We were at our other and chief home, Dyke Manor: and Tod and I were there for the short Easter holidays, which were shorter in those days than they are in these.
It was Easter Tuesday. The Squire had gone riding over to old Jacobson’s with Tod. I, having nothing else to do, got the mater to come with me for a practice on the church organ; and we were taking the round home again through the village, Church Dykely.
Easter was very late that year. It was getting towards the end of April: and to judge by the weather, it might have been the end of May, the days were so warm and glorious.
In passing the gate of George Reed’s cottage, Mrs. Todhetley stopped.
“How are the babies, Hester?”
Hester Reed, sunning her white cap and clean cotton gown in the garden, the three elder children around, watering the beds with a doll’s watering-pot, and a baby hiding its face on her shoulder, dropped a curtsy as she answered —
“They be but poorly, ma’am, thank you. Look up, Susy,” turning the baby’s face upwards to show it: and a pale mite of a face it was, with sleepy eyes. “For a day or two past they’ve not seemed the thing; and they be both cross.”
“I should think their teeth are troubling them, Hester.”
“Maybe, ma’am. I shouldn’t wonder. Hetty, she seems worse than Susy. She’s a-lying there in the basket indoors. Would you please spare a minute to step in and look at her, ma’am?”
Mrs. Todhetley opened the gate. “I may as well go in and see, Johnny,” she said to me in an undertone: “I fear both the children are rather sickly.”
The other baby, “Hetty,” lay in the kitchen in a clothes-basket. It had just the same sort of puny white face as its sister. These two were twins, and about a year old. When they were born, Church Dykely went on finely at Hester Reed, asking her if she would not have had enough with one new child but she must go and set up two.
“It does seem very poorly,” remarked Mrs. Todhetley, stooping over the young mortal (which was not cross just now, but very still and quiet), and letting it clasp its little fist round one of her fingers. “No doubt it is the teeth. If the children do not get better soon, I think, were I you, Hester, I should speak to Mr. Duffham.”
The advice seemed to strike Hester Reed all of a heap. “Speak to Dr. Duffham!” she exclaimed. “Why, ma’am, they must both be a good deal worse than they be, afore we does that. I’ll give ’em a dose o’ mild physic apiece. I dare say that’ll bring ’em round.”
“I should think it would not hurt them,” assented Mrs. Todhetley. “They both seem feverish; this one especially. I hear you have had Cathy over,” she went on, passing to another subject.
“Sure enough us have,” said Mrs. Reed. “She come over yesterday was a week and stayed till Friday night.”
“And what is she doing now?”
“Well, ma’am, Cathy’s keeping herself; and that’s something. She has got a place at Tewkesbury to serve in some shop; is quite in clover there, by all accounts. Two good gownds she brought over to her back; and she’s pretty nigh as lighthearted as she was afore she went off to enter on her first troubles.”
“Hannah told me she was not looking well.”
“She have had a nasty attack of — what was it? — neuralgy, I think she called it, and been obliged to go to a doctor,” answered Hester Reed. “That’s why they gave her the holiday. She was very well while she was here.”
I had stood at the door, talking to the little ones with their watering-pot. As the mater was taking her final word with Mrs. Reed, I went on to open the gate for her, when some woman whisked round the corner from Piefinch Lane, and in at the gate.
“Thank ye, sir,” said she to me: as if I had been holding it open for her especial benefit.
It was Ann Dovey, the blacksmith’s wife down Piefinch Cut: a smart young woman, fond of fine gowns and caps. Mrs. Todhetley came away, and Ann Dovey went in. And this is what passed at Reed’s — as it leaked out to the world afterwards.
The baby in the basket began to cry, and Ann Dovey lifted it out and took it on her lap. She understood all about children, having been the eldest of a numerous flock at home, and was no doubt all the fonder of them because she had none of her own. Mrs. Dovey was moreover a great gossip, liking to have as many fingers in her neighbours’ pies as she could conveniently get in.
“And now what’s amiss with these two twins?” asked she in confidential tones, bending her face forward till it nearly touched Mrs. Reed’s, who had sat down opposite to her with the other baby. “Sarah Tanken, passing our shop just now, telled me they warn’t the thing at all, so I thought I’d run round.”
“Sarah Tanken looked in while I was a-washing up after dinner, and saw ’em both,” assented Mrs. Reed. “Hetty’s the worst of the two; more peeky like.”
“Which is Hetty?” demanded Ann Dovey; who, with all her neighbourly visits, had not learnt to distinguish the two apart.
“The one that you be a-nursing.”
“Did the mistress of the Manor look at ’em?”
“Yes; and she thinks I’d better give ’em both some mild physic. Leastways, I said a dose might bring ’em round,” added Hester Reed, correcting herself, “and she said it might.”
“It’s the very thing for ’em, Hester Reed,” pronounced Mrs. Dovey, decisively. “There’s nothing like a dose of physic for little ones; it often stops a bout of illness. You give it to the two; and don’t lose no time. Grey powder’s best.”
“I’ve not got any grey powder by me,” said Mrs. Reed. “It crossed my mind to try ’em with one o’ them pills I had from Abel Crew.”
“What pills be they?”
“I had ’em from him for myself the beginning o’ the year, when I was getting the headache so much. They’re as mild as mild can be; but they did me good. The box is upstairs.”
“How do you know they’d be the right pills to give to babies?” sensibly questioned Mrs. Dovey.
“Oh, they be right enough for that! When little Georgy was poorly two or three weeks back, I ran out to Abel Crew, chancing to see him go by the gate, and asked whether one of his pills would do the child harm. He said no, it would do him good.”
“And did it get him round?”
