Hand and Ring, by Anna Katharine Green

31. The Chief Witness for the Defence.

Your If is the only peace-maker; much virtue in If.

As You Like It.

THE crowd that congregated at the court-house the next morning was even greater than at any previous time. The opening speech of Mr. Orcutt had been telegraphed all over the country, and many who had not been specially interested in the case before felt an anxiety to hear how he would substantiate the defence he had so boldly and confidently put forth.

To the general eye, however, the appearance of the court-room was much the same as on the previous day. Only to the close observer was it evident that the countenances of the several actors in this exciting drama wore a different expression. Mr. Byrd, who by dint of the most energetic effort had succeeded in procuring his old seat, was one of these, and as he noted the significant change, wished that Hickory had been at his side to note it with him.

The first person he observed was, naturally, the Judge.

Judge Evans, who has been but barely introduced to the reader, was a man of great moral force and discretion. He had occupied his present position for many years, and possessed not only the confidence but the affections of those who came within the sphere of his jurisdiction. The reason for this undoubtedly lay in his sympathetic nature. While never accused of weakness, he so unmistakably retained the feeling heart under the official ermine that it was by no means an uncommon thing for him to show more emotion in uttering a sentence than the man he condemned did in listening to it.

His expression, then, upon this momentous morning was of great significance to Mr. Byrd. In its hopefulness and cheer was written the extent of the effect made upon the unprejudiced mind by the promised defence.

As for Mr. Orcutt himself, no advocate could display a more confident air or prepare to introduce his witnesses with more dignity or quiet assurance. His self-possession was so marked, indeed, that Mr. Byrd, who felt a sympathetic interest in what he knew to be seething in this man’s breast, was greatly surprised, and surveyed, with a feeling almost akin to awe, the lawyer who could so sink all personal considerations in the cause he was trying.

Miss Dare, on the contrary, was in a state of nervous agitation. Though no movement betrayed this, the very force of the restraint she put upon herself showed the extent of her inner excitement.

The prisoner alone remained unchanged. Nothing could shake his steady soul from its composure, not the possibility of death or the prospect of release. He was absolutely imposing in his quiet presence, and Mr. Byrd could not but admire the power of the man even while recoiling from his supposed guilt.

The opening of the defence carried the minds of many back to the inquest. The nice question of time was gone into, and the moment when Mrs. Clemmens was found lying bleeding and insensible at the foot of her dining-room clock, fixed at three or four minutes past noon. The next point to be ascertained was when she received the deadly blow.

And here the great surprise of the defence occurred. Mr. Orcutt rose, and in clear, firm tones said:

“Gouverneur Hildreth, take the stand.”

Instantly, and before the witness could comply, Mr. Ferris was on his feet.

“Who? what?” he cried.

“Gouverneur Hildreth,” repeated Mr. Orcutt.

“Did you know this gentleman has already been in custody upon suspicion of having committed the crime for which the prisoner is now being tried?”

“I do,” returned Mr. Orcutt, with imperturbable sang froid.

“And is it your intention to save your client from the gallows by putting the halter around the neck of the man you now propose to call as a witness?”

“No,” retorted Mr. Orcutt; “I do not propose to put the halter about any man’s neck. That is the proud privilege of my learned and respected opponent.”

With an impatient frown Mr. Ferris sat down, while Mr. Hildreth, who had taken advantage of this short passage of arms between the lawyers to retain his place in the remote corner where he was more or less shielded from the curiosity of the crowd, rose, and, with a slow and painful movement that at once attracted attention to his carefully bandaged throat and the general air of debility which surrounded him, came hesitatingly forward and took his stand in face of the judge and jury.

Necessarily a low murmur greeted him from the throng of interested spectators who saw in this appearance before them of the man who, by no more than a hair’s-breadth, had escaped occupying the position of the prisoner, another of those dramatic incidents with which this trial seemed fairly to bristle.

It was hushed by one look from the Judge, but not before it had awakened in Mr. Hildreth’s weak and sensitive nature those old emotions of shame and rage whose token was a flush so deep and profuse it unconsciously repelled the gaze of all who beheld it. Immediately Mr. Byrd, who sat with bated breath, as it were, so intense was his excitement over the unexpected turn of affairs, recognized the full meaning of the situation, and awarded to Mr. Orcutt all the admiration which his skill in bringing it about undoubtedly deserved. Indeed, as the detective’s quick glance flashed first at the witness, cringing in his old unfortunate way before the gaze of the crowd, and then at the prisoner sitting unmoved and quietly disdainful in his dignity and pride, he felt that, whether Mr. Orcutt succeeded in getting all he wished from his witness, the mere conjunction of these two men before the jury, with the opportunity for comparison between them which it inevitably offered, was the master-stroke of this eminent lawyer’s legal career.

Mr. Ferris seemed to feel the significance of the moment also, for his eyes fell and his brow contracted with a sudden doubt that convinced Mr. Byrd that, mentally, he was on the point of giving up his case.

The witness was at once sworn.

