The Sound of Hammering
The story of how The Man Who Was To Be Hanged solved a murder mystery in a death cell
SMITH SAT on the bed in the corner of the cell and watched the light fading outside the high, barred window. He was a tall man and sparely built, with a lean, thoughtful face. Behind the spectacles his blue
eyes had a curiously young look, the mild astonishment of a baby eager to be interested in anything. It made him appear a good deal less than his age, fifty-one.
A face appeared at the tiny grille in the door. It was the warder.
Smith turned and gave him a friendly smile.
Then the door swung open, and there came in with the warder a little, grey-haired man wearing a clerical collar.
Smith got up, revealing his great height, and stood waiting with that almost benign smile of his.
The little man said: “I am the prison chaplain.”
The little man glanced at the warder. “I think you can wait outside.”
The warder nodded and retired. Like the chaplain, he gave the impression of being uneasy, nervous.
"Won’t you sit down? That sounds rather . . .peculiar,” added Smith with a boyish laugh.
The chaplain stared at him with a kind of gentle sadness. He found himself thinking that he had never looked into less troubled eyes. Perhaps that would make his official visit a little easier. He hoped so.
“The other chaplain told me about you, Smith.”
“He took my place while I was on holiday. I only got back this afternoon.”
There reached the cell a muffled sound of hammering. Smith took no notice of it, but the chaplain winced. Good man as he was, he found it hard to conjure up comforting words to defeat the knell of that hammering.
“Tell me, padre,” said Smith, and his voice was calmly cheerful, “will it be a fine morning, d’you think?”
“Fine? Well—I—fine? Yes, the wireless forecast was promising.”
“Good. I’m interested in the weather. I was a farmer, you see. There was nothing I liked better than to watch the sunsets . . . and the dawns, sometimes. I could predict the local weather pretty accurately. D’you take any interest in the weather? Any technical interest, I mean?” The chaplain swung his head a trifle from side to side. He wanted to burst out: “Man! Can’t you realize that at eight o’clock tomorrow morning . . . ?”
Ah, but perhaps the man did not realize. Perhaps his mind was unhinged. Yet he looked sane enough. And no man could look less like a murderer.
“Any technical interest in the weather?” Smith reminded him.
“As a matter of fact, I do. It’s a hobby of mine. I’m a member of the Meteorological Society.”
Smith nodded. “I see. Your two studies are God and the weather. They're closely related, I expect. Whether the sky’s wild or clear, it’s grand enough to tum a man’s thoughts toward something bigger than himself.” Somehow the chaplain brought himself to his mission. “Smith,” he said gently, “I’ve not come to preach. I’ve come to give you what comfort I can.”
“It’s kind of you.”
THAT HAMMERING was audible again, and again the chaplain winced. Smith smiled at him, his wide mouth both humorous and reassuring, and said:
“It doesn’t worry me, so please don’t worry yourself on my account.”
The bewildered chaplain laid a hand on Smith’s shoulder. “You seem at peace with the world. I don’t know what to say to you. I came here to comfort you, and you are comforting me instead. It’s hard to believe you have taken life.”
“I haven’t,” said Smith. ‘That’s the point. I haven’t. Oh, I know I’ve been found guilty. It was a fair trial. I don’t blame them for finding me guilty. They couldn’t help themselves. But they were wrong.”
The chaplain shook his head. “In this country the law doesn’t make mistakes of that sort.”
“It has in my case. As I say, I don’t blame them. They
proved me guilty, and I couldn’t prove I was innocent. But that doesn’t alter the truth, does it?”
The chaplain gazed for a long minute into the blue eyes, and all he saw was that mild, childlike wonder.
“Smith, there are not many hours left to you. Wouldn’t it be better to speak from your heart and confess the truth? It is never too late to repent.”
“I.have nothing to repent about. I didn’t kill Samuel Brinn. Why, I couldn’t kill a chicken.” Smith’s laugh was modulated and jovial. “That’s a handicap for a farmer, isn’t it? I don’t want to die tomorrow. But I’ve done my best to prove my innocence, and I can’t do any more. I’m not afraid of the hereafter. Why should I be?”
“If you are innocent—”
“Padre, did you read the details of the trial?”
“No. I was on holiday abroad.”
