The speech was admirably delivered, and its virtue was its extreme impassiveness; it seemed quite impersonal, the mere automatic action of justice, not revengeful, not seeking for death, but merely stating the case as it might be stated by some planet or remote fixed star. Then there was a short pause, while the prosecutor for the Crown laid down his notes. And the same slow, clear, impassive voice went on.
"But since the committal of the prisoner to stand his trial at these assizes," he said, "more evidence of an utterly unexpected, but to us convincing kind has been discovered. Here it is." And he held up a sheet of blotting paper, and a crumpled envelope.
"A letter has been blotted on this sheet," he said, "and by holding it up to the light and looking through it, one can, of course, read what was written. But before I read it, I will tell you from where this sheet was taken. It was taken from a blotting book in the drawing-room of Mrs. Assheton's house in Sussex Square. An expert in handwriting will soon tell the gentlemen of the jury in whose hand he without doubt considers it to be written. After the committal of the prisoner to trial, search was of course made in this house, for further evidence. This evidence was almost immediately discovered. After that no further search was made."
The judge looked up from his notes.
"By whom was this discovery made?" he asked.
"By Superintendent Figgis and Sergeant Wilkinson, my lord. They will give their evidence."
He waited till the judge had entered this.
"I will read the letter," he said, "from the negative, so to speak, of the blotting paper."
"TO GODFREY MILLS, ESQ.
"You damned brute, I will settle you. I hear you are coming back to Brighton to-morrow, and are getting out at Falmer. All right; I shall be there, and we shall have a talk.
A sort of purr went round the court; the kind humane ladies and gentlemen who had fought for seats found this to their taste. The noose tightened.
"I have here also an envelope," said the prosecutor, "which was found by Mr. Figgis and Mr. Wilkinson in the waste-paper basket in the sitting-room of the deceased. According to the expert in handwriting, whose evidence you will hear, it is undoubtedly addressed by the same hand that wrote the letter I have just read you. And, in his opinion, the handwriting is that of the prisoner. No letter was found in the deceased man's room corresponding to this envelope, but the jury will observe that what I have called the negative of the letter on the blotting-paper was dated June 21st, the day that the prisoner suspected the slander that had been levelled at him. The suggestion is that the deceased opened this before leaving for London, and took the letter with him. And the hand, that for the purposes of misleading justice, robbed him of his watch and his money, also destroyed the letter which was then on his person, and which was an incriminating document. But this sheet of blotting paper is as valuable as the letter itself. It proves the letter to have been written."
* * * * *
Morris had been given a seat in the dock, and on each side of him there stood a prison-warder. But in the awed hush that followed, for the vultures and carrion crows who crowded the court were finding themselves quite beautifully thrilled, he wrote a few words on a slip of paper and handed it to a warder to give to his counsel. And his counsel nodded to him.
The opening speech for the Crown had lasted something over two hours, and a couple of witnesses only were called before the interval for lunch. But most of the human ghouls had brought sandwiches with them, and the court was packed with the same people when Morris was brought up again after the interval, and the judge, breathing sherry, took his seat. The court had become terribly hot, but the public were too humane to mind that. A criminal was being chased toward the gallows, and they followed his progress there with breathless interest. Step by step all that was laid down in the opening speech for the prosecution was inexorably proved, all, that is to say, except the affair of the stick. But from what a certain witness (Mr. Taynton) swore to, it was clear that this piece of circumstantial evidence, which indeed was of the greatest importance since the Crown's case was that the murder had been committed with that bludgeon of a stick, completely broke down. Whoever had done the murder, he had not done it with that stick, since Mr. Taynton deposed to having been at Mrs. Assheton's house on the Friday, the day after the murder had been committed, and to having taken the stick away by mistake, believing it to be his. And the counsel for the defence only asked one question on this point, which question closed the proceedings for the day. It was:
"You have a similar stick then?"
And Mr. Taynton replied in the affirmative.
The court then rose.
* * * * *
On the whole the day had been most satisfactory to the ghouls and vultures and it seemed probable that they would have equally exciting and plentiful fare next day. But in the opinion of many Morris's counsel was disappointing. He did not cross-examine witnesses at all sensationally, and drag out dreadful secrets (which had nothing to do with the case) about their private lives, in order to show that they seldom if ever spoke the truth. Indeed, witness after witness was allowed to escape without any cross-examination at all; there was no attempt made to prove that the carpenter who had found the body had been himself tried for murder, or that his children were illegitimate. Yet gradually, as the afternoon went on, a sort of impression began to make its way, that there was something coming which no one suspected.
