Sometimes Juries Err
by Edward Oppenheim
Malcolm Gossett, hard-boiled in all matters of sentiment, except as regarded his beautiful young wife, was conscious of a sense almost of reverence as he was ushered into the presence of the great man whom he had come to visit. The latter's environment was sufficiently impressive. The butler who had escorted the caller into the room had the air and voice of a high ecclesiastic. The library itself, with its warm air of seclusion and the faint mingled odour of old Russian calf and roses, possessed a subtly distinctive atmosphere, and the famous Judge who received his visitor with a courteous word of apology for remaining seated was notably one of the most attractive personalities of his day.
"I am very glad to see you, Mr. Gossett," the latter said, holding out his hand. "You will be so kind as to forgive my not rising. I am not in the best of health just now."
"I hope your lordship won't disturb yourself," Gossett begged, taking the chair which his host had indicated. "I was sorry to see from the papers that you were a temporary invalid."
Lord Harlowe had certainly the wasted appearance of a man who was suffering from some disease. His face was almost waxlike in its pallor, but his voice, for the qualities of which he had always been famous, was still clear and pleasant and the strength of his features remained.
"You were once attached to Scotland Yard, I believe, Mr. Gossett?" he said.
"For seven years."
"Were you by any chance ever interested in the case of Peter Morton?"
"The man who was sentenced to death for murder and then reprieved?"
The Judge acquiesced.
"I am glad you remember that much of the case, at any rate, Mr. Gossett," he said. "I am going, if you will permit me, to make a confession to you. It will perhaps make the remainder of our conversation more intelligible."
"As your lordship wishes," Gossett murmured.
"A legal career," the Judge went on, "is supposed, in course of time, to strip a man's mind of any tendencies towards superstition or sentimentality. In my case it has never been so. I have all my life, trusting chiefly of course to my judgment, been influenced by what, for want of a better word, I must call inspiration. That is to say that there have been times when, in dealing with a prisoner, I have been largely influenced, not only by the proven facts of the case but by my own sentiments as to whether I believed the man guilty or not guilty."
"That is very interesting," Malcolm Gossett said.
"I am at the present moment," Lord Harlowe continued, "engaged in the task of writing my memoirs. I am there making frank admission of what many people would no doubt consider a weakness in my mentality. It exists and that is all there is to be said about it. It never existed more strongly, Mr. Gossett, than it did in the case of Peter Morton."
"There were curious differences of opinion concerning that case," Malcolm Gossett reflected, "even at the Yard."
"The man was not an attractive personality," the Judge went on. "I suppose it is difficult for a man to make the best of himself when he stands in the dock on trial for his life. Nevertheless, from the very first I was troubled with a haunting sense of the man's innocence. I must tell you, Mr. Gossett, that ever since I received my preferment as one of His Majesty's judges, I have always had the shadow of one fear lurking in the back of my mind, and that was that some day in the course of my duties I might sentence to death an innocent man."
"It is a terrible responsibility," Gossett agreed.
"Towards the close of the trial of Peter Morton," Lord Harlowe continued, "I felt that fear more strongly than ever before in my life. When the time came for my summing up, I think every one in the Court was surprised at my earnestness. No one has ever accused me of partisanship - no one has ever accused me of not realising that the summing up of a judge must be neither an appeal to the jury on behalf of the prisoner nor a demand for his conviction. I tried to realise that, even on that day. On the other hand, my summing up, the result of my personal convictions, was so much in favour of the prisoner that I never for a moment believed in the possibility of their not being shared by the jury. Yet, to my horror, after an absence of two hours, they brought in a verdict of Guilty. I had no alternative. I had to assume the black cap and sentence Peter Morton to death."
"He was not hung, though," Gossett murmured.
"As you remark, he was not hung," Lord Harlowe assented. "That he was not, as is well-known amongst my colleagues, was due to my own strenuous endeavours to obtain a reprieve. At the last minute and yielding entirely to my persuasions, the Home Secretary changed his sentence to penal servitude and his reprieve was forwarded to the prisoner. Now let me tell you a curious thing, Mr. Gossett."
"All that you are saying is very interesting," Gossett acknowledged.
