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The Trial of Callista Blake By Edgar Pangborn Characters: 22130

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

From a letter written by Terence Mann, formerly Justice of the Court of General Sessions of Winchester County, New Essex, July 17, 1960, to Dr. John Sever Mann, of Boston:

... For that matter, I can hardly understand that more than a week has passed since Callista died. My sense of time seems to be still slightly distorted. For many days and months, too much to endure and understand, hope for and relinquish; then quiet, aftermath. Finished. The new things that begin, some of them surely good, are not yet clear in my mind, nor in Edith's-we're tired, Jack.

Last night I finished and mailed that letter I told you about, to the president of the New Essex Bar Association, setting out in writing my reasons for resigning from the bench. Mr. Paulus, president of the B.A., is a very pleasant character, a successful gentleman but also mellow and moderately philosophical, capable of filling that position with no sense of strain, and yet able to see quite a distance into a stone wall. In him, I'd say that intellectual compromise rises to the level of a fine art, a hedonistic achievement which I respect, though I can't imitate it-my own hedonism requires its ethical frame of reference to be in plain sight, accessible, subject to change if reason demands. You might understand Paulus better than I do, since in your work compromise (though a very different kind) has to be the order of the day. You try to help your patients live in the jungle, which must mean plenty of yielding here to gain a little there. Well, what I started to say-Paulus is a good joe. It was Paulus who kindly suggested, away back at the time of my resignation, that I should write such a letter, and he gave me advance permission to send copies to newspapers if I cared to-which I've done. Perhaps some of them will allow my cerebral verbiage to rub for a moment against Miss Americas and Russian face-making.

I wasn't able to start that letter at the time of my resignation. I kept putting it off. For a while-April and most of May-Edith and I were in a suspended mental state, waiting out the appellate decision. I couldn't say it to Edith-(especially since we knew by that time that she was pregnant, your first nephew apparently aiming for next February)-I couldn't say it to her, but after the appeal was denied I never had any hope of the Governor. I know him, a cultured nothing, mentally gelded by the modern political rule, never stick your neck out. Even his fishing trip last week was perfectly predictable.

I began my letter to Paulus after the appeal was denied, and it may be worth something, for the record, but not very much. The memory of newspaper readers is remarkably short, I think. Last week there was the inevitable frenzy over the execution here in Winchester, and I guess elsewhere-I haven't looked at the out-of-town papers. Mostly pointless-all of it, so far as saving Callista's life was concerned-the few reasonable voices drowned out by the crackpots petting their emotions in public. This week-oh, in the houses and bars and restaurants this week I doubt if there's very much talk about Callista Blake. And if a few newspapers publish my letter, or as much of it as will fit comfortably in half a column, most readers will be honestly puzzled: Terence Mann, who the devil's he?

It's natural, you needn't tell me, Jack. We aren't geared to endure sustained high tension very long-though didn't I hear you say once that some patients have surprised you in that respect? The week of the trial was enough to kill Cecil Warner-understandable of course, he must have been ill before it began. I wish you could have met him. I saw him only once after his collapse the night of the verdict. He got home-I think I never told you this-by himself, walked home I believe. His housekeeper called me in the morning because he was asking to see me. His doctor wouldn't let me stay very long-he grew too distressed by the effort to tell me something when words wouldn't come. It was mostly about Callista's letters, something he wanted me to understand, as if I were capable of sitting in judgment-but I was not then, Jack, and never have been. Edith was there too-the first time I'd met her outside the courtroom. Warner said, so far as I can bring back the words: "I couldn't believe the letters wouldn't get through to them. I thought they had to hear the truth in them, the reason and the sweetness-but I was only sending a child into a snake pit." He said: "The guilt's mine, Judge-I've killed her, by trusting human nature." That's when his doctor told me I had to go, but he let Edith stay, easy to see why. She has that ability-I think you've felt it yourself-of sharing her own steadiness. It's a personal magic-I'll never know how she does it. I have, myself, achieved enough tranquillity, mental security, to see me through, especially since our marriage and my resignation from the bench. But I seldom seem able to give others the benefit of it; they are most likely to be irritated because I don't share their excitements of the moment. You have a good deal of her kind of magic yourself.

Well, there at Warner's house she came out to me later, told me how he'd talked more quietly a while, forgetting much of the present, and taking pleasure in the sound of ocean, which no one else would hear in this inland town, but he could hear it out of childhood. He died that night.

