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2: The Inquest

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« on: August 31, 2023, 11:09:22 am »

WHEN Ruth Averill awoke next morning she found that the overwhelming sense of sick horror which had weighed her down on the previous evening had lightened. She had been worn out in body from the shock and the nervous strain, but sleep had restored her physical well-being, and her mind reacted to her body. She was young, she was in perfect health, and---she was in love.

While her feelings of compassion for the trio who had lost their lives in so terrible a way were in no whit lessened, she would have been less than human had she not begun to look upon the tragedy as it affected herself. And here at once was something exciting and a little terrifying. What would happen to her now? She had hated her life at Starvel; would the life that lay before her be better or worse? Scarcely worse, she thought; any change must surely be for the better. She had intended while at York to make some inquiries about earning her own living so that she might leave Starvel. Now this was no longer a matter of choice; in some way she must learn to support herself. Vaguely she wondered if any of her uncle’s money would come to her. But she dismissed the idea as too good to be true. Perhaps with luck there might be enough to keep her until she could train for some post, but even about this she could not be certain. However, Mr. Oxley was kind and clever. She need not worry overmuch. He would advise her.

While making up her mind to rise and face what the day might bring forth, Ruth was greatly comforted by a visit from Mrs. Oxley. That lady presently knocked to inquire if her charge were awake, and she was so kind and understanding and kissed her in such a motherly way that Ruth felt a glow of warmth in her heart. Mrs. Oxley brought with her a tiny tray with the daintiest little tea service and the thinnest of bread and butter, and while Ruth enjoyed this unheard-of luxury the elder woman sat on the bed and proceeded to feed the girl’s mind with healing news. She mentioned, casually and yet with such a wealth of detail, that Mr. Whymper had called on the previous evening to inquire for Miss Averill. With really praiseworthy ingenuity she spun out the subject for nearly ten minutes, then she went on to tell something of almost---though of course not quite---equal importance. Mr. Oxley had wished her to say, in the strictest confidence---no one at this stage was supposed to know anything about it---but in order to relieve Ruth’s mind, he thought he might tell her---that she was not to worry as to her future. He had drawn up old Mr. Averill’s will and there would be some money. Mr. Oxley had not said how much, but Mrs. Oxley was sure there would be enough. At all events Ruth was not to worry. And now, breakfast would be ready in half an hour and there was plenty of hot water in the bathroom.

During the morning Ruth went down into the little town and engaged in the melancholy business of buying mourning. Mr. Oxley had lent her twenty pounds, explaining that she could repay him when she got her own money. This prospect of money coming to her made Ruth feel excited and important, and she could not refrain from day-dreaming about all the wonderful things she would do when she received it. It was well for her indeed that she had something so absorbing to take her mind off the ghastliness of the tragedy which surrounded her. In fact, if only Pierce Whymper had come to see her again, she would have been really happy. But, as she afterwards learned, the young architect was out of town on business all that morning.

During Sergeant Kent’s call on the evening after the tragedy he had warned Ruth that she would be required to give evidence at the inquest. Now he came round to say that this was to be held in the courthouse at three o’clock that afternoon, and that she must be sure to be there in good time. The girl was naturally nervous at the prospect of giving evidence, which she had always heard was a terrible ordeal. But Mrs. Oxley reassured her in her kindly way, explaining that she had nothing to do but answer the questions she was asked, and promising that Mr. Oxley would see that nothing untoward befell her.

