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The Hanging Judge


THE HANGING JUDGE.

By TOM GALLON.


WELL, you will have one case the less to try to-morrow, Sir John," said the man at the head of the table, with a little laugh. "For my part, I wish the poor devil luck—a sporting chance, at least. May they never find him!"

Sir John Veasey sipped his wine slowly; just as slowly and deliberately set down his glass. "They will find the man, and it will be my duty to try him," he said slowly; "it will probably also be my duty to sentence him to death. The case is a pretty clear one, and he is only postponing the evil day."

Sir John turned to his neighbour, and began to talk of some other matter, as though this that had been mentioned was something he did not care to discuss—much as a man may decline to talk "shop" in his hours of leisure. But although he did not speak of it, others did; and with glances at the strong, stern face of the judge, whispers went about the table concerning the strange and exciting event of that day.

It was the time of the assizes, and Sir John Veasey, on circuit, had come to the town of Grimchester, and had, as usual, accepted the hospitality of his old friend, Mr. Reginald Tamlyn, of Tamlyn Place. He was not likely to be disturbed there, and only a few very select old friends were invited to meet him. The big house adjoined the town, and was convenient for the judge.

The amazing business to which reference had been made was the escape of a prisoner that day—a man awaiting trial. How it had happened no one seemed quite to know, for, of all men, this man was the one most carefully to be guarded—the indictment against him was that of murder. Yet in some fashion or other, yet to be explained, he had contrived to slip out of his prison, and to get clear away. This was the subject-matter of the whisperings round the table—whisperings of which the judge himself seemed to take no notice.

Presently, however, as though some final word were expected of him, he turned gravely to his host and spoke of the thing. "I shall, of course, make strong comment to-morrow concerning this escape. It is disgraceful that, in a city like this, a man may slip out of the hands of justice, and get clear away. It is quite certain that he will be caught; it is equally certain that those responsible for the safe custody of the man will be punished."

"Law and order and all that sort of thing are, of course, all right," said Reginald Tamlyn from his end of the table, with a grave little nod; "but, for all that, I'm afraid I'm not on the side of the angels in this case. The fellow's quite young, and the crime was one merely of anger—nothing premeditated about it. I hope he'll get away. I saw him when they first got him, and I liked the look of him. I hope Philip Silver won't be caught yet awhile, at least."

There was a little quick exclamation from the other side of the table, and then a murmur of apology—Lady Veasey had knocked over a glass of wine. A servant had hurried to her assistance, and her head was bent over the little disaster. In the midst of her murmured apologies, she asked a question of the host, even while she did not look at him.

"What did you say the name was?"

"Philip Silver," answered Tamlyn. "I'm afraid. Lady Veasey," he added, with a bow in her direction, "that I've shocked you very much with my extraordinary views. As the wife of a famous judge, you must be all on the side of law and order, I am sure."

"Why, of course," she answered, a little absently.

She was looking straight across the table at her husband. The face of the judge was grimly set, as it always was, yet just now there was a little shadow of pain upon it. Lady Veasey, watching him, had a curious look upon her face also. The lips were slightly parted, and in her eyes was the frightened look of someone waiting for a disaster that is surely approaching. Then, as her neighbour spoke to her, the look was gone, and she smiled quickly and answered with a commonplace.

After dinner Sir John Veasey excused himself; he had work to do. There were many notes to be gone through, and it would be hours before he retired to rest. He shook hands with his host and hostess, and bowed gravely to his fellow-guests; then went off to the room that was always assigned to him on such occasions as these.

It was a spacious apartment, lined with books, and with a great desk in the centre of it. A cheerful fire burned in the grate, and on a little table refreshments had been placed, with a few sandwiches in a covered dish—the judge would be working late. Long windows reaching to the floor were at one side of the room, and these were shrouded with curtains. Sir John Veasey walked slowly across the room, and held back the curtain for a moment, and opened the window. A rush of cool night air blew in upon his face.

"That room was intolerably hot," he murmured to himself, with a little sigh of relief, "and I'm tired—strangely tired. How cool and still everything is!"

