The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green
Book I. The Problem
V. Expert Testimony
"And often-times, to win us to our barm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths; Win us with honest trifles, to betray us In deepest consequence." Macbeth.
In the midst of the universal gloom thus awakened there came a sharp ring at the bell. Instantly all eyes turned toward the parlor door, just as it slowly opened, and the officer who had been sent off so mysteriously by the coroner an hour before entered, in company with a young man, whose sleek appearance, intelligent eye, and general air of trustworthiness, seemed to proclaim him to be, what in fact he was, the confidential clerk of a responsible mercantile house.
Advancing without apparent embarrassment, though each and every eye in the room was fixed upon him with lively curiosity, he made a slight bow to the coroner.
"You have sent for a man from Bohn & Co.," he said.
Strong and immediate excitement. Bohn & Co. was the well-known pistol and ammunition store of ---- Broadway.
"Yes, sir," returned the coroner. "We have here a bullet, which we must ask you to examine, You are fully acquainted with all matters connected with your business?"
The young man, merely elevating an expressive eyebrow, took the bullet carelessly in his hand.
"Can you tell us from what make of pistol that was delivered?"
The young man rolled it slowly round between his thumb and forefinger, and then laid it down. "It is a No. 32 ball, usually sold with the small pistol made by Smith & Wesson."
"A small pistol!" exclaimed the butler, jumping up from his seat. "Master used to keep a little pistol in his stand drawer. I have often seen it. We all knew about it."
Great and irrepressible excitement, especially among the servants. "That's so!" I heard a heavy voice exclaim. "I saw it once myself--master was cleaning it." It was the cook who spoke.
"In his stand drawer?" the coroner inquired.
"Yes, sir; at the head of his bed."
An officer was sent to examine the stand drawer. In a few moments he returned, bringing a small pistol which he laid down on the coroner's table, saying, "Here it is."
Immediately, every one sprang to his feet, but the coroner, handing it over to the clerk from Bonn's, inquired if that was the make before mentioned. Without hesitation he replied, "Yes, Smith & Wesson; you can see for yourself," and he proceeded to examine it.
"Where did you find this pistol?" asked the coroner of the officer.
"In the top drawer of a shaving table standing near the head of Mr. Leavenworth's bed. It was lying in a velvet case together with a box of cartridges, one of which I bring as a sample," and he laid it down beside the bullet.
"Was the drawer locked?"
"Yes, sir; but the key was not taken out."
Interest had now reached its climax. A universal cry swept through the room, "Is it loaded?"
The coroner, frowning on the assembly, with a look of great dignity, remarked:
"I was about to ask that question myself, but first I must request order."
An immediate calm followed. Every one was too much interested to interpose any obstacle in the way of gratifying his curiosity.
"Now, sir!" exclaimed the coroner.
The clerk from Bonn's, taking out the cylinder, held it up. "There are seven chambers here, and they are all loaded."
A murmur of disappointment followed this assertion.
"But," he quietly added after a momentary examination of the face of the cylinder, "they have not all been loaded long. A bullet has been recently shot from one of these chambers."
"How do you know?" cried one of the jury.
"How do I know? Sir," said he, turning to the coroner, "will you be kind enough to examine the condition of this pistol?" and he handed it over to that gentleman. "Look first at the barrel; it is clean and bright, and shows no evidence of a bullet having passed out of it very lately; that is because it has been cleaned. But now, observe the face of the cylinder: what do you see there?"
"I see a faint line of smut near one of the chambers."
"Just so; show it to the gentlemen."
It was immediately handed down.
"That faint line of smut, on the edge of one of the chambers, is the telltale, sirs. A bullet passing out always leaves smut behind. The man who fired this, remembering the fact, cleaned the barrel, but forgot the cylinder." And stepping aside he folded his arms.
"Jerusalem!" spoke out a rough, hearty voice, "isn't that wonderful!" This exclamation came from a countryman who had stepped in from the street, and now stood agape in the doorway.
It was a rude but not altogether unwelcome interruption. A smile passed round the room, and both men and women breathed more easily. Order being at last restored, the officer was requested to describe the position of the stand, and its distance from the library table.
"The library table is in one room, and the stand in another. To reach the former from the latter, one would be obliged to cross Mr. Leavenworth's bedroom in a diagonal direction, pass through the passageway separating that one apartment from the other, and----"
"Wait a moment; how does this table stand in regard to the door which leads from the bedroom into the hall?"
"One might enter that door, pass directly round the foot of the bed to the stand, procure the pistol, and cross half-way over to the passage-way, without being seen by any one sitting or standing in the library beyond."
"Holy Virgin!" exclaimed the horrified cook, throwing her apron over her head as if to shut out some dreadful vision. "Hannah niver would have the pluck for that; niver, niver!" But Mr. Gryce, laying a heavy hand on the woman, forced her back into her seat, reproving and calming her at the same time, with a dexterity marvellous to behold. "I beg your pardons," she cried deprecatingly to those around; "but it niver was Hannah, niver!"
