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RICHARD JOHNS, AUTHOR OF LEGEND AND ROMANCE, AFRICAN
In the year 1793, the population of a small borough town in a western county of England was thrown into a most extraordinary state of excitement. A coroner's inquest was about to be held at the Crown Inn, the principal house of entertainment within its precincts, on the body of a stranger, name unknown, which had been discov , ed in the abode of a person who had but recently become an inhabi...nt of the place. The great room in the Crown was too small to hold the crowd that pressed into it, and it was with no little difficulty that the chief constable of the borough could preserve a space for the coroner and jury. On a cumbrous table lay the body of the deceased, towards which all eyes were directed; for in those days, in provinces distant from the mighty heart of the kingdom, the jury did not merely visit the body, and, leaving the sad wreck of mortality to the silence of a deserted chamber, solve, or attempt to solve, in another room the cause of death. No!—there lay the deceased - - a sheet lightly fell on the rigid form in thin folds, which even in shrouding made painfully evident the nature of the object concealed. Many a time during the morning had that sheet been lifted to satisfy the curiosity of the horrorlovers of H-; but now the jurors had arrived, and, after greeting their acquaintances in the room, bad taken their places near the table. They were most of them tradesmen of the town, or small farmers from the neighbourhood. There were only two or three of a superior grade, and one of these was an old man, who, had be so chosen, might well have claimed exemption from serving on juries and filling parish offices, by reason of age; but his youth had been a season of constant employment, and having retired from business, — for the sexagenarian had been a merchant of Liverpool, -- he found a relief from idleness in the civic duties of his native town. He was foreman of the grand jury at the quarter sessions,-twice had he served as overseer of the poor,—he was a perpetual churchwarden. Indeed, though his incapacity from advanced age was latterly perceptible to most of his friends, he would not allow himself to be unfit for any office, however onerous, except that of special constable.
The jury were now waiting the coming of the coroner. At length the hum of the eager crowd and the
more subdued converse of the jury were stilled by the appearance of this functionary, escorted by the landlord. Mr. Greene, who was a very important-looking and somewhat bustling man, commenced business directly; the jury was sworn, and the sheet withdrawn from the body. The jurymen gathered round the table a corpse was extended before them, the blue livid tint of which might have belonged to a cholera subject. A few darker spots were thinly scattered about the ghastly frame, as though decomposition had commenced ; still no efluvium arose from the body, and the flesh was firm and elastic under pressure; but the features and head were frightfully swollen, presenting an appearance scarcely human. Mr. Parr, the old man we have before mentioned, was one of the few who had not until that moment seen the corpse uncovered. That some very powerful poison had caused the stranger's death there could be no doubt; and, on this being communicated to Mr. Parr, he had, previously to the coroner's entrance, been instancing a curious case of poisoning which had come under his notice on an inquest some five-andtwenty years ago, the poison used having been of a character then new in England, and, indeed, he believed the method of producing it was still unknown; yet had it been found in the possession of a mere lad, who, it was supposed, obtained it from some sailor belonging to one of the Liverpool slave-traders, for the purpose of destroying his master.
It had several times been the lot of the worthy merchant to be summoned on inquests; but now he stood at the feet of the deceased appalled and trembling, unlike the experienced juror who had looked upon death in many of its most hideous shapes. The gaping throat of the suicide was not here—here was no trace of the murderer's bloody hand. Had death been compassed by the subtle influence of poison, the old man had seen sterner sights than even the blue and spotted corpse before him. But the hue of that corpse, the swelling of those features, reminded him of the inquest of which he had been but the moment before speaking. The past seemed suddenly recalled to him — he could almost have believed that he again looked upon the body of one whom he had loved when living, and when dead had, in conjunction with others, solved the cause of his dissolution, and delivered the author of it up to condign punishment. A feeling of sickness crept over him, and he would have fainted had he not been supported by several of the jurymen who came to his assistance.
Amid the cries of “ Poor old Mr. Parr ! — poor old gentleman ! take him out of the room,-loosen his neckcloth, he is in a fit,”—and other exclamations of sympathy and advice, the ancient juror was removed from the apartment; Mr. Greene snappishly remarking, that old men were no better than old women, and ought to give up public business. As if to contradict him, and before a substitute could be chosen, Mr. Parr returned. He looked very pale, and his step was unsteady; but he walked to his seat, and apologizing for the interruption he had caused, declared himself well enough to perform his part in the inquest.
