The Golden Slipper/Chapter 7
THE DOCTOR, HIS WIFE, AND THE CLOCK
VIOLET had gone to her room. She had a task before her. That afternoon, a packet had been left at the door, which, from a certain letter scribbled in one corner, she knew to be from her employer. The contents of that packet must be read, and she had made herself comfortable with the intention of setting to work at once. But ten o'clock struck and then eleven before she could bring herself to give any attention to the manuscript awaiting her perusal. In her present mood, a quiet sitting by the fire, with her eyes upon the changeful flame, was preferable to the study of any affair her employer might send her. Yet, because she was conscious of the duty she thus openly neglected, she sat crouched over her desk with her hand on the mysterious packet, the string of which, however, she made no effort to loosen.
What was she thinking of?
We are not alone in our curiosity on this subject. Her brother Arthur, coming unperceived into the room, gives tokens of a similar interest. Never before had he seen her oblivious to an approaching step; and after a momentary contemplation of her absorbed figure, so girlishly sweet and yet so deeply intent, he advances to her side, and peering earnestly into her face, observes with a seriousness quite unusual to him:
"Puss, you are looking worried,—not like yourself at all. I've noticed it for some time. What's up. Getting tired of the business?"
"No—not altogether—that is, it's not that, if it's anything. I'm not sure that it's anything. I——"
She had turned back to her desk and was pushing about the various articles with which it was plentifully bespread; but this did not hide the flush which had crept into her cheeks and even dyed the snowy whiteness of her neck. Arthur's astonishment at this evidence of emotion was very great; but he said nothing, only watched her still more closely, as with a light laugh she regained her self-possession, and with the practical air of a philosopher uttered this trite remark:
"Everyone has his sober moments. I was only thinking——"
"Of some new case?"
"Not exactly." The words came softly but with a touch of mingled humour and gravity which made Arthur stare again.
"See here, Puss!" he cried. His tone had changed. "I've just come up from the den. Father and I have had a row—a beastly row."
"A row? You and father? Oh, Arthur, I don't like that. Don't quarrel with father. Don't, don't. Some day he and I may have a serious difference about what I am doing. Don't let him feel that he has lost us all."
"That's all right, Puss; but I've got to think of you a bit. I can't see you spoil all your good times with these police horrors and not do something to help. To-morrow I begin life as a salesman in Clarke & Stebbin's. The salary is not great, but every little helps and I don't dislike the business. But father does. He had rather see me loafing about town setting the fashions for fellows as idle as myself than soil my hands with handling merchandise. That's why we quarreled. But don't worry. Your name didn't come up, or—or—you know whose. He hasn't an idea of why I want to work— There, Violet there!"
Two soft arms were around his neck and Violet was letting her heart out in a succession of sisterly kisses.
"O, Arthur, you good, good boy! Together we'll soon make up the amount, and then—"
A sweet soft look robbed her face of its piquancy, but gave it an aspect of indescribable beauty quite new to Arthur's eyes.
Tapping his lips with a thoughtful forefinger, he asked:
"Who was that sombre-looking chap I saw bowing to you as we came out of church last Sunday?"
She awoke from her dreamy state with an astonishing quickness.
"He? Surely you remember him. Have you forgotten that evening in Massachusetts—the grotto—and——"
"Oh, it's Upjohn, is it? Yes, I remember him. He's fond of church, isn't he? That is, when he's in New York."
Her lips took a roguish curve then a very serious one; but she made no answer.
"I have noticed that he's always in his seat and always looking your way."
"That's very odd of him," she declared, her dimples coming and going in a most bewildering fashion. "I can't imagine why he should do that."
"Nor I," retorted Arthur with a smile. "But he's human, I suppose. Only do be careful, Violet. A man so melancholy will need a deal of cheering."
He was gone before he had fully finished this daring remark, and Violet, left again with her thoughts, lost her glowing colour but not her preoccupation. The hand which lay upon the packet already alluded to did not move for many minutes, and when she roused at last to the demands of her employer, it was with a start and a guilty look at the small gold clock ticking out its inexorable reminder.
"He will want an answer the first thing in the morning," she complained to herself. And opening the packet, she took out first a letter, and then a mass of typewritten manuscript.
She began with the letter which was as characteristic of the writer as all the others she had had from his hand; as witness:
You probably remember the Hasbrouck murder,—or, perhaps, you don't; it being one of a time previous to your interest in such matters. But whether you remember it or not, I beg you to read the accompanying summary with due care and attention to business. When you have well mastered it with all its details, please communicate with me in any manner most convenient to yourself, for I shall have a word to say to you then, which you may be glad to hear, if as you have lately intimated you need to earn but one or two more substantial rewards in order to cry halt to the pursuit for which you have proved yourself so well qualified.
The story, in deference to yourself as a young and much preoccupied woman, has been written in a way to interest. Though the work of an everyday police detective, you will find in it no lack of mystery or romance; and if at the end you perceive that it runs, as such cases frequently do, up against a perfectly blank wall, you must remember that openings can be made in walls, and that the loosening of one weak stone from its appointed place, sometimes leads to the downfall of all.
So much for the letter.
Laying it aside, with a shrug of her expressive shoulders, Violet took up the manuscript.
Let us take it up too. It runs thus:
On the 17th of July, 19—, a tragedy of no little interest occurred in one of the residences of the Colonnade in Lafayette Place.
Mr. Hasbrouck, a well known and highly respected citizen, was attacked in his room by an unknown assailant, and shot dead before assistance could reach him. His murderer escaped, and the problem offered to the police was how to identify this person who, by some happy chance or by the exercise of the most remarkable forethought, had left no traces behind him, or any clue by which he could be followed.
The details of the investigation which ended so unsatisfactorily are here given by the man sent from headquarters at the first alarm.
When, some time after midnight on the date above mentioned, I reached Lafayette Place, I found the block lighted from end to end. Groups of excited men and women peered from the open doorways, and mingled their shadows with those of the huge pillars which adorn the front of this picturesque block of dwellings.
The house in which the crime had been committed was near the centre of the row, and, long before I reached it, I had learned from more than one source that the alarm was first given to the street by a woman's shriek, and secondly by the shouts of an old man-servant who had appeared, in a half-dressed condition, at the window of Mr. Hasbrouck's room, crying "Murder! murder!"
But when I had crossed the threshold, I was astonished at the paucity of facts to be gleaned from the inmates themselves. The old servant, who was the first to talk, had only this account of the crime to give:
The family, which consisted of Mr. Hasbrouck, his wife, and three servants, had retired for the night at the usual hour and under the usual auspices. At eleven o'clock the lights were all extinguished, and the whole household asleep, with the possible exception of Mr. Hasbrouck himself, who, being a man of large business responsibilities, was frequently troubled with insomnia.
Suddenly Mrs. Hasbrouck woke with a start. Had she dreamed the words that were ringing in her ears, or had they been actually uttered in her hearing? They were short, sharp words, full of terror and menace, and she had nearly satisfied herself that she had imagined them, when there came, from somewhere near the door, a sound she neither understood nor could interpret, but which filled her with inexplicable terror, and made her afraid to breathe, or even to stretch forth her hand towards her husband, whom she supposed to be sleeping at her side. At length another strange sound, which she was sure was not due to her imagination, drove her to make an attempt to rouse him, when she was horrified to find that she was alone in bed, and her husband nowhere within reach.
Filled now with something more than nervous apprehension, she flung herself to the floor, and tried to penetrate with frenzied glances, the surrounding darkness. But the blinds and shutters both having been carefully closed by Mr. Hasbrouck before retiring, she found this impossible, and she was about to sink in terror to the floor, when she heard a low gasp on the other side of the room followed by a suppressed cry.
"God! what have I done!"
The voice was a strange one, but before the fear aroused by this fact could culminate in a shriek of dismay, she caught the sound of retreating footsteps, and, eagerly listening, she heard them descend the stairs and depart by the front door.
Had she known what had occurred—had there been no doubt in her mind as to what lay in the darkness on the other side of the room—it is likely that, at the noise caused by the closing front door, she would have made at once for the balcony that opened out from the window before which she was standing, and taken one look at the flying figure below. But her uncertainty as to what lay hidden from her by the darkness chained her feet to the floor, and there is no knowing when she would have moved, if a carriage had not at that moment passed down Astor Place, bringing with it a sense of companionship which broke the spell holding her, and gave her strength to light the gas which was in ready reach of her hand.
As the sudden blaze illuminated the room, revealing in a burst the old familiar walls and well-known pieces of furniture, she felt for a moment as if released from some heavy nightmare and restored to the common experiences of life. But in another instant her former dread returned, and she found herself quaking at the prospect of passing around the foot of the bed into that part of the room which was as yet hidden from her eyes.
But the desperation which comes with great crises finally drove her from her retreat; and, creeping slowly forward, she cast one glance at the floor before her, when she found her worst fears realized by the sight of the dead body of her husband lying prone before the open doorway, with a bullet-hole in his forehead.
Her first impulse was to shriek, but, by a powerful exercise of will, she checked herself, and ringing frantically for the servants who slept on the top floor of the house, flew to the nearest window and endeavoured to open it. But the shutters had been bolted so securely by Mr. Hasbrouck, in his endeavour to shut out all light and sound, that by the time she had succeeded in unfastening them, all trace of the flying murderer had vanished from the street.
Sick with grief and terror, she stepped back into the room just as the three frightened servants descended the stairs. As they appeared in the open doorway, she pointed at her husband's inanimate form, and then, as if suddenly realizing in its full force the calamity which had befallen her, she threw up her arms, and sank forward to the floor in a dead faint.
The two women rushed to her assistance, but the old butler, bounding over the bed, sprang to the window, and shrieked his alarm to the street.
In the interim that followed, Mrs. Hasbrouck was revived, and the master's body laid decently on the bed; but no pursuit was made, nor any inquiries started likely to assist me in establishing the identity of the assailant.
Indeed, everyone both in the house and out, seemed dazed by the unexpected catastrophe, and as no one had any suspicions to offer as to the probable murderer, I had a difficult task before me.
I began in the usual way, by inspecting the scene of the murder. I found nothing in the room, or in the condition of the body itself, which added an iota to the knowledge already obtained. That Mr. Hasbrouck had been in bed; that he had risen upon hearing a noise; and that he had been shot before reaching the door, were self-evident facts. But there was nothing to guide me further. The very simplicity of the circumstances caused a dearth of clues, which made the difficulty of procedure as great as any I had ever encountered.
