Herbert Countenance the third, son of the retired judge and great humanitarian Sir Walter Countenance the second, had already at an early age exhibited talent for improving the productivity of operations around the manor. Waste was appalling to him and the sensible economics of the to and fro of all activities was always at the top of his mind. He chided the servants for not bringing him his evening milk and morning wash towel in the same delivery, thereby sparing them one trip up and down the stairs and him the inconvenience of having to wait if he decided on an early rise. And to the butler he devoted particular attention: “Oh, Duncan my good man,” the eleven-year-old would say, “if only you would take the dinner plates away at the time you bring me dessert. It would save you an extra journey to the kitchen. That’s an entire two minutes. Think if you had done this just once every day for the last twenty years, you would have saved yourself about ten days. Ten days during which you could have performed other tasks. You really ought to think more efficiently.”
So it was no surprise that after graduating from university he quickly rose to a position of responsibility. His first job was the post offered to him by his father as Junior Clerk in the court house during which he reorganised the processing of new cases and introduced the requirement that all petty complaints be petitioned in writing by the submission of a rather elaborate and onerous form before the initiation of proceedings. As a result, cases such as those involving theft of foodstuffs or claims by greedy landlords which were brought before a judge were halved since no-one cared much for filling out forms or paying a lawyer’s hourly rate. His superiors were so impressed they decided to let him loose on the incredibly vast backlog of death-row inmates, some of whom, due to inefficiency and plain incompetence in the department, had been lingering in over-crowded jails for years causing strain on the already over-capacitated justice system. Therefore with the blessing of the Minister he was expediently promoted. A position – Director in Charge of Hangings and Executions – was created for him and he applied all his energies to the task as an astronomer researching the stars. Through a concerted effort of cost-cutting on materials, double shifts for executioners on Sundays to avoid time-wasting interruptions (everyone was at church service) and the blanket refusal to grant last meals and many other initiatives, it wasn’t long before there were no prisoners awaiting execution at all. Herbert was lauded by the government and in the halls of the justice ministry his name sounded often around the oak tables as the general expert on all matters of capital punishment economics. Several state executioners from abroad also travelled from the continent to seek his counsel on how to dispose of their surplus of criminals in a more financially beneficial fashion.
His son’s success in public life naturally pleased Sir Walter Countenance however they ran against his own beliefs. Sir Walter had, through many of his judgements on torture and the working conditions of the poor, enhanced the prominence of human rights in a country that still regarded slavery as a benefit to the welfare of its citizens. Hence he had serious reservations in relation to the humaneness of some of the measures Herbert had implemented — reservations he voiced at their monthly luncheon at the family’s country house.
“I am merely stating that one must be prudent not to smear the image of justice in this country for the pursuit of penny-pinching alone,” his father said after they’d finished a particularly generous course of venison. “The Minister is naturally impressed with you, slaps you on the back with the motto that you’re his man, but you know politicians: if you err and inflate their ambitions too much they’ll pop and disappear into the atmosphere never to be seen again and they’ll take your career with them. Did I ever tell you about my unsavoury experience with Sir Singleton Cake-Murray?”
Herbert often tolerated his father’s penchant for useless description when he was narrating anecdotes from his past or discussing some finer point of philosophy, but he refused to be lectured on how to perform his job. “If I may say so, father, the image of justice in this country has, if anything, been greatly improved since the introduction of my programs. Our system is seen as swift and consistent. Those who commit heinous acts are well aware of the punishment our society has ready for them; they have been judged in the courts by your successors, where they are afforded every opportunity of a fair hearing. But when they are sentenced, that is that and they must face our punishment. Besides, it is our equipment and our men who sweep the stones beneath the gallows; it should only follow that we maintain the right to determine the terms in which we deliver punitive justice.”
“And what of the pitiable, pot-bellied wretches whom you have so penuriously relieved of their heads? Or those who, after your hangmen have released the rope, dangle in quite vigorous suspension awaiting an eventual death by choking? Where is the efficiency in that I ask you?”
“What of it? Merely an abnormality in some of the technical aspects. I admit, there is some work left to do to make it a truly perfect system, these cases nevertheless are sporadic.”
“Why, it’s an appalling display of suffering! Where’s the humanity in it? What of the witnesses who are asked to look upon such vile aberrations in this perfect system of yours? You know what the papers are calling you, don’t you? It was just the other day when I read an article condeming ‘Herbert Countenance, the devil’s accountant who compiles ledgers for the damned’. You’ve earned rather an honourable title for yourself.”
“Those rags can write what they please. Perhaps I should pay a visit to their editors and provide them with some advice on the economics of words. They would save a fortune on labour and printing if they only removed the slander and other trivial nonsense before publication. Devil’s accountant. How ridiculous! I doubt that the Devil runs hell anywhere near as productive as I manage our capital penal system and, assuming he wanted to at all, he would have done away with all this eternal torture distraction and have it taken care of once and properly. And while I am it, I might like to show the heavens a thing or too, instruct God in more ways to get a more tangible return on the commandments.”
