East Lynne, by Ellen Wood

Chapter 42.

The Trial.

Spacious courts were the assize courts of Lynneborough; and it was well they were so, otherwise more people had been disappointed, and numbers were, of hearing the noted trial of Sir Francis Levison for the murder of George Hallijohn.

The circumstances attending the case caused it to bear for the public an unparalleled interest. The rank of the accused, and his antecedents, more especially that particular local antecedent touching the Lady Isabel Carlyle; the verdict still out against Richard Hare; the length of time which had elapsed since; the part played in it by Afy; the intense curiosity as to the part taken in it by Otway Bethel; the speculation as to what had been the exact details, and the doubt of a conviction — all contributed to fan the curiosity of the public. People came from far and near to be present — friends of Mr. Carlyle, friends of the Hares, friends of the Challoner family, friends of the prisoner, besides the general public. Colonel Bethel and Mr. Justice Hare had conspicuous seats.

At a few minutes past nine the judge took his place on the bench, but not before a rumor had gone through the court — a rumor that seemed to shake it to its centre, and which people stretched out their necks to hear — Otway Bethel had turned Queen’s evidence, and was to be admitted as a witness for the crown.

Thin, haggard, pale, looked Francis Levison as he was placed in the dock. His incarceration had not in any way contributed to his personal advantages, and there was an ever-recurring expression of dread upon his countenance not pleasant to look upon. He was dressed in black, old Mrs. Levison having died, and his diamond ring shone conspicuous still on his white hand, now whiter than ever. The most eminent counsel were engaged on both sides.

The testimony of the witnesses already given need not be recapitulated. The identification of the prisoner with the man Thorn was fully established — Ebenezer James proved that. Afy proved it, and also that he, Thorn, was at the cottage that night. Sir Peter Levison’s groom was likewise reexamined. But still there wanted other testimony. Afy was made to reassert that Thorn had to go to the cottage for his hat after leaving her, but that proved nothing, and the conversation, or quarrel overheard by Mr. Dill was now again, put forward. If this was all the evidence, people opined that the case for the prosecution would break down.

“Call Richard Hare” said the counsel for the prosecution.

Those present who knew Mr. Justice Hare, looked up at him, wondering why he did not stir in answer to his name — wondering at the pallid hue which overspread his face. Not he, but another came forward — a fair, placid, gentlemanly young man, with blue eyes, fair hair, and a pleasant countenance. It was Richard Hare the younger. He had assumed his original position in life, so far as attire went, and in that, at least, was a gentleman again. In speech also — with his working dress Richard had thrown off his working manners.

A strange hubbub arose in court. Richard Hare, the exile — the reported dead — the man whose life was in jeopardy! The spectators rose with one accord to get a better view; they stood on tiptoe; they pushed forth their necks; they strained their eyesight: and, amidst all the noisy hum, the groan bursting from the lips of Justice Hare was unnoticed. Whilst order was being called for, and the judge threatened to clear the court, two officers moved themselves quietly up and stood behind the witness. Richard Hare was in custody, though he might know it not. The witness was sworn.

“What is your name?”

“Richard Hare.”

“Son of Mr. Justice Hare, I believe, of the Grove, West Lynne?”

“His only son.”

“The same against whom a verdict of wilful murder is out?” interposed the judge.

“The same, my lord,” replied Richard Hare, who appeared, strange as it may seem, to have cast away all his old fearfulness.

“Then, witness, let me warn you that you are not obliged to answer any question that may tend to criminate yourself.”

“My lord,” answered Richard Hare, with some emotion, “I wish to answer any and every question put to me. I have but one hope, that the full truth of all pertaining to that fatal evening may be made manifest this day.”

“Look round at the prisoner,” said the examining counsel. “Do you know him?”

“I know him now as Sir Francis Levison. Up to April last I believed his name to be Thorn.”

“State what occurred on the evening of the murder, as far as your knowledge goes.”

“I had an appointment that evening with Afy Hallijohn, and went down to their cottage to keep it —”

“A moment,” interrupted the counsel. “Was your visit that evening made in secret?”

