Chapter 36011574

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Chapter NumberI
Chapter Title
Chapter Url
Full Date1884-12-19
Page Number3
Word Count3166
Last Corrected0000-00-00
Newspaper TitleBurra Record (SA : 1878 - 1954)
Trove TitleA Witness for the Defence
article text

A Witness for the Defence.


It has been raining steadily all day. It was still raining as I stood at the corner of a great London thoroughfare on that wretched November nisrht. The srutter babbled, thp

pavement glistened, humanity was obliterated by silk and alpaca ; but the night-wind was cool and fresh to me, after a day spent in a hot police court, heavy with the steam of indigo-dyed constables, of damp criminals, and their frowsy friends and foes. I was later than usual. That was why I stood hesitating, and turning over and over the few shillings in iny pocket, painfully gathered by a long day's labour as a young and struggling legal prac tioner. I thought of my poor little sick wife waiting so longingly for me in the dull lodg ings miles away. I also considered the difficulty of earning two shillings and the speed with which which that sum disappeared when invested in cabs. I thought of the slowness and uncertainty of the 'bus, crowded inside and out : again of the anxious eyes watching the clock j and my mind was made up. I called a hansom from the rank just opposite to me, and jumped in, after giving my directions to so niucn of the driver as 1 could make out between his hat and his collar. I felt tired, hungry, and depressed, so that I was glad to drop off to sleep, and forget weariness and worry for a little while ; and I remained unconscious of bad pavement and rattling rain, blurred glass and misty lights, until the stoppage ot the cab roused me Thinking that I had arrived at my journey's end, and wondering why the glass was not raised, I smote lustily on the roof with my umbrella. But the voice of the driver came down to me through the trap in a confidential wheeze ; and at the same time I saw that there was a crowd ahead, and heard that there were shouts and confusion, and that my cab was one of a mass of vehicles all wedged to gether by some impassable obstacle. ' Plicemen says, sir,' explained cabby, ' as there's bin a gas main hexploded and blowed up the street, and nolhin' can't get this way. There's oin a many pussons hinjured, sir. I'll have to go round the back streets.' ' All right,' I replied. ' Go ahead then.' Down slammed the trap ; the cab was turned and manoeuvred out of the press ; and I soon found myself traversing a m.ize of those un known byways, lined with frowsy lodging houses and the dead walls of factories and and warehouses, which hem in our main thoroughfares. I was broad awake now, excited by the news of the accident, speculating on its causes, and thinking of the scenes of agony and sonow to which it had given rise, and of me own fortunate escape. The hansom I was in was an unusually well-appointed one for those days. It was clean ' and well cushioned ; it had a mat on the floor instead of mouldy straw. Against one side was a metal match-holder, with a roughened surface ; bearing as the occasional street lamps showed me, the words ' Please strike a light. Dj not injure the cab.' On each side of the d:-or a small minor, placed so as to face the driver ; on that I could see reflected therein, through the windows, those parts of Jhe street which the cab had just passod. We careered up one dreary lane and down another, until, having just turned to the left into a rather wider thoroughfare, we were once more brought up. This time it was a heavy dray discharging goods at the back entranec of a warehouse. It was drawn up carelessly, 0 xupying in fact, more room than it should in that ill-lighted place. We were almost into it before we could pull up. To avoid accident, the cabman threw his horse half across the road ; and in this position proceeded gently but firmly to expostulate with the drayman after the manner of cabmen on such occasions. The surly fellow would take no notice, and made no attempt for some minutes to give us room. 1 was too listless to interfere, and lay back in in the cab, leaving the driver lo get over the difficulty as he might. In the right-hand glass, owing to our slant ing position across the road, I could see re flected, a few yards off, the corner of a street out of which we had just turned, with the lamp which stood there, and above the lamp the name of the street, which, through reverse wise on the minor on the minor, I made out to be ' Hauraki Street.' The queer name attracted me ; I was wondering what colonial experience could have led the builder to select it. when I saw the reflected figure of a man come into the light of the lamp along the road in which we stood. He was young, but dis hevelled and dirty, and evidently wet through. His clothes, bad as they condition was, looked somehow as if their had been, or ought to be, in a better condition of body than his present one. He stared desolately about him for a while, as if to see whether there could be any other creature so miserable as to be lounging purposelessly about, without an umbrella, in such a place on such a night. A neighboring clock struck eight, and he seemed to turn his head and listen till the clangour ceased. Then he inspected the sleeves of his coat, as people always do when unduly damp, and drew one nf them across his forehead* taking off his hat for the purpose, as though hot from exercise. Then he cariully produced from inside the sodden and melancholy hat a folded piece of paper and a clay pipe He filled the pipe From the paper, restored the latter to the hat, and put the hat on his head. Then he looked helplessly at the pipe. I guessed the poor wretch had neither a match nor a penny to buy one. A thought seemed to strike him. He looked up suddenly at the lamp, and I saw his face for the first time. I am an observer of faces. This one was peculiarly short and broad, with a projecting sharp-pointed chin, a long slit of a mouth, turned down at the corners ; as it was now half open in perplexity, it disclosed a conspicuous blank, caused by the loss of one or more front teeth. The eyes 'were small and dark, and half shut with a curious prying air. This was all I noticed ; for now the man began awkwardly and laboriously to ' swarm' the lamp post ; evidently with the view of getting a light for his pipe. Having got about half-way to the top, he incautiously stopped to rest, and instantly slid to the bottom. Patiently he began all over again ; ind I now saw that if he was not altogether tipsy, he was something very like it. This time his efforts were so ill-judged that he caved in the melancholy hat against the cross bar of the lamp ; and the last I saw of him as my picture vanished at the whisking round of the hansom, he was blindly waving his pipe at the lamp jlass. his head buried in the wreck of his hat, is he vainly endeavoured to introduce the pipe throngh the opening underneath, and beginning once more to slide iinpotently down the shaftr I got home without further adventure in jtneYiGt to be missed by my little invalid ; but For several days the queer street-name abode tvith me, as the merest trifles ?srill haunt an jver-anxious mind such as mine then was. I repeated it to myself hundreds of times ; I made it into a sort of idiotic refrain or chorus, ivith which I kept time to my own footsteps on my daily tramps. I tried to make rhymes to it, with indifferent success ; and altogether it was some weeks before the tiresome phantom Snally departed. Also I often wondered whether the drenched foung man with the crushed hat had managed to get a light after all. Twelve years had gone, and with them my troubles — such troubles at least as had been n-ith me at the time of the beginning of this story. I was now a prosperous solicitor, with 1 large and varied practice, and with a conifort ible home on the northern heights of London, wherein to cherish the dear wife, no longer sick, who had been my loving companion through the years of scarcity. The firm's prac

