The coroner's quest
The proceedings of that fine old institution, the coroner's court, are apt to have their dignity impaired by the somewhat unjudicial surroundings amidst which they are conducted. The present inquiry was to be held in a long room attached to the inn, ordinarily devoted, as its various appurtenances testified, to gatherings of a more convivial character.
Hither I betook myself after a protracted lunch and a meditative pipe, and being the first to arrive—the jury having already been sworn and conducted to the mortuary to view the remains—whiled away the time by considering the habits of the customary occupants of the room by the light of the objects contained in it. A wooden target with one or two darts sticking in it hung on the end wall and invited the Robin Hoods of the village to try their skill; a system of incised marks on the oaken table made sinister suggestions of shove-halfpenny; and a large open box filled with white wigs, gaudily colored robes and wooden spears, swords and regalia, crudely coated with gilded paper, obviously appertained to the puerile ceremonials of the Order of Druids.
I had exhausted the interest of these relics and had transferred my attentions to the picture gallery when the other spectators and the witnesses began to arrive. Hastily I seated myself in the only comfortable chair beside the one placed at the head of the table, presumably for the coroner; and I had hardly done so when the latter entered accompanied by the jury. Immediately after them came the sergeant, Inspector Badger, one or two plain-clothes men, and finally the divisional surgeon.
The coroner took his seat at the head of the table and opened his book, and the jury seated themselves on a couple of benches on one side of the long table.
I looked with some interest at the twelve "good men and true." They were a representative group of British tradesmen, quiet, attentive, and rather solemn; but my attention was particularly attracted by a small man with a very large head and a shock of upstanding hair whom I had diagnosed, after a glance at his intelligent but truculent countenance and the shiny knees of his trousers, as the village cobbler. He sat between the broad-shouldered foreman, who looked like a blacksmith, and a dogged, red-faced man whose general aspect of prosperous greasiness suggested the calling of a butcher.
"The inquiry, gentlemen," the coroner commenced, "upon which we are now entering concerns itself with two questions. The first is that of identity: who was this person whose body we have just viewed? The second is: How, when, and by what means did he come by his death? We will take the identity first and begin with the circumstances under which the body was discovered."
Here the cobbler stood up and raised an excessively dirty hand.
"I rise, Mr. Chairman," said he, "to a point of order." The other jurymen looked at him curiously and some of them, I regret to say, grinned. "You have referred, sir," he continued, "to the body which we have just viewed. I wish to point out that we have not viewed a body; we have viewed a collection of bones."
"We will refer to them as the remains, if you prefer it," said the coroner.
"I do prefer it," was the reply, and the objector sat down.
"Very well," rejoined the coroner, and he proceeded to call the witnesses, of whom the first was a laborer who had discovered the bones in the watercress-bed.
"Do you happen to know how long it was since the watercress-beds had been cleaned out previously?" the coroner asked, when the witness had told the story of the discovery.
"They was cleaned out by Mr. Tapper's orders just before he gave them up. That will be a little better than two years ago. In May it were. I helped to clean 'em. I worked on this very same place and there wasn't no bones there then."
The coroner glanced at the jury. "Any questions, gentlemen," he asked.
The cobbler directed an intimidating scowl at the witness and demanded:
"Were you searching for bones when you came on these remains?"
"Me!" exclaimed the witness. "What should I be searching for bones for?"
"Don't prevaricate," said the cobbler sternly; "answer the question: Yes or no."
"No, of course I wasn't."
The juryman shook his enormous head dubiously as though implying that he would let it pass this time but it mustn't happen again; and the examination of the witnesses continued, without eliciting anything that was new to me or giving rise to any incident, until the sergeant had described the finding of the right arm in the Cuckoo Pits.
"Was this an accidental discovery?" the coroner asked.
"No. We had instructions from Scotland Yard to search any likely ponds in this neighborhood."
The coroner discreetly forbore to press this matter any further, but my friend the cobbler was evidently on the qui vive, and I anticipated a brisk cross-examination for Mr. Badger when his turn came. The inspector was apparently of the same opinion, for I saw him cast a glance of the deepest malevolence at the too inquiring disciple of St. Crispin. In fact, his turn came next, and the cobbler's hair stood up with unholy joy.
