Things are done in remote country places that would not be done in towns. Whether the law is understood by us, or whether it is not, it often happens that it is very much exceeded, or otherwise not acted upon. Those who have to exercise it sometimes show themselves as ignorant of it as if they had lived all their lives in the wilds of America.
Old Jones the constable was one of these. When not checked by his masters, the magistrates, he would do most outrageous things — speaking of the law and of common sense. And he did one in reference to Abel Crew. I still say Crew. Though it had come out that his name was Carew, we should be sure to call him Crew to the end.
The inquest might have been concluded at its first sitting, but for the two who stood out against the rest of the jury. Perkins the butcher and Dobbs the blacksmith. Truth to say, these two had plenty of intelligence; which could not be said of all the rest. Ten of the jury pronounced the case to be as clear as daylight: the infants had been poisoned by Abel Crew’s pills: and the coroner seemed to agree with them — he hated trouble. But Dobbs and Perkins held out. They were not satisfied, they said; the pills furnished by Abel Crew might not have been the pills that were taken by the children; moreover, they considered that the pills should be “more officially” analyzed. Pettipher the druggist was all very well in his small way, but hardly up, in their opinion, to pronouncing upon pills when a man’s life or liberty was at stake. They pressed for an adjournment, that the pills might be examined by some competent authority. The coroner, as good as telling them they were fools to their faces, had adjourned the inquest in suppressed passion to that day week.
“And I’ve got to take care of you, Abel Crew,” said old Jones, floundering up on his gouty legs to Abel as the jury and crowd dispersed. “You’ve got to come along o’ me.”
“To come where?” asked Abel, who was hobbling towards home on his scalded foot, by the help of his stick and the arm of Gibbon the gamekeeper.
“To the lock-up,” said old Jones.
“To the lock-up!” echoed Abel Crew.
“In course,” returned old Jones. “Where else but the lock-up? Did you think it was to the pound?”
Abel Crew, lifting the hand that held his stick to brush a speck of dirt off his handsome velvet coat, turned to the constable; his refined face, a little paler than usual, gazing inquiringly at old Jones’s, his silver hair glistening in the setting sun.
“I don’t understand you, Mr. Jones,” he said calmly. “You cannot mean to lock me up?”
“Well, I never!” cried old Jones, who had a knack of considering every suspected person guilty, and treating them accordingly. “You have a cheek, you have, Abel Crew! ‘Not going to take me to the lock-up, Mr. Jones,’ says you! Where would you be took to?”
“But there’s no necessity for it,” said Abel. “I shall not run away. I shall be in my house if I’m wanted again.”
“I dare say you would!” said old Jones, ironically. “You might or you mightn’t, you know. You be as good as committed for the killing and slaying o’ them there two twins, and it’s my business to see as you don’t make your escape aforehand, Abel Crew.”
Quite a company of us, sauntering out of the inquest-room, were listening by this time. I gave old Jones a bit of my mind.
“He is not yet committed, Jones, therefore you have no right to take him or to lock him up.”
“You don’t know nothing about it, Mr. Ludlow. I do. The crowner gave me a hint, and I’m acting on it. ‘Don’t you go and let that man escape,’ says his worship to me: ‘it’ll be at your peril if you do.’ ‘I’ll see to him, your worship,’ says I. And I be a-doing of it.”
But it was hardly likely that the coroner meant Abel Crew to be confined in that precious lock-up for a whole week. One night there was bad enough. At least, I did not think he meant it; but the crowd, to judge by their comments, seemed divided on the point.
“The shortest way to settle the question will be to ask the coroner, old Jones,” said I, turning back to the Silver Bear. “Come along.”
“You’d be clever to catch him, Master Johnny,” roared out old Jones after me. “His worship jumped into his gig; it was a-waiting for him when he come out; and his clerk druv him off at a slapping pace.”
It was true. The coroner was gone; and old Jones had it all his own way; for, you see, none of us liked to interfere with the edict of an official gentleman who held sway in the county and sat on dead people. Abel Crew accepted the alternative meekly.
“Any way, you must allow me to go home first to lock my house up, and to see to one or two other little matters,” said he.
“Not unless you goes under my own eyes,” retorted old Jones. “You might be for destroying your stock o’ pills for fear they should bear evidence again’ you, Abel Crew.”
“My pills are, of all things, what I would not destroy,” said Abel. “They would bear testimony for me, instead of against me, for they are harmless.”
So Abel Crew hobbled to his cottage on the common, attended by old Jones and a tail of followers. Arrived there, he attended the first thing to his scalded foot, dressing it with some of his own ointment. Then he secured some bread and butter, not knowing what the accommodation at the lock-up might be in the shape of eatables, and changed his handsome quaint suit of clothes for those he wore every day. After that, he was escorted back to the lock-up.
Now, the lock-up was in Piefinch Cut, nearly opposite to Dovey the blacksmith’s. The Squire remembered the time when the lock-up stood alone; when Piefinch Cut had no more houses in it than Piefinch Lane now has; but since then Piefinch Cut had been built upon and inhabited; houses touching even the sacred walls of the lock-up. A tape-and-cotton and sweetstuff shop supported it on one side, and a small pork-butcher’s on the other. Pettipher’s drug shop, should anybody be curious on the point, was next to the tape-and-cotton mart.
