IN THE GRASS
I did some tall thinking that night. I remembered that this man had held some conversation with the Jeffreys at their carriage door previous to their departure from the Moore house, and found myself compelled to believe that only a matter of importance to themselves as well as to him would have detained them at such a minute. Oh, that Tampa were not so far off or that I had happened on this clue earlier! But Tampa was at that moment a far prospect for me and I could only reason from such facts as I had been able to collect in Washington.
Fixing my mind now on Mrs. Jeffrey, I asked the cause of the many caprices which had marked her conduct on her wedding morning. Why had she persisted in dressing alone, and what occasioned the absorption which led to her ignoring all appeals at her door at a time when a woman is supposed to be more than usually gracious? But one answer suggested itself. Her heart was not in her marriage, and that last hour of her maidenhood had been an hour of anguish and struggle. Perhaps she not only failed to love Francis Jeffrey, but loved some other man. This seemed improbable, but things as strange as this have happened in our complex society and no reckoning can be made with a woman's fancy. If this was so--and what other theory would better or even so well account for her peculiar behavior both then and afterward? The hour usually given by brides to dress and gladsome expectation was with her one of farewell to past hopes and an unfortunate, if not passionate, attachment. No wonder that she wished to be alone. No wonder that interruption angered her. Perhaps it had found her on her knees. Perhaps-- Here I felt myself seized by a strong and sudden excitement. I remembered the filings I had gathered up from the small stand by the window, filings which had glittered and which must have been of gold. What was the conclusion? In this last hour of her maiden life she had sought to rid herself of some article of jewelry which she found it undesirable to carry into her new life. What article of jewelry? In consideration of the circumstances and the hour, I could think of but one. A ring! the symbol of some old attachment.
The slight abrasion at the base of her third finger, which had been looked upon as the result of too rough and speedy a withdrawing of the wedding-ring on the evening of her death, was much more likely to have been occasioned by the reopening of some little wound made two weeks before by the file. If Durbin and the rest had taken into account these filings, they must have come to very much the same conclusion; but either they had overlooked them in their search about the place, or, having noted them, regarded them as a clue leading nowhere.
But for me they led the way to a very definite inquiry. Asking to see the rings Mrs. Jeffrey had left behind her on the night she went for the last time to the Moore house, I looked them carefully over, and found that none of them showed the least mark of the file. This strengthened my theory, and I proceeded to take my next step with increased confidence. It seemed an easy one, but proved unexpectedly difficult. My desire was to ascertain whether she had worn previous to her marriage any rings which had not been seen on her finger since, and it took me one whole week to establish the fact that she had.
But that fact once learned, the way cleared before me. Allowing my fancy full rein, I pictured to myself her anxious figure standing alone in that ancient and ghostly room filing off this old ring from her dainty finger. Then I asked myself what she would be likely to do with this ring after disengaging it from her hand? Would she keep it? Perhaps; but if so, why could it not be found? None such had been discovered among her effects. Or had she thrown it away, and if so, where? The vision of her which I had just seen in my mind's eye came out with a clearness at this, which struck me as providential. I could discern as plainly as if I had been a part of the scene the white-clad form of the bride bending toward the light which came in sparsely through the half-open shutter she had loosened for this task. This was the shutter which had never again been fastened and whose restless blowing to and fro had first led attention to this house and the crime it might otherwise have concealed indefinitely. Had some glimpse of the rank grass growing underneath this window lured her eye and led her to cast away the ring which she had no longer any right to keep? It would be like a woman to yield to such an impulse; and on the strength of the possibility I decided to search this small plot for what it might very reasonably conceal.
But I did not wish to do this openly. I was not only afraid of attracting Durbin's attention by an attempt which could only awaken his disdain, but I hesitated to arouse the suspicion of Mr. Moore, whose interest in his newly acquired property made him very properly alert to any trespass upon it.
The undertaking, therefore, presented difficulties. But it was my business to overcome these, and before long I conceived a plan by which every blade of grass in the narrow strip running in front of this house might be gone over without rousing anything more serious than Uncle David's ire.
Calling together a posse of street urchins, I organized them into a band, with the promise of a good supper all around if one of them brought me the pieces of a broken ring which I had lost in the grass plot of a house where I had been called upon to stay all night. That they might win the supper in the shortest possible time and before the owner of this house, who lived opposite, could interfere, I advised them to start at the fence in a long line and, proceeding on their knees, to search, each one, the ground before him to the width of his own body. The fortunate one was to have the privilege of saying what the supper should consist of. To give a plausible excuse for this search, a ball was to be tossed up and down the street till it lighted in the Moore house inclosure.
