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CHAPTER IV THE INQUEST
Destiny works in a most mysterious way, and frequently the evil which she brings on individuals becomes the parent of good. During the three years which had passed since the death of her father, Patricia had faced much trouble for a girl of twenty-two. She had no money, and had possessed no friends until she met with Mrs. Sellars, so her career had been a painful one of toil and penury and heart-felt despair. This last misfortune which connected her with the commission of a crime seemed to be the greatest blow which had befallen her, and she truly believed that she was now entirely ruined. For who, as she argued, would engage as a governess a girl who was mixed up in so shady a business? Even if she could prove her innocence--and she had no doubt on that score--the mere fact of her errand to the Park was so fantastic in the explanation, that many people would believe she had invented it in order to shield herself from arrest. In nine cases out of ten this might have happened; but Destiny ordained that Patricia's case should be the tenth. Through the darkness of the clouds which environed her the sun of prosperity broke unexpectedly.

Of course, next day the newspapers contained details of the murder at The Home of Art, and the mystery fascinated the public. Crook Street was never so full since it had been a thoroughfare. Motor-cars, hansom cabs, four-wheelers, taxicabs, carts, bicycles, and conveyances of every description, came to the curved cul de sac. Also, sight-seers on foot came to survey the house, and Number III appeared in the daily illustrated papers. When the reporters became more fully acquainted with what had taken place, the portrait of Patricia appeared also, together with an account of how the murdered woman had induced her to leave the house. It was generally considered, notwithstanding that the errand had been proved to be a genuine one, that Mrs. Pentreddle had sent the girl away in order that she might see the mysterious person who had murdered her. If this was not so, argued everybody, how came it that the man--people were certain that the criminal was a man--had gained admission into the house? An examination of the snicks to the windows had proved that they were too stiff to be pressed back from the outside, and, indeed, that the upper and lower sashes of the windows were so close together that the blade of a knife could not be slipped in between. Plainly the man could not have entered in this way, so the only assumption that was natural appeared to be that the dead woman had admitted him by the door. The fact that the middle window was unlatched and slightly open was accounted for by the presumption that the man had left in that way. But why he should have chosen this odd means of exit, when he could have more easily have left by the front door, the theorists did not pretend to explain.

However, the general opinion was that Patricia's fantastic tale was true--the finding of the articles on the bench and the evidence of the two policemen, together with the cabman's statement, proved this--and that Mrs. Pentreddle had got rid of her, as an inconvenient witness to an unpleasant interview. How unpleasant it had proved for Mrs. Pentreddle herself, could be plainly seen from the fact that she was now dead, and that a jury and a coroner were about to sit on her remains. Harkness had gathered together what evidence he could, which was not much, and the reporters were all on the qui vive for startling revelations to be made. The whole affair was so out of the ordinary that the journalists, anxious to fill up the columns of their respective papers during the dull season, made the most of the very excellent and unusual copy supplied to them. They added to this, they took away from that, and so distorted the truth that plain facts became even more sensational than they truly were. And this painting of the lily brought Miss Carrol into prominence as the heroine of the day.

The girl shrank from such sordid publicity, but it was useless to try and hide, as the searchlight of journalism played fiercely upon her. That she was so pretty only added to the attractiveness of the unwholesome episode, and when her portrait was published, Patricia received at least six offers of marriage. All of these she naturally refused, and was, indeed, very indignant that they should have been made. Mrs. Sellars was rather surprised at this indignation, as, having the instincts of a successful actress, she looked on such publicity as an excellent advertisement.

"My dear," she said impressively, two or three days after the murder, and when The Home of Art was the centre of attraction to all morbid people, "sorry as I am that Martha, poor darling, met with such a sad death, there is no denying that the tragedy will do the house good."

"Oh," cried Patricia, her highest instincts outraged, "how can you talk so?"

