The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 17.

The Trial.

In spite of the utmost vigilance on the part of the police, and the offer of a large reward, both by Calton, on behalf of the accused, and by Mr. Frettlby, the much-desired Sal Rawlins still remained hidden. The millionaire had maintained a most friendly attitude towards Brian throughout the whole affair. He refused to believe him guilty, and when Calton told him of the defence of proving an alibi by means of Sal Rawlins, he immediately offered a large reward, which was in itself enough to set every person with any time on their hands hunting for the missing witness.

All Australia and New Zealand rang with the extremely plebeian name of Sal Rawlins, the papers being full of notices offering rewards; and handbills of staring red letters were posted up in all railway stations, in conjunction with “Liquid Sunshine” Rum and “D.W.D.” Whisky. She had become famous without knowing it, unless, indeed, she had kept herself concealed purposely, but this was hardly probable, as there was no apparent motive for her doing so. If she was above ground she must certainly have seen the handbills, if not the papers; and though not able to read, she could hardly help hearing something about the one topic of conversation throughout Australia. Notwithstanding all this, Sal Rawlins was still undiscovered, and Calton, in despair, began to think that she must be dead. But Madge, though at times her courage gave way, was still hopeful.

“God will not permit such a judicial crime as the murder of an innocent man to be committed,” she declared.

Mr. Calton, to whom she said this, shook his head doubtfully.

“God has permitted it to take place before,” he answered softly; “and we can only judge the future by the past.”

At last, the day of the long-expected trial came, and as Calton sat in his office looking over his brief, a clerk entered and told him Mr. Frettlby and his daughter wished to see him. When they came in, the barrister saw that the millionaire looked haggard and ill, and there was a worried expression on his face.

“There is my daughter, Calton,” he said, after hurried greetings had been exchanged. “She wants to be present in Court during Fitzgerald’s trial, and nothing I can say will dissuade her.”

Calton turned, and looked at the girl in some surprise.

“Yes,” she answered, meeting his look steadily, though her face was very pale; “I must be there. I shall go mad with anxiety unless I know how the trial goes on.”

“But think of the disagreeable amount of attention you will attract,” urged the lawyer.

“No one will recognise me,” she said calmly, “I am very plainly dressed, and I will wear this veil;” and, drawing one from her pocket, she went to a small looking-glass which was hanging on the wall, and tied it over her face.

Calton looked in perplexity at Mr. Frettlby.

“I’m afraid you must consent,” he said.

“Very well,” replied the other, almost sternly, while a look of annoyance passed over his face. “I shall leave her in your charge.”

“And you?”

“I’m not coming,” answered Frettlby, quickly, putting on his hat. “I don’t care about seeing a man whom I have had at my dinner-table, in the prisoner’s dock, much as I sympathise with him. Good-day;” and with a curt nod he took his leave. When the door closed on her father, Madge placed her hand on Calton’s arm.

“Any hope?” she whispered, looking at him through the black veil.

“The merest chance,” answered Calton, putting his brief into his bag. “We have done everything in our power to discover this girl, but without result. If she does not come at the eleventh hour I’m afraid Brian Fitzgerald is a doomed man.”

Madge fell on her knees, with a stifled cry.

“Oh, God of Mercy,” she cried, raising her hands as if in prayer, “save him. Save my darling, and let him not die for the crime of another. God — ”

She dropped her face in her hands and wept convulsively, as the lawyer touched her lightly on the shoulder.

“Come!” he said kindly. “Be the brave girl you were, and we may save him yet. The hour is darkest before the dawn, you know.”

Madge dried her tears, and followed the lawyer to the cab, which was waiting for them at the door. They drove quickly up to the Court, and Calton put her in a quiet place, where she could see the dock, and yet be unobserved by the people in the body of the Court. Just as he was leaving her she touched his arm.

“Tell him,” she whispered, in a trembling voice, “tell him I am here.”

Calton nodded, and hurried away to put on his wig and gown, while Madge looked hurriedly round the Court from her point of vantage.

It was crowded with fashionable Melbourne of both sexes, and they were all talking together in subdued whispers, The popular character of the prisoner, his good looks, and engagement to Madge Frettlby, together with the extraordinary circumstances of the case, had raised public curiosity to the highest pitch, and, consequently, everybody who could possibly manage to gain admission was there.

