My First Eighty Years
Chapter 3 — A Great Tragedy Seen from Below
A Great Tragedy Seen from Below
At the age of fifteen, though absurdly ignorant, I considered myself nearly grown-up. Had not girls of my acquaintance married at sixteen? I was never a great reader but I absorbed what I read and books have always made a lasting impression upon me. Thus, such surreptitious fiction as I had picked up, dealing mostly in crime, murder, abductions and mysterious disappearances, led me to picture life overflowing with these excitements. That is probably why, when I found myself in contact with a great criminal sensation (often said to be the greatest New Zealand has known) I was not obsessed, nor frightened by the horror and tragedy of it but took it casually and as an earnest of the sort of thing life was sure to bring to me. This sensation was nothing less than a murder — and an attempted murder — in the fashionable world; and it was my fate to know the murderer well and his victims even better.
Neither in temperament nor in circumstances was I the type of girl to whom such experiences might be expected to fall. Shy, quiet, slow of thought and painfully aware of my own deficiencies, I was content with, or at least reconciled to, the role of observer, taking a worm's-eye view of the great drama unfolded to me, a role for which my very defects fitted me. A dull, dreamy, absent-minded onlooker may be allowed to see points in the game which are deliberately hidden from a brighter, more sharp-witted gaze.
When my father arrived in New Zealand in 1857 he met in Christchurch a young man about his own age who came, as he did, from the Yorkshire wolds. Both took up sheep country in South Canterbury and no doubt saw a good deal of each other in Timaru, the natural seaport town of that district.page 39
Mr T. W. Hall must either have left his station to a manager, or have sold it, for as long as I can remember he lived with his family on a farmlet some three miles north of Timaru. As far back as 1876 I was taken as a small child to visit the Halls. All four sons were at home. They seemed to me to be very big boys and one of them put me on a pony and led me about for a few minutes, but I was not old enough to distinguish one from the other. I sensed that day that the friendship between my father and Mr Hall, though of long standing, was not particularly cordial, for when, on the way home, I said something disparaging of the ‘old man who wanted me to slither downstairs’, I felt at once that it pleased my parents. With a child's instinct to play up to and say what is acceptable, I remember repeating the remark several times, though it is very unlikely that I really disliked the old gentleman who encouraged an amusement so suited to my tastes.
In the early 'eighties, the Halls seem to have fallen on obscure days, but when Tom, the third son, grew up it soon became clear that he had no intention of sharing the family obscurity.
He was good-looking, dark, slightly built and of medium height. (The photographs of Anthony Eden remind me of Tom Hall in type and figure.) He quickly made a mark in the town, was accounted an astute businessman and one whose head ‘was screwed on aright’.
His family could be no help to him but his uncle, Sir John Hall of Christchurch, was already one of New Zealand's outstanding men. From 1879 to 1882 he had been Premier and was always highly respected, both in private and in public life. He was very well off and the general opinion was that the nephew, young Tom, was on the right road to do as well as his uncle.
Tom's manner was cordial and most attractive. It was said — and young as I was, I was able to notice it — that when he came into a room everyone in it seemed the page 40 happier for his coming. He soon became a star in the social firmament, for he was everything that Timaru admired. He talked well, dressed well, shot well, danced well, was ready for any amusing enterprise, always had a good horse and knew how to sit it.
He managed one of his uncle's stations in the Mackenzie Country and later an important commercial concern in Timaru. These activities provided him with another useful social asset, a familiarity with both town and country. Notwithstanding his popularity, most men put a query to his name in the matter of stability and trustworthiness. But that happens to many a young man who makes a splash in a small town.
Women responded all too readily to his attraction but knew him for a wily bird. He flirted with everyone attractive, especially debutantes. Many a married woman would, in after years, whisper the confidence, half in horror, half in pride, ‘I was engaged to Tom Hall once — or as good as engaged.’
It was probably the latter — for he seemed to slip out of all his affairs uncompromised.
As illustrative of his resourcefulness a story was told that at a certain festivity, where something stronger than claret-cup had circulated, he proposed — actually proposed — to the prettiest of the three pretty H — sisters. When he saw the girl speaking excitedly to her mother he realised what he had done. The H — s were not a family to be trifled with. He promptly danced with the other two sisters in turn and proposed to each of them. So that scarcely had pretty little Rose confided to her mother that Tom Hall had proposed and that she had accepted, than Beth whispered the same story and then Dolly. Mama had to realise that alcohol has many disadvantages from a matrimonial point of view.
* * * *
It was early in '85 when my mother came home from a page 41 dinner-party at Grasmere, very much ruffled, and full of indignation. I was sleeping in her room and, seeing I had awakened, she poured out her grievance. She often talked to me in this way, prompted, I suppose, by the common human need to voice our thoughts. I could not have been an encouraging confidante. I seldom commented and never questioned. Such parts of the story as I was unable to understand I supplied later from my own imagination. My silence may have been the reason why my mother could — and did — forget that she had ever confided in me. This time she was explosive.
‘Tom Hall's a cad. I always knew he was’, she said, throwing off her shoes and stockings viciously, as if they were to blame. ‘I heard him say to his dinner partner to-night (it was Mrs M — who seemed to be enjoying his jokes immensely), “If I don't come out of this affair of Tate's with £200, it will come to marrying old Kitty yet”.’
I have already mentioned Kitty. She was the younger of Captain Cain's two heiress step-daughters, with whom my mother and I had been staying at the time my father died. Their money had been settled on them by their mother so that it was available without waiting for the Captain's death.
The elder daughter had already married a Mr Newton, a farmer. Kitty, the younger, kept house for her step-father at Woodlands, a large house on the outskirts of Timaru with extensive grounds and a splendid orchard.
Knowing that the old man had been a sea captain may have led me to discern in the house a peculiar resemblance to a ship. It was solidly built, with high studs and a high-pitched roof which gave it a four-square-to-all-weathers appearance. But it was inside that the resemblance to a ship was most striking. The massive doors were hung with portières of heavy red brocade. The tall, narrow windows were curtained with the same material bordered with thick red and gold gimp and looped towards the bottom with cord finished with tassels each as large as a tennis ball. The page 42 curtain rods were solid oak poles some four inches in diameter, ending in enormous knobs. These poles were, I was told, about as much as a man could lift. Even the rings were of solid wood and the hooks, by which the curtains were fastened to them, were formidable pieces of ironmongery.
In my time the carpets had grown a trifle shabby, but they were thick and soft, from wall to wall, and were often overlaid with heavy rugs. Draughts were entirely excluded, and the whole house gave the impression of being able to withstand Arctic storms. There was a stairway which, though fairly handsome, somehow reminded one of a companionway. At one time there had been four rooms upstairs but some primitive alterations — by boarding off the remaining space to serve as an attic — had reduced them to two. There was apparently no entrance to this attic, but once, when I was very young, I had poked inquisitive fingers into the uneven wall and found papered over, inside a built-in wardrobe, a small door leading into it.
I told Kitty of my find and she gave me leave to go and rummage in there to my heart's content. ‘But, don't ask me to go in there’; she added with a little shiver that to me suggested nameless horrors. I wished I had never found that door.
