XYZ. A Detective Story - Anna Katharine Green - ebook

XYZ. A Detective Story ebook

Anna Katharine Green



A brief early American detective novella written in 1883 by Anna Katharine Green that tells the story of a detective who arrives in a small town in Massachusetts in an attempt to investigate counterfeiters possibly connected to a series of mysterious letters addressed only to X Y Z. While he is questioning the postmaster, he learns of the Benson family and their super secretive lifestyle. They are rich and reclusive. The detective feels there is something amiss and switches his investigation to them – the letters and counterfeiting is dropped. That eventuates in murder. He steps into the very shoes of the person being framed for the crime, with some interesting results.

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Liczba stron: 91

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Sometimes in the course of his experience, a detective, while engaged in ferreting out the mystery of one crime, runs inadvertently upon the clue to another. But rarely has this been done in a manner more unexpected or with attendant circumstances of greater interest than in the instance I am now about to relate.

For some time the penetration of certain Washington officials had been baffled by the clever devices of a gang of counterfeiters who had inundated the western portion of Massachusetts with spurious Treasury notes. Some of the best talent of the Secret Service had been expended upon the matter, but with no favorable result, when, one day, notice was received at Washington that a number of suspicious-looking letters, addressed to the simple initials, X. Y. Z., Brandon, Mass., were being daily forwarded through the mails of that region; and it being deemed possible that a clue had at last been offered to the mystery in hand, I was sent northward to investigate.

It was in the middle of June, 1881, and the weather was simply delightful. As I stepped from the cars at Brandon and looked up the long straight street with its double row of maple trees sparkling fresh and beautiful in the noonday sun, I thought I had never seen a prettier village or entered upon any enterprise with a lighter or more hopeful heart.

Intent on my task, I went straight to the post-office, and after coming to an understanding with the postmaster, proceeded at once to look over the mail addressed to the mysterious X. Y. Z.

I found it to consist entirely of letters. They were about a dozen in number, and were, with one exception, similar in general appearance and manner of direction, though inscribed in widely different handwritings, and posted from various New England towns. The exception to which I allude had these few extra words written in the lower left-hand corner of the envelope: “To be kept till called for.„ As I bundled up the letters preparatory to thrusting them back into the box, I noticed that the latter was the only one in a blue envelope, all the others being in the various shades of cream-color and buff.

“Who is in the habit of calling for these letters?” I asked of the postmaster.

“Well,” said he, “I don’t know his name. The fact is nobody knows him around here. He usually drives up in a buggy about nightfall, calls for letters addressed to X. Y. Z., and having got them, whips up his horse and is off again before one can say a word.”

“Describe him,” said I.

“Well, he is very lean and very lank. In appearance he is both green and awkward. His complexion is pale, almost sickly. Were it not for his eye, which is keen and twinkling, I should call him an extremely inoffensive-looking person.”

The type was not new to me. “I should like to see him,” said I.

“You will have to wait till nightfall, then,” returned the postmaster. “He never comes till about dusk. Drop in here, say at seven o’clock, and I will see that you have the opportunity of handing him his mail.”

I nodded acquiescence to this and sauntered out of the enclosure devoted to the uses of the post-office. As I did so I ran against a young man who was hurriedly approaching from the other end of the store.

“Your pardon,” he cried; and I turned to look at him, so gentlemanly was his tone, and so easy the bow with which he accompanied this simple apology.

He was standing before the window of the post-office, waiting for his mail; a good-looking, well-made young man, of a fine countenance, but with a restless eye, whose alert yet anxious expression I could not but note even in the casual glance I gave him. There appeared to be some difficulty in procuring him his mail, and each minute he was kept waiting seemed to increase his impatience almost beyond the bounds of endurance. I saw him lean forward and gasp out a hurried word to the postmaster, and was idly wondering over his anxiety and its probable causes, when I heard a hasty exclamation near me, and looking around, saw the postmaster himself beckoning to me from the door of the enclosure. I immediately hastened forward.

“I don’t know what it means,” he whispered; “but here is a young man, different from any who have been here before, asking for a letter addressed to X. Y. Z.”

“A letter?” I repeated.

“Yes, a letter.”

“Give him the whole batch and see what he does,” I returned, drawing back where I could myself watch the result of my instructions. The postmaster did as I requested. In another moment I saw the young man start with amazement as a dozen letters were put in his hand. “These are not all for me!” he cried, but even as he made the exclamation, drew to one side, and with a look of mingled perplexity and concern, began opening them one after another, his expression deepening to amazement as he glanced at their contents. The one in the blue envelope, however, seemed to awaken quite different emotions. With an unconscious look of relief, he hastily read the short letter it contained, then with a quick gesture, folded it up and thrust it back into the envelope he held, together with the other letters, in his left hand.

