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CHAPTER V THE INQUEST CONTINUED
Until it came to the examination of Patricia, very little was learned from the depositions of the various witnesses summoned to give evidence. All that the boarders and the servants could say was that Mrs. Pentreddle, although not an extremely sociable person, had behaved herself quietly in every way. She had kept very much to herself, and had mentioned her business in coming to London to no one. And certainly she had never hinted in the slightest degree that she possessed an enemy who desired to take her life. All who dwelt beneath the hospitable roof of The Home of Art expressed themselves surprised at the death of the poor woman. There was nothing apparent on the surface of things, as one witness observed, to lead up to such a catastrophe. It was entirely unexpected and unforeseen.

Bunson, the butler, deposed that before leaving the house with his fellow-servants for the theatre, he had locked the three drawing-room windows. When the police examined the room afterwards, the middle one of these had been found unfastened and slightly open. It assuredly would not have been difficult for the assassin to have come along the iron balcony to that window and there have tapped for admittance. But Bunson swore positively that unless the deceased had opened the window, the man could not have entered. It was this witness who had found the body, and he stated that he had not touched it until it was seen by Inspector Harkness and his underlings. It was at this point, and in answer to the question of a juryman, that the inspector admitted the absence of the weapon with which the deceased had been killed. No stiletto had been found, either in the drawing-room or in any part of the house, so it was presumed that the criminal must have taken it away with him.

"I wonder that he did not place the stiletto in the hand of the dead woman, so that it might be supposed she had committed suicide," said a juryman.

"Probably he did not think that it would be proved that the deceased had taken the stiletto from her sister's room when the stage costumes were being displayed," suggested another juryman.

"We have not yet learned if the murder was committed with that weapon," was the coroner's remark. "Call George Colpster."

Then came the turn of the Squire to be examined, but he could tell nothing likely to aid in the discovery of the criminal. Mrs. Pentreddle, he declared, had been his housekeeper for over twenty years, and had rarely gone away on a holiday. She had asked him for a fortnight's leave, so that she might pay a visit to Mrs. Sellars in London, and this he had readily granted. She had never told him the reason why she wished to go to London, but he presumed at the time that she intended to see her sailor son during her stay.

When this fact, or, rather, this suggested fact, became known, the coroner recalled Mrs. Sellars, and learned again what he might have known he had learned before, had he referred to his notes, that Harry Pentreddle had never been near the house. When Mrs. Sellars stepped away again from the position allotted to the witnesses, Squire Colpster finished his evidence by swearing solemnly that his housekeeper had never hinted that she was in danger of her life.

"Yet she must have thought so," observed a juryman, "else she would not have taken the stiletto."

"We have not yet proved that the murder was committed with that weapon," snapped the coroner once more.

Of course, the real interest of the case truly began when Patricia Carrol was sworn, since she apparently knew more about the matter than did anyone else, and, moreover, had been the last person to see Mrs. Pentreddle alive. She gave her evidence quietly and clearly, relating all that had taken place from the time Mrs. Pentreddle had asked her to go on the errand to the time she returned to learn that during her absence the wretched woman had been stabbed. But on this occasion, as on the other, when Harkness had questioned her, Patricia left out any confession of her sensations when holding the stolen jewel. She judged, and very wisely too, that any statement of this kind would be put down to hysteria.

Both the coroner and the jurymen questioned and cross-questioned the witness, but in no way could they cause her to deviate from the details she originally gave. Mrs. Pentreddle had promised to explain all about the matter when the witness returned, but her unforeseen death had ended all chance of explanation in that quarter.

"But was the death unforeseen by you?" asked the coroner, catching at the word used by Patricia.

"Certainly," she replied readily. "I expected to find Mrs. Pentreddle ready to receive me when I returned."

"And expected to receive your five pounds?"

"No, sir. I had failed in the errand she had asked me to do; therefore, I did not desire to be paid."

"Can you describe the appearance of the man who placed the box in your hand and the appearance of the thief?"

