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The Trial of Callista Blake By Edgar Pangborn Characters: 20472

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Doves wheeled above the city's winter morning, vanishing by a turn of wings, reappearing in a silent explosion of light. Judge Terence Mann saw smoke rising through windless cold from a thousand chimneys, and saw, beyond a bleak acreage of city roofs, the apartment house that contained his bachelor burrow; further on, the Veterans Hospital shone not as a temple of sickness but a shaft of splendor in the sun. His eyes smarted as he turned away from the brightness. That was partly from a lack of sleep. The Judge remembered that, like this robing-room, the detention cells also looked up across the long rise of land where, for something like three hundred years, the city had been haphazardly expanding, fattening on river commerce, and becoming-in the American sense-old.

Some day, should the small gods in the state capital approve, the city of Winchester would own a Civic Center near that hospital, with a new county courthouse. Judge Mann had seen an architect's dream picture in the Egypto-lavatory style, a kind of streamlined cake of soap-optimistic in a time when Winchester's population of 80,000 was remaining constant while suburbs oozed in heedless growth over the once magnificent countryside. In any case this late-Victorian-Gothic firetrap downtown would have to serve for the ordeal of The People vs. Blake.

He shoved the black sleeve clear of his wrist watch: 10:10. Short, slight, his temples silvering at forty-seven; few wrinkles yet; a thin flexible mouth suggesting kindness; in his square forehead the pucker of certain chronic doubts. He checked his pockets for reading glasses and aspirin while his attendant Joe Bass brushed at imaginary lint.

"Mr. Delehanty says there's quite a crowd, Judge."

"Do they need more bailiffs out there?"

"I wouldn't think so-just noisy. They all want in." Pink-faced, lightly wrinkled, Joe could shift at will from a glorified valet to a literate old man. "Maybe the rumors about the girl's deformity make them curious, same as if she were a Hollywood dish."

"Oh, I understand her deformity's pretty slight. It's just the radio and papers-sensationalism-public wants a circus. Well, I'm late."

"Technically, sir, you are. But after three years on the bench, you know it isn't ten o'clock till you pass through that door."

"Uh-huh-Joshua never had it so good. Well, here we go ..."

"All rise!" Mr. Delehanty's tenor burbled the lusciousness of a clarinet. "The Honorable Judge of the Court of General Sessions in and for the County of Winchester!" Judge Mann saw them rise, for what the tradition said he must be and therefore was. "All persons having business before this honorable court draw near, give your attention, and you shall be heard!" Seating himself with a twinge of annoyance at pomp and circumstance, Mann observed a virgin scratch-pad beside his minute-book. He suspected Mr. Delehanty of rescuing judicial doodles from the wastebasket: to Mr. Delehanty any new judge was a potential Great Man till the bloom wore off. "This court is now in session."

Three years a judge, less than a year in General Sessions-it had been sure to come, the first case overshadowed by the death penalty. He had faced the certainty and argued it out with himself, well before those scrambled days of the election campaign two years ago which had settled him securely in office after the uncertainty of an interim appointment. He had supposed the answers he arrived at then were still valid: The law is man-made, therefore imperfect: as its servant, my function is simply to interpret, trusting that time and natural process will permit the law to continue growing, not petrifying, as men gradually become a little wiser (if they do). And so on-respectable answers, unoriginal but having the sanction of history, of just and generous minds. Yet last night, after a final reading of the grand jury minutes in the Blake case, he could not sleep. And this morning, so far, he was merely insisting to himself that those answers had better stay valid, since the sovereign state of New Essex was stuck with him for another twelve years.

Perhaps, he thought, his uneasiness was not so much at the ethical position as at the Blake case itself-too one-sided. He saw at present no good prospects for defense counsel Cecil Warner except in delaying actions, skirmishes, the unpredictable chances of courtroom drama, and the doctrine of reasonable doubt-which is, to be sure, a doctrine broad enough to take in the whole expanse of human affairs, philosophically and not legally speaking.

He surveyed the arena, wiping his reading glasses, hoping his eyes didn't look too bloodshot. The prospective talesmen spilled into the rows beyond the press tables. Then the anonymous; and from outside, a beehive snarl of the disappointed, who might dwindle away presently, unless the papers had succeeded at blowing the case up into a sexual circus. Portraits of the dead woman showed a pretty face, but Ann Doherty had after all been a respectable suburban housewife, not a glamor girl. Catering to the perennial hunger for a scapegoat, most of the papers were writing of Callista Blake on a note of hate just inside libel-Crippled Teen-Age Intellectual, Prodigy Girl in the Monkshood Case. But that carried a phony note, for Callista Blake had managed to remain so essentially unknown that so far there was really no one to hate but a paper image. Some voices dissented, too. One sob sister had declared Callista was a woman, with human needs, feelings, a tragic childhood. That writer might have read an article on psychiatry-even two articles.

