Melbourne society was greatly agitated over the hansom cab murder. Before the assassin had been discovered it had been looked upon merely as a common murder, and one of which society need take no cognisance beyond the bare fact of its committal. But now that one of the most fashionable young men in Melbourne had been arrested as the assassin, it bade fair to assume gigantic proportions. Mrs. Grundy was shocked, and openly talked about having nourished in her bosom a viper which had unexpectedly turned and stung her.
Morn, noon, and night, in Toorak drawing-rooms and Melbourne Clubs, the case formed the principal subject of conversation. And Mrs. Grundy was horrified. Here was a young man, well born — “the Fitzgeralds, my dear, an Irish family, with royal blood in their veins” — well-bred — “most charming manners, I assure you, and so very good-looking” and engaged to one of the richest girls in Melbourne — “pretty enough, madam, no doubt, but he wanted her money, sly dog;” and this young man, who had been petted by the ladies, voted a good fellow by the men, and was universally popular, both in drawing-room and club, had committed a vulgar murder — it was truly shocking. What was the world coming to, and what were gaols and lunatic asylums built for if men of young Fitzgerald’s calibre were not put in them, and kept from killing people? And then, of course, everybody asked everybody else who Whyte was, and why he had never been heard of before. All people who had met Mr. Whyte were worried to death with questions about him, and underwent a species of social martyrdom as to who he was, what he was like, why he was killed, and all the rest of the insane questions which some people will ask. It was talked about everywhere — in fashionable drawing-rooms at five o’clock tea, over thin bread and butter and souchong; at clubs, over brandies and sodas and cigarettes; by working men over their mid-day pint, and by their wives in the congenial atmosphere of the back yard over the wash-tub. The papers were full of paragraphs about the famous murder, and the society papers gave an interview with the prisoner by their special reporters, which had been composed by those gentlemen out of the floating rumours which they heard around, and their own fertile imaginations.
As to the prisoner’s guilt, everyone was certain of it. The cabman Royston had sworn that Fitzgerald had got into the cab with Whyte, and when he got out Whyte was dead. There could be no stronger proof than that, and the general opinion was that the prisoner would put in no defence, but would throw himself on the mercy of the court. Even the church caught the contagion, and ministers — Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Presbyterian, together with the lesser lights of minor denominations — took the hansom cab murder as a text whereon to preach sermons on the profligacy of the age, and to point out that the only ark which could save men from the rising flood of infidelity and immorality was their own particular church. “Gad,” as Calton remarked, after hearing five or six ministers each claim their own church as the one special vessel of safety, “there seems to be a whole fleet of arks!”
For Mr. Felix Rolleston, acquainted as he was with all concerned, the time was one of great and exceeding joy. He was ever to the fore in retailing to his friends, plus certain garnishments of his own, any fresh evidence that chanced to come to light. His endeavour was to render it the more piquant, if not dramatic. If you asked him for his definite opinion as to the innocence or guilt of the accused, Mr. Felix shook his head sagaciously, and gave you to understand that neither he, nor his dear friend Calton — he knew Calton to nod to — had yet been able to make up their minds about the matter.
“Fact is, don’t you know,” observed Mr. Rolleston, wisely, “there’s more in this than meets the eye, and all that sort of thing — think ’tective fellers wrong myself — don’t think Fitz killed Whyte; jolly well sure he didn’t.”
This would be followed invariably by a query in chorus of “who killed him then?”
“Aha,” Felix would retort, putting his head on one side, like a meditative sparrow; “’tective fellers can’t find out; that’s the difficulty. Good mind to go on the prowl myself, by Jove.”
“But do you know anything of the detective business?” some one would ask.
“Oh, dear yes,” with an airy wave of his hand; “I’ve read Gaboreau, you know; awfully jolly life, ’tectives.”
Despite this evasion, Rolleston, in his heart of hearts, believed Fitzgerald guilty. But he was one of those persons, who having either tender hearts or obstinate natures — the latter is perhaps the more general — deem it incumbent upon them to come forward in championship of those in trouble. There are, doubtless, those who think that Nero was a pleasant young man, whose cruelties were but the resultant of an overflow of high spirits; and who regard Henry VIII in the light of a henpecked husband unfortunate in the possession of six wives. These people delight in expressing their sympathy with great scoundrels of the Ned Kelly order. They view them as the embodiment of heroism, unsympathetically and disgracefully treated by the narrow understanding of the law. If one half the world does kick a man when he is down, the other half invariably consoles the prostrate individual with halfpence.
