VI.—THE MULTON BRABY MURDER
THERE is no occasion for me, I take it, to chronicle here the various cases which, following on that of Mrs. Norris, have made Skin o' my Tooth's name a familiar one throughout England. The Dartmouth Murder, the Trentham Will Case, and many others, are too well known to bear repetition; but I am not quite sure whether the public—the newspaper-reading public, I mean—ever fully realised all the difficulties which surrounded the case of young Mr. Spender-Cole in connection with the Murton-Braby tragedy. To be quite candid, I was one of those who firmly believed in Mr. Spender-Cole's guilt, and even now—but that is neither here nor there; for the facts, after all, cannot be denied, and they were as follows:—
It appears that at eleven o'clock at night on Wednesday, August 14th, there was a sudden alarm of fire in the small farm belonging to Mr. Earnslaw, and which is immediately behind his house.
He was not yet in bed, and evidently intended at once to go and see what was amiss. Anyway, less than two minutes after the alarm of fire was raised, a loud cry of "Help" and "Murder" was heard from the direction of the house. Servants from the house and from the farm ran to the spot whence had proceeded the cry, and, to their horror, found Mr. Earnslaw lying on the ground just outside the back door, and bleeding profusely from a wound in the chest.
The fire in the farmyard was quickly extinguished, and but little damage was done, but poor Mr. Earnslaw's injuries proved to be mortal. He had been stabbed with terrific violence, with some large clasp-knife or other weapon of that description, and only lived long enough to state that in the darkness, and also in the suddenness of the attack, he had not been able to recognise his assailant.
It became a terribly hard task to break the awful news to Miss Barbara, Mr. Earnslaw's only daughter. She had been in her room, quietly getting into bed, while the awful tragedy which rendered her an orphan was being enacted downstairs; and as her room was in the front of the house, she had not heard her father's cry for "Help" and only vaguely the noise connected with the fire, to which she had paid no attention.
She proved herself to be, however, much more sensible, cool, and level-headed than anyone would have given so young a girl credit for. With wonderful clearness and presence of mind she gave the necessary orders for conveying her father to his room without causing him needless pain, and then despatched two of the farm-servants to Bletchwick for a doctor and the police.
From the very first the whole of the newspaper-reading public took the keenest interest in the extraordinary circumstances which attended the Murton-Braby tragedy. Murder, pure and simple, without any attempt at robbery, has always a great element of excitement and sensation connected with it; it at once suggests some great, all-absorbing evil passion as its mainspring—revenge, love, or both combined; bitter enmity or deadly hate. In the case of the murder of Mr. Earnslaw, the difficulty with which the police had to contend with did not so much consist in ascertaining whether he had a bitter enemy at all, as in trying to discover which of his many enemies hated him sufficiently to risk hanging for the sake of putting him out of the world.
Mr. Earnslaw was supposed to hail from New Zealand, I believe; but beyond that—even in the dens of gossip which English country places usually are—no one knew anything about his antecedents. It was generally supposed that he had made his money—of which he seemed to have plenty—in illicit traffic of some sort. At a time when the whole Empire was teeming with enthusiasm and loyalty, he was that peculiar anomaly, a Colonial pro-Boer. His views on that subject, which he aired with arrogant freedom, did not tend to make him popular in the county.
Why he had chosen to settle down in the guise of an English country gentleman, in a remote Somersetshire village, no one knew or cared; and as far as the county families were concerned, he was left severely alone. On the other hand, a certain amount of genuine sympathy was shown to Miss Barbara in her isolated position. The fact that she was peculiarly good-looking may have had something to do with this sympathy—at any rate, on the part of the male members of those same county families. One or two rumours, even, had been lately current in the immediate neighbourhood of Murton-Braby, of an impending marriage between Miss Barbara Earnslaw, daughter of Mr. Earnslaw, of Murton Farm, and one or the other of the eligible county bachelors, foremost among these supposed aspirants being the young Earl of Alderdale and Mr. Spender-Cole.
