The Pumpkin Coach by Melville Davisson Post
The story of the American Ambassadress was not the only one related on this night.
Sir Henry Marquis himself added another, in support of the contention of his guest . . . and from her own country.
The lawyer walked about the room. The restraint which he had assumed was now quite abandoned.
"That's all there is to it," he said. "I'm not trying this case for amusement. You have the money to pay me and you must bring it up here now, tonight."
The woman sat in a chair beyond the table. She was young, but she looked worn and faded. Misery and the long strain of the trial had worn her out. Her hands moved nervously in the frayed coat-cuffs.
"But we haven't any more money," she said. "The hundred dollars I paid you in the beginning is all we have."
The man laughed without disturbing the muscles of his face. "You can take your choice," he said. "Either bring the money up here now, to-night, or I withdraw from the case when court opens in the morning."
"But where am I to get any more money?" the woman said.
The lawyer was a big man. His hair, black and thin, was brushed close to his head as though wet with oil; his nose was thick and flattened at the base. The office contained only a table, some chairs and a file for legal papers. Night was beginning to descend. Lights were appearing in the city. The two persons had come in from the Criminal Court after the session for the day had ended.
The woman seemed bewildered. She looked at the man with the curious expression of a child that does not comprehend and is afraid to ask for an explanation.
"If we had any more money," she said, "I would bring it to you, but the hundred dollars was all we had."
Then she began to explain, reiterating minute details. When the tragedy occurred and her husband was arrested by the police they had a small sum painfully saved up. It was now wholly gone. Like persons in profound misery, she repeated. The man halted the recital with a brutal gesture.
"I'll not discuss it," he said. "You can bring the money in here before the court convenes in the morning, or I withdraw from the case."
He went over to the file, took out a packet of legal papers and threw them on the table.
"All right, my lady!" he said, "perhaps you think your husband can get along without a lawyer. Perhaps you think the devil will save him, or heaven, or Cinderella in a pumpkin coach!" There was biting irony in the bitter words.
A sudden comprehension began to appear in the woman's face. She realized now what the man was driving at. The expression in her face deepened into a sort of wonder, a sort of horror.
"You think he's guilty!" she said. "You think we got the money and we're trying to keep it, to hide it."
The lawyer turned about, put both hands on the table and leaned across it. He looked the woman in the face.
"Never mind what I believe; you heard what I said!"
For a moment the woman did not move. Then she got up slowly and went out. In the street she seemed lost. She remained for some time before the entrance of the building. Night had now arrived. Crowds of people were passing, intent on their affairs, unconcerned. No one seemed to see the figure motionless in the shadow of the great doorway.
Presently the woman began to walk along the street in the crowd without giving any attention to the people about her or to the direction she was taking. She was in that state of mental coma which attends persons in despair. She neither felt nor appreciated anything and she continued to walk in the direction in which the crowd was moving.
Some block in the traffic checked the crowd and the woman stopped. The block cleared and the human tide drifted on, but the woman remained. The crowd edged her over to the wall and she stood there before the shutter of a shop-window. After a time the crowd passed, thinned and disappeared, but the woman remained as though thrown out there by the human eddy.
The woman remained for a long time unmoving against the shutter of the shop-window. Finally she was awakened into life by a voice speaking to her. It was a soft, foreign voice that lisped the liquid accents of the occasional English words:
"Ma pauvre femme!" it said; "come with me. Vous etes malade!"
The woman followed mechanically in a sort of wonder. The person who had spoken to her was young and beautifully dressed in furs that covered her to her feet. She had gotten down from a motorcar that stood beside the curb-one of those modern vehicles, fitted with splendid trappings.
Beyond the shop-window was a great café. The girl entered and the woman followed. The attendants came forward to welcome the splendid visitor as one whose arrival at this precise hour of the evening had become a sort of custom. She gave some directions in a language which the woman did not understand, and they were seated at a table.
