The Watch Thief: Chapter 39

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Trowbridge, Wiltshire.
Wednesday 23 December, 1925.

The silence was tangible. The houses at night barricaded by wall and leaf were remote and vulnerable. The Triumph bike stood still on the tarmacadam at the front Edward Richards’ home. Ignatius ‘John’ Lincoln was looking from open door into the unlit kitchen. On an overcast morning at Trowbridge Barracks, a soldier devoid of passion stood fixed outside the armoury, his eyes far away. No one spoke their names. Nothing stirred at night in the prison grounds. Wings A through C where silent. William Tyrrell, like many other men and women all across Britain, slept quietly. In Sussex the Home Secretary, Joynson-Hicks, laid back in his easy chair. He did not go to see the King. The rope hung from the ceiling. Margarethe prayed. The silence came from the mouths of those who did not know what they could offer, minds scraping for perfect words to bridge reality with a better state.

The hush was concentrating into pockets. Their first foot-falls in Edward’s home in Victoria Avenue. Clifford Lincoln in the visitors room at HMP Shepton Mallet, Julius next to him, Margarethe’s eyes welling up with tears. In the office of his mirror Tom Pierrepoint buttons his white shirt. The calm was a brief gap in the passage from the basement generator to the upper court. The noise squashed the word on Lord Hewart’s lips and the public gallery. It struck the moments between the nine bells that Tuesday morning.

Ian Stewart’s motorcycle growled out of the barracks and tore the night open. Ignatius held tight as they wound with Victoria Road. The wind was like a barrage of tiny pellets. The cylinder was a vague echo when Ian parked it. The two off-duty bombardiers entered through unlocked back door with less grace. They knew Edward had a gun and it turned up in minutes, Ignatius scraped it by a cupboard door and put in his coat so both sides weighed even. Ian brought out the brandy and glasses. They had their breath warmed and rummaged some more. Bitter and pale ale. They clinked a toast to their prizes, and sunk to the floor. They approved of Edward Richards’ decor. The conservative and modern layout. The comfortable linoleum.

Ian said, “Put the empties back in the crate like they never went anywhere!”

Upstairs was a-creaking. The drunken soldiers raised themselves as steps crossed the landing.

It’s Edward. John, the bike!” Ian pointed to the lounge and broke ahead. The armchair arm pushed him on the way in. Ignatius, beer sloshing, avoided it. Ian swung at the front door lock, shook it left and right.

Edward shouted, “Who’s down there?”

Ignatius pulled out his automatic. “Get back,” he shouted, and fired a bullet into the stairs.

As the bullet thumped dully, Ian defied the urge to wince, his face screwed up from the loud retort of the pistol however and he yelled against the front door – “We are warning you!”

Ignatius blasted twice into the bannister. Ian gave the lock a final shove and then doubled back into the lounge. Ignatius followed. In his haste his foot caught in the folds of the rug, tumbling towards the ground, the darkened room spun before his eyes. In desperation he reached out for support – his hands finding a table, searing pain in sprained wrist. Someone else entered the room with him. He felt the breeze of the open back door. A pistol flashed. A bullet whizzed by and pounded the plaster wall. The pistons hammered on Ian’s bike as he revved it up. Ignatius raised his automatic and fired and fired. He fired until Edward screamed out.

Four officers marched them into Shepton Mallet. The prison housed just fifty; seven per cent of its capacity. Christmas Day was their first day. Acoustics made the carol singing sound like a haunting. But unsettling festivities settled in to something more hopeful, genuinely happy inmates and guards. His sweetheart Lily Morgan visited. She knew him as John. He used the name to avoid the stigma of association. Seeing her took his mind from the depression. At nine o’clock, the lights went out.

Prison’s threat only nibbled at the edges: the Governor’s approval of him; Lily’s visits; New Years Eve. Ignatius had seen the light flicker in Edward’s eyes. He was afraid the feeling of asylum would last the three weeks to his trial. The officer who found the vomit in his cell pressed his nose in it. Later, in mad thought, he was grateful. Each day he followed the bell to inspection and the canteen. On one occasion he recognised Tom Pierrepoint, walking with the Governor. Both were well dressed, large aristocratic figures. He’d heard Pierrepoint didn’t like the American method. He preferred to get the inmate out quickly. They were on their way to the brick building forty-three metres from the prison wall. In the exercise yard, speckled dry concrete led to a metal fence mounting barbed wire, and an enclosure of mottled stone framed portcullises. The steps and walls were cold. There were only stone corners. In A-Wing less people meant guards could watch the walk-way slips and stop any jumpers. The other levels revealed a mirror image of the hive. Ignatius was in a cell on his own. Sat on his bunk, he thought about Edward Richards: his voice; how he knew Ian. What did he do in his twenty-five years? The final shot had lit up the lad’s face with the bullet hole in his skull and the blood streaming out of his eyes. Edward Richards was looking into him. He didn’t know much about Edward, but he knew he killed him. Neither man could lie about that.

