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Title: The Hanging Judge
Author: Arthur Gask
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Language: English
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THE HANGING JUDGE



By Arthur Gask



Published in Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 1954), Thursday 29 August 1940, page 43





The night was dark and tempestuous but, with the heavy curtains drawn and a bright fire burning, the atmosphere of the well-furnished room was that of relaxation and comfort.

Apparently, however, there was no appreciation of his surroundings by the bowed old man, sitting huddled in the big arm-chair and staring so intently into the fire. His face was strained and troubled, and one hand was pressed tightly over his heart, as if it pained him there.

"God, that ever I should have lived to see a son of mine tried for murder!" he muttered bitterly. "Five days of anguish for me, and can I wonder this poor old heart of mine is worrying me? Ah, but it was a near thing and up to the very last it looked as if the jury might convict him! The evidence of his guilt was so overwhelming that everyone must be saying now it was only the extraordinary summing-up of the judge which saved him." He sighed heavily. "But for that summing-up he would be in the condemned cell to-night."

"Of course, he was guilty? I knew quite well he was. I had not seen him for five and twenty years, but I could tell when he was lying. He lied just as his mother used to lie when she was deceiving me. He has that same trick of hooding the eyes she had when she was not going to speak the truth, and I saw that he was lying the whole time he was under oath."

He went on with another deep sigh, "Thank God he did not know his father was present, seeing and hearing everything. But then he has never heard of me. He thinks that other man was his father and that both his parents have been dead these many years. Doris said on her death bed she had told him nothing and I believe she was speaking the truth there."

"Of course, I know Harold had ample provocation for committing the murder, remembering, as I always do, how the serpent first came into my home. The dead man was of evil character and undoubtedly bent upon leading Harold's wife astray."

The old man sighed for the third time and for a little while his mutterings were stilled. Downstairs, in the kitchen, the servants were playing cards and, while the butler was dealing, the cook remarked with a shiver, "I'm sure we're going to hear of a death soon. Those three tea-leaves in a straight line in my cup to-night meant someone dying, I'm quite certain."

"Splendid!" commented the butler jocularly. "And I'll bet it'll be that rat which has been coming into my pantry. I set a trap for him just now."

The old man in the room above had started to mutter again. "But let me think clearly," he said into the fire. "Now was Harold's acquittal actually all due to that summing-up? Had I been one of those jurymen, what should I have been thinking when old Macarten had finished for the Crown? Should I have been believing my son guilty then?"

He shut his eyes wearily. "But I will go over the whole dreadful story again, just as it was unfolded in the Court, day by day. I will recall everything from the very beginning, until that last moment when Harold stepped down out of the dock a free man, and see how it strikes me now."

"Harold is twenty-six and the cashier in a suburban bank. He has been married for two years to a girl who is not yet twenty-one. There are no children, but their home is a happy one and they do not quarrel. The murdered man was a bachelor, a stockbroker in the city, and up to three months ago had been a close friend of the family. Harold, however, had not liked his visiting Dorothy when she was alone and had told him so, bluntly. The friendships had in consequence been broken off at once and, subsequently, when the two men had met at the houses of mutual acquaintances, it had been noticed they were distant towards each other."

"We come now to the fatal night of Mrs. Brendon's dance in her big house, facing the river and with only the road running in between. The party was a large one for the coming of age of the only daughter. Forty-four people had accepted and four rooms upon the ground floor had been specially set apart for them. In one the men left their hats and coats, in another they danced, in the third there were five tables set out for bridge and in the fourth was a buffet where the guests helped themselves to refreshments.

"The stockbroker, Denbigh, was the last to arrive, and it is suggested Dorothy was on the lookout for him and saw him coming up the drive in his car. At any rate, she went immediately, as she explained afterwards, to get some cigarettes which Harold had left in his overcoat."

"One of the maids happened to go into the cloakroom almost at the same time and came upon Dorothy and Denbigh there. She said they were standing very close together and it looked as if Denbigh had been about to kiss Dorothy when she, the maid, had so unexpectedly come in. She testified, also, that Harold passed along the passage at that exact moment and must have seen everything, because she saw him glance into the room as he went by."

"Nothing more of any importance happened until about eleven o'clock, when Denbigh left a girl with whom he had been dancing, with the explanation that he had to go out to look at his car. It was a frosty night and he wanted to run the engine for a few minutes, so that the water in the radiator should not freeze."

"The party went on until about half-past one and then, when all the guests had gone, Mrs. Brendon remarked to her husband that she had seen very little of Denbigh during the evening and that he had not even come up to say good-bye. She thought it strange."

"The next morning, to everyone's amazement, Denbigh's car was found to be still round by the side of the house, where it was known he had parked it when he had arrived the previous evening. Mrs. Brendon thereupon immediately rang up Denbigh's flat, to learn from his housekeeper that he had not returned home and that no message had been received to account for his absence. Later in the day his body was found in the river, among the weeds, not two hundred yards from the Brendon house, and the evidence adduced at the inquest proved conclusively that he had been thrown into the river to drown, after having first been rendered unconscious by being knocked down by a blow upon his jaw. There were all signs that this blow had been delivered with a clenched fist.

