SIX HOURS TO LIVE
Margaret Annister, waiting death in the gas-execution chamber of Nevada City prison, yet innocent completely of the cold-blooded murder for which, within but a half-dozen hours now, she was to inhale deadly cyanide gas, had little hope whatsoever that her last desperate appeal to the governor for reprieve or commutation would succeed. For since it had failed utterly in the hands of her attorney—and why not, in view of her unanimous conviction on the very first ballot of that mixed jury!—and their unanimous decree of death on their second ballot?—and, even more, the refusal of the State Supreme Court to find any error whatsoever in that trial!—how else could this last and final appeal fare in the hands of her only friend, Yerxa Indergaard? But she would know soon now, Margaret realised—with Yerxa’s return and admittance to this place—so very soon!—any minute, in fact—and then—
Pacing, this late June morning, up and down the grim chamber, in her neatly fitting but simple blue denim prison dress, Margaret had, oddly enough, little fear of that dreadful thing that was scheduled to descend on her now in six more hours and twenty-five minutes! And Margaret knew exactly why she had no fear—no horror—no panic. For that hypodermic injection that Big Bella, the matron, had given her, before conducting her into this chamber earlier to-day, had, curiously, erased from Margaret’s mind and brain all ability to imagine the horrid picture of what was to happen in here at 5 p.m. to-day.
Past events—events that had really happened—these were clear, and even crystal-clear, this morning, in Margaret’s partly-dazed mind—events like, for instance, that never-to-be-forgotten day when World War II had officially ended, with German and Japanese aggression banished for countless decades yet to come, and all business suspended, the world over, for three full days. Or—or even lesser events—like that strange one that had occurred on the last day of her freedom—when that so-beautiful blonde woman—beautiful in spite of being somewhere in her late thirties—that woman with the face of a gangster’s moll—had peered at Margaret on the street—had leered at Margaret!—with that peculiarly triumphant look that had scorched Margaret’s soul. All so clear—these events of the past—yes!
But events—of totally unexperienced nature—yet to come—ah, these were different things! To-day. For Margaret Annister. Indeed, as a result of that drug which had been sent into her veins, her mind worked more clearly than ever—yes!—she was certain of that; yet, when it came to trying to focus, in any degree, on that grim event, the like of which she had never experienced, her own death!—it was as utterly impossible at this moment as though she were trying to grasp an object with a paralysed, insensate hand. Nothing—but blankness ensued. And she knew full well that imagination had been mercifully erased from her mind and nervous system. And that all that was left, indeed, of that stark horror she had felt yesterday and last evening was just an overpowering sadness—almost a despair—that she was not to continue on down that interesting road called Life—that the road she was now on did and must, terminate suddenly in a—a—a dark wood—she shook her head helplessly. For it remained always, to her, since this morning, a blurry, foggy wood, that was all. “Execution,” she knew it was being called. Exe—she gave it up. For to her, by now, the very concept had become but three difficultly grasped words that meant and conveyed but the simple sad idea of finis—end—termination—to Life.
She was face to face now, in her pacing, with the square, highly-polished metal plate sunk, by its exact own thickness and at eye-level, in the cement wall—that reflector-of-self vouchsafed to those unhappy persons who must endure, for brief or longer while, in this chamber, by which to at least see themselves—before they went. Or to perhaps but face, with eyes tightly averted, the while they received the most hopeless of tidings, concerning futile final appeal, from the disclike, hard-rubber speaking-device set rigidly, deeply, within hemispherical sound-reflecting recess, in the cement just beneath the plate. And calmly, almost dispassionately, Margaret contemplated herself in that square shining surface.
Her throat and neck, rising generously and freely above the crudely-hemmed upper edge of the blue denim prison dress, were white and smooth—as white and smooth as they should be—in one who was but twenty-five years of age. Rendered even more white, indeed—in contrast with the jet ringlets that fell over their owner’s forehead. Made even whiter yet, perhaps, by the so-black eyes which now were gravely contemplating themselves—eyes possessing a definite upendedness at their outer corners, and comprising, in their striking colour and angularity, Margaret’s definite inheritance from that one Russian parent of hers.
