Chapter XLI. What Judge?
 

For many days, meanwhile, Sir Gilbert had hovered between life and death, and Elma had watched his illness daily with profound and absorbing interest. For in her deep, intuitive way she felt certain to herself that their one chance now lay in Sir Gilbert's own sense of remorse and repentance. She didn't yet know, to be sure--what Sir Gilbert himself knew--that if he recovered he would, in all probability, have to sit in trial on another man for the crime he had himself committed. But she did feel this,--that Sir Gilbert would surely never stand by and let an innocent man die for his own transgression.

If he recovered, that was to say. But perhaps he would not recover. Perhaps his life would flicker out by degrees in the midst of his delirium, and he would go to his grave unconfessed and unforgiven! Perhaps even, for his wife's and daughter's sake, he would shrink from revealing what Elma felt to be the truth, and would rest content to die, leaving Guy Waring to clear himself at the trial, as best he might, from this hateful accusation.

It would be unjust. It would be criminal. Yet Sir Gilbert might do it.

Elma had a bad time, therefore, during all those long days, even before Guy returned to England. She knew his life hung by a slender thread, which Sir Gilbert Gildersleeve might cut short at any moment. But her anxiety was as nothing compared to Sir Gilbert's own. That unhappy man, a moral coward at heart, in spite of all his blustering, lay writhing in his own room now, very ill, and longing to be worse, longing to die, as the easiest way out of this impossible difficulty. For his wife's sake, for Gwendoline's sake, it was better he should die; and if only he could, he would have left Guy Waring to his fate contentedly. His anger against Guy burnt so bright now at last that he would have sacrificed him willingly, provided he was not there himself to see and know it. What did the man mean by living on to vex him? Over and over again the unhappy judge wished himself dead, and prayed to be taken. But that powerful frame, though severely broken by the shock, seemed hardly able to yield up its life merely because its owner was anxious to part with it.

After a fortnight's severe illness, hovering all the time between hope and fear, the doctor came one day, and looked at him hard.

"How is he?" Lady Gildersleeve asked, seeing him hold his breath and consider.

To her great surprise the doctor answered, "Better; against all hope, better." And indeed Sir Gilbert was once more convalescent. A week or two abroad, it was said, would restore him completely.

Then Elma had another terrible source of doubt. Would the doctors order Sir Gilbert abroad so long that he would be out of England when the trial took place? If so, he might miss many pricks of remorse. She must take some active steps to arouse his conscience.

Sir Gilbert, himself, now recovering fast, fought hard, as well he might, for such leave of absence. He was quite unfit, he said, to return to his judicial work so soon. Though he had said nothing about it in public before (this was the tenor of his talk) he was a man of profound but restrained feelings, and he had felt, he would admit, the absence of Gwendoline's lover--especially when combined with the tragic death of Colonel Kelmscott, the father, and the memory of the unpleasantness that had once subsisted, through the Colonel's blind obstinacy, between the two houses. This sudden news of the young man's return had given him a nervous shock of which few would have believed him capable. "You wouldn't think to look at me," Sir Gilbert said plaintively, smoothing down his bedclothes with those elephantine hands of his, "I was the sort of man to be knocked down in this way;" and the great specialist from London, gazing at him with a smile, admitted to himself that he certainly would not have thought it.

"Oh, nonsense, my dear sir," the specialist answered, however, to all his appeals. "This is the merest passing turn, I assure you. I couldn't conscientiously say you'd be unfit for duty by the time the assizes come round again. It's clear to me, on the contrary, with a physique like yours, you'll pull yourself together in something less than no time with a week or so at Spa. Before you're due in England to take up harness again you'll be walking miles at a stretch over those heathery hills there. Convalescence, with a man like you, is a rapid process. In a fortnight from to-day, I'll venture to guarantee, you'll be in a fit condition to swim the Channel on your back, or to take one of your famous fifty-mile tramps across the bogs of Dartmoor. I'll give you a tonic that'll set your nerves all right at once. You'll come back from Spa as fresh as a daisy."

