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Chapter I




Mr. Silas Moffit, loaner of money to the Chicago judiciary and members of the Chicago bar, carrying his usual black cotton umbrella without the like of which—rain or shine!—he never went about, and dressed in the same rusty black suit and black string tie he invariably wore, dismounted in great haste from a Yellow taxicab in front of the old Prairie Avenue residence of Judge Hilford Penworth, and hastily paying off the driver with a handful of nickels, dimes and pennies—but which handful of change included not a single 5-cent tip for the driver!—went up the crumbling white soapstone steps two at a time. His violent and impatient ring at the bell was answered almost immediately by a tall man with blue veins in his large nose and a somewhat belligerent black forelock across his forehead—a man engaged in some sort of peculiar domestic task, for he held a gilt-legged plush chair in each hand, and was minus both his coat and vest.

“Is Judge Penworth in?” asked Silas Moffit, though he knew quite well that Judge Hilford Penworth—under those certain circumstances known in court circles in Chicago, and consisting of one gouty right foot and one arthritic left one!—could hardly be anywhere but “in”.

“Yes—sure,” replied the man with the two chairs. “But he’s up in his third-floor bedroom—where he spends most of his time. And before taking you up, I’ll have to know who—” His cold blue eyes rested on the black cotton umbrella under Silas Moffit’s arm, and thence roved toward the bright sun in the early afternoon sky that late October was presenting. “Oh,” he added, “you’re Mr. Silas Moffit, aren’t you?” And his voice changed with the deference of one who knows that the man to whom he speaks holds a large mortgage on the house where he works!

“Yes, I am Mr. Moffit—and I want to see the Judge right away. Immediately—and quickly.”

“O-kay!” replied the other, manifestly a bit irritated at Silas Moffit’s peremptoriness. Adding, a bit defiantly—or seemingly so: “And I’m Fred Mullins—for many years the Judge’s court clerk. But now acting as his man, here at the house. And—” He set the two chairs down in the great hallway. “Just arranging,” he explained curtly, “the big drawing room for a trial—the Judge, you see, is going to hold special court here tonight because—but I’ll take you up, Mr. Moffit, and—however,” he broke off again, “maybe you’d just as soon go on up by yourself?—since you’ve been here before? For outside of an old Polish woman, who comes here mornings to clean up, we’ve no maid or anything here; just Judge and I live here alone, you know, and—”

“Oh, I know the way,” put in Moffit, irritably: “I’ll go up. No need to waste precious time gassing.”

And up the inner stairway he plodded, Mullins gazing after him through puzzled blue eyes, compressed now to mere slits, but taking up the two chairs again.

At the top of the stairs—on the third floor—Silas Moffit knocked at a door whose ornamental panelings bespoke the “elegant eighties.” Knocked brusquely and authoritatively.

“Fred?” called a voice, which, thanks to the shrinkage of the woodwork over many decades, came through a well-defined crack between bottom of door and threshold.

“That you? Or—”

“No, Judge,” said Silas Moffit, raising his voice so that his words, too, might slither under that door. “It’s I—Mr. Moffit. Silas Moffit! Your man told me to come right on up.”

“Oh, yes, Mr. Moffit. Come in.” Moffit did so. Judge Hilford Penworth was lying atop his bed, an old mahogany fourposter, in a blue bathrobe, his hands peacefully across his midriff. His invariably immobile and stolid face, rendered even more dignified by his short white goatee, lighted up a trifle, at least, with recognition at his visitor’s entrance, and he drew his gouty right foot, bound in yards of padded cotton lint till it resembled a cushion, away from the edge of the bed, and arranged his bathrobe to cover what manifestly was his arthritic left knee, also bound in lint. “Draw up a chair, Mr. Moffit. And what can I do for you?”

Silas Moffit, cotton umbrella deposited against the nearest wall, sat down on a chair which stood conveniently in the angle between the Judge’s bed and the latter’s old Richard Lionshead and Company safe, the heavy iron cubicle having been turned slightly on its rollers so that it partly faced the bed, and partly the window, its lion’s head, cast in deep relief on the door, gazing as austerely at Silas Moffit as even the Judge himself was now doing. A handy table of convenience, for a temporary invalid, plainly, the old safe, for on the grey silk scarf covering its top was a partly used glass of milk, and close by the wall was a portable telephone where the Judge could reach out for it if it rang.

Before speaking, however, Silas Moffit, like a true mortgage holder, flicked one eye ceilingward to note the general condition of the plastering of the room—and even turned his head, businesslike, and gazed squarely through the room’s one window, now in back of him, and looking down, as it did, onto a great drab prairie, of uncleared broken bricks and torn timbers, caused by the gradual tearing down of old Prairie Avenue, because of high taxes, by the wreckers—and indicating that “values” for a man’s loaned money lay here, if at all, this bright day of Wednesday, October 23rd, in land only! Indeed, so considerable was the demolition, that the nearest house was now a block away! And noting which, Silas Moffit withdrew his gaze from the window, and placed it once more upon the man on the bed.

