The hour of noon had just struck, and the few visitors still lingering among the curiosities of the great museum were suddenly startled by the sight of one of the attendants running down the broad, central staircase, loudly shouting:
"Close the doors! Let no one out! An accident has occurred, and nobody's to leave the building."
There was but one person near either of the doors, and as he chanced to be a man closely connected with the museum,—being, in fact, one of its most active directors,—he immediately turned about and in obedience to a gesture made by the attendant, ran up the marble steps, followed by some dozen others.
At the top they all turned, as by common consent, toward the left-hand gallery, where in the section marked II, a tableau greeted them which few of them will ever forget.
I say "tableau" because the few persons concerned in it stood as in a picture, absolutely motionless and silent as the dead. Sense, if not feeling, was benumbed in them all, as in another moment it was benumbed in the breasts of these new arrivals. Tragedy was there in its most terrible, its most pathetic, aspect. The pathos was given by the victim,—a young and pretty girl lying face upward on the tessellated floor with an arrow in her breast and death stamped unmistakably on every feature,—the terror by the look and attitude of the woman they saw kneeling over her—a remarkable woman, no longer young, but of a presence to hold the attention, even if the circumstances had been of a far less tragic nature. Her hand was on the arrow but she had made no movement to withdraw it, and her eyes, fixed upon space, showed depths of horror hardly to be explained even by the suddenness and startling character of the untoward fatality of which she had just been made the unhappy witness.
The director, whose name was Roberts, thought as he paused on the edge of the crowd that he had never seen a countenance upon which woe had stamped so deep a mark; and greatly moved by it, he was about to seek some explanation of a scene to which appearances gave so little clue, when the tall but stooping figure of the Curator entered, and he found himself relieved from a task whose seriousness he had no difficulty in measuring.
To those who knew William Jewett well, it was evident that he had been called from some task which still occupied his thoughts and for the moment somewhat bewildered his understanding. But as he was a conscientious man and quite capable of taking the lead when once roused to the exigencies of an occasion, Mr. Roberts felt a certain interest in watching the slow awakening of this self-absorbed man to the awful circumstances which in one instant had clouded the museum in an atmosphere of mysterious horror.
When the full realization came,—which was not till a way had been made for him to the side of the stricken woman crouching over the dead child,—the energy which transformed his countenance and gave character to his usually bent and inconspicuous figure was all if not more than the anxious director expected.
Finding that his attempts to meet the older woman's eye only prolonged the suspense, the Curator addressed her quietly, and in sympathetic tones inquired whose child this was and how so dreadful a thing had happened.
She did not answer. She did not even look his way. With a rapid glance into the faces about him, ending in one of deep compassion directed toward herself, he repeated his question.
Still no response—still that heavy silence, that absolute immobility of face and limb. If her faculty of hearing was dulled, possibly she would yield to that of touch. Stooping, he laid his hand on her arm.
This roused her. Slowly her eyes lost their fixed stare and took on a more human light. A shudder shook her frame, and gazing down into the countenance of the young girl lying at her feet, she broke into moans of such fathomless despair as wrung the hearts of all about her.
It was a scene to test the nerve of any man. To one of the Curator's sympathetic temperament it was well-nigh unendurable. Turning to those nearest, he begged for an explanation of what they saw before them:
"Some one here must be able to tell me. Let that some one speak."
At this the quietest and least conspicuous person present, a young man heavily spectacled and of student-like appearance, advanced a step and said:
"I was the first person to come in here after this poor young lady fell. I was looking at coins just beyond the partition there, when I heard a gasping cry. I had not heard her fall—I fear I was very much preoccupied in my search for an especial coin I had been told I should find here—but I did hear the cry she gave, and startled by the sound, left the section where I was and entered this one, only to see just what you are seeing now."
The Curator pointed at the two women.
"This? The one woman kneeling over the other with her hand on the arrow?"
A change took place in the Curator's expression. Involuntarily his eyes rose to the walls hung closely with Indian relics, among which was a quiver in which all could see arrows similar to the one now in the breast of the young girl lying dead before them.
