The Works of Sydney Fowler Wright 1874 - 1965

S. Fowler Wright's Short Stories


(A.D. 1950)

It was the first day of the trial of William Pennfield for the wilful murder of his wife Eliza, and a weak ray of October sunshine fell upon the massive suavity of the face of Bulford Bulfit, K.C., as he concluded his opening speech with one of those lucid summaries for which he was justly reputed among his professional brethren.

        Bulford Bulfit was not of the order of prosecuting counsel who will pursue a prisoner with savage and relentless energy, who will browbeat his witnesses, and passionately denounce his crime.

        He had made his reputation in the civil courts, where he had specialised in that branch of litigation which is one of the most flourishing by-products of the motor industry.

        Even then, he had never been known to state a case unfairly. Rather, he would put the arguments on both sides with such exhaustive impartiality that the opposing counsel would feel that there was little left to say - and that little could only show him to the jury as a prejudiced advocate. Was it the fault of Bulford Bulfit if the facts were such that the balance must decline, however gently, in his client's favour, when he weighed them so carefully, and in such an equal scale? Was it wonderful if the jury were disposed to be guided by his cooler judgement, rather than by the obvious bias of an opposing advocate, or by the cautious hesitation and Janus-counsels of the learned judge?

        After nine years of these interesting efforts, I will not say to pervert - for we know that English justice is never perverted - but to divert its course in the interests of those who hired him (which is the only reasonable object of paying huge fees for ingenious advocacy), he found himself briefed for the Crown in a criminal case of the first importance - one of those cases which excite the interest of literally a hundred million readers of the daily press of two hemispheres, and, however simple in themselves, will leave the names of the legal gentlemen who are engaged upon them in the dazzling splendour of a world-wide fame.

        It was the general feeling that a man who was obviously guilty, and admittedly contemptible, was fortunate to have the case against him put into the hands of so fair-minded and considerate an advocate. The jury would be able to deliver the expected verdict with the comfortable knowledge that there had not been any straining of evidence, nor even any severity of epithet, against the wretched culprit whom it was their unpleasant duty to deliver to the hangman's hand.

        Now we may hear the main facts very clearly marshalled if we listen to him as he concludes a three hours' speech with an impressive deliberation, summarising the evidence which he proposes to call - "Such," he is saying - "such is the case which it is my duty to lay before you.

        "There is the fact - the admitted fact - that the prisoner was on bad terms with his wife. It will probably appear that he had reasons - perhaps serious reasons - for complaint against her. Reasons which may have excited sympathy in his favour among their mutual friends - which might have excited your own. Reasons which might condone, if they could not excuse, the crime of murder, in a perverted mind, when the pressure of other urgencies, all pointing in the same terrible direction, were added.

        "There is the fact - the admitted fact - that the prisoner was living on terms of intimacy with Gladys Portman, and you will hear her tell you that she knew him as William Straker, and was not aware that he was a married man. She will tell you that she is about to become a mother, and that she was urging him to marry her - that she had discovered the place of his employment, and had threatened to make trouble for him there, unless he fulfilled his promise before the end of the fatal month which was to see the death - the sudden, unexpected death - of the wife whose existence menaced his security, and destroyed his peace.

        "You will hear from Gladys Portman that the prisoner had at last yielded to her importunity with an apparent willingness, and that the banns of their projected marriage were actually being called in his adopted name at her parish church while his wife was in robust health, four days before she died.

        "You will have the evidence of Dr. Gusford, and of Professor Benley, who are agreed upon the cause of her decease, and who will tell you that it resulted from a drug which must have been taken in liquid within six hours of death - a drug which is not generally known, nor commonly sold, nor medically prescribed - and you will hear that this drug is used in the preparation of certain photographic material manufactured by the firm by which the prisoner was employed, and that he had access to it, and had been warned (as was the custom of the firm), of its particularly dangerous nature.