“Partially so. My father and mother were displeased, naturally, at my intimacy with Afy Hallijohn; therefore I did not care that they should be cognizant of my visits there. I am ashamed to confess that I told my father a lie over it that very evening. He saw me leave the dinner-table to go out with my gun, and inquired where I was off to. I answered that I was going out with young Beauchamp.”

“When, in point of fact, you were not?”

“No. I took my gun, for I had promised to lend it to Hallijohn while his own was being repaired. When I reached the cottage Afy refused to admit me; she was busy, and could not, she said. I felt sure she had got Thorn with her. She had, more than once before, refused to admit me when I had gone there by her own appointment, and I always found that Thorn’s presence in the cottage was the obstacle.”

“I suppose you and Thorn were jealous of each other?”

“I was jealous of him; I freely admit it. I don’t know whether he was of me.”

“May I inquire what was the nature of your friendship for Miss Afy Hallijohn?”

“I loved her with an honorable love, as I might have done by any young lady in my own station of life. I would not have married her in opposition to my father and mother; but I told Afy that if she was content to wait for me until I was my own master I would then make her my wife.”

“You had no views toward her of a different nature?”

“None; I cared for her too much for that; and I respected her father. Afy’s mother had been a lady, too, although she had married Hallijohn, who was but clerk to Mr. Carlyle. No; I never had a thought of wrong toward Afy — I never could have had.”

“Now relate the occurrences of the evening?”

“Afy would not admit me, and we had a few words over it; but at length I went away, first giving her the gun, and telling her it was loaded. She lodged it against the wall, just inside the door, and I went into the wood and waited, determined to see whether or not Thorn was with her, for she had denied that he was. Locksley saw me there, and asked why I was hiding. I did not answer; but I went further off, quite out of view of the cottage. Some time afterward, less than half an hour, I heard a shot in the direction of the cottage. Somebody was having a late pop at the partridge, I thought. Just then I saw Otway Bethel emerge from the trees, not far from me, and run toward the cottage. My lord,” added Richard Hare, looking at the judge, “that was the shot that killed Hallijohn!”

“Could the shot,” asked the counsel, “have been fired by Otway Bethel?”

“It could not. It was much further off. Bethel disappeared, and in another minute there came some one flying down the path leading from the cottage. It was Thorn, and evidently in a state of intense terror. His face was livid, his eyes staring, and he panted and shook like one in the ague. Past me he tore, on down the path, and I afterwards heard the sound of his horse galloping away; it had been tied in the wood.”

“Did you follow him?”

“No. I wondered what had happened to put him in that state; but I made haste to the cottage, intending to reproach Afy with her duplicity. I leaped up the two steps, and fell over the prostrate body of Hallijohn. He was lying dead within the door. My gun, just discharged, was flung on the floor, its contents in Hallijohn’s side.”

You might have heard a pin drop in court, so intense was the interest.

“There appeared to be no one in the cottage, upstairs or down. I called to Afy, but she did not answer. I caught up the gun, and was running from the cottage when Locksley came out of the wood and looked at me. I grew confused, fearful, and I threw the gun back again and made off.”

“What were your motives for acting in that way?”

“A panic had come over me, and in that moment I must have lost the use of my reason, otherwise I never should have acted as I did. Thoughts, especially of fear, pass through our minds with astonishing swiftness, and I feared lest the crime should be fastened upon me. It was fear made me snatch up my gun, lest it should be found near the body; it was fear made me throw it back again when Locksley appeared in view — a fear you understand, from which all judgment, all reason, had departed. But for my own conduct, the charge never would have been laid to me.”

“Go on.”

“In my flight I came upon Bethel. I knew that if he had gone toward the cottage after the shot was fired, he must have encountered Thorn flying from it. He denied that he had; he said he had only gone along the path for a few paces, and had then plunged into the wood again. I believed him and departed.”

“Departed from West Lynne?”

“That night I did. It was a foolish, fatal step, the result of cowardice. I found the charge was laid to me, and I thought I would absent myself for a day or two, to see how things turned out. Next came the inquest and the verdict against me, and I then left for good.”

“This is the truth, so far as you are cognizant of it?”

