That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

xii.

The Keys.

We were all by this time greatly interested in the proceedings; and when another hackman was called we recognized at once that an effort was about to be made to connect this couple with the one who had alighted at Mr. Van Burnam’s door.

The witness, who was a melancholy chap, kept his stand on the east side of the Square. At about twenty minutes to twelve, he was awakened from a nap he had been taking on the top of his coach, by a sharp rap on his whip arm, and looking down, he saw a lady and gentleman standing at the door of his vehicle.

“We want to go to Gramercy Park,” said the lady. “Drive us there at once.”

“I nodded, for what is the use of wasting words when it can be avoided; and they stepped at once into the coach.”

“Can you describe them — tell us how they looked?”

“I never notice people; besides, it was dark; but he had a swell air, and she was pert and merry, for she laughed as she closed the door.”

“Can’t you remember how they were dressed?”

“No, sir; she had on something that flapped about her shoulders, and he had a dark hat on his head, but that was all I saw.”

“Didn’t you see his face?”

“Not a bit of it; he kept it turned away. He didn’t want nobody looking at him. She did all the business.”

“Then you saw her face?”

“Yes, for a minute. But I wouldn’t know it again. She was young and purty, and her hand which dropped the money into mine was small, but I couldn’t say no more, not if you was to give me the town.”

“Did you know that the house you stopped at was Mr. Van Burnam’s, and that it was supposed to be empty?”

“No, sir, I’m not one of the swell ones. My acquaintances live in another part of the town.”

“But you noticed that the house was dark?”

“I may have. I don’t know.”

“And that is all you have to tell us about them?”

“No, sir; the next morning, which was yesterday, sir, as I was a-dusting out the coach I found under the cushions a large blue veil, folded and lying very flat. But it had been slit with a knife and could not be worn.”

This was strange too, and while more than one person about me ventured an opinion, I muttered to myself, “James Pope, his mark!” astonished at a coincidence which so completely connected the occupants of the two coaches.

But the Coroner was able to produce a witness whose evidence carried the matter on still farther. A policeman in full uniform testified next, and after explaining that his beat led him from Madison Avenue to Third on Twenty-seventh Street, went on to say that as he was coming up this street on Tuesday evening some few minutes before midnight, he encountered, somewhere between Lexington Avenue and Third, a man and woman walking rapidly towards the latter avenue, each carrying a parcel of some dimensions; that he noted them because they seemed so merry, but would have thought nothing of it, if he had not presently perceived them coming back without the parcels. They were chatting more gaily than ever. The lady wore a short cape, and the gentleman a dark coat, but he could give no other description of their appearance, for they went by rapidly, and he was more interested in wondering what they had done with such large parcels in such a short time at that hour of night, than in noting how they looked or whither they were going. He did observe, however, that they proceeded towards Madison Square, and remembers now that he heard a carriage suddenly drive away from that direction.

The Coroner asked him but one question:

“Had the lady no parcel when you saw her last?”

“I saw none.”

“Could she not have carried one under her cape?”

“Perhaps, if it was small enough.”

“As small as a lady’s hat, say?”

“Well, it would have to be smaller than some of them are now, sir.”

And so terminated this portion of the inquiry.

A short delay followed the withdrawal of this witness. The Coroner, who was a somewhat portly man, and who had felt the heat of the day very much, leaned back and looked anxious, while the jury, always restless, moved in their seats like a set of school-boys, and seemed to long for the hour of adjournment, notwithstanding the interest which everybody but themselves seemed to take in this exciting investigation.

Finally an officer, who had been sent into the adjoining room, came back with a gentleman, who was no sooner recognized as Mr. Franklin Van Burnam than a great change took place in the countenances of all present. The Coroner sat forward and dropped the large palm-leaf fan he had been industriously using for the last few minutes, the jury settled down, and the whispering of the many curious ones about me grew less audible and finally ceased altogether. A gentleman of the family was about to be interrogated, and such a gentleman!

I have purposely refrained from describing this best known and best reputed member of the Van Burnam family, foreseeing this hour when he would attract the attention of a hundred eyes and when his appearance would require our special notice. I will therefore endeavor to picture him to you as he looked on this memorable morning, with just the simple warning that you must not expect me to see with the eyes of a young girl or even with those of a fashionable society woman. I know a man when I see him, and I had always regarded Mr. Franklin as an exceptionally fine-looking and prepossessing gentleman, but I shall not go into raptures, as I heard a girl behind me doing, nor do I feel like acknowledging him as a paragon of all the virtues — as Mrs. Cunningham did that evening in my parlor.

