The Ways Of The Hour
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The object of this story, the last novel written by Cooper, is to draw attention to some of the social evils besetting American institutions, especially those in connection with the administration of justice. Mr. Cooper argues that trial by jury, so admirable in a monarchy, is totally unsuited to a democracy; that the very principle that renders it so safe where there is a great central power to resist, renders it unsafe in a state of society in which few have sufficient resolution to attempt even to resist popular impulses. In a democracy proper, selection of the material necessary to render juries safe becomes nearly impossible; and in a state of society like our own juries get to be much too independent of the opinion of the court. But the great difficulty is to find a substitute; for it is not to be supposed that the masses will surrender voluntarily or with good-will this important means of exercising their authority.
THE scene of this tale is in and around New York; time, the first half of the eighteenth century. Thomas Dunscomb, a trustworthy and sound legal adviser, was a resident of New York. With him lived a nephew and a niece, John and Sarah Wilmeter, familiarly called Jack and Sally. The three were breakfasting in company with Michael Millington, a guest of Jack's and with him a student in the office of Mr. Dunscomb, when a visitor entered in the person of Dr. Edward McBrain. The doctor was the family physician and the bosom friend of the lawyer, the two liking each other on the principle of attraction of opposites. The lawyer was a bachelor, the other was about to marry a third wife; one was a little of a cynic, the other a philanthropist; one cautious to excess, the other absolutely impetuous when his feelings were interested.
Dr. McBrain had come thus early to consult the lawyer in a case which interested him greatly. He was the owner of a small place called Timbully in an adjoining county, not more than fifteen miles from his town house in Bleecker Street. He had gone thither to have it put in order for the reception of his bride, when he was summoned to the county town to give evidence as a medical man before a coroner's jury. A house in Biberry had been burned with its owners, an aged couple, and there was a strong suspicion that the house had been fired to hide the crime of murder.
The village of Biberry was in a high state of excitement over the affair, the old couple having been much respected. Mr. Goodwin was a commonplace, well-meaning man, of no great capacity, and his wife was a managing, discreet, pious woman, even more respected than her husband, and habitually kind and attentive to all who entered her dwelling. The charred remains of the two had been found lying together in the ruins, and were shown to Dr. McBride on a table in the court-house. Much of the evidence had been taken when he arrived; but a witness was testifying that he had aided in helping out of a window a young woman who had boarded with the Goodwins, most of whose clothes and other belongings had been saved.
"This looks like foul play!" exclaimed the doctor, as soon as he began his examination. "The skulls of both these persons have been fractured and, it would seem, by the same blow."
This led to a free discussion of the probability of arson and murder. Mrs. Goodwin was reputed to have had considerable specie, which one witness testified was kept in an old stocking of Mr. Goodwin's, full of darns; and its usual place of deposit was in the lower drawer of a chest of drawers. This chest of drawers had been opened by the village carpenter, and its contents, female apparel, was found untouched, but the stocking was missing. The witness testified also that some of the money in the stocking was gold, one piece of which, almost as large as a half-dollar, was a peculiar coin easily recognizable by any who had once seen it.
To complicate the case still further, Dr. McBride had reached the conclusion, though the condition of the remains was such as almost to baffle investigation, that the bones were those of two females. When questioned, he would not assert this absolutely; the fire had made sad work, but in his own mind there were few doubts on the subject, for he was a skilled anatomist.
As soon as the doctor had finished his examination, he observed that all eyes in the court-room were centered on a young woman who sat apart, and who seemed to be laboring under some sort of nervous shock. Her face was concealed in her handkerchief, but her form was youthful and attractive, and she appeared in every way superior to those around her. Her dress was simple and of studied modesty, and her hands were small and delicate. On inquiry, the doctor found that she was Miss Mary Monson, and that she had been residing a few weeks in the house of the Goodwins--as a boarder, some said, while others said as a friend. There was a mystery about her, for she had kept aloof from society, and most of the girls of Biberry had called her proud because she did not join in their frivolities. Dr. McBrain saw that a current of suspicion was setting strongly against this friendless girl, and he at once determined to interest his friend Dunscomb in her case.
On the next day Dunscomb accompanied Dr. McBrain to Biberry and was present in the court-house when Mary Mon-son was called as a witness. As she was obliged to remove her hat so that the jurors could observe her countenance, he had a good opportunity to study her. She appeared to be about twenty years old; her features, though not perfectly regular, were marked by a mingling of intelligence, softness, spirit, and feminine innocence that did not fail to produce a favorable impression on all who saw her.
She trembled a little when sworn, and when asked her name, residence, and occupation, her face, pale before, became scarlet.
Dunscomb, seeing her dilemma, arose and interposed.