The clerk from Bohn's here being dismissed, those assembled took the opportunity of making some change in their position, after which, the name of Mr. Harwell was again called. That person rose with manifest reluctance. Evidently the preceding testimony had either upset some theory of his, or indubitably strengthened some unwelcome suspicion.
"Mr. Harwell," the coroner began, "we are told of the existence of a pistol belonging to Mr. Leavenworth, and upon searching, we discover it in his room. Did you know of his possessing such an instrument?"
"Was it a fact generally known in the house?"
"So it would seem."
"How was that? Was he in the habit of leaving it around where any one could see it?"
"I cannot say; I can only acquaint you with the manner in which I myself became aware of its existence."
"Very well, do so."
"We were once talking about firearms. I have some taste that way, and have always been anxious to possess a pocket-pistol. Saying something of the kind to him one day, he rose from his seat and, fetching me this, showed it to me."
"How long ago was this?"
"Some few months since."
"He has owned this pistol, then, for some time?"
"Is that the only occasion upon which you have ever seen it?"
"No, sir,"--the secretary blushed--" I have seen it once since."
"About three weeks ago."
"Under what circumstances?"
The secretary dropped his head, a certain drawn look making itself suddenly visible on his countenance.
"Will you not excuse me, gentlemen?" he asked, after a moment's hesitation.
"It is impossible," returned the coroner.
His face grew even more pallid and deprecatory. "I am obliged to introduce the name of a lady," he hesitatingly declared.
"We are very sorry," remarked the coroner.
The young man turned fiercely upon him, and I could not help wondering that I had ever thought him commonplace. "Of Miss Eleanore Leavenworth!" he cried.
At that name, so uttered, every one started but Mr. Gryce; he was engaged in holding a close and confidential confab with his finger-tips, and did not appear to notice.
"Surely it is contrary to the rules of decorum and the respect we all feel for the lady herself to introduce her name into this discussion," continued Mr. Harwell. But the coroner still insisting upon an answer, he refolded his arms (a movement indicative of resolution with him), and began in a low, forced tone to say:
"It is only this, gentlemen. One afternoon, about three weeks since, I had occasion to go to the library at an unusual hour. Crossing over to the mantel-piece for the purpose of procuring a penknife which I had carelessly left there in the morning, I heard a noise in the adjoining room. Knowing that Mr. Leavenworth was out, and supposing the ladies to be out also, I took the liberty of ascertaining who the intruder was; when what was my astonishment to come upon Miss Eleanore Leavenworth, standing at the side of her uncle's bed, with his pistol in her hand. Confused at my indiscretion, I attempted to escape without being observed; but in vain, for just as I was crossing the threshold, she turned and, calling me by name, requested me to explain the pistol to her. Gentlemen, in order to do so, I was obliged to take it in my hand; and that, sirs, is the only other occasion upon which I ever saw or handled the pistol of Mr. Leavenworth." Drooping his head, he waited in indescribable agitation for the next question.
"She asked you to explain the pistol to her; what do you mean by that?"
"I mean," he faintly continued, catching his breath in a vain effort to appear calm, "how to load, aim, and fire it."
A flash of awakened feeling shot across the faces of all present. Even the coroner showed sudden signs of emotion, and sat staring at the bowed form and pale countenance of the man before him, with a peculiar look of surprised compassion, which could not fail of producing its effect, not only upon the young man himself, but upon all who saw him.
"Mr. Harwell," he at length inquired, "have you anything to add to the statement you have just made?"
The secretary sadly shook his head.
"Mr. Gryce," I here whispered, clutching that person by the arm and dragging him down to my side; "assure me, I entreat you--" but he would not let me finish.
"The coroner is about to ask for the young ladies," he quickly interposed. "If you desire to fulfil your duty towards them, be ready, that's all."
Fulfil my duty! The simple words recalled me to myself. What had I been thinking of; was I mad? With nothing more terrible in mind than a tender picture of the lovely cousins bowed in anguish over the remains of one who had been as dear as a father to them, I slowly rose, and upon demand being made for Miss Mary and Miss Eleanore Leavenworth, advanced and said that, as a friend of the family--a petty lie, which I hope will not be laid up against me--I begged the privilege of going for the ladies and escorting them down.
Instantly a dozen eyes flashed upon me, and I experienced the embarrassment of one who, by some unexpected word or action, has drawn upon himself the concentrated attention of a whole room.
But the permission sought being almost immediately accorded, I was speedily enabled to withdraw from my rather trying position, finding myself, almost before I knew it, in the hall, my face aflame, my heart beating with excitement, and these words of Mr. Gryce ringing in my ears: "Third floor, rear room, first door at the head of the stairs. You will find the young ladies expecting you."