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The Lexington House Murder

~ Chapter Five

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In the hallway at Lexington House, John Mailer remained seated with Janelle Washington. While he no longer held her about the shoulders, he had encouraged her to sip the remaining sherry. She had ceased weeping but remained shaky. Her face bewildered.

“You have my deepest thanks, Magistrate Mailer, for your help. I think I am strong enough to return to my employers’ home now.” She managed to stand, but her shoulders slumped she approached the hall mirror. Out of habit, she smoothed out her skirt; removed and replaced the combs which held her long hair in place.

“Would you possible have someone available who would walk with me back to Van Ernst’s. I do not wish to trouble a magistrate with this. You surely are needed elsewhere.”

Mailer put a strong hand beneath her arm. “I am strict orders from my superiors to see you safely to your home, myself, Miss Washington. And I intend to do so. I’ll have one of the drivers pull a carriage around to take us.

“There is no need; it is only two blocks down this street. And I think I would prefer the fresh air. Would it be too much trouble, for us to walk?”

“No, not at all, do you good.” Mailer managed a reassuring smile. In return he received a grateful look from what surely, he thought, must be the most beautiful eyes he had ever encountered.

Mailer stepped aside to give one of the senior officers a few instructions. Then returned to Janelle and again offered his arm to her. She tucked her own arm through his and together they went out the door.

They turned right at the end of the path and walked along the tree lined boulevard. Neither spoke until they approached a residence bearing a gold plate with the title “Van Ernst”. It was somewhat larger than the Lexington house, and the lawns were adorned with beautiful well-tended flower beds lining the path to the house and then surrounding it. Janelle motioned for them to follow the smaller path around to the back of the house, where the servants’ entry was.

“What a magnificent home,” Mailer remarked. Just then the front door opened and a woman came down the steps with her arms out.

“Poor child, come right in. We were frantic when you ran out like that. Is it true? Has something happened to Margaret?” The woman was dressed elegantly and spoke with an authority that led Mailer to believe she was the mistress of the house.

“Sir, thank you for bringing our Janelle back. I am Eleanor Van Ernst. Will you come in and sit down?”

“Thank you, madam. I am Magistrate John Mailer and I was only too happy to walk Miss Janelle home. Unfortunately, she has sustained a great shock.”

All together, they entered the house and went immediately into a small sitting room off the main hallway. Several maids and footmen lingered in the hall, too curious even to affect a pretense at working.

Mrs. Van Ernst called out. “Give us a few minutes with the child; she is alright and nothing for you to worry yourselves. Giddens, bring coffee and a bottle of brandy.”

Mrs. Van Ernst spoke plainly and sensible with a kindliness in her voice; she soon had the three of them comfortably seated with a tray of hot coffee in front of her. She waived away the footman who had delivered the tray. And after handing a cup to Mailer, she added a good sized dollop of the brandy into a second cup and placed it in front of Janelle.

“You drink this down, child. Now can you tell me, Magistrate Mailer, what has happened at Lexington house? The servants are talking all manner of rumor. Has something happened to Margaret?

“Yes, Mrs. Van Ernst. I am sorry to report, that Margaret Washington has been found murdered at Lexington house. I regret that I cannot reveal any more details to you, but our investigation has only just begun.”

Janelle took several long sips of the coffee. Her eyes began to tear again. Mrs. Van Ernst produced a crisply ironed white handkerchief from somewhere within her voluminous skirts.

“Of course, what a frightful shock to you, my dear,” she patted Janelle’s hand. I think under the circumstances I will have one of the girls take you to your room.” Suspiciously on cue, one of the housemaids appeared and took Janelle by the hand. “Mind you take her straight away to lie down, Alice and no questions or gossip.” Alice nodded.

At the doorway, Janelle looked back. “Thank you Magistrate Mailer. And thank you Ma’am for ….” She turned her head and continued out and towards the back of the door.

“You appear to be a most caring employer, Mrs. Van Ernst, if I am not being too bold.”