"As a member of the bar, I interfere in behalf of the witness," he said. "She is evidently unacquainted with her true position here and with her rights. A perfectly innocent person may have good reasons for wishing to conceal her name. It might better serve the ends of justice to allow me to confer with the witness in private."
" With all my heart, sir," said the coroner. "Take her into one of the jury rooms, Mr. Dunscomb."
Dunscomb offered his arm to the girl and led her out, while other witnesses were called. In about an hour the two returned, the lawyer looking very grave, the girl showing signs of weeping. The coroner immediately resumed her examination. Her testimony was to the effect that she was known in and around Biberry as Mary Monson, that she had resided with the Goodwins nine weeks to a day when the fire occurred; that she was awakened by a bright light, arose and dressed herself, and was about to descend the stairs when she found it was too late. She then went to a window, thinking to throw her bed out and to let herself down on it, when two men raised a ladder by which she escaped. The same two persons entered her room, which was in the part last to take fire, and saved most of her personal effects and the furniture.
When questioned in regard to gold coins in her possession, she calmly put her purse into the coroner's hand.
"Here are seven half-eagles, two quarter-eagles, and a strange piece I do not remember ever to have seen before," remarked the coroner.
"It is an Italian coin, of the value of about twenty dollars," said Mary quietly. "I kept it as a thing a little out of the common."
Mrs. Pope, who had testified the day before that she had seen gold coins in Mrs. Goodwin's stocking, was called again and asked if she should know any' of the coins. When she answered in the affirmative, the Italian piece was shown her and she immediately exclaimed : " That's the piece ! I'd know it among a thousand."
The piece of gold was passed from juror to juror, and each examined it carefully. To Dunscomb's surprise, Mary Monson betrayed no uneasiness at what created a sensation in the court-room, and she answered calmly all questions regarding it. The coin, she averred, had been in her possession about a year. Mrs. Goodwin certainly had the little store of gold to which Mrs. Pope testified, for she had shown it to her; and she herself had given Mrs. Goodwin several pieces. No doubt Mrs. Pope saw the counterpart of this piece, but surely not the piece itself.
Notwithstanding this explanation and the calmness and composure of the young woman in so equivocal a position, the jury brought in a verdict, as the result of their inquest, of murder in the first degree, and Mary Monson was at once arrested.
John, or Jack, Wilmeter had been left by his uncle at Biberry to look after the welfare of their strange client, and the young man not only satisfied himself of the innocence of Mary but proceeded to fall in love with her.
"I should as soon think of accusing Sarah of such a dark offense as of accusing this young lady!" exclaimed John to Michael Millington. "It is preposterous, monstrous, to sup-pose that a young educated female would, or could, commit such crimes! Why, Mike, she understands French and Italian and Spanish; and I think it quite likely she can also read German, if not speak it. When she asked for some of her own books to read, I found she had selected works in all four of those languages."
But Mike was by no means as sanguine as his friend; and, notwithstanding John's lively hopes, his judgment, influenced perhaps by Mr. Dunscomb's expressed fears, inclined to the worst forebodings of the result.
When John Wilmeter called at the jail to see Miss Monson, he found that Mrs. Gott, the jailer's wife, had done all she could for the prisoner's comfort. She had put a carpet in the cell, and several pieces of furniture, and had also carpeted and furnished the gallery in front. Miss Monson received John cordially, expressed herself as well pleased with what had been done for her, and said she felt in the jail a sense of security which she had not known for months. She should be entirely happy if she only had a maid servant.
"I know the very woman that will suit you," said John. "A perfect jewel in her way, a Swiss—Marie Moulin."
"Marie Moulin! Is she about five-and-thirty, slightly pock-marked, with blue eyes and yellowish hair?"
"The very same; and you knew her?"
"Beg your sister to tell her that an old acquaintance in distress implores her assistance. That will bring Marie sooner than money."
The next morning Marie Moulin, attended by John, was admitted to the jail. The young man did not go to the cell, but he was near enough to hear:
" C'est bien vous donc, Marie!"
"Mademoiselle!" exclaimed the Swiss. This was followed by kisses and then the door closed.
After this John Wilmeter paid two regular visits to the grate each day, at which times he usually saw Marie Moulin, in the back of the cell, sewing. Miss Monson, who seemed not in the least troubled at her situation, had had a harp brought into her cell and amused herself by playing it. John Wilmeter, in these frequent interviews, became more and more interested in this strange woman and her strange case, and almost forgot an-other who had some slight claims on his fealty. His sister Sarah's intimate friend was Anna Updyke, the daughter of the widow whom Dr. McBrain was about to marry. Anna was about nineteen, having been "out" only two years, and being an attractive girl with good expectations, had many suitors. There had never been any love-making directly between John and Anna, though each regarded the other with a sort of fraternal affection.