To see Abel Crew arriving in the custody of old Jones the constable, the excited stragglers after them, astonished Piefinch Cut not a little. Figg the pawnbroker — who was originally from Alcester — considered himself learned in the law. Anyway, he was a great talker, and liked to give his opinion upon every topic that might turn up. His shop joined Dovey’s forge: and when we arrived there, Figg was outside, holding forth to Dovey, who had his shirt-sleeves rolled up above his elbows as usual, his leather apron on. Mrs. Dovey stood listening behind, in the smart gown and red-ribboned bonnet she had worn at the inquest.
“Why — what on earth! — have they been and gone and took up Crew?” cried Figg in surprise.
“It is an awful shame of old Jones,” I broke in; speaking more to Dovey than Figg, for Figg was no favourite of mine. “A whole week of the lock-up! Only think of it, Dovey!”
“But have they brought it in again’ him, Master Johnny?” cried Dovey, unfolding his grimy arms to touch his paper cap to me as he spoke.
“No; that’s what they have not done. The inquest is adjourned for a week; and I don’t believe old Jones has a right to take him at all. Not legally, you know.”
“That’s just what her brought word,” said Dovey, with a nod in the direction of his wife. “‘Well, how be it turned, Ann?’ says I to her when her come back — for I’d a sight o’ work in today and couldn’t go myself. ‘Oh, it haven’t turned no ways yet, Jack,’ says her; ‘it be put off to next week.’ There he goes! right in.”
This last remark applied to Abel Crew. After fumbling in his pocket for the two big keys, tied together with string, and then fumbling at the latch, old Jones succeeded in opening the door. Not being much used, the lock was apt to grow rusty. Then he stood back, and with a flourish of hands motioned Abel in. He made no resistance.
“They must know for certain as ’twere his pills what done it,” struck in Mrs. Dovey.
“No, they don’t,” said I. “What’s more, I do not think it was his pills. Abel Crew says he never put poison in his pills yet, and I believe him.”
“Well, and no more it don’t stand to reason as he would, Mr. Ludlow,” said Figg, a man whose self-complaisance was not to be put down by any amount of discouragement. “I were just a-saying so to Dovey —— Why have old Jones took him up?” went on Figg to Gibbon the gamekeeper, who came striding by.
“Jones says he has the coroner’s orders for it,” answered Gibbon.
“Look here, I know a bit about law, and I know a man oughtn’t to be shut up till some charge is brought again’ him,” contended Figg. “Crew’s pills is suspected, but he have not been charged yet.”
“Anyway, it’s what Jones has gone and done,” said Gibbon. “Perhaps he is right. And a week’s not much; it’ll soon pass. But as to any pills of Abel Crew’s having killed them children, it’s just preposterous to think of it.”
“What d’ye suppose did kill ’em, then, Richard Gibbon?” demanded Ann Dovey, a hot flush on her face, her tone full of resentment.
“That’s just what has to be found out,” returned Gibbon, passing on his way.
“If it hadn’t been for Dobbs and Butcher Perkins holding out again’ it, Crew ‘ud ha’ been brought in guilty safe enough,” said Ann Dovey. And the tone was again so excited, so bitterly resentful against Dobbs and Perkins, that I could not help looking at her in wonder. It sounded just as though the non-committal of Abel were a wrong inflicted upon herself.
“No, he would not have been brought in guilty,” I answered her; “he would have been committed for trial; but that’s a different thing. If the matter could be sifted to the bottom, I know it would be found that the mischief did not lie with Abel Crew’s pills. There, Mrs. Dovey!”
She was looking at me out of the corners of her eyes — for all the world as if she were afraid of me, or of what I said. I could not make her out.
“Why should you wish so particularly to bring it home to Crew?” I pointedly asked her; and Figg turned round to look at her, as if seconding the question.
“Me want particular to bring it home to Crew!” she retorted, her voice rising with temper; or perhaps with fear, for she trembled like an aspen leaf. “I don’t want to bring it home particular to him, Mr. Ludlow. It were his pills, though, all the same, that did it.”
And with that she whisked through the forge to her kitchen.
On the morning following I got old Jones to let me into the lock-up. The place consisted of two rooms opening into one another, and a small square space, no bigger than a closet, at the end of the passage, where they kept the pen and ink. For that small space had a window in it, looking on to the fields at the back; the two rooms had only skylights in the roof. In the inner room a narrow iron bedstead stood against the wall, a mattress and blanket on it. Abel was sitting on that when we went in.
“You must have been lively here last night, Abel!”
“Yes, very, sir,” answered he, with a half-smile. “I did not really mind it; I am used to be alone. I could have done with fewer rats, though.”
“Oh, are there rats here?”
“Lots of them, Master Johnny. I don’t like rats. They came upon my face, and all about me.”
“Why does old Jones not set traps for them? He considers this place to be under his special protection.”
“There are too many for any trap to catch,” answered Abel.
Old Jones had gone off to the desk in the closet, having placed some bread and butter and milk on the shelf for Abel. His errand there was to enter the cost of the bread in the account-book, to be settled for later. A prisoner in the lock-up was commonly treated to bread and water: old Jones had graciously allowed this one to pay for some butter and milk out of his own pocket.
“I don’t want to treat ’em harsher nor I be obliged, Master Ludlow,” he said to me, when coming in, in reference to the butter and the milk he was carrying. “Abel Crew have been known as a decent man ever since he come among us: and if he chooses to pay for the butter and the milk, there ain’t no law against his having ’em. ‘Tain’t as if he was a burglar.”
