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Across the Zodiac by Percy Greg

Esmo having collected the will


"The

outcast has confessed treason worthy of death. That I cannot deny. But he has sinned from fear rather than from greed or malice; and to fear, courage should be indulgent. The coward is but what Allah has made him, and to punish cowardice is to punish the child for the heritage his parents have inflicted. Moreover, no example of punishment will make cowards brave. It seems to me, then, that there is neither justice nor wisdom in taking vengeance upon the crime of weakness."

In but two faces, those of Esmo and of his next colleague on the left, could I see the slightest sign of approval. One of the other chiefs answered briefly and decisively my plea for mercy.

"If," he said, "treason proceed from fear, the more cause that a greater fear should prevent the treason of cowardice for the future. The same motives that have led the offender to betray so much would assuredly lead him to betray more were he released; and to attempt lifelong confinement is to make the lives of all dependent on a chance in order to spare one unworthy life. The excuse which our brother has pleaded may, we hope, avail with a tribunal which can regard the conscience apart from the consequences. It ought not to avail with us."

But the law of the Zinta, as I now learned, will not allow sentence of death to be passed save by an absolutely unanimous vote. It is held that if one judge educated in the ideas of

the Order, appreciating to the full the priceless importance of its teaching and the guilt of treason against it, is unpersuaded that there exists sufficient cause for the supreme penalty, the doubt is such as should preclude the infliction of that penalty. It is, however, permitted and expected that the dissentients, if few in number, much more a single dissentient, shall listen attentively and give the most respectful and impartial consideration to the arguments of brethren, and especially of seniors. If a single mind remains unmoved, its dissent is decisive. But it would be the gravest dereliction of duty to persist from wilfulness, obstinacy, or pride, in adhesion to a view perhaps hastily expressed in opposition to authority and argument. The debate to which my speech gave rise lasted for two hours. Each speaker spoke but a few terse expressive sentences; and after each speech came a pause allowing full time for the consideration of its reasoning. Two points were very soon made clear to all. The offender had justly forfeited his life; and if his death were necessary or greatly conducive to the safety of the rest, the mercy which for his sake imperilled worthier men and sacred truths would have been no less than a crime. The thought, however, that weighed most with me against my natural feeling was an experience to which none present could appeal. I had sat on many courts-martial where cowardice was the only charge imputed; and in every case in which that charge was proved, sentence of death had been passed and carried out on a ground I could not refuse to consider sufficient:--namely, that the infection of terror can best be repressed by an example inspiring deeper terror than that to which the prisoner has yielded. Compelled by these precedents, though with intense reluctance, I submitted at last to the universal judgment. Esmo having collected the will, I cannot say the voices, of the assembly, paused for a minute in silence.

"The Present has pronounced," he said at last. "Are the voices of the Past assentient?"

He looked around as if to see whether, under real or supposed inspiration, any of those before him would give in another name a judgment opposite to that in which all had concurred. Instinctively I glanced towards the Throne, but it remained vacant as ever. Then, fixing his eyes for a few moments upon the culprit, who started and woke to full consciousness under his gaze--and receiving from the Chief nearest to him on the left a chain of small golden circles similar to that of the canopy, represented also on the Signet, while he on the right held a small roll, on the golden surface of which a long list of names was inscribed--our Superior pronounced, amid deepest stillness, in a low clear tone, the form of excommunication; breaking at the appropriate moment one link from the chain, and, at a later point, drawing a broad crimson bar through one cipher on the roll:--


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