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Authors: Leslie Charteris

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“Suicide?” boomed
General Sangore with gruff author
ity. “No, no,
my dear fellow, that wouldn’t do at all. We
can’t
possibly have any sort of scandal. Think what it would mean to the poor chap’s
father. No. Accidental death is the verdict, eh?”

He spoke as if the matter
were all arranged. Fairweather supported him.

“That’s the only
possible verdict,” he said. “We’ve got
to
avoid any silly gossip. You know what these beastly
newspapers
are like—they’d give anything for the chance
to
make a sensation out of a case like this. Luckily the coroner is a sensible
man. He won’t stand any nonsense.”

“Isn’t that
splendid?” said the Saint.

They all looked at him at
once with a new intentness. The edge in his voice was as fine as a razor, but
it cut
through the threads of their complacency in a way that
left
them clammily suspended in an uncharted void. Before that,
disarmed by his appearance and accent, they had
taken him
for granted as a slightly
unusual member of a familiar
species—their
own species. Now they stared at him sus
piciously, as they might have stared at an intruding for
eigner.

“Are we to understand
that you would disagree with that
verdict, Mr
Templar?” Luker inquired suavely.

He was the only one who had
remained immune to that involuntary stiffening. But he had had a chance to
measure
the Saint before, when, for one intangible moment,
they
had crossed swords in the garden during the fire.

Simon’s gaze sought him
out with a sparkle of wicked sapphire.

“Simon Templar is the
full name,” he said deliberately. “While you were finding out who I
was, you should have
talked to one of the
policemen. He could have refreshed your memory. When you’ve read about me in
the papers,
I’ve usually been called the
Saint.”

He might have dropped a
bomb under their feet with
a short fuse sizzling.
There were times when the effects of
revealing his
identity gave him an indescribable delight, and this was one of them.

Lady Valerie Woodchester
let out a little squeal. Lady
Sangore’s mouth opened
and then closed like a trap. The
general’s florid face added a tint of bright
magenta to its varied hues. Fairweather dropped his hat, and it settled on
the floor with an ear-splitting
ploff.
Only
Luker remained
motionless, with his dark sunken eyes riveted on the
Saint.

And the Saint went on
smiling.

There was a general eddy
towards the entrance of the
courtroom, and a red-faced
constable took up his position
beside the doors and
began to intone self-consciously from
a tattered piece of
paper.

“Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!
All manner of persons having
anything to do at this
court, before the king’s coroner
for this county, touching the death of John
Kennet, draw
near and give your attendance,
and if anyone can give
evidence on behalf of our sovereign lord the
king, when,
how, and by what means John
Kennet came to his death,
let him
come forward and he shall be heard; and you good men of this county summoned to
appear here this day to
enquire for
our sovereign lord the king, when, how, and by
what means John Kennet
came to his death, answer to your
names as
they shall be called, every man at first call, on the
pains and penalties that may fall thereon. God save
the
king!”

4

The courtroom was not
crowded, in perceptible contrast with the encouraging throng of gapers that
Simon had seen outside, so that he knew at once that some steps must have
been taken to discourage the influx of the vulgar mob.
Those of the public who had been able to gain admittance
were accommodated in rows of hard wooden chairs set
across the room with an aisle down the centre. Simon
located Peter and Patricia among them, but he took a seat
by himself on the other side of the gangway. His eyes met
Patricia’s for a moment of elusive mockery and then went
on to take in the rest of his bearings.

The first two rows on the
right were occupied by the
party from Whiteways, the
Sangores, Luker, Fairweather
and Lady Valerie, mingled
with a few other people of the
same obvious class who all
seemed to know each other.
They had an air of being
apart from the remainder of the
public, among them, but
not of them, a small party of
gentlefolk, self-contained and
self-sufficient, only vaguely
conscious that
there were other people present.

The first two rows on the
left had been reserved for the
press, and there was not a
vacant chair among them. In
front of them, and at
right angles to the general public, sat
the
coroner’s jury, five good men of the county and two
women.
There was an attitude of respectful decorum about
them,
as if they had been in church. The Saint sized them
up
as being a representative panel of local shopkeepers.
Only
one of them was markedly different from the others
—a
little black-bearded scowling man who seemed to resent
being
in court at all.

The coroner was a well-fed,
well-scrubbed looking man
with close-cropped gray
hair and a close-cropped gray
moustache. He wore a dark
suit, with a stiff white collar
and a blue bow tie with
small white spots on it. While the
jury was being
sworn, he shuffled over a small batch of
papers
on his table, which occupied the centre of a dais at
the
very end of the room.

When the jury were seated
again, he cleared his throat
noisily and addressed
them.

