The gentleman who stepped from the carriage and entered Mr. Van Burnam’s house at twelve o’clock that night produced so little impression upon me that I went to bed satisfied that no result would follow these efforts at identification.
And so I told Mr. Gryce when he arrived next morning. But he seemed by no means disconcerted, and merely requested that I would submit to one more trial. To which I gave my consent, and he departed.
I could have asked him a string of questions, but his manner did not invite them, and for some reason I was too wary to show an interest in this tragedy superior to that felt by every right-thinking person connected with it.
At ten o’clock I was in my old seat in the court-room. The same crowd with different faces confronted me, amid which the twelve stolid countenances of the jury looked like old friends. Howard Van Burnam was the witness called, and as he came forward and stood in full view of us all, the interest of the occasion reached its climax.
His countenance wore a reckless look that did not serve to prepossess him with the people at whose mercy he stood. But he did not seem to care, and waited for the Coroner’s questions with an air of ease which was in direct contrast to the drawn and troubled faces of his father and brother just visible in the background.
Coroner Dahl surveyed him a few minutes before speaking, then he quietly asked if he had seen the dead body of the woman who had been found lying under a fallen piece of furniture in his father’s house.
He replied that he had.
“Before she was removed from the house or after it?”
“Did you recognize it? Was it the body of any one you know?”
“I do not think so.”
“Has your wife, who was missing yesterday, been heard from yet, Mr. Van Burnam?”
“Not to my knowledge, sir.”
“Had she not — that is, your wife — a complexion similar to that of the dead woman just alluded to?”
“She had a fair skin and brown hair, if that is what you mean. But these attributes are common to too many women for me to give them any weight in an attempted identification of this importance.”
“Had they no other similar points of a less general character? Was not your wife of a slight and graceful build, such as is attributed to the subject of this inquiry?”
“My wife was slight and she was graceful, common attributes also.”
“And your wife had a scar?”
“On the left ankle?”
“Which the deceased also has?”
“That I do not know. They say so, but I had no interest in looking.”
“Why, may I ask? Did you not think it a remarkable coincidence?”
The young man frowned. It was the first token of feeling he had given.
“I was not on the look-out for coincidences,” was his cold reply. “I had no reason to think this unhappy victim of an unknown man’s brutality my wife, and so did not allow myself to be moved by even such a fact as this.”
“You had no reason,” repeated the Coroner, “to think this woman your wife. Had you any reason to think she was not?”
“Will you give us that reason?”
“I had more than one. First, my wife would never wear the clothes I saw on the girl whose dead body was shown to me. Secondly, she would never go to any house alone with a man at the hour testified to by one of your witnesses.”*
* Why could he not have said Miss Butterworth? These Van Burnams are proud, most vilely proud as the poet has it. — A. B.
“Not with any man?”
“I did not mean to include her husband in my remark, of course. But as I did not take her to Gramercy Park, the fact that the deceased woman entered an empty house accompanied by a man, is proof enough to me that she was not Louise Van Burnam.”
“When did you part with your wife?”
“On Monday morning at the depot in Haddam.”
“Did you know where she was going?”
“I knew where she said she was going.”
“And where was that, may I ask?”
“To New York, to interview my father.”
“But your father was not in New York?”
“He was daily expected here. The steamer on which he had sailed from Southampton was due on Tuesday.”
“Had she an interest in seeing your father? Was there any special reason why she should leave you for doing so?”
“She thought so; she thought he would become reconciled to her entrance into our family if he should see her suddenly and without prejudiced persons standing by.”
“And did you fear to mar the effect of this meeting if you accompanied her?”
“No, for I doubted if the meeting would ever take place. I had no sympathy with her schemes, and did not wish to give her the sanction of my presence.”
“Was that the reason you let her go to New York alone?”
“Had you no other?”
“Why did you follow her, then, in less than five hours?”