My search through the hall and down the stairs elicited nothing; and an investigation of the bolts and bars by which the house was secured, assured me that the assassin had either entered by the front door, or had already been secreted in the house when it was locked up for the night.
"I shall have to trouble Mrs. Hasbrouck for a short interview," I hereupon announced to the trembling old servant, who had followed me like a dog about the house.
He made no demur, and in a few minutes I was ushered into the presence of the newly made widow, who sat quite alone, in a large chamber in the rear. As I crossed the threshold she looked up, and I encountered a good, plain face, without the shadow of guile in it.
"Madam," said I, "I have not come to disturb you. I will ask two or three questions only, and then leave you to your grief. I am told that some words came from the assassin before he delivered his fatal shot. Did you hear these distinctly enough to tell me what they were?"
"I was sound asleep," said she, "and dreamt, as I thought, that a fierce, strange voice cried somewhere to some one: 'Ah! you did not expect me!' But I dare not say that these words were really uttered to my husband, for he was not the man to call forth hate, and only a man in the extremity of passion could address such an exclamation in such a tone as rings in my memory in connection with the fatal shot which woke me."
"But that shot was not the work of a friend," I argued. "If, as these words seem to prove, the assassin had some other motive than plunder in his assault, then your husband had an enemy, though you never suspected it."
"Impossible!" was her steady reply, uttered in the most convincing tone. "The man who shot him was a common burglar, and frightened at having been betrayed into murder, fled without looking for booty. I am sure I heard him cry out in terror and remorse: 'God! what have I done!'"
"Was that before you left the side of the bed?"
"Yes; I did not move from my place till I heard the front door close. I was paralysed by fear and dread."
"Are you in the habit of trusting to the security of a latch-lock only in the fastening of your front door at night? I am told that the big key was not in the lock, and that the bolt at the bottom of the door was not drawn."
"The bolt at the bottom of the door is never drawn. Mr. Hasbrouck was so good a man that he never mistrusted any one. That is why the big lock was not fastened. The key, not working well, he took it some days ago to the locksmith, and when the latter failed to return it, he laughed, and said he thought no one would ever think of meddling with his front door."
"Is there more than one night-key to your house?" I now asked.
She shook her head.
"And when did Mr. Hasbrouck last use his?"
"To-night, when he came home from prayer meeting," she answered, and burst into tears.
Her grief was so real and her loss so recent that I hesitated to afflict her by further questions. So returning to the scene of the tragedy, I stepped out upon the balcony which ran in front. Soft voices instantly struck my ears. The neighbours on either side were grouped in front of their own windows, and were exchanging the remarks natural under the circumstances. I paused, as in duty bound, and listened. But I heard nothing worth recording, and would have instantly reentered the house, if I had not been impressed by the appearance of a very graceful woman who stood at my right. She was clinging to her husband, who was gazing at one of the pillars before him in a strange fixed way which astonished me till he attempted to move, and then I saw that he was blind. I remembered that there lived in this row a blind doctor, equally celebrated for his skill and for his uncommon personal attractions, and greatly interested not only by his affliction, but in the sympathy evinced by his young and affectionate wife, I stood still, till I heard her say in the soft and appealing tones of love:
"Come in, Constant; you have heavy duties for to-morrow, and you should get a few hours' rest if possible."
He came from the shadow of the pillar, and for one minute I saw his face with the lamplight shining full upon it. It was as regular of feature as a sculptured Adonis, and it was as white.
"Sleep!" he repeated, in the measured tones of deep but suppressed feeling. "Sleep! with murder on the other side of the wall!" And he stretched out his arms in a dazed way that insensibly accentuated the horror I myself felt of the crime which had so lately taken place in the room behind me.
She, noting the movement, took one of the groping hands in her own and drew him gently towards her.
"This way," she urged; and, guiding him into the house, she closed the window and drew down the shades.
I have no excuse to offer for my curiosity, but the interest excited in me by this totally irrelevant episode was so great that I did not leave the neighbourhood till I had learned something of this remarkable couple.
The story told me was very simple. Dr. Zabriskie had not been born blind, but had become so after a grievous illness which had stricken him down soon after he received his diploma. Instead of succumbing to an affliction which would have daunted most men, he expressed his intention of practising his profession, and soon became so successful in it that he found no difficulty in establishing himself in one of the best paying quarters of the city. Indeed, his intuition seemed to have developed in a remarkable degree after the loss of his sight, and he seldom, if ever, made a mistake in diagnosis. Considering this fact, and the personal attractions which gave him distinction, it was no wonder that he soon became a popular physician whose presence was a benefaction and whose word law.
He had been engaged to be married at the time of his illness, and when he learned what was likely to be its result, had offered to release the young lady from all obligation to him. But she would not be released, and they were married. This had taken place some five years previous to Mr. Hasbrouck's death, three of which had been spent by them in Lafayette Place.
So much for the beautiful woman next door.
There being absolutely no clue to the assailant of Mr. Hasbrouck, I naturally looked forward to the inquest for some evidence upon which to work. But there seemed to be no underlying facts to this tragedy. The most careful study into the habits and conduct of the deceased brought nothing to light save his general beneficence and rectitude, nor was there in his history or in that of his wife, any secret or hidden obligation calculated to provoke any such act of revenge as murder. Mrs. Hasbrouck's surmise that the intruder was simply a burglar, and that she had rather imagined than heard the words which pointed to the shooting as a deed of vengeance, soon gained general credence. But though the police worked long and arduously in this new direction their efforts were without fruit and the case bids fair to remain an unsolvable mystery.
That was all. As Violet dropped the last page from her hand, she recalled a certain phrase in her employer's letter. "If at the end you come upon a perfectly blank wall—" Well, she had come upon this wall. Did he expect her to make an opening in it? Or had he already done so himself, and was merely testing her much vaunted discernment.
Piqued by the thought, she carefully reread the manuscript, and when she had again reached its uncompromising end, she gave herself up to a few minutes of concentrated thought, then, taking a sheet of paper from the rack before her, she wrote upon it a single sentence, and folding the sheet, put it in an envelope which she left unaddressed. This done, she went to bed and slept like the child she really was.
At an early hour the next morning she entered her employer's office. Acknowledging with a nod his somewhat ceremonious bow, she handed him the envelope in which she had enclosed that one mysterious sentence.
He took it with a smile, opened it offhand, glanced at what she had written, and flushed a vivid red.
"You are a—brick," he was going to say, but changed the last word to one more in keeping with her character and appearance. "Look here. I expected this from you and so prepared myself." Taking out a similar piece of paper from his own pocket-book, he laid it down beside hers on the desk before him. It also held a single sentence and, barring a slight difference of expression, the one was the counterpart of the other. "The one loose stone," he murmured.
"Seen and noted by both."
"Why not?" he asked. Then as she glanced expectantly his way, he earnestly added: "Together we may be able to do something. The reward offered by Mrs. Hasbrouck for the detection of the murderer was a very large one. She is a woman of means. I have never heard of its being withdrawn."
"Then it never has been," was Violet's emphatic conclusion, her dimples enforcing the statement as only such dimples can. "But—what do you want of me in an affair of this kind? Something more than to help you locate the one possible clue to further enlightenment. You would not have mentioned the big reward just for that."
"Perhaps not. There is a sequel to the story I sent you. I have written it out, with my own hand. Take it home and read it at your leisure. When you see into what an unhappy maze my own inquiries have led me, possibly you will be glad to assist me in clearing up a situation which is inflicting great suffering on one whom you will be the first to pity. If so, a line mentioning the fact will be much appreciated by me." And disregarding her startled look and the impetuous shaking of her head, he bowed her out with something more than his accustomed suavity but also with a seriousness which affected her in spite of herself and effectually held back the protest it was in her heart to make. She was glad of this when she read his story; but later on——
However, it is not for me to intrude Violet, or Violet's feelings into an affair which she is so anxious to forget. I shall therefore from this moment on, leave her as completely out of this tale of crime and retribution as is possible and keep a full record of her work. When she is necessary to the story, you will see her again. Meanwhile, read with her, this relation of her employer's unhappy attempt to pursue an investigation so openly dropped by the police. You will perceive, from its general style and the accentuation put upon the human side of this sombre story, a likeness to the former manuscript which may prove to you, as it certainly did to Violet, to whose consideration she was indebted for the readableness of the policeman's report, which in all probability had been a simple statement of facts.
But there, I am speaking of Violet again. To prevent a further mischance of this nature, I will introduce at once the above mentioned account.
No man in all New York was ever more interested than myself in the Hasbrouck affair, when it was the one and only topic of interest at a period when news was unusually scarce. But, together with many such inexplicable mysteries, it had passed almost completely from my mind, when it was forcibly brought back, one day, by a walk I took through Lafayette Place.
At sight of the long row of uniform buildings, with their pillared fronts and connecting balconies every detail of the crime which had filled the papers at the time with innumerable conjectures returned to me with extraordinary clearness, and, before I knew it, I found myself standing stockstill in the middle of the block with my eye raised to the Hasbrouck house and my ears—or rather my inner consciousness, for no one spoke I am sure—ringing with a question which, whether the echo of some old thought or the expression of a new one, so affected me by the promise it held of some hitherto unsuspected clue, that I hesitated whether to push this new inquiry then or there by an attempted interview with Mrs. Hasbrouck, or to wait till I had given it the thought which such a stirring of dead bones rightfully demanded.
You know what that question was. I shall have communicated it to you, if you have not already guessed it, before perusing these lines:
"Who uttered the scream which gave the first alarm of Mr. Hasbrouck's violent death?"
I was in a state of such excitement as I walked away—for I listened to my better judgment as to the inadvisability of my disturbing Mrs. Hasbrouck with these new inquiries—that the perspiration stood out on my forehead. The testimony she had given at the inquest recurred to me, and I remembered as distinctly as if she were then speaking, that she had expressly stated that she did not scream when confronted by the sight of her husband's dead body. But someone had screamed and that very loudly. Who was it, then? One of the maids, startled by the sudden summons from below, or someone else—some involuntary witness of the crime, whose testimony had been suppressed at the inquest, by fear or influence?