There were certain letters, from Callista Blake to her lover James Doherty, the last one written about a week before Doherty's wife was found dead-poisoned and drowned. If those letters arrived in evidence over the protests of Cecil Warner, they would demonstrate Callista Blake's humanity more intensely than any journalistic gulping.

Judge Mann had read them, Cecil Warner and District Attorney Lamson present. James Doherty, Lamson said, had handed over the first three voluntarily. The fourth, found in Callista Blake's possession, had not been mailed to Doherty. For Mann, to read them had been like blundering into a private room where lovers clung together with locked loins and tortured faces; like being compelled to watch, afterward, when the woman was alone and wounded with loss. He had skimmed, his mind wincing aside, knowing it was not possible to understand the letters under those conditions. They had not been read to the grand jury. Some passages in them might be construed as admissions of guilt-or not, as you pleased. Warner evidently felt that this notion could be demolished.

As for beauty and glamor, the prosecution would introduce other photographs of Ann Doherty that were no pretty portraits. Old Warner would object routinely and be overruled; the jury would then meet the unmitigated spectacle of a death by drowning. When Ophelia perishes offstage you don't think of post-mortem lividity or foam on the mouth.

"Mr. District Attorney?"

Assistant District Attorney Talbot J. Hunter nodded briskly but solemnly: he was being the man who profoundly regrets what he must do. That had not been altogether predictable. Dealing with professional crooks, T. J. could act downright jolly in a ferocious give-nothing way, often sweeping a jury along. With a tiger's grace, handsome in spite of too much chin and early frontal baldness, Hunter could have been athlete, actor, singer. He was a near-professional with the Winchester Choral Society, having once gone splendidly through the baritone solo in the Brahms German Requiem when the guest artist turned up with laryngitis. Mann, himself a serious pianist, had heard that achievement, and remembered it at times when Hunter's courtroom personality annoyed him: the man could hardly have sung that well unless there was in him, somewhere, the element of compassion. In the law, Mann supposed, Hunter could use and enjoy his musical and histrionic abilities and at the same time make a living. "Call the Blake case!" The voice, Mann observed, was in top form, rich, melodious, and acceptably stern.

"Mr. Warner?"

"The defense is ready." Cecil Warner was standing also, heavy and old, a man listening to other voices though capable of employing his own heavy thunder. The other voices were conscience, tradition, books; overtones of what witnesses and lawyers don't say. The seamed ancient face was fat, the kindness obvious but not the strength. Mann wondered occasionally whether Warner had ever, like Darrow, faced all the implications of a certain pessimism that colored most of his opinions. A fracture imperfectly set had crippled Cecil Warner's left arm in childhood; he could not bend the elbow beyond a ninety-degree angle. And Warner's mind, the Judge speculated, might suffer a similar limitation, never hitting with quite all its power. He would need it all in the next few days.

"The People of the State of New Essex against Callista Blake."

Reasonable words; but as Mr. Delehanty intoned them, the Judge's mind perversely visualized an army of five or six million, uniformed, with rifles, tanks, flame-throwers, advancing in ponderous wrath against one cornered chipmunk with tinfoil helmet and paper sword. Foolish, he knew: the individual was not alone, and faced not the People roaring and multitudinous but merely their representative, who might be no more powerful a champion than his own counsel. Yet the image had pestered Judge Mann before now, and faded in the style of the Cheshire Cat.

At other times he could not avoid the impression that the adversary system was too distressingly close in nature as well as origin to the absurdities of medieval justice, in which truth could be determined by the beef of a hired champion. Were prosecutor and defender today any more concerned with truth than those bumbling muscle-men? Were juries?

And judges?

"Counsel to the bench, please." They approached, Hunter light on his feet, Warner slow and carrying too much weight in the middle. "When we get started, gentlemen, I intend to bear down on the formalities, some. I think it's that kind of

case. Anything more we should discuss now?"

Warner's hand rested on the bench. Mann noticed the pale freckles, the frailty of deep-crinkled flesh, blurred rims of the irises of Warner's melancholy brown eyes. Cecil Warner was sixty-eight. "Don't think so, Judge, unless T. J.'s got some load on his mind."