He closed the window and let the curtain fall across it, then seated himself at the desk, and began to look over the pile of papers before him. He did not seem to give much attention to all the work with which he was faced. His thoughts wandered a little, and in the most exasperating fashion he found himself thinking, again and again, of that desperate, hunted fugitive, now flying over the country—the man who should, by every right of law and justice, have stood before him in the dock on the morrow, with the brand of Cain upon him. The name seemed to sing through his brain, distracting his attention from the notes through which he must go before he slept.

Philip Silver!

He got up impatiently from his desk, and strode across the room, pulled back the curtain, and opened the window again. In another wing of the house someone was softly playing a piano; a girl's voice, singing, came faintly to him. Everything about him spoke of order and culture, and peace and safety. What had he to do with the man flying for his life across the country with the brand of Cain upon him?

Philip Silver!

He went back to his desk again, and resolutely and sternly set the thing aside, and went on with his work. The hours ticked themselves away, and guests went to bed. and lights were put out; and still the judge went through his notes by the light of the small electric lamp upon his desk. The rest of the room was in shadow.

A familiar tap at the door, and the man raised his head a little wearily, and stretched his cramped limbs. The door was opened, and Lady Veasey came quietly in, standing for a moment just inside the door, and looking across at the face raised towards her own within the circle of light from the lamp.

"Still busy, dear?" she murmured.

"Yes, I have a couple of hours yet," the man answered. "Are you going to bed?"

She came across the room, her garments rustling softly over the thick carpet, and bent, with a hand on the back of his chair, and kissed his forehead. "Yes, I'm rather tired," she said. "I ought not to have gone to the court to-day; those things sadden and depress me."

"They used to sadden and depress me—once," he answered. "I've got over all that, Mary; it's merely a matter of duty. Good night!"

"Good night!" she echoed. She trailed across to the door, stopped there, with her hand on the knob, and looked back at him. He had been watching her curiously, thinking, in an indefinite way, how beautiful she still was, despite her years and her grey hair. He could not see her face, because it was above the line of light cast by the lamp; he could only hear her voice.

"The man who escaped ... it was a strange name," she murmured.

"Nothing very strange about it," he answered, with a little frown. "Philip Silver."

"Philip was the name of our boy."

"I have forbidden you ever to mention his name at any time," he said with a quiet sternness.

"And Silver was my maiden name," she went on. "Oh, John"—she had come a little way into the room, and her hands were clasped on her bosom above her black dress—"if it should be——"

"Stop!" The man had risen to his feet, and his face was above the circle of light. He spoke hoarsely. "You don't know what you're talking about; the name is a common one." He broke off quickly, and drew his hand across his brow, and shuddered a little. "There—there—I did not mean to speak harshly, Mary! But I—I have work to do; I have no time for idle thoughts or fancies. Go to bed."

She went out of the room, gathering her draperies about her as she closed the door; Veasey sank into his seat again. With a little exclamation he thrust aside his papers and stared into the shadows. The thing had come upon him again with full force—and he was afraid.

And then suddenly, with an impatient gesture, he dragged the papers forward again, and resolutely set to work; he could even afford to laugh a little at the absurdity of the thought that had come upon him. They would hunt down this Philip Silver, and would drag him into the dock before the assizes were over; and he would prove to be some common wretch, with the face of a murderer—some brute who would be proud to think that he had got away from them all, and led them a rare dance for a few hours. What had Philip Silver to do with this man, sitting at his desk and going through his notes?

The will of the man was so strong that he could bring himself steadily back to that work, and could forget for a time everything else. So he worked on hour after hour, until presently he became aware that the atmosphere about him—that calm stillness wherein the very sound of the clock was an uproar when it forced itself upon his attention—that all this had changed, and was changing. At first, the distant barking of dogs; then a cry that cut the stillness of the night, and was gone like the mere ghost of a sound; then another cry, and another; then stirrings in the household, and quick feet upon the stairs, and the opening of a window. The judge got to his feet, frowning a little at this disturbance of his quiet, and went to the door.

There was a great riot going on in the house. The frightened voices of women called to know what was the matter; the stronger, more reassuring voices of men answered them; then a man, running along the corridor, holding a lamp. Sir John Veasey hailed him.

"Tamlyn, what's the matter?"