“There must be another X. Y. Z.,” said he, approaching the window of the post-office and handing back all the letters he had received, with the exception of the one in the blue envelope, which with a quick movement he had separated from the rest and thrust into his coat-pocket. “I can lay claim to none of these.” And with a repetition of his easy bow he turned away and hurriedly quitted the store, followed by the eyes of clerks and customers, to whom he was evidently as much of a stranger as he was to me. Without hesitation I went to the door and looked after him. He was just crossing the street to the tavern on the other side of the way. I saw him enter, felt that he was safe to remain there for a few minutes, and conscious of the great opportunity awaiting me, hastened back to the postmaster.

“Well,” cried I, in secret exultation, “our plan has worked admirably. Let me see the letters. As they have been opened, and through no fault of ours, a peep at them now in the cause of justice will harm none but the guilty.”

The postmaster demurred, but I soon overcame his scruples; and taking down the letters once more, hastily investigated their contents. I own that I was considerably disappointed at the result. In fact, I found nothing that pointed toward the counterfeiters; only in each letter a written address, together with fifty cents’ worth of stamps.

“Some common fraud,” I exclaimed. “One of those cheap affairs where, for fifty cents enclosed, a piece of information calculated to insure fortune to the recipient is promised by return of mail.”

And disgusted with the whole affair I bundled up the letters, and was about to replace them in the box for the third time when I discovered that it still held a folded paper. Drawing this out, I opened it and started in fresh amazement. If I was not very much mistaken in the appearance of the letter in the blue envelope which I had seen the young man read with so much interest, this was certainly it. But how came it here? Had I not seen him thrust it back into its envelope and afterward put envelope and all into his pocket? But here was no envelope, and here was the letter. By what freak of necromancy had it been transferred from its legitimate quarters to this spot? I could not imagine. Suddenly I remembered that his hand had been full of the other letters when he put, or endeavored to put, this special one back into its envelope, and however unaccountable it may seem, it must be that from haste or agitation he had only succeeded in thrusting it between two letters instead of into the envelope, as he supposed. Whether or not this explanation be true, there was no doubt about my luck being in the ascendant. Mastering my satisfaction, I read these lines written in what appeared to be a disguised hand.

“All goes well. The time has come; every thing is in train, and success is certain. Be in the shrubbery at the northeast corner of the grounds at 9 P.M. precisely; you will be given a mask and such other means as are necessary to insure you the accomplishment of the end you have in view. He cannot hold out against a surprise. The word, by which you will know your friends, is


“Ah, ha!” thought I, “this is more like it.” And moved by a sudden impulse, I hastily copied the letter into my memorandum-book, and then returning to the original, scratched out with my penknife the word northeast and carefully substituting that of southwest put the letter back into the box, in the hope that when he came to consult the envelope in his pocket (as he would be sure to do sooner or later) he would miss its contents and return to the post-office in search of it.

Nor was I mistaken. I had scarcely accomplished my task, when he reëntered the store, asked to see the letters he had returned, and finding amongst them the one he had lost, disappeared with it back to the tavern. “If he is surprised to read southwest this time instead of northeast, he will think his memory played him false in the first instance,” cried I, in inward comment over my last doubtful stroke of policy; and turning to the postmaster, I asked him what place there was in the vicinity which could be said to possess grounds and a shrubbery.

“There is but one,” he returned, “Mr. Benson’s. All the rest of the folks are too poor to indulge in any such gimcracks.”

“And who is Mr. Benson?”

“Well, he is Mr. Benson, the richest man in these parts and the least liked as I take it. He came here from Boston two years ago and built a house fit for a king to live in. Why, nobody knows, for he seems to take no pleasure in it. His children do though, and that is all he cares for I suppose. Young Mr. Benson especially seems to be never tired of walking about the grounds, looking at the trees and tying up the vines. Miss Carrie is different; all she wants is company. But little of that has her father ever allowed her till this very day. He seems to think nobody is good enough to sit down in his parlors; and yet he don’t sit there himself, the strange man! but is always shut up in his library or some other out-of-the-way place.”

“A busy man?”

“I suppose so, but no one ever sees any thing he does.”

“Writes, perhaps?”

“I don’t know; he never talks about himself.”

“How did he get his money?”

“That we don’t know. It seems to accumulate without his help or interference. When he came here he was called rich, but to-day he is said to be worth three times what he was then.”

“Perhaps he speculates?”

“If he does, it must be through his son, for he never leaves home himself.”

“Has two children, you say?”

“Yes, a son and a daughter: a famous young man, the son; not so much liked, perhaps, as universally respected. He is too severe and reticent to be a favorite, but no one ever found him doing any thing unworthy of himself. He is the pride of the county, and if he were a bit suaver in manner might have been in Congress at this minute.”