She continued to stare, with her full warm lips, encrimsoned a bit by the partly stimulating effects of that drug—inheritance, those lips, from her British parent!—parted slightly in half puzzlement. Knowing, with absoluteness, that the girl who stared back at her, just was not—simply could not be—that person who now stood in front of the reflecting plate—that unhappy creature who had been accused, tried, convicted, of that atrocious murder, by the most horrible and hopeless concatenation of circumstances—circumstances all welded viciously, cruelly, together, in some utterly unexplainable manner—and for reasons even a thousand times more unfathomable!—by that ruthless, malevolent seller of iron finger-rings who called himself——
But now a sharp explosive click sounded startlingly from the black disclike speaking-device in that recess beneath the plate that Margaret was facing, showing that a circuit containing it had suddenly been closed. And the click was followed by no less than a voice from the device.
“Step to the speaking-device, Annister—if you can,” it commanded sternly.
It was a woman’s voice. The voice, as Margaret knew, of Big Bella—Bella O’John—the deathwatch matron, who sat right now in the short corridor outside this chamber. A voice utterly devoid, because of decades of grim penal work, of any remnant of human sympathy. Or else—in this case—the voice of one who was convinced that the execution scheduled to take place here to-day was one that was rightfully deserved by its victim.
“I—I am at the device—right now, Matron,” Margaret stammered.
“I see. Well, I am instructed, Annister, to keep you apprised of all developments in your—uh—plea to the governor; and so I want to say that I have definite word that your friend, Mrs. Indergaard, left the governor’s office ten minutes ago—so must be on her way here now.”
Margaret gazed hopelessly at the device. Then spoke.
“She failed—of course?”
“Now, now, Annister, I can’t say that. Simply because I don’t know.”
The voice stopped. A sharp explosive click showed that the speaking-device had been cut off.
Margaret’s breath moved slowly, so slowly, within her. For she knew, deep within her heart of hearts, the uselessness of Yerxa’s plea to Governor Chanrode Bayliss, particularly when the skilful combined plea-and-argument of Margaret’s attorney, Damascus Gilbride, now dead for nearly forty-eight hours from the heart attack that had followed that plea by some half-dozen hours, had failed so completely. Yerxa Indergaard’s mission could have—but one result. Refusal!
And she turned wearily away from the polished plate she was still facing and gazed drearily, instead, about the room where soon she was to die—if Yerxa failed—to die—painlessly, she hoped. She tried to reflect gravely again on this specific aspect of things—could not—simply could not!—gave it up. And, instead, surveyed the room where she was to die.
Just a huge cement-floored and cement-walled chamber it was, some twenty feet square. So starkly, so sparsely, furnished—that it practically was not furnished at all! Yet generously lighted by its one broad eight-foot-long window, containing double sheets of thick plate glass, with heavy vertical bars on its outside, and stout iron webbing on its inside—window which, however, was not “window” at all, since its metal frame, single and part of the construction of the very wall that held it, could not even be raised! Built completely, top, sides and bottom of welded steel plates, the room’s one-foot-thick cement lining belied the sinister significance of that air-tight steel boxlike skeleton lying hidden back of its dirty grey surfaces, and revealed not in the least those more cunning touches of hermetic sealing in which the invisible 6-inch metal bushings that carried from the room the speaking and light-wires were both fused to the plates through which they passed.
At various points about the room’s walls, a foot or so from the floor in most cases—though, again, but one foot from the ceiling in other cases—were gaping, black, hornlike metal-lined orifices through which, at this particular moment, the fresh air filling the room was drifting, but through which, in due course, the lethal gas would pour instead!
But now again, from directly behind Margaret, came that explosive click in the speaking-device which betokened that the circuit had been thrown on. And Margaret, one slender hand flying automatically to heart, wheeled swiftly around—waited.
“Annister?” As before, the voice was that of Big Bella O’John. “Step to the speaking-device, please.”
“I—I have not even—yet left it, Matron.”
“Oh, I see. Well, in line with those instructions I have to keep you posted concerning your plea, I want to say that Mrs. Indergaard is reported now as being in the prison.”