The waiters brought a silver dish filled with a clear, steaming soup and served it. The girl threw back her fur coat and the dazed woman realized how beautiful she was. Her hair was yellow like ripe corn and there were masses of it banked and clustered about her head; her eyes were blue, and her voice, soft and alluring, was like a friendly arm put around the heart.
The miserable woman was so confused by this transformation - by the sudden swing of the door in the wall that had admitted her into this new, unfamiliar world - that she was never afterward able to remember precisely by what introductory words her story was drawn out. She found herself taken up, comforted and made to tell it.
Her husband had been a butler in the service of a Mr. Marsh, an eccentric man who lived in one of the old downtown houses of the city. He was a retired banker with no family. The man lived alone. He permitted no servants in the house except the butler. Meals were sent in on order from a neighboring hotel and served by the butler as the man directed. He received few visitors in the house and no tradespeople were permitted to come in. There seemed no reason for this seclusion except the eccentricities of the man that had grown more pronounced with advancing years.
It was the custom of the butler to leave the house at eight o'clock in the evening and return in the morning at seven. On the morning of the third of February, when the butler entered the house, as he was accustomed to do at eight o'clock in the morning, he found his master dead.
The woman continued with her narrative, speaking slowly. Every detail was vividly impressed upon her memory and she gave it accurately, precisely.
There was a narrow passage or hall, not more than three feet in width, leading from the butler's pantry into a little dining-room. This dining-room the old man had fitted up as a sort of library. It was farther than any other room from the noises of the city. His library table was placed with one end against the left wall of the room and he sat with his back toward the passage into the butler's pantry. On the morning of the third of February he was found dead in his chair. He had been stabbed in the back, on the left side, where the neck joins to the shoulder. A carving-knife had been used and a single blow had accomplished the murder.
It was known that on the evening before the old banker had taken from a safety-deposit vault the sum of $20,000, which it was his intention to invest in some securities. This money, in bills of very large denominations, was in the top drawer on the right side of the desk. The dead man had apparently not been touched after the crime, but the drawer had been pried open and the money taken. An ice-pick from the butler's pantry had been used to force it. The assassin had left no marks, finger-prints or tell-tale stains. The victim had been instantly killed with the blow of the knife which lay on the floor beside him.
The butler had been arrested, charged with the crime, and his trial was now going on in the Criminal Court. Circumstantial evidence was strong against him. The woman spoke as though she echoed the current comment of the courtroom without realizing how it affected her. She had done what she could. She had employed an attorney at the recommendation of a person who had come to interview her. She did not know who the person was nor why she should have employed this attorney at his suggestion, except that some one must be had to defend her husband, and uncertain what to do, she had gone to the first name suggested.
The girl listened, putting now and then a query. She spoke slowly, careful to use only English words. And while the woman talked she made a little drawing on the blank back of a menu card. Now she began to question the woman minutely about the details of the room and the position of the furniture where the tragedy had occurred, the desk, the attitude of the dead man, the location of the wound, and exact distances. And as the woman repeated the evidence of the police officers and the experts, the girl filled out her drawing with nice mathematical exactness like one accustomed to such a labor.
This was the whole story, and now the woman added the final interview with the attorney. She made a sort of hopeless gesture.
"Nobody believes us," she said. "My husband did not kill him. He was at home with me. He knew nothing about it until he found his master dead at the table in the morning. But there is only our word against all the lawyers and detectives and experts that Mr. Thompson has brought against us."
"Who is Mr. Thompson?" said the girl. She was deep in a study of her little drawing.
"He's Mr. Marsh's nephew, Mr. Percy Thompson."
The girl, absorbed in the study of her drawing, now put an unexpected question
"Has your husband lost an arm?"
"No," she said, "he never had any sort of accident."
A great light came into the girl's face. "Then I believe you," she said. "I believe every word . . . . I think your husband is innocent."
The girl was aglow with an enthusiastic purpose. It was all there in her fine, expressive face.
"Now," she said, "tell me about this nephew, this Mr. Percy Thompson. Could we by any chance see him?"
