|Chapter Title||ON THE TRAIL|
|Newspaper Title||PetersburgTimes (SA : 1887 - 1919)|
|Trove Title||The Italian Peasant|
THE ITALIAN PEASANT.
ON THE TRAIL.
I had been away from this room for less than an hour, so I recalled the location of the chair and table vividly. There is the chair, exactly where I sat. The coals in the grate are now white and soulless : the embers, fast expiring when I departed, have burned completely out. At the back of the chair should stand the table. Yes, here is the table, with ormolu top, exactly in place. I lay my hand upon it to emphazise the certainty with which I speak ; but, on doing so. I am conscious of an indescribable shock. My sense of touch tells me that something about it has changed, though I cannot tell in what way. My consternation is visible on my face, for Stanage's attention is attracted. He steps to my side, and asks, in a low voice,—
" What do you see ?"
It is a moment before I answer —
" I see nothing ; but this table feels different."
I know that I have found a clue. My heart is beating as if to liberate itself from my poor, tortured body. I have been on the rack so long !
" Speak, man," Stanage commands : " what's the matter with you ?" He stealthily takes my wrist and seeks the pulse of the arm whose hand is not upon the table.
I am still silent, but hopeful. Gradually my thoughts are collecting themselves. I am on the way to clarity. Suddenly, it all comes to me. I exclaim,—
" When I was here two hours ago, this table had a cloth on it."
" Are you sure ?"
" Positive ; at least, I felt it when I came in."
" Ah ! not as you went out ?"
" Can I recollect ? Yes, it was as I entered that I ran against this table and laid my hand upon its top. I did not feel the chilly bronze then. A soft raw-silk cloth covered it."
" How did you leave the room ?"
" I rose from this chair thus, and went directly through into the hall to the left."
" From this side, away from the table ?" " Unquestionably."
" Well, I have convinced myself that you are right, for, see, here is a table-cloth on the floor, and on the opposite side from that on which you passed out."
" I could not possibly have brushed it off," is my rejoinder, though I am rather abashed at the apparent destruction of my clue.
" No, that cloth is the starting-point of the trail that leads to the assassin," exclaims the
" I fail to understand."
" The murderer of your wife was hidden under that table when you entered this room. [ Ah ! thank God ! he no longer suspects me.] He had probably heard you come into the house and hid himself here until you went to bed. But, becoming anxious at your long stay, and finally conscious of your sleep, he crawled out on the side farthest from you and your chair, dragging the light cover to the floor. Then he went upstairs and committed the murder."
" No, Stanage, that's not plausible."
" Plausible or not, it's the only evidence of the murderer's presence in the house, beyond the corpse. Now for the kitchen and cellar." says Stanage, as he leads the way with
Every lock, catch, bolt in the cellar, kitchen, pantry, billiard-room (which had been the breakfast-room in front of the kitchen), is tried and found secure. Every means of egress from the lower part of the house is just as it should be. Had the chain and bolt on the front door been fastened when I went for the doctor ? Yes. I am positive that they were, as I had fixed them on my first entrance to the house ; and I recall my anxiety lest the patrolman should rattle the
chain when he shook the door.
We search every room and corner of the hallways, until the attic is reached.
" The murderer muat have escaped to the roof by the scuttle. I hope, for your sake, we shall find it open," says the doctor.
He is still doubtful of my innocence after all. Or has he forgotten ?
The attic is dark and dusty, and full of bad air that has risen from every part of the house below. While I climb the short iron ladder leading to the roof and try the scuttle door (only to find it securely fastened on the
inside), the physician is exploring every nook and cranny of the vast expanse of the floor and partitions close under the rafters. He passes rapidly, stealthily and cautiously from one small apartment to another. In one he remains longer than usual. Guided by the light from his candle, which, like me, he holds in his fingers, I make my way quietly past trunks and boxes of clothing to a small low-ceilinged room at the extreme rear of the house.
Has Stanage really made a discovery, or has he forgotten the purpose of this search because he sees sleeping there a strange swarthy Italian girl that our cook found in the street several weeks ago and brought to the shelter of our home as her ' slavey' ? She has been allowed to dwell up here among the wasps and sparrows. I had forgotten her presence in the house. Here she is, however, and I am about to call the doctor away in order that the minx be not awakened, when I perceive a strange action on Stanage's
part. He does not know that I am so near ; and watching him. He holds the candle before the eyes of the woman as she lies stretched out upon her straw mattress on the low bed. I step closer and pull the doctor's sleeve. I am very fearful we will awaken the girl and that she will arouse the house with her screams. When I jerk his coat an accident happens. A few drops of the scalding wax from the doctor's candle drop upon the closed eyelids of the girl. She does not awaken ! The doctor listens to her breathing. It is natural and regular.
We are both amazed. Among all the horrible and unaccountable events of the past three awful hours, this one is certainly the most strange and unnatural. We stare into each other's eyes like two lunatics.
It is then the doctor's turn to clutch me by the shoulder, in the half-standing, half- stooping posture we have both assumed. He leads me out into the hall, and hisses in
" That thing is awake !"