Margaret’s heart gave the faintest of leaps within her. “In—in the warden’s office?” she asked, scarcely breathing.
“No. She has passed through the front-office building, and is headed—for this rear wing.”
“Oh!” breathed Margaret, the surgings of faint hope rising within her. “That—that can mean—maybe I—that she flies straight to me—because she has news—good news!”
“Now, Annister, don’t make deductions from points that—that warrant none. It’s only fair to tell you that any decision of the governor, concerning you, would be transmitted by him directly to the warden, and not left to a stranger to deliver.”
The faint hope that had risen, wraithlike, in Margaret, turned into a curious cold plummet that slithered leaden-like downward in her very soul.
“Yes, I—understand,” she returned, in a low voice. “I think I do. But—has any decision—yet been phoned—to the warden?”
“He could not leave gotten it, Annister, if it had. For the reason that he is overtown at the moment—out of the prison—and not expected back till some thirty minutes from now,” the woman outside broke off peremptorily, “the point just now is that your friend will be here—any minute. Now pull yourself together as best you can. And in any event, don’t make things difficult for her as well as yourself—are you ready—to receive her?”
“Oh, I am—yes, Matron, I am!” was Margaret’s fervent, even half-frightened, reply. “So ready! For right now the—the only thing in the entire world for me is to—to see Yerxa—no matter what—what news she has—no matter how bad it is—but seeing her, Matron, is—is just about the one thing in the world that will make me able to—to go through with this—this appalling affair.”
“Yes, yes, I know. And I see that that drug is working—as much as it can be made to work—in cases like yours, Well, I’ll bring your friend in the moment she gets here.”
A click. And the speaking-device went dead again.
And Margaret turned, for the second time—contemplating leaden-heartedly this sordid chamber in which she was going to have to receive—her best and only friend. And who had not yet seen it, for the simple reason that her last meeting with Margaret, concerning this proposed final desperate appeal to the governor, had taken place early this morning in Margaret’s many-times-more comfortably furnished cell in the women’s wing of the prison. Poor Yerxa! How unalterably shocked she would be by this room and its stark furnishings. And Margaret shook her head despairingly. And swept her own gaze forlornly about this awful place in which she was hostess.
Rugs none, on the cold cement floor. Unless perchance one counted the two narrow diagonally lying painted representations thereof!
Couch none—nor bed—unless one counted the padded pallet, swung out, by heavy chains, from the corner of the room rightward of where Margaret now stood, and providing, at most, but something on which to fling oneself; but no blanket nor sheet upon it with which to suicide! Chairs two—and two only!—heavy massive missionlike things, with flat handles, both stationed on side of room opposite that broad window which itself gazed out only on dreary, highwalled yardlet, scarce more than interior closed court—chairs that faced each other curiously, yet were angled casually off from each other, too, as though suggesting that they were incumbent of this room, and friend—or maybe lawyer!—could hold last converse, should such be held. Except that the very casualness of those chairs positions was belied by the powerful angle irons that held their feet, by sunken bolts, to the floor!
Comforts—none! Other than the single iron slopjar held rigidly in the corner leftwise of where Margaret stood, by the semi-circular iron band passing clear around it, and padlocked to the wall; and the iron basin, containing tepid water, on iron shelf above it, the very basin held firmly down by iron bands crisscrossing above it and padlocked to shelf.
