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Title: The Witness of the Skies
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
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Language: English
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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Witness of the Skies
Author: Fred M White




THE WITNESS OF THE SKIES.



By



FRED M. WHITE.


Published in the Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 - 1954), Saturday 18
January 1919.



Long before Inspector Price of the Little Mytton Police had finished
his statement most of the spectators in the crowded and stuffy Police
Court had made up their minds that the man in the dock was guilty.
So far as he was concerned it seemed to be a matter of the utmost
indifference to him, for he stood there gazing stolidly about him as
if he had merely dropped in to gratify a languid curiosity. And yet
there was ever and again a queer twitching of his limbs and a peculiar
fluttering of the eyelids that showed either a tortured body or a mind
singularly ill at ease. For the rest, he gazed about him with a strange
detachment that one man at least in the body of the courthouse did
not fail to notice and make a mental note of. This happened to be Dr.
Whitlock Rhodes, the eminent criminologist who chanced to be passing a
few days in the neighborhood and had come over to Little Mytton with
the faint hope that he might add something to his experiences.

But, so far, the tragedy had been sordid enough, apparently a mere
vulgar crime for the sake of inadequate gain--the sort of crime, in
fact, that the Police Courts of a big town presented at frequent
intervals. But then Rhodes had expected this, and so he was not
disappointed. At any rate, he would sit on there till lunch-time on the
off-chance of some unusual feature developing; meanwhile he confined
himself to a study of Little Mytton inhabitants as they presented
themselves to his experienced eye.

All this time Inspector Price, with a sense of his own importance,
was telling the three prosperous-looking magistrates on the bench all
about it, under the leadership of a local solicitor who, pro tem,
represented the Crown.

"On the night of Monday last," the witness explained. "I had a call to
the Bungalow in Mytton-lane, which, is or was, in occupation of the
deceased gentleman, Mr. Brand Wargrave. When I reached the premises
I discovered that the dining-room and the hall beyond were on fire,
and blazing freely. With the aid of the manual engine, I got the
conflagration under in a short time, and then I proceeded to search the
house. Outside the bathroom door I found Mr. Wargrave lying at full
length on the floor, stone dead. Evidently he had been struck down
by somebody behind him, for according to the medical evidence, the
unfortunate gentleman's head was quite shattered."

"What time would that be?" the Crown Solicitor asked.

"Just nine, sir," the witness replied. "In fact, the clock over the
vestry hall was striking as I reached the Bungalow. I searched the body
of the deceased and found on it his watch and chain and pocket-book,
though I noticed that a Kruger sovereign that Mr. Wargrave was in the
habit of wearing on his watch-chain was missing. I know the gentleman
was in the habit of wearing this, because he snowed it to me on more
than one occasion. I believe that Mr. Wargrave served as a volunteer in
the Boer war."

"That," a magistrate interrupted, "is common knowledge. But what has
this to do with the case?"

"I shall come to that presently, your worships," the witness went on.
"I made enquiries and discovered that, on the day of his death, Mr.
Wargrave drew the sum of a hundred pounds from Clay's Bank here. Mr.
Wargrave saw no one during the day, except the accused, and he could
not have parted with that money. I made the most thorough search for
it, and I can find no trace of the notes anywhere. I might remind
your worships that during the years that Mr. Wargrave has occupied
the Bungalow the accused has lived with him; in fact, they have lived
under the same roof ever since the latter left school. Mr. Wargrave,
as you know, was a very reserved and exclusive type of gentleman, who
was exceedingly proud of the fact that he belonged to a distinguished
family, though, for some reason or another, he never had anything to do
with them. So far as we know, he brought up the accused as his own son,
though I don't think that there was any relationship."

"You are quite wrong," the man in the dock broke in. "As a matter of
fact, Mr. Wargrave was my uncle."

"You must not interrupt," the magistrates clerk said. "You will have
your opportunity to speak later on."