The finding of the lower half of the trunk in Staple's Pond at Loughton was the inspector's own achievement, but he was not boastful about it. The discovery, he remarked, followed naturally on the previous one in the Cuckoo Pits.
"Had you any private information that led you to search this particular neighborhood?" the cobbler asked.
"We had no private information whatever," replied Badger.
"Now I put it to you," pursued the juryman, shaking a forensic, and very dirty, forefinger at the inspector; "here are certain remains found at Sidcup; here are certain other remains found at St. Mary Cray, and certain others at Lee. All those places are in Kent. Now isn't it very remarkable that you should come straight down to Epping Forest, which is in Essex, and search for those bones and find 'em?"
"We were making a systematic search of all likely places," replied Badger.
"Exactly," said the cobbler, with a ferocious grin, "that's just my point. I say, isn't it very funny that, after finding the remains in Kent some twenty miles from here, with the River Thames between, you should come here to look for the bones and go straight to Staple's Pond, where they happen to be—and find 'em?"
"It would have been more funny," Badger replied sourly, "if we'd gone straight to a place where they happened not to be—and found them."
A gratified snigger arose from the other eleven good men and true, and the cobbler grinned savagely; but before he could think of a suitable rejoinder the coroner interposed.
"The question is not very material," he said, "and we mustn't embarrass the police by unnecessary inquiries."
"It's my belief," said the cobbler, "that he knew they were there all the time."
"The witness has stated that he had no private information," said the coroner; and he proceeded to take the rest of the inspector's evidence, watched closely by the critical juror.
The account of the finding of the remains having been given in full, the police surgeon was called and sworn; the jurymen straightened their backs with an air of expectancy, and I turned over a page of my notebook.
"You have examined the bones at present lying in the mortuary and forming the subject of this inquiry?" the coroner asked.
"Will you kindly tell us what you have observed?"
"I find that the bones are human bones, and are, in my opinion, all parts of the same person. They form a skeleton which is complete with the exception of the skull, the third finger of the left hand, the knee-caps, and the leg-bones—I mean the bones between the knees and the ankles."
"Is there anything to account for the absence of the missing finger?"
"No. There is no deformity and no sign of its having been amputated during life. In my opinion it was removed after death."
"Can you give us any description of the deceased?"
"I should say that these are the bones of an elderly man, probably over sixty years of age, about five feet eight and a half inches in height, of rather stout build, fairly muscular, and well preserved. There are no signs of disease excepting some old-standing rheumatic gout of the right hip-joint."
"Can you form any opinion as to the cause of death?"
"No. There are no marks of violence or signs of injury. But it will be impossible to form any opinion as to the cause of death until we have seen the skull."
"Did you note anything else of importance?"
"Yes. I was struck by the appearance of anatomical knowledge and skill on the part of the person who dismembered the body. The knowledge of anatomy is proved by the fact that the corpse has been divided into definite anatomical regions. For instance, the bones of the neck are complete and include the top joint of the backbone known as the atlas; whereas a person without anatomical knowledge would probably take off the head by cutting through the neck. Then the arms have been separated with the scapula (or shoulder-blade) and clavicle (or collar-bone) attached, just as an arm would be removed for dissection.
"The skill is shown by the neat way in which the dismemberment has been carried out. The parts have not been rudely hacked asunder, but have been separated at the joints so skilfully that I have not discovered a single scratch or mark of the knife on any of the bones."
"Can you suggest any class of person who would be likely to possess the knowledge and skill to which you refer?"
"It would, of course, be possessed by a surgeon or medical student, and possibly by a butcher."
"You think that the person who dismembered this body may have been a surgeon or a medical student?"
"Yes; or a butcher. Some one accustomed to the dismemberment of bodies and skilful with the knife."
Here the cobbler suddenly rose to his feet.
"I rise, Mr. Chairman," said he, "to protest against the statement that has just been made."