"No. I told you so before. Both men came and went in a flash, and even if they had waited, it would have been impossible for me to have noticed their dress and looks, as the fog was so thick and the night was so dark."

"Did either man speak?"

"No. Each came and went in silence."

The policemen both in Crook Street and at Hyde Park Corner proved that they had met Patricia and that she had severally asked them the time. Also, the cabman deposed to driving the young lady back to The Home of Art, so, without any difficulty whatsoever, it was proved that Miss Carrol had been absent from the house when the crime had been committed. The Crook Street policeman also swore that he had seen no suspicious people haunting his beat. "And the fog was so thick," ended this witness, "that it would have been difficult to see anyone, unless someone ran into my arms as the young lady did. It was a pea-soup night, sir."

This concluded all the evidence which Harkness was able to get, and after a pause the coroner began his speech. But before he got very far, the door of the drawing-room was hastily flung open and Sammy Amersham the playwright dashed in, holding a dagger aloft.

"It's the stiletto," he cried triumphantly, and clapped it down on the table under the coroner's nose. "When you were asking questions about it, I remembered the unfastened middle window, and wondered if the assassin had opened the same to throw the weapon into the area when he had killed poor Mrs. Pentreddle. I went down and searched, and found it. He must have thrown it out, as I guessed, and then have stepped in to close the window and leave by the front door. There's blood on it, too."

"Is this your stiletto, Mrs. Sellars?" asked the coroner, passing it along.

The woman shuddered as she took it. "It's mine, sure enough," she said. "And there's blood on the handle. Ugh!" she dropped it. "Martha's blood!"

Sammy the playwright was sworn and stated again how he had found the weapon in the area below the iron balcony. "Amongst some rubbish," said Mr. Amersham.

"Is the area ever used?" asked the coroner quickly.

"No," called out Mrs. Sellars; "the tradespeople go round to the back by the side passage, and the gate in the iron railings round the area has been locked ever since I have been in this house. No one would think of looking for the stiletto there."

"The last witness did," said the coroner dryly.

"Shows that he's got the makings of a dramatist," said Mrs. Sellars proudly, although no one saw the connection between the coroner's assertion and her comment.

One thing was clear from the discovery of the weapon in the area, namely, that Mrs. Pentreddle must have been afraid of an attack, else she would never have armed herself by stealing the dagger from her sister. Also, it was certain that Sammy's shrewd explanation was feasible, and that the assassin, after killing the unfortunate woman, had opened the window to drop the stiletto into the unused area.

"The deceased must have expected a visitor on that night," said the coroner musingly, "and probably sent Miss Carrol away so that she could see him undisturbed."

"She did not tell me that she expected anyone," said Patricia quickly.

"No, she would not, seeing that she evidently desired to have a secret interview. As she was alone in the house, she assuredly must have admitted him."

"She could not leave the sofa with her sprained foot," cried Mrs. Sellars.

"Perhaps she could not have crawled to the front door," remarked the coroner; "but her will evidently enabled her to crawl to the middle window and open it."

"Why should the man have come to the middle window?"

"By appointment."

"Impossible," said Mrs. Sellars nervously. "In the first place, Martha would have told me had she intended to see anyone, and----"

"Pardon me, no, madam," interrupted the coroner sharply. "The very fact that the deceased sent away Miss Carrol showed that she desired the interview to be a secret one."

"She would not have admitted a man who intended to murder her."

"But she did. No one else could have admitted him, and the fact of the open middle window showed how he was admitted."

"He opened that to throw out the stiletto."

"Probably he did that, but undoubtedly the window was opened before. Mrs. Pentreddle could not have crawled to the front door."

"Martha had so strong a will that she would have crawled to the top of the house if she had made up her mind to. And I say again she never would have let in a man--whoever he was--to murder her, poor dear!"

"I don't believe she expected to be murdered."

"But the dagger----"

"Precisely, madam. The criminal did not bring it with him, therefore, he did not enter this house with the intention of committing a crime. The deceased was afraid of this man and thus took your stiletto so as to keep him at his distance. Probably she threatened him with it, and there was a struggle during which she was murdered. Then the assassin searched the house."