Needless to say, the relatives of both those young men did their utmost to give these rumours the lie, an alliance with the daughter of the notorious pro-Boer meaning probable social ruin in loyal Somersetshire. Moreover, Mr. Earnslaw himself strongly objected to the attentions paid to his daughter, and more than one servant at Murton Farm could testify to the quarrel which ensued when the master peremptorily forbade Mr. Spender-Cole ever to set foot inside his house again.
This quarrel occurred precisely in the morning of August the 14th, and it was the evening of the same day that Mr. Earnslaw was murdered.
The police were, of course, severely criticised for bringing forward a witness of the mental calibre of James Pecover. But how it happened was this: It seemed at first quite impossible to obtain the slightest clue with regard to the murderer of Mr. Earnslaw. In the country, at eleven o'clock at night, most servants have already gone to bed; no one was about in Murton Farm until the alarm of fire sent everyone out of doors, and then everyone rushed towards the more distant haystack, whence the flames and smoke proceeded, and busied themselves with hose and pump, while the unfortunate master of the house was being murdered less than a hundred yards away. The murderer had thus been able to slip away from the grounds absolutely unperceived.
In spite of the most strenuous efforts on the part of McMurdoch—one of the most able men on the detective staff—there did not come to light the faintest trace which might have led to the identification of the murderer. Completely at a loss where to turn for a clue, the police at the inquest—which was held in the dining-room at Murton Farm, on the 17th—had to admit that they had no evidence to place before the coroner. At this juncture, Mrs. Pecover, the wife of Mr. Earnslaw's head gardener, timidly suggested that she was quite sure her son could throw some light upon the mystery. He had been, as was his invariable custom, mooning about the garden that evening, and she thought, from what he had told her, that he had seen something.
James Pecover was a delicate, half-witted lad who sometimes helped his father in the garden, but otherwise was quite helpless and incapable; in his childhood his parents had believed him to be tongue-tied; and even now that he was grown up, he hardly ever spoke, and then only under the pressure of some strong excitement. The only person who had any influence over him, and who even, at times, succeeded in turning the half-witted lad almost into a rational being, was Miss Barbara Earnslaw. She had been wonderfully kind and patient with him, and the poor, half-witted creature had in consequence bestowed upon her what little affection he was capable of. His indignation at the murder of Miss Barbara's father expressed itself with peculiar intensity; and his mother said that it had been quite pathetic to watch the efforts of his feeble mind trying to explain a certain something which he had evidently seen.
Of course, it was a moot point whether such a person should have been allowed to make a statement at all; nor had the police, I know, the faintest intention of taking serious notice of James Pecover's evidence; but they did hope that his half-coherent statement might give them the first inkling of truth in the impenetrable mystery which surrounded the crime.
Examined at the inquest, James Pecover, however, refused to speak. He stared about him with an insane smile on his soulless face. After ten minutes' patient questioning, the coroner would have given up the task, but for Miss Earnslaw, who came to the rescue with that same wonderful self-possession which had characterised her throughout trying ordeal.
"My father has been cruelly murdered," she explained. "Whatever I can do to bring his murderer to justice, I will undertake, however painful the duty may be."
The coroner adjourned the inquest until the morrow; and when the public had retired, Miss Barbara, aided by him, attempted with almost superhuman patience to elicit information from the poor idiot.
At a word from her, James Pecover was ready to speak. He had, as usual, strolled about the garden the whole evening; whether he had heard the alarm of fire or not, he could not say; anyway, he paid no attention to it, but remained in the garden close to the house. He saw someone standing among the shrubs close to the back door. Then this Mr. Earnslaw came out, and there was a sudden scuffle and a scream. Pecover had not quite realised what had happened; the next thing he remembered was seeing Mr. Earnslaw fall forward and his assailant run away. Then he, too, fled, for he was frightened and sick.
"You did not see who it was that struck my father?" asked Miss Barbara.
The idiot nodded.
"Do you know who it was, then?"
Again James Pecover nodded excitedly.
"Then it was somebody you know?"
"Yes, Miss Barbara," he stammered.
"Who was it?"
The idiot's face expressed a hopeless blank.
Patiently the coroner, aided by Miss Barbara, named in turn every person employed about Mr. Earnslaw's property, and also some of the tradespeople of Murton-Braby or Bletchwick, with whom the arrogant pro-Boer had been notedly unpopular. But to each of these names the idiot shook his head with emphatic energy.
