THE tragic death of Lord Mornington, and the dramatic arrest of his nephew, Guy Windsor, in connection with the mysterious affair, formed one of the most exciting police episodes of last year. It will be just as well, perhaps, in the first instance, to set out the facts briefly and succinctly.
As everybody remembers, the late Lord Mornington had been an eccentric nobleman, a great collector of works of art, and a man who was known to be enormously rich. But for his ungovernable temper and arbitrary manners he probably would have occupied a high place in politics. He was by no means popular. He had practically no friends. He was a confirmed mysogynist. He made no secret of the fact that he trusted no one, believed in no one, and suspected everybody of an inclination to rob him. The only individual who succeeded in any way in keeping on fair terms with his Lordship was a nephew of his, Eric Kearton by name. Kearton was a young man of the greatest respectability. He had an even temperament and was one of the meek and mild type of people who invariably wear spectacles, and have a weakness for University extension lectures and such serious frivolities. Probably because here was a man he could bully and browbeat, Lord Mornington had given this relative of his the ran of his cottage.
It was near this cottage on the Yorkshire coast that the crime took place. From time to time Lord Mornington would quit London or his magnificent family seat near Chester, for a lonely spot on the Yorkshire coast, not very far from Hull, where he did entirely for himself, even to the cooking of his own food. He frequently stayed here for months, refusing to see anybody, with the exception of Kearton or Guy Windsor, and never so much as drawing a cheque. As a rule, when on these excursions, he drew three or four hundred pounds in cash, and used this till it was exhausted. The figure of the sturdy old man with his string bag and brown-paper parcels was a familiar one in Hull. It was quite a usual thing to see him striding out of the town with half-a-dozen herrings in one hand and a packet of groceries in the other. People had come to take Mornington quite as a matter of course, so that he was left to the solitude which he seemed to desire.
The old man's title devolved naturally upon his nephew Guy. But the estates were not entailed, and Lord Mornington could leave his property where he pleased. He had been understood to say that he meant to will it all to charities, but he was precisely the kind of man who dies eventually without making a will at all, thus enabling his legal heirs to come into their own at last.
In the meantime both nephews were poor enough. There was nothing wrong about Guy Windsor, but he appeared disinclined to settle down to anything; he spent most of his time in idle pleasure, and frequently knew what it was to be hard up for a sovereign. It was just at this time that affairs reached a crisis, and he conceived the idea of calling upon his uncle for assistance. The upshot was inevitable. The old man refused the request in the coarsest and plainest terms, and Guy Windsor, who was anything but a prudent young man, lost his temper and made use of threats which, unfortunately, were overheard by other people. The same day he left the cottage, saying that he was going to Hull on particular business, and that he meant to cross over to Holland the next day. An hour or two later, Eric Kearton, who had finished some literary work for his uncle, left the neighbourhood also, with a view to going over the Border for a day or two's fishing in one of the Scottish trout-streams.
At eleven o'clock the next morning the body of Lord Mornington was found in a thick mass of furze on a lonely spot near the edge of the cliffs. The cliffs were high and rugged here, portions of them were cut off from the mainland in the shape of spurs and rugged promontories, and here the sea-birds nested in great quantities. The spurs were almost inaccessible, therefore there were many rare and curious birds here which were not seen elsewhere, and which had become nearly extinct in the British Isles. It was one of the bird-hunters who found the body of the murdered man.
That he had been murdered there was no doubt. He lay on his back within a few feet of the edge of the cliff just away from a screen of gorse bushes. There was a deep stab over the region of the heart, wdiich had been fatal in its effect. So far as the police could judge, robbery was not the motive, for the old man's purse and watch and rings were intact; his papers had not been disturbed. The whole thing caused the greatest excitement in the neighbourhood, which excitement was doubled later on in the day as the intelligence came to hand that Guy Windsor had been arrested in Hull and charged with the commission of the crime. His threats were remembered now, and, what was more to the point, he had in his possession over three hundred pounds in gold, while only the day before he was known to be absolutely penniless. The young man had protested vigorously against the action of the police. He told an almost impossible story to account for the possession of so much money. He had been chosen—or so he said —by an old friend of his family to go to St. Petersburg at once, with a view to saving an Englishman there from serious disgrace. It was only a matter of hours, Windsor said. It was necessary that the money should be placed in the mysterious individual's hands, or a well-known family would be dishonoured. In ordinary circumstances this explanation would pass easily enough, but it was not good enough for the police. From their point of view it merely made matters worse.