“It really must have been a simple case from the point of view of the police. I had a small farm; Holt Farm, near Rexbridge. I used to be an artist, you know, but my hands weren’t subtle. I had the ideas, I think, but I couldn’t make a living. After my wife died I took Holt Farm. I had one son, Gordon. He was mad on being a vet. When he was eighteen I sent him to a veterinary college in London. Lack of money was the handicap. The veterinary training is expensive, and I couldn’t calculate on raising sufficient funds to see him through.
“However, I approached a moneylender in Rexbridge, a man named Samuel Brinn. He advanced me five hundred at ten per cent. A heavy rate, but there! the security I offered was far from sound.
“For awhile things jogged along fairly smoothly. Gordon was doing well at the college. He’s a splendid boy. I’d like you to meet him, padre.”
HTHE chaplain inclined his head.
“A bad season upset affairs. Foot and mouth disease attacked my small herd of cows. I couldn’t pay the mortgage interest due to Brinn. I asked him for time. He refused, and served me with a six months notice of foreclosure. I don’t want to criticize. I had failed to keep my agreement, and I suppose he was justified in taking action.
“I wouldn’t have minded so much for myself. I need little.
But with Gordon’s career threatened, I was ready to argue and argue with Brinn. I tackled him several times, to no avail.
“One Tuesday afternoon I was pruning an apple tree in my small orchard. It was a sultry day, the sky leaden and the air oppressive.
The ground slopes away beyond my orchard, very gradually and gently until it reaches a footpath connecting Rexbridge with the little village of
Crayle. I remember thinking that if the storm broke anybody caught on that footpath would get soaked, as there were no hedges to offer shelter.
“Then I saw Brinn coming along the footpath. He had a country house at Crayle, and sometimes he used to walk back there from his office in the town.
“It struck me that here was another chance to plead with him. If it did no good, at least it wouldn’t do any harm. So I dropped my pruning knife into my pocket and hurried down to the footpath. I stated my case once more, and tried to get him to defer the foreclosure, but he refused. So I left him, and as the storm threatened to break at any
moment, I went back to the farmhouse. That was about 4.15.
“At five o’clock I was charged with killing Samuel Brinn. At 4.30 a farm laborer had discovered his body on the footpath. It was lying under the only tree in the vicinity, just where I had been talking to him. He had been stabbed to the heart. The knife was still embedded in him. It was my pruning knife, with my name carved on the wooden handle. No mistake about that.”
The chaplain raised his hands in a groping gesture.
“It must have slipped out of my pocket while I was speaking to Brinn. That sounds a hopeless defense, doesn’t it? At the trial the prosecution had everything cut-and-dried. There was the evidence of the knife. There was my own admission that I had been talking to him at 4.15. There was motive, ample motive according to them, over the foreclosure affair. What was more, they proved premeditation.”
Smith smiled into space, took off his glasses, polished them on his sleeve, and looked at the chaplain.
“They found a passport I had taken out a few days before. The truth was this: I had corresponded on and off for years with a friend living near Paris, a Jules Caillaux. He had, I knew, been making a success of mushroom growing. I had felt that as a last resort I might go over to see him, get his experienced advice on mushroom growing and probably a gift
of mushroom spawn to start my own little enterprise. That was why I had taken out the passport. But it sounds very thin, doesn’t it?”
“I’m afraid it does,” admitted the chaplain.
THEN CAN you blame them for finding me guilty.” Smith might have been discussing some abstract case. “They simply had no alternative. All the same, I know no more about the death of Samuel Brinn than the Man in the Moon.”
The chaplain blinked. “Would you swear before your Maker that you are innocent?”
“I would, though I don’t quite approve of oaths of that sort. They’re not necessary.”
“What is your theory about the crime?”
“Really,” said Smith, “I haven’t one. How could I? All I know is that my pruning knife must have slipped out of my pocket, and somebody must have picked it up later and stabbed Brinn with it.”
The chaplain was silent.
“You don’t believe me?” said Smith.
“I wish I could.”
“Thank you. I’m not going to say any more about it. because it isn’t reasonable to expect anybody to believe me.”
“But. good heavens, man!” exclaimed the chaplain, “d’you expect me to believe you’re innocent when you’re so calm and unafraid and—unresentful?”
“Why not? If I’d killed Brinn, I expect I should be feeling pretty awful. But as I’m innocent, I see no shame in suffering for something I haven’t done.”
