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The Fourth Plague
By Edgar Wallace
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
SIR RALPH DELIVERS JUDGMENT
IT WAS ABSURD TO call the affair "the Red Hand Trial," because the "Red Hand" had played no part in the case so far as the burglary was concerned.
It was a very commonplace burglary with a well-known, albeit humble member of Burboro's community in the dock. He had been found in a house in the early hours of the morning, he had given an incoherent explanation to the alert butler who had captured him, and, beyond a rigmarole of a story that some mysterious Italian had sent him thither, there was no hint of the workings of the extraordinary association which at the moment agitated the law-abiding people of Britain.
It was equally absurd and grossly unfair to accuse the newspapers who referred to it as "the Red Hand Case," of unjustifiable sensationalism. After all, there was an Italian mentioned in connexion with the charge—quite enough in those days of panic to justify the reference.
The Session House was crowded, for the case had excited more than usual interest. All the county was there. Lady Morte-Mannery occupied a seat on the Bench, as was her right. Most of the house-party from East Mannery had driven over and was seated in privileged places, to the no small inconvenience of the Bar and the representatives of the Press, the latter of whom bitterly and indignantly resented this encroachment upon their already restricted domain.
But Sir Ralph Morte-Mannery, the Chairman of the Session, had a short way with critics and professed, though his practice did not always come into line with his theory, that the Press might be ignored and impressed with a sense of its own unworthiness.
The Pressmen in the Session House at Burboro' were constantly undergoing that mysterious process which is known as "being put in their place." They desired, most earnestly, that the principle should be applied now, for their places were occupied by the guests of the Chairman.
Hilary George, K.C., sat with his colleagues, though only as a spectator. He was curious to see in operation the workings of justice, as Sir Ralph conceived it.
Sir Ralph's sentences were notorious, his judgments had before now come up for revision. He was, perhaps, the best hated man in the country. Mothers frightened their obstreperous children with references to Sir Ralph. He was the bogey man of the poacher, a moral scarecrow to tramps, people who slept out at night, and suchlike dangerous characters.
A little man, spare and bony, his clothes, though carefully fitted, seemed to hang upon him; his face was long and white, and solemn; his lips drooped mournfully at each corner. A pair of gold-mounted pince-nez struck an angle on his pendulous nose as to suggest that they were so placed in order not to obstruct his line of vision. His hair was white and thin; he had two dirty-grey tufts of side-whisker, and affected a Gladstonian collar. His voice, when he spoke, was querulous and complaining; he gave the impression that he felt a personal resentment toward the unfortunate prisoner in the dock, for having dragged him from his comfortable library to this ill-ventilated court.
Sir Ralph was a man hovering about the age of sixty. His wife, who was looking supremely lovely in her black velvet cloak and her big black hat, which one white feather lightened, was nearly thirty years his junior. A beautiful woman by some standards. Junoesque, imperial, commanding; her lips in repose were thin and straight, and if the truth be told, a little repellent. Some people found them so. Hilary George, for one, a daring rider to hounds, and wont to employ the phraseology of the field, confessed that he never saw those lips tighten but a voice within him uttered the warning, "'Ware! 'ware!"
She was a beautiful woman, and a disappointed woman. She had married Sir Ralph Morte-Mannery, five years before, in the supreme faith that she had emerged for ever from that atmosphere of penury which had surrounded her girlhood; that she had said "good-bye" to the strivings, the scrimpings and the make-believe of shabby gentility with which a mother with social aspirations and an income of a £150 a year had enclouded her.
But Vera Forsyth found she had moved from an atmosphere of penury enforced by circumstances to an atmosphere of penury practised for love of it. Sir Ralph was a mean man, he was little short of a miser, and he had the settled conviction that, in taking care of the pennies, he was appointed as by divine right, the natural heir to hundreds.
It seemed to her, in her first year of marriage, that she could never escape from the eternal account book. He was a man who believed in domestic stock-taking. He knew, better than she, the prevalent price of potatoes, and he noted with pain any advance in the grocer's bill, and set himself the congenial task of discovering the cause for any such swollen expenditure.
Now she looked along the Bench at her husband curiously; he was always a source of interest to her. She needed some such interest to sustain her in her everyday acquaintance with this man.
He was summing up with gross partiality. Though he had had one or two bad raps from the Court of Criminal Appeal, he was not to be turned from his set purpose, which was to rid the country of those who showed a disinclination to distinguish the difference between meum and teum.
All who knew the circumstances realized that the summing up was in the veriest bad taste. The young man, white of face, who stood by the dock's edge, his shaking hands clasping and unclasping the iron rail before him, was being tried for burglary, and the burglary was at Sir Ralph's own place.
"He has told you, Gentlemen of the Jury," went on Sir Ralph in his speech, "that a mysterious Italian asked him to break into the house, where somebody would be waiting to give him an equally mysterious packet. He did not intend to steal, so he tells you; he was merely carrying out the instructions of this mythical—perhaps I ought not to say 'mythical,'" said Sir Ralph hastily, with the recollection of a Lord Chief Justice's comments on a judgment of his—"but which may to you, Gentlemen of the Jury, appear to be a mythical person.