To Spa, accordingly, Sir Gilbert went; and from Spa came trembling letters now and again between Gwendoline and Elma. Gwendoline was very anxious papa should get well soon, she said, for she wanted to be home before the Cape steamer arrived. "You know why, Elma." But Sir Gilbert didn't return before Guy's arrival in England, for all that. The papers continued to give bulletins of his health, and to speculate on the probability of his returning in time to do the Western Circuit. Elma remained in a fever of doubt and anxiety. To her, much depended now on the question of Sir Gilbert's presence or absence. For if he was indeed to try the case, she felt certain to herself, it must work upon his remorse and compel confession.

Meanwhile, preparations went on in England for Guy's approaching trial. The magistrates committed; the grand jury, of course, found a true bill; all England rang with the strange news that the man Guy Waring, the murderer of Mr. Montague Nevitt some eighteen months before, had returned at last of his own free will, and had given himself up to take his trial. Gildersleeve was to be the judge, they said; or if he were too ill, Atkins. Atkins was as sure as a gun to hang him, people thought--that was Atkins's way--and, besides, the evidence against the man, though in a sense circumstantial, was so absolutely overwhelming that acquittal seemed impossible.

Five to two was freely offered on Change that they'd hang him.

The case was down for first hearing at the assizes. The night before the trial Elma Clifford, who had hurried to Devonshire with her mother to see and hear all--she couldn't help it, she said; she felt she must be present--Elma Clifford looked at the evening paper with a sickening sense of suspense and anxiety. A paragraph caught her eye: "We understand that, after all, Mr. Justice Gildersleeve still finds himself too unwell to return to England for the Western Assizes, and his place will, therefore, most probably be taken by Mr. Justice Atkins. The calendar is a heavy one, and includes the interesting case of Mr. Guy Waring, charged with the wilful murder of Montague Nevitt, at Mambury, in Devonshire."

Elma laid down the paper with a swimming head. Too ill to return. She wasn't at all surprised at it. It was almost more than human nature could stand, for a man to sit as judge over another to investigate the details of the crime he had himself committed. But the suggestion of his absence ruined her peace of mind. She couldn't sleep that night. She felt sure now there was no hope left. Guy would almost certainly be convicted of murder.

Next morning she took her seat in court, with her mother and Cyril, as soon as the assize hall was opened to the public. But her cheek was very pale, and her eyes were weary. Places had been assigned them by the courtesy of the authorities, as persons interested in the case; and Elma looked eagerly towards the door in the corner, by which, as the usher told her, the judge was to enter. There was a long interval, and the usual unseemly turmoil of laughing and talking went on among the spectators in the well below. Some of them had opera-glasses and stared about them freely. Others quizzed the counsel, the officers, and the witnesses. Then a hush came over them, and the door opened. Cyril was merely aware of the usual formalities and of a judicial wig making its way, with slow dignity, to the vacant bench. But Elma leaned forward in a tumult of feeling. Her face all at once turned scarlet with excitement.

"What's the matter, darling?" her mother asked, in a sympathetic tone, noticing that something had profoundly stirred her.

And Elma answered with bated breath, in almost inarticulate tones, "Don't you see? Don't you see, mother? Just look at the judge! It's himself! It's Sir Gilbert!"

And so indeed it was. Against all hope, he had come over. At the very last moment a telegram had been handed to the convalescent at Spa:

"Fallen from my horse. A nasty tumble. Sustained severe internal injuries. Impossible to go the Western Circuit, Relieve me if you can. Wire reply,--ATKINS."

Sir Gilbert, as he received it, had just come in from a long ride across the wild moors that stretch away from Spa towards Han, and looked the picture of health, robust and fresh and ruddy. He glowed with bodily vigour; no suspense could kill him. Refusal under such circumstances was clearly impossible. He saw he must go, or resign his post at once. So, with an agitated heart, he wired acquiescence, took the next train to--Brussels and Calais, and caught the Dover boat just in time for acceptance. And now he was there to try Guy Waring for the murder of the man he himself had killed in The Tangle at Mambury,