Chapter XLIV. At Bay.
 

Only two people in court doubted for one moment what the verdict would be. And those two were the pair who stood there on their trial. Sir Gilbert couldn't believe the jury would convict an innocent man of the crime he himself had half unwittingly committed. Guy Waring couldn't believe the jury would convict an innocent man of the crime he had never been guilty of. So those two doubted. To all the rest the verdict was a foregone conclusion.

Nevertheless, dead silence reigned everywhere in the court as the clerk of arraigns put the solemn question, "Gentlemen, do you find the prisoner at the bar guilty or not guilty?"

And the foreman, clearing his throat huskily, answered in a very tremulous tone, "We find him guilty of wilful murder."

There was a long, deep pause. Every one looked at the prisoner. Guy Waring stood like one stunned by the immensity of the blow. It was an awful moment. He knew he was innocent; but he knew now the English law would hang him.

One pair of eyes in the court, however, was not fixed on Guy. Elma Clifford, at that final and supreme moment, gazed hard with all her soul at Sir Gilbert Gildersleeve. Her glance went through him. She sat like an embodied conscience before him. The judge rose slowly, his eyes riveted on hers. He was trembling with remorse, and deadlier pale than ever. An awful lividness stole over his face. His lips were contorted. His eyebrows quivered horribly. Still gazing straight at Elma, he essayed to speak. Twice he opened his parched lips. Then his voice failed him.

"I cannot accept that finding," he said at last, in a very solemn tone, battling hard for speech against some internal enemy. "I cannot accept it. Clerk, you will enter a verdict of not guilty."

A deep hum of surprise ran round the expectant court. Every mouth opened wide, and drew a long hushed breath. Senior counsel for the Crown jumped to his feet astonished. "But why, my lord?" he asked tartly, thus baulked of his success. "On what ground does your lordship decide to override the plain verdict of the jury?"

The pause that followed was inexpressibly terrible. Guy Waring waited for the answer in an agony of suspense. He knew what it meant now. With a rush it all occurred to him. He knew who was the murderer. But he hoped for nothing. Sir Gilbert faltered: Elma Clifford's eyes were upon him still, compelling him. "Because," he said at last, with a still more evident and physical effort, pumping the words out slowly, "I am here to administer justice, and justice I will administer.... This man is innocent. It was I myself who killed Montague Nevitt that day at Mambury."

At those awful words, uttered in a tone so solemn that no one could doubt either their truth or their sincerity, a cold thrill ran responsive through the packed crowd of auditors. The silence was profound. In its midst, a boy's voice burst forth all at once, directed, as it seemed, to the counsel for the Crown, "I said it was him," the voice cried, in a triumphant tone. "I knowed 'um! I knowed 'um! Thik there's the man that axed me the way down the dell the marnin' o' the murder."

The judge turned towards the boy with a ghastly smile of enforced recognition. "You say the truth, my lad," he answered, without any attempt at concealment. "It was I who asked you. It was I who killed him. I went round by the far gate after hearing he was there, and, cutting across the wood, I met Montague Nevitt in the path by The Tangle. I went there to meet him; I went there to confront him; but not of malice prepense to murder him. I wanted to question him about a family matter. Why I needed to question him no one henceforth shall ever know. That secret, thank Heaven, rests now in Montague Nevitt's grave. But when I did question him, he answered me back with so foul an aspersion upon a lady who was very near and dear to me"--the judge paused a moment; he was fighting hard for breath; something within was evidently choking him. Then he went on more excitedly--"an aspersion upon a lady whom I love more than life--an insult that no man could stand--an unspeakable foulness; and I sprang at him, the cur, in the white heat of my anger, not meaning or dreaming to hurt him seriously. I caught him by the throat." The judge held up his hands before the whole court appealingly. "Look at those hands, gentlemen," he cried, turning them about. "How could I ever know how hard and how strong they were? I only seemed to touch him. I just pushed him from my path. He fell at once at my feet--dead, dead unexpectedly. Remember how it all came about. The medical evidence showed his heart was weak, and he died in the scuffle. How was I to know all that? I only knew this--he fell dead before me."