“No, he is not a burglar,” I answered. “And you must mind that you do not get into the wrong box about him. There’s neither law nor justice in locking him up, Jones, before he is charged.”
“If I had never locked up nobody till they was charged, I should ha’ been in the wrong box many a time afore now,” said old Jones, doggedly. “Look at that there man last Christmas; what I caught prowling in the grounds at Parrifer Hall, with a whole set of house-breaking things concealed in his pockets! After I’d took him, and lodged him in here safe, it was found that he was one o’ the worst characters in the county, only let out o’ Worcester goal two days before. Suppose I’d not took him, Master Johnny? where ‘ud the spoons at Parrifer Hall ha’ been?”
“That was a different case altogether.”
“I know what I’m about,” returned Jones. “The coroner, he just give me a nod or two, looking at Crew as he give it. I knew what it meant, sir: a nod’s as good as a wink to a blind horse.”
Anyway, Jones had him, here in the lock-up: and had gone off to enter the loaf in the account-book; and I was sitting on the bench opposite Abel.
“It is a wicked shame of them to have put you here, Abel.”
“It is not legal — as I believe,” he answered. “And I am sure it is not just, sir. I swear those pills and that box produced at the inquest were none of mine. They never went out of my hands. Old Jones thinks he is doing right to secure me, I suppose, and he is civil over it; so I must not grumble. He brought me some water to wash in this morning, and a comb.”
“But there’s no sense in it. You would not attempt to escape; you would wait for the reassembling of the inquest.”
“Escape!” he exclaimed. “I should be the first to remain for it. I am more anxious than any one to have the matter investigated. Truth to say, Master Johnny, my curiosity is excited. Hester Reed is so persistent in regard to their being the pills and box that I gave her; and as she is a truthful honest woman, one can’t see where the mistake lies. There must be a mystery in it somewhere.”
“Suppose you are committed to take your trial? And found guilty?”
“That I shall be committed, I look upon as certain,” he answered. “As to being found guilty — if I am, I must bear it. God knows my innocence, and I shall hope that in time He will bring it to light.”
“All the same, Abel, they ought not to put you in here.”
“That’s true, sir.”
“And then there will be the lying in prison until the assizes — two or three good months to come! Don’t go and die of it, Abel.”
“No, I shall not do that,” he answered, smiling a little. “The consciousness of innocence will keep me up.”
I sat looking at him. What light could get in through the dusty skylight fell on his silver hair, which fell back from his pale face. He held his head down in thought, only raising it to answer me. Some movement in the closet betokened old Jones’s speedy approach, and I hastened to assure Abel that all sensible people would not doubt his innocence.
“No one need doubt it, Master Johnny,” he answered firmly, his eye kindling. “I never had a grain of arsenic in my house; I have never had any other poison. There are herbs from which poison may be distilled, but I have never gathered them. When it comes to people needing poison — and there are some diseases of the human frame that it may be good for — they should go to a qualified medical man, not to a herbalist. No. I have never, never had poison or poisonous herbs withing my dwelling; therefore (putting other reasons aside) it is impossible that those pills can have been my pills. God hears me say it, and knows that it is true.”
Old Jones, balancing the keys in his hand, was standing within the room, listening. Abel Crew was so respectable and courteous a prisoner, compared with those he generally had in the lock-up, burglars, tipsy men, and the like, returning him a “thank you” instead of an oath, that he had already begun to regard him with some favour, and the assertion seemed to make an impression on him.
“Look here,” said he. “Whose pills could they have been, if they warn’t yours?”
“I cannot imagine,” returned Abel Crew. “I am as curious about it as any one else — Master Ludlow here knows I am. I dare say it will come out sometime. They could not have been made up by me.”
“What was that you told the coroner about your pill-boxes being marked?” asked old Jones.
“And so they are marked; all of them. The pill-box I saw there ——”
“I mean the stock o’ boxes you’ve got at home. Be they all marked?”
“Every one of them. When I have in a fresh lot of pill-boxes the first thing I do, on bringing them home, is to mark them.”
“Then look here. You just trust me with the key of your place, and tell me where the boxes are to be found, and I’ll go and secure ’em, and lay ’em afore the coroner. If they be all found marked, it’ll tell in your favour.”
The advice sounded good, and Abel Crew handed over his key. Jones looked solemn as he and I went away together.
“It’s an odd thing, though, Master Johnny, ain’t it, how the pison could ha’ got into them there pills,” said he slowly, as he put the big key into the lock of the outer door.
And we had an audience round us before the words were well spoken. To see the lock-up made fast when there was a prisoner within it, was always a coveted recreation in Piefinch Cut. Several individuals had come running up; not to speak of children from the gutters. Dovey stood gazing in front of his forge; Figg, who liked to be lounging about outside when he had no customers transacting delicate negotiations within, backed against his shop-window, and stared in concert with Dovey. Jones flourishing the formidable keys, crossed over to them.
“How do he feel today?” asked Figg, nodding towards the lock-up.
“He don’t feel no worse appariently than he do other days,” replied old Jones. “It be a regular odd thing, it be.”
“What be odd?” asked Dovey.
“How the pison could ha’ got into them there pills. Crew says he has never had no pison in his place o’ no kind, herbs nor else.”
“And I would pledge my word that it is the truth,” I put in.
