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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Mystery Of Metropolisville - Chapter 29. The Trial
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The Mystery Of Metropolisville - Chapter 29. The Trial Post by :Des_Walsh Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Eggleston Date :May 2012 Read :2163

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The Mystery Of Metropolisville - Chapter 29. The Trial


From the time that Charlton began to pettifog with his conscience, he began to lose peace of mind. His self-respect was impaired, and he became impatient, and chafed under his restraint. As the trial drew on, he was more than ever filled with questionings in regard to the course he should pursue. For conscience is like a pertinacious attorney. When a false decision is rendered, he is forever badgering the court with a bill of exceptions, with proposals to set aside, with motions for new trials, with applications for writs of appeal, with threats of a Higher Court, and even with contemptuous mutterings about impeachment. If Isa had not written to him, Albert might have regained his moral _aplomb in some other way than he did--he might not. For human sympathy is Christ's own means of regenerating the earth. If you can not counsel, if you can not preach, if you can not get your timid lips to speak one word that will rebuke a man's sin, you can at least show the fellowship of your heart with his. There is a great moral tonic in human brotherhood. Worried, desperate, feeling forsaken of God and man, it is not strange that Charlton should shut his teeth together and defy his scruples. He would use any key he could to get out into the sunlight again. He quoted all those old, half-true, half-false adages about the lawlessness of necessity and so on. Then, weary of fencing with himself, he wished for strength to stand at peace again, as when he turned his back on the temptations of his rescuers in Metropolisville. But he had grown weak and nervous from confinement--prisons do not strengthen the moral power--and he had moreover given way to dreaming about liberty until he was like a homesick child, who aggravates his impatience by dwelling much on the delightfulness of the meeting with old friends, and by counting the slow-moving days that intervene.

But there came, just the day before the trial, a letter with the post-mark "Metropolisville" on it. That post-mark always excited a curious feeling in him. He remembered with what boyish pride he had taken possession of his office, and how he delighted to stamp the post-mark on the letters. The address of this letter was not in his mother's undecided penmanship--it was Isa Marlay's straightforward and yet graceful writing, and the very sight of it gave him comfort. The letter was simply a news letter, a vicarious letter from Isabel because Mrs. Plausaby did not feel well enough to write; this is what Isa said it was, and what she believed it to be, but Charlton knew that Isa's own friendly heart had planned it. And though it ran on about this and that unimportant matter of village intelligence, yet were its commonplace sentences about commonplace affairs like a fountain in the desert to the thirsty soul of the prisoner. I have read with fascination in an absurdly curious book that people of a very sensitive fiber can take a letter, the contents and writer of which are unknown, and by pressing it for a time against the forehead can see the writer and his surroundings. It took no spirit of divination in Charlton's case. The trim and graceful figure of Isa Marlay, in perfectly fitting calico frock, with her whole dress in that harmonious relation of parts for which she was so remarkable, came before him. He knew that by this time she must have some dried grasses in the vases, and some well-preserved autumn leaves around the picture-frames. The letter said nothing about his trial, but its tone gave him assurance of friendly sympathy, and of a faith in him that could not be shaken. Somehow, by some recalling of old associations, and by some subtle influence of human sympathy, it swept the fogs away from the soul of Charlton, and he began to see his duty and to feel an inspiration toward the right. I said that the letter did not mention the trial, but it did. For when Charlton had read it twice, he happened to turn it over, and found a postscript on the fourth page of the sheet. I wonder if the habit which most women have of reserving their very best for the postscript comes from the housekeeper's desire to have a good dessert. Here on the back Charlton read:

"P.8.--Mr. Gray, your Hoosier friend, called on me yesterday, and sent his regards. He told me how you refused to escape. I know you well enough to feel sure that you would not do anything mean or unmanly. I pray that God will sustain you on your trial, and make your innocence appear. I am sure you are innocent, though I can not understand it. Providence will overrule it all for good, I believe."