This was just before my father's death, for both my parents were at Woodlands and my father, whose chief desire for his children was that they should fear nothing, took me into the attic. It was an eery place lighted by two small windows that had been boarded up roughly, and let in only slanting rays full of dancing dust specks. It was crowded with lumber, broken furniture, harness, saddles, hats, or parts of them, sea chests, travelling trunks, heavy gilt picture-frames and portmanteaux stiff with age. He laboured to convince me that there was nothing to fear and that probably Kitty was frightened of rats or spiders, stupid things of which I was of course far too sensible to be afraid. page 43 He suggested that I might find treasures there but I must be sure not to take a light, as straw and packing might catch fire. At that period I was far too scared to venture into the cavern alone though years later I knew most of its contents. It was there that I found the weird clothes I dressed up in when I wanted my school mates to think me mad. At nine years old I argued simply that there must be something awful there or Kitty would not have shivered.
This Kitty was a pleasant, plump, generous girl of twenty-four or twenty-five. She was, as I knew later, indolent, happy-go-lucky, inefficient, dowdy, untidy. If somebody's hair came down it was sure to be hers. Ignominious accidents followed in her train; portions of her clothing came unhitched, her hats blew away. She was not a bad horse-woman, but if she took a toss there was sure to be a handy puddle to make things ridiculous. She laughed and giggled over everything, was never put out whether it was her own fault or someone else's. I remember an occasion (it must have been one of those children's parties where grown-ups help to amuse the youngest of the children for a short time and then take the floor with avidity themselves) when Kitty had forgotten her dancing-shoes. Her own boots (we wore long buttoned or laced boots) were wet, so she danced in a pair of men's slippers which kept falling off and skating across the room to the accompaniment of peals of laughter from Kitty. Sitting round the wall I heard the older women making disparaging remarks and jeering scornfully. I resented their talk hotly, for Kitty was sweet to me, and I had adopted her as a relation and called her Aunty Kitty.
In the house she was hopeless without a maid and absolutely dependent upon one; but she was tolerant and kindly and usually managed to keep good and devoted servants. Once when she was without one I heard her say, ‘What! Make my bed when I have no help? Not I! It is all too comfortable to drag myself out of in the morning. page 44 Why should I make it more so?’ I remember rather approving of the theory.
* * * *
I have still to explain the words — ‘If I don't come out of this affair of Tate's with £200 …’. Mr Robert Tate was one of Timaru's best-liked and well esteemed men. He was foremost in all that was for the good of the town. He was secretary or president of many charities and head churchwarden at a time when the Church counted for something. These were the palmy days of the Church of England. Archdeacon Harper, our vicar, was a great personality and had a mana all his own. Tom Hall had some time ago given up the management of one of the banks to become a partner of Mr Tate in a stock and station agency which was supposed to be a flourishing concern. The Tates lived comfortably but not ostentatiously, a mode of living which was not by any means common just then, for Timaru was suffering from a mania to emulate the really wealthy families of Christchurch. The Tates entertained little but generously. Children remembered that once a year they gave a picnic for youngsters. They hired a number of drags and invited all the children they knew (and some they did not know) and drove us out the seven miles to the nearest piece of native bush. There, after much eating and drinking, we rushed round pulling up ferns by the roots, tearing down greenery, stripping the bark from trees, and, having behaved like Huns for some hours, we ate again, loaded ourselves into the drags and draped in clematis and other spoils we waved tree-fern fronds and shouted all the way home.
One day the news went round that Mr Tate was missing and that a search party was out looking for him. His body was found, with a bottle of poison by his side, in an abandoned, god-forsaken stretch of swamp called Saltwater Creek.
To the horror of the town his affairs were found to be in page 45 confusion. There had been large defalcations of trust monies and charity funds and, as usual, the sufferers were widows and orphans. It was a triumph for those who had always been certain that religion was only a cloak for roguery and fraud. ‘There's your noble church-warden.’
It was a shattering blow to Archdeacon Harper. They said he looked twenty years older in a week. Months afterwards I heard him quote very grimly: ‘He was a man in whom I built an absolute trust’. His voice implied that he simply could not renounce that trust. But not a whisper of suspicion attached to the partner — Tom Hall. Rather, the affair was considered a piece of tough luck for him.
Tom Hall evidently did not ‘come out of this affair of Tate's’ with his £200, for in less than six months I heard in church the banns read out of Thomas Hall and Kate Emily Cain. So it had come to marrying old Kitty.
It is probable that my mother remonstrated with Kitty and tried to dissuade her. On the other hand it may have been clear to Kitty that her friend Mrs Ostler disliked her fiancé. At any rate there seemed to be a coolness between my mother and Kitty, for I saw less of my adopted aunt.
After the Halls were married, they went to live about four miles out of Timaru, in one of the many beautiful semi-country houses built in the flourishing 'sixties by people who later found they could no longer afford to live in them.
Tom effected a great change in Kitty. She lost all sign of dowdiness and careless dress. As his wife she became smart, held herself well, dressed well and even developed a waist. She sat upright in his dashing dog-cart and appeared not too scared of his spirited tandem team. I was at school in Dunedin when a Timaru girl wrote to me — ‘You should have seen Mr and Mrs Hall come into the theatre last night. She wore black velvet and she really has a very good figure now her dresses fit. Everyone was turning round to see them come in. Of course he always looks well in evening dress!’
Captain Cain lived on at Woodlands, cared for by a page 46 housekeeper who was a friend of my mother, so I was allowed to stay there frequently. The school I went to was only a chain or so distant and Captain Cain liked me as a visitor. I sometimes read to him in the evenings. It was during these visits that I explored the attic; but the reason I liked staying there was that I loved to dream dreams and write them in a diary — a secret diary where I could indulge my own flights of fancy without anyone asking what I was doing and then bidding me get on with lessons. This then is what I did at Woodlands to the neglect of homework.
I had read of locked diaries — girls in novels often had them — and I always had an ardent longing for one. About two years earlier a school friend and I were walking on the beach discussing a wonderful book we meant to write some day. We decided that what we needed for a rich fund of material was a diary in which to record all the exciting things that happened. But neither of us had money wherewith to buy the very cheapest diary. There had been an exceptional storm the night before and great piles of mussels entwined in kelp littered the beach. Couldn't we make some money by selling those mussels? We had heard that they were good for food. We went home and without being observed managed to drag out some strange clothes from boxes — sun-bonnets among other things. We put them on, fondly imagining that we had disguised ourselves, for the venture would have met with no favour in either of our homes. Then we filled bags and baskets with the shell-fish and hawked them from door to door in the poorer streets.
One woman bought four pen'orth and another said, ‘If they was cockles I'd 'ave 'em’. At every other house we met blank refusal. So that fourpence proved our total takings, and that came to a bad end for my friend's younger sister had followed us and made us deliver up the fourpence to her as hush money. My friend is dead but the sister still lives and she and I laughed over the escapade the last time we met.
Staying at Woodlands the lost dream returned. A locked page 47 diary was out of the question but I bought myself a large exercise book, ostensibly for school work but when I went home it was carefully left behind.
One day my mother said to me, ‘I have been to see Kitty to-day. She tells me that Tom has insured her life for six thousand pounds. She explained that the insurance would help him in financing his various deals. But I don't like it. I don't like it a little bit.’
I don't know what I answered. Perhaps I didn't even seem to hear, but the words shot an idea into my fanciful mind that never left it.
