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CHAPTER 20 — The Murderer Chuckles
<i>Even the clearest and most perfect circumstantial evidence
is likely to be at fault, after all, and therefore ought to
be received with great caution. Take the case of any pencil,
sharpened by any woman; if you have witnesses, you will find
she did it with a knife; but if you take simply the aspect
of the pencil, you will say she did it with her teeth.</i> —
Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar
The weeks dragged along, no friend visiting the jailed twins but their
counsel and Aunt Patsy Cooper, and the day of trial came at last—the
heaviest day in Wilson's life; for with all his tireless diligence he had
discovered no sign or trace of the missing confederate. "Confederate" was
the term he had long ago privately accepted for that person—not as
being unquestionably the right term, but as being the least possibly the
right one, though he was never able to understand why the twins did not
vanish and escape, as the confederate had done, instead of remaining by
the murdered man and getting caught there.
The courthouse was crowded, of course, and would remain so to the finish,
for not only in the town itself, but in the country for miles around, the
trial was the one topic of conversation among the people. Mrs. Pratt, in
deep mourning, and Tom with a weed on his hat, had seats near Pembroke
Howard, the public prosecutor, and back of them sat a great array of
friends of the family. The twins had but one friend present to keep their
counsel in countenance, their poor old sorrowing landlady. She sat near
Wilson, and looked her friendliest. In the "nigger corner" sat Chambers;
also Roxy, with good clothes on, and her bill of sale in her pocket. It
was her most precious possession, and she never parted with it, day or
night. Tom had allowed her thirty-five dollars a month ever since he came
into his property, and had said that he and she ought to be grateful to
the twins for making them rich; but had roused such a temper in her by
this speech that he did not repeat the argument afterward. She said the
old judge had treated her child a thousand times better than he deserved,
and had never done her an unkindness in his life; so she hated these
outlandish devils for killing him, and shouldn't ever sleep satisfied till
she saw them hanged for it. She was here to watch the trial now, and was
going to lift up just one "hooraw" over it if the county judge put her in
jail a year for it. She gave her turbaned head a toss and said, "When dat
verdic' comes, I's gwine to lif' dat ROOF, now, I TELL you."
Pembroke Howard briefly sketched the state's case. He said he would show
by a chain of circumstantial evidence without break or fault in it
anywhere, that the principal prisoner at the bar committed the murder;
that the motive was partly revenge, and partly a desire to take his own
life out of jeopardy, and that his brother, by his presence, was a
consenting accessory to the crime; a crime which was the basest known to
the calendar of human misdeeds—assassination; that it was conceived
by the blackest of hearts and consummated by the cowardliest of hands; a
crime which had broken a loving sister's heart, blighted the happiness of
a young nephew who was as dear as a son, brought inconsolable grief to
many friends, and sorrow and loss to the whole community. The utmost
penalty of the outraged law would be exacted, and upon the accused, now
present at the bar, that penalty would unquestionably be executed. He
would reserve further remark until his closing speech.
He was strongly moved, and so also was the whole house; Mrs. Pratt and
several other women were weeping when he sat down, and many an eye that
was full of hate was riveted upon the unhappy prisoners.
Witness after witness was called by the state, and questioned at length;
but the cross questioning was brief. Wilson knew they could furnish
nothing valuable for his side. People were sorry for Pudd'nhead Wilson;
his budding career would get hurt by this trial.
Several witnesses swore they heard Judge Driscoll say in his public speech
that the twins would be able to find their lost knife again when they
needed it to assassinate somebody with. This was not news, but now it was
seen to have been sorrowfully prophetic, and a profound sensation quivered
through the hushed courtroom when those dismal words were repeated.
The public prosecutor rose and said that it was within his knowledge,
through a conversation held with Judge Driscoll on the last day of his
life, that counsel for the defense had brought him a challenge from the
person charged at the bar with murder; that he had refused to fight with a
confessed assassin—"that is, on the field of honor," but had added
significantly, that he would be ready for him elsewhere. Presumably the
person here charged with murder was warned that he must kill or be killed
the first time he should meet Judge Driscoll. If counsel for the defense
chose to let the statement stand so, he would not call him to the witness
stand. Mr. Wilson said he would offer no denial. [Murmurs in the house:
"It is getting worse and worse for Wilson's case."]