“Well, and so I think it is,” said Dovey. “Last night George Reed was in here a-talking. He says he one day come across Abel Crew looking for herbs in the copse behind the Grange. Crew was picking and choosing: some herbs he’d leave alone, and some he dug up. Reed spied out a fine-looking plant, and called to him. Up comes Crew, trowel in hand, bends down to take a look, and then gives his head a shake. ‘That won’t do for me,’ says he, ‘that plant has poisonous properties,’ says he; ‘and I never meddles with them that has,’ says he. George Reed told us that much in this here forge last night. Him and his wife have a’most had words about it.”
“Had words about what?” asked old Jones.
“Why, about them pills. Reed tells her that if it is the pills what poisoned the young ones, she have made some mull o’ the box Abel give her and got it changed. But he don’t believe as ’twere the pills at all. And Hester Reed, she sticks to it that she never made no mull o’ the box, and that the pills is the same.”
At this juncture, happening to turn my head, I saw Mrs. Dovey at the door at the back of the forge, her face screwed round the doorpost, listening: and there was a great fear on it. Seeing me looking at her, she disappeared like a shot, and quietly closed the door. A thought flashed across me.
“That woman knows more about it than she will say! And it is frightening her. What can the mystery be?”
The children were buried on the Sunday afternoon, all the parish flocking to the funeral; and the next morning Abel Crew was released. Whether old Jones had become doubtful as to the legality of what he had done, or whether he received a mandate from the coroner by the early post, no one knew. Certain it was, that before nine o’clock old Jones held the lock-up doors open, and Abel Crew walked out. It was thought that some one must have written privately to the coroner — which was more than likely. Old Jones was down in the mouth all day, as if he had had an official blowing-up.
Abel and his stick went home. The rest and his own doctoring had very nearly cured the instep. On the Saturday old Jones had made a descent upon the cottage and cleared it of the pill-boxes. Jones found that every box had Abel’s private mark upon it.
“Well, this is a curious start, Crew!” exclaimed Mr. Duffham, meeting him as he was turning in at his gate. “Now in the lock-up, and now out of it! It may be old Jones’s notion of law, but it is not mine. How have you enjoyed it?”
“It would not have been so bad but for the rats, sir,” replied Abel. “I could see a few stars shining through the skylight.”
The days went on to the Thursday, and it was now the evening before the adjourned inquest. Tod and I, in consideration of the popular ferment, had taken the Squire at a favourable moment, and extracted from him another week’s holiday. Opinions were divided: some believed in Crew, others in the poisoned pills. As to Crew himself, he was out in his garden as usual, attending to his bees, and his herbs and flowers, and quietly awaiting the good or the ill luck that Fate might have in store for him.
It was Thursday evening, I say; and I was taking tea with Duffham. Having looked in upon him, when rushing about the place, he asked me to stay. The conversation turned upon the all-engrossing topic; and I chanced to mention that the behaviour of Ann Dovey puzzled me. Upon that, Duffham said that it was puzzling him. He had been called in to her the previous day, and found her in a regular fever, eyes anxious, breath hysterical, face hectic. Since the day of the inquest she had been more or less in this state, and the blacksmith told Duffham he could not make out what had come to her. “Them pills have drove her mad, sir,” were Dovey’s words; “she can’t get ’em off her mind.”
The last cup of tea was poured out, and Duffham was shaking round the old black pot to see if he could squeeze out any more, when we received an interruption. Dovey came bursting in upon us straight from his forge; his black hair ruffled, his small dark face hot with flurry. It was a singular tale he had come to tell. His wife had been making a confession to him. Driven pretty nearly out of her mind by the weight of a secret, she could hold it no longer.
To begin at the beginning. Dovey’s house swarmed with black-beetles. Dovey himself did not mind the animals, but Mrs. Dovey did; and no wonder, when she could not step out of bed in the night without putting her foot on one. But, if Dovey did not dislike black-beetles, there was another thing he did dislike — hated in fact; and that was the stuff called beetle-powder: which professed to kill them. Mrs. Dovey would have scattered some on the floor every night; but Dovey would not allow it. He forbid her to bring a grain of it into the house: it was nothing but poison, he said, and might chance to kill themselves as well as the beetles. Ann Dovey had her way in most matters, for Dovey was easy, as men and husbands go; but when once he put his veto on a thing, she knew she might as well try to turn the house round as turn him.
Now what did Ann Dovey do? On that very Easter Tuesday, as it chanced, as soon as dusk had set in, off she went to Dame Chad’s general shop in Church Dykely, where the beetle-power was sold, and bought a packet of it. It seemed to her, that of the choice between two evils — to put up with the horrible black animals, or to disobey Dovey, the latter was the more agreeable. She could easily shake some of the powder down lightly of a night; the beetles would eat it up before morning, and Dovey would never know it. Accordingly, paying for the powder — a square packet, done up in blue paper, on which was labelled “Poison” in as large letters as the printer could get into the space — she thrust it into the depths of her gown-pocket — it was her holiday gown — and set off home again. Calling in at George Reed’s cottage on her way, she there assisted, as it also chanced, in administering the pills to the unfortunate children. And perhaps her motive for calling in was not so much from a love of presiding at physic-giving, as that she might be able, when she got home, to say “At Reed’s,” if her husband asked her where she had been. It fell out as she thought. No sooner had she put foot inside the forge than Dovey began, “Where’st been, Ann?” and she told him at Reed’s, helping with the sick little ones. Dovey’s work was over for the night; he wanted his supper; and she had no opportunity of using the beetle-powder. It was left untouched in the pocket of her gown. The following morning came the astounding news of the children’s death; and in the excitement caused by that, Mrs. Dovey lost sight of the powder. Perhaps she thought that the general stir might cause Dovey to be more wakeful than usual, and that she might as well let the powder be for a short time. It was safe where it was, in her hung-up gown. Dovey never meddled with her pockets: on or off, they were no concern of his.
