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´╗┐Title: A Difficult Problem - 1900
Author: Green, Anna Katharine, 1846-1935
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Difficult Problem - 1900" ***


By Anna Katharine Green (Mrs. Charles Rohlfs)

Copyright The F. M. Lupton Publishing Company. 1900

"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 child-like look full of trust and candor as she seated
herself in the chair I pointed out to her.

"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

"I have been married six months. My name is Lucy Holmes. For the last
few weeks my husband and myself 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 theater
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 neighbor's apartment, and praying her to read it for 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

"'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 towards 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 pocket-book,
she held it towards me. I read it at a glance. It was short, simple and

"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

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
bell-boy, 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 Wood-lawn. 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

"No one; absolutely no one."

"And what of her?"

"She is innocence itself. 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 theater, 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.


"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 un-shed 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 tries 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

"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

"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

"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

"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 com-mitted."

"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 paralyzed 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 at whose side I stood, I managed to hide my confusion under
an aspect 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

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

"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.


Obviously the first fact to be settled was whether Mr. Holmes had died
from purely natural causes. I accordingly busied myself the next few
days with this question, and was fortunate enough to so interest the
proper authorities that an order was issued for the exhumation and
examination of the body.

The result was disappointing. No traces of poison were to be, found in
the stomach nor was there to be seen on the body any mark of violence,
with the exception of a minute prick upon one of his thumbs.

This speck was so small that it escaped every eye but my own.

The authorities assuring the widow that the doctor's certificate given
her in Philadelphia was correct, he was again interred. But I was not
satisfied; neither do I think she was. I was confident that his
death was not a natural one, and entered upon one of those secret and
prolonged investigations which have constituted the pleasure of my life
for so many years. First, I visited the Colonnade in Philadelphia, and
being allowed to see the room in which Mr. Holmes died, went through it
carefully. As it had not been used since that time I had some hopes of
coming upon a clue.

But it was a vain hope and the only result of my journey to this place
was the assurance I received that the gentleman had spent the entire
evening preceding his death, in his own room, where he had been brought
several letters and one small package, the latter coming by mail. With
this one point gained--if it was a point--I went back to New York.

Calling on Mrs. Holmes, I asked her if, while her husband was away she
had sent him anything besides letters, and upon her replying to the
contrary, requested to know if in her visit to Philadelphia she had
noted among her husband's effects anything that was new or unfamiliar to
her, "For he received a package while there," I explained, "and though
its contents may have been perfectly harmless, it is just as well for us
to be assured of this, before going any further."

"Oh, you think, then, he was really the victim of some secret violence."

"We have no proof of it," I said. "On the contrary, we are assured that
he died from natural causes. But the incident of the newspaper slip
outweighs, in my mind, the doctor's conclusions, and until the mystery
surrounding that obituary notice has been satisfactorily explained by
its author, I shall hold to the theory that your husband has been made
away with in some strange and seemingly unaccountable manner, which it
is our duty to bring to light."

"You are right! You are right! Oh, John Graham!"

She was so carried away by this plain expression of my belief that she
forgot the question I had put to her.

"You have not told whether or not you found anything among your
husband's effects that can explain this mystery," I suggested.

She at once became attentive.

"Nothing," said she: "his trunks were already packed and his bag nearly
so. There were a few things lying about the room which were put into
the latter, but I saw nothing but what was familiar to me among them;
at least, I think not; perhaps we had better look through his trunk and
see. I have not had the heart to open it since I came back."

As this was exactly what I wished, I said as much, and she led me into a
small room, against the wall of which stood a trunk with a traveling-bag
on top of it. Opening the latter, she spread the contents out on the

"I know all these things," she sadly mur-mured, the tears welling in her

"This?" I inquired, lifting up a bit of coiled wire with two or three
little rings dangling from it.

"No; why, what is that?"

"It looks like a puzzle of some kind."

"Then it is of no consequence. My husband was forever amusing himself
over some such contrivance. All his friends knew how well he liked these
toys and frequently sent them to him. This one evidently reached him in

Meanwhile I was eying the bit of wire curiously. It was undoubtedly a
puzzle, but it had appendages to it that I did not understand.

