Then--if you will excuse the remark--I do not quite see the relevancy of the information."
"It has none. At present. I say it has none--at present."
He paused. Presently he resumed: "I did not encounter the assassin, but I am on his track, I am sure, for I believe he is in this room. I will ask you all to pass one by one in front of me--here, where there is a good light--so that I can see your feet."
A buzz of excitement swept the place, and the march began, the guest looking on with an iron attempt at gravity which was not an unqualified success. Stillman stooped, shaded his eyes with his hand, and gazed down intently at each pair of feet as it passed. Fifty men tramped monotonously by--with no result. Sixty. Seventy. The thing was beginning to look absurd. The guest remarked, with suave irony:
"Assassins appear to be scarce this evening."
The house saw the humor if it, and refreshed itself with a cordial laugh. Ten or twelve more candidates tramped by--no, danced by, with airy and ridiculous capers which convulsed the spectators--then suddenly Stillman put out his hand and said:
"This is the assassin!"
"Fetlock Jones, by the great Sanhedrim!" roared the crowd; and at once let fly a pyrotechnic explosion and dazzle and confusion of stirring remarks inspired by the situation.
At the height of the turmoil the guest stretched out his hand, commanding peace. The authority of a great name and a great personality laid its mysterious compulsion upon the house, and it obeyed. Out of the panting calm which succeeded, the guest spoke, saying, with dignity and feeling:
"This is serious. It strikes at an innocent life. Innocent beyond suspicion! Innocent beyond peradventure! Hear me prove it; observe how simple a fact can brush out of existence this witless lie. Listen. My friends, that lad was never out of my sight yesterday evening at any time!"
It made a deep impression. Men turned their eyes upon Stillman with grave inquiry in them. His face brightened, and he said:
"I knew there was another one!" He stepped briskly to the table and glanced at the guest's feet, then up at his face, and said: "You were with him! You were not fifty steps from him when he lit the candle that by and by fired the powder!" (Sensation.) "And what is more, you furnished the matches yourself!"
Plainly the guest seemed hit; it looked so to the public. He opened his mouth to speak; the words did not come freely.
"This--er--this is insanity--this--"
Stillman pressed his evident advantage home. He held up a charred match.
"Here is one of them. I found it in the barrel--and there's another one there."
The guest found his voice at once.
"Yes--and put them there yourself!"
It was recognized a good shot. Stillman retorted.
"It is wax--a breed unknown to this camp. I am ready to be searched for the box. Are you?"
The guest was staggered this time--the dullest eye could see it. He fumbled with his hands; once or twice his lips moved, but the words did not come. The house waited and watched, in tense suspense, the stillness adding effect to the situation. Presently Stillman said, gently:
"We are waiting for your decision."
There was silence again during several moments; then the guest answered, in a low voice:
"I refuse to be searched."
There was no noisy demonstration, but all about the house one voice after another muttered:
"That settles it! He's Archy's meat."
What to do now? Nobody seemed to know. It was an embarrassing situation for the moment--merely, of course, because matters had taken such a sudden and unexpected turn that these unpractised minds were not prepared for it, and had come to a standstill, like a stopped clock, under the shock. But after a little the machinery began to work again, tentatively, and by twos and threes the men put their heads together and privately buzzed over this and that and the other proposition. One of these propositions met with much favor; it was, to confer upon the assassin a vote of thanks for removing Flint Buckner, and let him go. But the cooler heads opposed it, pointing out that addled brains in the Eastern states would pronounce it a scandal, and make no end of foolish noise about it.