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Title: The Witness
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1201511h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: February 2012
Date most recently updated: February 2012

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The Witness

by

Fred M White


ILLUSTRATED BY FRANK GILLETT


Published in The Windsor Magazine, Vol. LI, Feb 1920, pp 233-238



MAINTREE sat on the balcony overlooking the compound, trying in vain to piece the puzzle together and evolve something logical and convincing out of the chaos. Out there in the compound the blistering sun, in a heaven of brass, shone down on the dry grass and withered vegetation, for it was the hot season of the year, and everything wilted under the merciless heat of the afternoon. There was no sign of life anywhere, except that now and again a tired sentry dragged himself across the grass and disappeared at intervals into the shadow.

For Maintree was a prisoner, detained there in that barren compound on the frontier until such time as he could be committed for trial by the Resident Magistrate and sent down country to appear before the Superior Court.

He had breakfasted more or less in solitary state, and for some hours had been sitting there, trying to see his way out of the maze of circumstantial evidence that the prosecution was weaving about his feet. And the more he thought of it, the less he liked contemplation of the future, for, indeed, everything was against him.

The mere fact that he had not killed Stooke had nothing whatever to do with it. The prosecution said he had, and, what was more to the point, they appeared to have a good deal of evidence in proof of the charge. To begin with, Maintree was known to have been on exceedingly bad terms with the tea planter; they had had at least two violent quarrels, and on one occasion, in the presence of witnesses, they had come to blows. For the purposes of the case it mattered nothing that Stooke had treated Maintree exceedingly badly. It was quite immaterial that Stooke had had a sinister reputation in the neighbourhood, and that, putting the case at its very best, he had been an exceptionally sharp man of business. In point of fact, he had done Maintree out of his garden in an almost barefaced and cynical fashion. He had taken advantage of the fact that the latter was something of a visionary and a dreamer, given over to scientific and natural pursuits, to the great detriment of his prospects. But this was in itself a proof of malice against Maintree.

He had parted with his garden under duress, and his prospects had been very bad indeed but for the fact that, just after the transaction was completed, a distant relative in England had left him a fortune. But this had come too late to prevent friction between the two men and an openly -expressed threat on Maintree's part to do Stooke a mischief if ever the opportunity should come his way.

In the course of time Maintree had turned out of his holding and had found some sort of a habitation in a more or less dilapidated bungalow on the Delhi road. And here he busied himself, pending his return to England, with his collection of moths and butterflies, which was, by common consent, the best of its kind in India. The thing might have been forgotten altogether, when it suddenly loomed large in the gossip of the district again by reason of the finding of Stooke's body lying just off the roadway, the unfortunate man having evidently been killed by a shot fired at close quarters from an ordinary sporting weapon. Stooke had evidently been killed instantly; his left side was badly torn, and the watch he was wearing penetrated by a shot or two, which had caused the little timepiece to stop at twenty-five minutes past three. This was held, very properly, to fix the time of the crime, and though Stooke had many enemies, especially amongst his employees, the district made up its mind at once that this was the work of Maintree. He had been seen in argument with the dead man not long before, his shot-gun was missing, and, when inquiries were made, Maintree professed to have lost it. Nor could he satisfactorily account for the time between the hour when he was seen talking to Stooke and the moment when he returned to his own bungalow to tea. Investigations were set on foot, with the result that Maintree had been arrested and brought before a magistrate on two occasions. On the last of these he had been remanded for a week, and to-morrow would see him before the Bench again, probably for the last time before he was committed for trial. It appeared to be a hopeless case from the first, and gradually and surely Maintree was coming to the same conclusion.

He was waiting now to see his lawyer with regard to one or two points which the latter wanted to place before the court on the morrow. Presently the gate of the compound opened and Maintree's advocate made his appearance.

"Well, have you got any further?" he asked.

Maintree shook his head thoughtfully.

"No," he said. "I am just as mystified as you are. But I never touched Stooke."

"Yes, but we have got to convince the magistrate of it. Now, let's talk this matter over as if we were detached from it altogether. Somebody killed Stooke. You have no doubt whatever about that, I suppose?"

"Go on," Maintree said; "that's admitted."

"Very well, then. Stooke was killed with a shot-gun well within an hour of being seen in conversation with you. There was bad blood between you, and you threatened him with violence on more than one occasion."

