, and I would like the chance of proving it."
They evidently had not expected such an unqualified assertion from me, for they almost smothered me with kisses, and called me their only friend! and indeed showed so much real feeling this time that I neither pushed them away nor tried to withdraw myself from their embraces.
When their emotions were a little exhausted I led them to a sofa and sat down before them. They were motherless girls, and my heart, if hard, is not made of adamant or entirely unsusceptible to the calls of pity and friendship.
"Girls," said I, "if you will be calm, I should like to ask you a few questions."
"Ask us anything," returned Isabella; "nobody has more right to our confidence than you."
This was another of their exaggerated expressions, but I was so anxious to hear what they had to tell, I let it pass. So instead of rebuking them, I asked where their brother had been arrested, and found it had been at his rooms and in presence of themselves and Franklin. So I inquired further and learned that, so far as they knew, nothing had been discovered beyond what had come out at the inquest except that Howard's trunks had been found packed, as if he had been making preparations for a journey when interrupted by the dreadful event which had put him into the hands of the police. As there was a certain significance in this, the girls seemed almost as much impressed by it as I was, but we did not discuss it long, for I suddenly changed my manner, and taking them both by the hand, asked if they could keep a secret.
"Secret?" they gasped.
"Yes, a secret. You are not the girls I should confide in ordinarily; but this trouble has sobered you."
"O, we can do anything," began Isabella; and "Only try us," murmured Caroline.
But knowing the volubility of the one and the weakness of the other, I shook my head at their promises, and merely tried to impress them with the fact that their brother's safety depended upon their discretion. At which they looked very determined for poppets, and squeezed my hands so tightly that I wished I had left off some of my rings before engaging in this interview.
When they were quiet again and ready to listen I told them my plans. They were surprised, of course, and wondered how I could do anything towards finding out the real murderer of their sister-in-law; but seeing how resolved I looked, changed their tone and avowed with much feeling their perfect confidence in me and in the success of anything I might undertake.
This was encouraging, and ignoring their momentary distrust, I proceeded to say:
"But for me to be successful in this matter, no one must know my interest in it. You must pay me no visits, give me no confidences, nor, if you can help it, mention my name before any one, not even before your father and brother. So much for precautionary measures, my dears; and now for the active ones. I have no curiosity, as I think you must see, but I shall have to ask you a few questions which under other circumstances would savor more or less of impertinence. Had your sister-in-law any special admirers among the other sex?"
"Oh," protested Caroline, shrinking back, while Isabella's eyes grew round as a frightened child's. "None that we ever heard of. She wasn't that kind of a woman, was she, Belle? It wasn't for any such reason papa didn't like her."
"No, no, that would have been too dreadful. It was her family we objected to, that's all."
"Well, well," I apologized, tapping their hands reassuringly, "I only asked--let me now say--from curiosity, though I have not a particle of that quality, I assure you."
"Did you think--did you have any idea--" faltered Caroline, "that----"
"Never mind," I interrupted. "You must let my words go in one ear and out of the other after you have answered them. I wish"--here I assumed a brisk air--"that I could go through your parlors again before every trace of the crime perpetrated there has been removed."
"Why, you can," replied Isabella.
"There is no one in them now," added Caroline, "Franklin went out just before we left."
At which I blandly rose, and following their leadership, soon found myself once again in the Van Burnam mansion.
My first glance upon re-entering the parlors was naturally directed towards the spot where the tragedy had taken place. The cabinet had been replaced and the shelves set back upon it; but the latter were empty, and neither on them nor on the adjacent mantel-piece did I see the clock. This set me thinking, and I made up my mind to have another look at that clock. By dint of judicious questions I found that it had been carried into the third room, where we soon found it lying on a shelf of the same closet where the hat had been discovered by Mr. Gryce. Franklin had put it there, fearing that the sight of it might affect Howard, and from the fact that the hands stood as I had left them, I gathered that neither he nor any of the family had discovered that it was in running condition.
Assured of this, I astonished them by requesting to have it taken down and set up on the table, which they had no sooner done than it started to tick just as it had done under my hand a few nights before.
The girls, greatly startled, surveyed each other wonderingly.
"Why, it's going!" cried Caroline.
"Who could have wound it!" marvelled Isabella.
"Hark!" I cried. The clock had begun to strike.
It gave forth five clear notes.
"Well, it's a mystery!" Isabella exclaimed. Then seeing no astonishment in my face, she added: "Did you know about this, Miss Butterworth?"
"My dear girls," I hastened to say, with all the impressiveness characteristic of me in my more serious moments. "I do not expect you to ask me for any information I do not volunteer. This is hard, I know; but some day I will be perfectly frank with you. Are you willing to accept my aid on these terms?"
"O yes," they gasped, but they looked not a little disappointed.
"And now," said I, "leave the clock where it is, and when your brother comes home, show it to him, and say that having the curiosity to examine it you were surprised to find it going, and that you had left it there for him to see. He will be surprised also, and as a consequence will question first you and then the police to find out who wound it. If they acknowledge having done it, you must notify me at once, for that's what I want to know. Do you understand, Caroline? And, Isabella, do you feel that you can go through all this without dropping a word concerning me and my interest in this matter?"
Of course they answered yes, and of course it was with so much effusiveness that I was obliged to remind them that they must keep a check on their enthusiasm, and also to suggest that they should not come to my house or send me any notes, but simply a blank card, signifying: "No one knows who wound the clock."
