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Title: The Witness of the Skies
Author: Fred M. White
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Language: English
Date first posted:  Dec 2016
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The Witness of the Skies

by

Fred M. White

Cover Image

Published under syndication in, e.g.:
The Chronicle, Adelaide, Australia, January 18, 1919

This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2017



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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