Through the Fray by G. A. Henty
Chapter XV: Not Guilty
As soon as Mr. Porson and the doctor had left him Mr. Wakefield appeared.
"Well, Sankey, I hope you are not downcast at the magistrates' decision. It was a certainty that they would have to commit you, as we could not prove a satisfactory alibi. Never mind, I don't think any jury will find against you on the evidence they have got, especially in the face of those threatening letters and the fact that several men in Mulready's position have been murdered by the Luddites."
"It won't be much consolation to me, sir, to be acquitted if it can't be proved to the satisfaction of every one that I am innocent."
"Tut, tut! my boy; the first thing to do is to get you out of the hands of the law. After that we shall have time to look about us and see if we can lay our hands on the right man. A curious thing has happened today while I was in court. A little boy left a letter for me at my office here; it is an ill-written scrawl, as you see, but certainly important."
Ned took the paper, on which was written in a scrawling hand:
"Sir, Maister Sankey be innocent of the murder of Foxey. I doan't want to put my neck in a noose, but if so be as they finds him guilty in coort and be a-going to hang him, I shall come forward and say as how I did it. I bean't agoing to let him be hung for this job. A loife for a loife, saes oi; so tell him to keep up his heart."
There was no signature to the paper.
Ned looked up with delight in his face.
"But won't the letter clear me, Mr. Wakefield? It shows that it was not me, but some one else who did it."
"No, Sankey, pray do not cherish any false hopes on that ground. The letter is valueless in a legal way. To you and to your friends it may be a satisfaction; but it can have no effect on the court. There is nothing to prove that it is genuine. It may have been written by any friend of yours with a view of obtaining your acquittal. Of course we shall put it in at the trial, but it cannot be accepted as legal evidence in any way. Still a thing of that sort may have an effect upon some of the jury."
Ned looked again at the letter, and a shade came over his face now that he looked at it carefully. He recognized in a moment Bill's handwriting. He had himself instructed him by setting him copies at the time he was laid up with the broken leg, and Bill had stuck to it so far that he was able to read and write in a rough way.
Ned's first impulse was to tell Mr. Wakefield who had written the note, but he thought that it might get Bill into a scrape. It was evidently written by his friend, solely to create an impression in his favor, and he wondered that such an idea should have entered Bill's head, which was by no means an imaginative one. As to the young fellow having killed Mr. Mulready it did not even occur to Ned for a moment.
As, seated by the side of the chief constable, he drove along that afternoon, Ned turned it over anxiously in his mind whether it would be honest to allow this letter to be produced in court, knowing that it was only the device of a friend, Finally he decided to let matters take their course.
"I am innocent," he said to himself, "and what I have got to live for is to clear myself from this charge. Mr. Wakefield said this letter would not be of value one way or the other, and if I were to say Bill wrote it he might insist upon Bill's being arrested, and he might find it just as hard to prove his innocence as I do."
The assizes were to come on in three weeks. Ned was treated with more consideration than was generally the case with prisoners in those days, when the jails were terribly mismanaged; but Mr. Simmonds had written to the governor of the prison asking that every indulgence that could be granted should be shown to Ned, and Mr. Porson had also, before the lad left Marsden, insisted on his accepting a sum of money which would enable him to purchase such food and comforts as were permitted to be bought by prisoners, able to pay for them, awaiting their trial.
Thus Ned obtained the boon of a separate cell, he was allowed to have books and writing materials, and to have his meals in from outside the prison.
The days, however, passed but slowly, and Ned was heartily glad when the time for the assizes was at hand and his suspense was to come to an end. His case came on for trial on the second day of the sessions. On the previous evening he received a visit from Mr. Wakefield, who told him that Mr. Porson, Dr. Green and Charlie had come over in the coach with him.
"You will be glad to hear that your mother will not be called," the lawyer said. "The prosecution, I suppose, thought that it would have a bad effect to call upon a mother to give evidence against her son; besides, she could prove no more than your brother will be able to do. If they had called her, Green would have given her a certificate that she was confined to her bed and could not possibly attend. However I am glad they did not call her, for the absence of a witness called against the prisoner, but supposed to be favorable to him, always counts against him."
"And you have no clue as who did it, Mr. Wakefield?"
"Not a shadow," the lawyer replied. "We have had a man down from town ever since you have been away, but we have done no good. He went up to Varley and tried to get into the confidence of the croppers, but somehow they suspected him to be a spy sent down to inquire into the Luddite business, and he had a pretty narrow escape of his life. He was terribly knocked about before he could get out of the public house, and they chased him all the way down into Marsden. Luckily he was a pretty good runner, and had the advantage of having lighter shoes on than they had, or they would have killed him to a certainty. No, my lad, we can prove nothing; we simply take the ground that you didn't do it; that he was a threatened man and unpopular with his hands; and there is not a shadow of proof against you except the fact that he had ill treated you just before."
