That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green

xv.

A Reluctant Witness.

A pause of decided duration now followed; an exasperating pause which tried even me, much as I pride myself upon my patience. There seemed to be some hitch in regard to the next witness. The Coroner sent Mr. Gryce into the neighboring room more than once, and finally, when the general uneasiness seemed on the point of expressing itself by a loud murmur, a gentleman stepped forth, whose appearance, instead of allaying the excitement, renewed it in quite an unprecedented and remarkable way.

I did not know the person thus introduced.

He was a handsome man, a very handsome man, if the truth must be told, but it did not seem to be this fact which made half the people there crane their heads to catch a glimpse of him. Something else, something entirely disconnected with his appearance there as a witness, appeared to hold the people enthralled and waken a subdued enthusiasm which showed itself not only in smiles, but in whispers and significant nudges, chiefly among the women, though I noticed that the jurymen stared when somebody obliged them with the name of this new witness. At last it reached my ears, and though it awakened in me also a decided curiosity, I restrained all expression of it, being unwilling to add one jot to this ridiculous display of human weakness.

Randolph Stone, as the intended husband of the rich Miss Althorpe, was a figure of some importance in the city, and while I was very glad of this opportunity of seeing him, I did not propose to lose my head or forget, in the marked interest his person invoked, the very serious cause which had brought him before us. And yet I suppose no one in the room observed his figure more minutely.

He was elegantly made and possessed, as I have said, a face of peculiar beauty. But these were not his only claims to admiration. He was a man of undoubted intelligence and great distinction of manner. The intelligence did not surprise me, knowing, as I did, how he had raised himself to his present enviable position in society in the short space of five years. But the perfection of his manner astonished me, though how I could have expected anything less in a man honored by Miss Althorpe’s regard, I cannot say. He had that clear pallor of complexion which in a smooth-shaven face is so impressive, and his voice when he spoke had that music in it which only comes from great cultivation and a deliberate intent to please.

He was a friend of Howard’s, that I saw by the short look that passed between them when he first entered the room; but that it was not as a friend he stood there was apparent from the state of amazement with which the former recognized him, as well as from the regret to be seen underlying the polished manner of the witness himself. Though perfectly self-possessed and perfectly respectful, he showed by every means possible the pain he felt in adding one feather-weight to the evidence against a man with whom he was on terms of more or less intimacy.

But let me give his testimony. Having acknowledged that he knew the Van Burnam family well, and Howard in particular, he went on to state that on the night of the seventeenth he had been detained at his office by business of a more than usual pressing nature, and finding that he could expect no rest for that night, humored himself by getting off the cars at Twenty-first Street instead of proceeding on to Thirty-third Street, where his apartments were.

The smile which these words caused (Miss Althorpe lives in Twenty-first Street) woke no corresponding light on his face. Indeed, he frowned at it, as if he felt that the gravity of the situation admitted of nothing frivolous or humorsome. And this feeling was shared by Howard, for he started when the witness mentioned Twenty-first Street, and cast him a haggard look of dismay which happily no one saw but myself, for every one else was concerned with the witness. Or should I except Mr. Gryce?

“I had of course no intentions beyond a short stroll through this street previous to returning to my home,” continued the witness, gravely; “and am sorry to be obliged to mention this freak of mine, but find it necessary in order to account for my presence there at so unusual an hour.”

“You need make no apologies,” returned the Coroner. “Will you state on what line of cars you came from your office?”

“I came up Third Avenue.”

“Ah! and walked towards Broadway?”

“Yes.”

“So that you necessarily passed very near the Van Burnam mansion?”

“Yes.”

“At what time was this, can you say?”

“At four, or nearly four. It was half-past three when I left my office.”

“Was it light at that hour? Could you distinguish objects readily?”

“I had no difficulty in seeing.”

“And what did you see? Anything amiss at the Van Burnam mansion?”

“No, sir, nothing amiss. I merely saw Howard Van Burnam coming down the stoop as I went by the corner.”

“You made no mistake. It was the gentleman you name, and no other whom you saw on this stoop at this hour?”