"Well, with the reprieve," the Judge continued, "my personal interest in the case declined. I was spared even the chance of the great horror of my life. In the midst of a very strenuous life, the fate of Peter Morton faded into the background of my thoughts. Now comes the time when, in writing my memoirs, I reach his case, and Mr. Gossett, I want you to sympathise with me as a human being and not from our official point of view, when I tell you that directly I went into that case again, I felt a complete return of my convictions as to the man's innocence. Here is a strange thing for one of His Majesty's judges to admit to you, Mr. Gossett, but it is the truth. On paper, the man would appear to be fairly condemned for the crime of murder. To-day I am as convinced that he is innocent as I was during that awful moment when I was forced to sentence him to death."
Gossett was somewhat perplexed. The evidence in the case, so far as he remembered it, was fairly conclusive. He waited in silence to hear what further the Judge had to say.
"A few nights ago," the latter concluded, "I dined with one of my greatest friends, George Littledale, the criminal lawyer. So far as I remember, we did not even mention the Peter Morton case, but we did continue one of our old arguments as to the position of a man, say a murderer, who has the whole of the detective force of Scotland Yard against him and nothing but a criminal lawyer without any staff or prestige on his side. In connection with this, Littledale at once mentioned your name. He told me that you had started for yourself as a private detective, with the avowed object of acting chiefly for the accused person. I wrote you a letter the same night and asked you to come and see me. I have ventured to make out a cheque, Mr. Gossett, for five hundred pounds. I am going, if you will allow me, to commission you to investigate once more the immediate circumstances which practically decided Peter Morton's fate. If you come across any fresh facts, you can rely upon my seeing that they are put before the proper authorities, and if anything happens that I am not available, I know that Mr. Littledale will do what he can."
Lord Harlowe held out his hand. There was a slight air of exhaustion about his manner.
"You accept the commission, Mr. Gossett?"
"I accept it and I shall do my very best to throw a different light upon the case," was the emphatic reply.
Malcolm Gossett spent the best part of the following day reading from a Scotland Yard file the full account of the case Rex versus Peter Morton. When he had finished, he half regretted the fact that he had already sent Lord Harlowe's cheque into the bank. There was scarcely a loophole anywhere. The case for the prosecution seemed cast-iron. Gossett, who had been somewhat impressed by Harlowe's calm and convincing air, could, now that he had studied the affair carefully, find no shadow of reason for it. There was no doubt, however, that Harlowe had been in earnest. His summing up, in the cold light of the facts disclosed, seemed almost absurdly in favour of the prisoner, so much so indeed that Gossett found himself wondering whether the jury might not have been adversely affected by such an obvious attempt at misdirection. Whilst Gossett was still wondering whether he would be justified in spending any of that five hundred pounds upon investigations which seemed foredoomed to failure, the telephone bell at his elbow rang. He took off the receiver and listened.
"Private secretary of Mr. George Littledale speaking. Mr. Littledale wants a word with Mr. Malcolm Gossett on most important business."
"Malcolm Gossett speaking."
"Wait one moment, please."
Presently Littledale's voice came booming over the wire.
"That you, Gossett?"
"I'm sending you down a caller - just tucked him into my own car. He'll be with you in a few minutes. Probably I shall look in myself afterwards. Don't take any definite steps as regards him until you have seen me."
"You sound very mysterious," Gossett remarked.
"Can't help it. It's a quaint piece of business. See you presently."
Malcolm Gossett had not very long to wait for his visitor. According to instructions, the latter was shown in immediately on his arrival. He was a man of medium height, thin, dark and obviously very nervous. He was dressed in an ordinary grey suit, but Gossett, who was observant, noticed with curiosity that everything about him from his necktie to his boots was new. He wore gloves which he apparently was not anxious to remove.
"You have come from Mr. Littledale?" Gossett enquired.
"Yes, he sent me here," was the quiet admission. "Where are your clerks?"
"I haven't any. Only an office boy," Gossett confided. "Why do you want to know that?"
The man laughed shortly, a hard, mirthless gesture. He had noticed the direction of Gossett's straying fingers.
"I'm not going to rob you, if that's what you're afraid of," he said, with a faint smile. "I'm not really a criminal, although I have just come from prison."
Gossett suddenly realised the meaning of his new clothes and gloved hands. Simultaneously he recognised the man.
"My God, you're Peter Morton!" he exclaimed.
The man frowned and looked nervously around.
