The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green
Book I. The Problem
"Constant you are-- . . . And for secrecy No lady closer." Henry IV. "No, 't is slander, Whose edge is sharper than the sword whose tongue Outvenoms all the worms of Nile." Cymbeline.
The door was opened by Molly. "You will find Miss Eleanore in the drawing-room, sir," she said, ushering me in.
Fearing I knew not what, I hurried to the room thus indicated, feeling as never before the sumptuous-ness of the magnificent hall with its antique flooring, carved woods, and bronze ornamentations:--the mockery of things for the first time forcing itself upon me. Laying my hand on the drawing-room door, I listened. All was silent. Slowly pulling it open, I lifted the heavy satin curtains hanging before me to the floor, and looked within. What a picture met my eyes!
Sitting in the light of a solitary gas jet, whose faint glimmering just served to make visible the glancing satin and stainless marble of the gorgeous apartment, I beheld Eleanore Leavenworth. Pale as the sculptured image of the Psyche that towered above her from the mellow dusk of the bow-window near which she sat, beautiful as it, and almost as immobile, she crouched with rigid hands frozen in forgotten entreaty before her, apparently insensible to sound, movement, or touch; a silent figure of despair in presence of an implacable fate.
Impressed by the scene, I stood with my hand upon the curtain, hesitating if to advance or retreat, when suddenly a sharp tremble shook her impassive frame, the rigid hands unlocked, the stony eyes softened, and, springing to her feet, she uttered a cry of satisfaction, and advanced towards me.
"Miss Leavenworth!" I exclaimed, starting at the sound of my own voice.
She paused, and pressed her hands to her face, as if the world and all she had forgotten had rushed back upon her at this simple utterance of her name.
"What is it?" I asked.
Her hands fell heavily. "Do you not know? They--they are beginning to say that I--" she paused, and clutched her throat. "Read!" she gasped, pointing to a newspaper lying on the floor at her feet.
I stooped and lifted what showed itself at first glance to be the Evening Telegram. It needed but a single look to inform me to what she referred. There, in startling characters, I beheld:
I was prepared for it; had schooled myself for this very thing, you might say; and yet I could not help recoiling. Dropping the paper from my hand, I stood before her, longing and yet dreading to look into her face.
"What does it mean?" she panted; "what, what does it mean? Is the world mad?" and her eyes, fixed and glassy, stared into mine as if she found it impossible to grasp the sense of this outrage.
I shook my head. I could not reply.
"To accuse me" she murmured; "me, me!" striking her breast with her clenched hand, "who loved the very ground he trod upon; who would have cast my own body between him and the deadly bullet if I had only known his danger. "Oh!" she cried, "it is not a slander they utter, but a dagger which they thrust into my heart!"
Overcome by her misery, but determined not to show my compassion until more thoroughly convinced of her complete innocence, I replied, after a pause:
"This seems to strike you with great surprise, Miss Leavenworth; were you not then able to foresee what must follow your determined reticence upon certain points? Did you know so little of human nature as to imagine that, situated as you are, you could keep silence in regard to any matter connected with this crime, without arousing the antagonism of the crowd, to say nothing of the suspicions of the police?"
I hurriedly waved my hand. "When you defied the coroner to find any suspicious paper in your possession; when"--I forced myself to speak--"you refused to tell Mr. Gryce how you came in possession of the key--"
She drew hastily back, a heavy pall seeming to fall over her with my words.
"Don't," she whispered, looking in terror about her. "Don't! Sometimes I think the walls have ears, and that the very shadows listen."
"Ah," I returned; "then you hope to keep from the world what is known to the detectives?"
She did not answer.
"Miss Leavenworth," I went on, "I am afraid you do not comprehend your position. Try to look at the case for a moment in the light of an unprejudiced person; try to see for yourself the necessity of explaining----"
"But I cannot explain," she murmured huskily.
I do not know whether it was the tone of my voice or the word itself, but that simple expression seemed to affect her like a blow.
"Oh!" she cried, shrinking back: "you do not, cannot doubt me, too? I thought that you--" and stopped. "I did not dream that I--" and stopped again. Suddenly her whole form quivered. "Oh, I see! You have mistrusted me from the first; the appearances against me have been too strong"; and she sank inert, lost in the depths of her shame and humiliation. "Ah, but now I am forsaken!" she murmured.
The appeal went to my heart. Starting forward, I exclaimed: "Miss Leavenworth, I am but a man; I cannot see you so distressed. Say that you are innocent, and I will believe you, without regard to appearances."
Springing erect, she towered upon me. "Can any one look in my face and accuse me of guilt?" Then, as I sadly shook my head, she hurriedly gasped: "You want further proof!" and, quivering with an extraordinary emotion, she sprang to the door.
"Come, then," she cried, "come!" her eyes flashing full of resolve upon me.
Aroused, appalled, moved in spite of myself, I crossed the room to where she stood; but she was already in the hall. Hastening after her, filled with a fear I dared not express, I stood at the foot of the stairs; she was half-way to the top. Following her into the hall' above, I saw her form standing erect and noble at the door of her uncle's bedroom.
"Come!" she again cried, but this time in a calm and reverential tone; and flinging the door open before her, she passed in.
Subduing the wonder which I felt, I slowly followed her. There was no light in the room of death, but the flame of the gas-burner, at the far end of the hall, shone weirdly in, and by its glimmering I beheld her kneeling at the shrouded bed, her head bowed above that of the murdered man, her hand upon his breast.
"You have said that if I declared my innocence you would believe me," she exclaimed, lifting her head as I entered. "See here," and laying her cheek against the pallid brow of her dead benefactor, she kissed the clay-cold lips softly, wildly, agonizedly, then, leaping to her feet, cried, in a subdued but thrilling tone: "Could I do that if I were guilty? Would not the breath freeze on my lips, the blood congeal in my veins, and my heart faint at this contact? Son of a father loved and reverenced, can you believe me to be a woman stained with crime when I can do this?" and kneeling again she cast her arms over and about that inanimate form, looking in my face at the same time with an expression no mortal touch could paint, nor tongue describe.
"In olden times," she went on, "they used to say that a dead body would bleed if its murderer came in contact with it. What then would happen here if I, his daughter, his cherished child, loaded with benefits, enriched with his jewels, warm with his kisses, should be the thing they accuse me of? Would not the body of the outraged dead burst its very shroud and repel me?"
I could not answer; in the presence of some scenes the tongue forgets its functions.
"Oh!" she went on, "if there is a God in heaven who loves justice and hates a crime, let Him hear me now. If I, by thought or action, with or without intention, have been the means of bringing this dear head to this pass; if so much as the shadow of guilt, let alone the substance, lies upon my heart and across these feeble woman's hands, may His wrath speak in righteous retribution to the world, and here, upon the breast of the dead, let this guilty forehead fall, never to rise again!"
An awed silence followed this invocation; then a long, long sigh of utter relief rose tremulously from my breast, and all the feelings hitherto suppressed in my heart burst their bonds, and leaning towards her I took her hand in mine.
"You do not, cannot believe me tainted by crime now?" she whispered, the smile which does not stir the lips, but rather emanates from the countenance, like the flowering of an inner peace, breaking softly out on cheek and brow.
"Crime!" The word broke uncontrollably from my lips; "crime!"
"No," she said calmly, "the man does not live who could accuse me of crime, here"
For reply, I took her hand, which lay in mine, and placed it on the breast of the dead.
Softly, slowly, gratefully, she bowed her head.
"Now let the struggle come!" she whispered. "There is one who will believe in me, however dark appearances may be."