"He tells you that he was induced by his poverty to go to Highlawn at midnight, to effect an entrance through the kitchen, and there to wait until some cloaked, masked individual brought him a packet which he was to bring away. He tells you that he had no intention whatever of robbing the owner. He was merely being the accomplice of some person in the house."
Sir Ralph leant back with a little contemptuous smile.
"Well, Gentlemen of the Jury," he said, throwing out his hands, with pseudo good-nature, "if you believe that, of course you still must convict the man on the charge of being an accomplice. As you know, there is in this house a very valuable collection of Renaissance jewellery; and when the Counsel for the Crown tells you, as he has told you, that the inference to be drawn from the man's presence in the kitchen, where the butler discovered him, is that he intended to make a raid upon that jewellery, you are, perhaps, as justified in believing that suggestion as you are in believing that of the prisoner's Counsel—that he was merely acting as an innocent agent in the matter."
He said a few more words, summarized such of the evidence as had not come under his previous purview, and commended the jury to their deliberations with the air of benevolence which invariably enwrapped the peroration of his more malignant speeches.
The jury tramped out, and a buzz of conversation overhung the court. The prisoner lingered a little by the rails; he looked down at the delicate face of his girl-wife, this woman of seventeen, who had sat throughout the trial tense and haggard, listening to the evidence.
"It can't be helped, dear," he said. He was a man of the working classes, but his voice showed an unusual culture.
The girl could only raise her piteous eyes to his; her lips trembled, she could frame no answer. She knew that her young husband spoke the truth. Poverty had ground them down to desperation, but to whatever end it might drive them, it would never make her man a thief.
The jury were back in five minutes. They shuffled into the box, and answered to their names, keeping their eyes averted from the prisoner at the Bar. The Clerk of Assizes put his questions to them.
"Do you find the prisoner 'Guilty' or 'Not Guilty' of the crime of burglary?"
"Guilty," said the foreman, in a high, nervous voice.
Sir Ralph nodded his head approvingly. He turned to the prisoner as the Clerk said, "Have you anything to say before the sentence is passed?"
The man in the dock took a swift glance at the drooping figure of his wife. She had fainted, and a kindly policeman was lifting her to carry her from the court.
"The story I have told," he said, speaking clearly and without hesitation, "was a true story. I had no idea of burgling your house, Sir Ralph. I merely went there because I thought I was acting as the agent of somebody who was carrying on some sort of——" he hesitated. "I hardly like to say it—some sort of intrigue," he continued boldly, "and did not want this fact to leak out."
His eyes roved round the Bench and halted when they met those of Lady Morte-Mannery. They looked at each other; she calmly, incuriously, he hopefully, with a wondering, puzzled stare.
"It is my first offence," he went on. "I have never been in this position before, and although the jury have found me 'Guilty,' my lord, I do hope that you will take a lenient view of my offence, not only for my own sake, but for the sake of my wife and unborn child." His voice shook a little as he pleaded. It was the only sign of emotion he had given.
Sir Ralph nodded again. It was a grim nod. It put a period to the prisoner's speech. The Chairman adjusted his gold pince-nez, and bent his head from left to right, consulting his colleagues.
"Your offence, George Mansingham," he said, "is peculiarly abhorrent to me. I do not consider the fact that the house burgled was my own. Fortunately I am unaffected by personal considerations, and the fact that I, myself, was away from home that night enables me to try this case in an unprejudiced spirit."
He looked down at the paper on his desk musingly. Then he suddenly jerked his head up.
"You will be kept in penal servitude for seven years," he said.
Something like a gasp ran through the court. Hilary George, monocle in eye, half started to his feet, then sank back again. The man in the dock stood dazed.
"Seven years," he repeated, and shook his head as though he could not understand it, then turned and stepped down the stairs which led to the cells below.
Hilary George was a stout man; he had a large fresh face, and eyes that told plainly of his immense vitality and joy of life. Seeing him you thought of an overgrown boy, and the monocle, as a friend had remarked, seemed out of place in one so young. He had one of the biggest practices at the Bar; he was a skilful lawyer and a brilliant debater.
You might think him an easy man to manage, with his parted lips that showed two rows of white even teeth and that look of surprise and delight which shone in his eyes. But no man who had ever tried to persuade Hilary George against his will or against his better judgment, had ever repeated the attempt.
He stood now, an immaculate figure, on the steps of the Session House. He was not smiling, he looked as grave as his facial conformation would allow. Very slowly, very deliberately, he buttoned the white gloves over his huge hands. He looked at his watch, and, as he did so, the East Mannery party came out, Lady Morte-Mannery a little ahead, Sir Ralph following with two or three of his guests.
