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CHAPTER XIX

It seemed to Mrs. Bunting that she had been sitting there a long time—it was really about a quarter of an hour—when her official friend came back.

"Better come along now," he whispered; "it’ll begin soon."

She followed him out into a passage, up a row of steep stone steps, and so into the Coroner’s Court.

The court was big, well-lighted room, in some ways not unlike a chapel, the more so that a kind of gallery ran half-way round, a gallery evidently set aside for the general public, for it was now crammed to its utmost capacity.

Mrs. Bunting glanced timidly towards the serried row of faces. Had it not been for her good fortune in meeting the man she was now following, it was there that she would have had to try and make her way. And she would have failed. Those people had rushed in the moment the doors were opened, pushing, fighting their way in a way she could never have pushed or fought.

There were just a few women among them, set, determined-looking women, belonging to every class, but made one by their love of sensation and their power of forcing their way in where they wanted to be. But the women were few; the great majority of those standing there were men—men who were also representative of every class of Londoner.

The centre of the court was like an arena; it was sunk two or three steps below the surrounding gallery. Just now it was comparatively clear of people, save for the benches on which sat the men who were to compose the jury. Some way from these men, huddled together in a kind of big pew, stood seven people—three women and four men.

"D’you see the witnesses?" whispered the inspector, pointing these out to her. He supposed her to know one of them with familiar knowledge, but, if that were so, she made no sign.

Between the windows, facing the whole room, was a kind of little platform, on which stood a desk and an arm-chair. Mrs. Bunting guessed rightly that it was there the coroner would sit. And to the left of the platform was the witness-stand, also raised considerably above the jury.

Amazingly different, and far, far more grim and awe-inspiring than the scene of the inquest which had taken place so long ago, on that bright April day, in the village inn. There the coroner had sat on the same level as the jury, and the witnesses had simply stepped forward one by one, and taken their place before him.

Looking round her fearfully, Mrs. Bunting thought she would surely die if ever she were exposed to the ordeal of standing in that curious box-like stand, and she stared across at the bench where sat the seven witnesses with a feeling of sincere pity in her heart.

But even she soon realised that her pity was wasted. Each woman witness looked eager, excited, and animated; well pleased to be the centre of attention and attraction to the general public. It was plain each was enjoying her part of important, if humble, actress in the thrilling drama which was now absorbing the attention of all London—it might almost be said of the whole world.

Looking at these women, Mrs. Bunting wondered vaguely which was which. Was it that rather draggle-tailed-looking young person who had certainly, or almost certainly, seen The Avenger within ten seconds of the double crime being committed? The woman who, aroused by one of his victims’ cry of terror, had rushed to her window and seen the murderer’s shadowy form pass swiftly by in the fog?

Yet another woman, so Mrs. Bunting now remembered, had given a most circumstantial account of what The Avenger looked like, for he, it was supposed, had actually brushed by her as he passed.

Those two women now before her had been interrogated and cross-examined again and again, not only by the police, but by representatives of every newspaper in London. It was from what they had both said—unluckily their accounts materially differed—that that official description of The Avenger had been worked up—that which described him as being a good-looking, respectable young fellow of twenty-eight, carrying a newspaper parcel…

As for the third woman, she was doubtless an acquaintance, a boon companion of the dead.

Mrs. Bunting looked away from the witnesses, and focused her gaze on another unfamiliar sight. Specially prominent, running indeed through the whole length of the shut-in space, that is, from the coroner’s high dais right across to the opening in the wooden barrier, was an ink-splashed table at which, when she had first taken her place, there had been sitting three men busily sketching; but now every seat at the table was occupied by tired, intelligent-looking men, each with a notebook, or with some loose sheets of paper, before him.

"Them’s the reporters," whispered her friend. "They don’t like coming till the last minute, for they has to be the last to go. At an ordinary inquest there are only two—maybe three—attending, but now every paper in the kingdom has pretty well applied for a pass to that reporters’ table."

