The Law and the Lady

Wilkie Collins

Chapter 16 - First Question--Did The Woman Die Poisoned?


THE proceedings began at ten o'clock. The prisoner was placed at the Bar, before the High Court of Justiciary, at Edinburgh. He bowed respectfully to the Bench, and pleaded Not Guilty, in a low voice.

It was observed by every one present that the prisoner's face betrayed traces of acute mental suffering. He was deadly pale. His eyes never once wandered to the crowd in the Court. When certain witnesses appeared against him, he looked at them with a momentary attention. At other times he kept his eyes on the ground. When the evidence touched on his wife's illness and death, he was deeply affected, and covered his face with his hands. It was a subject of general remark and general surprise that the prisoner, in this case (although a man), showed far less self-possession than the last prisoner tried in that Court for murder--a woman, who had been convicted on overwhelming evidence. There were persons present (a small minority only) who considered this want of composure on the part of the prisoner to be a sign in his favor. Self-possession, in his dreadful position, signified, to their minds, the stark insensibility of a heartless and shameless criminal, and afforded in itself a presumption, not of innocence, but of guilt.

The first witness called was John Daviot, Esquire, Sheriff-Substitute of Mid-Lothian. He was examined by the Lord Advocate (as counsel for the prosecution); and said:

"The prisoner was brought before me on the present charge. He made and subscribed a Declaration on the 29th of October. It was freely and voluntarily made, the prisoner having been first duly warned and admonished."

Having identified the Declaration, the Sheriff-Substitute--being cross-examined by the Dean of Faculty (as counsel for the defense)--continued his evidence in these words:

"The charge against the prisoner was Murder. This was communicated to him before he made the Declaration. The questions addressed to the prisoner were put partly by me, partly by another officer, the procurator-fiscal. The answers were given distinctly, and, so far as I could judge, without reserve. The statements put forward in the Declaration were all made in answer to questions asked by the procurator-fiscal or by myself."

A clerk in the Sheriff-Clerk's office then officially produced the Declaration, and corroborated the evidence of the witness who had preceded him.

The appearance of the next witness created a marked sensation in the Court. This was no less a person than the nurse who had attended Mrs. Macallan in her last illness--by name Christina Ormsay.

After the first formal answers, the nurse (examined by the Lord Advocate) proceeded to say:

"I was first sent for to attend the deceased lady on the 7th of October. She was then suffering from a severe cold, accompanied by a rheumatic affection of the left knee-joint. Previous to this I understood that her health had been fairly good. She was not a very difficult person to nurse when you got used to her, and understood how to manage her. The main difficulty was caused by her temper. She was not a sullen person; she was headstrong and violent--easily excited to fly into a passion, and quite reckless in her fits of anger as to what she said or did. At such times I really hardly think she knew what she was about. My own idea is that her temper was made still more irritable by unhappiness in her married life. She was far from being a reserved person. Indeed, she was disposed (as I thought) to be a little too communicative about herself and her troubles with persons like me who were beneath her in station. She did not scruple, for instance, to tell me (when we had been long enough together to get used to each other) that she was very unhappy, and fretted a good deal about her husband. One night, when she was wakeful and restless, she said to me--"

The Dean of Faculty here interposed, speaking on the prisoner's behalf. He appealed to the Judges to say whether such loose and unreliable evidence as this was evidence which could be received by the Court.

The Lord Advocate (speaking on behalf of the Crown) claimed it as his right to produce the evidence. It was of the utmost importance in this case to show (on the testimony of an unprejudiced witness) on what terms the husband and wife were living. The witness was a most respectable woman. She had won, and deserved, the confidence of the unhappy lady whom she attended on her death-bed.

After briefly consulting together, the Judges unanimously decided that the evidence could not be admitted. What the witness had herself seen and observed of the relations between the husband and wife was the only evidence that they could receive.

The Lord Advocate thereupon continued his examination of the witness. Christina Ormsay resumed her evidence as follows:

"My position as nurse led necessarily to my seeing more of Mrs. Macallan than any other person in the house. I am able to speak from experience of many things not known to others who were only in her room at intervals.

"For instance, I had more than one opportunity of personally observing that Mr. and Mrs. Macallan did not live together very happily. I can give you an example of this, not drawn from what others told me, but from what I noticed for myself.