My letter to Paulus was, as I said, too cerebral, and that's why it has left me discontented, aware of much that still ought to be said.

In that letter I marshalled all the familiar arguments against capital punishment, for the sake of logic and completeness. Paulus has heard them all, and so have most citizens above the moron level. Capital punishment does not deter, nor have any effect on the crime rate one way or another-repeatedly demonstrated by statistical study long before the time of Warden Lawes; vengeance does not restore life, but only adds another evil, namely murder by the state; there can never be complete assurance that the innocent will not be punished and the guilty go free; punishment itself serves no purpose except to excite the self-deceptive emotions of the punisher; and so on, Jack. While I listed and discussed these and lesser arguments in my letter, I grew increasingly discouraged, mostly by realization that it has all been said before, more persuasively than I know how to say it, that the arguments on the other side seem (at least to my best understanding) monstrously shabby, unrealistic, archaic, some of them plain sadism with its nakedness barely hidden by doubletalk, and yet the laws remain on the books.

You're a headshrinker, Jack-why do so many minds cling to unreason with such a sullen fury? I am thinking of people like Judge Cleever, or people who can read the entire transcript of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and still declare briskly and earnestly that the innocent are never punished. How do they do it? What's the faculty of the mind that makes it possible for an intelligent being to look directly on a glaring fact and somehow will it out of sight? For my part I cannot, from sheer physical inability, believe a lie when the demonstration is before me.

And so finally, when I had done all I could with the clear, sensible, familiar arguments that have beaten on Paulus' head for forty-odd years without ever moving him to act on them, I found that I was closing my discourse with nothing more nor less than a plea for humility.

This was perhaps a little different, a little new-or would have been if I had not felt obliged to write my letter in academic and parliamentary language. I think no one ever said to Mr. Paulus: "You, sir, although an exceptionally decent and clever sample of Homo quasi-sapiens, are much too stupid and ignorant to decide whether another human being shall live or die; and so am I, and so are all your colleagues, and all policemen, all Governors, and all juries." I did say, in terms not obscure, that my reason for resigning the judgeship was that I felt my own self incompetent to decide a question of that magnitude. Since he knows I am not a fool, not badly educated as such things go, not grossly inferior to others in my profession, and not given to false modesty, maybe the implications were clear enough to exert some force.

Then having gone so far, it was necessary for the sake of honesty as well as politeness to say what I could for the law on the credit side. You can't (as Callista Blake said) have a human society without laws. The civil law, and with many reservations the criminal law, stumbles and bumbles through a vast amount of necessary work, and not too badly. Concepts broaden, eventually. The law in these years begins to listen more intelligently to your (very young and new) profession, Jack; I predict that quite soon the dear old McNaughton Rule will find its proper place-in historical textbooks. And so long as there are laws, why, the function of a judge is probably required at certain times, and if the judge has intelligence it is a potential means of serving order and human approximations of justice. On the personal level, I admitted to Mr. Paulus that if I had remained in office I could have done much useful work for many years, doing at the same time no more harm than most judges do, and less than some.

But I did not retreat into the formula of declaring that my decision was purely a matter of private conscience. Mr. Paulus may so describe and pigeonhole it, but I did not say that. What is so private about a conscience if it directs the life and actions of a man? I could not soften the implication that any judge who opposes capital punishment and yet remains in office in a state which keeps that on the books is obliged to justify such compromise before the bar of his own reason. He can do that: he can say that his compromise enables him in the long run to do more good than harm. That is honest; that I can respect. But I say, let him remember that it is still a compromise with evil. And I say also that it cannot be my way.

I think that in the end all honest reasoning does arrive at the necessity of humility. In effect you say to all your patients: "I don't know much about you, you don't know much about yourself; let's try to find out more, and make what use of it we can, and remember then that we still don't know very much." Or as my own dearest teacher used to say to me: "Bring out the inner voices." No one ever knew all he was capable of learning, or all he needed to learn. The individual self is the heart of everything we understand, the world's endless complexity being the product of all individual selves living and dead. About the self of another we know one thing for certain and only one: it exists. Therefore, not as a supernatural dictum but as the command of a human being to himself: Thou shalt not kill. Therefore, more light! Therefore, humility.

