The Red Thumb Mark by R. Austin Freeman
Chapter XIV. A Startling Discovery
The morning of the trial, so long looked forward to, had at length arrived, and the train of events which it has been my business to chronicle in this narrative was now fast drawing to an end. To me those events had been in many ways of the deepest moment. Not only had they transported me from a life of monotonous drudgery into one charged with novelty and dramatic interest; not only had they introduced me to a renascence of scientific culture and revived under new conditions my intimacy with the comrade of my student days; but, far more momentous than any of these, they had given me the vision--all too fleeting--of happiness untold, with the reality of sorrow and bitter regret that promised to be all too enduring.
Whence it happened that on this morning my thoughts were tinged with a certain greyness. A chapter in my life that had been both bitter and sweet was closing, and already I saw myself once more an Ishmaelite and a wanderer among strangers.
This rather egotistical frame of mind, however, was soon dispelled when I encountered Polton, for the little man was in a veritable twitter of excitement at the prospect of witnessing the clearing up of the mysteries that had so severely tried his curiosity; and even Thorndyke, beneath his habitual calm, showed a trace of expectancy and pleasurable anticipation.
"I have taken the liberty of making certain little arrangements on your behalf," he said, as we sat at breakfast, "of which I hope you will not disapprove. I have written to Mrs. Hornby, who is one of the witnesses, to say that you will meet her at Mr. Lawley's office and escort her and Miss Gibson to the court. Walter Hornby may be with them, and, if he is, you had better leave him, if possible, to come on with Lawley."
"You will not come to the office, then?"
"No. I shall go straight to the court with Anstey. Besides, I am expecting Superintendent Miller from Scotland Yard, who will probably walk down with us."
"I am glad to hear that," I said; "for I have been rather uneasy at the thought of your mixing in the crowd without some kind of protection."
"Well, you see that I am taking precautions against the assaults of the too-ingenious X, and, to tell the truth--and also to commit a flagrant bull--I should never forgive myself if I allowed him to kill me before I had completed Reuben Hornby's defence. Ah, here is Polton--that man is on wires this morning; he has been wandering in and out of the rooms ever since he came, like a cat in a new house."
"It's quite true, sir," said Polton, smiling and unabashed, "so it's no use denying it. I have come to ask what we are going to take with us to the court."
"You will find a box and a portfolio on the table in my room," replied Thorndyke. "We had better also take a microscope and the micrometers, though we are not likely to want them; that is all, I think."
"A box and a portfolio," repeated Polton in a speculative tone. "Yes, sir, I will take them with me." He opened the door and was about to pass out, when, perceiving a visitor ascending the stairs, he turned back.
"Here's Mr. Miller, from Scotland Yard, sir; shall I show him in?"
"Yes, do." He rose from his chair as a tall, military-looking man entered the room and saluted, casting, at the same time, an inquiring glance in my direction.
"Good morning, Doctor," he said briskly. "I got your letter and couldn't make such of it, but I have brought down a couple of plain-clothes men and a uniform man, as you suggested. I understand you want a house watched?"
"Yes, and a man, too. I will give you the particulars presently--that is, if you think you can agree to my conditions."
"That I act entirely on my own account and make no communication to anybody? Well, of course, I would rather you gave me all the facts and let me proceed in the regular way; but if you make conditions I have no choice but to accept them, seeing that you hold the cards."
Perceiving that the matter in hand was of a confidential nature, I thought it best to take my departure, which I accordingly did, as soon as I had ascertained that it wanted yet half-an-hour to the time at which Mrs. Hornby and Juliet were due at the lawyer's office.
Mr. Lawley received me with stiffness that bordered on hostility. He was evidently deeply offended at the subordinate part that he had been compelled to play in the case, and was at no great pains to conceal the fact.
"I am informed," said he, in a frosty tone, when I had explained my mission, "that Mrs. Hornby and Miss Gibson are to meet you here. The arrangement is none of my making; none of the arrangements in this case are of my making. I have been treated throughout with a lack of ceremony and confidence that is positively scandalous. Even now, I--the solicitor for the defence--am completely in the dark as to what defence is contemplated, though I fully expect to be involved in some ridiculous fiasco. I only trust that I may never again be associated with any of your hybrid practitioners. Ne sutor ultra crepidam, sir, is an excellent motto; let the medical cobbler stick to his medical last."
"It remains to be seen what kind of boot he can turn out on the legal last," I retorted.
