Madame Midas, by Fergus Hume

Chapter XIV

Circumstantial Evidence

There was no doubt the Sprotts’ poisoning case was the sensation of the day in Melbourne. The papers were full of it, and some even went so far as to give a plan of the house, with dotted lines thereon, to show how the crime was committed. All this was extremely amusing, for, as a matter of fact, the evidence as yet had not shown any reasonable ground for supposing foul play had taken place. One paper, indeed, said that far too much was assumed in the case, and that the report of the Government analyst should be waited for before such emphatic opinions were given by the press regarding the mode of death. But it was no use trying to reason with the public, they had got it into their sage heads that a crime had been committed, and demanded evidence; so as the press had no real evidence to give, they made it up, and the public, in private conversations, amplified the evidence until they constructed a complete criminal case.

‘Pshaw!’ said Rolleston, when he read these sensational reports, ‘in spite of the quidnuncs the mountain will only produce a mouse after all.’

But he was wrong, for now rumours were started that the Government analyst and Dr Gollipeck had found poison in the stomach, and that, moreover, the real criminal would be soon discovered. Public opinion was much divided as to who the criminal was — some, having heard the story of Madame’s marriage, said it was her husband; others insisted Kitty Marchurst was the culprit, and was trying to shield herself behind this wild story of the hand coming from behind the curtains; while others were in favour of suicide. At all events, on the morning when the inquest was resumed, and the evidence was to be given of the analysis of the stomach, the Court was crowded, and a dead silence pervaded the place when the Government analyst stood up to give his evidence. Madame Midas was present, with Kitty seated beside her, the latter looking pale and ill; and Kilsip, with a gratified smile on his face which seemed as though he had got a clue to the whole mystery, was seated next to Calton. Vandeloup, faultlessly dressed, and as cool and calm as possible, was also in Court; and Dr Gollipeck, as he awaited his turn to give evidence, could not help admiring the marvellous nerve and courage of the young man.

The Government analyst being called, was sworn in the usual way, and deposed that the stomach of the deceased had been sent to him to be analysed. He had used the usual tests, and found the presence of the alkaloid of hemlock, known under the name of conia. In his opinion the death of the deceased was caused by the administration of an extract of hemlock. (Sensation in the Court.)

Q. Then in your opinion the deceased has been poisoned?

A. Yes, I have not the least doubt on the subject, I detected the conia very soon after the tests were applied.

There was great excitement when this evidence was concluded, as it gave quite a new interest to the case. The question as to the cause of death was now set at rest — the deceased had been murdered, so the burning anxiety of every one was to know who had committed the crime. All sorts of opinions were given, but the murmur of voices ceased when Dr Gollipeck stood up to give his evidence.

He deposed that he was a medical practitioner, practising at Ballarat; he had seen the report of the case in the papers, and had come down to Melbourne as he thought he could throw a certain light on the affair — for instance, where the poison was procured. (Sensation.) About three years ago a crime had been committed in Paris, which caused a great sensation at the time. The case being a peculiar one, was reported in a medical work, by Messieurs Prevol and Lebrun, which he had obtained from France some two years back. The facts of the case were shortly these: An actress called Adele Blondet died from the effects of poison, administered to her by Octave Braulard, who was her lover; the deceased had also another lover, called Kestrike, who was supposed to be implicated in the crime, but he had escaped; the woman in this case had been poisoned by an extract of hemlock, the same poison used as in the case of Selina Sprotts, and it was the similarity of the symptoms that made him suspicious of the sudden death. Braulard was sent out to New Caledonia for the murder. While in Paris he had been a medical student with two other gentlemen, one of whom was Monsieur Prevol, who had reported the case, and the other was at present in Court, and was called M. Gaston Vandeloup. (Sensation in Court, everyone’s eye being fixed on Vandeloup, who was calm and unmoved.) M. Vandeloup had manufactured the poison used in this case, but with regard to how it was administered to the deceased, he would leave that evidence to M. Vandeloup himself.

