Ill news travels fast, and before noon the death of Selina Sprotts was known all over Melbourne. The ubiquitous reporter, of course, appeared on the scene, and the evening papers gave its own version of the affair, and a hint at foul play. There was no grounds for this statement, as Dr Chinston told Kitty and Madame Midas to say nothing about the poison, and it was generally understood that the deceased had died from apoplexy. A rumour, however, which originated none knew how, crept about among everyone that poison was the cause of death, and this, being added to by some and embellished in all its little details by others, there was soon a complete story made up about the affair. At the Bachelor’s Club it was being warmly spoken about when Vandeloup came in about eight o’clock in the evening; and when he appeared he was immediately overwhelmed with inquiries. He looked cool and calm as usual, and stood smiling quietly on the excited group before him.
‘You know Mrs Villiers,’ said Bellthorp, in an assertive tone, ‘so you must know all about the affair.’ ‘I don’t see that,’ returned Gaston, pulling at his moustache, ‘knowing anyone does not include a knowledge of all that goes on in the house. I assure you, beyond what there is in the papers, I am as ignorant as you are.’
‘They say this woman — Sprotts or Potts, or something — died from poison,’ said Barty Jarper, who had been all round the place collecting information.
‘Apoplexy, the doctor says,’ said Bellthorp, lighting a cigarette; ‘she was in the same room with Mrs Villiers and was found dead in the morning.’
‘Miss Marchurst was also in the room,’ put in Barty, eagerly.
‘Oh, indeed!’ said Vandeloup, smoothly, turning to him; ‘do you think she had anything to do with it?’
‘Of course not,’ said Rolleston, who had just entered, ‘she had no reason to kill the woman.’
‘So logical you are,’ he murmured, ‘you want a reason for everything.’
‘Naturally,’ retorted Felix, fixing in his eyeglass, ‘there is no effect without a cause.’
‘It couldn’t have been Miss Marchurst,’ said Bellthorp, ‘they say that the poison was poured out of a bottle held by a hand which came through the window — it’s quite true,’ defiantly looking at the disbelieving faces round him; ‘one of Mrs Villiers’ servants heard it in the house and told Mrs Killer’s maid.’
‘From whence,’ said Vandeloup, politely, ‘it was transmitted to you — precisely.’
Bellthorp reddened slightly, and turned away as he saw the other smiling, for his relations with Mrs Killer were well known.
‘That hand business is all bosh,’ observed Felix Rolleston, authoritatively; ‘it’s in a play called “The Hidden Hand”.’
‘Perhaps the person who poisoned Miss Sprotts, got the idea from it?’ suggested Jarper.
‘Pshaw, my dear fellow,’ said Vandeloup, languidly; ‘people don’t go to melodrama for ideas. Everyone has got their own version of this story; the best thing to do is to await the result of the inquest.’
‘Is there to be an inquest?’ cried all.
‘So I’ve heard,’ replied the Frenchman, coolly; ‘sounds as if there was something wrong, doesn’t it?’
‘It’s a curious poisoning case,’ observed Bellthorp.
‘Ah, but it isn’t proved that there is any poisoning about it,’ said Vandeloup, looking keenly at him; ‘you jump to conclusions.’
‘There is no smoke without fire,’ replied Rolleston, sagely. ‘I expect we’ll all be rather astonished when the inquest is held,’ and so the discussion closed.
The inquest was appointed to take place next day, and Calton had been asked by Madame Midas to be present on her behalf. Kilsip, a detective officer, was also present, and, curled up like a cat in the corner, was listening to every word of the evidence.
The first witness called was Madame Midas, who deposed that the deceased, Selina Jane Sprotts, was her servant. She had gone to bed in excellent health, and next morning she had found her dead.
The Coroner asked a few questions relative to the case.
Q. Miss Marchurst awoke you, I believe?
Q. And her room is off yours?
Q. Had she to go through your room to reach her own?
A. She had. There was no other way of getting there.
Q. One of the windows of your room was open?
A. It was — all night.
Miss Kitty Marchurst was then called, and being sworn, gave her story of the hand coming through the window. This caused a great sensation in Court, and Calton looked puzzled, while Kilsip, scenting a mystery, rubbed his lean hands together softly.
Q. You live with Mrs Villiers, I believe, Miss Marchurst?
A. I do.
Q. And you knew the deceased intimately?
A. I had known her all my life.
Q. Had she anyone who would wish to injure her?
A. Not that I knew of. She was a favourite with everyone.
Q. What time did you come home from the ball you were at?
A. About half-past two, I think. I went straight to Mrs Villiers’ room.
Q. With the intention of going through it to reach your own?
Q. You say you fell asleep looking at a portrait. How long did you sleep?
A. I don’t know. I was awakened by a noise at the window, and saw the hand appear.
Q. Was it a man’s hand or a woman’s?
A. I don’t know. It was too indistinct for me to see clearly; and I was so afraid, I fainted.
Q. You saw it pour something from a bottle into the glass on the table?
A. Yes; but I did not see it withdraw. I fainted right off.
Q. When you recovered your senses, the deceased had drank the contents of the glass?
A. Yes. She must have felt thirsty and drank it, not knowing it was poisoned. Q. How do you know it was poisoned?
A. I only suppose so. I don’t think anyone would come to a window and pour anything into a glass without some evil purpose.