"Will you drive over in the car with us, or will you take the wagonette," asked Sir Ralph, pleasantly. He was rather in awe of the big barrister—as much in awe as he could be of anybody—and he invariably cloaked his uneasiness with a certain perkiness of manner which passed with Sir Ralph for good-humour.
"I'm not coming over, Ralph," said Hilary George, quietly.
The Chairman raised his brows.
"Not coming over?" he repeated. "What do you mean?"
"I'm going back to town," said Hilary, slowly as before.
"But why? What has happened? I thought you were keen on the shooting."
"I'd rather not say why," said Hilary. "If you'll be good enough to tell my man to bring my boxes to the station—I'll amuse myself in Burboro' for another hour."
"But what is the reason?" persisted Sir Ralph. "Have you had any news? Is there any necessity for your going back to town?"
Hilary scratched his chin reflectively.
"I'll tell you," he said, and faced the other squarely. "You've just sentenced a man to seven years penal servitude."
"Yes?" replied Sir Ralph, wonderingly.
"It was a perfectly beastly sentence," said the K.C., and every word cut like a knife. "A perfectly beastly, malicious, vindictive, unjust sentence," he repeated, "and I would not stay another hour in the house of the man who passed it.
"More than this!" he said, with a sudden accession of fierceness and benevolent malignity, if the paradox may be allowed, which almost paralyzed his hearer, "I will not rest until that sentence is reduced. My solicitors shall take it to the Court of Appeal."
"You—you—how dare you!" spluttered Sir Ralph.
"A perfectly beastly sentence," repeated the other, with annoying deliberation. "Don't talk to me, Sir Ralph, I'm not a tyro, I'm a barrister. I know the game better than you. I know what sentence was justifiable there. I know exactly how your own personal prejudice stepped in to confine this man—this young man, a first offender—to a living hell."
He spoke with vehemence, his plump face growing redder and redder as his anger rose.
"I will never forgive you, Hilary," cried Sir Ralph, shaking with anger. "You have mortally offended me. You know I believe in long sentences."
"I don't care a damn what you believe in," said the other, and his very calmness emphasized the strength of his language. "I bid you good morning."
He walked over to where Lady Morte-Mannery stood watching them.
"I am sorry, Lady Morte-Mannery," he said, a little stiffly. "I shall not be coming back to the house. An important engagement has called me to London."
She murmured her sorrow conventionally, though she was by no means displeased to see the back of a man whom at first she had regarded as one who might easily be influenced to her views. Her views, it may here be remarked, were peculiar.
"Why has he gone?" she asked her husband, as the car drove through the main street of Burboro'.
Sir Ralph, who was glowering with rage, vouchsafed a snarling answer.
"How do I know? Why do you ask ridiculous questions? Because he's a fool," he went on viciously. "Because he's a blackguard. He's grossly insulted me, and I'll never forgive him." He was in a white heat of temper, and for the whole day brooded on the affront which had been offered him.
Vera made one or two ineffectual attempts to smooth his ruffled plumage. She was particularly anxious to get him into a good mood. She had one or two requests to make, which in his present frame of mind she knew would be rejected without thought. Her efforts were unavailing.
"I wish you wouldn't potter round," he growled, when she went into the library on the pretext of tidying away some books which had been left out by some careless guest.
"Oh, come here," he said, as she was going out of the room. "Here's a bill from Burt's. How many packets of prepared oats did we have in last week?"
"I forget, dear," she said.
"Six," he growled. "Do you know we have never had more than four before?"
"Mr. George liked it for breakfast," she answered.
"Mr. George!" he almost shouted. "Don't mention that man's name. Why is Bulgered charging 1s. 0½ d. a pound for his beef? It's monstrous—change the butcher. I wish to goodness you'd show some interest in the conduct of your house, Vera."
He scowled at her under his white shaggy brows.
"You go on as if I was made of money. Practise some sense of economy. My dear girl, before you were married you counted every penny. Imagine they are your mother's, and count mine."
With a shrug, she left him. He was utterly impossible in these moods. She went into the drawing-room wondering how she should approach her lord on the subject which lay uppermost in her mind. A girl sat in one of the windows, reading. She looked up with a smile as Vera entered.
"Isn't it a bore?" she said. "They've just told me that Mr. George has gone back to town. He played such beautiful piquet. Why has he gone?"
She rose lazily, putting her book down. She was a tall, beautiful girl, of that exquisite colouring which is the English gentlewoman's heritage. The well-poised head was crowned with a luxurious mass of russet gold hair. Her eyebrows, two delicate lines of jet black, were set over a pair of the loveliest eyes that man ever looked into. At least, so thought many a man who knew her. Even Sir Ralph, self-engrossed and contemptuous, he said, of beauty, had commented upon their liquid loveliness.
A straight nose, and a firm, rebellious chin, a perfectly calm mouth, completed the picture. As she moved she displayed the grace of her slender figure. Every movement suggested the life of freedom—freedom of field and road—eloquently, as did her complexion of the softening qualities of her native Ireland.
Excerpted from The Fourth Plague by Edgar Wallace. Copyright © 2014 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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