On trial for murder, a young bride recalls the steps that led her to the dock
The state has accused beautiful young Elinor Norton of murder, and she refuses to mount a defense. Guilt is written all over her elegant features, but her childhood best friend refuses to believe it when Elinor confesses to the crime.
Forced into a dull marriage against her will, Elinor is just beginning to adjust to life with Lloyd when she meets the man who will tear her world apart. Blair Leighton is her husband’s best friend and was his companion in the war, and he has a charm that makes Elinor quiver from the inside out. At first, her husband is oblivious to this illicit attraction, but when the two men go into business together, the tension threatens to rip the triangle apart. Soon, Elinor is forced to make a chilling decision. One of these men must die—but which?
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About the Author
Among her dozens of novels are The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry (1911), which began a six-book series, and The Bat (originally published in 1920 as a play), which was among the inspirations for Bob Kane’s Batman. Credited with inventing the phrase “The butler did it,” Rinehart is often called an American Agatha Christie, even though she began writing much earlier than Christie, and was much more popular during her heyday.
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The State vs. Elinor Norton
By Mary Roberts Rinehart
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1934 Mary Roberts Rinehart
All rights reserved.
I had anticipated some profound change in her when they brought her into the dock. It seemed incredible that so much living, such passionate love and later such violence of fear and despair could have left her without visible scars; that the long loneliness of the past few years, broken only by that man's returns to her—and God knows how he had returned, time after time—should have left only a rather pitiful look of patience and waiting.
Even there in that dock, and surrounded by the panoply of the law, she had that look, as though she waited for something. Or somebody. Yet for what could she wait? Or for whom? Old Caroline was dead. Even Isabel Curtis had turned against her, and while I had counted for a great deal in her life, I had never been a vital factor.
"Why is it," she had asked me once, "that when I care so much for you, I cannot care enough?"
"We can't control those things, Elinor. They are or they aren't."
Perhaps she waited for an end of waiting, as though any decision would be better than none. People have killed themselves for such a reason—for certainty as against uncertainty, an end on the rocks rather than endless drifting. She would not take her life. She considered that weakness. But she would let these people take it for her if they so decided.
"What does it matter?" she had said to Shirley Johnson. "I did it, and one way or another I shall have to pay for it. That's not only man's law, Shirley."
Which was in its way an echo of old Caroline herself, creature of her world and high-church Episcopalian as she was, but with the ghost of John Calvin at her elbow all her days. To the end of her life she had believed that all mankind was conceived in depravity and raised in corruption; that even her daughter Elinor was the seed of sin, and that the cry of vengeance in Deuteronomy was the authentic voice of God....
The courtroom had been very still when she entered, and after the first shock of seeing her again, and there, I had plenty of time to watch her. She was quiet, entirely self-possessed. When she glanced over the room and saw me I thought her face lightened for a moment, as though we looked at each other, not across a crowded court but across the years. Then the look of patient endurance returned. I doubt if she so much as saw the grave faces of the ranchers and their wives, the local gentry, the battery of cameras and the small army of reporters sent to that remote town from hither and yon.
But after that one glance at me she seemed to forget me. Like the crowd, I did not matter. Clearly, to her this was her own personal problem, one which she could share with no one, unless perhaps with that cold Jehovah of her mother's.
She was, I saw, carefully dressed, and I surmised that the Mayhew girls, her cousins, had sent her the rather too smart black clothes she was wearing. As though they had said, She simply has to look decent. After all, she is a Somers, and a cousin. And the newspapers will be taking pictures of her. It won't do for her to be shabby.
Perhaps I am unfair to them. They had envied her her beauty and the dramatic intensity of her life, but they were not malicious. And from wherever they came, she had accepted the clothes, the small black hat, the black suit with its white blouse, the shoes which were rather large on her small feet. She had always been proud of her feet. I can remember once sitting on the beach with her at Newport and saying that her feet were like a baby's, all white above and pink below. She had been pleased about that.
She had accepted the clothes. I could see her in the cell at the jail, and a matron bringing in the boxes. Could see her patiently and quietly trying on the suit, maybe borrowing some sewing things and altering it. She had always been expert with a needle. Trying on the shoes, too, and sliding her feet about in them. The matron standing by, and Elinor sliding her feet about in those pumps, and even smiling faintly. She would have smiled if they came from the Mayhews. They had always hated her small feet, those cousins—her small feet and her delicate hands and her lovely face. Hated the way she held her head, too, like a young French marquise of the old regime.
She wore the string of pearls her mother had given her at her marriage, a short string but very good indeed. She had saved them from the wreck, somehow. I know now, of course, that she had hidden them, for during the trial there was that story of Leighton on that last day hunting for something. Tearing the house wide open, even lifting the carpets, and even ransacking that secret drawer in her desk. But she never told what he had wanted. It was too sordid. It debased the thing for which she had sacrificed so much. She had never really felt debased until at the very end.