But, on the Friday morning, when putting on this same holiday gown to attend the inquest, to which she had been summoned, what was her horror to find the packet burst, and her pocket filled with the loose powder. Mrs. Dovey had no greater love for beetle-powder in itself than she had for beetles, and visibly shuddered. She could not empty it out; there it had to remain; for Dovey, excited by his wife’s having to give evidence, was in and out of her room like a dog in a fair; and she went off perforce with the stuff in her pocket. And when during her examination the questions took the turn they did take, and the coroner asked her whether she had had any poison in her pocket that night at George Reed’s; this, with the consciousness of what had been that night in her pocket, of what was in her pocket at that very moment, then present, nearly frightened her into fits. From that hour, Ann Dovey had lived in a state of terror. It was not that she believed any of the beetle-powder could have got inside the ill-fated young ones (though she did not feel quite easy on the point), as that she feared the accusation might be shifted off Crew’s shoulders and on to hers. On this Thursday evening she could hold out no longer; and disclosed all to Dovey.
Dovey burst upon us in a heat. He was as straightforward a man as ever lived, of an intensely honest nature, and could no more have kept it in, now that he knew it, than he could have given up all righteous dealing together. His chief concern was to tell the truth, and to restore peace to his wife. He went through the narrative to Duffham without stopping; and seemed not in the least to care for my being present.
“It ain’t possible, sir, there ain’t a moral possibility that any o’ that there dratted powder could have come anigh the babies,” wound up Dovey. “I should be thankful, sir, if you’d come down and quieten her a bit; her be in a fine way.”
What with surprise, and what with the man’s rapid speech, Duffham had not taken in one-half of the tale. He had simply sat behind the teapot and stared.
“My good fellow, I don’t understand,” he said. “A pocketful of poison! What on earth made her take poison to George Reed’s?”
So Dovey went over the heads of the story again.
“’Twas in her pocket, sir, our Ann’s, it’s true; but the chances are that at that time the paper hadn’t burst. None of it couldn’t ha’ got to them there two young ones.”
To see the blacksmith’s earnestness was good. His face was as eager, his tone as imploring, as though he were pleading for his life.
“And it ‘ud be a work of charity, sir, if you’d just step down and see her. I’d pay handsome for the visit, sir; anything you please to charge. She’s like one going right out of her mind.”
“I’ll come,” said Duffham, who had his curiosity upon the point.
And the blacksmith set off on the run home again.
“Well, this is a curious thing!” exclaimed Duffham, when he had gone.
“Could the beetle-powder have poisoned the children?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Johnny. It is an odd tale altogether. We will go down and inquire into it.”
Which of course implied that he expected me to go with him. Nothing loath was I; more eager than he.
Finishing what was left of the tea and bread-and-butter, we went on to Piefinch Cut. Ann Dovey was alone, except for her husband and mother. She flung herself on the sofa when she saw us — the blacksmith’s house was comfortably off for furniture — and began to scream.
“Now, just you stop that, Ann Dovey,” said Duffham, who was always short with hysterics. “I want to come to the bottom of this business; you can’t tell it me while you scream. What in the world possessed you to go about with your pocket full of poison?”
She had her share of sense, and knew Duffham was not one to be trifled with; so she told the tale as well as she could for sobbing.
“Have you mentioned this out of doors?” was the first question Duffham asked when it was over.
“No,” interposed Dovey. “I telled ‘er afore I come to you not to be soft enough for that. Not a soul have heard it, sir, but me and her”— pointing to the old mother —“and you and Master Johnny. We don’t want all the parish swarming about us like so many hornets.”
“Good,” said Duffham. “But it is rather a serious thing, I fear. Uncertain, at any rate.”
“Be it, sir?” returned Ann, raising her heavy eyes questioningly. “Do you think so?”
“Why, you see, the mischief must have lain between that beetle-powder and Crew’s pills. As Crew is so careful a man, I don’t think it could have been the pills; and that’s the truth.”
“But how could the beetle-powder have got anigh the children out of my pocket, sir?” she asked, her eyes wild. “I never put my hand into my pocket while I sat there; I never did.”
“You can’t be sure of that,” returned Duffham. “We may put our hands into our pockets fifty times a day without remembering it.”
“D’you suppose, sir, I should take out some o’ that there beetle-powder and cram it down the poor innocents’ throats?” she demanded, on the verge of further screaming.
“Where is the powder?” questioned Duffham.
The powder was where it had been all along: in the gown-pocket. Want of opportunity, through fear of Dovey’s eyes, or dread of touching the stuff, had kept her from meddling with it. When she took the gown off, the night of the inquest, she hung it up on the accustomed hook, and there it was still. The old mother went to the bedroom and brought it forward, handling it gingerly: a very smart print gown with bright flowers upon it.
