Serapion, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 10

AROUND 2 p.m. I was taken before Magistrate Patterson and my bail set in the sum of thirty-five hundred dollars. Arthur Terne, second vice president of the Colossus Trust Company, having appeared as my bondsman, the matter of my liberty pending the inquest, to be held the following morning, was soon arranged.

I left the court in Mr. Terne’s company. Nils Berquist I had not seen, but was given to understand that he had been remanded without bail. I had pleaded in vain for a chance to talk with him.

Mr. Terne was kindness personified, though I inferred from one or two remarks that the Colossus’ president was shocked.

The morning papers had featured the affair with blatant headlines. They had got my name. The Barbour & Hutchinson failure was resurrected.

The Colossus itself stalked in massive dignity across one column, irrelevantly capping a “Brutal Slaying in Haunted House,” and when I saw that, I knew that “not pleased” was a mild description for Vansittart’s probable emotions!

The bizarre character of Alicia, the nature of the wound, and the ghastly inappropriateness of the weapon which effected it, had appealed to the reportorial fancy with diversely picturesque results. A plain murder, with no more apparent mystery attached than this one, would have passed with slight attention. But though Alicia was not a professional medium, it appeared that she and Moore had a certain reputation.

In hinting to me of the latter’s tempestuous exit from the Psychic Research Association, Nils had spared mentioning Alicia as the bone of contention. I now learned that she had been a country girl, the daughter of a hotel-keeper in a tiny Virginian village, where Moore had spent two or three autumn weeks.

Discovering in her what he regarded as supernormal powers, he wished to bring her north for further study. On her father’s strangely objecting to this treatment of his daughter as a specimen, Moore had settled the difficulty by offering marriage. After the wedding, he did bring her north, educated her, and finally presented her to the Association as a prodigy well worth their attention.

Unfortunately, after several remarkable seances, she was convicted of fraud in flagrant degree. It was through the slightly heated arguments ensuing that Moore was asked to resign his directorship.

The fantastic dispute had amused the lay-public intermittently through a dull summer, but I was off in the mountains that year with Van, and what news we read was mostly on the sporting pages, whither the pros and cons of spiritualistic debate are not wont to penetrate. But all that was raked up now, as sauce for the news of Moore’s sensational death, and having acquired a certain personal interest in spiritualism, I read it.

Following Mr. Terne’s advice and my own inclination, I went straight home. No need to rehearse all I endured that day. Roberta’s smilingly tearful consolations were the worst, I think, though, my father’s: “Clay, son, you are right to stand by your friend!” ran a close second. He said it because I refused to hear a word against Nils, and insisted that the fault had not been his. Though I would not go into the details of what had taken place in Moore’s library, I stuck at that one truth, and Dad, at least, who had taken a fancy to Nils the evening he dined at our house, believed me.

Altogether, however, it was a bad afternoon, and that night in my bedroom the face came again. I knew it was he, though the room was dark and I could not see him clearly. He had become so like as that to a material being!

“You have done well!” he began. “But, to make one small criticism, you must learn not to blush so easily. When your father commended your loyalty you reddened and stammered till, if you had not been among friends, suspicion might have been roused.”

“My confusion only lasted a moment,” I defended. Then I remembered; “You go!”

I said. “What do I want of you and your criticisms or advice? You have brought me enough unhappiness. I am a sneak and a criminal, and all through you!”

“Ingratitude is the only real crime,” he retorted sententiously. “Always be grateful, and show it! You have brought unhappiness on yourself, and it is I who point the way out. So far you have followed my advice. Why turn on me now?”

“Liar!” I fairly hissed. “If you can read my thoughts, you know that I have planned otherwise than you would have me. I am doing as Nils wished without regard to you, and not for the sake of myself. And let me tell you this! If there arises the slightest prospect that my friend will not be cleared, I shall confess. Tomorrow will decide it. If things go badly for him at the inquest, my people will have to suffer. The shame and loss he is trying to save them from would be nothing, then, to the shame involved by silence!”

Had the face possessed shoulders, I know he would have shrugged them.

“You are wrong, but we need not discuss that. I tell you in advance that your friend will be held for willful murder. Did you know quite all that I know, you would not hope for a different indictment.”

The strings of my heart contracted. I passed a breathless moment of realization. Then: “Tomorrow I confess!” I said firmly.

“Tomorrow you will choose a lawyer for your friend, and begin the work which will surely achieve his release.”

“You do not know that. You have admitted that you are capable of mistakes.”

“Not in a case of this kind. I possess a wide knowledge of facts which enables me to be very sure that your friend will get his release. I am your unswerving ally. And remember that I have not only wisdom, but some power.