"It won't do any good to see him," replied the woman. "He is determined to convict my husband. Nothing can change him."
The girl went on without paying any attention to the comment. "Where does he live - you must have heard?"
"He lives at the Markheim Hotel," she said.
"The Markheim Hotel," repeated the girl. "Where is it?"
The woman gave the street and number. The girl rose. "That's on my way; we'll stop."
The two-went out of the café to the motor. The whole thing, incredible at any other hour, seemed to the woman like events happening in a dream or in some topsy-turvy country which she had mysteriously entered.
She sat back in the tonneau of the motor, huddled into the corner, a rug around her shoulders. The flashing lights seemed those of some distant, unknown city, as though she were transported into the scene of an Arabian tale.
The motor stopped before a little shabby hotel in a neighboring cross-street, and the footman, in livery beside the driver, got down at a direction of the girl and went up the steps. In a few moments a man came out and descended to the motor standing by the curb. He was about middle age. He looked as though Nature had intended him, in the beginning, for a person of some distinction, but he had the dissipated face of one at middle age who had devoted his years to a life of pleasure. There were hard lines about his mouth and a purple network of veins showing about the base of his nose.
As he approached the girl, leaning out of the open window of the tonneau, dropped her glove as by inadvertence. The man stooped, recovered it and returned it to her. The girl started with a perceptible gesture. Then she cried out in her charming voice
"Merci, monsieur. I stopped a moment to thank you for the flowers you sent me last night. It was lovely of you!" and she indicated the bunch of roses pinned to her corsage.
The man seemed astonished. For a moment he hesitated as though about to make some explanation, but the girl went on without regarding his visible embarrassment.
"You shall not escape with a denial," she said. "There was no card and you did not do me the honor to wait at the door, but I know you sent them - an usher saw you; you shall not escape my appreciation. You did send them?" she said.
The man laughed. "Sure," he said, "if you insist." He was willing to profit by this unexpected error, and the girl went on:
"I have worn the roses to-day," she said, "for you. Will you wear one of them to-morrow for me.
She detached a bud and leaned out of the door of the motor. She pinned the bud to the lapel of the man's coat. She did it slowly, deliberately, like one who makes the touch of the fingers do the service of a caress.
Then she spoke to the driver and the motor went on, leaving the amazed man on the curb before the shabby Markheim Hotel with the rosebud pinned to his coat - astonished at the incredible fortune of this favor from an inaccessible idol about whom the city raved.
The woman accepted the enigma of this interview as she had accepted the wonder of the girl's sudden appearance and the other, incidents of this extraordinary night. She did not undertake to imagine what the drawing on the menu meant, the words about the one-armed man, the glove dropped for Thompson to pick up, the rose pinned on his coat; it was all of a piece with the mystery that she had stumbled into.
When the motor stopped and she was taken through a little door by an attendant into a theater box, she accepted that as another of these things into which she could not inquire; things that happened to her outside of her volition and directed by authorities which she could not control.
The staging of the opera refined and extended the illusion that she had been transported out of the world by some occult agency. The wonderful creature that had taken her up out of her abandoned misery before the sordid shop-shutter appeared now in a fairy costume glittering with jewels. And the gnomes, the monsters and goblins appearing about her were all fabulous creatures, as the girl herself seemed a fabulous creature.
She sighed like one who must awaken from the splendor of a dream to realities of which the sleeper is vaguely conscious. Only the girl's voice seemed real. It seemed some great, heavenly reality like the sunlight or the sweep of the sea. It filled the packed places of the theater. She sang and one believed again in the benevolence of heaven; in immortal love. To the distressed woman effacing herself in the corner of the empty box it was all a sort of inconceivable witch-work.
And it was witch-work, as potent if not as amply fitted with dramatic properties as the witchwork of ancient legend.
