Which Was the Murderer? by Robert Barr
Mrs. John Forder had no premonition of evil. When she heard the hall clock strike nine she was blithely singing about the house as she attended to her morning duties, and she little imagined that she was entering the darkest hour of her life, and that before the clock struck again overwhelming disaster would have fallen upon her. Her young husband was working in the garden, as was his habit each morning before going to his office. She expected him in every moment to make ready for his departure down town. She heard the click of the front gate, and a moment later some angry words. Alarmed, she was about to look through the parted curtains of the bay-window in front when the sharp crack of a revolver rang out, and she hastened to the door with a vague sinking fear at her heart. As she flung open the door she saw two things-- first, her husband lying face downwards on the grass motionless, his right arm doubled under him; second, a man trying frantically to undo the fastening of the front gate, with a smoking pistol still in his hand.
Human lives often hang on trivialities. The murderer in his anxiety to be undisturbed had closed the front gate tightly. The wall was so high as to shut out observation from the street, but the height that made it difficult for an outsider to see over it also rendered escape impossible. If the man had left the gate open he might have got away unnoticed, but, as it was, Mrs. Forder's screams aroused the neighbourhood, and before the murderer succeeded in undoing the fastening, a crowd had collected with a policeman in its centre, and escape was out of the question. Only one shot had been fired, but at such close quarters that the bullet went through the body. John Forder was not dead, but lay on the grass insensible. He was carried into the house and the family physician summoned. The doctor sent for a specialist to assist him, and the two men consulted together. To the distracted woman they were able to give small comfort. The case at best was a doubtful one. There was some hope of ultimate recovery, but very little.
Meanwhile the murderer lay in custody, his own fate depending much on the fate of his victim. If Forder died, bail would be refused; if he showed signs of recovering, his assailant had a chance for, at least, temporary liberty. No one in the city, unless it were the wife herself, was more anxious for Forder's recovery than the man who had shot him.
The crime had its origin in a miserable political quarrel--mere wrangle about offices. Walter Radnor, the assassin, had 'claims' upon an office, and, rightly or wrongly, he attributed his defeat to the secret machinations of John Forder. He doubtless did not intend to murder his enemy that morning when he left home, but heated words had speedily followed the meeting, and the revolver was handy in his hip pocket.
Radnor had a strong, political backing, and, even after he stretched his victim on the grass, he had not expected to be so completely deserted when the news spread through the city. Life was not then so well protected as it has since become, and many a man who walked the streets free had, before that time, shot his victim. But in this case the code of assassination had been violated. Radnor had shot down an unarmed man in his own front garden and almost in sight of his wife. He gave his victim no chance. If Forder had had even an unloaded revolver in any of his pockets, things would not have looked so black for Radnor, because his friends could have held that he had fired in self- defence, as they would doubtless claim that the dying man had been the first to show a weapon. So Radnor, in the city prison, found that even the papers of his own political party were against him, and that the town was horrified at what it considered a cold-blooded crime.
As time went on Radnor and his few friends began once more to hope. Forder still lingered between life and death. That he would ultimately die from his wound was regarded as certain, but the law required that a man should die within a stated time after the assault had been committed upon him, otherwise the assailant could not be tried for murder. The limit provided by the law was almost reached and Forder still lived. Time also worked in Radnor's favour in another direction. The sharp indignation that had followed the crime had become dulled. Other startling events occurred which usurped the place held by the Forder tragedy, and Radnor's friends received more and more encouragement.
Mrs. Forder nursed her husband assiduously, hoping against hope. They had been married less than a year, and their love for each other had increased as time went on. Her devotion to her husband had now become almost fanatical, and the physicians were afraid to tell her how utterly hopeless the case was, fearing that if the truth became known to her, she would break down both mentally and physically. Her hatred of the man who had wrought this misery was so deep and intense that once when she spoke of him to her brother, who was a leading lawyer in the place, he saw, with grave apprehension, the light of insanity in her eyes. Fearful for a breakdown in health, the physicians insisted that she should walk for a certain time each day, and as she refused to go outside of the gate, she took her lonely promenade up and down a long path in the deserted garden. One day she heard a conversation on the other side of the wall that startled her.
"That is the house," said a voice, "where Forder lives, who was shot by Walter Radnor. The murder took place just behind this wall."
