The Four Just Men (1920)/Part 2/Chapter 14
AT THE OLD BAILEY
They were privileged people who gained admission to the Old Bailey, people with tickets from sheriffs, reporters, great actors, and very successful authors. The early editions of the evening newspapers announced the arrival of these latter spectators. The crowd outside the court contented themselves with discussing the past and the probable future of the prisoner.
The Megaphone had scored heavily again, for it published in extenso the particulars of the prisoner’s will. It referred to this in its editorial columns variously as “An Astounding Document” and “An Extraordinary Fragment”. It was remarkable alike for the amount bequeathed, and for the generosity of its legacies.
Nearly half a million was the sum disposed of, and of this the astonishing sum of £60,000 was bequeathed to “the sect known as the “Rational Faithers” for the furtherance of their campaign against capital punishment”, a staggering legacy remembering that the Four Just Men knew only one punishment for the people who came under its ban.
“You want this kept quiet, of course,” said the lawyer when the will had been attested.
“Not a bit,” said Manfred; “in fact I think you had better hand a copy to the Megaphone.”
“Are you serious?” asked the dumbfounded lawyer.
“Perfectly so,” said the other. “Who knows,” he smiled, “it might influence public opinion in—er—my favour.”
So the famous will became public property, and when Manfred, climbing the narrow wooden stairs that led to the dock of the Old Bailey, came before the crowded court, it was this latest freak of his that the humming court discussed.
He looked round the big dock curiously, and when a warder pointed out the seat, he nodded, and sat down. He got up when the indictment was read.
“Are you guilty or not guilty?” he was asked, and replied briefly:
“I enter no plea.”
He was interested in the procedure. The scarlet-robed judge with his old, wise face and his quaint, detached air interested him mostly. The businesslike sheriffs in furs, the clergyman who sat with crossed legs, the triple row of wigged barristers, the slaving bench of reporters with their fierce whispers of instructions as they passed their copy to the waiting boys, and the strong force of police that held the court: they had all a special interest for him.
The leader for the Crown was a little man with a keen, strong face and a convincing dramatic delivery. He seemed to be possessed all the time with a desire to deal fairly with the issues, fairly to the Crown and fairly to the prisoner. He was not prepared, he said, to labour certain points which had been brought forward at the police-court inquiry, or to urge the jury that the accused man was wholly without redeeming qualities.
He would not even say that the man who had been killed, and with whose killing Manfred was charged, was a worthy or a desirable citizen of the country. Witnesses who had come forward to attest their knowledge of the deceased, were ominously silent on the point of his moral character. He was quite prepared to accept the statement he was a bad man, an evil influence on his associates, a corrupting influence on the young women whom he employed, a breaker of laws, a blackguard, a debauchée.
“But, gentlemen of the jury,” said the counsel impressively, “a civilized community such as ours has accepted a system—intricate and imperfect though it may be—by which the wicked and the evil-minded are punished. Generation upon generation of wise law-givers have moulded and amended a scale of punishment to meet every known delinquency. It has established its system laboriously, making great national sacrifices for the principles that system involved. It has wrested with its life-blood the charters of a great liberty—the liberty of a law administered by its chosen officers and applied in the spirit of untainted equity.”
So he went on to speak of the Four Just Men who had founded a machinery for punishment, who had gone outside and had overridden the law; who had condemned and executed their judgment independent and in defiance of the established code.
“Again I say, that I will not commit myself to the statement that they punished unreasonably: that with the evidence against their victims, such as they possessed, the law officers of the Crown would have hesitated at initiating a prosecution. If it had pleased them to have taken an abstract view of this or that offence, and they had said this or that man is deserving of punishment, we, the representatives of the established law, could not have questioned for one moment the justice of their reasoning. But we have come into conflict on the question of the adequacy of punishment, and upon the more serious question of the right of the individual to inflict that punishment, which results in the appearance of this man in the dock on a charge of murder.”
Throughout the opening speech, Manfred leant forward, following the counsel’s words.
Once or twice he nodded, as though he were in agreement with the speaker, and never once did he show sign of dissent.
The witnesses came in procession. The constable again, and the doctor, and the voluble man with the squint. As he finished with each, the counsel asked whether he had any question to put, but Manfred shook his head.