"It is more than ordinarily complicated," I observed, moving the rings
up and down in a vain endeavor to work them off.

"The better he would like it," said she.

I kept on working with the rings. Suddenly I gave a painful start. A
little prong in the handle of the toy had started out and pricked me.

"You had better not handle it," said I, and laid it down. But the next
minute I took it up again and put it in my pocket. The prick made by
this treacherous bit of mechanism was in or near the same place on my
thumb as the one I had noticed on the hand of the deceased Mr. Holmes.

There was a fire in the room, and before proceeding further, I
cauterized that prick with the end of a red-hot poker. Then I made my
adieux to Mrs. Holmes and went immediately to a chemist friend of mine.

"Test the end of this bit of steel for me," said I. "I have reason to
believe it carries with it a deadly poison."

He took the toy, promised to subject it to every test possible and let
me know the result. Then I went home. I felt ill, or imagined that I
did, which under the circumstances was almost as bad.

Next day, however, I was quite well, with the exception of a certain
inconvenience in my thumb. But not till the following week did I
receive the chemist's report. It overthrew my whole theory. He had found
nothing, and returned me the bit of steel.

But I was not convinced.

"I will hunt up this John Graham," thought I, "and study him."

But this was not so easy a task as it may appear. As Mrs. Holmes
possessed no clue to the whereabouts of her quondam lover, I had nothing
to aid me in my search for him, save her rather vague description of his
personal appearance and the fact that he was constantly interrupted
in speaking by a low, choking cough. However, my natural perseverance
carried me through. After seeing and interviewing a dozen John Grahams
without result, I at last lit upon a man of that name who presented
a figure of such vivid unrest and showed such desperate hatred of his
fellows, that I began to entertain hopes of his being the person I
was in search of. But determined to be sure of this before proceeding
further, I confided my suspicions to Mrs. Holmes, and induced her to
accompany me down to a certain spot on the "Elevated" from which I
had more than once seen this man go by to his usual lounging place in
Printing-house Square.

She showed great courage in doing this, for she had such a dread of him
that she was in a state of nervous excitement from the moment she left
her house, feeling sure that she would attract his attention and thus
risk a disagreeable encounter. But she might have spared herself these
fears. He did not even glance up in passing us, and it was mainly by his
walk she recognized him. But she did recognize him; and this nerved
me at once to set about the formidable task of fixing upon him a crime
which was not even admitted as a fact by the authorities.

He was a man-about-town, living, to all appearance, by his wits. He was
to be seen mostly in the downtown portions of the city, standing for
hours in front of some newspaper office, gnawing at his finger-ends, and
staring at the passers-by with a hungry look that alarmed the timid and
provoked alms from the benevolent. Needless to say that he rejected the
latter expression of sympathy, with angry contempt.

His face was long and pallid, his cheek-bones high and his mouth bitter
and resolute in expression. He wore neither beard nor mustache, but made
up for their lack by an abundance of light brown hair, which hung very
nearly to his shoulders. He stooped in standing, but as soon as he
moved, showed decision and a certain sort of pride which caused him to
hold his head high and his body more than usually erect. With all these
good points his appearance was decidedly sinister, and I did not wonder
that Mrs. Holmes feared him.

My next move was to accost him. Pausing before the doorway in which
he stood, I addressed him some trivial question. He answered me with
sufficient politeness, but with a grudging attention which betrayed the
hold which his own thoughts had upon him. He coughed while speaking
and his eye, which for a moment rested on mine, produced upon me an
impression for which I was hardly prepared, great as was my prejudice
against him. There was such an icy composure in it; the composure of
an envenomed nature conscious of its superiority to all surprise. As I
lingered to study him more closely, the many dangerous qualities of the
man became more and more apparent to me; and convinced that to proceed
further without deep and careful thought, would be to court failure
where triumph would set me up for life, I gave up all present attempt
at enlisting him in conversation, and went my way in an inquiring and
serious mood.

