“Thou stand’st here arraign’d,
That with presumption impious and accurs’d,
Thou hast usurp’d God’s high prerogative,
Making thy fellow mortal’s life and death
Wait on thy moody and diseased passions;
That with a violent and untimely steel
Hath set abroach the blood that should have ebbed
In calm and natural current: to sum all
In one wild name — a name the pale air freezes at,
And every cheek of man sinks in with horror —
Thou art a cold and midnight murderer.”
— MILMAN’S “FAZIO.”
Of all the restless people who found that night’s hours agonising from excess of anxiety, the poor father of the murdered man was perhaps the most restless. He had slept but little since the blow had fallen; his waking hours had been too full of agitated thought, which seemed to haunt and pursue him through his unquiet slumbers.
And this night of all others was the most sleepless. He turned over and over again in his mind the wonder if everything had been done, that could be done, to insure the conviction of Jem Wilson. He almost regretted the haste with which he had urged forward the proceedings, and yet, until he had obtained vengeance, he felt as if there was no peace on earth for him (I don’t know that he exactly used the term vengeance in his thoughts; he spoke of justice, and probably thought of his desired end as such); no peace, either bodily or mental, for he moved up and down his bedroom with the restless incessant tramp of a wild beast in a cage, and if he compelled his aching limbs to cease for an instant, the twitchings which ensued almost amounted to convulsions, and he recommenced his walk as the lesser evil, and the more bearable fatigue.
With daylight increased power of action came; and he drove off to arouse his attorney, and worry him with further directions and inquiries; and when that was ended, he sat, watch in hand, until the courts should be opened, and the trial begin.
What were all the living — wife or daughters — what were they in comparison with the dead, the murdered son who lay unburied still, in compliance with his father’s earnest wish, and almost vowed purpose, of having the slayer of his child sentenced to death, before he committed the body to the rest of the grave?
At nine o’clock they all met at their awful place of rendezvous.
The judge, the jury, the avenger of blood, the prisoner, the witnesses — all were gathered together within the building. And besides these were many others, personally interested in some part of the proceedings, in which, however, they took no part; Job Legh, Ben Sturgis, and several others were there, amongst whom was Charley Jones.
Job Legh had carefully avoided any questioning from Mrs. Wilson that morning. Indeed, he had not been much in her company, for he had risen up early to go out once more to make inquiry for Mary; and when he could hear nothing of her, he had desperately resolved not to undeceive Mrs. Wilson, as sorrow never came too late; and if the blow were inevitable, it would be better to leave her in ignorance of the impending evil as long as possible, She took her place in the witness-room, worn and dispirited, but not anxious.
As Job struggled through the crowd into the body of the court, Mr. Bridgnorth’s clerk beckoned to him.
“Here’s a letter for you from our client!”
Job sickened as he took it. He did not know why, but he dreaded a confession of guilt, which would be an overthrow of all hope.
The letter ran as follows:—
“DEAR FRIEND — I thank you heartily for your goodness in finding me a lawyer, but lawyers can do no good to me, whatever they may do to other people. But I am not the less obliged to you, dear friend. I foresee things will go against me — and no wonder. If I was a juryman I should say the man was guilty as had as much evidence brought against him as may be brought against me tomorrow. So it’s no blame to them if they do. But, Job Legh, I think I need not tell you I am as guiltless in this matter as the babe unborn, although it is not in my power to prove it. If I did not believe that you thought me innocent, I could not write as I do now to tell you my wishes. You’ll not forget they are the words of a man shortly to die. Dear friend, you must take care of my mother. Not in the money way, for she will have enough for her and Aunt Alice; but you must let her talk to you of me; and show her that (whatever others may do) you think I died innocent. I don’t reckon she’ll stay long behind when we are all gone. Be tender with her, Job, for my sake; and if she is a bit fractious at times, remember what she has gone through. I know mother will never doubt me, God bless her.
“There is one other whom I fear I have loved too dearly; and yet, the loving her has made the happiness of my life. She will think I have murdered her lover: she will think I have caused the grief she must be feeling. And she must go on thinking so. It is hard upon me to say this; but she MUST. It will be best for her, and that’s all I ought to think on. But, dear Job, you are a hearty fellow for your time of life, and may live many years to come; and perhaps you could tell her, when you felt sure you were drawing near your end, that I solemnly told you (as I do now) that I was innocent of this thing. You must not tell her for many years to come: but I cannot well bear to think on her living through a long life, and hating the thought of me as the murderer of him she loved, and dying with that hatred to me in her heart. It would hurt me sore in the other world to see the look of it in her face, as it would be, till she was told. I must not let myself think on how she must be viewing me now.
