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THRUST AND PARRY
When Francis Jeffrey's hand fell from his forehead and he turned to face the assembled people, an instinctive compassion arose in every breast at sight of his face, which, if not open in its expression, was at least surcharged with the deepest misery. In a flash the scene took on new meaning. Many remembered that less than a month before his eye had been joyous and his figure a conspicuous one among the favored sons of fortune. And now he stood in sight of a crowd, drawn together mainly by curiosity, to explain as best he might why this great happiness and hope had come to a sudden termination, and his bride of a fortnight had sought death rather than continue to live under the same roof with him.
So much for what I saw on the faces about me. What my own face revealed I can not say. I only know that I strove to preserve an impassive exterior. If I secretly held this man's misery to be a mask hiding untold passions and the darkness of an unimaginable deed, it was not for me to disclose in this presence either my suspicions or my fears. To me, as to those about me, he apparently was a man who at some sacrifice to his pride, would, yet be able to explain whatever seemed dubious in the mysterious case in which he had become involved.
His wife's uncle, who to all appearance shared the general curiosity as to the effect which this woeful tragedy had had upon his niece's most interested survivor, eyed with a certain cold interest, eminently in keeping with his general character, the pallid forehead, sunken eyes and nervously trembling lip of the once "handsome Jeffrey" till that gentleman, rousing from his depression, manifested a realization of what was required of hire and turned with a bow toward the coroner.
Miss Tuttle settled into a greater rigidity. I pass over the preliminary examination of this important witness and proceed at once to the point when the coroner, holding out the two or three lines of writing which Mr. Jeffrey had declared to have been left him by his wife, asked:
"Are these words in your wife's handwriting?"
Mr. Jeffrey replied hastily, and, with just d glance at the paper offered him:
The coroner pressed the slip upon him.
"Look at them carefully," he urged. "The handwriting shows hurry and in places is scarcely legible. Are you ready to swear that these words were written by your wife and by no other?"
Mr. Jeffrey, with just a slight contraction of his brow expressive of annoyance, did as he was bid. He scanned, or appeared to scan, the small scrap of paper which he now took into his own hand.
"It is my wife's writing," he impatiently declared. "Written, as all can see, under great agitation of mind, but hers without any doubt."
"Will you read aloud these words for our benefit?" asked the coroner:
It was a cruel request, causing an instinctive protest from the spectators. But no protest disturbed Coroner Z. He had his reasons, no doubt, for thus trying this witness, and when Coroner Z. had reason for anything it took more than the displeasure of the crowd to deter him.
Mr. Jeffrey, who had subdued whatever indignation he may have felt at this unmistakable proof of the coroner's intention to have his own way with him whatever the cost to his sensitiveness or pride, obeyed the latter's command in firmer tones than I expected.
The lines he was thus called upon to read may bear repetition:
"I find that I do not love you as I thought. I can not live knowing this to be so. Pray God you may forgive me!
As the last word fell with a little tremble from Mr. Jeffrey's lips, the coroner repeated:
"You still think these words were addressed to you by your wife; that in short they contain an explanation of her death?"
There was sharpness in the tone. Mr. Jeffrey was feeling the prick. There was agitation in it, too; an agitation he was trying hard to keep down.
"You have reason, then," persisted the coroner, "for accepting this peculiar explanation of your wife's death; a death which, in the judgment of most people, was of a nature to call for the strongest provocation possible."
"My wife was not herself. My wife was in an over strained and suffering condition. For one so nervously overwrought many allowances must be made. She may have been conscious of not responding fully to my affection. That this feeling was strong enough to induce her to take her life is a source of unspeakable grief to me, but one for which you must find explanation, as I have so often said, in the terrors caused by the dread event at the Moore house, which recalled old tragedies and emphasized a most unhappy family tradition."
The coroner paused a moment to let these words sink into the ears of the jury, then plunged immediately into what might be called the offensive part of his examination.
"Why, if your wife's death caused you such intense grief, did you appear so relieved at receiving this by no means consoling explanation?"
At an implication so unmistakably suggestive of suspicion Mr. Jeffrey showed fire for the first time.
"Whose word have you for that? A servant's, so newly come into my house that her very features are still strange to me. You must acknowledge that a person of such marked inexperience can hardly be thought to know me or to interpret rightly the feelings of my heart by any passing look she may have surprised upon my face."