The first witness called was an elderly female, who gave her name Sarah Hodge, servant to Mr. Morton, in whose house the dead man was found. The deponent stated that she had lived six months with her master, who was a gentleman of independent fortune, residing in a very quiet way within half a mile of the town, her only fellow-servant being a male attendant of Mr. Morton, called James, she did not know his other name. Her master was a great invalid, and, to use her own words, seemed “very troubled in his mind;" but the deponent seldom saw him, her duty being to keep the house clean, and perform the office of cook; while James waited on Mr. Morton, and slept in the next room to him, that he might be ready at all calls. On the morning previous to the night when the body of the deceased was found on the premises, James informed her that he had leave to go and visit his friends, whom he had only seen once since he had returned with his master from abroad. Witness naturally asked how Mr. Morton could do without him; and James answered, that their master had said he was better, and could well spare him for a few days. He further remarked, that she would now have to make Mr. Morton's bed, and wait upon him, as well as look to the housekeeping.
Deponent had occasion to go out on an errand towards evening, and, on returning, went into the parlour, where she saw her master, who told her that James was gone, and that he should not want her any more that night, as he was going to bed. About twelve o'clock on the night in question, or it might be early in the morning of the following day, witness was awoke by the cries of Mr. Morton. Thinking he had been taken suddenly ill, she quickly went to his assistance, but found the door of the dressing-room locked. Her master was talking loudly in the bed-room, which communicated with the dressing-room. He was imploring for mercy, and occasionally uttered the word “ murder ;” but this was not as an exclamation.
At length all became silent, and the witness, who was a woman of strong nerve, continued knocking at the door, but without succeeding in obtaining admittance. Just as she had made up her mind to seek the aid of their nearest neighbour, a farmer, who lived about two hundred yards off, her master came out of the room,“ looking as pale as a ghost.” Without uttering a syllable, he beckoned her in ; he then shut the door, and confronting her, deliberately said, “ Before you go into the other room, I must tell you that I have had a visitor since you went to bed.” At this moment the calmness which he had assumed passed away, and the deponent declared that his eyes rolled, and he gnashed his teeth horribly. “This visiter has been taken ill,” he continued, “has died has poisoned himself!” According to witness's account, her master then became more and more violent, and talked a great deal about murdered bodies not resting in their graves, and of brother slaying brother. Fully convinced that Mr. Morton was deranged, and that the visitor he talked of was but a fancy of his diseased brain, she begged him to go to bed. “ No, no! not I!” he exclaimed. “Go you and close the eyes of the corpse." And then he caught hold of the deponent's hand, and grasped it convulsively. Witness, alarmed as she felt, was impelled by curiosity, together with a wish to discover if her master were labouring under a mental delusion, to enter the bed-room. She there found the deceased stretched on Mr. Morton's bed; the body was in every respect as though it had been just laid out, except that the jaw had no sustaining band; and the eyes were nearly closed; the arms and legs were straightened; and the whole figure was completely naked. Deponent stated that she was so frightened at the unexpected appearance of such a spectacle, that she rushed from the room. Mr. Morton tried to stop her as she passed him; but his grasp was feeble, and she succeeded in escaping from the house. Having reached the neighbouring farm, she told her story; and before day break Mr. Morton was arrested on suspicion of murder.
On the witness being asked if she could in any way identify the deceased as her fellow-servant, who was supposed to have left the house the evening before the finding of the body, she deposed that, from the swollen state of the features, she should not have known her “ father under the like circumstances;" but that James wore whiskers, while the face of the dead man was closely shaved. In fact, she could hot for one moment entertain the idea that it was the man-servant; and she doubted not he would return in a few days, when he had expended the leave given him by his master, with whom he was on the best possible terms, having, witness believed, lived with him many years. It further appeared that sundry articles of wearing apparel had been taken from James's room, which witness supposed he had now
with him ; while in her master's chamber no portion of clothing was discovered that could have belonged to the dead man.
Thus closed the first evidence, to which such undivided attention was paid by the jury and the crowd of by-standers, that the peculiar and intense interest Mr. Parr took in every word uttered by the woman escaped remark. With his chin resting on his hands, which were supported by his gold-headed cane, he never permitted his eyes to wander from the face of the witness till she had ceased speaking. He then groaned audibly, shook his head, and leant back in his chair, saying, in a deliberate but whispered tone, “ This is past my comprehension.
Mr. Greene looked in the direction of the old juror, and sneeringly remarked to several of the youngest men near him, that elderly people ought to know when they were past work, and then proceeded to call the farmer mentioned in the evidence of Sarah Hodge. From this witness nothing more could be elicited than a corroboration of the finding of the body of the dead man on the bed, and the unaccountable fact that, on searching the apartment, no wearing apparel could be discovered as having belonged to the deceased. Lastly, the constable who arrested Mr. Morton was sworn, and stated that his prisoner, from the moment the charge was made against him of being privy or accessary to the death of the stranger in his house, had refused to answer any question put to him. In short, from the depositions of the two last witnesses, it appeared that the bearing of the accused was cold, haughty, and collected, as though he either felt conscious of his innocence, or was prepared for the worst; the housekeeper, Sarah Hodge, alone having perceived in him any agitation.
