I am not an inquisitive woman, but when, in the middle of a certain warm night in September, I heard a carriage draw up at the adjoining house and stop, I could not resist the temptation of leaving my bed and taking a peep through the curtains of my window.
First: because the house was empty, or supposed to be so, the family still being, as I had every reason to believe, in Europe; and secondly: because, not being inquisitive, I often miss in my lonely and single life much that it would be both interesting and profitable for me to know.
Luckily I made no such mistake this evening. I rose and looked out, and though I was far from realizing it at the time, took, by so doing, my first step in a course of inquiry which has ended——
But it is too soon to speak of the end. Rather let me tell you what I saw when I parted the curtains of my window in Gramercy Park, on the night of September 17, 1895.
Not much at first glance, only a common hack drawn up at the neighboring curb-stone. The lamp which is supposed to light our part of the block is some rods away on the opposite side of the street, so that I obtained but a shadowy glimpse of a young man and woman standing below me on the pavement. I could see, however, that the woman—and not the man—was putting money into the driver’s hand. The next moment they were on the stoop of this long-closed house, and the coach rolled off.
It was dark, as I have said, and I did not recognize the young people,—at least their figures were not familiar to me; but when, in another instant, I heard the click of a night-key, and saw them, after a rather tedious fumbling at the lock, disappear from the stoop, I took it for granted that the gentleman was Mr. Van Burnam’s eldest son Franklin, and the lady some relative of the family; though why this, its most punctilious member, should bring a guest at so late an hour into a house devoid of everything necessary to make the least exacting visitor comfortable, was a mystery that I retired to bed to meditate upon.
I did not succeed in solving it, however, and after some ten minutes had elapsed, I was settling myself again to sleep when I was re-aroused by a fresh sound from the quarter mentioned. The door I had so lately heard shut, opened again, and though I had to rush for it, I succeeded in getting to my window in time to catch a glimpse of the departing figure of the young man hurrying away towards Broadway. The young woman was not with him, and as I realized that he had left her behind him in the great, empty house, without apparent light and certainly without any companion, I began to question if this was like Franklin Van Burnam. Was it not more in keeping with the recklessness of his more easy-natured and less reliable brother, Howard, who, some two or three years back, had married a young wife of no very satisfactory antecedents, and who, as I had heard, had been ostracized by the family in consequence?
Whichever of the two it was, he had certainly shown but little consideration for his companion, and thus thinking, I fell off to sleep just as the clock struck the half hour after midnight.
Next morning as soon as modesty would permit me to approach the window, I surveyed the neighboring house minutely. Not a blind was open, nor a shutter displaced. As I am an early riser, this did not disturb me at the time, but when after breakfast I looked again and still failed to detect any evidences of life in the great barren front beside me, I began to feel uneasy. But I did nothing till noon, when going into my rear garden and observing that the back windows of the Van Burnam house were as closely shuttered as the front, I became so anxious that I stopped the next policeman I saw going by, and telling him my suspicions, urged him to ring the bell.
No answer followed the summons.
“There is no one here,” said he.
“Ring again!” I begged.
And he rang again but with no better result.
“Don’t you see that the house is shut up?” he grumbled. “We have had orders to watch the place, but none to take the watch off.”
“There is a young woman inside,” I insisted. “The more I think over last night’s occurrence, the more I am convinced that the matter should be looked into.”
He shrugged his shoulders and was moving away when we both observed a common-looking woman standing in front looking at us. She had a bundle in her hand, and her face, unnaturally ruddy though it was, had a scared look which was all the more remarkable from the fact that it was one of those wooden-like countenances which under ordinary circumstances are capable of but little expression. She was not a stranger to me; that is, I had seen her before in or about the house in which we were at that moment so interested; and not stopping to put any curb on my excitement, I rushed down to the pavement and accosted her.
“Who are you?” I asked. “Do you work for the Van Burnams, and do you know who the lady was who came here last night?”
The poor woman, either startled by my sudden address or by my manner which may have been a little sharp, gave a quick bound backward, and was only deterred by the near presence of the policeman from attempting flight. As it was, she stood her ground, though the fiery flush, which made her face so noticeable, deepened till her cheeks and brow were scarlet.
“I am the scrub-woman,” she protested. “I have come to open the windows and air the house,”—ignoring my last question.
“Is the family coming home?” the policeman asked.
“I don’t know; I think so,” was her weak reply.
“Have you the keys?” I now demanded, seeing her fumbling in her pocket.
She did not answer; a sly look displaced the anxious one she had hitherto displayed, and she turned away.
“I don’t see what business it is of the neighbors,” she muttered, throwing me a dissatisfied scowl over her shoulder.
“If you’ve got the keys, we will go in and see that things are all right,” said the policeman, stopping her with a light touch.
She trembled; I saw that she trembled, and naturally became excited. Something was wrong in the Van Burnam mansion, and I was going to be present at its discovery. But her next words cut my hopes short.
“I have no objection to your going in,” she said to the policeman, “but I will not give up my keys to her. What right has she in our house any way.” And I thought I heard her murmur something about a meddlesome old maid.