"I should leave that name alone," he said sharply. "I have been Number One Hundred and Ninety-eight at Dartmoor for six years. They do their best to kill the human there, blood, bone and sinew."
Gossett leaned across his desk.
"I thought you were in for life," he said.
"So I was."
"Then after all Harlowe was right. You've been pardoned."
The man grunted scornfully.
"I escaped," he confided. "I have been a free man for over a week, if you can call this skulking about the slums of London freedom."
Gossett shook his head.
"It's bad work, as a rule, this," he said. "Can't think why we haven't heard about it. Was any one - hurt?"
Peter Morton shook his head.
"I'm not that sort of a fool," he declared. "Probably no one before in the history of the prison ever escaped as I did. No one had the chance."
"Tell me about it," Gossett begged.
"I've never given any trouble," the other explained. "I'm not that sort. I had all the good marks possible. They used to send me with a warder to the farthest edge of a new road they were making. I was useful, as I was a bit of a geologist. One day about a fortnight ago, we were just sitting down to have our lunch when Old Harry - we called him - the warder, just toppled over from his seat and had a fit. I stayed with him and did everything I could - fetched water for him, and I waited until he recovered consciousness. When he came to, we found he couldn't move. We'd always been rather pally, and it was he who really put it into my head to try and get away. I took off his outside clothes and left him with mine. He let me take what money he had and his pipe and tobacco, and he wished me luck. I certainly had it too; I bought some more clothes at an outdoor market in a small town, and after that I've taken no particular pains at all to hide or disguise myself, beyond shaving. I came up to London by train, I've been staying in a small hotel Poplar way until this afternoon, when I came up to see Mr. Littledale, who has money of mine."
"Funny I haven't seen anything about it in the papers."
"Mind if I smoke?" Peter Morton asked. "I'm simply crazy for tobacco these days."
Gossett handed over a box of cigarettes, and for a moment or two his visitor was silent through sheer bliss. Then he went on.
"They're too cunning to have those little paragraphs in the papers nowadays. Any one who was trying to make a get-away was helped all the time by reading his own description and the sort of clothes he was supposed to have got hold of, and what direction he was supposed to be making for. I knew Old Harry would give me a start, because he was going to tell them that I'd made for the moors which nearly all of them do. I didn't. I made for the nearest small town and the railway station."
"Had you ever thought of escaping?" Gossett asked.
"The idea never even occurred to me," Morton replied. "I'm no fighting man, although I'm supposed to be a murderer, and I should never have thought about it then, if Old Harry hadn't been grateful to me for doctoring him round, and put it into my head."
"You said just now that you were supposed to be a murderer," Gossett said gravely. "Didn't you kill Bealby?"
"I certainly did not," was the firm reply.
"Then you're a very unlucky fellow," Gossett declared. "Why, you'd have been hung, if it hadn't been for your judge."
"I know," the other assented. "I couldn't make out why, but he knew I hadn't done it."
"Who was the murderer?" Gossett asked.
Peter Morton laughed in somewhat hollow fashion. It was curious that his speech and his gestures were alike - unsettled and uncertain. Six years of prison life and the complete cessation of all social amenities had left him in a sense floundering.
"I doubt whether I shall ever tell you that," he announced. "I have to make a few enquiries first."
"If there is anything to be told which could prove your innocence," Gossett told him earnestly, "now is the time to do it. You may be in prison again before many hours have passed."
The man shook his head. A strange colourless creature he seemed to Gossett, uncomfortably poised in his easy-chair, smoking cigarettes furiously.
"No," he said, "I sha'n't go back to prison. I've made up my mind about that. I tried to buy some poison, but they were too inquisitive at the chemist's shop. I've got something else in my pocket that will do the trick, though."
"Listen to me," Gossett begged. "Take my advice. Get it right out of your mind that you can stay free and escape capture. It can't be done. Sooner or later, believe me - I've been in the Force and I know something about it - you'll feel a tap on your shoulder and the clink of handcuffs before you've had time to get your little plaything out of your pocket. I'm not an expert myself, and I couldn't be in your company for five minutes without knowing that you'd been in prison lately. Some of it may wear off, of course, but don't for a minute believe that you can make a clean get-away."
"Of course - " Peter Morton began, with a gathering scowl upon his face.
