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THE TRIAL OF FRANK MERRILL
The trial of Frank Merrill on the charge that he "did on the twenty-eighth day of June in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred--wilfully and wickedly kill and slay by a pistol shot John Minute" was the sensation of a season which was unusually prolific in murder trials. The trial took place at the Lewes Assizes in a crowded courtroom, and lasted, as we know, for sixteen days, five days of which were given to the examination in chief and the cross-examination of the accountants who had gone into the books of the bank.
The prosecution endeavored to establish the fact that no other person but Frank Merrill could have access to the books, and that therefore no other person could have falsified them or manipulated the transfer of moneys. It cannot be said that the prosecution had wholly succeeded; for when Brandon, the bank manager, was put into the witness box he was compelled to admit that not only Frank, but he himself and Jasper Cole, were in a position to reach the books.
The opening speech for the crown had been a masterly one. But that there were many weak points in the evidence and in the assumptions which the prosecution drew was evident to the merest tyro.
Sir George Murphy Jackson, the attorney general, who prosecuted, attempted to dispose summarily of certain conflictions, and it had to be confessed that his explanations were very plausible.
"The defense will tell us," he said, in that shrill, clarion tone of his which has made to quake the hearts of so many hostile witnesses, "that we have not accounted for the fourth man who drove up in his car ten minutes after Merrill had entered the house, and disappeared, but I am going to tell you my theory of that incident.
"Merrill had an accomplice who is not in custody, and that accomplice is Rex Holland. Merrill had planned and prepared this murder, because from some statement which his uncle had made he believed that not only was his whole future dependent upon destroying his benefactor and silencing forever the one man who knew the extent of his villainy, but he had in his cold, shrewd way accurately foreseen the exact consequence of such a shooting. It was a big criminal's big idea.
"He foresaw this trial," he said impressively; "he foresaw, gentlemen of the jury, his acquittal at your hands. He foresaw a reaction which would not only give him the woman he professes to love, but in consequence place in his hands the disposal of her considerable fortune.
"Why should he shoot John Minute? you may ask; and I reply to that question with another: What would have happened had he not shot his uncle? He would have been a ruined man. The doors of his uncle's house would have been closed to him. The legacy would have been revoked, the marriage for which he had planned so long would have been an unrealized dream.
"He knew the extent of the fortune which was coming to Miss Nuttall. Mr. Minute made two wills, in both of which he left an identical sum to his ward. The first of these, revoked by the second and containing the same provision, was witnessed by the man in the dock! He knew, too, that the Rhodesian gold mine, the shares of which were held by John Minute on the girl's behalf, was likely to prove a very rich proposition, and I suggest that the information coming to him as Mr. Minute's secretary, he deliberately suppressed that information for his own purpose.
"What had he to gain? I ask you to believe that if he is acquitted he will have achieved all that he ever hoped to achieve."
There was a little murmur in the court. Frank Merrill, leaning on the ledge of the dock, looked down at the girl in the body of the court, and their eyes met. He saw the indignation in her face and nodded with a little smile, then turned again to the counsel with that eager, half-quizzical look of interest which the girl had so often seen upon his handsome face.
"Much will be made, in the course of this trial, of the presence of another man, and the defense will endeavor to secure capital out of the fact that the man Crawley, who it was suggested was in the house for an improper purpose, has not been discovered. As to the fourth man, the driver of the motor car, there seems little doubt but that he was an accomplice of Merrill. This mysterious Rex Holland, who has been identified by Mrs. Totney, of Uckfield, spent the whole of the day wandering about Sussex, obviously having one plan in his mind, which was to arrive at Mr. Minute's house at the same time as his confederate.
"You will have the taxi-driver's evidence that when Merrill stepped down, after being driven from the station, he looked left and right, as though he were expecting somebody. The plan to some extent miscarried. The accomplice arrived ten minutes too late. On some pretext or other Merrill probably left the room. I suggest that he did not go into the dining room, but that he went out into the garden and was met by his accomplice, who handed him the weapon with which this crime was committed.