"The following day a taxi driver went to the police and told them that just after eleven upon the night of the murder, when passing along the road in front of the Brendon's house, he had seen someone hurrying into their drive and had recognised him as the cashier of the local bank.

"My son was arrested that afternoon.

"Now, there were five reasons for suggesting Harold must be the murderer, and Macarten thundered them all in with the craft and cunning of a great advocate who has practised in the Criminal Courts for thirty years. One, Harold had every cause to hate the murdered man. Two, his temper had been wrought up to frenzy by seeing Denbigh had been about to kiss his wife. Three, he had been at the bridge tables most of the evening and, once, when he had been dummy, had absented himself from the room for quite an appreciable time. Upon his return he had apologised for keeping the game waiting, with the explanation he had been to the refreshment buffet. Four, the time of his absence from the room had been about eleven o'clock, coinciding exactly with the time it was known the deceased had gone out to attend to his car. Also, it had been about that time, too, when the taxi driver had seen my son hurrying from the road into the drive. Five, when the police had arrested him he had a small half-healed abrasion upon one of the knuckles of his right hand."

"Yes, those were the five points against him and they made a damning indictment. Old Macarten was at his best and I could see he was impressing the jury."

"Harold put on a bold front in the witness-box, too bold I thought. He denied scornfully that he hated Denbigh, and the man's partiality for his wife only amused him. He had not seen them together in the cloak room, as he had not been in the passage at that time. He had not left the house at all during the evening and had never gone farther from the card room than the refreshment buffet. As for the piece of skin off his knuckles, well, he didn't remember what had done it. It might have happened when he had been mending a tennis racquet the previous afternoon.

"His defence was certainly straight-forward enough, but it was evident the jury did not believe him. They looked very coldly at him. Then Macarten was upon his feet again, slashing the defence to ribbons. A brazen defence, he scoffed, and just what was to be expected from a brazen murderer! The accused, with great boldness, had taken the terrible risk of being seen carrying the unconscious body of the man he had struck down across the public highway and now, with the same effrontery he was endeavoring to bounce the jury into believing he was not guilty of the murder."

"As Macarten's impassioned speech had proceeded, I had seen the faces of the jury harden, until it was apparent to me they had made up their minds and were intending to convict my son. His guilt was clear, and I would have had no mercy had I been one of them. When Macarten resumed his seat a hush of awed expectancy filled the court. Now, nothing but the judge's summing-up stood between my son and a verdict of wilful murder."

"And what chance had he there, no doubt all were asking themselves? Was not this judge, in all arraignments upon the capital charge, notorious for leaning always to the side of the prosecution? Was he not even called the hanging judge?"

"So, as this fateful summing-up began, my eyes roved round the court and I took in the varying expressions of those assembled there. Macarten was leaning back, flushed and confident; the jurymen were looking anywhere but at the prisoner, as jurymen always look when they are about to hand over an accused to death; the spectators were stirring uneasily at the thought of seeing the putting on of the black cap, and Harold, with his face as white as chalk, was moistening over his dry lips with his tongue."

"Ah, that summing-up; what a surprise it was to everyone!"

"When it began to take shape, when the drift of it was realised, a change began to manifest itself everywhere in the court. Macarten's look of confidence was replaced by one of bewildered surprise; the jurymen frowned as if they were very puzzled, and the quietness of the court lost something of its dreadful hush, as if it were no longer the vestibule to a chamber of death. Harold, too, began to regain something of his lost color."

"What had happened?"

"The incredible! The hanging judge was actually summing-up in favor of the accused! The vulture upon the bench had become as a cooing dove!"

"Then I saw the expression upon Macarten's face pass quickly from that of astonishment to one of intense anger, for none would have been realising better than he that, in defiance of all the damning evidence which had been brought forward against the accused, the judge was now apparently straining every nerve to bring about the man's acquittal. The spectators were quick to sense it, too, and began to breathe more freely. A verdict of wilful murder was no longer so certain and they might, after all, be spared the horror of hearing a fellow creature sentenced to death."

The old man paused here, his emotion appearing to have carried him almost to the verge of exhaustion. He was now clasping both hands over his heart. In a few moments, however, he drew in a deep breath, and, in his anger, his voice rising to louder tones, he went on bitterly. "Yes, I could hear myself speaking coldly and dispassionately as became one clothed in the majesty of the law, but to my shame I knew I was abusing my high office deliberately to defeat the ends of justice. I was cheating the gallows. I was preserving a life which was forfeit to the law."

He shook his head mournfully. "But never have I pleaded better. Every art which I had learned in seventy years I used to save my son. Every trick of oratory which was my gift, I called into play to confuse and mislead the jury. I belittled every point the Crown had made. I cast doubts upon the reliability of every witness they had called. I warned vehemently against the pitfalls of evidence which was purely circumstantial. I urged—but God, my heart, my heart! I cannot breathe! It is my punishment and I am——"

Downstairs the butler had just played the ace of spades. "And that means you're finished," he exclaimed triumphantly to the cook. "You've taken your last trick, and—but, hark! What's that? It sounded like someone falling! It must have been the master! Quick, upstairs with me! Quick!"

"Those tea leaves, those tea leaves!" wailed the cook, following him in a run towards the door. "I knew they meant something!"



THE END.