“Oh, what impertinence!” Sir Walter lifted his imposing hand and was about to hammer down on the table but caught himself and, wincing as if he’d just bitten on an overcooked chestnut, flattened his hand and rearranged the knife and fork on the plate before him. It was no use trying to teach the value of human rights to a mathematician. It was not an exact teaching, there were no on or offs, ones or zeros; morals could not be passed through a function with the expectation of the right, let alone any, answer. In reflecting on this, Sir Walter observed the bones that he had piled together, which lay neatly arranged around the rim of the plate. It had been a delicious meal of braised ribs and fillet steaks carved from a deer he had received that morning from a neighbour. The neighbour was a bore and talked incessantly about guns and traps, something which Sir Walter equated to the filling of ink pots in legal chambers, but he recalled something the man had said while they watched the servants haul the gutted carcass into the kitchen. “You’ll find it’s good meat, sir. Chinese Water deer,” the hunter had said. “Not tough like from the farms up north. One look at that guttin’ knife and the poor blighters go down as tense as an iron trap. No, this beauty, looks to be 30 pounds worth, was shot within a hundred yards with a small pellet, sir. The best way to go for them and the best eatin’ for us.” Sir Walter chuckled to himself.
“What is it?” Herbert asked pushed his chair back impatiently.
“How did you enjoy your meal?”
“It was fine. In fact, I would even venture to say that it was exquisite. Complements to the cook, whoever he or she may be at the moment.”
“Did you know there is a great science behind the slaughter of meat? In order that the killing of the animal proceeds with as few complications as possible, both to the hunter and to the animal itself, many things have to be finely calculated. Such as the caliber of the shot and the distance at which the animal is hit. The hunter, more skilled in the art of killing that the toothless scholars you employ, must also assess the dimensions of his bounty and its constitution before he deals it the fatal wound so as to cause as little trauma as possible. That is why your meal is so tender. The animal did not suffer, did not cause the hunter any strain or run wounded into the forest to die slowly and in torment.”
“What is your point exactly? I don’t care much for hunting metphors.”
“I’m saying that the efficiency model you’ve developed, this shrewd business of life disposal, lacks a vital element: precision. You have admitted yourself that your methods are not perfect. The neck must be broken to ensure a quick death but the fall cannot be too great so that a man of diminutive stature loses his greatest appendage in front of his widow-to-be. You boast about your efficient methods yet the very thing in which you deal is far from it. And because I cannot persuade you to understand the humane extinguishment of the soul, I must phrase it your terms of reference. What do you think of my argument?”
“Eloquent and powerfully seductive as always and you know how I detest such overuse of adjectives.”
“And is it a challenge you would accept?”
“The orderly slaughter of a deer has little relevance to the realisation of capital punishment.”
“But how can it be that the death of this animal is far more efficient than those hundreds which you take credit for having orchestrated? I submit that you are a fraud if you refuse the challenge!”
Herbert emptied his wine glass and put on his gloves. “Father, you are clearly drunk. But I will devote some thought to it if I have the time. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be heading back to the city. I have a meeting with the Home Secretary.”
On the journey back, Herbert sat in his closed carriage staring out the window. It was a typical September afternoon — the sun sent long shafts of light into the trees and onto the buildings, warming the colours of the land and streets in defiance of the will of winter. Against the rattling of the wheels Herbert’s mind turned to his father’s words and he felt an anger rise in him. What did he know of the complexity of his work, the relentless predicaments of running a cost-effective division? Not much, that was obvious. But his challenge of creating a perfect system was one that too jarring to ignore; it was something he would have to round off and it would never ceasing haunting him until he did. He tapped the top of the roof with his cane.
“Jackson! I say, Jackson!”
The driver slid open the forward window. “Sir?”
“How much would you say you weigh, Jackson?”
“How much do you weigh?”
“Well, I don’t know, sir. I’ve never really put myself on a weighing machine if I may be honest. I have a healthy appetite if you must know and I can never turn back a plate.”
“At least, sir. If I had to, I’d place myself somewhere over 200 just between you and me, sir.”
“And your height?”
“Oh that’s easy. Wife measured me head to toe just the other day. Buying myself a new suit for my daughter’s wedding. Five eleven I am, sir. Not quite six, like I thought, but not too short, ain’t that so?”
“Yes. That will be all, thank you.” Herbet held his cane out in front of him and regarded it for a minute or two. Yes, he thought to himself, that would do the trick nicely.
“May I ask why you’re inquiring about it, sir?”
“No need to worry, simply an idea I’m working on.”
“Another innovation for the ol’ gallows is it, sir?”
“Not a far drop from it, Jackson. Not a far drop at all.”