"It may be asked by the defense why the accomplice, who was presumably Rex Holland, did not himself commit the crime. I could offer two or three alternative suggestions, all of which are feasible. The deceased man was shot at close quarters, and was found in such an attitude as to suggest that he was wholly unprepared for the attack. We know that he was in some fear and that he invariably went armed; yet it is fairly certain that he made no attempt to draw his weapon, which he certainly would have done had he been suddenly confronted by an armed stranger.
"I do not pretend that I am explaining the strange relationship between Merrill and this mysterious forger. Merrill is the only man who has seen him and has given a vague and somewhat confused description of him. 'He was a man with a short, close-clipped beard' is Merrill's description. The woman who served him with tea near Uckfield describes him as a 'youngish man with a dark mustache, but otherwise clean shaven.'
"There is no reason, of course, why he should not have removed his beard, but as against that suggestion we will call evidence to prove that the man seen driving with the murdered chauffeur was invariably a man with a mustache and no beard, so that the balance of probability is on the side of the supposition that Merrill is not telling the truth. An unknown client with a large deposit at his bank would not be likely constantly to alter his appearance. If he were a criminal, as we know him to be, there would be another reason why he should not excite suspicion in this way."
His address covered the greater part of a day--but he returned to the scene in the garden, to the supposed meeting of the two men, and to the murder.
Saul Arthur Mann, sitting with Frank's solicitor, scratched his nose and grinned.
"I have never heard a more ingenious piece of reconstruction," he said; "though, of course, the whole thing is palpably absurd."
As a theory it was no doubt excellent; but men are not sentenced to death on theories, however ingenious they may be. Probably nobody in the court so completely admired the ingenuity as the man most affected. At the lunch interval on the day on which this theory was put forward he met his solicitor and Saul Arthur Mann in the bare room in which such interviews are permitted.
"It was really fascinating to hear him," said Frank, as he sipped the cup of tea which they had brought him. "I almost began to believe that I had committed the murder! But isn't it rather alarming? Will the jury take the same view?" he asked, a little troubled.
The solicitor shook his head.
"Unsupported theories of that sort do not go well with juries, and, of course, the whole story is so flimsy and so improbable that it will go for no more than a piece of clever reasoning."
"Did anybody see you at the railway station?"
Frank shook his head.
"I suppose hundreds of people saw me, but would hardly remember me."
"Was there any one on the train who knew you?"
"No," said Frank, after a moment's thought. "There were six people in my carriage until we got to Lewes, but I think I told you that, and you have not succeeded in tracing any of them."
"It is most difficult to get into touch with those people," said the lawyer. "Think of the scores of people one travels with, without ever remembering what they looked like or how they were dressed. If you had been a woman, traveling with women, every one of your five fellow passengers would have remembered you and would have recalled your hat."
"There are certain disadvantages in being a man," he said. "How do you think the case is going?"
"They have offered no evidence yet. I think you will agree, Mr. Mann," he said respectfully, for Saul Arthur Mann was a power in legal circles.
"None at all," the little fellow agreed.
Frank recalled the first day he had seen him, with his hat perched on the back of his head and his shabby, genteel exterior.
"Oh, by Jove!" he said. "I suppose they will be trying to fasten the death of that man upon me that we saw in Gray Square."
Saul Arthur Mann nodded.
"They have not put that in the indictment," he said, "nor the case of the chauffeur. You see, your conviction will rest entirely upon this present charge, and both the other matters are subsidiary."
Frank walked thoughtfully up and down the room, his hands behind his back.
"I wonder who Rex Holland is," he said, half to himself.
"You still have your theory?" asked the lawyer, eying him keenly.
"And you still would rather not put it into words?"
"Much rather not," said Frank gravely.
He returned to the court and glanced round for the girl, but she was not there. The rest of the afternoon's proceedings, taken up as they were with the preliminaries of the case, bored him.
It was on the twelfth day of the trial that Jasper Cole stepped on to the witness stand. He was dressed in black and was paler than usual, but he took the oath in a firm voice and answered the questions which were put to him without hesitation.
