THE WRONG VERDICT
by Walter S. Masterman
The prisoner sat on a hard bench in the room below the Assize Court, watched by two officers. It was cold and dark down there, and dirty, but he noticed nothing of these things. His eyes were fixed on the ground, and he sat motionless. His mind was clear enough now. He went over every detail of the trial, which was now finished. The jury were considering their verdict. An officer in rough kindness pushed a mug of tepid cocoa into his hands. “Here, drink this. It’ll do you good.” He placed it on the bench beside him with a muttered word of thanks. What a time it had been. He knew he was innocent, and that knowledge had buoyed him up during the hearing of the case. He had never killed the man. But as the slow hours crept on, and witness after witness came forward, doubts grew in his mind as to his own sanity. The net closed round him with each successive piece of testimony. The porter had seen him going up the steps of the house where Klause, the diamond merchant, was living. A servant had heard a loud altercation going on. It was true he had lost his temper with the merchant. Then his revolver had been found. He had possessed one; he had bought it when he went abroad.
He was shown to be short of cash and heavily in Klause’s debt. All that was quite true. But he had not killed him. Every little detail, as handled by the Treasury Prosecutor, Sir James Watson, fitted in like a jig-saw puzzle. And against that was only his unsupported word. He could not prove an alibi, for after the diamond merchant had turned down his request for a loan he had wandered aimlessly about, thinking of suicide, and only deterred by the thought of his young wife and their baby daughter. It would be a coward’s act.
As the clever subtle lawyer had brought out each point in his brilliant speech to the jury, the prisoner had felt a sense of creeping horror. And his counsel! More than once, Sir Martin Jenks had hinted strongly, through his solicitor, that his best course would be to plead a struggle and sudden going off of the revolver.
This he had indignantly refused to do. He knew he was innocent. And then the Judge had summed up in slow measured terms. He had been quite fair in everything he said. He had pointed out the strong and weak points in circumstantial evidence. How there was not one real piece of direct evidence, but he had summarized the points, and the accused man had seen the scales over the Judge’s head slowly dropping on one side, and that side—guilty.
A sort of numb feeling was stealing over his mind. He was very cold. It could not be real He would wake to find it a hideous nightmare. It had lasted so long. The proceedings in the police court, drawn out with one adjournment after another. And then the trial.
An officer tapped him gently on the shoulder, and he rose like one in a trance, and stumbled up the stairs into the dock. A sea of faces greeted him; cold, hungry-looking, wolfish faces. Not one look of pity or sympathy. It was just a thrill to them. His counsel, sitting below him, would not look up. He sat with his head on his hands. It had been a set-back for him, and a very unprofitable business. He had had no chance of an impassioned appeal.
The jury were filing slowly into the box. What a time they took. The prisoner’s mind became acutely aware of every detail. There was Sir James, talking with Plattner, Klause’s chief clerk. He was morally certain that Plattner had murdered Klause, his chief, but what evidence had he? Could he shout out, “There is the murderer sitting there”? Plattner, the scoundrel who had wanted his wife before he had married her, and now was waiting until he was out of the way. His thoughts snapped as the usher shouted, “Pray silence in Court.” Everyone rose as the red-clothed Judge took his seat; the chaplain slipped in behind him. The Clerk of the Court rose.
“Gentlemen of the jury, have you considered your verdict?”
The foreman, a florid man, obviously very nervous, rose to his feet holding a slip of paper in his hand. He cleared his throat. “We have,” came in a hoarse whisper.
“Do you find the prisoner at the bar guilty or not guilty?”
It did not take the accused man by surprise. Only he felt rather than saw the three officers close round him.
“Is that the verdict of you all?”
The foreman sat down, and the Judge spoke very gravely.
“Have you anything to say before sentence of death is passed on you?”
A sense of unreality came to him. He wanted to shout. He licked his dry lips. “I am innocent,” he said in what he meant to be a firm voice, but it sounded like a whine for mercy.
