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Title: Gentlemen of the Jury
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1201921.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: May 2012
Date most recently updated: May 2012

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: Gentlemen of the Jury
Author: Fred M White

*

Published in the Warwick Examiner and Times, Qld. Monday 11 May, 1914.

*



The dim little courthouse was packed to suffocation. A dense mass of
perspiring humanity sat there watching Archer Steadman being tried for
his life. There were hundreds of people who knew him personally, they
had chatted with him, shaken hands with him, asked him to their homes.
They had applauded him in the cricket field, they had cheered his
triumphant progress at football, Castleford had been proud of him. The
sleepy old cathedral city had never produced a finer athlete. And Arthur
Steadman was being tried for murder.

People remembered now that he had always been a 'bit of a waster.' His
life was clean enough, but he really was a loafer. Old Gordon Steadman
always said so, though he was good to his nephew in his own queer,
eccentric way, and gave him some kind of allowance. Perhaps Archer had
counted on dead men's shoes; certainly he had counted on having the old
man's money some of these days, and there was a good deal of it, too. So
Gordon Steadman had grumbled and paid till three months before when
there had been a dispute over a betting account of the younger man's.
And Gordon Steadman had had a perfect horror of betting. Archer had
given him a promise as regarded that vice and he had broken his word.

Everybody had heard the story, of course. These things cannot be a
secret in a small, cathedral city. There had been a final split, and
Archer had been ordered out of his uncle's house. In future he could
look to himself for his bread and cheese. He would have to earn his own
living. And Archer had set out to do so fearlessly enough. At the end of
a fortnight he was absolutely penniless, in debt to everybody; he was
getting shabby and moody and discontented.

A week later and the startling discovery had been made that Gordon
Steadman had been foully murdered in his own house in broad daylight at
four o'clock in the afternoon. The victim's house was a rather lonely
one on the outskirts of the town; it boasted a wonderful walled-in
garden where the old man followed his favourite pursuit, the study of
the ways and habits of wild birds. At the back of the house was a kind
of garden-room with French windows opening on to a lawn and here Mr.
Steadman passed most of the summer. At three o'clock on the day of the
tragedy his housekeeper had taken him in a packet of films for
photographic purposes, and at that time he had been writing at his desk.
His keys lay on the table, and he had appeared to be busy. An hour
later, when the housekeeper took in the usual cup of tea, she was
horrified to find her master dead, his head shattered by a blow from
some blunt instrument.

Whether there was anything missing nobody ever knew. Nothing appeared to
have been stolen, for there were valuables in the desk. Mr. Steadman's
cheque-book appeared to have vanished, but there was no significance in
this, for it was just possible that at the time of his death Mr.
Steadman was out of cheques altogether. The papers did not even mention
the matter.

From the very first suspicion began to fasten itself on Archer Steadman.
So far as it was possible to ascertain the old man had not had a single
enemy in the world. There was no proof that robbery was the motive for
the crime. Who, therefore could benefit by the tragedy but the dead
man's nephew--and heir? Closely questioned, Archer denied that he had
seen his uncle since the split. Yet he had money soon after the murder,
and paid off several little loans. A day or two before and it could be
proved that he had literally not one penny. Certain footmarks near the
garden-room tallied exactly with the boots that he was wearing--indeed
he had no other pair on the day of the crime. A witness had come forward
and testified to the fact that he had seen Archer Steadman in the lane
by the old man's house just after four on the day of the murder. And
worse than all this, the wife of a butcher named Garvis had testified to
the fact that she had cashed a cheque for fifty pounds for the prisoner
that same afternoon shortly after five o'clock and that the cheque,
drawn and endorsed in favour of 'self,' had been signed by Mr. Gordon
Steadman. Mrs. Garvis kept her husband's books and managed his monetary
affairs, and she spoke with authority. She had cashed the cheque and
given the prisoner some twenty pounds in gold and the balance in three
small cheques payable to various people named by the prisoner, who had
no banking account of his own, and adopted this method of paying sundry
creditors who resided at a distance. The cheques had been taken from a
new cheque-book which the butcher, Garvis, had apparently obtained that
very day from the local branch of the Capital and Allied Bank.