The story of Frank's quarrel with his uncle, of the forged checks, and of his own experience on the night of the crime filled the greater part of the forenoon, and it was in the afternoon when Bryan Bennett, one of the most brilliant barristers of his time, stood up to cross-examine.
"Had you any suspicion that your employer was being robbed?"
"I had a suspicion," replied Jasper.
"Did you communicate your suspicion to your employer?"
"No," he replied at last.
"Why do you hesitate?" asked Bennett sharply.
"Because, although I did not directly communicate my suspicions, I hinted to Mr. Minute that he should have an independent audit."
"So you thought the books were wrong?"
"In these circumstances," asked Bennett slowly, "do you not think it was very unwise of you to touch those books yourself?"
"When did I touch them?" asked Jasper quickly.
"I suggest that on a certain night you came to the bank and remained in the bank by yourself, examining the ledgers on behalf of your employer, and that during that time you handled at least three books in which these falsifications were made."
"That is quite correct," said Jasper, after a moment's thought; "but my suspicions were general and did not apply to any particular group of books."
"But did you not think it was dangerous?"
Again the hesitation.
"It may have been foolish, and if I had known how matters were developing I should certainly not have touched them."
"You do admit that there were several periods of time from seven in the evening until nine and from nine-thirty until eleven-fifteen when you were absolutely alone in the bank?"
"That is true," said Jasper.
"And during those periods you could, had you wished and had you been a forger, for example, or had you any reason for falsifying the entries, have made those falsifications?"
"I admit there was time," said Jasper.
"Would you describe yourself as a friend of Frank Merrill's?"
"Not a close friend," replied Jasper.
"Did you like him?"
"I cannot say that I was fond of him," was the reply.
"He was a rival of yours?"
"In what respect?"
Counsel shrugged his shoulders.
"He was very fond of Miss Nuttall."
"And she was fond of him?"
"Did you not aspire to pay your addresses to Miss Nuttall?"
Jasper Cole looked down to the girl, and May averted her eyes. Her cheeks were burning and she had a wild desire to flee from the court.
"If you mean did I love Miss Nuttall," said Jasper Cole, in his quiet, even tone, "I reply that I did."
"You even secured the active support of Mr. Minute?"
"I never urged the matter with Mr. Minute," said Jasper.
"So that if he moved on your behalf he did so without your knowledge?"
"Without my pre-knowledge," corrected the witness. "He told me afterward that he had spoken to Miss Nuttall, and I was considerably embarrassed."
"I understand you were a man of curious habits, Mr. Cole."
"We are all people of curious habits," smiled the witness.
"But you in particular. You were an Orientalist, I believe?"
"I have studied Oriental languages and customs," said Jasper shortly.
"Have you ever extended your study to the realm of hypnotism?"
"I have," replied the witness.
"Have you ever made experiments?"
"On animals, yes."
"On human beings?"
"No, I have never made experiments on human beings."
"Have you also made a study of narcotics?"
The lawyer leaned forward over the table and looked at the witness between half-closed eyes.
"I have made experiments with narcotic herbs and plants," said Jasper, after a moment's hesitation. "I think you should know that the career which was planned for me was that of a doctor, and I have always been very interested in the effects of narcotics."
"You know of a drug called cannabis indica?" asked the counsel, consulting his paper.
"Yes; it is 'Indian hemp.'"
"Is there an infusion of cannabis indica to be obtained?"
"I do not think there is," said the other. "I can probably enlighten you because I see now the trend of your examination. I once told Frank Merrill, many years ago, when I was very enthusiastic, that an infusion of cannabis indica, combined with tincture of opium and hyocine, produced certain effects."
"It is inclined to sap the will power of a man or a woman who is constantly absorbing this poison in small doses?" suggested the counsel.
"That is so."
The counsel now switched off on a new tack.
"Do you know the East of London?"
"Do you know Silvers Rents?"
"Do you ever go to Silvers Rents?"
