Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
THE ADJOURNED INQUEST
THERE was an atmosphere of subdued activity, of hushed expectancy, in and about Arncliffe Hall. Near the main entrance groups of villagers discussed the situation in whispers, or listened, open-mouthed, to the astounding theories of local oracles. Each minute swelled the number of morbid curiosity-mongers. For twelve good men and true were to inquire into the circumstances surrounding Lord Arncliffe's death, and the place was all agog with excitement.
Harry Warren, indeed, made strenuous efforts to disperse the crowds which invaded the sacred precincts of the Hall. Nevertheless, though tenants to whom quarter-day was a period of humiliation shrank away from the presence of the dreaded agent, they only vanished from one spot to gather more thickly in another.
Joshua Perkins, cobbler and village Hampden, was in no small degree responsible for this contumacy. He pointed out that at an open court the rights of all were equal; and his spirited references to wealthy drones who passed their time lolling in carriages received the usual enthusiastic approval of certain gentlemen who passed their time lolling in public-houses.
As a matter of fact, the question of admitting the general public, as distinct from any local magnates who might choose to be present, had already been decided by P. C. Fox, who, as sole representative of law and order in Arncliffe, naturally had charge of such arrangements. This intelligent officer realized that the circumstance of the inquest being held at the Hall called for the exercise of discretion, and he had made up his mind to exclude all who did not attain to a certain standard of respectability. What that standard was it is not necessary to mention, but it was not unconnected with a desire on the part of P. C. Fox to lay up an honorable competency for his declining years.
The inquest, adjourned a week previously, after the hearing of formal evidence of identification, was the inevitable corollary of the post-mortem examination, an examination from which Dr. Smalley, whose presence had been invited as a matter of professional courtesy, emerged nervous and crestfallen, while Lester and Sir Henry Mathieson exhibited, in contradistinction, the bland, decorously cheerful satisfaction of the scientist who has lighted upon an unusually interesting exhibition of some rare phenomenon which he thoroughly understands.
The time arrived for the resumption of the inquiry; and the jury, looking more like condemned criminals than men who were to sit in judgment, shuffled into their places. There was, however, one exception to the general air of dejection. The unabashed Perkins was appointed foreman, and he intended to justify the liquid refreshment he had received and hoped to receive from his appreciative fellow-villagers.
For convenience, the proceedings were held in the library, and the unwonted scene offered ample scope to the reporters -- impressionists from the great dailies — who would describe the glint of sunshine athwart the Coroner's desk in a column and the story of Lord Arncliffe's death in a phrase.
Mrs. Warren, the essence of dignified bereavement; her son, flushed with the effort to appear at his ease; Edith Holt, tremulous, but smiling wistful gratitude for the sympathy of Aingier and his wife; these were the chief personages present, and, for a background, the huddled servants and gaping yokels. There were, too, the doctors and a granite-faced man from Scotland Yard, but these last, impassive and apparently indifferent, added no touch of human interest to the scene.
The Coroner briefly recapitulated the formal evidence taken at the previous sitting, and then recalled Simpson, the valet, who had deposed to finding Lord Arncliffe dead in his study.
"When did you last see Lord Arncliffe alive?" asked the Coroner.
"At five in the afternoon, sir."
"He did not appear to be unwell?"
"No, sir. He asked for his beef tea, and I went to the kitchen for it, but found that Miss Holt had already fetched it."
"Did Miss Holt usually give Lord Arncliffe his beef tea?"
"Yes, sir. I went back and just met her taking it in. She had been into the laboratory for some of his lordship's papers."
"Very well. Now, Mr. Simpson, you have been in Lord Arncliffe's employment for a very long period, have you not?"
"Thirty-eight years, sir. And a better master —"
"Quite so. Tell me, have you ever had reason to suppose that there was any one who bore a grudge against his lordship -- in short, that he had an enemy?"
"No, sir," said the man, positively, "in all the years I served Lord Arncliffe, I don't believe he ever harmed so much as a fly. But I know he was poisoned, and I'll never forgive myself for not believing him when he told me so."
"Ah! he told you so. Please explain the circumstances to the jury as well as you can remember them."