Tamlyn swung round and came quickly towards Veasey, who stood outside the door of the room. He looked excited; his eyes in the glow of the lamp were bright. "I think they've caught their man," he said. "Some labourer fellow caught sight of him, and gave the alarm. He made straight for this place, running and doubling across the grounds like a hare. All the men are out—grooms and everyone else. We shall get him, never fear!"

Tamlyn turned and went quickly back, shouted to someone he saw in the distance, and disappeared round the corner of the corridor. Veasey strode along until he came to an open window—looked from that out over the grounds.

He could see men running, with lights swinging from their hands; he could hear the gruff voices calling, and other gruff voices answering. Then the hunt disappeared round a corner of the house, and the noise died away, only coming back to where the man stood at the open window more and more faintly. He closed the window and went back to his own room.

He went in and shut the door. One feeling was dominant in his mind—they would catch this fellow, and have him safely under lock and key; he would appear in the ordinary course before the judge in the morning. It would merely be one more example of the futility of fighting against the forces of law and order. Veasey walked towards his desk and sat down, and took up his pen.

He wrote steadily for a quarter of an hour. Once or twice during that time he heard the closing of a window or a door; once heard his host call a laughing "Good night!" to a guest; once heard the distant barking of a dog that presently was stilled. It would have been undignified on his part to go out and make inquiries as to the success or non-success of the hunt; time enough for all that in the morning.

Presently, with a little contracting of the brows, he held out his pen over the inkstand—slowly laid the pen down. Then he sat for a moment or two, with his hands gripping the arms of his chair, and his head thrust forward, listening. He had to be very still, and he frowned a little impatiently at the steady ticking of the little clock on the mantelshelf. Yet above that sound he heard another, and became aware of the fact that he had heard it for quite a long time, yet had not known what it meant. It was the sound of a man breathing deeply quite close to him.

He pushed back his chair and walked round the desk, went with steady steps towards the door, and suddenly touched a switch, and flooded the room with light. Then he stepped to the middle of the room, keeping the desk between himself and that shrouded window behind the curtains of which he knew the man must be. Suddenly he challenged that man in a stern, commanding tone—

"Come out and show yourself, whoever you are!"

There was a faint movement of the curtain, as though an irresolute hand had touched it and then drawn back; then, after a moment, the curtain was pulled aside, and a man took a faltering, unsteady step into the room, and let the curtain fall behind him. And thus, in the dead silence of the house, the judge and the man who should have stood before him on the morrow faced each other.

They faced each other in a dead silence. The hunted wretch, whose white face was silhouetted against the curtain, watched the judge warily, for the game was in Veasey's hands. Veasey, for his part, stared at the intruder with something of the aspect of a man in a dream—as though in a moment he would find himself back again at his desk, with the room quiet and empty, save for himself, and this man gone. For he knew the man.

"It can't—can't be true!" murmured the judge at last, as he leaned forward with his hands on the desk, and stared at the other man. "Are you a spirit—come here to mock me?"

The man shrugged his shoulders and laughed, with a laugh that was half bitter and half reckless. "Oh, I'm flesh and blood—good aching flesh and blood, if that's any satisfaction to you! I say"—he jerked his head towards the table in the corner where the refreshments were set out—"I've had nothing for hours. You don't mind?

He shuffled across to the table and uncovered the dish, and began to eat savagely, with furtive eyes upon the other man, like a dog that is afraid its food may be snatched away. He shook a little spirits into a tumbler, and drank the stuff between bites. Some colour seemed to come into his face.

"I feel better for that," he said. He looked all round the room, and pushed back the hair from his forehead; he seemed a little faint and dazed. "I say, what are you doing here?" he asked.

Sir John had not moved from his original position; he still leaned over the desk, with his hands upon it, staring fixedly at the other man. "Don't you know?" he asked.

The other man shook his head, and once again pushed back the hair from his forehead, as though even the weight of that oppressed him. "No. How should I know?" he said.

"I am the judge at the assizes here," answered the other steadily. "I was to try you to-morrow."

"Heavens!" The younger man uttered that single exclamation, and then began to laugh—at first a mere low cackle of laughter, that ended, as it had begun, on a sort of sob, then a little louder, while the man rocked and swayed on his feet, and held to the curtain for support. "That's funny, isn't it?" he said at last.

