(My translation of Karel Čapek’s short story Případ Selvinův, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)
What was my greatest success? Hm… Well, the success of which I’m most proud…
[As well as being old, Leonard Unden was a famous poet, a Nobel Laureat etc.]
When you get to my age, my young friends, you no longer care about honours, applause, lovers and suchlike nonsense. All of that is in the distant past. When you’re young, you’re up for all sorts of fun and you’d be stupid not to be. But – here’s the rub – when you’re young you hardly have the means to enjoy anything. That’s why life should really be the other way round. You should start off old and put in a full stint of proper work, because that’s all you’re good for. And only after that should you become young, so you can enjoy the fruits of your long life. So, there you have it – an old man’s confession.
But what was I talking about… Ah, yes, my greatest success. And I can tell you this: it wasn’t any of my books or plays, even though there was a time – believe it or not – when people did actually read them! No, my greatest success was the Selvin case.
Well, of course, you won’t know what that was all about: it happened twenty-six years ago – no, more, twenty-nine. So, one fine day twenty-nine years ago, a little white-haired lady in a black dress came to see me. I used to be renowned for my affability in those days, but before I could ask her how I could help she sank to her knees before me and burst into tears. (I don’t know about you, but I can’t bear to see a woman cry.)
After I’d calmed her down a bit, the words poured out of her:
“You’re a poet, sir, and you’re a good man. Please, I beg you, save my son! You must have read about him in the papers. Frank Selvin…”
I think I must have looked like a bearded baby back then. I did read the papers, but I hadn’t noticed anything about a Frank Selvin. What I could make out, in between all her whimpering and sniffling, was that her only son, Frank Selvin, who was twenty-two years old, had just been sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering his aunt Sofie while trying to rob her. And the jury had considered his plea of innocence nothing more than an aggravation of the crime.
“But he really is innocent, sir. I can swear to it. That fateful evening he said to me, ‘I’ve got a headache, Mum, so I’m going for a walk out in the fields.’ That’s why he couldn’t prove his alibi, sir. Who would notice a young lad in the night, even if he met him? My Frantík was a bit of a gad-about – I won’t deny it – but you were young once too, sir. He’s only twenty-two. And all that life ahead of him has been destroyed.”
And so she continued. Listen, if you’d seen that broken, white-haired mother, you’d have realised what I realised: that impotent sympathy is a terrible thing. Well, what can I say? It ended up with me assuring her I’d do absolutely everything I could to get to the truth of the matter. And that I believed her son was innocent. When she got to her feet again and made the sign of the cross over me, I almost felt like kneeling down in front of her. You probably know how soppy one can look when turned into an object of such reverence.
So, I made it my job to look into the Frank Selvin case. First of all, of course, I studied the files. And I have to say, I’d never come across such a catalogue of errors. It was simply scandalous. The case was really quite straightforward: one night, Miss Sofie’s maid, fifty-year old Anna Solarová – who, let’s say, wasn’t exactly the brightest button – heard someone walking in Miss Sofie’s bedroom. So she went to see why the lady wasn’t asleep and, when she entered the room, she saw the window wide open and a man jumping out of it into the garden. Whereupon she screamed blue murder, and when the neighbours came with a torch they found Miss Sophie’s body on the bedroom floor – strangled with her own towel. The cupboard where she kept her money was open, the clothes had been thrown about, but the money was still there – evidently the maid had disturbed the murderer at that very moment. So, those were the facts of the case.
Frank Selvin was arrested the next day, the maid having testified that she’d recognised the man who jumped from the window. It was ascertained he wasn’t at home at the time: he’d returned about half an hour later and had gone straight to bed. It also came to light that the careless fellow had got into debt. And not only that, but a local gossip, who was flattered to find herself in the limelight, testified that, a few days before the murder, Miss Sofie told her something in confidence: namely, that her nephew Frank had visited her to beg for a few hundred crowns. And when she refused – she was a terrible old skinflint – Frank had said to her, “Just you be careful, Auntie; something’s awful’s going to happen.”
