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.
—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar
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 the 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 would 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 to 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 faint?”
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!”