Shortly before the hour, therefore, the little party approached the courthouse. The building was already crowded, but Mr. Oxley’s position as the leading solicitor of the town and Ruth’s as one of the most important witnesses procured them an immediate entrance and places on the seats usually reserved for counsel. As Ruth looked round the small old-fashioned building she saw many familiar faces. There, surrounded by policemen and looking weighed down with importance and responsibility, was Sergeant Kent. He was moving restlessly about, whispering to various persons and consulting at times a sheaf of papers he held in his hand. Some of the policemen she recognised also. There was the young smiling one with the light blue eyes whom she had met so many times when shopping in the town, and his companion with the long drooping nose and the hollow cheeks. In the seat behind was Mr. Snelgrove, the butcher, and Mr. Pullar, of the shoe shop. That tall very thin man with the little moustache and the bald head was Mr. Tarkington, the bank manager, and the slight, medium-sized man beside him was Mr. Bloxham, the clerk whom he used to send out to Starvel with Mr. Averill’s money. The venerable-looking old gentleman with the short white beard who was just pushing to the front was Dr. Emerson. And there---how could she have failed to see him before?---there, at the back of the court, was Pierce Whymper. He looked anxious and troubled, and though when she caught his eye and smiled, he smiled back, there was a something of embarrassment or reserve in his manner that seemed to her strange and disquieting. And just beside him---but a sudden shuffle took place about her, and looking in front of her, she saw that a stout thick-set man with a square face and a walrus moustache had entered from some invisible side door and was taking his seat in the judge’s chair.

“Dr. Lonsdale, the coroner,” Mr. Oxley whispered, and Ruth nodded. She was surprised to find that the affair began so tamely. She had expected an elaborate and picturesque ritual, but nothing of the kind took place. The coroner opened his bag, and taking out some papers, began to turn them over. Other persons sitting round the table before her also took out papers and shuffled them, while Sergeant Kent, turning round, shouted out “Robert Judd!” so suddenly and loudly that Ruth jumped. Some one at the back of the court answered “Here!” and was promptly ordered to come forward and enter the jury box. Other names were called---to some of which there was no reply---until all the places in the box were occupied. Then all stood up and stared vacantly at Kent while he murmured something about “justly try and true deliverance make,” after which every one sat down again.

“Have the jury viewed the remains?” asked the coroner, and Kent, answering, “They’re going to do it now, sir,” shepherded his charges out of the box and away through a door just behind it. Every one began conversing in low tones except the coroner, who kept on steadily writing. Presently the jury trooped in again and the proceedings began in real earnest.

“Call Peter Spence!” Sergeant Kent shouted.

“Peter Spence!” repeated two or three policemen, and a stout redfaced man pushed to the front, and entering the witness box, was sworn.

Spence told his story in great detail. In answer to the sergeant’s questions he explained that he drove a breadcart belonging to Messrs. Hinkston of Thirsby, and that for over twelve years he had, three times a week, delivered bread at Starvel. He remembered the day before yesterday. On that day, about eleven in the morning when he was approaching Starvel to deliver bread, he had observed a cloud of smoke in the sky. On crossing the lip of the Hollow he happened to look down at the house. He was amazed to notice that the roof, which formerly showed up above the surrounding trees, had totally disappeared. He drove on quickly to the place, and then he saw that the house had been burnt down. Only the walls were standing. There was no one about. He hurried into Thirsby, and reported the matter to Sergeant Kent.

Simple as these facts were, their recital was a lengthy business. After each question a pause ensued while the coroner wrote a précis of the man’s reply. Finally Dr. Lonsdale, after vainly inviting the jury to ask the witness any questions, read over what he had written. Peter Spence, having agreed that it was a correct transcript of his evidence, was asked to sign the document, and then allowed to step down.

The next witness was a lugubrious looking man in gray tweeds. He deposed that his name was Abel Hesketh, and that he was Town Officer of Thirsby. He also acted as chief of the fire brigade. On the Thursday in question he received a telephone message from Sergeant Kent, informing him that Starvel had been burnt down. He inquired if he should get the brigade out, but the sergeant answered that it would be of no use, the damage being already done. Sergeant Kent asked him to go with him to see the place. He did so, and he would describe what he saw. The entire buildings at Starvel were gutted except a detached outhouse at the opposite side of the yard. He had never seen such complete destruction. Nothing that could be burnt was left. Between the walls the débris was still a red-hot glowing mass. In answer to the coroner, he thought it quite impossible to say either where or how the fire had originated. There was no wind that night and the outbreak, once started, would creep through the entire building.