"Don't be an idiot," Gossett interrupted. "Mr. Littledale and I are privileged people. We are neither of us obliged to give you away and we certainly sha'n't. But for the very prestige of the prison, they'll get you back again. I can promise you that. On the other hand, you have a friend in a very unexpected quarter - the man we've spoken of before, the Judge who tried you, Lord Harlowe. For some reason or other, he believes you innocent. Now put us on the right track to prove it, or even to make your innocence seem plausible, and he will take the matter up with the Home Secretary."
"In which case," Peter Morton observed bitterly, "I might perhaps get a free pardon for a crime I never committed."
"If you never committed the murder and have kept back evidence incriminating some one else," Gossett said severely, "it serves you right, and a free pardon is more than you deserve, or quite as much, anyway."
The escaped man looked across the table curiously. The hard lines of his face became somewhat relaxed. He even permitted himself something that sounded like an apologetic laugh. He was distinctly struggling on the way towards a return to humanity.
"No maudlin sympathy about you, anyway," he remarked.
"You're not the man to want maudlin sympathy," was the blunt reply. "As soon as you get to be yourself again, you'll resent it. Now tell me the truth about this business, in case we should be interrupted. If you didn't kill Bealby, who did?"
The man shook his head.
"Not so easy," he replied. "If I didn't tell Littledale that when I was in danger of being hanged, I'm scarcely likely to give the secret away now, to have let my six years' agony go for nothing."
"You're running a risk by not telling me the truth," Gossett warned him.
"I've run greater ones," was the calm reply.
"Can't you give me a line and let me make some investigations for you?" Gossett asked. "As I daresay Littledale told you, I am holding five hundred pounds in trust for you - a gift from Lord Harlowe - to try and get at the truth of that night."
There was a momentary gleam in the man's eyes.
"Thank God," he exclaimed fervently, "there was one person in the world who believed in me besides the one who knew. I don't really need the money, Mr. Gossett, but keep it for the present. In the meantime, is there any advice you can give me as to keeping out of the way of the police?"
"There certainly is," was the confident reply. "Plenty of advice. As you are dressed at present, and judging by your appearance generally, the youngest detective in the Force would have a guess at you. Don't you realise that you have everything new, from your shoes and socks to your collar?"
"I couldn't very well help that."
"No, but we can do something better for you," Gossett declared, rising to his feet. "I have three or four changes of clothes in my room here and I should say we were very much of a size. Your present clothes will be perfectly safe here. I don't know exactly where you're staying but I shouldn't go back there. I'll pay your bill, if you give me your address, and collect your luggage, and while you're changing your clothes here, I'll slip out and buy you a second-hand dressing case and a few toilet things. Mind you," Gossett said, as he took the other by the shoulder and led him towards an inner room, "I don't think any one in the world could keep you a free man for a long time, but just for the few days you need to clear things up, we'll try and manage it."
"I sha'n't be getting you into trouble, I hope?" the fugitive asked a little awkwardly.
"No, I'm safe enough. There you are - three complete outfits. Help yourself. They are none of them too new and they are none of them conspicuous. I'll be back in a quarter of an hour. If you feel like a whisky and soda, well, you'll find everything in that cupboard. A glass of sherry, if you prefer it."
"You're very kind to me, Mr. Gossett. For all you know, I'm still an escaped murderer."
"I'm taking a chance on you," Gossett told him, smiling. . . .
A quarter of an hour later Peter Morton reappeared, looking a very different person. His dark blue serge clothes fitted excellently, the glaring brown shoes were replaced by black ones, smartly polished but with some faint show of wear. He carried a bowler hat and in his hand was a cane and a pair of chamois leather gloves not obtrusively new. Gossett set down the telephone receiver which he had been holding, and nodded.
"Capital!" he approved, "and just in time too."
"I'm afraid they're on your track," Gossett admitted. "That was almost a certainty, you know, Morton. I warned you of it."
The latter's face was suddenly the face of a man again.
"Whatever happens," he said sternly, "I'm going to see my wife again before they take me. It means everything in the world to me, Gossett. Don't try and stop me."
"I'm going to stop you leaving this place for a minute, Morton," was the firm reply, "but I shall do all I can to help you see your wife. Now listen to me patiently. Mr. Littledale has just rung up. Scotland Yard have telephoned him the news of your escape. For some reason or other, they didn't ask him the question whether he'd already seen anything of you. They told him that they were having your house in Whiteley Avenue watched and also his offices."
