by S. Fowler Wright
|3||WHO ELSE BUT SHE?||7,376|
|6||THE TEMPERATURE OF GEHENNA SUE||3,672|
|7||THE CONGO CAT||4,483|
|9||A QUESTION OF E.P D.||10,263|
|10||THE TERROR OF WILLIAM STICKERS||1,522|
SIR JOHN reined his horse, and looked back. He saw four who rode faster than he could still hope that he would be able to do.
He had fled since morn, and the April twilight was round him now.
His lance was gone, having been broken upon the shield of one who had died at noon. Could he meet four with a sword which had had some practice in foreign wars? Loving life, as youth will, it was a chance that he would be most willing to miss.
Yet he slackened the poor speed of a wearied horse, even to less than the pace it would have chosen to take. The pursuers were plain to see on the high skyline behind: before was a straggling wood, in which he might have found cover till darkness fell. But he looked back as though reluctant to enter until assured that he had been seen by those who had been so persistent upon his track.
When he rode into the trees, on a bridle-path which was broad and clear, he held to the middle, though mud was deep, for there had been a week of rain, and he looked down with a smile of satisfaction at the depth of the hoofmarks that witnessed the way he came.
Having ridden some distance into the woods, and the sound of pursuit now being as close as he dared risk, he slid from the saddle, stood stiffly for one listening moment, and struck the horse a hard blow with his sheathed sword.
The startled animal dashed forward. Lightened of his weight, and with the instinct to find a shelter as darkness fell, it might go far on that lonely way before it would be caught up by the burdened animals that were spurred behind. So he must hope.
He looked on the ground. He had chosen well. It was a spot which would show no mark of his leather, steel-faced shoes: certainly none to any glance it was likely to get in the closing dusk. He withdrew quickly into thickets which were, as yet, bare of the green of spring.
He crouched in a shade of ivy-tangle where he could see those who came, with little fear that he would be noticed by them.
They rode single-file on the narrow path, and keeping some space apart, for their long lances must be carried low under the boughs. The first was a man-at-arms, bigly made, mounted on a bony white Normandy charger. He wore a ragged tabard broidered with Sir Hugh Offley's crest. Man and horse looked a formidable combination, designed less for ornament than for use. It seemed natural that he should be riding ahead. One who was paid to take the brunt when hard blows were changed, and who endured them without overmuch damage to his own limbs, though he might lack the noble name to which honour is most readily paid.
Sir Hugh himself came next. Well-mounted on a charger of less bone, and probably better blood. He showed debonair, with a gleam of gold on his crested helm in the evening light, and a gay surcoat over his mail. Two spearmen came behind, active, well-grown varlets both, but soberly armed, with more of leather than steel.
Sir John pondered them with a tired smile, considering how they would have faced the swing of his heavy two-handed sword. He concluded: "I am best here."
But it was not a place in which he wished to remain. He did not know how soon those four might catch up with a grazing steed. When that should occur, be it soon or late, he could not be too far away for his own peace. He began to force his way through the undergrowth, in which there were no wider tracks than the deer required.
He went on, though the night fell, keeping a northerly course by the aid of a rising moon on his right hand, which could be seen at times through the trees, Doing this, he must come at last to the Ridminster road, if to no place before that where he could look round under an open sky. But he did not know how far it might be. Perhaps no more than three miles: or no less than ten. He went on.
He did not regret the choice he had made. It had been better to let the horse go than to have been ridden down, or to have concealed himself where he might have been betrayed by a whinny, such as a mare may give at the sound of other horses' approach. But he did not like the condition to which he had been reduced. A knight armed as he had been could have little ease apart from a horse's back. And he was hungry and tired.
After a time, he loosed the heavy two-handed sword which had hung behind him, its cross-hilt rising over his left shoulder, and hid it-under a trail of ivy, where it was a poor chance that he would find it again. Later, cuishes and greaves must go a like way. He went on the better for that, but the forest went on farther yet.
When he came to a ruined oak, hollow with age, he was glad to halt. There was room to lie, and whether it were dry or wet there was little light to disclose. An owl, drifting silently past not five feet from the ground, suggested that he had come to a place which was not usually trodden by human feet during midnight hours.
He unlaced his helmet: loosened from his side a mace of ten pounds weight, which was the only weapon, except his dagger, he had retained, and lay down in such comfort as he could find, which was not much. His body-armour of Milanese mail he retained for warmth, it being heavily padded, and so of less discomfort than might be thought.
Lying thus, he slept ill, waiting the dawn.
Sir John, lying awake while the moon reigned, fell to sleep when he had thought to be up again. When he waked, the sun was some way up the sky, though it was not visible to him in that thick-set place. He had become stiff enough to make movement hard. Apart from that, he was most aware of hunger and a great thirst. All these troubles might be ended if he should move, but surely none while he lay still.
Besides that, there was safety to be found in Ridminster, of a sort. Safety at least from being beset by Sir Hugh Offley at unequal odds, though there might be troubles of other kinds. If he should go forward with the shadows falling toward his left, he must come to that road before noon, however slow his progress might be. He went on through a forest that was dank with the morning dew, and dense in places, even in this leafless month, with holly, ivy, and yew, and less frequent pines.
Yet the green buds swelled, the birds sang. The morning scene would have been cheerful enough to a man less burdened and better fed, though the ground sank, and became squelchy to tread, choose as he would, unless he would turn entirely aside.
"Well," he thought, "if my shoes soak, there should, be water to drink."
So it proved to be. He came to a place where there was water under the trees. It might be described as a shallow stream, though it was uncertain which way it moved. It seemed content to stay where it was. Sir John looked at it with distaste. It was the wisdom of his day that if you drank at a stream (as you often must) you should choose one which moved murmurously over the stones. But there were no stones here. The water lay, clear but motionless, over a bottom brown with the decayed leaves that had fallen six months before.
But his thirst was such that he knelt, the water squelching from the dark leaf-mould beneath his knees. But he drank little. The pool had a foul taste, even for one as thirsty as he. He rose, with a thought that it was not his good day. He had more reason for thinking that before twilight fell.
He might be getting nearer to Ridminster. It was more certain that he was in denser, gloomier woods. He must have gone on for an hour now, seeing no habitation of man, nor even a trodden path.
He startled deer, which leapt over thickets, or ran under the boughs. Jays screeched overhead. Once a badger slipped into the shade. He saw signs of the rooting of many swine. There were places where rabbits ran . . . At length he came to a twisting path. It was a path which had been of some trodden breadth, but could now be little used, if at all. There were crossing briars to be pushed aside. Deep puddles through which to splash.
Yet it held a better hope than that of continuing to push through the shadowy thickets, delayed by low-spreading boughs, and vexed by entangling briars. He followed it till he came to that which had been an abode of man at one time, though now it was no more than half a roof, some stout oak props, and a rubble of fallen brick. There had been a fruit-garden also, apples and plums, where the untended trees might still bear in season, though the nettles were shoulder-high round their mossy boles. But there could be no hope of the food he was needing now. In April, there is little for human nourishment to be found in English orchard or wood.
Approaching this ruined cottage, with hope which was soon to fade, he came near to slip on a sodden plank that the nettles hid. He drew his foot back from a cracking of rotten wood. He supposed a disused well which had been at the path-side in the old days when the cottage walls had been stout, and the chimney smoked.
As it was, his inspection was soon done. He would have gone on - for the path continued beyond the cottage, and might have led to a more habited place - when he heard women's voices. There must be two approaching, if not more, along the path by which he had come.
There should be no menace from them and there might be help. At the least, they could point the way of escape from this lonely wood. It was likely that they could guide him to nearer food. He had a full purse, and among those who make their homes in the green woods, even a silver groat will go far.
He was cautious to stand where he could see rather than be seen, but this caution was mainly lest he should scare those who might run faster than he would care to pursue . . . He saw that two came.
He saw the face of one only. She was the taller of the two, and she wore no more than a kerchief on a brown-gold head. Her companion was shorter. Her face was hidden by a poke-bonnet. Her walk showed no lack of vigour, but had nothing of the lithe freedom of youth, which was evident in her companion's easy stride.
Under the kerchief, Sir John saw a face of delicate colour, and a grave beauty at which his breath paused.
Now they were close to where he had come near to fall at the ruined well. He saw the girl turn to her companion, as one who gave guidance on a path she knew. He could see her face well enough, through the higher scanter twigs of the struggling neglected hedge, the leaves of which did no more as yet than break to a mist of green. Her voice was clear: "Not that way. The mire is too deep. It is better here." They must have turned to the side of the path, and be treading the nettles down . . . There was a sound of rotting timber that snapped. A scream, that a splash drowned. Then it came again.
Sir John started forward. Then he stopped, seeing an amazing, inexplicable and dreadful thing. The head of the shorter woman had disappeared. That she had fallen into the well was an easy guess. But her companion raised no alarm. She stood looking down on the one she had guided to death, and the grave beauty of her face was unchanged, beyond that the mouth was set in a firm line, and the eyes had no pity at what they saw.
Sir John had started forward, and then paused in sheer bewilderment as to what could have occurred. Seeing the girl stand as she did, he supposed, for a short moment, that the accident could not be serious in its results. The next, he knew that it was murder, cold-blooded and deliberate, at which he gazed.
The girl bent slightly forward, making sure, it might be supposed, that there could be no escape for her victim. She spoke again: "You may scream as you will. There is none to hear." Her head lifted. She regained the centre of the path, and went on, with the same buoyant stride as before. She had not seen Sir John, nor had she heard his movement, the air being loud with the woman's screams.
As she went on, he hurried to the well-side. It was a circular pit about eight feet across, the brick wall of which might once have been slightly higher than the surrounding earth, but wayside rubbish and docks and nettles, as the years had passed, had made little of that. It had been covered with planks, stout enough when they had been placed there, but now too rotten to have borne the weight of a five years' child.
Now, as he trod the dead stems of last year's nettles aside, he looked down at a black gap, and the white blur of a woman's face. It might have been comely enough at another time. It was hard to judge. It was distorted by terror now.
The water in the disused well had risen to within five feet of the top. The woman, whether able to swim or not, had got some slight support from the slimy wall, to which she held with nails clutching between the bricks. She must have had some help from the air that her clothes held. Obviously, she was reluctant to drown. Her screams rose.
Yet, without help, she was in a hopeless case, whether she could swim or not. She might swim round, if she could, or her skirts would permit, as a rat will in the bucket where it is put to drown. Or she might cling for a time, if she could not swim, to the wall, till her strength should fail, which could not be long deferred. But to get out would be an impossible feat.
Sir John said: "Keep your hold. I will have you up." He thought it well for her that the water had come so high. He took off his belt.
Lying flat at the well-side, he lowered the belt. She grasped it with one lifted hand, and then loosed the wall with the other, meaning to get the belt in a double grip. But, instead of that, losing the wall's support, her grasp of the belt failed. She fell back.
Sir John saw that her case had become worse than before. Now she was holding on to a fragment of rotten wood which had fallen with her into the water, and which was inadequate to support her weight, so that it ducked under the surface, and her head was only precariously above it. Sir John recognised an idea that might be improved. He threw in a more solid and larger plank. The woman, showing no capacity for swimming, but some pertinacity in preserving her imperilled life, quickly transferred herself to this support and, with her arms over it, showed head and shoulders clear. He saw her face white and drawn, the nose sharp, the soaked hair in straggling grey wisps. The poke-bonnet, which had left her head as she fell, floated near. Sir John thought her an unattractive sight, curiously contrasting with the Madonna-like purity and freshness of the face of the one who had tricked and left her so callously to that dreadful fate. But something may be allowed for the unfavourable circumstances under which she was now observed.
He had given her respite from death, but was no nearer getting her out, for which he could think of no better plan than to throw in the limbs of trees, until she could clamber up, or, at least, until she could get a good enough grip of his belt to be hauled thereby. He looked round for fallen boughs of a suitable size, which he could not see. He regretted his sword, which would soon have lopped timber enough from a nearby yew. It would be slower work with a dagger, however sharp.
Yet he would have attempted that, having no thought of leaving her to a likely death, had he not heard the sound of horses approaching, and made a good guess at who the riders would be.
"It will be better for her," he considered with sound logic, "that they should be next employed in hauling her out than that they should be fighting with me."
They might, of course, have put their feud aside, and joined forces with him to get her out; but he knew Sir Hugh, and he thought not. He withdrew quickly behind the yew.
The woman heard the trampling of hooves. She was not disposed to risk more than she must. She raised her voice again, as he had expected she would.
He heard Sir Hugh's voice, even as the scream rose: "It is here that his steps turn. We shall have him now. Giles, you will search the shed."
Sir John thought it was time to withdraw, leaving the wide yew tree between himself and those whom he sought to miss.
Sir Hugh looked down at the woman, without troubling to enquire how she had fallen in, or much concern as to how or whether she should get out. He was one who kept his own affairs to the front.
"Have you seen," he asked, "a mailed knight going on foot by this way?"
Perhaps she should not be blamed overmuch, being where she was, that she answered, even with something more than the truth, promising that she would be their guide if they would raise her to the dry ground. As a fact, she did not know whether they asked with ill will or good.
After that, she was soon out. She came up clinging, legs and arms, to a lance's shaft.
Sir John, flying through the woods again with no object in where he went beyond placing himself as far as might be from those who would have his blood, became aware that he was an exhausted man. Should they find him now, he would be no more than easy prey. He could do no better than a stumbling walk, and it was the force of obstinate will rather than any hope that he could use it to good result that caused him still to carry the heavy mace which was known to be his favourite weapon, whether for horse fighting or foot.
He had a piece of good luck as he fled, of which he was not aware, being favoured by the lie of the ground, so that he made a short cut where the road wound in a great loop, and was able to cross it again at a point which his pursuers had not reached.
He had another, of more dubious kind, when he came to a clearing among the trees, and saw a fenced garden, neatly kept, and a thatched cottage with more aspect of comfort than he would have expected to find in that lonely place. But, be his enemies however close on his track, he had no hesitation in what he did. Food he must have, and any rest he could get, be it short or long. Reaching the porch, he did not delay to knock. He put his hand to the latch of a yielding door, and went in.
He entered a low-ceiled room, comfortably furnished. On the open hearth, a bright log-fire burned. By it an old woman sat, who turned her head at the sound of the opening door.
"I thought you would have been back - " she began, and then stopped at the sound of a step that she did not know. Sir John made a guess that her eyesight failed. Conscious of his own appearance, he saw no disadvantage in that. He spoke with the candour natural to one who had walked a fearless way through a world which had seldom pressed him so hard that he had been greatly tempted to lie.
"I must make my excuse that I entered thus. I am Sir John of the Bitter Marsh, of whom you will have heard, though I have been away for a time in the foreign wars.
"Now Sir Hugh Offley rides me down, and would have my death. I crave shelter and food, for which I will pay well."
The old woman's head was still turned toward him, apart from which there was no evidence that she heard, or understood.
"Margot," she said vaguely, "should be here now. She is gone too long."
He thought it likely that he had learnt the name of the poor woman whose life he had almost certainly saved, though her rescue had been incomplete when he had felt it wise to withdraw. Well, if so, she might soon be here, though with a draggled tail, and should be willing to do something for one who had done much for her! But his needs were too urgent to wait.
He was about to repeat the request for food, when a clear young voice behind him said: "If Sir Hugh Offley be on your track, it will be prudent to bar the door."
He turned round to face, not the woman he had striven to save, but the girl who had lured her with lying words to step on those rotten boards, with (as he thought) the push of a strong young arm to make surer of what she did.
The doorstep on which she stood was three inches higher than the floor of the room (it being of polished oak, with no rushes strewn) so that, she being tall as she was, their eyes met in a level gaze.
He saw those on which firelight shone, making them an even darker, more vivid blue than the sun would show. They looked cool, friendly, rather amused.
He became puzzled, confused as he seldom was, and aware of the unheroic aspect he showed to her.
She saw a knight of whom she had heard tales, but whom she had not encountered before, wearing such a helm as covered his face by no more than a straight bar which came downward to guard the nose. She saw a face below that which was pale and strained, firm lips which would be quick to smile at a fitter time, and a cleft chin.
She saw body-armour of mail, and a belt, gay but soiled, from which hung a heavy mace, inadequately balanced by a long poniard on the other side. On his legs were no better protection than long pink hose, stained and torn, above steel shoes which were heavy with drying mud.
She could not guess that he had seen her before, and the cold doubt in his eyes might seem to her no more than was natural to the expression of an exhausted and hunted man.
The thought that came uppermost in the bewilderment of his mind was that, had he known her less than he did, he would have thought her God's angel to meet his need.
But, without waiting for his reply, she had closed the door, which he had left open as he entered. A bar fell into place. A bolt shot upward into the oakbeam of the ceiling. Another downward into the stone of the step. Certainly, no one would enter by that door without means of battering which Sir Hugh was unlikely to have at call
She said in her friendly casual manner: "You have lost your horse - and your sword. It would seem they have pressed you hard . . . Are they far now?"
"I suppose they are very near."
"Well you will be the better for food: "She led the way through a well-ordered kitchen to a larder where a large shallow bowl of milk stood, waiting its time to be skimmed.
She passed him a tin can. "You should drink well." She added: "You will be safe here for a time . . . We have no love for Sir Hugh."
"I suppose" he said, "there are few who have." He ignored the can. He raised the bowl to his lips.
When he put it down it was nearly dry. She looked at it with raised brows over laughing eyes. "It would seem," she said, "that we must avoid a siege."
"You must forgive," he replied gravely. "I knew not how much I drank."
"Oh you are welcome to that! You must allow me a poor jest, for our occasions are few."
There was a tone of bitterness in her voice as she said this, and a look crossed her face such as he had seen when she looked down at a well where a woman struggled against her death.
It reminded him that he must be wary with one whom, had he known less, he would have trusted with half he had. More than that, whom he might have placed on his heart's throne, where none had been since Jehane had proved of too light a mind for the worship she might-have won.
Margot, not suspecting her guest of such thoughts as these, either bad or good, led to a narrow chamber on the further side of the kitchen. It had a pallet-bed, but little furnishing else, being neat but bare.
"You should lie here," she said, "while you can. I will call you at any need . . . the back door is shut, but it will be no worse for a second bolt."
With this word she left him. He looked at a door which had no fastening more than a wooden latch which a thong pulled from without. It would be hard for her to confine him there, of which he had had a doubt. For he did not trust her at all. Would she set out to find Sir Hugh when she thought him fallen to sleep?
He considered the door again with an opposite mind. If she could not bolt him in, it was equally sure that he could not bolt anyone out. He might be surprised while he slept, and wake with a sword-point seeking beneath his mail. To avoid that, he hung his helm on the wooden latch in such a way that, should the thong be pulled, it must fall clattering to the floor.
He lay down in more comfort than he had had during the night, though without venturing to draw off his mail, and, aiming to avoid sleep, he slept instantly, to be wakened in ten minutes' time by the noise of the helmet upon the floor.
Margot entered, undeterred by the clatter which she had caused. "I can see," she said, with the smile which disclaimed malice behind her wit, "that God made you a cautious man."
"They are riding this way," she said, "which I thought you would wish to know. There are four in all, or there may be some whom I have not seen."
"No. That is the tale they make, unless they have been joined by others during the night. How-long have I slept?"
"Can I say? You have been fifteen minutes here, or a few less."
"That's how I feel."
"Well, you should stay here. I suppose I may turn them off. But you will hear that."
While they spoke they had moved into the kitchen. The chamber where he had had so brief a slumber was plainly not the place for him to stay, it having a slit of window which gave a complete view of all within, though it would have been too narrow to make entrance possible. But where he now stood in the kitchen he could not be observed from any outside angle of observation, and as she left the intervening door open while she now went to deal with a loud knocking at the front of the cottage, he was in a position to overhear what would occur there.
He heard the click of the latch as the girl opened a casement window, to parley with those who hammered on the door. As she did so, he had a thought which he did not like. They were four who had just rescued, as he rightly supposed, a woman who had been intended to drown. It was likely that they would have brought her along. It was less so that she would keep a still tongue as to who bad misled her to fall into the well, and callously left her to drown. It was almost certain that, having been walking with her in familiar conversation, she would know her name and abode. She might have led them there. It was even possible that they had come to do justice for that crime, rather than searching for him.
He saw a risk that he might be involved in a quarrel which was not his, and of a particularly unsavoury kind. It might be open to the misrepresentation, by unscrupulous tongues, that he had a partnership in the deed, or had been cut down when resisting the legal arrest of one who was a murderess in intention, if not in fact.
It was a prospect he did not like, and his glance went to the little passage which led to the back door. If he should break out there while some, perhaps all, of the four were at the front - . He saw a chance. He felt a new vigour since he had been refreshed by that mighty drink. . . .
Yet, hesitating, he did not move. He would first hear what was said.
He heard a voice which was strange to him, but which he guessed soundly to come from the mouth of the man-at-arms who had ridden that heavy-boned white Normandy stallion.
"Mistress, you have one, John Bitmarsh, harbouring here. We must have him forth."
"There is no one here. No one but Grandma and I. You have knocked at the wrong door."
"We have another tale. You must open up."
"We do not open to armed men. We are two women alone. I tell you, you waste your time. There is no one here."
"That we must see. If you do not open, we shall come in by our own way."
"How will you do that? This is a royal lodge, as you know. If you force door, you will hang, as I need not say."
"An open window is not a door. If we come in here, we force naught. You would do better to loose the bolt, if you have no one whom you would hide."
The girl laughed: "You are student of law! Do you say you will come in here? You must shrink first from what you now are!"
There was a trampling of hooves on stone, and another voice, which Sir John did not hear for the first time.
"Giles, do not parley thus. Tell the woman to open the door, in the King's name."
"Sir Hugh Offley," Margot replied, "do you say that? Have you a royal warrant to show?"
"How could I have that, the King being in France at this hour, as you are wholly aware? I seek one who is traitor to him, and a forfeit life, and that should be royal warrant enough to open door which is yours by the King's grant."
"I know nothing of whom you seek. But I tell you there is no one here. You waste words at the wrong door."
"That could be soon shown."
"Which it will not be."
"Which it will at a near hour. There is one who comes on a worse errand than mine, and in the Church's name, which the King himself will not defy."
There was a moment's silence, and then the girl spoke again in a voice which sounded less steady to him who listened behind the wall.
"Tell your man to stand back, Sir Hugh. I have something to say for your ear alone . . . I know well what you mean. You will call my Grandam witch. You would have her burn. But I do not fear you at all. It is a false tale, as there will be good witness to show. She is simple and deaf. She does not heed nor hear what we say now. Is that witches' craft?"
"That is for the Church to say. It is not for us. If you have no word for me but this - ."
"But I have. Is your own peril naught, when you stir for witches in every wood? Have you no fear of the mark on your own brow? It is Satan's sign."
"Now, by the Five Wounds! It is a scar I took in the Flemish war. That is known to all."
"That is known for your own tale. It goes no further than that. I should say it is Satan's sign, marking a soul bought at a price he has. It is very like, as the Church would see."
"You are witch's whelp. You should have a care, or two may burn in one fire."
"Men will burn also at times, though it is said that they take longer, and make a less rich smoke, as they may lack fat."
"Mistress, you do not fright me at all. Nor could I stop this if I would. There is warrant out. But I may give you aid, if you come to me at the right hour."
"I should be hard pressed before that."
"It is yours to choose . . . I ask you now, for the last time, if you harbour John Bitmarsh here. I would have you think that it will do no good to your grandam, nor yet to you, that a traitor be in your doors."
"And I tell you that it is naught to me. There is none here."
Sir John heard the casement close, and the latch click. He heard her approaching steps. She had shown a staunchness to him beyond anything that hospitality could require, and at a time when she had urgent troubles which, as it had been put to her, might be worse by making his cause hers. What should he say now?
Sir John could not doubt that there were those whom evil spirits controlled, he being a Christian man. Witchcraft can be proved out of Holy Writ, and that it has left the world in our time is easy to say, but beyond proof. It is a matter for the Church to decide, on which laymen may well be dumb. Even a Paynim might agree there. So he thought.
He knew also that accusation of witchcraft is a thing for all men, and especially for all women to dread. It is so much easier to assert than disprove. He knew that there were informers who made a living by denouncing witches, for which they were paid by public authorities who were aware of the importance of weeding these agents of Satan out of a congregation of simple men. He knew that these informers were not generally loved: that they were the subjects of ribald or dreadful tales which might (or might not) be true.
Was Margot one of these? He had heard her threaten to denounce Sir Hugh on an evidence he did not believe; and though he was his bitter foe he did not desire that he should go to the stake on a false charge of that shameful kind. Before that he had seen her contrive another woman's death in a cool way. For one morning's work it might seem enough, even for one in whom Satan reigned, and by whom she had been given a fair face and a voice to win trust, as it is known that he will do to those whose souls have been sold to him.
But Sir John saw that, be she murderess, or witchfinder, or witch, or aught else of an evil name, she had done service to him, with what object (except good) it was hard to see. But perhaps he would soon know. Would she seek to seduce him now in a carnal way and perhaps betray him in a moment of sin to the Evil Power? Retrato Sathanas. He crossed himself to regain strength to resist her power.
She came in, looking neither seductress or murderess, but a much frightened girl having let slip the front of courage with which she had faced Sir Hugh.
"You heard it alll?" she asked.
"I heard that you were my good friend," he answered, almost against his will. St. Stephen aid him! How could he resist such eyes as were on him now?
"It is a door," she said, "from which none who come in need may be met with a shut hand. There is good reason for that, as perhaps you know."
"I suppose not."
"Then it is soon told. My father - it was in the days of the late King when he was new to the throne - took in a stranger at night though he called himself by a name which could not be his, as my father knew.
"It was the King's self who had become lost in the chase, and had thought concealment the wiser choice, having friends in these parts whom he could better trust if he were less in their power.
"The King gave him the right to dwell here, he and his heirs, to a most far day. Not that it is ours. It remains the King's, as was all the forest at that time, so that we have a right to dwell in a place that we may neither sell nor pawn.
"Sir Hugh hath all the forest in grant from the present King, except this plot, at which he is sore, and at a right that we also have to kill game in the woods.
"That is why he will have my grandam called for a witch, thinking, as I suppose, that he will bargain thereafter with me, that if I go from here he will do her some favour, greater or less, which may be no more than an easy death."
Sir John did not feel disposed to question this tale, with those eyes upon him (which he told himself were too fair to light the soul of a sinless maid) and to credit evil of Sir Hugh was not hard, but he saw that there was one thing which it was needful to say: "Then you have trouble enough, without me. You must let me go."
"We have refused help to none since that night, when my father friended one whom he did not know. If we do that, I suppose we shall have come to our evil day."
Sir John looked at something he had noticed before. He said: "You have a crucifix on the walls."
She looked blank at that. "Is it not well? Where would you have it be?"
"If you will swear to me upon that, that your gran-dam is no witch, neither are you - ."
Astonishment and then anger shone in her eyes. "Why should I do that? Do you hold me in such a doubt? I have been your friend."
"Yet I might help you more than you think, if I were of a quiet mind as to what you are."
"As to which you will heed Sir Hugh's words? And he being your mortal foe, and the man that you know he is? And after what I have done? I would take no help on such terms, were yours of greater avail, or our peril more than I think it to be. If you like us not, there is the choice of a near door."
Sir John heard this in some doubt. He was half minded to take the choice she proposed. Her anger seemed real enough, but he observed that she had refused to swear, which he knew (on the Cross of God) that no witch would be able to do. But he was a just man, and he saw that he had been less than fair.
Had he not seen her cast a woman to death, he would I have taken less heed of Sir Hugh's words. It was true also that, even should she swear by the very feet of Christ, it would still leave him troubled by a doubt of another kind.
Further, it was true that she had been his friend, and he must seem to her to offer payment in a base coin. On every count, he saw it to be a case for straighter words than there had yet been.
"You call me ingrate," he said, "and so it sounds. But you shall have the plain words I owe. I saw that in the woods this morn which no man would forget."
As he said this, their eyes met, and her colour changed. He knew that she owned her guilt in that glance as surely as though she had said aloud what they both knew. And that, it seemed at the next moment, was what her intention was.
"If you saw that," she said boldly, "I will tell all, which you must weigh in what scales you will." But as she said it, there was a noise of horses about the door, louder and more numerous than had been those they had first heard.