It was in vain that Windsor raved and protested—in vain that he offered to find surety for his appearance. But the police were deaf to all his entreaties, and the next morning Guy Windsor was brought before the local magistrate charged with being concerned in the death of Lord Mornington. There was little or no evidence at the first hearing, but the police promised to bring forward further testimony, and Windsor was removed in custody till the next day.
As was only natural in the circumstances, the affair caused a tremendous sensation. The next day's papers teemed with details. The news was flashed from one end of the country to the other. In a few hours the whole nation was discussing the death of Lord Mornington.
From the first it was felt that the police had put their hands upon the guilty man.
Guy Windsor did not look in the least like a criminal as he stood in the dock the next morning. He listened with more or less impatience to the police evidence. The case dragged itself wearily along. One witness after another came forward, but the packed audience seemed to be doomed to disappointment in their expectations. It was nearly two o'clock before the chairman of the Bench hinted that the case had better be further adjourned, whereupon the barrister who defended the prisoner protested.
"At any rate, your Worships, I must ask for bail," he said. "I am prepared to admit that appearances are against my client, but nothing has actually been proved against him yet. And there is nothing to connect liim with the crime."
"The possession of all that money," the chairman suggested, "The prisoner is a poor man?"
"We can account for that," the lawyer said. "Professor Stewart, the eminent naturalist, will come down and give evidence on Tuesday, if necessary, and he will tell you exactly where the three hundred pounds found on my client came from. We shall prove that not a penny of it was ever in the possession of Lord Mornington. It is on these grounds that we demand bail."
There was a stir amongst the audience at this. Professor Stewart was a man of world-wide reputation. As an authority on birds and their habits he stood unrivalled. For the last three or four months he had more or less lived upon the cliffs, and Guy Windsor had been his constant companion. There was a certain amount of risk and hazard attached, which appealed to a young man of sporting instincts, and the great ornithologist had found him invaluable.
"And why is not Professor Stewart here?" the chairman asked. "He was in the neighbourhood two days ago."
Counsel for the prisoner proceeded to explain. The Professor had had some trouble with his bird-camera. He had gone off hot-foot to set it right. Besides, there were a lot of plates which he had recently exposed that he wished to have developed. They were still elaborating this point when Windsor's solicitor rushed into court, evidently labouring under some great excitement. He raised a telegram above his head.
"I have just heard from Professor Stewart," he cried. "I have had this long telegram from him. I know this interruption is out of order, your Worships, and I hope you will pardon me. Professor Stewart wires that he has just read all about the case, and that if you will adjourn till Tuesday, he pledges his word to bring forward such evidence as will clear the accused beyond the shadow of a doubt. You may see the telegram for yoursslves."
The flimsy paper was passed from hand to hand along the Bench, and each of the magistrates scanned it gravely. It was quite evident that the contents of the telegram had shaken them in their certainty of the prisoner's guilt. A man with the unrivalled reputation of Professor Stewart would scarcely have indited a message like that unless he had been absolutely sure of his ground. Not the least pregnant part of the telegram was the concluding line to the effect that the money found on the prisoner had been paid to him by the Professor himself, and that it was on the Professor's business that Windsor was going to St. Petersburg.
"After that," counsel said in tones of quiet triumph, "my application for bail must succeed. I will ask for an adjournment till Tuesday, so as to enable Professor Stewart to make all the necessary arrangements. Meanwhile, my client can get to St. Petersburg and back by that time."
"We shall want substantial bail," the chairman said hesitatingly. "Two securities of five thousand each."
The securities were tendered on the spot, and Guy Windsor left the court with his friends. To a certain extent the whole thing was irregular, but then the moral pressure was great, and just for a moment the police authorities were too staggered to protest. Naturally enough, this strange and startling evidence gave a new fillip to the interest which had been taken in the Mornington tragedy. It was late the same night before Professor Stewart returned to his own quarters, which consisted of rooms in a farmhouse on the side of the cliff. Amongst the distinguished man's first visitors was the inspector of police.