Dearest Carroll, she had written me only a few months before. Do try to understand me and not mind too much. Carroll, I don't want you to come here again. How dreadful that sounds, written to my oldest friend! But I can see that things here only worry you and I am really all right. We are anxious, naturally, but we have enough money to carry on with. Not too much, of course, but we can manage to get along. We shall not need any more help.
It was the "we" in that letter which had angered me, not its other contents. As though I had ever worried about Blair Leighton! What was Leighton to me? And whatever she might write or say, I knew by that time that she had chosen a lonely road, and that he would travel only a part of the way with her. It did not help that she had scratched out the "we" in two places and had written "I" instead. I knew that she was only trying to save that last and final blow to my pride of which her marriage had been the first.
I had known nothing of the tragedy until after her arrest the following morning. They had come for her with a car, and she had said little or nothing on the way in. It was a cold day, and she sat huddled in that old fur coat of Ada Mayhew's, beside the sheriff. She had seemed not so much dazed as thoughtful, as though she were still trying to think out something vitally important. And they had treated her well at the jail.
She had stopped on the pavement and taken a final look about her. Then very quietly she went in, and the sheriff was calling to somebody. "Joe?"
"I want this little lady to be comfortable."
"All right. I guess we can take care of her."
The jail was modern and clean. They put her in a room with a bed, a table and two chairs. The man called Joe brought her some magazines and turned on the steam heat. Then the sheriff came back and asked her if she wished to notify anyone.
"Your friends. They'll want to know."
"Thank you. But this must be my affair. I did it, you know."
He looked shocked, and went away quickly.
It had all seemed quite simple to her. In such a way had she lived her life. In such a way had she been driven to do what she had done. It was her life and her responsibility. She could look neither behind her nor ahead. And she wanted no help. For her it was the end.
It had not been the end, however. If she knew about it she must have been astounded at the sensation which followed. Shirley Johnson, old Caroline's attorney, was on his way west to assist in preparing her defense. The press was covering the story from every angle, and was only kept out of the house at the ranch by main force. Old photographs had been resurrected and published, of her coming-out, of the ballroom at Sherry's where her first ball took place, even of her marriage to Lloyd Norton, this last showing her, small and exquisite in satin and old lace, standing beside Norton and looking rather frozen, while surrounding them were a dozen bridesmaids and a row of none too steady ushers with white gardenias on their lapels.
I saw that picture just before the trial, and was almost startled to find myself in that row, and determinedly smiling into the camera. God knows I had not felt like smiling.
Through it all she sat quietly in her cell. Sometimes she sewed or read, but often she merely sat and thought. She asked for no newspapers, for public opinion meant nothing to her, sitting there alone. What mattered desperately to her was that she should herself understand what had happened, and why. Perhaps now at last she could see. For three years Blair Leighton's big hulking body had stood between her and the world. She had never seen past it. Now the spell was over. She was determined to be honest, to discard all the small hypocrisies and even the unconscious defenses she had built through those years to justify herself. She would even be fair to Lloyd Norton, perhaps for the first time. As for me, I doubt if she thought of me at all. This was between the three of them, Lloyd and Blair and herself.
And only she was left to be honest. She was left, there in her cell with her two ghosts.
The matron coming in in the mornings with a smile. "And how did you sleep last night?"
"I slept a little, thank you."
"Maybe I'd better ask the doctor for a bromide."
"Please don't bother. I'm all right."
And so another night, alone with her two ghosts: the one the man she had married, the other the man she had loved and killed.
This is not the story of Elinor's crime. It is not even the story of her trial, the vast machinery which was in course of preparation during those endless days and nights of hers; the great portable switchboard being installed, with its almost 200 wires; the press tables being introduced into the courtroom, and additional space being made for the stenographers; the arrangements for flashlight pictures; hotel rooms reserved for the trained seals of the writing profession, who were coming to interpret what they saw and heard.
Yet it is, in a way, the story of both. Why must we always begin with our crimes? Surely it is what leads to them that is important; the slow inevitable course of events, the building toward tragedy, not away from it. What I am doing now is what Elinor wanted to do on the stand and what she was unable to do, to fill in the background; to take, in effect, that dozen awful hours or so while the jury is out and the reporters are playing poker in hotel bedrooms, and, beginning at the beginning, to build toward the end. To be the counsel for the defense.
Nobody knew that story, even when the trial was over. She had wanted to tell it, or such part of it as she might; and for days the press, gathering together in hallways and in the speakeasy across the street, had had a story among themselves that she had wanted no defense, and that for the past week or two her local attorney and Shirley Johnson had been fighting her to keep her off the stand, and wringing their hands over her attitude.
