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Title: The Judge's Secret
Author: Arthur Gask
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Language: English
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THE JUDGE'S SECRET



By Arthur Gask



Published in the Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 1954), Thursday 15 May 1941.





IT was getting on for ten o'clock at night, and in a closely-curtained room upon the top floor of a high building a woman was gazing intently into a large crystal ball reposing upon a bed of black velvet in the centre of a small table. The only illuminant of the room was a small, red-globed lamp, close beside which an incense pastille was burning in a brass bowl. The woman's head was hooded in a dark shawl. A deep silence filled the room.

Seated opposite to the woman, on the other side of the table, a man was scowling sullenly. Well into middle age, he was distinguished-looking, and, with his lofty brow, his shrewd, stern eyes, and his resolute mouth and chin, he seemed very out of place as a client in a fortune teller's parlor.

Indeed, none realised better than he himself that he was out of place there and he was furious for having come. A judge of the Supreme Court, a man of the highest intellectual attainments and noted for his unsparing condemnation of all forms of chicanery and sham, he knew it would be a public scandal if it became known where he had been.

But he was excusing himself that it was in contemptuous curiosity only he had come. He had been taking a long walk, as he often did at night when he had something particularly important to think about, and, overtaken by a heavy shower of rain, had sought shelter in the entrance hall of a large block of offices. Then, his eyes roving carelessly round to the notice board upon which were inscribed the names of the many tenants of the building, he had suddenly become interested with a name he saw there.

"Madame Laselle!" he had exclaimed. "Now where have I heard that name before? Ah, I remember! The fortune-teller, the woman who bamboozled Susan last week at Mrs. Travers's!"

How scornful he had felt at the recollection! His wife had returned from her friend's house with an amazing tale of the marvellous powers of a crystal-gazer, an un-French-looking woman with a French name and a decided Scotch accent, who had been hired for the afternoon to tell fortunes. She had mentioned many intimate details of his wife's family life, and, besides detailing happenings in her past, had confidently predicted much of what her future would be.

How contemptuously he had smiled as he had stood waiting for the rain to stop! How convenient it would be if someone would tell him about the future, and, particularly so, about that investment a friend of his was trying to induce him to make and about which he had to give his decision on the morrow! It would certainly be most useful if he could learn what was going to happen to that gold mine in Western Australia! Bah, what credulous creatures nearly all woman were!

Then, the rain continuing to pour down in torrents and chafing at his enforced inactivity, the idea had come to him suddenly that he would go up and see what this fortune-telling woman was like. It was almost certain she would keep evening hours and he was curious to determine how a woman speaking broken English with a Scotch accent could have managed to so impose upon an audience of educated, if naturally inclined to be credulous, women.

At first he had dismissed the idea with the utmost scorn, but the rain still going on, more to occupy his time than anything, he had thought it would be amusing to see exactly what the woman was like, and so, finally, he had mounted the four flights of stairs and rung upon her door. "Madame Laselle, Vocational Adviser," he had read upon the brass plate, and, in answer to his ring, it had been she herself, as he had guessed at once, who had opened the door.

"I want to consult you," he had said, but she had only stared hard and suspiciously at him, making no sign for him to enter the room. So he had added drily—"I have nothing to do with the police and I am quite alone. It is quite by chance I am here. I was caught in this rain, and, waiting in the entrance hall, happened to catch sight of your name upon the notice board."

"Vat you know about me?" she asked with a frown.

"That you are a crystal-gazer," he snapped. He tried to keep the contempt out of his tones. "That you can read the past and the future."

After a few moments of further hesitation, she at last invited him to enter and very quickly, to his idea, the tomfoolery had begun. For a short while he was interested in the paraphernalia of charlatancy, the darkness, the red lamp, and the burning incense pastille, but his interest there soon waned and, soothed by the silence and the semi-darkness, his thoughts began harking back to the matter of the contemplated investment. Should he put his money in it? It was a biggish sum his friend was advising, and there was no doubt a great, great element of risk in the venture. Now that the courts were up, too, his friend wanted him to fly back with him for a long holiday, and he was not over-partial to aeroplanes at any time. Yes, everything wanted a lot of consideration and——

But his thoughts were interrupted here, for the fortune-teller at last began to speak and in a few moments, as if in a dream and to his intense amazement, he realised she seemed to be warning him against the very matters which had been in his thoughts.

"I see," she droned slowly and in a husky monotone, "two paths stretching away before you and mooch vill depend upon vich vun you take. Zey are drawing close now and you must make a choice from vich; vunce chosen, you vill not be able to draw back. Vun leads down into ze bowels of ze earth. It go on and on, but zen stop all at vonce." She considered for a few moments and then shook her head slowly. "No, zat is not ze path you must take, for zose who follow it vill have to turn back. It lead novere."

