“For this relief much thanks.”
HAVE you ever observed the effect of the sunlight bursting suddenly upon the earth from behind a mass of heavily surcharged clouds? If so, you can have some idea of the sensation produced in that room by the entrance of these two beautiful ladies. Possessed of a loveliness which would have been conspicuous in all places and under all circumstances, Mary, at least, if not her less striking, though by no means less interesting cousin, could never have entered any assemblage without drawing to herself the wondering attention of all present. But, heralded as here, by the most fearful of tragedies, what could you expect from a collection of men such as I have already described, but overmastering wonder and incredulous admiration? Nothing, perhaps, and yet at the first murmuring sound of amazement and satisfaction, I felt my soul recoil in disgust.
Making haste to seat my now trembling companion in the most retired spot I could find, I looked around for her cousin. But Eleanore Leavenworth, weak as she had appeared in the interview above, showed at this moment neither hesitation nor embarrassment. Advancing upon the arm of the detective, whose suddenly assumed air of persuasion in the presence of the jury was anything but reassuring, she stood for an instant gazing calmly upon the scene before her. Then bowing to the coroner with a grace and condescension which seemed at once to place him on the footing of a politely endured intruder in this home of elegance, she took the seat which her own servants hastened to procure for her, with an ease and dignity that rather recalled the triumphs of the drawing-room than the self-consciousness of a scene such as that in which we found ourselves. Palpable acting, though this was, it was not without its effect. Instantly the murmurs ceased, the obtrusive glances fell, and something like a forced respect made itself visible upon the countenances of all present. Even I, impressed as I had been by her very different demeanor in the room above, experienced a sensation of relief; and was more than startled when, upon turning to the lady at my side, I beheld her eyes riveted upon her cousin with an inquiry in their depths that was anything but encouraging. Fearful of the effect this look might have upon those about us, I hastily seized her hand which, clenched and unconscious, hung over the edge of her chair, and was about to beseech her to have care, when her name, called in a slow, impressive way by the coroner, roused her from her abstraction. Hurriedly withdrawing her gaze from her cousin, she lifted her face to the jury, and I saw a gleam pass over it which brought back my early fancy of the pythoness. But it passed, and it was with an expression of great modesty she settled herself to respond to the demand of the coroner and answer the first few opening inquiries.
But what can express the anxiety of that moment to me? Gentle as she now appeared, she was capable of great wrath, as I knew. Was she going to reiterate her suspicions here? Did she hate as well as mistrust her cousin? Would she dare assert in this presence, and before the world, what she found it so easy to utter in the privacy of her own room and the hearing of the one person concerned? Did she wish to? Her own countenance gave me no clue to her intentions, and, in my anxiety, I turned once more to look at Eleanore. But she, in a dread and apprehension I could easily understand, had recoiled at the first intimation that her cousin was to speak, and now sat with her face covered from sight, by hands blanched to an almost deathly whiteness.
The testimony of Mary Leavenworth was short. After some few questions, mostly referring to her position in the house and her connection with its deceased master, she was asked to relate what she knew of the murder itself, and of its discovery by her cousin and the servants.
Lifting up a brow that seemed never to have known till now the shadow of care or trouble, and a voice that, whilst low and womanly, rang like a bell through the room, she replied:
“You ask me, gentlemen, a question which I cannot answer of my own personal knowledge. I know nothing of this murder, nor of its discovery, save what has come to me through the lips of others.”
My heart gave a bound of relief, and I saw Eleanore Leavenworth’s hands drop from her brow like stone, while a flickering gleam as of hope fled over her face, and then died away like sunlight leaving marble.
“For, strange as it may seem to you,” Mary earnestly continued, the shadow of a past horror revisiting her countenance, “I did not enter the room where my uncle lay. I did not even think of doing so; my only impulse was to fly from what was so horrible and heartrending. But Eleanore went in, and she can tell you ——”
“We will question Miss Eleanore Leavenworth later,” interrupted the coroner, but very gently for him. Evidently the grace and elegance of this beautiful woman were making their impression. “What we want to know is what you saw. You say you cannot tell us of anything that passed in the room at the time of the discovery?”
“Only what occurred in the hall?”
“Nothing occurred in the hall,” she innocently remarked.
“Did not the servants pass in from the hall, and your cousin come out there after her revival from her fainting fit?”
Mary Leavenworth’s violet eyes opened wonderingly.
“Yes, sir; but that was nothing.”
“You remember, however, her coming into the hall?”
“With a paper in her hand?”
“Paper?” and she wheeled suddenly and looked at her cousin. “Did you have a paper, Eleanore?”
The moment was intense. Eleanore Leavenworth, who at the first mention of the word paper had started perceptibly, rose to her feet at this naive appeal, and opening her lips, seemed about to speak, when the coroner, with a strict sense of what was regular, lifted his hand with decision, and said:
“You need not ask your cousin, Miss; but let us hear what you have to say yourself.”
