That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

xiv.

A Serious Admission.

I went at once to a restaurant. I ate because it was time to eat, and because any occupation was welcome that would pass away the hours of waiting. I was troubled; and I did not know what to make of myself. I was no friend to the Van Burnams; I did not like them, and certainly had never approved of any of them but Mr. Franklin, and yet I found myself altogether disturbed over the morning’s developments, Howard’s emotion having appealed to me in spite of my prejudices. I could not but think ill of him, his conduct not being such as I could honestly commend. But I found myself more ready to listen to the involuntary pleadings of my own heart in his behalf than I had been prior to his testimony and its somewhat startling termination.

But they were not through with him yet, and after the longest three hours I ever passed, we were again convened before the Coroner.

I saw Howard as soon as anybody did. He came in, arm in arm as before, with his faithful brother, and sat down in a retired corner behind the Coroner. But he was soon called forward.

His face when the light fell on it was startling to most of us. It was as much changed as if years, instead of hours, had elapsed since last we saw it. No longer reckless in its expression, nor easy, nor politely patient, it showed in its every lineament that he had not only passed through a hurricane of passion, but that the bitterness, which had been its worst feature, had not passed with the storm, but had settled into the core of his nature, disturbing its equilibrium forever. My emotions were not allayed by the sight; but I kept all expression of them out of view. I must be sure of his integrity before giving rein to my sympathies.

The jury moved and sat up quite alert when they saw him. I think that if these especial twelve men could have a murder case to investigate every day, they would grow quite wide-awake in time. Mr. Van Burnam made no demonstration. Evidently there was not likely to be a repetition of the morning’s display of passion. He had been iron in his impassibility at that time, but he was steel now, and steel which had been through the fiercest of fires.

The opening question of the Coroner showed by what experience these fires had been kindled.

“Mr. Van Burnam, I have been told that you have visited the Morgue in the interim which has elapsed since I last questioned you. Is that true?”

“It is.”

“Did you, in the opportunity thus afforded, examine the remains of the woman whose death we are investigating, attentively enough to enable you to say now whether they are those of your missing wife?”

“I have. The body is that of Louise Van Burnam; I crave your pardon and that of the jury for my former obstinacy in refusing to recognize it. I thought myself fully justified in the stand I took. I see now that I was not.”

The Coroner made no answer. There was no sympathy between him and this young man. Yet he did not fail in a decent show of respect; perhaps because he did feel some sympathy for the witness’s unhappy father and brother.

“You then acknowledge the victim to have been your wife?”

“I do.”

“It is a point gained, and I compliment the jury upon it. We can now proceed to settle, if possible, the identity of the person who accompanied Mrs. Van Burnam into your father’s house.”

“Wait,” cried Mr. Van Burnam, with a strange air, “I acknowledge I was that person.”

It was coolly, almost fiercely said, but it was an admission that wellnigh created a hubbub. Even the Coroner seemed moved, and cast a glance at Mr. Gryce which showed his surprise to be greater than his discretion.

“You acknowledge,” he began — but the witness did not let him finish.

“I acknowledge that I was the person who accompanied her into that empty house; but I do not acknowledge that I killed her. She was alive and well when I left her, difficult as it is for me to prove it. It was the realization of this difficulty which made me perjure myself this morning.”

“So,” murmured the Coroner, with another glance at Mr. Gryce, “you acknowledge that you perjured yourself. Will the room be quiet!”

But the lull came slowly. The contrast between the appearance of this elegant young man and the significant admissions he had just made (admissions which to three quarters of the persons there meant more, much more, than he acknowledged), was certainly such as to provoke interest of the deepest kind. I felt like giving rein to my own feelings, and was not surprised at the patience shown by the Coroner. But order was restored at last, and the inquiry proceeded.

“We are then to consider the testimony given by you this morning as null and void?”

“Yes, so far as it contradicts what I have just stated.”

“Ah, then you will no doubt be willing to give us your evidence again?”

“Certainly, if you will be so kind as to question me.”

“Very well; where did your wife and yourself first meet after your arrival in New York?”