“Have you ever seen the accused before?” the judge asked the last witness.
“No, sar, I haf not,” said the witness emphatically, “I haf not’ing to say against him.”
As he left the witness-box, he said audibly:
“There are anoder three yet—I haf no desire to die,” and amidst the laughter that followed this exhibition of caution, Manfred recalled him sharply.
“If you have no objection, my lord?” he said.
“None whatever,” replied the judge courteously.
“You have mentioned something about another three,” he said. “Do you suggest that they have threatened you?”
“No, sar—no!” said the eager little man.
“I cannot examine counsel,” said Manfred, smiling; “but I put it to him, that there has been no suggestion of intimidation of witnesses in this case.”
“None whatever,” counsel hastened to say; “it is due to you to make that statement.”
“Against this man”—the prisoner pointed to the witness-box— “we have nothing that would justify our action. He is a saccharine smuggler, and a dealer in stolen property—but the law will take care of him.”
“It’s a lie,” said the little man in the box, white and shaking; “it is libellous!”
Manfred smiled again and dismissed him with a wave of his hand.
The judge might have reproved the prisoner for his irrelevant accusation, but allowed the incident to pass.
The case for the prosecution was drawing to a close when an official of the court came to the judge’s side and, bending down, began a whispered conversation with him.
As the final witness withdrew, the judge announced an adjournment and the prosecuting counsel was summoned to his lordship’s private room.
In the cells beneath the court, Manfred received a hint at what was coming and looked grave.
After the interval, the judge, on taking his seat, addressed the jury:
“In a case presenting the unusual features that characterize this,” he said, “it is to be expected that there will occur incidents of an almost unprecedented nature. The circumstances under which evidence will be given now, are, however, not entirely without precedent.” He opened a thick law book before him at a place marked by a slip of paper. “Here in the Queen against Forsythe, and earlier, the Queen against Berander, and earlier still and quoted in all these rulings, the King against Sir Thomas Mandory, we have parallel cases.” He closed the book.
“Although the accused has given no intimation of his desire to call witnesses on his behalf, a gentleman has volunteered his evidence. He desires that his name shall be withheld, and there are peculiar circumstances that compel me to grant his request. You may be assured, gentlemen of the jury, that I am satisfied both as to the identity of the witness, and that he is in every way worthy of credence.”
He nodded a signal to an officer, and through the judge’s door to the witness box there walked a young man. He was dressed in a tightly fitting frock coat, and across the upper part of his face was a half mask.
He leant lightly over the rail, looking at Manfred with a little smile on his clean-cut mouth, and Manfred’s eyes challenged him.
“You come to speak on behalf of the accused?” asked the judge.
“Yes, my lord.”
It was the next question that sent a gasp of surprise through the crowded court.
“You claim equal responsibility for his actions?”
“Yes, my lord!”
“You are, in fact, a member of the organization known as the Four Just Men?”
He spoke calmly, and the thrill that the confession produced, left him unmoved.
“You claim, too,” said the judge, consulting a paper before him, “to have participated in their councils?”
“I claim that.”
There were long pauses between the questions, for the judge was checking the replies and counsel was writing busily.
“And you say you are in accord both with their objects and their methods?”
“You have helped carry out their judgment?”
“And have given it the seal of your approval?”
“And you state that their judgments were animated with a high sense of their duty and responsibility to mankind?”
“Those were my words.”
“And that the men they killed were worthy of death?”
“Of that I am satisfied.”
“You state this as a result of your personal knowledge and investigation?”
“I state this from personal knowledge in two instances, and from the investigations of myself and the independent testimony of high legal authority.”
“Which brings me to my next question,” said the judge. “Did you ever appoint a commission to investigate all the circumstances of the known cases in which the Four Just Men have been implicated?”
“Was it composed of a Chief Justice of a certain European State, and four eminent criminal lawyers?”
“And what you have said is the substance of the finding of that Commission?”
The Judge nodded gravely and the public prosecutor rose to cross-examination.
“Before I ask you any question,” he said, “I can only express myself as being in complete agreement with his lordship on the policy of allowing your identity to remain hidden.” The young man bowed.
“Now,” said the counsel, “let me ask you this. How long have you been in association with the Four Just Men?”
