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   Chapter 7 THE INQUEST

The Deep Lake Mystery By Carolyn Wells Characters: 20519

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The inquest was an interesting affair.

I gathered from Coroner Hart's manner that he had picked up some information or some bits of evidence that meant a lot to him, and he seemed impatient to begin his questioning.

The setting of the scene was far too beautiful to be wasted on a crime session and I looked about at the curious crowd of neighbours and villagers with distaste.

We were in the great ballroom, which occupies the lower floor of the wing containing Sampson Tracy's rooms. On three sides, the Sunless Sea lapped its dark waters against its rocky shores, and the merest glance into its black depths was enough to deter the stoutest heart from an unnecessary dive therein. But an escaping murderer, if brave enough to risk the danger, and skilled enough in diving and sufficiently familiar with the position of the principal rocks, might make the goal. It was a comfort to me to think that, since the authorities assumed that was the way the criminal got out, it rather freed Alma Remsen from suspicion.

For that delicate girl, even though a good diver, as I had heard, could never have committed that brutal murder, and then have dived into those perilous depths at desperate risk of her own life.

Seats had been reserved for our crowd, and as we took them I glanced at the coroner's jury. All well to do and fine looking men from the large estates that bordered the whole length of Deep Lake. Some were grave, some seemed unable to quell a naturally gay and jolly disposition, but all were alert and alive, and I felt that the case was in good hands.

I knew few of the audience. Mrs. Dallas was accompanied by several friends, and I also noted the young girl, Posy May, who had been at the Moores' dinner party.

Then I saw Alma Remsen. She sat near Posy and she was accompanied by a woman who impressed me strongly. Never have I seen a face of more determination and grim endurance than that of Mrs. Merivale, which I later learned was her name.

She was the nurse who had cared for Alma since she was born. She lived with the girl in her island home, and surely no one could ask for a more capable and efficient-looking guardian.

Not a fine lady, but beyond all doubt a fine woman, Mrs. Merivale was tall and gaunt of figure and possessed a large, bony face whose stern, set mouth was belied by a touch of humour quite evident in the shrewd gray eyes.

But what most impressed me was her expression of wisdom. Surely, this was a woman to whom all the experiences of life were as an open book. She had the look of a witch or sibyl, although her gray hair was decorously smooth beneath her small black hat.

She noted every new arrival, she swept the jury with her all-seeing glance and finally concentrated her attention on the coroner, until, with a quick nod of satisfaction, she ended that scrutiny.

Then she turned a little to contemplate the girl beside her.

Alma Remsen, to-day in a costume of soft beige-coloured silk weave, looked nervous and worried. Her golden hair, escaping at the sides from her close little hat, framed a face that was clearly worn and wan from a sleepless night. At least it seemed that way to me, and I longed to tell her her secret was safe with me. Never would I divulge to any one the fact that she visited Pleasure Dome on the night of the tragedy. So far, I hadn't heard a hint of such a thing, and I hoped there would be none.

Though we hadn't been formally introduced, and I had never had a word of conversation with her, I nodded a greeting and smiled.

She inclined her head in slight acknowledgment, and then, to my amazement, a look of fright crossed her face.

I tried to persuade myself that she had seen some one else or heard some word that alarmed her, but in my heart I felt sure that the shadow of fear was caused by the sight of me.

What could it mean? I saw her slip her hand into that of the nurse beside her, and I noted the reassuring pat the woman gave her.

It seemed to comfort the girl, and she gave a little smile at her companion.

Not wanting to embarrass her further I turned my glance toward Mrs. Dallas. She looked superb this morning. Garbed all in black, yet a black that hinted Paris in its every line and fold, her beautiful face and her great gray eyes showed a quiet sadness that spoke of a deeper grief than emotion could show.

Her lovely gray hair was tucked under a black hat, and her lips and cheeks, quite evidently the result of a well-equipped vanity box, were the only touch of colour about her.

She sat between Harper Ames and Charles Everett, the post of chief mourner seemingly accorded her as her right.

Yet though she was calm and composed, it seemed to me there was an undercurrent of anxiety, a hint of dread or apprehension.

Nor was this to be wondered at. The occasion was a tragic one, and as the person most deeply affected by the tragedy, it was only natural that Katherine Dallas should be nervous.

Hart first questioned the servants. Though new matter to the jury, we had heard their stories before, and no fresh fact or bit of evidence was forthcoming.