“I never gave it. Georgy seemed to be so much pearter afore night came, that I thought I’d wait till the morrow. He’s a rare bad one to take physic, he is. You may cover a powder in treacle that thick, Ann Dovey, but the boy scents it out somehow, and can’t be got to touch it. His father always has to make him; I can’t. He got well that time without the pill.”
“Well, I should try the pills on the little twins,” advised Ann Dovey. “I’m sure they want something o’ the sort. Look at this one! lying like a lamb in my arms, staring up at me with its poor eyes, and never moving. You may always know when a child’s ill by its quietness. Nothing ailing ’em, they worry the life out of you.”
“Both of them were cross enough this morning,” remarked Hester Reed, “and for that reason I know they be worse now. I’ll try the pill to-night.”
Now, whether it was that Ann Dovey had any especial love for presiding at the ceremony of administering pills to children, or whether she only looked in again incidentally in passing, certain it was that in the evening she was for the second time at George Reed’s cottage. Mrs. Reed had put the three elder ones to bed; or, as she expressed it, “got ’em out o’ the way;” and was undressing the twins by firelight, when Ann Dovey tripped into the kitchen. George Reed was at work in the front garden, digging; though it was getting almost too dark to see where he inserted the spade.
“Have ye give ’em their physic yet?” was Mrs. Dovey’s salutation.
“No; but I’m a-going to,” answered Hester Reed. “You be just come in time to hold ’em for me, Ann Dovey, while I go upstairs for the box.”
Ann Dovey received the pair of babies, and sat down in the low chair. Taking the candle, Mrs. Reed ran up to the room where the elder children slept. The house was better furnished than cottages generally are, and the rooms were of a fairly good size. Opposite the bed stood a high deal press with a flat top to it, which Mrs. Reed made a shelf of, for keeping things that must be out of the children’s reach. Stepping on a chair, she put her hand out for the box of pills, which stood in its usual place near the corner, and went downstairs with it.
It was an ordinary pasteboard pill-box, containing a few pills — six or seven, perhaps. Mrs. Dovey, curious in all matters, lifted the lid and sniffed at the pills. Hester Reed was getting the moist sugar they were to be administered in.
“What did you have these here pills for?” questioned Ann Dovey, as Mrs. Reed came back with the sugar. “They bain’t over big.”
“For headache and pain in the side. I asked old Abel Crew if he could give me something for it, and he gave me these pills.”
Mrs. Reed was moistening a teaspoonful of the sugar, as she spoke, with warm water. Taking out one of the pills she proceeded to crush it into small bits, and then mixed it with the sugar. It formed a sort of paste. Dose the first.
“That ain’t moist enough, Hester Reed,” pronounced Mrs. Dovey, critically.
“No? I’ll put a drop more warm water.”
The water was added, and one of the children was fed with the delectable compound — Hetty. Mrs. Dovey spoke again.
“Is it all for her? Won’t a whole pill be too much for one, d’ye think?”
“Not a bit. When I asked old Abel whether one pill would be too much for Georgy, he said, No — two wouldn’t hurt him. I tell ye, Ann Dovey, the pills be as mild as milk.”
Hetty took in the whole dose by degrees. Susy had a similar one made ready, and swallowed it in her turn. Then the two babies were conveyed upstairs and put to bed side by side in their mother’s room.
Mrs. Dovey, the ceremony being over, took her departure. George Reed came in to his early supper, and soon afterwards he and his wife went up to bed. Men who have to be up at five in the morning must go to rest betimes. The fire and candle were put out, the doors locked, and the cottage was steeped in quietness at a time when in larger houses the evening was not much more than beginning.
How long she slept, Mrs. Reed could not tell. Whether it might be the first part of the night, early or late, or whether morning might be close upon the dawn, she knew not; but she was startled out of her sleep by the cries of the babies. Awful cries, they seemed, coming from children so young; and there could be no mistaking that each was in terrible agony.
“Why, it’s convulsions!” exclaimed George Reed, when he had lighted a candle. “Both of them, too!”
Going downstairs as he was, he hastily lighted the kitchen fire and put a kettle of water on. Then, dressing himself, he ran out for Mr. Duffham. The doctor came in soon after George Reed had got back again.
Duffham was accustomed to scenes, and he entered on one now. Mrs. Reed, in a state of distress, had put the babies in blankets and brought them down to the kitchen fire; the three elder children, aroused by the cries, had come down too, and were standing about in their night-clothes, crying with fright. One of the babies was dead — Hetty. She had just expired in her father’s arms. The other was dying.
“What on earth have you been giving to these children?” exclaimed Duffham, after taking a good look at the two.
“Oh, sir, what is it, please?” sobbed Mrs. Reed, in her terror. “Convulsions?”
“Convulsions — no,” said the doctor, in a fume. “It is something else, as I believe — poison.”
At which she set up a shriek that might have been heard out of doors.
“Well, Hetty was dead, I say;” and Duffham could not do anything to save the other. It died whilst he stood there. Duffham repeated his conjecture as to poison; and Mrs. Reed, all topsy-turvy though she was, three-parts bereft of her senses, resented the implication almost angrily.
“Poison!” cried she. “How can you think of such a thing, sir!”
“I tell you that to the best of my belief these children have both died from some irritant poison,” asserted Duffham, coolly imperative. “I ask what you have been giving them?”
“They have not been well this three or four days past,” replied she, wandering from the point; not evasively, but in her mind’s bewilderment. “It must have been their teeth, sir; I thought they were cutting ’em with fever.”
“Did you give them any physic?”
“Yes, sir. A pill apiece when I put ’em to bed.”