"How delightfully mysterious!" cried Isabella. And with this girlish exclamation our talk in regard to the clock closed.
The next object that attracted our attention was a paper-covered novel I discovered on a side-table in the same room.
"Whose is this?" I asked.
"Yet it was published this summer," I remarked.
They stared at me astonished, and Isabella caught up the book. It was one of those summer publications intended mainly for railroad distribution, and while neither ragged nor soiled, bore evidence of having been read.
"Let me take it," said I.
Isabella at once passed it into my hands.
"Does your brother smoke?" I asked.
"Either of them."
"Franklin sometimes, but Howard, never. It disagrees with him, I believe."
"There is a faint odor of tobacco about these pages. Can it have been brought here by Franklin?"
"O no, he never reads novels, not such novels as this, at all events. He loses a lot of pleasure, we think."
I turned the pages over. The latter ones were so fresh I could almost put my finger on the spot where the reader had left off. Feeling like a bloodhound who has just run upon a trail, I returned the book to Caroline, with the injunction to put it away; adding, as I saw her air of hesitation: "If your brother Franklin misses it, it will show that he brought it here, and then I shall have no further interest in it." Which seemed to satisfy her, for she put it away at once on a high shelf.
Perceiving nothing else in these rooms of a suggestive character, I led the way into the hall. There I had a new idea.
"Which of you was the first to go through the rooms upstairs?" I inquired.
"Both of us," answered Isabella. "We came together. Why do you ask, Miss Butterworth?"
"I was wondering if you found everything in order there?"
"We did not notice anything wrong, did we, Caroline? Do you think that the--the person who committed that awful crime went up-stairs? I couldn't sleep a wink if I thought so."
"Nor I," Caroline put in. "O, don't say that he went up-stairs, Miss Butterworth!"
"I do not know it," I rejoined.
"But you asked----"
"And I ask again. Wasn't there some little thing out of its usual place? I was up in your front chamber after water for a minute, but I didn't touch anything but the mug."
"We missed the mug, but--O Caroline, the pin-cushion! Do you suppose Miss Butterworth means the pin-cushion?"
I started. Did she refer to the one I had picked up from the floor and placed on a side-table?
"What about the pin-cushion?" I asked.
"O nothing, but we did not know what to make of its being on the table. You see, we had a little pin-cushion shaped like a tomato which always hung at the side of our bureau. It was tied to one of the brackets and was never taken off; Caroline having a fancy for it because it kept her favorite black pins out of the reach of the neighbor's children when they came here. Well, this cushion, this sacred cushion which none of us dared touch, was found by us on a little table by the door, with the ribbon hanging from it by which it had been tied to the bureau. Some one had pulled it off, and very roughly too, for the ribbon was all ragged and torn. But there is nothing in a little thing like that to interest you, is there, Miss Butterworth?"
"No," said I, not relating my part in the affair; "not if our neighbor's children were the marauders."
"But none of them came in for days before we left."
"Are there pins in the cushion?"
"When we found it, do you mean? No."
I did not remember seeing any, but one cannot always trust to one's memory.
"But you had left pins in it?"
"Possibly, I don't remember. Why should I remember such a thing as that?"
I thought to myself, "I would know whether I left pins on my pin-cushion or not," but every one is not as methodical as I am, more's the pity.
"Have you anywhere about you a pin like those you keep on that cushion?" I inquired of Caroline.
She felt at her belt and neck and shook her head.
"I may have upstairs," she replied.
"Then get me one." But before she could start, I pulled her back. "Did either of you sleep in that room last night?"
"No, we were going to," answered Isabella, "but afterwards Caroline took a freak to sleep in one of the rooms on the third floor. She said she wanted to get away from the parlors as far as possible."
"Then I should like a peep at the one overhead."
The wrenching of the pin-cushion from its place had given me an idea.
They looked at me wistfully as they turned to mount the stairs, but I did not enlighten them further. What would an idea be worth shared by them!
Their father undoubtedly lay in the back room, for they moved very softly around the head of the stairs, but once in front they let their tongues run loose again. I, who cared nothing for their babble when it contained no information, walked slowly about the room and finally stopped before the bed.
It had a fresh look, and I at once asked them if it had been lately made up. They assured me that it had not, saying that they always kept their beds spread during their absence, as they did so hate to enter a room disfigured by bare mattresses.
I could have read them a lecture on the niceties of housekeeping, but I refrained; instead of that I pointed to a little dent in the smooth surface of the bed nearest the door.
"Did either of you two make that?" I asked.
They shook their heads in amazement.
"What is there in that?" began Caroline; but I motioned her to bring me the little cushion, which she no sooner did than I laid it in the little dent, which it fitted to a nicety.
"You wonderful old thing!" exclaimed Caroline. "How ever did you think----"
But I stopped her enthusiasm with a look. I may be wonderful, but I am not old, and it is time they knew it.
"Mr. Gryce is old," said I; and lifting the cushion, I placed it on a perfectly smooth portion of the bed. "Now take it up," said I, when, lo! a second dent similar to the first.
"You see where that cushion has lain before being placed on the table," I remarked, and reminding Caroline of the pin I wanted, I took my leave and returned to my own house, leaving behind me two girls as much filled with astonishment as the giddiness of their pates would allow.
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