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   Chapter 5 Not Guilty!

A Final Reckoning By G. A. Henty Characters: 29725

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The schoolmaster was the first witness called for the defence. After stating that, although no evening was actually settled for his coming over, he expected the prisoner one evening that week; and that he had promised to bring his tools over, to do a little job of carpentering; he also detailed his visit to the lane, and the result of his observation there; and then gave Reuben the highest character, saying that he had known him for five years, and that he had an absolute confidence in his integrity and honesty.

"He has from the first," he said, "proved a most intelligent and hard-working boy, anxious to improve himself and to get on in the world. He has learnt all that I could teach him, and more. He is one of the last persons in the world whom I should consider capable of the crime with which he is charged. As to his having any animosity to Mr. Ellison, I can swear that, on many different occasions, he has expressed his high opinion of him; and has declared that it was quite natural that, with the evidence before him, he should have thought him guilty of poisoning the dog."

The keeper of the wayside public house, where he had breakfasted, proved that he was struck with the prisoner's appearance when he entered; that he was very pale, and seemed scarcely able to walk. He had asked him the nearest way to Lewes, and had inquired whether there was any chance of getting a lift; as he was anxious to get back, as soon as possible.

Mr. Penfold was the next witness. He said that the prisoner had been apprenticed to him, four years previously; that his general conduct had been most excellent, and that he was remarkably quick and intelligent, and was an excellent workman. During the time that he had been employed, he had never lost a day.

"At the time he was apprenticed to you, Mr. Penfold," Reuben's counsel asked, "were you aware that the lad had been summarily discharged by Mr. Ellison?"

"I was aware of that fact," Mr. Penfold answered; and Reuben, with surprise, looked at his employer.

"From whom did you hear of it?"

"I heard of it from Mr. Ellison himself, who called upon me about the matter."

"How was it he came to call upon you, Mr. Penfold?"

"The prisoner's mother had applied to me about apprenticing her son. I had asked 50 pounds premium, and said that it wasn't my custom to pay any wages for the first year. She said she could only afford 20 pounds, and I thought that was an end of the matter until, a few days later, Mr. Ellison called upon me, and said that he had heard from the schoolmaster in his village, who was a friend of the boy's mother, how matters stood; and that her application had fallen through, owing to her being unable to find more than 20 pounds.

"I said that this was so. Mr. Ellison then said that he was prepared to make up the deficiency, that he had a regard for the boy's father; and that, moreover, he himself had, through a hasty misconception regarding the poisoning of the dog, discharged the lad from his service; and that he felt uneasy, in his mind, at having been guilty of a piece of injustice. Over and above the 30 pounds, he gave me six pound ten; in order that I might pay the boy half a crown a week, for the first year, which he said would be a matter of consequence to his mother. He requested me on no account to let Mrs. Whitney know that he had intervened in the matter, but to represent that I changed my mind, and was willing to take the 20 pounds she offered as a premium. He was particularly anxious on this point; because, he said, she would certainly refuse to accept assistance from him, owing to that unfortunate affair about the dog.

"I may say that, from that time to this, I have not mentioned the fact to anyone; and the sum of 20 pounds was inserted in the indenture of apprenticeship."

There was a little movement of applause in the court, as Mr. Penfold gave his evidence; and Reuben looked gratefully towards Mr. Ellison, and said heartily:

"I thank you, sir, with all my heart."

The foreman of the yard was next examined. He confirmed the high character Mr. Penfold had given Reuben, and adding that he knew the lad never entered a public house, but spent his evenings almost entirely at home studying; for that he himself had, many times, called in and had, upon every occasion, found him so employed.

The counsel for the prosecution then addressed the jury, and threw discredit upon Reuben's narrative; which, he said, was unsupported in any material particular. That he met the rest of the party in the lane was likely enough. He may have returned there with them after the burglary, and probably it was there that, in a quarrel over the spoil, he received the blow of which you have heard.