“Ah!” Smith’s eyes shadowed. “Yes. Still, he’s young, and time lessens these things. They let him come here two days ago. That was the last. He will bury himself in his work. I begged him and prayed him to do this, and he is man enough to do it. I should deem it a great favor, padre, if later—not in a few days, but in a few weeks—you would call on him.”
“I promise. Your life was centred in him’”
“It is—and will be.” Smith was looking into far distances. Said the chaplain softly: “This is a strange interview. You have talked, and I’ve listened. I hope I have been of some help.”
“Great help. If you can stay a little longer, I would like to tell you more about my son. The warder won’t interfere. Poor chap, he looks as if that hammering is intended for him tomorrow, not for me.”
“He has sympathy.”
“I know, I know, and I honor him for it. With a little
more sympathy the world would be a finer place. It was sympathy that turned my son toward being a vet. He says he always feel sorrier for animals than human beings. Have you any sons, padre?”
“One. Like you, I think him the best son in the world. He’s twenty-three. He’s had a hard time of it. Everything seemed to go wrong. But the spirit’s there. No youngster without his spirit would have done what he has done.”
“And what is that?”
“His previous business failed. But he refused to be a burden on me. He insisted on emigrating to South America. He fancied ranch life. So I took my overdue holiday, and went on the voyage with him to Buenos Aires. From there he travelled up country.”
“Has he got work yet?”
“Yes.” Pride showed in the chaplain's eyes. “A cable was waiting for me when I got back today. He had obtained a job on a cattle ranch.”
“And I’m sure,” said Smith, “when you read that cable, you felt as pleased as Punch.”
“Pleased, and very, very proud.”
There was silence. As a sudden shock it came to the chaplain that in twelve hours this man beside him would be out of the world.
He said slowly: “Smith, is there anything you would like me to do—afterward? Apart from visiting your son?”
“I don’t think so, thanks. A solicitor is attending to my small affairs at Rexbridge.”
“My son used to be at Rexbridge,” said the chaplain. “He had a garage there. That was the business that failed.”
“Really?” The boyish smile widened. “I wonder if I knew him?”
“Watson, Leslie Watson.”
SMITH’S HEAD turned with a birdlike jerkiness. “But that’s strange! Of course I knew him. Not well. He still had his business there, surely, at the time I was arrested?”
“He was there until a couple of months ago.”
“Didn’t he ever mention my name to you after the affair appeared in the papers?”
“Not to my recollection.” “There was no particular reason why he should. As I’ve said, padre, I didn’t know him very well. Actually, the first time I met him was at Brinn’s office.”
The chaplain looked puzzled. “This is new to me. I wonder if Leslie ever tried to borrow money from Brinn?”
“He had a mortgage with him. He mentioned it to me, no doubt because we were fellow victims. Possibly Brinn foreclosed on him.”
The chaplain wrinkled his forehead. “He never said anything about it to me. I am not a man of business, admittedly, but—”
“I expect,” said Smith with a kind of fatherly wisdom, “that he didn’t want to worry you. My boy’s like that. He wouldn’t worry me on any account. These youngsters are full of confidence, out to fight their own battles. A fine thing, a splendid thing.” He looked upward, a pleasant exaltation on his face.
On an impulse, the chaplain took his hand.
“Although your story’s difficult to credit, Smith, I can’t believe you committed a murder. I’m a judge of human nature, and I trust my judgment.”
“Yet you don’t believe my story,” said Smith, without the slightest resentment.
“My head tells me one thing, my heart another. The bare story you’ve told doesn’t convince my brain at all. If you’ve been speaking the truth, surely, surely there must have been some little clue or circumstance to help substantiate your case? Think, now.”
Smith raised one hand. “No, padre, that’s no use. The barrister who defended me did his best. He was a clever man. But not even he could manufacture evidence out of nothing. Facts pointed solidly against me, and facts are the things that count. Why take one detail alone. Brinn’s body was found at the exact spot where I had been talking to him.”
“You mean . . . ?”
“I mean that, if my story were true, how is it that the unknown person who killed Brinn should have done so at the very spot where I had been talking to Brinn? Quite obviously Brinn would not have remained at that spot after I left him—if he were alive. He would have resumed
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his walk homeward. That was an immensely strong argument for the prosecution.”
“Yes,” said the chaplain gravely.
“Naturally, my counsel tried to counter it. He suggested that as the storm had been about to break and as we had been standing close to a solitary tree. Brinn had decided to wait under the shelter of the tree until the threat of the storm had passed. Something in the theory, granted; but not enough to topple over the common sense of a jury.”