The next time I stayed at Woodlands and had the leisure to write up my diary, I entered these facts with additions of my own. I made a story of it — supplying my own details — of Tom's urgent need for money, of his decision (much against the grain) to marry Kitty. In my version there was a wicked and very beautiful lady with whom he was fascinated and I wrote at some length of the cunning way in which he persuaded his wife to make her will in his favour.
The story was, of course, prompted by my mother's vague suspicions, but strangely enough she seemed to have forgotten the fact that she had voiced them to me. She afterwards said she was sure she had never mentioned such a thing to me. She seems even to have forgotten that such suspicions had crossed her mind. Poisoning, I am sure, never entered mine. I was planning to finish the story in a boat far out at sea where the wife should be callously pushed overboard, but the thing was never finished. I am sure also that it never occurred to me that anyone ought to do anything to prevent whatever horror was to take place. It was a tale already told, inevitable and not to be altered by human agency. Perhaps I only half believed it. It is hard to understand that I wrote so much and yet never spoke to anyone about the matter.
There were other fancies and romances about Timaru people in the fatal book. There had been the case of a page 48 school-mistress who had tried to commit suicide by throwing herself off the breakwater. I gathered a man had seduced her and, having no real idea what that meant, I let myself go in imagination. My lack of knowledge was perfectly absurd for a girl of fifteen, but the strange thing was I did not want to know the facts; I preferred my own fancies.
And all the time, as I invented a mixture of nonsense and crime, a ghastly tragedy was being enacted day by day under my very nose. Captain Cain's grog had suddenly begun to disagree with him. After every meal, except breakfast when he took only tea, he was obliged to rush from the room to be violently sick. Tom Hall drove from Kingslake every day, stopping at Woodlands on the way to inquire after his father-in-law. I thrilled to see him drive up with his shiny dog-cart and black horses. He would come in with a cheery — ‘Well, Dad, and how does it go to-day?
‘Oh, Tom,’ the poor old man would say, ‘that new rum is as bad as the whisky. I've been sick every time I took it.’
‘That's bad! I am disappointed … made sure that special rum would fix you. We'll try another brand of whisky, eh Dad?’
The new brand would be delivered and opened by the housekeeper. The next day the old man would cry joyfully, ‘Tom, it's grand … first-class stuff you sent. I'm as right as a trivet. Order me a case.’
But next day — ‘No good, Tom. Bad as ever … sick as a dog…. Can't make it out. Can't make it out.’
Now, I had been brought up to believe that all alcohol is poison. My mother's father had been one of twelve clergymen in Liverpool who thought that they would exercise more influence over their poorer parishioners if they could persuade them not to ‘drink the first glass’ and, in order the better to point the lesson, they pledged themselves to total abstinence. One of their number was a stutterer who would describe himself as a tee-tee-total abstainer. Thus the word ‘teetotaller’.page 49
This grandfather of mine must have been a temperance fanatic at a time when anti-alcoholic movements were unborn or in their infancy. He received an appointment to Melbourne, at a gold-rush settlement known as Canvastown. He landed there with his wife and eleven children to make, no doubt, Mrs Partington's efforts to stem the tide of strong drink there. Melbourne grew apace and soon became a diocese, and was expecting a Bishop to be sent out from Home. My mother could remember the making of many little white dresses and the boiling up of little white socks for the great occasion of the Bishop's arrival, for Papa's importance as the earliest arrival entitled him to make the welcoming speech.
It may have been a very good speech but it was not calculated to advance the ambitions of his family.
What Papa said was that he considered that it would have been an immense benefit to Melbourne if his Lordship the Bishop had been a teetotaler.
Walking home, his little wife, who was naturally cherishing visions of promotion — to Ballarat or elsewhere — said, ‘Oh, Thomas! Why did you say that?’
‘My dear, we are told to speak in season and out of season.’
‘It was certainly out of season this time,’ sighed the little wife.
I would not like to be certain that the retort was not hatched up afterwards according to the ways of family stories, but it seems to me that a sensible wife — as she was reported to be — having a husband with such a devastating honesty of purpose, would have acquainted herself beforehand with what he intended to say.
However, he must have had qualities more forceful than tactlessness for all his children seem to have espoused his doctrines. Even my mother, by no means a docile disciple of any cause, was a rabid teetotaller. During her married life she graciously offered whisky to my father's guests and page 50 even prided herself on the excellence of the cherry brandy she made every year: but when she became a widow she reverted to her old prejudices and imbued her children with them.
* * * *
So, pondering on Captain Cain's strange attacks, I thought I saw the traditional views of my family clearly vindicated. What could be plainer? As soon as he took spirits he was ill. Then why take spirits? I wrote a most didactic treatise on the matter which so reinforced my convictions that I screwed up enough courage to blurt them out to the old man. I had long outgrown the stories of good little girls who dared to speak to sinners about their souls but I felt horribly like one of these despised ones. The Captain made me feel still more so. He overwhelmed me with scorn.
‘What! An old salt live without rum? Spirits disagree with a sailor? That's a good joke. No ship's ever been known to go to sea without grog.’ In short, explosive sentences, he described the quantities of rum he and every seaman habitually consumed, ‘and never did anyone a spot of harm’, he ended. ‘But this business is queer, queer, damned queer!’
What was queer was that Captain Cain also knew Tom Hall, if not for a villain, at least for a man he did not wish as a son-in-law. He had protested against the engagement and had gone to Dunedin rather than be present at the wedding. Yet he did not suspect him.
I am not sure of his age, but he was not failing in mind or, until this sickness, in body. He was short, broad and hairy, bluff and cordial and noted for his hearty laugh. I understood that he was very popular among men. Every morning, until his sickness made it impossible, he was driven by the gardener in a low pony carriage to a gathering of his friends in the town.page 51
That Dr McIntyre should not have discovered what accounted for his patient's attacks was later to bewilder all Timaru. The doctor was a rollicking, sociable Irishman whom everybody liked. No one credited him with great medical ability nor with any particular interest in his profession except that it provided him with a very gay life. He and Tom Hall were friends or, if that is hardly the word in this connection, they knocked about a good deal together.
Dr McIntyre had an extensive practice among the Irish immigrants who, in the good times, had been brought out in large numbers to help build the railways but who were now forming an unemployed section of a community itself daily growing poorer. It was said that he was adored in this submerged tenth and had never been known to charge one of them a penny. He had once been engaged to Kitty and had jilted her, she felt, somewhat callously. I was not told this fact, but once as we came out of church Kitty, who had been sitting with us, said to my mother, ‘How beautifully the Archdeacon spoke about not allowing oneself to harbour a lurking grudge. I have made up my mind from to-day to forgive Pat McIntyre.’ As usual, I asked no questions but stored the remark against the time when I should hear all about it.
The doctor, a bachelor, kept a monkey — a huge creature. It was said that Chimp sat beside him at dinner demanding glass for glass of whatever was being consumed by his master, whose boast it was that Chimp could carry his liquor better than many a gentleman. Sometimes the monkey was chained in the doctor's front garden where we schoolgirls used to give it bits of our lunch or throw mud at it, according to our several natures.
I sometimes wonder whether, if I had not been blinded by an anti-alcoholic obsession, even I might have dropped on the truth of Captain Cain's complaint, for, though I enjoyed Tom Hall's visits and would run from school to lunch at Woodlands in the hope that he might be staying, I page 52 never swerved from the conviction implanted by my mother that he was a great villain. With that fact in mind, added to the amount of time I had observed him spend in the wine-cupboard under the stairs, the crime should have been clear to the meanest intelligence.