“Six months,” said the other.
“So that really you are not in a position to give evidence regarding the merits of this case—which is five years old, remember.”
“Save from the evidence of the Commission.”
“Let me ask you this—but I must tell you that you need not answer unless you wish—are you satisfied that the Four Just Men were responsible for that tragedy?”
“I do not doubt it,” said the young man instantly.
“Would anything make you doubt it?”
“Yes,” said the witness smiling, “if Manfred denied it, I should not only doubt it, but be firmly assured of his innocence.”
“You say you approve both of their methods and their objects?”
“Let us suppose you were the head of a great business firm controlling a thousand workmen, with rules and regulations for their guidance and a scale of fines and punishments for the preservation of discipline. And suppose you found one of those workmen had set himself up as an arbiter of conduct, and had superimposed upon your rules a code of his own.”
“Well, what would be your attitude toward that man?”
“If the rules he initiated were wise and needful I would incorporate them in my code.”
“Let me put another case. Suppose you governed a territory, administering the laws——”
“I know what you are going to say,” interrupted the witness, “and my answer is that the laws of a country are as so many closely-set palings erected for the benefit of the community. Yet try as you will, the interstices exist, and some men will go and come at their pleasure, squeezing through this fissure, or walking boldly through that gap.”
“And you would welcome an unofficial form of justice that acted as a kind of moral stop-gap?”
“I would welcome clean justice.”
“If it were put to you as an abstract proposition, would you accept it?”
The young man paused before he replied.
“It is difficult to accommodate one’s mind to the abstract, with such tangible evidence of the efficacy of the Four Just Men’s system before one’s eyes,” he said.
“Perhaps it is,” said the counsel, and signified that he had finished.
The witness hesitated before leaving the box, looking at the prisoner, but Manfred shook his head smilingly, and the straight slim figure of the young man passed out of court by the way he had come.
The unrestrained buzz of conversation that followed his departure was allowed to go unchecked as judge and counsel consulted earnestly across the bench.
Garrett, down amongst the journalists, put into words the vague thought that had been present in every mind in court.
“Do you notice, Jimmy,” he said to James Sinclair of the Review, “how blessed unreal this trial is? Don”t you miss the very essence of a murder trial, the mournfulness of it and the horror of it? Here’s a feller been killed and not once has the prosecution talked about ‘this poor man struck down in the prime of life’ or said anything that made you look at the prisoner to see how he takes it. It’s a philosophical discussion with a hanging at the end of it.”
“Sure,” said Jimmy.
“Because,” said Garrett, “if they find him guilty, he’s got to die. There”s no doubt about that; if they don”t hang him, crack! goes the British Constitution, the Magna Charta, the Diet of Worms, and a few other things that Bill Seddon was gassing about.”
His irreverent reference was to the prosecutor”s opening speech.
Now Sir William Seddon was on his feet again, beginning his closing address to the jury. He applied himself to the evidence that had been given, to the prisoner’s refusal to call that evidence into question, and conventionally traced step by step the points that told against the man in the dock. He touched on the appearance of the masked figure in the witness-box. For what it was worth it deserved their consideration, but it did not affect the issue before the court. The jury were there to formulate a verdict in accordance with the law as it existed, not as if it did not exist at all, to apply the law, not to create it—that was their duty. The prisoner would be offered an opportunity to speak in his own defence. Counsel for the Crown had waived his right to make the final address. They would, if he spoke, listen attentively to the prisoner, giving him the benefit of any doubt that might be present in their minds. But he could not see, he could not conceivably imagine, how the jury could return any but one verdict.
It seemed for a while that Manfred did not intend availing himself of the opportunity, for he made no sign, then he rose to his feet, and, resting his hands on the inkstand ledge before him:
“My lord,” he said, and turned apologetically to the jury, “and gentlemen.”
The court was so still that he could hear the scratchings of the reporters’ pens, and unexpected noises came from the street outside.
“I doubt either the wisdom or the value of speaking,” he said, “not that I suggest that you have settled in your minds the question of my guilt without very excellent and convincing reasons.
