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Dead Men's Money(Chapter7)

2006-08-28 23:35

  Chapter VII. The Inquest on John Phillips

  Several of the notabilities of the neighbourhood had ridden or driven to the inn, attracted, of course, by curiosity, and the man with the maimed hand immediately joined them as they stood talking apart from the rest of us. Now, I knew all such people of our parts well enough by sight, but I did not know this man, who certainly belonged to their class, and I turned to Mr. Lindsey, asking him who was this gentleman that had just ridden up. He glanced at me with evident surprise at my question.

  "What?" said he. "You don't know him? That's the man there's been so much talk about lately——Sir Gilbert Carstairs of Hathercleugh House, the new successor to the old baronetcy."

  I knew at once what he meant. Between Norham and Berwick, overlooking the Tweed, and on the English side of the river, stood an ancient, picturesque, romantic old place, half-mansion, half-castle, set in its own grounds, and shut off from the rest of the world by high walls and groves of pine and fir, which had belonged for many a generation to the old family of Carstairs. Its last proprietor, Sir Alexander Carstairs, sixth baronet, had been a good deal of a recluse, and I never remember seeing him but once, when I caught sight of him driving in the town——a very, very old man who looked like what he really was, a hermit. He had been a widower for many long years, and though he had three children, it was little company that he seemed to have ever got out of them, for his elder son, Mr. Michael Carstairs, had long since gone away to foreign parts, and had died there; his younger son, Mr. Gilbert, was, it was understood, a doctor in London, and never came near the old place; and his one daughter, Mrs. Ralston, though she lived within ten miles of her father, was not on good terms with him. It was said that the old gentleman was queer and eccentric, and hard to please or manage; however that may be, it is certain that he lived a lonely life till he was well over eighty years of age. And he had died suddenly, not so very long before James Gilverthwaite came to lodge with us; and Mr. Michael being dead, unmarried, and therefore without family, the title and estate had passed to Mr. Gilbert, who had recently come down to Hathercleugh House and taken possession, bringing with him——though he himself was getting on in years, being certainly over fifty——a beautiful young wife whom, they said, he had recently married, and was, according to various accounts which had crept out, a very wealthy woman in her own right.

  So here was Sir Gilbert Carstairs, seventh baronet, before me, chatting away to some of the other gentlemen of the neighbourhood, and there was not a doubt in my mind that he was the man whom I had seen on the road the night of the murder. I was close enough to him now to look more particularly at his hand, and I saw that the two first fingers had completely disappeared, and that the rest of it was no more than a claw. It was not likely there could be two men in our neighbourhood thus disfigured. Moreover, the general build of the man, the tweed suit of grey that he was wearing, the attitude in which he stood, all convinced me that this was the person I had seen at the cross-roads, holding his electric torch to the face of his map. And I made up my mind there and then to say nothing in my evidence about that meeting, for I had no reason to connect such a great gentleman as Sir Gilbert Carstairs with the murder, and it seemed to me that his presence at those cross-roads was easily enough explained. He was a big, athletic man and was likely fond of a walk, and had been taking one that evening, and, not as yet being over-familiar with the neighbourhood——having lived so long away from it,——had got somewhat out of his way in returning home. No, I would say nothing. I had been brought up to have a firm belief in the old proverb which tells you that the least said is soonest mended. We were all packed pretty tightly in the big room of the inn when the coroner opened his inquiry. And at the very onset of the proceedings he made a remark which was expected by all of us that knew how these things are done and are likely to go. We could not do much that day; there would have to be an adjournment, after taking what he might call the surface evidence. He understood, he remarked, with a significant glance at the police officials and at one or two solicitors that were there, that there was some extraordinary mystery at the back of this matter, and that a good many things would have to be brought to light before the jury could get even an idea as to who it was that had killed the man whose body had been found, and as to the reason for his murder. And all they could do that day, he went on, was to hear such evidence——not much——as had already been collected, and then to adjourn.