He looked consideringly down into the well of the court. "Now let me see what I can do for you——"

Then he beckoned to the coroner’s officer: "Perhaps you could put this lady just over there, in a corner by herself? Related to a relation of the deceased, but doesn’t want to be——" He whispered a word or two, and the other nodded sympathetically, and looked at Mrs. Bunting with interest. "I’ll put her just here," he muttered. "There’s no one coming there to-day. You see, there are only seven witnesses—sometimes we have a lot more than that."

And he kindly put her on a now empty bench opposite to where the seven witnesses stood and sat with their eager, set faces, ready—aye, more than ready—to play their part.

For a moment every eye in the court was focused on Mrs. Bunting, but soon those who had stared so hungrily, so intently, at her, realised that she had nothing to do with the case. She was evidently there as a spectator, and, more fortunate than most, she had a "friend at court," and so was able to sit comfortably, instead of having to stand in the crowd.

But she was not long left in isolation. Very soon some of the important-looking gentlemen she had seen downstairs came into the court, and were ushered over to her seat while two or three among them, including the famous writer whose face was so familiar that it almost seemed to Mrs. Bunting like that of a kindly acquaintance, were accommodated at the reporters’ table.

"Gentlemen, the Coroner."

The jury stood up, shuffling their feet, and then sat down again; over the spectators there fell a sudden silence.

And then what immediately followed recalled to Mrs. Bunting, for the first time, that informal little country inquest of long ago.

First came the "Oyez! Oyez!" the old Norman-French summons to all whose business it is to attend a solemn inquiry into the death—sudden, unexplained, terrible—of a fellow-being.

The jury—there were fourteen of them—all stood up again. They raised their hands and solemnly chanted together the curious words of their oath.

Then came a quick, informal exchange of sentences ’twixt the coroner and his officer.

Yes, everything was in order. The jury had viewed the bodies—he quickly corrected himself—the body, for, technically speaking, the inquest just about to be held only concerned one body.

And then, amid a silence so absolute that the slightest rustle could be heard through the court, the coroner—a clever-looking gentleman, though not so old as Mrs. Bunting thought he ought to have been to occupy so important a position on so important a day—gave a little history, as it were, of the terrible and mysterious Avenger crimes.

He spoke very clearly, warming to his work as he went on.

He told them that he had been present at the inquest held on one of The Avenger’s former victims. "I only went through professional curiosity," he threw in by way of parenthesis, "little thinking, gentlemen, that the inquest on one of these unhappy creatures would ever be held in my court."

On and on, he went, though he had, in truth, but little to say, and though that little was known to every one of his listeners.

Mrs. Bunting heard one of the older gentlemen sitting near her whisper to another: "Drawing it out all he can; that’s what he’s doing. Having the time of his life, evidently!" And then the other whispered back, so low that she could only just catch the words, "Aye, aye. But he’s a good chap—I knew his father; we were at school together. Takes his job very seriously, you know—he does to-day, at any rate."

· · · · · · ·

She was listening intently, waiting for a word, a sentence, which would relieve her hidden terrors, or, on the other hand, confirm them. But the word, the sentence, was never uttered.

And yet, at the very end of his long peroration, the coroner did throw out a hint which might mean anything—or nothing.

"I am glad to say that we hope to obtain such evidence to-day as will in time lead to the apprehension of the miscreant who has committed, and is still committing, these terrible crimes."

Mrs. Bunting stared uneasily up into the coroner’s firm, determined-looking face. What did he mean by that? Was there any new evidence—evidence of which Joe Chandler, for instance, was ignorant? And, as if in answer to the unspoken question, her heart gave a sudden leap, for a big, burly man had taken his place in the witness-box—a policeman who had not been sitting with the other witnesses.

But soon her uneasy terror became stilled. This witness was simply the constable who had found the first body. In quick, business-like tones he described exactly what had happened to him on that cold, foggy morning ten days ago. He was shown a plan, and he marked it slowly, carefully, with a thick finger. That was the exact place—no, he was making a mistake—that was the place where the other body had lain. He explained apologetically that he had got rather mixed up between the two bodies—that of Johanna Cobbett and Sophy Hurtle.

And then the coroner intervened authoritatively: "For the purpose of this inquiry," he said, "we must, I think, for a moment consider the two murders together."