"Did it really?" queried a second voice. "I suppose Radnor is rather an anxious man this week."
"Oh," said the first, "he has doubtless been anxious enough all along."
"True. But still if Forder lives the week out, Radnor will escape the gallows. If Forder were to die this week it would be rather rough on his murderer, for his case would come up before Judge Brent, who is known all over the State as a hanging judge. He has no patience with crimes growing out of politics, and he is certain to charge dead against Radnor, and carry the jury with him. I tell you that the man in jail will be the most joyous person in this city on Sunday morning if Forder is still alive, and I understand his friends have bail ready, and that he will be out of jail first thing Monday morning."
The two unseen persons, having now satisfied their curiosity by their scrutiny of the house, passed on and left Mrs. Forder standing looking into space, with her nervous hands clasped tightly together.
Coming to herself she walked quickly to the house and sent a messenger for her brother. He found her pacing up and down the room.
"How is John to-day?" he said.
"Still the same, still the same," was the answer. "It seems to me he is getting weaker and weaker. He does not recognise me any more."
"What do the doctors say?"
"Oh, how can I tell you? I don't suppose they speak the truth to me, but when they come again I shall insist upon knowing just what they think. But tell me this: is it true that if John lives through the week his murderer will escape?"
"How do you mean, escape?"
"Is it the law of the State that if my husband lives till the end of this week, the man who shot him will not be tried for murder?"
"He will not be tried for murder," said the lawyer, "but he may not be tried for murder even if John were to die now. His friends will doubtless try to make it out a case of manslaughter as it is; or perhaps they will try to get him off on the ground of self-defence. Still, I don't think they would have much of a chance, especially as his case will come before Judge Brent; but if John lives past twelve o'clock on Saturday night, it is the law of the State that Radnor cannot be tried for murder. Then, at most, he will get a term of years in a state prison, but that will not bother him to any great extent. He has a strong political backing, and if his party wins the next state election, which seems likely, the governor will doubtless pardon him out before a year is over."
"Is it possible," cried the wife, "that such an enormous miscarriage of justice can take place in a State that pretends to be civilised?"
The lawyer shrugged his shoulders. "I don't bank much on our civilisation," he said. "Such things occur every year, and many times a year."
The wife walked up and down the room, while her brother tried to calm and soothe her.
"It is terrible--it is awful!" she cried, "that such a dastardly crime may go unavenged!"
"My dear sister," said the lawyer, "do not let your mind dwell so much on vengeance. Remember that whatever happens to the villain who caused all this misery, it can neither help nor injure your husband."
"Revenge!" cried the woman, suddenly turning upon her brother; "I swear before God that if that man escapes, I will kill him with my own hand!"
The lawyer was too wise to say anything to his sister in her present frame of mind, and after doing what he could to comfort her he departed.
On Saturday morning Mrs. Forder confronted the physicians.
"I want to know," she said, "and I want to know definitely, whether there is the slightest chance of my husband's recovery or not. This suspense is slowly killing me, and I must know the truth, and I must know it now."
The physicians looked one at the other. "I think," said the elder, "that it is useless to keep you longer in suspense. There is not the slightest hope of your husband's recovery. He may live for a week or for a month perhaps, or he may die at any moment."
"I thank you, gentlemen," said Mrs. Forder, with a calmness that astonished the two men, who knew the state of excitement she had laboured under for a long time past. "I thank you. I think it is better that I should know."
All the afternoon she sat by the bedside of her insensible and scarcely breathing husband. His face was wasted to a shadow from his long contest with death. The nurse begged permission to leave the room for a few minutes, and the wife, who had been waiting for this, silently assented. When the woman had gone, Mrs. Forder, with tears streaming from her eyes, kissed her husband.
"John," she whispered, "you know and you will understand." She pressed his face to her bosom, and when his head fell back on the pillow her husband was smothered.
Mrs. Forder called for the nurse and sent for the doctors, but that which had happened was only what they had all expected.
* * * * *
To a man in the city jail the news of Forder's death brought a wild thrill of fear. The terrible and deadly charge of Judge Brent against the murderer doomed the victim, as every listener in the courthouse realised as soon as it was finished. The jury were absent but ten minutes, and the hanging of Walter Radnor did more perhaps than anything that ever happened in the State to make life within that commonwealth more secure than it had been before.