Her listener's face was screwed up in a heavy frown. Of course, she was giving him the usual patter she gave to all her dupes, but how strangely what she was saying fitted in! The pathway into the bowels of the earth might easily mean the entrance into a mine, and she was telling him it would not be a profitable one to follow. She was suggesting the gold-bearing veins might peter out. It was certainly a remarkable coincidence!

She went on, droning more slowly than ever. "I see a great roll of sky. It ees blue and high and vide and ze sun ees shining. Ah, but from far avay I see a storm ees coming. Black clouds are gazering." Her voice quickened. "A ship ees plunging and rolling as if in pain. No, it ees not a ship. It ees an aeroplane in zose clouds and it disappear, oh, it disappear in smoke." Her voice trailed away. "For ze moment all ees dark."

The judge's frown was heavier than ever. It was incredible, but the coincidence was there, too! Still, only just coincidences that she had first hinted about what might perhaps be a mine and then had specifically referred to an aeroplane. Then, with a start he asked himself did she know who he was and was she only fooling him? But he answered the latter of the two questions on the instant. No, by no possibility could she be fooling him for, even if she was aware who he was, she could not have known anything about the mining property in Western Australia or the suggested trip by aeroplane. Those matters were known only to himself, his wife and his friend.

The fortune-teller was addressing him directly. "You, Monsieur, you go in no aeroplane. It vill be dangerous eef you do."

The judge spoke bitingly. "It is always easy to give advice, and easier still to read the future. A child is safe in telling you what is going to happen, as no one is in a position to contradict him."

"Zat ees so," she agreed at once. She nodded darkly. "But sometime I tell ze past as veil as ze future."

"Then tell me my past," he scoffed.

"It vill cost more money, for it take more of my nerve out of me," and upon his shrugging his shoulders contemptuously, she turned once again to her crystal.

Another long silence followed and the judge was about to tell her he couldn't stop when her monologue started again.

"I see long ago," she said, "a young man who row in a boat viz ozers. Eet is on a river and zere is many on ze banks. I do not see vot happen, for et fade avay. Zen I see a church viz many in eet and zis man who is older now ees standing viz a lady at his side."

"When I was married, I suppose!" commented the judge drily. "A happening in the lives of most men and not difficult to guess!"

The woman took no notice of the interruption and, keeping her eyes intently on the crystal, went on, "Zee lady ees tall and fair. She have blue eyes and a noble face."

"A good shot!" murmured the judge, frowningly to himself. "That describes Susan right enough, but then it is the description of hundreds of thousands of other brides."

The woman continued—"Zen I see zis man, mooch older still, in a room which look like vun of a 'ospital. He look very ill and zere ees a nurse standing by ze bedside. She bend over him and stroke his forehead. She ees young and have dark eyes, zis nurse, and she ees of petite figure, but she ees beautiful and have a lovely little face. The man vatch her always ven she ees zere and his eyes follow her ven she move. She smile at him, and he smile back at her."

Again a silence ensued, for there was now no interruption by the judge. His eyes were wide and staring, his ruddy face had paled and his forehead was pricked over in little beads of sweat. It seemed that he could hardly get his breath. He was hanging upon every word she uttered.

She went on—"I see zis man and zis girl togezer many times. He hold her in his arms, he kiss her and—ah, ze darkness come and zis crystal show no more." Her voice rose sharply in excitement. "Vait, vait! Ze darkness clear and eet show zis girl again. It ees in ze street and zere ees an upset motor car and men are running tovards eet. Ze girl ees lying on ze ground. She ees all crumpled up and she does not move. Her face is very vite. Aah, but she ees dead! She vill smile and kiss no more!"

A hoarse ejaculation from her client, and the woman rose abruptly to her feet, throwing a cloth over the crystal with one hand and switching on the electric light with the other. "I tell you no more," she said. "Ze strain ees too great."

The judge spoke with an effort. "What's the charge?" he asked hoarsely.

"Vot you like," she replied. "Vot you sink it vorth."

The judge threw down a pound note and rose sharply to his feet. His only thought now was to get away as quickly as he could. Of the strong character he was, his mind was in a panic because of what she had told him, and he wanted now to think as hard as he had ever had to think in his whole life.

With a curt nod to the woman, he let himself out of the room and passed hurriedly down the stairs and into the street. The rain was falling heavier than ever, but he plunged into it, so oblivious to all discomfort that he did not even trouble to turn up the collar of his coat. His mind was in a state of dreadful turmoil.

God, by what means had the woman been able to uncover that so closely hidden secret of his life? It was impossible she could have learnt it in the ordinary way, for not a soul in the world had ever been aware that he and Elsie were lovers. They had guarded every step they took. They had made certain there should be no discovery.

His thoughts raced back along the years. His marriage, five and twenty years ago, had been one only of convenience, and Susan had been but a stepping stone in his professional career. Her people had money and influence. Then when not far off 50, it was barely five years back, Elsie had come into his life. He had been taken ill with pneumonia and she had been his special nurse. He had fallen madly in love with her and she had returned his affection. After he had got well and left the hospital they had continued to meet in great secrecy until that terrible day when she had been killed in a motor accident. The crystal-gazer had described her exactly, dark-eyed, petite and with a lovely little face.