"I am a sensible woman, and must talk so," said Ma firmly; "tears and sorrow won't bring Martha back again, and perhaps she is better where she is, as she certainly never enjoyed life in a sensible way. Since this is the case, let us take good out of evil. I thought, my dear, that the Home would have been ruined, but instead of that, it has become famous. I could fill the place twice over, as so many people wish to come; but I intend to keep my present lodgers at the same prices. Never shall it be said that I made capital out of my dear sister's death. But you, my dear, need not be so particular, since you are not connected with her in a flesh-and-blood way as I am. Do you see?"

Patricia shivered. "No, Mrs. Sellars, I really don't see. I am connected with poor Mrs. Pentreddle in a blood way certainly, for if I had not gone out she would have been alive now."

"Well, my dear, you couldn't help going out, since you had to go on the errand, and no one knows better than I do how obstinate Martha was. Well, she's gone, and as soon as they've settled who killed her we must send her to Devonshire."

"To Devonshire?" echoed Patricia, surprised.

"Yes. Didn't I tell you that Squire Colpster, whose housekeeper she was, has come to London? Well, he is in town now, and called to see me to-day. He is very shocked at Martha's death, and intends to take the body back to lay in Beckleigh churchyard near that of her late husband--or, perhaps, I should say, its late husband, although I am not sure that an 'it' can have a husband. It's very kind of the Squire, but the Colpsters were always kind. He is coming to see you this afternoon before the inquest takes place."

"What about?" asked Patricia uneasily.

"He wishes to hear the story from your own lips."

"It is in all the papers; and much of what the papers say is untrue."

"All the better advertisement," said Mrs. Sellars cheerfully. "I'm quite sure, my dear, that your troubles are over. You can marry when you choose."

"I certainly shan't marry those horrid men who have had the impertinence to write to me!" declared Patricia indignantly.

"Oh, I should, if you find one of the men is nice and rich. But if you don't feel inclined to marry, you are at least sufficiently widely known to get a good situation."

Patricia shuddered again and to her soul. "Who would engage a girl connected with such a horrid crime?"

"Lots of people," said Mrs. Sellars promptly; "and the crime is not so horrid as mysterious. Who can have murdered Martha?--and why?"

"Everyone is asking that question, Mrs. Sellars."

"No one seems to obtain an answer," observed the good lady mournfully; "not even Inspector Harkness or the police. Well, my dear, I must go and see about the dinner. Remember what I said to you. You have a magnificent boom on just now, and if you take full advantage of it, you are made for life."

Miss Carrol did not know whether to laugh or to scold when Ma left her, but finally took refuge in quiet merriment, notwithstanding her disgust at finding herself the centre of such a sordid sensation. Good-natured and kind as Mrs. Sellars undoubtedly was, the idea that she could urge anyone--as she phrased it--to make capital out of her sister's death, revolted Patricia's finer feelings. Certainly, since the old actress intended to retain her children even though she could have obtained more lucrative boarders, she was behaving extraordinarily well, considering her limitations. But in spite of her own self-denial, her theatrical instincts were so very strong, that she had to induce someone to make use of the advertisement, as she could not bear to see such a chance of gaining a wide publicity wasted. It quite grieved her that Patricia should so persistently refuse, especially when she considered that the girl required money. But Miss Carrol not only declined to entertain the idea, but kept as much as she could to her own room and refused interviews to several inquisitive reporters.

"She has no business capabilities," mourned Ma to the playwright. "Why, if this had happened to me when I was on the stage, I should have doubled my salary in a week and trebled it in a month!" which statement was undoubtedly true, since the majority of people greatly enjoy the morbid.

Squire Colpster--as Patricia learned the country gentleman was always called at Beckleigh, and also by Mrs. Sellars, who was a Beckleigh woman--appeared at The Home of Art immediately before the inquest was held, and, therefore, had scanty opportunity of talking with the girl, although he managed to exchange a few words. He turned out to be a tall, lean, and rather bent man, with a dry, ivory-hued skin and gold-rimmed spectacles, perched on an aquiline nose. The term "Squire" suited the John Bull personality of Inspector Harkness better than it did this quiet student. And Patricia, although she did not learn at the moment what Mr. Colpster's particular studies were, gathered that he passed the greater part of his days in a well-furnished library. Only the tragic death of an old and valued servant, this gentleman hinted, would have brought him up to London during the very damp month of November. He spoke with considerable emotion.