In fact, my position was a peculiar one, and the problem I had set for
myself one of unusual difficulty. Only by means of some extraordinary
device such as is seldom resorted to by the police of this or any other
nation, could I hope to arrive at the secret of this man's conduct,
and triumph in a matter which to all appearance was beyond human

But what device? I knew of none, nor through two days and nights of
strenuous thought did I receive the least light on the subject. Indeed,
my mind seemed to grow more and more confused the more I urged it into
action. I failed to get inspiration indoors or out; and feeling
my health suffer from the constant irritation of my recurring
disappointment, I resolved to take a day off and carry myself and my
perplexities into the country.

I did so. Governed by an impulse which I did not then understand, I went
to a small town in New Jersey and entered the first house on which I saw
the sign "Room to Let." The result was most fortunate. No sooner had I
crossed the threshold of the neat and homely apartment thrown open to my
use, than it recalled a room in which I had slept two years before and
in which I had read a little book I was only too glad to remember at
this moment. Indeed, it seemed as if a veritable inspiration had come to
me through this recollection, for though the tale to which I allude was
a simple child's story written for moral purposes, it contained an idea
which promised to be invaluable to me at this juncture. Indeed, by means
of it, I believed myself to have solved the problem that was puzzling
me, and relieved beyond ex-pression, I paid for the night's lodging
I had now determined to forego, and returned immediately to New York,
having spent just fifteen minutes in the town where I had received this
happy inspiration.

My first step on entering the city was to order a dozen steel coils made
similar to the one which I still believed answerable for James Holmes'
death. My next to learn as far as possible all of John Graham's haunts
and habits. At a week's end I had the springs and knew almost as well as
he did himself where he was likely to be found at all times of the day
and night. I immediately acted upon this knowledge. Assuming a slight
disguise, I repeated my former stroll through Printing-house Square,
looking into each doorway as I passed. John Graham was in one of them,
staring in his old way at the passing crowd, but evidently seeing
nothing but the images formed by his own disordered brain. A
manuscript-roll stuck out of his breast-pocket, and from the way his
nervous fingers fumbled with it, I began to understand the restless
glitter of his eyes, which were as full of wretchedness as any eyes I
have ever seen.

Entering the doorway where he stood, I dropped at his feet one of the
small steel coils with which I was provided. He did not see it. Stopping
near him I directed his attention to it by saying:

"Pardon me, but did I not see something drop out of your hand?"

He started, glanced at the seeming inoffensive toy at which I pointed,
and altered so suddenly and so vividly that it became instantly apparent
that the surprise I had planned for him was fully as keen and searching
a one as I had anticipated. Recoiling sharply, he gave me a quick look,
then glanced down again at his feet as if half expecting to find the
object vanished which had startled him. But, perceiving it still
lying there, he crushed it viciously with his heel, and uttering some
incoherent words, dashed impetuously from the building.

Confident that he would regret this hasty impulse and return, I withdrew
a few steps and waited. And sure enough, in less than five minutes he
came slinking back. Picking up the coil with more than one sly look
about, he examined it closely. Suddenly he gave a sharp cry and went
staggering out. Had he discovered that the seeming puzzle possessed the
same invisible spring which had made the one handled by James Holmes so

Certain as to the place he would be found in next, I made a short cut to
an obscure little saloon in Nassau Street, where I took up my stand in
a spot convenient for seeing without being seen. In ten minutes he was
standing at the bar asking for a drink.

"Whiskey!" he cried, "straight."

It was given him; but as he set the empty glass down on the counter, he
saw lying before him another of the steel springs, and was so
confounded by the sight that the proprietor, who had put it there at my
instigation, thrust out his hand toward him as if half afraid he would

"Where did that--that _thing_ come from?" stammered John Graham,
ignoring the other's gesture and pointing with a trembling hand at the
seemingly insignificant bit of wire between them.

"Didn't it drop from your coat-pocket?" inquired the proprietor. "It
wasn't lying here before you came in."