"That is so," he rejoined; "but I hear Mrs. Hornby's voice in the outer office, and as neither you nor I have any time to waste in idle talk, I suggest that you make your way to the court without delay. I wish you good morning!"
Acting on this very plain hint, I retired to the clerks' office, where I found Mrs. Hornby and Juliet, the former undisguisedly tearful and terrified, and the latter calm, though pale and agitated.
"We had better start at once," I said, when we had exchanged greetings. "Shall we take a cab, or walk?"
"I think we will walk, if you don't mind," said Juliet. "Mrs. Hornby wants to have a few words with you before we go into court. You see, she is one of the witnesses, and she is terrified lest she should say something damaging to Reuben."
"By whom was the subpoena served?" I asked.
"Mr. Lawley sent it," replied Mrs. Hornby, "and I went to see him about it the very next day, but he wouldn't tell me anything--he didn't seem to know what I was wanted for, and he wasn't at all nice--not at all."
"I expect your evidence will relate to the 'Thumbograph,'" I said. "There is really nothing else in connection with the case that you have any knowledge of."
"That is just what Walter said," exclaimed Mrs. Hornby. "I went to his rooms to talk the matter over with him. He is very upset about the whole affair, and I am afraid he thinks very badly of poor Reuben's prospects. I only trust he may be wrong! Oh dear! What a dreadful thing it is, to be sure!" Here the poor lady halted to mop her eyes elaborately, to the surprise and manifest scorn of a passing errand boy.
"He was very thoughtful and sympathetic--Walter, I mean, you know," pursued Mrs. Hornby, "and most helpful. He asked me all I knew about that horrid little book, and took down my answers in writing. Then he wrote out the questions I was likely to be asked, with my answers, so that I could read them over and get them well into my head. Wasn't it good of him! And I made him print them with his machine so that I could read them without my glasses, and he did it beautifully. I have the paper in my pocket now."
"I didn't know Mr. Walter went in for printing," I said. "Has he a regular printing press?"
"It isn't a printing press exactly," replied Mrs. Hornby; "it is a small thing with a lot of round keys that you press down--Dickensblerfer, I think it is called--ridiculous name, isn't it? Walter bought it from one of his literary friends about a week ago; but he is getting quite clever with it already, though he does make a few mistakes still, as you can see." She halted again, and began to search for the opening of a pocket which was hidden away in some occult recess of her clothing, all unconscious of the effect that her explanation had produced on me. For, instantly, as she spoke, there flashed into my mind one of the points that Thorndyke had given me for the identification of the mysterious X. "He has probably purchased, quite recently, a second-hand Blickensderfer, fitted with a literary typewheel." The coincidence was striking and even startling, though a moment's reflection convinced me that it was nothing more than a coincidence; for there must be hundreds of second-hand "Blicks" on the market, and, as to Walter Hornby, he certainly could have no quarrel with Thorndyke, but would rather be interested in his preservation on Reuben's account.
These thoughts passed through my mind so rapidly that by the time Mrs. Hornby had run her pocket to earth I had quite recovered from the momentary shock.
"Ah! here it is," she exclaimed triumphantly, producing an obese Morocco purse. "I put it in here for safety, knowing how liable one is to get one's pocket picked in these crowded London streets." She opened the bulky receptacle and drew it out after the manner of a concertina, exhibiting multitudinous partitions, all stuffed with pieces of paper, coils of tape and sewing silk, buttons, samples of dress materials and miscellaneous rubbish, mingled indiscriminately with gold, silver, and copper coins.
"Now just run your eye through that, Dr. Jervis," she said, handing me a folded paper, "and give me your advice on my answers."
I opened the paper and read: "The Committee of the Society for the Protection of Paralysed Idiots, in submitting this--"
"Oh! that isn't it; I have given you the wrong paper. How silly of me! That is the appeal of--you remember, Juliet, dear, that troublesome person--I had, really, to be quite rude, you know, Dr. Jervis; I had to tell him that charity begins at home, although, thank Heaven! none of us are paralysed, but we must consider our own, mustn't we? And then--"
"Do you think this is the one, dear?" interposed Juliet, in whose pale cheek the ghost of a dimple had appeared. "It looks cleaner than most of the others."
She selected a folded paper from the purse which Mrs. Hornby was holding with both hands extended to its utmost, as though she were about to produce a burst of music, and, opening it, glanced at its contents.
"Yes, this is your evidence," she said, and passed the paper to me.