At the sound, the blood left her face. "He said no more than the evil truth," she exclaimed bitterly. "They will have her life if they can. But they may find that his witness lags." She re-entered to the front room, where her grandmother still sat in her fireside chair, seeming oblivious of that which went on around her, in which she was so nearly concerned.
Sir John followed, and, seeing this, Margot turned upon him: "You had best be gone, if you yet can. Here will be men of the law."
"Do you say that for my own good, or would you be blither to see me go?"
"I say that for yourself. Here will be sheriff and priest, with the law's power, and Sir Hugh to prompt. Did he not say there is a taint of treason upon your head?"
"Yet, by your leave, I will stay."
"Then so you must, for I will not be slow with the bolts again. That were folly now."
She drew the bolts, and the bar. The door opened to the little group of dismounted men who were round the porch.
The Sheriff of Ridminster entered, his cap civilly in his hand. He was a man of middle-age, somewhat rotund, and with good living written upon his face. He might have been a good man of his hands in his younger days, but now he wore no more than a formal sword, and the strong cloak of the law.
"Mistress," he said, addressing Margot, but looking at the fireside figure which had turned its head to regard this noisy influx of strangers about her door, with a vague curiosity rather than apprehension in the dim eyes, "your grandam must come with me. I have warrant here. Will you have it read?"
"I will take your word," she said. "I know who hath done this. If there be a just God, it is he who should have occasion for fear."
"It is that the law must decide," the sheriff answered, with the tone of a man who might have more agreement with her than it would be prudent to show.
The Prior of Monceaux stood at his side, a lean, austere man, with the reputation of a most learned divine. "Daughter," he said, "there is a just God, and a just law. If your grandam be clean of soul, she hath naught to fear."
He spoke with an earnest sincerity from which she might take such comfort as could consort with the knowledge that he had sent five women - four old and one young - to the flames in the last two years, and acquitted one. For he had been zealous to cleanse the land.
"I may come with her?"
"Why, no," the sheriff answered, "I have no warrant for that. You were best away. For this day, there will be nothing but formal charge."
"She needs tendence, being simple with age."
She will have care enough. For yourself, you can come at a later hour. The turnkey will have order to let you through, or her man of law."
The words were such as might have sounded fair to the ear of a later age, but to her they were evidence of the severity of legal process in these cases where ecclesiastical and civil law combined against those who were supposed to be armed with the devil's wiles. A man accused of arson or theft might have had all the callers he would, if the turnkey were given coin to make him complaisant of the labour of drawing bolts. So that he were safely kept to the day of assize, he might entertain the town if he would; which seemed as natural to that day as do severer restrictions to a more disciplined age.
While they spoke, two of the sheriff's men had approached the old woman, and were leading her to the door. Her steps appeared to be slow with age rather than delayed by any reluctance in what she did. It was hard to guess how much she understood, or what thoughts moved in her senile mind.
The man put her into a small coach, to which was harnessed a single mule. They locked doors. "She should be dull to burn," one of them said, as he got back to his own saddle. He had known them to kick and bite when they were seized, or to scream till it had been pity to hear.
They sat their horses, wondering why their masters delayed, the arrest being done.
Sir Hugh Offley, standing at the sheriff's elbow, said: "Master Clement, there is more work for you here. There is John Bitmarsh who fled the seas after his part in the late rebellion. I know not how he hath been hardy to venture back. But I charge him that he hath slain a good man of mine, Matthew Pellett to name, yesternoon in the Frogmere wood."
The Sheriff looked at Sir John, whom he did not know, and saw one in poor guise for a knight, but with much the look of a hunted man. He said: "John Bitmarsh, if you answer to that name, what have you to say to that?"
"I say, by your leave, that I am Sir John of the Bitter Marsh, having been knighted a second time, it is ten days since, by the King's own hand, at a court he held at Rouen."
"It is," Sir Hugh said, "an unlikely tale."
"If it be so," the Sheriff replied, "I must hope that you have proof, or I must apprehend you if I be so required, and you having made admission of who you are."
"You are a man of parts, I must suppose," Sir John replied, "holding the high office you do. You will read that which is fairly writ in the Latin tongue."
"I will see that which you have to show."
Sir John drew a parchment from beneath his mail. He handed it to the sheriff, who looked at it as one who reads, and then passed it on to the prior with the words: "There is matter here."
He spoke with a-gravity which concealed from all but the churchman, who had proved him before, that he could read one word in six, or perhaps less. The Prior of Monceaux considered the scroll and its heavy seal with equal gravity, and more understanding eyes.
He looked shrewdly at Sir John to ask: "His Majesty is in accord with the Duke his son?"
"The King hath made peace with his sons, and the wars are done. He may be in London at this hour."
It was great news, welcome or unwelcome to those who heard, but not such as any could meet with a frowning brow. It made it a small matter that they had arrested a reputed witch, or that a man named Matthew Pellett had felt Sir John's sword go through his neck at the last noon.
The sheriff caught the tone of courtesy, almost of deference, in which the Prior had addressed Sir John of the Bitter Marsh. He might be less than expert in construing the Latin tongue, but he was one who could read much from the drift of a single straw. He said to Sir Hugh, with more sharpness in his voice than he would have been likely to use a moment before: "If you have charge to make, let it be by process of law. I do nothing here."
He went out, followed by others, until Margot stood alone with Sir John.
She looked at him with doubtful eyes. "It would seem," she said, "that you asked my aid at a slight need."
"On the contrary," he replied, "I may owe you life. Sir Hugh would have had no scruple in what he did, nor to cover it with a false tale. He hath all my land, which he will be loth to yield."
"Yet you do not trust me at all."
"You are one," he replied steadily, "with the face of a madonna of dreams, whom I know to have tricked a woman to cruel death. Can I forget that?"
"Your own hands being clean of blood since so long ago as the last noon?"
"I slew one who assailed my life, as it was knightly to do."
"I slew one who would have sold my grandam's life for eight silver coins, which has been her pay when she has brought five others to death before."
"You thought her perjured in what she swore?"
"I knew it well. She brought Joan Hiver to burn with a lying tale. Do you think a witch-finder can make her gains with a truthful tongue?"
Sir John saw that this argument had force, though he saw also a question with two sides. Witches were evil-doers who must be brought to justice in accord with Divine law. To prove their guilt must be a perilous attempt, they being as vindictive as they were pestilent in themselves, and having Satan for strong ally. Yet witnesses there must be, as the law required, and such witnesses must be paid. That a witch's friends should try to bring the witch-finder to death might be natural, but was not to be condoned by one of orderly mind.
Yet if the girl knew as a sure fact that her grandam was of innocent simple mind, and if she knew with equal certainty that an informer was on her track who had borne false witness before, which had been believed. - His mind paused abruptly from the coolness of judgement to the realisation of practical fact. The woman might not be dead. There was more reason to think she lived.
"I suppose," he said, "you love your grandam well?"
"I could say less than that. She was hard to me till her senses failed. But I would not see her falsely denounced for that which she does not do."
He considered this, and, perhaps illogically, it seemed a stronger plea of justification than if she had claimed to have acted under the urge of overmastering affection. It was love of justice, colder and purer than the impulse of even amiable passion, which had hardened resolve and courage to the point of leading the witch-finder to tread on those rotten planks. And the idea of justice personally executed was less remote from those times than it became on a later day.
But these thoughts brought him back to that to which his question had intended to lead. He asked: "And if this woman be dead, you suppose that the charge will fall?"
"So I think. It was on her information that it was raised, and when she does not appear - . Besides, there will be those to speak in another way."
"But if she were not drowned?"
As she heard this question, a real fear came to her eyes. She thought, as she might have been quicker to do, that if Sir John had seen the woman's fall, he would have been unlikely to leave her unaided there. Yet if he himself had been hard in flight - She said: "Then we were both undone, Grandam and I."
With her words, he saw that to be true, as also he had not realised it before. When he had cast a plank to a wretch who should have been left to drown, as her deeds deserved, he might not only have sealed an old woman's doom, but have given the girl who faced him now to the hangman's hands.
But the truth, be it what it might, must be heed. It would be small avail to soothe her now with an easy word.
"I know not," he said frankly, "whether she be living or dead." He told her all that he knew.
They saw some hope, though not much, in the fact that Sir Hugh had not brought the woman along, nor made accusation concerning her. Apart from that, it was a pit of death into which she must look with unsteady eyes.
Yet hope came back to her heart as she heard him speak with the firm tone of one who had not often found himself unequal to control event to his own will.
"It is I," he said, "who have brought you to this peril, by that which was not my business to do, and it is I who must get you free. If there be no better course, we may flee while there is time."
"We?" she echoed, with wonder and incredulity in her voice. "You would fly with me, losing all you have so lately regained?"
"It were no more than that to which I am knightly vowed," he answered, unaware of insincerity in that declaration; yet he was conscious that such companionship might be a penance easy to bear. "But," he added "I said, if no better course should appear. We must think first that she hath no proof against you, except it be from my mouth, which will not be heard."
"Yet you must say that you heard her screams, and you will be asked more."
"And I may reply. I may say that I saw her stumble in, being alone. What could she answer to that?"
"You will so forswear, that it may win me relief?" she asked, with the same wonder in her voice he had heard before.
"It is that," he answered, "to which I am trapped by my own zeal. Yet," he added, with an unusual casuistry, "it will be so that all may come to a good inn, though it by a crooked path."
"You said these were the worse ways. Have you better to say?"
"We know not yet that the woman live. And there is another thing to be first done, which has become urgent now . . . Have you a horse in this place, if not two?"
"We have two that are good enough. You may wait me here. I shall do better alone."
She went out at the rear door, not waiting for his reply.
Margot went to the edge of the wood. She called twice, and a youth came. He was a hired servant, faithful in a timid way, but one who would be hard to find while trouble was round the door. She had judged that he would be quicker to appear should he see her alone than with a mailed knight at her side.
It was no more than a few minutes later that two horses appeared, saddled for the road, of which it had been no more than truth to say they were good enough, and one was better than that.
"Shall we reach them," Sir John asked, "before they are in the town?"
"We may do that, if we ride hard. The ways are foul, and they must go at the mule's speed, which will not be much."
For the first mile there were no more words, for the path was neither wide nor good, and they saw that they would do worse riding abreast. Margot led, knowing the way, and Sir John found that he must give all his heed to his horse's steps on a muddy and trampled path, which he must take at a good pace, or be left behind.
But when they came to a forking of broader paths, she drew rein, letting him come to her side, so that he asked in a natural doubt: "Are you unsure of the way?"
"I am unsure which we shall take. Is it of much weight that we should reach them before they come to the town?"
"It is this much, that, if we do, I hope to bring your grandam back, so that she will not be jailed at all, and we shall have but one matter with which to deal. How will you thank me for that?"
"I will thank you the best I can, having little to give which would be any value to you."
"Then you will give me all that a maid may."
She made no answer to that, though her colour rose. She understood well enough, or perhaps less than that, being unsure of the terms on which he would be likely to deal. Well, they must talk of that, if at all, at a later time!
"There is one way," she said, "which will be sure, if we do not drown. But the stream is high."
"It is for high stakes that we play."
She made no answer to that, but swung her horse round to the straiter path. For a short time, it climbed steeply. It became so narrow that the thicket brushed them on both sides: the briars caught them above.
Soon they came to the crest of a ridge too densely wooded to give an extended view. The path fell as sharply as it had risen. There were places where the horses went downward on sliding hooves. But it was a way they had been before, and they did not fear.
So they came down to a stream that was smooth and wide, with level land on its further side, open and low.
The water was very smooth. It was not even wind-ruffled, the air being still. Only the passing of leaf or twig revealed how swiftly it ran. Margot looked at it with frowning brows. "I had guessed it deep," she said, "but not this."
"If we cross here, we are sure?"
"The ford which they must take is three miles below, to which their road winds."
The inference was clear. Ridminster lay before them now in clear sight, its three square minster towers rising from the low flat knoll of land, not two miles away, which had been surrounded by marshes in ancient days, giving protection from Dane and Norman in turn, and still being girdled by low meadows, which could be flooded with ease.
"There is no way but this?"
"Not now. We must go back, if at all, by the way we came."
"Well," he said, "I will go alone."
He rode a bright bay stallion, and she a mare of a darker brown, which was two hands shorter; and a higher saddle made the difference seem more than that, as he looked down upon her.
"No," she answered stubbornly, "it is two or none. We shall get through. The horses know it well. You must only heed that they do not go down the stream. It is deeper there, and the bank is steeper to climb."
It was not a point on which sight could aid, for on the farther side the water brimmed to within a few inches of the top, threatening to flood the low lands beyond.
"If the horses know that," he said, "they will strive the more." He wound her rein to his bridle-hand, and rode in.
The stallion took the water with a great plunge boldly enough, and the water broke on the saddle-bow at his second stride. The mare dragged for a moment upon the rein. Had she been alone, it is likely that she would have refused. But as it was, she had little choice.
She was accustomed to follow where the bay led. She heard Margot's voice. She was of a good heart, and loved praise, as a mare will. She struggled on, though the whites of her eyes showed.
There came a time when she must swim. The full force of the current struck her, though, while the stallion kept his feet, it could not carry her down. But she bumped his shoulder, making it harder for him. Strive as he did, he lost ground. In midstream, he was swimming too.
They were carried down, whether they would or no. It was far down that they came to the farther bank, and here it was almost sheer, so that the mare had no footing at all. Margot had slipped from the saddle before that, swimming at the mare's side. Now she scrambled out, so that she could hold the rein from the bank above.
Left to himself, the stallion came out with a great heave, and a mighty splash. A few yards lower down they found a place where the mare got a better hold.
She came out, with hard dragging upon the rein, and much breaking away of the muddy bank.
"Well," Sir John said, "it seems that we have done that. But you are more drenched than I."
She laughed reply, though she must shiver in the chill air. "It is better to drench than drown. If I am drenched, I shall dry."
They regained their saddles, and rode on. Her wet gown clung, showing contours which he was bold to admire.
"You look well."
He was conscious, as he spoke the words, that they might have been better chosen, and that they deserved the coldness of her reply: "Which is different from how I feel."
But he was one by whom it was pleasant to be admired and even physical discomfort will be forgotten at the fateful crises of life. They struck the Ridminster road, built firm and high between rain-filled dykes. They turned, leaving the minster towers at their backs, riding to meet those who would expect them, if at all, from the opposite direction.
They rode half a mile on that backward way before they saw the approach of the sheriff's party coming at such a pace as the mule-pulled carriage could make.
The prior rode ahead with the two priests that his state required. Their horses were plump, and used to a leisured pace, but they were fresh enough for that at which the party moved to be easy to them.
In the midst, the sheriff and his retinue surrounded the little coach - and Sir Hugh Offley, with the three men who were his, came in the rear, their hard-ridden mounts doubtless glad to move with untightened reins.
Sir John pulled up as they met, not drawing his horse across the way, as one who would make obstruction sure, but yet as plainly desiring speech rather than to pass on his proper side.
"Sir Prior," he said, "by your leave, I would have a few further words bearing on this arrest, either with the sheriff or you."
The Prior reined his own horse, which he could hardly avoid. "I would hear you, Sir John," he said courteously enough, though without warmth, "but could it not be at a better time? By your pardon, you have the look of one who should seek an inn."
Sir John of the Bitter Marsh, who was aware that his half-armed and bedraggled aspect was more adapted to provoke mirth than respect, and who was not normally careless of his attire, felt the rebuke.
"I am not one," he said, "to go foul, unless it be by constraint of most urgent affairs. But you will regard that, since I have come back to my own land by the good grace of our Lord the King, I have found that there are others by whom his favour is not approved.
"For first I am so beset that my life has a hard escape, and then - "
Sir Hugh, who, with the sheriff, had now come to the front of a halted group, interrupted sharply: "Had you shown the pardon you bear - "
"Did you stay to talk, when you would have ridden me down, from two sides at once? Should I have met the lance of him who is now dead with a spread scroll? I had been myself dead at this hour, had I shown no greater wisdom than that!"
"On this matter," the prior replied, as Sir Hugh was less quick to do, "there should be debate, Sir John, if at all, at a better time. If you will take counsel from me - "
"But it is not all. I find that Sir Hugh's venom is not only for me. There are some I will call my friends who are pestilently accused by a false word, as I will say it to be."
The Prior, who was an honourable and astute man, though having a set belief that the devil was busy in ways which it is easy to doubt, did not fail to perceive the implications of this, and he answered temperately: "Sir John, you have been home but a short day, and it may be that those whom you are hasty to call your friends should have a worse word. That will be weighed in a just scale, as you must not doubt. But as to Sir Hugh Offley, I must tell you that, though he has been active to cleanse the land both now and before, yet the witness in this matter is not from him, but from one, Judith Hoad to name, a woman of good repute and who is gifted by God to perceive the hoof that is hid by a woman's gown."
"So I have heard," Sir John answered, "and well believe. But when you trust this woman's witness against those who were of good repute till her tongue wagged, how can it be sure that she is not herself of the kind that pure water will never drown?"
It was a bold stroke, with more intention than the Prior of Monceaux could guess. He understood well enough that Sir John hinted that the informer was herself a pensioner of the Evil Power, for it was a fact well known in the eastern shires at that time that a witch could not be drowned. It was an illustration of the way in which the Devil's care for his own will be found vain, for if the woman, being so tested, refused to go quietly to the bottom, then she was a witch proved and should feel the fire; and if she drowned, it was pity enough, but there was an end, which could not be changed.
The Prior understood that, but he did not know that the woman had been tested in a black well, nor that she had been fished out, which Sir John was seeking to learn.
It was a well-aimed shaft, which might have gone home, but that Sir Hugh was armed with an ignorance that he could not guess.
He had known Judith Hoad before, but rather by repute than sight, though there were silver coins that had passed from his pouch to hers by a steward's hand. He might not have recognised her in the draggled condition in which she was fished out, with arms and legs twisted round a lance shaft and looking less like a woman than a drowned fowl, even had he known her more than he did, and given her a more careful glance.
Giles had said: "Her tale is that the fox will have gone to earth at the King's Lodge," and he had replied: "Well, she must learn to walk with a better care," and ridden on, leaving her to sweat or shiver, to live or die, without further thought for a small affair.
The fact was that she had struggled home to lie abed with a fever by which, in three days' time, she was dead, having confided to none.
But Sir John, having no guess of this, and not learning that from Sir Hugh which he did not know, must continue the course on which he had first resolved, which was to get the old woman cleared before the witchfinder could tell her tale. For he saw that, if he should do that, Judith Hoad would be discredited in advance of that which she would be likely to tell.
But when he saw that Sir Hugh did not rise to a bait which had no meaning for him, he must go on in the same doubt as before.
Sir Hugh saying nothing at all, the prior answered in some impatience: "There is no cause for such suspicion that I have heard, and if you have information to lay, it must be done in orderly form, and at another occasion than this."
"I will let that pass for this time. You will allow that she who is now accused has the right to make appeal to ordeal of battle for her defence?"
"It is the right of law, though it be little used in these days, nor of likely avail, for who would fight in the devil's cause?"
"I have no lust to fight in the devil's cause, but if I take this, I suppose he will be on the other side, doing the most harm that he may."
"That, Sir John, you may decide in a more temperate mood."
"I would try it now, if Sir Hugh will dare so far as to risk his sword for that which his tongue hath said."
"It is not a matter to be settled," Sir Hugh answered coldly, "either at this place or time. But at an hour fitly arranged I will meet you, Sir John, as you well know, on horse or foot, with lance or sword, and on what pretext you choose to make."
"You are answered, Sir John," the Prior said, "and I will ask you to yield us way."
But Sir John did not move. He answered Sir Hugh: "There is no time like the present hour. If I will meet you as I now am, being but half-armed?"
Sir Hugh stared unbelief, but he considered that the challenge had been publicly made, and that it gave him a better hope of clearing his enemy from his path than he could hope for another day. "If," he said, "you be so puffed in your own conceit, I must accept the challenge that you are urgent to give, it being witnessed by all here that you have had no provocation from me and that you are betrayed by the devil whose cause you have made your own."
"Sir John," the prior interposed, "bethink you of what you do. You are neither weaponed nor armed as a knight should be. I am your friend when I ask you to leave this to a better time."
"Sir Prior, I thank you for a word which is kindly meant, but do you not teach that such ordeal must fall as God's justice wills?"
"That is Holy Truth. And it is therefor that I would not have you besot yourself to fight half-armed in a witch's cause."
"Which I am yet determined to do, saying that she is none such."
"If you be so resolved," Sir Hugh said, "we will end it here. There is sward which is level enough, and, if it be somewhat soft, it is equal for both; and there are those present who will see that the rules of chivalry are not slacked."
The prior became silent, thinking that he might be about to observe the high judgement of God, though he was not sure how it would fall, but the sheriff felt that there was now something for him to say.
"By your leave," he interposed, "I would know how this matter stand. For this procedure is not by ordered process of law. If there be duel here, and Sir John gain,, does the warrant fall?"
"If it be so, Master Clement," the prior answered, "that Sir John should prevail, you will make your own choice, but Holy Church will no longer require that the accused be held to answer to any charge."
"That word," the sheriff replied, "is all I need.
"For he knew that such prosecutions were only instituted by the Church's request, and that the custom was for suspects to be handed over for her inquisition as to their possession by demon powers, after which she would hand them back to the civil arm, to be released or punished according to the code of secular law. If the Prior of Monceaux had no accusation to make, Master Clement would be blamed by none that he let her go.
There was a stretch of dyke-bound sward at the road-side which the sheep had cropped, and here the duel was quickly set by men to whom its rules were as familiar as May-day sports.
The road gave them space enough to line up to view, without need for any to look over the head of a shorter man. There was not even a palisade edging the field, to which the dykes were sufficient bounds.
They used all the lances they had, laying them flat on the ground to mark out rectangular spaces at either end of the field in which the combatants might prepare themselves with the aid of such seconds as they might choose, who must not afterwards give aid, even by a warning word, till the fight was done.
Briefly, the prior administered the oaths that the occasion required.
As to seconds, Sir John said he had need of none, having undertaken to fight as he then was, but as the sheriff was of a mind to have all done in an ordered way, he said at last: "Then you can count Mistress Margot such, she being the one here whom I call my friend, and who surely would see me win."
"You cannot have her. It is a thing that is never done."
"Well, it will be done now. There is no contrary law. She can do all I need, which is naught at all."
So it was that Margot entered with him into the little space where he must wait till the sheriff's signal should sound. He had said that there would be nothing for her to do, which had an obvious sound, but there was one thing she tried, from which came a misadventure of a kind most ominous to those who looked on for Heaven's judgement to be revealed.
They changed some words which may have been much to them, but were too low for others to hear (for whom they were not meant), and as they did so, and at the moment when they observed that Giles, at the far end of the field, had tested the last buckle of Sir Hugh's arms, and stood back, and that the sheriff's whistle was lifted to blow, Margot noticed that which she thought wrong.
It was custom to have, on the handle of such a mace as Sir John bore, a short chain, by which it could be clasped to the wrist, so that it would not fall if the hand should be required for another use, and she saw this clasp to be loose. Thinking to do no more than an obvious thing, she put a hand to it, and with a quick deft motion the clasp snapped.
"No," he said, "I will have it clear."
He put a hand to it, but it would not free.
She asked: "What have I done wrong?"
"Nothing at all. It has been needing a smith's care. It has been trouble before."
After struggling with it for a moment in vain, he drew out his poniard, striving to prise it free with the point, but the point broke. He tried again with a blade which had lost three inches or more, and this time he got the clasp free.
He heard Master Clement call in a friend's voice: "Sir John, will you have mine?"
"No," he said, "it is to these arms I am pledged, and naught else."
Margot thought: "I did ill. It may be his death." But it was no time for words, which she did well to control, for the whistle blew.
The line of spectators had become very still. They had prepared themselves to watch a duel at such odds that it seemed nothing but Heaven's interposition could save Sir John from a fate he had brought on his own head, and, before it began, here was he losing the point of one of the poor weapons he had. It seemed plain that angelic favours were not for him.
The prior crossed himself as he saw. He said aloud: "God will not be mocked."
He saw that Sir John of the Bitter Marsh, a man who, before he took the side of a rebel prince, had been reputed for many hazardous and audacious deeds, (as the scroll of pardon had set out), having been the means of reconciling the King and his son, so that he must be in the high favour of both, had come here swollen with earthly pride, and had fallen an easy prey to a trap, the like of which the Devil will often set for men in such an orgulous hour. From that moment, he watched the duel with the eyes of one who had no doubt what its end would be. So, indeed, did all there, unless it were Margot, who took what courage she could from a breathless prayer, and the one who, except those who fought, had most to lose or to gain. For, through it all, an old half-witted woman slept, unconscious that her poor remnant of life was the stake to be saved or won.
Sir Hugh watched that bungling delay with some impatience, and some contempt, but no other change in a mind which had been confident before what the end would be.
He was fully armoured, and how would Sir John face the sweep of a two-handed sword, heavy and long, which would not clatter on cuish or greave, but meet no more than the soiled pink hose which he now wore? Even if he should beat down the sword, which was hard to think, and the poniards must come into play, he was still no more than half-armed, and now the point of that final weapon was snapped away.
Sir Hugh advanced with his sword raised in both hands, and his shield hung from his neck. He meant that the fight should end with one blow, as it was destined to do, and he thought, though Sir John might dodge and feint for a time, being lighter upon his legs, that such a stroke would not be long delayed.
But Sir John did not feint or dodge. He also had resolved to risk all on a single stroke. He came straight on at a better pace than Sir Hugh, being more burdened with steel, could attain. He saw the great sword rise, circling aloft for the stroke which he had no fence to meet, and, at that moment, when Sir Hugh could not be instant to swerve, even had he been alert to the desperate chance his opponent took, the mace flew through the air.
It was a throw that Sir John had practiced much, and it did not fail. From six yards distance, it came on Sir Hugh's jaw with a hammer-blow, which brought him down, so that he could do no more than to raise himself on one hand, and collapse again.
Sir John advanced, in his hand his poniard, with its point gone.
"Sir Hugh," he said, "do you yield recreant, and to be man of mine from this day?"
There came no word from Sir Hugh. He had a smashed jaw, and he was scarce conscious of what he heard.
The prior's voice, austere and loud as when he spoke from the Minster pulpit, sounded over the field: "Slay him not, Sir John, in his sins, for his hand moved."
So, at least, it was mercy to think, if there be mercy in the granting of such life as could yet be his. Certainly, he would have time to repent, which the Prior of Monceaux regarded as more than a small matter. In fact, he lived for three years, but with broken speech, and a jaw that would never heal.
Sir John climbed into his saddle again.
"Mistress Margot," he said, "I will beg this horse for a further day, but I will bring him to you tomorrow noon. I suppose now that your grandam will have your care.
"Master Clement, I conclude you will take the dame back, for it is plain that she could not walk. You will have my thanks for that, and much more for a dagger I could not take."
He said to Giles, who, with his fellows, was contriving a litter of spears and a spread cloak: "You will get him the best surgeon you can. You will know that you serve me from this hour. You have the look of a good man.
"Sir Prior, you will be pleased that I seek an inn.
After that, I may ask your office another way, for I seek also a bride."
The prior thought again: "God will not be mocked, "in a very reverent mood. He considered, as he rode back to his cell, how far better the ordeal of battle may be than any justice dealt by the halting wisdom of men.
He concluded, reflecting upon the event, that Judith Hoad had been betrayed by greed to abuse a gift which she had certainly had, so that she had denounced an innocent woman, after the last witch had been burned, and her profit must else have failed. But that he saw that the Divine Justice would not allow, so that all her cunning had come to naught.
It was a conclusion that left him at equal ease, both for five who had burned, and one who was now free.
JOHN HENRY SMITH was one of those butchers who are accustomed to describe themselves as Purveyors of Meat, which means that he had two plate-glass windows, marble slabs, and paper frills round the necks of the dead sheep that ornamented his premises.
He carried on business in the High Street of Picklehampton, his shop being next door to the residence of J. Hingeston Smith, a surgeon of good repute and practice.
The coincidence of the initials of these two artists of the knife would have been less troublesome to the local postmaster but for the fact that, by one of those miscalculations which are frequently to be observed in the erection and numbering of the building of urban streets, No. 30 High Street was a considerable distance from No. 32, and the doctor's residence and the butcher's shop, being inserted between them, were known as No. 30a and No. 30b.
