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The Bird of Paradise

Chapter X. Wilful Murder. Marmaduke Payne Appears for the Prosecution

Chapter X. Wilful Murder. Marmaduke Payne Appears for the Prosecution.

The morning broke. Not a cloud could be seen in the firmament. As the sunbeams danced among the ash, the laurel, the myrtle, and arbutus, and peeped in through the hospital windows, Eugene went his daily rounds among the patients, fed his saffron-hued canaries, and for the afternoon was perfectly free. The marybuds opened their golden eyes before him and the heart's-ease smiled upon him from their dewy beds; his life was one tenor in increasing exultation. With a fine social standing, a first-class salary, full of youth, health, strength and vigour, he felt as happy as a king. Behind him, as he plucked a violet boutonnière1, the big iron gate grated on its hinges. He looked around. There in a black silk dress and a black bonnet, stopping for a long breath every few paces, came the Indian-hawker lady from Sunnyside – the afflicted chronic broncho-asthmatical auntie, cracking the gravel as she came along the hospital footpath with the girl in the peacock plumes by her side.

"Good morning (long breath), Dr. Whitworth. It is such a delightful morning that I (long breath) thought I would come down with (long breath) Marvel; as, although I have described most of the pulmonary (long breath) troubles with which I am afflicted and have been for years (long breath and snuffle), notwithstanding poor Dr. Leghorn was very good to me (snuffle), kind and good to me, I don't think I mentioned at the time (long snuffle), that I also suffer from a further annoyance (long sonorous breath and snuffle), an affection above the roof of my mouth." It was a painful ordeal to listen to auntie.

"Indeed!" said the doctor, "come in here, Mrs. Hornblower," pointing to the hospital, "as I daresay it will be too much for you to climb up that hill to the house:" to which Mrs. Hornblower replied—"Oh! I can walk up hill better than down hill (three snuffles), and I don't mind going up to the house at all" (nasal twang increased).

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He led the ladies up the steep hill to the new residence, rang the house bell, and the old matron, Hemlock, opened the door, saying. "Oh! its only you and good morning, ladies, both of whom I have often seen; and how are you this morning?" by simply ejaculating "Ha-Ha-Ha."

Showing his new acquaintances into the surgery of the house, he requested them to take a seat. He then took an instrument which he called a nasal speculum from a cabinet drawer, and looked through it up the chronic broncho-asthmatico-snuffleo nostrils of the old auntie. The smell was abominable.

"It's a bit of dead bone." he said, "and if you like I'll twist it out now and there will be an end of it."

"Would you give me some chloroform, as I'm so dreadfully nervous," she said, as Marvel, with her back turned, inspected the photos on the mantelpiece, one of which was a photo of Guinevere.

"You don't want any chloroform for a thing like that," he said, inserting the speculum into her nose again, when with a pair of long forceps he twisted out the feculent bone.

The blood streaming and the long breaths glugging in her nostrils, "I always (glug-glug) heard you were (glug-glug) very clever (glug-glug), and now (glug-glug) I will send (glug-glug) everybody (glug-glug) to you (glug-glug) in the town (glug-glugl)," avowed the old auntie.

"What is the fee," said Marvel "Ten dollars," said Eugene.

She fished her purse out of her peacock skirts, and lo! behold, the purse was made of peacock-coloured plush. She jingled the dollars on the table, but Eugene handed them back to Marvel and told her to keep them "in memoriam."

Leaning back against the marble mantelpiece, he asked the glugging patient if she had been there before, and she replied that she had in Dr. Leghorn's time, but that the doctor's furniture had all been sold, and she would very much like to see the new furniture. He showed the ladies through the four rooms which he had furnished, saying that four were enough for old Hemlock and him. A speck of dust in the room was as painful to Hemlock as if it had been in her eye, and she was at the time busily dusting the leather suite and the mantelpiece. He only opened the door and they simply looked in; but the critical eye of the hawker noticed the costly bronzes, the Dresden china ornaments, the Japanese screens, masterpieces of embroidery, and the marble statuary and statuettes on the mantelpiece, the woolly Turkey carpets, the chippendale furniture, and the porcelaine plaques. She took at a glance a mental inventory of every room. Walking into the bedroom, she opened the mirrored doors of the wardrobe, and took out a pair of leggings with spurs fastened on them; she wanted to know where he got the policeman's hat. He explained that they belonged to the English cavalry uniform, and showed her the black cloth tunic bordered with crimson, aid the black pantaloons.

"Didn't you know I was in the Afghan War, and since I came back to America I have been a lieutenant in the Georgia cavalry," page 58he said. "Why I drill every Friday afternoon near your place on the parade-ground, and my little mare Rosie is the model and pearl of the field."

"How nice!" said Marvel, "and there's your rifle and sword. I could chop off heads with that. I like killing turkey gobblers; they don't sing out at all. Auntie and I will see the parade on Friday, and we can have our cards afterwards."