The possibility of having come upon a clue even at this late day so fired my ambition that I took the first opportunity of revisiting Lafayette Place. Choosing such persons as I thought most open to my questions, I learned that there were many who could testify to having heard a woman's shrill scream on that memorable night, just prior to the alarm given by old Cyrus, but no one who could tell from whose lips it had come. One fact, however, was immediately settled. It had not been the result of the servant-women's fears. Both of the girls were positive that they had uttered no sound, nor had they themselves heard any till Cyrus rushed to the window with his wild cries. As the scream, by whomever given, was uttered before they descended the stairs, I was convinced by these assurances that it had issued from one of the front windows, and not from the rear of the house, where their own rooms lay. Could it be that it had sprung from the adjoining dwelling, and that—
I remembered who had lived there and was for ringing the bell at once. But, missing the doctor's sign, I made inquiries and found that he had moved from the block. However, a doctor is soon found, and in less than fifteen, minutes I was at the door of his new home, where I asked, not for him, but for Mrs. Zabriskie.
It required some courage to do this, for I had taken particular notice of the doctor's wife at the inquest, and her beauty, at that time, had worn such an aspect of mingled sweetness and dignity that I hesitated to encounter it under any circumstances likely to disturb its pure serenity. But a clue once grasped cannot be lightly set aside by a true detective, and it would have taken more than a woman's frowns to stop me at this point.
However, it was not with frowns she received me, but with a display of emotion for which I was even less prepared. I had sent up my card and I saw it trembling in her hand as she entered the room. As she neared me, she glanced at it, and with a show of gentle indifference which did not in the least disguise her extreme anxiety, she courteously remarked:
"Your name is an unfamiliar one to me. But you told my maid that your business was one of extreme importance, and so I have consented to see you. What can an agent from a private detective office have to say to me?"
Startled by this evidence of the existence of some hidden skeleton in her own closet, I made an immediate attempt to reassure her.
"Nothing which concerns you personally," said I. "I simply wish to ask you a question in regard to a small matter connected with Mr. Hasbrouck's violent death in Lafayette Place, a couple of years ago. You were living in the adjoining house at the time I believe, and it has occurred to me that you might on that account be able to settle a point which has never been fully cleared up."
Instead of showing the relief I expected, her pallor increased and her fine eyes, which had been fixed curiously upon me, sank in confusion to the floor.
"Great heaven!" thought I. "She looks as if at one more word from me, she would fall at my feet in a faint. What is this I have stumbled upon!"
"I do not see how you can have any question to ask me on that subject," she began with an effort at composure which for some reason disturbed me more than her previous open display of fear. "Yet if you have," she continued, with a rapid change of manner that touched my heart in spite of myself, "I shall, of course, do my best to answer you."
There are women whose sweetest tones and most charming smiles only serve to awaken distrust in men of my calling; but Mrs. Zabriskie was not of this number. Her face was beautiful, but it was also candid in its expression, and beneath the agitation which palpably disturbed her, I was sure there lurked nothing either wicked or false. Yet I held fast by the clue which I had grasped as it were in the dark, and without knowing whither I was tending, much less whither I was leading her, I proceeded to say:
"The question which I presume to put to you as the next door neighbour of Mr. Hasbrouck is this: Who was the woman who on the night of that gentleman's assassination screamed out so loudly that the whole neighbourhood heard her?"
The gasp she gave answered my question in a way she little realized, and struck as I was by the impalpable links that had led me to the threshold of this hitherto unsolvable mystery, I was about to press my advantage and ask another question, when she quickly started forward and laid her hand on my lips.
Astonished, I looked at her inquiringly, but her head was turned aside, and her eyes, fixed upon the door, showed the greatest anxiety. Instantly I realized what she feared. Her husband was entering the house, and she dreaded lest his ears should catch a word of our conversation.
Not knowing what was in her mind, and unable to realize the importance of the moment to her, I yet listened to the advance of her blind husband with an almost painful interest. Would he enter the room where we were, or would he pass immediately to his office in the rear? She seemed to wonder too, and almost held her breath as he neared the door, paused, and stood in the open doorway, with his ear turned towards us.
As for myself, I remained perfectly still, gazing at his face in mingled surprise and apprehension. For besides its beauty, which was of a marked order, as I have already observed, it had a touching expression which irresistibly aroused both pity and interest in the spectator. This may have been the result of his affliction, or it may have sprung from some deeper cause; but, whatever its source, this look in his face produced a strong impression upon me and interested me at once in his personality. Would he enter; or would he pass on? Her look of silent appeal showed me in which direction her wishes lay, but while I answered her glance by complete silence, I was conscious in some indistinct way that the business I had undertaken would be better furthered by his entrance.
The blind have often been said to possess a sixth sense in place of the one they have lost. Though I am sure we made no noise, I soon perceived that he was aware of our presence. Stepping hastily forward he said, in the high and vibrating tone of restrained passion:
"Zulma, are you there?"
For a moment I thought she did not mean to answer, but knowing doubtless from experience the impossibility of deceiving him, she answered with a cheerful assent, dropping her hand as she did so from before my lips.
He heard the slight rustle which accompanied the movement, and a look I found it hard to comprehend flashed over his features, altering his expression so completely that he seemed another man.
"You have someone with you," he declared, advancing another step, but with none of the uncertainty which usually accompanies the movements of the blind. "Some dear friend," he went on, with an almost sarcastic emphasis and a forced smile that had little of gaiety in it.
The agitated and distressed blush which answered him could have but one interpretation. He suspected that her hand had been clasped in mine, and she perceived his thought and knew that I perceived it also.
Drawing herself up, she moved towards him, saying in a sweet womanly tone:
"It is no friend, Constant, not even an acquaintance. The person whom I now present to you is a representative from some detective agency. He is here upon a trivial errand which will soon be finished, when I will join you in the office."
I knew she was but taking a choice between two evils, that she would have saved her husband the knowledge of my calling as well as of my presence in the house, if her self-respect would have allowed it; but neither she nor I anticipated the effect which this introduction of myself in my business capacity would produce upon him.
"A detective," he repeated, staring with his sightless eyes, as if, in his eagerness to see, he half hoped his lost sense would return. "He can have no trivial errand here; he has been sent by God Himself to——"
"Let me speak for you," hastily interposed his wife, springing to his side and clasping his arm with a fervour that was equally expressive of appeal and command. Then turning to me, she explained: "Since Mr. Hasbrouck's unaccountable death, my husband has been labouring under an hallucination which I have only to mention, for you to recognize its perfect absurdity. He thinks— oh! do not look like that, Constant; you know it is an hallucination which must vanish the moment we drag it into broad daylight—that he—he, the best man in all the world, was himself the assailant of Mr. Hasbrouck."
"I say nothing of the impossibility of this being so," she went on in a fever of expostulation. "He is blind, and could not have delivered such a shot even if he had desired to; besides, he had no weapon. But the inconsistency of the thing speaks for itself, and should assure him that his mind is unbalanced and that he is merely suffering from a shock that was greater than we realized. He is a physician and has had many such instances in his own practice. Why, he was very much attached to Mr. Hasbrouck! They were the best of friends, and though he insists that he killed him, he cannot give any reason for the deed."
At these words the doctor's face grew stern, and he spoke like an automaton repeating some fearful lesson:
"I killed him. I went to his room and deliberately shot him. I had nothing against him, and my remorse is extreme. Arrest me and let me pay the penalty of my crime. It is the only way in which I can obtain peace."
Shocked beyond all power of self-control by this repetition of what she evidently considered the unhappy ravings of a madman, she let go his arm and turned upon me in frenzy.
"Convince him!" she cried. "Convince him by your questions that he never could have done this fearful thing."
I was labouring under great excitement myself, for as a private agent with no official authority such as he evidently attributed to me in the blindness of his passion, I felt the incongruity of my position in the face of a matter of such tragic consequence. Besides, I agreed with her that he was in a distempered state of mind, and I hardly knew how to deal with one so fixed in his hallucination and with so much intelligence to support it. But the emergency was great, for he was holding out his wrists in the evident expectation of my taking him into instant custody; and the sight was killing his wife, who had sunk on the floor between us, in terror and anguish.
"You say you killed Mr. Hasbrouck," I began. "Where did you get your pistol, and what did you do with it after you left his house?"
"My husband had no pistol; never had any pistol," put in Mrs. Zabriskie, with vehement assertion. "If I had seen him with such a weapon——"
"I threw it away. When I left the house, I cast it as far from me as possible, for I was frightened at what I had done, horribly frightened."
"No pistol was ever found," I answered with a smile, forgetting for the moment that he could not see. "If such an instrument had been found in the street after a murder of such consequence, it certainly would have been brought to the police."
"You forget that a good pistol is valuable property," he went on stolidly. "Someone came along before the general alarm was given; and seeing such a treasure lying on the sidewalk, picked it up and carried it off. Not being an honest man, he preferred to keep it to drawing the attention of the police upon himself."
"Hum, perhaps," said I; "but where did you get it. Surely you can tell where you procured such a weapon, if, as your wife intimates, you did not own one."
"I bought it that selfsame night of a friend; a friend whom I will not name, since he resides no longer in this country. I—" He paused; intense passion was in his face; he turned towards his wife, and a low cry escaped him, which made her look up in fear.
"I do not wish to go into any particulars," said he. "God forsook me and I committed a horrible crime. When I am punished, perhaps peace will return to me and happiness to her. I would not wish her to suffer too long or too bitterly for my sin."
"Constant!" What love was in the cry! It seemed to move him and turn his thoughts for a moment into a different channel.
"Poor child!" he murmured, stretching out his hands by an irresistible impulse towards her. But the change was but momentary, and he was soon again the stem and determined self-accuser. "Are you going to take me before a magistrate?" he asked. "If so, I have a few duties to perform which you are welcome to witness."
This was too much; I felt that the time had come for me to disabuse his mind of the impression he had unwittingly formed of me. I therefore said as considerately as I could:
"You mistake my position, Dr. Zabriskie. Though a detective of some experience, I have no connection with the police and no right to intrude myself in a matter of such tragic importance. If, however, you are as anxious as you say to subject yourself to police examination, I will mention the same to the proper authorities, and leave them to take such action as they think best."
"That will be still more satisfactory to me," said he; "for though I have many times contemplated giving myself up, I have still much to do before I can leave my home and practice without injury to others. Good-day; when you want me you will find me here."
He was gone, and the poor young wife was left crouching on the floor alone. Pitying her shame and terror, I ventured to remark that it was not an uncommon thing for a man to confess to a crime he had never committed, and assured her that the matter would be inquired into very carefully before any attempt was made upon his liberty.
