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- Doctor Therne - 10/25 -
court yonder, has come in for supper. Dr. Therne, that's my wife."
Mrs. Strong rose and offered her hand. She was a thin person, with rather refined features, a weak mouth, and kindly blue eyes.
"I'm sure you are welcome," she said in a small monotonous voice. "Any of Stephen's friends are welcome, and more especially those of them who are suffering persecution for the Right."
"That is not exactly my case, madam," I answered, "for if I had done what they accuse me of I should deserve hanging, but I did not do it."
"I believe you, doctor," she said, "for you have true eyes. Also Stephen says so. But in any case the death of the dear young woman was God's will, and if it was God's will, how can you be responsible?"
While I was wondering what answer I should make to this strange doctrine a servant girl announced that supper was ready, and we went into the next room to partake of a meal, plain indeed, but of most excellent quality. Moreover, I was glad to find, unlike his wife, who touched nothing but water, that Mr. Strong did not include teetotalism among his eccentricities. On the contrary, he produced a bottle of really fine port for my especial benefit.
In the course of our conversation I discovered that the Strongs, who had had no children, devoted themselves to the propagation of various "fads." Mr. Strong indeed was anti-everything, but, which is rather uncommon in such a man, had no extraneous delusions; that is to say, he was not a Christian Scientist, or a Blavatskyist, or a Great Pyramidist. Mrs. Strong, however, had never got farther than anti- vaccination, to her a holy cause, for she set down the skin disease with which she was constitutionally afflicted to the credit, or discredit, of vaccination practised upon her in her youth. Outside of this great and absorbing subject her mind occupied itself almost entirely with that well-known but most harmless of the crazes, the theory that we Anglo-Saxons are the progeny of the ten lost Tribes of Israel.
Steering clear of anti-vaccination, I showed an intelligent sympathy with her views and deductions concerning the ten Tribes, which so pleased the gentle little woman that, forgetting the uncertainty of my future movements, she begged me to come and see her as often as I liked, and in the meanwhile presented me with a pile of literature connected with the supposed wanderings of the Tribes. Thus began my acquaintance with my friend and benefactress, Martha Strong.
At ten o'clock on the following morning I returned to the dock, and the nurse repeated her evidence in corroboration of Sir John's testimony. A searching cross-examination showed her not to be a very trustworthy person, but on this particular point it was impossible to shake her story, because there was no standing ground from which it could be attacked. Then followed some expert evidence whereby, amongst other things, the Crown proved to the jury the fearfully contagious nature of puerperal fever, which closed the case for the prosecution. After this my counsel, reserving his address, called the only testimony I was in a position to produce, that of several witnesses to character and to medical capacity.
When the last of these gentlemen, none of whom were cross-examined, stood down, my counsel addressed the Court, pointing out that my mouth being closed by the law of the land--for this trial took place before the passing of the Criminal Evidence Act--I was unable to go into the box and give on oath my version of what had really happened in this matter. Nor could I produce any witnesses to disprove the story which had been told against me, because, unhappily, no third person was present at the crucial moments. Now, this story rested entirely on the evidence of Sir John Bell and the nurse, and if it was true I must be mad as well as bad, since a doctor of my ability would well know that under the circumstances he would very probably carry contagion, with the result that a promising professional career might be ruined. Moreover, had he determined to risk it, he would have taken extra precautions in the sick-room to which he was called, and this it was proved I had not done. Now the statement made by me before the magistrates had been put in evidence, and in it I said that the tale was an absolute invention on the part of Sir John Bell, and that when I went to see Lady Colford I had no knowledge whatsoever that my wife was suffering from an infectious ailment. This, he submitted, was the true version of the story, and he confidently asked the jury not to blast the career of an able and rising man, but by their verdict to reinstate him in the position which he had temporarily and unjustly lost.
In reply, the leading counsel for the Crown said that it was neither his wish nor his duty to strain the law against me, or to put a worse interpretation upon the facts than they would bear under the strictest scrutiny. He must point out, however, that if the contention of his learned friend were correct, Sir John Bell was one of the wickedest villains who ever disgraced the earth.
