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   Chapter 16 WHAT THE INQUEST REVEALED.

The Last Tenant By B. L. Farjeon Characters: 18846

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"An inquest was held yesterday at the Hare and Hounds on the body of Beatrice Lockyer, a young lady residing with her stepfather at 79 Lamb's Terrace, who met her death by suffocation. The coroner said this was a sad case, the deceased being young and apparently in good health on the night of the occurrence. The facts appeared to be very simple, and the jury would have little difficulty in arriving at a verdict. The first witness called was Mr. Nisbet, the deceased's stepfather, who gave his evidence with manifest distress.

"'What is your name?'

"'Oliver Nisbet.'

"'Profession?'

"'None. I live on my means.'

"'What relation do you bear to the deceased?'

"'She was my stepdaughter.'

"'Her age?'

"'Twenty last birthday.'

"'Is her mother living?'

"'No, she died four years ago.'

"'How long were you married?'

"'A few months only.'

"'At the time of her mother's death the deceased was sixteen years old?'

"'Yes.'

"'Did her death affect the deceased in any particular way?'

"'She was deeply grieved at the loss, but apart from this natural feeling there was no change in her.'

"'Have you observed any change in her during the last few days or weeks?'

"'No; we had had domestic worries with servants, such as happen to most housekeepers in London, but they had passed away, and as we had determined to reside abroad we regarded them rather with amusement. We looked forward to an easier life in a foreign country.'

"'On the night of your stepdaughter's death, at what hour did she retire to her room?'

"'At a little after ten.'

"'Who was in the house besides yourselves?'

"'No one.'

"'You had a servant left. What became of her?'

"'It was arranged that she should remain in our service on the Continent, and we sent her on before us.'

"'Where to?'

"'To Lucerne. I had taken a chalet in Vitznau, and she was to proceed there to see to the rooms, and to await our arrival.'

"'How is it that you and the deceased remained in the house when there were no servants in it?'

"'It was against my desire. I wished my daughter to go to a hotel, but she refused. She said we could manage very well at home. She had an aversion to English hotels, and was never happy in one. As we were to leave London the next day, I humored her.'

"'Can you give us any explanation of the cause of her aversion to our hotels?'

"'She was in the habit of saying that they were so different to Continental hotels--so stiff and formal. But I do not think that was quite the reason. She was nervously distrustful of herself in the society of strangers, and was, I regret to say, of a melancholy disposition.'

"'Had this been always the case with her?'

"'From her childhood, her mother used to tell me. For years past I have endeavored to bring her to a more cheerful frame of mind by travel and constant change of scene, but I fear my efforts were wasted.'

"'Was her mother of a similar disposition?'

"'Yes. It is a natural inference that it was inherited.'

"'How did you pass the day before her death?'

"'We breakfasted together in the morning--a simple breakfast, which she herself got ready--and then I went into the city to complete the arrangements for our journey, and to settle my monetary affairs. This occupied several hours. At six o'clock I returned home, with the intention of taking her out to dinner; but she had a little dinner prepared for us, and said she would enjoy it much more than dining out. After dinner we chatted, and she played upon her zither.'

"'Cheerful airs?'

"'No; but she was a very sweet player, and whether her music was sad or bright, it was a pleasure to listen to it.'

"'Have you at any time observed a disposition in her to commit suicide?'

"'Never; and I never heard her utter a word to indicate that she was tired of life.'

"'Was her general health good?'

"'Yes, fairly good; she suffered a little from headaches, but she has had no serious illness in my experience of her.'

"'Describe your movements on the morning of her death.'

"'I rose at about eight o'clock, and employed an hour in packing my bags. We were to leave the house for the station at half-past ten. At nine o'clock I listened, and did not hear her move. I was not surprised at this, because she was a late riser and frequently overslept herself. During our travels we have lost trains from this cause. I went to her room, and knocked and called, and, receiving no answer, opened the door, and was immediately driven back by the fumes of gas. Dreading a calamity, I rushed in and threw the window open; then I saw my dear daughter lying motionless upon her bed. I was educated in the medical profession, though I do not follow it. I made a hasty examination of her condition and, fearing the worst, I ran for Dr. Cooper. He accompanied me back to the house, and confirmed my fears.'

"'Her bedroom door was unlocked?'

"'It was; she would never lock it, being, I think, afraid of fire. It was hard to reason her out of any of her fancies. I frequently expostulated with her upon her dislike to fresh air. I tried to induce her to keep her bedroom window open a little from the top, but I could not persuade her that it was unhealthy to sleep in a close room.'

"'That is all the information you can give us?'

"'I know nothing further.'

"Dr. Cooper's evidence tallied with that already given. He had been called to the deceased by Mr. Nisbet, who had come to him in a state of great agitation, and whom he had accompanied immediately to Lamb's Terrace, arriving at the house too late to be of any service. The unfortunate young lady had been dead for hours, and the cause of death was indisputable.

"There were no other witness and after a brief summing up a verdict was returned of death by misadventure."

I gathered from the account that the case had excited very little interest and attention, and was soon over and forgotten.

This is all I learned from the report of Mr. Dickson and the account of the inquest.