She thanked me, and slowly rising, tried to regain her equanimity; but the manner as well as the matter of her husband's self-condemnation was too overwhelming in its nature for her to recover readily from her emotions.
"I have long dreaded this," she acknowledged. "For months I have foreseen that he would make some rash communication or insane avowal. If I had dared, I would have consulted some physician about this hallucination of his; but he was so sane on other points that I hesitated to give my dreadful secret to the world. I kept hoping that time and his daily pursuits would have their effect and restore him to himself. But his illusion grows, and now I fear that nothing will ever convince him that he did not commit the deed of which he accuses himself. If he were not blind I would have more hope, but the blind have so much time for brooding."
"I think he had better be indulged in his fancies for the present," I ventured. "If he is labouring under an illusion it might be dangerous to cross him."
"If?" she echoed in an indescribable tone of amazement and dread. "Can you for a moment harbour the idea that he has spoken the truth?"
"Madam," I returned, with something of the cynicism of my calling, "what caused you to give such an unearthly scream just before this murder was made known to the neighbourhood?"
She stared, paled, and finally began to tremble, not, as I now believe, at the insinuation latent in my words, but at the doubts which my question aroused in her own breast.
"Did I?" she asked; then with a burst of candour which seemed inseparable from her nature, she continued: "Why do I try to mislead you or deceive myself? I did give a shriek just before the alarm was raised next door; but it was not from any knowledge I had of a crime having been committed, but because I unexpectedly saw before me my husband whom I supposed to be on his way to Poughkeepsie. He was looking very pale and strange, and for a moment I thought I stood face to face with his ghost. But he soon explained his appearance by saying that he had fallen from the train and had only been saved by a miracle from being dismembered; and I was just bemoaning his mishap and trying to calm him and myself, when that terrible shout was heard next door of 'Murder! murder!' Coming so soon after the shock he had himself experienced, it quite unnerved him, and I think we can date his mental disturbance from that moment. For he began immediately to take a morbid interest in the affair next door, though it was weeks, if not months, before he let a word fall of the nature of those you have just heard. Indeed it was not till I repeated to him some of the expressions he was continually letting fall in his sleep, that he commenced to accuse himself of crime and talk of retribution."
"You say that your husband frightened you on that night by appearing suddenly at the door when you thought him on his way to Poughkeepsie. Is Dr. Zabriskie in the habit of thus going and coming alone at an hour so late as this must have been?"
"You forget that to the blind, night is less full of perils than the day. Often and often has my husband found his way to his patients' houses alone after midnight; but on this especial evening he had Leonard with him. Leonard was his chauffeur, and always accompanied him when he went any distance."
"Well, then," said I, "all we have to do is to summon Leonard and hear what he has to say concerning this affair. He will surely know whether or not his master went into the house next door."
"Leonard has left us," she said. "Dr. Zabriskie has another chauffeur now. Besides (I have nothing to conceal from you), Leonard was not with him when he returned to the house that evening or the doctor would not have been without his portmanteau till the next day. Something—I have never known what—caused them to separate, and that is why I have no answer to give the doctor when he accuses himself of committing a deed that night so wholly out of keeping with every other act of his life."
"And have you never asked Leonard why they separated and why he allowed his master to come home alone after the shock he had received at the station?"
"I did not know there was any reason for my doing so till long after he had left us."
"And when did he leave?"
"That I do not remember. A few weeks or possibly a few days after that dreadful night."
"And where is he now?"
"Ah, that I have not the least means of knowing. But," she objected, in sudden distrust, "what do you want of Leonard? If he did not follow Dr. Zabriskie to his own door, he could tell us nothing that would convince my husband that he is labouring under an illusion."
"But he might tell us something which would convince us that Dr. Zabriskie was not himself after the accident; that he——"
"Hush!" came from her lips in imperious tones. "I will not believe that he shot Mr. Hasbrouck even if you prove him to have been insane at the time. How could he? My husband is blind. It would take a man of very keen sight to force himself into a house closed for the night, and kill a man in the dark at one shot."
"On the contrary, it is only a blind man who could do this," cried a voice from the doorway. "Those who trust to eyesight must be able to catch a glimpse of the mark they aim at, and this room, as I have been told, was without a glimmer of light. But the blind trust to sound, and as Mr. Hasbrouck spoke——"
"Oh!" burst from the horrified wife, "is there no one to stop him when he speaks like that?"
As you will see, this matter, so recklessly entered into, had proved to be of too serious a nature for me to pursue it farther without the cognizance of the police. Having a friend on the force in whose discretion I could rely, I took him into my confidence and asked for his advice. He pooh-poohed the doctor's statements, but said that he would bring the matter to the attention of the superintendent and let me know the result. I agreed to this, and we parted with the mutual understanding that mum was the word till some official decision had been arrived at. I had not long to wait. At an early day he came in with the information that there had been, as might be expected, a division of opinion among his superiors as to the importance of Dr. Zabriskie's so-called confession, but in one point they had been unanimous and that was the desirability of his appearing before them at Headquarters for a personal examination. As, however, in the mind of two out of three of them his condition was attributed entirely to acute mania, it had been thought best to employ as their emissary one in whom he had already confided and submitted his case to,—in other words, myself. The time was set for the next afternoon at the close of his usual office hours.
He went without reluctance, his wife accompanying him. In the short time which elapsed between their leaving home and entering Headquarters, I embraced the opportunity of observing them, and I found the study equally exciting and interesting. His face was calm but hopeless, and his eye, dark and unfathomable, but neither frenzied nor uncertain. He spoke but once and listened to nothing, though now and then his wife moved as if to attract his attention, and once even stole her hand towards his, in the tender hope that he would feel its approach and accept her sympathy. But he was deaf as well as blind; and sat wrapped up in thoughts which she, I know, would have given worlds to penetrate.
Her countenance was not without its mystery also. She showed in every lineament passionate concern and misery, and a deep tenderness from which the element of fear was not absent. But she, as well as he, betrayed that some misunderstanding deeper than any I had previously suspected drew its intangible veil between them and made the near proximity in which they sat at once a heart-piercing delight and an unspeakable pain. What was the misunderstanding; and what was the character of the fear that modified her every look of love in his direction? Her perfect indifference to my presence proved that it was not connected with the position in which he had placed himself towards the police by his voluntary confession of crime, nor could I thus interpret the expression, of frantic question which now and then contracted her features, as she raised her eyes towards his sightless orbs, and strove to read in his firm set lips the meaning of those assertions she could only ascribe to loss of reason.
The stopping of the carriage seemed to awaken both from thoughts that separated rather than united them. He turned his face in her direction, and she stretching forth her hand, prepared to lead him from the carriage, without any of that display of timidity which had previously been evident in her manner.
As his guide she seemed to fear nothing; as his lover, everything.
"There is another and a deeper tragedy underlying the outward and obvious one," was my inward conclusion, as I followed them into the presence of the gentlemen awaiting them.
Dr. Zabriskie's quiet appearance was in itself a shock to those who had anticipated the feverish unrest of a madman; so was his speech, which was calm, straightforward, and quietly determined.
"I shot Mr. Hasbrouck," was his steady affirmation, given without any show of frenzy or desperation. "If you ask me why I did it, I cannot answer; if you ask me how, I am ready to state all that I know concerning the matter."
"But, Dr. Zabriskie," interposed one of the inspectors, "the why is the most important thing for us to consider just now. If you really desire to convince us that you committed this dreadful crime of killing a totally inoffensive man, you should give us some reason for an act so opposed to all your instincts and general conduct."
But the doctor continued unmoved:
"I had no reason for murdering Mr. Hasbrouck. A hundred questions can elicit no other reply; you had better keep to the how."
A deep-drawn breath from the wife answered the looks of the three gentlemen to whom this suggestion was offered. "You see," that breath seemed to protest, "that he is not in his right mind."
I began to waver in my own opinion, and yet the intuition which has served me in cases seemingly as impenetrable as this bade me beware of following the general judgment.
"Ask him to inform you how he got into the house," I whispered to Inspector D——, who sat nearest me.
Immediately the inspector put the question which I had suggested:
"By what means did you enter Mr. Hasbrouck's house at so late an hour as this murder occurred?"
The blind doctor's head fell forward on his breast, and he hesitated for the first and only time.
"You will not believe me," said he; "but the door was ajar when I came to it. Such things make crime easy; it is the only excuse I have to offer for this dreadful deed."
The front door of a respectable citizen's house ajar at half-past eleven at night! It was a statement that fixed in all minds the conviction of the speaker's irresponsibility. Mrs. Zabriskie's brow cleared, and her beauty became for a moment dazzling as she held out her hands in irrepressible relief towards those who were interrogating her husband. I alone kept my impassibility. A possible explanation of this crime had flashed like lightning across my mind; an explanation from which I inwardly recoiled, even while I felt forced to consider it.
"Dr. Zabriskie," remarked the inspector formerly mentioned as friendly to him, "such old servants as those kept by Mr. Hasbrouck do not leave the front door ajar at twelve o'clock at night."
"Yet ajar it was," repeated the blind doctor, with quiet emphasis; "and finding it so, I went in. When I came out again, I closed it. Do you wish me to swear to what I say? If so, I am ready."
What reply could they give? To see this splendid-looking man, hallowed by an affliction so great that in itself it called forth the compassion of the most indifferent, accusing himself of a cold-blooded crime, in tones which sounded dispassionate because of the will forcing their utterance, was too painful in itself for any one to indulge in unnecessary words. Compassion took the place of curiosity, and each and all of us turned involuntary looks of pity upon the young wife pressing so eagerly to his side.
"For a blind man," ventured one, "the assault was both deft and certain. Are you accustomed to Mr. Hasbrouck's house, that you found your way with so little difficulty to his bedroom?"
"I am accustomed——" he began.
But here his wife broke in with irrepressible passion:
"He is not accustomed to that house. He has never been beyond the first floor. Why, why do you question him? Do you not see——"
His hand was on her lips.
"Hush!" he commanded. "You know my skill in moving about a house; how I sometimes deceive those who do not know me into believing that I can see, by the readiness with which I avoid obstacles and find my way even in strange and untried scenes. Do not try to make them think I am not in my right mind, or you will drive me into the very condition you attribute to me."
His face, rigid, cold, and set, looked like that of a mask. Hers, drawn with horror and filled with question that was fast taking the form of doubt, bespoke an awful tragedy from which more than one of us recoiled.
