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Title: The Onus Of The Charge Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200631h.html Language: English Date first posted: January 2012 Date most recently updated: February 2012 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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THE case was going dead against the prisoner; sanguine as he was, he could see that for himself. He was conscious of an odd feeling of unreality. For instance, it seemed almost absurd that those half-dozen portly, respectable, well-groomed gentlemen on the Bench should be trying him, when only a few days ago half of them had dined with him at The Towers. There was the chairman of the Bench, for example, General Owen Sexton. The General had regarded the dinner invitation as a favor. He had dined well, and had secured some valuable information as to a prospective investment into the bargain.
The Bench seemed to feel it, too; for when they looked at the prisoner, it was with a half-apologetic glance, as who should say: "Really, it is no fault of ours, but rather the outcome of a wretched system." On the whole, the embarrassment was on the side of the Bench.
Not so with the general public. It was not every day that the little Assize-town had such a treat as this. A millionaire, the great man of the district, charged with wilful murder! It seemed almost incredible that any body of men should dare to bring such an accusation against Wilfred Scanlaw. Why, the man could have bought up all Illchester and never felt it.
And yet there it was, and the case was going badly for the prisoner. The stately butler from The Towers was telling the story. The deceased, who had been identified as one John Chagg, had called at The Towers on the night of March 15 and had asked to see Mr. Scanlaw. The butler had informed the late caller that his master never saw anybody on business after dinner, and that it was as much as his place was worth to disturb Mr. Scanlaw. When alone, Mr. Scanlaw invariably slept for an hour after dinner. It was an early house usually, and the servants were in bed by half-past ten. The stranger, however, had been very persistent. He had induced the butler to take his card into the library and place it where Mr. Scanlaw could see it when he woke. He would stay in the hall—he was in no hurry. It sounded just a little odd, but the servants went to bed leaving John Chagg still waiting to see the master of the house. Nobody thought any more of the matter; it had passed out of the mind of the butler until the body of John Chagg was found in the shrubbery at the back of the house late on the following day. The police had been called in, and they had made certain investigations. Questioned, Mr. Scanlaw denied that he had seen the deceased at all on the night in question; he denied that the man's features were known to him. If the butler's evidence had been correct, then Chagg must have grown tired of waiting and gone away. Was the front door open? the police desired to know. Yes, the front door had not been fastened, as Mr. Scanlaw noticed as he was going to bed; and on coming down in the morning he had blamed the servants for their inattention.
This was all very well, but the awkward thing was the fact that the dead man had a letter in his pocket from Scanlaw — a curt letter in which Chagg was told that he could do as he liked, but not one penny of blackmail would be got from the writer. The body of the letter, the address on the envelope, were all in Scanlaw's handwriting.
All this was pretty bad, but there was worse to follow. A big stick in the hallstand was found to be slightly stained with blood, so also was a shirt that had been found pushed at the back of the wardrobe in Mr. Scanlaw's bedroom. It was all very well for the jaunty, well-groomed London solicitor who had the case in hand to say that a perfect answer to the charge would be forthcoming. The lawyer in question, the well-known Edward Coxley, had shrugged his shoulders and promised to outline the career of the dead man later on, and prove that he was a particularly pestiferous type of blackmailer. There were even two sides to the denial of Chagg's identity by Mr. Scanlaw.
And even this was not all. On the face of the dead man was a peculiar mark, an indentation, deep in the skull, that had evidently been the result of a severe blow. According to the theory of the prosecution, the mark had been caused by a ring that Scanlaw was in the habit of wearing, a cameo signet-ring with a very large, irregular-edged stone. If this ring had been produced, said the police, the stone would have fitted the mark. A heavy blow would have been required to make so deep and perfect an indentation; but the prisoner was a strong man, and the prosecution was prepared to prove now that Scanlaw in his early days in America had been closely connected with the prize-ring.
Strangely enough, the ring was missing. The police had asked for it directly they had got an inkling of the manner in which the mark had been made, but they were met by an assertion on the part of the prisoner to the effect that the ring had been lost two days before, in the woods, where he had been rabbiting. All these things gradually piled up a case against the prisoner; already he was condemned by those in court.
