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A FRESH START
I was far from being good company that night. I knew this without being told. My mind was too busy. I was too full of regrets and plans, seasonings and counter reasonings. In my eyes Miss Tuttle had suddenly become innocent, consequently a victim. But a victim to what? To some exaggerated sense of duty? Possibly; but to what duty? That was the question, to answer which offhand I would, in my present excitement, have been ready to sacrifice a month's pay.
For I was moved, not only by the admiration and sympathy which all men must feel for a beautiful woman caught in such a deadly snare of circumstantial evidence, but by the conviction that Durbin, whose present sleek complacency was more offensive to me than the sneering superiority of a week ago, believed her to be a guilty woman, and as such his rightful prey. This alone would have influenced me to take the opposite view; for we never ran along together, and in a case where any division of opinion was possible, always found ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, on different sides. Yet I did not really dislike Durbin, who is a very fine fellow. I only hated his success and the favor which rewarded it.
I know that I have some very nasty failings and I do not shrink from owning them. My desire is to represent myself as I am, and I must admit that it was not entirely owing to disinterested motives that I now took the secret stand I did in Miss Tuttle's favor. To prove her innocent whom once I considered the cause of, if not the guilty accessory to her sister's murder, now became my dream by night and my occupation by day. Though I seemed to have no sympathizer in this effort and though the case against her was being pushed very openly in the district attorney's office, yet I clung to my convictions with an almost insensate persistence, inwardly declaring her the victim of circumstances, and hoping against hope that some clue would offer itself by means of which I might yet prove her so. But where was I to seek for this clue?
Alas, no ready answer to this very important query was forthcoming. All possible evidence in this case seemed to have been exhausted save such as Mr. Jeffrey and Miss Tuttle withheld. And so the monstrous accusation stood, and before it all Washington--my humble self included--stood in a daze of mingled doubt and compassion, hunting for explanations which failed to appear and seeking in vain for some guiltier party, who evermore slipped from under our hand. Had Mr. Jeffrey's alibi been less complete he could not have stood up against the suspicions which now ran riot. But there was no possibility of shifting the actual crime back to him after the testimony of so frank and trustworthy a man as Tallman. If the stopping of Mrs. Jeffrey's watch fixed the moment of her death as accurately as was supposed,--and I never heard the least doubt thrown out in this regard,--he could not by any means of transit then known in Washington have reached Waverley Avenue in time to fire that shot. The gates of the cemetery were closed at sundown; sundown took place that night at one minute past seven, and the distance into town is considerable. His alibi could not be gainsaid. So his name failed to be publicly broached in connection with the shooting, though his influence over Miss Tuttle could not be forgotten, suggesting to some that she had acted as his hand in the deed which robbed him of an undesirable wife. But this I would not believe. I preferred to accept the statement that she had stopped short of the library door in her suspicious visit there, and that the ribbon-tying, which went for so much, had been done at home. That these facts, especially the latter, called for more than common credulity, I was quite ready to acknowledge; and had her feeling for Francis Jeffrey shown less unselfishness, I should certainly have joined my fellows in regarding these assertions as very lame attempts to explain what could only be explained by a confession of guilt.
So here was a tangle without a frayed end to pull at, unless the impervious egotism of Uncle David afforded one, which I doubted. For how could any man with a frightful secret in his breast show that unmixed delight in his new equipage and suddenly acquired position, which had so plainly beamed from that gentleman's calm eye and assured bearing? When he met my scrutiny in the sacred precincts where the one love of his heart lay buried, he did so without a quiver or any sign of inner disturbance. His tone to Caesar as he drove off had been the tone of a man who can afford to speak quietly because he is conscious of being so undeniably the master; and when his foot rose to the carriage step it was with the confidence of one who had been kept out of his rights for most of his natural life, but who feels in his present enjoyment of them no apprehension of a change. His whole bearing and conversation on that day were, as I am quite ready to admit, an exhibition of prodigious selfishness; but it was also an exhibition of mental poise incompatible with a consciousness of having acquired his fortune by any means which laid him open to the possibility of losing it. Or so I judged.
Finding myself, with every new consideration of the tantalizing subject, deeper and deeper in the quagmire of doubt and uncertainty, I sought enlightenment by making a memorandum of the special points which must have influenced the jury in their verdict, as witness:
1. The relief shown by Mr. Jeffrey at finding an apparent communication from his wife hinting at suicide.
2. The possibility, disclosed by the similarity between the sisters' handwriting, of this same communication being a forgery substituted for the one really written by Mrs. Jeffrey.
3. The fact that, previous to Mr. Jeffrey's handling of the book in which this communication was said to have been hidden, it had been seen in Miss Tuttle's hands.