"I don't care," the hunted man said doggedly. "I am going home."
Gossett laid his hand upon his shoulder.
"Listen, my friend," he enjoined. "You've got to keep your nerve. If you start out from here, you'll never cross the threshold of your home. You will be on your way back to Dartmoor before midnight. I am helping you, remember. I want to keep you free for a time, but you must do as I say. They don't know at headquarters that I am interested in your case or of my visit to Lord Harlowe. Fortunately I also told Littledale not to mention it. I have been downstairs and I have had a good look round. I have the one man I keep for watching purposes in the street now. This place is free from observation. And listen, Morton. Your wife is in a taxicab at the present moment on her way here. It is the one meeting place possible. She will be here in five or ten minutes. You must go into the room where you changed your clothes - sorry it's all I have to offer you - and I shall be on the spot, if you need me afterwards. Now, is that all clear?"
Morton was shaking like a man in an ague.
"It's clear," he muttered. "I haven't seen her all this time. You say she's coming? You're sure she's coming?"
"She's on her way. She may turn up at any moment. Look here, Morton, get into the back room at once and wait for her. I'll send her in and stay here. Better for you to be alone when you meet. But remember, man, a good deal depends upon the next few hours. You can do a lot while free that you'll never be able to do once you've had that little tap on the shoulder."
"I understand," he said. "Don't be afraid, Gossett. I won't let you down."
The latter took him by the arm and almost pushed him into the back room. He heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs.
"You won't keep her," Morton begged.
"Not a second," the other promised.
Gossett had not expected to see a beautiful woman, but there was no time for surprise. He tried to keep his tone as emotionless as possible.
"I am Mrs. Morton," she began eagerly, holding out her hands. "I want to see my husband."
"You are going to see him at once," Gossett promised. "Come with me and listen carefully while we cross the room. It is most important that you should have a conversation with him. You see, his escape was rather a miracle, but he may be recaptured at any moment. It is best for you to know that. Say what you have to say to him as quickly as you can and then we will all three talk together."
"Yes, yes. Let me see him, please," she faltered.
He opened the door and pushed her gently in. He closed his ears to the little cry which broke from her lips as he turned the handle.
Gossett sat down at his desk, mopped his forehead and lit a cigarette. Then he summoned the boy from the small office outside.
"Go downstairs, Richard," he directed, "and get me an evening paper. You'll see Strangeways about somewhere. Ask him whether any one was shadowing the lady who has just arrived, and get back as quickly as you can. Don't answer a single question of any sort from any stranger."
"That's all right, sir," the boy promised, hurrying away.
Gossett sat alone within a few feet of drama, his ears resolutely closed to the rise and fall of voices. The boy returned with the paper and made his report.
"The lady wasn't followed, sir," he announced. "Strangeways told me I could assure you that everything is O.K."
"Fine," Gossett murmured. "Give me the paper."
He read the first news of the escape of a convict from Dartmoor with the addendum that the escaped man was supposed to have reached London. Presently the hum of voices from behind the door ceased. The door itself was opened sharply. Gossett swung round to face the two approaching figures. He found in their attitude something incomprehensible. The traces of tears were still on the woman's cheeks, but she was dry-eyed now and clutching feverishly to her husband's arm. Peter Morton walked like a man in a dream, yet to Gossett he seemed to have gained an inch or two in height. The latter sat on the edge of the table and tried to keep his tone as matter of fact as possible.
"Look here, you two," he began, "I want you both to make an effort. We are perfectly safe where we are for some time to come. Now, Mrs. Morton, you sit down there," pointing to a chair, "and you, Morton, by her side. That's right. I wish you'd smoke. It all helps, you know, and we want a few minutes of plain, sensible talk."
"You're right, Gossett," Morton replied, a new agitation in his tone. "But let me tell you this - no two people in the world have ever gone through what we have gone through in the last five minutes."
Gossett strolled across the room with the cigarettes.
"Well, it's up to you both to tell me all about it," he declared. "Your husband has a very powerful friend, Mrs. Morton, and what we want is to keep him from going back. Now then, please, your story."
In those first few moments it was the woman who was the more self-possessed. It was she who replied.