"My learned friend has told you to dismiss from your mind the question about that poisoning of the dog, four years ago; but it is impossible for you to do so. You have heard that the dog was poisoned, and that the evidence was so strong that his employer at once dismissed him. It is true that Mr. Ellison has told you that he afterwards changed his mind on the subject; but after the evidence which Mr. Penfold has given, of the kindness of that gentleman's heart, you will readily understand that no great stress can be laid upon this. The matter, so far from being trivial, as my friend represents it, is highly important; inasmuch as here we find that, again, the dogs have been poisoned just as on the first occasion. It is clear that burglars from London would be ignorant of the whereabouts of the kennels, and were not likely to have come down provided with a store of poisoned meat; had they not known, from persons well acquainted with the place, of the steps that would have to be taken before an entry could be effected into the house. You will therefore see the extreme importance of this point.

"I am perfectly ready to admit that the evidence is of a wholly circumstantial nature but, from the nature of the case, it is necessary that this should be so. Had Mrs. or Mr. Ellison awoke, when the thieves entered their room, it is probable that much more evidence would be forthcoming. It is, however, for you to weigh the probabilities of the case. You have to consider whether the theory which I have laid before you, as to the connection of the prisoner with this affair, or this wild story which he tells you, is the most probable."

The judge then summed up, with a strong bias against Reuben. He told them that evidence for character was, of course, of importance; but that it must not be relied upon too far. The prisoner appeared undoubtedly to be intelligent and well-conducted, but unfortunately his experience told him that many criminals were men of unusual intelligence. Stress had been laid, by the counsel for the defence, upon the fact that the prisoner was not known, at any time, to have consorted with suspicious characters; but this, after all, was only negative evidence. Affairs of this sort were always conducted with secrecy and, had one of these men come down from London, as was probable enough, to make inquiries as to houses which could be broken into with a prospect of good booty, he would naturally not make himself conspicuous.

They had heard the two stories, and must judge for themselves; but he agreed, with the counsel for the prosecution, that the fact that the prisoner had been discharged by Mr. Ellison for poisoning a dog, and that on the night of the robbery other dogs were found poisoned, and that probably by some one acquainted with the locality, could not but have an influence upon their minds. At the same time he would tell them that, if they had a doubt in their minds, it was their duty to give the prisoner the benefit of that doubt.

The jury consulted together for a minute or two in the jury box, and then expressed their desire to retire. A buzz of talk arose in the court, when they had left. Opinion was divided as to what the verdict would be. When the counsel for the defence sat down, the general opinion was that the prisoner would be certainly acquitted; but the speech of the counsel for the prosecution, and the summing up of the judge, had caused a reaction, and few doubted now that the verdict would be guilty.

So Reuben himself thought. It was he felt hard that, standing there to be tried for burglary, the decision should, in fact, depend upon that unjust charge which had, four years ago, been brought against him. Reuben was in the habit of what he called arguing things out by himself; and as he stood there, waiting for the verdict, he tried to put himself in the position of the jury; and he felt that, in that case, he should have difficulty in coming to a decision.

It was not until after the lamps had been lighted that the jury returned into the box. The crier shouted for order, and there was not a sound heard, as the foreman told the judge that they were not agreed upon their verdict.

"Then you must go back, gentlemen, until you are," the judge said.

"We are eleven one way, and one the other. Won't that do, my lord?"

"No, sir," the judge replied. "You must be unanimous."

The jury again retired, the judge and counsel went off to dine at the hotel, and almost all the public trooped out. Two hours later, as the jury did not return, Reuben Whitney was taken back to the jail, and the court closed. At nine o'clock in the morning, a warder entered.

"The jury have come back into the court," he said. "They are going to return a verdict."

Reuben was again placed in the dock. The seats open to the public quickly filled, as the news spread through the town. Several of the members of the bar dropped in, and then the judge came in and took his seat.

Reuben had occupied the time in trying to judge, from the faces of the jury, what their verdict was going to be. They looked sulky and tired. But as Reuben's eye rested on Jacob Priestley, whom he had at once recognized among the jury, the smith gave him an encouraging wink. At least, so Reuben thought; but as the next moment he was looking as surly as the rest, he thought that he must have been mistaken.

"Are you agreed, gentlemen, as to the verdict you find in this case?" the judge asked.