"Can you shoot a man dead without seeing him?" asked the Superintendent, with painful effort.
"Give me a pistol and I will show you," was the quick reply.
A low cry came from the wife. In a drawer near to every one of us there lay a pistol, but no one moved to take it out. There was a look in the doctor's eye which made us fear to trust him with a pistol just then.
"We will accept your assurance that you possess a skill beyond that of most men," returned the Superintendent. And beckoning me forward, he whispered: "This is a case for the doctors and not for the police. Remove him quietly, and notify Dr. Southyard of what I say."
But Dr. Zabriskie, who seemed to have an almost supernatural acuteness of hearing, gave a violent start at this, and spoke up for the first time with real passion in his voice:
"No, no, I pray you. I can bear anything but that. Remember, gentlemen, that I am blind; that I cannot see who is about me; that my life would be a torture if I felt myself surrounded by spies watching to catch some evidence of madness in me. Rather conviction at once, death, dishonour, and obloquy. These I have incurred. These I have brought upon myself by crime, but not this worse fate—oh! not this worse fate."
His passion was so intense and yet so confined within the bounds of decorum, that we felt strangely impressed by it. Only the wife stood transfixed, with the dread growing in her heart, till her white, waxen visage seemed even more terrible to contemplate than his passion-distorted one.
"It is not strange that my wife thinks me demented," the doctor continued, as if afraid of the silence that answered him. "But it is your business to discriminate, and you should know a sane man when you see him."
Inspector D—— no longer hesitated.
"Very well," said he, "give me the least proof that your assertions are true, and we will lay your case before the prosecuting attorney."
"Proof? Is not a man's word—"
"No man's confession is worth much without some evidence to support it. In your case there is none. You cannot even produce the pistol with which you assert yourself to have committed the deed."
"True, true. I was frightened by what I had done, and the instinct of self-preservation led me to rid myself of the weapon in any way I could. But someone found this pistol; someone picked it up from the sidewalk of Lafayette Place on that fatal night. Advertise for it. Offer a reward. I will give you the money." Suddenly he appeared to realize how all this sounded. "Alas!" cried he, "I know the story seems improbable; but it is not the probable things that happen in this life, as, you should know, who every day dig deep into the heart of human affairs."
Were these the ravings of insanity? I began to understand the wife's terror.
"I bought the pistol," he went on, "of—alas! I cannot tell you his name. Everything is against me. I cannot adduce one proof; yet even she is beginning to fear that my story is true. I know it by her silence, a silence that yawns between us like a deep and unfathomable gulf."
But at these words her voice rang out with passionate vehemence.
"No, no, it is false! I will never believe that your hands have been plunged in blood. You are my own pure-hearted Constant, cold, perhaps, and stern, but with no guilt upon your conscience save in your own wild imagination."
"Zulma, you are no friend to me," he declared, pushing her gently aside. "Believe me innocent, but say nothing to lead these others to doubt my word."
And she said no more, but her looks spoke volumes.
The result was that he was not detained, though he prayed for instant commitment. He seemed to dread his own home, and the surveillance to which he instinctively knew he would henceforth be subjected. To see him shrink from his wife's hand as she strove to lead him from the room was sufficiently painful; but the feeling thus aroused was nothing to that with which we observed the keen and agonized expectancy of his look as he turned and listened for the steps of the officer who followed him.
"From this time on I shall never know whether or not I am alone," was his final observation as he left the building.
Here is where the matter rests and here, Miss Strange, is where you come in. The police were for sending an expert alienist into the house; but agreeing with me, and, in fact, with the doctor himself, that if he were not already out of his mind, this would certainly make them so, they, at my earnest intercession, have left the next move to me.
That move as you must by this time understand involves you. You have advantages for making Mrs. Zabriskie's acquaintance of which I beg you to avail yourself. As friend or patient, you must win your way into that home? You must sound to its depths one or both of these two wretched hearts. Not so much now for any possible reward which may follow the elucidation of this mystery which has come so near being shelved, but for pity's sake and the possible settlement of a question which is fast driving a lovely member of your sex distracted.
May I rely on you? If so——
Various instructions followed, over which Violet mused with a deprecatory shaking of her head till the little clock struck two. Why should she, already in a state of secret despondency, intrude herself into an affair at once so painful and so hopeless?
But by morning her mood changed. The pathos of the situation had seized upon her in her dreams, and before the day was over, she was to be seen, as a prospective patient, in Dr. Zabriskie's office. She had a slight complaint as her excuse, and she made the most of it. That is, at first, but as the personality of this extraordinary man began to make its usual impression, she found herself forgetting her own condition in the intensity of interest she felt in his. Indeed, she had to pull herself together more than once lest he should suspect the double nature of her errand, and she actually caught herself at times rejoicing in his affliction since it left her with only her voice to think of, in her hated but necessary task of deception.
That she succeeded in this effort, even with one of his nice ear, was evident from the interested way in which he dilated upon her malady, and the minute instructions he was careful to give her—the physician being always uppermost in his strange dual nature, when he was in his office or at the bedside of the sick;—and had she not been a deep reader of the human soul she would have left his presence in simple wonder at his skill and entire absorption in an exacting profession.
But as it was, she carried with her an image of subdued suffering, which drove her, from that moment on, to ask herself what she could do to aid him in his fight against his own illusion; for to associate such a man with a senseless and cruel murder was preposterous.
What this wish, helped by no common determination, led her into, it was not in her mind to conceive. She was making her one great mistake, but as yet she was in happy ignorance of it, and pursued the course laid out for her without a doubt of the ultimate result.
Having seen and made up her mind about the husband, she next sought to see and gauge the wife. That she succeeded in doing this by means of one of her sly little tricks is not to the point; but what followed in natural consequence is very much so. A mutual interest sprang up between them which led very speedily to actual friendship. Mrs. Zabriskie's hungry heart opened to the sympathetic little being who clung to her in such evident admiration; while Violet, brought face to face with a real woman, succumbed to feelings which made it no imposition on her part to spend much of her leisure in Zulma Zabriskie's company.
The result were the following naive reports which drifted into her employer's office from day to day, as this intimacy deepened.
The doctor is settling into a deep melancholy, from which he tries to rise at times, but with only indifferent success. Yesterday he rode around to all his patients for the purpose of withdrawing his services on the plea of illness. But he still keeps his office open, and today I had the opportunity of witnessing his reception and treatment of the many sufferers who came to him for aid. I think he was conscious of my presence, though an attempt had been made to conceal it. For the listening look never left his face from the moment he entered the room, and once he rose and passed quickly from wall to wall, groping with out-stretched hands into every nook and corner, and barely escaping contact with the curtain behind which I was hidden. But if he suspected my presence, he showed no displeasure at it, wishing perhaps for a witness to his skill in the treatment of disease.
And truly I never beheld a finer manifestation of practical insight in cases of a more or less baffling nature. He is certainly a most wonderful physician, and I feel bound to record that his mind is as clear for business as if no shadow had fallen upon it.
Dr. Zabriskie loves his wife, but in a way torturing to himself and to her. If she is gone from the house he is wretched, and yet when she returns he often forbears to speak to her, or if he does speak it is with a constraint that hurts her more than his silence. I was present when she came in today. Her step, which had been eager on the stairway, flagged as she approached the room, and he naturally noted the change and gave his own interpretation to it. His face, which had been very pale, flushed suddenly, and a nervous trembling seized him which he sought in vain to hide. But by the time her tall and beautiful figure stood in the doorway, he was his usual self again in all but the expression of his eyes, which stared straight before him in an agony of longing only to be observed in those who have once seen.
"Where have you been, Zulma?" he asked, as contrary to his wont, he moved to meet her.
"To my mother's, to Arnold & Constable's, and to the hospital, as you requested," was her quick answer, made without faltering or embarrassment.
He stepped still nearer and took her hand, and as he did so my eye fell on his and I noted that his finger lay over her pulse in seeming unconsciousness.
"Nowhere else?" he queried.
She smiled the saddest kind of smile and shook her head; then, remembering that he could not see this movement, she cried in a wistful tone:
"Nowhere else, Constant; I was too anxious to get back."
I expected him to drop her hand at this, but he did not; and his finger still rested on her pulse.
"And whom did you see while you were gone?" he continued.
She told him, naming over several names.
"You must have enjoyed yourself," was his cold comment, as he let go her hand and turned away. But his manner showed relief, and I could not but sympathize with the pitiable situation of a man who found himself forced into means like this for probing the heart of his young wife.
Yet when I turned towards her, I realized that her position was but little happier than his. Tears are no strangers to her eyes, but those which welled up at this moment seemed to possess a bitterness that promised but little peace for her future. Yet she quickly dried them and busied herself with ministrations for his comfort.
If I am any judge of woman, Zulma Zabriskie is superior to most of her sex. That her husband mistrusts her is evident, but whether this is the result of the stand she has taken in his regard, or only a manifestation of dementia, I have as yet been unable to determine. I dread to leave them alone together, and yet when I presume to suggest that she should be on her guard in her interviews with him, she smiles very placidly and tells me that nothing would give her greater joy than to see him lift his hand against her, for that would argue that he is not accountable for his deeds or assertions.
Yet it would be a grief to see her injured by this passionate and unhappy man.
You have said that you wanted all the details I could give; so I feel bound to say that Dr. Zabriskie tries to be considerate of his wife, though he often fails in the attempt. When she offers herself as his guide, or assists him with his mail or performs any of the many acts of kindness by which she continually manifests her sense of his affliction, he thanks her with courtesy and often with kindness, yet I know she would willingly exchange all his set phrases for one fond embrace or impulsive smile of affection. It would be too much to say that he is not in the full possession of his faculties, and yet upon what other hypothesis can we account for the inconsistencies of his conduct?
I have before me two visions of mental suffering. At noon I passed the office door, and looking within, saw the figure of Dr. Zabriskie seated in his great chair, lost in thought or deep in those memories which make an abyss in one's consciousness. His hands, which were clenched, rested upon the arms of his chair, and in one of them I detected a woman's glove, which I had no difficulty in recognizing as one of the pair worn by his wife this morning. He held it as a tiger might hold his prey or a miser his gold, but his set features and sightless eyes betrayed that a conflict of emotions was being waged within him, among which tenderness had but little share.