After that, the witness went on far more comfortably; and as he proceeded, in a quick monotone, the full and deadly horror of The Avenger’s acts came over Mrs. Bunting in a great seething flood of sick fear and—and, yes, remorse.

Up to now she had given very little thought—if, indeed, any thought—to the drink-sodden victims of The Avenger. It was he who had filled her thoughts,—he and those who were trying to track him down. But now? Now she felt sick and sorry she had come here to-day. She wondered if she would ever be able to get the vision the policeman’s words had conjured up out of her mind—out of her memory.

And then there came an eager stir of excitement and of attention throughout the whole court, for the policeman had stepped down out of the witness-box, and one of the women witnesses was being conducted to his place.

Mrs. Bunting looked with interest and sympathy at the woman, remembering how she herself had trembled with fear, trembled as that poor, bedraggled, common-looking person was trembling now. The woman had looked so cheerful, so—so well pleased with herself till a minute ago, but now she had become very pale, and she looked round her as a hunted animal might have done.

But the coroner was very kind, very soothing and gentle in his manner, just as that other coroner had been when dealing with Ellen Green at the inquest on that poor drowned girl.

After the witness had repeated in a toneless voice the solemn words of the oath, she began to be taken, step by step, though her story. At once Mrs. Bunting realised that this was the woman who claimed to have seen The Avenger from her bedroom window. Gaining confidence, as she went on, the witness described how she had heard a long-drawn, stifled screech, and, aroused from deep sleep, had instinctively jumped out of bed and rushed to her window.

The coroner looked down at something lying on his desk. "Let me see! Here is the plan. Yes—I think I understand that the house in which you are lodging exactly faces the alley where the two crimes were committed?"

And there arose a quick, futile discussion. The house did not face the alley, but the window of the witness’s bedroom faced the alley.

"A distinction without a difference," said the coroner testily. "And now tell us as clearly and quickly as you can what you saw when you looked out."

There fell a dead silence on the crowded court. And then the woman broke out, speaking more volubly and firmly than she had yet done. "I saw ’im!" she cried. "I shall never forget it—no, not till my dying day!" And she looked round defiantly.

Mrs. Bunting suddenly remembered a chat one of the newspaper men had had with a person who slept under this woman’s room. That person had unkindly said she felt sure that Lizzie Cole had not got up that night—that she had made up the whole story. She, the speaker, slept lightly, and that night had been tending a sick child. Accordingly, she would have heard if there had been either the scream described by Lizzie Cole, or the sound of Lizzie Cole jumping out of bed.

"We quite understand that you think you saw the"—the coroner hesitated—"the individual who had just perpetrated these terrible crimes. But what we want to have from you is a description of him. In spite of the foggy atmosphere about which all are agreed, you say you saw him distinctly, walking along for some yards below your window. Now, please, try and tell us what he was like."

The woman began twisting and untwisting the corner of a coloured handkerchief she held in her hand.

"Let us begin at the beginning," said the coroner patiently. "What sort of a hat was this man wearing when you saw him hurrying from the passage?"

"It was just a black ’at" said the witness at last, in a husky, rather anxious tone.

"Yes—just a black hat. And a coat—were you able to see what sort of a coat he was wearing?"

"’E ’adn’t got no coat" she said decidedly. "No coat at all! I remembers that very perticulerly. I thought it queer, as it was so cold—everybody as can wears some sort o’ coat this weather!"

A juryman who had been looking at a strip of newspaper, and apparently not attending at all to what the witness was saying, here jumped up and put out his hand.

"Yes?" the coroner turned to him.

"I just want to say that this ’ere witness—if her name is Lizzie Cole, began by saying The Avenger was wearing a coat—a big, heavy coat. I’ve got it here, in this bit of paper."

"I never said so!" cried the woman passionately. "I was made to say all those things by the young man what came to me from the Evening Sun. Just put in what ’e liked in ’is paper, ’e did—not what I said at all!"

At this there was some laughter, quickly suppressed.

"In future," said the coroner severely, addressing the juryman, who had now sat down again, "you must ask any question you wish to ask through your foreman, and please wait till I have concluded my examination of the witness."