“You’re an extraordinary man!” declared the chaplain. “You’re almost against yourself.”
“No. I simply try to look at things from the point of view of other people. The judge and jury believed the prosecution. They did their duty, and I can’t blame them. There was another ingenious theory my counsel conjured up at one time. But he didn’t put it forward. It would have been too fantastic.”
“What was that?”
SMITH chuckled. “It was ridiculously far-fetched. You see, about ten minutes after I left Brinn there was a tremendous dap of thunder. An ugly streak of lightning forked down somewhere over the footpath. Actually, it struck the tree under which Brinn was found. There was a mark on the trunk to within some five feet of the ground. It occurred to my counsel—suppose Brinn had found my pruning knife on the ground and picked it up. Suppose he had been standing under the tree to shelter from the rain. Suppose the lightning passed from the tree to Brinn, and in the moment of uncontrolled convulsion he accidentally stabbed himself.” Smith wagged his head.
“That, padre, was wildly fictional. Besides, if Brinn had been struck by lightning there would have been some mark. And there was none.”
The chaplain pursed his lips. "A man of imagination, your counsel. Still, he had some slight grounds for argument. Lightning goes to earth if it can, and it’s certainly rather curious that the mark of the lightning stopped five feet from the base of the tree. One would have expected it either to continue to earth or to pass on to something else.”
“Well, it didn’t,” said Smith equably. ‘So bang went my counsel’s remarkable theory. I have since wondered how much damage was done to the tree, and whether it will have to come down. I’m fond of trees. I think some of them have personalities like human beings. This particular tree was most unusual. It was a holm oak, and the greater part of the trunk grew straight, without any branches, making it look like a very large palm.”
He looked up at the barred window again, absently, as if he were seeing the tree in his mind, hie did not notice that the chaplain had become still as a statue, and that his face had turned as grey as the hair that crowned it.
The chaplain stirred abruptly. He got up, and patted Smith’s shoulder with a trembling hand, and took a pace toward the cell door.
Smith said: “Will you visit me once
more—in the morning? It will have to be rather early, of course,” he added apologetically.
“Yes,” said the chaplain, “yes.” He did not seem quite sure of his movements, and stumbled slightly as the warder admitted him through the door.
OUT OF THE prison went the chaplain, and along the street. He had no particular idea of where he was going and of what he wanted to do. In his mind there burned a picture, with a strong and dazzling light that benumbed his faculties. It was a picture of an incident that happened one night in the cabin he had shared with his son on the voyage to Buenos Aires.
Getting into his bunk, Leslie had somehow caught his pyjama jacket and ripped open the front. In the centre of his chest showed a bluish-red mark, clear, angry, queerly shaped.
“Whatever’s that, Leslie?”
“Oh, nothing.” Leslie’s hands had snatched the jacket together, hiding the mark. “I was smoking in bed. Dropped my gasper and burned my chest.”
A mark like a miniature tree, a palmshaped tree. And Leslie had been shrillvoiced, almost panic-stricken in his behavior.
The chaplain pulled out his handkerchief and wiped the moisture from his temples. His mind was like some prosecuting counsel. It insisted on making out the case. Lightning was known to produce photographic effects. There was that case a few years back at Aldershot. Lightning had struck a tent, and on the chest of one of the soldiers inside had been branded the exact shape of the tent.
Leslie had owned the garage at Rexbridge. He had fixed up a mortgage with Brinn. He had dropped everything suddenly, and decided to go to South America. Never had he mentioned a word about knowing Smith, never a word about knowing Brinn. And his panic that night in the cabin . . .
The chaplain found he had reached his house. He let himself in with his key, and went to his study. Now he was seeing the face of Smith, thin and untroubled, the mild and youthful wonder in his eyes, the face of a man—almost saintly.
The chaplain knelt down. He did not attempt to form some new theory, of how Leslie had been on that footpath, and found the pruning knife, and killed Brinn. Deep within him, deeper than the workings of his brain, grew the certainty that Smith was innocent and his own son guilty.
In less than twelve hours . . .
The chaplain’s lips moved. “What am I to do? What am I to do?”
Do? Any decent man would go to the police at once and tell them everything.
Easy to say that. Not easy to do it. Was he to bring his own son under the shadow of the rope? Extradition—was there
extradition in the Argentine? If so, they would cable the police there and get Leslie detained until a detective crossed from England to bring him back.