“So God bless you, Job Legh; and no more from yours to command,
Job turned the letter over and over when he had read it; sighed deeply; and then wrapping it carefully up in a bit of newspaper he had about him, he put it in his waistcoat pocket, and went off to the door of the witness-room to ask if Mary Barton was there.
As the door opened he saw her sitting within, against a table on which her folded arms were resting, and her head was hidden within them. It was an attitude of hopelessness, and would have served to strike Job dumb in sickness of heart, even without the sound of Mrs. Wilson’s voice in passionate sobbing, and sore lamentations, which told him as well as words could do (for she was not within view of the door, and he did not care to go in), that she was at any rate partially undeceived as to the hopes he had given her last night.
Sorrowfully did Job return into the body of the court; neither Mrs. Wilson nor Mary having seen him as he had stood at the witness-room door.
As soon as he could bring his distracted thoughts to bear upon the present scene, he perceived that the trial of James Wilson for the murder of Henry Carson was just commencing. The clerk was gabbling over the indictment, and in a minute or two there was the accustomed question, “How say you, Guilty or Not Guilty?”
Although but one answer was expected — was customary in all cases — there was a pause of dead silence, an interval of solemnity even in this hackneyed part of the proceeding; while the prisoner at the bar stood with compressed lips, looking at the judge with his outward eyes, but with far other and different scenes presented to his mental vision; a sort of rapid recapitulation of his life — remembrances of his childhood — his father (so proud of him, his first-born child) — his sweet little playfellow, Mary — his hopes, his love, his despair — yet still, yet ever and ever, his love — the blank, wide world it had been without her love — his mother — his childless mother — but not long to be so — not long to be away from all she loved — nor during that time to be oppressed with doubt as to his innocence, sure and secure of her darling’s heart; — he started from his instant’s pause, and said in a low firm voice
“Not guilty, my lord.”
The circumstances of the murder, the discovery of the body, the causes of suspicion against Jem, were as well known to most of the audience as they are to you, so there was some little buzz of conversation going on among the people while the leading counsel for the prosecution made his very effective speech.
“That’s Mr. Carson, the father, sitting behind Serjeant Wilkinson!”
“What a noble-looking old man he is! so stern and inflexible, with such classical features! Does he not remind you of some of the busts of Jupiter?”
“I am more interested by watching the prisoner. Criminals always interest me. I try to trace in the features common to humanity some expression of the crimes by which they have distinguished themselves from their kind. I have seen a good number of murderers in my day, but I have seldom seen one with such marks of Cain on his countenance as the man at the bar.”
“Well, I am no physiognomist, but I don’t think his face strikes me as bad. It certainly is gloomy and depressed, and not unnaturally so, considering his situation.”
“Only look at his low, resolute brow, his downcast eye, his white compressed lips. He never looks up — just watch him.”
“His forehead is not so low if he had that mass of black hair removed, and is very square, which some people say is a good sign. If others are to be influenced by such trifles as you are, it would have been much better if the prison barber had cut his hair a little previous to the trial; and as for downcast eye, and compressed lip, it is all part and parcel of his inward agitation just now; nothing to do with character, my good fellow.”
Poor Jem! His raven hair (his mother’s pride, and so often fondly caressed by her fingers), was that, too, to have its influence against him?
The witnesses were called. At first they consisted principally of policemen; who, being much accustomed to giving evidence, knew what were the material points they were called on to prove, and did not lose the time of the court in listening to anything unnecessary.
“Clear as day against the prisoner,” whispered one attorney’s clerk to another.
“Black as night, you mean,” replied his friend; and they both smiled.
“Jane Wilson! who’s she? some relation, I suppose, from the name.”
“The mother — she that is to prove the gun part of the case.”
“Oh, ay — I remember! Rather hard on her, too, I think.”