With a face of speechless awe, he paused and wiped his brow. Not a soul in court moved or breathed above a whisper. It was evident the judge was in a paroxysm of contrition. His face was drawn up. His whole frame quivered visibly. Even Elma pitied him.

"And then I did a grievous wrong," the judge continued once more, his voice now very thick and growing rapidly thicker. "I did a grievous wrong, for which here to-day, before all this court, I humbly ask Guy Waring's pardon. I had killed Montague Nevitt, unintentionally, unwittingly, accidentally almost, in a moment of anger, never knowing I was killing him. And if he had been a stronger or a healthier man, what little I did to him would never have killed him. I didn't mean to murder him. For that my remorse is far less poignant. But what I did after was far worse than the murder. I behaved like a sneak--I behaved like a coward. I saw suspicion was aroused against the prisoner, Guy Waring. And what did I do then? Instead of coming forward like a man, as I ought, and saying 'I did it,' and standing my trial on the charge of manslaughter, I did my best to throw further suspicion on an innocent person. I made the case look blacker and worse for Guy Waring. I don't condone my own crime. I did it for my wife's sake and my daughter's, I admit--but I regret it now bitterly--and am I not atoning for it? With a great humiliation, am I not amply atoning for it? I wrote an unsigned letter warning Waring at once to fly the country, as a warrant was out against him. Waring foolishly took my advice, and fled forthwith. From that day to this"--he gazed round him appealingly--"oh, friends, I have never known one happy moment."

Guy gazed at him from the dock, where he still stood guarded by two strong policemen, and felt a fresh light break suddenly in upon him. Their positions now were almost reversed. It was he who was the accuser, and Sir Gilbert Gildersleeve, the judge in that court, who stood charged to-day on his own confession with causing the death of Montague Nevitt.

"Then it was you" Guy said slowly, breaking the pause at last, "who sent me that anonymous letter at Plymouth?"

"It was I," the judge answered, in an almost inaudible, gurgling tone. "It was I who so wronged you. Can you ever forgive me for it?"

Guy gazed at him fixedly. He himself had suffered much. Cyril and Elma had suffered still more. But the judge, he felt sure, had suffered most of all of them. In this moment of relief, this moment of vindication, this moment of triumph, he could afford to be generous. "Sir Gilbert Gildersleeve, I forgive you," he answered slowly.

The judge gazed around him with a vacant stare. "I feel cold," he said, shivering; "very cold, very faint, too. But I've made all right here," and he held out a document. "I wrote this paper in my room last night--in case of accident--confessing everything. I brought it down here, signed and witnessed, unread, intending to read it out if the verdict went against me--I mean, against Waring.... But I feel too weak now to read anything further.... I'm so cold, so cold. Take the paper, Forbes-Ewing. It's all in your line. You'll know what to do with it." He could hardly utter a word, breath failed him so fast. "This thing has killed me," he went on, mumbling. "I deserved it. I deserved it."

"How about the prisoner?" the authority from the gaol asked, as the judge collapsed rather than sat down on the bench again.

Those words roused Sir Gilbert to full consciousness once more. The judge rose again, solemnly, in all the majesty of his ermine. "The prisoner is discharged," he said, in a loud, clear voice. "I am here to do justice--justice against myself. I enter a verdict of not guilty." Then he turned to the polices "I am your prisoner," he went on, in a broken, rambling way. "I give myself in charge for the manslaughter of Montague Nevitt. Manslaughter, not murder. Though I don't even admit myself, indeed, it was anything. more than justifiable homicide."

He sank back again once more, and murmured three times in his seat, as if to himself, "Justifiable homicide! Justifiable homicide! Just--ifiable homicide!"

Somebody rose in court as he sank, and moved quickly towards him. The judge recognised him at once.

"Granville Kelmscott," he said; in a weary voice, "help me out of this. I am very, very ill. You're a friend. I'm dying. Give me your arm! Assist me!"