At last, moved by a sudden thought, Miss Barbara got up and left the room. She returned two minutes later carrying a large packet of photographs.
"Now, James," she said very gently, taking the idiot's hand in hers, and forcing him by the magnetism of her great sympathy to look straight into her eyes, "look through these pictures and see if among them you can find that of the man who killed my father and left me an orphan."
James Pecover evidently understood what was expected of him, for with extraordinary care and deliberation he looked at each photograph and put it on one side. Suddenly, with violent energy, he took up a picture of a young man, and pointing at it with trembling fingers, he said with perfect coherence—
"This is the man, Miss Barbara. I saw him as plainly as I see you. He wore brown knickerbockers, a Norfolk coat, and a straw hat. He killed Mr. Earnslaw. I saw him. Give me the chance, and I'll kill him, too!"
The coroner took the photograph from James Pecover's trembling hands. It was that of Mr. Spender-Cole.
The coroner, I understand, refused to take any official cognisance of James Pecover's statements. At the adjourned inquest on the Monday following, he was not brought forward as evidence, and a verdict of "Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown" was returned. But Miss Barbara had no legal scruples of any kind. She determined to bring the murder of her father home to its perpetrator; and directly after the verdict, she saw McMurdoch, told him of the clue she held, and begged him in any case to follow it up, if only to set her mind at rest and prove its falseness.
The results were such that even the detective was taken aback. Within forty-eight hours he had collected evidence to prove that Mr. Spender-Cole was seen, by three witnesses who passed him on the road, to enter the grounds of Murton Farm at about a quarter past ten on the evening of the 14th; he was then wearing the brown knickerbockers, the Norfolk coat, and straw hat described by James Pecover. His servants and family at "Bletchwick Towers" said that he was out the whole of that evening, only returning home at half past eleven. Then, the whole question of Mr. Earnslaw's quarrels with the young man was raised. Mr. Spender-Cole had had several open disagreements with the Colonial pro-Boer, and on the very morning preceding the crime, Mr. Earnslaw had, in most insulting terms, forbidden him the door.
Miss Barbara's attitude throughout this time was one of passive coldness. Though many people in the county believed that she had been attached to Mr. Spender-Cole, and would have married him but for her father's peremptory and strenuous opposition, her only wish in the matter was to bring her father's murderer to justice, whoever he might be. She heard with the same perfect impassiveness that the police had, after very arduous investigation and with due forethought, at last decided to apply for a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Spender-Cole on the capital charge.
Throughout all these preliminaries, Skin o' my Tooth had watched the case with unflagging interest. He had on more than one occasion declared to me that it was one of the most exciting ones he had ever come across, and expressed the hope and the belief that whoever was accused of the murder, that person would entrust his defence to him.
It was only natural, when the evidence became so overwhelming against Mr. Spender-Cole as to call for his arrest, that his relatives should place the unfortunate young man's case in the hands of the ablest lawyer in the British Isles. The Spender-Coles are very wealthy county people, "Bletchwick Towers" being one of the show places in Somersetshire. Skin o' my Tooth knew that money would be no object, and that his own interests as well as his professional enthusiasm would allow him to throw himself heart and soul in the mazes of the exciting case.
We journeyed down to Bletchwick on a fine August afternoon, and the next morning saw Mr. Spender-Cole in gaol. He was a good-looking young fellow, I thought, somewhat of the gipsy type, with very dark skin and large, brown eyes. He appeared very delighted to see my chief, in whom he expressed his fullest confidence.
"You can get me out of this, Mr. Mulligan, I know," he said quite cheerfully. "I have not done this thing, whatever I may have wished to do, and I am sure that no grave miscarriage of justice will occur in my case."
"I am equally convinced of that fact," replied Skin o' my Tooth pleasantly; "and, therefore, if you are wise, you will tell me the whole truth, good or bad, about this unfortunate business."
"Well, I am afraid some of it is pretty bad, Mr. Mulligan," said the young man, blushing even underneath his swarthy skin. "You see, I unfortunately did go to Murton Farm on that night, less than half an hour before that murder was committed; and as I went to see a lady, my visit had necessarily to be kept a secret."