When Gollipeck left the witness-box there was a dead silence, as everyone was too much excited at his strange story to make any comment thereon. Madame Midas looked with some astonishment on Vandeloup as his name was called out, and he moved gracefully to the witness-box, while Kitty’s face grew paler even than it was before. She did not know what Vandeloup was going to say, but a great dread seized her, and with dry lips and clenched hands she sat staring at him as if paralysed. Kilsip stole a look at her and then rubbed his hands together, while Calton sat absolutely still, scribbling figures on his notepaper.

M. Gaston Vandeloup, being sworn, deposed: He was a native of France, of Flemish descent, as could be seen from his name; he had known Braulard intimately; he also knew Prevol; he had been eighteen months in Australia, and for some time had been clerk to Mrs Villiers at Ballarat; he was fond of chemistry — yes; and had made several experiments with poisons while up at Ballarat with Dr Gollipeck, who was a great toxicologist; he had seen the hemlock in the garden of an hotel-keeper at Ballarat, called Twexby, and had made an extract therefrom; he only did it by way of experiment, and had put the bottle containing the poison in his desk, forgetting all about it; the next time he saw that bottle was in the possession of Miss Kitty Marchurst (sensation in Court); she had threatened to poison herself; he again saw the bottle in her possession on the night of the murder; this was at the house of M. Meddlechip. A report had been circulated that he (the witness) was going to marry Mrs Villiers, and Miss Marchurst asked him if it was true; he had denied it, and Miss Marchurst had said that sooner than he (the witness) should marry Mrs Villiers she would poison her; the next morning he heard that Selina Sprotts was dead.

Kitty Marchurst heard all this evidence in dumb horror. She now knew that after ruining her life this man wanted her to die a felon’s death. She arose to her feet and stretched out her hands in protest against him, but before she could speak a word the place seemed to whirl round her, and she fell down in a dead faint. This event caused great excitement in court, and many began to assert positively that she must be guilty, else why did she faint. Kitty was taken out of Court, and the examination was proceeded with, while Madame Midas sat pale and horror-struck at the revelations which were now being made.

The Coroner now proceeded to cross-examine Vandeloup.

Q. You say you put the bottle containing this poison into your desk; how did Miss Marchurst obtain it?

A. Because she lived with me for some time, and had access to my private papers.

Q. Was she your wife?

A. No, my mistress (sensation in Court).

Q. Why did she leave you?

A. We had a difference of opinion about the question of marriage, so she left me.

Q. She wanted you to make reparation; in other words, to marry her?

A. Yes.

Q. And you refused?

A. Yes.

Q. It was on this occasion she produced the poison first?

A. Yes. She told me she had taken it from my desk, and would poison herself if I did not marry her; she changed her mind, however, and went away.

Q. Did you know what became of her?

A. Yes; I heard she went on the stage with M. Wopples.

Q. Did she take the poison with her?

A. Yes.

Q. How do you know she took the poison with her?

A. Because next time I saw her it was still in her possession.

Q. That was at Mr Meddlechip’s ball?

A. Yes.

Q. On the night of the commission of the crime?

A. Yes.

Q. What made her take it to the ball?

A. Rather a difficult question to answer. She heard rumours that I was to marry Mrs Villiers, and even though I denied it declined to believe me; she then produced the poison, and said she would take it.

Q. Where did this conversation take place?

A. In the conservatory.

Q. What did you do when she threatened to take the poison?

A. I tried to take it from her.

Q. Did you succeed?

A. No; she threw it out of the door.

Q. Then when she left Mr Meddlechip’s house to come home she had no poison with her?

A. I don’t think so.

Q. Did she pick the bottle up again after she threw it out?

A. No, because I went back to the ball-room with her; then I came out myself to look for the bottle, but it was gone.

Q. You have never seen it since.

A. No, it must have been picked up by someone who was ignorant of its contents.

Q. By your own showing, M. Vandeloup, Miss Marchurst had no poison with her when she left Mr Meddlechip’s house. How, then, could she commit this crime?

A. She told me she still had some poison left; that she divided the contents of the bottle she had taken from my desk, and that she still had enough left at home to poison Mrs Villiers.

Q. Did she say she would poison Mrs Villiers?

A. Yes, sooner than see her married to me. (Sensation.)

Q. Do you believe she went away from you with the deliberate intention of committing the crime.

A. I do.

M. Vandeloup then left the box amid great excitement, and Kilsip was again examined. He deposed that he had searched Miss Marchurst’s room, and found half a bottle of extract of hemlock. The contents of the bottle had been analysed, and were found identical with the conia discovered in the stomach of the deceased.