"Mr. Gossett," she said, "on that hateful afternoon, as was proved in Court, my husband entered the block of flats where Mr. Bealby lived and was established on the first floor, with the object of paying him a visit. His story to his lawyer was true, as far as it went. He found the flat door open and walked in. Mr. Bealby was lying dead, half on the floor, half against the divan. A revolver belonging to my husband was found thrown into a corner of the room, a telegram addressed to me was found in my husband's pocket, making an appointment for me to be at Mr. Bealby's rooms at four o'clock. Furthermore, although my husband never mentioned that even to Mr. Littledale, as he mounted the stairs, he passed a woman rushing down. That woman was me. As I passed, I said one thing - a thing which has always puzzled him. I sobbed out: Don't go back."
"Wait a moment," Gossett said. "Let me get this. Your husband received a telegram addressed to you, inviting you to call at Bealby's rooms at four o'clock. He went there at about that time and passed you coming out. When he got to the rooms the door was open and Bealby was dead. What was your idea of the situation, Morton?"
"I thought that my wife was having a slight flirtation with Bealby - had indiscreetly promised to go to his rooms. I went there to fetch her away, knowing what sort of a man he was. When I met her coming down the stairs, she seemed agitated. I didn't stop to speak to her. I meant to have it out with Bealby. When I got to his rooms, I found him dead and my revolver lying in plain view."
"What did you make of the situation?" Gossett asked.
"I took it that there had been some sort of affair between my wife and Bealby and that she had shot him."
"And that was why you were so dumb all the time?"
"Naturally. I didn't wish Florence's name brought into it. My business quarrels with Bealby were quite sufficient motive for anything I might have done. The man was dead. I believed that Florence had shot him. That was the end of me."
"And when you passed your husband on the stairs coming up, when you were going out, Mrs. Morton, what was your idea?"
"I knew that Peter had had the telegram," she replied. "I knew that he was inclined to be jealous, although there was never the slightest cause for it. I was to have met Cecil Bealby that afternoon. He owned the King's Theatre. I thought that Peter had been before me, had shot Bealby, suddenly remembered his revolver and was going back for it."
"Then neither of you shot Bealby?" Gossett exclaimed.
"Before God I didn't," the woman cried. "He was on the floor dead when I got there."
"And before God I didn't," Peter Morton declared.
"And you both believed the other had?" Gossett concluded. "Now this is important. I believe your words. You neither of you shot Bealby. Then who did?"
Gossett and Mr. Littledale spent a somewhat distracted hour together on the following morning. Littledale especially seemed to find the situation almost impossible.
"Granted all that you say, Gossett," he pronounced. "Granted that Peter Morton is innocent, that Florence his wife is innocent, we are still face to face with the fact that within a few minutes of their hurried departures and arrivals at the flat the man Bealby was murdered. Now, in the building - I have it all here in the papers - there should have been present the hall porter and his wife; General Glide, who had a hospital nurse with him at the time, was unconscious, incapable of movement and died three days afterwards; and Miss Maureen Fitch, on the top floor, the deformed typist who did a little work for Bealby now and then, or any one else in the building, but who very seldom left her room owing to her infirmity, and who hadn't been downstairs, except when she was carried, for two years. Now how do you expect me to find the guilty person out of these?"
"Miss Maureen Fitch," Gossett repeated reflectively; "I forgot her evidence."
"You'll find it there," the lawyer said, pointing to a roll of papers. "The murdered man was practically unknown to her, except as an occasional client. She lived entirely in her room, she could have had no possible grudge against the man. She faded out of the picture almost as quickly as she faded out of the witness box."
"Nevertheless, this session is adjourned for half an hour," Gossett decided. "I have talked to the hall porter. I've talked to his wife. I have even spoken to the hospital nurse who was looking after the poor General, but I have never had a word with Miss Maureen Fitch. What was this young woman's evidence in Court?"
"She never left her room that day," Littledale recounted drily, "or the week before or the week after. She had scarcely ever seen Mr. Bealby in her life, and all that she knew of him was that he paid a fair price for the typing."
"Nevertheless, Miss Fitch is clearly my responsibility," Gossett declared. "I'm going to see her at once."
"Come straight back," Littledale enjoined him. "If I'm in Court, send for me."
