Chapter Eight. The Inquest

Until he and Ayscough walked into this particular one, Lauriston had never been in a Coroner's Court in his life. He knew very little about what went on in such places. He was aware that the office of Coroner is of exceeding antiquity; that when any person meets his or her death under suspicious circumstances an enquiry into those circumstances is held by a Coroner, who has a jury of twelve men to assist him in his duties: but what Coroner and jury did, what the procedure of these courts was, he did not know. It surprised him, accordingly, to find himself in a hall which had all the outward appearance of a court of justice--a raised seat, on a sort of dais, for the Coroner; a box for the jury; a table for officials and legal gentlemen; a stand for witnesses, and accommodation for the general public. Clearly, it was evident that when any one died as poor old Daniel Multenius had died, the law took good care that everybody should know everything about it, and that whatever mystery there was should be thoroughly investigated.

The general public, however, had not as yet come to be greatly interested in the death of Daniel Multenius. Up to that moment the affair was known to few people beyond the police, the relations of the dead man, and his immediate neighbours in Praed Street. Consequently, beyond the interested few, there was no great assemblage in the court that morning. A reporter or two, each with his note-book, lounged at the end of the table on the chance of getting some good copy out of whatever might turn up; some of the police officials whom Lauriston had already seen stood chatting with the police surgeon and a sharp-eyed legal looking man, who was attended by a clerk; outside the open door, a group of men, evidently tradesmen and householders of the district, hung about, looking as if they would be glad to get back to their businesses and occupations. Melky, coming in a few minutes after Lauriston had arrived, and sitting down by him, nudged his elbow as he pointed to these individuals.

"There's the fellows what sits on the jury, mister!" whispered Melky. "Half-a-crown each they gets for the job--and a nice mess they makes of it, sometimes. They've the power to send a man for trial for his life, has them chaps--all depends on their verdict. But lor' bless yer!--they takes their tip from the Coroner--he's the fellow what you've got to watch."

Then Melky looked around more narrowly, and suddenly espied the legal- looking man who was talking to the police. He dug his elbow into Lauriston.

"Mister!" he whispered. "You be careful what you say when you get into that there witness-box. See that man there, a-talking to the detectives?-- him with the gold nippers on his blooming sharp nose? That's Mr. Parminter!--I knows him, well enough. He's a lawyer chap, what the police gets when there's a case o' this sort, to ask questions of the witnesses, d'ye see? Watch him, Mr. Lauriston, if he starts a-questioning you!--he's the sort that can get a tale out of a dead cod-fish--s'elp me, he is! He's a terror, he is!--the Coroner ain't in it with him--he's a good sort, the Coroner, but Parminter--Lord love us! ain't I heard him turn witnesses inside out--not half! And here is the Coroner."

Lauriston almost forgot that he was an important witness, and was tempted to consider himself nothing but a spectator as he sat and witnessed the formal opening of the Court, the swearing-in of the twelve jurymen, all looking intensely bored, and the preliminaries which prefaced the actual setting-to-work of the morning's business. But at last, after some opening remarks from the Coroner, who said that the late Mr. Daniel Multenius was a well-known and much respected tradesman of the neighbourhood, that they were all sorry to hear of his sudden death, and that there were circumstances about it which necessitated a careful investigation, the business began--and Lauriston, who, for professional purposes, had heard a good many legal cases, saw, almost at once, that the police, through the redoubtable Mr. Parminter, now seated with his clerk at the table, had carefully arranged the presenting of evidence on a plan and system of their own, all of which, so it became apparent to him, was intended to either incriminate himself, or throw considerable suspicion upon him. His interest began to assume a personal complexion.

The story of the circumstances of Daniel Multenius's death, as unfolded in the witness-box into which one person went after another, appeared to be the fairly plain one--looked at from one point of view: there was a certain fascination in its unfolding. It began with Melky, who was first called--to identify the deceased, to answer a few general questions about him, and to state that when he last saw him, a few hours before his death, he was in his usual good health: as good, at any rate, as a man of his years--seventy-five--who was certainly growing feeble, could expect to be in. Nothing much was asked of Melky, and nothing beyond bare facts volunteered by him: the astute Mr. Parminter left him alone. A more important witness was the police-surgeon, who testified that the deceased had been dead twenty minutes when he was called to him, that he had without doubt been violently assaulted, having been savagely seized by the throat and by the left arm, on both of which significant marks were plainly visible, and that the cause of death was shock following immediately on this undoubted violence. It was evident, said this witness, that the old man was feeble, and that he suffered from a weak heart: such an attack as that which he had described would be sufficient to cause death, almost instantly.

"So it is a case of murder!" muttered Melky, who had gone back to sit by Lauriston. "That's what the police is leading up to. Be careful, mister!"