Then both were silent, as one of the officers of the court ushered Mrs. Wilson into the witness-box. I have often called her “the old woman,” and “an old woman,” because, in truth, her appearance was so much beyond her years, which could not be many above fifty. But partly owing to her accident in early life, which left a stamp of pain upon her face, partly owing to her anxious temper, partly to her sorrows, and partly to her limping gait, she always gave me the idea of age. But now she might have seemed more than seventy; her lines were so set and deep, her features so sharpened, and her walk so feeble. She was trying to check her sobs into composure, and (unconsciously) was striving to behave as she thought would best please her poor boy, whom she knew she had often grieved by her uncontrolled impatience. He had buried his face in his arms, which rested on the front of the dock (an attitude he retained during the greater part of his trial, and which prejudiced many against him).
The counsel began the examination.
“Your name is Jane Wilson, I believe?”
“The mother of the prisoner at the bar?”
“Yes, sir,” with quivering voice, ready to break out into weeping, but earning respect by the strong effort at self-control, prompted, as I have said before, by her earnest wish to please her son by her behaviour.
The barrister now proceeded to the important part of the examination, tending to prove that the gun found on the scene of the murder was the prisoner’s. She had committed herself so fully to the policeman, that she could not well retract; so without much delay in bringing the question round to the desired point, the gun was produced in court, and the inquiry made —
“That gun belongs to your son, does it not?”
She clenched the sides of the witness-box in her efforts to make her parched tongue utter words. At last she moaned forth —
“Oh! Jem, Jem! what mun I say?”
Every one bent forward to hear the prisoner’s answer; although, in fact, it was of little importance to the issue of the trial. He lifted up his head; and with a face brimming full of pity for his mother, yet resolved into endurance, said —
“Tell the truth, mother!”
And so she did, with the fidelity of a little child. Every one felt that she did; and the little colloquy between mother and son did them some slight service in the opinion of the audience. But the awful judge sat unmoved; and the jurymen changed not a muscle of their countenances; while the counsel for the prosecution went triumphantly through this part of the case, including the fact of Jem’s absence from home on the night of the murder, and bringing every admission to bear right against the prisoner.
It was over. She was told to go down. But she could no longer compel her mother’s heart to keep silence, and suddenly turning towards the judge (with whom she imagined the verdict to rest), she thus addressed him with her choking voice —
“And now, sir, I’ve telled you the truth, and the whole truth, as he bid me; but don’t you let what I have said go for to hang him; oh, my lord judge, take my word for it, he’s as innocent as the child as has yet to be born. For sure, I, who am his mother, and have nursed him on my knee, and been gladdened by the sight of him every day since, ought to know him better than yon pack of fellows” (indicating the jury, while she strove against her heart to render her words distinct and clear for her dear son’s sake), “who, I’ll go bail, never saw him before this morning in all their born days. My lord judge, he’s so good I often wondered what harm there was in him; many is the time when I’ve been fretted (for I’m frabbit enough at times), when I’ve scold’t myself, and said: ‘You ungrateful thing, the Lord God has given you Jem, and isn’t that blessing enough for you?’ But He has seen fit to punish me. If Jem is — if Jem is — taken from me, I shall be a childless woman; and very poor, having nought left to love on earth, and I cannot say ‘His will be done.’ I cannot, my lord judge, oh, I cannot.”
While sobbing out these words she was led away by the officers of the court, but tenderly, and reverently, with the respect which great sorrow commands.
The stream of evidence went on and on, gathering fresh force from every witness who was examined, and threatening to overwhelm poor Jem. Already they had proved that the gun was his, that he had been heard not many days before the commission of the deed to threaten the deceased; indeed, that the police had, at that time, been obliged to interfere, to prevent some probable act of violence. It only remained to bring forward a sufficient motive for the threat and the murder. The clue to this had been furnished by the policeman, who had overheard Jem’s angry language to Mr. Carson; and his report in the first instance had occasioned the sub-poena to Mary.
And now she was to be called on to bear witness. The court was by this time almost as full as it could hold; but fresh attempts were being made to squeeze in at all the entrances, for many were anxious to see and hear this part of the trial.
Old Mr. Carson felt an additional beat at his heart at the thought of seeing the fatal Helen, the cause of all — a kind of interest and yet repugnance, for was not she beloved by the dead; nay, perhaps, in her way, loving and mourning for the same being that he himself was so bitterly grieving over? And yet he felt as if he abhorred her and her rumoured loveliness, as if she were the curse against him; and he grew jealous of the love with which she had inspired his son, and would fain have deprived her of even her natural right of sorrowing over her lover’s untimely end: for you see it was a fixed idea in the minds of all, that the handsome, bright, gay, rich young gentleman must have been beloved in preference to the serious, almost stern-looking smith, who had to toil for his daily bread.