Even that would not have mattered but for the carelessness of the correspondents of these two admirable representatives of the great Smith family, of whom some would put no number upon their envelopes, and others would put the figure 30 without the following letter which would have more exactly indicated their destination.
The gentleman at No. 30, being named Porthwaite, made no claim upon such correspondence, and the postmaster adjudicated upon it by a simple rule. Letters addressed to Dr. J. H. Smith were to be delivered to the practitioner upon the human body, and those addressed to J. H. Smith, Esq., were to be treated in the same manner. Only those addressed to Mr. J. H. Smith were to be first offered to the manipulator of inferior carcasses.
This method of discrimination, being generally accurate, would have avoided friction but for one important periodic exception. At the end of each quarter, Mr. J. H. Smith would go through his ledger, and send out peremptory requests for payment to his more dilatory debtors; and these persons, when replying with doubtful promises, or appeals for more extended credit, were liable to approach their creditor with the more complimentary designation; and when the purveyor of meat had realised the fact that such letters were systematically delivered next door, he was sufficiently annoyed to mention the matter to his son-in-law, a schoolmaster named William Hitchins, questioning the propriety of the discrimination which the postmaster was exercising against him.
Mr. Hitchins felt the delicacy of the problem which had been thrust upon him, but he was of an honest disposition, a good Conservative, and well aware of the distinctions of Church and State by which our liberties broaden down in the manner so well described by the great Victorian poet. He answered firmly: "I'm afraid you can't make much fuss about that, Dad. It's a matter of status."
He thought status to be an inoffensive word, and was pleased with himself for having put the matter so neatly, but he saw that his respected relative by marriage frowned no less heavily than before.
"What's that, Bill?" the butcher asked uneasily.
Bill hesitated. "Well, you see," he began rather awkwardly, "everyone can't be a doctor. It's an expensive training. They have to pay out a lot of money, and work for years before they begin practising."
"I don't see much in that. My mother paid old Pickshank £30 for me to learn the butcherin' - and three years prenticed I were - and how does Jollyboy " - that was the name of the offending postmaster - "know that she didn't pay twice as much?"
"It isn't exactly that," answered the embarrassed schoolmaster. "You see, doctoring's not a trade, it's a profession. It isn't like selling meat. You charge so much a pound, and you're expected to get all you can, but a doctor's expected to do all he can, whether he's paid or not, and he often has to attend people who he knows won't pay him at all."
"I've let widow Gubbins have 1 lb. of the scrag end of the neck every Saturday for the last two year," protested the indignant butcher, "and a nice piece of the silverside of the round last Christmas, and who'll I ask to pay me for that? Don't I charge one-and-two for leg of Canterbury to everyone in Picklehampton except old Mrs. Palliser, and she one-and-four because we all know what she gets from them brewery shares? Isn't that difference enough? You don't want me to cheat the old lady, do you?"
The schoolmaster was silent before the genuine anger which he had now aroused, and the purveyor burst out again: "Don't I pay taxes as well as he? Don't I work as hard, and do less harm, it's as likely as not? Don't I pay my debts? Never a summons for thirty year come Thursday, when I signed the lease of this shop? Never a fuss over a wrong weight . . . I might have done time to hear the way you talk of your Ada's dad."
Bill felt that he hadn't talked very much since the conversation started, but that it would be an impolitic assertion to make. He endeavoured to turn the subject with the remark that his father-in-law not having done time was irrelevant. Many who had had that experience had a much better right to the title of esquire than the worthy surgeon. His readings of the biographies of the great had even suggested to his mind that no one is really eligible for the highest honours until he has been imprisoned by his fellow men.
The purveyor of meat, being unimpressed by his son-in-law's arguments, decided to call upon his brother Smith, and expostulate with him upon this discrimination of their correspondence. He was impelled to this foolishness rather by heat of temper than judgement, as an interval of cooler reflection would have shown him that, whatever grievance he might have, it was Mr. Jollyboy, and not his neighbour, who had sinned against him.
Unfortunately, this realisation only came to him when he stood face to face with the surgeon on the soft thickness of the carpet of his consulting-room, and was being gently indicated toward a seat by one who did not doubt that his awkwardly silent visitor had called for a professional consultation. It was a common experience that his male patients (unlike the women, who would usually be of an immediate fluency) would show some nervous delay or hesitation before commencing to explain the ills from which they desired relief, and Dr. Smith had acquired some expertness in guiding them over this preliminary awkwardness. When he observed that Mr. Smith, being comfortably seated, yet remained inarticulate for some moments during which he had cleared his throat rather loudly two or three times, and put a restless hand to his neckerchief, he said, in his soothing suggestive voice: "Throat rather uncomfortable?"
"It is a bit ticklish," admitted the embarrassed butcher.
The surgeon rose, and laid a gently persuasive hand on his patient's arm. He led him to another chair at the side of the room, and switched on an electric bulb.
"We'd better see into this," he said, in the professionally-kindly manner to which he owed about half of his reputation, and nine-tenths of his practice.
In half a minute, he had a smaller searchlight exploring his neighbour's throat, and when this ordeal was over a somewhat dazed and frightened butcher was being told that he was in a "highly septic condition," but with the confident assurance that, as he had had the discretion to seek advice in time, he could rely upon a suitable operation to renew his endangered health.
The surgeon then turned the conversation adroitly to the state of trade, and to the heavy rents which are charged in the High Street of Picklehampton, and, after gaining some indications of the condition of his neighbour's worldly prosperity in this manner, he mentioned casually that his fee for the operation - a removal of tonsils which were in a really dangerously septic condition - would be forty guineas.
Mr. Smith, whose occupation led him to attach a high value to corporeal soundness, was seriously alarmed by the diagnosis which had been so unexpectedly thrust upon him. He felt as though a meat inspector were condemning his body as being unfit for food; but, from another angle, he could not think that the removal of what might be considered merely as a small quantity of offal could be worth so large a fee. He would have considered anything from a pound to thirty shillings would be fair, and indeed liberal remuneration.
He looked the surprise he felt as the surgeon brought out this figure, in the tone of one who alludes casually to a natural law, and his emotions stirred him to a nervous murmur of protest.
Dr. Smith did not affect to misunderstand this sound, with which he had become familiar on many similar occasions, but he replied at once, in a reassuring tone, that it was a particularly moderate fee. He mentioned that the removal of the tonsils of the daughter of a neighbouring ironfinder, Mr. Littlechin, had cost exactly twice the amount.
Mr. Smith reflected that the young lady's tonsils must almost certainly have been smaller than his, and fell to the silence of an astonished man.
At the earnest recommendation of his self-sought adviser, Mr. Smith went into a nursing-home, so that the operation, as he was assured, could be carried out in a thoroughly comfortable manner; and while he lay there, in the leisure of convalescence, he reflected upon the experience into which he had so unexpectedly blundered.
His mind was still occupied upon the basis of the social distinction which Mr. Jollyboy had so offensively indicated, and he determined that, when he returned to his business, it should be conducted according to the higher professional standards which his son-in-law had
explained, and which had been so expensively illustrated.
It cannot be said that the purveying of meat was carried on very successfully at 30b High Street, Picklehampton, during the six months following Mr. Smith's return from the nursing home.
It is true that some of his poorer customers made purchases which must have been in excess of their own requirements; but the majority of the more affluent inhabitants of the district transferred their custom to Messrs. Preedy & Preedy, a firm which had its headquarters in the county town of Potminster, and had recently opened a branch at the further end of the street.
Casual customers who had entered Mr. Smith's shop, undeterred by the absence of window-tickets, would not be served by an assistant, but approached by the burly proprietor, who would chat with them genially for a few minutes upon the state of trade, and the nature of their occupations, or that of their husbands, before he would put a price upon the joint which they desired to purchase, and it was then liable to appear an arbitrary or even fantastic figure to those who had no key to the method by which it had been decided.
But though the business might decline, there was no evidence of unhappiness on the face of its owner. His bank balance, which had previously been substantial was still sufficient to resist the assaults of circumstances, and, whether as the result of the violent end of his tonsils, or from other causes, his health and spirits appeared to be maintained at a very enviable level, until the day when every inhabitant of Picklehampton was stirred to a pleasant excitement by the news that he had been arrested on an information laid against him by the executor of Mrs. Palliser, of whom we have heard already, and who had died during the previous month.
Mrs. Palliser had been increasingly erratic, and even childish, in her business dealings for several years, but she was a popular character, and received the indulgence which is accorded to wealthy people in such condition of health, while occasion has not yet arisen to dispute their wills. When her executor, Mr. Abel Servitor, of the legal firm of Servitor, Porson & Servitor, found an
outstanding account from Mr. J. H. Smith amounting to £89 3s. 7d., for the meat supplied to her during the previous month, he first supposed that he was confronted by some clerical inaccuracy, such as the placing of shillings in the column intended for pounds, but when he discovered that the old lady had paid accounts for four previous months on the same scale, he was bound to take a more serious view of the matter.
He applied to Mr. Smith for an explanation, and receiving a reply which he considered to be an audacious avowal of deliberate fraud, he felt that he must take such action as would bring the criminal to justice, and vindicate his administration of the estate.
The little court of Picklehampton was crowded when the well-known figure of the purveyor of meat entered the dock and it was observed that a full bench of magistrates had assembled to hear the case against him.
It was also to be observed that Mr. Smith's lawyer, Mr. Percival Clements (Sims, Barker & Co.) was engaged in a very animated though whispered colloquy with his client, which culminated in the first exciting incident of the day, when he rose and informed the court that he had decided to retire from the case.
The Chairman of the bench, a local land-owner, Mr. Benjamin Tidmarsh, who had been blessed by nature with the appearance of a benevolent bulldog, asked the accused whether he required time to arrange for other legal assistance, in which event the case should be put back until later in the day; but Mr. Smith replied with some emphasis that he had resolved to defend himself,
and it proceeded accordingly.
It was opened by a young barrister, Mr. Seton-Seton, who outlined it in a manner which caused many astonished and indignant looks to be directed upon the exasperated butcher, who was only restrained from repeated interruptions by the sharp rebukes of the presiding magistrate.
It would be proved, said Mr. Seton-Seton, that Mr. Smith had served the deceased lady, and her husband before her, for more than twenty years, and there appeared to be no doubt that he had gained the confidence of his customers, so that his accounts had been paid for a long time past without the detailed examination to which they should have been subjected. It appeared also that Mrs. Palliser, who had been a lady of acute and vigorous intellect, had become careless during the later stages of the painful illness from which she died, particularly in the drawing of cheques, and
there appeared to be no doubt - it was only fair to say that there was no suggestion of forgery - that about six months ago, possibly by some quite innocent clerical error, a monthly statement had been rendered by the accused showing about twenty times the correct amount as owing for the meat supplied during the period. Finding, probably to his own surprise, that he had received a cheque for the amount which his statement had showed as owing - amount which it must have been obvious to him at once could not possible be correct - had not only succumbed to the temptation to retain the money, but had conceived the daring and nefarious project of sending in a statement at the end of the next month containing what must have been deliberate errors of similar magnitude. This attempt proving successful, he had repeated the audacious fraud on two further occasions, receiving payments to a total of £343. 4s. 4d. for a supply of meat of a true value of not more than £15, or £20 at the most, and, but for Mrs. Palliser's death, he would doubtless have received at least one further payment, for which his account had been already rendered on the same scale.
Mr. Seton-Seton then proceeded to call his witnesses, but as their evidence went no further than to confirm the case which he had set out, and as the facts were not disputed by the accused, who declined the invitation of the bench to cross-examine upon them, they need not detain us.
"That is my case, your worships," Mr. Seton-Seton concluded, in the tone of one who has established a position of impregnable strength, and Mr. Tidmarsh looked at the prisoner, "Well?" he asked enquiringly.
Mr. Smith, although a man not normally wasteful of words, was fluent, and even - such is the effect of honest indignation - occasionally eloquent in his reply. He did not desire to give evidence. He did not dispute the facts. He was content to address the magistrates from where he stood to refute the baseless and calumnious construction which had been placed upon them.
His speech was long and discursive, for he was unpractised in oratory, and it will be convenient to summarise it. He pointed out that his position was not that of a mere middleman, buying goods from one direction to dispose of them in others. It might be said truly that, for the past thirty years, the health of Picklehampton had been in his conscientious and able hands.
On his knowledge and skill in a business to which he had been apprenticed in early youth, on his judgement of the beasts to buy, on the skill with which their existence was terminated, on the integrity which only vended such meat as was sound, fresh, and uncontaminated, had the health and happiness of Picklehampton depended for thirty years. What could be considered a just remuneration for such services, and by whom should they be rightly paid?
In answering that question he had been guided by the practice and example of another resident, who also laboured to maintain the health of the community, his neighbour and namesake, Dr. J. Hingeston Smith.
"He told me himself," he concluded, "that he charged John Littlechin eighty guineas for the same operation upon his daughter for which he charged me half that amount, and I afterwards learned that he had done it to Thomas Carstock for five. I have tried to charge my customers in the same way. If a carcass, with my expenses upon it, costs me 9. 1/4d. a lb., I'm no better off, or maybe a bit worse, if I average its sale at that figure. I don't suppose Dr. Smith was much better of or worse because he took old Carstock's tonsils out for what he did. But there's a lot of difference between five guineas and eighty. So if I sell meat to my poor folk at 9. 1/4d., or even give it away, I have to work out what people as well off as Mr. Littlechin ought to pay.
"I thought I knew what Mrs. Palliser's income was, and I charged her accordingly. But I've learnt since that I was wrong. I know now how well off she was, and when I go home tonight I shall send in a further account for the undercharges of the past five months."
He ended with a personal appeal to Mr. Tidmarsh, from whom he had purchased a considerable part of his English mutton during many previous years, as to whether his transactions had ever deviated from the straight path of rectitude, and with a suggestion that, if he had done wrong, the more imposing figure of Dr. J. Hingeston Smith should be standing beside him.
The Chairman grinned upon him appreciatively as his peroration ended.
"Smith," he said, "you're about the most impudent rogue that I have ever met, and I've seen some in that dock. What about restitution? You don't want to hold on to the old lady's money now you've got caught, do you?"
The magistrates' clerk looked up at Mr. Tidmarsh in some anxiety as to what he might be going to say next. An order for restitution may be a very proper proceeding, but compounding a felony from the bench is a very different matter, and Mr. Tidmarsh's methods were often such as to disturb the mind of the professional lawyer. But his offer, if such it could be considered, was not accepted. Mr. Smith felt that he could never purvey another joint with dignity or self-respect, should he make such a confession of wrong-doing as would be implied in the return of the money he had received.
Besides, he was not conscious of evil. He had the support of example and precedent. He had acted as he thought right, and had almost ruined an excellent business in pursuit of the ideal which had been set before him.
He replied that he had only charged what he thought fair, and not a shilling should be returned.
The bench consulted together. The Rev. Clement Dawman thought that the state of the butcher's mind required investigation. Dr. Feltwell said that you couldn't fine him enough for such a wholesale robbery. "He needs a few weeks' hard," was his uncompromising conclusion.
The Chairman was inclined to think that it was a case for the sessions. The clerk, being consulted, was of the same opinion.
In the end, it was resolved that Smith should be remanded in custody for a week, during which time there would be opportunity for observation as to the degree of mental responsibility which could be attributed to him.
Smith (we must now avoid calling him mister, for all readers of the daily press are aware that the designation ceases when an accused man is remanded without bail on a criminal charge, to be resumed if he be ultimately acquitted, or otherwise about three months after his sentence ends) was not entirely unhappy during his first week of captivity. He had the support of a good conscience, and he remembered what he had been told by his son-in-law concerning the manner in which the greatest men of every age had been imprisoned by their inferior contemporaries.
He had reason to regret that his tender for the supply of the prison beef had not been 1/4d. lb. lower, in which case it would certainly have been accepted, and he was correctly confident that he would have been better fed. He would have been very glad of an extra blanket. Beyond those details, he had few discomforts, and no regrets.
He was offered two books from the prison library, which he accepted, though he was indifferent to their titles, and, after a time, being weary of his own thoughts, he took up one of them and discovered it to be a volume of Aesop's Fables, with which he had no previous familiarity.
He read a number of these anecdotes with interest, though finding it hard to believe that they were veracious narratives; but it occurred to him, after a time, that, whether true or not, they contained some shrewdness of observation, and the occasional salt of a deeper wisdom.
But he read nothing which appeared to have any personal application, until he came to the account of the man who owned an ass and a dog, and the former animal, observing that the dog would jump on his master's lap, and was petted and rewarded for that audacity, whereas he himself, doing his duty patiently, but attempting no such familiarities, was overloaded and beaten, decided that, should he qualify by the same methods, he might also expect to share the favours which he observed. On which thought, he had jumped in through the window, and attempted, as best he might, to seat himself on the knees of his astounded owner.
But the poor ass had not merely failed to gain the rewards which he had anticipated. He had - such is the injustice of man - been ejected with ignominy, and beaten with many stripes.
Smith, who slept badly owing to the economy of blankets already mentioned, had a dream in the night, the details of which he could not afterwards remember distinctly, but it remained fixed in his mind that he had been engaged in some form of competition with Dr. J. Hingeston Smith, in the course of which he had developed into an unmistakable ass.
It is an opinion which some will share; and though he did not adopt it with any confidence, and preferred the six months in the second division which was his ultimate fate to the ignominy of any public confession of error or offer of restitution, yet it was a doubt which continued to disturb his mind, even after he had served his sentence, and become Mr. Smith again in the accustomed donation to the Christmas Fund which was regularly opened in its benevolent columns.
Such was Mr. Smith's experimental effort to introduce the higher ethical standards of the professional to the commercial world, and such its abortive issue. It ended without any revolutionary consequences, even within the narrow limits of Picklehampton, and it remains to chronicle only one concluding episode.
It was about three weeks after the defeated but unrepentant butcher had resumed his supervision of a business the conduct of which, during his unavoidable absence, had been restored by an intelligent wife and an unimaginative manager to the normal order of such establishments, that Dr. J. Hingeston Smith entered the shop.
Mr. Smith, who had made no further effort to emulate the ethical standards of his professional neighbour, told the assistant who had bustled forward, to attend to another customer, of whom there were several present at the time, and himself advanced, with some grimness of jaw, to this unexpected encounter.
"I want," Dr. Smith said, "a beefsteak. I am particular in what I eat, and I should be obliged if you would yourself select it for me."
Mr. Smith made no audible reply, but he picked up a suitable knife, and advanced upon a side of excellent beef which was suspended at the rear of the shop. He cut the steak with the skill and judgement which long experience gave, and it was one which the most exacting of chefs would have felt it an honour to grill.
He laid it on the counter for a moment, for the admiration of his brother artist, and then commenced to wrap it up without the ceremony of weighing.
Dr. J. Hingeston Smith pulled out a wallet of notes. "The price will be?" he enquired courteously.
Mr. J. Henry Smith spoke for the first time. "Forty guineas," he said. His voice was irresolute, and yet there sounded in it a latent obstinacy. In his eyes was the weary look of a dog approached by another from whom he has about equal expectation of a snarl or a wagging tail.
"It is a price," Dr. Smith replied, with the same grave courtesy as before, "which I am well able to pay."
He counted out the money, and then extended a hand which the butcher took in a hearty grip.
"Had you charged me less," Dr. Smith said, "I would never have spoken to you again."
There was some difference of opinion among those who heard of the incident during the next twenty-four hours (which is to say the whole population of Picklehampton) as to which of the principals in this encounter had carried of the honours of war, but we may conclude that the ancient borough had two citizens of whom it had no reason to be ashamed.
WHO ELSE BUT SHE?
CHIEF INSPECTOR PINKEY was annoyed. The crime (for he was disposed to agree with the view of the local police that the possibility of suicide could be eliminated) had been committed within a few minutes of 5 p.m. on Thursday last, and now it was 11-30 on Tuesday morning, and it was only an hour ago that the assistance of Scotland Yard had been solicited by the Chief Constable of Buckfordshire. Within ten minutes of that telephone conversation, Pinkey had been in a taxi for Paddington. Now he gazed at the high banks of the railway cutting, pleasant in October sunshine, as the express pulled easily up the Chiltern gradients, and wondered how many dues had been blurred or obliterated before he had been called in to clear up a puzzle which the local officers had been unwilling to consider beyond their powers.
Well, there was nothing new in that. He knew that it was of the first importance that he should stifle his annoyance and accept it cheerfully.
Any impatience on his part or affectation of superiority would make a difficult problem even harder than it must inevitably be. He must just put out of his mind all he had heard, all he had read, even all the possibilities that had entered his mind as he had thought it over during the last few days (anticipating that he would soon be travelling in this direction), and approach it with an open unprejudiced mind. That was always the safest way.
He got out at Ricksfield to change into the local train.
The village of Beacon's Cross lies about two miles from the station of that name. Inspector Pinkey remembered reading of this distance, and hoped that he would not be obliged to walk. Probably there would be a taxi. But you never could be sure at these little country stations. And he had a rather heavy bag.
It was with real gratitude, disposing him to an unusual geniality, that he was greeted by a tall man of somewhat military aspect, who introduced himself as Inspector Trackfield of the County Constabulary, and proposed that they should motor together to Bywater Grange.
"I'm driving myself," he added, "so that we can talk freely. There aren't many places where you can be equally certain that you couldn't be overheard."
Inspector Pinkey had a moment of wonder as to whether this local policeman really believed this to be a remark of unusual profundity. Was he anxious to show that the country constabulary are shrewder than is commonly believed in the metropolitan area?
"Yes," he said, in a rather drier voice than he had meant it to be, "when you've looked under the seat."
"Under the seat?" Inspector Trackfield had a moment of surprise. Then his face cleared. "Oh yes. I see. You don't mean that too literally. You mean when you've had a good look. Oh yes, of course."
By this time they were in the car.
The two officers exchanged platitudes upon the weather and the Cotswold Hills. Inspector Pinkey was too accustomed to the delicate operation of taking over investigations from less experienced or less competent hands to feel any awkwardness, but he knew the importance of doing it in a tactful way. It was to open the subject rather than to gain information that he remarked:
"I understand that the inquest had been adjourned?"
But to Inspector Trackfield, remembering the unadvertised reason for that adjournment, it was an unpleasant question to hear, and many would have given it a shorter answer. Chief Inspector Pinkey could observe that Trackfield might be an obtuse, but he was an honest man. He said:
"Yes . . . You see, I told the Coroner yesterday morning that we were about to arrest Lady Denton, and so he agreed to adjourn, sine die, in the usual way. After that, Sir Henry said he'd like to go over the evidence again before we committed ourselves finally and then he said he wasn't quite satisfied and he'd decided to call you in."
Sir Henry Titterton was the Chief Constable of Buckfordshire.
"The evidence against Lady Denton must have appeared fairly strong. You felt satisfied of her guilt?"
The answer came rather stiffly: "Obviously. I applied for a warrant for her arrest."
Inspector Pinkey thought silently: "And you are still convinced!" He reminded himself again of the necessity of keeping an open mind. It might be true, as the obvious often is - but not always. What he said was: "Going by the press photographs, she seems to be quite an attractive woman."
Inspector Trackheld agreed. Exceptionally. He added that she was very popular also.
"Not the sort you would expect to be guilty of such a crime?"
"Not in the least." Trackheld was quite frank about that. The experienced ears of the Scotland Yard officer caught a tone which suggested that, though the speaker had been resolved to arrest her, he had not been entirely insensible of the lady's charm. It was confirmed by the remark that followed, rather stolidly spoken:
"But you have to go on the evidence."
"That is an indisputable proposition, which makes it particularly important that the evidence should be considered by those who are most competent to handle it . . ." But at this point the conversation was interrupted by their arrival at Bywater Grange.
Inspector Pinkey had a busy day. He examined everyone whom he could find the faintest reason to examine, and did this with such tact and adroitness that he obtained not only a willing repetition of tales which had already been fully told, but even one or two additional details, the importance of which he was not yet able to estimate accurately. He took this evidence orally, maintaining an easy conversational tone, and the witnesses might have been surprised had they known how accurately he had recalled their words, as he had compared them later with the signed statements which the county police had secured already.
When evening came he retired to his own room - Lady Denton had offered him the hospitality of the Grange - to review the evidence that he had obtained.
First, there was the medical evidence and that of the post-mortem. It did not eliminate the possibility of suicide, but it rendered it extremely improbable. Sir David Denton had been shot while standing at his desk in the ground-floor study, facing the window, though some distance from it. He had been shot with the pistol which he kept in the top right-hand drawer of that desk. The drawer had been closed.
The bullet had entered under and a little behind the left ear, and had penetrated the brain in an upward and somewhat forward position. Sir Lionel Tipshift, who had conducted the post-mortem, advised that it was possible - physically possible - for the wound to have been self-inflicted if the weapon had been held in the right hand, passed under the left arm, and pointed upward. Possible - but absurd.
The improbability had been increased by the fact that Sir David had been left-handed. Sir Lionel Tipshift expressed the opinion, with a self-confidence which may appear to have been well-grounded, that the shot had been fired by someone who had stood behind the murdered man. Most probably one who was known to him and could approach him thus without exciting suspicion. Someone also who had known where the pistol was kept and had been able to obtain or secrete it. A member of the household, if not of the family, was clearly indicated.
Sir Lionel thought it highly probable that the shot had been fired by someone considerably shorter than Sir David, who had been a tall man. Lady Denton fulfilled all these conditions. She was the only one who was freely and naturally admitted to her husband's study. She was a foot shorter than he. She had been with him immediately after, if not at the moment that the shot was fired.
There was strong suspicion here, if not proof. And if she did not do it, who did?
As to that, there were possibilities, but they were not numerous. Sir David had been generally disliked. A mean-natured, suspicious, bad-tempered man, of a bullying habit. Everyone in the house appeared to have feared him except the cook and (perhaps) his wife.
A few days before the tragedy he had invaded the kitchen with some complaint, and the cook, a woman with a temper to equal his own, had threatened to lay a broom across his shoulders if he didn't clear out.
After that he had required his wife to dismiss her, which was scarcely surprising, but this she had stubbornly refused to do. There had been rows over this and Lady Denton was known to have had a bruised arm. But with an obstinate defiance with which she occasionally varied her submissions, she had declined to give way. She had held stubbornly to her point that the kitchen was her domain and that Sir David should have kept out of it.
Inspector Pinkey had interviewed the cook. She had expressed her opinion of Sir David with much freedom and force of language, and it had not been favourable.
She did not profess to regret his end. She affirmed her conviction that he had committed suicide, and a good thing, too. Yet the Inspector decided without difficulty that he could eliminate the cook. Had Sir David been banged on the head with a flat-iron in one of the back passages, it might have been a more doubtful matter.
Eliminating her, he disposed also of the two other female members of the staff. They were a housemaid and a kitchen-maid, and it appeared that they had been together in the kitchen when the shot was fired.
Apart from a conspiracy of guilt or concealment, the evidence of each was an alibi for the other two. Considering this and the inherent improbability that they were concerned in the crime, the Inspector dismissed them from the list of those on whom suspicion might fall. Beyond that they could throw no light on the event. They were united in the suggestion of suicide, with the obvious intention of defending their mistress from all implication of murder, but it was not a point on which their opinions were of substantial value.
Besides the women, the inmates of the house had been two only - Lady Denton herself and Gerard Denton, a half-brother of the murdered man.
Lady Denton's account was simple and explicit. She had been in her own room, the door of which faced that of Sir David's study, when she had heard the shot. In a vague alarm, though without guessing what had occurred, she had crossed the hall, opened the study door, seen her husband sprawled on the floor with a revolver beside his hand, and had screamed for help, at which Gerard had come out of the library at the further end of the passage.
Gerard Denton's account agreed with this narrative. He had been reading in the library when he had heard the shot, though not very distinctly. The doors of Bywater Grange were thick and well fitted. He doubted whether he would have been sufficiently disturbed or curious to inquire the cause, but that he had been roused the next moment by an agonised scream from Lady Denton: "Gerard! Gerard!" and had run at once to her aid.
