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X Y Z: A Detective Story, Page 2

Anna Katharine Green



  At half past eight I was at my post. The mysterious stranger, stillunder my direct surveillance, had already entered the grounds and takenhis stand in the southwest corner of the shrubbery, thereby leaving mefree to exercise my zeal in keeping the fences and gates free ofintruders. At nine the guests were nearly if not all assembled; andpromptly at the hour mentioned in the note so often referred to, I stoleaway from my post and hid myself amid the bushes that obscured the realplace of rendezvous.

  It was a retired spot, eminently fitted for a secret meeting. The lamps,which had been hung in profusion through the grounds, had beenstudiously excluded from this quarter. Even the broad blaze of lightthat poured from the open doors and windows of the brilliantlyilluminated mansion, sent no glimmer through the broad belt ofevergreens that separated this retreat from the open lawn beyond. Allwas dark, all was mysterious, all was favorable to the daring plan I hadundertaken. In silence I awaited the sound of approaching steps.

  My suspense was of short duration. In a few moments I heard a low rustlein the bushes near me, then a form appeared before my eyes, and a man'svoice whispered:

  "Is there any one here?"

  My reply was to glide quietly into view.

  Instantly he spoke again, this time with more assurance.

  "Are you ready for a counterfeit?"

  "I am ready for any thing," I returned, in smothered tones, hoping bythus disguising my voice, to lure him into a revelation of the truepurpose of this mysterious rendezvous.

  But instead of the explanations I expected, the person before me made aquick movement, and I felt a domino thrown over my shoulders.

  "Draw it about you well," he murmured; "there are lynx eyes in the crowdto-night." And while I mechanically obeyed, he bent down to my ear andearnestly continued: "Now listen, and be guided by my instructions. Youwill not be able to enter by the front door, as it is guarded, and youcannot pass without removing your mask. But the window on the left-handbalcony is at your service. It is open, and the man appointed to keepintruders away, has been bribed to let you pass. Once inside the house,join the company _sans ceremonie_; and do not hesitate to converse withany one who addresses you by the countersign. Promptly at ten o'clocklook around you for a domino in plain black. When you see him move,follow him, but with discretion, so that you may not seem to others tobe following. Sooner or later he will pause and point to a closed door.Notice that door, and when your guide has disappeared, approach andenter it without fear or hesitation. You will find yourself in a smallapartment connecting with the library.

  "There is but one thing more to say. If the wineglass you will observeon the library table smells of wine, you may know your father has hadhis nightly potion and gone to bed. But if it contains nothing more thana small white powder, you may be certain he has yet to return to thelibrary, and that by waiting, you will have the long-wished-foropportunity of seeing him."

  And pausing for no reply, my strange companion suddenly thrust a maskinto my hand and darted from the circle of trees that surrounded us.

  For a moment I stood dumbfounded at the position in which myrecklessness had placed me. All the folly, the impertinence even, of theproceeding upon which I had entered, was revealed to me in its truecolors, and I mentally inquired what could have induced me to thushamper myself with the details of a mystery so entirely removed from theserious matter I had in charge. Resolved to abandon the affair, I made ahasty attempt to disengage myself from the domino in which I had been sounceremoniously enveloped. But invisible hands seemed to restrain me. Avivid remembrance of the tone in which these final instructions had beenuttered returned to my mind, and while I recognized the voice as that ofHartley Benson, I also recognized the almost saturnine intensity ofexpression which had once before imbued his words with a significanceboth forcible and surprising. The secret, if a purely family one, was ofno ordinary nature; and at the thought I felt my old interest revive.All the excuses with which I had hitherto silenced my consciencerecurred to me with fresh force, and mechanically donning my mask, Iprepared to follow out my guide's instructions to the last detail.

  The window to which I had been directed stood wide open. Through it camethe murmur of music and the hum of gay voices. Visions of a motley crowddecked in grotesque costumes passed constantly before my eyes. Sight andsound combined to allure me. Hurrying to the window, I steppedcarelessly in.

  A low guttural "Hugh!" at once greeted me. It was from a mask in fullIndian costume, whom I saw leaning with a warrior's well-known dignityagainst the embrasure of the window by which I had entered. Giving him ascrutinizing glance, I came to the conclusion he was a young and notinelegant man; and impelled by a reasonable curiosity as to how I lookedmyself, I cast my eyes down upon my own person. I found my appearancesufficiently striking. The domino, in which I was wrapped was of abrilliant yellow hue, covered here and there with black figuresrepresenting all sorts of fantastic creatures, from hobgoblins of aterrible type, to merry Kate Greenaway silhouettes. "Humph!" thought I,"it seems I am not destined to glide unnoticed amid the crowd."