"What statement?" demanded the coroner.
"Against the aspersion," continued the cobbler, with an oratorical flourish, "that has been cast upon a honorable calling."
"I don't understand you," said the coroner.
"Doctor Summers has insinuated that this murder was committed by a butcher. Now a member of that honorable calling is sitting on this jury——"
"You let me alone," growled the butcher.
"I will not let you alone," persisted the cobbler. "I desire——"
"Oh, shut up, Pope!" This was from the foreman, who, at the same moment, reached out an enormous hairy hand with which he grabbed the cobbler's coat-tails and brought him into a sitting posture with a thump that shook the room.
But Mr. Pope, though seated, was not silenced. "I desire," he said, "to have my protest put on record."
"I can't do that," said the coroner, "and I can't allow you to interrupt the witnesses."
"I am acting," said Mr. Pope, "in the interests of my friend here and the members of a honorable——"
But here the butcher turned on him savagely, and, in a hoarse stage-whisper, exclaimed:
"Look here, Pope; you've got too much of what the cat licks——"
"Gentlemen! gentlemen!" the coroner protested sternly; "I cannot permit this unseemly conduct. You are forgetting the solemnity of the occasion and your own responsible positions. I must insist on more decent and decorous behavior."
There was profound silence, in the midst of which the butcher concluded in the same hoarse whisper:
"—licks 'er paws with."
The coroner cast a withering glance at him, and, turning to the witness, resumed the examination.
"Can you tell us, Doctor, how long a time has elapsed since the death of the deceased?"
"I should say not less than eighteen months, but probably more. How much more it is impossible from inspection alone to say. The bones are perfectly clean—that is, clean of all soft structures—and will remain substantially in their present condition for many years."
"The evidence of the man who found the remains in the watercress-bed suggests that they could not have been there for more than two years. Do the appearances in your opinion agree with that view?"
"There is one more point, Doctor; a very important one. Do you find anything in any of the bones, or all of them together, which would enable you to identify them as the bones of any particular individual?"
"No," replied Dr. Summers; "I found no peculiarity that could furnish the means of personal identification."
"The description of a missing individual has been given to us," said the coroner; "a man, fifty-nine years of age, five feet eight inches in height, healthy, well preserved, rather broad in build, and having an old Pott's fracture of the left ankle. Do the remains that you have examined agree with that description?"
"Yes, so far as agreement is possible. There is no disagreement."
"The remains might be those of that individual?"
"They might; but there is no positive evidence that they are. The description would apply to a large proportion of elderly men, except as to the fracture."
"You found no signs of such a fracture?"
"No. Pott's fracture affects the bone called the fibula. That is one of the bones that has not yet been found, so there is no evidence on that point. The left foot was quite normal, but then it would be in any case, unless the fracture had resulted in great deformity."
"You estimated the height of the deceased as half an inch greater than that of the missing person. Does that constitute a disagreement?"
"No; my estimate is only approximate. As the arms are complete and the legs are not, I have based my calculations on the width across the two arms. But measurement of the thigh-bones gives the same result. The length of the thigh-bones is one foot seven inches and five-eighths."
"So the deceased might not have been taller than five feet eight?"
"That is so; from five feet eight to five feet nine."
"Thank you. I think that is all we want to ask you, Doctor; unless the jury wish to put any questions."
He glanced uneasily at that august body, and instantly the irrepressible Pope rose to the occasion.
"About that finger that is missing," said the cobbler. "You say that it was cut off after death?"
"That is my opinion."
"Now can you tell us why it was cut off?"
"No, I cannot."
"Oh, come now, Doctor Summers, you must have formed some opinion on the subject."
Here the coroner interposed. "The Doctor is only concerned with the evidence arising out of the actual examination of the remains. Any personal opinions or conjectures that he may have formed are not evidence, and he must not be asked about them."
"But, sir," objected Pope, "we want to know why that finger was cut off. It couldn't have been took off for no reason. May I ask, sir, if the person who is missing had anything peculiar about that finger?"
"Nothing is stated to that effect in the written description," replied the coroner.
