A Sad Death and Brave Life

Wilkie Collins

A Sad Death and Brave Life Page 02

The thief's face (as usual in those days) was concealed by a mask; and there was but one chance of bringing him to justice. It was the traveller's custom to place a private mark on every gold piece that he carried with him on a journey: and the stolen guineas might possibly be traced in that way.

The landlord (one Mr Brunell) attended on his guest at supper. His wife had only that moment told him of the robbery; and he had a circumstance to mention which might lead to the discovery of the thief. In the first place, however, he wished to ask at what time the crime had been committed. The traveller answered that he had been robbed late in the evening, just as it was beginning to get dark. On hearing this, Mr Brunell looked very much distressed.

'I have got a waiter here, named Jennings,' he said; 'a man superior to his station in life -- good manners and a fair education -- in fact, a general favourite. But for some little time past I have observed that he has been rather free with his money and that habits of drinking have grown on him. I am afraid he is not worthy of the good opinion entertained of him by myself and by other persons. This evening I sent him out to get some small silver for me; giving him a guinea to change. He came back intoxicated, telling me that change was not to be had. I ordered him to bed -- and then happened to look at the guinea which he had brought back. Unfortunately I had not at that time, heard of the robbery; and I paid the guinea away with some other money, in settlement of a tradesman's account. But this I am sure of -- there was a mark on the guinea which Jennings gave back to me. It is, of course, possible that there might have been a mark (which escaped my notice) on the guinea which I took out of my purse when I sent for change.'

'Or,' the traveller suggested, 'it may have been one of my stolen guineas, given back by mistake by this drunken waiter of yours instead of the guinea handed to him by yourself. Do you think he is asleep?'

'Sure to be asleep, sir, in his condition.'

'Do you object, Mr Brunell, after what you have told me, to setting this matter at rest by searching the man's clothes?'

The landlord hesitated.

'It seems hard on Jennings,' he said, 'if we prove to have been suspicious of him without a cause. Can you speak positively, sir, to the mark which you put on your money?'

The traveller declared that he could swear to his mark. Mr Brunell yielded. The two went up together to the waiter's room.

Jennings was fast asleep. At the very outset of the search they found the stolen bag of money in his pocket. The guineas -- nineteen in umber -- had a mark on each one of them, and that mark the traveller identified After this discovery there was but one course to take. The waiter's protestations of innocence, when they woke him and accused him of the robbery, were words flatly contradicted by facts. He was charged before a magistrate with the theft of the money, and, as a matter of course, was committed for trial.

The circumstances were so strongly against him that his own friends recommended Jennings to plead guilty, and appeal to the mercy of the Court. He refused to follow their advice, and he was bravely encouraged to persist in that decision by the poor girl, who believed in his innocence with her whole heart. At that dreadful crisis in her life she secured the best legal assistance, and took from her little dowry the money that paid the expenses.

At the next assizes the case was tried. The proceedings before the judge were a repetition (at great length and with more solemnity) of the proceedings before the magistrate. No skill in cross-examination could shake the direct statement of the witnesses. The evidence was made absolutely complete by the appearance of the tradesman to whom Mr Brunell had paid the marked guinea. The coin (so marked) was a curiosity: the man had kept it, and he now produced it in court.

The judge summed up, finding literally nothing that he could say, as an honest man, in favour of the prisoner. The jury returned a verdict of guilty, after a consultation which was a mere matter of form. Clearer circumstantial evidence of guilt had never been produced, in the opinion of every person -- but one -- who was present at the trial. The sentence on Jennings for highway robbery was, by the law of those days, death on the scaffold.

Friends were found to help Esther in the last effort that the faithful creature could now make -- the attempt to obtain a commutation of the sentence. She was admitted to an interview with the Home Secretary, and her petition was presented to the king. Here, again, the indisputable evidence forbade the exercise of mercy. Esther's betrothed husband was hanged at Hull. His last words declared his innocence -- with the rope round his neck.

Before a year had passed the one poor consolation that she could hope for in this world found Esther in her misery. The proof that Jennings had died a martyr to the fallibility of human justice was made public by the confession of the guilty man.

Another criminal trial took place at the assizes.

Wilkie Collins

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