He told this tale clearly enough, though with some agitation of manner and perhaps a little over-assertion, which might be natural enough under the circumstances. Supported as it was by Lady Denton's account, it seemed to remove suspicion from him also, and concentrated it the more surely upon herself. He was evidently conscious of this, and, like the servants, he showed anxiety to assert her innocence. He dwelt on the note of surprise and horror which he had heard in her first scream. He agreed with Lady Denton that no one could have escaped by the study door and along the passage, after the shot was fired, without being seen either by her or him.
There remained the evidence of the gardener and his boy, and if credence were to be given to their account and to that of the inmates of the house, it appeared to demonstrate that no one had done it at all, which was absurd, or that it was a case of suicide, which Inspector Pinkey was very disinclined to believe.
The gardener was an old man, stiff with rheumatism and very deaf. He had been working on the drive, trimming the edges, out of sight of the study window, but in view of anyone who should approach or leave by the front entrances. The drive curved towards the house. It passed the study, which had a French window opening on to a narrow lawn. This window had been wide open.
The boy had been working on the drive also. He was nearer the house. He was in such a position at the bend of the drive that he could see the study window, while the gardener, who could not see it, could see him.
He was a boy slow of words, but of a perpetual grin. His lack of fluency was further impeded by the fact that, when Inspector Pinkey interviewed him, he was sucking a very large sweet. He said that he had heard the shot and had commenced to run to the window in the anticipation - perhaps 'hope' would not be an unfair word - that 'something was up'. He had been called back by the gardener, and had reluctantly continued weeding until Mr. Gerard had appeared from the window, and questioned him as to having seen anyone come out previously.
Had he done so? No - no one. Except, of course Mr. Gerard. When? When he said. How long after the shot was fired? Quite a time. Five minutes? Yes, perhaps. Perhaps not. Quite a time. Mr. Gerard had come straight to him to know whether he had seen anything. Then he had gone on to question Mr. Bulger.
Mr. Bulger had confirmed this. He had not heard any shot, being far too deaf, but he had seen the young imp start to run up the drive, and had called him back. He always did try to run away if he was left out of sight for a moment. He had supposed that he was trying to slip round the house to talk to Mabel, as usual. Mabel was the kitchen-maid. The Inspector, who did not miss much, remembered having noticed that she also appeared to be inordinately fond of sweets, but these facts did not occur to him as being of any material significance, either separately or in combination - about which he was to learn his error before many hours had passed.
There was another line of investigation which Inspector Trackfield had explored already. That was in reference to Mr. Redwing, Sir David's late secretary. He had been dismissed two days before the murder - dismissed suddenly on an accusation of financial dishonesty, which he had strenuously denied, after a very violent scene.
He was still lodging at the Railway Station Hotel scarcely two miles away. Inspector Trackfield admitted that he had fixed on him at the first as the most probable culprit. It appeared that he had said in the hotel bar that he would never leave the district till he had had his rights. He had been to a local solicitor who had declined to take up the case.
The only difficulty in fixing the murder upon him was that he had not been there. On that point the evidence appeared to be absolute and impregnable. The landlady of the hotel and about a dozen other disinterested people would swear to that. Inspector Pinkey decided to make his own enquiries in that direction also but he recognised that it did not sound a very hopeful one.
As he thought over the result of his first day's investigations he was inclined to the opinion that he might have stayed in London without any disadvantage to the ends of justice. Everyone might agree that Lady Denton was an attractive woman and unlikely to be a murderess but as Inspector Trackfield had said you can't go against the evidence. And once again. if she hadn't done it who had?
Inspector Pinkey sat at breakfast with Lady Denton. They were alone. Mr. Gerard was understood to be unwell and having his breakfast in bed.
Lady Denton herself recurred to the subject on which they had already had conversation the previous evening.
"If there's anything you haven't asked me I hope you won't hesitate, whatever it is, if you think it might help to clear up the mystery."
"May I ask your own opinion, if you have formed one, Lady Denton?"
She paused before she replied, and then said: "I can't say that I've got one definitely. I don't think he'd have done such a thing, and then I'm told that Sir Lionel says it wouldn't have been easy to do; and yet it seems the only solution."
She looked straightly at the Inspector as she said this. She had very beautiful eyes. She was a woman of fragile appearance, but with small, firm lips and a rounded but resolute chin. Not one, he thought who would have been bullied very easily, even by such as the dead man was said to have been. She added:
"I know everyone's discussing whether I did it myself and I half thought Inspector Trackfield meant to have me arrested before I heard you were coming. But, you see, I happen to know that I didn't. So in that way I'm in a better position to judge than anyone else, and if I'm more inclined to think it was suicide, it may be a natural consequence."
Inspector Pinkey felt an awkwardness to which he was unaccustomed as his hostess expressed so plainly the suspicion which she knew to be directed upon her. He said: "Well, you see, in these cases we have to begin by suspecting everybody. You can't really blame him for that. There was one other question I thought I should like to ask you Did you know - I mean, was it generally known that the revolver was kept in the desk drawer?"
"Yes, I knew that. Others may have done. I can't say for sure. I expect Mr. Redwing did, as he had charge of Sir David's correspondence and kept his drawers straight."
"Yes. I expect he would. You see, they both had revolvers of the same pattern, but of course you knew that . . . I mean, he knew that Sir David had it, but I can't say whether he knew where it was kept."
The Inspector had already been informed of the existence of the two weapons. They were a pair of a rather old pattern and of a calibre somewhat unusual today. Inspector Trackheld had told him that Gerard Denton had readily admitted his ownership, and had produced the pistol from the bottom of a trunk. Its appearance was consistent with his statement that it had not been used for years. He said that he had no ammunition, and had never loaded it in his life.
The Inspector went on: "Do you know whether Sir David was in the habit of keeping it loaded? . . . In an unlocked drawer?"
"I don't really know. I shouldn't have thought it was loaded. I don't think he'd have been so careless. He might leave any of his drawers unlocked. He was very careless about that."
"And there was a box of cartridges in the same drawer?"
"There was a box of something at the back of the drawer. I don't really know more than that. I never thought about it particularly. No doubt that's what it was."
Inspector Pinkey had an interval of silence. He gave some attention to his breakfast. It was really excellent bacon. He also considered the answers that he had just received. If they were true - and they appeared to be readily and frankly given - he could eliminate her from the enquiry.
What remained? Suicide or Gerard Denton? Neither proposition could easily be reconciled with the facts, as he knew them. He said:
"In accepting a theory of suicide in a doubtful case such as this, it may be of some assistance if we can discover a motive - even one which may seem inadequate to a normal person. It is one of our difficulties that we can discover none here. Sir David was in good health. We have the evidence of the post-mortem and of his own doctor, which you confirm. He appears to have had no financial troubles. Blackmail or some other complication of double living explains some cases, but we can learn of nothing of the kind here. His carelessness regarding keys, of which you have just told me, is consistent with the absence of such worries. I understand that his papers have disclosed nothing. His bank account has no unexplained debits. Only domestic unhappiness remains as a possible explanation of self-destruction. If you could tell me that there was such unhappiness, it might supply the motive for which we are seeking, though there would still be the difficulty of the shot coming from behind."
It was subtly put. She may or may not have seen that an affirmative answer might be held to inculpate herself quite as much as it would support a theory of suicide, but she showed no sign of resentment, neither did she reply. She took up his last point only.
"Sir Lionel Tipshift considers it possible, as I have understood?"
"Yes . . . But still, a motive of any kind - "
She was silent, and then said deliberately: "It is a matter which I would rather not discuss, even with you. It was between him and me."
He recognised that she meant what she said, and that he could not press it. Indeed, her refusal to reply was admission enough. Not that he really believed in suicide. He thought it absurd.
He said quickly: "How about his brother? Was he on good terms with him?"
"No. Nobody was."
"You mean, no one was on good terms with your husband?"
"Yes. It wasn't easy."
"Well," he said, as Lady Denton rose from the table, "motive or no motive, it looks as though it's suicide that it's got to be . . . I want to get back if I can this afternoon. I'll just have a stroll round before I go."
"I've told the servants to give you any information they can and to do anything you ask. I mayn't see you again if you're going as soon as that."
She shook hands with a slight but sufficient cordiality, and as she left the room Gerard Denton came in.
If the difference between brothers is sometimes a very wide one, it is reasonable to observe that that between half-brothers may be wider still. Gerard Denton was under-sized, furtive, ingratiating, handsome in a feminine way. The sort of man who would be very likely to have breakfast upstairs if there were any trouble on the ground floor. Inspector Pinkey recognised that.
Whether or not he were the sort who could be roused by any desperation of circumstances to remove trouble out of his way by violent, treacherous means might be less sure.
The Inspector knew that his brother's death was to his advantage, as it was to that of the widow also. Such facts should not be accepted as proofs or even as bare evidence in the scales of justice, but he thought somewhat cynically how frequently - how almost invariably - in cases of violent or suspicious deaths it would be found that those who were financial gainers were most closely around the scene.
In this case Gerard Denton gained control of a capital sum of which his brother had been trustee during his lifetime, the income only coming into Gerard's hands, and even that as a matter of discretion rather than right. There were marriage settlements also through which Lady Denton benefited by her husband's death. So that it was not a matter of the laws of inheritance or the doubt of a favourable will. In both cases there would be a change from financial dependence upon a mean and domineering man to one of an affluent freedom.
But, so far at least as Gerard was concerned, there was Lady Denton's own evidence that he had come from the library to join her on the scene of the tragedy. If it were false, what possible motive could she have for concealing his guilt at the cost of the suspicion which was consequently directed upon her?
Gerard did not look very pleased when he encountered Inspector Pinkey. He thought he had allowed sufficient time for that infernal red-headed policeman to clear out. He couldn't think why Adelaide had allowed him to stay in the house at all. Surely there were barracks for such as he?
He tried with indifferent success to look the affability which he did not feel, but his ordeal was not prolonged. The inspector had talked to him yesterday. He was not a man to waste words. He returned nervous civilities with others which were more self-confident but equally insincere.
Then he went out, as he had told Lady Denton that he had intended to do.
Chief Inspector Pinkey did not intend to go back on the afternoon train. He had altered his mind. He was having lunch with Inspector Trackheld, and if his face wore a somewhat self-satisfied smile, he had cause for complacency. He had made a discovery during the morning which might be capable of innocent explanation, but seemed more likely to be one of those threads by which the whole fabric may be unravelled.
It began with a casual remark he had overheard as he passed the kitchen that morning. That might be luck. But the idea which it had brought into his mind was the result of his own efficiency. His auditor recognised the superior brilliance of the Yard technique with a generous measure of praise which concealed some natural annoyance. He knew that, if this clue should prove as important as it promised to be, there would be reflections and comparisons made. And it was so easy to see now that he ought not to have accepted the boy's assurance so easily.
"I thought," Inspector Pinkey suggested, "that you might like to come with me when I question him and then we'd follow it up together. Two heads are better than one, and so are two witnesses to whatever's said."
Inspector Trackheld said that he would be pleased to come. Perhaps willing would have been a truer word. It could not give him much pleasure to play second fiddle on his own ground. He quite understood that Pinkey was to do the investigation and it would be his part to stand by. But all the same it was his duty. And Pinkey deserved it too. He got up to come.
They found the boy planting out winter cabbages. He had something in his mouth that impeded speech.
The cheerful grin on his face altered somewhat as the two officers approached but was in fairly good working order by the time they were near enough to observe.
"Tommy where did you get that pound note that you changed at Mr. Cobbin's shop last Friday night?"
"Me aunt sent it me."
The Inspector showed no surprise. That was the tale that had been told when the note was changed. He asked: "Was it the aunt over Maidenhead way or the one at Rochester?"
The boy looked up suddenly. He knew that the Inspector was pulling his leg. He had no aunts.
"Tommy, who gave you that note?"
"It mighta been anyone."
"It might have been Mr. Gerard."
"I told yer I picked it up."
"We didn't hear that . . . Now Tommy you just listen to me. You've told lies enough and another one might mean that you'll be locked up for the night. Why did Mr. Gerard give you that note?"
"I didn't say as he did."
"You didn't say that he didn't, which meant just the same. Had he ever given you one before?"
"Then why did he give you one on Friday afternoon?"
"He musta thought as he would."
"No doubt he did. And you were to keep your mouth shut as to what you'd seen . . . Did you see him shoot Sir David?"
"Acourse not. I were down the bend o' the drive."
"But you saw him come out through the window after he'd done it?"
"He come out to speak to me."
"Then he came out twice?"
The boy's silence was sufficient answer. "We'll have a bit more to say to you later, Tommy."
The two officers went on to the house. They desired to interview Mr. Gerard before he should be aware of the discovery which they had made.
Mr. Gerard Denton received his visitors with a surface of nervous affability which was too thin to conceal the antipathy which underlay it.
"We've come to see you again, Mr. Denton, because you made a mistake. You should have given him half a crown."
Mr. Gerard looked, and may have been, genuinely puzzled for a moment by this opening.
"If there's anyone I ought to give half a crown to - " he began vaguely.
"I mean the gardener's boy."
Comprehension came and confusion with it.
"I suppose I can give the boy what I choose."
Mr. Denton was aware, even as he uttered it, of the weak futility of the reply.
"It's not a question of what you choose to give the boy, but of what explanation you choose to give us. We've heard what he has to say."
There was a good-humoured grimness about Inspector Pinkey in these crises of pursuit, such as that of a butcher who enjoys his job. He was apt to become quick and even epigrammatic in retort. The little awkwardness which he had felt at breakfast, when his hostess had herself suggested that she might have been cast for the role of criminal, would have disappeared very quickly had he once decided to so regard her.
Inspector Trackfield, who up to this point had been a silent learner of the methods of the central organisation, which were reputed to be so superior to his own, thought it right to interpose the remark that Mr. Denton was not obliged to make any reply which would incriminate himself, but of course any explanation he could offer. . . .
"The fact is, I got flustered . . . It was a silly thing to do."
The reply came in a somewhat more confident tone, responding to that of the warning he had received, but it was Chief Inspector Pinkey who resumed charge of the conversation.
"It's never wise to get flustered."
"I didn't mean that. I mean, it was silly to give the boy any money."
"It was silly to give the boy as much as you did. He's never stopped sucking sweets since he got it . . . Do you mind telling us why you gave him any at all? It's only fair to tell you, Mr. Denton, that we've had his account of the matter."
"Because he'd seen me come out of the window just before, and I didn't want to be mixed up in it more than I could help."
"He saw you come out through the window twice."
"Yes, but - "
"Then, the statement you have already made is untrue?"
"Yes, but - "
"Should you like an opportunity of amending that statement? Suppose you call at the police station at seven this evening. That'll be a quiet time."
He did not look for a reply, and Gerard Denton understood that it was an order rather than an invitation. The two officers turned to go.
Inspector Trackheld was inwardly rather surprised at the respite which this arrangement gave.
"You feel sure he'll come," he said, as they went down the drive.
Chief Inspector Pinkey was in a genial mood. He had some reason for that, having demonstrated his ability to the rural mind. He gave a ready explanation.
"Yes, he'll come sure enough. It's that or a bolt, and if he bolts now it's just like hanging himself. He'll spend the time making up some lie or other that'll do the job in another way."
"He'll try to get hold of the boy."
"Yes, but he won't succeed. That's partly why I put him off till evening. We'll take the boy back with us now and have his statement first. We needn't let him leave till Mr. Gerard's walked in . . . It's another matter when he'll walk out and where to."
The boy was still at work on the drive. He was sweeping now, in a final clearance, near the gate.
"Tommy," said Inspector Pinkey, "how long was it after the shot was fired that Mr. Gerard came out of that window? I mean the first time he came out."
There was a pause before the reply came. The boy seemed confused, or possibly afraid lest he might increase the depth of the pit into which he had fallen already. His eyes seemed to dodge those of the Inspector, to look past or beyond him. At last he said:
"It wasn't after, it was before."
As he said this Inspector Trackfield looked round, following the direction of the boy's glance. Gerard Denton stood a few yards behind them.
Whether it was that they had been absorbed in their own conversation, or through the noise of the boy's sweeping on the gravel drive, or that he had followed on slippered feet, or that he had trodden the grassy edging of the drive, or a combination of these circumstances, the fact remained that the vital question had been asked and answered with the boy under his own eye.
"Mr. Denton, you've no right - " Inspector Pinkey began angrily, and then checked himself. It was seldom, indeed, that he lost his self-control in such ways.
"I suppose I can walk in my own drive?"
The Inspector did not answer. He said to the boy. "You'd better put that broom down and come with us."
The two officers looked at each other, and up to the clock. It was 7.5.
"He's five minutes late," Inspector Trackheld remarked.
"There's nothing in that," his companion answered, from the wisdom of a more extended experience. "They mostly are. A little late, but not much. They're too nervous to come before they're obliged, and too nervous to stay longer away."
"If that boy's tale's true, it must have been Lady Denton - "
"The boy's lying about that. He daren't tell the truth with Gerard Denton looking on, and now he's too frightened to change his tale."
" - or suicide."
"It wasn't that. We'll give him till the quarter-past."
But Mr. Gerard Denton did not come, even though they gave him till the half-past, and so, at last, the two officers rose to make their way to the Grange, leaving instructions that he should be detained if he should call before their return.
Lady Denton was at dinner. She said that they should be asked into the dining-room. She seemed a little surprised, even a little agitated, at this untimely invasion. But she asked them courteously if they would join her at the meal.
They said no to that. Could they see Mr. Denton? Was he not in?
"I think there must have been a misunderstanding," she replied. "He told me that he was seeing you at the police station this evening."
"Yes, but he didn't come."
"He's not usually very punctual. I expect you'll find he's there now."
"Could you say how long it is since he left the house?"
"He hasn't been in since just after tea. At least, I think not. He asked me to walk with him as he'd got something to tell me, so I went a little way, and then turned back. I understood that he was staying out till it was time for his appointment with you. But it wasn't clear. He seemed rather upset."
"Which way did he go?"
"He went a little way up the Highcombe Road - the old road - the one that goes over the hill."
Inspector Pinkey looked inquiry at his companion. He knew little of the local roads.
"He might have gone over the hill and come back through Longwater. It wouldn't take much over the hour at a steady pace."
They went back to the police station, but Gerard Denton was not there.
It was eleven next morning before they found him. He lay among the rough stones of the quarry pit with a smashed arm and a broken neck. It was not a fall that any man could survive, nor was it one that could have been an accident of the dark. Not, at least, to one who knew the road, as he must have done. There was a closed gate to pass, and a walk along the quarry edge which was a mere track. It led nowhere.
Chief Inspector Pinkey looked at the dead man as they carried him to the mortuary.
"Well." he said, "it's not how I like a case to end, though it saves trouble all round. He's made his statement now."
"I wonder," Inspector Trackfield said to himself. He recognised the ability with which the Scotland Yard expert had probed the dead man's lie, but he still had a little stubborn unwillingness to acquit the woman whom he would have arrested, and against whom he would now have been working up the case, had he been left to follow his own way.
But Chief Inspector Pinkey had no doubt. He had solved the problem, as he had been instructed to do, and there was just time to get back to the station for the midday train. Inspector Trackfield ordered the car.
Adelaide Denton lay in the moonlit room and looked up at the stars. She had been told by a psychologist that if anyone tries to put a matter aside, refusing to think of it, it may remain festering in the mind like a sore that is surface-healed; but that if it be boldly faced and considered, it will fade out in a natural manner.
"There is nothing," he had said, "too terrible for a resolute mind to face it successfully; but it may be fatal to run away."
Well, she would face it. She would justify or condemn herself. She was not fond of running away.
A fortnight ago, she would not have thought it possible that such things could enter her life. She had been unfaithful to her husband two years earlier. But that was a buried thing. No one knew. No one suspected. The man was dead. She was not sorry now. Not in the least. She had never had any mental difficulty in facing that sin.
But she had been foolish, sentimentally foolish, to keep the letters. Foolish beyond words, She would admit that. But for that she would not have killed - have had to kill - two men.
Even so, things might have not happened as they had if she had not discovered Redwing's dishonesty, and denounced him to her husband.
"You'll be sorry for this before you're through."
Those had been his words to her as he had left the house, and after that she had found that the letters were gone.
She went over every incident in her mind, not seeing where she should have done differently, till she came to last Friday, when she had seen the postman drop the afternoon letters into the box. She had been just too late - a mere five seconds too late - to take them from him. It had all hinged upon that. And among them had been the packet addressed to her husband in Redwing's unmistakable writing, the contents of which were so easy to guess, and which he must never see.
She had seen the writing plainly through the small, round, glazed window of the letter-box, which would have been too small, even had she broken it, for the packet to come through.
But she could have broken the box. She saw that now. In any way, with any tool, at any cost of fantastic explanation afterwards. But, instead of that, she had tried to get David to give her the key. The revolver I had been a last resort of panic. She had not meant to use it. It had been to give her courage, confidence that there was such a resort, though it would never come to that.
And could she have been expected to remember how that French window reflected at the one side, against the dark background of shrubs? He had seen, and another second would have been too late . . . There had been the ungovernable impulse of the instant's panic . . . The clumsy upward shot . . . She had not been used to the handling of firearms. It had been almost chance where the bullet went . . . Well, it would be no use thinking any more about that!
And so she came to last night. She had not known - had not guessed till Gerald had told her - the full peril in which she stood. How could she have told that he had been talking with David but a moment before she entered the room? That he had gone out by the window, and walked round to the library, as he often did, and scarcely reached it when he heard the shot and her scream?
If he had told that tale, and the boy had said the same, as no doubt he would, it would have been like a rope round her neck.
And he believed she did it. He had begged her to confess. Had said that, being a woman, it wasn't likely to be 'the worst' for her. The worst for her! And the best would have been fifteen years in a prison cell!
Had she had the thought in her mind when she had led him to the quarry side?" Come this way, we can talk quietly here." Honestly she could not be sure when the thought had come. But at last he had made it an easy thing. He had naturally given her the inside of the narrow path. There was not room for two, unless one should be willing to be torn on the brambled hedge. And as he had talked in his agitation, he had not been overcareful of where he went.
Yet she would not fool herself about that. At the last, it had been deliberately done. She remembered the thought that it must not be done so that he could catch at her as he fell. And then it had been such an easy thing! She need not have pushed nearly as hard as she did. He would have overbalanced at a mere touch. She knew that now. And in ten seconds he must have been dead.
It had been far, far the best - you might call it the only way.
IF you move I shall shoot."
Mr. Binfield sat up in bed.
"Do you realise," he said reasonably, "that I am in my own room?"
The blind was raised. The moon shone full on the opposite wall. The burglar stood in the shadow, and his outlines were vague, behind the light of the electric torch which he was pointing in Mr. Binfield's direction. In his other hand was what appeared to be the lethal weapon his words implied.
Mr. Binfield threw his legs over the side.
"If you come an inch nearer - "
"I don't see why I should," Mr. Binfield replied, in the same amicable tone. "We can talk as we are . . . I was only interested to know if you have found any thing valuable."
"Not yet, guv'nor. You lie down and keep quiet, and I daresay I soon shall."
"I wish you would," Mr. Binfield answered, though without assuming the horizontal position indicated.
"You'd be cleverer than I am . . . Why not switch on the light?"
The suggestion was received in silence. The search which has been interrupted by Mr. Binfield's inopportune wakefulness proceeded without appearing to be productive of anything worth purloining. Finally, the burglar stood in the middle of the room (but keeping clear of that patch of moonlit wall) while he considered the position.
There were the pillows, beneath which some people will place their most valued possessions before they sleep. But he did not care to go so closely to his host as that search would have required. He could tell him to move, but he was not sure that he would be obeyed, and it would not strengthen his position to accept a refusal.
He threw the torch-light upon the pillows. "You'd best give them a lift," he said, in a voice of menace.
"It's an idea," Mr. Binfield answered pleasantly. He lifted them thoroughly, and the bolster also.
"Drawn a blank again," he went on, in a voice of resignation; and then more cheerfully: "But I oughtn't to pretend I'm upset about that. I felt sure we should."
He put the pillows back, and resumed his former position: "And now, if you've quite finished looking for something that isn't there, we'll talk business . . . If you can prove to me that you're a burglar worth knowing, I can give you a job."
There was a pause of silence after this offer, which must have been surprising to Mr. Binfield's midnight caller. Then he said: "If I wasn't, I shouldn't be here now."
"Yes. But a good burglar. I don't want one who'll bungle the job. I suppose you've got some credentials?"
"No - I suppose that's not a reasonable thing to expect . . . But you might have a few press-cuttings, showing you got away with the loot . . . You can't say that you've done much here."
"I can't take what you haven't got."
"No" Mr. Binfield conceded. "I can't blame you for that. But it's you hoping to find anything here that I can't get over. I don't want to waste money on a burglar who's weak in the head . . . Still, the same question wouldn't arise. I can tell you what to get, and there's no doubt that it's there. No doubt at all . . By the way, I suppose that you've got some skeleton keys? I don't want you to wake up everyone operating with a chisel . . . Yes, that's the right sound." (The keys jingled in the burglar's pocket). "And masked? You seem to observe the Union rules. I should think you'd do . . . By the way, what's your name?"
"Jack - er - 'obbs."
"Yes?" said Mr. Binfield sceptically. "Then I'll tell you, Mr. Walter - er - 'ammond, what I want you to do. You're to go along the landing to the left, till you come to the end of the passage. You can't make any mistake that matters, because there are only two doors at the end, and one of them's a bathroom, and the other's where I want you to look in You'd better keep to the centre as you go along, because the carpet's thick but it's narrow, and the boards squeak at the sides. When you come to the right door, I don't suppose you'll End it locked, but, if it is, you'll know what to do . . .
"Guv'nor, what's the game?"
"Game's the word. I'd have used it first if I'd happened to think of it . . . You'll only find one lady in there, and she'll be too sound asleep to wake, unless you break the mirror, or kick over a chair. I want a packet of letters out of that room. About eight. All written on marbled paper, and signed Piggy, or something sillier."
"Where do I come in, Guv'nor?"
"You don't come in. You've made that mistake already. You go out. You go out, Hendren, with a fiver to spend on your dependent family. Burglars always have dependent families, don't they? - What's that? You'd like to see where it's coming from? Well, I don't know that I can blame you overmuch after you've looked round this room. But Holmes (not Sherlock), you must not be misled by appearances. I have a wife. I have also an income. In fact, the two are one. That is the root of the present difficulty, and of the enterprising remedy to which I invite your co-operation . . . I suppose you're not above taking a cheque?"
Maud Villiers opened her eyes. She didn't want to I move, but she did want to see all she could. She had looked through her lashes for the past two minutes, while someone moved about her room, and the result had been small . . . She had not been surprised when the handle turned. She had left the door unlocked in the expectation, if not the hope, that she might have such a visitor. She had not been surprised that it turned softly. She had not expected that he would wish to wake the house. What she could not understand was that, having entered the room, he did not approach more nearly to the presumable object of this midnight call.
She had been wide awake from the first. Mr. Binfield's presumption that she would be sleeping heavily because she had been playing bridge till 1-30 a.m. failed to take account of the two hours' sleep she had had when lying down in the afternoon. But her wakefulness had not, so far, been of much assistance to her. Her room, which was at the end of the passage, had only one window, which faced south, Mr. Binfield's window faced east. There was no patch of moonlight on her wall; only a faint diffused light. And she hadn't been able to move so as to get a good view of the room. How could she move about, when it was obviously necessary to be surprised in her sleep by this unexpected intruder?
But the unexpected intruder was surprising her in an unexpected way. If that wasn't the click of her jewelbox! However widely she opened her eyes, she couldn't see anything from where she lay. But - wasn't that the light of an electric torch? There was something queer here. She sat up.
Dimly, she observed the back of a man who was unconscious of the movement that she had made. She was not lacking either in resource or courage. She slipped silently our of bed. Her bare feet made no sound as she crossed the thickly-carpeted floor. In one motion she had turned the key, drawn it from the lock, disposed of it in her own way, and switched on the light. "And now," she said, "perhaps you'll tell me what you're doing here."
Jack Hobbs (or Sutcliffe) looked at Miss Villiers, and Maud Villiers looked at Jack, and there was no pleasure on either countenance. Jack felt that it was not his lucky night. But he had a ready wit, without which quality few can succeed in his profession sufficiently to justify the discomforts, actual and potential, which it entails. He had a satisfaction, even at that moment, in the thought that he had secured the letters only ten seconds before. If only he had not tried to do a little business for himself, in addition to the commission on which he came, he might have avoided the unfortunate interview which was now before him.