        "You will hear also that the prisoner was in serious financial difficulty, which you may regard as a natural consequence of his domestic duplicities, and that these difficulties would be relieved by the death of his wife, who had a small separate income from a fund which he had settled upon her, which sum would revert to him on her decease, and whose life he had recently insured for £600.

        "It is also a fact - and I should be failing in my duty, should I omit to emphasise it - but there is no direct evidence that the poison was administered by the prisoner. - None. - That is to say, if the prisoner put the fatal dose into the glass of milk which his wife was accustomed to take on retiring, he did not call a witness to observe the action.

        "So far as our information goes, he and his wife were the sole occupants of the house on the night of the tragedy - I believe that he will give his own account of these circumstances - so that he could have acted without fear of oversight, and with some hope that he could commit the crime with impunity.

        "It is not reasonable to suppose that anyone contemplating such a crime would commit it while under the observation of others. Circumstantial evidence is all that we can obtain, and all that we can expect to obtain.

        "If it be established that this woman has died of poison, we may commence by asking who, among those who had access to her, had any motive for desiring her death; we may ask who had the means of procuring the poison from which she died; we may ask who had the opportunity of administering it. To each of these three questions there is one answer, and only one, and it is always the same.

        "If we are to accept circumstantial evidence at all - that is to say, if we are to accept the only possible evidence - it may be difficult to imagine a stronger case than that which I am about to bring before you. Motive - means - opportunity - as we look for these we find them all and only in the person of the prisoner who is now before you. Short of the production of an actual witness, we may ask ourselves what further evidence of such a deed it can be reasonable to expect, or possible to obtain."

        At this point the learned counsel paused, and there was a moment of impressive silence before he continued. Then he spoke with an accent of hesitation and reluctance, as though he were forced to make a further point which he would willingly have left in silence.

        "It is not for me to forestall the defence, or to suggest what may appear to be the only possible alternative to the guilt of murder - the possibility that the poison may have been self-administered. A poor defence may be better than none at all, and it may be that my learned friend will ask you to put aside the evidence - the overwhelming evidence - which I shall place before you, and to substitute a theory of suicide for which there is no shadow of evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, and which would have been so utterly causeless, and so amazingly opportune - but, in view of this possibility, I am bound to call your attention to the fact that the prisoner has refused to admit the only evidence that could be produced on this point - the firsthand evidence of the dead."

        His voice sank almost to a whisper on the final words, and the silent audience stirred uneasily at this allusion to an innovation which was still regarded with superstitious dread by the more illiterate members of the community, and was opposed by the narrower of the religious bodies that still lingered stubbornly to bear witness in an enlightened age to the earlier follies of mankind.

        "As you know," Mr. Bulford Bulfit resumed in a more conversational tone than he had adopted previously, "the law does not allow the introduction of mediumistic or clairvoyant evidence in criminal trials, except on the request, or with the consent, of the accused; and, as you know, there are those who decline, on religious grounds, to avail themselves of such evidence, even when it would be of the greatest help for their vindication.

        "We may respect such prejudices, though we may not share them, and did it appear - were it even remotely possible to suppose - that the prisoner were retarded by such scruples, I should be the last to urge it to the prejudice of the case against him.

        "But can this be the case? There is evidence to be called which will show him to have been an ardent supporter of the Spiritist movement, and both he and his wife to have been active members of the Spiritist Church. We are entitled to ask - we are, indeed, bound to ask - with what motive is it that the prisoner has refused to accept the suggestion of the prosecution that he should agree upon the selection of a suitable medium, through whose lips we might hear his wife's own account of the incidents of the fatal night."

        He paused again, and may have been about to resume his seat, or to advance some further argument, when the prisoner's counsel, Mr. Percival Ballinger, who had been engaged in an animated though whispered consultation with his client, rose hastily, and Mr. Bulford Bulfit, waving his hand in a gesture of courteous deference, as though he rather preferred to be interrupted than not, or wished to act with easy generosity to the advocate of a hopeless cause, resumed his seat.