The accused shrugged his shoulders and seemed to lose all interest in
the proceedings. Whitlock Rhodes, watching him carefully, saw the queer
look come into his eyes again, and the painful twitching of the muscles
of his face. Perhaps, after all, this was going to be an interesting
case. Then the Inspector took up his tale once more.

"About 10 o'clock I arrested the prisoner," he said. "I met him in
the lane near the Bungalow coming from the direction of Scott-road. I
noticed that his coat was burnt in several places, and that the left
sleeve was entirely gone. His trousers and shirt were badly scorched,
and his hands covered with blisters. As he could give no account of
himself, and as he had evidently been somewhere near the fire in the
Bungalow, if not actually in the building at the time, I arrested him
on suspicion. When I came to examine what was left of the coat I found
in the ticket pocket a small round object which I now produce. If your
worships will look at it you will see that it is a Kruger sovereign,
which for some reason or another the accused had evidently made an
attempt to melt down. It looks as if it had been hammered out of shape,
but the portrait of President Kruger and the date are plainly visible
under a strong glass. I suggest to your worships that this is the coin
missing from the dead man's watch-chain."

"May I have a look at that, your worships?" Whitlock Rhodes asked. "I
know it is an unusual request, but Colonel Roland, the Chairman of the
Bench, knows me, and it is just possible that I may be able to give
important evidence."

"Oh, certainly, Professor, certainly," the chairman said. "Only too
glad to have your assistance, I'm sure."

Whitlock Rhodes examined the misshapen lump of gold for a moment or
two without comment, then handed it back to the Inspector. If he had
discovered anything, there was nothing in the expression of his face to
show it.

"When I took the accused into custody," the Inspector resumed, "he made
no reply, and during the night that he has been in custody I had no
further dealings with him."

"Did you notice anything strange about the accused?" the Crown
Solicitor asked.

"No, sir, only that he was rather peculiar in his manner. And twice
during the time he has been in custody he has had a sort of seizure. A
kind of fit that seems to paralyse his limbs for a time."

"What sort of a character does he bear in the neighborhood?"

The solicitor from a neighboring town, who had been hastily summoned to
defend the accused, objected.

"What has this to do with the case, your worships?" he asked. "Still, I
don't make a point of it."

"Well, sir," the Inspector explained, "fairly good. He doesn't do
anything except a few odd things about the Bungalow, and occasionally
shoot a few rabbits. A bit of a poacher, from all accounts. I know he's
been in trouble with more than one keeper."

It was at this point that the accused actually smiled. What the
Inspector was saying was true enough, and everybody in the neighborhood
knew it. It was a lonely, monotonous existence for a sportsman and a
public school boy that Stephen Wynne had passed during the years he had
lived at the Bungalow, and his nocturnal poaching adventures had been
the only occasional bright spot in his monotonous life. He smiled again
and appeared about to say something when suddenly his limbs stiffened
and he fell without a sound on the floor of the dock. A couple of
warders carried him out and came back presently with information to the
effect that the prisoner was recovering and would be able to reappear
in half an hour or so. The Chairman of the Bench looked up at the clock
and suggested to his brother magistrates that it would be just as well
if they took their luncheon interval at this point. Thereupon the
court adjourned for an hour, and the excited audience poured into the
street. Whitlock Rhodes went round to the back of the court and asked
permission of the Inspector to see the prisoner. He was lying more or
less in a state of coma in one of the cells, but took no heed whatever
when the specialist proceeded to examine him.

"Have you got such a thing as a bath here?" Whitlock Rhodes asked. "A
really hot bath?"

"Oh, yes, sir," the Inspector said.

"Very well, then, carry this man into the bathroom, turn on the water,
and leave him to me. You needn't hesitate, I know what I'm talking
about. And if I don't astonish you and the magistrates before the
afternoon is over, then my name isn't Whitlock Rhodes."