The time, however, had now arrived when it was necessary that any evidence which Mr. Morton might have to offer should be heard. Scarcely ten hours had elapsed since his apprehension ; for the event which caused it had occurred the preceding night. He was then in custody of two constables in an adjoining apartment, a door communicating with which being thrown open, he was summoned to appear. Every eye in the room was strained towards the opening. So great was the excitement, that several of the jury rose, in spite of Mr. Greene's authoritative “ Keep your seats, gentlemen; no confusion. Constable, will
among the people there, or I shall order the room to be cleared ?” Mr. Parr, who had resumed his former position, his venerable head resting on his cane, convulsively grasped the strong support, which trembled under the influence of his agitation as the prisoner entered. Mr. Morton was habited in deep mourning, with a scrupulous regard to neatness. His features, which were of a Grecian cast, might have been handsome, but for their haggardness. His head was nearly bald, the forehead low, and squarely formed. Altogether, the appearance of the prisoner was such, that even had he not come there under the existing extraordinary circumstances, it must have commanded attention from the most superficial observer.
After cautioning Mr. Morton not to commit himself, the coroner inquired if he had anything he wished to communicate in the present state of the proceedings? But the eye of the accused met not the peering regard of Mr. Greene; it had rested for a moment on the linen cloth which hid the body, and the long-drawn breath which followed evidently showed the relief Mr. Morton experienced in being spared the more painful sight of the stark and hideous corpse. Again he looked around—the coroner was speaking the prisoner heard him not. Mr.
Parr had risen from his seat; the old man trembled in every limb. He fixed his gaze on the supposed murderer-their eyes met. Mr. Greene followed the direction of Mr. Morton's wild look of recognition ; but, not being the most acute of coroners, he saw nothing very particular in it. Mr. Parr had fallen down in a fit, and this he innagined had called the prisoner's attention.
“I thought it would be so !” he exclaimed. “ Too bad, too bad, interrupting business in this way. However much I may respect Mr. Parr in private life, this is the last time I shall ever allow him to be summoned on a jury. He is too old for the work." Then turning to the accused, who, whatever might be his sensations at the sight of the juror, had apparently recovered his self-possession, for his large dark eyes rested quietly on the speaker,-Mr. Greene said, “We will hear anything you may have to offer in explanation of the part you may have taken in this matter another time." Mr. Morton bowed, and the coroner, looking round on the jurymen, remarked, “ It will be necessary to subject the body to medical examination, so the inquest must at all events have been adjourned, had not this interruption occurred. To-morrow, gentlemen, at the same hour, if you please. The prisoner will of course remain in custody, with liberty to communicate with his friends, they not being witnesses as to the question touching the death of the deceased."
The inquest was adjourned, and Mr. Morton being conducted to an upper room of the inn, the door of which a constable strictly guarded, was left to commune with his own heart, and ponder over the events of the last twelve hours.
Mr. Parr in the mean time had been conveyed home to his own house. He had long been a widower ; but, his nephew and niece resided with him, and paid him the attention of a son and daughter. His second indisposition was, like the first, only a fainting fit, and towards evening he was quite recovered. His energy of mind seemed also to have rallied, and he expressed his intention of visiting the prisoner at the Crown Inn. On his nephew representing to him that it might be imprudent to risk further excitement, which, from physical debility, he was unable to bear, the old man said,—
“I am determined to go. I understand Mr. Greene has struck my name out of the list of jurymen, and I shall appear no more in this extraordinary case ; but I have reasons of my own for feeling interested in it. You need not mention what I am now saying. One day I may be more explicit on the subject; but before I sleep I must have speech with him they call the poisoner of yon
corpse." Mr. Parr shuddered as he concluded this short expostulation with his nephew, who, fearing to distress him by farther opposition, yielded the point, and, carefully wrapped up by his niece, the old gentleman proceeded to the Crown, which was situated in the next street.
Mr. Parr had prepared a note for the prisoner. On this being delivered, an answer was returned that Mr. Morton would see him.
“ You are the only person that he has allowed to come nigh him except the constables, and those he could not keep away,” said the landlord of the inn. “ To Mr. Vellum, the attorney, who wanted to be his lawyer, he sent word that he did not stand in need of his advice. Then there's Sarah Hodge, his housekeeper, who, now she has had time to think a bit, is very sorry she was in such a mortal hurry to charge her master with being a murderer, and he so kind-hearted too VOL. VI.