|Chapter Title||BEYOND THE PALE of THE LAW|
|Newspaper Title||PetersburgTimes (SA : 1887 - 1919)|
|Trove Title||The Italian Peasant|
BEYOND THE PALE OF THE LAW.
We looked at each other in amazement. If awake when the crime was committed, this girl may possess its secret. Ah ! she may have admitted the assassin to the house.
We re-enter the low room, and, by a dexterous act, the doctor thrusts a handkerchief into the girl's half-open mouth. I pinion her arms, and we force her to sit up in bed.
" Open your eyes !" It is the doctor who
The girl stares into our faces, and then
makes frantic efforts to release herself. She
is very strong and we have to conquer her by sheer force before the doctor can explain that we do not intend to harm her.
" Will you answer my questions ?" the physician asks.
The girl nods her head sullenly.
Not comprehending my companion's purpose, I am not in favour of trusting her. Dr. Stanage, however, is willing to take any risk in the vague hope that this creature can furnish a clue to the perpetrator of the horrible crime still hidden in this silent, still sleeping household. Before he removes the handkerchief from the girl's mouth, he
" Who killed Mrs. Jasper ?"
We study the effect on the face of the swarthy creature. She evinces neither surprise nor terror. Thy physician gives me a glance full of meaning. We understand
each other. The woman knows of the murder ! We are agreed on that. But the woman's countenance is devoid of further
hope. Will she scream ? Or will she tell us what she knows ? It is a problem. We are taking a great risk. But Dr. Stanage does not hesitate. He snatches the cloth from her mouth as he repeats the command, more peremptorily than before,—
" Now, tell us, who killed Mrs. Jasper ?"
The answer does not come immediately. Have we been deceived ? Is she really ignorant ? Have we placed ourselves in her power and is she capable of comprehending the fact ? No. She is about to speak. Her lips begin to move, and, after two or three efforts at articulation, she answers slowly,—
" I keel 'er."
Her words are almost incomprehensible. The unexpected shock caused me to gasp for breath. My collapse is chiefly due, I confess, to the sudden lifting of the veil of suspicion from me. Dr. Stanage is mute. I doubt if he believes her. I tighten my clutch upon the girl's arm and find voice to exclaim -
" You ?"
She looks me full in the eyes and mutters, interrogatively —
" Ah ? You no tank-a a me ?"
" Thank you ? Are you mad, girl ?" I did not understand then ; but I did later. Then Dr. Stanage took her in hand, now coaxingly, now savagely aggressive in his questions, and bit by bit we finally got the whole story of this dreadful night's work.
The confession, in all its details, is as void of conscious sense of crime as is a child's admission of the pettiest fault. The woman's gestures prolong the narrative and increase my agony ; the shrugs of her shoulders give one the idea of a reptile ; but the story is a
horrible and curious one.
Ever since she came into the house, more than a month ago, it has been this girl's habit to prowl about the open rooms during the night, when others were asleep. She was in the library tonight —wretched, homeless creature — seated on the rug before the fire, watching the castles of her beloved Italy, as she alone found them among its embers, when I came home. When she heard me hang up my coat she knew I was the master of the house ; and, as my footsteps approached the library, she barely had
time to crawl under the bronze-top table. She declares that in my half-awake condition, as I sat in the chair, I talked aloud of my unhappiness. I fear she speaks the truth. When I finally fell asleep, she made her escape and crawled up the stairs. The door of my wife's room stood open, she says, and Anna lay asleep on the sofa inside. The swarthy Italian peasant was entranced by the sleeping woman's beauty and the luxury that surrounded her. She stopped a moment to gratify the covetousness of her heart. Ah ! what did she see on the stand
at the head of the couch ! It sparkled, ay, it was radiant as the sun in her envious eyes. If she could only take the "deeamon' in her fingers for one moment. Without intent to steal, she protested, she stealthily glided into the room. Her visit may have been an innocent one. Who shall say ? I don't know. Perhaps it was her first temptation.
Just as she took the necklace in her hand, ' the signora' opened her eyes widely. There could be only one thought in her mind. A thief was about to despoil her !
Anna was a resolute and courageous woman. She did not scream. [ I wonder why not. Could it have been—alas ! could it have been because she thought I had re- turned home and she repelled the thought of my rescuing her from the dilemma ?] She probably overestimated her strength, but she sprang at the swarthy woman unawares and clutched her tightly by the throat.