With a horrible oath the unhappy man turned and fled from the place. I
lost sight of him after that for three hours, then I suddenly came upon
him again. He was walking up town with a set purpose in his face that
made him look more dangerous than ever. Of course I followed him,
expecting him to turn towards Fifty-ninth Street, but at the corner of
Madison Avenue and Forty-seventh Street he changed his mind and dashed
toward Third Avenue. At Park Avenue he faltered and again turned north,
walking for several blocks as if the fiends were behind him. I began to
think that he was but attempting to walk off his excitement, when, at a
sudden rushing sound in the cut beside us, he stopped and trembled. An
express train was shooting by. As it disappeared in the tunnel beyond,
he looked about him with a blanched face and wandering eye; but his
glance did not turn my way, or if it did, he failed to attach any
meaning to my near presence.

He began to move on again and this time towards the bridge spanning
the cut. I followed him very closely. In the center of it he paused and
looked down at the track beneath him. Another train was approaching. As
it came near he trembled from head to foot, and catching at the railing
against which he leaned, was about to make a quick move forward when a
puff of smoke arose from below and sent him staggering backward, gasping
with a terror I could hardly understand till I saw that the smoke had
taken the form of a spiral and was sailing away before him in what to
his disordered imagination must have looked like a gigantic image of
the coil with which twice before on this day he had found himself

It may have been chance and it may have been providence; but whichever
it was it saved him. He could not face that semblance of his haunting
thought; and turning away he cowered down on the neighboring curbstone,
where he sat for several minutes, with his head buried in his hands;
when he rose again he was his own daring and sinister self. Knowing that
he was now too much master of his faculties to ignore me any longer,
I walked quickly away and left him. I knew where he would be at six
o'clock and had already engaged a table at the same restaurant. It was
seven, however, before he put in an appearance, and by this time he
was looking more composed. There was a reckless air about him, however,
which was perhaps only noticeable to me; for none of the habitues of
this especial restaurant were entirely without it; wild eyes and unkempt
hair being in the majority.

I let him eat. The dinner he ordered was simple and I had not the heart
to interrupt his enjoyment of it.

But when he had finished; and came to pay, then I allowed the shock to
come. Under the bill which the waiter laid at the side of his plate
was the inevitable steel coil; and it produced even more than its usual
effect. I own I felt sorry for him.

He did not dash from the place, however, as he had from the
liquor-saloon. A spirit of resistance had seized him and he demanded to
know where this object of his fear had come from. No one could tell him
(or would). Whereupon he began to rave and would certainly have done
himself or somebody else an injury if he had not been calmed by a man
almost as wild-looking as himself. Paying his bill, but vowing he would
never enter the place again, he went out, clay-white, but with the
swaggering air of a man who had just asserted himself.

He drooped, however, as soon as he reached the street, and I had no
difficulty in following him to a certain gambling den where he gained
three dollars and lost five. From there he went to his lodgings in West
Tenth Street.

I did not follow him in. He had passed through many deep and wearing
emotions since noon, and I had not the heart to add another to them.

But late the next day I returned to this house and rang the bell. It was
already dusk, but there was light enough for me to notice the unrepaired
condition of the iron railings on either side of the old stone stoop and
to compare this abode of decayed grandeur with the spacious and elegant
apartment in which pretty Mrs. Holmes mourned the loss of her young
husband. Had any such comparison ever been made by the unhappy John
Graham, as he hurried up these decayed steps into the dismal halls

In answer to my summons there came to the door a young woman to whom I
had but to intimate my wish to see Mr. Graham for her to let me in with
the short announcement:

"Top floor, back room! Door open, he's out; door shut, he's in."

As an open door meant liberty to enter, I lost no time in following the
direction of her pointing finger, and presently found myself in a low
attic chamber overlooking an acre of roofs. A fire had been lighted in
the open grate, and the flickering red beams danced on ceiling and walls
with a cheeriness greatly in contrast to the nature of the business
which had led me there. As they also served to light the room I
proceeded to make myself at home; and drawing up a chair, sat down at
the fireplace in such a way as to conceal myself from any one entering
the door.

In less than half an hour he came in.

