Headless Horseman by Mayne Reid - Chapter Eighty Eight. An Unwilling Witness

Before the monotonous summons has been three times repeated, the lady is seen descending the steps of her carriage.

Conducted by an officer of the Court, she takes her stand on the spot set apart for the witnesses.

Without flinching—apparently without fear—she faces towards the Court.

All eyes are upon her: some interrogatively; a few, perhaps, in scorn: but many in admiration—that secret approval which female loveliness exacts, even when allied with guilt!

One regards her with an expression different from the rest: a look of tenderest passion, dashed with an almost imperceptible distrust.

It is the prisoner himself. From him her eyes are averted as from everybody else.

Only one man she appears to think worthy of her attention—he who has just forsaken the stand she occupies. She looks at Calhoun, her own cousin—as though with her eyes she would kill him.

Cowering under the glance, he slinks back, until the crowd conceals him from her sight.

“Where were you, Miss Poindexter, on the night when your brother was last seen?”

The question is put by the State counsellor.

“At home,—in my father’s house.”

“May I ask, if on that night you went into the garden?”

“I did.”

“Perhaps you will be good enough to inform the Court at what hour?”

“At the hour of midnight—if I rightly remember.”

“Were you alone?”

“Not all the time.”

“Part of it there was some one with you?”

“There was.”

“Judging by your frankness, Miss Poindexter, you will not refuse to inform the Court who that person was?”

“Certainly not.”

“May I ask the name of the individual?”

“There was more than one. My brother was there.”

“But before your brother came upon the ground, was there not some one else in your company?”

“There was.”

“It is his name we wish you to give. I hope you will not withhold it.”

“Why should I? You are welcome to know that the gentleman, who was with me, was Mr Maurice Gerald.”

The answer causes surprise, and something more. There is a show of scorn, not unmixed with indignation.

There is one on whom it produces a very different effect—the prisoner at the bar—who looks more triumphant than any of his accusers!

“May I ask if this meeting was accidental, or by appointment?”

“By appointment.”

“It is a delicate question, Miss Poindexter; you will pardon me for putting it—in the execution of my duty:—What was the nature—the object I should rather term it—of this appointment?”

The witness hesitates to make answer.

Only for an instant. Braising herself from the stooping attitude she has hitherto held, and casting a careless glance upon the faces around her, she replies—

“Motive, or object, it is all the same. I have no intention to conceal it. I went into the garden to meet the man I loved—whom I still love, though he stands before you an accused criminal! Now, sir, I hope you are satisfied?”

“Not quite,” continues the prosecuting counsel, unmoved by the murmurs heard around him; “I must ask you another question, Miss Poindexter. The course I am about to take, though a little irregular, will save the time of the Court; and I think no one will object to it. You have heard what has been said by the witness who preceded you. Is it true that your brother parted in anger with the prisoner at the bar?”

“Quite true.”

The answer sends a thrill through the crowd—a thrill of indignation. It confirms the story of Calhoun. It establishes the motive of the murder!

The bystanders do not wait for the explanation the witness designs to give. There is a cry of “Hang—hang him!” and, along with it, a demonstration for this to be done without staying for the verdict of the jury, “Order in the Court!” cries the judge, taking the cigar from between his teeth, and looking authoritatively around him.

“My brother did not follow him in anger,” pursues the witness, without being further questioned. “He had forgiven Mr Gerald; and went after to apologise.”

“I have something to say about that,” interposes Calhoun, disregarding the irregularity of the act; “they quarrelled afterwards. I heard them, from where I was standing on the top of the house.”

“Mr Calhoun!” cries the judge rebukingly; “if the counsel for the prosecution desire it, you can be put in the box again. Meanwhile, sir, you will please not interrupt the proceedings.”

After a few more questions, eliciting answers explanatory of what she has last alleged, the lady is relieved from her embarrassing situation.

She goes back to her carriage with a cold heaviness at her heart: for she has become conscious that, by telling the truth, she has damaged the cause of him she intended to serve. Her own too: for in passing through the crowd she does not fail to perceive eyes turned upon her, that regard her with an expression too closely resembling contempt!

The “chivalry” is offended by her condescension; the morality shocked by her free confession of that midnight meeting; to say nought of the envy felt for the bonne fortune of him who has been so daringly endorsed.

Calhoun is once more called to the stand; and by some additional perjury, strengthens the antipathy already felt for the accused. Every word is a lie; but his statements appear too plausible to be fabrications.

Again breaks forth the clamour of the crowd. Again is heard the cry, “Hang!”—this time more vociferous, more earnest, than ever.

This time, too, the action is more violent. Men strip off their coats, and fling their hats into the air. The women in the waggons—and even those of gentle strain in the carriages—seem, to share the frenzied spite against the prisoner—all save that one, who sits screened behind the curtain.

She too shows indignation; but from a different cause. If she trembles at the commotion, it is not through fear; but from the bitter consciousness that she has herself assisted in stirring it up. In this dark hour she remembers the significant speech of Calhoun: that from her own lips were to come the words that would prove Maurice Gerald a murderer!