In Cologne, Julius Lincoln took his bag from the hall. He closed the door of his house and walked the streets to Trankgasse. At Köln Hauptbahnhof, he bought his ticket for Hamburg and waited. In Hamburg, Margarethe wailed and flung clothes into her case. Four times she checked their passports and emergency certificates. ‘Mother is in dire straits’, Clifford wrote in a letter to John. ‘We all are. Can you get to England?’

The lawyer said they had a good case. The evidence was inconclusive: he should plead not guilty. He nodded obediently to make Lily happy. Edward’s dying cry was with him every moment. Lily seized on the notion he might be released. He asked her not to call for a week. He slept, knowing it was not enough. He slept contented, forgetting what he had done. In the night, the grounds of Shepton Mallet were quiet. Lily wrote to him. He wrote back, even when a jailer warned him not to. In the visitor’s room, Julius said they would get him out of there. Margarethe assured him anyone could see it was an accident. They were praying for him. Clifford said he would be there at the trial, they all would.

The criminal law courts were in Devizes, central Wiltshire, a four-column Grecian building. Custodians led the charges past the chugging generator and stink breath of the boiler. Out of the tunnel, they found the steps into the court. A hundred jarring threads of conversation clustered around their fates. Amid the babble-storm he saw his family and Lily, who smiled with dewy eyes.

“Unfortunate parentage,” said one of the gawkers.

“All rise,” said the clerk.

“Edward was my neighbour,” said Walter.

“You found him, Mr. Stouton?” asked the prosecutor.

“I held his head in my hands an’ went with him to the hospital. Fifteen minutes after we got there, they said he was dead.”

The arresting officer said, “I found them later that morning. The captain at barracks did not release them to us easily.”

The prosecutor told them, “There is an indication joint enterprise might be applied here. Each man went to Mr. Richards home armed, and must face the penalty.”

A reporter called out, “Mr. Lincoln! Mr. Lincoln. Can we have a word? Mrs. Lincoln. Just a moment?”

He saw the family disappear in newsmen before he and Ian stepped down dark stairs to the dust swirling by the flatulent generator at tunnel’s end. The next day was Wednesday 20th January, when court heard from the defence.

“An investigation of the crime scene has shown Mr. Richards fired at Mr. Lincoln at close range.”

Ignatius said, “It was only to protect myself.”

“Objection! Being drunk is no excuse.”

The judge said, “A distinction should be made for Mr. Stewart. Since he did not discharge his firearm, the jury should consider acquittal in the charge of murder.”

The prosecutor said, “Your honour, new evidence has surfaced in a letter from Mr. Lincoln to his friend, Miss Morgan. Obtained by the staff at HMP Shepton Mallet, it contains a full confession.”

On Thursday morning, after the clock struck nine times, the jury met. They did not retire long. Stewart would serve a long sentence for burglary. For Lincoln came the black cloth.

“Ignatius Emanuel Napthali Trebitsch Lincoln, I pronounce the only sentence that can be passed for the crime of wilful murder.”

Margarethe sunk her mouth into her handkerchief.

“You will be taken to a place of execution to suffer death by hanging.”

Julius froze as their mother clung to his chest. Clifford gasped. They took Ignatius down.

His father sent a letter nineteen pages long. A friend was bringing money so he expected to set sail from Ceylon within days. The German-Lloyd steamer, SS Coblenz, would take him to Marseilles and he’d fly to England if he had to. He asked forgiveness. There was a terrible regret for the past, for if he had been a better father, none of this might have happened. His sins seem to have been visited upon the head of his favourite son. ‘Nat’ stood by him when they were arrested at the Hotel Viktoria in Vienna; and before that, when in Prague he told his father Czech spies were trailing them. Ignatius remembered them board the train and watch the Czechs get into the next carriage. As the doors were closing, father and son leapt back onto the platform.

Julius raised funds from the public for an appeal the following week. The man from The Times watched him, impressed. The coroner’s jury refused to return a guilty verdict. Lord Chief Justice Hewart rejected that motion and set March 2nd for the date of Lincoln’s execution.

