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19: The End of the Circuit

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Author Topic: 19: The End of the Circuit  (Read 40 times)
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« on: April 29, 2023, 07:43:32 am »

THERE was an end-of-term atmosphere at dinner in the lodgings that evening. The peripatetic little household, so often dissolved, so often renewed against a fresh background, was now to break up for good and all. It was an occasion at once joyful and mildly sentimental, to which each member of the party reacted in a different way. Savage, without going so far as to be cheerful, laid aside his usual cloak of gloom. Greene, after being presented by Derek with the guinea which immutable custom prescribes as the due of the Marshal’s man, had become positively talkative about the near approach of Christmas and waited at table with the air of a kindly ministering angel. Derek himself had his own reasons for being glad that his period of exile was over.

For Hilda, although she doubtless had troubles enough to look forward to, the fact that the Circuit with all its dangers and misadventures had ended without disaster was, she confessed to Derek, the one thing that mattered. She felt that it was a result upon which they could properly congratulate themselves and each other and one which had earned a mild celebration. Mrs. Square, without seeking for reasons, rejoiced that her ladyship had at last seen fit to order a dinner that was a dinner, and the resulting meal, if not quite on the lavish scale of her banquets at Markhampton and Southington, was a good deal more in the true Circuit tradition than its predecessors for some time back.

After dinner, one of the last rites of the Circuit remained to be performed. This was that known as “settling the circuit accounts”. Among his other multifarious duties, a judge’s clerk on circuit acts as what in even more exalted circles is known as a Comptroller to his employer. The degree of responsibility enjoyed by him in this capacity naturally varies with the individuals concerned. With Barber, as careless of his personal affairs as he was punctilious over legal technicalities, settling the accounts had been reduced to a very simple formula. On the last day of the Circuit, Beamish would leave upon his desk a neatly kept account book and a bundle of receipted bills and cheque counterfoils. With them would be a short balance sheet, showing the amounts expended, cheques cashed during the progress of the Circuit and the sum now necessary to balance the account. The Judge would glance at this last, groan heavily, sign the cheque already drawn for him, and return the whole mass of documents to Beamish. The whole process usually took about a minute and a half.

This time, however, matters did not go according to precedent. The fact that she had allowed herself a certain extravagance over dinner had not blinded Hilda to the pressing need for economy which had obsessed her for so long. Rather it had by reaction stimulated her to an even livelier appreciation of the value of money than ever. Consequently, when on entering the drawing-room she saw the usual little pile of papers neatly laid out with the cheque awaiting signature beside it, she forestalled her husband before he could reach for his pen and said firmly, “I’ll go through these first, William, if you don’t mind.”

Barber uttered a mild protest, to which no attention at all was paid. A minute later Hilda was sitting at the desk, subjecting every item of the accounts to a severe and rigid scrutiny. For nearly half an hour she toiled, checking figures and verifying additions with the air of a professional auditor. At the end of that time she looked up, and said:

“William, there are one or two items here which I don’t altogether understand.”

The Judge reluctantly put down the book he was reading and came over to her side. As he did so, he gave Derek a look that said: “This is the kind of thing one must expect when women start concerning themselves in matters they don’t understand.” Such at least was the interpretation which Derek, who was beginning to feel himself an expert in meaning looks, put upon it. It cannot be positively asserted that Barber succeeded in conveying this rather complicated sentiment by expression alone.

It is always a little embarrassing for a third person when a married couple discuss their financial affairs in his presence; and Derek scrupulously refrained from listening to the colloquy that ensued. But he could not avoid hearing a good deal of it, and it was only too apparent that from the start the Judge was undergoing something very like a stringent cross-examination. Moreover, before very long it was borne in on Derek that he was not standing up to it very well. Clearly, there were quite a number of things that were wrong in the accounts. Equally clearly, they were things which his lordship was quite unable to explain. Finally, Hilda reached an item near the end of the account which caused her to exclaim: “But this is outrageous!” And the Judge had nothing to say in reply but:

“Well, my dear, I know that I gave Beamish a cheque.”

“You gave Beamish a cheque!” said her ladyship scornfully. “You mean, you signed whatever he chose to put before you!”

“But, I was going on to say, I certainly didn’t think it was for as much as that. I think”, he went on, in a rather firmer voice, “that this is a matter which Beamish should be asked to explain.”

“Wait a minute, before you do anything else. Have you got your paid cheques here? You should have.”

“Yes. You will recollect that you asked me to get my passbook from the bank while we were at Whitsea. I have it here.”

