The Vanishing Man by R. Austin Freeman
Chapter XIV. Which Carries the Reader Into the Probate Court
The Probate Court wore an air of studious repose when I entered with Miss Bellingham and her father. Apparently the great and inquisitive public had not become aware of the proceedings that were about to take place, or had not realised their connection with the sensational "Mutilation Case"; but barristers and Press-men, better informed, had gathered in some strength, and the hum of their conversation filled the air like the droning of the voluntary that ushers in a cathedral service.
As we entered, a pleasant-faced, elderly gentleman rose and came forward to meet us, shaking Mr. Bellingham's hand cordially and saluting Miss Bellingham with a courtly bow.
"This is Mr. Marchmont, Doctor," said the former, introducing me; and the solicitor, having thanked me for the trouble I had taken in attending at the inquest, led us to a bench, at the farther end of which was seated a gentleman whom I recognised as Mr. Hurst.
Mr. Bellingham recognised him at the same moment and glared at him wrathfully.
"I see that scoundrel is here!" he exclaimed in a distinctly audible voice, "pretending that he doesn't see me, because he is ashamed to look me in the face, but--"
"Hush! hush! my dear sir," exclaimed the horrified solicitor; "we mustn't talk like that, especially in this place. Let me beg you--let me entreat you to control your feelings, to make no indiscreet remarks; in fact, to make no remarks at all," he added, with the evident conviction that any remarks that Mr. Bellingham might make would be certain to be indiscreet.
"Forgive me, Marchmont," Mr. Bellingham replied contritely. "I will control myself; I will really be quite discreet. I won't even look at him again--because, if I do, I shall probably go over and pull his nose."
This particular form of discretion did not appear to be quite to Mr. Marchmont's liking, for he took the precaution of insisting that Miss Bellingham and I should sit on the farther side of his client, and thus effectually separate him from his enemy.
"Who's the long-nosed fellow talking to Jellicoe?" Mr. Bellingham asked.
"That is Mr. Loram, K.C., Mr. Hurst's counsel; and the convivial-looking gentleman next to him is our counsel, Mr. Heath, a most able man and"--here Mr. Marchmont whispered behind his hand--"fully instructed by Doctor Thorndyke."
At this juncture the judge entered and took his seat; the usher proceeded with great rapidity to swear in the jury, and the Court gradually settled down into that state of academic quiet which it maintained throughout the proceedings, excepting when the noisy swing-doors were set oscillating by some bustling clerk or reporter.
The judge was a somewhat singular-looking old gentleman, very short as to his face and very long as to his mouth; which peculiarities, together with a pair of large and bulging eyes (which he usually kept closed), suggested a certain resemblance to a frog. And he had a curious frog-like trick of flattening his eyelids--as if in the act of swallowing a large beetle--which was the only outward and visible sign of emotion that he ever displayed.
As soon as the swearing-in of the jury was completed Mr. Loram rose to introduce the case; whereupon his lordship leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, as if bracing himself for a painful operation.
"The present proceedings," Mr. Loram explained, "are occasioned by the unaccountable disappearance of Mr. John Bellingham, of 141 Queen Square, Bloomsbury, which occurred about two years ago, or, to be more precise, on the twenty-third of November, nineteen hundred and two. Since that date nothing has been heard of Mr. Bellingham, and, as there are certain substantial reasons for believing him to be dead, the principal beneficiary under his will, Mr. George Hurst, is now applying to the Court for permission to presume the death of the testator and prove the will. As the time which has elapsed since the testator was last seen alive is only two years, the application is based upon the circumstances of the disappearance, which were, in many respects, very singular, the most remarkable feature of that disappearance being, perhaps, its suddenness and completeness."
Here the judge remarked in a still, small voice that "It would, perhaps, have been even more remarkable if the testator had disappeared gradually and incompletely."
"No doubt, my Lord," agreed Mr. Loram; "but the point is that the testator, whose habits had always been regular and orderly, disappeared on the date mentioned without having made any of the usual provisions for the conduct of his affairs, and has not since then been seen or heard of."
With this preamble Mr. Loram proceeded to give a narrative of the events connected with the disappearance of John Bellingham, which was substantially identical with that which I had read in the newspapers; and having laid the actual facts before the jury, he went on to discuss their probable import.