“Oh, you are — leave me!” I cried aloud. “In God’s name go!”

The faintly, seen oval of his smooth face faded, though more slowly than in the cell at the station-house.

I heard a soft swish of slippered feet in the hall. Someone rapped lightly and opened my door.

“Clay, dear,” said my mother, “did you call? Are you ill?”

“No. I had a bad dream and awoke crying out because of it.”

“One can’t wonder at that.” She came and sat on the edge of my bed. “Such an awful thing for you to be in! Please, dear son, keep to your own class after this. Trouble always comes of mingling with queer Bohemian people who have no standards, or — or morals.”

“Nils Berquist has the highest standard of any — man I know!” I was fiercely defensive.

There was a pause of silence. Then in the dark she leaned and kissed my forehead. “You are so like him!” she murmured.

I groaned. “If only that were true!”

“But you are. With those blue, clear eyes of his, that saw only beauty and love. He would never hear a word against a friend.”

“Mother! You meant that I am like-”

“‘Your uncle, yes. And in some strange way I feel sure that his guarding influence is really about us. Why, when I came into the room just now I had the queerest feeling — as if it were a room in a dream, or — no, I can’t convey the feeling in words. But the sense of his presence was in it. I do truly believe that he has returned to guard us in the midst of so much trouble. At least, it would be like him. Dear, faithful, loving, lovable Serapion!”

But had my desired obsession, or familiar, or haunting ghost really desired to help, he might have warned me definitely of Sabina Cassel.

Alicia did not appear at the inquest. She was ill and under a physician’s care. Her semi-conscious state as reported by him prevented even the taking of a deposition.

I did not, however, stand alone as star witness before the coroner’s jury. Sabina Cassel, Mrs. Moore’s old colored “Mammy” whom she had brought north with her from Virginia, shared and rather more than shared the honors with me.

They had taken pains that Nils and I should not meet. He was kept rigorously incommunicado till the inquest, no one, save the police and the district attorney, having access to him. At the inquest I caught only a glimpse of him, when he was led out past where I awaited my turn before the jury. Involuntarily I sprang up, only to be caught by a constable’s hand, while Nils was hustled out. As he went, he threw me a glance that was a burning, dictatorial command.

I obeyed it. I told the jury exactly that story which Nils’ letter had outlined for us both. There was tempered steel in Berquist.

I could be sure that no long-drawn torment of inquisition could make him vary a hairsbreadth from the line he had set for us to follow.

In my testimony, which preceded Sabina’s, I explained that Nils had objected to my interest in spiritualism, fostered by a single previous visit to the Moores’ place. That he wished me to leave the house with him, and that Alicia also had seemed set against my remaining. That an argument ensued, at the height of which Moore became very angry and excited, shouted: “I’ll settle with you, once for all!” and came around the table toward Berquist.

“He grasped Berquist’s arm,” I said.

“When my friend tried to free himself, Moore snatched the — the file from the table. I saw Berquist seize Moore’s wrist. They struggled a moment, and then Moore staggered away — with his hands to his face. Then — he fell down. Berquist called to me, and, no, I had not tried to interfere. It all happened too quickly. There wasn’t time. After Berquist wrenched the file from Moore’s hand I don’t believe he struck at Moore. I think the file was driven into his eye by an accident.”

That surmise, of course, was struck from the record; but I had said it, at least, and hoped it impressed the jury.

“Afterward, the — the sight of blood and the suddenness of it all turned me sick — no, my recollections were clear up to that time.”

And so forth. It was a straight story. I knew it agreed to a hair with Nils’ confession.

What I did not, could not know, was that it varied in one essential detail from an entirely different confession — a confession made by a person whom we had not considered as an even possible eye-witness, and whose very existence I, at least, had forgotten.

Given that a second eyewitness existed, one would have supposed that the disagreement would have been over the slayer’s identity. It was not. By a curious trick of fate, Sabina Cassel, Alicia’s old colored maid, did undoubtedly see me strike Moore down, and yet, not through such a super-normal illusion as caused me to kill Moore, but in a perfectly natural manner, she had confused Berquist’s identity with mine. She related as having been done by Berquist that which had been done by me.

In one detail only did Sabina’s testimony conflict with ours, but that was the kind of detail which would hang a man, if its truth were established.

She had seen me — Berquist by her own account — snatch the file from the table and strike Moore, and she had seen me do it on no further provocation than the laying of Moore’s hand on my arm.

The Fifth Presence was right when he foretold that Nils would be indicted.