Mrs. Pratt testified that she heard no outcry, and did not know what woke
her up, unless it was the sound of rapid footsteps approaching the front
door. She jumped up and ran out in the hall just as she was, and heard the
footsteps flying up the front steps and then following behind her as she
ran to the sitting room. There she found the accused standing over her
murdered brother. [Here she broke down and sobbed. Sensation in the
court.] Resuming, she said the persons entered behind her were Mr. Rogers
and Mr. Buckstone.
Cross-examined by Wilson, she said the twins proclaimed their innocence;
declared that they had been taking a walk, and had hurried to the house in
response to a cry for help which was so loud and strong that they had
heard it at a considerable distance; that they begged her and the
gentlemen just mentioned to examine their hands and clothes—which
was done, and no blood stains found.
Confirmatory evidence followed from Rogers and Buckstone.
The finding of the knife was verified, the advertisement minutely
describing it and offering a reward for it was put in evidence, and its
exact correspondence with that description proved. Then followed a few
minor details, and the case for the state was closed.
Wilson said that he had three witnesses, the Misses Clarkson, who would
testify that they met a veiled young woman leaving Judge Driscoll's
premises by the back gate a few minutes after the cries for help were
heard, and that their evidence, taken with certain circumstantial evidence
which he would call the court's attention to, would in his opinion
convince the court that there was still one person concerned in this crime
who had not yet been found, and also that a stay of proceedings ought to
be granted, in justice to his clients, until that person should be
discovered. As it was late, he would ask leave to defer the examination of
his three witnesses until the next morning.
The crowd poured out of the place and went flocking away in excited groups
and couples, taking the events of the session over with vivacity and
consuming interest, and everybody seemed to have had a satisfactory and
enjoyable day except the accused, their counsel, and their old lady
friend. There was no cheer among these, and no substantial hope.
In parting with the twins Aunt Patsy did attempt a good-night with a gay
pretense of hope and cheer in it, but broke down without finishing.
Absolutely secure as Tom considered himself to be, the opening solemnities
of the trial had nevertheless oppressed him with a vague uneasiness, his
being a nature sensitive to even the smallest alarms; but from the moment
that the poverty and weakness of Wilson's case lay exposed to the court,
he was comfortable once more, even jubilant. He left the courtroom
sarcastically sorry for Wilson. "The Clarksons met an unknown woman in the
back lane," he said to himself, "THAT is his case! I'll give him a century
to find her in—a couple of them if he likes. A woman who doesn't
exist any longer, and the clothes that gave her her sex burnt up and the
ashes thrown away—oh, certainly, he'll find HER easy enough!" This
reflection set him to admiring, for the hundredth time, the shrewd
ingenuities by which he had insured himself against detection—more,
against even suspicion.
"Nearly always in cases like this there is some little detail or other
overlooked, some wee little track or trace left behind, and detection
follows; but here there's not even the faintest suggestion of a trace
left. No more than a bird leaves when it flies through the air—yes,
through the night, you may say. The man that can track a bird through the
air in the dark and find that bird is the man to track me out and find the
judge's assassin—no other need apply. And that is the job that has
been laid out for poor Pudd'nhead Wilson, of all people in the world!
Lord, it will be pathetically funny to see him grubbing and groping after
that woman that don't exist, and the right person sitting under his very
nose all the time!" The more he thought the situation over, the more the
humor of it struck him. Finally he said, "I'll never let him hear the last
of that woman. Every time I catch him in company, to his dying day, I'll
ask him in the guileless affectionate way that used to gravel him so when
I inquired how his unborn law business was coming along, 'Got on her track
yet—hey, Pudd'nhead?'" He wanted to laugh, but that would not have
answered; there were people about, and he was mourning for his uncle. He
made up his mind that it would be good entertainment to look in on Wilson
that night and watch him worry over his barren law case and goad him with
an exasperating word or two of sympathy and commiseration now and then.
Wilson wanted no supper, he had no appetite. He got out all the
fingerprints of girls and women in his collection of records and pored
gloomily over them an hour or more, trying to convince himself that that
troublesome girl's marks were there somewhere and had been overlooked. But
it was not so. He drew back his chair, clasped his hands over his head,
and gave himself up to dull and arid musings.