Though alive as he usually is to every sound, he was too absorbed at this moment to notice my presence, though I had taken no pains to approach quietly. I therefore stood for a full minute watching him, till an irresistible sense of the shame at thus spying upon a blind man in his moments of secret anguish compelled me to withdraw. But not before I saw his features relax in a storm of passionate feeling, as he rained kisses after kisses on the senseless kid he had so long held in his motionless grasp. Yet when an hour later he entered the dining-room on his wife's arm, there was nothing in his manner to show that he had in any way changed in his attitude towards her.
The other picture was more tragic still. I was seeking Mrs. Zabriskie in her own room, when I caught a fleeting vision of her tall form, with her arms thrown up over her head in a paroxysm of feeling which made her as oblivious to my presence as her husband had been several hours before. Were the words that escaped her lips "Thank God we have no children!" or was this exclamation suggested to me by the passion and unrestrained impulse of her action?
So much up to date. Interesting enough, or so her employer seemed to think, as he went hurriedly through the whole story, one special afternoon in his office, tapping each sheet as he laid it aside with his sagacious forefinger, as though he would say, "Enough! My theory still holds good; nothing contradictory here; on the contrary complete and undisputable confirmation of the one and only explanation of this astounding crime."
What was that theory; and in what way and through whose efforts had he been enabled to form one? The following notes may enlighten us. Though written in his own hand, and undoubtedly a memorandum of his own activities, he evidently thinks it worth while to reperuse them in connection with those he had just laid aside.
We can do no better than read them also.
We omit dates.
Watched the Zabriskie mansion for five hours this morning, from the second story window of an adjoining hotel. Saw the doctor when he drove away on his round of visits, and saw him when he returned. A coloured man accompanied him.
Today I followed Mrs. Zabriskie. She went first to a house in Washington Place where I am told her mother lives. Here she stayed some time, after which she drove down to Canal Street, where she did some shopping, and later stopped at the hospital, into which I took the liberty of following her. She seemed to know many there, and passed from cot to cot with a smile in which I alone discerned the sadness of a broken heart. When she left, I left also, without having learned anything beyond the fact that Mrs. Zabriskie is one who does her duty in sorrow as in joy. A rare, and trustworthy woman I should say, and yet her husband does not trust her. Why?
I have spent this day in accumulating details in regard to Dr. and Mrs. Zabriskie's life previous to the death of Mr. Hasbrouck. I learned from sources it would be unwise to quote just here, that Mrs. Zabriskie had not lacked enemies to charge her with coquetry; that while she had never sacrificed her dignity in public, more than one person had been heard to declare that Dr. Zabriskie was fortunate in being blind, since the sight of his wife's beauty would have but poorly compensated him for the pain he would have suffered in seeing how that beauty was admired.
That all gossip is more or less tinged with exaggeration I have no doubt, yet when a name is mentioned in connection with such stories, there is usually some truth at the bottom of them. And a name is mentioned in this case, though I do not think it worth my while to repeat it here; and loth as I am to recognize the fact, it is a name that carries with it doubts that might easily account for the husband's jealousy. True, I have found no one who dares hint that she still continues to attract attention or to bestow smiles in any direction save where they legally belong. For since a certain memorable night which we all know, neither Dr. Zabriskie nor his wife have been seen save in their own domestic circle, and it is not into such scenes that this serpent, to whom I have just alluded, ever intrudes, nor is it in places of sorrow or suffering that his smile shines, or his fascinations flourish.
And so one portion of my theory is proved to be sound. Dr. Zabriskie is jealous of his wife; whether with good cause or bad I am not prepared to decide; since her present attitude, clouded as it is by the tragedy in which she and her husband are both involved, must differ very much from that which she held when her life was unshadowed by doubt, and her admirers could be counted by the score.
I have just found out where Leonard is. As he is in service some miles up the river, I shall have to be absent from my post for several hours, but I consider the game well worth the candle.
Light at last. I have not only seen Leonard, but succeeded in making him talk. His story is substantially this: That on the night so often mentioned, he packed his master's portmanteau at eight o'clock and at ten called a taxi and rode with the doctor to the Central station. He was told to buy tickets to Poughkeepsie where his master had been called in consultation, and having done this, hurried back to join Dr. Zabriskie on the platform. They had walked together as far as the cars, and Dr. Zabriskie was just stepping on to the train, when a man pushed himself hurriedly between them and whispered something into his master's ear, which caused him to fall back and lose his footing. Dr. Zabriskie's body slid half under the car, but he was withdrawn before any harm was done, though the cars gave a lurch at that moment which must have frightened him exceedingly, for his face was white when he rose to his feet, and when Leonard offered to assist him again on the train, he refused to go and said he would return home and not attempt to ride to Poughkeepsie that night.
The gentleman, whom Leonard now saw to be Mr. Stanton, an intimate friend of Dr. Zabriskie, smiled very queerly at this, and taking the doctor's arm led him back to his own auto. Leonard naturally followed them, but the doctor, hearing his steps, turned and bade him, in a very peremptory tone, to take the cars home, and then, as if on second thought, told him to go to Poughkeepsie in his stead and explain to the people there that he was too shaken up by his misstep to do his duty, and that he would be with them next morning. This seemed strange to Leonard, but he had no reasons for disobeying his master's orders, and so rode to Poughkeepsie. But the doctor did not follow him the next day; on the contrary he telegraphed for him to return, and when he got back dismissed him with a month's wages. This ended Leonard's connection with the Zabriskie family.
A simple story bearing out what the wife has already told us; but it furnishes a link which may prove invaluable. Mr. Stanton, whose first name is Theodore, knows the real reason why Dr. Zabriskie returned home on the night of the seventeenth of July, 19—. Mr. Stanton, consequently, is the man to see, and this shall be my business tomorrow.
Checkmate! Theodore Stanton is not in this country. Though this points him out as the man from whom Dr. Zabriskie bought the pistol, it does not facilitate my work, which is becoming more and more difficult.
Mr. Stanton's whereabouts are not even known to his most intimate friends. He sailed from this country most unexpectedly on the eighteenth of July a year ago, which was the day after the murder of Mr. Hasbrouck. It looks like a flight, especially as he has failed to maintain open communication even with his relatives. Was he the man who shot Mr. Hasbrouck? No; but he was the man who put the pistol in Dr. Zabriskie's hand that night, and whether he did this with purpose or not, was evidently so alarmed at the catastrophe which followed that he took the first outgoing steamer to Europe. So far, all is clear, but there are mysteries yet to be solved, which will require my utmost tact. What if I should seek out the gentleman with whose name that of Mrs. Zabriskie has been linked, and see if I can in any way connect him with Mr. Stanton or the events of that night.
Eureka! I have discovered that Mr. Stanton cherished a mortal hatred for the gentleman above mentioned. It was a covert feeling, but no less deadly on that account; and while it never led him into any extravagances, it was of force sufficient to account for many a secret misfortune occurring to that gentleman. Now if I can prove that he is the Mephistopheles who whispered insinuations into the ear of our blind Faust, I may strike a fact that will lead me out of this maze.
But how can I approach secrets so delicate without compromising the woman I feel bound to respect if only for the devoted love she manifests for her unhappy husband!
I shall have to appeal to Joe Smithers. This is something which I always hate to do, but as long as he will take money, and as long as he is fertile in resources for obtaining the truth from people I am myself unable to reach, I must make use of his cupidity and his genius. He is an honourable fellow in one way, and never retails as gossip what he acquires for our use. How will he proceed in this case, and by what tactics will he gain the very delicate information which we need? I own that I am curious to see.
I shall really have to put down at length the incidents of this night. I always knew that Joe Smithers was invaluable not only to myself but to the police, but I really did not know he possessed talents of so high an order. He wrote me this morning that he had succeeded in getting Mr. T—'s promise to spend the evening with him, and advised me that if I desired to be present as well, his own servant would not be at home, and that an opener of bottles would be required.
As I was very anxious to see Mr. T—— with my own eyes, I accepted this invitation to play the spy, and went at the proper hour to Mr. Smithers's rooms. I found them picturesque in the extreme. Piles of books stacked here and there to the ceiling made nooks and corners which could be quite shut off by a couple of old pictures set into movable frames capable of swinging out or in at the whim or convenience of the owner.
As I had use for the dark shadows cast by these pictures, I pulled them both out, and made such other arrangements as appeared likely to facilitate the purpose I had in view; then I sat down and waited for the two gentlemen who were expected to come in together.
They arrived almost immediately, whereupon I rose and played my part with all necessary discretion. While ridding Mr. T—— of his overcoat, I stole a look at his face. It is not a handsome one, but it boasts of a gay, devil-may-care expression which doubtless makes it dangerous to many women, while his manners are especially attractive, and his voice the richest and most persuasive that I ever heard. I contrasted him, almost against my will, with Dr. Zabriskie, and decided that with most women the former's undoubted fascinations of speech and bearing would outweigh the latter's great beauty and mental endowments; but I doubted if they would with her.
The conversation which immediately began was brilliant but desultory, for Mr. Smithers, with an airy lightness for which he is remarkable, introduced topic after topic, perhaps for the purpose of showing off Mr. T-'s versatility, and perhaps for the deeper and more sinister purpose of shaking the kaleidoscope of talk so thoroughly, that the real topic which we were met to discuss should not make an undue impression on the mind of his guest.
Meanwhile one, two, three bottles passed, and I had the pleasure of seeing Joe Smithers's eye grow calmer and that of Mr. T—— more brilliant and more uncertain. As the last bottle was being passed, Joe cast me a meaning glance, and the real business of the evening began.
I shall not attempt to relate the half dozen failures which Joe made in endeavouring to elicit the facts we were in search of, without arousing the suspicion of his visitor. I am only going to relate the successful attempt. They had been talking now for some hours, and I, who had long before been waved aside from their immediate presence, was hiding my curiosity and growing excitement behind one of the pictures, when I suddenly heard Joe say:
"He has the most remarkable memory I ever met. He can tell to a day when any notable event occurred."
"Pshaw!" answered his companion, who, by the way, was known to pride himself upon his own memory for dates, "I can state where I went and what I did on every day in the year. That may not embrace what you call 'notable events,' but the memory required is all the more remarkable, is it not?"
"Pooh!" was his friend's provoking reply, "you are bluffing, Ben; I will never believe that."
Mr. T——, who had passed by this time into that stage of intoxication which makes persistence in an assertion a duty as well as a pleasure, threw back his head, and as the wreaths of smoke rose in airy spirals from his lips, reiterated his statement, and offered to submit to any test of his vaunted powers which the other might dictate.