Hitherto the effect of the trial had equalled Mr. Carson’s most sanguine hopes, and a severe look of satisfaction came over the face of the avenger — over that countenance whence the smile had departed, never more to return.
All eyes were directed to the door through which the witnesses entered. Even Jem looked up to catch one glimpse before he hid his face from her look of aversion. The officer had gone to fetch her.
She was in exactly the same attitude as when Job Legh had seen her two hours before through the half-open door. Not a finger had moved. The officer summoned her, but she did not stir. She was so still, he thought she had fallen asleep, and he stepped forward and touched her. She started up in an instant, and followed him with a kind of rushing rapid motion into the court, into the witness-box.
And amid all that sea of faces, misty and swimming before her eyes, she saw but two clear bright spots, distinct and fixed: the judge, who might have to condemn; and the prisoner, who might have to die.
The mellow sunlight streamed down that high window on her head, and fell on the rich treasure of her golden hair, stuffed away in masses under her little bonnet-cap; and in those warm beams the motes kept dancing up and down. The wind had changed — had changed almost as soon as she had given up her watching; the wind had changed, and she heeded it not.
Many who were looking for mere flesh and blood beauty, mere colouring, were disappointed; for her face was deadly white, and almost set in its expression, while a mournful bewildered soul looked out of the depths of those soft, deep, grey eyes. But others recognised a higher and a stranger kind of beauty; one that would keep its hold on the memory for many after years.
I was not there myself; but one who was, told me that her look, and indeed her whole face, was more like the well-known engraving from Guido’s picture of “Beatrice Cenci” than anything else he could give me an idea of. He added, that her countenance haunted him, like the remembrance of some wild sad melody, heard in childhood; that it would perpetually recur with its mute imploring agony.
With all the court reeling before her (always save and except those awful two), she heard a voice speak, and answered the simple inquiry (something about her name) mechanically, as if in a dream. So she went on for two or three more questions, with a strange wonder in her brain, at the reality of the terrible circumstances in which she was placed.
Suddenly she was roused, she knew not how or by what. She was conscious that all was real, that hundreds were looking at her, that true-sounding words were being extracted from her; that that figure, so bowed down, with the face concealed with both hands, was really Jem. Her face flushed scarlet, and then, paler than before. But in dread of herself, with the tremendous secret imprisoned within her, she exerted every power she had to keep in the full understanding of what was going on, of what she was asked, and of what she answered. With all her faculties preternaturally alive and sensitive, she heard the next question from the pert young barrister, who was delighted to have the examination of this witness.
“And pray, may I ask, which was the favoured lover? You say you knew both these young men. Which was the favoured lover? Which did you prefer?”
And who was he, the questioner, that he should dare so lightly to ask of her heart’s secrets? That he should dare to ask her to tell, before that multitude assembled there, what woman usually whispers with blushes and tears, and many hesitations, to one ear alone?
So, for an instant, a look of indignation contracted Mary’s brow, as she steadily met the eyes of the impertinent counsellor. But, in that instant, she saw the hands removed from a face beyond, behind; and a countenance revealed of such intense love and woe — such a deprecating dread of her answer; and suddenly her resolution was taken. The present was everything; the future, that vast shroud, it was maddening to think upon; but NOW she might own her fault, but NOW she might even own her love. Now, when the beloved stood thus, abhorred of men, there would be no feminine shame to stand between her and her avowal. So she also turned towards the judge, partly to mark that her answer was not given to the monkeyfied man who questioned her, and likewise that the face might be averted from, and her eyes not gaze upon, the form that contracted with the dread of the words he anticipated.
“He asks me which of them two I liked best. Perhaps I liked Mr. Harry Carson once — I don’t know — I’ve forgotten; but I loved James Wilson, that’s now on trial, above what tongue can tell — above all else on earth put together; and I love him now better than ever, though he has never known a word of it till this minute. For you see, sir, mother died before I was thirteen, before I could know right from wrong about some things; and I was giddy and vain, and ready to listen to any praise of my good looks; and this poor young Mr. Carson fell in with me, and told me he loved me; and I was foolish enough to think he meant me marriage: a mother is a pitiful loss to a girl, sir: and so I used to fancy I could like to be a lady, and rich, and never know want any more. I never found out how dearly I loved another till one day, when James Wilson asked me to marry him, and I was very hard and sharp in my answer (for indeed, sir, I’d a deal to bear just then), and he took me at my word and left me; and from that day to this I’ve never spoken a word to him, or set eyes on him; though I’d fain have done so, to try and show him we had both been too hasty; for he’d not been gone out of my sight above a minute before I knew I loved — far above my life,” said she, dropping her voice as she came to this second confession of the strength of her attachment. “But, if the gentleman asks me which I loved the best, I make answer, I was flattered by Mr. Carson, and pleased with his flattery; but James Wilson, I—”
She covered her face with her hands, to hide the burning scarlet blushes, which even dyed her fingers.
