A lie well stuck to —
IT began with no more than a word, such as a man might speak and forget he had spoken. At the time of speaking, Robbins Nelson was standing with a group of other youths — lads in their late ’teens and early twenties — on the Sutro Station platform. All their eyes were on the approaching train, and all their tongues were busy with a single topic.
Robbins was the youngest member of the group, — barely turned sixteen. Usually he hung somewhat unregarded on its edge, but to-day, bold in the possession of first-hand knowledge, he thrust, himself int o the heart of the talk.
‘I looked right down on him, close as I am to you. I was walking along over that cut where the train comes through. Gee, his head looked threecornered! I yelled, but the engineer did n’t know what I meant. Anyhow, they would n’t have stopped — nothing but a hobo.’
‘No good if they had,’ an older speaker took up the words. ‘He was done for. Did n’t speak but once after they got him off. “ Don’t hit me,” he says. I s’pose when they run into the tunnel and whatever it was jammed into him —’
‘He did n’t get hurt in any tunnel,’ Robbins asserted. The color flared into his face with the intensity of his conviction. The horrid memory of the man set him to blinking. ‘He could n’t get hurt if he was lying down, could he? And if he was standing up, it’d knock him off, would n’t it? It was n’t any tunnel —’
He broke off, aware suddenly of the smiling ridicule in the faces round him. Grotend, brother-in-law to the coroner who had held the inquest, laughed good-temperedly.
‘Go it, William J. Burns, Junior! I s’pose some fancy murderer crawled up on top between stations. Or he got jolted down out of an air-ship. It’d take something like that —’
Grotend was popular with the group. Their ready laughter rewarded the attack. And the younger boy’s crimson misery was an invitation to further teasing.
‘You had n’t ought to be stingy with bright ideas like that, Nelse. He sent you an anonymous letter, did n’t he? Or maybe you saw a man in a black mask beating him up —’
‘No, I did n’t! ’ said Robbins loudly. He cast about desperately in his mind for a means of escape. ‘I did n’t see anybody beating him up, but I saw Jim Whiting coming down off the end of the car.’
A hush followed his statement — a tribute to the weight of it. Grotend, his lips parted for a fresh jibe, drew in his breath sharply as though in the shock of a cold douche. Then, —
‘You saw Jim Whiting?’ he reiterated.
Jim Whiting was brakeman on the local freight, a figure familiar enough to all of them.
‘Getting deaf, are n’t you?’ Robbins retorted.
He turned his back upon his tormentors and walked away across the platform.
He was not much impressed with the importance of his lie. Chiefly, he was elated that, there had come to him a lie suitable to turn the tables. Half-way home his elation lasted, to be crowded out only by the recurring memory of the injured tramp. The boy had never before seen violent death. The picture of the man as he sped past, bloody and misshapen, on the swaying car-top; the later picture of him borne up the street on the improvised stretcher, came back upon him hideously. That for such destruction, that for such wanton suffering, there should be no punishable agent, seemed intolerable. And the idea once presented, who so likely as Whiting —
He heard the beat of footsteps behind him, and Grotend, breathing quickly, swung into pace at his side.
‘I been trying to catch up with you,’ he explained unnecessarily. ‘ Say, when Jim come out on the platform, I spoke to him. I says, “One of the fellows says he saw you up on top that day the tramp got hurt.” And you’d ought to seen him. I guess he knew —’
‘What’d he say?’ Robbins interrupted.
‘All he says was, “You tell that fellow he’s a liar”; but if you’d seen the look on him —’
‘Don’t you tell him I said it,’ the younger boy cautioned. ‘I don’t want him down on me.’ A belated stir of conscience set him to hedging. ‘Anyhow, I did n’t say I saw him up on the car. All I saw was when he was just there on those iron steps on the side. I don’t know if he was going up or down.’
They stood at the Nelson gate for a little, talking. It was full dark when Robbins went up the shrub-lined path to the porch. In the lighted diningroom his mother and the younger children were already at supper.
‘Late, Robbins,’ Mrs. Nelson admonished as he slid into his place. Then, catching sight of his face, ‘Tired out? If it’s that accident that’s worrying you — ’
‘It’s not,’ the boy denied. He felt his cheeks grow hot with a sudden flush of annoyance. ‘I don’t see what I’d worry about that for. Only, Charlie Grotend told Mr. Whiting I saw him on the car that day, and it made Whiting mad. I was wishing he had n’t.’
