Chapter 22. "Not Guilty"--"Guilty"
 

Ridgway's answer to the latest move of Simon Harley was to put him on trial for his life to answer the charge of having plotted and instigated the death of Vance Edwards. Not without reason, the defense had asked for a change of venue, alleging the impossibility of securing a fair trial at Mesa. The courts had granted the request and removed the case to Avalanche.

On the second day of the trial Aline sat beside her husband, a dainty little figure of fear, shrinking from the observation focused upon her from all sides. The sight of her forlorn sensitiveness so touched Ridgway's heart that he telegraphed Virginia Balfour to come and help support her through the ordeal.

Virginia came, and henceforth two women, both of them young and unusually attractive, gave countenance to the man being tried for his life. Not that he needed their support for himself, but for the effect they might have on the jury. Harley had shrewdly guessed that the white-faced child he had married, whose pathetic beauty was of so haunting a type, and whose big eyes were so quick to reflect emotions, would be a valuable asset to set against the black-clad widow of Vance Edwards.

For its effect upon himself, so far as the trial was concerned, Simon Harley cared not a whit. He needed no bolstering. The old wrecker carried an iron face to the ordeal. His leathern heart was as foreign to fear as to pity. The trial was an unpleasant bore to him, but nothing worse. He had, of course, cast an anchor of caution to windward by taking care to have the jury fixed. For even though his array of lawyers was a formidably famous one, he was no such child as to trust his case to a Western jury on its merits while the undercurrent of popular opinion was setting so strongly against him. Nor had he neglected to see that the court-room was packed with detectives to safeguard him in the event that the sympathy of the attending miners should at any time become demonstrative against him.

The most irritating feature of the trial to the defendant was the presence of the little woman in black, whose burning eyes never left for long his face. He feigned to be unconscious of her regard, but nobody in the court-room was more sure of that look of enduring, passionate hatred than its victim. He had made her a widow, and her heart cried for revenge. That was the story the eyes told dumbly.

From first to last the case was bitterly contested, and always with the realization among those present--except for that somber figure in black, whose beady eyes gimleted the defendant--that it was another move in the fight between the rival copper kings. The district attorney had worked up his case very carefully, not with much hope of securing a conviction, but to mass a total of evidence that would condemn the Consolidated leader-before the world.

To this end, the foreman, Donleavy, had been driven by a process of sweating to turn State's evidence against his master. His testimony made things look black for Harley, but when Hobart took the stand, a palpably unwilling witness, and supported his evidence, the Ridgway adherents were openly jubilant. The lawyers for the defense made much of the fact that Hobart had just left the Consolidated service after a disagreement with the defendant and had been elected to the senate by his enemies, but the impression made by his moderation and the fine restraint of his manner, combined with his reputation for scrupulous honesty, was not to be shaken by the subtle innuendos and blunt aspersions of the legal array he faced.

Nor did the young district attorney content himself with Hobart's testimony. He put his successor, Mott, on the stand, and gave him a bad hour while he tried to wring the admission out of him that Harley had personally ordered the attack on the miners of the Taurus. But for the almost constant objections of the opposing counsel, which gave him time to recover himself, the prosecuting attorney would have succeeded.

Ridgway, meeting him by chance after luncheon at the foot of the hotel elevator--for in a town the size of Avalanche, Waring had found it necessary to put up at the same hotel as the enemy or take second best, an alternative not to his fastidious taste--rallied him upon the predicament in which he had found himself.

"It's pretty hard to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, without making indiscreet admissions about one's friends, isn't it?" he asked, with his genial smile.

"Did I make any indiscreet admissions?"

"I don't say you did, though you didn't look as if you were enjoying yourself. I picked up an impression that you had your back to the wall; seemed to me the jury rather sized it up that way, Mott."

"We'll know what the jury thinks in a few days."

"Shall we?" the other laughed aloud. "Now, I'm wondering whether we shall know what they really think."

"If you mean that the jury has been tampered with it is your duty to place your evidence before the court, Mr. Ridgway."

"When I hear the verdict I'll tell you what I think about the jury," returned the president of the Ore-producing Company, with easy impudence as he passed into the elevator.

At the second floor Waring left it and turned toward the ladies' parlor. It had seemed to him that Aline had looked very tired and frail at the morning session, and he wanted to see Virginia about arranging to have them take a long drive into the country that afternoon. He had sent his card up with a penciled note to the effect that he would wait for her in the parlor.

But when he stepped through the double doorway of the ornate room it was to become aware of a prior occupant. She was reclining on a divan at the end of the large public room. Neither lying nor sitting, but propped up among a dozen pillows with head and limbs inert and the long lashes drooped on the white cheeks, Aline looked the pathetic figure of a child fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion after a long strain.