“I am under an obligation to Counsel for the Treasury,” he bowed to the watchful prosecutor, “because he spared me those banalities of speech which I feared would mar this trial. He did not attempt to whitewash the man we killed, or to exonerate him from his gross and sordid crimes. Rather, he made plain the exact position of the law in relation to myself, and with all he said I am in complete agreement. The inequalities of the law are notorious, and I recognize the impossibility, as society is constituted, of amending the law so that crimes such as we have dealt with shall be punished as they deserve. I do not rail against the fate that sent me here. When I undertook my mission, I undertook it with my eyes open, for I, too,” he smiled at the upturned faces at the counsels” bench, “I too am learned in the law—and other things.”
“There are those who imagine that I am consumed with a burning desire to alter the laws of this country; that is not so. Set canons, inflexible in their construction, cannot be adapted according to the merits of a case, and particularly is this so when the very question of ‘merit’ is a contentious point. The laws of England are good laws, wise and just and equitable. What other commendation is necessary than this one fact, that I recognize that my life is forfeit by those laws, and assent to the justice which condemns me?
“None the less, when I am free again,” he went on easily, “I shall continue to merit your judgment because there is that within me, which shows clearly which way my path lies, and how best I may serve humanity. If you say that to choose a victim here and a victim there for condemnation, touching only the veriest fringe of the world of rascaldom, I am myself unjust—since I leave the many and punish the few—I answer that for every man we slew, a hundred turned at the terror of our name and walked straightly; that the example of one death saved thousands. And if you should seriously ask: Have you helped reform mankind, I answer as seriously—Yes.”
He talked all this time to the judge.
“It would be madness to expect a civilized country to revert to the barbarism of an age in which death was the penalty for every other crime, and I will not insult your intelligence by denying that such a return to the bad days was ever suggested by me. But there has come into existence a spurious form of humanitarianism, the exponents of which have, it would appear, lost their sense of proportion, and have promoted the Fear of Pain to a religion; who have forgotten that the Age of Reason is not yet, and that men who are animal in all but human semblance share the animal”s obedience to corrective discipline, share too his blind fear of death—and are amenable to methods that threaten his comfort or his life.”
He flung out his hand toward the judge.
“You, my lord,” he cried, “can you order the flogging of a brute who has half killed one of his fellows, without incurring the bleating wrath of men and women, who put everything before physical pain—honour, patriotism, justice? Can you sentence a man to death for a cruel murder without a thousand shrieking products of our time rushing hither and thither like ants, striving to secure his release? Without a chorus of pity—that was unexcited by the mangled victim of his ferocity? ‘Killing, deliberate, wolfish killing by man,’ say they in effect, ‘is the act of God; but the legal punishment of death, is murder.’ That is why I expect no sympathy for the methods the Four Just Men adopted. We represented a law——we executed expeditiously. We murdered if you like. In the spirit and the letter of the laws of England, we did murder. I acknowledge the justice of my condemnation. I do not desire to extenuate the circumstances of my crime. Yet none the less the act I cannot justify to your satisfaction I justify to my own.”
He sat down.
A barrister, leaning over the public prosecutor”s back, asked:
“What do you think of that?”
Sir William shook his head.
“Bewildering,” he said in despair.
The judge’s summing up was one of the briefest on record.
The jury had to satisfy their minds that the prisoner committed the crime with which he was charged, and must not trouble themselves with any other aspect of the case but that part plainly before them. Was the man in the dock responsible for the killing of Lipski?
Without leaving the box, the jury returned its verdict.
Those used to such scenes noticed that the judge in passing sentence of death omitted the striking and sombre words that usually accompany the last sentence of the law, and that he spoke, too, without emotion.
“Either he’s going to get a reprieve or else the judge is certain he’ll escape,” said Garrett, “and the last explanation seems ridiculous.”
“By the way,” said his companion as they passed slowly with the crowd into the roadway, “who was that swell that came late and sat on the bench?”
“That was his Highness the Prince of the Escorial,” said Charles, “he’s in London just now on his honeymoon.”
“I know all about that,” said Jimmy, “but I heard him speaking to the sheriff just before we came out, and it struck me that I’d heard his voice before.”
“It seemed so to me,” said the discreet Charles—so discreet indeed that he never even suggested to his editor that the mysterious mask who gave evidence on behalf of George Manfred was none other than his Royal Highness.