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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDoctor Therne - Chapter V - THE TRIAL
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Doctor Therne - Chapter V - THE TRIAL Post by :rarchar Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :June 2011 Read :3112

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Doctor Therne - Chapter V - THE TRIAL

CHAPTER V - THE TRIAL


Although it took place so long ago, I suppose that a good many people
still remember the case of "The Queen /versus/ Therne," which
attracted a great deal of attention at the time. The prosecution, as I
have said, was set on foot by the relations of the deceased Lady
Colford, who, being very rich and powerful people, were able to secure
the advocacy of one of the most eminent criminal lawyers of the day,
with whom were briefed sundry almost equally eminent juniors. Indeed
no trouble or expense was spared that could help to ensure my
conviction.

On my behalf also appeared a well-known Q.C., and with him two
juniors. The judge who tried the case was old and experienced but had
the reputation of being severe, and from its very commencement I could
see that the perusal of the depositions taken in the magistrates'
court, where it will be remembered I was not defended, had undoubtedly
biased his mind against me. As for the jury, they were a respectable-
looking quiet set of men, who might be relied upon to do justice
according to their lights. Of those who were called from the panel and
answered to their names two, by the way, were challenged by the Crown
and rejected because, I was told, they were professed anti-
vaccinationists.

On the appointed day and hour, speaking in a very crowded court,
counsel for the Crown opened the case against me, demonstrating
clearly that in the pursuit of my own miserable ends I had sacrificed
the life of a young, high-placed and lovely fellow-creature, and
brought bereavement and desolation upon her husband and family. Then
he proceeded to call evidence, which was practically the same as that
which had been given before the magistrates, although the husband and
Lady Colford's nurse were examined, and, on my behalf, cross-examined
at far greater length.

After the adjournment for lunch Sir John Bell was put into the
witness-box, where, with a little additional detail, he repeated
almost word for word what he had said before. Listening to him my
heart sank, for he made an excellent witness, quiet, self-contained,
and, to all appearance, not a little affected by the necessity under
which he found himself of exposing the evil doings of a brother
practitioner. I noticed with dismay also that his evidence produced a
deep effect upon the minds of all present, judge and jury not
excepted.

Then came the cross-examination, which certainly was a brilliant
performance, for under it were shown that from the beginning Sir John
Bell had certainly borne me ill-will; that to his great chagrin I had
proved myself his superior in a medical controversy, and that the
fever which my wife contracted was in all human probability due to his
carelessness and want of precautions while in attendance upon her.
When this cross-examination was concluded the court rose for the day,
and, being on bail, I escaped from the dock until the following
morning.

I returned to my house and went up to the nursery to see the baby, who
was a very fine and healthy infant. At first I could scarcely bear to
look at this child, remembering always that indirectly it had been the
cause of its dear mother's death. But now, when I was so lonely, for
even those who called themselves my friends had fallen away from me in
the time of trial, I felt drawn towards the helpless little thing.

I kissed it and put it back into its cradle, and was about to leave
the room when the nurse, a respectable widow woman with a motherly
air, asked me straight out what were my wishes about the child and by
what name it was to be baptised, seeing that when I was in jail she
might not be able to ascertain them. The good woman's question made me
wince, but, recognising that in view of eventualities these matters
must be arranged, I took a sheet of paper and wrote down my
instructions, which were briefly that the child should be named Emma
Jane after its mother and mine, and that the nurse, Mrs. Baker, should
take it to her cottage, and be paid a weekly sum for its maintenance.

Having settled these disagreeable details I went downstairs, but not
to the dinner that was waiting for me, as after the nurse's questions
I did not feel equal to facing the other domestics. Leaving the house
I walked about the streets seeking some small eating-place where I
could dine without being recognised. As I wandered along wearily I
heard a harsh voice behind me calling me by name, and, turning, found
that the speaker was Mr. Stephen Strong. Even in the twilight there
was no possibility of mistaking his flaming red tie.

"You are worried and tired, doctor," said the harsh voice. "Why ain't
you with your friends, instead of tramping the streets after that long
day in court?"

"Because I have no friends left," I answered, for I had arrived at
that stage of humiliation when a man no longer cares to cloak the
truth.

A look of pity passed over Mr. Strong's fat face, and the lines about
the pugnacious mouth softened a little.