“Because I was uneasy; because I also wanted to see my father; because I am a man accustomed to carry out every impulse; and impulse led me that day in the direction of my somewhat headstrong wife.”
“Did you know where your wife intended to spend the night?”
“I did not. She has many friends, or at least I have, in the city, and I concluded she would go to one of them — as she did.”
“When did you arrive in the city? before ten o’clock?”
“Yes, a few minutes before.”
“Did you try to find your wife?”
“No. I went directly to the club.”
“Did you try to find her the next morning?”
“No; I had heard that the steamer had not yet been sighted off Fire Island, so considered the effort unnecessary.”
“Why? What connection is there between this fact and an endeavor on your part to find your wife?”
“A very close one. She had come to New York to throw herself at my father’s feet. Now she could only do this at the steamer or in ——”
“Why do you not proceed, Mr. Van Burnam?”
“I will. I do not know why I stopped — or in his own house.”
“In his own house? In the house in Gramercy Park, do you mean?”
“Yes, he has no other.”
“The house in which this dead girl was found?”
“Did you think she might throw herself at his feet there?”
“She said she might; and as she is romantic, foolishly romantic, I thought her fully capable of doing so.”
“And so you did not seek her in the morning?”
“How about the afternoon?”
This was a close question; we saw that he was affected by it though he tried to carry it off bravely.
“I did not see her in the afternoon. I was in a restless frame of mind, and did not remain in the city.”
“Ah! indeed! and where did you go?”
“Unless necessary, I prefer not to say.”
“It is necessary.”
“I went to Coney Island.”
“Did you see anybody there you know?”
“And when did you return?”
“When did you reach your rooms?”
“How much later?”
“Two or three hours.”
“And where were you during those hours?”
“I was walking the streets.”
The ease, the quietness with which he made these acknowledgments were remarkable. The jury to a man honored him with a prolonged stare, and the awe-struck crowd scarcely breathed during their utterance. At the last sentence a murmur broke out, at which he raised his head and with an air of surprise surveyed the people before him. Though he must have known what their astonishment meant, he neither quailed nor blanched, and while not in reality a handsome man, he certainly looked handsome at this moment.
I did not know what to think; so forbore to think anything. Meanwhile the examination went on.
“Mr. Van Burnam, I have been told that the locket I see there dangling from your watch-chain contains a lock of your wife’s hair. Is it so?”
“I have a lock of her hair in this; yes.”
“Here is a lock clipped from the head of the unknown woman whose identity we seek. Have you any objection to comparing the two?”
“It is not an agreeable task you have set me,” was the imperturbable response; “but I have no objection to doing what you ask.” And calmly lifting the chain, he took off the locket, opened it, and held it out courteously toward the Coroner. “May I ask you to make the first comparison,” he said.
The Coroner, taking the locket, laid the two locks of brown hair together, and after a moment’s contemplation of them both, surveyed the young man seriously, and remarked:
“They are of the same shade. Shall I pass them down to the jury?”
Howard bowed. You would have thought he was in a drawing-room, and in the act of bestowing a favor. But his brother Franklin showed a very different countenance, and as for their father, one could not even see his face, he so persistently held up his hand before it.
The jury, wide-awake now, passed the locket along, with many sly nods and a few whispered words. When it came back to the Coroner, he took it and handed it to Mr. Van Burnam, saying:
“I wish you would observe the similarity for yourself. I can hardly detect any difference between them.”
“Thank you! I am willing to take your word for it,” replied the young man, with most astonishing aplomb. And Coroner and jury for a moment looked baffled, and even Mr. Gryce, of whose face I caught a passing glimpse at this instant, stared at the head of his cane, as if it were of thicker wood than he expected and had more knotty points on it than even his accustomed hand liked to encounter.
Another effort was not out of place, however; and the Coroner, summoning up some of the pompous severity he found useful at times, asked the witness if his attention had been drawn to the dead woman’s hands.
He acknowledged that it had. “The physician who made the autopsy urged me to look at them, and I did; they were certainly very like my wife’s.”