I took the document from her hand and, in spite of the conclusion at which I had arrived, examined it with eager curiosity. And at the very first glance I felt my head swim and my heart throb violently. For the paper was headed: "Evidence respecting the Thumbograph," and in every one of the five small "e's" that occurred in that sentence I could see plainly by the strong out-door light a small break or interval in the summit of the loop.
I was thunderstruck.
One coincidence was quite possible and even probable; but the two together, and the second one of so remarkable a character, were beyond all reasonable limits of probability. The identification did not seem to admit of a doubt, and yet--
"Our legal adviser appears to be somewhat preoccupied," remarked Juliet, with something of her old gaiety of manner; and, in fact, though I held the paper in my hand, my gaze was fixed unmeaningly on an adjacent lamp-post. As she spoke, I pulled myself together, and, scanning the paper hastily, was fortunate enough to find in the first paragraph matter requiring comment.
"I observe, Mrs. Hornby," I said, "that in answer to the first question, 'Whence did you obtain the "Thumbograph"?' you say, 'I do not remember clearly; I think I must have bought it at a railway bookstall.' Now I understood that it was brought home and given to you by Walter himself."
"That was what I thought," replied Mrs. Hornby, "but Walter tells me that it was not so, and, of course, he would remember better than I should."
"But, my dear aunt, I am sure he gave it to you," interposed Juliet. "Don't you remember? It was the night the Colleys came to dinner, and we were so hard pressed to find amusement for them, when Walter came in and produced the 'Thumbograph.'"
"Yes, I remember quite well now," said Mrs. Hornby. "How fortunate that you reminded me. We must alter that answer at once."
"If I were you, Mrs. Hornby," I said, "I would disregard this paper altogether. It will only confuse you and get you into difficulties. Answer the questions that are put, as well as you can, and if you don't remember, say so."
"Yes, that will be much the wisest plan," said Juliet. "Let Dr. Jervis take charge of the paper and rely on your own memory." "Very well, my dear," replied Mrs. Hornby, "I will do what you think best, and you can keep the paper, Dr. Jervis, or throw it away."
I slipped the document into my pocket without remark, and we proceeded on our way, Mrs. Hornby babbling inconsequently, with occasional outbursts of emotion, and Juliet silent and abstracted. I struggled to concentrate my attention on the elder lady's conversation, but my thoughts continually reverted to the paper in my pocket, and the startling solution that it seemed to offer of the mystery of the poisoned cigar.
Could it be that Walter Hornby was in reality the miscreant X? The thing seemed incredible, for, hitherto, no shadow of suspicion had appeared to fall on him. And yet there was no denying that his description tallied in a very remarkable manner with that of the hypothetical X. He was a man of some means and social position; he was a man of considerable knowledge and mechanical skill, though as to his ingenuity I could not judge. He had recently bought a second-hand Blickensderfer which probably had a literary typewheel, since it was purchased from a literary man; and that machine showed the characteristic mark on the small "e." The two remaining points, indeed, were not so clear. Obviously I could form no opinion as to whether or not Thorndyke held any exclusive information concerning him, and, with reference to his knowledge of my friend's habits, I was at first inclined to be doubtful until I suddenly recalled, with a pang of remorse and self-accusation, the various details that I had communicated to Juliet and that she might easily, in all innocence, have handed on to Walter. I had, for instance, told her of Thorndyke's preference for the Trichinopoly cheroot, and of this she might very naturally have spoken to Walter, who possessed a supply of them. Again, with regard to the time of our arrival at King's Cross, I had informed her of this in a letter which was in no way confidential, and again there was no reason why the information should not have been passed on to Walter, who was to have been one of the party at the family dinner. The coincidence seemed complete enough, in all truth; yet it was incredible that Reuben's cousin could be so blackhearted a villain or could have any motive for these dastardly crimes.
Suddenly a new idea struck me. Mrs Hornby had obtained access to this typewriting machine; and if Mrs. Hornby could do so, why not John Hornby? The description would, for the most part, fit the elder man as well as the younger, though I had no evidence of his possessing any special mechanical skill; but my suspicions had already fastened upon him, and I remembered that Thorndyke had by no means rejected my theory which connected him with the crime.
At this point, my reflections were broken in upon by Mrs. Hornby, who grasped my arm and uttered a deep groan. We had reached the corner of the Old Bailey, and before us were the frowning walls of Newgate. Within those walls, I knew--though I did not mention the fact--that Reuben Hornby was confined with the other prisoners who were awaiting their trial; and a glance at the massive masonry, stained to a dingy grey by the grime of the city, put an end to my speculations and brought me back to the drama that was so nearly approaching its climax.