"For what?" asked Mrs. Sellars, shaking her head sadly.

"For this strange jewel, described by Miss Carrol."

"It wasn't in Martha's possession when----"

"Quite so," interrupted the coroner, dryly; "but the assassin evidently believed that Mrs. Pentreddle possessed it. He struggled with her to see if it was concealed upon her, and when she drew forth the stiletto with which she had provided herself, it was used to kill her. Then the assassin, as I said before, searched the bedrooms. One thing I would ask you, Mrs. Sellars, before we close the evidence. Did anyone know that Mrs. Pentreddle would be alone on the night of her death?"

"She wasn't alone. Miss Carrol was with her."

"Yes, I know. But did anyone know that the house would be empty?"

"I can't say. Of course, Sammy's play was talked about a lot, and everyone said they were going. I even let the servants go, and----"

"Yes, yes! But do you think anyone outside the house knew that there would be a clear field?"

"I can't say," Mrs. Sellars shook her head. "I talked a lot to everyone, both outside and in, saying that we were going. But I don't know anyone who would have murdered poor Martha?"

The coroner's speech was not very long, as really there was little to say. Whether Mrs. Pentreddle had really expected someone, and had, therefore, sent away Miss Carrol so that the interview might be private, it was quite impossible to prove in any way. That the deceased anticipated danger was more or less clearly shown by her theft of the stiletto from her sister. Undoubtedly the assassin--as the nature of the wound and the presence of blood-stains on the handle of the weapon suggested--had turned the dead woman's means of defence against herself. Finally, the idea that the criminal desired the jewel stolen from Patricia in the Park was equally impossible of proof. "In fact!" ended the coroner wearily, for his business had been exhausting, "beyond the undoubted truth that Mrs. Pentreddle is dead, we can prove nothing in any way."

This was also the opinion of the jurymen, which was very natural, considering the scanty nature of the evidence. Without any hesitation the ordinary verdict given in doubtful cases was brought in: "Wilful murder against some person, or persons, unknown," said the jury, and all present felt that nothing more and nothing less could be said under the sad circumstances.

"And I don't believe that they'll ever learn who slaughtered poor Martha," sighed Mrs. Sellars, over a cup of tea, when everyone save the boarders had departed. "We'll just bury her in Devonshire beside her husband, and try to be cheerful again. Whatever Harry will say when he learns I don't know, for he was desperately fond of his mother. I'm sorry for that murdering villain if Harry ever lays hands on him. But he never will, bless you, my dears." And most people believed that Mrs. Sellars spoke the truth. The whole affair was mysterious; and it was confidently asserted that the murder of Mrs. Pentreddle would be relegated to the list of undiscovered crimes.

The immediate result of the inquest was an offer made by a prominent music-hall manager to Patricia, as the heroine of the Crook Street crime. It was suggested that she should appear on the stage in a pretty frock, and relate her experiences in Hyde Park at a salary of two hundred pounds a week. The magnificence of this chance almost took away Mrs. Sellars' breath, and she was greatly disappointed when Patricia refused to make a show of herself. The girl phrased it in this way, and indignantly declined.

"Oh, my dear," cried Mrs. Sellars, almost weeping; "you need money so badly."

"I would sooner need it all my life than degrade myself in this way," retorted Miss Carrol, looking prettier than ever with her cheeks flushed and her eyes sparkling. "How dare the man insult me!"

"Insult, my dear? Two hundred pounds a week an insult?"

"Take it yourself, Mrs. Sellars," replied Patricia impatiently. "After all, poor Mrs. Pentreddle was your sister, and you will be just as great an object of interest to the crowd as I would be."

"I'm not young and pretty, my dear. It's those things that tell."

Patricia shrugged her shoulders. "Well, I refuse, and I have written to the man saying that I cannot accept his offer."

"You refuse good money; you refuse to get married. Whatever are you going to do for a livelihood?" Mrs. Sellars was in despair over this obstinacy.

Patricia shrugged her shoulders once more. "Oh, I daresay I shall manage to earn my living in some decent way. Perhaps Mr. Colpster may help me."