As she tells the tale, the girl suddenly seized the doctor by the neck to make her meaning clear—for we have both relaxed our hold upon her, from loathing and horror. He savagely untwists her chubby, greasy fingers, as he says, " Go on !"
'"Signora s'e queek, ver' queek." And the murderess shakes herself and her eyes flash with aroused passion. Then, in wildly rapid language, almost unintelligible in parts, she tells how my wife bore her down to her
knees before she could offer a word of explication.
She was being strangled ! Her head
was thrown back—and she shows us the posture—but her swimming eyes saw a slender, keen steel pin with a jewelled head of silver, thrust through her antagonist's hair. It was a small dagger, an ornament that I had bought for Anna, as a souvenir, at the sword-works at Toledo. She rarely
wore it. Oh ! sad mischance, that she had done so on this awful night! But while my thoughts are so busy the murderess tells how, her hands being free, she had the stiletto like weapon in her grasp. The struggle was no longer an unequal one. It was ended in an instant. With her left hand, as the murderess tells us, she felt carefully for the heart of the woman who towered above her. No trouble in finding the spot, the poor heart was beating so violently. Here it was ! One savage thrust, deep, deep ! The words are thrilling in which she concludes :
" Sono liberata ! I am free !"
She did not realize the fact that she was a
murderess then any more than she does now. After all, if her story be true, she too has been a victim of circumstances. She cannot substantiate her innocence of intent any more than could I my innocence of act an hour ago. Her story is ended ; but we are forced
to listen further.
With great difficulty, she explained, she placed the dead body upon the sofa. She even spoke of a smile upon the dead face. Her sense of calm is horrible. But she continues :
The diamonds were picked up and replaced on the small stand—just as I had found them. She was about to escape from the house, she says, when she remembered my presence in the library. The opening of the door would awaken me. She must wait. She hid herself behind a door on the upper floor. Then a horrible curiosity seized her. She must know if her mistress was really dead. Noiselessly she descended. Those stairs were very many, she says. The door, when she reached it, was almost closed. A slight push disclosed me bending over the corpse, in the first bewildering agonies of the awful discovery. Instinctively, she
clutched the knob and drew the door towards her. But I had seen the movement, and she had barely time to fly, headlong to the bath-room. Thus had she escaped me, I mentally comment, because, in my despair, I doubted the evidence of my senses.
The weapon ?
She had drawn it from the wound, carefully wiped the dagger, and replaced it among the brown tresses of my poor dead
wife. There it was afterwards found.
Such is the awful confession. Stanage and I are mute with amazement. A clock, somewhere in the house, strikes four !
I am no longer a suspected assassin : we have the culprit.
* * * * * * *
" What happened then ?" you ask.
Tell the gentle reader, my dear Stanage, because you know the rest is a blank to me. Tell the sequel, and let not any fears of anti- climax distress you. Let those who write by rule say on.
" There isn't much to tell," said Oscar Stanage, with professional reserve. " John and I locked the culprit in the room, which was without windows, while we went to police headquarters. We laid all the facts, even to the minutest details, before the officers in charge. We returned to the house accompanied by the Inspector and two detectives. To them the girl repeated her confession, and, in the presence of the corpse of her victim, minutely described the struggle and the death-stroke. I believed her. The household was awakened ; the murderess was taken away, gagged, in a carriage—for she began to show signs of fear and terror of the law. Hardly had the officers left the house, John, before you fell in a faint and were put to bed in a raging fever. I did not leave your side until eight o'clock in the morning. As I was descending the stairs, an officer informed me that the wretched murderess had been found dead in her cell at daylight, strangled with a lace from one of her shoes. Do you know, that information frightened me more than any event of the night ?"
" Why so, doctor ?" we all ask.
" Suppose she had committed that act before we returned with the police and before she had repeated her confession to them : where would I have been ? Here was John, a raving madman for six weeks. My testimony would have been utterly unsupported by corroborative evidence. My position would have been trying in the extreme. The woman's suicide brought the whole matter within the pale of the coroner, and he was a very inconspicuous figure at the inquest. But for her self-obliteration, the Jasper
murder would have been one of the celebrated cases of criminal history."