There was a little pause; still, though her speech might inspire pity for the prisoner, it only strengthened the supposition of his guilt.
Presently the counsellor went on with his examination.
“But you have seen young Mr. Carson since your rejection of the prisoner?”
“You have spoken to him, I conclude, at these times.”
“Only once, to call speaking.”
“And what was the substance of your conversation? Did you tell him you found you preferred his rival?”
“No, sir. I don’t think as I’ve done wrong in saying, now as things stand, what my feelings are; but I never would be so bold as to tell one young man I cared for another. I never named Jem’s name to Mr. Carson. Never.”
“Then what did you say when you had this final conversation with Mr. Carson? You can give me the substance of it, if you don’t remember the words.”
“I’ll try, sir; but I’m not very clear. I told him I could not love him, and wished to have nothing more to do with him. He did his best to over-persuade me, but I kept steady, and at last I ran off.”
“And you never spoke to him again?”
“Now, young woman, remember you are upon your oath. Did you ever tell the prisoner at the bar of Mr. Henry Carson’s attentions to you? of your acquaintance, in short? Did you ever try to excite his jealousy by boasting of a lover so far above you in station?”
“Never. I never did,” said she, in so firm and distinct a manner as to leave no doubt.
“Were you aware that he knew of Mr. Henry Carson’s regard for you? Remember you are on your oath!”
“Never, sir. I was not aware until I heard of the quarrel between them, and what Jem had said to the policeman, and that was after the murder. To this day I can’t make out who told Jem. O sir, may not I go down?”
For she felt the sense, the composure, the very bodily strength which she had compelled to her aid for a time, suddenly giving way, and was conscious that she was losing all command over herself. There was no occasion to detain her longer; she had done her part. She might go down. The evidence was still stronger against the prisoner; but now he stood erect and firm, with self-respect in his attitude, and a look of determination on his face, which almost made it appear noble. Yet he seemed lost in thought.
Job Legh had all this time been trying to soothe and comfort Mrs. Wilson, who would first be in the court, in order to see her darling, and then, when her sobs became irrepressible, had to be led out into the open air, and sat there weeping, on the steps of the court-house. Who would have taken charge of Mary, on her release from the witness-box, I do not know, if Mrs. Sturgis, the boatman’s wife, had not been there, brought by her interest in Mary, towards whom she now pressed, in order to urge her to leave the scene of the trial.
“No! no!” said Mary, to this proposition. “I must be here. I must watch that they don’t hang him, you know I must.”
“Oh! they’ll not hang him! never fear! Besides, the wind has changed, and that’s in his favour. Come away. You’re so hot, and first white and then red; I’m sure you’re ill. Just come away.”
“Oh! I don’t know about anything but that I must stay,” replied Mary, in a strange hurried manner, catching hold of some rails as if she feared some bodily force would be employed to remove her. So Mrs. Sturgis just waited patiently by her, every now and then peeping among the congregation of heads in the body of the court, to see if her husband were still there. And there he always was to be seen, looking and listening with all his might. His wife felt easy that he would not be wanting her at home until the trial was ended.
Mary never let go her clutched hold on the rails. She wanted them to steady her, in that heaving, whirling court. She thought the feeling of something hard compressed within her hand would help her to listen, for it was such pain, such weary pain in her head, to strive to attend to what was being said. They were all at sea, sailing away on billowy waves, and every one speaking at once, and no one heeding her father, who was calling on them to be silent, and listen to him. Then again, for a brief second, the court stood still, and she could see the judge, sitting up there like an idol, with his trappings, so rigid and stiff; and Jem, opposite, looking at her, as if to say, Am I to die for what you know your —. Then she checked herself, and by a great struggle brought herself round to an instant’s sanity. But the round of thought never stood still; and off she went again; and every time her power of struggling against the growing delirium grew fainter and fainter. She muttered low to herself, but no one heard her except her neighbour, Mrs. Sturgis; all were too closely attending to the case for the prosecution, which was now being wound up.