No articles had been missed from Sampson Tracy's rooms except two of his fancy waistcoats and the gayly painted Totem Pole.

Several of the servants testified as to Mr. Tracy's previous possession of these three articles and of their unaccountable absence at present.

None of them had heard any sounds during the night or could throw any light on the mystery of the criminal's entrance or exit, if, indeed, he was not an inmate of the house.

All testified to the kindness and generosity of the master, and though all inherited a sum of money by his will, there seemed no real reason to suspect that any one of them had hastened the demise.

As Doctor Rogers was absent, Hart himself was the only one to give the medical report, and he told the jury succinctly and clearly the details of the death and how both doctors had thought it apoplexy at first, as the symptoms were of such an attack.

"Without doubt, the autopsy would have disclosed the truth," Hart said, "but before that, Mr. Moore, the famous New York City detective, noticed there was a tiny metal disk visible through the hair of the dead man. Investigation proved this to be the head of a nail, about two inches long, that had been driven with great force into Mr. Tracy's skull, presumably while he was alive and asleep."

"Could a nail be so driven, through the bone?" asked a mild mannered juryman.

"Yes," the coroner told him. "It would require a heavy driving instrument, and a strong hand, as well as a callous brain, for a man to accomplish that fiendish deed."

The bizarre decorations on the bed were then told about, and reference made to the watch found in the water pitcher and the absence of the plate that had held the fruit and the crackers. But these things were merely touched on, for the jury had only to discover the cause of the death, and these details were of slight help.

Individual testimony was another matter, and I felt a deep interest as Harper Ames was called to the stand.

I could see Keeley Moore also eager to learn what the visitor of the house would have to say.

Ames was in grumpy mood, as usual. More, he seemed belligerent, and I wondered whether the Coroner would try to placate him or would ruffle him still more.

"Will you state, in your own words, Mr. Ames, the circumstances of your return to this house, after a dinner party on Wednesday night?"

The question sounded abrupt, and, perhaps for that reason, it seemed to rouse Ames's resentment.

"That's about all there is to tell," he declared, frowning. "I came home from a dinner party next door, about eleven o'clock. I chatted with Mr. Tracy for a while and then we both went upstairs to bed. That's all."

He glared about him, as if he were being imposed on to have to testify at all. I tried to analyze the man. He had been insistent that Keeley Moore should take the case. Was this a gigantic bluff? I mean, could it be that Ames was himself the murderer, and sought to escape suspicion by frankly asking the detective to solve the mystery? Did he think he had so covered his tracks that he was safe from even the astute cleverness of Keeley Moore?

If this were the case, he was greatly mistaken. I had no idea whether Ames was the murderer or not, but if so, then he stood no chance of escaping the detection of my friend.

But Hart was proceeding, in a suave, pleasant way, calculated to soothe Ames's antagonism.

"You were Mr. Tracy's best friend?" he asked.

"That's saying a great deal, but I was certainly one of them. We have known each other from boyhood, and though we bandied words now and then, we never had a real quarrel in our lives."

"You owed him money?"

Harper Ames's eyes flashed, and he seemed about to fly into a rage. Then, apparently thinking better of it, he calmed down and said, quietly, but sullenly still:

"Yes, though I don't know that it's your business. Tracy has let me owe him money for a long time, and as he had no objections to it, I can't see your right to inquire about it."

"Yes, I have a right," Hart said, "and I propose to use it. How much did you owe him?"

"Some thousands," and now Ames's frown became a real scowl.

"And his will gives you a bequest of many thousands. It is a fortunate occurrence for you."

I thought and still think that Harper Ames had a right to get angry at the Coroner. If Hart suspected his witness he should have said so, and not cast these innuendoes at him.

Yet Ames said nothing. He contented himself with such a venomous glance of hatred at the Coroner, that I shivered at the sight. Keeley Moore, too, looked amazed at the way things were going. Then we both realized that this was doubtless Hart's first murder case. Such things didn't often happen up here in the peaceful lake region, and the sudden responsibility and authority had rather gone to Hart's head and made him a little uncertain of procedure.

Next he flung out the query, "Are you a good diver?"

At this Ames gave a sardonic smile.

"No," he returned, "I am not. To begin with I didn't kill Sampson Tracy, I didn't jump out of the window of his locked

room, and I didn't bedeck his bed with flowers and ornaments. If these are the things you want to know, I am telling you."