"Now, what conclusion," he asked, "will this strange, this most mysterious train of events suggest to an intelligent person who shall consider it impartially? Here is a man who steps forth from the house of his cousin or his brother, as the case may be, and forthwith, in the twinkling of an eye, vanishes from human ken. What is the explanation? Did he steal forth and, without notice or hint of his intention, take train to some seaport, thence to embark for some distant land, leaving his affairs to take care of themselves and his friends to speculate vainly as to his whereabouts? Is he now in hiding abroad, or even at home, indifferent alike to the safety of his own considerable property and the peace of mind of his friends? Or is it that death has come upon him unawares by sickness, by accident, or, more probably, by the hand of some unknown criminal? Let us consider the probabilities.
"Can he have disappeared by his own deliberate act? Why not? it may be asked. Men undoubtedly do disappear from time to time, to be discovered by chance or to reappear voluntarily after intervals of years and find their names almost forgotten and their places filled by new-comers. Yes; but there is always some reason for a disappearance of this kind, even though it be a bad one. Family discords that make life a weariness; pecuniary difficulties that make life a succession of anxieties; distaste for particular circumstances and surroundings from which there seems no escape; inherent restlessness and vagabond tendencies, and so on.
"Do any of these explanations apply to the present case? No, they do not. Family discords--at least those capable of producing chronic misery--appertain exclusively to the married state. But the testator was a bachelor with no encumbrances whatever. Pecuniary anxieties can be equally excluded. The testator was in easy, in fact, in affluent circumstances. His mode of life was apparently agreeable and full of interest and activity, and he had full liberty to change it if he wished. He had been accustomed to travel, and could do so again without absconding. He had reached an age when radical changes do not seem desirable. He was a man of fixed and regular habits, and his regularity was of his own choice and not due to compulsion or necessity. When last seen by his friends, as I shall prove, he was proceeding to a definite destination with the expressed intention of returning for purposes of his own appointing. He did return and then vanished, leaving those purposes unachieved.
"If we conclude that he has voluntarily disappeared and is at present in hiding, we adopt an opinion that is entirely at variance with all these weighty facts. If, on the other hand, we conclude that he has died suddenly, or has been killed by an accident or otherwise, we are adopting a view that involves no inherent improbabilities and that is entirely congruous with the known facts; facts that will be proved by the testimony of the witnesses whom I shall call. The supposition that the testator is dead is not only more probable than that he is alive; I submit that it is the only reasonable explanation of the circumstances of his disappearance.
"But this is not all. The presumption of death which arises so inevitably out of the mysterious and abrupt manner in which the testator disappeared has recently received most conclusive and dreadful confirmation. On the fifteenth of July last there were discovered at Sidcup the remains of a human arm--a left arm, gentlemen, from the hand of which the third, or ring, finger was missing. The doctor who has examined that arm will tell you that that finger was cut off either after death or immediately before; and his evidence will prove conclusively that that arm must have been deposited in the place where it was found just about the time when the testator disappeared. Since that first discovery, other portions of the same mutilated body have come to light; and it is a strange and significant fact that they have all been found in the immediate neighbourhood of Eltham or Woodford. You will remember, gentlemen, that it was either at Eltham or Woodford that the testator was last seen alive.
"And now observe the completeness of the coincidence. These human remains, as you will be told presently by the experienced and learned medical gentleman who has examined them most exhaustively, are those of a man of about sixty years of age, about five feet eight inches in height, fairly muscular and well preserved, apparently healthy, and rather stoutly built. Another witness will tell you that the missing man was about sixty years of age, about five feet eight inches in height, fairly muscular and well preserved, apparently healthy, and rather stoutly built. And--another most significant and striking fact--the testator was accustomed to wear upon the third finger of his left hand--the very finger that is missing from the remains that were found--a most peculiar ring, which fitted so tightly that he was unable to get it off after once putting it on; a ring, gentlemen, of so peculiar a pattern that had it been found on the body must have instantly established the identity of the remains. In a word, gentlemen, the remains which have been found are those of a man exactly like the testator; they differ from him in no respect whatever; they display a mutilation which suggests an attempt to conceal an identifying peculiarity which he undoubtedly presented; and they were deposited in their various hiding-places about the time of the testator's disappearance. Accordingly, when you have heard these facts proved by the sworn testimony of competent witnesses, together with the facts relating to the disappearance, I shall ask you for a verdict in accordance with that evidence."
Mr. Loram sat down, and adjusting a pair of pince-nez, rapidly glanced over his brief while the usher was administering the oath to the first witness.
This was Mr. Jellicoe, who stepped into the box and directed a stony gaze at the (apparently) unconscious judge. The usual preliminaries having been gone through, Mr. Loram proceeded to examine him.
"You were the testator's solicitor and confidential agent, I believe?"
"I was--and am."
"How long have you known him?"
"Judging from your experience of him, should you say that he was a person likely to disappear voluntarily and suddenly to cease to communicate with his friends?"
