Hand and Ring, by Anna Katharine Green

9. Close Calculations.

Truth alone,

Truth tangible and palpable; such truth

As may be weighed and measured; truth deduced

By logical conclusion — close, severe —

From premises incontrovertible.

Moultrie.

THE excitement induced by the foregoing announcement had, in a degree, subsided. The coroner, who appeared to be as much startled as any one at the result of the day’s proceedings, had manifested his desire of putting certain questions to the young man, and had begun by such inquiries into his antecedents, and his connection with Mrs. Clemmens, as elicited the most complete corroboration of all Miss Firman’s statements.

An investigation into his motives for coming East at this time next followed, in the course of which he acknowledged that he undertook the journey solely for the purpose of seeing Mrs. Clemmens. And when asked why he wished to see her at this time, admitted, with some manifestation of shame, that he desired to see for himself whether she was really in as strong and healthy a condition as he had always been told; his pecuniary embarrassments being such that he could not prevent his mind from dwelling upon possibilities which, under any other circumstances, he would have been ashamed to consider.

“And did you see Mrs. Clemmens?” the coroner inquired.

“Yes, sir; I did.”

“When?”

“On Tuesday, sir; about noon.”

The answer was given almost with bravado, and the silence among the various auditors became intense.

“You admit, then, that you were in the widow’s house the morning she was murdered, and that you had an interview with her a few minutes before the fatal blow was struck?”

“I do.”

There was doggedness in the tone, and doggedness in the look that accompanied it. The coroner moved a little forward in his chair and uttered his next question with deep gravity.

“Did you approach the widow’s house by the road and enter into it by means of the front door overlooking the lane?”

“I did.”

“And did you meet no one in the lane, or see no one at the windows of any of the houses as you came by?”

“No, sir.”

“How long did you stay in this house, and what was the result of the interview which you had with Mrs. Clemmens?”

“I stayed, perhaps, ten minutes, and I learned nothing from Mrs. Clemmens, save that she was well and hearty, and likely to live out her threescore years and ten for all hint that her conversation or appearance gave me.”

He spoke almost with a tone of resentment; his eyes glowed darkly, and a thrill of horror sped through the room as if they felt that the murderer himself stood before them.

“You will tell me what was said in this interview, if you please, and whether the widow knew who you were; and, if so, whether any words of anger passed between you?”

The face of the young man burned, and he looked at the coroner and then at the jurymen, as if he would like to challenge the whole crew, but the color that showed in his face was the flush of shame, or, so thought Mr. Byrd, and in his reply, when he gave it, there was a bitterness of self-scorn that reminded the detective more of the mortification of a gentleman caught in an act of meanness than the secret alarm of a man who had been beguiled into committing a dastardly crime.

“Mrs. Clemmens was evidently a woman of some spirit,” said he, forcing out his words with sullen desperation. “She may have used sharp language; I believe indeed she did; but she did not know who I was, for — for I pretended to be a seller of patent medicine, warranted to cure all ills, and she told me she had no ills, and — and — Do you want a man to disgrace himself in your presence?” he suddenly flashed out, cringing under the gaze of the many curious and unsympathetic eyes fixed upon him.

But the coroner, with a sudden assumption of severity, pardonable, perhaps, in a man with a case of such importance on his hands, recommended the witness to be calm and not to allow any small feelings of personal mortification to interfere with a testimony of so much evident value. And without waiting for the witness to recover himself, asked again:

“What did the widow say, and with what words did you leave?”

“The widow said she abominated drugs, and never took them. I replied that she made a great mistake, if she had any ailments. Upon which she retorted that she had no ailment, and politely showed me the door. I do not remember that any thing else passed between us.”

His tone, which had been shrill and high, dropped at the final sentence, and by the nervous workings of his lips, Mr. Byrd perceived that he dreaded the next question. The persons grouped around him evidently dreaded it too.