4. That immediately after this she had passed to the drawer where Mr. Jeffrey's pistol was kept.
5. That while this pistol had not been observed in her hand, there was as yet no evidence to prove that it had been previously taken from the drawer, save such as was afforded by her own acknowledgment that she had tied some unknown object, presumably the pistol, to her sister's wrist before that sister left the house.
6. That if this was so, the pistol and the ribbon connecting it with Mrs. Jeffrey's wrist had been handled again before the former was discharged, and by fingers which had first touched dust--of which there was plenty in the old library.
7. That Miss Tuttle had admitted, though not till after much prevarication and apparent subterfuge, that she had extended her walk on that fatal night not only as far as the Moore house, but that she had entered it and penetrated as far as the library door at the very moment the shot was fired within.
8. That in acknowledging this she had emphatically denied having associated the firing of this shot with any idea of harm to her sister; yet was known to have gone from this house in a condition of mind so serious that she failed to recollect the places she visited or the streets she passed through till she found herself again in her sister's house face to face with an officer.
9. That her first greeting of this officer was a shriek, betraying a knowledge of his errand before he had given utterance to a word.
10. That the candles found in the Moore house were similar to those bought by Mr. Jeffrey and afterward delivered at his kitchen door.
11. That she was the only member of the household besides the cook who was in the kitchen at the time, and that it was immediately after her departure from the room that the package containing the candles had been missed.
12. That opportunities of coming to an understanding with Mr. Jeffrey after his wife's death had not been lacking and it was not until after such opportunities had occurred that any serious inquiry into this matter had been begun by the police. To which must be added, not in way of proof but as an important factor in the case, that her manner, never open, was such throughout her whole public examination as to make it evident to all that only half of what had occurred in the Jeffreys' house since the wedding had been given out by her or by the man for whose release from a disappointing matrimonial entanglement she was supposed to have worked; this, though the suspicion hanging over them both called for the utmost candor.
Verily, a serious list; and opposed to this I had as yet little to offer but my own belief in her innocence and the fact, but little dwelt on and yet not without its value, that the money which had come to Mr. Jeffrey, and the home which had been given her, had both been forfeited by Mrs. Jeffrey's death.
As I mused and mused over this impromptu synopsis, in my vain attempt to reach some fresh clue to a proper understanding of the inconsistencies in Miss Tuttle's conduct by means of my theory of her strong but mistaken devotion to Mr. Jeffrey, a light suddenly broke upon me from an entirely unexpected quarter. It was a faint one, but any glimmer was welcome. Remembering a remark made by Mr. Jeffrey in his examination, that Mrs. Jeffrey had not been the same since crossing the fatal doorstep of the Moore house, I asked myself if we had paid enough attention to the mental condition and conduct of the bride prior to the alarm which threw a pall of horror over her marriage; and caught by the idea, I sought for a fuller account of the events of that day than had hitherto been supplied by newspaper or witness.
Hunting up my friend, the reporter, I begged him to tell me where he had obtained the facts from which he made that leading article in the Star which had so startled all Washington on the evening of the Jeffrey wedding. That they had come from some eye-witness I had no doubt, but who was the eye-witness? Himself? No. Who then? At first he declined to tell me, but after a fuller understanding of my motives he mentioned the name of a young lady, who, while a frequent guest at the most fashionable functions, was not above supplying the papers with such little items of current gossip as came under her own observation.
How I managed to approach this lady and by what means I succeeded in gaining her confidence are details quite unnecessary to this narrative. Enough that I did obtain access to her and that she talked quite frankly to me, and in so doing supplied me with a clue which ultimately opened up to me an entirely new field of inquiry. We had been discussing Mr. Jeffrey and Miss Tuttle, when suddenly, and with no apparent motive beyond the natural love of gossip which was her weakness, she launched out into remarks about the bride. The ceremony had been late; did I know it? A half-hour or three-quarters past the time set for it. And why? Because Miss Moore was not ready. She had chosen to array herself in the house and had come early enough for the purpose; but she would not accept any assistance, not even that of her maid, and of course she kept every one waiting. "Oh, there was no more uneasy soul in the whole party that morning than the bride!" Let other people remark upon the high look in Cora Tuttle's face, or gossip about the anxious manner of the bridegroom; she, the speaker, could tell things about the bride which would go to show that she was not all right even before that ominous death's-head reared itself into view at her marriage festival. Why, the fact that she came downstairs and was married without her bridal bouquet was enough. Had there not been so much else to talk about, people would have talked about that. But the big event had so effectually swallowed up the little that only herself, and possibly two other ladies she might name, seemed to retain any memory of the matter.