Maud Villiers had her own cause for annoyance. When you owe £300 for bridge debts to a man whose income is about that much a week, and your bank account contains a credit balance of £4 10s. 0d., and he gives you a hint that there are other methods of payment besides a cheque-book, and you reject the hint with indignation, but not quite the indignation that - well, you know, or anyway, he ought to have done! And then you lie awake, and hear the door quietly opening, and it turns out to be - this. "Don't stand there like a fool," she repeated, for Mr. Hobbs was doing a little quiet thinking before he spoke.
"Tell me what you're doing here."
"I'm putting these - jewels - back into the box, miss. I don't want them. Honest, I don't."
He spoke sincerely. In the light which she had provided, his experience told him that the receiver with whom he dealt would reject them contemptuously. "It's a mistake, miss. We all make mistakes at times . I'd best go quiet, and you'll be asleep again in three minutes, miss, and no fuss or worry at all."
It was indeed, a mistake. To have rifled two bedrooms in this affluent-seeming country-house, and not come on anything worth a five-pound note!
Miss Villiers stepped forward, looking at the contents of the opened box. "There were some letters there."
"Yes, miss, so there are."
"There was another packet."
"No, miss, there wasn't anything but - "
"I know what was there. Put them back or I ring the bell."
"If I put them back, miss, will you let me out?"
"Let you out? Why should I? You can go the way you came, if you touch nothing else in the house. I don't want to make any fuss." She had a wit as quick as his. She certainly did not want him arrested with those letters in his pocket, and perhaps a lot of fuss and publicity in getting them back from the police. She did not even want his opinion on her jewellery to be stated in public. But she must have those letters; there was no doubt of that.
"Thank you, miss. But I'm not sure as I could. Not without them letters."
"How did you get in?"
"Through a gent's window, that was left open. There's a ladder against it now."
"Then you can go back the same way."
"No, miss, not when he's awake."
"Which room was it? . . . Oh, you want the letters for him? ... I think I see. . . . What was he going to give you for them?"
"Five pounds, miss," the burglar answered, with the veracity into which we all liable to fall if we speak too quickly.
"Then it was a mean price." (Mrs Binfield would give her just a hundred times that amount, if she wasn't wrong, and serve him right, too. But it wouldn't be a nice thing to do, all the same. Perhaps there was a better way . . .)
"Look here, Mr. - what's your name?"
"Jack, miss, - not 'obbs," he added hastily, remembering the scepticism with which that improvisation had been received previously.
"Well, Mr. Not'obbs, I suppose you don't want to get five years in jail for tonight's outing. . ."
"It wouldn't be that, miss. They're not as 'ard as they was . . . I might be bound over," he concluded hopefully.
"Well, it wouldn't do you any good if you were. A thing like that would be sure to cramp your style more or less . . . Now you'll put those letters back where they were, and you'll just fetch something for me from a bedroom at the other end of the corridor - there's no risk at all; it's a man's who can't keep awake even when there's something worth while - and you shall have those letters, and go out the way you came, and get Mr. Binfield's fiver, and I'll give you another myself, at least - er - I suppose you wouldn't mind taking a cheque?"
The burglar, having received explicit instructions from Miss Villiers, returned along the corridor with even greater caution than that with which he had approached her own bedroom, for he considered that Mr. Binfield would be awake and anxiously awaiting his re-appearance. Should he hear him making his quiet way to the further end of the corridor (and the stairs) he would not fail to question the good faith which underlay that variation of programme, and the last thing which the great cricketer desired was the additional complication of such a controversy surrounded by the bedroom-doors of those who might join the disputation in a spirit far more friendly to Mr. Binfield than to himself. He was already beginning to feel as though he were one of the family, without any comforting assurance that he would be welcomed in that relationship.
He manipulated the bedroom-door of the Hon. Percy Biggleswade with professional efficiency, and entered noiselessly into a room which was in almost absolute darkness, for he was now on the north side of the house, and the Hon. Percy slept with his curtains drawn. But there was no need of any light to tell him that he was at last in a room where he could move safely, so long as he avoided the production of the cruder noises. An expert in snores, he knew that he listened here to the authentic trombone. The fact was that the Hon. Percy had lain awake for an hour or two ' letting I dare not wait upon I would,' and had finally gone to sleep without attempting to pluck the fruit of the purpose with which he had won a sum from Miss Villiers which he was well aware that she would be unable to pay, and with a consciousness that she had a moderate degree of liking for himself, at which we can only wonder, and on which he counted to assist in bringing his plot to its intended consummation. But this is a comedy of virtue, good deeds, and deliverance from evil; it must not be complicated by any misdirected sympathy towards Lord Ribblesworth's younger son.
It was one of the plutocratic habits of the Hon. Percy Biggleswade to carry a pocket-book loaded with proceeds of the blacking-factory which his grandfather founded. Assisted by Miss Villiers' knowledge of this circumstance the burglar's search was short. The pocket-book lay on the dressing-table, bulging in a satisfactorily shapeless way as the torch-light flickered across, and then came back to rest lovingly upon it . . .
Mr. Binfield rose early. It was his custom to take a walk before breakfast when summer mornings were fine, and on this occasion he had an object in his stroll. He carried a rather fat bundle of letters in his jacket-pocket, being those he had written to Maud Villiers in the amazing folly of a year before, and which, to his even greater amazement, she had hinted yesterday that she might find it necessary to communicate to Mrs. Binfield, unless he could perform the miracle of providing her promptly with a sum of £300. Those of us who are acquainted with Laura Binfield will easily understand the emotion which had disturbed the cheerful placidity of her dependent husband, when this ghastly possibility had been thrust upon him. But the fear had passed in the night. Nature, giving the stage-direction which the situation required, was following it with a cloudless day.
. . . Mr. Binfield passed through a gate he knew. In a quiet corner of the field to which he had entered, sheltered by hawthorns and rising ground, and with the lane he had left ten feet below, he made a little pile of the records of folly, put a match to them and stood quietly to watch them burn.
As he stood thus, he heard footsteps approaching along the lane which he overlooked. A small and perky man, of an appearance suggestive of an unsuccessful grocer's traveller, and now showing unmistakable signs of the wood in which he had slept, sat down under the hedge on the opposite side of the way. After furtively glancing to left and right, and listening for a few moments, he pulled out a heavy pocket-book, and commenced an examination of its contents. He selected from it a pleasant roll of one-pound notes, looked sadly at some bank-notes of much higher denomination which still remained after the tribute of £300 which Miss Villiers had levied upon it, put them back reluctantly and threw the wallet over the high hedge on the other side of the lane, so that it fell within three yards of his unsuspected observer. He knew when he was well off. He had made a satisfactory profit on his night's work. When he boarded the train at Barminster he did not intend to carry anything of an incriminating description. He suspected (quite wrongly) that there would be an outcry about that wallet before long.
He pulled out two cheques, and considered them thoughtfully. They were both uncrossed. They were on London banks. They should be easy to cash. The circumstances had been unusual, but he could see no risk. He put them back with the roll of £1 notes which was so pleasantly thick to feel.
Then a voice came from the skies. A bantering quiet voice. It said, "I shouldn't hang about here too long, if I were you, Bradman."
He raised a startled and guilty face to the green wall that overtopped the opposite bank. And then he rose and ran. For Bradman happened to be his real name.
Mr. Binfield picked up the pocket-book. He turned it over thoughtfully, observing the crest. It was a fact that 'obbs (or 'endren) had been a long time getting the letters. But the excuse he had made might have been true. Or it might not. In fact, it was now quite clear that it had been of a reticent quality.
Mr. Binfield tried to think out what had occurred. He remembered the cheques. There had been two. One had been pale pink. That was his. One had been green. Maud Villiers' bank was - yes, he was almost sure.
Anyway, his own skies were clear. He could give cheques to whom he would! He scattered the ashes with his foot. It was quite certain that Laura would never see them now. The wallet was a more difficult problem. Should he take it back to the house? He foresaw possible difficulties, though he could not suspect the £300 by which its contents had been reduced during the night. He returned to the lane. He laid it down in the middle way, so that it must be seen by the next who would come along. That would be someone from Buller's farm, or Constable Briggs, who was about due on his orderly once-a-day patrol of that peaceful rurality. The wallet was about as safe in that position as it would have been in its owner's pocket. Perhaps it might be as well for himself to be elsewhere. Admiring honeysuckle, he made his leisurely way back to the breakfast-table. He was aware of an exceptionally good appetite.
When he got there, he found Maud Villiers putting away eggs and bacon in a manner which suggested that her own appetite was in working order, even without the assistance of such preliminary exercise as that from which he had just returned. There was no-one else down.
He looked at her speculatively, and she at him. But neither spoke . . . They looked at one another from time to time as though waiting for the other to begin. Breakfast was nearly over for them, and the others had still not appeared, when Mr. Binfield remarked,
not perhaps entirely without malice: "That looks like Constable Briggs coming up the back drive."
"Yes?" she said vaguely. "Isn't it delicious coffee this morning?"
Mr. Binfield gave it up.
The Hon. Percy Biggleswade was awakened somewhat earlier than his usual time of rising, which was about 11 a.m., with the information that Constable Briggs wished to speak to him on a matter of urgency. He said that Briggs must wait, which he was unwilling to do. Had Mr. Biggleswade dropped a pocket-book? No, Mr. Biggleswade hadn't. He remembered clearly taking it out of his pocket when he had undressed last night. It was on the dressing-table now. At least - was it? It was not easy to see. He said that if the constable had found anything of his he had better send it up. But this he would not do. In the end he came up himself. Mr. Biggleswade was wide awake by this time, and the wider awake he became the more probable it appeared that he was dreaming to his own mind. Of one thing he was sure. The pocket-book had been much fatter in his waking moments than it was now. But he had no exact knowledge of its contents. And how it could have got into Buller's Lane was beyond his imagination. There was one obvious thing to be done. He must reward the finder. Constable Briggs departed with a five-pound note, being the smallest item that it contained. The incident made that officer somewhat later in reaching his cottage, where Mrs. Briggs was accustomed to have his breakfast ready at 9-15: but he also ate it with an excellent appetite.
It was later in the day when Miss Villiers paid the Hon. Percy back, and in the presence of several witnesses. She took care of that. She took the banknotes out of her bag, and passed them over to him, mentioning the amount as she did so. "You're too good for me. I shall have to play more carefully after this," she said with a smile.
The Hon. Percy had been a puzzled man all day, but he was more puzzled than ever now.
He had not expected Miss Villiers to repay him in this manner. And with notes, too. Had she borrowed from someone else in the house?
He examined the numbers in his own room. There was one still in his wallet which had evidently been a recent companion of those that he had now received. But that did not prove much. He gambled heavily in the billiard-room, and notes passed and returned. He was sure that a large sum was missing, and he could not fail to connect this with the payment of Miss Villiers' debt. But how? He could not accuse her of having burgled his room in the night, on no better evidence than that. And why should the wallet have been thrown away in the lane?
The Hon. Percy Biggleswade remained a bewildered man.
HANDSWORTH WOOD is a suburb of Birmingham on its murkier side. In the autumn of 1926 there were not sufficient trees left to hide the sky, but that didn't matter, because Birmingham employed other methods which achieved the same end.
There were several large trees of the original wood still standing, and if you should touch any of them with your hand, it would need washing.
Handsworth Wood was not always a part of Birmingham. It was once in Staffordshire. At that time its rates were scandalously low, and municipal officers of the adjoining city felt unwell if anyone were sufficiently ill-mannered to mention them. That trouble was overcome by amalgamating with Birmingham, and arranging that the Handsworth rates should be raised steadily from year to year till they reached the respectable altitude of those of the larger area.
How were the citizens of Handsworth Wood induced to sacrifice themselves in this neighbourly manner? Well, officials can be squared in many ways, some of which are quite legal. Few men, in the absence of any press or platform persuasion, will trouble to go to the poll to vote against an imposition which is some years ahead, and is there not a superior dignity in becoming a citizen of Birmingham, rather than a townsman of Handsworth Wood?
The raising of municipal rates is not a mere matter of a City Council passing a half-yearly resolution. It is a fine art; and here is a supporting anecdote of impregnable veracity.
A few years after the Four Years' War, when the Birmingham rates were sixteen shillings in the pound, and seemed strangely reluctant to fall below that considerable figure, which was about double their pre-war standard, a certain Alderman of the Finance Committee of the Birmingham Council, met an official of the Treasurer's Office, as he was coming out of one of the twelve-foot doors which are necessary to the dignity of those who inhabit the Council House of their noble city.
"Bertie, my boy," said the Alderman (who had a weak heart), "there'll be trouble about next year's rates. I'm tired of being asked when they'll come down, and how much."
"Well, they can't come down," said Bertie firmly, "we put two new clerks on last week to write up the expenditure books, and we've got to find them enough payments to enter. With so much unemployment about, and so many Councillors' nephews - "
"I know," said the Alderman miserably. "It's wicked to think of reducing, but I'm afraid we can't keep them up to sixteen shillings much longer."
"No," Bertie answered thoughtfully, "I know we can't, but we've got to. We can't throw away the best results of the war. It's too soon for a new valuation," he added in mournful tones.
The Alderman was turning away with a gesture of pathetic impotence, when Bertie brightened. "If we can't keep the rates up to sixteen shillings, why not keep them down to it?" he suggested.
The Alderman stared with dull uncomprehending yes. He thought the subject to be too serious for such levity.
Making no answer, he passed on to the Committee room in which he sacrificed health and peace for the patriotic labour of dividing the spoils of the city among half-a-dozen greedy and contentious departments, each of which would gladly have spent the lot had it been allowed to do so.
But Bertie followed him. His poet's soul was awake, and when he interrupted the proceedings with the assured though formal courtesy of the permanent officials toward their ever-changing puppets, the Chairman of the Finance Committee heard him gladly.
It was an unusually long meeting, but eyes were bright and steps were buoyant as its members shook parting hands in the corridor.
The next day a whisper passed among the various spending committees that estimates could be prepared with even more than the customary imagination. A week later, the local press announced apprehensively that the city was threatened with rates of nineteen shillings in the pound - and perhaps more. There was a murmur of exasperation from the afflicted citizens, and then a sigh of relief as the Finance Committee came firmly to the rescue. It had rejected the estimates! It had appointed a sub-committee to confer with the various departments. Its wishes had been met in the most admirable spirit. Desperate efforts to economise were announced in daily succession. The head-teachers had been ordered by the Education Committee to search the play-grounds for half-used pencils. The contract for removing the waste from the Aldermen's banquets had been placed with a more generous pig-breeder than the one who had previously held it, and its proceeds would now approximate to a farthing rate. The seven thousand, three hundred and eighty-four dustcarts were to be reduced by two and a retyring contract for the park wheelbarrows was to be carried forward to the next financial year.
At last there came a day when the Birmingham Post was able to publish a eulogistic leader announcing that the unselfish and almost superhuman efforts of the public-spirited servants of the best-governed city had resulted in reducing the estimates so greatly that it would be possible to maintain the rates at the old figure.
Every chairman of every pending committee had to be thanked by name. It was like the allocation of honours after a successful war.
The actual result was that all the increase in the purchasing power of money and in the rateable values of the city were devoted to additional extravagances, and - such are the injustices of life - the name of Bertie was not even mentioned in the hour of victory. Bertie had not only the soul of a poet. He had also the soul (or what should be the soul, but too often isn't) of a G.O.C. He saw the strategic possibilities of the position he had created. The following month a resolution was passed by the City Council pledging itself to the City of Birmingham that the rates should remain at
sixteen shillings in the £ for an indefinite number of years to be. But they were to be kept down, not up. Had they been kept up to sixteen shillings, the effect would have been disastrous to the economic life of the community, but keeping them down to that figure was bound to increase its prosperity, and manufacturers engaged fresh labour immediately.
This is natural enough, because poets have always been conspicuous in the inferior business of politics whether national or municipal. There are the cases of Chaucer, Spencer, Milton and a score of others in evidence. Most of the rest of them have been bankers, such as Samuel Rogers, Sydney Dobell, and - but this is a tale, not a catalogue . . . It was intended to be a tale to which we have not yet come . . . But I cannot find any record of a poet having been successful as a police-constable, and it may be because we were all poets in Greater Birmingham at that period that we imported most of our police from Dublin . . . At the time with which we are now concerned there was a young constable on the Antrobus road beat, who came from that ancient city. His name was Pat O'Leary, or something like it, which was quite natural under the circumstances. Antrobus Road was a disappointing beat for an ambitious young constable. Most of its inhabitants went to bed at 10-30, if not earlier, and they had a respect for the law which approached timidity..
Now a police officer of the lower grades does not obtain promotion because the district through which he makes his dignified processions is peaceful and inoffensive. On the contrary, the worse it behaves, the more likely is he to bask in the favour of magistrates, and the envy of his fellows. Patrick yearned for the loot-loaded burglar who steps out of the gate just as the alert officer pauses, silent and suspicious, in the leafy shadows on the opposite side of the way; or for the streak of light through the midnight shutters which enables the astute officer to earn promotion by instant diagnosis of a coiners' den. But though Birmingham contained some of the most expert coiners in the civilised world, and more than one of them lived on the north side of the city, there was none showing any signs of illicit activities on O'Leary's beat; and though he lurked in many leafy shadows, the burglar did not emerge from the opposite gate, so that his capacities of pursuit remained untested - which was somewhat hard, as his legs were certainly his most useful extremities.
The fact was that the houses of that locality contained little portable property except imitation jewellery (most of its inhabitants being occupied in that interesting business), and property of this nature is always unattractive to the professional mind. With the slump in the trade which was then prevailing, they might have left their doors and windows open for many months from one end of the street to the other, before anyone would have been likely to invade them for such a booty.
This being so, Patrick's passion for action remained unsated. He would have thanked Heaven for a common wife-beater, even for a "drunk and disorderly"; but in the absence of these elements of the population, he was only able to earn a reprimand for arresting Dr. Haddock on his own doorstep, as he returned somewhat late from a neighbour's conviviality, on a suspicion of
felonious intentions upon his own property. Even when a tramp, who required a more indolent domicile than the workhouse offered, threw half-a-brick through a shop window in Rookery Road, it was on the side over which Patrick did not exercise his routine authority and the arrest was made by P.C. Mellor, who assured him that his assistance would not be needed.
Sunk in the slough of monotony already indicated, Patrick was naturally somewhat depressed, but he did not commit suicide. The Irish character is resilient. His brain was not situate at his active extremity, but he began to use it very earnestly. He made an elaborate reckoning during the solitary hours of his midnight perambulations, with much pencil-sucking, and heavy writing, by the light of his bull's-eye lantern, in a pocket-book which had been supplied to him for other purposes, that the inhabitants of the streets which he patrolled amounted to not less than 13,469 persons. Deducting four policemen (who were naturally above suspicion) seven of his own friends, and (with some hesitation) a magistrate's clerk, who were resident in the district, there remained a total of 13,457 possible delinquents. Consideration of old age and infancy caused a further reluctant deduction of 10% from the total candidates for conviction of any active wickedness. This brought him to a net total of 12,112 7/10. (The fraction puzzled him. He could not conceive the possibility of a crime being committed by 7/10 ths of a criminal nor was he clear as to whether he would be justified in arresting the whole unit under such a circumstance. But the figures would not work out differently. Finally, he decided that it must be the result of various amputated limbs which had been subtracted from inhabitants of the district, and that the trouble, like so many others, arose from the late war.)
He next directed his attention to the number of legal offences the commission of any one of which would justify him in arresting its perpetrator. He did not arrive at this figure, which is beyond ordinary calculation, and is said never to have been reached with accuracy by any juridicial student, but, after tabulating about eleven thousand occasions for arresting his fellow citizens for breaches of common, statute, or local regulations, he concluded, with excellent judgement, that it was incredible that 12,112 7/10 individuals should each successfully avoid the commission of 11,000 acts, the great majority of which were of a harmless or natural character and had only become criminal by the arbitrary decision of the official mind. He made a correct calculation (omitting the -7/10ths for reasons which most people will appreciate) that the avoidance of 11,000 offences by the estimated population that he patrolled would total a gigantic figure of 133,232,000 of such evasions. By an excusable error of logic, he added "per annum" to this total, but he realised on further reflection that these offences are not avoided once a year, but that they are avoided daily. Some, even, may be said to be avoided at every minute. Estimating that each person fails to commit any of the 11,000 offences at least once per diem, he arrived after much laborious multiplication, at the amazing figure of 48,629,680,000 of annually avoided crimes. (This figure is copied from O'Leary's pocket-book, but it is open to anyone who is sufficiently interested to check its accuracy).
Apart from the excusable fault of arithmetic already indicated, there should have been numerous allowances, which would have been recognised by a more acute intelligence. There are offences for the commission of which only certain members of the community are eligible. An orphan cannot commit matricide, and while a solicitor can forge the signatures of his clients
at very short intervals, a costermonger's opportunities of so doing are less evident. There are laws which can only be broken by women, others which men alone can successfully violate, and many which it is impossible to transgress unless a shop be first occupied. Also, there are many national laws, and local bye-laws, which the most aggressively lawless citizen can only break on Sunday. Per contra a hard-working burglar might commit several crimes on every night in the week, and may still find it possible to do a moderate quantity of housebreaking in the daylight hours.
If there be a fault of fact or logic in the constable's calculations, it may lie in the consideration that no citizen could contribute his full share to the total, as it would necessitate the commission of many offences at the same moment, whereas it appears (from some calculations which scarcely deserve a detailed consideration), that no man would be able to break more than from twenty-nine to thirty laws simultaneously. But this objection may be fallacious, as there are very numerous misdemeanours which can be perpetrated in from one to seven seconds, even by those who are unpractised in their commission.
Anyway, we are less concerned with the stability of O'Leary's logic, or the accuracy of his arithmetic, than the effect of these calculations upon his subsequent actions.
He saw clearly that he was surrounded by an atmosphere of continual crime, and that he had only himself to blame should he fail to find himself, at the year's end, a highly-complimented and richly-rewarded officer.
He was not foolish enough to suppose that the criminalities of his district approached one thousandth of its potentiality. He considered that to suppose that one illegality is committed in every possible hundred thousand would not be unreasonable. After he had calculated the total which this basis would provide, he made an even more conservative estimate. Let it be supposed that the average citizen would fall once only for every million opportunities which the law provided. Even then, could he detect one only in every thousand of such offences, there need not be more than three or four weeks in the year without a conviction being entered to the credit of an ex-Dublin constable.
During the next few weeks, Constable O'Leary was roused to a state of activity which caused annoyance to a number of the citizens of Handsworth Wood, and some embarrassment to his superior officers. He had the mortification of having several of his arrests refused at the charge-office of the Handsworth Wood police-station, and it was known to his comrades, though not to himself, that Police-Surgeon McGregor was observing him with particular interest.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, his activities received an illogical justification when he arrested a man on the unfounded supposition that he was loitering with intent, and it was discovered at the police-station that he was a north-country grocer who had been wanted for three months past for the Hexham wife-murder, and who was believed to have escaped to Canada.
This incident caused about 7,000,000 copies of the photograph of P.C. Patrick O'Leary to be distributed by the Pictorial Press of the United Kingdom, and a smaller, but still considerable number to be published in the island of his nativity.
The fame of O'Leary was now equal to that of P.C. Mellor, who had arrested the Rickmansworth poisoner about twelve months earlier, and who had been transferred from that station shortly afterwards, as his recapitulated satisfaction over the episode had rendered him dangerously obnoxious to his brother officers.
But O'Leary was not satisfied. He observed that it is no more troublesome to arrest a man for arson or wilful murder than on a charge of having taken a glass too much. It is, indeed, usually much less so; for a murderer who denies his guilt (with a perversity which is too common among that degraded section of the community) will be unlikely to resist arrest with any physical violence, a condition which is much less certain when the normally law-respecting citizen is subject to the minor charges.
Yet a score of arrests for the more trivial order of offences will not bring the fame which his happy fluke had conferred upon him, and his reflections led him to resolve to concentrate upon an intensive search for the major criminal - a resolution strengthened by the coldness with which the sergeant had received his latest captive - a rather pretty typist, whom he had himself observed (to the confounding of the conductor) in the act of showing an obsolete 'bus ticket, and who had foolishly refused her name and address when he had leant over from the seat behind and challenged her with the fraud.
A careful and elaborate calculation, based upon his previous figures, and the ratio of the more serious to the lighter offences throughout the whole country, had shown him that he might anticipate that 6 1/5th murders would be committed during the following twelve months within the part of Handsworth Wood in which he was immediately interested. The fraction bothered him, as another one had done previously, until his mind was illuminated by a remark of P.C. Mellor (who had been discoursing, as usual, upon the romance of his own life) that probably not one poisoner in every hundred was brought to justice, and that the Rickmansworth carpenter might still be drawing his weekly wages, had he not been under the watchful suspicion of the narrator for six months before his guilt was consummated, and his victim could be exhumed to hang him.
The eloquence of P.C. Mellor had been checked by a rather sour remark from Sergeant Bilter that if he had known what was going on he would have done better to stop it. The voice of the hero of Rickmansworth sank into a sulky silence, but the idea was germinating in O'Leary's brain. The one-fifth must be an averted murder, and who but he should be the man to avert it?
After a somewhat sleepless day, during which he had been appalled by the thought that there were no less than seven men (or, it might be, women) within so small an area who were planning murder around him, and exalted to know that seven would be reduced to six (and one-fifth?) through his own sagacity, he sallied out, as the summer night was falling, intent upon the identification of the culprit and his selected victim.
Henry Widgley was a market-gardener. He had assisted an uncle in Surrey until his father's death had left him the freehold of a small business in Handsworth Wood, to which he had migrated with his wife and daughter
He was a morose and silent man, fully realising that he had been born into a world in which grubs are more numerous than cauliflowers, but, like most of us, he had one generous enthusiasm. This - which he had acquired from his uncle - was a passion for carrots. Not that he enjoyed eating them particularly. It is not certain that he ate them at all. They may have seemed too sacred for his personal pot, though his wife could not be expected to share his feeling. But his uncle's reputation had been made by carrots. He had been the originator of the Surrey Wonder and the Early Widgley, both of which were known more widely than the English language is spoken, besides several other prize-taking varieties of a more local fame. Henry himself had originated at least one new variety, of a special brilliance of colouring, but he was too wary to advertise it until he had grown sufficient seed to meet the demand which he anticipated.
When he had come to Handsworth Wood, in the April of the previous year, bringing his small crop of the precious seed with him, almost his first action had been to clear a sufficient space of ground for its propagation.
He had not been deterred by the friendly warning which he had received from Teddy Coleport, the tram conductor who lived on the other side of the road, that carrots are the only thing that cannot be grown in Handsworth Wood, for the skilled professional is not impressed by the difficulties of the amateur gardener.
He found that Teddy was unable to inform him of the nature of the obstacle to their successful culture. "Something in the hair, maybe," he said vaguely.
"Mebbe, somethin' in the grund," Henry had retorted, and asked if the services of lime had been requisitioned, but Ted was not sufficiently interested, or informed, to pursue the subject. He only knew that gardeners who were successful with peas, and parsnips, and cabbages, would periodically attempt the production of carrots, and admit their failure.
Mr. Widgley had declined to be frightened. Taking all the precautions that his experience suggested, he had planted about half of the precious seed, and awaited results with the confidence which was natural to such an experienced grower.
They had begun well, and he had hoed them hopefully, but they had not maintained their promise. Their feathery tops, which should have mingled in a delightful vision of fernlike greenery, drooped, or lay flatly on the ground, discoloured to an unhealthful yellow; the roots, which should have grown to a ten inch depth, very broad at the crown, and tapering downward somewhat abruptly, with a brilliance of colour attempted by no other vegetable, and matched by none of its own kind, were small, pale, eaten through by ground pests of many kinds, and sometimes entirely rotten.
During the previous summer, Constable O'Leary, leaning over the Widgley fence in an attempted friendliness during the early daylight hours, when the suburban world is aware of none but policemen, cats, and market-gardeners, had observed the exposure of these disreputable carrots before the fork of their originator, whom he had further exasperated by remarking that, if he had planted the space with French beans, he could have paid his rates with the resulting profit.
