« PreviousContinue »
The Attorney-General smiled at the jury-box and addressed himself to Sadler, with an air of patience very much tried:
"You swear the prisoner is the man?"
The fair man turned his sharp blue eyes upon me. I called, "For God's sake, don't perjure yourself. You are a decent man."
"No, I won't swear," he said slowly. "I think he was. He had his face blacked then, of course. When I had sight of him at the Thames Court I thought he was; and seeing the Spanish evidence, I don't see where's the room. . . ."
"The Spanish evidence is part of the plot," I said.
The Attorney-General snickered. "Go on, Mr. Sadler," he said, "Let's have the rest of the plot unfolded."
A juryman laughed suddenly, and resumed an abashed sudden silence. Sadler went on to tell the old story. ... I saw it all as he spoke; only gaunt, shiny-faced, yellow Nichols was chewing and hitching his trousers in place of my Tomas, with his sanguine oaths and jerked gestures. And there was Nichols' wanton, aimless ferocity.
"He had two pistols, which he fired twice each, while we were hoisting the studding-sails by his order, to keep up with the schooner. He fired twice into the crew. One of the men hit died afterwards. . . ."
Later, another vessel, an American, had appeared in the offing, and the pirates had gone in chase of her. He finished, and Lord Stowell moved one of his ancient hands. It was as if a gray lizard had moved on his desk, a little toward me.
"Now, prisoner," he said.
I drew a deep breath. I thought for a minute that, after all, there was a little of fair play in the game—that I had a decent, fair, blue-eyed man in front of me. He looked hard at me; I hard at him; it was as if he were going to wrestle for a belt. The young girl on the bench had her lips parted and leant forward, her head a little on one side.
I said, "You won't swear I was the man . . . Nikola el Escoces?"
He looked meditatively into my eyes; it was a duel between us.
"I won't swear," he said. "You had your face blacked, and didn't wear a beard."
A soft growth of hair had come out over my cheeks whilst I lay in prison. I rubbed my hand against it, and thought that he had drawn first blood.
"You must not say 'you,'" I said. "I swear I was not the man. Did he talk like me?"
"Can't say that he did," Sadler answered, moving from one foot to the other.
"Had he got eyes like me, or a nose, or a mouth?"
"Can't say," he answered again. "His face was blacked."
"Didn't he talk Blue Nose—in the Nova Scotian way?"
"Well, he did," Sadler assented slowly. "But anyone could for a disguise. It's as easy as ..."
Beside me, the turnkey whispered suddenly, " Pull him up; stop his mouth."
I said, "Wasn't he an older man? Didn't he look between forty and fifty?"
"What do you look like? " the chief mate asked.
"I'm twenty-four," I answered; " I can prove it."
"Well, you look forty and older," he answered negligently. "So did he."
His cool, disinterested manner overwhelmed me like the blow of an immense wave; it proved so absolutely that I had parted with all semblance of youth. It was something added to the immense waste of waters between myself and Seraphina; an immense waste of years. I did not ask much of the next witness; Sadler had made me afraid. Septimus Hearn, the master of the Victoria, was a man with eyes as blue and as cold as bits of round blue pebble; a little goat's beard, iron-gray; apple-colored cheeks, and small gold earrings in his ears. He had an extraordinarily mournful voice, and a retrospective melancholy of manner. He was just such another master of a trader as Captain Lumsden had been; and it was the same story over again, with little different touches, the hard blue eyes gazing far over the top of my head; the gnarled hands moving restlessly on the rim of his hat.
"Afterwards the prisoner ordered the steward to give us a drink of brandy. A glass was offered me, but I refused to drink it, and he said, 'Who is it that refuses to drink a glass of brandy?' He asked me what countryman I was, and if I was an American."
There were two others from the unfortunate Victoria—a Thomas Davis, boatswain, who had had one of Nikola's pistolballs in his hip; and a sort of steward—I have forgotten his name —who had a scar of a cutlass wound on his forehead.
It was horrible enough; but what distressed me more was that I could not see what sort of impression I was making. Once the judge who was generally asleep woke up and began to scratch furiously with his quill; once three of the assessors—the men in short wigs—began an animated conversation; one man with a thin, dark face laughed noiselessly, showing teeth like a white waterfall. A man in the body of the court on my left had an enormous swelling, blood-red, and looking as if a touch must burst it, under his chin; at one time he winked his eyes furiously for a long time on end. It seemed to me that something in the evidence must be affecting all these people. The turnkey beside me said to his mate, "Twig old Justice Best making notes in his stud-calendar," and suddenly the conviction forced itself upon me that the whole thing, the long weary trial, the evidence, the parade of fairness, was being gone through in a spirit of mockery, as a mere formality; that the judges and the assessors, and the man with the goiter took no interest whatever in my case. It was a foregone conclusion.
