City of Liars and Thieves (20 page)

BOOK: City of Liars and Thieves
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“Elias.” It felt as if my heart would not beat again until he answered. “What happened next?”

“I—I struck her.”

“What?”

“I slapped her. I don't know what came over me. I've never done a thing like that before. Never been violent to a woman, a girl. Lord help me.” He shook his head, and a tear slipped down his weathered cheek into frown lines and stubble. “I lost my head.”

I tried to imagine the scene. Elma hysterical, Elias furious. Elias had a temper, but in nearly eight years of marriage he had never raised a finger to me. As for Elma, she withdrew when she was sad; she didn't turn her self-hatred outward. Then again, it was clear that I had not known my cousin as well as I thought.

“It's this poison,” he said, swiping the whiskey bottle with the back of his hand so that it fell to the floor. Rather than breaking, it spun round, spilling alcohol in its wake.

I could see now that, in his own way, Elias had drowned as well.

“What about the vial? What happened to it?” I asked.

“I don't know.”

“Why not destroy it?” As the words left my mouth, I realized I could have asked myself the same question. As if in a dream, I saw myself burying the fragile vial deep in the back of Elma's drawer. Why hadn't I shattered it?

“I'm so sorry,” Elias said. “I will never forgive myself.”

“That's what Richard Croucher saw?” I swallowed and asked my true question. “Thou had nothing to do with Elma's death?”

Color drained from his face. “Why say such a thing?” He didn't wait for me to respond. “I was here that night, reading in the parlor.”

I nodded. Of course it was true. Elias and I had been together until he had gone to bed, and I had sat up waiting for Elma to return. Elias's behavior may have been peculiar, but Levi was the murderer, awaiting trial for his crime, I reminded myself. He would say anything to save himself.

There were shouts outside.

“Ring,” Watkins called. “The sheriff is here.”

“Let's see to the burial,” Elias said. He sounded relieved.

—

The parlor was as dismal as I had left it. Elma's coffin lay on the table. Charles sat with Patience weeping in his arms. Elizabeth Watkins stood helplessly behind them. The men were idle and awkward, clearing their throats, dusting lint off their pant legs, and looking everywhere except at the coffin on the table.

“They will not move,” Sheriff Morris said, referring to the crowd. “They demand to see her.”

“What?” Elias snapped.

Sheriff Morris removed his hat. “I suggest we set the casket on the threshold so they might have the opportunity to pay their respects.”

“Impossible.” Elias shook his head. “I refuse.”

“Then we might have to bury her at night.” Sheriff Morris suggested.

“Like a common criminal,” I protested. “Elias…”

Elias turned helplessly toward me, then back to the sheriff. “Laying her outside will satisfy them?”

Sheriff Morris shrugged. “It may.”

Elias approached the coffin, hammer in hand. Listening to him seal the box had been heartbreaking, but watching him tear the nails away made me wince in pain. The men lifted the lid, and I pulled Charles close.

“Don't look,” I told him, burying my face in his hair. “Remember Elma as she was.”

The dining table and coffin were carried outside. Sheriff Morris supervised the watchmen, and they directed the crowd. Despite the cold, people began to line up, assured that they would get to pay their final respects and that Elma would not be taken from them until the very last person had gazed upon her.

A pair of watchmen stood guard while mourners filed by. People reached into the casket to touch her. Some prayed. Many held handkerchiefs, small satchels, even evergreen sprigs to their noses to mask the cloying stench. The gray-haired woman sobbed, threw herself on the open coffin, and had to be dragged away. A rough-looking man in farmer's gear stooped and kissed her brow. Elma, unseen and unwanted while she was alive, was now in the hearts of strangers.

—

Hours later, after the last stragglers had gone home, their curiosity satisfied, our sad procession was able to leave. Elma's coffin was placed in the back of Joseph Watkins's wagon, led by a lone gray horse. Our family walked behind. Elias carried Patience. Charles clutched my hand.

We buried Elma on a shadowy knoll. The lawn was barren and cold, and the men had a difficult time digging the frozen ground. I marked her grave with a plain white stone.

Chapter 17

Monday, March 31: More than three months had passed since the stormy night Elma had kissed my cheek that final time and I had long since stopped marking the horrific events according to the Quaker calendar. Religion did not apply to brutality and murder. That morning, I heard the wind rattling the windowpanes before I opened my eyes. Then I remembered: It was the day of reckoning. I threw off the covers and pulled on my best dress, the one I wore to meeting. Levi's trial was to begin at ten. I considered praying but did not trust the words that might escape my mouth. I hoped that once he was punished, the hatred within me would diminish, my faith would return, and my heart could rest.

Elizabeth Watkins came to collect the children.

“Don't go,” Charles cried, clutching my skirt with surprising strength.

“No, no, no,” Patience wailed, then went abruptly quiet. Her tiny head fell backward and her lips grew slack and turned blue.

“Patience!” I screamed, shaking her with too much force. An instant later, her cries resumed.

“Let me,” Elizabeth said, taking her from me and stroking her hair. “Children hold their breath. Mine did.”