Felix Rolleston had secured an excellent seat beside the pretty Miss Featherweight, whom he admired so much, and he was chattering to her with the utmost volubility.

“Puts me in mind of the Coliseum and all that sort of thing, you know,” he said, putting up his eye-glass and starting round. “Butchered to make a Roman holiday by jove.”

“Don’t say such horrid things, you frivolous creature,” simpered Miss Featherweight, using her smelling-bottle. “We are all here out of sympathy for that poor dear Mr. Fitzgerald.”

The mercurial Felix, who had more cleverness in him than people gave him credit for, smiled outright at this eminently feminine way of covering an overpowering curiosity.

“Ah, yes,” he said lightly; “exactly. I daresay Eve only ate the apple because she didn’t like to see such a lot of good fruit go to waste.”

Miss Featherweight eyed him doubtfully. She was not quite certain whether he was in jest or earnest. Just as she was about to reply to the effect that she thought it wicked to make the Bible a subject for joking, the Judge entered and the Court rose.

When the prisoner was brought in, there was a great flutter among the ladies, and some of them even had the bad taste to produce opera-glasses. Brian noticed this, and he flushed up to the roots of his fair hair, for he felt his degradation acutely. He was an intensely proud man, and to be placed in the criminal dock, with a lot of frivolous people, who had called themselves his friends, looking at him as though he were a new actor or a wild animal, was galling in the extreme. He was dressed in black, and looked pale and worn, but all the ladies declared that he was as good-looking as ever, and they were sure he was innocent.

The jury were sworn in, and the Crown Prosecutor rose to deliver his opening address.

Most of those present knew the facts only through the medium of the newspapers, and such floating rumours as they had been able to gather. They were therefore unaware of the true history of events which had led to Fitzgerald’s arrest, and they prepared to listen to the speech with profound attention.

The ladies ceased to talk, the men to stare round, and nothing could be seen but row after row of eager and attentive faces, hanging on the words that issued from the lips of the Crown Prosecutor. He was not a great orator, but he spoke clearly and distinctly, and every word could be heard in the dead silence.

He gave a rapid sketch of the crime — merely a repetition of what had been published in the newspapers — and then proceeded to enumerate the witnesses for the prosecution.

He would call the landlady of the deceased to show that ill-feeling existed between the prisoner and the murdered man, and that the accused had called on the deceased a week prior to the committal of the crime, and threatened his life. (There was great excitement at this, and several ladies decided, on the spur of the moment, that the horrid man was guilty, but the majority of them still refused to believe in the guilt of such a good-looking young fellow.) He would call a witness who could prove that Whyte was drunk on the night of the murder, and went along Russell Street, in the direction of Collins Street; the cabman Royston could swear to the fact that the prisoner had hailed the cab, and after going away for a short time, returned and entered the cab with the deceased. He would also prove that the prisoner left the cab at the Grammar School, in the St. Kilda Road, and on the arrival of the cab at the junction, he discovered the deceased had been murdered. The cabman Rankin would prove that he drove the prisoner from the St. Kilda Road to Powlett Street in East Melbourne, where he got out; and he would call the prisoner’s landlady to prove that the prisoner resided in Powlett Street, and that on the night of the murder he had not reached home till shortly after two o’clock. He would also call the detective who had charge of the case, to prove the finding of a glove belonging to the deceased in the pocket of the coat which the prisoner wore on the night of the murder; and the doctor who had examined the body of the deceased would give evidence that the death was caused by inhalation of chloroform. As he had now fully shown the chain of evidence which he proposed to prove, he would call the first witness, MALCOLM ROYSTON.

ROYSTON, on being sworn, gave the same evidence as he had given at the inquest, from the time that the cab was hailed up to his arrival at the St. Kilda Police Station with the dead body of Whyte. In the cross-examination, Calton asked him if he was prepared to swear that the man who hailed the cab, and the man who got in with the deceased, were one and the same person.

WITNESS: I am.

CALTON: You are quite certain?

WITNESS: Yes; quite certain.

CALTON: Do you then recognise the prisoner as the man who hailed the cab?