"You keep a diary—" began Joe.
"Which at the present moment is at home," completed the other.
"Will you allow me to refer to it tomorrow, if I am suspicious of the accuracy of your recollections?"
"Undoubtedly," returned the other.
"Very well, then, I will wager you a cool fifty that you cannot tell where you were between the hours of ten and eleven on a certain night which I will name."
"Done!" cried the other, bringing out his pocket-book and laying it on the table before him.
Joe followed his example and then summoned me.
"Write a date down here," he commanded, pushing a piece of paper towards me, with a look keen as the flash of a blade. "Any date, man," he added, as I appeared to hesitate in the embarrassment I thought natural under the circumstances. "Put down day, month, and year, only don't go too far back; not farther than two years."
Smiling with the air of a flunkey admitted to the sports of his superiors, I wrote a line and laid it before Mr. Smithers, who at once pushed it with a careless gesture towards his companion. You can of course guess the date I made use of: July 17, 19—. Mr. T——, who had evidently looked upon this matter as mere play, flushed scarlet as he read these words, and for one instant looked as if he had rather fly the house than answer Joe Smithers's nonchalant glance of inquiry.
"I have given my word and will keep it," he said at last, but with a look in my direction that sent me reluctantly back to my retreat. "I don't suppose you want names," he went on; "that is, if anything I have to tell is of a delicate nature?"
"Oh, no," answered the other, "only facts and places."
"I don't think places are necessary either," he returned. "I will tell you what I did and that must serve you. I did not promise to give number and street."
"Well, well," Joe exclaimed; "earn your fifty, that is all. Show that you remember where you were on the night of"—and with an admirable show of indifference he pretended to consult the paper between them—"the seventeenth of July, two years ago, and I shall be satisfied."
"I was at the club for one thing," said Mr. T——; "then I went to see a lady friend, where I stayed until eleven. She wore a blue muslin— What is that?"
I had betrayed myself by a quick movement which sent a glass tumbler crashing to the floor. Zulma Zabriskie had worn a blue muslin on that same night. You will find it noted in the report given me by the policeman who saw her on their balcony.
"That noise?" It was Joe who was speaking. "You don't know Reuben as well as I do or you wouldn't ask. It is his practice, I am sorry to say, to accentuate his pleasure in draining my bottles by dropping a glass at every third one."
Mr. T—— went on.
"She was a married woman and I thought she loved me; but—and this is the greatest proof I can offer you that I am giving you a true account of that night—she had not the slightest idea of the extent of my passion, and only consented to see me at all because she thought, poor thing, that a word from her would set me straight, and rid her of attentions she evidently failed to appreciate. A sorry figure for a fellow like me to cut; but you caught me on the most detestable date in my calendar and——"
There he ceased being interesting and I anxious. The secret of a crime for which there seemed to be no reasonable explanation is no longer a mystery to me. I have but to warn Miss Strange——
He had got thus far when a sound in the room behind him led him to look up. A lady had entered; a lady heavily veiled and trembling with what appeared to be an intense excitement.
He thought he knew the figure, but the person, whoever it was, stood so still and remained so silent, he hesitated to address her; which seeing, she pushed up her veil and all doubt vanished.
It was Violet herself. In disregard of her usual practice she had come alone to the office. This meant urgency of some kind. Had she too sounded this mystery? No, or her aspect would not have worn this look of triumph. What had happened then? He made an instant endeavour to find out.
"You have news," he quietly remarked. "Good news, I should judge, by your very cheery smile."
"Yes; I think I have found the way of bringing Dr. Zabriskie to himself."
Astonished beyond measure, so little did these words harmonize with the impressions and conclusions at which he had just arrived, something very like doubt spoke in his voice as he answered with the simple exclamation:
"Yes. He is obsessed by a fixed idea, and must be given an opportunity to test the truth of that idea. The shock of finding it a false one may restore him to his normal condition. He believes that he shot Mr. Hasbrouck with no other guidance than his sense of hearing. Now if it can be proved that his hearing is an insufficient guide for such an act (as of course it is) the shock of the discovery may clear his brain of its cobwebs. Mrs. Zabriskie thinks so, and the police——"
"What's that? The police?" "Yes, Dr. Zabriskie would be taken before them again this morning. No entreaties on the part of his wife would prevail; he insisted upon his guilt and asked her to accompany him there; and the poor woman found herself forced to go. Of course he encountered again the same division of opinion among the men he talked with. Three out of the four judged him insane, which observing, he betrayed great agitation and reiterated his former wish to be allowed an opportunity to prove his sanity by showing his skill in shooting. This made an impression; and a disposition was shown to grant his request then and there. But Mrs. Zabriskie would not listen to this. She approved of the experiment but begged that it might be deferred till another day and then take place in some spot remote from the city. For some reason they heeded her, and she has just telephoned me that this attempt of his is to take place tomorrow in the New Jersey woods. I am sorry that this should have been put through without you; and when I tell you that the idea originated with me—that from some word I purposely let fall one day, they both conceived this plan of ending the uncertainty that was devouring their lives, you will understand my excitement and the need I have of your support. Tell me that I have done well. Do not show me such a face—you frighten me——"
"I do not wish to frighten you. I merely wish to know just who are going on this expedition."
"Some members of the police, Dr. Zabriskie, his wife, and—and myself. She begged—"
"You must not go."
"Why? The affair is to be kept secret. The doctor will shoot, fail—Oh!" she suddenly broke in, alarmed by his expression, "you think he will not fail——"
"I think that you had better heed my advice and stay out of it. The affair is now in the hands of the police, and your place is anywhere but where they are."
"But I go as her particular friend. They have given her the privilege of taking with her one of her own sex and she has chosen me. I shall not fail her. Father is away, and if the awful disappointment you suggest awaits her, there is all the more reason why she should have some sympathetic support?"
This was so true, that the fresh protest he was about to utter died on his lips. Instead, he simply remarked as he bowed her out:
"I foresee that we shall not work much longer together. You are nearing the end of your endurance."
He never forgot the smile she threw back at him.
There are some events which impress the human mind so deeply that their memory mingles with all after-experiences. Though Violet had made it a rule to forget as soon as possible the tragic episodes incident to the strange career upon which she had so mysteriously embarked, there was destined to be one scene, if not more, which she has never been able to dismiss at will.
This was the sight which met her eyes from the bow of the small boat in which Dr. Zabriskie and his wife were rowed over to Jersey on the afternoon which saw the end of this most sombre drama.
Though it was by no means late in the day, the sun was already sinking, and the bright red glare which filled the west and shone full upon the faces of the half dozen people before her added much to the tragic nature of the scene, though she was far from comprehending its full significance.
The doctor sat with his wife in the stern and it was upon their faces Violet's glance was fixed. The glare shone luridly on his sightless eyeballs, and as she noticed his unwinking lids, she realized as never before what it was to be blind in the midst of sunshine. His wife's eyes, on the contrary, were lowered, but there was a look of hopeless misery in her colourless face which made her appearance infinitely pathetic, and Violet felt confident that if he could only have seen her, he would not have maintained the cold and unresponsive manner which chilled the words on his poor wife's lips and made all advance on her part impossible.
On the seat in front of them sat an inspector and from some quarter, possibly from under the inspector's coat, there came the monotonous ticking of the small clock, which was to serve as a target for the blind man's aim.
This ticking was all Violet heard, though the river was alive with traffic and large and small boats were steaming by them on every side. And I am sure it was all that Mrs. Zabriskie heard also, as with hand pressed to her heart, and eyes fixed on the opposite shore, she waited for the event which was to determine whether the man she loved was a criminal or only a being afflicted of God and worthy of her unceasing care and devotion.
As the sun cast its last scarlet gleam over the water, the boat grounded, and Violet was enabled to have one passing word with Mrs. Zabriskie. She hardly knew what she said but the look she received in return was like that of a frightened child.
But there was always to be seen in Mrs. Zabriskie's countenance this characteristic blending of the severe and the childlike, and beyond an added pang of pity for this beautiful but afflicted woman, Violet let the moment pass without giving it the weight it perhaps demanded.
"The doctor and his wife had a long talk last night," was whispered in her ear as she wound her way with the rest into the heart of the woods. With a start she turned and perceived her employer following close behind her. He had come by another boat.
"But it did not seem to heal whatever breach lies between them," he proceeded. Then, in a quick, anxious tone, he whispered: "Whatever happens, do not lift your veil. I thought I saw a reporter skulking in the rear."
"I will be careful," Violet assured him, and could say no more, as they had already reached the ground which had been selected for this trial at arms, and the various members of the party were being placed in their several positions.
The doctor, to whom light and darkness were alike, stood with his face towards the western glow, and at his side were grouped the inspector and the two physicians. On the arm of one of the latter hung Dr. Zabriskie's overcoat, which he had taken off as soon as he reached the field.
Mrs. Zabriskie stood at the other end of the opening near a tall stump, upon which it had been decided that the clock should be placed when the moment came for the doctor to show his skill. She had been accorded the privilege of setting the clock on this stump, and Violet saw it shining in her hand as she paused for a moment to glance back at the circle of gentlemen who were awaiting her movements. The hands of the clock stood at five minutes to five, though Violet scarcely noted it at the time, for Mrs. Zabriskie was passing her and had stopped to say:
"If he is not himself, he cannot be trusted. Watch him carefully and see that he does no mischief to himself or others. Ask one of the inspectors to stand at his right hand, and stop him if he does not handle his pistol properly."
Violet promised, and she passed on, setting the clock upon the stump and immediately drawing back to a suitable distance at the right, where she stood, wrapped in her long dark cloak. Her face shone ghastly white, even in its environment of snow-covered boughs, and noting this, Violet wished the minutes fewer between the present moment and the hour of five, at which time he was to draw the trigger.
"Dr. Zabriskie," quoth the inspector, "we have endeavoured to make this trial a perfectly fair one. You are to have a shot at a small clock which has been placed within a suitable distance, and which you are expected to hit, guided only by the sound which it will make in striking the hour of five. Are you satisfied with the arrangement?"
"Perfectly. Where is my wife?"
"On the other side of the field some ten paces from the stump upon which the clock is fixed." He bowed, and his face showed satisfaction.
"May I expect the clock to strike soon?"
"In less than five minutes," was the answer.
"Then let me have the pistol; I wish to become acquainted with its size and weight."
We glanced at each other, then across at her.