“Orcutt believes Hildreth to be the murderer, or, at least, is willing that others should be impressed with this belief,” was the comment of Byrd to himself at this juncture.

He had surprised a look which had passed between the lawyer and Miss Dare — a look of such piercing sarcasm and scornful inquiry that it might well arrest the detective’s attention and lead him to question the intentions of the man who could allow such an expression of his feelings to escape him.

But whether the detective was correct in his inferences, or whether Mr. Orcutt’s glance at Imogene meant no more than the natural emotion of a man who suddenly sees revealed to the woman he loves the face of him for whose welfare she has expressed the greatest concern and for whose sake, while unknown, she has consented to make the heaviest of sacrifices, the wary lawyer was careful to show neither scorn nor prejudice when he turned toward the witness and began his interrogations.

On the contrary, his manner was highly respectful, if not considerate, and his questions while put with such art as to keep the jury constantly alert to the anomalous position which the witness undoubtedly held, were of a nature mainly to call forth the one fact for which his testimony was presumably desired. This was, his presence in the widow’s house on the morning of the murder, and the fact that he saw her and conversed with her and could swear to her being alive and unhurt up to a few minutes before noon. To be sure, the precise minute of his leaving her in this condition Mr. Orcutt failed to gather from the witness, but, like the coroner at the inquest, he succeeded in eliciting enough to show that the visit had been completed prior to the appearance of the tramp at the widow’s kitchen-door, as it had been begun after the disappearance of the Danton children from the front of the widow’s house.

This fact being established and impressed upon the jury, Mr. Orcutt with admirable judgment cut short his own examination of the witness, and passed him over to the District Attorney, with a grim smile, suggestive of his late taunt, that to this gentleman belonged the special privilege of weaving halters for the necks of unhappy criminals.

Mr. Ferris who understood his adversary’s tactics only too well, but who in his anxiety for the truth could not afford to let such an opportunity for reaching it slip by, opened his cross-examination with great vigor.

The result could not but be favorable to the defence and damaging to the prosecution. The position which Mr. Hildreth must occupy if the prisoner was acquitted, was patent to all understandings, making each and every admission on his part tending to exculpate the latter, of a manifest force and significance.

Mr. Ferris, however, was careful not to exceed his duty or press his inquiries beyond due bounds. The man they were trying was not Gouverneur Hildreth but Craik Mansell, and to press the witness too close, was to urge him into admissions seemingly so damaging to himself as, in the present state of affairs, to incur the risk of distracting attention entirely from the prisoner.

Mr. Hildreth’s examination being at an end, Mr. Orcutt proceeded with his case, by furnishing proof calculated to fix the moment at which Mr. Hildreth had made his call. This was done in much the same way as it was at the inquest. Mrs. Clemmens’ next-door neighbor, Mrs. Danton, was summoned to the stand, and after her her two children, the testimony of the three, taken with Mr. Hildreth’s own acknowledgments, making it very evident to all who listened that he could not have gone into Mrs. Clemmens’ house before a quarter to twelve.

The natural inference followed. Allowing the least possible time for his interview with Mrs. Clemmens, the moment at which the witness swore to having seen her alive and unhurt must have been as late as ten minutes before noon.

Taking pains to impress this time upon the jury, Mr. Orcutt next proceeded to fix the moment at which the prisoner arrived at Monteith Quarry Station. As the fact of his having arrived in time to take the afternoon train to Buffalo had been already proved by the prosecution, it was manifestly necessary only to determine at what hour the train was due, and whether it had come in on time.

The hour was ascertained, by direct consultation with the road’s time-table, to be just twenty minutes past one, and the station-master having been called to the stand, gave it as his best knowledge and belief that the train had been on time.

This, however, not being deemed explicit enough for the purposes of the defence, there was submitted to the jury a telegram bearing the date of that same day, and distinctly stating that the train was on time. This was testified to by the conductor of the train as having been sent by him to the superintendent of the road who was awaiting the cars at Monteith; and was received as evidence and considered as conclusively fixing the hour at which the prisoner arrived at the Quarry Station as twenty minutes past one.

This settled, witnesses were called to testify as to the nature of the path by which he must have travelled from the widow’s house to the station. A chart similar to that Mr. Byrd had drawn, but more explicit and nice in its details, was submitted to the jury by an actual surveyor of the ground; after which, and the establishment of other minor details not necessary to enumerate here, a man of well-known proficiency in running and other athletic sports, was summoned to the stand.

Mr. Byrd, who up to this moment had shared in the interest every where displayed in the defence, now felt his attention wandering. The fact is, he had heard the whistle of the train on which Hickory had promised to return to Sibley, and interesting as was the testimony given by the witness, he could not prevent his eyes from continually turning toward the door by which he expected Hickory to enter.

Strange to say, Mr. Orcutt seemed to take a like interest in that same door, and was more than once detected by Byrd flashing a hurried glance in its direction, as if he, too, were on the look-out for some one.