  Mr. Lindsey had said to me as we drove along to the inn that I should find myself the principal witness, and that Gilverthwaite would come into the matter more prominently than anybody fancied. And this, of course, was soon made evident. What there was to tell of the dead man, up to that time, was little. There was the medical evidence that he had been stabbed to death by a blow from a very formidable knife or dagger, which had been driven into his heart from behind. There was the evidence which Chisholm and I had collected in Peebles and at Cornhill station, and at the inn across the Coldstream Bridge. There was the telegram which had been sent by Mr. Gavin Smeaton——whoever he might be——from Dundee. And that was about all, and it came to this: that here was a man who, in registering at a Peebles hotel, called himself John Phillips and wrote down that he came from Glasgow, where, up to that moment, the police had failed to trace anything relating to such a person; and this man had travelled to Cornhill station from Peebles, been seen in an adjacent inn, had then disappeared, and had been found, about two hours later, murdered in a lonely place.

  "And the question comes to this," observed the coroner, "what was this man doing at that place, and who was he likely to meet there? We have some evidence on that point, and," he added, with one shrewd glance at the legal folk in front of him and another at the jurymen at his side, "I think you'll find, gentlemen of the jury, that it's just enough to whet your appetite for more."

  They had kept my evidence to the last, and if there had been a good deal of suppressed excitement in the crowded room while Chisholm and the doctor and the landlord of the inn on the other side of Coldstream Bridge gave their testimonies, there was much more when I got up to tell my tale, and to answer any questions that anybody liked to put to me. Mine, of course, was a straight enough story, told in a few sentences, and I did not see what great amount of questioning could arise out of it. But whether it was that he fancied I was keeping something back, or that he wanted, even at that initial stage of the proceedings, to make matters as plain as possible, a solicitor that was representing the county police began to ask me questions.

  "There was no one else with you in the room when this man Gilverthwaite gave you his orders?" he asked.

  "No one," I answered.

  "And you've told me everything that he said to you?"

  "As near as I can recollect it, every word."

  "He didn't describe the man you were to meet?"

  "He didn't——in any way."

  "Nor tell you his name?"

  "Nor tell me his name."

  "So that you'd no idea whatever as to who it was that you were to meet, nor for what purpose he was coming to meet Gilverthwaite, if Gilverthwaite had been able to meet him?"

  "I'd no idea," said I. "I knew nothing but that I was to meet a man and give him a message."

  He seemed to consider matters a little, keeping silence, and then he went off on another tack.

  "What do you know of the movements of this man Gilverthwaite while he was lodging with your mother?" he asked.

  "Next to nothing," I replied.

  "But how much?" he inquired. "You'd know something."

  "Of my own knowledge, next to nothing," I repeated. "I've seen him in the streets, and on the pier, and taking his walks on the walls and over the Border Bridge; and I've heard him say that he'd been out in the country. And that's all."

  "Was he always alone?" he asked.

  "I never saw him with anybody, never heard of his talking to anybody, nor of his going to see a soul in the place," I answered; "and first and last, he never brought any one into our house, nor had anybody asked at the door for him."

  "And with the exception of that registered letter we've heard of, he never had a letter delivered to him all the time he lodged with you?" he said.

  "Not one," said I. "From first to last, not one."

  He was silent again for a time, and all the folk staring at him and me; and for the life of me I could not think what other questions he could get out of his brain to throw at me. But he found one, and put it with a sharp cast of his eye.

  "Now, did this man ever give you, while he was in your house, any reason at all for his coming to Berwick?" he asked.

  "Yes," I answered; "he did that when he came asking for lodgings. He said he had folk of his own buried in the neighbourhood, and he was minded to take a look at their graves and at the old places where they'd lived."

  "Giving you, in fact, an impression that he was either a native of these parts, or had lived here at some time, or had kindred that had?" he asked.

  "Just that," I replied.

  "Did he tell you the names of such folk, or where they were buried, or anything of that sort?" he suggested.

  "No——never," said I. "He never mentioned the matter again."

  "And you don't know that he ever went to any particular place to look at any particular grave or house?" he inquired.

  "No," I replied; "but we knew that he took his walks into the country on both sides Tweed."

  He hesitated a bit, looked at me and back at his papers, and then, with a glance at the coroner, sat down. And the coroner, nodding at him as if there was some understanding between them, turned to the jury.

  "It may seem without the scope of this inquiry, gentlemen," he said, "but the presence of this man Gilverthwaite in the neighbourhood has evidently so much to do with the death of the other man, whom we know as John Phillips, that we must not neglect any pertinent evidence. There is a gentleman present that can tell us something. Call the Reverend Septimus Ridley."

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