Chapter Twenty-One. What Manner of Death?

One of the three companions who stood curiously gazing at the new witness as he came into full view of the court had seen him before. Lauriston, who, during his residence in Paddington, had wandered a good deal about Maida Vale and St. John's Wood, instantly recognized Dr. Mirandolet as a man whom he had often met or passed in those excursions and about whom he had just as often wondered. He was a notable and somewhat queer figure--a tall, spare man, of striking presence and distinctive personality--the sort of man who would inevitably attract attention wherever he was, and at whom people would turn to look in the most crowded street. His aquiline features, almost cadaverous complexion, and flashing, deep-set eyes, were framed in a mass of raven-black hair which fell in masses over a loosely fitting, unstarched collar, kept in its place by a voluminous black silk cravat; his thin figure, all the sparer in appearance because of his broad shoulders and big head, was wrapped from head to foot in a mighty cloak, raven-black as his hair, from the neck of which depended a hood-like cape. Not a man in that court would have taken Dr. Mirandolet for anything but a foreigner, and for a foreigner who knew next to nothing of England and the English, and John Purdie, whose interest was now thoroughly aroused, was surprised as he heard the witness's answer to the necessary preliminary questions.

Nicholas Mirandolet--British subject--born in Malta--educated in England-- a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons and of the Royal College of Physicians--in private practice at Portsdown Road, Maida Vale, for the last ten years.

"I believe you were called to the deceased by the last witness, Dr. Mirandolet?" asked the Coroner. "Just so! Will you tell us what you found?"

"I found the deceased lying on the pavement, about a dozen yards from my house," answered Dr. Mirandolet, in a sharp, staccato voice. "A policeman was bending over him. Mr. Gardiner hurriedly told us what he had seen. My first thought was that the man was in what is commonly termed a fit--some form of epileptic seizure, you know. I hastily examined him--and found that my first impression was utterly wrong."

"What did you think--then?" enquired the Coroner.

Dr. Mirandolet paused and began to drum the edge of the witness-box with the tips of his long, slender white fingers. He pursed his clean-shaven lips and looked meditatively around him--leisurely surveying the faces turned on him. Finally he glanced at the Coroner, and snapped out a reply.

"I do not know what I thought!"

The Coroner looked up from his notes--in surprise.

"You--don't know what you thought?" he asked.

"No!" said Dr. Mirandolet. "I don't. And I will tell you why. Because I realized--more quickly than it takes me to tell it--that here was something that was utterly beyond my comprehension!"

"Do you mean--beyond your skill?" suggested the Coroner.

"Skill?" retorted the witness, with a queer, twisting grimace. "Beyond my understanding! I am a quick observer--I saw within a few seconds that here was a man who had literally been struck down in the very flush of life as if--well, to put it plainly, as if some extraordinary power had laid a blasting finger on the very life-centre within him. I was--dumfounded!"

The Coroner sat up and laid aside his pen.

"What did you do?" he asked quietly.

"Bade the policeman get help, and an ambulance, and hurry the man to St. Mary's Hospital, all as quickly as possible," answered Dr. Mirandolet. "While the policeman was away, I examined the man more closely. He was dying then--and I knew very well that nothing known to medical science could save him. By that time he had become perfectly quiet; his body had relaxed into a normal position; his face, curiously coloured when I first saw it, had become placid and pale; he breathed regularly, though very faintly--and he was steadily dying. I knew quite well what was happening, and I remarked to Mr. Gardiner that the man would be dead within half-an- hour."

"I believe you got him to the hospital within that time?" asked the Coroner.

"Yes--within twenty-five minutes of my first seeing him," said the witness. "I went with the ambulance. The man died very soon after admission, just as I knew he would. No medical power on earth could have saved him!"

The Coroner glanced at the little knot of professional men in the rear of the witness-box and seemed to be debating within himself as to whether he wanted to ask Dr. Mirandolet any more questions. Eventually he turned again to him.

"What your evidence amounts to, Dr. Mirandolet, is this," he said. "You were called to the man and you saw at once that you yourself could do nothing for him, so you got him away to the hospital as quickly as you possibly could. Just so!--now, why did you think you could do nothing for him?"

"I will tell you--in plain words," answered Dr. Mirandolet. "Because I did not recognize or understand one single symptom that I saw! Because, frankly, I knew very well that I did not know what was the matter! And so --I hurried him to people who ought to know more than I do and are reputedly cleverer than I am. In short--I recognized that I was in the presence of something--something!--utterly beyond my skill and comprehension!"

"Let me ask you one or two further questions," said the Coroner. "Have you formed any opinion of your own as to the cause of this man's death?"