It was shortly after 2 o'clock before the accused stood in the dock
again. Meanwhile he had had his bath, which seemed to work wonders,
after which there had been a long and earnest consultation between the
Professor and the lawyer who was acting for the accused man. At the
request of the latter a police constable had been dispatched post haste
to a game cover some six miles away that was locally known as Scott's
Wood, and was told not to return without a certain woodman known as
Simon Martin, who was required to give evidence.

It was quite a different man who stood in the dock now. He still looked
ragged and dishevelled, his hands were still bound up, but his eye
no longer wandered, and the twitchings of his muscles had ceased. He
sat there, following the evidence of the Inspector with intelligent
interest, until the latter had finished.

Then came a local doctor who testified to the fact that the deceased's
death was due to a blow at the back of the head that had fractured the
skull, and who was decidedly of the opinion that the wound could not
possibly have been self-inflicted.

After him came a charwoman who was accustomed to do odd jobs at the
Bungalow, and who told the bench of the frequent and violent quarrels
which she had heard between the dead man and the person who stood
in the dock. These quarrels, she said, were invariably over money.
The accused was always asking the deceased for money, and more than
once she had heard the former say that if the latter would give him a
hundred pounds he would go abroad and never trouble the deceased again.

All of which tended strongly against the prisoner, so that, with
perhaps one exception, there was nobody in the court who regarded him
as anything but a doomed man.

This impression was still further strengthened by other witnesses, who
spoke of the accused as a mere idler who lived upon the charity of the
man who gave him the shelter of his roof and sufficient clothes to wear.

The evidence finished at length, and in a few words the Inspector
applied for a week's adjournment. In the meantime he hoped to be able
to trace the missing notes and, once this was done, present such a case
against the accused as would justify the magistrates in committing him
for trial on the capital charge. And indeed, from the point of view of
the spectators, the Inspector had made out an absolutely damning case
already. He had proved the constant quarrels between the two men, the
regular applications for money on the part of the accused, and of 100
with which to take the man in the dock out of the country.

And then, on the top of that, was the fact that he had been arrested
some time within an hour or so of the crime with the clothes burnt off
his back and his hands in blisters, proof positive almost that he must
have been inside the Bungalow when the crime was committed and the fire
had broken out. Probably he had set fire to the Bungalow himself with a
view to hiding the evidence of his crime, and, no doubt, the fire had
spread so fast that he barely had time to escape from the premises with
his own life.

And then again, there was the matter of the Kruger sovereign, perhaps
the most damning piece of evidence of all. With this Inspector Price
applied for a week's adjournment, and the solicitor who represented the
prosecution lifted an interrogative eyebrow in the direction of the
prisoner's counsel. Did his learned friend wish to cross-examine the
Inspector, or was he prepared to fall in with the suggested arrangement?

"By no means," the lawyer said. "I have no questions to ask the
Inspector, but I propose to call a witness or two now, including my
client, and I think I shall be able do satisfy the bench that they will
have no alternative but to acquit him."

It was a bold thing to say, and more than one listener smiled as he
heard these brave words. But the advocate went on without further
argument to call his witnesses. The first was a dairy woman, Alice Lane
by name, who deposed that on the night of the tragedy she took a pint
of milk, according to custom, across to the Bungalow at half-past 8,
and that Mr. Wargrave himself had come to the door and taken the jug
from her hand. Moreover, he had paid her for it, and a few words had
passed between them. She knew Mr. Wargrave very well, and there was no
doubt whatever that she had been dealing with him in person. This did
not seem to prove much, except the fact that the deceased was alive and
well at half-past eight; so, therefore, the solicitor for the Crown had
no questions to ask.

Then there followed a further witness in the person of Solomon Martin,
an aged woodman in the employ of Sir John Mason, a local magnate, who
had some extensive shooting about four miles away, the principal covers
being known as Scott's Wood.

"Now, then, Martin," counsel for the defence said, "tell us what
happened outside Scott's Wood on the night of the crime. What were you
doing there?"

