“O dark, dark, dark!”
AND now that the interest was at its height, that the veil which shrouded this horrible tragedy seemed about to be lifted, if not entirely withdrawn, I felt a desire to fly the scene, to leave the spot, to know no more. Not that I was conscious of any particular fear of this woman betraying herself. The cold steadiness of her now fixed and impassive countenance was sufficient warranty in itself against the possibility of any such catastrophe. But if, indeed, the suspicions of her cousin were the offspring, not only of hatred, but of knowledge; if that face of beauty was in truth only a mask, and Eleanore Leavenworth was what the words of her cousin, and her own after behavior would seem to imply, how could I bear to sit there and see the frightful serpent of deceit and sin evolve itself from the bosom of this white rose! And yet, such is the fascination of uncertainty that, although I saw something of my own feelings reflected in the countenances of many about me, not a man in all that assemblage showed any disposition to depart, I least of all.
The coroner, upon whom the blonde loveliness of Mary had impressed itself to Eleanor’s apparent detriment, was the only one in the room who showed himself unaffected at this moment. Turning toward the witness with a look which, while respectful, had a touch of austerity in it, he began:
“You have been an intimate of Mr. Leavenworth’s family from childhood, they tell me, Miss Leavenworth?”
“From my tenth year,” was her quiet reply.
It was the first time I had heard her voice, and it surprised me; it was so like, and yet so unlike, that of her cousin. Similar in tone, it lacked its expressiveness, if I may so speak; sounding without vibration on the ear, and ceasing without an echo.
“Since that time you have been treated like a daughter, they tell me?”
“Yes, sir, like a daughter, indeed; he was more than a father to both of us.”
“You and Miss Mary Leavenworth are cousins, I believe. When did she enter the family?”
“At the same time I did. Our respective parents were victims of the same disaster. If it had not been for our uncle, we should have been thrown, children as we were, upon the world. But he”— here she paused, her firm lips breaking into a half tremble —“but he, in the goodness of his heart, adopted us into his family, and gave us what we had both lost, a father and a home.”
“You say he was a father to you as well as to your cousin — that he adopted you. Do you mean by that, that he not only surrounded you with present luxury, but gave you to understand that the same should be secured to you after his death; in short, that he intended to leave any portion of his property to you?”
“No, sir; I was given to understand, from the first, that his property would be bequeathed by will to my cousin.”
“Your cousin was no more nearly related to him than yourself, Miss Leavenworth; did he never give you any reason for this evident partiality?”
“None but his pleasure, sir.”
Her answers up to this point had been so straightforward and satisfactory that a gradual confidence seemed to be taking the place of the rather uneasy doubts which had from the first circled about this woman’s name and person. But at this admission, uttered as it was in a calm, unimpassioned voice, not only the jury, but myself, who had so much truer reason for distrusting her, felt that actual suspicion in her case must be very much shaken before the utter lack of motive which this reply so clearly betokened.
Meanwhile the coroner continued: “If your uncle was as kind to you as you say, you must have become very much attached to him?”
“Yes, sir,” her mouth taking a sudden determined curve.
“His death, then, must have been a great shock to you?”
“Very, very great.”
“Enough of itself to make you faint away, as they tell me you did, at the first glimpse you had of his body?”
“And yet you seemed to be prepared for it?”
“The servants say you were much agitated at finding your uncle did not make his appearance at the breakfast table.”
“The servants!” her tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of her mouth; she could hardly speak.
“That when you returned from his room you were very pale.”
Was she beginning to realize that there was some doubt, if not actual suspicion, in the mind of the man who could assail her with questions like these? I had not seen her so agitated since that one memorable instant up in her room. But her mistrust, if she felt any, did not long betray itself. Calming herself by a great effort, she replied, with a quiet gesture —
“That is not so strange. My uncle was a very methodical man; the least change in his habits would be likely to awaken our apprehensions.”
“You were alarmed, then?”
“To a certain extent I was.”
“Miss Leavenworth, who is in the habit of overseeing the regulation of your uncle’s private apartments?”
“I am, sir.”
“You are doubtless, then, acquainted with a certain stand in his room containing a drawer?”
“How long is it since you had occasion to go to this drawer?”
“Yesterday,” visibly trembling at the admission.
“At what time?”
“Near noon, I should judge.”
“Was the pistol he was accustomed to keep there in its place at the time?”
“I presume so; I did not observe.”
“Did you turn the key upon closing the drawer?”
“Take it out?”