The daughter of an obscure juge d'instruction of the Canton of Vaud, singing in a Swiss meadow, had been taken up by a wealthy American, traveling in Switzerland on an April morning-old, enervated with the sun of the Riviera, and displeased with life. And this rich old woman, her rheumatic fingers loaded with jewels, had transformed the daughter of the juge d'instruction of the Canton of Vaud into a singing wonder that made every human creature see again the dreams of his youth before him leading into the Elysian Fields.
And to the girl herself this transformation also seemed the wonder of witch-work. Her early life lay so far below in a world remote and detached; a little house in a village of the Canton of Vaud with the genteel poverty that attended the slender salary of a juge d'instruction, and the weight of duties that accumulated on her shoulders. Her father's life was given over to the labors of criminal investigation, but it was a field that returned nothing in the way of material gain. Honorable mention, a medal, the distinction of having his reports copied into the official archives, were the fruits of the man's life. She remembered the minutely exhaustive details of those reports which she used to copy painfully at night by the light of a candle. The old man, absorbed by his deductions, with his trained habits of observation and his prodigious memory, never seemed to realize the drudgery imposed upon the girl by his endless dictation.
"To-morrow," the heavenly creature had said softly, like a caress, in the woman's ear when an attendant had taken her through the little door into the empty box. But the to-morrow broke with every illusion vanished.
The woman sat beside her husband in the dismal court-room when the court convened. The judge, old and tired, was on the bench. A sulphurous, depressing fog entered from the city. The court-room smelled of a cleaner's mop. The jury entered; and a few spectators, who looked as though they might have spent the night on the benches of the park out, side, drifted in. The attorneys and the officials of the court were present and the trial resumed.
Every detail of the departed, evening was, to the woman, a mirage except the brutal threat of the attorney, uttered before she had gone down into the street. This threat, with that power of reality which evil things seem always to possess, now materialized. After the court had opened, but before the trial could proceed, the attorney for the defendant rose and addressed the court.
He spoke for some moments, handling his innuendoes with skill. His intent was to withdraw from the case. He realized that this was an unusual procedure and that the course must be justified upon a high ethical plane. He was a person of acumen and of no inconsiderable skill and he succeeded. Without making any direct charge, and disclaiming any intent to prejudice the prisoner and his defense, or to deprive him of any safeguard of the law, he was able to convey the impression that he had been misled in undertaking the defense of the case; that his confidence in the innocence of the accused had been removed by unquestionable evidence which he had been led to believe did not exist.
He made this explanation with profound regret. But he felt that, having been induced to undertake the defense by representations not justified in fact, and by an impression of the nature of the case which developments in the court-room had not confirmed, he had the right to step aside out of an equivocal position. He wished to do this without injury to the prisoner and while there was yet an opportunity for him to obtain other counsel. The whole tenor of the speech was the right to be relieved from the obligation of an error; an error that had involved him unwittingly by reason of assurances which the developments of the case had now set aside. And through it all there was the manifest wish to do the prisoner no vestige of injury.
After this speech of his attorney the conviction of the man was inevitable. He sat stooped over, his back bent, his head down, his thin hands aimlessly in his lap like one who has come to the end of all things; like one who no longer makes any effort against a destiny determined on his ruin.
The thing had the overpowering vitality which evil things seem always to possess, and the woman felt helpless against it; so utterly, so completely helpless that it was useless to protest by any word or gesture. She could have gotten up and explained the true motive behind this man's speech; she could have repeated the dialogue in his office; she could have asserted his unspeakable treachery; but she saw with an unerring instinct that against the skill of the man her effort would be wholly useless. With his resources and his dominating cunning he would not only make her words appear obviously false, but he would make them fasten upon her a malicious intent to injure the man who had undertaken her husband's defense; and somehow he would be able, she felt, to divert the obliquity and cause it to react upon herself.
This was all clear to her, and like some little trapped creature of the wood that finds escape closed on every side and no longer makes any effort, she remained motionless.
The judge was an honorable man, concerned to accomplish justice and not always misled by an obvious intent. The proceeding did not please him, but he knew that no benefit, rather a continued injury, would result to the prisoner by forcing the attorney to go on with a case which it was evident that he no longer cared to make any effort to support. He permitted the man to withdraw. Then he spoke to the prisoner
"Have you any other counsel?" he asked.