"I sha'n't be long. It seems absurd to go, but after all some one must know who murdered Bealby."
The girl was seated at her desk typing, when Gossett entered the room. There was a rubber-shod stick by her side, and while she was actually typing, her eyes seemed half closed. She was terribly thin, her black hair was streaked with grey, her cheek bones protruded, her chin was almost pointed, her dark eyes had a starved look, as though the light of life were only a flickering thing. She left off typing as Gossett entered and turned her head.
"Who are you?" she asked. "I haven't worked for you before, have I?"
"I haven't come to see you about work, Miss Fitch," Gossett replied. "I have come to ask you a few questions about a very sad event which took place here some six years ago."
She looked at him strangely.
"Will you please wait five minutes?" she begged.
She finished the page that she was typing, collected the loose sheets, pinned them together and covered up her typewriter.
"Now what is it you wish to ask me?" she enquired.
"I want to know whether you can tell me who killed Mr. Bealby?"
"Aren't you a little out of date?" she asked.
"Not at all," he assured her. "Peter Morton is out of prison and the whole case is being reopened."
"I suppose it had to come some day," she remarked. "Well, if you want to know, I did."
Gossett had been standing with one hand leaning on the edge of her desk. He was conscious of a sudden shock. He almost collapsed into the cane chair by her side.
"You?" he exclaimed. "But why?"
"Quite sufficient reason," she answered. "In those days I used to do some typing for him. Once he was in a hurry and came up for the copy himself. It was seven years ago and my shoulder wasn't so bad then. I remember," she went on dreamily, "I had on a summer frock and some one had sent me some red roses. He pitied me, or pretended to, and asked if he could take me out in his new car. No one had asked me such a thing before. It was like heaven. He took me out four or five times. Then I went down to a little cottage he had in Sussex."
There was a silence. Gossett was looking out of the window vacantly and hopelessly.
"After that," she continued, "I saw less and less of him. There came a day when I wrote him a foolish note. I told him I couldn't live unless he came to see me sometimes. You know his reply. . . . But of course you don't. He sent me up a terrible-looking weapon and a few joking words. 'I am sending you a present,' he said, 'which was given to me a few days ago by a friend, but for which I shall never have any use. It is my idea of a suitable reply,' he went on, or something of that sort, 'to any one who says they can't live any longer without a certain thing.' He didn't mean it, of course, or he wouldn't have dared to write it, but I took off my shoes, and with my stick I went down the few flights of stairs by myself - a thing I hadn't done for a year - and I went into his room and shot him. Then I came upstairs again, leaving the door open, I remember, and went on with my work. My shoulder was bad, however, and I had to go to hospital a few weeks after that."
"But, my God," Gossett exclaimed, "do you realise that if it hadn't been for a Judge who had a presentiment, a man would have hung for the crime you committed?"
"I didn't much care," she answered indifferently. "No one has ever shown me any kindness in life. I have done nothing but suffer since I was born. Why should I care about other people? However," she went on, after a moment's pause, "you see I hadn't the courage of my convictions."
She opened a drawer and threw two packets upon the table.
"If the man had been sentenced to be hanged," she proceeded, "there is my confession. You see it is addressed to the Home Secretary and was to be sent in, the day after the trial. In the other envelope is a copy of it. That was to be sent in seven years after the first day of his imprisonment, provided he went to prison. That was quite a fair bargain, you see. I was willing to share what was left of my life. There you are."
She tossed the packets to him. Mechanically he thrust them into his pocket.
"What are you going to do?" he enquired.
"Oh, I shall stay around until something happens," she replied. "Life went out for me the day I killed him, although God knows he deserved it. I'm tired of typing."
There was no trouble about the free pardon for Peter Morton, but the question of Maureen Fitch was a little more difficult. She settled the matter for herself, however, by voluntarily entering a mental sanatorium for criminals. The whole affair forms a startling episode in Lord Harlowe's forthcoming memoirs.
"It will give people a loose idea of what goes on behind the scenes, I'm afraid," Lord Harlowe protested mildly.
"But after all, your lordship," Malcolm Gossett pointed out, "it would be hard luck to try two different people for the same offence, and capital punishment for a crippled woman would be quite out of the question."
"You detectives always get the last word," the Judge sighed.
End of Sometimes Juries Err by Edward Oppenheim