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The Trial of Callista Blake By Edgar Pangborn Characters: 22270

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Edith Nolan watched the cherries wobbling on Maud Welsh's hat as the woman perched in the witness chair, a sparrow ready for flight. T. J. Hunter purred and soothed. "Your occupation, Miss Welsh?"

"Guess you could say housekeeper." The voice was dry, brittle as the woman's skin. Merciless morning light played on Maud's wrinkles; bad judgment had tricked her into using dabs of make-up.

On her two visits to the Shanesville house, Edith had been aware of Maud as not much more than a background flutter and squeak; Callista had filled Edith in on the family history that explained her. Long ago, long before Herb Chalmers and Callista's mother were married and while Herb's father Malachi Chalmers was still alive, Cousin Maud had been asked to come and keep house. She stayed. Father Malachi had been a Full Professor, also a sort of fin de siècle Great Man who wrote a book (or something) and whose memory, Edith gathered, served as a squashy but invincible paperweight holding down the remainder of Herb's polite life. Maud Welsh had evidently done much to keep that memory functional. By the power of the meek, and because she was useful and a cousin, she just stayed, a small household tyrant given to vigorous church attendance and good works, enlarging on the time when the Professor was alive as a golden age to keep his degenerate son in line, dusting and sweeping intensely at unseasonable hours, putting up interminable preserves, and carrying on a picayune war with Victoria Chalmers, a war of sniffles and grievances which (Callista said) both of them enjoyed so much that there was never any serious question of sending Maud on her way. In the cellar, said Callista, there were five six-foot shelves of plum jam alone-Maud's atomic reserve. Anyhow, she raised quiet Presbyterian hell if any of it was used. And Callista in the studio had drawn a pen-and-ink of Maud lurking all alone underground in a desolated world, grown obese (in garments meant for a thin woman) on a thick diet of plum jam. Edith had said: "Oh, damn it, Cal, after all!" and kept the sketch.

"Where are you employed at present, Miss Welsh?"

"Well, see, I'm kin to-"

T. J. Hunter showed half-amused worry wrinkles. "Just my question, please. You know, limit your answers to the question."

"Oh, you did tell me that, didn't you? Well, I live in with the Chalmerses, I mean Dr. and Mrs. Herbert Chalmers of Shanesville."

"Doctor-that's an academic degree, isn't it?"

"Uh-oh yes. A Ph. D." Her voice made it an ailment.

Hunter's morning sleekness annoyed Edith, who felt dowdy and unkempt after a bad night. Aspirin, insomnia, a dripping faucet in the bathroom, meaningless noises in the studio-probably mice.

"Is there a street number on the Chalmers house?"

"No, just Walton Road. Same's when The Professor was alive and we lived in Winchester, all you had to say-"

"Yes, I understand. Just limit your answers, please."

"I'm sorry. I'll try."

Judge Mann also was dark under the eyes, as if his sleep had been poor. He was not busy with his pencil. His ignoring of Hunter's wry glance was perhaps a way of saying: She's your chicken. Callista, drooping and still-faced, was again partly hidden by Cecil Warner, who looked a little better this morning with a fresh shave. The flowers last night, the rather elaborate too-expensive dining out, the antique gallantry-very sweet of him, Edith thought, and in his idiom not at all strange. He had wanted of course to talk about Callista, but at dinner and later, after toiling upstairs to the studio for drinks and quiet, he had hardly been able to, seeming happier when Edith carried the conversation away to more impersonal regions.

Edith twisted in her seat, winning a timid nod from Herb Chalmers, a calm glare from Victoria. Back of them was Jim Doherty, again with Father Bland. Jim did not acknowledge her glance either, but probably because he didn't see it, a man alone on an island and hurt, trying to interpret contradictory voices in the wind. Edith twitched her skirt back into place and settled herself to endure the first day of testimony.

"Are your duties as housekeeper fairly general, Miss Welsh?"

"Might say so. I do everything but heavy cleaning, we have a woman on Tuesdays for that. I cook, see to things."

"You go away on vacations?"