The case dragged on wearily till the light in the court began to fade, and people were beginning to leave, feeling that the sensations of the day were exhausted. The tense attention of the afternoon had relaxed; people chatted listlessly; only one man seemed to be deeply interested. He was a little man, with a clean-shaven face and the mobile mouth of the actor. His eyes gleamed and flickered; he constantly dried his moist palms on a pocket-handkerchief. Once his eyes met those of the prisoner, and Scanlaw felt that he would know that face again anywhere.
The court adjourned at length, and Scanlaw stepped out of the box. Since he was before magistrates, and the case not yet proved, he had managed to procure bail. For the last two days he had walked out of the dock with his head erect and his mouth as hard as a steel trap; for the last two nights he had not gone home to The Towers, close by; rather, he had preferred to stay at the Crozier Hotel, and dine in the coffee-room before the eyes of all men. The little man with the clean-shaven mouth followed, dabbing his moist palms all the time.
"I'll try it," he muttered. "It's a desperate chance, but I'll try it. Pity he had not gone home, and then I should have been in a position to see him as I am and save the cost of a dinner that I can ill afford. Lucky there is the wardrobe to fall back upon."
At eight o'clock, Mr. Scanlaw sat down to dine in the coffee-room of the Crozier Hotel. Five minutes later, a clergyman with white hair came into the room and, as if quite casually, took his seat at the same table. Scanlaw frowned, but the man opposite did not heed. He ordered fish in a calm, bland, incisive manner that impresses even a waiter. He was half way through his fish before he addressed Scanlaw. He spoke in a low tone, and did not look at all at the man on the other side of the table. His speech was peculiar.
"Would you give a thousand pounds to be out of your present difficulty?" he asked. "Don't stare at me like that. Go on with your dinner as if I had made a remark about the weather."
The words were spoken calmly enough, and yet there was a suggestion of nervous, eager haste about them. In a strange, uneasy way, a spark of hope shot up in Scanlaw's breast.
"You are either a lunatic or a very clever man," he said, "Mr.—"
"Call me Jones — the Reverend John Jones. What's in a name? The thing we call a rose — but I must drop shop for the present. You say I am either a lunatic or a very clever man. Please pay me the compliment of believing me to be the latter. I have been watching you all day."
"Oh, then you are disguised, Mr. Jones." Scanlaw muttered. "I recognize you now. You are the little man who was rubbing his palms all the time. Seemed to be in trouble, too."
"So I am," said the other, still bending over his fish. "Not as bad as yours, but bitter trouble, and possible disgrace, for want of a thousand pounds. That rascal Edward Coxley, your lawyer, is at the bottom of it all. He looks very smart and gentlemanly, but for all that he is one of the most poisonous scoundrels that ever disgraced a dishonorable profession. Because he is utterly unscrupulous, I suppose you decided to employ him."
"Being innocent of the charge against me," Scanlaw began with dignity, "I must say—"
"Innocent be hanged!" the other man snapped. "You are as guilty as hell! You killed that blackmailing rascal as you would do again; and you will hang for it. If I am going to save your neck, there must be no foolish allusions between you and me."
"For the sake of argument, we will admit that I killed John Chagg," said Scanlaw hoarsely.
"That's better. Nobody can hear us, so I can talk freely. Before I leave here tonight, I am going to give you a written lot of questions and answers that you are to commit to memory before you sleep. Early to-morrow you had better show those questions to your lawyer, and suggest that he should put the questions and that you should answer them — in the witness-box. All this does not tally with the most honorable procedure of the court; but Coxley will not hesitate, the blackguard!"
"But what are you doing this for?" Scanlaw asked.
"A thousand pounds," was the prompt reply. "If I succeed, as I anticipate, you pay me that sum of money. As I am an actor — and I should have been a great actor but for the drink — you need not fear that my side of the thing will fail. I want that missing ring."
Scanlaw looked doubtfully at the speaker. Visions of a police trap rose to his mind. If this man was an enemy in disguise, he was giving away a piece of evidence that would hang him to a certainty. The other seemed to read Scanlaw's mind, for he smiled.