"Toward the latter part of my attendance on Mrs. Macallan, a young widow lady named Mrs. Beauly--a cousin of Mr. Macallan's--came to stay at Gleninch. Mrs. Macallan was jealous of this lady; and she showed it in my presence only the day before her death, when Mr. Macallan came into her room to inquire how she had passed the night. 'Oh,' she said, 'never mind how _I_ have slept! What do you care whether I sleep well or ill? How has Mrs. Beauly passed the night? Is she more beautiful than ever this morning? Go back to her--pray go back to her! Don't waste your time with me!' Beginning in that manner, she worked herself into one of her furious rages. I was brushing her hair at the time; and feeling that my presence was an impropriety under the circumstances, I attempted to leave the room. She forbade me to go. Mr. Macallan felt, as I did, that my duty was to withdraw, and he said so in plain words. Mrs. Macallan insisted on my staying in language so insolent to her husband that he said, 'If you cannot control yourself, either the nurse leaves the room or I do.' She refused to yield even then. 'A good excuse,' she said, 'for getting back to Mrs. Beauly. Go!' He took her at her word, and walked out of the room. He had barely closed the door before she began reviling him to me in the most shocking manner. She declared, among other things she said of him, that the news of all others which he would be most glad to hear would be the news of her death. I ventured, quite respectfully, on r emonstrating with her. She took up the hair-brush and threw it at me, and then and there dismissed me from my attendance on her. I left her, and waited below until her fit of passion had worn itself out. Then I returned to my place at the bedside, and for a while things went on again as usual.

"It may not be amiss to add a word which may help to explain Mrs. Macallan's jealousy of her husband's cousin. Mrs. Macallan was a very plain woman. She had a cast in one of her eyes, and (if I may use the expression) one of the most muddy, blotchy complexions it was ever my misfortune to see in a person's face. Mrs. Beauly, on the other hand, was a most attractive lady. Her eyes were universally admired, and she had a most beautifully clear and delicate color. Poor Mrs. Macallan said of her, most untruly, that she painted.

"No; the defects in the complexion of the deceased lady were not in any way attributable to her illness. I should call them born and bred defects in herself.

"Her illness, if I am asked to describe it, I should say was troublesome--nothing more. Until the last day there were no symptoms in the least degree serious about the malady that had taken her. Her rheumatic knee was painful, of course--acutely painful, if you like--when she moved it; and the confinement to bed was irksome enough, no doubt. But otherwise there was nothing in the lady's condition, before the fatal attack came, to alarm her or anybody about her. She had her books and her writing materials on an invalid table, which worked on a pivot, and could be arranged in any position most agreeable to her. At times she read and wrote a good deal. At other times she lay quiet, thinking her own thoughts, or talking with me, and with one or two lady friends in the neighborhood who came regularly to see her.

"Her writing, so far as I knew, was almost entirely of the poetical sort. She was a great hand at composing poetry. On one occasion only she showed me some of her poems. I am no judge of such things. Her poetry was of the dismal kind, despairing about herself, and wondering why she had ever been born, and nonsense like that. Her husband came in more than once for some hard hits at his cruel heart and his ignorance of his wife's merits. In short, she vented her discontent with her pen as well as with her tongue. There were times--and pretty often too--when an angel from heaven would have failed to have satisfied Mrs. Macallan.

"Throughout the period of her illness the deceased lady occupied the same room--a large bedroom situated (like all the best bedrooms) on the first floor of the house.

"Yes: the plan of the room now shown to me is quite accurately taken, according to my remembrance of it. One door led into the great passage, or corridor, on which all the doors opened. A second door, at one side (marked B on the plan), led to Mr. Macallan's sleeping-room. A third door, on the opposite side (marked C on the plan), communicated with a little study, or book-room, used, as I was told, by Mr. Macallan's mother when she was staying at Gleninch, but seldom or never entered by any one else. Mr. Macallan's mother was not at Gleninch while I was there. The door between the bedroom and this study was locked, and the key was taken out. I don't know who had the key, or whether there were more keys than one in existence. The door was never opened to my knowledge. I only got into the study, to look at it along with the housekeeper, by entering through a second door that opened on to the corridor.