But it was less searching than they expected, and proved that the coroner preferred to approach his point by circuitous rather than direct means.

“In what room was the conversation held, and by what door did you come in and go out?”

“I came in by the front door, and we stood in that room”— pointing to the sitting-room from which he had just issued.

“Stood! Did you not sit down?”

“No.”

“Stood all the time, and in that room to which you have just pointed?”

“Yes.”

The coroner drew a deep breath, and looked at the witness long and searchingly. Mr. Hildreth’s way of uttering this word had been any thing but pleasant, and consequently any thing but satisfactory. A low murmur began to eddy through the rooms.

“Gentlemen, silence!” commanded the coroner, venting in this injunction some of the uncomfortable emotion with which he was evidently surcharged; for his next words were spoken in a comparatively quiet voice, though the fixed severity of his eye could have given the witness but little encouragement.

“You say,” he declared, “that in coming through the lane you encountered no one. Was this equally true of your return?”

“Yes, sir; I believe so. I don’t remember. I was not looking up,” was the slightly confused reply.

“You passed, however, through the lane, and entered the main street by the usual path?”

“Yes.”

“And where did you go then?”

“To the depot.”

“Ah!”

“I wished to leave the town. I had done with it.”

“And did you do so, Mr. Hildreth?”

“I did.”

“Where did you go?”

“To Albany, where I had left my traps.”

“You took the noon train, then?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Which leaves precisely five minutes after twelve?”

“I suppose so.”

“Took it without stopping anywhere on the way?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you buy a ticket at the office?”

“No, sir.”

“Why?”

“I did not have time.”

“Ah, the train was at the station, then?”

Mr. Hildreth did not reply; he had evidently been driven almost to the end of his patience, or possibly of his courage, by this quick fire of small questions.

The coroner saw this and pressed his advantage.

“Was the train at the station or not when you arrived there, Mr. Hildreth?”

“I do not see why it can interest you to know,” the witness retorted, with a flash of somewhat natural anger; “but since you insist, I will tell you that it was just going out, and that I had to run to reach it, and only got a foothold upon the platform of the rear car at the risk of my life.”

He looked as if he wished it had been at the cost of his life, and compressed his lips and moved restlessly from side to side as if the battery of eyes levelled upon his face were so many points of red-hot steel burning into his brain.

But the coroner, intent upon his duty, released not one jot of the steady hold he had taken upon his victim.

“Mr. Hildreth,” said he, “your position as the only person who acknowledges himself to have been in this house during the half-hour that preceded the assault, makes every thing you can tell us in reference to your visit of the highest importance. Was the widow alone, do you think, or did you see any thing — pause now and consider well —any thing that would lead you to suppose there was any one beside her and yourself in the house?”

It was the suggestion of a just man, and Mr. Byrd looked to see the witness grasp with all the energy of despair at the prospect of release it held out. But Mr. Hildreth either felt his cause beyond the reach of any such assistance, or his understanding was so dulled by misery he could not see the advantage of acknowledging the presence of a third party in the cottage. Giving a dreary shake of the head, he slowly answered:

“There may have been somebody else in the house, I don’t know; but if so, I didn’t hear him or see him. I thought we were alone.”

The frankness with which he made the admission was in his favor, but the quick and overpowering flush that rose to his face the moment he had given utterance to it, betrayed so unmistakable a consciousness of what the admission implied that the effect was immediately reversed. Seeing that he had lost rather than gained in the opinions of the merciless inquisitors about him, he went back to his old bravado, and haughtily lifted his head.

“One question more,” resumed the coroner. “You have said that Mrs. Clemmens was a spirited woman. Now, what made you think so? Any expression of annoyance on her part at the interruption in her work which your errand had caused her, or merely the expression of her face and the general way she had of speaking?”

“The latter, I think, though she did use a harsh word or two when she showed me the door.”

“And raised her voice?”

“Yes, yes.”