"We are, my lord," the foreman replied.

"Do you find the prisoner guilty or not guilty?"

"Not guilty, my lord."

"Very well, gentlemen," the judge said tartly. "It is your verdict, not mine."

At the foreman's word a thrill had run through the court; for when it was known, the evening before, that eleven were one way and one the other, the belief had been general that the majority were for a conviction. Reuben himself had so understood it, and the verdict was a complete surprise to him.

The constable raised the bar for him to leave the dock, and as he moved out his friend the schoolmaster pushed forward, and shook him warmly by the hand.

"Thank God for that verdict, Reuben. I am indeed rejoiced, and I own I hardly expected it."

"I didn't expect it at all," Reuben said in a choked voice, for his sudden liberation had shaken him, more than his arrest or any of the subsequent proceedings had done.

"I congratulate you heartily, Reuben," Mr. Ellison said, putting his hand on his shoulder.

The squire had waited at Lewes until ten o'clock on the previous evening, and had driven over again the first thing in the morning, so anxious was he about the verdict.

"I didn't believe you guilty this time, my boy, from the first. I was glad indeed to hear the verdict; for after the judge's summing up, I was sorely uneasy.

"And now, Reuben, I hope," he said, as they entered the street, "that you have quite forgiven me for that old business. It has been the unfortunate cause of getting you into this affair. Had it not been for that no one would ever, for a moment, have doubted the truth of your story."

"There is nothing to forgive, squire," Reuben said. "I never blamed you for it, from the first; and even had I done so, your goodness, of which I only heard yesterday, would have made up, many times, for any mistake you may have made then."

"That is right, my lad," the squire said. "I am glad that matter is made up. And now I will not keep you, for I know you will want to be off home to your mother."

Reuben walked quietly home, so as to give the schoolmaster, who had hurried on ahead, time to break the news of his acquittal to his mother. Mrs. Whitney had remained in court during the trial, but had retired when the jury left to consider their verdict, being completely overcome with agitation and excitement. The schoolmaster had slept in the house, and had persuaded her not to go to the court in the morning; fearing as he did that the verdict would be a hostile one. She completely broke down when she was told the news, and was still sobbing when Reuben arrived.

The schoolmaster at once took his leave, leaving mother and son together; and promised them to return in a day or two. When he again came over, he saw at once that Mrs. Whitney was looking depressed and unhappy.

"What do you think, Mr. Shrewsbury? Reuben says that he shall go abroad, out to Australia. I have talked against it till I am hoarse, but it's no good. I hope you will persuade him to give up such a mad idea."

"I will hear what he has to say first, Mrs. Whitney. Reuben has generally a good deal to say for his side of a question, and I must hear his reasons before I can argue against them.

"Now, Reuben, what have you to say for yourself?"

"I made up my mind while I was in jail," Reuben replied, "that if I was acquitted, I would go right away. These things stick to a man all through his life. That first affair, four years ago, nearly got me transported now; and if a small matter like that did me such harm, what will this do? If I had been proved to be innocent, it would have been different; but as it is, I believe nine people out of ten in court thought I was guilty; and I am convinced that the jury were eleven to one against me, only the twelfth was more obstinate than they were, and so they gave in. I believe it was Jacob Priestley the blacksmith who held out, for the sake of old times.

"At any rate, a great many people will think me guilty, all their lives, unless something turns up to prove my innocence. Mother says we might settle somewhere else, where we ain't known; but I should never feel safe. Years on, someone from Lewes might see me and tell the story; or Tom Thorne might keep on my track. I won't risk it.

"I have been to Mr. Penfold, and he says if I am determined to go, he will cancel my indenture for me. I have no doubt I shall find work of some sort, out there. I am a pretty good workman now at my own craft and, if I can't get work at that, I can turn my hand to something else.

"My only trouble is about mother. I want her to

go with me. I could make a living for her out there, but she won't have it. She says six months at sea will kill her, and then she has all sorts of ideas in her head about the natives. However I hope that, in two or three years' time, I shall be able to write and tell her that I have comfortably settled, and have a good home ready for her to come to; and that then she will join me."