tice was a varied one : but personally I devoted myself to that branch of it in which I had be gun my professional life — the criminal law. In this I had fairly won myself a name hoih as an advocate and a lawyer — often very different thing — which tende'l to make me a richer mans every -Jay. And I am glad to lie able to say that I added to tins reputation another yet more valuable — that of being an honorable and honest man. Late one afternoon, as I sat in iny office after a long day at the Central Criminal Court, mal;ing preparations for my homeward flight, a stranger was shown in to me. He sat down and began his story, to which I at first listened with professional attention and indifference. But I soon became a trifle more interested ; for this, as it seemed, was a tale of long-deferred vengeance, falling after a lapse of years upon the right head ; such as we lawyers meet with more often in sensatiunal novels — of which we are particularly fond — than in the course of practice. Some dozen years ago, he said, there had lived in a remote suburb of London an elderly maiden lady, named Miss Harden, the only daughter of a retired merchant skipper, who had got together a very tolerable sum of money for a man of his class. Dying, he had left it all to his only living relative and friend, his daughter ; and on the interest thereof she man aged to live comfortably, and even to save quite a third of her income. These moneys she — being, like many maiden ladies, of a sus picious nature — -always declined to invest in any way, but kept them in an oaken cupboard fn her sitting room, which cupboard she was accustomed to glorify for its impregnable nature, when the danger she ran by keeping so much money about the house was represented to her. Perhaps she was fortified in her obsti nacy by the consideration that she was not en tirely alone and unprotected, though most people thought that such protection as she had was worse than none. It consisted in the presence of an orphaned nephew, to whose mother, on her deathbed, Miss Harden had solemnly promised that she would never for sake the child. She had been as her word, or better — or worse ; for she had treated the boy with such foolish indulgence that he had grown up as pretty a specimen of the blackguard as could be found in the neighborhood. After being expelled from school, he had never at tempted I'.i improve himself or earn his own living in any way, except by betting (and los ing) cin.,1 by miking free with certain cash of his first =nl only employer ; which question able attempt at providing for himself would certainly have led to his being for some time provided Jor by his country, but for the tears and prayers of his aunt, and the sacrifice of a round sum out of her hoardings. From that time he lived with her, and she cherished and endured him as only women can. Scolding him when he came home tipsy at night, put ting him careiully to bed, and forgiving him the next morning, only to scold and put him to bed again the same evening ; so, with little difference, went on their lives for years. But at last this loving patience began to wear out, and as the aunt got older and more inil able, the nephew's little ways caused louder and more fre:i'i^nt disagreements. One morning, things came to a climax. She caught him actually trying to set free the imprisoned secrets of the impregnable cupboard with a pocket knife. Being interrupted and violently abused — the old lady was very ready with her tongue — he turned and struck her. She did then and there what she had threatened of late ; ordered him out of the house, and what was more, saw him oat. There was rather a scene at the street-door, and the loakers-on heard him say, in answer to her vows that she would never see him again, ' When you do see me again, you'll be sorry enough ; or words to that effect. The last time he was known to have beer, in the neighbourhood, was about three o'clock that afternoon, in a public-house close by, which he used to haunt. He was then in a maudlin state, and was descanting to a mixed audience on his wrongs and on the meanness of his re lative. He further produced the knife with which he had attempted the cupboard, and was foolish enough to say that 'he wished he had tried it on the old woman herself, and he would too, bafore the day was out.' All this greatly amused his rough hearers, who supplied him well with liquor, and gener kept the game alive, until