That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

x.

Important Evidence.

Evidently not; for the next words I heard were: “Miss Amelia Butterworth!”

I had not expected to be called so soon, and was somewhat flustered by the suddenness of the summons, for I am only human. But I rose with suitable composure, and passed to the place indicated by the Coroner, in my usual straightforward manner, heightened only by a sense of the importance of my position, both as a witness and a woman whom the once famous Mr. Gryce had taken more or less into his confidence.

My appearance seemed to awaken an interest for which I was not prepared. I was just thinking how well my name had sounded uttered in the sonorous tones of the Coroner, and how grateful I ought to be for the courage I had displayed in substituting the genteel name of Amelia for the weak and sentimental one of Araminta, when I became conscious that the eyes directed towards me were filled with an expression not easy to understand. I should not like to call it admiration and will not call it amusement, and yet it seemed to be made up of both. While I was puzzling myself over it, the first question came.

As my examination before the Coroner only brought out the facts already related, I will not burden you with a detailed account of it. One portion alone may be of interest. I was being questioned in regard to the appearance of the couple I had seen entering the Van Burnam mansion, when the Coroner asked if the young woman’s step was light, or if it betrayed hesitation.

I replied: “No hesitation; she moved quickly, almost gaily.”

“And he?”

“Was more moderate; but there is no signification in that; he may have been older.”

“No theories, Miss Butterworth; it is facts we are after. Now, do you know that he was older?”

“No, sir.”

“Did you get any idea as to his age?”

“The impression he made was that of being a young man.”

“And his height?”

“Was medium, and his figure slight and elegant. He moved as a gentleman moves; of this I can speak with great positiveness.”

“Do you think you could identify him, Miss Butterworth, if you should see him?”

I hesitated, as I perceived that the whole swaying mass eagerly awaited my reply. I even turned my head because I saw others doing so; but I regretted this when I found that I, as well as others, was glancing towards the door beyond which the Van Burnams were supposed to sit. To cover up the false move I had made — for I had no wish as yet to centre suspicion upon anybody — I turned my face quickly back to the crowd and declared in as emphatic a tone as I could command:

“I have thought I could do so if I saw him under the same circumstances as those in which my first impression was made. But lately I have begun to doubt even that. I should never dare trust to my memory in this regard.”

The Coroner looked disappointed, and so did the people around me.

“It is a pity,” remarked the Coroner, “that you did not see more plainly. And, now, how did these persons gain an entrance into the house?”

I answered in the most succinct way possible.

I told them how he had used a door-key in entering, of the length of time the man stayed inside, and of his appearance on going away. I also related how I came to call a policeman to investigate the matter next day, and corroborated the statements of this official as to the appearance of the deceased at time of discovery.

And there my examination stopped. I was not asked any questions tending to bring out the cause of the suspicion I entertained against the scrub-woman, nor were the discoveries I had made in conjunction with Mr. Gryce inquired into. It was just as well, perhaps, but I would never approve of a piece of work done for me in this slipshod fashion.

A recess now followed. Why it was thought necessary, I cannot imagine, unless the gentlemen wished to smoke. Had they felt as much interest in this murder as I did, they would not have wanted bite or sup till the dreadful question was settled. There being a recess, I improved the opportunity by going into a restaurant near by where one can get very good buns and coffee at a reasonable price. But I could have done without them.

The next witness, to my astonishment, was Mr. Gryce. As he stepped forward, heads were craned and many women rose in their seats to get a glimpse of the noted detective. I showed no curiosity myself, for by this time I knew his features well, but I did feel a great satisfaction in seeing him before the Coroner, for now, thought I, we shall hear something worth our attention.

But his examination, though interesting, was not complete. The Coroner, remembering his promise to show us the other end of the steel point which had been broken off in the dead girl’s brain, limited himself to such inquiries as brought out the discovery of the broken hat-pin in Mr. Van Burnam’s parlor register. No mention was made by the witness of any assistance which he may have received in making this discovery; a fact which caused me to smile: men are so jealous of any interference in their affairs.