Henry - who may be forgiven for having been in a somewhat worse temper than usual - had replied that the whole garden wouldn't pay the rates, if he grew four crops a year. He added that he was sick of the smoke and rates which were the sole product of the blasted district. The rates, which we have observed already to have been successfully engineered by the ingenious Bertie, did compare unfavourably with those of the rural district of Surrey from which he had migrated, and the brusque methods of collection to which the inhabitants of Birmingham are accustomed had been somewhat startling to one who had been used to the kindlier and more leisurely ways of the southern
counties. He had, in fact, neglected payment that year until a couple of men had appeared to seize his goods in default, to whom he had replied that they could not touch the furniture, as it was the property of his wife, but they could cut the savoys, if they cared to do so. It was only when he realised that his personal liberty was at stake, and that the unwelcome callers would ultimately have the power to arrest him, as an alternative to attempting the marketing of savoys, that he produced the necessary number of somewhat dirty notes from the hip-pocket of his mole-skin trousers.
All that was last year. Now the early August morning found Constable O'Leary leaning over the same fence, and observing Henry engaged in the same occupation upon another plot in his garden. The crop which he was now digging was of somewhat better quality than before, though it was too meagre and worm-eaten to be of much marketable value, and O'Leary may be excused some astonishment that a practical man should have made a second attempt to grow a crop for which the land was so obviously unsuitable. Henry, who had been seeking a crop of seed, not roots, and who had only dug up the bed when he had realised that there was no prospect that he would be repaid by further patience, was in no mood to be amiable, and he had a special cause for disliking the constable, having produced five shillings the previous day to pay the fine which had been inflicted upon his daughter for her economy in the purchase of tram-tickets, concerning which episode conductor Coleport had satisfied him that he was in no way responsible.
He therefore replied to O'Leary's condolences on his second failure with more than his usual surliness, and with a selection of adjectives which would have justified his arrest had they been uttered on the other side of the fence.
The thoughts of the constable had been occupied during the loneliness of his night-patrol with many plans for the detection of the evil-minded person whom he was to save from the guilt of murder, and its appointed penalty. He was prepared to see the intention of homicide in every face that met him. He was particularly likely to see it in that of one who repulsed his advances with such boorish rudeness, but even his suspicious mind could observe no hidden evil in the digging up of a plot of carrots which were unlikely to improve by further indulgence, nor could he observe any evidence of a murderous purpose in the face of Mrs. Widgley (a woman of remarkably healthy complexion) who came to the cottage-door at that moment to invite her husband to the early breakfast of eggs and bacon which she had prepared for his sustenance.
Police-Surgeon McGregor, whose interest in O'Leary's mental processes had rather increased than diminished since his dramatic interference with the liberty of the Hexham grocer, called at the Handsworth Wood police-station, on some easily-invented pretext, on the evening of the same day, and found O'Leary in the kitchen, sharing a bowl of soup with two of his brother officers.
O'Leary, after a restless day's sleep, during which his mind had been mainly occupied with questioning what kind of murders are most frequently committed, and which may be most frequently detected by a police-officer of unusual acuteness before the hour of their consummation, had decided that the same answer could be given to both his queries. Arsenical poisoning seemed to be popular at the moment, and he had understood that it is usually pursued in a leisurely manner, giving ample opportunity for intervention.
His first duty was, therefore, to obtain knowledge of the processes of such poisoning, and of the symptoms which it produced in its earlier stages, and when McGregor's tall form darkened the doorway, O'Leary regarded it as an appearance providentially arranged to assist him to the destined end.
He therefore responded readily to the Police-Surgeon's greeting, and (speaking with the deference due from his unchevroned sleeve) solicited information as to the signs for which an officer would look who had reason to suppose that a case of such a nature was occurring.
McGregor gazed at him so intently from deep-set eyes, beneath a frown of sandy eyebrows, before he answered, that O'Leary's gaze shifted in some discomfort.
"He should report it at once to his superior officers."
O'Leary remained sullenly silent. He had no intention of reporting anything. Had he first applied for leave to arrest the Hexham grocer, would he now be destined to hang next Tuesday? And would his own photograph have experienced its seven million (besides Ireland) multiplications? Besides, it is difficult to report such a suspicion when you have not decided against whom it is to be directed.
Observing his silence and confusion, McGregor concluded that he had some fresh mischief in mind, and, with the object of averting a probably folly, he told him some of the truths regarding arsenical poisonings (real or alleged) which are more familiar to the medical profession than to the popular press.
He told him that while it was not improbable that one man had ever poisoned another by the administration of arsenic (which it would be rude to various juries to suggest), yet it was not a method which would be selected by a poisoner of normal sanity. On the other hand, the fact that arsenic is accessible to everyone in a hundred forms, that it is in many articles of food, such as the familiar carrot (O'Leary looked up suddenly), and is more or less in every human body - is indeed necessary to health - rendered it the natural drug to select if you should wish to accuse anyone of such a crime.
He told him that if you eat an apple from an orchard which has been sprayed with arsenic without peeling it, it won't do you any harm, but should you go out immediately afterwards and impede the motor traffic, sufficient arsenic will be found in your stomach to show that you died of poison, and that your broken spine is a mere incident, which might happen to anyone - and, indeed, quite probably will.
He told him several other things concerning the nature of arsenic, which need not detain us, for, like most Scotchmen of silent habit, McGregor was apt to talk somewhat freely when he was once well-started; among which he mentioned the freshly-coloured complexion which it produces if taken in moderate quantity, and which may be the first sign that it is being illicitly administered - on hearing which O'Leary started again. Finally, he told him not to be a young fool, and to remember that it's harder to make a good start than to spoil it afterwards, to which O'Leary replied that he knew what he knew, but he wasn't after doing anything foolish, and went out to his accustomed duty.
The night was cold for the time of year, with some sharp showers and a gusty wind, causing O'Leary to linger in protected angles more frequently than was the custom of so zealous and conscientious an officer. But it made no practical difference, for in the excitement of his mind a swag-loaded burglar might have twitched his cape, and passed unnoticed. It is indeed probable that he would have shown less consideration for his physical comfort had his mind been more aware of its environment. His body may be said to have sheltered itself in the absence of instructions from its custodian. For he walked half-blindly on his accustomed beat, his mind stunned by the magnificence of the approaching coup to which the well-meant indiscretions of the police-surgeon had unconsciously guided him.
It may strain the belief of some readers, but it is a fact that O'Leary, though born in Dublin, was absolutely incorruptible. Even a local bookmaker had found it an expensive folly to attempt to bribe him. The fact that Mr. Widgley had met his friendliest overtures with a hostile surliness would not have caused him to act towards the market-gardener with any conscious difference. Yet it must have prepared his mind for the idea that he might have to look no further for the culprit whose guilty purpose he was destined to frustrate; and now that an overwhelming suspicion had been directed upon him, it acquired an obvious and sinister significance. Was it likely that he could observe the blue tunic and sanguine countenance of Police-Constable O'Leary without the shadow of the hangman falling across his path?
But O'Leary had resolved not to act without the fullest confirmation of his suspicions. It was evident enough (and it was such a fact as an intelligent officer should have recognised a year ago: he blamed himself for his obtuseness with unaccustomed humility) that an experienced market-gardener would not have attempted to grow a large patch of carrots after being warned of the infirmity of the land, unless he had something more than the usual commercial object.
It was a thousand times more obvious that he would not face so needless a loss for a second year, unless there were some overpowering reason for such a repetition of folly. The fresh complexion of Mrs. Widgley, which had been noticed by the observant constable on the previous morning, was scarcely needed to confirm the guilt of the market-gardener.
No doubt, the failure of the previous year had resulted in the production of an insufficient quantity of arsenic to dispose of the lady on that occasion. The enterprise of the present season must be at its first stage, ammunition was only now being dug up. The doctor had said that a fresh complexion would be its initial sign - and so it was.
But the doctor had said something else. When O'Leary's interest had been quickened by the mention of carrots, he had asked what quantity would be needed for the preparation of a fatal dose, and had been answered: "Oh, half-a-ton," with a careless impatience which we need not attempt to justify. Even on the authority of the police-surgeon of an important city, we need not accept the accuracy of this quantity, neither wishing to assist those who are anxious to remove their
relatives, nor to cause the arrest of all who grow ten cwt. of a popular vegetable. But O'Leary, believing the word of his superior officer, as all good constables should, had no doubt at all.
As the sun rose, and the stormy darkness was succeeded by a fresh and peaceful morning, Constable O'Leary, leaning once again upon Mr. Widgley's fence, pulled out the pocket-book in which he had made so many previous calculations, licked his pencil, and proceeded to count the rows of carrots which were still undug, and to estimate the number of those which had been removed on the previous day.
The first step was easy; but the subsequent calculations presented serious difficulties. The constable, at the stern call of duty, did not hesitate to leap the fence (Mr. Widgley not yet having appeared), and count the number of carrots in a row, to provide a basis for his arithmetic.
Having returned unobserved, except by an indignant blackbird, to the public side of the boundary, he proceeded to estimate the weight of the average carrot, which many of us would have failed to achieve accurately.
He tried three ounces (it has been mentioned that they were meagre specimens of their kind), and found that the total weight would be insufficient for the required purpose. He tried five, and found that there would be a wasteful surplus, improbable to one of Mr. Widgley's parsimonious temperament. Finally, he tried four, and produced the damning total of 10 cwt., 0 qtrs., 0 lbs., 40 zs.
The odd ounces did not trouble him as the fractions had done previously. Four ounces - one extra carrot. It was just the narrow margin of insurance which would be allowed by a man of Mr. Widgley's disposition.
Full measure. Absolute certainty. No waste . . . A cloud passed over the sun, and the sudden shadow suited the solemnity of Constable O'Leary's mind . . . To be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul . . . He saw the solid form of Mr.Widgley being assisted from the dock by the attendant wardens, and heard the voice of the judge wishing that there were more men in the force like Inspector (or was it Superintendent?) O'Leary... But that vision would never be . . . It was his mission to prevent rather than to avenge the contemplated crime. The judge's congratulations would be real enough - it was mere ordinary foresight to anticipate them - but the dreadful penalty would be averted.
He saw that he must act promptly, even at the risk of being misunderstood by his superiors. He did not know how short a time it may take to abstract the arsenic from 4,481 carrots (or 4,480 for the exact dose), nor how promptly it could be administered without detection. He saw that there must be some preliminary preparations, for Mrs. Widgley would be unlikely to eat so large a quantity in their original bulk, under any ordinary persuasion . . . Perhaps it might be his duty to give a warning to Mr. Widgley, which would surely save his wife from any immediate danger . . . And to report the warning. . . . Should he be rebuked for not having arrested the poisoner?. . . Would the man be liable to arrest for intention only, if he had not commenced his evil purpose? . . . But Mrs. Widgley's complexion made it too plain that it had been commenced already.
The perplexed constable licked his pencil again to put the final dot to his calculations, and the detected criminal came down the path with a garden-fork on his shoulder.
It is vain to speculate as to what course O'Leary might have taken (for, though he had no doubt of the guilty purpose which his acumen had discovered, he was in some uncertainty as to the expediency or legality of immediate action), had not the fatal words with which he was greeted by the market-gardener rendered further hesitation impossible.
Mr. Widgley was not proud of the only patch of ground which was not displaying a crop of flourishing vegetables. He thought the constable would have shown better taste and better manners had he paused somewhat earlier, and concentrated his mind upon some very healthy parsnips. He was in a depressed and savage mood at the thought of having wasted precious seed in midland soil, which might have been sown in his native Surrey to such different issue.
He asked O'Leary, with a very evident rudeness, how long he meant to lean his beef on that fence, and who'd put it up when he'd finished breaking it? He suggested that the constable was a man of exceptionally lazy habits, using a word of his native dialect which may have been polite among the South Saxons, with whom it originated, but has long ceased to be so regarded. Then, as the outraged constable reddened, but did not move, he enquired what the end o' Polly Widgley mattered to he?
O'Leary paused for one astounded moment, as the audacity of the avowal paralysed his cerebral process; then he put a leg over the fence, and "Anything you say will be used in evidence . . You'd better come quiet." The equally astounded Widgley came.
The half-mile walk which divided the police-station of Handsworth Wood from Mr. Widgley's fertile territory was not taken in silence, but the conversation had a vernacular flavour, especially on its Saxon side, which renders it inexpedient to reproduce it. It informed the constable of the view taken of various parts of his anatomy by his bewildered and protesting prisoner, and of his head in particular, which was far from flattering; and it informed him, incidentally, that Polly Widgley was not only the name of the market-gardener's wife (as he had known already), but that which a loving husband applied to the unfortunate carrots which he had originated.
O'Leary, who had had considerable experience in the various demeanours of arrested men, had an instinctive uneasiness regarding his present captive. Some previous episodes, when the Inspector in the charge room had shown reluctance, or even refusal, to accept the offerings of his activity, also assumed a more sinister and prophetic significance as the last corner was turned, and the ornamental lamp became visible by which the police-station was distinguished from the private residences which flanked it.
It may be that he would have let his victim go but for the consciousness that even a well-meaning constable cannot arrest the surrounding citizens and then loose them without explanation at the station gates, without the probability of unpleasant sequels occurring.
It was with a feeling of momentary relief that he learned that Inspector Bilter had received an urgent telephone-call, and would be out for ten minutes.
Constable Mellor, who was writing-up the report of a street collision in the laborious manner customary in the force, and breathing audibly with the effort, was the only occupant of the room. "Been busy again?" he enquired, in a tone which made O'Leary increasingly uncomfortable, as he looked up, and surveyed his capture.
A few minutes afterwards, two plain-clothes officers from the Victoria Courts looked in for a friendly passing word, and the chance of a cup of morning coffee. They walked over to Constable Mellor, and commenced a casual conversation. Inspector Bilter came in a moment later.
With some inward sinking of heart, O'Leary rose to present his prisoner. The theory of the carrots did not seem so plausible at 9-30 a.m. as it had done during the excitement of the midnight hours. And it is a tale that needs some skill in the telling. O'Leary did no know where to begin.
While he hesitated, a voice came to his ears from the conversation at the other end of the room. "It's: market-gardener we're after. A man named Widgley There's been trouble with his rates every half-year We're to get the money this time, or to bring him back with us."
"Here he is," said O'Leary promptly.
Inspector Bilter gazed at the constable in a natural wonder. So did the three other official occupants of the room.
"How did you know . . .?" the Inspector began, but O'Leary was equal to the occasion.
"I was thinking he'd be wanted today," he answered with the simple pride of a conscious efficiency.
Inspector Bilter was dumb. Mr. Widgley was occupied in his half-yearly occupation of extracting some rathe dirty notes from the hip-pocket of his mole-skin trousers.
THE CONGO CAT
MRS. ADA MIDDLESMIT was a widow of forty-two. She had, therefore, a measure of, responsibility for the name she bore, and a recovered freedom to change it, which (it might be supposed) would not be lightly neglected.
Mr. Middlesmit, after making a comfortable living for many years as a wholesale distributor of Baltic fats, had been attracted by the youthful exuberance of Ada Timkin's figure (he was a man of spare and sinewy build) and had enjoyed the benefit of her society for fifteen years before he had retired from his earthly activities with a disconcerting suddenness, leaving to his widow the consolation of a freehold house in Kew Road, Richmond, and an income of one hundred and fifty pounds per quarter.
The charms of Ada Middlesmit, which had lost something in youth, but had gained in area, had not passed unnoticed or undesired by Mr. Aaron Coley, who occupied the detached residence adjoining that of the attractive widow, during the two or three months in each year that he was not out of England for Mr. Coley was a collector of wild animals and reptiles, and a specialist in the more poisonous snakes.
At the period with which we are concerned, Mr. Coley had returned from a long and productive expedition into the recesses of the Congo forests, bringing back three of the worst-tempered gorillas that had ever scowled and died behind the bars of European menageries, together with many other specimens of the rarer African fauna, one or two of which had been previously unknown to the modern naturalist.
He was a small man, of timid aspect, and hesitating speech. It might have been true that he would tickle a leopard in the ribs, or chuck a gorilla under the chin, but that was in the way of business, the sacred obligations of which he had been taught by his ancestors. Of anything really formidable, such as the female of his own species, he went in continual fear.
It is probable that the love-story of Aaron Coley would have been shorter and smoother but for the fact that Mrs. Middlesmit had a dislike of wild animals, and a particular horror of snakes, which was sufficient to counteract the attraction which so large a woman would naturally feel for the meagre proportions of her admirer.
The wooing of Mr. Coley had been characteristic in its methods.
The successful experiences of twenty years had taught him that if you want anything you must set a trap for it. He was good at traps, and by their means he had caught creatures larger and (it might be thought) more formidable than the fat-broker's widow. But he recognised that he could not proceed with the direct simplicity to which his nature impelled him.
His mind naturally dwelt upon the possibilities of the pit, which he could have concealed so cunningly in the garden-path, and which no man living was more competent to design so that it would secure its victim without damage to her beloved exuberance - of the cunning bait, which no man living would be more competent to choose, to lure her to attempt its crossing.
He had no doubt that he could have trapped her successfully. But there might be subsequent difficulties. Reluctantly, he recognised that it would not do.
Yet it was evident that he must trap something. He was unable to imagine how men who were less expert in such operations were able to introduce themselves to the objects of their affections.
So he trapped her cat.
Mrs. Middlesmit's cat was black, with a white bib and three white feet. Its owner was distressed by its disappearance, and made many enquiries in the neighbourhood. After two days she advertised a reward of £2 for its safe return.
She then received a polite note from her next-door neighbour, saying that he had found a cat in his aviary, having the advertised markings, and that if she would care to call he would be pleased to return it to her.
Mrs. Middlesmit was conscious that she had no one to blame but herself that she had not recovered it earlier, for she had omitted her neighbour's house from her first enquiries, being timid of its reputation. She now called up her considerable reserves of courage, and ventured over the doorstep of a house of which it was rumoured that you might expect at any time to meet a young lioness in the porch, or a snake on the stairs, and was received by her host with a nervous courtesy, in a rather fusty drawing-room, which had an air of being very rarely occupied; and, after a short and somewhat constrained exchange of the usual civilities, and a refusal of the advertised reward by Mr. Coley, the lady returned with her beloved pet under her arm, and without having encountered any of the more formidable mammallia.
That was eighteen months ago, and the incident had been subsequently repeated about a dozen times, or perhaps more, with the variations natural to such recurrences.
After a time, it became natural that Mr. Coley, knowing the owner of the wandering quadruped, should return it without waiting for her application.
When he did so at about four in the afternoon, it was an almost necessary courtesy to ask him to take a cup of tea before leaving. With the repetition of these calls acquaintance ripened. As the months passed, Ada Middlesmit could have no doubt that it was the dream of Aaron Coley to be encompassed by her ample arms.
But when she was approached with the formality of a written offer, she hesitated, and then refused it, not because she was adverse from another matrimonial experiment, nor from any dislike of this humble and persistent suitor, but because she could not endure the idea of a closer acquaintance with his familiar environment. The patient worship of many months had been rendered fruitless in a single moment when he had called upon her with a forgotten viper hanging half-out of the comfortable warmth of his hip-pocket.
In view of the incidents at which we have glanced already, it cannot be considered a surprising circumstance that the return of Mr. Coley from his Equatorial researches was promptly followed by Mrs. Middlesmit's usual bereavement.
Mrs. Middlesmit had good reason to expect the appearance of Mr. Coley on the following afternoon, with a black cat in his arms, and she resolved to receive him in such a manner as would put a final end to these episodes. She also told her cook to make some potato cakes which she had observed him to encounter with appetite. This may seem inconsistent with her previous decision, but she was a lonely woman, and other suitors had not been easy to find.
But two days had passed without either cat or captor appearing upon her immaculate door-step, at which she became puzzled, and then anxious. Perhaps her pet had really strayed, or fallen to some trap more deadly, if not more mysterious, than that which had so frequently caught it? She determined that enquiry must be made at Mr. Coley's door, whether reluctantly or not it would have been difficult at that stage to decide; but she gathered courage to call upon him, and was met
by a man who had spent six thoughtful months by lonely watch-fires in the Congo forests, steeling his natural timidity to the final effort of capture. He had formed no plan, but he felt that the cunning that could snare the rhinoceros or the python should be equal to the capture of a not-unfriendly female of his own species. He had trapped the cat long enough; he must catch its owner now.
So the queer pair met again in the drawing-room of their first interview, fusty as ever, even less changed than themselves; met with a sense of tension which neither had experienced equally on any previous encounter, the woman persuaded of her own determination that a plain talk should end at once the useless purloining and the hopeless wooing, the man resolute and watchful, regarding her as prey that he would surely find some means to snare before he left the Kew Road for his next expedition.
"Mr. Coley," began the widow, with what she felt to be a dignified formality, though she was aware of a measure of breathlessness which she controlled with difficulty, "I want you to stop taking my cat. After what I told you in my last letter, I - I think you might!"
"I can't stop taking it, Ada," he replied - he did not see why he should cease using her Christian name, which had previously been allowed, just because she chose to get stilted - " I can't stop what I haven't started. I might stop bringing it back."
"It seems like as you have," said the widow, who shared the difficulty which so many of us experience in being both agitated and grammatical. "It's been gone two days now."
"Well," said Aaron non-committally, "it might be here, as like as not. I'll have a look in the yard."
"You don't mean to tell me - " began the exasperated widow.
"No, I can't say I do," was the cryptic answer, as he made for the door.
"It never strays but when you're at home," the lady protested.
"There's no scraps lying around when I'm not here."
Mrs. Middlesmit went purple. The remark appeared to her to imply that she starved her cat. But before she could think of a suitable reply, Aaron had closed the door.
He returned in a few minutes, bringing back with him the missing cat, and followed by another animal, only slightly larger, and being evidently of a kindred species.
This animal, a native of the darkest recesses of the Congo forests, was, in fact, the first of its kind to be brought into contact with European civilisation. It had been taken from its mother's lair, a playful kitten about three months before, and was now a sleek and active youngster, of a dull silver-grey colour, with darker leopard-like spots, which would have rendered it almost invisible when moving stealthily among the shadowed density of its ancestral trees.
Its capture had made the name of Aaron Coley famous in the newspapers of a score of languages, and it was only that morning that he had received a letter from a Chicago dealer who was then in London, offering ten thousand dollars for the unusual quadruped.
Now the two animals appeared to have established a very confident friendship, and the black cat purred in the arms of its recovered mistress, while the grey one paced daintily round her substantial ankles.
Mr. Coley, endeavouring to raise the temperature of the interview to a more genial level, explained the origin of the Congo cat, but made no allusion to its destination, or its commercial value.
But his visitor, who had remained standing during the earlier interview, refused to be placated. She was still purple with indignation at the insult which she had received.
"I'll shut it up where you can't get it," she assured the culprit.
Aaron, following her through the hall, considered that the trap was very badly needed. And a trap means a bait. He had always been good at traps. It was a kind of genius. He just fixed his thoughts on the object of his cupidity, and the right idea came - as it did now.
Mrs. Middlesmit looking round as she opened the drive gate with her cat in her arms, observed that she was being followed by another quadruped, stepping delicately, tail in air, a couple of yards behind her.
Aaron waited two days. From a curtained window he had observed the admission of the Congo cat at Mrs. Middlesmit's front-door. It had not been returned.
Meanwhile, he had replied to his Chicago customer that the animal was in good health, and was awaiting his instructions. He had asked and received payment for it; his reputation, and the eagerness of the purchaser to acquire so rare an animal, having expedited the deal.
Now he sent his housekeeper to enquire casually if Mrs. Middlesmit had seen anything of the wanderer. She was instructed to ask casually, neither pressing the question, nor suggesting that any suspicion attached to the widow, nor importance to the missing animal.
Ada Middlesmit fell.
The housekeeper reported - possibly with less than verbal exactness:
"She said, No, it wasn't 'er as catched cats. She hadn't seen no such animal. She shut the door quite short."
To explain the widow's conduct is not to defend it. It is, indeed, indefensible. But she had expected (perhaps hoped) that Mr. Coley would have come in person to enquire for his missing property. Having waited in that hope, she was now aware that, knowing quite well to whom it belonged, she should have returned it earlier, or at least have notified its owner that it had followed her home.
Returning to her pets, and the comforts of the afternoon drawing-room, after routing the housekeeper, she was aware of some confusion of feeling. She was not easy of conscience over the denial she had made, though she felt that Aaron deserved any trouble to which she could put him. She was, in her own vocabulary, "a bit flustered."
Still, she did not repent. Let him come himself!
But he did not come. Next day she had a more disconcerting visitor.
On the morning of the housekeeper's abortive call, Mr. Coley had received a wire from the purchaser of the cat, asking him to pack it at an agreed charge, and to consign it, insured and carriage-forward to its new owner at Southampton Docks, to be shipped with him on the next outgoing liner.
That night he replied by letter that the animal could not be sent, as it had unfortunately disappeared.
Mr. Silas T. Bingfield came to Mr. Coley's Covent Garden office as rapidly as a fast car could convey him. He demanded the cat: alternatively, he demanded his money. Aaron failed to produce either cash or cat, but suggested that so singular an animal could not be permanently lost. It was a case for patience - which, unfortunately, Mr. Bingfield lacked. He must sail at once, and he would not sail without some satisfaction.
Within an hour of this interview he had stimulated Scotland Yard to a swift activity. He had offered a reward of £50 for information concerning the missing animal. He had telephoned a dozen newspapers, whose reporters were already hastening towards him. He meant to have the cat, and he meant to sail before the week-end. He meant also to get sufficient publicity from the disappearance to repay him for his additional expenditure.
The detective who called upon Mrs. Middlesmit was polite, and somewhat perfunctory in his enquiries. He had to do his job thoroughly, but he did not regard the corpulent widow as a probable stealer of Congo cats, and he was in some haste to arrive at more likely areas of investigation.
But Ada Middlesmit's hand shook as she closed the door. She regained her drawing-room sofa with difficulty. Her heart was beating convulsively. It had never entered her mind that it was an animal of commercial value, or that anyone but Aaron Coley could have claim upon it. She had the vague fear of the law in any form which is common to her kind.
Since the housekeeper's call, the two cats had been confined in an attic-room. She had been uncertain whether Aaron would make his own enquiries, after his servant's failure, and more uncertain how she would meet such a position.
Now her only thought was to await the approaching night, when she could turn out the source of her perturbation unseen at the back-door, and her guilt, she hoped, might be unknown forever.
But that was not to be.
As the afternoon began, her sole servant, Eliza Byfleet, a deaf old woman, entered to announce that Mr. Coley had called, saying that he must see her at once on a matter of urgent importance.
Aaron Coley, whose trap had not merely succeeded, but threatened to snap upon its victim with a violence somewhat beyond his calculation, came to the point at once.
"This is a bad business, Ada."
Mrs. Middlesmit, her confidence somewhat restored by the sight of his familiar timidity, did not offer to understand him immediately.
"What business?" she managed to articulate, as palpitation permitted.
"About the cat," he answered. "I'll do what I can or you; but I can't think what made you steal it."
"You know more about stealing cats than I should if I lived to be ninety," she replied, with some spirit.
"Not stealing, Ada. I bring them back when they stray. That's not the same at all. Just the opposite."
The widow lacked courage to continue the argument, and Aaron went on mercilessly.
"It's no use denying it to me. I'm here to help you, if I can. We may find a way out together. I know you've got it. I saw you take it in."
Ada breathed hard, but she was not equal to the required admission. Her mind was still upon the possibilities of the back-door and the friendly night.
"It doesn't follow that it stayed here . . . Besides, you'd never . . . I didn't know it wasn't yours. Why didn't you tell me?"
"Look here, Ada," he said, "if you don't want to spend the night in jail, we'd better settle this quickly . . . . I don't suppose they'd let me bail you out. It 'ud look too fishy. Do you know where the cat is now?"
Before this direct enquiry she surrendered weakly.
"It's in the attic."
"So you think. But it isn't. It's on the roof - in full view of all Richmond that cares to look."
"On the roof?"
The widow jumped up, as though to follow and retrieve it. She remembered that weak catch of the attic window. Of course, the wind -
"Sit down, Ada. Don't be a fool. You couldn't get it back if you tried. And it can't get away. Even that cat couldn't jump from there. We've got to talk this over."