There were echoes in Shepton Mallet. Ignatius saw him still: Edward Richards, his hair matting with blood, looking at his attacker. Ignatius smashed the cut bottle down on his face clawing the tissue. A cold wave spread over him as he did so, and Edward’s head slumped. Twenty-five years old, a representative for a brewery, a hard-working honest man wrenched out of his sleep. Ignatius could feel the weight of his head in his hand: the warmth; the wet. His eyes flickered. The louder cough of the motorbike engine was at the back. He set down Edward. Out to the back yard, out, out, Walter the neighbour shouting, “Hey! You there!”

Ignatius looked right past the open door of his cell. He could still hear the captain and constable bicker. Still Ian Stewart telling him he gets a high from risk. Ian was on a different wing and he tended to avoid him, tactfully. Margarethe rarely got in a visit without crying. His father telegraphed the both of them from the Coblenz each week. Meanwhile, Julius wrote to the Home Secretary to make sure he could come onto British soil. There was a lot of public support, he said. The telegram from Java expressed regret. John hoped to see him in the Summer.

Four weeks later, Thursday 24th, thousands swarmed Trafalgar Square. Placard carrying bodies close to one another sang and prayed. They clustered in lines to sign the petition and talked of what was to be done: activist Quakers and Anglican clergy; miners and dockworkers; a whole spectrum of society. Margarethe was over-whelmed and receptive to journalists’ whys, where’s and hows. One-time manager for Houdini, Colonel Harry Day, found Julius near the steps.

We’ve all been moved by his plight,” said Day. “I will pursue this in the Commons.”

We’ve seen him every day this week,” said Margarethe.

This is murder for manslaughter. Where’s the Edward Richard’s say in this?” said Clifford.

Is it true the boy’s father entered a monastery?”

A paper earlier this week ran an interview from Victoria Station. Can you confirm that?”

Attention! Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming. My name is Julius Lincoln. John Ignatius is my half-brother. He would appreciate this show of protest and solidarity. A man of good nature and humour, your support is getting him through tough times. Like all of us, John served this country in the war. Unfortunately the judge was out to make an example. Out to make an example of my father’s son. The verdict was decided before he set foot in court. The appeals jury disagreed. It is my hope another will grant his reprieve. Please sign the petition which tomorrow, I will present to the Home Secretary.”

Julius took the petition by St. James Park to the Home and Foreign Office building. Over four weeks he’d collected fifty thousand signatures. William Joynson-Hicks was well acquainted with the case. It was he whose constitutional function it was to advise their monarch whether to exercise the prerogative of mercy. The P.M., Baldwin, was a close friend and reacted by praising the Home Secretary’s expertise regarding British prisons. Archbishop Randall Davidson, back from an anti-theosophy conference, said he would pray for him. A telegram from the SS Coblenz begged for a stay of execution.

In another room, Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain asked Tyrrell for a report on Trebitsch Lincoln. The file hadn’t been updated since the incident with Mr. Davidson. Basil Thomson had only written of Trebitsch in a stock article he sold to the Northern Whig and Belfast Post. Workaholic Eyre Crowe sailed the Foreign Office through three governments in four years. A vacuum was left after his death the previous April. It was Tyrrell’s opinion Trebitsch should be allowed to see his son. Chamberlain told the House he’d be under guard for three days and leave immediately afterwards.

In the Liberal Club, on-off friends Lloyd George and Asquith spoke of Lincoln. In Piccadilly, the solicitor John Goldstein listened to the report on the radio. At Savoy Hill House BBC Director Jack Pease peered through the glass at his newscaster. Seventy-two year old Conyngham Greene, once minister to Roumania, listened in his Plymouth home until the weather flickered the signal into absence. Basil Thomson read the paragraphs in his parlour, curtains drawn.

In a comfortable bed in Trowbridge, Tom Pierrepoint fancied an early night and loosened his tie. Lily Morgan returned from prison early evening to her home. She was exhausted and asleep within minutes, but woke a few hours later. In Sussex, Joynson-Hicks turned the page of his newspaper. He ignored the nine chimes of the grandfather clock. Through the night he slept without interruption, oblivious to the world.

Ignatius walked to the scaffold without visible emotion, standing rigidly to attention as the noose was adjusted. Until late last night he had waited in the death cell for his father’s promised visit, and when told that it was impossible for him to arrive he broke down and wept.”

– New York Times, 3 March 1926

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