I struggled to regain my composure. With her dark hair and eyes, blue lips, and lolling head, Patience had looked just like Elma did when she emerged from the well. Or perhaps that's what I saw because I could no longer think about anything else.

—

Two watchmen came to escort us to the courthouse. Damp gusts tunneled up Broadway as Elias and I made our way south in a lonely procession very much like Elma's funeral. The wind picked up as the island narrowed. We passed Trinity Church and turned in to Wall Street. My eyes were dry, but the salty mist that blew off the harbor settled on my lips and tasted like tears.

City Hall appeared around the corner, as hallowed as a church. George Washington had delivered his first inaugural address here, from its massive stone balcony, in 1789. Crowds had gathered that day and people hung out of nearby windows, waving flags.

At first glance, the scene looked as I imagined it had on that triumphant day a decade earlier, with hundreds of people gathered in front of City Hall. Women were dressed in their holiday best, and men wore frock coats or uniforms. But no one was celebrating. In spite of their fine attire, they shoved one another, shouted obscenities, and waved fists instead of flags.

“Weeks is a murderer! Hang him!”

The savage cries penetrated the walls as the watchmen guided Elias and me through a side entrance. The hallways were full, and officers were stationed outside the courtroom doors.

“Family of the victim,” one of our escorts informed his colleague. He had guided us through the crowd, but now that we had arrived, he seemed uncertain how to proceed.

Strangers shoved against us, vying for a seat inside.

“Take them in,” the court officer said, looking anxiously at the swelling crowd. “There won't be space left.” He pushed people aside and pried open the door.

My eyes adjusted with a blinking awkwardness, as if sunlight had infiltrated a dark room. The ceilings were higher than any I had ever seen. The floors were marble. The only familiar features were the dozen or so rows of long wooden benches that flanked either side of the room. They reminded me of our meetinghouse, and I wondered if they had been crafted by the same hands.

“It's chaos,” Elias said. His eyes were bloodshot, drawn, and sad.

The high ceilings made the room appear large, but there was little space for the public. People were squeezed five deep into every corner, all eager to voice their opinion. The papers had appealed for calm, asking the public to suspend their prejudices. Few took heed. Some parroted a recent editorial calling Levi “sober, industrious, and amiable.” Others branded him a cold-blooded killer.

I was gazing at the crowd, wondering where to go, when my eyes settled on a familiar face. The man with the caring expression who had addressed me weeks ago outside the boardinghouse was seated left of the center aisle, several rows back. He nodded to me, making room on the packed bench. I fought my way toward him, and Elias followed. People grumbled as we wedged ourselves into the cramped space, but I was buoyed by his small kindness.

“That's the prosecuting attorney, Cadwallader Colden,” he said as an unwieldy gentleman lumbered past our row. We were seated so closely that I could feel his chest rise as he spoke. “He's a bit green, but his family is well-known.”

Elias leaned across my lap. “I thought Colden was a
British
governor. Patriots burned an effigy of him and smashed his coach to kindling to build a bonfire on Bowling Green.”

“That was the grandfather,” the man said, his voice as comforting and steady as his demeanor. “The family remained in the country after the British fled. Did some work with the Iroquois.”

“An associate of the British
and
the Indians,” Elias said. “That's bound to make him popular with the jury.”

Colden was clumsy in his height, as if he were still growing. The soles of his large shoes slapped the marble as he made his way to the front of the room. His hair was closely cropped and a few were standing on end. He looked a bit like Charles after a restless night's sleep, and I fought an urge to wet my palm and smooth his cowlick.

Colden stooped to release the latch to the gate that divided the benches from the rest of the court, then swung it open with such force that it banged against the rail. He approached the attorneys' table, towering over it for several moments before sitting opposite the judge's bench.

There was a commotion in the back of the courtroom. Elias's shoulder brushed mine as he turned.

“Burr…” The name drifted through the room. Some stood to see.

Aaron Burr marched up the aisle as if stalking an enemy camp. Each time I saw him, he seemed more imposing.

“Colonel Burr,” someone called, “how's the campaign?”

“Where's our water?” a woman shouted.

And then: “Why are you defending that murderer?”

Though there was little room on our bench, I managed to slide closer to Elias. “Colonel Burr is defending Levi?”

Elias did not need to answer. Burr had taken a seat at the attorneys' table, one that faced the jury box.

“They say his speeches have the sting of vinegar and the smoothness of oil,” the man beside me said. I turned, assuming he was talking about Burr, but he was looking to the back of the room. I gasped.

A second wave of whispers rippled through the crowd as Alexander Hamilton proceeded up the aisle. Like Burr, he was small in stature, though nothing else about the two men was similar. Burr was dark and brooding, while Hamilton's features were delicate, almost feminine. Unlike Burr, who had stormed the room, Hamilton strolled past our row, assessing the crowd like a fox sniffing the wind.

“What's he doing here?” I asked.

Elias did not answer, but the fellow beside me did.

“Burr and Hamilton are working together,” he said, “to defend Mr. Weeks.”

Hamilton approached the attorneys' table and rested a hand amicably on Burr's shoulder, making Burr flinch.

“But they hate each other.”

“Politics makes strange bedfellows, as they say. Voting in New York begins in less than a month.”

