A Difficult Problem and Other Stories - Anna Katharine Green - ebook

A Difficult Problem and Other Stories ebook

Anna Katharine Green

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Originally published between 1894 and 1900, „A Difficult Problem” is a collection of ten short works of mysterious fiction by Anna Katharine Green. These ten short stories include the mystery and crime stories as their basic theme. This whodunit collection brings to you some of Green’s finest crime mysteries to keep you at your toes: „The gray madam”, „The bronze hand”, „Midnight in Beauchamp Row”, „The staircase at the Heart’s Delight” and others. Anna Katharine Green (November 11, 1846 – April 11, 1935) was an American poet and novelist. She was one of the first writers of detective fiction in America and distinguished herself by writing well plotted, legally accurate stories. Green has been called „the mother of the detective novel”.

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Liczba stron: 283

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Contents

A Difficult Problem

The Gray Madam

The Bronze Hand

Midnight In Beauchamp Row

The Staircase At The Heart’s Delight

The Hermit Of ____ Street

A Difficult Problem

1

“A Lady to see you, sir.”

I looked up and was at once impressed by the grace and beauty of the person thus introduced to me.

“Is there anything I can do to serve you?” I asked, rising.

She cast me a childlike look full of trust and candour as she seated herself in the chair I had pointed out.

“I believe so; I hope so,” she earnestly assured me. “I–I am in great trouble. I have just lost my husband–but it is not that. It is the slip of paper I found on my dresser, and which–which–”

She was trembling violently and her words were fast becoming incoherent. I calmed her and asked her to relate her story just as it had happened; and after a few minutes of silent struggle she succeeded in collecting herself sufficiently to respond with some degree of connection and self-possession.

“I have been married six months. My name is Lucy Holmes. For the last few weeks my husband and I have been living in an apartment house on Fifty-ninth Street, and, as we had not a care in the world, we were very happy till Mr. Holmes was called away on business to Philadelphia. This was two weeks ago. Five days later I received an affectionate letter from him, in which he promised to come back the next day; and the news so delighted me that I accepted an invitation to the theatre from some intimate friends of ours. The next morning I naturally felt fatigued and rose late; but I was very cheerful, for I expected my husband at noon. And now comes the perplexing mystery. In the course of dressing myself I stepped to my bureau, and seeing a small newspaper slip attached to the cushion by a pin, I drew it off and read it. It was a death notice, and my hair rose and my limbs failed me as I took in its fatal and incredible words.

“ ‘Died this day at the Colonnade, James Forsythe De Witt Holmes. New York papers please copy.’

“James Forsythe De Witt Holmes was my husband, and his last letter, which was at that very moment lying beside the cushion, had been dated from the Colonnade. Was I dreaming or under the spell of some frightful hallucination which led me to misread the name on the slip of paper before me? I could not determine. My head, throat, and chest seemed bound about with iron, so that I could neither speak nor breathe with freedom, and, suffering thus, I stood staring at this demoniacal bit of paper which in an instant had brought the shadow of death upon my happy life. Nor was I at all relieved when a little later I flew with the notice into a neighbour’s apartment, and praying her to read it to me, found that my eyes had not deceived me and that the name was indeed my husband’s and the notice one of death.

“Not from my own mind but from hers came the first suggestion of comfort.

“ ‘It cannot be your husband who is meant,’ said she; ‘but some one of the same name. Your husband wrote to you yesterday, and this person must have been dead at least two days for the printed notice of his decease to have reached New York. Some one has remarked the striking similarity of names, and wishing to startle you, cut the slip out and pinned it on your cushion.’

“I certainly knew of no one inconsiderate enough to do this, but the explanation was so plausible, I at once embraced it and sobbed aloud in my relief. But in the midst of my rejoicing I heard the bell ring in my apartment, and, running thither, encountered a telegraph boy holding in his outstretched hand the yellow envelope which so often bespeaks death or disaster. The sight took my breath away. Summoning my maid, whom I saw hastening toward me from an inner room, I begged her to open the telegram for me. Sir, I saw in her face, before she had read the first line, a confirmation of my very worst fears. My husband was–”

The young widow, choked with her emotions, paused, recovered herself for the second time, and then went on.