“In the street near my office. She was coming to see me, but I prevailed upon her to go uptown.”

“What time was this?”

“After ten and before noon. I cannot give the exact hour.”

“And where did you go?”

“To a hotel on Broadway; you have already heard of our visit there.”

“You are, then, the Mr. James Pope, whose wife registered in the books of the Hotel D—— on the seventeenth of this month?”

“I have said so.”

“And may I ask for what purpose you used this disguise, and allowed your wife to sign a wrong name?”

“To satisfy a freak. She considered it the best way of covering up a scheme she had formed; which was to awaken the interest of my father under the name and appearance of a stranger, and not to inform him who she was till he had given some evidence of partiality for her.”

“Ah, but for such an end was it necessary for her to assume a strange name before she saw your father, and for you both to conduct yourselves in the mysterious way you did all that day and evening?”

“I do not know. She thought so, and I humored her. I was tired of working against her, and was willing she should have her own way for a time.”

“And for this reason you let her fit herself out with clothes down to her very undergarments?”

“Yes; strange as it may seem, I was just such a fool. I had entered into her scheme, and the means she took to change her personality only amused me. She wished to present herself to my father as a girl obliged to work for her living, and was too shrewd to excite suspicion in the minds of any of the family by any undue luxury in her apparel. At least that was the excuse she gave me for the precautions she took, though I think the delight she experienced in anything romantic and unusual had as much to do with it as anything else. She enjoyed the game she was playing, and wished to make as much of it as possible.”

“Were her own garments much richer than those she ordered from Altman’s?”

“Undoubtedly. Mrs. Van Burnam wore nothing made by American seamstresses. Fine clothes were her weakness.”

“I see, I see; but why such an attempt on your part to keep yourself in the background? Why let your wife write your assumed names in the hotel register, for instance, instead of doing it yourself?”

“It was easier for her; I know no other reason. She did not mind putting down the name Pope. I did.”

It was an ungracious reflection upon his wife, and he seemed to feel it so; for he almost immediately added: “A man will sometimes lend himself to a scheme of which the details are obnoxious. It was so in this case; but she was too interested in her plans to be affected by so small a matter as this.”

This explained more than one mysterious action on the part of this pair while they were at the Hotel D——. The Coroner evidently considered it in this light, for he dwelt but little longer on this phase of the case, passing at once to a fact concerning which curiosity had hitherto been roused without receiving any satisfaction.

“In leaving the hotel,” said he, “you and your wife were seen carrying certain packages, which were missing from your arms when you alighted at Mr. Van Burnam’s house. What was in those packages, and where did you dispose of them before you entered the second carriage?”

Howard made no demur in answering.

“My wife’s clothes were in them,” said he, “and we dropped them somewhere on Twenty-seventh Street near Third Avenue, just as we saw an old woman coming along the sidewalk. We knew that she would stop and pick them up, and she did, for we slid into a dark shadow made by a projecting stoop and watched her. Is that too simple a method for disposing of certain encumbering bundles, to be believed, sir?”

“That is for the jury to decide,” answered the Coroner, stiffly. “But why were you so anxious to dispose of these articles? Were they not worth some money, and would it not have been simpler and much more natural to have left them at the hotel till you chose to send for them? That is, if you were simply engaged in playing, as you say, a game upon your father, and not upon the whole community?”

“Yes,” Mr. Van Burnam acknowledged, “that would have been the natural thing, no doubt; but we were not following natural instincts at the time, but a woman’s bizarre caprices. We did as I said; and laughed long, I assure you, over its unqualified success; for the old woman not only grabbed the packages with avidity, but turned and fled away with them, just as if she had expected this opportunity and had prepared herself to make the most of it.”

“It was very laughable, certainly,” observed the Coroner, in a hard voice. “You must have found it very ridiculous”; and after giving the witness a look full of something deeper than sarcasm, he turned towards the jury as if to ask them what they thought of these very forced and suspicious explanations.

But they evidently did not know what to think, and the Coroner’s looks flew back to the witness who of all the persons present seemed the least impressed by the position in which he stood.