"Yes!" agreed the witness, unhesitatingly. "I have! I believe him to have been poisoned--in a most subtle and cunning fashion. And"--here Dr. Mirandolet cast a side-glance at the knot of men behind him--"I shall be intensely surprised if that opinion is not corroborated. But--I shall be ten thousand times more surprised if there is any expert in Europe who can say what that poison was!"

"You think it was a secret poison?" suggested the Coroner.

"Secret!" exclaimed Dr. Mirandolet. "Aye--secret is the word. Secret--yes! And--sure!"

"Is there anything else you can tell us?" asked the Coroner.

"Only this," replied the witness, after a pause. "It may be material. As I bent over this man as he lay there on the pavement I detected a certain curious aromatic odour about his clothes. It was strong at first; it gradually wore off. But I directed the attention of the policeman and Mr. Gardiner to it; it was still hanging about him, very faintly, when we got him to the hospital: I drew attention to it there."

"It evidently struck you--that curious odour?" said the Coroner.

"Yes," answered Dr. Mirandolet. "It did. It reminded me of the East--I have lived in the East--India, Burmah, China. It seemed to me that this man had got hold of some Eastern scent, and possibly spilt some on his clothes. The matter is worth noting. Because--I have heard--I cannot say I have known--of men being poisoned in inhalation."

The Coroner made no remark--it was very evident from his manner that he considered Dr. Mirandolet's evidence somewhat mystifying. And Dr. Mirandolet stepped down--and in response to the official invitation Dr. John Sperling-Lawson walked into the vacated witness-box.

"One of the greatest authorities on poisons living," whispered Lauriston to Purdie, while Dr. Sperling-Lawson was taking the oath and answering the formal questions. "He's principal pathologist at that hospital they're talking about, and he constantly figures in cases of this sort. He's employed by the Home Office too--it was he who gave such important evidence in that Barnsbury murder case not so long since--don't you remember it?"

Purdie did remember, and he looked at the famous expert with great interest. There was, however, nothing at all remarkable about Dr. Sperling-Lawson's appearance--he was a quiet, self-possessed, plain-faced gentleman who might have been a barrister or a banker for all that any one could tell to the contrary. He gave his evidence in a matter-of-fact tone --strongly in contrast to Dr. Mirandolet's somewhat excited answers--but Purdie noticed that the people in court listened eagerly for every word.

He happened to be at the hospital, said Dr. Sperling-Lawson, when the man Parslett was brought in, and he saw him die. He fully agreed with Dr. Mirandolet that it was impossible to do anything to save the man's life when he was brought to the hospital, and he was quite prepared to say that the impossibility had existed from the moment in which Gardiner had seen Parslett collapse. In other words, when Parslett did collapse, death was on him.

"And--the cause of death?" asked the Coroner.

"Heart failure," replied the witness.

"Resulting from--what?" continued the Coroner.

Dr. Sperling-Lawson hesitated a moment--amidst a deep silence.

"I cannot answer that question," he said at last. "I can only offer an opinion. I believe--in fact, I am sure!--the man was poisoned. I am convinced he was poisoned. But I am forced to admit that I do not know what poison was used, and that after a most careful search I have not yet been able to come across any trace or sign of any poison known to me. All the same, I am sure he died from the effects of poison, but what it was, or how administered, frankly, I do not know!"

"You made a post-mortem examination?" asked the Coroner.

"Yes," replied the specialist, "in company with Dr. Seracold. The deceased was a thoroughly healthy, well-nourished man. There was not a trace of disease in any of the organs--he was evidently a temperate man, and likely to live to over the seventy years' period. And, as I have said, there was not a trace of poison. That is, not a trace of any poison known to me."

"I want to ask you a particularly important question," said the Coroner. "Are there poisons, the nature of which you are unacquainted with?"

"Yes!" answered the specialist frankly. "There are. But--I should not expect to hear of their use in London."

"Is there any European expert who might throw some light on this case?" asked the Coroner.

"Yes," said Dr. Sperling-Lawson. "One man--Professor Gagnard, of Paris. As a matter of fact, I have already sent certain portions of certain organs to him--by a special messenger. If he cannot trace this poison, then no European nor American specialist can. I am sure of this--the secret is an Eastern one."

"Gentlemen," said the Coroner, "we will adjourn for a week. By that time there may be a report from Paris."

The crowd surged out into the damp November morning, eagerly discussing the evidence just given. Purdie, Lauriston, and Guyler, all equally mystified, followed, already beginning to speculate and to theorize. Suddenly Melky Rubinstein hurried up to them, waving a note.

"There was a fellow waiting outside with this from Zillah," said Melky. "She'd heard you were all here, and she knew I was. We're to go there at once--she's found some letters to her grandfather from that man Purvis! Come on!--it's another step forward!"