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X Y Z: A Detective Story, Page 5

Anna Katharine Green



  A mingled sound of shrieks and exclamations greeted me.

  "Joe!" cried Edith, bounding forward.

  But I waved her back, and turned with a severe gesture toward HartleyBenson.

  "What are your reasons," I demanded, "for thinking the poisoning thathas taken place here was the work of the Yellow Domino?"

  "Do you ask me?" he retorted, after a moment's pause, during which myvoice echoed through the room, waking strange gleams of doubt on thefaces of more than one person present. "You wish to dare me, then?" hehissed, coming a step nearer.

  "I wish to know what the Yellow Domino has done that you or any oneshould consider him as responsible for the tragedy that has here takenplace," I steadily replied.

  "Are you not my brother, then?" he cried, in mingled rage and anxiety."Was it not you I met under the evergreens and supplied with a yellowdomino, in order to give you the opportunity of seeing our fatherto-night and effecting the reconciliation which you had so long desired?Are you not he who afterward followed me to this room and hid himself inthe closet from which you have just come, all for the purpose, as yousaid, of throwing yourself at your father's feet and begging pardon fora past of which you had long ago repented? Or are you some recklessbuffoon who has presumed to step into the domino my brother left behindhim, and careless of the terrible trouble that has overwhelmed thisfamily, come here with your criminal jests to puzzle and alarm us?"

  "I am the man to whom you gave the domino, if that is what you wish toknow, Hartley Benson; and I am the man whom you led into the ambush ofthis closet, for such reasons as your own conscience must inform you. Ifthe Yellow Domino put poison into Mr. Benson's wine, then upon me mustlie the burden of the consequences, for I alone have worn the disguiseof this mask from the moment we met under the evergreens till now, as Ithink may be proved by this gentleman you call Uncle Joe, and this ladyyou address as Edith."

  This mode of attack had the desired effect.

  "Who are you?" burst from Hartley's lips, now blanched to the color ofclay. "Unmask him, doctor; let us see the man who dares to play ustricks on such a night as this!"

  "Wait!" cried I, motioning back not only the doctor, but Uncle Joe andthe ladies--the whole group having started forward at Hartley's words."Let us first make sure I am the Yellow Domino who has been paradedthrough the parlors this evening. Miss Benson, will you pardon me if Ipresume to ask you what were the words of salutation with which yougreeted me to-night?"

  "Oh!" she cried, in a tremble of doubt and dismay, "I do not know as Ican remember; something about being glad to see you, I believe, and myhope that your plans for the evening might succeed."

  "To which," said I, "I made no audible reply, but pressed your hand inmine, with the certainty you were a _friend_ though you had not used theword 'Counterfeit.'"

  "Yes, yes," she returned, blushing and wildly disturbed, as she hadreason to be.

  "And you, Uncle Joe," I went on; "what were your words? How did yougreet the man you had been told was your erring nephew?"

  "I said: 'To counterfeit wrong when one is right, necessarily opens oneto a misunderstanding.'"

  "To which ambiguous phrase I answered, as you will remember, with asimple, 'That is true,' a reply by the way that seemed to arouse yourcuriosity and lead to strange revelations."

  "God defend us!" cried Uncle Joe.

  The exclamation was enough. I turned to the trembling Edith.

  "I shall not attempt," said I, "to repeat or ask you to repeat anyconversation which may have passed between us, for you will remember itwas too quickly interrupted by Mr. Benson for us to succeed in utteringmore than a dozen or so words. However, you will do me the kindness toacknowledge your belief that I am the man who stood with you behind theparlor curtains an hour ago."

  "I will," she replied, with a haughty lift of her head that spoke moreloudly than her blushes.

  "It only remains, then, for Mr. Benson to assure himself I am the personwho followed him to the closet. I know of no better way of his doingthis than to ask him if he remembers the injunctions which he waspleased to give me, when he bestowed upon me this domino."

  "No,--that is,--whatever they were, they were given to the man Isupposed to be my brother."

  "Ha, then; it was to your _brother_," I rejoined, "you gave that hintabout the glass I would find on the library table; saying that if it didnot smell of wine I would know your father had not had his nightlypotion and would yet come to the library to drink it;--an intimation, asall will acknowledge, which could have but the one result of leading meto go to the table and take up the glass and look into it in thesuspicious manner which has been reported to you."

  He was caught in his own toils and saw it. Muttering a deep curse, hedrew back, while a startled "Humph!" broke from the doctor, followed bya quick, "Is that true? Did you tell him that, Mr. Benson?"

  For reply the now thoroughly alarmed villain leaped at my throat. "Offwith that toggery! Let us see your face! I shall and will know who youare."

  But I resisted for another moment while I added: "It is, then,established to your satisfaction that I am really the man who has wornthe yellow domino this evening. Very well, now look at me, one and all,and say if you think I am likely to be a person to destroy Mr. Benson."And with a quick gesture I threw aside my mask, and yielded the fatalyellow domino to the impatient hands of Mr. Hartley Benson.