“Ah!” said Mr. Duffham. “What pill was it?”
“One of Abel Crew’s.”
This answer surprised him. Allowing that his suspicion of poison was correct, he assumed that these pills must have contained it; and he had never had cause to suppose that Abel Crew’s pills were otherwise than innocent.
Mrs. Reed, her voice broken by sobs, explained further in answer to his questions, telling him how she had procured these pills from Abel Crew some time before, and had given one of the said pills to each of the babies. Duffham stood against the dresser, taking it all in with a solemn face, his cane held up to his chin.
“Let me see this box of pills, Mrs. Reed.”
She went upstairs to get it. A tidy woman in her ways, she had put the box in its place again on the top of the press. Duffham took off the lid, and examined the pills.
“Do you happen to have a bit of sealing-wax in the house, Reed?” he asked presently.
George Reed, who had stood like a man bewildered, looking first on one, then on the other of his dead little ones, answered that he had not. But the eldest child, Annie, spoke up, saying that there was a piece in her little work-box; Cathy had given it her last week when she was at home.
It was produced — part of a small stick of fancy wax, green and gold. Duffham wrapped the pill-box up in the back of a letter that he took from his pocket, and sealed it with a seal that hung to his watch-chain. He put the parcel into the hand of George Reed.
“Take care of it,” he said. “This will be wanted.”
“There could not have been poison in them pills, sir,” burst out Mrs. Reed, her distress increasing at the possibility that he might be right. “If there had been, they’d ha’ poisoned me. One night I took three of ’em.”
Duffham did not answer. He was nodding his head in answer to his own thoughts.
“And who ever heard of Abel Crew mixing up poison in his pills?” went on Mrs. Reed. “If you please, sir, I don’t think he could do it.”
“Well, that part of it puzzles me — how he came to do it,” acknowledged Duffham. “I like old Abel, and shall be sorry if it is proved that his pills have done the mischief.”
Mrs. Reed shook her head. She had more faith than that in Abel Crew.
Ever so many years before — for it was in the time of Sir Peter Chavasse — there appeared one day a wanderer at Church Dykely. It was hot weather, and he seemed to think nothing of camping out in the fields by night, under the summer stars. Who he was, or what he was, or why he had come, or why he stayed, nobody knew. He was evidently not a tramp, or a gipsy, or a travelling tinker — quite superior to it all; a slender, young, and silent man, with a pale and gentle face.
At one corner of the common, spreading itself between the village and Chavasse Grange, there stood a covered wooden shed, formerly used to impound stray cattle, but left to itself since the square space for the new pound had been railed round. By-and-by it was found that the wanderer had taken to this shed to sleep in. Next, his name leaked out —“Abel Crew.”
He lived how he could, and as simply as a hermit. Buying a penny loaf at the baker’s, and making his dinner of it with a handful of sorrel plucked from the fields, and a drink from the rivulet that ran through the wilderness outside the Chavasse grounds. His days were spent in examining roots and wild herbs, now and then in digging one up; and his nights chiefly in studying the stars. Sir Peter struck up a sort of speaking acquaintanceship with him, and, it was said, was surprised at his stock of knowledge and the extent of his travels; for he knew personally many foreign places where even Sir Peter himself had never been. That may have caused Sir Peter — who was lord of the manor and of the common included — to tolerate in him what it was supposed he would not in others. Anyway, when Abel Crew began to dig the ground about his shed, and plant roots and herbs in it, Sir Peter let him do it and never interfered. It was quite the opposite; for Sir Peter would sometimes stand to watch him at his work, talking the while.
In the course of time there was quite an extensive garden round the shed — comparatively speaking, you know, for we do not expect to see a shed garden as large as that of a mansion. It was fenced in with a hedge and wooden palings, all the work of Abel Crew’s hands. Sir Peter was dead then; but Lady Chavasse, guardian to the young heir, Sir Geoffrey, extended to him the same favour that her husband had, and, if she did not absolutely sanction what he was doing, she at any rate did not oppose it. Abel Crew filled his garden with rare and choice and useful field herbs, the valuable properties of which he alone understood; and of ordinary sweet flowers, such as bees love to suck. He set up bee-hives and sold the honey; he distilled lavender and bergamot for perfumes; he converted his herbs and roots into medicines, which he supplied to the poor people around, charging so small a price for them that it could scarcely more than cover the cost of making, and not charging at all the very poor. At the end of about ten years from his first appearance, he took down the old shed, and built up a more convenient cottage in its place, doing it all with his own pair of hands. And the years went on and on, and Abel Crew and his cottage, and his herbs, and his flowers, and his bees, and his medicines, were just as much of an institution in the parish as was the Grange itself.
He and I became good friends. I liked him. You have heard how I take likes and dislikes to faces, and I rarely saw a face that I liked as I liked Abel Crew’s. Not for its beauty, though it really was beautiful, with its perfect shape and delicately carved features; but for its unmistakable look of goodness and its innate refinement: perhaps also for the deep, far-seeing, and often sad expression that sat in the earnest eyes. He was old now — sixty, I dare say; tall, slender, and very upright still; his white hair brushed back from his forehead and worn rather long. What his original condition of life might have been did not transpire; he never talked of it. More than once I had seen him reading Latin books; and though he fell into the diction of the country people around when talking with them, he changed his tones and language when conversing with his betters. A character, no doubt, he was, but a man to be respected; a man of religion, too — attending church regularly twice on a Sunday, wet or dry, and carrying his religion into the little things of everyday life.