"Is that so?" he said. "Well, young man, you're learning now what
happens to those who put their faith in fashionable folk and not in
the Lord. Rats can't scuttle from a sinking ship faster than
fashionable folk from a friend in trouble. You come along and have a
bit of supper with me and my missis. We're humble trades-folk, but,
perhaps as things are, you won't mind that."

I accepted Mr. Strong's invitation with gratitude, indeed his kindness
touched me. Leading me to his principal shop, we passed through it and
down a passage to a sitting-room heavily furnished with solid
horsehair-seated chairs and a sofa. In the exact centre of this sofa,
reading by the light of a lamp with a pink shade which was placed on a
table behind her, sat a prim grey-haired woman dressed in a black silk
dress and apron and a lace cap with lappets. I noticed at once that
the right lappet was larger than the left. Evidently it had been made
so with the design of hiding a patch of affected skin below the ear,
which looked to me as though it had been caused by the malady called
lupus. I noticed further that the little woman was reading an anti-
vaccination tract with a fearful picture of a diseased arm upon its
cover.

"Martha," said Mr. Strong, "Dr. Therne, whom they're trying at the
court yonder, has come in for supper. Dr. Therne, that's my wife."

Mrs. Strong rose and offered her hand. She was a thin person, with
rather refined features, a weak mouth, and kindly blue eyes.

"I'm sure you are welcome," she said in a small monotonous voice. "Any
of Stephen's friends are welcome, and more especially those of them
who are suffering persecution for the Right."

"That is not exactly my case, madam," I answered, "for if I had done
what they accuse me of I should deserve hanging, but I did not do it."

"I believe you, doctor," she said, "for you have true eyes. Also
Stephen says so. But in any case the death of the dear young woman was
God's will, and if it was God's will, how can you be responsible?"

While I was wondering what answer I should make to this strange
doctrine a servant girl announced that supper was ready, and we went
into the next room to partake of a meal, plain indeed, but of most
excellent quality. Moreover, I was glad to find, unlike his wife, who
touched nothing but water, that Mr. Strong did not include teetotalism
among his eccentricities. On the contrary, he produced a bottle of
really fine port for my especial benefit.

In the course of our conversation I discovered that the Strongs, who
had had no children, devoted themselves to the propagation of various
"fads." Mr. Strong indeed was anti-everything, but, which is rather
uncommon in such a man, had no extraneous delusions; that is to say,
he was not a Christian Scientist, or a Blavatskyist, or a Great
Pyramidist. Mrs. Strong, however, had never got farther than anti-
vaccination, to her a holy cause, for she set down the skin disease
with which she was constitutionally afflicted to the credit, or
discredit, of vaccination practised upon her in her youth. Outside of
this great and absorbing subject her mind occupied itself almost
entirely with that well-known but most harmless of the crazes, the
theory that we Anglo-Saxons are the progeny of the ten lost Tribes of
Israel.

Steering clear of anti-vaccination, I showed an intelligent sympathy
with her views and deductions concerning the ten Tribes, which so
pleased the gentle little woman that, forgetting the uncertainty of my
future movements, she begged me to come and see her as often as I
liked, and in the meanwhile presented me with a pile of literature
connected with the supposed wanderings of the Tribes. Thus began my
acquaintance with my friend and benefactress, Martha Strong.

 

At ten o'clock on the following morning I returned to the dock, and
the nurse repeated her evidence in corroboration of Sir John's
testimony. A searching cross-examination showed her not to be a very
trustworthy person, but on this particular point it was impossible to
shake her story, because there was no standing ground from which it
could be attacked. Then followed some expert evidence whereby, amongst
other things, the Crown proved to the jury the fearfully contagious
nature of puerperal fever, which closed the case for the prosecution.
After this my counsel, reserving his address, called the only
testimony I was in a position to produce, that of several witnesses to
character and to medical capacity.