Verily the counsel for the Crown was piling up a terribly black case
against the prisoner. By the time he had finished with his last witness
it was felt by everybody listening there that the verdict was only a
matter of time. And what chance had young Edgar Vavasour, the rising
young Junior who defended the prisoner, against so powerful an opponent
as Mr. George Geoffrey, K.C.? Vavasour was a local man which in itself
was interesting; he was by way of being a friend of Archer Steadman's;
they had been at school together. Ah, yes, it was a tremendously strong
case to answer, but Vavasour's face showed hope and courage as he took
one witness after another in hand. It was the old housekeeper to the
murdered man that seemed to attract his attention first.

"I'd like to ask you few questions," he said. "Now, you told the Court a
little time ago that on the day of the murder you took into the
garden-room about three o'clock a packet of films. I understand that Mr.
Gordon Steadman was an expert photographer?

"He was, sir. Birds and animals and such like."

"Precisely. All this is common knowledge. Most people here are aware of
the fact that Mr. Steadman's photographs were quite popular with certain
periodicals. He had a special camera built for the purpose. Was that
camera standing in the window on the day of the murder?"

"Yes, sir. It frequently stood there. My master placed it there, and
from the camera there was a silken cord attached at the other end to a
kind of trap arrangement in which food for birds was placed. My master
frequently explained this to me."

"Quite so. And the weight of the bird depressed the cord and released
the shutter of the camera, thus registering a snap photograph. Am I to
understand that?"

"Yes, sir, if you please. Just that. It was all so simple that a child
could understand it."

What was young Vavasour driving at, every body wondered. Why was he
imparting this extraordinary air of mystery into the case? And why did
he look so gravely self-satisfied? Everybody there was prepared for some
tremendous dramatic surprise.

"We will let that pass for the moment," Vavasour went on. "You have
proved to us what the camera can do, and we will come back to this part
presently. At four o'clock on the day of the murder you returned to the
garden room and found your master dead. I am not going to ask any
questions as to that. You have told us, and the police have proved to
us, that there was no evidence of a struggle, practically nothing had
been disturbed. Now was everything exactly in its proper place? Just
think? Are you sure that nothing had been overturned?"

The witness hesitated for a moment, her mind apparently moving slowly. A
tense, rigid silence gripped the court. It was impossible to believe
that Vavasour was asking these questions out of sheer curiosity. Even
the prisoner had lost his white, apathetic indifference, and his eyes
grew dark. The pencils of the reporters were flying across the pages of
their notebooks. The crime was what they called a 'popular' one, and
they scented a new sensation for the morrow.

"Think carefully before you speak," Vavasour's voice came warningly.

"I'm trying to, sir," the old woman faltered. "The only thing I can
think of is the camera. It had been knocked off the stand and lay on the
floor. But anything might have done that, you see, standing as it did on
a three-legged arrangement----"

"Stop, stop," Vavasour interrupted. "I don't want any explanation or
arguments. The camera was upset. Did you let it lie there or did you
pick it up?"

"I let it lie there for the time, sir. I was too frightened to do
anything. After the police came and I told them all I knew I did tidy up
a bit. Matter of habit, sir. I picked up the camera and put it back in
its stand. And it's in the garden room now."

"I know it is," Vavasour said quietly. "It was too trifling a matter to
attract the attention of the police. But trifles, my lord and gentlemen
of the jury, if I may address you for an instant, hang men and set them
free. I may state that I have seen the camera, and being something of an
expert it gave me an idea. Whether or not there is anything in that idea
will be seen to-morrow. I found that certain films in the camera had
been exposed, and I took the liberty of having them removed under the
eyes of the police. They have gone to London to be developed, and will
be in my hands to-morrow. Whether or not they will help me in my case
remains to be proved. I think they will. That will do."