But this interruption, this—this accusation, had utterly upset the witness. She began contradicting herself hopelessly. The man she had seen hurrying by in the semi-darkness below was tall—no, he was short. He was thin—no, he was a stoutish young man. And as to whether he was carrying anything, there was quite an acrimonious discussion.

Most positively, most confidently, the witness declared that she had seen a newspaper parcel under his arm; it had bulged out at the back—so she declared. But it was proved, very gently and firmly, that she had said nothing of the kind to the gentleman from Scotland Yard who had taken down her first account—in fact, to him she had declared confidently that the man had carried nothing—nothing at all; that she had seen his arms swinging up and down.

One fact—if fact it could be called—the coroner did elicit. Lizzie Cole suddenly volunteered the statement that as he had passed her window he had looked up at her. This was quite a new statement.

"He looked up at you?" repeated the coroner. "You said nothing of that in your examination."

"I said nothink because I was scared—nigh scared to death!"

"If you could really see his countenance, for we know the night was dark and foggy, will you please tell me what he was like?"

But the coroner was speaking casually, his hand straying over his desk; not a creature in that court now believed the woman’s story.

"Dark!" she answered dramatically. "Dark, almost black! If you can take my meaning, with a sort of nigger look."

And then there was a titter. Even the jury smiled. And sharply the coroner bade Lizzie Cole stand down.

Far more credence was given to the evidence of the next witness.

This was an older, quieter-looking woman, decently dressed in black. Being the wife of a night watchman whose work lay in a big warehouse situated about a hundred yards from the alley or passage where the crimes had taken place, she had gone out to take her husband some food he always had at one in the morning. And a man had passed her, breathing hard and walking very quickly. Her attention had been drawn to him because she very seldom met anyone at that hour, and because he had such an odd, peculiar look and manner.

Mrs. Bunting, listening attentively, realised that it was very much from what this witness had said that the official description of The Avenger had been composed—that description which had brought such comfort to her, Ellen Bunting’s, soul.

This witness spoke quietly, confidently, and her account of the newspaper parcel the man was carrying was perfectly clear and positive.

"It was a neat parcel," she said, "done up with string."

She had thought it an odd thing for a respectably dressed young man to carry such a parcel—that was what had made her notice it. But when pressed, she had to admit that it had been a very foggy night—so foggy that she herself had been afraid of losing her way, though every step was familiar.

When the third woman went into the box, and with sighs and tears told of her acquaintance with one of the deceased, with Johanna Cobbett, there was a stir of sympathetic attention. But she had nothing to say throwing any light on the investigation, save that she admitted reluctantly that "Anny" would have been such a nice, respectable young woman if it hadn’t been for the drink.

Her examination was shortened as much as possible; and so was that of the next witness, the husband of Johanna Cobbett. He was a very respectable-looking man, a foreman in a big business house at Croydon. He seemed to feel his position most acutely. He hadn’t seen his wife for two years; he hadn’t had news of her for six months. Before she took to drink she had been an admirable wife, and—and yes, mother.

Yet another painful few minutes, to anyone who had a heart, or imagination to understand, was spent when the father of the murdered woman was in the box. He had had later news of his unfortunate daughter than her husband had had, but of course he could throw no light at all on her murder or murderer.

A barman, who had served both the women with drink just before the public-house closed for the night, was handled rather roughly. He had stepped with a jaunty air into the box, and came out of it looking cast down, uneasy.

And then there took place a very dramatic, because an utterly unexpected, incident. It was one of which the evening papers made the utmost, much to Mrs. Bunting’s indignation. But neither coroner nor jury—and they, after all, were the people who mattered—thought a great deal of it.

There had come a pause in the proceedings. All seven witnesses had been heard, and a gentleman near Mrs. Bunting whispered, "They are now going to call Dr. Gaunt. He’s been in every big murder case for the last thirty years. He’s sure to have something interesting to say. It was really to hear him I came."

But before Dr. Gaunt had time even to get up from the seat with which he had been accommodated close to the coroner, there came a stir among the general public, or, rather, among those spectators who stood near the low wooden door which separated the official part of the court from the gallery.

