The Evidence Against Her

A Novel


By Robb Forman Dew

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Set against the landscape of a turn-of-the-century small midwestern town, this is a classic story, a love story, a story of a family that readers will ache to follow into the next generation.






Also by Robb Forman Dew


Dale Loves Sophie to Death


The Time of Her Life


Fortunate Lives


A Southern Thanksgiving


The Family Heart:







For Charles, always . . .


And in memory of
Bernice Martin Forman,
John Crowe Ransom,
and Robb Reavill Ransom



Part One



Chapter One

THERE ARE any number of villages, small towns, and even cities of some size to which no one ever goes except on purpose. There are only travelers on business of one sort or another, personal or professional, who arrive without any inclination to dally, or to dawdle, or to daydream. And yet, almost always in these obscure precincts there is a fine grassy park, a statue, perhaps, and benches placed under tall old spreading trees and planted around with unexceptional seasonal flowers, petunias or geraniums or chrysanthemums in all likelihood, or possibly no more than a tidy patch of English ivy. A good many visitors have sat on such benches for a moment or two, under no burden to take account of their surroundings, under no obligation to enjoy themselves. A stranger to such a place may settle for longer than intended, losing track of the time altogether—slouching a bit against the wooden slats, stretching an arm along the back of the bench, and enjoying the sun on a nice day, comfortably oblivious to passersby and unself-consciously relaxed—without assuming the covertly alert, defensive, nearly apologetic posture of a tourist.

By and large these towns are middling to small, and are never on either coast or even any famous body of water, such as a good-sized lake or major river. These are communities that lie geographically and culturally in unremarkable locales: no towering mountains, no breathtaking sweep of deep valleys, no overwhelming or catastrophic history particular only to that place. In fact, with only a few exceptions, these unrenowned districts are all villages, towns, or small cities exactly like Washburn, Ohio, about which people are incurious, requiring only the information that it is approximately forty-five miles east of Columbus.

As it happens, Monument Square in the town of Washburn is not four sided but hexagonal and was a gift to the city from the Washburn Ladies Monument Society, ceded to the town simultaneously at the unveiling and dedication of the Civil War monument on July 4, 1877. The monument itself is a life-size statue of a Union soldier at parade rest, gazing southward from his perch atop a thirty foot fluted granite column, the pediment of which is over twelve feet high. Altogether the monument stands nearly fifty feet, and on its west face is the inscription:


Within a year of the dedication ceremony the common idea among the citizens of Washburn was that the stonecutter— imported all the way from Philadelphia, hurrying the work, eager to catch the train, and possibly with a few too many glasses of beer under his belt—had chiseled into that smooth granite the mistake "dread name" as opposed to "dear name."

In the spring of 1882, Leo Scofield, soon after he and his brothers had cleared the woods and begun construction of their houses on the north side of the square, had written to Mrs. Dowd, who commissioned the statue but who had moved back to Philadelphia soon after its unveiling, to inquire if he might have the mistaken inscription altered at his own expense. He had attempted to cast his offer along the lines of being an act of gratitude for her generous gift, but Leo was only thirty-one years old then, a young man still, without much good sense. He was enormously pleased by the largesse of his idea—which had occurred to him one day out of the blue—and delighted that he finally had the wherewithal to make such an offer. A slightly self-congratulatory air tinged the tactlessly exuberant wording of his letter, and he was brought up short by her reply:

. . . furthermore, I shall arrange to have the statue removed piece by piece if need be, as it is I who pays out the money each year for its upkeep, should the inscription in any way be altered. I never shall believe in all the days left to me that the preservation of the Union was worth the price of the good life of my dear husband, Colonel Marcus Dowd, who left his post as President of Harcourt Lees College to head Company A. He died at Petersburg. The statue was undertaken at my instigation only as an honor to him. I shall live with nothing more than despair and contempt for this Union and Mr. Lincoln all the rest of my life. As my children do not share my sentiments in every respect, however, I have made arrangements to fund the maintenance of the monument and the fenced area of its surround. I have engaged a Mr. Olwin Grant who lives out Coshocton Road as a caretaker, and any further questions you may address to him. I implore you, Mr. Scofield, not to raise this matter to me again.

Leo spent several long evenings sitting in the square, contemplating that handsome statue, which towered over the young trees installed by the Marshal County Ladies Garden Club. It was his first inkling of the fickleness of legend, the ease with which one is misled by myth. He wrote a letter of deep and sincere apology but did not hear again from Mrs. Marcus Dowd, nor had he expected to.

