MRS. WESTBROOKE, with a few well-chosen words of apology, dropped into her chair at the dining-room table and unfolded her napkin. It was the usual Wednesday night dinner-party for which Sir John and Lady Cardwell were noted, and the usual brilliant knot of men and women had gathered there. Mrs. Westbrooke had been late, but she certainly did not convey the impression that she had, within the last hour, returned to London from the Continent, after a long and trying journey. She was serene and calm as usual, perfectly dressed, and beautiful in her stately way. She did not look anything like her thirty-five years, and those who knew her wondered what her secret was. Hers had been a stormy life, and it was only recently that she had found her way into a harbour of peace and serenity. Now she was rich, and had all the world before her.
She glanced casually round the table, with its flowers and ferns and shaded lights, the last person in the world whom anyone might associate with care or strife or tragedy. Despite her serenity, she was here looking for someone, and presently she found him.
He was on the other side of the table, discussing some passing topic with his dinner partner. Edgar Remington was a man who would have attracted attention anywhere, not so much from his good looks or striking personality as by his peculiar and forceful magnetism. As a matter of fact, he was plain in feature, coarse cut, and rugged—the bulldog type; deep of voice and tenacious of purpose. The men at the Bar, who ought to know, prophesied that Remington would go a long way. He was quite a modern product—extension schools' scholarship, university and Bar prizeman, son of a Noncomformist minister, with a strong leaning towards politics. His chance had come now, and he was going to make the best of it. He knew perfectly well that if he succeeded in getting a verdict of acquittal for Julius Maxwell on the morrow the rest of the way along the path would be easy. Everybody was talking about the case; it was one of those criminal romances that gripped the popular imagination in the club and cottage alike. It was even being discussed fitfully round Lady Cardwell's dinner-table.
At first everything had pointed to a verdict of guilty. Nobody doubted that Maxwell had deliberately murdered the man who had been his greatest benefactor, and whose money he had expected to inherit. The prisoner had been a bad lot from the first. He had been expelled from school, he had left Oxford under a heavy cloud, and a few years later he had been forced to resign the membership of his clubs. There was more than one of Lady Cardwell's guests who had know Mrs. Maxwell, the pretty, pathetic little woman whose heart had been broken by her rascally husband's cruelty. She was supposed to have died abroad somewhere, leaving a daughter behind her, but on this latter point nobody seemed to be quite sure. Certainly no self-respecting girl would be likely to come forward and own Julius Maxwell as her father. One quidnunc declared that Maxwell's daughter had come into money and changed her name. At any rate, the only person in the world that Julius Maxwell could turn to at the finish was his Uncle John—the man who had been found murdered in the library three months before, in circumstances that pointed to the guilt of his scapegrace nephew.
The dead man had been found in his house in Portman Square when the servants had come down one morning early in October. The old man had been murdered, without a doubt, but no clue had been left behind, and nothing apparently was missing until it was discovered, a few days later, that the murdered man had withdrawn from his bank five hundred pounds in notes on the eve of the crime, and of these there was no trace whatever. For three months the police had searched for them in vain, but up to now not one of them had been put in circulation.
Still, gradually and surely, the authorities worked up a strong case against the accused. For three days now the counsel for the Crown had been unfolding his story, and when he finally sat down there was not a single person in the court who would have given sixpence for the life of the prisoner.
Then had come Remington's chance. For two days he fought for the life of his client as if it had been his own. He was the most-talked of man in England now, and he knew it. He stood there quiet and calm, with the air of one who felt himself to be a victor, and unfolded a marvellous and ingenious defence. Apparently he was going to rely entirely upon an alibi—a dangerous thing in any but the most skilful hands. And yet, so well had he worked it that, when the court rose at five o'clock that afternoon, the betting on the verdict was even.
It was not that a single listener to that battle of wits entertained the slightest doubt as to the guilt of the prisoner. Everybody knew that he was guilty. He carried it in his face and his furtive eye and nervous twitching of his hands. And yet Remington had established the doubt, and as he sat there placidly eating his dinner he knew that, with the coming out of the evening papers, tomorrow he would be famous.
The dinner dragged its slow length along, the coffee and liqueur stage reached at length, and the cigarettes were handed round.
Mrs. Westbrooke changed her chair, and, with a skilful move, found herself seated next to Remington. The two were acquainted of course, but they were not in the feast intimate.