Meantime the expert in running was saying:

“It took me one hundred and twenty minutes to go over the ground the first time, and one hundred and fifteen minutes the next. I gained five minutes the second time, you see,” he explained, “by knowing my ground better and by saving my strength where it was of no avail to attempt great speed. The last time I made the effort, however, I lost three minutes on my former time. The wood road which I had to take for some distance was deep with mud, and my feet sank with every step. The shortest time, then, which I was able to make in three attempts, was one hundred and fifteen minutes.”

Now, as the time between the striking of the fatal blow and the hour at which the prisoner arrived at the Quarry Station was only ninety minutes, a general murmur of satisfaction followed this announcement. It was only momentary, however, for Mr. Ferris, rising to cross-examine the witness, curiosity prevailed over all lesser emotions, and an immediate silence followed without the intervention of the Court.

“Did you make these three runs from Mrs. Clemmens’ house to Monteith Quarry Station entirely on foot?”

“I did, sir.”

“Was that necessary?”

“Yes, sir; as far as the highway, at least. The path through the woods is not wide enough for a horse, unless it be for that short distance where the Foresters’ Road intervenes.”

“And you ran there?”

“Yes, sir, twice at full speed; the third time I had the experience I have told you of.”

“And how long do you think it took you to go over that especial portion of ground?”

“Five minutes, maybe.”

“And, supposing you had had a horse?”

“Well, sir, if I had had a horse, and if he had been waiting there, all ready for me to jump on his back, and if he had been a good runner and used to the road, I think I could have gone over it in two minutes, if I had not first broken my neck on some of the jagged stones that roughen the road.”

“In other words, you could have saved three minutes if you had been furnished with a horse at that particular spot?”

“Yes, if.”

Mr. Orcutt, whose eye had been fixed upon the door at this particular juncture, now looked back at the witness and hurriedly rose to his feet.

“Has my esteemed friend any testimony on hand to prove that the prisoner had a horse at this place? if he has not, I object to these questions.”

“What testimony I have to produce will come in at its proper time,” retorted Mr. Ferris. “Meanwhile, I think I have a right to put this or any other kind of similar question to the witness.”

The Judge acquiescing with a nod, Mr. Orcutt sat down.

Mr. Ferris went on.

“Did you meet any one on the road during any of these three runs which you made?”

“No, sir. That is, I met no one in the woods. There were one or two persons on the highway the last time I ran over it.”

“Were they riding or walking?”

“Walking.”

Here Mr. Orcutt interposed.

“Did you say that in passing over the highway you ran?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why did you do this? Had you not been told that the prisoner was seen to be walking when he came down the road to the station?”

“Yes, sir. But I was in for time, you see.”

“And you did not make it even with that advantage?”

“No, sir.”

The second expert had the same story to tell, with a few variations. He had made one of his runs in five minutes less than the other had done, but it was by a great exertion that left him completely exhausted when he arrived at the station. It was during his cross-examination that Hickory at last came in.

Horace Byrd, who had been growing very impatient during the last few minutes, happened to be looking at the door when it opened to admit this late comer. So was Mr. Orcutt. But Byrd did not notice this, or Hickory either. If they had, perhaps Hickory would have been more careful to hide his feelings. As it was, he no sooner met his colleague’s eye than he gave a quick, despondent shake of the head in intimation that he had failed.

Mr. Byrd, who had anticipated a different result, was greatly disappointed. His countenance fell and he cast a glance of compassion at Miss Dare, now flushing with a secret but slowly growing hope. The defence, then, was good, and she ran the risk of being interrogated again. It was a prospect from which Mr. Byrd recoiled.

As soon as Hickory got the chance, he made his way to the side of Byrd.

“No go,” was his low but expressive salutation. “One hundred and five minutes is the shortest time in which I can get over the ground, and that by a deuced hard scramble of it too.”

“But that’s five minutes’ gain on the experts,” Byrd whispered.

“Is it? Hope I could gain something on them, but what’s five minutes’ gain in an affair like this? Fifteen is what’s wanted.”

“I know it.”

“And fifteen I cannot make, nor ten either, unless a pair of wings should be given me to carry me over the river.”

“Sure?”

“Sure!”

Here there was some commotion in their vicinity, owing to the withdrawal of the last witness from the stand. Hickory took advantage of the bustle to lean over and whisper in Byrd’s ear:

“Do you know I think I have been watched to-day. There was a fellow concealed in Mrs. Clemmens’ house, who saw me leave it, and who, I have no doubt, took express note of the time I started. And there was another chap hanging round the station at the quarries, whom I am almost sure had no business there unless it was to see at what moment I arrived. He came back to Sibley when I did, but he telegraphed first, and it is my opinion that Orcutt ——”

Here he was greatly startled by hearing his name spoken in a loud and commanding tone of voice. Stopping short, he glanced up, encountered the eye of Mr. Orcutt fixed upon him from the other side of the court-room, and realized he was being summoned to the witness stand.

“The deuce!” he murmured, with a look at Byrd to which none but an artist could do justice.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17