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The surprise which this very simple question occasioned, showed itself differently in the two men who heard it. The Inspector, who had never seen me before, simply stared, while Mr. Gryce, with that admirable command over himself which has helped to make him the most successful man on the force, retained his impassibility, though I noticed a small corner drop from my filigree basket as if crushed off by an inadvertent pressure of his hand.
"I judged," was his calm reply, as he laid down the injured toy with an apologetic grunt, "that the clearing of Howard from suspicion meant the establishment of another man's guilt; and so far as we can see there has been no other party in the case besides these two brothers."
"No? Then I fear a great surprise awaits you, Mr. Gryce. This crime, which you have fixed with such care and seeming probability upon Franklin Van Burnam, was not, in my judgment, perpetrated either by him or any other man. It was the act of a woman."
Both men spoke: the Inspector, as if he thought me demented; Mr. Gryce, as if he would like to have considered me a fool but dared not.
"Yes, a woman," I repeated, dropping a quiet curtsey. It was a proper expression of respect when I was young, and I see no reason why it should not be a proper expression of respect now, except that we have lost our manners in gaining our independence, something which is to be regretted perhaps. "A woman whom I know; a woman whom I can lay my hands on at a half-hour's notice; a young woman, sirs; a pretty woman, the owner of one of the two hats found in the Van Burnam parlors."
Had I exploded a bomb-shell the Inspector could not have looked more astounded. The detective, who was a man of greater self-command, did not betray his feelings so plainly, though he was not entirely without them, for, as I made this statement, he turned and looked at me; Mr. Gryce looked at me.
"Both of those hats belonged to Mrs. Van Burnam," he protested; "the one she wore from Haddam; the other was in the order from Altman's."
"She never ordered anything from Altman's," was my uncompromising reply. "The woman whom I saw enter next door, and who was the same who left the Hotel D---- with the man in the linen duster, was not Louise Van Burnam. She was that lady's rival, and let me say it, for I dare to think it, not only her rival but the prospective taker of her life. O you need not shake your heads at each other so significantly, gentlemen. I have been collecting evidence as well as yourselves, and what I have learned is very much to the point; very much, indeed."
"The deuce you have!" muttered the Inspector, turning away from me; but Mr. Gryce continued to eye me like a man fascinated.
"Upon what," said he, "do you base these extraordinary assertions? I should like to hear what that evidence is."
"But first," said I, "I must take a few exceptions to certain points you consider yourself to have made against Franklin Van Burnam. You believe him to have committed this crime because you found in a secret drawer of his desk a letter known to have been in Mrs. Van Burnam's hands the day she was murdered, and which you, naturally enough, I acknowledge, conceive he could only have regained by murdering her. But have you not thought of another way in which he could have obtained it, a perfectly harmless way, involving no one either in deceit or crime? May it not have been in the little hand-bag returned by Mrs. Parker on the morning of the discovery, and may not its crumpled condition be accounted for by the haste with which Franklin might have thrust it into his secret drawer at the untoward entrance of some one into his office?"
"I acknowledge that I have not thought of such a possibility," growled the detective, below his breath, but I saw that his self-satisfaction had been shaken.
"As for any proof of complicity being given by the presence of the rings on the hook attached to his desk, I grieve for your sake to be obliged to dispel that illusion also. Those rings, Mr. Gryce and Mr. Inspector, were not discovered there by the girl in gray, but taken there; and hung there at the very moment your spy saw her hand fumbling with the papers."
"Taken there, and hung there by your maid! By the girl Lena, who has so evidently been working in your interests! What sort of a confession are you making, Miss Butterworth?"
"Ah, Mr. Gryce," I gently remonstrated, for I actually pitied the old man in his hour of humiliation, "other girls wear gray besides Lena. It was the woman of the Hotel D---- who played this trick in Mr. Van Burnam's office. Lena was not out of my house that day."
I had never thought Mr. Gryce feeble, though I knew he was over seventy if not very near the octogenarian age. But he drew up a chair at this and hastily sat down.