His style of dress was old-fashioned and peculiar. So far as I saw, it never varied. A stout coat, waistcoat, and breeches every day, all of one colour — drab; with leathern gaiters buttoned nearly to the knee. On Sundays he wore a suit of black silk velvet, and a frilled shirt of fine cambric. His breeches were tied at the knee with black ribbon, in which was a plain, glistening steel buckle; buckles to match shone in his shoes. His stockings were black, and in the winter he wore black-cloth gaiters. In short, on Sundays Abel Crew looked like a fine old-fashioned English gentleman, and would have been taken for one. The woman who got up his linen declared he was more particular over his shirt-frills than Sir Peter himself.
Strangers in the place would sometimes ask what he was. The answer was not easy to give. He was a botanist and herbalist, and made pills, and mixtures, and perfumes, and sold honey, and had built his cottage and planted out his garden, and lived alone, cooking his food and waiting on himself; doing all in fact with his own hands, and was very modest always. On the other side, he had travelled in his youth, he understood paintings, studied the stars, read his store of Latin and classical books, and now and then bought more, and was as good a doctor as Duffham himself. Some people said a better one. Certain it was, that more than once when legitimate medical nostrums had failed — calomel and blisters and bleeding — Abel Crew’s simple decoctions and leaves had worked a cure. Look at young Mrs. Sterling at the Court. When that first baby of hers came to town — and a fine squalling young brat he was, with a mouth like a crocodile’s! — gatherings arose in her chest or somewhere, one after another; it was said the agony was awful. Duffham’s skill seemed to have gone a blackberrying, the other doctor’s also, for neither of the two could do anything for her, and the Court thought she would have died of it. Upon that, some relation of old Sterling’s was summoned from London — a great physician in great practice. He came in answer, and was liberal with his advice, telling them to try this and to try the other. But it did no good; and she only grew worse. When they were all in despair, seeing her increasing weakness and the prolonged pain, the woman who nursed her spoke of old Abel Crew; she had known him cure in these cases when the doctor could not; and the poor young lady, willing to catch at a straw, told them to send for Abel Crew. Abel Crew took a prepared plaster of herbs with him, green leaves of some sort, and applied it. That night the patient slept more easily than she had for weeks; and in a short time was well again.
But, skilful though he seemed to be in the science of herbs, as remedies for sickness and sores, Abel Crew never obtruded himself upon the ailing, or took money for his advice, or willingly interfered with the province of Duffham; he never would do it unless compelled in the interests of humanity. The patients he chiefly treated were the poor, those who could not have paid Duffham a coin worth thinking about. Duffham knew this. And, instead of being jealous of him, as some medical men might have been, or ridiculing him for a quack, Duffham liked and respected old Abel Crew. He was simple in his habits still: living chiefly upon bread and butter, with radishes or mustard and cress for a relish, cooking vegetables for his dinner, but rarely meat: and his drink was tea or spring water.
So that Abel Crew was rather a notable character amongst us; and when it was known abroad that two of his pills had caused the death of Mrs. Reed’s twins, there arose no end of a commotion.
It chanced that the same night this occurred, just about the time in fact that the unfortunate infants were taking down the pills under the superintendence of their mother and the blacksmith’s wife, Abel Crew met with an accident; though it was curious enough that it should be so. In taking a pan of boiling herbs off the fire, he let one of the handles slip out of his fingers; it sent the pan down on that side, spilled a lot of the stuff, and scalded his left foot on the instep. Therefore he was about the last person to hear of the calamity; for his door was not open as usual the following morning, and no one knocked to tell him of it.
Duffham was the first. Passing by on his morning rounds, the doctor heard the comments of the people, and it arrested him. It was so unusual a thing for Abel Crew not to be about, and for his door to be closed, that some of them had been arriving at a sensible conclusion — Abel Crew, knowing the mischief his pills had done, was shutting himself up within the house, unable to face his neighbours.
“Rubbish!” said Duffham. And he strode up the garden-path, knocked at the door with his cane, and entered. Abel had dressed, but was lying down on the bed again to rest his lame foot.
Duffham would have asked to look at it, but that he knew Abel Crew was as good at burns and scalds as he himself was. It had been doctored at once, and was now wrapped up in a handkerchief.
“The fire is nearly out of it,” said Abel, “but it must have rest; by to-night I shall be able to dress it with my healing-salve. I am much obliged to you for coming in, sir: though in truth I don’t know how you could have heard of the accident.”
“Ah! news flies,” said Duffham, evasively, knowing that he had not heard of the foot, or the neighbours either, and had come in for something altogether different. “What is this about the pills?”
“About the pills?” repeated Abel Crew, who had got up out of respect, and was putting on his coat. “What pills, sir?”
The doctor told him what had happened. Hester Reed had given one of his pills to each of her babies, and both had died of it. Abel Crew listened quietly; his face and his eyes fixed on Duffham.
“The children cannot have died of the pills,” said he, speaking as gently as you please. “Something else must have killed them.”
“According to Hester Reed’s account, nothing can have done it but the pills,” said Duffham. “The children had only taken their ordinary food throughout the day, and very little of that. George Reed came running to me in the night, but it was too late; one was dead before I got there. There could be no mistaking the children’s symptoms — that both were poisoned.”
“This is very strange,” exclaimed Abel, looking troubled. “By what kind of poison?”
“Arsenic, I think. I——”
But here they were interrupted. Dovey, the blacksmith, hearing of the calamity, together with the fact that it was his wife who had assisted in administering the suspected doses, deemed it his duty to look into the affair a little, and to resent it. He had left his forge and a bar of iron red-hot in it, and come tearing along in his leather apron, his shirt-sleeves stripped up to the elbow, and his arms grimy. A dark-eyed, good-natured little man in general, was Dovey, but exploding with rage at the present moment.
