For the Companion.
THE VICTIMS OF CIRCUMSTANCES.
Derived from the Records of old Trials.
By Wilkie Collins.
The Hidden Cash.
Parson Tibbald, a magistrate living within a dayís ride of the ancient city of York, surprised the members of his family, one morning, by presenting himself at breakfast without an appetite. Upon his wife asking him if the dishes on the table were not to his taste, he answered, "My dayís work is not to my taste. For the first time since I have been one of his majestyís justices, a charge of murder is coming before me, and the man accused is one of our neighbors."
The person in this miserable plight was Thomas Harris, an inn-keeper, charged with murdering James Gray, a traveller sleeping in his house.
The witnesses against him were his own servants: Elias Morgan, variously employed as waiter, hostler and gardener; and Maria Mackling, chamber-maid. In his evidence against his master, Morgan declared that he had seen Thomas Harris on the travellerís bed, killing the man by strangling. In fear of what might happen if he remained in the room, Morgan feigned to go downstairs. Returning secretly, he looked through the keyhole of a door in an adjoining bed-chamber, and saw the landlord rifling James Grayís pockets.
Harris answered to this, that all his neighbors knew him to be an honest man. He had found Gray in a fit, and had endeavored to restore him to his senses without success. The doctor who had examined the body, supported this assertion by declaring that he had found no marks of violence on the dead traveller. In the opinion of the magistrate, the case against Harris had now broken down, and the prisoner would have been discharged, but for the appearance of the maid-servant asking to be sworn.
Maria Mackling then made the statement that follows:
"On the morning when my fellow-servant found Mr. Harris throttling James Gray, I was in the back wash-house, which looks out on the garden. I saw my master in the garden, and wondered what he wanted there at that early hour. I watched him. He was within a few yards of the window, when I saw him take a handful of gold pieces out of his pocket, and wrap them up in something that looked like a bit of canvas. After that, he went on to a tree in a corner of the garden, and dug a hole under the tree and hid the money in it. Send the constable with me to the garden, and let him see if I have not spoken the truth."
But good Parson Tibbald waited awhile to give his neighbor an opportunity of answering the maid-servant. Thomas Harris startled everybody present by turning pale, and failing to defend himself intelligently against the serious statement made by the girl. The constable was accordingly sent to the garden with Maria Macklingóand there, under the tree, the gold pieces were found. After this the magistrate had but one alternative left. He committed the prisoner for trial at the next assizes.
The witnesses having repeated their evidence before the judge and the jury, Thomas Harris was asked what he had to say In his own defence.
In those days the merciless law did not allow prisoners to have the assistance of counsel. Harris was left to do his best for himself. During his confinement in prison, he had found time to compose his mind, and to consider beforehand how he might most fitly plead his own cause. After a solemn assertion of his innocence, he proceeded in these words:
"At my examination before the magistrate, my maid-servantís evidence took me by surprise. I was ashamed to acknowledge what I am now resolved to confess. My lord, I am by nature a covetous man, fond of money, afraid of thieves, and suspicious of people about me who know that I am well-to-do in the world. I admit that I did what other miserly men have done before me: I hid the gold as the girl has said. But I buried it in secret for my own better security. Every farthing of that money is my property, and has been honestly come by."
Such was the defence in substance. Having heard it, the judge summed up the case.
His lordship dwelt particularly on the circumstance of the hiding of the money; pointing out the weakness of the reasons assigned by the prisoner for his conduct, and leaving it to the jury to decide which they believedóthe statement given in evidence by the witnesses, or the statement made by Harris. The jury appeared to think consultation among themselves, in this case, a mere waste of time. In two minutes they found the prisoner guilty of the murder of James Gray.
In these days, if a man had been judicially condemned to death on doubtful evidence, after two minutes of consideration, our parliament and our press would have saved his life. In the bad old times Thomas Harris was hanged; meeting his fate with firmness, and declaring his innocence with his last breath.
Between five and six months after the date of the execution, an Englishman who had been employed in foreign military service returned to his own country, after an absence of twelve years, and set himself to discover the members of his family who might yet be in the land of the living. This man was Antony Gray, a younger brother of the deceased James.
He succeeded in tracing his motherís sister and her husband, two childless old people in feeble health. From the husband, who had been present at the trial, but who had not been included among the witnesses, Antony heard the terrible story which has just been told. The evidence of the doctor and the defence of Thomas Harris produced a strong impression on him. He asked a question which ought to have been put at the trial:
"Was my brother James rich enough to have a handful of gold pieces about him, when he slept at the inn?"
The old man knew little or nothing of James and his affairs. The good wife, who was better informed, answered: "He never, to my knowledge, had as much as a spare pound in his pocket at any time in his life."
Antony, remembering the landlordís explanation of his brotherís death, asked next if his aunt had ever heard that James was liable to fits. She confessed to a suspicion that James had suffered in that way. "He and his mother," she explained, "kept this infirmity of my nephewís (if he had it) a secret. When they were both staying with us on a visit, he was found lying for dead in the road. His mother said, and he said, it was an accident caused by a fall. All I can tell you is, that the doctor who brought him to his senses called it a fit."