“I cannot say that they were my wife’s. Do you wish me to perjure myself?”
“A man should know his wife’s hands as well as he knows her face.”
“And you are ready to swear these were not the hands of your wife?”
“I am ready to swear I did not so consider them.”
“And that is all?”
“That is all.”
The Coroner frowned and cast a glance at the jury. They needed prodding now and then, and this is the way he prodded them. As soon as they gave signs of recognizing the hint he gave them, he turned back, and renewed his examination in these words:
“Mr. Van Burnam, did your brother at your request hand you the keys of your father’s house on the morning of the day on which this tragedy occurred?”
“Have you those keys now?”
“I have not.”
“What have you done with them? Did you return them to your brother?”
“No; I see where your inquiries are tending, and I do not suppose you will believe my simple word; but I lost the keys on the day I received them; that is why ——”
“Well, you may continue, Mr. Van Burnam.”
“I have no more to say; my sentence was not worth completing.”
The murmur which rose about him seemed to show dissatisfaction; but he remained imperturbable, or rather like a man who did not hear. I began to feel a most painful interest in the inquiry, and dreaded, while I anxiously anticipated, his further examination.
“You lost the keys; may I ask when and where?”
“That I do not know; they were missing when I searched for them; missing from my pocket, I mean.”
“Ah! and when did you search for them?”
“The next day — after I had heard — of — of what had taken place in my father’s house.”
The hesitations were those of a man weighing his reply. They told on the jury, as all such hesitations do; and made the Coroner lose an atom of the respect he had hitherto shown this easy-going witness.
“And you do not know what became of them?”
“Or into whose hands they fell?”
“No, but probably into the hands of the wretch ——”
To the astonishment of everybody he was on the verge of vehemence; but becoming sensible of it, he controlled himself with a suddenness that was almost shocking.
“Find the murderer of this poor girl,” said he, with a quiet air that was more thrilling than any display of passion, “and ask him where he got the keys with which he opened the door of my father’s house at midnight.”
Was this a challenge, or just the natural outburst of an innocent man. Neither the jury nor the Coroner seemed to know, the former looking startled and the latter nonplussed. But Mr. Gryce, who had moved now into view, smoothed the head of his cane with quite a loving touch, and did not seem at this moment to feel its inequalities objectionable.
“We will certainly try to follow your advice,” the Coroner assured him. “Meanwhile we must ask how many rings your wife is in the habit of wearing?”
“Five. Two on the left hand and three on the right.”
“Do you know these rings?”
“Better than you know her hands?”
“As well, sir.”
“Were they on her hands when you parted from her in Haddam?”
“Did she always wear them?”
“Almost always. Indeed I do not ever remember seeing her take off more than one of them.”
“The ruby with the diamond setting.”
“Had the dead girl any rings on when you saw her?”
“Did you look to see?”
“I think I did in the first shock of the discovery.”
“And you saw none?”
“And from this you concluded she was not your wife?”
“From this and other things.”
“Yet you must have seen that the woman was in the habit of wearing rings, even if they were not on her hands at that moment?”
“Why, sir? What should I know about her habits?”
“Is not that a ring I see now on your little finger?”
“It is; my seal ring which I always wear.”
“Will you pull it off?”
“Pull it off!”
“If you please; it is a simple test I am requiring of you, sir.”
The witness looked astonished, but pulled off the ring at once.
“Here it is,” said he.
“Thank you, but I do not want it. I merely want you to look at your finger.”
The witness complied, evidently more nonplussed than disturbed by this command.
“Do you see any difference between that finger and the one next it?”
“Yes; there is a mark about my little finger showing where the ring has pressed.”
“Very good; there were such marks on the fingers of the dead girl, who, as you say, had no rings on. I saw them, and perhaps you did yourself?”
“I did not; I did not look closely enough.”
“They were on the little finger of the right hand, on the marriage finger of the left, and on the forefinger of the same. On which fingers did your wife wear rings?”