“Now then, Abel Crew, what do you mean by selling pills to poison people?” demanded he, pushing back the door with a bang, and stepping in fiercely. Duffham, foreseeing there was going to be a contest, and having no time to waste, took his departure.
“I have not sold pills to poison people,” replied Abel.
“Look here,” said Dovey, folding his black arms. “Be you going to eat them pills, or be you not? Come!”
“What do you mean, Dovey?”
“What do I mean! Ain’t my meaning plain? Do you own to having selled a box of pills to Hester Reed last winter? — be you thinking to eat that there fact, and deny of it? Come, Abel Crew!”
“I remember it well,” readily spoke up Abel. “Mrs. Reed came here one day, complaining that her head ached continually, and her side often had a dull pain in it, and asked me to give her something. I did so; I gave her a box of pills. It was early in January, I think. I know there was ice on the ground.”
“Then do you own to them pills,” returned Dovey, more quietly, his fierceness subdued by Abel’s civility. “It were you that furnished ’em?”
“I furnished the box of pills I speak of, that Hester Reed had from me in the winter. There’s no mistake about that.”
“And made ’em too?”
“Yes, and made them.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear you say that; and now don’t you go for to eat your words later, Abel Crew. Our Ann, my wife, helped to give them there two pills to the children; and I’m not a-going to let her get into trouble over it. You’ve confessed to the pills, and I’m a witness.”
“My pills did not kill the children, Dovey,” said Abel, in a pleasant tone, resting his lame foot upon an opposite chair.
“Not kill ’em?”
“No, that they did not. I’ve not made pills all these years to poison children at last.”
“But what done it if the pills didn’t?”
“How can I say? ‘Twasn’t my pills.”
“Dr. Duffham says it was the pills. And he ——”
“Dr. Duffham says it was?”
“Reed telled me that the doctor asked outright, all in a flurry, what his wife had gave the babies, and she said she had gave ’em nothing but them there two pills of Abel Crew’s. Duffham said the pills must have had poison in ’em, and he asked for the box; and Hester Reed, she give him the box, and he sealed it up afore their eyes with his own seal.”
Abel nodded. He knew that any suspected medicine must in such a case be sealed up.
“And now that I’ve got that there word from ye, I’ll say good-day to ye, neighbour, for I’ve left my forge to itself, and some red-hot iron in it. And I hope with all my heart and mind,”— the blacksmith turned round from the door to say more kindly, his good-nature cropping up again — “that it’ll turn out it warn’t the pills, but some’at else: our Ann won’t have no cause to be in a fright then.” Which was as much as to say that Ann Dovey was frightened, you observe.
That same afternoon, going past the common, I saw Abel Crew in his garden, sitting against the cottage wall in the sun, his foot resting on a block of wood.
“How did it all happen, Abel?” I asked, turning in at the gate. “Did you give Mrs. Reed the wrong pills?”
“No, sir,” he answered, “I gave her the right pills; the pills I make expressly for such complaints as hers. But if I had, in one sense, given her the wrong, they could not have brought about any ill effect such as this, for my pills are all innocent of poison.”
“I should say it could not have been the pills that did the mischief, after all, then.”
“You might swear it as well, Master Johnny, with perfect safety. What killed the poor children, I don’t pretend to know, but my pills never did. I tried to get down as far as Reed’s to inquire particulars, and found I could not walk. It was a bit of ill-luck, disabling myself just at this time.”
“Shall you have to appear at the inquest tomorrow?”
He lifted his head quickly at the question — as though it surprised him. Perhaps not having cast his thoughts that way.
“Is there to be an inquest, Master Johnny?”
“I heard so from old Jones. He has gone over to see the coroner.”
“Well, I wish the investigation was all over and done with,” said he. “It makes me uneasy, though I know I am innocent.”
Looking at him sitting there in the sun, at his beautiful face with its truthful eyes and its silver hair, it was next to impossible to believe he could be the author of the two children’s death. Only — the best of us are liable to mistakes, and sometimes make them. I said as much.
“I made none, Master Johnny,” was his answer. “When my pills come to be analyzed — as of course they must be-they will be found wholesome and innocent.”
The inquest did not take place till the Friday. Old Jones had fixed it for the Thursday, but the coroner put it off to the next day. And by the time Friday morning dawned, opinion had veered round, and was strongly in favour of Abel Crew. All the parish had been to see him; and his protestations, that he had never in his life put any kind of poison into his medicines, made a great impression. The pills could not have been in fault, said everybody. Dr. Duffham might have sealed them up as a matter of precaution, but the mischief would not be found there.
In the middle of Church Dykely, next door to Perkins the butcher’s, stood the Silver Bear Inn; a better sort of public-house, kept by Henry Rimmer. It was there that the inquest was held. Henry Rimmer himself and Perkins the butcher were two of the jurymen. Dobbs the blacksmith was another. They all dressed themselves in their Sunday-going clothes to attend it. It was called for two in the afternoon; and soon after that hour the county coroner (who had dashed up to the Silver Bear in a fast gig, his clerk driving) and the jury trooped down to George Reed’s cottage and took a look at the two pale little faces lying there side by side. Then they went back again, and the proceedings began.
Of course as many spectators went crowding into the room as it would hold. Three or four chairs were there (besides those occupied by the jury at the table), and a bench stood against the wall. The bench was speedily fought for and filled; but Henry Rimmer’s brother, constituting himself master of the ceremonies, reserved the chairs for what he called the “big people,” meaning those of importance in the place. The Squire was bowed into one; and to my surprise I had another. Why, I could not imagine, unless it was that they remembered I was the owner of George Reed’s cottage. But I did not like to sit down when so many older persons were standing, and I would not take the chair.
