Serapion, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 11

WHEN a murderer — for I named myself — is called to confront across some feet of court-room the innocent man standing trial in his stead, he needs all his nerve and a bit more to keep steady under the questioning of even a friendly and considerate counsel.

In fact, I was strangely more afraid of Mark than of District Attorney Clemens. I might, however, have spared myself there.

The impaneling of the Jury had been a battle-royal between Mark and Clemens, at which I was not present, but which had roused the newspaper men to gloating anticipation (the real battle to follow).

Then Mark became ill — dropped out!

I could hardly believe it when Orlow, his junior associate, met me on the first day of the trial, and broke the news. A brain tumor caused by the injury.

Had it not been for Mark, I told myself, I would never have let Nils Berquist go to trial. Should I allow it to go on now, with our best hope hors de combat?

The second Mark, Helidore’s brother, was in Europe, and Orlow, while brilliant in his fashion, was not a man to impress juries. His genius lay in the hunting out of technical refinements of law, ‘ammunition,’ as it were, for the batteries which had brought rage to the heart of more than one district attorney.

When he arose presently in court and asked for a delay in proceedings, Clemens’ eye lighted. When Mr. Justice Ballington refused the request — a foregone conclusion, because Mark, admittedly, was in too serious a condition for the delay even to be measured — Clemens lowered his head suddenly. It might have been grief for his adversaries’ misfortune — or, again, it might not.

Where I sat with other witnesses, I was intensely conscious of an absurd, brilliantly veiled little figure, two chairs behind me.

This was my first glimpse of Alicia, since the night of Berquist’s arrest. Though I knew Mark had been granted at least two interviews with her, me she had resolutely refused to receive.

Now I was relieved to find that her nearness brought no return of the supernormal influence I had suffered before in her vicinity.

She sat stiffly upright, and did not glance once in my direction. Perhaps her ‘guides’ had advised her to don that awful veil of protecting purple for this occasion, or she may have worn it as a tribute to her husband’s memory. It certainly gave her a more unusual appearance than would a crape blackness behind which a newly made widow is wont to hide her grief.

At her side towered the large form of Sabina Cassel.

The trial opened.

One Dr. Frick appeared on the stand, and in elaborate incomprehensibility described in surgical terms the wound which had caused Moore’s death. I saw him handling a small, hideous object — gesturing with it to show exactly how it had been misused to a deadly purpose.

Then for several minutes I didn’t see anything more. Luckily all eyes in the courtroom were on either the doctor or the “murderer.” Nobody was watching me.

The doctor’s demonstration seemed to prove rather conclusively that my “accident” hypothesis was impossible. The file, he showed, could have been driven into the brain only by a direct blow.

Dr. Frick was allowed to stand down.

In establishing the offense, Clemens saw fit to call Alicia herself.

As her mistress arose, Sabina’s massive bulk stirred uneasily, as if she would have followed her to the stand.

At the inquest, the old colored woman’s testimony had done more than cause Nils’ indictment for murder. It had made a public and very popular jest of Alicia’s claim to intercourse with “spirits.” But though, in the first flush of excitement over Moore’s death, Sabina had betrayed her, the woman was loyal to her mistress. When a murmur that was almost a titter swept the packed audience outside the rail. Sabina shook her head angrily, muttering to herself.

The audience hoped much of Alicia, and its keen humor was not entirely disappointed. No sooner had she appeared than an argument began about her preposterously brilliant veil. The court insisted that it should be raised. Alicia firmly declined to oblige. She had to give in finally, of course, and when that peaked, white face with its strange eyes was exposed, the hydra beyond the rail doubtless felt further rewarded.

The hydra believed her a fraud. They had reason. I, with greater reason, understood and pitied her!

I thought she might break down on the stand. Alicia’s character, however, was a complicated affair that set her outside the common run of behavior. To Clemens’ questions she replied with sphinx-like impassivity and the precision of a machine.

Her answers only confirmed Nils’ story and mine to a certain point, and stopped there. There was not a word of “sprits” nor “guides;” not a hint of any influence more evil than common human passions; not a suggestion, even that she had formed an opinion as to which man, slayer or slain, was the first aggressor. I am sure that a more reserved and non-committal widow than Alicia never took the stand at the trial of her husband’s supposed murderer.

