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X Y Z: A Detective Story, Page 4

Anna Katharine Green



  Mr. Benson was really dead. The fact being announced, most of the guestswithdrew. In ten minutes after he fell, the room was comparativelyclear. Only the various members of the family, together with thegentleman I have already mentioned, remained behind; and, even of these,the two ladies were absent, they having followed the body into theadjoining room, where it had been reverently carried by the attachedJonas and another servant whose face I did not see.

  "A most unlooked-for catastrophe," burst from the lips of Uncle Joe."Did you ever suspect he was a victim to heart disease?" he now asked,this time with looks directed toward the doctor.

  "No," came from that gentleman in a short, sharp way, which made HartleyBenson's pale face flush, though his eye did not waver from its steadysolemn look toward the door through which his father's form had justbeen carried. "Mr. Benson was sound through and through a month ago. Iknow, because I examined him previous to his making his will. There wasno heart disease then; that I am ready to take my oath upon."

  Hartley Benson's rigid look unfastened itself from the door and turnedslowly toward the sombre face of the speaker, while Uncle Joe, with anincreased expression of distress, looked slowly around as if he halfhoped, half feared to behold his favorite nephew advance upon them fromsome shadowy corner.

  "My father consulted you, then?" said the former, in his slow, reservedway. "Did not that evince some suspicion of disease on his part?"

  "Possibly; a man in a despondent frame of mind will often imagine he hassome deadly complaint or other. But he was quite sound; too sound, heseemed to think. Your father was not a happy man, Mr. Benson."

  There was meaning in the tone, and I was not surprised to observeHartley draw back. "Why," said he, "do you think--"

  "I think nothing," broke in the doctor; "only"--and here he brought downhis hand vigorously upon the table--"there has been prussic acid in theglass from which Mr. Benson drank this evening. The smell of bitteralmonds is not to be mistaken."

  An interval of silent horror followed this announcement, then a vehement"Great Heaven!" broke from the lips of Uncle Joe, while Hartley Benson,growing more and more rigid in his bearing, fixed his eyes on thedoctor's face and barely ejaculated:


  "I say this," continued the doctor, too intent upon his own theory tonotice either the growth of a terrible fear on the face of Uncle Joe, orthe equally remarkable expression of subdued expectation on that of theson, "because long experience has taught me the uselessness of trying tohide such a fact as suicide, and also because, being the coroner of thecounty, it is my duty to warn you that an investigation will have totake place which will require certain precautions on my part, such asthe sealing up of his papers, etc."

  "That is true," came from the lips of both brother and son, over whom avisible change had passed at the word "suicide."

  "But I cannot think--" the former began in an agitated voice.

  "That my father would do such a deed," interposed the latter. "It doesnot seem probable, and yet he was a very wretched man, and grief willoften drive the best of us to despair."

  Uncle Joe gave his nephew a strange look, but said no more. The doctorwent quietly on:

  "I do not know what your father's troubles were, but that he committedsuicide I greatly fear, unless it can be proved the acid was taken bymistake, a conclusion which does not seem probable, for from the smellof the decanter it is evident the acid was mixed with the wine, in whichI now remember advising him to take the nightly powder I prescribed tohim for quite a trivial disorder a few days ago. The only thing thatpuzzles me is, why, if he meditated death, he should have troubledhimself to take this powder. And yet it is certain he did take it, forthere is still some of the sediment of it remaining in the bottom of theglass."

  "He took the powder because it was already in the glass," broke inHartley, in a heavy tone of voice. "My sister put it there before shewent up stairs to dress. I think she was afraid he would forget it. Myfather was very careless about small matters."

  "He was careful enough not to poison any one else in the family," quoththe doctor. "There was scarcely a drop left in the decanter; he took thewhole dose."

  "I beg your pardon, sirs, but is it suicide you are talking about?"cried a voice suddenly over their shoulders, making them all start.Jonas, the servant, had entered from the inner room, and unseen by allbut myself, had been listening to the last few words as if his lifedepended upon what they had to say. "If it is, why I have a bit of anobservation of my own to make that may help you to settle the matter."

  "You! What have you to say?" quoth the doctor, turning in surprise atthe confident tone of voice in which the man spoke.

  "Not much, I am sure," cried Hartley, to whom the appearance at thatmoment of his father's old servant was evidently most unwelcome.

  "That is for you to judge, gentlemen. I can only tell you what I'veseen, and that not ten minutes ago. Mr. Hartley, do you mind the man inthe yellow dress that was flitting about the parlors all the evening?"

