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Chapter 17

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« on: January 30, 2023, 03:20:59 am »

"JAMES Hill!" called the court crier.

The butler stepped forward, mounted the witness-stand, and bowed his head deferentially towards the judge. He was neatly dressed in black, and his sandy-grey hair was carefully brushed. His face was as expressionless as ever, but a slight oscillation of the Court Bible in his right hand as he was sworn indicated that his nerves were not so calm as he strove to appear. He looked neither to the right nor left, but kept his glance downcast. Only once, as he stood there waiting to be questioned, did he cast a furtive look towards the man whose life hung on his evidence, but the malevolent vindictive gaze Birchill shot back at him caused him to lower his eyelids instantly.

Hill commenced his evidence in a voice so low that Mr. Walters stopped him at the outset and asked him to speak in a louder tone. It soon became apparent that his evidence was making a deep impression on the court. Sir Henry Hodson listened to him intently, and watched him keenly, as Hill, with impassive countenance and smooth even tones, told his strange story of the night of the murder. When he had drawn to a conclusion he gave another furtive glance at the dock, but Birchill was seated with his head bowed down, as though tired, and with one hand supporting his face.

Mr. Walters methodically folded up his brief and sat down, with a sidelong glance in the direction of Mr. Holymead as he did so. Every eye in court was turned on Holymead as the great K.C. settled his gown on his shoulders and got up to cross-examine the principal Crown witness.

His cross-examination was the admiration of those spectators whose sympathies were on the side of the man in the dock as one of themselves. Hill was cross-examined as to the lapse from honesty which had sent him to gaol, and he was reluctantly forced to admit, that so far from the theft being the result of an impulse to save his wife and child from starvation, as the Counsel for the prosecution had indicated, it was the result of the impulse of cupidity. He had robbed a master who had trusted him and had treated him with kindness. Having extracted this fact, in spite of Hill's evasions and twistings, Holymead straightened himself to his full height, and, shaking a warning finger at the witness, said:

"I put it to you, witness, that the reason Sir Horace Fewbanks engaged you as butler in his household at Riversbrook was because he knew you to be a man of few scruples, who would be willing to do things that a more upright honest man would have objected to?"

"That is not true," replied Hill.

"Is it not true that your late master frequently entertained women of doubtful character at Riversbrook?" thundered the K.C.

Hill gasped at the question. When he had first heard that his late master's old friend, Mr. Holymead, was to appear for Birchill, he had immediately come to the conclusion that Mr. Holymead was taking up the case in order to save Sir Horace's name from exposure by dealing carefully with his private life at Riversbrook. But here he was ruthlessly tearing aside the veil of secrecy. Hill hesitated. He glanced round the curious crowded court and saw the eager glances of the women as they impatiently awaited his reply. He hesitated so long that Holymead repeated the question.

"Women of doubtful character?" faltered the witness. "I do not understand you."

"You understand me perfectly well, Hill. I do not mean women off the streets, but women who have no moral reputation to maintain—women who do not mind letting confidential servants see that they have no regard for the conventional standards of life. I mean, witness, that your late master frequently entertained at Riversbrook, women—I will not call them ladies—who were not particular at what hour they went home. Sometimes one or more of them stayed all night, and you were entrusted with the confidential task of smuggling them out of the house without other servants knowing of their presence. Is not that so?"


"Answer the question without equivocation, witness."

"Y-es, sir."

There was a slight stir in the body of the court due to the fact that Miss Fewbanks and Mrs. Holymead had risen and were making their way to the door. The fashionably-dressed women in the court stared with much interest at the daughter of the murdered man, whom most of them knew, in order to see how she was taking the disclosures about her dead father's private life.

"And sometimes there were quarrels between your late master and these visitors, were there not?" continued Holymead.

"Quarrels, sir?"

"Surely you know that under the influence of wine some people become quarrelsome?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, did your late master's nocturnal visitors ever become quarrelsome?"

"Sometimes, sir."

"In the exercise of your confidential duties did you sometimes see quarrelsome ladies off the premises?"