"I didn't know that you were the man," breathed the judge; "I didn't understand that. How did you get away?"

"Too long a story to tell now," answered the other. "I was hiding to-night, when some fool blundered on my track, and then raised an outcry. I bolted across the grounds and got in here. The hunt all swarmed past me. The room was empty; I thought I could wait until things had quieted down a bit."

He shuffled awkwardly towards the window. He limped, as though from some recent injury, and his young face, so haggard and so hopeless, was twisted for a moment with pain. "It seems all quiet enough now," he said, with a nod, "and there's nothing further to wait for. They won't catch me again. Good night!"

The judge leaned further forward over the desk, and spoke sharply. "Stop! You can't go! I won't let you go!"

The man twisted about and came back again. He limped to the desk, and leaned across it, and thrust his young face towards the face of the judge. "What is it to you whether I go, or whether I'm caught again?" he demanded. "You'll have a job the less to do to-morrow—one of those jobs you like, and are paid well for. Besides," he added, with a faint sneer, "it might be awkward, and might shock your feelings, if you had to say those words about hanging by the neck till I'm dead—to your own son!"

"You are a fugitive from justice," answered Sir John Veasey. "I have a duty to perform."

"You're not a policeman; leave them to their own work," retorted the other. "Perhaps you'd like to know, just for your own satisfaction, whether I did this thing or not for which I was to have stood before you to-morrow, eh?"

Veasey did not answer. He stared straight into the eyes of his son, and his eyes had a faint fear in them, even though the mouth was as grim set as ever.

"Guilty, my lord!" whispered the younger man, with his face within six inches of the face of the judge, and with a laugh on his lips. "I killed him right enough; it was all done in a minute. And now—good night to you!"

He had turned to limp again towards the window, when, like a flash, the door was opened, and Lady Veasey stepped straight in. She stood for a moment with the door in her hand, and then swept her draperies out of the way, and closed the door and stood there. The hunted man had stopped for a moment; it was as though the three of them had, by some magical process, been suddenly stopped in those attitudes, and were never to move again.

And then suddenly the woman, with a little inarticulate cry, as though she spoke to a child, took a step forward and held out her arms. The younger man moved towards her, and was caught and held, with his head bent down on her shoulder.

"Phil—my Phil!" she murmured over and over again.

"Let him alone! Don't touch him!" said the judge, without moving from where he stood. Yet neither of them paid the faintest attention to what he said.

"It's all right, mumsie," murmured Philip, with a little catch in his voice that was half a laugh and half a sob. "Glad to have seen you again, little mumsie, before I go. I shall remember that, lots and lots of times, when I shan't see your face. And don't you cry, old sweetheart; I'm not worth it. Mustn't stop long, you know. Just blundered in here to-night, and fell slap on top of the guv'nor. Fairly shocked the guv'nor."

"Phil! Phil!" she murmured, over and over again, still holding him to her.

The judge brought his hand down quickly on the desk. "Mary, get away from him!" he cried sharply. "Don't you understand who he is—and what he is?"

She turned and faced him; all the mother was in her eyes and in the proud little lift of her chin. "He's my boy," she said, "and he's in trouble."

"Your turn will come, dad—if they catch me," said Philip, with a little laugh. "And they won't do that yet. If I had money, the game would be a fairer one to me; but I haven't a sou. I may be lucky enough to find a friend—who knows?"

Lady Veasey was fumbling in the pocket of her dress. "I can give you a little—just a little—money," she whispered.

"Mary!" The voice of Sir John was strong and indignant. For the first time he shifted his position, and moved towards his wife. "I will not have it. I know my duty, and I'll do it!"

The judge took two strides across the room. His hand was raised to the gaudy, old-fashioned bell-rope that hung from the ceiling. That hand, within six inches of the rope, was arrested by a sharp cry from the younger man.

"Stop!"

The judge twisted his head and stopped as though petrified. The fugitive had drawn himself up, and held, just under his chin, a revolver. The muzzle touched the unshaven chin—was pressed hard against it.