The next morning those impressions were realised when the adjourned cross-examination of Mr. Taynton was resumed. The counsel for the defence made an immediate attack on the theories of the prosecution, and it told. For the prosecution had suggested that Morris's presence at the scene of the murder the day after was suspicious, as if he had come back uneasily and of an unquiet conscience. If that was so, Mr. Taynton's presence there, who had been the witness who proved the presence of the other, was suspicious also. What had he come there for? In order to throw the broken pieces of Morris's stick into the bushes? These inferences were of course but suggested in the questions counsel asked Mr. Taynton in the further cross-examination of this morning, and perhaps no one in court saw what the suggestion was for a moment or two, so subtly and covertly was it conveyed. Then it appeared to strike all minds together, and a subdued rustle went round the court, followed the moment after by an even intenser silence.
Then followed a series of interrogations, which at first seemed wholly irrelevant, for they appeared to bear only on the business relations between the prisoner and the witness. Then suddenly like the dim light at the end of a tunnel, where shines the pervading illuminating sunlight, a little ray dawned.
"You have had control of the prisoner's private fortune since 1886?"
"In the year 1896 he had L8,000 or thereabouts in London and North-Western Debentures, L6,000 in Consols, L7,000 in Government bonds of South Australia?"
"I have no doubt those figures are correct."
"A fortnight ago you bought L8,000 of London and North-Western Debentures, L6,000 in Consols, L7,000 in Government bonds of South Australia?"
Mr. Taynton opened his lips to speak, but no sound came from them.
"Please answer the question."
If there had been a dead hush before, succeeding the rustle that had followed the suggestions about the stick, a silence far more palpable now descended. There was no doubt as to what the suggestion was now.
The counsel for the prosecution broke in.
"I submit that these questions are irrelevant, my lord," he said.
"I shall subsequently show, my lord, that they are not."
"The witness must answer the question," said the judge. "I see that there is a possible relevancy."
The question was answered.
"Thank you, that is all," said the counsel for the defence, and Mr. Taynton left the witness box.
It was then, for the first time since the trial began, that Morris looked at this witness. All through he had been perfectly calm and collected, a circumstance which the spectators put down to the callousness with which they kindly credited him, and now for the first time, as Mr. Taynton's eyes and his met, an emotion crossed the prisoner's face. He looked sorry.
For the rest of the morning the examination of witnesses for the prosecution went on, for there were a very large number of them, but when the court rose for lunch, the counsel for the prosecution intimated that this was his last. But again, hardly any but those engaged officially, the judge, the counsel, the prisoner, the warder, left the court. Mr. Taynton, however, went home, for he had his seat on the bench, and he could escape for an hour from this very hot and oppressive atmosphere. But he did not go to his Lewes office, or to any hotel to get his lunch. He went to the station, where after waiting some quarter of an hour, he took the train to Brighton. The train ran through Falmer and from his window he could see where the Park palings made an angle close to the road; it was from there that the path over the Downs, where he had so often walked, passed to Brighton.
Again the judge took his seat, still carrying the little parcel wrapped up in tissue paper.
There was no need for the usher to call silence, for the silence was granted without being asked for.
The counsel for the defence called the first witness; he also unwrapped a flat parcel which he had brought into court with him, and handed it to the witness.
"That was supplied by your firm?"
"Who ordered it?"
"Mr. Morris Assheton, that is. Did he order it from you, you yourself?"
"Did he give any specific instructions about it?"
"What were they?"
"That the blotting book which Mrs. Assheton had already ordered was to be countermanded, and that this was to be sent in its stead on June 24th."
"You mean not after June 24th?"
"No, sir; the instructions were that it was not to be sent before June 24th."
"Why was that?"
"I could not say, sir. Those were the instructions."
"And it was sent on June 24th."
"Yes, sir. It was entered in our book."
The book in question was produced and handed to the jury and the judge.
"That is all, Mrs. Assheton."
She stepped into the box, and smiled at Morris. There was no murmur of sympathy, no rustling; the whole thing was too tense.
"You returned home on June 24th last, from a visit to town?"
"At what time?"
"I could not say to the minute. But about eleven in the morning."
"You found letters waiting for you?"
"What did it contain?"
"A blotting-book. It was a present from my son on my birthday."
"Is this the blotting-book?"
"What did you do with it?"
"I opened it and placed it on my writing table in the drawing-room."
"Thank you; that is all."
There was no cross-examination of this witness, and after the pause, the counsel for the defence spoke again.
"You searched the house of Mrs. Assheton in Sussex Square?"
"What did you take from it?"
"A leaf from a blotting-book, sir."
"Was it that leaf which has been already produced in court, bearing the impress of a letter dated June 21st?"
"Where was the blotting-book?"
"On the writing-table in the drawing-room, sir."
"You did not examine the blotting-book in any way?"
