A Master Hand: The Story of a Crime

       Richard Dallas / Mystery & Detective

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A Master Hand: The Story of a Crime
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G. P. PUTNAM'S SONSNEW YORK AND LONDONThe Knickerbocker Press1903

Copyright, 1903BY G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS

Published, August, 1903

The Knickerbocker Press, New York

”It is no use,” he said; ”I can see by the papers thateverybody thinks I am guilty.”]


Twenty years have passed since the happening of the events, the historyand sequel of which I am going to relate. It is the tale of a crimecommitted in one of the large cities of this country, and which,baffling the authorities at the time, still remains a mystery to all butmyself and one other. Even now, at this late day, in deference to a pleathat bore the seal of death, I shall only write of it with such changesof scene and names as I hope may prevent identification.

To me the history of this tragedy has always seemed convincing proof ofthe insufficiency of circumstantial evidence, except where such evidenceis conclusive. I do not intend, however, to indulge in any abstractdiscussion of that subject, but shall consider that I have sufficientlyfulfilled an obligation I owe to the law when I shall have submitted thebare facts of this particular case as I know them to have occurred.

While the changes of scene and names which I shall allow myself mayinvolve some minor changes in the same line, I shall take no advantageof the opportunity that may thereby be afforded to complicate orexaggerate in any way the mystery that veiled the case, for to do sowould be to subvert my purpose; but shall adhere to a plain statement ofthe facts, in every particular, as they successively discoveredthemselves to me. That it will prove an entertaining tale I do notpromise, but that it will be a curious and interesting one I feel sure,and especially so to those who by profession are brought in contact withcrime in its various phases.



















On a Monday evening in January, 1883, I had returned comparatively latefrom work in the District Attorney's office in New York, and was in myrooms at the Crescent Club on Madison Square, corner of Twenty-sixthStreet, making a leisurely toilet for dinner, when a note was brought mefrom Arthur White. In it he asked me to join a few mutual friends at hisrooms on West Nineteenth Street off Fifth Avenue later in the eveningfor supper. He named the men--Gilbert Littell, Ned Davis, and Oscar VanBult--who were to join him at euchre before supper. This was a favoritepastime with them, and I was bidden to come early, if I wished, and lookon.

I did not play cards myself; not because of any scruples on thesubject,--I had knocked about, a bachelor, long enough to take mostthings in a man's life as they come,--but because I did not care forgames of any sort. I was, however, by my friends considered anunobjectionable onlooker--rather a rare reputation to enjoy, I maymention,--probably mine because I did not take sufficient interest inthe play to either advise or criticise. It was not unpleasant, however,to sit by in White's attractive quarters and drink and smoke from hisexcellent sideboard. So having nothing better to do, I sent back word Iwould come, and getting into my evening clothes, went down to my dinner.It was not often I dined alone, as dinner to me was the occasion of theday and I deemed it incomplete, no matter how excellent the meal,without some congenial companion; but this evening I was later thanusual, and so found no one available. Even the habitual acceptors whocan always be depended upon in a club to give their society in returnfor a good dinner had all been engaged.

As I entered the dining-room, I saw my usual table reserved for me andmy customary waiter on the outlook.

”You dine alone, sir, to-night?” he asked, as I took my seat, and thenhaving suggested the outline of a light dinner, went off to give theorder and bring my usual substitute for a companion, a magazine.To-night, however, I was not in the humor to read, but rather inclinedto thoughts of the men brought to mind by White's invitation.

They were all intimate friends, and it is as well I should tellsomething about them here as another time, for they are destined to playmore or less conspicuous parts in the miserable affair which is theoccasion of this book.

To begin with my host--Arthur White was an attractive, lovable fellowwhen in his brighter moods, but weak and variable. A man of goodimpulses, I think, but so fond of luxury and idleness that he was oftenselfish in his self-indulgence; of that sort of men that other men feelsomething akin to affection for, such as for a younger brother or awoman, so easily led and dependent do they seem. He was still young,not yet out of his twenties, and, living in extravagant idleness anddissipation, was spending pretty rapidly a bequest of a hundred thousanddollars he had inherited, about two years before, from an uncle.

The bequest had created some little comment at the time, because therebythe only son of the testator, who was named in the will as residuarylegatee, was reported to have inherited little or nothing.

However, the son had always been a ”bad lot” and neglected the old man,whereas Arthur had lived with him, and, after his lazy fashion, caredfor and helped him in his affairs. So the busy world shrugged itsshoulders and passed the episode by, and only prosy moralists dwelt uponit to point the Fifth Commandment.

How Arthur reconciled it with his conscience to keep all the money, Inever heard him say, but any sacrifice, I fancy, would have seemed hardto one so self-indulgent. In any event, whatever may have been the rightor wrong of it, he was making the most of his fortune while it lasted,and his friends were incidentally getting some benefit therefrom too, asour invitation for the evening testified.