Hunter murmured: "Can't imagine a plea-poison and drowning."

"My God, do you imagine us taking one?" Mann frowned; Warner's anger was rumbling too loudly. "We're here for acquittal. My girl didn't do it. It's that simple, and that's where we stand."

Hunter nodded gravely, courteously, unmoved.

In the night, Terence Mann had felt he was not asking himself the right questions. If as prosecutor he could frame them, allowing rational objections from himself as defender, perhaps as witness (or accused?) he might find answers acceptable to himself as judge, jury, and appellate court. But under torment of insomnia the many selves of the mind may abandon the congress of reason and start a rat-race. And now-well, this was full tide; he could not let counsel stand there wondering what ailed him. "That's it, then. Let the defendant be brought in."

As they returned to their places he sketched on the doodle-pad two egg-shaped boxers: tangled eyebrows for Cecil Warner, for Hunter too much forehead and shovel chin.

A police matron appeared, and a court officer. A hush, then a murmur, each voice swelling but slightly, the crescendo joining others in one uproar that expresses no more than the human need to make a noise under stress. Heads turned, weeds under water. Mann heard the s-whispers, water over sand: Callista Blake-Callissssta ...

She walked with a barely noticeable limp-polio in childhood, Mann recalled from the record. She was also very slightly hunchbacked, her thin pale arms seeming too long. As Warner escorted her to the defense section, Judge Mann saw she wore no make-up, though powder might have hidden the narrow scar that ran from her left ear to her jaw. Dark blue suit and white blouse were neat, unobtrusive, severe. A natural curl held her black hair in lines of grace above a skin of porcelain white.

She was ignoring Warner's arm, and walked alone.

She was nineteen.

Her eyes were the blue of undersea. Mann searched for other compensating beauty-hard to find. High cheekbones, large nose, small abrupt chin, high forehead modified by the curls but still too high. The extreme whiteness of skin made one think of marble, or heart disease. The medical report declared that apart from the unimportant deformity she was quite healthy. And the State's psychiatrist was prepared to testify, following the quaint barbarism of the once useful McNaughton Rule, that Callista Blake was legally sane. As the jargon had it, she knew the difference between right and wrong, the nature and consequences of her acts.

With no word yet, Callista Blake rejected sympathy, dared the world to pity her, indicated a readiness to spit in its eye.

Warner said: "Give the clerk your name for the record."

Mann heard a strong contralto drawl; it might have sounded warm and pleasant at other times: "Which is the clerk?"

Some idiot woman in the back row giggled.

Warner spoke quickly: "Up there, my dear, that's Mr. Delehanty."

The girl glanced casually at the clerk's dapper dignity, and resumed her level examination of Judge Mann. "I am Callista Blake."

Judge Mann opened the record book and wrote: State vs. Blake, Dec. 7, 1959. Eighteen days to Christmas and he still hadn't bought that Diesel train for David, his brother Jack's youngest.... The Blake girl sat down, Warner on her other side where his bulk might partly shield her from the assault of eyes. She moved with grace, the deformity a nothing; the disturbing grace of a wild thing-a cat, a snake, a soaring bird, who makes never one waste motion but appears to flow with no instant of transition known. On the scratch-pad Mann's pencil labored through the fussiness of Old English script:

He said: "If you're ready, Mr. Hunter, we can choose a jury."

The squirrel-cage squeaked. Mr. Delehanty called: "Peter Anson."

The bald stubby man waddling forward looked neither calloused nor hypersensitive. Thirtyish; young enough not to be too congealed in acquired prejudices, old enough to have rubbed off some of the certainties the young must use in place of experience. Mann imagined for him a cute pink-and-white wife, two kids, mortgage, Chevvy. Anson might do.

As Mr. Delehanty called more names, Mann ripped off the top sheet of the doodle-pad, to bury it in the minute-book instead of the wastebasket. Never mind Mr. Delehanty's feelings. Some later page might show only cats, mermaids, stripteasers-he could have that one.