"Visit my sister in Maine two weeks every summer, two in the fall."

"You did so this year?"

"In June, not the fall. Because of the trouble, I thought I should stay, couldn't do less."

"Were you in Shanesville on Friday, August 7th of this year?"

"The 7th-oh, the picnic. Yes, I was."

"No, limit your answers, please. I just want to verify your presence on certain dates. Were you at Shanesville all day Sunday and Monday, August 16th and 17th?"

Arthritic claws clenched on her handbag. "Yes, I was."

"At about 10:30 Monday morning, August 17th, who beside yourself was present, to your knowledge, at the Chalmers house or on the grounds?"

"Just Herb, I mean Dr. Chalmers. I think Mrs. Chalmers'd gone to the supermarket in Shanesville, anyhow she wasn't home at 10:30."

"Where exactly were you at that time?"

"On the back porch fixing snap beans for lunch."

"What part of the grounds could you see from that spot?"

"Well, part of the lawn runs around the north side of the house, between it and the grove, and there's the vegetable garden in back."

"Is there a path through the grove?"

"Yes, from our house to Dohertys' place."

"Will you describe that path, please?"

"Just a footpath, tramped ground, pine needles." Maud Welsh swallowed. "Goes near a pond that's right about on the Dohertys' line."

"From the back porch could you see the opening of that path?"

"Yes."

"Did you see Dr. Chalmers at 10:30 or thereabouts?"

"Yes, he came out on the porch and we talked some. Weather mostly I guess. It was a scorcher, and real humid."

"What did he do after your conversation?"

"Went to look at the vegetable garden, then into the grove-not by that path though: he went into it at a place beyond the garden, where our brook goes under the trees. We were watching that brook on account of the drouth."

"When did you next see him?"

"A few minutes later. He came out of the woods, by the path that time, stumbled, shouted to me. I dropped the beans and went to him. I saw his clothes were wringin' wet, and he looked awful white. I helped him into the shade on the back porch. He talked kind of-"

"Just the substance of the conversation, please. That is, if he explained what had happened to upset him-did he?"

"Not-not to say explain, exactly. He said-"

"I think we'll just omit the conversation and go on to what you did next. Just what you did, you understand. After helping him into the shade, what did you yourself do?"

Clearly the biddy was already giving T. J. Hunter a case of jitters. Cecil Warner's crooked half-smile underlined the fact for Edith. Would he now be able to bring out poor Herb's first addled words, whatever they were, in cross examination? Would they help, if he did? And if he testified for the defense, what would Herb himself do about them? Last night Cecil had said, into the bright depth of his second Martini: "First law of the courtroom: never count on a jury's respecting logic."

"Well, sir, I went to the pond. His clothes wet, I knew it-"

"Just what you did, not what you thought. You went to the pond-wait a minute. We'll go back a little at this point, Miss Welsh. You were well acquainted with Ann Doherty-Mrs. James Doherty?"

"Well, I sh'd hope-I'm sorry, sir. Yes, I was."

"When did you first meet her?"

"In 1956. They moved in that year. Good neighbors, her anyway."

Edith saw the Old Man rising, and steady too, monumental. "May it please the Court, the defense is not concerned with the character of James Doherty, but I object in principle to that kind of innuendo."

"Sustained." The Judge's voice was cool. "The witness's last remark beginning with the words 'good neighbors' will be stricken."

Edith relaxed, aware of the primitive quality of her gratification: one for our side. Not that Jim belonged to the defense-Jim was lost, or trapped. All the same, the defense had spoken. She also recalled unhappily other words Cecil had spoken to that Martini: "Why did I order that thing? I was going to make it wine. Will you slap my fat wrist if I do it again?" He had made it wine, at the studio, and gone home sober. After, of all things, kissing her hand.

"Miss Welsh, was your relation to Mrs. Doherty one of close acquaintance? Casual? Just what was it?"

"Kind of close. We'd-oh, visit back and forth."

"When was the last time you saw Mrs. Doherty alive?"

"Two days before-I mean Saturday, August 15th. She came over for some bacon. She'd forgot it in shopping."