“Mr. Van Burnam,” said he, “you showed a great deal of feeling this morning at being confronted with your wife’s hat. Why was this, and why did you wait till you saw this evidence of her presence on the scene of death to acknowledge the facts you have been good enough to give us this afternoon?”

“If I had a lawyer by my side, you would not ask me that question, or if you did, I would not be allowed to answer it. But I have no lawyer here, and so I will say that I was greatly shocked by the catastrophe which had happened to my wife, and under the stress of my first overpowering emotions had the impulse to hide the fact that the victim of so dreadful a mischance was my wife. I thought that if no connection was found between myself and this dead woman, I would stand in no danger of the suspicion which must cling to the man who came into the house with her. But like most first impulses, it was a foolish one and gave way under the strain of investigation. I, however, persisted in it as long as possible, partially because my disposition is an obstinate one, and partially because I hated to acknowledge myself a fool; but when I saw the hat, and recognized it as an indisputable proof of her presence in the Van Burnam house that night, my confidence in the attempt I was making broke down all at once. I could deny her shape, her hands, and even the scar, which she might have had in common with other women, but I could not deny her hat. Too many persons had seen her wear it.”

But the Coroner was not to be so readily imposed upon.

“I see, I see,” he repeated with great dryness, “and I hope the jury will be satisfied. And they probably will, unless they remember the anxiety which, according to your story, was displayed by your wife to have her whole outfit in keeping with her appearance as a working girl. If she was so particular as to think it necessary to dress herself in store-made undergarments, why make all these precautions void by carrying into the house a hat with the name of an expensive milliner inside it?”

“Women are inconsistent, sir. She liked the hat and hated to part with it. She thought she could hide it somewhere in the great house, at least that was what she said to me when she tucked it under her cape.”

The Coroner, who evidently did not believe one word of this, stared at the witness as if curiosity was fast taking the place of indignation. And I did not wonder. Howard Van Burnam, as thus presented to our notice by his own testimony, was an anomaly, whether we were to believe what he was saying at the present time or what he had said during the morning session. But I wished I had had the questioning of him.

His next answer, however, opened up one dark place into which I had been peering for some time without any enlightenment. It was in reply to the following query:

“All this,” said the Coroner, “is very interesting; but what explanation have you to give for taking your wife into your father’s empty house at an hour so late, and then leaving her to spend the best part of the dark night alone?”

“None,” said he, “that will strike you as sensible and judicious. But we were not sensible that night, neither were we judicious, or I would not be standing here trying to explain what is not explainable by any of the ordinary rules of conduct. She was set upon being the first to greet my father on his entrance into his own home, and her first plan had been to do so in her own proper character as my wife, but afterwards the freak took her, as I have said, to personify the housekeeper whom my father had cabled us to have in waiting at his house — a cablegram which had reached us too late for any practical use, and which we had therefore ignored — and fearing he might come early in the morning, before she could be on hand to make the favorable impression she intended, she wished to be left in the house that night; and I humored her. I did not foresee the suffering that my departure might cause her, or the fears that were likely to spring from her lonely position in so large and empty a dwelling. Or rather, I should say, she did not foresee them; for she begged me not to stay with her, when I hinted at the darkness and dreariness of the place, saying that she was too jolly to feel fear or think of anything but the surprise my father and sisters would experience in discovering that their very agreeable young housekeeper was the woman they had so long despised.”

“And why,” persisted the Coroner, edging forward in his interest and so allowing me to catch a glimpse of Mr. Gryce’s face as he too leaned forward in his anxiety to hear every word that fell from this remarkable witness — “why do you speak of her fear? What reason have you to think she suffered apprehension after your departure?”

“Why?” echoed the witness, as if astounded by the other’s lack of perspicacity. “Did she not kill herself in a moment of terror and discouragement? Leaving her, as I did, in a condition of health and good spirits, can you expect me to attribute her death to any other cause than a sudden attack of frenzy caused by terror?”

“Ah!” exclaimed the Coroner in a suspicious tone, which no doubt voiced the feelings of most people present; “then you think your wife committed suicide?”