Once when there were several guests at Woodlands I remember scanning Tom Hall's animated face as he sat opposite to me. I had heard of phrenology and wanted to discover which of his bumps and contours denoted his wickedness. The only unusual point I could find was that one eyebrow lifted in the middle, making the curve almost an angle. So that was the mark of the beast! I should look cut for it and know a rogue when I met one. To my dismay the first face on which I detected the mark was my own in the mirror. It was the right eyebrow, too, not quite so noticeably lifted as Tom's, but undoubtedly the same mark. I was really distressed, until in school that day I examined the faces in the class and found that a large proportion of them had eyebrows more or less lifted. I took comfort.
It was in 1885, at the time that I was seeing so much of Captain Cain's decline, that Kitty Hall in her suburban home at Kingslake began to suffer from the same alarming symptoms as her father — vomiting, spotted tongue, pains in the chest and consuming thirst. Again my mother was to be party to an incident that, to one person concerned, resulted in tragedy.
Hearing of Kitty's sickness and convinced that she knew a certain cure for maternal nausea, my mother went out to Kingslake to see her.
I think she would scarcely have walked all the four miles (though it is possible that she did). At least she walked part of the way. The day was hot. She wore black cotton gloves that stained her hands. After talking awhile with Kitty, whom she found looking wretched and suffering much more seriously than she had expected, she said, ‘I must really get this black off my hands. I'll just go to the kitchen and ask Mrs Peters for some tartaric acid.’page 53
She knew Mrs Peters, the Halls' cook. Her daughter had been nursemaid to us for a short time when my father was alive. She was talking to this woman and rubbing the stains with acid when Tom came into the dining-room where Kitty was. Through the open door she heard — as she was intended to — Kitty say, ‘Mrs Ostler is here. She is in the kitchen talking to Mrs Peters.’
He did not wait for the end of the sentence, but burst into the kitchen and, seeing the guest handling white powder, stammered with obvious agitation, ‘What's this? What are you doing? What have you given to Mrs Ostler?’
In a matter of seconds he realised the situation and became himself, indeed he became even more charming than usual. My mother did wonder at his behaviour but decided that his sense of propriety was at first outraged by a guest's invading the kitchen, but that he had then remembered that she had known the cook for years.
She thought no more about it. My mother was never one to lose any sleep about what people thought of her actions. With Mrs Peters it was different. She had seen things that disturbed her. Shortly afterwards those who happened to be interested heard that the Halls had lost their cook; she had been taken to the asylum in Christchurch.
Seven years later when we had moved to the North Island my mother met Mrs Peters by accident in Palmerston North. She had just come from the asylum and was living with her son, and this is the tale she told. Mrs Peters was a cockney and her speech was vivid and expressive, but as I did not hear the whole story from her I will not attempt to tell it in her own words.
It seemed that the day after the incident of the tartaric acid, Kitty being in bed, her husband came to the kitchen for a cup of tea for her and insisted on taking it to her himself.
Mrs Peters, who had long been haunted by ugly suspicions, watched and saw her master put a white powder in the tea. With the impetuosity of her kind she flew at him page 54 like a wild cat — called him scoundrel, devil, murderer. She thought she said that she would see him hanged yet, but was not sure what she did say. She came to herself when he said slowly, in an awful tone, ‘Old woman, you've done for yourself. That is the last time you'll speak such words.’ She lost her nerve completely. In a panic she turned and ran — anywhere so long as it was away from him. She ran to the front gate and down the road towards Timaru, hatless, her apron still tied on and hair soon streaming down her back. She thought she had run about a mile when, hearing horse hoofs behind, she saw Mr Hall coming in his dog-cart. She dodged into the scrub beside the road but he had seen her, stopped, dragged her out and made her get into the trap. How? Oh, he said he would kill her on the spot, and she was sure the way he looked that he would. There wasn't a soul on the long, lonely road and the sun was setting. Besides, she thought he would take her back to Kingslake where there were Mrs Hall and the man-servant. She was too frightened to stand up to him. My mother, to whom she told this tale, said that the memory of her fear agitated her dreadfully.
Instead of turning to Kingslake he drove into Timaru, stopping at Dr McIntyre's. He whistled for the doctor's man to come and hold the horse and see the old woman didn't move. ‘She's mad.’
Why she didn't tell her tale to the man, she could not tell. She was too scared that her master might come back. In a short time he returned with the doctor. She didn't remember Dr McIntyre speaking to her. He looked at her and went away. She was taken to the railway station and soon found herself in the train with a policeman. She thought she would tell her guard the story but somehow she grew too sleepy and only woke up when she was taken into the asylum she afterwards knew to be Sunnyside.
Had they given her any drugs?
She was not sure. If Hall had tried to make her swallow anything she would have resisted. She remembered that the page 55 police were kind and they might have given her something. She remained there for six and a half years. It wasn't so bad as long as you were quiet. She heard never a word of the Hall case, the sensation that rocked the Colony.
Did she make no effort to be released?
Yes, indeed! But every time she tried to tell any of the nurses it only convinced them that she was not ready for discharge. They wouldn't listen, would just give her some work to do and say she was best not to think. She was sure that she was released at last because she was quiet and cheerful and never mentioned poisoning of wives.
Now this is a fantastic story, entirely unsupported by evidence, unless Mrs Peters' son is still alive to corroborate the tale. All the actors are dead. The reader must decide for himself whether or not to believe it. The amount of cunning, quick thinking and nerve shown by the man, approaches genius — equally remarkable are the lack of initiative and the resignation on the part of the woman. Mrs Peters (as were many old people) may have been illiterate. That would account for her knowing nothing of the Hall case, and why she did not attempt to do anything for herself by letter. Of course, the reader is at liberty to believe that the old woman was really deranged. I only know that she showed no signs of it. When I saw her in the late 'nineties, after I was married, she was running a large boarding-house very efficiently and was in good health both mentally and physically.
It was about this time that I met Miss Houston. She and a girl friend did what was seldom done in the 'eighties: they came out from England to New Zealand together to try their luck. They came neither to friend nor relation, nor had either of them any special qualification for earning a living. One was beautiful and very soon after the girls arrived in Wellington, Dr Gillon, a promising young doctor, fell in love and married her. This left Miss Houston rather lonely, so Miss Gillon, the doctor's sister, wrote to my page 56 mother saying that the friend of her sister-in-law had gone to Timaru as a nurse in the hospital, and asked if my mother would show her a little hospitality. Miss Houston had no nursing experience. She got the position because Dr Gillon wrote to the doctor of Timaru Hospital asking a personal favour and of course it was granted. That is how things were done in those days.
I, a girl between fourteen and fifteen, was vastly attracted and flattered by this grown-up person who came to our house and treated me as if I were grown-up too. We went long walks together, for my mother had said that I must not take her to see our friends at first as we did not know her antecedents. ‘She might, you know, be an adventuress.’ I thought that an absurdly narrow-minded attitude, though it was common enough then.