  The result was a cry of astonishment from those to whom the face thusrevealed was a strange one, and a curse deep and loud from him to whomthe shock of that moment's surprise must have been nearly overwhelming.

  "Villain!" he shrieked, losing his self-possession in a sudden burst offury; "spy! informer! I understand it all now. You have been set overme by my brother. Instructed by him, you have dared to enter this house,worm yourself into its secrets, and by a deviltry only equalled by yourpresumption, taken advantage of your position to poison my father andfling the dreadful consequences of your crime in the faces of hismourning family. It was a plot well laid; but it is foiled, sir, foiled,as you will see when I have you committed to prison to-morrow."

  "Mr. Benson," I returned, shaking him loose as I would a feather, "thisis all very well; but in your haste and surprise you have made a slightmistake. You call me a spy; so I am; but a spy backed by the UnitedStates Government is not a man to be put lightly into prison. I am adetective, sir, connected at present with the Secret Service atWashington. My business is to ferret out crime and recognize a rogueunder any disguise and in the exercise of any vile or deceptivepractices." And I looked him steadily in the face.

  Then indeed his cheek turned livid, and the eye which had hithertopreserved its steadiness sought the floor.

  "A detective!" murmured Miss Carrie, shrinking back from the cringingform of the brother whom, but a few hours before, she had deemed everything that was noble and kind.

  "A detective!" echoed Edith, brightening like a rose in the sunshine.

  "In government employ!" repeated Uncle Joe, honoring me with a starethat was almost comic in its mingled awe and surprise.

  "Yes," I rejoined; "if any one doubts me, I have papers with me toestablish my identity. By what means I find myself in this place, awitness of Mr. Benson's death and the repository of certain familysecrets, it is not necessary for me to inform you. It is enough that Iam here, have been here for a good hour, posted behind that curtain;that I heard Jonas' exclamation as he withdrew from the balcony, saw Mr.Benson come in from his bedroom, drink his glass of wine, and afterwardfall at the feet of his son and daughter; and that having been here, andthe witness of all this, I can swear that if Mr. Benson drank poisonfrom yonder decanter, he drank poison that was put into it before eitherhe or the Yellow Domino entered this room. Who put it there, it is foryou to determine; my duty is done for to-night." And with a bow Iwithdrew from the group about me and crossed to the door.

  But Miss Carrie's voice, rising in mingled shame and appeal, stopped me."Don't g
o," said she; "not at least until you tell me where my brotherJoseph is. Is he in this town, or has he planned this deception from adistance? I--I am an orphan, sir, who at one blow has lost not only adearly beloved father but, as I fear, a brother too, in whom, up to thishour, I have had every confidence. Tell me, then, if any support is leftfor a most unhappy girl, or whether I must give up all hopes of even mybrother Joe's sympathy and protection."

  "Your brother Joe," I replied, "has had nothing to do with my appearancehere. He and I are perfect strangers; but if he is a tall,broad-shouldered, young man, shaped something like myself, but with aruddy cheek and light curling hair, I can tell you I saw such a personenter the shrubbery at the southwest corner of the garden an hour or soago."

  "No, he is here!" came in startling accents over my shoulders. And witha quick leap Joe Benson sprang by me and stood handsome, tall, andcommanding in the centre of the room. "Hartley! Carrie! Edith! what isthis I hear? My father stricken down, my father dying or dead, and Ileft to wander up and down through the shrubbery, while you knelt at hisbedside and received his parting blessing? Is this the recompense youpromised me, Hartley? this your sisterly devotion, Carrie? this yourlove and attention to my interests, Edith?"

  "O Joe, dear Joe, do not blame us!" Carrie made haste to reply. "Wethought you were here. A man _was_ here, that man behind you, simulatingyou in every regard, and to him we gave the domino, and from him we havelearned----"

  "What?" sprang in thundering tones from the young giant's throat as hewheeled on his heel and confronted me.

  "That your brother Hartley is a villain," I declared, looking himsteadily in the eye.

  "God!" was his only exclamation as he turned slowly back and glancedtoward his trembling brother.

  "Sir," said I, taking a step toward Uncle Joe, who, between hiseagerness to embrace the new-comer and his dread of the consequences ofthis unexpected meeting, stood oscillating from one side to the other ina manner ridiculous enough to see, "what do you think of the proprietyof uttering aloud and here, the suspicions which you were good enough towhisper into my ears an hour ago? Do you see any reason for alteringyour opinion as to which of the two sons of Mr. Benson invaded his deskand appropriated the bonds afterward found in their common apartment,when you survey the downfallen crest of the one and compare it with theunfaltering look of the other?"