I am one of the fortunate of course. I think, Jack, that by next September I can decently start teaching music-with humil

ity, at least something of the strength and humility that I felt in my teacher Michael Brooks but was too much of a child to understand. I shall write books and articles-I told Callista that; or rather I agreed, for it was the first thing she thought of when she learned of my resignation from the bench, and all I had to say was yes. I have a redheaded wife who doesn't allow dull moments, though we have many peaceful ones, and we shall have children who will undoubtedly teach me a good deal about humility, if only through the slow and touchy business of learning it themselves. But Edith and I will not turn smug and insulated with our good fortune, I think-we know and remember too much for that.

I was able to see Callista several times in the death house. I remember I wrote you a little about some of those visits, probably not too well. The first time was right after my resignation. I felt I had to see her and talk to her, if only for my own sake. It was no crawling search for "forgiveness"-she would have thought that absurd and contemptible; she knew (I think) as well as I know, that during the trial I was partly a mechanism on the bench, partly a bewildered and rather inexperienced man who liked her and did not want her to die. But I was undeniably in search of understanding. She was someone who had gone into regions I had never known-not all of them dark and fearful either, for surely her brilliance, insight, humor, daydreams, were quite as meaningful as her suffering. She was also someone who was articulate, observant, wise, and could therefore tell me something of those regions, if she was willing. In meeting Callista you somehow by-passed "forgiveness" and other vanities. I think it was because, when she was not too unhappy, she was often able to speak from mind and heart at the same time. She had no acidulous interest in puncturing sham for the sake of puncturing it. It was simply that, once friendship and communication were established, she was so straightforward and clear-minded that one's own shams and self-deceptions showed themselves up as abominations, and one could only wish to be rid of them, and to exist for a while on her level. She would never have thought of asking a friend to be honest; she merely took it for granted that he would be, took it for granted with an innocence and uncalculated kindness that even Edith says she can't understand.

Never suppose that Callista wanted to die. She wanted life, and all it might have brought her. She followed closely and hopefully everything that we were trying to do, the appeal, the later efforts. She was happy and intensely interested when she learned that Edith and I had become close friends and then lovers; it was Callista who urged us to marry without too much waiting. She wanted to know everything about this Emmetville house we've bought-yes, I listen for The Express, though it's always a Diesel now and doesn't sound quite right to you and me-and she seemed to get a wholly relaxed, natural fun out of telling us how to fix the guest room where she would sometimes be staying. When I told her of Edith's pregnancy (not even sure that I ought to) she was happy-I swear there was not one moment in the little time I had with her that day when I could see any shadow on her face, any hint that she was comparing Edith's lot with her own. Later of course, after I was gone-but no one will ever know about that.

And in spite of all this, her manifest interest in living, I think she sensed all the time that the appeal would probably fail, and the appeal for executive clemency. Once or twice-only once or twice-she was bitter and miserable. I will not make a saint of her, and so lose what she really was. She was greater in many ways than most of us; she was also a nineteen-year-old girl, unfortunate, frequently sharp-tongued and hasty; loving beyond measure to her friends but incapable of suffering a fool with patience. Once, only once, I saw her truly angry. Well, she had said to Warden Sharpe himself that she wanted no visits from the chaplain, and then after respecting her wish for quite a long time he had come in anyhow, poor earnest man, and prayed at her-just unable, in his good intentions, to understand that there really are those who prefer to employ their minds in other ways, especially when the time is short. But I found out on talking with her, after her anger had given way to amusement, that what had chiefly exasperated her was her inability to recall chapter and verse numbers for the quotation from Exodus she wanted to cite to him: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." (It's XXII, 18, if you're curious.) She said: "I did want to give him just the numbers so he'd have the fun of looking it up himself."

Later, unsmiling, she asked me: "Will it accomplish something, do you think, if I'm able to demonstrate with what peace a freethinker can die?"

She was like that. She could say that, and saying it, compel me to answer straightforwardly instead of with a mere desperate insistence that I didn't think she would die. I said: "Yes." Then of course I was driven to say the other thing too, because, like Edith and Cecil, I loved her and I could not look at the thought of her death. But the yes was what she wanted and what she remembered.

She would not permit me to be present at the execution. She said I must stay with Edith at that hour, and that was right, and I did so. We lived through the time-I don't care to remember any of it except that Edith took hold of my hand and held it above the life growing in her body, until the minute hand had gone past that mark.

