X Y Z: A Detective Story, Page 3Anna Katharine Green
AN UNEXPECTED CALAMITY.
Five minutes passed, during which I threaded more laughing groups andsauntered down more mysterious passage-ways than I would care to count.Still the mysterious Black Domino glided on before me, leading me fromdoor to door till my patience was nearly exhausted, and I had well-nighdetermined to give him the slip and make my way at once to the garden,and the no-doubt-by-this-time-highly-impatient Joe.
But before I had the opportunity of carrying out this scheme, theominous Black Domino paused, and carelessly pointing to a door at thetermination of a narrow corridor, bowed, and hastily withdrew.
"Now," said I, as soon as I found myself alone, "shall I proceed withthis farce, or shall I end it? To go on means to interview Mr. Benson,acquaint him with what has come to my knowledge during the last halfhour in which I have so successfully personified his son, and by thesemeans perhaps awake him to the truth concerning this serious matter ofJoseph's innocence or Hartley's guilt; while to stop now implies nothingmore nor less than a full explanation with his son, a man of whosecharacter, manners, and disposition I know little or nothing."
Either alternative presented infinite difficulties, but of the two theformer seemed to me more feasible and less embarrassing. At all events,in talking with Mr. Benson, I should not have the sensibilities of alover to contend with, and however unfortunate in its results ourinterview might be, would be at the mercy of old blood instead of young,a point always to be considered in a case where one's presumption hasbeen carried beyond the bounds of decorum.
Unlocking the door, I stepped, as I had been told I should, into a smallroom adjoining the library. All around me were books. Even the door bywhich I had entered was laden with them, so that when it was closed, allvestige of the door itself disappeared. Across the opening into thelibrary stood a screen, and it was not until I had pushed this somewhataside that I was able to look into that room.
My first glance assured me it was empty. Stark and bare of any occupant,the high-backed chairs loomed in the funereal gloom, while on the table,toward which I inadvertently glanced, stood a decanter with a solitarywineglass at its side. Instantly I remembered what had been told meconcerning that glass, and stepping forward, I took it up and looked atit.
Immediately I heard, or thought I heard, an exclamation utteredsomewhere near me. But upon glancing up and down the room and perceivingno one, I concluded I was mistaken, and deliberately proceeded toexamine the wineglass and assure myself that no wine had as yet beenpoured upon the powder I found in it. Satisfied at last that Mr. Bensonhad not yet taken his usual evening potion, I put the glass back andwithdrew again to my retreat.
I do not think another minute could have elapsed, before I heard a stepin the room behind me. A door leading into an adjoining apartment hadopened and Mr. Benson had come in. He passed immediately to the table,poured out the wine upon the powder, and drank it off without a moment'shesitation. I heard him sigh as he put the glass down.
With a turn of my hand I slipped off both domino and mask, and preparedto announce my presence by tapping on the lintel of the door besidewhich I stood. But a sudden change in Mr. Benson's lofty figure startledme. He was swaying, and the arms which had fallen to his side weremoving with a convulsive action that greatly alarmed me. But almostinstantly he recovered himself, and paced with a steady step toward thehall door, which at that moment resounded with a short loud knock.
"Who is there?" he asked, with every appearance of his usual sternness.
"Hartley," was the reply.
"Are you alone?" the old gentleman again queried, making a move as if tounlock the door.
"Carrie is with me; no one else," came in smothered accents fromwithout.
Mr. Benson at once turned the key, but no sooner had he done so than hestaggered back. For an instant or two of horror he stood oscillatingfrom side to side, then his frame succumbed, and the terrified eyes ofhis children beheld his white head lying low, all movement andappearance of life gone from the form that but a moment before toweredso proudly before them.
With a shriek, the daughter flung herself down at his side, and even thecheek of Hartley Benson grew white as he leaned over his father'salready inanimate body.
"He is dead!" came in a wild cry from her lips. "See! he does notbreathe. Oh! Hartley, what could have happened? Do you think that Joe--"
"Hush!" he exclaimed, with a furtive glance around him. "He may be here;let me look. _If Joe has done this_--" He did not continue, but rose,and with a rapid tread began to cross the floor in my direction.
In a flash I realized my situation. To be found by him now, without adomino, and in the position of listener, would be any thing butdesirable. But I knew of no way of escape, or so for the moment itseemed. But great emergencies call forth sudden resources. In the quicklook I inadvertently threw around me, I observed that the _portiere_hanging between me and the library was gathered at one side in veryheavy folds. If I could hide behind them perhaps I might elude thecasual glance he would probably cast into my place of concealment. Atall events it was worth trying, and at the thought I glided behind thecurtain. I was not disappointed in my calculations. Arrived at the door,he looked in, perceived the domino lying in a heap on the floor, andimmediately drew back with an exclamation of undoubted satisfaction.
"He is gone," said he, crossing back to his sister's side. Then in atone of mingled irony and bitterness, hard to describe, cried aloud witha glance toward the open door: "He has first killed his father and thenfled. Fool that I was to think he could be trusted!"
A horrified "Hartley!" burst from his sister's lips and a suppressed butequally vehement "Villain!" from mine; but neither of us had time formore, for almost at the same instant the room filled with frightenedguests, among which I discerned the face and form of the old servantJonas, and the flowing robes and the white garments of Uncle Joe and thegraceful Edith.
To describe the confusion that followed would be beyond my powers,especially as my attention was at the time not so much directed to theeffect produced by this catastrophe, as to the man whom, from the momentMr. Benson fell to the floor, I regarded as my lawful prey. He did notquake and lose his presence of mind in this terrible crisis. He wasgifted with too much self-control to betray any unseemly agitation evenover such a matter as his father's sudden death. Once only did I detecthis lip tremble, and that was when an elderly gentleman (presumably adoctor) exclaimed after a careful examination of the fallen man:
"This is no case of apoplexy, gentlemen!"
Then indeed Mr. Hartley Benson shivered, and betrayed an emotion forwhich I considered myself as receiving a due explanation when, a fewminutes later, I observed the same gentleman lay his hand upon thedecanter and glass that stood on the table, and after raising them oneafter the other to his nose, slowly shake his head, and with a furtivelook around him, lock them both in a small cupboard that opened over themantel-piece.