"I can quite see what is passing in your brain," he said. "But if you don't trust me, I can do nothing for you. If my plot fails through lack of confidence on my part, you will hang. Besides, you have tacitly admitted to me that you are the culprit. If you had been an innocent man, you would not have suffered my impertinence, but have got up and flung me through the window."
The voice of the speaker was nervous and shaky, but the words were cool enough. The clear logic was not lost on a well-endowed mind like Scanlaw's.
"The ring is in my waistcoat pocket at the present moment," he said.
"I am glad to hear it," the other answered. "I began to be afraid that it had been lost. It is so like your mingled prudence and audacity to carry that damning piece of evidence within arm's length of the police. Hand it over to me, please."
Wondering at his own confidence in a complete stranger, Scanlaw did as requested. His sanguine temperament and bull-dog courage had kept him up for the time, but there were minutes, like flashes of lightning before sightless eyes, when he realized the terrible gravity of his position.
"You are going to take a terrible risk," he said.
"Of course I am. Did I not tell you that I was in dire need of a thousand pounds? I would sell my soul for that money. I would take any hazard under the sun for it. You trust me, and I am going to trust you. No papers shall pass between us; and when you walk out of the dock a free man — as you will to-morrow — you shall pay me that sum in gold and notes. No; I am a bit of a rascal, but I have not fallen as low as blackmailing yet; and after that you will never hear from me again. But there is one little point."
"Let me hear it," Scanlaw said eagerly. He was becoming absurdly dependent upon this stranger. He began to feel quite an affection for him. "What do you want to know?"
"I want to know if you keep a motor-car. I have built up everything on that?"
"Of course I keep a motor-car; keep two, in fact. No modern millionaire is held to be complete and genuine without keeping a motor-car."
The pseudo-parson rubbed his hands together in the old, nervous manner; yet his eyes gleamed.
"Good!" he said. "As agent in advance for a popular company that shall be nameless, I have had a deal of experience with automobiles. Now, you must send a message to your chauffeur and get him out of the way for a couple of hours. Better still, change your mind and sleep at home to-night. Contrive to have the key left in your garage about nine o'clock to-night, and leave the rest to me. But, above all things, keep your chauffeur out of the way till after midnight. Have you got a full and proper grasp of that?"
Scaniaw nodded. Usually he had a fine contempt for the intellect of other men, but he felt that he had met more than his match now. His pulses were beating a little faster, and a fine bead of perspiration stood on his forehead. Was he going to stand whitewashed in the eyes of his fellows once more? The sense of crime was not on his conscience at all — he had rid the world of a pestiferous reptile, and there was an end of the matter.
"I will do exactly what you require," he said. "I'll get a cab here and go home. But before I do so, I should like to have some inkling of the method by which—"
"Not one word," the pseudo-clergyman said fiercely. "My good man, that would be fatal. It would only make you nervous and restless. You would be continually looking for your cue, and then you would spoil everything. The great thing in this matter is spontaneosity. Take this sheet of paper, with the questions and answers on it, and commit it to memory. Only do as you are told, and I promise that you shall be a thousand pounds poorer to-morrow night."
Scanlaw rose from the table and lighted a cigar. The coffee-room was empty by this time.
"I am going home now," he said. "I have trusted everything to your hands. If there is some further deep conspiracy against me—"
He hesitated, and there was a threatening flash in his eyes. The man at the table, drinking his claret calmly and smoking a cigarette, smiled.
"I am a well-connected man," he said. "There remain to me yet a few gentlemanly instincts. In the eyes of the law I am doing wrong. All the same, I can see no great crime in ridding the world of a blackmailer. Besides, I am in desperate need of money. I, too, am the victim of a conspiracy; and your rascally lawyer is going to share the plunder. I can see my way to save you, to put money in my purse, and spite Coxley at the same time. To get a man like that under one's thumb is a pleasant thing. Now go and muzzle your chauffeur, as arranged."
Scanlaw walked quietly out and called a cab. A little time later he was at home, the old butler waiting his good pleasure. The butler was a well-paid servant, who deplored the grave condition of his master. He was too well paid to believe that Mr. Scanlaw would do anything of the kind.