“I am very sure that it was he. I am sorry ——”

But the Coroner gave him no opportunity to finish.

“You and Mr. Van Burnam are friends, you say, and it was light enough for you to recognize each other; then you probably spoke?”

“No, we did not. I was thinking — well of other, things,” and here he allowed the ghost of a smile to flit suggestively across his firm-set lips. “And Mr. Van Burnam seemed preoccupied also, for, as far as I know, he did not even look my way.”

“And you did not stop?”

“No, he did not look like a man to be disturbed.”

“And this was at four on the morning of the eighteenth?”

“At four.”

“You are certain of the hour and of the day?”

“I am certain. I should not be standing here if I were not very sure of my memory. I am sorry,” he began again, but he was stopped as peremptorily as before by the Coroner.

“Feeling has no place in an inquiry like this.” And the witness was dismissed.

Mr. Stone, who had manifestly given his evidence under compulsion, looked relieved at its termination. As he passed back to the room from which he had come, many only noticed the extreme elegance of his form and the proud cast of his head, but I saw more than these. I saw the look of regret he cast at his friend Howard.

A painful silence followed his withdrawal, then the Coroner spoke to the jury:

“Gentlemen, I leave you to judge of the importance of this testimony. Mr. Stone is a well-known man of unquestionable integrity, but perhaps Mr. Van Burnam can explain how he came to visit his father’s house at four o’clock in the morning on that memorable night, when according to his latest testimony he left his wife there at twelve. We will give him the opportunity.”

“There is no use,” began the young man from the place where he sat. But gathering courage even while speaking, he came rapidly forward, and facing Coroner and jury once more, said with a false kind of energy that imposed upon no one:

“I can explain this fact, but I doubt if you will accept my explanation. I was at my father’s house at that hour, but not in it. My restlessness drove me back to my wife, but not finding the keys in my pocket, I came down the stoop again and went away.”

“Ah, I see now why you prevaricated this morning in regard to the time when you missed those keys.”

“I know that my testimony is full of contradictions.”

“You feared to have it known that you were on the stoop of your father’s house for the second time that night?”

“Naturally, in face of the suspicion I perceived everywhere about me.”

“And this time you did not go in?”

“No.”

“Nor ring the bell?”

“No.”

“Why not, if you left your wife within, alive and well?”

“I did not wish to disturb her. My purpose was not strong enough to surmount the least difficulty. I was easily deterred from going where I had little wish to be.”

“So that you merely went up the stoop and down again at the time Mr. Stone saw you?”

“Yes, and if he had passed a minute sooner he would have seen this: seen me go up, I mean, as well as seen me come down. I did not linger long in the doorway.”

“But you did linger there a moment?”

“Yes; long enough to hunt for the keys and get over my astonishment at not finding them.”

“Did you notice Mr. Stone going by on Twenty-first Street?”

“No.”

“Was it as light as Mr. Stone has said?”

“Yes, it was light.”

“And you did not notice him?”

“No.”

“Yet you must have followed very closely behind him?”

“Not necessarily. I went by the way of Twentieth Street, sir. Why, I do not know, for my rooms are uptown. I do not know why I did half the things I did that night.”

“I can readily believe it,” remarked the Coroner.

Mr. Van Burnam’s indignation rose.

“You are trying,” said he, “to connect me with the fearful death of my wife in my father’s lonely house. You cannot do it, for I am as innocent of that death as you are, or any other person in this assemblage. Nor did I pull those shelves down upon her as you would have this jury think, in my last thoughtless visit to my father’s door. She died according to God’s will by her own hand or by means of some strange and unaccountable accident known only to Him. And so you will find, if justice has any place in these investigations and a manly intelligence be allowed to take the place of prejudice in the breasts of the twelve men now sitting before me.”

And bowing to the Coroner, he waited for his dismissal, and receiving it, walked back not to his lonely corner, but to his former place between his father and brother, who received him with a wistful air and strange looks of mingled hope and disbelief.

“The jury will render their verdict on Monday morning,” announced the Coroner, and adjourned the inquiry.

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