The bare facts were clear enough to the ordinary mind, that is to say, to the mind that had no profound motive to urge it to look beneath the surface. They were clear enough to me, but not in any sense satisfactory. It appeared to my judgment that the inquest was hurried over, that statements had been accepted which should have been the subject of more searching examination, and that any person deeply interested in the case would have asked questions which did not seem to have occurred to coroner and jury. My own experience had led me to the conclusion that at these hasty inquests many important matters of detail which might have a vital bearing on the verdict are altogether overlooked. The coroners have too much to do, too many inquiries to make in the course of a few hours; the jury, dragged from their occupations without adequate remuneration, are only anxious to get the matter over and return to their businesses and homes. There should be some better method of procedure in these important investigations if it is desired that justice shall be properly served, and for my part I was stirred by an uneasy consciousness that in this instance justice had been hoodwinked. How, indeed, could I have felt differently with the specter cat lying at my feet, and looking up into my face?

The silent monitor was an irresistible force. Although the death of Beatrice Lockyer did not personally concern me, and I had no direct interest in discovering whether she died by fair means or foul, I was impelled onward by the conviction that I should never be freed from this supernatural visitation until the truth was brought to light.

It was evening when I received and read the report of the inquiry agent and the account of the inquest, and I had made no appointment to meet Bob. On the chance of finding him at home, I took the train to Canonbury, leaving a message with Maria that if he called during my absence he was to remain till I returned. Accompanied by my spectral companion, I mounted Bob's staircase, and he, hearing my footsteps, received me on the landing.

"I half expected you," he said, casting his eyes downward.

"It is with me, Bob," I said, answering the look. "Have you seen your nephew to-day?"

"No," he replied. "I should not be surprised if he pops in to-night. You have some news?"

"Mr. Dickson has sent me certain particulars relating to the death of the young lady, whose name, as you will see, is Beatrice Lockyer. I should like to go through them with you, and to hear what strikes you as having a suspicious bearing on the case."

I handed him the papers I had brought with me, and he read them carefully.

"I doubt," he said, when he had finished, "whether Ronald knows to this day that Beatrice was not Mr. Nisbet's daughter."

"Would he not have read the account of the inquest?" I inquired.

"He could not read it himself; he was blind at the time, recollect; and I know no one who would have inflicted upon him the pain of making him acquainted with the sorrowful details. I am convinced that these published particulars have not come to his knowledge."

"Point out weak and suspicious points, Bob."

"She was not his daughter," said Bob.

"Exactly. And therefore there was no reason why he should have had any strong affection for her."

"I suppose," said Bob, "that we had best take the worst view of an

ything that suggests itself."

"I don't intend to soften anything down," I replied. "At present we are doing no one an injustice, and I am inclined to accept the most terrible suggestion without shrinking. We need not give it a name, Bob. If it is in your mind as it is in mine, let it rest there till the time arrives to proclaim it aloud."

Bob nodded and said, "There was a large fortune. £60,000 is a tempting bait."

"Observe," I remarked, "that at the inquest no allusion is made to the fact that Mr. Nisbet would so largely benefit by the death of his stepdaughter."

"It is singular, Ned. Could it have been willfully suppressed?"

"If so it was suppressed by only one man--the man who has obtained possession of the fortune. Who else at the inquest could have known anything about it? Not the coroner, certainly, or it would have been mentioned; certainly not the jury, to whom the unfortunate young lady and her stepfather were absolute strangers. Mr. Nisbet, as it appears to me, had the game entirely in his hands, and could play it as served him best. There was no one to question him or his motives, not a soul to come forward to verify or falsify anything he cared to say. He and Beatrice were alone together in this great city, cut off, as it were, from all mankind. There is no mention of the name of a single friend. On the night of her death only he and she were in the house, in that lonely, wretched house which my stupid wife had set her heart upon."

"It must have been in a better state then than it is now."

"Granted; but there are large grounds attached to the house, and there was not even a fitful gardener employed to keep it in order, who could come forward and say, 'I will tell you what I know.'"

"Are you sure of that, Ned?" asked Bob.

"Ah! It is a suggestion that must not be lost sight of. There is the value of talking a thing over in an open way. At all events, no such man makes his appearance. Now, does it stand to reason that a lady and gentleman of ample means would willingly bury themselves in such a place? If the man had been straight minded and right minded, would he not have insisted on taking a young lady whom he calls his daughter into more comfortable quarters? He is her guardian, her protector, she has no one else to depend upon, she has no friend in whom she can confide. Although, as you say, the house must have been in a better condition then than it is now, is it at all likely that, without some sinister motive, Mr. Nisbet should have deliberately selected a residence in so cheerless a locality? He says she was averse to society. We have only his word for that. From the little concerning her which Ronald Elsdale has imparted to you it does not appear that she was disinclined to make pleasant acquaintances. Why did not her stepfather give her opportunities of doing so? On the contrary, he regards with aversion even the slight advances which a gentleman like Ronald, with everything in his favor, pays her on a legitimate occasion. Is that in his favor?"

"It tells against him distinctly."

