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A THREAD IN HAND
There are moments which stand out with intense force and clearness in every man's life. Mine was the one which followed the reading of these lines which were meant for a warning, but which in more than one case had manifestly served to open the way to a repetition of the very crime they deplored. I felt myself under the same fascination. I wanted to test the mechanism; to follow out then and there the instructions given with such shortsighted minuteness and mark the result. But a sense of decorum prevented. It was clearly my duty to carry so important a discovery as this to the major and subject myself to his commands before making the experiment suggested by the scroll I had so carefully deciphered. Besides, it would be difficult to carry out this experiment alone, and with no other light ht than that afforded by my lantern. Another man and more lights were needed.
Influenced by these considerations, I restored the picture to its place, and left the building. As I did so, the first signs of dawn became visible in the east. I had expended three hours in picking out the meaning concealed in the wavy lines of the old picture.
I was early at headquarters that morning, but not so early as to find the superintendent alone. A group of men were already congregated about him in his small office, and when, on being admitted, I saw amongst them the district attorney, Durbin and another famous detective, I instinctively knew what matter was under discussion.
I was allowed to remain, possibly because I brought news in my face, possibly because the major felt more kindly toward me than I thought. Though Durbin, who had been speaking, had at first sight of me shut his mouth like a trap, and even went so far as to drum an impatient protest with his fingers on the table before which he stood, neither the major nor the district attorney turned an unkindly face toward me, and my amiable friend was obliged to accept my presence with what grace he could.
There was with them a fourth man, who stood apart. On him the general attention had been concentrated at my entrance and to him it now returned. He was an unpretentious person of kindly aspect. To any one accustomed to Washington residents, he bore the unmistakable signs of being one of the many departmental employees whose pay is inadequate to the necessities of his family. Of his personal peculiarities I noted two. He blinked when he talked, and stuttered painfully when excited. Notwithstanding these defects he made a good impression, and commanded confidence. This I soon saw was of importance, for the story he now entered upon was one calculated to make me forget my own errand and even to question my own convictions.
The first intimation I received of the curious nature of his communication was through the following questions, put to him by the major:
"You are sure this gentleman is identical with the one pointed out to you last night?"
"Very sure, sir. I can swear to it."
I omit all evidence of the defect in his speech above mentioned.
"You recognize him positively?"
"Positively. I should have picked him out with the same assurance, if I had seen him in some other city and in a crowd of as fine-looking gentlemen as himself. His face made a great impression on me. You see I had ample time to study it in the few minutes we stood so close together."
"So you have said. Will you be kind enough to repeat the circumstance? I should like the man who has just come in to hear your description of this scene. Give the action, please. It is all very interesting."
The stranger glanced inquisitively in my direction, and turned to obey the superintendent.
"I was returning to my home in Georgetown, on the evening of May the eleventh, the day of the great tragedy. My wife was ill, and I had been into town to see a physician and should have gone directly home; but I was curious to see how high the flood was running--you remember it was over the banks that night. So I wandered out on the bridge, and came upon the gentleman about whom you have been questioning me. He was standing all alone leaning on the rail thus." Here the speaker drew up a chair, and, crossing his arms over its back, bent his head down over them. "I did not know him, but the way he eyed the water leaping and boiling in a yellow flood beneath was not the way of a curious man like myself, but of one who was meditating some desperate deed. He was handsome and well dressed, but he looked a miserable wretch and was in a state of such complete self-absorption that he did not notice me, though I had stopped not five feet from his side. I expected to see him throw himself over, but instead of that, he suddenly raised his head and, gazing straight before him, not at the heavy current, but at some vision in his own mind, broke forth in these words, spoken as I had never heard words spoken before--"
Here the speaker's stuttering got the better of him and the district attorney had time to say:
"What were these words? Speak them slowly; we have all the time there is."