WITNESS (hesitatingly): I cannot swear to that. The gentleman who hailed the cab had his hat pulled down over his eyes, so that I could not see his face; but the height and general appearance of the prisoner are the same.

CALTON: Then it is only because the man who got into the cab was dressed like the prisoner on that night that you thought they were both the same?

WITNESS: It never struck me for a minute that they were not the same. Besides, he spoke as if he had been there before. I said, “Oh, you’ve come back,” and he said, “Yes; I’m going to take him home,” and got into my cab.

CALTON: Did you notice any difference in his voice?

WITNESS: No; except that the first time I saw him he spoke in a loud voice, and the second time he came back, very low.

CALTON: You were sober, I suppose?

WITNESS (indignantly): Yes; quite sober.

CALTON: Ah! You did not have a drink, say at the Oriental Hotel, which, I believe, is near the rank where your cab stands?

WITNESS (hesitating): Well, I might have had a glass.

CALTON: So you might; you might have had several.

WITNESS (sulkily): Well, there’s no law against a cove feeling thirsty.

CALTON: Certainly not; and I suppose you took advantage of the absence of such a law.

WITNESS (defiantly): Yes, I did.

CALTON: And you were elevated?

WITNESS: Yes; on my cab. — (Laughter.)

CALTON (severely): You are here to give evidence, sir, not to make jokes, however clever they may be. Were you, or were you not, slightly the worse for drink?

WITNESS: I might have been.

CALTON: So you were in such a condition that you did not observe very closely the man who hailed you?

WITNESS: No, I didn’t — there was no reason why I should — I didn’t know a murder was going to be committed.

CALTON: And it never struck you it might be a different man?

WITNESS: No; I thought it was the same man the whole time.

This closed Royston’s evidence, and Calton sat down very dissatisfied at not being able to elicit anything more definite from him. One thing appeared clear, that someone must have dressed himself to resemble Brian, and have spoken in a low voice for fear of betraying himself.

Clement Rankin, the next witness, deposed to having picked up the prisoner on the St. Kilda Road between one and two on Friday morning, and driven him to Powlett Street, East Melbourne. In the cross-examination, Calton elicited one point in the prisoner’s favour.

CALTON: Is the prisoner the same gentleman you drove to Powlett Street?

WITNESS (confidently): Oh, yes.

CALTON: How do you know? Did you see his face?

WITNESS: No, his hat was pulled down over his eyes, and I could only see the ends of his moustache and his chin, but he carried himself the same as the prisoner, and his moustache is the same light colour.

CALTON: When you drove up to him on the St. Kilda Road, where was he, and what was he doing?

WITNESS: He was near the Grammar School, walking quickly in the direction of Melbourne, and was smoking a cigarette.

CALTON: Did he wear gloves?

WITNESS: Yes, one on the left hand, the other was bare.

CALTON: Did he wear any rings on the right hand?

WITNESS: Yes, a large diamond one on the forefinger.

CALTON: Are you sure?

WITNESS: Yes, because I thought it a curious place for a gentleman to wear a ring, and when he was paying me my fare, I saw the diamond glitter on his finger in the moonlight.

CALTON: That will do.

The counsel for the defence was pleased with this bit of evidence, as Fitzgerald detested rings, and never wore any; so he made a note of the matter on his brief.

Mrs. Hableton, the landlady of the deceased, was then called, and deposed that Oliver Whyte had lodged with her for nearly two months. He seemed a quiet enough young man, but often came home drunk. The only friend she knew he had was a Mr. Moreland, who was often with him. On the 14th July, the prisoner called to see Mr. Whyte, and they had a quarrel. She heard Whyte say, “She is mine, you can’t do anything with her,” and the prisoner answered, “I can kill you, and if you marry her I shall do so in the open street.” She had no idea at the time of the name of the lady they were talking about. There was a great sensation in the court at these words, and half the people present looked upon such evidence as being sufficient in itself to prove the guilt of the prisoner.

In cross-examination, Calton was unable to shake the evidence of the witness, as she merely reiterated the same statements over and over again.