“Mr. Hildreth,” intimated the coroner, rising, “will you be kind enough to step with me into the adjoining room?”

With a look of wonder not unmixed with alarm, the young man prepared to comply.

“I should like the attention of the jury,” Dr. Tredwell signified as he passed through the door.

There was no need to give them this hint. Not a man of them but was already on his feet in eager curiosity as to what their presiding officer was about to do.

“I wish you to tell me now,” the coroner demanded of Mr. Hildreth, as they paused in the centre of the sitting-room, “where it was you stood during your interview with Mrs. Clemmens, and, if possible, take the very position now which you held at that time.”

“There are too many persons here,” the witness objected, visibly rebelling at a request of which he could not guess the full significance.

“The people present will step back,” declared the coroner; “you will have no trouble in taking your stand on the spot you occupied the other day.”

“Here, then!” exclaimed the young man, taking a position near the centre of the room.

“And the widow?”

“Stood there.”

“Facing you?”

“Yes.”

“I see,” intimated the coroner, pointing toward the windows. “Her back was to the yard while you stood with your face toward it.” Then with a quick motion, summoning the witness back into the other room, asked, amid the breathless attention of the crowd, whom this bit of by-play had wrought up to expectation: “Did you observe any one go around to the back door while you stood there, and go away again without attempting to knock?”

Mr. Hildreth knitted his brow and seemed to think.

“Answer,” persisted the coroner; “it is not a question that requires thought.”

“Well, then, I did not,” cried the witness, looking the other directly in the eye, with the first gleam of real manly feeling which he had yet displayed.

“You did not see a tramp come into the yard, walk around to the kitchen door, wait a moment as if hesitating whether he would rap, and then turn and come back again without doing so?”

“No, sir.”

The coroner drew a piece of paper before him and began figuring on it. Earnestly, almost wildly, the young man watched him, drawing a deep breath and turning quite pale as the other paused and looked up.

“Yet,” affirmed the coroner, as if no delay had occurred since he received his last answer, “such a person did approach the house while you were in it, and if you had stood where you say, you must have seen him.”

It was a vital thrust, a relentless presentation of fact, and as such shook the witness out of his lately acquired composure. Glancing hastily about, he sought the assistance of some one both capable and willing to advise him in this crisis, but seeing no one, he made a vigorous effort and called together his own faculties.

“Sir,” he protested, a tremor of undisguised anxiety finding way into his voice, “I do not see how you make that all out. What proof have you that this tramp of which you speak came to the house while I was in it? Could he not have come before? Or, what was better, could he not have come after?”

The ringing tone with which the last question was put startled everybody. No such sounds had issued from his lips before. Had he caught a glimpse of hope, or was he driven to an extremity in his defence that forced him to assert himself? The eyes of Miss Firman and of a few other women began to soften, and even the face of Mr. Byrd betrayed that a change was on the verge of taking place in his feelings.

But the coroner’s look and tone dashed cold water on this young and tender growth of sympathy. Passing over to the witness the paper on which he had been scribbling, he explained with dry significance:

“It is only a matter of subtraction and addition, Mr. Hildreth. You have said that upon quitting this house you went directly to the depot, where you arrived barely in time to jump on the train as it was leaving the station. Now, to walk from this place to the depot at any pace you would be likely to use, would occupy — well, let us say seven minutes. At two minutes before twelve, then, you were still in this house. Well!” he ejaculated, interrupting himself as the other opened his lips, “have you any thing to say?”

“No,” was the dejected and hesitating reply.

The coroner at once resumed:

“But at five minutes before twelve, Mr. Hildreth, the tramp walked into the widow’s yard. Now, allowing only two minutes for your interview with that lady, the conclusion remains that you were in the house when he came up to it. Yet you declare that, although you stood in full view of the yard, you did not see him.”