"Kindly give your reasons for that opinion."
"Such conduct on the part of the testator would be entirely opposed to his habits and character as they are known to me. He was exceedingly regular and business-like in his dealings with me. When travelling abroad he always kept me informed as to his whereabouts, or, if he was likely to be beyond reach of communications, he always advised me beforehand. One of my duties was to collect a pension which he drew from the Foreign Office, and on no occasion, previous to his disappearance, has he ever failed to furnish me punctually with the necessary documents."
"Had he, so far as you know, any reasons for wishing to disappear?"
"When and where did you last see him alive?"
"At six o'clock in the evening, on the fourteenth of October, nineteen hundred and two, at 141 Queen Square, Bloomsbury."
"Kindly tell us what happened on that occasion."
"The testator had called for me at my office at a quarter past three, and asked me to come with him to his house to meet Doctor Norbury. I accompanied him to 141 Queen Square, and shortly after we arrived Doctor Norbury came to look at some antiquities that the testator proposed to give to the British Museum. The gift consisted of a mummy with the four Canopic jars and other tomb-furniture, which the testator stipulated should be exhibited together in a single case and in the state in which they were then presented. Of these objects, the mummy only was ready for inspection. The tomb-furniture had not yet arrived in England, but was expected within a week. Doctor Norbury accepted the gift on behalf of the Museum, but could not take possession of the objects until he had communicated with the Director and obtained his formal authority. The testator accordingly gave me certain instructions concerning the delivery of the gift, as he was leaving England that evening."
"Are those instructions relevant to the subject of this inquiry?"
"I think they are. The testator was going to Paris, and perhaps from thence to Vienna. He instructed me to receive and unpack the tomb-furniture on its arrival, and to store it, with the mummy, in a particular room, where it was to remain for three weeks. If he returned within that time he was to hand it over in person to the Museum authorities; if he had not returned within that time, he desired me to notify the Museum authorities that they were at liberty to take possession of and remove the collection at their convenience. From these instructions I gathered that the testator was uncertain as to the length of his absence from England and the extent of his journey."
"Did he state precisely where he was going?"
"No. He said that he was going to Paris and perhaps to Vienna, but he gave no particulars and I asked for none."
"Do you, in fact, know where he went?"
"No. He left the house at six o'clock wearing a long, heavy overcoat and carrying a suit-case and an umbrella. I wished him 'Good-bye' at the door and watched him walk away as if going towards Southampton Row. I have no idea where he went, and I never saw him again."
"Had he no other luggage than the suit-case?"
"I do not know, but I believe not. He was accustomed to travel with the bare necessaries, and to buy anything further that he wanted en route."
"Did he say nothing to the servants as to the probable date of his return?"
"There were no servants excepting the caretaker. The house was not used for residential purposes. The testator slept and took his meals at his club, though he kept his clothes at the house."
"Did you receive any communication from him after he left?"
"No. I never heard from him again in any way. I waited for three weeks as he had instructed me, and then notified the Museum authorities that the collection was ready for removal. Five days later Doctor Norbury came and took formal possession of it, and it was transferred to the Museum forthwith."
"When did you next hear of the testator?"
"On the twenty-third of November following at a quarter past seven in the evening. Mr. George Hurst came to my rooms, which are over my office, and informed me that the testator had called at his house during his absence and had been shown into the study to wait for him. That on his--Mr. Hurst's--arrival it was found that the testator had disappeared without acquainting the servants with his intended departure, and without being seen by anyone to leave the house. Mr. Hurst thought this so remarkable that he had hastened up to town to inform me. I also thought it a remarkable circumstance, especially as I had received no communication from the testator, and we both decided that it was advisable to inform the testator's brother, Godfrey, of what had happened.