  The first person who approached me was a gay little shepherdess.

  "Ah, ha!" was the sportive exclamation with which she greeted me. "Hereis one of my wandering sheep!" And with a laugh, she endeavored to hookme to her side by means of her silver crook.

  But this blithesome puppet possessed no interest for me. So with a growland a bound I assured her I was nothing more than a wolf in sheep'sclothing, and would eat her up if she did not run away; at which shegayly laughed and vanished, and for a moment I was left alone. But onlyfor a moment. A masked lady, whom I had previously observed standingupright and solitary in a distant corner of the room, now approached,and taking me by the arm, led me eagerly to one side.

  "Oh, Joe!" she whispered, "is it you? How glad I am to have you here,and how I hope we are going to be happy at last!"

  Fearing to address a person seemingly so well acquainted with the youngman whose place I had usurped, I merely pressed, with most perfidiousduplicity, the little hand that was so confidingly clasped in mine. Itseemed to satisfy her, for she launched at once into ardent speech.

  "Oh, Joe, I have been so anxious to have you with us once again! Hartleyis a good brother, but he is not my old playmate. Then father will be somuch happier if you only succeed in making him forget the past."

  Seeing by this that it was Miss Carrie Benson with whom I had to deal, Ipressed the little hand again, and tenderly drew her closer to my side.That I felt all the time like a villain of the blackest dye, it is quiteunnecessary for me to state.

  "Has Hartley told you just what you are to do?" was her next remark."Father is very determined not to relent and has kept himself locked inhis library all day, for fear you should force yourself upon hispresence. I could never have gained his consent to give this ball if Ihad not first persuaded him it would serve as a means to keep you at adistance; that if you saw the house thronged with guests, naturalmodesty would restrain you from pushing yourself forward. I think hebegins to distrust his own firmness. He fears he will melt at the sightof you. He has been failing this last year and--" A sudden choke stoppedher voice.

  I was at once both touched and alarmed; touched at the grief whichshowed her motives to be pure and good, and alarmed at the position inwhich I had thrust myself to the apparent detriment of these samelaudable motives. Moved by a desire to right matters, I ventured tospeak:

  "And do you think," I whispered, in purposely smothered accents, "thatif he sees me he will relent?"

  "I am sure of it. He yearns over you, Joe; and if he had not sworn neverto speak to you again, he would have sent for you long ago. Hartleybelieves as well as I that the time for reconciliation has come."

  "And is Hartley," I ventured again, not without a secret fear of theconsequences, "really anxious for reconciliation?"

  "Oh, Joe! can you doubt it? Has he not striven from the first to makefather forget? Would he encourage
you to come here to-night, furnish youwith a disguise, and consent to act both as your champion and adviser,if he did not want to see you and father friends again? You don'tunderstand Hartley; you never have. You would not have repelled hisadvances so long, if you had realized how truly he had forgiven everything and forgotten it. Hartley has the pride of a person who has neverdone wrong himself. But even pride gives way before brotherly affection;and you have suffered so much and so long, poor Joe!"

  "So, so," thought I, "Joe is then the aggressor!" And for a moment, Ilonged to be the man I represented, if only to clasp this dear littlesister in my arms and thank her for her goodness. "You are a darling," Ifaintly articulated, inwardly determined to rush forthwith into thegarden, hand over my domino to the person for whom it was intended, andmake my escape from a scene which I had so little right to enjoy. Butat this instant an interruption occurred which robbed me of mycompanion, but kept me effectually in my place. A black domino swept byus, dragging Miss Benson from my side, while at the same time a harshvoice whispered in my ear:

  "To counterfeit wrong when one is right, necessarily opens one tomisunderstanding."

  I started, recognizing in this mode of speech a _friend_, and thereforeone from whom I could not escape without running the risk of awakeningsuspicion.

  "That is true," I returned, hoping by my abrupt replies to cut shortthis fresh colloquy and win a speedy release.

  But something in my answer roused the interest of the person at my side,and caused a display of emotion that led to quite an opposite resultfrom what I desired.

  "You awaken a thousand conjectures in my mind by that reply," exclaimedmy friend, edging me a little farther back from the crowd. "I havealways had my doubts about--about--" he paused, hunting for the properphrase--"about your having done what they said," he somewhat lamelyconcluded. "It was so unlike you. But now I begin to see the presence ofa possibility that might perhaps explain much we never understood. Joe,my boy, you never said you were innocent, but----"

  "Who are you?" I asked boldly, peering into the twinkling eyes thatshone upon me from his sedate mask. "In the discussion of such mattersas these, it would be dreadful to make a mistake."