"Did you, for instance, call each other by your first names?"

"Ayah, did, matter of fact. I'm a mite old-fashioned, but we did."

"All right. Now back to the Monday morning. You went to the pond. What if anything did you find there?"

"She-in the water-I couldn't reach-"

"Miss Welsh, try to be impersonal, won't you? Remember the jury never knew these people. Now: when you came to the pond, just describing things impersonally, what did you see?"

"I saw-the body of a woman in the water."

"How was she dressed?"

"White blouse. Powder-blue skirt, blue jacket to match."

"Any head covering?"

"No. I saw her hair, that real pretty reddy-gold-auburn-"

"Could you reach the body from the bank?"

"No. I went in a few steps. A mud bottom-I-"

"Do you feel all right?"

"I'm all right. I touched her, the whole body turned-"

"We can spare you those details, I think. You turned the body until you could see the face, right? And knew positively that it was-?"

"It was Ann-Mrs. Doherty. I couldn't lift her out, anyway she was-cold. I went and called the state police, thought I should-"

"Did you talk again with Dr. Chalmers?"

"Yes, he was still on the back porch. I just said I'd called the police, said I'd go back to the pond, way they told me. So I did."

Maud Welsh, Edith thought, might have loved Ann in whatever flustered way she was capable of loving. For Edith the memory of Ann, met only three or four times, hung suspended in the past like an antique picture: something by Fragonard, say, in a frame of fussy gilt. Dainty, a bit undernourished-Ann pestered herself with diets now and then-and insipid. You couldn't quite imagine the angelic face distorted or transfigured by extremes of passion, or wrinkled by thought. With no overtone of spite, Callista had said once: "Ann isn't vain. I think she likes to share her prettiness in a nice way, the way you'd share a box of candy. She feels it was very pleasant of God to make her so pretty, and so going to Mass and keeping confession up to date like a good bank account, that's a matter of genuine gratitude as well as a sort of spiritual hygiene."

"While you waited for the police you didn't move or change anything?"

"No, sir, I just sat there and pr

ayed for her."

Most of the jurors looked vaguely gratified. The faces of Terence Mann and Cecil Warner were politely blank as a church door on Monday morning. Edith could not see Callista, for Warner leaning forward at that moment shut her away. And T. J. Hunter at the prosecution's table was fumbling at a plastic bag.

"Miss Welsh, do you identify these garments as those that Ann Doherty was wearing when you found her body in the pond at Shanesville?"

"Yes, I-let me see the blouse again-yes, sir, I do."

"These stockings: can you identify them as the ones Mrs. Doherty was wearing?"

"Well, I suppose-I mean, that type, they look so alike."

"I'm putting my hand in this one, the right. Here's the heel. Now as near as I can manage it, my wrist is about where an anklebone would come-does that help you?"

"Oh, the hole! Yes, it's the same."

"When you lifted the body part-way from the water, you saw a hole like this one in the right stocking, correct?"

"Yes, I did."

"As a housekeeper, you know dressmaking and such things?"

"You could say so."

"Does anything about this hole strike you as unusual, peculiar?"

"It's not where you'd get a run. I can't see how you'd get it unless you bumped or scraped your ankle across something."

"When you found the body, was this hole visible above the line of a shoe, do you recall?"

"Oh-the right shoe was missing."

"Only the right one, you're sure?"

"Yes, she was wearing the left."

"This blue left slipper I'm now holding. Do you identify it?"

"Yes," said Maud Welsh, and fumbled at her face with a sodden handkerchief, while Edith's gaze swung in futile desperation to study the jury. Mrs. Kleinman was crying and, rather surprisingly, the cool black-haired beauty Dolores Acevedo. So could I. Instead, Edith looked down. She held away the irrelevant pathos of those garments on the State's table, the mud-spotted frilly blouse, crumpled blue skirt and jacket, the single water-streaked shoe, by contemplating the dark green tweed suit that she herself was wearing. Less than perfect. Needed pressing. A small spot, maybe watercolor paint, near the bottom of the skirt (well, hell!)-but having thought of it this morning, she could wear no other costume, for once last winter at the studio, in March or February, Callista had glanced up and remarked apropos of nothing: "Fact, I love that thing on you. Makes your thatch a sort of bonfire off in the green woods." And seeing it when she entered the courtroom, Callista had smiled.