Remington welcomed Mrs. Westbrooke with a proper shade of deference, for he was not insensible to her popularity and influence; but he would willingly have changed the conversation.
"Really," he said, "I think we've discussed my client long enough. Besides, it is hardly the sort of topic for a dinner where ladies are present. What do you say, Mrs. Westbrooke?"
"Well, I am interested enough," Mary Westbrooke said. "But I am not so much interested in your client as yourself."
"That is very nice and flattering."
"I don't think so. Now, I don't understand the aspect of the legal mind in the least. I am going to be frightfully rude, Mr Remington. I am going to exercise the privilege of my sex and ask an impertinent question. Do you honestly believe that your client is innocent?"
Remington shrugged his shoulders.
"Has that anything to do with the case?" he asked. "I am merely an instrument—what the criminal classes call a 'mouthpiece.' A certain solicitor comes to me with a brief to defend Maxwell, and I undertake the defence."
"Do you think that Maxwell is innocent?"
"My dear lady," Remington said patiently, "it is not for me to say. I want you to understand that the man is my client. He has assured me and his solicitor that he is the victim of circumstances, and, after discussing all the points, we decided to set up a certain line of defence."
"And a very brilliant line of defence, too," Mrs Westbrooke smiled. "That is what everybody says. I understand that the prisoner is likely to be acquitted tomorrow. But you have not yet answered my question. Do you think Maxwell is guilty?"
Remington protested politely. Really, this sort of thing was not fair. He was doing no more than his duty; he was acting entirely according to precedent laid down in the long and glorious traditions of the English Bar. He could not discuss his client's guilt or innocence with anyone. Could not Mrs. Westbrooke see that it was not a personal matter?
"It would be awkward for you," she said, "if by some chance the missing bank-notes suddenly appeared. If one of them could be traced to your client, what would you have to say then?"
Remington shrugged his shoulders.
"There would be an end to the case as far as I am concerned," he said. "Of course, you mean if the fact were brought to my personal knowledge. Then I should be robbed of my triumph, and you would say it served me right. I am trying to see your point of view, Mrs. Westbrooke. According to you, none of us are sportsmen. If you had your way, no noted criminal would ever be represented in the courts. Once a man was taken to be guilty, then every barrister would turn his back upon him. Now, that is not my view at all. If I were briefed to defend a murderer, I would do my best for him, even if his victim were my own brother. It is entirely a matter of the point of view. In your eyes I am no sportsman, and in my eyes you are arguing from an entirely false perspective. You won't mind my saying that you speak as if you had a personal bias against Maxwell."
Mrs. Westbrooke's eyes flashed ominously.
"I have," she said. "Maxwell's unhappy wife was one of my dearest friends. I will make you a present of that."
Remington looked just a little relieved. He was not displeased that the argument should take on a personal aspect. Anybody listening—and most of the guests were—would attribute Mrs. Westbrooke's anger entirely to her loyalty towards her dead friend. Remington smiled in a tolerant way.
"I thought you didn't mean quite all that you said," he remarked. "Of course, I am not going to defend my client as a model of virtue. I would not be seen in the street with him, for instance. But at the same time I am not admitting that he was responsible for the death of his uncle. We don't want to go into details."
"Julius Maxwell is an abandoned scoundrel," Mrs. Westbrooke said. "He started life with a great advantage. He had money, and when he had dissipated that he married a fortune. He spent every penny of his wife's money, and ill-treated her into the bargain. He behaved so badly that his only daughter left him, and was so ashamed of her father's record that she changed her name. She got her own living as a typist and shorthand clerk in the city. She thought she was safe; but, unfortunately, she also had a large amount left her. That man found it out, and followed her everywhere. For eighteen months he made the poor girl's life a burden. From her he had all her income; she could not touch her principal because she was not of age. She lived in the meanest lodgings on the Continent, and frequently was short of food. I found her not long ago playing a violin in a Viennese restaurant. She told me her story, and I managed to get her away to a place where her father could not find her. For the last three or four months Julius Maxwell has been living on his wits. I have seen him once or twice. And I firmly believe that he called upon his uncle on the night of the crime and murdered him for the sake of that money."
"Which has not been traced to him," Remington suggested.
"No; but I am sure it will be," Mrs. Westbrooke went on. "Of course, you will say assumption is not evidence."