"I had better be quite frank with you, Mr. Mulligan. My terrible position will account for my somewhat unchivalrous attitude. You must know that for some time I had been very deeply attached to Miss Barbara Earnslaw, and had every reason to believe that my love for her was reciprocated. She frequently wrote to me in terms of the deepest love, and had pledged herself to me with all the passion her strong nature was capable of. I worshipped her, and she had made me supremely happy, and I was only too ready to make her my wife before all the world, as soon as she would give her consent. But her father saw fit to disapprove of me as a future son-in-law, hence the many quarrels that arose between us. But I hoped to break down—some day, soon—that barrier of filial deference which Barbara still placed between me and my wish to make her my wife. I thought I had at last succeeded, Mr. Mulligan, when suddenly, without any warning, her feelings for me seemed to change. She treated me with marked coldness and refused even to come and see me at our usual trysting-place. I begged for an explanation. In reply I had a curt note from her, requesting my presence in the shrubbery at Murton Farm on the evening of the 14th, at about ten o'clock, and demanding that I should bring with me all the letters and tokens I had ever received from her. It was a terrible blow. Mr. Mulligan, for of course I knew at once that something was amiss. I met Mr. Earnslaw that morning—for, like a love-sick idiot, I haunted the precincts of Murton Farm all day. He took that opportunity of forbidding me his house; and I had then to remember that he was Barbara's father, or I should have knocked him down. However, I obeyed my orders, and was in the shrubbery by a quarter past ten. It all occurred just as I had feared. I was given my congé, with but a few regrets for the past happy time. The Earl of Alderdale had asked Barbara to marry him, and she, with all a woman's love of title and position, then threw me over for these, without a pang. I gave her back her letters, for she coolly explained to me that no shadow of scandal must ever touch now or in the future a Countess of Alderdale. Then I went away, for there was nothing more to be said. But I did not kill Mr. Earnslaw. Why should I? Alive or dead, he could not balk me now. It was she who did not care; I could see she was not acting on compulsion—it is easy to see that, isn't it?"
He paused a moment in his narrative and stared absently before him. It was clear to me that the cheerfulness he had exhibited at the beginning of the interview was only outward show.
"You have not told me what happened after you had said good-bye to Miss Earnslaw and given up her letters," said Skin o' my Tooth after a while.
"Oh, yes! She walked with me as far as the gate, for it was very dark, and I think she was afraid I might betray my presence by stumbling or losing my way."
"At what time was that?"
"It was five minutes to eleven when I left the gate. I remember looking at my watch."
"Why did not you tell all this to the detectives who were trying to get up the case against you?"
"Because at first I thought that Miss Earnslaw would tell all that was necessary, when she saw that I was in trouble, and, after that——"
"Yes? After that?"
"Well, somehow, after that it seemed too late. As I had not spoken at first, and Miss Earnslaw had said nothing, I thought I should seem such an awful cad if——"
"If——?" repeated Skin o' my Tooth, as the young man seemed to hesitate.
"Well, if she denied the whole thing, you see."
"Yes; I think I see," rejoined my chief, quietly.
Of course, at the time such a thing appeared to me positively preposterous. If Mr. Spender-Cole spoke the truth—and I had no reason to doubt it—surely no woman would allow a man to remain under a false accusation for the sake of her own social reputation, however highly she might prize it. I suppose that Skin o' my Tooth's estimate of human nature was not so optimistic as mine, for he did not discuss the point with the young man; he succeeded, however, as he always does, in instilling into his client a firm belief in the truth and justice of his cause; and when he left him, after another half-hour's pleasant talk, there was no doubt that Mr. Spender-Cole's cheerfulness was no longer only on the surface.
Having left Bletchwick Gaol, Skin o' my Tooth sent me on to the Crown Hotel, where we were putting up, and told me to wait for him there while he drove on to Murton Farm.
"I expect nothing from the interview, Muggins," he said to me, "but I fancy I would rather like to cross swords with Miss Barbara Earnslaw."