The aged witness shuffled away, glad to hide herself in an obscure
corner of the court. For a moment at any rate the sensation was at an
end. Whether or not it would crop up to-morrow was the question.
Everybody was on the tip-toe of expectation now. In a milder form the
curiosity was renewed a little later on, when Vavasour developed a
bitter cross-examination of the butcher's wife, Mary Garvis.

"I am sorry to make myself objectionable," he said, "but in the
interests of my client I must put certain points to you. Your husband
happens to be on the jury?"

"He does, sir?" the woman said. "He's not a witness in the case."

"That will do, please. I need no comments. Have you had any money
troubles lately? I put it to you that your husband is being sorely
pressed by his creditors."

Counsel for the Crown protested. The Judge murmured disapproval.
Vavasour stood there erect and rigid.

"I regret the necessity, my Lord," he said. "But in the interests of
justice I must ask these questions. I pledge my word that they are
necessary. Now, madam, answer me."

"We have been unfortunate lately, if that's what you mean," she said,
sullenly.

"Precisely. Writs and county court proceedings and lawyers' letters."

The woman nodded. It seemed strange that she should have been there
making these admissions with her husband scowling in the jury box. But
what had all this to do with the case against the prisoner? Once more
the court swayed with curious excitement.

"I have done for the moment," Vavasour said. "It is now 6 o'clock, my
Lord. May I suggest respectfully that the case stand adjourned at this
point till to-morrow?"

The prisoner seemed to come out of a waking dream. For some time he had
been hardly conscious of what was going on around him. The suggestion of
calmness and callous indifference was more due to his dazed condition
than anything else. He had been trying to reconcile the actual with the
incredible. It was all coming back to him now; his mind began to work
again. He was going over the events of the past half-hour in his thawed
brain. What was Vavasour driving at? Why had he made so much of that
camera business? And what in the name of fortune had the butcher Garvis
to do with the case. To inquire into the man's finances seemed to be an
impertinence. And yet, with it all, there was a suggestion of calmness
and strength about Vavasour that had impressed a good many people
besides the prisoner. The judge turned towards him.

"Very well," he said. "I take it that counsel is well advised in this
course. In the interests of the prisoner the court is adjourned until 10
o'clock to-morrow morning."

The packed spectators fought their way into the street; the prisoner was
hustled down below and back to his cell again. He was not left long to
his reflections. Within an hour he was summoned by a warder to meet his
solicitor and counsel in consultation. Vavasour held out a friendly
hand. His face was a little stern and hard, yet there was a suggestion
of a smile in his eyes.

"Did you follow me carefully this afternoon?" he asked.

"It came to me afterwards," Steadman said. "One's mind gets numbed, you
know. It was all so much Greek to me, Vavasour. If there was anything in
it----"

"My dear fellow, there is a great deal in it. As an absolutely innocent
man----"

"It is very good of you to say that," Steadman murmured gratefully.

"But you are. And I am going to prove it to-morrow. At least I think so.
At any rate I am going to seriously compromise somebody else. The
sensation-mongers are going to have a rare treat. Quite like a scene in
a melodrama. But you had better tell the truth--you have been an arrant
fool to conceal it for so long. Why did you deny the fact that you saw
your uncle the day of his death, and not long before the murder? You
must have known that the story of the cheque you changed would reach the
ears of the police."

"I was a fool," Steadman confessed. "I lost my head. I saw that the
police suspected me, and I lied. Just for the moment I had clean
forgotten all about the cheque. A sheer case of funk. Had I been quite
candid I should probably be a free man at this moment. I did see my
uncle. Mind you, I didn't go to the house on purpose. He had a litter of
pups that I was interested in. I sneaked through the fence, and he
happened to see me. He called me into the garden room, and we talked. He
was very hard and bitter, but just a little sorry for me all the same.
For the last time he was prepared to help me on condition that I left
Castleford and went abroad. If I did that he would give me fifty pounds,
and perhaps more later on if I could justify it. He had just drawn a
cheque for fifty pounds, as was his custom on the fifteenth of every
month, and on the spur of the moment he handed it over to me. I wasn't
in the house more than ten minutes altogether. I accepted the offer,
especially as I had one or two pressing debts of honour. It seemed to me
that about fifteen pounds would suffice to get over to Canada. And--and
that's all."

