It was Detective Gilbert who told the story to a group of boarders seated on the piazza of one of the quaint old Rhinelander houses. These dwellings, though situated on West Eleventh Street, in the very heart of New York, present an almost rural spectacle, with their green lawns, wide piazzas, and vine-covered balconies.
“It was one day about two years ago,” said Mr. Gilbert, “that I received a card on which was engraved the name, ‘Miss Julia Wood.’ The name was a familiar one. When my wife was living Miss Wood had been an intimate friend of hers and a frequent visitor to our house. Since then I had lost trace of the girl, and knew only that, owing to her father’s death and the straitened circumstances of herself and her sister, she had taken up the study of stenography and typewriting, with the idea of earning her living. So when she rose to meet me in the reception-room I was startled by her changed appearance and the haggard, anxious expression of her face.”
“ ’Mr. Gilbert, I am in great trouble,’ she exclaimed, as I shook hands with her, and then, without further preliminaries, she stated her case.
“ ’You know, Mr. Gilbert, that for over a year I have been studying stenography and typewriting, and you can understand that lately I have been very anxious to find a place. At first, I supposed that this would not be difficult, but I soon discovered that my lack of practical experience stood in the way of my getting anything at all. In fact, it was not until this week that even a temporary opening presented itself.’
“Here Miss Wood paused for a moment, as if to summon all her strength, and then continued:—
“ ’About eleven o’clock yesterday morning, my teacher, Mr. Lacombe, came to the door of the practice room, where I was at work, and, calling me to one side, said:—
“ ’ ”Miss Wood, didn’t you tell me that you understood the deaf and dumb alphabet?”
“ ’ ”Perfectly,” I answered.
“ ’As you know, Mr. Gilbert, my little sister Helen is deaf and dumb, and that is why I understand the sign-language almost as well as I do spoken English.
“ ’ ”I thought so,” said Mr. Lacombe, “and am glad, for your sake, that you do, for I’ve just had an application from a lady who wants a deaf and dumb stenographer.”
“ ’ ”But I am not deaf and dumb,” I protested.
“ ’ ”No, but you understand the sign-language, and that is the main point. You see, this woman wants some notes taken from a deaf and dumb relative, who uses, of course, the deaf and dumb alphabet, and she thinks, I suppose, that a person who understands the sign-language must be a deaf mute, also. She says that this relative of hers is ill; possibly hasn’t long to live. So no doubt you’re wanted for some sort of an ante mortem examination; one, maybe, that’s connected with some family scandal or secret that they don’t want to leak out. Just a matter for discretion, that’s all.
“ ’ ”Of course I don’t want to urge you into this against your will,” he added, “but I know how much you want a position and a chance for practical experience. Besides, this engagement is only for a week, perhaps even less, and the salary is fifty dollars and all expenses paid. The main question is whether you care to be deaf and dumb for that time.”
“ ’For just a moment I hesitated. Certainly the conditions were very queer. Still, there was the money,—how much fifty dollars would mean for my poor little sister! There was the experience, and there was, yes—I must confess it—there was the charm of adventure. You know you always said that I was of an adventurous disposition, and that spirit has grown since I have been thrown upon my own resources, and have made up my mind that I must make my own way in the world, as if I were a man. As for acting the part of a deaf mute, that seemed a simple matter to me, who know so well the habits of the deaf and dumb, through constant association with poor little Helen.
“ ’Money, experience, and adventure! The combination was too much for my prudence. In less time than it would take to buy a handkerchief I had accepted the position. Forty-five minutes after the time that I walked into Mr. Lacombe’s office I sat on a Southern-bound train, rushing towards a place I’d never heard of before, the companion of a woman who was an utter stranger to me, and bound on an errand of which I knew practically nothing.
“ ’You see, in the rush of preparation I’d no chance for reconsidering my decision. Indeed, when I was led into Mr. Lacombe’s inner office and introduced to my prospective employer, Mrs. Westinghouse, by means, of course, of pencil, and paper, and gestures, I hardly noticed in my excitement what manner of woman she was. I had enough to think of in keeping to the character I had assumed and in preparing in half an hour’s time for a week’s journey; for almost the first demand made by the strange woman was that I should go with her upon the noon train. The invalid had no doubt only a few days left to live, she explained, and every minute was precious.