He said this with one of his pleasant, jovial smiles and that funny casting down of the eyes which gave him quite a coy look. I watched the fly disappearing down the dusty road, and then I strolled into the hotel bar and sat on one of the seats, with my hands buried in my trousers pockets, to think the whole matter out.
But think of it as I would, my solutions to the mystery remained very preposterous—either that Mr. Spender-Cole had told a lie, or that Miss Barbara had set fire to her father's hayricks and then murdered him, which, of course, on the part of a young girl but little over twenty years old, was, to say the least of it, unlikely.
Less than half an hour later, I saw my esteemed employer's fat and slouchy figure strolling down the road. He came in and sat down next to me, and I could see that same pleasant, amused smile hovering round the corners of his fat month.
"Well, sir?" I ventured to say at last.
"Well, Muggins," he said, with a chuckle, "my interview with Miss Barbara Earnslaw was of the briefest. She professed herself entirely at a loss to understand why I had troubled her at all with Mr. Spender-Cole's affairs. Her acquaintance with him, she said, was of the slightest. The suggestion that she had at any time had any intimacy with him she absolutely repudiated, qualifying it as unpardonable impertinence; and of course, to the story that she had an interview with him just before the murder of her father, and herself saw him out by the gate, she gave a most emphatic and haughty denial."
He chuckled again, smiling quietly to himself. Then he added, with a touch of genuine enthusiasm—
"But, by Jove, Muggins! she is a handsome woman."
The next morning, Mr. Spender-Cole was charged before the local magistrates, and formal evidence as to his arrest having been given, Skin o' my Tooth had no difficulty in obtaining a remand for him, pending the production of some important evidence.
During the past few hours, ever since his interview with Miss Earnslaw, Skin o' my Tooth had scarcely spoken a word. I could see that beneath that fleshy mask of his, thoughts were crowding thick and fast; and when I heard him ask for a remand for his client, pending important evidence, I knew that already in that shrewd brain the whole history of the mysterious crime had been reconstructed.
After we had had some luncheon, we walked down to Murton-Braby, the pretty little village which nestles on the outskirts of the Doespring Woods, a couple of miles from Bletchwick. Skin o' my Tooth had asked McMurdoch to accompany us, and the detective, whose belief in Mr. Spender-Cole's guilt was firmly rooted, treated us the whole way with all the arguments which tended to prove his case.
We made a halt by the gate of Murton Farm; and as we did so, it was opened, and a lady and gentleman on horseback came out, attended by a groom. She certainly was one of the handsomest women I had ever seen, and she sat her horse with perfect ease and grace.
"Miss Earnslaw and the Earl of Alderdale," whispered McMurdoch to me. "They are to be married, I believe, as soon as her mourning is over."
They certainly made a very handsome couple, and mentally I endorsed my chief's enthusiastic praise of Miss Earnslaw's beauty. She frowned a little, I thought, when she recognised Skin o' my Tooth and the detective, both of whom had bowed respectfully to her as she passed, and for a moment it seemed to me that she meant to stop and speak to them; but the next instant she had cantered off with Lord Alderdale down the shady road.
I watched her until she was out of sight; and when I turned, I saw that Skin o' my Tooth had gone up to the man who had opened the gate, and who still stood there, leaning against it, also watching the two retreating figures down the road. I don't think that in the whole course of my life I had ever seen a face so full of hopeless despair and dormant passion, as was that of this man.
"Hallo, Pecover!" ejaculated McMurdoch jovially. Hearing the name, I looked at the young man with still keener interest. This, then, was the half-witted creature whose irresponsible statements had brought poor Mr. Spender-Cole within measurable distance of the gallows. Skin o' my Tooth touched him lightly on the arm.
"She is very beautiful, isn't she, James?" he asked with that kindly sympathy which he knows so well how to impart to his voice.
James Pecover sighed and then looked inquiringly at my chief, as if wondering whence came all the sympathy.
"No wonder you love her so much," added Skin o' my Tooth.
The young man did not speak; his eyes expressed all that he would have said.
"Suppose you let me come into the lodge, and give me and my friends some tea? We have come all the way from Bletchwick to see Miss Earnslaw; and now, you see, she has gone out riding, and we would like to wait until she comes home."