"Poor Martha, how strange it is that she should have come to town to meet with this terrible doom! I was never so shocked in my life as when I read the telegram sent by Mrs. Sellars."

"Do you know why she came to London?" asked Patricia bluntly.

Mr. Colpster shook his head, which was covered with rather long, iron-grey hair, in true student fashion. "I only know that Martha wanted to go for a fortnight's jaunt to London--her own words. And I rather think, although she did not say so," added the Squire musingly, "that she expected to meet her son Harry, who is a sailor."

"Is he in town now?"

"I believe so. My nephew, Theodore Dane, told me that he had seen him over a week ago. Harry then said that he had returned from the Far East, and was going later to Amsterdam for a few days. If he has carried out his intention I expect that he is ignorant of his mother's death."

"When he hears of it will he return?"

"Immediately, I think, as Harry is greatly attached to, his mother. If anyone can find the assassin, Harry Pentreddle will, as he is smart, and very tenacious of anything he takes up. I wish I knew where he was in Amsterdam, Miss Carrol, as I could then send him a telegram."

Patricia pondered. "I wonder if he can throw any light on the motive for the commission of the crime?"

"It seems impossible, as Harry, having been on a year's voyage, has not seen his mother for twelve months. It is just possible that, as Martha was a week in town before her murder, she may have seen Harry in the interval. Of course, I understand that Martha only sprained her foot on the night previous to her death."

"She slipped on the stairs," said Patricia mechanically. "Her son certainly has not been here, or Mrs. Sellars would have told me. Have you any idea what caused the crime to be committed?"

Mr. Colpster pondered in his turn. "I rather think I will wait until the inquest is ended before answering that question," he said judicially.

"But won't you answer it at the inquest, so that the truth of the matter may be known," urged the girl, puzzled by his tone.

"I may not be asked the question at the inquest," said Mr. Colpster blandly, and declined to discuss the matter further. Indeed, there was no time, as they were summoned at this moment to the drawing-room, where the jurymen, under the control of the coroner, were waiting for the various witnesses. They had already inspected the body of the unfortunate woman, which was lying in an upstairs bedroom.

As has been before stated, Inspector Harkness had very little evidence to lay before those in authority. The criminal, whether man or woman, had disappeared in what seemed to be a magical manner. All the officer could do, and did do, was to produce various witnesses to relate baldly what had taken place; and these could say very little. Nothing could be proved save that Martha Pentreddle had been murdered, but by whom, and for what reason, it was impossible to say. The inspector gave a hurried sketch of all that had happened since he had been summoned to The Home of Art, and then called his first witness. This was Mrs. Sellars, who wept a great deal, and spoke volubly, adopting her best dramatic manner, so as to create a sensation; for she was always mindful, in spite of her genuine grief, that what she said would be printed in all the great newspapers. The chance of advertising herself as a retired star of the drama was too good to be lost.

But in spite of the good lady's volubility, she had really very little information to give. Her sister, Mrs. Pentreddle, had come to London six days previous to her death, from Devonshire, where she was housekeeper to Squire Colpster, ostensibly on the plea of shopping. She had gone out a great deal, but nearly always the witness was with her, and the deceased had not spoken to anyone in particular. She had certainly mentioned that her son Harry had returned from the Far East, and that she hoped to see him before she returned to Devonshire. But Harry had neither written nor had he called. "And I should have been so pleased to see Harry, who is a very charming nephew to have," ended Mrs. Sellars, with doubtful grammar.

"Did the deceased mention that she was expecting anyone on the night she was murdered?" asked the coroner gravely.