"Well, sir," the witness said, "I was going my rounds. I 'elps the
keeper. I left my cottage about a quarter to nine to take a turn round
Scott's Wood, same as I generally does at that time 'fore I goes to
bed. When I comes to the path across the wood, just agin' the young
plantation, I catches sight of a man standing in the road. I says
good-night to 'im, and 'e says good-night to me."

"Did you recognise him, Martin?"

"No, sir, I didn't, not exactly. It was main dark, and just beginning
to rain proper. But I knowed the voice."

"Oh, you knew the voice, did you? In that case you can tell us whose
voice it was."

"I wouldn't swear to it, sir," Martin said cautiously. "But I'm almost
sure as it was Mr. Wynne. I've spoke to 'im lots o' times. I guesses
what 'e was there for, a bit o' poachin' most like, so I speaks to 'im
by name so's 'e might know as I'd got my eye on 'im, and 'e replies
natural-like; an' as it weren't any business o' mine, an' the rain was
comin' down like you might say in sheets, I cuts along the path to my
cottage."

"And that's all you know? Wasn't there a big storm? Thunder and
lightning and all the rest of it?"

"Well, sir, there was two dreadful flashes of lightning, and the worst
thunder I ever 'eard. It was all over in a minute or two, but it was
main bad while it lasted. I 'ears a tree or two struck, an' I didn't
wait for no more."

"And that's all you've got to say, Martin? You are quite convinced that
you were talking to Mr. Wynne?"

"I'm pretty certain about that, sir," Martin said sturdily.

"Well, that's something, at any rate," the lawyer commented. "I will
draw your worships' attention to the fact that here is a witness who
saw the accused four miles away from the scene of the crime within half
an hour, at the outside, of that crime being committed. With this I
propose to put my client in the box."

A buzz of excitement ran round the court as Stephen Wynne left the dock
and took his place in the witness-box. He looked better and brighter
now, the twitchings of his face had stopped, and the absent expression
in his eye was no longer noticeable. He was immediately sworn and began
to tell his story.

"On the night of the murder," he said, "I went out at a few minutes
past seven, taking my gun with me. At that time it was quite fine,
though very hot and close and threatening thunder. I walked for over an
hour in the direction of Scott's Wood."

"What were you going there for?" the chairman asked.

"Well sir, I was poaching," the witness admitted candidly. "I was going
into Scott's Wood to see if I could get a pheasant or two, I have been
there more than once, and know every inch of the ground. It was just on
half-past eight when I reached the new plantation on the edge of the
wood, where I met Martin. It was very dark, but I recognised him by the
way he walked, and when he spoke to me I said good-night to him. Then,
as it began to rain in deadly earnest, I hid my gun and crept into the
young plantation for shelter. I hadn't been there many minutes before
there came two flashes of lightning in quick succession, followed by a
perfect downpour of rain. I stood up to my shoulders among the foliage,
sheltering myself as best I could under the thick branches of those
young Californian cedars, when there came another flash of lightning,
and I don't recollect anything else till I found myself walking down
the road in a dazed condition. So far as I can make out, it must have
been half an hour later. It was as if I had had some sort of fit.
Something seemed to hit me on the back of the head with stunning force,
and I didn't know what I was doing for a time. And then it seemed to
me as if I had been struck by lightning. I could smell my clothes,
which were all scorched and torn, and, hardly knowing what I was doing,
I made my way homewards. It must have been just on 10 o'clock when I
reached the lane behind the Bungalow, and there I met Inspector Price.
I was still dazed, just as if I was half-drunk, but gradually the
Inspector made me understand, and I followed him to the police-station.
And I think that's about all I can tell you."

It sounded altogether an improbable story, and more than one listener
smiled.

"You were not on good terms with the deceased?" the lawyer asked.

"We were always quarrelling," the witness said candidly. "I wanted to
get away from here, and Mr. Wargrave wouldn't hear of it. He was a very
peculiar man."

"You mean to say that he had the power to stop you?"

