Scarhaven Keep by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XII. Good Men and True
Copplestone saw little of his bed that night. At seven o'clock in the evening came a telegram from Sir Cresswell Oliver, saying that he and Petherton were leaving at once, would reach Norcaster soon after midnight, and would motor out to Scarhaven immediately on arrival. Copplestone made all arrangements for their reception, and after snatching a couple of hours' sleep was up to receive them. By two o'clock in the morning Sir Cresswell and the old solicitor and Gilling--smuggled into their sitting-room--had heard all he had to tell about Zachary Spurge and his story.
"We must have that fellow at the inquest," said Petherton. "At any cost we must have him! That's flat!"
"You think it wise?" asked Sir Cresswell. "Won't it be a bit previous? Wouldn't it be better to wait until we know more?"
"No--we must have his evidence," declared Petherton. "It will serve as an opening. Besides, this inquest will have to be adjourned--I shall ask for that. No--Spurge must be produced."
"If Spurge comes into Scarhaven," observed Copplestone, "he'll be promptly collared by the police. They want him for poaching."
"Then they can get him when the proceedings are over," retorted the old lawyer, dryly. "They daren't touch him while he's giving evidence and that's all we want. Perhaps he won't come?--Oh he'll come all right if we make it worth his while. A month in Norcaster gaol will mean nothing to him if he knows there's a chance of that reward or something substantial out of it at the end of his sentence. You must go out to this retreat of his and bring him in--we must have him. Better go very early in the morning.
"I'll go now," said Copplestone. "It's as easy to go by night as by day." He left the other three to seek their beds, and himself slipped quietly out of the hotel by one of the ground-floor windows and set off in a pitch-black night to seek Spurge in his lair. And after sundry barkings of his shins against the rocks and scratchings of his hands and cheeks by the undergrowth of Hobkin's Hole he rounded the poacher out and delivered his message.
Spurge, blinking at his visitor in the pale light of a guttering candle, shook his head.
"I'll come, guv'nor," he said. "Of course. I'll come--and I'll trust to luck to get away, and it don't matter a deal if the luck's agen me--I've done a month in Norcaster before today, and it ain't half a bad rest-cure, if you only take it that way. But guv'nor--that old lawyer's making a mistake! You didn't ought to have my bit of evidence at this stage. It's too soon. You want to work up the case a bit. There's such a thing, guv'nor, in this world as being a bit previous. This here's too previous--you want to be surer of your facts. Because you know, guv'nor nobody'll believe my word agen Squire Greyle's. Guv'nor--this here inquest'll be naught but a blooming farce! Mark me! You ain't a native o' this part--I am. D'you think as how a Scarhaven jury's going to say aught agen its own Squire and landlord? Not it! I say, guv'nor--all a blooming farce! Mark my words!"
"All the same, you'll come?" asked Copplestone, who was secretly of Spurge's opinion. "You won't lose by it in the long run."
"Oh, I'll be there," responded Spurge. "Out of curiosity, if for nothing else. You mayn't see me at first, but, let the lawyer from London call my name out, and Zachary Spurge'll step forward."
There was abundant cover for Zachary Spurge and for half-a-dozen like him in the village school-house when the inquest was opened at ten-o'clock that morning. It seemed to Copplestone that it would have been a physical impossibility to crowd more people within the walls than had assembled when the coroner, a local solicitor, who was obviously testy, irritable, self-important and afflicted with deafness, took his seat and looked sourly on the crowd of faces. Copplestone had already seen him in conversation with the village doctor, the village police, Chatfield, and Marston Greyle's solicitor, and he began to see the force of Spurge's shrewd remarks. What, of course, was most desired was secrecy and privacy--the Scarhaven powers had no wish that the attention of all the world should be drawn to this quiet place. But outsiders were there in plenty. Stafford and several members of Bassett Oliver's company had motored over from Norcaster and had succeeded in getting good places: there were half-a-dozen reporters from Norcaster and Northborough, and plain-clothes police from both towns. And there, too, were all the principal folk of the neighbourhood, and Mrs. Greyle and her daughter, and, a little distance from Audrey, alert and keenly interested, was Addie Chatfield.