Warden Sharpe has told me there was "no confusion." Callista walked alone-of course. Sharpe says she smiled suddenly at the chaplain, patted his arm, said: "It's all right. Come with us if you want to." When they strapped her in the chair she said only: "You people here are not responsible for any of this. I'd like you to know I understand that." Then the hood was over her face, and an employee of the sovereign state moved the switch to perform on her body the ultimate indecency.

She was one of the lonely and strange. Though we destroy them, they give us a light that can become our own.

* * *




In 1959, in the state of New Essex, a witch was on trial. Or so she seemed to many of the jurors who would ultimately decide her fate, and to the people who thronged the crowded courtroom, many of them friends of the murdered woman. On trial for poisoning her former lover's wife, she would-if found guilty-be executed.

Callista Blake is nineteen years old at the time of her trial. She has a very slight physical deformity, and the much greater mental ones of apparent aloofness, fierce independence of mind, a laconic and sometimes sarcastic wit, marked but unconventional artistic talent, avowed atheism, and a complete inability to compromise. Added to all this, although she is not beautiful by any of the usual criteria, men find her overwhelmingly attractive. No wonder the good people of Winchester and Shanesville dislike her, fear her, and, subconsciously, at least, think she is a witch. No wonder they do not believe Callista's story that she had mixed the deadly potion of Monkshood and brandy for herself at a moment of suicidal depression, and had been prevented by a miscarriage from saving Nancy Doherty, who had drunk the stuff accidentally. The circumstantial evidence against Callista could not be more damning, yet there are one or two people unshakeably convinced of her innocence.

This is the story of their struggle in the courtroom to save her. On her side are one witness-Edith Nolan, her friend and former employer-her defending counsel-Cecil Warner, a sick, aging man who loves her-and Terence Mann, who in his role as judge is obliged to attempt impartiality but, trying his first case carrying the death penalty, is appalled that the fate of a human being can be at the mercy of anything so haphazard as the adversary system and the whim of a jury. We see Callista's ordeal and the events that brought her to it from the viewpoints of all these people, as well as that of Callista herself. We see T. J. Hunter, the formidable District Attorney (they call him hunter Hunter), Jim Doherty, only too willing to accept his confessor's view that he was an innocent ensnared by a temptress of whom he is now happily free, Callista's well-meaning stepfather, hopelessly dominated by her overbearing, histrionic mother, the perfect Gertrude to Callista's Hamlet, and many others who indirectly hold Callista's life in their hands. We gradually learn the history of Callista's passionate affair with Jim, told with a compassion and insight which contrast poignantly with the chilling ritual of the courtroom.

Edgar Pangborn knows and understands the people he writes about. And with irresistible force he shows that no one is good enough or wise enough to hold the power of life and death.

Mr. Pangborn, who lives at Vorheesville, New York, attended Harvard and the New England Conservatory of Music. He is the author of three previous novels: West of the Sun, (1952), A Mirror for Observers (1953), and Wilderness of Spring (1958). He has also contributed short stories to various magazines.

Jacket design by Paul Bacon


* * *

Transcriber's note:

In general every effort has been made to replicate the original text as faithfully as possible, including some instances of non-standard spelling and punctuation (for example, ellipses spacing and size). Hyphenation has been standardized. The transcriber notes that one of the main characters, "Ann Doherty," is anomalously referred to as "Nancy" once on p. 43, and again in the jacket flap notes; this has not been altered. Another main character is often referred to by his initials, "T. J."; on p. 79 and beyond this becomes "T.J."; this has also not been altered. The original book did not have page numbers on chapter heading pages; this has been emulated in the html version.

The following changes were made to repair apparently typographical errors:

copyright statement below title page "for permisison to use a" permisison changed to permission

p. 28 "then, eatingly loudly and cheerfully" eatingly changed to eating

p. 68 "There she goes snifflling" snifflling changed to sniffling

p. 94 "Walton Road betwen 9:10" betwen changed to between

p. 111 "my own langugage far simpler" langugage changed to language

p. 121 "solitary as as any other" as as changed to as

p. 121 "instance: What do do?" first do changed to to

p. 122 "Adante does not mean Adagio" Adante changed to Andante

p. 206 "I'll be such an actesss" actesss changed to actress

p. 228 "doddle-pad rather angrily crossed" doddle changed to doodle

p. 246 "a fairly advanced science notice" notice changed to noticed

p. 275 "and then--"to keep you and me" --"to changed to --'to

jacket flap text "her defending council" council changed to counsel

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