A Noble Woman


6. The Fight For A Life

The trial had occupied two days, and had ended on Friday, October 8. M. Kirschen had promised to keep M. de Leval informed how the matter was proceeding. He duly notified the date of the trial; but in thorough keeping with what had gone before, during the two days' progress of the inquiry he made no sign. He did not disclose that the Military Prosecutor had asked for the death penalty; he maintained silence even when the sentence was promulgated. Thus he was a party to cutting off the unhappy prisoner from the only friends who could bring powerful influence to bear upon the authorities for a revision of the sentence. Kirschen not only did not communicate with M. de Leval, but he disappeared entirely after the trial.

It is placed on record by one present in court that Kirschen pleaded well for his client, but it is doubtful if it were more than a formal plea for mercy for one who was prejudged and her fate already sealed. That Kirschen is believed to be an Austrian by birth, although a naturalized Belgian, doubtless explains much that for a time had mystified the officials of the American Legation. It makes one's gorge rise to think that while the German conspirators pretended to allow the prisoner a friendly advocate, he was in reality a hideous travesty, a hypocritical cat's-paw of the Department of the Governor-General.

After the perpetration of the crime M. Kirschen informed a sceptical world that he was not of Austrian origin, but was born at Jassy, in Roumania. He also denied that he promised to inform the American Legation about the sentence, and, in fact, did not know until it was announced publicly. It need only be commented that M. de Leval's letters to his chief are in emphatic contradiction, and there is no doubt whose word is worthy of credence.

Failing to find M. Kirschen or learn any news of him, on Sunday night M. de Leval went to see Baron von der Lancken. The Baron was out, and Mr. Conrad, a subordinate, was unable to give any information.

On Monday morning M. de Leval was informed by Conrad that the American Legation would be made acquainted with the judgement immediately it was pronounced, at the same time volunteering the assurance that it need not be expected for 'a day or two.'

M. de Leval did not propose to rely upon any German assurances, and, further, was bent upon learning some of the details of the trial. In view of M. Kirschen's continued silence, he called at the house of the advocate at 12.30, but was informed that he would not be at home until late in the afternoon. He therefore proceeded to the house of another lawyer, who had been interested in one of Miss Cavell's fellow prisoners, but failed also to find that gentleman. However, he called upon M. de Leval a few hours later, and reported that he had heard that judgement would be passed on Tuesday morning. He also said that he had good grounds for believing that the sentence of the court would be severe for all the prisoners.

Meanwhile repeated telephonic inquiries were made by the American Legation at the Politische Abteilung (Political Department), and upon each occasion it was stated that sentence had not been pronounced; and this was the reply as late as 6.20, together with the renewed promise to afford the required information as soon as it came to hand. And so the day dragged on.

Yet the death sentence had been passed at five o'clock in the afternoon, and the execution of Miss Cavell was fixed for the same night! Not until 8.30 p.m. did the American Legation learn from a reliable outside source that sentence had been passed, and the execution would probably take place at two o'clock in the morning. Thus the American Minister was hoodwinked up to almost the last moment. The same fiendish mind that had engineered the secret arrest and the trial in camera had deliberately jockeyed the Legation out of anything like the time required for taking the requisite steps to secure the deferring of the execution, pending an appeal in the highest quarters for clemency.

At this critical juncture Mr. Brand Whitlock was ill in bed; but, nevertheless, with Mr. Hugh Wilson, he threw himself into the task of attempting to save Miss Cavell's life, although the brief time at their disposal afforded but a slender chance of success. In a letter already prepared for dispatch to Baron von der Lancken, it was pointed out that the condemned Englishwoman had been treated with more severity than had been the result in other similar cases, although it was only her own commendable straightforwardness that enabled the charges against her to be proved. It was urged that she had spent her life in alleviating the sufferings of others, and at the beginning of the War she had bestowed her care as freely on German soldiers as on others. Her career as a servant of humanity should inspire the greatest sympathy and call for pardon. A letter in identical terms was addressed to Baron von Bissing.