"Yes; I go there very regularly."
The readiness of the reply astonished both Frank and the girl. She had been feeling more and more uncomfortable as the cross-examination continued, and had a feeling that she had in some way betrayed Jasper Cole's confidence. She had listened to the cross-examination which revealed Jasper as a scientist with something approaching amazement. She had known of the laboratory, but had associated the place with those entertaining experiments that an idle dabbler in chemistry might undertake.
For a moment she doubted, and searched her mind for some occasion when he had practiced his medical knowledge. Dimly she realized that there had been some such occasion, and then she remembered that it had always been Jasper Cole who had concocted the strange drafts which had so relieved the headache to which, when she was a little younger, she had been something of a martyr. Could he--She struggled hard to dismiss the thought as being unworthy of her; and now, when the object of his visits to Silvers Rents was under examination, she found her curiosity growing.
"Why did you go to Silvers Rents?"
There was no answer.
"I will repeat my question: With what object did you go to Silvers Rents?"
"I decline to answer that question," said the man in the box coolly. "I merely tell you that I went there frequently."
"And you refuse to say why?"
"I refuse to say why," repeated the witness.
The judge on the bench made a little note.
"I put it to you," said counsel, speaking impressively, "that it was in Silvers Rents that you took on another identity."
"That is probably true," said the other, and the girl gasped; he was so cool, so self-possessed, so sure of himself.
"I suggest to you," the counsel went on, "that in those Rents Jasper Cole became Rex Holland."
There was a buzz of excitement, a sudden soft clamor of voices through which the usher's harsh demand for silence cut like a knife.
"Your suggestion is an absurd one," said Jasper, without heat, "and I presume that you are going to produce evidence to support so infamous a statement."
"What evidence I produce," said counsel, with asperity, "is a matter for me to decide."
"It is also a matter for the witness," interposed the soft voice of the judge. "As you have suggested that Holland was a party to the murder, and as you are inferring that Rex Holland is Jasper Cole, it is presumed that you will call evidence to support so serious a charge."
"I am not prepared to call evidence, my lord, and if your lordship thinks the question should not have been put I am willing to withdraw it."
The judge nodded and turned his head to the jury.
"You will consider that question as not having been put, gentlemen," he said. "Doubtless counsel is trying to establish the fact that one person might just as easily have been Rex Holland as another. There is no suggestion that Mr. Cole went to Silvers Rents--which I understand is in a very poor neighborhood--with any illegal intent, or that he was committing any crime or behaving in any way improperly by paying such frequent visits. There may be something in the witness's life associated with that poor house which has no bearing on the case and which he does not desire should be ventilated in this court. It happens to many of us," the judge went on, "that we have associations which it would embarrass us to reveal."
This little incident closed that portion of the cross-examination, and counsel went on to the night of the murder.
"When did you come to the house?" he asked.
"I came to the house soon after dark."
"Had you been in London?"
"Yes; I walked from Bexhill."
"It was dark when you arrived?"
"Yes, nearly dark."
"The servants had all gone out?"
"Was Mr. Minute pleased to see you?"
"Yes; he had expected me earlier in the day."
"Did he tell you that his nephew was coming to see him?"
"I knew that."
"You say he suggested that you should make yourself scarce?"
"And as you had a headache, you went upstairs and lay down on your bed?"
"What were you doing in Bexhill?"
"I came down from town and got into the wrong portion of the train."
A junior leaned over and whispered quickly to his leader.
"I see, I see," said the counsel petulantly. "Your ticket was found at Bexhill. Have you ever seen Mr. Rex Holland?" he asked.
"You have never met any person of that name?"
In this tame way the cross-examination closed, as cross-examinations have a habit of doing.
By the time the final addresses of counsel had ended, and the judge had finished a masterly summing-up, there was no doubt whatever in the mind of any person in the court as to what the verdict would be. The jury was absent from the box for twenty minutes and returned a verdict of "Not guilty!"
The judge discharged Frank Merrill without comment, and he left the court a free but ruined man.
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