Something in the simple-hearted faith of Isabel did him a world of good. He was in the open hall of the jail when he read it, and he walked about the prison, feeling strong enough now to cope with temptation. That very morning he had received a New Testament from a colporteur, and now, out of regard to Isa Marlay's faith, maybe--out of some deeper feeling, possibly--he read the story of the trial and condemnation of Jesus. In his combative days he had read it for the sake of noting the disagreements between the Evangelists in some of the details. But now he was in no mood for small criticism. Which is the shallower, indeed, the criticism that harps on disagreements in such narratives, or the pettifogging that strives to reconcile them, one can hardly tell. In Charlton's mood, in any deeply earnest mood, one sees the smallness of all disputes about sixth and ninth hours. Albert saw the profound essential unity of the narratives, he felt the stirring of the deep sublimity of the story, he felt the inspiration of the sublimest character in human history. Did he believe? Not in any orthodox sense. But do you think that the influence of the Christ is limited to them who hold right opinions about Him? If a man's heart be simple, he can not see Jesus in any light without getting good from Him. Charlton, unbeliever that he was, wet the pages with tears, tears of sympathy with the high self-sacrifice of Jesus, and tears of penitence for his own moral weakness, which stood rebuked before the Great Example.

And then came the devil, in the person of Mr. Conger. His face was full of hopefulness as he sat down in Charlton's cell and smote his fat white hand upon his knee and said "Now!" and looked expectantly at his client. He waited a moment in hope of rousing Charlton's curiosity.

"We've got them!" he said presently. "I told you we should pull through. Leave the whole matter to me."

"I am willing to leave anything to you but my conscience," said Albert.

"The devil take your conscience, Mr. Charlton. If you are guilty, and so awfully conscientious, plead guilty at once. If you propose to cheat the government out of some years of penal servitude, why, well and good. But you must have a devilish queer conscience, to be sure. If you talk in that way, I shall enter a plea of insanity and get you off whether you will or not. But you might at least hear me through before you talk about conscience. Perhaps even _your conscience would not take offense at my plan, unless you consider yourself foreordained to go to penitentiary."

"Let's hear your plan, Mr. Conger," said Charlton, hoping there might be some way found by which he could escape.

Mr. Conger became bland again, resumed his cheerful and hopeful look, brought down his fat white hand upon his knee, looked up over his client's head, while he let his countenance blossom with the promise of his coming communication. He then proceeded to say with a cheerful chuckle that there was a flaw in the form of the indictment--the grand jury had blundered. He had told Charlton that something would certainly happen. And it had. Then Mr. Conger smote his knee again, and said "Now!" once more, and proceeded to say that his plan was to get the trial set late in the term, so that the grand jury should finish their work and be discharged before the case came on. Then he would have the indictment quashed.

He said this with so innocent and plausible a face that at first it did not seem very objectionable to Charlton.

"What would we gain by quashing the indictment, Mr. Conger?"

"Well, if the indictment were quashed on the ground of a defect in its substance, then the case falls. But this is only defective in form. Another grand jury can indict you again. Now if the District Attorney should be a little easy--and I think that, considering your age, and my influence with him, he would be--a new commitment might not issue perhaps before you could get out of reach of it. If you were committed again, then we gain time. Time is everything in a bad case. You could not be tried until the next term. When the next term comes, we could then see what could be done. Meantime you could get bail."

If Charlton had not been entirely clear-headed, or entirely in a mood to deal honestly with himself, he would have been persuaded to take this course.

"Let me ask you a question, Mr. Conger. If the case were delayed, and I still had nothing to present against the strong circumstantial evidence of the prosecution--if, in other words, delay should still leave us in our present position--would there be any chance for me to escape by a fair, stand-up trial?"

"Well, you see, Mr. Charlton, this is precisely a case in which we will not accept a pitched battle, if we can help it. After a while, when the prosecuting parties feel less bitter toward you, we might get some of the evidence mislaid, out of the way, or get some friend on the jury, or--well, we might manage somehow to dodge trial on the case as it stands. Experience is worth a great deal in these things."

"There are, then, two possibilities for me," said Charlton very quietly. "I can run away, or we may juggle the evidence or the jury. Am I right?"

"Or, we can go to prison?" said Conger, smiling.

"I will take the latter alternative," said Charlton.

"Then you owe it to me to plead guilty, and relieve me from responsibility. If you plead guilty, we can get a recommendation of mercy from the court."

"I owe it to myself not to plead guilty," said Charlton, speaking still gently, for his old imperious and self-confident manner had left him.

"Very well," said Mr. Conger, rising, "if you take your fate into your own hands in that way, I owe it to _myself to withdraw from the case."

"Very well, Mr. Conger."

"Good-morning, Mr. Charlton!"

"Good-morning, Mr. Conger."

And with Mr. Conger's disappearance went Albert's last hope of escape. The battle had been fought, and lost--or won, as you look at it. Let us say won, for no man's case is desperate till he parts with manliness.