Duffham looked round, saw a tin pie-dish, and turned the pocket inside out into it. A speckled sort of powder, brown and white. He plunged his fingers into it fearlessly, felt it, and smelt it. The blue paper it had been sold in lay amidst it, cracked all across. Duffham took it up.
“Poison!” read out he aloud, gazing at the large letters through his spectacles. “How came you to let it break open in your pocket, Ann Dovey?”
“I didn’t let it; it braked of itself,” she sobbed. “If you saw the black-beedles we gets here of a night, sir, you’d be fit to dance a hornpipe, you would. The floor be covered with ’em.”
“If the ceiling was covered with ’em too, I wouldn’t have that there dangerous stuff brought into the place — and so I’ve telled ye often,” roared Dovey.
“It’s frightful uncomfortable, is black-beedles; mother knows it,” said his wife, in a subdued voice — for Dovey in great things was master. “I thought if I just sprinkled a bit on’t down, it ‘ud take ’em away, and couldn’t hurt nobody.”
“And you went off on the sly that there Tuesday night and bought it,” he retorted; “and come back and telled me you had been to Reed’s helping to physic the babies.”
“And so I had been there, helping to physic ’em.”
“Did you go straight to Reed’s from the shop — with this powder?” asked Duffham.
“It was right at the bottom o’ my pocket: I put it there as soon as Dame Chad had served me with it,” sobbed Ann Dovey. “And I can be upon my Bible oath, Dr. Duffham, that I never touched it after; and I don’t believe it had then burst. A-coming hasty out of Reed’s back-gate, for I were in a hurry to get home, the pocket swung again’ the post, and I think the blue paper must ha’ burst then. I never knowed it had burst, for I’d never thought no more about the beedles till I put on the gownd to go up to the inquest. Master Johnny, you be a-staring at me fearful, but I’m telling nothing but the naked truth.”
She did seem to be telling the truth. And as to my “staring at her fearful,” that was just her imagination. I was listening to the talk from the elbow of the wooden chair, on which I had perched myself. Duffham recommended Dovey to put the tin dish and its contents away safely, so that it did not get near any food, but not to destroy the stuff just yet. He talked a bit with Ann, left her a composing draught, and came away.
“I don’t see that the powder could have had anything to do with the children’s death,” I said to him as we went along.
“Neither do I, Johnny!”
“Shall you have to declare this at the inquest tomorrow, Mr. Duffham?”
“I am sure I don’t know,” he answered, looking up at the sky through his spectacles, just as a perplexed owl might do. “It might only serve to complicate matters: and I don’t think it’s possible it could have been the powder. On the other hand, if it be proved not to have been the pills, we have only this poisonous powder to fall back upon. It is a strange affair altogether, take it in all its bearings.”
I did not answer. The evening star was beginning to show itself in the sky.
“I must feel my way in this, Johnny: be guided by circumstances,” he resumed, when we halted at the stile that led across the fields to the Manor. “We must watch the turn matters take tomorrow at the inquest. Of course if I find it necessary to declare it, I shall declare it. Meanwhile, lad, you had better not mention it to any one.”
“All right, Mr. Duffham. Good-evening.”
The jury went straggling into the Silver Bear by twos and threes. Up dashed the coroner’s gig, as before, he and his clerk seated side by side. All the parish had collected about the doors, and were trying to push into the inquest-room.
Gliding quietly in, before the proceedings were opened, came Abel Crew in his quaint velvet suit, his silver hair gleaming in the sunlight, his pale face calm as marble. The coroner ordered him to sit on a certain chair, and whispered to old Jones. Upon which the constable turned his gouty legs round, marched up, and stood guard over Crew, just as though Abel were his prisoner.
“Do you see that, sir?” I whispered to Duffham.
“Yes, lad, and understand it. Crew’s pills have been analyzed — officially this time, as the jury put it — and found to contain arsenic. Pettipher was right. The pills killed the children.”
Well, you might have knocked me down with a feather. I had been fully trusting in Crew’s innocence.
About the first witness called, and sworn, was the professional man from a distance who had analyzed the pills. He said that they contained arsenic. Not in sufficient quantity to hurt a grown-up person; more than sufficient to kill a little child. The coroner drew in his lips.
“I thought it must be so,” he said, apparently for the benefit of the jury. “Am I to understand that these were improper pills to send out? — pills that no medical man would be likely to send?”
“Not improper at all, sir,” replied the witness. “A medical man would prescribe them for certain cases. Not for children: to an infant one would be what it has been here — destruction.”
I felt a nudge at my elbow, and turned to see the Squire’s hot face close to mine.
“Johnny, don’t you ever stand up for that Crew again. He ought to be hanged.”
But the coroner, after a bit, seemed puzzled; or rather, doubtful. Led to be so, perhaps, by a question put by one of the jury. It was Perkins the butcher.
“If these pills were furnished by Abel Crew for Hester Reed, a growed woman, and she went and gave one of her own accord to the two babies, ought Crew to be held responsible for that?”
Upon which there ensued some cavilling. Some of the jury holding that he was not responsible; others that he was. The coroner reminded them of what Hester Reed had stated in her evidence — that she had asked Crew’s opinion about the suitability of the pills for children, and he had told her they were suitable.
Hester Reed was called. As the throng parted to make way for her to advance, I saw Ann Dovey seated at the back of the room, looking more dead than alive. Dovey stood by her, having made himself spruce for the occasion. Ann would have gone off a mile in some opposite direction, but old Jones’s orders to all the witnesses of the former day, to appear again, had been peremptory. They had been wanted before, he told them, and might be wanted again.