“You figure closer than an astronomer calculating an eclipse,” burst from the young man’s lips in a flash of that resolution which had for the last few minutes animated him. “How do you know your witnesses have been so exact to a second when they say this and that of the goings and comings you are pleased to put into an arithmetical problem. A minute or two one way or the other would make a sad discrepancy in your calculations, Mr. Coroner.”

“I know it,” assented Dr. Tredwell, quietly ignoring the other’s heat; “but if the jury will remember, there were four witnesses, at least, who testified to the striking of the town clock just as the tramp finally issued from the lane, and one witness, of well-known accuracy in matters of detail, who declared on oath that she had just dropped her eyes from that same clock when she observed the tramp go into the widow’s gate, and that it was five minutes to twelve exactly. But, lest I do seem too nice in my calculations,” the coroner inexorably pursued, “I will take the trouble of putting it another way. At what time did you leave the hotel, Mr. Hildreth?”

“I don’t know,” was the testy response.

“Well, I can tell you,” the coroner assured him. “It was about twenty minutes to twelve, or possibly earlier, but no later. My reason for saying this,” he went on, drawing once more before him the fatal sheet of paper, “is that Mrs. Dayton’s children next door were out playing in front of this house for some few minutes previous to the time the tramp came into the lane. As you did not see them you must have arrived here before they began their game, and that, at the least calculation, would make the time as early as a quarter to twelve.”

“Well,” the fierce looks of the other seemed to say, “and what if it was?”

“Mr. Hildreth,” continued the coroner, “if you were in this house at a quarter to twelve and did not leave it till two minutes before, and the interview was as you say a mere interchange of a dozen words or so, that could not possibly have occupied more than three minutes; where were you during all the rest of the time that must have elapsed after you finished your interview and the moment you left the house?”

It was a knock-down question. This aristocratic-looking young gentleman who had hitherto held himself erect before them, notwithstanding the humiliating nature of the inquiries which had been propounded to him, cringed visibly and bowed his head as if a stroke of vital force had descended upon it. Bringing his fist down on the table near which he stood, he seemed to utter a muttered curse, while the veins swelled on his forehead so powerfully that more than one person present dropped their eyes from a spectacle which bore so distinctly the stamp of guilt.

“You have not answered,” intimated the coroner, after a moment of silent waiting.

“No!” was the loud reply, uttered with a force that startled all present, and made the more timid gaze with some apprehension at his suddenly antagonistic attitude. “It is not pleasant for a gentleman”— he emphasized the word bitterly —“for a gentleman to acknowledge himself caught at a time like this in a decided equivocation. But you have cornered me fairly and squarely, and I am bound to tell the truth. Gentlemen, I did not leave the widow’s house as immediately as I said. I stayed for fully five minutes or so alone in the small hall that leads to the front door. In all probability I was there when the tramp passed by on his way to the kitchen-door, and there when he came back again.” And Mr. Hildreth fixed his eyes on the coroner as if he dared him to push him further.

But Dr. Tredwell had been in his present seat before. Merely confronting the other with that cold official gaze which seems to act like a wall of ice between a witness and the coroner, he said the two words: “What doing?”

The effect was satisfactory. Paling suddenly, Mr. Hildreth dropped his eyes and replied humbly, though with equal laconism, “I was thinking.” But scarcely had the words left his lips, than a fresh flame of feeling started up within him, and looking from juryman to juryman he passionately exclaimed: “You consider that acknowledgment suspicious. You wonder why a man should give a few minutes to thought after the conclusion of an interview that terminated all hope. I wonder at it now myself. I wonder I did not go straight out of the house and rush headlong into any danger that promised an immediate extinction of my life.”

No language could have more forcibly betrayed the real desperation of his mind at the critical moment when the widow’s life hung in the balance. He saw this, perhaps, when it was too late, for the sweat started on his brow, and he drew himself up like a man nerving himself to meet a blow he no longer hoped to avert. One further remark, however, left his lips.

