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SOME DISQUIETING REVELATIONS
IT was common knowledge that Lord Arncliffe had made her his heiress, and there are no conceivable circumstances under which a beautiful young woman with forty thousand a year is not an object of interest.
"Sweet young creature!" murmured women with marriageable sons.
"Peroxide of hydrogen, my dear!" whispered the mother of three hopeless daughters. "I expect her hair is nearly black at the roots."
Edith took her place with quiet dignity. Her cheeks remained colorless, and the fear that had come upon her when Simpson spoke of the conversation he had overheard still gripped her heart. But unconscious pride of blood kept her head erect, freed her voice from tremor, and gave her courage to return, at least with her eyes, the smile of kindly encouragement which met her as she passed close to Lester.
"I believe, Miss Holt, you acted as private secretary to the late Lord Arncliffe?" was the first query.
"How long were you employed in that capacity?"
"In the full sense, only about four years, but I have assisted him with his papers ever since he undertook my guardianship ten years ago."
"Then I presume you became Lord Arncliffe's amanuensis merely as a matter of what might be termed family arrangement?"
"Not at all. I owed my later education to him, but I had my living to earn, and, as I had some experience of his methods, he was good enough to engage me. Lord Arncliffe showed me unvarying kindness, and did not treat me as a servant; but he had strict ideas of business."
"You did not, then, regard yourself in the light of his heiress?"
"No. Such a thought never entered my mind. Lord Arncliffe had always impressed upon me that I must consider myself dependent on my own exertions."
"Now, Miss Holt, you have heard the evidence of the witness Simpson that you gave Lord Arncliffe his beef tea on the day of his death. Is that correct?"
"Yes; and it is also correct that I went into the laboratory, on my way back for a book Lord Arncliffe wanted."
"Was the beef tea ever out of your possession from the time the cook handed it to you until you brought it to Lord Arncliffe?"
"I am not sure. I could not find the book I was looking for, and I went to ask Lord Arncliffe where he had put it; but I cannot say whether I left the beef tea in the laboratory. If I did, it was not for more than a minute."
"Did Lord Arncliffe ever mention to you his belief that he was being poisoned?"
"Yes, several times within the last month. But his state of health was very low, and I really thought it was a delusion brought on by constant study of works dealing with toxicology. He seemed so positive, however, that I begged him to consult Dr. Smalley, but he said — he said —"
Edith hesitated in some confusion, and her pale lips parted into the ghost of a smile. Dr. Smalley, by some strange instinct conscious of impending calamity, wiped the perspiration from his brow, while a ripple of laughter went round the room.
"Go on, Miss Holt, go on," said the Coroner, encouragingly.
"He said that -- that he himself knew more about the subject than any doctor."
Smalley recovered his self-possession. The crisis had passed.
Miss Holt was obviously keeping something back, but the Coroner was merciful. "And, as he insisted that I should not speak of what he had told me, there was nothing more to be done," she added.
"But did you not think it your duty to take some steps in so serious a matter?"
"Lord Arncliffe would never have tolerated disobedience. Moreover, I did not regard it seriously. Had I done so I should, of course, have disregarded his prohibition."
"Do you think Lord Arncliffe was a man to commit suicide?"
"No, most decidedly not. He regarded self-destruction as a cowardly act under any circumstances. Nor do I imagine that he poisoned himself accidentally. He was always most scrupulously careful in handling poisons."
"Did anybody except Lord Arncliffe have access to the various poisons in his laboratory?"
"Only myself. All the drugs were kept under lock and key, and no servant, excepting Simpson, was allowed to enter the laboratory."
"But how came you to have access to all these poisons?"
Edith opened her eyes in astonishment. "I assisted Lord Arncliffe in his experiments," she explained. "I have done so for years. You must remember he was working for the good of humanity."
The girl saw nothing extraordinary in this, but in the eyes of the jury — hopelessly thick-headed, as Coroner's juries often are -- it made her a potential murderess at once. Perkins, the foreman, rubbed his hands. He intended to figure prominently in the public eye presently.
"I do not think we need trouble you any further, Miss Holt," said the Coroner.
"I presume, gentlemen," to the jury, "you have no questions to ask the witness?"
"Oh, yes, we have, begging your pardon," broke in Perkins, offensively. "We should like to know what the young lady and the old gentleman was quarrelin' about afore his lordship died."