The counsel for the prisoner had avoided much cross-examination, reserving to himself the right of calling the witnesses forward again; for he had received so little, and such vague instructions, and understood that so much depended on the evidence of one who was not forthcoming, that in fact he had little hope of establishing anything like a show of a defence, and contented himself with watching the case, and lying in wait for any legal objections that might offer themselves. He lay back on the seat, occasionally taking a pinch of snuff in a manner intended to be contemptuous; now and then elevating his eyebrows, and sometimes exchanging a little note with Mr. Bridgnorth behind him. The attorney had far more interest in the case than the barrister, to which he was perhaps excited by his poor old friend Job Legh; who had edged and wedged himself through the crowd close to Mr. Bridgnorth’s elbow, sent thither by Ben Sturgis, to whom he had been “introduced” by Charley Jones, and who had accounted for Mary’s disappearance on the preceding day, and spoken of their chase, their fears, their hopes.
All this was told in a few words to Mr. Bridgnorth — so few, that they gave him but a confused idea, that time was of value; and this he named to his counsel, who now rose to speak for the defence.
Job Legh looked about for Mary, now he had gained, and given, some idea of the position of things. At last he saw her, standing by a decent-looking woman, looking flushed and anxious, and moving her lips incessantly, as if eagerly talking; her eyes never resting on any object, but wandering about as if in search of something. Job thought it was for him she was seeking, and he struggled to get round to her. When he had succeeded, she took no notice of him, although he spoke to her, but still kept looking round and round in the same wild, restless manner. He tried to hear the low quick mutterings of her voice, as he caught the repetition of the same words over and over again.
“I must not go mad. I must not, indeed. They say people tell the truth when they’re mad; but I don’t. I was always a liar. I was, indeed; but I’m not mad. I must not go mad. I must not, indeed.”
Suddenly she seemed to become aware how earnestly Job was listening (with mournful attention) to her words, and turning sharp round upon him, with upbraiding for his eavesdropping on her lips, she caught sight of something — or some one — who even in that state, had power to arrest her attention; and throwing up her arms with wild energy, she shrieked aloud —
“O Jem! Jem! you’re saved; and I AM mad” and was instantly seized with convulsions. With much commiseration she was taken out of court, while the attention of many was diverted from her, by the fierce energy with which a sailor forced his way over rails and seats, against turnkeys and policemen. The officers of the court opposed this forcible manner of entrance, but they could hardly induce the offender to adopt any quieter way of attaining his object, and telling his tale in the witness-box, the legitimate place. For Will had dwelt so impatiently on the danger in which his absence would place his cousin, that even yet he seemed to fear that he might see the prisoner carried off, and hung, before he could pour out the narrative which would exculpate him. As for Job Legh, his feelings were all but uncontrollable; as you may judge by the indifference with which he saw Mary borne, stiff and convulsed, out of the court, in the charge of the kind Mrs. Sturgis, who, you will remember, was an utter stranger to him.
“She’ll keep! I’ll not trouble myself about her,” said he to himself, as he wrote with trembling hands a little note of information to Mr. Bridgnorth, who had conjectured, when Will had first disturbed the awful tranquillity of the life-and-death court, that the witness had arrived (better late than never) on whose evidence rested all the slight chance yet remaining to Jem Wilson of escaping death. During the commotion in the court, among all the cries and commands, the dismay and the directions, consequent upon Will’s entrance, and poor Mary’s fearful attack of illness, Mr. Bridgnorth had kept his lawyer-like presence of mind; and long before Job Legh’s almost illegible note was poked at him, he had recapitulated the facts on which Will had to give evidence, and the manner in which he had been pursued, after his ship had taken her leave of the land.
The barrister who defended Jem took new heart when he was put in possession of these striking points to be adduced, not so much out of earnestness to save the prisoner, of whose innocence he was still doubtful, as because he saw the opportunities for the display of forensic eloquence which were presented by the facts; “a gallant tar brought back from the pathless ocean by a girl’s noble daring,” “the dangers of too hastily judging from circumstantial evidence,” etc. etc.; while the counsellor for the prosecution prepared himself by folding his arms, elevating his eyebrows, and putting his lips in the form in which they might best whistle down the wind such evidence as might be produced by a suborned witness, who dared to perjure himself. For, of course, it is etiquette to suppose that such evidence as may be given against the opinion which lawyers are paid to uphold, is anything but based on truth; and “perjury,” “conspiracy,” and “peril of your immortal soul,” are light expressions to throw at the heads of those who may prove (not the speaker, there would then be some excuse for the hasty words of personal anger, but) the hirer of the speaker to be wrong, or mistaken.