This attitude of defiance so suddenly assumed had an effect he little realized. Miss Tuttle stirred for the first time behind her veil, and Uncle David, from looking bored, became suddenly quite attentive. These two but mirrored the feelings of the general crowd, and mine especially.
"We do not depend on her judgment alone," the coroner now remarked. "The change in you was apparent to many others. This we can prove to the jury if they require it."
But no man lifting a voice from that gravely attentive body, the coroner proceeded to inquire if Mr. Jeffrey felt like volunteering any explanations on this head. Receiving no answer from him either, he dropped the suggestive line of inquiry and took up the consideration of facts. The first question he now put was:
"Where did you find the slip of paper containing these last words from your wife?"
"In a book I picked out of the book-shelf in our room upstairs. When Loretta gave me my wife's message I knew that I should find some word from her in the novel we had just been reading. As we had been interested in but one book since our marriage, there was no possibility of my making an' mistake as to which one she referred"
"Will you give us the name of this novel?"
"And you found this book called COMPENSATION in your room upstairs?"
"On the book-shelf?"
"Where does this book-shelf stand?"
Mr. Jeffrey looked up as much as to say, "Why so many small questions about so simple a matter?" but answered frankly enough:
"At the right of the door leading into the bedroom."
"And at right angles to the door leading into the hall?"
"Very good. Now may I ask you to describe the cover of this book?"
"The cover? I never noticed the cover. Why do you -. Excuse me, I suppose you have your reasons for asking even these puerile and seemingly unnecessary questions. The cover is a queer one I believe; partly red and partly green; and that is all I know about it."
"Is this the book?"
Mr. Jeffrey glanced at the volume the coroner held up before him.
"I believe so; it looks like it."
The book had a flaming cover, quite unmistakable in its character.
"The title shows it to be the same," remarked the coroner. "Is this the only book with a cover of this kind in the house?"
"The only one, I should say."
The coroner laid down the book.
"Enough of this, then, for the present; only let the jury remember that the cover of this book is peculiar and that it was kept on a shelf at the right of the opening leading into the adjoining bed-room. And now, Mr. Jeffrey, we must ask you to look at these rings; or, rather, at this one. You have seen it before; it is the one you placed on Mrs. Jeffrey's hand when you were married to her a little over a fortnight ago. You recognize it?"
"Do you also recognize this small mark of blood on it as having been here when it was shown to you by the detective on your return from seeing her dead body at the Moore house?"
"I do; yes."
"How do you account for that spot and the slight injury made to her finger? Should you not say that the ring had been dragged from her hand?"
"By whom was it dragged? By you?"
"By herself, then?"
"It would seem so."
"Much passion must have been in that act. Do you think that any ordinary quarrel between husband and wife would account for the display of such fury? Are we not right in supposing a deeper cause for the disturbance between you than the slight one you offer in way of explanation?"
An inaudible answer; then a sudden straightening of Francis Jeffrey's fine figure. And that was all.
"Mr. Jeffrey, in the talk you had with your wife on Tuesday morning was Miss Tuttle's name introduced?"
"It was mentioned; yes, sir."
"With recrimination or any display of passion on the part of your wife?"
"You would not believe me if I said no," was the unexpected rejoinder.
The coroner, taken aback by this direct attack from one who had hitherto borne all his innuendoes with apparent patience, lost countenance for a moment, but, remembering that in his official capacity he was more than a match for the elegant gentleman, who under other circumstances would have found it only too easy to put him to the blush, he observed with dignity:
"Mr. Jeffrey, you are on oath. We certainly have no reason for not believing you."
Mr. Jeffrey bowed. He was probably sorry for his momentary loss of self-control, and gravely, but with eyes bent downward, answered with the abrupt phrase:
"Well, then, I will say no."
The coroner shifted his ground.
"Will you make the same reply when I ask if the like forbearance was shown toward your wife's name in the conversation you had with Miss Tuttle immediately afterward?"
A halt in the eagerly looked-for reply; a hesitation, momentary indeed, but pregnant with nameless suggestions, caused his answer, when it did come, to lose some of the emphasis he manifestly wished to put into it.
"Miss Tuttle was Mrs. Jeffrey's half-sister. The bond between them was strong. Would she would I--be apt to speak of my young wife with bitterness?"
"That is not an answer to my question, Mr. Jeffrey. I must request a more positive reply."