Charlton had the good fortune to secure a young lawyer of little experience but of much principle, who was utterly bewildered by the mystery of the case, and the apparently paradoxical scruples of his client, but who worked diligently and hopelessly for him. He saw the flaw in the indictment and pointed it out to Charlton, but told him that as it was merely a technical point he would gain nothing but time. Charlton preferred that there should be no delay, except what was necessary to give his counsel time to understand the case. In truth, there was little enough to understand. The defense had nothing left to do.

When Albert came into court he was pale from his confinement. He looked eagerly round the crowded room to see if he could find the support of friendly faces. There were just two. The Hoosier Poet sat on one of the benches, and by him sat Isa Marlay. True, Mr. Plausaby sat next to Miss Marlay, but Albert did not account him anything in his inventory of friends.

Isabel wondered how he would plead. She hoped that he did not mean to plead guilty, but the withdrawal of Conger from the case filled her with fear, and she had been informed by Mr. Plausaby that he could refuse to plead altogether, and it would be considered a plea of not guilty. She believed him innocent, but she had not had one word of assurance to that effect from him, and even her faith had been shaken a little by the innuendoes and suspicions of Mr. Plausaby.

Everybody looked at the prisoner. Presently the District Attorney moved that Albert Charlton be arraigned.

The Court instructed the clerk, who said, "Albert Charlton, come forward."

Albert here rose to his feet, and raised his right hand in token of his identity.

The District Attorney said, "This prisoner I have indicted by the grand jury."

"Shall we waive the reading of the indictment?" asked Charlton's counsel.

"No," said Albert, "let it be read," and he listened intently while the clerk read it.

"Albert Charlton, you have heard the charge. What say you: Guilty, or, Not guilty?" Even the rattling and unmeaning voice in which the clerk was accustomed to go through with his perfunctory performances took on some solemnity.

There was dead silence for a moment. Isa Marlay's heart stopped beating, and the Poet from Posey County opened his mouth with eager anxiety. When Charlton spoke, it was in a full, solemn voice, with deliberation and emphasis.


"Thank God!" whispered Isa.

The Poet shut his mouth and heaved a sigh of relief.

The counsel for the defense was electrified. Up to that moment he had believed that his client was guilty. But there was so much of solemn truthfulness in the voice that he could not resist its influence.

As for the trial itself, which came off two days later, that was a dull enough affair. It was easy to prove that Albert had expressed all sorts of bitter feelings toward Mr. Westcott; that he was anxious to leave; that he had every motive for wishing to pre-empt before Westcott did; that the land-warrant numbered so-and-so--it is of no use being accurate here, they were accurate enough in court--had been posted in Red Owl on a certain day; that a gentleman who rode with the driver saw him receive the mail at Red Owl, and saw it delivered at Metropolisville; that Charlton pre-empted his claim--the S.E. qr. of the N.E. qr., and the N. 1/2 of the S.E. qr. of Section 32, T. so-and-so, R. such-and-such--with this identical land-warrant, as the records of the land-office showed beyond a doubt.

Against all this counsel for defense had nothing whatever to offer. Nothing but evidence of previous good character, nothing but to urge that there still remained perhaps the shadow of a doubt. No testimony to show from whom Charlton had received the warrant, not the first particle of rebutting evidence. The District Attorney only made a little perfunctory speech on the evils brought upon business by theft in the post-office. The exertions of Charlton's counsel amounted to nothing; the jury found him guilty without deliberation.

The judge sentenced him with much solemn admonition. It was a grievous thing for one so young to commit such a crime. He warned Albert that he must not regard any consideration as a justification for such an offense. He had betrayed his trust and been guilty of theft. The judge expressed his regret that the sentence was so severe. It was a sad thing to send a young man of education and refinement to be the companion of criminals for so many years. But the law recognized the difference between a theft by a sworn and trusted officer and an ordinary larceny. He hoped that Albert would profit by this terrible experience, and that he would so improve the time of his confinement with meditation, that what would remain to him of life when he should come out of the walls of his prison might be spent as an honorable and law-abiding citizen. He sentenced him to serve the shortest term permitted by the statute, namely, ten years.

The first deep snow of the winter was falling outside the court-house, and as Charlton stood in the prisoners' box, he could hear the jingling of sleigh-bells, the sounds that usher in the happy social life of winter in these northern latitudes. He heard the judge, and he listened to the sleigh-bells as a man who dreams--the world was so far off from him now--ten weary years, and the load of a great disgrace measured the gulf fixed between him and all human joy and sympathy. And when, a few minutes afterward, the jail-lock clicked behind him, it seemed to have shut out life. For burial alive is no fable. Many a man has heard the closing of the vault as Albert Charlton did.

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