“I had better show you the telegram.”

Taking it from her pocketbook, she held it toward me. I read it at a glance. It was short, simple, and direct:

“Come at once. Your husband found dead in his room this morning. Doctors say heart disease. Please telegraph.”

“You see it says this morning,” she explained, placing her delicate finger on the word she so eagerly quoted. “That means a week ago Wednesday, the same day on which the printed slip recording his death was found on my cushion. Do you not see something very strange in this?”

I did; but, before I ventured to express myself on this subject, I desired her to tell me what she had learned in her visit to Philadelphia.

Her answer was simple and straightforward.

“But little more than you find in this telegram. He died in his room. He was found lying on the floor near the bell-button, which he had evidently risen to touch. One hand was clenched on his chest, but his face wore a peaceful look, as if death had come too suddenly to cause him much suffering. His bed was undisturbed; he had died before retiring, possibly in the act of packing his trunk, for it was found nearly ready for the expressman. Indeed, there was every evidence of his intention to leave on an early morning train. He had even desired to be awakened at six o’clock; and it was his failure to respond to the summons of the bellboy which led to so early a discovery of his death. He had never complained of any distress in breathing, and we had always considered him a perfectly healthy man; but there was no reason for assigning any other cause than heart failure to his sudden death, and so the burial certificate was made out to that effect, and I was allowed to bring him home and bury him in our vault at Woodlawn. But”–and here her earnestness dried up the tears which had been flowing freely during this recital of her husband’s lonely death and sad burial–“do you not think an investigation should be made into a death preceded by a false obituary notice? For I found when I was in Philadelphia that no paragraph such as I had found pinned to my cushion had been inserted in any paper there, nor had any other man of the same name ever registered at the Colonnade, much less died there.”

“Have you this notice with you?” I asked.

She immediately produced it, and while I was glancing it over remarked:

“Some persons would give a superstitious explanation to the whole matter; think I had received a supernatural warning and been satisfied with what they would call a spiritual manifestation. But I have not a bit of such folly in my composition. Living hands set up the type and printed the words which gave me so deathly a shock; and hands, with a real purpose in them, cut it from the paper and pinned it to my cushion for me to see when I woke on that fatal morning. But whose hands? That is what I want you to discover.”

I had caught the fever of her suspicions long before this and now felt justified in showing my interest.

“First, let me ask,” said I, “who has access to your rooms besides your maid?”

“No one; absolutely no one.”

“And what of her?”

“She is innocence herself. She is no common housemaid, but a girl my mother brought up, who for love of me consents to do such work in the household as my simple needs require.”

“I should like to see her.”

“There is no objection to your doing so; but you will gain nothing by it. I have already talked the subject over with her a dozen times and she is as much puzzled by it as I am myself. She says she cannot see how any one could have found an entrance to my room during my sleep, as the doors were all locked. Yet, as she very naturally observes, some one must have done so, for she was in my bedroom herself just before I returned from the theatre, and can swear, if necessary, that no such slip of paper was to be seen on my cushion at that time, for her duties led her directly to my bureau and kept her there for full five minutes.”

“And you believed her?” I suggested.

“Implicitly.”

“In what direction, then, do your suspicions turn?”

“Alas! in no direction. That is the trouble. I don’t know whom to mistrust. It was because I was told that you had the credit of seeing light where others can see nothing but darkness that I have sought your aid in this emergency. For the uncertainty surrounding this matter is killing me and will make my sorrow quite unendurable if I cannot obtain relief from it.”

“I do not wonder,” I began, struck by the note of truth in her tones. “And I shall certainly do what I can for you. But before we go any further, let us examine this scrap of newspaper and see what we can make out of it.”

I had already noted two or three points in connection with it to which I now proceeded to direct her attention.