Hesketh went on to say that the very heavy rain which fell on the following night had cooled down the red-hot interior, enabling his men to search the ruins. They had come on the charred remains of three human beings. Yes, he could say just where the remains were found. The house was in the shape of the inverted letter “L” with the shorter wing pointing to the west and the longer to the south. At the extremity of the shorter wing---in the north-western corner---were two bodies. The third body was about ten feet from the end of the southern wing. All the bodies were unrecognisable, but he assumed they were those of the three inmates of the house.

After the bodies had been removed he continued his investigations, but he found nothing of interest except a safe, which was in the southern wing, not far from the single body. It was locked, and he had set it up on a pile of débris so that the expert that he understood Sergeant Kent was getting to open it should be able more conveniently to carry out the work.

Sergeant Kent corroborated the evidence of the last two witnesses in so far as their testimony concerned himself, and added that an expert from Hellifield had that morning opened the safe. In it he had found £1952 in sovereigns and a mass of burnt papers.

“It seems to me an extraordinary thing,” the coroner remarked when he had noted these details, “that a fire of such magnitude could take place without being seen. I quite understand that the Hollow is deep enough to hide the actual flames, but there must have been a tremendous glare reflected from the sky which would have been visible for miles round. How do you account for that, sergeant, or can you account for it?”

“As a matter of fact, sir, it was noticed by at least three people, and I have one of them here in case you would like to call him. But I agree with you, sir, that it is very strange that it was not more generally observed. All I can suggest is that it was a clear night with a quarter moon, and there wouldn’t, therefore, be such a glare as if it had been quite dark or if there had been clouds to reflect the glow. Then, as you know, sir, this is a quiet district, and it would be only by chance that any one would be awake or looking out at the time.”

“Who were the three who saw it?”

“First, sir, there was James Stokes, a tramp. He was sleeping in one of Mr. Herbert Reid’s outhouses at Low Tolworth, about a mile and a half to the west across the moor. He said nothing about it at the time because he thought it wasn’t his business and he didn’t want his whereabouts inquired into. But he mentioned it in Thirsby in the morning and it came to my ears, though not before the baker had reported. I have Stokes here, if you wish to call him. Then, sir, it was seen by Mrs. Eliza Steele, a labourer’s wife living just outside the town on the Hellifield Road. Her husband was ill and she was sitting up attending to him. She did nothing about it because she was busy with her husband and the glare looked far away. She said she thought those nearer it would do all that was possible. The third party, or rather parties, were the two Miss Lockes, elderly ladies who live alone about a mile on the road to Cold Pickerby. Miss Julia saw the glare and awoke her sister Miss Elmina, but they thought the same as Mrs. Steele, that they were not called on to do anything, as they would only get to the town to find that everyone knew about it and that the brigade had gone out.”

“I can understand that attitude,” the coroner admitted. “It is a pity, however, that no one noticed it in time to give a warning, though indeed it is doubtful whether a warning would have been of any use. I will hear the man Stokes.”

But the tramp had little to say, and nothing which threw any light on the subject of the inquiry. He had seen a glow through the door of the outhouse and had looked out. From the direction of Starvel great masses of smoke were belching up, with a bright flickering glare and occasional jets of fire. The night was calm and even at the distance of a mile and a half he could hear the roaring and crackling of the flames. That was about four in the morning.

Ruth’s feelings were harrowed by these recitals, which seemed to bring home the tragedy to her in all its grim starkness. But she had not time to dwell on the terrible pictures, as after the tramp had signed his deposition and stepped down from the box, her own name was called.

With her heart beating rapidly she left her seat and entered the little pulpit-like enclosure. There she stood while the sergeant repeated a phrase about truth, and then, having given her name, she was told to sit down. The coroner bent towards her.

“I am sorry, Miss Averill,” he said kindly, “to have to ask you to attend and give evidence in this tragic inquiry, but I promise you I shall not keep you longer than I can help. Now, sergeant.”

In spite of this reassuring beginning, Ruth soon began to think Sergeant Kent’s questions would never cease.

Half the things he asked seemed to have no connection whatever with the tragedy. She stated that she was the late Simon Averill’s niece, the daughter of his brother Theodore, that she was aged twenty, and that she had come to Starvel when she was four. She told of her schooldays in Leeds, saying that it was now over a year since she had returned to Starvel and that she had lived there ever since.