"Accordingly Mr. Hurst and I proceeded as quickly as possible to Liverpool Street and took the first train available to Woodford, where Mr. Godfrey Bellingham then resided. We arrived at his house at five minutes to nine, and were informed by the servant that he was not at home, but that his daughter was in the library, which was a detached building situated in the grounds. The servant lighted a lantern and conducted us through the grounds to the library, where we found Mr. Godfrey Bellingham and Miss Bellingham. Mr. Godfrey had only just come in and had entered by the back gate, which had a bell that rang in the library. Mr. Hurst informed Mr. Godfrey of what had occurred, and then we all left the library to walk up to the house. A few paces from the library I noticed by the light of the lantern, which Mr. Godfrey was carrying, a small object lying on the lawn. I pointed it out to him and he picked it up, and then we all recognised it as a scarab that the testator was accustomed to wear on his watch-chain. It was fitted with a gold wire passed through the suspension hole and a gold ring. Both the wire and the ring were in position, but the ring was broken. We went to the house and questioned the servants as to visitors; but none of them had seen the testator, and they all agreed that no visitor whatsoever had come to the house during the afternoon, or evening. Mr. Godfrey and Miss Bellingham both declared that they had neither seen nor heard anything of the testator, and were both unaware that he had returned to England. As the circumstances were somewhat disquieting, I communicated, on the following morning, with the police and requested them to make inquiries; which they did, with the result that a suit-case, bearing the initials 'J.B.', was found to be lying unclaimed in the cloak-room at Charing Cross Station. I was able to identify the suit-case as that which I had seen the testator carry away from Queen Square. I was also able to identify some of the contents. I interviewed the cloak-room attendant, who informed me that the suit-case had been deposited on the twenty-third at about 4.15 P.M. He had no recollection of the person who deposited it. It remained unclaimed in the possession of the railway company for three months, and was then surrendered to me."
"Were there any marks or labels on it showing the route by which it had travelled?"
"There were no labels on it and no marks other than the initials 'J.B.'"
"Do you happen to know the testator's age?"
"Yes. He was fifty-nine on the eleventh of October, nineteen hundred and two."
"Can you tell us what his height was?"
"Yes. He was exactly five feet eight inches."
"What sort of health had he?"
"So far as I know his health was good. I am not aware that he suffered from any disease. I am only judging by his appearance, which was that of a healthy man."
"Should you describe him as well preserved or otherwise?"
"I should describe him as a well-preserved man for his age."
"How should you describe his figure?"
"I should describe him as rather broad and stout in build, and fairly muscular, though not exceptionally so."
Mr. Loram made a rapid note of these answers, and then said:
"You have told us, Mr. Jellicoe, that you have known the testator intimately for twenty-seven years. Now, did you ever notice whether he was accustomed to wear any rings upon his fingers?"
"He wore upon the third finger of his left hand a copy of an antique ring which bore the device of the Eye of Osiris. That was the only ring he ever wore as far as I know."
"Did he wear it constantly?"
"Yes, necessarily; because it was too small for him, and having once squeezed it on he was never able to get it off again."
This was the sum of Mr. Jellicoe's evidence, and at its conclusion the witness glanced inquiringly at Mr. Bellingham's counsel. But Mr. Heath remained seated, attentively considering the notes that he had just made, and finding that there was to be no cross-examination, Mr. Jellicoe stepped down from the box. I leaned back on my bench, and, turning my head, observed Miss Bellingham deep in thought.
"What do you think of it?" I asked.
"It seems very complete and conclusive," she replied. And then, with a sigh, she murmured: "Poor old Uncle John! How horrid it sounds to talk of him in this cold-blooded, business-like way, as 'the testator,' as if he were nothing but a sort of algebraical sign."
"There isn't much room for sentiment, I suppose, in the proceedings of the Probate Court," I replied. To which she assented, and then asked: "Who is this lady?"
"This lady" was a fashionably dressed young woman who had just bounced into the witness-box and was now being sworn. The preliminaries being finished, she answered Miss Bellingham's question and Mr. Loram's by stating that her name was Augustina Gwendoline Dobbs, and that she was housemaid to Mr. George Hurst, of "The Poplars," Eltham.
"Mr. Hurst lives alone, I believe?" said Mr. Loram.
"I don't know what you mean by that," Miss Dobbs began; but the barrister explained:
"I mean that I believe he is unmarried?"
"Well, and what about it?" the witness demanded tartly.
"I am asking you a question."
"I know that," said the witness viciously; "and I say that you've no business to make any such insinuations to a respectable young lady when there's a cook-housekeeper and a kitchenmaid living in the house, and him old enough to be my father----"
Here his lordship flattened his eyelids with startling effect, and Mr. Loram interrupted: "I make no insinuations. I merely ask, Is your employer, Mr. Hurst, an unmarried man, or is he not?"
"I never asked him," said the witness sulkily.
"Please answer my question--yes or no?"
"How can I answer your question? He may be unmarried or he may not. How do I know? I'm not a private detective."
Mr. Loram directed a stupefied gaze at the witness, and in the ensuing silence a plaintive voice came from the bench:
"Is the point material?"
"Certainly, my lord," replied Mr. Loram.
"Then, as I see that you are calling Mr. Hurst, perhaps you had better put the question to him. He will probably know."
Mr. Loram bowed, and as the judge subsided into his normal state of coma he turned to the triumphant witness.
"Do you remember anything remarkable occurring on the twenty-third of November the year before last?"