"Miss Welsh, we'll go back to the evening of Sunday, August 16th, about nine o'clock. Where were you then and what were you doing?"

"Setting out on the front porch. It was dark enough so I'd put my sewing things aside some time before. I'd gone out there about eight, I guess, when the light was still good. Usually do."

"Did you see or hear anything you particularly remember?"

"Didn't see anything special. Heard a car stop, on Walton Road, out of sight of me behind the pines."

"Did you notice any glow from its headlights?"

"I don't think I did."

"Anything distinctive about the sound of that car?"

"Well, a buzzy thing, and of course I-"

"Was the motor shut off?"

"Not right away-oh, I remember something. A rattle, while the motor was running, loose metal, like a license-plate or something."

Edith saw Callista lean to Warner for a quick whispered conference; Cal seemed unexcited, but the Old Man was pleased. His back turned, Hunter would have missed it.

"Motor not shut off right away-how long did it run?"

"A minute, maybe, before the car door opened and shut."

"Can you establish the time you heard that car stop?"

"Yes; ten minutes past nine. Looked at my watch. You see, I wondered if the Chalmerses were expecting anyone, didn't think they were. Anyhow, all the talk you hear about juvenile delinquents in parked cars, naturally I-" her voice dwindled and came alive again briskly: "My watch runs good."

"Did you hear any other sounds beyond the pines, or maybe in the grove, after you heard that car door close?"

"No, not for half an hour."

"Is there an outside light on the Chalmers' front porch?"

"Yes, shines right down the driveway."

"Was it turned on that evening, and if so, when?"

"It was, about 9:40."

"Half an hour after the car stopped. Did you turn it on?"

"No. Herb, I mean Dr. Chalmers, came out on the porch about half past nine. He was the one turned it on-not right away though."

"Well-the car door closed at 9:10, then no sounds from that direction for half an hour. You did hear something then? If so, what?"

"Car door again, motor started, same buzzy noise, and then the car came into the driveway-it had just the dimmer lights on, I remember-and that's when Herb turned on the porch light. It was that little German car of hers, and she-"

"A moment. You're positive of the car? You read the license plate, or something like that?"

"No, sir, I never memorized her license number, but I knew the car, the shape, and the maroon color. Anyhow C'lista herself was driving it, I could see her face in the porch light, just as plain. Alone, she was."

"Did she call to you, or wave?"

"No, sir, just backed for the turn and scooted off again, direction of Winchester."

"Was Dr. Chalmers standing in the porch light?"

"We were both in plain sight, Mr. Hunter. That porch light, it's real bright, lights up everything."

"When had you last seen Callista Blake before that appearance in the driveway Sunday evening?"

"Evening before. Saturday. She came out to the house, about 8:30."

"An ordinary visit?"

"You never knew what was ordinary for Callista."

"Your Honor, I must object-the patience of the defense is not everlasting." Warner had risen; Edith could see the heavy tremor of his thick hand on the back of his chair. "This kind of spiteful side-remark-inexcusable."

"The witness's entire last remark will be stricken. Mr. Hunter?"

"Miss Welsh, just state briefly the circumstances of Callista Blake's visit to Shanesville Saturday evening."

"Well, I was on the porch same as the other time. Mrs. Doherty'd come over for some bacon-guess I said that. I wrapped some for her, then I remembered I wanted to show her an embroidery piece I was doing. I'd already taken my things out to the porch before she came. We went out there, were setting there when C'lista drove up to the house alone, walked right by us, not a word except to ask kind of sharp where her mother was. Ann had spoken-you know, 'Hello, Callie!' or something like that, but I don't believe C'lista answered her. Anyhow I told her, I said I thought her mother was upstairs somewhere, and she went on in. Slamming the door."