Margaret Houston instructed me in many things connected with behaviour and etiquette. One must never stop while walking in the street to look into a shop window unless it was a florist's or a book shop. It seemed that walking in streets was somewhat infra dig in any case. The best people, she assured me, had all their requirements sent up for their approval to their homes by their own milliners and dressmakers. So, if they alighted from their carriages sometimes, they were not interested in the shops. No ‘nice’ woman must ever carry her handkerchief in her hand. That was a dreadful thing to do. It might be looked upon as a sign. She was very mysterious about that and said I would know some day. I have never found out yet wherein the harm of this lies. I must never say ‘thank you’ when handed a parcel by a man or woman behind a counter. They must say ‘thank you’, but never the buyer, that is if she is a lady. She told me other things of more practical use which I absorbed eagerly. My mother had an exaggerated contempt for etiquette. She thought a gentlewoman should know instinctively how to behave and, anyway, it was a free country and there was no need to bother about silly restrictions.page 57
Miss Houston was good-looking and extremely stylish. She knew how to wear clothes. She told me tales of her life and her home in England before they lost their money, with much detail about footmen and butlers and other grandeurs which interested me immensely. I did not repeat the stories to my mother. Probably some instinct told me that she might cast doubts on what I wished to believe.
From maturer experience I should imagine that the girls had been maids — possibly ladies' maids — in good homes and, believing that their looks and their wits fitted them for a better position, determined to seek it in a far land. Considering the cast-iron barriers that then divided class from class one can hardly blame them. One of them, at least, did well for herself.
It had been decided that I should go to boarding-school in 1886 and the holidays were filled with preparations. My school books were at Woodlands and I left them there as long as possible. Then, with the precious diaries, I brought them home and placed them at the bottom of a trunk that my mother had half packed with clothes. I hoped the diaries would be safe there. But, as ill luck would have it, my mother was seized with a reorganising spasm and came upon the two precious exercise books filled with what may well have struck her as an unusual form of study. Reading them, she was sure that her daughter must be a lunatic, or else depraved beyond belief. It was small wonder, for the subjects dealt with, and the words used (neither of which meant much to the said daughter) shocked her to the core. Moreover, while I had described in detail the actions and motives of the semi-fictional characters, my own actions were merely hinted at and left alarmingly vague. ‘The awful question I had asked Bessie Ballantyne’ and ‘the dreadful thing I did after the Bamfield's party’ were entries that might frighten any mother. She must insist, she said, on being told all about these things. Outraged by what I considered unfair prying into my affairs, I was equally page 58 insistent that I would tell her nothing. There was a terrible scene. She upbraided and threatened for a week; I cried for a week.
At last, Miss Florry Gillon, a friend of my mother's, of whom I was fond, suggested, that I should confide in her and she would advise me whether my mother should be told or not. I agreed, and told her. No doubt she and my mother had a hearty laugh over the ‘dreadful’ disclosures. At any rate I heard no more of the matter and peace reigned in the home again.
Though these confessions were utterly absurd and quite a storm in a teapot I shall relate them later. The diaries were never restored to me nor had I the pluck to ask for them. I was packed off to school in Dunedin.
* * * *
Poor old Captain Cain's vomiting attacks grew worse and gangrene had set in, making it necessary to engage a nurse. Miss Houston, who disliked the hospital, left it and (at my mother's suggestion) was engaged to tend his last days. As it was clear these would not be many it was arranged that after the old man's death she should go as lady-help on the farm to Mrs Newton, Kitty's sister.
A bleak prospect, I thought, for I had stayed on that farm both in summer and in winter. It was a perfect farm. Rich, rolling downs with limestone outcrops and, during the summer holidays when I first stayed there, I thought it was fairyland. The abundance and lavishness of every good thing was almost distressing. Cherries, early peaches, apricots rotted on the ground. Strawberries and raspberries grew wild, and could be found in considerable quantity. Apple trees were laden to breaking-point. Huge pans of milk stood in rows in the dairy yielding cream like yellow leather — sweet and thick — and no one said, ‘Don't break the pan’, when cream was wanted. There were ponies and the bustle and activity of farm life — everything a child considers heaven. I enjoyed it so much that Mrs Newton asked me page 59 to come again in the winter holidays. The change was incredible. There was simply nothing to eat but very hard salt bacon and rice that, in transit from town, had had kerosene spilled over it. Every meal, the man-cook washed and boiled a quantity of this rice and put it on the table. Mrs Newton would say, ‘Taste it, Billy, and see if we can eat it to-day.’ If it was pronounced fit to eat we were asked whether we would have it with bacon or with sugar (dark brown sugar); if unfit we subsisted on a ration — a very small ration — of stale ship's biscuits. Dirty snow lay in patches over the desolate garden and sloppy fields. All the wood for burning was green. There was no bread because the waggon with the flour could not get through the swollen rivers. There was no milk or butter because there was no winter cow.
Mr Newton was an Englishman of good family whose pose it was to appear rougher and more uncouth than any pioneer colonial could ever have been supposed to be. Men liked him well and said he was ‘the decentest sort’, but he was no lady's man. To women he was often rude and particularly so to his wife. Mrs Newton disliked the country and was obviously unhappy. This was not surprising, for the comfort and plenty of the country depend upon the farmers knowing how to provide it. Besides, her husband was often deliberately brutal. Once when he had shut the door with a bang, she cried out her nerves could not endure such noise. Thereupon he banged it again several times. I thought him a great, coarse monster of whom I was scared stiff, though I remember that he never failed to have a pony saddled for me whenever the weather suggested a ride.
Long before they became brothers-in-law ‘the Lord had put enmity’ between Billy Newton and Tom Hall. No two men could be less alike. Tom strained every nerve — both honestly and dishonestly — to make the most of and to augment every asset he possessed, while Billy, who had inherited unsolicited all for which Tom strove, was busy hurling it all to the winds with both hands.page 60
Tom despised the man who had married Kitty's elder sister as a lout and a fool. He called him ‘the gorilla’. Billy sensed the insincerity behind Tom's fine manners and immaculate appearance and at the sight of him was consumed with wrath. Poor Mrs Newton, after Kitty's marriage, used quite openly to envy her sister her attentive, charming and considerate husband.
Miss Houston was never obliged to go out to ‘Misery Farm’. As soon as Captain Cain's funeral was over Tom and Kitty moved into Woodlands and asked her to remain with them until the baby was born. The baby, a son, came in June and for some three or four weeks Kitty was very well indeed. Then she suddenly developed the same distressing symptoms — sickness, pain and thirst — that she had suffered from nine months earlier. Miss Houston was easily persuaded to stay to look after her.
* * * *
I saw Kitty for the last time in July, 1886, when I came home for the winter holidays.
The emaciated object I was shown on the bed shocked and, I think, frightened me. I grew shy and found nothing to say. She tried to talk but gasped that she felt as if someone had hands round her throat and was choking her. I asked timidly if she had much pain. She said she could bear the pain if the other symptoms would leave her. She did not say what they were and I refrained from asking. Mrs Ellison, the maternity nurse, described them — not to me — ‘It's itching and twitching she is all day and all the night.’
She certainly looked appalling. Not only unlike herself but unlike a human being. I had never seen death or even serious illness. If, I thought, there could be a stage worse than this it must indeed be horrible. Yet she lived and grew worse, enduring it all for nearly three more weeks.