“On those same fingers, sir, but I will not accept this fact as proving her identity with the deceased. Most women do wear rings, and on those very fingers.”
The Coroner was nettled, but he was not discouraged. He exchanged looks with Mr. Gryce, but nothing further passed between them and we were left to conjecture what this interchange of glances meant.
The witness, who did not seem to be affected either by the character of this examination or by the conjectures to which it gave rise, preserved his sang-froid, and eyed the Coroner as he might any other questioner, with suitable respect, but with no fear and but little impatience. And yet he must have known the horrible suspicion darkening the minds of many people present, and suspected, even if against his will, that this examination, significant as it was, was but the forerunner of another and yet more serious one.
“You are very determined,” remarked the Coroner in beginning again, “not to accept the very substantial proofs presented you of the identity between the object of this inquiry and your missing wife. But we are not yet ready to give up the struggle, and so I must ask if you heard the description given by Miss Ferguson of the manner in which your wife was dressed on leaving Haddam?
“Was it a correct account? Did she wear a black and white plaid silk and a hat trimmed with various colored ribbons and flowers?”
“Do you remember the hat? Were you with her when she bought it, or did you ever have your attention drawn to it in any particular way?”
“I remember the hat.”
“Is this it, Mr. Van Burnam?”
I was watching Howard, and the start he gave was so pronounced and the emotion he displayed was in such violent contrast to the self-possession he had maintained up to this point, that I was held spell-bound by the shock I received, and forebore to look at the object which the Coroner had suddenly held up for inspection. But when I did turn my head towards it, I recognized at once the multi-colored hat which Mr. Gryce had brought in from the third room of Mr. Van Burnam’s house on the evening I was there, and realized almost in the same breath that great as this mystery had hitherto seemed it was likely to prove yet greater before its proper elucidation was arrived at.
“Was that found in my father’s house? Where — where was that hat found?” stammered the witness, so far forgetting himself as to point towards the object in question.
“It was found by Mr. Gryce in a closet off your father’s dining-room, a short time after the dead girl was carried out.”
“I don’t believe it,” vociferated the young man, paling with something more than anger, and shaking from head to foot.
“Shall I put Mr. Gryce on his oath again?” asked the Coroner, mildly.
The young man stared; evidently these words failed to reach his understanding.
“Is it your wife’s hat?” persisted the Coroner with very little mercy. “Do you recognize it for the one in which she left Haddam?”
“Would to God I did not!” burst in vehement distress from the witness, who at the next moment broke down altogether and looked about for the support of his brother’s arm.
Franklin came forward, and the two brothers stood for a moment in the face of the whole surging mass of curiosity-mongers before them, arm in arm, but with very different expressions on their two proud faces. Howard was the first to speak.
“If that was found in the parlors of my father’s house,” he cried, “then the woman who was killed there was my wife.” And he started away with a wild air towards the door.
“Where are you going?” asked the Coroner, quietly, while an officer stepped softly before him, and his brother compassionately drew him back by the arm.
“I am going to take her from that horrible place; she is my wife. Father, you would not wish her to remain in that spot for another moment, would you, while we have a house we call our own?”
Mr. Van Burnam the senior, who had shrunk as far from sight as possible through these painful demonstrations, rose up at these words from his agonized son, and making him an encouraging gesture, walked hastily out of the room; seeing which, the young man became calmer, and though he did not cease to shudder, tried to restrain his first grief, which to those who looked closely at him was evidently very sincere.
“I would not believe it was she,” he cried, in total disregard of the presence he was in, “I would not believe it; but now ——” A certain pitiful gesture finished the sentence, and neither Coroner nor jury seemed to know just how to proceed, the conduct of the young man being so markedly different from what they had expected. After a short pause, painful enough to all concerned, the Coroner, perceiving that very little could be done with the witness under the circumstances, adjourned the sitting till afternoon.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50