When the last of these gentlemen, none of whom were cross-examined,
stood down, my counsel addressed the Court, pointing out that my mouth
being closed by the law of the land--for this trial took place before
the passing of the Criminal Evidence Act--I was unable to go into the
box and give on oath my version of what had really happened in this
matter. Nor could I produce any witnesses to disprove the story which
had been told against me, because, unhappily, no third person was
present at the crucial moments. Now, this story rested entirely on the
evidence of Sir John Bell and the nurse, and if it was true I must be
mad as well as bad, since a doctor of my ability would well know that
under the circumstances he would very probably carry contagion, with
the result that a promising professional career might be ruined.
Moreover, had he determined to risk it, he would have taken extra
precautions in the sick-room to which he was called, and this it was
proved I had not done. Now the statement made by me before the
magistrates had been put in evidence, and in it I said that the tale
was an absolute invention on the part of Sir John Bell, and that when
I went to see Lady Colford I had no knowledge whatsoever that my wife
was suffering from an infectious ailment. This, he submitted, was the
true version of the story, and he confidently asked the jury not to
blast the career of an able and rising man, but by their verdict to
reinstate him in the position which he had temporarily and unjustly
lost.

In reply, the leading counsel for the Crown said that it was neither
his wish nor his duty to strain the law against me, or to put a worse
interpretation upon the facts than they would bear under the strictest
scrutiny. He must point out, however, that if the contention of his
learned friend were correct, Sir John Bell was one of the wickedest
villains who ever disgraced the earth.

In summing up the judge took much the same line. The case, that was of
a character upon which it was unusual though perfectly allowable to
found a criminal prosecution, he pointed out, rested solely upon the
evidence of Sir John Bell, corroborated as it was by the nurse. If
that evidence was correct, then, to satisfy my own ambition or greed,
I had deliberately risked and, as the issue showed, had taken the life
of a lady who in all confidence was entrusted to my care. Incredible
as such wickedness might seem, the jury must remember that it was by
no means unprecedented. At the same time there was a point that had
been scarcely dwelt upon by counsel to which he would call their
attention. According to Sir John Bell's account, it was from his lips
that I first learned that my wife was suffering from a peculiarly
dangerous ailment. Yet, in his report of the conversation that
followed between us, which he gave practically verbatim, I had not
expressed a single word of surprise and sorrow at this dreadful
intelligence, which to an affectionate husband would be absolutely
overwhelming. As it had been proved by the evidence of the nurse and
elsewhere that my relations with my young wife were those of deep
affection, this struck him as a circumstance so peculiar that he was
inclined to think that in this particular Sir John's memory must be at
fault.

There was, however, a wide difference between assuming that a portion
of the conversation had escaped a witness's memory and disbelieving
all that witness's evidence. As the counsel for the Crown had said, if
he had not, as he swore, warned me, and I had not, as he swore,
refused to listen to his warning, then Sir John Bell was a moral
monster. That he, Sir John, at the beginning of my career in
Dunchester had shown some prejudice and animus against me was indeed
admitted. Doubtless, being human, he was not pleased at the advent of
a brilliant young rival, who very shortly proceeded to prove him in
the wrong in the instance of one of his own patients, but that he had
conquered this feeling, as a man of generous impulses would naturally
do, appeared to be clear from the fact that he had volunteered to
attend upon that rival's wife in her illness.

From all these facts the jury would draw what inferences seemed just
to them, but he for one found it difficult to ask them to include
among these the inference that a man who for more than a generation
had occupied a very high position among them, whose reputation, both
in and out of his profession, was great, and who had received a
special mark of favour from the Crown, was in truth an evil-minded and
most malevolent perjurer. Yet, if the statement of the accused was to
be accepted, that would appear to be the case. Of course, however,
there remained the possibility that in the confusion of a hurried
interview I might have misunderstood Sir John Bell's words, or that he
might have misunderstood mine, or, lastly, as had been suggested, that
having come to the conclusion that Sir John could not possibly form a
trustworthy opinion on the nature of my wife's symptoms without
awaiting their further development, I had determined to neglect
advice, in which, as a doctor myself, I had no confidence.

This was the gist of his summing up, but, of course, there was a great
deal more which I have not set down. The jury, wishing to consider
their verdict, retired, an example that was followed by the judge. His
departure was the signal for an outburst of conversation in the
crowded court, which hummed like a hive of startled bees. The
superintendent of police, who, I imagine, had his own opinion of Sir
John Bell and of the value of his evidence, very kindly placed a chair
for me in the dock, and there on that bad eminence I sat to be studied
by a thousand curious and for the most part unsympathetic eyes. Lady
Colford had been very popular. Her husband and relations, who were
convinced of my guilt and sought to be avenged upon me, were very
powerful, therefore the fashionable world of Dunchester, which was
doctored by Sir John Bell, was against me almost to a woman.

