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Chapter 29

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« on: January 30, 2023, 09:33:07 am »

THE newspapers made a sensation out of the announcement of Holymead's arrest on a charge of having murdered Sir Horace Fewbanks. They declared that the arrest of the eminent K.C. on a capital charge would come as a surprising development of the Riversbrook case. It would cause a shock to his many friends, and especially to those who knew what a close friendship had existed between the arrested man and the dead judge. The papers expatiated on the fact that Holymead had appeared for the defence when Frederick Birchill had been tried for the murder. As the public would remember, Birchill had been acquitted owing to the great ability with which his defence was conducted.

It was somewhat remarkable, said the Daily Record, that in his speech for the defence Holymead had attempted to throw suspicion on one of the witnesses for the prosecution. The journal hinted that it was the result of something which Counsel for the defence had let drop at this trial that Inspector Chippenfield had picked up the clue which had led to Holymead's arrest. The papers had very little information to give the public about this new development of the Fewbanks mystery, but they boldly declared that some startling revelations were expected when the case came before the court.

In the absence of interesting facts apropos of the arrest of the distinguished K.C., some of the papers published summaries of his legal career, and the more famous cases with which he had been connected. These summaries would have been equally suitable to an announcement that Mr. Holymead had been promoted to the peerage or that he had been run over by a London bus.

There were people who declared without knowing anything about the evidence the police had in their possession that in arresting the famous barrister the police had made a far worse blunder than in arresting Birchill. It was even hinted that the arrest of the man who had got Birchill off was an expression of the police desire for revenge. To these people the acquittal of Holymead was a foregone conclusion. The man who had saved Birchill's life by his brilliant forensic abilities was not likely to fail when his own life was at stake.

But when the case came before the police court and the police produced their evidence, it was seen that there was a strong case against the prisoner. The whispers as to the circumstances under which the prisoner had taken the life of a friend of many years appealed to a sentimental public. These whispers concerned the discovery by the prisoner that his friend had seduced his beautiful wife. In the police court proceedings there were no disclosures under this head, but the thing was hinted at. In view of the legal eminence of the prisoner and the fear of the police that he would prove too much for any police officer who might take charge of the prosecution, the Direction of Public Prosecutions sent Mr. Walters, K.C., to appear at the police court. The prisoner was represented by Mr. Lethbridge, K.C., an eminent barrister to whom the prisoner had been opposed in many civil cases.

Inspector Chippenfield, who realised that the important position the prisoner occupied at the bar added to the importance of the officer who had arrested him, gave evidence as to the arrest of the prisoner at his chambers in the Middle Temple. With a generous feeling, which was possibly due to the fact that he was entitled to none of the credit of collecting the evidence against the prisoner, Inspector Chippenfield allowed Detective Rolfe a subordinate share in the glory that hung round the arrest by volunteering the information in the witness-box that when making the arrest he was accompanied by that officer. He declared that the prisoner made no remark when arrested and did not seem surprised. Mr. Walters produced a left-hand glove and witness duly identified it as the glove which he found in the room in which the murder took place.

Inspector Seldon gave formal evidence of the discovery of the body of Sir Horace Fewbanks on the 19th of August. Dr. Slingsby repeated the evidence that he had given at the trial of Birchill as to the cause of death, and was again professionally indefinite as to the length of time the victim had been dead when he saw the body. Thomas Taylor, taxi-cab driver, gave evidence as to driving the prisoner from Hyde Park Corner on the night of the 18th of August and the finding of the glove.

Crewe went into the witness-box and swore that on the second day after the discovery of the murder he was present at Riversbrook when the prisoner visited the house and saw Miss Fewbanks. When the prisoner arrived he was not carrying a walking-stick, but he had one in his hand when he took his departure from the house. Witness followed the prisoner, and a boy who collided with the prisoner knocked the stick out of his hands. Witness picked up the stick and inspected it. He identified the stick produced in court as the one which the prisoner had been carrying on that day.

The most difficult, and most important witness, as far as new evidence was concerned was Alexander Saunders, a big, broad red-faced Scotchman, whose firm grasp on the tam-o'-shanter he held in his hand seemed to indicate a fear that all the pickpockets in London had designs on it. With great difficulty he was made to understand his part in the witness-box, and some of the questions had to be repeated several times before he could grasp their meaning. Mr. Lethbridge humorously suggested that his learned friend should have provided an interpreter so that his pure English might be translated into Lowland Scotch.

By slow degrees Saunders was able to explain how he had found the pocket-book which Sir Horace Fewbanks had lost while shooting at Craigleith Hall. Witness identified a letter produced as having been in the pocket-book when he found it. The letter, which had been written by the prisoner to Sir Horace Fewbanks, urged Sir Horace to return to London at once, as if he did so there was a good possibility of his obtaining promotion to the Court of Appeal. The writer promised to do all he could in the matter, and to call on Sir Horace at Riversbrook as soon as he returned from Scotland.

Percival Chambers, an elderly well-dressed man with a grey beard, and wearing glasses, who was secretary of the Master of Rolls, swore that he knew of no prospective vacancies on the Court of Appeal Bench. Were any vacancies of the kind in view he believed he would be aware of them.