"What makes you think so?"

"He is coming to see me this evening."

"I know he is coming," said Mrs. Sellars; "but I thought it was to see the last of poor Martha's remains. He takes them to Beckleigh to-morrow by the afternoon train. I should have gone myself to attend the funeral, but it is impossible to leave the children." She looked at Patricia curiously. "I wonder if he wants to marry you, my dear."

"I hope not," said Miss Carrol hastily. "How your thoughts do run on marriage, Mrs. Sellars!"

"Well, you are too pretty to remain single, Miss Carrol," said the old actress frankly. "Sammy would marry you if you would only encourage him. And I can tell you, Sammy Amersham has a great future."

"Then I shan't hamper him with a wife. But what makes you think that Mr. Colpster wishes to marry me. Isn't there a Mrs. Colpster?"

"There was, but she died long, long ago. He has one daughter, called by the odd name of Mara. But she will not inherit the estates, as the Squire wants a man to manage them. He has two nephews, you know, my dear: Theodore, who is the eldest, and Basil, who is an officer in the Royal Navy. I don't know which of the two Squire Colpster favours as his heir, but whosoever gets the estates will have to change his name."

"He ought to give his daughter the estates," said Patricia decidedly.

"Well, I am not so sure of that, my dear. You see, from what Martha said, it seems that Mara Colpster is queer."

"How do you mean 'queer'?"

"She is--that is, they think her,--Really," Mrs. Sellars broke off with a puzzled look, "I hardly know what to say. She's queer, that's all about it, for Martha told me very little. I rather think the Squire wants her to marry either Basil or Theodore; then justice would be done all round. But here I am talking," cried Mrs. Sellars, rising slowly to her feet, "when there is so much to be done with getting poor Martha ready for her last journey. I have to see the undertaker and his men, my dear," and Mrs. Sellars waddled away in a great hurry.

Patricia wondered what Mr. Colpster wished to see her about, and wondered also what could be the matter with the girl so oddly termed Mara. This last piece of curiosity was not gratified for some days, but she learned the first two hours later when Squire Colpster interviewed her in Mrs. Sellars' private sitting-room. What he said to her took her breath away.

"I return to Beckleigh to-morrow with the corpse of my housekeeper," said the Squire in his dry way, "and it struck me that you might be willing to come with me to Devonshire."

"Come with you, Mr. Colpster?" gasped Patricia, thunderstruck.

"Yes," he said, simply and directly. "You see, Martha is dead, and I want someone both to look after the house and to be a companion to my daughter."

"To Mara?" queried Patricia, remembering what Mrs. Sellars had said.

"Ah! you know her name." The Squire looked up quickly.

"Mrs. Sellars told me."

Mr. Colpster nodded. "I expect poor Martha has been talking," he said in a vexed tone, "and, no doubt, has been making out Mara to be weak-minded."

"Mrs. Sellars said that Miss Colpster was queer," said Patricia truthfully.

"She is not queer," declared the father, with some sharpness. "Mara is a dreamy girl who wants a brisk companion to arouse her. From what I have seen of you, Miss Carrol, you are the very person to do Mara good. So if you like to come for one hundred a year, I shall be delighted to engage you."

"Oh!" Patricia coloured, but on this occasion with joy. Of all the offers that had been made to her, this one pleased her the best of all. "I accept with the greatest pleasure. But the salary is too large."

"Not at all. We live very quietly and you will find it somewhat dull. Also, I shall want you to look after the servants now that Martha has gone. Mara is incapable of doing so. Well?"

"I accept, as I said before, Mr. Colpster," said Patricia promptly.

"In that case"--he rose to take his leave--"I shall expect you to come with me to-morrow. I hope to leave Paddington Station at four fifteen."

"I shall be there," said Miss Carrol, with sparkling eyes. "I have little to pack and no friends save Mrs. Sellars to take leave of." And when Squire Colpster went away, she thanked God that she was now provided with a home. Out of the evil of Mrs. Pentreddle's death good had come.


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