“Most certainly,” replied the witness, avoiding but two pairs of eyes in the whole crowd, those of his father and brother.

With a hat-pin,” continued the Coroner, letting his hitherto scarcely suppressed irony become fully visible in voice and manner, “thrust into the back of her neck at a spot young ladies surely would have but little reason to know is peculiarly fatal! Suicide! when she was found crushed under a pile of bric-à-brac, which was thrown down or fell upon her hours after she received the fatal thrust!”

“I do not know how else she could have died,” persisted the witness, calmly, “unless she opened the door to some burglar. And what burglar would kill a woman in that way, when he could pound her with his fists? No; she was frenzied and stabbed herself in desperation; or the thing was done by accident, God knows how! And as for the testimony of the experts — we all know how easily the wisest of them can be mistaken even in matters of as serious import as these. If all the experts in the world”— here his voice rose and his nostrils dilated till his aspect was actually commanding and impressed us all like a sudden transformation —“If all the experts in the world were to swear that those shelves were thrown upon her after she had lain therefor four hours dead, I would not believe them. Appearances or no appearances, blood or no blood, I here declare that she pulled that cabinet over in her death-struggle; and upon the truth of this fact I am ready to rest my honor as a man and my integrity as her husband.”

An uproar immediately followed, amid which could be heard cries of “He lies!” “He’s a fool!” The attitude taken by the witness was so unexpected that the most callous person present could not fail to be affected by it. But curiosity is as potent a passion as surprise, and in a few minutes all was still again and everybody intent to hear how the Coroner would answer these asseverations.

“I have heard of a blind man denying the existence of light,” said that gentleman, “but never before of a sensible being like yourself urging the most untenable theories in face of such evidence as has been brought before us during this inquiry. If your wife committed suicide, or if the entrance of the point of a hat-pin into her spine was effected by accident, how comes the head of the pin to have been found so many feet away from her and in such a place as the parlor register?”

“It may have flown there when it broke, or, what is much more probable, been kicked there by some of the many people who passed in and out of the room between the time of her death and that of its discovery.”

“But the register was found closed,” urged the Coroner. “Was it not, Mr. Gryce?”

That person thus appealed to, rose for an instant.

“It was,” said he, and deliberately sat down again.

The face of the witness, which had been singularly free from expression since his last vehement outbreak, clouded over for an instant and his eye fell as if he felt himself engaged in an unequal struggle. But he recovered his courage speedily, and quietly observed:

“The register may have been closed by a passing foot. I have known of stranger coincidences than that.”

“Mr. Van Burnam,” asked the Coroner, as if weary of subterfuges and argument, “have you considered the effect which this highly contradictory evidence of yours is likely to have on your reputation?”

“I have.”

“And are you ready to accept the consequences?”

“If any especial consequences follow, I must accept them, sir.”

“When did you lose the keys which you say you have not now in your possession? This morning you asserted that you did not know; but perhaps this afternoon you may like to modify that statement.”

“I lost them after I left my wife shut up in my father’s house.”

“Soon?”

“Very soon.”

“How soon?”

“Within an hour, I should judge.”

“How do you know it was so soon?”

“I missed them at once.”

“Where were you when you missed them?”

“I don’t know; somewhere. I was walking the streets, as I have said. I don’t remember just where I was when I thrust my hands into my pocket and found the keys gone.”

“You do not?”

“No.”

“But it was within an hour after leaving the house?”

“Yes.”

“Very good; the keys have been found.”

The witness started, started so violently that his teeth came together with a click loud enough to be heard over the whole room.

“Have they?” said he, with an effort at nonchalance which, however, failed to deceive any one who noticed his change of color. “You can tell me, then, where I lost them.”

“They were found,” said the Coroner, “in their usual place above your brother’s desk in Duane Street.”

“Oh!” murmured the witness, utterly taken aback or appearing so. “I cannot account for their being found in the office. I was so sure I dropped them in the street.”

“I did not think you could account for it,” quietly observed the Coroner. And without another word he dismissed the witness, who staggered to a seat as remote as possible from the one where he had previously been sitting between his father and brother.

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