Walking into a large unfurnished room, the old auntie remarked that the other doctor's children used to sleep in it, and that they called it the dormitory.

"Yes: I make a carpenter's shop of it," said Eugene. "I had a friend, an old man who was a jack-of-all-trades, and I picked up a little from helping him when I was a boy. I made that wardrobe and all those bird-cages," pointing to a row of cages with linnets, skylarks, thrushes, goldfinches, canaries and blackbirds, "and if you come this way I will show you"—Ting-a-lingle-lingle at the door-bell, and Hemlock opened the door for Lilliecrap.

"Man shot his wife," he cried, and Eugene hurried away.

The road to the Georgia gaol, which lay about half-a-mile from the hospital, ran right past the latter, and along that road as Eugene descended the hill, came a big red-haired man, pale as death, handcuffed and walking between two stalwart policemen. Unemployed men followed, women traipsed along with all the scabby-eared urchins of the town at their heels.

In the casualty ward on the floor with her head propped against the wall, lay a female form, evidently one of the lower classes—a gruesome spectacle for even the case-hardened Whitworth. Her throat cut from ear to ear; her eyes and mouth wide open; her tongue swollen and lolling out of her mouth; her forehead so slashed that one side of it dropped down on her cheek; her hands hacked to pieces in her struggles with the murderer, and her long flaxen hair soaked, blackened and matted with blood. The sergeant of police stood over her, and a magistrate or justice of the peace knelt on one knee, holding a piece of paper and a pencil in his hand. He was vainly endeavouring to take her dying depositions.

"She is dead," said Eugene: "you are putting questions to a dead woman;" whereupon the sergeant avowed that she moved her lips after he brought her in, and that the magistrate came a few seconds after that.

"She will move them no more," said Eugene: "she is as dead as Hector on the plains of Troy."

Rebecca Graves was her name, and she lived with her mother at Raspberry Flat, about a mile away. Her husband, a blacksmith, out of work, had deserted her, without leaving her any means of support for years. That day he came back with a small phial of brandy, sat down in the kitchen, drank the brandy, pulled a Webley revolver out of his back pocket and fired point-blank at her, but the ball took no effect. Her mother rushed him from behind and wrenched the revolver out of his hand. He hurled page 59the old woman out through the door and butchered his wife with the carving knife which he found on the table.

"The old woman came running out and roaring 'Murder' as I was passing the house," said a muscular young architect; "I saw Graves running away towards the bush; I followed him, grappled with him, and got him under; he had no weapon, and I fixed him and could have held him yet." He certainly looked as if he could. The name of the architect was Cosgrove.

Next morning the police court of Augusta was crowded to suffocation. There stood behind the bar the prisoner, tottering and white-faced; there sat a row of fifteen magistrates, representing all the trades in the town, from the undertaker down to the butcher, who was the warden of the bench. The police magistrate of the State of Georgia was out of the district, in consequence of which the warden of the borough presided. The clerk of weekly sessions called out—"John Graves, you are charged with the wilful murder of Rebecca Graves, your lawful wife; what do you say: Guilty, or Not Guilty?"

"Not Guilty," he faltered, and turned his hollow bloodshot eyes towards barrister Hallam, the counsel for the defence. Hallam had just arrived from New Orleans, and escorted the venerable the Moderator to a seat, chatting together about Madame's glorious evening.

Then, as State-Prosecutor, Marmaduke Payne began to drive in the salient points of the charge one by one, as if they were nails under a hammer. He welded together a chain of irrefutable proofs against the life of that unfortunate man from which none but a lunatic could ever hope to escape. He flourished over his head a warrant for the arrest of one John Graves, describing every line and mark in that identified and woebegone form, on a charge of stealing from his employer a Webley revolver. He brandished in the air in exultation the weapon which the mother-in-law had handed to the police, pointing to the Webley brand on the barrel. The ball which the police had found on the kitchen floor, as it ricochetted from the wall, he placed in the murderous firearm, and handed the exhibits to the bench.

In a feeble, half-hearted way, Hallam arose as counsel for the prisoner. It was, to his mind, clearly a case of justifiable homicide. Graves had bought the revolver, and telling his little boy it was a shooting-stick he gave it to him to play with in the kitchen. His wife had snatched it from the boy and fired it at his client, who, in trying to ward her off, had unfortunately caused her death, for which he was truly sorry; but no law could under such conditions convict a man of wilful murder. He prayed the bench, as he resumed his seat and said that was his case, to find no more than a charge of manslaughter against the prisoner, who quailed before the court with an ominous presentiment and a vague foreknowledge of impending doom.

Without consulting his brother magistrates—who indeed knew no more of the law than the boys playing outside—the warden of the bench de-page 60livered the verdict. John Graves was committed to stand his trial at the next general city sessions of the criminal court on a charge of wilful murder. The prisoner was led away between two constables to the gaol, and the court was cleared after a few debt cases had been heard.