"Well, he had a hold over me, certainly, and he made the best use of
it. Perhaps I had better explain, if I may do so in my own words. Mr.
Wynne was my uncle. Nobody here knows it, but he was. My father married
his only sister. And my father got into serious trouble. In fact, he
eventually found himself in gaol, where he served a term of penal
servitude. Mr. Wargrave never forgave it, and because of that he left
his own place in the north and came to live down here at the Bungalow.
He was morbid on the subject of his family, and his aristocratic
connections. He made it a stipulation that my mother should move into
a distant part of the country, and on this condition he undertook my
education and made my mother an allowance. But he always said that with
my education his responsibility of me ceased. But for some reason he
refused to let me get my own living, and declined to let me take up any
profession. No Wargrave had ever got his own living, and he was proud
of it. He clothed me and gave me board and lodgings, but he was so
afraid that I should go out and get my own living that he kept me with
him, though there was no love lost between us. He told me if I left
him that his allowance to my mother would cease, and that is the sole
reason why I stayed. But we were always quarrelling, there was always
bitterness between us, and the only amusement I had was an occasional
bit of poaching, which I indulged in more for the sake of adventure
than anything else."

"Now, what about that Kruger sovereign?" counsel asked. "Are you
prepared to say it is not the same coin that is missing from your
uncle's watch-chain?"

"No, I am quite sure it is," the witness said candidly. "I suppose it
became detached from the chain; anyway, I picked it up on the doorstep
just as I was going out on the night I am speaking of, and slipped it
in the ticket-pocket of my shooting jacket."

"How do you account for the condition in which it was found?"

"Ah, that I cannot tell you. That is a mystery to me. Though I have
heard of cases where coins have been fused in the pocket of a man who
has come in contact with lightning."

"I think that will do," the lawyer said. "Now, your worships, I propose
to call Professor Whitlock Rhodes, whose appearance here to-day I
regard as distinctly providential."

Rhodes stepped into the witness-box and took the oath. Then he
proceeded to give his evidence in a coldly logical way that impressed
the listeners from the start.

"I think I am pretty well known," he said, gazing calmly round the
Courthouse through his glasses. "And I think that I can claim to
be an authority where criminology is concerned. I was staying over
at Sandbridge when I read of this case in this morning's "Daily
Herald," and came over on the off-chance of finding something fresh.
Now, your worships, I have been here ever since the court opened.
Knowing what I do of my subject, no trifle is too small for me to make
a note of. I watched the prisoner carefully, the more so because I saw
certain symptoms about him that pointed to novel features in this case.
A peculiar absent look in his eyes, those strangely nervous twitchings
which were certainly not the result of conscience or fear. I could see
they were purely physical, and certainly should not have been present
in a man of such fine physique as the accused. It was plain to me that
he had recently suffered some acute nervous shock. When he collapsed
in the dock just now I was certain of it. Now, I have seen a man who
has been struck by lightning before and it occurred to me that the
accused bore every evidence of such a misfortune. But you can't prove
that unless certain physical features are present, and I was determined
to ascertain whether those features were there or not. That is why I
followed the Inspector into the back of the building and suggested
that he should submit the prisoner to the test of a very hot bath. At
any rate, it would do him no harm, and it would give me an opportunity
of looking for certain features which are not uncommon in the case of
a man who has come into violent contact with an electric current. In
fact, I saw to the prisoner's bath myself, and before it was finished I
had satisfied myself that I had not been wasting my time. I satisfied
myself beyond the shadow of a doubt that the prisoner was telling the
absolute truth when he told your worships that at half-past eight on
the night of the murder he was sheltering over four miles away amongst
some young trees in the area known as Scott's Wood. When he told you
he was struck by lightning he was telling no more than the bare truth.
I am going to show you evidence stamped on his body by nature that is
beyond any argument. I am going to make an unusual request. I want you
to ask the prisoner to strip to the waist."