Q. You say the bottle was half empty?

A. Rather more than that: three-quarters empty.

Q. Miss Marchurst told M. Vandeloup she had poured half the contents of one bottle into the other. Would not this account for the bottle being three-quarters empty?

A. Possibly; but if the first bottle was full, it is probable she would halve the poison exactly; so if it had been untouched, it ought to be half full.

Q. Then you think some of the contents of this bottle were used?

A. That is my opinion.

Vandeloup was recalled, and deposed that the bottle Kitty took from his desk was quite full; and moreover, when the other bottle which had been found in her room, was shown to him, he declared that it was as nearly as possible the same size as the missing bottle. So the inference drawn from this was that the bottle produced being three-quarters empty, some of the poison had been used.

The question now arose that as the guilt of Miss Marchurst seemed so certain, how was it that Selina Sprotts was poisoned instead of her mistress; but this was settled by Madame Midas, who being recalled, deposed that Kitty did not know Selina slept with her on that night, and the curtains being drawn, could not possibly tell two people were in the bed.

This was all the evidence obtainable, and the coroner now proceeded to sum up.

The case, he said, was a most remarkable one, and it would be necessary for the jury to consider very gravely all the evidence laid before them in order to arrive at a proper conclusion before giving their verdict. In the first place, it had been clearly proved by the Government analyst that the deceased had died from effects of conia, which was, as they had been told, the alkaloid of hemlock, a well-known hedge plant which grows abundantly in most parts of Great Britain. According to the evidence of Dr Chinston, the deceased had died from serous apoplexy, and from all the post-mortem appearances this was the case. But they must remember that it was almost impossible to detect certain vegetable poisons, such as aconite and atropia, without minute chemical analysis. They would remember a case which startled London some years ago, in which the poisoner had poisoned his brother-in-law by means of aconite, and it taxed all the ingenuity and cleverness of experts to find the traces of poison in the stomach of the deceased. In this case, however, thanks to Dr Gollipeck, who had seen the similarity of the symptoms between the post-mortem appearance of the stomach of Adele Blondet and the present case, the usual tests for conia were applied, and as they had been told by the Government analyst, the result was conia was found. So they could be quite certain that the deceased had died of poison — that poison being conia. The next thing for them to consider was how the poison was administered. According to the evidence of Miss Marchurst, some unknown person had been standing outside the window and poured the poison into the glass on the table. Mrs Villiers had stated that the window was open all night, and from the position of the table near it — nothing would be easier than for anyone to introduce the poison into the glass as asserted by Miss Marchurst. On the other hand, the evidence of the detective Kilsip went to show that no marks were visible as to anyone having been at the window; and another thing which rendered Miss Marchurst’s story doubtful was the resemblance it had to a drama in which she had frequently acted, called ‘The Hidden Hand’. In the last act of that drama poison was administered to one of the characters in precisely the same manner, and though of course such a thing might happen in real life, still in this case it was a highly suspicious circumstance that a woman like Miss Marchurst, who had frequently acted in the drama, should see the same thing actually occur off the stage. Rejecting, then, as improbable the story of the hidden hand, seeing that the evidence was strongly against it, the next thing was to look into Miss Marchurst’s past life and see if she had any motive for committing the crime. Before doing so, however, he would point out to them that Miss Marchurst was the only person in the room when the crime was committed. The window in her own room and one of the windows in Mrs Villiers’ room were both locked, and the open window had a table in front of it, so that anyone entering would very probably knock it over, and thus awaken the sleepers. On the other hand, no one could have entered in at the door, because they would not have had time to escape before the crime was discovered. So it was clearly shown that Miss Marchurst must have been alone in the room when the crime was committed. Now to look into her past life — it was certainly not a very creditable one. M. Vandeloup had sworn that she had been his mistress for over a year, and had taken the poison manufactured by himself out of his private desk. Regarding M. Vandeloup’s motives in preparing such a poison he could say nothing. Of course, he probably did it by way of experiment to find out if this colonial grown hemlock possessed the same poisonous qualities as it did in the old world. It was a careless thing of him, however, to leave it in his desk, where it could be obtained, for all such dangerous matters should be kept under lock and key. To go back, however, to Miss Marchurst. It had been proved by M. Vandeloup that she was his mistress, and that they quarrelled. She produced this poison, and said she would kill herself. M. Vandeloup persuaded her to abandon the idea, and she subsequently left him, taking the poison with her. She then went on the stage, and subsequently left it in order to live with Mrs Villiers as her companion. All this time she still had the poison, and in order to prevent her losing it she put half of it into another bottle. Now this looked very suspicious, as, if she had not intended to use it she certainly would never have taken such trouble over preserving it. She meets M. Vandeloup at a ball, and, hearing that he is going to marry Mrs Villiers, she loses her head completely, and threatens to poison herself. M. Vandeloup tries to wrench the poison from her, whereupon she flings it into the garden. This bottle has disappeared, and the presumption is that it was picked up. But if the jury had any idea that the poison was administered from the lost bottle, they might as well dismiss it from their minds, as it was absurd to suppose such an improbable thing could happen. In the first place no one but M. Vandeloup and Miss Marchurst knew what the contents were, and in the second place what motive could anyone who picked it up have in poisoning Mrs Villiers, and why should they adopt such an extraordinary way of doing it, as Miss Marchurst asserted they did? On the other hand, Miss Marchurst tells M. Vandeloup that she still has some poison left, and that she will kill Mrs Villiers sooner than see her married to him. She declares to M. Vandeloup that she will kill her, and leaves the house to go home with, apparently, all the intention of doing so. She comes home filled with all the furious rage of a jealous woman, and enters Mrs Villiers’ room, and here the jury will recall the evidence of Mrs Villiers, who said Miss Marchurst did not know that the deceased was sleeping with her. So when Miss Marchurst entered the room, she naturally thought that Mrs Villiers was by herself, and would, as a matter of course, refrain from drawing the curtains and looking into the bed, in case she should awaken her proposed victim. There was a glass with drink on the table; she was alone with Mrs Villiers, her heart filled with jealous rage against a woman she thinks is her rival. Her own room is a few steps away — what, then, was easier for her than to go to her own room, obtain the poison, and put it into the glass? The jury will remember in the evidence of Mr Kilsip, the bottle was three-quarters empty, which argued some of it had been used. All the evidence against Miss Marchurst was purely circumstantial, for if she committed the crime, no human eye beheld her doing so. But the presumption of her having done so, in order to get rid of a successful rival, was very strong, and the weight of evidence was dead against her. The jury would, therefore, deliver their verdict in accordance with the facts laid before them.