"I have changed my mind and come home for the night, Stephens," the millionaire said. "It was a little too public in the hotel; and, besides, I have recollected some important papers that I have to go into. When this ridiculous charge fails, to-morrow—"
"I am glad to hear that, sir," Stephens said. "It always seemed to me—"
"Yes, yes, Stephens, I understand. Get me some brandy and soda-water and my cigars. You had better go to bed at the usual time, as if nothing had happened. By the way, is Gailand in the house? If so, I want him to go to Ford by the last train and see Maylor for me about those bearings. If everything goes well to-morrow, I shall go for a tour up North. I think that is all I shall want to-night."
The chauffeur came in obediently. The bearings had not come, he explained, a fact that Scanlaw was aware of before he asked the question. He seemed to be annoyed about something.
"Then you must go and fetch them to-night," he said.
"And come back here by an early train in the morning. Where are the keys of the motor-house?"
Gailand had left them in his bedroom over the stables. He would fetch them if his master required them. But Scanlaw waved the suggestion aside — he did not explain to Gailand that he had a master-key of all the locks about the house and estate.
"Never mind," he said. "It will do in the morning. Good night, Gailand."
It was a good hour before Scanlaw had a grip of the questions and answers that the pseudo-clergyman had written out for him. Even then he had only a hazy idea of what was the drift of the whole thing. It was like listening to a brilliant conversation on the telephone, when one side of the talk only could be heard — like an acrostic with an important link missing. Scanlaw abandoned the idea of solving the jumble at length.
He locked the paper carefully away and went outside in the silence of the night. His nerves were getting more frayed and ragged than he cared to admit; the dark silence was soothing. He passed onward to the back of the great house and alongside the new building where his two motor-cars were stored. One was all in pieces, as he knew, but the other was ready for use day and night — it was a whim of Scanlaw's.
He looked inside with a feeling partly of relief, partly of bewilderment. The door of the house was wide open, and the big car was gone!
The chairman and his brother magistrates came into court with an expression that plainly told that they wished the thing well over. The strong case for the prosecution was complete; it only remained for Scanlaw to reserve his defence and be committed for trial. Once that was done, there would be an end to Scanlaw's bail; he would have to go to jail, which was a most unpleasant course to adopt toward a man who gave such excellent dinners. The prim little barrister who appeared for the Crown looked at Mr. Coxley, the smart Bow Street attorney, as if conscious of the great social gulf between them, and intimated that he had no more to say. Mr. Coxley would pursue the usual course?
"Not on this occasion," Coxley said. "I propose to exercise the discretion vested in me and put my client in the box. I am adopting a most unusual course, I know; but I desire to save my client some weeks of anxiety and degradation. I shall try and prove the innocence of my client from his own story, and save the county the expense of an Assize trial."
The audience thrilled; they felt that they were going to get something for their money, after all. Scanlaw stepped from the dock into the witness-box; his hard, square face was absolutely devoid of emotion. He looked almost defiantly at his own lawyer.
"Let us go back to the night of the murder," Coxley said.
"Did you see the deceased man on that occasion, sir? Did you give Chagg an interview?"
"I did not," Scanlaw replied. "I did not, for the simple reason that I was not in the house between dinner and midnight."
"We will get to that presently," Coxley went on. "The prosecution has made a great deal of the fact that you denied all knowledge of Chagg, when at the same time you had written a letter to him telling him to do his worst. Can you reconcile those statements?"
"Nothing is easier," Scanlaw said slowly and distinctly. "I repeat that I never saw Chagg in my life. He wrote to me more than once, saying that he was in possession of certain papers, etc., relating to my past, and proposing that I should buy them for ten thousand pounds. He tried to see me, and I gave orders to have him kicked off the premises if he came again. Of course, I am speaking of my offices. Finally, I wrote the man the letter which was found in his pocket."
"What he suggested as to your past was false?" said Coxley.