"I did, the swine!" Maintree muttered.

"Perhaps you don't see the significance of that admission. It's evidence of motive, and that counts for a good deal, let me tell you. Stooke was killed with a sporting gun using the same shot that you use yourself. You may contend that scores of men here use exactly the same shot, but that doesn't help you much. And when you are asked to produce your gun, you say you don't know where it is. That's a lot to ask a magistrate to believe."

"But it's true, all the same," Maintree said.

"Yes, but, man alive, how did you lose it? Even an absent-minded beggar like yourself can't lose a valuable sporting gun without knowing anything about it."

"Well, it was like this," Maintree said. "I had a few words with Stooke, mostly sarcastic, but we parted without any violence. He went along the main road, and I turned into the deep path between the cane brake and the water ponds, so that I was hidden from view. I was going round that way to the bungalow because I had heard a rumour from one of the natives to the effect that he had seen a laced-wing butterfly."

"Oh, go on," Denton said wearily. "Can't you forget those wretched butterflies for the moment?"

"Ah, well, perhaps it is more important than you think," Maintree said. "I didn't believe what the man said, because there hasn't been a laced-wing butterfly taken in these parts for over thirty years. I don't suppose there are half a dozen of them left in India. But you never can tell. I went that way because I knew that, if there was one of those moths to be seen, it would be somewhere near water. You may not know it, but the laced-wing is never seen except between two and four. And I found one— I found one. I dropped my gun, and I must have chased the insect for the best part of three miles before I caught him. And I can show him to you now, if you like."

Denton waved the suggestion aside.

"I took my prize home, and then I went back for my gun. I couldn't find it."

"Of course you couldn't," Denton said. "Picked up by some thieving native, no doubt. Now, I believe all this, but you'll never get a magistrate to. Oh, come, Maintree, can't you see what a tight place you are in? If what you tell me can be proved by any independent witness, then we can establish the fact that you were some miles away from the scene of the crime at the moment Stooke died. We can establish that that took place about half-past three from the unshakable evidence of the damaged watch. Did you meet anybody on the way?"

"Oh, yes," Maintree said.

"Then why on earth didn't you tell me that before? Who was it you met? Some neighbour?"

"No; a man I have never seen before. He came upon me quite suddenly just after I had secured the butterfly. I was spreading the insect out and mounting it on a sheet of cork, when somebody hailed me. I was so busy with the work that I never heard the man come up. It's a very lonely bit of road, you know, and as those pools are supposed to be haunted, no native ever willingly goes that way. I was squatting on the ground, pinning out my butterfly, when the stranger in question spoke to me. I looked up and saw a man seated on the back of a flea-bitten grey pony—a little man with a keen, clean-shaven face and a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles. He looked like a good-humoured, amusing sort of chap who, I should say, would be very good company. He was very friendly, and quite free and easy in his manner. A man of about sixty, more or less. He asked me what I had found, and I told him. He was very interested, because he told me he was a bit of a collector or something of that sort, and he had never seen a laced-wing before. He didn't believe they any longer existed. I gathered from what he said that he was a stranger in these parts, probably on a visit to some planter; but we didn't go into that, and he volunteered no further details. He asked me a great many questions connected with butterflies, and I suppose we must have been chatting together for a quarter of an hour."

"What time would that be?" Denton asked.

"Oh, well, after three, anyhow. I knew that by the position of the sun. And these are things that I do understand."

"Then you didn't get the man's name?"

"I didn't, worse luck. But of course I should know him again—I should know that keen, thin face anywhere."

Denton paused in thought for a moment.

"This is very important," he said, "very important. If what you say is correct, and you can find that man, then you can walk out of the court-house to-morrow free. You'll have to appear before a deputy magistrate, because Shelton is laid up and has gone up to the hills for a week, and another man is coming down from headquarters to take his place. He's a fine chap. Very different to the Resident Magistrate— a real fine lawyer with a mind of his own. But never mind about that. What we have got to do now is to find this chap we speak about. I get about a good deal, but I don't know a single planter within fifty miles who has any outsider staying with him just now. It's a very slim chance, Maintree. It looks to me as if your man was passing through, and if he doesn't happen to catch sight of the account of your trial—well "

Denton shrugged his shoulders eloquently.