Miss Tuttle made a move. The strain on all present was so great we could but notice it. He noticed it too, for his brows came together with a quick frown, as he emphatically replied:
"There were no recriminations uttered. Mrs. Jeffrey had displeased me and I said so, but I did not forget that I was speaking of my wife and to her sister."
As this was in the highest degree non-committal, the coroner could be excused for persisting.
"The conversation, then, was about your wife?"
"In criticism of her conduct?"
"At the ambassador's ball?"
Mr. Jeffrey was a poor hand at lying. That last "yes" came with great effort.
The coroner waited, possibly for the echo of this last "yes" to cease; then he remarked with a coldness which lifted at once the veil from his hitherto well disguised antagonism to this witness.
"If you will recount to us anything which your wife said or did on that evening which, in your mind, was worthy of all this coil, it might help us to understand the situation."
But the witness made no attempt to do so, and while many of us were ready to pardon him this show of delicacy, others felt that under the circumstances it would have been better had he been more open.
Among the latter was the coroner himself, who, from this moment, threw aside all hesitation and urged forward his inquiries in a way to press the witness closer and closer toward the net he was secretly holding out for him. First, he obliged him to say that his conversation with Miss Tuttle had not tended to smooth matters; that no reconciliation with his wife had followed it, and that in the thirty-six hours which elapsed before he returned home again he had made no attempt to soothe the feelings of one, who, according to his own story, he considered hardly responsible for any extravagances in which she might have indulged. Then when this inconsistency had been given time to sink into the minds of the jury, Coroner Z. increased the effect produced by confronting Jeffrey with witnesses who testified to the friendly, if not lover-like relations which had existed between himself and Miss Tuttle prior to the appearance of his wife upon the scene; closing with a question which brought out the denial, by no means new, that an engagement had ever taken place between him and Miss Tuttle and hence that a bond had been canceled by his marriage with Miss Moore.
But his manner and careful choice of words in making this denial did not satisfy those present of his entire candor; especially as Miss Tuttle, for all her apparent immobility, showed, by the violent locking of her hands, both her anxiety and the suffering she was undergoing during this painful examination. Was the suffering merely one of outraged delicacy? We felt justified in doubting it, and looked forward, with cruel curiosity I admit, to the moment when this renowned and universally admired beauty would be called on to throw aside her veil axed reveal the highly praised features which had been so openly scorned for the sake of one whose chief claims to regard lay in her great wealth.
But this moment was as yet far distant. The coroner was a man of method, and his plan was now to prove, as had been apparent to most of us from the first, that the assumption of suicide on the part of Mrs. Jeffrey was open to doubt. The communication suggesting such an end to her troubles was the strongest proof Mr. Jeffrey could bring forward that her death had been the result of her own act. Consequently it was now the coroner's business to show that this communication was either a forgery, or a substitution, and that if she left some word in the book to which she had in so peculiar a manner directed his attention, it was not necessarily the one bewailing her absence of love for him and her consequent intention of seeking relief from her disappointment in death.
Some hint of what the coroner contemplated had already escaped him in the persistent and seemingly inconsequent questions to which he had subjected this witness in reference to these very matters. But the time had now come for a more direct attack, and the interest rose correspondingly high, when the coroner, lifting again to sight the scrap of paper containing the few piteous lines so often quoted, asked of the now anxious and agitated witness, if he had ever noticed any similarity between the handwriting of his wife and that of Miss Tuttle.
An indignant "No!" was about to pass his lips, when he suddenly checked himself and said more mildly: "There may have been a similarity; I hardly know, I have seen too little of Miss Tuttle's hand to judge."
This occasioned a diversion. Specimens of Miss Tuttle's handwriting were produced, which, after having been duly proved, were passed down to the jury along with the communication professedly signed by Mrs. Jeffrey. The grunts of astonishment which ensued as the knowing heads drew near over these several papers caused Mr. Jeffrey to flush and finally to cry out with startling emphasis:
"I know that those words were written by my wife."
But when the coroner asked him his reasons for this conviction, he could, or would not state them.
"I have said," he stolidly repeated; and that was all.
The coroner made no comment, but when, after some further inquiry, which added little to the general knowledge, he dismissed Mr. Jeffrey and recalled Loretta, there was that in his tone which warned us that the really serious portion of the day's examination was about to begin.
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