Instantly the man plucked up heart and, eying us all impressively, was able to say:
"They were these: 'She must die! she must die!' No name, but just the one phrase twice repeated, 'She must die!' This startled me, and hardly knowing whether to lay hands on him, or to turn about and run, I was moving slowly away, when he drew his arms from the rail, like this, and, still staring into space, added, in the same hard and determined voice, this one word more, 'To-night!' ; and, wheeling about, passed me with one blank and wholly unconscious look and betook himself toward the city. As he went by, his lips opened for the third time. 'Which means--' he cried, between a groan and a shriek, 'a bullet for her and--' I wish I had heard the rest, but he was out of my hearing before his sentence was finished."
"What time was this?"
"As near half-past five as possible. It was six when I reached home a few minutes later."
"Ah, he must have gone to the cemetery after this."
"I am quite sure of it."
"Why didn't you follow the man?" grumbled Durbin.
"It wasn't my business. He was a stranger and possibly mad. I didn't know what to do."
"What did you do?"
"Went home and kept quiet; my wife was very ill that night and I had my own cause for anxiety."
"You, however, read the papers next morning?"
"No, sir, nor for many days. My wife grew constantly worse and for a week I didn't leave her, not knowing but that every breath would be her last. I was dead to everything outside the sick-room and when she grew better, which was very gradually, we had to take her away, so that I had no opportunity of speaking of this occurrence to any one till a week ago, when some remark, published in connection with Mrs. Jeffrey's death, recalled that encounter on the bridge. I told a neighbor that I believed the man I had seen there was Mr. Jeffrey, and we looked up the papers and ran over them till we came upon his picture. That settled it, and I could no longer--being free from home anxieties now--hold my tongue and the police heard--"
"That will do, Mr. Gelston," broke in the major. "When we want you again, we will let you know, Durbin, see Mr. Gelston out"
I was left alone with the major and the district attorney.
There was a moment's silence, during which my own heart beat so loud that I was afraid they would hear it. Since taking up Miss Tuttle's cause I had never really believed in Mr. Jeffrey's innocence in spite of the alibi he had brought forward, and now I expected to hear these men utter the same conviction. The major was the first to speak. Addressing the district attorney, he remarked: "This will strengthen your case very materially. We have proof now that Mrs. Jeffrey's death was actually determined upon. If Miss Tuttle had not shot her, he would. I wonder if it was a relief to him on reaching his door to find that the deed was done."
I could not suppress my surprise.
"Miss Tuttle!" I repeated. "Is it so unmistakably evident that Mr. Jeffrey did not get to the Moore house in time to do the shooting himself?"
The major gave me a quick look.
"I thought you considered Miss Tuttle the guilty one."
I felt that the time had come to show my colors.
"I have changed my mind," said I. "I can give you no good reason for this; something in the woman herself, I suppose. She does not look nor act like a criminal. While not desirous of raising myself in opposition to the judgment of those so greatly my superior in all respects, I have had this feeling, and I am courageous enough to avow it. And yet, if Mr. Jeffrey could not have left the cemetery gates and reached the Moore house in time to fulfil all the conditions of this tragedy, the case does look black against the woman. She admits to having been there when the pistol was fired, unless--"
"Unless what? You have something new to tell us. That I have seen ever since you entered the room. What is it?"
I cast a glance at the door. Should I be able to finish my story before Durbin returned? I thought it possible, and, though still upset by this new evidence, which I could now see was not entirely in Miss Tuttle's favor, I spoke up with what spirit I might.
"I have just come from spending another night in the Moore house. All the efforts heretofore made to exhaust its secrets have been founded upon a theory that has brought us nowhere. I had another in mind, and I was anxious to test it before resting from all further attempt to solve this riddle. And it has not failed me. By pursuing a clue apparently so trivial that I allowed it to go neglected for weeks, I have come upon the key to the many mysterious crimes which have defiled the library hearthstone. And where do you think it lies? Not in the hearthstone itself and not in the floor under the settle; not, in fact, in the library at all, but in the picture hanging upstairs in the southwest chamber."
"The picture! that faded-out sketch, fit only for the garret?"
