Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 10/Lord Oakburn's daughters - Part 5



The rain was pouring down in torrents; nevertheless the street of South Wennock was alive with bustle, especially in the vicinity of the Red Lion Inn. It was Thursday, the day appointed for the inquest on the deceased Mrs. Crane.

The county coroner, whose residence was in the county town, was momentarily expected, and presently his gig dashed up, he and his clerk in it. It had been wished to hold the inquest on the Wednesday, but the coroner put it off to suit his own convenience. He was a lawyer; a short, stout man, with black hair and a jovial-looking face; and as he emerged from under the large gig umbrella, he shook hands with some of the bystanders, his acquaintances. The clerk followed with a blue bag.

The coroner popped into the bar, swallowed a glass of hot brandy-and-water, and then proceeded to the board-room to swear the jury. It was a long room, the club-room of the inn: a table covered with green baize ran down it, at which they seated themselves, and the coroner opened proceedings. Then they departed to Palace Street to view the body.

They went splashing through the rain and the mud, their umbrellas of little use, for the wind, remarkably high, kept turning them inside out. A genteel attendance escorted them: all the gentleman idlers in the place, all the curious tradespeople, the unwashed mob, and the street urchins. By the pertinacity with which these last dodged the jury's heels, it might be thought that they believed the august functionaries to be living curiosities from a travelling wild-beast show.

The necessary inspection over, they splashed back to the Red Lion, and the business began. We may glance at the evidence of two or three of the witnesses, but not at all, for it would only be a repetition of what is already known, and tire the reader. Difficulty the first was: What was the young lady's Christian name? Nobody could answer; her linen, it was said, was marked with a large C, the initial letter of the word Crane, but with nothing else. Some suggested that this was more probably the initial of her Christian name—Caroline or Charlotte—but it was impossible to say. Her boxes had been examined officially, the large trunk and the workbox; but no clue to whom she was, or what she was, was found; no to whom she was, or what she was, was found; no scrap of paper indicated her previous abode, or why she came there.

Mrs. Fitch, the landlady of the Red Lion, told what she knew of the stranger's arrival by the omnibus, the previous Friday, and that she had recommended her to the lodgings in Palace Street. Mr. Stephen Grey testified to his being summoned to her on the same night, to the subsequent birth of the infant, and to her safe and healthy condition afterwards, up to seven o'clock on the Monday evening, at which hour he last saw her alive. Mr. John Grey and Mr. Brooklyn from Great Wennock, who had conjointly made the post-mortem examination, gave evidence of the cause of her death—poison, by prussic acid; and there were other points of evidence, technical or otherwise, not necessary to go into in detail.

There had been a question by the coroner as to whether Mr. Stephen Grey should give his evidence; that gentleman expressed himself anxious and willing to tender it; and at length the coroner decided to admit it, warning Mr. Stephen that he need not say anything to criminate himself, and that what he did say might possibly be used as evidence against him. Mr. Stephen smiled, and replied that all he had it in his power to say might be used against him if it could be. He spoke to the making up of the sleeping draught, to the ingredients of which it was composed. Frederick Grey, his son, testified that he had seen it made up, minutely describing what had been put into it, as his father had done, and to the sending the draught by Dick, the boy. Dick, who was the next witness, protested, with a very red and startled face, caused by finding himself before a coroner's court, that he had taken it safely and given it into the hands of Nurse Pepperfly.

"Call Nurse Pepperfly," said the coroner.

Nurse Pepperfly was called for in the adjoining room and escorted in, in rather a shaky state, not induced by the imbibing of strong waters—from such she had that morning kept herself free—but from the general agitation caused by the anticipated proceedings. She had attired herself in her best, of course; a short black stuff gown, the worse for stains and dirt, a scarlet woollen shawl, and a rusty black bonnet with a bow at the top. The wind, as she came along the street, had taken the shawl, the bonnet, and the grey hairs underneath, and played with them after its own boisterous fashion; so that altogether Nurse Pepperfly presented a somewhat bewildered and untidy appearance. She wore pattens and white stockings, the latter a mass of splashes, and very distinctly visible from the shortness of the gown; but the extraordinary rotundity of Mrs. Pepperfly's person seemed almost to preclude the possibility of any gown's being made long enough to hide her legs. She took off her pattens when close to the coroner, and held them in one hand; her umbrella, dripping with rain, being in the other. A remarkable umbrella, apparently more for show than use, since its sticks and wires projected a full foot at the bottom through the gingham, and there was no handle visible at the top. There was a smothered smile at her appearance when she came in, and her evidence caused some diversion, not only in itself, but from the various honorary titles she persisted in according to the coroner and jury.

"Your name's Pepperfly?" began the coroner.

"Which it is, my lord, with Betsy added to it," was the response, given with as deep a curtsy as the witness's incumbrances of person would allow her.

"You mean Elizabeth?" said the coroner, raising his pen from his note-book, and waiting.

"Your worship, I never knowed myself called by any thing but Betsy. It may be as 'Lizabeth was written in the register at my baptism, but I can't speak to it. Mother——"

"That will do," said the coroner, and after a few more questions he came to the chief point. "Did you take in some medicine last Monday evening for the lady you were nursing—Mrs. Crane?"

"Yes, my lord, I did. It were a composing draught; leastways, that's what it ought to have been."

"What time was that?"

"It were after dark, sir, and I was at my supper."

"Can't you tell the time?"

"It must have struck eight, I think, your worship, for I had begun to feel dreadful peckish afore I went down, and eight o'clock's my supper hour. I had just finished it, sir, when the ring came it were pickled herrings that we had——"

"The jury do not want to know what you had for supper; confine yourself to the necessary points. Who brought the medicine?"

"That boy of the Mr. Greys: Dick. An insolent young rascal, Mr. Mayor, as you ever set eyes on. He whips up the cover of his basket, and out he takes a small bottle wrapped in white paper and gives it me. I should like to tell you, my lord, what he said to me."

"If it bears upon the case, you can tell it," replied the coroner.

"'Now, Mother Pepperfly,' said he, 'how are you off for Old Tom to-night?' My fingers tingled to get at his ears, my lord mayor and corporation, but he backed out of my reach."

Mrs. Pepperfly in her indignation had turned round to the jury, expecting their sympathy, and the room burst into a laugh.

"He backed away out of my reach, gentlemen, afeard of getting his deserts, and he stopped in the middle of the road and made a mocking face at me, knowing I'd no chance of getting to him, for they are as lissome as cats, them boys, and I'm rather stout to set up a run."

"I told you to confine yourself to evidence," said the coroner, in a reproving tone. "What did you do with the medicine?"

"I took it up-stairs, gentlefolks, and Mr. Carlton came out of the lady's room, for he had just called in, and asked what it was I had got. I said it was the sleeping draught from Mr. Grey's, and he took it out of my hand, and said how it smelt of oil of almonds."

"Oil of almonds? Are you sure that's what he said?"

"Of course I am sure," retorted Mrs. Pepperfly, "I didn't dream it. He took out the cork and he smelt the stuff, and then he said it. 'What could Mr. Stephen Grey be giving her oil of almonds for?' he said."

"Did you smell it?"

"I can't say I did, your lordship, much; though Mr. Carlton was surprised I couldn't, and put it towards me but my nose hadn't got no smell in it just at that particular moment, and so I told him."

"Why had it not?" inquired the coroner.

Mrs. Pepperfly would have liked to evade the question. She fidgeted first on one leg, then on the other, put down her pattens and took them up again, and gave her umbrella a shake, the effect of which was to administer a shower of rain-drops to all the faces in her vicinity.

"Come," said the coroner, sharply, "you stand there to tell the truth. If the stuff emitted so strong a smell, how was it you could not smell it?"

"I had just swallowed a wee drop of gin, sir," replied Mrs. Pepperfly, in a subdued tone.

"When my supper were over, Mrs. Gould says to me, 'Just a drain, mum, to keep the herrings down, it's obligatory for your health;' and knowing I'm weak in the stomach, gentlefolks, which gets upset at nothing, I let myself be over-persuaded, and took a drain but you couldn't have put it into a thimble."

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