And therefore, even while the weight of public opinion was dead against Fitzgerald he had his share of avowed sympathy. There was a comfort in this for Madge. Not that if the whole countryside had unanimously condemned her lover she would have believed him guilty. The element of logic does not enter into the championship of woman Her love for a man is sufficient to exalt him to the rank of a demi-god. She absolutely refuses to see the clay feet of her idol. When all others forsake she clings to him, when all others frown she smiles on him, and when he dies she reveres his memory as that of a saint and a martyr. Young men of the present day are prone to disparage their womenkind; but a poor thing is the man, who in time of trouble has no woman to stand by him with cheering words and loving comfort. And so Madge Frettlby, true woman that she was, had nailed her colours to the mast. She refused surrender to anyone, or before any argument. He was innocent, and his innocence would be proved, for she had an intuitive feeling that he would be saved at the eleventh hour. How, she knew not; but she was certain that it would be so. She would have gone to see Brian in prison, but that her father absolutely forbade her doing so. Therefore she was dependent upon Calton for all the news respecting him, and any message which she wished conveyed.
Brian’s persistent refusal to set up the defence of an alibi, annoyed Calton, the more so as he could conceive no reason sufficiently worthy of the risk to which it subjected his client.
“If it’s for the sake of a woman,” he said to Brian, “I don’t care who she is, it’s absurdly Quixotic. Self-preservation is the first law of nature, and if my neck was in danger I’d spare neither man, woman, nor child to save it.”
“I dare say,” answered Brian; “but if you had my reasons you might think differently.”
Yet in his own mind the lawyer had a suspicion which he thought might perhaps account for Brian’s obstinate concealment of his movements on the fatal night. He had admitted an appointment with a woman. He was a handsome young fellow, and probably his morals were no better than those of his fellows. There was perhaps some intrigue with a married woman. He had perchance been with her on that night, and it was to shield her that he refused to speak.
“Even so,” argued Calton, “let him lose his character rather than his life; indeed the woman herself should speak. It would be hard upon her I admit; yet when a man’s life is in danger, surely nothing should stop her.”
Full of these perplexing thoughts, Calton went down to St. Kilda to have a talk with Madge. He intended to ask her to assist him towards obtaining the information he needed. He had a great respect for Madge, and thought her a really clever woman. It was just possible, he argued, that Brian’s great love might cause him to confess everything to her, at her urgent request. He found Madge awaiting his arrival with anxiety.
“Where have you been all this time?” she said as they sat down; “I have been counting every moment since I saw you last. How is he?”
“Just the same,” answered Calton, taking off his gloves, “still obstinately refusing to save his own life. Where’s your father?” he asked, suddenly.
“Out of town,” she answered, impatiently. “He will not be back for a week — but what do you mean that he won’t save his own life?”
Calton leaned forward, and took her hand.
“Do you want to save his life?” he asked.
“Save his life,” she reiterated, starting up out of her chair with a cry. “God knows, I would die to save him.”
“Pish,” murmured Calton to himself, as he looked at her glowing face and outstretched hands, “these women are always in extremes. The fact is,” he said aloud, “Fitzgerald is able to prove an alibi, and he refuses to do so.”
Calton shrugged his shoulders.
“That is best known to himself — some Quixotic idea of honour, I fancy. Now, he refuses to tell me where he was on that night; perhaps he won’t refuse to tell you — so you must come up and see him with me, and perhaps he will recover his senses, and confess.”
“But my father,” she faltered.
“Did you not say he was out of town?” asked Calton.
“Yes,” hesitated Madge. “But he told me not to go.”
“In that case,” said Calton, rising and taking up his hat and gloves, “I won’t ask you.”
She laid her hand on his arm.
“Stop! will it do any good?”
Calton hesitated a moment, for he thought that if the reason of Brian’s silence was, as he surmised, an intrigue with a married woman, he might not tell the girl he was engaged to about it — but, on the other hand, there might be some other reason, and Calton trusted to Madge to find it out. With these thoughts in his mind he turned round.
“Yes,” he answered, boldly, “it may save his life.”
“Then I shall go,” she answered, recklessly “He is more to me than my father, and if I can save him, I will. Wait,” and she ran out of the room.
“An uncommonly plucky girl,” murmured the lawyer, as he looked out of the window. “If Fitzgerald is not a fool he will certainly tell her all — that is, of course, if he is able to — queer things these women are — I quite agree with Balzac’s saying that no wonder man couldn’t understand woman, seeing that God who created her failed to do so.”
Madge came back dressed to go out, with a heavy veil over her face.
“Shall I order the carriage?” she asked, pulling on her gloves with trembling fingers.
“Hardly,” answered Calton, dryly, “unless you want to see a paragraph in the society papers to the effect that Miss Madge Frettlby visited Mr. Fitzgerald in gaol — no — no — we’ll get a cab. Come, my dear,” and taking her arm he led her away.
They reached the station, and caught a train just as it started, yet notwithstanding this Madge was in a fever of impatience.
“How slowly it goes,” she said, fretfully.
“Hush, my dear,” said Calton, laying his hand on her arm. “You will betray yourself — we’ll arrive soon — and save him.”
“Oh, God grant we may,” she said with a low cry, clasping her hands tightly together, while Calton could see the tears falling from under her thick veil.