"Yes. Mr. John Bellingham called at our house."
"How did you know he was Mr. John Bellingham?"
"I didn't; but he said he was, and I supposed he knew."
"At what time did he arrive?"
"At twenty minutes past five in the evening."
"What happened then?"
"I told him that Mr. Hurst had not come home yet, and he said he would wait for him in the study and write some letters; so I showed him into the study and shut the door."
"What happened next?"
"Nothing. Then Mr. Hurst came home at his usual time--a quarter to six--and let himself in with his key. He went straight through into the study, where I supposed Mr. Bellingham still was, so I took no notice, but laid the table for two. At six o'clock Mr. Hurst came into the dining-room--he has tea in the City and dines at six--and when he saw the table laid for two he asked the reason. I said I thought Mr. Bellingham was staying to dinner.
"'Mr. Bellingham!' says he. 'I didn't know he was here. Why didn't you tell me?' he says. 'I thought he was with you, sir,' I said. 'I showed him into the study,' I said. 'Well, he wasn't there when I came in,' he said, 'and he isn't there now,' he said. 'Perhaps he has gone to wait in the drawing-room,' he said. So we went and looked in the drawing-room, but he wasn't there. Then Mr. Hurst said he thought Mr. Bellingham must have got tired of waiting and gone away; but I told him I was quite sure he hadn't, because I had been watching all the time. Then he asked me if Mr. Bellingham was alone or whether his daughter was with him, and I said that it wasn't that Mr. Bellingham at all, but Mr. John Bellingham, and then he was more surprised than ever. I said we had better search the house to make sure whether he was there or not, and Mr. Hurst said he would come with me; so we went all over the house and looked in all the rooms, but there was not a sign of Mr. Bellingham in any of them. Then Mr. Hurst got very nervous and upset, and when he had just snatched a little dinner he ran off to catch the six-thirty train up to town."
"You say that Mr. Bellingham could not have left the house because you were watching all the time. Where were you while you were watching?"
"I was in the kitchen. I could see the front gate from the kitchen window."
"You say that you laid the table for two. Where did you lay it?"
"In the dining-room, of course."
"Could you see the front gate from the dining-room?"
"No, but I could see the study door. The study is opposite the dining-room."
"Do you have to come upstairs to get from the kitchen to the dining-room?"
"Yes, of course you do!"
"Then might not Mr. Bellingham have left the house while you were coming up the stairs?"
"No, he couldn't have done."
"Because it would have been impossible."
"But why would it have been impossible?"
"Because he couldn't have done it."
"I suggest that Mr. Bellingham left the house quietly while you were on the stairs?"
"No, he didn't."
"How do you know he did not?"
"I am quite sure he didn't."
"What makes you feel sure he did not?"
"I am quite certain he didn't."
"But how can you be certain?"
"Because I should have seen him if he had."
"But I mean when you were on the stairs."
"He was in the study when I was on the stairs."
"How do you know he was in the study?"
"Because I showed him in there and he hadn't come out."
Mr. Loram paused and took a deep breath, and his lordship flattened his eyelids.
"Is there a side gate to the premises?" the barrister resumed wearily.
"Yes. It opens into a narrow lane at the side of the house."
"And there is a French window in the study, is there not?"
"Yes; it opens on to the small grass plot opposite the side gate."
"Were the window and the gate locked, or would it have been possible for Mr. Bellingham to let himself out into the lane?"
"The window and the gate both have catches on the inside. He could have got out that way, but, of course, he didn't."
"Well, no gentleman would go creeping out by the back way like a thief."
"Did you look to see if the French window was shut and fastened after you missed Mr. Bellingham?"
"I looked at it when we shut the house up for the night. It was then shut and fastened on the inside."
"And the side gate?"
"That was shut and latched. You have to slam the gate to make the latch fasten, so no one could have gone out of that gate without being heard."
Here the examination-in-chief ended, and Mr. Loram sat down with an audible sigh of relief. Miss Dobbs was about to step down from the witness-box when Mr. Heath rose to cross-examine.
"Did you see Mr. Bellingham in a good light?" he asked.
"Pretty good. It was dark outside, but the hall-lamp was alight."
"Kindly look at this"--here a small object was passed across to the witness. "It is a trinket that Mr. Bellingham is stated to have carried suspended from his watch-guard. Can you remember if he was wearing it in that manner when he came to the house?"
"No, he was not."
"You are sure of that?"
"Thank you. And now I want to ask you about the search that you have mentioned. You say that you went all over the house. Did you go into the study?"
"No--at least, not until Mr. Hurst had gone to London."
"When you did go in, was the window fastened?"