A tiny, fair man, with pale hair oiled and rather long for those days, and with green and red signet rings on fingers that he was forever running through that hair, came mincingly into the witness-box. He held for a long time what seemed to be an amiable conversation with Sir Robert Gifford, a tall, portentous-looking man, who had black beetling brows, like tufts of black horsehair sticking in the crannies of a cliff. The conversation went like this:
"You are the Hon. Thomas Oldham?"
"You know Kingston, Jamaica, very well?"
"I was there four years—two as the secretary to the cabinet of his Grace the Duke of Manchester, two as civil secretary to the admiral on the station."
"You saw the prisoner?"
"Yes, three times."
I drew an immense breath; I thought for a moment that they had delivered themselves into my hands. The thing must prove of itself that I had been in Jamaica, not in Rio Medio, through those two years. My heart began to thump like a great solemn drum, like Paul's bell when the king died—solemn, insistent, dominating everything. The little man was giving an account of the "'bawminable" state of confusion into which the island's trade was thrown by the misdeeds of a pirate called Nikola el Demonio.
"I assure you, my luds," he squeaked, turning suddenly to the judges, "the island was wrought up into a pitch of ... ah . . . almost disloyalty. The ... ah ... planters were clamoring for ... ah ... separation. And, to be sure, I trust you'll hang the prisoner, for if you don't . . ."
Lord Stowell shivered, and said suddenly with haste, "Mr. Oldham, address yourself to Sir Robert."
I was almost happy; the cloven hoof had peeped so damningly out. The little man bowed briskly to the old judge, asked for a chair, sat himself down, and arranged his coat-tails.
"As I was saying," he prattled on, " the trouble and the worry that this man caused to His Grace, myself, and Admiral Rowley were inconceivable. You have no idea, you ... ah ... can't conceive. And no wonder, for, as it turned out, the island was simply honeycombed by his spies and agents. You have no idea; people who seemed most respectable, people we ourselves had dealings with . . ."
He rattled on at immense length, the barrister taking huge pinches of yellow snuff, and smiling genially with the air of a horse-trainer watching a pony go faultlessy through difficult tricks. Every now and then he flicked his whip.
"Mr. Oldham, you saw the prisoner three times. If it does not overtax your memory pray tell us." And the little creature pranced off in a new direction.
"Tax my memory! Gad, I like that. You remember a man who has had your blood as near as could be, don't you?"
I had been looking at him eagerly, but my interest faded away now. It was going to be the old confusing of my identity with Nikola's. And yet I seemed to know the little beggar's falsetto; it was a voice one does not forget.
"Remember! " he squeaked. "Gad, gentlemen of the jury, he
came as near as possible You have no idea what a ferocious
devil it is."
I was wondering why on earth Nichols should have wanted to kill such a little thing. Because it was obvious that it must have been Nichols.
"As near as possible murdered myself and Admiral Rowley and a Mr. Topnambo, a most enlightened and loyal ... ah . . . inhabitant of the island, on the steps of a public inn."
I had it then. It was the little man David Macdonald had rolled down the steps with, that night at the Ferry Inn on the Spanish Town road.
"He was lying in wait for us with a gang of assassins. I was stabbed on the upper lip. I lost so much blood . . . had to be invalided . . . cannot think of horrible episode without shuddering."
He had seen me then, and when Ramon ("a Spaniard who was afterwards proved to be a spy of El Demonio's—of the prisoner's. He was hung since ") had driven me from the place of execution after the hanging of the seven pirates; and he had come into Ramon's store at the moment when Carlos ("a piratical devil if ever there was one," the little man protested) had drawn me into the back room, where Don Balthasar and O'Brien and Seraphina sat waiting. The men who were employed to watch Ramon's had never seen me leave again, and afterwards a secret tunnel was discovered leading down to the quay.
"This, apparently, was the way by which the prisoner used to arrive and quit the island secretly," he finished his evidence in chief, and the beetle-browed, portly barrister sat down. I was not so stupid but what I could see a little, even then, how the most innocent events of my past were going to rise up and crush me; but I was certain I could twist him into admitting the goodness of my tale which hadn't yet been told. He knew I had been in Jamaica, and, put what construction he liked on it, he would have to admit it. I called out: