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

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Gentlemen of the Jury

by

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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