"Tell me about this other girl," said he.
But before I repeat what I said to him, I must explain by what reasoning I had arrived at the conclusion I have just mentioned. That Ruth Oliver was the visitor in Mr. Van Burnam's office there was but little reason to doubt; that her errand was one in connection with the rings was equally plain. What else would have driven her from her bed when she was hardly able to stand, and sent her in a state of fever, if not delirium, down town to this office?
She feared having these rings found in her possession, and she also cherished a desire to throw whatever suspicion was attached to them upon the man who was already compromised. She may have thought it was Howard's desk she approached, and she may have known it to be Franklin's. On that point I was in doubt, but the rest was clear to me from the moment Mr. Gryce mentioned the girl in gray; and even the spot where she had kept them in the interim since the murder was no longer an unsolved mystery to me. Her emotion when I touched her knitting-work and the shreds of unravelled wool I had found lying about after her departure, had set my wits working, and I comprehended now that they had been wound up in the ball of yarn I had so carelessly handled.
But what had I to say to Mr. Gryce in answer to his question. Much; and seeing that further delay was injudicious, I began my story then and there. Prefacing my tale with the suspicions I had always had of Mrs. Boppert, I told them of my interview with that woman and of the valuable clue she had given me by confessing that she had let Mrs. Van Burnam into the house prior to the visit of the couple who entered there at midnight. Knowing what an effect this must produce upon Mr. Gryce, utterly unprepared for it as he was, I looked for some burst of anger on his part, or at least some expression of self-reproach. But he only broke a second piece off my little filigree basket, and, totally unconscious of the demolition he was causing, cried out with true professional delight:
"Well! well! I've always said this was a remarkable case, a very remarkable case; but if we don't look out it will go ahead of that one at Sibley. Two women in the affair, and one of them in the house before the arrival of the so-called victim and her murderer! What do you think of that, Inspector? Rather late for us to find out so important a detail, eh?"
"Rather," was the dry reply. At which Mr. Gryce's face grew long and he exclaimed, half shamefacedly, half jocularly:
"Outwitted by a woman! Well, it's a new experience for me, Inspector, and you must not be surprised if it takes me a minute or so to get accustomed to it. A scrub-woman too! It cuts, Inspector, it cuts."
But as I went on, and he learned how I had obtained definite proof of the clock having been not only wound by the lady thus admitted to the house, but set also and that correctly, his face grew even longer, and he gazed quite dolefully at the small figure in the carpet to which he had transferred his attention.
"So! so!" came in almost indistinguishable murmur from his lips. "All my pretty theory in regard to its being set by the criminal for the purpose of confirming his attempt at a false alibi was but a figment of my imagination, eh? Sad! sad! But it was neat enough to have been true, was it not, Inspector?"
"Quite," that gentleman good-humoredly admitted, yet with a shade of irony in his tone that made me suspect that, for all his confidence in and evident admiration for this brilliant old detective, he felt a certain amount of pleasure at seeing him for once at fault. Perhaps it gave him more confidence in his own judgment, seeing that their ideas on this case had been opposed from the start.
"Well! well! I'm getting old; that's what they'll say at Headquarters to-morrow. But go on, Miss Butterworth; let us hear what followed; for I am sure your investigations did not stop there."
I complied with his request with as much modesty as possible. But it was hard to suppress all triumph in face of the unrestrained enthusiasm with which he received my communication. When I told him of the doubts I had formed in regard to the disposal of the packages brought from the Hotel D----, and how to settle those doubts I had taken that midnight walk down Twenty-seventh Street, he looked astonished, his lips worked, and I really expected to see him try to pluck that flower up from the carpet, he ogled it so lovingly. But when I mentioned the lighted laundry and my discoveries there, his admiration burst all bounds, and he cried out, seemingly to the rose in the carpet, really to the Inspector:
"Didn't I tell you she was a woman in a thousand? See now! we ought to have thought of that laundry ourselves; but we didn't, none of us did; we were too credulous and too easily satisfied with the evidence given at the inquest. Well, I'm seventy-seven, but I'm not too old to learn. Proceed, Miss Butterworth."