“James,” she said, “wished Mr. Barbour to remain. Mr. Berquist wished him to leave. They argued. No, I should not have called the argument a quarrel — I did not see Mr. Berquist strike James. While they were talking I lost consciousness of material surroundings. Yes, my loss of consciousness could be called a faint. The argument was not violent enough to frighten me into fainting. Yes, there was a reason for my losing consciousness. I lost consciousness because I felt faint, I was tired. I do that sometimes. Yes, I warned them that something bad was coming. I couldn’t say why. I just had that impression. I did not see either James or Mr. Berquist assume a threatening attitude-”

Released at last, she readjusted her purple screen with cold self-possession, and returned to her seat.

It was Sabina Cassel’s next turn. Save in appearance, Alicia had not after all come up to public anticipations. In Sabina, however, the hydra was sure of a real treat in store.

Judge Ballington rapped for order. Sabina took her oath with a scowl. Every line of her face expressed resentment.

But she was intelligent. To Clemens’ questions, she gave grim, bald replies that offered as little grip as possible to public imagination.

Yes, on the evening in question she had been standing concealed behind the black curtains of “Miss ‘Licia’s” cabinet, or “box,” as Sabina called it. No, “Marse James” did not know she was there. Miss ‘Licia and she had “fixed it up” so that one could enter the box from the back. Marse James had the box built with a solid wooden back, like a wardrobe. It stayed that way — for a while.

“Then Marse James he done got onsatisfied. Yas, de sperits did wuhk in de box an’ come out ob it, too; but Marse James, he ain’t suited yit. He want dem ‘sperits shud wuhk all de time! He neber gib mab poh chile no res’!”

And so Alicia, who, according to Sabina, could sometimes but not always command her “sperits,” devised a means to satiate Moore’s scientific craving for results.

While he was absent in another city, the two conspirators brought in a carpenter. They had the cabinet removed and a doorway cut through the plastered wall into a large closet in the next room. By taking off the cabinet’s solid back and hanging it on again, it would just open neatly into the aperture cut to fit it. Alicia kept plenty of gowns hung over the opening in the closet beyond.

Returning, Moore found his solid-backed cabinet apparently as before. From that time, however, the “sperits” were more willing to oblige than formerly.

“Ab uno disce omnes,“ is invariably applied to the medium or clairvoyant caught in fraud, though translated: “From all fraud, infer all deceit.”

The world laughed over the “spiritualistic fake again exposed!” I did not laugh.

Let it be that the hand which Roberta and I had seen was Sabina’s gnarled black paw, and that my impression of its unsubstantiality was a self-delusion. Let those strange little twirling flames that had arisen pass as the peculiar “fireworks” I had tried to believe them. Let even the incident of the broken lamp have been a feat of Sabina’s — though how her large, clumsy figure could have stolen out past the table and into the room unheard was a puzzle — and the masculine voice wonderful ventriloquism.

Grant all these as deceptions. There had come that to me through Alicia’s unwilling agency which had given me a terrible faith in her, that no proof of occasional fraud could dispel.

Clemens’ interrogations touched lightly on the object of the door in the cabinet’s supposedly solid back, only serving to establish the fact that it was possible for his witness to have been practically in the library unknown to all the room’s other occupants save, probably, Alicia.

Then he asked Sabina’s story of that night in her own words. She began it grimly:

“Waal, Ah wuz in behin’ de cuhtins dat hangs in front ob Miss ‘Licia’s box. Dem cuhtins is moderate thin. Ah cudn’ see all dey is in de room, but Ah suttinly cud see all dat pass in front ob de lamp. Yass, dat whut yoh got in yoh hand am one a dem cuhtins.”

Here Clemens checked her, while the “cuhtin,” was passed from hand to through the jury-box. Each juryman momentarily draped himself in mourning while he assured himself that it was thin enough to be seen through. Then with solemn nods Exhibit B was restored to the district attorney. Sabina continued.