He was young and perhaps still a little brash, but he was not an insensitive man, and he applied this glimpse of the possible effect of grief to his own circumstances, admonishing himself to take all the good fortune of his business and his marriage much less for granted. The spirit of expansiveness that had characterized his outlook up until the receipt of that letter was checked somewhat over the year that followed, and as his business ventures grew increasingly complicated, as his house took shape day by day, as his infatuation with his new wife inevitably grew more complex and profound, he became a man of a fairly solemn nature.

•  •  •

The three houses built just north of Monument Square in the early 1880s for Leo, John, and George Scofield fronted on a semicircular drive and shallow common ground that in the summer became a crescent of feathery grass that bent in bright green ripples across the lawn in the slightest breeze. In time the grass at the inner curve of the drive gave way to a golden velvet moss under the elms as the trees matured and produced heavy shade all summer long.

The houses were comfortable though not grand. They were well built and nicely spaced, one from the other, and for a number of years those three south-facing houses marked the northernmost edge of the town of Washburn, Ohio. During the several years the houses were under construction, and long after, the residential property of those three brothers was known all over town simply as Scofields, whereas the twenty-odd buildings comprising the flourishing engine-manufacturing business of Scofields & Company, begun as no more than a foundry in 1830 by Leo's grandfather, had for some time been referred to merely as the Company.

The second Sunday of September 1888, on either side of a muddy wagon track that led into the east yard of his new house, Leo Scofield, at age thirty-seven, planted eight pairs of cultivated catalpa saplings. Six days later, on Saturday the fifteenth, there occurred the unusual incident of the births—all within a twelve-hour span—of his first and his brother John's second child—a daughter and son respectively—and of the third child of Daniel Butler, a good friend and pastor of the Methodist church. John and Lillian Scofield's first child, Harold, born in 1883, had died before he was a year old, so the Scofields' compound had been childless for some time.

Some years earlier Leo had given up the idea that he and his wife, Audra, would have children. His wife was twenty-nine years old with this fourth pregnancy, and through the early months they both had dreaded and expected another miscarriage. They had been married for eight years when Lily was born. The planting of those young catalpa trees was only a coincidence, of course; Leo hadn't intended any sort of commemoration, but in spite of himself he developed a superstitious interest in the welfare of those trees. He had started them himself from seed six years earlier, and they were just barely established enough to transplant. Several days after his daughter's birth, when it was clear she and his wife and the other mothers and babies were thriving, his brother John and he walked the lane he had created, staking the saplings when necessary to guide them straight.

"And on the ides of the month, John," Leo said. "It's an amazing thing! All the Scofields are born on the ides of the month." Leo's birthday was March fifteenth, and his youngest brother George's was the fifteenth of October. John's birthday was February fifth, when he would turn thirty.

"Well, but this is September, Leo. The ides of the month was on Thursday. On the thirteenth, this month." But Leo wasn't paying close attention, and John himself, not born on the ides, was just as happy to be a little disburdened of "Scofieldness." He followed along, helping his brother. "But this is really something, isn't it, Leo?" John said. "Here we are. Two papas. Only three days ago, Leo—three days ago!—we were . . . fancy-free. We were just not papas."

Leo glanced sharply at John but didn't reply for a moment. John was a tall, elegant figure among the little sloping trees, which were leaning this way and that. Leo himself was one of those men no more than average height who are somehow imposing because they possess an inherent certainty, a lack of hesitancy, an easy assumption of authority. "No, you're right about that, John. You're right about that. Three days ago we were only two husbands."

John had squatted to secure the burlap around the spindly trunk of one of those young trees, and he aimed a considering look Leo's way and finally grinned, acknowledging the edge of chastisement in his brother's voice and feeling a genuine joyousness spike through him at all his sudden connection to the wide world. "Ah, Leo. Don't you think this'll make a good husband of me? Don't you imagine I get a clean slate now? The first baby . . . Leo, that nearly killed Lillian. And me, too." John's ebullience abruptly fell away. "But Lillian was just . . . It was like she had broken. That was it. That was what she must have been feeling," he mused. "But I was so stupid. I was just scared to death. I didn't know what it took . . . That poor little boy. Poor Harold! I couldn't do anything to help, though, Leo! It nearly drove me crazy to see Lillian so sad.