I admired him and I was sorry for him, but I never enjoyed myself so much in my whole life. How could I help it, or how could I prevent myself from throwing a glance now and then at the picture of my father smiling upon me from the opposite wall?
It was my task now to mention the advertisement I had inserted in the newspapers, and the reflections which had led to my rather daring description of the wandering woman as one dressed thus and so, and without a hat. This seemed to strike him--as I had expected it would,--and he interrupted me with a quick slap of his leg, for which only that leg was prepared.
"Good!" he ejaculated; "a fine stroke! The work of a woman of genius! I could not have done better myself, Miss Butterworth. And what came of it? Something, I hope; talent like yours should not go unrewarded."
"Two letters came of it," said I. "One from Cox, the milliner, saying that a bareheaded girl had bought a hat in his shop early on the morning designated; and another from a Mrs. Desberger appointing a meeting at which I obtained a definite clue to this girl, who, notwithstanding she wore Mrs. Van Burnam's clothes from the scene of tragedy, is not Mrs. Van Burnam herself, but a person by the name of Oliver, now to be found at Miss Althorpe's house in Twenty-first Street."
As this was in a measure putting the matter into their hands, I saw them both grow impatient in their anxiety to see this girl for themselves. But I kept them for a few minutes longer while I related my discovery of the money in her shoes, and hinted at the explanation it afforded for her not changing those articles under the influence of the man who accompanied her.
This was the last blow I dealt to the pride of Mr. Gryce. He quivered under it, but soon recovered, and was able to enjoy what he called another fine point in this remarkable case.
But the acme of his delight was reached when I informed him of my ineffectual search for the rings, and my final conclusion that they had been wound up in the ball of yarn attached to her knitting-work.
Whether his pleasure lay chiefly in the talent shown by Miss Oliver in her choice of a hiding-place for these jewels, or in the acumen displayed by myself in discovering it, I do not know; but he evinced an unbounded satisfaction in my words, crying aloud:
"Beautiful! I don't know of anything more interesting! We have not seen the like in years! I can almost congratulate myself upon my mistakes, the features of the case they have brought out are so fine!"
But his satisfaction, great as it was, soon gave way to his anxiety to see this girl who, if not the criminal herself, was so important a factor in this great crime.
I was anxious myself to have him see her, though I feared her condition was not such as to promise him any immediate enlightenment on the doubtful portions of this far from thoroughly mastered problem. And I bade him interview the Chinaman also, and Mrs. Desberger, and even Mrs. Boppert, for I did not wish him to take for granted anything I had said, though I saw he had lost his attitude of disdain and was inclined to accept my opinions quite seriously.
He answered in quite an off-hand manner while the Inspector stood by, but when that gentleman had withdrawn towards the door, Mr. Gryce remarked with more earnestness than he had yet used:
"You have saved me from committing a folly, Miss Butterworth. If I had arrested Franklin Van Burnam to-day, and to-morrow all these facts had come to light, I should never have held up my head again. As it is, there will be numerous insinuations uttered by men on the force, and many a whisper will go about that Gryce is getting old, that Gryce has seen his best days."
"Nonsense!" was my vigorous rejoinder. "You didn't have the clue, that is all. Nor did I get it through any keenness on my part, but from the force of circumstances. Mrs. Boppert thought herself indebted to me, and so gave me her confidence. Your laurels are very safe yet. Besides, there is enough work left on this case to keep more than one great detective like you busy. While the Van Burnams have not been proved guilty, they are not so freed from suspicion that you can regard your task as completed. If Ruth Oliver committed this crime, which of these two brothers was involved in it with her? The facts seem to point towards Franklin, but not so unerringly that no doubt is possible on the subject."
"True, true. The mystery has deepened rather than cleared. Miss Butterworth, you will accompany me to Miss Althorpe's."
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