Her uncle had recently been in very poor health. She thought his heart was affected. At all events, to save climbing the stairs he had had a room on the first floor fitted up as a bed-sitting room. For the last year he had not been downstairs and some days he did not get up. Recently he had been particularly feeble, and she told of his condition when she saw him two mornings before the tragedy. Then she described her visit to York, mentioning Mrs. Palmer-Gore’s invitation and the episode of the ten pounds.

There seemed no end to Sergeant Kent’s inquisition. He switched over next to the subject of the house and elicited the facts that her uncle’s and the Ropers’ beds were situated in the extremities of the southern and western wings respectively.

“You heard the last witness describe where the bodies were found,” he went on. “Would I be correct in saying that if Mr. Averill and the Ropers had been in bed when the fire took place their bodies would have been found in just those positions?”

Ruth assented, and then the sergeant asked how the house was lighted. There was oil, Ruth told him, oil for the lamps other than Mr. Averill’s and for the cooker which was used sometimes instead of the range. There was also petrol. Her uncle’s sight was bad and he used a petrol lamp. The oil and petrol were kept in a cellar. This cellar was under the main building, and if a fire were to start there, in her opinion the whole house would become involved. The lamps were attended to by Roper, who had always been most careful in handling them.

“Now, Miss Averill,” the sergeant became more impressive than ever, “I think you said that during the last fourteen months, when you were living at Starvel, Roper and his wife were in charge of the house?”

“Yes, they were there when I came back from school.”

“Now, tell me, during all that time have you ever known either of them the worse for drink?”

“Oh, no,” Ruth answered, surprised at the question. “No, never.”

“You have never even noticed the smell of drink from either of them?” the sergeant persisted.

“No.” Ruth hesitated. “At least---that is----”

“Yes?” went on the sergeant encouragingly.

“Once or twice Roper has smelt of whisky, but he was never the least bit the worse of it.”

“But you have smelt it. Was that recently?”

“Yes, but Roper explained about it. He said he felt a cold coming on and had taken some whisky in the hope of getting rid of it.”

“Quite so. And how long ago was that?”

“A couple of times within the last fortnight, perhaps once or twice before that.” But to Ruth her answer did not seem quite fair, and she added: “But he was as sober as you and I are. I never saw him the least bit drunk.”

“I follow you,” the sergeant answered, and began to ask questions about Mrs. Roper. Here Ruth could truthfully say that she had never even smelled drink, and she insisted on giving each of the deceased an excellent character.

The sergeant next attempted to draw from her an opinion as to how the fire might have originated. Did Mr. Averill read late in bed? Might he have knocked over his petrol lamp? Could he have fallen in the fire? Did he take a nightcap of whisky? And so forth. But Ruth had no ideas on the subject. Any accident might have happened, of course, but she didn’t think any that he had suggested were likely. As to her uncle taking drink, he was a strict teetotaller.

This ended Ruth’s examination. None of the jurors wished to ask her any questions, and after her evidence had been read over to her and she had signed it, she was allowed to return to her seat with the Oxleys.

Dr. Emerson was the next witness. He deposed that he had examined the remains disinterred from the débris. It was, of course, quite impossible to identify them, but so far as he could form an opinion of the body found in the southern wing it was that of an elderly, tall, slightly built man and the others were those of a man and a woman of medium height and middle age. These would correspond to Mr. Averill and the Ropers respectively, and so far as he was concerned he had no doubt whatever that the bodies in question were theirs.

Questioned as to the conditions obtaining at Starvel before the fire, Dr. Emerson said that for the last four years he had not attended Mr. Averill. At his advancing age he found it too much to visit outlying patients, and Dr. Philpot had taken over almost all of them.

“Is Dr. Philpot here?” the coroner asked.

“Dr. Philpot is suffering from influenza at present,” Dr. Emerson returned, though it was to Sergeant Kent that the question had been addressed. “I saw him this morning. He wished to attend, but I persuaded him not to run the risk. It would have been most unwise. He had a temperature of over 101.”

“I’m sorry to hear he is laid up. But I don’t suppose he could have helped us. I should have liked to ask him about Mr. Averill’s condition and so forth, but it doesn’t really matter.”