  "Good heavens!" burst in uncontrollable agitation from Uncle Joe; and hecaught his nephew by the arm with a look that called back the old rigidexpression to the latter's face.

  "Yes," was the quiet reply; "I remember seeing such a person."

  "Well, sirs, I don't know as you will think any thing of it, but alittle while ago I was walking up and down the balcony outside there,when I happened to look into this room, and I saw that man in the yellowdress leaning over this very table, looking into the wineglass MissCarrie had put there for master. He had it in his hand, and his head wasdown very close to it, but what he did to it or to the decanter either,I am sure, sirs, I don't know, for I was that frightened at seeing thisspectre in the room master had kept locked all day, that I just slippedoff the balcony and ran round the house to find Mr. Hartley. But youwasn't in the parlors, sir, nor Miss Carrie neither, and when I got tothis room, there was master lying dead on the floor, and everybodycrowding around him horror-struck."

  "Humph!" ejaculated the doctor, looking at Uncle Joe, who had sunk in aheap into the arm-chair his nephew abstractedly pushed toward him.

  "You see, sirs," Jonas resumed, with great earnestness, "Mr. Benson, forsome reason or other, had been very particular about keeping his ownroom to-day. The library door was locked as early as six this morning,and he would let no one in without first asking who was there. That'swhy I felt so dumbfoundered at seeing this yellow man in the room;besides----"

  But no sooner had the good man arrived at this point than he stopped,with a gasp, and after a quick look at Hartley, flushed, and drew backin a state of great agitation and embarrassment. Evidently a suspicionhad just crossed the mind of this old and attached servant as to whomthe Yellow Domino might be.

  "Well, well," cried the doctor, "go on; let us hear the rest."

  "I--I have nothing more to say," mumbled the man, while Hartley, with anequal display of embarrassment, motioned the discomfited servant towithdraw, and turned as if to hide his face over some papers on thetable.

  "I think the man in the yellow domino had better be found," quoth thephysician, dryly, glancing from Hartley to the departing form of theservant, with a sharp look. "At all events it would be well enough forus to know who he is."

  "I don't see--" began Uncle Joe, but stopped as he perceived the face ofHartley Benson slowly composing itself. Evidently he was as muchinterested as myself in observing what this not-easily-to-be-understoodman would say and do in this sudden crisis.

  We were not long left in doubt.

  "Doctor," he began, in a slow, hesitating tone, well calculated toproduce the effect he desired, "we unfortunately already know who wore ayellow domino this evening. My brother Joe----"

  "Hush!" implored his uncle, laying a hand on his nephew's arm with aquick look of distress not lost on the doctor.

  "Brother?" repeated the latter. "Pardon me, I did not know----Ah, but Ido remember now to have heard that Mr. Benson ha
d another son."

  The face of Hartley grew graver and graver. "My brother has beenalienated from my father for some time, so you have never seen him here.But to-night he hoped, or made me think he hoped, to effect areconciliation; so I managed, with my sister, to provide him with thedomino necessary to insure him an entrance here. Indeed, I did more; Ishowed him a private door by which he could find his way into thelibrary, never suspecting any harm could come of son and father meetingeven in this surreptitious way. I--I loved my brother, andnotwithstanding the past, had confidence in him. Nor can I think now hehad any thing to do with the----" Here the voice of this inimitableactor broke in well-simulated distress. He sank on a chair and put hishands before his face.

  The doctor had no reason to doubt this man. He therefore surveyed himwith a look of grave regard.

  "Mr. Benson," said he, "you have my profoundest sympathy. A tragedy likethis in a family of such eminent respectability, is enough to overwhelmthe stoutest heart. If your brother is here----"

  "Dr. Travis," broke in the other, rising and grasping the physician'shand with an appearance of manly impulse impressive in one usually sostern and self contained, "you are, or were, my father's friend; can youor will you be ours? Dreadful as it is to think, my father undoubtedlycommitted suicide. He had a great dread of this day. It is theanniversary of an occurrence harrowing for him to remember. Mybrother--you see I shall have to break the secrecy of years--wasdetected by him in the act of robbing his desk three years agoto-night, and upon each and every recurrence of the day, has returned tohis father's house to beg for the forgiveness and restoration to favorwhich he lost by that deed of crime. Hitherto my father has been able toescape his importunities, by absence or the address of his servants, butto-day he seemed to have a premonition that his children were in leagueagainst him, notwithstanding Carrie's ruse of the ball, and theknowledge may have worked upon him to that extent that he preferreddeath to a sight of the son that had ruined his life and made him thehermit you have seen."