"This woman must be made to speak," he said in answer to the low murmur which followed this discovery. "If there is a doctor present——"
Waiting, but receiving no response, he withdrew his hand from the woman's arm and laid it on the arrow.
This roused her completely. Loosing her own grasp upon the shaft, she cried, with sudden realization of the people pressing about her:
"I could not draw it. That causes death, they say. Wait! she may still be alive. She may have a word to speak."
She was bending to listen. It was hardly a favorable moment for further questioning, but the Curator in his anxiety could not refrain from saying:
"Who is she? What is her name and what is yours?"
"Her name?" repeated the woman, rising to face him again. "How should I know? I was passing through this gallery and had just stopped to take a look into the court when this young girl bounded by me from behind and flinging up her arms, fell with a deep sigh to the floor. I saw an arrow in her breast, and——"
Emotion choked her, and when some one asked if the girl was a stranger to her, she simply bowed her head; then, letting her gaze pass from face to face till it had completed the circle of those about her, she said in her former mechanical way:
"My name is Ermentrude Taylor. I came to look at the bronzes. I should like to go now."
But the crowd which had formed about her was too compact to allow her to pass. Besides, the director, Mr. Roberts, had something to say first. Working his way forward, he waited till he had attracted her attention and then remarked in his most considerate manner:
"You will pardon these importunities, Mrs. Taylor. I am a director of this museum, and if Mr. Jewett will excuse me,"—here he bowed to the Curator,—"I should like to inquire from what direction the arrow came which ended this young girl's life?"
For a moment she stood aghast, fixing him with her eye as though to ask whither this inquiry tended. Then with an air of intention which was not without some strange element of fear, she allowed her glance to travel across the court till it rested upon the row of connected arches facing them from the opposite gallery.
"Ah," said he, putting her look into words, "you think the arrow came from the other side of the building. Did you see anyone over there,—in the gallery, I mean,—at or before the instant of this young girl's fall?"
She shook her head.
"Did any of you?" he urged, with his eyes on the crowd. "Some one must have been looking that way."
But no answer came, and the silence was fast becoming oppressive when these words, whispered by one woman to another, roused them anew and sent every glance again to the walls—even hers for whose benefit this remark had possibly been made:
"But there are no arrows over there. All the arrows are here."
She was right. They were here, quiver after quiver of them; nor were they all beyond reach. As the woman thus significantly assailed noted this and saw with what suspicion others noted it also, a decided change took place in her aspect.
"I should like to sit down," she murmured. Possibly she was afraid she might fall.
As some one brought a chair, she spoke, but very tremulously, to the director:
"Are there no arrows in the rooms over there?"
"I am quite sure not."
"And no bows?"
"If—if anyone had been seen in the gallery——"
"No one was."
"You are sure of that?"
"You heard the question asked. It brought no answer."
"But—but these galleries are visible from below. Some one may have been looking up from the court and——"
"If there was any such person in the building, he would have been here by this time. People don't hold back such information."
"Then—then—" she stammered, her eyes taking on a hunted look, "you conclude—these people conclude what?"
"Madam,"—the word came coldly, stinging her into drawing herself to her full height,—"it is not for me to conclude in a case like this. That is the business of the police."
At this word, with its suggestion of crime, her air of conscious power vanished in sudden collapse. Possibly she had seen the significant gesture with which the Curator pointed out a quiver from which one of the arrows was missing. That this was so, was shown by her next question:
"But where is the bow? Look about on the floor. You will find none. How can an arrow be shot without a bow?"
"It cannot be," came from some one at her back. "But it can be driven home like a dagger if the hand wielding it is sufficiently powerful."
A cry left her lips; she seemed to listen as for some echo; then in a wild abandonment which ignored person and place she flung herself again at the dead girl's side, and before the astonished people surrounding her could intervene, she had caught up the body in her arms, and bending over it, whispered word after word into the poor child's closed ear.