"I won't be taken alive," said Philip quietly. Lady Veasey had cried out, and then had clapped her hand over her lips as though to suppress a scream. "I've been hunted like a dog, and if I can't get away, I know that there's no earthly chance for me. As God's my witness, if you ring that bell, those you summon shall come here to find me dead!"

Sir John Veasey moved his hand ever so slightly towards the bell-rope; there was a flush of impatience and annoyance on his face at the idea of anyone daring to dictate to him in this fashion. The bright eyes in the face of the younger man were fixed upon that hand, and upon nothing else; his own hand gripped the revolver, and held the muzzle pressed against his chin. After a moment the hand of the judge wavered—dropped to his side. He took an unsteady step or two back towards the desk.

Lady Veasey drew in her breath sharply. The revolver was lowered until it swung in the right hand of the fugitive, but the bright eyes never for a moment left the face of the judge.

"Well, what do you want to do?" demanded Sir John.

"I want my chance," answered Philip doggedly. "I've never had a chance yet—never in all my life. If I can get away, I'll manage to leave all this behind, and start afresh. I haven't disgraced you yet; I kept the name you gave me—the name my mother loved. I took the one that had been hers before you knew her. No one connects Philip Silver, murderer and outcast, with the Philip Veasey you kicked out of doors when he was little more than a child."

The judge beat softly on the desk with the tips of his fingers. His son stood with the revolver gripped in his hand, beating it softly against his leg. Lady Veasey, not knowing that she did so, held her hands clasped against her breast, and kept her eyes fixed on her husband. All her heart—of passionate pleading, and love for her boy, and desperate courage to help him—all these were in those eyes.

"You were a graceless dog, always in trouble and mischief, ever ready to thwart me if you got the chance," said the judge at last.

Outside, in the darkness and the distance, a dog barked, and another answered it. The two men and the woman turned their heads for a moment to listen to that sound of danger before either of them spoke.

"I was a quite ordinary, healthy, human boy," answered Philip at last. "Do you think that she"—he flung a hand towards where his mother stood, and kept his eyes upon his father—"do you think that she could have loved me, as she loved nothing else on earth, if I'd been what you thought me? I had boyish faults, delighted in boyish mischief—no more than that. You had been schooled in the law early; your house was a court of justice for everyone who lived in it. For a mad freak I was expelled from school, and yet it was a freak that made everyone laugh that heard about it. After that you took me in hand, as you phrased it. Nothing that I did was right. I wanted to be a soldier; you had made up your mind that I must follow the law, as you had followed it. I defied you. You kicked me out of doors, and left me to choose my own way of going to the dogs."

"And now, to end it all, you have killed a man," answered the judge.

"That wasn't true, Phil; you are quite innocent of that?" pleaded Lady Veasey.

"No, mumsie, it happens to be true," he answered very gently. "The man was a brute, and in that underworld into which I had been driven, he had treated a woman badly. There is but one way with such brutes as that, and I took that way. I struck to kill—and I killed."

"But you didn't mean to kill him?" she pleaded again.

"Five minutes before—no. At the moment—yes."

There was silence again between the three of them. That silence was broken by the low, pleading voice of the woman.

"He killed a man, dear, because that man had been a brute to a woman. Ages and ages ago those who lived in savage times have done that, and lived, and been applauded; their stories have come down to us in song and picture. You had sent him into the underworld, where they are a law to themselves, and where he must obey their laws. Now there is a chance that he may rise up again, and prove himself worthy of what I thought our boy would be, when, more than once, you and I bent together at night over his cradle while he slept. Let me give him the chance—let me send him out into the free world again."

"No!" The judge had turned his head aside; they could see that his jaw was firm set.

"If he goes from here to-night, I may not ever know how it fares with him, or how he lives—or how he dies, when, in God's good time, his hour shall come. I have eaten my heart out these years past, with my breast aching for the only child I ever had. You will not deny me this poor consolation now—to save him from the gallows. You can't—you won't sit there in that hateful place to-morrow, and sentence him to death—child of our love—child of all our hopes. Your tongue would wither if you tried to speak the words!"

The judge slid suddenly to his knees, and dropped his arms on the desk and bowed his head there. "Send him away!" he said, in a sort of moan.