He is a medium-sized man, with a shape not unlike his brother’s. His hair is dark and so are his eyes, but his moustache is brown and his complexion quite fair. He carries himself with distinction, and though his countenance in repose has a precise air that is not perfectly agreeable, it has, when he speaks or smiles, an expression at once keen and amiable.

On this occasion he failed to smile, and though his elegance was sufficiently apparent, his worth was not so much so. Yet the impression generally made was favorable, as one could perceive from the air of respect with which his testimony was received.

He was asked many questions. Some were germane to the matter in hand and some seemed to strike wide of all mark. He answered them all courteously, showing a manly composure in doing so, that served to calm the fever-heat into which many had been thrown by the stories of the two hackmen. But as his evidence up to this point related merely to minor concerns, this was neither strange nor conclusive. The real test began when the Coroner, with a certain bluster, which may have been meant to attract the attention of the jury, now visibly waning, or, as was more likely, may have been the unconscious expression of a secret if hitherto well concealed embarrassment, asked the witness whether the keys to his father’s front door had any duplicates.

The answer came in a decidedly changed tone. “No. The key used by our agent opens the basement door only.”

The Coroner showed his satisfaction. “No duplicates,” he repeated; “then you will have no difficulty in telling us where the keys to your father’s front door were kept during the family’s absence.”

Did the young man hesitate, or was it but imagination on my part —“They were usually in my possession.”

“Usually!” There was irony in the tone; evidently the Coroner was getting the better of his embarrassment, if he had felt any. “And where were they on the seventeenth of this month? Were they in your possession then?”

“No, sir.” The young man tried to look calm and at his ease, but the difficulty he felt in doing so was apparent. “On the morning of that day,” he continued, “I passed them over to my brother.”

Ah! here was something tangible as well as important. I began to fear the police understood themselves only too well; and so did the whole crowd of persons there assembled. A groan in one direction was answered by a sigh in another, and it needed all the Coroner’s authority to prevent an outbreak.

Meanwhile Mr. Van Burnam stood erect and unwavering, though his eye showed the suffering which these demonstrations awakened. He did not turn in the direction of the room where we felt sure his family was gathered, but it was evident that his thoughts did, and that most painfully. The Coroner, on the contrary, showed little or no feeling; he had brought the investigation up to this critical point and felt fully competent to carry it farther.

“May I ask,” said he, “where the transference of these keys took place?”

“I gave them to him in our office last Tuesday morning. He said he might want to go into the house before his father came home.”

“Did he say why he wanted to go into the house?”

“No.”

“Was he in the habit of going into it alone and during the family’s absence?”

“No.”

“Had he any clothes there? or any articles belonging to himself or his wife which he would be likely to wish to carry away?”

“No.”

“Yet he wanted to go in?”

“He said so.”

“And you gave him the keys without question?”

“Certainly, sir.”

“Was that not opposed to your usual principles — to your way of doing things, I should say?”

“Perhaps; but principles, by which I suppose you mean my usual business methods, do not govern me in my relations with my brother. He asked me a favor, and I granted it. It would have to have been a much larger one for me to have asked an explanation from him before doing so.”

“Yet you are not on good terms with your brother; at least you have not had the name of being, for some time?”

“We have had no quarrel.”

“Did he return the keys you lent him?”

“No.”

“Have you seen them since?”

“No.”

“Would you know them if they were shown you?”

“I would know them if they unlocked our front door.”

“But you would not know them on sight?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Mr. Van Burnam, it is disagreeable for me to go into family matters, but if you have had no quarrel with your brother, how comes it that you and he have had so little intercourse of late?”

“He has been in Connecticut and I at Long Branch. Is not that a good answer, sir?”

“Good, but not good enough. You have a common office in New York, have you not?”

“Certainly, the firm’s office.”

“And you sometimes meet there, even while residing in different localities?”

“Yes, our business calls us in at times and then we meet, of course.”

“Do you talk when you meet?”

“Talk?”

“Of other matters besides business, I mean. Are your relations friendly? Do you show the same spirit towards each other as you did three years ago, say?”

“We are older; perhaps we are not quite so voluble.”