"And that I was known to bear him ill will," Ned said sadly.
"Yes, of course that's unfortunate," the lawyer said uneasily. "Of course they will make a point of that, but that proves nothing. Most boys of your age do object to a stepfather. Of course we shall put it to the jury that there is nothing uncommon about that. Oh! no, I do not think they have a strong case; and Mr. Grant, who is our leader, and who is considered the best man on the circuit, is convinced we shall get a verdict."
"But what do people think at Marsden, Mr. Wakefield? Do people generally think I am guilty?"
"Pooh! pooh!" Mr. Wakefield said hastily. "What does it matter what people think? Most people are fools. The question we have to concern ourselves with is what do the jury think, or at any rate with what they think is proved, and Mr. Grant says he does not believe any jury could find you guilty upon the evidence. He will work them up. I know he is a wonderful fellow for working up."
Mr. Grant's experience of juries turned out to be well founded. Ned, as he stood pale, but firm and composed in the dock, felt that his case was well nigh desperate when he heard the speech for the prosecution: his long and notorious ill will against the deceased, "one of the most genial and popular gentlemen in that part of the great county of Yorkshire," was dwelt upon. Evidence would be brought to show that even on the occasion of his mother's marriage the happiness of the ceremonial was marred by the scowls and menacing appearance of this most unfortunate and ill conditioned lad; how some time after the marriage this young fellow had violently assaulted his stepfather, and had used words in the hearing of the servants which could only be interpreted as a threat upon his life. This indeed, was not the first time that this boy had been placed in the dock as a prisoner. Upon a former occasion he had been charged with assaulting and threatening the life of his schoolmaster, and although upon that occasion he had escaped the consequences of his conduct by what must now be considered as the ill timed leniency of the magistrates, yet the facts were undoubted and undenied.
Then the counsel proceeded to narrate the circumstances of the evening up to the point when Mr. Mulready left the house.
"Beyond that point, gentlemen of the jury," the counsel said, "nothing certain is known. The rest must be mere conjecture; and yet it is not hard to imagine the facts. The prisoner was aware that the deceased had gone to the mill, which is situated a mile and a half from the town. You will be told the words which the prisoner used: 'It will be my turn next time, and when it comes I will kill you, you brute.'
"With these words on his lips, with this thought in his heart, he started for the mill. What plan he intended to adopt, what form of vengeance he intended to take, it matters not, but assuredly it was with thoughts of vengeance in his heart that he followed that dark and lonely road to the mill. Once there he would have hung about waiting for his victim to issue forth. It may be that he had picked up a heavy stone, may be that he had an open knife in his hand; but while he was waiting, probably his foot struck against a coil of rope, which, as you will hear, had been carelessly thrown out a few minutes before.
"Then doubtless the idea of a surer method of vengeance than that of which he had before thought came into his mind. A piece of the rope was hastily cut off, and with this the prisoner stole quietly off until he reached the spot where two gates facing each other on opposite sides of the lane afforded a suitable hold for the rope. Whether after fastening it across the road he remained at the spot to watch the catastrophe which he had brought about, or whether he hurried away into the darkness secure of his vengeance we cannot tell, nor does it matter. You will understand, gentlemen, that we are not in a position to prove these details of the tragedy. I am telling you the theory of the prosecution as to how it happened. Murders are not generally done in open day with plenty of trustworthy witnesses looking on. It is seldom that the act of slaying is witnessed by human eye. The evidence must therefore to some extent be circumstantial. The prosecution can only lay before juries the antecedent circumstances, show ill will and animus, and lead the jury step by step up to the point when the murderer and the victim meet in some spot at some time when none but the all seeing eye of God is upon them. This case is, as you see, no exception to the general rule.
"I have shown you that between the prisoner and the deceased there was what may be termed a long standing feud, which came to a climax two or three hours before this murder. Up to that fatal evening I think I shall show you that the prisoner was wholly in fault, and that the deceased acted with great good temper and self command under a long series of provocations; but upon this evening his temper appears to have failed, and I will admit frankly that he seems to have committed a very outrageous and brutal assault upon the prisoner. Still, gentlemen, such an assault is no justification of the crime which took place. Unhappily it supplies the cause, but it does not supply an excuse for the crime.
"Your duty in the case will be simple. You will have to say whether or not the murder of William Mulready is accounted for upon the theory which I have laid down to you and on no other. Should you entertain no doubt upon the subject it will be your duty to bring in a verdict of guilty; if you do not feel absolutely certain you will of course give the prisoner the benefit of the doubt."
The evidence called added nothing to what was known at the first examination. The two servants testified to the fact of the unpleasant relations which had from the first existed between the deceased and the prisoner, and detailed what they knew of the quarrel. Charlie's evidence was the most damaging, as he had to state the threat which Ned had uttered before he went out.