“Miss Leavenworth, that pistol, as you have perhaps observed, lies on the table before you. Will you look at it?” And lifting it up into view, he held it towards her.
If he had meant to startle her by the sudden action, he amply succeeded. At the first sight of the murderous weapon she shrank back, and a horrified, but quickly suppressed shriek, burst from her lips. “Oh, no, no!” she moaned, flinging out her hands before her.
“I must insist upon your looking at it, Miss Leavenworth,” pursued the coroner. “When it was found just now, all the chambers were loaded.”
Instantly the agonized look left her countenance. “Oh, then —” She did not finish, but put out her hand for the weapon.
But the coroner, looking at her steadily, continued: “It has been lately fired off, for all that. The hand that cleaned the barrel forgot the cartridge-chamber, Miss Leavenworth.”
She did not shriek again, but a hopeless, helpless look slowly settled over her face, and she seemed about to sink; but like a flash the reaction came, and lifting her head with a steady, grand action I have never seen equalled, she exclaimed, “Very well, what then?”
The coroner laid the pistol down; men and women glanced at each other; every one seemed to hesitate to proceed. I heard a tremulous sigh at my side, and, turning, beheld Mary Leavenworth staring at her cousin with a startled flush on her cheek, as if she began to recognize that the public, as well as herself, detected something in this woman, calling for explanation.
At last the coroner summoned up courage to continue.
“You ask me, Miss Leavenworth, upon the evidence given, what then? Your question obliges me to say that no burglar, no hired assassin, would have used this pistol for a murderous purpose, and then taken the pains, not only to clean it, but to reload it, and lock it up again in the drawer from which he had taken it.”
She did not reply to this; but I saw Mr. Gryce make a note of it with that peculiar emphatic nod of his.
“Nor,” he went on, even more gravely, “would it be possible for any one who was not accustomed to pass in and out of Mr. Leavenworth’s room at all hours, to enter his door so late at night, procure this pistol from its place of concealment, traverse his apartment, and advance as closely upon him as the facts show to have been necessary, without causing him at least to turn his head to one side; which, in consideration of the doctor’s testimony, we cannot believe he did.”
It was a frightful suggestion, and we looked to see Eleanore Leavenworth recoil. But that expression of outraged feeling was left for her cousin to exhibit. Starting indignantly from her seat, Mary cast one hurried glance around her, and opened her lips to speak; but Eleanore, slightly turning, motioned her to have patience, and replied in a cold and calculating voice: “You are not sure, sir, that this was done. If my uncle, for some purpose of his own, had fired the pistol off yesterday, let us say — which is surely possible, if not probable — the like results would be observed, and the same conclusions drawn.”
“Miss Leavenworth,” the coroner went on, “the ball has been extracted from your uncle’s head!”
“It corresponds with those in the cartridges found in his stand drawer, and is of the number used with this pistol.”
Her head fell forward on her hands; her eyes sought the floor; her whole attitude expressed disheartenment. Seeing it, the coroner grew still more grave.
“Miss Leavenworth,” said he, “I have now some questions to put you concerning last night. Where did you spend the evening?”
“Alone, in my own room.”
“You, however, saw your uncle or your cousin during the course of it?”
“No, sir; I saw no one after leaving the dinner table — except Thomas,” she added, after a moment’s pause.
“And how came you to see him?”
“He came to bring me the card of a gentleman who called.”
“May I ask the name of the gentleman?”
“The name on the card was Mr. Le Roy Robbins.”
The matter seemed trivial; but the sudden start given by the lady at my side made me remember it.
“Miss Leavenworth, when seated in your room, are you in the habit of leaving your door open?”
A startled look at this, quickly suppressed. “Not in the habit; no, sir.”
“Why did you leave it open last night?”
“I was feeling warm.”
“No other reason?”
“I can give no other.”
“When did you close it?”
“Was that before or after the servants went up?”
“Did you hear Mr. Harwell when he left the library and ascended to his room?”
“I did, sir.”
“How much longer did you leave your door open after that?”
“I— I— a few minutes — a — I cannot say,” she added, hurriedly.
“Cannot say? Why? Do you forget?”
“I forget just how long after Mr. Harwell came up I closed it.”
“Was it more than ten minutes?”
“More than twenty?”
“Perhaps.” How pale her face was, and how she trembled!
“Miss Leavenworth, according to evidence, your uncle came to his death not very long after Mr. Harwell left him. If your door was open, you ought to have heard if any one went to his room, or any pistol shot was fired. Now, did you hear anything?”