"I beg to say that I can speak from my own knowledge positively about Mrs. Macallan's illness, and about the sudden change which ended in her death. By the doctor's advice I made notes at the time of dates and hours, and such like. I looked at my notes before coming here.

"From the 7th of October, when I was first called in to nurse her, to the 20th of the same month, she slowly but steadily improved in health. Her knee was still painful, no doubt; but the inflammatory look of it was disappearing. As to the other symptoms, except weakness from lying in bed, and irritability of temper, there was really nothing the matter with her. She slept badly, I ought perhaps to add. But we remedied this by means of composing draughts prescribed for that purpose by the doctor.

"On the morning of the 21st, at a few minutes past six, I got my first alarm that something was going wrong with Mrs. Macallan.

"I was awoke at the time I have mentioned by the ringing of the hand-bell which she kept on her bed-table. Let me say for myself that I had only fallen asleep on the sofa in the bedroom at past two in the morning from sheer fatigue. Mrs. Macallan was then awake. She was in one of her bad humors with me. I had tried to prevail on her to let me remove her dressing-case from her bed-table, after she had used it in making her toilet for the night. It took up a great deal of room; and she could not possibly want it again before the morning. But no; she insisted on my letting it be. There was a glass inside the case; and, plain as she was, she never wearied of looking at herself in that glass. I saw that she was in a bad state of temper, so I gave her her way, and let the dressing-case be. Finding that she was too sullen to speak to me after that, and too obstinate to take her composing draught from me when I offered it, I laid me down on the sofa at her bed foot, and fell asleep, as I have said.

"The moment her bell rang I was up and at the bedside, ready to make myself useful.

"I asked what was the matter with her. She complained of faintness and depression, and said she felt sick. I inquired if she had taken anything in the way of physic or food while I had been asleep. She answered that her husband had come in about an hour since, and, finding her still sleepless, had himself administered the composing draught. Mr. Macallan (sleeping in the next room) joined us while she was speaking. He too had been aroused by the bell. He heard what Mrs. Macallan said to me about the composing draught, and made no remark upon it. It seemed to me that he was alarmed at his wife's faintness. I suggested that she should take a little wine, or brandy and water. She answered that she could swallow nothing so strong as wine or brandy, having a burning pain in her stomach already. I put my hand on her stomach--quite lightly. She screamed when I touched her.

"This symptom alarmed us. We went to the village for the medical man who had attended Mrs. Macallan during her illness: one Mr. Gale.

"The doctor seemed no better able to account for the change for the worse in his patient than we were. Hearing her complain of thirst, he gave her some milk. Not long after taking it she was sick. The sickness appeared to relieve her. She soon grew drowsy and slumbered. Mr. Gale left us, with strict injunctions to send for him instantly if she was taken ill again.

"Nothing of the sort happened; no change took place for the next three hours or more. She roused up toward half-past nine and inquired about her husband. I informed her that he had returned to his own room, and asked if I should send for him. She said 'No.' I asked next if she would like anything to eat or drink. She said 'No' again, in rather a vacant, stupefied way, and then told me to go downstairs and get my breakfast. On my way down I met the housekeeper. She invited me to breakfast with her in her room, instead of in the servants' hall as usual. I remained with the housekeeper but a short time--certainly not more than half an hour.

"Coming upstairs again, I met the under-housemaid sweeping on one of the landings.

"The girl informed me that Mrs. Macallan had taken a cup of tea during my absence in the housekeeper's room. Mr. Macallan's valet had ordered the tea for his mistress by his master's directions. The under-housemaid made it, and took it upstairs herself to Mrs. Macallan's room. Her master, she said, opened the door when she knocked, and took the tea-cup from her with his own hand. He opened the door widely enough for her to see into the bedroom, and to notice that nobody was with Mrs. Macallan but himself.