“This is not the way to do so,” he said, almost roughly, “you’ll be in hysterics soon — control yourself for his sake.”
“For his sake,” she muttered, and with a powerful effort of will, calmed herself They soon arrived in Melbourne, and, getting a hansom, drove up quickly to the gaol. After going through the usual formula, they entered the cell where Brian was, and, when the warder who accompanied them opened the door, they found the young man seated on his bed. He looked up, and, on seeing Madge, rose and held out his hands with a cry of delight. She ran forward, and threw herself on his breast with a stifled sob. For a short time no one spoke — Calton being at the other end of the cell, busy with some notes which he had taken from his pocket, and the warder having retired.
“My poor darling,” said Madge, stroking back the soft, fair hair from his flushed forehead, “how ill you look.”
“Yes!” answered Fitzgerald, with a hard laugh. “Prison does not improve a man — does it?”
“Don’t speak in that tone, Brian,” she said; “it is not like you — let us sit down and talk calmly over the matter.”
“I don’t see what good that will do,” he answered, wearily, as they sat down hand-in-hand. “I have talked about it to Calton till my head aches, and it is no good.”
“Of course not,” retorted the lawyer, sharply, as he also sat down. “Nor will it be any good until you come to your senses, and tell us where you were on that night.”
“I tell you I cannot.”
“Brian, dear,” said Madge, softly, taking his hand, “you must tell all — for my sake.”
Fitzgerald sighed — this was the hardest temptation he had yet been subjected to he felt half inclined to yield, and chance the result — but one look at Madge’s pure face steeled him against doing so. What could his confession bring but sorrow and regret to one whom he loved better than his life.
“Madge!” he answered, gravely, taking her hand again, “you do not know what you ask.”
“Yes, I do!” she replied, quickly. “I ask you to save yourself — to prove that you are not guilty of this terrible crime, and not to sacrifice your life for the sake of — of — ”
Here she stopped, and looked helplessly at Calton, for she had no idea of the reason of Fitzgerald’s refusal to speak.
“For the sake of a woman,” finished Calton, bluntly.
“A woman!” she faltered, still holding her lover’s hand.
“Is — is — is that the reason?”
Brian averted his face.
“Yes!” he said, in a low, rough voice.
A sharp expression of anguish crossed her pale face, and, sinking her head on her hands, she wept bitterly. Brian looked at her in a dogged kind of way, and Calton stared grimly at them both.
“Look here,” he said, at length, to Brian, in an angry voice; “if you want my opinion of your conduct I think it’s infamous — begging your pardon, Miss Frettlby, for the expression. Here is this noble gill, who loves you with her whole heart, and is ready to sacrifice everything for your sake, comes to implore you to save your life, and you coolly turn round and acknowledge another woman.”
Brian lifted his head haughtily, and his face flushed.
“You are wrong,” he said, turning round sharply; “there is the woman for whose sake I keep silence;” and, rising up from the bed, he pointed to Madge, as she sobbed bitterly on it She lifted up her haggard face with an air of surprise.
“For my sake!” she cried in a startled voice.
“Oh, he’s mad,” said Calton, shrugging his shoulders; “I shall put in a defence of insanity.”
“No, I am not mad,” cried Fitzgerald, wildly, as he caught Madge in his arms. “My darling! My darling! It is for your sake that I keep silence, and I shall do so though my life pays the penalty. I could tell you where I was on that night and save myself: but if I did, you would learn a secret which would curse your life, and I dare not speak — I dare not.”
Madge looked up into his face with a pitiful smile as her — tears fell fast.
“Dearest!” she said, softly. “Do not think of me, but only of yourself; better that I should endure misery than that you should die. I do not know what the secret can be, but if the telling of it will save your life, do not hesitate. See,” she cried, falling on her knees, “I am at your feet — I implore you by all the love you ever had for me, to save yourself, whatever the consequences may be to me.”
“Madge,” said Fitzgerald, as he raised her in his arms, “at one time I might have done so, but now it is too late. There is another and stronger reason for my silence, which I have only found out since my arrest. I know that I am closing up the one way of escape from this charge of murder, of which I am innocent; but as there is a God in heaven, I swear that I will not speak.”
There was a silence in the cell, broken only by Madge’s convulsive sobs, and even Calton, cynical man of the world as he was, felt his eyes grow wet. Brian led Madge over to him, and placed her in his arms.
“Take her away,” he said, in a broken voice, “or I shall forget that I am a man;” and turning away he threw himself on his bed, and covered his face with his hands. Calton did not answer him, but summoned the warder, and tried to lead Madge away. But just as they reached the door she broke away from him, and, running back, flung herself on her lover’s breast.
“My darling! My darling!” she sobbed, kissing him, “you shall not die. I shall save you in spite of yourself;” and, as if afraid to trust herself longer, she ran out of the cell, followed by the barrister.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55