Anna Updyke, regarding Miss Monson as a stranger grievously wronged and knowing John's interest in her, asked Mr. Dunscomb to permit her to visit the prisoner. She was accordingly taken by him to the jail and soon became as much entranced with her as seemed to be the fate of all who approached the circle of her acquaintance. When Dunscomb returned to town that night, he left Anna Updyke to the care of Mrs. Gott, who prepared for her a private room in the sheriff's dwelling next the jail.
Two days after this, Dunscomb was astonished to receive, late in the evening, a call from two visitors muffled in shawls and veils. Throwing aside the garments that concealed their forms, Mary Monson and Anna Updyke stood before him. The first was self-composed and brilliantly handsome; her companion, flushed with excitement, scarcely less so.
"You know how difficult it is for me to travel by daylight," began Miss Monson in the most natural manner; "this must explain the unseasonableness of this visit. Mr. Timms has written me a letter which I thought it might be well to show to you. There it is—read it."
Mr. Timms was the associate counsel engaged by Duns-comb to aid him in the defense.
" Why, this is much like a conditional proposal of marriage!" cried Dunscomb.
"I forgot the opening of the epistle," she replied. "A marriage between him and me is so entirely out of the possibilities that I look upon his advances as mere embellishment.
It is the business part of the letter to which I wish to call your attention."
"Why is this shown to me?" he asked. "You know it is felony to assist a prisoner in an attempt to escape."
"I have shown it to you because I have not the remotest intention to attempt anything of the sort."
"Why are you here, then?" .
"For air, exercise, and to show you the letter. I am often in town, but am compelled, for more reasons than you are acquainted with, to travel by night."
"May I ask how you get out of jail and where you obtain a vehicle for these journeys?"
"I have a set of keys," she answered, "and I use my own carriage. But I am much fatigued, Mr. Dunscomb, and must ask permission to sleep for an hour. A sofa in a dark room is all I ask. At midnight the carriage will be again at the door."
The next minute she was stretched on a sofa and covered with a shawl; and Dunscomb went with Anna to her mother's home.
" Of course, my dear," said the lawyer, "we shall see no more of Mary Monson."
"I should be very sorry, sir, to think that!"
"She is no simpleton, and means to take Timms's advice. The fellow has written a strong letter and plainly advises her to abscond."
"I think you do not understand Mary Monson, Uncle Tom. She would rather make it a point of honor to remain and face any accusation whatever."
Anna was right. Mary Monson was in a deep sleep on the sofa when they returned. But presently the carriage came, and she appeared refreshed and calmed by her nap. She gave her hand to Dunscomb in leave-taking, and the lawyer thought he had seldom seen anyone of more distinguished manners or greater personal charms than this mysterious young woman.
As the time of Mary Monson's trial drew near, the community rapidly took sides on the subject of her guilt or innocence. Many stories were put in circulation touching her character, history, sayings, and doings, most of which had no foundation in truth. A shrewd lawyer, called Dick Williams by his intimates, and Saucy Williams on account of his methods, engaged to aid the prosecuting attorney, was largely responsible for the circulation of these reports; for the life of a person was of little consequence to him compared with the winning of a case. Attempts were made to create prejudice against her by representing her as an aristocrat. "I have never been able to get a sight of her," said Williams; "she is too much of a great lady to be seen at a grate—plays on the harp, and has a French valet de chambre, or something of that sort."
Just before the trial, Williams came to Dunscomb and Timms at the hotel and offered to withdraw all extra counsel, including himself, from the case, provided that the defense would return to the nephew and sole heir of the late Peter Goodwin five thousand dollars in gold. Dunscomb, feeling that his client should know of this at once, went to he jail and laid the terms before her.
"As respects the money, Mr. Dunscomb, that can be here by breakfast-time to-morrow. But I dislike the injustice of the thing. As I have never touched a cent of poor Mrs. Goodwin's hoard, it would be false to admit that I am returning that which I never received."
"Our case is not absolutely dear, Miss Monson; it is my duty to tell you as much!"
"I shall be acquitted, gentlemen, honorably, triumphantly acquitted; and I cannot consent to lessen the impression by putting myself in the way of being even suspected of collusion with a man like this Saucy Williams."
A long conversation ensued in which Miss Monson advanced peculiar sentiments in regard to the absolute independence of women, averring that men, who had made all the laws, had dealt unfairly by women and had fashioned everything in their own favor. Dunscomb combated her ideas, asserting that God created woman to be a helpmeet to man, but always in a dependent relation. Miss Monson took fire at his remarks and responded haughtily:
"Your comments, Mr. Dunscomb, are those of a bachelor. I have heard of a certain Miss Millington who once had an interest in you, and who, if living, would have taught you juster sentiments on this subject."