"No, it was absolutely true," Scanlaw admitted with the greatest coolness. "My past is not altogether a blameless one — not that that has anything to do with the case. There are lots of people in America who could tell you a deal of my earlier life. Before Chagg came along, there was another man. I might have tried to buy his silence; only I felt that if I did so, others of the same gang would come along and try the same game."
"You feel quite sure that Chagg was only one of a set of fellows who—"
"I am certain of it, because I had had letters of the same kind before."
"Quite so," Coxley said with a smile. "A conspiracy, in fact. It is just possible that Chagg, after leaving your house, met a confederate, they quarrelled, and-"
"This is not a speech for the defence," the Crown representative said pithily. "If my learned friend will confine himself to the examination-in-chief "
"My learned friend" bowed and apologized. But he had made his point, which was the chief object in view.
"Let us get on," he said. "You say you were out all the evening. Please explain."
"The explanation is quite easy," said Scanlaw. "As my butler told the Bench, it is my custom when alone to go to sleep after dinner. I am never disturbed; the servants go to bed at the proper time and leave me severely alone. If Chagg was in the house, I did not know it. Soon after dinner I took a coat with a big collar — for the night was cold — and went out. My chauffeur was away, unfortunately, so I had to take my motor out myself. Without saying a word to anybody, I drove my car to Illchester and went to the Mitre Hotel there."
"Can you produce anybody to testify to that?" Coxley asked.
"I am afraid not," Scanlaw went on. "You see, it was Illchester Fair — pleasure fair; the hotels were full, and the streets crowded with people who came to see the show. I was muffled up, and my hat over my eyes. I went there to see a stranger who, curiously enough, had written me a letter relating to Chagg. The writer of the letter was a stranger to me, and he seemed to have a grudge against Chagg. He said if I would see him, he would tell me enough to get Chagg ten years. The address was 'The Mitre, Illchester,' a house of no repute, which was why I did not desire to be seen there. Hence I kept my collar up."
"This is getting very interesting," said Coxley. "You have kept that letter, of course."
"No," Scanlaw said sharply. "I handed it to you yesterday."
Coxley apologized and produced a letter from his papers. It was handed up to the Bench and passed from one magistrate to another. The letter was signed "ONE WHO KNOWS," the envelope, the date, the stamp, all appeared to be in perfect order.
"No signature, as your Worships will notice," Coxley said smoothly. "You thought it better to go and see the man than make an appointment which—"
"I acted, as usual, on the spur of the moment," Scanlaw proceeded. "I rather suspected another form of the conspiracy. It seemed to me if I took the writer of the letter by surprise—"
"And did you take the writer of the letter by surprise?"
"It was more or less mutual," said Scanlaw. "When I was going into the bar, a man accosted me and whispered my name. He did not give his, but suggested that he had written me a letter. The man in question looked like an actor in reduced circumstances."
"One moment," Coxley interrupted. "If you went over on your motor, and the streets were crowded—"
"I left my motor on the outskirts of the town, close to Illchester Priory, in the ditch on the left-hand side; it seemed best to walk. I sat in the bar talking to my man for some time. He gave me a great deal of information about Chagg — what, I will tell the Bench if they like — not that it would be of any assistance to their Worships. I was there from ten till ten minutes to twelve."
"After the house was closed?" a magistrate asked.
"Oh, no, sir," Scanlaw proceeded to explain. "Your Worships will recollect that during the three days of the Illchester Fair it is usual to extend the closing time till midnight."
The magistrate nodded; he had quite forgotten that. Coxley wanted to know if anything unusual had happened. Scanlaw's voice grew a trifle more husky.
"A very strange thing," he said. "The man I sat with knew a lot about me, because he, too, had passed a great deal of his time in America. A great deal has been made by the gentleman who appears for the Crown as to the mark on the forehead of the dead man Chagg, which mark, it is alleged, was made by my ring. My ring attracted the attention of the man in the bar at the 'Mitre,' and he told me that at one time it had belonged to his mother. He gave me the name of his mother, who had a second time married a man in America, who gave the ring to me."
"Did your friend in the 'Mitre' bar examine the ring?" Coxley asked.
