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A NOVEL OF MODERN LIFE.
BY JOSEPH HATTON.
HERE had been more than one inquest at the Cuttle
Fish. When Dick Swivel killed Tom Bigg, in a battle which lasted an hour and twenty minutes, there was great
excitement at Bill Jeffs' house; but there was a mystery in the death of Philip Ransford, which gave a touch of romance to the incident, that was wanting when the jury sat on the black and bruised corpse of Tom Bigg.
The coroner held his court on the day following the discovery of Ransford's body. The sun shone gloriously. The Thames ran smoothly under the foliage of the opposite bank. It was as if Nature repudiated the storm of the previous night. Nothing of the kind, it seemed to say. A storm! You must have been dreaming. A creaking sign, windows rattling, a wind that rushed madly over the Reach and tossed the shipping! Quite a mistake.
Peace never reigned more supreme. The steamers labouring under a stress of weather! Why, they made their harbours amidst soft gales and in calm seas.
Not a breath of air disturbed land or water. On Erith Pier men lolled in the sun. The vessels moored almost mid-stream lay quiet and still. A dozen visitors were sitting beneath the shade of the trees in the adjacent gardens; and at Longreach a little crowd hung about the entrance to Bill Jeffs' hotel.
A dozen men sat in the ill-furnished bar, packed together near a square kitchen table, at which the coroner, Mr. Cuffing, and a police superintendent were sitting.
The local constable having opened the court in due form, the jury followed the coroner out of the room and up the creaking staircase. The crowd at the door watched them curiously at the entrance of the house. The jury were going to view the body, which met them face: to face in a small bedroom at the top of the stairs. It lay on its back upon a table, and allowed them to look at it and touch it: this white silent thing that we knew alive at Dunelm, a fine stalwart young fellow, flushed with strength and pride. It was quite still and humble, and could not help itself: this lump of mortality that used to lash the north country rivers for salmon, and make love to that beautiful belle of the cathedral city. The coroner turned it over, and talked learnedly about bullet wounds, until one of the jurymen, who had not been accustomed to that branch of science, turned white and ill, and set the example of leaving the room.
When they had returned to their former places in the bar-parlour, where the coroner held his court, that important officer of the Crown said he understood Mr. Cufting was the principal witness in this inquiry, and he must therefore request that gentleman to leave the room.
Mr. Cufting : Sir, I appear here as the solicitor of the deceased gentleman, and in that capacity conceive myself entitled to remain ; I say this, of course, with all respect and with due submission to your authority.
The Coroner : This Court knows no other authority but its own. Even a solicitor may not remain to watch an inquiry in any case without the authority of the coroner.
Mr. Cuffing: I quite understand, Mr. Coroner, the ancient dignity and power of your office; but I submit that
The Coroner: Allow me a moment, sir. Are you not a witness in this inquiry?
Mr. Cufting : I am quite ready to give evidence if called upon.
The Coroner : You certainly will be called, and in that case I think you must agree with me that the interest of all parties will be best served by your acting rather in the capacity of witness than lawyer, and I will ask you to be good enough to leave the room until you are called to say what you know about this melancholy busi
Mr. Cuffing: I bow to your decision, Mr. Coroner.
The lawyer left the room and walked to the door, where he was regarded with great curiosity by the crowd of idlers who lolled there in the sun and drank the muddy ale of the Cuttle Fish. Mr. Cutting had quite settled his course of action. He would still play his game for Lord St. Barnard's money. It was clear to him that his lordship had shot Ransford, and he was grateful for the service. The noble lord's character had gone up immensely in Cuffing's estimation since yesterday. He would help his lordship in this emergency. He would prove himself worthy of the confidence which
the prosecutor in the Bow Street case had shown in treating with him. His evidence should clear the murderer, and make him his friend for ever. 'There would be no difficulty in finding his lordship. Already detectives had started in pursuit of the gentleman who was rowed from the pier to the Cuttle Fish on the previous evening ; and there was a boatman who had driven a person who seemed like a gentleman within a mile of the Fish, at about half-past eight. There was nothing in that. It was quite clear that Lord St. Barnard had kept his appointment, and whether in a quarrel, or how, Cuffing could not understand, but he had shot Ransford, that was certain. In Spain he might have hired some one to do the job for him at a price; but this kind of business could hardly be negotiated in England, though character murderers were common enough and could be bought cheap. No; his lordship had fallen from his high estate ; the atmosphere of Bow Street had demoralised him; he had been unable to control himself, and the lonely dirty night had conspired to make him an assassin. It was a cunning device to put a pistol into Ransford's hand. No doubt his lordship would say they had fought a duel. Well, that might be; for after Ransford's sudden exhibition of courage at Piccadilly he was quite prepared to find that, under pressure, he might have found pluck enough to handle a pistol; but the document was gone, and no money was left behind. If he had not been on the spot himself he would have felt certain that Jeffs had appropriated the money; for Lord St. Barnard was not the man to consider the money.