She made a gesture; it was one of acquiescence.
Immediately the inspector placed the weapon in the blind man's hand. It was at once apparent that he understood the instrument, and Violet's hopes which had been strong up to this moment, sank at his air of confidence.
"Thank God I am blind this hour and cannot see her," fell from his lips, then, before the echo of these words had died away, he raised his voice and observed calmly enough, considering that he was about to prove himself a criminal in order to save himself from being thought a madman:
"Let no one move. I must have my ears free for catching the first stroke of the clock." And he raised the pistol before him.
There was a moment of torturing suspense and deep, unbroken silence. Violet's eyes were on him so she did not watch the clock, but she was suddenly moved by some irresistible impulse to note how Mrs. Zabriskie was bearing herself at this critical moment, and casting a hurried glance in her direction she perceived her tall figure swaying from side to side, as if under an intolerable strain of feeling. Her eyes were on the clock, the hands of which seemed to creep with snail-like pace along the dial, when unexpectedly, and a full minute before the minute hand had reached the stroke of five, Violet caught a movement on her part, saw the flash of something round and white show for an instant against the darkness of her cloak, and was about to shriek warning to the doctor, when the shrill, quick stroke of a clock rang out on the frosty air, followed by the ping and flash of a pistol.
A sound of shattered glass, followed by a suppressed cry, told the bystanders that the bullet had struck the mark, but before any one could move, or they could rid their eyes of the smoke which the wind had blown into their faces, there came another sound which made their hair stand on end and sent the blood back in terror to their hearts. Another clock was striking, which they now perceived was still standing upright on the stump where Mrs. Zabriskie had placed it.
Whence came the clock, then, which had struck before the time and been shattered for its pains? One quick look told them. On the ground, ten paces to the right, lay Zulma Zabriskie, a broken clock at her side, and in her breast a bullet which was fast sapping the life from her sweet eyes.
They had to tell him, there was such pleading in her looks; and never will any of the hearers forget the scream which rang from his lips as he realized the truth. Breaking from their midst, he rushed forward, and fell at her feet as if guided by some supernatural instinct.
"Zulma," he shrieked, "what is this? Were not my hands dyed deep enough in blood that you should make me answerable for your life also?"
Her eyes were closed but she opened them. Looking long and steadily at his agonized face, she faltered forth:
"It is not you who have killed me; it is your crime. Had you been innocent of Mr. Hasbrouck's death your bullet would never have found my heart. Did you think I could survive the proof that you had killed that good man?"
"I did it unwittingly. I——"
"Hush!" she commanded, with an awful look, which happily he could not see. "I had another motive. I wished to prove to you, even at the cost of my life, that I loved you, had always loved you, and not——"
It was now his turn to silence her. His hand crept to her lips, and his despairing face turned itself blindly towards those about them.
"Go!" he cried; "leave us! Let me take a last farewell of my dying wife, without listeners or spectators."
Consulting the eye of her employer who stood close beside her, and seeing no hope in it, Violet fell slowly back. The others, followed, and the doctor was left alone with his wife. From the distant position they took, they saw her arms creep round his neck, saw her head fall confidingly on his breast, then silence settled upon them, and upon all nature, the gathering twilight deepening, till the last glow disappeared from the heavens above and from the circle of leafless trees which enclosed this tragedy from the outside world.
But at last there came a stir, and Dr. Zabriskie, rising up before them with the dead body of his wife held closely to his breast, confronted them with a countenance so rapturous that he looked like a man transfigured.
"I will carry her to the boat," said he. "Not another hand shall touch her. She was my true wife, my true wife!" And he towered into an attitude of such dignity and passion that for a moment he took on heroic proportions and they forgot that he had just proved himself to have committed a cold-blooded and ghastly crime.
The stars were shining when the party again took their seats in the boat; and if the scene of their crossing to Jersey was impressive, what shall be said of the return?
The doctor, as before, sat in the stern, an awesome figure, upon which the moon shone with a white radiance that seemed to lift his face out of the surrounding darkness and set it like an image of frozen horror before their eyes. Against his breast he held the form of his dead wife, and now and then Violet saw him stoop as if he were listening for some token of life from her set lips. Then he would lift himself again with hopelessness stamped upon his features, only to lean forward in renewed hope that was again destined to disappointment.
Violet had been so overcome by this tragic end to all her hopes, that her employer had been allowed to enter the boat with her. Seated at her side in the seat directly in front of the doctor, he watched with her these simple tokens of a breaking heart, saying nothing till they reached midstream, when true to his instincts for all his awe and compassion, he suddenly bent towards him and said:
"Dr. Zabriskie, the mystery of your crime is no longer a mystery to me. Listen and see if I do not understand your temptation, and how you, a conscientious and God-fearing man, came to slay your innocent neighbour.
"A friend of yours, or so he called himself, had for a long time filled your ears with tales tending to make you suspicious of your wife and jealous of a certain man whom I will not name. You knew that your friend had a grudge against this man, and so for many months turned a deaf ear to his insinuations. But finally some change which you detected in your wife's bearing or conversation roused your own suspicions, and you began to doubt her truth and to curse your blindness, which in a measure rendered you helpless. The jealous fever grew and had risen to a high point when one night—a memorable night—this friend met you just as you were leaving town, and with cruel craft whispered in your ear that the man you hated was even then with your wife and that if you would return at once to your home you would find him in her company.
"The demon that lurks at the heart of all men, good or bad, thereupon took complete possession, of you, and you answered this false friend by saying that you would not return without a pistol. Whereupon he offered to take you to his house and give you his. You consented, and getting rid of your servant by sending him to Poughkeepsie with your excuses, you entered your friend's automobile.
"You say you bought the pistol, and perhaps you did, but, however that may be, you left his house with it in your pocket, and declining companionship, walked home, arriving at the Colonnade a little before midnight.
"Ordinarily you have no difficulty in recognizing your own doorstep. But, being in a heated frame of mind, you walked faster than usual and so passed your own house and stopped at that of Mr. Hasbrouck, one door beyond. As the entrances of these houses are all alike, there was but one way by which you could have made yourself sure that you had reached your own dwelling, and that was by feeling for the doctor's sign at the side of the door. But you never thought of that. Absorbed in dreams of vengeance, your sole impulse was to enter by the quickest means possible. Taking out your night key, you thrust it into the lock. It fitted, but it took strength to turn it, so much strength that the key was twisted and bent by the effort. But this incident, which would have attracted your attention at another time, was lost upon you at this moment. An entrance had been effected, and you were in too excited a frame of mind to notice at what cost, or to detect the small differences apparent in the atmosphere and furnishings of the two houses, trifles which would have arrested your attention under other circumstances, and made you pause before the upper floor had been reached.
"It was while going up the stairs that you took out your pistol, so that by the time you arrived at the front room door you held it already drawn and cocked in your hand. For, being blind, you feared escape on the part of your victim, and so waited for nothing but the sound of a man's voice before firing. When, therefore, the unfortunate Mr. Hasbrouck, roused by this sudden intrusion, advanced with an exclamation of astonishment, you pulled the trigger, and killed him on the spot. It must have been immediately upon his fall that you recognized from some word he uttered, or from some contact you may have had with your surroundings, that you were in the wrong house and had killed the wrong man; for you cried out, in evident remorse, 'God! what have I done!' and fled without approaching your victim.
"Descending the stairs, you rushed from the house, closing the front door behind you and regaining your own without being seen. But here you found yourself baffled in your attempted escape, by two things. First, by the pistol you still held in your hand, and secondly, by the fact that the key upon which you depended for entering your own door was so twisted out of shape that you knew it would be useless for you to attempt to use it. What did you do in this emergency? You have already told us, though the story seemed so improbable at the time, you found nobody to believe it but myself. The pistol you flung far away from you down the pavement, from which, by one of those rare chances which sometimes happen in this world, it was presently picked up by some late passer-by of more or less doubtful character. The door offered less of an obstacle than you had anticipated; for when you turned again you found it, if I am not greatly mistaken, ajar, left so, as we have reason to believe, by one who had gone out of it but a few minutes before in a state which left him but little master of his actions. It was this fact which provided you with an answer when you were asked how you succeeded in getting into Mr. Hasbrouck's house after the family had retired for the night.
"Astonished at the coincidence, but hailing with gladness the deliverance which it offered, you went in and ascended at once into your wife's presence; and it was from her lips, and not from those of Mrs. Hasbrouck, that the cry arose which startled the neighbourhood and prepared men's minds for the tragic words which were shouted a moment later from the next house.
"But she who uttered the scream knew of no tragedy save that which was taking place in her own breast. She had just repulsed a dastardly suitor, and seeing you enter so unexpectedly in a state of unaccountable horror and agitation, was naturally stricken with dismay, and thought she saw your ghost, or what was worse, a possible avenger; while you, having failed to kill the man you sought, and having killed a man you esteemed, let no surprise on her part lure you into any dangerous self-betrayal. You strove instead to soothe her, and even attempted to explain the excitement under which you laboured, by an account of your narrow escape at the station, till the sudden alarm from next door distracted her attention, and sent both your thoughts and hers in a different direction. Not till conscience had fully awakened and the horror of your act had had time to tell upon your sensitive nature, did you breathe forth those vague confessions, which, not being supported by the only explanations which would have made them credible, led her, as well as the police, to consider you affected in your mind. Your pride as a man and your consideration for her as a woman kept you silent, but did not keep the worm from preying upon your heart.
"Am I not correct in my surmises, Dr. Zabriskie, and is not this the true explanation of your crime?"
With a strange look, he lifted up his face.
"Hush!" said he; "you will waken her. See how peacefully she sleeps! I should not like to have her wakened now, she is so tired, and I—I have not watched over her as I should."
Appalled at his gesture, his look, his tone, Violet drew back, and for a few minutes no sound was to be heard but the steady dip-dip of the oars and the lap-lap of the waters against the boat. Then there came a quick uprising, the swaying before her of something dark and tall and threatening, and before she could speak or move, or even stretch forth her hands to stay him, the seat before her was empty and darkness had filled the place where but an instant previous he had sat, a fearsome figure, erect and rigid as a sphinx.
What little moonlight there was, only served to show a few rising bubbles, marking the spot where the unfortunate man had sunk with his much-loved burden. As the widening circles fled farther and farther out, the tide drifted the boat away, and the spot was lost which had seen the termination of one of earth's saddest tragedies.
END OF PROBLEM VII