"He did, he looked at it carefully. When we were talking, a man came in and had a hurried drink and passed out again. As he was going, my friend said it was Chagg. I got up on the spur of the moment and hurried after him. I was going to finish him off then and there. Unfortunately for me, a fight was going on outside, and the police intervened. Whilst I was in the press, the doors of the' Mitre' were closed, and I could not get back again."
"All this is a matter of common knowledge in Illchester," Coxley said suavely.
"Then I made up my mind to go home," Scanlaw resumed. "I went back home, and that is all I know of the matter. I did not worry about the ring, because I expected that my friend of the 'Mitre' bar would send it back to me."
"You produce the gentleman of the 'Mitre' bar?" the Crown counsel said.
"Not at present," Coxley was fain to admit. "But we are looking for him everywhere. He is agent in advance for a theatrical company, and therefore his work takes him into out-of-the-way places. He may not have heard of the case yet. If we can produce the gentleman in question, and his evidence is as my client states, then the prosecution falls to the ground."
The legal representative of the Crown stated that it did. According to the medical evidence, the crime had been committed between the hours of ten and twelve; indeed, the murdered man's watch, which had been broken in the struggle, had stopped at 11.25, to be precise. At that time Scanlaw was attempting to prove that he was fifteen miles away.
"Do you apply for an adjournment, Mr. Coxley?" the chairman asked.
"I am not quite in a position to say, sir," Coxley replied. "But I am going to place a policeman in the box who will swear that he tracked the wheels of Mr. Scanlaw's motor-car from the stable to the ditch by the side of Illchester Priory, and back again. That test was made and proved this morning, though Mr. Scanlaw's chauffeur was strongly of opinion that the big Panhard had not been out of the stables for three days prior to and following the murder. To go further, the state of the motor and the lowness of the petrol prove that. Beyond doubt Mr. Scanlaw was along the road and in the motor at Illchester on the night of the murder."
"But the murdered man was at Mr. Scanlaw's house?" the chairman suggested.
"We are not going to deny it," Coxley exclaimed. "He probably got tired and went away. Incidentally he took with him from a case in the hall a fine collection of old gold coins. I suggest that these coins aroused the cupidity of some confederate waiting outside, which led to the murder. Of course, it seems to me that if we could track those coins—"
A policeman stood up in court and held a handful of gold coins aloft. He had found them that very morning in a piece of tobacco paper, near to where the murder was committed. The packed spectators thrilled and rocked at the discovery. People there looked at Scanlaw's impassive face. The thin, hard features never changed a muscle.
The stir and fret was at its height when a little man, with the suggestion of an actor about him, bustled in. He had an air of agitation and fussy impatience. He apologized to the Bench for his want of ceremony.
"I have only just heard of this case, your Worships," he said. "My name is John Oliver. I am agent in advance for the Vestris Comedy Company. I am told that they are looking for me. I only heard of this case just now. But, seeing that Mr. Scanlaw was in my company on the night of the murder till nearly twelve o'clock, why—"
"Hadn't the man better be sworn?" the Crown counsel said tartly.
Mr. John Oliver wanted nothing better. He gave his evidence glibly, but to the point; in every respect he confirmed exactly what Scanlaw had said. The latter bent his head and covered his face with a handkerchief for a moment. He desired to hide the fierce delight in his eyes; he suppressed a strong desire to laugh and sing. As Coxley finished his questions, the little Crown lawyer shot up.
"About that ring," he said. "I am prepared to believe all that you have said, though, on your own confession, you are not a man of the highest integrity; but I am curious about that ring. Why were you so prejudiced against Chagg?"
"He was at one time a member of our company," Oliver said. "And a more thorough—"
"That will do. What did you do with the ring? That's the point."
"Upon my word, I forget," the witness cried. "When I pointed out to Mr. Scanlaw the man I deemed to be Chagg, I had the ring in my hand. To be perfectly candid, I had been drinking a good deal that night and I was a little muddled. I distinctly remember laying down the ring somewhere. If — if I could only recollect!... I've got it! We were sitting by the fireplace in the 'Mitre.' It is an old oak fireplace, with a fine overmantel carved with figures in niches. I put the ring in one of the little niches on the left-hand side of the fireplace in a vague kind of way. I suppose I must have had another drink and forgotten all about it. It is not a showy ring, and the overmantel is very dirty, I recollect. Unless the housemaids have been extra busy—which is not very likely, seeing that there would be a deal of pressure of work at the Fair time—the ring is very likely to be exactly where I placed it."