"Could it have been fastened from the outside?"
"No; there is no handle outside."
"What furniture is there in the study?"
"There is a writing-table, a revolving-chair, two easy chairs, two large bookcases, and a wardrobe that Mr. Hurst keeps his overcoats and hats in."
"Does the wardrobe lock?"
"Was it locked when you went in?"
"I'm sure I don't know. I don't go about trying the cupboards and drawers."
"What furniture is there in the drawing-room?"
"A cabinet, six or seven chairs, a Chesterfield sofa, a piano, a silver-table, and one or two occasional tables."
"Is the piano a grand or an upright."
"It is an upright grand."
"In what position is it placed?"
"It stands across a corner near the window."
"Is there sufficient room behind it for a man to conceal himself?"
Miss Dobbs was amused and did not dissemble. "Oh, yes," she sniggered, "there's plenty of room for a man to hide behind it."
"When you searched the drawing-room, did you look behind the piano?"
"No, I didn't?" Miss Dobbs replied scornfully.
"Did you look under the sofa?"
"What did you do, then?"
"We opened the door and looked into the room. We were not looking for a cat or a monkey; we were looking for a middle-aged gentleman."
"And am I to take it that your search over the rest of the house was conducted in a similar manner?"
"Certainly. We looked into the rooms, but we did not search under the beds or in the cupboards."
"Are all the rooms in the house in use as living or sleeping rooms?"
"No; there is one room on the second floor that is used as a store and lumber room, and one on the first floor that Mr. Hurst uses to store trunks and things that he is not using."
"Did you look in those rooms when you searched the house?"
"Have you looked in them since?"
"I have been in the lumber-room since, but not in the other. It is always kept locked."
At this point an ominous flattening became apparent in his lordship's eyelids, but these symptoms passed off when Mr. Heath sat down and indicated that he had no further questions to ask.
Miss Dobbs once more prepared to step down from the witness-box, when Mr. Loram shot up like a jack-in-the-box.
"You have made certain statements," said he, "concerning the scarab which Mr. Bellingham was accustomed to wear suspended from his watch-guard. You say that he was not wearing it when he came to Mr. Hurst's house on the twenty-third of November, nineteen hundred and two. Are you quite sure of that?"
"I must ask you to be very careful in your statement on this point. The question is a highly important one. Do you swear that the scarab was not hanging from his watch-guard?"
"Yes, I do."
"Did you notice the watch-guard particularly?"
"No, not particularly."
"Then what makes you so sure that the scarab was not attached to it?"
"It couldn't have been."
"Why could it not?"
"Because if it had been there I should have seen it."
"What kind of a watch-guard was Mr. Bellingham wearing?"
"Oh, an ordinary sort of watch-guard."
"I mean, was it a chain or a ribbon or a strap?"
"A chain, I think--or perhaps a ribbon--or it might have been a strap."
His lordship flattened his eyelids, but made no further sign, and Mr. Loram continued:
"Did you or did you not notice what kind of watch-guard Mr. Bellingham was wearing?"
"I did not. Why should I? It was no business of mine."
"But yet you are sure about the scarab?"
"Yes, quite sure."
"You noticed that, then?"
"No, I didn't. How could I when it wasn't there?"
Mr. Loram paused and looked helplessly at the witness; a suppressed titter arose from the body of the Court, and a faint voice from the bench inquired:
"Are you quite incapable of giving a straightforward answer?"
Miss Dobbs' only reply was to burst into tears; whereupon Mr. Loram abruptly sat down and abandoned his re-examination.
The witness-box vacated by Miss Dobbs was occupied successively by Dr. Norbury, Mr. Hurst, and the cloak-room attendant, none of whom contributed any new facts, but merely corroborated the statements made by Mr. Jellicoe and the housemaid. Then came the labourer who discovered the bones at Sidcup, and who repeated the evidence that he had given at the inquest, showing that the remains could not have been lying in the watercress-bed more than two years. Finally Dr. Summers was called, and, after he had given a brief description of the bones that he had examined, was asked by Mr. Loram:
"You have heard the description that Mr. Jellicoe has given of the testator?"
"Does that description apply to the person whose remains you examined?"
"In a general way, it does."
"I must ask you for a direct answer--yes or no. Does it apply?"
"Yes. But I ought to say that my estimate of the height of the deceased is only approximate."
"Quite so. Judging from your examination of those remains and from Mr. Jellicoe's description, might those remains be the remains of the testator, John Bellingham?"
"Yes, they might."
On receiving this admission Mr. Loram sat down, and Mr. Heath immediately rose to cross-examine.