I went again to the sick-room, saw the baby, was told his name was to be Nigel. Kitty said, ‘You must come to the christening. It is to be as soon as I am better.’page 61
This must have been July. I saw neither of them again. One of the maids walked home with me as was expected if any household invited a woman or a child to stay after dark.
* * * *
Some three or four weeks earlier when my mother had ‘called on the baby’, Kitty had looked fresh and well.
Kitty, as she was chatting, said, ‘Oh! I had such a narrow escape last week. It was my first day up. I was sitting just here, close to the window, when Tom brought in the step-ladder and climbed up to fix something about the curtains. He was working up there and the whole heavy curtain-pole fell down with a bang. If I hadn't just that moment moved slightly to look at what he was doing, I should have been killed. It fell on the side of my chair and smashed it to bits. I am all black bruises down the side where the rings hit me. You know how heavy those poles are.’
My mother did know and always said that suspicion first crossed her mind at that moment. She felt sure that no man, unless he meant mischief, could have loosened the supports of those prodigious poles while someone sat beneath. Though the incident might not have roused her conscious suspicion, it must have lurked for some time in her mind. How else could she have imprinted it on mine?
Kitty grew rapidly worse and my mother's suspicions, once aroused, extended and became a torment. She must do something. She went to Mr White who was Crown Prosecutor and a friend. He was horrified that she should say such things and greatly concerned lest she should get herself into serious trouble. Yes, he knew that there were rumours that Tom Hall's finances were unsound, but to say such things without a shred of evidence…. He almost convinced her that she had allowed her fancies too much rein.
* * * *
There was a small gathering one afternoon at Woodlands. page 62 Timaru folk were assiduous visitors of the sick. Kitty was lying on a couch, looking ghastly; Miss Houston was pouring tea and Tom was helping. One of the guests, Mrs Hammersley, after drinking her tea, became sick. She afterwards remembered that Tom had tried to exchange her cup, saying, ‘No! Not that one, that's Kitty's’, and that Kitty said, ‘That's funny. I often get sick after drinking tea.’
My mother was not at Woodlands that day but she heard of the little incident and it revived her urge to do something. She spoke to a policeman. She asked him merely what action the police would take in circumstances such as a strong suspicion that a man was poisoning his wife. The man stared at her stupidly and after some questioning seemed to think there was nothing that the police could do. She saw there was no help there. Then she went to the Inspector of Police, who impressed her as a trustworthy person, and she told him the tale. He was obviously sceptical but promised to see Dr McIntyre and to respect her confidence.
Dr McIntyre, though he was afterwards given much praise for detecting the crime, was, in truth, strangely slow to act. It evidently did not come to him in a flash that poison was the cause of his patient's condition, even after it had been suggested to him. He did, though tardily, give the nurse orders that no food should be given to Mrs Hall and that the iced water, that was a necessity to allay her thirst, was to be carefully covered and kept in her charge.
If Tom Hall had been wise he would have taken these mild precautions as a warning, and would have desisted, at least for a time, but he was a hunted man and dare not be wise. It was later proved that he was financially in deep water. He had forged over a period of years, forged again to hide his forgeries, backing one false document with another.
The holidays were over and we were on our way to the boat that was to take me back to school when my mother suddenly blurted out her suspicions and mentioned the ugly word, poison. She was agitated, and warned me several page 63 times not to repeat what she said. This was unlike her other confidences, which were impersonal, and might have been spoken to herself. I arrived at school in a highly excited state and though I had grown more talkative I did not mention the thing that was foremost in my mind. This came, not from obedience or caution, but from some strange internal inhibition that forbade me to open such a subject. In a few days, however, the affair was flashed throughout the startled Colony as headline news. I must own that I talked enough then to make up for lost time. The girls and even the mistresses were never tired of asking detailed information about the celebrated case.
I must now depart from those things I saw and knew and give what is common knowledge in order to finish the tragedy.
The man who could not afford to be wise acted, as desperate men do, with extraordinary daring. He came into the sick-room with a bottle of spirits, saying, ‘Here's the brandy to put in the beef-tea injection.’
The bottle was produced in Court and found to contain a quantity of poison.
The iced water he was not able to handle as the nurse had promised to administer it herself, but he brought a cup, saying that the patient was intolerably thirsty, and the nurse poured the water into it and gave it herself as she had been told. It was afterwards found that he had already put the white powder* into the cup but in his haste he had put in an overdose.
This was his undoing.
Kitty drank as thirsty people do but said, ‘It's nasty. It's bitter.’page 64
The overdose had the effect of making Kitty violently sick. She vomited unceasingly all night, almost dying of the straining. This, according to medical testimony, cleared the body of some of the poison, and thus saved her life.
No one could have been more attentive to a sick wife than Tom Hall. It was said that he sat by her all through that dreadful night, soothing, and stroking her head and showing every sign of sympathy. Pretence of devotion is an old trick, but seldom has it been carried out so well. It was largely on account of this devotion, carried out all through the two years of their married life, that suspicion never attached to him; for most people knew — or guessed — that he was in money difficulties. But how could one suspect such a model husband and one who had made his wife so obviously happy!
Dr McIntyre also sent a specimen of the patient's vomit to Professor Black of the Otago University and might have waited for the results, but the town began to buzz; suspicion was spreading, whispers were circulating. The story of Mrs Hammersley's sickness after taking a cup of tea intended for the mistress of the house, and perhaps other stories, were being told ‘with advantages’. The nurse, a very level-headed woman, as was proved by her evidence at the trial, had seen enough to convince her of the truth. In fact, there was evidence enough to convince a moron.
At half-past eight on the night of 15 August four policemen, headed by the Inspector, approached Woodlands. One went to the back door, one to the french window leading from Kitty's room and two came to the front door and knocked.
Tom and Miss Houston were still sitting over the dinnertable. Miss Houston opened the door. The men did not wait to be shown in. Exact words I cannot quote, but they announced the arrest of Thomas Hall and Margaret Houston for administering antimony, with intent to poison Kate Hall, wife of prisoner.page 65
It was said that the shock silenced the man but the woman chirped up gaily, ‘Antimony? Isn't that the stuff you use in your photography?’
Then the man recovered and explained, no doubt most plausibly, that there had been some curious mistake; that it was true that he had been buying antimony in large quantities … he used it for his asthma, smoked it in his cigarettes — had done so for years. He was at a loss to understand….
As he talked he edged towards the fireplace and now thrust his hands into his pockets, intending to throw their contents into the fire. The Inspector ordered him to take them out and showed himself ready to enforce the order. Tom fell back as if fainting and gasped for brandy. Miss Houston proposed to run and fetch it, but was told to remain where she was and a policeman was sent. Seeing himself faced with but one man, Tom recovered and again his hands went to his pockets. The Inspector closed with him and began to search him. The prisoner resisted and Miss Houston sprang to his assistance or, as her advocate later put it to the jury, ‘Seeing two men struggling together she heroically and very naturally tried to separate them.’
Before the arrested man could do more than wrench the cork off and spill the contents of a bottle in one pocket and tear the paper that contained a white powder in the other pocket, the four policemen were in the room and resistance clearly useless.
On the way to the police station Tom was utterly broken and seemed unnerved, but Miss Houston was, as during all the subsequent proceedings, gay, even chatty and self-assured, so that the quip circulated in Timaru was, ‘The woman proved the better man’. One may suppose that realisation that all was over came to him at once but either Miss Houston's innocence was complete or she saw many an avenue that promised escape.
