Proof: ECR1

A district attorney visits a gloomy village to convict a man of murder despite his denial of it, which makes him unpopular with the townspeople.

By Unknown

The door opened and a pleasant looking girl with a quiet gaze led Mr. Grohson into the sitting room.

“My sister will be down presently,” said the girl, disappearing with his coat and hat.

Grohson wondered what Mrs. Grohson would be like, whether she, too, would give him the cold reception he had received in this gloomy little village. A district attorney coming to a village to convict a native son of murder despite the man’s passionate denial of it, cannot be very popular with the townspeople when they are in sympathy with the accused.

At any rate, there was a strong fire blazing in the fireplace to offset the November cold. Grohson took a position in front of the snapping blaze and spread grateful palms toward the warmth. He looked down at his feet, surprised that they should remain so cold in spite of the fire. But drafts of cool air were coming from somewhere inside the house. As he crouched near the floor in front of the fireplace, moving his hands about, slowly, suspiciously, the girl returned.

Grohson caught sight of her and stood erect. “Seems to be a draft somewhere in the house,” he commented, by way of explaining his actions.

The girl did not reply. She took a seat at the opposite end of the room and folded her hands in her lap.

“How long do you mean to stay?” asked the girl, following an embarrassing stillness.

“That’s hard to say. It depends.” Clearly, this girl shared the attitude of the villagers, who seemed satisfied with the defendant’s explanation that he shot and killed his brother, thinking him a robber . . . What a naive alibi! Perhaps, Grohson frequently mused, only a guiltless man could be so unsubtle as to base his defense on a momentary, though fatal, delusion. “Do you know anything about my older sister?” inquired the girl.

“Very little. Only that she had a few rooms for tourists.”

“Then you know next to nothing about her?” persisted the girl.

“Only her name and address,” acknowledged the visitor. Why was the girl so insistent? Grohson wondered what there was about the house that made him feel nervous. Had it anything to do with Mrs. Brougham? And then, that blamed, shivery draft along the floor! Grim lines appeared along the girl’s mouth. A certain harshness entered her voice..

“My sister’s tragedy happened exactly one year ago,” said the girl. “I don’t suppose anybody told you.” “Her tragedy?” repeated Grohson. “You may be curious why we keep the rear door open on a cold November day,” said the girl, rising and walking toward the hallway. She nodded to Grohson and Grohson followed her. The kitchen door leading to the garage of the house was wide open and blasts of freezing air gusted madly into the room. The door was restrained from violent swinging by a cord tied around the doorknob and fixed to a steampipe behind the door. Grohson’s jaws gaped with amazement.

“I don’t understand,” gasped Grohson, quailing before the winds that whipped into the kitchen. “What has this open door got to do with your sister’s tragedy?”

“Through that door, one year ago to the day, my brother-in-law and his son went for a drive. They never came back. In crossing a bridge they swerved to avoid collision with a car coming from the opposite direction and crashed through the guard rails, falling fifty feet into the river.. where they drowned. It was days before their bodies were recovered. When they were, the corpses looked too gruesome to be exhibited and were never seen by my sister. That’s the terrible part of it.” Here the girl’s voice lost its reserve and broke down into something stumbling pathetic. “Poor Helen always thinks that her husband and son will come back one day, and burst in through that door laughing as they used to do. That is why the door is left open every afternoon until it is quite dark. Do you know, Mr. Grohson, sometimes on a crisp, icy afternoon like this, I myself get an eerie feeling that they will come in again through that door-“

The girl broke off with a shudder that was not occasioned by the cold. Then, despondently, they returned to the sitting room, where Grohson sat for a time, staring unhappily into the fireplace. The girl just looked at the floor at her feet. Then, suddenly, Mrs. Brougham flurried into the room with a swirl of apologies for being so late.

“I hope Clara has been entertaining you?” she said.

“Your sister has been most interesting,” replied Grohson.

“I hope you don’t mind our open door,” Mrs. Brougham went on. “My husband and son will soon be at home. They just went down to the railroad station to pick up some gardening tools.”

“Have you any children, Mr. Grohson?” Mrs. Brougham asked very sweetly. Grohson replied gruffly that he wasn’t fortunate enough to be married. Mrs. Brougham continued to talk about Teddy and her husband. -As if they were actually going to enter the room at any moment. Grohson listened with horror to a whole series of anecdotes about the little family. The thing was so appalling! -Mrs. Brougham would remain unchanged forever. And the door! . . . That door would be open forever, awaiting people who could never materialize in this life!

It was in the midst of some inconsequential debate that Mrs. Brougham straightened up in alertness… She raised her finger and cocked her head brightly. “They’re coming!” she said.

Grohson looked at the girl in amazement. The girl’s face was a blank. Her eyes widened.

Mrs. Brougham clasped her hands joyously. “Back just in time for Teddy’s afternoon milk!”

The girl rose hastily and began to comfort her older sister, who protested, “What are you talking about, Clara… they’re NOT coming? Why, I heard them distinctly! Ben’s car is making the turn into the driveway now!”

It was true. The cold coughing of a car was audible. The girl’s eyes started from her head as she heard something roar to a stop behind the house. Mrs. Brougham’s face was wreathed in smiles. “They’re back! They’re back!” she cried, rapturously. Grohson felt faint. Even the draft along the floor grew colder. Outside, a car door slammed and voices rang forth in a merry argument. The girl tossed a glance at the hallway leading to the kitchen and then began to shrink toward the fireplace, with one hand clutching her throat. Grohson knew the blood was drained from his own face. A heavy footfall sounded in the hallway and then a quick patter of feet. Mrs. Brougham sprang to the hallway and shouted, “Darling!” Her arms were outstretched gayly. Both Grohson and the girl stood shoulder to shoulder, their backs to the fire, terror crystalizing in their ashen-pale faces. They screamed simultaneously, as a little child bounded into the room and a tall, strapping fellow in a plaid mackinaw took Mrs. Brougham in his laughing embrace.

“That’s Mr. Grohson, darling,” introduced Mrs. Brougham, indicatingthe shrieking man at the fireplace. Brougham came at Grohson with a large hand cordially extended. “Put it there!” he boomed. Grohson struck wildly at the apparition’s hand and filled the room with his shrieks. The girl was shrieking, too, her hands to her temples, but a strange note had crept into her voice. Grohson, whose heart felt like ice, stared at the girl. She was… LAUGHING!-Could it be hysteria?

But Mrs. Brougham was laughing, too. And Teddy, her dead child! And Mr. Brougham!Why, he was roaring with mirth, tears coursing down his cheeks! Grohson stopped screaming and watched them, struck dumb with astonishment.

“Why are you all… l-laughing?” he managed to say, haltingly, fearfully. The girl pointed a finger at Grohson, narrowed her eyes, and stopped laughing. So did the others, completely. The room was silent as a tomb.

“There, Mr. Prosecutor . . . there is your proof! Your PROOF, do you hear! So you don’t believe in illusions! You didn’t believe George Macready’s story about how he accidentally shot his brother! What do you say NOW, eh? Is it possible to have delusions? Is it possible to mistake people, eh? Even the LIVING for the DEAD?”

In a moment, district attorney Grohson understood everything. It had all been an ingenious, chilling trick! He bowed his head. He had learned something. And he never forgot his lesson.

To witness: Two weeks later, George Macready was released from murder charges. Mr. Grohson’s. grounds for dropping the case: Macready had an illusion . . . a very strange illusion!