While White was the youngest of the quartette I was to join, GilbertLittell was the oldest--old enough and worldly-wise enough, too, to havebeen a valuable friend and adviser to the young man, if the latter wouldhave listened to, or been by any one diverted from the rapid pace he wasgoing. He did try, I thought, to steady him sometimes, but would alwaysabandon the effort and say in his quiet way that he guessed the boywould have to sow his wild oats and waste his dollars before he could bebrought up; which was also the general opinion among us.

Littell was a clubman and a man of the world; long and shrewdobservations of men and things--for he was past sixty and had livedthoroughly--had given him a keen insight into character and a knowledgeof the trend of things that made him a delightful and instructivecompanion. A little skeptical, perhaps, of the motives of men andparticularly of the virtues they affected, and doubting of theseriousness of life and disposed to get the most out of it; his viewsand criticisms, while often keen and rarely orthodox, were never harshor uncharitable, and at the most were but mildly cynical. I always felthe was advised whereof he spoke, and his judgment sound, and I hadformed a habit of looking to him for advice and help in worldly affairs.He seemed to take the interest in me such as an older man might in ajunior and looked me up often at my office or the club. The fact that hewas a lawyer, though a retired one, gave us much in common, and we hadmany pleasant hours together.

Every one has known men like Ned Davis; well meaning and hard working,but without great ability, and fond of pleasure and extravagant living;he was incapable of real success at anything, and was born to trouble asthe sparks fly upward. His resources were always something of a puzzleto his intimates, for while occupying some nondescript position with aprominent firm of brokers, he associated with men of large means andextravagant habits and played high at cards. Still I never heard that hefailed to pay his debts, and if he borrowed, only the lenders knew ofit, so the public had no ground for criticism. With all hisshortcomings, he was a good fellow to know and be with; of a brightdisposition, ready at any time for anything, unselfish and affectionateby nature, he was only his own enemy. The world has known many like him,but when it has spoken kindly of them, it has said all.

Oscar Van Bult was a man of a totally different stamp. Strong,self-contained, and a little serious, you felt in his presence thereserve force that was in him and with it respect. He was, perhaps,forty years of age, and unlike Littell and Davis, who had been NewYorkers from birth, was a stranger among us. Less than two years beforehe had appeared, none seemed to know from where, and had made friendsand become one of us before we were quite aware of it. That the man wasa gentleman in the worldly sense of the term was unmistakable; he was ahandsome, manly fellow, too, and agreeable, and so was welcome forhimself. Of his antecedents and resources, no one knew anything, nor wasit likely much would be learned through Van Bult, who never sought noroffered confidences. One frequently meets such men. They come and theygo, and generally things are none the better nor worse for them. I likethem; for the time being they furnish me a new interest, something toobserve, to study; but then I know I am getting older now and surfeitedof the things of daily life, and look for entertainment too much tothings outside of myself, my habits and friends now prone to samenessthrough long acquaintanceship. It was different with me in the days ofwhich I am writing. Then I was learning, and it is more agreeable tolearn than to know. Knowledge of the world advantages sometimes, but itrarely entertains. As a glass through which to observe men and things,it is a help to the vision, but it is the defects it magnifies, and thecolors in which it shows things are rarely bright or beautiful. But tothis point of view I had not then attained.

Graduating from the Harvard Law School some twelve years earlier, I hadpractised my profession in a desultory way in New York, until about ayear before, when I had secured a position as a deputy with the DistrictAttorney. In my work there I found so much to occupy and interest meprofessionally that other things, such as my social and club life,became of only secondary importance. I was absorbed in my new duties.

The crimes and criminals of a great city are a study of fascinatinginterest. In each case, if we only knew it, is to be found a lesson incharacter, method, and motive. He who would cope properly with thesubject must have been trained, not only long and faithfully butintelligently, to his work.

Noting, as I thought, deficiencies in the several departments which wereauxiliary to ours, I had taken hold of my duties with vigor and with apurpose to lift the work of our administration, from the police officerup, to a higher and more intelligent plane of operation. Alas for suchambitions of youth, they seldom prove more than dreams.

My dinner that evening was at length finished; absorbed in my thoughts,I had dallied over the meal and not eaten very heartily; but, if Iremember aright, I enjoyed it rather more than usual, though I waswithout company, and had left my magazine unread. After all there is nocompanion like one's self when taken in the right hour and mood, and thesecret of happiness, learned as we grow old, is to choose our time andto control and direct our moods.

As I arose from the table, Brown pulled back my chair saying:

”I hope dinner pleased you, sir?”

I nodded an indifferent assent, but I would have been more appreciative,I think, if I had known how long it was to be before I should again dinewith a mind so free from care.

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