The jury retired, and the court was very much excited. Everyone was quite certain that Kitty was guilty, but there was a strong feeling against M. Vandeloup as having been in some measure the cause, though indirectly, of the crime. But that young gentleman, in accordance with his usual foresight, had left the court and gone straight home, as he had no wish to face a crowd of sullen faces, and perhaps worse. Madame Midas sat still in the court awaiting the return of the jury, with the calm face of a marble sphinx. But, though she suffered, no appearances of suffering were seen on her serene face. She never had believed in human nature, and now the girl whom she had rescued from comparative poverty and placed in opulence had wanted to kill her. M. Vandeloup, whom she admired and trusted, what black infamy he was guilty of — he had sworn most solemnly he never harmed Kitty, and yet he was the man who had ruined her. Madame Midas felt that the worst had come — Vandeloup false, Kitty a murderess, her husband vanished, and Selina dead. All the world was falling into ruins around her, and she remained alone amid the ruins with her enormous fortune, like a golden statue in a deserted temple. With clasped hands, aching heart, but impassive face, she sat waiting for the end.

The jury returned in about half an hour, and there was a dead silence as the foreman stood up to deliver the verdict.

The jury found as follows:—

That the deceased, Selina Jane Sprotts, died on the 21st day of November, from the effects of poison, namely, conia, feloniously administered by one Katherine Marchurst, and the jury, on their oaths, say that the said Katherine Marchurst feloniously, wilfully, and maliciously did murder the said deceased.

That evening Kitty was arrested and lodged in the Melbourne Gaol, to await her trial on a charge of wilful murder.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55