The cat's escape on to the roof was just that extra caprice of circumstance with which the audacities of genius are at times rewarded, and Aaron, whose keen eye had observed it stretched luxuriously in the afternoon sun on the blue-slated roof at the back of the house and knew that it could only be so observed from his own garden, had no intention of interfering with its present freedom till more important matters had been arranged.
Mrs. Middlesmit brightened slightly. If it were only a matter of talking it over with Aaron. . .
"I shouldn't have thought you'd do it," she protested vaguely, with an implication which was nearer the truth than she would realise till a later day.
"I haven't done anything. How was I to know you were going to steal the cat when I sold it? You'd never stolen anything before that I knew of."
"I don't never steal anything," said the indignant widow. "The cat came here itself."
"You can say it came from the sky, if you like. I don't see why you shouldn't. No one knows anything to the contrary except me, and I needn't give evidence. That rests with you. A man can't give evidence against his wife."
"But you're not . . . ." began the agitated lady.
"I could be, if we're quick. I've got the licence. We can get away now, and be married early tomorrow."
Ada's knowledge of English criminal law was derived from the reading of five Sunday newspapers once a week for about twenty years. She had read many times of this interesting consequence of marriage. But - and - her head reeled.
We had better leave them together. The conversation was long, and became increasingly personal.
It was already dusk when Aaron climbed out onto the roof and recovered the bait of his successful trapping. Then he rang up the police-station to say that Mrs. Middlesmit had just discovered the cat in her garden, and would claim the advertised reward.
It was about three months later that Ada Coley directed her steps towards her husband's office in Henrietta Street. It was Christmas Eve. She had been shopping in London, and had promised to call for him, so that they could go to a cinema together, before returning on the Richmond 'bus.
It may be doubted whether the crowded streets contained a happier or more contented woman. The shame which Ada supposed that she would always feel at the recollection of her fall from the plain path of honesty, was a little thing beside the happiness which her lover's prompt and generous rescue had conferred upon her. . . .
She was in the neighbourhood of Covent Garden, about five minutes from her destination, when she saw her husband emerging from a side-street, in company with a market porter, to whom he was in the act of giving some silver coins.
Seeing Ada, he left the man, and crossed the street to join her.
"Just had a bit of luck," he said: "picked up a snake for three shillings that I can sell for sixty. That man's always on the lookout for me for anything useful. Found this one crawling out of a bunch of bananas.
I know they're wanting one at the Zoo. I'll send it up in the morning."
Mrs. Coley looked at him uneasily.
"I hope it isn't . . . Is it poisonous?"
Aaron looked guilty. He understood the unfinished sentence quite well, and it reminded him that a small and very deadly snake was in his jacket-pocket which was in close contiguity to Ada's ample hip, as he hung on to her arm in the affectionate manner which was their usual mode of progression.
"Sorry," he said, "I forgot . . . They're quite safe, if they're handled properly."
He drew the snake gently out of his pocket in which it lay, and transferred it to the other side of his coat.
They went on for a couple of minutes, and then Ada, whose mind was still on the nearness of the hated reptile, enquired suddenly:
"That isn't the pocket you asked me to mend yesterday, is it?"
Aaron, with a start of recollection, pushed his hand into the pocket. It was not bitten, though he inserted it with somewhat less than his usual caution, because the pocket was empty. There was a hole in it, but nothing else worth mentioning.
Aaron turned back hastily, followed by a rather breathless Ada. Twenty yards ahead he saw the snake crossing the roadway.
As he approached it, a certain Mr. Alfred Dobson, a trade competitor who specialised in reptiles, and whose shop was on the other side of way, made a leisurely approach to the wriggling reptile.
Aaron quickened his pace to a run, and was within three yards of his objective when Mr. Dobson picked it up, and rose to face him with a grin of anticipation.
Ada, coming up behind, and expecting to see it handed back to her husband, was surprised to see Mr. Dobson slowly and deliberately drop it into his own pocket.
"We know where that'll sell, don't we, Aaron?"
His left eyelid closed slowly.
"That's three pound gone," Aaron remarked disconsolately to his wife, as he turned away without further effort to recover his property.
"But he can't take it like that," expostulated the indignant lady. "There's a policeman over the street. He looks as though he's been watching us all the time. He'll soon make him give it up."
She commenced to lead the way to the observant constable, but Aaron called her back.
"You'll only make us look silly," he explained. "Dobson knows the law as well as I do. There's no property in wild animals."
. . . He remembered next moment. But the words were out beyond recalling. He knew he ought to turn the conversation quickly.
"Shall we go to The Moorish Sheik or Harems of Turkestan?" he enquired, with a nervous jerkiness which caused his wife to look down on him speculatively.
But she did not answer. Her mind was grappling with a problem too large for instant solution.
"Then that cat - " she began, and looked down on her wilting spouse; and as she looked she knew.
They walked on toward the Strand in a pregnant silence. As Ada's mind, working with its accustomed slowness, recalled the-events, incident by incident, which had resulted in her undoing, the magnitude of the deception rose in her mind like a gradual dawn, and its signs were stormy.
Did self-respect demand that she should expel the deceiver from the residence which she still occupied and to which she had admitted him on a solemn treaty that no other living creature of his introduction should cross its doorstep? Ought she to apply for nullity of marriage, which her Sunday reading had introduced to her mind as a vague refuge for those who are betrayed by some appalling wickedness?
Should she appeal to the law to punish him with a penalty which must surely relieve her of his noxious presence for many years to come?
She hesitated as she looked down at her captor, who, at the moment, had rather the aspect of a scolded child.
It was at that critical pause, when the future happiness of the guilty couple trembled in a doubtful scale, that she remembered the goose which she had purchased for their Christmas dinner only half-an-hour before. Was she to stuff it for a lonely meal? She felt that she would lack the heart to sit down in such solitude . . . After all, it hadn't turned out so badly . . . She was not sure that she was sorry . . . And she hated worries . . . This would certainly be one of the first magnitude . . . And she might find that she could do nothing, after all . . . And law is a dreadfully expensive thing . . . She remembered the dispute she had ten years ago, about the escaped canary. That had cost her fifteen shillings. . . . And Christmas is Christmas, say what you will . . . "I don't think," she said, "we'll go to either of those.
We'll go to The Willing Bride."
A QUESTION OF E. P. D.
I had this tale from one of the principals concerned, with permission to publish it at my own discretion, and as he, and others who were most nearly involved, are no longer living, I feel that there is no valid reason for withholding it longer. It is true in all its essential details; and with taxation at its present level, it may contain lessons which are as apposite today as they were twenty-five years ago.
Elias Steeps was a bit and spur manufacturer, with a factory in North Street, Wolverhampton, employing about a dozen hands, when the war broke out in August 19I4. The business had belonged to his father before him and he traded as Jonas Steeps & Sons, another son having been in the business, who had died two years earlier, and whose widow and three children were still dependant upon it.
Elias was a hardworking man, more at home at the bench than the desk, and his rule-of-thumb methods, though they would have seemed crude to a man of modern business training, had kept the firm alive and solvent through some very difficult years, though the profits made during the prosperous period of the Boer war had gradually disappeared, and a tendency for the bank overdraft to assume a permanent rather than a temporary character had resulted in the introduction of an accountant whom the bank manager had suavely nominated to prepare and certify more formal Trading Accounts than Elias had previously submitted for his inspection.
The hostility which Elias had felt to this innovation was modified by the fact that Mr. Bailey Trevors - the accountant who had been thrust upon him - was able to show that the income tax which he had reluctantly and unpunctually paid during some previous years had been very much in excess of the amount for which he was liable, and had succeeded in recovering a substantial part of these payments.
The result of this and other services which Mr. Trevors was able to render was that an initial distrust and dislike was changed to one of as much confidence as Elias was likely to show to any business associate, and though it could not be said that he had ever favoured him with a word of thanks, or even approval for any service which he had rendered, yet Elias fell into the way of paying his charges without more than the minimum of grumbling which always accompanied the scrawling of his signature upon the cheques which Miss Triviter, his sole clerk and bookkeeper, prepared for that purpose.
It is also on record that when Mr. John Watkinson a steel-toy manufacturer, whose works adjoined his own premises, was in financial difficulties somewhat deeper than usual, and confided to him that he had invoked Mr. Trevors' assistance to steer him through the rough water into which he had drifted, Elias expressed himself (in the Staffordshire vernacular) to the effect that he could not have made a better choice.
That was the position when war broke out. At that time Elias Steeps had taken Mr. Trevors sufficiently into his confidence to have let him know that he had a secret interest in a brass-casting business in another part of the town (first taken over against a debt which had been otherwise irrecoverable, and subsequently an embarrassment rather than a source of income), and a
more lucrative share in the profits of the Ring o' Bells, the issue of an old loan, made at a time when the demand for spurs for South Africa had rendered the bank account of the firm more affluent than it had become in subsequent years.
Such was the position in August, 1914, when Elias Steeps was invited to attend a meeting of Bit and Spur Manufacturers, to decide their attitude toward certain tenders, which the War Office had urgently invited from the trade, for such quantities of the goods in which they specialised as they had never previously supposed that the whole world could require.
The meeting was held in Walsall, which was the headquarters of the industry, and though there is no reason to suppose that the inhabitants of that industrious borough are less patriotic than those of Berwick or Dorchester, yet it is a fact that the meeting was instant and unanimous in its resolution to bleed the War Office to the last possible farthing.
Here a word of explanation is necessary. There were, no doubt, many manufacturers during those early days of the war, in every line of business, and in every part of the country, who had more or less similar questions to face, but the position of these men was exceptional. There was scarcely anyone in that room whose firm had not depended for a generation on War Office contracts as the backbone of its existence: scarcely a man without some bitter memory of a year of
semi-idleness when a quotation sent in a fraction of a farthing a pair higher than that of a competitor had resulted in a rejected tender. During the lean years that had followed the activity and consequent expansion of the Boer War period, when the available plant and labour had become equal to dealing with twice the procurable orders, it was inevitable that, in the absence of trade organisation, prices should have been cut to the bone, and, whether rightly or wrongly, there was an angry unanimity of conviction that the War Office had taken a cynical advantage of their necessities.
There were few there who had not journeyed to London on occasion to beg for a sufficient order to keep their workpeople together, and either received an unsympathetic refusal, or been doled out an order at such a price as they had accepted with a feeling of even greater bitterness than had they been unconditionally repulsed.
They had memories of goods rejected for disputable defects of shape or weight or finish, on which more wages had to be expended, and which had to be polished anew; and of desperately needed payments delayed until these replacements had been made to the last stirrup, and passed an inspection which would not be hurried.
There are two sides to all differences, and this narrative simply chronicles the feeling which was certainly there, and strong enough to unite even business foes with many antagonistic memories of broken faith in regard to some secret bargain as to quantities or prices of tendering, or of debts unpaid. The Germans were foes of a few weeks only, but the War Office was the
tyrant of their earliest memories.
Anyhow, there was only one thought in that room - to agree on the very highest prices that they would have the nerve to quote, and to stand out till they got them.
They chose a chairman, and sat round the room in which they met in a half-circle - perhaps thirty men most of them with rough and blackened hands, and of uncouth aspects - men brought up to manual labour in steel and leather, the local ' captains of industry,' each the boss of ten or fifteen other workers, or it might be fifty. Men used to the hard logic of the weekly wage-list, and forced to learn the effect of its variations upon their capacity to meet the monthly accounts for metal and mill-furnishings, or bank overdraft and mortgage interest, and most of all on their own precarious drawings, for the men's wages must be paid, though the missus might go short of the four-pun-ten that she was accustomed to look for.
They went, item by item, through the tender form which, with variations according to their reputed capacities, they had all received, and the figures which some bold spirit had first proposed seemed fantastic until the courage of their combination warmed them, and they pushed these prices up and up, in a dream of prosperity from which they feared to awaken.
They had no apprehension that anyone would be tempted to underquote, nor care lest they should do so, for they knew that the supplies required were utterly beyond the capacity of the trade as it then was, both in plant and labour.
Before they left the room they had formed themselves into an association, pledged to work together, and only to tender in concert, and had appointed as secretary a gentleman who ran a 'trade-protection' agency, and who, in that capacity, had lived on the arrangement of their failures and compositions, and to whom half of them would not have spoken without an oath before this bewildering excitement had caused the old animosities to seem like the memory of an earlier world.
So they separated to fill up their tender-forms, and when the War Office got them next morning - but this is not the place for telling that history. For the moment, victory lay with the ancient borough of Walsall and there was joy and bustle, and a raising of workpeople's wages from hour to hour, as the bosses engaged in the real struggle for relative prosperity - the securing of as much as possible of the surplus labour which would enable them to catch the larger share of the golden rain which was about to descend upon them.
But our concern is with Elias Steeps, who went back to his own town, and filled up his tender-form for the largest quantities of bits and spurs and stirrups that his utmost imagination could conceive it possible that he would be able to manufacture within the required time and then - being a man to seize his chance when it came - set to work to secure supplies of spur-leather, and quotations for castings, for which the prices were already soaring to dizzy heights, but which would be twenty per cent higher next Monday, when the orders would have been issued at the prices which the ring dictated.
When his contract came through, and Elias knew that he had an order to turn out more goods in six weeks than he had ever done in six months, and at prices which would equal his turnover for the two previous years, he called at Mr. Bailey Trevors' office to discuss the position. The moratorium had been well enough, so far as his existing liabilities were concerned, and, in any case, they might not have been beyond his capacity to discharge, but he had now to purchase materials for which cash must be paid to secure that his competitors did not obtain the earlier deliveries, and there would be an immediate wages-list far beyond anything of which he had had previous experience.
He had an advantage over many business men at that time in having had previous familiarity with government contracts and he knew that the sight of the official acceptance-form would sometimes soften the heart of a bank manager, even after he had ceased to smile the usual greeting, and had commenced to talk of instructions which his Head Office was obliging him to carry out.
But the amount now involved was as much beyond precedent as were the events which required it, and he was glad to have the advice of Mr. Trevors, and to arrange for him to see the bank on his behalf. If that were useless, he was resolved that the money must be borrowed, at whatever cost, and inwardly fearful of what that cost might be.
But Mr. Trevors, keeping mathematically cool amid the prevailing excitement, was reassuring, and though distracted by the demands of clients in many varying and unprecedented complications, and having to snatch a half-hour at midday to see his son off to join a Territorial battalion, managed to interview the bank manager at 3-15 that afternoon, and to telephone half-an-hour later to say that arrangements could be made by which the wages cheques of Jonas Steeps & Sons, and those for some other payments, would be honoured upon certain conditions, which do not enter into the substance of the present narrative.
A fortnight later, Elias sold his interest in the brass-casting business, at a price which removed these difficulties, and which seemed high at the time, though he regretted it afterwards.
The months went on, and the war continued. The breathless activity at the works of Jonas Steeps & Sons increased rather than diminished. In spite of the fact that the war had become one of artillery and trench-infantry rather than of cavalry and baggage-waggons, the demand for bits and stirrups appeared to be limitless, and of a continual urgency.
Elias Steeps toiled with untiring energy. He grudged time either for sleep or food. He was seldom seen in the office, where the work of Miss Triveter - whose wages had been more than doubled, and her hours extended - was overseen and supplemented by Mr. Bailey Trevors, who had himself lost his best clerk, and was working fourteen hours a day at the calls of a score of distracted clients whose turnovers had increased as their office-staffs had diminished.
The old anxieties of cut prices and meagre orders, the weekly trouble of wages-day, the strained interviews in the bank manager's office - all these were forgotten. War, which brings so many tragedies, removes many of the meaner worries, and the troubles of those days were such as all men shared, or private griefs with which all would sympathise.
With the removal of the old anxieties, there came a mirage of prosperity. Openings for rational expenditure were limited, and there was a lack of leisure or any surplus energy for the enjoyment of the fruit of the labour that never ceased. Money was either saved or wasted.
As goods poured out of the town, treasury-warrants flowed in, and bank-balances soared to fantastic figures.
The first year of the war ended, and the first year's accounts had to be made up. They were many months late in most instances, for accountants were overworked, and depleted office-staffs were in arrears with their postings. But one by one they were completed, and, under the steady pressure of the local Inspector of Taxes, copies were supplied to him, from which he must negotiate their liability to taxation in unfamiliar forms.
Among these accounts, when the war was well in its second year, there arrived the figures of Jonas Steeps & Sons, in the neatly methodical writing of Mr. Bailey Trevors, bearing his orderly signature, and the more - sprawling autograph of Elias Steeps.
Bruton Carey, the Inspector of Taxes for the part of Wolverhampton in which the works of Jonas Steeps & Sons were situated, was a tall thin man, Oxford-bred, with something still lingering of the intolerable Oxford accent; but he was a gentleman by instinct, and, in spite of a rather sleepy expression, and a delusive reticence of speech, he was very far from being a fool.
He met Mr. Bailey Trevors by appointment to discuss the amount of income tax, and - more important, and more difficult to agree - the amount of the new Excess Profit Duty for which Elias would be liable as the result of his exertions during the first year of the war.
The principle of the levying of this duty was sound enough, but the ethics of its application never rose beyond the arguments of expediency, and the first hastily-drafted Act, aimed primarily at placation of the Trade Union leaders, was weirdly erratic in its inequities.
Mr. Trevors had the type of mind to which figures are peculiarly sacred. He worshipped accuracy. Mr. Carey knew him well, and the two men liked and trusted one another. They discussed the accounts before them frankly and freely. The inspector realised that the tax would press more heavily on Elias than on many of his neighbours who might be doing less for the profits which they received. He desired to be fair, and the Act had many ambiguities. Mr. Trevors had studied it acutely in his clients' interests, as it was his business to do, with determination to obtain every relief which its obscure and complicated provisions allowed.
In the end, after a claim for some special depreciations had been successfully argued, it was agreed that, in addition to the ordinary income tax, Elias would have the patriotic pleasure of contributing about £1,800 to the national exchequer.
Mr. Trevors, who had previously estimated that anything under £2,000 would be a good settlement, went away satisfied that he had fought a good battle on his client's behalf.
He walked straight on to North Street, to communicate the result of the interview. He came upon Elias at the door of the packing-room, and told him briefly.
"It will be about £1,800, apart from the income tax."
The thud-thud of the gas engine was in their ears, and Elias was rather deaf on the left side.
"'Ow much?" he asked incredulously. "Eight 'undred pounds? I shouldn't never pay that."
"No, eighteen hundred," Mr. Trevors replied, more distinctly than before.
Elias stared at him. He did not even swear. He turned and went into the works.
The next day the two men had it over in the little lath-and-plaster-partitioned office, with Miss Triveter as an interested though silent auditor.
Elias stubbornly refused to believe that he had made any such profit as Mr. Trevors' figures alleged. He had fetched his pass-book from the bank that morning and showed a credit balance of £723 as conclusive proof that his prosperity had not reached the height which had been attributed to it. Mr. Trevors patiently explained that much of this profit was buried in increases of stock and other assets, including the new benches, lathes, shafting, pulleys and tools which he had been obliged to purchase for the new work-people he now employed. Elias asked, with some reason, how the unmentionable hell he was to pay over 80 per cent of profits which existed, if at all, in such forms as those.
Mr. Trevors explained the provisions of the Act, as it applied to the business of Jonas Steeps & Sons, with much patience and detail, pointing out that he was not primarily responsible for them; but it is needless to follow him into technicalities which we might not understand much better than did Elias, and in which we have an inferior interest.
In the end, he understood with sufficient clarity that the expression "pre-war standard" had, for him, two very important meanings.
First, it meant that, because he had been unable to make a substantial profit on his business during the three years immediately preceding the war, he would not be allowed to do so, however hard he might work, so long as it should continue, whereas Billy Randall, the leather-factor in Church Street, having made £10,000 in 1913 by some hazardous but fortunate speculations in leather on a rising market, would be practically compelled to accept a minimum annual profit of that amount for the same indefinite period.
Secondly, that the efforts which had been successfully made by Mr. Bailey Trevors to reduce his assessments before the war commenced were to be the direct and continuing causes of his present fleecing.
Both of these consequences may have been reasonable - this is a narrative of fact, not an argument - but they filled Elias with a smouldering sense of injustice. There may be logical reasons for killing a sheep, but it could not be expected to give them impartial consideration, if they were put before it.
Elias pointed out that there was no similar limit placed upon the amounts which his foremen earned, and that three of them were already receiving more that the maximum profit which would be considered sufficient reward for his own exertions. He asked whether it could make much practical difference to himself if his wages disbursements were to show a further increase. Mr. Trevors agreed that the Government would be the major losers by that difference, Elias looked more cheerful, and ended the conference.
When the accountant had gone, Elias delayed only to swallow a cup of scalding tea, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, and went into the works.
He interviewed separately the three foremen he now employed, and found that proposals to increase their wages by a pound a week on condition that half the amounts should be privately returned to himself was well received in each instance.
With the happy consciousness that he had retrieved £78 a year from the rapacity of his adversaries, he went on to examine a defect in the shaking barrel which threatened the output of the coming week.
The months passed, and the £1,800 was paid in a series of reluctant instalments. There were now fewer men in the works, but there were three girls for every man who had gone elsewhere. Prices more than kept up, and turnover still increased. The time came when the second year's accounts could be delayed no longer.
Meanwhile, two things had happened which may at first appear to have no obvious connection with the narrative of these affairs, but which were destined to combine to produce their climax, as two parents may unite to produce a child which will have no resemblance to either.
The first of these was the marriage of Elias Steeps to the widow at the Ring o' Bells. I know little of the genesis of that event, and am equally ignorant of the previous relations of Elias and his book-keeper, or what cause, if any, she may have had to resent this marriage, but it is certain that from that moment she nursed a secret hatred of her employer which waited its opportunity for revenge.
The second circumstance was that the lease of The Hollows, the private residence of Mr. Bailey Trevors, approached its period, and that the landlord, a solicitor named Braithwaite, who practised in Wolverhampton, was not disposed to renew it.
The house was in a pleasant suburban district, and unusually favoured in its surroundings, being in a wooded seclusion, and separated from its neighbours on the one side by an exceptionally attractive garden, and on the other by an extensive and productive orchard.
Mr. Bailey Trevors had held it on a long lease, at the very reasonable figure (even for those days) of £50 per annum, the lowness of which may have been partly due to the fact that the house, though roomy, was old, and without some conveniences which were common to those of more recent date.
Anyhow, so it was; and Mr. Trevors had anticipated some awkwardness of negotiation in attempting renewal of the lease at the existing figure, and would have agreed, if necessary, even to a substantial increase. But the difficulty proved to be more serious.
About three months before the date at which the lease would terminate, he received a letter from Mr. Braithwaite, asking him if he would care to purchase the property, and suggesting an interview. He made the appointment promptly, and commenced it with a frank statement that he would like to buy, but that he was not really in a position to do so. He hoped that there would be no difficulty about renewal.
The solicitor replied that he wished to show him every consideration, but that he had decided to sell, and had, in fact, received an offer which he should have accepted, but that he had thought it fairer to give the occupier the first opportunity of acquiring the property.
He reminded him that the Rent Restriction Act which had just been passed - it was amended subsequently - did not give any protection to residents in houses outside the London area, unless they were let at a rental of over £50 per annum, and that he was consequently entitled to sell, with possession, at the end of the existing lease.
He showed him a letter from Henry Swillkins, a wholesale butcher in the local market, offering £4,000, and he said, fairly enough, that he would not ask any advance on that figure. He had promised Mr. Swillkins a reply within fourteen days, but if Mr. Trevors were prepared to buy, and would pay a deposit within that time, he would give him preference. He suggested that, though the price might seem high, it was not unreasonable under the circumstances, and talked of the prospective building value of the road-frontage of garden and orchard.
Mr. Trevors saw that it was not a case in which argument would be of any avail. The lawyer, who had offered him the property for £1,500 a few years earlier, was evidently resolved to sell, and, from his standpoint, he was not acting ungenerously. Houses were not being built, and were consequently rising to values which were not likely to be permanently maintained. It was a time when owners sold, and tenants bought, if they could, to protect their homes. He promised to communicate his decision within the time stipulated.
He went away troubled in mind, for he could see little prospect of raising the required amount, even should he reconcile his mind to giving such a price for the property. He knew that it would not be easy to get another home should he be turned out, for the legislation which protected the bulk of the population had increased the difficulties of those who had been left outside it. He knew that there were no houses to be rented in Wolverhampton, large or small. Something he must purchase, and at an exorbitant figure, unless he were to be left entirely homeless.
He had a large family of growing children to provide for, and since his eldest son had been reported "missing, believed killed" a month before, his wife had been so ill that he was loth to communicate this additional trouble.
After a night's anxiety, he decided to see Mr. Swillkins, and endeavour to persuade him to withdraw his offer. This he did, but with no benefit resulting.
Money meant nothing to Mr. Swillkins. With the professed object of preventing unreasonable advances in the cost of food, the Government had fixed the prices which must be charged in most of the food-mongering trades, and as these allowed a margin of profit larger in many instances than the entire price which had been obtainable in pre-war days, it was as difficult for such men to avoid wealth as for Elias Steeps to acquire it.
Mr. Swillkins wanted the house, and he meant to have it. He had a private contempt for any man who did not get all the money he required when so much was in circulation.
As the mind of Mr. Trevors became more accustomed to the idea of giving £4,000 for the property, he considered the possibility of raising the money more seriously.
He talked it over with his bank manager, who was willing to help, but explained that it was against the present policy of the bank to lend highly against such securities, unless it were for the financing of war-office orders; but he offered £1,700 on a first mortgage, and later in the week he agreed to increase this figure to £2,000, and to advance a further £300 upon some insurance policies which were to be deposited with him.
Mr. Trevors could hand £1,100 in cash, and he succeeded in collecting outstanding accounts so well that he increased this to £1,300 four days before the end of the allotted time.
The last £400 was the real trouble, and it may have been the fact that he had to see Elias that day with a draft of the second year's accounts which suggested that he should ask him to lend it.
Anyway, so he did. He had a long interview with Elias, whether about the loan, or the accounts, or both, after which he went on to Mr. Braithwaite's office, and gave his cheque for the required deposit.
The next day he saw Elias again, after which he went on to his own bank, where he paid in a cheque for £400, which he had succeeded in borrowing.
The following morning Mr. Braithwaite received a letter from Mr. Trevors' bankers to the effect that they were ready to take up the deeds on his behalf as soon as the conveyance could be completed; and the Inspector of Taxes received the accounts of Jonas Steeps & Sons, signed by Elias Steeps, and by his accountant, in the usual manner.
It was about a week later that Mr. Trevors called by appointment at the offices of Mr. Burton Carey, and, after dealing with the affairs of another business which does not concern us, they turned to Steeps & Sons' accounts, and agreed their computations, with somewhat more than the usual arguments. There had been changes in the law, which modified the severity of the tax in such cases as this, and Mr. Trevors fought for the utmost possible concessions, even to the point of threatening to appeal on one or two points on which Mr. Carey was reluctant to yield.
Finally, however, they agreed the liability, which was now a matter of over £3,000, and that the dates of payment should be extended with sufficient leniency.
Nothing further would have occurred to re-open the matter, had not the inspector received an anonymous letter by the following morning's post, suggesting that it would be worth his while to make some further enquiry into the accounts of the firm.
He was not greatly impressed by this communication. He had no special reason to doubt Elias, a blundering man who had overpaid on estimated assessments until Mr. Trevors had taken him in hand, and he had entire confidence both in the ability and integrity of the latter gentleman.
He felt that it was impossible to take any action upon a document so unvouched and vague, but as he happened to be seeing Mr. Trevors upon another matter later in the week, he mentioned it to him.
"Look here, Trevors," he said, "I've just had an anonymous letter about Steeps & Sons' accounts. I don't take much notice of unsigned documents, as a rule. But, of course, we know there is a lot of evasion going on. You're in touch with Steeps pretty closely. Do you think he can be deceiving you seriously?"
Mr. Trevors thought before he replied, and then answered with apparent frankness.
"No, I don't think he could. He might in small amounts. There's always the sale of scrap. There's not much of that going through anyone's books today. But there's not much chance for him even there. It's not as though he were in one of the non-ferrous metal trades. . . . No, everything looks straight to me. . . . Of course, he kicks a bit. But they all do, especially if the pre-war standard's against them."