“Let me see.” Hilda took the book, and turned rapidly over the bundle of paid cheques. She pulled out one and scrutinized it carefully. “This cheque has been altered!” she pronounced. “Do you see? the ‘ty’ of sixty is in a different coloured ink from the rest, and an extra nought has been added on to the figures. When Beamish gave you this to sign it was for six pounds only. Now it reads for sixty. He has defrauded you of fifty-four pounds and faked the account to hide it. And if I hadn’t insisted on going through the figures----”

“Marshal, will you touch the bell?” said the Judge with awful calm. “And Hilda, you will please be good enough to leave me to deal with this matter myself.”

Savage answered the bell, and was ordered to tell Beamish that his presence was required immediately. It seemed to those who waited quite a long time before Beamish made his appearance. When he came in he had a rather dishevelled air and his face and hands were dirty. But more than this, Derek noticed something about his expression which put him in mind of the occasion at Rampleford when he had been so unexpectingly confiding. And when he spoke there was a distinct trace of huskiness in his mellifluous baritone.

“I must apologize for being so dirty, my lord,” he said. “But I’ve been packing up the books and things.”

He advanced with steps that were rather too carefully steady towards the desk, where the cheque to balance the account should normally have been awaiting him.

“Beamish!” said the Judge in a tone that brought him up short in his tracks. “Will you be good enough to explain the meaning of this?”

And he extended at arm’s length the paid cheque for sixty pounds.

“This cheque, my lord?” Beamish said flatly, taking it from him. He looked stupified, standing in the middle of the room, turning it over and over in his dirty hands.

“I wish to know how it comes about that that cheque is made out for sixty pounds.”

“I’m sure I couldn’t say off-hand, my lord. It’s all in the account there, I’ve no doubt.”

“Do you desire any time to consider your answer? If so, you are at liberty to take these papers away with you and give such explanation as you can to-morrow. I must tell you now, however, that the cheque you are holding bears signs of having been altered. Do you wish to consider?”

Beamish did not lift his eyes. He was still studying the piece of paper, which he held in one hand while with the other he ruffled his normally sleek dark hair. By now, he was visibly swaying on his feet.

“No,” he muttered in a low voice. “I don’t think it would be any use.”

“Do you mean that you have no explanation to offer?”

This time Beamish lifted his head and answered in a loud, almost defiant voice, “I mean just that, my lord.”

“You are dismissed,” said Barber in a tone in which sorrow and sternness were mingled.

Beamish opened his mouth as if to say something, evidently thought better of it, and walked with faltering footsteps to the door.

And there the ugly little episode might have ended if Barber had not been moved by some evil genius to speak again.

“Beamish!” he said just as the clerk reached the door.

Beamish turned and stood silently looking at him. He still wore the same dazed expression, but the colour was beginning to come back into his cheeks, and his mouth was set in a firm, hard line.

“I am not at all sure,” said his lordship, “that it is not my duty to prosecute you. But I do not propose to do so. I do not wish to add to the punishment that you have brought upon yourself by your criminal misconduct. You have betrayed the trust---the implicit trust---which I, perhaps foolishly, have placed in you over a number of years. Whether this is an isolated incident or not, I shall not seek to determine. The blow that it has been to me to find faithlessness where I had expected faith is not to be measured by the amounts or the numbers of your defalcations. Neither shall I inquire into the reasons which led one in your position to jeopardize everything a man should hold dear for the sake of----”

“That’s enough!” Beamish shouted suddenly.

There was a horrified silence.

“You’re not going to treat me to one of your blasted sermons,” he went on truculently. “I’m not in the dock now, and if I ever get there, it won’t be you that tries me, that’s certain, thank God! I’m sacked, I know that. Well, what of it? I’m not the only one that’s due for the sack, that’s all. I shouldn’t have kept this lousy job for another six months anyway, and you know it! You’re a fine one to talk about not prosecuting as if it was a favour. You ought to be in the dock yourself, and if there wasn’t one law for the rich and one for the poor, that’s where you would have been.”

“Be silent!” roared the Judge.

“Prosecute me?” Beamish went on, undeterred. “You daren’t! Just you try it, that’s all. There’s a lot I could say about the goings on on this Circuit if you did, about you and that fine lady of yours who put you up to this. And you won’t be a judge by the time my trial comes on, don’t you forget it. I’m not the only one that knows things, I can tell you. I----”

“Leave the room at once!”

“All right, my old cock, I’m going. But just don’t you forget this. You’ve had plenty of warnings, and here’s the last of them. You’ve got something coming to you!

And the door banged behind him.