"I certainly was not quarreling with Lord Arncliffe, then or at any other time," said Edith, haughtily. She did not flinch, but it was patent that she was agitated to a far greater degree than the occasion seemed to warrant.
The Coroner saw that she was overwrought, and decided to give her some little time to recover herself. " Well, gentlemen," he said, "I think we had better adjourn for luncheon now. No doubt, when the court reassembles, Miss Holt will explain any doubtful points to your satisfaction."
Edith retired to a private room with Mr. and Mrs. Aingier. When the solicitor's wife gave her a sympathetic squeeze of the arm, she promptly burst into tears.
"There, there, my dear!" said Mrs. Aingier soothingly.
Probably none but a woman knows precisely what "There, there!" means, but the formula appears to have a mysterious efficiency.
"Don't cry, my child," entreated the old lawyer. "Confound it! What does that idiot of a juryman mean by bothering you with his absurd questions? Things are coming to a pretty pass if you are to be badgered on account of an eavesdropping servant."
"I would not mind, Mr. Aingier, if it were only that," murmured Edith, tearfully; "but what Simpson says is true. I was discussing a very private matter with Lord Arncliffe — a matter which I must keep secret at any sacrifice."
"Well, my dear young lady, you are not compelled to tell your private affairs to a Coroner's jury, though, of course, secrecy often makes a mountain out of what is probably only a mole-hill. But what is this wonderful matter? Don't you think you had better let me judge what is best?"
Edith shook her head. "I am sorry," she faltered. "Don't think me ungrateful — you are so kind and good that I would tell you instantly if it only concerned myself. But the secret is not my own."
The solicitor was disappointed, even somewhat hurt. A man who has kept inviolable for years whole cupboards' full of other people's family skeletons does not like his clients to withhold confidences. But he was mainly concerned because he foresaw that Edith's reticence would be productive of illimitable gossip.
However, he pursued the subject no further. Edith, under the combined influence of cheerful conversation and a glass of wine, which her friends insisted she should take, became more composed. When the court reassembled she was calm enough, at least, outwardly.
The Coroner, with a rather puzzled expression, was studying a slip of paper which had been handed to him by the London detective. But he spoke encouragingly enough to Edith.
"I hope, Miss Holt, we shall not have to detain you long. The witness Simpson has deposed that on the day of Lord Arncliffe's death he heard his lordship addressing you in tones rather at variance with his usual manner. As anything bearing on the mental condition of the deceased is important, the jury would like to hear from you exactly what took place."
The question was skilfully put. Edith began to think she had absurdly exaggerated the ordeal before her. But shrewd old Mr. Aingier metaphorically tore his hair; he knew that such suavity boded ill for a witness.
"Simpson has reported our conversation correctly," Edith answered. "Lord Arncliffe and I had merely reopened the discussion of some private business upon which we had a difference of opinion. Lord Arncliffe was at all times rather impatient of opposition, and no doubt he spoke more sharply than was his wont."
"May I ask the nature of that business? You are not, of course, compelled to answer the question if you do not wish to do so."
"The business was purely of a private nature."
"There was some reference to a sum of three hundred pounds. Was that an item of the business under discusion?"
"Yes," admitted Edith faintly, lifting startled eyes to the Coroner. The moment she was dreading had come at last. "Lord Arncliffe had lent — perhaps I should say given — me three hundred pounds some little time previously."
"For what purpose did he give you this money?"
"That, sir, is my business." The "marquise" spirit was beginning to assert itself.
Mr. Aingier rose to his feet with well-simulated indignation. "Surely, sir," he protested, "it is not extraordinary that Lord Arncliffe should give so paltry a sum as three hundred pounds to the lady he had chosen to inherit his vast wealth?"
"Not at all, Mr. Aingier," returned the Coroner. "Nevertheless, we must remember that he took pains to prevent Miss Holt from anticipating any such conclusion. I presume, Miss Holt, Lord Arncliffe was not in the habit of giving you such amount of money?"
"Nor anything approaching such an amount?"
"No. I had my salary, sixty pounds a year, and Lord Arncliffe occasionally gave me a check for ten or fifteen pounds. I had to entertain such guests as visited him, and it was his wish that I should dress suitably. The three hundred pounds were given at my earnest request. I required the money urgently, and Lord Arncliffe was the only person to whom I could turn."
"Very well. I have here a canceled check of Lord Arncliffe's for three hundred pounds, dated six weeks before he died. Would this represent the payment to you?"