"Um. You are willing to let me say this in court?" Vavasour asked.

"Certainly, if you think it will do any good. I should like to know----"

"Yes, I dare say you would. But not just yet. Besides, it's a mistake to
promise too much."

Apparently there was no more to be said for the moment, and the
conference ended.

If possible the court was still more crowded next morning when the case
commenced. The prosecution had finished its case, and for the most part
Steadman was regarded as a doomed man. How could Vavasour clear away the
impression that had been formed in the minds of the jury?

Yet he smiled with a certain suggestion of triumph as he rose to open
the defence. It was a most unusual case, he said, and he craved the
indulgence of the court to treat it in an unusual way. He proposed to
call a very few witnesses, indeed those he should call for the most part
had already given their testimony, on behalf of the Crown.

"I shall call the prisoner," he said. "He will tell the truth. He has
behaved foolishly. He lost his head and prevaricated. He did see his
uncle and did get that cheque from him. He will tell you why he acted so
foolishly. But I shall prove that the murderer came along after; I shall
prove this by the evidence of the camera. I am going to produce a
portion of the murderer's photograph."

A cry of astonishment rang out from one end of the court to the other.

'"The murderer came by way of the garden," Vavasour went on. "He was
facing the garden room as he tripped over the cord by which the
photographic shutter was operated. It occurred to me that the camera
held evidence, and I had the negatives developed. I am somewhat
surprised that the idea did not occur to the police. For the negatives
are evidence of the first importance. The murderer came by way of the
garden so that he should not be seen. He knocked over the camera on his
way, but the shutter worked, and I have the photograph. I propose to put
the photographer who developed these negatives in the box. The police
know the whole story. The criminal murdered Mr. Steadman to get
possession of a cheque he had drawn. The murderer was desperately in
need of money, and perhaps tried to borrow it from Mr. Steadman. I have
the photograph in my hand. It represents a man with thick hair and beard
and the unfortunate possessor of a pronounced hare-lip."

Again the shout of amazement went up. Every eye was turned on the
jury-box, where Garvis, the butcher, sat with his colleagues. The
description fitted him exactly.

"The murderer is there," Vavasour cried. "In the jury-box. Here is his
photograph. In his flight he took Mr. Steadman's cheque-book. Not
knowing what to do with it he put it in his safe. And then very soon
after his wife found it. When the prisoner came to change his cheque and
get others for it, Mrs. Garvis took up the wrong book and filled the
cheques in out of that. Doubtless the cheque-book has been destroyed by
now, but the fact remains, and the bank officials can prove beyond a
doubt that Garvis has been using cheques issued by them to Mr. Steadman.
I tried to prove motive yesterday when I elicited the fact that Garvis
was in desperate financial straits. If my methods are somewhat unusual,
my lord, you will bear with me, for this is an unusual case. So long as
the man I accuse is in the jury-box the trial cannot go on. If the
innocence of my client----"

Once more the ringing cry went up. The man with the hare-lip climbed
over the ledge of the jury-box and stood white, partly defiant on the
floor of the court. He yelled something that could not be heard, he
clapped his hands to his mouth. A police officer darted forward, but too
late. With a groan Garvis staggered forward and collapsed on the floor.
Someone called for a doctor, there was a tense rigid silence, and the
whisper went round the court that the thing was finished.

"He is dead, my lord," Vavasour said solemnly. "He has poisoned himself.
The murderer himself has come forward and proved my case."



THE END


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