"I hope you won't mind my troubling you, sir," Inspector Wild said, "but I am greatly worried over this case. I wish to be fair. But the Bench had no business to grant that bail this morning. Of course, if you really think that your evidence will be conclusive--"
"I don't think anything about it," the Professor said, with a gleam behind his spectacles. "I am absolutely certain. On Tuesday morning I shall prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that Mr. Guy Windsor is absolutely innocent, which ought to satisfy even your scruples. But I shall go further than that. I shall be able to point out the actual murderer and hand him over to your custody. The whole proofs form a strange instance of the power of modern science, aided by a distinct intervention on the part of Providence. Now, my dear inspector, do you know anything about birds?"
"Well, no," said the inspector, somewhat disconcerted, "though I had a fine collection of eggs when I was a boy."
"Ah, in that case, you know most of the rare feathered visitors here, then. Did you ever hear, for instance, of a beautiful bird called the Swallows-tailed Kite?"
"He was a tradition when I was a boy," the inspector said. "But I don't think one of them has been seen for years. They are extinct."
"On the contrary, a pair of these birds are at present nesting on Steeple Crag. Steeple Crag, as you are aware, is one of the sharp spurs of cliff just off the mainland, where the body of Lord Mornington was found. I have seen them for myself, and between ourselves, if those birds hadn't been there, it is highly probable that young Guy Windsor would have been hanged for a crime he never committed. Now you can go home to supper and work the matter out for yourself. You won't get a single word out of me till Tuesday."
Left to himself, the Professor proceeded to the impromptu dark-room which he had made for himself in one of the cellars of the farmhouse. Apparently his work pleased him, for he returned presently with a bundle of photographs in his hand which he proceeded to lock carefully away in his safe. The whole of the next day he appeared to be closely occupied with his bird studies on the cliffs, but in reality he was searching for something which he appeared to have some difficulty in finding. He came upon it presently in a rugged cart-track leading to the heart of the moors, and then he chuckled to himself as he followed the trail till he struck a deserted road facing due north. He walked down to the village and despatched half-a-dozen telegrams. It was nearly midnight before a powerful-looking motor drove up in front of the farmhouse, and Stewart came out without delay. He was used to coming and going in this way, so that the farmer and his wife expressed no surprise.
Late on Monday evening, before Stewart returned, when he got into his rooms, he found Eric Kearton awaiting him. The latter appeared to be somewhat nervous and excitable. He removed his spectacles from time to time and wiped them, as if the beads of moisture thereon interfered with his sight.
"I came to see you. Professor," he said, "in response to your telegram. I am afraid that my evidence will not be of the slightest use; and if I gave it, I should probably do poor Guy more harm than good. You see, I left here very early on the day of the tragedy, and I have been fishing ever since."
"One never can tell," the Professor said cheerfully. "You see, I happen to know something, and I don't agree with you. Between ourselves, we shall manage to get Windsor off with flying colours. Now, you see if I don't prove to be a true prophet."
Once more Kearton wiped his spectacles nervously.
NATURALLY enough the little court-house was crammed to suffocation when Guy Windsor surrendered to his bail on Tuesday morning. People had come from far and near. Most of the leading newspapers had sent special reporters. The expectation of something out of the common did not appear likely to be gratified at first, for the prosecution began by the calling of Eric Kearton. Anything less like tragedy or anything more like middle-class mediocrity it was impossible to imagine. The shy little man stood in the witness-box wiping his spectacles nervously. The reporters leant back in their seats and studied the quaint rafters of the old Sessions House. Here was more material for descriptive matter than they were likely to make out of the witness.
As a matter of fact, Eric Kearton had very little to say. He could testify to the fact that Lord Mornington and Guy Windsor were not on the best of terms. He had been present and had heard most of the quarrel between the deceased and the accused man. At the end of a quarter of an hour counsel for the Crown waved the witness aside with an air of more or less contempt, and intimated that he might stand down. With a look of intense relief on his face, Kearton prepared to leave the witness-box.
"One moment, please," the defending barrister said suavely. "I should like to ask you a few questions. For instance, are you a single or a married man?"
A sudden hush fell upon the assembled spectators. Some instinct seemed to tell them that they were on the verge of the sensational. The reporters took up their pencils again.
"I—I beg your pardon," Kearton stammered.
"I asked you a plain question. Are you married or not?"
"I don't see," the witness said hesitatingly, "why--"
"Are you married or not?" counsel thundered.