"After a little talk with the under-housemaid, I returned to the bedroom. No one was there. Mrs. Macallan was lying perfectly quiet, with her face turned away from me on the pillow. Approaching the bedside, I kicked against something on the floor. It was a broken tea-cup. I said to Mrs. Macallan, 'How comes the tea-cup to be broken, ma'am?' She answered, without turning toward me, in an odd, muffled kind of voice, 'I dropped it.' 'Before you drank your tea, ma'am?' I asked. 'No,' she said; 'in handing the cup back to Mr. Macallan, after I had done.' I had put my question, wishing to know, in case she had spilled the tea when she dropped the cup, whether it would be necessary to get her any more. I am quite sure I remember correctly my question and her answer. I inquired next if she had been long alone. She said, shortly, 'Yes; I have been trying to sleep.' I said, 'Do you feel pretty comfortable?' She answered, 'Yes,' again. All this time she still kept her face sulkily turned from me toward the wall. Stooping over her to arrange the bedclothes, I looked toward her table. The writing materials which were always kept on it were disturbed, and there was wet ink on one of the pens. I said, 'Surely you haven't been writing, ma'am?' 'Why not?' she said; 'I couldn't sleep.' 'Another poem?' I asked. She laughed to herself--a bitter, short laugh. 'Yes,' she said, 'another poem.' 'That's good,' I said; 'it looks as if you were getting quite like yourself again. We shan't want the doctor any more to-day.' She made no answer to this, except an impatient sign with her hand. I didn't understand the sign. Upon that she spoke again, and crossly enough, too--'I want to be alone; leave me.'

"I had no choice but to do as I was told. To the best of my observation, there was nothing the matter with her, and nothing for the nurse to do. I put the bell-rope within reach of her hand, and I went downstairs again.

"Half an hour more, as well as I can guess it, passed. I kept within hearing of the bell; but it never rang. I was not quite at my ease--without exactly knowing why. That odd, muffled voice in which she had spoken to me hung on my mind, as it were. I was not quite satisfied about leaving her alone for too long a time together--and then, again, I was unwilling to risk throwing her into one of her fits of passion by going back before she rang for me. It ended in my venturing into the room on the ground-floor called the Morning-Room, to consult Mr. Macallan. He was usually to be found there in the forenoon of the day.

"On this occasion, however, when I looked into the Morning-Room it was empty.

"At the same moment I heard the master's voice on the terrace outside. I went out, and found him speaking to one Mr. Dexter, an old friend of his, and (like Mrs. Beauly) a guest staying in the house. Mr. Dexter was sitting at the window of his room upstairs (he was a cripple, and could only move himself about in a chair on wheels), and Mr. Macallan was speaking to him from the terrace below.

"'Dexter!' I heard Mr. Macallan say. 'Where is Mrs. Beauly? Have you seen anything of her?'

"Mr. Dexter answered, in his quick, off-hand way of speaking, 'Not I. I know nothing about her.'

"Then I advanced, and, begging pardon for intruding, I mentioned to Mr. Macallan the difficulty I was in about going back or not to his wife's room without waiting until she rang for me. Before he could advise me in the matter, the footman made his appearance and informed me that Mrs. Macallan's bell was then ringing--and ringing violently.

"It was then close on eleven o'clock. As fast as I could mount the stairs I hastened back to the bedroom.

"Before I opened the door I heard Mrs. Macallan groaning. She was in dreadful pain; feeling a burning heat in the stomach and in the throat, together with the same sickness which had troubled her in the early morning. Though no doctor, I could see in her face that this second attack was of a far more serious nature than the first. After ringing the bell for a messenger to send to Mr. Macallan, I ran to the door to see if any of the servants happened to be within call.

"The only person I saw in the corridor was Mrs. Beauly. She was on her way from her own room, she said, to inquire after Mrs. Macallan's health. I said to her, 'Mrs. Macallan is seriously ill again, ma'am. Would you please tell Mr. Macallan, and send for the doctor?' She ran downstairs at once to do as I told her.

"I had not been long back at the bedside when Mr. Macallan and Mrs. Beauly both came in together. Mrs. Macallan cast a strange look on them (a look I cannot at all describe), and bade them leave her. Mrs. Beauly, looking very much frightened, withdrew immediately. Mr. Macallan advanced a step or two nearer to the bed. His wife looked at him again in the same strange way, and cried out--half as if she was threatening him, half as if she was entreating him--'Leave me with the nurse. Go!' He only waited to say to me in a whisper, 'The doctor is sent for,' and then he left the room.

