The Evil Genius Page 01
The Evil Genius
by Wilkie Collins
A Domestic Story
Affectionately Dedicated to Holman Hunt
BEFORE THE STORY.
Miss Westerfield's Education
THE gentlemen of the jury retired to consider their verdict.
Their foreman was a person doubly distinguished among his colleagues. He had the clearest head, and the readiest tongue. For once the right man was in the right place.
Of the eleven jurymen, four showed their characters on the surface. They were:
The hungry juryman, who wanted his dinner.
The inattentive juryman, who drew pictures on his blotting paper.
The nervous juryman, who suffered from fidgets.
The silent juryman, who decided the verdict.
Of the seven remaining members, one was a little drowsy man who gave no trouble; one was an irritable invalid who served under protest; and five represented that vast majority of the population--easily governed, tranquilly happy--which has no opinion of its own.
The foreman took his place at the head of the table. His colleagues seated themselves on either side of him. Then there fell upon that assembly of men a silence, never known among an assembly of women--the silence which proceeds from a general reluctance to be the person who speaks first.
It was the foreman's duty, under these circumstances, to treat his deliberative brethren as we treat our watches when they stop: he wound the jury up and set them going.
"Gentlemen," he began, "have you formed any decided opinion on the case--thus far?"
Some of them said "Yes," and some of them said "No." The little drowsy man said nothing. The fretful invalid cried, "Go on!" The nervous juryman suddenly rose. His brethren all looked at him, inspired by the same fear of having got an orator among them. He was an essentially polite man; and he hastened to relieve their minds. "Pray don't be alarmed, gentlemen: I am not going to make a speech. I suffer from fidgets. Excuse me if I occasionally change my position." The hungry juryman (who dined early) looked at his watch. "Half-past four," he said. "For Heaven's sake cut it short." He was the fattest person present; and he suggested a subject to the inattentive juryman who drew pictures on his blotting-paper. Deeply interested in the progress of the likeness, his neighbors on either side looked over his shoulders. The little drowsy man woke with a start, and begged pardon of everybody. The fretful invalid said to himself, "Damned fools, all of them!" The patient foreman, biding his time, stated the case.
"The prisoner waiting our verdict, gentlemen, is the Honorable Roderick Westerfield, younger brother of the present Lord Le Basque. He is charged with willfully casting away the British bark John Jerniman, under his command, for the purpose of fraudulently obtaining a share of the insurance money; and further of possessing himself of certain Brazilian diamonds, which formed part of the cargo. In plain words, here is a gentleman born in the higher ranks of life accused of being a thief. Before we attempt to arrive at a decision, we shall only be doing him justice if we try to form some general estimate of his character, based on the evidence--and we may fairly begin by inquiring into his relations with the noble family to which he belongs. The evidence, so far, is not altogether creditable to him. Being at the time an officer of the Royal Navy, he appears to have outraged the feelings of his family by marrying a barmaid at a public-house."
The drowsy juryman, happening to be awake at that moment, surprised the foreman by interposing a statement. "Talking of barmaids," he said, "I know a curate's daughter. She's in distressed circumstances, poor thing; and she's a barmaid somewhere in the north of England. Curiously enough, the name of the town has escaped my memory. If we had a map of England--" There he was interrupted, cruelly interrupted, by one of his brethren.
"And by what right," cried the greedy juryman, speaking under the exasperating influence of hunger--"by what right does Mr. Westerfield's family dare to suppose that a barmaid may not be a perfectly virtuous woman?"
Hearing this, the restless gentleman (in the act of changing his position) was suddenly inspired with interest in the proceedings. "Pardon me for putting myself forward," he said, with his customary politeness. "Speaking as an abstainer from fermented liquors, I must really protest against these allusions to barmaids."
"Speaking as a consumer of fermented liquors," the invalid remarked, "I wish I had a barmaid and a bottle of champagne before me now."
Superior to interruption, the admirable foreman went on:
"Whatever you may think, gentlemen, of the prisoner's marriage, we have it in evidence that his relatives turned their backs on him from that moment--with the one merciful exception of the head of the family. Lord Le Basque exerted his influence with the Admiralty, and obtained for his brother (then out of employment) an appointment to a ship. All the witnesses agree that Mr. Westerfield thoroughly understood his profession. If he could have controlled himself, he might have risen to high rank in the Navy. His temper was his ruin. He quarreled with one of his superior officers--"
"Under strong provocation," said a member of the jury.
"Under strong provocation," the foreman admitted. But provocation is not an excuse, judged by the rules of discipline. The prisoner challenged the officer on duty to fight a duel, at the first opportunity, on shore; and, receiving a contemptuous refusal, struck him on the quarter-deck. As a matter of course, Mr. Westerfield was tried by court-martial, and was dismissed the service. Lord Le Basque's patience was not exhausted yet. The Merchant Service offered a last chance to the prisoner of retrieving his position, to some extent at least. He was fit for the sea, and fit for nothing else. At my lord's earnest request the owners of the John Jerniman, trading between Liverpool and Rio, took Mr. Westerfield on trial as first mate, and, to his credit be it said, he justified his brother's faith in him. In a tempest off the coast of Africa the captain was washed overboard and the first mate succeeded to the command. His seamanship and courage saved the vessel, under circumstances of danger which paralyzed the efforts of the other officers.. He was confirmed, rightly confirmed, in the command of the ship. And, so far, we shall certainly not be wrong if we view his character on the favorable side."
There the foreman paused, to collect his ideas.
Certain members of the assembly--led by the juryman who wanted his dinner, and supported by his inattentive colleague, then engaged in drawing a ship in a storm, and a captain falling overboard--proposed the acquittal of the prisoner without further consideration. But the fretful invalid cried "Stuff!" and the five jurymen who had no opinions of their own, struck by the admirable brevity with which he expressed his sentiments, sang out in chorus, "Hear! hear! hear!" The silent juryman, hitherto overlooked, now attracted attention. He was a bald-headed person of uncertain age, buttoned up tight in a long frockcoat, and wearing his gloves all through the proceedings. When the chorus of five cheered, he smiled mysteriously. Everybody wondered what that smile meant. The silent juryman kept his opinion to himself. From that moment he began to exercise a furtive influence over the jury. Even the foreman looked at him, on resuming the narrative.
"After a certain term of service, gentlemen, during which we learn nothing to his disadvantage, the prisoner's merits appear to have received their reward. He was presented with a share in the ship which he commanded, in addition to his regular salary as master. With these improved prospects he sailed from Liverpool on his last voyage to Brazil; and no one, his wife included, had the faintest suspicion that he left England under circumstances of serious pecuniary embarrassment. The testimony of his creditors, and of other persons with whom he associated distinctly proves that his leisure hours on shore had been employed in card-playing and in betting on horse races.