"Sometimes, sir."

"And it was no uncommon thing for them to say things to you about your master, eh?"

"Sometimes they didn't care what they said."

"Quite so," commented Counsel drily. "They indulged in threats?"

"Not all of them," replied Hill, who at length saw where the cross-examination was tending.

"I do not suggest that all of them did—only that the more violent of them did so."

"Quite so, sir."

"So we may take it that the quarrel between your late master and Miss Fanning was not the only quarrel of the kind which came under your notice?"

"There were not many others," said Hill.

"It was not the only one?" persisted Counsel.

"No, sir."

"In your evidence-in-chief you said nothing about Miss Fanning using threats against your master when you were showing her out?"

"No, sir."

"She did not use any?"

"Not in my hearing, sir."

There was a pause at this stage while Mr. Holymead consulted the notes he had made of Mr. Walters's cross-examination of the witness.

"What o'clock was it when you left Riversbrook on the 18th of August after your master's return from Scotland?"

"About half-past seven, sir."

"And what time did Sir Horace arrive home?"

"About seven o'clock, sir."

"What were you doing between seven and seven-thirty?"

"I unpacked his bags and got his bedroom ready. I took him some refreshment up to the library."

"And he told you he wouldn't want you again until the following night about eight o'clock?"

"Yes, sir. He said he thought he would be going back to Scotland by the night express, and I was to get his bag packed and lock up the house."

"You told Counsel for the prosecution in the course of your evidence that you were afraid of Birchill," continued Holymead.

"Yes, sir."

"Were you afraid of physical violence from him, or only that he would expose your past to the other servants?"

"I was afraid of him both ways," said Hill.

"Was it because of this fear that you made out for him a plan of
Riversbrook to assist him in the burglary?"

"Yes, sir."

"When did you make out this plan?"

"The day after Sir Horace left for Scotland."

"Was that on your first visit to Miss Fanning's flat in Westminster after the prisoner had sent her to Riversbrook to tell you he wanted to see you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Did Birchill stand over you while you made out this plan?"

"Yes, sir."

"Would you know the plan again if you saw it?"

"Yes, sir."

Mr. Finnis, who had been hiding the plan under the papers before him, handed a document up to his chief.

Mr. Holymead unfolded it, and with a brief glance at it handed it up to the witness.

"Is that the plan?" he asked.

Hill was somewhat taken aback at the production of the plan. It was drawn in ink on a white sheet of paper of foolscap size, with a slightly bluish tint. The paper was by no means clean, for Birchill had carried it about in his pocket. The witness reluctantly admitted that the plan was the one he had given to Birchill. To his manifest relief Counsel asked no further questions about it. In a low tone Mr. Holymead formally expressed his intention to put the plan in as evidence. He handed it to Mr. Walters, who, after a close inspection of it, passed it along to the judge's Associate for His Honour's inspection.

The rest of Hill's cross-examination concerned what happened at the flat on the night of the burglary. He adhered to the story he had told, and could not be shaken in the main points of it. But Mr. Holymead made some effective use of the discrepancy between the witness's evidence at the inquest as to his movements on the night of the murder and his evidence in court. He elicited the fact that the police had discovered his evidence at the inquest was false and had forced him to make a confession by threatening to arrest him for the murder.

Mr. Holymead signified that he had nothing further to ask the witness, and Mr. Walters called his last witness, a young man named Charles Ryder, a resident of Liverpool, who had spent a week's holiday in London from the 14th to the 21st of August. Ryder had stayed with some friends at Hampstead, and when making his way home on the night of the 18th of August had walked down Tanton Gardens in the belief that he was taking a short cut. The time was about 11.20. He saw a man running towards him along the footpath from the direction of Riversbrook. He caught a good glimpse of the man, who seemed to be very excited. He was sure the prisoner was the man he had seen. In cross-examination by Mr. Holymead he was far less positive in his identification of the prisoner, and finally admitted that the man he saw that night might be somebody else who resembled the prisoner in build.

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