Counsel opened the book and fitted the torn out leaf into its place.
"We have here the impress of a letter dated June 21st, written in a new blotting-book that did not arrive at Mrs. Assheton's house from the shop till June 24th. It threatens—threatens a man who was murdered, supposedly by the prisoner, on June 23d. Yet this threatening letter was not written till June 24th, after he had killed him."
Quiet and unemotional as had been the address for the Crown, these few remarks were even quieter. Then the examination continued.
"You searched also the flat occupied by the deceased, and you found there this envelope, supposedly in the handwriting of the prisoner, which has been produced by the prosecution?"
"This is it?"
"Thank you. That is all."
Again there was no cross-examination, and the superintendent left the witness box.
Then the counsel for the defence took up two blank envelopes in addition to the one already produced and supposedly addressed in the handwriting of the prisoner.
"This blue envelope," he said, "is from the stationery in Mrs. Assheton's house. This other envelope, white, is from the flat of the deceased. It corresponds in every way with the envelope which was supposed to be addressed in the prisoner's hand, found at the flat in question. The inference is that the prisoner blotted the letter dated June 21st on a blotting pad which did not arrive in Mrs. Assheton's house till June 24th, went to the deceased's flat and put it an envelope there."
These were handed to the jury for examination.
"Ernest Smedley," said counsel.
Mills's servant stepped into the box, and was sworn.
"Between, let us say June 21st and June 24th, did the prisoner call at Mr. Mills's flat?"
"Yes, sir, twice."
"Once on the evening of June 23d, and once very early next morning."
"Did he go in?"
"Yes, sir, he came in on both occasions."
"To satisfy himself that Mr. Mills had not come back."
"Did he write anything?"
"How do you know that?"
"I went with him from room to room, and should have seen if he had done so."
"Did anybody else enter the flat during those days?"
The whole court seemed to give a great sigh; then it was quiet again. The judge put down the pen with which he had been taking notes, and like the rest of the persons present he only listened.
"When did Mr. Taynton come into the flat?"
"About mid-day or a little later on Friday."
"Please tell the jury what he did?"
The counsel for the prosecution stood up.
"I object to that question," he said.
The judge nodded at him; then looked at the witness again. The examination went on.
"You need not answer that question. I put it to save time, merely. Did Mr. Taynton go into the deceased's sitting-room?"
"Did he write anything there?"
"Was he alone there?"
Again the examining counsel paused, and again no question was asked by the prosecution.
"Charles Martin," said the counsel for defence.
"You are a servant of the prisoner's?"
"You were in his service during this week of June, of which Friday was June 24th?"
"Describe the events—No. Did the prisoner go up to town, or elsewhere on that day, driving his motorcar, but leaving you in Brighton?"
"Mrs. Assheton came back that morning?"
"Did anyone call that morning? If so, who?"
"Mr. Taynton called."
"Did he go to the drawing-room?"
"Did he write anything there?"
"Yes, sir; he wrote a note to Mrs. Assheton, which he gave me when he went out."
"You were not in the drawing-room, when he wrote it?"
"Did he say anything to you when he left the house?"
"What did he say?"
The question was not challenged now.
"He told me to say that he had left the note at the door."
"But he had not done so?"
"No, sir; he wrote it in the drawing-room."
"Thank you. That is all."
But this witness was not allowed to pass as the others had done. The counsel for the prosecution got up.
"You told Mrs. Assheton that it had been left at the door?"
"You knew that was untrue?"
"For what reason did you say it, then?"
Martin hesitated; he looked down, then he looked up again, and was still silent.
"Answer the question."
His eyes met those of the prisoner. Morris smiled at him, and nodded.
"Mr. Taynton told me to say that," he said, "I had once been in Mr. Taynton's service. He dismissed me. I—"
The judge interposed looking at the cross-examining counsel.
"Do you press your question?" he asked. "I do not forbid you to ask it, but I ask you whether the case for the prosecution of the—the prisoner is furthered by your insisting on this question. We have all heard, the jury and I alike, what the last three or four witnesses have said, and you have allowed that—quite properly, in my opinion—to go unchallenged. I do not myself see that there is anything to be gained by the prosecution by pressing the question. I ask you to consider this point. If you think conscientiously, that the evidence, the trend of which we all know now, is to be shaken, you are right to do your best to try to shake it. If not, I wish you to consider whether you should press the question. What the result of your pressing it will be, I have no idea, but it is certainly clear to us all now, that there was a threat implied in Mr. Taynton's words. Personally I do not wish to know what that threat was, nor do I see how the knowledge of it would affect your case in my eyes, or in the eyes of the jury."
There was a moment's pause.
"No, my lord, I do not press it."
Then a clear young voice broke the silence.