He was in a state of high emotion. His face was flushed and his eyes
burning. Stepping rapidly forward, he flung his hat on the table in the
middle of the room, with a curse that was half cry and half groan. Then
he stood silent and I had an opportunity of noting how haggard he had
grown in the short time which had elapsed since I had seen him last. But
the interval of his inaction was short, and in a moment he flung up
his arms with a loud "Curse her!" that rang through the narrow room and
betrayed the source of his present frenzy. Then he again stood still,
grating his teeth and working his hands in a way terribly suggestive
of the murderer's instinct. But not for long. He saw something that
attracted his attention on the table, a something upon which my eyes
had long before been fixed, and starting forward with a fresh and quite
different display of emotion, he caught up what looked like a roll of
manuscript and began to tear it open.

"Back again! Always back!" wailed from his lips; and he gave the roll a
toss that sent from its midst a small object which he no sooner saw than
he became speechless and reeled back. It was another of the steel coils.

"Good God!" fell at last from his stiff and working lips. "Am I mad or
has the devil joined in the pursuit against me? I cannot eat, I cannot
drink, but this diabolical spring starts up before me. It is here,
there, everywhere. The visible sign of my guilt; the--the----" He had
stumbled back upon my chair, and turning, saw me.

I was on my feet at once, and noting that he was dazed by the shock of
my presence, I slid quietly between him and the door.

The movement roused him. Turning upon me with a sarcastic smile in which
was concentrated the bitterness of years, he briefly said:

"So, I am caught! Well, there has to be an end to men as well as to
things, and I am ready for mine. She turned me away from her door
to-day, and after the hell of that moment I don't much fear any other."

"You had better not talk," I admonished him. "All that falls from you
now will only tell against you on your trial."

He broke into a harsh laugh. "And do you think I care for that? That
having been driven by a woman's perfidy into crime I am going to bridle
my tongue and keep down the words which are my only safeguard from
insanity? No, no; while my miserable breath lasts I will curse her,
and if the halter is to cut short my words, it shall be with her name
blistering my lips."

I attempted to speak, but he would not give me the opportunity. The
passion of weeks had found vent and he rushed on recklessly.

"I went to her house to-day. I wanted to see her in her widow's weeds;
I wanted to see her eyes red with weeping over a grief which owed its
bitterness to me. But she would not grant me an admittance. She had me
thrust from her door, and I shall never know how deeply the iron has
sunk into her soul. But--" and here his face showed a sudden change,
"I shall see her if I am tried for murder. She will be in the
court-room,--on the witness stand----"

"Doubtless," I interjected; but his interruption came quickly and with
vehement passion.

"Then I am ready. Welcome trial, conviction, death, even. To confront
her eye to eye is all I wish. She shall never forget it, never!"

"Then you do not deny----" I began.

"I deny nothing," he returned, and held out his hands with a grim
gesture. "How can I, when there falls from everything I touch, the
devilish thing which took away the life I hated?"

"Have you anything more to say or do before you leave these rooms?" I

He shook his head, and then, bethinking himself, pointed to the roll of
paper which he had flung on the table.

"Burn that!" he cried.

I took up the roll and looked at it. It was the manuscript of a poem in
blank verse.

"I have been with it into a dozen newspaper and magazine offices," he
explained with great bitterness. "Had I succeeded in getting a publisher
for it I might have forgotten my wrongs and tried to build up a new life
on the ruins of the old. But they would not have it, none of them, so I
say, burn it! that no memory of me may remain in this miserable world."

"Keep to the facts!" I severely retorted. "It was while carrying this
poem from one newspaper to another that you secured that bit of print
upon the blank side of which you yourself printed the obituary notice
with which you savored your revenge upon the woman who had disappointed

"You know that? Then you know where I got the poison with which I tipped
the silly toy with which that weak man fooled away his life?"

"No," said I, "I do not know where you got it. I merely know it was no
common poison bought at a druggist's, or from any ordinary chemist."

"It was woorali; the deadly, secret woorali. I got it from--but that
is another man's secret. You will never hear from me anything that will
compromise a friend. I got it, that is all. One drop, but it killed my

The satisfaction, the delight, which he threw into these words are
beyond description. As they left his lips a jet of flame from the
neglected fire shot up and threw his figure for one instant into bold
relief upon the lowering ceiling; then it died out, and nothing but the
twilight dusk remained in the room and on the countenance of this doomed
and despairing man.

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Difficult Problem - 1900" ***

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