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Canon Wilders was supported by Mr. Preston, of Linkworth, and by a youthful justice whom Robert Carlton did not know by name, but who sat like the graven image of Rhadamanthus, encased in the atrocious trousers and the excruciating collar of the year 1882.
Considering the romantic interest of the case, this was by no means "a full bench"; there were, however, some conspicuous and deliberate absentees, including Sir Wilton Gleed and Dr. Marigold. Carlton was less surprised at his enemy's abstinence than at the position voluntarily occupied by James Preston, an indolent cleric but genial gentleman, who had been his friend. His surprise deepened when Preston nodded to him, hastily enough, and with a change of colour, but yet in a way that thrilled Carlton with a doubt as to whether he had altogether lost that friend. He was in no such suspense concerning the stately chairman, who very properly looked at the prisoner as though he had never seen him before, and never addressed him without tuning his voice to the proper pitch of distant disapproval. This was not a question of losing a friend, but of having made an enemy of the most potent personage in the court.
The latter was densely crowded when the stout inspector opened the case, but the familiar faces stood out in quick succession, and they were not a few. In a doorway apart stood a Long Stow trio—the saddler, the sexton, and Tom Ivey; all three were in their Sunday clothes, and more or less visibly ill at ease; but it was only Ivey who reddened and looked away when the prisoner caught his eye. As for Carlton, he became so lost in sudden and absorbing speculation that it was some minutes before he realised that the inspector had finished a bald brief statement of his case, and that a witness was already in the box and giving evidence. The witness, however, was only Frost, the village constable, and his evidence merely that of the arrest on the Saturday at Long Stow. Carlton nevertheless whipped out his pocket-book, and the witness waited before standing down.
"May I ask him two or three questions?" said the prisoner, addressing himself with courtesy to the bench.
"As many as you please," replied the chairman, "provided they are relevant."
Carlton bowed before turning to the witness.
"How far were you responsible for the warrant on which you arrested me?"
"Re-spon-si-ble!" exclaimed the chairman in separate syllables. "What do you mean?"
"I wish to ascertain exactly in what measure the witness has been concerned in trumping up this charge against me."
"That is not the language in which to inquire!"
"Your worships may discover that it is exceedingly mild language, before the case is over."
"I shall not allow you to cross-examine witnesses unless you do so with due respect to the bench."
The clerk to the justices, who had examined the witness, was the means of averting an immediate scene.
"I think, your worship, that he wishes to know whether the witness laid the information against him."
"I thank you," said Carlton, an incredible twinkle in his eye, as he again turned to the witness. "I do desire to ask you, with due respect to the bench, whether you 'laid this information' against me, or whether you did not?"
"I did," said Frost.
"Before whom did you 'lay' it?"
"Sir Wilton Gleed."
"The date, please!"
"That would be the 18th."
"The 18th of August! And the church was burnt on the morning of the 25th of June! How is it that it took you eight weeks all but two days to 'lay your information' against me?"
The witness looked confused; but the chairman was quick to interpose; he had been waiting his opportunity.
"That may or may not transpire in the evidence," said he; "it is in either event an absolutely inadmissible question, and I should strongly recommend you to employ a solicitor. If you like I will adjourn the court for half-an-hour while you instruct one; but I will not have the time of the court wasted by irrelevant and inadmissible questions such as you seem inclined to put. If you have nothing better to ask the witness I shall order him to stand down."
"Let him stand down," returned the prisoner, indifferently. "I have done with him."
Robert Carlton had surprised himself. He had come into court with the most admirable intentions that it was possible to entertain: he was to have kept cool but humble, to have curbed his contempt of proceedings conducted (if not instituted) in the best of good faith, and never for an instant to have forgotten his guilt of sin in his innocence of crime. In this spirit he had risen from his knees that morning, and with this resolve he had left his cell and been ushered into court; but the very atmosphere of the place had made the blood sing in his veins; and it needed but the chairman's voice to make it boil. He had sinned, and chosen to suffer for his sin: so no crime was too dastardly to lay at his door. He was down, and deservedly down, so friends and acquaintances alike must gather and conspire to trample him. Carlton's point of view went round like a weathercock in the wind; flesh and blood flew to the front, in despite of spirit; and all the man in him rebelled at man's injustice, in despite of his prayers.