There were peculiarities in the case which puzzled Cuffing; but he summed it up pretty well to his own satisfaction, and determined to make a bold stroke for Lord St. Barnard's favour.
The first witness called was William Jefferson, or Bill Jeffs, as he was called at Longreach. He produced the letter of Simon Cuffing, making arrangements for the rooms at the Cuttle Fish, and related all the circumstances of the arrival of the deceased.
The Coroner : He expected some other person ?
Witness: Can't say; might ha' bin Mister Cuffing the lawyer, might not.
The Coroner : Exactly; but he gave you no clue at all ?
VOL. XII., N.S. 1874.
strange proceeding to hire your house for such a large sum for two hours and get you out of the neighbourhood ?
Witness : No; can't say as it did ; if I hadn't a goodish customer once in a way I should starve, and I aint nothing to brag about now.
The Coroner : You are not, Jeffs, you are not.
The Coroner: Now what time was it when you saw Mr. Cuffing last night?
Witness : Should say about auf-past nine; can't say azackly.
Witness : He were. Jack Stack were a pulling of him and ran into my boat.
The Coroner : Yes; and first you said that Cuffing asked you if they had gone, intimating that there were two persons in the house.
Witness : He didn't intimidate nothing as I remember.
The Coroner : You know what I mean, Mr. Jeffs ; now please to tax your memory.
Witness : I'd rather leave that to the Gov'ment: they sims so clever at it.
The jury laughed at this. The foreman even went so far as to slap his thigh, and say “Good.” He was notorious for the litigation into which his anti-income tax enthusiasm had led him.
The Coroner: No pleasantry, Mr. Jeffs ; this is a serious question. Witness : Thank you, sir.
The Coroner frowned at the jury, and made a point of pausing significantly until the foreman had recovered from the effects of the witness's mild joke.
The Coroner : When you first spoke to the constable you said Cuffing said "Have the gentlemen come?"
Witness: Well, it was very windy as you know, and I don't azackly know whether he said “him ” or “them,” but I think it were “them;" I could swear it was for that matter.
The Coroner: Very well. That will do.
Mr. Jeffs thereupon made a low bow to the jury, winking at the foreman (who was still tickled at the idea of the Government taxing a man's memory, which was quite as ridiculous and unfair, he thought, as laying an embargo on his income) and backing out into the passage, where he encountered Cuffing, who looked at him with apparent indifference, and went upstairs into the room where the body of
Ransford was lying stiff and cold upon the table, where a post-mortem examination had been made during the morning, and the body duly viewed by the jury in the afternoon.
Presently Jeffs joined Cuffing.
"Only a second, Jeffs; you stuck to the one gentleman ?” said Cuffing, hurriedly.
“Like wax," said Jeffs.
The policeman, who was the next witness, stated that he was sent for at half-past ten last night to the Cuttle Fish, where he saw the deceased lying on his left side, quite dead, with a wound in the forehead. There was a revolver in his right hand, one chamber of which had been discharged. Jeffs, the landlord of the house, and a solicitor named Cuffing were there. He saw Jeffs first and took down what he said, and had no doubt that Jeffs said Mr. Cuffing asked if the “gentlemen” had gone ; he did not say “gentleman.”
The surgeon who had examined the body gave a highly scientific and technical account of its condition, the effect of which was that the deceased might have shot himself, and probably did.
The inspector of police said he had several witnesses to call, subject to the coroner's approval, but he would suggest that if Mr. Cuffing was to be called this would be the most convenient time. The Coroner : By all means if you
think so. Police-inspector: I think you should caution him, Mr. Coroner, that he need not give evidence at present unless he chooses; and that anything he says may be used in evidence at his trial—(sensation) -should any charge be preferred against him in connection with the death of Mr. Philip Ransford.
The Coroner : Certainly. Call Simon Cuffing.
The Coroner : It is only right that you should quite understand your position, Mr. Cuffing. I do not say for a moment that any charge is going to be made against you, implicating you in the death of this man, with whose name yours has lately been associated in such a painful manner at Bow Street; but the police, acting, I believe, on a telegram from Scotland Yard, wish me to caution you, and I do so accordingly.
Mr. Cuffing : My conduct is before the world, and I defy the police to find a blur upon it; and at the same time, in response to their caution and to yours, sir, I advise them to be careful how they use the name of Simon Cuffing.
The Coroner : Very good. Now we will proceed.