"Your nephew describes her as a young lady of singular attractions. What does such a lady naturally look forward to? Would it not be to marriage, to a home of her own? But, that accomplished, all chance of Mr. Nisbet coming into a fortune of £60,000 would be lost? Here we find the motive spring of his actions. It was for this, probably, that he married the mother. So dark are the thoughts that keep cropping up in my mind that I ask myself, 'How did the mother meet her death?'"

I had worked myself into a state of great excitement, and I was now restlessly pacing Bob's little room.

"Even without this evidence," I continued, pointing to the apparition of the cat, "I should suspect his motives. With such evidence I am almost ready to condemn him unheard. The arguments I bring forward seem to me reasonable and conclusive, and so far as lies in my power I will bring the matter to its rightful issue."

"I cannot blame you," said Bob, "and, as I have already told you, I will assist you if I can. The difficulty is, where to commence. You have no starting point."

"I have. The house in Lamb's Terrace. I shall put your courage to the test before I leave you to-night; but I will speak of that presently. There is another circumstance I wish to refer to with respect to Mr. Nisbet's evidence at the inquest. He speaks of the one domestic who remained in their service after the others had left, or had been discharged."

"Why do you say discharged?"

"It has only at this moment occurred to me. Things suggest themselves as I ventilate the subject which I did not think of at first. We may be able to find one of these servants who left of their own accord, or were turned away. Keeping to this one domestic who remained faithful to them, the probability is that it was an English girl of humble origin. This being so, it is still more probable that she knew nothing of foreign countries and foreign travel; and that she could speak no language but her own."

"Well?"

"Mr. Nesbit says he sent her on to Lucerne before the day on which he intended to start with Beatrice, and that she was to proceed to Vitznau from Lucerne to attend to the rooms he had taken there. Was that not a curious thing to do, and was it likely that an ignorant London domestic could be expected to reach the place without mishap."

"It was a strange proceeding."

"It is more than strange. If we could lay hands upon that girl we might learn something useful. If we can find her people----" I paused; there were footsteps on the stairs, and I knew, from the care that was being taken in ascending, that it was Ronald Elsdale who was coming up. I opened the door for him, and gave him good-evening. I observed again the look of discomposure on his face as he entered the room; again I saw him turn his eyes downward to the spot upon which the cat was lying. He made no reference, however, to the fancy which oppressed him, but brushed his hand across his forehead, as he had done before.

"I am glad you are here, Mr. Emery," he said. "I wished to ask you something. Why did you want to know where the young lady lived whom, but for my blindness, I should have asked to be my wife?"

I paused a moment before I spoke. I felt that the time had not arrived to take him fully into my confidence.

"I beg you will not press me," I said; "I had a reason, but I cannot disclose it at present."

"You will some day?"

"Yes, I promise you."

"Thank you. I have been thinking of it a great deal, and I felt that you did not ask the question out of idle curiosity."

"I did not. And now, if you will deal more generously to me than it may appear I am dealing to you, I should like to ask another question or two concerning her--if," I added, "the subject is not too painful to you."

He turned to his uncle, who said, "Yes, answer the questions, Ronald."

"I will do so freely," he said.

"I assure you," I commenced, "that I am impelled by a strong and earnest motive, and that before long you shall know all that is passing in my mind. When you met her on the Continent, did she give you the impression that she was of a morbid or melancholy temperament?"

"Not at all. She was always cheerful and animated."

"Was she averse to society? Did she show that it was distasteful to her?"

"Oh, no. With modesty and discretion she seemed glad to converse with people whose manners were agreeable and becoming."

"She had a favorite instrument, had she not, upon which she was fond of playing?"

"You seem to know a great deal about her, Mr. Emery. Her favorite instrument was the zither."

"Have you heard her play upon it?"

"Yes, and her touch was sweet and beautiful."

"Would you say that her inclination was to play sorrowful or somber airs?"

"By no means. The zither does not lend itself to boisterous music, there is a tenderness in the instrument which goes to the heart. Her taste lay in the direction of sweetness; but there was nothing sorrowful or somber in her playing."

These questions answered, I succeeded in changing the subject of conversation, and Ronald stopped with us an hour, and then took his departure, saying before he left, "I rely on your promise, Mr. Emery."

When he was gone I said to Bob, "False in one thing, false in all. Mr. Nisbet's evidence at the inquest was a tissue of fabrications. Now, Bob, I am going to put you to the test. The house in Lamb's Terrace is mine for three months. Will you spend a night or two with me there?"

He looked up, rather startled at the proposition; but any uneasiness he may have felt passed away almost immediately.

"Yes," he replied. "When?"

"Not to-morrow night. It would not be fair. You have to get to the office on the following morning, and a night of unrest may interfere with your duties. Your Sundays are free. Let us fix Saturday night."

"Very well, Ned. What explanation will you give to your wife?"

"I shall exercise a pardonable deceit upon her. On Saturday afternoon you and I will be supposed to be going to Brighton for a blow. She will raise no objection and we may depend upon her not disturbing us. Untold gold would not tempt her into that house again."

"I will join you," said Bob, in a serious tone. "I should not like you to be alone there."

So it was arranged, and I bade him good-night.

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