On Boxing Day, 1914, a teenage girl sits in an Edinburgh prison awaiting trial for a war crime. Her lawyer finds himself captivated by her as he tries to establish the truth of the case, whose roots lie in the Titanic disaster two years before. “The Iceberg” by Andrea Mullaney is based on an extraordinary true story.
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Free Extract from “The Iceberg” by Andrea Mullaney
Based on a true story
She looked so young. Seventeen, they’d told me, but I might have taken her for fourteen. Not at all like someone accused of a war crime.
The pug-faced wardress must have noticed my hesitation.
“Aye, that’s her—looks like butter wouldn’t melt, doesn’t she? But don’t be taken in. She’s a hardened liar.”
The slim, cool figure, perched schoolgirl-style on the edge of the cell bench, must have been able to hear: the grill on the door was open and the wardress hadn’t bothered to lower her voice. But the girl showed no indication of it, her gaze fixed on the bare stone floor at her feet, her hands neatly folded in her lap. I tried not to lower my own voice in compensation.
“I’ll see her now, please.”
The wardress grudgingly extracted the key from the ring clanking on her belt, her fingers fumbling to turn it in the lock.
“Back, Hume,” she ordered unnecessarily, while the girl remained still. “I’ll be outside. Twenty minutes.”
I waited till the door clapped shut before I moved further in.
She looked up at me, incurious. She was wearing the usual black uniform with white apron, her dark hair pinned up, but her appearance was nevertheless striking, with those ‘delicate features’ the newspapers had described at length. Somehow I had been expecting a hysterical type—an attention seeker. Perhaps Calton Jail’s regime had tamed her.
As there was nowhere else, I sat on the cold bench alongside her, awkwardly addressing her side-on.
“My name is John Wilson. I’ve been assigned to represent you. Are you well…, have they treated you well?”
“Yes, thank you.” Her voice was polite, girlish, deliberately well-spoken.
“I’m sorry it has taken so long for me to see you. Christmas, you know …”
I had only been assigned her case in the last week, but the prison governor had told me I was her first visitor in the three months she had been here. Her family, clearly, had washed their hands of her. It was Boxing Day; I’d spent the preceding days caught up in domesticity and watched my own daughters, almost half her age, delighting over their new dolls and books. The contrast was acute and stupidly, I wished for a moment that I had brought her something. A flower, perhaps, to cheer this bleak chamber. I pushed the sentimental thought aside.
“Now, however, we must prepare for the trial tomorrow. Have the charges been explained to you?”
“They say it’s forgery,” she said, her expression unreadable.
“Yes, in a sense. The formal charge is ‘concocting and fabricating letters with the intent of alarming the lieges’. That means the Crown—the King and his ministers.”
“I never—I did not intend to—to alarm the King!”
A flash of spirit, at last. “What did you intend?”
She made no reply.
“Come now, I am here to help you, Kate. I can assure you that if you speak honestly and give a good account of yourself, the judge will be lenient towards you. But these are serious charges. And I’m sure you know they might have been worse. This is wartime and you could have been facing a military court. Under the new Defence of the Realm Regulations, that could have carried a maximum penalty of death by firing squad.”
Her eyes widened like a child’s stunned by unfairness. The tendons in her fine, white neck tightened and I realised that I had frightened her; that she had been, indeed, already very frightened. I reached over to pat her wrist.
“Do not be alarmed—I said ‘could have,’ not ‘will’. The military authorities at Stirling had no desire to take you into custody, and abrogated the matter to the police. That is why they have brought this rather curious charge. Let me assure you that there can be no such penalty in court—nothing like so severe. And if you will tell me what happened, I can place a plea of mitigation on your behalf and there is every chance of a probationary sentence. Do you understand what that means?”
She breathed out, nodded; then stood up and took two small paces forward. They brought her almost to the opposite wall, like the rest covered with faded scratches from residents past. At least the place was clean, with a faint trace of carbolic soap, and the chamber pot in the corner had clearly been emptied recently. There were much worse places.
“Thank you, Mr Wilson. I will try… it is hard to know where to start.”
“Well, let us say—the day you brought the letters to Mrs McMinn. I understand she was the first person to see them?”
“I was staying with her.”
“And why was that?”
“She said I could. Robina—her daughter—and I were—were friends.”
“I mean, why were you not at home? Was there some trouble with your father and mother?”
She turned abruptly. “She’s not my—yes. It was about Mary.”
“My brother’s girl.”
Ah. I had read about this: the court case which had thrown the family into the public eye in the first place, even before the publication of Kate’s letters. Of course, even three years on, anything to do with the RMS Titanic was still news.
“I see. You did not agree with your father and stepmother over the lawsuit that Mary Costin brought for support of her child?”
“No! That’s Jock’s baby. He loved her, they were to be married. Papa and Alice didn’t think Mary was good enough for him because her father drives a van and she works in the glove factory. But she’s decent, Mary is. He used to—he used to play for her and she’d sit there listening, just—just watching him.”
As she spoke, it was as if she were seeing something. I could almost see it myself: the young man playing violin while his sweetheart listened, unaware she was being judged by the young girl in the corner, but passing muster as attentive enough to be worthy of him. The papers had been very sympathetic to Mary Costin and her plea for justice, I recalled. The image of the band playing as the ship went down, as related by survivors of the tragedy, had struck a chord in the popular imagination and it was generally held that while not officially Jock Hume’s widow, his family’s refusal to acknowledge her was simply to retain their share of the Relief Fund. Kate’s father had been portrayed as shifty and unreliable. Perhaps there was something in all of this that I could use.
END OF FREE EXTRACT
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