The jury were long in coming back, and in time I accustomed myself to
the staring and comments, and began to think out the problem of my
position. It was clear to me that, so far as my future was concerned,
it did not matter what verdict the jury gave. In any case I was a
ruined man in this and probably in every other country. And there,
opposite to me, sat the villain who with no excuse of hot blood or the
pressure of sudden passion, had deliberately sworn away my honour and
livelihood. He was chatting easily to one of the counsel for the
Crown, when presently he met my eyes and in them read my thoughts. I
suppose that the man had a conscience somewhere; probably, indeed, his
treatment of me had not been premeditated, but was undertaken in a
hurry to save himself from well-merited attack. The lie once told
there was no escape for him, who henceforth must sound iniquity to its
depths.

Suddenly, in the midst of his conversation, Sir John became silent and
his lips turned pale and trembled; then, remarking abruptly that he
could waste no more time on this miserable business, he rose and left
the court. Evidently the barrister to whom he was talking had observed
to what this change of demeanour was due, for he looked first at me in
the dock and next at Sir John Bell as, recovering his pomposity, he
made his way through the crowd. Then he grew reflective, and pushing
his wig back from his forehead he stared at the ceiling and whistled
to himself softly.

It was very evident that the jury found a difficulty in making up
their minds, for minute after minute went by and still they did not
return. Indeed, they must have been absent quite an hour and a half
when suddenly the superintendent of police removed the chair which he
had given me and informed me that "they" were coming.

With a curious and impersonal emotion, as a man might consider a case
in which he had no immediate concern, I studied their faces while one
by one they filed into the box. The anxiety had been so great and so
prolonged that I rejoiced it was at length coming to its end, whatever
that end might be.

The judge having returned to his seat on the bench, in the midst of
the most intense silence the clerk asked the jury whether they found
the prisoner guilty or not guilty. Rising to his feet, the foreman, a
dapper little man with a rapid utterance, said, or rather read from a
piece of paper, "/Not guilty/, but we hope that in future Dr. Therne
will be more careful about conveying infection."

"That is a most improper verdict," broke in the judge with irritation,
"for it acquits the accused and yet implies that he is guilty. Dr.
Therne, you are discharged. I repeat that I regret that the jury
should have thought fit to add a very uncalled-for rider to their
verdict."

I left the dock and pushed my way through the crowd. Outside the
court-house I came face to face with Sir Thomas Colford. A sudden
impulse moved me to speak to him.

"Sir Thomas," I began, "now that I have been acquitted by a jury----"

"Pray, Dr. Therne," he broke in, "say no more, for the less said the
better. It is useless to offer explanations to a man whose wife you
have murdered."

"But, Sir Thomas, that is false. When I visited Lady Colford I knew
nothing of my wife's condition."

"Sir," he replied, "in this matter I have to choose between the word
of Sir John Bell, who, although unfortunately my wife did not like him
as a doctor, has been my friend for over twenty years, and your word,
with whom I have been acquainted for one year. Under these
circumstances, I believe Sir John Bell, and that you are a guilty man.
Nine people out of every ten in Dunchester believe this, and, what is
more, the jury believed it also, although for reasons which are easily
to be understood they showed mercy to you," and, turning on his heel,
he walked away from me.

I also walked away to my own desolate home, and, sitting down in the
empty consulting-room, contemplated the utter ruin that had overtaken
me. My wife was gone and my career was gone, and to whatever part of
the earth I might migrate an evil reputation would follow me. And all
this through no fault of mine.

Whilst I still sat brooding a man was shown into the room, a smiling
little black-coated person, in whom I recognised the managing clerk of
the firm of solicitors that had conducted the case for the
prosecution.

"Not done with your troubles yet, Dr. Therne, I fear," he said
cheerfully; "out of the criminal wood into the civil swamp," and he
laughed as he handed me a paper.

"What is this?" I asked.