So when the next witness was being sworn (it was his own sexton), and James Preston whispered to Canon Wilders, the man who had preached for both of them looked on grimly.
"As you seem bent upon conducting your own case," said Wilders, leaning back, "you may possibly prefer a chair at the table; if so, there is one at your disposal." And he pointed into the well of the court.
Carlton thanked him in the voice that all his will could not purge of all its scorn; he was perfectly comfortable where he was. Then he looked pointedly at Preston, and his face and tone softened together. "But I shall not forget the suggestion," he said; and again his friend changed colour.
The decrepit hero of the overweening hallucination had hobbled into the witness-box meanwhile. Carlton had not come in contact with him since the morning before the fire, and he little thought that his last conversation with the sexton was about to come up in evidence against him. Yet such was the case.
Old Busby had been responsible for the lighting of the church. He had kept the paraffin and filled the lamps. But in the month of June the lamps were rarely needed. They had not been lighted on the Sunday before the fire. There would have been even less occasion for them—by one minute—the following Sunday. And yet, on the Saturday morning, the prisoner had ordered the witness to see that the lamps were full!
So Busby deposed; and the point seemed of sinister significance. It took the prisoner plainly by surprise: the circumstance had escaped his memory. In a minute, however, he had recalled it in detail; and his cross-examination, though provocative of some mirth, and curtailed in consequence, was by no means ineffectual.
"You remember when the lamps went out, through your neglect, in the middle of even-song?"
"I'm like to remember it. That was when I swallowed the frog."
The court laughed, but not the prisoner, who was too much in earnest even to smile.
"I reminded you pretty often about the lamps after that?"
"Ay, you were for ever at me about 'em."
"Now, on the morning you mention, where was I when I told you to go and fill the lamps?"
The sexton thought.
"In your study, sir."
"And what were you doing there? Do you remember?"
"I do that! I was telling you about the frog."
This time the prisoner smiled himself.
"And did I listen to you?" he demanded, a sudden change upon his face, as though the act of smiling had put him in pain.
"No, that you didn't," the old man grumbled; "you fared as though you didn't hear."
"So I told you to go away and fill your lamps," said Carlton, sadly, "even though it was Midsummer Day! I have finished with the witness."
He was as one who had brilliantly parried a deadly thrust, and yet received a secret wound in the onset. He rested his head upon his hand to hide his pain, and only raised it at the sound of James Preston's voice putting the first question from the bench:
"As sexton, did you keep the key of the church?"
"In the old days I did, sir; but that's been open church ever since Mr. Carlton come."
"You mean that the church was open day and night?"
"To be sure it was."
"Thank you," said Preston hastily, as though glad to relapse into silence. Carlton did not add to his embarrassment by a glance, but his heart throbbed with gratitude for the goodwill he could no longer question.
"Did you fill the lamps?" asked the chairman as the witness was preparing to hobble from the box.
"Yes, sir, I did."
And, watching the chairman's face, Carlton was still more thankful to have one friend upon the bench; for it seemed to him that the young gentleman in the tall collar and the tight trousers was alone in preserving a Rhadamanthine impartiality.
What surprised him equally was the strength and the nature of the evidence produced. In his complete innocence of the crime imputed to him, he had been unable to conceive or to recall a single incriminating circumstance not susceptible of an easy and immediate explanation. Yet more than one arose during the afternoon, when first the saddler, and afterwards Tom Ivey, went into the box to bear witness against him; and more than once the explanation, so full and clear in his own mind, was incapable of confirmation or admission in the form of evidence. The more striking instances were afforded by Fuller, whose testimony, though convincing enough, and not the less so for its real or apparent reluctance, came as a complete surprise to the prisoner. It appeared that the saddler had returned to the rectory on the fatal night, more than an hour after his first visit and summary dismissal, in order to have his "say," and "not let the reverend have it all his own way." The midnight visitor had found a light in the study, but the door shut, and only the dog within. He had not entered, but had waited about the drive, till, seeing a light in the church, he had made up his mind that "the reverend" was there, and had decided not to interrupt him. So the saddler had gone home and to bed, and was fast asleep when the church-bells sounded the alarm.