This closed the case for the police, and Mr. Lethbridge immediately asked for the discharge of the prisoner on the ground that there was no case to go before a jury. The magistrate shook his head, and merely asked Mr. Lethbridge if he intended to reserve his defence. Mr. Lethbridge replied with a nod, and the accused was formally committed for trial at the next sittings at the Old Bailey.

The newspapers reported at great length the evidence given in the police court, and their reports were eagerly read by a sensation-loving public. Even those people who, when Holymead's arrest was announced, had ridiculed the idea of a man like Holymead murdering a lifelong friend, had to admit that the police had collected some damaging evidence. Those people who at the time of the arrest had prided themselves on possessing an open mind as to the guilt of the famous barrister, confessed after reading the police court evidence that there could be little doubt of his guilt. The only thing that was missing from the police court proceedings was the production of a motive for the crime, but it was whispered that there would be some interesting revelations on this point when the prisoner was tried at the Old Bailey.

Fortunately he had not long to wait for his trial, as the next sittings of the Central Criminal Court had previously been fixed a week ahead of the date of his commitment. That week was full of anxiety for Mr. Lethbridge, for he realised that he had a poor case. What increased his anxiety was the fact that Holymead insisted on the defence being conducted on the lines he laid down. It was a new thing in Lethbridge's experience to accept such instructions from a prisoner, but Holymead had threatened to dispense with all assistance unless his instructions were carried out. He was particularly anxious that his wife's name should be kept out of court as much as possible. Lethbridge had pointed out to him that the prosecution would be sure to drag it in at the trial in suggesting a motive for the murder, and that for the purposes of the defence it was best to have a full and frank disclosure of everything so that an appeal could be made to the jury's feelings. Holymead's beautiful wife, who was almost distracted by her husband's position, implored his Counsel to allow her to go into the box and make a confession. But that course did not commend itself to Lethbridge, who realised that she would make an extremely bad witness and would but help to put the rope round her husband's neck. He put her off by declaring that there was a good prospect of her husband being acquitted, but that if the verdict unfortunately went against him her confession would have more weight in saving him, when the appeal against the verdict was heard.

It amazed Lethbridge to find that the prisoner expressed the view that Birchill had committed the murder. This view was based on his contention that Sir Horace Fewbanks was alive when he (Holymead) left him about ten o'clock. The interview between them had been an angry one, but Holymead persisted in asserting that he had not shot his former friend. He declared that he had not taken a revolver with him when he went to Riversbrook.

Lethbridge was one of those barristers who believe that a knowledge of the guilt of a client handicapped Counsel in defending him. He had his private opinion as to the result of the angry interview between Holymead and Sir Horace Fewbanks, but he preferred that Holymead should protest his innocence even to him. That made it easier for him to make a stirring appeal to the jury than it would have been if his client had fully confessed to him. His private opinion as to the author of the crime was strengthened by Holymead's admission that Birchill had not confessed to him or to his solicitor at the time of his trial that he had shot Sir Horace Fewbanks. He was astonished that Holymead had taken up Birchill's defence, but Holymead's explanation was the somewhat extraordinary one that the man who had killed the seducer of his wife had done him a service by solving a problem that had seemed insoluble without a public scandal. There was no doubt that although Sir Horace Fewbanks was in his grave, Holymead's hatred of him for his betrayal of his wife burned as strongly as when he had made the discovery that wrecked his home life. Neither death nor time could dim the impression, nor lessen his hatred for the dead man who had once been his closest friend.

Lethbridge, feeling that it was his duty as Counsel for the prisoner to try every avenue which might help to an acquittal, asked Mr. Tomlinson, the solicitor who was instructing him in the case, to find Birchill and bring him to his chambers. Birchill was found and kept an appointment. Lethbridge explained to him that he had nothing further to fear from the police with regard to the murder of Sir Horace Fewbanks. Having been acquitted on this charge he could not be tried on it again, no matter what discoveries were made. He could not even be tried for perjury, as he had not gone into the witness-box. Having allowed these facts to sink home, he delicately suggested to Birchill that he ought to come forward as a witness for the defence of Holymead—he ought to do his best to try and save the life of the man who had saved his life.

"What do you want me to swear?" asked Birchill, in a tone which indicated that although he did not object to committing perjury, he wanted to know how far he was to go.

"Well, that Sir Horace Fewbanks was alive when you went to Riversbrook," suggested Lethbridge.

"But I tell you he was dead," protested Birchill. He seemed to think that reviving a dead man was beyond even the power of perjury.

"That was your original story, I know," agreed Lethbridge suavely. "But as you were not put into the witness-box to swear it you can alter it without fear of any consequences."

"You want me to swear that he was alive?" said Birchill, meditatively.

"If you can conscientiously do so," replied Lethbridge.

"That he was alive when I left Riversbrook?" asked Birchill.

"Well, not necessarily that," said Lethbridge.

Birchill sprang up in alarm.

"Good God, do you want me to swear that I killed him?" he demanded.

Lethbridge endeavoured to explain that he would have nothing to fear from such a confession in the witness-box, but Birchill would listen to no further explanations. He felt that he was in dangerous company, and that his safety depended on getting out of the room.

"You've made a mistake," he said, as he reached the door. "If you want a witness of that kind you ought to look for him in Colney Hatch."

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