“I heard no confusion; no, sir.”
“Did you hear anything?”
“Nor any pistol shot.”
“Miss Leavenworth, excuse my persistence, but did you hear anything?”
“I heard a door close.”
“The library door.”
“I do not know.” She clasped her hands hysterically. “I cannot say. Why do you ask me so many questions?”
I leaped to my feet; she was swaying, almost fainting. But before I could reach her, she had drawn herself up again, and resumed her former demeanor. “Excuse me,” said she; “I am not myself this morning. I beg your pardon,” and she turned steadily to the coroner. “What was it you asked?”
“I asked,” and his voice grew thin and high — evidently her manner was beginning to tell against her — “when it was you heard the library door shut?”
“I cannot fix the precise time, but it was after Mr. Harwell came up, and before I closed my own.”
“And you heard no pistol shot?”
The coroner cast a quick look at the jury, who almost to a man glanced aside as he did so.
“Miss Leavenworth, we are told that Hannah, one of the servants, started for your room late last night after some medicine. Did she come there?”
“When did you first learn of her remarkable disappearance from this house during the night?”
“This morning before breakfast. Molly met me in the hall, and asked how Hannah was. I thought the inquiry a strange one, and naturally questioned her. A moment’s talk made the conclusion plain that the girl was gone.”
“What did you think when you became assured of this fact?”
“I did not know what to think.”
“No suspicion of foul play crossed your mind?”
“You did not connect the fact with that of your uncle’s murder?”
“I did not know of this murder then.”
“Oh, some thought of the possibility of her knowing something about it may have crossed my mind; I cannot say.”
“Can you tell us anything of this girl’s past history?”
“I can tell you no more in regard to it than my cousin has done.”
“Do you not know what made her sad at night?”
Her cheek flushed angrily; was it at his tone, or at the question itself? “No, sir! she never confided her secrets to my keeping.”
“Then you cannot tell us where she would be likely to go upon leaving this house?”
“Miss Leavenworth, we are obliged to put another question to you. We are told it was by your order your uncle’s body was removed from where it was found, into the next room.”
She bowed her head.
“Didn’t you know it to be improper for you or any one else to disturb the body of a person found dead, except in the presence and under the authority of the proper officer?”
“I did not consult my knowledge, sir, in regard to the subject: only my feelings.”
“Then I suppose it was your feelings which prompted you to remain standing by the table at which he was murdered, instead of following the body in and seeing it properly deposited? Or perhaps,” he went on, with relentless sarcasm, “you were too much interested, just then, in the piece of paper you took away, to think much of the proprieties of the occasion?”
“Paper?” lifting her head with determination. “Who says I took a piece of paper from the table?”
“One witness has sworn to seeing you bend over the table upon which several papers lay strewn; another, to meeting you a few minutes later in the hall just as you were putting a piece of paper into your pocket. The inference follows, Miss Leavenworth.”
This was a home thrust, and we looked to see some show of agitation, but her haughty lip never quivered.
“You have drawn the inference, and you must prove the fact.”
The answer was stateliness itself, and we were not surprised to see the coroner look a trifle baffled; but, recovering himself, he said:
“Miss Leavenworth, I must ask you again, whether you did or did not take anything from that table?”
She folded her arms. “I decline answering the question,” she quietly said.
“Pardon me,” he rejoined: “it is necessary that you should.”
Her lip took a still more determined curve. “When any suspicious paper is found in my possession, it will be time enough then for me to explain how I came by it.”
This defiance seemed to quite stagger the coroner.
“Do you realize to what this refusal is liable to subject you?”
She dropped her head. “I am afraid that I do; yes, sir.”
Mr. Gryce lifted his hand, and softly twirled the tassel of the window curtain.
“And you still persist?”
She absolutely disdained to reply.
The coroner did not press it further.
It had now become evident to all, that Eleanore Leavenworth not only stood on her defence, but was perfectly aware of her position, and prepared to maintain it. Even her cousin, who until now had preserved some sort of composure, began to show signs of strong and uncontrollable agitation, as if she found it one thing to utter an accusation herself, and quite another to see it mirrored in the countenances of the men about her.
“Miss Leavenworth,” the coroner continued, changing the line of attack, “you have always had free access to your uncle’s apartments, have you not?”
“Might even have entered his room late at night, crossed it and stood at his side, without disturbing him sufficiently to cause him to turn his head?”
“Yes,” her hands pressing themselves painfully together.
“Miss Leavenworth, the key to the library door is missing.”
She made no answer.