And yet, though things had indeed gone ill for Nils at the inquest, I did not at once carry out my expressed intention and substitute myself for him as defendant.

I didn’t wish to die, nor spend years in prison. I wanted to live and have a decent, straight, pleasant future ahead, such as I had been brought up to expect as a right. It seemed to me that just one way lay open. Though Nils was now entirely at my mercy, only his untrammeled acquittal would give me the moral freedom to keep silent. For that a first-class lawyer was an absolute necessity.

Berquist was practically penniless, and the Barbour exchequer in not much better state. Here again, however, friendship came to the fore in a curiously impressive manner. For the sake of an old acquaintance and some ancient friendly claim that my father had on him, none other than Helidore Mark, of Mark, Mark & Orlow, who could have termed himself Mark the famous and not lied.

I remember my fast interview with him after dad had — to me almost incredibly — persuaded him into alliance. My first impression was of a mild-looking, smallish man, with a scrubby mustache. He had hurt the top of his bald head in some way, so that it was crossed with a fair-sized hillock of adhesive plaster. I thought that added to insignificant appearance; but he had the brightest, softly brown eyes I have ever seen, and after the first few minutes I was afraid of him.

I was afraid that I would tell him too much.

My confidence, however, proved not the easily uprooted kind of a common criminal, and for Nils the acquisition of this famous, insignificant looking lawyer gave me the only real hope of assurance I had through those bad days.

“Your friend,” Mark had said to me, “is a rather wonderful young man; Barbour. I can’t blame you for being troubled. He has the kind of intelligence that would make a legal genius of him, if he had turned his efforts in that direction. A wonderful intelligence — and all lost in a maze of impractical theorizing and the sort of dreams that can’t come true so long as men are men, and women are women, Heaven help us all! He shan’t go to the chair, nor prison, either. He’s my man, my case, and — yes, I’ll say my friend, though I don’t run to sudden enthusiasm. Leave Berquist to me!”

Evidently, Mark’s consultations with his case had not been kept within strictly professional bounds. I smiled involuntarily. I could picture that long dark face of Nils lighting to alert interest as he discovered that Mark was not merely the lawyer who might save him from martyrdom, but also a thinking man. He must have brought out a side of the little man that was kept carefully submerged at ordinary times. I am sure that few people had seen Helidore Mark inclined to dilatory wanderings in philosophy, such as Nils loved.

But I went out with a lighter heart and more optimism than I had carried in some time. Mark, with his “my man, my case, my friend!” had installed a confidence which remained with me all that day.

I had returned to the bank, for though I walked in the Valley of the Shadow, while I could walk I must work.

So Mr. Terne had me back again, and it was a very good thing that I had Mr. Terne to go back to. Not many men would have put up with the abstracted attention my work received, nor patiently picked up the slack of details I let go by me.

His patience had a characteristic reason behind it, which I was sure of from the minute he told me about poor Van.

The latter, it seemed, had really gone the step too far with his father in the affair of Mr. Terne’s four hundred. Vansittart, Sr., would let no one speak of his son to him after that day. Everyone in the bank, however, knew that he had quarreled with him, disowned him, and that Van, in a fit of temper, had refused the offer of a last money settlement — a couple of thousand only, it was said — flung out of the Colossus, and walked off, leaving the gray roadster forlorn by the curb.

No one knew where Van had gone after that. He had simply vanished, saying no goodbyes, and taking nothing with him but the clothes he wore.

Mr. Terne felt guilty because it was his complaint which had caused the final rupture. He liked me, anyway, but having, as he believed, ruined Van, he showed an added consideration for me which developed into an almost absurd tenderness for my feelings.

He needed that, if I was to be kept on the tracks at all those days. I was nervous as a cat, and ready to jump at the creak of a door.

Roberta would watch me with wide, troubled eyes, and because a question was in them I would grow irritable and fling off and leave her with almost brutal abruptness. And always she forgave me — till I came near wishing she would forgive less easily.

Cathy resented my new irritability with the merciless justice of a sister; mother endured my anxiety for Nils only because it proved I was like “dear Serapion,” and dad harped on his pride in me for “standing by” till I really dreaded to go near him.

As for the Fifth Presence, he remained detestably faithful. Several times I explained to him that if Nils were not cleared I intended to confess. When he only continued to smile, I ceased talking to him.

He still came, however, and on the very night before the trial opened, the last thing of which I was conscious, dropping asleep, was his smooth, persuasive, hateful, silent voice. As ever, it was expressing the platitudinous — and always subtly evil — advice to which habit had so accustomed me that it had grown very hard indeed to distinguish his speech from my thoughts!

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00