The next witness was Mrs. Sampson, who crackled into the witness-box dissolved in tears, and gave her answers in a piercingly shrill tone of anguish. She stated that the prisoner was in the habit of coming home early, but on the night of the murder, had come in shortly before two o’clock.

CROWN PROSECUTOR (referring to his brief): You mean after two.

WITNESS: ‘Avin made a mistake once, by saying five minutes after two to the policeman as called hisself a insurance agent, which ’e put the words into my mouth, I ain’t a goin’ to do so again, it bein’ five minutes afore two, as I can swear to.

CROWN PROSECUTOR: You are sure your clock was right?

WITNESS: It ’adn’t bin, but my nevy bein’ a watchmaker, called unbeknown to me, an’ made it right on Thursday night, which it was Friday mornin’ when Mr. Fitzgerald came ’ome.

Mrs. Sampson bravely stuck to this statement, and ultimately left the witness-box in triumph, the rest of her evidence being comparatively unimportant as compared with this point of time. The witness Rankin, who drove the prisoner to Powlett Street (as sworn to by him) was recalled, and gave evidence that it was two o’clock when the prisoner got down from his cab in Powlett Street.

CROWN PROSECUTOR: How do you know that?

WITNESS: Because I heard the Post Office clock strike.

CROWN PROSECUTOR: Could you hear it at East Melbourne?

WITNESS: It was a very still night, and I heard the chimes and then the hour strike quite plainly.

This conflicting evidence as to time was a strong point in Brian’s favour. If, as the landlady stated, on the authority of the kitchen clock, which had been put right on the day previous to the murder, Fitzgerald had come into the house at five minutes to two, he could not possibly be the man who had alighted from Rankin’s cab at two o’clock at Powlett Street.

The next witness was Dr. Chinston, who swore to the death of the deceased by means of chloroform administered in a large quantity, and he was followed by Mr. Gorby, who deposed as to the finding of the glove belonging to the deceased in the pocket of the prisoner’s coat.

Roger Moreland, an intimate friend of the deceased, was next called. He stated that he had known the deceased in London, and had met him in Melbourne. He was with him a great deal. On the night of the murder he was in the Orient Hotel in Bourke Street. Whyte came in, and was greatly excited. He was in evening dress, and wore a light coat. They had several drinks together, and then went up to an hotel in Russell Street, and had some more drinks there. Both witness and deceased were intoxicated. Whyte took off his light coat, saying he felt warm, and went out shortly afterwards, leaving witness asleep in the bar. He was awakened by the barman, who wanted him to leave the hotel. He saw that Whyte had left his coat behind him, and took it up with the intention of giving it to him. As he stood in the street some one snatched the coat from him and made off with it. He tried to follow the thief, but he could not do so, being too intoxicated. He then went home, and to bed, as he had to leave early for the country in the morning. In cross-examination:—

CALTON: When you went into the street, after leaving the hotel, did you see the deceased?

WITNESS: NO, I did not; but I was very drunk, and unless deceased had spoken to me, I would not have noticed him.

CALTON: What was deceased excited about when you met him?

WITNESS: I don’t know. He did not say.

CALTON: What were you talking about?

WITNESS: All sorts of things. London principally.

CALTON: Did the deceased mention anything about papers?

WITNESS (surprised): No, he did not.

CALTON: Are you sure?

WITNESS: Quite sure.

CALTON: What time did you get home?

WITNESS: I don’t know; I was too drunk to remember.

This closed the case for the Crown, and as it was now late the case was adjourned till the next day.

The Court was soon emptied of the busy, chattering crowd, and Calton, on looking over his notes, found that the result of the first day’s trial was two points in favour of Fitzgerald. First: the discrepancy of time in the evidence of Rankin and the landlady, Mrs. Sampson. Second: the evidence of the cabman Royston, as to the wearing of a ring on the forefinger of the right hand by the man who murdered Whyte, whereas the prisoner never wore rings.

These were slender proofs of innocence to put against the overwhelming mass of evidence in favour of the prisoner’s guilt. The opinions of all were pretty well divided, some being in favour and others against, when suddenly an event happened which surprised everyone. All over Melbourne extras were posted, and the news passed from lip to lip like wildfire — “Return of the Missing Witness, Sal Rawlins!”

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42