“Well,” Dr. Emerson returned, “I can tell you a little about that, if I should be in order in mentioning it. I attended him for some eight years, during the last two of which he aged very considerably, growing slowly and steadily weaker. Without going into details I may say that he had an incurable complaint which must eventually have killed him. Four years ago he was already feeble, and since then he can only have become gradually worse.”

“Thank you, Dr. Emerson, that was what I wanted to know. Would you say that his condition rendered him liable to sudden weakness during which he might have dropped his lamp or had some similar accident?”

“I should say so decidedly.”

A Miss Judith Carr was next called. She proved to be a rather loudly-dressed young woman whom Ruth had not seen before. She was pretty in a coarse way, and entered the witness-box and took her seat with evident self-confidence.

Her name, she admitted heartily, was Judith Carr, and she was barmaid at the Thirsdale Arms, the largest hotel in Thirsby. She knew Mr. Roper, the attendant at Starvel. He occasionally called for a drink, usually taking one or at most two small whiskies. She remembered the evening of the fire. That evening about seven o’clock Mr. Roper had come into the bar. He seemed to have had some drink, but was not drunk. He asked for a small Scotch, and believing he was sober enough she had given it to him. He had taken it quickly and gone out.

The last witness was a young man with bright red hair who answered to the name of George Mellowes. He was, he said, a farmer living at Ivybridge, a hamlet lying some miles beyond Starvel. On the day before the tragedy he had been over in Thirsby on business, and he had left the town in his gig shortly after seven to drive home. He had not passed beyond the lights of the town when he had overtaken Mr. Roper, whom he knew. Roper was staggering, and it was not difficult to see that he was drunk. The deceased was by no means incapable, but he had undoubtedly taken too much. Mellowes had stopped and offered him a lift, and Roper had thanked him and with some difficulty had climbed into the gig. He had talked in a maudlin way during the drive. Mellowes had gone a little out of his way and had set the other down at the gate of Starvel. Roper had opened the gate without difficulty, and had set off towards the house, walking fairly straight. Mellowes had then driven home. That was close on to eight, and there was no sign of a fire.

When Mellowes had signed his deposition and returned to his seat, the coroner made a little speech to the jury. He said that every one must feel appalled at the terrible tragedy which had happened so near to them all. The police had been unable to find relatives of any of the deceased other than Miss Averill, who had given evidence that day, and he took that opportunity of conveying to her their respectful sympathy in her loss. He would remind the jury that their duty on this occasion was threefold: first, to state the identity of the deceased if they were reasonably convinced by the evidence on this point; second, to find the cause of death in each case, and third, to state whether, in their opinion, blame attached to any person or persons, and if so, to whom. He did not think their task would be difficult. On neither of the first two points was there any doubt. He had only one observation to make with regard to the third point---the fixing of responsibility for the catastrophe. It had been shown that the manservant, John Roper, had been to some extent under the influence of drink on the evening in question. The suggestion, of course, was that some careless act of Roper’s might have caused the fire. Now, while he approved the action of the police in bringing out this matter---they could not have done anything else---he must point out to the jury that there was no evidence that Mr. Roper’s condition had had anything to do with the fire. If anything, the evidence tended in the opposite direction. The position of the remains suggested that the three unfortunate people had been burnt in their beds, and if this was so it seemed to involve the presumption that they had been suffocated by the smoke while asleep. If the jury accepted this view they would see that it ruled out the possibility of any accident with lamps, or by falling in the fire or by igniting petrol or paraffin oil. The argument was, of course, not conclusive, but he thought it tended as he had said. In any case he should be sorry that a slur should be cast on the memory of Mr. Roper, to whose zeal and efficiency different witnesses had testified, unless that slur were really deserved. It was, of course, for the jury to decide, but he suggested that they might find that Simon Ralph Averill, John Roper and Flora Roper had lost their lives in a fire at Starvel on the night of the fifteenth of September, the cause of which there was no evidence to show.

Without leaving the box the jury found as the coroner directed, the verdict was entered on the records and signed, and the inquest was over.
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