A man came in presently with a bag of documents, and Layton seized them eagerly.
“See here, Mr. Torridon,” he said, shaking the papers on to the table, “here is a story-box for the ladies. Draw your chair to the fire.”
Ralph felt an increasing repugnance for the man; but he said nothing; and brought up his seat to the wide hearth on which the logs burned pleasantly in the cold little room.
The priest lifted the bundle on to his lap, crossed his legs comfortably, with a glass of wine at his elbow, and began to read.
* * * * *
For a while Ralph wondered how the man could have the effrontery to call his notes by the name of evidence. They consisted of a string of obscene guesses, founded upon circumstances that were certainly compatible with guilt, but no less compatible with innocence. There was a quantity of gossip gathered from country-people and coloured by the most flagrant animus, and even so the witnesses did not agree. Such sentences as “It is reported in the country round that the prior is a lewd man” were frequent in the course of the reading, and were often the chief evidence offered in a case.
In one of the most categorical stories, Ralph leaned forward and interrupted.
“Forgive me, Master Layton,” he said, “but who is Master What’s-his-name who says all this?”
The priest waved the paper in the air.
“A monk himself,” he said, “a monk himself! That is the cream of it.”
“A monk!” exclaimed Ralph.
“He was one till last year,” explained the priest.
“And then?” said the other.
“He was expelled the monastery. He knew too much, you see.”
Ralph leaned back.
* * * * *
Half an hour later there was a change in his attitude: his doubts were almost gone; the flood of detail was too vast to be dismissed as wholly irrelevant; his imagination was affected by the evidence from without and his will from within, and he listened without hostility, telling himself that he desired only truth and justice.
There were at least half a dozen stories in the mass of filthy suspicion that the priest exultingly poured out which appeared convincing; particularly one about which Ralph put a number of questions.
In this there was first a quantity of vague evidence gathered from the country-folk, who were, unless Layton lied quite unrestrainedly, convinced of the immoral life of a certain monk. The report of his sin had penetrated ten miles from the house where he lived. There was besides definite testimony from one of his fellows, precise and detailed; and there was lastly a half admission from the culprit himself. All this was worked up with great skill—suggestive epithets were plastered over the weak spots in the evidence; clever theories put forward to account for certain incompatibilities; and to Ralph at least it was convincing.