After considering a little with himself, Antony begged leave to put one question more. He asked for the name of the village in which the inn, once kept by Thomas Harris, was situated. Having received this information, he got up to say good-by. His uncle and aunt wanted to know why he was leaving them in that sudden way.
To this he returned rather a strange answer: "I have a fancy for making acquaintance with two of the witnesses at the trial, and I mean to try if I can hear of them in the village."
The man-servant and the woman-servant who had been in the employment of Thomas Harris, had good characters, and were allowed to keep their places by the person who succeeded to possession of the inn. Under the new proprietor the business had fallen off. The place was associated with a murder, and a prejudice against it existed in the minds of travellers. The bed-rooms were all empty, one evening, when a stranger arrived, who described himself as an angler desirous of exercising his skill in the trout-stream which ran near the village.
He was a handsome man, still young, with pleasant manners, and with something in his fine upright figure which suggested to the new landlord that he might have been at one time in the army. Everybody in the village liked him; he spent his money freely; and he was especially kind and considerate towards the servants.
Elias Morgan frequently accompanied him on his fishing excursions. Maria Mackling looked after his linen with extraordinary care; contrived to meet him constantly on the stairs; and greatly enjoyed the compliments which the handsome gentleman paid to her on those occasions.
In the exchange of confidences that followed, he told Maria that he was a single man, and he was thereupon informed that the chambermaid and the waiter were engaged to be married. They were only waiting to find better situations, and to earn money enough to start in business for themselves.
In the third week of the strangerís residence at the inn, there occurred a change for the worse in his relations with one of the two servants. He excited the jealousy of Elias Morgan.
This man set himself to watch Maria, and made discoveries which so enraged him, that he not only behaved with brutality to his affianced wife, but forgot the respect due to his masterís guest. The amiable gentleman, who had shown such condescending kindness towards his inferiors, suddenly exhibited a truculent temper. He knocked the waiter down. Elias got up again with an evil light in his eyes. He said, "The man who once kept this house knocked me down, and he lived, sir, to be sorry for it."
Self-betrayed by those threatening words, Elias went out of the room.
Having discovered in this way that his suspicions of one of the witnesses against the unfortunate Harris had been well founded, Antony Gray set his trap next to catch the woman, and achieved a result which he had not ventured to contemplate.
Having obtained a private interview with Maria Mackling, he presented himself in the character of a penitent man. "I am afraid," he said, "that I have innocently lowered you in the estimation of your jealous sweetheart; I shall never forgive myself, if I have been so unfortunate as to raise an obstacle to your marriage."
Maria rewarded the handsome, single gentleman with a look which expressed modest anxiety to obtain a position in his estimation.
"I must forgive you, if you canít forgive yourself," she answered, softly. "Indeed, I owe you a debt of gratitude. You have released me from an engagement to a brute. And, what is more," she added, beginning to lose her temper, "an ungrateful brute. But for me, Elias Morgan might have been put in prison, and have richly deserved it!"
Antony did his best to persuade her to speak more plainly. But Maria was on her guard and plausibly deferred explanation to a future opportunity. She had, nevertheless, said enough already to lead to serious consequences.
The jealous waiter, still a self-appointed spy on Mariaís movements, had heard in hiding all that passed at the interview. Partly in revenge, partly in his own interests, he decided on anticipating any confession on the chambermaidís part. The same day he presented himself before Parson Tibbald as a repentant criminal, resigned to enlighten justice in the character of Kingís Evidence.
The infamous conspiracy to which Thomas Harris had fallen a victim had been first suggested by his own miserly habits.
Purely by accident, in the first instance, the woman-servant had seen him secretly burying money under the tree, and had informed the man-servant of her discovery.
He had examined the hiding-place, with a view to robbery which might benefit his sweetheart and himself, and had found the sum secreted too small to be worth the risk of committing theft. Biding their time, he and his accomplice privately watched the additions made to their masterís store. On the day when James Gray slept at the inn, they found gold enough to tempt them at last.
How to try the experiment of theft without risk of discovery, was the one difficulty that presented itself. In this emergency, Elias Morgan conceived the diabolical scheme of charging Harris with the murder of the traveller who had died in a fit. The failure of the false evidence, and the prospect of the prisonerís discharge, terrified Maria Mackling.
Elias had placed himself in a position which threatened him with indictment for perjury. The woman claimed to be heard as a witness, and deliberately sacrificed her master on the scaffold to secure the safety of her accomplice.
The two wretches were committed to prison. It is not often that poetical justice punishes crime, out of the imaginary court of appeal which claims our sympathies on the stage. But, in this case, retribution did really overtake atrocious guilt. Elias Morgan and Maria Mackling both died in prison of the disease then known as gaol fever.
This story first appeared in The Youthís Companion
Vol. 60, 21 April 1887, p.178.
I am grateful to Professor Graham Law for this transcription. A full annotated version of the story together with the two other stories that appeared in the series 'Victims of Circumstances' is available from The Wilkie Collins Society