THE judge completed his address to the jury with a conventional peroration. It was Lent, and his robes were more sombre of hue than usual, yet he looked very young to be a judge of the King's Bench.
He had a small, sharp face, eyes deep-set and sparkling with good humour, nevertheless he was quick to lose his patience, easily irritated, ready with an acid tongue to correct, intolerant of humbug, infinitely just.
He finished his speech, leant back in his high chair with a quick jerk, and looked at the jury.
They were head to head, whispering decorously.
Then the foreman turned his face to the Bench.
'The jury wish to retire, my lord,' he said.
'Very well, very well,' said the judge, with indifference.
They stumbled down the two narrow wooden steps, these twelve good men, self-conscious of their importance. Each man gave a quick glance at the body of the court, taking in, first, the white-haired defendant, his black-rimmed monocle screwed into his right eye, his fresh-coloured face immovable and expressionless as that of a pink idol. He did not look toward them, because he did not care overmuch how the verdict went. Instinctively each man of the jury searched for the face of the plaintiff, but he had retired from the place he had occupied during the three days of the trial.
Ever a lover of an audience, he paced the great hall without in company with his counsel.
Reginald Saddin Sloe, Under-Secretary of State for Defence, needs no description of mine. Parry caricaturists have made the high forehead, the straight, thin nose, the plump, effeminate chin, and that up-brushed moustache of his, knowledgeable to more people in the world that will read this history. His eyes were blue, a thought too pale a blue to please most critics, his lips full. He smiled easily, showing two rows of even white teeth; but when he laughed he was disappointing, for his laugh was an explosive chuckle, and was without beauty.
If the jurymen did not see him they were perhaps a little relieved, for they had sat under his calm, benevolent gaze during the course of the case, until they had come to feel that they were rather the creatures of the plaintiff, his hired servants, holding their office at his will and on their good behaviour, rather than being the honest, independent men they were.
In the bare jury-room, with the door locked, and sworn custodian on the outside, they stood stretching their cramped limbs.
'Well, gentlemen,' said the foreman, with the show of geniality which his position demanded, 'what shall we say—plaintiff again?'
There was a reluctant murmur of assent, and a little man with a fringe of grey whisker shook his head so vigorously that his spectacles slipped from his nose.
'If there's justice in this land,' he said, settling his glasses right with one hand and groping vainly in his overcoat pocket for a handkerchief with the other, 'if the wells of truth ain't dried up, an'—an' bust, there ought to be some other verdict than one for the plaintiff.'
But the foreman was shaking his head, and he found imitators amongst his fellows.
'Weight of evidence, Mr Goss,' he said, 'weight of evidence—facts, facts, facts, my dear sir, not prejudice. We've got to go on evidence. The question is, did the Daily Journal libel Sloe when it said that he, being a Minister of the Crown, communicates Government secrets to a possible enemy?'
'Hear, hear,' muttered the rest of the jury.
'Did,' demanded the foreman, adopting a forensic tone, 'did the Daily Journal libel Sloe when it spoke of his being associated with a nest of international spies?'
'My own opinion,' said the dogged Mr Goss, planting himself more firmly in his chair, and looking up defiantly at his inquisitor, 'my own opinion is that it didn't—oh, I know all about the evidence, 'undreds of fellers ready to swear that he never did nothing!' In his indignation Mr Goss lost his grip on his mother tongue. 'Not a single witness to prove the Journal's words; 'undreds of witnesses to prove Sloe's an angel: Prime Minister, an' all the big pots.'
'Evidence, evidence,' murmured the foreman, tolerantly.
'An' don't you know that it's all true?' demanded little Mr Goss, jumping up and thumping the table indignantly; 'every word about Sloe is true! Ain't it the talk of London?'
'If it is,' replied the foreman, not without a touch of majestic pomposity, for he was a man of receptive mind, and the procedure of the court had impressed him, 'if all London knows, we must regard that as the direct result of the Journal's publication. Gentlemen, I think you will agree with me that a verdict for the plaintiff lies, and as to damages—'
'I don't agree!' stormed the little man, trembling with excitement; 'I will not be a party to allowing this blackguard to go to the world with a clean bill. Where are the Journal's witnesses?—spirited away?'
'Nonsense, Mr Goss!'
The foreman of the jury came down from his sublime heights and became humanly bad-tempered.
'Nonsense! Evidence—evidence—evidence! What's the good of your talking rubbish? Come here talking rot like that! Evidence! You can't get over the evidence. What was your oath? "And a true verdict given in accordance with the evidence, so help you God." Is that a fact, or isn't it? There's no doubt, there can be no reasonable doubt, that this is a case of spite—'
'But it ain't the Journal alone!' persisted the obstinate Mr Goss. 'All the papers have been doin' it. The Megaphone, The Telegram, The Newsletter, The Courier—his own party, Sloe's own party! We're wrong, we're wrong! I'm sure we're doin' wrong.' He wrung his hands and was on the verge of tears. 'But have it your own way. I'm done!'
And indeed he was, for he fell back in his chair physically exhausted with the strain.
'...We'll say ten thousand,' suggested the foreman, tentatively; 'it's a mere fleabite—eh, Mr Goss?'
