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Mark Twain > The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson > Chapter 21

The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson

Chapter 21


He is useless on top of the ground; he ought to be under it,
inspiring the cabbages.

--Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar

APRIL 1. This is the day upon which we are reminded of what
we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four.

--Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar

Wilson put on enough clothes for business purposes and went
to work under a high pressure of steam. He was awake all over.
All sense of weariness had been swept away by the invigorating
refreshment of the great and hopeful discovery which he had made.
He made fine and accurate reproductions of a number of his
"records," and then enlarged them on a scale of ten to one with
his pantograph. He did these pantograph enlargements on sheets
of white cardboard, and made each individual line of the
bewildering maze of whorls or curves or loops which consisted of
the "pattern" of a "record" stand out bold and black by
reinforcing it with ink. To the untrained eye the collection of
delicate originals made by the human finger on the glass plates
looked about alike; but when enlarged ten times they resembled
the markings of a block of wood that has been sawed across the
grain, and the dullest eye could detect at a glance, and at a
distance of many feet, that no two of the patterns were alike.
When Wilson had at last finished his tedious and difficult work,
he arranged his results according to a plan in which a
progressive order and sequence was a principal feature; then he
added to the batch several pantograph enlargements which he had
made from time to time in bygone years.

The night was spent and the day well advanced now. By the
time he had snatched a trifle of breakfast, it was nine o'clock,
and the court was ready to begin its sitting. He was in his
place twelve minutes later with his "records."

Tom Driscoll caught a slight glimpse of the records,
and nudged his nearest friend and said, with a wink,
"Pudd'nhead's got a rare eye to business--thinks that as long as
he can't win his case it's at least a noble good chance to advertise
his window palace decorations without any expense." Wilson was
informed that his witnesses had been delayed, but would arrive
presently; but he rose and said he should probably not have
occasion to make use of their testimony. [An amused murmur ran
through the room: "It's a clean backdown! he gives up without
hitting a lick!"] Wilson continued: "I have other testimony--
and better. [This compelled interest, and evoked murmurs of
surprise that had a detectable ingredient of disappointment in them.]
If I seem to be springing this evidence upon the court,
I offer as my justification for this, that I did not discover its
existence until late last night, and have been engaged in
examining and classifying it ever since, until half an hour ago.
I shall offer it presently; but first I with to say a few
preliminary words.

"May it please the court, the claim given the front place,
the claim most persistently urged, the claim most strenuously and
I may even say aggressively and defiantly insisted upon by the
prosecution is this--that the person whose hand left the
bloodstained fingerprints upon the handle of the Indian knife is
the person who committed the murder." Wilson paused, during
several moments, to give impressiveness to what he was about to say,
and then added tranquilly, "WE GRANT THAT CLAIM."

It was an electrical surprise. No one was prepared for such
an admission. A buzz of astonishment rose on all sides,
and people were heard to intimate that the overworked lawyer had
lost his mind. Even the veteran judge, accustomed as he was to legal
ambushes and masked batteries in criminal procedure, was not sure
that his ears were not deceiving him, and asked counsel what it
was he had said. Howard's impassive face betrayed no sign,
but his attitude and bearing lost something of their careless
confidence for a moment. Wilson resumed:

"We not only grant that claim, but we welcome it and
strongly endorse it. Leaving that matter for the present,
we will now proceed to consider other points in the case which we
propose to establish by evidence, and shall include that one in
the chain in its proper place."

He had made up his mind to try a few hardy guesses, in
mapping out his theory of the origin and motive of the murder--
guesses designed to fill up gaps in it--guesses which could help
if they hit, and would probably do no harm if they didn't.

"To my mind, certain circumstances of the case before the
court seem to suggest a motive for the homicide quite different
from the one insisted on by the state. It is my conviction that
the motive was not revenge, but robbery. It has been urged that
the presence of the accused brothers in that fatal room,
just after notification that one of them must take the life of
Judge Driscoll or lose his own the moment the parties should meet,
clearly signifies that the natural of self-preservation moved my
clients to go there secretly and save Count Luigi by destroying
his adversary.

"Then why did they stay there, after the deed was done?
Mrs. Pratt had time, although she did not hear the cry for help,
but woke up some moments later, to run to that room--and there
she found these men standing and making no effort to escape.
If they were guilty, they ought to have been running out of the
house at the same time that she was running to that room.
If they had had such a strong instinct toward self-preservation as
to move them to kill that unarmed man, what had become of it now,
when it should have been more alert than ever. Would any of us
have remained there? Let us not slander our intelligence to that degree.