"Before Mr. Gale arrived Mrs. Macallan was violently sick. What came from her was muddy and frothy, and faintly streaked with blood. When Mr. Gale saw it he looked very serious. I heard him say to himself, 'What does this mean?' He did his best to relieve Mrs. Macallan, but with no good result that I could see. After a time she seemed to suffer less. Then more sickness came on. Then there was another intermission. Whether she was suffering or not, I observed that her hands and feet (whenever I touched them) remained equally cold. Also, the doctor's report of her pulse was always the same--'very small and feeble.' I said to Mr. Gale, 'What is to be done, sir?' And Mr. Gale said to me, 'I won't take the responsibility on myself any longer; I must have a physician from Edinburgh.'

"The fastest horse in the stables at Gleninch was put into a dog-cart, and the coachman drove away full speed to Edinburgh to fetch the famous Doctor Jerome.

"While we were waiting for the physician, Mr. Macallan came into his wife's room with Mr. Gale. Exhausted as she was, she instantly lifted her hand and signed to him to leave her. He tried by soothing words to persuade her to let him stay. No! She still insisted on sending him out of her room. He seemed to feel it--at such a time, and in the presence of the doctor. Before she was aware of him, he suddenly stepped up to the bedside and kissed her on the forehead. She shrank from him with a scream. Mr. Gale interfered, and led him out of the room.

"In the afternoon Doctor Jerome arrived.

"The great physician came just in time to see her seized with another attack of sickness. He watched her attentively, without speaking a word. In the interval when the sickness stopped, he still studied her, as it were, in perfect silence. I thought he would never have done examining her. When he was at last satisfied, he told me to leave him alone with Mr. Gale. 'We will ring,' he said, 'when we want you here again.'

"It was a long time before they rang for me. The coachman was sent for before I was summoned back to the bedroom. He was dispatched to Edinburgh for the second time, with a written message from Dr. Jerome to his head servant, saying that there was no chance of his returning to the city and to his patients for some hours to come. Some of us thought this looked badly for Mrs. Macallan. Others said it might mean that the doctor had hopes of saving her, but expected to be a long time in doing it.

"At last I was sent for. On my presenting myself in the bedroom, Doctor Jerome went out to speak to Mr. Macallan, leaving Mr. Gale along with me. From that time as long as the poor lady lived I was never left alone with her. One of the two doctors was always in her room. Refreshments were prepared for them; but still they took it in turns to eat their meal, one relieving the other at the bedside. If they had administered remedies to their patient, I should not have been surprised by this proceeding. But they were at the end of their remedies; their only business the seemed to be to keep watch. I was puzzled to account for this. Keeping watch was the nurse's business. I thought the conduct of the doctors very strange.

" By the time that the lamp was lighted in the sick-room I could see that the end was near. Excepting an occasional feeling of cramp in her legs, she seemed to suffer less. But her eyes looked sunk in her head; her skin was cold and clammy; her lips had turned to a bluish paleness. Nothing roused her now--excepting the last attempt made by her husband to see her. He came in with Doctor Jerome, looking like a man terror-struck. She was past speaking; but the moment she saw him she feebly made signs and sounds which showed that she was just as resolved as ever not to let him come near her. He was so overwhelmed that Mr. Gale was obliged to help him out of the room. No other person was allowed to see the patient. Mr. Dexter and Mrs. Beauly made their inquiries outside the door, and were not invited in. As the evening drew on the doctors sat on either side of the bed, silently watching her, silently waiting for her death.

"Toward eight o'clock she seemed to have lost the use of her hands and arms: they lay helpless outside the bed-clothes. A little later she sank into a sort of dull sleep. Little by little the sound of her heavy breathing grew fainter. At twenty minutes past nine Doctor Jerome told me to bring the lamp to the bedside. He looked at her, and put his hand on her heart. Then he said to me, 'You can go downstairs, nurse: it is all over.' He turned to Mr. Gale. 'Will you inquire if Mr. Macallan can see us?' he said. I opened the door for Mr. Gale, and followed him out. Doctor Jerome called me back for a moment, and told me to give him the key of the door. I did so, of course; but I thought this also very strange. When I got down to the servants' hall I found there was a general feeling that something was wrong. We were all uneasy--without knowing why.