'I don't care,' said the little man, listlessly; 'make it a million if you like.'
'We'll say ten thousand, gentlemen, eh?' The foreman had recovered his urbanity. 'After all, it was a bad libel...public man...might have ruined him, and all that. Ten thousand?'
He was ludicrously like an auctioneer as he peered expectantly round the faces at the table, as though in search of a higher bid. But no other suggestion came, and he rose, adjusted his tie, and gave the signal to the messenger of the court who waited outside the door.
The buzz of conversation died down as the twelve men filed into court, Mr Goss a listless old gentleman, with a fringe of grey whisker obtruding above his frayed collar.
'Gentlemen of the jury, have you agreed upon your verdict?'
'Do you find for the plaintiff or for the defendant?'
'For the plaintiff. We assess the damages at ten thousand pounds.'
'And is that the verdict of you all?'
Little Mr Goss strangled a protest in his throat, and nodded dumbly.
The white-haired man with the monocle rose and pulled down his waistcoat. There was a little smile on his hard mouth, a humorous glint in his eye. He lifted his immaculate silk hat from beneath the seat and carefully examined it. Then, with a slight inclination of his head to his solicitor, he walked out of court.
In the great hall he came face to face with his enemy, and for a second or so they stood looking at one another, the Under-Secretary showing his white teeth in undisguised triumph, the newspaper proprietor with his grim little shadow of a smile and his immovable, black-rimmed monocle.
'Fortunes of war, Sir Francis,' said Sloe, pleasantly.
The other man nodded, a quick jerk of a nod.
'I suppose anything I say now will be taken down as evidence and used against me?' he smiled.
'Not at all, Sir Francis,' said the Minister; 'we are not vindictive.' He put out his hand. 'I think you are quite at liberty to add any comment you wish.'
'I will only say this,' said the newspaper proprietor, 'that for the moment you are too clever for us. We believe, indeed we know, that you are something worse than a traitor; but you are genius enough to hide your tracks so well that, unless we had the aid of the Government, which we never have had, there is no hope of detecting you—at present,' he added.
Sloe laughed a noiseless little chuckle of sheer delight.
'I cannot dissipate your illusions, so it is rather useless to protest. Is that all you have to say?'
'Only this,' said Sir Francis Wilton, slowly, 'the cleverest men make a slip. It is the history of all—' he paused—'shall I say clever men? Some stupid, foolish blunder, which undoes all the careful and well-arranged plans of years. It is the Nemesis that waits upon the super-criminal. Good-morning.'
Sloe was still smiling as he made an elaborate bow. He exchanged a few words with his solicitor, congratulated his counsel, and stepped into his car.
A quarter of an hour later he was its his handsome flat at Albert Gate. Save for his valet it was empty, and him he dispatched upon a message to Whitehall. He passed into his study, closed and locked the door behind him, and drew a heavy silken curtain across the door to afford him even greater security.
He took a bunch of keys from his pocket, pulled back the panel which hid the safe let in the wall, and opened the heavy steel door. He unlocked a drawer, and from this extracted a large envelope. He carried it to the writing-table, took from the writing-desk an empty parchment envelope, and put it by his side. Then he examined the contents of the dossier he had taken from the safe. Everything was there. The thin, paper-covered code-book, the correspondence which had passed between him and von Schroeder, the duplicate plans of the Harwich defences, the mobilization mine-field chart, quite sufficient indeed to have made the name of Reginald Sloe execrated, and to have brought a brilliant Under-Secretary to a felon's cell.
He laughed as he turned them over one by one, checking them carefully before he inserted them in the parchment envelope.
You are a little too dangerous,' he said, playfully; 'what would not my friend Sir Francis give for these? Back you go to Holland. Wilton has scared me.'
Wilton was the most dangerous of all. He had no difficulty in securing apologies from the other papers who had printed stories from their Amsterdam correspondents, but Wilton had twice fought an action, had twice lost; but with each case the mud had stuck.
Reginald Sloe was a bold man and conscienceless. He could walk into a witness-box and lie so perfectly that he deceived himself. But the Journal case had shaken him. He would seal up the envelope and trust it to that safest of repositories, the general post. The packet should go to Herr von Schroeder, and nobody would be any the wiser. He was thinking of Francis Wilton as he licked down the flap. He was smiling over his enemy's discomfiture as he poured out the three little pools of sealing-wax and pressed down the seal of his department. He was still smiling when he wrote the address.
Wilton was in his thoughts all the way between the flat and the General Post Office, and when the great envelope finally disappeared from sight in the big box marked 'Foreign Correspondence', the picture of the grey-haired editor was still in his mind.
One little slip—the cleverest make them, he thought. Somehow he knew that the journalist was right. Very well, then; there should be no opportunities for such a slip. Schroeder must send him nothing more. No further communications must pass.
He was cheerful for the rest of the day; went to the House in the happiest frame of mind, and received the congratulations of his colleagues; retired that night with a sense of relief which had not been his for weeks; and was humming a tune at his breakfast the next morning, when Superintendent Maguires, of Scotland Yard, came into his room and arrested him.
For the envelope he had sent away had been addressed mechanically.
'Sir Francis Wilton,
'Editor of the Daily Journal,