But now an interruption took place in Margaret’s despairful surveyal of her cheerless surroundings. None other than the hollow rattling sound of powerful metal bolt being withdrawn, somewhere outside. And then, but a second later, the swinging forth, out of the wall opposite Margaret, of a huge five-foot circle—a circle whose lowest point was a foot or so above the floor—a circle that was painted a darkish grey to match the very cement around it—except that the circle was not cement, but was of metal!—was, indeed, the inside surface of the special door which kept this chamber, at one certain hour, hermetically sealed. For, as it swung slowly inward, to the now discernible tune of the low whir of an invisible electric motor, and the almost noiseless purr of gearwheels, and well about, on what was evidently a single massive and apparently perfectly hung hinge, the door showed itself, to be, in actuality, a great aluminium and steel pluglike affair, fully a foot and a half thick and even tapering ever so slightly outward from the room, and making the whole combination, door and casing, resemble nothing so much as the doors on submarines and on safety-deposit vaults. A powerful handwheel protruding from the machinery on the plug-end face—if not the polished wedgelike terminals of the sleeved radial arms—were sufficient, both, to reveal to the veriest neophyte in things mechanical how this particular door, when closed, could be drawn, by no more than the turning of that wheel and the engagement of those terminals with wedgelike steel apertures somewhere about the outer periphery of the whole, so tightly into the machined and conically-tapered door casing, that not a molecule—an atom—an electron—of lethal gas could pass out!
And also did the opening of that door reveal, as now it swung clear about to almost the full extent of its swing, a view, though purely circular in shape, of what was a narrow stone corridor paralleling the very wall, with a single lighted electric bulb, evidently suspended from unseen ceiling thereof, hanging almost across the very circle, a worn armchair in the lower part thereof, and facing the door, and two planes, on wall above that chair.
But now, before even the great door, swinging inward, had come to almost silent rest against the very wall which held it, the purr of the concealed motor ceased abruptly—the door came to immediate stop—the clanking rattle of mechanism being completely released from interlocking mechanism sounded from somewhere—and from around the edge of the circle appeared the white-uniform-clad figure of O’John the death-watch matron herself. Already, even, stepping in over the circular threshold of the door. But quite alone, as Margaret, with heart that had momentarily almost ceased to beat, perceived. A huge woman O’John was, some forty-six years of age. Weighing full 280 pounds, and having to stoop, appreciably, so that her undoubted 6 feet of height could get through that circular doorway. From the waist of her stash white uniform swung the heavy bunch of keys which, as Margaret knew from having passed it once this morning, unlocked a powerful wooden door at the end of that short corridor, as well as more doors beyond. Heavy bushy reddish-brown eyebrows she had, that came together right over the bridge of her big nose. Her still bright red hair was done tight against her broad bovine-like head, but her eyes, in contrast to it, were cold, gelidly cold. Indeed her face, as she gazed queryingly across the room at Margaret, bore the look of a woman who felt that at last—a young and pretty woman of her own sex had caught her just deserts in crime.
“No—not yet!” O’John said immediately. “She’s not here yet. I’m merely unhooking the door-operating mechanism at the outswing point—so that from now on it can be opened by hand. And sort of, at the same time, Annister, looking you over too—before this interview. To see that you are in proper condition—for it.”
Apparently satisfied that everything in the room was in order, O’John swung her gaze directly, and critically, upon Margaret as she came across the room. Stopping finally in front of her. Surveying Margaret’s eyes. Nodding, at some condition she perceived there in the pupils.
“Okay, apparently,” was the matron’s verdict. Now she stroked her chin, a bit troubledly. “And now I guess I’d better say a word or two, Annister—about this interview. It can only be, remember —limited in time. If the news she brings you is, by some—uh—some chance, good, like—like, say, a stay of execution—or what, that time limitation wouldn’t worry you—no! But—if the news were bad—”
“It—it is bad,” replied Margaret in a low voice. “ For if—if it had been good, I’d have been notified somehow—that is, Matron, you would have—long before this, and—”
“Now, now, I told you why that would be quite impossible—with the warden himself not on the premises at the moment to take a direct call from the governor. And—but all right—good or bad, Annister—this particular interview can only be five minutes. Do you fully understand—that?”
“Five—minutes?” Margaret’s hand swept to her heart. “Oh surely, Matron, you won’t hold me to—” She stopped. Such hopes as she had, concerning the outcome of Yerxa’s interview, had been burning so low that their flame was well nigh invisible—but they had been at least burning; now, the faint glow that had emanated from that burning seemed to die down—to cease. “Oh surely,” Margaret begged, “you—you don’t mean that, do you—Matron? If her news—is bad? And because of it—I can have only a few hours—to live? Surely you—”
“Now stop that!” ordered O’John, sternly and peremptorily. Yet more to be sure, as a nurse, than a jailguard. “The point only is, Annister, that instructions are instructions. Regardless—utterly—of what news she brings. So all right, then, I’m going to let your friend in the minute she comes. You may be entirely alone with her. And you needn’t fear that anything either of you says will be listened to. By that device in back of you. I shall, of course, have to click in once or twice during the interview—and listen for a mere second or so—just to see that everything is going along in here on—well—even keel and all; input the speaker-circuit won’t be kept open, as I shall assure even your friend. Only remember—remember now!—news good or news bad—five minutes only?”