"When you examined these remains, Doctor Summers, did you discover any personal peculiarities which would enable you to identify them as the remains of any one individual rather than any other individual of similar size, age, and proportions?"
"No. I found nothing that would identify the remains as those of any particular individual."
As Mr. Heath asked no further questions, the witness received his dismissal, and Mr. Loram informed the Court that that was his case. The judge bowed somnolently, and then Mr. Heath rose to address the Court on behalf of the respondent. It was not a long speech, nor was it enriched by any displays of florid rhetoric; it concerned itself exclusively with a rebutment of the arguments of the counsel for the petitioner.
Having briefly pointed out that the period of absence was too short to give rise of itself to the presumption of death, Mr. Heath continued:
"The claim therefore rests upon evidence of a positive character. My learned friend asserts that the testator is presumably dead, and it is for him to prove what he has affirmed. Now, has he done this? I submit that he has not. He has argued with great force and ingenuity that the testator, being a bachelor, a solitary man without wife or child, dependent or master, public or private office or duty, or any bond, responsibility, or any other condition limiting his freedom of action, had no reason or inducement for absconding. This is my learned friend's argument, and he has conducted it with so much skill and ingenuity that he has not only succeeded in proving his case; he has proved a great deal too much. For if it is true, as my learned friend so justly argues, that a man thus unfettered by obligations of any kind has no reason for disappearing, is it not even more true that he has no reason for not disappearing? My friend has urged that the testator was at liberty to go where he pleased, when he pleased, and how he pleased; and that therefore there was no need for him to abscond. I reply, if he was at liberty to go away, whither, when, and how he pleased, why do we express surprise that he has made use of his liberty? My learned friend points out that the testator notified to nobody his intention of going away and has acquainted no one with his whereabouts; but, I ask, whom should he have notified? He was responsible to nobody; there was no one dependent upon him; his presence or absence was the concern of nobody but himself. If circumstances suddenly arising made it desirable that he should go abroad, why should he not go? I say there was no reason whatever.
"My learned friend has said that the testator went away leaving his affairs to take care of themselves. Now, gentlemen, I ask you if this can fairly be said of a man whose affairs are, as they have been for years, in the hands of a highly capable, completely trustworthy agent who is better acquainted with them than the testator himself? Clearly it cannot.
"To conclude this part of the argument: I submit that the circumstances of the so-called disappearance of the testator present nothing out of the ordinary. The testator is a man of ample means, without any responsibilities to fetter his movements and has been in the constant habit of travelling, often into remote and distant regions. The mere fact that he has been absent somewhat longer than usual affords no ground whatever for the drastic proceeding of presuming his death and taking possession of his property.
"With reference to the human remains which have been mentioned in connection with the case I need say but little. The attempt to connect them with the testator has failed completely. You yourselves have Heard Doctor Summers state on oath that they cannot be identified as the remains of any particular person. That would seem to dispose of them effectually. I must remark upon a very singular point that has been raised by the learned counsel for the petitioner, which is this:
"My learned friend points out that these remains were discovered near Eltham and near Woodford and that the testator was last seen alive at one of these two places. This he considers for some reason to be a highly significant fact. But I cannot agree with him. If the testator had been last seen alive at Woodford and the remains had been found at Woodford, or if he had disappeared from Eltham and the remains had been found at Eltham, that would have had some significance. But he can only have been last seen at one of the places, whereas the remains have been found at both places. Here again my learned friend seems to have proved too much."
"But I need not occupy your time further. I repeat that, in order to justify us in presuming the death of the testator, clear and positive evidence would be necessary. That no such evidence has been brought forward. Accordingly, seeing that the testator may return at any time and is entitled to find his property intact, I shall ask you for a verdict that will secure to him this measure of ordinary justice."
At the conclusion of Mr. Heath's speech the judge, as if awakening from a refreshing nap, opened his eyes; and uncommonly shrewd, intelligent eyes they were, when the expressive eyelids were duly tucked up out of the way. He commenced by reading over a part of the will and certain notes--which he appeared to have made in some miraculous fashion with his eyes shut--and then proceeded to review the evidence and the counsels' arguments for the instruction of the jury.
"Before considering the evidence which you have heard, gentlemen," he said, "it will be well for me to say a few words to you on the general legal aspects of the case which is occupying our attention."