“It has been testified to, that previous to the actual discovery of the murder, you visited the door of the library alone. Will you tell us if the key was then in the lock?”
“It was not.”
“Are you certain?”
“Now, was there anything peculiar about this key, either in size or shape?”
She strove to repress the sudden terror which this question produced, glanced carelessly around at the group of servants stationed at her back, and trembled. “It was a little different from the others,” she finally acknowledged.
“In what respect?”
“The handle was broken.”
“Ah, gentlemen, the handle was broken!” emphasized the coroner, looking towards the jury.
Mr. Gryce seemed to take this information to himself, for he gave another of his quick nods.
“You would, then, recognize this key, Miss Leavenworth, if you should see it?”
She cast a startled look at him, as if she expected to behold it in his hand; but, seeming to gather courage at not finding it produced, replied quite easily:
“I think I should, sir.”
The coroner seemed satisfied, and was about to dismiss the witness when Mr. Gryce quietly advanced and touched him on the arm. “One moment,” said that gentleman, and stooping, he whispered a few words in the coroner’s ear; then, recovering himself, stood with his right hand in his breast pocket and his eye upon the chandelier.
I scarcely dared to breathe. Had he repeated to the coroner the words he had inadvertently overheard in the hall above? But a glance at the latter’s face satisfied me that nothing of such importance had transpired. He looked not only tired, but a trifle annoyed.
“Miss Leavenworth,” said he, turning again in her direction; “you have declared that you did not visit your uncle’s room last evening. Do you repeat the assertion?”
He glanced at Mr. Gryce, who immediately drew from his breast a handkerchief curiously soiled. “It is strange, then, that your handkerchief should have been found this morning in that room.”
The girl uttered a cry. Then, while Mary’s face hardened into a sort of strong despair, Eleanore tightened her lips and coldly replied, “I do not see as it is so very strange. I was in that room early this morning.”
“And you dropped it then?”
A distressed blush crossed her face; she did not reply.
“Soiled in this way?” he went on.
“I know nothing about the soil. What is it? let me see.”
“In a moment. What we now wish, is to know how it came to be in your uncle’s apartment.”
“There are many ways. I might have left it there days ago. I have told you I was in the habit of visiting his room. But first, let me see if it is my handkerchief.” And she held out her hand.
“I presume so, as I am told it has your initials embroidered in the corner,” he remarked, as Mr. Gryce passed it to her.
But she with horrified voice interrupted him. “These dirty spots! What are they? They look like —”
“— what they are,” said the coroner. “If you have ever cleaned a pistol, you must know what they are, Miss Leavenworth.”
She let the handkerchief fall convulsively from her hand, and stood staring at it, lying before her on the floor. “I know nothing about it, gentlemen,” she said. “It is my handkerchief, but —” for some cause she did not finish her sentence, but again repeated, “Indeed, gentlemen, I know nothing about it!”
This closed her testimony.
Kate, the cook, was now recalled, and asked to tell when she last washed the handkerchief?
“This, sir; this handkerchief? Oh, some time this week, sir,” throwing a deprecatory glance at her mistress.
“Well, I wish I could forget, Miss Eleanore, but I can’ t. It is the only one like it in the house. I washed it day before yesterday.”
“When did you iron it?”
“Yesterday morning,” half choking over the words.
“And when did you take it to her room?”
The cook threw her apron over her head. “Yesterday afternoon, with the rest of the clothes, just before dinner. Indade, I could not help it, Miss Eleanore!” she whispered; “it was the truth.”
Eleanore Leavenworth frowned. This somewhat contradictory evidence had very sensibly affected her; and when, a moment later, the coroner, having dismissed the witness, turned towards her, and inquired if she had anything further to say in the way of explanation or otherwise, she threw her hands up almost spasmodically, slowly shook her head and, without word or warning, fainted quietly away in her chair.
A commotion, of course, followed, during which I noticed that Mary did not hasten to her cousin, but left it for Molly and Kate to do what they could toward her resuscitation. In a few moments this was in so far accomplished that they were enabled to lead her from the room. As they did so, I observed a tall man rise and follow her out.
A momentary silence ensued, soon broken, however, by an impatient stir as our little juryman rose and proposed that the jury should now adjourn for the day. This seeming to fall in with the coroner’s views, he announced that the inquest would stand adjourned till three o’clock the next day, when he trusted all the jurors would be present.
A general rush followed, that in a few minutes emptied the room of all but Miss Leavenworth, Mr. Gryce, and myself.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09