In summing up the judge took much the same line. The case, that was of a character upon which it was unusual though perfectly allowable to found a criminal prosecution, he pointed out, rested solely upon the evidence of Sir John Bell, corroborated as it was by the nurse. If that evidence was correct, then, to satisfy my own ambition or greed, I had deliberately risked and, as the issue showed, had taken the life of a lady who in all confidence was entrusted to my care. Incredible as such wickedness might seem, the jury must remember that it was by no means unprecedented. At the same time there was a point that had been scarcely dwelt upon by counsel to which he would call their attention. According to Sir John Bell's account, it was from his lips that I first learned that my wife was suffering from a peculiarly dangerous ailment. Yet, in his report of the conversation that followed between us, which he gave practically verbatim, I had not expressed a single word of surprise and sorrow at this dreadful intelligence, which to an affectionate husband would be absolutely overwhelming. As it had been proved by the evidence of the nurse and elsewhere that my relations with my young wife were those of deep affection, this struck him as a circumstance so peculiar that he was inclined to think that in this particular Sir John's memory must be at fault.
There was, however, a wide difference between assuming that a portion of the conversation had escaped a witness's memory and disbelieving all that witness's evidence. As the counsel for the Crown had said, if he had not, as he swore, warned me, and I had not, as he swore, refused to listen to his warning, then Sir John Bell was a moral monster. That he, Sir John, at the beginning of my career in Dunchester had shown some prejudice and animus against me was indeed admitted. Doubtless, being human, he was not pleased at the advent of a brilliant young rival, who very shortly proceeded to prove him in the wrong in the instance of one of his own patients, but that he had conquered this feeling, as a man of generous impulses would naturally do, appeared to be clear from the fact that he had volunteered to attend upon that rival's wife in her illness.
From all these facts the jury would draw what inferences seemed just to them, but he for one found it difficult to ask them to include among these the inference that a man who for more than a generation had occupied a very high position among them, whose reputation, both in and out of his profession, was great, and who had received a special mark of favour from the Crown, was in truth an evil-minded and most malevolent perjurer. Yet, if the statement of the accused was to be accepted, that would appear to be the case. Of course, however, there remained the possibility that in the confusion of a hurried interview I might have misunderstood Sir John Bell's words, or that he might have misunderstood mine, or, lastly, as had been suggested, that having come to the conclusion that Sir John could not possibly form a trustworthy opinion on the nature of my wife's symptoms without awaiting their further development, I had determined to neglect advice, in which, as a doctor myself, I had no confidence.
This was the gist of his summing up, but, of course, there was a great deal more which I have not set down. The jury, wishing to consider their verdict, retired, an example that was followed by the judge. His departure was the signal for an outburst of conversation in the crowded court, which hummed like a hive of startled bees. The superintendent of police, who, I imagine, had his own opinion of Sir John Bell and of the value of his evidence, very kindly placed a chair for me in the dock, and there on that bad eminence I sat to be studied by a thousand curious and for the most part unsympathetic eyes. Lady Colford had been very popular. Her husband and relations, who were convinced of my guilt and sought to be avenged upon me, were very powerful, therefore the fashionable world of Dunchester, which was doctored by Sir John Bell, was against me almost to a woman.
The jury were long in coming back, and in time I accustomed myself to the staring and comments, and began to think out the problem of my position. It was clear to me that, so far as my future was concerned, it did not matter what verdict the jury gave. In any case I was a ruined man in this and probably in every other country. And there, opposite to me, sat the villain who with no excuse of hot blood or the pressure of sudden passion, had deliberately sworn away my honour and livelihood. He was chatting easily to one of the counsel for the Crown, when presently he met my eyes and in them read my thoughts. I suppose that the man had a conscience somewhere; probably, indeed, his treatment of me had not been premeditated, but was undertaken in a hurry to save himself from well-merited attack. The lie once told there was no escape for him, who henceforth must sound iniquity to its depths.
Suddenly, in the midst of his conversation, Sir John became silent and his lips turned pale and trembled; then, remarking abruptly that he could waste no more time on this miserable business, he rose and left the court. Evidently the barrister to whom he was talking had observed to what this change of demeanour was due, for he looked first at me in the dock and next at Sir John Bell as, recovering his pomposity, he made his way through the crowd. Then he grew reflective, and pushing his wig back from his forehead he stared at the ceiling and whistled to himself softly.
It was very evident that the jury found a difficulty in making up their minds, for minute after minute went by and still they did not return. Indeed, they must have been absent quite an hour and a half when suddenly the superintendent of police removed the chair which he had given me and informed me that "they" were coming.
With a curious and impersonal emotion, as a man might consider a case in which he had no immediate concern, I studied their faces while one by one they filed into the box. The anxiety had been so great and so prolonged that I rejoiced it was at length coming to its end, whatever that end might be.
The judge having returned to his seat on the bench, in the midst of the most intense silence the clerk asked the jury whether they found the prisoner guilty or not guilty. Rising to his feet, the foreman, a dapper little man with a rapid utterance, said, or rather read from a piece of paper, "/Not guilty/, but we hope that in future Dr. Therne will be more careful about conveying infection."
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