Some little time was occupied with preliminaries before what might be called the actual inquest set in. First of all, the coroner flew into a passion because Abel Crew had not put in an appearance, asking old Jones if he supposed that was the way justice must be administered in England, and that he ought to have had Crew present. Old Jones who was in a regular fluster with it all, and his legs more gouty than ever, told the coroner, calling him “his worship,” that he had understood Crew meant to be present. Upon which the coroner sharply answered that “understanding” went for nothing, and Jones should know his business better.
However, in walked Abel Crew in the midst of the contest. His delayed arrival was caused by his difficulty in getting his damaged foot there; which had been accomplished by the help of a stick and somebody’s arm. Abel had dressed himself in his black velvet suit; and as he took off his hat on entering and bowed respectfully to the coroner, I declare he could not be taken for anything but a courtly gentleman of the old school. Nobody offered him a chair. I wished I had not given up mine: he should have had it.
Evidence was first tendered of the death of the children, and of the terrible pain they had died in. Duffham and a medical man, who was a stranger and had helped at the post-mortem, testified to arsenic being the cause of death. The next question was, how had it been administered? A rumour arose in the room that the pills had been analyzed; but the result had not transpired. Every one could see a small paper parcel standing on the table before the coroner, and knew by its shape that it must contain the pill-box.
Hester Reed was called. She said (giving her evidence very quietly, just a sob and a sigh every now and then alone betraying what she felt) that she was the wife of George Reed. Her two little ones — twins, aged eleven months and a half — had been ailing for a day or two, seemed feverish, would not eat their food, were very cross at times and unnaturally still at others, and she came to the conclusion that their teeth must be plaguing them, and thought she would give them some mild physic. Mrs. Todhetley, the Squire’s lady at Dyke Manor, had called in on the Tuesday afternoon, and agreed with her that some mild physic ——
“Confine your statement to what is evidence,” interrupted the coroner, sternly.
Hester Reed, looking scared at the check, and perhaps not knowing what was evidence and what not, went on the best way she could. She and Ann Dovey — who had been neighbourly enough to look in and help her — had given the children a pill apiece in the evening after they were undressed, mashing the pill up in a little sugar and warm water. She then put them to bed upstairs and went to bed herself not long after. In the night she and her husband were awoke by the babies’ screams, and they thought it must be convulsions. Her husband lighted the fire and ran for Dr. Duffham; but one had died before the doctor could get there, and the other died close upon it.
“What food had you given them during the day?” asked the coroner.
“Very little indeed, sir. They wouldn’t take it.”
“What did the little that they did take consist of?”
“It were soaked bread, sir, with milk and some sprinkled sugar. I tried them with some potato mashed up in a spoonful o’ broth at midday — we’d had a bit o’ biled neck o’ mutton for dinner — but they both turned from it.”
“Then all they took that day was bread soaked in milk and sweetened with sugar?”
“Yes, it were, sir. But the bread was soaked in warm water and the milk and sugar was put in afterwards. ’Twas but the veriest morsel they’d take, poor little dears!”
“Was the bread — and the milk — and the sugar, the same that the rest of your household used?”
“In course it were, sir. My other children ate plenty of it. Their appetites didn’t fail ’em.”
“Where did you get the warm water from that you say you soaked the bread in?”
“Out o’ the tea-kettle, sir. The water was the same that I biled for our tea morning and night.”
“The deceased children, then, had absolutely no food given to them apart from what you had yourselves?”
“Not a scrap, sir. Not a drop.”
“Except the pills.”
“Excepting them, in course, sir. None o’ the rest of us wanted physic.”
“Where did you procure these pills?”
She went into the history of the pills. Giving the full account of them, as already related.
“By your own showing, witness, it must be three months, or thereabouts, since you had that box from Abel Crew,” spoke the coroner. “How do you know that the two pills you administered to the deceased children came from the same box?”
Hester Reed’s eyes opened wide. She looked as surprised as though she had been asked whether she had procured the two pills from the moon.
“Yes, yes,” interposed one of the jury, “how do you know it was the same box?”
“Why, gentlemen, I had no other box of pills at all, save that,” she said, when her speech came to her. “We’ve had no physic but that in the cottage since winter, nor for ever so long afore. I’ll swear it was the same box, sirs; there can’t be no mistake about it.”
“Did you leave it about in the way of people?” resumed the coroner. “So that it might be handled by anybody who might come into your cottage?”
“No, sir,” she answered, earnestly. “I never kept the pill-box but in one place, and that was on the top of the high press upstairs out of harm’s way. I put it there the first night Abel Crew gave it me, and when I wanted to get a pill or two out for my own taking, I used to step on a chair — for it’s too high for me to reach without — and help myself. The box have never been took from the place at all, sir, till Tuesday night, when I brought it downstairs with me. When I’ve wanted to dust the press-top, I’ve just lifted the pill-box with one hand and passed the duster along under it with the other, as I stood on the chair. It’s the same box, sir; I’ll swear to that much; and it’s the same pills.”
Strong testimony. The coroner paused a moment. “You swear that, you say? You are quite sure?”
“Sir, I am sure and positive. The box was never took from its place since Abel Crew gave it me, till I reached up for it on Tuesday evening and carried it downstairs.”
“You had been in the habit of taking these pills yourself, you say?”
“I took two three or four times when I first had ’em, sir; once I took three; but since then I’ve felt better and not wanted any.”
“Did you feel any inconvenience from them? Any pain?”
“Not a bit, sir. As I said to Ann Dovey that night, when she asked whether they was fit pills to give the children, they seemed as mild as milk.”