But when once Will had attained his end, and felt that his tale, or part of a tale, would be heard by judge and jury; when once he saw Jem standing safe and well before him (even though he saw him pale and careworn at the felons’ bar), his courage took the shape of presence of mind, and he awaited the examination with a calm, unflinching intelligence, which dictated the clearest and most pertinent answers. He told the story you know so well: how his leave of absence being nearly expired, he had resolved to fulfil his promise, and go to see an uncle residing in the Isle of Man; how his money (sailor-like) was all expended in Manchester, and how, consequently, it had been necessary for him to walk to Liverpool, which he had accordingly done on the very night of the murder, accompanied as far as Hollins Green by his friend and cousin, the prisoner at the bar. He was clear and distinct in every corroborative circumstance, and gave a short account of the singular way in which he had been recalled from his outward-bound voyage, and the terrible anxiety he had felt, as the pilot-boat had struggled home against the wind. The jury felt that their opinion (so nearly decided half-an-hour ago) was shaken and disturbed in a very uncomfortable and perplexing way, and were almost grateful to the counsel for the prosecution, when he got up, with a brow of thunder, to demolish the evidence, which was so bewildering when taken in connection with everything previously adduced. But if such, without looking to the consequences, was the first impulsive feeling of some among the jury, how shall I describe the vehemence of passion which possessed the mind of poor Mr. Carson, as he saw the effect of the young sailor’s statement? It never shook his belief in Jem’s guilt in the least, that attempt at an alibi; his hatred, his longing for vengeance, having once defined an object to itself, could no more bear to be frustrated and disappointed than the beast of prey can submit to have his victim taken from his hungry jaws. No more likeness to the calm stern power of Jupiter was there in that white eager face, almost distorted by its fell anxiety of expression.
The counsel to whom etiquette assigned the cross-examination of Will, caught the look on Mr. Carson’s face, and in his desire to further the intense wish there manifested, he over-shot his mark even in his first insulting question —
“And now, my man, you’ve told the court a very good and very convincing story; no reasonable man ought to doubt the unstained innocence of your relation at the bar. Still there is one circumstance you have forgotten to name; and I feel that without it your evidence is rather incomplete. Will you have the kindness to inform the gentlemen of the jury what has been your charge for repeating this very plausible story? How much good coin of Her Majesty’s realm have you received, or are you to receive, for walking up from the docks, or some less credible place, and uttering the tale you have just now repeated — very much to the credit of your instructor, I must say? Remember, sir, you are upon oath.”
It took Will a minute to extract the meaning from the garb of unaccustomed words in which it was invested, and during this time he looked a little confused. But the instant the truth flashed upon him he fixed his bright clear eyes, flaming with indignation, upon the counsellor, whose look fell at last before that stern unflinching gaze. Then, and not till then, Will made answer —
“Will you tell the judge and jury how much money you’ve been paid for your impudence towards one who has told God’s blessed truth, and who would scorn to tell a lie, or blackguard any one, for the biggest fee as ever lawyer got for doing dirty work? Will you tell, sir? — But I’m ready, my lord judge, to take my oath as many times as your lordship or the jury would like, to testify to things having happened just as I said. There’s O’Brien, the pilot, in court now. Would somebody with a wig on please to ask him how much he can say for me?”
It was a good idea, and caught at by the counsel for the defence. O’Brien gave just such testimony as was required to clear Will from all suspicion. He had witnessed the pursuit, he had heard the conversation which took place between the boat and the ship; he had given Will a homeward passage in his boat. And the character of an accredited pilot, appointed by the Trinity House, was known to be above suspicion.