It was a subdued party that returned to London next day. It would be hard to say in which part of the train the atmosphere was more oppressive---in the third class carriage where Savage, Greene and Mrs. Square discussed the downfall of their colleague in shocked whispers, or in the first class one where Derek, Hilda and Barber sat in embittered silence. The tension was aggravated by a number of minor mishaps which marred the normally smooth transit of the King’s representative from one place to another. Such mundane matters as the taking of tickets, the provision of porters, the proper bestowal of luggage, which had been managed with such slick efficiency by Beamish that they had appeared to be performed of themselves, now obtruded themselves with disagreeable insistence. Savage, when appealed to, protested with humility but firmness that it was not his place to do a clerk’s work, and Derek in the end had to attend to most of these affairs himself. He made a number of minor blunders, which the Judge, wrapped in a gloom alleviated only by slabs of milk chocolate, did not seem to notice and which Hilda bore with martyred resignation.

The journey was over at last. Derek had seen the pair into a taxi and watched them drive away---a worried elderly gentleman and his young and handsome wife. The Commission was over and His Majesty’s alter-ego was no more, until the next Circuit---if there was to be another Circuit.

His train home was from the same station, and he had an hour or so to wait. He told his porter to put his luggage in the cloakroom and was just moving in that direction when a quiet voice spoke at his elbow:

“I wonder whether you can spare me a moment or two, sir?”

Derek turned round in surprise. A moment before he had been looking in that direction and he could have sworn that nobody was there. Moreover, in the bare expanse of the station, there was no cover to hide anyone, let alone the huge man who now strolled beside him. He seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. It was a disconcerting habit of Inspector Mallett, and one of which he alone knew the secret.

Derek explained that he had some time to kill.

“I thought you would be catching the 12.45 if you were going straight home,” observed the inspector. “That will just give us time for a quiet chat, if you’ve no objection.”

Mallett’s tone was so casual that it did not strike Derek at the time as at all remarkable that his probable movements should be known to Scotland Yard. When, later on, he realized it, he was conscious of an uncomfortably cold feeling down his spine. But by then it was far too late to do anything about it.

He walked with the inspector to the cloakroom in silence. He wondered where in the echoing din of the terminus it was proposed that they should have a quiet chat. But Mallett had thought of this also.

“The stationmaster has been kind enough to lend us his room,” he said, and led the way into a quiet little office.

“I saw your little party got back all right,” he went on, as he sat down and began to fill his pipe. “All except the Judge’s clerk, I noticed. What’s happened to him?”

“He isn’t the Judge’s clerk any more. He was dismissed last night. For embezzlement.”

Mallett’s face, so far as it could be seen through a thickening cloud of tobacco smoke, showed no surprise.

“That would explain it,” was his only comment.

He smoked in silence for a moment or two. Then he said, “Well, Mr. Marshall, the last time we met we were discussing unpleasantness on the Circuit of a rather different kind. Lady Barber was decidedly anxious about it then. I haven’t heard anything further about it since from her. But it did occur to me to wonder whether anything had happened at all abnormal during the rest of the Circuit, and I thought perhaps you could help me.”

“I’m not sure that I know what you mean by abnormal,” said Derek. “You see, I’ve never been on a Circuit before, so I hardly know what to expect.”

Mallett took the evasion in good part.

“Oh, well, you know the sort of thing I mean,” he said. “There was that anonymous letter at Rampleford, for instance----”

“You know about that?”

“Surely. In fact, I’ve got it about me somewhere, I think.” He pulled out a wallet bursting with papers from the inside pocket of his coat. “The Judge sent it back to the Rampleford Police as soon as he got to Whitsea and they sent it on to us.”

“I didn’t know he’d done that,” said Derek.

“Didn’t you? Well it’s only to be expected that he should. He’s been just a little nervous of anonymous letters ever since Markhampton, you see. But there’s no reason why he should mention it to you, after all. I dare say there was a good deal that went on which you wouldn’t know about.”

“I should think I knew a good deal more than the Judge about what went on,” said Derek rashly.

“Well, it’s very satisfactory to hear that,” said Mallett. “Because, after all, that’s just what I was after. What exactly did go on?” Then, seeing that Derek was still hesitating, he added, “I shall be having a talk with her ladyship shortly, of course. Only I thought it would be a good plan to get the point of view of an outsider, so to speak, and by catching you now I can get it while it’s still fresh in your mind.”

Derek had had a vague idea that he should not, in Hilda’s absence, say anything to anybody about the misadventures of the latter part of the Circuit, but the inspector’s last words effectually loosened his tongue; and by the time that his train came in he had told him everything that he remembered. Indeed, as he settled back into the unaccustomed discomfort of his third-class carriage, he had leisure to reflect with surprise on how much he had remembered. Under the inspector’s tactful guidance he had found that all sorts of details had returned to his memory which left to himself he would never have thought of. Not that any words had been put into his mouth. On the contrary, nothing could have been less like a cross-examination than was the friendly interview just concluded. It was simply that by some kind of instinct Inspector Mallett seemed to know exactly what was missing from any description or account, for all the world as though he had been there himself, so that his questions always came pat to stimulate the sluggish memory. And the questions had been surprisingly few. For the most part he had been content to listen in silence. To Derek’s surprise, he had taken no notes. None the less, he was perfectly certain that nothing he had said would go unremarked. He had had the impression of feeding facts into a sort of machine, which would in due course produce---what sort of finished product, he wondered?