"What ladies?" I asked.
"Oh, it doesn't matter what ladies. Two of the very best sort. I know they noticed it, because I heard them talking about it. We were all standing in the upper hall and were all crowded into a passage leading to the room where the bride was dressing. It was before the alarm had gone around of what had been discovered in the library, and we were all impatient enough for the appearance of the bride, who, we had been told, intended to wear the old point in which her great-grandmother was married. I have a weakness for old point and I was determined to stand where I could see her come out, even if I lost sight of the ceremony itself. But it would have been tedious enough waiting in that close hall if the ladies behind me had not kept up a conversation, which I, of course, pretended not to hear. I remember it, every word, for it was my sole amusement for half an hour. What was it? Oh, it was about that same bouquet, which, by the way, I had the privilege of staring at all the time they chatted. For the boy who brought it had not been admitted into Miss Moore's room, and, not knowing what else to do with it, was lingering before her door, with the great streamers falling from his hands, and the lilies making the whole place heavy with a sickening perfume. From what I heard the ladies say, he had been standing there an hour, and the timid knock he gave from time to time produced in me an odd feeling which those ladies behind me seemed to share.
"'It's a shame!' I heard one of them cry. 'Veronica Moore has no excuse for such thoughtlessness. It is an hour now that she has been shut up in her room alone. She won't have even her maid in. She prefers to dress alone, she says. Peculiar in a bride, isn't it? But one thing is certain: she can not put on her veil without help. She will have to call some one in for that.' At which the other volunteered that the Moores were all queer, and that she didn't envy Francis Jeffrey. 'What! not with fifty thousand a year to lighten her oddities?' returned her companion with a shrug which communicated itself to me, so closely were we packed together. 'I have a son who could bear with them under such circumstances.' Indeed she has, and all Washington knows it, but the remark passed without comment, for they had not yet exhausted the main event, and the person they now attacked was Miss Tuttle. 'Why doesn't she come and see that that bouquet is taken in? I declare it's not decent. Mr. Jeffrey would not feel complimented if he knew the fate of those magnificent lilies and roses. I presume he furnished the bouquet.'
"'Miss Tuttle has looked out of her room once,' I heard the other reply. 'She is in splendid beauty to-day, but pale. But she never could control Veronica.' 'Hush! you speak louder than you think' This amused me, and I do believe that in another moment I should have laughed outright if another boy had not appeared in the hall before us, who, shoving aside the first, rapped on the door with a spirit which called for answer. But he was no more successful than the other boy had been; so, being a brisk fellow, with no time for nonsense, he called out, 'Your bouquet, Miss, and a message, which I am to give you before you go downstairs! The gentleman is quite particular about it.' These words were literally shouted at the door, but in the hubbub of voices about us I don't believe any one heard them but ourselves and the bride. I know that she heard them, for she opened the door a very little way,--such a very little way that the boy had to put his lips to the crack when he spoke, and then turn and place his ear where his lips had been in order to catch her reply. This, for some reason, seemed a long time in coming, and the fellow grew so impatient that he amused himself by snatching the bouquet from the other boy and thrusting it in through the crack, to the very great detriment of its roses and lilies. When she took it he bawled for his answer, and when he got it, he stared and muttered doubtfully to himself as he worked his way out again through the crowd, which by this time was beginning to choke up all the halls and stairways.
"But why have I told you all this nonsense?" she asked quite suddenly. "It isn't of the least consequence that Veronica Moore kept a boy waiting at her door while she dressed herself for her wedding; but it shows that she was queer even then, and I for one believe in the theory of suicide, and in that alone, and in the excuse she gave for it, too; for if she had really loved Francis Jeffrey she would not have been so slow to take in the magnificent bouquet he had provided for her."
But comment, even from those who had known these people well, was not what I wanted at this moment, but facts. So, without much attention to these words, I said:
"You will excuse me if I suggest that you are going on too fast. The door of the bride's room has just been shut upon the boy who brought her a message. When was it opened again?"
"Not for a good half-hour; not till every one had grown nervous and Miss Tuttle and one or two of her most intimate friends had gone more than once to her door; not, in fact, till the hour for the ceremony had come and gone and Mr. Jeffrey had crossed the hall twice under the impression that she was ready for him. Then, when weariness was general and people were asking what kept the bride and how much longer they were to be kept waiting, her door suddenly opened and I caught a glimpse of her face and heard her ask at last for her maid. O, I repeat that Veronica Moore was not all right that day, and though I have heard no one comment on the fact, it has been a mystery to me ever since why she gave that sudden recoil when Francis Jeffrey took her hand after the benediction. It was not timidity, nor was it fear, for she did not know till a minute afterward what had happened in the house. Did some sudden realization of what she had done in marrying a man whom she herself declared she did not love come when it was too late? What do you think?"