  "No," he returned, roused into sudden energy by the start given byHartley. And advancing between the brothers, he looked first at one andthen at the other with a long, solemn gaze that called out the color onHartley's pale cheek and made the crest of Joe rise still higher inmanly pride and assertion. "Joe," said he, "for three years now yourlife has lain under a shadow. Accused by your father of a dreadfulcrime, you have resolutely refused to exonerate yourself,notwithstanding the fact that a dear young girl waited patiently for theestablishment of your innocence in order to marry you. To your familythis silence meant guilt, but to me and mine it has told only a tale ofself-renunciation and devotion. Joe, was I right in this? was Edithright? The father you so loved, and feared to grieve, is dead. Speak,then: Did you or did you not take the bonds that were found in thecupboard at the head of your bed three years ago to-night? The futurewelfare, not only of this faithful child but of the helpless sister,who, despite her belief in your guilt, has clung to you with unwaveringdevotion, depends upon your reply."

  "Let my brother speak," was the young man's answer, given in a steadyand nobly restrained tone.

  "Your brother will not speak," his uncle returned. "Don't you see youmust answer for yourself? Say, then: Are you the guilty man your fatherthought you, or are you not? Let us hear, Joe."

  "I am not!" avowed the young man, bowing his head in a sort of nobleshame that must have sent a pang of anguish through the heart of hisbrother.

  "Oh, I knew it, I knew it!" came from Edith's lips in a joyous cry, asshe bounded to his side and seized him by one hand, just as his sistergrasped the other in a burst of shame and contrition that showed how farshe was removed from any participation in the evil machinations of herelder brother.

  The sight seemed to goad Hartley Benson to madness. Looking from one tothe other, he uttered a cry that yet rings in my memory: "Carrie! Edith!do you both forsake me, and all because of a word which any villainmight have uttered? Is this the truth and constancy of women? Is thiswhat I had a right to expect from a sister, a--a friend? Carrie, you atleast always gave me your trust,--will you take it away because ajuggling spy and a recreant brother have combined to destroy me?"

  But beyond a wistful look and a solemn shake of the head, Carrie made noresponse, while Edith, with her eyes fixed on the agitated countenanceof her lover, did not even seem to hear the words of pleading that wereaddressed to her.

  The shock of the disappointment was too much for Hartley Benson.Clenching his hand upon his breast, he gave one groan of anguish anddespair and sank into a chair, inert and helpless. But before we couldany of us take a step toward him, before the eyes of the doctor and minecould meet in mutual understanding, he had bounded again to his feet,and in a burst of desperation seized the chair in which he sat, and heldit high above his head.

  "Fools! dotards!" he exclaimed, his eyes rolling in frenzy from face toface, but lingering longest on mine, as if there he read the true secretof his overthrow, as well as the promise of his future doom. "You thinkit is all over with me; that there is nothing left for you to do but tostand still and watch how I take my defeat. But I am a man who neveracknowledges defeat. There is still a word I have to say that will makethings a little more even between us. Listen for it, you. It will not belong in coming, and when you hear it, let my brother declare how muchenjoyment he will ever get out of his victory."

  And whirling the chair about his head, he plunged through our midstinto the hall without.

  For an instant we stood stupefied, then Carrie Benson's voice rose inone long, thrilling cry, and with a bound she rushed toward the door. Iput out my hand to stop her, but it was not necessary. Before she couldcross the threshold the sudden, sharp detonation of a pistol-shot washeard in the hall, and we knew that the last dreadful word of thatnight's tragedy had been spoken.

  * * * * *

  The true secret of Hartley Benson's action in this matter was neverdiscovered. That he planned his father's violent death, no one who waspresent at the above interview ever doubted. That he went further thanthat, and laid his plans in such a manner that the blame, if blameensued, should fall upon his innocent brother, was equally plain,especially after the acknowledgment we received from Jonas, that he wentout on the balcony and looked in the window at the special instigationof his young master. But why this arch villain, either at his own riskor at that of the man he hated, felt himself driven to such a revoltingcrime, will never be known; unless, indeed, the solution be found in hisundoubted passion for the beautiful Edith, and in the accumulatedpressure of certain secret debts for whose liquidation he dared notapply to his father.

  I never revealed to this family the true nature of the motives whichactuated me in my performance of the part I played that fatal night. Itwas supposed by Miss Carrie and the rest, that I was but obeyinginstructions given me by Mr. Benson; and I never undeceived them. I wastoo much ashamed of the curiosity which was the mainspring of my actionto publish each and every particular of my conduct abroad; though Icould not but congratulate myself upon its results when, some timeafterward, I read of the marriage of Joe and Edith.

  * * * * *

  The counterfeiters were discovered and taken, but not by me.


  * * * * *

  Transcriber's notes:

  Punctuation has been standardised.

  Page 92 replaced "repositor" with "repository" (a witness of Mr.Benson's death and the repository of certain family secrets)

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