"Yes. To you and to most people surveying it, it is just what you say and nothing more. But to the initiated few--pray Heaven they may have been few--it is writing, conveying secret instructions. The whole combination of curves which go to make up this sketch is a curious arrangement of words inscribed with the utmost care, in the smallest of characters. Viewed with a magnifying glass, the uncertain outlines of a shadowy face surmounted by a mass of piled-up hair resolve themselves into lines of writing, the words of which are quite intelligible and full of grim and unmistakable purpose. I have read those lines; and what is more, I have transcribed them into plain copy. Will you read them? They contain a most extraordinary confession; a confession that was manifestly intended as a warning, but which unfortunately has had very different results. It may explain the death of the man from Denver, even if it cast no light upon the other inexplicable features of the remarkable case we are considering."
As I spoke I laid open on the table before me the transcription of which I spoke. Instantly the two men bent over it. When they looked up again, their countenances showed not excitement only but appreciation; and in the one minute of triumph which I then enjoyed, all that had wounded or disturbed me in the past was forgotten.
"You are a man in a thousand," was the major's first enthusiastic comment; at which I was conscious of regretting, with very pardonable inconsistency, that Durbin had not returned in time to hear these words.
The major now proposed that we should go at once to the old house. "A family secret like this does not crop up every day even in a city so full of surprises as Washington. We will hunt for the spring under the closet drawers and see what happens, eh? And on our way there"--here he turned to me "I should like to hear the particulars concerning the little clue just mentioned. By the way, Mr. Jeffrey's interest in this old drawing is now explained. He knew its diabolical secret."
This was self-evident, and my heart was heavy for Miss Tuttle, who seemed to be so deep in her brother-in-law's confidence.
It grew still heavier when Durbin, joining us, added his incredulity to the air of suspicion assumed by the others. Through all the explanations I now entered into, I found myself inwardly repeating with somewhat forced iteration, "I will not believe her guilty under any circumstances. She carries the look of innocence, and innocent she must be proved, whatever the result may be to Francis Jeffrey."
To such an extent had I been influenced by the lofty expression which I had once surprised on her face.
Had Mr. David Moore been sitting open-eyed behind his vines that morning, he would have been much surprised to see so many of his natural enemies intrude on his property at so early an hour. But, happily, he had not yet risen, and we were able to enter upon our investigations without being watched or interrupted by him.
Our first move was to go in a body to the southwest chamber, take down the picture, examine it with a magnifying-glass and satisfy ourselves that the words I had picked out of its mazy lines were really to be found there. This done and my veracity established, we next proceeded to the closet where, according to the instructions embodied in this picture, the secret spring was to be found by which some unknown and devilish machinery would be released in the library below.
To my great satisfaction the active part in this experiment was delegated to me. Durbin continued to be a mere looker-on. Drawing out the two large drawers from their place at the end of this closet, I set them aside. Then I hunted for and found the small loophole which we had been told afforded a glimpse of the library hearthstone; but seeing nothing through it, I called for a light to be placed in the room below.
I heard Durbin go down, then the major, and finally, the district attorney. Nothing could stay their curiosity now, not even the possibility of danger, which as yet was a lurking and mysterious one. But when a light shot up from below, and the irregular opening before me became a loophole through which I could catch a very wide glimpse of the library beneath, I found that it was not necessary for me to warn them to keep away from the hearth, as they were all clustered very near the door--a precaution not altogether uncalled for at so hazardous a moment.
"Are you ready?" I called down.
"Ready!" rose in simultaneous response from below.
"Then look out!"
Reaching for the spring cleverly concealed in the wall at my right I vigorously pressed it.
The result was instantaneous. Silently, but with unerring certainty, something small, round, and deadly, fell plumb from the library ceiling to where the settle had formerly stood against the hearthstone. Finding nothing there but vacancy to expend itself upon, it swung about for a moment on what looked like a wire or a whip-cord, then slowly came to rest within a foot or so from the floor.