The chaplain arranged a square of black on the Judge’s head. The condemned man heard a jumble of words, indicating that the Judge concurred in the verdict, which was the only possible one on the evidence, and then some jargon about being taken to the place from whence he came, and being hanged by the neck. The chaplain’s “Amen” jarred on his shattered nerves, and then the officer touched him sharply and he was hurried down below from the sight of men.
“I am afraid you never had a dog’s chance,” Sir James Watson said in a kindly voice to Sir Martin Jenks.
“Silly fellow,” the other replied as he gathered up his papers. “He might have got away with manslaughter if he’d given me a chance.”
The other counsel smiled grimly. “I don’t think so—well, good-bye for the present—I have another case in Court Three.”
His young wife came to see the condemned man. The Court had given permission. She was dry-eyed and fearless.
“You will appeal,” she said. She was sitting on one side of a table, and a grill separated them. “Of course,” he answered mechanically, watching that young face, devouring her with his tortured eyes.
“You know, John darling, I am certain of your innocence. I always have been and always shall be.”
“God bless you for that,” he said, and a sudden choking feeling came to his throat. He tried to smile. Then he was taken away.
Back to the condemned cell; two cells knocked into one, so that two warders could watch him day and night, lest he attempt to cheat the law.
And so through the sorry farce of an appeal. The three Judges did not even call on the Treasury Prosecutor. “Appeal dismissed” came pat from the Lord Chief Justice. They had not even retired. It was all over now. He had to wait the statutory three Sundays decreed by law in order that he might make his peace with his Maker, and duly repent. The warders played draughts with him, and tried to cheer him with rough courtesy. “It’ll be all over in a second, and quite painless,” they told him.
“After all, you might have been run over by a car, or got cancer or something.”
And then, just when he had braced himself for the ordeal, the Governor came into his cell. He thought, weakly, that the moment had come. Perhaps they had told him the wrong day to put him out of his agony of waiting.
He heard dimly that the Home Secretary had considered his case and that he had advised His Majesty to commute the sentence to one of life imprisonment.
Something broke in his mind. He turned fiercely on the Governor. “Why? I never asked for it. I’d rather get it over. Tell the Home Secretary I won’t have his pardon.”
“Calm yourself, my man,” the Governor said—he had witnessed scenes like this before. “When you have time to think, you will be grateful. You are young, and you must know that if you behave you will be liberated in time.”
The door was shut again; the iron-studded door which symbolized his banishment from the haunts of men; and the warders became active. Their task was over now. They warmly congratulated him. He followed them mutely into an ordinary cell, where he was to remain till he was removed to a convict prison.
His wife heard the news with gratitude. It was a great relief to think that his life had been spared. There was nothing for her to do now but get work, and she had never done any. The baby Vera must be provided for. And her old admirer Charles Plattner had been round to see her, not once or twice. She could not prevent him. He had been so kind, and talked of nothing but a reprieve. He was working hard, he told her, and hoped for the best.
He had offered money, and she had dared not refuse for the baby’s sake. He was rich now, as Klause had left him the bulk of his fortune. He was a widower with a small boy. Mary was frankly puzzled about him. He was so very kind and considerate, but now and then she caught a look on his face when he thought she was not noticing. A gloating look of proprietorship. He was waiting eagerly for the day of execution, when Mary would be a free woman.
They were talking when Mr. Sparks, the solicitor, came in. He informed her brusquely that the sentence would not be carried out, and that her husband would go to penal servitude for life. She turned dead white, and the lawyer caught her, but even at that moment she saw Plattner’s face. It was black with anger and disappointment.
When she had recovered from the shock she heard the lawyer speaking. “I don’t know on what grounds the Home Secretary acted. My firm have been doing all we could. I rather think that he felt there was some very small lingering doubt about that verdict, being based solely on circumstantial evidence. Of course, I don’t know. He is inclined to mercy in these cases, and should anything—mind you, I am not holding out any hopes—but should some new evidence present itself, it would not be too late partially to right the wrong, whereas—ahem”—he took out his handkerchief and blew his nose loudly.