The look which I received from the policeman convinced me that my ears had not played me false.
“The lady’s right,” he declared; and pushing by me quite disrespectfully, he led the way to the basement door, into which he and the so-called cleaner presently disappeared.
I waited in front. I felt it to be my duty to do so. The various passers-by stopped an instant to stare at me before proceeding on their way, but I did not flinch from my post. Not till I had heard that the young woman whom I had seen enter these doors at midnight was well, and that her delay in opening the windows was entirely due to fashionable laziness, would I feel justified in returning to my own home and its affairs. But it took patience and some courage to remain there. Several minutes elapsed before I perceived the shutters in the third story open, and a still longer time before a window on the second floor flew up and the policeman looked out, only to meet my inquiring gaze and rapidly disappear again.
Meantime three or four persons had stopped on the walk near me, the nucleus of a crowd which would not be long in collecting, and I was beginning to feel I was paying dearly for my virtuous resolution, when the front door burst violently open and we caught sight of the trembling form and shocked face of the scrub-woman.
“She’s dead!” she cried, “she’s dead! Murder!” and would have said more had not the policeman pulled her back, with a growl which sounded very much like a suppressed oath.
He would have shut the door upon me had I not been quicker than lightning. As it was, I got in before it slammed, and happily too; for just at that moment the house-cleaner, who had grown paler every instant, fell in a heap in the entry, and the policeman, who was not the man I would want about me in any trouble, seemed somewhat embarrassed by this new emergency, and let me lift the poor thing up and drag her farther into the hall.
She had fainted, and should have had something done for her, but anxious though I always am to be of help where help is needed, I had no sooner got within range of the parlor door with my burden, than I beheld a sight so terrifying that I involuntarily let the poor woman slip from my arms to the floor.
In the darkness of a dim corner (for the room had no light save that which came through the doorway where I stood) lay the form of a woman under a fallen piece of furniture. Her skirts and distended arms alone were visible; but no one who saw the rigid outlines of her limbs could doubt for a moment that she was dead.
At a sight so dreadful, and, in spite of all my apprehensions, so unexpected, I felt a sensation of sickness which in another moment might have ended in my fainting also, if I had not realized that it would never do for me to lose my wits in the presence of a man who had none too many of his own. So I shook off my momentary weakness, and turning to the policeman, who was hesitating between the unconscious figure of the woman outside the door and the dead form of the one within I cried sharply:
“Come, man, to business! The woman inside there is dead, but this one is living. Fetch me a pitcher of water from below if you can, and then go for whatever assistance you need. I’ll wait here and bring this woman to. She is a strong one, and it won’t take long.”
“You’ll stay here alone with that——” he began.
But I stopped him with a look of disdain.
“Of course I will stay here; why not? Is there anything in the dead to be afraid of? Save me from the living, and I undertake to save myself from the dead.”
But his face had grown very suspicious.
“You go for the water,” he cried. “And see here! Just call out for some one to telephone to Police Headquarters for the Coroner and a detective. I don’t quit this room till one or the other of them comes.”
Smiling at a caution so very ill-timed, but abiding by my invariable rule of never arguing with a man unless I see some way of getting the better of him, I did what he bade me, though I hated dreadfully to leave the spot and its woful mystery, even for so short a time as was required.
“Run up to the second story,” he called out, as I passed by the prostrate figure of the cleaner. “Tell them what you want from the window, or we will have the whole street in here.”
So I ran up-stairs,—I had always wished to visit this house, but had never been encouraged to do so by the Misses Van Burnam,—and making my way into the front room, the door of which stood wide open, I rushed to the window and hailed the crowd, which by this time extended far out beyond the curb-stone.
“An officer!” I called out, “a police officer! An accident has occurred and the man in charge here wants the Coroner and a detective from Police Headquarters.”
“Who’s hurt?” “Is it a man?” “Is it a woman?” shouted up one or two; and “Let us in!” shouted others; but the sight of a boy rushing off to meet an advancing policeman satisfied me that help would soon be forthcoming, so I drew in my head and looked about me for the next necessity—water.
I was in a lady’s bed-chamber, probably that of the eldest Miss Van Burnam; but it was a bed-chamber which had not been occupied for some months, and naturally it lacked the very articles which would have been of assistance to me in the present emergency. No eau de Cologne on the bureau, no camphor on the mantel-shelf. But there was water in the pipes (something I had hardly hoped for), and a mug on the wash-stand; so I filled the mug and ran with it to the door, stumbling, as I did so, over some small object which I presently perceived to be a little round pin-cushion. Picking it up, for I hate anything like disorder, I placed it on a table near by, and continued on my way.
The woman was still lying at the foot of the stairs. I dashed the water in her face and she immediately came to.
Sitting up, she was about to open her lips when she checked herself; a fact which struck me as odd, though I did not allow my surprise to become apparent.
Meantime I stole a glance into the parlor. The officer was standing where I had left him, looking down on the prostrate figure before him.
There was no sign of feeling in his heavy countenance, and he had not opened a shutter, nor, so far as I could see, disarranged an object in the room.