Immediately, Eleanore Leavenworth sank back, a pink spot breaking out on either cheek; while a slight murmur testified to the disappointment of those in the room, who were more anxious to have their curiosity gratified than the forms of law adhered to.
Satisfied with having done his duty, and disposed to be easy with so charming a witness, the coroner repeated his question. “Tell us, if you please, if you saw any such thing in her hand?”
“I? Oh, no, no; I saw nothing.”
Being now questioned in relation to the events of the previous night, she had no new light to throw upon the subject. She acknowledged her uncle to have been a little reserved at dinner, but no more so than at previous times when annoyed by some business anxiety.
Asked if she had seen her uncle again that evening, she said no, that she had been detained in her room. That the sight of him, sitting in his seat at the head of the table, was the very last remembrance she had of him.
There was something so touching, so forlorn, and yet so unobtrusive, in this simple recollection of hers, that a look of sympathy passed slowly around the room.
I even detected Mr. Gryce softening towards the inkstand. But Eleanore Leavenworth sat unmoved.
“Was your uncle on ill terms with any one?” was now asked. “Had he valuable papers or secret sums of money in his possession?”
To all these inquiries she returned an equal negative.
“Has your uncle met any stranger lately, or received any important letter during the last few weeks, which might seem in any way to throw light upon this mystery?”
There was the slightest perceptible hesitation in her voice, as she replied: “No, not to my knowledge; I don’t know of any such.” But here, stealing a side glance at Eleanore, she evidently saw something that reassured her, for she hastened to add:
“I believe I may go further than that, and meet your question with a positive no. My uncle was in the habit of confiding in me, and I should have known if anything of importance to him had occurred.”
Questioned in regard to Hannah, she gave that person the best of characters; knew of nothing which could have led either to her strange disappearance, or to her connection with crime. Could not say whether she kept any company, or had any visitors; only knew that no one with any such pretensions came to the house. Finally, when asked when she had last seen the pistol which Mr. Leavenworth always kept in his stand drawer, she returned, not since the day he bought it; Eleanore, and not herself, having the charge of her uncle’s apartments.
It was the only thing she had said which, even to a mind freighted like mine, would seem to point to any private doubt or secret suspicion; and this, uttered in the careless manner in which it was, would have passed without comment if Eleanore herself had not directed at that moment a very much aroused and inquiring look upon the speaker.
But it was time for the inquisitive juror to make himself heard again. Edging to the brink of the chair, he drew in his breath, with a vague awe of Mary’s beauty, almost ludicrous to see, and asked if she had properly considered what she had just said.
“I hope, sir, I consider all I am called upon to say at such a time as this,” was her earnest reply.
The little juror drew back, and I looked to see her examination terminate, when suddenly his ponderous colleague of the watch-chain, catching the young lady’s eye, inquired:
“Miss Leavenworth, did your uncle ever make a will?”
Instantly every man in the room was in arms, and even she could not prevent the slow blush of injured pride from springing to her cheek. But her answer was given firmly, and without any show of resentment.
“Yes, sir,” she returned simply.
“More than one?”
“I never heard of but one.”
“Are you acquainted with the contents of that will?”
“I am. He made no secret of his intentions to any one.”
The juryman lifted his eye-glass and looked at her. Her grace was little to him, or her beauty or her elegance. “Perhaps, then, you can tell me who is the one most likely to be benefited by his death?”
The brutality of this question was too marked to pass unchallenged. Not a man in that room, myself included, but frowned with sudden disapprobation. But Mary Leavenworth, drawing herself up, looked her interlocutor calmly in the face, and restrained herself to say:
“I know who would be the greatest losers by it. The children he took to his bosom in their helplessness and sorrow; the young girls he enshrined with the halo of his love and protection, when love and protection were what their immaturity most demanded; the women who looked to him for guidance when childhood and youth were passed — these, sir, these are the ones to whom his death is a loss, in comparison to which all others which may hereafter befall them must ever seem trivial and unimportant.”
It was a noble reply to the basest of insinuations, and the juryman drew back rebuked; but here another of them, one who had not spoken before, but whose appearance was not only superior to the rest, but also almost imposing in its gravity, leaned from his seat and in a solemn voice said:
“Miss Leavenworth, the human mind cannot help forming impressions. Now have you, with or without reason, felt at any time conscious of a suspicion pointing towards any one person as the murderer of your uncle?”
It was a frightful moment. To me and to one other, I am sure it was not only frightful, but agonizing. Would her courage fail? would her determination to shield her cousin remain firm in the face of duty and at the call of probity? I dared not hope it.
But Mary Leavenworth, rising to her feet, looked judge and jury calmly in the face, and, without raising her voice, giving it an indescribably clear and sharp intonation, replied:
“No; I have neither suspicion nor reason for any. The assassin of my uncle is not only entirely unknown to, but completely unsuspected by, me.”
It was like the removal of a stifling pressure. Amid a universal outgoing of the breath, Mary Leavenworth stood aside and Eleanore was called in her place.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55