“But oh,” Margaret cried, that invisible and practically non-existent flame of hope rising suddenly within her, “if—if by some chance she has good news, then—then I wouldn’t want her to remain with me—even five seconds. I would want her to fly—to fly with it to the warden’s office—to tell him—to tell him that he’s not, at five o’clock to-day, to—he’s not to—to—to—” Margaret passed a hand over her forehead.
And now Big Bella O’John, in front of her, was speaking.
“We’ll let the Future determine all those things,” the matron was saying firmly, Now she felt for her keys; found them there at her waist. Half turned away. “All right, then.” And turning clear about this time, she proceeded across the floor to where that great round grey circle hung curiously poised as though a section of the wall itself had been neatly and firmly punched through by a giant thumb, and maneuvered herself, through the opening, and was gone. To the sound, at most, as she drew the door firmly to from the outside, of the hollow rattle of its steel hand-lock bolt.
And now, alone again with herself, as she had been for many hours now, Margaret moved wearily over to the broad window and lining her eyes up with two openings in the iron webbing gazed forth over the dreary scene the view gave on to. No more, indeed, than a blank desolate court-like yardlet, no wider than the death chamber itself—since its high containing side walls were nothing more than extensions of the very walls of the death chamber—and with, that yardlet, almost no depth since the further wall that cut it off from everything lay but twelve scant feet or so off from the window, and was so inordinately high, that particular wall, that it cut off all the rest of the prison—all, that is, but the clock on the far tower of the administration building, the building itself invisible, and the gold hands of which clock, seen from here, marked the passing of the hours for those within.
Again Margaret passed a hand wearily over her forehead. How long now? How long—before Yerxa would come—no!—for Yerxa would come. But—if her news were bad—how many hours now—before—before—
Fascinated, Margaret swung her eyes again to that gold-handed tower clock. Lighted up by the morning sun. Twelve minutes to eleven—in the morning. Six more hours. Six hours—and twelve minutes. Unless, perchance, dear God, Yerxa had won—a miracle had happened!—in which case—
But in no more than just that minute or so in which Margaret had moved to, and stood in, the window, something had happened in the corridor outside that plainly had not happened while O’John had been in here! The arrival, no less—of someone. Someone who—
For the advance news thereof was being heralded by two separate sounds—first, the rattle of the bolt being unleashed in the door; then, in turn, the click of the speaking-device—followed, almost immediately, by the news itself—in O’John’s voice, on the speaker.
“All right, Annister—Mrs. Indergaard is here. Go right in that door, Mrs. Indergaard.”
And as Margaret, catching her breath sharply, her hand flying once again to her heart, swung clear around and about, the better to watch that great circular door, which already had opened, she realised helplessly that now, this moment, her Destiny was being written; that now she was to see—perhaps for the last and final time in her life—her dearest and truest friend. For the last time perhaps, that is—and, again, perhaps not!
For it was possible—oh, it was possible that—
Which—oh dear, dear God!—would it be?
And, her body almost rigid with suspense, her heart scarcely beating now within her, Margaret stood exactly where she was, the better to instantly read, with her own feverish eyes, the story which, she realised well, would be told fully by Yerxa’s own frank and honest countenance, as the latter entered this chamber—of death. Not the devious and perhaps involved story of all that Governor Chanrode Bayliss might have said—argued—even done—no!—but the far, far simpler story of whether Margaret Annister was—or was not—to die to-day—at five o’clock.
And tensely, biting her very lips now to keep from screaming at the top of her voice, Margaret waited—to learn her Fate!
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