"If a person goes abroad or disappears from his home and his ordinary places of resort and is absent for a long period of time, the presumption of death arises at the expiration of seven years from the date on which he was last heard of. That is to say, that the total disappearance of an individual for seven years constitutes presumptive evidence that the said individual is dead; and the presumption can be set aside only by the production of evidence that he was alive at some time within that period of seven years. But if, on the other hand, it is sought to presume the death of a person who has been absent for a shorter period than seven years, it is necessary to produce such evidence as shall make it highly probable that the said person is dead. Of course, presumption implies supposition as opposed to actual demonstration; but, nevertheless, the evidence in such a case must be of a kind that tends to create a very strong belief that death has occurred; and I need hardly say that the shorter the period of absence, the more convincing must be the evidence.
"In the present case, the testator, John Bellingham, has been absent somewhat under two years. This is a relatively short period, and in itself gives rise to no presumption of death. Nevertheless, death has been presumed in a case where the period of absence was even shorter and the insurance recovered; but here the evidence supporting the belief in the occurrence of death was exceedingly weighty.
"The testator in this case was a shipmaster, and his disappearance was accompanied by the disappearance of the ship and the entire ship's company in the course of a voyage from London to Marseilles. The loss of the ship and her crew was the only reasonable explanation of the disappearance, and, short of actual demonstration, the facts offered convincing evidence of the death of all persons on board. I mention this case as an illustration. You are not dealing with speculative probabilities. You are contemplating a very momentous proceeding, and you must be very sure of your ground. Consider what it is that you are asked to do.
"The petitioner asks permission to presume the death of the testator in order that the testator's property may be distributed among the beneficiaries under the will. The granting of such permission involves us in the gravest responsibility. An ill-considered decision might be productive of a serious injustice to the testator, an injustice that could never be remedied. Hence it is incumbent upon you to weigh the evidence with the greatest care, to come to no decision without the profoundest consideration of all the facts.
"The evidence that you have heard divides itself into two parts--that relating to the circumstances of the testator's disappearance, and that relating to certain human remains. In connection with the latter I can only express my surprise and regret that the application was not postponed until the completion of the coroner's inquest, and leave you to consider the evidence. You will bear in mind that Doctor Summers has stated explicitly that the remains cannot be identified as those of any particular individual, but that the testator and the unknown deceased had so many points of resemblance that they might possibly be one and the same person.
"With reference to the circumstances of the disappearance, you have heard the evidence of Mr. Jellicoe to the effect that the testator has on no previous occasion gone abroad without informing him as to his proposed destination. But in considering what weight you are to give to this statement you will bear in mind that when the testator set out for Paris after his interview with Doctor Norbury he left Mr. Jellicoe without any information as to his specific destination, his address in Paris, or the precise date when he should return, and that Mr. Jellicoe was unable to tell us where the testator went or what was his business. Mr. Jellicoe was, in fact, for a time without any means of tracing the testator or ascertaining his whereabouts.
"The evidence of the housemaid, Dobbs, and of Mr. Hurst is rather confusing. It appears that the testator came to the house, was shown into a certain room, and when looked for later was not to be found. A search of the premises showed that he was not in the house, whence it seems to follow that he must have left it; but since no one was informed of his intention to leave, and he had expressed the intention of staying to see Mr. Hurst, his conduct in thus going away surreptitiously must appear somewhat eccentric. The point that you have to consider, therefore, is whether a person who is capable of thus departing in a surreptitious and eccentric manner from a house, without giving notice to the servants, is capable also of departing in a surreptitious and eccentric manner from his usual places of resort without giving notice to his friends or thereafter informing them of his whereabouts.
"The questions, then, gentlemen, that you have to ask yourselves before deciding on your verdict are two: first, Are the circumstances of the testator's disappearance and his continued absence incongruous with his habits and personal peculiarities as they are known to you? and second, Are there any facts which indicate in a positive manner that the testator is dead? Ask yourselves these questions, gentlemen, and the answers to them, furnished by the evidence that you have heard, will guide you to your decision."
Having delivered himself of the above instructions, the judge applied himself to the perusal of the will with professional gusto, in which occupation he was presently disturbed by the announcement of the foreman of the jury that a verdict had been agreed upon.
The judge sat up and glanced at the jury-box, and when the foreman proceeded to state that "We find no sufficient reason for presuming the testator, John Bellingham, to be dead," he nodded approvingly. Evidently that was his opinion, too, as he was careful to explain when he conveyed to Mr. Loram the refusal of the Court to grant the permission applied for.
The decision was a great relief to me, and also, I think, to Miss Bellingham; but most of all to her father, who, with instinctive good manners, since he could not suppress a smile of triumph, rose hastily and stumped out of the Court, so that the discomfited Hurst should not see him. His daughter and I followed, and as we left the Court she remarked, with a smile:
"So our pauperism is not, after all, made absolute. There is still a chance for us in the Chapter of Accidents--and perhaps even for poor old Uncle John."