The end found in the register and the end which the Coroner’s physician had drawn from the poor woman’s head were both handed to the jury, and it was interesting to note how each man made his little effort to fit the two ends together, and the looks they interchanged as they found themselves successful. Without doubt, and in the eyes of all, the instrument of death had been found. But what an instrument!

The felt hat which had been discovered under the body was now produced and the one hole made by a similar pin examined. Then Mr. Gryce was asked if any other pin had been picked up from the floor of the room, and he replied, no; and the fact was established in the minds of all present that the young woman had been killed by a pin taken from her own hat.

“A subtle and cruel crime; the work of a calculating intellect,” was the Coroner’s comment as he allowed the detective to sit down. Which expression of opinion I thought reprehensible, as tending to prejudice the jury against the only person at present suspected.

The inquiry now took a turn. The name of Miss Ferguson was called. Who was Miss Ferguson? It was a new name to most of us, and her face when she rose only added to the general curiosity. It was the plainest face imaginable, yet it was neither a bad nor unintelligent one. As I studied it and noted the nervous contraction that disfigured her lip, I could not but be sensible of my blessings. I am not handsome myself, though there have been persons who have called me so, but neither am I ugly, and in contrast to this woman — well, I will say nothing. I only know that, after seeing her, I felt profoundly grateful to a kind Providence.

As for the poor woman herself, she knew she was no beauty, but she had become so accustomed to seeing the eyes of other people turn away from her face, that beyond the nervous twitching of which I have spoken, she showed no feeling.

“What is your full name, and where do you live?” asked the Coroner.

“My name is Susan Ferguson, and I live in Haddam, Connecticut,” was her reply, uttered in such soft and beautiful tones that every one was astonished. It was like a stream of limpid water flowing from a most unsightly-looking rock. Excuse the metaphor; I do not often indulge.

“Do you keep boarders?”

“I do; a few, sir; such as my house will accommodate.”

“Whom have you had with you this summer?”

I knew what her answer would be before she uttered it; so did a hundred others, but they showed their knowledge in different ways. I did not show mine at all.

“I have had with me,” said she, “a Mr. and Mrs. Van Burnam from New York. Mr. Howard Van Burnam is his full name, if you wish me to be explicit.”

“Any one else?”

“A Mr. Hull, also from New York, and a young couple from Hartford. My house accommodates no more.”

“How long have the first mentioned couple been with you?”

“Three months. They came in June.”

“Are they with you still?”

“Virtually, sir. They have not moved their trunks; but neither of them is in Haddam at present. Mrs. Van Burnam came to New York last Monday morning, and in the afternoon her husband also left, presumably for New York. I have seen nothing of either of them since.”

(It was on Tuesday night the murder occurred.)

“Did either of them take a trunk?”

“No, sir.”

“A hand-bag?”

“Yes; Mrs. Van Burnam carried a bag, but it was a very small one.”

“Large enough to hold a dress?”

“O no, sir.”

“And Mr. Van Burnam?”

“He carried an umbrella; I saw nothing else.”

“Why did they not leave together? Did you hear any one say?”

“Yes; I heard them say Mrs. Van Burnam came against her husband’s wishes. He did not want her to leave Haddam, but she would, and he was none too pleased at it. Indeed they had words about it, and as both our rooms overlook the same veranda, I could not help hearing some of their talk.”

“Will you tell us what you heard?”

“It does not seem right” (thus this honest woman spoke), “but if it’s the law, I must not go against it. I heard him say these words: ‘I have changed my mind, Louise. The more I think of it, the more disinclined I am to have you meddle in the matter. Besides, it will do no good. You will only add to the prejudice against you, and our life will become more unbearable than it is now.’”

“Of what were they speaking?”

“I do not know.”

“And what did she reply?”