But there were three witnesses to call before Lauriston was called upon. It was becoming a mystery to him that his evidence was kept back so long-- he had been the first person to find the old man's dead body, and it seemed, to his thinking, that he ought to have been called at a very early stage of the proceedings. He was about to whisper his convictions on this point to Melky, when a door was opened and Zillah was escorted in by Ayscough, and led to the witness-box.

Zillah had already assumed the garments of mourning for her grandfather. She was obviously distressed at being called to give evidence, and the Coroner made her task as brief as possible. It was--at that stage--little that he wanted to know. And Zillah told little. She had gone out to do some shopping, at half-past-four on the previous afternoon. She left her grandfather alone. He was then quite well. He was in the front shop, doing nothing in particular. She was away about an hour, when she returned to find Detective-Sergeant Ayscough, whom she knew, and Mr. Lauriston, whom she also knew, in the shop, and her grandfather dead in the parlour behind. At this stage of her evidence, the Coroner remarked that he did not wish to ask Zillah any further questions just then, but he asked her to remain in court. Mrs. Goldmark had followed her, and she and Zillah sat down near Melky and Lauriston--and Lauriston half believed that his own turn would now come.

But Ayscough was next called--to give a brief, bald, matter-of-fact statement of what he knew. He had gone to see Mr. Multenius on a business affair--he was making enquiries about a stolen article which was believed to have been pledged in the Edgware Road district. He told how Lauriston ran into him as he entered the shop; what Lauriston said to him; what he himself saw and observed; what happened afterwards. It was a plain and practical account, with no indication of surprise, bias, or theory--and nobody asked the detective any questions arising out of it.

"Ain't nobody but you to call, now, mister," whispered Melky. "Mind your p's and q's about them blooming rings--and watch that Parminter!"

But Melky was mistaken--the official eye did not turn upon Lauriston but, upon the public benches of the court, as if it were seeking some person there.

"There is a witness who has volunteered a statement to the police," said the Coroner. "I understand it is highly important. We had better hear him at this point. Benjamin Hollinshaw!"

Melky uttered a curious groan, and glanced at Lauriston.

"Fellow what has a shop right opposite!" he whispered. "S'elp me!--what's he got to say about it?"

Benjamin Hollinshaw came forward. He was a rather young, rather self- confident, self-important sort of person, who strode up to the witness-box as if he had been doing things of importance and moment all his life, and was taking it quite as a matter of course that he should do another. He took the oath and faced the court with something of an air, as much as to imply that upon what he was about to say more depended than any one could conceive. Invited to tell what he knew, he told his story, obviously enjoying the telling of it. He was a tradesman in Praed Street: a dealer in second-hand clothing, to be exact; been there many years, in succession to his father. He remembered yesterday afternoon, of course. About half- past-five o'clock he was standing at the door of his shop. It was directly facing Daniel Multenius's shop door. The darkness had already come on, and there was also a bit of a fog in the street: not much, but hazy, as it were. Daniel Multenius's window was lighted, but the light was confined to a couple of gas-jets. There was a light in the projecting sign over the side entrance to the pawnshop, down the passage. For the first few minutes while he stood at his door, looking across to Multenius's, he did not see any one enter or leave that establishment. But he then saw a young man come along, from the Edgware Road direction, whose conduct rather struck him. The young man, after sauntering past Multenius's shop, paused, turned, and proceeded to peer in through the top panel of the front door. He looked in once or twice in that way. Then he went to the far end of the window and looked inside in the same prying fashion, as if he wanted to find out who was within. He went to various parts of the window, as if endeavouring to look inside. Finally, he stepped down the side-passage and entered the door which led to the compartments into which people turned who took things to pledge. He, Hollinshaw, remained at his shop door for some minutes after that--in fact, until the last witness came along. He saw Ayscough enter Multenius's front door and immediately pause--then the door was shut, and he himself went back into his own shop, his wife just then calling him to tea.

"You saw the young man you speak of quite clearly?" asked the Coroner.

"As clearly as I see you, sir," replied the witness.

"Do you see him here?"

Hollinshaw turned instantly and pointed to Lauriston.

"That's the young man, sir," he answered, with confidence.

Amidst a general craning of necks, Melky whispered to Lauriston.

"You'd ought to ha' had a lawyer, mister!" he said. "S'elp me, I'm a blooming fool for not thinking of it! Be careful--the Coroner's a-looking at you!"

As a matter of fact, every person in the court was staring at Lauriston, and presently the Coroner addressed him.

"Do you wish to ask this witness any questions?" he enquired.

Lauriston rose to his feet.

"No!" he replied. "What he says is quite correct. That is, as regards myself."

The Coroner hesitated a moment; then he motioned to Hollinshaw to leave the box, and once more turned to Lauriston.

"We will have your evidence now," he said. "And--let me warn you that there is no obligation on you to say anything which would seem to incriminate you."