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Chapter 1

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« on: March 13, 2023, 07:10:23 am »

EVEN the butler’s voice seemed to reflect the general regret at the departure from Keynsham Hall of a popular guest.

“Sir Humphrey’s car has arrived, your lordship,” he announced. “It will be round at the front in a few minutes.”

A slim, clean-shaven man of early middle age, tall and with a slight stoop, still wearing the boots, gaiters and heavy tweeds of a long shooting day, rose reluctantly to his feet to take leave of his fellow guests and his host and hostess, Lord Edward Keynsham and his sister Lady Louise. That he was well liked amongst them was evident, for they all added an obviously sincere word of regret at his departure. Louise, who kept house for her brother, was perhaps more silent than the others, but in her tone was a curious little note of disturbance. This was the most favoured of her visitors and she hated losing him.

“I do think,” she protested, looking into his face almost as though she hoped he might still change his mind, “that you could do everything that was necessary from here. We are so civilised really, considering that we are in the heart of the country---telephone night and day and all that sort of thing, and a racing car in the garage for you, if necessary. I would drive you up myself and guarantee you sixty.”

“It is one of those matters in which we ought not to interfere, my dear,” her brother intervened firmly. “Humphrey knows the ropes better than we do and I’m sure he knows how much we would like him to stay. He will give us another few days, I hope, when we shoot the woods.”

“We shall miss you at the high birds,” some one from the background remarked pleasantly.

“Come into the library for one moment,” Louise begged, “and I will give you that book I promised.”

“Don’t keep him long,” Lord Edward enjoined. “It is later than he planned to start already.”

“Only a minute.”

They crossed the hall. Sir Humphrey opened the door of the library and his companion closed it firmly behind them. She looked up into his face anxiously. They were a very good-looking couple as they stood on the hearthrug in the firelight,---Louise slim and willowy, with clear, ivory complexion only slightly flushed by the day in the open air, and deep blue eyes in which lurked a shade of trouble at that particular moment.

“Humphrey dear,” she asked, “is there anything wrong I don’t know about?”

“Not a thing,” he assured her. “It is only this wretched business which makes me hurry away.”

“But it all seems rather queer,” she went on. “Why didn’t Edward send you up in one of our own cars?”

“He wants them for the shooting to-morrow, I expect. A hired one does just as well for me.”

“I wish I could take you myself,” she sighed.

He shook his head.

“Too rough a night, my dear,” he observed. “Don’t you worry about me. I have enjoyed my three days immensely and I shall come again before the season’s over, if Edward asks me.”

“I hope you will,” she answered. “You look strong, of course, but I think---as every one else does---that you work too hard and I know you sleep badly, although you won’t confess it.”

“I’m a little run down,” he admitted carelessly, “but even these three days have done me a lot of good. I’m always glad to come here, Louise. You know that.”

Her hand rested on his for a moment.

“And I am always glad to have you,” she assured him, with a slow, but very attractive smile.

The door was somewhat noisily opened. Lord Edward came in.

“If you’re ready, Humphrey,” he said. “Best for you not to get up to town too late.”

Sir Humphrey bade his hostess good-bye once more. Keynsham walked with him out into the hall and waited whilst he was helped by one of the servants into his thick shooting cape. Both men were of striking, though different appearance. Sir Humphrey Rossiter, for twelve years a brilliant figure at the Bar and now a Cabinet Minister, conformed, upon the whole, almost too closely to type. There was a slightly ascetic cast to his otherwise well-shaped and very human features. His clear grey eyes, his firm mouth and jaw were all distinctly legal. His host, on the other hand, was often quoted as being the handsomest man in London. He was six foot three in height and powerfully built. His mouth was irresistibly humorous and his fearless blue eyes seemed to challenge the whole world to be as happy and contented as he was himself. The brown hair---innocent yet of a single fleck of grey---was brushed back from his forehead and there was just the slightest upward twist at the back of his ears. His features were absolutely of the aristocratic type, and there were no indications in his presence or expression of the commercial gifts which had enabled him to restore the fortunes of an impoverished family. He was entirely in the atmosphere as he stood upon the broad steps of his magnificent home, speeding the parting guest.

“I expect they’re putting your traps in, Humphrey,” he said. “The car will be round from the back quarters directly. You will have a wild night, I’m afraid, but directly you get well away from us, the roads are wonderful. You ought to get to town in three hours.”

“I shall be up in plenty of time,” Sir Humphrey declared, pressing the tobacco down into the bowl of his pipe with long, nervous fingers. “All that is really necessary is for me to be at the other end of the telephone, where I can communicate with somebody very important if the unexpected should happen. It is a sort of necessity that is not a necessity, if you know what I mean. If by any thousandth chance anything should turn up and I was away at a shooting party, I should get a terrible roasting from those gentlemen in the opposition Press.”