"Perhaps," suggested Pope, "Inspector Badger can tell us."
"I think," said the coroner, "we had better not ask the police too many questions. They will tell us anything that they wish to be made public."
"Oh, very well," snapped the cobbler. "If it's a matter of hushing it up I've got no more to say; only I don't see how we are to arrive at a verdict if we don't have the facts put before us."
All the witnesses having now been examined, the coroner proceeded to sum up and address the jury.
"You have heard the evidence, gentlemen, of the various witnesses, and you will have perceived that it does not enable us to answer either of the questions that form the subject of this inquiry. We now know that the deceased was an elderly man, about sixty years of age, and about five feet eight to nine in height; and that his death took place from eighteen months to two years ago. That is all we know. From the treatment to which the body has been subjected we may form conjectures as to the circumstances of his death. But we have no actual knowledge. We do not know who the deceased was or how he came by his death. Consequently, it will be necessary to adjourn this inquiry until fresh facts are available, and as soon as that is the case, you will receive due notice that your attendance is required."
The silence of the Court gave place to the confused noise of moving chairs and a general outbreak of eager talk amidst which I rose and made my way out into the street. At the door I encountered Dr. Summers, whose dog-cart was waiting close by.
"Are you going back to town now?" he asked.
"Yes," I answered; "as soon as I can catch a train."
"If you jump into my cart I'll run you down in time for the five-one. You'll miss it if you walk."
I accepted his offer thankfully, and a minute later was spinning briskly down the road to the station.
"Queer little devil, that man Pope," Dr. Summers remarked. "Quite a character; a socialist, laborite, agitator, general crank; anything for a row."
"Yes," I answered; "that was what his appearance suggested. It must be trying for the coroner to get a truculent rascal like that on a jury."
Summers laughed. "I don't know. He supplies the comic relief. And then, you know, those fellows have their uses. Some of his questions were pretty pertinent."
"So Badger seemed to think."
"Yes, by Jove," chuckled Summers. "Badger didn't like him a bit; and I suspect the worthy inspector was sailing pretty close to the wind in his answers."
"You think he really has some private information?"
"Depends upon what you mean by 'information.' The police are not a speculative body. They wouldn't be taking all this trouble unless they had a pretty straight tip from somebody. How are Mr. and Miss Bellingham? I used to know them when they lived here."
I was considering a discreet answer to this question when we swept into the station yard. At the same moment the train drew up at the platform, and, with a hurried hand-shake and hastily spoken thanks, I sprang from the dog-cart and darted into the station.
During the rather slow journey homeward I read over my notes and endeavored to extract from the facts they set forth some significance other than that which lay on the surface, but without much success. Then I fell to speculating on what Thorndyke would think of the evidence at the inquest and whether he would be satisfied with the information that I had collected. These speculations lasted me, with occasional digressions, until I arrived at the Temple and ran up the stairs rather eagerly to my friends' chambers.
But here a disappointment awaited me. The nest was empty with the exception of Polton, who appeared at the laboratory door in his white apron, with a pair of flat-nosed pliers in his hands.
"The Doctor had to go down to Bristol to consult over an urgent case," he explained, "and Doctor Jervis has gone with him. They'll be away a day or two, I expect, but the Doctor left this note for you."
He took a letter from the shelf, where it had been stood conspicuously on edge, and handed it to me. It was a short note from Thorndyke apologizing for his sudden departure and asking me to give Polton my notes with any comments that I had to make.
"You will be interested to learn," he added, "that the application will be heard in the Probate Court the day after to-morrow. I shall not be present, of course, nor will Jervis, so I should like you to attend and keep your eyes open for anything that may happen during the hearing and that may not appear in the notes that Marchmont's clerk will be instructed to take. I have retained Dr. Payne to stand by and help you with the practise, so that you can attend the Court with a clear conscience."
This was highly flattering and quite atoned for the small disappointment; with deep gratification at the trust that Thorndyke had reposed in me, I pocketed the letter, handed my notes to Polton, wished him "Good-evening," and betook myself to Fetter Lane.