The chaplain whispered: “My son,
you’ve killed one man, and let another go to the gallows for your crime. And here am I saying, What am I to do?”
Decency, duty—what were they against a man’s love for his son? This Smith was brave, fearless. He had no sharp dread of tomorrow. He had no dread of the hereafter. The law would be satisfied. What should it profit to bring Leslie to trial? Human beings came before dry theories.
In his agony the chaplain’s face worked and twisted.
“What am I to do?”
nPITE WARDER was on duty again at six in the morning, and at a quarter to seven he brought in Smith’s breakfast. It was a special breakfast, one of the last boons prison would confer.
Smith smiled. “Bacon, eggs, toast, and tea. I’m quite hungry.”
The warder set down the tray. “Keep your pecker up,” he said, and his gruff voice was not altogether steady.
“I suppose you have to stand by, in case I use this knife to cheat justice?”
Smith drank a cup of tea. “The padre was right. It’s a fine morning. Just about this time, at Rexbridge, I used to be coming back from the milking.”
The warder looked anywhere but at Smith.
“Decent sort, that padre. I say, warder, have you had any breakfast?”
“I feel hoggish, eating all this on my own. What’s the time?”
“It’s now ten minutes to seven.”
“An hour and ten minutes left. Seventy minutes. I wonder what I’d do with them if I had the choice.” The blue eyes behind the spectacles were amiably enquiring. “What would you do?”
The warder tried to sound stem. “You eat your breakfast.”
“All right. Here, I shan’t get you into trouble, talking to you like this, shall I?” “No.”
“I’ve always talked a lot—too much, I expect. On the farm I used to walk round chattering to the animals and making up their replies. Daresay people thought I was a fool.”
The warder glanced at the cell door, then leaned forward and said furtively: “The doctor’s kind-hearted. He might manage to give you a shot of dope. I’ll try and ask him.”
Smith put down his knife and fork and shook his head.
“I don’t need it. You’re a good sort. You know, it’s very queer. You’re more concerned about this eight o’clock business than I am myself. So was the padre. I don’t know how a guilty man would feel. Awful, perhaps. But I don’t.”
“You’ve got guts,” said the warder hoarsely.
“I don’t know. I’d like to live, of course, but as there isn’t any chance of it, what’s the use of complaining? This isn’t the only world.”
The warder said nothing. Smith finished his breakfast.
“Am I allowed a cigarette?”
“Yes,” said the warder, took a packet out of his tunic, offered Smith one, and struck a match for him.
Smith blew out a mouthful of smoke, and laughed.
“Human beings are funny, aren’t they? Yesterday or the day before a cigarette would have been a shocking breach of regulations. But today they make a fuss over me. I’m privileged. Will you be in attendance at eight o’clock?”
The warder moistened his lips. “Don’t, man !”
“It’s a mercy,” said the warder, half to himself, “you’re that dazed, you can’t really understand—”
“I’m not dazed. And I can understand clearly enough. The whole thing depends on how you look at it.”
“Like me to leave you another cigarette? There’s time.”
“Thanks very much. The padre said
he would come again this morning. When will he be here, d’you think?”
“About a quarter past.”
“I’m looking forward to another chat with him. How long d’you think they’ll let him stay?”
“Until a few minutes before eight. Then the Governor will come along and—” The warder turned his head abruptly, picked up the tray, and walked out of the cell.
SMITH enjoyed his second cigarette.
Every moment he expected to hear footsteps, expected to see the padre enter. But time passed, and no padre arrived.
“Half-past,” said the warder, through the grille. There was a sickened look about him.
“It’s disappointing about the padre. I wonder what’s happened to him?”
“I’ll see if they can do anything,” said the warder.
Smith heard him talking in an undertone to another warder. Followed silence, until
Smith reckoned that there might be about twenty minutes left. Once he thought he could hear, far off, the drone of traffic in the streets.
Then there was the sound of approaching footsteps. Smith got up eagerly to greet the padre.
The door opened. Instead of the padre, there came into the cell the Governor and the head warder.
Smith looked at them quickly. He thought, then, that he had miscalculated those minutes. He knew that the time had come, and he raised his head and stepped forward.
But the Governor was reading from a paper.
“. . . graciously consented to grant a reprieve ...”
And in South America an operator was checking the cabled message he had taken down.
Write confession and cross border Stop They know Stop Father.