"Well, sir, it was just after one of his lordship's fainting fits, and he said to me: Simpson,' said he, 'I'm being murdered!' Of course I was a bit taken aback, but I thought his mind was wandering a little, though he was a wonderful intelligent gentleman, for all his age, and I tried to speak cheerful like. Not a bit of it,' I told him. Your lordship will live to be a hundred yet, if you only do as Dr. Smalley tells you."
"And what did Lord Arncliffe reply?" asked the Coroner.
Dr. Smalley coughed modestly.
"If you will excuse me for using such language about a gentleman above my station, sir," answered Simpson, " his lordship replied that Dr. Smalley was a confounded old fool!"
With one exception, everybody tittered. The Coroner busied himself with some imaginary notes for a moment, and then continued his examination of the witness.
"Did Lord Arncliffe persist in his assertion that an attempt was being made to kill him?"
"Yes, sir. He said he would be a dead man within a fortnight"
"You did not mention this matter to anybody?"
"No, sir. His lordship forbade me to do so. He told me that nothing could save him, and he did not want to be bothered."
"But it was your duty to take some steps."
"I did not think for a moment it was true, but, in any case, I knew my place better than to interfere with his lordship's wishes."
"Very well," said the Coroner, wearily; "you can stand down." He knew the hopelessness of arguing with a witness of this stamp.
"Just hold on a moment," interrupted Perkins, the foreman. "Did you notice anything strange in the young lady's manner when she brought in his lordship's beef tea? Did she seem upset?"
"No, not then —"
"Has Miss Holt appeared to be upset at any time recently?" asked the Coroner, quickly.
"Well, sir," said Simpson, with some reluctance, "I thought she had been crying when I went in earlier in the day. And his lordship certainly spoke rather sharper than usual."
Edith, listening tensely, went deathly pale, and leaned forward as though eager not to miss a word. The fickle attention of the spectators was instantly concentrated on her. This callous scrutiny in itself was sufficient to deepen the agitation of a young girl suddenly placed in so trying a position. But, in reality, she was oblivious to the glances leveled at her, and one person at least, the detective from Scotland Yard, noted the fact.
"You say Lord Arncliffe spoke sharply," continued the Coroner. "Can you tell me the substance of his conversation?"
"Why, sir, I was taking his lordship a letter, and Miss Edith -- I'd scorn to listen, but the door was on the jar — said something about not letting a young life be ruined because of one false step. Then his lordship said: It's three hundred pounds now; next time it will be three thousand."
"And what did Miss Holt reply?"
"I didn't hear any more, sir. I knocked at the door and went in. It was then I noticed that the young lady seemed a bit upset."
"And that was all?"
"Now, gentlemen," said the Coroner. "I propose to call the medical evidence, as I understand one of the witnesses is anxious to return to London. Sir Henry Mathieson!"
The Home Office expert stepped forward, the embodiment of that frock-coated urbanity which regards poor human clay as a mere adjunct of the laboratory. At this juncture, Inspector Hobson, the officer sent to Arncliffe by the Scotland Yard authorities, slipped quietly out of the room, taking Mr. Aingier with him. He did not return until the evidence of the expert was nearly finished.
"I believe, Sir Henry, you conducted the postmortem examination of Lord Arncliffe's body?" commenced the Coroner.
"That is so."
"Have you formed any opinion as to the cause of his lordship's death?"
"Yes; he unquestionably died of arsenical poisoning."
"And can you tell us, approximately, when the poison was administered?"
"I don't know," said Sir Henry, bluntly. "I found altogether twelve grains of arsenious acid in the abdominal viscera. Of that quantity the stomach contained nearly two grains, which were unabsorbed, and no doubt had been recently administered. In addition, there were rather more than four grains in the brain, and the latter fact proves conclusively that some considerable time elapsed between the first and the last doses."
"Arsenic is a cumulative poison, is it not?"
"Yes, but the quantities I have mentioned are absolutely preposterous. Arsenic is not, comparatively speaking, a rapid poison, but four grains alone would kill a man before a quarter of that amount found its way to his brain."
"Then what is your conclusion, Sir Henry?"