  "And don't you recognize your Uncle Joe?" he asked, with a certainplaintive reproach somewhat out of keeping with his costume of "potent,grave, and reverend signior." "I came over from Hollowell on purpose,because Carrie intimated that you were going to make one final effort tosee your father. Edith is here too," he murmured, thrusting his facealarmingly near mine. "She would not stay away, though we were allafraid she might betray herself; her emotions are so quick. Poor child!_she_ never doubted you; and if my suspicions are correct----"

  "Edith?" I interrupted,--"Edith?" An Edith was the last person Idesired to meet under these circumstances. "Where is she?" I tremulouslyinquired, starting aside in some dismay at the prospect of encounteringthis unknown quantity of love and devotion.

  But my companion, seizing me by the arm, drew me back. "She is not faraway; of that you may be sure. But it will never do for you to try andhunt her up. You would not know her in her mask. Besides, if you remainstill she will come to you."

  That was just what I feared, but upon looking round and seeing nosuspicious-looking damsel anywhere near me, I concluded to waive myapprehensions on her account and proceed to the development of an ideathat had been awakened by the old gentleman's words.

  "You are right," I acquiesced, edging, in my turn, toward the curtainedrecess of a window near by. "Let us wait here, and meantime you shalltell me what your suspicions are, for I feel the time has come for thetruth to be made known, and who could better aid me in proclaiming itthan you who have always stood my friend?"

  "That is true," he murmured, all eagerness at once. Then in a lower toneand with a significant gesture: "There _is_ something, then, which hasnever been made known? Edith was right when she said you did not stealthe bonds out of your father's desk?"

  As he paused and looked me in the face, I was obliged to make somereply. I chose one of the non-committal sort.

  "Don't ask me!" I murmured, turning away with every appearance ofprofound agitation.

  He did not suspect the ruse.

  "But, my boy, I shall have to ask you; if I am to help you out of thisscrape, I must know the truth. Yet if it is as I suspect, I can see whyyou should hesitate even now. You are a generous fellow, Joe, but evengenerosity can be carried past its proper limits."

  "Uncle," I exclaimed, leaning over him and whispering tremulously in hisear, "what are your suspicions? If I hear you give utterance to them,perhaps it will not be so hard for me to speak."

  He hesitated, looked all about us with a questioning glance, put hismouth to my ear, and whispered:

  "If I should use the name of Hartley in connection with what I have tosay, would you be so very much surprised?"

  With a quick semblance of emotion, I drew back.

  "You think--" I tremulously commenced, and as suddenly broke off.

  "That it was he who did it, and that you, knowing how your father lovedhim and built his hopes upon him, bore the blame of it yourself."

  "Ha!" I exclaimed, with a deep breath as of relief. The suspicions ofUncle Joe were worth hearing.

  He seemed to be satisfied with the ejaculation, and with an increase ofeagerness in his tone, went quickly on:

  "Am I not right, my boy? Is not this the secret of your whole conductfrom that dreadful day to this?"

  "Don't ask me," I again pleaded, taking care, however, to draw a stepnearer and exclaim in almost the same breath: "Why should you think itmust necessarily have been one of us? What did _you_ know that youshould be so positive it was either he or I who committed thisdishonest action?"

  "What did I know? Why, what everybody else did. That your father,hearing a noise in his study one night, rose up quietly and slipped tothe door of communication in time to hear a stealthy foot leave the roomand proceed down the hall toward the apartment usually occupied by youand your brother; that, alarmed and filled with vague distrust, he atonce lit the lamp, only to discover his desk had been forcibly brokeninto and a number of coupon bonds taken out; that, struck to the heart,he went immediately to the room where you and your brother lay, foundhim lying quiet, and to all appearance asleep, while you looked flushedand with difficulty met his eye; that without hesitation he thereuponaccused you of theft, and began to search the apartment; that he foundthe bonds, as we both know, in a cupboard at the head of your bed, andwhen you were asked if you had put them there you remained silent, andneither then nor afterward made any denial of being the one who stolethem."

  A mournful "Yes" was all the reply I ventured upon.

  "Now it never seemed to occur to your father to doubt your guilt. Theopen window and the burglar's jimmy found lying on the floor of thestudy, being only so many proofs, to his mind, of your deep calculationand great duplicity. But I could not help thinking, even on thathorrible morning, that your face did not wear a look of guilt so much asit did that of firm and quiet resolution. But I was far from suspectingthe truth, my boy, or I should never have allowed you to fall a victimto your father's curse, and be sent forth like a criminal from home andkindred. If only for Edith's sake I would have spoken--dear, trusting,faithful girl that she is!"