"Statement of claim in the case of Colford v. Therne; damages laid at
10,000 pounds, which, I daresay, you will agree is not too much for
the loss of a young wife. You see, doctor, Sir Thomas is downright
wild with you, and so are all the late lady's people. As he can't lock
you up, he intends to ruin you by means of an action. If he had
listened to me, that is what he would have begun with, leaving the
criminal law alone. It's a nasty treacherous thing is the criminal
law, and you can't be sure of your man however black things may look
against him. I never thought they could convict you, doctor, never;
for, as the old judge said, you see it is quite unusual to prosecute
criminally in cases of this nature, and the jury won't send a man to
jail for a little mistake of the sort. But they will 'cop' you in
damages, a thousand or fifteen hundred, and then the best thing that
you can do will be to go bankrupt, or perhaps you had better clear
before the trial comes on."

I groaned aloud, but the little man went on cheerfully:--

"Same solicitors, I suppose? I'll take the other things to them so as
not to bother you more than I can help. Good-afternoon; I'm downright
glad that they didn't convict you, and as for old Bell, he's as mad as
a hatter, though of course everybody knows what the jury meant--the
judge was pretty straight about it, wasn't he?--he chooses to think
that it amounts to calling him a liar. Well, now I come to think of
it, there are one or two things--so perhaps he is. Good-afternoon,
doctor. Let's see, you have the original and I will take the
duplicate," and he vanished.

When the clerk had gone I went on thinking. Things were worse than I
had believed, for it seemed that I was not even clear of my legal
troubles. Already this trial had cost me a great deal, and I was in no
position to stand the financial strain of a second appearance in the
law courts. Also the man was right; although I had been acquitted on
the criminal charge, if the same evidence were given by Sir John Bell
and the nurse in a civil action, without any manner of doubt I should
be cast in heavy damages. Well, I could only wait and see what
happened.

But was it worth while? Was anything worth while? The world had
treated me very cruelly; a villain had lied away my reputation and the
world believed him, so that henceforth I must be one of its outcasts
and black sheep; an object of pity and contempt among the members of
my profession. It was doubtful whether, having been thus exposed and
made bankrupt, I could ever again obtain a respectable practice.
Indeed, the most that I might hope for would be some small appointment
on the west coast of Africa, or any other poisonous place, which no
one else would be inclined to accept, where I might live--until I
died.

The question that occurred to me that evening was whether it would not
be wiser on the whole to accept defeat, own myself beaten, and ring
down the curtain--not a difficult matter for a doctor to deal with.
The arguments for such a course were patent; what were those against
it?

The existence of my child? Well, by the time that she grew up, if she
lived to grow up, all the trouble and scandal would be forgotten, and
the effacement of a discredited parent could be no great loss to her.
Moreover, my life was insured for 3000 pounds in an office that took
the risk of suicide.

Considerations of religion? These had ceased to have any weight with
me. I was brought up to believe in a good and watching Providence, but
the events of the last few months had choked that belief. If there was
a God who guarded us, why should He have allowed the existence of my
wife to be sacrificed to the carelessness, and all my hopes to the
villainy, of Sir John Bell? The reasoning was inconclusive, perhaps--
for who can know the ends of the Divinity?--but it satisfied my mind
at the time, and for the rest I have never really troubled to reopen
the question.

The natural love of life for its own sake? It had left me. What more
had life to offer? Further, what is called "love of life" frequently
enough is little more than fear of the hereafter or of death, and of
the physical act of death I had lost my terror, shattered as I was by
sorrow and shame. Indeed, at that moment I could have welcomed it
gladly, since to me it meant the perfect rest of oblivion.

So in the end I determined that I would leave this lighted house of
Life and go out into the dark night, and at once. Unhappy was it for
me and for hundreds of other human beings that the decree of fate, or
chance, brought my designs to nothing.

First I wrote a letter to be handed to the reporters at the inquest
for publication in the newspapers, in which I told the true story of
Lady Colford's case and denounced Bell as a villain whose perjury had
driven me to self-murder. After this I wrote a second letter, to be
given to my daughter if she lived to come to years of discretion,
setting out the facts that brought me to my end and asking her to
pardon me for having left her. This done it seemed that my worldly
business was completed, so I set about leaving the world.

Going to a medicine chest I reflected a little. Finally I decided on
prussic acid; its after effects are unpleasant but its action is swift
and certain. What did it matter to me if I turned black and smelt of
almonds when I was dead?

Content of CHAPTER V - THE TRIAL (H. Rider Haggard's novel: Doctor Therne)

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