“You need not look such a scarecrow with fright,” I whispered in Ann Dovey’s ear, making my way to her side to reassure her, the woman was so evidently miserable. “It was the pills that did the mischief, after all — didn’t you hear? Nothing need come out about your pocket and the powder.”
“Master Johnny, I’m just about skeered out o’ my life, I am. Fit to go and drown myself.”
“Nonsense! It will be all right as far as you are concerned.”
“I said it was Crew’s pills, all along, I did; it couldn’t have been anything else, sir. All the same, I wish I was dead.”
As good try to console a post, seemingly, as Ann Dovey. I went back to my standing-place between the Squire and Duffham. Hester Reed was being questioned then.
“Yes, sir, it were some weeks ago. My little boy was ailing, and I ran out o’ the house to Abel Crew, seeing the old gentleman go past the gate, and asked whether I might give him one of them there same pills, or whether it would hurt the child. Crew said I might give it freely; he said two even wouldn’t hurt him.”
“And did you give the pill?” asked the coroner.
“No, sir. He’s a rare bad one to give physic to, Gregory is, and I let him get well without it.”
“How old is he?”
“Turned of three, sir.”
“You are absolutely certain, Mrs. Reed, that these pills, from which you took out two to give the deceased children, were the very self-same pills you had from Abel Crew?”
“I be sure and certain of it, sir. Nobody never put a finger upon the box but me. It stood all the while in the corner o’ the press-shelf in the children’s bedroom. Twice a week when I got upon a chair to dust the shelf, I see it there. There was nobody in the house but me, except the little ones. My husband don’t concern himself with the places and things.”
Circumstantial evidence could not well go farther. Mrs. Reed was dismissed, and the coroner told Abel Crew to come near the table. He did as he was bid, and stood there upright and manly, a gentle look on his face.
“You have heard the evidence, Abel Crew,” said the coroner. “The pills have been analyzed and found to contain a certain portion of arsenic — a great deal more than enough to kill a child. What have you to say to it?”
“Only this, sir; only what I said before. That the pills analyzed were not my pills. The pills I gave to Mrs. Reed contained neither arsenic nor any other poison.”
“It is showing great obstinacy on your part to repeat that,” returned the coroner, impatiently. “Mrs. Reed swears that the pills were the same pills; and she evidently speaks the truth.”
“I am sure she thinks she speaks it,” replied Abel, gently. “Nevertheless, sir, I assure you she is mistaken. In some way the pills must have been changed whilst in her possession, box and all.”
“Why, man, in what manner do you suppose they could have been changed?”
“I don’t know, sir. All I do know is, that the pills and the box produced here last week were not, either of them, the pills and the box she had from me. Never a box went out from me, sir, but had my private mark on it — the mark I spoke of. Jones the constable searched my place whilst I was detained in the lock-up, and took away all the pill-boxes out of it. Let him testify whether he found one without the mark.”
At this juncture a whole cargo of pill-boxes were shot out of a bag on the table by old Jones, some empty, some filled with pills. The coroner and jury began to examine them, and found the mark on all, lids and boxes.
“And if you’d be so good as to cause the pills to be analyzed, sir, they would be found perfectly free from poison,” resumed Abel. “They are made from herbs that possess healing properties, not irritant; a poisonous herb, whether poisonous in itself, or one from which poison may be extracted, I never plucked. Believe me, sir, for I am telling the truth; the truth before Heaven.”
The coroner said nothing for a minute or two: I think the words impressed him. He began lifting the lid again from one or two of the boxes.
“What are these pills for? All for the same disorder?”
“They were made up for different disorders, sir.”
“And pray how do you distinguish them?”
“I cannot distinguish them now. They have been mixed. Even if returned to me I could not use them. I have a piece of furniture at home, sir, that I call my pill-case. It has various drawers in it, each drawer being labelled with the sort of pills kept in it: camomile, dandelion, and so on. Mr. Jones must be able to corroborate this.”
Old Jones nodded. He had never seen nothing neater nor more exact in all his life, than the keeping o’ them there pills. He, Mr. Jones, had tumbled the drawerfuls indiscriminately into his bag, and so mixed them.
“And they will be so much loss to me,” quietly observed Abel. “It does not matter.”
“Were you brought up to the medical profession?” cried the coroner — and some of us thought he put the question in irony.
“No, sir,” replied Abel, taking it seriously. “I have learnt the healing art, as supplied by herbs and roots, and I know their value. Herbs will cure sometimes where the regular doctor fails. I have myself cured cases with them that the surgeons could not cure; cases that but for me, under God, might never have been cured in this world. I make no boast of it; any one else might do as much who had made herbs a study as I have.”
“Are you making a fortune by it?” went on the coroner.
Abel shook his head.
“I have a small income of my own, sir, and it is enough for my simple wants. What little money I make by my medicines, and honey, and that — it is not much — I find uses for in other ways. I indulge in a new book now and then; and there are many poor people around who need a bit of help sometimes.”
“You ‘read’ the stars, I am told, Abel Crew. What do you read in them?”
“The same that I read, sir, in all other of nature’s works: God’s wonderful hand. His wisdom, His power, His providence.”
Perhaps the coroner thought to bring Abel to ridicule in his replies: if so, it was a mistake, for he seemed to be getting the worst of it himself. At any rate, he quitted the subject abruptly, brushed his energy up, and began talking to the jury.