The witness was understood to say that he was. He glanced in a timid, apprehensive way at his tormentor.
"Very good," the latter went on. "You are a married man. I put it to you that yours is a secret marriage, and that none of your friends know anything about it. I put it to you that you had good reason for concealing the fact from Lord Mornington."
"I deemed it wiser," Kearton murmured.
"Very good. I understand that your wife is a variety actress."
"That is so," the witness replied.
"Ah, well, now we understand. A secret marriage which had to be kept from your relative. You naturally had hopes of sharing some of his money? You know perfectly well that if you had disclosed the fact that you had made a mésalliance of this kind, you would never have been under your uncle's roof again?"
"There is no harm in it," the witness pleaded.
"Oh, certainly not," counsel said drily. "Are you on friendly terms with your wife? Haven't you rather neglected her of late? And didn't she threaten to write to Lord Mornington? As a matter of fact, now, didn't a letter from her to Lord Mornington arrive the day before his death? Now, please be careful, because I know what I am talking about, and I want a plain answer."
"I—I believe so," Kearton confessed.
"Thank you. Now, we will go a little further. Early on the morning of Lord Mornington's death, or late the night before, you went north for the purpose of fishing. I understand that till late last night you did not return to this neighbourhood. Now, sir, on your oath, are you prepared to swear that you were nowhere in the neighbourhood on the day the crime was committed?"
"Certainly I was not!" the witness cried.
"Very well. Now, how did you go to Scotland, and how did you return? I mean in what way did you travel?"
"Why, in the ordinary way. By train, of course."
"Oh, indeed! You didn't go either way by motor, I suppose? You didn't hire a motor in the first instance to take you to Scotland?"
The witness shook his head, but did not speak.
"In that case," the counsel went on, "you have never heard of Messrs. Greatorex, of Hull, the motor-garage people?"
Again the witness shook his head. He seemed bereft of the power of speech. He wiped his spectacles again.
"I have no further questions to ask for the present," the counsel said. "I shall be able to prove to your Worships later on that the witness hired a motor-car to take him to Scotland and bring him back again, and that he was actually seen within ten miles of here within an hour or so of Lord Mornington's death. It will save a great deal of time and trouble if I place Professor Stewart in the box without further delay. I rely upon him entirely to prove my case for me. Call Professor Stewart, please."
There was no studying the carved roof of the Sessions House now, for everybody was on the tiptoe of expectation. It was felt that here was a startling development which might change the whole current of public opinion. The Professor stepped into the box coolly and confidently. There was nothing in his manner to indicate what was going to take place.
"I believe you are a friend of the accused?" counsel asked.
"I know him very well, indeed," the Professor replied.
"And you have formed some estimate of his character, I suppose?"
"Well, yes, sir. He is a most intelligent young man. He takes a great interest in outdoor life and pursuits. I have found him very keen in regard to natural history; indeed, he has been of the greatest assistance to me in my study of bird life and in taking my photographs. I cannot speak too highly of him."
"You have found him trustworthy and reliable?"
"Oh, dear me, yes. Unfortunately Mr. Windsor has no inclination for indoor work. This is possibly his misfortune more than his fault. He has been brought up to do nothing, but I emphatically deny that he is the loafer that Lord Mornington took him to be. I have, besides, the highest opinion of his integrity."
"For instance, you would trust him with money?"
"I have already done so, sir," the Professor said calmly. "It was on behalf of a relative of mine that Mr. Windsor took his trip to St. Petersburg last vfeek. It was absolutely necessary that a certain young man should have the sum of three hundred pounds placed in his hands within something like twenty -four hours. You will excuse me going into details. As I could not undertake the journey myself, I asked Mr. Windsor to do so. The money found in his possession at the time of his arrest was paid over to him by me, and I can produce the cheque, which was cashed into sovereigns in Hull, if the Court would care to see it. For obvious reasons I must decline to give the name of the drawer."
Something like a mild sensation foUowed this statement. It was felt that one of the main props of the prosecution had been knocked away, and that the Crown case was considerably weakened. Everybody listened closely now.
"I don't think that will be necessary," counsel went on. "I understand. Professor, that you can tell us a good deal more about this matter. You have formed a theory--"
"I beg your pardon," the Professor interrupted. "I have no theories at all. What I shall lay before the Court is actual fact. I wish to produce, for the consideration of the Bench, a photograph which will establish beyond doubt the identity of the murderer."