"The funny thing is," Maintree went on, "that I do know his name, but, for the life of me, I can't think of it. He was showing me a fly he had captured, and in taking out his pocket-book he dropped it. I picked it up, and saw the name in gold letters on the outside. It was marked J.E. something or other. A strange thing that one cannot think of a name like that, and yet I can remember the initials perfectly. It was a peculiar name, too, and one I never heard before."

Maintree rambled on in that quick, nervous fashion of his under the cold, scrutinising eye of his advocate. He knew perfectly well that Denton was listening to him with more than suspicion—in fact, though he did not say so, he was coming to the conclusion that his client was trying to deceive him. And Maintree could not feel angry about it. either. He knew that, had the positions been reversed, his point of view would have been much the same as Denton's.

"Very strange indeed," Denton said drily. "Of course the thing's impossible. But it isn't myself you have to convince, but a magistrate, who will go entirely on evidence. He won't be prejudiced either way. It may be in your favour that you are appearing before one of the best men in India; on the other hand, it may not. My dear fellow, you must see how terribly appearances are against you. I should be lacking in my duty if I didn't point this out,

I don't want to labour the point and go over the old ground again, but if we could only find that gun of yours, it would be something. However, I'll do the best I can."

With this cold comfort Denton went his way, leaving Maintree to his own gloomy thoughts. He sat there on the verandah, looking out across the dreary compound, trying once more to find some suggestion of light in the darkness. And he was none the less unhappy because he had told Denton no more than the truth. Had the whole story been a fabrication of lies, he would have been far easier in his mind. The mere fact that he was telling the truth only served to weigh the more heavily upon him.

He could see it all before him now quite plainly. He could see the sly malice in Stooke's eyes and the smile of triumph on his thin lips. He could remember every word that passed between them, and he could have written it down verbatim. He had turned his back upon the man who had robbed him, and then he had gone down the road between the brake and the chain of water-pools, boiling with rage and filled with the hatred of contempt for the man who had swindled him. He could remember that even then, distracted as he was, his thoughts had reverted to the story which the native had told him with regard to the laced-wing butterfly, and how even at that moment he had found himself wondering if he would be fortunate enough to come across one. Not that he had been in the least sanguine, because to his certain knowledge no specimen of that gorgeous purple-and-gold insect had been secured for the past thirty years. And just as he had come to this conclusion, behold, a brilliant object rose from the centre of the brake and fluttered in all its panoply of gorgeous colouring over his head.

He remembered dropping his gun and starting in instant pursuit, but for the life of him, afterwards, he could not recollect the spot at which he had abandoned his weapon. And then the chase had begun. It had been a long and weary business, one moment in the brake, and the next knee-deep in one of the pools, a hot and sweating struggle which had ended, the best part of an hour later, in the capture of the prize. And this was the fateful hour that Maintree had to prove as one in which he had not been anywhere near the neighbourhood of his enemy. He had secured the butterfly at length at a point quite three miles from where, about that moment, Stooke had been lying dead, and a witness of the fact had appeared just at the psychological moment."

Yes, it was the exact moment, as Maintree remembered now. The grey-haired, clean-shaven man in the gold-rimmed spectacles had asked him the time. He replied casually enough, without looking at his watch, that it wanted something to half-past three—a fact which seemed to surprise the stranger, who inquired how it was that Maintree was so certain. He replied that he had made a study of such things, and, indeed, this was a fact, because there was little in the way of Nature that Maintree did not understand. He had indicated the position of the sun, and the length of shadows falling from the thick brake, and apparently the stranger had been satisfied, for he smiled and casually remarked that that was one of the sort of things that everybody ought to know.

Then they had fallen to chatting generally, and the man on the grey horse had produced his pocket-book, from which he extracted an insect which was unfamiliar to him, and which he asked Maintree to name. The latter had done so without the slightest hesitation, and it was at this point that the stranger dropped his pocket-book. In picking it up and returning it Maintree had noticed the neat gold lettering on the cover of the pigskin case. The initials " J.E." stood out in his mind now in symbols of flame. He was as sure of them as he was of his own identity, and yet, for the life of him, he could not remember what the rest was. And, indeed, it was in the interest of his own life that he was sitting there, with his head in his hands, trying to sweat it out.