“Judge,” he began, casually and familiarly, “I’ve been thinking about that mortgage on this place. And as I told you when I was last here—though ’twas in the morning then, and ’twas the Polish woman who then took me up—the mortgage’s far too large to renew. Your big street improvement, Judge, didn’t come through—and it isn’t going to come through, moreover, for another five years. And so, under the circumstances, I feel there’s nothing I can do but enter a foreclo—however, what I really want to say, Judge, is—now don’t come back at me, Judge, with a sarcastic query as to whether this is something out of some old play played on the Dixiebelle! Because it’s just a plain honest proposition, from one gentleman to another, and—but what I started to say was that if you want to do me a small favor, Judge, I might consider renewing that mort—”

“Yes?” put in Penworth, eagerly. “What—what is it, Mr. Moffit? I’ll—but as to what you mean in your reference to the Dixiebelle, I’m sure I don’t grasp it—outside of the fact that I was the judge who issued the injunction preventing the Associated Chicago Theatre Managers from driving it out of the river. And—oh yes, I think I get your meaning now. Well, the Dixiebelle dramas were closer to Life than Life is to itself. So I thought! And that’s one of the reasons—purely extraneous of course to the real legal reason—why I enjoined the Chicago Police Department from removing the boat. And—but what is it you want, Mr. Moffit? I’ll be glad to oblige. Except, of course, you understand—” And Judge Penworth’s face grew stern. “—you understand, I’m sure, that I couldn’t help you to subvert justice—in any court in Cook County?”

“Judge,” said Silas Moffit, with equal sternness, “have you ever heard, in all my days of doing mortgage business with the judiciary and the bar, of any attempt on my part to use my influence to change the course of justice?”

“I certainly have not,” declared Penworth. “And I assuredly would have—had there ever been such attempt. So what—”

“And there never has been,” declared Silas Moffit. “Because I’ve never yet had any reason to ask—hrmph!—never asked any favors of the judiciary. Now, however, I am. A very small one, however, as I look at it. And with respect to it, Judge, I could have gone higher than you to seek it—yes, I mean Chief Justice of the Criminal Assignment Bench Mike Shurely, who, as I understand it, deals out all the criminal cases to the various trial judges. Yes, Judge, I could have gone to Justice Shurely, in this particular instance, to request the proper trial judge to—hrmph!—to do this small, unimportant favor for his own friend, Si Moffit. For Judge Shurely, you see, requires a quitclaim of mine—on a small North Shore lot which I clouded five years ago, by a foreclosure which I never went through with—to complete a site for a beautiful estate he’s assembling as a wedding present for his only daughter and her husband-to-be. And we haven’t quite been able to get together on the value of my quitclaim.

Within, that is, a few hundred dollars. And so I could have—”

“Yes I understand, Mr. Moffit. The cantilever lever of business amity can be operated at its very fulcrum! But of course the same thing, I’m sure you realize, would apply to Michael Shurely as applies to me: Namely, nobody can possibly subvert or contravert the actual course of justice.

Nor can anybody—I don’t care who he is!—obtain—But I’m sure you understand that. And I appreciate, also, your coming straight to me directly with whatever it is you want to ask. So what is it? What does this favor concern?”

“Well, Judge, it’s about the trial tonight, here in your house, of that fellow who killed that nightwatchman in the old Klondike Building at 10:43 last night—and opened the State’s Attorney’s safe—and stole the skull of Wah Lee!”

The Judge’s mouth fell open. “How—in heaven’s name, Mr. Moffit—do you know—about that case?”

“How? Well, the entire facts of the crime are all in the first Despatch—just out. And with a fore-story, in boldface type, detailing the fellow’s complete capture and arrest. Except that it doesn’t say where he’s being held. Anyway, the first edition of the Despatch for the day—the one out at 2:30, you know—was tossed on the newsstands as I rounded a corner on my way over here. I caught a flash of the headline, and hopped out and bought one, And read it in the cab while coming the rest of the way here. Like to have it?”

And from under his black coattails, resembling the tail feathers of a crow, Silas Moffit fished the rolled-up paper in question. Or what appeared to be just a thin first section.

“I would indeed like to have it—and thanks!” And the Judge took the paper avidly. “But—” He glanced hastily at its headline. “My impression was that the fact that the trial of this fellow was to be held so quickly was not to be made of public record. Much less, even, than that it would be held here—of very necessity—because of my being semi-invalided. And—”

“Both of those facts, Judge Penworth, came to me—but not from the story here, no! For they’re not in the story. They came to me, let me say, straight from State’s Attorney Louis J. Vann, himself.”

“From Vann? But why would he have occasion to tell you?”

“Why?” Silas Moffit regarded a hangnail on one of his fingers intently. “Well, I was talking to him recently, on the phone, about a mortgage I happen to have on his own place in Oak Park; and begged him—for reasons which I can outline to you only, Judge!—to let me know sometime in the near future when some penniless defendant was to be tried. And whom the court—” Silas Moffit, for some reason known best to himself, broke off. “Anyway, Judge, he was kind enough to ring me today, and tell me that such would take place tonight. The attorney for the defendant, and all that, being arranged for this afternoon.

All in the case of a fellow—his name quite unknown!—involved in a homicide and burglary—and the full story of which was due to fall on the newsstands at 2:30. All I got, at the time, was that the fellow was willing to drive a bargain as to trial—if he could get it immediately—and before you. Which, Mr. Vann said, could and would easily be arranged—so long as it could be held at the house here. And—well—till the story itself came into my hands a couple of minutes or so after ago—I knew no more.”


And the icy and ominous inflection which Judge Hilford Penworth gave to that tiny word was one that boded ill for any man who intended to ask what he should not ask—mortgage on Prairie Avenue, or no mortgage on Prairie Avenue!


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