“I swear that it is truth, and the whole truth, so far as I am cognizant of it,” replied Richard Hare, with emotion. “I could not assert it more solemnly were I before God.”

He was subjected to a rigid cross-examination, but his testimony was not shaken in the least. Perhaps not one present but was impressed with its truth.

Afy Hallijohn was recalled, and questioned as to Richard’s presence at her father’s house that night. It tallied with the account given by Richard; but it had to be drawn from her.

“Why did you decline to receive Richard Hare into the cottage, after appointing him to come?”

“Because I chose,” returned Afy.

“Tell the jury why you chose.”

“Well, I had got a friend with me — it was Captain Thorn,” she added, feeling that she should only be questioned on this point, so might as well acknowledge it. “I did not admit Richard Hare, for I fancied they might get up a quarrel if they were together.”

“For what purpose did Richard Hare bring down his gun — do you know?”

“It was to lend to my father. My father’s gun had something the matter with it, and was at the smith’s. I had heard him, the previous day, ask Mr. Richard to lend him one of his, and Mr. Richard said he would bring one, as he did.”

“You lodged the gun against the wall — safely?”

“Quite safely.”

“Was it touched by you, after placing it there, or by the prisoner?”

“I did not touch it; neither did he, that I saw. It was that same gun which was afterward found near my father, and had been discharged.”

The next witness called was Otway Bethel. He also held share in the curiosity of the public, but not in equal degree with Afy, still less with Richard Hare. The substance of his testimony was as follows:—

“On the evening that Hallijohn was killed, I was in the Abbey Wood, and I saw Richard Hare come down the path with a gun, as if he had come down from his own home.”

“Did Richard Hare see you?”

“No; he could not see me; I was right in the thicket. He went to the cottage door, and was about to enter, when Afy Hallijohn came hastily out of it, pulling the door to behind her, and holding it in her hand, as if afraid he would go in. Some colloquy ensued, but I was too far off to hear it; and then she took the gun from him and went indoors. Some time after that I saw Richard Hare amid the trees at a distance, farther off the cottage, then, than I was, and apparently watching the path. I was wondering what he was up to, hiding there, when I head a shot fired, close, as it seemed, to the cottage, and —”

“Stop a bit, witness. Could that shot have been fired by Richard Hare?”

“It could not. He was a quarter of a mile, nearly, away from it. I was much nearer the cottage than he.”

“Go on.”

“I could not imagine what that shot meant, or who could have fired it — not that I suspected mischief — and I knew that poachers did not congregate so near Hallijohn’s cottage. I set off to reconnoiter, and as I turned the corner, which brought the house within my view, I saw Captain Thorn, as he was called, come leaping out of it. His face was white with terror, his breath was gone — in short, I never saw any living man betray so much agitation. I caught his arm as he would have passed me. ‘What have you been about?’ I asked. ‘Was it you that fired?’ He —”

“Stay. Why did you suspect him?”

“From his state of excitement — from the terror he was in-that some ill had happened, I felt sure; and so would you, had you seen him as I did. My arresting him increased his agitation; he tried to throw me off, but I am a strong man, and I suppose he thought it best to temporize. ‘Keep dark upon it, Bethel,’ he said, ‘I will make it worth your while. The thing was not premeditated; it was done in the heat of passion. What business had the fellow to abuse me? I have done no harm to the girl.’ As he thus spoke, he took out a pocket book with the hand that was at liberty; I held the other —”

“As the prisoner thus spoke, you mean?”

“The prisoner. He took a bank-note from his pocket book, and thrust it into my hands. It was a note for fifty pounds. ‘What’s done can’t be undone, Bethel,’ he said, ‘and your saying that you saw me here can serve no good turn. Shall it be silence?’ I took the note and answered that it should be silence. I had not the least idea that anybody was killed.”

“What did you suppose had happened, then?”