The drift of the conversation was, so far as the room could hear it, that Crew’s pills, and only Crew’s, could have been the authors of the mischief to the two deceased children, whose bodies they were sitting upon, and that Crew must be committed to take his trial for manslaughter. “Hester Reed’s evidence,” he continued, “is so clear and positive, that it quite puts aside any suspicion of the box of pills having been changed ——”
“The box had not my mark upon it, sir,” respectfully spoke Abel Crew, his tone anxious.
“Don’t interrupt me,” rebuked the coroner, sharply. “As to the box not having what he calls his private mark upon it,” he added to the jury, “that in my opinion tells little. Because a man has put a mark on fifty pill-boxes, he is not obliged to have put it on the fifty-first. An unintentional omission is readily made. It appears to me ——”
“Am I in time? Is it all over? Is Abel Crew found guilty?”
This unceremonious interruption to the official speech came from a woman’s voice. The door of the room was thrown open with a fling, considerably discomposing those who had their backs against it and were taken unawares, and they were pushed right and left by the struggles of some one to get to the front. The coroner looked daggers; old Jones lifted his staff; but the intruder forced her way forward with resolute equanimity. Cathy Reed: we never remembered to call her Parrifer. Cathy in her Sunday-going gown and a pink bonnet.
“How dare you?” cried the coroner. “What do you mean by this? Who are you?”
“I have come rushing over from Tewkesbury to clear Abel Crew,” returned Cathy, recovering her breath after the fight. “The pills that killed the children were my pills.”
The commotion this avowal caused in the room was beyond describing. The coroner stared, the jury all turned to look at the speaker, the crowd trod upon one another.
“And sorry to my heart I am that it should have been so,” went on Cathy. “I loved those two dear little ones as if they were my own, and I’d rather my pills had killed myself. Just look at that, please, Mr. Coroner.”
The ease with which Cathy spoke to the official gentleman, the coolness with which she put down a pill-box on the green cloth before him, took the room by surprise. As Ann Dovey remarked, later, “She must ha’ learnt that there manner in her travels with young Parrifer.”
“What is this?” questioned the coroner, curtly, picking up the box.
“Perhaps you’ll ask Mr. Crew whether he knows it, sir, before I say what it is,” returned Cathy.
The coroner had opened it. It contained seven pills; just the size of the other pills, and looking exactly like them. On the lid and on the box was the private mark spoken of by Abel Crew.
“That is my box, sir; and these — I am certain of it — are my pills,” spoke Abel, earnestly, bending over the shoulder of the first juryman to look into the box. “The box and the pills that I gave to Mrs. Reed.”
“And so they are, Abel Crew,” rejoined Cathy, emphatically. “The week before last, which I was spending at home at father’s, I changed the one pill-box for the other, inadvertent, you see”— with a nod to the coroner —“and took the wrong box away with me. And I wish both boxes had been in the sea before I’d done it.”
Cathy was ordered to give her account more clearly, and did so. She had been suffering from illness, accompanied by neuralgia, and a doctor at Tewkesbury had prescribed some pills for it, one to be taken occasionally. The chemist who made them up told her they contained arsenic. He was about to write the directions on the box, when Cathy, who was in a hurry, snatched it from him, saying she could not wait for that bother, flung down the money, and departed. This box of pills she had brought with her on her visit to her father’s, lest she should find occasion to take one; and she had put it on the shelf of the press, side by side with the other pill-box, to be out of the way of the children. Upon leaving, she took up the wrong box inadvertently: carrying away Abel Crew’s pills, leaving her own. There lay the explanation of the mystery of the fatal mistake. Mrs. Reed had not known that Cathy had any pills with her; the girl, who was just as light-headed as ever, not having chanced to mention it; and Cathy had the grace to dust the room herself whilst she was there.
“When father and his wife sent me word about the death of the two little twins, and that it was some pills of Abel Crew’s that had done it, I never once thought o’ my pills,” added Cathy. “They didn’t as much as come into my head. But late last night I got lent to me last Saturday’s Worcester Herald, and there I read the inquest, and what Crew had said about the marks he put on his pill-boxes, and mother’s evidence about never having shifted the pill-box from its place on the press. ‘Sure and I couldn’t have changed the boxes,’ thought I to myself; and upstairs I ran in a fright to look at the box I had brought away. Yes, there it was — Abel Crew’s box with the marks on it; and I knew then that I had left my own pills at home here, and that they had killed the babies. As soon as I could get away this morning — which was not as soon as I wanted to — I started to come over. And that’s the history — and the blessed truth.”
Of course it was the truth. Abel’s beautiful face had a glow upon it. “I knew I should be cleared in God’s good time,” he breathed. The Squire pounced upon him, and shook both his hands as if he would never let them go again. Duffham held out his.
So that was the end of the story. Cathy was reprimanded by the coroner for her carelessness, and burst into tears in his face.
“And thee come off home wi’ thee, and see me chuck that there powder into the fire; and don’t go making a spectacle o’ th’ self again,” cried Dovey, sharply, in his wife’s ear. “Thee just let me catch thee bringing in more o’ the dratted stuff; that’s all.”
“I shall never look at a black-beedle again, Jack, without shivering,” she answered; going in for a slight instalment of shivering there and then. “It might ha’ come to hanging. Leastways, that’s what I’ve been dreaming of.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55