The torchlight that flickered in from outside the cell door was aided only a little from a small barred window high on the wall, but it was enough. I could make out the dirt floor, strewn with straw, the thick stone wall, and, most importantly, the man, the criminal, seated across from me. For his part, he looked rather calm, especially considering his crime and his likely future.
I wished I could say that I was calm, but I was anything but. The initial excitement I had at receiving the assignment had vanished days ago, and rather quickly, and I was left with feelings ranging from general doubt to utter inadequacy mixed with not a small amount of fear. As a seventeen year old law clerk, it was almost unheard of for someone of my age and position to be asked to represent any criminal, much less someone with the notoriety of the man I was assigned to. News of his alleged crime had spread quickly throughout the country, although I didn’t hear of it until after I had accepted the assignment – not that it would have made much of a difference. When you are new to a company, and trying to make an impression, you said yes to whatever they asked.
Still, I must admit that when my uncle – the president of the company – offered me the assignment, I felt conflicted. To be sent out to another city, to represent a criminal, sounded perfectly exciting. But I was afraid that this would be viewed by my peers as evidence of favored treatment. I had never noticed any special kindnesses from my uncle, not with regards to business, so the assignment seemed quite out of character. Begging his pardon, I made my concern known. He appreciated my caution, but assured me that he was doing me no favors with his offer. It didn’t take long before I realized that he was right. To stand next to the criminal, to represent him, with what he was accused of, was not something anyone would envy – it is, in fact, the reason it was handed to a lowly clerk – no one else would do it.
Now, I was sitting in the dark cell with my assignment at arm’s length. I’m not sure I had ever felt so young or so unprepared in my life. After trying to recall the advice my uncle had given me, I started my interview with the prisoner. With a little waver in my voice, I asked, “What is your name?”
“My name?” the criminal responded, some surprise in his voice. “That’s of no real importance, now is it? What do the people call me?”
I was hesitant to reply with the nickname that had been widely spoken, but eventually answered, “They have taken to calling you the Pied Piper.”
“Ha!” he said enthusiastically. “I imagine they call me much worse in private.”
Did he actually find this amusing? “If what you’re accused of is true, can you blame them?”
A thin smile crept over the man’s dirty face; not from happiness, but from some sort of sick amusement. “A little.”
“Really?” I was surprised. After what he allegedly had done, I don’t know how he could blame anyone for any thought against him. Unless…
I asked, “Are you saying that you are innocent?”
Shaking his head, he answered, “No, not at all. In fact, I anticipate that the trial will be short, for I’m an unmitigated monster. Never has this filthy, dank cell held someone as guilty or remorseless as I. And I promise you this: There’ll be no begging for my life; nor any pleas for mercy. I don’t deserve them, and don’t want them. It’s time for my tale to end.”
Those words surprised me even more than his previous ones as they amounted to an admission of his crime. I’ve never heard of a prisoner being so forthright – not with his own guilt. But now I was confused. “If you’re as guilty as you say, then why do you blame the people for the awful things they say about you?”
He leaned forward a little and, with menace, said, “Because they’re implying that they are without guilt. They may call me whatever vile names they can conjure, but they cannot ignore that they had a wicked part to play. I’m guilty, but they’re not innocent.”
I tilted my head in confusion at his response as he leaned back and smiled. What did he mean by ‘they’re not innocent’? Alas, that was why I was there – to find out the prisoner’s version of the account.
In addition to his words, there were several other things about him that I hadn’t anticipated. Although he’d been in his cell for a little more than a week – his hair oily and unkempt, his thin beard unruly, and his skin bruised – the vivid colors of his tunic still showed signs of their original brightness. Yes, it was dirty, torn, and had what looked like blood stains, but the overall appearance was celebratory. The happy colors were as out of place, in that dark hole, as pearls on a pig.
His attire, however, was not the most shocking thing that I found about the criminal. As I traveled to Hamelin to see him – a three day’s ride – I had plenty of time to consider the facts of the crime as they had been presented to me. I ultimately came to the assumption that this notorious prisoner, that the people had taken to calling the Pied Piper, was an absolute lunatic; a heartless monster. How could he not be in order to do what he did? But as I examined the man that I sat across from and listened as he answered my questions, he showed no overt signs of madness. If he was, in fact, a sane man, then his crime was hard to fathom.
I tried to brush aside those thoughts as they were not helping my confidence. I swallowed, with what little saliva I had, and continued, “Do you know why I’m here?”
“Yes. You’re here to represent me to those who will be responsible to judge my case.”
I nodded. “That’s correct. My name is Herr Steinhauser and I have traveled all the way from Hamburg.”
The prisoner chuffed. “An absolute waste of your time, I’m afraid.”
“Be that as it may, protocol is to be followed. Do you know why they sent me, a complete stranger, such a distance to Hamelin?”
He shook his head indicating that he did not know – or did not care.
Wanting to understand this criminal, I watched his face closely as I said my next words. “They sent me because no one here would represent you. Not a single person in the entire town, or towns here about, could stand the thought of being at your side. What do you think of that?”
His grim smile returned and he simply said, “Good. I wouldn’t bear them anyway.”
In the few minutes I had been with the prisoner, his distaste for the townsfolk came across very clearly. Hate seasoned his voice and rage burned quietly behind his eyes. That, combined with what he was accused of doing, made him the most frightening person I had ever come across.
Mustering what boldness I could – which was not much – I pressed on. “I have several questions that I must ask you. Will you answer them honestly?”
“Then let’s begin.”