And that was everything as far as Frank was concerned.
Now the trial. It was all over in half a day. Frank pleaded innocence, claiming he’d gone out for a walk and had returned straight home and gone to bed. None of the witnesses were cross-examined, and the defence barrister – who was provided by the court gratis, given that Mrs Selvinová couldn’t afford to pay for a better one – was a harmless old fool, who merely appealed to the jury, with tears in his eyes, to bear in mind the tender age of his imprudent client. Even the prosecution barrister didn’t go to too much trouble: he just reminded the jury they’d let off the two previous defendents, and what would happen to society if every criminal was found not guilty because of a lack of backbone on the part of the people’s judges? And it looks like the jury were impressed with that argument and were only too anxious to demonstrate that each and every one of them really did have a backbone. Anyway, Frank Selvin was found guilty by unanimity. And that was that.
When I discovered all this I was furious, even though I’m not a lawyer – or perhaps precisely because I’m not a lawyer. Just imagine: the star witness is a bit dim; the night – as I discovered later – was very dark, so she couldn’t have had any certainty about the man’s identiity. I know very well that, in the dark, it’s even difficult to ascertain how big a person is. And not only that, but Anna Solarová absolutely hated Frank Selvin – evidently he uses to call her ‘fair Hebe,’ which she, for some reason, regarded as an unforgivable insult.
Secondly, Miss Sofie hated her sister, so much so that they no longer spoke to each other, and Miss Sofie wouldn’t even mention Frank’s mother by name. If she did say Frank had threatened her, it could very well have been no more than yet another way for the old spinster to belittle her sister. As for Frank himself, he’d been doing reasonably well: he was an office clerk; he had a girlfriend, to whom he wrote sentimental letters and poor poems, and he fell into debt through – as one says – no fault of his own, or rather, because he was inclined to get sentimentally drunk. His mother was a wonderful woman, but ground down by cancer, poverty and sorrow.
So, that’s how things were when one took a closer look.
Of course, you won’t have any idea what a terrier I was in those days! When my blood was up, nothing could stop me. So I wrote a series of articles for the newspapers, titled ‘The Frank Selvin Case,’ in which I set out, point by point, the unreliability of the witnesses, especially the star witness; I analysed the discrepancies and bias in their testimonies; I showed how absurd it was to think the star witness could have recognised the murderer; and I demonstrated the utter incompetence of the judge and the crude demagogery of the prosecution barrister. But even all that didn’t satisfy me: I began attacking the whole justice system – the criminal code, the way juries were organised, the indifference and arrogance of the authorities.
Well, you won’t be surprised that this caused quite a brouhaha. I was pretty well known in those days, and the young people were firmly on my side. One evening, there was even a demonstration outside the courthouse. And that’s when Selvin’s defence barrister hurried over to see me: what on earth was I up to?! He’d appealed on the grounds of procedural irregularity and was confident the sentence would be reduced to just a few years. But now, not wishing to look as if it was giving in to the mob, the court would almost certainly refuse his appeal.
I told that bumptious barrister that, for me, it was no longer just a matter of the Selvin case: it was a matter of truth and justice. But he was right: the appeal was refused.
Nevertheless, the judge had to retire. And that’s when I really got stuck into it. Even today, I’d still say it was a crusade for justice. Many things have improved since those days of course. I think people who have a long memory might admit I’ve had some part in helping to bring that about. The Selvin case got mentioned in the press around the world; I gave lectures to workers in pubs and to delegates at international congresses. ‘Justice for Selvin’ became just as familiar a slogan as ‘No more war’ or ‘Votes for Women.’ But, for me, it was always a struggle against the state. With the young people on my side. When Selvin’s mother died, seventeen thousand people followed the coffin of that careworn little lady. And I spoke, like I’ve never spoken before or since, above the open grave. God knows, my friends, inspiration is a strange and awful thing.