Dunscomb turned white, and his hand and lip quivered. Anna Updyke, who had seen a similar agitation before and knew that there was a leaf in Uncle Tom's history that he did not wish every vulgar eye to read, offered him a glass of water. Mary Monson, as if declining further communication with her counsel, went into her cell; and the two lawyers quitted the prison.
When Dunscomb next saw Jack Wilmeter he gave him some good advice. "When you marry, Jack, marry a woman, not one like Mary Monson, but such a girl as Anna Updyke, if you can get hen"
"I thank you, sir," said John, coloring, "but why not Mary Monson?"
"Mary Monson is a wife already, and I fear a bad one," said the counselor hoarsely. "If she be the woman I suppose her to be, her history is a lamentable one. To you my early history is a blank; but I will tell you in a few words all you need to know. I was about your age, Jack, when I loved and be-came engaged to Mary Millington, Michael's great-aunt. I was cruelly, heartlessly jilted for a richer man. She married and died, leaving one daughter, who married early her own cousin, Frank Millington. Like her mother, she also died young, leaving an only daughter to inherit an ample fortune. Frank Millington went early to Paris, and when he died, Mildred Millington, the heiress of both parents, is said to have had quite twenty thousand a year. Officious friends made a match for her with a Frenchman of family but small means. The recent revolution drove them to this country, where the wife, I have been told, took the reins of domestic government into her own . hands, until some sort of a separation was the consequence. I believe Mary Monson to be this person."
"But why should a woman of twenty thousand a year be living in the cottage of Peter Goodwin?"
"Because she is a woman of twenty thousand a year. The lady clings to her dollars, which she loves more than her husband. Monsieur de Larocheforte naturally desired to play something more than a puppet's part in his own abode and family; a quarrel ensued, and she chose to conceal herself for a time under Peter Goodwin's roof, to evade pursuit.
Capricious and wrong-headed women do a thousand strange things."
Mary Monson was brought to trial on the charge of murdering Peter Goodwin; and notwithstanding the efforts of her counsel and her own protestations of innocence and her belief in a triumphant acquittal, was found guilty and condemned to be hanged.
The judge had hardly pronounced the sentence when Mrs. Horton, the landlady of the hotel, forced her way through the crowd, calling out:
"They tell me, your honor, that Mary Monson has been found guilty of the murder of Peter Goodwin!"
"It is so, my good woman; but that case is ended. Remove the prisoner, Mr. Sheriff—time is precious—"
"Yes, your honor, and so is eternity. Mary Monson is no more guilty of taking the life of Peter Goodwin than I am. I've always said some great disgrace would befall our juries, and now my prophecy has come true. Dukes is disgraced. Constable, let that poor man come in."
A driveling old man tottered forward and twenty voices cried aloud: "Peter Goodwin!"
Bench, bar, jury, witnesses, and audience were all astounded at this unexpected resurrection.
"I hope, Brother Dunscomb, the counsel for the accused have not been parties to this deception?" said the Judge.
"I am as much taken by surprise as your honor can possibly be," replied Dunscomb.
"There are still two indictments pending over Mary Mon-son. Mr. District Attorney feels the necessity of trying these cases, or one of them at least, in vindication of the justice of the state and county. I trust that Dorothy Goodwin will be brought forward at once, if still living."
"Dorothy Goodwin is dead," said Mary Monson solemnly.
"Poor woman! she was called away suddenly, and in her sins."
The whole mystery was cleared up at the second trial. The fire was accidental; Peter had left his wife the night before to go on one of his customary sprees, and Mrs. Goodwin had taken a German woman, who was in the house at the time, to sleep with her. A plowshare, kept in the garret overhead, had fallen and inflicted the injury on both skulls. In the confusion, Sarah Burton, a near neighbor, had opened the drawer and removed the stocking, which she carried to her own house. She fancied herself unseen-though Mary Monson had observed the movement—and the possession of the treasure excited her cupidity. Supposing Mary Monson to be the sort of person that rumor made her out to be, she saw no great harm in giving a shove to the descending culprit. She had taken the notched coin from the stocking and put it into her own pocket. When the purse of Mary Monson was examined, she was near by, and exchanged the notched piece for the perfect coin from the purse. All these facts were gradually extracted from her on cross-examination.
Mary Monson was, as Dunscomb suspected, Mildred Millington by birth, Madame de Larocheforte by marriage, the granddaughter of the very woman to whom he had been betrothed in youth. Her marriage was unhappy, and it was sup-posed that she had taken up her abode in the cottage of the Goodwins to avoid her husband. Her sanity was doubted by some who knew her best, and her behavior was a source of great uneasiness to her friends.