Apart from what may be termed these strictly official communications, the Minister directed a touching personal appeal to Baron von der Lancken that was calculated to move the heart of a Bashi-Bazouk.

'My dear Baron,

'I am too ill to present my request in person, but I appeal to the generosity of your heart to support it and save this unfortunate woman from death. Have pity on her!

'Yours sincerely,

That this poignant intercession failed in its purpose is indubitable proof, if further testimony were necessary, that the Prussian model of manliness is utterly devoid of chivalry, and that blood-lust takes the place of the ordinary dictates of humanity.

Forthwith Mr. Gibson and M. de Leval sought out the Marquis de Villalobar, the Spanish Ambassador, and together the anxious trio proceeded to the house of Baron von der Lancken. Not only was the Baron not at home, but no member of his staff was in attendance, which suggests even to the most charitable chronicler that the visit had been anticipated. An urgent message was sent after the Baron, with the result that he returned home a little after ten o'clock, and was shortly followed by two members of his staff.

When the circumstances necessitating the visit were explained to Baron von der Lancken, he professed to disbelieve that the death sentence had been passed, and asserted that in any case there would be no execution that night, and that the matter would lose nothing by waiting until the morning. But the neutral diplomatists were too hot upon the trail of German trickery and prevarication to permit of the desired procrastination; they were ambassadors in mercy rather than mere politics, and they firmly insisted upon the Baron instituting immediate inquiries. He retired to engage in telephonic communication with the presiding judge of the court-martial, doubtless not to seek for information, but to condole with each other upon the disclosure of their cunning scheme to these pestering neutrals, whose interference they had exercised their ingenuity to avoid.

Shortly the Baron returned and admitted to his visitors that their information was correct, whereupon Mr. Gibson presented the letters appealing for delay in execution of the sentence, and at the same time he verbally emphasized every conceivable point that might assist to gain even the most temporary respite; and in these representations the Spanish Minister lent all the support at his command.

Baron von der Lancken informed them that in these matters the supreme authority was the Military Governor; that the Governor-General had no authority to intervene; and that appeal could be carried only to the Emperor, and only in the event of the Military Governor exercising his discretionary power to accept an appeal for clemency.

Upon the urgent appeal of the neutral diplomatists Baron von der Lancken agreed to speak to the Military Governor on the telephone. He was absent half an hour, and upon his return stated that he had been to confer personally with the Military Governor, who declared that the sentence upon Miss Cavell was the result of 'mature deliberation,' and that the circumstances in her case rendered 'the infliction of the death penalty imperative.'

The Baron's attitude was that of absolute finality, and in signification of the end of the interview he asked Mr. Gibson to take back the note which he had presented to him. This apparently simple request was typical of the subtleties of Teutonic diplomacy, which cynically repudiates its own 'scraps of paper,' and consequently cannot be expected to hold those of others in very high esteem. Astute as Baron von der Lancken may have imagined himself to be, his idea is patent to an ordinarily unsophisticated mind, which not unnaturally, albeit ungenerously, infers that at some time in the future the Baron may desire to deny that he had received the written appeal of the American Minister, which would be borne out by its absence from the official archives. He is welcome to any satisfaction that the preparation for mendacity may afford an atrophic conscience and a mental attitude that is foreign to honourable diplomacy.

For an hour longer the visitors argued and pleaded, only to be informed very positively that 'even the Emperor himself could not intervene'; but even then Mr. Gibson and the Marquis de Villalobar continued to make fresh appeals for delay. Finally the Spanish Minister drew Baron von der Lancken aside in order to express some forcible opinions that he hesitated to say in the presence of the Baron's subordinates and M. de Leval, a Belgian subject; and in the meantime Mr. Gibson and M. de Leval argued desperately with the younger officers--but all in vain.

Edith Cavell was doomed to death by that same tyranny that had consummated the horrors of Louvain, that had heaped up atrocity upon atrocity to appal all Christendom. As the bells of the city chimed the midnight hour the victims' friends returned in despair to the American Legation.