The defense can't object, Edith thought, because those are facts. That was Callista, no use denying it: the often needlessly cruel abruptness, indifference to social necessities, inability to suffer a fool with patience. On that black evening Maud Welsh and Ann had not even been fools, just harmless little people acting as usual at a time when Callista was burning, a tigress with an arrow festering in her side. And today, in smouldering cherished resentment, Maud Welsh was not harmless.

"Did you see Callista Blake again that evening?"

"No, went to my room before she left. I did hear her, talking to her mother upstairs in a wild sort of way."

"Wild? Do you mean quarreling? Loud?"

"No, sir, I give C'lista credit, she was never one to raise her voice, anyhow I wasn't eavesdropping, only Mrs. Chalmers' bedroom happens to be right over the porch where I was. Ann had gone home then and I couldn't help but hear her crying, Mrs. Chalmers I mean, and the stuff C'lista was saying about forgive me this my virtue."

"Miss Welsh-"

"Which didn't make any sense, besides being no sort of way to talk to her mother, only I wasn't eavesdropping."

Edith winced at the courtroom laughter. At any rate the nervous uproar, quickly subdued by Judge Mann's gavel, was probably directed more at Maud Welsh than Callista.

"Miss Welsh, we established that you were at the Chalmers house on August 7th, ten days before Mrs. Doherty's death. Does any particular event fix that date in your memory?"

"Picnic. The Chalmerses gave a picnic that afternoon."

"Informal?"

"Ayah. We do it three-four times every summer. Mostly friends of Herb's from the college, but that one was more for Shanesville folks. Hot dogs, hamburgers and like that. Croquet, pitching horse-shoes, badminton. Real informal."

"Do you recall who was present, August 7th?"

"Yes. Mrs. Phelps Jason-she's our nearest neighbor except the Dohertys. Mr. and Mrs. Wayne of Shanesville and their two kids Billy and Doris. Billy's nine, Doris going-on-twelve. Mr. and Mrs. Doherty of course. Mr. Judd drove out from Winchester. And C'lista did too."

"What time was the picnic?"

"From two in the afternoon to about five, five-thirty."

"Do you know when Callista Blake arrived?"

"Early, near two I think."

"When did she leave?"

"Didn't see her go. Noticed her car was gone at four-thirty."

"How was she dressed, if you recall?"

"Green blouse, brown skirt I think. Anyway I'm sure of the green blouse, she was partial to it for some reason."

"Any special accessories that you recall?"

"Big shoulder-strap bag. I remember thinking how those things are sort of out of style, but C'lista liked that one because it was roomy, she could carry her field glasses in it. Partial to Nature and stuff like that-bird watching."

"Did she have her field glasses that day?"

"Didn't see them, Mr. Hunter. Just the bag."

"Are there bushes, scrubs, likely places for birds or nests, near the part of the grounds where you had that picnic?"

"Yes. Back of the lawn there's a flower garden, and beyond that a sort of half-wild area. Things planted there that more or less take care of themselves-ground-cover, perennials. Pair of catbirds nested there last summer, likely others."

"Are you familiar with the perennials in that wild spot?"

"With some of them." Maud Welsh cleared her throat and swallowed. "Day-lilies, myrtle-monkshood."

"You have seen monkshood growing there, with your own eyes?"

"Yes. Mrs. Chalmers pointed it out to me once, wondering if she ought to keep it, spite of the pretty flower it has. Yes, it grows there-I mean it did last August. Of course the police-"

"Yes, never mind that. On the afternoon of August 7th, did you see Callista go into that wild garden?"

"I did."

"Was she then wearing that shoulder-strap bag?"

"She was."

"Was she alone?"

"Yes."

"How long did she remain there?"

"I don't know for certain. Half an hour later Mrs. Chalmers wanted her to lend a hand with the grill. I called her. When she came-which she didn't right away-it was from there."

"Was she still alone?"

Edith thought: She is always alone, Mr. Hunter. Clinging to that fool Jim Doherty, she was alone. The one time when she cried in my arms, she was alone.

"She was alone."

"Your witness, Mr. Warner."

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