"Yes," and the Coroner's air was imperturbable, "but I have only your unsupported word for all that."

Harper Ames stared at him as if he would like to drive a nail into his half-witted head, and then, drawing himself up with a new dignity, he said:

"That is true, Mr. Coroner. But I can't bring forward any witnesses to prove my statements. That is why I have been trying to engage the services of the famous Mr. Moore to take on this case, and to discover the true murderer of Sampson Tracy, for only such a course will prove the innocence of other suspects."

This was fine talk, but to me it didn't ring true. If Ames had done the foul deed himself, he might have put forth this very line of argument. He might have demanded the services of a great detective, feeling sure nobody could detect his guilt.

Well, it wasn't up to me to decide these things.

A few more inquiries of small importance finished up Ames's testimony and then Mrs. Dallas was questioned.

She was dignified of appearance and calm of speech. She said she was the fiancée of Mr. Tracy and they had expected to be married in the fall. She said they occasionally had little differences, but always made them up and were really very fond of one another. Her statements were all rational and straightforward. She spoke as might a cultured and mature woman of her accepted suitor.

Asked as to the terms of Mr. Tracy's will, she replied that so far as she knew his fortune was left to his niece, Miss Remsen. But, she added, he had told her that after they were married, he would change his will and make suitable arrangements for his wife. She said she had given the matter no thought, knowing that Mr. Tracy would do what was right.

This seemed to remove from her any possible suspicion that might have formed in the minds of the jury. Surely, Mrs. Dallas had no reason to kill the man she loved and expected to marry.

No reference was made to the disagreement the engaged pair had had, and which had resulted in Mr. Tracy's absence from the Moores' dinner party.

I rejoiced at this, for I dreaded to have Alma's name brought in at all. But as I thought it over, I became a little alarmed. Had Hart omitted the point in order to tax Alma herself with it later? To ask her what was the tale her uncle desired to tell Mrs. Dallas? To see if it could be some disgraceful story that might militate against the girl herself?

The two secretaries followed Mrs. Dallas.

Everett, quiet-mannered and polite, as always, answered questions readily enough, but offered no additional information.

He repeated his story of the evening, how he had been with Mr. Tracy until about ten o'clock, and then had gone to his room and to bed.

"You heard no unusual sounds during the night?"

"No," said Everett, but it seemed to me he had hesitated.

Hart must have noticed this, too, for he said, "Are you quite sure? No sounds inside the house or out?"

Apparently Charlie Everett was a truthful man. But it was equally evident he did not want to testify further.

"I must press you for an answer, Mr. Everett," the Coroner prodded him.

"Well, to be strictly accurate, I may say that I thought I heard the sound of a boat on the lake some time after midnight."

"What sort of boat?"

"I don't know. And it may not have been any. I was asleep, and I partially awaked and seemed to hear a slight sound as of paddles. But it may well be that I dreamed it, for I heard no further sounds."

"Do you know the time this happened?"

"No, except that I seemed to have been asleep some hours. I thought nothing of it, and directly went to sleep again."

"You didn't look out of the window?"

"No, I didn't rise from my bed."

I thanked my lucky stars that he hadn't! That he hadn't seen Alma Remsen, in her canoe, some time after midnight!

But if the Coroner thought much about this bit of evidence he gave no sign of doing so, and the rest of the inquiries he put to Everett were of a stereotyped sort and led nowhere.

Then came Billy Dean. That cheerful young man was chipper as always and told all he had to tell in a clear and concise way.

"Did you hear any sound in the night as of a passing boat?" Hart asked him.

"No," Dean declared, and his voice was steady and all would have been well but that the silly chap turned brick red from the roots of his hair to the top of his collar.

"Then," said Hart, with a full intention of embarrassing him, "why are you blushing like a turkey cock?"

"I'm not!" Dean stormed at him, getting redder yet. "But you barge into me with sudden questions and it knocks me off my base."

Clever! His winning smile and his sudden carrying of the war into the enemy's quarters succeeded, as I was sure he had hoped, in diverting the jury's attention from his palpable mendacity.

"Then you heard no boat?" Hart went back to his subject.

"I heard a motor boat, but that was about twelve o'clock," Dean said, reminiscently. "I heard none later, for I went to sleep then."