“ ’Upon reading my pencilled explanation that I must go home to say good-by to my sister and get a few articles for my trip, she thrust a ten-dollar bill into my hand, telling me to use that to buy whatever I needed. Mr. Lacombe, she signified, could explain matters to my sister, and with that she hurried me down the stairs and into a cab waiting below. In this I was whirled away, first to a big department store and then to the railroad station, arriving just in time for the noon train, so it wasn’t until I was seated in the local express and had actually started that I had a chance to review the situation and to examine my companion.’
“ ’What sort of a woman was she?’ I interrupted.
“ ’Oh, she appeared perfectly respectable, and tried to make herself agreeable by keeping me busy answering questions on my pad, but something in her cold gray eyes, or, perhaps, in her high metallic voice, chilled my ardor. For the first time I realized my position. Here I was about to enter into the lives of unknown people, under an assumed character, and one that might involve me in matters of a secret, perhaps a dangerous nature. By this time, however, it was too late for me to retreat. All that I could do was to vow, as I did with all my heart, that no matter what I learned while with these people I would make no use of it.
“ ’Upon leaving the train, after a ride of about two hours and a half, I found myself in Rockwood, a desolate little way station in the most dreary section I had ever seen. The only sign of life was a top carriage, drawn by a pair of lean horses and driven by the son of my companion, a man about thirty years of age. He had handsome features, but, somehow, his bloodshot eyes and dissipated look impressed me even more unfavorably than had his mother’s appearance. I was directed to take the back seat, and Mrs. Westinghouse sat in front beside her son.
“ ’As we drove off the young man put a question at once which I did not hear, but his mother in her usual voice assured him that I was a deaf mute and had been secured at a large salary for that reason. Then they proceeded with their conversation without restriction, but the road was so stony and our speed so great that I caught only a little of it. What I heard did not serve to make me feel any easier. They spoke of some person, who appeared to be a relative, with the most dreadful epithets, and appeared to be planning some way to bring him to terms, should he prove obstinate after they arrived with the stenographer. Before we had gone a mile I was not only sick of my bargain, but ready to jump from the carriage to escape it.
“ ’The aspect of the country, also, was enough to make the most hilarious person feel melancholy. It was rocky, sterile, and almost uninhabited. The few farmhouses we passed were, all save one, untenanted and falling to pieces. The fields were covered with a thick growth of bayberry bushes or stunted firs.
“ ’The house was, as nearly as I can judge, about three miles from the station. It had once been a fine mansion, but showed signs of neglect and age. The paint was worn off in patches; the floor of the piazza was rotten. The inside of the house, however, was fairly comfortable, the furniture being extremely old-fashioned and quaint.
“ ’I could hardly touch a mouthful of supper, and soon excused myself from the table. Wandering around the piazza which skirted the house, I came upon a rear view of the premises. Here I had another surprise, for, detached from the main house and several yards away, stood a long, low brick building with a huge chimney, like a smoke-stack, proceeding from it. Its windows were close against the roof, and probably about twelve feet from the ground, while the only entrance seemed to be by way of a rough bridge extending from a curious door on a line with these windows to a window in the second story of the dwelling-house.
“ ’While I stood gazing at this remarkable building I noticed that Mrs. Westinghouse had followed me. I could no longer restrain my curiosity, but pointed to the mysterious building and raised my eyebrows. With an impatient gesture, as though she resented my inquisitiveness, the lady caught up my writing-pad and scribbled: “It is my brother’s laboratory; he is a metallurgist. We wish you to come and take a dictation from him.”
“ ’Then, leading me upstairs, she unlocked a door and ushered me into a large apartment, in which, at that moment, I saw only one object,—a man stretched upon a couch. The coverings, thrown away from the neck and face, revealed both to be shockingly emaciated; the eyes were wild and staring, the lips drawn away from the teeth, which were white and even. But there was strength even in that dying despair—at the first glance I saw that. There was a look of dogged endurance in every line and feature.
“ ’ ”Now, Alfred,” wrote Mrs. Westinghouse upon my pad and signifying to me that this was my introduction, “here is Miss Wood, a deaf and dumb stenographer we have brought from New York, so there’s no longer any reason for your keeping your precious secret. She understands the signs, and can put your words on paper as fast as you can give them to her.” Then, passing the pad to the invalid, she turned to her son. “Victor, love,” she said, “the writing paper, pencils, and a little table for Miss Wood.”