Since he was the man he was, unhampered by any too fine sense of what was fitting, he could no more help approaching than he could help the passionate pulse of pity that stirred in his heart at sight of her forlorn weariness.

Her eyes opened to find his grave compassion looking down at her. She showed no surprise at his presence, though she had not previously known of it. Nor did she move by even so much as the stir of a limb.

"This is wearing you out," he said, after the long silence in which her gaze was lost helplessly in his. "You must go home--away from it all. You must forget it, and if it ever crosses your mind think of it as something with which you have no concern."

"How can I do that--now."

The last word slipped out not of her will, but from an undisciplined heart. It stood for the whole tangled story of her troubles: the unloved marriage which had bereft her of her heritage of youth and joy, the love that had found her too late and was so poignant a fount of distress to her, the web of untoward circumstance in which she was so inextricably entangled.

"How did you ever come to do it?" he asked roughly, out of the bitter impulse of his heart.

She knew that the harshness was not for her, as surely as she knew what he meant by his words.

"I did wrong. I know that now, but I didn't know it then. Though even then I felt troubled about it. But my guardian said it was best, and I knew so little. Oh, so very, very little. Why was I not taught things, what every girl has a right to know--until life teaches me--too late?"

Nothing he could say would comfort her. For the inexorable facts forbade consolation. She had made shipwreck of her life before the frail raft of her destiny had well pushed forth from harbor. He would have given much to have been able to take the sadness out of her great childeyes, but he knew that not even by the greatness of his desire could he take up her burden. She must carry it alone or sink under it.

"You must go away from here back to your people. If not now, then as soon as the trial is over. Make him take you to your friends for a time."

"I have no friends that can help me." She said it in an even little voice of despair.

"You have many friends. You have made some here. Virginia is one." He would not name himself as only a friend, though he had set his iron will to claim no more.

"Yes, Virginia is my friend. She is good to me. But she is going to marry you, and then you will both forget me."

"I shall never forget you." He cried it in a low, tense voice, his clenched hands thrust into the pockets of his sack coat.

Her wan smile thanked him. It was the most he would let himself say. Though her heart craved more, she knew she must make the most of this.

"I came up to see Virginia," he went on, with a change of manner. "I want her to take you driving this afternoon. Forget about that wretched trial if you can. Nothing of importance will take place to-day."

He turned at the sound of footsteps, and saw that Miss Balfour had come into the room.

"I want you to take Mrs. Harley into the fresh sunshine and clear air this afternoon. I have been telling her to forget this trial. It's a farce, anyhow. Nothing will come of it. Take her out to the Homes--take and cheer her up."

"Yes, my lord." Virginia curtseyed obediently.

"It will do you good, too."

She shot a mocking little smile at him. "It's very good of you to think of me."

"Still, I do sometimes."

"Whenever it is convenient," she added.

But with Aline watching them the spirit of badinage in him was overmatched. He gave it up and asked what kind of a rig he should send round. Virginia furnished him the necessary specifications, and he turned to go.

As he left the room Simon Harley entered. They met face to face, and after an instant's pause each drew aside to allow the other to pass. The New Yorker inclined his head silently and moved forward toward his wife. Ridgway passed down the corridor and into the elevator.

As the days of the trial passed excitement grew more tense. The lawyers for the prosecution and the defense made their speeches to a crowded and enthralled court-room. There was a feverish uncertainty in the air. It reached a climax when the jury stayed out for eleven hours before coming to a verdict. From the moment it filed back into the court-room with solemn faces the dramatic tensity began to foreshadow the tragedy about to be enacted. The woman Harley had made a widow sat erect and rigid in the seat where she had been throughout the trial. Her eyes blazed with a hatred that bordered madness. Ridgway had observed that neither Aline Harley nor Virginia was present, and a note from the latter had just reached him to the effect that Aline was ill with the strain of the long trial. Afterward Ridgway could never thank his pagan gods enough that she was absent.

There was a moment of tense waiting before the judge asked:

"Gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?"

The foreman rose. "We have, your honor."

A folded note was handed to the judge. He read it slowly, with an inscrutable face.

"Is this your verdict, gentlemen of the jury?"

"It is, your honor."

Silence, full and rigid, held the room after the words "Not guilty" had fallen from the lips of the judge. The stillness was broken by a shock as of an electric bolt from heaven.

The exploding echoes of a pistol-shot reverberated. Men sprang wildly to their feet, gazing at each other in the distrust that fear generates. But one man was beyond being startled by any more earthly sounds. His head fell forward on the table in front of him, and a thin stream of blood flowed from his lips. It was Simon Harley, found guilty, sentenced, and executed by the judge and jury sitting in the outraged, insane heart of the woman he had made a widow.

Mrs. Edwards had shot him through the head with a revolver she had carried in her shoppingbag to exact vengeance in the event of a miscarriage of justice.