SHE stood in the dock, barely conscious of her environment, clinging to the rail in front of her as if it were some sort of Rock of Ages cleft between her and the sea of troubles that overwhelmed her.
A thief—that was what they said—a thief. Shoplifter? A mean pilferer of unguarded trifles! Not that a compact gold manicure set was by any means a trifle.
She had come up from Shepperton for an afternoon's shopping. She, a young married woman with money in her purse, and in a social position which should have rendered her impervious to temptation. The mistress of a delightful home, with a mate occupying a sound position in the City. Holding her head high as she entered the mammoth store of Bronsons, intent upon the purchase of some expensive trifle—a wedding present for a friend who had been her bridesmaid less than a year ago. Happy and wholly care free.
What followed was like some evil dream. A long glass counter strewn with tempting objects in silver and gold, half a dozen women hanging over them in patent admiration—women, like herself, adumbrating prosperity. Then, like the flashing change of a kaleidoscope, a different and more terrible picture. A sudden stir, a commotion, the arm of a policeman grabbing a vanity bag (hers), and producing therefrom, like some grim conjuror, a gold manicure set which only a few moments before had been lying on the crystal surface of the table.
The kaleidoscope flashed once more on a prison cell, with a widely protesting woman passionately proclaiming her innocence. A long, distracting night in the cell, and now another and no less trying ordeal in the shabby police court whilst a trim, self-assured young woman from Bronsons was giving her evidence.
"No, your Worship," she said in answer to a question from the bench, "I did not actually see the theft committed. But my suspicions were aroused. Being one of the firm's lady detectives, it is my duty to keep a sharp look-out on certain counters. But I did see a hand move, and immediately I noticed that a certain article was no longer on the counter. I also saw a woman's open bag on the counter, and came to the conclusion that the missing article was inside it. I stopped the accused as she was leaving the shop without making a purchase and told her she would be detained. When the policeman came to examine the bag, the manicure set was discovered inside. Whereupon, acting on instructions, I gave accused into custody."
Very terse and to the point, but none the less damning for all that. Hopelessly, Elsie Squire lifted her eyes and glanced round the court. She met the glance of a man sitting behind the solicitors' table and forced a smile. She could see no condemnation in her husband's eyes, only a world of sympathy and suffering. It was good to know that one man in the world believed in her innocence, though all the rest of creation was against her. But here was the policeman giving his evidence.
"When called in," he said, "I found the prisoner detained in the office. In her bag I found the article which is the subject of the charge, and produce it in evidence."
"Is the prisoner represented?" the magistrate asked.
A little man in glasses bobbed up from his seat.
"She is, your Worship," he said. "I represent her. I hope to have an answer to the charge, however black appearances are against her. I ask for a remand for a week, bail being fixed as your Worship desires."
"Very well," the Bench decided. "The prisoner in £50 with a further surety in £100. Next case."
Outside in the sunshine a large saloon car was waiting. Into it Evan Squire handed his wife tenderly.
"You poor darling," he whispered passionately. "God, how much you must have suffered!"
"Then you don't believe, Evan?"
"That you would even dream of such a thing? Of course not. There is some diabolical trick of fate here. But, darling, how came your bag to be open on the counter?"
"I was taking out my handkerchief," Elsie explained. "Do you think it possible that, in replacing it, I swept the gold set into my bag? It was quite a bijou set."
It was possible, Squire admitted to himself. But all the theory in the world was so much beating of the wind.
"Are we going—home?" Elsie asked.
Impossible to face that, she was telling herself. Yet sooner or later such would have to be done, The home she loved so well! All those artistic treasures. The rose garden in the sun, the velvet tennis lawn. Never again could she see life from the same perspective. And the neighbors? The tennis club, the golf and badminton? She would have to resign, all these social amenities.
"I—I can't go back, Evan," she said piteously.
"Not until this ordeal is over, darling," Evan reassured her. "I have arranged all that. Last night and early this morning. I packed everything you need, all of which is in the luggage carrier behind us. We are on our way to Brighton now, where we shall stay until you... And I am taking a week off from the office. Garden has got a theory—"
"Garden? Who is he, Evan?"
"The little lawyer man who has your case in hand," Evan explained. "The thieves lawyer they call him. He knows the underworld better than anyone in London. Enormous practice in police courts. Recommended to me. And he's got a theory. He wouldn't say more than that. Cheer up, dear heart."