“ ’ ”Here they are,” said the young man, rolling the table towards me with an ingratiating leer.
“ ’I glanced at the invalid. He gave no sign of having read his relative’s communication, but lay quite still and breathed softly in gasps. I should not have been surprised to have seen him drawing his last breath at any moment.
“ ’The woman stood looking at him appealingly until she caught his eye; then she covered her face with her handkerchief, pretending to be overcome by emotion. A moment later she turned aside to Victor and hissed, “Oh, is it too late? If I only knew some torture that would wring from him that secret which would bring us millions.”
“ ’Then, controlling herself, she went on more calmly: “Sit down, Miss Wood, and take the dictation.”
“ ’I saw Victor looking at me and had the presence of mind to remain perfectly quiet, without noticing what she said, for, indeed, I had now begun to feel that I was among desperate people, and that it would be best for my well-being to carry out my role as I had begun it. Apparently satisfied that I was as unfortunate as I claimed to be, she signified by motions that I was to seat myself and write as soon as her brother should dictate.
“ ’I did so, but while Victor had been occupied in arranging my utensils and Mrs. Westinghouse was absorbed in her pretended emotions the man on the bed had turned his eyes and looked straight into mine. The effect was tremendous. I felt calmed. There was almost an understanding between us. At least, there was sympathy.
“ ’As I seated myself and caught up my pencil, he raised his white hands and began to sign to me:—
“ ’ ”Show no fright at whatever I say. Pretend to take notes, or you will betray yourself.”
“ ’Acting on his suggestion, I began tracing disjointed sentences upon the paper.
“ ’Then, after allowing me a few moments to recover from the effects of this startling communication, he went on:—
“ ’ ”This is no place for you. These people are desperate characters, and if they suspected what I am saying might injure you.”
“ ’Again a pause, during which I shaded my face with one hand and scrawled senseless marks over the paper with the other. Beneath my lowered lids I could see that two pair of eyes, one bloodshot and the other steely gray, were watching me from a shadowy recess on the other side of the bed. I realized that the slightest expression of my real feelings might prove fatal. I set my teeth hard. My old adventurous spirit returned. As mechanically as though I were taking a school dictation, I followed the movements of the trembling white hand and traced those meaningless marks.
“ ’Apparently, mother and son were satisfied with their scrutiny, for they soon retired to the other end of the long room. As they went, I heard her murmur to Victor:—
“ ’ ”Come; the old miser won’t forget his own flesh and blood. At any rate, that girl shall stay in the house until her notes are written out in plain English and the experiments made. I gave that foolish teacher of hers a wrong address.”
“ ’At this she turned on me suddenly, and nothing on earth could have prevented my face revealing the fright that was on me. I could hide my terror only by sneezing violently into my handkerchief.
“ ’As soon as they had withdrawn to the farther end of the room the invalid hastened to communicate as rapidly as possible the state of affairs in this strange household. The woman, Mrs. Westinghouse, was, so he said, his sister-in-law, the widow of his only brother, and Victor was, of course, his nephew. On the death of his brother, the man who now lay dying had invited the widow and her son, then a handsome lad, to make their home with him, and, indeed, had treated Victor as his adopted son and probable heir. About three years ago, however, Victor, who had acted as his uncle’s assistant in the laboratory, had repaid his generosity by attempting to steal from him the secret which he had spent years in perfecting. Failing in this, he had forged his benefactor’s name for a sum amounting to a large share of his fortune, and had applied the proceeds to the payment of gambling debts. Since then, Mr. Westinghouse, though allowing Victor to go free, had refused to see either him or his mother, and it was only now, when he was on his death-bed, that they returned, uninvited, with the hope of extracting from the sick man the only wealth remaining to him,—his recent discovery.
“ ’At this point the invalid stopped abruptly, and looked once more deep into my eyes. Then, with a sigh that seemed one of satisfaction, he continued:—
“ ’ ”They think, because they hold me as prisoner here upon my death-bed, have deprived me of society, and spirited away my faithful man-servant, the only person who understood my sign-language, that they can force my secret from me. But your face tells me that I can trust you, that you are not their accomplice.”