"Much stress has been laid upon the fact that the accused
offered a very large reward for the knife with which this murder
was done; that no thief came forward to claim that extraordinary
reward; that the latter fact was good circumstantial evidence
that the claim that the knife had been stolen was a vanity and a
fraud; that these details taken in connection with the memorable
and apparently prophetic speech of the deceased concerning that
knife, and the finally discovery of that very knife in the fatal
room where no living person was found present with the
slaughtered man but the owner of the knife and his brother, form
an indestructible chain of evidence which fixed the crime upon
those unfortunate strangers.

"But I shall presently ask to be sworn, and shall testify
that there was a large reward offered for the THIEF, also;
and it was offered secretly and not advertised; that this fact was
indiscreetly mentioned--or at least tacitly admitted--in what was
supposed to be safe circumstances, but may NOT have been.
The thief may have been present himself. [Tom Driscoll had been
looking at the speaker, but dropped his eyes at this point.]
In that case he would retain the knife in his possession, not daring
to offer it for sale, or for pledge in a pawnshop. [There was a
nodding of heads among the audience by way of admission that this
was not a bad stroke.] I shall prove to the satisfaction of the
jury that there WAS a person in Judge Driscoll's room several
minutes before the accused entered it. [This produced a strong
sensation; the last drowsy head in the courtroom roused up now,
and made preparation to listen.] If it shall seem necessary,
I will prove by the Misses Clarkson that they met a veiled person--
ostensibly a woman--coming out of the back gate a few minutes
after the cry for help was heard. This person was not a woman,
but a man dressed in woman's clothes." Another sensation.
Wilson had his eye on Tom when he hazarded this guess, to see
what effect it would produce. He was satisfied with the result,
and said to himself, "It was a success--he's hit!"

The object of that person in that house was robbery, not
murder. It is true that the safe was not open, but there was an
ordinary cashbox on the table, with three thousand dollars in it.
It is easily supposable that the thief was concealed in the
house; that he knew of this box, and of its owner's habit of
counting its contents and arranging his accounts at night--if he
had that habit, which I do not assert, of course--that he tried
to take the box while its owner slept, but made a noise and was
seized, and had to use the knife to save himself from capture;
and that he fled without his booty because he heard help coming.

"I have now done with my theory, and will proceed to the
evidences by which I propose to try to prove its soundness."
Wilson took up several of his strips of glass. When the audience
recognized these familiar mementos of Pudd'nhead's old time
childish "puttering" and folly, the tense and funereal interest
vanished out of their faces, and the house burst into volleys of
relieving and refreshing laughter, and Tom chirked up and joined
in the fun himself; but Wilson was apparently not disturbed.
He arranged his records on the table before him, and said:

"I beg the indulgence of the court while I make a few
remarks in explanation of some evidence which I am about to
introduce, and which I shall presently ask to be allowed to
verify under oath on the witness stand. Every human being
carries with him from his cradle to his grave certain physical
marks which do not change their character, and by which he can
always be identified--and that without shade of doubt or question.
These marks are his signature, his physiological
autograph, so to speak, and this autograph can not be counterfeited,
nor can he disguise it or hide it away, nor can it
become illegible by the wear and mutations of time.
This signature is not his face--age can change that beyond
recognition; it is not his hair, for that can fall out; it is not
his height, for duplicates of that exist; it is not his form,
for duplicates of that exist also, whereas this signature is each
man's very own--there is no duplicate of it among the swarming
populations of the globe! [The audience were interested once more.]

"This autograph consists of the delicate lines or
corrugations with which Nature marks the insides of the hands and
the soles of the feet. If you will look at the balls of your fingers--
you that have very sharp eyesight--you will observe that
these dainty curving lines lie close together, like those that
indicate the borders of oceans in maps, and that they form
various clearly defined patterns, such as arches, circles,
long curves, whorls, etc., and that these patters differ on the
different fingers. [Every man in the room had his hand up to the
light now, and his head canted to one side, and was minutely
scrutinizing the balls of his fingers; there were whispered
ejaculations of "Why, it's so--I never noticed that before!"]
The patterns on the right hand are not the same as those on the left.
[Ejaculations of "Why, that's so, too!"] Taken finger for finger,
your patterns differ from your neighbor's. [Comparisons
were made all over the house--even the judge and jury were
absorbed in this curious work.] The patterns of a twin's right
hand are not the same as those on his left. One twin's patters
are never the same as his fellow twin's patters--the jury will
find that the patterns upon the finger balls of the twins' hands
follow this rule. [An examination of the twins' hands was begun at once.]
You have often heard of twins who were so exactly
alike that when dressed alike their own parents could not tell them apart.
Yet there was never a twin born in to this world
that did not carry from birth to death a sure identifier in this
mysterious and marvelous natal autograph. That once known to you,
his fellow twin could never personate him and deceive you."