‘You did n’t say anything more than that — that he could have helped it, or anything like that? Well, then!’ She put the discussion aside with a gesture. ‘Merle Williams telephoned to see if you’d come over there to-night. You might as well. There’s no use brooding—’
‘I’m not!’ Robbins flung back angrily.
His spirits lightened somewhat in the process of dressing for his outing. They lightened still more when, on his way to the place of entertainment, he came up with three or four of his mates similarly bound, and went on with them, easily the hero of the little group. Sutro, though a county-seat, was a place of few excitements. The finding of the injured tramp, his death, the inquest, which had been held that day, were topics of surpassing interest, and Robbins, by virtue of his momentary contact, found his importance measurably enhanced. Before the evening was over, he had told his story a halfdozen times, — each time with less repulsion, with a keener sense of its dramatic value.
‘I was walking along the cut — you know, there where the train goes under you — and I saw him and yelled at the engineer to stop. I thought he was dead already — he looked like it. I don’t know what I yelled for, only I thought he’d roll off. No, I did n’t say I saw Whiting up on top, —’ He adhered scrupulously to the form of his first telling, — ‘I saw him on those steps on the side. I’d called to him, too, if I’d seen him in time, but I did n’t.’
‘I bet he’d have understood,’ suggested one of the listeners.
There was something cynical, something appalling, in the fashion in which their untempered youth seized upon the idea of guilt as the concomitant of injury. Robbins, tramping home a half-hour after midnight, fell all round him the concurrence of his mates — a warm supporting wave. He was committed beyond retreat now to histheory. Almost he was self-deceived. Visualizing the scene, he could scarcely have said whether, actually, he saw Whiting’s big body flattened against the side of the car, or whether he himself had superimposed the detail.
He slept late next morning, and emerging, discovered his mother, redeyed, moving restlessly between kitchen and dining-room. She called to him as he came out, but it was not until he was seated before his oven-dried breakfast that, with a long breath, as though she braced herself, —
‘Mrs. Cartwright was here this morning,’ she observed.
The words were indifferent, but the tone was so full of significance that instinctively the boy stopped eating to listen.
‘ She’d been sitting up last night with Mrs. Morgan. Robbins, that boy — that poor boy — was n’t a tramp at all. He was Charlie Morgan, trying to beat his way back home.’
‘How’d they know?’ Robbins asked.
‘Something about the body. There was some mark. It’s dreadful for his mother. And it’s worse because she thinks — Mrs. Cartwright says a good many people think — it was n’t an accident at all. The wound don’t look like it. And then your seeing Mr. Whiting — ’
‘What’d you tell her that, for?’ Robbins muttered.
He pushed back his chair, his hunger vanished as though from feasting.
‘I did n’t. She told me. She says that man who has the truck-garden — Emerson, is n’t it? — is saying he saw Mr. Whiting on the car-roof and recognized him. But, of course, a man like that —’
Her tone disposed effectually of the second witness. She got to her feet and began to gather up the dishes from the table.
‘Mrs. Cartwright says Mr. Cartwright’s looking into the thing. In his position, he’d have to. I told her you ’d go up to his office —’ She was passing behind Robbins’s chair as she spoke. To his amazement, she stooped and laid her cheek for an instant against his shoulder. ‘Don’t you let him worry you, Robbie. You just, stick to your story,’ she counseled.
‘I’m not going near him,’ Robbins declared defiantly.
More than the hush of appreciation at his first statement, more than the news of Whiting’s anger, his mother’s unexpected caress impressed upon him the seriousness of his position.
When he left the house, breakfast ended, he was fixed in his determination neither to get within reach of Cartwright, who was county attorney, nor to repeat his story. But once upon the street he found to his consternation that the story no longer needed his repetition. It traveled on every tongue, growing as it went. Nor was there lacking other evidence to support it. The examining physician shook his head over the shape and nature of the fatal wound; the helpers who had carried the man were swift to recollect his dying words. From somewhere there sprang the rumor of long-standing feud between Whiting and Charlie Morgan. Then it was no more a rumor but an established fact — time, place, and enhancing circumstances all known and repeated.