Mary was relentless. “Whereas—you mean, if he had been murdered, he could not have been brought back.”
“Of course, you still believe him innocent. I admire you for it.” Plattner spoke in a jerky voice. His plans had collapsed. He had meant to offer marriage, in a decent, proper way, and that, he thought, would have been a sporting action considering she was the widow of a convicted murderer. Now, of course, that was out of the question. There could be no divorce. The alternative scheme was the only possible one, but that would require time and infinite patience. He made his first move.
“I am afraid, Mr. Sparks, your firm are considerably out of pocket over this case.” Sparks agreed—dryly. “I had a great respect for my poor friend. I will take it as a great favour if you will allow me to defray all the expenses.”
“I am sure that is most generous of you.”
Mary could say nothing. How could she refuse, when it meant the lawyers being out of pocket?
And so the slow, insidious process went on. Mary resisted, but the child was ill, and there were no friendly neighbours. She had been compelled to move, and even to change her name. The finger of scorn had been pointed at her, and small boys had shouted dreadful things. She could not stand it. Plattner had offered a flat. Ease and luxury even. No more scrubbing floors for a pittance. No more mending and mending, and being unable to buy clothes for the child. Plattner stopped at that. He was clever. He piled up the debt of gratitude without asking for reward. Presently she began in her loneliness to look forward to his visits. He suggested that she should take charge of his own motherless boy. Perhaps if she had seen her husband it might have been different, but he had steadfastly refused to allow her to come to Maidstone. He would not let her see the terrible change that the horrible surroundings and bestial talk were making in him. He might have been dead. He never wrote, though she wrote to him. It seemed quite natural at the end. Plattner suggested a holiday, as she was feeling run down. It was November in London, and fog made things depressing. He talked of the South of France, the sunshine and palms on the Mediterranean. A nurse would look after the children. It all sounded so practical and right.
Mary could never forgive herself, and as the years passed she saw the dreadful prospect of her husband being released and finding what she had become. She was fading, and a man of Plattner’s temperament could never stand that. There were other women. His visits became perfunctory and far between. The boy Charles was sent to a boarding-school, and her allowance was cut down. The flat became an emblem of shame. She saw herself for what she was. And then the end came quite suddenly and her life became a blank.
Plattner lay dying. He had been knocked over by a car, and his chest had been crushed in. She saw him before the end. He sent for her. For some reason, a spark of remorse flickered up before the end. She came to the bedside, and he whispered to the doctor that he wished to be alone with Mary.
In broken, feeble sentences he told her. Horror seized her like a claw. He had murdered his employer and had been afraid to confess. That made it more horrible. He would write out a statement, he told her, panting strongly. And then he spat blood, and the doctor and nurse hurried up. He never recovered consciousness.
Mary waited for the end and then rushed from the hospital and took a taxi to the lawyer’s office. Mr. Sparks listened gravely to her excited statement. He laid down his pen and spoke solemnly. “My dear madam, I am afraid nothing can be done. Just consider a moment. The dying statement of a man perhaps raving. Unsubstantiated by any corroboration.” He was fond of long words, after his kind. “I am not doubting your word,” he added hurriedly, as Mary clenched her fists. “If he had made a written statement, properly witnessed, it might have been quite different. We have absolutely no evidence, no proof.”
“But surely after his words to me you can find some.”
“It’s a long time ago now. I really don’t see that anything can be done. I must be frank with you. Don’t you think yourself that anyone in authority would think you were trying to put the blame on a dead man who couldn’t defend himself? You must not get angry. I am giving my opinion. If you like, you can go to some other firm and ask them to take the case up.”
Mary left; it was hopeless to argue with this wooden-faced lawyer, who obviously did not believe a word of her story.
It was the same wherever she went.
Plattner had left all his money, or all that was left after the hectic years he had spent, to his son Charles, then twenty years old.