The sole engrossing topic throughout Augusta, the murder, was in everybody's mouth. The "Evening Star" published an extraordinary2 on the morning it occurred, and five editions the day before and the day after the trial in the police court. It had predicted an event of the kind years before, and had incited the populace with all that lay in its power to shun the wretch that was born to be hung. Its repeated warnings had fallen unheeded upon its readers, and now that it was too late to avert the crime its sole and sorrowful duty was to disseminate the full particulars. It had measured the quantity of blood spilt upon the floor and found it to be three bucketsful—not a drop remaining in the body of the victim; and it gave the precise direction and measurements of the wounds with perfect accuracy to the sixteenth of an inch. The horrible aspect as it first appeared to the reporter of the "Star"; every word the police said, and what the doctor said to the police, were reproduced as faithfully as a camera and phonograph could have reproduced them. It recounted the minutiæ of the evidence of the deceased's mother, the story of the young architect who had caught the prisoner, and the details of the autopsy made by Whitworth, who had described a track made by the bullet between the scalp and the skull, passing in at the side of the forehead and glancing off the bones to find its exit at the back of the head, and ricochette off the wall upon the floor. The cause of death (said the "Star") was hæmorrhage from the division of the carotid arteries of the neck, and what proved a fatal blow to the prisoner was the assertion that this hæmorrhage was the result of a wound inflicted by an instrument such as the carving-knife shown by the police.

That Friday afternoon Eugene, as lieutenant of the cavalry rifle corps of Georgia, rode out his favourite mare on parade for a couple of hours, and when the detachment was dismissed by the colonel he walked her slowly on to "Sunnyside," where the chronic broncho-asthmatical auntie, together with Marvel, waited eagerly expectant of the promised call, and for all he knew might have been out watching the parade. Dismounting, he fastened the bridle to the stirrup in military fashion, to enable the mare to pick the grass, as she rebelled against being tied to the fence, and entered the little cottage when Marvel opened the door. The tea-cakes emitted an inviting welcome to the little dining-room, and they all, including the little squat husband Augustus, sat down to tea.

"What a dreadful thing to happen!" said the old auntie; "what do you think they will do with him?"

"Do with him!" said Marvel; "do with him!"—the god of vengeance looking out of her fiery black eyes—"I should like to have the job of lynching him myself!"

"Marvel!" said auntie in reproof.

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His bandolier slung over his shoulder and the spurs clanking at every movement of his feet, in his vain efforts to evade Marvel's questionings about the murder he vouchsafed but few replies, while the ravishing beauty of her eyes was to him a sumptuous feast.

Marvel's uncle was an inspector of cotton plantations in the government employ. Some blunder which he had made in condemning healthy plantations on the Alabama river on behalf of the department had necessitated the formation of a board to sit upon him. The probable decision of the board, then sitting, was descanted on by the diminutive uncle after tea with all its pros and cons before the doctor, who knew as much about blight in cotton plantations as he knew of stopes and gutters, hydraulic rams and drives. Sitting by the fire, the little man rolled Turkish tobacco into little slips of tissue paper making cigarettes which Whitworth smoked as fast as the dwarf made them, while Marvel—although he affected to listen to the inspector's blunders—was the only ray of light to Eugene in the room as she assisted the servant in clearing away the table.

"Now then," said auntie, "cards, Marvel please;" when they all fell in around the table and began to play. The little table was a very tight fit for four. The vivacity, the piquant, and the gleeful way in which Marvel handled the cards reached very often the climax of puerility; whenever she went nap and got through with it her excitement was as intense as that of the owner of the winner of the Corinthian Cup3. She would garnish in the money, mostly quarter-dollar pieces, and making a little pyramid of them, count them over every hand that was dealt. The lineaments of her face changing with every varying mood, it was evident that some volcanic forces were at work beneath the external complacence of her smiles; for whenever she lost a quarter-dollar she became fretful, sour and morose. The uncouth dwarf spat on the floor several times, and auntie thinking the spits were coins stooped down and essayed to pick them up; but wetting her fingers, she told him that it took more money to keep him in cigarettes than it did to feed the turkeys or repair the blunder in the report and pay the expenses of the board. With this little contretemps the card party went nicely and smoothly along: but as it was close upon twelve o'clock, and he heard the mustang neighing in the paddock, he rose to leave. All his cash was gone, and the Bird of Paradise was inordinately buoyant and triumphant.

1 A spray of flowers worn in the buttonhole. OED Online.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

2 'Extraordinary', or 'extra', a special edition of a newspaper, printed between regular editions, containing news too important or profitable to hold for the next edition.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]

3 A horse race once run in Urana, Riverina, New South Wales. Cavill 1997.

[Note added by Sara Berger as annotator]