“Have you compared this notice,” I pursued, “with such others as you find every day in the papers?”

“No,” was her eager answer. “Is it not like them all–”

“Read,” was my quiet interruption. “ ‘On this day at the Colonnade’–on what day? The date is usually given in all the bona fide notices I have seen.”

“Is it?” she asked, her eyes, moist with unshed tears, opening widely in her astonishment.

“Look in the papers on your return home and see. Then the print. Observe that the type is identical on both sides of this make-believe clipping, while in fact there is always a perceptible difference between that used in the obituary column and that to be found in the columns devoted to other matter. Notice also,” I continued, holding up the scrap of paper between her and the light, “that the alignment on one side is not exactly parallel with that on the other; a discrepancy which would not exist if both sides had been printed on a newspaper press. These facts lead me to conclude, first, that the effort to match the type exactly was the mistake of a man who tried to do too much; and, secondly, that one of the sides at least, presumably that containing the obituary notice, was printed on a hand-press, on the blank side of a piece of galley proof picked up in some newspaper office.”

“Let me see.” And stretching out her hand with the utmost eagerness, she took the slip and turned it over. Instantly a change took place in her countenance. She sank back in her seat and a blush of manifest confusion suffused her cheeks. “Oh!” she exclaimed; “what will you think of me! I brought this scrap of print into the house myself, and it was I who pinned it on the cushion with my own hands! I remember it now. The sight of those words recalls the whole occurrence.”

“Then there is one mystery less for us to solve,” I remarked, somewhat drily.

“Do you think so?” she protested, with a deprecatory look. “For me the mystery deepens, and becomes every minute more serious. It is true that I brought this scrap of newspaper into the house, and that it had, then as now, the notice of my husband’s death upon it, but the time of my bringing it in was Tuesday night, and he was not found dead till Wednesday morning.”

“A discrepancy worth noting,” I remarked.

“Involving a mystery of some importance,” she concluded.

I agreed to that.

“And since we have discovered how the slip came into your room, we can now proceed to the clearing up of this mystery,” I observed. “You can, of course, inform me where you procured this clipping which you say you brought into the house?”

“Yes. You may think it strange, but when I alighted from the carriage that night, a man on the sidewalk put this tiny scrap of paper into my hand. It was done so mechanically that it made no more impression on my mind than the thrusting of an advertisement upon me. Indeed, I supposed it was an advertisement, and I only wonder that I retained it in my hand at all. But that I did do so, and that, in a moment of abstraction, I went so far as to pin it to my cushion, is evident from the fact that a vague memory remains in my mind of having read this recipe which you see printed on the reverse side of the paper.”

“It was the recipe, then, and not the obituary notice which attracted your attention the night before?”

“Probably, but in pinning it to the cushion, it was the obituary notice that chanced to come uppermost. Oh, why should I not have remembered this till now! Can you understand my forgetting a matter of so much importance?”

“Yes,” I allowed, after a momentary consideration of her ingenuous countenance. “The words you read in the morning were so startling that they disconnected themselves from those you had carelessly glanced at the night before.”

“That is it,” she replied; “and since then I have had eyes for the one side only. How could I think of the other? But who could have printed this thing and who was the man who put it into my hand? He looked like a beggar, but–Oh!” she suddenly exclaimed, her cheeks flushing scarlet and her eyes flashing with a feverish, almost alarming glitter.

“What is it now?” I asked. “Another recollection?”

“Yes.” She spoke so low I could hardly hear her. “He coughed and–”

“And what?” I encouragingly suggested, seeing that she was under some new and overwhelming emotion.

“That cough had a familiar sound, now that I think of it. It was like that of a friend who–But no, no; I will not wrong him by any false surmises. He would stoop to much, but not to that; yet–”

The flush on her cheeks had died away, but the two vivid spots which remained showed the depth of her excitement.

“Do you think,” she suddenly asked, “that a man out of revenge might plan to frighten me by a false notice of my husband’s death, and that God to punish him, made the notice a prophecy?”