        "I am reluctant to interrupt the peroration," Mr. Ballinger remarked so pleasantly that the acid undertone of sarcasm was only observable by those who were already acquainted with the protagonists, "but it would have been unfair to my learned friend, and lacking in respect to the court, to allow him to mislead himself further.

        "I might have suggested a more reasonable, as well as a more generous interpretation of the prisoner's decision - the natural reluctance of one who is conscious of having wronged his wife in life, and who may have been indirectly, though not legally responsible for her self-inflicted death, to appeal to her, under such circumstances. I might have suggested that it is a scruple which does him honour, and which will secure for him the sympathy of every generous mind - but the occasion does not arise. I am happy to say that I have prevailed upon my client to put his own feelings aside, and, in the interests of justice, to consent to the admission of the mediumistic evidence which has been requested by the prosecution."

        He resumed his seat, and Mr. Bulford Bulfit half-rose to inquire suavely at what stage his learned friend desired that such evidence should be interposed.

        Mr. Ballinger replied that the defence would adopt this evidence as their own, and that it would therefore be called after the prosecution had completed their case.

        Mr. Bulford Bulfit only nodded in answer. It was a right of choice which was reserved to the defence in relation to this class of evidence, to which the usual methods of cross-examination could not be applied with precision, and Mr. Ballinger was entitled to the tactical advantage which he had taken. Mr. Bulfit commenced to open his case without further preface. He called Gladys Portman.

        She proved to be a pleasant-faced young woman, quietly dressed, whose low-voiced and sometimes tearful answers, and occasional half-frightened glances at the prisoner, won the ready sympathy of all who heard her.

        At the conclusion of her evidence, the judge suggested that it would be a convenient point at which to adjourn, and, as a judge's opinion on such a point is rarely challenged, Mr. Percival Ballinger reserved his cross-examination until the following day. . . .

        "I suppose you were bound to try it," Mr. Bulfit remarked to his learned friend as they were in the disrobing room three minutes later, "but your client didn't look very pleased. . . . I couldn't help wondering."

        "The man's as innocent as I am," Mr. Ballinger replied easily, "and when you've finished your case it'll just show how worthless that class of evidence is. It isn't really necessary for us to call any evidence at all. There's only guesswork to answer. But I won't take risks in a case of this kind."

        He spoke confidently, but he was troubled in mind as to the wisdom of the course on which he had insisted. William Pennfield had been equally firm on two points - he had not poisoned his wife, or ever thought of so doing, so that the act must have been her own; but he would not agree that her evidence should be called.

        He had only given way when his counsel had threatened to throw up the case if he were not allowed to conduct it in his own way, but - no he hadn't looked very pleased.

        Anyway, Mr. Ballinger reflected, he was doing his best, and it wasn't his funeral He went on to his club.

        The second day went badly for William Pennfield.

        The cross-examination of Gladys Portman was brief, and did little to remove the impression which had been created by her evidence on the previous afternoon.

        It was clear that she had been meanly and cruelly deceived by the prisoner, who had taken advantage of a genuine affection, and that she was in no way responsible for the supervening tragedy. Probably Mr. Ballinger showed a wise discretion in getting her out of the box so speedily.

        After that, the hours passed in dreary iteration of the evidence which had been outlined in the opening speech of the prosecuting counsel. The post-mortem evidence of the doctors: the evidence of the prisoner's financial difficulties: the evidence of the prenuptial settlement: the evidence of the insurance: the evidence of the calling of the banns of marriage with Gladys Portman: the evidence that he had access to the poison which had been found in the body of the dead woman.

        There was all the usual evidence which is introduced to create a delusion of proof, in cases where no proof exists, which would have excited a keener interest had not the knowledge of the sub-natural evidence which was to follow given to it all a note of futility; for what possibility of condemnation would there be, if the voice of his wife should be heard in his vindication? Or what hope of escape, if it should denounce his guilt?