‘Enough to hang anybody,’ Grotend summed up the evidence, following with his coterie the trend of gossip. ‘Only thing is, it’s funny the sort of people that do all the hearing and seeing.’ He put his arm round Robbins’s shoulders. ‘There’s Nelse here and Doc. Simpson — they’re all right; but look at the rest of ’em — If they said it was a nice day, I’d know it was raining. Take that Emerson fellow — ’
‘Well, if Nelse saw him on the side,
I don’t see why Emerson could n’t see him up on top; he must ’a’ been there,’ a listener protested; and Robbins, his throat constricted, drew out of hearing.
For the most part, however, he found a lively satisfaction in the increase of rumor. In such a mass of testimony, he reasoned, his own bit of spurious evidence was wholly unimportant. When that day and a second and still a third had passed with no demand upon him, his oppression vanished. Even the news of Whiting’s arrest did not greatly disturb him. There was now and then a minute of sick discomfort, — once when the truck-gardener attempted to hob-nob with him on the strength of their common information; once and more acutely when an overheard conversation warned him that the accused man was depending upon an alibi, — but for the most part he put the danger of discovery resolutely out of his mind. Even should the alibi be forthcoming and his own story go thereby to the ground, ‘They can’t be sure about it,’ he comforted himself. ‘They can’t know I did n’t—’Even in his thought he left the phrase unfinished.
It was the fourth day after Whiting’s arrest that, going toward home in the early evening, he heard his name spoken from behind, and turning saw the county attorney. His first barely inhibited impulse was toward flight, but it was already too late for that. The elder man’s greeting detained him as by a hand upon his arm. He halted reluctantly, and they went on side by side.
The county attorney was a man in his early sixties—a tall stooping figure, gray-haired, with an habitual courtesy of manner which, more than irascibility, intimidated his younger neighbors. It was a part of his courtesy, now, to begin far-off from the subject at hand, in an effort, foredoomed to failure, to put his auditor at ease.
‘I often watch you tall boys going past, and remind myself that I am getting old. I can remember most of you in your carriages. Indeed, with you, your father and I were law students together. And now you’re in high school, your mother tells me.’ And with hardly a shift of tone, ‘She tells me, too, —or rather my wife does, — that you were unfortunate enough to see Mr. Whiting on the day of poor Morgan’s death. I am sorry —’
‘ I — did n’t see him do anything,’ Robbins protested. His tongue was suddenly thick and furry, and the words came with difficulty. ‘Nothing I could swear to. He was just — there.’
He was staring straight ahead; he could not see how shrewd were the kindly eyes which measured him.
‘Timid,’ the lawyer was labeling his witness. ‘Sensitive. Over-scrupulous. He’d scruple his testimony out of existence.’
Aloud he spoke with grave reassurance. ‘Your merely seeing Mr. Whiting can do him no harm. Indeed, you may not be needed at all. The preliminary examination having been waived—’ He paused for a moment before the Nelson gate, his thin-featured old face remote and serious. ‘In any case, remember this, my boy. Nothing is ever required of you on the witness stand except to tell your story exactly as you have told it off the stand. In the end the truth will come out and no innocent man be harmed.’
He congratulated himself as he went on up the street that he had reassured the lad, put before him his irresponsibility in its true light. Had he looked back, he might have seen the reassured witness staring after him in a kind of horror of amazement. To Robbins it was as though, astoundingly, an outsider had voiced the thought of his own heart. That truth must prevail, that false witnesses would be brought to confusion — it was a belief ingrained into the fibre of his being. He was sick with a premonition of disgrace.
‘Only, they can’t know,’ he tried to hearten himself. ‘I can stick to it I did.’ He stood still a moment, the line of his sensitive chin grown suddenly hard. ‘And I’ve got to stick to it,’ he warned himself. ‘I’ve got to stick it out as long as I live.’
It did not need the county attorney’s advice to keep him away from the court-room during the opening days of the trial. With all the youthful masculinity of Sutro crowding the courthouse steps, Robbins sat at home in the hot, darkened parlor, reading from books pulled down at random, seeing always, no matter what he read, a room set thick with eyes, eyes scornful, eyes reproachful, eyes speculative.