Quietly he pushed open the gate, and taking James Pecover's arm, he led him towards the lodge. The gardener and his wife were both out. The young fellow, however, as if under the spell of Skin o' my Tooth's kindly sympathy, led the way to the pretty little parlour, where he soon began to spread the table for tea. My chief watched him with unceasing persistency as he moved to and fro in the room, getting tea and bread-and-butter ready with that mechanical precision which often characterises the dull-witted. McMurdoch said nothing. He, too, felt at that moment, as I did, that wonderful magnetic influence which seemed to emanate from the uncouth Irish lawyer when he was in the pursuit of his favourite occupation, the investigation—or, rather, the instinctive scenting—of crime. When everything was ready, Skin o' my Tooth sat down before the tea-tray and said cheerfully—
"This is excellent, James. Now, I'll pour out tea for everyone. You sit here beside me."
I watched him as he poured out the tea, and suddenly he took a flask from his pocket and emptied half its contents into one of the cups, which he then filled with water. It was brandy, I could see, and he passed that cup to James Pecover, whose dull eyes had glistened as he took it from him.
"It does improve tea, doesn't it?" said Skin o' my Tooth, as he quietly watched the young man swallow down the contents of that cup at one gulp.
"Now we can talk," be added, noting the immediate change which had come over the dull, impenetrable face of James Pecover. His eyes brightened up, a warm glow spread over his cheeks; he smacked his lips once or twice and then handed his cup to Skin o' my Tooth, with the laconic word—
"Oh, yes! presently. It is good, isn't it? But you have to tell me one or two things first; then you shall have some more."
"Yes! yes! I'll tell! Give me more! I'll tell" murmured the idiot excitedly.
"You shall tell me first of all," said Skin o' my Tooth, quietly fingering his flask and leaning across the table, "why you killed Mr. Earnslaw?"
A look of almost demoniacal hatred, which positively made me shudder, lighted up the half-witted creature's face.
"I hated him!" he hissed between his clenched teeth. "He horsewhipped me—struck me with his horsewhip—there—in the shrubbery! You can see the marks—across my back!"
And feverishly, with trembling hands, he loosened his coat and flannel, shirt, and bending his neck, showed his back, across which great purple marks still testified to the truth of what he said.
"I expect you deserved that horsewhipping, James," said Skin o' my Tooth coldly.
This added fuel to the raging fire of James Pecover's wrath. His excitement grew in intensity, and as it did so it loosened his tongue, already quickened by a taste of the brandy.
"Aye!" he said. "And he deserved the blow I struck him there, right in the chest! He struck me with his horsewhip, because—once—I don't know how it was—I found Miss Barbara alone in the shrubbery—I loved her, and I kissed her—I couldn't help it—she was so beautiful. She was angry and told Mr. Earnslaw. He horsewhipped me, and I killed him. I put a light to the hayricks—I knew he would come out to see what was wrong; so when I had fired the ricks, I went back to the house and waited for him. When he came out, I stabbed him."
It would be impossible to render with any exactitude the curious, weird tones, so full of the most deadly hatred, with which that dull-witted creature had spoken. And now, when he had finished, he still repeated with the obstinacy so characteristic of the feeble-minded—
"I stabbed him—I killed him! He horsewhippped me!"
"Why did you fasten your guilt on Mr. Spender-Cole, then?" asked Skin o' my Tooth sternly.
"I was frightened—and I knew he was in the garden. I had seen him—with her—I hated him because she loved him."
"And you thought you could get rid of two enemies at once, eh? That was very ingenious. But where did you get the knife with which you stabbed Mr. Earnslaw, and what did you do with it afterwards?"
"It was my own knife—I used to kill rabbits with it. I threw it into the rhodo bush when I had done with it; then the next night I buried it."
"Under the rhodo bush?"
The idiot nodded. The excitement was slowly but perceptibly dying out of his eyes. The effect of the brandy had been sudden, as is usually the case on feeble brains, but it was not lasting—the alcohol seemed to have pervaded his body, his limbs looked heavy, his head nodded, then drooped forward upon his chest. Once or twice he roused himself, the look of deadly hatred stole again into his bleary eyes, and he repeated slowly—
"He horsewhipped me, and I killed him!"