"Never," Mrs. Whitney said, excitedly. "I was born at Lewes, and I have lived near it all my days, and I will die here. I am not going to tramp all over the world, and settle down among black people, in outlandish parts. I could not do it, Mr. Shrewsbury. It's cruel of him to ask me."

The schoolmaster was silent for a minute. He saw that Reuben's mind was firmly made up, and he could not deny the force of his reasoning. It was true that many people still considered him guilty. It was true that this story might crop up again, years on, and ruin his life. It did seem that the best thing he could do was to leave the country.

"Australia is not so bad a place as you fancy, Mrs. Whitney," he said at last. "They do have troubles with the natives, certainly, in the outlying settlements; but in the towns you have no more trouble than you have here. Besides, every year the white population is increasing, and the black diminishing. Six months' voyage is not so dreadful as it seems. And though I do think that, if Reuben goes out, it will be better for you to remain quietly here till he has a home prepared for you; I think that, when the time comes, you will change your mind about it.

"As to Reuben himself, I must own there's a good deal of force in what he says; and that until those Thornes have been sent out of the country, his story might follow him. And I have no doubt he would do well out there. He is a good workman for his age and, as he says, can turn his hand to almost anything. Labour is scarce out there and, as he has got his head screwed on the right way, I have no doubt that he will fall on his feet."

"I didn't expect this of you, Mr. Shrewsbury," Mrs. Whitney said, beginning to cry. "I thought you would have taken my part, and now you are going right against me."

"Not against you, Mrs. Whitney, for I think that Reuben's plan is best for you both. He cannot but suffer, if he remains here; and you will be unhappy in seeing him suffer. Great as the loss would be to you, I believe that you would be happier here, alone, than you would be were you to see him in constant trouble and worry. At any rate you would have the option, if you found life intolerably dull here, of joining him out there at any time.

"But how do you intend to get out, Reuben?" he asked, seeing that Mrs. Whitney made no answer, but again relapsed into tears.

"I shall work my way out," Reuben replied. "I can do any rough work as a smith or a carpenter, and I should think I ought to get my passage for my work. Anyhow, I have got twelve pounds saved up; and if I can't get out free, that and my work ought to take me."

In a short time Mrs. Whitney, finding that Reuben was not to be shaken in his determination, ceased to oppose it; and began to busy herself in preparations for his departure, which he had arranged to take place as soon as possible.

A day or two before starting, he walked over to say goodbye to Mrs. Shrewsbury. He stopped as he passed the smithy and, seeing Jacob Priestley at work alone, he went in.

"Ah, Reuben, is it you?" the smith said. "Better here than in the dock at Lewes, eh? I hears a talk of your going to foreign parts."

"Yes, I am off," Reuben said, "and I have just come over to say goodbye to Mrs. Shrewsbury; so I looked in as I passed, knowing as you were one of those who found me not guilty, and would perhaps give me a shake of the hand, before leaving."

"That will I, lad. Yes, I found you not guilty; and I jest tipped you a wink, from the box, to let you know as it were all right; but my eye! what a game we had had of it. Never had such a game, in all my born days."

And the blacksmith sat down on a stool, to indulge in a great fit of laughing.

"What was the game?" Reuben asked.

"Well, you know, Stokes he was the foreman, and a Cockney sort of chap he be. He turns round in the box and, says he:

"'In course you are all agreed.'

"'Agreed as how?' says I.

"'Why, agreed as he's guilty, in course,' says he.

"'Nothing of the sort,' says I. 'I believes he's as innocent as a child unborn.'

"Then they all comes round me and jaws; but seeing as I wasn't going to give in, Stokes he asked the judge for leave to retire.

"Well, when we retires they all pitches into me, and says as it's monstrous one man should hold out agin eleven; and that, even if I didn't feel sure myself, I ought to go as the others went. So I didn't say much, but I sits myself down and brings out a big chunk of bread and bacon, as my good woman had put into my pocket, and I begins to eat.

