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White Hood and Blue Cap: A Christmas Bough with Two Branches

Chapter V

page 34

Chapter V.

They fetched George's stretcher from the hut, and laying him on it carried him thither. The bullet had struck him behind and above the right ear, passing under the scalp, and making its exit at the temple immediately behind the eye. So much was discernible. What further injuries he had received could not be ascertained. Much blood had been lost, but it had ceased to flow. So they tenderly washed the wounds, and bound the head in a wet bandage. Then the love of nostrums displayed itself. One opined that Hollo-way's ointment should be applied; another that spermaceti was “the sovereign'st thing on earth;” a third strongly recommended a dose of chlorodyne; and a fourth declared in favour of “pain-killer.” Fortunately, none of these met with general acceptance, and in the end a little weak brandy and water was administered. Then a horse was caught and saddled in haste; and a lusty young miner volunteered to ride into the nearest township—a distance of twenty miles—for a doctor.

When these matters had been arranged, Jim said, “I don't know that you need stop any longer. I'll attend to him, boys.”

Upon this hint they left the hut, but hesitatingly; and when outside they held a conference amongst themselves.

“I doan't much care to leave un aloane wi' that chap,” quoth a sturdy Westcountryman. “Darn I, if I'd like to say as he didn't do it his-self. Why look at un. He do look downright queer for sure. That he do.”

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“And he han't been to bed,” responded another. “Didst thou take note 'o that?”

And so the chorus went on; each recalling some particular of suspicious appearance.

Discovered bending over the wounded man—hatless, dishevelled, haggard of look, and silent when questioned; his clothing blood-stained; the pistol—which, being the property of George, must needs have been accessible to his mate—found lying alongside the body; the bed undisturbed; what wonder that Jim Trevanna, who was never a favourite, owing to his reticence of speech, his ungainly form, and unpleasing aspect—what wonder, I ask, that he was regarded with suspicion?

“Let's take turn about to stop wi' un,” suggested the Westcountryman, “Why, he might finish un off, if so be he bean't looked a'ter.”

The suggestion was adopted, and despite Jim's remonstrances they carried it out; and a good-natured lumpish boor insisted on taking his “innings,” as he termed it.

And all the time the white hood rested on Jim's heart. His anxiety was to destroy it. Light as was its weight, it oppressed him. His eyelids waxed heavy, but he dared not suffer himself to sleep, lest by some inadvertence the hood should be discovered. There was no safe place of concealment within the hut, and he could not burn it in the presence of a witness. So at last he went out, on some pretence, and wandered about the Terrace till he found a convenient rock underneath which he concealed it, intending to remove and destroy it when opportunity served.

It is a remarkable fact that innocent men often perform honest actions in a stealthy and suspicious manner; whilst guilty men go about their villainous business in a bold open way which disarms suspicion. Hence rogues escape, and true men pay the penalty.

Jim looked around, and not seeing any person, he congratulated himself on having successfully got rid of the guilty testimony. And within five minutes there-after page 36 the stone was lifted, and the hood examined. Keen and jealous eyes had been watching him.

About mid-way between the Terrace and the township there was a police-station, whereat the majesty of the law was represented by Senior-constable Corcoran. Upon him the messenger who had been despatched for the doctor respectfully waited, and detailed to him the occurrences of the morning, with only a pardonable amount of exaggeration.

Now, Senior-constable Corcoran was an excellent average specimen of “the Force.” He was a smart officer, and shrewd withal; but he had two faults—excess of zeal, and a burning desire for promotion, which in a general would be called ambition. Laudable faults, you will say, and I agree with you. But zeal has been held to be a fault by every government, from the days of Talleyrand downwards. Not in theory, but in practice, you will understand.

“Here,” thought Constable Corcoran, “is a good case. Bedad, it's a stripe I'll get if I work it up properly.”

And forthwith he buckled on his armour, and proceeded at full gallop to the Terrace, to arrest “the criminal,” as, in his mind, he had already designated Jim Trevanna.

Before the arrival of the constable quite a crowd had collected about George's hut. Such an interesting event had never before occurred in the district, and the inhabitants made the most of it. They felt that it would give to the locality an enviable notoriety. The newspapers would be full of it; and one and all strove to, in some way, connect themselves with the affair. Every man or women who had even exchanged “the time of day” with Jim or George a month before had something to say upon the subject. Imagination flew on silken wings; and a whole and complete version of the matter, wherein George was made to appear as a virtuous victim, and Jim as an unmitigated ruffian, obtained circulation and gained credence. The miners who had overheard Jim declare that he would “kill page 37 him” contributed their quota to the rumours, you may be sure, and felt considerable elation at being able to do so. And Jim, tortured by questions to which he invariably replied with his customary “I don't know,” certainly aided by his taciturnity to confirm evil reports.