Mr. Carson sank back on his seat in sickening despair. He knew enough of courts to be aware of the extreme unwillingness of juries to convict, even where the evidence is most clear, when the penalty of such conviction is death. At the period of the trial most condemnatory to the prisoner, he had repeated this fact to himself, in order to damp his too certain expectation for a conviction. Now it needed not repetition, for it forced itself upon his consciousness, and he seemed to KNOW, even before the jury retired to consult, that by some trick, some negligence, some miserable hocus-pocus, the murderer of his child, his darling, his Absalom, who had never rebelled — the slayer of his unburied boy would slip through the fangs of justice, and walk free and unscathed over that earth where his son would never more be seen.
It was even so. The prisoner hid his face once more to shield the expression of an emotion he could not control, from the notice of the over-curious; Job Legh ceased his eager talking to Mr. Bridgnorth; Charley looked grave and earnest; for the jury filed one by one back into their box, and the question was asked to which such an awful answer might be given.
The verdict they had come to was unsatisfactory to themselves at last; neither being convinced of his innocence, nor yet quite willing to believe him guilty in the teeth of the alibi. But the punishment that awaited him, if guilty, was so terrible, and so unnatural a sentence for man to pronounce on man, that the knowledge of it had weighed down the scale on the side of innocence, and “Not Guilty” was the verdict that thrilled through the breathless court.
One moment of silence, and then the murmurs rose, as the verdict was discussed by all with lowered voice. Jem stood motionless, his head bowed; poor fellow, he was stunned with the rapid career of events during the last few hours.
He had assumed his place at the bar with little or no expectation of an acquittal; and with scarcely any desire for life, in the complication of occurrences tending to strengthen the idea of Mary’s more than indifference to him; she had loved another, and in her mind Jem believed that he himself must be regarded as the murderer of him she loved. And suddenly, athwart this gloom which made life seem such a blank expanse of desolation, there flashed the exquisite delight of hearing Mary’s avowal of love, making the future all glorious, if a future in this world he might hope to have. He could not dwell on anything but her words, telling of her passionate love; all else was indistinct, nor could he strive to make it otherwise. She loved him.
And life, now full of tender images, suddenly bright with all exquisite promises, hung on a breath, the slenderest gossamer chance. He tried to think that the knowledge of her love would soothe him even in his dying hours; but the phantoms of what life with her might be would obtrude, and made him almost gasp and reel under the uncertainty he was enduring. Will’s appearance had only added to the intensity of this suspense.
The full meaning of the verdict could not at once penetrate his brain. He stood dizzy and motionless. Some one pulled his coat. He turned, and saw Job Legh, the tears stealing down his brown furrowed cheeks, while he tried in vain to command voice enough to speak. He kept shaking Jem by the hand, as the best and necessary expression of his feeling.
“Here, make yourself scarce! I should think you’d be glad to get out of that!” exclaimed the gaoler, as he brought up another livid prisoner, from out whose eyes came the anxiety which he would not allow any other feature to display.
Job Legh pressed out of court, and Jem followed unreasoningly.
The crowd made way, and kept their garments tight about them, as Jem passed, for about him there still hung the taint of the murderer.
He was in the open air, and free once more! Although many looked on him with suspicion, faithful friends closed round him; his arm was unresistingly pumped up and down by his cousin and Job; when one was tired, the other took up the wholesome exercise, while Ben Sturgis was working off his interest in the scene by scolding Charley for walking on his head round and round Mary’s sweetheart, for a sweetheart he was now satisfactorily ascertained to be, in spite of her assertion to the contrary. And all this time Jem himself felt bewildered and dazzled; he would have given anything for an hour’s uninterrupted thought on the occurrences of the past week, and the new visions raised up during the morning; ay, even though that tranquil hour were to be passed in the hermitage of his quiet prison cell. The first question sobbed out by his choking voice, oppressed with emotion, was —
“Where is she?”
They led him to the room where his mother sat. They had told her of her son’s acquittal, and now she was laughing, and crying, and talking, and giving way to all those feelings which she had restrained with such effort during the last few days. They brought her son to her, and she threw herself upon his neck, weeping there. He returned her embrace, but looked around, beyond. Excepting his mother, there was no one in the room but the friends who had entered with him.
“Eh, lad!” she said, when she found voice to speak. “See what it is to have behaved thysel! I could put in a good word for thee, and the jury could na go and hang thee in the face of th’ character I gave thee. Was na it a good thing they did na keep me from Liverpool? But I would come; I knew I could do thee good, bless thee, my lad. But thou’rt very white, and all of a tremble.”
He kissed her again and again, but looking round as if searching for some one he could not find, the first words he uttered were still —
“Where is she?”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55