* * * * *
MONTAGU GARDEN, attorney at law, sat in his office interviewing a client. A youngish-looking woman in the early thirties with a personality all her own. Attractive undoubtedly, and dressed with that subtle mixture of simplicity and smartness one associates with one to the manner born. A cigarette was in her scarlet mouth, her legs crossed with easy abandon.
"In trouble again, Lil?" Garden asked with easy familiarity.
"You said it, Monty," the woman, known as Liverpool Lil in certain circles, replied. "Returning to my flat just now I smelt police. And there were the blighters. Search warrant probably. They didn't pipe me so I got out whilst the going was good."
"Expecting to be arrested any moment?"
"And here I am."
"You can put your shirt on that, Monty. And there's lots of stuff in the flat lifted from half the leading stores in the West End. Oh, I'm for it all right."
"Now how many times have I warned you... ."
"Oh? cut it out. Monty, I knew I was spotted last week in Savages, only the lady tec was not dead sure, funking a possible action for damages. You know the game."
Mr. Garden nodded. He most certainly knew the game.
"So they dropped the Yard a hint, and the Yard, knowing your record, has been shadowing you."
"The boy guessed right the very first time. I'll be for it any old time now, so the rest is up to you, Monty. Guilty, my Lord, and all that. Six months' hard, I expect—what?"
Mr. Garden shook his head doubtfully.
"Don't forget that this will be the third time of asking, so to speak," he said. "When they trace all that stuff in your flat there will be a dozen charges to meet. Of course we can plead guilty to the lot before they get their oar in and fight for summary jurisdiction. If his Worship is in one of his melting moods, we might get off lightly. By the way, is there anything of Bronsons in that little—er—collection of yours? Have you been a 'customer' there?"
"Only casually, Monty. The day before yesterday I did drop in there, and a jolly narrow squeak I had. When you have been at the game as long as I have, you learn to spot the lady tecs, by instinct, and keep your eyes skinned accordingly. I guess I gave that young woman something to think about."
Mr. Garden helped himself to a cigarette.
"Something original, eh?" he asked. "If you don't mind I should like to hear that story."
Liverpool Lil proceeded to tell it. There was a queer light in the eyes of the little attorney, though his fascinating client was unaware of that. When, at length, she had finished, he turned to her with a smile on his lips.
"How often have I told you—all your gang for the matter of that—how important it is to tell me everything? You are keeping something back. Something you are ashamed of, I am sure. Now, listen to me carefully. In the circumstances, I can't save you, because this will be the third time you have stood in the dock. But I might be able to get you away with six month in the second division if you will tell me everything—mind, everything, just as it happened when you dropped in at Bronson's the day before yesterday."
"You are a devil," the fascinating Lil exclaimed. "You spotted it at once, did you?"
"My dear girl, that's what I am here for. Half you people get into trouble and suffer because you won't even tell your own solicitor the whole truth about anything. Now, to begin with, how did you know that the police had a search warrant?"
"Oh, as to that," Lil said lightly. "I have friends in the force."
"Yes, I suppose you have, only we need not go into that side of the question now. What you have to do is to play the penitent. When you leave here, go straight to Scotland Yard and make a clean breast of it. I suppose I can take it that in your flat is more than one article that Savage's people can identify? In other words, you have not disposed of the whole of the loot you picked up during your visit to that establishment. Careless, careless, just like the rest of them. Are you never going to learn the necessity of getting rid of the stuff at once?"
"Guilty, my lord," Liverpool Lil laughed. "There were one or two things that I couldn't bear to part with. Well, there they are in my flat, or rather, there they were when I got the office about the search warrant. All that splosh is in the hands of Scotland Yard by this time, you bet."
"Yes," Garden grunted. "You can see it now, can't you? And you can see why I have got a bit of a task before me. And you can see why, when you get to Scotland Yard, you must disguise nothing. Why, the thing that you are ashamed to tell me is the very thing that is going to get you out of trouble. At least, I hope it will have its effect when we come before the Bench. You are a bit of an actress, aren't you, Lil? Play the penitent and shed tears without any special effort?"
"I can do all that," Lil boasted.
"Ah, that's what I want. Now we are getting on. You have to go to Scotland Yard with tears in your eyes, not dancing. Quite the humble transgressor seeking grace. But take care not to let whoever examines you know that you were put wise as to the raid on your flat. What you told me just now is going to help us both. Can't you see that?"