“Whatever I did or of whatever I was thinking, one thing I here declare to be true, and that is, that I did not see the widow again after she left my side and went back to her kitchen in the rear of the house. The hand that struck her may have been lifted while I stood in the hall, but if so, I did not know it, nor can I tell you now who it was that killed her.”

It was the first attempt at direct disavowal which he had made, and it had its effect. The coroner softened a trifle of his austerity, and the jurymen glanced at each other relieved. But the weight of suspicion against this young man was too heavy, and his manner had been too unfortunate, for this effect to last long. Gladly as many would have been to credit this denial, if only for the name he bore and a certain fine aspect of gentlemanhood that surrounded him in spite of his present humiliation, it was no longer possible to do so without question, and he seemed to feel this and do his best to accept the situation with patience.

An inquiry which was put to him at this time by a juryman showed the existent state of feeling against him.

“May I ask,” that individual dryly interrogated, “why you came back to Sibley, after having left it?”

The response came clear and full. Evidently the gravity of his position had at last awakened the latent resources of Mr. Hildreth’s mind.

“I heard of the death of this woman, and my surprise caused me to return.”

“How did you hear of it?”

“Through the newspapers.”

“And you were surprised?”

“I was astounded; I felt as if I had received a blow myself, and could not rest till I had come back where I could learn the full particulars.”

“So, then, it was curiosity that brought you to the inquest to-day?”

“It was.”

The juryman looked at him astonished; so did all the rest. His manner was so changed, his answers so prompt and ringing.

“And what was it,” broke in the coroner, “that led you to register yourself at the hotel under a false name?”

“I scarcely know,” was the answer, given with less fire and some show of embarrassment. “Perhaps I thought that, under the circumstances, it would be better for me not to use my own.”

“In other words, you were afraid?” exclaimed the coroner, with the full impressiveness of his somewhat weighty voice and manner.

It was a word to make the weakest of men start. Mr. Hildreth, who was conspicuous in his own neighborhood for personal if not for moral courage, flushed till it looked as if the veins would burst on his forehead, but he made no other reply than a proud and angry look and a short:

“I was not aware of fear; though, to be sure, I had no premonition of the treatment I should be called upon to suffer here to-day.”

The flash told, the coroner sat as if doubtful, and looked from man to man of the jury as if he would question their feelings on this vital subject. Meantime the full shame of his position settled heavier and heavier upon Mr. Hildreth; his head fell slowly forward, and he seemed to be asking himself how he was to meet the possibly impending ignominy of a direct accusation. Suddenly he drew himself erect, and a gleam shot from his eyes that, for the first time, revealed him as a man of latent pluck and courage.

“Gentlemen,” he began, looking first at the coroner and then at the jury, “you have not said you consider me guilty of this crime, but you evidently harbor the suspicion. I do not wonder; my own words have given me away, and any man would find it difficult to believe in my innocence after what has been testified to in this place. Do not hesitate, then. The shock of finding myself suspected of a horrible murder is passed. I am willing to be arrested. Indeed, after what has here taken place, I not only am willing but even anxious. I want to be tried, if only to prove to the world my complete and entire innocence.”

The effect of this speech, uttered at a moment so critical, may be easily imagined. All the impressible people present at once signified their belief in his honesty, and gave him looks of sympathy, if not approval; while the cooler and possibly the more judicious of his auditors calmly weighed these assertions against the evidence that had been advanced, and finding the result unsatisfactory, shook their heads as if unconvinced, and awaited further developments.

They did not come. The inquiry had reached its climax, and little, if any thing, more was left to be said. Mr. Hildreth was examined more fully, and some few of the witnesses who had been heard in the early part of the day were recalled, but no new facts came to light, and no fresh inquiries were started.

Mr. Byrd, who from the attitude of the coroner could not fail to see Mr. Hildreth was looked upon with a suspicion that would ultimately end in arrest, decided that his interest in the inquest was at an end, and being greatly fatigued, gave up his position at the window and quietly stole away.

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