The prisoner did not look up. He replied in a low, almost inaudible voice
"No, Your Honor," he said.
"Then I shall appoint some one to go on with the case," and he looked up over the docket before him and out at the few attorneys sitting within the rail.
It was at this moment that the woman, crying silently, without a sound and without moving in her chair, heard behind her the voice which she had heard the evening before, when, as now, at the bottom of the pit, she stood before the shutter of the shop-window.
"Will it be necessary, monsieur le judge?"
It was the same wonderful, moving, heavenly voice. Every sound in the court-room suddenly ceased. All eyes were lifted. And Thompson, sitting beside the district-attorney, saw, standing before the rail in the court-room, the splendid, alluring creature that had called him out of the sordid lobby of the Hotel Markheim and entranced him with an evidence of her favor. Unconsciously he put up his hand to feel for the bud in the lapel of his coat. It had remained there - not, as it happened, from her wish, but because he dare not lay the coat aside.
In the interval of intense interest arising at the withdrawal of the attorney from the case the girl had come in unnoticed. She might have appeared out of the floor. Her voice was the first indication of her presence.
The judge turned swiftly. "What do you mean?" he said.
"I mean, monsieur," she answered, "that if a man is innocent of a crime, he cannot require a lawyer to defend him."
The judge was astonished, but he was an old man and had seen many strange events happen along the way of a criminal trial.
"But why do you say this man is innocent," he said.
"I will show you, monsieur," and she came around the railing into the pit of the, court before his bench. She carried in her hand the menu upon which, at the table in the café the night before, she had made a drawing of the scene of the homicide.
The extraordinary event had happened so swiftly that the attorney for the prosecution had not been able to interpose an objection. Now the nephew of the dead man spoke hurriedly, in whispers, and the attorney arose.
"I object to this irregular proceeding," he said. "If this person is a witness, let her be sworn in the usual manner and let her take her place in the witness-chair where she may be examined by the attorney whom the court may see fit to appoint for the defense."
It was evident that Mr. Thompson, urging the prosecutor, was alarmed. The folds of his obese neck lying above the collar of his coat took on a deeper color, and his mouth visibly sagged as with some unexpected emotion. He felt that he was becoming entangled in some vast, invisible net spread about him by this girl who had appeared as if by magic before the Hotel Markheim.
The judge looked down at the attorney. "I will have the witness sworn," he said, "but I shall not at present appoint anybody to conduct an examination. When a prisoner before me has no counsel, I sometimes look after his case myself."
He spoke to the girl. "Will you hold up your hand?" he said.
"Why, yes, monsieur," she said, "if you will also ask Mr. Thompson to hold up his hand."
"Do you wish him sworn as a witness?" said the judge.
The girl hesitated. "Yes, monsieur," she said, "if that is the way to have him hold up his hand."
Again Thompson was disturbed. Again he spoke to the prosecutor and again that attorney objected.
"We have not asked to have Mr. Thompson testify in this case," he said. "It is true Mr. Thompson is concerned about the result of this trial. He is the nephew of the decedent and his heir. It is only natural that he should properly concern himself to see that the assassin is brought to justice."
He spoke to the girl. "Do you wish to make Mr. Thompson your witness?" he said.
And again she replied with the hesitating formula:
"Why, yes, monsieur, if that is the way to cause him to hold up his hand."
The judge turned to the clerk. "Will you administer the oath to these two persons?" he said.
Thompson rose. His face was disconcerted and slack. He hesitated, but the prosecutor spoke to him. Then he faced the judge and put up his hand. Immediately the girl cried out
"Look, monsieur," she said. "It is his left hand he is holding up!"
Immediately Thompson raised the other hand. "I beg your pardon, Your Honor," he muttered. "I am left-handed; I sometimes make that mistake."
And again the girl cried out: "You see . . . you notice it . . . it is true, then . . . he is left-handed."