"And what made you so sure that it was Mr. Carlton in the church with the light?" inquired Mr. Preston.
"Because I couldn't find him in the rectory."
"But you did not go in?"
"I knocked and called, but I only made the dog bark."
The chairman leaned forward in his turn.
"Was the barking loud?" he asked. "Loud enough to be heard all over the house?"
Carlton sprang to his feet. He had been accommodated with a chair, of which he had quietly availed himself during the examination of this witness, and the suddenness of his movement brought all eyes to his face. It was quick with impatience and sarcastic disregard.
"If you are labouring to prove that I was not at my house, but in the church," he cried, "your worship may save himself the time and trouble. I was in the church. I lit one of the lamps."
This did not strike the prisoner as the sensational statement that it was; he was therefore amazed at its effect upon the bench, where even Rhadamanthus came to life, while James Preston opened eyes of horror, and Wilders whispered to the clerk.
"That," said the chairman, "is an extremely serious statement, and one that you are surely ill-advised in making. It is not evidence, but it is being taken down in writing, and may be given in evidence against you at your trial. I should certainly advise you to refrain from further statements of the kind."
"I thought you wanted to get at the truth?"
"So we do. But I have warned you. Have you any questions to ask the witness?"
"Not one; he is equally correct in his statements and his suppositions."
Thomas Ivey was then sworn, amid the hush of deepening interest, and gave his evidence in a manly, straightforward, level-headed fashion, that added its own weight to what he said for good or ill; and his testimony told both ways. He described the scene in the church on his arrival; the character of the fire, and the attitude of Mr. Carlton; both of which, he admitted (in answer to a question from the chairman), had struck him as suspicious at the first glance.
"But did you see him do anything that you thought suspicious?" asked the well-meaning Mr. Preston.
"I did, sir."
"What was that?" from the chairman.
"He threw something into the flames. But I couldn't see what that was."
"Did you afterwards find out?"
Once more the prisoner attracted every eye. It was felt that he would make another of his reckless and voluntary declarations. But this time he was silent enough; and though the evidence now took a turn in his favour, that silence left its mark.
Everybody knew how the clergyman had risked his life, when it was too late, to save the church. But the story had not yet been told as Mr. Preston contrived to elicit it from the lips of Tom Ivey. The Rector of Linkworth had been from home when the fire took place. There was nothing unnatural in his desire for details, nor did he put an improper question. The chairman, however, betrayed more than a little impatience, while the junior justice, on the other hand, displayed excitement of another kind, and actually put in his word at last.
"Do you mean to say you let him throw the water single-handed," said he, "while the rest of you stayed outside?"
"There was no stopping him, sir," said Ivey. "He would have all the danger to himself."
"Then you could not see what use he made of the water?" suggested the chairman, dryly.
"No, sir," said Tom; "I could only see the steam." And his tone was still more dry.
Wilders looked at the clock as the examination concluded. The case had not been taken till the afternoon; it was now nearly five. Wilders beckoned and spoke to the inspector, subsequently addressing the prisoner in his coldest tone.
"I understand that this is the last witness to be called against you," said he. "Do you propose to cross-examine him?"
"And may I ask if you have any witnesses to call for your defence?"
"I may have one."
"Then it becomes my duty to adjourn the case." He whispered again to the inspector, and at greater length with his colleagues, James Preston appearing tenacious of some point upon which the chairman ultimately gave way. "As the police have completed their case," continued Wilders, "a remand of one day will be sufficient, and we shall simply adjourn until to-morrow morning. But you may, if you like, apply for bail; though the question, having due regard to the evidence which we have heard, is one that would now require our grave consideration."
"You may spare yourselves the trouble," said Carlton shortly. "I don't want bail."
And he went back to prison to lament his temper, but not to go through the form of further prayer for patience and humility; for he felt that these were beyond him in that public court, packed with prejudice from door to door.
"I told you what he'd say," grumbled Wilders in the retiring-room.
"I don't blame him," said Mr. Preston. "My dear sir, he's innocent of this!"
"I shall form my opinion to-morrow," returned the canon, with dignity. "Meanwhile I confess to some curiosity as to whom he thinks of calling as his witness."
"The chappie shows us sport," quoth Rhadamanthus, "guilty or not guilty; and I'm not giving odds either way."
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