It needed very little insight or observation on the part of an intelligent spectator to see how things were going. The twelve good men and true, required under the provisions of the old statute to form a jury, were all of them either Scarhaven tradesmen or Scarhaven householders or labourers on the estate. Their countenances, as they took their seats under the foremanship of a man whom Copplestone already knew as Chatfield's under-steward, showed plainly that they regarded the whole thing as a necessary formality and that they were already prepared with a verdict. This impression was strengthened by the coroner's opening remarks. In his opinion, the whole affair--to which he did not even refer as unfortunate--was easily and quickly explained and understood. The deceased had come to the village to look round--on a Sunday be it observed--had somehow obtained access to the Keep, where, the ruins being strictly private and not open to the public on any consideration on Sunday, he had no right to be; had indulged his curiosity by climbing to the top of the ancient tower and had paid for it by falling down from that terrible height and breaking his neck. All that was necessary was for them to hear evidence bearing out these facts--after which they would return a verdict in accordance with what they had heard. Very fortunately the facts were plain, and it would not be necessary to call many witnesses.
Sir Cresswell Oliver turned to Copplestone who sat at one side of him, while Petherton sat on the other.
"I don't know if you notice that Greyle isn't here?" he whispered grimly. "In my opinion, he doesn't intend to show! We'll see!"
Certainly the Squire was not in the place. And there were soon signs that those who conducted the proceedings evidently did not consider his presence necessary. The witnesses were few; their examinations was perfunctory; they were out of the extemporised witness-box as soon as they were in it. Sir Cresswell Oliver--to give formal identification. Mrs. Wooler--to prove that the deceased man came to her house. One of the foremen of the estate--to prove the great care with which the Squire had searched for traces of the missing man. One of the estate labourers--to prove the actual finding of the body. The doctor--to prove, beyond all doubt, that the deceased had broken his neck.
The coroner, an elderly man, obviously well satisfied with the trend of things, took off his spectacles and turned to the jury.
"You have heard everything there is to be heard, gentlemen," said he. "As I remarked at the opening of this inquest, the case is one of great simplicity. You will have no difficulty in deciding that the deceased came to his death by accident--as to the exact wording of your verdict, you had better put it in this way:--that the deceased Bassett Oliver died as the result--"
Petherton, who, noticing the coroner's deafness, had contrived to seat himself as close to his chair of office as possible, quietly rose.
"Before the jury consider any verdict," he said in his loudest tones, "they must hear certain evidence which I wish to call. And first of all--is Mr. Marston Greyle present in this room?"
The coroner frowned, and the Squire's solicitor turned to Petherton.
"Mr. Greyle is not present," he said. "He is not at all well. There is no need for his presence--he has no evidence to give."
"If you don't have Mr. Greyle down here at once," said Petherton, quietly, "this inquest will have to be adjourned for his attendance. You had better send for him--or I'll get the authorities to do so. In the meantime, we '11 call one or two witnesses,--Daniel Ewbank!--to begin with."
There was a brief and evidently anxious consultation between Greyle's solicitor and the coroner; there were dark looks at Petherton and his companions. Then the foreman of the jury spoke, sullenly.
"We don't want to hear no Ewbanks!" he said. "We're quite satisfied, us as sits here. Our verdict is--"
"You'll have to bear Ewbank and anybody I like to call, my good sir," retorted Petherton quietly. "I am better acquainted with the law than you are." He turned to the coroner's officer. "I warned you this morning to produce Ewbank," he said. "Now, where is he?"
Out of a deep silence a shrill voice came from the rear of the crowd.
"Knows better than to be here, does Dan'l Ewbank, mister! He's off!"
"Very good--or bad--for somebody," remarked Petherton, quietly. "Then--until Mr. Marston Greyle comes--we will call Zachary Spurge."