"'Look you here,' says I, 'I ha' got four parcels like this. Today be Friday, and I can hold on easy till Tuesday. That's how I looks at it. This young chap ain't had nothing to do with this 'ere robbery, and I ain't going to see he transported for what he never done.'

"Well, there we sits. Sometimes they would all talk at once, sometimes two or three of them would give it me. Ten o'clock comes and they got desperate like, for only one or two of them had put anything into their pockets, thinking that the matter was sure to be finished that night. When the messages were sent out again, as we couldn't agree, I sits down in a corner and, says I:

"'I ain't a selfish man, and any of you as changes your mind can have a share of what I have got.'

"I dozes off, but I hears them jawing away among themselves. It might have been two o'clock when one of them comes to me and gives me a shake and, says he:

"'Give us a cut of that bread and bacon. I am well-nigh starved. I have got a wife and children to think of, and it don't matter to me whether this chap goes to Botany Bay, or whether he don't. It didn't seem to me a certain case, all along, so I will go along with you.'

"Gradually two or three more comes, and when it got light I could see as some more was hesitating so, says I:

"'Lookee here, my friends. Those who has agreed to give this young chap another chance has lessened my stock of bread and bacon pretty considerable, and I ain't got more than enough for one more, so who's the next?'

"Four more spoke out at once. I divides the bread and bacon among them; then, as there was nine of us agin three, we goes at them and tells them how wrong it is as we was all to suffer from their obstinacy, and we works on their feelings about their wives and children; and then, says I:

"'I call it downright ridiculous, when there's a hot breakfast on twelve tables waiting for us, as three men should keep the rest from tucking in, just acause they won't give an innocent lad the benefit of the doubt.'

"Well, that finished them. The thought of the hot breakfast made the other chaps so ravenous as I believe they would have pitched into Stokes and the other two, if they hadn't have given in. So they comes round, and we sends out to say that we had agreed on the vardict. It were the best game I ever seed in my life."

"Well, Jacob, I am sure I am heartily grateful to you, and I shall not forget your kindness; though what made you so sure of my innocence, while all the others doubted it, I don't know."

"Lor', Reuben!" the smith said, "There ain't nothing to thank me about. I didn't know nowght as to whether you was innocent or guilty; and it was a good job for me as I had made up my mind about that there vardict, afore I went into court; for I should never have made head or tail of all that talk, and the fellows with white hair on the top of their heads as kept bobbing up and down, and asking all sorts of questions, was enough to turn an honest man's head. The question was settled when Miss Kate Ellison-that's the little un, you know-came in here. Says she:

"'Jacob, you are on this jury, I hear.'

"'Yes, miss,' says I.

"'Well, I hope you are going to find Reuben Whitney innocent,' says she.

"'I don't know nothing about it,' says I. 'Folks seem to think as he did it.'

"Then she went at me, and told me that she was sure you was innocent; and the squire he was sure, and he would be moighty put out if you was found guilty. So I told her natural that, the squire's being a good landlord, I wouldn't disoblige him on no account; and she might look upon it as good as settled that you should be found innocent. So she tells me not to say a word to anyone, and I ain't, not even to the ould woman; but in course, I don't consider as she meant you."

Reuben could not help laughing as he learned that he had been acquitted, not from any belief in his innocence on the part of the jury, but by the intervention on his behalf of the girl who had, before, fought his battles. Shaking hands with Jacob, he went on to the schoolmaster's.

As he was sitting there chatting with Mr. and Mrs. Shrewsbury, he saw Kate Ellison come out of her father's gate along the road with her basket, as usual. Catching up his hat, he ran out and stood bareheaded, awaiting her.

"Ah, Reuben!" she said, with a smile and a nod, "I am glad to see you before you go; for Mr. Shrewsbury told me, yesterday, you were going to leave Lewes and emigrate. I am glad,"-and she hesitated a little-"very glad that they found you innocent. I was quite sure you would not do such a thing."

"I am glad I came over today, Miss Ellison," Reuben said quietly. "Very glad that I have met you; for I have just learned, from Jacob Priestley, that it is to you I am indebted that I am not, in the present moment, a prisoner in jail, under sentence of transportation."