"I have reached none, excepting that death was due to arsenical poisoning. As you are no doubt aware, arsenic is highly irritant in its effects; we expect to find definite indications even in the case of a slight overdose. But Lord Arncliffe exhibited few of the usual signs, and none of them in a marked degree. In fact, I must confess myself at a loss to account for this exceptional absence of the ordinary symptoms."
Sir Henry Mathieson could afford to admit ignorance. That is one of the privileges of real knowledge. He retired, and Lester, taking his place, described how he had been called to see Lord Arncliffe, and how the slight irritation of neck and scalp had led him to suspect arsenical poisoning.
"I should like to add," he said, with a generosity which the fussy local practitioner scarcely deserved, "that had I been in regular attendance on Lord Arncliffe, and thus without an open mind on the point, these indications might possibly have escaped me. Lord Arncliffe was suffering from a form of heart disease which must inevitably have had a fatal termination at some early date. Under the circumstances, the very suddenness of his death pointed to natural causes."
"I presume, Dr. Lester, that you are in accord with Sir Henry Mathieson?"
"Entirely. Perhaps I should mention that Lord Arncliffe was extremely emaciated. He was naturally a man of spare build, but Dr. Smalley tells me that the loss of flesh since he examined him about a month ago is remarkable."
"Is that a condition you would expect in a case of slow poisoning by arsenic?"
"Certainly; but the quantity of arsenic found in the body is not compatible with the theory of slow poisoning, nor are the other symptoms nearly so definite as they should be. I am afraid I can offer no suggestion, excepting that Lord Arncliffe was poisoned by arsenic, administered in some form not at present known to medical science."
The evidence of Dr. Smalley opened up fresh ground. He dealt lightly with his own failure to detect the presence of poison, but he had a great deal to say about the foibles and eccentricities of the deceased peer.
"He was a most difficult patient," he said. "Although I visited him frequently, he had a strong objection to discussing the state of his health, and, under no circumstances, would he take medicine in any form."
"Was he, of late years, what you would describe as a mentally vigorous man?"
"He was a man of high intellect and considerable attainments, and, in one sense, I should say his powers were retained to the last. But his conduct in respect to the alleged poisoning points strongly, in my opinion, to mental derangement. We have the extraordinary codicil to his will, and on top of that he imparts his suspicions to three persons. I understand -- under a strict pledge of secrecy — all the time, mark you, without taking any steps for his protection and without seeking medical assistance. If we are to accept the evidence of the valet as to his lordship's estimate of my abilities," added Dr. Smalley with some bitterness, "it may account for his omission to make me acquainted with his suspicions, but one would surely expect him to seek some advice."
"Will you allow me to say, Mr. Coroner," interposed Lester, "that Dr. Smalley's general deductions are such as most medical men will indorse. But Lord Arncliffe was one of the greatest authorities on poisons, and eminently qualified to deal with his own condition. I do not think there is the shadow of a doubt that he knew the nature of the poison from which he was suffering, whether it was self-administered or not, and that he was perfectly aware no earthly skill could avail him."
"Is there no antidote?"
"I know of none to arsenic, except the stomach-pump," answered Lester, with decision. "When once a fatal dose has been absorbed into the system, the patient is doomed, and although certain drugs — magnesia, hydrated sesquioxide of iron, and the like — are often exhibited as a forlorn hope, I have never known them do any good."
Lester retired, with an apology for his interruption, and Dr. Smalley, rather ruffled at this fresh instance of what he considered the younger man's interference, continued his evidence.
"Are we to assume, Dr. Smalley, that you consider it probable Lord Arncliffe was responsible for his own death?"
"I consider it highly probable. We have just been reminded of his attainments as a toxicologist, and I think you will agree with me that such studies are highly dangerous to a layman. Even from the little I have seen of his laboratory, I should imagine it contains sufficient poisons to destroy countless thousands of people. He may have taken some fatal draft by accident; he may have experimented upon himself with some newly discovered solution of arsenic. But his semi-mysterious references to an attempt upon his life certainly suggest the purposeless cunning of a deranged mind."
With this dignified pronouncement, Dr. Smalley stepped down, fairly well satisfied with himself, all things considered.
It was now the turn of Edith. As she moved forward to the witness-stand there was a little buzz of excitement.