  "But--but--" I brokenly ejaculated, anxious to gain as much of the truthas was possible in the few minutes allotted me; "what has awakened yoursuspicions at this late day? Why should you doubt Hartley now, if youdid not then?"

  "Well, I cannot really say. Perhaps Edith's persistent aversion to yourbrother has had something to do with it. Then he has grown cold andhard, while you have preserved your boyish freshness and affection. I--Idon't like him, that is the truth; and with my dislike arose doubts,and--and--well, I cannot tell how it is, but I will believe you if yousay he was the one to blame in this matter; and what is more, yourfather will believe you too; for he does not feel the same satisfactionin Hartley's irreproachable character that he used to, and--and--"
  A sudden movement in the crowd stopped him. A tall, graceful-lookingwoman clad entirely in white had just entered the room and seemed to bemaking her way toward us.

  "There is Edith!" he declared. "She is hunting for the yellow dominoornamented with black that she has been told conceals her lover. Shall Igo and fetch her here, or will you wait until she spies you of her ownaccord?"

  "I will wait," I uneasily replied, edging nearer to the window with thedetermination of using it as a means of escape if my companion only gaveme the chance. "See! she is in the hands of an old Jew, who seems to begreatly taken with the silver trimmings on her sleeves. Suppose youimprove the opportunity to slip away," I laughingly suggested. "Lovers'meetings are not usually of an order to interest third parties."

  "Aren't they, you rogue!" retorted the old gentleman, giving me a jocosepoke in the ribs. "Well, well, I suppose you are right. But you have nottold me--"

  "I will tell you every thing in an hour," I hastily assured him. "I amgoing to meet my father in the library, and after he has heard thetruth, you shall be admitted and all will be explained."

  "That is only fair," he replied. "Your father has the first rights, ofcourse. But Joe, my boy, remember I am not over and above patient ofdisposition, and don't keep me waiting too long." And with anaffectionate squeeze of my hand, he stepped out from the recess where westood and made his way once more into the throng.

  No sooner had he left my side than I threw up the window. "Now is thetime for the real Joe to appear upon the scene," was my mentaldecision. "I have done for him what he as a gentleman would probablynever do for himself--pumped this old party and got every thing in trimfor Hartley's discomfiture. But the courting business is another matter;also the interview with the outraged father in the library. That cannotbe done by proxy; so here goes for a change of actors."

  And with reckless disregard of consequences, I prepared to jump from thewindow, when a sudden light flashed over the lawn beneath and I saw Iwas at least twelve feet from the ground.

  "Well," I exclaimed, drawing hastily back; "such a leap as that is toomuch to expect of any man!" And with the humiliating consciousness ofbeing caught in a trap, I proceeded to close the window.


  'Twas a low whisper, but how thrilling! Turning, I greeted, with theshow of fervor I considered necessary to the occasion, the white-veiledlady who had glided into my retreat.

  "Did you think I was never coming, Joe? Everybody who could get in myway certainly managed to do so. Then Hartley is so suspicious, andfollowed me with his eyes so persistently, I did not dare show mydesigns too plainly. It is only this minute he left my side. If you hadbeen anywhere else I do not know as I should have succeeded even now ingetting a word with you--oh!"

  This exclamation was called forth by a sudden movement that took placenear us. The curtain was drawn back and a tall man dressed in a blackdomino glanced in, gave us a scrutinizing look, bowed, and dropped thecurtain again.

  "Hartley," she whisperingly explained.

  I took her by the hand; there was no help for it; gesture and alover-like demeanor must, in this case, supply the place of speech.

  "Hush!" she entreated. (Not that I had spoken.) "I dare not stay. Whenyou have seen your father, perhaps I will have courage to join you; butnow it would be better for me to go." And her eyes roamed toward thecurtain, while the little hand I held in mine grew cold and slightlytrembled.

  I pressed that little hand, but, as you may well believe, did not urgeher to remain. Yet she did not seem in a hurry to depart, and I do notknow what complications might have ensued, if another movement in thecurtain had not reawakened her fears and caused her, notwithstanding herevident reluctance, to start quickly away.

  I did not linger long behind her. Scarcely had the curtain fallen fromher hand than I stepped hastily forth. But alas for my hopes of escape!No sooner had I joined the group of merry-makers circling about the opendoor, than I felt a touch on my arm, and looking up, saw before me theBlack Domino. The hour of ten had struck and my guide to the library wasat hand. There was no alternative left me but to follow him.