The girl flushed up hotly.

"Jacob Priestley is very wrong to have spoken about it. I told him he was never to mention it."

"I hope you will not blame him, Miss Ellison. He told me he had never spoken a word to anyone else, but he thought you did not mean it to apply to me. I am very glad he has spoken; for I shall carry away with me, across the sea, a deep gratitude, which will last as long as I live, for the kindness you have shown me; not only now, but always-kindness which has saved me from a terrible punishment, for an offence of which I was innocent.

"May God bless you, Miss Ellison, and render your life a happy one."

"Goodbye, Reuben," the girl said, gently. "I hope you may do well, in the new land you are going to."

So saying, she went on her errand. Reuben stood watching her, until she entered one of the cottages. Then, putting on his cap, he returned to the schoolmaster's.

A week later Reuben was wandering along the side of the London Docks, looking at the vessels lying there, and somewhat confused at the noise and bustle of loading and unloading that was going on. He had come up the night before by the carrier's waggon, and had slept at the inn where it stopped. His parting with his mother had been a very sad one, but Mrs. Whitney had so far come round as to own that she thought that his plan was perhaps the best; although she still maintained that she should never venture, herself, upon so distant a journey. He had promised that, should she not change her mind on this point, he would, whether successful or not, come home to see her.

The squire had driven over, the day before he left, to say goodbye to him. He had, through Mr. Shrewsbury, directly he heard that he was going, offered to help towards paying his passage money; but this offer Reuben had gratefully, though firmly, declined to accept.

"Well, Reuben, I wish you every good luck on your adventure," he said. "The place you are going to will be a great country, one of these days; and you are just the fellow to make your way in it. I am sorry you wouldn't let me help you; because I am in a way, you know, at the bottom of this business which has driven you from home."

"Thank you, squire, for your kind intention," Reuben answered; "but I am so much in your debt, now, that I would rather not go further into it. I am old enough now to make my own way in life. My only regret in the matter is that I cannot persuade my mother to go with me."

"I think she is right, Reuben," the squire replied. "You can transplant a young tree, easily enough; but you can't an old one. Somehow they won't take root in new soil.

"Well, lad, I wish you every success. I suppose I shall hear through Shrewsbury, from time to time, how you are going on."

As Reuben walked along the dock, he stopped to read the notices of their destination, affixed to the shrouds of most of the vessels. He had already gone on board three or four, which were loading for Australia, but in none was there a vacancy for a carpenter. He stopped before a fine-looking barque, to which no notice was attached.

"Where is she going to?" he asked a sailor, who was passing along the gangway to the shore.

"She's bound for Sydney," the sailor said. "She warps out of dock tonight, and takes on board a cargo of prisoners in the Medway."

"Do you mean men sentenced for transportation?" Reuben asked.

"Yes," the man said, "and I wish she had any other sort of cargo. I have been out with such a load before, and I would as soon go with a cargo of wild beasts."

Reuben felt a sudden chill, as he thought how narrow had been his escape of forming one of a similar party. However, he stepped on board, and went up to the mate, who was superintending the cargo.

"Do you want a carpenter for the voyage out?"

"A carpenter!" the mate repeated. "Well yes, we do want a carpenter. The man who was to have gone has been taken ill. But you are too young for the berth. Why, you don't look more than eighteen; besides, you don't look like a carpenter."

"I am a mill wright," Reuben said, "and am capable of doing any ordinary jobs, either in carpentering or smith work. I have testimonials here from my late employers."

"Well, you can see the captain, if you like," the mate said. "You will find him at Mr. Thompson's office, in Tower Street, Number 51."

Reuben at once made his way to the office. The captain refused, at first, to entertain the application on the ground of his youth; but ship's carpenters were scarce, the time was short, and there was a difficulty in obtaining men for convict ships. Therefore, after reading the very warm testimonial as to character and ability which Mr. Penfold had given Reuben, he agreed to take him, on the terms of his working his passage.

Reuben went back at once, to the inn where he had stopped, and had his chest taken down to the docks; and went on board the Paramatta which, at high water, warped out of dock into the stream.

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