The Coroner then asked why the glass with what remained of the contents had not been put in evidence, but was informed that the glass was broken.
When Kitty had ended her evidence and was stepping down, she caught the eye of Vandeloup, who was looking at her keenly. She met his gaze defiantly, and he smiled meaningly at her. At this moment, however, Kilsip bent forward and whispered something to the Coroner, whereupon Kitty was recalled.
Q. You were an actress, Miss Marchurst?
A. Yes. I was on tour with Mr Theodore Wopples for some time.
Q. Do you know a drama called ‘The Hidden Hand’?
A. Yes — I have played in it once or twice.
Q. Is there not a strong resemblance between your story of this crime and the drama?
A. Yes, it is very much the same.
Kilsip then gave his evidence, and deposed that he had examined the ground between the window, where the hand was alleged to have appeared, and the garden wall. There were no footmarks on the flower-bed under the window, which was the only place where footmarks would show, as the lawn itself was hard and dry. He also examined the wall, but could find no evidence that anyone had climbed over it, as it was defended by broken bottles, and the bushes at its foot were not crushed or disturbed in any way.
Dr Chinston was then called, and deposed that he had made a post-mortem examination of the body of the deceased. The body was that of a woman of apparently fifty or fifty-five years of age, and of medium height; the body was well nourished. There were no ulcers or other signs of disease, and no marks of violence on the body. The brain was congested and soft, and there was an abnormal amount of fluid in the spaces known as the ventricles of the brain; the lungs were gorged with dark fluid blood; the heart appeared healthy, its left side was contracted and empty, but the right was dilated and filled with dark fluid blood; the stomach was somewhat congested, and contained a little partially digested food; the intestines here and there were congested, and throughout the body the blood was dark and fluid.
Q. What then, in your opinion, was the cause of death?
A. In my opinion death resulted from serous effusion on the brain, commonly known as serous apoplexy.
Q. Then you found no appearances in the stomach, or elsewhere, which would lead you to believe poison had been taken?
A. No, none.
Q. From the post-mortem examination could you say the death of the deceased was not due to some narcotic poison?
A. No: the post-mortem appearances of the body are quite consistent with those of poisoning by certain poisons, but there is no reason to suppose that any poison has been administered in this case, as I, of course, go by what I see; and the presence of poisons, especially vegetable poisons, can only be detected by chemical analysis.
Q. Did you analyse the contents of the stomach chemically?
A. No; it was not my duty to do so; I handed over the stomach to the police, seeing that there is suspicion of poison, and thence it will go to the Government analyst.
Q. It is stated that the deceased had convulsions before she died — is this not a symptom of narcotic poisoning?
A. In some cases, yes, but not commonly; aconite, for instance, always produces convulsions in animals, seldom in man.
Q. How do you account for the congested condition of the lungs?
A. I believe the serous effusion caused death by suspended respiration.
Q. Was there any odour perceptible?
A. No, none whatsoever.
The inquest was then adjourned till next day, and there was great excitement over the affair. If Kitty Marchurst’s statement was true, the deceased must have died from the administration of poison; but, on the other hand, Dr Chinston asserted positively that there was no trace of poison, and that the deceased had clearly died from apoplexy. Public opinion was very much divided, some asserting that Kitty’s story was true, while others said she had got the idea from ‘The Hidden Hand’, and only told it in order to make herself notorious. There were plenty of letters written to the papers on the subject, each offering a new solution of the difficulty, but the fact remained the same, that Kitty said the deceased had been poisoned; the doctor that she had died of apoplexy. Calton was considerably puzzled over the matter. Of course, there was no doubt that the man who committed the murder had intended to poison Madame Midas, but the fact that Selina stayed all night with her, had resulted in the wrong person being killed. Madame Midas told Calton the whole story of her life, and asserted positively that if the poison was meant for her, Villiers must have administered it. This was all very well, but the question then arose, was Villiers alive? The police were once more set to work, and once more their search resulted in nothing. Altogether the whole affair was wrapped in mystery, as it could not even be told if a murder had been committed, or if the deceased had died from natural causes. The only chance of finding out the truth would be to have the stomach analysed, and the cause of death ascertained; once that was done, and the matter could be gone on with, or dropped, according to the report of the analyst. If he said it was apoplexy, Kitty’s story would necessarily have to be discredited as an invention; but if, on the other hand, the traces of poison were found, search would have to be made for the murderer. Matters were at a deadlock, and everyone waited impatiently for the report of the analyst. Suddenly, however, a new interest was given to the case by the assertion that a Ballarat doctor, called Gollipeck, who was a noted toxicologist, had come down to Melbourne to assist at the analysis of the stomach, and knew something which would throw light on the mysterious death.
Vandeloup saw the paragraph which gave this information, and it disturbed him very much.
‘Curse that book of Prevol’s,’ he said to himself, as he threw down the paper: ‘it will put them on the right track, and then — well,’ observed M. Vandeloup, sententiously, ‘they say danger sharpens a man’s wits; it’s lucky for me if it does.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09