"A little later the two doctors left the house. Mr. Macallan had been quite incapable of receiving them and hearing what they had to say. In this difficulty they had spoken privately with Mr. Dexter, as Mr. Macallan's old friend, and the only gentleman then staying at Gleninch.

"Before bed-time I went upstairs to prepare the remains of the deceased lady for the coffin. The room in which she lay was locked, the door leading into Mr. Macallan's room being secured, as well as the door leading into the corridor. The keys had been taken away by Mr. Gale. Two of the men-servants were posted outside the bedroom to keep watch. They were to be relieved at four in the morning--that was all they could tell me.

"In the absence of any explanations or directions, I took the liberty of knocking at the door of Mr. Dexter's room. From his lips I first heard the startling news. Both the doctors had refused to give the usual certificate of death! There was to be a medical examination of the body the next morning."

There the examination of the nurse, Christina Ormsay, came to an end.

Ignorant as I was of the law, I could see what impression the evidence (so far) was intended to produce on the minds of the jury. After first showing that my husband had had two opportunities of administering the poison--once in the medicine and once in the tea--the counsel for the Crown led the jury to infer that the prisoner had taken those opportunities to rid himself of an ugly and jealous wife, whose detestable temper he could no longer endure.

Having directed his examination to the attainment of this object, the Lord Advocate had done with the witness. The Dean of Faculty--acting in the prisoner's interests--then rose to bring out the favorable side of the wife's character by cross-examining the nurse. If he succeeded in this attempt, the jury might reconsider their conclusion that the wife was a person who had exasperated her husband beyond endurance. In that case, where (so far) was the husband's motive for poisoning her? and where was the presumption of the prisoner's guilt?

Pressed by this skillful lawyer, the nurse was obliged to exhibit my husband's first wife under an entirely new aspect. Here is the substance of what the Dean of Faculty extracted from Christina Ormsay:

"I persist in declaring that Mrs. Macallan had a most violent temper. But she was certainly in the habit of making amends for the offense that she gave by her violence. When she was quiet again she always made her excuses to me, and she made them with a good grace. Her manners were engaging at such times as these. She spoke and acted like a well-bred lady. Then, again, as to her personal appearance. Plain as she was in face, she had a good figure; her hands and feet, I was told, had been modeled by a sculptor. She had a very pleasant voice, and she was reported when in health to sing beautifully. She was also (if her maid's account was to be trusted) a pattern in the matter of dressing for the other ladies in the neighborhood. Then, as to Mrs. Beauly, though she was certainly jealous of the beautiful young widow, she had shown at the same time that she was capable of controlling that feeling. It was through Mrs. Macallan that Mrs. Beauly was in the house. Mrs. Beauly had wished to postpone her visit on account of the state of Mrs. Macallan's health. It was Mrs. Macallan herself--not her husband--who decided that Mrs. Beauly should not be disappointed, and should pay her visit to Gleninch then and there. Further, Mrs. Macallan (in spite of her temper) was popular with her friends and popular with her servants. There was hardly a dry eye in the house when it was known she was dying. And, further still, in those little domestic disagreements at which the nurse had been present, Mr. Macallan had never lost his temper, and had never used harsh language: he seemed to be more sorry than angry when the quarrels took place."--Moral for the jury: Was this the sort of woman who would exasperate a man into poisoning her? And was this the sort of man who would be capable of poisoning his wife?

Having produced this salutary counter-impression, the Dean of Faculty sat down; and the medical witnesses were called next.

Here the evidence was simply irresistible.

Dr. Jerome and Mr. Gale positively swore that the symptoms of the illness were the symptoms of poisoning by arsenic. The surgeon who had performed the post-mortem examination followed. He positively swore that the appearance of the internal organs proved Doctor Jerome and Mr. Gale to be right in declaring that their patient had died poisoned. Lastly, to complete this overwhelming testimony, two analytical chemists actually produced in Court the arsenic which they had found in the body, in a quantity admittedly sufficient to have killed two persons instead of one. In the face of such evidence as this, cross-examination was a mere form. The first Question raised by the Trial--Did the Woman Die Poisoned?--was answered in the affirmative, and answered beyond the possibility of doubt.

The next witnesses called were witnesses concerned with the question that now followed--the obscure and terrible question, Who Poisoned Her?