“Dese yeah germnen, Mistah Buhquis’ and Mistah Bahbour, dey come in, and right away de argifyin’ stahted. Ah kain’t tell all dey, say. Dey use high-falut in’, eddicated laniguige what am not familiar toh me, tho’ Lawd knows Ah’s done hear enuff ob it ‘sence Miss ‘Licia come norff wif Marse James Mooah.

“Dey argifies an’ argifies. Mistah Bahbour, he don’t say nuffin’ much. But Mistah Buhquis’, he specify dey shud bof up’n leave. Miss ‘Licia she say mebbe sump’n bad gwine happen purty quick. Marse James, he say: ‘Mistah Bahbour, you go; come back ‘notha time.’ Mistah Bahbour, he say no, he doan wanta go, kaze Miss ‘Licia c’n mebbe help him some way. Mistah Buhqus’ he go right up in de aih. He specify some hahm done come ob he fren’ stayin roun’ deah any longah.

“Mistah Buhquis’ he am standin’ right alongside de big table wif de lamp on it. De lamp am behin’ him. I see ebery move he make.

“He done muttah sump’n low. Ah don’t rightly know what he say, but it hab a right spiteful, argifyin tone to it.

“‘Marse James,’ he holler out: ‘I fix yoh now foh dat!’ an’ he rush obah to Mistah Buhquis’ an’ lay han’ on he arm — No, suh; he didn’t go foh to do Mistah Buhquis’ no hahm. Marse James he hab a way ob talkin’ loud an’ biggety, but Ah nevab done saw him do no hahm to nobuddy.

“He grab Mistah Buhquis’ lef’ arm. Mistah Buhquis’, he reach out he otha’ han’ and grab sumpn off de table. Marse James don’ do nuthn’. Mistah Buhquis,’ he fro back he han’ an’ hit out wif it real smaht. Marse James leggo de ahm, clap he han’s obah he face, an’ sorta lets go all obah. He jes’ crumble down lak.

“Ah knows dat de bad am happen.

“Ah cuddin’ git out dat box easy into de room, kaze dey’s a table in it dat reach purty nigh acrost, an’ Ah ain’t spry to climb ober it. No, suh; Ah didn’t thin to shov de table out de way. Ab cain’t think ob nuffin’ but Miss ‘Licia. Ah turns roun’ an’ gits out de back, kaze Ah wants to git to an mah Miss ‘Licia. Ah comes roun’ to de hall and goes in de library. Deah is Mistah Buhquis’ stannin’ obah Marse James, he han’s all drippin’ blood.

“Ah say: ‘Yo’ done kill him, ain’t yoh?’

“He luks all roun’ kinda pitiful lak, an’ then he say:

“‘Yas, Sabina, Ah kill him! Now go fotch de doctah an’ some p’leece!’

“Mistah Buhquis’, he am lak lots ob otha high-spirited gernmen. He don’t go foh to kill Marse James, but when Marse James tech him in anger, he jes’ bleeged foh to do it — Das all right! Ah gotta right to hab mah ‘pinion, same as ebryone. Waal, don’t put it in de writin’ record, den. Ah don’ keer whut yoh does. Das jes’ mah ‘pinion!

“Yas suh. Ah’s suah dat it war Mistah Buhquis’ grab de file and not Marse James. Wall, Marse James, he stann wif he lef’ side to de table. Yas, suh; I cud suah nuff tell which wuz which. Marse James, he ain’t so tall by purty nigh a fut high as Mistah Buhquis’. It am de tall man who start’ wif de right side ag’in’ de table who take de file off’n it. No; Marse James don’ try ter do nuffin hurtful to Mistah Buhquis’. No; dey don’ struggle roun’ none atall. Dey jes’ stan’ deah. Its de Lawd’s truf, dat was de mos’ onexcitin’ killin’ Ah hab evah saw!”

And then Clemens let her go, to the deep disgust of Hydra, outside the rail. He had not asked what she was doing in the cabinet, nor many other of the questions which gave an amusing double interest to the Moore murder. All that, however, was bound to come out in the cross-examination, and, meantime, Sabina had proved “Clemens’ witness” to an extent which made the case promise well of interest on its tragic side.

I was not called before the jury until after the noon recess, which gave me time to think things over a bit more.