The clamour continues, increasing in earnestness. There are things said aloud—insinuations against the accused—designed to inflame the passions of the assembly; and each moment the outcry grows fiercer and more virulent.

Judge Roberts—the name of him who presides—is in peril of being deposed; to be succeeded by the lawless Lynch!

And then what must follow? For Maurice Gerald no more trial; no condemnation: for that has been done already. No shrift neither; but a quick execution, occupying only the time it will take half a score of expert rope-men to throw a noose around his neck, and jerk him up to the limb of the live-oak stretching horizontally over his head!

This is the thought of almost everybody on the ground, as they stand waiting for some one to say the word—some bad, bold borderer daring enough to take the initiative.

Thanks be to God, the spectators are not all of this mind. A few have determined on bringing the affair to a different finale.

There is a group of men in uniform, seen in excited consultation. They are the officers of the Fort, with the commandant in their midst.

Only for a score of seconds does their council continue. It ends with the braying of a bugle. It is a signal sounded by command of the major.

Almost at the same instant a troop of two-score dragoons, with a like number of mounted riflemen, is seen filing out from the stockade enclosure that extends rearward from the Fort.

Having cleared the gateway, they advance over the open ground in the direction of the live-oak.

Silently, and as though acting under an instinct, they deploy into an alignment—forming three sides of a square, that partially encloses the Court!

The crowd has ceased its clamouring; and stands gazing at a spectacle, which might be taken for a coup de théâtre.

It produces not only silence, but submission: for plainly do they perceive its design, and that the movement is a precautionary measure due to the skill of the commanding officer of the post.

Equally plain is it, that the presidency of Justice Lynch is no longer possible; and that the law of the land is once more in the ascendant.

Without further opposition Judge Roberts is permitted to resume his functions, so rudely interrupted.

“Fellow citizens!” he cries, with a glance towards his auditory, now more reproachful than appealing, “the law is bound to take its course—just the same in Texas as in the States. I need not tell you that, since most of you, I reckon, have seen corn growing on the other side of the Mississippi. Well, taking this for granted, you wouldn’t hang a man without first hearing what he’s got to say for himself? That would neither be law, nor justice, but downright murder!”

“And hasn’t he done murder?” asks one of the rowdies standing near Calhoun. “It’s only sarvin’ him, as he sarved young Poindexter.”

“There is no certainty about that. You’ve not yet heard all the testimony. Wait till we’ve examined the witnesses on the other side. Crier!” continues he, turning to the official; “call the witnesses for the defence.”

The crier obeys; and Phelim O’Neal is conducted to the stand.

The story of the ci-devant stable-boy, confusedly told, full of incongruities—and in many parts altogether improbable—rather injures the chances of his master being thought innocent.

The San Antonio counsel is but too anxious for his testimony to be cut short—having a firmer reliance on the tale to be told by another.

That other is next announced.

“Zebulon Stump!”

Before the voice of the summoning officer has ceased to reverberate among the branches of the live-oak, a tall stalwart specimen of humanity is seen making his way through the throng—whom all recognise as Zeb Stump, the most noted hunter of the Settlement.

Taking three or four strides forward, the backwoodsman comes to a stand upon the spot set apart for the witnesses.

The sacred volume is presented to him in due form; which, after repeating the well-known words of the “affidavit,” Zeb is directed to kiss.

He performs this operation with a smack sufficiently sonorous to be heard to the extreme outside circle of the assemblage.

Despite the solemnity of the scene, there is an audible tittering, instantly checked by the judge; a little, perhaps, by Zeb himself, whose glance, cast inquiringly around, seems to search for some one, that may be seen with a sneer upon his face.

The character of the man is too well known, for any one to suppose he might make merry at his expense; and before his searching glance the crowd resumes, or affects to resume, its composure.

After a few preliminary questions, Zeb is invited to give his version of the strange circumstances, which, have been keeping the Settlement in a state of unwonted agitation.

The spectators prick up their ears, and stand in expectant silence. There is a general impression that Zeb holds the key to the whole mystery.

“Wal, Mister Judge!” says he, looking straight in the face of that cigar-smoking functionary; “I’ve no objection to tell what I know ’beout the bizness; but ef it be all the same to yurself, an the Jewry hyur, I’d preefar that the young fellur shed gie his varsion fust. I kud then foller wi’ mine, the which mout sartify and confirm him.”

“Of what young fellow do you speak?” inquires the judge.

“The mowstanger thur, in coorse. Him as stan’s ’cused o’ killin’ young Peintdexter.”

“It would be somewhat irregular,” rejoins the judge—“After all, our object is to get at the truth. For my part, I haven’t much faith in old-fashioned forms; and if the jury don’t object, let it be as you say.”

The “twelve,” speaking through their foreman, profess themselves of the same way of thinking. Frontiersmen are not noted for strict adherence to ceremonious forms; and Zeb’s request is conceded nemine dissentiente.