"Julius Maxwell was forbidden his uncle's house, remember," Remington smiled. "He never called there; indeed, we have the evidence of the servants to prove that."
"I suggest that he had a latch key," Mrs. Westbrooke said. "He used to live with his uncle at one time. He waited till late at night, and let himself in with the old latch key, having no doubt discovered that the butler had leave of absence till the small hours to attend a servants' dance. We know, therefore, that the front door was only on the latch, which you will admit is a point in favour of my argument. I don't say that Julius Maxwell intended to kill his uncle, but I am sure that he did it, probably tempted by the sight of those notes. And I am quite sure that you will agree with me."
Remington protested vigorously. All the same, he was not altogether at ease in his mind. To begin with, there was a good deal in what Mrs. Westbrooke had said. Why should a man use his talents and mental qualities to achieve the liberty of another man whom he knew to be a danger to society? And yet every ambitious member of the Bar was only too anxious for the opportunity. He had worked out an ingenious defence for Maxwell, and everybody was talking about it. If he could get the man off, then his reputation and fortune were made. He would be able to go to Grace Eversfield, and declare his love for her without anybody being able to say that his affections were inspired by her money.
But deep down in his heart he knew that his client was guilty. He could see it in the shifty eye and the quivering lip, could hear it in the hoarse voice and the throaty question. He knew that he was about to release on society a scoundrel who ought to have been destroyed like a mad dog years ago. It was all very well to advance his sophistries and quote his list of precepts to Mrs. Westbrooke, but he winced under her flashing eye and the cold contempt of her tongue.
She turned from him presently as if the argument was finished, and for the rest of the evening seemed to avoid him. It was only when her car was announced that she approached him again, with an offer of a lift.
"I hope you don't think I have been too horrible to you?" she said. "But it is a point upon which I feel very strongly, and I should have said just as much even if I had not known Julius Maxwell and that poor girl of his. May I give you a lift in my car? I think you go my way; and, besides, there is something I want to say to you."
"I am quite at your disposal," Remington said.
A little later, and he found himself seated in the cosy drawing-room of Mrs. Westbrooke's luxurious flat. She pressed him into a chair, and with her own dainty hands waited upon him. She gave him cigarettes, she poured out his whisky and soda and placed it on a little table at his elbow. Remington might have been some invalid waited upon by a loving nurse. It was all very flattering and pleasant, but there was a sympathy and a shade of pity in Mrs. Westbrooke's eyes that made him feel a little anxious and uncomfortable.
"You are too good to me," he murmured. "What have I done that you should be so kind to a mere barrister?"
"We are just coming to that," Mrs. Westbrooke said. "My dear boy, I am going to give you a shock. I have watched you a great many years; I am always interested in the career of brilliant young men, even if they happen to be barristers, which is a profession that I hate. You have done exceedingly well, and I always admired the way in which you kept up your friendship with Grace Eversfield, even though she remained in an office and you were beginning to make a mark at the Bar. I think there was some sort of an understanding between you even before Grace came in to her money and went abroad."
"That's true enough," Remington said simply. "I never cared for anybody but Grace. I could not marry her because marriage is a terrible handicap to a young man just starting life. Grace knew that, of course. We understood one another perfectly, though no word of love had ever passed between us. I dare say you will think that this sounds very sordid and calculating, but it is nothing of the sort. Then Grace came into her money, and I—well, I persuaded her to have six months' holiday on the Continent. You can call it pride, if you like. I wanted her to see something of the world, to see other men, to mix with good people. And then, if she was still of the same mind—Oh, you know what I mean. I played the game, though I am only a barrister who is defending a rascal for the sake of fame and money. And if I get him off I am a made man. Then, Mrs. Westbrooke, I shall go straight to Grace——"
Remington's voice trailed off in a whisper. Mrs. Westbrooke was regarding him with infinite pity in her eyes.
"I do understand," she said. "I understand far better than you imagine. Did Grace Eversfield ever tell you the story of her life? Did she ever speak of her parents?"
"Only that she was unhappy at home. I know that she lost her mother years ago, and that her father is a mauvais sujet. She has not seen him for a long time. And she was anxious that he should not know of her good fortune. What——"
Remington broke off suddenly. He could see swift illumination in Mrs. Westbrooke's sorrowful eyes.