“We are here to
inquire into the circumstances attending
the
death of the late John Kennet. It is your duty to listen
carefully to the evidence which will be put before you and
to return a verdict in accordance with that evidence. The
facts concerning which evidence will be given are as
follows.
On the night of the seventeenth, the
house known as White
ways, the property of Mr Fairweather,
was burnt to the
ground. Various people were in the
house when the fire
started, including Mr Fairweather
himself, General Sir
Robert Sangore and Lady
Sangore, Mr Kane Luker, Lady
Valerie Woodchester,
Captain Donald Knightley and the
deceased. All of them
except Captain Knightley are in court
today. They will
tell you that after they had left the build
ing
they discovered that John Kennet was missing. An
attempt
to reach his room was unsuccessful owing to the
rapid
spread of the fire, and on the following day his
charred
remains were found in the wreckage of the house.”

His manner was brusque and
important; quite plainly,
nobody could tell him anything about how to run
an inquest,
and equally plainly he regarded a
jury as nothing but a
necessary evil,
to be kept firmly in its place.

“If you wish to do so
you are entitled to view the body.
Do you wish to view
the body?” He paused perhaps long enough to take another breath, and said:
“Very well, then.
We shall proceed to hear
evidence of how the body was
found. Call the first
witness.”

The sergeant standing
behind him consulted a list of
names and called out:
“Theodore Bream.”

A man who looked rather
like a retired carthorse lumbered up on to the dais, sweating profusely, and
took the oath. The coroner leaned back in his chair and looked him
over like a schoolmaster inspecting a new pupil.

“You are the captain
of the Anford Fire Brigade?”

“Yessir.”

“On the morning of
the eighteenth you examined the
ruins of Whiteways.”

“Yessir.”

“What did you
find?”

“In the ruins of the
library, among a lot of daybree, I found the body of the deceased.”

“Did you find anything
else?”

“Yessir. I found bits
of a burned-up bedstead—coil
springs and
suchlike.”

“What deductions did
you make from the position of the body and the burned fragments of the
bedstead?”

“Well, sir, I come to
the conclusion that they’d dropped
through the ceiling
from one of the rooms above.”

The coroner rubbed his
chin.

“I see. You came to
the conclusion that the bed, with
the deceased in it,
had dropped through the ceiling from
one of the rooms
above the library when the floor collapsed
in
the fire.”

“Yessir.”

“That seems quite
plain. Did you find anything to suggest
what
might have been the cause of the fire?”

“No sir. It might ‘ve
bin anything. The place was burned out so bad there wasn’t enough left to show
how it started.”

The coroner turned to the
jury.

“Have you any
questions to ask this witness?”

Hardly giving them any time
to answer, he turned again
to the sergeant.

“Next witness,
please.”

“Algernon Sidney
Fairweather.”

Fairweather went up on to
the platform and took the
oath. The coroner’s manner
became less peremptory. He
clearly regarded it as a
pleasant relief to be able to examine
a witness of his own
class.

“You are the owner of
Whiteways, Mr Fairweather?”

“I am.”

“The deceased was a
guest in your house on the night
of the seventeenth ?”

“He was.”

“Which room was he
occupying?”

“The end bedroom in
the west wing, directly above the
library.”

“So that in the event
of the collapse of the floor of his room, his bed would fall through into the
library?”

“It would.”

The coroner glanced at the
jury triumphantly, as much as to say: “There you are, you see.” Then
he turned back
to Fairweather even more
deferentially.

“Would you give us
your account of what occurred on
the night of the fire,
Mr Fairweather?”

Fairweather clasped his
hands in front of him, frowning
seriously with the
expression of a man who is carefully and
conscientiously
marshalling his memories.

“We had dinner a
little early that night—at about seven
o’clock—because
Captain Knightley and Lady Valerie were
going
to the cinema. They left immediately after dinner,
and
shortly afterwards Lady Sangore went to her room
to
write some letters. The rest of us sat and talked in the
library until about half-past ten, when Kennet went to bed.
That was the last time any of us saw him. At about a
quarter past eleven Captain Knightley and Lady Valerie returned, and I
should think we stayed up for not more than
another
quarter of an hour. Then we all went to bed.

“Some time later—I
should imagine it was about half-
past twelve—I was awakened
by the clanging of the fire
alarms. I put on a pair of
trousers and left my room. At
once it became obvious to
me that the fire was serious.
There was a great deal of
smoke on the stairs, and from
the sound of the flames
and the light they gave I could see
that the fire must
have taken a firm hold on the ground
floor.

“You must understand
that I had just been suddenly
woken up, and I was
somewhat bewildered. As I hesitated,
I saw Captain
Knightley come along the passage carrying
Lady
Valerie. Then I heard General Sangore’s voice out
side
shouting ‘Hurry up and get out, everybody!’ I started
to
follow Captain Knightley, and I was halfway down the
stairs
when I met Mr Luker coming up. He said ‘Oh, that’s
all
right—I was afraid you hadn’t heard. The others are
all
out.’ “

“And then?”

“I ran out into the
garden with him. That’s about al’
I can remember. It
all happened so quickly that my recol
lections are a
trifle hazy. I still don’t know how we came
to
forget Kennet until it was too late, but I can only imagine
that in the excitement Mr Luker and myself mutually mis
understood each other to have accounted for the people we
had not seen. It was a tragic mistake which has haunted
me ever since.”

BOOK: Prelude for War
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