The counsel for the defense asked but few questions in cross examination. He elicited from the servants, however, the fact that Mr. Mulready at home was a very different person from Mr. Mulready as known by people in general. They acknowledged that he was by no means a pleasant master, that he was irritable and fault finding, and that his temper was trying in the extreme, He only asked one or two questions of Charlie.
"You did not find your stepfather a very pleasant man to deal with, did you?"
"Not at all pleasant," Charlie replied heartily.
"Always snapping and snarling and finding fault, wasn't he?"
"Yes, sir, always."
"Now about this threat of which we have heard so much on the part of your brother, did it impress you much? Were you frightened at it? Did you think that your brother intended to kill your stepfather?"
"No, sir, I am sure he didn't; he just said it in a passion. He had been knocked about until he could hardly stand, and he just said the first thing that came into his head, like fellows do."
"You don't think that he went out with any deliberate idea of killing your stepfather?"
"No, sir; I am sure he only went out to walk about till he got over his passion, just as he had done before."
"It was his way, was it, when anything put him out very much, to go and walk about till he got cool again?"
For the defense Mr. Simmonds was called, and produced the threatening letters which Mr. Mulready had laid before him. He stated that that gentleman was much alarmed, and had asked that a military force should be called into the town, and that he himself and his colleague had considered the danger so serious that they had applied for and obtained military protection.
Luke Marner and several of the hands at the mill testified to the extreme unpopularity of their employer among his men, and said that they should never have been surprised any morning at hearing that he had been killed.
Dr. Green and Mr. Porson testified very strongly in favor of Ned's character. This was all the evidence produced. Mr. Grant then addressed the jury, urging that beyond the fact of this unfortunate quarrel, in which the deceased appeared to have been entirely to blame and to have behaved with extreme brutality, there was nothing whatever to associate the prisoner with the crime. The young gentleman before them, as they had heard from the testimony of gentlemen of the highest respectability, bore an excellent character. That he had faults in temper he admitted, such faults being the result of the lad having been brought up among Indian servants; but Dr. Green and Mr. Porson had both told them that he had made the greatest efforts to master his temper, and that they believed that no ordinary provocation could arouse him. But after all what did what they had heard amount to? simply this, the lad's mother had been married a second time to a man who bore the outward reputation of being a pleasant, jovial man, a leading character among his townsmen, a popular fellow in the circle in which he moved.
It had been proved, however, by the evidence of those who knew him best, of his workpeople, his servants, of this poor lad whom the prosecution had placed in the box as a witness against his brother, that this man's life was a long lie; that, smiling and pleasant as he appeared, he was a tyrant, a petty despot in his family, a hard master to his hands, a cruel master in his house, What wonder that between this lad and such a stepfather as this there was no love lost. There were scores, ay and thousands of boys in England who similarly hated their stepfathers, and was it to be said that, if any of the men came to a sudden and violent death, these boys were to be suspected of their murder. But in the present case, although he was not in a position to lay his finger upon the man who perpetrated this crime, they need not go far to look for him. Had they not heard that he was hated by his workpeople? Evidence had been laid before them to show that he was a marked man, that he had received threatening letters from secret associations which had, as was notorious, kept the south of Yorkshire, and indeed all that part of the country which was the seat of manufacture, in a state of alarm. So imminent was the danger considered that the magistrates had requested the aid of an armed force, and at the tame this murder was committed there were soldiers actually stationed in the mill, besides a strong force in the town for the protection of this man from his enemies.
The counsel for the prosecution had given them his theory as to the actions of the prisoner, but he believed that that theory was altogether wide of the truth. It was known that an accident had taken place to the machinery, for the mill was standing idle for the day. It would be probable that the deceased would go over late in the evening to see how the work was progressing, as every effort was being made to get the machinery to run on the following morning.
"What so probable, then, that the enemies of the deceased--and you know that he had enemies, who had sworn to take his life-- should choose this opportunity for attacking him as he drove to or from the town. That an enemy was prowling round the mill, as has been suggested to you, I admit readily enough. That he stumbled upon the rope, that the idea occurred to him of upsetting the gig on its return, that he cut off a portion of the rope and fixed it between the two gateposts across the road, and that this rope caused the death of William Mulready. All this I allow; but I submit to you that the man who did this was a member of the secret association which is a terror to the land, and was the terror of William Mulready, and there is no proof whatever, not even the shadow not even the shadow of a proof, to connect this lad with the crime.
"I am not speaking without a warrant when I assert my conviction that it was an emissary of the association known as the Luddites who had a hand in this matter, for I am in possession of a document, which unfortunately I am not in a position to place before you, as it is not legal evidence, which professes to be written by the man who perpetrated this deed, and who appears, although obedient to the behests of this secret association of which he is a member, to be yet a man not devoid of heart, who says that if this innocent young man is found guilty of this crime he will himself come forward and confess that he did it.
"Therefore, gentlemen of the jury, there is every reason to believe that the slayer of William Mulready is indeed within these walls, but assuredly he is not the most unfortunate and ill treated young man who stands in the dock awaiting your verdict to set him free."
The summing up was brief. The judge commenced by telling the jury that they must dismiss altogether from their minds the document of which the counsel for the defense had spoken, and to which, as it had not been put into court, and indeed could not be put into court, it was highly irregular and improper for him to have alluded. They must, he said, dismiss it altogether from their minds. Their duty was simple, they were to consider the evidence before them. They had heard of the quarrel which had taken place between the deceased and the prisoner. They had heard the threat used by the prisoner that he would kill the deceased if he had an opportunity, and they had to decide whether he had, in accordance with the theory of the prosecution, carried that threat into effect; or whether on the other hand, as the defense suggested, the deceased had fallen a victim to the agent of the association which had threatened his life. He was bound to tell them that if they entertained any doubt as to the guilt of the prisoner at the bar they were bound to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The jury consulted together for a short time and then expressed their desire to retire to consider their verdict. They were absent about half an hour and on their return the foreman said in reply to the question of the judge that they found the prisoner "Not Guilty."
A perfect silence reigned in the court when the jury entered the box, and something like a sigh of relief followed their verdict. It was expected, and indeed there was some surprise when the jury retired, for the general opinion was that whether guilty or innocent the prosecution had failed to bring home unmistakably the crime to the prisoner. That he might have committed it was certain, that he had committed it was probable, but it was assuredly not proved that he and none other had been the perpetrator of the crime.
Of all the persons in the court the accused had appeared the least anxious as to the result. He received almost with indifference the assurances which Mr. Wakefield, who was sitting at the solicitor's table below him, rose to give him, that the jury could not find a verdict against him, and the expression of his face was unchanged when the foreman announced the verdict.
He was at once released from the dock. His solicitor, Dr. Green, and Mr. Porson warmly shook his hand, and Charlie threw his arms round his neck and cried in his joy and excitement.
"It is all right, I suppose," Ned said as, surrounded by his friends, he left the court, "but I would just as lief the verdict had gone the other way."
"Oh! Ned, how can you say so?" Charlie exclaimed.
"Well, no, Charlie," Ned corrected himself. "I am glad for your sake and Lucy's that I am acquitted; it would have been awful for you if I had been hung--it is only for myself that I don't care. The verdict only means that they have not been able to prove me guilty, and I have got to go on living all my life knowing that I am suspected of being a murderer. It is not a nice sort of thing, you know," and he laughed drearily.
"Come, come, Ned," Mr. Porson said cheerily, "you mustn't take too gloomy a view of it. It is natural enough that you should do so now, for you have gone through a great deal, and you are overwrought and worn out; but this will pass off, and you will find things are not as bad as you think. It is true that there may be some, not many, I hope, who will be of opinion that the verdict was like the Scotch verdict 'Not Proven,' rather than 'Not Guilty;' but I am sure the great majority will believe you innocent. You have got the doctor here on your side, and he is a host in himself. Mr. Simmonds told me when the jury were out of the court that he was convinced you were innocent, and his opinion will go a long way in Marsden, and you must hope and trust that the time will come when your innocence will be not only believed in, but proved to the satisfaction of all by the discovery of the actual murderer."
"Ah!" Ned said, "if we ever find that out it will be all right; but unless we can do so I shall have this dreadful thing hanging over me all my life."
They had scarcely reached the hotel where Mr. Porson, the doctor, and Charlie were stopping, when Mr. Simmonds arrived.
"I have come to congratulate you, my boy," he said, shaking hands with Ned. "I can see that at present the verdict does not give so much satisfaction to you as to your friends, but that is natural enough. You have been unjustly accused and have had a very hard time of it, and you are naturally not disposed to look at matters in a cheerful light; but this gives us time, my boy, and time is everything. It is hard for you that your innocence has not been fully demonstrated, but you have your life before you, and we must hope that some day you will be triumphantly vindicated."
"That is what I shall live for in future," Ned said. "Of course now, Mr. Simmonds, there is an end of all idea of my going into the army. A man suspected of a murder, even if they have failed to bring it home to him, cannot ask for a commission in the army. I know there's an end to all that."
"No," Mr. Simmonds agreed hesitatingly, "I fear that for the present that plan had better remain in abeyance; we can take it up again later on when this matter is put straight."
"That may be never," Ned said decidedly, "so we need say no more about it."
"And now, my boy," Mr. Porson said, "try and eat some lunch. I have just ordered a post chaise to be round at the door in half an hour. The sooner we start the better. The fresh air and the change will do you good, and we shall have plenty of time to talk on the road."