When at last the ordeal came, it was so much less dreadful than his anticipation of it that he was conscious of an immediate relief. There was, indeed, a minute of blind confusion as he made his way toward the stand — voices singing in his ears, a blue mist before his eyes. Then, somehow, he was sworn and seated, and all round him were the friendly faces of neighbors. He could see the judge nod encouragement to him over his desk; he could see the bracing kindness of the county attorney’s glance. Whiting he could not see, the bowed shoulders of a reporter intervening.
He was scarcely nervous after the first moments. His story flowed from him without effort, almost without volition. ‘I was walking along the track — I’d been fishing—’ It seemed to him that he had said the words a million times.
There were interruptions now and then; objections; questions from a round-faced, deep-voiced youngster, who, Robbins divined presently, was Whiting’s lawyer; but all of it — the narrative, the pauses, the replies — came with the regular, effortless movement of well-oiled machinery. He could have laughed at the puerile efforts of the defense to break down his story. — ‘Was he sure that he knew James Whiting? ’ Was there a resident of Sutro who did not know him? ‘Could he swear, — taking thought that he was under oath, — could he swear that the man on the side of the car was James Whiting and not some other man resembling him? If, on a moving train, another man resembling James Whiting, of about James Whiting’s size —’
’He knows he can’t touch me,’ Robbins was thinking triumphantly. ‘He knows it!’
The question of truth or falsehood was quite removed from him now. He came down from the stand finely elated, and in the afternoon went back of his own accord to the court-room. Emerson, the truck-gardener, was under examination and faring badly. One by one, the damaging facts of his past came out against him — an arrest for theft, a jail sentence for vagrancy, a quarrel with the prisoner, proved threats. The victim emerged limp from the ordeal, and slunk his way from the room, wholly discredited.
‘Serves him right, though,’ Robbins quenched his momentary pity. ‘I knew all the time he was lying.’ He started suddenly, so violently that the listener seated next him turned in irritation. ‘And,’ it had flashed through his mind, ‘and he knew I was!’
His eyes sought the prisoner — the man who also knew — where he sat hunched heavily forward in his chair, his arms upon the table. For an instant, pity, like some racking physical pain, shot through Robbins. To be caught in such a web! To be caught through no fault of his own! It was the first time the purely personal side had broken its way past his own selfish concern. It stifled him and, forcing his eyes from the man’s brooding face, he got up and stumbled out of the room.
But he could not stay out. An indefinite dread dragged him back presently. An indefinite dread held him bound to his place during the examination of the witnesses who followed, during the days of argument, and the judge’s inconclusive charge. He lay awake on the night following the jury’s retirement, picturing over and over in his own mind the scene of their return — just what degree of astonishment his face should show in listening to their verdict, with just what proud reticence and conscious wrong he should make his way out from the crowd. He had never said that Whiting was guilty — he reminded himself of that. All he had ever said was that on one certain day, in one certain place — He rolled over on his face and, hands across his eyes, tried vainly to sleep.
Half of Sutro was loafing about the court-house lawn next morning, pushing its way into the corridors at every rumor, drifting back to the freer outer air. When at last the rumor proved a true one, Robbins found himself far in the back of the room, the wall behind him, on three sides a packed, jostling crowd. There was a blur of unintentional noise in the place — heavy breathing, the creaking of a door. Through the noise pierced at intervals the accustomed voice of the judge, and set between the intervals the mumble of the foreman’s reply.
'— Agreed, all of you ? —’
‘Do you find the prisoner guilty or not guilty?’
The mumble dropped lower still. A stir swept over the front of the room, a wave of voiceless interest passing from front to back.
‘ What — what — ’ Robbins stammered, straining higher on tiptoe.
‘Guilty. Manslaughter,’ said the man beside him. He brought his hand down heavily on the boy’s shoulder. ‘Suits you all right. Everybody knew — ’ The gavel sounded and he broke off, bending forward to listen.
But Robbins did not listen. It was as though the foundations of his world crumbled round him. That truth should fail, that innocent men should suffer — He fumbled at the sleeve of the man on the other side.
‘I — did n’t hear. They said —’
‘Sh-h!’ the man warned him, and then, behind his sheltering hand, ‘Guilty.’
The judge’s voice dropped, and the speaker began moving with others toward the door. Robbins moved, too — dazedly, uncertain what he did. Some one stopped him in the outer passage.