About the same time next day, Mallett was making his report to the Assistant Commissioner who ruled his department.

“I saw Lady Barber this morning, sir,” he was saying. “Her story is very much the same as Mr. Marshall’s, with one or two variations.”

“That’s to be expected,” said the Assistant Commissioner. “But were any of the variations at all important?”

“Only one seemed to me significant. She made no mention at all of the dead mouse incident.”

“Indeed? Did you ask her about it?”

Mallett smiled.

“No, sir. On the whole I thought it better not to.”

“I suppose it did happen? Or do you think that boy could have invented it?”

“No, I shouldn’t say he has a very inventive mind. I think it happened all right.”

“Then why should she have suppressed it?”

“I think, sir, mainly because it didn’t fit in with her theory about the rest of the affair.”

“Well, that’s only human nature, I suppose. What is her theory, exactly?”

“It isn’t one theory precisely,” Mallett explained. “There are several. Her favourite one is still that all these different incidents are the work of Heppenstall.”

“Then you didn’t tell her----?”

“No, sir. If you recollect, we agreed at the time that no mention should be made of Heppenstall’s arrest until after the Circuit was over. I ventured to extend the time a little so far as these two persons were concerned, because I thought it would only start putting ideas into their heads---and after all, it is facts we’re after just now, and not ideas, isn’t it, sir?”

The Assistant Commissioner nodded. Then he said, with a sigh, “It’s an odd position altogether. You don’t think it advisable to try to get a statement from the Judge himself?”

“In the circumstances, no, sir. There is only one other person I should like to talk to---for various reasons.”

“You mean Beamish, I suppose?”

“Exactly, sir. I dare say we shall be able to pick him up before long. He must be short of money.”

The Assistant Commissioner smiled and glanced at a file of papers in front of him.

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve just been going through the report on the affairs of Corky’s Night Club. The raid there must have hit him pretty hard.”

“I fancy that was where all his savings, legal and otherwise, have been going for a long time,” said Mallett. “It’s a funny sort of sideline for a judge’s clerk, isn’t it? He certainly covered his tracks pretty well. Even the manager didn’t know who his principal was. I think that the closing of the club has left him badly in debt, and that would explain why he tried to help himself to a slice of the Judge’s money in the rather crude way he did.”

“No doubt. Well, that’s a side issue, really. What I am mainly interested in is this series of attacks on the Judge. What is your theory about it?”

The inspector was silent.

“You have one, haven’t you?” said his superior reproachfully.

“Well, yes, sir, I have,” Mallett said hesitantly. “Only I’m afraid you’ll think it rather ridiculous. I mean, I think I know what the facts are, but I can’t understand the reason for them. And without the reason, it just makes nonsense. Logically, it’s sound, but psychologically it’s all wrong. Unless, of course, we’re dealing here with one of these funny mental cases which----”

“That’s enough!” said the Assistant Commissioner. “We’re policemen, not mental specialists. Cut the cackle, and tell me what your notion is.”

Mallett did so.

“Absurd!” was the comment.

“Yes, sir,” said Mallett meekly.

“Quite absurd!”

“I agree, sir.”

The two of them contemplated the absurdity together in silence for a full half minute.

“And suppose you are right” said the Assistant Commissioner abruptly, “what is to be done?”

“Nothing, sir.”


“Nothing at all, sir. Logically, it seems to me to follow that all these threats, attacks and so forth which have recurred so regularly all through the Circuit will stop now that the Circuit is over, and the particular---er---predisposing cause is removed.”

“I only hope you’re right. We can’t afford to take any risks where a man of this sort is concerned. You really think he is safe from now on?”

“No, sir. I don’t go so far as that. I wouldn’t care to say that of any man, let alone Mr. Justice Barber. All I do say is that if any danger does threaten him it will be from a different quarter altogether. Unless, of course, there’s some element in the whole story which we don’t know about. But you are the best judge of that, sir. I’ve given you all the facts and I think they are complete.”

“Thank you, Mallett. You have told me a most extraordinary story, and propounded a most ridiculous theory to account for it. I accept the story, of course, and I’m hanged if I can see any flaws in the theory. That being so, I can only hope that your prophecy is equally sound. What about Mr. Justice Barber’s next Circuit, by the way? Have you any prophecy about that?”

“I understand that he is one of the judges to stay in town next term,” said the inspector. “And after that----”

The two men looked at each other with pursed lips and understanding eyes. Both were well aware that Barber’s judicial career hung upon a thread.

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