A more skilled hand than the Coroner's revealed itself. Detective-Inspector Hobson was beginning to move.
"You collected the amount personally from the Alnwick branch of the Great Northern Bank?" " Yes."
"All in gold?"
"Yes; I required it in gold." She was all spirit now. Those myosotis blue eyes had a glint of steel in them.
"A rather cumbersome method, I should imagine," commented the Coroner. He had been friendly disposed hitherto, but he began to feel nettled by the haughty indifference which had taken the place of maiden timidity.
"If you are suggesting that I asked for gold so that the money could not be traced," she said disdainfully, "I can only say that each attendant at the bank is acquainted with me."
The weather-cock sympathies of the crowd instantly veered towards Edith.
The Coroner, rather at a loss, pretended to busy himself with his papers, and a murmur of comment relieved the tension of the audience.
"She has soon acquired the forty-thousand-a-year manner!" was the common thought.
Yet each complacent critic asked: "Why did she, then a poor girl, want so much money?"
Edith's examination might have reached an abrupt conclusion, had not the watchful Hobson sent the Coroner another note. The official tones became ominously suave again.
"Pray do not misunderstand me, Miss Holt, I mentioned the matter because I understand that on another occasion you cashed a check of Lord Arncliffe's for two hundred and fifty pounds, which was also paid in gold."
"Yes. It was distributed by Lord Arncliffe to relieve the winter distress in the district, and I fetched the money because Mr. Warren, the agent, was suffering from a riding accident."
"So the bank officials would not think this second application for a large sum of gold in any way strange?"
"I have not considered the possibility of the bank people presuming to comment upon any act of mine."
"No doubt. The signature to the check is presumably that of Lord Arncliffe; but the amount was filled in by yourself, was it not?"
Steel was striking flint now, and the sparks were flying.
Aingier had thought it wise that Edith should avoid the least appearance of concealment; but he thought it high time to protest.
"If your object is to prove that the check for three hundred pounds was improperly obtained by Miss Holt," he said severely, "I shall strongly advise her not to answer any further questions. You must be perfectly aware, sir, that such a line of cross-examination as you have pursued should have been preceded by a caution."
The Coroner felt the injury inflicted by so public a rebuke. Much as he would have liked to assert the dignity of the court, policy dictated an attitude of conciliation. The lawyer was a mighty power in the county and could make things extremely unpleasant if he so listed.
"I fear I have expressed myself badly if I have given so unfortunate an impression," said the Coroner. "However, I will not trouble Miss Holt further; and I trust she will pardon me if in the performance of a public duty I have caused her any pain."
Edith bowed, and returned to her seat by Mrs. Aingier. In a sense the ordeal was a tonic. The scornful indignation excited by the Coroner's masked battery of innuendo was a far healthier emotion than the chilling fear which had possessed her before. Her indignation was nothing, however, to that of Lester, who had more than once endeavored to estimate what would be the penalty of throwing the King's representative out of the window.
The remaining evidence was of little importance. After Mrs. Warren and Aingier had indorsed the statements of previous witnesses, the Coroner proceeded to sum up.
"You will have judged from the evidence, gentlemen," he said, "that this is either a very simple or a very mysterious case. The most extraordinary feature is undoubtedly Lord Arncliffe's assertion that he was being poisoned. No doubt you will give that point full consideration. If his mental condition was normal when he made that statement, then it is clear that he has been the victim of foul play; but, on the other hand, if his mind was impaired by his long illness, we should be justified in assuming that he knew he was being poisoned for the very good reason that the poison was self-administered. In this connection I should like to remind you that two of the highest authorities are unable to say what form of arsenic was used; so it is evident the poisoner was no ordinary person. Here again, one cannot but recall Lord Arncliffe's intimate knowledge of poisons. However, I do not think there is sufficient evidence to justify us in assuming the deceased to have been insane, and without that assumption we cannot entertain the idea of suicide.
"If we consider the possibility that murder has been committed, the question of motive naturally suggests itself. The members of the household seem to have been devoted to their master, as, indeed, they had every reason to be. Mrs. Warren, Simpson, Mr. Harry Warren, Miss Holt —"
Another note from Inspector Hobson found its way unostentatiously to the Coroner's desk. He paused to read it. Then he looked up at the jury.
"There is a quite unexpected development, gentlemen," he said. "A fresh witness has just arrived from New York, and I am informed that his evidence is of the highest importance!"