“So why aren't they out campaigning?”

“They are. Their names will be plastered on top of every paper. It's all anyone is talking about.”

“Burr's an opportunist,” Elias grumbled. “Hamilton's no better.”

“It's publicity they're after,” the man said, waving toward the attorneys. The side of his hand was stained black with ink. “They're here to solicit votes.”

Over the crowd's rumbling, a coarse, guttural noise stood out. I turned and my eyes locked on Richard Croucher. He was at the back of the room, half a dozen rows behind us, nodding assuredly at me.

The crowd began whistling, impatiently calling for the proceedings to begin. Elias fidgeted as he struggled to remove his heavy coat.

“Place the prisoner at the bar,” announced the court clerk.

People drew a collective breath as a door within the bar was opened. Spectators in the back rows stood. Two officers entered with Levi between them. The trio walked deliberate
ly—Levi especially, who seemed to take each step with care. His dark-blue eyes were glassy, his lips pressed together. He avoided looking at the crowd and instead stared at his defense lawyers with a haughtiness that was easy to hate.

“Handsome,” a woman clucked.

I had been so intent on Levi's affectation that I had failed to notice his appearance. He was dressed in clothes I did not recognize, his dark hair tied back with a sky-blue ribbon. He was freshly shaved, his cheeks ruddy. He looked clean.

“He looks well,” I said, surprised and, Lord help me, disappointed.

“Scoundrel,” Elias sneered. He was not nearly as comely as Levi. I could see circles of sweat under his armpits now that his overcoat was off.

“But the prison windows aren't even covered, except for the bars. It must be freezing. And the food—”

“Prison? Levi spent a day in Bridewell, maybe two. No doubt Ezra greased someone's palm to get him out.” I followed Elias's gaze and recognized the silvery hair and commanding posture of Ezra Weeks. I would have expected him to position himself close to Levi, but Ezra was seated across the courtroom, beside the witness stand, as if to influence their behavior with his proximity. Somehow he sat in a space wide enough for two. He must have arrived hours early to get such a favorable seat or paid someone to hold it. His face remained expressionless as the officers led Levi to the prisoner's dock, a railed pen five feet across.

“Silence! Hats off, the Honorable Chief Justice John Lansing,” hollered the court clerk as a middle-aged man with receding snow-white hair entered through the same door by the front. The room fell silent, and Lansing's robe rustled like a lady's skirt as he settled into the bench.

The man beside me removed a leather-bound notebook from his jacket pocket and began to scribble.

“What is it?” I asked, because it was impossible to read his scrawl.

“Lansing served under General Schuyler during the war.”

“The judge reported to Hamilton's father-in-law?” My voice was as small as Charles's. “Is that legal?”

“Not that long ago, people didn't get representation at all. Just twenty lashings.”

My gaze settled on his ink-stained fingers and the notebook balanced precariously on his knees. “Thou are a reporter?”

“A humble scribe. Call me Hardie.”

I did not bother to introduce myself, sure he knew full well who I was.

We turned back to the front as a door at the side of the jury box opened and several dozen men followed a clerk into the room. They wore polished shoes or soiled boots, jackets of coarse cloth or fine overcoats. Some were freshly shaven. One had a thick tomato-red beard.

Colonel Burr removed a pair of eyeglasses from his jacket pocket, pushed them to the crown of his head, sat back, and squinted. The jurors were led to their seats on a raised platform behind a railing. There was not enough space for them all and many stood, shifting uncomfortably, as the clerk called the roster.

“Garrit Storm, dock builder; Simon Schermerhorn, ship's chandler; Robert Lylburn, merchant.” The list went on and on. When every man had answered, the clerk turned to Levi. “Levi Weeks,” he said, “prisoner at the bar, hold up your right hand, and hearken to what is said to you.”

Levi's eyes had been trained on the floor, but he looked up, past the attorneys' table, toward his brother. He raised his hand. Even from a distance, I could see it tremble.

The clerk nodded. “These good men who have been last called, and who do now appear, are those who are to pass between the people of the State of New York and you upon your trial of life and death.” The courtroom was humming, but the word
death
made everyone still. “If, therefore, you will challenge them, your time to challenge is as they come to the book to be sworn, and you will be heard.” The clerk paused before calling “Richard Ellis.”

A short man in ill-fitting clothes and tall boots approached the clerk. Hamilton moved to the edge of his chair as the man walked to the center of the courtroom.

The clerk held out a Bible, and Richard Ellis set his right hand on top. “Juror, look upon the prisoner,” the clerk said. “Prisoner, look upon the juror.”

The man glanced uneasily toward Levi, who seemed to shrink, alone in the prisoner's dock.

The clerk continued, “You shall well and truly try, and true deliverance make, and a true verdict give, according to the evidence, so help you God.”

The juror gazed into the crowd. “So help me,” his voice became lower, “God.”

A second juror inched forward, and each in turn rested his hand on the Bible and acknowledged the oath.

Midway through the line, though, one man declined. “I am a Quaker,” he said, “and I ask to be excused because my religion prevents me from sitting in judgment of life and death.”

BOOK: City of Liars and Thieves
8.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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