A cry from the horrified officials below was what first brought me to myself. Withdrawing from my narrow quarters I hastened down to them and added one more white face to the three I found congregated in the doorway. In the diabolical ingenuity we had seen displayed, crime had reached its acme and the cup of human depravity seemed full. When we had regained in some measure our self-possession, we all advanced for a closer look at the murderous object dangling before us. We found it to be a heavy leaden weight painted on its lower end to match the bosses of stucco-work which appeared at regular intervals in the ornamentation of the ceiling. When drawn up into place, that is, when occupying the hole from which it now hung suspended, the portion left to protrude would evidently bear so small a proportion to its real bulk as to justify any eye in believing it to be the mate, and the harmless mate, of all the others.
"It hangs just where the settle stood," observed Durbin, significantly.
"And just at the point where the cushions invite rest, as the colonel so suggestively puts it in his strange puzzle of a confession," added the district attorney.
"Replace the old seat," ordered the major, "and let us make sure of this."
Ready hands at once grasped it, and, with some effort, I own, drew it carefully back into position.
"You see!" quoth Durbin.
"Devilish!" came from the major's lips. Then with a glance at the ball which, pushed aside by the seat, now hung over its edge a foot or so from the floor, he added briskly: "The ball has fallen to the full length of the cord. If it were drawn up a little--"
"Wait," I eagerly interposed. "Let me see what I can do with it."
And I dashed back upstairs and into the closet of "The Colonel's Own."
With a single peep down to see if they were still on the watch, I seized the handle whose position I had made sure of when searching for the spring, and began to turn; when instantly--so quick was the response--the long cord stiffened and I saw the ball rise into sight above the settle top.
"Stop!" called out the major. "Let go and press the spring again."
I hastened to obey and, though the back of the settle hid the result from me, I judged from the look and attitude of those below that the old colonel's calculations had been made with great exactness, and that the one comfortable seat on the rude and cumbersome bench had been so placed that this leaden weight in descending would at the chosen moment strike the head of him who sat there, inflicting death. That the weight should be made just heavy enough to produce a fatal concussion without damaging the skull was proof of the extreme care with which this subtle apparatus had been contrived. An open wound would have aroused questions, but a mere bruise might readily pass as a result of the victim's violent contact with the furnishings of the hearth toward which the shocked body would naturally topple. The fact that a modern jury had so regarded it shows how justified he was in this expectation.
I was expending my wonder on this and on a new discovery which, with a very decided shock to myself I had just made in the closet, when the command came to turn the handle again and to keep on turning it till it would turn no farther.
I complied, but with a trembling hand, and though I did not watch the result, the satisfaction I heard expressed below was significant of the celerity and precision with which the weight rose, foot by foot, to the ceiling and finally slunk snugly and without seeming jar into its lair.
When, a few minutes later, I rejoined those below, I found them all, with eyes directed toward the cornice, searching for the hole through which I had just been looking. It was next to imperceptible, so naturally had it been made to fit in with the shadows of the scroll work; and even after I had discovered it and pointed it out to them, I found difficulty in making them believe that they really looked upon an opening. But when once convinced of this, the district attorney's remark was significant.
"I am glad that my name is not Moore."
The superintendent made no reply; his eye had caught mine, and he had become very thoughtful.
"One of the two candelabra belonging to the parlor mantel was found lying on that closet floor," he observed. "Somebody has entered there lately, as lately as the day when Mr. Pfeiffer was seated here."
"Pardon me," I impetuously cried. "Mr. Pfeiffer's death is quite explained." And, drawing forward my hand, which up to this moment I had held tight-shut behind my back, I slowly unclosed it before their astonished eyes.
A bit of lace lay in my palm, a delicate bit, such as is only worn by women in full dress.
"Where did you find that?" asked the major, with the first show of deep emotion I have ever observed in him.
My agitation was greater than his as I replied:
"In the rough boarding under those drawers. Some woman's arm and hand has preceded mine in stealthy search after that fatal spring. A woman who wore lace, valuable lace."
There was but one woman connected with this affair who rightly answered these conditions. The bride! Veronica Moore.
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