|Chapter Title||AM I INNOCENT ? cont.|
|Newspaper Title||PetersburgTimes (SA : 1887 - 1919)|
|Trove Title||The Italian Peasant|
AN ITALIAN PEASANT.
CHAPTER II. Continued. AM I INNOCENT ?
What the maid omitted, the prosecuting officer would assuredly supply during his final address to the jury. Next would follow the testimony of the porter at the club and several of the prisoner's former friends therein - ' former friends,' you know. Immediately on the arrest of their late member - for, of course, I'd be quietly dropped— they had recalled, even on their slight acquaintance, his haggard face and aimless conduct, his distant manner at the card-table, and his disinclination to go home. Had they known the prisoner well enough, they would have asked him as to what he meditated so moodily. As for Harris, Mr. Anthony Harris, neighbour of the accused - why, his testimony would complete the chain of guilt. Yes, I've heard these very words applied to a man in the prisoner's dock many times. It would show, at the very least, that the man at the bar had been in the house of the crime more
than two hours before he gave an alarm. " Could anybody be expected to believe the story of the sleep in the library, recounted as an after-thought by the learned and brilliant counsellor who so ably defends this indicted wife-murderer ?" This is how the prosecuting officer would dispose of the facts about my foolish stay in my own house, stated as they would have to be through my attorney in opening the defence. The policeman and the private watchman on the beat would testify that not a ray of light was seen in the library of my former residence ; for you know how observing such gentlemen always prove to have been after the discovery of a great crime. They'd declare, however, that they had noticed the gas burning brightly in the room where the dead woman lay, some time before an alarm was given - fool that I was, not to have thought of the glowing chandelier over my head ! [It was only the work of a moment to close the inside shutters and draw the thick drapery curtains.) Even the prisoner's explanation regarding the delay in notifying the police, as made on the night of the murder to officers and reporters, was too flimsy for serious consideration - and I readily imagined a dozen twists that the lawyer and the witnesses before him might give to the conflicting emotions now torturing me. It would be proved that a District Telegraph call-box was in the very room in which the accused claimed to have discovered the murder - ' claimed to have discovered,' you hear, and the judge would listen. The line-men of that company would swear, most positively, that on the night in question the wire was in perfect order. Then, the night-operator at the Telephone Exchange would appear, prompt and chipper as he ever is known to be, and testify that the prisoner had not called up police headquarters on the alleged discovery of the awful deed, though a telephone in good order, as his record of tests showed, was in the hall, just outride the bedroom door. The blood on the suspect's
hands and clothing, if not removed, would suggest to the prosecutor a horrible bit of Poe-like oratorical realism. The prisoner's explanation that ' the damning spots' were got in the act of awakening his supposedly sleeping wife with a kiss, in the light
of the unimpeachable testimony regarding their angry separation, must necessarily be
rejected by judge, jury, and everybody in
A spotless record of previous good character would amount to little in view of the logical conclusion, save that opposing counsel would employ it to enlighten this generation regarding the cases of Eugene Aram, Professor Webster and John Hunter.
Weighed by the deductive method, the conclusion in the minds of bench and jury would be that the prisoner had returned home at one o'clock, full of rancour, determined to renew the quarrel and to crush the rebellions spirit of his wife ; that the library incident was a fiction, one of those silly blunders of invention that the guilty often make ; that the intending murderer had gone directly to his wife's chamber, stealthily too, because the child's nurse in an adjacent apartment had not been wakened ; that the poor victim had thrown herself upon the sofa, dressed,—presumptive evidence that she feared to go to bed and that she hoped to keep awake ; that the husband had noiselessly entered the apartment, feeling that there this weak woman was completely in his power ; that he had found his victim asleep, and, acting on a demoniacal impulse, he had stabbed her in the heart ; that the absence of the weapon of death disposed of all thought of suicide ; and, finally, that this was one of the most atrocious cases of wife
murder in the whole range of criminal history.