It was a scheme to fire the street boy's soul, and I was only afraid of failure from the over-enthusiasm it aroused. But the injunctions which I gave them to spare the shrubs and not to trample the grass any more than was necessary were so minute and impressive that they moved away to their task in unexpected order and with a subdued cheerfulness highly promising of success.
I did not accompany them. Jinny, who has such an innocent air on the street, took my place and promenaded up and down the block, just to see that Mr. Moore did not make too much trouble. And it was well she did so, for though he was not at home,--I had chosen the hour of his afternoon ride, his new man-servant was; and he no sooner perceived this crowd of urchins making for the opposite house than he rushed at them, and would have scattered them far and wide in a twinkling if the demure dimples of my little ally had not come into play and distracted his attention so completely as to make him forget the throng of unkempt hoodlums who seemed bound to invade his master's property. She was looking for Mr. Moore's house, she told him. Did he know Mr. Moore, and his house which was somewhere near? Not his new, great, big house, where the horrible things took place of which she had read in the papers, but his little old house, which she had heard was soon to be for rent, and which she thought would be just the right size for herself and mother. Was that it? That dear little place all smothered in vines? How lovely! and what would the rent be, did he think? and had it a back-yard with garden-room enough for her to raise pinks and nasturtiums? and so on, and so on, while he stared with delighted eyes, and tried to put in a word edgewise, and the boys--well, they went through that strip of grass in just ten minutes. My brave little Jinny had just declared with her most roguish smile that she would run home and tell her mother all about this sweetest of sweet little places, when a shout rose from the other side of the street, and that collection of fifteen or twenty boys scampered away as if mad, shouting in joyous echo of the boy at their head:
"It's to be chicken, heaping plates of ice cream and sponge cake."
By which token she knew that the ring had been found.
When they brought this ring to me I would not have exchanged places with any man on earth. As Jinny herself was curious enough to stroll along about this time, I held it out where we both could see it and draw our conclusions.
It was a plain gold circlet set with a single small ruby. It was cut through and twisted out of shape, just as I had anticipated; and as I examined it I wondered what part it had played and was yet destined to play in the drama of Veronica Jeffrey's mysterious life and still more mysterious death. That it was a factor of some importance, arguing some early school-girl love, I could but gather from the fact that its removal from her finger was effected in secrecy and under circumstances of such pressing haste. How could I learn the story of that ring and the possible connection between it and Mr. Jeffrey's professed jealousy of his wife and the disappointing honeymoon which had followed their marriage? That this feeling on his part had antedated the ambassador's ball no one could question; but that it had started as far back as the wedding day was a new idea to me and one which suggested many possibilities. Could this idea be established, and, if so, how? But one avenue of inquiry offered itself. The waiter, who had been spirited away so curiously immediately after the wedding; might be able to give us some information on this interesting point. He had been the medium of the messages which had passed between her and Mr. Jeffrey just prior to the ceremony; afterward he had been seen talking earnestly to that gentleman and later with her. Certainly, it would add to our understanding of the situation to know what reply she had sent to the peremptory demand made upon her at so critical a time; an understanding so desirable that the very prospect of it was almost enough to warrant a journey to Tampa. Yet, say that the results were disappointing, how much time lost and what a sum of money! I felt the need of advice in this crisis, yet hesitated to ask it. My cursed pride and my no less cursed jealousy of Durbin stood very much in my way at this time.
A week had now passed since the inquest, and, while Miss Tuttle still remained at liberty, it was a circumscribed liberty which must have been very galling to one of her temperament and habits. She rode and she walked, but she entered no house unattended nor was she allowed any communication with Mr. Jeffrey. Nevertheless she saw him, or at least gave him the opportunity of seeing her. Each day at three o'clock she rode through K Street, and the detective who watched Mr. Jeffrey's house said that she never passed it without turning her face to the second-story window, where he invariably stood. No signs passed between them; indeed, they scarcely nodded; but her face, as she lifted it to meet his eye, showed so marked a serenity and was so altogether beautiful that this same detective had a desire to see if it maintained like characteristics when she was not within reach of her brother-in-law. Accordingly, the next day he delegated his place to another and took his stand farther down the street. Alas! it was not the same woman's face he saw; but a far different and sadder one. She wore that look of courage and brave hope only in passing Mr. Jeffrey's house. Was it simply an expression of her secret devotion to him or the signal of some compact which had been entered into between them?
Whichever it was, it touched my heart, even in his description of it. After advising with Jinny I approached the superintendent, to whom, without further reserve, I opened my heart.
The next day I found myself on the train bound for Tampa, with full authority to follow Curly Jim until I found him.
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