Although the usual warning was given them by the page 66 police that anything they said might be used in evidence against them, before they were separated Tom said to the girl, ‘I don't see how I can ever get out of this now, but it has nothing to do with you.’
Some people consider this speech the spark of decency that flickers somewhere in the worst of human beings; others declare that he was not himself, had not recovered from the shock, that he had no redeeming spark.
While retained in the Timaru gaol awaiting the first enquiries, Miss Houston wrote a note to her fellow-prisoner beginning, ‘Dear Tommy Dodd’, and ending ‘Your Megrims’. There was a tremendous fuss over this note. No one knows its contents, but two of the prison officials were later dismissed over it — one for delivering it and the other for allowing the prisoner to destroy it.
It would be impossible to exaggerate the excitement, the frenzy that seized the people of Timaru. The town was just small enough to allow almost everyone to have known, seen, spoken to or become in some way personally interested in at least one of the actors in the great drama. The wildest tales found credence. Both prisoners had committed suicide; both had escaped with the assistance of a band of armed men; orders had come from Wellington that the prisoners were to be allowed bail; the Government would certainly take a hand and disallow the charge. Nothing was too crazy to be believed.
Exciting details soon followed. The police search of Woodlands had revealed Kitty's will, making all she possessed over to her husband, and Taylor on Poisons beside it among the prisoner's possessions. The attic was also found to contain bundles of inflammable material that had lately been carried there — wood and straw, tins of kerosene and even rags already soaked in kerosene. At every street corner the story was constructed. If the patient had died according to schedule on the night of the 15th the house could — and no doubt would — have gone up in flames the same night. It page 67 was an old building of wood with, I believe, a shingle roof. Steps had been taken to ensure the fire getting a quick hold, so quick that it might well have consumed the body of the poisoned woman and so left no trace whatever of the crime.
Truly Dr McIntyre had brought himself to order the arrest just in time, for it was obvious that his patient could not have lived through another daring attempt to administer antimony.
And, if the long-laid scheme had not miscarried — if the victim had died according to schedule on the 15th and the house and all evidence of the crime had disappeared — what, one wonders, would have been the fate of the baby, the son of that disastrous union, little Nigel Hall? Would the devoted father, at the risk of his life, have dashed into the roaring flames and gained great kudos by saving his child? Perhaps.
It was after the trial that some evidence came out which throws light on this conjecture. In 1884, shortly after Mr Tate's death, Tom Hall had written to a Mr T. Joynt, a Christchurch lawyer, for a legal opinion. He asked what would be the financial position of a widower whose deceased wife's estate had been settled upon her in a certain way. It was, he said, a hypothetical case, but the terms he quoted were exactly those of the will in which the late Mrs Cain had settled her money on her two daughters. He further wished to know how the said widower's financial position would be affected (1) in case of there being no issue, (2) in case of surviving issue.
The solicitor gave the opinion required, explaining that the widower of the deceased woman would be better off in case of there being surviving issue because as guardian he would have the use of the money during the minority.
In face of this, can we dare to conclude that Kitty was allowed to live until her child was born in order that the child's father, as guardian, might have the use of money?
This last disclosure was to Timaru the head and front of page 68 all his crimes. Before it there were those — especially young things — who had known and been attracted by Tom Hall — who had cherished all through the proceedings a certain sympathy for him. That sympathy died with this last blow. What! A man sets out to win an heiress and before he does so, before he has as much as proposed to her, he gets legal advice concerning her after her death, and also buys a book instructing him how to compass it. Many a Timaru girl had once liked to boast that she had been engaged to the villain and would exhibit his photograph as proof of it — once, but not after that.
Kitty absolutely refused to believe in her husband's guilt. Dr McIntyre had been drinking more than usual and had got D.T.s or had gone mad. As to Mrs Ostler, she hated Tom — always had, and would say anything to damage him. Why, there never was a more perfect husband! She held to that conviction long after the truth should have been crystal clear.
The belief that he would be acquitted was universal. Excited and unruly crowds thronged about the Magistrates' Court. ‘He'll get off!’ ‘He carries too many guns!’ ‘He's too clever!’ ‘He'd slip through the fingers of the Devil!’ were among the remarks shouted. There were those who said that he would be lynched if the crowd could lay hands on him.
Following such scepticism there was a burst of joyful surprise when both accused were committed for trial. But the temper of the people had been such that the authorities thought it wise to change the venue and the trial was held in Christchurch. There the scenes were even worse. Madly surging crowds fought to obtain a glimpse of the prisoners. When the rank and file realised that there was to be a fair trial, that even the seats in the Court-room were not all reserved for the great and mighty but that first-comers were to be first served, there was much rejoicing.page 69
One local enthusiast burst into verse:
‘The Magistrate sits on his Bench.
That chief from duty does not flinch;
Who or whom to him's all one,
Justice impartial marks that man.
One in ten thousand sits he there
The right with justice balance fair.’
There were reams of it. I have the booklet yet, the story of the case in verse, complete with such hideous photographs of the accused as would justify a conviction without a hearing. The epic contains such gems as this:
‘If his wife only in death would wallop
Tom would get a mighty dollop.’
The Supreme Court evoked the same surprised delight:
‘There sits Judge Johnson on the Bench
And nobly doth it fill,
Stern duty, justice, not a flinch,
Both mark his iron will.’
What bred, one wonders, these doubts in the minds of so many New Zealanders? Why should they imagine that wealthy and influential criminals were not subject to the law? If the Hall case could be said to do any good at all it was that it helped to shake this rooted distrust, and to prove that British justice, though transplanted to the Antipodes, is still neither to be bought nor intimidated.
The trial is, of course, on record, but, as the average reader does not consult records, I shall touch on some of its main points. There was the accused's desperate financial position and his many forgeries to avoid earlier detection; there was the fact that his commitments must be met by 15 August: there was his wife's will made in his favour and the fact that he had insured her life for six thousand pounds.
A Timaru bookseller gave evidence that he had sold the prisoner the expensive book, Taylor on Poisons. The date of page 70 the purchase was obscure because the prisoner had, against all precedent, paid for it in cash and asked that the sale should not go through the books. In the book, in Hall's writing, was ‘T. Hall, Dunedin, 1882’. No one knew why he made this misstatement. The prisoner had bought antimony, and an allied poison, colchicum, at three chemists and at his arrest both pockets had contained the poison. Antimony was the drug which had caused his wife's suffering. There was the evidence of the nurse, Mrs Ellison, that he had given her the brandy — afterwards shown to contain poison. There was also the iced water that tasted bitter. Mrs Ellison's evidence was not shaken in the smallest detail.
After eight days in a Court packed to suffocation, the jury brought in a verdict of guilty, and Tom Hall was sentenced to imprisonment for life.
At boarding-school, letters and papers from Timaru brought me into the limelight, for as well as the absorbing interest taken by everyone, it happened that the school cook had once been cook to Tom Hall's parents and would give me anything to go down to the kitchen and read her my letters. After these surreptitious visits I would climb the stairs laden with sponge-cakes, meringues, aunty-cakes and all manner of delicacies intended for our betters. This made me, temporarily, very popular.
Once the police came to interview me at school. They were concerned about certain things I was supposed to have written in a diary.