“Should you know the box again, witness?”
“Law yes, sir, what should hinder me?” returned Hester Reed, inwardly marvelling at what seemed so superfluous a question.
The coroner undid the paper, and handed the box to her. She was standing close to him, on the other side his clerk — who sat writing down the evidence. “Is this the box?” he asked. “Look at it well.”
Mrs. Reed did as she was bid: turned it about and looked “well.” “Yes, sir, it is the same box,” said she. “That is, I am nearly sure of it.”
“What do you mean by nearly sure?” quickly asked the coroner, catching at the word. “Have you any doubt?”
“Not no moral doubt at all, sir. Only them pill-boxes is all so like one another. Yes, sir, I’m sure it is the same box.”
“Open it, and look at the pills. Are they, in your judgment, the same?”
“Just the same, sir,” she answered, after taking off the lid. “One might a’most know’em anywhere. Only ——”
“Only what?” demanded the coroner, as she paused.
“Well, sir, I fancied I had rather more left — six or seven say. There’s only five here.”
The coroner made no answer to that. He took the box from her and put on the lid. We soon learnt that two had been taken out for the purpose of being analyzed.
For who should loom into the room at that juncture but Pettipher, the druggist from Piefinch Cut. He had been analyzing the pills in a hasty way in obedience to orders received half-an-hour ago, and came to give the result. The pills contained arsenic, he said; not enough to kill a grown person, he thought, but enough to kill a child. As Pettipher was only a small man (in a business point of view) and sold groceries as well as drugs, and spectacles and ear-trumpets, some of us did not think much of his opinion, and fancied the pills should have been analyzed by Duffham. That was just like old Jones: giving work to the wrong man.
George Reed was questioned, but could tell nothing, except that he had never touched either box or pills. While Ann Dovey was being called, and the coroner had his head bent over his clerk’s notes, speaking to him in an undertone, Abel Crew suddenly asked to be allowed to look at the pills. The coroner, without lifting his head, just pushed the box down on the green cloth; and one of the jury handed it over his shoulder to Abel Crew.
“This is not the box I gave Mrs. Reed,” said Abel, in a clear, firm tone, after diving into it with his eyes and nose. “Nor are these the pills.”
Up went the coroner’s head with a start. He had supposed the request to see the box came from a juryman. It might have been irregular for Abel Crew to be allowed so much; but as it arose partly through the coroner’s own fault, he was too wise to make a commotion over it.
“What is that you say?” he asked, stretching out his hand for the box as eagerly as though it had contained gold.
“That this box and these pills are not the same that I furnished to Mrs. Reed, sir,” replied Abel, advancing and placing the box in the coroner’s hand. “They are not indeed.”
“Not the same pills and box!” exclaimed the coroner. “Why, man, you have heard the evidence of the witness, Hester Reed; you may see for yourself that she spoke nothing but truth. Don’t talk nonsense here.”
“But they are not the same, sir,” respectfully persisted Abel. “I know my own pills, and I know my own boxes: these are neither the one nor the other.”
“Now that won’t do; you must take us all for fools!” exploded the coroner, who was a man of quick temper. “Just you stand back and be quiet.”
“Never a pill-box went out from my hands, sir, but it had my little private mark upon it,” urged Abel. “That box does not bear the mark.”
“What is the mark, pray?” asked the coroner.
“Four little dots of ink inside the rim of the lid, sir; and four similar dots inside the box near the edge. They are so faint that a casual observer might not notice them; but they are always there. Of all the pill-boxes now in my house, sir — and I suppose there may be two or three dozen of them — you will not find one but has the mark.”
Some whispering had been going on in different parts of the room; but this silenced it. You might have heard a pin drop. The words seemed to make an impression on the coroner: they and Abel Crew were both so earnest.
“You assert also that the pills are not yours,” spoke the coroner, who was known to be fond of desultory conversations while holding his inquests. “What proof have you of that?”
“No proof; that is, no proof that I can advance, that would satisfy the eye or ear. But I am certain, by the look of them, that those were never my pills.”
All this took the jury aback; the coroner also. It had seemed to some of them an odd thing that Hester Reed should have swallowed two or three of the pills at once without their entailing an ache or a pain, and that one each had poisoned the babies. Perkins the butcher observed to the coroner that the box must have been changed since Mrs. Reed helped herself from it. Upon which the coroner, after pulling at his whiskers for a moment as if in thought, called out for Mrs. Reed to return.
But when she did so, and was further questioned, she only kept to what she had said before, strenuously denying that the box could have been changed. It had never been touched by any hands but her own while it stood in its place on the press, and had never been removed from it at all until she took it downstairs on the past Tuesday night.
“Is the room where this press stands your own sleeping-room?” asked the coroner.
“No, sir. It’s the other room, where my three children sleep.”
“Could these children get to the box?”
“Dear no, sir! ‘Twould be quite impossible.”
“Had any one an opportunity of handling the box when you took it down on Tuesday night?” went on the coroner after a pause.
“Only Mrs. Dovey, sir. Nobody else was there.”
“Did she touch it?”
“She laid hold of it to look at the pills.”
“Did you leave her alone with it?”
“No, sir. Leastways — yes, I did for a minute or so, while I went into the back’us to get the sugar and a saucer and spoon.”
“Had she the box in her hands when you returned?”
“Yes, sir, I think she had. I think she was still smelling at the pills. I know the poor little innocents was lying one on one knee, and one on t’other, all flat, and her two hands was lifted with the box in ’em.”
“It was after that that you took the pills out of it to give the children?”
“Yes, sir; directly after. But Ann Dovey wouldn’t do nothing wrong to the pills, sir.”