“How old?”

“Thirty, I should say.”

“And the girl?”

“Twenty-five, perhaps.”

“A mother living?”

“No; there were some strange stories of her having died a year or so before they came here, under circumstances of a somewhat distressing nature, but they themselves say nothing about it.”

“It seems to me they don’t say much about any thing.”

“That’s just it; they are the most reserved people you ever saw. It isn’t from them we have heard there is another son floating somewhere about the world. They never speak of him, and what’s more, they never write to him; as who should know better than myself?”

An interruption here occurred, and I took the opportunity to saunter out into the crowd of idlers always to be found hanging around a country store at mail-time. My purpose was, as you may conceive, to pick up any stray bits of information that might be floating about concerning these Bensons. Not that I had as yet discovered any thing definite connecting this respectable family with the gang of counterfeiters upon whose track I had been placed; but business is business, and no clue, however slight or unpromising in its nature, is to be neglected when the way is as dark as that which lay before me. With an easy smile, therefore, calculated to allay apprehension and awaken confidence, I took my stand among these loungers. But I soon found that I need do nothing to start the wheel of gossip on the subject of the Bensons. It was already going, and that with a force and spirit that almost took my breath away.

“A fancy ball!” were the first words I heard. “The Bensons give a fancy ball, when they never had three persons at a time in their house before!”

“Yes, and what’s more, they are going to have folks over from Clayton and Lawrence and Hollowell and devil knows where. It’s to be a smash up, a regular fandango, with masks and all that kind of nonsense.”

“They say Miss Carrie teased her father till he had to give in in self-defence. It’s her birthday or something like that, and she would have a party.”

“But such a party! who ever heard the like in a respectable town like this! It’s wicked, that’s what I call it, downright wicked to cover up the face God has given you and go strutting around in clothes a Christian man might well think borrowed from the Evil One if he had to wear them in any decent company. All wrong, I say, all wrong, and I am astonished at Mr. Benson. To keep his doors shut as he has, and then to open them in a burst to all sorts of folly. We are not invited at our house.”

“Nor we, nor we,” shouted some half dozen.

“And I don’t know of any one in this town who is,” cried a burly man, presumably a butcher by trade. “We are not good enough for the Bensons. They say he is even going to be mean enough to shut the gates and not let a soul inside who hasn’t a ticket. And they are going to light up the grounds too!”

“We can peep through the fence.”

“Much we will see that way. If you had said climb it–”

“We can’t climb it. Big John is going to be there and Tom Henshaw. They mean to keep their good times to themselves, just as they have kept every thing else. It’s a queer set they are anyway, and the less we have to do with them the better.”

“I should like to see Hartley Benson in masquerade costume, I would.”

“Oh, he won’t wear any of the fol-de-rol; he’s too dignified.” And with that there fell a sudden hush over the crowd, for which I was at a loss to account, till, upon looking up, I saw approaching on horseback, a young man in whom I had no difficulty in recognizing the subject of the last remark.

Straight, slight, elegant in appearance, but with an undoubted reserve of manner apparent even at a distance, he rode up to where I stood, and casting a slight glance around, bowed almost imperceptibly, and alighted. A boy caught the bridle of his horse, and Mr. Benson, without a word or further look, passed quickly into the office, leaving a silence behind him that was not disturbed till he returned with what was evidently his noonday mail. Remounting his horse, he stopped a moment to speak to a man who had just come up, and I seized the opportunity to study his face. I did not like it. It was handsome without doubt; the features were regular, the complexion fair, the expression gentlemanly if not commanding; but I did not like it. It was too impenetrable perhaps; and to a detective anxious to probe a man for his motives, this is ever a most fatal defect. His smile was without sunshine; his glance was an inquiry, a rebuke, a sarcasm, every thing but a revelation. As he rode away he carried with him the thought of all, yet I doubt if the admiration he undoubtedly inspired, was in a single case mixed with any warmer feeling than that of pride in a fellow townsman they could not understand. “Ice,” thought I; “ice in all but its transparency!” So much for Benson the son.

The ball was to take place that very night; and the knowledge of this fact threw a different light over the letter I had read. The word mask had no longer any special significance, neither the word counterfeit, and yet such was the tenor of the note itself, and such the exaggerated nature of its phrases, I could not but feel that some plot of a reprehensible if not criminal nature was in the process of formation, which, as a rising young detective engaged in a mysterious and elusive search, it behooved me to know. And moved by this consideration, I turned to a new leaf in my memorandum-book, and put down in black and white the following facts thus summarily collected:

“A mysterious family with a secret.

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