"Oh, dear me, no, sir. Had she done so, I should have forbidden her to receive a single person, as she was slightly feverish from a sprain caused by slipping on the stairs, and was not in a condition to see anyone. In fact, I was most unwilling to leave her, but she implored me to do so, as she knew how interested I was in the drama of Mr. Samuel Amersham. But only on the condition that someone remained to look after her did I agree to go. Miss Carrol kindly promised to remain, so I departed quite happy. Only to return," said Mrs. Sellars, with a burst of emotion, "to find that Martha had gone to that bourne whence no traveller returns."

"The deceased never hinted to you that she was in danger of her life?"

"Never! She was quite happy--that is, as happy as she could be with her religious views, which were extremely dull. She had no idea of dying, for she told me that she hoped Harry would return with her to Devonshire."

"Did you know of anything in her life which led you to believe that she had an enemy who desired her death."

"Certainly not! Martha never made an enemy in her life, although she certainly was the reverse of agreeable. She was as dull as I am bright," said Mrs. Sellars, blushing. "Comedy and Tragedy, Pa called us," and this remark ended the examination, as the witness apparently could throw no light on the darkness which environed the crime.

The doctor who had been called in to examine the body stated that the deceased had been murdered by some sharp instrument being thrust into the throat. This had pierced the jugular vein, and the miserable woman, becoming unconscious almost at once, had slowly bled to death. Her hair was in disorder, and when discovered, her body was lying half on and half off the sofa. It was the doctor's opinion that the assassin, grasping the hair, had drawn back his victim's head so that he could the more easily accomplish his deadly purpose. From the nature of the wound, it was probably inflicted by a fine and narrow blade--witness thought that a stiletto might have been used. From the condition of the body, death had undoubtedly taken place at ten o'clock, but probably, since the death was caused by h?morrhage, deceased must have been struck down some minutes earlier. This was all the medical evidence obtainable, and although it proved clearly how Mrs. Pentreddle died, could not show who had committed the crime. But the use of the word "stiletto" gave the coroner an idea.

"Only a foreigner would use such a weapon," he remarked.

The witness disagreed. "The word suggests an Italian, because it is the name of a weapon extensively employed by the bravi of the Middle Ages. But a murderer of any other nation would use it just as naturally, if it came to hand. Besides, I only assume from the nature of the wound--the smallness of the orifice--that a stiletto was used. I am sure that I am right, however!" and the coroner rather agreed, as he also was a doctor and had seen the wound himself.

"Could there have been a stiletto in the house?" he asked generally.

"Yes!" cried Mrs. Sellars unexpectedly, from her seat near the door, and became prodigiously excited.

"What's that?" asked the coroner, as the doctor stepped away from the place assigned to witnesses. "What do you say?"

Mrs. Sellars at once occupied the vacated position. "Now I remember, that only three days before poor, dear Martha met with her death, I was showing her some of my old stage dresses. There was a page's costume I wore in The Duke's Motto, and with it were the jewels and a stiletto."

"Pooh! Pooh! A stage weapon!" said the coroner contemptuously.

"Not at all; not at all! A friend of mine, who admired my acting, gave me a real Italian stiletto to wear in the part: a very dangerous weapon it was, sharp and pointed. I daresay Martha was killed with that."

"Have you missed it?"

"No. I put away the dresses and never thought of looking, but Martha could easily have taken it while my back was turned. Just wait, sir, and I'll go and see," and before the coroner could give permission, Mrs. Sellars, as active as a young girl, was out of the room.

There was a pause, as it was impossible to continue the examination of other witnesses until this important point was settled. Everyone looked at one another, but no one spoke, as it was felt that here, at least, was a tangible clue. In a very short space of time Mrs. Sellars returned, red-faced and out of breath, waving an empty sheath. "It's not here," she declared quickly and giving the gold-embroidered sheath to the coroner; "this is all that I found. Martha must have taken the stiletto."

"But why should she?" demanded the coroner, doubtfully.

"Ask me another," said Mrs. Sellars vulgarly, and with a shrug.

There was only one inference to be drawn from the absence of the weapon: Mrs. Pentreddle knew that she was in danger, and had therefore armed herself against a possible attempt being made on her life.


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