He could hardly think coherently. What did it mean? How had the woman been able to see everything in her glass? Was it then possible that after all there was truth in what he, in common with all educated men, had held to be a shameless fraud? Were there powers that the world regarded with scorn and contempt, simply because they did not understand them?

Arriving home, he found his wife had gone to bed and, proceeding into his study, he unlocked his desk and from beneath some papers in one of the bottom drawers abstracted a small photograph. It was that of the dead girl in her nurse's uniform and upon the back of it was written in an unformed school girl handwriting. "To one to whom I give all my love.—From Elsie Bowen."

A scalding tear furrowed down his cheek.

It was a long time that night before he closed his eyes, but before sleep came at last he had made up his mind to make an intense study of Occult Science and determine for himself if there were any truth in it.

In the morning he informed his friend that he would not be investing in the mine and that, therefore, his projected flight to Western Australia would not take place. Then, his disbelief that the future could be foretold having been so profoundly shaken by the disclosures the crystal-gazer had been able to make about his past, he was not at all surprised when the aeroplane in which he was to have travelled crashed, with all its occupants being killed. As he was now expecting, too, the following week the report of the expert upon the mining proposition was unfavorable and the shares slumped badly.

A few days later he paid another visit to Madame Laselle's rooms, but found she had left the building, with no one knowing to where she had gone. To his indignation, he learnt she had had to go because of the threatening of the police.

Then commenced an entirely new life for the judge, with him becoming an entirely changed man. Convinced now that there were forces in the world of which hitherto he had not dreamed, he became an ardent student of Occult Science and devoted all his leisure to acquiring knowledge of what are known as "The Secret Teachings of the East." Much to his family's disgust, he gave up all social functions, apart from his duties in the courts, becoming almost a recluse.

This state of things went on for several years, and then he received a dreadful shock, one destined to be as far-reaching in its consequences for him as that he had received when he had paid his visit to the crystal-gazer upon that stormy night.

One evening after dinner, just as he was upon the point of retiring as usual to his study, his wife remarked casually, "Oh, Horace, you remember my coming home from Mrs. Traver's, one afternoon some years ago, full of the astonishing things a crystal-gazer, that Madame Laselle, had told me?"

The judge's heart stirred at the mention of the name. "Yes, I remember," he replied. "She told you several things which had happened to you."

His wife nodded significantly. "And I don't wonder she was able to." She laughed merrily. "Why, she was Robert's sister and so, of course, would have known all about me."

"I don't understand,'' frowned the judge. "What do you mean?"

"Well, this morning cook pointed out to me a piece in the newspaper which said that this Madame Laselle had been arrested in Adelaide, and she told me she had learnt some time ago that the woman's real name was Flora McCullum and, as I say, that she was Robert's sister. Now didn't I tell you at the time that she spoke her broken French with a Scotch accent?"

"But which Robert's sister?" asked the judge sharply, an icy shiver beginning to run down his spine.

His wife was amused. "Robert, the butler we had at the time, Robert McCullum, the man we used to think was always listening at the doors. Don't you remember you sent him away in the end because you caught him opening your desk when, one day, you had left your keys about?"

She went on talking, but her husband was no longer listening. He felt sick and stunned in mortification, for his mind had suddenly been illuminated with a great light.

He swallowed hard. So he had been taken in as easily as the most credulous of those he had been wont to so despise. Without the slightest doubt the crystal-gazer had recognised him as her brother's employer and, from what the latter had told her of him and his household she had built up all she had been pretending to see in the crystal.

She had made out she had seen him as a young man in a boat race because her brother had, of course, mentioned the pair of sculls hanging upon the study wall. She had told him of the tall, fair girl of noble features who had been his bride, because her brother had described to her the big photograph of the wedding group in the drawing room and, lastly, when searching through his, the judge's, desk, the man had come upon the photo, with the affectionate inscription on the back, and surmising a hidden attachment, had passed on the information there, again. It was public knowledge that he, the judge, had been an inmate of a private hospital for many weeks.

Then, about the goldmine and the projected flight to Western Australia, her brother had, of course, overheard all about them, and it had been just a guess that the plane would run into a thunderstorm—planes often did—and that the goldmine venture would turn out to be an unprofitable one—how often did they not?

He went hot and cold in turns, feeling in the lowest depths of humiliation. From the tittle-tattle of a domestic servant passed on to a common, uneducated woman who lived by her habitual cheating and deceit, he, who's lifework it was to weigh evidence, had been led, like the veriest simpleton, to envision a mighty world of occult mysteries to be explored.

He burst suddenly into a loud laugh.

"What are you laughing at Horace?" asked his wife.

"At the thought of how easily people are taken in, my dear," he replied, and then he astonished her by adding, "But come, now, I'm giving up all my studies for a while, so let's go to the pictures tonight."



THE END.