"I see he is left-handed," said the judge, "but what has that to do with the case?"
"Oh, monsieur," she said, "it has everything to do with it. I will show you."
She moved up on the step before the judge's bench and laid the menu before-him. The attorney for the prosecution also arose. He wished to prevent this proceeding, to object to it, but he feared to disturb the judge and he remained silent.
"Monsieur," she said, "I have made a little drawing . . . I know how such things are done . . . . My father was juge d'instruction of the Canton of Vaud. He always made little drawings of places where crimes were committed. . . . Here you will see, and she put her finger on the card, "the narrow passage leading from the butler's pantry into the dining-room used for a library. You will notice, monsieur, that the writing-table stood with one end against the wall, the left wall of the room, as one enters from the butler's pantry. It is a queer table. One side of it has a row of drawers coming to the floor and the other side is open so one may sit with one's knees under it. On the night of the tragedy this table was sitting at right angles to the left wall, that is to say, monsieur, with this end open for the writer's knees close up against the left wall of the room. That meant, monsieur, that on this night Mr. Marsh was sitting at the table with his back to the passage from the butler's pantry, close up against the left wall of the room.
"Therefore, monsieur," the girl went on, "the man who assassinated Mr. Marsh entered from the butler's pantry. He slipped into the room along the left wall close up behind his victim . . . . Did it not occur so."
This was the evidence of the police officials and the experts. It was clear from the position of the desk in the room and from the details of the evidence.
"And, monsieur," she said, "will you tell me, is it true that the stab wound which killed Mr. Marsh was in the shoulder on the side next to the wall?"
"Yes," said the judge, "that is true."
The prosecutor, urged by Thompson, now made a verbal objection. The case was practically completed. The incident going on in the court-room followed no definite legal procedure and could not be permitted to proceed. The judge stopped him.
"Sit down," he said. He did not offer any explanation or comment. He merely silenced the man and returned to the girl standing eagerly on the step before the bench.
"The wound was in the base of the man's neck at the top of the left shoulder on the side next to the wall," he said. "But what has this fact to do with the case?"
"Oh, monsieur," she cried, "it has everything to do with it. If the assassin who slipped along the wall had carried the knife in his right hand, the wound would have been on the right side of the dead man's neck. But if, monsieur, the assassin carried the knife in his left hand, then the wound would be where it is, on the left side. That made me believe, at first, that the assassin had only one arm - had lost his right arm - and must use the other; then, a little later, I understood . . . . Oh, monsieur, don't you understand; don't you see that the assassin who stabbed Mr. Marsh was left-handed?"
In a moment it was all clear to everybody. Only a left-handed man could have committed the crime, for only a left-handed man standing close against the left side of a room above one sitting at a desk against that wall could have struck straight down into the left shoulder of the murdered man. A right-handed assassin would have struck straight down into the right shoulder, he would not have risked a doubtful blow, delivered awkwardly across his body, into the left shoulder of his victim.
The girl indicated Thompson with her hand. "He did it; he's left-handed. I found out by dropping my glove."
Panic enveloped the cornered man. He began to shake as with an ague. Sweat like a thin oil spread over his debauched face and the folds of his obese neck. With his fatal left hand he began to finger the lapel of his coat where the faded rosebud hung pinned into the buttonhole. And the girl's voice broke the profound silence of the court-room.
"He has the money, too," she said. "I felt a bulky packet when I gave him the flower out of my bouquet last night."
The big, thin-haired lawyer, leaving the courtroom after his withdrawal from the case, stopped at a window arrested by the amazing scene: The police taking the stolen money out of Thompson's pocket; the woman in the girl's arms, and the transfigured prisoner standing up as in the presence of a heavenly angel. This before him . . . and the splendid motor below under the sweep of the window, waiting before the courthouse door, brought back the memory of his biting, sarcastic words
". . . or Cinderella in a pumpkin coach!"
And there occurred to him a doubt of the exclusive dominance of life by the gods he served.