  The doctor fell into the trap laid for him with such diabolical art.

  "Perhaps; but if that is so, why is your brother not here? Only a fewminutes could have elapsed between the time that Jonas saw him leaningover the table with the glass in his hand and the moment when you andyour sister entered this room in face of your father's falling form. Hemust have been present, therefore, when your father came from hisbedroom, if not when he drank the fatal glass; why, then, did he takesuch pains to escape, if actuated by no keener emotion than horror at afather's suicide?"

  "I do not know, I cannot say; but that he himself put the poison in thedecanter I will not believe. A thief is not necessarily a parricide.Even if he were in great straits and needed the money my father's willundoubtedly leaves him, he would think twice before he ran the risk ofmaking Carrie and myself his natural enemies. No, no, if my father hasdied from poison, it was through a mistake, or by the administration ofhis own hand, never by that of Joe Benson's."

  "Ah, and has anybody here present dared to charge _him_ with such adeed!"

  With a start both gentlemen turned; an accusing spirit stood beforethem.

  "Edith!" broke from Hartley's lips. "This is no place for you! Go back!go back!"

  "My place is where the name of Joseph Benson is uttered," she proudlyanswered, "whether the words be for good or evil. I am his betrothedwife as you know, and again I ask, who has dared to utter aninsinuation, however light, that he, the tender son and generousbrother, has had a criminal hand in his father's awful death?"

  "No one! no one!" essayed Hartley, taking her hand with a weak attemptat soothing. "I was but saying----"

  But she turned from him with a gesture of repugnance, and taking a steptoward the doctor, looked him entreatingly in the face. "You have notbeen expressing doubts of Mr. Benson's youngest son, because he happenedto wear a disguise and be present when Mr. Benson fell? You do not knowJoe, sir; nobody in this town knows him. His own father was ignorant ofhis worth; but we know him, Uncle Joe and I, and we know he could neverdo a deed that could stamp him either as a dishonorable or a criminalman. If Mr. Benson has died from poison, I should as soon think _this_man had a hand in it as his poor exiled brother." And in a burst ofuncontrollable wrath and indignation, she pointed, with a suddengesture, at the startled Hartley.

  But that worthy, though evidently taken aback, was not to be caught soeasily.

  "Edith, you forget yourself," said he, with studied self-possession."The horrors of this dreadful occurrence have upset you. I do not wonderat it myself, but the doctor will not so readily understand you. MissUnderhill has been strangely attached to my brother," he went on,turning to the latter with an apologetic smile that made Uncle Joe grindhis teeth in silent wrath. "They were engaged previous to the affair ofwhich I have just made mention, and naturally she could never bringherself to consider him guilty of a crime which, once acknowledged, mustnecessarily act as a bar of separation between them. She calls him amartyr, a victim, an exile, any thing but what he actually is. Indeed,she seems really to believe in his innocence, while we,"--he paused andlooked up at his sister Carrie who had entered the room,--"while we," hewent on slowly and sadly, taking this new ally softly by the hand, "knowonly too well that the unhappy boy was in every respect guilty of thecrime for which his father exiled him. But that is neither here northere; the dreadful subject before us is not what he once did, butwhether his being here to-night has had any thing to do with myfather's death. I cannot think it has, and yet----"

  The subtle inflection of his voice spoke volumes. This great actor hadevidently been driven to bay.

  "O Hartley!" came in a terrified cry from his sister; "what is this? Youcannot think, they cannot think, Joe could do any thing so dreadful asthat?" while over the face of Edith passed a look of despair, as she sawthe countenance of the doctor slowly fill with the gloom of suspicion,and even the faithful Uncle Joe turn away as if he too had been touchedby the blight of a secret doubt.

  "Ah, but I wish Joe were here himself!" she cried with startlingemphasis. "He should speak, even if it brought ruin amongst us."

  But the doctor was a man not to be moved by so simple a thing as awoman's unreasoning emotion.

  "Yes, the Yellow Domino would be very welcome just now," he allowed,with grim decision.

  "That he is not here is the most damning fact of all," Hartley slowlyobserved. "He fled when he saw our father fall."

  "But he shall come back," Edith vehemently declared.

  "If he does, I shall need no further proof of his innocence," said UncleJoe.

  "Nor I, so that he comes to-night," returned the doctor.

  "Then be satisfied, for here he is," I exclaimed from my retreat; anddrawing the mask over my face, and hastily enveloping myself in theyellow domino, I stepped forth into full view of the crowd around thetable.