“But do you feel the same?”

“No. I see you will have it, and so I will no longer hold back the truth. We are not as brotherly in our intercourse as we used to be; but there is no animosity between us. I have a decided regard for my brother.”

This was said quite nobly, and I liked him for it, but I began to feel that perhaps it had been for the best after all that I had never been intimate with the family. But I must not forestall either events or my opinions.

“Is there any reason”— it is the Coroner, of course, who is speaking —“why there should be any falling off in your mutual confidence? Has your brother done anything to displease you?”

“We did not like his marriage.”

“Was it an unhappy one?”

“It was not a suitable one.”

“Did you know Mrs. Van Burnam well, that you say this?”

“Yes, I knew her, but the rest of the family did not.”

“Yet they shared in your disapprobation?”

“They felt the marriage more than I did. The lady — excuse me, I never like to speak ill of the sex — was not lacking in good sense or virtue, but she was not the person we had a right to expect Howard to marry.”

“And you let him see that you thought so?”

“How could we do otherwise?”

“Even after she had been his wife for some months?”

“We could not like her.”

“Did your brother — I am sorry to press this matter — ever show that he felt your change of conduct towards him?”

“I find it equally hard to answer,” was the quick reply. “My brother is of an affectionate nature, and he has some, if not all, of the family’s pride. I think he did feel it, though he never said so. He is not without loyalty to his wife.”

“Mr. Van Burnam, of whom does the firm doing business under the name of Van Burnam & Sons consist?”

“Of the three persons mentioned.”

“No others?”

“No.”

“Has there ever been in your hearing any threat made by the senior partner of dissolving this firm as it stands?”

“I have heard”— I felt sorry for this strong but far from heartless man, but I would not have stopped the inquiry at this point if I could; I was far too curious —“I have heard my father say that he would withdraw if Howard did not. Whether he would have done so, I consider open to doubt. My father is a just man and never fails to do the right thing, though he sometimes speaks with unnecessary harshness.”

“He made the threat, however?”

“Yes.”

“And Howard heard it?”

“Or of it; I cannot say which.”

“Mr. Van Burnam, have you noticed any change in your brother since this threat was uttered?”

“How, sir; what change?”

“In his treatment of his wife, or in his attitude towards yourself?”

“I have not seen him in the company of his wife since they went to Haddam. As for his conduct towards myself, I can say no more than I have already. We have never forgotten that we are children of one mother.”

“Mr. Van Burnam, how many times have you seen Mrs. Howard Van Burnam?”

“Several. More frequently before they were married than since.”

“You were in your brother’s confidence, then, at that time; knew he was contemplating marriage?”

“It was in my endeavors to prevent the match that I saw so much of Miss Louise Stapleton.”

“Ah! I am glad of the explanation! I was just going to inquire why you, of all members of the family, were the only one to know your brother’s wife by sight.”

The witness, considering this question answered, made no reply. But the next suggestion could not be passed over.

“If you saw Mrs. Van Burnam so often, you are acquainted with her personal appearance?”

“Sufficiently so; as well as I know that of my ordinary calling-acquaintance.”

“Was she light or dark?”

“She had brown hair.”

“Similar to this?”

The lock held up was the one which had been cut from the head of the dead girl.

“Yes, somewhat similar to that.” The tone was cold; but he could not hide his distress.

“Mr. Van Burnam, have you looked well at the woman who was found murdered in your father’s house?”

“I have, sir.”

“Is there anything in her general outline or in such features as have escaped disfigurement to remind you of Mrs. Howard Van Burnam?”

“I may have thought so — at first glance,” he replied, with decided effort.

“And did you change your mind at the second?”

He looked troubled, but answered firmly: “No, I cannot say that I did. But you must not regard my opinion as conclusive,” he hastily added. “My knowledge of the lady was comparatively slight.”

“The jury will take that into account. All we want to know now is whether you can assert from any knowledge you have or from anything to be noted in the body itself, that it is not Mrs. Howard Van Burnam?”

“I cannot.”

And with this solemn assertion his examination closed.

The remainder of the day was taken up in trying to prove a similarity between Mrs. Van Burnam’s handwriting and that of Mrs. James Pope as seen in the register of the Hotel D—— and on the order sent to Altman’s. But the only conclusion reached was that the latter might be the former disguised, and even on this point the experts differed.

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