"One moment," Windsor's lawyer said. "Touching this photograph, is it one that you took yourself?"
"Well, more or less," the Professor explained. "But perhaps I had better go into details. I have been fortunate enough since I have been here to obtain photographs of many rare birds that nest on the spurs and crags just off the mainland. These birds are perfectly safe where they are, for they can lay their eggs with impunity, a fact which doubtless brings so many of them here. A little time ago, and by the aid of my glasses, I saw that a pair of Swallow-tailed Kites were actually nesting upon Steeple Crag. I determined, by hook or by crook, to get a photograph of these birds.'
"How did you manage it?" counsel asked.
"I am just coming to that. Having located the exact nesting-spot, with the aid of an air-gun, I threw a fine line right across some bushes on the edge of the nest; in fact, I threw half-a-dozen of these lines, the ends of which were attached by a string to the shutter of my special camera by means of which I take these photographs. The Kites were so wild that it was useless for me to try and snap them myself. Therefore I hid my camera in a bunch of gorse bushes, with all my mechanical arrangements perfectly made, so that directly one of the birds dropped upon one of the strings the shutter would be released and the successful exposure made."
"Where was the camera placed?" counsel asked.
"In a patch of gorse bushes some twenty yards from the edge of the cliff."
"Leaving plenty of room for anybody to pass by, of course?"
"Oh, certainly; you see, I had to run the risk of that. The string was only the matter of a few inches from the ground, and anybody who had gone that way might have stumbled over it."
"And thus released the shutter, which possibly might have ended in the passer-by taking his own photograph."
"Precisely," the Professor said in quiet tones. "Any wanderer kicking his foot against the string could easily have taken his own photograph. If he had fallen heavily on the string, he probably would have pulled the camera down, and there would have been an end of my experiments for the time being."
"And did anything of the kind happen?" counsel asked.
"Something of the kind did take place," the Professor said solemnly. "When I went to regain possession of my camera, I found it lying face downwards in the bushes, and the plate had evidently been exposed. At first I naturally concluded that someone blundering along had done this, and I made my plans to lay my trap again. But certain information had come to my ears in the meantime, and it occurred to me that possibly the one exposed plate would tell me something which would throw a light upon the tragic death of Lord Mornington. You see, it so happens that his Lordship's body was picked up just in front of the gorse bushes where I had planted my special camera. Don't let Mr. Kearton go!"
The last words were uttered in a quick, impatient tone of voice. The disappearing figure of Kearton had paused in the doorway.
He muttered some excuse as he came back to his seat again. He was wiping his spectacles with trembling hands.
A queer sort of cry escaped Kearton's lips. The man in the dock stood there gripping the rails with convulsive force. As the Professor handed up to the Bench a glass negative and some printed photographs, there was a silence in the court-house which was absolutely felt.
It was a forcible and dramatic picture that was thus presented for inspection. In the background were the rugged cliffs with the spur of Steeple Crag standing out rude and ragged, the nesting birds upon it were visible from every part of the room. In the foreground were patches of gorse, and beyond a square of flat, even turf dotted with sea-pinks. In the centre of this stood two men, one old and grey, the other young and slender, his pale features set and white, his eyes half hidden behind spectacles. The old man had staggered back almost to his fall, his right arm was upraised to ward off a blow from the younger man, whose right hand was drawn back with a long knife held in his fingers. A spontaneous and startled cry broke from the spectators who lived in the locality. They had not the slightest difficulty in recognising the reeling figure of Lord Mornington, or in making out the features of his nephew, Eric Kearton. The photograph spoke for itself. It seemed to the onlookers that they were actually present at the tragedy which had excited the whole of England.
Windsor's lawyer looked appealingly at the Bench and shrugged his shoulders. It would have been an anti-climax now for him to say anything. As if by instinct two policemen walked across the court and stood on either side of Kearton. He swayed backwards and forwards with his hand to his throat, as if something were choking him. With a queer, strangled cry he fell to the ground and lay there still and unconscious...
"A close call that," said Windsor's counsel half an hour later, as he sat at lunch with his client and the Professor. "Altogether it was a lucky thing for my young friend here."
"Lucky!" the Professor cried. "I should call it a direct intervention of Providence."