Relaxed and genial, T. J. Hunter spoke to the potential jurors as well as to those first called: "I'm Talbot Hunter, assistant district attorney who will try this case. Judge Terence Mann is presiding. At the other table is Mr. Cecil Warner, defense counsel, and beside him is the defendant Callista Blake. She's not a resident of Shanesville, by the way, though she lived there till about a year ago. I don't think any of you come from Shanesville-very nice town, about three miles beyond the city line." Mann drew a lightning sketch of the Governor's mansion, and wrote: Nice town, but alas, T. J., wrong county! "Callista Blake is the daughter, by an earlier marriage, of Mrs. Herbert Chalmers of Shanesville. Callista's father, Kramer Blake, died in 1947. In 1951 her mother married Dr. Herbert Chalmers, Associate Professor of English at our own Winchester College. Miss Blake lived in Shanesville until July of last year, when she took an apartment by herself here in Winchester-21 Covent Street. Then, and up to the time of her arrest, she was employed by a portrait photographer, Miss Edith Nolan-"

"Still is," said a thin red-haired woman among the spectators.

Mann's rap with the gavel was reflex action. "That can't be permitted." The redhead sat frozen in evident astonishment at herself. It would be Edith Nolan, Mann guessed; he could feel no genuine annoyance. "The Court assumes the impulsive remark just made by a spectator was inadvertent, an accident. Disciplinary action will be necessary if anything like that happens again. All relevant statements will be made properly, at the proper time. Go ahead, Mr. Hunter." A blush flooded the woman's keen homely face; she nodded, no doubt a promise to behave. In the early thirties, tense, intelligent, explosive, but without the look of a crackpot; Mann expected no further trouble there.

Hunter said: "Please search your memories. Are any of those names familiar? Blake? Chalmers? Nolan?... Don't worry if you've read or heard of Mr. Warner. He's a very distinguished attorney. It'd be more surprising if you hadn't heard of him. That's not the sort of familiarity I mean-wouldn't disqualify you."

Mann noted the purloined Warner special. Now if the Old Man tossed his opponent verbal violets he would appear imitative and absurd.

"Other names-Nathaniel Judd, senior partner in the real estate and insurance firm of Judd and Doherty. Ann Doherty-that is, Mrs. James Doherty.... Welsh? Jason? No familiarity? Good." Hunter swept on his reading glasses, which were perhaps clear glass. "This paper I'm holding charges that on the evening of Sunday, the 16th of last August, Callista Blake, at her apartment at 21 Covent Street, Winchester, gave to Ann Doherty, who was about to leave that apartment after a short visit and return to her home in Shanesville, a drink of brandy containing the poison aconite. It charges that within the half-hour thereafter Callista Blake followed Ann Doherty to Shanesville, and found her near a small pond which lies at the edge of the Dohertys' property. It charges that Callista Blake, willfully, with malice aforethought, drowned Ann Doherty in this pond. The State will ask for the verdict of murder in the first degree."

Under spreading silence, words moved sluggishly in Judge Mann's mind-words remembered from the hours when he could not sleep. He had lurched sandy-eyed out of bed, prowled at the bookshelves, settled by the chilling fireplace with a volume of the Britannica and a shot glass of brandy. "The cerebrum is totally unaffected by aconite, consciousness and the intelligence remaining normal to the last."

His diaphragm twisted in a spasmodic yawn. He covered it swiftly, but the reporters would have seen it. He thought: Let them! But he must not start woolgathering. Plump Mr. Anson had folded his arms and declared that he was a plumber by trade. T. J. Hunter was asking: "Have newspaper or radio accounts caused you to give any advance opinion?"

"No, sir, I b'lieve I can honestly say they haven't."

"Have you read the editorials in the Winchester Courier or the morning Sentinel on this case?"

"Well, no, I kind of let the wife do the heavy reading."

Crowd laughter mildly rumbled; Anson evidently didn't mind it.

"Have you ever been the victim of a robbery or burglary?"

"No, sir, never was."

Routine questions continued a while, Hunter relaxed and casual yet really wasting no time.... "Mr. Anson, my next question has been under a good deal of discussion in recent years. Like any good citizen, you must have given it thought. Have you, sir, any conscientious objection to the death penalty?"

"Well ..." The man was unhappy. "I been asking myself that, ever since I got called. All's I can say, if I was certain-sure about the guilt, I mean the first-degree thing, I wouldn't hesitate to vote for the ch-for the death penalty-if I was certain-sure, that's what I'd have to do."

"And you would do it?"

"I would," said Mr. Anson. "Seems-seems only right."

Another yawn assailed the Judge. He groped for causes of his weariness other than lack of sleep. "The world is too much with us-" if too much for Wordsworth long ago, what about now? A tractor-trailer answered the thought, groaning through the street three stories below, a Cyclops in anguish, rattling windows, sending elderly foundations into a sympathetic shudder. Judge Mann wondered if he might be coming down with a cold.

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