While I was researching my new (non fiction) book, I was inspired to write this short story. I submitted it to the creative writing magazine Southlight and I'm delighted to say it was selected and is in the current issue. As the magazine is somewhat tricky to get hold of I thought I would feature the story in my blog. Let me know what you think.
I have heard her cries many nights in my sleep, causing me to startle awake, sweating, cold. My wife tells me that at times I have been shrieking as I wake, causing her to believe I am feverish. I am quite well, but at night I sometimes fear the woman's tortured spirit is in the room with me. Once I came across one of my fellow jurors at a sale in Castle Douglas but I feared he would think me simple if I spoke to him of my nightly terrors. We talked about the price of cattle, the poor harvest, anything but the trial we had both sat through those many months before. I longed to ask if he too dreamt of the young woman, heard her plaintive sobs, her begging for mercy. I tried to look into his eyes, to see if they betrayed anything that his lips did not. He was an older man than me, a kirk elder, and in those terrible few minutes it had taken to find her guilty he had been robust in his opinion, no doubt in his mind he had said.
I had doubt, not about her guilt, the evidence as the judge had said, was clear, but I believe we should have taken more time, tried to look at her life as fifteen good Christian men. Many of my fellow jurors were older than me and tired after ten hours of evidence, witness after witness in the stand giving detail after detail of damnation. The judge's summing up had taken so long it was difficult to retain the few arguments put forward by the prisoner's advocate.
I had felt such pride when I opened the letter summoning me to serve on the jury. My dear wife had been in such a hurry to tell the ladies on her charitable committee that she had bustled out of the house not long after breakfast. It was a statement of my value in the community, she had said, my status as a man of standing. In reality it was simply because I had inherited my father's farm, a landowner in a rural area populated largely by peasantry and tenants. My wife told me it was wonderful, such a responsibility and I was an example not just to our children but to our workers and fellow members of the congregation. She was right and by the time I arrived at the court-house in Dumfries in the clothes I normally kept for the Sabbath, I was quite puffed up my own importance.
I had been alarmed by the crowds blocking Buccleuch Street, hundreds hoping to get a glimpse of the accused as she was taken from the prison opposite. I had quite forgotten that there was a very great chance I would be sitting in the jury for the most sensational case in the district for many years. It was with some difficulty that I made my way to the court house and it was only with the help of the militia, who had accompanied the judge to the building, that I gained access to the correct entrance. The court itself was smaller than I had expected, somewhat cramped really as if we were all in jeopardy of toppling one on top of the other. I saw later that several newspapers described the prisoner as cool, preserving a stolid indifference to the proceedings. She did not appear so to me. I felt that she had the appearance of someone who had little real understanding of the situation she was in, overwhelmed by the ceremony, the bewigged and black gowned, as to some extent was I. A woman who had nothing but who wished to retain some dignity as the gawking masses who crowded into the public gallery whispered and pointed at her. The prisoner had looked such a slight and sorry individual, the cheap bonnet with the shabby gum flowers too tatty even to be used on one of our tattiebogles, but it was probably the best she owned.
We heard, in the evidence, of how she had tried to borrow money or a little tea, how she and the neighbour she had bludgeoned to death had argued over wood that had come down the river in a flood. Such desperate poverty was hard to imagine though my wife told me many stories of wayward women helped by The Society for Returning Young Women to Their Friends in the Country, of which she is a member. The young woman before us had clearly found no friends in the country despite living there all her life. Neighbours, the local constabulary, her stepfather and sister and then her own children had all appeared before us in the witness stand.
The sight of her young daughter moved the court greatly but the poor child was clearly terrified and torn between her duty to justice and her duty to her mother. I watched the woman's face as her child was coaxed and cajoled into condemning her by the Advocate Depute and the judge. Tears silently ran down her pale cheeks, her chest rising and falling as if she was barely holding in the emotional tumult she must have felt. Her own child.
It was for her children that she cried out when that stern judge, who I later heard called Judge Death by people in the street, donned the black cap and sentenced her to hang. Her pathetic pleading, her only thought for 'her weans.' I shudder now remembering those screams, suddenly alive to what had happened that day, perhaps only suddenly alive to what had happened three months before on that winter morning when she had gone to her neighbour's kitchen and struck the woman repeatedly with a beetle and poker.
After she was taken from the court and we fifteen good men had shuffled, cold and stiff from the hard benches and long hours, only then, I think, did it begin to occur to us what had happened, what we had done. I cannot recall who was the first to speak in the jury room as we began to struggle into our coats, to find our hats, but he was a braver man than me. First one, then another expressed our collective shock that the judge had sentenced her to be publicly hanged. Some of the older members of the jury could just recall the last execution in the town forty years before, a young man guilty of highway robbery. Although we believed her to be guilty of killing her neighbour, had any of us really considered that she could be sentenced to death, though obviously it is still the punishment in law for the crime of murder?
At night now when I hear her cries again, her pleading, her begging to be spared for the sake of her children, I ask myself if I should have done more to raise questions about the evidence. Despite my wife's objections I had attended one of the public meetings called to campaign for a reprieve to her sentence. So much information came out following the trial of the terrible childhood the woman had suffered, how she had no moral guidance from her mother, how she had endured terrible poverty but had always done her best for her four children. I heard of her husband, a man twenty years her senior. Each tale tortured me for I, in my haste, had hurried her along the road to death.
I read all the reports of the desperate efforts to get a reprieve, of her confession to the crime and I believed her claim that she had not intended to kill the woman. How could a woman, a mother of four young children, truly have meant to cause such injury I asked myself. I have increasingly come to the conclusion that it was not a diabolical deed as so many newspapers said repeatedly during the weeks before the trial, but an act of desperation, almost of defence for the lives of her starving children but it is too late. I did not attend the execution nor read the newspaper reports. I endeavoured to avoid any discussion by my church fellows. The labourers on my farm knew I would tolerate no word on the subject and I often heard their voices quieten as I approached.
I cannot silence her cries though, in my head I hear her desperate voice pleading for mercy, for a life in prison. “Let the Lord come for me,” she had screamed. I hear it yet. I have since written in support of our local member of parliament who is campaigning for a change in the law, an end to capital punishment. Surely he is right in this age of such progress and enlightenment, it is shameful that we still punish people in public with death. I have also given a charitable donation to the fund started by the minister for the Kells to provide an education for her children. I hope that my efforts will somehow placate the spirit that haunts my dreams but I am living in dread of the 29th of April, the first anniversary of her public execution. Pray God I will find some peace.