"Thanks, Martin," it said.
It came from the dock.
The judge looked across to the dock for a moment, with a sudden irresistible impulse of kindliness for the prisoner whom he was judging.
"Charles Martin," he said, "you have given your evidence, and speaking for myself, I believe it to be entirely trustworthy. I wish to say that your character is perfectly clear. No aspersion whatever has been made on it, except that you said a note had been delivered at the door, though you knew it to have been not so delivered. You made that statement through fear of a certain individual; you were frightened into telling a lie. No one inquires into the sources of your fear."
But in the general stillness, there was one part of the court that was not still, but the judge made no command of silence there, for in the jury-box there was whispering and consultation. It went on for some three minutes. Then the foreman of the jury stood up.
"The jury have heard sufficient of this case, my lord," he said, "and they are agreed on their verdict."
* * * * *
For a moment the buzzing whispers went about the court again, shrilling high, but instantaneously they died down, and the same tense silence prevailed. But from the back of the court there was a stir, and the judge seeing what it was that caused it waited, while Mrs. Assheton moved from her place, and made her way to the front of the dock in which Morris sat. She had been in the witness-box that day, and everyone knew her, and all made way for her, moving as the blades of corn move when the wind stirs them, for her right was recognised and unquestioned. But the dock was high above her, and a barrister who sat below instantly vacated his seat, she got up and stood on it. All eyes were fixed on her, and none saw that at this moment a telegram was handed to the judge which he opened and read.
Then he turned to the foreman of the jury.
"What verdict, do you find?" he asked.
Mrs. Assheton had already grasped Morris's hands in hers, and just as the words were spoken she kissed him.
* * * * *
Then a shout arose which bade fair to lift the roof off, and neither judge nor ushers of the court made any attempt to quiet it, and if it was only for the sensation of seeing the gallows march nearer the prisoner that these folk had come together, yet there was no mistaking the genuineness of their congratulations now. Morris's whole behaviour too, had been so gallant and brave; innocent though he knew himself to be, yet it required a very high courage to listen to the damning accumulation of evidence against him, and if there is one thing that the ordinary man appreciates more than sensation, it is pluck. Then, but not for a long time, the uproar subsided, and the silence descended again. Then the judge spoke.
"Mr. Assheton," he said, "for I no longer can call you prisoner, the jury have of course found you not guilty of the terrible crime of which you were accused, and I need not say that I entirely agree with their verdict. Throughout the trial you have had my sympathy and my admiration for your gallant bearing." Then at a sign from the judge his mother and he were let out by the private door below the bench.
After they had gone silence was restored. Everyone knew that there must be more to come. The prisoner was found not guilty; the murder was still unavenged.
Then once more the judge spoke.
"I wish to make public recognition," he said, "of the fairness and ability with which the case was conducted on both sides. The prosecution, as it was their duty to do, forged the chain of evidence against Mr. Assheton as strongly as they were able, and pieced together incriminating circumstances against him with a skill that at first seemed conclusive of his guilt. The first thing that occurred to make a weak link in their chain was the acknowledgment of a certain witness that the stick with which the murder was supposed to have been committed was not left on the spot by the accused, but by himself. Why he admitted that we can only conjecture, but my conjecture is that it was an act of repentance and contrition on his part. When it came to that point he could not let the evidence which he had himself supplied tell against him on whom it was clearly his object to father the crime. You will remember also that certain circumstances pointed to robbery being the motive of the crime. That I think was the first idea, so to speak of the real criminal. Then, we must suppose, he saw himself safer, if he forged against another certain evidence which we have heard."
The judge paused for a moment, and then went on with evident emotion.
"This case will never be reopened again," he said, "for a reason that I will subsequently tell the court; we have seen the last of this tragedy, and retribution and punishment are in the hands of a higher and supreme tribunal. This witness, Mr. Edward Taynton—has been for years a friend of mine, and the sympathy which I felt for him at the opening of the case, when a young man, to whom I still believe him to have been attached, was on his trial, is changed to a deeper pity. During the afternoon you have heard certain evidence, from which you no doubt as well as I infer that the fact of this murder having been committed was known to the man who wrote a letter and blotted it on the sheet which has been before the court. That man also, as it was clear to us an hour ago, directed a certain envelope which you have also seen. I may add that Mr. Taynton had, as I knew, an extraordinary knack of imitating handwritings; I have seen him write a signature that I could have sworn was mine. But he has used that gift for tragic purposes.
"I have just received a telegram. He left this court before the luncheon interval, and went to his house in Brighton. Arrived there, as I have just learned, he poisoned himself. And may God have mercy on his soul."
Again he paused.
"The case therefore is closed," he said, "and the court will rise for the day. You will please go out in silence."