There request was so startling that a murmur ran through the
Courthouse. People there craned forward to follow every word that
was said. Then, amidst a tense silence, the prisoner complied with
this suggestion from the Chairman of the Bench, and removed his coat
and waist-coat. He was not wearing his shirt, so that his white skin
gleamed dazzlingly as he turned his face to the light. And there, from
the right shoulder-blade down to the elbow, and from the centre of his
back to the waist, was something that looked like a drawing, delicately
done by the pencil of an artist, and representing what appeared to be
the branch of a tree.

"Now, your worships," Rhodes went on, "if you will come a little nearer
you will see that these marks, which might have been made by an artist
in tattooing, represent the delicate tracery and fine outline of
foliage. But, those marks were never traced by the hand of man. They
are the arborescent marks that come from, or rather follow, a lightning
stroke. You may regard them as a great novelty, but I assure you they
are not. They have been found more than once on the bodies of victims
to the electric fluid. And I may say that they have nothing to do
with trees really, although at one time it was thought otherwise. But
one of Lichtenberg's tests--and Lichtenberg was a great authority on
the subject--proved that this kind of pattern can be produced with an
electric battery, a sheet of glass and any form of fine sand. But it is
the electric test all right, and there is no getting away from it. And
this is what I discovered on the prisoner's body when I saw him in his
bath. And this proves beyond a doubt that he was four miles from the
scene of the tragedy when it took place. But I have not quite finished
yet. If you will look at that round queer spot immediately below the
arborescent markings you will see that it represents a large O with
the letter T. T. in the centre. Precisely the sort of mark you see on
a sheep, or, perhaps, to put it more plainly, the sort of brand they
used in the bad old days to identify their slaves. I daresay you wonder
how that got there, but I am going to tell you. That T. T. means Thomas
Tranter, and the big O round it represents the town of Oxbridge. Now,
according to the witness Martin, whom I fetched over in my car, during
the luncheon interval to give evidence, Tranters of Oxbridge are big
nurserymen. The people, in fact, who made a new plantation in Scott's
Wood two years ago. It is their custom, I believe, in the case of rare
coniferae to attach to the trunk a tab of metal, with certain numbers
on it, which is embossed with their initials, T.T., in a circle."

"Perfectly true," the chairman of the bench said. "I know, because
Tranters are my own nurserymen."

"With that we will go on," the Professor proceeded. "There is no doubt,
as any fellow expert of mine will tell you, that when the prisoner was
sheltering in those young firs he was actually leaning against one of
those metal discs which must have attracted the electric fluid, and
therefore sustained those marks which, to my mind, are indisputable
witnesses of his innocence. In a word, the witness of the skies. No
man can explain the vagaries of the electric current, but there is the
evidence before you for any man possessed of average intelligence to
see. And with that, your worships, I don't propose to say any more."

"This is very remarkable," the chairman exclaimed. "And--er--absolutely
convincing. It is not for us to enquire how the Bungalow came to be
set on fire; we are only concerned with the innocence or guilt of the
prisoner. Just one more question, Professor. That coin?"

"Surely one thing explains the other," the Professor said. "The coin
was fused in the accused man's pocket by the same agency that allowed
him to escape with his life and yet left those amazing signs of his
innocence upon his body. If you look at the coin carefully you will
see that a thread of burnt cloth runs right through it. If there is
anything else----"

But there was nothing else. There was nothing to be said or done now
but to release the prisoner.

"Well," said Inspector Price, "this beats anything I ever came up
against. I'm glad for the young man's sake the way things have turned
out, but it doesn't make matters any easier for me, and I shall have to
begin all over again. Still, I've got those missing notes as a clue,
and that's something to go on."

It was, for a week later a hop-picker was arrested some few miles away
with the notes in his possession, and he confessed to the crime. The
fire had been caused by the overturning of a can of petrol which the
murderer had upset in his haste to get away and thus the testimony of
Whitlock Rhodes was complete.


THE END.


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