The assemblage, jurymen included, broke into derisive laughter as Spurge suddenly appeared from the most densely packed corner of the room, and it was at once evident to Copplestone that whatever the poacher might say, no one there would attach any importance to it. The laughter continued and increased while Spurge was under examination. Petherton appealed to the coroner; the coroner affected not to hear. And once more the foreman of the jury interrupted.
"We don't want to hear no more o' this stuff!" he said. "It's an insult to us to put a fellow like that before us. We don't believe a word o' what he says. We don't believe he was within a mile o' them ruins on Sunday afternoon. It's all a put-up job!"
Petherton leaned towards the reporters.
"I hope you gentlemen of the press will make a full note of these proceedings," he observed suavely. "You at any rate are not biassed or prejudiced."
The coroner heard that in spite of his deafness, and he grew purple.
"Sir!" he exclaimed. "That is a most improper observation! It's a reflection on my position, sir, and I've a great mind--"
"Mr. Coroner," observed Petherton, leaning towards him, "I shall hand in a full report concerning your conduct of these proceedings to the Home Office tomorrow. If you attempt to interfere with my duty here, all the worse for you. Now, Spurge, you can stand down. And as I see Mr. Greyle there--call Marston Greyle!"
The Squire had appeared while Spurge was giving his evidence, and had heard what the poacher alleged. He entered the box very pale, angry, and disturbed, and the glances which he cast on Sir Cresswell Oliver and his party were distinctly those of displeasure.
"Swear him!" commanded Petherton. "Now, Mr. Greyle--"
But Greyle's own solicitor was on his legs, insisting on his right to put a first question. In spite of Petherton, he put it.
"You heard the evidence of the last witness?--Spurge. Is there a word of truth in it?"
Marston Greyle--who certainly looked very unwell--moistened his lips.
"Not one word!" he answered. "It's a lie!"
The solicitor glanced triumphantly at the Coroner and the jury, and the crowd raised unchecked murmurs of approval. Again the foreman endeavoured to stop the proceedings.
"We regard all this here as very rude conduct to Mr. Greyle," he said angrily. "We're not concerned--"
"Mr. Foreman!" said Petherton. "You are a foolish man--you are interfering with justice. Be warned!--I warn you, if the Coroner doesn't. Mr. Greyle, I must ask you certain questions. Did you see the deceased Bassett Oliver on Sunday last?"
"I needn't remind you that you are on your oath. Have you ever met the deceased man in your life?"
"You never met him in America?"
"I may have met him--but not to my recollection. If I did, it was in such a casual fashion that I have completely forgotten all about it."
"Very well--you are on your oath, mind. Where did you live in America, before you succeeded to this estate?"
The Squire's solicitor intervened.
"Don't answer that question!" he said sharply. "Don't answer any more. I object altogether to your line," he went on, angrily, turning to Petherton. "I claim the Coroner's protection for the witness."
"I quite agree," said the Coroner. "All this is absolutely irrelevant. You can stand down," he continued, turning to the Squire. "I will have no more of this--and I will take the full responsibility!"
"And the consequences, Mr. Coroner," replied Petherton calmly. "And the first consequence is that I now formally demand an adjournment of this inquest, sine die."
"On what grounds, sir?" demanded the Coroner.
"To permit me to bring evidence from America," replied Petherton, with a side glance at Marston Greyle. "Evidence already being prepared."
The Coroner hesitated, looked at Greyle's solicitor, and then turned sharply to the jury.
"I refuse that application!" he said. "You have heard all I have to say, gentlemen," he went on, "and you can return your verdict."
Petherton quietly gathered up his papers and motioned to his friends to follow him out of the schoolroom. The foreman of the jury was returning a verdict of accidental death as they passed through the door, and they emerged into the street to an accompaniment of loud cheers for the Squire and groans for themselves.
"What a travesty of justice!" exclaimed Sir Cresswell. "That fellow Spurge was right, you see, Copplestone. I wish we hadn't brought him into danger."
Copplestone suddenly laughed and touched Sir Cresswell's arm. He pointed to the edge of the moorland just outside the school-yard. Spurge was disappearing over that edge, and in a moment had vanished.