That Affair Next Door, by Anna Katherine Green



My cook had prepared for me a most excellent dinner, thinking that I needed all the comfort possible after a day of such trying experiences. But I ate little of it; my thoughts were too busy, my mind too much exercised. What would be the verdict of the jury, and could this especial jury be relied upon to give a just verdict?

At seven I had left the table and was shut up in my own room. I could not rest till I had fathomed my own mind in regard to the events of the day.

The question — the great question, of course, now — was how much of Howard’s testimony was to be believed, and whether he was, notwithstanding his asseverations to the contrary, the murderer of his wife. To most persons the answer seemed easy. From the expression of such people as I had jostled in leaving the court-room, I judged that his sentence had already been passed in the minds of most there present. But these hasty judgments did not influence me. I hope I look deeper than the surface, and my mind would not subscribe to his guilt, notwithstanding the bad impression made upon me by his falsehoods and contradictions.

Now why would not my mind subscribe to it? Had sentiment got the better of me, Amelia Butterworth, and was I no longer capable of looking a thing squarely in the face? Had the Van Burnams, of all people in the world, awakened my sympathies at the cost of my good sense, and was I disposed to see virtue in a man in whom every circumstance as it came to light revealed little but folly and weakness? The lies he had told — for there is no other word to describe his contradictions — would have been sufficient under most circumstances to condemn a man in my estimation. Why, then, did I secretly look for excuses to his conduct?

Probing the matter to the bottom, I reasoned in this way: The latter half of his evidence was a complete contradiction of the first, purposely so. In the first, he made himself out a cold-hearted egotist with not enough interest in his wife to make an effort to determine whether she and the murdered woman were identical; in the latter, he showed himself in the light of a man influenced to the point of folly by a woman to whom he had been utterly unyielding a few hours before.

Now, knowing human nature to be full of contradictions, I could not satisfy myself that I should be justified in accepting either half of his testimony as absolutely true. The man who is all firmness one minute may be all weakness the next, and in face of the calm assertions made by this one when driven to bay by the unexpected discoveries of the police, I dared not decide that his final assurances were altogether false, and that he was not the man I had seen enter the adjoining house with his wife.

Why, then, not carry the conclusion farther and admit, as reason and probability suggested, that he was also her murderer; that he had killed her during his first visit and drawn the shelves down upon her in the second? Would not this account for all the phenomena to be observed in connection with this otherwise unexplainable affair? Certainly, all but one — one that was perhaps known to nobody but myself, and that was the testimony given by the clock. It said that the shelves fell at five, whereas, according to Mr. Stone’s evidence, it was four, or thereabouts, when Mr. Van Burnam left his father’s house. But the clock might not have been a reliable witness. It might have been set wrong, or it might not have been running at all at the time of the accident. No, it would not do for me to rely too much upon anything so doubtful, nor did I; yet I could not rid myself of the conviction that Howard spoke the truth when he declared in face of Coroner and jury that they could not connect him with this crime; and whether this conclusion sprang from sentimentality or intuition, I was resolved to stick to it for the present night at least. The morrow might show its futility, but the morrow had not come.

Meanwhile, with this theory accepted, what explanation could be given of the very peculiar facts surrounding this woman’s death? Could the supposition of suicide advanced by Howard before the Coroner be entertained for a moment, or that equally improbable suggestion of accident?

Going to my bureau drawer, I drew out the old grocer-bill which has already figured in these pages, and re-read the notes I had scribbled on its back early in the history of this affair. They related, if you will remember, to this very question, and seemed even now to answer it in a more or less convincing way. Will you pardon me if I transcribe these notes again, as I cannot imagine my first deliberations on this subject to have made a deep enough impression for you to recall them without help from me.

The question raised in these notes was threefold, and the answers, as you will recollect, were transcribed before the cause of death had been determined by the discovery of the broken pin in the dead woman’s brain.

These are the queries:

First: was her death due to accident?

Second: was it effected by her own hand?

Third: was it a murder?

The replies given are in the form of reasons, as witness:

My reasons for not thinking it an accident.

1. If it had been an accident, and she had pulled the cabinet over upon herself,* she would have been found with her feet pointing towards the wall where the cabinet had stood. But her feet were towards the door and her head under the cabinet.

* As was asserted by her husband in his sworn examination.

2. The precise arrangement of the clothing about her feet, which precluded any theory involving accident.

My reason for not thinking it a suicide.

She could not have been found in the position observed without having lain down on the floor while living, and then pulled the shelves down upon herself. (A theory obviously too improbable to be considered.)

My reason for not thinking it murder.

She would need to have been held down on the floor while the cabinet was being pulled over on her, a thing which the quiet aspect of the hands and feet make appear impossible. (Very good, but we know now that she was dead when the shelves fell over, so that my one excuse for not thinking it a murder is rendered null.)

My reasons for thinking it a murder.

—— But I will not repeat these. My reasons for not thinking it an accident or a suicide remained as good as when they were written, and if her death had not been due to either of these causes, then it must have been due to some murderous hand. Was that hand the hand of her husband? I have already given it as my opinion that it was not.

Now, how to make that opinion good, and reconcile me again to myself; for I am not accustomed to have my instincts at war with my judgment. Is there any reason for my thinking as I do? Yes, the manliness of man. He only looked well when he was repelling the suspicion he saw in the surrounding faces. But that might have been assumed, just as his careless manner was assumed during the early part of the inquiry. I must have some stronger reason than this for my belief. The two hats? Well, he had explained how there came to be two hats on the scene of crime, but his explanation had not been very satisfactory. I had seen no hat in her hand when she crossed the pavement to her father’s house. But then she might have carried it under her cape without my seeing it — perhaps. The discovery of two hats and of two pairs of gloves in Mr. Van Burnam’s parlors was a fact worth further investigation, and mentally I made a note of it, though at the moment I saw no prospect of engaging in this matter further than my duties as a witness required.

And now what other clue was offered me, save the one I have already mentioned as being given by the clock? None that I could seize upon; and feeling the weakness of the cause I had so obstinately embraced, I rose from my seat at the tea-table and began making such alterations in my toilet as would prepare me for the evening and my inevitable callers.

“Amelia,” said I to myself, as I encountered my anything but satisfied reflection in the glass, “can it be that you ought, after all, to have been called Araminta? Is a momentary display of spirit on the part of a young man of doubtful principles, enough to make you forget the dictates of good sense which have always governed you up to this time?”

The stern image which confronted me from the mirror made me no reply, and smitten with sudden disgust, I left the glass and went below to greet some friends who had just ridden up in their carriage.

They remained one hour, and they discussed one subject: Howard Van Burnam and his probable connection with the crime which had taken place next door. But though I talked some and listened more, as is proper for a woman in her own house, I said nothing and heard nothing which had not been already said and heard in numberless homes that night. Whatever thoughts I had which in any way differed from those generally expressed, I kept to myself — whether guided by discretion or pride, I cannot say; probably by both, for I am not deficient in either quality.

Arrangements had already been made for the burial of Mrs. Van Burnam that night, and as the funeral ceremony was to take place next door, many of my guests came just to sit in my windows and watch the coming and going of the few people invited to the ceremony.

But I discouraged this. I have no patience with idle curiosity. Consequently by nine I was left alone to give the affair such real attention as it demanded; something which, of course, I could not have done with a half dozen gossiping friends leaning over my shoulder.


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