“ ’ ”Indeed I am not,” I signed hastily. “I came here ignorant of what I was to do, and now they say that I must stay until the notes are written out and the experiment is made. If it fails it is likely to go hard with both of us.”
“ ’The invalid received my communication quietly, without asking how I gained my knowledge. Then, after asking and receiving answers to several questions in regard to my history, he nodded as if satisfied, and signed me to take down with extreme accuracy what he should give me. He then dictated by means of the sign alphabet what seemed like a technical article, many words of which he was obliged to spell for me, and including the finest weights and measures relating to metallurgy. After he had completed it he asked me to read it to him by signs, so that he could be sure that it was correct. When I had done so he looked up, smiled faintly to see that mother and son had left the room, and beckoned me to him. He took my hands, clasped them in his, and then signed: “Swear that you will never permit that paper to fall into the hands of Mrs. Westinghouse or her son.”
“ ’In my fright I took the oath.
“ ’ ”Guard it well,” he signified, “for it is a fortune beyond your dreams. Now sit down and take a bogus paper, which you must give to Mrs. Westinghouse. But first conceal this paper in your dress.”
“ ’I did so. He then dictated another paper, different in every way from the first as to its methods; and then motioned that I must write out the second paper as soon as possible, give it to Mrs. Westinghouse, and then effect my escape before the fraud was discovered.
“ ’As I looked at him doubtingly, he added: “Trust me. I will provide the way.”
“ ’ ”But you?” I said.
“ ’He tried to laugh. “I shan’t live twenty-four hours,” he said.
“ ’I asked if they were to blame. He shrugged his shoulders. “Her son’s treachery robbed me of health and fortune. And now in their fiendish greed to inherit the secret they have locked me in this room and tried to wring it from me by their soft words and wheedling caresses. But they shall not succeed. They shall never know this.”
“ ’As he spoke he drew from under his pillow a small blade in a sheath. It was a bright brownish yellow; the edge was sharp as a razor. He handed it to me, signifying that I was to keep it.
“ ’Hardly had I sheathed the strange weapon and concealed it in the folds of my bodice when the door opened and the woman again entered. I showed her the pages that I had taken and pencilled a note, saying that the formula was complete, but that it would take at least half a day to write it out, as it contained many unfamiliar terms which I should need to refer to a dictionary. For just a moment the woman scanned my face and that of the invalid with that strange air of suspicion that never wholly deserted her.
“ ’Apparently, what she saw satisfied her, for she signified her pleasure that I had succeeded in gaining the information in so short a time, and added that, as it was now past midnight, I might leave the rest of my work for the next day. Upon this, she led me to a room opening out of her own, indicating that she thought I might feel less lonely if I were near her. Later, I heard the key turn softly in the lock on the outside of the door leading from my room into the hall, and—well, you can imagine that I got very little sleep that night.
“ ’Early the next morning the woman unlocked my door, and, after I had eaten a hasty breakfast, led me to a library well equipped with reference books, where, so she wrote, I was to finish my work.
“ ’Then she left me, locking me in once more.
“ ’I had reached about the middle of the false formula when the door opened and the woman entered in great haste. From her hurried movements and the anxious expression of her face I judged that some new complication had arisen. I was right. Snatching up my pad, the woman wrote, “He is sinking fast. The experiment must begin at once. How much of the formula remains?”
“ ’I wrote: “Over one half.”
“ ’ ”Never mind,” she wrote in return. “Victor can begin with what you have. Give me the papers. You may finish the rest in my brother’s room and bring it to us in the laboratory.”
“ ’As we entered the invalid’s room, I tried to exchange a look with the sick man, but the woman drew me away to a large French window at the end farthest from the bed, and, opening the sashes, which swung inward, motioned me to look out. To my surprise, I saw that the bridge that I had noticed the night before as connecting the house and laboratory was approached from this window. It was a rough affair, resembling those used on shipboard, and consisted of a wide plank guarded only by two ropes stretched one on either side of the plank, about three feet above it, as a sort of guard rail. On the laboratory side the bridge terminated at what seemed to be a heavy door, made of one solid piece of timber and provided one third of the way from the top with two small windows, or, rather, panes of glass, about eight inches square. Behind each there was a heavy iron bar.