Skin o' my Tooth placed a finger to his mouth, and gently McMurdoch stole out of the room, while we remained, watching beside the idiot.
Ten minutes later, the detective came back. He was carrying a bundle, which he quickly placed upon the table and then unfolded. It was an old working coat, covered with stains and mud; the stains all down the front were obviously those of blood; wrapped in it was a large clasp-knife, covered with the same gruesome stains. We were all three examining these things, while James Pecover nodded in an inane fashion across the table, murmuring incoherent words to himself, when a frightful shriek caused us all to turn quickly towards the door.
Mrs. Pecover, the gardener's wife, was standing there, her eyes staring horror-struck at her son's coat and knife lying upon the table. She had not spoken a word, but her awful shriek seemed to have roused her son from his idiotic apathy. With a cry half of mad rage and half of hopeless terror, he sprang up and with one bound fell upon Skin o' my Tooth, gripped him by the throat, and dragged him down with him upon the floor, where the madman's shrieks drowned Skin o' my Tooth's feeble call for help. McMurdoch and I had some difficulty in extricating my chief from the wild grip of the maniac. With a last effort at intelligence, James Pecover had, I suppose, realised that with his kindly sympathy Skin o' my Tooth had set a trap for him, into which he had fallen.
Had they been alone together at the time, the madman would have made short work of my chief, in spite of the latter's powerful physique. As it was, McMurdoch and I succeeded at last in dragging James Pecover away. Then, with Skin o' my Tooth's help, who had quickly recovered himself, we managed to hold him down. Mrs. Pecover, terrified, had sunk sobbing into a chair.
"I had brought the sedative with me, as well as the stimulant," remarked my chief presently, as he drew a small phial from his pocket. "I thought that I should probably need both. Give me the cup, Muggins. I think I can get him to drink this."
When James Pecover had taken the draught, which he did without a murmur, he became quite quiet, and soon McMurdoch suggested one of us going to Bletchwick for assistance. Mrs. Pecover had recovered herself sufficiently to realise the gravity of the situation. She went herself round to the stables and got one of the grooms to drive me down to Bletchwick in the dog-cart.
"I shouldn't be sorry," she continued to me with that stolidity so peculiar to people of her class, "to get 'im put in the asylum. I tell you, sir, I 'ave lived a life of terror ever since the day Mr. Earnslaw laid 'is whip across the lad's back. 'E 'as not been the same boy, and I tell you my life nor 'is father's 'ave not been safe since."
With the same stolidity she and her husband saw their idiot son conveyed to Bletchwick, escorted by two constables whom I had fetched. He was quite quiet, and gave no further trouble. He was taken to the county asylum the next day, by order of the magistrate, as he was certified hopelessly insane.
The next day, Skin o' my Tooth placed before the magistrate the proofs of James Pecover's guilt, and Mr. Spender-Cole was, of course, exonerated from all blame in connection with the murder of Mr. Earnslaw.
I once asked my esteemed employer what had originally made him think of the idiot as the probable culprit.
"Well, you see, Muggins," he said, "to me it seemed obvious that the murder was committed by someone who knew the ways of the house and its master very well. The hayricks were fired in order to attract Mr. Earnslaw out of doors, and the person who fired them knew exactly where to lie in wait for his victim. The whole thing was so cunning that it suggested the work of a madman. James Pecover's accusation of Mr. Spender-Cole being a false one, my thoughts naturally turned towards his accuser. You can always loosen an idiot's tongue with stimulant. I suppose many humanitarians would blame me for resorting to such means; but surely the life of an innocent man was worth the destruction of the last glimmer of reason in the brain of a homicidal maniac."
"At one time I actually thought that Miss Barbara Earnslaw murdered her father."
"Oh, no! She was too dainty a lady for that; but she would have allowed Spender-Cole to hang sooner than clear him by admitting her clandestine meeting with him. I hear, by the way, that she is officially engaged to the Earl of Alderdale; so she has achieved her heart's desire, and Mr. Spender-Cole has remained chivalrous to the last."