“I suppose there is no chance,” Lord Edward asked hesitatingly, “of anything turning up?”

There was no mistaking the note of wistfulness, almost of eagerness, in his tone. His departing guest, who had been through a good deal of that kind of thing during the last few days, shook his head almost curtly.

“I can see no possibility of anything of the sort,” he confessed.

“Sorry,” Keynsham apologised. “One cannot help being interested in the poor fellow, though. The last-minute reprieve of a convicted murderer always seems to me the most dramatic incident that could possibly happen.”

“I’m afraid in this particular case,” his companion observed, “there is no hope of anything of the sort. You people have all been very good down here not bothering me with questions, especially since I know where your sympathies are, of course, and where mine are too, as a human being, I will admit. This is not a question, however, where sentiment can be allowed to intrude.”

“Of course every one understands that,” Keynsham sighed.

Sir Humphrey watched the lights of the car coming up the avenue.

“I regret it as much as any of you,” he said, “but I am afraid there is not a chance for poor Brandt. Between ourselves, his case has worried me more than any since I’ve been in office. It wasn’t only knowing the man, and his wife being a dear friend---one has to forget that sort of thing---but the whole affair seemed so unnecessary. A man lost his temper and killed another. There will have to be a new definition of manslaughter before I could send a man to the gallows cheerfully.”

“He was always a man of violent temper,” Lord Edward remarked sadly, “and after all, Benham was such an out-and-out bounder. Clever actor, of course, but I couldn’t stand the sight of him.”

“No more could I, if it comes to that,” Sir Humphrey acquiesced, “but after all, the law is omnipotent and the law says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ ”

The car had drawn up below and a footman, with a rug over his arm, was holding open the door.

“The beginning of the week after next we shall shoot the home woods,” Keynsham reminded his departing guest. “I’ll let you know the exact date.”

“You are very kind,” Sir Humphrey declared, blowing out the match with which he had just lighted his pipe. “If I can work it, I shall be glad to have another couple of days some time before the season is over, at any rate. We poor devils are kept pretty close at it nowadays, though. Good-bye. Many thanks for a delightful shoot. I like your new way of driving the lower woods. Seems to me you keep the birds much better in hand. My regards to Louise and once more my regrets.”

The car drove off and Lord Edward, shivering a little, hurried back to the warm and comfortable hall. The little company all looked up at his coming.

“Did you get anything out of him at all?” one of the guests asked eagerly.

Lord Edward nodded.

“Just at the last moment,” he confided. “I daren’t ask him anything direct, of course, but I went as far as I could. He told me straight out that poor Brandt was for it.”

Louise shivered.

“I didn’t like the man,” she admitted, “but I can’t see that killing any one in a fight is murder.”

“These legal fellows have water in their veins, not blood,” her brother declared irritably. “Why, Rossiter confessed out there on the doorstep that he wasn’t satisfied with the present definition of manslaughter. Why the mischief can’t he or some of the other big bugs change it then? You heard what the Lord Chief Justice himself said the other day? He acknowledged that there were extenuating circumstances, as he called them, in the case, but they were not such as the law could take any account of.”

“We have not had a Home Secretary for years,” an elderly man asserted from the background, “who would have been so insensible. We know perfectly well that there’s nothing the King likes better than to sign a reprieve.”

“No good now, I’m afraid,” Louise sighed. “What about tubs and a rubber before dinner?”

“Dinner!” her neighbour groaned, as he rose to his feet. “I’ve eaten a whole plateful of buttered toast.”

“My digestion is ruined,” another extraordinarily healthy-looking young man remarked, also preparing to depart. “The only time I have an appetite nowadays is for these illicit meals. I never tasted muffins like those in my life.”

“All the way from Norwich, my dear Charles, to satisfy your greed,” his hostess confided, smiling. “Never mind, I have an idea that with the help of a cocktail you will be able to glance at something to eat at half-past eight.”

“One has one’s hostess’s feelings to consider,” the young man observed, with an air of mock resignation. “Is it short coats to-night, Louise?”

“Short coats for every one,” she announced. “You’ll be without a host, as you know. Edward has to go into Norwich on political business. And don’t be late, any of you,” she enjoined. “I had no bridge last night, and I like to play before dinner. You can keep your white ties till to-morrow, when you’ll all have to dance. Au revoir, everybody.”

The pleasantly tired little crowd drifted away to their rooms. Soon the dozen bathrooms of Keynsham Hall were all in requisition, to the great content of their occupants. Every one was feeling the pleasant glow resulting from a day in the open air with healthy and ample exercise. Even the near-by tragedies of life and death do little more than scratch the surface of other people’s day-by-day existence.