"There's probably nothing in it," Bruton Carey answered easily. "Probably someone he's sacked, who's trying to make trouble for him." He turned the conversation into other channels.
But it happened that evening that Elias Steeps, whom he knew by sight, ran against him outside the Prince of Wales, and a stream of people entering or leaving the theatre brought them up standing face to face for a moment.
"I think perhaps you ought to know, Mr. Steeps," he said politely, "that I've had an anonymous letter concerning your accounts, suggesting that they are not quite as they should be. Of course, I don't - " But he stopped as he saw the frightened expression on the face that confronted him. In the next instant that expression had changed to one of fury. Elias muttered something which sounded like: "If there were more poison for prying rats," and pushed rudely past. After a few steps he turned, with a realisation of the folly of the way he had reacted to the shock of that sudden challenge, but Mr. Carey had disappeared in the crowd. That gentleman walked on thoughtfully. He was by no means sure that a further investigation might not be profitable.
A few days later Mr. Carey received a further anonymous letter in the same handwriting as before; and this time it was too serious and too detailed to be disregarded. He saw that, if the allegations could be substantiated, they must involve the professional ruin of Bailey Trevors, and most probably the criminal prosecution of both him and his client.
He was still somewhat sceptical, but he acted with promptitude, and his usual efficiency.
He dictated a letter to the War Office, asking for particulars of all transactions with the firm in question, and, in particular, for the total of all goods invoiced during the past financial year. He instructed his staff to institute detailed comparisons between the various items of the accounts which were under suspicion and those of other firms in the same trade, in relation to their respective turnovers. He had the handwriting of the anonymous letters carefully examined, and assured himself that it was that of Miss Triveter, who had conducted correspondence with his office on the firm's behalf before Mr. Trevors had taken such matters into his own hands.
The handwriting was, in fact, only partially and clumsily disguised, and approximated, as the letters went on, more and more nearly to Miss Triveter's usual caligraphy.
Mr. Carey went to the trouble of ascertaining her private address, and dictated another letter, asking her to call upon him at 11-30 on the following morning. He did not say for what purpose. In this, his knowledge of human nature proved to be accurate. Punctually at the appointed time, a lean middle-aged woman, in a state of suppressed agitation, was shown into his private office.
She remained there for about an hour, talking most of the time, prompted occasionally by a doubting question to a renewed volubility, while a stenographer at a side table took down everything that was said.
At the end of that time, Mr. Carey rose and dismissed her curtly, without expressing any opinion upon the tale she had told, or requiring any written statement from her. He did not shake hands, nor make a further appointment, nor appear to be taking any interest in her departure.
She turned at the door, angry and puzzled at the manner of her dismissal. "If you don't believe - " she began.
"Show her out, Miss Cuthbertson," he said, without looking up, and she disappeared, muttering angrily.
"If we open the windows," he said with a smile, "we shall feel better." After a moment of thoughtful silence, he added: "I needn't say that you won't let this go any further. Don't transcribe your notes till I tell you."
Miss Cuthbertson went out to lunch, and he remained for the next half-hour thinking over the tale which Miss Triviter had told so venomously. "No," he said at last, half aloud. "No one would have invented that. I'm sorry about Trevors." He went out to lunch also, looking worried; but he had no doubt what it would be his duty to do.
Miss Triveter's tale was this:
She said that she had entered the cash-book as usual on the morning of which she told, and had put on her hat and coat to go to the bank to pay in, as she often did at that time of day, but observing that she had inked her hand, she had first turned into a little cubicle partitioned off the general office, where she kept a jug and basin for toilet purposes, and while she washed she had heard Mr. Steeps and Mr. Trevors enter the office together.
She could hear every word without difficulty, and had listened at first without any intention of concealment, or supposition that anything would pass which would not be intended for her to hear, but as the conversation developed she had become intentionally silent.
She said that Mr. Trevors had first brought up the subject of a house which he was buying, and had asked for a loan of £400 to enable him to make up the amount he required. Elias had avoided a direct reply, but had asked how the accounts came out, and what profit they would show.
After some fencing, he had then said bluntly that if Mr. Trevors would show a smaller profit he could have the money.
The accountant had refused and protested, but Elias had pressed the point. "You say it's right, but I say it's damned wrong. It's wrong by three thousand pound." So she quoted.
Mr. Trevors appeared to have made a prolonged resistance to the proposal, and advanced various arguments of morality and expediency against it, while Elias had been eloquent upon the anomalies and injustices under which he claimed to be sugering, and also professed an obstinate scepticism with regard to the accuracy of the accounts as they had been prepared for his signature. "I don't know figures, but I know facts," was a phrase which he had repeated till the listener's mind had retained it.
Finally, Mr. Trevors had left with a promise to think it over, and with a clear understanding that if he brought an amended Trading Account, showing a turnover reduced by not less than three thousand pounds, he could have the loan which he was requiring.
During that afternoon, Elias Steeps had told her that he was making an investment of £400 with Mr. Trevors, and that she was to draw a cheque for that amount, as he would be looking in for it in the morning.
This cheque she had drawn, and Elias had signed, and put it into his pocket.
The next morning she had deliberately secreted herself in the same hiding-place, and had heard Mr. Trevors say that he thought the accounts which he had now brought would be satisfactory. She had heard a conversation which had become amicable end in Elias saying that the cheque was a gift, and the accountant replying that he could not take it in that way, but would prefer to pay a quarterly sum for interest, and in reduction of principal, till it should be discharged entirely.
At the last, there had been a moment's altercation because Mr. Trevors had said that his pen was not with him, and that he would add his signature at his own office, but Elias had accepted his reply that he would have to sign, as the inspector would not accept the accounts with no more than the signature which Elias had already scrawled upon them.
She distinctly remembered the words which Elias had used as the two men parted: "I knew you wouldn't ask me to help you and leave me sweating."
She had heard him mutter these words to himself more than once during the same afternoon: "Leave me to sweat, would he? Not likely!" She related that he had been in very good spirits after that, and had given her a concert ticket, which she had torn up, rather than use.
While he lunched, Mr. Carey went over this narrative, detail by detail, but he could see no reason to question its essential veracity. It was not a tale that anyone would be likely to invent, nor did he think that Miss Triveter would be equal to doing so.
His mind fastened upon the fact that Trevors had declined to sign the accounts in Elias's office. He felt that there must be some significance in that refusal, but he could not probe it.
When he returned to his office, he examined the accounts again. The two signatures were there, and were certainly genuine. The sheets were completed with the neatness to be expected of any document issuing from the accountant's office. There was no sign of alteration or erasure.
As he paused in thought, his mind was diverted by the memory of a street-scene which he had observed as he returned to the office. Two work-girls in the mobcaps and smocks of the metal-polishing sisterhood had come along laughing, arm-in-arm. They had paused at a fruiterer's shop, where a tall elderly woman, with an appearance of respectable poverty, had been asking the price of grapes, and turned sadly away when it had been quoted to her.
The fruiterer's voice had attracted the notice of the girls, and the nearer, a child of not more than fifteen, had called out: "Ten shillings, is it? Here, give us two pound," passing over one of a dirty handful of treasury notes as she spoke. They meant little to her. Probably she had never had as much as half-a-crown in her possession before the war, and she lacked intelligence to value the money which now came so easily.
It was all confusion, he knew, under the direction of a government which failed to understand the fineness of the temper of the nation it professed to lead. It was wrong - chaotically wrong - but his duty, at least, was clear.
He touched his bell, and dictated a letter asking Mr. Trevors to be kind enough to give him a call at his earliest convenience on a matter of urgency.
Mr. Trevors came next morning. The very alacrity with which he had made the call tended to confirm the suspicion which had arisen against him.
Yet he was the more at ease of the two men when they met; though, to a close acquaintance, he might have seemed more reserved and watchful than usual.
Bruton Carey plunged into his subject at once, his customary drawling manner being ineffectual to conceal his nervousness.
"Trevors," he said, "we've known each other a good while, and I've always felt I could trust you. There's a beastly business come up about the Steeps firm's accounts. We had a woman here yesterday. I'll tell you just what she said. I'm going to have all the cards on the table." He gave the whole tale as he had heard it. Trevors made no interruption. He may have been paler than usual but he showed no other sign of emotion.
When his tale was ended Carey said: "Of course I don't say I believe it. But you know I'm bound to take notice. I thought it fairest to tell you first."
Trevors spoke at last. "Do you expect me to deny a tale like that?" he asked quietly.
Bruton Carey looked embarrassed. "I don't know what I expect. But I'm bound to take some action. I thought it fairest to tell you first" he repeated.
Trevors did not discuss the point of etiquette. He asked laconically: "What action do you propose?"
"I must have it over with Steeps. . . . And I propose to ask Benson & Sharpe to undertake an investigation of the books. I hope you don't mind that?"
He asked the last question with a faint expectation that even now he might hear such a reply as would convince him that the tale he had heard was at least partially false.
But Mr. Trevors did mind. He owned it frankly. "Yes" he said slowly. "I should mind very much . . . For several reasons." He paused, and then added with a brisker manner: "Look here, Carey, will this meet the case? Suppose I resign and get Steeps to appoint Benson & Sharpe to succeed me. There would be nothing to prevent them going over last year's accounts and if they're not satisfied - well you can surcharge any difference. I don't say there'll be any. I deny it absolutely. That's your suggestion; it's no admission of mine."
"No" Mr. Carey replied. "I'm sorry. But I can't do it quite like that. I wish I could. I must instruct Benson & Sharpe to make investigation and I cannot say more till their report is before me. The ultimate decision won't rest with me. But you know that where there's a full disclosure the Treasury sometimes takes a lenient view. . . . Still I couldn't promise anything in a case like this."
They both rose. The interview seemed to have reached its natural end. But Trevors lingered. He was evidently ill at ease.
"You don't think there is any way in which we could deal with this matter without bringing Steeps into it?" he asked at last.
"No. How could I?" the inspector answered somewhat impatiently. He wondered that Trevors didn't see that the question, besides being amazing in its futility, practically admitted his guilt.
Mr. Trevors said nothing more. He went out. In the passage, he became conscious that they had not shaken hands at parting.
Mr. Trevors had a bad night. He was so obviously worried that his family could not fail to observe it, but he avoided their questions. He went to his office as usual, and, after an hour or two spent on routine matters and correspondence, he went out, and proceeded on foot to see Elias Steeps.
He entered his premises, as he had become accustomed to do, without the ceremony of knocking, and finding the office empty, went through to the works. There was a small room facing the office which the foremen used for their meals, and which was normally vacant at this hour. It was there that he came upon Elias in the act of ramming his last year's day-book on to a fire which was burning fiercely.
Bailey Trevors was not an athlete. He was a man of fifty-seven, accustomed to fight with his tongue rather than his hands, which were untrained to wield anything more formidable than a pen, or heavier than a ruler. Yet he leapt at Elias with such energy that he sent him staggering half across the room, while he snatched the book from the blaze, careless of a burnt hand as he did so.
As he stamped on the smoking book, Elias recovered his balance, and came at him with a bellow of fury.
"You rotten fool!" he roared. "Let it be, if you don't want us both jailed together."
"I'm not quite such a fool as you," the accountant replied, and continued stamping. But Elias was in no mood for a quiet comparison of their rival follies. He had returned, furious and frightened, from an interview at the inspector's office, aware that Benson & Sharpe had been instructed to overhaul his books, and that they might arrive at any hour to commence their investigations. He firmly believed that his liberty would depend upon whether he would have time to incinerate the damning evidence before they should arrive to explore it.
He was only vaguely aware of what their powers might be, or of the penalties to which he was liable. He had no sense of guilt, for it was equally natural to his mind that the Tax Gatherer should attempt to strip him, and that he should resist his plundering; but the panic of the law's sinister power was upon him, and Trevors quickly became aware that his tongue was useless, and that, if the book were to be saved, he must exercise his muscles on its behalf. He remembered vaguely something which he had read concerning the pugilistic advantages of a straight left, and had about three seconds in which to wonder how it should be brought into operation when a short, rather thick man, with some reputation for boxing in his younger days, is rushing upon you from a few yards distance with doubled fists, and an aspect of extreme fury.
It has been said, with some truth, that absolute ignorance is more difficult to counter than the inferiority of a partial training. Its unexpectedness is its danger. Mr. Trevors made no attempt to guard himself from the first fury of this assault, as it was so plainly necessary for him to do. Neither did he use a straight left. He put all his energies into one swinging blow which came round with all the weight of his body, and the energy of desperation, behind it. Such procedure is not recommended for imitation in any similar emergency, but in this instance it is necessary to record its success. Mr. Steeps took the blow on his left ear, and it sent him sprawling. Mr. Trevors, who had made no effort to retain his own balance, went down upon him.
They struggled to their feet together, and became conscious that Mr. Parmiter, of the respectable firm of Benson & Sharpe, had entered a noisy room, and was regarding them with considerable interest.
Mr. Trevors was not friendly with Mr. Parmiter. He himself belonged to the Institute of Chartered Accountants, and the firm of Benson & Sharpe were members of the Incorporated Society. These two organisations were only united in their dislike of accountants who declined to belong to either of their rival factions.
It occurred to Mr. Trevors to wonder how much Mr. Parmiter had heard of the brief but illuminating remarks which had punctuated the altercation. If he had arrived early, he might have heard too much. Unfortunately, it was equally true that if he had arrived later he might have seen too little; in which case he might be in some natural doubt as to which of them had intended to burn the book.
Perhaps it was to prevent the possibility of any error on this point that Mr. Trevors picked up the still smouldering day-book - practically uninjured, for to burn such a book when it is closed is a slow and difficult operation - and handed it to Mr. Parmiter with the remark: "If you want to go over these books, you'll do well to remove them to your own office."
Elias pushed past them with a scowl, and went into the works, which he understood better than bookkeeping. He did not go silently. He made a remark which was highly illustrative of the state of his own mind, but, unfortunately, it is quite unprintable.
This tale seemed a good one when first I heard it and worth recounting; but now that I approach its conclusion I am in some doubt of whether it may not appear to have some of the qualities of anti-climax. But the facts are these, and - as it is a true narrative - I give them for what they are.
On the day after Mr. Parmiter had looked down, somewhat sardonically, upon the result of the pugilism of his brother-professional, Mr. Trevors called at his office, and, without alluding to the events of the previous morning, observed that he understood that the firm were investigating the accounts of Jonas Steeps & Sons, and that, as the auditor of that firm, he should be pleased to give them any information or assistance which they might desire.
Mr. Parmiter thanked him with an equal formality, but did not subsequently avail himself of the assistance offered.
The books of accounts for the period under review were removed to Mr. Parmiter's office, and it was observed that he avoided, as far as possible, obtruding himself upon the notice of Mr. Steeps, and that he approached him with some timidity upon the occasions when he was obliged to apply for explanations arising out of the enquiry on which he was occupied.
After an interview which had no witnesses, and concerning which it can only therefore be said that it was somewhat lengthy, Elias met Mr. Trevors on terms of at least outward amity.
The events which have been related being too picturesque to pass unnoticed, a more or less inaccurate version of them became the common talk of the business community of Wolverhampton, and, while the investigations proceeded, the friends and acquaintances of Bailey Trevors and Elias Steeps looked upon them with a peculiar interest, and waited from day to day to
hear of their arrests with a good deal of more or less pleasant anticipation, modified in a deplorable number of instances by a secret consciousness that their own immunity was due rather to a superior cunning than a more immaculate standard.
Miss Triviter found that she had earned the distinction of being the only woman in Wolverhampton who was unable to get a job.
The time did not pass without some attempts to engage the principals concerned in conversation upon their positions, but the language of Elias on such occasions was more forcible than coherent, and Mr. Trevors put all allusions aside with the quiet remark that he did not discuss his client's affairs. So the day came when Mr. Parmiter attended at Mr. Carey's office to present the result of his firm's investigation.
He handed in a report of seven foolscap sheets, with an amended Trading Account and Balance Sheet for the year in question. It was evident that the work had been done, not only thoroughly, but with elaborate detail.
The report stated with an impartial justice worthy of the profession to which he belonged, that the books had been very accurately checked and balanced. It appeared that an error of three shillings had escaped detection in the Petty Cash book, owing to a figure having been badly written and this accounted for a discrepancy of that amount in the year's accounts and this had been transferred to a Suspense A/c. by Mr. Trevors, in preference to writing it off without explanation. Messrs. Benson & Sharpe considered that an item of £2 13s. 9d., representing a purchase of leather belting which had been charged to replacements, was rather of the nature of additional plant and they had amended these figures. With these exceptions after an exhaustive investigation they were able to confirm the accounts of the firm's regular auditor.
Mr. Bruton Carey read the report and looked at Mr. Parmiter with an enquiry which he would not put into words.
Mr. Parmiter understood the glance and answered it readily. "There is no doubt at all that the accounts were correct as you first received them. There might, of course, have been some irregularities which the books have never recorded, such as we should be unable to trace, but the accounts are in accordance with the books, and as far as we have been able to judge they were properly kept. It does not appear possible that, from these books, they could ever have been prepared in such a way as to show a substantially larger profit."
Mr. Carey simply said: "Thank you. It is a very satisfactory result." He knew that there must be some missing clue to the puzzle. But he could do nothing more. The matter was ended.
It was nearly ten years later, in circumstances which are best left unstated, that the truth came from the lips of Mr. Bailey Trevors himself. He admitted that Miss Triviter's account had been accurate in all essential particulars.
He said that, though he had been in a state of great anxiety to obtain the loan which he had solicited, yet the idea of becoming a party to any falsification of accounts had never entered his mind, nor would he have admitted it for a moment. He had hoped that Elias would have lent him the required sum out of goodwill when he had explained the necessity and that his reputation would have been sufficient guarantee that it would be punctually repaid. He had been prepared, if necessary, to offer an exceptional rate of interest, rather than accept a refusal.
He had been startled when Elias made his counterproposal, and had rejected it with indignation. But Elias would not accept that rejection. He was seething with anger at the severity and injustice - as he regarded it - of the taxation to which he was subjected. He protested, and may have believed, that he had not made such profits as the accounts showed. It was true that he had not made them in such form that they could be easily paid.
Mr. Trevors admitted having some sympathy with these protests. He said that it was one of the difficulties with which accountants had to contend at that period that the official methods of assessment were such that it was no infrequent thing for their claim to 80 per cent. of a firm's profits to exceed the whole amount as shown on the accounts on which it was based. He mentioned as a fact, that many firms which had submitted without protest, in a spirit of patriotism, to these impositions, were still crippled, ten years after, in endeavouring to pay them with accumulated interest, to a Treasury which had written off huge sums as irrecoverable but showed less mercy to firms which continue to struggle stubbornly to discharge their liability.
But this sympathy did not dispose him to fall in with his client's suggestion. An accountant's reputation is made by the practice of a scrupulous and methodical accuracy. The proposal to supply accounts which were deliberately incorrect was peculiarly antipathetic, not only to his moral sense, but to his pride in the integrity of the art he practised. Yet Elias's reiteration of his request gave him time to realise how much was at stake, and to reflect that he might lose his home, at a time when houses were almost unprocurable, should he fail to find some satisfactory solution of the position. It was with these thoughts in his mind that the devil tempted him in an unexpected direction.
The amount by which Elias was urging him to reduce the turnover was three thousand pounds and as he talked with the Trading Account spread out before him his eye fell on the figure of the total sales for the year: £34,306. 8s. 4d., and it crossed his mind that a one can be altered to a four very easily. He had not gone so far as to form any clear intention when he promised to think it over until the next morning, but, as he walked away, he saw how simple it would be, and though he was scarcely conscious, even then, that he had fallen to the temptation, he found himself at the door of Mr. Braithwaite's office, where he went in and wrote a cheque for the 10 per cent. deposit which, having paid, he must lose unless he should complete the purchase. So he burnt his boats.
What he afterwards did was this. He made a fresh copy of the Trading Account with the sales entered as thirty-one instead of thirty-four thousand pounds, and some corresponding other differences in that document and the Balance Sheet, which were less than they might have been because he was able to leave the original totals being confident that Elias would make no attempt to add the columns. When he returned to his office, after the interview with Elias on the next day, he altered these figures with a few strokes of his pen, so that they had become accurate again and then added his signature.
In taking this course he had in mind that though - as Elias was well aware - the percentage of E.P.D. which was to be levied had been increased that year, there had been some indirect and partial reliefs provided for the smaller manufacturers the effect of which would be beyond the ability of Elias to compute, even had he been aware of their existence. He relied upon these to obtain an assessment which would satisfy his client as corresponding with the reduced profit he believed to have been returned.
It was the consciousness of this necessity which had caused him to be so pertinacious in claiming the benefit of every possible concession - even beyond what he might otherwise have felt it to be equitable to argue - on his client's behalf, and, in doing this, he had felt that he was making a real and legitimate return for the convenience of the loan he received, which he had returned during the following year.
Looking back upon the incident he did not defend his action, but he remarked that it would be difficult to defend any wrong which he had committed. He might be said to have saved Elias from the commission of a serious crime, even against his will, and from the consequences which must have followed.
Yet his plan had been almost wrecked on a point which may appear to most of us to be absurd or fantastic. It was not true, as he told Elias, that he had left behind the pen which he used for signatures. It might indeed have caught the eye of the bit-manufacturer even while he lied for it was projecting two inches from the waistcoat pocket in which he was accustomed to carry it.
The fact was that when it came to the point he could not bring himself to put his signature to an inaccurate statement even though it was already in his handwriting and though he had resolved to amend it before it should pass from his possession.
He recognised the absurdity of the scruple. He was aware that, if his refusal to sign in Elias's presence should arouse his suspicions, he might lose the reward for which he was acting with such dubious professional honour. But these reflections made no difference. It was not a matter of thought, but of feeling. It was something he could not do.
THE TERROR OF WILLIAM STICKERS
IT would be unreasonable to conclude from this veracious narrative that night-schools are likely to lead those who frequent them to headlong flight from the terrors of English law, nor may it be fairly deduced that such a consequence must follow the harbouring of a cousin of criminal character, however inexpedient that may be; but it is certain that the two in combination were fatal to the happiness of Mr. William Stickers, driving him to the curious modern form of industrial outlawry - that of a workman in a strange town who has no insurance card which he dares to show, lest it should lead him to the notice of the police, and a short route to the dreaded dock.
Mr. Stickers was a large inarticulate man, reticent of manner, restricted of speech, who had served the Corporation of Bigglehoxton for nearly twenty years in the honourable capacity of a road-sweeper, and who had been so punctual and diligent in his work that he had won the approval of his official superiors at a point which would have resulted in his promotion to the oversight of his fellow-workers, had it not been discovered that he was unable to write or spell.
"Bill," the road surveyor said to him one day, "I don't know that I've ever seen a better hand with a broom, and in other ways you're an example to the whole gang. Now if you could read a time-sheet, instead of not being able to write your own name, I don't know why you couldn't be drawing about half as much again as you do now, and be three times the use to me."
Bill looked sheepishly pleased at this praise, but admitted that he had always been slow to learn. Then, somewhat to the surveyor's surprise, he became more hopeful, and said he should have to think over whether anything couldn't be done.
He was a widower at this time, his wife having died during the previous winter. He had one infant child, of whom a married sister had taken charge, so that he had become the sole occupant of a four-roomed house which he was reluctant to leave, being one of those men who are timid of any change.
While Bessie had been alive, she had discouraged him from any attempt to improve his educational deficiencies. She had been a woman who liked to keep domestic affairs in her own hands, which was rendered easier by his ignorance of the written word; and since his cousin Daniel had ceased to lodge with them three years before, she had been receiving frequent letters from an uncle in Canada which bore the London postmark, and sometimes contained money orders originating in Bethnal Green.
These evidences of her uncle's generosity would sometimes enable her to pay week-long visits to a sister who lived in Lancashire, during which periods it had happened that further letters from her uncle would not arrive. It had been best that William was unable to read, as pacifists will surely agree.
But now that Bessie was dead, the widower was not only released from her restraining influence, he had begun to find his disability vexatious in many ways.
By a curious coincidence, the letters from Bessie's uncle had ceased at her death, and William's sister, after a perusal of such correspondence as her brother's wife had left unburned, said with a tone of finality that the address of this relative could not be found, and that it would be useless to waste further time on the search. Of course, she allowed, he might write again; but this was not said in a sanguine tone.
She had gone back to her home in Charters Street, two miles away, taking the child with her, and when a letter came shortly afterwards in the writing which Mr. Stickers had learned to recognise, he had no better resort than to take it to Mrs. Titwin, his next-door neighbour, and ask her assistance in deciphering its contents.
"Bill," she said, when she had puzzled it out with a difficulty which she attributed rather to its deplorable penmanship than any deficiency in her own attainments "this isn't from no uncle in Canada, and it's not a letter for Bessie at all. It's from your cousin Dan'l to you. He's writing from somewhere in Bethnal Green. He says he can feel for you being left so lonely, and he's coming to stay with you, he can't say for how long, but he'll try to make it the most he can, although Bigglehoxton is such a lousy town."
"When does he say he's coming?" Mr. Stickers enquired, with no pleasure in his voice. "You'd better write back for me, if you'll be so kind, and say he won't like Bigglehoxton at all. It's got a lot lousier since he was here three years ago. It's a shocking thing the litter even decent-looking people drop in the streets.'
"It's no good doing that," Mrs. Titwin replied. "He says he and the letter'll be here about the same time. He'll be here sometime this afternoon more likely than not."
Mr. Stickers, fundamentally as weak a man as ever wielded a municipal broom, made no further protest against this invasion of his lonely home. In the afternoon Daniel came.
Neither the general lousiness of Bigglehoxton, nor even the carelessness of its inhabitants in dropping litter about the streets, caused him to curtail his visit. Indeed, so far as his own volition controlled the event, he did not end it at all. When his stay was well advanced in its fourth month, he was arrested by the police, on an accusation that he was a receiver of stolen goods.
The accusation was supported by an accumulation of articles in the attic, which various owners could claim with a better right than Daniel was able to show. The police suggested that he had carried on an active and lucrative business as a middleman between certain burglars more or less in regular business and the ultimate disposers of stolen property, and that he had only retired from London when suspicion had come too close to his door. It was an opinion which ultimately gained a jury's support, with the result that he lodged rent-free for several subsequent years, which is the last that need be recorded of him.
But while the enquiry proceeded, William Stickers was a troubled man. He was not concerned to establish the innocence of Daniel, in which he did not believe, nor did he care how long his sentence might be. He was worried by questions which the police addressed to himself, and by a sarcastic inflection in the voice of Inspector Rimball when challenging his motives for harbouring a cousin of such character, and his protested ignorance of the stolen property which had been concealed in his own house. The social gulf between a road-sweeper of good character and a dealer in stolen property is very wide, and it now yawned unpleasantly close to William Stickers' innocent feet.
At this time he had been attending a night-school for about three months, and had advanced from the making of laborious pothooks to a careful printing in capital letters of his own name. He could spell out many words of one syllable, if they were printed in that type, and, with the diligence of a conscientious if not brilliant student, and the willingness of a harassed man to divert his mind from a trouble he could not cure, he had cultivated a habit of spelling out the news placards upon the walls and shop-boards which he passed on the way to and from the depot where he took out his daily barrow and broom.
It was when he was returning home after a particularly unpleasant street-encounter with Inspector Rumball that he observed, with a shock of incredulity changing to apprehensive wonder, his own name prominently printed upon a hoarding which had been decorated a few days before with the lurid placards of the Sunday Pail.
He tried to read the full text of the announcement, but it was beyond the erudition to which he had yet attained. He picked up a piece of paper which littered a street outside his own tidier quarter, and on its mud-smeared surface, with trembling hand and much-sucked pencil, he copied the word that he could not read.
Two hours later, he spread the paper before the young teacher who directed his evening efforts.
"That's Prosecuted," Mr. Thompson said briskly, "but you mustn't try anything like that yet. You'll only get discouraged. Words of one or two syllables." He stopped abruptly with the consciousness that he was talking to an empty seat.
Bill Stickers Will Be Prosecuted. What could be plainer than that? The law had decided against him, and by this time the whole town would have learned of the imminence of his arrest. It was a terror he could not face.
Scarcely waiting to snatch his cap from the peg, he bolted into the darkness, a homeless man.