He had himself perfectly in hand, now, and though I confidently believed he had seen Alma Remsen in her canoe, I knew, too, that wild horses couldn't drag the fact from him.

"And you heard no further noises?"

"Not till morning, when Everett rapped on my door, and told me to get up."

There seemed to be nothing more to get out of young Dean, and he was dismissed. He had made a good effect on the jury, I could see that. Since they didn't have my knowledge of the girl in the boat, they were not greatly interested in the vague sounds mentioned by Everett.

In fact, I could gather from the whole trend of the inquest that suspicion centred on the inmates of the house. There was little thought given to the outer world.

Then Alma Remsen was called.

Without asking permission, Mrs. Merivale rose and went with her charge to the witness chair. She took another chair beside Alma, and her big, hard face looked like a tower of strength, should such be needed.

"You were not at this house on Wednesday evening or night at any time?" the Coroner said. It was more a statement than a question, and it sounded to me as if Hart wanted to shut up this point once and for all.

"No, I was not," Alma replied, and I hoped nobody except me noticed the quivering of her eyelids.

That was the only way she showed any nervousness. Her hands lay quietly in her lap, her lips were not trembling, her eyes were clear and steady in their gaze, but the eyelids fluttered once, twice, as if she was holding herself together by sheer force of will.

"Where were you that evening?"

"At home, in my own house."

"All the evening?"

"Yes."

"Who is your companion?"

"Mrs. Merivale. My housekeeper and friend."

"Will she corroborate your presence in your home?"

Hart's voice was most courteous, but it also was decided.

"Surely," said Alma. "Will you question her?"

"Miss Remsen was at home all Wednesday evening?" he said.

"Yes, sir," the woman's voice was respectful but far from servile.

"And all night?"

"Oh, yes, sir, of course."

"Why of course?"

"Because," Mrs. Merivale spoke patiently, as if to a dull child, "if she was in all evening she would scarcely go out later, sir."

"You are her caretaker?"

"I have been her nurse ever since she was born. I am now her housekeeper and I take all care of her."

There was something fine about Mrs. Merivale. She gave an impression of one who was tolerating the inquiries of a lot of zanies who must be humoured because they represented the law.

"You live in an island home?"

"Yes." Alma took up the answering again, seeing no reason why Mrs. Merivale should be her spokesman save by way of corroboration.

Then Hart asked the same questions he had asked her before, as to her relations with her uncle, her expectations at his death, and to all the girl replied with a gentle, demure manner that won the admiration and respect of all present.

At last Hart said, plainly:

"I regret the necessity of this, Miss Remsen, but it must be said. You are the one to benefit by the decease of your uncle."

"Yes," she looked at him steadily, with no sign of fear, but again I detected that slight quiver of her eyelid, and wondered what it portended.

"You would have opportunity to reach his room."

"Opportunity?" she looked a little bewildered, and I noticed the lines around the firm set lips of Mrs. Merivale grow even tenser.

"Yes, you possess a latchkey to this house."

"Oh, that!" Alma smiled and I felt sure it was a smile of relief. "Yes, I have always had a latchkey. My uncle gave it to me."

"When?"

"Oh, years ago. When I lived here. Then when I went to live on the island he bade me keep it so I could come over whenever I chose and let myself in."

"Yes. That gave you what we call opportunity."

"And my desire to inherit his estate gave me motive!" she wasn't quite smiling, but nearly. "Well, Mr. Coroner, that may be true, but I didn't come over here with my latchkey and kill my uncle and trick out his bed with flowers. The motive was not strong enough and the opportunity was negligible. I hope you can find my uncle's murderer, but it was not I."

There was something in her simple plain speech that carried conviction. Had I been one of those jurymen I could not have helped believing in the sincerity of that clear, sweet young voice that rang true in its every cadence.

"Then, Miss Remsen, you know nothing of the missing waistcoats?"

"Missing waistcoats?" she repeated, and now I saw that eyelid quiver pitifully.

"Yes, don't repeat my words to gain time. Where are those two waistcoats that disappeared the night your uncle was killed?"

"I haven't the slightest idea."

"Then I will tell you. They have been found, and they were found under a settee in your boathouse--"

"My boathouse!"

"Yes. And wrapped up in them was the Totem Pole that vanished that same night."

Mrs. Merivale's hand shot out and clasped the girl's trembling fingers.

"It is a plant!" she said, "a deep-laid plot to incriminate this innocent child!"

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