The mysterious character of the whole affair fascinated me in spite of myself, and leaving the now fully aroused woman in the hall, I was half-way across the parlor floor when the latter stopped me with a shrill cry:
“Don’t leave me! I have never seen anything before so horrible. The poor dear! The poor dear! Why don’t he take those dreadful things off her?”
She alluded not only to the piece of furniture which had fallen upon the prostrate woman, and which can best be described as a cabinet with closets below and shelves above, but to the various articles of bric-à-brac which had tumbled from the shelves, and which now lay in broken pieces about her.
“He will do so; they will do so very soon,” I replied. “He is waiting for some one with more authority than himself; for the Coroner, if you know what that means.”
“But what if she’s alive! Those things will crush her. Let us take them off. I’ll help. I’m not too weak to help.”
“Do you know who this person is?” I asked, for her voice had more feeling in it than I thought natural to the occasion, dreadful as it was.
“I?” she repeated, her weak eyelids quivering for a moment as she tried to sustain my scrutiny. “How should I know? I came in with the policeman and haven’t been any nearer than I now be. What makes you think I know anything about her? I’m only the scrub-woman, and don’t even know the names of the family.”
“I thought you seemed so very anxious,” I explained, suspicious of her suspiciousness, which was of so sly and emphatic a character that it changed her whole bearing from one of fear to one of cunning in a moment.
“And who wouldn’t feel the like of that for a poor creature lying crushed under a heap of broken crockery!”
Crockery! those Japanese vases worth hundreds of dollars! that ormulu clock and those Dresden figures which must have been more than a couple of centuries old!
“It’s a poor sense of duty that keeps a man standing dumb and staring like that, when with a lift of his hand he could show us the like of her pretty face, and if it’s dead she be or alive.”
As this burst of indignation was natural enough and not altogether uncalled for from the standpoint of humanity, I gave the woman a nod of approval, and wished I were a man myself that I might lift the heavy cabinet or whatever it was that lay upon the poor creature before us. But not being a man, and not judging it wise to irritate the one representative of that sex then present, I made no remark, but only took a few steps farther into the room, followed, as it afterwards appeared, by the scrub-woman.
The Van Burnam parlors are separated by an open arch. It was to the right of this arch and in the corner opposite the doorway that the dead woman lay. Using my eyes, now that I was somewhat accustomed to the semi-darkness enveloping us, I noticed two or three facts which had hitherto escaped me. One was, that she lay on her back with her feet pointing towards the hall door, and another, that nowhere in the room, save in her immediate vicinity, were there to be seen any signs of struggle or disorder. All was as set and proper as in my own parlor when it has been undisturbed for any length of time by guests; and though I could not see far into the rooms beyond, they were to all appearance in an equally orderly condition.
Meanwhile the cleaner was trying to account for the overturned cabinet.
“Poor dear! poor dear! she must have pulled it over on herself! But however did she get into the house? And what was she doing in this great empty place?”
The policeman, to whom these remarks had evidently been addressed, growled out some unintelligible reply, and in her perplexity the woman turned towards me.
But what could I say to her? I had my own private knowledge of the matter, but she was not one to confide in, so I stoically shook my head. Doubly disappointed, the poor thing shrank back, after looking first at the policeman and then at me in an odd, appealing way, difficult to understand. Then her eyes fell again on the dead girl at her feet, and being nearer now than before, she evidently saw something that startled her, for she sank on her knees with a little cry and began examining the girl’s skirts.
“What are you looking at there?” growled the policeman. “Get up, can’t you! No one but the Coroner has right to lay hand on anything here.”
“I’m doing no harm,” the woman protested, in an odd, shaking voice. “I only wanted to see what the poor thing had on. Some blue stuff, isn’t it?” she asked me.
“Blue serge,” I answered; “store-made, but very good; must have come from Altman’s or Stern’s.”
“I—I’m not used to sights like this,” stammered the scrub-woman, stumbling awkwardly to her feet, and looking as if her few remaining wits had followed the rest on an endless vacation. “I—I think I shall have to go home.” But she did not move.
“The poor dear’s young, isn’t she?” she presently insinuated, with an odd catch in her voice that gave to the question an air of hesitation and doubt.
“I think she is younger than either you or myself,” I deigned to reply. “Her narrow pointed shoes show she has not reached the years of discretion.”
“Yes, yes, so they do!” ejaculated the cleaner, eagerly—too eagerly for perfect ingenuousness. “That’s why I said ‘Poor dear!’ and spoke of her pretty face. I am sorry for young folks when they get into trouble, aint you? You and me might lie here and no one be much the worse for it, but a sweet lady like this——”
This was not very flattering to me, but I was prevented from rebuking her by a prolonged shout from the stoop without, as a rush was made against the front door, followed by a shrill peal of the bell.
“Man from Headquarters,” stolidly announced the policeman. “Open the door, ma’am; or step back into the further hall if you want me to do it.”
Such rudeness was uncalled for; but considering myself too important a witness to show feeling, I swallowed my indignation and proceeded with all my native dignity to the front door.
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That Affair Next Door by Anna Katherine Green, 1897