the landlord, becom ing jealous of the reputation of his house, turned him out of doors. From that moment he disappeared ; but the same night a horrible murder was committed. The aunt had sent her one servant out for half an hour. The girl left at a quarter to eight, and returned at a quarter past, to find the poor old maid lying dead on the floor, while the oak cupboard was open and empty. Screaming with honor, the girl called in help ; and one among the crowd that filled the house before the police cam: picked up on the floor a knife, which he iden tified as the very one which the nephew, whom he knew well, had exhibited that afternoon at the public-house. He repeated this evidence at the subsequent inquest, and it was confirmed by many others who knew both the knife and its owner. A verdict of wilful murder was re turned against the nephew, whom we will call John Harden, but who had disappeared com pletely and entirely. Inquiries, advertise ments, and the minute description of him which was posted, together with the offer of a heavy government reward for his apprehension, throughout the three kingdoms — all were use less. In the course of time the affair died out, Except as an occasional rememberance in the minds of those who had been most intimately connected with it But on the afternoon of the very day on which the stranger waited upon me, John Harden had been recognised in the Strand by my informant. He wore a well fitting suit of dark clothes, and was, in fact, the confidental servant of a retired Australian millionaire, who had come to England to spend the rest of his days there. On being addressed by his name, he had at first appeared surprised, though in no way alarmed ; but almost immediately ad mitted that he had formerly gone by that same, though he had for years borne another. His accuser straightway gave him into custody of the nearest conrtable, charging him with murder. Then indeed the unfortunate man showed the greatest horror and disturbance of mind, protesting that he did not even know his aunt was dead ; that he had intended to 50 and see her as soon as he could be releived From attendance on his master ; that he had sven written to her several times, but having received no reply, had concluded that she was determined to renounce him entirely. He was locked up at the station for the night, and was to be brought before the magistrate in the morning ; and my informant's object in coming to me \va-* to instruct me to prosecute, not being content to leave that duty to the police. He was, it seemed, that very man who had, as ilready stated, picked up the knife with which the murder had been committed ; and he ex pressed himself as being extremely anxious that justice should be done, and that the murderer should not escape. lie stated that, though badly enough off twelve years ago, he had since succeeded in trade; that he knew the poor old lady well, having done many an odd job about the house for her ; and that he was nilling. for justice sake, to put his hand as reasonably far into his pocket as could be ex pected. He sat opposite to me, his face burn ing with indignation, I could not help thinking ;hat it would be welt tor the country and the awyers if all the citizens were as prompt as ny new client to spend their means in ex posing and punishing crime in which they had 10 individual interest. I said something to his effect, and my remarks were received with l proper pride, tempered by modesty. ' He loped he knowed his dooty as a man and ried to do it.' It so happened that I was obliged to leave own next day, to attend to certain matters cod* i

nected with an estate of which I was a trustee, in another part of the country. I told him this, adding that that the magistrate would certainly send the case for trial, and that I should be back in town in lime for the next Old Bailey sessions, and the I would be re sponsible that the case should receive proper attention in the meantime. He merely said that he left the m uter in my hinds, and that if I said it would be all right, he was content, and so departed, engaging to attend to have his evidence taken down next morning. I went to the office of a brother practitioner on whom I knew I could rely, handed lihsi iny written instructions, requested him to lake up the case and work it until my return, thtNi did what every business man should ba able to do— wiped the subject altogether out of my mind for the present.