I spent seven years fighting for justice, and it finished me off. It was the Selvin case, not my books, that gained me a certain world renown. People call me ‘The Sword of Justice’, ‘The Truth Sayer’ etcetera, and maybe something of that will appear on my gravestone in due course. And maybe, say, fourteen years after my death, children will be taught how the poet Leonard Unden fought for the truth. And then it will all be forgotten.
Seven years after the event, Anna Solarová, the star witness, died, but not before tearfully confessing that her conscience was weighing on her: she’d given false testimony at the trial; she couldn’t say with any certainty that the murderer in the window was Frank Selvin. The priest – a kindly fellow – came to tell me, but by then I had a better idea about the way things are in this world. So, instead of going to the press with it, I sent the priest to the court. Within a week, the case against Frank Selvin was reconvened, and within a month he was standing before a jury once more. One of the best barristers in the country took on the case for free and smashed the charges to smithereens. After which the prosecution barrister recommended the jury to free the accused. And all twelve members of the jury decided Frank Selvin was innocent.
So there you have it: my greatest achievement. No other success gave me such satisfaction – or, at the same time, such a feeling of emptiness. You see, the truth is that, a day after the original verdict was overturned, I was told a man wanted to speak to me.
“I’m Frank Selvin,” he said, standing in the door of my study. And, difficult though it is to explain, I felt a sort of disappointment: a disappointment that my Mr Selvin looked like… like a lottery agent – rather tubby, and pale, balding, sweating slightly and perfectly ordinary. Not to mention that he stank of beer.
“Maestro,” he stuttered – Can you imagine he actually addressed me as “Maestro”! I felt like kicking him. – “I’ve come to thank you… as my greatest benefactor… I’m indebted to you for my whole life. Any words of thanks will be inadequate…” (He seemed to have learnt all this off by heart.)
“But it was no more than my duty,” I interrupted, “as soon as I became convinced they’d condemned you unjustly.”
Frank Selvin shook his head. “Maestro,” he muttered, “I don’t want to lie to my benefactor. I did kill that old crow.”
I leapt up from my chair. “So why didn’t you admit it in court?!”
Frank Selvin gave me a cunning look. “But that was my right, wasn’t it, Maestro? The accused has the right to deny the charge, doesn’t he?”
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you I felt completely deflated. “So what do you want?” I growled.
“I’ve just come to thank you for your kindness,” he replied, in a voice of feigned gratitude. “You looked after my poor mother as well. May God bless you, noble bard.”
“Get out!” I yelled, at which he was down the stairs and away in no time.
Three weeks later he stopped me in the street. He was rather drunk and I couldn’t manage to get shot of him, let alone understand what he wanted. Keeping a firm grip of one of the buttons of my coat, he said I’d spoilt it for him. If I hadn’t written about his case in the first place, the barrister’s appeal on the grounds of procedural irregularity wouldn’t have been refused and he wouldn’t have had to spend seven years in prison. So I should, at the very least, be aware of the reduced circumstances he now found himself in as a result of my poking my nose in.
In short, I couldn’t manage to get rid of him until I gave him a couple of hundred crowns.
“God bless you, my benefactor,” said Mr Selvin, with tears in his eyes.
The next time I met him he was rather more threatening: thanks to his case, I’d garnered some fame and fortune, so how come he’d got nothing out of it himself? I tried to convince him I didn’t owe him anything but, in the end, I handed over some more money.
Ever since then he started turning up more frequently. Sitting on my sofa and sighing, complaining that he was wracked with guilt for snuffing out the old crow. “I’d hand myself in, Maestro, if it wasn’t that you’d be publicly shamed at the same time. So, I don’t know how I can find peace.”
Believe you me, his guilty conscience must have been the most terrible torment for him, judging by how much I had to cough up to help him bear that load. In the end I bought him a ticket to sail to America. Whether he finally found peace there or not, I don’t know.
So that was the greatest success of my life. When you come to write my obituary, dear friends, please say that the Selvin case is engraved in gold letters, undying gratitude etc.
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