Sir Humphrey Rossiter, the youngest Home Secretary who had ever filled the post, leaned back in the corner of his hired limousine with his feet upon the opposite seat, his arms folded and his pipe firmly between his teeth. Although nothing about his appearance or the quality of his shooting during the last few days would have denoted the fact, he knew very well that he was distinctly nervy. His late host’s tentative, almost apologetic queries as to the cause célèbre which had occupied the columns of the daily papers during the last few weeks had filled his brain again with the very ideas from which he had been anxious to escape.

The whole principle was wrong, he told himself savagely. The case of this fellow Cecil Brandt, for instance. There was no doubt whatever that he had killed another man. He had been brilliantly defended, had had a perfectly fair trial, a very capable jury had found him guilty of murder, and a judge, who if he erred at all, was considered to err on the side of leniency, had sentenced him to death. Surely, as the law stood, that should be the end of it. These petitions, all this Press rhetoric, this wave of sympathy created for the condemned man came too late. There had been some slight technical quibble about the charge being reduced to one of manslaughter which, for the simple reason that the prisoner had refused to give evidence, and the prosecution had been ruthless, had borne no fruit. Cecil Brandt had been found guilty of murder. It was unfair that after the verdict, after judge and jury had done their duty according to their convictions, the eyes of the whole world should have been fixed upon him---Humphrey Rossiter. The whole business had become a torment. The newspapers had made covert appeals, he had been flooded with anonymous letters---some of them very graciously and eloquently written---and other signed communications from people high in the estimation of their fellows concerning this unfortunate man. They had bombarded him from every quarter and in every possible manner, heedless of the fact that he had the right to interfere only if further evidence had transpired after the trial, or if considerations had arisen which had not been presented to the judge or jury. It was too late now to talk of extenuating circumstances, because no extenuating circumstances had been shown. The wheels of justice had spun, were spinning now, to their appointed end, and it was not for him to thrust a tardy interference into the spokes. He knew quite well what every one was hoping for from him, and he was passionately aware that it was entirely and utterly unreasonable. It had even been hinted that a certain private telephone wire to a very august personage was being kept open to the last minute, in case he should have any suggestion or appeal to make. The whole thing was maudlin, he told himself angrily. There were moments during the first half-hour of that drive, with the wind booming across the open heaths and the rain streaming down the closed windows, when he could honestly have confessed that he was sorry he had ever taken office. He was supposed to be a hard man. People would probably think him harder still after to-night. Yet, at the bottom of his heart, he was suffering agonies because to-morrow morning at eight o’clock Cecil Brandt, a man who had dined with him at his house, a man who had married the woman for whom he had always had a fervent admiration, was to be hanged. . . .

He refilled his pipe and tried to think of other things. He thought of those few years of perfect happiness which his invalid wife had enjoyed in the contemplation of his success. He thought of some of his successful speeches in the House. He had never fancied himself as an orator, but somehow or other the fluency of the Law Courts had begotten the eloquence which had brought him an amazing measure of parliamentary success. Pleasant thoughts, but somehow insufficient on this one particular evening. Continually he found himself back in the condemned prison cell of Wandsworth Gaol. A tribute to law and order! That was what this sentence had meant. A just and faithful tribute. None the less so because the victim belonged to a class of society seldom seen in the dock of a criminal court. In one of his speeches only a few weeks ago, the Right Honourable Sir Humphrey Rossiter had pointed out to an appreciative audience that in no country in the world were the laws administered with such unflinching determination as in England, and that in no country in the world were crimes of violence so little known and so few of them undetected. There had been a great burst of applause and every one had smiled a smile of fatuous self-satisfaction. Some sacrifice had to be made to reach this happy state. Sentiment had sometimes to be strangled, generous impulses to be checked. Sympathies could not exist in the making or dispensing of the law. It was just that Cecil Brandt should die. His death was a tribute to the unflinching inevitability of the law.


The not too pleasant meditations of Sir Humphrey Rossiter were brought to an abrupt and amazing end. He had been vaguely conscious, just after they had rounded a bend in the road, of a red light not more than twenty yards ahead. He felt the sudden application of the brakes, the slight rocking and skidding of the car, which was brought skilfully enough almost to a standstill. Then followed a series of unexpected and bewildering happenings. Some one had sprung up by the side of the chauffeur, had gripped him by the arm and, with extended finger, was pointing down the road. Both his own doors were flung open, admitting a scurry of rain and wind. Two men, strangely disguised in white masks, entered, one from either side. Sir Humphrey looked at them in amazement, but his demand for an explanation was never fully spoken. The last thing of which he was conscious was that he was being pinioned in his place by one man, whilst another was bending over him with a handkerchief in his hand. A sickly smell of some sort of anæsthetic brought with it a temporary wave of unconsciousness. He fancied that he felt the fierce breath of a man upon his cheek, fancied that in the distance he heard the report of a gun and a cry. He fancied many things, but it was an hour before he was sure.

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