“I could not suppose; I could not think; it all passed in the haste and confusion of a moment, and no definite idea occurred to me. Thorn flew on down the path, and I stood looking after him. The next was I heard footsteps, and I slipped within the trees. They were those of Richard Hare, who took the path to the cottage. Presently he returned, little less agitated than Thorn had been. I had gone into an open space, then, and he accosted me, asking if I had seen ‘that hound’ fly from the cottage? ‘What hound?’ I asked of him. ‘That fine fellow, that Thorn, who comes after Afy,’ he answered, but I stoutly denied that I had seen any one. Richard Hare continued his way, and I afterward found that Hallijohn was killed.”

“And so you took a bribe to conceal one of the foulest crimes that man ever committed, Mr. Otway Bethel!”

“I took the money, and I am ashamed to confess it. But it was done without reflection. I swear that had I known what crime it was intended to hush up, I never would have touched it. I was hard up for funds, and the amount tempted me. When I discovered what had really happened, and that Richard Hare was accused, I was thunderstruck at my own deed; many a hundred times since have I cursed the money; and the fate of Richard has been as a heavy weight upon my conscience.”

“You might have lifted the weight by confessing.”

“To what end? It was too late. Thorn had disappeared. I never heard of him, or saw him, until he came to West Lynne this last spring, as Sir Francis Levison, to oppose Mr. Carlyle. Richard Hare had also disappeared — had never been seen or heard of, and most people supposed he was dead. To what end then should I confess? Perhaps only to be suspected myself. Besides, I had taken the money upon a certain understanding, and it was only fair that I should keep to it.”

If Richard Hare was subjected to a severe cross-examination, a far more severe one was awaiting Otway Bethel. The judge spoke to him only once, his tone ringing with reproach.

“It appears then, witness, that you have retained within you, all these years, the proofs of Richard Hare’s innocence?”

“I can only acknowledge it with contrition, my lord.”

“What did you know of Thorn in those days?” asked the counsel.

“Nothing, save that he frequented the Abbey Wood, his object being Afy Hallijohn. I had never exchanged a word with him until that night; but I knew his name, Thorn — at least, the one he went by, and by his addressing me as Bethel, it appeared that he knew mine.”

The case for the prosecution closed. An able and ingenious speech was made for the defence, the learned counsel who offered it contending that there was still no proof of Sir Francis having been the guilty man. Neither was there any proof that the catastrophe was not the result of pure accident. A loaded gun, standing against a wall in a small room, was not a safe weapon, and he called upon the jury not rashly to convict in the uncertainty, but to give the prisoner the benefit of the doubt. He should call no witnesses, he observed, not even to character. Character! for Sir Francis Levison! The court burst into a grin; the only sober face in it being that of the judge.

The judge summed up. Certainly not in the prisoner’s favor; but, to use the expression of some amidst the audience, dead against him. Otway Bethel came in for a side shaft or two from his lordship; Richard Hare for sympathy. The jury retired about four o’clock, and the judge quitted the bench.

A very short time they were absent. Scarcely a quarter of an hour. His lordship returned into court, and the prisoner was again placed in the dock. He was the hue of marble, and, in his nervous agitation, kept incessantly throwing back his hair from his forehead — the action already spoken of. Silence was proclaimed.

“How say you, gentlemen of the jury? Guilty, or not guilty?”

“GUILTY.”

It was a silence to be felt; and the prisoner gasped once or twice convulsively.

“But,” said the foreman, “we wish to recommend him to mercy.”

“On what grounds?” inquired the judge.

“Because, my lord, we believe it was not a crime planned by the prisoner beforehand, but arose out of the bad passions of the moment, and was so committed.”

The judge paused, and drew something black from the receptacle of his pocket, buried deep in his robes.

“Prisoner at the bar! Have you anything to urge why sentence of death should not be passed upon you?”

The prisoner clutched the front of the dock. He threw up his head, as if shaking off the dread fear which had oppressed him, and the marble of his face changed to scarlet.

“Only this, my lord. The jury, in giving their reason for recommending me to your lordship’s mercy, have adopted the right view of the case as it actually occurred. The man Hallijohn’s life was taken by me, it will be useless for me to deny, in the face of the evidence given this day, but it was not taken in malice. When I quitted the girl, Afy, and went to the cottage for my hat, I no more contemplated injuring mortal man than I contemplate it at this moment. He was there, the father, and in the dispute that ensued the catastrophe occurred. My lord, it was not wilful murder.”