At the inquest, I had not actually heard Sabina’s testimony. Though Mark, who interviewed her as well as her mistress, had warned me that she would prove a difficult antagonist, I had not fully believed him. She had seemed ill-educated, the type whose average run are diffuse in their statements and easily muddled into self-contradiction.

Sabina might prove so under cross-examination, but I doubted it now. She had wasted hardly a word that morning, and there was only one point on which I was sure that she could be shaken.

The difference in height between slayer and slain was a strong point for the prosecution. Even through thin, black curtains it would indeed have been hard to confuse a tall silhouette with a short one. But no one had thought to question the identity of the tall silhouette.

Though Sabina may have known better during the minutes that she stood staring through the curtains, her after and more vivid sight of Berquist, hands “dropping blood,” and his almost instant claim of the crime as his own, had served to make the tall man Berquist in all her memories.

Berquist, the self-confessed!

I had no faith in Orlow. Had Mark not dropped out, I should have been content to let the trial take its course, sure that his genius would somehow save the day and free my friend. But under Orlow’s handling, with that craggy, sullen, assured black woman to swear that Moore was not and could not have been the aggressor — since he stood with his left side to the table, grasping the tall silhouette with his right hand, and a man under impulse of passion is not likely to reach for a weapon with his left — I was morally certain that Berquist would lose out.

But what if, rising on the stand, instead of a second perjury I told the simple truth?

Not that portion of it which included the superhuman, but just the fact that I, and not Berquist, had been swept by one of those sudden fits of red anger that have made murderers of many before me?

Why, Sabina herself would support my words, once spoken! There was a little, unnoticed twist in her testimony — a point where the voice of Berquist, coming from beyond the table, became the voice of the tall man standing on her side of the lamp.

The instant that I spoke she would know. Her memories, unconsciously readjusted to fit facts as she had afterward learned them, would be straight again. Berquist’s hidden heroism would stand revealed, and I, though I died, I would at least die clean.

Resolve crystallized suddenly within me. When Clemens called me to the stand I would go, not to testify, but to confess.

I walked to the little raised platform, with the chair where the others had sat, below the double tier of jurymen. I mounted it. Somebody put a dusty black book under my hand and mumbled through a slurred rigmarole, to which my low acquiescence was a prelude to ruin for me. I sat down in the chair.

Beyond the rail was a packed level of faces. They were all pale and dreary looking, it seemed to me, though that may have been an effect of light, for the day was gray and dreary. I had returned to court through falling snow. It was a wet, late spring fall of clinging flakes, and all the way I had been haunted by a memory of the “dead-alive” house as I had seen it that night.

Not the interior — not even the library, with its master, a grim gray and scarlet horror on the floor. But the house itself, desolate under its white burden, with the great flakes swirling down, hiding deeper and more deep the line of division between the living hall and the dead.

Berquist was sitting by a table with Orlow beside him. I had visited him in prison, of course, and talked with him a few moments just before the trial opened. His determination and courage had never swerved, nor his conviction that we had only to keep steady and win.

Now I saw his eyes as a dark and valiant glory fixed on me. Their message only hardened my resolve. That man to play the martyr for my sake? Never!

Orlow left Nils, and took his stand conveniently near. He was there to protect me from irrelevant questions, but he looked quite out of place. Clearly, the mantle of Helidore Mark did not rest easily on his shoulders.

The district attorney, a thin, scholarly person whom I instinctively disliked, began his inquisition.

“Your name, please? Age and occupation?”

“Barbour — Clayton S. Barbour,” I corrected myself. “I am-”

“Just a moment. Your full name for the record, please, Mr. Barbour.”

Clemens, who would reserve any attempt to “rattle” me for my appearance in the rebuttal, was politeness itself.

“Clayton — Serapion Barbour!” I forced out. Then I cursed myself for not having substituted “Samuel,” or left out the initial.

“There’s power in a name.” Once I would have laughed at that statement, but not now. Not with my recent memories.

And as God is my witness, I sat there and saw the district attorney’s hatchet-face change, blend, grow smooth and loathsomely pleasant.

Clemens continued his interrogations, but I spoke to another than he when I answered them.

The living bound by the dead!

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