“No good ever comes from lording over the help, or from refusing to treat them decently. We are all humans from the same pot of stew, Magistrate Mailer; it is only luck or fate that prevents my station in life from being any different than theirs.” She reached for the brandy and added a nice splash into her own cup as well as Magistrate Mailers cup before he could protest.

“Now,” she said “tell me what has happened? How did poor Margaret die? Could it have been an accident of some kind? I cannot imagine a murder happening in any of the fine families and households which make up this neighborhood.”

Mailer shook his head. “No, it was murder straight out. I can only say that death occurred from a deep stab wound. And that the victim would have died quickly.”

Mailer placed his cup on the tray and leaned forward. “Mrs. Van Ernst, can you tell me anything about Margaret or Janelle’s background that might help us?

“Well, I can only tell you what I know or have heard. My dates may not be exact, but I will do the best I can. Will that be satisfactory to you, Magistrate?”

Mailer nodded. He removed a small book from his pocket, and prepared to take notes. Mrs. Van Ernst leaned back in her chair and remained silent for a few minutes, before beginning.

“To the best of my knowledge, both Margaret and Janelle were raised in New Haven. Their father ran a shop or was some type of merchant there. While the girls were still very young, Margaret may have only been 15, their parents died in a carriage accident. It was only the two sisters, no other family. I believe the parents left a small estate for the girls, and for a while they stayed on with a family friend.”

“I cannot remember exactly how Margaret came to work for the Wellington-Trumbells, but it was not long after the accident. I do remember she seemed very young, even to be employed as an apprentice house-maid. Janelle will be able to tell you exactly how old Margaret was when she moved here. Janelle stayed behind in New Haven, but the money their parents had left soon ran out. Shortly thereafter, Helen, that is Mrs. Wellington-Trumbell, recommended Janelle to me when one of my staff left to be married. I remember interviewing her. She seemed like a child, but very serious, and of course most desirous of finding a post near her only family member. I took her on, and she has proved to be a devoted and hard worker. To think of her with no family at all; that is indeed a tragedy.”

“Would you say the two sisters were close?” Mailer asked.

“Oh my goodness, yes. They spent every day off together. It may only be my impression, Magistrate, but it seemed Janelle often acted the part of “older sister,” she was very protective of Margaret. More than once she hinted that she would like Margaret to come to work for me. But we were fully staffed, and I would hardly lure a good house-maid from a family we knew socially.”

“Is Janelle close to any other of your staff that she may have confided in?”

“No, not really; she spent every spare moment with her sister.”

“Only a few more questions. What if anything can you tell me about Thomas Wellington-Trumbell?”

First the first time, Mrs. Van Ernst seemed slightly uncomfortable. She ran through a variety of facial expressions, before speaking.

“You’re referring to that business about the ‘Haunting of Lexington House’? I honestly do not know what to tell you. About 4 or 5 years ago, Thomas and James supposedly quarreled badly. Thomas left his brother’s house and moved somewhere….I can not recall if it was southern France or Italy, but one of those.”

“James went over to the continent several times to try to reconcile with his brother. The last time he even took Helen. That’s James’ wife. I believe the last visit abroad ended in an even worse quarrel between the brothers. Several days after James and Helen had left, Thomas took his own life. Poor James did not even know about his brother’s death for 2 months. He and Helen didn’t return right away. Since they were traveling, news didn’t catch up to them very quickly. Deplorable event. People wagging their tongues for quite a while.”

“In any event,” she continued “ever since Thomas’ death, several of the servants at Lexington began talks amongst themselves that they saw Thomas walk around at night. Heard all sorts of peculiar sounds. Items going missing. A lot of poppy-c**k. Encouraged and perpetuated by that head housekeeper Eloise over there. I could never have a head housekeeper like Eloise. Frankly, Magistrate, she scares me a little. One of those grim sorts; always seems to stare right through you.”

“Well, I am sorry but I believe that’s all I can think of that would help. Better you hear any more directly from either the William-Trumbells or Janelle.” Mrs. Van Ernst rose from her seat. “Can I see you to the door, Magistrate?”

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