"We shall have to have an adjournment, after all," the chairman said.
"Not the least occasion for anything of the kind, your Worships," said Coxley cheerfully. "I would suggest that Sergeant Braithwaite go over to the post-office and telephone to the police-station at Illchester, telling them exactly what has happened. In less than ten minutes we shall know whether the story is confirmed or not."
The Bench nodded their approval of the suggestion. Excitement stood high; people were wiping their faces as if personally interested in the issue. Only the prisoner stood quite still and impassive all the time; he seemed to be the only one who took no interest in the proceedings. He gave the suggestion of regarding it all as a kind of farce, from which he was to be rescued by common sense and reason. The chairman on the Bench bent over and made some remark to him; possibly he was discounting the future and thinking of those little dinners. There was a general surging of bodies, a gasping of breath, as the sergeant of police came back into court, swelling with puffy importance.
"It seems, your Worship," he said, "as the witness is correct in that statement of hisn. The ring has been found by one of the ladies in the bar of the 'Mitre,' and has been handed over to the police at Illchester. If necessary, a special messenger "
"There is no necessity," the chairman said. "A full description of the ring has been in the hands of the Illchester police for some days, and they are perfectly well aware whether they have the proper ring or not. It seems quite natural that the pris— that Mr. Scanlaw should have forgotten his curious gem in that way, and that the witness should have left it on the mantelpiece. Do you propose to call any more witnesses, Mr. Coxley?"
Coxley smiling indicated that he was perfectly satisfied to leave matters in the hands of a bench of magistrates so singularly luminous-minded and clear-headed. Perhaps his friend who appeared on behalf of the prosecutor had a few words to say.
"I follow the same lead," the little barrister said politely. "I have no animus in the matter. I have simply to do my duty, and there is an end of it. The case has taken a totally unexpected turn in favor of the prisoner; and, so far as I can see, there is nothing more to be done besides look for the murderer of Chagg elsewhere." A loud murmur of applause followed the generous statement. The Bench put their heads together and whispered for a moment. Ten minutes later, and Scanlaw stepped out into the street a free man. An hour later, and he was lunching quietly at home with John Oliver opposite him. The door was closed, and the two men talked in whispers. From time to time Oliver fingered a thick pad of paper in his breast-pocket that crackled with a musical sound.
"A little imagination of the playwright, my dear sir," he said, "and a little good luck. You see, I did happen to be in the bar of the'Mitre' that night with a mysterious stranger whose collar was turned up. He was a friend of mine who had done something wrong, and I was smuggling him away. The inspiration came to me like a flash when I heard your case tried the first day. Then I worked out all those questions and answers between your lawyer and yourself. If I had not known Coxley to be a perfectly unscrupulous rascal, I dared not have tried that on. My next game was to get your chauffeur out of the way and make that very pretty confirmatory evidence as to the visit to Illchester and the motor left in the ditch by the Priory. That touch about the missing case of coins from the hall was also a pretty one, I flatter myself. As to smuggling the ring to the mantelpiece, that was quite easy. I placed it there myself before a full bar of drunken farmers and the like who were in from the Fair. Then I brought your motor back and lay low to wait for developments. I fancy I timed my dramatic entrance very prettily indeed. But all the same, luck was dead on your side—everything played into my hands. What a magnificent situation for a play it would make!"
"I trust the play will never be written," Scanlaw said hastily. "The mere hint of such a thing might mean ruin to me. You see the moral would be—"
Oliver chuckled as he helped himself to more champagne and took a fresh cigarette. He had a very pleasant and full-flavored turn of humor.
"The moral, my dear sir, is this," he said slyly. "That the average millionaire is always a lucky man, otherwise he would never be a millionaire. But there never was a luckier one than you."
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