The prisoner ceased, and the judge, the black cap on his head, crossed his hands one upon the other.

“Prisoner at the bar. You have been convicted by clear and undoubted evidence of the crime of wilful murder. The jury have pronounced you guilty; and in their verdict I entirely coincide. That you took the life of that ill-fated and unoffending man, there is no doubt; you have, yourself, confessed it. It was a foul, a barbarous, a wicked act. I care not for what may have been the particular circumstances attending it; he may have provoked you by words; but no provocation of that nature could justify your drawing the gun upon him. Your counsel urged that you were a gentleman, a member of the British aristocracy, and therefore deserved consideration. I confess that I was much surprised to hear such a doctrine fall from his lips. In my opinion, you being what you are, your position in life makes your crime the worse, and I have always maintained that when a man possessed of advantages falls into sin, he deserves less consideration than does one who is poor, simple, and uneducated. Certain portions of the evidence given today (and I do not now allude to the actual crime) tell very greatly against you, and I am sure not one in the court but must have turned from them with abhorrence. You were pursuing the daughter of this man with no honorable purpose — and in this point your conduct contrasts badly with the avowal of Richard Hare, equally a gentleman with yourself. In this pursuit you killed her father; and not content with that, you still pursued the girl — and pursued her to ruin, basely deceiving her as to the actual facts, and laying the crime upon another. I cannot trust myself to speak further upon this point, nor is it necessary that I should; it is not to answer for that, that you stand before me. Uncalled, unprepared, and by you unpitied, you hurried that unfortunate man into eternity, and you must now expiate the crime with your own life. The jury have recommended you to mercy, and the recommendation will be forwarded in due course to the proper quarter, but you must be aware how frequently this clause is appended to a verdict, and how very rarely it is attended to, just cause being wanting. I can but enjoin you, and I do so most earnestly, to pass the little time that probably remains to you on earth in seeking repentance and forgiveness. You are best aware, yourself, what your past life has been; the world knows somewhat of it; but there is pardon above for the most guilty, when it is earnestly sought. It now only remains for me to pass the sentence of the law. It is, that you, Francis Levison, be taken back to the place from whence you came, and thence to the place of execution, and that you be there hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may the Lord God Almighty have mercy on your soul!”

“Amen!”

The court was cleared. The day’s excitement was over, and the next case was inquired for. Not quite over, however, yet, the excitement, and the audience crowded in again. For the next case proved to be the arraignment of Richard Hare the younger. A formal proceeding merely, in pursuance of the verdict of the coroner’s inquest. No evidence was offered against him, and the judge ordered him to be discharged. Richard, poor, ill-used, baited Richard was a free man again.

Then ensued the scene of all scenes. Half, at least, of those present, were residents of, or from near West Lynne. They had known Richard Hare from infancy — they had admired the boy in his pretty childhood — they had liked him in his unoffending boyhood, but they had been none the less ready to cast their harsh stones at him, and to thunder down their denunciations when the time came. In proportion to their fierceness then, was their contrition now; Richard had been innocent all the while; they had been more guilty than he.

An English mob, gentle or simple, never gets up its excitement by halves. Whether its demonstration be of a laudatory or a condemnatory nature, the steam is sure to be put on to bursting point. With one universal shout, with one bound, they rallied round Richard; they congratulated him; they overwhelmed him with good wishes; they expressed with shame their repentance; they said the future would atone for the past. Had he possessed a hundred hands, they would have been shaken off. And when Richard extracted himself, and turned, in his pleasant, forgiving, loving nature, to his father, the stern old justice, forgetting his pride and pomposity, burst into tears and sobbed like a child, as he murmured something about his also needing forgiveness.

“Dear father,” cried Richard, his own eyes wet, “it is forgiven and forgotten already. Think how happy we shall be again together, you, and I, and my mother.”

The justice’s hands, which had been wound around his son, relaxed their hold. They were twitching curiously; the body also began to twitch, and he fell upon the shoulder of Colonel Bethel in a second stroke of paralysis.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30