“I think a man influenced by the spirit of revenge might do almost anything,” I answered, purposely ignoring the latter part of her question.

“But I always considered him a good man. At least I never looked upon him as a wicked one. Every other beggar we meet has a cough; and yet,” she added after a moment’s pause, “if it was not he who gave me this mortal shock, who was it? He is the only person in the world I ever wronged.”

“Had you not better tell me his name?” I suggested.

“No, I am in too great doubt. I should hate to do him a second injury.”

“You cannot injure him if he is innocent. My methods are very safe.”

“If I could forget his cough! but it had that peculiar catch in it that I remembered so well in the cough of John Graham. I did not pay any especial heed to it at the time. Old days and old troubles were far enough from my thoughts; but now that my suspicions are raised, that low, choking sound comes back to me in a strangely persistent way, and I seem to see a well-remembered form in the stooping figure of this beggar. Oh, I hope the good God will forgive me if I attribute to this disappointed man a wickedness he never committed.”

“Who is John Graham?” I urged, “and what was the nature of the wrong you did him?”

She rose, cast me one appealing glance, and perceiving that I meant to have her whole story, turned towards the fire and stood warming her feet before the hearth, with her face turned away from my gaze.

“I was once engaged to marry him,” she began. “Not because I loved him, but because we were very poor–I mean my mother and myself–and he had a home and seemed both good and generous. The day came when we were to be married–this was in the West, way out in Kansas–and I was even dressed for the wedding, when a letter came from my uncle here, a rich uncle, very rich, who had never had anything to do with my mother since her marriage, and in it he promised me fortune and everything else desirable in life if I would come to him, unencumbered by any foolish ties. Think of it! And I within half an hour of marriage with a man I had never loved and now suddenly hated. The temptation was overwhelming, and, heartless as my conduct may appear to you, I succumbed to it. Telling my lover that I had changed my mind, I dismissed the minister when he came, and announced my intention of proceeding East as soon as possible. Mr. Graham was simply paralysed by his disappointment, and during the few days which intervened before my departure, I was haunted by his face, which was like that of a man who had died from some overwhelming shock. But when I was once free of the town, especially after I arrived in New York, I forgot alike his misery and himself. Everything I saw was so beautiful! Life was so full of charm, and my uncle so delighted with me and everything I did! Then there was James Holmes, and after I had seen him–But I cannot talk of that. We loved each other, and under the surprise of this new delight how could I be expected to remember the man I had left behind me in that barren region in which I had spent my youth? But he did not forget the misery I had caused him. He followed me to New York; and on the morning I was married found his way into the house, and mixing with the wedding guests, suddenly appeared before me just as I was receiving the congratulations of my friends. At sight of him I experienced all the terror he had calculated upon causing, but remembering our old relations and my new position, I assumed an air of apparent haughtiness. This irritated John Graham. Flushing with anger, and ignoring my imploring look, he cried peremptorily, ‘Present me to your husband!’ and I felt forced to present him. But his name produced no effect upon Mr. Holmes. I had never told him of my early experience with this man, and John Graham, perceiving this, cast me a bitter glance of disdain and passed on, muttering between his teeth, ‘False to me and false to him! Your punishment be upon you!’ and I felt as if I had been cursed.”

She stopped here, moved by emotions readily to be understood. Then with quick impetuosity she caught up the thread of her story and went on.

“That was six months ago; and again I forgot. My mother died and my husband soon absorbed my every thought. How could I dream that this man, who was little more than a memory to me and scarcely that, was secretly planning mischief against me? Yet this scrap about which we have talked so much may have been the work of his hands; and even my husband’s death–”

She did not finish, but her face, which was turned towards me, spoke volumes.

“Your husband’s death shall be inquired into,” I assured her. And she, exhausted by the excitement of her discoveries, asked that she might be excused from further discussion of the subject at that time.

As I had no wish, myself, to enter any more fully into the matter just then, I readily acceded to her request, and the pretty widow left me.

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