“That will do,” said the coroner in his curt way. “Call Ann Dovey.”
Ann Dovey walked forward with a face as red as her new bonnet-strings. She had heard the whole colloquy: something seemed, too, to have put her out. Possessing scant veneration for coroners at the best of times, and none for the jury at present assembled, she did not feel disposed to keep down her temper.
The few first questions asked her, however, afforded no opportunity for resentment, for they were put quietly, and tended only to extract confirmation of Mrs. Reed’s evidence, as to fetching the pill-box from upstairs and administering the pills. Then the coroner cleared his throat.
“Did you see the last witness, Hester Reed, go into the back kitchen for a spoon and saucer?”
“I saw her go and fetch ’em from somewhere,” replied Ann Dovey, who felt instinctively the ball was beginning, and gave the reins to her temper accordingly.
“Did you take charge of the pill-box while she was gone?”
“I had it in my hand, if you mean that.”
“Did anybody come into the kitchen during that interval?”
“No they didn’t,” was the tart response.
“You were alone, except for the two infants?”
“I were. What of it?”
“Now, witness, did you do anything with that box? Did you, for instance, exchange it for another?”
“I think you ought to be ashamed o’ yourselves, all on you, to sit and ask a body such a thing!” exploded Mrs. Dovey, growing every moment more resentful, at being questioned. “If I had knowed the bother that was to spring up, I’d have chucked the box, pills and all, into the fire first. I wish I had!”
“Was the box, that you handed to Hester Reed on her return, the same box she left with you? Were the pills the same pills?”
“Why, where d’ye think I could have got another box from?” shrieked Ann Dovey. “D’you suppose, sir, I carry boxes and pills about with me? I bain’t so fond o’ physic as all that comes to.”
“Dovey takes pills on occasion for that giddiness of his; I’ve seen him take ’em; mayhap you’d picked up a box of his,” spoke Dobbs the blacksmith, mildly.
That was adding fuel to fire. Two of a trade don’t agree. Dovey and Dobbs were both blacksmiths: the one in Church Dykely; the other in Piefinch Cut, not much more, so to say, than a stone’s-throw from each other. The men were good friends enough; but their respective ladies were apt to regard jealously all work taken to the rival establishment. Any other of the jurymen might have made the remark with comparative impunity; not so Dobbs. And, besides the turn the inquiry seemed to be taking, Mrs. Dovey had not been easy about it in her mind from the first; proof of which was furnished by the call, already mentioned, made by her husband on Abel Crew.
“Dovey takes pills on occasion, do he!” she shrilly retorted. “And what do you take, Bill Dobbs? Pints o’ beer when you can get ’em. Who lamed Poole’s white horse the t’other day a-shoeing him?”
“Silence!” sternly interrupted the coroner. While Dobbs, conscious of the self-importance imparted to him by the post he was now filling, and of the necessity of maintaining the dignity of demeanour which he was apt to put on with his best clothes, bore the aspersion with equanimity and a stolid face.
“Attend to me, witness, and confine yourself to replying to the questions I put to you,” continued the coroner. “Did you take with you any pills or pill-box of your own when you went to Mrs. Reed’s that evening?”
“No, I didn’t,” returned Ann Dovey, the emphasis culminating in a sob: and why she should have set on to shiver and shake was more than the jury could understand.
“Do you wear pockets?”
“What if I do?” she said, after a momentary pause. But her lips grew white, and I thought she was trying to brave it out.
“Had you a pocket on that evening?”
“Heaven be good to me!” I heard her mutter under her breath. And if ever I saw a woman look frightened nearly to death, Ann Dovey looked it then.
“Had you a pocket on that evening, witness?” repeated the coroner, sharply.
“What articles were in it? Do you recollect?”
“It were a key or two,” came the answer at length, her very teeth chattering and all the impudence suddenly gone out of her. “And my thimble, sir; — and some coppers; and a part of a nutmeg; — and — and I don’t remember nothing else, sir.”
“No box of pills? You are sure you had not that?”
“Haven’t I said so, sir?” she rejoined, bursting into a flood of tears. For which, and for the sudden agitation, nobody could see any reason: and perhaps it was only that which made the coroner harp upon the same string. Her demeanour had become suspicious.
“You had no poison of any kind in your pocket, then?”
But he asked the question in jest more than earnest. For when she went into hysterics instead of replying, he let her go. He was used to seeing witnesses scared when brought before him.
The verdict was not arrived at that day. When other witnesses had been examined, the coroner addressed the jury. Ten of them listened deferentially, and were quite prepared to return a verdict of Manslaughter against Abel Crew; seemed red-hot to do it, in fact. But two of them dissented. They were not satisfied, they said; and they held out for adjourning the inquest to see if any more light could be thrown upon the affair. As they evidently had the room with them, the coroner yielded, and adjourned the inquest in a temper.
And then it was discovered that the name was not Crew but Carew. Abel himself corrected the coroner. Upon that, the coroner sharply demanded why he had lived under a false name.
“Nay, sir,” replied Abel, as dignified as you please, “I have had no intention of doing so. When I first came to this neighbourhood I gave my name correctly — Carew: but the people at once converted it into Crew by their mode of pronunciation.”
“At any rate, you must have sanctioned it.”
“Tacitly I have done so. What did it signify? When I have had occasion to write my name — but that has been very rare — I have written it Carew. Old Sir Peter Chavasse knew it was Carew, and used to call me so; as did Sir Geoffry. Indeed, sir, I have had no reason to conceal my name.”
“That’s enough,” said the coroner, cutting him short. “Stand back, Abel Carew. The proceedings are adjourned to this day week.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55