The Sacrifice by Ethel M. Dell
The trial of Burleigh Wentworth for forgery was one of the sensations of the season. A fashionable crowd went day after day to the stifling Court to watch its progress. The man himself, nonchalant, debonair, bore himself with the instinctive courage of his race, though whether his bearing would have been as confident had Percival Field not been at his back was a question asked by a good many. He was one of the best-known figures in society, a general favourite in sporting circles, and universally looked upon with approval if not admiration wherever he went. He had the knack of popularity. He came of an old family, and his rumoured engagement to Lady Violet Calcott had surprised no one. Lord Culverleigh, her brother, was known to be his intimate friend, and the rumour had come already to be regarded as an accomplished fact when, like a thunder-bolt, had come Wentworth's arraignment for forgery.
It had set all London talking. The evidence against him was far-reaching and overwhelming. After the first shock no one believed him innocent. The result of the trial was looked upon before its commencement as a foregone conclusion until it became known that Percival Field, the rising man of the day, had undertaken his defence, and then like the swing of a weather cock public opinion veered. If Field defended him, there must be some very strong point in his favour, men argued. Field was not the sort to touch anything of a doubtful nature.
The trial lasted for nearly a week. During that time Lady Violet went day after day to the Court and sat with her veil down all through the burning hours. People looked at her curiously, questioning if there really had been any definite understanding between the two. Did she really care for the man, or was it mere curiosity that drew her? No one knew with any certainty. She wrapped herself in her reserve like an all-enveloping garment, and even those who regarded themselves as her nearest friends knew naught of what she carried in her soul.
All through the trial she sat in utter immobility, sphinx-like, unapproachable, yet listening with tense attention to all that passed. Field's handling of the case was a marvel of legal ingenuity. There were many who were attracted to the trial by that alone. He had made his mark, and whatever he said carried weight. When he came at last to make his speech for the defence, men and women listened with bated breath. It was one of the greatest speeches that the Criminal Court had ever heard.
He flung into it the whole weight of his personality. He grappled like a giant with the rooted obstacles that strewed his path, flinging them hither and thither by sheer force of will. His scorching eloquence blasted every opposing power, consumed every tangle of adverse evidence. It was as if he fought a pitched battle for himself alone. He wrestled for the mastery rather than appealed for sympathy.
And he won his cause. His scathing attacks, his magnetism, his ruthless insistence left an indelible mark upon the minds of the jury--such a mark as no subsequent comments from the judge could efface or even moderate. The verdict returned was unanimous in spite of a by no means favourable summing-up. The prisoner was Not Guilty.
At the pronouncement of the verdict there went up a shout of applause such as that Court had seldom heard. The prisoner, rather white but still affecting sublime self-assurance, accepted it with a smile as a tribute to himself. But it was not really directed towards him. It was for the man who had defended him, the man who sat at the table below the dock and turned over a sheaf of papers with a faint, cynical smile at the corners of his thin lips. This man, they said, had done the impossible. He had dragged the prisoner out of his morass by sheer titanic effort. Obviously Percival Field had believed firmly in the innocence of the man he had defended, or he had not thus triumphantly vindicated him.
The crowd, staring at him, wondered how the victory affected him. It had certainly enhanced his reputation. It had drawn from him such a display of genius as had amazed even his colleagues. Did he feel elated at all over his success? Was he spent by that stupendous effort? No one knew?
Now that it was over, he looked utterly indifferent. He had fought and conquered, but it seemed already as if his attention were turning elsewhere.
The crowd began to stream out. The day was hot and the crush had been very great. On one of the benches occupied by the public a woman had fainted. They carried her out into the corridor and there gradually she revived. A little later she went home alone in a taxi with her veil closely drawn down over her face.