He still knelt there, while the woman slid a purse into the young man's hand, and clung to him, and kissed him, and smiled at him through her tears. He looked back once at that kneeling figure as he got at last to the window and dropped out into the darkness. For a long time Lady Veasey stood there, holding the curtain behind her, and peering out into the darkness, and listening for any sound that should tell of danger. At last she came back into the room, and lightly dropped her hand upon the shoulder of the kneeling man.

He got up and drew his hand across his eyes with the gesture of a man utterly weary. Then he looked towards the papers on the desk. "It is very late, Mary," he said. "Go to bed. I have quite a lot of work still to do."

She trailed out of the room, with her head bent; she closed the door softly behind her. The man made the half circuit of the desk, and dropped into his seat and took up the pen.

"Silence in court!"

There was a rustle and a murmur as the judge took his seat and glanced round on those who stood gravely bowing before him. He looked white and tired and old; he held for a moment to the edge of his desk before sinking into his seat. He had not slept all night. All night he had seemed to be following a hunted, desperate man, creeping stealthily along roads in the darkness, and starting at shadows, and leaping hedges, with perhaps men and dogs in pursuit. And he—the man they called the hanging judge, because he had no mercy on any who had violated that greatest law—he had prayed, as he was praying now, that the man with the brand of Cain upon him had got away. He wished that he knew for certain something or other about the fugitive.

The young barrister who was the counsel for the prosecution, in this particular case of Philip Silver, rose and began his speech glibly. There was a tense silence in court, because everyone knew of the escape of this most daring prisoner, and rumours had been flying here, there, and everywhere, as to what had happened. The judge gripped the edge of his desk, and leaned forward a little. His eyes had a look of fear in them, and his lips were parted.

"My lord, it may be within your recollection that I had to inform your lordship yesterday, before the rising of the court, that a prisoner had managed to escape. That prisoner was the man Philip Silver—arraigned for murder."

"Has—has anything been heard of the man?" asked Sir John Veasey slowly.

"The man was surprised sleeping in a barn some miles from here," went on the barrister glibly. "He got away, making a desperate rush across the fields, with some ten or twenty men after him. Finding it hopeless to escape, the man Silver—so I am informed by a telegram—turned and faced his pursuers, and whipped out a revolver and shot himself through the head."

There was silence in the packed court for a moment or two. The judge nodded his head slowly twice.

"I think it will be seen, my lord, that in this, as in many other cases, justice has a long arm, and is not to be cheated——"

"Stop, sir!" The voice of the judge seemed curiously shaken and husky; something of the sternness that was habitual to the man had dropped away from him. "We do not judge the dead, nor condemn them. The man is before another tribunal; our judgments are but darkened ones in comparison. Sit down, sir."

The young barrister dropped back into his seat. The dock that should have been the place for the hunted man was filled by another prisoner. Sir John Veasey glanced again at his notes.

But through the long day, while the dreary business went on, the judge seemed to see again and again the man who was dead—now coming towards him in friendly, boyish fashion; now with a fishing-rod over his shoulder, and a tale of what the day's sport had been; now walking across a shady lawn with an arm about his young mother's waist. And the man who sat there, thinking of it all, and striving to keep his attention fixed on the grim duties before him, could not even ask where the dead man lay or what they had done with him.

With due solemnity, at the rising of the court. Sir John Veasey drove back to the house. He climbed the stairs wearily towards his room. He wondered what he must say to her who had loved the boy, and had held him in her arms but the night before—for the last time. He remembered that the boy had tried to soothe her, and had called her "old sweetheart."

He dressed and prepared to go down to dinner. Outside the room he suddenly came face to face, on the half-darkened staircase, with Lady Veasey. He stopped, looking at her, wondering what he should say.

"I—I know," she whispered simply, with a hand upon his arm.

"I did not judge him, Mary," he whispered. "He—escaped."

"I know; someone told me about it," she replied.

"Are you strong enough—strong enough to go down to dinner?" He glanced round him quickly for a moment; but they were alone.

He thought that her chin went up in the old characteristic attitude. "Oh, I think so," she said. "After all—didn't I see him, and hold him in my arms again for a moment? And we must play the sorry game of life—you and I. Heaven knows he played it—to the end."

They moved slowly side by side down the staircase to dinner.


This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.