I grew shy and told them little, though I was not at all reluctant to be called as a witness at the trial. It seemed, as I learnt later, that my mother, when all the world was discussing the case, could not resist telling a few friends how her schoolgirl daughter had been bright enough to suspect the criminal long ago and had even written her suspicions in a diary. When, however, she discovered that the rumour had reached the ears of the police she recoiled at the idea of a girl in Court at a murder trial and burnt the page 71 diary. She easily succeeded in persuading the detective that I had nothing to tell.
I am ashamed now to remember how little I was hurt or distressed about the horror and misery of the whole affair. I was really attached to Kitty, or thought I was. Yet I do not recall suffering with her in her pain, or in the misery of her knowledge that the husband whom she adored, and believed adored her, had married her only in order to poison her.
I wonder if youth is always so lacking in sympathetic understanding.
The trial of Margaret Houston caused almost as much excitement as that of her fellow-prisoner, perhaps because the evidence against her was not nearly as clear as in his case. She was defended by James Hay, a young lawyer, said to be a coming man. It was a formidable task that he undertook, for Mr Stout (later Sir Robert), a man then at the height of his power, was counsel for the prosecution.
The evidence for the prosecution attempted to show that most of the food and drink taken by the patient had been given and prepared by Miss Houston, much of it during Hall's prolonged absences; that whereas the man's pockets both contained poison, the woman, when arrested, had no pocket in her dress. (Women wore, then, full skirts touching the ankles with an inside pocket in the right-hand seam, placed half-way down it. Her pocket showed signs of having been hastily torn out. The hole where it had been had ragged edges, newly frayed.) This, her counsel pointed out, was merely negative evidence.
Hay's long address to the jury was proclaimed a masterpiece. It was confidently said that had he lived he would have become an ornament to the Bar. He dwelt on the accused's defenceless plight. He drew a touching picture of an unfortunate and innocent lady, a stranger in a strange land, with no kinsman nor even friend to advise or stand beside her. He pointed out how trifling and uncertain the evidence against her had been. If she had removed her page 72 pocket, what had she done with it? The police declared that she had no opportunity to throw it in the fire. If there were traces of antimony found in the ashes it was quite likely that in the struggle some of the contents of Hall's pocket had been spilt.
The jury not only acquitted her but added a rider concerning her stainless character.
When the trials were over and the excitement had died down people began to recall that Captain Cain had died of exactly the same symptoms. I have no idea who first voiced the suspicion but Dr McIntyre, as before, and probably deservedly, received the credit. The Captain's body was consequently exhumed and certain portions sent to Professor Black of the Otago University for analysis.
I was at school in Dunedin and Lou Mackerras [My love to her if she is alive and sees this] had invited me to spend an exeat at her home. It happened that at Sunday supper that week the Mackerras were entertaining Professor Black.
‘I suppose,’ said Mrs Mackerras to him, ‘that we must not ask you the result of your investigations in the Timaru poisoning case?’
‘And what reason,’ he asked in the challenging tone of a Scotsman, ‘is there that I should nae speak? Ay, indeed, antimony has been found in the buddy in quantity sifficient to cause death.’
So there was to be another trial of Thomas Hall, this time for murder. To Timaru it seemed an anti-climax and a less heinous crime than the attempted murder of his young, trusting wife. But there was a new gruesome element; this time it was a hanging matter.
Many who had been Tom Hall's friends shuddered at the thought that a man whom they had known and whose face they could not forget might be brought to the gallows. Others boldly asserted, ‘Don't worry. It'll never come to that. You'll see.’ There was still, a lingering doubt about the impartiality of justice.page 73
From a cause that these loud protesters could never have guessed, it happened that he did escape hanging and they were able to say, ‘I told you so!’ According to British law then, when a man was on trial for a crime, evidence of his having committed a previous crime was not admissible. It was, of course, the gravamen of this case that Captain Cain's son-in-law had used the same poison with intent to murder his wife. The counsel for the defence objected to such evidence being taken, but Judge Williams, after some consideration, allowed it. The prisoner was condemned to death. However, the Court of Appeal disallowed the evidence and the case was quashed. The law has since been modified so as to allow evidence of previous crimes where a system is shown to have been used, poisoning being one of them.
As Tom Hall had been proved an expert forger, it was inevitable that the memory of his late partner, Mr Robert Tate, should return to men's minds. Was it possible that here was another of his victims? There was much convincing assertion but nothing was proved. I do not know if Tate and Hall's books were ever officially examined or even whether they were still extant. There are certainly difficulties in reconstructing Mr Tate's death on this new supposition. How, in the first place, did anyone persuade that elderly gentleman, of regular town habits, to visit such a place as Saltwater Creek, a miserable swamp where duck-weed covered stagnant pools and where nothing grew but stunted shrubs and swamp-grass? In the second place, how did the murderer deal with his victim? It was always agreed that Tom Hall had neither physical strength nor courage. Both would have been necessary to force a man to take poison.
Nearly twenty years later I went to see the Tates, then living in Greytown. Life was pretty grim for them and had been so for years, but they were as lovable and as hospitable as ever. Cissy, my contemporary, told me many scraps of circumstantial evidence tending to show that her father's page 74 books had been tampered with and that he had had no financial worries.
* * * *
In a remarkably short time Kitty had quite recovered. Eventually, of course, she had to believe in the attempted poisoning, but at what stage she succumbed I was not told. My mother saw her once for a short time, but she did not wish to see her old friends and soon took her baby to Christchurch and from there to England.
She lived in London until some time in the 'nineties when she came out here. She stayed in Wellington with Mrs Hudson, who had been our common friend Florry Gillon, and wrote to me — not to my mother — asking if we might see each other. I have always regretted that I did not make the effort, but it was almost impossible for me to leave home and a small baby who was very ill with whooping-cough. She told Florry that what troubled her most was whether she ought to tell Nigel about his father, and that she was always in fear that someone else would do so first. That problem solved itself; he was killed early in the First World War, without ever knowing. As soon as the divorce had been arranged Kitty returned to London, having made no contacts with Timaru people. The last I heard of her was from a friend who, before taking a trip to England, managed to get an introduction to Kitty. Posting it, she received an invitation to lunch with Mrs Hall on a certain day. When she presented herself, a sour-faced serving-woman opened the door and told her that Mrs Hall was out. She protested that there must be some mistake for she had been asked to lunch. Kitty came out then, full of apologies. She was her old affable self and they spent a most pleasant afternoon. Before the guest left Kitty made her promise not to leave England without coming once again to see her. My friend kept the promise, but, on arriving, found the same sour-faced housekeeper cording trunks in the porch.
‘Is Mrs Hall going away?’page 75
‘No,’ said the woman. ‘She died yesterday.’
Tom also spent his last days in London and, unknown to both, not far from Kitty's residence. Sir John Hall, with infinite generosity, had settled an annuity of £200 a year on his disastrous nephew, to be paid from the time of his release from prison until his death, on the condition that he lived out of New Zealand. One would have thought that the condition would have been most acceptable. On the contrary, he was constantly pestering the trustees of the fund to allow him to break the proviso and return here. He supplemented his income by selling photographs and was cared for to the end by a most devoted housekeeper.
* Note: Antimony is a cumulative poison. That is to say, it remains in the body, each dose adding its effect to the last, till there is sufficient to cause death. The sickness, though distressing, is not the fatal symptom.