“O, she uttered a torrent of words that had less sense in them than feeling. She wanted to go, she would go, she had not changed her mind, and considered that her impulses were as well worth following as his cool judgment. She was not happy, had never been happy, and meant there should be a change, even if it were for the worse. But she did not believe it would be for the worse. Was she not pretty? Was she not very pretty when in distress and looking up thus? And I heard her fall on her knees, a movement which called out a grunt from her husband, but whether this was an expression of approval or disapproval I cannot say. A silence followed, during which I caught the sound of his steady tramping up and down the room. Then she spoke again in a petulant way. ‘It may seem foolish to you’ she cried, ‘knowing me as you do, and being used to seeing me in all my moods. But to him it will be a surprise, and I will so manage it that it will effect all we want, and more, too, perhaps. I— I have a genius for some things, Howard; and my better angel tells me I shall succeed.’”

“And what did he reply to that?”

“That the name of her better angel was Vanity; that his father would see through her blandishments; that he forbade her to prosecute her schemes; and much more to the same effect. To all of which she answered by a vigorous stamp of her foot, and the declaration that she was going to do what she thought best in spite of all opposition; that it was a lover, and not a tyrant that she had married, and that if he did not know what was good for himself, she did, and that when he received an intimation from his father that the breach in the family was closed, then he would acknowledge that if she had no fortune and no connections, she had at least a plentiful supply of wit. Upon which he remarked: ‘A poor qualification when it verges upon folly!’ which seemed to close the conversation, for I heard no more till the sound of her skirts rustling past my door assured me she had carried her point and was leaving the house. But this was not done without great discomfiture to her husband, if one may judge from the few brief but emphatic words that escaped him before he closed his own door and followed her down the hall.”

“Do you remember those words?”

“They were swear words, sir; I am sorry to say it, but he certainly cursed her and his own folly. Yet I always thought he loved her.”

“Did you see her after she passed your door?”

“Yes, sir, on the walk outside.”

“Was she then on the way to the train?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Carrying the bag of which you have spoken?”

“Yes, sir; another proof of the state of feeling between them, for he was very considerate in his treatment of ladies, and I never saw him do anything ungallant before.”

“You say you watched her as she went down the walk?”

“Yes, sir; it is human nature, sir; I have no other excuse to offer.”

It was an apology I myself might have made. I conceived a liking for this homely matter-of-fact woman.

“Did you note her dress?”

“Yes, sir; that is human nature also, or, rather, woman’s nature.”

“Particularly, madam; so that you can describe it to the jury before you?”

“I think so.”

“Will you, then, be good enough to tell us what sort of a dress Mrs. Van Burnam wore when she left your house for the city?”

“It was a black and white plaid silk, very rich ——”

Why, what did this mean? We had all expected a very different description.

“It was made fashionably, and the sleeves — well, it is impossible to describe the sleeves. She wore no wrap, which seemed foolish to me, for we have very sudden changes sometimes in September.”

“A plaid dress! And did you notice her hat?”

“O, I have seen the hat often. It was of every conceivable color. It would have been called bad taste at one time, but now-a-days ——”

The pause was significant. More than one man in the room chuckled, but the women kept a discreet silence.

“Would you know that hat if you saw it?”

“I should think I would!”

The emphasis was that of a countrywoman, and amused some people notwithstanding the melodious tone in which it was uttered. But it did not amuse me; my thoughts had flown to the hat which Mr. Gryce had found in the third room of Mr. Van Burnam’s house, and which was of every color of the rainbow.

The Coroner asked two other questions, one in regard to the gloves worn by Mrs. Van Burnam, and the other in regard to her shoes. To the first, Miss Ferguson replied that she did not notice her gloves, and to the other, that Mrs. Van Burnam was very fashionable, and as pointed shoes were the fashion, in cities at least, she probably wore pointed shoes.

The discovery that Mrs. Van Burnam had been differently dressed on that day from the young woman found dead in the Van Burnam parlors, had acted as a shock upon most of the spectators. They were just beginning to recover from it when Miss Ferguson sat down. The Coroner was the only one who had not seemed at a loss. Why, we were soon destined to know.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37