"Good God!" he cried. "You don't mean to say—you don't mean to say that Grace is the daughter of that abandoned scoundrel on whom all my hopes are based?"
He rose to his feet and paced up and down the floor agitatedly. The thing was impossible, incredible. Yet he could see no denial in Mrs. Westbrooke's eyes.
"I knew it would be a great shock to you," she said. "But it is true, all the same. That is why I brought you here tonight. I had to tell you. A part of the pitiful story you already know. Grace's mother was my greatest friend. Many a time have I sheltered her here when her husband's violence had driven her into the street. There was nothing of that horrible story that I did not know. When the poor woman died I helped Grace to get her situation. I encouraged her to hide her identity, and advised her to betray it to no one unless she was compelled to do so. I did not see that anyone should know, except, perhaps, the man that she was going to marry. I should not tell you this now if you had not been so candid. And, besides, there are urgent reasons why you should be informed. At any rate, you are defending Grace's father, and, if you succeed, then the poor child will never rest till he has the last penny she possesses. And everybody, sooner or later, must know the sordid story. I suppose what I have said makes no difference?"
"How can it?" Remington groaned. "Don't you see that my whole professional career is at stake? I must go on. I cannot recognise a personal side of this business. It is very terrible, of course; but you see how helpless I am. I must assume that my client is innocent until he is proved to be guilty. The defence I have prepared——"
"Is in your opinion impregnable," Mrs. Westbrooke interrupted.
"I don't see how anything could shake it. So long as those notes cannot be traced, Maxwell is safe."
"And if the notes could be traced? If even one of them could be shown to have been in Maxwell's possession?"
"Then the whole thing collapses like a house of cards. But for goodness sake don't tell me that it is in your power? It would be as good as ruin! I should have to tell my client's solicitor, and withdraw from the case; that is, unless Maxwell would plead guilty. Why, if I dared to go on, knowing the ghastly truth, I should be driven from the Bar in disgrace. Please tell me nothing. If you want to appear as a witness——"
"Ah! there spoke the special pleader," Mrs. Westbrooke cried. "But I am going to speak, though your future career at the Bar depended upon my silence. I am only concerned with the happiness of that dear child—yes, and your happiness, too. She must not be dragged into this business; the scandal must not be made public. No, I cannot permit you to pass. I knew that I was going to meet you tonight, and I made up my mind to bring you here—because I wanted to show you this."
As Mrs. Westbrooke spoke she took an oblong piece of paper from the desk and handed it to Remington.
"This is a five-pound note," she said. "Will you please look at the number. If you do, you will see that it is one of the notes which the police are seeking for in connexion with the Maxwell murder case."
"That is quite right," Remington murmured. "I know the numbers of the missing notes by heart."
"Will you kindly turn it over?" Mrs. Westbrooke went on. "On the back of it you will see Julius Maxwell's signature and the date. Now, I dare say you will wonder how this came into my possession. On the night of the crime I was passing through London on my way to Paris, only staying here one evening. I did not return from a dance till two o'clock to the morning, when I found Julius Maxwell awaiting me. He was wild and excited, and anything but sober.
"He told me that he had been arrested shortly after midnight in some low gambling-den, and that some equally low associates had gone bail for him. He had given a false name to the police, and was quite sure he would get off before the magistrate with a fine. There was some pressing reason why no one should know that he was in London. He tried to borrow money from me, but I refused to lend him a penny. He went away, and then returned a few moments later with the note you have in your hand. Knowing my man, and feeling sure he had stolen the note, I made him endorse it. No doubt he paid his fine and got away without recognition. The next morning I left for Paris; and I never heard a word of the tragedy till I got back here yesterday. And now, what are you going to do about it? I have placed in your hands enough evidence to hang Maxwell twice over. I am only doing my duty. I might have come into court and given my evidence without saying a word to you. But Grace is a second daughter to me, and I want, if possible, to preserve her from the terrible scandal. It seems to me that the rest is entirely in your discretion."
Remington sat there for a few moments with his head in his hands. Here was a situation entirely without precedent; here was his ambition in ruins at his feet.
"I shall thank you later on," he said. "Meanwhile, may I use your telephone? Thanks very much..."
"Is that you, Gregory?... Yes, I want to see you at once. Maxwell will have to plead guilty... Yes, I'll come round at once."