        Yet the court stirred to a quickened interest when the case for the prosecution closed, and Mr. Percival Ballinger rose to address the jury. Aware that he was probably the only man in that crowded court whose mind was not fully made up as to the guilt of his client, aware also that his words would have little weight to rebut it, unless they should be supported by the incalculable evidence of the dead, he was satisfied to open his defence with a few brief and simple sentences.

        "Gentlemen of the jury," he said easily, "you have heard a great deal of evidence about a great many things from a great many excellent people, and you may have noticed that I have made no effort to cross-examine them upon it. Probably most of it may be true enough, and I am not concerned with denial. Unlike the prosecution, I shall be content to call two witnesses only. But they have the advantage of being the only two who know anything about the matter. I shall call the prisoner - and the dead."

        Then he called the name of William Pennfield, and the prisoner, looking very nervous and pallid, left the dock, and entered the witness-box, with a warder beside him.

        It is to be admitted that the accused man did not assist his case, either, by the evidence itself, or by the manner in which it was given.

        Under the direction of his own counsel he got on well enough, though alternating between painful pauses of hesitation, and bursts of nervous volubility. He admitted his deception of Gladys Portman. He admitted almost everything that had been alleged against him. He admitted that his married life had been acutely miserable. He admitted that he had had access to the poison from which his wife had died.

        He went further than that; stating that he had taken home some of the fatal drug a few weeks earlier, as he had work to do for his firm (so he said), which he was completing in the evenings. He said that his wife knew were it was kept, and that he had specially warned her concerning its deadly nature. After her death, he found that it had disappeared.

        He said that there had been a quarrel of exceptional violence that evening arising from the fact that his wife had discovered some letters of Gladys Portman's in one of his coat-pockets during the day, and had charged him with his infidelity. In desperation, he had announced the resolution which he had already formed to leave her, and they had retired, at last, to separate rooms. In the morning she was dead, but he swore that he had done nothing to injure her.

        Then Mr. Bulford Bulfit rose to cross-examine.

        Quietly, almost genially, he took the wretched man through his relation with Gladys Portman, exposing all the mean evasions and lies on which it was founded, and which had been used to betray her. He dealt with them so that they appeared to be part of the prisoner's natural and normal conduct.

        Then he asked quietly: "Do you remember a conversation in a railway compartment a few weeks ago, concerning a recent murder? It was a case in which a man had strangled a woman who had become an encumbrance to him. Was it remarked facetiously by someone in the compartment that a good many men would like to treat their wives in the same way, and did you reply: 'Some women's necks are too tough'?"

        The witness did not answer. He clutched the rail of the witness-box in a nervous panic. He licked dry lips, and glanced appealingly at the impassive face of his counsel.

        Mr. Ballinger, wondering that his client lacked the nerve to speak the denial which would have disposed of a suggestion which was unsupported by any previous evidence, rose to object to the question.

        There were a few minutes of animated exchange between the judge and the opposing counsel. In the end, the question was allowed, the judge adding: "Should the witness deny having used the words, I shall advise the jury that there is no evidence to support the allegation, and they must dismiss it from their minds entirely."

        The question being repeated, the prisoner said weakly that he couldn't remember, but, anyway, "he hadn't meant anything."

        Quietly and conversationally, the cross-examination continued.

        "Did you tell anyone at your office when you took home this deadly drug?"


        "Had you any permission to do so?"

        "No, but - "

        "Never mind the 'but.' I only wanted the fact. You had no permission. Did you tell anyone at your home - anyone except your wife - that you had brought it?"

        "No, but - "

        "Never mind the 'but'. It's the fact I want. You told no one except your wife. Then you didn't mind if any others poisoned themselves. You only wanted to protect your wife. Was that it?"

        The witness looked round the court, at the amused or contemptuous eyes that met him from every side, with the aspect of a hunted thing, but he made no answer.

        "Very well," said Mr. Bulford Bulfit pleasantly, "we won't press it. It mayn't be very easy to answer. . . . It was very convenient for your plans that your wife should have committed suicide that night. . . . Were you very surprised?"

        "No - yes - I mean. . . ."