To Mary he left an annuity for life. Enough to support her. The furniture of the flat was hers. Her daughter, Vera, was fourteen and advanced for her age. She knew nothing of her father. Young Plattner knew all about it, and was already casting eyes at the girl. Very thin she was, quick and vivid. She would respond to friendship and give her trust freely. Mary knew she must get her daughter away. She sacrificed herself and sent the child to Paris, to a convent school.
They moved to a small flatlet, and Mary made a brave effort for the child’s sake.
She struggled on for three years. Her health would not stand the strain, and she took to stimulants, and then drugs.
Then the news came as a final shock. A blue paper telling her that her husband was to be released from Maidstone. There was only a week left. Only a week! Vera had returned from Paris, and was trying for a job. She must be told.
Mary waited till the night; it was easier so, with only the light of a reading-lamp and the firelight flickering on the walls. She poured out the whole shameful story to Vera, sparing herself nothing. The girl sat white- faced and staring into the fire. She never moved during the recital. But she suddenly became old.
“You must have suffered dreadfully,” she said when it was over. She did not move to come to her mother, or answer to the other’s beseeching eyes. “We must face up to it.” She laughed rather bitterly. “It’s a blow, of course. I suppose we must look after my father.”
“If you had only known him as I did,” her mother said despairingly.
“You see, I didn’t; and you weren’t very faithful to his memory.”
“That’s hard, Vera.”
“I’m sorry; what do you want me to say?”
“I don’t know. I thought I ought to tell you, as you might have heard all this from someone else.”
Vera gave a hard laugh. “Yes, it would have been awkward if I had happened to get engaged to some decent man, and all this had come out afterwards. I am, at any rate, aware of my family secrets.”
Her mother rose slowly, as though a great fatigue had come to her. “I will wish you good night, Vera.”
Tears that had been held back by anger came to Vera. “I am sorry, really I am. Only it came as rather a shock. It took me off my balance, so to speak. You see, Mother . . .” She hesitated. “It’s quite off now. Only, my friend Betty and I met a man at a dance. I’m rather fond of him. He’s a fellow called Watson. I believe he’s a baronet, but no swank about him.”
“Watson!” Was fate playing another trick, and a fiendish one? “He’s not Sir Ronald Watson?”
“Yes, that’s the name—do you know him?”
“His father was the prosecuting counsel who got your father convicted.”
“Well, if he is, I don’t see what that’s got to do with the son. But it doesn’t matter, anyway, now. It’s all quite impossible. Good night, Mother. I’ll try to do what I can to help you.”
The next morning Mary was dead. The doctors soon came to a conclusion. It was all too simple. A bottle of veronal was beside the bed, and analysis showed that she had taken enough to kill several people. Suicide, of course.
On the day of the inquest, Vera’s aunt, Mrs. Stevens, arrived at the flat. She was Vera’s only living relative, her mother’s sister. Vera hated the sight of her. Smug and suburban, and given to hectoring, but Vera was left penniless. The annuity had stopped.
They had seen nothing of her for years, and only a sense of duty, which such women feel acutely, had induced Mrs. Stevens to come round.
The girl was absolutely alone; there were debts to pay, and not a penny except from the furniture, which was sold.
“You will come and live with us,” Mrs. Stevens said emphatically. “A girl of your age can’t live alone in London.”
Vera was too overwhelmed with the tragedy to resist, and she was taken off to Streatham, to the respectable house of Mr. Stevens. She stuck it as long as she could. Two horrible years, and then she did a bolt and took a flatlet with Betty Dale.
They broke the news of his wife’s death to the man in prison. He was a white-haired man, old before his time. He laughed cynically. “She evidently heard I was coming out. I shouldn’t have gone to her in any case. Not like this.”
They put him on the train for London, with a third-class ticket and five shillings with which to start life again. He blinked at the sudden freedom and the crowded streets. The train frightened him. At Charing Cross he wandered from the station and disappeared in the crowd.
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