The coroner’s officer, with an apologetic air, approached the coroner, and handed him up an envelope. And again in an instant, there fell absolute silence on the court.

Looking rather annoyed, the coroner opened the envelope. He glanced down the sheet of notepaper it contained. Then he looked up.

"Mr.——" then he glanced down again. " Mr.—ah—Mr.—is it Cannot?" he said doubtfully, "may come forward."

There ran a titter though the spectators, and the coroner frowned.

A neat, jaunty-looking old gentleman, in a nice fur-lined overcoat, with a fresh, red face and white side-whiskers, was conducted from the place where he had been standing among the general public, to the witness-box.

"This is somewhat out of order, Mr.—er—Cannot," said the coroner severely. "You should have sent me this note before the proceedings began. This gentleman," he said, addressing the jury, "informs me that he has something of the utmost importance to reveal in connection with our investigation."

"I have remained silent—I have locked what I knew within my own breast"—began Mr. Cannot in a quavering voice, "because I am so afraid of the Press! I knew if I said anything, even to the police, that my house would be besieged by reporters and newspaper men… I have a delicate wife, Mr. Coroner. Such a state of things—the state of things I imagine—might cause her death—indeed, I hope she will never read a report of these proceedings. Fortunately, she has an excellent trained nurse——"

"You will now take the oath," said the coroner sharply. He already regretted having allowed this absurd person to have his say.

Mr. Cannot took the oath with a gravity and decorum which had been lacking in most of those who had preceded him.

"I will address myself to the jury," he began.

"You will do nothing of the sort," broke in the coroner. "Now, please attend to me. You assert in your letter that you know who is the—the——"

"The Avenger," put in Mr. Cannot promptly.

"The perpetrator of these crimes. You further declare that you met him on the very night he committed the murder we are now investigating?"

"I do so declare," said Mr. Cannot confidently. "Though in the best of health myself,"—he beamed round the court, a now amused, attentive court—"it is my fate to be surrounded by sick people, to have only ailing friends. I have to trouble you with my private affairs, Mr. Coroner, in order to explain why I happened to be out at so undue an hour as one o’clock in the morning——"

Again a titter ran through the court. Even the jury broke into broad smiles.

"Yes," went on the witness solemnly, "I was with a sick friend—in fact, I may say a dying friend, for since then he has passed away. I will not reveal my exact dwelling-place; you, sir, have it on my notepaper. It is not necessary to reveal it, but you will understand me when I say that in order to come home I had to pass through a portion of the Regent’s Park; and it was there—to be exact, about the middle of Prince’s Terrace—when a very peculiar-looking individual stopped and accosted me."

Mrs. Bunting’s hand shot up to her breast. A feeling of deadly fear took possession of her.

"I mustn’t faint," she said to herself hurriedly. "I mustn’t faint! Whatever’s the matter with me?" She took out her bottle of smelling-salts, and gave it a good, long sniff.

"He was a grim, gaunt man, was this stranger, Mr. Coroner, with a very odd-looking face. I should say an educated man—in common parlance, a gentleman. What drew my special attention to him was that he was talking aloud to himself—in fact, he seemed to be repeating poetry. I give you my word, I had no thought of The Avenger, no thought at all. To tell you the truth, I thought this gentleman was a poor escaped lunatic, a man who’d got away from his keeper. The Regent’s Park, sir, as I need hardly tell you, is a most quiet and soothing neighbourhood——"

And then a member of the general public gave a loud guffaw.

"I appeal to you; sir," the old gentleman suddenly cried out "to protect me from this unseemly levity! I have not come here with any other object than that of doing my duty as a citizen!"

"I must ask you to keep to what is strictly relevant," said the coroner stiffly. "Time is going on, and I have another important witness to call—a medical witness. Kindly tell me, as shortly as possible, what made you suppose that this stranger could possibly be—" with an effort he brought out for the first time since the proceedings began, the words, "The Avenger?"