Down the old thoroughfare, crowded with so many memories of hideous tragedy; by the side of the gloomy prison; past the debtors' door with its forbidding spiked wicket; past the gallows gate with its festoons of fetters; we walked in silence until we reached the entrance to the Sessions House.
Here I was not a little relieved to find Thorndyke on the look-out for us, for Mrs. Hornby, in spite of really heroic efforts to control her emotion, was in a state of impending hysteria, while Juliet, though outwardly calm and composed, showed by the waxen pallor of her cheeks and a certain wildness of her eyes that all her terror was reviving; and I was glad that they were spared the unpleasantness of contact with the policemen who guarded the various entrances.
"We must be brave," said Thorndyke gently, as he took Mrs. Hornby's hand, "and show a cheerful face to our friend who has so much to bear and who bears it so patiently. A few more hours, and I hope we shall see restored, not only his liberty, but his honour. Here is Mr. Anstey, who, we trust, will be able to make his innocence apparent."
Anstey, who, unlike Thorndyke, had already donned his wig and gown, bowed gravely, and, together, we passed through the mean and grimy portals into a dark hall. Policemen in uniform and unmistakable detectives stood about the various entries, and little knots of people, evil-looking and unclean for the most part, lurked in the background or sat on benches and diffused through the stale, musty air that distinctive but indescribable odour that clings to police vans and prison reception rooms; an odour that, in the present case, was pleasantly mingled with the suggestive aroma of disinfectants. Through the unsavoury throng we hurried, and up a staircase to a landing from which several passages diverged. Into one of these passages--a sort of "dark entry," furnished with a cage-like gate of iron bars--we passed to a black door, on which was painted the inscription, "Old Court. Counsel and clerks."
Anstey held the door open for us, and we passed through into the court, which at once struck me with a sense of disappointment. It was smaller than I had expected, and plain and mean to the point of sordidness. The woodwork was poor, thinly disguised by yellow graining, and slimy with dirt wherever a dirty hand could reach it. The walls were distempered a pale, greenish grey; the floor was of bare and dirty planking, and the only suggestions of dignity or display were those offered by the canopy over the judge's seat--lined with scarlet baize and surmounted by the royal arms--the scarlet cushions of the bench, and the large, circular clock in the gallery, which was embellished with a gilded border and asserted its importance by a loud, aggressive tick.
Following Anstey and Thorndyke into the well of the court, we were ushered into one of the seats reserved for counsel--the third from the front--where we sat down and looked about us, while our two friends seated themselves in the front bench next to the central table. Here, at the extreme right, a barrister--presumably the counsel for the prosecution--was already in his place and absorbed in the brief that lay on the desk before him. Straight before us were the seats for the jury, rising one above the other, and at their side the witness-box. Above us on the right was the judge's seat, and immediately below it a structure somewhat resembling a large pew or a counting-house desk, surmounted by a brass rail, in which a person in a grey wig--the clerk of the court--was mending a quill pen. On our left rose the dock--suggestively large and roomy--enclosed at the sides with high glazed frames; and above it, near the ceiling, was the spectators' gallery.
"What a hideous place!" exclaimed Juliet, who separated me from Mrs. Hornby. "And how sordid and dirty everything looks!"
"Yes," I answered. "The uncleanness of the criminal is not confined to his moral being; wherever he goes, he leaves a trail of actual, physical dirt. It is not so long ago that the dock and the bench alike used to be strewn with medicinal herbs, and I believe the custom still survives of furnishing the judge with a nosegay as a preventive of jail-fever."
"And to think that Reuben should be brought to a place like this!" Juliet continued bitterly; "to be herded with such people as we saw downstairs!"
She sighed and looked round at the benches that rose behind us, where a half-dozen reporters were already seated and apparently in high spirits at the prospect of a sensational case.
Our conversation was now interrupted by the clatter of feet on the gallery stairs, and heads began to appear over the wooden parapet. Several junior counsel filed into the seats in front of us; Mr. Lawley and his clerk entered the attorney's bench; the ushers took their stand below the jury-box; a police officer seated himself at a desk in the dock; and inspectors, detectives and miscellaneous officers began to gather in the entries or peer into the court through the small glazed openings in the doors.