Ned Austin gathered all the news, true and false, and retailed it to his sister. “I reckon that beggar has done it,” he concluded.

“No,” said Mary, who listened to the recital, pale but tearless. “No, Ned; I don't believe a word of it.”

“Then who could have done it, I should like to know?”

“Whoever it was, I am sure it wasn't Jim. You may take your bible-oath of that. I don't care what folks say! I know Jim Trevanna never did do it.”

Bess Humphreys came down, and tearfully, even frantically, begged to be allowed to act as George's nurse. But her beseechings were of no avail, and a white-haired old woman was installed as chief attendant.

By-and-bye up rode Senior Constable Corcoran; who, by virtue of the business whereon he was engaged, was received with much awe and admiration by all Her Majesty's liege subjects there assembled. Dismounting from his Bucephalus, he strode up to Jim, with all the dignity of authority encased in blue cloth, and decorated with belts and silver buttons, and, placing his hand on his shoulder, said, “James Trevanna—is that your name.”

“Yes,” replied Jim.

“Then I arrest you in the name of Her Royal Majesty, Queen Victoria, for the murder of your mate—George Gifford.”

Jim stared at him blankly. “But he isn't dead,” he expostulated.

“That makes no difference. It's the intent that the law respects; and it is my duty to caution you that anything you say will be used as evidence against you. Now, show me the place where you shot him.”

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And Jim only answered, “I don't know.” The white hood still rested on his heart, although he had buried it under a rock.

For many hours George remained insensible, but about noon he began to moan, and by the time the doctor arrived he was in a state of high delirium, and raving. But his utterances were so wild and incoherent that nothing certain could be gathered therefrom. Only he seemed to imagine himself in the presence of some woman, whom he alternately besought with words of endearment, and reproached with phrases of defilement. But no name ever escaped his lips. Once he called upon Jim to “mind his own business, and leave him alone.” That was all.

“Ah!” said the medico, after careful examination, “concussion of brain—severe too, very—petrous portion of temporal bone badly fractured. Hem!—internal meatus of ear implicated and lining membrane inflamed. Dear me!—meningitis—very little hope. Must send for the magistrate. Aye, aye!—may have a lucid interval, and if so his deposition will have to be taken. Just so!—where is the scoundrel who shot him?”

“Sure he's here, sir,” pronounced the constable, who had already tried, convicted, and sentenced Jim, in his own mind, and would have been greatly shocked if anyone had ventured to hesitate a doubt of his guilt.

Then a controversy arose between the doctor and the constable, the doctor insisting that it was the constable's duty to go for the Magistrate, and the constable averring that it was his duty to take the prisoner with him. To this proposition the doctor demurred. “Confound you!” quoth the medico, “don't you know better than that, you omadhaun? The accused must be confronted with the dying man to make his deposition admissible as evidence. Don't tell me; I know there are exceptions, but they don't apply in this case.”

But, despite the doctor's remonstrances, Senior Constable Corcoran would not lose sight of his prisoner; and eventually the matter was compromised by sending page 39 a messenger down to head-quarters, requesting the Magistrate's attendance.

In due course that functionary arrived. He was a young man, of grave aspect and unpretentious demeanour, with a patriarchal beard of surprising dimensions. Long and patiently he waited, for it was midnight before delirium ceased and consciousness returned. Then the Magistrate endeavoured to elicit somewhat of the facts from the sufferer. With difficulty George was made to understand what was required of him; and when he did so, he refused to take an oath, or to implicate any person as the offender. All he could be induced to say, was, “I know who did it—I won't say who it was. It wasn't Jim.”

Soon he lapsed into a state of coma, from which it was found impossible to rouse him; and before the sun rose again, George Gifford had “joined the majority.”

Under ordinary circumstances his dying declaration would have sufficed to exonerate Jim; but the Magistrate entertained reasonable doubts whether George fully understood the questions put to him; and the circumstantial evidence was so strong, that he deemed it his duty to remit the case to the Supreme Court for further enquiry. Consequently, Constable Corcoran had the satisfaction of escorting his prisoner to the gaol; and after the usual preliminary investigation, James Trevanna was formally committed for trial on the charge of “Wilful Murder.”

And the British public said, as with one voice, “That is right. The wretch ought to swing for it.”

But Mary said,—“He never did it. I don't care what anybody says. Jim is as innocent as an unborn babe!”

And Jim, in the enforced solitude of his cell, said, “Better I than her! let it be.”

And Bess Humphreys gave vent to her lamentations with exceeding vehemence.