"Since you put it in that way, I can, but I should never have thought of it myself."
"Of course you wouldn't. If you and your kind always thought of those little things, It would be a poor look out for lawyers like myself. Now be off. Don't stand about here any longer. I am not in the least anxious to have my office visited by detectives. You are not supposed to have seen me at all, so far. You've got to assume that I know nothing until I am called in on your behalf and visit you in your cell. And, if I were you, I shouldn't take much trouble to avoid arrest."
* * * * *
FOR some time after his engaging client had left. Garden sat at his desk busy writing. Then he called up one or two people on the telephone and, locking his roll-topped desk, informed his confidential clerk that he was going off on business for the day, and would not be back before the following morning.
Half an hour later, he was on his way to Brighton. In the seclusion of a private hotel there, Evan Squire and his wife were passing the days dreading the hour when Elsie would once more stand in the dock with a certainty of shame and disgrace before her. So far, they had heard no more of the defence at which Garden had hinted, and were miserably speaking of it when the attorney himself walked into the room. There was a quiet smile on his face, at the sight of which Elsie's heart began to beat a little faster. Evan jumped on his feet.
"Any news?" he asked anxiously.
"News in plenty," Garden said. "For all I say it myself as shouldn't, it was one of the best day's work you ever did, Mr. Squire, when you decided to place your wife's case in my hands. I think I can say, without boasting, that practically all the swell mob in London have passed through my hands at one time or another. And a certain young woman of fascinating appearance and most beautifully dressed happens to be one of them. I assure you, Mr. Squire, if you met her in the street, or in a private house, you would be sure that she was to the manner born. As a matter of fact, she first saw the light in a Liverpool slub, though, to-day, you couldn't pick a flaw in her equipment."
"What's all this to do with us?" Evan asked.
"Well, the young woman in question is a client of mine, as I told you, and, at the present moment, is probably enjoying the hospitality of Scotland Yard. When you came to me, Mr. Squire, and told me the story of the gold manicure set, my mind at once jumped to a certain conclusion. Not a coincidence, because I know the underworld so well, and I know their ways so intimately that in 99 cases out of 100 I could put my finger upon the real delinquent without much trouble. That happens in the present instance. I have to be careful what I say, because the woman in the case is a client of mine as well as your wife, who, of course, is quite innocent."
"If we could only prove it," Evan sighed.
"That is exactly what I came down here to do. Now, this Liverpool expert, knowing that she is for it, and having had her flat searched for valuables lifted from various big stores, has by this time, told the authorities everything. I wonder if you can cast your mind back a little, Mrs. Squire. When you were standing by the jewellery counter at Bronsons, were there other women about you? Did you notice, for instance, one in an expensive sable coat who stood very close to you?"
"Oh, so I did," Elsie said. "A very distinguished looking woman—quite the aristocrat, in fact."
"Otherwise—well, you can guess. I mean, somebody who hailed from Liverpool. It was she who was the cause of all the mischief. Being very nearly caught by one of Bronson's lady detectives, she slipped the manicure set out of the palm of her hand into your bag. It was her one chance of getting away in safety. I got that out of her, because, indirectly, it is going to lead to a lighter sentence for her than she would have had otherwise. The conscience-stricken girl who read all about your case in the paper and has come forward, regardless of consequence to herself, because she could not bear to see another suffer for the crime she had committed herself. That you will hear from her own lips when your case comes up for hearing on the adjournment. Only never even think of this again."
"Oh, what a relief," Elsie sighed. "But do I really have to go to that dreadful court again?"
"Why, of course you do," Garden smiled. "I can arrange for Liverpool Lil's case to be taken just in front of yours. Then, the woman in the dock, with—ah—tears running down her face, will vindicate you completely. My dear lady, you will be news! Every daily paper in London will have a column about it. And, because my client has behaved so magnanimously. I am hoping that the magistrate will put her on probation, although she has been before him more than once. But the great point, Mrs. Squire, is that you will be entirely vindicated, and not even the most evil-minded person will be able to throw a stone at you. I think, in the circumstances, you won't mind facing a police court again. Instead of a criminal, everybody will be making a heroine of you."
"I don't want to be a heroine," Elsie wept happily. "All I want is to have this dreadful stain removed from my character, so that I can go home once more and face my friends, without any feeling of shame. I cannot quite understand how you managed it, Mr. Garden, but that does not make to feel any the less grateful. Oh, what it is to feel free once again!"