It was true.
"I want to tell the story," she said to Shirley. "The whole story. I don't much care what happens to me, but there are one or two people who still care for me, and they have a right to know."
"You'll never get a chance to tell the whole story, Elinor."
"It isn't so long, really."
"Don't you understand?" he said savagely. "They'll get you up and drag one incriminating thing after another out of you. That's what they're there for."
"But I am making no defense."
"For God's sake, Elinor! What am I here for?"
He tried to tell her what was coming; the prosecution watching the press and feeding it so that public opinion would be against her before the trial began; the press itself, taking commonplace and familiar things with which everyone is familiar, and thus stressing the close relationship of the crime to the everyday life of its readers; ferreting out commonplace facts, too, which the prosecution had overlooked, and again bringing the crime home in familiar guise, for example, to every woman who owns a sewing table. Elinor's antique sewing table had been found upset on the floor.
Nothing at all of the last few years. Nothing at all really about Elinor, except that rather exotic setting of her earlier life. And now the woman, sitting in her cell with her two ghosts, or in a crowded courtroom, facing with a queer young dignity a battery of cameras and flashlights. The public which crowded the courtroom that day and saw her enter, slender, proud and still lovely, had picked her up on the day when they opened their morning newspapers and saw her name in the headlines. True, some of them may have remembered her debut, and later her marriage. But there have been other fashionable debuts, other smart marriages. To them she began to exist on the day when she felt that her life had ended.
They knew her name, of course, or if they did not the press enlightened them. The daughter of a former ambassador, born and reared to wealth, educated at one of the best of the schools for the daughters of such families and finished in Switzerland, so that she had always put my schoolboy French to shame: this was Elinor as they knew her. Among the old photographs, which had been discovered and published, there had been one of the big sailing yacht, long since rotting in a basin along the Massachusetts coast, and another of her mother in the dress she wore when she was presented at the Court of St. James—long white satin train, heavy drapery about the hips, and the inevitable three feathers in her hair.
It was a background which was glamorous and dramatic against the monotony of their own hardworking lives.
But of this woman I have called Elinor Norton they knew nothing whatever. They had picked her up, press and people, when on a cold and stormy night on a remote ranch in Montana she had killed Blair Leighton with Lloyd Norton's service automatic.CHAPTER 2
Caroline Somers, Elinor's mother, was one of my earliest recollections. Her big summer house was next to our own cottage, a few miles from Newport, and I was afraid of her, always.
She was one of those thick-bodied women of the nineties with surprisingly slender legs and ankles, a fact which I discovered one day to my own cost. I had moved a chair from which she had risen, only to see her attempt to sit down again on it, and to sprawl on the floor. It remains an indelible picture, that sudden destruction of majesty—Caroline on the floor, barrel-bodied as usual, but with those surprisingly slender legs exposed. And Caroline, when she could speak, ordering me out of her house. "Now leave this house and don't come back," she said. "Do you understand?"
I ran. I was 10 at the time, and it was two years before Caroline asked me back. To a children's party, that was, on Elinor's birthday; Elinor in white organdie, holding a prim little bunch of flowers, and with that look of breeding which Caroline lacked, but which the Newport cousins, the Mayhews, both had to a lesser degree.
But for those two summers of my exile I was a lonely boy, and for days on end I would wander about within a small radius of my own, of which the big house was the center. A hideous center, I realized now, with its huge bulk, its corner tower, its wide painted verandas with their rows of rocking chairs, and its mid-Victorian furnishings. I shall never forget what in my childhood was called the long parlor but later on became, by a shift in terminology but no other change, the drawing-room.
It had, I imagine, been furnished with all the discarded elegances of the New York house, and it overcame me—rather as did old Caroline—by sheer weight. Buhl and ormolu chests and cabinets, heavy plush-covered chairs and sofas, unimportant oil paintings in important gilt frames, all were crowded together into an impressive and hideous whole. There was, I remember, an enormous French gilt clock on the mantelpiece, surmounted by an equally enormous French gilt angel playing a harp. Compared with that room the chintz and wicker of the small living-room at our own cottage seemed poor and shabby.
On the second floor a tower alcove opened out of Caroline's bedroom, and it was there that she spent much of her time. At her desk, with her back turned to the windows, writing her innumerable letters and notes, auditing her household bills, calling to account, one after the other, the small army of servants. I never saw her look at the sea. When she went out she was hatted and veiled against the sun, and from my hiding place outside the cutting-garden I have seen her, still hatted and veiled and gloved, with a pair of shears and a basket, delicately snipping flowers for the house.
Excerpted from The State vs. Elinor Norton by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Copyright © 1934 Mary Roberts Rinehart. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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