Now, what was that remarkable name? It was not particularly long or intricate in the way of spelling; on the contrary, it was the sort of name that tripped readily off the tongue when once the mind had grasped it— a compact, business-like sort of word, which seemed to Maintree at the time to fit the identity of the owner like a glove. And yet, though he sat there till darkness began to shut down and it was time to go back to his narrow quarters, no sign of illumination came to him.

So far as Maintree could see, there was no getting out in that direction. Unless some blind luck came his way, he was never likely to look upon the face of that amiable stranger again. No doubt he was someone passing through—a travelling inspector, perhaps, a district superintendent, or maybe somebody doing the work of somebody else.

No doubt by this time he was hundreds of miles away—perhaps in a different part of India altogether—and unless by chance he came across the account of the trial in one of the papers, he might never know that the life of a fellow-creature was in his hands. And even if he did see the report, it was long odds against his connecting it with the casual acquaintance on the roadside who had discovered a rare butterfly, unless, indeed, Denton could see his way to make the laced-wing butterfly a prominent feature of the case, on the desperate chance of the fact being brought before the eyes of the man with the gold-rimmed spectacles.

And so the hot and weary night dragged on, till morning came, and with it Denton once again.

He was no more sanguine than he had been the night before. He listened to all that Maintree had to say, and, without enthusiasm, agreed to the latter's suggestion.

"Well, it can't do any harm," he said, "and it may attract the attention of the man you speak about. But it will take time. You will probably be committed for trial this morning, and conveyed down country to a civilian gaol. The delay is all in your favour, but it's a mighty slim chance."

"I know that," Maintree said.

"Well, I'll do my best. Your case comes on at ten o'clock, and I'll be at court at that hour."

Ten o'clock came, and with it a sergeant and his file, acting as civilian police for the time being. The sergeant was well enough known to Maintree—a sporting West of England man, who had had more than one day's shooting on Maintree's property. But he was no longer the civil individual he had been, but a gaoler now, who had evidently made up his mind as to how the case was going. Quite curtly and without prefix, he ordered his prisoner to follow him. This was the first indication to Maintree of how his own little world regarded the position in which he stood. It was something in the way of a shock, but Maintree smiled steadily as he followed.

He found himself presently in a bare whitewashed room with a long ink-splashed - table, at which native and other advocates sat, and behind this a raised platform with a big chair in the centre, and over it the Royal monogram. It was a rude court of justice, after all, but it served the purpose.

With the exception of the little knot of people round the table, the court-house was empty. As yet the legal luminary who was taking the place of the Resident Magistrate had not taken his seat, and Maintree had a little time to look about him. He stood in the dock now, with the stolid sergeant by his side. He was wondering what had become of Denton. He was wondering, too, why no curious neighbour or old acquaintance had put in an appearance. No one had seemed to rally round him, and, on the contrary, no one seemed to care to listen. Perhaps they had already made up their minds as to what was. going to happen, and thought it would be more decent to stay away.

Then a little door behind the gallery opened, and a man dressed in spotless white bustled in. As he took his seat. Maintree's lower jaw dropped, and he stared at the newcomer as if he were looking at a ghost. In that instant, with something strangely familiar dancing about before his eyes, his mind, by some unconscious process, leapt with the word that had been haunting and eluding him all night.

"Look here, Braddock " he said.

He broke off abruptly, conscious of what he was saying, and perhaps conscious, too, of the incongruity of it. Who was Braddock, and why did he use that word? Just for a moment he was too confused to understand. And yet Braddock was the right word—he knew it in his bones.

"'Ere, drop that," the sergeant said. "Remember where you are!"

A jolt in Maintree's ribs brought him to himself.

"I am very sorry," he stammered. "No disrespect to the court or Mr. Braddock."

"Sir John Braddock," the sergeant said gruffly.

Something of this seemed to catch the ears of the man on the bench, for he looked keenly in the direction of the dock. Then the eyes of judge and prisoner met, and a gleam of recognition passed between them.

"Bless my soul!" said the man on the bench. "Why, it's the man who caught the butterfly!. "



Maintree gripped the rail of the dock and tried to steady himself. He had found his witness.


THE END

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