Tom Driscoll dropped in, an hour after dark, and said with a pleasant
laugh as he took a seat:
"Hello, we've gone back to the amusements of our days of neglect and
obscurity for consolation, have we?" and he took up one of the glass
strips and held it against the light to inspect it. "Come, cheer up, old
man; there's no use in losing your grip and going back to this child's
play merely because this big sunspot is drifting across your shiny new
disk. It'll pass, and you'll be all right again"—and he laid the
glass down. "Did you think you could win always?"
"Oh, no," said Wilson, with a sigh, "I didn't expect that, but I can't
believe Luigi killed your uncle, and I feel very sorry for him. It makes
me blue. And you would feel as I do, Tom, if you were not prejudiced
against those young fellows."
"I don't know about that," and Tom's countenance darkened, for his memory
reverted to his kicking. "I owe them no good will, considering the brunet
one's treatment of me that night. Prejudice or no prejudice, Pudd'nhead, I
don't like them, and when they get their deserts you're not going to find
me sitting on the mourner's bench."
He took up another strip of glass, and exclaimed:
"Why, here's old Roxy's label! Are you going to ornament the royal palaces
with nigger paw marks, too? By the date here, I was seven months old when
this was done, and she was nursing me and her little nigger cub. There's a
line straight across her thumbprint. How comes that?" and Tom held out the
piece of glass to Wilson.
"That is common," said the bored man, wearily. "Scar of a cut or a
scratch, usually"—and he took the strip of glass indifferently, and
raised it toward the lamp.
All the blood sank suddenly out of his face; his hand quaked, and he gazed
at the polished surface before him with the glassy stare of a corpse.
"Great heavens, what's the matter with you, Wilson? Are you going to
Tom sprang for a glass of water and offered it, but Wilson shrank
shuddering from him and said:
"No, no!—take it away!" His breast was rising and falling, and he
moved his head about in a dull and wandering way, like a person who had
been stunned. Presently he said, "I shall feel better when I get to bed; I
have been overwrought today; yes, and overworked for many days."
"Then I'll leave you and let you get to your rest. Good night, old man."
But as Tom went out he couldn't deny himself a small parting gibe: "Don't
take it so hard; a body can't win every time; you'll hang somebody yet."
Wilson muttered to himself, "It is no lie to say I am sorry I have to
begin with you, miserable dog though you are!"
He braced himself up with a glass of cold whisky, and went to work again.
He did not compare the new finger marks unintentionally left by Tom a few
minutes before on Roxy's glass with the tracings of the marks left on the
knife handle, there being no need for that (for his trained eye), but
busied himself with another matter, muttering from time to time, "Idiot
that I was!—Nothing but a GIRL would do me—a man in girl's
clothes never occurred to me." First, he hunted out the plate containing
the fingerprints made by Tom when he was twelve years old, and laid it by
itself; then he brought forth the marks made by Tom's baby fingers when he
was a suckling of seven months, and placed these two plates with the one
containing this subject's newly (and unconsciously) made record.
"Now the series is complete," he said with satisfaction, and sat down to
inspect these things and enjoy them.
But his enjoyment was brief. He stared a considerable time at the three
strips, and seemed stupefied with astonishment. At last he put them down
and said, "I can't make it out at all—hang it, the baby's don't
tally with the others!"
He walked the floor for half an hour puzzling over his enigma, then he
hunted out the other glass plates.
He sat down and puzzled over these things a good while, but kept
muttering, "It's no use; I can't understand it. They don't tally right,
and yet I'll swear the names and dates are right, and so of course they
OUGHT to tally. I never labeled one of these thing carelessly in my life.
There is a most extraordinary mystery here."
He was tired out now, and his brains were beginning to clog. He said he
would sleep himself fresh, and then see what he could do with this riddle.
He slept through a troubled and unrestful hour, then unconsciousness began
to shred away, and presently he rose drowsily to a sitting posture. "Now
what was that dream?" he said, trying to recall it. "What was that dream?
It seemed to unravel that puz—"
He landed in the middle of the floor at a bound, without finishing the
sentence, and ran and turned up his light and seized his "records." He
took a single swift glance at them and cried out:
"It's so! Heavens, what a revelation! And for twenty-three years no man
has ever suspected it!"