“ ’Hastily signifying that I must cross the bridge in order to bring her the remainder of the formula, the woman sent Victor ahead and then turned to follow. Before going she intimated to me that while I wrote I was to remain beside this window where I could see any sign from the workers in the laboratory and be seen by them.
“ ’For the next two hours nothing was to be heard in the room save the scratching of my pen over the paper and the labored breathing of the dying man. He seemed to be sinking rapidly, but whenever he caught my glance would smile reassuringly, as though to say: “Do not be afraid. All will come right.” As the hands of the clock on the mantel approached the hour of eleven, however, he appeared to grow suddenly stronger; a faint color tinged his cheeks, and he half rose in bed, as though awaiting some new developments. On the stroke of eleven he turned to me and signed: “It is time to go.”
“ ’ ”But there are still a few pages to write out,” I answered.
“ ’ ”It’s all right,” he rejoined. “It is enough. Only go—go at once. It is your way of escape.”
“ ’For a moment I hesitated. The words sounded senseless; sick men, I reasoned, had strange fancies. But the glance of his eyes was sane; it was more,—it was convincing.
“ ’Without another word, I gathered up my papers and started across the bridge. It swayed, but only slightly. There was not the slightest danger of an accident. And yet in my passage across that bridge I trembled violently. When finally I reached the strangely guarded door I had barely strength enough to knock upon the heavy timbers. There was no reply. Evidently they were absorbed in their experiment, I thought, and knocked again. Still no reply, though this time I seemed to hear a faint movement within. I tried to peer through the tiny window-panes in the door. They were somewhat above the level of my face and partly obscured by the iron bars. So I raised myself on tiptoe and, shading my eyes with my hands, looked in.
“ ’For a moment I could see nothing. Then, as I became accustomed to the gloom, I made out a few objects near by,—a charcoal stove, a table holding a pair of scales, pincers, blowpipe, a graduating glass, and other apparatus with which I was unfamiliar. At the farther end of the table sat a motionless female figure, the head thrown back, one hand clutching a crumpled sheet of paper, while the other hung limply at her side. Directly opposite a man sat, also motionless, his bowed head resting on the edge of the table. As I looked, I fancied the hand holding the paper twitched slightly.
“ ’I shifted my position. A faint light fell upon the face of the woman. It was that of Mrs. Westinghouse, but white and rigid, with sightless, staring eyes.
“ ’ ”They are dead!” I cried, as I rushed back into the room of the dying man. Then, recollecting myself, I succeeded in repeating my words with fingers that trembled so that I could hardly give the signs.
“ ’For a moment he seemed unmoved; then, with a ghastly smile, he signalled:—
“ ’ ”This is your time to escape.”
“ ’ ”But you—”
“ ’ ”Never mind me. All I care for is to keep my secret from them. Remember your vow—and now go—go—and God bless you.”
“ ’I grasped his hand, then rushed from the room. I snatched my hat and coat in the hall below, and ran out of the house and down the road, never stopping until I reached the station. There I took the next train and reached the city only half an hour ago.’ ”
Here Mr. Gilbert began to light a cigar, as though his story were finished.
“But what became of the dying man—of the mother and son—the little stenographer?”
“Oh, yes, to be sure,” said the detective; “you wish to know the sequel. Well, I went up there that day with two or three men and found everything as she’d described it. The mother and son had simply been evidently stupefied by drugs purposely introduced into the false formula, and soon recovered their senses, but the uncle had breathed his last. Mrs. Westinghouse had been smart enough to get a physician, who was there when we arrived, and who, honestly enough, I suppose, ascribed his death to natural causes. We could do nothing from lack of evidence.”
“But the secret,—the mysterious formula?”
“Ah, that is the saddest part of the whole affair. Half crazed by her horrible experience in this house, and recalling her vow to make no use of any information gained while there, Miss Wood had no sooner escaped than she tore the true formula into pieces and threw it away. Had she kept it, it would undoubtedly have brought her an enormous fortune, for an expert metallurgist who examined the strange dagger given to her by the dying man pronounced it to be an example of a priceless art,—that of tempering copper to the consistency of steel,—a process understood by the ancients, but lost now these thousands of years.”