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EXACTLY HALF-PAST THREE.
"She is more unfortunate than wicked," was Mr. Gryce's comment as we stepped into the hall. "Nevertheless, watch her closely, for she is in just the mood to do herself a mischief. In an hour, or at the most two, I shall have a woman here to help you. You can stay till then?"
"All night, if you say so."
"That you must settle with Miss Althorpe. As soon as Miss Oliver is up I shall have a little scheme to propose, by means of which I hope to arrive at the truth of this affair. I must know which of these two men she is shielding."
"Then you think she did not kill Mrs. Van Burnam herself?"
"I think the whole matter one of the most puzzling mysteries that has ever come to the notice of the New York police. We are sure that the murdered woman was Mrs. Van Burnam, that this girl was present at her death, and that she availed herself of the opportunity afforded by that death to make the exchange of clothing which has given such a complicated twist to the whole affair. But beyond these facts, we know little more than that it was Franklin Van Burnam who took her to the Gramercy Park house, and Howard who was seen in that same vicinity some two or four hours later. But on which of these two to fix the responsibility of Mrs. Van Burnam's death, is the question."
"She had a hand in it herself," I persisted; "though it may have been without evil intent. No man ever carried that thing through without feminine help. To this opinion I shall stick, much as this girl draws upon my sympathies."
"I shall not try to persuade you to the contrary. But the point is to find out how much help, and to whom it was given."
"And your scheme for doing this?"
"Cannot be carried out till she is on her feet again. So cure her, Miss Butterworth, cure her. When she can go down-stairs, Ebenezer Gryce will be on the scene to test his little scheme."
I promised to do what I could, and when he was gone, I set diligently to work to soothe the child, as he had called her, and get her in trim for the delicate meal which had been sent up. And whether it was owing to a change in my own feelings, or whether the talk with Mr. Gryce had so unnerved her that any womanly ministration was welcome, she responded much more readily to my efforts than ever before, and in a little while lay in so calm and grateful a mood that I was actually sorry to see the nurse when she came. Hoping that something might spring from an interview with Miss Althorpe whereby my departure from the house might be delayed, I descended to the library, and was fortunate enough to find the mistress of the house there. She was sorting invitations, and looked anxious and worried.
"You see me in a difficulty, Miss Butterworth. I had relied on Miss Oliver to oversee this work, as well as to assist me in a great many other details, and I don't know of any one whom I can get on short notice to take her place. My own engagements are many and----"
"Let me help you," I put in, with that cheerfulness her presence invariably inspires. "I have nothing pressing calling me home, and for once in my life I should like to take an active part in wedding festivities. It would make me feel quite young again."
"But----" she began.
"Oh," I hastened to say, "you think I would be more of a hindrance to you than a help; that I would do the work, perhaps, but in my own way rather than in yours. Well, that would doubtless have been true of me a month since, but I have learned a great deal in the last few weeks,--you will not ask me how,--and now I stand ready to do your work in your way, and to take a great deal of pleasure in it too."
"Ah, Miss Butterworth," she exclaimed, with a burst of genuine feeling which I would not have lost for the world, "I always knew that you had a kind heart; and I am going to accept your offer in the same spirit in which it is made."
So that was settled, and with it the possibility of my spending another night in this house.
At ten o'clock I stole away from the library and the delightful company of Mr. Stone, who had insisted upon sharing my labors, and went up to Miss Oliver's room. I met the nurse at the door.
"You want to see her," said she. "She's asleep, but does not rest very easily. I don't think I ever saw so pitiful a case. She moans continually, but not with physical pain. Yet she seems to have courage too; for now and then she starts up with a loud cry. Listen."
I did so, and this is what I heard:
"I do not want to live; doctor, I do not want to live; why do you try to make me better?"
"That is what she is saying all the time. Sad, isn't it?"
I acknowledged it to be so, but at the same time wondered if the girl were not right in wishing for death as a relief from her troubles.
Early the next morning I inquired at her door again. Miss Oliver was better. Her fever had left her, and she wore a more natural look than at any time since I had seen her. But it was not an untroubled one, and it was with difficulty I met her eyes when she asked if they were coming for her that day, and if she could see Miss Althorpe before she left. As she was not yet able to leave her bed I could easily answer her first question, but I knew too little of Mr. Gryce's intentions to be able to reply to the second. But I was easy with this suffering woman, very easy, more easy than I ever supposed I could be with any one so intimately associated with crime.
She seemed to accept my explanations as readily as she already had my presence, and I was struck again with surprise as I considered that my name had never aroused in her the least emotion.
"Miss Althorpe has been so good to me I should like to thank her; from my despairing heart, I should like to thank her," she said to me as I stood by her side before leaving. "Do you know"--she went on, catching me by the dress as I was turning away--"what kind of a man she is going to marry? She has such a loving heart, and marriage is such a fearful risk."
"Fearful?" I repeated.
"Is it not fearful? To give one's whole soul to a man and be met by--I must not talk of it; I must not think of it--But is he a good man? Does he love Miss Althorpe? Will she be happy? I have no right to ask, perhaps, but my gratitude towards her is such that I wish her every joy and pleasure."
"Miss Althorpe has chosen well," I rejoined. "Mr. Stone is a man in ten thousand."
The sigh that answered me went to my heart.
"I will pray for her," she murmured; "that will be something to live for."
I did not know what reply to make to this. Everything which this girl said and did was so unexpected and so convincing in its sincerity, I felt moved by her even against my better judgment. I pitied her and yet I dared not urge her on to speak, lest I should fail in my task of making her well. I therefore confined myself to a few haphazard expressions of sympathy and encouragement, and left her in the hands of the nurse.
Next day Mr. Gryce called.
"Your patient is better," said he.
"Much better," was my cheerful reply. "This afternoon she will be able to leave the house."
"Very good; have her down at half-past three and I will be in front with a carriage."
"I dread it," I cried; "but I will have her there."
"You are beginning to like her, Miss Butterworth. Take care! You will lose your head if your sympathies become engaged."
"It sits pretty firmly on my shoulders yet," I retorted; "and as for sympathies, you are full of them yourself. I saw how you looked at her yesterday."
"Bah, my looks!"
"You cannot deceive me, Mr. Gryce; you are as sorry for the girl as you can be; and so am I too. By the way, I do not think I should speak of her as a girl. From something she said yesterday I am convinced she is a married woman; and that her husband----"
"I will not give him a name, at least not before your scheme has been carried out. Are you ready for the undertaking?"
"I will be this afternoon. At half-past three she is to leave the house. Not a minute before and not a minute later. Remember."
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