He was conscious of congratulatory sentences. He heard his own voice speaking words which, seemingly, were not without meaning. And all the while the mind of him waited, awed, for the impending catastrophe.
Mercifully, the house was empty when he reached home. He tiptoed into his own room, and there, the door closed behind him, stood for a moment listening. Then, with an exclamation, he dropped to his knees beside the bed and buried his face against it.
For an hour he knelt there, bodily quiet, the mind of him beating, circling, thrusting desperately against its surrounding cage of falsehood. At first it was all fear — how the exposure would come, how best he might sustain himself against it. Then, imperceptibly, a deeper terror crept into his thinking. Suppose it should not come? Suppose — But that was unthinkable. For a lie to blast a man’s whole life, for a lie to brand him. Stealthily, as if his very stirring might incense the devil-god of such a world, he slid down, sitting beside the bed, his distended, horror-fascinated eyes hard on the wall. In those minutes his young faith in God and justice fought to the death with the injustice before him — fought and won.
‘He ’ll be sentenced Friday,’ he found himself thinking, drawing on some halfheard scrap of conversation. ‘That’s four days. There’s time enough —’
He dragged himself up and lay down at full length. Something hot smarted upon his face; he put up his hand to find his cheeks wet with tears. They flowed quietly for a long time —soothingly. He fell asleep at last, his lashes still heavy with them.
He was very early at the court-house Friday morning. Cartwright, coming in at nine to his office, crossed the corridor to speak to him — cheerily.
‘Well, we got our man, Robbins.
You made a good witness — I meant to tell you so before; no confusing you. Look here, my boy, you’re not fretting over this? If it had n’t been you, it would have been some one else. There’s no covering a crime like that.’
‘Not — ever?' said Robbins thickly. His secret was upon his tongue’s end. A glance of interrogation would have brought it spilling out. But there was no interrogation in his companion’s eyes — only an abstracted kindness. He looked away from the lad toward the stragglers along the corridor.
‘You came up to hear the sentence? Come in through my office and we ’ll find you a seat. The place will be packed.’
‘There’s nothing new? ’ Robbins asked unwillingly. ‘No — new evidence?’
‘Why, no! The case will be closed in another half-hour. And then I hope it will be a long time before you have any thing to do with a criminal charge again. Now if you want to come in —’
Robbins followed, silent. It did not trouble him to find himself placed conspicuously in the front row. His whole attention was set upon holding fast to the one strand of hope extended to him. In half an hour it would be over. In half an hour the hideous thing would be folded into the past. But it would not! The case against Whiting would be ended, the arraignment of God would be but just begun! To go on living in a world so guardianed —
The judge entered and took his place; the lawyers on either side filed in to their stations about the long table; the prisoner was brought in in the custody of a deputy sheriff. There was a little bustle of curiosity to herald his coming. Then the packed room settled to attention.
Robbins leaned forward in his seat. He heard vaguely the opening interchanges of speech. He saw the prisoner rise. The man was clay-colored; his teeth scraped back and forth continually on his dry lower lip. There was no resource in him, no help. And suddenly the watcher knew that help was nowhere. The voice of the judge reached him, low-pitched and solemn, as befitted the occasion.
‘— having been found guilty — decree that you be confined —’
’No!' said Robbins suddenly almost in a scream.
All at once the thing was clear to him. It was not Whiting who was being sentenced, it was God who was on trial, it was truth, good faith, the right to hope.—The impulse of his cry had wrenched him from his chair. He stood flung forward against the rail.
‘You can’t! I never saw him! They were tormenting me and I said I did. He was n’t there —
Behind him the court-room rang with excitement. He was aware of startled exclamations. He was aware of Cartwright, tragic-eyed, beside him, halfsheltering him, calling to him.
‘ Robbins! What’s wrong? He’s not speaking under oath. He’s been brooding—’
’It’s so!' said the boy.
For a moment he held himself erect among them, high-headed, joyous, splendid with the exaltation of the martyr. Then, suddenly, his eyes met the eyes of the prisoner. He dropped back into his seat, his shaking hands before his face.
It had lasted a second, less than a second, that frank, involuntary revelation; but in that second, his guard beaten down by sheer amazement, the prisoner’s guilt stood plain in his face. In that second, reading the craven record of it, Robbins saw the glory of martyrdom snatched from him forever — knew himself, now and now only, irrevocably perjured.