"But this one's so . . . he's so lively, Leo. Why, he hardly stays still a minute. Healthy as a horse! And I haven't even raised a glass to toast their health. I haven't touched a drop, Leo. And I won't. I won't." Then John fell back into his usual wry tone, which signified that it was at the listener's own peril to take him entirely seriously. "I'll start all over with the lovely Lillian. And I can, you know. Because at least she loves me more than you do," he said, but with a lilting, teasing cadence.

Leo watched John a moment as he stooped to hammer in a stake at an angle that would pull the rope tight, and he thought that even in so small a task his brother was graceful in the uncommon way with which he was at ease in his own body. "There isn't anyone in the world who doesn't love you, John. But that might not be such a good thing," he said, and he was quite serious.

"You're harder on me than anyone, Leo. Even Dan Butler's not so stern!" John straightened up and exhaled a short laugh, leaning his head back to take in the pale sky. "You'll have to go a little easy on me, you know. I've got to get used to it, still! It's wonderful that they're all healthy. As strong as can be. Lillian . . . and Audra and Martha Butler . . . everyone doing so well. All of them," he said. "I can hardly believe it!" They moved along, carefully wrapping the tender trunks before they looped and staked the guide ropes.

Leo had left the planting late because it had been an edgy summer and so dry that he had to haul water until the middle of November to irrigate that double row of saplings. The memory of June, July, and August merged into a blur of heat. The days had stretched out dry and hot, eventually falling into unsettling yellow green evenings preceding night after night of crackling thunder and hailstorms that lingered over the town with great bluster but produced very little measurable rainfall.

It had been a season that was not much good for planting, and a season that had produced a sort of communal unease, transforming the nearly simultaneous births in mid-September of Lillian Marshal Scofield, Warren Leonard Scofield, and Robert Crane Butler into an event that seemed less remarkable than inevitable. And the unwavering alliance of those three children took on the same quality of inevitability. Lily and Robert and Warren were rarely apart from one another during all the waking hours of their early youth.

But during the first months following his daughter's birth, when the heat finally loosened its grip and September led into one of those autumns of rare clarity in which everything seems to be in perfect balance, Leo made grand plans for his garden. In late November he stood in the wagon yard on a chilly but glorious day so dazzlingly clear that the air itself was charged with a blue translucent brilliance. He stood still and imagined the plot transformed. He became lost in the idea of abundant flowers, blooming bushes, towering trees.

The catalpas stood in fragile regulation, spare sticks once their leaves had dropped. They looked forlornly tenuous on the clear-cut acreage where the Scofield brothers had built their three houses. But by the time Lily was seven months old the following spring and those shoulder-high saplings finally budded and then leafed out, Leo privately exulted at their survival of the unusually brutal, snowless winter.

Leo Scofield was a good businessman, always a little skeptical, a trifle suspicious by nature. But he wasn't at all prone to melancholy; his brooding followed a more pragmatic course— he might fret persistently, for instance, about a minor innovation to a Scofield engine or an antiquated valve design. But it was quite in character, in late April of 1889, when he was a year closer to forty years old than to thirty-five, that the notion of the future flying toward him was only exhilarating. He wasn't at all troubled by the idea of his own mortality. He walked the rutted track between those newly planted trees and imagined his daughter's wedding procession making its way along a raked gravel avenue beneath the catalpas' eventual leafy canopy under an overarching clear blue sky.

And during the years of Lily's childhood it was a great pleasure for him on the hottest summer days to sit in his fledgling garden, stunned by the Ohio heat and the salty yellow scent of cut grass, with her light, fluting voice ringing out above her playmates' as she directed her cousin, Warren, and little Robert Butler in some game she had devised.

Leo was continually surprised by and enamored of the solace of the domesticity he had happened into, and in a span of twenty years he transformed that scrubby patch of land into his idea of a replica of an English garden made up entirely of plants native to Ohio. The catalpa trees, however, didn't mature exactly as he had hoped. In fact, he realized three years too late that he had intended to plant an avenue of yellow poplars— stately, flowering trees known locally as tulip trees. But when he had firmly fixed on the idea of his garden, had planned the east yard entrance, and had described the tree he had in mind, asking around town where he might find it, it was probably in the description of the tree's flowers that he had gone wrong. Leo never gave up the private notion, however, that the misinformation he had received was purposeful, that there might be someone in the world who was amused at his expense, and with solicitous pruning he coaxed the catalpas to assume a more elegant shape than was their unbridled inclination.