        "Perhaps the first answer may be the best. You couldn't be very surprised when you had left the letters where she could find them, and shown her where you had put the poison, could you?. . . But that's your tale, you know. . . . You've told us how you could lie to deceive a woman. . . . Could you lie to save your own skin? Don't say yes or no without thinking."

        The witness said neither. His face was an unhealthy purple, and he swayed against the rail that he was clutching convulsively.

        Mr. Bulford Bulfit observed his condition. "I won't press for an answer," he said magnanimously.

        "Do you wish to re-examine, Mr. Ballinger?" asked the judge.

        Mr. Ballinger shook his head.

        The warder touched the prisoner's arm, and led him back to the dock.

        The second day's proceedings were over.

        The medium had been accommodated in a chair at the reporters' table. She lay back with closed eyes and a lifted face, her arms stretched straight out on the table before her. The court, waiting in breathless silence, noticed that they were twitching slightly.

        Suddenly a voice came from the medium's mouth, a voice unlike her own, as they had heard it take the oath a few minutes earlier. It was loud and shrill, and asserted with a sharp impatience: "I am here. Eliza Pennfield. Who wants me?"

        Mr. Ballinger answered, as was customary, without rising.

        He leant slightly forward, saying in a conversational tone: "We have only one question to ask you. Will you tell us how you died?"

        There was silence for a full minute - it seemed an hour to those who waited - silence which was only broken by the loud, slow ticking of the clock that hung on the wall at the further end of the court.

        Then the harsh sound of a woman's laughter broke mockingly from the medium's mouth.

        "Tell him to ask himself," came the high voice that followed as the laughter died.

        Mr. Ballinger looked at the judge, who did not respond. He tried again.

        "I am asking on your husband's behalf. He is accused of having murdered you, and I implore you to answer, so that this terrible charge may be lifted from him. He has appealed to you because there is no one else who can give the evidence which is required to clear him. Will you tell the court how you died?"

        But there was no answer. Mr. Ballinger assented to Mr. Bulfit putting the question, but the medium remained quiescent. The judge took up the appeal, but the result was the same.

        It was only when it was feared that the trance might end before any reply had been obtained that the judge said: "It is a somewhat irregular course to take, but if neither of you raises objection, I propose to let the prisoner question her."

        The learned counsel agreed that it was the only remaining way, and all eyes were turned to the prisoner, who stood, white-faced, with his trembling hands on the dock-rail, showing little joy at the prospect of his vindication which the occasion offered.

        The clock ticked on, slowly and loudly in the silent court, and the judge said at last, with a look of half-tolerant pity at the abject prisoner: "If you will not speak, I'm afraid the jury may be inclined to draw a somewhat unfavourable inference."

        Then the wretched man gathered himself, and said in a timid voice which yet penetrated to the further corner of the silent crowded hall:

        "Eliza, tell them I didn't."

        His eyes wandered plaintively among the jury. He seemed afraid to look toward the medium he was addressing.

        There was no pause now. Eliza's harsh high voice sounded through the court, and re-echoed from the roof in an inhuman eerie way, that men did not notice then, so intently were they listening for the words, though they remembered afterwards.

        "It's no use, Bill. I saw you do it." The words ended in another burst of laughter, shrill and high and mocking.

        Those who were looking at the prisoner noticed that his face changed as he heard her. Its timid aspect altered to a look of almost insensate fury. "If I could only reach - " his shrill voice quavered, and then ended. He sank onto the floor of the dock. The warders bent on either side to raise him, but it was a dead man that they lifted, and while they did so the mocking laughter changed to a sudden note of terror.

        "I didn't mean it, Bill. I didn't mean it." The medium's scream rose till it startled the passers in the outer street. "Keep off - keep off." Her hands rose clutching, to protect her throat. She slipped down from the chair, disappearing beneath the table, from which her voice still rose in an agony of protesting terror.

        . . . The jury agreed that they would have brought in a verdict of "Not guilty," but English justice will pass no judgement upon the dead.

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End of this file.