An appalling position, truly. My child, Madge, asleep with her nurse in an adjoining room, was motherless, and I dare not waken her ! I have no time for grief just yet ; the living must be saved from infamy. Less than a minute has been required to reach a conclusion, to review the past, to grasp the present, and to forecast the future. Now, I havw decided. I will seek my family physician and life-long friend, Dr. Oscar Stanage, and bring him to this room of horror. His acumen will aid me to reach conclusion. His advice shall guide me.
But I cannot send for him ; I must go myself. Nor can I leave the room unlooked. Suppose my child ; or a servant, awakens and visits the apartment during my absence ! Terrible ; but it must be risked
I turn down the light, open the door into the hall, listen intently, change the key to the outside of the door, and close the room. Then begins my slow, cautious glide along
the hall toward the head of the stairs. How hopelessly craven and guilty I feel and yet my motive is the noble one of shielding my own good name and the honour of my family. Candidly, the jeopardy to my own neck no longer terrifies me. But I am thoroughly prostrated mentally, and I feel the need of a strong arm, such as Stanage's, to lean upon.
Before I have descended many steps I stop again to reflect. If I am heard, if I am seen,
I'm a lost man.
I know it.
For a moment I repent that I have not rung the alarm-bell at once and allowed all consequences to take care of themselves. But now I dare not draw back. I fear even
to retrace my way to the room in which my dead wife lies, because there is a loose board in the floor between me and that Bluebeard
chamber that I shun the hazard of repassing. No, I must go forward.
The descent is resumed, when I am startled by a noise. I certainly hear something. I am watched ! I am detected ! Or is the
murderer still in the home. To take him red-handed was my salvation and my vengeance. My life is worthless ; I shall grapple with him without weapons, armed with nothing but despair. Anxiously I await a recurrence of the sounds, intending to act with all the fabled strength of a mad man. While awaiting this signal for a deadly combat, my irresolute mind reflects that the key to my room is in my pocket, and that an explanation of this fact would be difficult should the guilty person escape me. Why have I locked that door ? Perjury alone will save my neck, if I be charged with the crime : the truth will hang me.
Straining to the uttermost my two senses of sight and hearing, and following two separate trains of thought I wait. That's the sound again, near the top of the stairs behind me ! It begins with a low moan, but ends in one sob-like utterance, ' Mamma.' Ah ! My poor orphan Madge in moaning in her sleep, doubtless grieving in
her dreams over the troubles between her
parents. Alas ! my almost baby girl rises as another of my accusers.
I hesitate no longer. Several minutes have been occupied in descending the stairs. At last the inner hall door is opened, and I stand in my own vestibule. I am about to step into the street, when there comes a foot-fall on the step outside, and somebody tries the door. My blood ceases to run ; terror congeals it. Am I to be entrapped like a rat in a hole, trembling and bloodstained ? Oh that it were my poor Anna's murderer returning to complete the family slaughter ! I would yield and thank him for the welcome token of death and forgetfullness. My courage has utterly gone. The door is tried again. A heavy hand clutches the bell-knob, and I realize that it is about to be pulled. If it be, I am undone. That ball must not ring ! I grasp the wire lead- ing to the interior of the house and hold it resolutely. The person without listens intently for a few moments, evidently
undecided whether to waken the household or
not. Does he detect, by that strange
influence known as human sympathy, my
presence inside the door ? I hold my breath. The visitor retreats to the edge of the step, stands there a few moments, probably looking upward at the windows recently aglow but now in darkness. He then slowly descends to the pavement, and I hear his foot-fall die away as he recedes. He is the patrolman, who, having seen the lighted room at so unusual an hour, has feared that his services might be needed. But he has reasoned himself out of an inquisitive impulse
that I alone can account for.
Waiting until he has left the square, I emerge into the street and make a dash for Dr. Stanage's house nearby.