As the years passed, Leo came to like the pungency of a blooming catalpa, which was heavily sweet but elusive at a distance, drifting over the garden unexpectedly. He admired the tree's soft green, heart-shaped leaves, its abundantly frilled flowers, as showy as a flock of tropical birds in the rolling landscape of central Ohio. Daniel Butler, who had done missionary work in Brazil and Cuba, said that in midsummer, when the vining trumpet creeper overran the arbor, dripping with deep-throated red-orange blossoms, the entire garden took on a look of the tropics. Leo had nurtured that flowering vine from a single cutting he had taken from a plant growing on a pasture fence— just a slip of stem cut on the diagonal and wrapped in a handkerchief he had moistened in the ditch alongside the road. The afternoon he had rounded a bend and come upon the glorious trumpet vine cascading over an unpainted board fence, he had paused for a long time before he had stooped to dampen his clean handkerchief in the brackish water. He was careful of his dignity, and his fascination with and cultivation of his flower garden was the only frivolity he allowed himself.

Even though Leo had forced the sturdy trunks of the catalpas to extend straight up about nine feet before they branched, each tree assumed the self-contained shape of a softened, rounded obelisk. Their crowns didn't form the leafy vault he had hoped for—the branches didn't arch, didn't intermingle overhead, really, as he had envisioned. And each year, when the catalpas' fringed and ruffling flowers bloomed and produced their startlingly phallic, cigar-brown fruit, and when those flowers began to shed in stringy drifts of petals and oily pollen so that guests arrived showered with residue from the burgeoning branches, Audra would declare that the trees should be taken out.

"They're a nuisance, Leo. I always think that if you want a flowering tree you can't go wrong with a dogwood. Dogwoods won't get so tall, of course, but they are such beautiful trees. And more restrained when they're in bloom. Oh, and sometimes in the spring when the dogwoods bloom early, it looks to me like the whole tree has burst into white lace." But the catalpa trees remained, and Leo's garden and the wide yards of Scofields became the geographical context of the childhood of each of those three children born coincidentally on September 15, 1888.

Robert Butler was a ruddy, brown-haired child, and Warren Scofield, too, was sturdy and round limbed. They were little boys who seemed all of a piece, whereas Lily's pale, attenuated arms and legs, her fragile neck, her knobby wrists and ankles seemed flimsy, as if, in her always hectic activity, she might fly apart, although for a long time it was clearly Lily who was the center and star of that inseparable threesome. At four or five or six years old, Robert wouldn't have known how to articulate the impression that sometimes, in the blue or brassy light of any given day, a word Lily spoke—just the plain, flat sound of it— exploded cleanly into the moment, like a brilliant asterisk glinting through the atmosphere. Nor could he have explained that occasionally Lily's movements, a sweep of her arm, an abrupt turning of her head, would break through some ordinary instant with a flicker of blank white clarity.

And, of course, Robert had no way to know that his was a kind of perception lost to adults and older children. His mother was happier to see him only in Warren's company. Mrs. Butler didn't dislike Lily; it was only that it gave her a sense of satisfaction to see those two healthy boys absorbed entirely in the company of each other. Robert and Warren appeared to strike a natural balance between them that was disturbed when little Lily was with them, directing them to do this or that, dreaming up fantastic games with evolving rules that were played out for days at a time.

One summer afternoon Mrs. Butler was in the yard of the parsonage cutting flowers for a bouquet and inspecting the rosebushes for disease when the three children came tearing through the yard brandishing sticks, their heads wrapped turbanlike in white damask napkins, with Lily bringing up the rear, urging the boys on in her high-pitched voice. "Gallop, Warren! Gallop, Robert! We must not let them escape! We must run! We must run like the wind!"

Martha Butler's good mood was spoiled as she watched them race across the lawn and down the slope toward the creek. When she mentioned it to her husband that evening— mentioned that the two little boys never had a chance to play together without Lily—he wasn't interested, said he couldn't see what difference it made. And Martha herself couldn't puzzle out her objection, couldn't understand why their threesomeness disturbed her. "It isn't natural, somehow, Daniel," she said to her husband. "Three never works out. There's always someone left out. Though, I don't know, not with those three. . . . But it doesn't seem at all right . . . not healthy in some way. Well, I just don't know." And she let the subject drop.

But Robert's mother's censure emanating from the vicinity of the rosebushes that afternoon had overtaken and enveloped Lily as she herded their band onward, and she hesitated at the edge of the creek while the boys forged ahead. She was stricken for the first time in her life with self-consciousness. She unwrapped the napkin from around her head and was never again able to lose herself entirely in an imagined universe. She sometimes cringed in embarrassment when she remembered urging Robert and Warren to "run like the wind." She had only been eight years old, but for the rest of her life she could not forgive herself that moment of blatant melodrama.