Wilson stopped and stood silent. Inattention dies a quick
and sure death when a speaker does that. The stillness gives
warning that something is coming. All palms and finger balls
went down now, all slouching forms straightened, all heads came up,
all eyes were fastened upon Wilson's face. He waited yet one, two,
three moments, to let his pause complete and perfect
its spell upon the house; then, when through the profound hush he
could hear the ticking of the clock on the wall, he put out his
hand and took the Indian knife by the blade and held it aloft
where all could see the sinister spots upon its ivory handle;
then he said, in a level and passionless voice:

"Upon this haft stands the assassin's natal autograph,
written in the blood of that helpless and unoffending old man who
loved you and whom you all loved. There is but one man in the
whole earth whose hand can duplicate that crimson sign"--
he paused and raised his eyes to the pendulum swinging back and forth--
"and please God we will produce that man in this room
before the clock strikes noon!"

Stunned, distraught, unconscious of its own movement, the
house half rose, as if expecting to see the murderer appear at
the door, and a breeze of muttered ejaculations swept the place.
"Order in the court!--sit down!" This from the sheriff. He was obeyed,
and quiet reigned again. Wilson stole a glance at Tom,
and said to himself, "He is flying signals of distress now; even
people who despise him are pitying him; they think this is a hard
ordeal for a young fellow who has lost his benefactor by so cruel
a stroke--and they are right." He resumed his speech:

"For more than twenty years I have amused my compulsory
leisure with collecting these curious physical signatures in this town.
At my house I have hundreds upon hundreds of them.
Each and every one is labeled with name and date; not labeled the
next day or even the next hour, but in the very minute that the
impression was taken. When I go upon the witness stand I will
repeat under oath the things which I am now saying. I have the
fingerprints of the court, the sheriff, and every member of the jury.
There is hardly a person in this room, white or black,
whose natal signature I cannot produce, and not one of them can
so disguise himself that I cannot pick him out from a multitude
of his fellow creatures and unerringly identify him by his hands.
And if he and I should live to be a hundred I could still do it.
[The interest of the audience was steadily deepening now.]

"I have studied some of these signatures so much that I know
them as well as the bank cashier knows the autograph of his
oldest customer. While I turn my back now, I beg that several
persons will be so good as to pass their fingers through their hair,
and then press them upon one of the panes of the window
near the jury, and that among them the accused may set THEIR
finger marks. Also, I beg that these experimenters, or others,
will set their fingers upon another pane, and add again the marks
of the accused, but not placing them in the same order or
relation to the other signatures as before--for, by one chance in
a million, a person might happen upon the right marks by pure guesswork,
ONCE, therefore I wish to be tested twice."

He turned his back, and the two panes were quickly covered
with delicately lined oval spots, but visible only to such
persons as could get a dark background for them--the foliage of a tree,
outside, for instance. Then upon call, Wilson went to the
window, made his examination, and said:

"This is Count Luigi's right hand; this one, three
signatures below, is his left. Here is Count Angelo's right;
down here is his left. How for the other pane: here and here
are Count Luigi's, here and here are his brother's." He faced about.
"Am I right?"

A deafening explosion of applause was the answer.
The bench said:

"This certainly approaches the miraculous!"

Wilson turned to the window again and remarked,
pointing with his finger:

"This is the signature of Mr. Justice Robinson. [Applause.]
This, of Constable Blake. [Applause.] This of John Mason, juryman.
[Applause.] This, of the sheriff. [Applause.]
I cannot name the others, but I have them all at home, named and dated,
and could identify them all by my fingerprint records."

He moved to his place through a storm of applause--which the
sheriff stopped, and also made the people sit down, for they were
all standing and struggling to see, of course. Court, jury,
sheriff, and everybody had been too absorbed in observing
Wilson's performance to attend to the audience earlier.

"Now then," said Wilson, "I have here the natal autographs
of the two children--thrown up to ten times the natural size by
the pantograph, so that anyone who can see at all can tell the
markings apart at a glance. We will call the children A and B.
Here are A's finger marks, taken at the age of five months.
Here they are again taken at seven months. [Tom started.]
They are alike, you see. Here are B's at five months, and also at
seven months. They, too, exactly copy each other, but the patterns
are quite different from A's, you observe. I shall refer to these
again presently, but we will turn them face down now.