Miss Freeman had forgotten herself; but the impetuosity which had led her into asking my opinion made her forget in another moment that she had done so. And when in my turn I propounded a question and inquired whether she ever again saw the boy who besieged the bride's door with a message, she graciously replied:
"The boy; let me see. Yes, I saw him twice; once in a back hall talking earnestly to Mr. Jeffrey, and secondly at the carriage door just before the bridal party rode away. It was Mrs. Jeffrey who was talking to him then, and I wondered to see him look so pleased when everybody in and about the house was pale as ashes."
"Do you know the name of that boy?" I carelessly inquired.
"His name? O no. He is one of Raucher's waiters; the curly-haired one. You see him everywhere; but I don't know his name. Do you flatter yourself that he can tell you anything that other people don't know? Why, if he knew the least thing that wasn't in everybody's mouth, you would have heard from him long ago. Those men are the greatest gossips in town"--I wonder what she thought of herself,--"and so proud to be of any importance." This was true enough, though I did not admit it at the time; and when the interview was closed and I went away, I have no doubt she considered me quite the most heavy person she had ever met. But this did not disturb me. The little facts she had stated were new to me and, repeating my former method, I was already busy arranging them in my mind. Witness the result:
1. The ceremony of marriage between Francis Jeffrey and Veronica Moore was fully three-quarters of an hour late.
2. This was owing to the caprice of the bride, who would not have any one in the room with her, not even her maid.
3. The bridal bouquet did not figure in the ceremony. In the flurry of the moment it was forgotten or purposely left behind by the bride. As this bouquet was undoubtedly the gift of Mr. Jeffrey, the fact may be significant.
4. She received a message of a somewhat peremptory character before going below. From whom? Her bridegroom? It would so appear from the character of the message.
5. The messenger showed great astonishment at the reply he was given to carry back. Yet he has not been known to mention the matter. Why? When every one talked he was silent. Through whose influence? This was something to find out.
6. Though at the time the benediction was pronounced every one was in a state of alarm except the bride, it was noticed that she gave an involuntary recoil when her bridegroom stooped for the customary kiss. Why? Were the lines of her last farewell true then, and did she experience at that moment a sudden realization of her lack of love?
7. She did not go again upstairs, but very soon fled from the house with the rest of the bridal party.
Petty facts, all, but possibly more significant than appeared. I made up my mind to find the boy who brought the bouquet and also the one who carried back her message.
But here a surprise, if not a check, awaited me. The florist's boy had left his place and no one could tell where he had gone. Neither could I find the curly-haired waiter at Raucher's. He had left also, but it was to join the volunteers at San Antonio.
Was there meaning in this coincidence? I resolved to know. Visiting the former haunts of both boys, I failed to come upon any evidence of an understanding between them, or of their having shown any special interest in the Jeffrey tragedy. Both seemed to have been strangely reticent in regard to it, the florist's boy showing stupidity and the waiter such satisfaction in his prospective soldiering that no other topic was deemed worthy his attention. The latter had a sister and she could not say enough of the delight her brother had shown at the prospect of riding a horse again and of fighting in such good company. He had had some experience as a cowboy before coming to Washington, and from the moment war was declared had expressed his intention of joining the recruits for Cuba as soon as he could see her so provided for that his death would not rob her of proper support. How this had come about she did not know. Three weeks before he had been in despair over the faint prospect of doing what he wished; then suddenly, and without any explanation of how the change had come about, he had rushed in upon her with the news that he was going to enlist in a company made up of bronco busters and rough riders from the West, that she need not worry about herself or about him, for he had just put five hundred dollars to her account in bank, and that as for himself he possessed a charmed life and was immune, as she well knew, and need fear bullets no more than the fever. By this he meant that he had had yellow fever years before in Louisiana, and that a ball which had once been fired at him had gone clean through his body without taking his life.
"What was the date of the evening on which be told you he had placed money in bank for you?"
"April the twenty-ninth."
Two days after the Jeffrey-Moore wedding!
Convinced now that his departure from town was something more than a coincidence, I pursued my inquiries and found that he had been received, just as she had said, into the First Volunteer Corps under Colonel Wood. This required influence. Whose was the influence? It took me some time to find out, but after many and various attempts, most of which ended in failure, I succeeded in learning that the man who had worked and obtained for him a place in this favored corps was FRANCIS JEFFREY.
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