Lily and Warren's uncle George returned from a business trip to New York one year with a remarkably fine set of marionette puppets for his niece and nephew's tenth birthday. George was an elusive and therefore romantic figure to the children and such a favorite of their parents because of his various endearing eccentricities that neither Leo and Audra nor Warren's parents, John and Lillian, let him know that such intricate toys were far too complicated for Lily and Warren. But as it turned out, the marionettes were immediately popular with Lily and Warren and Robert, too, and for the next five years or so they mounted numerous and increasingly elaborate shows. Robert wrote the plays, Warren took on the most difficult roles, and Lily kept everything organized and filled in wherever she was needed. All during their growing up, Lily relieved Robert and Warren of the effort of choreographing their own childhoods. Lily was forever keeping them from careening off on some tangent or another. It was clear to her that without her guidance they would not progress. And she loved Robert Butler always and thought of herself as one half of the whole of herself and her cousin Warren.

For Warren's part, his whole idea of himself until he was about eleven years old was as one third of this triumvirate. Answering Mrs. Butler's question, for instance, as to what the three of them had been up to all day, he knew instinctively to turn and weave all their disparate activities into a narrative that satisfied adults. Although he often interchanged the actions of any one of their threesome with those of another, he wasn't even aware of it; he was only reacting to some parent's slight uneasiness—only shifting the details of the truth to ensure serenity all around.

One afternoon when the three of them arrived at Robert's house dripping wet, Warren gave an enthusiastic account of his failed plan to build a fort and laboratory in the big low-branching cherry tree over the horse pond.

"A laboratory! Well, a laboratory. That's where so many of my canning jars have disappeared to, I guess!" Mrs. Butler said, but her initial alarm at the sight of them had softened. Later Robert reminded Warren that the whole thing had been Lily's idea. Robert was surprised that Warren had taken the credit, but Warren only looked at Robert, perplexed. Warren knew intuitively that Robert's mother would never have been pleased with the actual account of their afternoon's enterprise. Lily was their inspiration; Robert was their conscience; Warren was their ambassador to the outside world. So deeply was each child connected to the other two that each one's loyalty was unconsidered, their mutual devotion fundamental.

But as they grew older, and by the time they were putting on their puppet shows for children's birthdays and at the county fair, Robert himself was unable to recall or name the quicksilver charisma Lily possessed that had captured his sensibilities. As an adult, whenever he thought back about his childhood, he remembered Lily always in motion, full to the brim with ideas and energy, but he lost the ability to remember the incandescence with which she had imbued the long hours of his early days. And Warren, too, as he grew older, translated all the emotion of their passionate connection into a manageable version of nothing more than a warm childhood friendship. Only Lily, left behind at the age of twelve when the boys went off to boarding school, understood that it was she alone who was likely to lose the underpinnings of the pleasure of her life, and she was single-minded in her determination that nothing of the sort would happen.

Lillian Marshal Scofield and Robert Crane Butler were married in her father's garden in an extravagant ceremony on a very hot Saturday in the summer of 1913. In spite of the heat and a long dry spell that caused the broad catalpa leaves to lose their lazy flutter, to pucker and droop a bit; in spite of a succession of cloudless, dusty days that dulled the glisten of all the foliage in the garden, the wedding was as splendid as Leo Scofield had hoped it would be.

There is a way in which a town the size of Washburn, Ohio, with perhaps six thousand residents, comes to a collective judgment, and communally the town had become fond of Lily, who had been in residence all year round when she attended the Linus Gilchrest Institute for Girls. She was among them as she gradually lost her childhood look of frailty and took on a wiry athleticism. Nevertheless, even during her late adolescence, Lily was eclipsed by the celebrated beauty of her mother and aunt—the former Marshal sisters—and by her distinguished and handsome father, her two tall, striking uncles, and especially by her constant summer companions, Robert Butler and her astonishingly good-looking cousin Warren.


On Sale
Sep 19, 2001
Page Count
336 pages

Robb Forman Dew

About the Author

Robb Forman Dew was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, and grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For the past thirty years she has lived in Williamstown, MA, where she lives with her husband, who is professor of history at Williams College.

The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Dew is the author of the novels Dale Loves Sophie to Death, for which she received the National Book Award; The Time of Her Life; Fortunate Lives; The Evidence Against Her; and, most recently, The Truth of the Matter; as well as a memoir, The Family Heart.

Learn more about this author