"Here, thrown up ten sizes, are the natal autographs of the
two persons who are here before you accused of murdering Judge Driscoll.
I made these pantograph copies last night, and will so
swear when I go upon the witness stand. I ask the jury to
compare them with the finger marks of the accused upon the
windowpanes, and tell the court if they are the same."

He passed a powerful magnifying glass to the foreman.

One juryman after another took the cardboard and the glass
and made the comparison. Then the foreman said to the judge:

"Your honor, we are all agreed that they are identical."

Wilson said to the foreman:

"Please turn that cardboard face down, and take this one,
and compare it searchingly, by the magnifier, with the fatal
signature upon the knife handle, and report your finding to the court."

Again the jury made minute examinations, and again reported:

"We find them to be exactly identical, your honor."

Wilson turned toward the counsel for the prosecution,
and there was a clearly recognizable note of warning in his voice
when he said:

"May it please the court, the state has claimed, strenuously
and persistently, that the bloodstained fingerprints upon that
knife handle were left there by the assassin of Judge Driscoll.
You have heard us grant that claim, and welcome it." He turned
to the jury: "Compare the fingerprints of the accused with the
fingerprints left by the assassin--and report."

The comparison began. As it proceeded, all movement and all
sound ceased, and the deep silence of an absorbed and waiting
suspense settled upon the house; and when at last the words came,
"THEY DO NOT EVEN RESEMBLE," a thundercrash of applause followed
and the house sprang to its feet, but was quickly repressed by
official force and brought to order again. Tom was altering his
position every few minutes now, but none of his changes brought
repose nor any small trifle of comfort. When the house's
attention was become fixed once more, Wilson said gravely,
indicating the twins with a gesture:

"These men are innocent--I have no further concern with them.
[Another outbreak of applause began, but was promptly checked.]
We will now proceed to find the guilty. [Tom's eyes
were starting from their sockets--yes, it was a cruel day for the
bereaved youth, everybody thought.] We will return to the infant
autographs of A and B. I will ask the jury to take these large
pantograph facsimilies of A's marked five months and seven months.
Do they tally?"

The foreman responded: "Perfectly."

"Now examine this pantograph, taken at eight months,
and also marked A. Does it tally with the other two?"

The surprised response was:


"You are quite right. Now take these two pantographs of B's
autograph, marked five months and seven months. Do they tally
with each other?"


"Take this third pantograph marked B, eight months.
Does it tally with B's other two?"


"Do you know how to account for those strange discrepancies?
I will tell you. For a purpose unknown to us, but probably a
selfish one, somebody changed those children in the cradle."

This produced a vast sensation, naturally; Roxana was
astonished at this admirable guess, but not disturbed by it.
To guess the exchange was one thing, to guess who did it quite another.
Pudd'nhead Wilson could do wonderful things, no doubt,
but he couldn't do impossible ones. Safe? She was perfectly safe.
She smiled privately.

"Between the ages of seven months and eight months those
children were changed in the cradle"--he made one of this effect-
collecting pauses, and added--"and the person who did it is in
this house!"

Roxy's pulses stood still! The house was thrilled as with
an electric shock, and the people half rose as if to seek a
glimpse of the person who had made that exchange. Tom was
growing limp; the life seemed oozing out of him. Wilson resumed:

"A was put into B's cradle in the nursery; B was transferred
to the kitchen and became a Negro and a slave [Sensation--
confusion of angry ejaculations]--but within a quarter of an hour
he will stand before you white and free! [Burst of applause,
checked by the officers.] From seven months onward until now,
A has still been a usurper, and in my finger record he bears B's name.
Here is his pantograph at the age of twelve.
Compare it with the assassin's signature upon the knife handle.
Do they tally?"

The foreman answered:


Wilson said, solemnly:

"The murderer of your friend and mine--York Driscoll of the
generous hand and the kindly spirit--sits in among you.
Valet de Chambre, Negro and slave--falsely called Thomas a Becket Driscoll
--make upon the window the fingerprints that will hang you!"

Tom turned his ashen face imploring toward the speaker, made
some impotent movements with his white lips, then slid limp and
lifeless to the floor.

Wilson broke the awed silence with the words:

"There is no need. He has confessed."

Roxy flung herself upon her knees, covered her face with her
hands, and out through her sobs the words struggled:

"De Lord have mercy on me, po' misasble sinner dat I is!"

The clock struck twelve.

The court rose; the new prisoner, handcuffed, was removed.

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