"I am coming to that!" said Mr. Cannot hastily. "I am coming to that! Bear with me a little longer, Mr. Coroner. It was a foggy night, but not as foggy as it became later. And just when we were passing one another, I and this man, who was talking aloud to himself—he, instead of going on, stopped and turned towards me. That made me feel queer and uncomfortable, the more so that there was a very wild, mad look on his face. I said to him, as soothingly as possible, ‘A very foggy night, sir.’ And he said, ‘Yes—yes, it is a foggy night, a night fit for the commission of dark and salutary deeds.’ A very strange phrase, sir, that—‘dark and salutary deeds.’" He looked at the coroner expectantly——

"Well? Well, Mr. Cannot? Was that all? Did you see this person go off in the direction of—of King’s Cross, for instance?"

"No." Mr. Cannot reluctantly shook his head. "No, I must honestly say I did not. He walked along a certain way by my side, and then he crossed the road and was lost in the fog."

"That will do," said the coroner. He spoke more kindly. "I thank you, Mr. Cannot, for coming here and giving us what you evidently consider important information."

Mr. Cannot bowed, a funny, little, old-fashioned bow, and again some of those present tittered rather foolishly.

As he was stepping down from the witness-box, he turned and looked up at the coroner, opening his lips as he did so. There was a murmur of talking going on, but Mrs. Bunting, at any rate, heard quite distinctly what it was that he said:

"One thing I have forgotten, sir, which may be of importance. The man carried a bag—a rather light-coloured leather bag, in his left hand. It was such a bag, sir, as might well contain a long-handled knife."

Mrs. Bunting looked at the reporters’ table. She remembered suddenly that she had told Bunting about the disappearance of Mr. Sleuth’s bag. And then a feeling of intense thankfulness came over her; not a single reporter at the long, ink-stained table had put down that last remark of Mr. Cannot. In fact, not one of them had heard it.

Again the last witness put up his hand to command attention. And then silence did fall on the court.

"One word more," he said in a quavering voice. "May I ask to be accommodated with a seat for the rest of the proceedings? I see there is some room left on the witnesses’ bench." And, without waiting for permission, he nimbly stepped across and sat down.

Mrs. Bunting looked up, startled. Her friend, the inspector, was bending over her.

"Perhaps you’d like to come along now," he said urgently.—"I don’t suppose you want to hear the medical evidence. It’s always painful for a female to hear that. And there’ll be an awful rush when the inquest’s over. I could get you away quietly now."

She rose, and, pulling her veil down over her pale face, followed him obediently.

Down the stone staircase they went, and through the big, now empty, room downstairs.

"I’ll let you out the back way," he said. "I expect you’re tired, ma’am, and will like to get home to a cup o’ tea."

"I don’t know how to thank you!" There were tears in her eyes. She was trembling with excitement and emotion. "You have been good to me."

"Oh, that’s nothing," he said a little awkwardly. "I expect you went though a pretty bad time, didn’t you?"

"Will they be having that old gentleman again?" she spoke in a whisper, and looked up at him with a pleading, agonised look.

"Good Lord, no! Crazy old fool! We’re troubled with a lot of those sort of people, you know, ma’am, and they often do have funny names, too. You see, that sort is busy all their lives in the City, or what not; then they retires when they gets about sixty, and they’re fit to hang themselves with dulness. Why, there’s hundreds of lunies of the sort to be met in London. You can’t go about at night and not meet ’em. Plenty of ’em!"

"Then you don’t think there was anything in what he said?" she ventured.

"In what that old gent said? Goodness—no!" he laughed good-naturedly. "But I’ll tell you what I do think. If it wasn’t for the time that had gone by, I should believe that the second witness had seen that crafty devil—" he lowered his voice. "But, there, Dr. Gaunt declares most positively—so did two other medical gentlemen—that the poor creatures had been dead hours when they was found. Medical gentlemen are always very positive about their evidence. They have to be—otherwise who’d believe ’em? If we’d time I could tell you of a case in which—well, ’twas all because of Dr. Gaunt that the murderer escaped. We all knew perfectly well the man we caught did it, but he was able to prove an alibi as to the time Dr. Gaunt said the poor soul was killed."